Have you ever noticed that so much of what’s sold as “good news” these days doesn’t seem all that good? There’s the self-sacrificing Texas teenager who’s helping her mom make ends meet by cashing out her own college fund. Or the Dallas–Fort Worth teacher who’s going the extra mile to keep her students’ achievement levels up by teaching from her hospital bed after cancer surgery. Or, just to provide an example that isn’t from Texas, there’s the 8-year-old kid from Vancouver, Washington, who raised thousands of dollars to pay off his classmates’ school lunch debt. Are we actually supposed to celebrate this? Why are these anecdotes cheerfully portrayed as acts of kindness when they’re actually tales of grim dystopia?
An especially grotesque example of this genre recently floated into my newsfeed from North Carolina. A recent post from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Twitter account, purportedly celebrating “Random Acts of Kindness Day,” related the news of a public fourth-grade teacher whose students has written “notes of appreciation for folks at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Mebane, where [the teacher] is also a full time 5:30 p.m.-3:30 a.m./Mon.-Fri. HR manager.” The tweet continued: “(You read that right!) How kind!”
One would hope that the person who briefly posted about this teacher’s terrible employment situation did so out of some ironic attempt to raise awareness of the plight of North Carolina’s schools. Sadly, it’s an obvious example of what my former ThinkProgress colleague and TNR contributor Jessica Goldstein has referred to as “the feel-good feel-bad story.” “In the feel-good feel-bad story,” she wrote in 2018, “irrefutable proof of an institutional failure is sold as a celebration of individual triumph,” for the purpose of distracting us from “the structures that made such kindness, bravery, and fortitude necessary in the first place.”
The tweet from the Chapel Hill school system perfectly fits the mold of a “feel-good feel-bad” story. The institutional failure is obvious: Apparently, it’s quite difficult to live in North Carolina on either the salary of a full-time fourth-grade teacher or a full-time human resources manager. It’s also not clear when this teacher actually sleeps between the two jobs, given the half-hour commute from Carrboro to Mebane, the inevitable commutes to and from home, and the time this teacher spends working outside of her contract hours, as most teachers in the United States do. But this institutional failure is obscured by a supposed individual triumph that is meant to be a reward in itself, as if the fulfillment this educator allegedly receives from always working and never sleeping is some form of compensation.
Whoever sent this tweet demonstrated at least enough self-awareness to delete it, not long after it started attracting attention. That’s probably for the best, because as one local blogger notedit surfaced unflattering facts: “A new teacher in North Carolina with no experience makes $37,000 per year (10 months)with a modest bump if they have an advanced degree or certification. The annual salary increases on a regular basis up to teachers with 25 years of experience, who are paid $54,000.” One North Carolina school principal recently summed up their personnel predicament like so: “It is incredibly difficult to find anybody that wants to teach, certainly, anyone that meets the qualifications to be eligible to teach.”
This is a national problem. Teachers are paid substantially less than workers with similar educational credentials. According to a 2018 analysis“Teachers’ weekly wages lag by more than 25 percent compared to similarly educated professionals in 16 states. There are no states where teacher pay is equal to or better than that of other college graduates.” According to a new analysis by the Economic Policy Institutethat gap has only worsened in the years since. It’s becoming more common for teachers to have to work second jobs or hold down a side hustle, and according to a recent story in EdWeek“new analysis conservatively estimates that there are more than 36,500 teacher vacancies across the United States, and the majority of states are experiencing teacher shortages.”
And there are solutions that don’t require acts of quiet individual heroism or elaborate displays of appreciation. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed a measure called the Pay Teachers Actwhich will establish a salary floor of $60,000 for all public school teachers, to be funded by an adjustment to the estate tax that currently allows the wealthiest Americans from sheltering their income from taxation. To Sanders’s mind, “If we can provide over a trillion dollars in tax breaks to the top 1 percent and large corporations, please don’t tell me that we cannot afford to make sure that every teacher in America is paid at least $60,000 a year.”
Our current teacher workforce is hobbled by second jobs and side hustles, which scares off the most talented potential full-time teachers and sabotages our kids’ educations and futures. Perhaps the people on the right who spent the last few years screeching at top volume about “learning loss” might be convinced to lend a hand to Sanders’s effort, and then we can celebrate what would truly be a feel-good story.
