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Twitter is days away from finally banning the Nazis. Yes, really.
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Lots of people are justifiably skeptical. But I’m still hoping for the best.

Twitter has had a messy 2017, and it certainly isn’t enjoying the greatest public relations phase of its history, so I’m inclined to forgive the social media platform for fumbling what should have been the most triumphant moment of its long year: the site’s November 17 announcement that it will effectively ban neo-Nazis come December 18.

Yes, you read that right: Twitter has stated that beginning Monday, it will finally deliver what many of its users have been demanding for months, by closing its doors to people affiliated with hate groups — thereby heeding the call that many people have long been shorthanding as simply, “Ban the Nazis.”

The announcement, which seems to have largely flown under the radar of both the media and Twitter’s user base, came as part of a November update to Twitter’s safety policies, when the site added a crucial clause to its terms of service:

You also may not affiliate with organizations that — whether by their own statements or activity both on and off the platform — use or promote violence against civilians to further their causes. We will begin enforcing this rule around affiliation with such organizations on December 18, 2017.

Of course, we won’t know until next week how effective this rule will be. The optimists among us might be hoping for a holiday miracle in which we’ll awaken to discover that helpful Twitter elves came in the night and kicked all the white supremacists off the platform while we slept.

But with just a few days left until the Great Forthcoming Twitter Nazi Purge, hardly any of the site’s users seem to be aware that the ban is on the way. Which is to say, there’s been no major discussion of the change among users, no jubilant countdown to pass the time until the Nazis are gone. In fact, things have been surprisingly quiet in this regard, considering how central the theme of Nazi banning has been to the narrative surrounding Twitter in 2017.

When feminist writer Lindy West made her high-profile departure from Twitter in January, she left explicitly because of Twitter’s refusal to deal with the “the white supremacist, anti-feminist, isolationist, transphobic ‘alt-right’ movement [that] has been beta-testing its propaganda and intimidation machine on marginalised Twitter communities for years.”

And every time Twitter suspended a popular progressive user like Anthony Oliveira or Rose McGowan — no matter the reason — while allowing former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke or white nationalist Richard Spencer to continue using the site to spread hateful ideologies, people reliably responded with increasing frustration and outrage over the fact that Twitter has failed to prevent such imbalances from occurring.

In the process, the refrain of “Ban the Nazis” has become such a prominent catchphrase on the site that in early November, when Twitter unexpectedly expanded the character limit for users’ profile names, a new “Ban the Nazis” meme emerged almost instantly:

A month later, “Ban the Nazis” profile names are still all over the place. What seems to be less present, however, is an awareness that Twitter has announced plans to actually do so, by way of the aforementioned update to its terms of service.

Since Twitter first made its announcement, whenever I’ve mentioned it, I’ve generally been met with the cynical response of “I’ll believe it when I see it.” And given Twitter’s shaky track record on enforcing the policies it implements — just last month, it was verifying white supremacists, not banning them — that attitude is wholly justified.

Still, it’s kinda nice to keep the faith and hope for the best, especially as we come to the end of a tense and exhausting year. “Banning the Nazis” in 3, 2, 1 days won’t make them any less pernicious or toxic offline. But if Twitter indeed follows through, its actions will hopefully, finally, be a sign that the site — a platform to which many of us have probably entrusted too much of our lives and friendship networks — has at long last established a clear, firm line when it comes to hate speech.

Full text: Republicans unveil their final tax bill
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Republicans are expected to vote on this bill as soon as Tuesday.

The final draft of the Republican tax bill has dropped.

After a week of backdoor negotiations to hash out the differences between the House and Senate tax proposals, Republicans have released their final vision for the American tax code: a bill that permanently gives corporations a massive tax break, temporarily cuts individual rates — primarily benefiting the wealthiest Americans — increases the standard deduction, and the repeals the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which is estimated to leave 13 million fewer insured over the next 10 years.

The bill cuts the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, 1 percent less than the Senate and House proposals; and lowers the top individual income tax rate to 37 percent, which is less than the 38.5 percent in the Senate bill and the 39.6 percent in the House bill and current law. It will allow pass-through businesses, like LLCs and partnerships, to deduct 20 percent from their taxes in addition to having the lower top individual rate. The bill also caps the mortgage interest deduction at $750,000 and the state and local property and income deduction at $10,000, particularly disadvantaging Americans who live in high-tax states.

All in all, the bill is a far cry from the simplified tax code that Republicans have long been promising, but it is a substantial reshaping of the nation’s tax base. Republicans are adamant that cutting corporate taxes will in turn increase investments and wages in the United States and lead to unprecedented economic growth — despite analyses that indicate otherwise.

It’s a gamble they are willing to make. This bill has not yet received an official score from the Congressional Budget Office or the Joint Committee on Taxation, which measures legislation’s cost and impact.

Republicans are expected to vote on this bill as soon as Tuesday.

Here’s the bill in its entirety:

The Republican tax bill that could actually become law, explained
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

It could pass as early as next week.

Congressional Republicans have reportedly struck a deal on tax reform, enabling them to pass a final bill shortly after the House and Senate each passed its own proposal.

The combined proposal would slash corporate tax rates permanently, offer temporary cuts for individuals, and repeal the individual mandate in Obamacare, a $338 billion health care cut that leaves 13 million more people uninsured by 2027. The result is that by that year, when the individual cuts expire, most Americans will be worse off due to higher taxes and lower health care coverage, while rich people who own shares in corporations will continue to benefit.

Overall, it bears a closer similarity to the Senate bill than the House one. But there are important differences that set it apart from both previous proposals.

It sets a top individual income tax rate of 37 percent, below 38.5 percent in the Senate bill and 39.6 percent in the House bill (which is also the rate under current law). It finances that with a slightly higher corporate tax rate of 21 percent. It retains a more generous deduction for state and local taxes, and limits the mortgage interest deduction slightly for wealthy homeowners. The bill also eliminates the corporate alternative minimum tax, which added to the Senate bill and would’ve amounted to a $250 billion corporate tax hike.

And Republicans are on track to pass the bill into law the week of December 18 — well before Democratic Senator-elect Doug Jones is sworn into office, weakening the party’s Senate majority.

Who gets tax cuts, and tax hikes, under the bill

Before delving into the bill’s details, it’s worth taking a moment to consider who, all told, comes out ahead and behind.

We do not have a distributional analysis showing who wins and loses under the new House-Senate compromise; it’s too new. But the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has run the numbers on the bill that passed the Senate, which is the closest thing to the deal that anyone has analyzed yet.

Note that the TPC analysis ignores the changes to the top individual rate, expansion of the state and local tax deduction, slightly higher corporate rate, and mild limits on the mortgage interest deduction included in the most recent House-Senate deal. It also excludes the effect of eliminating the individual mandate, which effectively reduces the amount of Medicaid and insurance subsidy money going to poor and middle-income people, and increases premiums on many upper-middle-class people too. On net, the poor would actually lose out in all years once this effect is taken into account.

With that in mind, here’s the big picture:

TPC analysis of Senate-passed tax bill - overall distribution Tax Policy Center

The story is very different in 2019 and 2025 compared to 2027, because at the end of 2025, all cuts for individuals expire. However, a significant tax increase — the use of a slower-growing inflation index, chained CPI, to adjust tax brackets — remains, as do corporate tax cuts. That means that rich and very rich people who own many shares of stock gain tremendously still, but middle- and upper-middle-class individuals who had been benefiting from individual rate cuts lose out.

You can see the effects of the bill in more granular detail in the following table. TPC finds that the top 1 percent of taxpayers earn 62.1 percent of the benefits from the cuts by 2027, and the top 0.1 percent earn 42.3 percent of the benefits:

TPC’s breakdown of the Senate-passed bill in 2027 Tax Policy Center

But these averages obscure important differences within income groups. Some people earning $200,000 a year will pay less in taxes in 2027. But others will pay more, which can be obscured by a finding that, say, the 80-90th percentiles as a whole will get a $290 tax cut on average.

TPC modeled out for 2019, 2025, and 2027 what share of each group will see taxes go up and down. Here’s 2027:

Winners and losers in the Senate-passed tax bill in 2027 Tax Policy Center

Overall, 47.5 percent of taxpayers see their taxes go up, with an average hike of $150; but 31.3 percent see their taxes go down, by $1,500 on average.

These percentages vary widely between income groups. Within the middle quintile, people earning $54,700 to $93,200 a year, 62.2 percent would see their taxes go up. But only about 0.1 percent of the very richest one-thousandth of Americans would see a tax hike.

Note, again, that this doesn’t take into account the effect of cutting health care.

Republicans argue that 2025 is a better year to look at than 2027, as they argue that, despite writing the bill so that individual cuts expire, they hope to make them permanent in the future. While it’s somewhat disingenuous to demand that your bill be evaluated not as it’s written, but as it might be amended at some later date, here in the interest of fairness is TPC’s 2025 projection:

Winners and losers under the Senate-passed bill in 2025 Tax Policy Center

In this scenario, 76.4 percent of Americans get a tax cut, and the average American household in the middle quintile would get a $930 cut. But 9.9 percent of Americans would see taxes go up, with hikes concentrated in the upper middle class and among the very rich. Only 22.2 percent of the benefit would be concentrated in the top 1 percent (far lower than in 2027), but 64.8 percent goes to the richest fifth of Americans.

The bill would good for corporations and the wealthy

Before delving into the bill’s details, it’s worth taking a moment to consider who, all told, comes out ahead and behind. Here’s who would be better off:

  • Corporations, broadly, are the focus of most of the tax cuts. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation’s analysis of the bill, cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent starting in 2019 costs more than $1.33 trillion over 10 years. The new compromise version increases the rate somewhat to 21 percent, but the cost remains similar, especially because under the new bill the cut begins in 2018, not 2019. Corporations also in many cases gain new, more favorable treatment of income earned abroad, which is either not taxed or taxed at an even lower rate than 21 percent.
  • Wealthy, particularly ultrawealthy, people tend to earn a disproportionate share of their income from capital (like stock sales and dividends) and thus benefit from cuts to the corporate tax, which is largely a tax on capital. You see this in the TPC analysis above. If the corporate tax also reduces wages, as some conservative economists allege, then corporate cuts still disproportionately help the wealthy, as a huge share of wages go to high earners, not low- or median-wage workers. Additionally, the pass-through tax cut could enable some wealthy people who either own pass-throughs or create new ones to shelter some of their income from high rates.
  • People making mid- to high six-figure incomes, who arguably should count as wealthy or rich too. Their top income tax rate is reduced from 39.6 percent to 35 percent, and they additionally benefit from other individual rate reductions for lower tax brackets. While many face lower tax deductions due to changes in how state and local taxes are treated, they will probably come out ahead overall.
  • Pass-through companies, like the Trump Organization, which get a new deduction reducing their tax burden. The House-Senate compromise bill allows people with pass-through income to deduct a portion of that income from their taxes; the deduction is for 20 percent of pass-through income, less than the 23 percent under the Senate-passed bill.
  • Heirs and heiresses, as the estate tax’s exemption is doubled from $5.5 million to $11 million, meaning an even smaller share of the ultrarich will pay the tax — and even those who do pay will pay substantially less than under current law.

But the bill would hurt the poor and increase the deficit

The GOP’s tax reform proposal would leave other groups worse off:

  • Poor families were rumored to be getting a tax cut due to a change in the refundability formula for the child tax credit — but that didn’t make it into either the House or Senate bill. The credit only goes to families with $3,000 in earnings or more, and phases in slowly; some in Congress were pushing to lower the threshold to $0, but the Senate bill instead lowered it to $2,500, a pretty mild change. Marco Rubio got an extremely minor further expansion of the credit included in the compromise bill, which doesn’t change the situation for very poor people.
  • Medicaid and insurance subsidy beneficiaries, a group of poor and middle-class people who’d lose benefits without the individual mandate pushing them into insurance. Upper-middle-class people still buying individual insurance would pay higher premiums.
  • Rich blue-state residents would pay higher taxes, as deductions for state and local taxes are capped at $10,000. That said, wealthy people benefiting from these deductions will likely see this tax hike offset by the other tax cuts in the package.
  • And it would increase the deficit; the Joint Committee on Taxation scored the Senate-passed bill as costing $1.45 trillion over 10 years, and the cost of the House-Senate compromise bill is likely similar.

Individual income tax rates are adjusted

  • The seven current individual income tax brackets are changed. In 2017, for a married couple the brackets are: 10 percent (taxable income up to $18,650); 15% ($18,650 to $75,900); 25% ($75,900 to $153,100); 28% ($153,100 to $233,350); 33% ($233,350 to $416,700); 35% ($416,700 to $470,700); 39.6% (taxable income over $470,700)
  • Under the new plan they’d be: 10% (taxable income up to $19,050); 12% ($19,050 to $77,400); 22% ($77,400 to $165,000); 24% ($165,000 to $315,000); 32% ($315,000 to $400,000); 35% ($400,000 to $600,000); 37% (taxable income over $600,000)
  • The top rate is cut and the threshold is raised. Most middle-class taxpayers would be in a 12 percent bracket, not 15 percent, and many affluent, upper-middle-class households would be knocked from a 25 percent bracket to 25 percent, or from 33 percent to 24 percent, or from 39.6 percent to 35 percent.
  • The thresholds for brackets will be adjusted according to chained CPI, a slower-growing measure of inflation than normal CPI, which is used currently; this change raises revenue over time by gradually pushing more and more people into higher tax brackets.

The standard deduction is increased, personal exemptions are eliminated, and the child tax credit is mildly boosted

Standard benefits for families are changed significantly, with an eye toward simplifying the vast array of benefits (standard deductions, personal exemptions, child credits, etc.) currently available:

  • The standard deduction will be raised to $24,000 for couples and $12,000 for individuals, a near doubling from current levels.
  • The child tax credit will grow from $1,000 to $2,000; only the first 1,400 will be refundable, and access for poor families is not significantly expanded.
  • The child credit would be available for many more wealthy households: It would start to phase out at $400,000 in earnings for married couples, as opposed to $110,000 under current law.
  • The personal exemption (currently offering households $4,050 per person in deductions) is eliminated, replaced in theory by the higher child credit, lower rates, and higher standard deduction.

Some deductions are limited, but most remain intact

  • The mortgage interest deduction is limited to the first $750,000 of a mortgage’s value. This is a compromise between current law (where the limit is $1 million) and the House bill (which lowered that to $500,000).
  • The deductions for state and local income/sales taxes, and state and local property taxes, are limited to $10,000 total.
  • Most major tax breaks for individuals — the charitable deduction, retirement incentives like 401(k) and IRA provisions, the tax exclusion for employer-provided health care, the earned income tax credit, and the child and dependent care tax credit — would not be cut.
  • Major tax breaks that the House bill would’ve eliminated, including the exclusion of tuition waivers for graduate students, the deduction for student loan payments, the medical expense deduction, and the adoption tax credit, are preserved.

Corporate taxes are slashed dramatically

  • The corporate income tax rate will be lowered from 35 percent to 21 percent.
  • The corporate tax will be “territorial”: Foreign income by US companies will be, in general, tax-free.
  • All untaxed income currently held overseas will immediately be taxed at a fixed rate, much lower than the current rate, effectively rewarding companies that kept money overseas.
  • Despite the tax being “territorial” in principle, there will be a “minimum tax” imposed on profits that foreign subsidiaries of US companies earn from intangible assets like patents and copyrights, to prevent companies from moving those assets abroad to avoid taxes, which is a very easy tax evasion move under current law. There’s also a tax on money shifted to overseas subsidiaries.
  • Instead of having companies “depreciate” investments by deducting them over several years, companies could immediately expense all their investments. This benefit expires after five years, presumably to save money, which dampens any positive effect it has on economic growth.
  • Companies paying the corporate income tax would face a limit on how much debt they can deduct from their taxable income, a significant change for highly leveraged companies like banks.
  • Two big existing credits for corporations — the research and development tax credit and the low-income housing credit — won’t be repealed. But a deduction for domestic manufacturing is gone.

Pass-throughs like the Trump Organization win big

“Pass-through” companies like LLCs, partnerships, sole proprietorships, and S corporations, which are overwhelmingly owned by rich individuals like Donald Trump and currently pay normal income tax rates after their earnings are returned to the companies’ owners, would get a number of tax cuts too:

  • Most taxpayers with pass-through income would be able to deduct 20 percent of that income, effectively lowering the top rate they pay.
  • To limit the deduction, wealthy people with “service industry” income (think accountants or lawyers) would see the deduction limited.
  • The deduction creates a huge loophole for rich people, who could incorporate as sole proprietorships and “contract” with their employers so their income is counted as pass-through income rather than wages.

Additionally, the exemption for the estate and gift tax, the most progressive component of the federal tax code, only paid by extremely rich estates, is doubled. The alternative minimum tax for individuals, which limits tax breaks for wealthy taxpayers, is retained in more limited form. And a brand new 1.4 percent tax on university endowment income is added.

The case for the bill

For the public at large, the case for a massive corporate tax cut is sort of hard to grasp. Seventy-three percent of Americans, and 53 percent of Republicans, say they want corporate taxes either kept the same or raised, according to Pew Research Center polling. That the cuts are paired with some tax increases on individuals, like the elimination of the deduction for state and local income taxes and the Social Security number requirement, which kicks some 3 million kids off the child tax credit, makes the choice even more confounding.

But the GOP has a specific economic theory that it claims supports the bill and makes the changes it envisions worthwhile.

The basic idea is that while most economists believe corporate taxes are primarily paid by owners of capital (that is, people who own stock in corporations) in the form of lower profits, a sizable minority, including White House chief economist Kevin Hassett, think that a lower tax rate would spark so much additional investment in the United States that it would bid up wages and leave the middle class better off through its indirect effects.

Other, smaller provisions of the reform package also have reasonable cases for them. Opponents of the state and local tax deduction, which the bill would sharply limit, argue it’s regressive and concentrates benefits on rich states rather than poor ones that actually need the money. The current mix of standard deductions, personal exemptions, and child credit is needlessly duplicative, and the bill simplifies it a bit, while creating new winners and losers.

Others are a bit harder to defend. Many economists oppose wealth taxes like the estate tax on the grounds that they penalize savings, but intergenerational transmission of wealth also has huge negative externalities (heirs less willing to work, less equal politics, etc.) that cutting the estate tax dramatically would worsen.

Cutting taxes on pass-through income is particularly hard to defend. Pass-throughs already get a sizable tax advantage relative to other companies. While corporate profits are taxed in two stages — first by the corporate income tax, and then through dividend or capital gains taxes — pass-through income is only taxed once, at the individual level. This change would worsen that advantage.

Pass-throughs will counter that in many cases, people who own stock through 401(k)s and IRAs don’t have to pay capital gains or dividend taxes, and so their profits are only taxed at the corporate rate, which is lower than the top individual rate (and would be much lower under this plan), putting pass-throughs at a potential disadvantage. But analysts who’ve looked at this comparison generally conclude that pass-throughs are taxed less overall, and certainly don’t need another break.

The 4 biggest policy stories of the week, explained
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

While Democrats celebrate an electoral victory, GOP policy triumphs.

An eventful week in Washington opened with Democrats scoring an upset defeat in a Senate race in deep-red Alabama, only to close with Republicans crossing the t’s on the centerpiece of their 2017 legislative agenda. Along the way, Capitol Hill continued to feel the reverberations of the national reckoning with sexual harassment, and the Federal Communications Commission moved forward with a controversial move to deregulate ISPs.

A Democrat won a Senate election in Alabama

Doug Jones, who served as an Alabama US attorney in the 1990s under Bill Clinton, won an astounding come-from-behind victory to defeat the Republican nominee Roy Moore. Moore’s campaign was weighed down by both accusations of having preyed on teenage girls and a poor national political environment for the GOP.

 Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images
  • Not just scandal: It’s clear that the allegations against Moore played a key role in putting Jones over the top, but even before those stories broke Jones was down by only 5-10 points — remarkably close for a deep-red state.
  • A Democratic Senate within grasp: Democrats face a very unfavorable Senate map in 2018, but Jones’s victory gives them a plausible path to a majority — hold all their incumbent seats, and win in Nevada and Arizona — that had been hard to see.
  • What’s next? The GOP is desperately trying to rush its tax bill to a vote before Jones can be seated, since a razor-thin 51-49 majority will make it difficult to advance any controversial bill.

Republicans wrote their tax bill

After a minor amount of drama, House and Senate GOP leaders appeared to have reached agreement on the shape of a final tax bill, though they were keeping the actual text a closely held secret throughout most of the day — actual text won’t be released until 5:30 pm. By all indications, they have the votes to pass the bill early next week.

  • The big picture: The House tax bill, the Senate tax bill, and the final compromise bill differ in a number of important details but they are similar in broad strokes — business owners get a big permanent tax cut (in the form of a corporate rate cut, a special deduction for pass-throughs, and a big reduction in the estate tax) while middle-class families get a small temporary one. About 13 million people are expected to lose health insurance, and deficits will rise.
  • Unanswered questions: With the bill moving through a very rushed process, there are big unanswered questions about how much new tax evasion or tax avoidance will be facilitated by some of the new legislative structures. The official score of the revenue loss entailed by the bill assumes broad compliance and little gaming, but experts have serious doubts.
  • What’s next? The bill polls poorly, so there’s always a chance that a last-minute backlash will complicate the whip count. But all signs are that the bill will pass early next week and be signed into law.

