Mother Jones Magazine

Bernie Wins Nevada in a Landslide

Only about 5 percent of the votes have been counted so far, but everyone has called the Nevada race for Bernie Sanders, who appears to have won nearly half the delegates.  Joe Biden came in a distant second with a little less than 20 percent and Pete Buttigieg came in third at around 15 percent.

This is obviously not good news for Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar, neither of whom did well. But Biden, at least, may have stanched his bleeding just in time for the South Carolina primary next weekend. Then it’s on to Super Tuesday, where Mike Bloomberg will finally enter the race. It’s gonna be exciting!

UPDATE: According to an ABC News entrance poll, Sanders did well among Hispanics and independents. He won only a quarter of whites and blacks and only 30 percent of Democrats—though that was more than anyone else. I wonder if his relative weakness among Democrats will hurt him going forward?

Bernie Sanders Wins the Nevada Caucuses

Bernie Sanders has won Nevada’s Saturday caucuses, notching another victory on his quest to secure the Democratic nomination. His campaign counted on a massive field organization to turn out early voters, especially among Latinos, but it appears he also won most of the key day-of caucus sites staged at major hotels and resorts along the Las Vegas strip.

While the complete outcome is not yet available, Nevada’s caucuses have not devolved into the complete mayhem that unfolded in Iowa, which, despite Sanders having had more supporters participate in the contest, ended with an indecisive delegate result between him and Pete Buttigieg. Now with clear wins in New Hampshire and Nevada under his belt, Sanders has solidified his place at the front of the pack seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination.

As Mother Jones’ Tim Murphy wrote after the Vermont senator’s win in New Hampshire, “Sanders has become something that for most of his political career would have seemed like a joke: Right now, Bernie Sanders is the closest thing the Democratic presidential race has to a frontrunner, and he’s done it with a campaign operation that is its own kind of statement of the country he wants to build.”

Sonia Sotomayor Calls Out the Supreme Court Majority for Its Trump Bias

Following a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling issued Friday night, the Trump administration can move ahead with enforcing a rule designed to make it harder for poor and working-class immigrants to get green cards. Last month, the court split along the same lines to remove a nationwide injunction from a district judge in New York. Now, SCOTUS removes the remaining obstacle in Illinois from another lower court.

The rule is likely to disproportionately affect people from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. After court injunctions, the Trump administration appealed to the Supreme Court to move ahead with the policy. Because it acted under an emergency application, the majority did not have to explain its reasoning. 

Of the four liberal justices who dissented, only Justice Sonia Sotomayor offered an explanation. It is scathing. As Slate writer Mark Joseph Stern noted, Sotomayor unusually calls out the Republican appointees on the court for a “familiar pattern:” bias toward the Trump administration. 

“It is hard to say what is more troubling: that the Government would seek this extraordinary relief seemingly as a matter of course, or that the Court would grant it,” she wrote.

Her dissent continues:

Claiming one emergency after another, the Government has recently sought stays in an unprecedented number of cases, demanding immediate attention and consuming limited Court resources in each. And with each successive application, of course, its cries of urgency ring increasingly hollow.

Read it in full here.

Experts Are Losing Hope That the Coronavirus Can Be Contained

The novel coronavirus is not an official pandemic yet, but experts warn that it’s becoming more and more difficult to contain. 

“The window of opportunity is still there, but our window of opportunity is narrowing,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said at a news conference on Friday in Geneva. “We need to act quickly before it closes completely.” 

According to the WHO, on Friday there were more than 76,000 confirmed cases and 2,300 deaths in China. Outside of China, the respiratory virus has spread, with 1,200 cases in 26 countries. South Korea saw its cases double in one day to 200 new infections confirmed on Saturday. 

The United States so far has 34 cases, all linked to travel abroad. That number, the New York Times says, is expected to rise with the Diamond Princess Cruise ship passengers yet to be counted. 

“This outbreak could still go in any direction,” Tedros said. Countries with poor health-care infrastructure are the biggest concern for public health researchers like Yanzhong Huang of the Council on Foreign Relations. “I’m not concerned about Japan or South Korea,” Huang told CNBC. “I’m more concerned about Iran,”

Meanwhile, in the United States, experts worry that the public health infrastructure is unprepared for a pandemic. The Trump administration has left a leadership vacuum at the Centers for Disease Control and stalled a biodefense strategy that would prepare the United States for epidemics. This week, the Washington Post reported that the State Department overrode the CDC to fly 14 infected passengers who were on the Diamond Princess cruise ship back to the United States on a chartered flight without telling fellow uninfected passengers. 

Only three states—California, Nebraska, and Illinois—have the ability to test for new infections, according to the Association of Public Health Laboratories. Even though the Food and Drug Administration approved a test two weeks ago, initial problems have delayed the roll-out for 100 public health labs nationwide. 

Only three U.S. states can test for #coronavirus. We have been arguing about the financing mechanism for health care for over ten years, even as our health system *itself* has fallen apart.

— Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) February 21, 2020

Globally, the coronavirus has also taken a major toll on the economy, especially because of stalled factory operations in China. The research firm Capital Economics estimates that the disease will cost the world $280 billion in the first quarter this year. If that happens, it will be the first quarter in which the GDP will not grow since the economic recession in 2009. 

The battle against the coronavirus is not just about preventing the spread of the virus itself. The reaction to the outbreak has also been mixed up with racist, xenophobic responses. Officials are working to counter the viral spread of false information, which WHO calls an “infodemic.” The group has launched a pilot program to combat conspiracy theories that claim the coronavirus is a man-made bioweapon—and to promote practices that really do stop its spread, like frequent, thorough hand-washing. 

Trump Taunts Nevada Democratic Primary About Russian Meddling

The Nevada Democratic caucus is today, and President Donald Trump spent his morning on Twitter, suggesting that Democrats “be careful of Russia, Russia, Russia.”

Democrats in the Great State of Nevada (Which, because of the Economy, Jobs, the Military & Vets, I will win in November), be careful of Russia, Russia, Russia. According to Corrupt politician Adam “Shifty” Schiff, they are pushing for Crazy Bernie Sanders to win. Vote!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 22, 2020

There is a bit to unpack here.

First, there’s Trump’s history of dismissing concerns about Russian interference. Faced with evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Trump has claimed  it was actually the work of a deep state conspiracy. And when he was briefed recently about what Russia plans for the 2020 election—which includes disrupting the Democratic primaries and general election to undermine American confidence in the democratic process—he basically threw a tantrum

In his tweet this morning, Trump seems to be referencing a 2019 report from special counsel Robert Mueller that indicated that Russia might want to boost Sanders in his primary against Hillary Clinton. The New York Times reported Friday, “The report quoted internal documents from the Internet Research Agency, a troll factory sponsored by Russian intelligence, in an order to its operatives: ‘Use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest except for Sanders and Trump — we support them.'”

Then there is the name-calling of Rep. Adam Schiff, who led the impeachment proceedings. Schiff attended the recent intelligence briefing with Trump, and Trump was reportedly angry that his critic was present. At that briefing, officials confirmed that Russia has hoped to disrupt the 2020 Democratic primaries. 

The final thing to note here: In his tweet, Trump urged citizens to “Vote!”—yet Nevada Republicans actually are missing out on the primary process. In a bid last year to avoid a possible serious challenge to Trump in the primary, the state GOP canceled its caucus.

