The Atlantic
Will China Save the American Economy?
June 27th, 2017, 05:48 AM

MORAINE, Ohio—For years, Donjian Xu and her husband operated a sleepy Chinese restaurant in this industrial suburb of Dayton, cooking up American-style Chinese food like sweet-and-sour chicken and beef with broccoli for customers who would stop in on their lunch break.

Then, three years ago, a new crowd started coming into Dragon China: Chinese natives who missed home and were craving something different than the hamburgers and pasta that everybody seemed to eat in Ohio. The Chinese, mostly businessmen, would come in and order things not on the menu—noodle soup with vegetables and fish balls, for example. Sometimes, Cao Dewang, a famous self-made billionaire from China, would come in and sit at the corner table with his deputies, and “that’s when we [would] need to make something really special,” Xu told me.

Dewang visits this Ohio town because it’s the home of the American factory he built for his Chinese company, Fuyao Glass. He spent $700 million in 2014 to rehabilitate a shuttered General Motors plant, where Fuyao now makes automotive glass that it sells to U.S. automakers. Fuyao employs 2,000, the majority of whom are Americans. “This place could be the next General Motors if it’s done right,” an employee named Larry Yates, who worked at the GM plant for 25 years, told me. “I want to see them do well and succeed.” Hundreds of Chinese executives work here, too, and, having brought their families from China, are buying homes and cars and enrolling their children in local schools.

Chinese investors are investing heavily in the United States. In 2016, Chinese businesses spent $46 billion on foreign direct investment in the United States, a threefold increase from the $15 billion they spent in 2015, according to the Rhodium Group, a research firm that analyzes global investment trends. Chinese-owned firms now support more than 140,000 jobs nationwide, nine times as many as in 2009.

President Trump has made reversing or resisting globalization a cornerstone of his economic policies and ideology, issuing executive orders directing the executive branch to hire and buy American, pulling out of trade deals such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, and promising to renegotiate NAFTA. But much of the economic activity being generated around the country comes because of globalization, not in spite of it. Globalization helped bolster economies around the world, including China’s, and is now allowing a class of wealthy people and companies from those economies to invest in the United States, creating jobs in depressed regions like Ohio.

Foreign companies are responsible for many of the jobs in states like Ohio today—they employ 18.5 percent of manufacturing workers in the U.S., according to the Brookings Institution. Other foreign companies creating jobs in Ohio include the Danish firm Xellia Pharmaceuticals and the German auto-parts supplier Borgers. “People typically think of trade or globalization as a one-way street in which they're on the losing end—if you listen to the president talk about this, you would come away thinking that we've only lost in this equation,” Joseph Parilla, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me. “Nobody has talked about the infusion of capital that comes from foreign companies that are supporting a ton of jobs in the U.S.”

But the increased investment comes with some growing pains. Chinese executives told me it’s hard to get American factories to become as efficient as Chinese ones, partly because Americans work fewer hours than Chinese workers do—on average, the Chinese work 2,200 hours a year, compared to 1,790 for the United States. They also say there are not enough qualified workers in manufacturing in Ohio, and that workers are unreliable.

Workers have their own complaints, as The New York Times reported recently. Workers say that Chinese companies operating in the U.S. don’t adhere to American labor standards and working hours. The workers complain about poor treatment, and one worker recently sued Fuyao on behalf of herself and others, alleging that the company didn’t pay them overtime. Another man alleges that Fuyao exposed him to chemicals that gave him blisters and made it difficult to breathe. The workers also say that Fuyao isn’t investing in training them, which is leading to low productivity at the factory. Fuyao disagreed with the criticisms, telling me that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had investigated the claim of chemical use and found no violations, and that its policies on overtime and paid leave are straightforward.

Dayton—and Ohio—needs plants like Fuyao to succeed. New-business creation is faltering in America, with the number of new start-ups at 40-year lows. Foreign investment could be a key to creating new jobs for Americans. The question is whether foreign companies will continue to find America worth their investment.

* * *

In the cavernous white lobby of the Fuyao factory on a recent morning, a handful of people in suits sat under a Chinese flag, filling out job applications. They were seeking open positions at Fuyao, which had just announced that it was raising its hourly wage by $2 in order to attract new workers and decrease turnover. That drew in people like William Oliver, 31, who has an associate’s degree and was applying for a position on third shift (11 p.m. to 7 a.m.) so he could work at Fuyao while he attended school. Once he heard about the raise, he told me, “I knew I had to come down here.”

Not long ago, companies were decamping for overseas locations like China and Mexico, where they could save millions in labor costs. In 2004, factory workers in China made $4.35 an hour, compared to $17.54 that the average factory worker made in the U.S., according to the Boston Consulting Group.

But labor expenses are rising in China. According to the Chinese Business Climate Survey, put out by the American Chamber of Commerce in China and the consulting firm Bain & Company, businesses there cite rising labor costs as their top problem. That’s in part because worker organizations are gaining strength, and strikes and labor disputes are becoming more common. Today, Chinese manufacturing wages adjusted for productivity are $12.47 an hour, compared to $22.32 in the United States, according to the Boston Consulting Group.  

Workers inspect a pane at the Fuyao plant in Moraine (John Minchillo / AP)

Wages aren’t the only costs in China that are rising. The price of electricity has increased 15 percent since 2010, and industrial land is becoming more expensive too. Taxes are high as well: Dewang, the head of Fuyao Glass, said in an interview late last year that he had moved his plant to the U.S. because China had the “world’s highest taxes.” (Actually, income taxes are higher in many Scandinavian countries than in China, and the corporate income-tax rate in China is 25 percent, which is lower than in the U.S.) “Apart from labor costs, everything else is cheaper in the U.S. than in China,” he has said.

These factors alone would be enough reason to give companies pause about locating factories in China. But there are other reasons Chinese businessmen are looking outside of their own country for investment opportunities. There are so many cash-flush investors in China that there are fewer good opportunities to buy companies, and so people with money have fewer places to put it, said Eswar Prasad, a professor of trade policy at Cornell. Such investors might have once put their money into U.S. securities, but the rate of return is low, so they’re turning their attention to buying foreign companies instead. (Most Chinese investment abroad comes in the form of outright purchases of other companies; the Fuyao factory stands out in that the company decided to build its own products there, rather than acquire an existing business.)

Many investors also want to diversify their portfolio by investing in companies outside of China, said Daniel Rosen, a founding partner at the Rhodium Group. And investors are worried about a weaker Chinese currency in the future, so they are making big bets while their money still goes relatively far. It’s not just in the U.S.: Chinese outbound foreign direct investment reached $200 billion in 2016, with deals in Europe, Africa, and South America as well. In total, the Rhodium Group calculates that China invested $46 billion in the U.S. in 2016, almost three times as much as the U.S. invested in China that year.

“The U.S. is seeing the same pattern of increasing Chinese investment that is taking place worldwide,” Rosen told me. Often, investors buy existing companies overseas simply as an investment—96 percent of Chinese investments in the U.S. in 2016 were in acquisitions, according to the Rhodium Group. The Chinese manufacturer Haier bought General Electric’s appliance division last year, for instance, and a consortium of Chinese investors bought the printer company Lexmark. Plants like Fuyao are different. They are what Rhodium calls “greenfield” investments, which means the company builds a new plant from the ground up and hires new people. These have represented a small share of Chinese investments in advanced economies like the United States, but are “likely to continue rising significantly in the year ahead,” Rosen said.

With greenfield investments, Chinese companies often bring their own executives to come in and run operations. I met one such person, a 35-year-old named Wei Liu, at the Dragon China restaurant on a recent weekday, where he had stopped for a quick lunch. Liu had brought his wife and daughter to Dayton, a town he’d never heard of, to improve his career prospects, he told me. “If I work here, I will have more chances,” he said, as he waited for his food. He likes living in America, though he says Dayton isn’t as diverse as other American cities he’s been to, and he doesn’t love the winters.

Fuyao made a greenfield investment in Ohio because it wanted to be closer to its customers, which are auto companies building cars in the United States, Jeff Liu, the president of Fuyao Glass America, told me. The U.S. auto market is currently booming, setting a new record for sales last year, and Fuyao wants to become a bigger part of the distribution chain. Shipping glass from China was expensive and dicey, as the product would sometimes break, which in turn made the process more costly, he said.

Fuyao spent around $700 million to get the plant up and running, bringing hundreds of Chinese workers to Dayton to set up the plant and supervise new hires. Now, it’s turning its attention to hiring more Americans, and to becoming a “truly American company,” Liu told me. “We want to be the best employer in this town,” he said.

* * *

To be the best employer in town, though, Fuyao needs to be able to stay open, and so far, the factory isn’t making money. Fuyao has been working on its factory since 2014, but it still isn’t running at full capacity. Fuyao Glass America posted a $41 million loss in 2016, the company said in its annual report.

Some of the losses were because the company had to spend so much money on equipment to get the plant running, Liu told me. But productivity per worker in Moraine is 10 to 15 percent lower than it is in China, he said, adding “We have a big gap to catch up to China, but we’ll get there.”

Chinese companies also struggle to operate in an environment where there are a network of safety regulations that do not exist to the same extent in China. “It’s an example of the challenges of working on a more advanced economy where workers have much broader protections and safety standards and rights than is normal back in China,” says Rosen, of the Rhodium Group.

The company says it can’t find enough skilled people to fill open positions, Liu said, even when it raised the wages by $2 an hour. Most workers aren’t trained in automotive glass in the Dayton area, and many aren’t accustomed to working in the heat of the factory. Turnover has been high at the Fuyao plant so far, with workers quitting, and managers complain that American workers often show up late and take too much time off.

Upper-level management is mostly Chinese, and two American managers were fired from the plant in November, according to The New York Times. Dewang, the Fuyao chairman, told the Times that the workers “didn’t do their jobs but squandered my money.” (One of the managers has since filed a lawsuit alleging that he was fired because he wasn’t Chinese.) Dewang responded to the Times story in Chinese national media, calling it “false,” and saying that the company invests in technology to make the plant safer, that it trains its workers, and that most of the management and administration is American. Fuyao told me that no one has been terminated based on their nationality, and that only one of the two managers was terminated; the other left on his own accord.

Cao Dewang, the head Fuyao, cuts a ribbon at the Moraine plant (John Minchillo / AP)

U.S. workers have a different work ethic than Chinese workers do, said Daniel Curran, a former president of the University of Dayton who serves on Fuyao’s board. “Many of the Chinese workers are used to longer hours. It's not uncommon to see over time,” he said. “U.S. workers are used to essentially an eight-hour day. Not all American workers want to be working on the weekends. That's part of our culture.”

It’s possible that the U.S. workforce is not as skilled at manufacturing as it used to be. Many of the people who worked in manufacturing in the 1980s, before the wave of offshoring, have since retired, and younger people don’t have as much experience in factories. The economist Tyler Cowen has argued that Americans are more averse to adjusting to change than they were in the past, which potentially makes them less likely to take jobs in new fields. “You could say we got a little spoiled” as America created better and better jobs, Cowen told me. While Cowen sees this as a negative, it’s the result of a positive development: American workers are no longer interested in low-paying, backbreaking jobs like picking crops, for example. “People are not willing to become a wreck by age 60 or 65 anymore,” he said. But it makes life more difficult for employers who don’t want to (or can’t) pay workers more or improve the jobs that are available.

Cowen also pointed me to a study published last year in the Journal of Hand Therapy that indicates that today’s workers might be physically weaker than American workers of the past, which would explain some of why it’s harder to find good factory workers. Men younger than 30 have weaker hand grips than their counterparts in 1985 did, the study found. Grips might have gotten weaker because men are no longer accustomed to working in manufacturing or farming, but are instead prepared to sit at desks and work on computers.

For their part, workers say that Fuyao isn’t as productive in the U.S. as it is in China because the jobs are dangerous and unpleasant, and because Chinese supervisors have trouble communicating with U.S. workers. (Having the Google Translate app is a must for anyone who interacts with Chinese supervisors. They understand English—they just can't communicate comfortably,” one worker, Tim Jernigan told me. “So we pull out [Google Translate] and we start typing and they look over your shoulder, and that's how we communicate.”) Additionally, U.S. labor standards prohibit some of the behavior that is commonplace in Chinese factories that may make them more efficient there. “There’s two sets of safety standards at play here,” said Yates, the Fuyao worker, who is 49 and thin. “I wouldn’t want my worst enemy working here now.”

For example, American and Chinese supervisors discipline American workers who fail to wear safety glasses, while Chinese supervisors frequently ignore the rules. Jernigan, who was among the first of the workers hired by Fuyao, told me some Chinese workers climb over equipment like furnaces without safety harnesses attached, which American workers wouldn’t do. Chinese workers often don’t use protective shields when they are supposed to. “They’re just so used to doing it that way,” he said.

I briefly visited the plant floor, where forklifts carried sheets of glass between blue and yellow machines. Numerous posters reminded workers to follow the “5 S’s: Sort, Straighten, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain,” which is a Japanese process for workplace organization. The whole plant was extremely hot—a result of the furnace that heats the glass—and there’s not much ventilation. I saw many more machines on the plant floor than I saw people.  

After OSHA visited Fuyao in eight separate inspections, it proposed $226,937 in penalties. OSHA found machine-safety violations that potentially exposed workers to amputation, as well as electrical hazards, and a lack of personal protective equipment. It also said that the company failed to train workers about hazardous chemicals in use, and that it had unmarked exits. Fuyao settled with OSHA in March, agreeing to pay penalties of $100,000, the government said.  

Workers say safety hazards exist because Fuyao doesn’t bother to invest in training workers. Another worker, a 57-year-old named Ronald Blake, said he had expected to get in-depth training once he was hired at Fuyao, even though he’d worked at a car plant previously for 13 years. But he has learned very little about how to do his job. “You have to be real persistent about asking questions, to get you to tell you why they’re doing what they’re doing,” he said, about learning on the plant floor. “I want to do things the right way.”

Job applicants wait in Fuyao’s lobby (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

There are other complaints: Fuyao recently changed its vacation policy so that people earn time off with every hour they work, rather than guaranteeing workers a certain number of days a year. It also changed the attendance policy so that people don’t get the bonuses they once did for coming to work every day. “Every time I get close to reaching the maximum, they change it,” another worker, Teodore Searcey, told me.

These types of complaints aren’t uncommon among American workers who are employed by Chinese firms. A Chinese copper company set up a factory called Golden Dragon Precise Copper Tube Group in Alabama in 2014. The company had similar complaints about workers: the company’s chairman told The Washington Post that the quality of the workers there “is not very good.” The plant was, at first, unsafe, with oil leaks that made the ground slippery, and a lack of safety guards on machines, and so in December of 2014, the workers voted, 75 to 74, to form a union, according to Dan Flippo, the director of the United Steelworkers’ District 9, which now represents Golden Dragon. “It was a sea change for a Chinese company to come in and start from scratch,” he told me. “There are just cultural differences.”

* * *

Foreign companies operating in the U.S. have long had to adjust to methods of doing business here. In the 1980s, when Japanese firms first started making cars in the United States, the Japanese firms worried about a lack of American efficiency, with one Japanese senior politician saying that American workers were “too lazy” compared with those in Japan. American workers complained about not having enough input into the way the factory worked, according to Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California Berkeley. “There is clearly a learning curve when you’re moving to a new place,” he said.

Initial Japanese forays into the U.S. market had mixed results. Toyota launched its first major manufacturing investment in the U.S. in a joint venture with General Motors that was called NUMMI. Initially, the U.S. workers struggled to adapt to the Japanese “lean production” model, but over time, the collaboration began to work well, said Shaiken, who authored a white paper on Nummi in California for a state commission after the plant shut down during the recession.

The plant became one of the most productive in the country, and U.S. companies learned from Japan’s manufacturing techniques. But one of the biggest reasons NUMMI worked was that U.S. workers were able to give input to Japanese managers about how they thought the factory should be run, Shaiken said. That made the workers more invested in the manufacturing process—and it made the manufacturing process better as well. Japanese automakers learned from this experience, Shaiken said—even when companies opened non-union plants, they established ways for workers to be involved in the production process.

