The Conversation

The Conversation

Is Democracy Dying?

The Atlantic’s October issue examined the current democratic crisis—in America, and in the world.

October’s special edition asks whether democracy is dying. Reading of the challenges we face, it is hard not to feel a sense of despair. However, I would like to offer some hope from a part of the world where democracy is far from a given: the countries of the former Soviet Union. Yes, this is a region where numerous autocracies are doing their best to both crush civil society at home and destabilize democratic institutions abroad. However, it is also a region where many have not given up on the ideal of living in a free society and are risking their all to achieve it. What strikes me is that no matter how tarnished democracy’s reputation may be, its fundamental promises of freedom, dignity, and accountability remain an ideal for many. Take Armenia’s surprise velvet revolution in defiance of its cynical kleptocracy this year. Armenia is stuck in a frozen conflict, has few friendly neighbors, and is reliant on the whims of Russia for its security. Yet its citizens risked a bloody crackdown, Russia’s wrath, and a reignition of war in taking to the streets and peacefully protesting for the removal of its corrupt leaders. Questioning the health of democracy in the West is good and necessary, but let’s not be trapped by doom, gloom, and introspection. As long as people continue to stand up for democracy, it will always have a chance.

Rostislav Valvoda
Executive Director, Prague Civil Society Centre  
Prague, Czech Republic

The October issue of The Atlantic is a literary and civic tour de force. Nowhere have I read—in one succinct and powerful publication—a better explanation of and warning about the ills besetting American democracy. This issue is a call to arms for all who care about America and its problems and possibilities—past, present, and future.

Missing, however, from your pick of pitfalls was any in-depth discussion of Russian and other foreign manipulation of our political and electoral processes, as well as the relationship between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump—potentially the most deadly threat to democracy and world order the United States has faced in modern times.

Charles W. Kozlosky
Old Bennington, Vt.

The Atlantic edition on dying democracy was a disappointment, at least as far as the American experience is concerned. In the first place, the premise of the issue was wrong. Donald Trump’s election and the current GOP dominance in Washington are largely the result of the undemocratic elements in American government. The American people rejected Trump, who was elected president only because the Framers did not trust the presidency to a national election. He won fair and square by the rules, but the Electoral College is not a democratic institution. Similarly, GOP control of Congress is largely the result of the Framers’ acceptance of equal state representation in the Senate, as well as gerrymandering in the House of Representatives. Maybe we should try democracy rather than bemoan its failure.

Bruce Ledewitz
Pittsburgh, Pa.

I don’t think our democracy is at risk. President Trump has done one positive thing: He’s motivated many people to get active for the first time.

Paul Feiner
Greenburgh, N.Y.

What a pity that our schools no longer have civics classes, where this issue of The Atlantic could be required reading. But that, of course, is a huge part of the problem, isn’t it?

Judith Barnard
Chicago, Ill.

Madison vs. the Mob

America’s Founders designed a government that would be insulated from the heat of popular sentiment, Jeffrey Rosen noted in October. But they didn’t anticipate the unbridled passions of the digital age.

Rosen writes about James Madison’s views on factions and fear of majority rule in the context of the chaotic, passion-infused politics of today—as if our current racial, gender, and economic inequalities were not influenced by the fact that the country was, in many ways, founded by an aristocratic class seeking to protect its property and slaves.

Our current political climate does not show the decline of Madison’s reasoned world; it shows the limits of what Madison sought to create.

Charles Ryan
State College, Pa.

Losing the Democratic Habit

As Americans’ participation in institutions such as neighborhood associations and labor unions has dwindled, so has public faith in democracy. To restore it, Yoni Appelbaum wrote in October, we must return democratic practices to everyday life.

Yoni Appelbaum convincingly argues that declining membership in democratic civil institutions is a root cause of the governmental and social dysfunction we’re seeing today. In laying out his argument, he mentions a poll in which a quarter of American Millennials said that democracy was a “bad” or “very bad” way to run a country, and that they thought it “unimportant” to choose leaders in free and fair elections, an oft-cited statistic. I’ve never counted myself as a thoroughbred Millennial (I was born in 1982), but I do slide in before the cutoff for the generation as it is commonly defined. I also still believe that democracy is the best form of government, so I hope it’s not too presumptuous of me to speak here on Millennials’ behalf.

The above statistic sounds horrifying. Yet if one simply puts oneself in the shoes of a Millennial, this sentiment doesn’t seem so unimaginable. Take someone born in 1990, for example. We’ll call her Suzy. Suzy’s earliest meaningful memory of a presidential election is of one decided by the Supreme Court in a 5–4 ruling. Four of the justices who confer victory on the Republican were appointed by Ronald Reagan. The fifth was appointed by George H. W. Bush. That’s okay, though, because it’s democracy. The following year she witnesses the 9/11 attacks, and looks on as George W. Bush pushes America into the longest war in its history (which is later determined to have been founded on a lie). But this, too, is essential to protect our democracy.

As Suzy enters college, in 2008, she is most likely heartened by the election of Barack Obama, who is the candidate of overwhelming preference among her cohort. All right, democracy! Unfortunately, he’s inaugurated to face the worst economic recession in 70 years, and soon thereafter is stymied in every possible way by juvenile and petulant Republicans in the House, who regularly threaten to shut down the federal government unless their legislative demands are met.

Suzy eventually graduates, probably crippled by student debt of an unprecedented magnitude. The things that she cares about have largely gone unaddressed: debt, climate change and environmental degradation, monstrously disproportionate distribution of wealth and opportunity. To add insult to injury, in 2016 she watches as Republicans steal a Supreme Court nomination in a borderline criminal act of insurgency.

Finally, she sees the ascension to the presidency of a man carried to victory by people whose votes seem to matter significantly more than her own. How else can she explain this result in the face of his nearly 3-million-vote deficit?

No one Suzy’s age is in Congress. No one her age sits on the bench of the Supreme Court. And certainly no one her age has ever held the presidency. She has simply borne witness to her venerated elders as they exemplify the virtues of democracy in action. In this light, is it any wonder that Suzy questions the competency of our institutions, regardless of whether or not she was class treasurer?

Matthew Riotto
Knoxville, Tenn.

Quote of the Month

“An excellent series of articles appeared in the October issue of The Atlantic.”

— Barack Obama
on Facebook

Yoni Appelbaum powerfully describes democracy as a habit that must be learned anew in each generation. Unmentioned, however, is a vital place where teaching this habit has recently broken down: America’s colleges and universities.

Over recent generations, higher education’s once-shared commitment to serving democracy has given way to new priorities: research, global prestige, economic development, and student self-actualization. None is ignoble. But they have displaced a fundamental commitment to the “liberal arts” in the term’s classical sense—meaning preparation for citizens to conduct public affairs in a free society. Democracy has become just another topic to study agnostically.

As the son and grandson of college presidents, and now one myself, I’ve had unique generational perspective on this shift. But the American residential-college experience remains a formidable democratic training ground. College campuses are among the few places left where Americans can’t hide online and must learn to get along face-to-face.

Now we must revive the focus on democracy more broadly, especially in the classroom. The public university I lead has a new core curriculum that explicitly cultivates the habits of mind for democracy—critical thinking on civic issues, information literacy, teamwork. An effort like this across higher education would rebuild broken public trust and the understanding of higher education’s purpose. It would also serve America in this hour of need.

