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17 May 20:08

The stunning past 24 hours in Trump-Russia and Michael Cohen news, explained

by Alex Ward
President Donald Trump’s lawyer and former fixer Michael Cohen.

There’s even a mystery about bank records.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia reached the one-year mark on Thursday.

But based on events over the past day, it seems like his probe won’t be drawing to a close anytime soon.

On Wednesday, Trump’s newest personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told CNN that Mueller cannot indict Trump. If true, the president may not face criminal charges while he sits in the Oval Office.

Also on Wednesday, the New Yorker reported that another Trump lawyer, Michael Cohen, apparently received more money from companies seeking access to Trump than was previously reported. But, mysteriously, reports detailing those payments may have disappeared from a vital government database.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported that Cohen had received payments from a South Korean aerospace company that bid for a US Air Force contract. The FBI is reportedly looking into that arrangement.

The Intercept also spoke with a Qatari investor who said he had received an odd request from Cohen: a $1 million payment in exchange for his consulting services.

Finally, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee backed the assessment of American spies that Russia tried to help Trump win the 2016 presidential election. That buttresses the intelligence community against attacks from the president and his loyalists, who say that all Trump-Russia talk is a “witch hunt.”

If you missed any of it because you wanted to watch the NBA playoffs or just couldn’t keep up with Wednesday’s deluge of news, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.

Giuliani says Mueller can’t indict Trump

President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani says special counsel Robert Mueller won’t indict a sitting president. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani says special counsel Robert Mueller won’t indict a sitting president.

Even if Mueller finds evidence that he could use to charge Trump with a crime, the special counsel won’t indict the president.

At least that’s what Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, told CNN on Tuesday. In an interview, Giuliani said that Mueller’s team concluded it cannot indict a sitting president based on existing Justice Department guidelines. “All they get to do is write a report,” he said. “They can’t indict. At least they acknowledged that to us after some battling, they acknowledged that to us.”

If he’s correct, that’s a big deal. Investigators have already charged 22 people and companies with a crime, obtained five guilty pleas, and even imprisoned one person. But it’s possible that Trump won’t meet a similar fate even if it’s determined he likely committed a crime. It’s not yet known if Mueller has any evidence of that kind, though.

But Neal Katyal, who actually drafted the special counsel regulations, says Mueller could ask Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the investigation, to indict Trump if needed.

“The Special Counsel regs, which I drafted, do NOT say DOJ policy must always be followed. They say that a Special Counsel can ask Acting AG (Rod Rosenstein) for permission to depart from DOJ policy and rules,” Katyal tweeted on Wednesday evening. “If Mueller has the goods on Trump,” he continued, “I think he will ask Acting AG to indict. The regs put a thumb on the scale in favor of Mueller doing so. If Rosenstein says no, it triggers a report to Congress-both majority and minority parties.”

Let’s be clear about what Katyal is saying: Despite current Justice Department guidelines, Mueller could request to indict the president if he sees reason to do so — and Rosenstein could accept that recommendation.

If that scenario plays out, expect a massive legal fight between the president and the DOJ, the likes of which have never been seen before in modern American history.

Recall, though, that Mueller is only required by law to deliver a confidential report to Rosenstein. Rosenstein has no obligation to send the report to Congress or tell the public about it, which means that much of what Mueller uncovers may remain a secret.

Rosenstein, the DOJ’s No. 2, could choose to make some or all of the report public, but he’s only required to notify Congress if Mueller proposes some action that is “so inappropriate or unwarranted” under Justice Department rules “that it should not be pursued.” So unless the special counsel does something Rosenstein finds objectionable, Rosenstein can keep the report under wraps.

But if Rosenstein did send the report to the GOP-led Congress, it could turn into quite the political spectacle. The highly partisan House of Representatives could choose to impeach Trump if there’s something truly damning in the Mueller report, at which point the Senate would start a trial (yes, seriously) that could end up with a decision to indict the president.

If that happens, Trump must leave office, according to the New York Times, and Vice President Mike Pence becomes the new commander in chief.

Make no mistake: We’re far, far, far away from anything like that. But the fact that we can even have a conversation like this “is astounding,” as Katyal also tweeted.

Reports that contain Cohen’s financial transactions may be missing

The US Department of Treasury, which houses the database. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The US Department of Treasury, which houses the database.

A report by the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow indicated that something odd happened to some of Michael Cohen’s financial records. Cohen, if you recall, is one of Trump’s lawyers and is widely considered his “fixer.”

Here’s what we now know: Two of three “suspicious activity reports” — known as SARs — with details of Cohen’s financial transactions aren’t in a sacrosanct government database. That seemed odd. Those records, filed by banks with the Treasury Department due to suspicions of a financial crime, are believed to be in the database for law enforcement officials to find.

One document leaked last week by an unnamed law enforcement official showed that Cohen received nearly $1 million from multiple companies from September 2017 to January 2018. Cohen marketed himself as someone close to Trump who could help organizations understand the president’s thinking on important policy issues, and set up a shell company, Essential Consultants LLC, to receive payments for his labor.

But that report also mentioned two other documents that were not yet public. Here’s the thing: The law enforcement official couldn’t find those two reports in the government database, and led the official to speak to Farrow.

The fact that those reports went missing led the official to come forward. “I have never seen something pulled off the system,” the unnamed official said to the New Yorker. “That system is a safeguard for the bank. It’s a stockpile of information. When something’s not there that should be, I immediately became concerned. ... That’s why I came forward.”

But the Treasury Department pushed back on that narrative, saying “Under longstanding procedures, [Treasury] will limit access to certain SARs when requested by law enforcement authorities in connection with an ongoing investigation.”

Those records not in the database detail that Cohen received around $3 million in payments from other organizations, according to the New Yorker — three times more than outlets reported last week:

The first report that the official was unable to locate, which covered almost seven months, appears to have listed a little over a million dollars in activity. The second report that the official was unable to locate, which investigated a three-month period between June and September of 2017, found suspect transfers totalling more than two million dollars.

The Treasury Department launched an inquiry into the leak last week.

Benjamin Wittes, who leads the national security law website Lawfare, was skeptical of allegations of foul play on Wednesday night.

He continued later in the Twitter thread: “[W]ere such a data loss to be discovered — as I’m pretty sure it would be if such records were under scrutiny — and the destruction were intentional and malicious, that would likely be traceable. That’s the sort of the thing prosecutors will find very interesting.”

So it seems like there was nothing malicious afoot. Still, Cohen made a lot of money selling insight and access to Trump — a pretty swampy thing to do. Which brings us to ...

Cohen was on a South Korean company’s payroll

A man touch model of FA-50 by Korea Aerospace Industries is displayed at the Singapore Airshow on February 13, 2014 in Singapore. Yuli Seperi/Getty Images
A man touch model of FA-50 by Korea Aerospace Industries is displayed at the Singapore Airshow on February 13, 2014.

According to the Washington Post, the FBI is investigating Cohen’s deal with the South Korean firm Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI).

A California man claims he served as a translator between Cohen and the company, and that KAI paid Cohen $150,000 to help with “legal advice related to US accounting procedures.” But as the Washington Post notes, “Cohen has no known experience in government accounting.”

Mark Ko, the self-described translator, says the FBI interviewed him last week. If true, it likely occurred as part of the agency’s ongoing investigation into Cohen.

KAI is owned by the South Korean government. It has partnered with the US defense contracting giant Lockheed Martin on a bid for a US Air Force contract possibly worth more than $16 billion. KAI says hiring Cohen had nothing to do with that bid.

The South Korean company defended hiring Cohen, although it oddly claimed it didn’t know Cohen had a connection to Trump.

Yeah, okay.

Cohen asked for $1 million to help with a Qatari-funded infrastructure project

Rusted rivets are seen on the underside of the Golden Gate Bridge on May 24, 2012 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Rusted rivets are seen on the underside of the Golden Gate Bridge on May 24, 2012, in San Francisco.

During his presidential campaign, Trump promised he would enact a massive infrastructure plan to help rebuild the creaking parts of America. After the election, Cohen apparently wanted to help with that — for a price.

On Wednesday night, the Intercept reported its interview with Qatari investor Ahmed al-Rumaihi.

It turns out that al-Rumaihi and Cohen spoke multiple times in December 2016 to see if they could discuss where Qatar might fund American infrastructure projects. Trump would like that, the Intercept reports Cohen claiming, because it would “show that Trump was already making America great again by bringing in foreign investment and creating American jobs.”

But before discussions went much further, Cohen apparently requested a $1 million fee. Al-Rumaihi never paid it.

Cohen denies all of it. “These falsehoods and gross inaccuracies are only being written in the hopes of maligning me for sensationalistic purposes. The truth will prevail and will ultimately be proven in court and not by pundits,” Cohen told the Intercept.

But if this is true, it shows that Cohen repeatedly used his closeness to Trump for his own personal gain. And what’s worse, Cohen tried to profit off an infrastructure conversation that, had it turned into something real, may have helped downtrodden parts of the United States.

It seems the swamp has drained right into the president’s inner circle.

A top Senate committee says Russia tried to help Trump win the 2016 presidential election

The two leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee: Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-VA). Alex Wong/Getty Images
The two leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee: Chair Richard Burr (R-NC), right, and Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-VA).

Russia tried to help Donald Trump win the 2016 election — and Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his government to do so.

That’s according to an official statement from the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee released on Wednesday. The committee conducted months of interviews with current and former intelligence officials to verify if American spies correctly assessed last year that Russia favored Trump and tried to sway the 2016 presidential election. It turns out the Senate panel agrees with the US intelligence community.

“Our staff concluded that the [intelligence community’s] conclusions were accurate and on point,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said in a joint statement with the panel’s chair, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC). “The Russian effort was extensive, sophisticated, and ordered by President Putin himself for the purpose of helping Donald Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton.”

They added that the committee had spent 14 months reviewing the evidence and saw no reason to dispute the intelligence committee’s conclusions. “There is no doubt that Russia undertook an unprecedented effort to interfere with our 2016 elections,” Burr said.

Back in January 2017, three US intelligence agencies concluded that Putin ordered an “influence campaign” against Clinton to help Trump. And in February, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians for working to help Trump win by sowing divisions via the internet, like running ads meant to stir up racial tensions.

That meant nothing to the president and his loyalists — including those in the House of Representatives who claim the Trump-Russia connection is a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.” But now that a key Senate panel has backed the US intelligence community against Trump’s attacks, the pro-Trump defense is much weaker.

That hasn’t stop Trump from tweeting on Thursday — exactly one year after the Mueller investigation began — that he’s still unhappy with the probe.

Happy anniversary, Mr. President!

Correction: A previous version of this article said that Ahmed al-Rumaihi and Michael Cohen discussed a “deal” about infrastructure payments. They just discussed the possibility of funding, but not a specific agreement.

18 Apr 14:40

Space Communications Are Stuck In The Dial-Up Age. Which Means It’s Time For More Lasers.

by Rebecca Boyle

In space, no one can hear you scream — because sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum, but also because you would need some sort of radio relay to carry the message, what with the distances being so extreme. And this goes for any sort of communication. Snapshots of Pluto’s heart, photos from Mars, images of a hellflower bouquet at Jupiter’s north pole: All of it streams back to Earth in a trickle via radio waves, a weak form of light. But that means space communication is limited by a most intractable, most inconvenient law: The speed of light is finite.

