It’s likely that, if the Senate bill passes, more Americans will have health insurance five years from now than do today.
For reals? How do you figure . . . ?
The Congressional Budget Office believes that solely because Republicans would repeal the A.C.A.’s individual mandate, by 2026, more than 15 million fewer people will buy health insurance, regardless of what senators do to direct more financial assistance to the poor and the vulnerable. That’s not a flaw in the Senate bill; it’s a flaw in the C.B.O.’s methods.
The CBO estimates that 15 million fewer people will buy insurance, because the GOP’s bill will make it impossible for many millions of people to buy “health insurance” in any economically meaningful sense:
Under Obamacare, insurers cover a large portion of out-of-pocket costs for individuals making up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level — about $30,000 for an individual and $61,000 for a family of four. In exchange, the federal government reimburses them for the difference. The theory is that customers in this income range would otherwise struggle to benefit from a silver plan with deductibles of $7,500.
But the House and Senate bills each eliminate these cost-sharing provisions — and the effects would be dramatic, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis. If you’re an individual making around $18,000 a year, your effective deductible would be about $255 under Obamacare. Under the Senate bill, though, that number would jump to over $6,000 — almost 24 times higher.
People who make $18,000 per year have an after-tax income of about $1,250 per month. Under the GOP plan, these people will be required to pay nearly half their total expendable income in deductibles, if they should make a poor lifestyle choice, like getting sick or injured, and then decide to try to get medical treatment.
So obviously they’re not going to buy fake “insurance” under these circumstances.
What Roy points out is that the CBO doesn’t take into account the possibility that the same party that is passing this bill might not subsequently create a bunch of subsidies that will make it rational for these people to buy health insurance. You know, like Obamacare currently does.
Don’t read the whole thing if you value either your sanity or your breakfast.
Around 7:30 pm on Monday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) walked alone from the House side of the US Capitol to the Capitol steps to discuss Senate Republicans’ health care bill.
Other senators, Capitol Hill staffers, and members of the public began to join them. About four hours later, what began as an impromptu get-together of two men had swelled to a 300-person strong rally at the Capitol — and perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of opposition to the Senate Republican health bill yet.
“If you have ever in your life been the father of a very sick child and didn’t have health insurance, you’ll never forget it as long as you live. I know it. I’ve been there,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the No. 2 ranking Senate Democrat.
The gathering came in the midst of efforts by resistance leaders to dramatize the extent of the public’s opposition to the bill. Left-wing activists believe that if they can draw enough public attention and scrutiny to the bill — which the Congressional Budget Office estimated would result in 22 million fewer Americans having health insurance — they can cow Republicans into not passing it. It only takes three Senate Republican defections for the bill to be defeated, and so far at least five have said they oppose it in its current form.
The video of the event on Monday is remarkable. Booker and Lewis meet on the House side of the Capitol, cross over to the Senate, and sit outside the Capitol. About 25 minutes in, a traffic engineer named Denai from New Jersey visiting the Capitol comes up to the members of Congress and tells them he has also has concerns about the bill.
Another family comes, and Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) comes out on the steps as well. (“You conjured a great Delawarean,” Booker tells the tourists.) Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) arrives, and takes a turn holding Booker’s iPhone to stream it for a Facebook Live video. Also joining them soon after were key Senate Democrats: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).
Next, they’re joined by MoveOn’s Ben Wikler, organizers with UltraViolet, and Planned Parenthood activists. By the end, hundreds of people were chanting on Booker’s every word as organizers urged the crowd to reconvene for “the People’s Filibuster” (an action at the Capitol over health care from 2 to 7 pm on Tuesday) and for a “human chain” of linked arms that’s set to form around the Capitol building on Wednesday.
“Right now, the biggest obstacle we face is not [Republican senators], but the silence of those who could do something about it. Silence is the enemy. Apathy is the enemy. Indifference is the enemy,” Booker said as the event closed down at 11 pm. “We've already seen in the past election when too many stay home. We have seen the consequences of that too many times.”
Urbanist Brent Toderian reflects on how to keep livable cities affordable.
The most frequent criticism of dense, walkable, livable urban areas is that they are too expensive to live in.
Cities like New York, Seattle, and San Francisco, which contain some of the most celebrated examples of US urbanism, also boast some of the highest real estate prices. Longtime residents have come to see the arrival of condos and bike lanes as harbingers of rising rents.
Not only do livable cities struggle to provide low-income housing, they also risk losing the broad middle of the income spectrum. They risk becoming playgrounds for wealthy professionals, which can lead to resentment and social unrest of the sort popping up in San Francisco.
On some level, any attractive, growing city is going to struggle with affordability. When there’s only so much city, and lots of people want to live there, prices go up. It’s supply and demand. (Urbanists support density precisely because it increases supply — you can’t make more urban land, but you can fit more housing on the land you’ve got.)
No city has come close to “solving” this problem, and it’s not clear that solving it is even within municipal power, but there are things cities can do — regulate low-income and rental housing, or take measures to prevent outside investors and speculators from bidding up valuable urban housing.
I asked urbanist Brent Toderian, who was chief planner in Vancouver, BC, from 2006 to 2012, how cities can address affordability. He cited a range of programs and initiatives that take the edge off, but was realistic about the limits of municipal government. (You can find more of our conversation, on a range of city-making topics, here.)
What do you think about the impression that walkability is basically for wealthy professionals?
I don’t accept it — some of the most walkable urban communities of the past have been low-income communities that are older and more traditional, not urban-renewal communities. They’re front-stoop communities.
You don’t have to build [urbanist communities] in an expensive way. Getting the fundamentals of urban design right doesn’t add to the cost. In fact, it’s a fair argument to say that good urbanism by definition isn’t more expensive. You can do urbanism at any price point.
Still, many cities are facing a huge challenge with affordability. Has any city solved it?
Yes, cities have solved the affordability problem by not being attractive.
Other than by not attracting people!
Affordability is a problem borne of success. The more successful you are, the bigger your affordability challenge. When you build a great city and do your design and planning well, more people want to come. But I would be the last person to suggest that we should do a poor job of planning and designing just to help with the affordability problem.
So what’s the answer? You’ve said that when it comes to affordability, we need to look at the bigger picture. What do you mean by that?
First, a useful conversation on affordability has to go beyond what the average single-detached house sells for. That specific measure is often used as a lazy shorthand.
Here in Vancouver, for example, the price of a single-detached house is increasingly less important — such housing has become a smaller and smaller percentage of the housing stock. So even if we’re myopically focused on how much it costs to buy a home, which we shouldn't be, that shouldn't necessarily be the type of home that gets all of our attention.
Second, we should look beyond the price of buying a home, to the price of having a home — including rental housing and creative housing types like co-housing.
Third, we should discuss all costs of living, not just housing costs. Living outside the city involves surprisingly big transportation costs, energy costs, and costs for all the stuff you feel pressure to fill your home with as your house gets bigger.
Fourth, we have to discuss the other side of the affordability equation — the salary side of things. That’s affected by policies like a livable minimum wage and the protection of job lands in our region. Do you have the space and opportunities to attract and fit secure, well-paying jobs, ideally downtown and on public transit, or have you only made space for housing and the service sector?
All of these have to be part of a robust conversation about an affordable city — it’s not just about real estate. And all that is before we even start to talk about the huge issue of homelessness.
Vancouver, in particular, is known as an expensive city to live in. Whenever I sing its praises, someone replies that, fine, that’s nice, but it’s just a playground for the rich, so who cares? What's your perspective on that?
Vancouver is one of the most expensive cities in North America — maybe even in the world, depending on what ranking you believe. And it's a double whammy, because we actually have slightly below-average salaries compared to the rest of Canada.
But it is also a city that is doing more to try to address the affordability challenge than any other city I’ve seen, at least in North America. The sheer number of initiatives, programs, and interventions around affordability is remarkable.
For decades, we've been requiring that 20 percent of space in all major housing projects be set aside for social housing [what Americans call “public housing”]. That requirement has been a powerful tool — finding and acquiring land or airspace can be the toughest part of a social housing project.
Part of the success of the program is that social housing is now built into all major projects around the city, in an integrated and often almost invisible way, with management programs to help that integration succeed.
Vancouver also uses density bonusing [explained here] to achieve additional social housing, to restore and improve single room occupancy units [SROs, i.e., studios], and to achieve purpose-built rental housing. The city has also recently announced a program to develop publicly owned land for affordable-housing projects.
So many tools are being focused on trying to improve affordability that occasionally other municipal goals — park-building and place-making, arts and culture, heritage preservation, and so on — wind up getting too little attention. The fact that we haven’t succeeded in making the city universally affordable just demonstrates that the problem is not really solvable by cities alone, and perhaps not solvable at all in a "hot market" city, unless something cataclysmic happens to the underlying market system.
But what these affordability initiatives and programs can do is make it better than it otherwise would be.
Vancouver has particularly put energy into homelessness. Ironically, if you can afford to buy or rent real estate, you may be fine, and if you’re homeless, or under threat of being homeless, there are programs that can help you (albeit insufficient ones), but the people in the middle — the middle class, the service sector, and the so-called "working poor" — are often passed over by these strategies.
It can be hard to create successful programs that apply to the middle, except for providing much more purpose-built rental housing. Hence, Vancouver has put significant energy in the past 10 years or so into rental housing. We've designed various rental housing incentive programs since 2008, such as "Short Term Incentives for Rental" (STIR) and "Rental 100." The programs have had success in the form of thousands of new units of rental housing, but always at a controversial cost, in the form of foregone development fees and foregone opportunities to use our tools to address other municipal needs.
The city has also put in place policies to protect existing rental stock, including "rate of change" policies for older rental stock and recent limitations on Airbnb, to try to keep it from essentially replacing rental housing opportunities.
All of this is being done, as I say, at a level of complexity and ambition I have yet to see elsewhere in North America. But the fact that it’s still, and will probably continue to be, a struggle shows that many of the forces at play aren’t within the power of a municipality to address.
What role do outside investors — people who buy housing but don’t live there, just using it to flip or make rental income [often Chinese investors or their children] — play in driving up Vancouver real estate prices? What is Vancouver doing to address that problem?
There have been massive debates about the role of outside investors, a.k.a. "foreign buyers," in Vancouver's housing demand — and a lack of credible, independent research.
I tend to believe outside investors play a bigger role than some would like to admit, but "home-grown investors" are just as real an issue. Does it matter if new condos are being bought by so-called outside money (which is very hard to define) or by someone born and raised in Vancouver who is buying multiple units and renting them out as part of their retirement plan?
The problem is when homes are seen as a commodity, rather than a home, no matter where the money is coming from. Homes bought as investments are usually rented out and actually represent a large percentage of our rental stock — but it's unsecured rental, subject to ownership changes and other unpredictabilities.
The provincial government recently applied a significant tax on so-called foreign ownership. There are debates about what that has done to market demand. There have also been new taxes applied to so-called "vacant units," but the way these were defined makes me question how useful the new taxes will be in meeting any policy objectives.