The February 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train and the cinematic environmental disaster that followed has plunged a small Ohio town into chaos. The New Republic’s Prem Thakker spoke with several residents of East Palestine, Ohio, this week, who have told a fairly consistent tale of related woes: sudden and worrying health concerns to humans and pets alike, a lack of guidance from local officials, and paltry offers of compensation from the rail company. The story, as a whole, contains the elements of something truly scandalous—a disaster of Deepwater Horizon proportions. But along the way, accusations of a second scandal have emerged from some quarters, who have accused the media of giving the story short shrift.
Is the accusation fully fair? It may not seem obvious, but for us to know anything about the derailment, some media, somewhere, had to cover it in some way. The truth of the matter is that the story is getting robust coverage, especially where it matters: locally. As Joe Donatelli, the digital director of News 5 in Cleveland explained in a long thread on Twitter, “To say it’s not being covered at all is wrong if you know how to Google.” Cable news channels and major national dailies have also, if somewhat laggardly, covered the story; there’s been no “news blackouts” of the events in East Palestine. Nevertheless, it’s clear that there are obvious expectations among the broader population of news consumers that aren’t being met by the big legacy media outlets.
So what is it that makes sufficient media coverage sometimes seem insufficient? There are some boring reasons: East Coast media bias, as The New Republic’s Matt Ford noted, is real—and it’s an especially galling factor in coverage of the environment. It’s not hard to imagine the western wildfires receiving substantially better coverage if the news industry were centered in California. But the perceived shortfall can’t be entirely attributed to industry shortcomings. Some have to do with the facts on the ground.
We should be thankful that there is not a massive death toll (at least among humans) as a result of the derailment; we can also acknowledge that the lack of casualties makes the story less urgent to some newsroom leaders than, say, the recent mass shooting at Michigan State University. East Palestine’s emergency, moreover, will be slow to unfold. While we’re already getting a good sense that this train crash will have a dire environmental impact, the fuller picture those facts will ultimately present isn’t currently at hand. In fact, we may want to reserve judgment about how well the mainstream media covered this matter until a few weeks from now. When that fuller picture emerges, will the big leaguers still be willing to beat a drum?
The coverage of the derailment also suffered from the fact that cable news and the major newspapers were transfixed by a story that seemed, both at the time and in retrospect, much sillier: the Chinese spy balloon(s). But perhaps the biggest reason the derailment story hasn’t dominated the news cycle is that it lacks a clear and obvious partisan frame, and thus there’s no clean way to fit it into a tidy “left versus right” construct. The Deepwater Horizon disaster was a monumental story in part because its proximity to New Orleans inspired the media to ask if this was “Barack Obama’s Katrina.” With regard to the derailment, we don’t have clear partisan villainy: It’s a product of Republican-backed deregulation and austeritythe Biden-supported quashing of a rail workers’ strikeand years of bipartisan obeisance to shareholder capitalism that created incentives for firms like Norfolk Southern to lengthen their trains without adding upgraded safety measures.
That this failure has so many fathers also adds a level of complexity to confronting the powerful interests involved. There isn’t always a tremendous appetite for these kinds of confrontations at big legacy news organizations of the sort that, say, welcome Pentagon “message force multipliers” or uncritically print the accounts of cops as the first draft of a news story. From many thousands of feet in the air, perhaps the legacy media can see the balloons better, but they’re less attuned to the inequities at the root of these kinds of stories and have less of an understanding that “politics” can best be measured as a force that acts on ordinary people. There’s a reason that TNR’s Thakker was quicker to the punch in getting the straight dope from East Palestine locals than reporters at The New York Times or The Washington Post: We have fewer resources but a keener interest in that aspect of the story.
But there’s something genuinely gladdening to take away from this inquiry into the modern media. Those who’ve been left so vocally dissatisfied by the coverage of the Norfolk Southern disaster are demonstrating good instincts in terms of what should constitute substantive news coverage of the events that shape our lives. What’s more, they’re showing laudable character in their desire not to turn away from strangers in need. There’s no guarantee that there will be some widespread self-correction among the biggest media firms, but without this public consumer demand for a better brand of news, a better brand of news won’t be possible.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.