Our Lizard Brains Still Reign Supreme

From Alex Tabarrok, responding to a study of what patients value in a hospital:¹

I do wish that patients paid more attention to the outputs of sophisticated statistical models when choosing doctors and hospitals, as I think this would improve quality, but mostly they don’t.

Me too, Alex, me too. However, even among my pretty smart friends, I can’t get them to prioritize even a simple time-series chart over their gut feeling of what “must be true.” And even if I do make a tiny bit of headway on some subject or another, if I bring it up again a month later it turns out they’ve completely forgotten everything I said. They’re back to whatever barstool opinion they had before.

We are overclocked primates. It takes intense training to get humans to overcome the constant mutterings of their lizard brains and pay attention instead to quantitative evidence—i.e., to produce scientists—and even among scientists this training works only in a pinch. This is why elections are won by appealing to people’s emotions, not trying to change their view of the facts. We may be proud of our massive prefrontal cortexes, but they’re merely a thin veneer over the billion years of evolution that produced the rest of our brain.

¹Quiet rooms and nice nurses, it turns out.

Rejoice! It’s Finally Caucus Day in Nevada

Andrew Yang may have had more fun running for president than anyone else in the Democratic field, but if that really was what the presidential race was all about you’d have to figure that Tom Steyer would at least get delegates. Nevada has not been a great state for the billionaire businessman, as far as “getting elected president” goes. After poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, he failed to qualify for the Wednesday debate in Las Vegas, and despite showering the state in ads—on the Latin Mix radio station, you’ll only hear Bernie more—he’s not likely to wow anyone when the caucus results come in this afternoon.

But at least he’s losing with a lot of style. When I showed up on Tuesday during the final hours of early voting, there he was outside the headquarters of the Culinary Union, next to a taco truck and mariachi band, both of which he paid for and was offering up to voters for their enjoyment. And on Friday, as candidates all made one final pitch, Steyer was at an events space just south of downtown, where…TLC…? …was performing… No Scrubs?


Happy birthday to me, here’s “No Scrubs”

— Ben Pu (@BenPu_nbc) February 22, 2020

Steyer best captured the decadent spirit of the city, but if you wanted a glimpse of how today’s caucuses might play out, you had to go to the suburbs a little bit further west, where Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden held dueling events about a mile apart.

An hour and a half before Sanders’ rally was set to kick off, at an outdoor amphitheater on the grounds of the state museum, the line to get in snaked through two parking lots. (The campaign put out an are-they-pulling-my-leg-here official crowd estimate of 2,020.) That’s in keeping with Sanders’ key to victory here—an overwhelming show of force. For the third consecutive contest, he’s argued that his campaign wants record-breaking turnout. And with a massive field organization turning out the vote, there’s at least some indication that they’re on track; almost as many Nevadans voted early this year as voted on caucus day in 2016 (when there was no early voting) and Sanders’ march to the polls last Saturday with a mass of supporters in heavily Latino East Las Vegas launched a frantic week of the dreaded “expectations-setting” from rival campaigns. In other words: many of the votes he’s counting on are already in the bank.

As with his rock-concert kickoff in New Hampshire, the election-eve rally was a projection of confidence and inevitability. As his opponents fight amongst themselves (and increasingly, with him) Sanders often acts as if, save for the useful billionaire foil Michael Bloomberg, he is already running against Trump.

Meanwhile, about a mile down the road, Biden’s last event was a far more subdued affair. A few hundred people, perhaps, fit in a small gymnasium at a middle school and efforts to start supportive chants fizzled out fast. Biden, who led virtually every poll of the state into February, represents on paper the best chance to slow down the Sanders coronation here. His opening speakers—two of the state’s three Democratic members of Congress, Steven Horsford and Dina Titus—and backdrop (members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, in matching navy t-shirts) spoke to the institutional support he enjoys. Horsford, like another dignitary in the room, state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, was a former official at the powerful Culinary Union, which did not endorse a candidate but engaged in a weeks-long feud with Sanders over both his health-care plan and the behavior of his supporters.

Biden supporters have chalked up some of his shortcomings in the first two states to the relative homogeneity of Iowa and New Hampshire. Horsford expressed his relief that “a state that reflects the diversity of our country and of our party finally gets our say tomorrow.” Or as a precinct captain in the crowd put it to me: “White Hampshire” was behind them. Titus, for her part, did her best to dispel speculation that Biden might settle for second: “We’re gonna take him over the top tomorrow,” she predicted.

But Biden still sounds like he’s playing catch-up, if not in Nevada, then in many of the states to come. He used his remarks to get in a few more digs at Sanders. “[A]ll those health care plans you gave up wages for and negotiated for” would go away, if Sanders won, he said. Oh, and by the way, single-payer health care “got passed in Vermont, no one remembers this …and it lasted about 12 seconds!” Sanders and Bloomberg were finally getting the kind of critical examination he faced for a year. “They’re not bad folks,” he said. “They’re just not Democrats.”

Biden stuck around afterwards shaking hands and posing for photos until only a few supporters remained, and Cher started playing over the loudspeaker. “I Believe He Would Be Honest,Smart,”CIVIL”PRES.Who Doesn’t Have 2 Learn On The Job,” she tweeted on Monday. He may not have done enough, but he had, at least, won over one undecided voter this week.

Bernie Sanders Is Way Ahead in Nevada

As we head into the fine, bright morning of the 2020 Nevada caucuses, Real Clear Politics tells us that Bernie Sanders is way ahead of the pack:

If we’re all being honest, what we’re really interested in is whether Nevada has botched its vote reporting tech the way Iowa did. I hope not. I don’t care all that much about the Nevada caucuses, but I am a technophile and this kind of thing gives tech a bad name.

One warning: the RCP poll aggregation is based on only two recent polls, so take it with a grain of salt. It’s also worth noting that you have to reach a threshold of 15 percent in order to be viable, and there’s practically a trainwreck of candidates clustered around 10-15 percent. Second choices could be really important here.

If You See a Tweet About the Climate Crisis, There’s a 1 in 4 Chance It’s a Bot

This story was originally published by The Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The social media conversation over the climate crisis is being reshaped by an army of automated Twitter bots, with a new analysis finding that a quarter of all tweets about climate on an average day are produced by bots, the Guardian can reveal.

The stunning levels of Twitter bot activity on topics related to global heating and the climate crisis is distorting the online discourse to include far more climate science denialism than it would otherwise.

An analysis of millions of tweets from around the period when Donald Trump announced the US would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement found that bots tended to applaud the president for his actions and spread misinformation about the science.

The study of Twitter bots and climate was undertaken by Brown University and has yet to be published. Bots are a type of software that can be directed to autonomously tweet, retweet, like or direct message on Twitter, under the guise of a human-fronted account.

“These findings suggest a substantial impact of mechanized bots in amplifying denialist messages about climate change, including support for Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement,” states the draft study, seen by the Guardian.

On an average day during the period studied, 25% of all tweets about the climate crisis came from bots. This proportion was higher in certain topics – bots were responsible for 38% of tweets about “fake science” and 28% of all tweets about the petroleum giant Exxon.

Conversely, tweets that could be categorized as online activism to support action on the climate crisis featured very few bots, at about 5% prevalence. The findings “suggest that bots are not just prevalent, but disproportionately so in topics that were supportive of Trump’s announcement or skeptical of climate science and action”, the analysis states.

Thomas Marlow, a PhD candidate at Brown who led the study, said the research came about as he and his colleagues are “always kind of wondering why there’s persistent levels of denial about something that the science is more or less settled on”.