Since the first satellite launched 61 years ago, spacecraft have relied on radio waves to communicate with Earth. But radio has its limitations. The airwaves are crowded, and what’s worse, radio signals degrade with distance. Facing a constant barrage of beeps and bits from an increasingly busy — and multinational — solar system, NASA and other space agencies are studying how to shore up and speed up space communications. A sort of multifaceted public works project is under way to get space telecommunications into, well, the space age.

On Earth, telecommunication is instantaneous almost no matter where you are, and that’s thanks to physics, as well as the series of tubes that make up the internet. Radio waves travel readily through Earth’s atmosphere, and cellular and satellite technology makes it possible to stay connected anywhere. But things get a lot more complicated when you leave Earth. Radio waves become diffuse as they spread across great distances, so transmissions require lots of power and large antennas. And it just takes a long time for them to travel a long way. We can receive 1.5 megabits per second from Mars, which is an average 200 million kilometers from Earth. From Pluto, 7.5 billion kilometers out, download speeds are more like 1 kilobit per second.

“It takes 1,500 times longer to download an image from Pluto than from Mars,” said Stephen Lichten, manager for special projects at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. We can send robots beyond the outer reaches of the solar system, but they still communicate essentially at dial-up speeds.

Typically, spacecraft call home via the Deep Space Network, a collection of giant radio antennas managed by NASA.21 The network’s antennas are distributed equidistant on three spots on Earth. They serve as the lifeline to the world’s space fleet. But they can only do so much, and they’re almost always operating at capacity. “Our current scheduling techniques work quite well when missions are spread across the sky as they typically are,” said Lichten, who leads a project to deal with concerns about the Deep Space Network’s workload. “It is more challenging when missions are ‘clumped,’ such as when a large number launch at the same time for the same destination.”

Last year, NASA’s Mars program manager told scientists that the agency was concerned the network would be overloaded in 2020 and 2021 by a flotilla of Mars missions, which included probes from SpaceX, India, the United Arab Emirates, the European Space Agency and NASA. In response, Lichten said, NASA made a host of upgrades and changes to deal with the load, including working with other countries and with Morehead State University, in Kentucky, to use their antennas as necessary. These changes, along with a drop in the number of missions scheduled for 2020,22 have allayed most of NASA’s worries about a Mars traffic jam, Lichten said.

Still, the capacity issue isn’t going away, so updates to the Deep Space Network antennas are underway to help.

“There is always going to be more demand than there is availability,” said Sonny Giroux, Deep Space Network program manager at Peraton, which subcontracts with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to operate the Deep Space Network antennas. Peraton and NASA recently developed a program that equips each antenna with four separate deep space receivers so that one antenna can do the work of four. Spacecraft can call home simultaneously, and software sorts out competing streams of data. This means that the nearly three dozen spacecraft out there don’t have to hear the proverbial hold music when they try to ping Earth.

Even better solutions are in the works. NASA is already testing a form of interplanetary internet called disruption tolerant networking; it’s basically a system of relay stations that can hold information in transit, serving as a buffer against delays or glitches. Future spacecraft might have their own small relay stations, making it easier for them to wait on hold if necessary. NASA is trying this approach on a small scale for its Mars mission launching next month: It’s bringing along a pair of relay satellites that will send Earth a play-by-play of the craft’s descent and landing.

The InSight Mars lander will study the interior and history of the planet when it arrives Nov. 26. Usually, when a mission like InSight is preparing to land, it would use the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter or Mars Odyssey orbiter as a relay station to Earth. But those two satellites won’t be able to help this time, because they won’t be in the right geometric position to transmit straight to Earth. So, the two relay satellites, known as Mars Cube One, will act as radio relays, said Andy Klesh, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who leads the Mars Cube One mission. The satellites will receive InSight’s beeps and tones as it descends and then volley them back to Earth so that its human managers can ensure that everything is fine.

Humans could just wait an hour to find out if the $1 billion spacecraft is OK. But nobody wants that, and more expedient information might be vital to helping the craft land safely (or understand what went wrong if it doesn’t). The Mars Cube One satellites are 14.4 inches by 9.5 inches by 4.6 inches (about the size of a Costco cereal box), much smaller than a typical satellite, and are relatively cheap. If all goes well, similar tiny, inexpensive relays could be used to monitor new missions on Mars or the moon, where orbiters are scarce and often overworked, lacking the time or bandwidth to serve as dispatchers.

While radio antennas remain the backbone of space communications — for now — the future is in lasers. Laser communications systems encode data onto a beam of optical light (as opposed to radio wavelengths) and then transmit it between spacecraft and to Earth. Focused laser light operates in wavelengths 10,000 times shorter than radio waves, meaning that lasers can pump out more information per second. As a result, laser data-transfer rates are 10 to 100 times better than those of radio systems. Lasers are also better at maintaining their signal strength across vast distances.

To test new laser-communication technology, NASA beamed this image of the Mona Lisa from Earth to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter at the moon. Each pixel was transmitted by laser pulse, but turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere interfered with some of the transmissions, which you can see on the left. The image on the right shows the Mona Lisa’s visage cleaned up using an error-correction program.

Photo Courtesy Xiaoli Sun, NASA Goddard

The technology was first tested on the moon in 2013, when the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter received an image of the Mona Lisa while simultaneously scrutinizing lunar craters and terrain. The transmission marked the first time that scientists had used a laser to send information across space. But NASA still needs to test it on a broader scale.

The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration mission, launching next year, will do just that by beaming data to and from a satellite. It will be closely followed by the Psyche mission, which is traveling to the dark heart of an asteroid and, like InSight, is bringing a play-by-play caller. Psyche’s Deep Space Optical Communications experiment will test a new deep space optical transceiver and ground data system that uses near-infrared lasers to send data back and forth. But that won’t launch until 2022.

In the meantime, communication lines between Earth and the moon could get much busier, especially if the U.S. develops its long-planned and much-debated Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway and heads back to the moon. The LOP-G — which used to be known as the Deep Space Gateway and which will, at some point, get a better name — would be a space habitat with a power and communications station, situated near the moon. In the meantime, Earth’s satellite should probably get its own telecom network, said Clive Neal, a geochemist at Notre Dame and emeritus chair of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group. Such a lunar network would alleviate, and maybe even bolster, the Deep Space Network, he said — especially if human explorers make their way back

“Knowing how many national space agencies are looking at the moon rather than Mars, this is something where the U.S. could lead us beyond the Earth-moon system again,” Neal said.

As in all things, money may dictate the future of the Deep Space Network, and all space communications. Lichten said the network’s operators are constantly juggling maintenance and upgrade needs to stay within the program’s budget. “The DSN has been extremely reliable, but it takes constant vigilance to keep it that way,” he said.

14 Feb 19:35

He was a Border Patrol agent. What he saw gave him nightmares.

by Hope Reese

How the job “can cause you to bottle up compassion or internalize violence.”

Francisco Cantú never thought he would become a US Border Patrol agent.

The grandson of a Mexican immigrant, Cantú had been studying international relations in college, but became “tired of reading about the border in books” and wanted to see the realities of border life for himself. So in 2008, he went to Arizona to enlist in the US Customs and Border Protection Border Patrol Academy.

During his four years as a Border Patrol agent, Cantú sent men, women, and children trying to cross the American border back to Mexico. He spoke with people whose loved ones had been injured or killed during the treacherous journey, saw the desperation of those who sought work and a better life, and witnessed young girls being stopped from entering the US to reunite with their mothers.

As the years went on, he was tormented by nightmares. “A huge part is conditioning you to accept all these violent or traumatic things that can be part of the job, and to see that as part of your day-to-day work,” Cantú said.

In The Line Becomes a River, Cantú shares his experience working for four years as a Border Patrol agent, exploring how immigration statistics “[do] little to account for all the ways that violence rips and ripples through a society, through the lives and minds of its inhabitants.”

But over the past week, Cantú has come under fire as he promotes the book’s publication. Some critics argue that his book humanizes Border Patrol agents, and activists in San Francisco have called for his book reading to be canceled. An NPR headline — the “Border Patrol Does Good Work” — was “particularly damaging,” Cantú said in a statement. Instead, he said his primary aim in writing the book was to illustrate “the dehumanization of migrants.”

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Hope Reese

You became a Border Patrol agent because you had studied the border and wanted to see what it was like firsthand, but what about your co-workers? What draws people to this kind of work?

Francisco Cantú

I wasn’t a law enforcement-type person, so expected to be the odd man out. But I was surprised. Nearly a third to a half of the Border Patrol is Hispanic. A huge number come from the Southwest. Their parents were migrants. I’ve heard of agents who crossed over as kids and are first generation themselves. So all of those stereotypes — of, for instance, a white racist who wants to keep Mexicans out of the country — were turned on their head.

There are 18,000 agents — there are more Border Patrol than FBI, DEA — when you talk about that many people, there are people who are cruel and callous, and there are also some of the most kind and compassionate people I’ve ever met. For many, it’s a way out. For some, you either join the cartel or join the Border Patrol agency. People growing up in small communities near the border would see that the people who were the most well-off were either working for the cartel or working for the Border Patrol. It’s a generalization, but that’s something I heard.

Hope Reese

You write of being in Border Patrol: “It’s true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, that we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze.” And recently, Border Patrol agents were accused of destroying water stations that had been installed by a humanitarian group. Is this behavior typical?

Francisco Cantú

It’s important to me to know that I never did that. But I saw it happen. I knew it happened. I wore a uniform, and I tried to grapple with this — my own culpability, and the ways I could and couldn’t extract myself from the institution I worked for.

One of the most impactful experiences was when I encountered a dead body in the desert. For me, to see the dead body and be the one talking to that person’s family in person when they’re in the middle of grappling with that death — I carry that with me all the time. Our policy of prevention through deterrence — pushing those crossing out from the heavily patrolled urban areas to the remote areas of the desert — serves to weaponize the landscape. That’s why people are dying in the desert.

The humanitarians that set up those water stations are working to fill a deadly void that has been left open in our policy. So for Border Patrol to destroy the aid they leave is unacceptable.

Hope Reese

You grappled with the question of what it means to be a “good” agent. How do you think about that now?

Francisco Cantú

There were parts of my nature that made me a good agent. I liked to be outdoors, to learn to read the landscape. And there was something exciting about the detective elements of the work — learning to cut for signs, track people through the desert, investigate smuggling cases.

But for me, there was always tension knowing that all these people I was positioned against were risking everything for a better life. You reach a point where you think: If I was a parent separated from my child, I would do the same.

There was a middle-aged woman who had become lost, and I was responsible for taking her back to the station. She had these silver dollar-sized blisters on her feet. I had also become licensed as an EMT, and I bandaged her feet. She watched me and thanked me. She called me a humanitarian. It was a strange moment. I’m not a humanitarian. I’m part of a system that is sending you back to a place from where you are risking your life to flee.

Hope Reese

How is the Border Patrol different or similar from the police or the military?

Francisco Cantú

Border Patrol is paramilitary — it’s between these two worlds. A huge part is conditioning you to accept all these violent or traumatic things that can be part of the job, and to see that as part of your day-to-day work. There isn’t a culture of talking about the ways you might be impacted by the trauma — that creeping unease about how a job can cause you to bottle up compassion or internalize violence.

Hope Reese

How critical are you of the Border Patrol as an institution?