Did The New Republic’s Walter Shapiro just jinx the entire country? It seems as if I was just savoring the afterglow of his recent piece extolling the relative quietude of the pre-presidential primary season when all of a sudden, everything popped off. Nikki Haley announced her intention to run for president. Mike Pompeo put a toe in the water. Then Donald Trump accused Ron DeSantis of being a pedophile. So much for our sea of tranquility!
Still, let’s face it, this was inevitable: The Republicans are going to have a long and pyrotechnic skirmish to decide their presidential nominee. For those hoping for a similar spectacle on the Democratic side, however, reality provides precious little grist. But the world of hot takes and hypotheticals beckons. And this week, we got a classic of the genre in the form of a Michelle Goldberg piece titled, “Biden’s a Great President. He Should Not Run Again,” in which she takes 850 words to reiterate a point she’s already made: Joe Biden is really, really old.
I don’t necessarily want to dump all over this point of v iew. I share Goldberg’s concern about Biden’s age. When The New Republic’s editor, Michael Tomasky, solicited the opinion of Democratic insiders about whether Biden should run again, it was among their worries as well. Their consensus, nevertheless, was that Biden should run again. It makes sense: Biden’s age was a major concern when he announced his run in 2015. It remained a major concern when Biden’s two biggest rivals in that primary, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, also turned out to be very old themselves. Democratic elites and primary voters stared right into the heart of these gerontological anxieties and, having weighed them fully, decisively nixed all of the more youthful alternatives that were running for president alongside their elders. So here we are.
It’s true that Democrats could, if they wanted to, pivot and act on that concern now by using a primary to reverse this prior decision. One major problem they’d face is the lack of compelling alternatives. Democrats have a lot of people on hand whom voters already rejected in favor of Biden. Two of them, Sanders and Warren, don’t solve the age problem. Vice President Kamala Harris barely rated in the 2020 primary and has historic troubles with Democratic Party elites. Most of the rest have done little in the intervening time to advance the idea they should seek higher office, and the prospects for some have only worsened: Beto O’Rourke got absolutely rinsed in his latest attempt to get elected to something.
What about the future? Goldberg claims Democrats have “a deep bench.” She’s only able to name two politicians, Gretchen Whitmer and Raphael Warnock. Take it from someone who watched the Virginia men’s basketball team crash into—and out of—the NIT last year: Two people is not enough for a “deep bench.” Whitmer is one of a few Democrats (I’ll spot Goldberg J.B. Pritzker and Josh Shapiro) who might well round into presidential form, given another few years of seasoning. The notion that Warnock should make an early departure from his hard-won Georgia Senate seat—especially after all he went through to secure it—to take on a quixotic bid for the White House in 2024 is one of the more ludicrous notions I’ve encountered in a while.
Besides, any attempt to solve the dilemma of Biden’s age by seeking a replacement will engender a problem of greater magnitude: It will inject the pre-primary season with a massive dose of unnecessary tumult. Even if Biden had to give way for a clear and obvious reason, the ensuing disarray would touch off a combative primary in an election cycle in which a unified purpose among Democrats couldn’t be more important.
And the pundits who’d sell such a switch as a brilliant tactical decision, as Goldberg has, can’t be counted on to ratify the wisdom of their directive after the fact. Remember: The political media are chaos junkies who treat conflict as catnip and would relish the crisis caused by Biden’s departure. Meanwhile, the lesson of the midterms is that voters are turned off by disarray. Biden’s own polling struggles reflect this: Nothing damaged his approval ratings more than the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. He is still struggling to recover from that one moment when it did not appear that the adults were in charge.
But Afghanistan is instructive in a different way as well. The withdrawal may have hurt Biden’s numbers, but the fact that he was unwilling to keep paying the sunk costs of the Afghanistan scam was a real break from the status quo. Biden’s State of the Union address suggested that the president still has that yen for fresh thinking. As HuffPost’s Kevin Robillard noted: Clinton used his address “to declare the era of big government over, Obama used them to sell a grand bargain and a free trade deal.” Biden, by contrast, “used it to attack big pharma, rule out social security cuts, talk about antitrust policy, and declare the tax code unfair.”