All such mechanisms have strengths and weaknesses, benefits and consequences. I believe the key issue isn't so much where the money comes from as whether units are owner-occupied, so I'd prefer tax approaches that focus on that. If someone comes from overseas, buys a home and lives in it (or their kids live in it), do we think that's worse than someone who was born here buying multiple units as an investment?
Some urbanists argue that, ultimately, the only solution to the affordability problem is to increase supply — more density, wherever possible. Is that the right mental model?
Well, smart, strategic density has to be a big part of the affordability conversation. More density doesn't guarantee affordability, especially when demand continues to outpace supply, but more strategic density is a necessary precondition for improved affordability, and for mitigating even higher prices.
But we have to avoid overly simplistic statements when it comes to land development and affordability. For example, those who argue that we could solve affordability by just allowing all of our agricultural land to be developed for new suburbs, or our job lands for new condos, are profoundly wrong. When it comes to smart region-building, you can't undermine your ability to provide a balanced local economy and flexible space for well-paying jobs, or local food security for the long term, by trading those things for a quick fix of new housing.
When it comes to more housing supply in our lower density areas, I'm a strong champion for zoning reform allowing mixed housing types, but not in a one-size-fits-all way. Different densities make sense in different places.
Obviously we want density downtown, in walkable neighborhood centers, and near public transit. But we also want strategic density in low-density neighborhoods. In Vancouver, I used terms like "gentle density" (rowhouses, stacked townhouses, etc.), "hidden density" (laneway houses), and "invisible density" (secondary suites in the primary home) to make the point that density can come in many forms, including more ground-oriented housing choices in places where mid-rise or high-rise density isn't politically supported.
I reject the notion of abolishing zoning and just "having at it." Tools like zoning should be fixed, not abolished. As a matter of fact, in my experience, when the floodgates are opened too much, and with not enough done to ensure the quality of outcomes, the inevitable community and political backlash can end up killing the density idea. I've seen that too often in my career.
Smarter, contextual planning and design will always be the key to densifying successfully, both physically and politically, for affordability and many other reasons.
What Google searches for porn tell us about ourselves.
Two weeks ago, I interviewed Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of Everybody Lies, a new book that uses data on America’s Google habits as an insight into our national consciousness.
Two findings from the book dominated the conversation: America is riddled with racist and selfish people, and there may be a self-induced abortion crisis in this country.
But there was plenty more revelatory data in the book that we didn’t cover. So I wanted to follow up with Stephens-Davidowitz to talk about some of the other provocative claims he is making.
I was particularly interested in sexuality and online porn. If, as Stephens-Davidowitz puts it, “Google is a digital truth serum,” then what else does it tell us about our private thoughts and desires? What else are we hiding from our friends, neighbors, and colleagues?
A lot, apparently.
Among other things, Stephens-Davidowitz’s data suggests that there are more gay men in the closet than we think; that many men prefer overweight women to skinny women but are afraid to act on it; that married women are disproportionately worried their husband is gay; that a lot of straight women watch lesbian porn; and that porn featuring violence against women is more popular among women than men.
I asked Stephens-Davidowitz to explain the data behind all of this. Here’s what he told me.
Last time we spoke, I asked you about the most surprising or shocking finding in your research. We talked about racism and the possibility of a self-induced abortion crisis in America. Here I want to dive into something a little lighter: sexuality and online porn.
What did you learn about this?
Porn is the biggest development in sexuality research ever. I don't understand how social scientists weren't begging Pornhub for their data. I was one of the only ones. I sent some of my results to some of the most famous sociologists and sex researchers in the world. Many of them had no interest.
Why does porn data offer such unique insight?
Well, to learn about sex, the main approach was to ask people. But people lie on sensitive topics such as sex.
You combed through the data — what did it say about us?
There’s a lot of variation in what people like. Probably 30 percent of people exclusively watch stuff that you would find disgusting.
Why focus on sex? Were you initially interested in this, or did the data lead you to it?
It’s a book about human nature. Sex is a big part of human nature. Some reviews of Everybody Lies have criticized me for being obsessed with sex. Everybody is obsessed with sex. If they say they're not, they're lying.
You point to some interesting data in the book about sexual orientation.
It’s clear that a lot of gay men remain in the closet. In places where it's hard to be gay, such as Mississippi, far fewer men say that they are gay than in places where it's easy to be gay, such as New York. But gay porn searches are about the same everywhere.
This doesn’t necessarily tell us how many people are gay in these areas, but it’s a revealing data point.
I look at the data a whole bunch of ways and conclude about 5 percent of men are predominantly attracted to men.
Can you really draw concrete conclusions from this sort of data? People search for things for all kinds of reasons, right?
I think porn is a pretty good measure of people’s sexual fantasies, even if they never act on them.
What’s your response to people who are skeptical of inferring anything from this stuff?
I think watching a porn video is a lot more telling than answering a survey question. I agree you should be cautious in how you interpret it, though.
Let’s talk about what married people are up to online.
The number one question that women have about their husbands is whether he is gay. And these questions are much higher in the Deep South, where my research suggests there are indeed more gay men married to women.
Do you think women are justified in their curiosity here? Is this a question they should be asking more often?
I think women are too obsessed with their husbands' sexuality. Women are eight times more likely to ask Google if their husband is gay than if he is an alcoholic and 10 times more likely to ask Google if their husband is gay than if he is depressed. It is far more likely that a woman is married to a man who is secretly an alcoholic or secretly depressed than secretly gay. About 98 percent of women’s husbands are really straight. Trust me.
What are husbands secretly worrying about?
Whether their wives are crazy.
What should husbands be asking Google? What would they ask if they knew what their wives were Googling?
Whether their wives are more physically attracted to women than men.
Tell me about America’s suppressed sexual desires.
There are still sexual preferences that people hide today, even in socially liberal places. About one in 100 porn searches are for the elderly. Hundreds of thousands of young men are predominantly attracted to elderly women. But very few young men are in relationships with elderly women.
I’m not sure what I think about that. Any theories?
It’s interesting. Some sexual preferences I first learned about on The Jerry Springer Show, which featured really poor, uneducated people. People attracted to animals or family members or the elderly. But, now from seeing porn data, I realize those preferences also exist among wealthy, educated people. Wealthy, educated people are more cognizant of contemporary social norms, which means if you have such an attraction, you hide it.
I recall something in the book about the sexual preferences we hide largely for cultural reasons or for fear of being judged. Can you talk about that?
If you define being in the closet as picking partners based on what society wants rather than what you want, many people are in the closet. For example, I am certain a large number of men are more attracted to overweight women than skinny women but try to date skinny women to impress their friends and family members.
Porn featuring overweight women is surprisingly common among men. But the data from dating sites tells us that just about all men try to date skinny women. Many people don’t try to date the people they’re most attracted to. They try to date the people they think would impress their friends.
That says something truly awful about our cultural pathologies. People should be free to like whatever they want, but the pressures to conform are overwhelming — and ultimately unhealthy.
It’s also inefficient. There are a lot of single men and single overweight women who would be sexually compatible. But they don’t date, while the man tries and fails to date a skinny woman even though he’s less attracted to her. And then there are women who practically starve themselves to remain skinny so their husbands won’t leave, even though their husbands would be more attracted to them if they weighed more. The desire to impress people causes all kinds of inefficiency.
All right, give me a couple of unusual desires you noticed — one from men and one from women.
It is really amazing how much tastes can vary. There are women who just watch porn featuring short, fat men with small penises. There are men who just watch porn featuring women with enormous nipples.
How about other countries?
The number one Google search in India that starts "my husband wants ..." is "my husband wants me to breastfeed him." Porn featuring adult breastfeeding is higher in India than anywhere else. In just about every country, just about every Google search looking for advice on breastfeeding is looking how to breastfeed a baby. In India, Google searches looking for breastfeeding advice are about equally split between how to breastfeed a baby and how to breastfeed a husband.
After I published this finding, some journalists interviewed people in India. Everyone denied this. But I am sure, based on the data, that there are a reasonable number of adult Indian men desiring to be breastfed. It is really amazing that this desire can develop in one country without ever being openly talked about.
Any other findings from countries not named America?
Japanese men have recently become obsessed with tickling porn. More than 10 percent of Pornhub searches by young Japanese men are for “tickling.”
So basically all of humanity is united in its weirdness?
Yeah, basically. Some people respond to Indian men wanting to be breastfed and are like, “Indian men are so weird." That's not the right response. The data from porn tells us that everybody is weird. Thus, nobody is weird.
And yet we all feel weird because we assume (wrongly) that no one else is as weird as we are.
Sometimes I think it would be a good thing if everyone’s porn habits were released at once. It would be embarrassing for 30 seconds. And then we’d all get over it and be more open about sex.
Any other surprising findings about women in America?
About 20 percent of the porn women watch is lesbian porn. A lot of straight women watch lesbian porn.
That’s not very surprising.
Porn featuring violence against women is also extremely popular among women. It is far more popular among women than men. I hate saying that because misogynists seem to love this fact. Fantasy life isn't always politically correct.
The rate at which women watch violent porn is roughly the same in every part of the world. It isn’t correlated with how women are treated.
Let me ask you this: Has all of this research changed how you think about sexuality in general?
I have always wondered how homosexuality made it through evolution. Like, isn't evolution supposed to make people desire heterosexual sex with fertile people? But after studying porn, I realized homosexuality is hardly the only desire that doesn't make sense from an evolutionary perspective.
Less than 20 percent of porn watched these days features vaginal sex to completion among two people who can conceivably have a healthy baby. Cartoons, anal sex to completion, oral sex to completion, foot sex to completion, incest, elderly porn, tickling, animal porn, sex with objects, etc.
Sex is clearly about a lot more than procreation, and I’d say a lot of needless suffering has resulted from our confusion about this.
I think the reason is we are growing up under very different conditions than we evolved under. Hunter-gatherer kids didn't watch The Simpsons. And hunter-gatherer adults didn't watch Simpsons porn. I think we are evolved so that if we grew up in hunter-gatherer conditions, just about all people would have an overwhelming desire for vaginal sex. But modern conditions take sexuality in all kinds of directions. I'm becoming more convinced of that the more data I look at.
So what’s the future of online porn? Where is it going?
I think anal sex will pass vaginal sex in porn within three years. That's what my data models suggest.
Somehow that feels like a perfect point on which to end.
“He could tell [his supporters] he was the spawn of the devil and it wouldn’t matter.”
Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has had no problems bashing the United States. The 72-year-old leader called former President Barack Obama a “son of a whore” for criticizing his brutal crackdown on drug addicts. He described the previous US ambassador to the Philippines, Philip Goldberg, as “a gay son of a bitch.” And he’s also been explicit about ejecting US troops from his country.
“The special forces, they have to go,” Duterte said in September last year, just months after he assumed office. He made the same point again last October, telling reporters he wanted US troops out of the Philippines within the next two years.
These are bold demands, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Duterte has no intention of actually trying to enforce them. Instead, his government has asked US special operations forces to help end a siege by the Abu Sayyaf Group, ISIS’s allied group in the southern Filipino island of Mindanao, that has already claimed more than 300 lives in the city of Marawi.