Chinese companies have generally not yet made the effort to incorporate U.S. workers into decision-making, Shaiken said. “They are saying the plant is not as productive, yet they are using techniques that almost assuredly will result in it not being productive,” he said. “In effect, the Chinese are ignoring a quarter-century worth of extensive experience in manufacturing.”

A worker at Fuyao, which is in a former GM property (John Minchillo / AP)

Workers at the Fuyao plant have an idea for how to fix some of these problems: They want to form a union. They say they want to have more input into the process of making automotive glass. That way, they can push back against unsafe orders, and can contribute to making the plant more efficient. Yates and other workers meet on Wednesdays after their shifts at a United Auto Workers (UAW) office a few blocks from the plant, which shares a building with a carpet-cleaning company. I met Yates and a few other workers there close to midnight, where they sat around a table and talked about how to get their message out to other Fuyao workers. “What it boils down to is that we don’t have a say-so in any of this,” Yates said. “If we had guidance from someone to show us how to do it right, like the UAW, this place would be an amazing place to work,” he said.

Dan Flippo, of the United Steelworkers, said that his workers’ relationship with their Chinese employers improved significantly after the union was formed. “Golden Dragon has been much more cooperative after we got the election behind us and a contract in place,” he said. “We honestly have a decent relationship with them now.”

The UAW doesn’t yet have enough support to hold a vote at the Fuyao plant. A recent union meeting attracted just about 100 workers—the plant employs about 1,500 production workers. But forming a union isn’t the only way that workers could get more of a voice at Fuyao. German car companies operating in the U.S. have supported the idea of “works councils,” in which workers and management meet and discuss operations, for example. At NUMMI, the Japanese company, workers were expected to speak up whenever they saw a problem that prevented them from doing their jobs properly, according to John Shook, who is now an industrial anthropologist, but who then worked for Toyota.

All of the American workers I talked to said they wanted to Fuyao to succeed. They understand the value of having manufacturing jobs in today’s economy, and that many communities would fight for a large plant of Fuyao’s size. But they say Fuyao needs to better adjust to being in America. “Are they going to try to run this like it’s in China, or like it’s in America?” Jernigan, the worker, said. “Americans are used to doing it a certain way, and Chinese are used to doing it a certain way. We have to meet in between.”  

It could be difficult for Fuyao to make such wholesale changes to the way it does business, especially with continued pressures from China to turn a profit. But investors like Dewang need plants like Fuyao to be profitable, if they are going to make money in the United States. They still haven’t figured out how to make the factory work. In the end, it may come down to understanding how to operate these American plants with Chinese characteristics. Listening to the American workers may be a start.

A Needle in a Haystack on Mars
June 27th, 2017, 05:48 AM

In 2006, a NASA spacecraft arrived at Mars and settled into orbit. The dragonfly-shaped Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter carried, among other instruments, the most powerful camera to ever leave Earth, capable of photographing rocks as small as three feet across, from about 200 miles up. The camera, known as High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE for short, has provided scientists unprecedented views of the complex, textured Martian terrain. The detail is astounding: elaborate layers of bedrock, windswept sand dunes, rocky landslides and avalanches.

Then in August 2012, HiRiSE captured something not of this world: two bright objects hovering above the dusty landscape. A car-sized rover and its parachute, descending onto the surface. Curiosity had arrived.

HiRiSE has photographed Curiosity every few months since, tracking its careful slog across the planet’s surface. The observations are useful for scientists and engineers plotting the rover’s journey. They’re also reminders of just how alone Curiosity is out there.

The latest photo, at the top of this story, was taken on June 5 as the rover made its way toward its next destination, a ridge where scientists have spotted a lustrous, gray mineral called hematite from earlier observations. From this view, Curiosity is microscopic, a pinprick of intelligent life in a barren, alien world. It appears in blue because the colors of the photo have been enhanced to highlight the granular landscape. Without this adjustment, Curiosity would be nearly impossible to find, lost among the boulders and rocks. On Mars, it’s “a needle in a haystack,” says John Grant, a geologist at Smithsonian Air and Space Museum who also works on the missions for Curiosity and Opportunity, another rover on the planet.

“The thing that’s most stunning to me is the isolation of the rover within the landscape that it’s traversing,” Grant says.

Curiosity has spent nearly five years exploring Gale crater and the three-mile mound in its middle known as Mount Sharp—and HiRiSE has been there to show us some of its milestones. Here it is, arriving:

(NASA / JPL / University of Arizona)

A year after landing, Curiosity had made some progress, but not much. The rover’s top speed is about 1.5 inches per second:

(NASA / JPL / University of Arizona)

HiRiSE periodically photographs Opportunity, the only other operational rover on Mars, located on the other side of the planet. The camera has also imaged other, now defunctNASA hardware, like the Spirit rover that arrived with Opportunity in 2004, the Pathfinder lander in 1997, and the Viking lander in 1976, the first robotic mission to Mars. HiRiSE has photographed Beagle 2, the British spacecraft that went silent after touching down in 2003, and Schiaparelli, the European-Russian lander that crashed on the surface last year. Each piece of hardware appears as a speck against the vast, desolate landscape.

HiRiSE has never found the Polar lander, which NASA dispatched to the planet’s south pole in 1999. Grant says years of migrating dust and ice may have camouflaged the spacecraft from view.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has enough fuel to last another two decades, barring any mechanical failures. Grant says he never tired of seeing HiRiSE images of the rovers.

“I think it reminds you that, oh my gosh, there really is a piece of hardware that we built and flew to another planet moving around on the surface of it,” he said. “I think it makes it real.”

Working Toward the Same Ends for Different Reasons
June 27th, 2017, 05:48 AM

The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shown that the moral foundations that undergird the political beliefs of conservatives and liberals are different from one another––that liberals tend to care more about whether a policy crosses thresholds of fairness or harm, for example, while conservatives tend to care more about loyalty and purity.

For Matt Feinberg and Robb Willer, who study effective persuasion across ideological lines, one challenge the U.S. faces is that today’s Americans aren’t good at working with others toward shared ends if the reasons for pursuing them are different.

"There's this tricky difference between moral difference and the absence of morality,” Feinberg said Monday during a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “A Pew Research poll about a year ago asked Republicans and Democrats about the other side,” he explained. “And they found that about 50 percent of Republicans and Democrats thought that the people on the other side were immoral or amoral, that they didn't have morality. It's easy when you're in your bubble to think yours is the only morality. It's natural to think that the way you think about morality is the way that everyone either does or should, or else there must be something wrong with them.”

But experiments that Feinberg and Willer have collaborated on suggest that the exercise of trying to persuade others by understanding and appealing to their moral beliefs and concerns can help divided constituencies see merit in the same policies, even when underlying motivations for doing so remain as divided as ever.

Bear in mind that you needn’t agree with any particular position being advocated in the examples we consider to see the general potential for cross-ideological cooperation. Military spending is one issue the professors studied. As they explained:

We wanted to see if we could get liberals to be more supportive of military spending. The traditional argument from a conservative standpoint is all about patriotism and authority/respect. The military is what unites us at home and gets us respect abroad. We didn't think that would be too persuasive…

To get liberals to be more supportive of military spending we were curious if we could reframe it in terms of more egalitarian values. So we made an argument emphasizing that it's through the military that you can level the playing field, especially for the poor and minorities in the United States who get the raw end of the stick. By paying for the military you create a stepping stone for minorities to work their way into the middle class and beyond. And that was much more persuasive for liberals.

Another question they studied concerned making English the official language of the United States, a traditionally conservative position. “So we tested a traditional argument about patriotism and unity against a new message reframed to agree with liberal moral values––that learning English was helpful to the integration of society; for upward mobility, people would achieve higher wages; and minorities, especially Latinos, could do better and be less likely to get discriminated against.” Liberals confronted with reasons to support the policy that appealed to their moral foundations were more likely to support official English.

The tactic works on conservatives, too.

As my colleague Olga Khazan, who moderated the Aspen session where the professors spoke, has reported, they have found that “conservatives were more likely to endorse environmental protections when researchers activated their concerns about purity, rather than the more liberal concern about harm: A picture of a forest covered in rotting garbage, in other words, performed better with Republicans than a forest of tree stumps.”

And with respect to health care, the professors explained:

We were trying to get conservatives to be more supportive of universal health care and the Affordable Care Act. What we did is to have two randomly assigned conditions, either you read the more traditional argument of why you should have universal health care, about equality, how everyone desserves this, it's a right. Or for the morally reframed one, we tried to frame it in terms of purity. This time we emphasized that having sick people around us can be disgusting and impure and contaminated. That was effective in getting conservatives to be more supportive both of the Affordable Care Act and universal health care in general.

Again, I am not advocating for or against any of the particular positions that the professors chose to persuade people towards in their experiments. Rather, I am observing that for every position that ought to be adopted (however one determines that), there are likely people to whom it would appeal for very different reasons, themselves grounded in very different attitudes toward moral foundations.

Insofar as we value both living together in harmony and adopting good policies, we ought to relish opportunities to work toward the same ends for different reasons.

Planned Parenthood Still Believes It Can Win the Culture Wars
June 27th, 2017, 05:48 AM

The United States Congress is trying hard to defund Planned Parenthood, once and for all. For a period of one year, the proposed American Health Care Act would prohibit federal funds from going to non-profit organizations that provide family-planning services, including abortions, and get more than $350 million in reimbursements under Medicaid, which provides health insurance to the poor, the elderly, children, pregnant women, and people with disabilities. When the Congressional Budget Office evaluated this clause of the bill, it “identified only one organization that would be affected: Planned Parenthood Federation of America and its affiliates and clinics.”

If this bill goes through, it would represent an existential threat for Planned Parenthood. The organization would be less able to serve poor women who are covered by state Medicaid programs, and it would likely have to close clinics or reduce its services because of the loss of funding. The main motivation behind this provision—and others like it that have come up at the state level—is opposition to abortion. This has lead some, including Ivanka Trump, to wonder why Planned Parenthood doesn’t just spin off its abortion services into a separate organization.

Cecile Richards, the organization’s president, will have no such thing. “The minute we begin to edge back from that is the minute that they’ve won,” she said during an interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Monday. Despite the renewed push in Washington to stop the organization from getting government funding, Richards believes Planned Parenthood can win the culture wars and make abortion widely acceptable in America. “We’ve got to quit apologizing or hiding,” she said.

Technically, the federal government already prohibits funding for most abortion services. Under the so-called Hyde Amendment, first passed in 1976, organizations like Planned Parenthood can’t get reimbursed by Medicaid for performing elective abortions. But pro-life advocates often argue that Hyde doesn’t go far enough. Since Planned Parenthood can get public money for some of the other services it provides, taxpayer dollars still effectively go to fund abortions, they say.

This characterization is “completely inaccurate,” Richards said. Other health-care organizations, including many hospitals, provide abortions, she argued, and they, too, get reimbursed under Medicaid for their other services. “Somehow, Planned Parenthood is being held to a completely different standard,” she said.

Richards believes the political discourse around abortion has become toxic in recent years. “There was a time when the Republican Party embraced individual liberties,” she said. “In fact, many of our Planned Parenthood affiliates were founded by Republicans.” While more Republicans used to consider themselves pro-choice, she said, their ranks have been significantly been reduced—Richards name-checked Maine Senator Susan Collins and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski as the only two left in the Senate.

“We’ve got to pull the curtains back and be open and honest about this procedure.”

Even in the face of so much opposition, Richards isn’t willing to have Planned Parenthood separate abortion from the rest of its health-care services—quite the opposite. She believes Planned Parenthood can and will win the culture wars to end “the stigma of abortion.”

“It’s more important than ever that we stand loud and proud for the ability of any woman—regardless of her income, her geography, her immigration status, her sexuality, her sexual orientation—to access the full range of reproductive health care,” Richards said. “We’ve got to pull the curtains back and be open and honest about this procedure that one in three women will have at some point in their lifetime, and their right to make that decision.”

Richards cited the way pop-culture depictions of abortion have changed in recent years. “I’ll shout out Teen Vogue and Cosmo and Glamour—women’s magazines that are putting abortion stories into their magazines. That’s never happened before,” she said. Or abortion will show up on television: Shonda Rhimes, who recently joined Planned Parenthood’s board, featured abortion in an episode of Scandal, “dealt with not in hysterical terms,” as Richards put it.

Richards repeatedly claimed that “the vast majority of people in this country believe that abortion should be safe and legal,” and “that’s even more true today than it’s ever been.” The available polling does not necessarily back up this assertion. As of 2016, about 57 percent of American said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to Pew Research Center—a level that has been roughly consistent over the past two decades, and slightly lower than what polls on this issue found in 1995.

Gallup found that half of Americans said abortion should be legal “only under certain circumstances” in 2016, and that 46 percent of Americans identify as pro-life. The numbers also don’t differ radically by generation: According to Pew, between 37 and 42 percent of all age groups said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases in 2016.

“I’ll fight until the end of my days for every woman to make that decision themselves.”

Richards sees the recent legislative efforts to end funding for abortion as the first battle in a long war. “A cautionary tale: These folks aren’t just against Planned Parenthood,” she said. “They’re against birth-control access. ... Anyone who thinks that … if we didn’t provide abortion services, somehow, they would quit this attack on women—I’m sorry. It’s just the beginning.”

Her answer is to commit to abortion: to stop “hiding,” de-stigmatize it, and most of all, keep performing the procedure. “Having been pregnant myself, my children are the joy of my life,” she said. “But that was my decision to make. And I’ll fight until the end of my days for every woman to make that decision themselves.”

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the people most likely to be affected by the AHCA’s one-year ban on reimbursement for family-planning services have low incomes and live in areas without a lot of health-care options. About 15 percent of this population would lose access to reproductive-health care, the CBO projected. Despite Richards’s confidence, a clear majority of the House has voted to defund Planned Parenthood. If the Senate follows its lead, the organization will struggle to survive.

Psychics Who Hear Voices Could Be On to Something
June 27th, 2017, 05:48 AM

Jessica Dorner was lying in bed at her cousin’s house when her grandmother, a “pushy lady” in an apron who had been dead for several years, appeared in front of her. “I know you can see me,” Jessica heard her say, “and you need to do something about it.”

It was a lonely time in Jessica’s life. She was living away from home for the first time, and she thinks her grandmother was drawn by some sense of that. She eventually told her parents what happened, and according to her they were concerned, but not overly panicked. “My parents are probably the least judgmental people I know,” she said.

As Jessica tells it, over the next two years, spirits visited her every now and again. Her brother-in-law’s deceased father began forming before her, ghostlike, just as her grandmother did. And while the experiences were intense and at times made her feel “crazy,” she said, they were infrequent, and insists that they were never a real source of suffering.

Jessica later moved back home and got a job as a pharmacy technician, all the while figuring out how to cope with what was happening to her. At a co-worker’s suggestion, she went to the Healing in Harmony center in Connecticut. In 2013, she says, she enrolled in classes there that taught her to use her “gift.” A self-described psychic medium, Jessica tells me she hears voices that other people do not (in addition to sometimes seeing people others do not see), at varying intensity, and mostly through her right ear.

Meeting others like her at the center gave Jessica a sense of relief. “Just being around people who are going through similar things—that helps a lot, because I could talk to anybody about those things and not feel like I was crazy,” she said.

It was through a friend from the center that Jessica ended up in the lab of Phillip Corlett and Albert Powers, a psychologist and a psychiatrist at Yale. In a study published last fall in Schizophrenia Bulletin, Powers and Corlett compared self-described psychics with people diagnosed with a psychotic disorder who experience auditory hallucinations.

“A lot of the time, if someone says they hear voices, you immediately jump to psychotic illness, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia,” Corlett said. But research suggests hearing voices is not all that uncommon. A survey from 1991—the largest of its kind since—found that 10 to 15 percent of people in the U.S. experienced sensory hallucinations of some sort within their lifetime. And other research, as well as growing advocacy movements, suggest hearing voices isn’t always a sign of psychological distress.

The researchers at Yale were looking for a group of people who hear voices at least once a day, and had never before interacted with the mental-health-care system. They wanted to understand, as Corlett put it, those who do not suffer when “the mind deviates from consensual reality.”

What Corlett calls consensual reality—the “normative shared experience we all agree on”—is probably not something you spend too much time thinking about. But you know when it’s being violated. The sky is blue, the sun is hot, and as Corlett points out, most would generally agree that people don’t receive extrasensory messages from one another.

