Lazy Sunday Tabs

The Most Hated Sound on Television

When American viewers flipped open the July 2, 1966, edition of TV Guide, they were treated to a bombshell story . This was the first installment of a two-part series on “the most taboo topic in TV,” the industry’s “best-known and least-talked-about secret,” the “put-on of all time”: the laugh track.

At the time, almost every comedy on air was filmed live in front of a studio audience—or at least pretended to be. Pretty much all of the biggest shows  used a laugh track—The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres. Savvy viewers might have figured out that not all of the giggles and guffaws were real, but few people outside the industry understood the extent of the artifice. Even shows filmed live added some artificial laughs, sometimes to supplement the audience and sometimes because the laugh track sounded more authentic than the real thing. Behind the scenes, “Laff Boys” played their “Laff Boxes” like magic instruments, calling forth rounds of applause or squeals of delight with the press of a button.

Viewers scorned the laugh track—prerecorded and live chortles alike—first for its deceptiveness and then for its condescension. They came to see it as artificial, cheesy, even insulting: You think we need you to tell us when to laugh? Larry Gelbart said he “always thought it cheapened” M*A*S*H. Larry David reportedly didn’t want it on Seinfeld but lost out to studio execs who did. The actor David Niven once called it “the single greatest affront to public intelligence I know of.” In 1999, Time judged the laugh track to be “one of the hundred worst ideas of the twentieth century.” And yet, it persisted. Until the early 2000s, nearly every TV comedy relied on one. Friends, Two and a Half Men, Everybody Loves Raymond, Drake & Josh—they all had laugh tracks.

Now the laugh track is as close to death as it’s ever been. The Big Bang Theory, the last major laugh-track show, ended in 2019, and nothing has taken its place. Half of the live comedies on the big-four American TV networks still use laugh tracks, but half of those appear to be ending this year. More tellingly: Can you name a single one? The laugh-track haters had to wait more than 50 years, but finally, they can rejoice.

In a sense, TV episodes are just short movies beamed into your living room. But movies never used laugh tracks, not even in the early, silent days, when it would’ve been easy to layer the sounds of a delighted audience over Charlie Chaplin’s buffoonery. There was simply no need: Every movie had its own live audience right there in the theater, so why bother simulating one? Early TV shows were not so much short movies as radio shows acted out onstage. And because radio shows were recorded in front of a live studio audience for people tuning in at home, TV shows were too. The point of the laugh track was to re-create the communal experience you would have in person, Ron Simon, a curator of television and radio at the Paley Center for Media, told me. It was necessary, one production executive thought , “because TV viewers expect an audience to be there.”

Live-audience laughter had long been sweetened for radio and TV broadcasts, but around 1950, Bing Crosby’s radio show took things a step further, dispensing with the live audience altogether and adding in the laughs later . TV executives soon took a lesson out of Crosby’s book. With the creation of the Laff Box, in the early ’50s, canned laughs proliferated to the point that even shows without the slightest pretense of having been performed for a live studio audience used laugh tracks. Even The Flintstones and The Jetsons did. Some shows were still filmed in front of a real audience, but even they sometimes relied on canned laughs.

Not that the viewers warmed up to the laugh track. There remained a dissonance between viewers’ stated and demonstrated preferences: People railed against the laugh track, but they adored shows that used it. Every so often, the networks would try a show without a laugh track, but none of them lasted long. It’s nice to think that we’re above laugh tracks, that we don’t need them to know what’s funny, but “those social cues help you understand the meaning of comedy,” Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at University College London who has studied laugh tracks, told me.

By the late 1980s, though, the dominance of the laugh track was starting to erode. Dramedies such as Hooperman and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd got people accustomed to laughing without any cue, Simon told me, and in the early ’90s, shows such as Dream On and The Larry Sanders Show demonstrated the viability of the unsweetened sitcom. In 1998, a not-yet-famous Aaron Sorkin insisted to ABC executives that adding a laugh track would ruin his first-ever TV show, Sports Night. If he were forced to add one, he said, he’d “feel as if I’d put on an Armani tuxedo, tied my tie, snapped on my cufflinks, and the last thing I do before I leave the house is spray Cheez Whiz all over myself.” The show started out with a laugh track but scrapped it for Season 2.

The laugh track remained a force, though, even as the tides turned against it. In 2003, The New York Times wrote that “pretty much nobody likes laugh tracks, perhaps because they’re such obvious fig leafs for the embarrassment of weak punchlines, perhaps because they make us feel bossed and condescended to, perhaps because they dehumanize one of the most human actions imaginable.” At the time, Friends was the most popular comedy on TV.

Within a few years, though, a new breed of sitcoms was supplanting the old, first with the arrival of Arrested Development, then with The Office and 30 Rock, and a few years later with Parks and Recreation and Modern Family. Laugh-track shows were coming to seem not just condescending but also stiff and fusty. People began making videos in which they removed the laugh tracks from classic sitcoms to show that they weren’t actually funny. “Living in L.A., you sometimes hear coyotes eating cats, and to me, that’s the sound of a multi-cam laugh track,” Steve Levitan, one of the creators of Modern Family, said a few years into the show’s run. “I just can’t take it anymore.”

Last month, CBS green-lighted a new comedy about two young parents in Texas. It’s a spin-off of The Big Bang Theory and, like the original, will have a laugh track. In short, despite the repeated proclamations of its demise , the laugh track remains. You can still find shows that have it, both on TV and on streaming services, but there is an undead quality to it now. Bob Hearts Abishola, (probably ) The Conners, and (probably ) Extended Family are ending this year, likely to be replaced by more laugh-track-less shows. And many of those that remain are clear nostalgia plays, such as Netflix’s That ’90s Show, Paramount+’s Frasier revival, and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory spin-off.

Networks and streamers are going to keep swinging, and as long as they do, the laugh track will live on. The older audiences who grew up and spent most of their adult life watching classic laugh-track comedies are still around, and they watch more TV than any other age group. Plus, conventional sitcoms, when they really connect, are more lucrative than any other type of show. But the laugh track simply is not at the center of culture anymore. A laugh-track show hasn’t won the best-comedy Emmy in almost 20 years. If you could once flip through channels and hear laugh track after laugh track, now you can power up your smart TV; toggle among the top shows on Netflix, Hulu, Max, and Amazon Prime; and not hear a single audience reaction.

Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, compares the state of the laugh-track sitcom to that of a much older medium: the fresco. “You could still get people to respond to beautiful paintings like Michelangelo painted on the ceiling,” he told me. “It’s just that people aren’t painting that way anymore.” Tourists still come from across the world to see the Sistine Chapel, and millions of people still watch Seinfeld and Friends on streaming services. But they may never lay eyes on a new fresco—or get into a new laugh-track comedy.

That might seem like reason to rejoice. But the death of the laugh track is not—or at least not just—something to celebrate. For all the ire it incurred, for all the bad jokes it disguised, the laugh track was fundamentally about reproducing the experience of being part of an audience, and its decline is also the decline of communal viewership. The era of the family gathering around the living-room TV is over. We don’t all watch the same shows on the same networks, and whatever we watch, we watch on our own personal devices. We don’t go to theaters as often. The laugh track was never more than the illusion of community, but now even the illusion has lost its luster.

There was always something a little dark about the illusion. But there’s arguably something even darker about its loss of appeal. Whether they realized it or not, viewers found comfort in the pretense that they were part of an audience. Now we are content to laugh alone.

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What Happens When You’ve Been on Ozempic for 20 Years?

In December 1921, Leonard Thompson was admitted to Toronto General Hospital so weak and emaciated that his father had to carry him inside. Thompson was barely a teenager, weighing all of 65 pounds, dying of diabetes. With so little to lose, he was an ideal candidate to be patient No. 1 for a trial of the pancreatic extract that would come to be called insulin.

The insulin did what today we know it can. “The boy became brighter, more active, looked better and said he felt stronger,” the team of Toronto researchers and physicians reported in March 1922 in The Canadian Medical Association Journal . The article documented their use of insulin on six more patients; it had seemingly reversed the disease in every case. As John Williams, a diabetes specialist in Rochester, New York, wrote of the first patient on whom he tried insulin later that year, “The restoration of this patient to his present state of health is an achievement difficult to record in temperate language. Certainly few recoveries from impending death more dramatic than this have ever been witnessed by a physician.”

Of all the wonder drugs in the history of medicine, insulin may be the closest parallel, in both function and purpose, to this century’s miracle of a metabolic drug: the GLP-1 agonist. Sold under now-familiar brand names including Ozempic, Wegovy, and Mounjaro, these new medications for diabetes and obesity have been hailed as a generational breakthrough that may one day stand with insulin therapy among “the greatest advances in the annals of chronic disease, ” as The New Yorker put it in December.

But if that analogy is apt—and the correspondences are many—then a more complicated legacy for GLP-1 drugs could be in the works. Insulin, for its part, may have changed the world of medicine, but it also brought along a raft of profound, unintended consequences. By 1950, the new therapy had tripled the number of years that patients at a major diabetes center could expect to live after diagnosis. It also kept those patients alive long enough for them to experience a wave of long-term complications. Leonard Thompson would die at 27 of pneumonia. Other young men and women who shared his illness also died far too young, their veins and arteries ravaged by the disease, and perhaps—there was no way to tell—by the insulin therapy and associated dietary protocols that had kept them alive in the first place.

In the decades that followed, diabetes, once a rare disorder, would become so common that entire drug-store aisles are now dedicated to its treatment-related paraphernalia. Roughly one in 10 Americans is afflicted. And despite a remarkable, ever-expanding armamentarium of drug therapies and medical devices, the disease—whether in its type 1 or type 2 form—is still considered chronic and progressive. Patients live far longer than ever before, yet their condition is still anticipated to get worse with time, requiring ever more aggressive therapies to keep its harms in check. One in every seven health dollars is now spent on diabetes treatment, amounting to $800 million every day .

The advent of insulin therapy also changed—I would even say distorted—the related medical science. In my latest book, Rethinking Diabetes , I document how clinical investigators in the 1920s abruptly shifted their focus from trying to understand the relationship between diet and disease to that between drug and disease. Physicians who had been treating diabetes with either fat-rich diets absent carbohydrates (which had been the accepted standard of care in both the U.S. and Europe) or very low-calorie “starvation” diets came to rely on insulin instead. Physicians would still insist that diet is the cornerstone of therapy, but only as an adjunct to the insulin therapy and in the expectation that any dietary advice they gave to patients would be ignored.

With the sudden rise of GLP-1 drugs in this decade, I worry that a similar set of transformations could occur. Dietary therapy for obesity and diabetes may be sidelined in favor of powerful pharmaceuticals—with little understanding of how the new drugs work and what they really tell us about the mechanisms of disease. And all of that may continue despite the fact that the long-term risks of taking the drugs remain uncertain.

“The ebullience surrounding GLP-1 agonists is tinged with uncertainty and even some foreboding,” Science reported in December, in its article declaring these obesity treatments the journal’s Breakthrough of the Year. “Like virtually all drugs, these blockbusters come with side effects and unknowns.” Yet given the GLP-1 agonists’ astounding popularity , such cautionary notes tend to sound like lip service. After all, the FDA has deemed these drugs safe for use, and doctors have been prescribing products in this class to diabetes patients for 20 years with little evidence of long-term harm.

Yet the GLP-1 agonists’ side effects have been studied carefully only out to seven years of use , and that was in a group of patients on exenatide—an early, far less potent product in this class. The study offered no follow-up on the many participants in that trial who had discontinued use. Other long-term studies have followed patients on the drugs for at least as many years, but they’ve sought (and failed to find) only very specific harms, such as pancreatic cancer and breast cancer . In the meantime, a 2023 survey found that more than two-thirds of patients prescribed the newer GLP-1 agonists for weight loss had stopped using them within a year. Why did they quit? What happened to them when they did?