Francisco Cantú

It’s important to remember that in the summer, the entire Border Patrol becomes a search-and-rescue mission. The realization that people are dying in the desert … Border Patrol agents on the ground aren’t writing border policy. But we’re enforcing it. The Border Patrol is simultaneously there to put out the fire, and the institution is what started the fire.

That’s what’s missing from our conversation about immigration reform. We still don’t acknowledge these people who are dying in our debate.

Hope Reese

You write about how it’s more difficult to attempt to cross the border than it was 20 years ago. What are the side effects of that “success”?

Francisco Cantú

Human smugglers are going to charge more, so it becomes more and more expensive for the people who are trying to cross. It also becomes more and more lucrative for the smugglers. The immigrant really becomes more and more of a commodity — it’s just another part of the spiral toward dehumanization.

Another part of what’s happened is that the drug cartels, as they have become more powerful, have taken control of the human smuggling operations.

Hope Reese

You observe that the language we use to describe migrants can be dehumanizing. Can you elaborate?

Francisco Cantú

We talk about immigration as a “flood.” A “wave” of migrants. And we call the smugglers “coyotes,” which means “chicken rancher” in Spanish. And the migrants are chickens. What all of those metaphors do is lump the migrants into this indistinguishable mountain of people.

Hope Reese

After you left the Border Patrol, you worked at a coffee shop, and a man named José would come there to eat breakfast with you, every day, for two years. Then he left the US, his home of 30 years, and traveled to Mexico to visit his dying mother. When José attempted to return home to his wife and sons in the United States, he was arrested at the border and deported.

Francisco Cantú

José’s story transformed the way I see all of this. It gave me a deeper and more devastating understanding of the way the border rips through a person’s life. Not just the person who’s crossing, but the lives of their family.

For someone in José’s situation, if he’s on the other side trying to get back to his family, he’s terrified walking around in a border town because he’ll be preyed on by human smugglers. Human trafficking and drug trafficking in these communities are closely tied.

José’s family was literally extorted for money, and his life was threatened. He was afraid. And that happens to a lot of crossers. Or he will try to cross and be kidnapped by someone who will hold him for ransom. If he does make it, he’ll be terrified of getting pulled over on his way to work. I talked to some people who were afraid a helicopter would land on their yard and kidnap them in the middle of the night. It makes these people live a life in fear.

Hope Reese

What were your thoughts when you first heard Trump’s proposal of a wall?

Francisco Cantú

People don’t understand that there are already border walls, and 700 miles of fencing. At the station where I worked, there were several miles of 20-foot-high fencing, made up of these huge panels of steel mesh, and it really didn’t stop much. Smugglers would pry open panels from the ground, put these hydraulic tire jacks underneath, and lift them up so cars could drive underneath. Other smugglers would bring welding torches and weld doors or areas to crawl through.

In my experience, that’s not an argument for a bigger, stronger wall. No matter what obstacle we put up, people will find a way around it. So do we spend more time and money on a wall? Do we ask our policymakers to conceive of new ways to make our border more hellacious to cross? Or do we find ways to reform our system? Or send aid to these countries? There could be much better uses for that money.

Hope Reese

Was there a moment when you realized you wanted to leave the Border Patrol?

Francisco Cantú

At the time, I wouldn’t have told you I was leaving the Border Patrol because of all these nightmares, or because I had come to disagree with the work. I got a Fulbright fellowship to the Netherlands to study rejected asylum seekers who were remaining after their deportation orders. Pursuing studies was a way to get out that looked like I was moving forward. It wasn’t until I had distance that I began to grapple with what the dreams meant.

A few months before I left the Border Patrol, I went to see a movie about a guy who slowly lost the ability to tell the difference between his dreaming life and waking life. I remember driving home and breaking down, pulling over to the side of the road and weeping. I had to look at myself and realize — something’s happening here, you’re not all right.

Hope Reese

You have received some backlash in the last couple of days, with critics saying that your book humanizes Border Patrol agents and activists in San Francisco even calling for your book reading to be canceled. How do you respond?

Francisco Cantú*

In some of the interviews I gave, I’ve been asked, “Oh, the Border Patrol rescues people a lot, right?” Which is kind of a leading question. And I’ve said, “Sure, the Border Patrol rescues people.” But the larger picture is the violence of this policy of enforcement through deterrence is what is putting people there in the first place. It’s like the fire chief setting a fire and the firefighters getting praised for putting it out. One quote I gave in an interview was pulled out of context. I said “the border patrol does good work.” But I want to be clear: That’s not my message.

On a larger level, what I’ve seen unfold, even in this short week, is that there’s an eagerness among some media to humanize the Border Patrol. Since I represent a relatable Border Patrol agent, a lot of the media about the book has been focused on that, and given more weight to humanizing me as a former Border Patrol agent, or Border Patrol agents in general, over focusing on my message: the dehumanization of migrants.

The Border Patrol is backed by the most powerful country in the world. They wear the uniform of the US government. The migrants are the ones we need to be talking about and humanizing. They’re the ones whose identities and names are being overlooked. Migrants are constantly made anonymous by border policies.

*After answering this question from Hope Reese, Penguin Random House also provided Cantú’s statement to the news site Splinter.

Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, Kentucky. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Vox, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @hope_reese.

09 Feb 18:16

John Kelly must go

by Dylan Matthews

The chief of staff has proven himself unfit for the job.

I can’t tell you the exact moment it became clear that retired Gen. John F. Kelly had to resign his position as White House chief of staff.

Perhaps it was in October, when he lied and smeared Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL). Kelly claimed that during a dedication ceremony for a new FBI office in Miami, a ceremony where he and others were focused on the heroism of the two slain FBI agents after whom the office was named, Wilson “stood up there in all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building.”

Video of the event confirmed that Kelly was lying — Wilson didn’t take credit for getting the funding. She graciously extended credit to her colleagues, including Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Díaz-Balart, and devoted much of her speech to honoring the two agents for whom the office was named. Kelly was lying to smear her for criticizing President Trump — indeed, for criticizing Trump’s treatment of a war widow.

Compounding the issue was White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders telling reporters it was ”highly inappropriate” to call Kelly on his lies — because he’s a retired general. It was a shocking statement, one that undermined norms of civilian control of and oversight over the military. Kelly should have at least told the press he disagreed with Sanders, that he does not believe he is above scrutiny because of his military record. He did not.

Or maybe his time was up when he praised Robert E. Lee, who committed treason to defend the institution of slavery and the subjugation of black Americans, as an “honorable” man and blamed the Civil War on a “lack of compromise.” Or perhaps it was when he decried some DREAMers who failed to secure protection from deportation (in some cases because they feared that if they told the federal government they were undocumented, they could be deported) as “too lazy to get off their asses.” It was a shocking insult to more than a million Americans, who have lived here almost all their lives and contributed time and again to their communities and their nation.

But it became extremely, abundantly clear that Kelly had to go when he went to bat for White House staff secretary Rob Porter.

Porter is, according to both of his ex-wives and at least one ex-girlfriend, a domestic abuser. Colbie Holderness, his first wife, has said he repeatedly threw her on the ground and choked her, that he kicked her during their honeymoon, that he punched her in the eye, resulting in the bruises seen here:

Jennifer Willoughby, Porter’s second wife, filed an emergency protective order against him in 2010. “The first time he called me a ‘fucking bitch’ was on our honeymoon,” Willoughby wrote in a blog post about their marriage. “A month later he physically prevented me from leaving the house. Less than two months after that, I filed a protective order with the police because he punched in the glass on our front door while I was locked inside. … Just after our one year anniversary, he pulled me, naked and dripping, from the shower to yell at me.”

An anonymous ex-girlfriend, who dated Porter after his marriages, wrote to both Holderness and Willoughby describing his abuse, saying, “Rob was abusive, degrading, a liar and a cheater and during the course of my relationship with him, I found out that he was to others, too.” Porter is currently dating White House communications director Hope Hicks — someone who works under Kelly.

Kelly knew all of this. Both Holderness and Willoughby were interviewed by the FBI in January 2017 as part of the hiring process for Porter, and White House counsel Don McGahn learned of the allegations the same month. McGahn took no action, nor did he take any action when the ex-girlfriend contacted him in November. The FBI told the White House about the abuse in June 2017, and by the fall it was clear the allegations were preventing Porter from getting a security clearance.

“When McGahn informed Kelly this fall about the reason for the security clearance holdup, he agreed that Porter should remain and said he was surprised to learn that the 40-year-old had ex-wives,” the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey and Beth Reinhard report. “Kelly handed Porter more responsibilities to control the flow of information to the president.”

A few weeks ago, Kelly was informed by the FBI that they were recommending that Porter be denied full security clearance, and recommended the same about a number of other White House aides who, like Porter, had been working on interim clearances. “The White House chief-of-staff told confidants in recent weeks that he had decided to fire anyone who had been denied a clearance — but had yet to act on that plan before the Porter allegations were first reported this week,” Politico’s Eliana Johnson reports.

After all that, and even after the scandal broke in the news media, Kelly was still pushing within the White House to keep Porter on board. Axios’s Jonathan Swan reported that Kelly wanted Porter to “stay and fight.” Publicly, while Kelly said he was “shocked by the new allegations” and proclaimed, “There is no place for domestic violence in our society,” he reiterated, “I believe every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation.” When the scandal broke, he told the Daily Mail that Porter was “a man of true integrity and honor, and I can’t say enough good things about him.”

This isn’t the first time that Kelly has defended a sexual abuser working underneath him. In 2016, Kelly testified as a character witness for Todd Shane Tomko, a Marine colonel who pleaded guilty to “sending inappropriate and sexual messages to a female corporal under his command.” He called Tomko “a superb Marine officer.” Then last year, Tomko was arrested on charges of child molestation dating back at least 15 years. “Prosecutors told the court Tomko groomed his three victims,” WAVY’s Jason Marks and Kevin Green report. “They say he made them watch pornography and learn sexual acts as early as age 4. It wasn’t until they got older that these acts were carried out.”

Kelly has become a symbol of the Trump White House’s misogyny and white nationalism

On its own, the fact that Kelly shielded two reported abusers — and indeed, overrode FBI warnings that one of them, a high-ranking White House official, could not even be trusted with a security clearance — should be more than enough reason for him to resign. In the Porter case especially, we know that Kelly actively ignored repeated credible allegations of extreme violence. He showed no care or concern for Porter’s ex-wives, or for other women Porter may have, or may still, harm.

A fair question to ask is whether Kelly’s replacement would necessarily be any better. To serve in this White House is to serve a man who faces accusations of sexual assault or sexual harassment from at least 17 women. Perhaps President Trump will simply never appoint someone who takes the safety of women, including his own female employees, seriously.

But the direct effect of one chief of staff being replaced with another is not the only consequence of a Kelly resignation. If he resigns now, for this reason, it entrenches a norm that, at least when it’s publicly revealed, sheltering abusers and protecting them from any repercussions is a fireable offense, that the top job in the White House cannot go to someone who the entire public knows failed to protect victims of abuse.

Moreover, it acts as a deterrent for all of Kelly’s successors. If their consciences do not motivate them to remove abusers from the White House staff, perhaps a fear of meeting Kelly’s fate will.

I would go further, though, and say that Kelly, personally, has become an unacceptable symbol of the worst tendencies of this White House. When he was appointed, he was greeted with widespread bipartisan praise, as a “grown-up” capable of bringing order to an anarchic administration. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said Kelly was “in a position where he can stabilize this White House.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called him “one of the strongest and most natural leaders I’ve ever known.”