Jessica was quite frank with me about the way some people may view her. “We know these experiences are weird and they’re seen as weird,” she said. “You just can’t go into a room and say ‘Hey, I’m a psychic medium’ and people are gonna accept you.”

Finer points of what counts as reality can change over time, and vary based on geography or culture. For centuries people walked the earth believing the sun orbited around them, which today would be considered unreasonable. Who decides that consensus, and where along its boundaries voice hearers fall, depends on a wide range of circumstances.  

The anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, who has studied voice hearing in psychiatric and religious contexts, has written that “historical and cultural conditions … affect significantly the way mental anguish is internally experienced and socially expressed.” Noting that there is no question psychiatric distress and schizophrenia are “real” phenomena that call for treatment, Luhrmann adds that “the way a culture interprets symptoms may affect an ill person’s prognosis.” Every psychiatrist I spoke to shared the belief that unusual behavior should only enter into the realm of diagnosis when it causes suffering.

On the other hand, Luhrmann tells me “it’s a terribly romantic idea” to overinterpret the effects of culture. To say, for instance, that “anybody who would be identified with schizophrenia in our culture would be a shaman in Ecuador” is, in her mind, a clear mistake: “Flagrant psychosis” exists in some form in every culture where anthropologists have looked.  

In the past decade, researchers have taken a greater interest in the experience of hearing voices outside the context of psychological distress. In his book The Voices Within, the psychologist Charles Fernyhough—who describes hearing voices himself—traces the way thoughts and external voices have been understood by science and society throughout time.

Reflecting on Fernyhough’s book, Jerome Groopman notes that in the early parts of the Bible, the voice of God gave direct commands to Adam, Abraham, and Noah. It spoke to Moses through the Burning Bush, going by the Book of Esther, making itself known again to the apostle Paul in the New Testament. Socrates, who wrote nothing down, heard a “sign” from childhood. The voices of three saints guided Joan of Arc as she rebelled against the English. Groopman cites Martin Luther King, Jr.’s autobiography, in which he describes “the quiet assurance of an inner voice” telling him to “stand up for righteousness.”

The social context in which these people lived can impact how they’re seen. It’s impossible to say how the prophet Ezekiel was understood within his cultural moment. But in most places today, if a person claimed—as Ezekiel does—that he ate a scroll because the Lord commanded him to do so, some eyebrows might be raised. In a community where a personal, verbal relationship with God is normal, the reception may be different.

Powers and Corlett’s work orbits the idea that schizophrenia is, as Powers put it, an “outmoded” label that describes a cluster of different symptoms rather than a single unified condition, he says.

“Goodness knows what psychosis actually is,” Luhrmann said. “There are clearly different kinds of events in the domain we call psychosis,” and when it comes to the relationship between voice hearing and psychosis, she says, “there’s so much we don’t understand.”

Many now antiquated psychiatric diagnoses reified fear, misunderstanding, or prejudice toward people at society’s margins. At the time of the women’s suffrage movement in London, hysteria was leveled as a charge against women who broke social codes. A Mississippi psychiatrist in the 19th century proposed that slaves who attempted escape suffered from “drapetomania.” And until 1973, homosexuality was considered a disease of the mind rather than an accepted way of being in the United States—and was only fully removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1987.

In his book Hallucinations, the late Oliver Sacks details a controversial experiment in which eight participants showed up at hospitals throughout the U.S. in the early ’70s and complained only of “hearing voices.” All of them were immediately diagnosed with a psychotic disorder and hospitalized for two months, despite reporting no other medical symptoms, family history, or signs of personal distress. The single symptom, Sacks writes, was seen as cause enough.

People with psychiatric disorders do hear auditory hallucinations in relatively high numbers. According to Ann Shinn, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital, 70 to 75 percent of people with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder and between one-third and one-tenth of people with bipolar disorder report hearing voices at some point in their life.

In the case of voice hearing, culture may also play a role in helping people cope.  One study conducted by Luhrmann, the anthropologist, found that compared to their American counterparts, voice-hearing people diagnosed with schizophrenia in more collectivist cultures were more likely to perceive their voices as helpful and friendly, sometimes even resembling members of their friends and family. She adds that people who meet criteria for schizophrenia in India have better outcomes than their U.S. counterparts. She suspects this is because of “the negative salience” a diagnosis of schizophrenia holds in the U.S., as well as the greater rates of homelessness among people with schizophrenia in America.

The influence of social context was part of what motivated Corlett and Powers: The two were interested in whether the support of a social group can help them understand where disorder and difference intersect. When they set out to design their study, they needed an otherwise healthy group of people who hear voices on a regular basis, and whose experiences are accepted in their social group.

Next, they needed to find some psychics. Corlett told me he got the idea to reach out to a Connecticut-based organization for psychics after noticing the ads for psychics and tarot-card readers on his daily bus route. When the two interviewed those participants, they noticed something striking: The psychics described hearing hearing voices of similar volumes, frequencies, and timbres as the patients. Powers and Corlett took this to mean that the psychics were actually hearing something. The two also vetted their participants with the same techniques that forensic psychiatrists use to determine whether a person is pretending to experience psychiatric symptoms, giving them more reason to believe what they were told.

Compared to their diagnosed counterparts, more of the psychics described the voices as a force that “positively affects safety.” And all of the psychics attributed the voices to a “god or other spiritual being.” The patients, meanwhile, were more likely to consider their voices a torment caused by a faulty process in their brain. Many of them described the voices as “bothersome,” and also claimed that the first time they told anyone what they were hearing, they received a negative response.

Just like Jessica, the psychics were more likely to say that they received a positive reaction the first time they spoke about their experience. Jessica’s mother, Lena, told me she maintained a supportive, nonjudgmental attitude toward her daughter’s accounts, just as she did when her other daughter converted to Scientology. She waited for Jessica to bring them up and discussed them with an open mind. She says she was happy Jessica found the center, adding that her only concern was that Jessica’s experiences did sometimes seem to be distressing her and leaving her “drained.”

When Jessica tells me about the people and things she hears, she describes a range of experiences rather than one consistent phenomenon. Her most meaningful episodes of voice hearing are those like the visits she had from her grandmother and her brother-in-law’s father. But she also describes things like hearing the number a friend is thinking, and the persistent and vivid presence of a childhood imaginary friend (her mother told me Jessica demanded the table be set for him at every meal). To Jessica, these experiences differ in degree rather than kind from the ghosts of the dead who appear in front of her with persistent messages for her and for others. Though these might not all fit into the popular conception of a psychic, she understands them to exist along that same continuum.

In his book, Fernyhough describes a series of experiments meant to provide evidence for the connection between inner speech and hearing voices. In one, participants were played recordings of other people’s speech alongside recordings of their own, disguised and distorted, and told to mark whether the voice was their own or someone else’s. Those who experienced hallucinations were more likely to misidentify their own altered voices. A much older experiment found a kind of unconscious ventriloquism among a group of people with schizophrenia: When participants began to hear voices, researchers noted “an increase in tiny movements in the muscles associated with vocalization.” The voices they heard came, in some sense, from their own throats.

(Sarah Jung)

These experiments suggest that auditory hallucinations are the result of the mind failing to brand its actions as its own. Watching what the brain does during these hallucinations may clarify how that works, and what differences in the brain create these experiences.

“When your brain signals to generate a movement,” Shinn, the psychiatrist at Harvard, told me, “there is a parallel signal [known as an efference copy] that basically says ‘this is mine, it’s not coming from outside.’” This helps creates the sense of where a person is in space, that their hand belongs to them and it is moving from point A to B. In this way, the body labels its motions, and a possible parallel may exist for speech and thought. When people hear voices, they may be hearing ‘unmarked’ thoughts they do not recognize as their own.

Beyond that, Shinn told me, what is understood about the experiences of people who hear voices is limited. She sees Corlett and Powers’s study as part of a growing interest in the lives of “healthy voice hearers”—an interest spurred, in part, by the Hearing Voices Movement. A network of advocacy groups, the Hearing Voices Movement presents an alternative to the medical approach based on the belief that the content of a person’s voices can reflect the hearer’s mental and emotional state. The groups encourage an approach in which, with the help of a facilitator or counselor, hearers listen to, speak back to, and negotiate with the messages they hear in hopes of learning to cope.

The hearing-voices advocate Eleanor Longden has said she considers her voices “a source of insight into solvable emotional problems” rooted in trauma rather than “an aberrant symptom of schizophrenia.” As Longden tells it, that’s how her own experiences with voices were understood when she first sought treatment for anxiety. Her psychiatrist told her how limited her life would be by her voices, she says, and the voices grew more adversarial.

Many mental-health-care providers—Shinn, Corlett, and Powers included—seem receptive to the Hearing Voices Movement’s critiques, including an overemphasis on medication and an imperative for patient-focused treatment. Shinn credits the network with encouraging an approach that treats voice hearing as more than a checklist item adding up to a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and helping to reduce the stigma attached the experience of voice hearing.

But “there are certainly a lot of people for whom that will not be enough,” she says. For some patients, voices can be impossible to reason with, and the burden of other symptoms of psychosis—disordered thought, delusions, the inability to feel pleasure—can be too great. And Powers and Corlett expressed concerns that the Hearing Voices Network may promote a false divide: the idea that the voices’ perceived roots in trauma—rather than some accident of biology—means hearers should avoid medication. Biology and experience, they say, can’t be so neatly separated. (Longden has written that “many people find medication helpful,” and that the International Hearing Voice Network advocates for “informed choice.”)  

While Powers and Corlett don’t believe the psychics and patients are experiencing the exact same thing, the two are cautiously hopeful that about a potential lesson in the greatest difference between those groups: the ability to control the voices they hear, which is something the psychics, including Jessica, showed in greater number than their counterparts. “When I’m in certain situations, I’m not open,” Jessica said. For instance, when she’s at work, the voices “can come in,” she says, they “can hang out, but I’m not gonna talk right now. ... I still have to live this human life.”

While learning control was a major part of Jessica’s experience, so was learning to summon the voices she heard. Before training as a medium, she heard voices sporadically, she says, and began to hear them every day only after intentionally practicing at the center. Powers and Corlett acknowledge this general trend in their study: The psychics they spoke tended to seek out and cultivate the voice-hearing experiences.

In her work, Luhrmann has come across groups of people who—unlike Jess—hear voices only as a result of practice. She gives the example of tulpamancers: people who create tulpas, which are believed to be other beings or personalities that co-exist along inside a person’s mind along with their own. “Somebody in that community estimated to me that one-fifth of the community had frequent voice hearing experiences with their tulpas, that their tulpas talked in a way that was auditory or quasi auditory,” Luhrmann said, a practice that she was told takes two hours a day to develop.“That’s connected to work. Psychosis is not connected to effort. It happens to people.”

Longden, the Hearing Voices Network advocate, describes how she later learned to extract metaphorical meaning from the sometimes disturbing messages the voices had for her. Once when the voices warned her not to leave the house, she thanked them for making her aware that she was feeling unsafe, and firmly reassured the voices—and by extension, herself—that they had nothing to fear.

Though Jessica has a different understanding of her voices’ source, it’s hard not to hear echoes of Longden’s account when she speaks about the sense of control she’s developed. Longden talks to the voices as aspects of herself that call for a response, while Jessica addresses them as visitors who need to learn the rules.

Instead of tying these experiences to a discrete diagnosis, Powers and Corlett imagine a new kind of frame for voice hearing. Drawing a parallel with Autism Spectrum Disorder, the two are interested in the extent to which the psychics they saw “might occupy the extreme end of a continuum” of people who hear voices. “Much of what we perceive and believe about the world is based on our expectations and our beliefs,” Corlett said. “We can see hallucinations as an exaggeration of that process, and the psychics as a sort of way-station on that continuum, and slowly but surely we can creep towards a better understanding of the clinical case and therefore better treatment. We haven’t had new treatment mechanisms in schizophrenia for many years now.”

The two freely admit the gaps between their ambitions and what they know so far. The study is preliminary, qualitative work—a follow-up brain-imaging study is in the works—and they did only interview a small number of people. Psychics, they say, are not so easy to come by.

Luhrmann speculates that most of the psychics are experiencing something separate from psychosis: “I think it’s also true that there are people who have psychosis who manage it such that they don’t  fall ill and avoid this stigma and who really function effectively.” This difference aside, she says, “it may still be possible to learn from people who have more control over their voices. .... to think about how to teach people.”

At least as subtext, Powers and Corlett’s study might suggest a kind of chicken-or-egg question: Were the psychics insulated from suffering because they were socialized to accept and cope with their voices, and were the psychotic patients suffering because they weren’t? The better question is: to what extent were the two groups experiencing the same thing?  

Shinn believes the fact that far fewer diagnosed participants were employed at the time of the study (25 percent, versus 83 percent of the psychics), and that the diagnosed participants experienced more symptoms of psychosis, suggests that they were suffering beyond the point of being useful comparisons. She thinks, rather, that a “constellation” of symptoms—not just auditory hallucinations or the stigma associated with auditory hallucinations—explain the difference in functionality. “The Powers study provides interesting results with potentially helpful clinical implications,” she added, “but they compare very different groups.”

Shinn, Powers, and Corlett are all adamant that people who hear voices and experience psychological distress shouldn’t turn away from conventional psychiatric treatment, and that a “symptom”—in this case, voice hearing—only calls for clinical attention if it is a cause of suffering. But for those who are distressed, the level of understanding of their experience and the treatments available to them are still lacking. As Powers notes, many of psychiatry’s more effective drug treatments were developed by accident. Shinn likens the current body of knowledge of schizophrenia to a group of people describing different parts of an elephant while looking through a high-power lens: There are robust bodies of work on the trunk, the tail, and the ear, but no clear picture of the entire animal.

Shinn’s all too aware of the ways in which the diagnosis can overshadow the patient. “There have been psychiatrists,” she says, “who will tell a patient: You have a diagnosis of schizophrenia and you need to modify or adjust your goals in life, forget grad school, forget that Wall Street career,” Shinn said. “And that absolutely can be compounding and impairing. I don’t disagree that that’s a problem.”

As Luhrmann put it: “Are those cultural judgments the cause of the illness? absolutely not. Do those cultural judgments make it worse? probably.”

Jessica doesn’t live near the center anymore. While she’d love to find fulltime work as a medium, she says, she’s focusing on her graduate studies to become a dietitian for now.

Still, she’s grateful for the community she found at the center, she says, and for the help they gave her. “I cannot imagine having no control over this,” she told me. “I don’t know, if I never went to the center, maybe I’d be diagnosed with schizophrenia.”

U.S. Warns Syria Against Launching Another Chemical Attack
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer released a statement Monday night accusing the Syrian government of potentially engaging in preparations for another chemical weapons attack. While the statement offered minimal details, it argued that a future attack “would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children.” On April 4, a government-led chemical attack in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province resulted in the deaths of more than 80 civilians. According to Spicer, the Syrian government’s latest preparations closely resemble those carried out prior to April 4.

If indeed enacted, a new chemical weapons attack could have reverberating consequences throughout the international community. In response to April’s attack, the U.S. launched 59 tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base—the nation’s first military operation against an Arab government since President Obama’s intervention in Libya in 2011. At the time, the administration referred to the strike as a “one-off” occurrence intended to deter future chemical attacks. But, in the wake of the operation, administration officials reported that President Trump had been deeply troubled by graphic images of Syrian children struggling to breathe. “No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” Trump said while announcing the strike.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has since denied that any chemical attack took place, arguing that the U.S. fabricated the story in an attempt to justify military action. Meanwhile, Russia argued that April’s attack targeted “a large terrorist ammunition depot” in the region. In the past, Assad has blamed similar attacks on Syrian rebel fighters, despite the UN’s discovery of “clear and convincing evidence” implicating the Syrian government. In 2013, Syria agreed to let international monitors destroy its chemical-weapons stockpile by mid-2014—a resolution that appears to have done little to prevent the nation’s continued use of chemical weapons.

On Monday, Spicer warned of serious repercussions should the Assad regime choose to launch another attack on its people. “As we have previously stated, the United States is in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” his statement reads. “If, however, Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.” The Trump administration’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, issued a similar response Monday night via Twitter, arguing that “any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia [and] Iran who support him killing his own people.”