The stories of Leonard Thompson and the many diabetes patients on insulin therapy who came after may be taken as a warning. The GLP-1 drugs have many traits in common with insulin. Both treatments became very popular very quickly. Within years of its discovery, insulin was being prescribed for essentially every diabetic patient whose physician could obtain the drug. Both insulin and GLP-1 agonists were originally developed as injectable treatments to control blood sugar. Both affect appetite and satiety, and both can have remarkable effects on body weight and composition. The GLP-1s, like insulin, treat only the symptoms of the disorders for which they are prescribed. Hence, the benefits of GLP-1s, like those of insulin, are sustained only with continued use.

The two treatments are also similar in that they work, directly or indirectly, by manipulating an unimaginably complex physiological system. When present in their natural state—as insulin secreted from the pancreas, or GLP-1 secreted from the gut (and perhaps the brain )—they’re both involved in the regulation of fuel metabolism and storage, what is technically known as fuel partitioning. This system tells our bodies what to do with the macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) in the foods we eat.

Chris Feudtner, a pediatrician, medical historian, and medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, has described this hormonal regulation of fuel partitioning as that of a “Council of Food Utilization.” Organs communicate with one another “via the language of hormones,” he wrote in Bittersweet, his history of the early years of insulin therapy and the transformation of type 1 diabetes from an acute to a chronic disease. “The rest of the body’s tissues listen to this ongoing discussion and react to the overall pattern of hormonal messages. The food is then used—for burning, growing, converting, storing, or retrieving.” Perturb that harmonious discourse, and the whole physiological ensemble of the human body reverberates with corrections and counter-corrections.

This is why the long-term consequences of using these drugs can be so difficult to fathom. Insulin therapy, for instance, did not just lower patients’ blood sugar; it restored their weight and then made them fatter still (even as it inhibited the voracious hunger that was a symptom of uncontrolled diabetes). Insulin therapy may also be responsible, at least in part, for diabetic complications—atherosclerosis and high blood pressure, for instance. That possibility has been acknowledged in textbooks and journal articles but never settled as a scientific matter.

With the discovery of insulin and its remarkable efficacy for treating type 1 diabetes, diabetologists came to embrace a therapeutic philosophy that is still ascendant today: Treat the immediate symptoms of the disease with drug therapy and assume that whatever the future complications, they can be treated by other drug or surgical therapies. Patients with diabetes who develop atherosclerosis may extend their lives with stents; those with hypertension may go on blood-pressure-lowering medications.

A similar pattern could emerge for people taking GLP-1s. (We see it already in the prospect of drug therapies for GLP-1-related muscle loss .) But the many clinical trials of the new obesity treatments do not and cannot look at what might happen over a decade or more of steady use, or what might happen if the injections must be discontinued after that long. We take for granted that if serious problems do emerge, far down that distant road, or if the drugs have to be discontinued because of side effects, newer treatments will be available to solve the problems or take over the job of weight maintenance.

In the meantime, young patients who stick with treatment can expect to be on their GLP-1s for half a century. What might happen during those decades—and what might happen if and when they have to discontinue use—is currently unknowable, although, at the risk of sounding ominous, we will find out.

Pregnancy is another scenario that should generate serious questions. A recently published study found no elevated risk of birth defects among women taking GLP-1 agonists for diabetes right before or during early pregnancy, as compared with those taking insulin, but birth defects are just one obvious and easily observable effect of a drug taken during pregnancy. Children of a mother with diabetes or obesity tend to be born larger and have a higher risk of developing obesity or diabetes themselves later in life. The use of GLP-1 agonists during pregnancy may reduce—or exacerbate—that risk. Should the drugs be discontinued before or during pregnancy, any sudden weight gain (or regain) by the mother could similarly affect the health of her child. The consequences cannot be foreseen and might not manifest themselves until these children reach their adult years.

The rise of GLP-1 drugs may also distort our understanding of obesity itself, in much the way that insulin therapy distorted the thinking in diabetes research. With insulin’s discovery, physicians assumed that all diabetes was an insulin-deficiency disorder, even though this is true today for only 5 to 10 percent of diabetic patients, those with type 1. It took until the 1960s for specialists to accept that type 2 diabetes was a very different disorder—a physiological resistance to insulin, inducing the pancreas to respond by secreting too much of the hormone rather than not enough. And although the prognosis today for a newly diagnosed patient with type 2 diabetes is better than ever, physicians have yet to establish whether the progression and long-term complications of the disease are truly inevitable, or whether they might be, in fact, a consequence of the insulin and other drug therapies that are used to control blood sugar, and perhaps even of the diets that patients are encouraged to eat to accommodate these drug therapies.

Already, assumptions are being made about the mechanisms of GLP-1 agonists without the rigorous testing necessary to assess their validity. They’re broadly understood to work by inhibiting hunger and slowing the passage of food from the stomach—effects that sound benign, as if the drugs were little more than pharmacological versions of a fiber-rich diet. But changes to a patient’s appetite and rate of gastric emptying only happen to be easy to observe and study; they do not necessarily reflect the drugs’ most important or direct actions in the body.

When I spoke with Chris Feudtner about these issues, we returned repeatedly to the concept that Donald Rumsfeld captured so well with his framing of situational uncertainty: the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. “This isn’t a you-take-it-once-and-then-you’re-done drug,” Feudtner said. “This is a new lifestyle, a new maintenance. We have to look down the road a bit with our patients to help them think through some of the future consequences.”

Patients, understandably, may have little time for a lecture on all that we don’t know about these drugs. Obesity itself comes with so many burdens—health-related, psychological, and social—that deciding, after a lifetime of struggle, to take these drugs in spite of potential harms can always seem a reasonable choice. History tells us, though, that physicians and their patients should be wary as they try to balance known benefits against a future, however distant, of unknown risk.

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Trump’s Presidential-Immunity Theory Is a Threat to the Chain of Command

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Next Thursday, former President Donald Trump’s lawyers will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that he is immune to all criminal charges against him arising from acts he committed while president. It is no exaggeration to say that this argument—that a president is permanently immune to criminal prosecution for any crimes committed in his official capacity—is the most dangerous assertion any official or former official has ever made in a U.S. courtroom.

Should this argument be adopted by the Court, a president would have license to make use of the U.S. military to subvert democracy in multiple ways, for example by endeavoring to remain in power past the end of his legitimate term, or attempting to avoid accountability for his past criminal activities, and the country would have little to no recourse. A less appreciated danger, but one that would present itself with greater regularity, is the weakening of the military chain of command, and with it civilian control of the U.S. armed forces. As we, along with 13 other national-security professionals, including high-ranking retired military officers, argue in an amicus brief we filed in this case , holding everyone in the chain of command to the same principles of accountability under the criminal laws of the United States is essential for ensuring the legality of military orders, and for providing all levels of the chain of command with reassurance of that legality. This includes the president.

[David A. Graham: Trump loses his presidential immunity claim ]

Some people may take comfort in the fact that officers and ordinary enlisted alike swear an oath to abide by the Constitution, and furthermore that the duty to follow orders extends only as far as the lawfulness of the orders received. This means that everyone in the chain of command who receives a patently unlawful order has a duty to disobey. Consistent with this principle,  “following orders” is no defense to a charge of illegality when the recipient of the order knows or has reason to know that the order was illegal. The infamous “Nuremberg defense” asserted by Nazi military officers in war-crimes trials after World War II was rightly rejected by that tribunal.

But in practice, a presidential order has strong gravitational pull. Under normal circumstances, then, when the commander in chief issues an order, there is a presumption of its legality. Wouldn’t a president’s advisers stop him from issuing an illegal order for his own good, if not for the good of the country? If the president is immune to criminal prosecution, however, his lawyers may not be quite so concerned about the order’s legality, and his subordinates will be left to determine for themselves whether following the order places them in legal jeopardy. This may erode confidence in the chain of command and would create the potential for disparate interpretations of the duty to obey orders, thereby risking military discipline and regular functioning. In this way, immunity for criminal acts committed in the president’s official capacity would undermine military obedience to civil authority, the foundation of our civil-military relations since the inception of the republic.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of a putative order to commit war crimes. Imagine a president who orders U.S. troops to engage in a massacre such as the one that famously occurred in My Lai, Vietnam, in 1968. In such a situation, every service member must assess for themselves the legality of an order and thus the weight to accord the general duty to obey orders. Where the order is patently illegal, as was the case with My Lai, no service member could carry out such a command without risking major sanctions following trial by court-martial, as is made clear by the U.S. Manual for Courts-Martial . In less dramatic cases, the order’s legal status may be unclear, and then failure to obey a lawful order may incur criminal charges and proceedings triable by court-martial, unless the recipient of the order has a high degree of knowledge that the order is illegal. If he merely thinks the order is illegal but the order is in fact legal, he is virtually certain to be convicted for refusal to obey.    

Against this backdrop, presidential immunity for criminal use of commander-in-chief authority is untenable. Although the duty of obedience on the part of subordinates does not extend to patently illegal orders, an order issued by the president himself would exert considerable pressure on service members. If everyone in the chain of command except the president can be prosecuted both for failure to obey a legal order and for obeying an illegal order, and if presidential orders cannot be presumed to be legal, military service would be fraught with peril. Placing the men and women who put their lives at risk to protect the Constitution—as every service member swears to do—in such moral and legal jeopardy would be both dangerous and profoundly unfair to our troops.

President Trump gives no answer to such concerns in the brief his attorneys filed in this case, preferring to focus on the risk of unfair prosecution of presidents by political rivals. He cites numerous instances, from allegations of corruption against John Quincy Adams to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II to Barack Obama’s targeted killing of Americans overseas . “In each such case,” Trump’s lawyers argue, “those opponents later came to power with ample incentive to charge him. But no former President was ever prosecuted for official acts—until 2023.” But, as our brief maintains, there is a distinction between political rhetoric based on morally or politically controversial acts and actual, prosecutable offenses. From the fact that prosecutors and their associated grand juries may have difficult decisions to make, it hardly follows that there are no actual cases of presidential crime or that prosecution in such cases would necessarily be politically motivated. But the downstream effects of a total lack of accountability for all presidential crime, whether in war or elsewhere, cannot be tolerated.

The Supreme Court should unequivocally reject Trump’s proposed doctrine of presidential immunity and leave no doubt in the minds of Donald Trump, the public, and all occupants of the Oval Office that the president will be held to the four corners of the law in both his personal and official capacities. And this is because the president, like all U.S. officials as well as ordinary citizens, is not above the law.

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Ken Will Never Die

Before Ryan Gosling played Ken in Barbie, he had a varied career. He was the romantic heart of The Notebook, the moody center of Drive, the slapstick king of The Nice Guys. But now it seems like he might always live in the shadow of a tanned, bleach-blond doll whose job is “beach.”

See, for example, Gosling’s Saturday Night Live monologue, in which he proudly announced that he was there to promote his new movie, The Fall Guy, and explained that he and Ken have broken up. Except he then launched into a Ken-themed rendition of Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well,” for which he donned his character’s signature fur coat. “Oh, that sweet definition of my washboard abs, singing Indigo Girls in the car with Babs,” he sang. “If I said that I was doing fine then you know I’d be lyin’, because I was just Ken and now I’m just Ryan.”

Eventually his Fall Guy co-star, Emily Blunt, arrived to guide him back on track but instead got sucked into the song too, crooning about playing an alcoholic wife in the Academy Award–winning Oppenheimer. But despite the fact that Oppenheimer was the bigger critical success, nabbing that Best Picture Oscar, the two versions of the Swift parody weren’t in alignment. Blunt’s career will likely not be defined by her work as Kitty Oppenheimer; Ken might be the first line in Gosling’s obituary.