For most leaders, being caught faltering on a promise would be politically damaging, or at the very least embarrassing. But not for Duterte, who has a reputation for braggadocio. Perhaps that’s why he gets along so well with President Donald Trump, who has invited Duterte to the White House and even praised him for a brutal crackdown on drug dealers that has killed more than 8,000 people.
Duterte himself has said that he can’t be trusted for what he says. “In every five statements I make, only two are true while three are just jokes,” he said at a Bureau of Customs celebration in Manila last year.
No one is surprised that Duterte isn’t following through on his threat
Duterte has said multiple times that he didn’t request the team of US special forces helping in Mindanao in early June. But Vicente Rafael, an expert of US-Filipino relations from the University of Washington, said that is virtually impossible.
“He’s saying that to give him an out,” Rafael said in an interview. “It would make him seem less hypocritical, but it’s almost certain that he knew. His military generals would have told him.”
On the off chance they didn’t, having US troops provide support in Mindanao after Duterte said they should go would normally be politically damaging. But because it’s Duterte, it’s not.
“For his critics, this isn’t something new. It’s just part of what Duterte does: exaggerating, sometimes outright lying,” Rafael noted. “And among his supporters, it doesn’t matter. It’s immaterial.”
In other words, even though the leader of the Philippines promised one thing and it didn’t happen, neither his supporters nor his detractors are fazed.
Duterte rose to power last year on a wave of populist support, beating his rival Mar Roxas by more than 15 percentage points. Since then, he has cracked down on police corruption, publicly incited vigilante violence, and, most significantly, launched a bloody anti-drug war that has claimed the lives of 8,000 and counting. While the international community has largely condemned Duterte for his human rights abuses, polls show that the majority of the country is still behind him.
That’s because most Filipinos like Duterte exactly the way he is, even if it causes consternation abroad. “The things that bring Duterte the most criticism abroad — an autocratic style that shows little respect for political norms, and an unapologetically violent approach to his country’s drug problem — are exactly the things that make him most popular at home,” Ana Santos wrote for Vox.
Duterte’s ruling style may be popular, but it has also shown to be very difficult to work with. That’s why world leaders and even the people under him have learned to take his comments with more than a pinch of salt.
For example, in October last year, Duterte called for the end of the two-year-old Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the Philippines and the US (and also casually told Obama to “go to hell”). Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, though, said he hadn’t received any official directive to void the pact.
"I think [the US-Philippines relationship] is just going through these bumps on the road," Lorenzana said at a news conference last October. "Relationships sometimes go to this stage, but over time it will be patched up."
In the face of so much uncertainty, Duterte’s own armed forces have developed a new standard operating procedure for dealing with him, said Mark Thompson, an expert on Philippine politics from the City University of Hong Kong. In a nutshell, they won’t act on Duterte’s demands unless they get a written order.
Duterte hasn’t tried to change the US-Philippine military relationship
Despite what Duterte has been saying, he has yet to take any concrete steps to alter the military alliance with Washington, which has been in place since 1947. And it’s a strong relationship.
For example, as the Philippines’s only treaty ally, the US has legal mechanisms such as the EDCA to provide direct military assistance to the country, reported the Asia Times. (Other major powers such as Russia and China don’t have comparable agreements with Manila.)
Even though he isn’t a fan of the US, Duterte seems to understand that US troops are extremely helpful to the Philippines, especially in the battle against Abu Sayyaf. Since 2002, the US has provided training, equipment and intelligence to Filipino troops, which for the most part, has helped to keep the Islamic extremists under control.
In fact, by 2014, Abu Sayyaf had largely been contained. So when the organization regrouped under the ISIS flag and began fighting back against military forces, it was no surprise the Philippines reached out to the US again.
It was also no surprise that Washington said yes.
“The risk of sending [US troops] is some of them might get killed,” Stephen Biddle, an expert on counterterrorism, said in an interview. “But if you don’t act, and then Philippines-based terrorists blow up car bombs in Times Square — that’s a risk, too.”
Biddle added that sending a small force of elite special operations forces is a low-cost, low-risk option. The prospect is made less risky when considering US special forces only provide technical and logistical support, which further reduces their exposure to danger.
It is also just good practice for the US to maintain a positive relationship even if the vitriolic rhetoric might harm relations in the short term, retired Marine Lt. Gen. Chip Gregson, a former top Pentagon official focusing on Asia, said in an interview.
Top officials in the Duterte administration are well aware that having friendly ties with the US is beneficial to Manila. For months now, government officials have discouraged Duterte from acting out against the US, Thompson said, adding that the president has been somewhat receptive to this advice. Thompson also explained that it helps that Duterte has a much friendlier relationship with President Donald Trump than he did with Obama.
And what a relationship it is. During an April 29 call, Trump invited Duterte to the White House. The Intercept got a transcript of their call, and the two leaders clearly established a rapport. Trump, singing a markedly different tune from his predecessor, praised the way Duterte was handling his war on drugs: “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” he told Duterte on the call.
Compliments like these mean a lot to the Filipino leader.
“President Duterte has very thin skin when it comes to criticisms of his administration, especially when it comes from Western countries,” Thompson explained. Duterte reacted badly to Obama raising his concerns over his record on human rights. But these feelings have been tempered now that Trump, who has shown his appreciation for Duterte, is in office.
Walking back his anti-US threat isn’t going to hurt Duterte at all
The latest polls from April show that 76 percent of Filipinos trust Duterte and 78 percent approve of his performance. These numbers aren’t likely to drop because the president failed to follow through on a promise. In fact, he is likely to remain popular no matter what lies he tells.
“He could tell [his supporters] he was the spawn of the devil and it wouldn’t matter,” Rafael said. “They’re enthralled by his power, so it just doesn’t matter.”
It would take a genuinely massive lie for Duterte to lose support from his base. This one isn’t going to do it.
...The authors... find large job losses associated with these first two rounds of increases, in which the minimum wage for most workers rose from $9.47 per hour to $11.00 per hour in April 2015 and then to $13.00 per hour in January 2016.... The estimated employment losses in the Seattle study lie far outside even those generally suggested by mainstream critics of the minimum wage (see, for example, Neumark and Wascher ).... Indeed all of the research cited by the authors implies much smaller and even no employment changes in response to wage increases similar to those experienced so far in Seattle.... The study implausibly finds employment changes due to the minimum wage in parts of the labor market where there should have be none. The study’s own estimates inaccurately imply the minimum wage caused large gains in the number of jobs paying above $19.00 per hour... well above the wage range where the $13.00 minimum wage should be having measurable effects.... The study excludes... all multi-location businesses... bias[ing] their results toward showing job loss if there has been a shift in employment from small, single-location establishments toward larger firms with multiple locations...
...Conservative intellectuals were slow to understanding the seriousness of this structural problem, but over the past few years they have begun to grapple with the consequences. Basically, many conservative intellectuals have come to terms with income redistribution... at the local level... us[ing] market-friendly mechanisms, like child tax credits, mobility vouchers and wage subsidies. But the intent is the same: to give those who are struggling more security and opportunity. Conservative redistribution extends to health care... plans, from places like the American Enterprise Institute, us[ing] tax credits or pre-funded health savings accounts or some other method to give middle- and working-class people coverage, while reducing regulations and improving incentives....
Republican politicians could have picked up one of these plans when they set out to repeal Obamacare. They could have created a better system that did not punish the poor. But there are two crucial differences between the conservative policy johnnies and Republican politicians:
First, conservative policy intellectuals tend to have accepted the fact that American society is coming apart and that measures need to be taken to assist the working class. Republican politicians show no awareness of this fact.
Second, conservative writers and intellectuals have a vision for how they want American society to be in the 21st century. Republican politicians have a vision of how they want American government to be in the 21st century... that government should tax people less... that open-ended entitlements should be cut. The Senate health care plan would throw 15 million people off Medicaid... the program that covers nearly 40 percent of America’s children.) Is there a vision of society underlying those choices? Not really.... The current Republican Party has iron, dogmatic rules about the role of government, but no vision about America.
Because Republicans have no governing vision, they can’t argue for their plans. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price came to the Aspen Ideas Festival to make the case for the G.O.P. approach. It’s not that he had bad arguments; he had no arguments.... Because Republicans have no national vision, they seem largely uninterested in the actual effects their legislation would have on the country at large. This Senate bill would be completely unworkable because anybody with half a brain would get insurance only when they got sick. Worse, this bill takes all of the devastating trends afflicting the middle and working classes—all the instability, all the struggle and pain—and it makes them worse....
This is not a conservative vision of American society. It’s a vision rendered cruel by its obliviousness. I have been trying to think about the underlying mentality that now governs the Republican political class. The best I can do is the atomistic mentality described by Alexis de Tocqueville long ago:
They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.
What is their vision? It seems to me to be one in which the rich take what they can, and distract their base by giving them people to hate. It is, I think, the vision that populist Joe Bailey (himself racist as ----) wished he could have argued against, and that at the end of his career he passed down to the young Sam Rayburn who at the end of his career passed it down to Lyndon Johnson who told it to us in New Orleans in 1964 http://www.bradford-delong.com/2017/03/lee-atwater-lyndon-johnson-sam-rayburn-and-joseph-bailey.html:
When Mr. Rayburn came up as a young boy of the House, he went over to see the old Senator.... He was talking about economic problems. He was talking about how we had been at the mercy of certain economic interests, and how they had exploited us. They had worked our women for 5 cents an hour, they had worked our men for a dollar a day, they had exploited our soil, they had let our resources go to waste, they had taken everything out of the ground they could, and they had shipped it to other sections. He was talking about the economy and what a great future we could have in the South, if we could just meet our economic problems, if we could just take a look at the resources of the South and develop them. And he said:
Sammy, I wish I felt a little better. I would like to go back to old . I would like to go back down there and make them one more Democratic speech. I just feel like I have one in me. The poor old State, they haven't heard a Democratic speech in 30 years. All they ever hear at election time is "n-----, n-----, n-----!
The problem with David Brooks is that it has long been thus—it is the curse of Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater.
...It certainly doesn’t make the Senate bill “far superior,” as Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), a key vote for leadership, promised.... The Medicaid numbers look bad for moderates.... Even the premium decreases aren’t an entirely happy story.... The lower premiums are largely just a result of shifting towards plans with higher out-of-pocket costs.... Rural areas are still a challenge under the Senate bill.... The Senate bill doesn’t grapple with the underlying issues that make rural regions low-competitive areas for insurers, and the less generous tax credits stand to only exacerbate the problem. This section should catch the attention of Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV).... GOP leaders have $200 billion to play with in their final round of deal-cutting... and still hit the $119 billion savings target of the House bill that makes their legislation eligible for reconciliation...
For some reason, the New York Times has given op-ed space to Avik Roy, so he can prove that you can’t spell “reformicon” without “con:”
In 2010, when Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act, Republicans complained that they did so with no Republican support. Democrats responded by pointing out that the centerpiece of their plan — tax credits to buy private insurance — came from a Republican governor, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.
But Roy needs to pretend that the BCRA is actually a bipartisan bill, so he will repeat the same fallacy twice!
The Senate bill’s plan to reform Medicaid by tying per-enrollee spending to medical inflation through 2025 and to consumer inflation thereafter was borrowed from a nearly identical 1995 proposal by President Bill Clinton. Indeed, the main difference between the Clinton proposal and the Republican one is that the Clinton proposal would have tied per-enrollee spending to growth in the gross domestic product. Historically, medical inflation has been higher than G.D.P. growth.