The researchers examined 6.5m tweets posted in the days leading up to and the month after Trump announced the US exit from the Paris accords on 1 June 2017. The tweets were sorted into topic category, with an Indiana University tool called Botometer used to estimate the probability the user behind the tweet is a bot.

Marlow said he was surprised that bots were responsible for a quarter of climate tweets on an average day. “I was like, ‘Wow that seems really high,’” he said.

The consistent drumbeat of bot activity around climate topics is highlighted by the day of Trump’s announcement, when a huge spike in general interest in the topic saw the bot proportion drop by about half to 13%. Tweets by suspected bots did increase from hundreds a day to more than 25,000 a day during the days around the announcement but it wasn’t enough to prevent a fall in proportional share.

“In terms of influence, I personally am convinced that they do make a difference, although this can be hard to quantify.”

Trump has consistently spread misinformation about the climate crisis, most famously calling it “bullshit” and a “hoax”, although more recently the US president has said he accepts the science that the world is heating up. Nevertheless, his administration has dismantled any major policy aimed at cutting planet-warming gases, including car emissions standards and restrictions on coal-fired power plants.

The Brown University study wasn’t able to identify any individuals or groups behind the battalion of Twitter bots, nor ascertain the level of influence they have had around the often fraught climate debate.

However, a number of suspected bots that have consistently disparaged climate science and activists have large numbers of followers on Twitter. One that ranks highly on the Botometer score, @sh_irredeemable, wrote “Get lost Greta!” in December, in reference to the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

This was followed by a tweet that doubted the world will reach a 9-billion population due to “#climatechange lunacy stopping progress”. The account has nearly 16,000 followers.

Another suspected bot, @petefrt, has nearly 52,000 followers and has repeatedly rejected climate science. “Get real, CNN: ‘Climate Change’ dogma is religion, not science,” the account posted in August. Another tweet from November called for the Paris agreement to be ditched in order to “reject a future built by globalists and European eco-mandarins”.

Twitter accounts spreading falsehoods about the climate crisis are also able to use the promoted tweets option available to those willing to pay for extra visibility. Twitter bans a number of things from its promoted tweets, including political content and tobacco advertising, but allows any sort of content, true or otherwise, on the climate crisis.

Research on internet blogs published last year found that climate misinformation is often spread due to readers’ perception of how widely this opinion is shared by other readers.

Stephan Lewandowsky, an academic at the University of Bristol who co-authored the research, said he was “not at all surprised” at the Brown University study due to his own interactions with climate-related messages on Twitter.

“More often than not, they turn out to have all the fingerprints of bots,” he said. “The more denialist trolls are out there, the more likely people will think that there is a diversity of opinion and hence will weaken their support for climate science.

“In terms of influence, I personally am convinced that they do make a difference, although this can be hard to quantify.”

John Cook, an Australian cognitive scientist and co-author with Lewandowsky, said that bots are “dangerous and potentially influential”, with evidence showing that when people are exposed to facts and misinformation they are often left misled.

“This is one of the most insidious and dangerous elements of misinformation spread by bots – not just that misinformation is convincing to people but that just the mere existence of misinformation in social networks can cause people to trust accurate information less or disengage from the facts,” Cook said.

Although Twitter bots didn’t ramp up significantly around the Paris withdrawal announcement, some advocates of action to tackle the climate crisis are wary of a spike in activity around the US presidential election later this year.

“Even though we don’t know who they are, or their exact motives, it seems self-evident that Trump thrives on the positive reinforcement he receives from these bots and their makers,” said Ed Maibach, an expert in climate communication at George Mason University.

“It is terrifying to ponder the possibility that the POTUS was cajoled by bots into committing an atrocity against humanity.”

Trump Is Descending Into Full-Scale Paranoia

One of the classic maneuvers in the intelligence business is to paralyze your enemy by making them think that moles are everywhere. Here in the US, for example, James Jesus Angleton became convinced during the Cold War that the Soviet Union had massively infiltrated the CIA and became so paranoid that he did considerable damage to the CIA with his endless hunts for Soviet spies that didn’t exist.

But it doesn’t just happen in intelligence agencies. It can happen anywhere:

President Trump has instructed his White House to identify and force out officials across his administration who are not seen as sufficiently loyal….Johnny McEntee, Trump’s former personal aide who now leads the effort as director of presidential personnel, has begun combing through various agencies with a mandate from the president to oust or sideline political appointees who have not proved their loyalty, according to several administration officials and others familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

….McEntee spent part of this week asking officials in various Cabinet agencies to provide names of political appointees working in government who are not fully supportive of Trump’s presidency, according to administration officials.

….Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a senior adviser in the White House, has played a central in the push, concentrating more power in the West Wing and working to combat leaks, officials said.

Fabulous. I hope Trump becomes so paranoid that he fires every semi-competent official working for him, thus becoming even less able to execute any of his nutball plans. It’s true that there’s danger in having a bunch of inept toadies running the executive branch, but in this case it’s probably a blessing overall.

Bloomberg Agrees to Let Three Women Out of Their Nondisclosure Agreements

After coming under intense pressure from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has agreed to release three women from nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) they had signed in connection with comments the billionaire businessman allegedly made to them. “If any of them want to be released from their NDAs, they should contact the company and they’ll be given a release,” Bloomberg tweeted on Friday afternoon. He added that his company and campaign would no longer offer confidentiality agreements to resolve “claims of sexual harassment or misconduct.”

Bloomberg LP has identified 3 NDAs signed over the past 30+ years with women to address complaints about comments they said I had made.

If any of them want to be released from their NDAs, they should contact the company and they'll be given a release.

— Mike Bloomberg (@MikeBloomberg) February 21, 2020

Bloomberg has a reputation for making disparaging comments about women and has faced allegations of making sexist and crude comments to women in the workplace. Details of several cases in which he was accused of creating a hostile work environment have remained private because of nondisclosure agreements, secrecy deals that are a common element of legal settlements as well as a tool for silencing women who make allegations of sexual harassment or gender discrimination.

Since at least December, Warren has been pressuring Bloomberg to release his former employees and colleagues from their NDAs. In a dramatic moment at Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Nevada, she tore into the former mayor, framing the issue as a matter of electability. “He has gotten some number of women—dozens, who knows—to sign nondisclosure agreements both for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace,” Warren said. “So, Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements so we can hear their side of the story?”

“We have a very few nondisclosure agreements—” Bloomberg began.

“How many is that?” Warren pressed.

“None of them accuse me of doing anything other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” he continued, characterizing the legal documents as “agreements between two parties that wanted to keep it quiet. And that’s up to them.”

During a CNN town hall the next day, Warren didn’t let up—revealing that she had drafted a legal document she said Bloomberg could sign to release people from their confidentiality agreements with him. “I used to teach contract law, and I thought I would make this easy,” she said to laughter.

"I used to teach contract law. And I thought I would make this easy."

Elizabeth Warren opened her #cnntownhall by reading aloud a document to release people from Michael Bloomberg's nondisclosure agreements

— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) February 21, 2020

Bloomberg’s move on Friday is limited to three complaints about his comments, not about his actions or harassment allegations involving his company. It’s unclear who filed these three complaints, though one well-known NDA involves Sekiko Sakai Garrison, a former salesperson who alleges that Bloomberg, upon learning of her pregnancy, told her to “kill it.”