His work as Ken was one of those performances that has the power to glom onto an actor for the rest of his life. This isn’t to say that Gosling wasn’t great before Barbie or that he won’t be great again. In fact, he’s an absolute delight in The Fall Guy, playing a stuntman roped into a mission to locate a missing movie star, with both physical prowess and hilarious exhaustion. (Meanwhile, I’m now itching for Gosling to return to his moody, indie days and give us another Blue Valentine or something similar.)

[Read: Barbie is everything. Ken is everything else. ]

Still, Gosling may be now more Ken than Margot Robbie is Barbie. There appears to be a collective desire to see him embody that empty-brained machismo again and again. The fervor inspired by his Oscars performance of “I’m Just Ken” was proof of that, as was this SNL monologue, which ended with him attempting to blow out a Ken candle only for the flame to remain ignited. “Because Ken will never die!” Gosling exclaimed.

After the monologue, however, the SNL writers set the Ken jokes aside, offering Gosling plenty of opportunities to serve up his natural charm. Gosling isn’t the kind of transformative SNL host who disappears into different characters like his La La Land co-star Emma Stone, for instance, but he is a game one, and the pleasure of watching him is how delighted he seems to be in every sketch.

In one, he played a recently engaged man who started to confess his doubts to his new pal (played by Andrew Dismukes) every time his fiancée (Chloe Fineman) left the room. But Gosling slipped. After he threw a wine glass in anger he amusedly stifled a laugh, and his case of the giggles infected much of the cast for the rest of the episode. Heidi Gardner fully broke while trying to perform as a NewsNation host asking questions about AI; her town hall was interrupted by Gosling and Mikey Day dressed exactly like Beavis and Butt-Head. Bowen Yang suppressed laughter playing a dramatic doctor who was joined by his “associate,” portrayed by Gosling with long blond hair, asymmetrical bangs, and scrubs covered in blood.

The effusive joy that Gosling brought to everyone else on SNL served as a good metaphor for why Ken is such a towering creation. Gosling played him with committed seriousness, embracing his plights, but also made it impossible not to smile when he was on-screen—or even at the mere memory of him breaking into a plaintive ballad about his insecurity or discovering that the patriarchy is not just about horses. So yes, though Gosling will leave Ken behind as he pursues new roles, Ken will never die. But we’re okay with that, and it looks like Gosling is too.

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Prestige TV’s New Wave of Difficult Men

The horror of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, to me, isn’t that he’s a killer, or an aspirant, or even a literary version of the parasitic wasp that nests gruesomely inside the zombified form of its prey. Rather, it’s that he’s that most familiar of contemporary monsters: an incurable narcissist. At the beginning of the 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley , as Ripley is moldering in poverty in New York and scraping together a living via petty mail scams, he’s sustained by an illogical faith in his own superiority. The “crummy bums” he socializes with aren’t really his friends; the grime in his borrowed tenement apartment is not his dirt. Ripley is pathetic, but we can’t escape him as readers, mired as the novel is in his interiority. We suffer the physical pain he feels when he’s forced to have conversations not focused on himself. We’re steeped in the envy, the self-pity, and the crippling status anxiety that drive him to murder. (It’s not all dark—at one point Ripley feels so pathetically validated when someone sends him a fruit basket that he breaks into sobs.)

Are we supposed to like Tom Ripley? I don’t think so. Nor are we supposed to hate him, nor even find him particularly evil. “Ripley isn’t so bad,” Highsmith once reportedly observed, for her part. “He only kills when he has to.” He’s a pragmatic villain more than a psychopath, although the consequence is that he’s rarely all that surprising. Anthony Minghella’s 1999 movie adaptation of the novel tried determinedly to humanize him, casting Matt Damon as an insecure sad sack who’s driven to a crime of desperate passion when he’s sent to Europe to bring home—and is promptly humiliated by—Jude Law’s wealthy, callous Dickie Greenleaf. The film’s visual splendor, with its bluest blue skies and sun-dappled Neapolitan coast, offered relief from Ripley’s claustrophobic mind and relentless grudgery; it also placed him in the long lineage of sympathetic American strivers who go just a tiny bit too far.

Ripley, a new eight-part adaptation on Netflix by the writer and director Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, The Night Of) is resolutely different, almost to the point of inversion. Shot in striking black and white—it’s the most beautiful series I’ve ever seen on the platform—it is emotionally spare, deliberate in its pacing, and morbidly funny. This Ripley, played with a malevolent flourish by Andrew Scott (Sherlock, All Of Us Strangers), is a void, an emptiness where the soul should be. The show’s lack of color turns it into a chiaroscuro meditation on light and dark, as Zaillian cuts moodily from Caravaggios to gargoyles to endless shots of staircases. What a piece of work is man! the series seems to sigh, encouraging us to mull the depths of human depravity, and the possibility art offers for ascension.

You could be forgiven, watching television lately, for wondering whether we’re in a new mini-era of Difficult Men, after a stretch defined by complicated female characters . Sullen, brooding heroes and antiheroes have returned to the small screen, paying homage to European New Wave and Old Hollywood alike. On Apple TV+’s Sugar, a different show with a vexing protagonist that leans heavily on dreamy cinematography and the innate brutality of life, a private detective played by Colin Farrell searches for a missing girl while clips of film-noir classics flash erratically through his head. Late last year, the most fun I had watching television was with Reacher , Amazon’s kinetic adaptation of the Lee Child potboiler series, starring Alan Ritchson as the phlegmatic, solicitous, intensely violent giant.

In his 2013 book, Difficult Men , a history of television’s second Golden Age and the troublesome characters who embodied it, the writer Brett Martin argues that “the most important shows of [that] era were … largely about manhood—in particular the contours of male power and the infinite varieties of male combat.” The current state of masculinity on TV, by contrast, is one of alienation. These shows are steeped in nostalgia and pay homage to bygone eras but offer up heroes who feel resolutely other, isolated and disconnected and driven to acts of baroque violence that they don’t want to inflict and can’t enjoy.

The decision to shoot Ripley in black and white works on multiple levels: It evokes the heft and visual symbolism of classic film while keeping pleasure manifestly at bay. We are in Ripley’s world, and something is missing. The lush florals and endless summer of Minghella’s film offered consolation for what the hero himself lacked, but Zaillian wants us to experience life the way Ripley does, as something cold and sharp. When he’s tasked in the first episode by the wealthy American shipbuilder Herbert Greenleaf to bring home his feckless son, who’s gallivanting off the proceeds of a trust fund, I half expected the show to bloom into color once Ripley landed in Europe, as if to signify the opening up of his gloomy world. Instead, things stay monochrome. His travels, his new friends and experiences, will not bring him any relief.

Ripley could be grimly ponderous—each episode runs close to an hour, and one is spent in intensely close quarters with the hero as he labors to get rid of a dead body. Strangely though, it’s not. There’s so much to look at on-screen, so much that draws the viewer’s eye, that the series is intensely absorbing, and the rhythm of the later episodes, whose dialogue is largely in Italian, feels almost musical. Ripley’s sense of humor is also a surprise. Dickie (played by Johnny Flynn) is a nonentity whose paintings are so bad that they bring to mind the botched “Monkey Christ ”; Marge (Dakota Fanning), his American “friend”—sexuality is as ambiguous here as in Highsmith’s novel—is prim and self-serious, toiling diligently away at writing a very dull book. These are Bad Art Friends, which gives Ripley, a natural if untrained aesthete, the moral high ground. His murderous dedication to self-improvement isn’t wholly original (Constance Grady has labeled the genre he belongs to “striver gothic ”), but he does, like Hannibal Lecter, appreciate beauty infinitely more than capital.

[Read: 20 undersung crime shows to binge-watch ]

This latest Ripley has been interpreted as an antihero for the current moment, a scammer and confidence trickster who, in the present day, would surely have a gallery under investigation by the IRS and a hugely popular Instagram. (The 2023 movie Saltburn , which followed a working-class student drawn into the circle of an aristocratic friend, borrowed heavily from Highsmith, heaping on homoerotic melodrama, bodily taboos, and Millennial kitsch.) But Scott plays Ripley in a way that feels chilly to the touch—his grand ambitions and desires, if he has them, are hard to determine. When he first gets to Italy, we see him sweating and huffing his way up ancient cliffside stairs, recognizably vulnerable, without a grasp of the language or a clue how to behave. As the series progresses, though, he hardens like a flint. Scott’s eyes betray no emotion beyond boredom or malice: The more comfortable his Ripley gets, the more sinister he feels—and the more operatic as a character.

The performance doesn’t quite match the nuance of the show. On Sugar, it’s the other way around: Farrell is giving us something so poignantly human that it transcends the heightened, sometimes absurd plot points he has to navigate. The series, created by Mark Protosevich (I Am Legend, Thor), has been billed as “genre-bending,” spanning film noir, sci-fi, and Westerns, with some global gangster intrigue thrown into the mix. What it really is, though, is a surprisingly good crime drama with an awful lot of unnecessary adornment. John Sugar (Farrell) is an oddball private detective working for a clandestine agency; he abhors violence but is very good at deploying it, is an ardent cinephile, and cares deeply about vulnerable people and dogs. Watching it, I’d heard a twist was coming, which still didn’t quite prepare me for how erratically the show upends itself. It’s obvious that Sugar isn’t what he seems, and he appears to have based his personality whole cloth on gruff cinematic legends and Raymond Chandler novels. And yet he’s manifestly good—too good for this seedy realm.

In the first episode, Sugar is commissioned to find a missing girl, the granddaughter of a storied Hollywood film director, Jonathan Siegel (James Cromwell), and the former stepdaughter of a rock star, Melanie Mackintosh (Amy Ryan). The series uses a fair amount of voice-over, requiring Farrell to spout clichés as pat as “Sometimes a thing is just a thing that happened,” and “We all have our secrets. Even me. Especially me.” Sugar’s car (a vintage Corvette), his suits (“Savile Row”), and the specific affliction he has of seeing life crosscut with scenes from Humphrey Bogart films all suggest he’s nostalgic grist for Apple’s key dad demographic . So why couldn’t I stop watching?

Maybe because the performances are extremely good—Farrell, yes, and Ryan’s softening punk edges, as well as Eric Lange playing a terrifyingly charismatic criminal and Anna Gunn as a scheming mother. Sugar also looks extraordinary, casting Los Angeles in shades of coral and green without sanitizing its seamier side. The episodes, running about half an hour each, are tightly plotted, and the central mystery is an enticing one. (Not the one about Sugar himself, which will be better the less I acknowledge it.) Really, though, the detective himself is a lovely puzzle, more interesting for what he doesn’t say than for what his labored interior monologue spells out. What is a man? How can Sugar try to retain his humanity and integrity in a landscape of abjection? And the most difficult question of all: Are the stories we love the most actually serving us? This, to me, is what makes John Sugar so compelling: He loves the movies, and the lessons of light and dark that they impart. He’s just not always sure that he can trust them.

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‘Nostalgia for a Dating Experience They’ve Never Had’

Say you’re in a bar. You see someone across the room who looks appealing. But do they think the same of you? You don’t want to stare for too long, so you turn back to your drink. No worries—the electronic tentacles attached to your shoulders give a wiggle, indicating that the hottie, mercifully, has glanced your way.

That’s the premise of a device called “Ripple ,” named, I guess, for the undulating sensation triggered by a stranger’s horny gaze. Equipped with two cameras, it connects computer-vision technology with sensors to detect when someone is looking at you. (Unfortunately, it can’t really distinguish between the eyes of an admirer and someone noticing you because you’re wearing tentacles out to the bar.) Ripple’s creators pitched it as a way to help people meet in person—the old-fashioned way, with, um, one minor difference.