Russia and Iran are both allies of the Syrian government, while the U.S. supports a coalition of rebel groups who oppose the Assad regime. In recent months, the Syrian Civil War has sparked escalating tension between the U.S. and Russia as the U.S. increases its military presence in the region. A little more than a week ago, the U.S.-led coalition shot down a Syrian aircraft targeting U.S.-backed rebels. In response, Russia said it would target any U.S. aircraft flying over Syria.

Although U.S. intelligence officers reportedly learned of several sites where the Assad regime could be hiding newly made chemical weapons,  many are left wondering whether Monday’s response was premature. Multiple U.S. defense officials have since told BuzzFeed and The New York Times that the latest warning caught them off guard. On Monday night, Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, declined to offer further information, telling The Times: “We are letting the statement speak for itself.”

Chinese Nobel Laureate Released From Prison
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese writer, activist, and the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, has been granted parole more than seven years into an 11-year prison sentence, his lawyers announced Monday. While Liu was expected to remain in jail until 2020, his lawyers cited a late-stage cancer diagnosis as the reason for his early release. Liu was reportedly diagnosed last month with terminal liver cancer and is currently undergoing medical treatment.

At 61 years old, Liu is perhaps known best for his role in the 1989 student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, in which hundreds of demonstrators were killed while demanding democratic reform in China. In addition to delivering passionate speeches, Liu and his colleagues organized a three-day hunger strike and helped to negotiate the peaceful withdraw of thousands of student protesters, in turn saving countless lives. Shortly after, Liu was arrested for his involvement and forced to serve 21 months in jail. He was later forbidden from teaching at state institutions and his publications were banned throughout China.

In 1996, Liu was sentenced to three years in a labor camp for criticizing China’s one-party Communist system. It was during this time that he married his wife, Liu Xia, who was placed on house arrest in 2010 after informing Liu of his Nobel Prize win. In 2008, Liu was instrumental in writing Charter 08, a manifesto calling for greater human rights and economic liberalism in China that has since garnered thousands of signatures. A mere hours before the manifesto was published online, Liu was arrested by Chinese authorities for “subversion”—one of the many offenses that the manifesto seeks to abolish. He has been imprisoned ever since.

In 2010, Liu received the Nobel Peace Prize for “his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” He is the third person to receive the award while in jail, and the second to be denied the right to have a representative collect the prize on his behalf. Under the circumstances, the Norwegian Nobel Committee reserved an empty chair to honor Liu’s absence. In place of an acceptance speech, a speaker at the 2010 ceremony read an essay that Liu had written for his December 2009 trial entitled “I Have No Enemies.” In the essay, Liu indicated a desire to “counter the regime’s hostility with utmost good will, and to dispel hatred with love.”

On Monday, the Norwegian Nobel Committee released a statement applauding Liu’s release, but expressing “deep worry” over how many years the activist spent in prison. “The Committee strongly regrets that it took serious illness before Chinese authorities were willing to release [Liu] from jail,” the statement reads, adding: “Chinese authorities carry a heavy responsibility if Liu Xiaobo, because of his imprisonment, has been denied necessary medical treatment.” The statement once more reinforced a standing invitation for Liu to collect his prize in Oslo.

Following Liu’s release, his lawyer said the activist had “no special plans” other than to continue receiving medical treatment. It is unclear whether Liu has been reunited with his wife or will be able to receive visitors. In the wake of Monday’s announcement, human rights activists in China and abroad questioned whether the Chinese prison system could have exacerbated Liu’s condition. According to Liu’s lawyer, the activist qualified to receive treatment as early as last year, but was denied medical services after refusing to admit guilt.

Bombers Kill Nine in Back-to-Back Blasts in Nigeria
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

At least nine people were killed and 13 wounded in a series of blasts that took place late Sunday night and early Monday morning in Maiduguri, the capital city of Borno, a northeast Nigerian state. While no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, they are likely the work of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which frequently targets the region. In a signature move for Boko Haram, the majority of the blasts were carried out by female suicide bombers.

The first attack occurred at 10:20 p.m. local time on Sunday when a male suicide bomber killed a security guard at the University of Maiduguri. About an hour later, four female suicide bombers detonated explosives in residential buildings on the outskirts of the city, killing eight people. Finally, at 4:20 a.m. local time on Monday, a third blast at the University of Maiduguri resulted in the deaths of its perpetrators: two female suicide bombers.

All together, 16 people—including the suicide bombers—were killed in the attacks, the Borno police commissioner, Damian Chukwu, announced Monday. Three days earlier, the state security agency said they had thwarted suspected bombings across four cities in northern Nigeria, including Maiduguri. The attacks were scheduled to occur during festivities celebrating the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month.

While Boko Haram does not always claim responsibility for its attacks, the group is said to have killed more than 20,000 people since launching a military campaign to overtake northeast Nigeria in 2009. In recent weeks, a series of attacks in and around Borno have killed dozens. On June 19, a pair of attacks at a mosque and nearby residence—likely carried out by Boko Haram—killed 12 people. Both attacks were led by female suicide bombers in a village near Maiduguri. Less than two weeks earlier, on June 7, militant fighters targeted mosques in eastern Maiduguri with explosives and anti-aircraft guns, killing 17 and injuring 34. The raid, if indeed the work of Boko Haram, would be the group’s deadliest this year, according to Amnesty International.

While Boko Haram is concentrated in northeast Nigeria, the group is known to target neighboring countries like Chad, Cameroon, Benin, and Niger. Over the weekend, suspected Boko Haram militants attacked five islands near Lake Chad, killing eight soldiers and wounding 18. Despite these ongoing assaults, Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, has insisted that Boko Haram is near defeat. In December, Buhari argued that the militant group was “done for” in the Lake Chad Basin area. A year earlier, Buhari claimed that Nigeria had “technically won the war” against Boko Haram.

According to Buhari, Boko Haram is no longer capable of carrying out “conventional attacks” on communication centers and large groups of people, having resorted instead to guerrilla tactics. Indeed, although the group continues to wage attacks in the region, its threat appears to have weakened. Recent data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset indicates that the al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabaab overtook Boko Haram as Africa’s deadliest terror group in 2016.

CBO Analysis Endangers GOP Health-Care Bill
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

Updated on June 26 at 7:35 p.m. ET

The Senate Republican health-care bill would increase the ranks of the uninsured by 22 million over a decade, the Congressional Budget Office found on Monday in an analysis that could determine the proposal’s fate on Capitol Hill.

The CBO’s highly-anticipated report projected just a slight difference in impact between the measure that GOP Senate leaders wrote in secret and a widely-criticized plan the House narrowly passed last month. A key group of undecided senators said the analysis by the non-partisan budget office could determine their votes this week, and the CBO’s finding of steep coverage losses and cuts to Medicaid over the next decade could make it even more difficult—if not impossible—for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to assemble the 50 votes he needs to pass the bill. Barely two hours after the report’s release, critics of the bill appeared to have enough votes to block McConnell from bringing it to the Senate floor barring a last-minute agreement on changes to the proposal.

Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Dean Heller of Nevada all indicated they would vote against a procedural motion to start debate on the bill, effectively stalling it. With 52 seats, Republicans can lose no more than three votes to advance legislation with a simple majority.

The Senate is beginning a potentially decisive week in the GOP’s long-running and arduous attempt to roll back the Affordable Care Act. McConnell and other GOP leaders have thus far rejected pleas from several Republican senators for more time to consider and revise the bill released last Thursday; they are determined to finish the bill before Congress breaks for a July 4 recess and are gambling that wavering Republicans will ultimately fall back in line rather than torpedo the party’s top legislative priority in a climactic vote.

“I am closing the door,” Senator John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican, tweeted on Monday morning after earlier suggesting a vote could wait until July. “We need to do it this week before double digit premium increases are announced for next year.”

In perhaps the most damaging finding for Republicans, the CBO projected that the number of uninsured people would spike by 15 million in a single year if the Senate bill, titled the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017, became law. That number would grow to 22 million by 2026. Average premiums would also go up initially before dropping over time. They would be 30 percent lower in 2020 than under current law, the CBO found, and 20 percent lower in 2026.

Republicans can point to more favorable findings from the CBO in other areas. The legislation would reduce the deficit by $321 billion over a decade, as the steep cuts in government spending outweigh the elimination of taxes in Obamacare. That could give GOP leaders breathing room to add money sought by moderates, either to reduce the cuts to Medicaid or to bolster support for states combatting the opioid epidemic. Under Senate budget rules, the legislation cannot add to the deficit over a 10-year window.

As to the broader stability of the insurance market, the CBO saw the Senate bill as having less of an impact than either its critics or defenders have claimed. The budget office wrote that despite rising premiums and GOP assertion’s that Obamacare is “collapsing,” the individual insurance market remains stable in most part of the country. And the Senate bill would do little to change that. But it did warn that after 2019, “a small fraction of the population” would reside in areas where “no insurers would participate in the nongroup market or insurance would be offered only with very high premiums.” The CBO also found that even though average premiums would drop, out-of-pocket costs would rise for many people because plans would cover fewer services and have higher deductibles. “As a result, despite being eligible for premium tax credits, few low-income people would purchase any plan,” the report predicted.

By comparison, the House’s American Health Care Act would have resulted in 23 million fewer people having insurance after a decade, the CBO estimated last month, with a large chunk of those losses resulting from a $834 billion cut to Medicaid. That finding—along with polls showing the bill to be deeply unpopular—prompted Republicans in the Senate to start over and write their own bill to partially repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. But the CBO on Monday confirmed that the proposal Senate leaders came up with was broadly similar to the House bill.

Some top Republicans have cast doubt on the CBO’s credibility and contested its coverage findings. Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, said Sunday during a forum hosted by The Atlantic at the Aspen Ideas Festival that the CBO’s projection of insurance losses was “not accurate.” Other Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, have cherry-picked the analysis, highlighting more favorable projections on deficit reduction and premiums while disputing the rest. That’s the approach McConnell took on Monday afternoon. “The Senate will soon take action on a bill that the Congressional Budget Office just confirmed will reduce the growth in premiums under Obamacare, reduce taxes on the middle class, and reduce the deficit,”the majority leader said in response to the report. “The American people need better care now, and this legislation includes the necessary tools to provide it.”

But the Senate Republicans that McConnell now needs the most—Collins, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and Rob Portman of Ohio among them—have all said they would look to the CBO in assessing the bill’s impact on their constituents. And they did not like what they saw. “I want to work w/ my GOP & Dem colleagues to fix the flaws in ACA. CBO analysis shows Senate bill won't do it,” Collins tweeted, adding that she would vote against procedural motion to begin debate on the bill. Several other Republicans similarly voiced concerns with the CBO report, while Johnson and Paul appeared to intensify their opposition to a vote this week. Heller, who is up for reelection next year, came out against the proposal on Friday.

Conservatives have been more critical of the CBO’s analysis, but they, too, were looking to the report for clues as to whether the Senate bill would fulfill their stated priority of lowering premiums for most consumers. Senators Paul, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Mike Lee of Utah are all pushing to move the bill further to the right so that it would eliminate or allow states to opt out of Obamacare’s prohibition on insurers charging higher rates to people with preexisting conditions. They blame that core protection in the current law for forcing companies to raise premiums across the board to compensate for the higher cost of covering sicker people. “At this point, we need to do considerably more to lower premiums,” Cruz said after the release of the CBO’s analysis, according to Bloomberg. “Significant work remains to be done.”

The CBO released its analysis hours after Republicans added a provision that would lock people out from insurance coverage for six months if they were previously uninsured for more than 63 days. The change was designed as an incentive to replace Obamacare’s individual mandate forcing people to pay a tax penalty if they go without coverage. Without the provision, analysts predicted the bill would send insurance markets into a death spiral because younger, healthier people would take advantage of protections for people with preexisting conditions and wait until they got sick to purchase  coverage.

Prior to the report’s release, McConnell was already facing opposition that could prove insurmountable. The American Medical Association joined other health-industry organizations in opposing the bill, writing in a letter that it violates the central precept of medicine to “first, do no harm.” And Johnson, one of the more surprising Senate holdouts, embarked on a public campaign to delay consideration of the bill beyond this week.

“They’re trying to jam this thing through,” Johnson complained to the conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt in a combative radio interview, during which Hewitt begged the senator to support the bill in the name of party unity. Johnson outlined his concerns with the bill in The New York Times, saying it ignores the “plight” of people suffering under Obamacare, “relies too heavily on government spending, and ignores the role that the private sector can and should play.”

Johnson reportedly reiterated his concerns with the process after the CBO report came out, warning that he might vote against even bringing up the bill for debate if McConnell moved too fast. Another undecided Republican, Senator Bill Cassidy, said on CNN: “It certainly makes me more concerned.”

Republican leaders are also likely to face challenges persuading the Senate parliamentarian that some provisions in their bill pass muster under the chamber’s complex reconciliation process, which requires that legislation stick to taxes and spending rather than general matters of policy. The new waiting period along with measures aimed at restricting taxpayer funding of abortion could in jeopardy when the parliamentarian rules later this week.

Taken together, the criticisms levied by Johnson, Paul, Collins, Heller, and others would appear to be irreconcilable. McConnell can lose no more than two Republicans, and the seven or eight that have fundamental issues with the bill are attacking it from opposite directions. But none of them have yet ruled out supporting the proposal with changes, giving GOP leaders some hope they can win their support in the coming days.

The CBO’s finding on Monday, however, made that effort more difficult.

Why (Some) Historians Should Be Pundits
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

The election of Donald Trump, and the early days of his presidency, have driven many Americans to rummage through history in search of context and understanding. Trump himself has been compared to historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Henry Ford, and from Andrew Jackson to Benito Mussolini. His steps have been condemned as unprecedented by his critics, and praised as historic by his supporters.

To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum


Julian Zelizer: Harvard University’s Moshik Temkin published a provocative piece in The New York Times titled “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.” Temkin offers a stern warning to those in his profession who participate in the news cycle that they should avoid the “rapid-fire, superficial way history is being presented” these days, “mostly a matter of drawing historical analogies.”

Temkin is a terrific historian but I wasn’t persuaded by the piece. To begin with, the article is somewhat odd, given that Temkin is making an argument about avoiding punditry, in an op-ed piece in the Times written by a scholar at the Kennedy School of Government (which teaches policymakers) that ends with recommendations about what kinds of conversations historians should be having in the media about the presidency. I suspect that the title—aimed at generating eyeballs—didn’t come from Temkin. Regardless, it ends up distracting readers from the substance of the piece.

The substance, however, is also problematic. Temkin underestimates the value that many historians do bring to the punditry table by focusing on poor analogies that have allegedly been made by historians over the course of the past year—Donald Trump was like the populist Louisiana Governor and Senator Huey Long; the president is like Adolf Hitler; or the Russia investigation will inevitably have the same outcome as Watergate, with the president paying a price for wrongdoing, because our system works. I agree wholeheartedly that none of these are very good arguments, but are they really arguments that came from the mouths and computers of historians? Did many historians claim that Trump’s populism was just like Long’s populism? Did many of them not see the very clear difference between the genocidal totalitarianism of Hitler and Trump’s brand of authoritarian politics? Are there many historians who have not pointed out that partisanship and the partisan media offer one obvious reason that the current investigation might not go the way of Watergate? Indeed, from what I have seen and read, I suspect that most of these claims emanated from persons who were not historians and who in fact could have benefited from having a little more academy in the conversations.

What contributions do historians make in our conversations about politics today? Echoing the argument put forth by Ernest May and Richard Neustadt many decades ago, Temkin rightly says that one role of the historian is to get out into the airwaves and online to punch holes in false analogies that mislead the public. This is certainly something that historians can do (I think we have tried to do that with this column) and often do very well.

Historians can do more than that, however. As he suggests toward the end of his piece, historians are particularly well positioned to place current events in longer time frames and to offer more perspective on the origins of a certain situation (another point that May and Neustadt made in their classic work). For my own part, I have spent much of my time on CNN and here in The Atlantic trying to explain how the Donald Trump presidency can only be understood within the context of the strengthened role of partisanship in Washington since the 1970s and the transformation of the news media. In other words, I have tried to show that President Trump is not a cause of our current political environment but a product of changes that have been building for years.