But from his time as secretary of homeland security, when he aggressively stepped up immigration raids, including ones sweeping up non-criminals whom immigration enforcement agents weren’t even targeting, Kelly has aligned himself with the hardline anti-immigrant wing of the Trump administration. Not coincidentally, he has also repeatedly expressed extreme disrespect for Americans who are not white.

It was not a coincidence that both Rep. Wilson and Myeshia Johnson, the war widow for whom she advocated, are black women. It was not a coincidence that Kelly praised Gen. Lee, who fought to prevent the expansion of rights (including the right to not be owned as chattel) to black Americans. It was not a coincidence that he describes unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the US as children, a group that’s disproportionately Latino, as lazy.

Nor is it a coincidence, now, that Kelly appears to have repeatedly disregarded women and instead protected their abusers. He chose Rob Porter over the three women who accused him, and a Marine officer who admitted to harassing a female subordinate over that subordinate — who was also a fellow Marine, and much more worthy of Kelly’s loyalty, camaraderie, and brotherhood.

The Trump administration recoils from accusations that it does not care about nonwhite Americans or women. Instead of getting defensive, this time it should try to prove its critics wrong by ejecting a man who has exemplified those tendencies, who has repeatedly disrespected black and Latino Americans and shown no concern for the physical safety of women. The absolute least it can do is force John Kelly to resign.

20 Jan 23:56

The lead Democratic negotiator on immigration doesn’t see a path forward

by Tara Golshan

The shutdown needs a solution on DACA. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) sounds doubtful they’ll ever get one.

Walking to the Capitol Building Saturday evening, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill), the lead Democratic immigration negotiator, surrounded by congressional aides, appeared exhausted and despondent.

“I honestly don’t know what is going on,” he told Vox. He said he hadn’t seen Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for hours.

The government spending deadline elapsed at midnight, and the shutdown had been in effect for nearly a a day. Yet Democrats and Republicans are still deep in a standoff over the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump has promised to sunset fully by March 5. Many of these young immigrants grew up as Americans, speak English, and, as a requirement of the program, are gainfully employed. But their fate has become the center of the shutdown fight, and one that doesn’t look like it’ll be resolved anytime soon.

Republican and Democratic senators negotiated late into the early hours of Saturday morning trying to make a deal, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been unable — or unwilling — to make assurances that a bipartisan immigration bill would make it to Trump’s desk.

By morning, Democrats had walked away from a short-term government spending bill that would have extended the shutdown deadline by four weeks and funding the Children’s Health Insurance program for six years — something that Democrats have been calling for since the programs funding lapsed last October — because it did not include a path forward on immigration. The spending bill failed with both Democratic and Republican defections. Since, McConnell has offered to shorten the short term spending bill, heeding to only part of Democratic demands, who want to hasten Congress’ urgency on DACA negotiations, as well as ensure a vote on a final bipartisan package.

But it appears negotiations on both immigration and to reopen the government are still on shaky ground. Currently, a proposal would shorten the spending deadline from four weeks to three.

“The date is important. But even more is answering some basic questions about how we move forward avoiding these continuing resolutions and resolving the issues that still face it.” Durbin said.

At the center of the impasse is Trump himself. Frustrated with the president’s apparent unwillingness to agree to bipartisan solutions for longer than a couple hours, Democrats can’t find a path forward.

On Friday, Schumer went to the White House and said he was ready to make serious concessions to Trump — offering up more money to fund his border wall, an issue Democrats have held a hard line against. It’s not clear what Schumer offered to Trump exactly.

A bipartisan proposal from Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) would offers legal status (and eventual citizenship) to young unauthorized immigrants who meet certain criteria, whether they currently have DACA or not, and allows their parents to apply for three-year renewable work permits (while preventing those parents from ever becoming citizens through their children). On the enforcement side, it gives about a year’s worth of funding for the border “wall” and eliminates the diversity visa lottery — replacing it instead with merit-based visas for the countries currently eligible for the lottery and with green cards for some immigrants facing the loss of their Temporary Protected Status.

Nevertheless, Democrats received a call from White House staff shortly after the meeting with Schumer on Friday backtracking everything that was discussed.

“As soon as the guest leaves the office, Gen. Kelly calls in the right wingers and they bat it down and say you can’t do it. We’ll never reach an agreement unless there’s a more open approach at the White House and the president is more constructive.” Durbin said.

“This president is just unable to make a promise and keep it.”

Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats are in the throes of a blame game. Both sides have ground to stand on. Democrats walked away from a spending bill that reflected their interests because of an unrelated policy issue. And Republicans, led by Trump, have shown no willingness to reach a compromise — let alone clarify the terms of negotiation.

By Saturday evening, with the government still shut down, the Democrats’ lead immigration negotiator couldn’t see a path forward.

That’s not a good sign.

05 Dec 23:55

Is My Friend Trying to Get out of Being a Bridesmaid?

by Amy March

a woman's back full of tattoos seen through the window of a dress


I got engaged a month ago (wee!) and am planning a wedding about this time next year. Last week, I started making calls and visits to ask my friends to be bridesmaids, and I was met with a resounding yes and excitement from all of them. All except one. One of the girls I consider myself fairly close to (closer than some of the other party members) said she “would see” and it would “depend on work.” I was a bit surprised, but I made it clear on the phone I understood she couldn’t attend every event (she lives a few states away), but I’d still be thrilled to have her stand up with me on the wedding day. It still sounded like even that was too much of an ask, and her reply was still “maybe.” We sort of awkwardly hung up and now I have no idea where that leaves us.

Do I write her off as a bridesmaid and just send her an invitation and hope she can attend, or do I call her and demand a yes or no? Are you allowed to respond with a “maybe” when someone asks you to be a bridesmaid? I would have fully understood a no, but she wasn’t clear either way. Am I going to come across as pushy if I make her decide this far out? How long am I supposed to wait for a yes or no? The week before the wedding? Is she just trying to get around saying no and I misread how close we are?

—Maybe bridesmaid

A:DEAR maybe bridesmaid,

First things first, do you have a wedding date? An actual date that comes with reservations at wherever this shindig is going down? If not, stop worrying about a bridesmaid who can’t possibly be expected to commit to a vague plan and get on that!

Assuming that’s out of the way, can we start by having a little more consideration of your maybe bridesmaid? You put “depend on work” in quotes, which I think is because that’s literally a quote, but also because it doesn’t seem like you’re buying it. Nowhere else in your question do you even seem to acknowledge that it might actually be true. There are all kinds of jobs where a year or so out, you really can’t guarantee you will be available. Maybe vacation time is only approved six months in advance. Maybe your business depends on you being there to handle things, and you just don’t know yet if you can make it work. Either way, as a general rule we’ve all got to work so that our bills will stay paid, so let’s assume there’s at least some truth to it (because srsly if you believe she’s just straight-up lying to you, why are you friends?).

Because, assuming she’s not lying, this situation really sucks! And it sucks primarily for her! It’s so hard to feel like you can’t say an enthusiastic YES to things you really, really want to do because you also really, really can’t afford to get fired.

There’s one other thing lurking in your question that I think we should talk about. She’s “fairly close”? Is she actually a close friend? Do you see each other regularly? Do you talk to each other? Email? Visit? Text? Getting married has a way of making you actually look at all of your relationships in the clear light of day. I know not everyone sees it this way, but I think that if you don’t see someone, or talk to them, text with them, or communicate with them regularly in some way, they aren’t a close friend. Be honest with yourself, because it matters whether this maybe bridesmaid is an “I know what to hide in your apartment in case you suddenly die” friend, versus a “totally is happy to see you on Thanksgiving Eve and send you memes of drunk cats” friend. And if she’s the latter, she may not want to jump through the hoops to take time off work, buy a dress, and spend a pile of money to really do it up right as a bridesmaid in your wedding. And that’s okay, but you need to get that out in the open.

As for having no idea where it leaves you, it leaves you with a bridesmaid who can’t give you a yes or no answer right now. Obviously, not what you wanted to hear. It’s nice to get an enthusiastic ABSOLUTELY to this ask! It’s personal, and if you’re feeling hurt and confused that’s fair enough. Think about when you actually need to know. I’d give it a little more time and then follow up! Ask her not just if she knows for sure, but when (if ever) she will be able to commit. Let her know that you’d love to have her as a bridesmaid or a guest, but realistically you’re gonna need a yes or no answer on the bridesmaid gig in the nearish future.

She might think you are being pushy, but as long as you’re being pushy and kind, you’re on the right track. Give her some time and space, but you don’t need to give her until the eve of the wedding unless you want to. And remember, you’ve gotten a lot of enthusiastic “YES DEFINITELYS,” so, really, you’re fine. Positive self-talk is your friend here. You are kind. You are smart. You have lots of friends. One “maybe” is not a referendum on you as a person.

Y’all. Remember. The people in your lives really do have jobs and obligations and bills to pay. Even when you are planning a wedding. You measure your life in love, but her landlord measures in cash money.

—Amy March


Image Credit

Kelly Benvenuto Photography

The post Is My Friend Trying to Get out of Being a Bridesmaid? appeared first on A Practical Wedding: We're Your Wedding Planner. Wedding Ideas for Brides, Bridesmaids, Grooms, and More.

05 Sep 18:35

We’ve Updated Prescriber Checkup

by Ryann Grochowski Jones , Lena Groeger and Charles Ornstein

Medicare’s popular prescription-drug program serves more than 42 million people and pays for more than one of every four prescriptions written nationwide. Use this tool to find and compare doctors and other providers in Part D in 2015.

10 Jun 01:34

ranakanth: skiesovergideon: gather round tumblr it’s time for a story about why you shouldn’t...



gather round tumblr it’s time for a story about why you shouldn’t solicit conversation with a stranger with a put down about their generation

i sat down about 30 minutes ago in the lobby of a very nice hotel, intending to do some writing. i have my laptop and my cellphone. as i settled, i checked some stuff on my phone, then turned to my laptop. because there aren’t many plugs, i’m sitting in a cluster of couches and instead of being by myself there’s an he’s an older gentleman across from me, polo shirt, salt and pepper hair. was very polite when i asked if he minded if i tucked myself in the corner of the couch

but apparently


he thinks computers are full of satan or something

because no sooner have i opened up goddamn word when he goes, “you kids and your electronics.”

ah, excellent, unsolicited conversation with a perfect stranger that comes with a critique of modern communication. fight me, bro, you got no idea who you’re tangling with. so naturally i push up my metaphorical sleeves (metaphorical because i’m in a goddamn resort and pavement is melting; i’m wearing a very nice goddamn dress and i’d look like a fucking soccer mom named helen if i had blonde hair) and very politely, i smash his face into the floor with “i’m sorry?” in an utterly flabbergasted tone because dude wtf and no one delivers slick put downs when they’re caught off guard

“i’m here reading my newspaper and after this my wife and i are going on a hike” (lol good luck with that dude the pavement is melting and you want to hike in the mountains) “and we’re going to interact with each other.” he gives my computer a v pointed look

naturally, i have the perfect response to this. it is pithy and eloquent and will surely put him in his place: “i… like to write, and it’s easier on a laptop?”