W. Taylor Reveley IV
President, Longwood University
Farmville, Va.

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The Looming Legal Battle Over Jim Acosta’s Press Pass

The Looming Legal Battle Over Jim Acosta’s Press Pass

Unable to resolve matters behind closed doors, CNN and its chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta filed suit in D.C. district court on Tuesday to reinstate Acosta’s permanent credentials to cover the White House.

Acosta and CNN claim that the White House’s revocation of his press credentials after a heated presidential press conference Wednesday violates Acosta’s First Amendment right of freedom of the press and his Fifth Amendment right to due process. The plaintiffs also allege that the Trump administration violated the Administrative Procedure Act by acting “arbitrarily, capriciously, and otherwise not in accordance with law.”

[Read: 10 Most Dumbfounding Moments From Press Conference]

The suit names a myriad of administration officials as defendants in the suit—President Donald Trump, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Deputy Chief of Staff Bill Shine, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, the U.S. Secret Service, and Randolph Alles, the director of the Secret Service.

CNN has also requested an immediate restraining order so Acosta can receive his credentials back without having to wait for the case to be resolved.

“The White House punished Mr. Acosta and CNN for the contents of their reporting,” Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr., one of CNN and Acosta’s lawyers said in a statement. “The law is clear that this violates the First Amendment and Due Process Clause of the Constitution. The arbitrary revocation of Mr. Acosta’s press credentials is causing irreparable injury each and every day because it is stopping him from reporting on news from the White House. That is why we are seeking emergency relief and asking that his credentials be restored immediately.”

The complaint cites two landmark Supreme Court cases — New York Times v. Sullivan and Hustler Magazine v. Falwell — before bringing into focus a key lower court decision that stands as near-direct precedent for Acosta’s case: Sherrill v. Knight. The 1977 Sherrill case, as detailed in The Atlantic on Friday, calls for an explanation and opportunity for rebuttal if White House credentials are revoked. The CNN filing cites the following from Sherrill:

That is why the D.C. Circuit has been clear that “the protection afforded news gathering under the first amendment guarantee of freedom of the press requires that . . . access [to White House press facilities] not be denied arbitrarily or for less than compelling reasons.”… And “notice . . . of the factual bases for denial [of access to White House press facilities] with an opportunity to rebut is a minimum prerequisite for ensuring that the denial is . . . [not] based on arbitrary or less than compelling reasons.”

[Read: Legal Precedent That Could Protect Acosta’s Credentials]

The difference between Sherrill, a case brought on by The Nation’s Robert Sherrill after his press credentials were twice denied in 1966 and 1972 without explanation, and the Acosta case is slight, but important: Sherrill never had his credentials revoked; he was denied from the start.

Press advocates expressed optimism and said they thought CNN had a very strong case against the White House.  

“I don’t think CNN’s lawsuit goes out on any limbs. The basic principle is well established,” Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said in an interview. “The DC Circuit case was decided on 40 years ago and all the case law since has reinforced the soundness of the Sherrill ruling, so I think the legal argument is very strong. The facts are always messier and maybe the administration will introduce new facts that complicate the case further, but based on the public record, CNN’s assertion that [the revocation is] viewpoint-based is very strong.”

[Read: Why Trump Is Blaming the Media Down the Homestretch]

Michele Kimball, media law professor at George Washington University said that an explanation for revoking Acosta’s access is required—whether it’s from the White House proper or the Secret Service.

“What’s most important in all of this is a clarification by the administration about why the credentials were revoked,” Kimball said in an email. “Other journalists need to know what can get them pulled. The chilling effect on speech is especially intense when you have no idea what will trigger having your credentials taken.”

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) filed an amicus brief Tuesday with support from Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.

“Trump’s revocation of Acosta’s credentials is, simply put, out of line,” Bruce Brown, executive director of RCFP said on a conference call. “It’s decidedly out of step with the traditions of freedom of speech and of the press, enshrined in our constitution, at the heart of our democracy and long respected by presidential administrations of both parties even in moments of great tension between the president and the press.”

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders released a statement that called the CNN lawsuit “more grandstanding” and said that the White House will “vigorously defend” against it. “The White House cannot run an orderly and fair press conference when a reporter acts this way, which is neither appropriate nor professional,” Sanders wrote. “The First Amendment is not served when a single reporter, of more than 150 present, attempts to monopolize the floor. If there is no check on this type of behavior it impedes the ability of the President, the White House staff, and members of the media to conduct business.”

The Trump White House pivoted from its earlier accusations that Acosta assaulted a White House intern when the intern tried to grab his microphone, a false claim further complicated by the fact that Sanders shared a doctored video from Infowars to support her claim on Twitter last week.

“The initial justification given, that Acosta made physical contact with the young intern, has been proven to be unjustified as we have seen by watching the video countless times and through eyewitness reports from people who were seated right next to Acosta when the incident took place,” Frank Sesno, director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, said in an email Tuesday. “The White House has to be held accountable to facts and to process. It’s time they learn to respect both.”

Joshua Geltzer, executive director of Georgetown’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, acknowledged there’s a legitimate argument in favor of decorum in White House press events, but this was not the issue at hand here.

“The [RCFP] brief recognizes that there is a certain prerogative on the part of the White House to ensure security and even, in some reasonable way, ensure decorum in part to allow news gathering to occur, to allow questions to be asked and answered, to allow different voices to have that opportunity so that they can ask questions on behalf of both of their readers and viewers and followers,” Geltzer said on the conference call. “But one only needs to look at the video here to see that this was nothing wildly out of bounds, this was nothing out of character for the setting.”

Jaffer agreed that the issue of decorum is relevant, but falls short in this case given the how the incident played out.

“If the White House came up with a viewpoint-neutral set of rules (for example, no reporter can go on for more than 3 minutes)… that kind of viewpoint-neutral rule would be easier to defend,” Jaffer said. “Given the context of this revocation, given that it’s obvious from the video, given that the president was provoked by Acosta’s questions, I think it’ll be difficult for the administration to maintain that the revocation was anything but viewpoint-based.”

“The arguments about respect and decorum are pretty rich coming from folks who turn the Oval Office over to The Kanye West Show,” Brown added.

CNN is seeking an immediate restraining order to reinstate Acosta’s credentials, a decision that could be decided in court this week. CNN claims to have done due diligence this weekend—the likely reason this suit did not come sooner. According to the lawsuit, CNN chief executive Jeff Zucker wrote to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly requesting that Acosta’s credentials be reinstated. “Defendants have not reinstated Acosta’s press credentials or returned his hard pass and have informed CNN and Acosta they do not intend to do so,” the suit states.

Acosta applied for a temporary day pass on Friday, the complaint states. He was denied. He requested to cover the president’s trip to France this weekend. He was denied access, but traveled anyway. With both sides in their corners, prepared to fight, what happens next could be an important decision in the protection of reporters’ rights—or a ruling that could further chill Washington reporting.

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The Simple Reason That Humans Can’t Control Wildfires

The Simple Reason That Humans Can’t Control Wildfires

Seven years ago, Park Williams took an hour-long drive with a couple friends to see a wildfire. He remembers it now as a revelation.