Sometimes comparisons with the past, even if imperfect, are very useful. Most of the good historical work in the media does not claim that Trump is President Nixon. Rather, the point is that the institution of the presidency creates certain incentives and opportunities for abusing power and that some people who have held these positions have done just that. That is crucial to remember, just like the ways that the institutional fragmentation of our political system perpetually creates huge amounts of friction between the president and Congress, as well as between the parties, despite the endless nostalgia about how things worked better in the past.

Historians have an important role in unpacking key elements of the ways that institutions operate over time to make sense of big trends and broader forces that move beyond the particular moment within which we live. We can’t become so blinded by our concern for particularity and specificity and nuance that we lose site of the big picture—something my friends in political science always remind me of. Claiming that we can’t look at these kind of continuities and similarities is in many ways moving in the opposite direction of what historians do. Some of the best books in American history, such as J.G.A. Pocock’s classic book on the history of Republican ideology, look over decades and even across national-lines to explain how history unfolds. It is possible for historians to take the long view and provide this kind of useful analysis in 800 words or even a five-minute television discussion. It has to be short, it has be to the point, but it can be as insightful and on point as anything said in the classroom.

At the same time, a majority of historians have done a good job outlining the differences within the common contexts. I recently watched NYU’s Tim Naftali, for instance, point out how despite the similarities between Nixon’s attempt to stymie Watergate and Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigation, the former president was far more sophisticated, cagey, and careful in how he used his power.

I would argue that we need good historians, like Temkin, to participate in our public conversations when we are living through such uncertain times. Doing this requires being on television, online, in print, and on social media—otherwise our voices will be eclipsed. To urge fellow historians to withdraw would be a massive mistake. That would in fact leave the entire conversation about the present and the past to persons who really aren’t as familiar with what’s come before. That would fulfill the very worst fears that Temkin outlines in his piece about how these discussions can quickly disintegrate into false myths and misleading analogies.

Morton Keller: As is so often the case, we agree on a lot, and disagree on much.

I have little trouble with your definition of what historians are (or should be) up to, or with much of your discussion of the present topic: i.e., the deficiencies of Donald Trump. But I do differ in your (and even more with Moshik Temkin's) general perspective on the topic. The issue isn't so much Trump's resemblances to Huey Long, Richard Nixon, Adolf Hitler, or for that matter the Emperor Caligula. Analogy is a game without rules that any number can play—including those historians who have more taste for digging up equivalences than understanding complex historical processes.

This is not to say that analogism can't serve a historical purpose. It reminds us that current political “debate,” which consists almost entirely of two ships loaded with screaming partisans too loud to hear (or care) what the other side is saying, is as old as the Republic.

But it is the job of the historian to go beyond simple, and seductive, analogy, and focus on two questions: What is distinctive about the current variant of polarization? And what is the larger context—social, cultural, historical—out of which the current version has emerged?

Here I think that the perspective of those of us who don't think that this is the exclusive property of the Republicans may have something to offer. I could serve up some bromidic observations to the effect that in recent weeks the “fascistic” comments by talking heads, and, with the assault on the baseball-playing congressmen, action that might fit into the fascistic model, is hardly coming from the children of the Tea Party.

But I agree that this sort of observation doesn't get us very far. The gist of the matter is that the technology of the internet, the economics of the New Age, and today's mass popular culture have combined to foster a pervasive atmosphere of obscene, uncontrolled vituperation. Trump may be a particularly visible instance, but he is hardly the originator or the only example of this genre. Historians who talk solely about the Republican, or Trumpian, sources of the malaise are doing what, alas, has been hardly unknown in our profession: selectively selecting the other side's excesses, and ignoring their own side's transgressions. I recently read Yale historian Timothy Snyder's little book On Oppression. It collects some tells of authoritarianism in the 20th century, with wink-wink references to Trump falling within that tradition.

If we needed it, what better proof is there that historians are only human?

The Atlantic Daily: Travel Plans
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

What We’re Following

Trump’s Partial Victory: The Supreme Court agreed to review President Trump’s proposed travel ban this October, and partially unblocked the administration from enforcing it in the meantime. Now, the administration can enforce the ban against foreign nationals from the six targeted countries “who lack any bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States,” but not against the students, employees, or family members of citizens and residents who would otherwise have been affected—and the delay means the case may be moot by the time the court considers it.

CBO Score: A highly anticipated report from the Congressional Budget Office says the Senate Republican health-care bill (called the Better Care Reconciliation Act) would result in 22 million people losing their insurance over the next decade. That’s little improvement over the unpopular House version, though the bill’s deep spending cuts would reduce the deficit by $321 billion in the same period. Lawmakers are still in the process of finalizing the bill; today, they added a provision to penalize those who go more than 63 days without coverage by requiring them to wait six months before they can sign up for a new plan.

Safety Hazards: The American supplier of the siding that was used in London’s Grenfell Tower has discontinued it after an investigation found the siding (known as “cladding” in the U.K.) may have acted as an accelerant in this month’s deadly fire at the apartment complex. The country’s government has ordered 600 buildings, many of which serve as public housing, to be tested for combustible siding. In East Chicago, Indiana, residents of another public-housing complex were ordered to evacuate last year because of toxic levels of lead and arsenic in the soil under the building. As it turned out, the complex had been built on a Superfund site—and the families had been exposed to the contamination for decades.


Snapshot

Muslim women walk onto the baseball field at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California, to celebrate Eid-al-Fitr—the end of the holy month of Ramadan—on June 25, 2017. More photos of Ramadan celebrations in the U.S. here. (Patrick Fallon / Reuters)

Who We’re Talking To

At the Aspen Ideas festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic:

Michele Moody-Adams, a professor of political philosophy, shares her advice on how Americans can “reawaken a sense of solidarity.”

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, explains how he tries to persuade anti-vaxxers to change their minds.

Jennifer Doudna, co-discoverer of the CRISPR gene-editing technique, discusses the ethics of using that technology on humans. (Find a reader debate on the same topic here.)


Evening Read

As Google discontinues its instant messenger, Colleen Rothman says goodbye to Gchat:

Now, whenever I use Gmail’s search feature, essential for a service that urges you to keep everything while making it tedious to organize anything, driftwood from some years-old chat floats to the surface. … Reading email exchanges from past relationships that soured is awkward enough. But it’s the old Gchats, conducted in close to real time, that transport me to the past, revealing thoughts I don’t remember having in conversations with people I no longer speak to, people who at the time I could never imagine not knowing. There they are, in stark black sans-serif: my overabundant exclamation points, my unsuccessful attempts at sarcasm, my bad jokes, or worse, responding “lol” to misogynistic ones. All preserved in digital amber, like the insect from Jurassic Park. And just like in the movie, when the past is within such close reach, I can’t leave it alone.

Read more from Rothman’s eulogy here. If you still miss Google Reader, read this ode to its lost benefits, and find another record of earlier days of the internet here.


What Do You Know?

1. In the mid-1990s, during Obama’s presidency, and today, the Army estimated its needs at the same number of active-duty soldiers: ____________.

Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.

2. Between 2009 and 2015, as the number of students at U.S. colleges and universities grew by 5.6 percent, the number of counseling appointments they attended grew by ____________ percent.

Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.

3. In 2015, America’s most expensive zip code was the city of ____________.

Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.

Answers: 540,000 / 38.4 / Atherton, California


Look Back

On this day in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges granted same-sex couples the constitutional right to marry. A few days later, Molly Ball looked back on the work it took to get there:

In 1971 ... sodomy was a crime in nearly every state, gays were routinely persecuted and barred from public and private employment, and homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. ...

What changed ... wasn’t the Constitution—it was the country. And what changed the country was a movement.

Friday’s decision wasn’t solely or even primarily the work of the lawyers and plaintiffs who brought the case. It was the product of the decades of activism that made the idea of gay marriage seem plausible, desirable, and right.

Read more here.


Reader Response

The TAD group is discussing Julie Beck’s dispatch from the Aspen Ideas festival, where Casper ter Kuile spoke about his research on how fitness communities like CrossFit fill the social functions of religion. This reader thinks ter Kuile is on to something:

It’s a ready-made social group and all that comes with it, right down to buzzwords most outsiders don’t get that increase the “I’m part of the group!” feeling. It’s divorced from the sense of unifying higher belief that an actual religion has, but psychologically I can see it filling the same “hole” a religion might.

Another reader wonders what that might mean for society:

The most interesting implication might be that CrossFit is really a fairly self-centered activity (not meant as a moral judgment, just that it’s very self-focused because it’s literally about building up the body and/or mind). CrossFit might direct attention out to the other members/potential members of the gym/box, but it doesn’t go much further than that—whereas at least in theory, religion asks its adherents to engage much more broadly with social well-being.

More reader discussion here, and more on the social reasons for churchgoing here.


Verbs

Emoji analyzed, communication questioned, wages raised, women interrupted.


Time of Your Life

We hope these readers had happy birthdays yesterday: Gary’s wife Peg (born the same year as Muhammad Ali), Whitney’s husband Jeff (who came of age around the time of Tiananmen Square), and Janelle’s mom Deb (twice the age of The Oprah Winfrey Show).

Today, happy birthday to Steven (the same age as Miranda rights), Gary (a year younger than T-shirts), Greg’s friend Julio (a year younger than cellphones), and John, who writes:

My live can be divided in two halves: before and after the iTunes Store. Coming of age in that peculiar time for music consumption definitely influenced me, as I still carry a dedicated MP3 player when streaming audio has become the default.

Do you or a loved one have a birthday coming up? Sign up for a birthday shout-out here, and click here to explore the Timeline feature for yourself.


The Atlantic Daily is written by Rosa Inocencio Smith. To contact us, email hello@theatlantic.com. Did you get this newsletter from a friend? Sign up for yourself here.

The Senate's Health-Care Bill Is Still Unaffordable for Poor People
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

First, some good news: Twenty-two million more uninsured people over the next decade is at least slightly better than 23 million.

The rest of the numbers from the Congressional Budget Office aren’t so rosy for a plan Republicans hoped would score much better on coverage than its House-made predecessor. On Monday, the agency released its evaluation of the Better Care Reconciliation Act, the Senate’s take on an Obamacare replacement plan. Perhaps to Republicans’ chagrin, the CBO didn’t find much difference between the Senate’s draft and the American Health Care Act passed by the House in May.

The analysis found that the Senate’s bill would leave 22 million more people uninsured by 2026 than current projections under Obamacare, and that it would decrease federal deficits by over $300 billion over that time. Those are both improvements over the AHCA’s final score of 23 million people losing coverage and a decrease in the deficit of $119 billion. But those differences don’t mean much for low-income people.

The largest structural difference between the two bills is how each deals with premium tax credits for purchasing insurance on the exchanges. The AHCA, which President Trump called “mean” earlier this month, maintained a much less generous credit than the ACA does and didn’t link it as strongly to income. At the same time, it allowed older people to be charged proportionally more—a dynamic the CBO suggested could cause intense market distortions and price-outs for older people with low incomes.

The BCRA’s credits, on the other hand, are more similar to those under Obamacare, and have stronger ties to both income and the cost of insurance than the AHCA’s. The BCRA also keeps Obamacare cost-sharing subsidies for the next two years, which also would offset some of the extreme price variation. Although the BCRA keeps the AHCA’s provisions allowing states to waive certain essential health benefits in exchange plans—like maternity care or mental-health coverage—the Senate plan adds an additional provision that ratchets down the actuarial value, or the amount of covered services, for benchmark plans so they become the equivalent of current bronze-level plans, which should reduce premiums.

Stronger credits and lower premiums would seem designed to make exchange plans more affordable and less volatile under the BCRA than under the AHCA, and the CBO found just that. But it also found that those changes don’t mean much for low-income people, since the higher deductibles that come with a bronze-level plan might make lower premiums moot. Accordingly, the CBO estimates that “despite being eligible for premium tax credits, few low-income people would purchase any plan” under the BCRA’s tax-credit structure. And a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis finds that for low-income people who attempt to select more comprehensive plans with lower deductibles, premiums will spike in almost every county.

If people with low incomes and without employer coverage can’t afford exchange plans under the Senate bill, their options will be limited. The BCRA, like its House predecessor, also sunsets Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to low-income adults, and by 2020 would no longer provide enhanced federal funding for such enrollees. Both bills also restructure Medicaid financing to a per-capita cap system and restrict its per-person growth over time to a factor below its current expected growth rate. That, in turn, would force several states to restrict eligibility for Medicaid. Those changes to Medicaid combined would result in 15 million fewer enrollees by 2026.

Congressional Budget Office

One thing the CBO analysis does not measure is the effect of the BCRA provision that changes the inflationary rate of those yearly Medicaid caps to a less generous measure in 2025 and beyond. Despite a request from Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut to consider effects beyond 2026, this particular CBO analysis still sticks to its traditional decade-long forecast, which means that the long-term constriction of the Medicaid program does not fully factor into the coverage losses here. Still, it seems safe to say that even fewer people will be eligible for Medicaid in the decade after 2026.

In all, the CBO finds that a disproportionate number of the 22 million people who will lose health-insurance coverage under the BCRA will be people with low incomes. Their losses will come even as $700 billion worth of tax breaks also contained in the BCRA largely benefit the top quintile of earners, as an analysis from Howard Gleckman at the Tax Policy Center shows. In order to pay for that tax break, the BCRA cuts more than a trillion dollars from subsidies and Medicaid. Almost all of those cuts come from the people with the least. And that’s just in the next decade.

St. Louis to Remove Its Confederate Monument
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

The city of St. Louis announced Monday an agreement to dismantle its controversial Confederate monument by the end of the week. The memorial is one of the latest Civil War-era structures to be targeted for removal, as cities across the country push to dismantle statues and monuments honoring the war’s losing side.

Under the agreement, the Missouri Civil War Museum will oversee the removal of a 32-foot granite and bronze monument from its location in Forest Park, where it has stood for 103 years. The museum will pay for the monument’s removal and store it until a new location can be found. While the agreement stipulates that the monument cannot be publicly placed in the city or St. Louis County, it can be redisplayed at a Civil War museum, battlefield, or cemetery. Though the deadline to remove the monument is June 30, the structure could come down even sooner: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that workers began deconstructing the monument shortly after the settlement was announced.

“We came to this agreement really to avoid a potentially long, protracted legal battle and it is an outcome that both parties wanted,” Lyda Krewson, the mayor of St. Louis, said during a press conference, adding that: “Once it’s down and removed, the Missouri Civil War Museum owns it.”

Forest Park Forever, a nonprofit that partners with the city to maintain the park, describes the structure as depicting “the angel of the spirit of the Confederacy,” which hovers above a bronze statue of a family sending a soldier off to war. The monument was vandalized last month with spray painted messages including “stop defending injustice,” “this is treason,” and “black lives matter” following protests over its removal.

Both the United Daughters of the Confederacy Missouri Division and the St. Louis Confederate Monument Association were signatories to Monday’s agreement. “We hope that it ends up being displayed again,” Patsy Limpus, the president of both organizations, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, adding: “We need to learn from our history.”

St. Louis is one of several cities across the country to remove Confederate monuments—a push that was accelerated following the murder of nine black churchgoers by a white supremacist at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. Last month, the city of New Orleans dismantled the last of four statues honoring the Confederacy. A Confederate statue outside Kentucky’s University of Louisville was also removed (though it was relocated elsewhere).

The Atlantic Politics & Policy Daily: Catch-22 Million
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

Today in 5 Lines

The Senate Republican health-care bill would leave 22 million more people uninsured by 2026, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Senate Republicans also proposed a provision to the bill that would punish individuals who go without coverage with a six-month waiting period before regaining coverage. The Supreme Court announced it will review President Trump’s travel ban in October, and will allow parts of the ban to take effect in the interim. And in a major church-state case, the Court also ruled that religious institutions cannot be denied public funds for secular purposes. President Trump met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House.


Today on The Atlantic

  • Try, Try Again: While he came impressively close to beating Republican Karen Handel in Georgia’s sixth district congressional special election, Molly Ball argues that Democrats will have to do a lot better than Jon Ossoff if they want to take back Congress in 2018.