According to the Washington Post, Elisabeth DeMarse, a former chief marketing officer at Bloomberg’s company, also signed a nondisclosure agreement. In 1990, DeMarse assembled a 32-page pamphlet titled “The Wit and Wisdom of Michael Bloomberg” that contained obscene and sexist quotes, including, “If women wanted to be appreciated for their brains, they’d go to the library instead of to Bloomingdale’s.” In her introduction to the booklet, Demarse wrote that they were “all actual quotes.” During his 2001 mayoral campaign, Bloomberg characterized the booklet as a “bunch of gags” and said he could not remember making the remarks. This year, his spokesman denied he made the statements.

Nothing Makes Sense Except Charles Portis

I made my first experiments in Southern identity at the age of 13, when my father gave me a copy of Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex. It was something I did not know I needed. I was tired of the bullying, mostly self-inflicted, that I was too much of a loser, nerd, geek, phony, lameass (plus all the slurs not worth printing). I wanted to claim something for myself. I chose Southern; I chose Rex. I said to an imaginary foe, “No, I’m like y’all, too.”

Of course, no one cared. Only a true idiot would think that a novel from 1972 could help him fit into late-2000s high school life. Hi, I am that idiot. But the process continued for years. I found a Southern writer or Southern musician and connected. I used their work to build up a sense of myself as part of something larger, a tradition. When I was living in Little Rock, I found Charles Portis.

He died this week, at 86. His New York Times obituary was written by the legendary Roy Reed before Reed died in 2017 and it’s a wonderful peek into Portis’ work. He was a giant of an author to many, especially to those I respected, and especially to Arkansans. I spent an incredibly small amount of time in the state, working for a little over a year at an alt-weekly and a magazine. But even during that short stint, I felt his presence. His name was said with a certain tone. I read to catch up. Offhand Portis lines were somehow local maxims. “When the beer came,” he wrote in one novel, “I dipped a finger in it and wet down each corner of the paper napkin to anchor it, so it would not come up with the mug each time and make me appear ridiculous.” I heard people say this; I saw someone do this. Roy Blount Jr. has noted the difficulty in explaining how the line became a classic. Just try it next time you go to a bar. Just read Portis.

I can’t claim him at all. (Same goes for Hannah.) But I did interact with those who loved Portis, who could rattle off his every sentence, it seemed, and I did read a lot of Portis when I was in Little Rock—and it felt freeing. Portis wrote like someone who understood his world. He was casual, funny, rambling. You badly wanted to be his friend (or at least I did). Most of his novels follow someone just ambling and seeing strange shit. Some of his best magazine pieces are travel writing. You don’t have to make sense to be in a Portis world. Nothing makes complete sense. But unlike a Pynchon character, you’re real; this is not a dream. You’re driving down the highway, that’s all. He told shaggy-dog stories in which weirdness was just a normal part of life.

“Yes, I’m doing right well,” Grady Fring the Kredit King, a sleazoid huckster, tells the titular character in Portis’ picaresque novel Norwood. The two are drinking “a bottle of Old Forester from under the seat” in Fring’s “big new Buick Invicta with red leather upholstery,” combining the whiskey with “crushed ice in a milk shake carton.” This sort of offbeat stuff happens all the time in real life. You end up in a someone’s car, drinking, and he wants you to admire the ephemera of his life, and what you remember afterward is some strange, fugitive detail—the ice was crushed, the upholstery was red leather. I think about my friend’s grandmother, driving around my hometown with a child’s sippy cup of white wine in her hand. She’d picked up the habit when she had young kids, to hide the constant intake, and then never stopped. 

Portis was at home in the offbeat. That was important for me. I’ve never made sense, at least not to myself, and I wanted an identity when my father gave me Hannah. I’d lived inside of a video game for a few years by then, to cope. But then I grew too old for that, or maybe bored with it. And I was searching again.

Everyone was calling me Jewish—just my Dad’s side of the family, who by the 2000s had dropped any semblance of their Judaism beyond Seinfeld reruns and brisket; I’m actually, unfortunately, very Catholic. So what could I be? This is a dangerous question for a young white man in the South. I tried on different guises. In middle school, our history books leaned toward a version of the Civil War draping the South in honor. I became the left-leaning kid who wanted to learn the evolution section of our seventh-grade biology course despite the teacher recommending we skip it. (The next day I printed out 20-plus copies of Charles Darwin’s Wikipedia page, putting one on each desk.) At the same time, I told my friends I wanted the nickname “Stonewall.” As in, Jacob “Stonewall” Rosenberg; as in Stonewall Jackson, Confederate general—because he was shot, and it was, surely, valiant.  A little Lost Cause child whom the Cause would’ve rejected. (Jackson was shot by friendly fire, by the way.) 

That seems idiotic now. But for many Southern white kids, learning about racism is a bit like learning about sex—someone on a bus or on the playground explains to you in a whisper all the things your parents didn’t want you to know, and then suddenly it’s everywhere, and it’s all you think about. 

So, OK, my Southernness would have to be built out of other materials. I had an itch to find stuff that looked and sounded like the world around me: strip malls, highways, grimy and weird shit. You can talk about the South as a land of honor, or you can talk about the South as shitkicker country, but all of that felt foreign. To me, it was more casual—it was just weird, is all. But normal, too. Hannah was my first entrance. I read Geronimo Rex in high school a few times, probably the only book I read, and I can remember a specific phrase from the front page: “It looked like an old chalkboard eraser floating in a pool of beer.” Yeah, exactly: that South. I can’t quote Hannah sentences like his apostles. But I loved him. Then came the others: Walker Percy, Randall Kenan, Carson McCullers, Larry Brown, Willie Morris, Flannery O’Connor.

Portis was the one who unlocked it all, though. He was funny in the same way as my favorite comedians; he was a journalist, too, with Tom Wolfe (a favorite) and Nora Ephron (my idol) at the New York Herald Tribune. I wrote comedy; I was a reporter. He went off to write the great novel, and he did it. True Grit is unlike anything else in American literature. It’s his best work. But, of course, my favorite is The Dog of the South.

“Idleness and solitude led to these dramatics: an ordinary turd indulging himself as the chief of sinners,” explains the narrator as he breaks down over his broken-down car. (I yearn for the Bill Hader movie adaptation of that scene and fear it, too.) 

I’ve felt like a fraud my whole life, and I don’t plan to stop now. I feel like one right this moment, actually, as I tell you what others can say better, which is that Charles Portis is the best writer you haven’t read. But laughing at your own grandiosity, twisting yourself up in a ridiculous search for meaning, undercutting your pretensions at seriousness with a joke—that seems like Portis. 

In the UC Santa Cruz Wildcat Strike, Class War Meets the California Housing Crisis

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Sarah Mason, a graduate student in sociology at the University of California Santa Cruz, tells a crowd of several hundred students, wrapping up the fourth day of an unprecedented wildcat strike that has drawn threats of mass dismissal and captured the attention of UC campuses across the state. Using a megaphone, Mason reminds them that LA teachers went on strike for six days last year and Oakland teachers for seven before getting their pay raises. She asks for a show of hands to see how many wanted to continue to picket the following day. Arms shoot up all around her.

Graduate student employees have been on a work stoppage since February 10, refusing to teach, hold office hours, or do other work until the university meets their demands for a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) of $1,412 a month to help alleviate the rent burden in Santa Cruz, one of the least affordable housing markets in the country. This was an escalation from a grade strike that over 200 graduate students launched on December 9.