Sexual harassment accusations kept roiling Congress

Harassment charges continued to make waves on Capitol Hill this week, playing a key role in Jones’s victory in the Alabama special election, prompting a Texas Republican to announce he won’t run for reelection, and ending with the revelation that a top House ethics official is accused of assaulting women.

 Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX)
  • In and out: Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican who holds a solidly red seat, announced that he won’t run for reelection — giving the GOP its best chance at holding the seat by avoiding a special election. Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-NV), who allegedly touched women inappropriately and made sexual comments, continues to resist entreaties from party leadership to stop down.
  • Unethical ethicists: The Office of Congressional Ethics investigates sexual harassment claims in the House, but its staff director and chief counsel turns out to be the subject of a federal lawsuit for allegedly physically and verbally abusing women and using his position as a high-ranking congressional official to influence police investigating the matter.
  • What’s next? Nobody knows for sure, but essentially everyone in and around Congress expects that more harassment scandals will come to light sooner rather than later.

Net neutrality

FCC chair Ajit Pai voted on Thursday to roll back Obama-era regulatory moves, reclassify broadband internet as a Title I information service, thus also ending network neutrality regulations that force wireline ISPs (cellular internet is already allowed to operate in non-neutral ways) to treat all data equally.

 Alex Wong/Getty Images
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai drinks from a giant corporate-branded coffee cup.
  • The case against net neutrality: The argument for Pai’s move is that allowing ISPs freedom to structure their pricing and service however they want will ultimately boost investment in the sector, and deliver more competition and higher quality infrastructure. Non-neutral mobile internet providers have avoided the dystopian practices advocates warn about; the lack of regulation simply lets them optimize their product better.
  • The case for net neutrality: The argument against Pai’s move is that there’s very little competition in the wired broadband market — the typical American has one or two broadband providers rather than three or four wireless ones — and common carrier rules are needed lest the uncompetitive infrastructure market start infecting the market for online services.
  • What’s next? Litigation! A bunch of blue states have announced plans to sue, and they’ll be supported by some internet companies and advocacy groups. The legal issue will turn not on the underlying merits of the decision, but on whether the FCC really gathered enough new information over the past year to warrant a new rule.
The week in health care, explained
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

This is the web version of VoxCare, a daily newsletter from Vox on the latest twists and turns in America’s health care debate. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get VoxCare in your inbox here.

Doug Jones probably saved most of Obamacare

It's really hard to imagine a scenario in which Republicans can repeal Obamacare with a 51-seat Senate majority when they couldn't do it with a 52-seat majority. Doug Jones might have ended Obamacare repeal for good when he won the Alabama Senate seat on Tuesday.

The two Republican senators who have opposed every version of Obamacare thus far — Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — reiterated this week that they don't really want to revisit health care next year.

I'll have more on this on Monday, but this is a big deal. Yes, the individual mandate will likely be repealed in the Republican tax bill next week, and that is going to hurt the insurance markets. But it probably won't destroy them.

On top of that, Medicaid expansion will be left untouched. The protections for people with preexisting conditions will stay on the books. The financial aid for private insurance will still be available. Those are big parts of the health care law that look here to stay.

"The heart of the ACA has always been the Medicaid expansion, the premium subsidies to make insurance more affordable to lower-income people, and the protections for preexisting conditions," Larry Levitt at the Kaiser Family Foundation told me. "Those things will all still be in place."

Obamacare enrollment is almost over

The deadline to sign up in most states through HealthCare.gov is today, if you didn't already know.

Important notice: If you or somebody you know is automatically enrolled in a plan with a different insurer on Friday, you can shop around and sign up for a new plan, according to Kimberly Leonard at the Washington Examiner.

We've talk a lot about the Trump administration's deliberate sabotage of open enrollment. The way things have been trending, enrollment is going to fall short this year.

CHIP still hasn’t been funded

We're nearing three months since CHIP funding technically expired. House Republicans have proposed funding the program for five years in the government spending bill they introduced this week, basically reupping the bill they've already passed.

Republicans are holding out hope that the CHIP issue will finally be laid to rest in the spending bill, which must pass by December 22, according to Politico's Jennifer Haberkorn. But if this drags out, we face the real possibility that children are going to start losing their insurance.

The New York Times had a great rundown (and some handy graphics) of the timeline for CHIP the longer it remains unfunded:

  • At the end of January, 16 states that cover 4.9 million children through CHIP run out of funding.
  • At the end of February, 24 states that cover 5.4 million children through CHIP run out of funding.
  • At the end of March, 36 states (plus DC) that cover 7.7 million children through CHIP run out of funding.

Reminder: CHIP covers about 9 million children altogether.

Chart of the Day

 Pew Research Center

Obamacare's improving reputation. It's been one of the great paradoxes of the 2017: In the year when the law's future was most in doubt, the American public has really warmed up to it. Pew found that for the first time, more people think the health care law has improved things in the US.

Kliff’s Notes

With research help from Caitlin Davis

Today's top news

  • “Bipartisan Health Bill Is Losing Support”: “The seemingly imminent repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s insurance requirement, which could happen next week as part of the final passage of Republicans’ broad tax overhaul, has focused attention on Congress’ potential next moves on health care, including a bipartisan plan to shore up the insurance markets.” —Stephanie Armour, Wall Street Journal
  • “White House tamps down expectations of additional opioid funding this year”: “White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on Thursday told reporters she was unsure when Congress would fund new initiatives specific to addressing the opioid crisis. Sanders declined to guarantee that additional spending would be included in either a stopgap spending bill Congress is expected to approve in the coming week or a longer-term budget agreement many expect lawmakers to reach in January.” —Lev Facher, STAT
  • “Centene, Lacking Doctors, Is Forced to Halt Sales in Washington State”: “Centene Corp. halted sales of health insurance plans in Washington State after regulators found the company failed to cover enough doctors and other care providers, threatening to leave some counties with no Obamacare insurance options.” —Zachary Tracer, Bloomberg

Analysis and longer reads

  • “How will the tax bill impact health care? 5 experts weigh in”: “The tax bill could repeal the individual mandate — a centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act — and could also trigger cuts in Medicaid and Medicare funding down the line. We reached out to economists, health care analysts and other experts for answers to key questions on the bill’s impact on health policy.” —Daniel Bush, PBS
  • “Doug Jones Called on Congress to Fund CHIP. Why Hasn’t It?”: “CHIP does not cover the poorest children in America; those young people are generally covered by Medicaid. CHIP covers the children of parents who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but can’t afford other options. And, at this moment, those children are distinctly vulnerable” —Amy Davidson Sorkin, New Yorker
  • “FCC repeals net neutrality rules, potentially affecting telemedicine”: “Whereas all internet traffic previously shared the same 'lane,' it can now be split among different lanes with different speeds. Those differing speeds could hurt telemedicine since it requires a 'pretty robust connection,' said Mei Kwong, interim executive director and policy adviser for the Center for Connected Health Policy.” —Rachel Z. Arndt, Modern Healthcare

Join the conversation

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Judge blocks Trump administration from rolling back birth control mandate
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Whoops.

A federal court has temporarily blocked the Trump administration’s decision to roll back the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate, Pennsylvania’s attorney general announced on Friday.

The decision would stop the new regulations from taking effect nationwide, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

The Trump administration issued regulations rolling back the mandate in October. As Vox explained at the time:

New regulations released Friday significantly broaden the types of companies and organizations that can request an exemption from that rule. This could lead to many American women who currently receive no-cost contraception having to pay out of pocket for their medication.

The new rules take effect immediately. And they allow large, publicly traded companies to seek an exemption from the birth control requirement if they have a religious or moral objection to providing such coverage. The Obama administration barred these large businesses from such exemptions.

But the problem appears to be that the rules took effectively immediately. Some legal experts, like the University of Michigan’s Nicholas Bagley, argued when the regulations were issued that the Trump administration had opened itself up to a legal challenge by skipping the usual public comment period for federal rulemaking.

The ruling from US district court judge Wendy Beetlestone cited the likelihood that opponents of the regulations would prevailed on issues relating to the Administrative Procedure Act — which sets guidelines for issuing federal regulations — in ordering the injunction to block the changes.

The Trump administration is blocked under the order from loosening the exemptions from the mandate until the full case is heard.

Republicans are on tilt with their super-unpopular tax bill
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

GOP lawmakers know the midterm landscape looks bad, but are moving forward anyway.

At this point, nobody seems to deny that Republicans are facing a big political problem in 2018.

If you know these journalists' track records, you'll know these aren't armchair analysts saying that, objectively speaking, the midterm landscape looks bad for the GOP.

It's true that, objectively speaking, the midterm landscape looks bad for the GOP. But what Coppins and Martin and Alberta and Burns and Bade are telling us is that Republicans on the Hill are aware that the midterm landscape looks bad for the GOP.

Yet amazingly, the very same Republicans who are worried that they have become unpopular and are set to lose the election due to their unpopularity are currently putting all their energy behind passing an unpopular tax bill.

And this unpopularity, it should be noted, is no kind of surprise. Back in September, Pew found that by a 52-24 margin, voters favored higher corporate taxes, not lower. And by a 43-24 margin, voters favored higher taxes on the rich, not lower.

Now I get that Republicans believe in lowering the corporate tax rate and cutting the estate tax on the merits. And to an extent, I congratulate them on their willingness to follow their convictions rather than the polls.

But it would have been totally possible to write a bill that featured revenue-neutral corporate tax reform, an estate tax cut, and a meaningful tax cut for the middle class. Such a bill would have moved the ball forward on some key conservative objectives, while also hewing to the broad contours of public opinion. Some red-state Democrats might even have voted for it.

Instead, they served up a giant corporate tax cut, plus an estate tax cut, plus some other tax cuts for rich people, and a middle-class tax cut that is both small and merely temporary.

In the long-term, they are raising taxes on the middle class and then waving that away by saying it's such a toxically unpopular idea that obviously future Congresses won't let it come into effect.

But maybe ... don't deliberately write toxically unpopular provisions into your unpopular corporate tax cut when you're also generally worried about your party's overall unpopularity?

Yet somehow it goes on! The FCC's reversal on net neutrality is somewhere between mildly unpopular and hideously unpopular. Fifty-five percent of voters told CNN we shouldn't reduce legal immigration, but Trump is gearing up for a big push to reduce legal immigration.

Extending legal status to DACA recipients is hugely popular, but Republicans are lining up against it. Seventy-two percent of the public thinks Trump has done something illegal or unethical with Russia, but congressional Republicans are tying themselves tighter than ever to him on this issue with increasingly unhinged attacks on Robert Mueller.

How is this supposed to work?

In poker, there's a concept of going "on tilt" in which you respond to a bad beat or other frustration by becoming irrational and overly aggressive in your play rather than letting bygones be bygones and simply trying to regroup.

My sense is something similar happened to Republicans after the health care loss. And Doug Jones winning is only making it worse.

This is an abbreviated web version of The Weeds newsletter, a limited-run policy newsletter from Vox’s Matt Yglesias. Sign up to get the full Weeds newsletter in your inbox, plus more charts, tweets, and email-only content.

Saying goodbye to AIM, the instant messenger that changed how we communicate
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Before the dawn of social media, AIM was the chat client for a generation. After 20 years, it’s shutting down.

After 20 years, the time has come to say a final goodbye to AOL Instant Messenger. The famed chat client more commonly known as AIM is one of the internet’s longest-lasting cultural touchstones, and one of the few pieces of software that arguably changed how people interact with each other.

AOL announced in October that the beloved program would be shutting down for good on December 15 — and broke the news on a Tumblr called AIM Memories, a strong indicator of how firmly relegated to nostalgia AOL Instant Messenger had already become.

 AIM

But that doesn’t negate its cultural influence, or its influence over the many messaging apps that have emerged in its wake. AIM was the chat client for a generation, one that left an indelible mark on the way we talk to each other online.

AIM entered an entire generation’s lives as part of the internet’s great cultural osmosis

AOL Instant Messenger was born in 1997. It wasn’t the web’s first instant-messaging client — a different one called IRC preceded it by nearly a decade. But it was the instant-messaging client that most widely proliferated at a moment when the internet was just starting to become a real part of people’s daily lives.

AOL was the first major internet service provider that many Americans experienced back in the mid-’90s, and most of its products were available for AOL users only. But in a stroke of genius, which the company’s owners initially hated, AOL developers chose to make their first chat client, AIM, free to download for non-AOL users as well. This move meant that AOL had a much deeper reach into our homes than any would-be competitors.

 Solid Signal

AIM’s design, with its bright colors and square shapes, would become indelibly associated with nostalgia for ‘90s internet culture. Its logo, a little yellow running man who greeted you by eagerly racing to sign in, is now iconic. It was designed by JoRoan Lazaro, who told the Atlantic in 2014 that he had been inspired by the round, well-defined shape-figures of post-war logos and trademarks.

 flashback-to-the-90s/Tumblr

AIM offered us that first crucial taste of the interactive world we now occupy and take for granted. It was part of a cultural moment where its level of virtual interactivity was still new and exciting: when making friends on the internet was still a scary and exhilarating experience; when chatting with a crush for hours online was often easier than talking to them at school the next day; when that familiar sound of a door opening as a friend arrived online could perk your interest, and that familiar “new message” Ping! could trigger real emotions; when a carefully chosen username or a carefully chosen quote, in a carefully selected font, set to serve as your “Away message” could say more about your personality than anything else.

 cookiesandsangria/Wordpress

And oh, the tricky politics that came with an away message, and all the subtle intricacies of online social etiquette, which we were all collectively figuring out, usually via AIM. Back in the days before blocking and muting someone on social media were common, before passive-aggressive subtweeting was somewhat routine, friendships could be tossed into upheaval over the mere act of “warning” someone. (Remember the warn button? It allowed you to essentially “buzz” someone — see the lightning bolt icon in the image below — to tell them they’d gone a step too far. If a person was “warned” enough times, they had to take the equivalent of what we now think of as an enforced timeout before they could sign in again.)

Then there were the perils of going invisible: making yourself look as though you were offline when you really weren’t. It was a great way to avoid a friend you didn’t feel like talking to, unless they somehow managed to find out you were ghosting them in the era before “ghosting” existed.

For many of us, AIM was the platform through which we learned much of the early internet speak that’s common parlance today; that phrases like “brb,” “lol,” and “rotflmao” somehow became integral parts of how we communicate to one another on the internet still two decades later is a mark of how homogenous the AIM experience was for the millions of people who used it.

At its peak in the early 2000s, AIM was the most commonly used chat client in North America. And even in the twilight of 2006, as the dawn of modern social media was beginning to encroach upon the quaint instant messaging service as a ubiquitous form of communication, it still had 53 million active users, dwarfing its closest competitors, MSN, Yahoo, and Google Talk.

AIM presaged the way we talk to each other today

While AIM thrived, the legacy of its creator, AOL, is one of a storied rise and fall, from once-mighty internet service provider to floundering tech giant to piecemeal communications company to, finally, Oath, the result of an odd-bedfellow wedding to its former nemesis Yahoo as part of a complicated merger carried out by Verizon.

AIM might have continued to flourish, was it not so deeply tied to its failing parent. But it was also a victim, in the early aughts, of the rise of “web 2.0” and the subsequent age of social media, and the emergence of a fully mobile internet that made it tough for the old guards of AIM, MSN, and Yahoo to compete with up-and-coming young whippersnappers like Snapchat, Twitter, or WhatsApp.

Third-party chat clients like Trillian and Adium arrived relatively late in the game, launching in 2000 and 2001, respectively. Both attempted to give users a way to bring all of their that clients into one application. But by the time such clients had gained saturation among online chatters a few years later, texting and social media had taken over, and the way we thought of “chat” was changing: Instead of seeing an instant messaging client as a destination, or online conversations as a unique, isolated behavior, we began to experience organic digital interaction as a larger part of our daily lives. As of 2011, AIM’s market share had dropped to an incredible low of under 1 percent.

Still, AIM’s enduring influence cannot be denied. So many of the features it revolutionized are now commonplace: The “Buddy List,” a then brand-new way of displaying all your contacts in a sidebar and showing when they’re online and offline, is now a ubiquitous part of most of today’s communication-based software, from Slack to Skype. Twitter recently instigated a warning and timeout system similar to the one AIM pioneered. The ability to block a user, customize your online or offline status, be notified when someone messages you even if you’re away from the app — these are all things we take for granted as a routine part of the messaging, texting, or social media experience.

Alice Chuang, a product designer at Facebook Messenger, told Vox in an email that AIM profoundly influenced both the world of messaging design and her as an individual designer: “For many of us who came of age in the 2000s, AIM transitioned us into the world of digital communication,” she explained. Chuang continued:

The chat window was texting before the smartphone was ubiquitous; mercurial Away Messages represented our identities before social media arrived. AIM paved the way for real time communication as we know it today, and was undoubtedly instrumental in my decision to work at Messenger to further connect our world and enrich the way we communicate with the people and businesses we love.

AIM is the last of the original chat gang to die. MSN called it quits in 2014. Yahoo Messenger bit the bullet in 2015. And while IRC, the original server-based chat-client, is still going strong, it functions much differently than other forerunning social apps; its echoes are largely found in multi-faceted group chat programs like Slack, while AIM’s heirs are an endless stream of social messaging systems — WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, Kik, and many more.

In essence, AIM was a tiny but fundamental, hugely influential piece of nostalgic internet software that helped shape the internet as we know it today. Who could have predicted, when that little yellow running man zoomed onto our screens two decades ago, how far he’d travel by the end?

Marco Rubio got a last-minute tax deal — but the poorest Americans got left out
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

The final big Republican tax deal, explained.

The last hitch for the Republican tax overhaul has been the child tax credit. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) threatened to withhold his vote over it, which could — could — have been a problem for passing the bill, given the narrow GOP majority in the Senate.

Republican leaders are making some last-minute changes to win him over. It looks like they’re going to give him something — and Rubio is now expected to vote for the final bill.

What the senator seems to have gotten isn’t what he had once wanted — and, while it would provide help to people with lower incomes, it would not really help the poorest Americans.

But it is enough for Rubio to back the bill. He was, in his defense, contending with a Republican conference that was reluctant to give him anything at all on this issue.

The Florida senator has wanted to change the bill so that the tax credit benefits more low-income Americans. Senate Republicans are already expanding the tax credit in their bill, but in such a way that middle-class and higher-income families will see the full benefit, while people who make less money will see a smaller increase. (Read this breakdown from Vox’s Dylan Matthews to get the full story.)

The whole debate can seem a little abstract. The calculation for the child tax credit is very complex. Two different issues are under discussion.

Let’s look at it three ways: what the bill did, what it does now, and what it could have done.

What the original Senate tax bill did

The Senate bill did expand the child tax credit, from $1,000 to $2,000, but did little to change the calculation so that the poorest families could receive a bigger benefit. It also placed a cap on how much of a refund people receiving the child tax credit could get, at $1,100 per child.

So under the Senate-passed version of the tax bill, people with lower incomes would see only a partial benefit under the new tax credit, while families with higher incomes could receive the full credit.

Some examples: A single mom with two kids making $14,500 a year would see a $75 bump in her child tax credit under the original Senate bill, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. A married couple with two kids making $24,000 would see a $200 increase in their tax refund.

What the final tax bill will reportedly do

There are two issues around the child tax credit in play here:

  • How much of a person’s earnings are used to calculate their tax credit and refund. Under current law, the first $3,000 of a person’s income is excluded, which limits the benefits for the poorest people. The Senate bill would have lowered that threshold to $2,500, a change but a very modest one.
  • How big of a refund lower-income people are allowed to claim through the child tax credit. The Senate bill would have capped refunds at $1,100 per child.

Rubio has proposed changing both of these provisions, by lowering the earnings threshold so that the poorest people get a bigger tax refund and increasing the size of the refund they’re allowed to claim.

But according to multiple reports, Republicans appear to be only addressing the second issue. They will increase the cap on the refund from $1,100 to $1,400. But it does not look like they will touch the earnings threshold.

The result is that the poorest Americans would still be left at a major disadvantage. That’s not to say the change wouldn’t help anybody — a family of four making $24,000 is going to get a bigger tax refund. But the single mom making $14,500 won’t receive any boost in her savings.

Here are the numbers under the final reported bill, based on CBPP’s math: The married couple with two children making $24,000 would receive an $800 boost from current law. But the single mom with two kids making $14,500 would still get only $75 more.

What Rubio was pushing to get in the tax bill

Rubio and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) have also wanted to reduce the earnings threshold, taking it all the way down to $0. But unless the public reports about the final bill are incomplete, they aren’t going to get it.

This is the change that would have yielded bigger benefits for the poorest people. Under the Rubio-Lee proposal, our single mom would see a $494 bump in her child tax credit instead of only $75, according to CBPP. That’s a meaningful increase for a person who is making less than $15,000 a year.