At the time, Williams was researching the scraggly pine forests that dot the southwestern United States. He worked at a national laboratory that overlooks more than a million acres of protected desert forest. On June 26, 2011, the wind knocked down an aspen somewhere in that national forest, toppling it into a power line and igniting a small flame. The landscape was parched, the winds were unruly, and soon that flame had become the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history.

Williams couldn’t go to work—his lab had been evacuated—so he and his friends drove around town, hoping to catch a glimpse of the blaze. Eventually they came to a spot just below the mountains. He remembers the air outside the car reeking like an ancient brick fireplace. The fire stood a mile off. “It looked like a skyline of buildings,” he told me. “You could see it in the mountains above you.”

It was not like a bonfire or even a house fire. It was a wall of flame, probably 100 feet high.

The vision made him realize it is impossible to fight wildfires. It also changed his life. Williams had never seriously studied wildfires before he saw the Las Conchas Fire in New Mexico. He is now a professor at Columbia, and one of the world’s leading experts on how climate change has intensified the problem of wildfire.

“The fire, to me—it’s like an ocean,” he said. “It’s so strong that we don’t really stand a chance of doing much to it. When it’s that big, and there are helicopters dropping water and retardant on it, they’re doing nothing. When you see firefighters spraying hoses at it, [the fire] is so hot that they can’t even be close enough to be within hose-shot.”

California is struggling with some of the worst blazes in its history. On Monday, authorities announced that the so-called Camp Fire in Northern California has killed 42 people, making it the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history. It broke a record set in 1933, when a brushfire in Los Angeles killed 29 people. The Camp Fire’s death toll is expected to rise.

The Camp Fire has burned 125,000 acres and it is 25 percent contained. Most of that growth came on its first day, when it devoured more than 70,000 acres (or 109 square miles) in 24 hours. At that rate, the fire consumed a football field of forest every second. “The numbers these fires are capable of posting are mind-boggling,” Williams said.

Fires in the United States are getting larger, and the country is rapidly losing the ability to deal with them. During President Reagan’s first term, the federal government spent a couple hundred thousand dollars per year fighting fires, according to Williams. This year, it plans to spend $2.25 billion just battling fires; its full budget for managing them can exceed $5 billion.  Yet forest-fire damage has ballooned nonetheless. Since the early 1980s, the land area burned by wildfires every year has increased by 1,000 percent.

“Fires are outrunning us. We’re trying harder than ever to put them out, and they’re continuing to win, more and more, every year,” Williams said. “And it really isn’t for lack of effort. Even when we know it’s been stupid policy to fight every single fire, we’re still trying as hard as we can do to that.”

It’s a message he wishes he could drill into the head of every American. As the California fires have dominated the news, he’s been asked by friends and journalists why we can’t just fix wildfires, why we can’t just put them out. We have solved all sorts of complex environmental engineering problems. Why not wildfire?

The question illustrates “the root problem that got us into this mess,” he told me. “We think that we as humans should be able to dominate this phenomenon of wildfire. And in reality, we can’t. Even though we can put a person on the moon, and even though we can create this global computer network, we can’t. This is a natural phenomenon that is similar to the ocean in that it is really big, that it is much larger than us when it really gets going.”

In some ways, he said, a wildfire is similar to a combustion-powered hurricane. Fires put out tons of hot air at their center, which tries violently to rise. This rising air creates a vacuum at the core of fires, creating a fast-moving conveyor belt of cooler air flowing into the fire from all directions. A large fire can pull in so much air, at such high speeds, that its ability to do so is hindered by the Earth’s rotation. In the Northern Hemisphere, a large wildfire’s smoke column will begin to spin counterclockwise, just as happens to hurricanes.

Sometimes, that channel of upward-flowing air can collapse in one small spot. Then the hot air in the atmosphere plummets through the weak point. “You get a very fast wind moving down toward the ground, and when it hits the ground, it spreads like jelly slopping across the floor,” he said. “It can also send white-hot air out in front of the flame, incinerating the landscape before the actual flame has arrived. It can cause forests to spontaneously combust without coming into contact with a flame.”

When this upward-moving air pattern stays strong, it creates other kinds of problems. It can loft burning wood high into the atmosphere, carrying it many miles away from the center of the fire. When this debris finally lands, it can start new fires. In 2011, Williams lived dozens of miles from the edge of the blaze, yet he remembers semi-burned sticks falling like drizzle in his backyard. “These were twigs that you hold in your hand and say, ‘Wow, this actually weighs something. This made it 35 miles in the air.’”

“When the fires are really moving like that, its because the meteorological conditions are allowing that to happen,” he said. He estimated that these California fires would not be fully contained until the winter rains arrive.

So how should Americans react to the power of forest fires? By respecting them, he said—and understanding that we are in a new era of great fires. “The continuing increase in fire is an inevitability in western United States. It is an inevitability that this trend is going to continue,” he told me. “If the public understood that, then they would become more tolerant of managerial tactics that are currently seen as too risky or heartless.”

Many forest managers know that a certain tract of woodland is due for a catastrophic wildfire in the next decade, but feel they have no political ability to do a controlled burn there—lest it get out of control. If the public understood that huge swaths of Western forest will soon burn, they may be more willing to allow controlled burns when the meteorological conditions are right.

“Today, it’s completely impossible to say that ‘We need to have a 100,000 acre fire in that forest.’ Any politician or fire manager who brought that up? It would be a death wish for their career,” he said.

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Trump, Marine One, and the Rain: Pilots and Other Readers Weigh In

Trump, Marine One, and the Rain: Pilots and Other Readers Weigh In

Last night I posted an item about weather conditions this past weekend in Paris, when Donald Trump joined other world leaders there, and on how rain and clouds affected helicopters, including Marine One.

(For the record, like “Air Force One,” “Marine One” isn’t a fixed name for any  particular aircraft. Whatever Air Force airplane is carrying a sitting U.S. president is, at that moment, known by the call sign Air Force One. Similarly, whatever Marine Corps helicopter carries a president is Marine One.

(Air Force One famously has had one more takeoff than landing in its history. On his final trip away from Washington in 1974, Richard Nixon took off as president, in a plane whose call sign on takeoff was Air Force One. He had already signed his resignation papers, which went into effect while he was airborne. At the appointed time, after Gerald Ford was sworn in, the pilot of Air Force One radioed Air Traffic Control and requested that the call sign be changed to SAM 26000 — Special Air Mission — which was its ID for the rest of the flight.)

My point in that post was explicitly not to second-guess military pilots or dispatchers who might have advised against Trump’s helicoptering to the commemoration site in the clouds and rain of that day. That’s their call, and they are paid (among other things) for their judgment. Rather I was addressing two points:

First, that an initial line in some news accounts –that helicopters “can’t fly” in the rain—was just not true. Whether a president should prudently fly by helicopter during marginal weather conditions is of course a different question.

Second, I wanted to emphasize that White House plans for foreign travel always allow for the possibility of bad weather or other surprises. Thus any White House staff I’m aware of, including the one on which I worked long ago during the Carter administration, would have set up redundant contingency plans for getting a president where he needed to be. (After all, the  other foreign leaders all managed to get to the site.) Part of the advance work for the trip would necessarily include thinking through how the president would reach his destinations, if the weather turned bad. I’ve been part of these meetings myself.