It was developed in 2017—five years after Tinder and Hinge launched, when people were getting nervous about the effects of dating apps. They’d created a society-wide experiment: “What if we stopped dating people we meet in our regular lives and started building some other system, where major corporations use algorithms to figure out how we meet?” Eli Finkel, who studies romantic relationships at Northwestern University, told me. What would it mean for technology to mediate romantic connection? Would it make us all irreparably incapable of courting on our own?

[Read: The rise of dating-app fatigue ]

Ripple never got big, but it was only the most memeworthy in a long line of similar offerings made for people both sick of and dependent on dating apps. There’s the “pear ring ,” designed to be worn by mingling singles to signal their eligibility. Or speed-dating events, an old concept that’s become newly popular . Some dating apps are, paradoxically, designed to combat your dating-app fatigue . Take Thursday, which unlocks swiping for one day a week—and then holds a real-life soiree for people to meet. Or Strike, which notifies you when someone you’ve matched with is nearby. Or Happn, which shows you users you’ve physically crossed paths with, and promises to “use technology to improve real life, not to replace it.”

If “real life” means finding love face-to-face, rather than through a screen, you can’t blame people for wanting to return to it—especially considering how many shows and movies involve soulmates connecting via fluke run-ins , reaching for the same pair of gloves or physically running into each other on the sidewalk. More than a decade after the dawn of dating apps, we’re seeing the emergence of a strain of meet-cute nostalgia. Perhaps more than ever, singles today idealize romance that doesn’t involve the internet—the kind that’s physical and visceral, and that finds you.

But people aren’t so used to waiting around for love to find them anymore, and they seem less willing to risk rejection by putting themselves out there in person. And anyway, the utopia of serendipitous encounters only exists in our imagination. Meet-cutes won’t fix modern dating.

For much of human history, single people couldn’t usually just decide to go on a date. Before the Industrial Revolution, your family or another trusted community member would likely set you up with the person you’d marry. Later, people commonly met through their social circles or at places of worship, school, or eventually work; you could try to be flirty and open to connection, or put yourself in situations to meet new people, but you could only control so much. You were under the heel of fate.    

Dating apps radically upended that powerlessness. They created a practical kind of agency—the ability to “go out and make it happen,” Paul Eastwick, a UC Davis psychologist, told me. They also created another issue entirely: the burnout that comes from sorting through a deluge of options, many of them far from ideal. Still, that’s arguably preferable to having no options at all—which could happen pretty quickly if you’d exhausted your pool of friends-of-friends (and you weren’t going around spilling orange juice on charming strangers). “Yes, it’s a bummer, even today, to not have found somebody after working at it,” Finkel said. “But it’s certainly nice to know that those 100 dates were available, even though they weren’t great.” And online dating has led to a ton of successful relationships. In fact, it’s the most common way that American couples now meet. The people complaining about apps, Finkel said, “don’t know what it was like to be single in 1980.”

That’s just it—many of them literally don’t. Plenty of young people dating today have never done so offline. They’re used to having the agency that was so novel when apps first emerged. Now some of them, tired of the responsibility that comes with being in the driver’s seat, want to let go of the wheel. What they covet is just the opposite of pragmatic efficiency: serendipity.

[Read: America is sick of swiping ]

Media outlets have proclaimed for a while now that young people are turning away from online dating —but it’s unclear to what degree that’s actually happening. One commonly cited study found that 79 percent of college students don’t use dating apps regularly. That makes sense, though: College students are meeting people on campus. Whether or not the apps are dying, they’re not dead yet—and definitely not for young people. In 2023, 60 percent of Tinder’s 75 million monthly active users were younger than 35.

But that doesn’t mean they’re enjoying it. In one 2022 survey , nearly 80 percent of 18-to-54-year-old respondents reported feeling emotional burnout or fatigue when online dating. Liesel Sharabi, a communications professor at Arizona State University, has found that meeting on an app still carries some stigma, despite how common it is. “I think people like the idea of having that love story to tell,” she told me. Perhaps young daters especially. They seem to be romantics: A 2024 Hinge report found that Gen Z participants were 30 percent more likely than Millenials to believe each person has one soulmate and 39 percent more likely to consider themselves romantically idealistic. For them, Sharabi told me, the old meet-cute ideal is particularly intriguing: “It’s almost like nostalgia for a dating experience that they’ve never had.”

It might also be harder for them to get that experience if they want it. Young Americans are hanging out less on average, so they have fewer opportunities to chat someone up in a social setting. And less practice might mean doing so feels more intimidating. Sharabi recalled one Gen Z research participant saying they probably would never approach someone intriguing at a party; instead, they told her, “I might see if they’re online.” Of course, if you slide into someone’s DMs or find them on an app, you could still get snubbed. But a nonresponse is harder to interpret than a verbal “no thank you” in a way that can be comforting: Perhaps the other person didn’t see the message, or they got too busy to respond. Even a clear no stings less through the distance afforded by a screen. The Hinge survey found that Gen Z daters fear rejection “most acutely”: More than half of them said that concern has kept them from pursuing a possible relationship, and they’re 10 percent more likely than Millennial respondents to say they’ve missed out on a romantic opportunity because of it.

That helps explain the meet-cute-nostalgia industry offering to make in-person encounters easier. Yet most of those efforts, frankly, are flops—ineffective, impractical, even bizarre ways to force romance to unfold in a manner that isn’t natural to modern courtship. Happn, designed for finding “your crush in the places you love,” presented me with a bevy of people who lived around me—which is pretty much what every other dating app does. It kept proclaiming that a user “lives in New York City too,” as if that was a profound, romantic coincidence. The app Strike hypothetically lets you buy a “wearable” (a little rectangular device that fits in your pocket) to notify you when a match is nearby—in real time, so you can actually approach them—but I couldn’t set up an account, nor could I reach anyone at the company to help me. The major online-dating companies are trying to join the trend too; Hinge is offering tens of thousands of dollars in grants to any organization that can help “Gen Z find belonging and community in person,” and Bumble is hosting “IRL” dating events . But when I searched for one in New York—the Big Apple!—I was told, “No results match your search.” I would have tried speed-dating, but I couldn’t swallow paying $30 just to sit through two hours of awkward conversations. (I would, however, be willing to bet $30 that I’ll never see anyone wearing a pear ring.)

On TikTok, real-life-chat gurus promise lessons like teaching “the most natural, non-awkward way to approach that cute stranger .” (The channel “How to Talk to Strangers ” had 61.6 million views at the time of my writing this.) Common advice is to ask for directions, make eye contact , give a compliment , or pose a specific question —like what someone’s favorite nearby coffee shop is. But it seemed to me that this might have a higher success rate for a notably hot person than for most everyone else. “It literally doesn’t matter what you look like” as long as you’re confident, one TikToker proclaimed before adding, “I mean, obviously you have to look, like, somewhat pretty.” Eastwick also pointed out that this brand of how-to romantic instruction is “tailored to pick up certain kinds of people attending certain kinds of establishments at a particular period of time.” It might have worked for someone else, but that doesn’t mean it’ll work for you.

People aren’t wrong to crave in-person connection. The shortcomings of dating apps have been, at this point, well covered: They can encourage shallowness, for one thing. They’re rife with harassment, for another. And they often set you up with people whom you share no context with beyond geographical proximity. Sharabi has found that on average, relationships that start on dating apps are slightly less stable than those that begin in person, and partners are slightly less satisfied. Her explanation: “You’re meeting people who you have no prior connection with. That can have long-term effects when you try to integrate them into your network.” That is to say, you’re dating strangers.

The solution to those problems is probably not finding strangers to date in person rather than online. Doing so would still mean going for someone who remains mostly mysterious except for their appearance, and you still might not share anything beyond proximity. Besides, random meet-cutes were never the “natural” way to find a partner, or even the most common way. Before apps, most couples met through friends or family. When Eastwick hears that people feel guilty for not wanting to chat someone up in public, he tells them: “That’s okay. That’s a skill that you can learn if you want, but it’s really not central to the way that we meet each other.” On the phone with me, he laughed about the idea of, say, striking up conversation with a lone bombshell at the end of the bar. “Is this bar in an airport? Like, where is this happening? This is very odd to me.”

[Read: The golden age of dating doesn’t exist ]

Now the airport-bar kind of encounter is probably even less likely to happen than in the past—not just because dating apps have made people unaccustomed to taking romantic risks, but also because they’ve (fortunately) let us prioritize consent, at least in the realm of early propositions. Society has largely become more attuned to the discomfort that unwanted advances can cause, Finkel told me. The notion of a loose, spontaneous culture of in-person flirting sounds nice—except that it would entail some interactions you never wanted.

Of course, it is possible to approach a stranger of interest respectfully. Several dating coaches told me they work with clients who are hungry for real-life romance to teach them how to do so. Jayda Shuavarnnasri, a sex and relationship educator, suggests that people always give the other person an out—for instance: “If you want to sit in silence to eat your meal, please let me know.” It’s tricky, though, because some people will have a harder time landing all of this smoothly, not necessarily because they’re pushier but because they struggle more with social cues. “Is it okay with us if a guy who’s kind of on the autism spectrum” gets called out for hitting on someone, Finkel asked me, “but people who are Brad Pitt don’t get sanctioned for the same behavior?”

None of this means that you should never talk to strangers. It just means that doing so is a delicate way to find love, and it’s certainly not the only way that can lead to something genuine. We shouldn’t put it on a pedestal—especially if we’re not ready to accept what it would really mean for society to embrace it. If you do want to seek connection with the people you see out and about, Shuavarnnasri advised taking some pressure off by not expecting the interaction to be necessarily romantic. Maybe you’ll have a pleasant conversation and then never see each other again. But you’ll still have opened yourself up to a bit of playful uncertainty—the kind that comes when you have no agenda and no idea how things might play out.

Meet-cute nostalgia raises the question of how much ambiguity we can tolerate—whether a serendipitous spark with a stranger is worth the potential for awkwardness and misinterpretation, or whether boundaries and clarity are worth some lost opportunities for connection. “Do we want a society where there’s an excess number of people being hit on and having to say no … or do we want a society where there’s an excess amount of people not initiating relationships that would have been desirable?” Finkel asked. We can’t have it both ways—not perfectly.

Either way, mystery and doubt will always be part of romance. You could follow a TikToker’s advice to a T, march proudly into a café, and ask the person next to you about their oatmeal—just to get a short response and a turn away. You could also get ghosted by someone whose app profile says they’re looking for a life partner. In love, however you meet, you’re always risking something—and even a set of fancy flirting tentacles can’t change that.

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The Myth of the Mobile Millionaire

In 2010, as California was moving forward with plans to raise taxes sharply on million-dollar earners, opponents issued dire warnings that the hike would drive away entrepreneurs and cripple the state economy. “There’s nothing more portable than a millionaire and his money,” warned the ranking Republican on the state Senate’s budget committee. The tax hike passed anyway—and California’s share of the nation’s million-dollar earners actually grew, reaching 18 percent in 2021. (Californians make up just less than 12 percent of the overall population.) And yet, when California recently considered a proposal to impose a wealth tax on mega-rich households, even some Democrats echoed the same old worry.

The idea of millionaire flight is one of America’s most persistent beliefs. Expert consensus holds that “redistributive policies should be undertaken by the most central level of government rather than state or local governments,” as one academic summary puts it. In other words, rich people can’t avoid high federal taxes, short of leaving the country, whereas if a state tries to impose a progressive tax code, its millionaires will decamp for lower-tax jurisdictions. And, indeed, state tax codes, which bring in about one-third of U.S. tax revenue, largely reflect this received wisdom. Unlike the federal system, which is fairly progressive, state and local tax systems on average shift money from poorer households to richer ones. According to a recent report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, “forty-four states’ tax systems exacerbate income inequality,” with the poorest 20 percent of households paying the highest effective tax rates.  