If this is confusing, this chart should make it clear. The blue bar is the original Senate bill. The orange bar is the reported final tax deal between the House and Senate. The yellow bar is what could have been if the refund cap were increased and the earnings threshold were lowered to $0.

 Ernie Tedeschi

As you can see, making both changes would have provided far more benefit for poorer people. The final deal would improve things for some people, particularly those making $20,000 to $40,000 a year, but not nearly as much as could have been and with almost no benefit to the poorest Americans.

This is all in the context of a bill that cuts corporate taxes by $1 trillion, rolls back the estate tax on wealthy inheritances, and is expected to cut the top individual tax rate for people making $1 million or more.

The past year of research has made it very clear: Trump won because of racial resentment
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Another study produces the same findings we’ve seen over and over again.

More than a year after President Donald Trump won the election, there are still some questions about what drove him to victory: Was it genuine anxiety about the state of the economy? Or was it racism and racial resentment?

Over at the Washington Post, researchers Matthew Fowler, Vladimir Medenica, and Cathy Cohen have published the results of a new survey on these questions, with a focus on the 41 percent of white millennials who voted for Trump and the sense of “white vulnerability” that motivated them. The conclusion is very clear:

Contrary to what some have suggested, white millennial Trump voters were not in more economically precarious situations than non-Trump voters. Fully 86 percent of them reported being employed, a rate similar to non-Trump voters; and they were 14 percent less likely to be low income than white voters who did not support Trump. Employment and income were not significantly related to that sense of white vulnerability.

So what was? Racial resentment.

Even when controlling for partisanship, ideology, region and a host of other factors, white millennials fit Michael Tesler’s analysis, explored here. As he put it, economic anxiety isn’t driving racial resentment; rather, racial resentment is driving economic anxiety. We found, as he has in a larger population, that racial resentment is the biggest predictor of white vulnerability among white millennials. Economic variables like education, income and employment made a negligible difference.

The survey looked at millennials because they will be the largest share of the voting-eligible population in 2018, so they’re an important bellwether for future trends. (At the same time, most millennials backed Hillary Clinton in 2016, not Trump.)

To anyone who’s been following the research on this, the findings should come as little surprise. There have now been numerous studies that found support for Trump is closely linked to racial resentment, defined by Fowler, Medenica, and Cohen as “a moral feeling that blacks violate such traditional American values as individualism and self-reliance.”

This is crucial to understanding both Trump’s rise and how to overcome Trump. As a presidential candidate, Trump made all sorts of racist comments — suggesting that Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists, proposing a ban on all Muslims entering the US, saying a US judge should recuse himself from a case simply because of his Mexican heritage, and deploying dog whistles about “law and order.”

As president, Trump equated a group of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and white nationalists who descended onto Charlottesville, Virginia, with the anti-racism protesters who stood against bigotry. His administration has also pursued policies that will disproportionately hurt minority groups, including his travel ban, immigration restrictions, “tough on crime” policies, and potential voting restrictions.

The studies suggest that these kinds of comments and actions are not just incidental to Trump; they are at the core of his political success. If Democrats want to defeat him, they will need to overcome that racial resentment.

The latest findings are backed by many other studies

This is not a one-off finding. At this point, the evidence that Trump’s rise was driven by racism and racial resentment is fairly stacked.

One paper, published in January by political scientists Brian Schaffner, Matthew MacWilliams, and Tatishe Nteta, found that voters’ measures of sexism and racism correlated much more closely with support for Trump than economic dissatisfaction after controlling for factors like partisanship and political ideology.

 Brian Schaffner, Matthew MacWilliams, and Tatishe Nteta

Another study, conducted by researchers Brenda Major, Alison Blodorn, and Gregory Major Blascovich shortly before the election, found that if people who strongly identified as white were told that nonwhite groups will outnumber white people in 2042, they became more likely to support Trump.

And a study, published in November by researchers Matthew Luttig, Christopher Federico, and Howard Lavine, found that Trump supporters were much more likely to change their views on housing policy based on race. In this study, respondents were randomly assigned “a subtle image of either a black or a white man.” Then, they were asked about views on housing policy.

The researchers found that Trump supporters were much more likely to be impacted by the image of a black man. After the exposure, they were not only less supportive of housing assistance programs, but they also expressed higher levels of anger that some people receive government assistance and were more likely to say that individuals who receive assistance are to blame for their situation.

In contrast, favorability toward Hillary Clinton did not significantly change respondents’ views on any of these issues when primed with racial cues.

“These findings indicate that responses to the racial cue varied as a function of feelings about Donald Trump — but not feelings about Hillary Clinton — during the 2016 presidential election,” the researchers concluded.

There is also a lot of other research showing that people’s racial attitudes can change their views on politics and policy, as my colleague Dylan Matthews as well as researchers Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel previously explained for Vox.

Simply put, racial attitudes were a big driver behind Trump’s election — just as they long have been for general beliefs about politics and policy.

To confront Trump, opponents will need to confront racism

At some point, you might start to wonder why journalists keep writing about the link between Trump’s support and bigoted beliefs. The election is over. Do we really need to analyze what happened over and over again?

The point, at least for me, is not to demonize Trump voters. The point is to understand them in order to better grasp what motivated them to vote for someone who ran a clearly bigoted campaign and who most voters agreed is unqualified for the nation’s highest office.

As Schaffner, MacWilliams, and Nteta wrote in their paper, there’s growing evidence that 2016 was unique — in that racism and sexism played a more powerful role than in recent presidential elections. “Specifically, we find no statistically significant relationship between either the racism or sexism scales and favorability ratings of either [previous Republican candidates] John McCain or Mitt Romney,” they wrote. “However, the pattern is quite strong for favorability ratings of Donald Trump.”

The concern, then, is that this is the beginning of a modern trend in which politicians like Trump directly and explicitly play to people’s prejudices to win elections — and it works. This is in many ways an outgrowth of the Southern Strategy and tactics that play into people’s racism, like dog whistles — only it’s more explicit in its bigotry.

If that’s really what’s happening, it’s important for anyone interested in limiting the power of bigotry in US politics to know and demonstrate what’s going on. Studies like this put a bigger imperative on getting to the root of the problem and figuring out ways to reduce people’s racial biases.

To this end, the research also shows it’s possible to reach out to Trump voters — even those who are racist today — in an empathetic way without condoning their prejudice. The evidence suggests, in fact, that the best way to weaken people’s racial or other biases is through frank, empathetic dialogue. (Much more on that in my in-depth piece on the research.) Given that, the strongest approach to really combating racism and racial resentment may be empathy.

One study, for example, found that canvassing people’s homes and having a 10-minute, nonconfrontational conversation about transgender rights — in which people’s lived experiences were relayed so they could understand how prejudice feels personally — managed to reduce voters’ anti-trans attitudes for at least three months. Perhaps a similar model could be adapted to reach out to people with racist, sexist, or other deplorable views, although this possibility needs more study.

But all of this involves a lot of legwork, outreach, and a kind of empathy that people may not be comfortable with in an era of highly polarized politics. Knowing what caused Trump’s win is crucial to gauging whether all of this work and effort is worth doing — and the growing body of evidence suggests that it truly is.

The diversity visa Donald Trump hates, explained
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

The diversity visa is the only chance much of the world has to try to immigrate to the US. Trump wants to ditch it.

Less than 24 hours after eight people were killed and 11 injured when a truck plowed through a bike lane in Manhattan, President Donald Trump shifted from making anodyne comments about “thoughts and prayers” to proposing a policy fix: eliminating the federal government’s little-known diversity visa program.

In an early morning tweetstorm Wednesday, Trump said the sole suspect in the attack, 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov, “came into our country through what is called the ‘Diversity Visa Lottery Program,’ a Chuck Schumer beauty.” The Department of Homeland Security confirmed Wednesday afternoon that Saipov had come into the US in 2010 as part of the program, which awards green cards to 50,000 people each year from countries that don’t send many other immigrants to the US.

Trump was wrong to blame Schumer for the program’s existence, and it goes without saying that it’s impossible to prevent terrorist attacks caused by people who have already immigrated to the US by preventing new people from coming in. Still, the New York attack gives the Trump administration an opportunity to eliminate the program, which it derides as antithetical to its goal of “merit-based” immigration — selecting immigrants based on what they can do for the economy of the United States.

Because the diversity visa isn’t well understood — and because, by definition, a program to help people from countries that don’t send a lot of immigrants to the US doesn’t have a political constituency among American voters — it’s more vulnerable to political attacks than most other forms of legal immigration.

Ironically, though, it’s also the last remaining vestige of the immigration system under which a lot of white Americans’ ancestors came to the US — a system in which immigration restrictions were based on the individuals trying to come, not what skills they’d bring with them.

The diversity visa is the only chance much of the world has to try to immigrate to the US

Most people around the world have no way of immigrating to the US. They don’t have close family members who are US citizens (or immediate family members who are green card holders). They don’t have the money or skills required to get a (rare) employment-based green card. They’re not trapped in the sort of humanitarian crisis that could allow them to try to apply to come as refugees. And they don’t have a current job offer from a US employer that would allow them to get a temporary work visa (which might someday become a green card, if the immigrant is lucky and his employer is generous).

That means millions of people have only one way to immigrate to the US. As long as they have the equivalent of a high school diploma (or experience in a skilled profession), they could be eligible to apply for a slot in the “diversity visa lottery.”

A significant number of people apply to enter the lottery every year. In FY 2015, for example, more than 9 million people applied for the lottery program. But only a fraction of that number will actually receive a green card; the US sets aside just 50,000 slots each year for people to come to the US through the lottery. If a lottery entrant is picked, he (and his family, if they’re immigrating with him) has to go through all the regular steps that it takes to come to the US: a background check, an interview at a consulate, a biometrics exam. If they make it through the process in time, they get to come to the US as legal permanent residents — green card holders — with the possibility of naturalizing as US citizens in as little as five years.

But there’s a catch. You’re not allowed to enter the diversity visa lottery if you come from a country that’s sent more than 50,000 people to the US in the past five years. And the formula for how many lottery slots are available for each country depends partly on the population of its region of the world, and partly on how few immigrants each country has sent to the US recently — with the countries that send the fewest immigrants favored more.

In 2012, for instance, Nigeria had the largest number of lottery winners, at 6,024, compared to just 100 from Argentina. A disproportionately large number of people from Uzbekistan, Saipov’s birthplace, have also been able to get diversity visas. In 2012, 4,800 Uzbeks were lottery winners, putting the country in fourth place out of nearly 200 eligible nations. In 2016, the country had 2,378 entrants fully complete the process and receive green cards, putting it in fifth place out of roughly 100 eligible nations. Other highly successful countries that year included Nepal, Egypt, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

So while in theory the diversity visa is open to most of the world, in practice it tends to favor Africa, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe — regions where there are plenty of people with some level of education but no US ties.

That wasn’t always the case.

Trump wants to eliminate a visa that once brought more Irish and Italians to the US

The diversity visa hasn’t been around long; its current form was set by the Immigration Act of 1990. Which makes it even more remarkable that since its inception, there’s been a transformative shift in who actually comes to the US under the program.

 Congressional Research Service, 2011

Despite the connotations of the word “diversity,” the visa lottery originally catered to European immigrants — and, in particular, those from Western Europe. That was, in fact, the entire point.

As professor Anna O. Law and historian Carly Goodman have written, the diversity visa lottery became a politically popular idea in the late 1980s because of a weird mismatch between who had political power in the US and who was immigrating there.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 — which is still the template for the broader US system — said that immigrants should be selected based on work qualifications or family ties rather than national origins, clearing the way for large numbers of Asians (and modest numbers of Africans) to make their way to the US for the first time in decades.

But getting rid of national quotas made it harder for Europeans to immigrate to the US if they didn’t already have job offers. Ethnic groups that had been in the US for a long time (like Irish and Italian Americans) didn’t necessarily have a lot of close relatives in their home countries whom they could bring as family-based immigrants, but they still had ethnic pride — and political power.

As Goodman wrote for the Washington Post in July:

Undocumented Irish immigrants and Irish Americans, through groups like the Irish Immigration Reform Movement, lobbied Congress to “legalize the Irish” already in the U.S. and to make sure future visas would be reserved for the Irish. Policymakers were moved by their plight, not least because the image of the Irish immigrant contrasted starkly with who they imagined were “illegal aliens.”

But the Irish and their allies in Congress needed to deflect criticism that they were proposing a special gift just for the Irish. They framed the program as an issue of diversity, borrowing the word from a 1981 report by the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy that identified cultural diversity as an important goal.

In other words, the “diversity visa lottery” was originally intended to bring about the opposite of diversity — it was intended to keep bringing in people from more established immigrant groups. Law calls it “pork-barrel legislation”; Goodman points out that “the visa program, in creating space for more Irish and European immigrants, aimed to diversify immigration by making it whiter.”

But once the program had been put in place, no one was able to control exactly how it evolved. After the early 1990s, fewer Western Europeans found themselves in need of a “diversity” lifeline (as the economy in Western Europe improved), while more Africans and Asians started to meet the educational requirements and apply.

After 1990, Congress shifted away from making small tweaks to the immigration system. Instead, when momentum built to change legal immigration — in the mid-2000s and the early 2010s — legislators focused on “comprehensive” reforms that ultimately fell apart. That turned out to be the saving grace for the diversity visa — which otherwise was in a vulnerable position.

Some African-American and Caribbean-American legislators have defended the diversity visa as a boon to African immigrants, but it’s not their biggest priority. As the diversity visa lottery has actually become about diversity, it’s lost its natural political defenders.

That means that when the government royally messes up the visa lottery — as it did in 2011 (when it told tens of thousands of people that they had been selected, only to later void the results after a discovering that a computer glitch had failed to randomize the winners), and last month, when it lost an untold number of lottery submissions — there isn’t a big push to find out what went wrong, fix it, and fund the program well enough that it won’t happen again.

And because the diversity visa is a political orphan, it’s an appealing target for people who want to either shift legal immigration flows or reduce legal immigration across the board.

People, in other words, like Donald Trump.

The diversity visa lottery seems like an insult to “merit-based” immigration

By blaming the New York attack on the diversity visa (and those who supported it), Trump is teeing up a line of attack that critics of the program have floated occasionally over the past several years: that the program is uniquely vulnerable to fraud and abuse, which (among other things) could let terrorists enter the US.

Nothing in the way diversity visas are allocated makes the program uniquely vulnerable to use by would-be terrorists: People still have to go through all the typical “vetting” to immigrate to the US, and diversity visas can still be denied if State Department officials worry that someone might pose a national security threat.

The program has had problems with fraud more broadly — both by individuals seeking visas and especially by unscrupulous businesspeople trying to make a profit off uninformed immigrant applicants — but the federal government has worked to tamp those down. In particular, the State Department says that improvements in technology over the past decade — especially electronic registration for the lottery — have made it easier to prove that applicants are who they say they are.

At the end of the day, though, there’s nothing that makes the diversity visa any easier for a terrorist (or anyone else) to exploit than other visas. The reason the diversity visa is an appealing target for Trump and his backers in Congress is that it doesn’t have a ready political constituency to defend it — which is to say, the diversity visa isn’t designed to benefit anyone or anything currently in the United States.

In recent years, most Republicans (and many Democrats) have called on the US to shift away from its 20th-century legal immigration model, in which immigrants can come to the US by several different routes, toward a unified system of “merit-based” immigration.

Their ideas of “merit” may vary: A particularly extreme version of such a proposal — the RAISE Act, introduced by Sen. Tom Cotton and endorsed by Trump — would award extra merit points to immigrants who had master’s or doctorate degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, but an immigrant with a PhD in a non-STEM field would get the same number of points as an immigrant with only a bachelor’s degree. But the idea is fundamentally the same: An immigrant’s merit is assessed mainly in terms of his or her potential contributions to the US economy.

“Merit-based immigration” proposals’ real target is family-based immigration, which accounts for the majority of permanent immigration into the US, and which doesn’t require immigrants to have any particular level of education whatsoever.

The diversity visa is much less substantial — it accounts for only 4 percent of the green cards issued in any given year. And diversity visa recipients are actually more professionally successful than the average immigrant: In 2009, according to a 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service, 24 percent of green card holders who’d come on diversity visas were employed in professional or managerial jobs (compared to 10 percent of all green card holders) and only 3 percent were unemployed (while the unemployment rate among all green card holders was 8 percent).

But family-based immigration has champions: the US citizens who are the ones bringing over their family members, and their communities. The diversity visa does not. And so it’s been one of the things that Democrats have been willing to give up as part of comprehensive immigration overhauls — while Republicans seek to eliminate it immediately.

This is what makes Trump’s blaming of Schumer for the attack particularly off-base, in addition to being unseemly. As Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) noted on Twitter Wednesday, Schumer, then part of a bipartisan group of immigration-reform minded senators known as the “Gang of Eight,” actually proposed ending the diversity visa program in 2013 as the senators attempted to push a comprehensive immigration reform measure through Congress.

The Trump administration’s racial politics could galvanize support for the diversity visa

But if Trump and his White House are assuming that Democrats, who were willing to eliminate the diversity visa in the past, are going to play ball again, they could be very wrong.

For one thing, Democrats aren’t generally willing to compromise on immigration unless they can get something big (like legalization of unauthorized immigrants) in return. And they certainly aren’t willing to compromise with Donald Trump — even things that have been easy bipartisan deals in the past, like more funding for border security, have been polarized under this president.

Trump’s attack on Schumer was instructive. For one thing, the Trump administration is unlikely to inspire bipartisan cooperation in ending the diversity visa program by blaming Schumer for a terrorist attack in his own state. But arguably more importantly, the contrast between Trump’s response to the New York attack and his response to the mass shooting in Las Vegas last month seemed to confirm Democrats’ suspicions that the president lets white perpetrators of violence off too easily.

And because Trump’s brand of racial grievance is so overt, he has inadvertently given diversity a political constituency — one that can then be mobilized in support of the visa the president blames for the New York attack.

“I have always believed, and continue to believe, that immigration is good for America,” Schumer wrote in a statement in response to Trump — before trying to change the subject to Trump’s proposed budget cuts to some counterterrorism grants.

It was hardly a full-throated defense of the diversity visa. But it was an indication that if Trump continues to use the New York attack to push for his preexisting immigration agenda, Democrats will continue to use immigration as another way to prove they’re resisting Donald Trump.

Donald Trump just compared legal immigrants on diversity visas to trash
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Trump’s always distrusted legal immigrants — and he’s trying to turn America against them, too.

Donald Trump thinks immigrants are trash, metaphorically speaking.

Not just unauthorized immigrants. Legal immigrants — specifically, those who come to the US on “diversity visas,” after being selected in a lottery for residents of countries that are underrepresented in the US immigration system as a whole.

It’s not surprising that Trump is wrong on the facts — people selected in the visa lottery go through exactly as much screening as any other would-be immigrant to the United States, and the governments of their countries are not deliberately “picking” them to immigrate.

The fact that he spent part of a speech to graduates of the FBI Academy denigrating people who have followed US law is, for better or worse, only slightly more so. Trump’s speeches to law enforcement are often his most unguarded and rip-roaring. They’re the speeches in his official capacity that feel closest to the speeches he delivers at rallies — as if he sees law enforcement officers as part of his base, as close to him as his staunchest supporters.

That frees him to return to his favorite theme, the one he returns to whenever things are looking bad for his administration or agenda: that immigrants are not to be trusted.

Not just unauthorized immigrants. Immigrants, period.

Trump distinguished himself by not distinguishing among immigrants

Donald Trump likes to say that no one was talking about immigration until he entered the presidential race in 2015. That’s not at all true — Trump’s insistence on more enforcement to crack down on unauthorized immigration was shared by most of his rivals for the Republican nomination.

Trump used immigration to win the loyalty of a swath of the Republican base — the people he has been playing to, in one form or another, ever since. But he did that by rejecting what had become the traditional Republican way to talk about immigration: welcoming legal immigrants with one hand, while disparaging unauthorized immigration with the other.

Republicans, I wrote at the time, had “found messages that were acceptable to their conservative base, but struggled to find messages that excite them. Trump has succeeded where they’ve failed: He's found a message that gets to the core of why so many conservatives are ambivalent or hostile toward immigrants.”

Part of Trump’s innovation was that, unlike his Republican colleagues, he didn’t champion legal immigration — and, in fact, he was perfectly happy to cast suspicions on legal immigrants.

Sure, Trump would occasionally throw a line into speeches about how “we love legal immigrants,” or promise to put a big beautiful door in his big beautiful wall. But when it came down to specifics, it turned out Trump had very little to say in the way of praise for any group of legal immigrants — and something disparaging to say about pretty much all of them.

Refugees and asylum-seekers were a potential invading force, a “Trojan horse” who were taking government resources away from helping Americans. Immigrant families were refusing to assimilate. People on work visas — even the “high-skilled” immigrants other Republicans praised — were taking jobs from Americans thanks to the rapacity of tech billionaires.