Now, reader responses, starting with one from a currently active Army helicopter pilot:

I am a UH-60 Pilot-in-Command in the United States Army, currently attending [an advanced training course].

In reference to your article linked below, I can see your logic and your point in this argument that WX conditions were permissive to IMC Flight and possibly VMC flight.

The issue I have is that I, as an FAA rated instrument pilot, flying within the Army’s endless rules, probably would have declined to fly VFR during this flight, and therefore would have to fly IFR which, obviously complicates air traffic, and provides higher layers of logistics and coordination to get POTUS from an instrument rated airfield (certified for the President to land at) to the event ceremony.

I wouldn’t argue that METARs are pretty accurate, but flying in Central America for fifteen months and [the mountain West] for the same, I’ve found BR and -RA can result in periods of zero visibility and to conduct the emergency procedure of Inadvertent IMC would be 100% not okay with POTUS or any VIP on board. Europe also is notorious for rotational aviation units to basically be grounded during NOV – MAR (which frustrates all the coordination for cross country clearances, airport logistics, etc.) mainly due to the fact that military helicopter pilots fly VFR.

I have no reason to defend this White House, and my voting record will show an entirely different political inclination than those currently in charge, but just wanted to ensure that we’re giving the military pilots a fair shake, especially with a risk profile that one would have to take with VIPs. With all these variables not even including icing, I can really see why it would would be possible not to accept the risk of a VFR or even an IFR flight.

And similarly from another aviation-experienced reader:

I think Trump deserves every criticism and satire that has been heaped upon him — and more — for missing the ceremony. He could have gotten there somehow, if he really wanted to.

That being said, let me also observe (as a fellow pilot, and a CFI [Certified Flight Instructor]) that whenever a US president flies, especially overseas, I’m guessing there are additional airborne security measures in place (AWACS, fighter escort). Perhaps that was a factor.

Thanks to the readers for these points. Just to  make it triply-clear: this is not at all about whatever judgment call the Marine One pilots, or other aviation authorities, might have made. As the saying goes, “It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than the other way around.” When working for a president these officials have unique burdens and responsibilities.

But once more time, the point is: White House staffs anticipate these complications, and they make multiple fallback plans precisely because of the “what if?” possibilities.

Now, several responses in a different vein. First, from a reader on the West Coast:

I too was wondering about the mystery.

Then, I believe that my mother solved it.  She said — “Donald Trump did not attend the ceremony in the rain, because his hair would have fallen apart, and he would have looked terrible.”

This explanation sounded ridiculous at first blush.  But actually, when you think it through – it sounds plausible.  I think this is likely the correct explanation of why he missed the event, and it has nothing to do with flying conditions.

His hair and image are the most important things to him, and a horrible photo of Donald Trump in the rain does far more damage to him than missing an event, with an excuse.


I almost feel bad for the guy. I imagine that his makeup (and as twitter noted on your feed, the hair) would look ridiculous in the rain. The president passionately does not want to look ridiculous. And the narrative that he was too preening to stand in the rain would be unacceptable.

The side by side comparisons to Obama, vigorous and impervious to rain would have been unbearable.

It’s a terrible state of affairs. Not to engage in whataboutism, but I wonder if a female president would have more easily been afforded a hat?


I think we’re looking for answers for Trump’s no-show in all the wrong places, places that might seem reasonable or logical.

The vanity-focussed explanation is likely the best one; Trump was afraid of what would happen to his hair in the rain and the wind. It’s both reasonable and logical, considering his obsession with his ‘do’.

Imagine the photo ops? His ego would never have survived.

Maybe we’ll eventually know who made what decisions this past weekend. For now, thanks to the readers for weighing in.

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Custom Photo Filters Are the New Instagram Gold Mine

Custom Photo Filters Are the New Instagram Gold Mine

Influencers are people who have established credibility in a specific realm or industry, and who leverage a social media following to exert influence and, usually, make money.  Scroll through many of their Instagram feeds, and you’ll begin to notice something: The photos all look vaguely the same. Maybe every image seems washed in pink, or the blues are all the same, or every image is just the right amount of faded. That’s not an accident, or an example of photographic mastery; it’s a preset.

Presets are custom filters applied using Adobe Lightroom, a photo-editing tool. Influencers run all their photos through a specific preset in order to cultivate a specific aesthetic and make their feed look cohesive. Influencers have relied on Lightroom for years, but it wasn’t until June of this year that Adobe finally introduced the ability to create and share presets entirely on mobile, and a preset boom was born.

Maddy Corbin, who lives in Indianapolis and has nearly 30,000 followers on Instagram, spent months in Lightroom, “playing around, figuring out what kind of aesthetic I had and what colors best represented my brand,” she said.  She eventually landed on a pastel-pink look that her peers were happy to pay for. Now her followers share their own photos, washed in Corbin’s exact shade of pink, using Corbin’s preset under the hashtag #MADDYCORBINPRESETS. The tagged photos all look like an extension of Corbin’s feed.

Now, Corbin isn’t just selling sonic facial brushes and cold-pressed body wash on Instagram—she’s selling the aesthetic that makes selling all that other stuff easy. Her preset packages go for between $25 and $200, and once a preset is created and uploaded to an marketplace such as FilterGrade, it can generate ongoing income with little to no additional work. This passive income can be a lifeline for influencers as they negotiate more lucrative brand deals that don’t always pay out immediately.

To use a preset, customers buy it from an online store, a download link is sent to their email, and they open the file, copy it into Lightroom, and voilà. They now have the custom filter that their favorite Instagram star applies to her own photos.

But while presets may seem easy to produce and sell online, there’s a lot more to the process than just creating a filter and slapping it on your Instagram story. One big bottleneck, according to Mike Moloney, a co-founder FilterGrade: Setting up an e-commerce site. “You have to build it, market it, then sell it, and also maintain support,” he said. FilterGrade streamlines that process by acting as the middleman between Instagram stars and consumers, intercepting customer-service queries and taking 30 percent of the profit from sales.

Business is good. Presets are “about the people selling the filters rather than the filters themselves,” Moloney said. “People used to buy and use filters on their photos just because they looked cool. Now they buy filters because someone they like made them.”

Like wearing a top from your favorite YouTuber’s custom T-shirt line, using a preset can help you feel like you’re living your idol’s lifestyle. Your photos inherently look more like theirs, and it makes you feel like you’re part of a larger fan group. Fans who use influencer presets will often hashtag their photos with the influencer’s name.

“Presets are a really great way to connect personally with people on Instagram, especially younger girls who are interested in the industry,” Corbin said. Most influencers just starting out are still honing in on their own aesthetic; cribbing the style of a popular influencer by using his presets is an easy way to get started.

Hashtags also serve as quality control. As the market for presets expands, low-quality options abound. By perusing a hashtag, customers can see exactly how well a social media star’s presets work on regular photos, without additional editing. Rachelle Swannie, who has nearly 80,000 followers on Instagram and sells packs of two presets for $25, said she regularly checks her preset hashtag to see how people are using her filters and how their photos are turning out.

Victoria Yore, a travel influencer with 67,000 Instagram followers, said working with her partner, Terrence Drysdale, a professional photographer, was key. “There are a lot of not-so-great presets out there. The person who shares a before and after may have also done a lot of editing on their photo,” she said. “We wanted to give an honest preset. We tried it on every photo out there so it would work for the maximum amount of people.”