This is a phenomenon that we’ve noted before: Many of Biden’s throwback instincts about the way America could be are incredibly well suited to the moment, and seem fresher than his predecessors’ ideas. Would-be Biden successors should take heed, because at the moment it’s Biden who sounds most like a bona fide party standard-bearer and a better tribune of the middle class than any of the GOP’s weird culture warriors, and more prepared to battle the larger universe of chiselers and cheats who have gotten away with nickel-and-diming ordinary Americans.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.
Days of relative calm were few and far between during President Trump’s chaotic reign, but there was one matter about which no one had to fret: For four years, whenever the debt ceiling needed to be raised, Congress made it happen in a fuss-free manner and without worrisome talk about the catastrophic economic impacts of a debt limit breach. But with Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives, the bad old days are here again. On Wednesday, President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy commenced budget negotiations with a debt limit “X Day” looming.
As CNN reportedWednesday’s talks were something of a nonevent—precisely what political wags anticipated in the run-up to the meeting. McCarthy emerged from the White House confab with optimistic lines about the potential for common ground. Good news, then: We did not meaningfully lurch in the direction of doomsday this week. But there’s a palpable sense of déjà vu as we tee up what might be this year’s most loaded question for the Biden administration: Will the president keep his vow not to negotiate over the debt limit?
Biden, as vice president in the Obama administration, had a hand in creating the debt limit chaos by deciding in 2011 to seek a “grand bargain” with Republican lawmakers on deficits and long-term spending. Thus began an era in which the two parties were perpetually at an impasse over spending and revenue: a divide so obviously unbridgeable that connecting it to the debt limit only added to the potential for destruction. Still, the Obama White House spun its wheels, chasing a grand bargain through several standoffs, a government shutdown, a credit downgrade, and the sequestration budget cuts that went into effect after Congress’s “supercommittee” failed on its own terms to arrive at a shared set of budget cuts.
This troublesome past is now the ready-made prologue to Biden’s new wranglings with new Republicans. As NBC News’s Sahil Kapur reported last week, when Obama and Biden came to understand the folly of their ways, they made a pledge never to repeat their mistakes, agreeing that from then on “nobody can use the threat of default or not increasing the debt limit as a negotiating tool.”
The early signs are encouraging. Last Thursday, Biden said“I will not let anyone use the full faith and credit of the United States as a bargaining chip.” The administration echoed that stance in a memo released Monday from National Economic Council Director Brian Deese (who on Thursday announced he was stepping down from that position) and Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young. In it, the two economic advisers said that the president “intends to pose two questions to McCarthy on Wednesday when the two men meet: Whether McCarthy will commit to the U.S. not defaulting on its financial obligations and when McCarthy and House Republicans will release their budget.”
For what it’s worth, Republicans have seemed a little knocked back by the White House’s steadfastness. As Kapur reported in a previous dispatch, Republicans have been “struggling to identify” what to cut and “divided” over whether “Medicare and Social Security spending should be on the chopping block” or “military funding should be on the table.” According to The New York Times, these “internal divisions over how to reduce spending” have since spilled “into public view, underscoring the political challenge that Republicans face as they try to wield the specter of a default to extract concessions.”
If Politico’s reporting is any guide, this is more or less going the exact way the White House drew it up. “The White House strategy,” according to Playbook, “is patience.” The administration is of the belief that “McCarthy is unlikely to craft a budget plan that can secure 218 votes given the internal contradictions within his conference among libertarians, defense hawks, and moderates representing Biden districts.”
Still, it’s in this early stage that it’s easiest for Biden to keep his debt ceiling vow. It’s only going to get harder. With a new analysis from the International Monetary Fund pointing to the easing of inflationary pressures and a global economic rebound, there are going to be tremendous incentives for Republicans to crash the economy as the presidential election cycle gets underway. Push could come to shove, and Biden might have to reach for a parliamentary trick—or, yes, a platinum coin—to avert disaster. But that’s why these tools are at his disposal: to help Biden keep his promise, and keep the world spinning forward.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.