In fact, the only group of immigrants that Trump has praised most consistently has been a group of unauthorized immigrants — the “DREAMers,” or unauthorized immigrants who grew up in the United States, who the president has called “terrific people” and promised to treat with “heart” even while winding down the program that allowed them to stay and work in the US without fear of deportation.

The Trump administration has targeted legal immigration in pretty much every respect

Trump’s hostility toward legal immigration showed up in his policies. His immigration platform — the first policy his campaign released, in 2015 — called for reductions in legal immigration, particularly of refugees and guest workers. In the first week of his administration, he signed an executive order temporarily banning legal immigration from several majority-Muslim countries and putting a moratorium on all legal admissions of refugees; while the country-specific ban went through several iterations before being allowed to go into effect in November, Trump has succeeded in radically restricting the number of refugees admitted to the United States.

Other executive orders that would crack down on legal immigrants — by admitting fewer guest workers, and making it easier to deport legal immigrants for using social services — haven’t yet been signed, though the administration appears to be looking for ways to accomplish the same things through regulation.

And while Trump has pushed for deals to be made in Congress on Obamacare repeal and tax reform, the piece of legislation that he’s worked hardest to push is the RAISE Act — a bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), and reportedly co-drafted by Trump policy adviser Stephen Miller, that would slash legal immigration in certain categories without expanding it anywhere else.

That’s an unpopular position even within the Republican Party, where many politicians support expanding “high-skilled” immigration or allowing more “low-skilled” guest workers for industries in their home states.

Trump himself is hardly a policy maven, and it’s pretty clear that Miller and company are driving the policy agenda. But Trump’s own instincts and worldview lead him time and time again to bashing immigrants. After a terrorist attack in November, Trump immediately blamed the diversity visa; after an attempted attack in New York on Monday, he blamed “chain migration.” In both cases, the perpetrators of the attack were legal immigrants. But Trump used the attacks to complain that immigration itself was a national security threat — a message he simply generalized on Friday, with his comments about the “worst of the worst.”

The Trump administration knows that it’s more anti-immigrant than the average American — so they’re working to change America’s mind

Messages like this are guaranteed to resonate with Trump’s base. Many of them are likely among the 12 percent or so of Americans who are opposed to all immigration, legal and unauthorized. (Former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon is almost certainly in this category — after all, he looks at immigrant tech entrepreneurs and CEOs and sees people who are insufficiently loyal to America.)

Others are probably in the large swath of Americans whose primary concern about immigration is about preserving “American” culture as they see it. Their judgment of whether immigrants should be allowed to stay in the US is based less on those immigrants’ legal status than on other factors like their education, fluency in English, and ethnicity; they’re less concerned about immigrants taking jobs than about immigrants disrespecting the flag.

Attacks on the “diversity visa” and “chain migration” hit these Americans’ concerns squarely: They evoke the idea that immigration is a form of social engineering, perpetrated by elites to transform America into something fundamentally different and alien.

But here’s the problem with evaluating immigrants based on assimilability: When people actually meet immigrants who have integrated into their communities, they’re likely to see them as “good immigrants” who should be allowed to come to and stay in the US.

Trump voters have been shocked when long-resident unauthorized immigrants in their communities have been arrested and deported. They’re not any more likely to support policies that would make it harder for their neighbors to stay in the United States, or bring their family members here. (Indeed, for many people — and in US law — having “family ties” in the US is a sign of intent to stay here.)

The Trump administration knows that it’s fighting an uphill battle when it comes to legal immigration, or at least “chain” (family-based) migration. According to the AP, it’s working on a public-relations campaign to turn public opinion against “chain migration,” to help the administration push bills like the RAISE Act on Congress.

Usually, when a president is out of step with the public on an issue, his administration either tries to downplay the discrepancy or pushes the president to change his position. The Trump administration is more interested in pushing the public to align with the president. That’s a sign of their — and his — deep ideological commitment to the idea that immigration itself is the problem.

Russell Simmons starts a #NotMe hashtag to deny multiple accusations of rape and assault
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Eleven women have come forward with accusation against Simmons.

Music mogul Russell Simmons says that people should believe him instead of the 11 women who have accused him of rape, assault, and sexual harassment. Simmons pleaded his innocence in a December 14 Instagram post, which he branded with the hashtag #NotMe, and promised to “prove without any doubt that I am innocent of all rape charges.”

Simmons’s post comes in the wake of two recent reports, published by the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times on December 13, in which nine different women made allegations against Simmons. Three of those women told the New York Times that Simmons raped them.

The two reports follow an open letter penned by screenwriter Jenny Lumet in the Hollywood Reporter, in which she recounts a 1991 encounter with Simmons where she says refused to take her to her apartment after offering her a ride home, and ultimately forced himself on her.

Lumet’s letter followed a Los Angeles Times report published in November, in which Keri Claussen Khalighi said that Simmons sexually assaulted her in 1991, when she was 17 and working as a model.

In his Instagram post, Simmons mentioned both Lumet and Claussen Khalighi by name, declaring, “Today, I will focus on ‘The Original Sin’ (Keri Claussen), the claim that created this insane pile on of my #MeToo. Stay tuned! We’ll share information today... And tomorrow the case of Jenny Lumet.”

Simmons went on to insist, “My intention is not to diminish the #MeToo movement in anyway, but instead hold my accusers accountable. #NotMe”

Simmons stepped down from his various companies in November after the allegations against him were made public.

Trump appears delighted that Putin has “very nice things” to say about him
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Putin’s praise for Trump’s management of the US economy hasn’t gone unnoticed.

President Donald Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call on Thursday to discuss the crisis in North Korea — and thanked the Russian strongman for his effusive praise of Trump on Russian national TV.

Putin had applauded Trump and his handling of the US economy at an annual end-of-year press conference that was broadcast on Russian national television Thursday, saying, “Look at the markets, how they’ve risen. That shows investors’ confidence in the American economy. It shows they believe in what President Trump is doing in this area.”

Trump told reporters Friday that his call with Putin was “great” and that Putin had “said very nice things about what I’ve done for this country in terms of the economy.”

Coming amid growing pressure from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election, Trump’s chummy call with Putin is sure to raise eyebrows.

The special counsel has already charged four people — two of whom pleaded guilty, including former National Security adviser Michael Flynn. Multiple reports suggest Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner could be the next target. Plus, it appears Mueller may be building a case that Trump himself may have obstructed justice.

Putin knew he could get Trump’s attention by complimenting him

In his press conference, Putin pointed to the booming US stock market as a sign that Trump was successfully managing the economy.

He also spoke with sympathy toward Trump, describing him as boxed in by political opposition and said that he hopes Trump still wants to improve relations with Russia despite the obstacles he’s faced.

Putin also dismissed the idea that there was collusion or inappropriate contact between Moscow and the Trump campaign as “spy hysteria.”

“This is all made up by people who oppose Trump to make his work look illegitimate,” Putin said.

Echoing Trump’s own language, Putin also claimed that there was a “deep state” hidden in the US government that sought to undermine US-Russian relations.

The call serves as a reminder that foreign leaders have learned that complimenting Trump is a surefire way to get his attention. Putin’s depiction of Trump during his press conference mirrored how Trump often describes himself — mistreated by political opposition and a hostile press, despite his strong performance as a leader. Trump was likely happy to hear Putin identify his predicament so sympathetically.

There is another factor: Trump simply admires authoritarian leaders and seems dazzled by the power they wield in their own societies. An anonymous Trump adviser recently told the Washington Post that the three world leaders Trump admires the most are Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, China’s Xi Jinping, and — you guessed it — Putin.

President Trump won’t rule out pardoning Michael Flynn
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

“Let's see.”

Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, pleaded guilty earlier this month to lying to the FBI about his interactions with Russian government officials — and the president might pardon him.

On Friday, a reporter asked Trump about whether he was considering pardoning Flynn. “I don’t want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet,” Trump responded. “We'll see what happens. Let's see.”

Trump could have easily said, “No, I won’t pardon Flynn.” Instead, he refused to rule out pardoning the former three-star general whom Trump fired in February for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about the same conversations Flynn also apparently lied to the FBI about. Ty Cobb, the White House attorney defending against the Mueller probe, told CNN “there is no consideration being given to pardoning Michael Flynn at the White House.”

Flynn has done a lot more shady stuff than just lying to the FBI that one time. He received more than $65,000 in speaking fees from RT, Russia’s state-owned propaganda outlet, and improperly claimed that money came from “US companies.” He lobbied on behalf of the Turkish government right up until he became the national security adviser. He reportedly participated a secret plot to kidnap Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Muslim cleric living in the United States whom the Turkish government considers an enemy of the state, and take him back to Turkey.

And throughout the presidential transition, Flynn had several contacts with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador at the time. In one early December meeting at Trump Tower, he and Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner talked to Kislyak about setting up a secret channel through which they could communicate.

But despite all of that questionable but not necessarily illegal behavior, Flynn got off pretty lightly, with just one count of lying to the FBI. And now there’s a very real possibility that Trump will pardon Flynn for that — and no one can really stop him.

The president’s power to pardon federal crimes is basically unlimited

The president has the ability to pardon almost anyone he wants. As my colleague Dylan Matthews reports:

The Supreme Court actually ruled on this matter in the 1866 case of Ex parte Garland. That decision concerned a law Congress passed disbarring former members of the Confederate government, which was challenged by former Confederate Sen. August Hill Garland. President Andrew Johnson had pardoned Garland, and Garland argued that this shielded him from disbarment under the law. The Supreme Court agreed, and in doing so clarified that the pardon power is basically unlimited and can be applied to any crime, whether the pardoned person has been charged or not.

“By the second section of the second article of the Constitution, power is given to the President 'to grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States, except in cases of impeachment,’” Justice Stephen Field wrote. “With that exception the power is unlimited. It extends to every offence, and is intended to relieve the party who may have committed it or who may be charged with its commission, from all the punishments of every description that the law, at the time of the pardon, imposes.”

Trump already pardoned one person this year: Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who was convicted of criminal contempt of court for violating a federal court order meant to prevent racial profiling.

But it’s still unclear if Trump will pardon Flynn, or the three other members of the Trump campaign charged with crimes: former campaign Chair Paul Manafort, his business associate Rick Gates, and Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to his charges and is now actively cooperating with the Mueller investigation.

But the fact remains that the president refuses to say he won’t pardon Flynn — but that’s his prerogative.

Wonder Woman’s “No Man’s Land” scene was the best superhero moment of 2017
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Wonder Woman shined in 2017. This scene was a big reason why. 

Four years ago, lots of people engaged in some pretty idiotic conversations about bringing Wonder Woman to the big screen. The character, one of DC Comics’ most popular and most recognized heroes of all time, was deemed by many — without any real evidence — to be too “tricky” or “challenging” to get her own movie.

But what everything really came down to was that studio executives weren’t convinced that a Wonder Woman film could make enough money to be a worthwhile investment. They thought audiences might not believe the character’s origin story (she’s an Amazonian princess from a mystical island), or would write off her trademark weapons — a magical golden lasso and bulletproof gauntlets — as too silly.

Never mind that around the same time, The Hunger Games was hauling in piles of cash at the box office. Or that Marvel was making movies about the Norse god of Thunder and an American hero frozen in time, while also planning the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie — complete with a talking raccoon and a sentient tree capable of saying only three words. Despite Wonder Woman’s status as the most famous female superhero of all time, DC and Warner Bros. couldn’t be convinced to give her her own movie.

By the goddess, they were so stupidly wrong.

If any superhero won 2017, it was Wonder Woman, who finally got her starring vehicle and really made it count.

In yet another year when movies were punctuated by superheroes — or cluttered with them, depending on how you feel about comic book films — none shined brighter than Diana Prince, played by Gal Gadot. Wonder Woman broke records, ignited a passionate fan base, and shattered expectations. The film renewed fans’ hope that Warner Bros. could make a good superhero film and left them begging for a sequel. It also captured the spirit of Wonder Woman — characterized by compassion, love, and determination — and conveyed that spirit to its audience.

And while the movie contained many great moments, there was none more powerful and defining than the scene where Wonder Woman charges through “No Man’s Land.”

What makes “No Man’s Land” such a fantastic scene

Throughout our pop culture history of superheroes, there are iconic, indelible moments that are intertwined with our heroes. For Batman, it’s witnessing the murder of his parents, which makes him feel utterly helpless and inspires him to fight back. For Spider-Man, it’s the death of his Uncle Ben and his regret over the role he played in it, which burns the “with great power comes great responsibility” mantra into his brain. For the X-Men, it’s watching their friend Jean Grey become the Dark Phoenix and realizing the primal evil she’s capable of.

These pivotal moments tell us who our heroes are, what they stand for, and what drives their heroism. So it’s no surprise that movies repeatedly return to them, and to the themes they explore. Conversely, it’s usually a surprise when a movie featuring these characters avoids such well-known story points (like Spider-Man: Homecoming omitting the death of Uncle Ben).

“No Man’s Land” is Wonder Woman’s pivotal moment.

In the film, we see that Diana has a very concrete idea of what war looks like. She believes it to be a mythic battle where good and evil are distinctly divided. Soon after traveling to London, and then continuing through the different parts of Europe where World War I is raging on, she begins to learn that war is much different and much more complicated than she thought it to be. She and her handlers arrive at the edge of a place known as “No Man’s Land,” and their initial plan is to bypass it. That plan changes after Diana speaks to a woman who tells Diana that her village has been seized.

Diana, so frustrated by not being able to help, takes a stand, as all the men around her try to explain that she can’t cross “No Man’s Land.” They try to talk her out of trying.

“It means no man can cross it,” Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) tells her. “This is not something you can cross. This is not possible.”

Steve’s warning to Diana plainly telegraphs what she’s going to do next. But in the hands of Gadot and director Patty Jenkins, a scene that might’ve otherwise come off as cheesy or saccharine is instead infused with dignity and humanity.

In glorious slow motion, Diana shrugs off her costume and appears in her Amazonian battle armor. She emerges from a bunker, shield in tow. Then she deflects a bullet. Then one more. Then the German army begins to focus all their fire on her, as she digs her heels into the ground, tightens her grip on her shield, and deflects a storm of gunfire.

What’s brilliant about this scene is that it’s not only representative of Diana standing up for what she believes in, nor is it solely an instance where she succeeds in doing what was previously thought to be impossible — all while inspiring her handlers and her allies to push forward. Rather, it’s a beautiful combination of those things.

It’s compassion, determination, inspiration, and love rolled into one moment: Diana is taking fire and protecting those who can’t protect themselves. And she’s doing it with a small smirk that sharpens on her lips, as if she knows she’s got this.

All of it just melts my cold, dark heart.

“No Man’s Land” crystallizes Wonder Woman’s heroism in such a beautiful way that as of that moment, you don’t need to know anything about the character’s past to understand her. You almost don’t even need to see the rest of the movie. This amazing scene tells you all you need to know about Wonder Woman’s place in the world.

It’s hard to name another scene from one of 2017’s many superhero movies that’s as indelible as this one. Of course, I was amazed when Captain America bicep-curled a helicopter in The Winter Soldier. And I cheered when Thor realized his full potential in Ragnarok.

But those moments still weren’t as powerful as “No Man’s Land.”

In just a short pocket of time, Wonder Woman reminded us of what it’s like to do good. She showed us how to be brave in the face of impossibility. She demonstrated the power of determination and resiliency. And every time I rewatch the scene, I remember how wondrous superheroes can truly be.

Twitter’s new thread feature takes us one step closer to longform tweeting
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Lots of people say they want short tweets. But that’s not always how they’re using the site.

This week, Twitter unveiled a new and important feature — the ability to quickly and easily add tweets directly to a thread (a.k.a. a tweetstorm) without having to reply to yourself, and to publish multiple tweets within a thread at once.

The response from users so far has been generally limpid — perhaps because we’re all tuckered out from yelling about the site’s recent implementation of 280-character tweets.

Though the change is subtle, it demonstrates that Twitter is recognizing just how much it has evolved away from the “microblogging” element that was once so central to its culture — and how much its users have driven its cultural shift toward longform tweeting.

Twitter’s new threading interface is simple: just add a tweet

Twitter launched the threading function to all users on Tuesday, December 12. Now, anytime you start writing a tweet, you have the opportunity to turn it into a thread by clicking a new “plus” sign to bring up more tweet windows.

You can add as many tweets as you like, and when you’re done, you can “Tweet all.” You can also go back at any time to add more tweets to a thread you’ve already published.

The new display should make it much easier to actually read and write threads. It’s a pretty slick function — though most Twitter users seem to ignoring it. Among the few with opinions, a surprising number of reactions seem to be mostly positive, for once — though many are side-eying it, just as many people were skeptical of Twitter’s recent increase of its character limit from 140 to 280.

“Perhaps soon our tweets will just be the length of Medium posts,” opined one journalist in response to the change.

The new threading interface might not transform Twitter into a giant longread, but it could at least streamline the platform’s recurring thread display issues so that now you can see all replies in a thread in one easy-to-read flow. Hopefully, that will mean a better threading experience for all.

The change shows how Twitter’s users have forced the site to evolve

Beyond Twitter’s obvious attempt to improve the logistics of posting threads, the new function is also undoubtedly strategic. In an era when the president of the United States is one of Twitter’s most provocative, high-profile users, and when the site has become a go-to place for many cultural commentators to share their observations and opinions, the company seems particularly interested in giving people more and more ways to write longer posts and spend more time doing so.

Twitter’s recent doubling of its per-tweet character limit can be seen as an initial response to threads — people were clearly using them as a workaround for 140-character tweets, so why not let them pack more words into each one? — but it was also a simple way to increase the time and energy people spend on Twitter. The new threading function is essentially an extension of that mindset.

It isn’t perfect. For instance, with particularly long threads (like this massive 300-tweet entry that I’ve been updating intermittently since July), when you click on the first tweet, Twitter will only display the first 200. When you click on the most recent tweet, you can only see a few tweets back. Lost in the middle are about 75 tweets that are essentially totally inaccessible.

Most people probably won’t be using the function to build 300-tweet threads over a six-month period. But then again, maybe they will be: endless threads/tweetstorms built around the “1 like = 1 tweet” meme, like mine, are increasingly popular. Such a trend clearly demonstrates how much Twitter culture is shaped by users’ modifications and workarounds to its preestablished format.

Twitter users have completely and indelibly changed the platform over the years: In addition to that social media gamechanger, the hashtag, they’ve engendered the commonplace use of searchable reaction .GIF databases, threaded tweetstorms, Twitter-based meme culture, and so much more. It’s easy to eyeroll at Twitter’s enhanced threading as just another needless change to the site, but it’s also important to note that the change reveals how Twitter is observing the way that people actually using the site, and making adjustments accordingly.

In other words, if Twitter is moving away from the short, pithy statements that were once its claim to fame, it’s because we wouldn’t stop talking.

Democrats eke out small win over church provision in tax bill
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Language repealing the Johnson Amendment has been removed from the GOP tax bill

Democrats won a minor political victory this Thursday when they pressured GOP lawmakers to remove a provision about religious organizations supporting political candidates from the proposed GOP tax bill.

The removal marks the seeming conclusion to one of President Trump’s consistent campaign promises, at least for now. Trump has long made clear his desire to repeal the Johnson Amendment: a provision forbidding nonprofit organizations, including churches, from taking explicit stances on political candidates. A provision in the House Republican tax bill had effectively repealed the Johnson Amendment, named for then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson in 1954.

“I don't want the IRS looming over our faith leaders in the community as they express their religious freedom,” said Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, the highest-ranking Republican working on the bill, told reporters when the bill was introduced.

At the time, the news had been received with consternation by liberal groups, including the Center for Inquiry (CFI). “Eliminating the Johnson Amendment for churches will enable religious organizations use their tax exempt donations to support election campaigns,” said Jason Lemieux, CFI’s director of government affairs, in a statement.

While the House tax bill had contained a provision scrapping the amendment, the Senate bill had not. Ultimately, Senate Democrats were able to remove the provision from the final bill by citing the “Byrd Rule,” a 1974 provision that allows senators to block legislation during the reconciliation process of negotiations on budgetary matters between House and Senate if that legislation contains material deemed to be “extraneous” to the financial substance of the bill.

Many Republicans and some evangelical groups condemned the move. In a statement to reporters, Sen. James Lankford (R - Okla.) said, "I'm disappointed in the decision of the parliamentarian to not allow the revised text of the Johnson Amendment into the tax reform bill. The federal government and the IRS should never have the ability, through our tax code, to limit free speech."

But many progressive groups, including religious groups, greeted this move positively. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a mainline Protestant group, released a statement praising the move. “If this tax bill passes, one thing Americans won't have to worry about is whether their house of worship or local charitable nonprofit will be turned into a PAC,” said the organization’s executive director, Amanda Tyler, in an emailed statement. “This is a big win for churches, synagogues, mosques, all other 501(c)(3) nonprofits, and the people who rely on them as a vital part of our society.”

What is the Johnson Amendment, anyway?