Different types of influencers also want different types of presets. A moody influencer in Portland, Oregon, who posts cabin porn will want a different aesthetic than a Dallas fashion vlogger. Alina Dinah, a San Jose, California, lifestyle influencer, recently launched a preset called Pure that brightens the pic but doesn’t alter the colors in the photo—an oft-requested feature. “I had a lot of followers who worked with or were running brand accounts,” she said. “They wanted to use a preset, but were afraid it would change the color of the product.”

Some influencers have become more famous for their presets than for the content on their feeds. Jessica Turnquist, who has nearly 30,000 followers on Instagram, began creating presets over the summer, and it quickly morphed into a job. “I do this full-time, and I’ve made enough where I can stay home full-time with my kids and be able to do what I need to do,” said Turnquist.

She currently offers 18 different preset packs and is constantly updating her website with new options. Several reality stars and high-profile influencers say they rely on Turnquist’s filters to keep their feeds looking fresh. She said it all comes down to anticipating the Instagram community’s needs. “I have a summer preset,” she said. “People are going to want a Thanksgiving one, a Christmas one … With the holidays coming up, I figured people are indoors, so I made a brighter preset that goes better with indoor photos too.”

Dinah also put her career as a lifestyle influencer on pause in order to prioritize selling presets via a website and a dedicated Instagram account. “It’s all Instagrammers who ask for these,” she said. Several influencers saw their following spike after beginning to use her presets. One began gaining 5,000 followers a month after revamping her aesthetic. Like Turnquist, Dinah said keeping on top of trends within the Instagram-influencer community is critical to her business. She solicits feedback via Instagram Stories and runs polls to see what her followers want.

Influencers say it can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks to create a preset, depending on how complicated it is. Some influencers who work closely with photographers ask them to create a preset similar to the ones used on their feed, then sell it to their followers and split the profit.

As Instagram becomes more and more people’s default public face on the internet, even non-influencers are recognizing the importance of presets. Caroline Patterson, a senior at the University of Delaware, began selling presets under the Instagram handle @presetsbycal after noticing her favorite YouTubers selling them. Patterson said that for members of her cohort, having a well-thought-out public Instagram presence is key. “Instagram is the most used, most important social media that currently exists,” she said.

“If you want to market yourself and your own personal platform is falling through the cracks,” Patterson said, “that could be your downfall.”

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How to Remember Terror

How to Remember Terror

PARIS—Three years ago, on Nov. 13, 2015, terrorists claiming allegiance to the Islamic State opened fire in coordinated attacks across Paris, killing 130 people and wounding 494 others at the Bataclan concert hall and nearby cafés. Earlier that evening, two suicide bombers had blown themselves up outside the Stade de France, Paris’s main sports arena, where 80,000 people, including then-president François Hollande and one of his sons, were watching a soccer match. The November 13 attacks were the crescendo of a year that began with the slaughter of 12 people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and four more at a kosher supermarket, a year whose aftershocks reverberated well into the summer of 2016, when another terrorist drove a truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice killing 86 and wounding hundreds of others.

Judicial investigations into the Nov. 13 attacks are still ongoing today. Several alleged attackers are in pre-trial detention in France and Belgium. At least five others alleged to have been involved remain at large, with warrants out for their arrests, and around a dozen other terrorists died in the attacks. The French state has paid some €300 million to victims and their families, according to a recent report in Le Monde.

I think back on that Friday evening in November—I was having dinner at the home of friends—and vividly remember the feeling of learning about the attacks through Twitter and television. A feeling first of panic and breathlessness, followed by a kind of calm, even numbness. A feeling of fear mixed with anger and confusion. A feeling of resignation mixed with a desire for immediate action, of wanting to do something. A feeling of wanting to understand what was going on, to figure it out.

[Read: A terrorist’s brother—and France—on trial]

But how to figure it out? How to make sense of history when it’s happening? In the past three years, a range of books and at least one documentary film have made significant attempts at reconstructing what happened that day. Some books make an important contribution by exploring the backgrounds of some of the attackers and mapping out terrorist networks in France. Others probe why these attacks might have occurred, and why some young Muslim men (or converts) choose to become jihadists. But these books only tell certain parts of the story. They offer important information for the historical record, but too often read like police reports, indictments, or academic studies more than textured works of literature.

November 13: Attack on Paris, the three-part Netflix documentary which appeared earlier this year, captures the immediacy, confusion, and adrenaline of the night of Nov. 13, drawing on amateur footage from that night and testimony from survivors, rescue workers, and officials, including Hollande. The film is an important and moving historical document. The owner of La Bonne Bière, where the attackers opened fire, speaks painfully in it of how his wife was among the people shot and killed at the sidewalk café. Survivors of the Bataclan talk of how they climbed through a false ceiling to hide from the terrorists. The former president recalls having to determine whether to evacuate the stadium, ultimately choosing not to, and telling his son who was sitting in the stands to stay put just like everyone else. Others describe how they were taken hostage and feared they would die. One recalls a smell that was “a mix of iron, blood, and gunpowder.” Another breaks down in tears at the recollection of the high mound of dead bodies in the pit of the concert hall, where more than 80 people were killed.

The Nov. 13 terrorists took aim at people of all races and religions. And the attacks were seen as targeting everything Paris stood for and holds most dearly: its mixing of cultures, its cafés, its hedonism, its good life. No one was spared. The attackers “hit the thing that makes Paris great: A sense of freedom, of appreciating others. Our taste for life took a hit,” Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, says in the documentary.

That day marked a shift in attitudes about earlier attacks in France, which were not seen as targeting society at large, even if today, in hindsight, they are identified as harbingers. When a terrorist opened fire outside a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, killing a rabbi and three children, this was seen by some of the bien pensant of France as “only” targeting Jews. (Although during a nine-day shooting spree, the same terrorist also killed several French paratroopers of North African origin.) At the time, Jewish community leaders complained that French authorities hadn’t taken the threat of anti-Semitic violence seriously enough. When terrorists opened fire on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Jan. 2015, those attacks were seen as similarly narrow in scope: aimed again at Jews and now also free speech. But the Nov. 13 attacks made clear to much of French society that everyone was a potential target.

Several recent books have tried to grapple with the years leading up to the attacks, and the struggles, if not failures, of the French authorities to grasp the magnitude of the jihadist threat. In Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West, which appeared in English last year, Gilles Kepel, one of France’s most prominent scholars of Islam, makes a case for how Salafist jihadism, a religious ideology, took root in France through charismatic imams, who then proselytized through the internet.

[Read: France’s Jews Look to Pittsburgh “Across a Narrow Bridge”]

The role of French security services in tracking down jihadists in Syria (with the help of the United States), and the inner workings of ISIS’s own security apparatus—which had the idea of striking France—is the focus of Les Espions de la Terreur (The Spies of Terror). It’s a vivid, fast-paced new book by Matthieu Suc, an investigative journalist at the website Mediapart, which appeared this month in French. Through portraits of some of France’s most notorious recent jihadists, the book provides yet more evidence of how France, more than any other country in Europe, is grappling with homegrown terrorists.