Strikers have filled the field of patchy grass at the main entrance to campus every day to picket with chants like “Pay us more,” “No COLA, no grades,” and “Spread the strike.” Students have been handing out water, sunscreen, and food. There are medical and legal teams on hand. There’s music—students banging on percussion instruments in the morning and Latin hip hop blasting out of speakers in the afternoon. There’s a guy printing wildcat symbols on people’s T-shirts. Some professors have even held their classes down at the picket line. The vibe has oscillated between palpable activist rage and the buoyancy of a music festival. Grad students, joined by undergraduates in solidarity, have significantly disrupted daily class operations, at times blocking the main entrance to campus by sitting in the middle of the road and linking arms in a well-organized mass direct action that has forced the university to respond. 

On February 12, after an hours-long standoff, 17 students were forcibly arrested by over a hundred police officers in full riot gear brought in by the administration from outside the county. The crackdown ended in several injuries. Those arrested were suspended for two weeks. The police brutality at a university that prides itself on progressive values has made headlines and only emboldened the strikers, whose chants now include “Cops off campus, COLA in my bank account!”

Last Friday night, UC President Janet Napolitano published a letter threatening to fire students if they don’t call off the strike, and reiterated the university’s position that it refuses to negotiate with the students. “To accede to the demands of a group of employees engaged in an unauthorized wildcat strike would undercut the very foundation of an agreement negotiated in good faith by the UAW and ratified by thousands of members across the system.”

The university has given them until 11:59 p.m. tonight to submit grades for the previous fall quarter or face dismissal. For international students on a student visa—about 30 people, in all—this is de facto deportation. For teaching assistants who are parents, this could endanger a child care subsidy of $3,300 they receive per year as part of the union contract. The high stakes have challenged the unity of the strikers, as each student faces distinct and personal consequences should they lose their jobs. They will be taking a vote on Friday on how to proceed, and some appear ready to submit grades.

The strike “has been a longtime coming,” says Yulia Gilichinskaya, a student in the Film and Digital Media Department and co-president of the Graduate Student Association. She is part of a group of students that for the past year or so has been organizing around the cost-of-living crisis. A majority of student union members in Santa Cruz voted down the statewide contract signed by the UAW in summer 2018 because the annual three-percent wage increase cannot keep up with their housing costs. After Measure M on rent control failed to pass in the 2018 midterm election, Gilichinskaya says, the students started to call for a campus-specific solution out of a feeling they had no other recourse. “Everyone is so damn desperate. Some of us have been homeless and a lot of us are one paycheck away from homelessness. Housing in the Bay Area is pushing boundaries in terms of what is possible in organizing.”

In Santa Cruz, downzoning is one of the main culprits, according to Steven McKay, associate professor of sociology and director of the UCSC Center for Labor Studies. Since the 1990s, county residents have voted for leadership that prioritizes single-family homes on large lots. Attempts to build more affordable, multi-family homes have been met with resistance by NIMBY organizations that push for zoning regulations and land-use policies to block new development. In Santa Cruz, many are averse to even four-story buildings. “There’s a skyrocketing demand for housing, but no new housing, especially affordable housing,” McKay says. This has only intensified in recent years, as Santa Cruz became a commuter town for Silicon Valley. And with a student body of over 18,000, some of whom are squeezed into converted common dorm areas the university has been under pressure for a while to build more housing. A plan to build 3,000 new beds for graduate students has been frozen for over a year due to legal challenges from environmental groups.

McKay says the problem is much bigger than just Santa Cruz, and that if the university concedes, it would push the state to more fully fund the entire UC system, one of the largest employers in California. “California is as flush as ever. It has a $20 billion surplus in its budget,” he says. “The strike is a real opportunity for UC to lead on a much bigger national issue: the funding of public higher education. The strike’s caught fire because it speaks to the real need for living wages and for truly affordable college for everyone.”

Cops drag protesters from High Street in Santa Cruz on Feb. 12, the third day of a wildcat strike by UC Santa Cruz graduate students. Seventeen people were arrested.

Dan Coyro/Santa Cruz Sentinel via AP

Graduate student instructors, readers and graders across the UC system earn $2,400 a month, for nine months—around $21,000 a year—as part of their union contract with the United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents more than 18,000 academic workers in the state. With average rents in Santa Cruz at $2,611 per month, many students live under extreme rent burden, paying 50–70 percent of their gross income on rent and utilities. According to a report released in October 2019, over half of renter households (nearly 21,300 of all 35,734 households) in Santa Cruz County were considered rent burdened. (Rent burden is defined as spending more than 30 percent of one’s income on rent.)

“We don’t know what our paycheck will look like this month. People are afraid they won’t get paid,” says Kelsey James, a fourth-year psychology student on strike and a member of the union. “But we also know this situation is untenable. If we didn’t do it now, people would soon be doing the same thing. It’s just unlivable. People are living in their cars. Everyone has a story about what they can’t afford.” James says she pays $1,000 for a room in a house with two other roommates, spending nearly 60 percent of her income on housing.

In January, the university responded to the grade strike by proposing two measures for the next academic year: a $2,500 need-based housing fellowship; and for doctoral students, a five-year funding program that guarantees part-time teaching assistant work. Students rejected the proposal, which they say would only decrease their rent burden by 5 percent.

While students face a tough decision on whether and how to continue their strike, their efforts have already gotten widespread attention and galvanized a sense of solidarity. The union has called on the university to come to the bargaining table and reach a resolution. Members have raised over $85,000 dollars for a support fund. Students at UC Davis, UC San Diego, UC Berkeley and others have been emboldened to make their own calls for a COLA and held various sit-ins and marches this week. Both UCLA students and UC Santa Barbara students indicated a willingness to go on full strike if UCSC students are fired.

UCSC faculty members have urged the university to halt disciplinary measures and instead open a direct line of communication. Some have joined students at the picket line. The Santa Cruz City Council voted unanimously to endorse the students’ demands. The executive board of the Council of UC Faculty Associations, representing faculty on all 10 UC campuses, issued an open letter of support urging a resolution. Over 2,000 non-UCSC faculty across the country have signed a noncooperation pledge to boycott UCSC until it “provides a more equitable standard of living.” The West Virginia teachers who went on strike and successfully increased their wages in 2018, sent a letter of support. City bus drivers in Santa Cruz have refused to cross the picket and drive into campus. And on Wednesday, Democratic frontrunner Bernie Sanders tweeted his support for the strikers.

This strike comes just weeks after Moms 4 Housing activists in Oakland secured a victory against a home-flipping business simply by occupying a vacant home. The acute burden of living in California has necessitated an acute response from Californians. “Housing politics,” McKay says, “is the new class politics.”

Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli-American journalist who covers resistance movements and all things dissent. She has written for the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, the Columbia Journalism Review, and many more. She tweets at @Mairavz.

Rod Blagojevich—Not Alice Johnson—Is the True Face of Trump’s Criminal Justice Policies

In a Fox News interview this week, White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley pushed back on criticism over President Donald Trump’s decision to grant clemency of Rod Blagojevich, the corrupt Illinois governor-turned-Celebrity Apprentice star. “The president is clearly against excessive sentencing, whether it’s Rod Blagojevich or Alice Johnson,” Gildley said.

Ahead of the 2020 election, Trump is touting his reputation as a criminal justice reformer, and that apparently means equating Johnson—a Tennessee grandmother who was sentenced to life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense—with the politician who was convicted of to trying to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat. At the urging of Kim Kardashian West, Trump commuted Johnson’s sentence in 2018, freeing her after 21 years behind bars.In an ad aired during the Super Bowl this year, the Trump campaign praised the president for freeing Johnson and for reuniting “thousands of families.”