Things don’t have to be this way. The notion that rich taxpayers will flee if the state comes for their money is mostly fiction. The most obvious clue comes from the existence of the small number of states, including California, New Jersey, Minnesota, and New York, that buck the overall trend by taxing rich people at higher rates . If the conventional wisdom were accurate, you would expect those states to be devoid of wealthy people. Instead, they are among the richest in the country.

[Annie Lowrey: If you soak the rich, will they leave? ]

A number of international studies from the past decade further undermine the idea of millionaire flight. In 2011, for example, Spain reintroduced its wealth tax. Crucially, the exact rate varied from place to place within Spain. In Madrid, the rate was zero percent, whereas in other places, it exceeded 3 percent—equivalent, under certain assumptions, to an income tax of more than 60 percent. Skeptics suggested that the measure would cause so much capital flight that it would actually cost the government money. Yet very few households moved to Madrid —hardly an undesirable destination!—in response to the tax, and the government raised $19 in new revenue for every dollar lost to relocations. A study of the Swiss wealth tax, which varies among cantons, found broadly similar results, as did studies of Scandinavian wealth taxes.

In this regard, Europe and America don’t appear to be too different. An analysis of confidential IRS data on earnings and relocations reported that “millionaires are not very mobile and actually have lower migration rates than the general population.” Researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that, much as in Spain, relocations sapped only about a nickel out of each new dollar in revenues from the 2010 California tax increase.

It makes sense, when you stop to think about it. Wealthy people tend to be more deeply embedded in their community and local institutions than the average person. And when it comes to the ultra-wealthy, we really aren’t talking about people who can do their job over Zoom. Whether it’s a public-company CEO, a private-equity manager, or the owner of the local car dealership, top-level managers and entrepreneurs are usually closely tied to their headquarters and the site of their business’s operations.

Even so, designing an effective, progressive state tax system isn’t as simple as just raising rates on top earners. Wealthy families, especially those whose money comes from investments rather than from a salary, have many ways to slash their tax bill without physically relocating. In a recent paper , David Gamage, Darien Shanske, and I explore the various “money moves” that wealthy households in the U.S. use to delay income until retirement (or death), when they are no longer tied to their business and can redirect their income to a low-tax jurisdiction such as Florida.

The simplest example is what we could call “the Musk.” Build your billion-dollar business in California but never sell any of the stock. If you find yourself in need of funds—say, to buy and destroy a social-media company—you can always borrow against the value of the unsold shares. Don’t sell until you’re somewhere with a lower rate.

What makes the Musk work is what tax wonks call the “realization” rule: the principle that we tax property only when it’s sold. This is supposed to make it easier to know how much the property is worth and to ensure that the taxpayer has cash on hand to pay the bill. For related reasons, the U.S. system has traditionally not treated borrowed funds as taxable income. Combining these two policies gives taxpayers a powerful option: the right to choose not just when but also where to pay taxes.

[Read: The golden age of rich people not paying their taxes ]

The federal tax base is mostly safe from these kinds of moves. The United States taxes its citizens’ income no matter where they live. A person who gives up their citizenship is taxed immediately on all of their property, as if they had sold it on the date of their expatriation. This kind of “exit tax” would probably be unconstitutional at the state level, however. Somewhat counterintuitively, then, states’ best answer to money moves is to impose a wealth tax on the extremely wealthy. A well-designed wealth tax could reach any asset a taxpayer owns, whether it’s stowed in an out-of-state pension account or held in a foreign corporation. Another approach would be to modify the realization rule for the wealthiest state taxpayers and to track changes in the value of their property annually; tax mavens call this “mark to market” taxation.

But what if millionaires really do start uprooting their life once the money-move loopholes get closed? As we’ve seen, a wealth tax didn’t cause mass migration in Spain. And Norway’s crackdown on wealth-tax avoidance didn’t lead to any big changes in mobility either, despite anecdotal reports of a few billionaires pulling up stakes. To see why that makes sense, consider Elon Musk again. If California had put a mark-to-market tax in place in time, he would have already paid taxes on his Tesla billions and had little to gain from moving to Texas.

Of course, if a state wants to tax annual value or changes in value, it has to figure out how much things are worth. In our academic work , my co-authors and I explain how to pull that off. For example, states can just wait until taxpayers actually sell, then charge interest. That would also help resolve the discomfort some voters seem to have with taxing assets before they’re sold.

Another objection might be that, even if established business owners don’t move, maybe the next generation of entrepreneurs will tend to prefer states where they can be assured that their lifetime tax burden will be low. There’s no current evidence that this is true. But supposing it were, the best response wouldn’t be to keep our current, broken system. A better compromise would be to lower the official top tax rates but close up the loopholes so that everyone is paying what they’re supposed to. That’s a classic of good tax policy: The more income there is subject to taxation, the lower tax rates need to be.

Whatever the precise solution, state fiscal systems badly need to be repaired. We shouldn’t let the myth of millionaire mobility prevent that from happening.

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The Man Who Died for the Liberal Arts

Photo-illustrations by Gabriela Pesqueira

Chugging through Pacific waters in February 1942, the USS Crescent City was ferrying construction equipment and Navy personnel to Pearl Harbor, dispatched there to assist in repairing the severely damaged naval base after the Japanese attack. A young ensign—“real eager to get off that ship and get into action,” in the recollection of an enlisted Navy man who encountered him—sat down and wrote a letter to his younger brother, who one day would be my father.

Philip Alvan Shribman, a recent graduate of Dartmouth and just a month away from his 22nd birthday, was not worldly but understood that he had been thrust into a world conflict that was more than a contest of arms. At stake were the life, customs, and values that he knew. He was a quiet young man, taciturn in the old New England way, but he had much to say in this letter, written from the precipice of battle to a brother on the precipice of adulthood. His scrawl consumed five pages of Navy stationery.

“It’s growing on me with increasing rapidity that you’re about set to go to college,” he wrote to his brother, Dick, then living with my grandparents in Salem, Massachusetts, “and tho I’m one hell of a guy to talk—and tho I hate preaching—let me just write this & we’ll call it quits.”

He acknowledged from the start that “this letter won’t do much good”—a letter that, in the eight decades since it was written, has been read by three generations of my family. In it, Phil Shribman set out the virtues and values of the liberal arts at a time when universities from coast to coast were transitioning into training grounds for America’s armed forces.

“What you’ll learn in college won’t be worth a God-damned,” Phil told Dick. “But you’ll learn a way of life perhaps—a way to get on with people—an appreciation perhaps for just one thing: music, art, a book—all of this is bound to be unconscious learning—it’s part of a liberal education in the broad sense of the term.”

But that wasn’t the end of it, far from it. “If you went to a trade school you’d have one thing you could do & know—& you’d miss the whole world of beauty,” he went on. “In a liberal school you know ‘nothing’—& are ‘fitted for nothing’ when you get out. Yet you’ll have a fortune of broad outlook—of appreciation for people & beauty that money won’t buy—You can always learn to be a mechanic or a pill mixer etc.,” but it’s only when you’re of college age “that you can learn that life has beauty & fineness.” Afterward, it’s all “struggle, war: economic if not actual—Don’t give up the idea & ideals of a liberal school—they’re too precious—too rare—too important.”

Roughly a month after Phil wrote this letter, the Crescent City saw its first action, off Efate, in New Hebrides, and before long the attack transport set off for Guadalcanal and the initial assault landings in August, on an insect-infected island that was destined to be the site of a brutal six-month jungle struggle in unforgiving heat against determined Japanese fighters.

In September 1942, during the Guadalcanal campaign, Phil wrote another letter, this one to his favorite Dartmouth professor, the sociologist George F. Theriault. “I’ve had lots of time to think out here,” he told Theriault, before adding, “A decent liberal arts education based on the Social Sciences is all a lot of us have left—and more and more becomes the only possible background on which to view all this”—the “all this” referring to the war and what it was about. He told Theriault, who was passionate about preserving the place of literature and the social sciences in Dartmouth’s wartime curriculum, that “no greater mistake could be made than to shunt all the fellows off into ‘war courses’ and neglect the fine, decent, really important things we had a chance to come to know.”

A little more than four months later, Phil was dead. He was on a PT boat by then, and on a night in early February, his boat—PT-111—ran into the searchlight of a Japanese destroyer off the northwest tip of Guadalcanal. Phil was gunned down. But before he died, he had made it clear that the conflict that would claim his life was a struggle for the values he’d learned in college—and, just as important, a struggle for the beauty and fineness he had discovered during his undergraduate years.

“And if at the end of college: if there are still people in the world, around, who’d like to deny experiences like it to others,” he told my father, who would join the Navy before his own college years were completed, “why I hope that you—like me—think it’s all worth while to get in & fight for. One always has to protect the valuable in this world before he can enjoy it.”

Philip Alvan Shribman: the man who died for the liberal arts.

I have been preoccupied with Uncle Phil’s life and death for five decades. The advice he gave to my father from the Pacific has provided the buoys of my own life. The values he prized have become my values. His guidance has shaped the passage of my two daughters through life. And his words take on urgency at a time when liberal education and American democracy are under threat.

[From the June 1943 issue: Bring back the liberal arts ]

During these five decades, I have searched for details of his life, sifting through letters and documents in my father’s file cabinet, and seeking out his classmates and shipmates. In the course of all this, I met James MacPherson, a retired New York City transit worker who encountered Phil on Tulagi, a tiny island in the Solomons that served as home to a squadron of PT boats, and who remembered him as “an affectionate guy, like a Henry Fonda or a Gary Cooper.” At a brewpub in Lawrence, Kansas, I bought lunch for Bertha Lou (Logan) Summers, who likely would have become Phil’s wife if they’d had world enough and time.

I spoke with Robert R. Dockson, later the dean of the business school at the University of Southern California, who was Phil’s roommate on the Crescent City and his tentmate on Tulagi. “We were kids then,” he told me, describing how the two of them would sit on the shore and watch sea battles from afar, all the while complaining about the mud that encircled them. “Those were pretty lonely days.” I corresponded with John C. Everett, who went on to run a textile company and who glimpsed his Dartmouth classmate on the beach at Tulagi through his binoculars. Across 100 yards of water, they waved to each other and, by signal lamp, agreed to meet as soon as possible. Within days, Phil was dead.

And in my very first hours on the Dartmouth campus as a freshman myself—this was 52 years ago—I knocked on the door of GeorgeF. Theriault. It was answered by a lanky man with long gray hair and an emphysemic cough.

“Professor Theriault,” I said. “My name is David Shribman.” He seemed astonished, for how could his former student, who had died 29 years earlier, have a child, the freshman at his door? “No, you could not be.”

He’d had no idea that Phil’s brother had a son. Now the son was standing in the very building, Silsby Hall, where Phil, as an undergraduate, would have taken courses. And so began a remarkable friendship, student and professor, conducted over lunches and dinners, on campus and off, and occasionally at his home, presided over by his wife, Ray Grant Theriault, who told me that one day, on a ski expedition, a student named Phil Shribman, unaware that the woman in the fetching ski outfit was his professor’s wife, had asked her out on a date.

That freshman year, I typed out some of the words from Phil’s letters, fastened them to a piece of cardboard with a squirt of Elmer’s glue, and placed the primitive commemorative plaque on the bulletin board of my room. I kept it in sight until the day I graduated, and I have held on to it ever since.

Phil’s father—my grandfather Max Shribman—was a gentle Russian immigrant in Salem, where the family had washed ashore in 1896. He made a modest, small-city success for himself in real estate and insurance, comfortable enough to purchase the 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics that today sit on my bookshelves. To his sons he passed on his reverence—a pure, innocent love—for the idea of college, for the discipline and the leisure that campus life offers, for the chance to take a quiet breath of fresh air before joining life’s struggles.