If you click the link, you’ll notice that Roy is leaving out some crucial context — Clinton’s terrible Medicaid proposal was made in the context of trying to preempt a far worse Republican one. But, anyway, yes, it was terrible! It was also more than 20 years ago. If you want to know what “Democratic ideas” about Medicaid are now, look at the comprehensive legislation passed by the Democrats the last time they had control of the government, and how they’re responding to the Republican proposals now.
Anyway, this idea that once any Democrat proposes anything it’s therefore permanently a “Democratic idea” whose inclusion makes any plan bipartisan is remarkably asinine. “Woodrow Wilson nominates James McReynolds as Attorney General, so really Jeff Sessions was a Democratic idea!”
The Senate bill replaces the A.C.A.’s Medicaid expansion with a robust system of tax credits for which everyone under the poverty line is eligible. Under Obamacare, you could enroll in private insurance exchanges only if your income exceeded the poverty line.
The idea that the replacement offered by BCRA is “robust,” meanwhile, is ludicrous. The insurance theoretically offered to the poor would involve such high deductibles as to be entirely useless — very few poor people would buy such insurance and even fewer people would keep it. Which is a crucial reason why the massive Medicaid cuts in the Senate plan would lead to huge numbers of people losing their health insurance.
The tax credit system employed in the Senate Republican bill is stronger than the A.C.A.’s, because it adjusts the value of the credits not only to benefit those with low incomes but also to encourage younger people to enroll in coverage.
Except, again, that the insurance that would be offered on the exchanges under BCRA would be worse and the tax credits much less generous, so the idea that large numbers of young people are going to buy insurance is silly. Lower premiums won’t be an incentive to buy and keep insurance if the deductibles are so high as to make the insurance useless.
If the Republican plan increases participation by the young,
If I had a billion more dollars I’d be a billionaire. So what?
Roy’s answer to the CBO analysis that 22 million people would lose insurance under the BCRA in order to fund a massive upper-class tax cut is quite simply pathetic:
It’s likely that, if the Senate bill passes, more Americans will have health insurance five years from now than do today. [100 eyeroll emojis — ed.]
The Congressional Budget Office believes that solely because Republicans would repeal the A.C.A.’s individual mandate, by 2026, more than 15 million fewer people will buy health insurance, regardless of what senators do to direct more financial assistance to the poor and the vulnerable. That’s not a flaw in the Senate bill; it’s a flaw in the C.B.O.’s methods.
The flaw in the CBO’s analysis is that…it’s scoring the bill being proposed by Senate Republicans, as opposed to some hypothetical bill passed by a future Congress that would provide more generous subsidies for the poor rather than brutalizing the poor to pay for an upper-class tax cut. It’s embarrassing that Roy would type this shit and it’s embarrassing that the Times would publish it.
Roy emails back: “As a matter of policy, I don’t discuss with the press my conversations with policymakers.” So, if you’re curious whether he helped write the plan he has been touting in a number of op-eds and interviews, Roy isn’t saying, but “yes” seems like a fairly safe assumption.
I dunno, maybe the Times should make him answer this question before it publishes his feeble propaganda as if it was serious analysis?
Clementine Ford has published a book, Fight Like A Girl, and has written a number of columns like this one, It’s time we demanded more from boys, for all our sakes, to promote her next one, Boys Will Be Boys, that universal phrase used to excuse vile behavior. In that essay, she writes about some high school football players who anally raped an intellectually disabled 17-year-old African American boy with a coathanger and made him sing a song about lynching black people, and who then got off with probation.
For orchestrating this crime, Howard was sentenced to three years’ probation and 300 hours of community service. In his sentencing remarks, district judge Randy J. Stoker stated the attack was not, in his opinion, racially or sexually motivated.
This is a real problem Ford is describing. The judge let them off, and citizens of the town excused their behavior. How can you excuse anal rape? That’s just what boys do.
They’re 15-, 16-, 17-year-old boys who are doing what boys do … I would guarantee that those boys had no criminal intent to do anything or any harm to anyone. Boys are boys and sometimes they get carried away.
I was once a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old boy. I was never even tempted to sexually assault other boys, black, handicapped, or not. I think I rather resent this idea that because of my sex, I am predisposed to viciously and violently carry out sexual attacks on others, and I think I’m going to have to side with Clementine Ford on the fact that this attitude does a disservice to boys.
But having that attitude is apparently beneficial to a lot of Australians, because they’re very upset that Ford is going to be a speaker at the Atheist Foundation of Australia‘s Global Atheist Convention in 2018. I’m glad she’s speaking there — atheists need that kind of wake-up call — but wow, you should see all the hatred for Ford sweeping out of Facebook and YouTube right now. How dare she confront male privilege and chastise not just bad actors, but also all the people who make excuses for them, people like…the people hating on Ford.
Just on 10% of all comments (that have been also deleted) have included threats of physical violence by men against not just Clementine Ford but other women here. These have included suggestions of being raped and having throats slit, a women told to ‘sit on a knife’, called whores and sluts, retards and so on.
Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. But hey, as one person made note. The women here deserved the threats because they were feminists.
Wait, aren’t these the same people who usually howl about free speech and hate deplatforming and other such sins? Never mind…it’s OK, because they’re feminists.
The title of the 2018 Global Atheist Convention is “Reason to Hope”. I don’t see much reason to hope in the misogyny sector of atheism, but elsewhere I do — in particular, that the anti-feminists have become so cartoonishly villainous and stupid that maybe more people will understand why they are pariahs. The anti-feminist atheists were furious in their attacks on Atheism+, as they are now on Clementine Ford, but I think what they’ve accomplished is to drive much of mainstream atheism away and create little ghettos of hatred for themselves. Congratulations to them on successfully establishing Atheism–!
Поминальна по китах на зльоті весни, Коли рибу летючу беруть у морях. Над узбережжям гуде храмовий дзвін, Хвилюючи розлоге дзеркало води. Зодягнені в хаорі, рибалки спішать У храм на узбережжі зі свого села. На просторі моря самотнє китеня Плаче, коли чує, як той дзвін гуде. Забиту матусю, забитого тата Кличе, "Сумую! Сумую!" - кричить. Над широким морем лунає той дзвін, Де скінчиться море, скінчиться луна.
“A waiting period is definitely harder on sick people.”
Republicans are grappling with an inconvenient truth as they seek to overhaul Obamacare: You need some kind of incentive for people to sign up for health insurance or else the market won’t work.
But, as Senate Republicans coalesce around a solution, they seem to be settling on a policy that would punish sick Americans far more than Obamacare ever did: forcing people to wait months for their coverage to kick in if they’ve gone two months without coverage in the past year.
Without an incentive, the markets would go into a death spiral. Sick people would buy coverage, but many healthy people would not. More sick people in the pool drives up the cost to insurers, which in turn increase premiums, causing more healthy people to drop out. Round and round it goes, until the market no longer functions.
The Affordable Care Act solved this problem through its individual mandate, a financial penalty Americans had to pay for every month they went without coverage. Republicans have slammed the mandate for years as an affront to personal liberty, an unconstitutional coercion by the federal government that forces people to buy a product they may or may not want.
So repealing the mandate was a given when Republicans started working this year on their proposal to repeal and replace Obamacare. But they still needed an incentive for people to buy insurance or else their plan wouldn’t work. This was especially true once Republicans decided it would be politically unpalatable to undo the Obamacare requirement that health plans cover everybody, no matter their health.
The Senate would delay insurance benefits for people whose coverage lapsed
The House’s solution was a premium surcharge for people who had a lapse in coverage of at least two months — when they signed up, they would have to pay an extra 30 percent on their premiums for one year.
The idea was to encourage people to make sure they always had insurance, to avoid that penalty. But the Congressional Budget Office actually concluded it would adversely affect the market in the long term, because only sick people would have a reason to pay the surcharge. A lot of healthy people would decide to just stay uninsured.
So perhaps because of the CBO finding, perhaps because of the Senate’s complex procedural rules, perhaps because of input from health plans, perhaps because of all of the above, Senate Republicans came up with a different proposal and added it to their health care bill on Monday.
Under the latest Senate bill, Americans who have a two-month lapse in coverage or more would have to wait a full six months for their coverage to start the next time they enrolled in health insurance. So if you signed up for coverage that was supposed to start in January, it wouldn’t actually take effect until July under the GOP plan.
That’s a stark difference from Obamacare’s individual mandate or even the House legislation’s premium surcharge. Under both those policies, there is a financial penalty for going uninsured, but a person’s coverage starts on time when they sign up.
Under the Senate’s bill, the same person would have to wait six months before their insurance would start covering their medical bills. That’s six months that they could have to bear the full cost of their health care — an especially acute risk if some kind of medical emergency is what prompted them to sign up in the first place.
Experts say the Senate plan would penalize the sick
“A waiting period is definitely harder on sick people than either the individual mandate or a late enrollment surcharge,” Larry Levitt, senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told me.
As always, sicker people would have more incentive to stay insured in the first place. But some people would inevitably fall through the cracks. They might lose their job or change jobs. Their income might increase and they have to switch from Medicaid to private health insurance. They might simply have a couple months where they can’t afford their premiums.
“People who are sick will do everything they can to maintain continuous coverage,” Levitt said, “but some won’t succeed because of unforeseen financial circumstances.”
Other health care experts also said the Republican plan could end up being more punitive to the sick.
“For the sick, it means you are paying full freight, not a volume-negotiated rate your insurer might have been able to get,” John Graves, a health policy professor at Vanderbilt University, told me. “So you pay more for the care you get while locked out.”
Avik Roy, a conservative health care expert who strongly supports the Senate plan, disagreed, alluding to the CBO’s finding that the House bill’s premium surcharge would actually have hurt the market.
“The premium surcharge is a recipe for adverse selection that will send premiums spiraling and therefore help no one,” he said in an email.
CBO concluded that, in the aggregate, the waiting period would help increase coverage over the next 10 years. But its analysts did note that some sick people would likely end up going without coverage:
Some people who were uninsured for more than 63 days in a given year and expected to incur major health care costs during the first six months of the next year would, with the waiting period, remain uninsured during that time—whereas without the waiting period, they would have purchased insurance at the beginning of the next year to help cover those costs.
There is another consequence of the Republican proposal. It would lower health care costs for insurance companies by locking people out of coverage for six months, particularly if those people have gotten sick and are accruing medical bills.
“I think the big effect here is to lower health care costs for insurers,” Levitt said. “The waiting period will prevent some sick people from getting care immediately after signing up for coverage.”
The GOP’s efforts to replace Obamacare, and its individual mandate, have revealed an uncomfortable truth for Republicans: That hated policy might be better at doing what it’s supposed to than anything they’ve come up with to replace it.
“A strong individual mandate, probably stronger than what now exists, is likely the most effective way to create a balanced risk pool,” Levitt said. “But, the individual mandate has little political support, especially among conservatives.”
Restive Democrats are complaining again: Nancy Pelosi is making it hard for them to win elections. Her time is up.