This is also a theme in The Returned, by the extremely well-sourced journalist David Thomson, which traces the lives of several French jihadists who went to fight for the Islamic State in Syria and then attempted to come back. (It appeared in English earlier this year and in French in 2016.) Thomson writes darkly of how in 2013 and 2014, few people in France believed him when he said French jihadists in Syria were plotting attacks on French soil, as a French jihadi unit in Aleppo had told him in 2013. He writes that the same Aleppo unit he had communicated with in 2014, and which had said it was planning unspecified attacks in France, was later found responsible for the Nov. 13 attacks.

These works of reportage and intellectual history are important for the historical record and for advancing our understanding of terrorism in France. They are not works of cultural remembrance and are not intended to be. They have information, but not always heart. And that is why of all these books that touch on the attacks of 2015, the one that is most affecting—for the beauty of its prose, the complexity of its emotions, its sense of irony and humor and pain, its ability to exist in the moment and to transcend it as a universal testimony—is Le Lambeau.

It’s an extraordinary memoir by Philippe Lançon, a cultural critic, writer, and journalist whose jaw was blown apart in the attack on Charlie Hebdo when a terrorist barged in on an editorial meeting and opened fire, killing 12 people and injuring 11 others. A bestseller in France since it debuted earlier this year, Le Lambeau recently won the Prix Femina, one of France’s highest literary awards, and will appear in English next year.

Lançon writes of his months in Paris’s Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital, his slow recovery, his pain eased by morphine and Bach, offering an account interspersed with memories of his life, his childhood, his family, his first marriage, his days reporting in Cuba and Africa and the Middle East, textured with references to the literature and music and culture that has shaped him—jazz and Baudelaire and Kafka. Through his flashbacks, he reclaims his life.

The book’s title can be translated literally as “tatters.” It’s a line from a play by Jean Racine, but it can also refer to a shred of flesh. Lançon introduces the concept at a moment when doctors decide to graft a piece of skin from his leg onto his face to help reconstruct it, one of no fewer than 17 surgeries he has undergone since the attack. He captures the morning of the attacks at Charlie Hebdo in excruciating, poetic detail from memory, and later from reading the police report, where he discovers, among other things, that one of his colleagues, a graphic artist, died with his pen still in his hand, “like a resident of Pompeii blocked in lava, before he even knew that the eruption had taken place.” He recalls the screams of his colleagues, shouts of “Allahu Akbar,” the dry sound of bullets.

For much of his hospital stay, Lançon is unable to speak, and with three unbandaged fingers he communicates by writing on a slate. One day, the nurses attending him are doing a crossword puzzle. “Madame Bovary in four letters” is one clue. They’re stumped. Lançon takes his slate and writes, simply, “Emma.” This is one of countless passages in the book that moved me: Here was someone, in great pain, the target of an attack with geopolitical importance, trying to maintain his humanity through his intense personal culture. This is why Le Lambeau stands out amid all the other accounts of the attacks—for Lançon’s lovely prose and the subtleties of his mind.  

At one point, Lançon starts to read the papers and comes upon references to the Kouachi brothers, who carried out the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and is struck by the sheer quantity of nonsense and “the capacity of the contemporary world to yammer on with explanations and commentary of absolutely no significance.” He refers to the attackers as “the Brothers K.,” as in the Dostoevsky novel. “The brouhaha around the Brothers K. was a Dostoevsky epidemic,” he writes. “Everyone imagined himself to be the epileptic novelist, everyone wanted to understand and reckon with the acts of the two men in custody.” There has been a lot of journalism, as well there should be. But Le Lambeau is literature, and as such it goes far deeper. It is not an overtly political book, but it is a beautiful and subtle defense of everything the terrorists attacked.

Reading Le Lambeau, I understood how the terrorist attacks had affected me. After the initial fear wore off, rather than making me want to leave—the perennial prerogative of the expat, the voluntary immigrant—they had in fact made me feel closer to France, more admiring of its culture, more sympathetic to its flaws and weaknesses. Above all, the attacks made me realize that I actually lived in Paris, that the flat gray November sky was my sky, too, and it would be wise to start to look around. When, in the aftermath of the attacks, signs cropped up across the city with the centuries-old Latin motto of Paris, Fluctuat nec mergitur (“She is tempest-tossed but does not sink”), it resonated. And still does.

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You Have Your Mother’s Relationship History

You Have Your Mother’s Relationship History

Some people have their mothers’ eyes. And some, it turns out, grow up to have their mothers’ romantic history.

People whose mothers have been married multiple times or lived with multiple romantic partners are more likely to do so themselves, according to a new study published Tuesday in the journal PLoSOne. The longer people are exposed to their mothers’ cohabitation, the more sexual partners they tend to have.

The authors looked at data from surveys of thousands of Americans followed for 24 years. Data on the fathers’ marriages wasn’t available.

The study authors write that, rather than economics or socialization, the most likely explanation was genetic. That is, some people have personality traits that make them better or worse at maintaining relationships. They might be depressed, have trust issues, or not regulate their emotions well. They then pass those traits onto their children, who go on to have similarly short-lived relationships.

Past research has already suggested that personality traits we inherit can influence our romantic relationships. People who are more depressed, for example, have been shown to have less stable relationships, while those who are more extroverted and agreeable tend to be more sought-after spouses.

[Read: Marriage proposals are stupid]

“It could be that mothers who have more partners don’t have great relationship skills, or don’t deal with conflict well, or have mental-health problems, each of which can undermine relationships and lead to instability,” Claire Kamp Dush, the lead author of the study and an associate professor of human sciences at the Ohio State University, said in a statement. “Whatever the exact mechanisms, they may pass these characteristics on to their children, making their children’s relationships less stable.”

Of course, some mothers with multiple partners are perfectly well-adjusted and happy. They simply like having lots of different partners and have no desire to marry. Still, past studies have shown that children of divorce are also more likely to get divorced themselves, in part because they tend to enter into marriage with lower levels of commitment. This new study—and others like it—suggests we mimic other elements of our parents’ romantic lives, beyond divorce.

“It’s not just divorce now,” Kamp Dush said. “Many children are seeing their parents divorce, start new cohabiting relationships, and having those end as well.”

On the plus side, if you do find your serious relationships ending, having your mother’s eyes might help you when you try to find a new one.

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Whitaker’s Appointment Is Unconstitutional

Whitaker’s Appointment Is Unconstitutional

President Trump appointed Matt Whitaker as acting attorney general last week, despite the fact that he cannot legally hold the office. While the president could fix his mistake with any lesser official in any normal time, the attorney general is no lesser official and this is no normal time. Whitaker takes office during a time of extreme constitutional conflict involving investigations of the president, claims of abuse of law-enforcement and national-security powers, and combat between the executive and legislative branches. In order to prevent a breakdown of federal law enforcement, the White House should hurry to select a permanent attorney general before any more damage is done.

Trump named Whitaker to replace Jeff Sessions, who resigned at the request of the White House the day after the November midterm elections. In an example of the small-ball politics at work, Whitaker reportedly came to the attention of the White House because of his publicly expressed criticism of the special counsel investigation into collusion between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign. Before joining the Justice Department as Sessions’s chief of staff, Whitaker had urged that the inquiry’s scope be limited, saying that otherwise it could start to look like a “political fishing expedition.” After FBI agents raided the home of the Trump campaign’s former chair, Paul Manafort, Whitaker tweeted: “Do we want our Gov’t to ‘intimidate’ us?” and linked to a Fox News story that said the raid was “designed to intimidate.”