“it seems to me” (HERE WE GO) “that your generation” (OH GOOD) “is losing the ability to interact with other people.” (O OK) “my grandchildren never take their eyes off their cellphones anymore!” 

and here he pauses and looks at me. as if he expects me to agree. 

so i say “you were born in the 50s, right?” he says he was born in 59. “well, it seems to me that your generation is really fond of adultery, embezzlement, and corporate fraud, among other things, and i’m really enjoying paying for your retirement.”

i admit: i had this line canned after a little snarl i had with my mom the other night.

he stares at me. i stare back. 

“you also realize,” i say, quickly typing socrates kids these days quote into google, “that people have been saying kids these days since socrates said, and i quote, children now love luxury. they have bad manners. contempt for authority. they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” i look up at him. he’s staring at me still.

i’m shaking because man fuck confrontation but also how hilarious is this because i literally had a fight with my mom about this twelve hours ago. i literally have a cranky tweet about it. “so it seems to me that making sweeping generalizations about people based on pretty arbitrary age groupings is kind of ridiculous since i’m pretty sure you’re not cheating on your wife or stealing from your company.”

he goes beat red because now i’m embarrassed him, and i feel really fucking bad because i didn’t mean to embarrass him, but also hey dude fuck you

SO OF COURSE he says “did your parents teach you any manners?”

and there goes the last of my embarrassment because hey fuck you dude the only person who can insult my parents is fucking me. and i say, without even thinking because this is when you have the snappiest rejoinders, “well they did teach me not to open unsolicited conversation with a stranger by insulting them so.”

at this point the dude’s wife shows up and they leave, and the waiter asks me if i want anything to drink and i’m like “yes please give me all your vodka” but instead i say “ice water” because the pavement is melting and if i puke from nerves after that, i don’t want to snort alcohol out my nose

that’s it that’s my story


07 May 15:38

How to read the genome and build a human being | Riccardo Sabatini

Secrets, disease and beauty are all written in the human genome, the complete set of genetic instructions needed to build a human being. Now, as scientist and entrepreneur Riccardo Sabatini shows us, we have the power to read this complex code, predicting things like height, eye color, age and even facial structure -- all from a vial of blood. And soon, Sabatini says, our new understanding of the genome will allow us to personalize treatments for diseases like cancer. We have the power to change life as we know it. How will we use it?
22 Jun 20:10

Sorry, conservatives, but you share an ideology with a bunch of rich jerks

by David Roberts

My colleague Tim Lee has written a response to my post about how rich people are jerks, taking issue with some of its facts and assumptions.

Clearly, Tim is a huge jerk.

Ha ha! I kid. I haven't met Tim, but all evidence points to him being a mensch. And I don't want to turn Vox into an internal debate society. But I do want to weigh in once more, since I don't think I was entirely clear the first time around. Tim seems to think I was characterizing all fiscal conservatives as jerks, or saying that fiscal conservatism is de facto evidence of jerkdom. That was not my intent.

Rather, the argument is that being rich in America seems to make people jerks in a very particular way, and fiscal conservatism is one of the ways that particular form of jerkdom expresses itself. It's not the only way to get to fiscal conservatism, but it's the way that many rich people do.

Pictorial representation of man slowly coming to see the wisdom of low marginal tax rates on high earners. (Shutterstock)

Utilitarianism and trying not to be a jerk

Let me back up a bit.

I'm a consequentialist, which means, broadly speaking, that I believe the morality of our actions is measured by their consequences. More specifically, I'm a utilitarian, which means I think public policy (and individual behavior) ought to aim to produce the most welfare. Even more specifically, I identify as some form of rule utilitarian. Whereas an act utilitarian believes each individual action should be calculated to maximize welfare, a rule utilitarian thinks we ought to adopt the principles, guidelines, and policies that maximize long-term welfare. (Obeying such rules will, in some individual cases, mean sacrificing some short-term welfare.)

The philosophical details aren't all that important. I just want to identify three implications of utilitarianism that are relevant to this discussion.

First, any kind of consequentialism, but especially utilitarianism, implies a commitment to empiricism. The only way to discover what produces the most welfare is to pay attention to the facts. So Tim is entirely right about, say, the minimum wage. There is obviously such thing as a too-high minimum wage. The right minimum wage is the one that maximizes welfare; the way to find out what it is is to pay serious attention to research and historical experience.

Second, utilitarianism imposes, or ought to impose, a kind of cognitive and psychological self-discipline. Anyone who has studied human psychology — or, y'know, met a human — knows that we are masters of self-deception, highly prone to motivated reasoning. Our natural mode of inquiry is to seek out facts that confirm our tribal biases and worldviews. But if we really want to maximize welfare, we have to fight this tendency; we have to strive to see the evidence clearly and guard against confirmation bias (as Tim says).

Third, utilitarianism runs contrary to human nature, more so the stricter it gets. Humans are wired to have circles of concern, starting with the self and moving outward to family and tribe. (There are always multiple overlapping tribes: extended family, city, state, nation, ethnicity, shared interests, shared ideology, etc.) The farther out the circle goes — the global poor, all humanity, future generations, life on Earth, the cosmos — the more abstract, intellectual, and tenuous the concern becomes. To really conceive of the interests of people far away in time or space, we have to reason our way there, using our frontal cortex. We don't feel the pull of those far-off interests in a visceral way, unlike the interests of our own bodies, families, and people. The smaller the circle of concern, the more directly it engages our lizard brains, and the more we feel it.

When humans feel anxious, afraid, or angry, the frontal cortex gets quieter and the lizard brain gets louder; our circles of concern constrict, and we become more "in-group conscious." The function of morality, as I take it, is to act as a countervailing force, to push our circles of concern outward, to give us a framework and heuristics that help tack against our natural parochialism.

No one is perfect at this; no one is, in practice, really as concerned about a Bangladeshi farmer as they are about their neighbor (unless they happen to be the Bangladeshi farmer's neighbor). Everyone favors his or her own tribe in a pinch. We are all saddled with some combination of nature and nurture that shapes our instincts, making those expanded circles of concern easier for some than others. And some people face circumstances — poverty, stress, insecurity — that make looking beyond the bottom rungs of Maslow's hierarchy difficult to do at all.

But being a good person means trying, making an effort to increase the net amount of love and decency in the world, to see the evidence clearly, to be wary of our biases, to take into account others far away in space or time. We should all have compassion for one another when we fall short. But we should all try. To not try is to be a jerk.

Not making much of an effort. (Shutterstock)

Jerkish and non-jerkish reasons to support small government

So let's bring it back to the discussion at hand. As a consequentialist, I have no a priori preferences regarding the size of government. I support whatever level of taxation, spending, and regulation produces the most welfare. That's why I am, in the context of contemporary American politics, a liberal. This is something Jonathan Chait has written about:

Liberalism ... claims to produce certain outcomes: more prosperity and security, especially for the poor and middle classes; a cleaner environment; safer foods and drugs; and so on. If it were proved beyond a doubt that liberal policies fail to produce those outcomes—or even, as conservatives often claim, that such policies hurt their intended beneficiaries—then their rationale would disappear. It may be hard to imagine liberals advocating capital gains tax cuts as a way to lift up the working stiff. But that's just because there's no evidence to show they do. If the evidence were to change, so would the liberal mindset. The point is that liberalism has no justification other than the belief that liberal policies produce beneficial outcomes.

Liberalism is, in short, empiricist and consequentialist. At least mine is, and Chait's. (In a blistering reply to Chait, libertarian Will Wilkinson claimed that empiricism is actually extremely rare on both sides, and no more common on the left than on the right. I agree that self-disciplined empiricism is rare, but it's simply not true that rigidity and dogmatism are evenly distributed in US politics today. The right has more.)

Now, some people arrive at fiscal conservatism through consequentialist reasoning. They "sincerely believe that high taxes on the wealthy shrink the economic pie, making everyone worse off in the long run," as Tim says — a straightforwardly utilitarian argument.

I happen to think it's wrong. Obviously there is some level of taxes that produces net negative effects. Similarly, there are some regulations that do more harm than good and some spending programs that are wasteful or misguided. As an empirically minded utilitarian I oppose those particular tax levels, regulations, and programs. But I think the evidence shows pretty clearly that, in our current circumstances, taxes are well short of that point and the regulations (Clean Air Act, Dodd-Frank) and spending programs (Social Security, Medicaid) targeted by conservatives produce far, far more welfare than they cost economically. Other developed democracies demonstrate that it is possible to have better health and welfare outcomes than the US while still sustaining robust economic growth.

I think the evidence on this is so clear that I have trouble crediting consequentialist reasoning that concludes otherwise. Still, I accept that such reasoning exists, is sincere, and is not jerky in and of itself.

However! Evidence indicates that very few real-life fiscal conservatives are motivated primarily by utilitarian convictions. Chait quotes Milton Friedman saying "economic freedom is an end in itself" — not a means to positive outcomes, but an end in itself. Libertarian patron saint Ayn Rand was very, very clear that an individual owes no obligations to others beyond those explicitly, contractually agreed upon; obligation to the common good, in her worldview, literally makes no sense. And legendary conservative Margaret Thatcher said, "There's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."

These are explicitly deontological, anti-utilitarian arguments. The rights of the individual, including "economic freedom," are sacrosanct, no matter the consequences. This view makes small, unobtrusive government an intrinsic good — not good because it's better for more people, but good because it respects the individual's right to keep what they produce. Conservatives can and do often make empirical arguments about the superiority of small-government outcomes, but mainly to convince those who don't share their first principles. It's the principles that matter.

Rich people prefer the jerkish variety

And here's the thing. If you are a rich person, a person who has benefited enormously from the status quo, and are offered an ideology that serves to justify your good fortune, an ideology that tells you you deserve everything you have, that the poor deserve less because they don't work as hard and aren't as smart, that extreme income inequality reflects merit, that trying to help other people actually does them harm ...

Well, that's awfully convenient. It seems to me if you find yourself blessed with power and money, in a position to have enormous effects on other people's lives, you have a special obligation to interrogate your own priors, to be suspicious of an ideology that so neatly overlaps with your self-interest. It seems to me, if you are comfortably insulated from risk, you ought to be very, very careful about supporting policies that put other, more vulnerable people at greater risk. You ought to be damn sure you have good reasons, that you haven't just fallen for a self-justifying fairy tale.

But rich people in the US, by and large, don't seem to interrogate their priors at all. If anything, getting rich (or being born into wealth) seems to have the opposite effect. It primes them to accept self-justifying ideology and surrounds them with people who share that ideology. They come to believe not just that they can get away with jerky behavior, but that jerky behavior is their right. As science journalist Maia Szalavitz put it, summarizing several studies, "Rich people tended to take advantage of others primarily because they saw selfish and greedy behavior as acceptable, not just because they had more money or higher social status."

"Why do I mistreat the peons? Because I can, darling. Because I can." (Shutterstock)

The rich are showered with privileges and come to believe that those privileges are their just deserts, that those who don't share the privileges don't deserve them. They minimize or dismiss the role of luck in life outcomes. They develop horrifying views about the lazy, shiftless, undeserving poor, the 47 percent of the country that's all moochers and takers who vote Democrat because they want Obama phones and food-stamp steaks. They come to see themselves as heroes, job creators, makers beset on all sides by the envious and less gifted, a beleaguered, victimized class.