  • Trinity Lutheran v. Comer: The Supreme Court’s decision on a relatively mundane case concerning a playground in Missouri could have big implications on other policy fights related to the separation of church and state. (Emma Green)

  • A Useful Villain: President Trump frequently references MS-13, a gang mostly made up of young people with Central American roots, to make a case against illegal immigration. But his fixation on the group is statistically difficult to justify. (J. Weston Phippen)

Follow stories throughout the day with our Politics & Policy portal.


Snapshot

President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House in Washington. Carlos Barria / Reuters


What We’re Reading

The New Watergate: Frank Rich writes that careful examination of the Watergate scandal will give anti-Trumpers “reason to hope that the 45th president’s path through scandal may wind up at the same destination as the 37th’s.” (New York)

Face Time With Putin?: President Trump is reportedly looking forward to meeting with the Russian president next month at a summit in Germany, but several administration officials think he should keep his distance. (Vivian Salama, AP)

Trump and the Tabloids, a Love Story: Jeffrey Toobin explains why The National Enquirer, a supermarket tabloid, has “embraced Trump with sycophantic fervor.” (The New Yorker)

Crossing the Border for Health Care: If the new Republican health-care bill becomes law, one California woman might have to go to Mexico to see a gynecologist and receive birth control. (Elizabeth Cohen, CNN)

‘America’s Mayor’: With his continued campaigning and public feuding with rivals, Donald Trump is governing like a big-city mayor. The problem is, the presidency is nothing like a mayorship. (Jack Shafer, Politico)


Visualized

The Next Flint?: This short video highlights the challenges facing residents of a public-housing complex in East Chicago, Indiana, who are living on contaminated ground and facing displacement. (Leah Varjacques, The Atlantic)


Question of the Week

On July 4, 2008, former President George W. Bush presided over a naturalization ceremony at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation in Virginia. Eight years later, former President Barack Obama gave a speech honoring military families after a performance by artists Kendrick Lamar and Janelle Monáe.

If you were president, how would you celebrate Independence Day?

Send your answers to hello@theatlantic.com and our favorites will be featured in Friday’s Politics & Policy Daily.

-Written by Elaine Godfrey (@elainejgodfrey)


The newsletter dated June 23, 2017 incorrectly referred to Representative Steve Scalise as a senator. Our apologies for the error, and thanks to a reader for pointing it out.

Trump's Limited Travel Ban Victory
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

The Trump administration finally got some good news from a federal court  Monday. In the twin cases challenging the president’s executive order barring entry into the U.S. by nationals of six majority Muslim countries, the Supreme Court handed the government a genuine but very partial victory, with a hint of more to come.

But the victory was limited in a way that anyone who has ever been 12 years old  will understand. The court didn’t say the government could never have a pony. But it didn’t say the government could have a pony either. Instead, it said, “If you still want a pony next October, we’ll see.”

The ambiguity arises because, as Georgetown Law professor Martin Lederman pointed out within minutes of the decision, the court merely granted review, and delayed actual consideration of the case until the opening of next October’s term—by which time the specific issue will most likely be moot. At the same time, the interim order preserved the important victories won by many of those actually harmed by the travel ban—family members of American citizens or residents, foreign students at American universities, and potential foreign employees of American corporations.

The administration had been losing badly at every turn in the lower courts—before district courts in Maryland and Hawaii and appeals courts in the Fourth and Ninth Circuits. The Fourth Circuit contemptuously rejected the administration’s claims of good faith and the Ninth argued that the order exceeded the president’s statutory authority. Both opinions were, to say the least, acerbic.

So the dispassionate tone of Monday’s per curiam opinion must have been soothing to administration ears. Dryly the court summarized the arguments and the lower courts’ conclusions—that the ban violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (Fourth Circuit) and the Immigration and Nationality Act (Ninth Circuit). It then gave a respectful nod to the government’s claim that the order is a matter of national security rather than religious bigotry: “The interest in preserving national security is ‘an urgent objective of the highest order,’” the opinion said.

But the per curiam formally expressed no opinion on the issues. Instead, it ordered the full case to be heard “during the first session of October Term 2017”—four months from now. The court clearly hopes—and strongly hints—that the case will be moot by then.

The order, remember, was issued on March 6 and was to take effect March 16. It proposed to bar any entry—whether as visitors or immigrants—of nationals of six majority Muslim countries. It also slashed the number of authorized refugees who could enter to 50,000 a year, from the previous ceiling of 110,000, and barred admission of any and all refugees from Syria.

The rationale for the order was that the named countries were hotbeds of terrorist activity. Thus, the U.S. could not be sure that their nationals would not commit acts of terrorism in the U.S. The order, however, was strictly temporary—for 90 days after the order took effect, just long enough to allow the Department of Homeland Security to determine whether the U.S. had the information it needed to screen immigrants and visitors from the named countries. If not, the U.S. would ask those countries to supply the information it needed and assess their response.

The order never took effect; within hours, lower courts had stayed it in its entirety. The administration was forbidden to bar entry of nationals of the six countries; could not reduce the number of refugees admitted from 110,000 to 50,000; and could not bar refugees from Syria. The district court in Hawaii even stayed the provisions requiring an internal review of immigration procedures—a restriction of extraordinary breadth that was removed by the Ninth Circuit on June 12.

As they came to the court, the cases posed issues of great importance and startling novelty. Does the Establishment Clause even apply to issues of immigration and claimed national security? Can foreign-born Muslims lawfully inside the U.S. invoke the Constitution when an order harms family members outside it?  Can a reviewing court actually consider political campaign statements—or presidential tweets—to determine discriminatory intent in a seemingly neutral order? Does the INA truly require the executive to make detailed formal “findings” before restricting entry of a class of aliens? Does the Refugee Act of 1980 really require the president to notify and formally consult Congress before changing the previously announced total of refugees to be admitted in a given year?

These issues would be difficult enough in a normal year. But we are living in 2017, and the president issuing the order is Donald Trump, who is decidedly not a normal president. Trump’s racist and Islamophobic rhetoric, his threats against judges and the federal courts generally, and his remarkable tweets contradicting assurances made to the court by his own lawyers, all may combine in the justices’ minds to make the possibility of a wrong decision, and bad law flowing from it, seem even greater.

So maybe the whole thing could just ... go away? That’s the wish expressed by the court. For one thing, the per curiam noted that the order, by its own terms, became effective March 16, and thus “expired” on June 14. On June 14, Trump issued a memorandum stating that the “effective date” should be read to mean the day on which courts allow the order to take effect. The court, however, rather pointedly added a “question presented”: “Whether the challenges ... became moot on June 14.”  

The opinion also noted that the executive branch is now, courtesy of the Ninth Circuit, free to complete the promised studies. In Section 2(b) of the order itself, the study is supposed to be completed “within 20 days of the effective date of this order.” Said the Court Monday, “the executive review directed by that subsection may proceed promptly, if it is not already underway. [The order] instructs the Secretary of Homeland Security to complete this review within 20 days, after which time foreign governments will be given 50 days further to bring their practices into line with the Secretary’s directives. … Given the Government’s representations in this litigation concerning the resources required to complete the 20-day review, we fully expect that the relief we grant today will permit the Executive to conclude its internal work and provide adequate notice to foreign governments within the 90-day life of 2(c).”

In other words, by October there may be no case, no order, and no national-security rationale, and we can all get a beer.

No one believes the underlying dispute is really going away. But if the ban was only imposed to allow studies, it can’t persist once the studies have been done. If it is to be continued on the basis of what the studies showed, then the case will be so different that both sides will probably have to start over.

As for entry between now and October, the per curiam split the baby. Both lower courts had frozen the order altogether—meaning the government has had to allow visitors and immigrants from the six countries, and Syrian refugees, to apply for and obtain visas as if the order had never been issued. Monday the Court gave the government a genuine if limited win. The order can now take partial effect.

But part of the order is still blocked, and that part is quite important: The ban “may not be enforced against foreign nationals who have a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States. All other foreign nationals are subject to the provisions of EO–2.” To me, as to Lederman, that seems like a remarkable win for the challengers.

This means, as the Court made clear, that visas—and refugee admissions—must still be issued for eligible family members of foreign-born residents of the U.S.; foreign-born students accepted by American universities; and employees of U.S.-based businesses. The reduction in refugee numbers, as well, cannot be enforced against refugees who have such a “bona fide” relationship with persons or entities in the United States. This represents a significant part of the potential visitors, immigrants, and refugees the order purported to bar.

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, wrote a partial dissent suggesting that the entire stay, not just part of it, should be lifted at once, and the order allowed to take full effect. The court’s decision to grant cert. and narrow the stay, Thomas wrote, represents an “implicit conclusion that the government has made a strong showing that it is likely to succeed on the merits” when the case is heard. That is probably true as a matter of court doctrine, and it provides an unsubtle hint that the administration has three votes in its pocket for whatever it wants to do; but, again, the case most likely won’t proceed to judgment on the merits.

In the meantime, the challengers have won a different, potentially important “implicit” recognition by the court’s majority—plaintiffs living in the U.S. may have standing to raise claims of discrimination by relatives, students, or employees living abroad.

Remember, this is 2017. We have no idea what the world will look like, and what sort of orders the White House will be issuing in the name of national security, by the fall. The court may never decide this particular case; but challengers to those future orders may find that this opinion opened a door they can walk through.

Who Gets to Use Facebook's Rainbow 'Pride' Reaction?
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

James Berri traveled three hours to Sacramento earlier this month for his first Pride parade, one of hundreds of annual LGBTQ celebrations across America. Berri also talked about the experience on Facebook, reading and reacting to other people’s posts with thumbs-up likes and Facebook’s new rainbow “Pride” emoji. Throughout June, the platform is offering a rainbow flag alongside likes, hearts, and angry faces that people can click on to react to others’ posts and comments. Yet Berri, a 21-year-old transgender artist, is conflicted over the fact that not everyone can use this new rainbow button.

Back in Fresno, Berri wondered how Facebook decides who’s eligible. “Why don’t they have it, too?” he asked, referring to friends sitting with him in a salon in the larger, less-prominent California city. “It makes me confused for my friends.”

One friend disagreed: “Maybe I don’t want my family to actively know that I’m in all of these things because they’re just gonna—they’re not gonna like it.”

As a rare commodity, the Pride reaction has attracted a rainbow hunt among Facebook users. This June, Facebook announced that the feature would be available in “major markets with Pride celebrations” and for people who follow the company’s LGBTQ page. They also announced that the rainbow would “not be available everywhere.” For example, Facebook limits access in countries where LGBTQ rights are politically risky. Yet many Americans, like Berri’s Fresno friends, also missed out.

Is Facebook’s rollout of rainbow flags a case of algorithmic hypocrisy, user protection, or something else? Using their ability to detect people’s location and interests, the company's algorithms are choosing which people get the rainbow flag while hiding it from others. At first glance, this approach looks like it could contribute to the creation of political bubbles, as a feature promoted in progressive cities and less available in the rest of America. If real, these discriminatory political bubbles could constitute a secret kind of “digital gerrymandering,” according to Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain.

Algorithmic political bubbles are hard to detect because they show something different to each person. Only by comparing notes can people map the boundaries of what a platform chooses to show its users. Doing so, when legal, allows independent researchers to detect discrimination and hold platforms accountable for their actions. To find out if Facebook's rainbow Pride reaction was a case of digital gerrymandering, our three-person team—a data scientist, a survey researcher, and an ethnographer of youth social-media practices—conducted an algorithmic audit, asking hundreds of Facebook users in 30 cities to report if they could access the Pride reaction.

Our audit asked two questions. First, are there U.S. cities where everyone is allowed to give a rainbow reaction? Second, do Facebook’s own LGBTQ-interest algorithms predict who has access elsewhere?

By using Facebook’s algorithms, we based our audit on the way that Facebook’s software sees the world. When advertisers publish an ad with Facebook, the company asks them to define the regions, interests, and demographics of the people they want to reach. While the platform’s gender targeting does not allow grouping by LGBTQ identities, their algorithms do infer LGBTQ-interest based on what people like, share, and write about. People can be categorized for their interests in, for instance, “Gay Pride,” “LGBT Culture,” “Pride Parade,” “Rainbow Flag (LGBT),” and “LGBT Social Movements.” Since Facebook allows advertisers to include or exclude people from those categories, we could survey people to discover if LGBTQ-interested people have a different experience on the platform from people that Facebook categorizes as not LGBTQ-interested.

Caption
We asked people from 30 cities in 15 states to report their access to the Pride reaction.

Across 15 states that are home to the largest U.S. cities, we chose a large city per state and paired it with a smaller city elsewhere in the state. Within each city, we used Facebook’s ad targeting to recruit people who the platform’s algorithms think are interested in LGBTQ issues, compared to people who aren’t. We then tested the correlation between LGBTQ interest and access to the Pride reaction.

Among the cities we investigated, an overwhelming percentage of people without LGBTQ interests reported having the pride emoji in New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, and Boston. Yet many other cities among the largest 25 in the U.S. were excluded from city-wide access, including Philadelphia, Detroit, Phoenix, and Nashville.

In places without city-wide access, Facebook’s LGBTQ advertising groups correlated strongly with people's ability to use the rainbow reaction. On average, people with LGBTQ interests who responded to our ads were 46 percent more likely than the non-LGBTQ interest group to report having access to the rainbow reaction. It's possible that people in the LGBTQ interest groups received the rainbow because they chose to “like” the LGBTQ@Facebook group, which the company says will unlock the rainbow reaction.

Kristina Boerger, a 52-year-old musician and human-rights organizer from Greencastle, Indiana, was surprised that other people could use the reaction but not her. “It certainly wouldn’t be because Facebook doesn’t know that I am queer,” she said. “That would be one of the first things they know about me.”

Why would Facebook selectively release the pride reaction? When we reached out for comment, a company spokesperson replied with a quote from an early June press release, explaining that Facebook limited access to test the feature, even though 22.7 million people have presumably unlocked the rainbow by liking the LGBTQ page. The platform may also be trying to protect users in parts of the U.S. where they could face harassment. When Facebook encouraged people in 2015 to choose a rainbow profile picture, some administrators of Facebook groups banned any member who made the change.

Limited access to the Pride reaction might also allow Facebook to gain PR benefits from supporting gay rights in some U.S. cities while avoiding scandal elsewhere. Could regional geo-fencing help the company manage public expectations in a polarized political environment? Betsy Willmore, an organizer of PrideFest in Springfield, Illinois, thinks the company is carefully managing its image. “Their intention is not to piss people off,” she said. “And they are legitimizing those that are getting pissed off by it.”

Many Americans could be unaware of Facebook’s public support for LGBTQ rights. After facing election-year pressures, the company might benefit from selective public understanding of its positions. Facebook and its PAC, like many corporations, routinely fund both Democrat and Republican candidates and events. Yet we failed to find a correlation between 2016 presidential election patterns and access to the Pride rainbow. Large cities that supported Trump in 2016 didn’t receive the pride reaction, but neither did many Clinton-supporting cities. If there’s a political pattern to Facebook's decision, we couldn't detect it.

Overall, our audit found that Facebook is doing what it says. The platform has avoided offering city-wide pride reactions in large metropolitan areas that supported Trump in the last election, but LGBTQ-interested people are still able to access the feature on average.

This month, millions of Americans have celebrated Pride with large urban events, in small towns, and across their digital-connected communities. For Berri and his friends in a Fresno salon, the choice to fly a flag online was as consequential as any march. During the conversation, one friend, a queer 19-year-old from Clovis whose name has been omitted to protect them from harassment, decided to “like” Facebook’s LGBTQ page for access to the rainbow reaction. Speaking of disapproving family, they said, “If they’re gonna be pissed off about it, whatever.”

‘We Have to Have a Massive Revolution in Public Education in the United States’
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

Over the last four decades, the percentage of Americans who are solidly in the middle class has shrunk, from 61 to 50 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Some of those who have left the middle class are doing better, and others are doing worse. As the Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson put it, “The extremes grow at the expense of the center.”