The charge is led this time by a small band of mostly younger members who see Jon Ossoff’s defeat in a Georgia special election as an indictment of the longtime party leader and a moment when the future of the party is in serious doubt.
“It’s time for Nancy Pelosi to go, and the entire leadership team,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice.
Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, perhaps the most vocal anti-Pelosi Democrat, said last week that “we as Democrats have to come to terms with the fact that we lost again,” before calling for “a new generation of leadership.”
Congressional Democrats have lost a lot lately. They suffered wave elections against them in 2010 and 2014, gained only small numbers of seats in 2012 and 2016, and have gone 0 for 4 in efforts to poach red seats from the GOP in post-Trump special elections.
Trump’s high disapproval ratings are the party’s best chance, they believe, to retake the House. But anti-Pelosi ads are hard to escape — and some Democrats worry that having a party leader with a baked-in underwater approval rating neutralized the natural advantages of opposition.
Earlier this year, newer members got behind Rep. Tim Ryan’s challenge to Pelosi’s leadership, and it’s clear they’re not mollified by anything they’ve seen since. At the same time, progressive activists have grown increasingly frustrated with some of Pelosi’s priority to maintain caucus unity by keeping left-wing ideas like a public option or Medicare expansion off the table during the debate over Affordable Care Act appeal.
Yet despite these new developments, the dominant story of Pelosi’s standing vis-à-vis the caucus remains exactly what it’s been for the past 15 years. She’s a prodigious fundraiser to whom many members owe favors, and her main antagonists are white men with voting records that are at least somewhat more conservative than hers. That’s not a formula for success in today’s Democratic Party, and unless the rebels manage to recruit a more formidable challenger, Pelosi’s position will be secure for about as long as she wants it.
Pelosi is trying to pull off an unusual comeback
A lot of the disagreement around Pelosi among the chattering classes basically comes down to a disagreement about default assumptions. If you assume that a legislative leader is going to stay on as long as he or she wants to, then the case against Pelosi is not ultimately all that compelling. It’s true that her poll numbers are bad and that Republicans like to feature her in ads to motivate their base. But it’s also true that basically all legislative caucus leaders have bad poll numbers (Congress is perennially unpopular) and that any Democratic leader would likely be featured in ads designed to motivate the GOP base.
At the same time, the reality is that what Pelosi is trying to pull off is actually quite unusual.
When Democrats lost their House and Senate majorities in 1994, Rep. Tom Foley was defeated and Sen. George Mitchell didn’t run for reelection.
When the GOP lost their House and Senate majorities in 2006, Rep. Dennis Hastert stepped down as party leader and Sen. Bill Frist didn’t run for reelection.
Former Democratic House leader Dick Gephardt never presided over a majority, but he stepped down after the party lost seats in the 2002 midterms.
To find an example of a former speaker becoming speaker again, you need to look all the way back to the 1950s: Sam Rayburn and Joseph Martin swapped gavels a couple of times during an era when politics was much less polarized.
The normal winning political strategy these days is for a party to make a comeback by presenting itself as all new and radically improved, even if the basic ideology and policy framework remains the same. By having Pelosi as their leader, Democrats are essentially asking the voters of swing districts to decide they made a mistake back in 2010 and want to take back their old favorite party again. A new leader would simply let voters decide they’re tired of the GOP and ready to give a new group a shot.
Democratic candidates don’t like to talk about Pelosi
The biggest problem with Pelosi’s status in the leadership is probably seen by the behavior over the years of the Democratic House challengers on whose success she is counting to get elected speaker. Simply put, they don’t want to talk about it.
I always ask ask Dem candidates for House seats if they'd back Pelosi for speaker and they never ever give a straight "yes."
The Ossoff race threw this into particularly sharp relief, because in pretty much every visible respect, the Democratic Party establishment was fully aligned behind him — including with his strategy of offering noncommittal answers about Pelosi.
Jonathan Martin and Matt Flegenheimer reported after the election that as Pelosi rallied her loyal lieutenants in Congress: “Representative John Yarmuth, Democrat of Kentucky, heaped praise on Ms. Pelosi’s leadership skills but demurred when asked if he would want her to go to Louisville.”
“Not at a rally,” he told the reporters.
The basic question Pelosi’s camp has difficulty answering is what is the path forward for the party, really, if her own allies don’t want her speaking at their rallies? If a DCCC she largely controls can’t give its candidates a better answer to the question of whom they would support for speaker, then how is she ever going to get elected speaker?
The case for Pelosi
To Pelosi supporters, the idea that Democrats should ditch their longtime leader simply because she’s routinely smeared by Republicans smacks of appeasement.
The fact that she’s a woman in what’s still a very male-dominated congressional leadership also factors in here. Pelosi herself has indicated that she would likely have retired if Hillary Clinton had been elected president, but with that dream dashed, for the first woman speaker to be unceremoniously pushed aside — especially in favor of a man — would be a bitter pill for many Democratic women to swallow.
At times, the gender-based pushback can become a bit extreme. Pelosi’s staff has been known to try to persuade journalists that talk about a desire for a “fresh face” is a de facto sexist attack on Pelosi’s appearance, and last week’s pro-Pelosi social media pushback heavily partook of the notion that her critics were demanding a white male leader. It’s true that her last challenger, Ryan, was a white man. But the House Democratic caucus as a whole is fairly diverse, and there are any number of women and people of color who could serve in the role.
Indeed, one major knock on Pelosi’s leadership is that she’s failed to provide an upward path for younger members, including women, black people, and Latinos. Former Rep. Xavier Becerra, for example, was often discussed as a potential speaker someday, but he was encouraged to leave Congress to become California’s attorney general rather than groomed as a successor.
Fundamentally, however, Pelosi’s allies say that the job of a caucus leader isn’t to appear at rallies or to be immune to attacks from the other side. She was an effective legislator during her four years as speaker, and in the minority she’s done a skillful job of holding her caucus together in opposition to Trump. She raises boatloads of money, and she does so while maintaining a largely progressive ideological profile.
The most prominent member of the younger generation of Democratic caucus leaders, Rep. Joe Crowley of New York, could probably also raise Pelosi-style money, but he’s much closer to Wall Street, and his elevation would likely take the party in a more centrist direction.
You can’t beat something with nothing
Ultimately, the story of Pelosi’s longevity in office is not that mysterious. Ever since her 2002 whip race against Hoyer, her rivals for leadership have been white men who are positioned at least somewhat to her right ideologically, operating in the context of a House Democratic caucus that is increasingly diverse and increasingly progressive.
The bulk of Democrats are torn between admiring Pelosi’s leadership and appreciating her fundraising, on the one hand, and recognizing on the other hand that practically speaking, she is not particularly helpful to the cause of regaining the majority. But abstract recognition that a leader has some flaws is not enough to topple one, an opponent like Ryan clearly doesn’t have the juice, and progressive members are not wrong to fear that if she were to be pushed out, it’s likely she’d be succeeded by someone like Crowley whom they like less ideologically.
By contrast, Pelosi might really have a tough time fending off a challenge from someone like Vice Chair Linda Sánchez (D-CA) — a Latina Progressive Caucus member who would present a new look to the country while also cutting into Pelosi’s base in the House. The question, then, would be whether frontline members and potential challengers in red districts would actually prefer someone like that to Pelosi — faced with an alternative, they might decide they like Pelosi more than they realize. Then again, they might not and her fate would be sealed.
But so far, that’s entirely hypothetical. The grousing from restive progressives and younger members is largely divorced from the practical dynamics of caucus politics where Pelosi’s main critics are to her right. As long as that’s the case, the leadership is hers for as long as she wants it.
When it comes to Donald Trump’s Russia scandals, one man has been squarely at the center of them all: Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak.
Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was forced out after lying about his communications with Kislyak in December. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced to recuse himself from the Russia investigation after it became clear that he had not disclosed his own meetings with the ambassador during his confirmation hearings. When Jared Kushner wanted to set up a secret line of communication with the Kremlin, Kislyak was the person he turned to (there’s no evidence the idea ever went anywhere).
And now, with the investigation into Trump’s Russia ties heating up, Kislyak is leaving Washington — both BuzzFeed and NBC News have confirmed that the ambassador, a nuclear physicist by training, will be returning to Moscow in the coming months.
While the reports suggest his departure had been in the works for several months, it’s hard to imagine the mounting scandal didn’t play a role in the situation. Kislyak had become such a lightning rod for criticism — Newsweek termed him “the most radioactive man in Washington” — that it became hard for him to work effectively with the Trump administration.
“People were now scared out of meeting with Kislyak because they’re worried someone is going to make some [controversy] that they really shouldn’t,” Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at the Institute of International Relations Prague, told me. “He could not do his job.”
This shows a way in which the Russia scandal is impacting US-Russian relations — but not how the Kremlin wanted.
The goal of Russia’s hack of the election was to sow chaos in the US political system and maybe even help elect Trump president. Check and check. But it also appears to have helped marginalize Kislyak, one of Moscow’s most effective and respected advocates in Washington. The Trump administration’s refusal to come clean about the nature of its ties with Russia, its continual lying about the extent of those contacts, and the ongoing FBI and congressional investigations all mean that anyone caught up in the swirling Russia scandals will have a hard time doing their job as normal.
That makes it much tougher for Kislyak to get the policy changes from the Trump administration Putin wants, on both smaller things like returning diplomatic compounds the Obama administration seized as punishment for its election hacking and major issues like lifting debilitating US sanctions and recognizing its annexation of Crimea.
So Kislyak’s departure became necessary — cutting off a potentially useful conduit of information between the two sides in the midst of a series of growing points of conflict, most notably an increasing risk of actual shots being fired between US and Russian forces in Syria. Russia’s gambit appears to have actually cost the country a key point of contact with the Trump administration — exactly the kind of person who could effectively advocate for Moscow’s interests in Washington and play a constructive role in a crisis.
“Kislyak [has had] a steadying influence,” Galeotti says. “These are precisely the kind of volatile times when you need a seasoned, steady hand at the embassy.”
Kislyak’s diminished status shows how US-Russia relations have gone off the rails
There’s no public evidence that Kislyak was actually involved in Russia’s hack of the US election — or any other kind of wrongdoing, for that matter.
The best evidence that Kislyak is involved is the fact that his name just keeps coming up in the various investigations. But you don’t need to posit some kind of John Le Carré conspiracy theory, where Kislyak is the puppet master pulling the strings of a vast White House–Kremlin plot, to explain why.
Kislyak is the highest-ranking Russian official in Washington, making him the natural point of contact for people like Flynn, Sessions, and Kushner. They made the choice to meet with him and lie about it (in the case of Flynn and Sessions) or propose something inappropriate (in the case of Kushner). Kislyak did nothing wrong by choosing to sit down with them.
“His job is to make as many contacts as possible, as well as advocate for the policies of his government. He always did both very effectively,” Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia and an outspoken critic of Putin’s government, said in an interview with Newsweek. “On political involvement, I personally don’t think he crossed any lines.”