They don't interrogate conservative ideology at all. They lap it up, wallow in it. They use their enormous wealth and political influence to advocate for slashing assistance to the poor, reducing their own taxes, weakening or repealing successful public-health regulations, and keeping money supply tight even in the face of a sluggish recovery and the zero lower bound. And they show an astonishing lack of self-awareness about any of it.

Tim and his smart, urbane DC libertarian friends might not come to their fiscal conservatism via toxic, myopic, self-justifying myths. But the American rich sure seem to. They are not jerks because they are fiscal conservatives; they are fiscal conservatives because, as a great deal of other evidence demonstrates, they are jerks.

11 Feb 16:41

Why it stinks to have Spider-Man back in Marvel movies

by Alex Abad-Santos

On Monday, February 9, Marvel Studios made its biggest announcement yet — Spider-Man would be appearing in the same cinematic universe occupied by The Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Dr. Strange.

Spider-Man is a huge, glittering acquisition — he's now most high-profile superhero in Marvel's war chest. And because of disappointment with Sony's Amazing Spider-Man 2, there's a feeling that Marvel can bring back the snap and lightness into the crumbling franchise.

But the acquisition came at a price.

Captain Marvel and Black Panther were moved back

For the last few years, there have been two major movements in comic books — a push toward diversity and a push toward stories that break the mold of traditional superhero stories. Those two trends have come together at Marvel, which, despite occasional blunders, has pushed moves like making Thor a woman, making Captain-America a black man, and giving female heroes like Storm solo books.

Last year, editor Sana Amanat (now Marvel's director of character development and content), writer G. Willow Wilson, and artist Sarah Pichelli brought to life a Ms. Marvel who happens to be a Pakistani-American, Muslim, teenage girl. It was a massive hit.

And in October, Marvel's announced film schedule reflected this. The studio announced that its first black superhero movie (Marvel only recently acquired the rights to Blade) Black Panther would be happening in 2017, and its first female superhero movie with Captain Marvel (Fox owned Elektra's rights) in July 2018.

With the addition of Spider-Man, the two movies will now be bumped. Black Panther has been pushed to 2018 and Captain Marvel to November of 2018. The move makes sense financially, because Spider-Man (Peter Parker) is Marvel's only comic book character with the same recognition as Superman and Batman:

But to fans who have been waiting to see Black Panther and Captain Marvel on screen, it feels like another Peter Parker story — one that pushes aside diversity in Black Panther and Captain Marvel. It's also unclear if these movies would be pushed back if, say, Spider-Man is wildly successful and execs demand more movies.

Bumping Captain Marvel and Black Panther feels like a step back in the progress that Marvel had been making. Marvel and Sony could, if they wanted to be fearless, cast a non-white Spider-Man or opt to take on the story of Miles Morales (more about this in a bit). But that seems more like wishful thinking —it would be fantastic —than what might actually happen.

This doesn't mean that we won't see Black Panther and Captain Marvel in the Avengers movies. But we will have to wait for them to receive the kind of spotlight their white, male peers have been enjoying for years.

There are plenty of reasons Miles Morales should happen. There are plenty more why Peter Parker will happen.

In the wake of Marvel's announcement, one of the popular takes thrown out has been the cinematic introduction of Miles Morales, a black, Hispanic Spider-Man who exists in Marvel's universe.

Morales is one of Marvel's comic book stars, and it's been speculated that Marvel's upcoming crossover event Secret Wars is an attempt to get Morales in the mainstream universe. That will probably happen in the books.

But getting Morales onscreen would be a different feat. Comic book readers, movie executives, and mainstream fans operate on different planes, and it's executives and mainstream fans that make the rules. Spider-Man producer Avi Arad explained this mentality to The Playlist last May:

The one thing you cannot do, when you have a phenomena [sic] that has stood the test of time, you have to be true to the real character inside - who is Peter Parker? What are the biggest effects on his life? Then you can draw in time, and you can consider today's world in many ways.

You also have to remember that Sony is the company holding the rights at the end of the day. And Sony is different from Marvel — it doesn't have any loyalty to the Ultimate universe, nor does it have the kind of culture where people would care as much about the comic books as they do at Marvel.

To executives and mainstream fans, dissolving Peter Parker's name from Spider-Man would be as much a sacrilege as telling someone that Bruce Wayne isn't Batman. You also have to take into account that in the main Marvel universe, it's Peter Parker, not Miles Morales, who has existing relationships with The Avengers.


Millions of dollars have been made using Peter Parker's name. And there isn't reason to think that will change, even though Marvel will be at the helm.

Marvel thrives when it has a challenge. Spider-Man isn't one.

One of the serendipitous things about Marvel's fractured movie rights is that it forced the company to take heroes that didn't have the name recognition or fame of a Wonder Woman, a Superman, or even a Wolverine to jump start their movies.

The Geek Twins

If Marvel had the X-Men (who were the only superhero team worth caring about in the 90s) or The Fantastic Four, we probably wouldn't see movies like Ant-Man or Guardians of the Galaxy being made. We'd be on our 10th X-Men movie and sixth Fantastic Four film.

Marvel's lack of A-list heroes made Marvel work hard and think hard when it came to breathing new life into Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America. The company was forced to elevate the way we thought about superhero movies in order to compete with Sony and Fox, and some great movies were made.

For the last couple of years though, the knock on these movies (Thor: Dark World/Avengers/Guardians of the Galaxy) is that they all seem to be wrapped around the same kind of plot (villain has a weapon that will wipe out world, funny jokes, briefly stop villain, and lather, rinse, repeat).

And there's a worry in that same vein that the Spidey story might be something that allows Marvel to rest on complacency — on more of the same when all we want is less of it.

WATCH: 'The Avengers trailer explained'

30 Sep 15:45

The Secret Service scandals, explained

by Dylan Matthews

High-ranking agents in the Secret Service allegedly drove drunk through a crime scene at the White House on March 4, hitting a temporary barricade before speeding off. The agents, who were believed to be drunk, apparently drove directly next to a suspicious package dropped by a woman who had announced "I'm holding an [unspecified expletive] bomb." It turned out to be a book, according to a report by the Washington Post's Carol Leonnig and Peter Hermann.

The incident follows several others uncovered by Leonnig and her colleagues in recent months involving security failures by the Secret Service, including Secret Service agents and a White House volunteer allegedly hiring prostitutes in Colombia, a White House fence-jumper who made it fairly far into the building, sniper shots that the Service didn't know hit the White House until four days later, and an incident where a man carrying a gun was let into an elevator with President Obama.

Here are the basics of the Secret Service scandals as they stand today.

What was the Secret Service/White House prostitution scandal?

Cartagena, Colombia at night. (Luz Adriana Villa)

The story here begins in April 2012, when President Obama traveled to Cartagena, Colombia, for the Summit of the Americas. While there, a number of Secret Service agents, DEA agents, and members of the armed forces assigned to the president's security detail brought prostitutes back to their hotel rooms. The respective agencies ran their own investigations and agreed upon punishments. The three DEA agents who hired prostitutes were reprimanded but kept their jobs; ten Secret Service agents lost their jobs, either through dismissal, early retirement, or forced resignation; and twelve service members were either nonjudicially punished, reprimanded, or asked for courts-martial.

While the story got substantial press coverage, it hadn't take on much political significance until Leonnig and David Nakamura's report in the Washington Post, which suggested that the White House counsel's office and Department of Homeland Security willfully ignored evidence implicating a member of the President's advance team. Leonnig and Nakamura discovered that Secret Service investigators found evidence that a member of the advance team, a then-Yale law student named Jonathan Dach, had hired a prostitute and brought her back to his hotel room on the night of April 3, a week before the Secret Service/DEA agents and service members hired prostitutes.

Dach was not a White House employee but a "volunteer who helped coordinate drivers for the White House travel office," Leonnig and Nakamura report; he was reimbursed for expenses and given a per diem. He currently works on contract as "a policy adviser in the Office on Global Women’s Issues at the State Department."

The findings were relayed from then-Secret Service director Mark Sullivan to then-White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler. The counsel's office interviewed advance team members, including Dach, who denied any wrongdoing. They concluded there no evidence implicating Dach or other White House representatives.

Three weeks later, the Sullivan presented hotel records to Ruemmler showing that Dach had registered an additional guest to his room shortly after midnight on April 4. Leonnig and Nakamura note that in Colombia, where prostitution is legal in certain pockets, the Hilton requires prostitutes to provide identification with proof of age, and retains a photocopy of it. The hotel's records show the guest registered to Dach's room had her ID photocopied.

Ruemmler's position did not change. An administration official told Leonnig and Nakamura that Ruemmler "believed it would be a 'real scandal' if she had sent 'a team of people to Colombia to investigate a volunteer over something that’s not a criminal act … That would be insane.'"

The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general's office launched an investigation in late May, upon request from the Senate Homeland Security committee, which was concerned the Secret Service (which is under DHS) was not being thorough enough. They found that an agent had seen Dach with a woman the agent thought was a prostitute, and another agent noted the records suggesting Dach registered a woman into his room.

Investigators also found that the name of the woman registered to Dach's room matched that of a prostitute working in the city, who had posted internet ads pegged to the Summit of the Americas. (Dach vehemently denied the charges.)

The acting inspector general, Charles K. Edwards, presented the information to then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and less than 24 hours later, David Nieland, the head DHS IG investigator on the case, says he was asked to remove references to an official report to evidence implicating a member of the White House's team. Two staffers for then-Senate Homeland Security chair Joe Lieberman (I-CT) also allegedly pressured Edwards' office to leave out information about the White House.

Nieland and two other staffers who fought the changes to the report were put on administrative leave, in what they believed to be retaliation; in at least one case, the Office of Special Counsel, an agency which helps protect federal whistleblowers, concluded that there was strong evidence that this was the motive. But Nieland's story isn't exactly bulletproof. The official story is that he was placed on leave for photographing a female intern's feet; he didn't deny the allegation and instead insisted that he did it as a joke. He was later forced to resign following allegations that he himself had hired a prostitute in Florida.

What happened in the case of the guy running into the White House with a knife?

On September 19th, Omar Gonzalez, carrying a knife, jumped the White House fence, rushed through the front door and ran into the building's East Room (which the White House website states is "used for large gatherings, such as press conferences, bill-signing ceremonies, after-dinner entertaining, concerts, weddings, funerals, and award presentations") before being tackled at the doorway from the East Room into the Green Room (traditionally used as "a parlor for teas and receptions") by a Secret Service agent. That's according to the most recent version of events, recounted by three "people familiar with the incident" to Leonnig.

His trajectory is shown by this GIF made by Vox's Adam Baumgartner:

(Adam Baumgartner / Vox)

In its initial statement about the incident, the Secret Service stated that Gonzalez "was physically apprehended after entering the White House North Portico doors," which seems to imply that he was stopped shortly after entering the building, when he in fact ran a fair bit into the White House before being stopped, as Leonnig uncovered. Leonnig later learned that the man who tackled Gonzalez was off-duty at the time.

Gonzalez made his run at about 7:20 PM, while President Obama, his daughters, and a family friend had taken a helicopter to Camp David at 7:05 PM.

How was the intrusion not stopped earlier?

WJLA explains the Gonzalez incident.

One major security lapse, Leonnig reports, was the failure to issue an alarm as soon as Gonzalez made it into the building. Secret Service agents are supposed to hit alarm boxes known as "crash boxes" when they spot an intruder, which triggers an alarm to every post at the White House, and provides other agents with information on where the intrusion occurred.