The Harvard professor and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr. says that the problem stems from the American education system having failed to adapt to the 21st century’s highly globalized, highly technological economy. For those who get top-tier training, there’s opportunity for prosperity. But for those who go to poor schools and don’t graduate from college, the traditional pathways to the middle class—in particular manufacturing jobs and small-business ownership—are usually unavailable. Instead, service work has grown in its share of overall employment, and service work tends to provide very poor wages and few opportunities for growth. Though these dynamics are affecting both black and white Americans, Gates said, black Americans in particular tend to attend under-funded schools and struggle to build middle-class economic security.

To better equip people of any race, “We have to have a massive revolution in public education in the United States,” Gates said on Monday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.

Gates discussed two of the ways the U.S. could get there. His first: Move dollars, not people. “Bus the dollars from the rich school districts to the poor districts,” he said. “We need to allocate the same amount of money per student per school.” Gates’s comments are a response to research that has shown that the majority of states have “flat or regressive funding schemes” for their schools. Aggravating this is the ability of richer, whiter school districts to raise huge amounts of money via their parents’ organizations, on top of whatever public funds they have been allocated.

Gates’s second idea goes beyond equal funding: hardship pay for talented, motivated teachers to work in the worst-performing school districts. Across the country, teacher shortages affect high-poverty, high-minority schools disproportionately, often the result of teacher attrition. Financial benefits—such as a hardship-pay bonus like Gates suggested—could be used to deter attrition and keep teachers, particularly experienced ones, on the job.

The question that haunts Gates’s big idea is whether more-equal schools can translate into the return of a strong middle class, or whether structural changes in the economy—technological progress, globalization, corporate consolidation—inhibit the kind of widespread economic improvement that America saw in the middle of the 20th century. But even if that end remains elusive, there are plenty of other reasons to hope for a fairer, more equitable school system of the kind Gates imagines.

Were Seattle's Minimum-Wage Hikes Too Extreme or Just Right?
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

Seattle’s decision to hike its minimum wage up to $13 an hour—on its way to $15—ended up costing its low-wage workers time on the job, hundreds of dollars of annual income, and a shot at a better livelihood.

That is a reasonable conclusion one could draw from a blockbuster, if not yet peer-reviewed, new study on the city’s famed minimum-wage increases. The research, performed by a group of academics from the University of Washington, looks at detailed data on the earnings and hours of workers affected by the hike of the wage floor from $9.47 an hour to $11 in 2015, and from $11 an hour to $13 an hour in 2016. It concludes that, for low-wage workers, that second wage increase reduced hours worked by nearly 10 percent and earnings by an average of $125 a month. The findings, though preliminary, call into question years of economic research and the decisions of dozens of states and cities to bump their wage floors up.

Granted, there are reasons to think that the study’s results might differ from the reality on the ground. The paper excluded a number of larger Seattle businesses from its analysis, for one, and could not cleanly disaggregate whether the changes in the structure of the labor market were due to the booming local economy or to the minimum-wage hike. Still, it underscores an uncomfortable truth for liberals pushing for wage hikes across the country: There is some minimum wage at which the costs outweigh the benefits, and Seattle might have found it.

The University of Washington researchers looked at a more detailed pool of data than some minimum-wage researchers before them, combing through numbers collected for the local unemployment-insurance program. When compared to data from other parts of Washington state, which represented a similar economy with no minimum-wage hikes, these numbers indicated that the hike had a major effect. The number of jobs paying less than $13 an hour dropped by 39 percent, they found, with the number of jobs paying less than $19 an hour falling by a smaller amount. At the same time, overall employment in Seattle increased by 13 percent, judging by headcount, and 15 percent, judging by hours. But many low-wage workers suffered from hours, job, and earnings losses. The wage hike pulled the bottom rung off of the ladder, in other words.

The study contradicts a paper put out last week by respected researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. It found that Seattle’s minimum wage boosted wages by roughly 1 percent in food services overall and 2.3 percent in limited-service restaurants, like fast-food chains, with little effect on employment. “This industry is an intense user of minimum wage workers,” the authors write. “If wage and employment effects occur, they should be detectable in this industry.” A body of other studies dating back for more than 20 years have found similar effects: Most wage hikes do not do much to change employment levels.

Given the University of Washington’s diverging results, researchers on the left argued for caution in interpreting them and applying them to policymaking. “The authors’ estimated employment effects stand as outliers in a large body of research on the employment effects of the minimum wage,” wrote Ben Zipperer and John Schmitt of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-of-center think tank based in Washington, D.C. “Rather than constituting an important new contribution to the research in this area, the findings are best seen as raising concerns about possible problems with their underlying data and statistical techniques.”

The University of Washington study excluded workers at companies with multiple locations—meaning McDonald’s, Starbucks, and the other big and small chains that account for about 40 percent of the overall workforce and a huge number of minimum-wage jobs—narrowing the scope of the results, Zipperer and Schmitt noted. The study also seemed to imply that the minimum-wage hike caused a boom in high-wage employment, a seemingly impossible feat. (It seems unlikely that a business would have reacted to a pay hike for a minimum-wage worker by paying many of them $19 an hour, after all.) It in addition had no way to tell if Seattle’s employers were switching to contractors, as opposed to employees, to avoid some provisions of the minimum-wage law; if that had happened, those workers would have dropped out of the data set.

Still, a number of prominent economists chimed in to say that the study’s findings merited consideration and further investigation. Even if its results were revised, it points to a discomfiting reality: Academics and policymakers are not exactly sure what the optimal minimum wage is in any given city or state, or across the country. Even the staunchest defenders of a high minimum wage know there is some level that is counterproductive: If businesses had to pay workers a minimum of $100 an hour, say, there wouldn’t be much employment in low-skill work, which would obviously hurt the teenagers who work at restaurant chains and the single parents who work in big-box stores more than it would help them.

It might take more studies to determine if Seattle hiked its minimum wage too much, too fast. Moreover, the city’s experiment does nothing to undercut the argument for a higher minimum wage for the millions of workers still earning $7.25 an hour, the federal wage floor, or just above it. But too high of a minimum wage would damage the prospects of the low-wage, low-skilled workforce. Seattle’s experiment might give some indication of how much is too much.

The Highest Form of Disagreement
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

For Joshua Johnson, the host of 1A, an NPR talk show inspired by the First Amendment, Americans can better thrive despite their differences and disagreements by taking inspiration from the courageous lead character in a modern classic.

“In Westside story, our Romeo, Tony, intervenes in a fight between two gangs who are literally ready to rumble with an all out, knock down, drag out, winner-takes-all fight,” he recounted. “Tony convinces them to replace the rumble with a fair fight: the best two brawlers from each gang would duke it out.” He sees himself in an analogous role.

“My job as the host of 1A is basically what Tony did in Westside story,” he explained. “To convince people to stop rumbling and just fight fair. If we don't do that, our democracy is in trouble.” He understands the contrary temptations and risks. “A good rumble feels good,” he acknowledged. “It feels good to see somebody take down those SOBs who you blame for all the problems in this country.”

And Tony’s plan was ruined “when the gang leaders fell back on their old ways, pulled out their knives, and killed themselves.” Still, he persisted in his exhortation:

Democracy is a contact sport. Everyone gets bruises. Even the winners. And the kind of bickering we see today is not only unproductive.

It's cowardly.

If you don't have the guts to focus on ideas and stop tearing down individuals, you belong in the stands, not on the field. I want more leaders who are brave enough to focus on ideas and not ad hominem attacks. I want more leaders who are willing to say, “I hate everything she stands for, but I do not hate her. And neither should you."

And I want more Americans who demand these kinds of debates for the sake of our democracy. Just ideas against ideas, let them fight it out, and if you lose, come back with better ideas.

Tony was right. A rumble can be clenched by a fair fight if you've got the guts to risk that. Are millions of Americans ready to start fighting fair for the sake of our democracy? For the sake of solving common problems we all face?

Listening to those remarks Sunday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, I shared the speaker’s frustration with attacks on people rather than ideas, which pervade so much of today’s political discourse.

And yet, I would add something to his analysis: ad hominem is a problem, but if you watch cable news, or follow Twitter, or reflect on the way that Donald Trump engages with Democrats, or Democrats with other Republicans, you notice a style of argument every bit as pernicious. It consists of constantly elevating the very worst of the other side, attacking only the weakest rather than the strongest part or version of the ideas held by the other political party or ideological tribe or cultural identity group. As Scott Alexander puts it, “The straw man is a terrible argument nobody really holds, which was only invented so your side had something easy to defeat. The weak man is a terrible argument that only a few unrepresentative people hold, which was only brought to prominence so your side had something easy to defeat.”

Tucker Carlson is a master of the weak man––as was Jon Stewart.

And America would benefit if our culture of argument elevated the opposite approach, steel-manning, “the art of addressing the best form of the other person’s argument, even if it’s not the one they presented.” Here’s Chana Messinger extolling it in one of those great old-school blog posts that I am honored just to honor:

We probably know best which arguments are most difficult for our position, because we know our belief’s real weak points and what kind of evidence we tend to find compelling … use that information to look for ways to make their arguments better, more difficult for you to counter. This is the highest form of disagreement. If you know of a better counter to your own argument, say so. If you know of evidence that supports their side, bring it up. If their argument rests on an untrue piece of evidence, talk about the hypothetical case in which they were right... Because if you can’t respond to that better version, you’ve got some thinking to do, even if you are more right than the person you’re arguing with.

In short, she says, “Think more deeply than you’re being asked to.” And bear these fruits:

First, people like having their arguments approached with care and serious consideration. Steelmanning requires that we think deeply about what’s being presented to us and find ways to improve it. By addressing the improved version, we show respect and honest engagement to our interlocutor. People who like the way you approach their arguments are much more likely to care about what you have to say about those arguments…

Second, people are more convinced by arguments which address the real reason they reject your ideas rather than those which address those aspects less important to their beliefs.

Coming full circle to our NPR host’s project, Messinger argues that “steelmanning makes you a better person. It makes you more charitable, forcing you to assume, at least for a moment, that the people you’re arguing with, much as you ferociously disagree with them or even dislike them, are people who might have something to teach you. It makes you more compassionate, learning to treat those you argue with as true opponents, not merely obstacles. It broadens your mind, preventing us from making easy dismissals or declaring preemptive victory, pushing us to imagine all the things that could and might be true in this beautiful, strange world of ours. And it keeps us rational, reminding us that we’re arguing against ideas, not people, and that our goal is to take down these bad ideas, not to revel in the defeat of incorrect people.”

It’s only just out of reach.

How CRISPR Yanked Jennifer Doudna Out of the Ivory Tower
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

Jennifer Doudna remembers a moment when she realized how important CRIPSR—the gene-editing technique that she co-discovered—was going to be. It was in 2014, and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur had contacted Sam Sternberg, a biochemist who was then working in Doudna’s lab. Sternberg met with the entrepreneur in a Berkeley cafe, and she told him, with what he later described to Doudna as “a very bright look in her eye that was also a little scary,” that she wanted to start applying CRISPR to humans. She wanted to be the mother of the first baby whose genome had been edited with the technique. And she wanted to establish a business that would offer a menu of such edits to parents.

Nothing of the kind could currently happen in the U.S., where editing the genomes of human embryos is still verboten. But the entrepreneur apparently had connections that would allow her to offer such services in other countries. “That’s a true story,” Doudna told a crowd at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “That blew my mind. It was a heads-up that people were already thinking about this—that at some point, someone might announce that they had the first CRISPR baby.”

The possibility had always been there. Bacteria have been using CRISPR for billions of years to slice apart the genetic material of viruses that invade their cells. In 2012, Doudna and others showed how this system could be used to deliberately engineer the genomes of bacteria, cutting their DNA with exceptional precision. In quick succession, researchers found that they could do the same in mammalian cells, mice, plants, and—in early 2014—monkeys. “I had all of this at the back of my mind,” Doudna told me after her panel. But Sternberg’s story about his meeting “was the moment where I said I needed to get involved in this conversation. I’m not going to feel good about myself if I don’t talk about it publicly.”

That has not been an easy journey. Doudna built her career on molecules and microbes. As few as five years ago, she was, by her own admission, working head-down in an ivory tower, with no plans of milking practical applications from her discoveries, and little engagement with the broader social impact of her work.

But CRISPR forcefully yanked Doudna out of that closeted environment, and dumped her into the midst of intense ethical debates about whether it’s ever okay to change the DNA of human embryos, whether eradicating mosquitoes is a good idea, and whether “fixing” the genes behind inherited diseases is a blow to disabled communities. Now, she’s a spokesperson for a field, and an influencer of policy. She regularly makes appearances at conferences and panel discussions, which she often shares with not just scientists but also philosophers, ethicists, and policy-makers. With Sternberg, she is the author of a new book called A Crack in Creation, describing her role in the CRISPR story.

All of this work consumes up to half of her time, taking her away from her lab of 25 people. “I find myself really struggling to maintain that balance,” she says. “But those are the cards I’ve been dealt and I feel an obligation to being involved in [the debates around CRISPR]. There aren’t that many people who know the technology deeply and willing to talk publicly about the societal and ethical issues. I have many science colleagues who don’t want to get involved. Yet it has to be done.”

Her upbringing prepared her well for this newfound role. Her father was a professor of American literature at the University of Hawaii, who was fiercely intellectual and politically conservative but never dogmatic. Her family dinner table was a place where opposing views were shared openly and debated open-mindedly. It still is: Many of Doudna’s in-laws staunchly oppose any form of genetic modification, so her work is a point of contention, even among close family. “I spend a lot of time talking to people like me, and it’s a big challenge is to reach out those who aren’t,” she says. “It’s a paradigm for the challenges in our country right now.”

With her increasing slate of talks, many of those unfamiliar opinions now seek her out. After a recent panel, a fellow speaker told her that her sister was born with a rare mutation that left her intellectually disabled and led to her dying in her 20s. “I want you to know,” the speaker said, “that if it were possible to use gene-editing to get rid of that mutation permanently, I would have no hesitation.” On the flipside, Doudna was recently interviewed by a journalist whose son has Down’s syndrome. “I want you to know,” the journalist said,” that I would never use CRISPR on him because he’s perfect just the way he is.”

“I’m very respectful of both those points of view,” she tells me. “And I’ve learned a lot about myself in these last five years.”

Much of the rhetoric around CRISPR is overblown. It is unlikely, for example, that CRISPR could ever be used to design babies to be smarter, taller, or free of conditions like obesity or schizophrenia, because such traits are the work of hundreds of genes, each with small effects. The threat of the technique can also be exaggerated in equal measure to its promise. One of Doudna’s colleagues recently attended a meeting at the Department of Energy, and was asked by a member of the Trump administration: “What about CRISPR? That’s dangerous. We need to get rid of it.”

“Well you can’t,” Doudna says plainly. “We’re in the system we’re in, and we have to deal with the technology in that context. I’ve been encouraging an international discussion because the worst thing we could do is to ignore it, and for scientists not to get involved.”

Sasha Velour and Drag's Permanent Revolution
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

If you’re ever in need of perspective on whether our society is in true upheaval or if we’re only experiencing the same cultural battles that have raged forever, old Geraldo clips on YouTube will always offer some clarity. Recently I found myself binging on the talk show’s coverage of “club kids,” a scene of 1990s New York City partiers who wore fantastical and frequently gender-bending outfits. In various episodes over the years, Rivera invited them on and then scoffed at their floral masks and harlequin makeup, their coy references to drug use, and their queerness. Once, they inspired him to ask, somewhat in earnest, “It’s four in the morning—do you know where your children are?”

Last week, RuPaul retweeted a link to one of those episodes, from 1990, which featured him a few years before he became America’s most famous drag queen. Midway through, Rivera asked whether dressing outlandishly is an art, and RuPaul gave an exuberant yes. “I dropped out of society when Reagan got in office,” he added, then took the opportunity to rally the audience: “Everybody say ‘love!’ Everybody say ‘love!’”

Remarkably, RuPaul doesn’t seem to have changed much since that 1990 appearance—and the story he’s woven about drag has stayed remarkably consistent too. He was using his current catchphrase, “You’re born naked and the rest is drag,” back then. During the ninth-season finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which aired Friday, RuPaul repeated his Geraldo routine: “Everybody say ‘love!’” he commanded. And just as RuPaul was drawing a contrast between Ronald Reagan and himself back then, he’s doing so with Donald Trump now.