In the dozen years I knew my grandfather, I heard him talk of the past only a few times, and each of those reminiscences was about the old days, when his two boys were in college. He loved those years, and I came to love what they meant to him.

collaged photo-illustration of color photo of a PT boat speeding through water with island and blue sky behind; black-and-white group photo of island residents with young man in military uniform; sepia-toned illustration of college buildings
Foreground: A PT boat in the North Pacific. Inset: Phil (center) among Solomon Islanders, shortly before his death. Background: Dartmouth College. (Photo-illustration by Gabriela Pesqueira. Sources: Courtesy of David Shribman; PhotoQuest / Getty; Library of Congress / Getty.)

The three Dartmouth alumni who interviewed Phil in the winter of 1937 told the admissions office that he was “a good, all around boy, bright, alert and a pleasant personality.” His formal college application was a simple affair. He said he thought about becoming a chemist or a doctor and was interested in current affairs and scientific matters. The form contained this sentence, in his own handwriting: “I am of Hebrew descent.”

The college where he matriculated in the fall of 1937 had no foreign-study programs , no battery of psychologists, no course-evaluation forms—just classrooms with chairs bolted to the floor and, in winter, duckboards fastened to the steps of classroom buildings to fend off the snow and ice. The freshman class had 680 students , a little more than half the current size. Freshmen wore beanies . The year Phil arrived, the football team finished the season with an unbeaten record and was invited to play in the Rose Bowl—but declined the offer because, as President Ernest Martin Hopkins would explain, “if one held to the fundamental philosophy of college men incidentally playing football as against football players incidentally going to college, most of the evils of intercollegiate competition would be avoided.” This was a long time ago.

The theme of the convocation address that Hopkins delivered at the beginning of Phil’s freshman year dealt with the aims of a liberal-arts education; he spoke of “what a liberal college is, what its objectives are, what its ideals are, why its procedures exist.” That day, sitting with his new classmates in Webster Hall, Phil heard Hopkins say that the purpose of a liberal-arts education was not to make someone a better banker or lawyer but rather to foster a “mental enlargement which shall enable you to be a bigger man, wherever the path of life leads you.”

Phil’s own liberal-arts education was demanding, and broad. He took courses in English, French, philosophy, astronomy, economics, psychology, music, and sociology (which eventually became his major). His grades were varied: C’s in freshman English, lots of A’s in sociology, on one occasion a D in French.

He was a member of Pi Lambda Phi, the first fraternity at Dartmouth to accept Jewish students. He was in the debate club. He went to football games, joining the annual migration to the Dartmouth-Harvard contest, which in those days was always played in Boston. He was one of the Dartmouth boys who in October 1940 toppled the wooden goalposts after Earl “Red” Blaik’s last Dartmouth team prevailed against Harvard, 7–6. (Blaik would decamp to West Point the next year, a sign of impending war.) The shard of wood Phil snared after the final whistle now is nailed on my wall, just feet from where I am writing this.

The young man who on his application said he was “of Hebrew descent” took as his honors thesis topic “American anti-Semitism.” The thesis was submitted in January 1941, as the Nazi regime pursued the wholesale destruction of Jewish communities and refined the techniques of murdering Europe’s Jews. Later that year, the aviator Charles Lindbergh would deliver his infamous anti-Semitic speech in Des Moines, Iowa.

The United States issued a draft-registration order in September 1940, only days before classes commenced in Phil’s senior year; a month earlier, Phil had enlisted as an apprentice seaman in the Naval Reserve. President Hopkins had assured the Army and Navy that Dartmouth would be responsive to any needs the two services expressed. In the spring of 1941, a student wrote an open letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (“Now we have waited long enough …”) that was published on the front page of the campus newspaper. It was read into the Congressional Record. The United States wasn’t yet at war, but the campus almost was.

Dartmouth’s Class Day, which takes place in a sylvan amphitheater just before commencement, ordinarily is a joyous occasion. Class Day 1941 was unlike any before or since. Charles B. McLane—the captain of the ski team, who became a member of the fabled 10th Mountain Division before returning to Dartmouth as a professor—delivered the Address to the College (an assignment that 35 years later would come to me). He said that “the strength and assurance of democracy” lies in his classmates’ “being able to believe in and being willing to fight for” the “uncomplicated things we know and believe in today.” That weekend, Hopkins delivered his commencement address :

Men of 1941, sons of this fostering mother of the north-country which we call Dartmouth, it is your generation that will determine, not in middle life but tomorrow, next year, or at the latest within a few brief years, whether the preconceptions you impose upon facts, the faults you visualize in democracy, and the ruthlessness you ignore in totalitarianism shall paralyze your will to defend the one and to defeat the other or whether with eyes wide open to reality, you accept freedom as an obligation as well as a privilege and accept the role for yourself of defenders of the faith.

Shortly after the class of 1941 dispersed, Hopkins would write that “the liberal arts college now has a clear duty to do all it can to aid in national defense; at the same time it would be derelict in its most important obligation if it lost sight of the purposes for which it primarily exists and the coming generation’s need for college-trained men.”

By the time Phil died, a Naval Training School had opened on campus with a staff of about 100, and headquarters in College Hall. Alumni Gymnasium became the site of instruction in seamanship, ordnance, and navigation. Dartmouth eventually added to its curriculum such courses as nautical astronomy, naval history and elementary strategy, and naval organization.

It was that precarious balance between preparing men for war and preserving the liberal arts that Phil sought to defend.

Death came to my uncle with suddenness but not with surprise. His Dartmouth contemporary John Manley once told me that Phil had had a premonition that he would die in the conflict.

After graduation, Phil was assigned to the Crescent City and appointed lieutenant (junior grade). “I can see him today—tall & slender, with reddish brown hair and some freckles, a smile always, irreverent behavior,” his shipmate William Trippet, who would become a real-estate agent in Sacramento, California, wrote me 30 years ago.

During the Guadalcanal campaign, the Crescent City made 14 trips bringing men and supplies to the island. Phil wrote to his parents in September, a month into the fighting, to assure them that he was doing fine. He was, of course, thinner, and yet he had grown. He recalled that he was reminded continually of a letter printed in the newspaper during the last war from a serviceman to his family; it had been sitting around somewhere at home, back in Salem. “Little then,” he wrote, “did I think I would ever sit down in the midst of a war and … put down a little of what a person thinks.” His own letter was spare, meant only as a “personal sort of thing, like I was back in our living room telling it to you.” He spoke of being in close quarters for 60 days; of seeing men die; of settling down someday with the right girl. Here was a boy who had grown up.

“They say that the Navy, esp. in wartime, either makes a man or shows that no man will be made,” he wrote. “As to what the outcome on my part will be I will have to leave that to someone else and until it’s over.”

On January 5, 1943, he was transferred to the PT-boat squadron, an assignment he had wanted. PT boats have an audacious aura because of the experience of John F. Kennedy, who commanded one—PT-109. They were perhaps the flimsiest element of the American naval force—usually a mere 80 feet long, outfitted with machine guns and four 21-inch-diameter torpedoes, and capable of zipping through the sea at more than 40 knots. The Navy’s approximately 600 PT boats were designed to be the seaborne equivalent of guerrilla warriors, able to ambush and scoot away quickly. But they were no match for what became known as the Tokyo Express, the Japanese warships that bore down on Guadalcanal.

On the island of Tulagi, an American staging area for the Guadalcanal battle, Phil lived in a bamboo-and-banana-leaf shack measuring about 12 by 15 feet and sitting some four feet off the ground. “Sweat rolls freely in January,” he reported in a letter to Theriault. Among his neighbors in the shack were a nest of hornets, one of spiders, and two of ants—“companionable,” he wrote, “so we let them be.” Little else is known of his life on Tulagi in those last few months. A single photograph survives, showing Phil standing tall among a group of Solomon Islanders.

On February 1, 1943, an Allied coast watcher reported seeing as many as 20 Japanese destroyers in the Slot, the name given to the maritime route used by the Japanese for the resupply of Guadalcanal. That night, American PT boats set out as part of a larger effort to intercept the destroyers. PT-111 was among them. John Clagett, the commander, steered his craft away from the base. The boat was jarred by an exploding bomb nearby. Eventually he found a target, a Japanese destroyer moving on a southeasterly course, three miles east of Cape Esperance. PT-111 fired all four of its torpedoes from close quarters and then maneuvered away. Whether the torpedoes did any damage is unknown. But shellfire from a destroyer hit Clagett’s boat, which exploded in flames. Ten members of the 12-man crew survived, some rescued the next morning after nine hours in the water. One member, legs broken, likely was taken by sharks. Phil himself seems to have been killed outright in the attack. PT-111 sank into Iron Bottom Sound.

Back in Salem, a telegram arrived at 5 Savoy Road. “The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your son Lieutenant Junior Grade Philip Alvan Shribman United States Naval Reserve is missing following action in the performance of his duty in the service of his country.”

I can only imagine the scene when this message arrived. Did the Western Union man drive down the street, stop at the white house on the left, climb the concrete stairs, and deliver the telegram? Did someone from the Navy visit? My father was away, at Dartmouth. I know only this: That moment was the hinge of my grandparents’ lives.

A few blocks away from their house, an obelisk erected to honor the 2,105 veterans from St. Joseph’s Parish who served in the two world wars stands on a median between Washington and Lafayette Streets. When I was a cub reporter for the Salem Evening News, I would pass the monument and see the inscription on one side: TIME WILL NOT DIM. I think about that legend constantly. Time did not dim the force of that loss.

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. sent a note saluting Phil for having “gone to join the heroes who have built America.” That may have been a form letter, but the note from Phil’s Crescent City shipmate Zalmon Garfield, later the executive assistant to Milton Shapp, Pennsylvania’s first Jewish governor, was not. Garfield wrote on behalf of his shipmates about the respect and admiration they had for Phil:

Some of these men are ignorant, some of them callous; en masse, however, their judgment of their officers is uncannily unerring … It is a strange day in which we live, watching the gods toss their finest works into a chasm of their own building. We can only wonder, mourn briefly and work very hard to replace the loss.

Republican Representative George J. Bates of Salem was visiting injured American combatants in West Coast hospitals shortly after the delivery of that fateful telegram and, in a remarkable coincidence, encountered John Clagett, Phil’s commander on PT-111, recuperating from his injuries. “Tell Philip’s father that his son was one of the most courageous men I have ever seen in action,” the commander told the congressman.

With the news of Phil’s death, Bertha Lou Logan entered my grandparents’ lives. Her father, a football coach and high-school principal, had raised her alone after her mother died in childbirth. She had met Phil at the Grand Canyon in July 1939. He was traveling with Dartmouth classmates; she was there with family. As the two parties moved west, Phil and Bertha Lou left notes for each other at post offices. Eventually Bertha Lou took a waitressing job at Loch Lyme Lodge, near Dartmouth. Later, in Chicago, when Phil was in midshipmen’s school, he and Bertha Lou would walk by the lake. She was the girl he wanted. He was the boy soon to be rendered unattainable.

collaged photo-illustration of scraps of handwritten correspondence on Naval stationery with U.S.S. Crescent City; black-and-white photo of young woman from 1940s; aged and yellowed graph paper with some squares colored in
Bertha Lou Logan; a letter from Philip to his brother, Dick Shribman, written aboard the USS Crescent City in 1942 (Photo-illustration by Gabriela Pesqueira. Sources: Courtesy of David Shribman; Patstock / Getty.)

After Phil died, Bertha Lou wrote Max and Anna Shribman, whom she had never met. She took the train to Salem, and my dad picked her up at the station. She lived in my grandparents’ house for some while, the three of them united in a triangle of grief. “It took me a long time to get over him,” Bertha Lou told me when I met her in Kansas decades later.