You’ll never guess what’s gotten stuck in the craw of the perpetually bothered GOP doyenne Peggy Noonan. This past weekend, the Wall Street Journal columnist took to the paper’s doughty op-ed page to sound off on George Santos, the human falsehood fountain who now serves New York’s 3rd congressional district. In a column titled “George Santos Has Got to Go,” Noonan says that she doesn’t “get why members of Congress would let the George Santos story” drag on. “It diminishes them,” she writes. “It is both a daily insult to the American people and a taunt.” She joins a boomlet of conservatives, from within and without New York, who’ve called for Santos’s exit in recent days.
As The New Republic’s Alex Shephard recently wrote, Santos actually does bring something to the table: His daily cascade of lies and humiliations provides the GOP with a much-needed distraction. Every day, his peccadilloes hit the headlines, pushing down discussion of, say, the crazy “fair tax” on which Republicans are going to vote. Perhaps Noonan and her fellow critics do not share this visionary strategy. But they’re also lacking in perspective. It is said that Santos wanted to find a way to receive lifetime health care coverage and a pension. These aren’t unreasonable things to want. It’s further said that he eyed becoming a member of Congress to get these perks, which is also quite reasonable. And then he arrived at the most reasonable conclusion of all: Where would an inveterate liar and con man be most welcomed in politics? The clear answer was the Republican Party.
Anytime a conservative gets on their high horse about Santos, the derelict lawmaker ends up looking more sinned against than sinning—and not just because it’s clear that plenty of Republicans knew what Santos was all about. Noonan says that Santos “waged war on reality”? Hard to imagine that he wouldn’t be welcome in the party that popularized this practice in numerous ways, rejecting the fruits of science and academia and turning its base against these professions. Noonan complains that Santos has “stolen from voters … a sense of what’s true.” That’s rather rich coming from someone who touts the party that lied the nation into a destructive war.
“The only entity that smoked out a fake was a small local newspaper, The North Shore Leader,” writes Noonan, seemingly unaware of the long war her party has waged to discredit the press, a project that accelerated after Newt Gingrich’s ascension. Does anyone imagine that the GOP is going to play a role in reassembling a robust, adv ersarial press in the numerous news deserts that have bloomed across the country? Like everything George Santos says, it is not to be believed.
Noonan’s far from the only Republican celebrity who needs to get off the fainting couch and take a look in the mirror instead. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan recently accused Santos of being a “fraudulent candidate” who “hoaxed his viewers.” It’s an interesting take! Here’s a fun fact about Paul Ryan, though: During the 2012 presidential campaign, Ryan staged a fake photo op at a Youngstown, Ohio, soup kitchen, where he pretended to wash some already-washed dishes long after everyone had already gone home. (Another interesting fact is that after Ryan’s ruse was exposed, his supporters took it out on the soup kitchen.) Maybe he’s not in the strongest position to be chiming in on the matter of George Santos.
Was Santos really so wrong to imagine that he wouldn’t be welcomed into the Republican Party with open arms? The GOP has a rich tradition of scams and flimflam, so much so that not only can you easily see how the road got paved for a celebrated con artist in the form of Donald Trump to become the standard-bearer of the party of Paul Ryan, but you can also surmise that Trump is insignificant to this larger and long-standing tendency within the contemporary Republican Party. In 2012, The Baffler’s Rick Perlstein spelunked into the depths of the conservative movement’s grift-industrial complex, chronicling how direct-mail titan Richard Viguerie unleashed the floodgates for a million get-rich-quick schemes and snake oil testimonials to find their way into their supporters’ mailboxes, the better to shake them down for whatever loose change could be prised from their pockets. Writing for The New RepublicJeet Heer explained how the GOP’s anti-intellectual bent softened the brains of its base, making them more susceptible to the waterfall of bunkum that routinely comprises the whole of the Republican rhetoric.