Owing either to the new president or to record viewership numbers or to both, Season 9 of the cheeky crossdressing competition has been accompanied by a heap of publicity noting drag’s political implications (guilty!). The finale leaned into that hype, hard. Contestants walked out of an entrance in the shape of RuPaul’s lipsticked mouth over which the word “American” was written. RuPaul was introduced as “our commander in chief” and arrived with dancing Secret Service agents in hotpants. Throughout the hour, he joked about the president: “Now take that to your special prosecutor and investigate it,” he cackled at one point.

In Drag Race fan world, though, the finale will likely be mostly remembered for its format. For the first time, the finalists to be America’s Next Drag Superstar had to spend the last episode of the season locked in battle, performing head-to-head lip syncs to pop songs in order to win RuPaul’s favor. This added a heavier dose of suspense. It also meant an early upset when the two seemingly favored contenders for the crown—the attitude-packed Chicago dancer Shea Coulee and the cerebral Brooklyn artist Sasha Velour—went head-to-head in the first round, guaranteeing that one of them would not be in the final two.

Velour beat Coulee and ended up the eventual champion, also triumphing over the New York City nightlife fixture Peppermint. Ostensibly her victory was thanks to her clever set pieces during the lip syncs: First Velour unleashed a swirl of rose pedals stored in her gloves and wig, and later she cracked open a white skull cap while pantomiming agony. That Velour forwent lip-sync staples like splits and high-kicks while still delivering something fun to watch is no small feat, and on YouTube, clips of her moody, highly art-directed nightclub shows are similarly electrifying. The go-to move for the 30-year-old is to widen her eyes and grin with the same maniacal glint as Annie Lennox, a primary influence.

Lip syncs aside, though, the outcome for Season 9 fits exceedingly well into the narrative RuPaul has always spun about drag’s social relevance. Both finalists could signify cultural progress: Peppermint would have been the show’s first openly transgender winner, and Velour is among the most high-minded, politically outspoken drag queens to ever compete. The Vassar-educated Fulbright scholar is the child of professors, and whatever stereotypes you might apply to that description apply to her: “I try to write an essay every time I speak,” she joked to The Observer. During the finale, Velour even acknowledged a tweet about her that went, “If you tell your saddest gay story while doing your makeup Sasha Velour appears in your mirror and gives a Queer History lesson.” She now wants to use her platform for queer activism; accepting the crown on Friday night’s broadcast, Velour issued a call to “change the motherfucking world!”

Velour’s ideology also takes the form of aesthetic. Throughout Season 9, Velour’s claims to being “the future of drag” were bolstered by her striking look: bald-headed, with outfits that tweaked cliches of femininity and referenced history. But she’s certainly not the first Drag Race winner to triumph on weirdness and intellect rather than traditional pageant prettiness. Past champions have included the horror-movie creature Sharon Needles, the camp comedian Jinkx Monsoon, and the relentlessly meta Alaska Thunderfuck. All of whom of course follow RuPaul, who began his entertainment career as a short-haired, politically engaged “genderfuck” artist.

If there is an evolution in Velour’s brand of oddity, it’s in its seriousness, which almost feels generational: As RuPaul has said about recent crops of Drag Race contestants, “Everyone is getting woke.” Velour’s signature quote from this season might have been “Don’t joke about that,” a rare thing to hear from a drag queen (uttered by Velour in response to a crack about eating disorders). Her performances don’t really aim for laughs, and as noted, she is anything but coy about her politics. In an interview with EW, she precisely laid out her view of drag’s social role:

Drag resists conservatism in the most basic way possible, and also in the most effective way possible, because it’s improper when it comes to looks, which is everything in conservative systems. Conservatism is all about surfaces and labels and presentation, and drag says, no, we refuse to follow any rules about that.

As if to prove her point, a commenter below that Velour interview wrote, “Would you let this person babysit your children?” Reading that snippet of condescension made me think back to the suit-wearing Wall Street type in Geraldo’s 1990 audience who played foil to the carefree club kids, telling them, “When it comes to who’ll lead our country, prepare our country to go into the 21st century, I don’t want any of you in leadership roles.” RuPaul replied with only a grin, but it was clear he did have a leadership agenda—one that’s still in progress today. “Everyone at home touch your TV set,” he said back then. “This is the most important show you’ll ever watch.”

No Mixed-Gender Prayer Space at the Western Wall
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

The Israeli government suspended its plans to create a space where men and women can pray together at the Western Wall, in a move critics say will deepen the divide between Jews in Israel and those in the diaspora.

The decision marks a reversal of the government’s approval in 2016 of a plan to create a mixed-gender section where members of non-Orthodox traditions could hold egalitarian prayer services at the southern end of the Western Wall—an agreement Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described at the time as a “fair and creative solution.” Though the plan enjoyed support among Reform and Conservative denominations, which allow men and women to pray side by side, it received pushback from the ultra-Orthodox community, which requires that prayer spaces be gender-segregated.

This opposition stalled the plan’s implementation, prompting Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, as well the multi-denominational prayer group Women of the Wall, to petition the country’s Supreme Court to force the government to fulfill its commitment. It also resulted in violent clashes.  

The decision to suspend the plan has already had repercussions. The Jewish Agency, a nonprofit serving Jewish communities worldwide, denounced the government’s decision in a resolution by the group’s board of governors and canceled its gala dinner, which Netanyahu was scheduled to attend. Reform movement leaders offered similar condemnation and cancelled an upcoming meeting with Netanyahu, calling the government’s decision “an acute crisis between the Israeli government and diaspora Jewry.”

Indeed, a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found that about half of American Jews identify as either Reform (35 percent) or Conservative (18 percent), while only 10 percent identify as Orthodox. Conversely, a small minority of Israeli Jews identify as Conservative (2 percent) or Reform (2 percent), while half identify as Orthodox.

Though Netanyahu has not yet commented on the decision, members of his government have. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman condemned the decision as one of “religious coercion,” while leading opposition leader Yair Lapid accused Netanyahu of being “the puppet prime minister of ultra-Orthodox operators.”

Though the 2016 plan was suspended, Haaretz reports the government will begin talks to devise a new plan that will be acceptable to the ultra-Orthodox parties. In the meantime, construction of the mixed-prayer space will continue.

The Compounded Pain of Contamination and Dislocation
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

EAST CHICAGO—Until Carmencita Robinson received a letter last July stating that her public housing complex would need to be evacuated due to toxic levels of lead and arsenic in the soil, she’d had no idea she’d been living on contaminated land for nearly a decade.

“I felt betrayed,” she said. “They knew that there was lead, and they misled the families that were there because they continuously accepted our rent and gave us no notice of lead.”

A month later came the second blow. When Mayor Anthony Copeland learned the extent of the damage, he directed residents to evacuate the West Calumet Complex and announced plans to demolish it. Residents received Section 8 housing vouchers and were told they had 60 days to secure housing.

“I felt like I was just pushed out of some place that I took a lot of pride in,” says Robinson, who had planned to grow old in her apartment. “Nobody said, ‘We apologize for putting you all through this,’ or ‘I am sorry that this has to be done that way.’ No remorse, no anything. That hurt. I could have lost my life there. My kids could have gotten sicker there. How can you do people like that?”

Robinson was one of thousands of residents of West Calumet whose homes were sitting on top of the USS Lead Superfund Site. But her East Chicago complex is hardly a unique case. Studies dating back decades show waste sites, landfills, and hazardous facilities are disproportionately located in poor and minority neighborhoods. And with continuous slashes to Superfund’s budget over the years (it gets $1.1 billion a year, about half of what it did in 1999), cleanups have moved at a glacial pace.

East Chicago fits the pattern. The city is host to dozens of refineries, coal plants, gas storage tanks and other industrial facilities. The majority of its 30,000 residents are black or hispanic, with nearly a third living below the poverty line. “This is a low-income community of color and officials chose to neglect this community, there’s no getting around it,” said Debbie Chizewer, an attorney at Northwestern University’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic representing residents in proceedings with EPA.

The West Calumet Complex was built in 1972, just north of a USS Lead refinery and directly on top of a different demolished lead smelter and an old metal-processing plant that were never properly cleaned up. The Indiana State Department of Health first flagged the site as contaminated in 1985 and forced the USS Lead facility to close. Representative Pete Visclosky asked the EPA to initiate a hazardous waste removal action under the Superfund law, which secures funding from polluters to pay for the cleanup of the most contaminated sites in the country.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the Indiana Department of Health and EPA conducted lead screenings and soil sampling in the area, slowly gathering alarming evidence of elevated levels of lead and arsenic in children’s blood and people’s homes. The site was finally added to Superfund’s National Priorities List in 2009, joining 1,322 others. Only then did the EPA formulate a plan to secure funding, investigate, and execute remediation, or cleanup, of the site.

“The health department recommended [EPA] do something [throughout those decades], but it didn't and there's no explanation for why,” Chizewer said.

The EPA did not fully grasp the magnitude of the contamination at the USS Lead site until it began undertaking more extensive testing, between 2014 and 2016. The data revealed some areas of the site had lead levels as high as 91,000 parts per million of lead in the soil, and 32,000 ppm indoors. The EPA’s action-level for cleanup is 400 parts per million of lead in the soil.

Lead ingestion affects IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement, and effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected. “I had to read up on lead and how that affects me and my children,” said Robinson, who has three children that grew up in the public housing complex, one of whom has a diagnosed learning disability. “There are just so many things that I look at now that I know that we had lead—I had no clue that it was just that bad.”

Those risks are what led the Mayor to decide to evacuate the complex. The housing authority eventually extended the 60-day move-out deadline to April 2017. But for many residents, the dislocation came as an additional trauma, compounding the difficulties they faced.

“On the one hand, it was a decision that potentially prevented residents from being further contaminated,” says Chizewer. “On the other hand, it put residents in a situation that may have led to more contamination because they were moving in a rush to other homes that are contaminated with lead or arsenic. Or to homes where there might be gang violence and their children would be at risk.”

Robinson was especially concerned about moving away from her doctors—her breast cancer is in remission—and her local school, where her daughter receives services for her special needs. “I didn't look at it like a low-income complex,” she said. “I looked at it like home.” While Robinson was ultimately able to find a small two-bedroom house nearby, many were not as lucky. Some residents left for places as far-flung as Las Vegas and Houston. Others had trouble finding a place to move, and stayed in the contaminated complex beyond the April deadline.

Demetra Turner’s family was among the last remaining. For months she unsuccessfully tried to secure safe housing while working the night shift at a gas station and taking care of her two children. She said she runs on two to three hours of sleep a day, which she squeezes in after picking up her daughter from school, cooking dinner, and looking for apartments.  

“I have an account with every apartment website you can think of,” Turner said in April. “When I call it’s always the same thing: They don’t accept Section 8. You know, I want to leave, I don't want to stay here. But the only thing I'm asking is, allow me to find somewhere to go, and allow my kids to finish school.”

The city had already begun fencing the place off and turned off the street lights by the time Turner left in early June. The housing authority helped relocate her family to the other side of town, in an area known as the Harbor that she says has a long-standing rivalry with the Calumet neighborhood. She is still looking for permanent housing, and fears for her 18-year-old son’s safety.

Meanwhile, the cleanup of the East Chicago site drags on, eight years after it was formally added to the Superfund list, and three decades since Visclosky’s initial complaint. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt recently issued a new directive to prioritize Superfund cleanups and established a Superfund task force. But President Trump’s budget proposes to cut the program’s funding by 30 percent. Residents of East Chicago and other places home to contaminated sites are skeptical Pruitt’s efforts will lead to results.

“When you think about this case and the number of impacted residents and the money that it takes to clean this up and then you look at the possibility of EPA not having funding to do this kind of work at this site or around the country, it's extremely upsetting,” Chizewer said. “We would continue to have cases like East Chicago for many decades to come.”    

Is East Chicago the Next Flint?
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

Demetra Turner and her family moved into the West Calumet Public Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana in May 2016. A month later, she found out she would have to evacuate her new home due to extremely elevated levels of lead and arsenic in the soil and water. It turned out the public housing complex was sitting on top of a Superfund site, one of the most toxic in the country. East Chicago is one of many low-income, majority black communities that disproportionately suffer from environmental harm across the country. “We’re going through the same thing Flint went through – neglect,” says resident and activist Sherry Hunter. “And it all has to do with poor black people.”

For more, read the story ‘The Compounded Pain of Contamination and Dislocation.’

How Will Silicon Valley Work Without T.J. Miller?
June 26th, 2017, 05:48 AM

If you watched Sunday night’s fourth-season finale of Silicon Valley without reading the accompanying online chatter, you might not have realized that it marked the final appearance of one of its most beloved characters, Erlich Bachman (played by the comedian T.J. Miller). On a mission to retrieve the tech CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) from his retreat at a Tibetan monastery, Erlich gets waylaid at an opium den; a frustrated Gavin pays the proprietors to keep him busy there for five years. It sounds final, but it’s also exactly the kind of ridiculous predicament Erlich got himself in for the entirety of the show’s run. So why is this the way Silicon Valley chose to say goodbye to him?

As usual with an unexpected showbiz departure, there have been multiple reported sides to the story. It’s hard to imagine that Miller’s departure will be a good thing for Silicon Valley: Erlich has always served as a delightful narrative wrench for the show, sidetracking stories and upsetting the Pied Piper team’s apple cart with his oft-stoned, egotistical antics. A Silicon Valley without Erlich will be a smoother show, but not necessarily a better one—especially since the character embodied the sort of unrestrained, tech-industry id the series sought to satirize.

Stranger still is the abruptness of Erlich’s departure. He was a consistent thorn in the side of the show’s protagonist, Richard (Thomas Middleditch), but it seems there’ll be little to no acknowledgment of his absence, which is odd considering the entire ensemble still lives in Erlich’s house. Silicon Valley is known for its emphasis on elaborate season-long plots that resolve well in beautifully constructed last episodes. The second-season finale “Two Days of the Condor” remains one of the most hilariously tense pieces of TV comedy I’ve ever seen, having its story dominoes fall with all the tautness of a heist movie. Compared to that, the season-four finale “Server Error” felt comparatively tame, focusing mostly on Richard’s maniacal efforts to create a new kind of internet, which were helped along by a confusing deus ex machina.

On top of all that, Erlich is apparently gone forever, with barely a sendoff. Miller’s departure was first announced in late May, framed as a “mutual decision” by an HBO representative, but reports have persisted that Miller was taken aback by the firing. Miller is an outsized personality both off and on the screen; you can listen to any of his podcast appearances, especially his wide-ranging interviews with the comedian Pete Holmes on You Made It Weird, to get a sense of that. A recent Vanity Fair profile of Zach Woods, who plays Silicon Valley’s beloved character Jared, included a loaded-sounding quote from Middleditch, who said the cast were real-life friends, “especially amongst the people that are still on the show.”

Adding to all this confusion is a Hollywood Reporter interview with Miller that posted right after the finale aired. It both clears the air and doesn’t, suggesting a narrative in which HBO wanted to scale back his role on the show, and Miller instead insisted on leaving for good. The interview is another great example of Miller’s extremely strong personality—in it, he brags about his busy schedule, repeatedly (and self-deprecatingly) plugs his upcoming lead role in The Emoji Movie, remarks on Silicon Valley’s repetitive plot structure, and fires parting shots at both Middleditch and the show’s showrunner Alec Berg.

“I’m doing a lot as a public servant and jester to the American public. As Kristen Stewart always says, ‘It’s worldwide. It’s worldwide,’” is one of his more memorable quotes in the piece. “[Berg] went to Harvard, and we all know those kids are fucking idiots. That Crimson trash. Those comedy writers in Hollywood are fucking Harvard graduates and that’s why they’re smug as a bug,” is another. Whether or not Erlich could return, it does seem like Miller is burning a bridge—and the show’s creator, Mike Judge, confirmed in a separate interview that “[Miller] didn’t want to do the show anymore.”

Silicon Valley still has one of the brightest ensembles on TV, from Woods and Middleditch to Kumail Nanjiani (breaking out this summer in The Big Sick) and Martin Starr. Its future at HBO seems secure, and though the Season 4 finale felt like it was scrambling to set up next year’s plotlines, Richard’s “new internet” project should provide a wealth of comedy to mine in the coming season. But Miller’s anarchic spirit, on-set drama or no, will undoubtedly be missed.