In 1958, John Clagett wrote a novel titled The Slot about life aboard a PT boat during World War II. He was by then an English professor at Middlebury College. “These days are dead,” he wrote in an author’s note. “We hated them then, we would not have them come again; but after fifteen years may we not look back at them for a few hours and say—Those were days that counted in our lives.” And, in a different way, in mine.

For three-quarters of a century, historians have sorted through the “war aims” of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Hideki Tojo, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin. In college and graduate school, and in a lifetime of reading, I have examined much of that scholarship. But for Americans, the war was also about more than carefully stated aims—it was about far simpler things, really, but no less grand. Texaco had it right in a 1942 magazine advertisement that depicted a man carrying Army gear and saying, “I’m fighting for my right to boo the Dodgers.” Phil might have added that it was also about the right to feel joy pulling down a goalpost in a dreaded rival’s home stadium; the right to struggle with explaining in what respects Stendhal, Balzac, and Flaubert were realists; the right to get a C in English and a D in French.

“Look around you—keep your eyes open—try to see what’s what—hold onto the things that you know to be right,” Phil wrote to my father in what could be a user’s guide to the liberal arts. “They’ll shake your faith in a lot of the things you now think are right—That’s good—& part of education—but look around & try to make up your own ideas on life & its values.”

In 1947, five years after that letter was written, my grandfather sent some money to Dartmouth to establish a scholarship in his son’s name —specifically, to support a student from the Salem area. The scholarship continues, and every year the family receives a letter about the person awarded the scholarship. I have a pile of them.

One of the recipients of that scholarship was Paul Andrews. He took the classic liberal-arts route that Phil would have endorsed—psychology, meteorology, music—and today is a school superintendent in central Oregon. Another was Matthew Kimble—history, religion, biology—who would chair the psychology department at Middlebury. A third is Christine Finn—drama, economics, organic chemistry. She is now a psychiatry professor at Dartmouth’s medical school. Another is Jeffrey Coots—astronomy, mythology, American literature—who specializes in public health and safety at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. You could say that Phil won World War II after all.

[Read: How the liberal arts help veterans thrive ]

I have been delving into Uncle Phil’s life for years. Some of the very sentences in this account I wrote more than half a century ago, the product of an 18-year-old’s effort to repay a debt to an uncle he never knew. Those sentences stood up well. So has my faith. And so, too, has my belief that, as Uncle Phil put it from the Pacific War 80 years ago, “you know actually it’s the things I (and everyone else) always took for granted that are the things the country is now fighting to keep—and it’s going to be hard to do.”

This article appears in the May 2024 print edition with the headline “The Man Who Died for the Liberal Arts.”

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Gavin Newsom Can’t Help Himself

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“We don’t need magazine profiles,” California Governor Gavin Newsom told me. “We don’t need any problems.”

We were sitting on opposing couches in his Sacramento office, a makeshift space across the street from his usual suite in the state capitol, currently being renovated. Newsom, leaning his head back into his intertwined hands, looked every bit the sleek pol he plays on TV—the big smile, the suit, the hair gel. He had just led me on a tour of this sterile habitat that he likens to a “dentist’s office.” Everything about it felt slapdash and temporary. “People know they’re not here for very long,” said Newsom, who is 56 but emits the frenetic energy of an upstart.  

This aura can invite distrust. So can participating in magazine profiles when you don’t want to be seen as buffing your national image at the expense of being a team player—the team being President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign.

“The shadow campaign” is what Newsom calls the theory, happily promoted by Republicans and the occasional Democrat , that he’s been plotting a clandestine effort to supplant Biden as his party’s nominee. Newsom is clearly sensitive to this perception and eager to disprove it. He has spent the past several months vouching for the president in a variety of adverse settings: after a Republican debate at the Reagan Library, on Fox News, and across several red states, from South Carolina to Idaho. He managed to put off our interview for nearly two months, long enough for Biden to clinch his nomination. By the time we met at the end of March, Newsom had fashioned himself as a kind of presidential super-surrogate—a chief alleviator of fears about Biden’s lagging poll numbers, advanced age, and ability to again defeat Donald Trump.

But being a super-surrogate requires a performative humility, subordinating one’s own ambition to the candidate’s. This is not something that comes naturally to a restless dazzler such as Newsom. “You’re good at this,” Bill Maher told the governor during a January appearance on HBO’s Real Time, praising Newsom’s pugnacious strikes against Republicans and his willingness to be “kinda mean” at times. Newsom then blasted off into a diatribe about how Democrats need to stop being so timid, earning an extended ovation. At which point, Maher paused, looked approvingly at Newsom, and asked: “Can you teach that speech to Biden?”

[Ronald Brownstein: The Democrats’ new spokesman in the culture wars ]

Newsom chuckled awkwardly. He did the same when I recounted the Maher exchange to him. The subtext is obvious, and gets at the thorniness of being Newsom these days: the risk of being so “good at this” that it can seem like he’s running himself.

When pressed about his own presidential aspirations, as he still often is, Newsom is adept at pivoting to his reverential spiel about Biden. “He’s doing things that I could never imagine doing,” the governor told me. He said he has gotten to know Biden and has “really grown to deeply admire him, with conviction.” Newsom has objected in numerous ways, in numerous forums, to the idea that the 81-year-old president is slowing down. “You become an SNL meme,” he said of the challenge Biden surrogates face when trying to defend the president’s geriatric fitness in fresh and credible ways.

I mentioned to Newsom that age seems to be the intractable issue for Biden: Large majorities of Americans keep telling pollsters, over and over, that he is too old to run again. At a certain point, can anything really be done? Newsom swerved the conversation onto delicate terrain.

“Well, there’s Pretagen, and all those things on TV that seem to argue—to help—with that,” he said. He seemed to be referring to an over-the-counter supplement called Prevagen that supposedly promotes brain health. “I can’t turn on the damn TV without the vegetable and fruit supplements,” said Newsom, who professes to watch a lot of Fox News.

“Have you talked to Biden about maybe going on a more vigorous Prevagen regimen?” I deadpanned.

“Look, I mean, I was—” Newsom faltered for a moment. “I don’t know if I was joking, but I was lamenting about how many different ways, on different networks, I’ve answered this question in an effort to try to answer a little differently each time.”

On that, Newsom succeeded. His Prevagen answer was novel, if risky. Sometimes he can’t help himself.

Picture of President Joe Biden speaking with California Gov. Gavin Newsom as he arrives in Santa Clara County, California.
President Joe Biden speaks with California Governor Gavin Newsom as Biden arrives in Santa Clara County, California, in June 2023. (Doug Mills / The New York Times / Redux)

Newsom has solicitous eyes that often dart around a room, as if he’s scanning for something that might entertain his guest, or him. He is a fourth-generation Californian who himself embodies many dimensions of the unruly dream-state he is attempting to govern: He is profuse and thirsty at the same time, high-reaching, a bit dramatic, and never far from some disaster.

“I don’t want to be derivative,” Newsom said in our interview. He loves the word derivative almost as much as, he says, he hates things that are derivative—the kind of repetitive sound-biting that can be as basic to a politician’s job as throwing a baseball is to being a pitcher (which Newsom was in his youth, a lefty).

I have known Newsom for about 15 years, but hadn’t officially interviewed him since he was finishing his second term as mayor of San Francisco and preparing to run for governor in 2010. The campaign was short-lived, as it became clear that Newsom had limited reach beyond the Bay Area and little shot against California’s former and future governor, Jerry Brown. Newsom instead ran for lieutenant governor, winning the privilege of spending eight restive years as Brown’s understudy.

[From the June 2013 issue: Jerry Brown’s political reboot ]

One of the few highlights of Newsom’s tenure, he told me, occurred in 2013, when Brown was on a trade mission to China. Newsom, in his brief stint as acting governor, issued a proclamation designating the avocado as California’s state fruit. Newsom said he felt like Brown was not showing him or his office “a lot of respect,” so he undertook the avocado gambit as a benign “act of defiance.” (He insists that his love of avocados is genuine and that he tries to eat one “six to seven days a week.”) The rogue operation extended to artichokes (which Newsom named as the state vegetable), rice (the state grain), and almonds (the state nut).

Newsom seemed to take immense pride in this small harvest of edicts, milking them for laughs and press coverage. He boasted of the “cornucopia of landmark accomplishments” that he had achieved “over these magical six days.” More than a decade later, Newsom still sounds amused, even if Governor Brown, upon his return from China, apparently was not. “I don’t know that amused and Jerry Brown have ever been used in the same sentence,” Newsom said. (Brown declined to be interviewed, but praised Newsom in a brief statement for providing “much needed continuity” on climate and China policy—two issues central to Brown’s time in office.)

For much of his political career, Newsom has been perceived as something of a wild child. He has nurtured that image by getting into occasional trouble. In 2007, as mayor, he admitted to an affair with his appointments secretary, who’d been married to Newsom’s close friend and deputy chief of staff; this was following the breakup of Newsom’s first marriage—to the future Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is now engaged to Donald Trump Jr. As recently as 2020, Newsom violated COVID restrictions by attending a group dinner at the French Laundry, one of California’s fanciest restaurants, which became a major issue in an unsuccessful campaign to recall him.

His breakneck impulses also resulted in the signature policy action that would establish Newsom as a national figure—his 2004 order for San Francisco to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. “It’s the Roger Bannister theory of life,” Newsom told me, referring to the English runner who broke the four-minute-mile barrier. Newsom said that, like Bannister, he was young and dumb and “didn’t know that he couldn’t.” He quoted his political idol, Robert F. Kennedy Sr., who in a 1966 address in South Africa said that the world “demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity.”

Today, Newsom has logged two terms each as a big-city mayor and as lieutenant governor, plus five years leading the nation-state of California. He married again in 2008, and has four children with his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a filmmaker and former actor. Newsom’s tenure as governor has featured high-profile moves that have positioned him as a national avatar of blue-state boosterism: an executive order mandating that new cars sold in California be zero-emission by 2035; a call for a constitutional amendment that would raise the legal age to purchase firearms to 21; a commitment to make California a “sanctuary” for abortion access.

As much as Newsom believes that it’s important to “continue to iterate,” I was struck by how often he talked about keeping experienced mentors close by. During the early crisis months of COVID, Newsom told me, he convened Zoom meetings with his living predecessors—Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gray Davis, and Pete Wilson. “To have these kinds of legendary figures—” Newsom said, shaking his head. Sometimes he would just sit back and absorb the exchanges. “Just the weird history, and the dynamic—it was a lot of fun,” Newsom said. He referred to the group as his “council of the elders.”

[From the April 2023 issue: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last act ]

“He has grown, learned, and matured in terms of his approach,” says Representative Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the House, who has known Newsom since “before he was born.” (Bill Newsom, Gavin’s father, was a well-connected Bay Area judge—appointed to the bench by Jerry Brown—whose sister was married to the brother of Pelosi’s husband, Paul.)

Pelosi is among a gallery of California political giants who have nurtured Newsom through his career. Willie Brown, the longtime speaker of the state assembly and mayor of San Francisco, appointed Newsom to his first political job in 1996, on the city’s Parking and Traffic Commission, and later to a vacant seat on its board of supervisors. Newsom told me he also took boundless knowledge from watching Jerry Brown for eight years in Sacramento, even though the two almost never interacted and Newsom’s impact as lieutenant governor was mostly limited to his heroic advocacy of the avocado.