Trump, however, has declared that he barely knows Whitaker and has not discussed the Mueller investigation with him. If so, the White House may have appointed Whitaker in a too-clever-by-half effort to limit the probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller. When a senior government official resigns, dies, or cannot do his or her job, the Vacancies Reform Act allows the president to appoint another official of the same federal agency “to perform the functions and duties of the vacant office temporarily in an acting capacity.” Whitaker’s appointment clearly meets the terms of the congressional statute.

[Paul Rosenzweig: It wouldn’t be easy for Whitaker to shut down the Trump investigations]

But Whitaker’s appointment must still conform to a higher law: the Constitution. As the Supreme Court observed as recently as this year, Article II provides the exclusive method for the appointment of “officers of the United States.” The president “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States.” The appointments clause further allows that “the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the courts of law, or in the heads of departments.”

The Constitution, therefore, recognizes only two types of federal officers. First, there are what the Supreme Court has come to recognize as “principal” officers, who require presidential appointment with Senate advice and consent. Second, there are “inferior” officers, posts for which Congress can choose to allow appointment by the president, courts, or even cabinet members alone. As the nation’s top lawyer, the attorney general heads one of the four “great” departments of government, along with State, Defense, and Treasury, and the office has existed since the first Washington administration. The attorney general is clearly a principal officer of the government; if he or she is not, it is difficult to imagine what other officer is—the Supreme Court said as much in Morrison v. Olson, the 1988 case upholding the constitutionality of the independent counsel as an inferior officer because she reported to the attorney general as the principal officer.

Whitaker’s appointment violates the appointments clause’s clear text because he serves as attorney general, even if in an acting capacity, but he never underwent Senate advice and consent. His defenders might consider the appointments clause to be an antiquated, ceremonial, or obsolete process that could not possibly support the massive number of officials in today’s administrative state. It might need to give way to the practical demands of staffing a modern executive branch with hundreds of thousands of officers and employees, more than a dozen major agencies, and hundreds of commissions, boards, and other odds and ends, with officers who might resign, die, or go AWOL without time to proceed through the 18th century’s idea of a human-resources manual. Defenders might rely on an 1898 Supreme Court decision, U.S. v. Eaton, which allowed for the temporary appointment of a vice-consul in Thailand because “for a limited time, and under special and temporary conditions,” namely, the illness of the consul and the vast distance between the U.S. and Thailand. This is basically the approach of a 2003 Justice Department opinion approving the elevation of an assistant OMB director to acting director, and the likely reasoning of the White House in appointing Whitaker.

[Benjamin Wittes: It’s probably too late to stop Mueller.]

Elevating practical needs over constitutional meaning, however, is not an attitude usually adopted by conservatives. They generally believe that the original understanding of the Constitution held by those who ratified it should govern—Justice Clarence Thomas, the Court’s most committed originalist, set out precisely the reasoning of this article in a concurring opinion in last year’s NLRB v. SW General, which struck down the recess appointment of an NLRB officer. Nor is it the view of the Supreme Court, which has continued to demand that all federal officers meet the appointments clause’s requirements. It is difficult to see the Roberts Court finding that the acting attorney general, responsible for all federal law enforcement in the nation, amounts to the same sort of officer as a vice consul struggling in the hinterlands of Thailand before the days of air flight and instantaneous communications.

Nor was flexibility in appointments the view of those who wrote and approved the Constitution. Their views seem to find special relevance in today’s troubled times. The joint process for approving principal officers “would be an excellent check upon a spirit of favoritism in the President, and would tend greatly to prevent the appointment of unfit characters from State prejudice, from family connection, from personal attachment, or from a view to popularity,” Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist 76. The Senate’s approval serves as an important weapon in the unending struggle between the president and Congress, from which liberty results. “A man who had himself the sole disposition of offices, would be governed much more by his private inclinations and interests,” Hamilton wrote.

To prevent the president from using appointments to advance his private interests, just as Trump critics today charge, the Constitution prohibits filling the position of attorney general with a series of officials who never received Senate consent. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, the several assistant attorneys general, even any of the 93 U.S. attorneys in the nation’s major cities can all temporarily fill in for Sessions, as they all received senatorial advice and consent. Whitaker, and any other Justice Department official or employee, cannot.

[Read: Democrats quickly confront the limits of their power to stop Trump]

Our Founders were practical too. They understood that “it might be necessary for the public service to fill [vacancies] without delay” when nine months could run between congressional sessions. So there is an exception to the appointments clause: “[t]he President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.” Article II’s text allows unilateral executive appointments only when a vacancy occurs between the first and second years of a Congress, or between an election and a new Congress. If Trump wants to appoint Whitaker as attorney general, he could just wait for the recess between the Congress just ending and the one just elected, which will fill its seats in January 2019.

All of this matters, of course, because of the ongoing probe by Mueller, who reports to the attorney general. Because Sessions was recused (as a former foreign-policy adviser to the Trump campaign, he could have been a witness to any alleged conspiracy), Mueller has reported instead to Rosenstein, who serves as acting attorney general for that purpose—and would continue to serve as Mueller’s direct supervisor should Whitaker’s appointment fail. The White House may have thought it had cleverly figured out a way to curtail the investigation by appointing Whitaker, but it has instead virtually assured that Mueller will complete his job in his own good time. With questions surrounding the ethics and now the legality of his appointment, Whitaker will have little political capital to expend in defending any limits on Mueller. And even if Whitaker displays terrible judgment and makes the fateful choice to cut off the probe, Mueller now has the grounds to refuse to obey the orders of an unconstitutional attorney general. Trump’s clever maneuvering has provided Mueller all the space he needs to finish his investigation and even hand over his files and concluding report to a Congress eager to launch impeachment proceedings.

Trump critics should not find joy in such a result. While a constitutionally handicapped attorney general remains in office, it is not only the special-counsel investigation that he cannot supervise. Every action of the Justice Department might fall before challenges to Whitaker’s appointment. That could render vulnerable not just the high matters of state, such as the investigation into the Trump campaign, but the regular enforcement of federal law by FBI agents and prosecutors across the nation, every day. Liberals no less than conservatives should oppose a hiatus in the execution of federal law. The only way to cure it is for the president to quickly nominate an attorney general from the deep pool of qualified candidates, and for the Senate to speedily confirm him or her, so that our officials can get back to the business of carrying out the nation’s laws.

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The 2018 National Geographic Photo Contest

The 2018 National Geographic Photo Contest

National Geographic Magazine’s annual photo contest is still open for entries for just a couple of more days, with the deadline for submissions coming up on November 15, 2018. The Grand Prize Winner this year will receive $5,000—all winners to be announced in December. The folks at National Geographic were once more kind enough to let me choose among the contest entries so far and share them here with you. Captions written by the individual photographers, lightly edited for content.

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Amazon’s HQ2 Spectacle Isn’t Just Shameful—It Should Be Illegal

Amazon’s HQ2 Spectacle Isn’t Just Shameful—It Should Be Illegal

The Amazon HQ2 saga had all the hallmarks of the gaudiest reality TV. It was an absurd spectacle, concluding with a plot twist, which revealed a deep and dark truth about the modern world.