The ad’s claims weren’t exactly wrong, but they weren’t exactly right either. To put it simply:

Yes, Trump granted clemency to Johnson.

Yes, Trump signed the bipartisan First Step Act, which was a major overhaul of the federal prison system, that same year. Thanks to the sentencing reforms in the act, more than 5,500 prisoners have had their sentences reduced or have been released early. 

But no, the First Step Act—which Trump’s Justice Department has actually resisted implementing—isn’t the same as presidential clemency. And, as USA Today put it, “Most of the people Trump has given clemency to did not look like Johnson.”

To date, Trump has given clemency to 33 people (though one of them was actually pardoned by Obama, but a clerical error meant Trump had to re-issue the pardon). Johnson is one of just a handful of African Americans who have been granted clemency, despite the fact that African Americans make up nearly 40 percent of the federal prison population. Just six people have been granted clemency for drug crimes. Instead, many of Trump’s pardons and commutations have gone to white men, often those with connections to Trump and the GOP.

As for the First Step Act, Trump’s support for the program may mean precious little. As Mother Jones reported earlier this month:

But as Trump claims credit for freeing people from prison, there’s one very big problem that he’s not mentioning: His Justice Department is actively pushing to send some of these same people back behind bars, and to prevent others from reducing their sentences—which greatly limits who can benefit from the law that Trump has touted as one of his signature achievements.

While the First Step Act has allies in the White House—including Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner—the officials tasked with implementing it are in the Justice Department. Attorney General Bill Barr, who leads the department, has reportedly raised concerns in private that the legislation’s reforms will drive up crime. And under his watch, the department’s prosecutors have argued that hundreds of incarcerated people applying for relief under the law’s cocaine sentencing reforms are not eligible, according to an investigation by the Washington Post. In some cases, Trump has even stood onstage hugging and congratulating people who were recently released under the law—even as the Justice Department was arguing in court to lock those same people up again.

Poll: Bloomberg Down Only Slightly After Debate Disaster

Here’s the first of the post-debate polls I’ve been waiting for:

The good news for Mike Bloomberg is that debates seldom affect poll numbers much. So even though he bombed horribly, he only went down three points in the post-debate poll. He still has plenty of time to dust himself off and do better in next week’s debate.

BTW, it’s obvious that I was way out of step in my assessment of Bloomberg’s performance. Even my friends are laughing at me. I think a couple of things explain it. First, I tend to discount loud attacks because I’ve seen them so many times before and they bore me. So the fact that Warren went hard after Bloomberg didn’t really affect me much. Second, I assumed going in that Bloomberg would be attacked mercilessly, so I had already priced that in. His listless response merely meant that he had done a little more poorly than I expected, not that he had bombed.

The rest of the world obviously disagrees, giving Bloomberg approximately a -5 on a scale on 1 to 10. But I have to admit that even two days later I’ve only moved a little bit. I’ll concede that Bloomberg did worse than I thought, but I still don’t think it was a catastrophic performance. But he’d better improve next week.

Friday Cat Blogging – 21 February 2020

Hark! Who art yonder cat?

Why, I believe it’s Lord Hilbert, hanging around on our neighbor’s fence. Nobody lives there at the moment, though, so nobody can object. Not that anyone would, I’m sure.

Crime in New York City

I had lunch with a friend yesterday and I promised him that I’d dig up the violent crime figures for New York City. Here they are:

This chart alone should provide you with pretty good clues to the answers to these questions:

  1. Did David Dinkins have a pretty good record on crime?
  2. Was Rudy Giuliani’s adoption of broken windows policing responsible for NYC’s crime decline in the 90s?
  3. Did Mike Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policing reduce crime in the 2000s?
  4. Did Bill de Blasio preside over an upsurge in crime in the aughts?

Here are the answers:

  1. Yes: violent crime declined 20 percent on his watch. But nobody knew it at the time because no figures later than 1991 were available during the 1993 mayoral race.
  2. No. Nothing special happened to the crime rate when Giuliani took over. Violent crime was already declining strongly when he became mayor and continued declining after he left. There’s no reason to think that Giuliani had any special impact.
  3. No. Violent crime declined only modestly during his three terms in office.
  4. No. Stop-and-frisk ended and nothing happened. Violent crime stayed low.

Conversely, the lead-crime hypothesis predicts very precisely that violent crime should peak right around 1991 and then decline through 2010 as more and more birth cohorts are raised in a lead-free environment.¹ By 2010 an entire generation has reached its most crime-prone years after being raised in a lead-free environment and there are few improvements to be expected going forward. And that’s exactly what happened.

¹Mostly lead free, anyway.

California Cops Are Collecting Info on Millions of Drivers Who Have Done Nothing Wrong

Law enforcement in four of California’s most populous counties is storing, searching, and sharing detailed records on millions of random drivers, according to a new report from the California State Auditor, a nonpartisan government agency. The audit, released last week, found major deficiencies—and possible lawbreaking—in police use of automated license plate readers (ALPRs) in the California counties of Los Angeles, Fresno, Marin, and Sacramento.

The technology is frighteningly simple: cameras on police cars or roadsides can scan up to 2,000 license plates per minute, storing the plate number, the location, and the time the car was spotted. From there, an officer can easily pull other identifying information, like the driver’s name, address, and criminal history, all without a warrant—or even a supervisor’s sign-off. The result is that drivers are being tracked and recorded by the police, whether or not they’ve done anything wrong. In San Diego, the state audit found that 0.04 percent of scanned plates were actually under suspicion when scanned. A 2016 CityLab report pegged that at 0.02 percent in Marin County. In Los Angeles, the figure was 0.01 percent of 320 million images, all including timestamps and the driver’s exact location. In 2013, Mother Jones reported that, per the American Civil Liberties Union, just 47 of the million license plates scanned in Maryland “were even tentatively associated with actual serious crimes.”

Once a marginal technology, license plate scanners are now widespread, minimally regulated, and employed by everyone from mall cops to landlords, with reams of plate data floating around the web—thanks in part to cop-tech hawkers convincing police that license-plate monitoring has gone “from a nice-to-have luxury to a can’t-operate-without system.” And big corporations have gotten into the game: Vigilant Solutions, a private, for-profit law enforcement contractor that sells both license plate readers and the data they collect, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Motorola Solutions.

Less than a third of states have laws regulating ALPRs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2019, California lawmakers set a few restrictions on license plate scanners—but they only apply to the state highway patrol. Well over half of California’s law enforcement agencies use the technology, and auditors found that in Fresno, Marin, and Sacramento, police shared their records with thousands of other public agencies in 44 of 50 states. (All three were sending driver data to cops in Honolulu, one of the toughest cities for a California fugitive to drive to.)

California does require that ALPR users set “a usage and privacy policy” that’s “consistent with respect for individuals’ privacy and civil liberties,” meaning that police who freely share driver data may be violating the law.