The Johnson Amendment keeps religious and many other tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing specific candidates for public office, as well as contributing to campaigns. Those that do risk losing their tax-exempt status. Although the Johnson Amendment is rarely enforced in practice, its opponents argue that the amendment may be unconstitutional and that this threat has a “chilling effect” on what clergy feel comfortable saying from the pulpit.

That said, the amendment is rarely enforced, and has never in its history actually been used to strip a church of its 501(c)(3) status. And when action has been considered for churches in violation, conservative backlash has often prevented actual enforcement. For instance, in 2014, Houston Mayor Annise Parker subpoenaed five sermons from churches in her city. After widespread outcry, Parker dropped the subpoena.

The amendment has become something of a hot-button issue for evangelicals, despite its relatively small practical effects on churches. Trump first raised the issue during his campaign, in June 2016, after he held a closed-door meeting with hundreds of evangelicals in New York City. During that meeting, Trump seemed to be attempting to woo evangelicals with his willingness to repeal the motion:

You talk about religious liberty and religious freedom. You really don’t have religious freedom, if you really think about it, because when President Johnson had his tenure, he passed something that makes people very, very nervous to even talk to preserve their tax-exempt status. It’s taken a lot of power away from Christianity and other religions.

While Trump got his facts wrong — Johnson was a senator, not president, at the time the amendment was passed, and the amendment only refers to explicit stances on candidates, not political issues more generally — his words nevertheless reflected his willingness to signal himself as a “pro-evangelical candidate,” albeit by making a largely symbolic concession.

Mike Pence, likewise, used the issue to woo evangelical voters. In a five-minute video that played in a number of evangelical churches right before the election, Pence made a pitch to congregants for their vote, citing two main reasons to vote for his ticket: the promise to appoint justices to the Supreme Court “who will uphold our Constitution and the rights of the unborn” — in other words, someone with conservative views on religious freedom and abortion — and a promise to repeal the Johnson Amendment.

That said, it’s unclear just how effective a dog whistle repealing the Johnson Amendment actually is. Nearly 80 percent of Americans say they do not favor political endorsements in church. Repealing the Johnson Amendment, in other words, is often a handier way of signaling a pro-evangelical stance than it is an actually useful or desirable political act.

It’s also unclear that the Johnson Amendment is really an effective deterrent from pulpit politicizing. A Pew study from last year found that about two-thirds of regular churchgoers had heard political statements from the pulpit. The highest percentage of these were black Protestants, 28 percent of whom heard clergy support for Hillary Clinton and about 20 percent of whom heard ministers oppose Donald Trump. By contrast, about 4 percent of white evangelicals heard clergy support a presidential candidate, while 7 percent heard statements against a candidate.

The tax bill wasn’t the GOP’s first attempt to get rid of the amendment

This wasn’t the first time Trump, or Republican members of his administration, has attempted to get rid of the amendment. In early May, Trump unveiled an executive order, titled “Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” which instructed the Treasury Department not to enforce penalties against churches or other institutions that violated the amendment. That order was seen by many as weak and ineffectual, in part because it only refers to “speech” on moral or political issues “from a religious perspective”: something that churches and other organizations are already allowed to engage in without falling afoul of the Johnson Amendment rules, which instead focus on speech and financial contributions that directly intervene in political campaigns.

The summary document distributed to religious leaders at the White House in advance of that order suggested that the executive order would alleviate the burden of the Johnson Amendment, which “prohibits religious leaders from speaking about politics and candidates from the pulpit” — a statement that partly mischaracterizes the amendment. But the actual text of the executive order makes no statement about candidate endorsement.

At most, the executive order gave IRS officials explicit permission to do what they already do: rarely enforce the Johnson Amendment. The tax bill, by contrast, would have allowed for a much more robust repeal of the Johnson Amendment.

That said, given how rarely the Johnson Amendment was ever enforced, its removal from the tax bill seems to be a symbolic, rather than practical, victory for Democrats.

Rian Johnson, the creative force behind Star Wars: The Last Jedi, explained
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

A brief guide to the visionary director’s earlier work, and how it helped set the stage for his entry into a galaxy far, far away.  

When Rian Johnson was announced as the director of The Last Jedi, the eighth Star Wars movie, there was much rejoicing. Johnson is known for his imaginative twists on familiar genres, both in the film world and, on occasion, in the television world too — and his prior work seems to have served him well, with The Last Jedi already pulling in an avalanche of positive reviews.

The director, who will turn 44 two days after The Last Jedi opens in theaters worldwide, has only three feature film credits to his name prior to Star Wars. He graduated from the University of Southern California in 1996 and made several short films (including one called Evil Demon Golfball from Hell!!!, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart) before attracting attention with his feature debut, Brick, at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

Since then, he’s made two more features and directed several of the most highly praised episodes of Breaking Bad (including one of the series’ acclaimed final episodes, “Ozymandias”). Throughout his career, he’s consistently exhibited two special talents: putting new spins on established genres, and doing it without sacrificing attention to characters.

All of Johnson’s past work is well worth a look for new fans (and conveniently able to rent digitally or stream on Netflix). Each of his films — and one of his Breaking Bad episodes — represent building blocks in a career that is now intersecting with the biggest movie franchise of them all.

Brick (2005) was a stunning debut with a clear, exciting vision

The singular, astonishing vision and voice of Johnson’s feature debut instantly established him a writer/director to watch. Johnson wrote the screenplay in 1997, but spent six years getting it funded, and his efforts were totally worth it; the movie won the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at Sundance in 2005 and launched Johnson on a path toward a big career.

Brick is a neo-noir film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and set in California — but in a twist, it’s on a high school campus among teenagers. Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, a teenager who is still pining for his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) when she calls him to cryptically ask for help, and then turns up dead.

The film is modeled directly on hardboiled detective stories by authors like Dashiell Hammett and others, and it boasts many of the same plot elements — the lovelorn detective, the femme fatale, the seedy underbelly of an apparently respectable society (in this case, an affluent high school). But the real marvel is the dialogue, which also takes its cues from neo-noir; it sounds at first out of place, and then marvelously perfect, in the voices of the modern-day teenagers reeling off lines like, “No, bulls would gum it. They'd flash their dusty standards at the wide-eyes and probably find some yegg to pin, probably even the right one. But they'd trample the real tracks and scare the real players back into their holes, and if we're doing this I want the whole story. No cops, not for a bit.”

Brick is available to digitally rent on Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, and iTunes.

The Brothers Bloom (2008) gave Johnson the chance to work with bigger stars and new genres

Johnson’s follow-up to Brick came three years later with the higher-budget The Brothers Bloom, which he started working on after the 2005 Sundance win. The caper comedy, which stars Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, and Mark Ruffalo, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2008 and opened in theaters the following May, netting solid-but-mixed reviews from critics.

The Brothers Bloom is a classic con man story about a pair of brothers (Ruffalo and Brody) who, after being orphaned at a young age, are now skilled scam artists. One of them wants out of the family business; his brother convinces him to pull off one last job, with the wealthy heiress Penelope Stamp (Weisz) as their target. But the plan, as you might imagine, goes awry.

The Brothers Bloom feels like a more conventional movie than Brick, but it shares one key characteristic with its predecessor: a lively imagination that takes the conventions of a genre and uses them to tell a fresh and unexpected story.

The Brothers Bloom is available to digitally rent on Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, and iTunes.

Breaking Bad’s “Fly” (2010) showcased Johnson’s ability to work nimbly within an established world

Johnson directed three episodes of Breaking Bad throughout the show’s run: “Fly” (season three, episode 10); “Fifty-One” (season four, episode five); and “Ozymandias” (season five, episode 14). All three attracted a lot of attention — Johnson earned a Director’s Guild Award for Outstanding Directing for “Fifty-One,” and some have called “Ozymandias” the greatest episode of TV ever.

But it’s “Fly” that’s most unforgettable, even though it received mixed reviews from viewers when it first aired. Walt and Jesse spend most of the hour inside their concealed meth lab, trying to catch a fly that has gotten in, because Walt is certain it will contaminate their extra-pure meth cooking process. The episode plays out more like theater than traditional TV — the interactions between Walt and Jesse as they wait for the bug to enter their trap reveal much about the characters, despite the fact that not much is happening. And Johnson’s hand is especially visible in the episode’s visuals, which occasionally feel surreal and a bit zany; writing at the AV Club, Donna Bowman praised the director’s “unhinged images and bold juxtapositions.” Everything that made Breaking Bad great is on display in this episode, but it feels wholly different from much of the rest of the show.

Fly is available to stream on Netflix.

Looper (2012) let Johnson helm a bigger-budget production while telling a human story

In his most recent film before The Last Jedi, Johnson took on another familiar genre: time-traveling science fiction. He mixed in some of the same neo-noir elements he used in Brick and added a dash of thriller, and the result was something exciting: a movie about a time-traveling contract killer who discovers that his target is ... himself.

Starring Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, and Bruce Willis, Looper found a big audience, ultimately making $176.5 million worldwide against its $30 million budget — a bona fide hit. Critics loved it, too, praising the way it offered a thought-provoking and inventive take on familiar genres without abandoning characters for plot machinations. It earned a 93 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes and the admiration of many, including Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy, who hired him for The Last Jedi.

Looper is available to digitally rent on Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, and iTunes.

Johnson’s talent for genre-bending and character development should serve him well for Star Wars

At the time of Looper’s release, Johnson spoke with the Hollywood Reporter about his approach to the film, and his comments serve as a good explanation of both how he thinks about genre and his appreciation for great characters:

Even though [Looper is] a time-travel movie, the pleasure of it doesn't come from the mass of time travel ... I very much wanted it to be a more character-based movie that is more about how these characters dealt with the situation time travel has brought about. So the biggest challenge was figuring out how to not spend the whole movie explaining the rules and figure out how to put it out there in a way that made sense on some intuitive level for the audience; then get past it and deal with the real meat of the story.

That commitment to really considering how a story’s conventions work on the audience, as well as to how his characters must operate and exist within those conventions, makes Johnson a great fit for films in the Star Wars universe, which double as intimate family dramas and action-filled tales of galactic conflict. And Lucasfilm and Disney seem to agree: In early November, ahead of The Last Jedi’s December 15 release, they announced that Johnson will oversee a new trilogy in the Star Wars universe, writing and directing the first episode.

Johnson’s trajectory from independent, small-budget filmmaker to keeper of the biggest franchise in cinema is a heady one. But it’s one that fits well with his vision and plays to his strengths. And it bodes well for the direction of the Star Wars universe, too.

A viral video shows a Trump judicial nominee unable to answer simple legal questions
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Why was he nominated, and why is a GOP senator pushing back? Here’s the backstory.

One of President Donald Trump’s nominees to a lifetime district court position struggled to answer simple questions about legal and courtroom terms during his confirmation hearing this week — questions posed to him by a Republican senator.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) quizzed Matthew Petersen, whom Trump nominated to serve as a federal judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia, on his experience with and knowledge of courtroom procedure — and Petersen appeared not to have very much of either. The clip, posted by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), is positively painful to watch:

Now, if you’re wondering how Petersen ended up with an appointment to a prestigious lifetime judgeship, it’s probably not a coincidence that he and White House counsel Don McGahn — President Trump’s top staffer overseeing judicial nominations — worked together for several years.

Since 2008, Petersen has served on the Federal Election Commission — the highly partisan body in charge of enforcing federal campaign finance law, which has been much maligned for its toothlessness and dysfunction.

The FEC has three Republican commissioners at any given time — and people are chosen for those jobs because they’re expected to protect the GOP’s interests. From 2008 to 2013, Petersen and McGahn were two of those commissioners. They worked together to weaken enforcement of campaign finance laws, and to try to prevent “dark money” outside groups spending big on elections from being reined in.

More broadly, this isn’t the first time that questions have been raised about whether McGahn has given his or his associates’ connections the inside track to judgeships, even though they were unqualified.

Brett Talley, whom Trump nominated for a district judgeship in Alabama, faced similar questions about his qualifications (he’d never tried a case and had only practiced law for three years). Then it turned out that Talley was married to McGahn’s chief of staff in the White House counsel’s office — a fact he didn’t initially disclose to Congress.

At the end of the video, Sen. Kennedy asks the nominees if “any of you ever blogged in support of the Ku Klux Klan?” That’s a reference to Talley, too — Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern found that Talley appeared to have written a message board post defending “the first KKK,” dubiously asserting that the group only “turned to racial violence” much later on. (The White House said Talley would withdraw his nomination this week.)

Kennedy has been complaining that something weird is going on with Trump’s judicial nominees

The broader context here is that this is the first year since 2006 in which the GOP has controlled both the presidency and the Senate, and they’re not sure how long that situation will last. So conservatives are eager to ram through as many judicial confirmations as they can in this window of opportunity. (Again, if confirmed, these nominees can serve in their posts for life.)

But in recent weeks, Sen. Kennedy — a Republican from Louisiana who just joined the Senate at the beginning of this year, and who serves on the Judiciary Committee — has begun to express concerns about some of the nominees and how they were chosen.

Kennedy had voted to move Talley through the committee, and was shocked to learn afterward about his connection to the White House. So he helped kill the nomination by announcing, in late November, that he’d vote against Talley on the Senate floor “in a heartbeat” — and suggested that he was concerned with the advice Trump was getting on judicial nominees.

“He’s never tried a lawsuit in his natural life. And he’s gonna be on the federal bench? Give me a break. A break. It is embarrassing,” Kennedy told reporters, per Politico. “And I think the president of the United States is getting some very, very bad advice.”

Kennedy also became the first Republican senator to vote against a Trump nominee on the Senate floor when he voted against confirming Gregory Katsas to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, saying Katsas had a conflict because he worked for McGahn’s White House Counsel’s Office. (Katsas was confirmed anyway.)

And in another case, Kennedy called out McGahn specifically for not consulting him on the nomination of Kyle Duncan to a Louisiana seat on the Fifth Circuit court of appeals.

“I first learned about Mr. Duncan’s nomination when I received a phone call — actually a series of phone calls — from Mr. Don McGahn,” Kennedy said, according to the Acadiana Advocate. “Mr. McGahn was very firm that Mr. Duncan would be the nominee — to the point that he was on the scarce side, in one conversation, of being polite.”

Now, with his questioning of Petersen, Kennedy is causing more trouble for a Trump nominee who appears to be close to Don McGahn.

Obamacare enrollment is shrinking after Trump’s sabotage
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

The Trump administration set the law up to fail.

President Trump hasn’t succeeded in repealing Obamacare yet. But his administration is doing its best to force the law to fail.

The most critical time of the year for the health care law is open enrollment, when millions of people log on to online marketplaces, check whether they qualify for federal subsidies to help them pay their premiums, and shop for plans. For the past three years, at least 10 million people have gotten insurance that way each year.

Open enrollment is almost over: It ends Friday, December 15, in most states. So far, sign-ups have been somewhat strong in the face of the Trump administration’s overt sabotage. As of December 9, 4.7 million people had signed up for insurance on the federal marketplace.

But they still seem likely to fall short of previous years. We can expect about 1.6 million to be automatically enrolled in a new plan at the end of open enrollment, if they haven’t actively selected a new one, based on the last two years. It would require an almost-unfathomable surge in the last week for 2018 enrollment on HealthCare.gov to match the 9.2 million in 2017. Something closer to 7.5 million or 8 million is looking more plausible.

"We expect enrollment to grow every year, not to shrink. This market is likely to shrink," Caroline Pearson, senior vice president at Avalere, a consulting firm, told me last week. "It is a big deal, for a market that's already too small and unstable."

 Avalere

The difference is Trump. This year, open enrollment was in the hands of a White House that’s openly hostile to the Affordable Care Act — and the Trump administration took advantage of the best opportunity it had to undercut the law.

President Trump has said Obamacare is imploding, which he hopes would reignite the stalled congressional effort to repeal it. He didn’t just sit around waiting for that to happen. His administration halved the length of open enrollment. They slashed spending on advertising and assistance programs. They pulled out of outreach events at the last minute.

The entire health care law could be at stake. Advertising and outreach are primarily targeted to younger and healthier people, who are essential to the law’s goal of affordable insurance coverage for all Americans. If their enrollment drops while older, sicker people keep signing up, premiums are going to increase even more next year.

It could be the start of a death spiral, a self-perpetuating cycle of price hikes and falling enrollment — which is exactly what Trump seems to want.

“I think what this cumulative activity can do is start that death spiral,” Kathleen Sebelius, President Obama’s health and human services secretary during the ACA’s first open enrollment, told me.

Obamacare supporters had already conceded that as a result of these cuts, they likely won’t be able to match last year’s 12 million sign-ups. “I don’t actually think that’s possible anymore,” Lori Lodes, who worked on Obamacare enrollment in the Obama administration, told me.

We will know soon exactly how much the White House has succeeded in gutting Obamacare. By embracing this strategy, the Trump administration has put its political goals ahead of the millions of people who depend on the ACA for insurance.

“I really do think what they want to be able to do is come out on December 16 and say, ‘See, we told you Obamacare is imploding; it’s failing,’” Lodes said. “When the reality is they are going to be responsible because of the decisions they’ve made to undermine open enrollment.”

Open enrollment and outreach, explained

Every fall, the Obamacare insurance marketplaces open for business. People have a few weeks to log on, check out their options, and sign up for coverage. This year, sign-ups started on November 1 and closes on December 15.

An entire apparatus exists to support open enrollment. Most states use the federal Healthcare.gov, while a few run their own marketplaces. The feds and some states run call centers, where people can talk to a real person to walk through enrollment. The federal government funds navigator and in-person assistance programs, which set up places where people can get help navigating the sign-up process.

Open enrollment didn’t technically changed much this year, except it was shortened from 12 weeks to six. Otherwise, it is pretty much the same. Healthcare.gov is still open. People can still get tax subsidies and shop for coverage. All of the ACA’s regulations, such as protections for people with preexisting conditions and the requirement that insurers cover essential health benefits, remain in place.

But the mere need to clarify that, yes, Obamacare is still around is a big problem for open enrollment. After eight months of Republicans fighting to repeal it while claiming it’s failing, people like Lodes worry that many Americans think the law either is already gone or won’t be around for much longer.

Which is why outreach is so important.

The Obama administration went all out every year to promote open enrollment. President Obama appeared on late-night TV and viral online shows. The administration recruited celebrities to star in ads or highlight open enrollment on social media. Senior officials scrounged for as much money for the navigator program as they could find.

While things didn’t always go smoothly — the launch of Healthcare.gov was a disaster — the efforts helped 12 million people sign up for coverage in 2016. The uninsured rate has dropped to historic lows, and insurers have started to see improved business on the law’s marketplaces.

The key, Lodes said, was blanketing people with information — from television ads and email and text message reminders to working with community-based groups and churches. The biggest barrier was convincing people they could actually afford insurance, once the law’s financial assistance was accounted for.

Outreach works: The Huffington Post reported recently that an internal Health and Human Services Department report concluded that 37 percent of sign-ups in the last few months of 2016 could be attributed to outreach.

Trump administration officials have defended their outreach cuts in part by arguing that people are already familiar with Obamacare after three years. “I don’t think we can force people to sign up for a program,” a senior administration official told reporters in August.

But that runs counter to the available evidence. Nearly 40 percent of the US uninsured were still unaware of the marketplaces last year, and almost half did not know they might be eligible for financial assistance, according to surveys by the Commonwealth Fund.

“There is a difference knowing Obamacare is the law and knowing what you should do with that information,” Lodes said, “between knowing you need to sign up in this finite period of time or you do not get health coverage.”

 The Commonwealth Fund

The Obama administration had assumed that older people or people with preexisting conditions who struggled to get insurance before the ACA would be eager to sign up. So they focused their efforts on reaching younger people or people who hadn’t had insurance before. Every year, people turn 26 and roll off their parents’ health insurance, or maybe they get a new job with a higher salary and need to move from Medicaid to private insurance.

Every year, in other words, there are brand new customers for the ACA marketplaces.

“They’re either the least familiar or they are the healthiest. Either way, they either don’t know or don’t believe they need or want health insurance,” Sebelius said. “For somebody to suggest that there is no persuasion needed is just nuts.”

How Trump sabotaged Obamacare enrollment

Because open enrollment is such a sprawling undertaking, the Trump administration has many tools at its disposal to undermine it and, by extension, the ACA. It seems to be using all of them.

The White House has some minimal requirements under federal law. It must perform outreach and education, it must run a call center, it must have a website where people can enroll, and it must operate a navigator program.

On paper, the Trump administration is doing each of those things. But each is facing significant cuts. Together, they add up to a clear picture of an administration using every means available to drop support for ACA enrollment:

  1. Just a few weeks into the Trump administration, HHS announced it would reduce open enrollment from 12 weeks to six weeks.
  2. Over the summer, Trump administration officials hinted they might not enforce the individual mandate.
  3. In August, HHS said it would cut funding for Obamacare advertising by 90 percent, from $100 million to $10 million.
  4. HHS also said it would cut funding for in-person assistance by 40 percent.
  5. A few weeks later, the department let the in-person assistance budget run out entirely without awarding more money.
  6. Late last month, the administration abruptly pulled out of state-level open enrollment events.
  7. This month, Trump stopped federal payments to health insurers just days before open enrollment began, driving up premiums as much as 30 percent for some plans.
  8. HHS has cut off relationships with Latino groups that had worked with the Obama administration to enroll that population in coverage, Talking Points Memo has reported.