The general consensus among the Russia-watching community, in fact, is that Kislyak is a skilled and reasonably levelheaded professional diplomat. Putin’s inner circle has plenty of ideologues and anti-American hardliners; Kislyak was seen as a high-ranking counterpoint, a pragmatist who was sincerely interested in building a working relationship with his American counterparts.
“Generally a very capable guy, very professional and by the book,” Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told my colleague Zeeshan Aleem.
His removal from Washington is, instead, a function of the fact that he was simply in the wrong position (Russian ambassador to the US) at the wrong time (the early Trump administration). Now the taint of scandal has been attached to his name — a perception in Washington that taking a private meeting with Kislyak could end up coming back to haunt you. If it could cost Flynn his job and force Sessions to recuse himself from a vital investigation, what could it do to you?
So Kislyak had to go, regardless of his qualifications for his actual job. And this isn’t good news for anyone, Russians or Americans.
During the campaign, Trump promised to revamp US-Russian relations, to improve tensions created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and intervention in the Syrian civil war on behalf of dictator Bashar al-Assad. In reality, the opposite has happened. Trump’s Pentagon deployed 900 new troops to Poland as part of an explicitly anti-Russian NATO task force in April; his State Department slapped new sanctions on companies and individuals with links to the Ukraine invasion last week.
The tensions are even more acutely felt in Syria, where the US seems to be intentionally targeting Assad’s forces. My colleague Alex Ward explains:
This past Sunday, the US shot down a Syrian warplane, the first time America had done that during Syria’s civil war. That angered the Russians — allies of the Syrian government — to the point that its Ministry of Defense threatened to target US or allied aircraft flying over Syria west of the Euphrates River. The US ignored Moscow’s harsh words and shot down a Syrian drone Tuesday, something certain not to go unnoticed in the Kremlin.
It’s unclear how much of this is intentional — Trump going back on his promises to cozy up to Moscow — and how much of it is the result of Trump devolving policy responsibilities to the military and top-level officials like Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (a noted Russia skeptic).
Either way, though, it’s created a situation where effective US-Russia communication is essential in order to avoid sending the wrong signal. Imagine, for example, a US jet shoots down a Russian helicopter supporting Assad’s troops in Syria — an increasingly plausible scenario as tensions in Syria grow. In a crisis like that, you need cool heads who are trusted in both capitals to prevent the situation from escalating.
“I’m having trouble thinking of someone who could be as good in that role as Kislyak,” Galeotti says. “The person who was meant to be the kind of ultimate expert on how to understand America is now gone. And whoever comes in, even if they’re exceedingly able, they’re going to be to an extent rebuilding their connections, their networks, their understandings from scratch.”
Kislyak’s departure, in short, makes miscommunications between the White House and the Kremlin more likely. And that’s not good news for anyone.
Atwood, whose writing career spans roughly 50 years, 17 novels, 10 short story collections, and 20 poetry collections, is at last having her pop culturemoment. So now it’s time for us to explore who she is, what her writing does, and why it’s so compelling.
Atwood has covered a great deal over her extraordinarily prolific career, but she’s returned again and again to certain preoccupations — preoccupations that are not currently fashionable.
When Michelle Dean accepted the National Book Critics Circle Award for excellence in reviewing this March, she mused that she had been rereading The Handmaid’s Tale recently, and was struck by how unusual it felt in the context of 2017.
“There are so few books like that being published right now,” she said. “The application of literary intelligence to this question of power — it’s kind of out of style. And many writers just seem more interested in exploring the self.”
Atwood is a writer with the voice of a poet who has never been interested in the lyrical realist tradition so popular among literary novelists like Ian McEwan or Jonathan Safran Foer, with their minutely observed unhappy families having unhappy sex.
Instead, Atwood puts domestic characters into blown-up situations. Her books are interested in power and dualities; in the impulses we repress until we have the power to explore them, and in the anxieties expressed by dystopias and the fantasies implicit to utopias. They are highly symbolic, and they work as telescopes rather than microscopes, observing the social rather than the individual.
Atwood examines power at the level of the state, at the level of society, and at the level of individual relationships. She looks at how a government might compel a woman to bear children against her will, at how society convinces women to hate their bodies, at how a rich older man might wield power over his naive young wife, or how one teenage girl who has managed to accumulate social capital uses it to punish her less popular friends. And as she examines the way power accumulates and distributes itself, she conjures up the cramped and oppressive sensation of being powerless.
Atwood's analysis of power — how it operates, how it accumulates, what it feels like to lack it and be at the mercy of someone with lots of it — feels especially trenchant in a time when so many Americans feel that those in power are exceptionally untrustworthy. Atwood knows exactly how terrifying it is when a person with power over you doesn't mind if you suffer, when they seem to in fact want you to suffer, and she examines every nuance of that terror without flinching away from it. And that makes her perfectly suited to be the voice of the world in 2017.
Atwood’s early life would inform her 50-year career
Atwood believes the social context into which you are born informs your entire life. “One thing I do for my characters is I write down the year of their birth, and then I write the months down the side and the years across the top, and that means that I know exactly how old they are when larger things happen,” she told me at the beginning of June. “So, if you’re born in 1932, you’re born into the Depression. That’s going to have an effect on you.”
Atwood herself was born in 1939 to a Canadian entomologist, so her early life was dominated by two things: World War II, and the Canadian wilderness. That combination — of the lurking, horrific possibility of totalitarianism and human evil, and the unforgiving brutality and necessity of the natural world — would go on to inform her work for the rest of her career, perhaps most pointedly in the MaddAddamtrilogy, in which human brutality nearly destroys the world and nature rushes in to fill the void.
Atwood began to attend school full time at age 8, an age that in most of her fiction is deeply traumatic. One of images that recurs across a few of her books — Cat’s Eye, Lady Oracle — features a sad and humiliated 8-year-old girl standing alone in the winter snow. Her playmates have tied her up with a jump rope and then run away and left her, and what is most humiliating about the image is that the girl is trying desperately to convince herself that this is a game, that it is fun, that it is friendship. There’s no reason to believe this image comes from biographical fact, but it is a perfect microcosm of the vicious doublethink of little girl politics, in which the key is to believe that what is being done to you is fun, even when it is destructive.
Atwood briefly considered skipping college and supporting herself by writing pulp — “True Romances,” she writes in her essay collection In Other Worlds, “seemed easy enough, as they were all basically some variation of Wuthering Heights, in which the girl wrongly falls for the guy with the motorcycle instead of the one with the steady job at the shoe store” — but she found that she didn’t believe in the genre enough to pull it off. Later, she would give that career to the heroine of Lady Oracle and the hero of The Blind Assassin, both of whom joyfully plow through formulaic plot after formulaic plot and support themselves comfortably in the process.
Atwood began writing fiction professionally in 1964 with The Edible Woman, which would be published in 1969 to general acclaim. In 1979, Life Before Man was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award — Canada’s equivalent of the National Book Award — but it wasn’t until The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 that Atwood broke into the literary A-list, despite a middling review from Mary McCarthy at the New York Times.
But prior to breaking into fiction, Atwood had already made a name for herself has a well-respected poet. She began to publish her poetry as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto: in college literary magazines, and eventually in collections (first self-published, later professionally published and award-winning). She would continue to work as a poet as she began her (uncompleted) graduate studies in literature at Harvard.
At the time, Atwood has said, female poets were expected to be mystical and mysterious and probably suicidal, like Sylvia Plath; interviewers asked her, she writes in the essay collection Negotiating With the Dead, “not whether I was going to commit suicide, but when.” It was an image entirely at odds with the way Atwood describes herself, which is as “a nice, cosy sort of person, a bit absent-minded, a dab hand at cookies, beloved by domestic animals, and a knitter of sweaters with arms that are too long.” (Having briefly met Atwood, basedon first impressions I find it much easier to imagine her saying, “I eat men like air,” like Plath’s Lady Lazarus than to imagine her knitting sweaters, but on this she disagrees with me.)
Atwood would expand on this disconnect in her third novel, 1976’s Lady Oracle, in which the heroine is a nice, silly woman who accidentally hypnotizes herself into writing serious poetry when she is procrastinating at her day job of churning out pulpy costume dramas, and is promptly flummoxed by the ensuing publicity. The interviewers want to turn her into a feminist and pretend that she forces them to call her Ms. instead of Mrs. after she politely tells them she has no preference, and they treat her as a mystical goddess figure to the point that she begins to see her public persona as a separate self: “She was taller than I was, more beautiful, more threatening. She wanted to kill me and take my place, and by the time she did this no one would notice the difference because the media were in on the plot, they were helping her.”
It’s a telling characterization fromAtwood, who would have a vexed relationship with the press for the rest of her career — especially when it comes to the question of genre: how she sees it, and how her critics see it.
Atwood resists being assigned to a genre she hasn’t defined for herself
Atwood’s readers often describe her as a writer of feminist science fiction, promptingAtwood herself to declare she is nothing of the sort, thereby offending both feminists and science fiction fans.
In part, that disconnect comes about because Atwood insists on defining her own terms. She’s interested in women’s rights, and she’s interested in the possibilities of technology for the future, but those questions don’t necessarily fall within the bounds of feminism and science fiction as she defines them. Moreover, she is not necessarily a part of the intellectual communities that grew up around feminism and science fiction, and she doesn’t want to set the expectation that she is.
So although The Edible Woman isabout a woman whose engagement causes her to lose her identity, Atwood prefers not to call it a feminist book, because she was not part of a feminist community when she wrote it. And she was not a fan of some of the tenets of second-wave feminism, especially what she perceived as the expectation that feminists refused to like pretty clothes or believe there were good men. (Although ironically, in the first half of her career thegood men she wrotewere all either complicit at worst or boring at best, up untilAlexin 2000’s Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin; it probably says something that a compelling good man is what it took to win her the Booker.)
“I didn’t want to become a megaphone for any one particular set of beliefs,” she said to the New Yorker’sRebecca Mead in an interview earlier this year. “Having gone through that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick — I never had any use for that. You should be able to wear them without people saying you are a traitor to your sex.”
Today, Atwood is comfortable calling some of her work feminist, as long as she’s able to define the terminology herself.
“Is The Handmaid’s Tale a ‘feminist’ novel?” Atwood asked herself at the New York Times in March. “If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes.”
Similarly, Atwood has avoided calling her dystopias “science fiction” because they don’t fall within her definition of science fiction.
“What I mean by ‘science fiction’ is those books that descend from H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds,” she writes in In Other Worlds, “which treats of an invasion by tentacled, blood-sucking Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters — things that could not possibly happen.” In contrast, Atwood’s dystopias are all about things that are very likely to happen. Every atrocity that occurs in The Handmaid’s Tale has happened elsewhere, and most of the technology in the MaddAddam series is already in development.
Confusingly, many prominent science fiction writers — including Ursula Le Guin — define science fiction as being about things that could really happen, and define fiction about things that could not possibly happen as fantasy. At this, Atwood throws up her hands and suggests that after all, they are all “wonder tales” that provide “a doorway into the spirit world, or on the other side of the threshold that divides the known from the unknown.”