Privacy advocates have long raised issues with license plate readers, especially given the long, sketchy history of law enforcement data abuse. A 2016 investigation by the Associated Press found that officers “stalked, harassed, and tampered with criminal cases using details obtained” through motor vehicle databases. It can look innocuous at first: the spread of home DNA tests like 23andMe led to “a law enforcement free-for-all, with police and allies digging into consumer DNA databases with little law or policy to guide them,” according to a 2019 investigation by Mother Jones‘s Madison Pauly. That year, a Slate article on ALPRs found more malfeasance:

A few years ago, the Associated Press reported that NYPD used ALPRs to scan the plates of worshippers at a mosque. Police in Edmonton, Alberta, admitted to using a confidential police database in 2004 to get the plate number of a local columnist who was sharply critical of police conduct and ordering officers to look out for his car, hoping to catch him at a bar and then arrest him for drunk driving.

California law enforcement agencies have said they don’t share data with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a longstanding concern of organizations like ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). But ICE appears to have access to Vigilant’s database of over 2 billion photos, part of what the Verge calls “a massive vehicle-tracking network generating as many as 100 million sightings per month.” Vigilant is the industry-standard ALPR provider, and the most popular in California. A 2019 EFF investigation, written up in Techdirt, found discrepancies between Vigilant’s public statements and internal communications on sharing plate data.

None of the audited law enforcement agencies required police to get any kind of approval before searching license plate records. The Los Angeles Police Department had no policy regulating ALPRs at all. (It now says it’s working on one.) 

State Senator Scott Weiner, who commissioned the audit, called the lack of regulation “totally unacceptable,” saying in a public statement that his office was drafting legislation “to put an end to these privacy violations.”

Per the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has long opposed ALPRs, legislation like Weiner’s could ban license plate data collection by private companies, which would keep firms like Vigilant from gathering and selling massive driver data files. Lawmakers could limit data retention, like they’ve already done for the California Highway Patrol, demand more training, oversight, or audits for departments that use plate scanners, or even place a state-wide moratorium on their use. 

California has long been a bellwether for rules on everything from auto emissions to police face recognition. With the nationwide spread of cheap, unregulated license plate scanners, any California restrictions on what cops do with your information could become a model for the rest of the country.

Kickstarter Was Supposed to Be About Conscious Capitalism. So Why Did It Oppose a Union Drive?

Yancey Strickler, the co-founder and former CEO of Kickstarter, has been in a bit of a bind. His book, This Could Be Our Future, is a “manifesto” for “a more generous world.” It is an argument for—and even a partial guide to—a new, conscious capitalism. But he can’t avoid the other major development in techno-capitalism: unions.

On Tuesday, workers at Kickstarter, which Strickler helmed from 2014 to 2017, voted 47 to 36 to form a union. Kickstarter United, certified by the National Labor Relations Board, will be the first union made up of full-time, white-collar tech workers. It comes amid a wave of organizing at places like Google and Amazon—and of pushback. Kickstarter has actively opposed the movement, calling a union “inherently adversarial.” Workers even say they were fired for organizing, as reported by April Glaser at NBC News and Slate; a claim which the company denies.

Strickler has largely stayed out of the fight. When I spoke with him in early December, a few months after his book published, he admitted to giving me a boilerplate response: “As an outsider, I just want a resolution,” he said. (I reached back out after Tuesday’s vote and a representative said Strickler was traveling.)

He preferred instead to discuss his argument for how companies should be motivated by more than just profit (a theory he calls Bentoism); and why he turned Kickstarter into a public benefits corporation, a type of governance structure that gives companies legal protection from shareholders for focusing on social good in tandem with profit. Kickstarter has always branded itself as different: headquartered in New York, uninterested in going public, focused on artistic projects as opposed to GoFundMe’s dystopian healthcare charity. Strickler wants to change the hidden default of a hockey stick growth curve to define success.

In their opposition to the union though, Kickstarter sounded a lot like Strickler. “Our perspective on this issue is born out of our work to build a new model for how a company can operate responsibly in society,” Aziz Hasan wrote in a statement in 2019 about why the company will respect but does not want a union. “The PBC model is the best one we know of for breaking out of the profit-maximization mindset.” That line could have come straight out of This Could Be Our Future. (“Expanding the value spectrum beyond financial maximization isn’t a pipe dream. We’re already doing it,” writes Strickler introducing a section on why companies should become PBCs. “I speak from experience.”)

The drive to organize at Kickstarter, while concerned with traditional issues like pay and workplace diversity, sprung out of an internal dispute about a fundraiser for the book Always Punch Nazis, according to Slate. A debate over the politics of the book spilled into a debate over, well, punching Nazis. Workers decided they should have more say in the kind of projects the company gives a platform to. “Once you set your values, those things keep getting tested,” Strickler told me. “That seems like what’s been happening this year.”

There’s a hopeful way of viewing this. Strickler argues that it’s just as notable that Kickstarter hired the kind of people who want to organize as the fact that conditions led to organizing. Once you talk about values, people want to live them. “I don’t think a union and PBC, [have] to be in conflict with each other,” he said. “Whether the ultimate answer is like [a PBC] plus a union—you know, we’ll see, we’ll see. My era of the company was getting us to the PBC part.”

At times, this is what’s distressing about This Could Be Our Future. Strickler’s manifesto can feel like a vision for the future written from the past. Unions and organizing are the talk of the town now—a company’s benevolence feels like an old fashioned idea. It used to be possible to hear a former CEO of a tech company like Strickler pondering “where should we be in 2050” with optimism and without worry. Right after the recession, maybe we even needed to believe it. In 2008, we wanted “change we can believe in” politically; in 2009, we did not question what it meant for Mark Zuckerberg to call for “openness“; in 2011, Steve Jobs died and a random tweet is included near the top of the obit: “You touched an ugly world of technology and made it beautiful.” Technology, then, could save us. We could pivot. We could rebrand. Move from the greediness of Wall Street to the goodness of the Valley. Let’s make economics here. And under this veil, we can redeem it. We can save capitalism.

Now, any fluff about “conscious capitalism” falls on deaf ears. There is Amazon’s mistreatment of workers, Apple’s horrific factories, Facebook’s false ads, Google’s helping hand in war logistics, Palantir’s CEO saying at Davos (of all places) that the firm (founded by Peter Thiel) makes money tracking down immigrants, Uber’s entire business plan. It’s popular to be a Silicon Valley apostate. People are, as Max Read writes, “pivoting to tech-flagellation.” But here is Strickler still trying.

What if a “simple idea”—the title of Chapter 1 of Strickler’s bookcould unlock this new place? What if companies (tech companies!) can help us get there? What if a company valued something other than “financial maximization”? What if a company had values? Throw in a new term for the aristocracy (“the Maximizing Class”) and a new religion-like business strategy to reach enlightenment (“Bentoism”)—Strickler’s ideas have their specifics and their complexities, but it all sounds so familiar, doesn’t it? The tech CEO with an idea. What if business wasn’t so bad after all? What if companies could be “partners leading the way” to a values-based economy?

“This sounds like a hard sell,” Strickler admits in the book This Could Be Our Future. But, then, he can’t help himself: What if?

My question to Strickler was, “How?” How do you actually make a company do things we know companies don’t do? His book assumes he can convince the rich. As the Wall Street Journal said in a review, Strickler does not take aim at the financial maximizers, “he seems to want to change their minds.” During these sections, it can be thrilling. Strickler is utterly convincing in how bad the modern world has become. He helpfully points out that actual entrepreneurship has dropped since the 1970s, a lot— “analogous to the drop in smoking rates over the same time span.” He notes that the growth of a Milton Friedman-infected capitalism has subbed in profits for actual economic health. It became about total growth. “The goal wasn’t to build a better future, raise the standard of living, or serve the needs of the public,” he writes. “It was to financially maximize right now. Our new hidden default.” He calls this the mullet economy, a fun name.