By any measure, Brown had a remarkable leadership résumé—two previous terms as governor in the 1970s and ’80s, three presidential campaigns, stints as California’s attorney general and secretary of state, time as chair of the state Democratic Party, and two terms as mayor of Oakland. Like Newsom, he was known early in his career for his zesty and impatient style. “He was a man on a mission. He was the guy running for president over and over again,” Newsom said of Brown. But the late-career version of Brown “was just a different Jerry,” Newsom said. He sometimes watched Brown and wondered, “Why hasn’t he said anything about issue x, y, z?” And then, a few months later, the shrewdness of Brown’s silence would reveal itself.

“I want temperance. I want wisdom. I want someone who can govern, someone that’s not unhinged,” Newsom told me. He was talking now about Joe Biden, and trying to make the case that the president’s age should be seen as an asset, just as it was for Brown near the end of his career. It’s a compelling parallel, except that Brown left office at 80, and Biden is running for his second term at a year older. I noted to Newsom that Biden clearly has been well served by his wealth of experience, but that what his skeptics question is his ability to beat Donald Trump. “It’s an election question, I got it,” Newsom told me. “You gotta win.”

As the president departed on a trip to Los Angeles in February, a reporter shouted a question from the White House lawn about whether Newsom should be standing by in case a Democratic alternative was needed for 2024. Biden blew it off, but the episode highlighted the ongoing nuisance of the age issue, which had just been revived by Special Counsel Robert Hur’s report describing the president as “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” As Newsom has denied any interest in replacing Biden, the president in turn has flattered him on the subject. “He’s been one hell of a governor, man,” Biden said of Newsom during a stop in San Francisco last November. “He could have the job I’m looking for.”

For much of last year, however, aides close to the president were wary of Newsom’s motives. He aroused particular suspicion by challenging Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to debate him on Fox News in November, in what the network billed as the “Great Red vs. Blue State Debate,” to be “moderated” by Sean Hannity. Newsom told me he would’ve skipped the debate if asked, but he heard nothing from the White House. “They never said, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it,’” he said. “But I can imagine they were like, What is he doing?” (A spokesperson for Biden’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)

Picture of journalists watching Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis debate California Governor Gavin Newsom on a screen in the media room, in Alpharetta, Georgia, U.S.
Viewers watch Florida Governor Ron DeSantis debate California Governor Gavin Newsom in Alpharetta, Georgia, in November. (Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters)

“Yes, there was chatter,” Jeffrey Katzenberg, the DreamWorks co-founder, who’s a longtime supporter of Newsom and a co-chair of the Biden reelection campaign, confirmed to me. “It wasn’t, ‘This is terrible. He shouldn’t be doing it.’ But I do think there was chatter like, ‘Really?’” Katzenberg added. “‘Why give DeSantis the platform? You’re elevating him.’”

Senator Laphonza Butler of California, whom Newsom appointed to her job in October after the death of Senator Dianne Feinstein , told me: “Had I been advising him, I’m not sure I would have said, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea.’”

Newsom went ahead with the debate anyway, in part, he said, because he had already committed to it. “I’m glad for no other reason [than] you develop a muscle you didn’t know you had,” he told me. It was helpful, he said, that the event was delayed for months, allowing Newsom to prove himself a reliable partner to the White House. He has brought in large sums of cash for the reelection campaign and, last March, started a PAC that has raised more than $9 million for Biden and other Democratic candidates. Still, the Fox spectacle, which occurred not long before the start of the primaries, was an odd look for both participants.

[David Frum: Ron DeSantis debates his grievances ]

Newsom received generally positive reviews. “I thought he made some solid points,” Butler said. “He made DeSantis stumble.” He delivered perhaps the line of the night when he mentioned that he and DeSantis had something in common: “Neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024”—another signal to the White House that Newsom was fully onboard. It was also one of several times that Newsom hammered DeSantis over how Trump was beating him badly in the Republican primary, something that undoubtedly delighted the former president.

Trump represents a more natural foil to Newsom than DeSantis. Both are outsize, sensitive, and at times self-immolating showmen. Newsom clearly enjoys pitting himself against the former president, whose deep unpopularity among Democrats makes his antagonism an unquestioned political asset. Trump recently started calling the governor “New-scum,” which Newsom belittled to me as a lame “seventh-grade nickname.”

At the start of our interview, Newsom pointed across his room to a photo of himself with Donald and Melania in the Oval Office. “My staff put it up there, kind of as a joke, and I kept it,” Newsom told me. It is also a conversation piece, over which Newsom became quite animated. He appears to have a fascination with Trump, and not just as an evil adversary. Newsom, who campaigned in 2018 on a pledge to make California “a resistance state,” likes to mention that he worked well with Trump during his first two years in Sacramento. “We had the baseline of a relationship that benefited California significantly,” he told me. He watched Trump closely and tried to decipher how best to manage the needy president during COVID and severe wildfires in his state. He stroked Trump in public. “I want to thank you and acknowledge the work that you’ve done to be immediate in terms of your response,” Newsom told Trump in front of reporters at Sacramento’s McClellan Airport during a visit from the president in September 2020.

As Newsom continued a prolonged riff about Trump during our interview—what he learned watching Trump’s “dialectic” with the media or riding with him on Air Force One—he sounded strangely captivated, as if he had been privileged to observe a feral and predatory peacock in the wild. The association sounded more important to Newsom than I might have imagined.

Newsom told me that every time he placed a call to Trump in the White House, someone would patch him through or the president would call right back. That changed when Newsom reached out a few days after Trump lost the 2020 election. He heard nothing. “And I was like, Wow,” Newsom said. “And then I called a few days later—I figured he was busy—and they said, ‘He’s not available.’ And I’m like, Whoa.” He said he was genuinely taken aback by the snub, despite the addled state Trump was obviously in at the time and the overall madhouse that the White House had become.

I asked Newsom if he had spoken with Trump since, or heard from him after the DeSantis donnybrook. He said no (a spokesperson for the former president echoed this), but my query appeared to trigger an odd reaction in Newsom. His face turned red, which I noted to him. “No, that’s because the sunlight is beaming on me,” he protested, pointing out the window into the expansive California glare.

Newsom said that my “line of questioning is interesting.” He offered a wordy zigzag of a reply: “The fact that you are not the first person to ask me ‘Did he call you?’—particularly some of your sophisticated colleagues—is suggestive.”

I found Newsom’s labyrinthine answer to also be “suggestive.”

Newsom has a personal connection to Trump, via his first wife, Guilfoyle. He does not love to discuss his ex. “I’m sensitive to the world I’m currently living in, at home particularly,” he told me. Still, he is asked about Guilfoyle a lot, mostly in the vein of “What’s the deal there?”

[From the October 2019 issue: The heir ]

Newsom and Guilfoyle met in 1994, at a Democratic fundraiser in San Francisco. She worked in the district attorney’s office, and he owned a chain of local food and wine establishments. They married seven years later and were dubbed “The New Kennedys” in a Harper’s Bazaar spread. “Do I think he could be president of the United States?” Guilfoyle told the magazine. “Absolutely. I’d gladly vote for him.” That comment appears no longer operative. (Guilfoyle declined to comment for this article.)

Newsom and Guilfoyle divorced in 2006. Things ended amicably, Newsom said: “No kids, respect, both sides.” Newsom told me he wished Guilfoyle well, and not “backhandedly.” He did not want to say anything negative about her, even though, he said, “She’s taken shots at me publicly.”

In fact, in an interview on CNN’s The Axe Files podcast last year, Newsom said Guilfoyle had been a “different person” when they were married. He told me she was committed to “social justice and social” values, and that she was a Republican, “but it was more traditional conservatism.”

“She fell prey, I think, to the culture at Fox,” he said on the podcast. He added, “She would disagree with that assessment.”

Yes, she did.

“I didn’t change; he did,” Guilfoyle fired back in an interview with the right-wing commentator Charlie Kirk. She said Newsom was once a champion of entrepreneurs and small business but has since become “unrecognizable” to her. “He’s fallen prey to the left, the radical left.”

If Trump wins in November, Newsom will remain the governor of the nation’s most populous state and biggest resistance zone. In his office, he keeps a marked-up copy of a policy blueprint, “Project 2025,” prepared by the Heritage Foundation as a possible preview of a next Trump term. “I’m going through 100 pages of this. I’m not screwing around,” Newsom told me. He said his team is “Trump-proofing California,” preparing to enact whatever measures they can to thwart a hostile Republican White House. To better understand his political opposition, Newsom begins each morning with a heavy intake of far-right media. “There’s so many things that come our way that are so batshit-crazy,” he said. “You can’t deny where half of America lives.”

Newsom has endured a difficult few months in California. His approval ratings recently dropped under 50 percent for the first time since he became governor. He devoted a great deal of time and capital to promoting a ballot measure—Proposition 1—to allocate $6.4 billion to mental-health treatment programs. The proposal was expected to pass easily in March but barely did—a possible sign of weakness as Newsom faces another recall effort and a budget crisis.

After 90 minutes of conversation in his office, Newsom was getting antsy, as he does. He rose from the couch and walked over to his massive desk, where he would soon devour his daily helping of the California state fruit, over chicken salad.

Newsom is a student of workspaces. “I always like going in people’s offices, going, ‘Why is that there?’” he told me. He loved his usual quarters across the street, now deep in renovation. His desk there used to belong to Earl Warren, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court and the governor of California from 1943 to 1953. But Newsom assured me that no serious thought went into decorating these temporary quarters. He seemed pleased to give the impression of being a short-timer. “This is literally the things that came out of the first boxes,” he said. “We threw it up; a lot of it’s no rhyme or reason.”

One of Newsom’s prized mementos is a framed letter he received during the height of the COVID crisis, from none other than the baseball legend Willie Mays. “I don’t write many letters, but I’ve been watching you on TV and thought you might appreciate some words of encouragement,” the “Say Hey Kid” wrote.

[From the July/August 2023 issue: Moneyball broke baseball ]

Newsom can be deeply cynical at times when discussing politics. But he can also display a boyish and even starstruck side. I watched him stare wide-eyed at his note from Mays and marvel. “Piles of ‘Go fuck yourself,’” Newsom said, describing his typical mail. “And then Willie Mays sends a letter.”

He showed me a few items in a side office, at the moment dominated by the big-screened head of the legal commentator Jonathan Turley yammering on Fox. A few feet away stood a picture of Newsom and Pelosi from the 1990s, in his first race for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; shots of Schwarzenegger, Newsom’s late father, and various Kennedys; and a small table full of booze. Newsom hoisted a bottle of wine someone had recently given him: DeSantis, the vintage is called. I imagined a libation of complex and astringent notes, not at all supple or aromatic.

“I may send it to him,” Newsom told me. He said he wanted to strike up at least some tiny bit of rapport with the Florida governor during their Hannity encounter. “I tried, during every commercial break,” Newsom said. “We did the makeup.” Nothing. Newsom shook his head and imitated DeSantis, looking at his shoes, hands shoved into his pockets.

“Impossible,” he said. “Complete asshole.” (A DeSantis spokesperson declined to comment.)

Newsom said his distaste for DeSantis stems from what he describes as his Florida counterpart’s attacks on vulnerable targets—migrants, transgender and disabled people, often kids. Newsom himself was bullied as a child. He struggled with dyslexia, had a bowl haircut, and walked around school with a briefcase. The neighborhood kids could be merciless. He grew into a star athlete, 6-foot-3 with a potential run for president in his future. “But I’m still that kid,” he told me.

Being around Newsom, you sense an ongoing tug between boyish and sober impulses. He can fall heavily on nostalgia—and RFK quotes—while asserting himself as an agent of the future. He reveres the old-school pols who mentored him while striving to be inventive and distinct. It is vital, Newsom told me, “to take risks and not be reckless, but keep trying things.” To be original but restrained when necessary. “I don’t want to be derivative” might be as close as he comes to codifying a leadership philosophy: the Roger Bannister theory of life tempered by the venerated principle of waiting one’s turn, if it ever comes.

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