While Atwood is reluctant to allow any genre or ideology that she has not clearly defined and labeled to her satisfaction lay claim to her, that shouldn’t necessarily stop us from using whatever labels are useful to us as a means of thinking and talking about her work. Her books are consistently interested in the power dynamics between men and women, and in the possibilities of what developing technologies and scientific catastrophes might allow or force us to do to one another in the near future. Feminism and science fiction are good labels for talking about those questions.
And they are incredibly useful labels when it comes to Atwood’s dystopias.
Atwood’s dystopias looks at how pyramids of power operate
Dystopias take up a disproportionate amount of the conversation when it comes to Atwood and her work. Although they only make up five of her 17 books, they’re among her most celebrated writing, particularly in the recent conversations around her and her work. It’s easy to see why: They’re the books where she is able to turn her focused attention to the question of how power replicates itself across multiple stratifications.
Atwood’s dystopias, which go from the immersive claustrophobia of The Handmaid’s Tale to the telescoping world building of the MaddAddam trilogy to the comic sex farce of The Heart Goes Last, tend to concern themselves with pyramids of power. A select few — usually wealthy, male, and white — sit at the top, and as the pyramid widens, power becomes scarcer and oppression more pervasive.
The cramped, claustrophobic Handmaid’s Tale takes place at a single point on that pyramid, which is part of what gives it its creepy force. It examines different stratifications of power — we watch as Offred is oppressed by the state, by the family in which the state has placed her, and by the social caste the state has created — always from the same viewpoint.
But “I could pick a male narrator from somewhere in that pyramid,” Atwood mused in 2009. “It would be interesting."
That’s the strategy she took with 2004’s Oryx and Crake, the first volume of the MaddAddam trilogy. Jimmy, Oryx and Crake’s protagonist, is wealthy, white, and male, by any measure at the top of the social pyramid — but he, too, is destroyed by the world in which he lives. Over the course of the MaddAddam trilogy, Atwood hopscotches around the pyramid of power, looking at society from the point of view of poor women, and poor men, and sex workers, and cultists, and finding it lacking from every angle.
Meanwhile, in The Heart Goes Last, she narrows her focus to the way power reproduces itself at the level of sexual desire. The Heart Goes Last is aesthetically the weakest of the Atwood dystopias, but it’s perhaps her most intimate examination of power, and its focus is on the longing to control utterly the object of one’s desire — only here, that control becomes literally possible, through operating on the loved one’s brains or creating a sexbot replica.
Those sexbots are a particular campy signifier of dystopia, but they also fit neatly into Atwood’s other major preoccupation: the idea of a shadow self.
Atwood’s novels play obsessively with dualities and shadow selves
If there’s a single image recurring throughout all of Atwood’s books, it’s that the main character has at least one double or shadow self. Sometimes that double is literal, like the sexbot replicas of real people in The Heart Goes Last. Sometimes it’s figurative, like the sisters in The Blind Assassin, who live out each other’s fantasies in the shadows. Sometimes it doesn’t even really exist, like the imagined Fat Lady and the famous author in Lady Oracle.
“Novels are often constructed in that way. Not just my novels, but anybody’s novels,” Atwood told me. “There’s a structural principle at work somewhere. That’s just something that has to do with works of art: You have a basic rhythm and then you have syncopation.”
In her criticism, Atwood reads this kind of doubling as a way of thinking about the act of writing. “The mere act of writing splits the self into two,” she writes in Negotiating With the Dead. One half of the writer is the writer who is an ordinary human being — the nice cozy domestic self Atwood described elsewhere as living under threat from the romantic idea of a death-obsessed lady poet. In novels, this half generally takes the form of the protagonist, who is sensible and orderly and only wants for everything to work out all right in the end.
The other half is the writer who is actually writing, who throws complications and horrors at her characters without mercy. It is that half who becomes the uncanny double, a figure filled with menace who threatens and simultaneously acts out all of the deepest and most repressed desires of the protagonist.
“Surely it wasn’t Charles Dickens … who caused poor Little Nell to die an early death?” Atwood writes. “No, it was the necrophiliac he carried around inside himself, like a tapeworm made of ink.”
“I don’t want this to be the story that I’m telling,” says Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. But her shadow self, the previous Offred, has left a message carved for her in the closet floor.
The shadow self isn’t only a way of thinking about writing, though. The shadow self also offers a way of thinking about the desires that we ourselves repress, and how we would enact them if only we were able to seize the power to do so.
Charmaine of The Heart Goes Last would like to lose herself in sexual abandon the way her sexbot replica does, so much so that she creates an alter ego named Jasmine that will allow her to do just that. Oryx and Crake’s Jimmy hates his shadow self Crake, but he also harbors the fantasy of wiping out the human race, the way Crake does. The three heroines of The Robber Bride fight to keep their domestic lives safe and secure from their collective shadow self Zenia, but they are also immensely drawn to the idea of doing as Zenia does: using and then discarding men with abandon, and ripping up all that is tidy and domestic. It’s just that they can’t afford to live as she does. It would render them powerless.
The shadow self trope is, at its heart, a power fantasy. That’s part of why it’s so fundamental to Atwood’s work.
Today, the questions that concern Atwood increasingly concern the rest of the world as well
“I’ve never been a person to believe, ‘Oh, they’re just funning. They’re just fooling around. It’s just to get votes,’” Atwood said at New York City’s BookCon in June. She was talking about whether or not to believe a politician’s threats. “I don’t believe that. I believe that people will actually do the things they say they’re going to do if they get the chance to do them.”
We are currently living in a time in which a politician has talked quite extensively about all the things he would like to do if he were able to — and now he’s seized enough power that he might conceivably do so. The part of the country that many on the left used to think of as America’s shadow self has seized control of the country, and dystopia feels as though it’s looming ever closer.
Part of Atwood’s gift as a novelist is that she gives us the tools and the framework to think about these questions: about what it means to be powerless, and about what anxieties and fantasies we repress when we lack the power to act on them, only to see them turned into weapons in someone else’s hands. Reading Atwood now, at this moment, feels like peering behind a curtain at the invisible levers of power at work all around us: She makes them visible and legible.
Atwood began this work of naming and describing power 50 years ago, and she continued working on it as it cycled in and out of fashion. And now, at last, as she enters the elder statesman phase of her career, her time has come. The questions that have informed her work for the past 50 years are now some ofthe most urgent questions facing today’s society.
It made news last week when ExxonMobil, along with a slate of other big companies, including other oil giants, backed a plan for a substantial, rising US carbon tax.
The plan was put forward by the Climate Leadership Council, a new group that is seeking a bipartisan path forward on climate policy. The tax would start at $40 a ton; the revenue would be returned as per-capita dividends to all US citizens.
The Council includes some (retired) Republicans like James Baker III and George Schulz, along with a few centrist favorites like Michael Bloomberg and former Energy Secretary Steven Chu. (For some reason, Stephen Hawking is also a fan.) And among its “corporate founders,” are GM and Unilever, along with ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and Total.
Why would Exxon back a carbon tax that would raise the price of its products?
There’s more to it than you might think. Exxon’s motives on this are complicated — some are short-term and greenwash-y, but others are longer-term and have to do with the industry’s health over coming decades. It’s all a useful lens through which to view the oil industry’s place in warming world.
Big oil has more to worry about than lawsuits
In the near-term, Exxon is embroiled in a messy legal and PR fight, which is why environmentalists were quick to dismiss its gambit as greenwashing.
Critics pointed to a provision within the plan that would shield oil companies from legal exposure to climate-based lawsuits, which is of particular interest to Exxon, as the company is currently being sued by a group of state attorneys general. The lawsuit alleges that the company knew about the risks of climate change long before it revealed those risks to investors, and even when it did, instituting an internal carbon price, it secretly used a much lower price in actual business decisions.
In January, a Massachusetts judge issued Exxon a setback when it ordered the company to turn over 40 years of climate research, based on an investigation by state Attorney General Maura Healey. In May, a Texas judge (Exxon’s home field) dealt the company another blow by transferring the case to New York, where it will be led by dogged NY AG Eric Schneiderman.
Greens also pointed out that the plan would repeal a range of environmental regulations targeted at greenhouse gases, something oil and gas companies would very much like to see.
They pointed out that tax is, in the words of 350.org’s Jamie Henn, “dead-on-arrival.” There is no chance this Republican Congress will pass it and very few Republicans are willing to speak up in even tepid support.
All of this is true, and all of it has likely informed Exxon’s effort to position itself as a constructive partner on climate policy.
But there are also bigger, longer-term trends at work, which are pushing all the oil majors to the table on climate.
The oil industry faces enormous risk if the world takes climate change seriously
For years, climate hawks have been talking about a “carbon bubble.” The basic idea is simple. If the world is serious about its common climate target — holding global average temperatures to less than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — then there’s only so much carbon it can throw up into the atmosphere. That amount of carbon is our collective “carbon budget.”
Nonetheless, those reserves currently have enormous value on the balance sheets of fossil fuel companies. Their books are full of “unburnable carbon.”
Are they at risk? Is unburnable carbon the climate equivalent of subprime mortgages?
If the world doesn’t take ambitious steps to phase out fossil fuels, and if technological competitors to fossil fuels don’t develop faster than expected, then no, unburnable carbon poses no financial risk. It’s only a risk if there’s some real chance that we won’t burn it.
But if the world does take climate seriously, and cleantech does develop more quickly than expected ... well, then the carbon bubble starts leaking.
A new report from Carbon Tracker and Principles of Responsible Investment (PRI) breaks down, for the first time, just how much each oil and gas company is at risk.
There’s a whole separate paper on methodology, but the gist of it is that they calculate each company’s exposure to risk in a 2-degree (2D) scenario — how much capital it has tied up in potential projects that it wouldn’t be able to build in that scenario.
First they use carbon supply curves to determine which projects would be canceled in a 2D scenario. They then determine, for each company, how much of its capital spending (“capex”) is committed to those potential projects. That is the amount of a company’s exposure.
Here’s the big picture:
Around $2.3 trillion of oil and gas capex through 2025 should not be deployed if we want even a 50/50 chance of staying beneath 2 degrees. That’s around a third of all projected capital expenditures under business-as-usual.
Which companies have the most capex tied up in projects that lie outside the 2D budget? Here’s a snapshot of the top 20:
As you can see, Exxon comes in at 13 overall, and first among the oil giants, with 40 to 50 percent of its total capex through 2025 going to projects outside the 2D budget.
That’s a lot of exposure and a lot of risk.
And Carbon Tracker has done a terrific job that is being recognized by more and more people (as Donald Trump might say). Shareholders and the general public are starting to pay attention to corporate climate risk.
In a May 2017 shareholder resolution, 62 percent of Exxon shareholders (up from 38 percent last year) voted for a resolution calling on the company to do, in the New York Times’ words, “more open and detailed analyses of the risks posed to its business by policies aimed at stemming climate change.”
Specifically, shareholders want to know what will happen to Exxon if world governments get serious about the 2D target. That’s a question Exxon has long resisted answering. (The resolution is non-binding, but CEO Darren Woods “said the board would consider the result because it reflected the view of the majority of shareholders.”)
In short, oil and gas giants are under increasing pressure to take the 2D target seriously — and taking it seriously would mean an immediate halt in growth and the beginning of a long, steady decline.