In other words, the Trump administration cut funding for outreach, cut funding for enrollment assistance, and dropped out of partnerships to support enrollment, while shrinking the window for people to sign up for coverage, sowing doubts about whether people will be required to have insurance, and taking actions that drive up premiums.

So as Trump claims Obamacare is failing, his administration set up a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Obamacare supporters have tried to fill the gaps with grassroots programs like the Get Covered campaign, run by former Obama administration officials. But they do not have the same resources as the federal government.

 The Commonwealth Fund

The ideal TV advertising campaign, for example, would cost about $15 million, said Lodes, who is helping to oversee Get Covered. They knew from the very start that they would not be able to raise that kind of money, which means the hole left by the Trump administration cutting $90 million from the ACA’s advertising budget will go largely unfilled.

“There is no way that anything we do or anyone else does can fill the footprint of what the administration should be doing,” she said. “They were unable to get repeal passed through the Congress, so they really seem intent to do everything they can do to make sure open enrollment is not successful.”

Weak enrollment is a huge threat to Obamacare’s future

The inevitable result of the Trump administration’s actions will be fewer Americans with health insurance. Last year, 12 million people signed up for coverage through the Obamacare marketplaces. Nobody expects to match that number this year, after open enrollment has been so severely undermined. Pro-Obamacare advocates had projected at least 1 million fewer people will enroll this year. Bases on the latest numbers, it looks like they were right.

“There is no doubt that the actions by the administration will mean that fewer people get covered,” Lodes said.

The number of uninsured Americans will likely tick up from its current historic lows. Hundreds of thousands or even millions will not be financially protected against a medical emergency, and it will be harder for them to afford the routine health care that prevents bigger problems later on. That will have a real effort on people’s lives and financial security.

But falling enrollment also threatens Obamacare’s future.

The law works when younger, healthier people and older, sicker people all sign up for coverage. Insurers need the low-cost patients to help cover the costs of the sicker ones, who are more likely to rack up big medical bills. The ACA has both sticks (the individual mandate) and carrots (cheaper premiums for young people and generous subsidies) to get everybody into the market.

But getting younger and healthier people takes a little more effort. They have been the focus of the outreach that Trump is now cutting.

People who have medical conditions already or who are older and know they may soon need insurance are going to find a way to enroll regardless. But young and healthy people are less likely to think they need insurance. They need some persuading that the ACA’s coverage will help them in an unlikely medical event and that they will be able to afford it, Sebelius and Lodes said.

“The last person to sign up is probably the healthiest person to sign up,” David Anderson, a former insurance industry official who now researches at Duke University, told me.

With a sicker pool left behind, health insurers are likely to either increase premiums even more next year or leave the market altogether. Plans have already cited the marketing cuts as one reason for increased premiums in 2018. And the higher premiums get, the more difficult it is to persuade young and healthy people to pay the price.

“What that means over the long term is the health of the marketplace is at risk,” Lodes said.

No matter what the president says, Obamacare isn’t failing yet. But his administration is trying as hard as it can to make those words a reality.


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Meet the microgrid, the technology poised to transform electricity
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

This is the path to a cleaner, more reliable, more resilient energy grid.

If we want a livable climate for future generations, we need to slow, stop, and reverse the rise in global temperatures. To do that, we need to stop burning fossil fuels for energy.

To do that, we need to generate lots of carbon-free electricity and get as many of our energy uses as possible (including transportation and industry) hooked up to the electricity grid. Electrify everything!

We need a greener grid. But that’s not all.

The highly digital modern world also demands a more reliable grid, capable of providing high-quality power to facilities like hospitals or data centers, where even brief brownouts can cost money or lives.

The biggest, cheapest sources of carbon-free power — wind and solar — are variable, which means that they come and go on nature’s schedule, not ours. They ramp up and down with the weather, so integrating them into the grid while maintaining (and improving) reliability means finding clever ways to balance out their swings.

Finally, recent blackouts in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria highlight the need for a more resilient grid — one that can get back up and running quickly (at least for essential sites) after a disaster or attack.

It’s a triple challenge: We need, all at once, a greener, more reliable, more resilient electricity grid.

But hark! Lo! There is a technology, or a set of technologies, that promises one day to be a triple solution — to address all three of the grid’s needs at once.

We speak of the humble microgrid.

What is a microgrid?

Technically, a grid is any combination of power sources, power users, wires to connect them, and some sort of control system to operate it all.

Microgrid just means a small, freestanding grid. It can consist of several buildings, one small building (sometimes called a “nanogrid”), or even one person (a “picogrid”) with a backpack solar panel, an iPhone, and some headphones.

The research firm GTM counts “1,900 basic and advanced, operational and planned microgrids” in the US, with the market expected to grow quickly. Most microgrids today are basic, one-generator affairs, but more complex microgrids popping up all over — there’s a cool one in Brooklyn, a cool one on Alcatraz Island, and the coolest one of all in Sonoma, California. Microgrids also play a big role in plans to rebuild Puerto Rico’s grid.

Let’s take a quick tour of microgrids and their potential.

Off-grid microgrids to extend power to the poor

Some microgrids stand on their own, apart from any larger grid, often in remote rural areas. These off-grid microgrids are a relatively cheap and quick way to secure some access to power for people who now lack it, often more quickly than large, centralized grids can be extended.

Grid-connected microgrids can “island” from the larger grid

Most microgrids, especially in wealthier nations, are grid-connected — they are embedded inside a bigger grid, like any other utility customer. All the examples cited above fit this bill.

What makes a microgrid a microgrid is that it can flip a switch (or switches) and “island” itself from its parent grid in the event of a blackout. This enables it to provide those connected to it with (at least temporary) backup power.

Again, most actually existing microgrids are extremely basic — think of a hospital with a diesel generator in the basement, or a big industrial facility with a combined-heat-and-power (CHP) facility on site that can provide some heat and power during a blackout.

Microgrids are only at the very front edge of their potential

Microgrids won’t be a core part of the clean-energy transition until they serve all three grid needs — greener, more reliable, more resilient.

Right now, most microgrids around the world rely on diesel generators, which are polluting and loud, so they’re not very green. (In the US, the primary sources are CHP and natural gas.) They only turn on once the grid is down, so they don’t help with day-to-day reliability. Of the three grid needs, most serve only resilience, and only for those lucky enough to be connected to one.

The next step: integrating more diversity, including distributed renewable energy

As basic as most of them are today, microgrids hold great promise for the future. Technology is rapidly expanding the possibilities.

  • Electricity use is becoming more controllable and adaptable, as every system and appliance learns to communicate over the internet.
  • Small-scale and community-scale electricity generators are getting cheaper, cleaner, and more diverse; they now include solar panels, small-scale wind, efficient natural gas generators and fuel cells, CHP, and more. (Solar panels, in particular, have become super-cheap.)
  • Energy storage is also becoming cheaper and more diverse, from various kinds of batteries and fuel cells to thermal storage in hot water or ice. (The Stone Edge Farm microgrid in Sonoma boasts five separate forms of storage.) Every bit of new storage helps to smooth out the variations in solar and wind, allowing more to be absorbed.
  • Software, AI, and machine learning are enabling intelligent integration of all these diverse resources.

Smart design and software can create microgrids specifically designed to integrate distributed renewable energy, or microgrids designed to provide “six nines” (99.9999 percent) reliability, or microgrids designed for maximum resilience. There are even “nested” microgrids within microgrids.

Next: microgrids need to work with the larger grid

Smarter microgrids can communicate on an ongoing basis with their parent grids, forming a beautiful friendship.

By aggregating together distributed, small-scale resources (solar panels, batteries, fuel cells, smart appliances and HVAC systems, etc.), a microgrid can present to the larger grid as a single entity — a kind of Voltron composed of distributed energy technologies.

This makes things easier on grid operators. They don’t necessarily relish the idea of communicating directly with millions (or billions) of discrete generators, buildings, and devices. It’s an overwhelming amount of data to assimilate. Microgrids can gather those smaller resources together into discrete, more manageable and predictable chunks.

Grid operators can put these chunks to good use. A smart microgrid can provide “grid services” — storing energy when it’s cheap, providing energy when it’s expensive, serving as backup capacity, or smoothing out frequency and voltage fluctuations. [*see footnote]

The future: a grid of microgrids

A single smart microgrid, aggregating diverse, distributed low-carbon resources, can provide cheap, clean, reliable power to those within it. It can also provide grid services to the larger grid around it.

What really tickles the imagination is a grid that contains dozens or hundreds of networked microgrids — even a grid that is someday composed of networked microgrids. This kind of “modular architecture,” with multiple semi-autonomous nodes operating in parallel, is more secure and efficient than a centralized system with a few, large points of failure.

Microgrids may never eliminate the need for large utilities, power plants, and transmission lines, but moving more power generation, management, and consumption under local control makes everyone less dependent on them.

And it makes the grid greener, more reliable, and resilient — a three’fer.


Footnote

There are other ways of aggregating small-scale distributed energy resources that do not involve a physical switch that can island them off from the grid. These “virtual” aggregations can gather together multiple small resources (batteries, solar panels, whatever) and treat the result as a single unit that participates in grid-services markets.

“Virtual power plants” offer lots of benefits, to participants and to the grid, but they do not offer the core microgrid value proposition: resilience, i.e., independence from the larger grid in times of need.

Further reading

One of us [Dave waves] will be writing more about microgrids soon. In the meantime, there are a gazillion reports floating around. A selection:

What Disney’s acquisition of Fox means for Marvel’s superhero movies
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

The X-Men movies could become more consistent, but also less creative.

In 2012, the most expensive punch in Marvel history was thrown. Emma Frost, co-leader of the X-Men, went up against Tony Stark, the smart-mouthed brain of the Avengers. Stark tasered Frost first, rendering her telepathy useless, but in doing so he activated her secondary ability: turning her body into pure diamond. Frost’s organic diamond fist crashed into Tony Stark’s midsection. Multibillion-dollar metal and technology crumpled around her uppercut.

Frost’s punch was part of a fight between the Avengers and X-Men that resulted in multiple concussions, at least four broken noses, a helicarrier with a broken belly, the shattering of the cosmic entity known as the Phoenix Force, and a rift between Earth’s most popular Marvel superheroes.

 Avengers vs. X-Men no. 2/Marvel Comics

This fight was something that could only exist in comic books. But that’s about to change.

Today, after weeks of speculation, Disney confirmed it will acquire a majority of 21st Century Fox’s assets, including film properties and some its television businesses, in a deal worth $52 billion. Among other seismic shifts throughout the entertainment industry, Disney’s deal with Fox will bring the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, their respective villains, and several other characters back under the roof of the Disney-owned Marvel Studios, making this the first time in history that Marvel’s most popular superheroes and supervillains will share the same cinematic universe. This unlocks the possibility of telling stories that, like the showdown between Frost and Stark, previously could only exist in comic books.

With Marvel’s track record of producing solid-to-great superhero movies, the deal seems like every Marvel fan’s dream — especially looking at some of the superhero clunkers Fox has produced. But the Marvel standard also might mean less freedom and fewer risks taken, two big factors that gave us recent non-Marvel hits like Logan and Deadpool.

Marvel will have the option to make crossover stories featuring its most popular comic-book heroes

Considering the entertainment juggernaut Marvel has become since the turn of the millennium, the financial struggles the company had in the ’90s feels like fiction. But the company was indeed teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, and in order to survive, it took a scalpel to its comic book heroes and began selling off their film rights to different studios. Sony took Spider-Man, while Fox landed the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.

Marvel selling the X-Men to Fox resulted in the 2000 hit movie X-Men, and its box office successmore than $290 million worldwide — showed Sony and Marvel that superhero movies could haul in mountains of cash. Spider-Man was released in 2002, followed by X2 in 2003, and by 2008, Marvel had kicked off its own cinematic universe with Iron Man.

In selling its characters’ film rights away, Marvel ensured its comic book characters would live in separate worlds onscreen. But the success of X-Men and Spider-Man ensured that this separation of cinema and page would continue for years: By hauling in so much money, Fox and Sony, until recently, had no motivation give up their Marvel film rights or work with Marvel.

Disney buying Fox’s Marvel superheroes and villains would mean that Marvel, a Disney property, could start creating movies for the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. But beyond that lies a more tantalizing prospect for Marvel fans: Marvel having the ability to tell comic book stories that it couldn’t before.

Because of splintered film rights, Marvel’s crossover comic stories like the aforementioned Avengers vs. X-Men and House of M could never be told. Crossover comic book events that did make it on screen, like Captain America: Civil War and the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War (which looks to be an amalgam of the Infinity Gauntlet event as well as the Infinity arc) are only half-told with Avengers characters; in the comic books, the X-Men and Fantastic Four are present for those stories. A huge comic book crossover event on the big screen would be a spectacle, and done well, it could be as pivotal to the superhero movie genre as The Avengers.

Fox’s inconsistent track record with superhero movies makes a move to Marvel look enticing

Fox’s 2015 Fantastic Four reboot is the greatest superhero movie disaster ever foisted on fans, suffering from weird wigs, bad action, and a script that feels like it was constructed by a kindergartener. It’s also the biggest argument for letting Marvel take control of the Fantastic Four onscreen.

Over the past decade, Marvel has produced the biggest superhero hits in the industry, establishing a high floor for the genre: Its “worst” movies rank at about a 66 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Marvel has developed a standard for what audiences can expect going into a superhero movie.

Meanwhile, Fox’s takes on the X-Men and Fantastic Four have been, at best, wildly inconsistent. Last year’s X-Men: Apocalypse was poorly received, as was 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand and 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. When it comes to the studio’s three Fantastic Four movies, none manage to rise above awful.

Marvel’s worst movies are, in terms of critical reviews, better than any Fantastic Four movies that Fox has made. The number of critically acclaimed superhero movies Marvel’s produced vastly outnumber Fox’s best X-Men movies. So given Marvel’s track record, it wouldn’t be hard to believe that Marvel could make the Fantastic Four great again, or bring consistency and continuity to the X-Men.

But subjecting the X-Men in particular to the Marvel process might also mean losing what’s made some of Fox’s recent superhero movies so good.

Divided film rights forced both Marvel and Fox to take risks. Bringing them back together could put an end to that.

What’s important to consider about Marvel giving up its film rights back in the ’90s is that if it had held onto them and managed to dig itself out of financial demise to produce a movie like X-Men or Spider-Man, we probably would have never gotten the array of great Marvel movies we have today.

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the X-Men, Spider-Man, and to some extent the Fantastic Four were the faces of Marvel comics. The Avengers were basically a JV team, whose sales paled in comparison to those headliner properties. From a business standpoint, it makes sense to tap the most popular comic book superheroes for film adaptation — which Sony and Fox did with massive success. If Marvel held onto those rights, it may have never deviated away from movies featuring those heroes.

Because Marvel didn’t have the rights to Spider-Man or the X-Men, it had to think outside of the box and figure out which characters to promote on film. In Iron Man, they found a hero that was cut from a different cloth (sardonic, tech savvy, arrogant, damaged, etc.) than Peter Parker or Professor X’s mutant-rights warriors. Marvel extending that spirit of looking to less-expected heroes has resulted in many of its best films, from Guardians of the Galaxy to Thor: Ragnarok.

The flip side of that approach is borne out in Marvel’s cinematic strategy of having interlocking stories and heroes that come together for giant team-up movies like The Avengers, which made over $1.5 billion for the studio. However, that strategy can result in Marvel movies feeling like they’re more concerned with setting the table for future installments (see: Marvel seeding its films with Infinity Stones in the leadup to next year’s Infinity War), making a lot of its movies feel very similar or locked into a bigger system.

Fox’s X-Men aren’t locked into that system, nor does there seem to be an overarching narrative that the studio wants to accomplish with its X-Men movies the way Marvel wants to with its Avengers, leaving individual X-Men movies to establish their own distinctive approaches and personalities. X-Men: First Class is a stylish, charming superhero period piece set in the Cold War era. X-Men: Days of Future Past plays with time travel and the idea of changing history. Deadpool is a raunchy comedy full of butts, murder, and jokes about chimichangas, while this year’s apocalyptic Logan is a bloody Western that received rave reviews.

Yes, the freedom that Fox has given the X-Men has resulted in some clunkers, like 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But it’s also resulted in superhero films that take risks, delve into different genres, and play around with different modes of storytelling. The results haven’t been consistent, but breakout movies like Logan and Deadpool are what happens when those risks pay off — and it’d be a shame if Marvel regaining control of the X-Men on film means those risks will stop being taken.

This speculation is, of course, based on what we’ve seen from both studios thus far — anything could happen once the X-Men are back under Marvel’s roof. The only thing we can know for certain is that we’re still a long ways away from seeing the effects of this sale on superhero movies at the theater: Marvel right now has a litany of movies already scheduled for release, including 2018’s Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, and further-out films like Ant-Man and The Wasp, Captain Marvel, the sequel to Avengers: Infinity War, the sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming, and a Guardians of the Galaxy follow-up.

Fox has its own set of movies coming out — including X-Men: Dark Phoenix, New Mutants, and a Deadpool sequel — that appear, for now, to be going forward as scheduled. (Fox gave Entertainment Weekly a preview of X-Men: Dark Phoenix this past week, and teasers for New Mutants and the Deadpool sequel were recently released.) However, it’s still unclear if they’ll be officially released as Marvel movies, or what will happen to future projects after the acquisition.

What is clear with such a dense cinematic schedule already established, it’s unlikely Marvel could fit anything it wants to do with the X-Men before 2021 without disrupting its current schedule. That doesn’t mean that fans wouldn’t go see a Marvel-made X-Men movie in 2022 and beyond — they’ll just have to wait for it.

The 13 best movies in theaters right now
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Headed to the movie theater? These are the 13 best movies playing in theaters in the US right now.

This list is updated each Friday, as necessary, and organized alphabetically.

A movie is eligible if it's in wide release (meaning it's playing in theaters nationwide) or in limited release in a major market (typically New York and Los Angeles). Films that have screened at festivals are not eligible until they are released in theaters. Not all films are showing in all cities, so check IMDB for your local listings.

This list is curated by Alissa Wilkinson, who sees pretty much every film out there but can't review all of them. So we've also included Metacritic scores and other notable reviews.

Mr. Robot's 3rd season was its best one yet. Too bad nobody paid attention.
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

The series dug into how you can rebuild the world after you’ve broken it, in a surprisingly poignant season.

Mr. Robot’s third season was its best. It moved with the momentum and confidence that made season one such a hit, with the stronger character development that had marked season two. In season three, when a random associate of Elliot Alderson’s was threatened, it felt queasier, or when two of the supporting cast members hooked up, it felt more thrilling.

And I agree with something the Ringer’s Alison Herman recently suggested: Mr. Robot was only able to pull this off because almost nobody was paying attention to it.

On the one hand, the show didn’t have any major twists this season for audiences to second guess. That probably played a part in its relative obscurity, since the twists drove much of the discussion in the first two years. But on the other, the conversation had also moved on. Mr. Robot felt downright prophetic when it debuted in 2015, with its tales of angry, alienated young men and a political system rigged even in the case of revolution. But in season three, it felt a little like a prophet of doom warning you not to continue on your current course as you pass him in your car. You could still hear his shouts, but only barely, and the landscape was on fire up ahead.

What the season did have was a thematic unity that wedded Mr. Robot’s superheroic hacking exploits to its deepest character story, about an isolated young man slowly coming to realize he’s not an island. It revolved around Elliot (the still magnetic Rami Malek, whose performance remains one of TV’s best) attempting to shove the genie he loosed upon the world in the form of a massive economic hack back into the bottle, both because he realized it was the right thing to do and because he had forged stronger connections with those he cares about, from his sister to his former best friend to the imaginary man that lives in his head.

And that deeper, richer story benefited from having more space to unfold in a world that wasn’t so impatient for it to get where it was going. I’d stack the season’s last six episodes against any TV made this year.

In season three, Mr. Robot pulled off almost everything it wanted to pull off in season two, but in far stronger fashion

I am, in general, a Mr. Robot season two apologist, but even I will admit that season two’s early episodes were lengthy slogs that spent way too much time on Elliot trying to reconcile himself with Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), a devilish alternate personality who took the form of his deceased father. It was infuriating TV — conceptually and thematically interesting, but never as gripping on a character level as it needed to be.

But this sort of slump is one that lots of TV shows, from Friday Night Lights to Homeland to Justified, have bounced back from, simply by better integrating their characters and their ideas. You could already see Mr. Robot starting to do this by the end of season two, but it ultimately had to abandon a lot of its “Elliot and Mr. Robot negotiate their relationship with each other” material to succeed. (It’s always been telling that season two’s best episode didn’t feature Elliot at all.)