Fourteen months ago, Amazon announced a national beauty contest, in which North American cities could apply to win the honor of landing the retailer’s second headquarters. The prize: 50,000 employees and the glory of housing an international tech giant. The cost? Just several billion dollars in tax incentives and a potential face-lift to the host city. Then last week, in a classic late-episode shock, several news outlets reported that Amazon would split its second headquarters between Crystal City, a suburban neighborhood near Washington, D.C., and Long Island City, in Queens, New York.

The rumored announcement has emboldened Amazon’s army of critics. Did the world’s smartest company really need 13 months, and applications from 238 cities, to reach the striking conclusion that it should invest in New York and D.C.?  The former is America’s heart of capital, and the latter is America’s literal capital, where Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon, already owns a house and a newspaper.

[Annie Lowrey: Amazon was never going to choose Detroit.]

Was this national auction nothing more than a scripted drama to raise the value of the inevitable winning bid? And did the retailer miss an opportunity to revitalize a midwestern city by choosing to enrich the already-rich East Coast?

All good questions. But here’s the big one: Why the hell are U.S. cities spending tens of billions of dollars to steal jobs from one another in the first place?

Every year, American cities and states spend up to $90 billion in tax breaks and cash grants to urge companies to move among states. That’s more than the federal government spends on housing, education, or infrastructure. And since cities and states can’t print money or run steep deficits, these deals take scarce resources from everything local governments would otherwise pay for, such as schools, roads, police, and prisons.

In the past 10 years, Boeing, Nike, Intel, Royal Dutch Shell, Tesla, Nissan, Ford, and General Motors have each received subsidy packages worth more than $1 billion to either move their corporate headquarters within the U.S. or, quite often, to keep their headquarters right where they are. New Jersey and Maryland reportedly offered $7 billion for HQ2, which would be the biggest corporate giveaway in American history.

You might think, Don’t blame the companies. These businesses have a fiduciary obligation to make money, and it’s negligent to leave cash piles on the table while their competitors are raking it in. And you might even think, Don’t blame the local governments. Not bidding on an exciting new project feels akin to unilateral disarmament in a war for talent and business. Sometimes a big new firm can revitalize a downtown area and become a magnet for new firms.

[Read: I delivered packages for Amazon and it was a nightmare.]

But there are three major problems with America’s system of corporate giveaways.

First, they’re redundant. One recent study by Nathan Jensen, then an economist at George Washington University, found that these incentives “have no discernible impact on firm expansion, measured by job creation.” Companies often decide where they want to go and then find ways to get their dream city, or hometown, to pay them to do what they were going to do anyway. For example, Amazon is a multinational company with large media and advertising divisions. The drama of the past 13 months probably wasn’t crucial to its (probable) decision to expand to New York City, the unambiguous capital of media and advertising.

Second, companies don’t always hold up their end of the deal. Consider the saga of Wisconsin and the Chinese manufacturing giant Foxconn. Several years ago, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker lured Foxconn with a subsidy plan totaling more than $3 billion. (For the same amount, you could give every household in Wisconsin about $1,700.) Foxconn said it would build a large manufacturing plant that would create about 13,000  jobs near Racine. Now it seems the company is building a much smaller factory with just one quarter of its initial promised investment, and much of the assembly work may be done by robots. Meanwhile, the expected value of Wisconsin’s subsidy has grown to more than $4 billion. Thus a state with declining wages for many public-school teachers could wind up paying more than $500,000 per net new Foxconn job—about 10 times the average salary of a Wisconsin teacher.

Third, even when the incentives aren’t redundant, and even when companies do hold up their end of the bargain, it’s still ludicrous for Americans to collectively pay tens of billions of dollars for huge corporations to relocate within the United States.

No story illuminates this absurdity more than the so-called Border War, in which the Kansas and Missouri sides of Kansas City have spent zillions of dollars dragging companies back and forth across state lines, within the same metro area. Several years ago, Kansas lured AMC Entertainment with tens of millions of dollars in incentives. Then Missouri responded by stealing Applebee’s headquarters from Kansas with another incentive package. Back and forth they went, until both states had spent half a billion dollars creating no net new jobs but changing the commutes of 10,000 Kansas City workers who got caught up in an interstate duel.

“We need a national truce, both within states and between states,” said Amy Liu, the director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. “There should be no more poaching of private companies with public funds.” But how would the United States ban states and local governments from poaching jobs from one another, or from giving tax dollars to private corporations?

First, Congress could pass a national law banning this sort of corporate bribery. Mark Funkhouser, a former mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, envisions the law as the domestic version of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it illegal for Americans to bribe foreign officials.

[Read: The history of Sears predicts nearly everything Amazon is doing.]

It’s not entirely clear whether that would pass constitutional muster. The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled decisively on whether the Commerce Clause gives Washington the authority to ban interstate bidding wars. In the 2006 Supreme Court case DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno, Ohio taxpayers sued the state after it paid the automaker DaimlerChrysler about $280 million in tax exemptions and tax credits. The Sixth Circuit Court sided with the taxpayers, striking down Ohio’s subsidy as a violation of the Commerce Clause. But the Supreme Court avoided a final judgment on the matter by finding unanimously that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the suit.

Second, Congress could make corporate subsidies less valuable by threatening to tax state or local incentives as a special kind of income. “Congress should institute a federal tax of 100 percent” on corporate subsidies, Jack Markell, a former governor of Delaware, wrote in The New York Times. “This would not include investments in public infrastructure, work force development or other investments that can attract employers while also providing a significant long-term benefit to taxpayers.” Taxing subsidies would hopefully force cities to change their economic-development strategies, from importing other states’ companies to building their own—through investing in research universities, building more housing, and welcoming immigrants, since foreign-born Americans have the highest rates of entrepreneurship.

Finally, the federal government could actively discourage the culture of corporate subsidies by yelling, screaming, and penny-pinching. As Meagan Day wrote in Jacobin, “The federal government could withhold funds from governors and mayors who threaten to poach jobs from other states, or who won’t disclose their incentive packages.” Washington tends to look on quietly when cash-strapped states break the bank to welcome glitzy tech firms. But an attitude change at the top could trickle down to the local level. Donald Trump, or another president, could have made a national address after the HQ2 announcement slamming Amazon for soliciting taxpayer funds in a silent auction. He could have called a summit to encourage the nation’s mayors and governors to offer the same tax subsidy for HQ2—zero dollars and zero cents. Even a tweet could suffice: “7 BILLION FOR BEZOS?? Trillion-dollar companies in America don’t need our welfare! Bad!”

But no one is yelling and screaming. Instead, in a starkly divided country, corporate pandering is the last bastion of bipartisanship, an activity enjoyed by both Democrats and Republicans at every level of government. New Jersey and Maryland, both blue states, insisted that Amazon take $7 billion in tax savings just months after congressional Republicans passed a corporate income-tax cut that some analysts project will save Amazon nearly $1 billion over the next decade.

Corporate America is getting all the help it doesn’t need. You and I may not like it. But executives such as Jeff Bezos have no reason to care. They are winning by the rules of a broken game.

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