Strickler isn’t quite sure how to convince the rich, but he thinks putting forward a rational model beyond profit could win them over. But the solution feels lacking, if the people who do the good work are excluded from its benefits. Kickstarter United proposed another way: “Our union hard-codes our shared values into everything that we do: inclusion and solidarity, transparency and accountability; a seat at the table.”

How Can Jeff Bezos Spend $10 Billion Fighting Climate Change? We Have a Few Ideas.

On Monday, Amazon CEO and world’s richest human Jeff Bezos announced he was pledging nearly 8 percent of his net worth to fight climate change. This money, known as the Bezos Earth Fund, will be used to support “any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world,” Bezos wrote in an Instagram post. There are plenty of problems with a billionaire single-handedly dictating how the world community will fight climate change. But it’s also true that there are a host of promising climate technologies that lack the resources to scale fast enough to be effective in meeting the UN’s climate goals. Bezos didn’t specify how he would allocate the Earth Fund’s resources, but if you’re reading this, Jeff, we’ve got some ideas.

Space-Based Solar Power

Right now there are 173,000 trillion watts of solar energy bathing the Earth. If we were to capture just 1 percent of that, it would be enough to meet the world’s energy needs. But soaking up the rays is harder than it sounds. Cloud coverage limits the effectiveness of solar panels, top-of-the-line photovoltaic cells aren’t very efficient at converting sunlight into electricity, and solar power isn’t an option for half the planet at any given moment.

Yet if you were to construct a giant solar farm in space and beam that energy to Earth, the power of the sun would be available around the clock. Isaac Asimov first floated the idea for space-based solar power in the 1940s. A handful of companies like Solaren and Solar Space Technologies have tried to build businesses around space-based solar energy, but lacked the capital needed to bring their technology to fruition.

Last year, the Air Force Research Lab announced a $100 million program to develop the hardware for a satellite that will beam solar power to Earth. If Bezos spent just 1 percent of the Earth Fund to develop space-based solar power, it would effectively double the available funding in the US. If he wanted to sweeten the deal, he could offer solar power satellites a lift to orbit on one of his rockets. Although Blue Origin, Bezos’ space company, hasn’t yet sent a rocket to orbit, they plan to do so by next year.

Enhanced Geothermal Energy

Geothermal power uses superhot water pulled from deep within the Earth to drive turbine generators on the surface. It’s a promising source of inexhaustible clean electricity that could meet the world’s needs several times over. But at present, it accounts for well under 1 percent of the world’s power supply. The problem is that geothermal power is limited to areas that have natural springs with water hot enough to spin the turbines with their steam.

Enhanced geothermal systems are technologies that promise to make the Earth’s energy available almost anywhere. Instead of relying on natural springs, these systems borrow techniques from the fracking industry by drilling deep into hot dry rock and pumping water into the newly created chamber. The water is heated to several hundred degrees and brought back to the surface, where it is used to power a turbine generator. The hot rock needed for these systems is available all over the world. What’s missing is the drilling technology and engineering knowledge needed to access it—drill in the wrong place and you risk triggering a massive earthquake.

Although a number of companies are developing enhanced geothermal systems, they are struggling to raise money to actually build them. Drilling the wells is a very capital-intensive process, and since it’s a new technology it carries a lot of risk for investors. In January, the Department of Energy announced it would spend $25 million on enhanced geothermal systems research, which is hardly enough to get the industry off the ground. Just the interest on the Earth Fund’s bank account would be a major boon to this nascent industry.

Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

Since 2011, Bezos has been investing in General Fusion, a Canadian company attempting to build the world’s first nuclear fusion power plant. It’s a longshot gamble to create an unlimited source of clean energy by essentially building an artificial sun. Fusion works by slamming atoms into each other so that their nuclei fuse and release a tremendous amount of energy. A fusion plant would be able to produce several times more energy than a traditional nuclear power plant, without generating long-lasting toxic waste in the process.

Today, fusion power plants are nowhere close to commercialization. It’s unlikely that we’ll see fusion power hit the grid anytime in the next 20 years due to the challenges involved with sustaining the reaction that makes fusion possible. But in the meantime, Bezos could invest in advanced nuclear fission energy like small modular reactors. Unlike the hulking nuclear power plants of yore, small modular reactors are tiny and can be daisy chained to meet energy needs that vary by region, time of day, or season. The design of small modular reactors reduces the risk of a meltdown, which means they can be placed closer to the cities and towns that need them. They can also be made on an assembly line, which drastically reduces their cost.

But small reactors are hardly the only advanced nuclear technology in development. Thorium molten-salt reactors, for instance, use hardly any uranium. This reduces both nuclear waste and the risk of the proliferation of nuclear weapons by limiting the amount of enriched uranium in circulation. Next-generation fast breeder reactors can use nuclear waste as fuel and have sophisticated cooling mechanisms that limit the risks of a meltdown. While other advanced nuclear technologies are promising, many still have a lot of technological and regulatory barriers to clear before they’re ready to hit the grid. That limits their ability to fight climate change in the near term.

Although nuclear is a dirty word in some environmental circles, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has acknowledged that it will play a vital role in keeping global warming in check. Still, developing nuclear technologies is incredibly expensive and it takes years just to navigate the regulatory hurdles involved in bringing a system online. To expedite this process, the Earth Fund could diversify Bezos’ nuclear portfolio by throwing some money at the fledgling advanced nuclear industry.

Sustainable Hydrogen Production

The eternal promise of a hydrogen economy is using the most abundant element in the universe to heat our homes, store our power, and fuel our cars. Advocates argue that it will save the world by ending our dependence on fossil fuels like natural gas and oil. There’s just one problem: We can’t sustainably produce hydrogen at scale yet. To be sure, we know how to make lots of hydrogen. But typically the process involves consuming natural gas. If we’re going to use hydrogen to sustainably decarbonize the world, we need to take fossil fuels out of the equation.

One of the best ways to do this would be to split water, which involves breaking H~2~O into its constituent elements—hydrogen and oxygen—using large amounts of electricity or heat. But splitting water at scale requires a tremendous amount of energy, and since the world still mostly runs on fossil fuels, they often end up providing the power. To foster a sustainable hydrogen economy, a 2017 Department of Energy report called for water splitting efforts to be fueled by renewable power like wind and solar. The report also floated the idea of using heat from advanced nuclear reactors to increase America’s hydrogen production without further contributing to climate change.

But creating a giant hydrogen supply won’t do much good unless there’s a way to use it. Today, car manufacturers are developing hydrogen fuel cells, so that when the hydrogen economy finally arrives, they’ll be ready to take advantage of it. Yet for now, no one wants to buy a hydrogen-powered car because there isn’t a ready supply of hydrogen fuel. It’s a sort of chicken-and-egg problem. The Earth Fund could end the stalemate by pledging to rapidly scale up sustainable hydrogen production, finally giving the hydrogen fuel cell industry the supply it needs.

Time is the enemy in a rapidly warming world, and it’s imperative to decarbonize our energy as fast as possible. If Bezos invested just a small fraction of the Earth Fund into these climate technologies, it would dramatically accelerate their deployment. But if technology is a salve, it can also be a poison. According to Amazon’s own statistics, the company pumps 44 million tons of carbon into the air each year from its delivery vehicles, data centers, and other indirect sources—far more than Microsoft, Google, or Apple. If Bezos really wants to fight climate change, his own company may be the best place to start.