Indeed, season three begins with the two men not speaking to each other, and Elliot doing his level best to hold off Mr. Robot and prevent him from taking over. He takes his meds. He goes to work every day. He makes himself a good worker bee, in hopes that if he can keep Mr. Robot at bay, the devastating cyberterrorist attack that Mr. Robot and the mysterious Dark Army are planning will never come to fruition.

But Mr. Robot is a TV show. And when you have Slater on the payroll, you’re going to have him do more than just leer menacingly at the camera for a few seconds every episode. So as season three hit its midpoint — where Elliot succeeds in stopping the terrorist attack, but neither he nor Mr. Robot see a far worse one coming — everything Mr. Robot has been about, for better or worse, began to turn itself inside out.

Mr. Robot Peter Kramer/USA Network
Indeed they do.

Mr. Robot learns he’s been played for a patsy by corporate overlords who unleashed a seeming economic revolution to line their own pocketbooks. Elliot vows to return the world to the way it was, as many of his colleagues and friends fall to the Dark Army. And then the two personalities finally start working together, to try to find a way to stop the Dark Army from furthering a plan that seems designed to turn planet Earth into an anarchic wasteland, ruled by super-corporations. Eventually, the finale ends with Elliot seeming to reverse the massive hack from season one, but its post-credits scene suggests that nothing is ever that easy when capitalism is involved.

The standard knock against Mr. Robot in its first season was that its main philosophy, espoused by Elliot, was basically a knockoff of Fight Club — anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist in a way that seemed reactionary at best and completely misinformed at worst. But I always felt that creator Sam Esmail had more up his sleeve. Elliot was right to be suspicious of the capitalist society he lived in, yes, but he was simply being played by different corporate overlords. And nothing is ever as simple as saying, “We need to do this one thing, and everything will be better.” There are always consequences, and there’s always blood in the streets.

Slowly but surely, Esmail and his writing staff have since built a story designed to give Elliot things to lose. He wants to take down the masters of the universe, who rule from their closed-off boardrooms, not just because they’ve built a cruel, exploitative world, but because he believes his sister and friends and imaginary father figure deserve something better. Saving the world can’t be done from behind a computer screen. It’s a movement that begins on the ground, and continues until walls come tumbling down.

Season three was obsessed with the idea of time travel, with the thought of going back in time to undo something, in much the way that Elliot wanted to undo his season one hack. His friend, Angela (Portia Doubleday), seemed, for a time, to actually believe that time travel was possible.

But it was all a red herring. As Elliot walked home to fix the hack, he passed a crowd of people, gathered outside in the rapidly crumbling New York street, to watch the movie Superman in a store window, specifically the scene where Superman flies opposite the Earth’s orbit so quickly that he turns back time and saves Lois Lane’s life. Elliot can’t resurrect anybody, but he can try to reverse time, just a little bit. He can put some things right, then get on to the work of building a better world.

In this way, I think, Mr. Robot sneakily rediscovered its relevance, and I hope as more people catch up with the series on streaming, they’ll spark to that (or maybe to the unexpected but welcome romantic tension between Grace Gummer’s Dom and Carly Chaikin’s Darlene, or maybe to the series’ welcome return to episodes that stand alone as episodes, or maybe to its still thrilling sense of cinematic self, or maybe just to Bobby Cannavale’s deeply weird performance as Dark Army specialist Irving). On Mr. Robot, political, social, personal, and professional awakenings are all the same thing. You can’t save the world, but you can rebuild it, brick by brick.

Mr. Robot season three is available on USA On Demand and will eventually be available on Amazon Prime. Season four arrives in 2018.

The best books the Vox staff read in 2017
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Fiction and nonfiction recommendations to get you through the end of the year.

As 2017 draws to a close, the Vox staff is once again sharing some of the best books we’ve read over the past 12 months. Some of them were published a long time ago, others just earlier this year. They all have one thing in common: In a year with countless news stories, TV shows, movies, podcasts, and other books vying for our attention, these nine titles captured our minds and our imaginations.

Fiction

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi Riverside

Helen Oyeyemi writes darkly shimmering fairy-tale-like books that linger in the back of your mind for a long time after you read them. 2016’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is her first collection of short stories, all loosely organized around the recurring image of a key, and the question of whether it should ever be used to open a forbidden lock. The epigraph urges caution — “Open me carefully,” it says — and so do the titles of the stories: “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think,” one admonishes.

If you choose to open What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, you’ll find yourself reading stories so precisely and exquisitely written, so elegant and shiver-inducing, that they’re worth picking locks for.

—Constance Grady

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo New York Review Books Classics

This book was published in 1963, and its title is straight out of 1863. Also, it’s an intensely Hungarian novel, in translation.

But can I win you over with accolades? Magda Szabo, the celebrated Hungarian author who wrote Iza’s Ballad, earned a spot on pretty much every American critic’s “best of” list in 2015. The accolades for Ali Smith’s translation of Szabo’s The Door, long unknown to English readers, quickly elevated Szabo's status in literary history. If you can only stomach one book in translation, it probably should be The Door, which turns a novel of obsession (think Rebecca) into an intimate exploration of class boundaries.

But Iza’s Ballad, an earlier work, is perhaps even more vital. Its question is as pressing as ever: What place do the aged have in modern society? The book’s singular achievement is Szabo’s refusal to stray from the perspective of her true protagonist, forcing the reader to empathize with a nameless old stubborn, provincial woman, instead of the Iza of the title.

Iza is more relatable to many readers, as the old woman’s urbane daughter who’s trying to care for her mother while keeping a hard-fought place in society. But when Iza goes off to work, leaving her mother in a tiny, cramped apartment in a strange city, it’s the mother’s attempts to simply pass the time that feel all too human.

—Tim Williams

Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman

I wanted to read André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name before I saw the new film adaptation, which came out at Thanksgiving. Both works are excellent, but what Aciman does so well in the novel that’s so hard to achieve in the movie is capture the ache of losing someone. The book makes your heart drop, as its main character, a gay teen named Elio, says goodbye to his first love, Oliver, and then returns home to find that everything is seemingly “normal,” despite its new significance in Elio’s memory: The sheets he and Oliver shared, the spots they sat in, and the paths where they rode bikes all serve as painful reminders of the sorrow in Elio’s heart. Call Me by Your Name isn’t a novel about coming out so much as it is a novel about growing up, and those moments that, for better or worse, remind you of being alive.

—Alex Abad-Santos

Version Control by Dexter Palmer

Dexter Palmer’s Version Control is near-future science fiction, but it’s so near-future that when its protagonist has a flashback to 15 years ago, when she was fresh out of college, she’s recalling what seems like the early 2010s. It’s a big doorstopper of a book with a lot to cover, from the ways Big Data is slowly consuming our lives to the divide between our online and physical selves (if there even is one) to the history of race in America.

But because it’s science fiction, there’s also a time machine — one that our protagonist’s husband would insist we call a “causality violation device” — and the creeping sense that something is wrong in the narrative, that reality is broken and can’t be put back together.

The result is a puzzle, meant to be assembled by the reader, but Palmer smartly uses its inherent narrative fragmentation to reflect how shattered our existence can feel. His approach makes for my favorite kind of book — one that takes place in a mundane, normal world but always has one hand on the curtain between that world and some other one, ready to pull it back at a moment’s notice.

—Todd VanDerWerff

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman Pamela Dorman Books

The neatest trick Gail Honeyman pulls off in her debut novel is to make readers love a character who goes so far out of her way to be unlovable: Eleanor Oliphant has no friends and seems to like it that way, reserving any affection she may bestow on other human beings for the bottles of vodka she relies on to drink herself to sleep at night. She’s as likable as unlikable protagonists get, a prickly loner who never met a person she couldn’t quell with a scathingly hilarious insult, but whose judgmental nature is clearly hiding a wounded core.

Despite what both she and the book’s title will tell you, Eleanor is far from fine, and in a neat twist on the unreliable narrator trope, Honeyman subtly but methodically unpacks her protagonist’s mysterious traumatic past, adding shading and nuance to Eleanor’s unpleasant and occasionally obsessive behavior. It’s a tonal balancing act that she pulls off with aplomb, and makes Eleanor Oliphant the kind of book you’ll want to devour in a single sitting.

—Genevieve Koski

Nonfiction

Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone by Juli Berwald

Spineless by Juli Berwald Riverhead Books

Spineless is a book about jellyfish; there's a new and delightful jellyfish factoid on every page.

It's also a book about author Juli Berwald's rediscovery of her former fascination with jellyfish, of her love for science, and of the sheer joy of learning.

But most impressive of all, it's a book that weaves those two identities together, so that a chapter about jellyfishes’ ability to cycle between their adult and juvenile stages (and the potential that ability holds for human health research) ties into Berwald's attempts to reclaim her science-filled youth.

This book uses descriptions of briny tide pools full of nudibranchs and sea anemones to say, "No, really. It's never too late."

—Byrd Pinkerton

The Danger Within Us: America's Untested, Unregulated Medical Device Industry and One Man's Battle to Survive It by Jeanne Lenzer

There’s a good chance that you either have a medical device — be it an IUD, a pacemaker, a joint replacement, a stent, or any number of others — in your body, or know someone who does. Given their ubiquity and the fact that they typically require a doctor’s help and often surgery to remove, you'd think there would be extensive and rigorous medical testing to ensure each one’s safety.

In The Danger Within Us, Jeanne Lenzer shows this is not the case. She breaks down the history of policies and court cases that created the underregulation problem we now face around these devices. And she does it all by telling a gripping and frustrating story about one man's struggles with a poorly tested device intended to treat his epilepsy ... and with the company that made it.

—Byrd Pinkerton

The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World's Most Coveted Fish by Emily Voigt

The Dragon Behind the Glass by Emily Voigt Scribner

The Dragon Behind the Glass is part sober-minded science journalism and part global safari. The reader follows author Emily Voigt, an accomplished writer and reporter, as she discovers, dislikes, and becomes obsessed with the Asian arowana, the most valuable aquarium fish in the world. (That’s an important distinction, Voigt notes, while sharing a delightful anecdote about how the lowly carp evolved into the flamboyant koi, the most expensive pond fish.)

In her journey to see a Super Red (one of the most elusive types of arowana) in the wild, Voigt meets fellow enthusiasts in Indonesia, Singapore, Borneo, and the Amazon, all the while exploring the complicated realities of conservation and black markets. The characters are unforgettable, from fish dealers to explorers to ichthyologists to pet detectives.

Because it’s a true story, everyone involved in this sometimes wacky, sometimes deadly trade is fundamentally human and flawed, including Voigt herself. Sometimes you lose academics in Panama. Sometimes you change your name to sneak into Myanmar to catch a glimpse of a fish you don’t even like. Sometimes you just want to go to an international fish conference called Aquarama and say hi to a person known as Kenny the Fish, because he’s a fun guy to hang out with. And sometimes, sometimes, you get to discover and name a brand new species. Between the fish facts I later found myself repeating at parties and the surprisingly harrowing narrative, this book is the most fun I’ve had reading in ages.

—Kim Stiens

Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz

It is inexcusable that it took me so long to get to know Eve Babitz, but reading Slow Days, Fast Company during a vacation in Los Angeles this year turned out to be the perfect call. This book of essays might have been published in 1977, but I’ve never witnessed anyone express their insight into and love for LA quite like Babitz does. As she describes her life in a city that many people write off as hopelessly superficial, Babitz is exactly the kind of narrator I love most: as sharp and funny as she is slyly scathing.

—Caroline Framke

Why Meghan Markle’s engagement to Prince Harry is controversial
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Hint: She’s a divorced biracial American who stars in a TV show.

The engagement of Britain’s Prince Harry to actress Meghan Markle is raising eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic for a particularly British set of reasons: She’s a biracial woman who will be the first American divorcée to marry into the royal family in nearly 81 years.

Harry, the 33-year-old second son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, quietly proposed to Markle earlier this month. The royal family announced that Markle will become a British citizen before she marries Harry during a May 19, 2018 ceremony in Windsor Castle. The young couple will live in Nottingham Cottage, part of London’s Kensington Palace.

The famously secretive royal family made the engagement public on Monday. In an interview that evening with the BBC’s Mishal Husain, Markle said she and Harry met in July 2016 on a blind date set up by a mutual friend, then cemented their relationship during a camping trip to Botswana. She said Harry asked her to marry him during what she described as a “cozy night” at home.

"It was so sweet and natural and very romantic. He got down on one knee," she told the BBC. "As a matter of fact, I could barely let you finish proposing. I said, 'Can I say yes now?'"

The engagement sets the stage for the first royal wedding since Harry’s older brother William, the heir to the British throne, married Kate Middleton in 2011. Nearly 23 million Americans watched TV coverage of the wedding, outstripping the number who had watched Charles’s wedding to Diana in 1981 (the ring Harry gave to Markle included several diamonds that had belonged to his late mother).

The engagement also ends months of speculation about the future of Harry’s relationship with Markle, who took the unusual step of cooperating with an extensive Vanity Fair profile earlier this year.

But it won’t end the widespread public interest in the couple. That’s not just a reflection of Harry’s checkered public image (a British soldier who served in Afghanistan, Harry had years earlier sparked controversy for attending a costume party in Nazi regalia).

It’s also a reflection of Markle, who she is — and who she isn’t.

Meet Prince Harry’s new fiancée

Markle is no Kate Middleton, who kept a low public profile while dating William and has seamlessly slid into the public role expected of the woman who will be Britain’s next queen.

That’s not just because Markle hails from Los Angeles — she is also divorced and biracial. Her mother is African American; her father is white.

It’s also because Markle had a high-profile role on the USA Network show Suits and ran the Tig, a lifestyle blog.

Coverage of this prince-meets-commoner courtship in the British tabloids became so lurid that Harry took the unusual step of issuing an official statement in November 2016, four months after they began dating, condemning the “wave of abuse and harassment” his girlfriend had endured.

“Prince Harry is worried about Ms. Markle’s safety and is deeply disappointed that he has not been able to protect her,” the statement said.

There was a reason for that: Many of the attacks were both racist and sexist in tone. Last November, for instance, the Daily Star Online reported that Harry “could marry into gangster royalty — his new love is from a crime ridden Los Angeles neighborhood.”

Markle, for her part, wasn’t the shy and retiring type. In the Vanity Fair profile, she said the enormous media interest she faces because of her relationship with Harry “has its challenges, and it comes in waves — some days it can feel more challenging than others.”

One reason for those challenges: Markle’s divorce means she will make history when she marries Harry next year.

It’s not the first time for a British royal to marry an American divorcée

Markle will in some ways be following in the footsteps of Wallis Simpson, a divorced American woman who married into the British royal family nearly 81 years ago. Then-King Edward VIII abdicated the throne rather than end the relationship.

The relationship scandalized Britain, in part because Simpson was still technically married to her husband when she started the relationship with Edward. (They got divorced in May 1937, nearly six months after Edward abdicated.)

There’s no such scandal here; Markle was divorced before she started dating Harry. Assuming the nuptials go ahead as planned, the upcoming royal wedding will be a clear test of how much British public opinion has shifted in 81 years, and of just how different — or how similar — the Britain of 2018 will be to the Britain of 1936.


Correction: An earlier version of this story wrongly stated that Markle’s father is Jewish.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: where we last left all the key players
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

It’s been a long two years.

This week, moviegoers will return to that magical galaxy far, far away when Star Wars: The Last Jedi hits theaters on Friday, December 15.

For Star Wars fanatics, the two-year wait between The Last Jedi and 2015’s The Force Awakens has been excruciating. Star Wars fans’ fealty to the franchise is well-documented, and they’ve been analyzing every single second of every interview and trailer, positing theories as to what’s going to happen in director Rian Johnson’s new installment and trying to uncover the movie’s biggest mysteries.

But not all of us have the encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars stans, and two years is plenty of time in which to forget some, or many, of the details of The Force Awakens. So for those who haven’t been obsessively revisiting the film in preparation for The Last Jedi, here’s a crash course in what the major players were up to when we last saw them.

The First Order is preparing to strike back

Stormtroopers Lucasfilm/Disney

Star Wars is, of course, about individual journeys, awakenings, and growing up. But those all happen in the context of a bigger galactic struggle.

In The Force Awakens, we learned that after the galactic civil war some 30 years ago — which served as the basis for the first Star Wars trilogy — the villainous First Order has risen up and wants to get rid of the democratic state currently known as the New Republic. Wary of an all-out war and not fully aware of the threat that the First Order presents, the New Republic is discreetly supporting the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher).

In The Force Awakens, the First Order uses its Starkiller Base to wipe out Hosnian Prime, the capital of the New Republic. Now aware of the immense power of the Starkiller base, the Resistance figures out a way to destroy it and, for the moment, save themselves.

The question going into The Last Jedi isn’t whether the First Order will strike back but what the scope of its vengeance will be. The villains are smarting from defeat, but they, led by the sinister Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), will certainly have a plan to strike back with a fury. Everyone — including the Resistance and Organa — knows that this is coming, regardless of whether they’re prepared.

Rey went around the galaxy to find Luke Skywalker

 Lucasfilm/Disney

The Force Awakens presented us with two giant mysteries: the current location of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and the origin of new protagonist Rey (Daisy Ridley). Sensing the danger that the First Order presents, Organa is looking for her Jedi brother for some help. Thanks to a map assembled by helpful droids BB-8 and R2-D2, Rey finds him on a mountain island called Ahch-To and presents him with a lightsaber.

But from what we see in the Last Jedi trailer, this likely isn’t going to be a sunny meeting, with Skywalker telling Rey, “It’s time for the Jedi to end.”

That’s probably not the way anyone saw this meeting happening, but it’s understandable: Skywalker is still haunted by the betrayal of his apprentice and nephew Ben Solo, a.k.a. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the son of Leia and Han Solo (Harrison Ford). Skywalker created a Jedi Academy, trained Solo, and then saw Kylo Ren slaughter all his trainees. Consequently, seeing a future apprentice on his doorstep while dealing with the trauma Solo/Ren inflicted isn’t going to be easy for Skywalker.

With Skywalker meeting Rey, fans are hoping this will give us some insight into Rey’s parentage or origin, and why she’s such a powerful wielder of the Force. The Force Awakens ultimately didn’t tell us all that much about Rey other than that a lot of people, both good and bad, believe she’s powerful and important to the universe — but no one has told us precisely why. Skywalker, a powerful Jedi himself, might know something about her, or perhaps lead her to realize the power she wields. But odds are she’s going to have to save him from his own darkness first.

The Solo family is broken, and so is Chewie

Han and Leia hug. Lucasfilm/Disney

The Force Awakens wasn’t a good chapter for the Solos.

After the end of Return of the Jedi and the galactic civil war, Han Solo and Leia Organa officially acted upon the romance brewing throughout the first Star Wars trilogy. They got married and had Ben, but unfortunately they didn’t live happily ever after.

Their son’s turn to the dark side drove a wedge between the two, with Leia leading the Resistance and Han zipping through space with his trusted wingman Chewbacca. And though The Force Awakens gave us reunions between both Leia and Han and Han and Kylo, it ended with Kylo being the absolute worst and killing his dad while Chewie watched.

Kylo, after killing Han and being bested in combat by Rey, has to report back to Snoke in Last Jedi. That in itself will give us more insight into his character and perhaps some background as to how Snoke rose to power and asserted himself as leader of the First Order.

Leia still has to be the brave face of the Resistance, but also deal with her villainous son and the loss of the love of her life. Complicating that is the question of how the franchise will deal with the death of the irreplaceable Fisher, who died around this time last year. According to interviews, Laura Dern’s character Admiral Holdo will, at least temporarily, lead the Resistance, providing our first glimpse of how Star Wars might proceed without Fisher.

The galaxy’s premier bromance returns

The couple with the most chemistry in The Force Awakens was John Boyega’s Finn, a.k.a. former Stormtrooper FN-2187, and Resistance pilot and BFF to BB-8 Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Finn, having a change of heart and existential crisis, saves Poe and crashes on the planet Jakku, where they’re separated. They later reunite in GIF-worthy fashion for the Resistance’s big attempt to destroy the First Order’s Starkiller.

In the middle of that fight, Finn takes on Kylo Ren and is beaten pretty badly. But his sacrifice wakes up something in Rey, who avenges her friend’s defeat.

Finn is currently healing from his injuries in the medical ward. Meanwhile, his bro-friend Poe is a hero after hitting the shot that destroyed the Starkiller. But this victory is probably short-lived, with a bigger battle on the horizon.

When it comes to whether Finn and Poe are going to take their obvious bromance to the next level (assuming Finn wakes up), Isaac himself gave a pretty positive “no” during the promotional tour for The Last Jedi. He told Collider:

What it means to me is that people can see themselves in a hero like this, in a movie like this. Which I love. Not only LGBT but Latinos ... that there's a representation out there for that.

As to actually seeing how that manifests itself in Poe, in this film, that isn't necessarily going to be a clear story point. But as an actor, and for me, I'm very open to those possibly storylines and I don't think it needs to be nailed down in any kind of traditional way.

Essentially, Isaac is happy that his character is a figure of representation for people who don’t necessarily often see themselves on the silver screen, but don’t expect to see any confirmation of those Poe-Finn fan theories in The Last Jedi.