The boxes were silenced at the time of the Gonzalez incident. Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, whose House Oversight subcommittee on Homeland Security is investigating the breach, told Leonnig that two sources in the agency told him the White House usher staff complained about the noise. Leonnig quotes a Secret Service official saying that the usher staff was concerned the boxes were "frequently malfunctioning and unnecessarily sounding off."

There were some other failures as well. A plainclothes surveillance team outside the White House didn't notice that Gonzalez had jumped the fence and so didn't alert agents inside the compound. An officer in a guard booth on the lawn couldn't reach Gonzalez. The next layer of protection was supposed to consist of "an attack dog, a specialized SWAT team and a guard at the front door."

Leonnig and David Fahrenthold report there was no guard at the door, the SWAT team "didn’t react in time" and "was trailing Gonzalez" when he made it to the front door, and the attack dog was never released. "Some people familiar with the incident say the handler likely felt he could not release the dog because so many officers were in pursuit of Gonzalez, and the dog may have attacked them instead," Leonnig writes.

Who is Omar Gonzalez, the intruder?

Gonzalez, 42, is a Puerto Rico-born Army vet, serving first from 1997 to 2003 and then again from 2005 to 2012, including an October 2006 to January 2008 tour in Iraq. He eventually had to have part of his foot amputated after injuries from an IED explosion. A report in the Los Angeles Times talking to his family found that Gonzalez has been treated for PTSD and depression since coming home from Iraq, where he grew disillusioned by the mission.

Gonzalez has had nightmares and insomnia and was, his family told the Times, taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. His ex-wife told the Times that he began "placing guns behind every door in the house and carrying a sidearm on his hip" and kept talking about how "'they' were watching him, 'they' were trying to poison him." She left him in 2010 and divorced him earlier this year. The sight of children began to disturb him, as he had seen children equipped with bombs when he was in Iraq.

He is reported to have been homeless and living near his former base at Ft. Hood, in Killeen, Texas. A former neighbor told the LA Times that she "last saw [Gonzalez] at a park, where she said he told her he was living out of his truck at a Ft. Hood campground," while a family member said he has been "homeless and living alone in the wild and in campgrounds with his two pet dogs for the last two years."

Gonzalez was carrying a "Spyderco VG-10 folding knife with a three-and-a-half inch serrated blade" when he entered the White House. After searching his car, authorities found 800 rounds of ammunition, two hatchets, and a machete.

This wasn't Gonzalez's first run-in with the police. He was stopped outside the White House last month when Secret Service agents found a hatchet in his waistband, but was let go when he allowed a search of his car and no other weapons were found. In July, he was involved in a high-speed chase with police, who found 11 guns (4 pistols, 4 rifles, 2 shotguns, and a revolver) and a map of the White House in his car. He was charged with "reckless driving, one felony count of eluding police and possession of a sawed-off shotgun."

Gonzalez's motivations are unclear, but prosecutors claim he told a Secret Service agent that "he was concerned that the atmosphere was collapsing and needed to get the information to the president of the United States so that he could get the word out to the people."

On Friday, March 13, 2015, Gonzalez pled guilty to two charges — unlawfully entering a restricted building while carrying a dangerous weapon and assaulting, resisting or impeding certain officers — as part of a plea deal in which federal prosecutors are recommending a sentence of 12 to 18 months.

What's this about Obama being in an elevator with a guy with a gun?

CDC director Tom Frieden; the CDC headquarters were the site of perhaps the most concerning Secret Service failure in recent weeks. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

This is another big Secret Service failure from fall 2014, uncovered by the Washington Examiner's Susan Crabtree and Leonnig. On September 16, just a few days before the Gonzalez incident, a security contractor at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta was allowed on an elevator with the President — while said contractor was carrying a gun. While initial reports suggested the contractor was a convicted felon, this turned out to be false.

"The private contractor first aroused the agents’ concerns when he acted oddly and did not comply with their orders to stop using a cellphone camera to record the president in the elevator," Leonnig writes. When the elevator reached its destination, Obama and most of his security detail left, while others stayed behind to question the contractor. It was only then that they discovered that he had been carrying a gun.

This was a problem, because the Secret Service, through its "Arm's Reach Program," is supposed to screen any staff, contractors, guests, volunteers, etc. at presidential engagements against various databases, including a criminal registry, and bar entry to those whose records suggest their presence is a risk. Police are exempt from this screening but private contractors shouldn't be. This incident suggests the Secret Service doesn't always screen everyone they're supposed to — and the result was that a man with a gun was allowed within arm's reach of the president.

What was the White House sniper incident?

On November 11, 2011, Oscar Ortega-Hernandez opened fire from his car south of the White House, hitting the upstairs residence portion of the building at least seven times.

The incident was reported at the time, but it wasn't until a September 27, 2014 report by Leonnig that it was known that Sasha Obama and her maternal grandmother, Marian Robinson (who lives at the White House), were in the residence that night, and Malia was due back any minute.

Leonnig also discovered that the Secret Service bungled its response to the incident in a number of alarming ways. After the shooting, a Secret Service supervisor instructed officers on duty, "No shots have been fired … Stand down," thinking that the gunshots were just construction noise.

The failures didn't stop there. Even after it was clear that there had been a shooting, Secret Service officials concluded that "gang members in separate cars got in a gunfight near the White House’s front lawn," rather than that someone had fired at the White House. "It took the Secret Service four days to realize that shots had hit the White House residence," Leonnig writes, "a discovery that came about only because a housekeeper noticed broken glass and a chunk of cement on the floor."

"Officers who were on the scene who thought gunfire had probably hit the house that night were largely ignored, and some were afraid to dispute their bosses’ conclusions," Leonnig reports. And the ensuing investigation was seriously lacking: "Nobody conducted more than a cursory inspection of the White House for evidence or damage. Key witnesses were not interviewed until after bullets were found."

What has the White House done to deal with these security lapses?

Julia Pierson, the Secret Service's director, resigned after the Omar Gonzalez and Atlanta elevator scandals broke. The Department of Homeland Security appointed a panel of four outside experts to look into the agency's problems, resulting in a report in mid-December (the executive summary can be read here).

The report recommended raising the White House compound's fence, hiring more officers to protect the White House, president, and foreign embassies, improved training for officers, and, crucially, a new director from outside the service. President Obama ignored that last recommendation when he appointed veteran agent Joseph Clancy to lead the agency in mid-February.

In the latest drunk-driving incident, the administration has insisted it still has confidence in Clancy's leadership. The service says the men involved have been reassigned and are under investigation.

Have these kinds of security lapses happened in past presidencies?

white house helicopter

A more legitimate use of a helicopter by the White House. (Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)

Several times, actually. Only eight days before the Gonzalez incident, a man wearing a Pikachu hat scaled the fence and ran onto the North Lawn before being intercepted. Other cases were more serious. In 1974, an Army private flew a helicopter from Fort Meade in Maryland to the White House, landing it after receiving gunfire from officers on the ground. In 1994 a man opened fire at the White House in an attempt to kill Bill Clinton, who was inside and obviously unharmed. That same year, a man died after crashing his Cessna plane onto the White House grounds.

But the rate at which they occur has increased since 2009. President Obama, according to Leonnig's sources, has faced three times as many threats as previous presidents.

Update: This post has been updated to include Leonnig's discovery that the officer who stopped Gonzalez was off-duty, Gonzalez's guilty plea, the Department of Homeland Security's panel investigating the agency, and the sniper, Atlanta elevator, and drunken agent scandals as well. The Atlanta elevator section was updated to reflect later reports that the man in question was not a convicted felon.

18 Feb 20:27

The Rays Rotation

by Brad Johnson

The Rays tend to field pitchers who have a multitude of fantasy uses. In recent seasons, they’ve featured aces, mid-draft talent, and undervalued prospects. It’s shaping up to be more of the same in 2014, although the specifics have yet to be ironed out. Some spring position battles could substantially affect which players have value, but owners who are drafting soon will need to gamble.

On Lockdown
David Price
Alex Cobb
Matt Moore

Price was supposed to be traded this winter, but it hasn’t happened yet. This close to spring, it probably won’t happen, although executives continue to speculate that it will over on the pages of MLB Trade Rumors. Regardless of where he ends up, he’ll have plenty of value in 2014.

Statistically, 2013 was a strange season for Price. His average velocity declined by two mph and his strikeout rate fell four percent. On the plus side, his whiff rate barely declined and his walk rate dropped to a Cliff Lee-like 3.7 percent. The velocity loss may be permanent – that just happens with pitchers as they age – but it’s not immediately apparent what we should expect from strikeouts or walks. If things break right, he could be a Lee clone. If they shake out in the other direction, we’re looking at someone more like Jordan Zimmermann.

Cobb had a very strong season after his whiff rate took a leap forward. That led to more strikeouts – enough that he was a borderline fantasy ace. The only thing that held him back was a line drive off the face, which certainly qualifies as a fluky injury. He’s a ground ball heavy pitcher who strikes out enough batters to help that category. His wins, ERA, and WHIP will probably also be solid categories.

In my early mocks, I get the impression that the experts expect heavy regression, but I feel pretty bullish about a repeat. The strikeouts may decline slightly, but anytime a pitcher rolls 55 percent ground balls and over eight strikeouts per nine, I’m buying. My only concern besides the usual injury risk is that he may tire out near the end of the season. It’s a small concern.

I’m actually wary of Moore. He has huge breakout potential due to great stuff, but until he takes that step forward, he looks like a 4.00 ERA pitcher. I want more than 8.5 strikeouts per nine if I’m going to absorb that kind of ERA. Last season, a .259 BABIP and 79 percent strand rate allowed Moore to out-pitch his FIP considerably. I won’t be gambling on a repeat. He’s shown a tendency towards walks in the majors, which has led to a lot of patience from opposing hitters. He may fall in some leagues where owners are well aware of BABIP and LOB%.

Presumed To Start
Chris Archer
Jake Odorizzi

Archer probably could have gone in the lockdown section, but he still has options and crazier things have happened. However, he was impressively solid in 2013 over 23 starts, featuring a 95 mph fastball and good command. His strikeout rate was disappointing, but a nine percent whiff rate hints at the potential for more growth. Like Moore, a low 3′s ERA is probably too much to ask for, but there is breakout potential if he can take a step forward in generating strikeouts.

A few months ago, Odorizzi was expected to be the sixth starter, but now he has the inside track on the fifth starter job. He profiles as a durable, innings eater who will keep the Rays in games, but probably won’t help fantasy owners. He’ll be best used as a waiver wire starter.

Down the Depth Chart
Erik Bedard
Alex Colome
Enny Romero
Nate Karns
Matt Andriese

The Rays recently signed Bedard to compete for a rotation job. The oft-injured veteran is a viable starter, but may need some help from an injury or poor performance to make the club. For fantasy purposes, Bedard is risky because he walks too many batters, but he strikes out enough to be a useful $1 flier.

Karns was acquired in the Jose Lobaton trade with the Nationals. He’s posted some exciting numbers in the Nationals’ farm system, but the Rays tend to move slowly with their prospects. If he remains a starter, he will probably spend most of the season in Triple-A. He might get converted to pen work where his 94 mph fastball could play up.

Colome is near major league readiness, but he needs to develop a better breaking ball before he becomes a mid-rotation contributor. He features a fastball that lives around 95 mph, so he’s another candidate for pen work.