A carbon tax would benefit oil and gas companies, at least at first
To understand how oil and gas companies feel about a carbon tax, it’s important to understand a key dynamic. (I explained it at Vox a couple of years ago.)
It is the nature of an economy-wide tax on carbon — and a virtue, according to economists — that it hits the most carbon-intensive sources first. Think of a rising tax like rising sea levels; low-lying areas, i.e., the most carbon-intensive, are most at risk.
The low-lying region in this analogy? Coal. In fact, coal is more like a string of Pacific islands — a rising tax threatens to wipe it out entirely. It is far and away the most carbon-intensive source of energy (not to mention the most intensive source of local air and water pollutants) and thus will suffer first and most from a tax.
When coal gets more expensive, the primary beneficiary is, you guessed it: natural gas. The proximate effect of an economy-wide carbon tax will be to accelerate a switch from coal to gas. That will, at least for a while, prop up oil and gas companies.
Of course, natural gas faces the same carbon reckoning as coal and oil, so a shift from the latter to the former only delays things a bit. But it’s a breather for the industry.
Oil is in a rough patch and the long-term prognosis is not good
Why aren’t low prices leading to production cuts? Because oil and gas companies are highly leveraged. In February, the Bank for International Settlements warned that, as the Telegraph put it, “the global oil industry is caught in a self-feeding downward spiral as falling prices cause producers to boost output even further in a scramble to service $3 trillion of dollar debt.”
As prices fall and competition for export markets becomes more fierce, Saudi Arabia and other OPEC states are flooding the market, trying to drive out competitors. That’s putting continued downward pressure on prices. Under the strain, export states are embracing fiscal austerity, which is threatening a global economic slowdown.
Meanwhile ... [ominous music] ... earlier this month, the analysts at McKinsey & Company issued a research report on oil’s long-term fortunes. The news was not good.
The basic shape of things is that demand for chemicals derived from petroleum is projected to grow very quickly, while demand for oil for energy is projected to plateau and decline. It will decline because economies are shifting from manufacturing to services, and because growth in light-vehicle demand will peak around 2023, even as more and more vehicles go electric.
How those two contrasting trends balance out will determine global oil demand in coming decades. If growth in demand for chemicals doesn’t pan out and light vehicles electrify (and go autonomous) faster than projected — both distinct possibilities — “oil demand will peak around 2030, at fewer than 100 million barrels per day.”
That is nuts. It was not long ago that analysts saw global oil demand rising as far as the eye could see. But conventional wisdom is shifting. The question now is not whether demand will peak, but when. Some predict earlier: The CFO of Royal Dutch Shell recently said that the company expects a peak “somewhere between 5 and 15 years hence.” (Admittedly, Shell is big into gas, so it’s not entirely neutral in the fight.) Exxon itself still maintains that demand will grow forever and a day.
“Nobody knows” when demand will peak, says Spencer Dale, group chief economist for BP PLC, which issues a widely watched annual outlook. The company’s base case calls for a peak in the mid-2040s—with the caveat that it could come sooner or later. “There are huge bands of uncertainty around that,” Mr. Dale says.
The uncertainty matters, but the long-term trajectory is clear. Policy and technology will restrain oil demand, stop its growth, and eventually drive it down. To the extent that real urgency on climate change takes hold, or innovation outstrips expectations, that will happen faster than currently projected. The end of oil’s long reign is, if not precisely scheduled, at least coming in sight.
That means oil and gas companies need to take a proactive role in climate policy discussions. They need some predictability, a glide path to a low-carbon world, and they can’t afford to just sit back and hope it happens.
From their perspective, a globally harmonized carbon tax that replaces all other regulations is absolutely the best-case scenario.
One tax beats the hell out of a global patchwork of domestic policies
The industry’s worst nightmare is that the Paris climate process (even without Trump’s participation) works to ramp up global ambition, resulting in an expanding country-by-country patchwork of policies, all hostile to its long-term health. (Many of those more targeted policies represent the equivalent of a much higher carbon price than the one the companies are endorsing.) So big oil support for a carbon tax is undoubtedly part of a bid to tame or mitigate that patchwork.
In reality, there is always going to be a patchwork. The chances of persuading the US to replace its carbon policies with a single tax is low; the chances of getting the entire world to do it are vanishing.
But to the extent it can channel momentum toward harmonized taxes, the industry benefits. If the entire industry is subject to the same transparent policy, it makes long-term planning easier and competition more straightforward.
Also, at least historically, carbon taxes have tended to be too low, shaped more by politics than science. By consolidating policies, the industry also consolidates targets for political lobbying.
So, like I said, Exxon’s motives on this are complicated. In the proximate political environment, its support for a carbon tax proposal means very little. The GOP is too far gone to consider it. The company knows perfectly well it is in no near-term danger of being taxed. It will likely continue to support know-nothing Republicans and lobby against real-world climate policies.
But putting its name on a carbon tax proposal — one explicitly tied to the 2D target — can also be seen as big oil’s opening bid in what promises to be a long and contentious negotiation over the terms of surrender. There is still plenty of resistance to come from oil and gas, plenty of political and legal battles, but momentum in policy and technology have brought the end of oil, or at least the end of big oil, into view.
The industry finds itself in a fateful position, forced to think seriously about how to schedule and administer its own diminishment. That the world’s largest oil and gas company has taken a step down that road, even if it is a defensive and largely symbolic step, is no small thing.
They have the power to demand a very different bill. They should use it.
Obamacare has some real problems.
Republicans know this, and when Democrats aren’t on defense, they admit it too.
No, the Affordable Care Act isn’t “collapsing” everywhere — not even close — but in certain areas, it really is badly troubled, and is in danger of leaving consumers with zero choices on the individual markets. These problems are particularly evident in rural counties in Ohio, Tennessee, and Missouri, as Vox’s Sarah Kliff recently wrote.
Elsewhere, consumers are limited to one or two choices, or face deductibles that are far too high. These are legitimate problems that are in need of solutions, and members of Congress should try to fix them.
The problem is that Republican leaders’ health care bill isn’t actually designed to fix those problems.
Republican senators like Susan Collins (R-ME) and Dean Heller (R-NV) have already decreed that they’ll oppose a GOP health bill that causes tens of millions to lose insurance. If one more Republican senator joins them, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be short of the votes necessary to pass a bill.
Holdout GOP senators shouldn’t stop with opposition, though. They can — and should — demand a more serious attempt at fixing Obamacare’s flaws.
It is entirely possible to craft a health reform bill that leaves aside divisive issues like Medicaid cuts and tax cuts for the rich, and that isn’t projected to result in tens of millions more people ending up uninsured over the next decade.
This bill should instead focus on fixing the problems in the individual markets. Many Democratic senators would be willing and perhaps even eager to support such a bill. It could conceivably even meet President Donald Trump’s standards, since he has lately been pushing for Republicans to make their bill less “mean,” and did after all promise not to cut Medicaid.
All it would take is for three or more Republican senators to unite and demand such a bill.
They have the power — and they should use it.
It’s not enough to bemoan the process. Republicans who want to make health care affordable for their constituents should fight for a better, and fundamentally different, bill.
GOP leaders’ health reform bill isn’t a serious attempt to fix Obamacare
The primary focus of the Senate GOP health care bill is to cut hundreds of billions of dollars out of Medicaid, while also slashing hundreds of billions of dollars in taxes that primarily hit the wealthy.
The new CBO report makes that clear — in the breakdown of the bill’s changes to the budget deficit, the biggest items are $772 billion in Medicaid cuts subtracted from the deficit, and $541 billion in “noncoverage provisions” (a.k.a. tax cuts) added to the deficit:
Additionally, CBO projects that 22 million more people overall would end up uninsured by 2026 under the GOP bill than under current law — and in that time period, 15 million fewer people would have Medicaid compared to current law.
So the main action in the bill is very clearly about Medicaid cuts and tax cuts. And why is all that even necessary?
Now, the Senate bill does implement various changes to the individual insurance markets, too.
But the problem is that, according to CBO, it won’t even fix the problems Republicans have long identified in the Affordable Care Act:
The bill won’t fulfill the promise Republicans have repeatedly made to their constituents that they’d lower deductibles. CBO projects that under the Republican proposal for the individual markets, premiums would eventually decrease, but deductibles would become so expensive for low-income people that “few low-income people would purchase any plan.”
In spite of President Donald Trump’s repeated promise not to cut Medicaid, the Senate bill would cut $772 billion from it over the next 10 years. These cuts are entirely unnecessary for a bill supposedly aimed at fixing Obamacare’s individual insurance market problems.
Furthermore, the bill wouldn’t even fix the problem of insurers pulling out of the individual marketplaces in certain areas. According to the CBO report, “a small fraction of the population resides in areas in which — because of this legislation, at least for some of the years after 2019 — no insurers would participate in the nongroup market or insurance would be offered only with very high premiums.”
Overall, then, it seems clear that the bill GOP leaders have offered up won’t actually solve Obamacare’s most serious problems.
So it’s high time for Republican senators to demand a bill that does.
Fix the individual marketplaces, and put aside conservatives’ dreams of Medicaid cuts
It’s long been clear that Democrats wouldn’t go along with Republicans in any serious effort to repeal all of Obamacare. That initially seemed to be a problem for any bipartisan deal.
But in fact, it’s become clear over the past few months that most Republicans don’t actually want to return to the pre-Obamacare status quo either.
Both the House bill and especially the Senate bill preserve much of the fundamental architecture of Obamacare’s individual insurance marketplace reforms. Specifically, they preserve the core idea that plans sold on the individual markets should be regulated in some way, and that many consumers should be offered subsidies to help them afford those plans.
The Senate’s bill is even closer to the Affordable Care Act’s architecture than the House’s. It preserves the concept of income-based subsidies, unlike the House bill, which pegged subsidies to age. And it includes a mechanism that would penalize those who didn’t purchase insurance. (They’d be forced to wait six months for coverage to kick in after they purchase it.)
All this is the case because enough Republican senators and Congress members made clear that they preferred policies that preserved much of Obamacare instead of full repeal — much to the chagrin of conservatives who want to fundamentally erase the Affordable Care Act.
Now that that area of overlap has become clear, key senators in both parties should go further. They should demand that the divisive and partisan issues of Medicaid cuts and tax cuts for the wealthy be put aside, in favor of a bill designed to fix the individual insurance markets where they need to be fixed.
Only then can an actual bipartisan legislative process aimed at fixing the Obamacare individual marketplaces’ flaws, and trying to make them actually work for all Americans, begin.
That process would try to make health insurance on the individual markets affordable where it currently isn’t affordable, and to ensure consumers have options in places where they are in danger of not having options. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has some ideas for temporary fixes that could be a starting point for talks.
Why should swing senators like Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Rob Portman (R-OH), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) hold their noses and support a horrendously unpopular bill that would gut Medicaid and cause hundreds of thousands of their constituents to end up uninsured?
They should instead join Collins and Heller in demanding that this flawed bill be dispensed with, in favor of trying to craft something better.
Not only does this have the potential to be good policy, it could also be good politics for Republicans fearful of running in President Trump’s first midterm elections. They could run as problem-solvers trying to do what Democrats couldn’t — fix Obamacare.