That said, whether or not Poe and Finn find romance or Luke reveals Rey’s past or Leia mourns the love of her life while fighting the First Order, fans will want to see it for themselves. When the movie hits theaters on Friday, December 15, we’ll find out for sure what happens to all of these beloved characters — and can start speculating about their fate in Episode IX.

Trumpism never existed. It was always just Trump.
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

But Steve Bannon doesn’t know that yet.

The special Senate election in Alabama had everything. It had Roy Moore, a twice-fired former state Supreme Court justice who believes that non-Christians should be stripped of their right to serve in Congress. It had allegations of sexual misconduct committed by Moore, to which Moore’s denials grew increasingly unbelievable. It had Steve Bannon, who viewed his full-throated support for Moore as part of his battle against “establishment” Republicans. It had extra-Biblical understandings of the relationship between the Virgin Mary and Joseph, a poorly ridden horse, and a Democratic candidate running a liberal campaign in one of the most conservative states in the country — and winning.

What it did not have was Donald Trump.

Of course, Donald Trump was involved. He recorded a robocall message urging his supporters to vote for Roy Moore (and many of his supporters did, mostly in order to show support for Trump. He stumped for Moore in neighboring Florida. But he wasn’t visiting fish fries in Mobile or evangelical churches in Theodore. And he was not running for Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat.

Roy Moore lost for many reasons. But one is that he attempted to run a Trumpian campaign without being Donald J. Trump. A feat which, once again, has proved impossible.

Trumpism is not a political ideology. It’s a fairy tale.

I’ve argued before that there is no such thing as “Trumpism,” no real political theory that underpinned Trump’s 2016 campaign, or his identity while in office. In August of this year, I wrote:

Trumpism was made out of whole cloth, by his supporters and by his detractors, cobbled together from an amalgamation of The Art of the Deal and divinations of Trump’s innermost thoughts based on his staffing decisions and tweets. Trumpism was less an interpretation of another language than a wholly invented phrasebook for a language that was never real in the first place. Trump’s genius was in letting millions of people largely believe what they wanted to believe about his policies and preferences and refusing to get in the way.

“Making America Great Again” became a sort of Rorschach test in 2016. Some voters looked at “Trumpism” and saw a means of getting better health care, or better trade deals, or keeping their jobs. Some even looked at Trump and saw a pro-LGBTQ candidate in the same man evangelical Christians viewed as a hero in waiting. His opponents worried about the potential power of Trump’s populist appeal, too. David Frum wrote in the Atlantic earlier this year that a populist agenda — massive spending on infrastructure, combined with massive tax cuts and a heavily restrictionist immigration policy and economic protectionism — would ensure Trump a second term in office.

But Trump’s own “Trumpism” seemed to die a rapid death when Trump entered office. While doing markedly little abroad to earn his campaign reputation as a foreign policy “dove,” President Trump has supported a markedly unpopular health care policy and a tax bill aligned with long-standing GOP priorities while doing very little on trade. As Trump has jostled with journalists and black athletes on Twitter, the long-promised massive infrastructure investment has yet to take place, NAFTA remains intact, and China has yet to be named a currency manipulator. (And, of course, the wall remains unbuilt.)

The “Trumpism” of the 2016 presidential campaign was thus largely imaginary, a selling point rather than an overarching policy.

This is the reason why so many GOP members of Congress have voted with Trump in 2017: Not because they are supporting a Trumpian agenda, but because Trump has largely governed as a pretty standard conservative Republican. While conservative priorities — like deregulation and nominating conservative judges — have been more or less successfully brought to fruition, the last remaining fragment of “Trumpism” appears to be Donald Trump’s exceedingly pugnacious Twitter feed.

No wonder that Trump’s popularity with Republicans — and, more importantly to the concept of “Trumpism” being an alternative to Paul Ryan-esque conservatism, Independents — has dropped precipitously. Trump had 42 percent job approval ratings from independents in January. That number has dropped to 32 percent, a number President George W. Bush didn’t reach until 2005.

“Trumpism” wasn’t an ideology. It was a means to an end, the promises one makes when trying to win an election, not change the face of politics. And only Trump could use it. Only Trump could tell Americans that America wasn’t great and be greeted with rapturous applause by those most in touch with their patriotism, though Roy Moore tried. Only Trump could make promises so grandiose that they exceeded the very boundaries of fact-checking.

Bannon keeps trying to make Trumpism bigger than Trump, and failing

But the purported architect of Trump’s electoral victory believes “Trumpism” is a template, even though so far he’s had markedly little success since November of 2016. Bannon believes that “Trumpism” exists, and moreover, he believes that he can take on Mitch McConnell, Bob Corker, Paul Ryan, and the entire Republican Party with it.

Never mind that besides Trump, Bannon has little evidence of his political kingmaking.

Here’s his track record so far:

Roy Moore ran an entirely Trumpian campaign: a stylistic embrace of a brash, bombastic sentiment, an opposition to “political correctness” (and frequently, basic decency), and fully supportive of nationalistic populism. He railed against “globalists,” the “establishment,” “elites,” and Mitch McConnell with the same vigor that he typically used against LGBTQ people. He was more than willing to describe America as a failed state only he and his followers could rescue. (Of course, that’s not new for Moore: In a poem from 2007, Moore wrote, “You think that God’s not angry, that our land’s a moral slum? / How much longer will it be before His judgment comes?”)

He decried the “fake news” media. He was tough on immigration while knowing markedly little about immigration policy. He whipped out a gun on stage to show his support for the Second Amendment. When allegations of sexual assault were raised against him, he denied them vociferously and called his accusers liars. He followed the Trump script to the letter — and lost. Trump could be credibly accused of sexual assault and win an election. But Moore couldn’t.

And yet Bannon and some others are still clinging to the idea that they can recreate Trump’s rise, and do so without Trump himself.

Singularity

Much has been made (particularly on the right) of President Barack Obama’s “singularity.” This concept focuses on his victory for two consecutive terms in the White House while his party suffered historic defeats in Congress and in statehouses and governors’ mansions across the country, and how his personal popularity didn’t seem to translate into Democratic success.

From his debut on the national stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama seemed to speak a new language, one of apolitical hope and nonpartisan ideals, and the promise of change to an ineffectual status quo. He delivered on some of his promises, but not all. And his claim that he could fundamentally change our politics never came to pass. And he knew it, too.

President Obama seemed to eventually acknowledge that he could say what others couldn’t, and garner real faith — a faith beyond politics — from his supporters. But his words couldn’t make the leap into reality. He had an agenda and a policy, but he became, to many liberals, something of a disappointment.

This led to the rise of the Bernie Sanders wing within the Democratic Party and the increasing popularity of left-wing groups outside of the party. President Obama, then, wasn’t a movement. He was a man, unique and unreplicable. A lot, in that way (and that way alone), like Trump.

Trumpism is really just Trump.

A year after his win, it appears that Trump — and “Trumpism” — is much the same. His electoral victory wasn’t a clarion call or the launch-point of a new political order. Trump won office because of a confluence of factors unlikely to be repeated. An opponent under FBI investigation. A news media attracted to Trump’s existing fame and willing to give him near unceasing airtime, treating him like a sideshow rather than a real threat to win political office. A heavily racialized campaign that seemed to use foghorns, not dog whistles.

And of course, Trump’s own unique willingness to make promises rooted not in policy, but audience applause. Sure, Mexico is never, ever going to pay for a wall along the United States’ Southern border, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

The only real “Trumpist” politician is Trump himself, because “Trumpism” was merely an extension of his own personality: irrational confidence and overwhelming paranoia existing simultaneously. But Steve Bannon will keep looking for another such politician. And failing.

The 21 best movies of 2017
December 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

From Lady Bird and Dunkirk to Get Out and The Big Sick, it was an extraordinary year at the movies.

In the introduction to her review anthology For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies, the legendary film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.” She meant what most movie critics realize at some point: that reading your past reviews and revisiting the lists of films you liked most during the year reveals not just something about a particular year in cinema, but something about you as well.

That’s the feeling I get constructing my list of the best films of 2017, a year that overflowed with great films in every genre, from horror and romantic comedy to documentary and arthouse drama. Some of the films on my list have commonalities — ghosts, meditations on memory and interpersonal connection, and women who refuse to behave — but mostly they underscore just how vibrant cinema remains as an art form, even in the midst of massive cultural shifts in the industry and beyond. And it is a keen reminder to me of all the 2017 conversations I’ve had around and at the movies — and the ways I will never be the same.

Here are my top 21 films of 2017, with 14 honorable mentions.

21) Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I am as shocked as anyone that a Star Wars movie found its way onto my list — but I was bowled over by The Last Jedi, which may be one of the series’ best. In the hands of writer-director Rian Johnson (who will also oversee a new Star Wars trilogy), The Last Jedi is beautiful to look at and keeps its eye on the relationships between characters and how they communicate with one another, in addition to the bigger galactic story. The same characters are back, but they seem infused with new life, and the galaxy with a new kind of hope. The movie’s best details are in the strong bonds that develop between characters, and I left the film with the realization that for the first time in my life, I loved a Star Wars movie. Now I understand the magic.

20) Faces Places

The unusual documentary Faces Places (in French, Visages Villages) turns on the friendship between the accomplished street artist JR and legendary film director Agnès Varda, whose work was central to the development of the French New Wave movement. The pair (whose difference in age is 55 years) met after years of admiring each other’s work and decided to create a documentary portrait of France — by making a number of actual portraits. The film chronicles a leg of the "Inside Outside Project," a roving art initiative in which JR makes enormous portraits of people he meets and pastes them onto buildings and walls. In the film, Varda joins him, and as they talk to people around the country, they grow in their understanding of themselves and of each other. The development of their friendship, which is both affectionate and mutually sharpening, forms Faces Places’ emotional center.

19) Ingrid Goes West

Ingrid Goes West is a twisted and dark comedy — part addiction narrative, part stalker story — and yet it’s set in a world that’s almost pathologically cheery: the glossy, sunny, nourishing, superfood- and superlative-loving universe of Instagram celebrity. But despite Ingrid Goes West’s spot-on take on that world, the best thing about the film is that it refuses to traffic in lazy buzzwords and easy skewering, particularly at the expense of young women. Instead, the movie conveys that behind every Instagram image and meltdown is a real person, with real insecurities, real feelings, and real problems. And it recognizes that living a life performed in public can be its own kind of self-deluding prison.

18) Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth is no placid costume drama. Adapted from an 1865 Russian novella by Nikolai Leskov, the movie follows Katherine (the astounding Florence Pugh), a woman in the Lady Macbeth line characterized by a potent cocktail of very few scruples and a lot of determination. She's a chilling avatar for the ways that class and privilege — both obvious and hidden — insulate some people from the consequences of their actions while damning others. Lady Macbeth is also a dazzling directorial debut from William Oldroyd, a thrilling combination of sex, murder, intrigue, and power plays. It’s visually stunning, each frame composed so carefully and deliberately that the wildness and danger roiling just below the surface feels even more frightening. Each scene ratchets up the tension to an explosive, chilling end.

17) BPM (Beats Per Minute)

BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a remarkably tender and stirring story of the Paris chapter of ACT UP, an AIDS activism group, and the young people who found themselves caught in the crosshairs of the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s. The film follows both the group's actions and the individual members’ shifting relationships to one another — enemies becoming friends, friends becoming lovers, lovers becoming caretakers — as well as their struggles with the disease wracking their community. As an account of the period, it’s riveting; as an exploration of life and love set at the urgent intersection of the political and the personal, it’s devastating.

16) The Big Sick

Few 2017 movies could top the charm and tenderness of The Big Sick, which hits all the right romantic comedy notes with one unusual distinction: It feels like real life. That’s probably because The Big Sick is written by real-life married couple Emily V. Gordon and Silicon Valley's Kumail Nanjiani, and based on their real-life romance. The Big Sick — which stars Nanjiani as a version of himself, alongside Zoe Kazan as Emily — is funny and sweet while not backing away from matters that romantic comedies don’t usually touch on, like serious illness, struggles in long-term marriages, and religion. As it tells the couple’s story, which takes a serious turn when Emily falls ill with a mysterious infection and her parents (played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) come to town, it becomes a funny and wise story about real love.

15) Mother!

There’s so much pulsing beneath the surface of Mother! that it’s hard to grab on to just one theme as what it “means.” It’s full-on apocalyptic fiction, and like all stories of apocalypse, it’s intended to draw back the veil on reality and show us what’s really beneath. And this movie gets wild: If its gleeful cracking apart of traditional theologies doesn’t get you (there’s a lot of Catholic folk imagery here, complete with an Ash Wednesday-like mud smearing on the foreheads of the faithful), its bonkers scenes of chaos probably will. Mother! is a movie designed to provoke fury, ecstasy, madness, catharsis, and more than a little awe. Watching it, and then participating in the flurry of arguments and discussions unpacking it, was among my best moviegoing experiences of 2017.

14) A Ghost Story

Director David Lowery filmed A Ghost Story in secret, then premiered it at the Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim. The movie starts out being about a grieving widow (Rooney Mara) trying to live through the pain of losing her beloved husband, but it soon shifts focus to the ghost of her husband (Casey Affleck, covered in a sheet), evolving into a compelling rumination on the nature of time, memory, history, and the universe. Bathed in warm humor and wistful longing, it's a film that stays with you long after it’s over, a lingering reminder of the inextricable link between love and place.

13) The Square

12) Dunkirk

Dunkirk, a true cinematic achievement from acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, backs off conventional notions of narrative and chronology as much as possible, while leaning headfirst into everything else that makes a movie a visceral work of art aimed at the senses: the images, the sounds, the scale, the swelling vibrations of it all. You can’t smell the sea spray, but your brain may trick you into thinking you can. Nolan’s camera pushes the edges of the screen as far as it can as Dunkirk engulfs the audience in something that feels like a lot more than a war movie. It’s a symphony for the brave and broken, and it resolves in a major key — but one with an undercurrent of sorrow, and of sober warning. Courage in the face of danger is not just for characters in movies.

11) Rat Film

Rat Film is about rats, yes — and rat poison experts and rat hunters and people who keep rats as pets. But it’s also about the history of eugenics, dubious science, “redlining,” and segregated housing in Baltimore. All these pieces come together to form one big essay, where the meaning of each vignette only becomes clearer in light of the whole. It’s a fast-paced, no-holds-barred exploration of a damning history, and it accrues meaning as the images, sounds, and text pile up.

10) A Quiet Passion

A Quiet Passion is technically a biographical film about Emily Dickinson, but it transcends its genre to become something more like poetry. It’s a perplexing and challenging film, crafted without the traditional guardrails that guide most biographical movies — dates, times, major accomplishments, and so on. Time slips away in the film almost imperceptibly, and the narrative arc doesn’t yield easily to the viewer. Cynthia Nixon plays Emily Dickinson, whose poetry and life is a perfect match for the signature style of director Terence Davies: rich in detail, deeply enigmatic, and weighed down with a kind of sparkling, joy-tinged sorrow. A Quiet Passion is a portrait, both visual and narrative, of the kind of saint most modern people can understand: one who is certain of her uncertainty, and yearning to walk the path on which her passion and longing meet.

9) Columbus

Columbus is a stunner of a debut from video essayist turned director Kogonada. Haley Lu Richardson stars as Casey, a young woman living in Columbus, Indiana, who cares for her mother, works at a library, and harbors a passion for architecture. (Columbus is a mecca for modernist architecture scholars and enthusiasts.) When a visiting architecture scholar falls into a coma in Columbus, his estranged son Jin (John Cho) arrives to wait for him and strikes up a friendship with Casey, who starts to show him her favorite buildings. The two begin to unlock something in each other that’s hard to define but life-changing for both. Columbus is beautiful and subtle, letting us feel how the places we build and the people we let near us move and mold us.

8) The Florida Project

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project unfolds at first like a series of sketches about the characters who live in a purple-painted, $35-a-night motel called the Magic Castle down the street from Disney World. The film is held together by the hysterical antics of a kid named Moonee and her pack of young friends, as well as long-suffering hotel manager Bobby (a splendid, warm Willem Dafoe), who tries to put up with it all while keeping some kind of order. But as The Florida Project goes on, a narrative starts to form, one that chronicles with heartbreaking attention the sort of dilemmas that face poor parents and their children in America, and the broken systems that try to cope with impossible situations.

7) Call Me by Your Name

Luca Guadagnino’s gorgeous film Call Me by Your Name adapts André Aciman’s 2007 novel about a precocious 17-year-old named Elio (Timothée Chalamet), who falls in lust and love with his father’s 24-year-old graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer). It’s remarkable for how it turns literature into pure cinema, all emotion and image and heady sensation. Set in 1983 in Northern Italy, Call Me by Your Name is less about coming out than coming of age, but it also captures a particular sort of love that’s equal parts passion and torment, a kind of irrational heart fire that opens a gate into something longer-lasting. The film is a lush, heady experience for the body, but it’s also an arousal for the soul.

6) Personal Shopper

In her second collaboration with French director Olivier Assayas, Kristen Stewart plays a personal shopper to a wealthy socialite, with a sideline as an amateur ghost hunter who’s searching for her dead twin brother. Personal Shopper is deeper than it seems at first blush, a meditation on grief and an exploration of “between” places — on the fringes of wealth, and in the space between life and death. Some souls are linked in a way that can’t be shaken, and whether or not there’s an afterlife doesn’t change the fact that we see and sense them everywhere. (Personal Shopper also has one of the tensest extended scenes involving text messaging ever seen onscreen.)

5) Princess Cyd

Stephen Cone is a master of small, carefully realized filmmaking; his earlier films such as The Wise Kids and Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party combine an unusual level of empathy for his characters with an unusual combination of interests: love, desire, sexual awakenings, and religion. Princess Cyd is his most accomplished film yet, about a young woman named Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) who finds herself attracted to Katie (Malic White), a barista, while visiting her Aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence, playing a character modeled on the author Marilynne Robinson) in Chicago. As she works through her own sexual awakening with Katie, Cyd unwinds some of the ways Miranda’s life has gotten too safe. They provoke each other while forming a bond and being prodded toward a bigger understanding of the world. It is a graceful and honest film, and it feels like a modest miracle.

4) Get Out

Racism is sinister, frightening, and deadly. But Get Out (a stunning directorial debut from Key & Peele's Jordan Peele) isn’t about the blatantly, obviously scary kind of racism — burning crosses and lynchings and snarling hate. Instead, it’s interested in showing how the parts of racism that try to be aggressively unscary are just as horrifying, and it’s interested in making us feel that horror in a visceral, bodily way. In the tradition of the best classic social thrillers, Get Out takes a topic that is often approached cerebrally — casual racism — and turns it into something you feel in your tummy. And it does it with a wicked sense of humor.

3) The Work

The Work is an outstanding, astonishing accomplishment and a viewing experience that will leave you shaken (but in a good way). At Folsom Prison in California, incarcerated men regularly participate in group therapy, and each year other men from the “outside” apply to participate in an intense four-day period of group therapy alongside Folsom’s inmates. The Work spends almost all of its time inside the room where that therapy happens, observing the strong, visceral, and sometimes violent emotions the men feel as they expose the hurt and raw nerves that have shaped how they encounter the world. Watching is not always easy, but by letting us peek in, the film invites viewers to become part of the experience — as if we, too, are being asked to let go.

2) Ex Libris

Frederick Wiseman is one of the towering giants of nonfiction film, a keen observer of American institutions — ranging from prisons to dance companies to welfare offices — for the past half-century. Ex Libris is his mesmerizing look at the New York Public Library and the many functions it fills, which go far beyond housing books. Wiseman works in the observational mode, which means his films contain no captions, dates, or talking-head interviews: We just see what his camera captured, which in this case includes community meetings, benefit dinners, after-school programs, readings with authors and scholars (including Richard Dawkins and Ta-Nehisi Coates), and NYPL patrons going about their business in the library’s branches all over the city. The result is almost hypnotic and, perhaps surprisingly, deeply moving. It makes a case for having faith in the public institutions where ordinary people work — away from the limelight, without trying to score political points — in order to make our communities truly better.

1) Lady Bird

Lady Bird topped my list almost instantly, and only rose in my estimation on repeated viewings. For many who saw it (including me), it felt like a movie made not just for but about me. Lady Bird is a masterful, exquisite coming-of-age comedy starring the great Saoirse Ronan as Christine — or “Lady Bird,” as she’s re-christened herself — and it’s as funny, smart, and filled with yearning as its heroine. Writer-director Greta Gerwig made the film as an act of love, not just toward her hometown of Sacramento but also toward girlhood, and toward the feeling of always being on the outside of wherever real life is happening. Lady Bird is the rare movie that manages to be affectionate, entertaining, hilarious, witty, and confident. And one line from it struck me as the guiding principle of many of the year’s best films: “Don’t you think they are the same thing? Love, and attention?”

Honorable mentions: Marjorie Prime, Phantom Thread, Casting JonBenet, The Post, The Shape of Water, Logan Lucky, I, Tonya, The Lost City of Z, Graduation, Spettacolo, Loveless, Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, In Transit, The Reagan Show