The left-handed Romero has shaky control that he’ll need to conquer in Triple-A before the Rays let him out to play. Once again, a move to the pen could accelerate his time table.

Andriese is a spring training invitee. He’s a command and control righty out of the Padres minor league system. There are a ton of players ahead of him, but he’s probably the closest to his ceiling of the group. In case of injury, I have to think he’s one of the first choices. For fantasy purposes, he looks like a waiver starter with a low strikeout and walk rate.

Don’t Forget
Jeremy Hellickson

Hellickson is hurt, but he won’t be out forever. He’s not a reliable fantasy option unless you really like to gamble. His best seasons were achieved by outperforming his peripherals. He may find himself in a reduced role when he returns, but further injuries will probably open up a spot for him.

26 Jan 19:14

Reducing Recidivism Through Incentives

by Freakonomics

Ryan Bradley, writing for CNNMoney, highlights an interesting policy experiment currently underway in New York City: a social impact bond geared at reducing recidivism:

They are called “social impact bonds.” The first, issued in 2012 by Goldman Sachs (GS), is underway in New York City for $9.6 million. The money is going toward a four-year program to reduce reincarceration of juveniles at Riker’s Island prison. Goldman Sachs has a vested interest in the success of this program. If participants stop returning to jail at a rate of 10% or greater, Goldman will earn $2.1 million. If the recidivism rate rises above 10% over four years, Goldman stands to lose $2.4 million. In a recent report, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law calls this a “bet on success … instead of using the typical model of privatization, in which private prisons generally bet on failure (i.e. the more prisoners, the better).”

Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of a nonprofit that, among other things, helps former convicts avoid reincarceration for minor parole violations, believes the idea could be “transformative.”  

“What if you personalize it?” he asks. “What if individual officers, and administrators, personally benefitted by reducing recidivism rates? If you created the right kind of bonus, something that was really meaningful, it would just be fascinating to see how quickly things would change. Guards would be desperate to get educational facilities, they’d want classes, drug treatment, safe environments. Their interests would align with the prisoners’ — they’d care if people came out. They’d care about who shouldn’t come out. It would have an impact on how they think about their work, their life. And you — we, taxpayers, the system — wouldn’t be spending new money, you’d just reallocate.

19 Dec 15:02

$22.62/Hr: The Minimum Wage if it had Risen Like the Incomes of the 1%

by Martin Hart-Landsberg, PhD

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.  Several states mandate a higher minimum wage; the state of Washington has the highest, at $9.19.

President Obama recently voiced his support for efforts to increase the minimum wage to $10.10.  The federal minimum wage was last raised in 2009 and certainly needs to be increased again.  The fact is that the federal minimum wage has not kept up with inflation.  As the New York Times graphic below shows, the current minimum wage is, when adjusted for inflation, 32% below what it was in 1968.  It is 8% below what it was in 2010.  In other words, those earning the minimum wage are suffering a real decline in income.


As for the appropriate value, why not $22.62?  That, as the graphic illustrates, is what the minimum wage would be if it grew at the same rate as the income of the top 1%. Alan Pyke explains:

[Such a large increase] may seem outlandish, but previous research indicates American workers have just about earned it. Worker productivity has more than doubled since 1968, and if the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity gains it would have been $21.72 last year. From 2000 to 2012 alone workers boosted their productivity by 25 percent yet saw their earnings fall rather than rise, leading some economists to label the early 21st century a lost decade for American workers.

Looked at from that perspective the current movement for a $15 hourly wage at fast food restaurants sounds reasonable.  

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

(View original at

16 Dec 14:34

Glass Trolling

Plus, when someone finally grabs your glasses and stomps on them, it costs way less than $1,500 to replace them.
08 Dec 23:08

This video will make you want to go to the Chemical Party

by Katharine Trendacosta

If all of chemistry is a dance party, then all the elements are guests, capable of attracting, repulsing, forming bonds, and experiencing explosive reactions.



03 Dec 17:22

Teach to One’s First Report Card

by Freakonomics

One of our first Freakonomics Radio podcasts was about an innovative New York City Department of Education pilot program called School of One. You can listen to the podcast here, but here’s the gist: “The School of One tries to take advantage of technology to essentially customize education for every kid in every classroom and help teachers do their job more effectively. “

School of One’s successor, Teach to One, just got its first-year report card from a Teachers College study. The program is thriving; some highlights of the study, from the press release

• Teach to One students started the 2012-13 academic year significantly below national averages

• The average gains of Teach to One students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades surpassed those made by students nationally by ~20%. The researchers said this is particularly noteworthy since participating schools would likely not have scored at the national average without Teach to One.  

• The average gains of Teach to One students in most demographic sub-groups outperformed national norms

• Teach to One students who started with the weakest mathematics skills made the greatest gains—50 percent higher than the national average.

02 Dec 02:51

The cult of justice

One of the problems with what I do is that I look for patterns in human behaviour, and once I see them I have difficulty un-seeing them. And there's a set of patterns I keep seeing that are implicit in our news reportage—specifically, the reporting of legal cases. Patterns which seem to me to have a very simple underlying cause but which we take so much for granted that we don't recognize them explicitly.

1. Justice is a religious cult.

2. Law is holy scripture.

3. Judges are priests.

4. Judicial capital punishment is human sacrifice.

I'd like to note that in some contexts, point (2) is explicit. Nobody in the Anglosphere quibbles at the idea of Shari'a law being religious law based on holy scripture because it says it is. And when you've got a legal-religious hierarchy such as exists in shi'ism or orthodox judaism it's pretty hard to deny point (3). The laws the Christian Dominionists would like to foist upon us are similarly derived from a religious point of origin. Point (4) is more questionable, but if one notes that capital punishment is not a necessity for crime prevention (and it certainly isn't rehabilitative!) then one is forced to ask why it's associated with justice. And finally, to circle back to point (1), why are people generally so uncomfortable with the idea of abandoning justice?

At risk of invoking a pop-sci ev-psych explanation, there's some experimental evidence to support the hypothesis that monkeys and primates have an innate preference for fairness in transactional encounters. Lack of fairness offends monkeys, and humans, at a very low level. So I hypothesize that, just as religious behaviour in general seems to be a by-product of theory of mind (we've evolved to attribute intent to other animals in order to anticipate their behaviour; when we attribute intent to natural phenomena like storms and lightning we end up with invisible sky daddies who are angry), so "justice" is a by-product of the mechanisms that allow primates to socialize with one another without intra-group predation. It emerges not as a pre-formed body of rules, but as a predisposition to divide behaviours into "good" and "bad" categories, and to attribute religious intent to this categorization.

Now let's note some corollaries:

1. Justice-as-religion implies a seat of absolute authority from which judgements may be passed—naively, a God (or goddess, or symbol) of justice. (In reality, it's a shared human cognitive process: the natural non-human world has no justice mechanism. But human-centric processes are, well, human-centric.)

2. Anarchism is hated and loathed by the followers of the Cult of Justice because it occupies a role equivalent to Atheism in the context of religions: it's corrosive of certainty, and a large subset of humanity simply can't cope with uncertainty.

3. Governments embody mechanisms for creating and enforcing laws. It follows that all governments are theocracies.

Discuss point (3).

11 Nov 15:16

Poet Clint Smith on Food Deserts and Urban Warriors

by Lisa Wade, PhD

Screenshot_1In this powerful spoken word, poet Clint Smith, who is also a teacher in Washington D.C., tells the stories of some of his students. It puts names and details to the struggles of young people trying to thrive in an urban environment that is all too often indifferent to their survival.

Via Upworthy.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

(View original at

23 Oct 00:21

135. TIM MINCHIN: Be hard on your opinions

by Gav

135. TIM MINCHIN: Be hard on your opinions

Tim Minchin is an Australian (my first Aussie, how embarrassing) musician, comedian, actor, composer and writer. Since making a name for himself at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and winning the best newcomer award at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2005, Tim has done all sorts of awesome things – sell-out comedy tours, sell-out orchestral arena tours, writing and composing the music for the award-winning musical Matilda, playing Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and narrating an Academy Award-winning animated film, just to name a few.

Most recently, Tim gave a excellent Occasional Address at the University of Western Australia, where this quote is taken from. In the hilarious speech, Tim gives his nine life lessons which I guarantee you will enjoy and get something out of. You can watch the full speech and read the transcript here.

You can also check out some of Tim’s songs on his YouTube channel or watch this sweet animated short film, Storm (Warning: contains naughty language), based on one of his poems about pseudoscience.

RELATED COMICS: Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Neil Gaiman, Taylor Mali and Bill Hicks.

Thanks to Trev, Lina, Daren and Gerald for sending me the speech.

15 Oct 20:33

134. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

by Gav

134. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Today, October 16, is Blog Action Day, where thousands of different bloggers from all over the world post about the same theme. This year’s theme is HUMAN RIGHTS.

After surfing the net trying to get an idea of what I could contribute, I kept coming across articles about how governments seem to be ignoring people’s human rights more and more these days. The thing was, I didn’t even know what these magical “human rights” were. Where did these rights come from? Who decided what they were? Are they international law? That’s when I came across the Universal Declaration and decided to turn them into an accessible poster because I knew that a lot of people had probably never read them either.

After the horror of World War II, the United Nations was formed in 1945. The UN charter’s main two objectives are ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ and ‘to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights.’ In 1946, the UN Commission on Human Rights was established. Chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the commission drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948 ‘as a common standard of achievement for all people and nations’. Today, it is the job of the Human Rights Council, an important body of the United Nations, to promote and protect people’s human rights around the world.

This poster uses a simplified version of the Declaration. You can read the original wording here. For more information about the history of the Declaration I suggest this article. For more info about Blog Action Day and to find contributions from other bloggers, visit the official website.

RELATED COMIC: Malala Yousafzai I Have the Right

A few readers have since shown me this cool typographic video of the Declaration.

29 Sep 20:53

Are Elvish, Klingon, Dothraki and Na'vi real languages?

by Lauren Davis

Leslie, thought you'd like this.

Well no, they're fictional languages spoken by fictional peoples. But what makes a fictional language an actual language and not merely a convincing combination of sounds?



29 Sep 17:50

A haunting Russian stop-motion animated fairy tale from 1968

by Lauren Davis

Mostly for you Leslie

Nikolai Serebryakov made his short film Klubok (Ball of Yarn) in 1968, but it remains an evocative piece of animated folklore. A poor old woman discovers a magical ball of yarn, but she gets too greedy with her gift.



24 Sep 18:06

TED: Stuart Firestein: The pursuit of ignorance - Stuart Firestein (2013)

What does real scientific work look like? As neuroscientist Stuart Firestein jokes: It looks a lot less like the scientific method and a lot more like "farting around … in the dark." In this witty talk, Firestein gets to the heart of science as it is really practiced and suggests that we should value what we don’t know -- or “high-quality ignorance” -- just as much as what we know.
19 Sep 01:25

Contrary to popular belief : Nature Biotechnology : Nature Publishing Group

19 Sep 01:25

RIP, American Dream? Why It's So Hard for the Poor to Get Ahead Today - Mat

17 Sep 13:48

It’s Not ‘Mess.’ It’s Creativity. -

17 Sep 13:48

The Religious Right's Anti-Vaccine Hysteria Is Reviving Dead Diseases in Am

17 Sep 13:48