The big swindle never stopped. From penny stock scams to pump-and-dump schemes to fake medical curesthe Republican Party has become associated with treating its own voters like rubes and fleecing them to the hilt. Just this week, Talking Points Memo’s Hunter Walker reported that the people who formed the “People’s Convoy”—the aborted effort of truckers to encircle the District of Columbia in protest of various Covid-19 public health mandates—have seamlessly transformed themselves into a multilevel marketing scheme. And why not? Betsy DeVos surveys her domain from atop a mountain of Amway funny money. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
At any rate, while various conservatives pile up the hypocrisies because they’re angry at George Santos for getting caught, I have a good feeling he’s going to stick around for a while. The new GOP House majority has slim margins and its poor bedraggled leader, Kevin McCarthy, is going to need every vote he can get, up to and including that of Santos. Frankly, I don’t think Santos played his hand too badly, and given time, perhaps he might form the same strong bonds with McCarthy that the speaker has forged with Marjorie Taylor Greene, who believes that the California wildfires were caused by Jewish space lasers.
As President Biden enters his next and final presidential election cycle, there can be little doubt that his best argument for reelection is that he put a wayward nation right after four years of Trumpian misrule. There will be contrasts that Biden will surely want to tout, from job numbers and legislative accomplishments to his superior tone and temperament. But a recent delivery from the “Be Careful What You Wish For” store has drawn him into a less favorable comparison with Trump.
There are early indications that Biden’s mishandling of classified documents is rooted in error rather than corruption or egomania. Unlike Trump, Biden did not spend a lengthy period of time intransigently blowing off authorities, forcing them to carry out a search and seizure of his property; his team immediately fessed up and handed over the documents to the National Archives. But thanks to the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the matter and a second discovery of classified documents that was handled less forthrightlythe flap has offered the GOP and its media organs enough meat to ensure this matter won’t be pleasantly resolved.
CNN summed up the White House’s strategy like so: “Pledge full cooperation. Attack House Republicans. Don’t engage in the details of an ongoing matter,” the idea being that “pushing ahead with their regularly scheduled programming” is the best course of action. But as The Washington Post subsequently reported on Wednesday evening, things didn’t go to plan, and the administration earned itself a furor by not picking the right moments to be as transparent as possible.
That the White House prefers a low-key approach is understandable—unlike Trump, most presidents don’t try to inject themselves into the news cycle every hour of the day. But I think it’s an error. What Biden is facing is a test of mettle, not a pitfall to dodge. Rather than play this matter down, Biden should—within the limitations that are wisely enforced during an ongoing investigation—endeavor to play it up, instead. He should own whatever mistakes led to these classified documents ending up where they shouldn’t have. This is an opportunity to make government ethics great again, and it’s long overdue.
One of the more important jobs a president has is setting an ethical standard for his administration. We don’t have ethics cops walking the beat and making arrests; there’s no enforcement mechanism other than the tone set from the guy at the top. When this is absent, as we saw during the Trump administrationthings unwind quickly—the entire Republican National Convention ends up being a massive violation of the Hatch Act. A post-Trump restoration couldn’t be more vital: New norms get established quickly in Washington. They also erode fast. So Biden should sail over the low bar set by his predecessor by detailing the errors that led to the misplacement of these classified materials and making clear what’s being done to ensure the mistake won’t be repeated.
Why is this important? While Biden and his fellow Democrats can’t do much in the way of passing laws with the GOP in control of the House, they can still spend the next two years setting an example. Collectively, everyone on the team should be seeking out opportunities to play Gallant to the Republicans’ weird Goofus impulses. But it’s also important for Biden to burnish his credibility with the American people—and maybe be a direly needed change agent in our all-too-tatty political culture. Washington, a notoriously cynical place, is famous for its common sense–crippling ideas about leadership. Perhaps one of the most notorious is the odd standard that holds that publicly admitting errors is a sign of weakness and that politicians should go to comical lengths to avoid doing so.
There’s another way: In Bailout, Neil Barofsky’s memoir of his time in Washington serving as the special inspector general overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Program, he described the advice he received from Kristine Belisle, the woman he smartly hired to be his communications director. It was about as anti-Washington as it can get: “We’ll admit and even highlight our mistakes.” As she went on to explain, there’s method in a strategy that most people inside the Beltway would deem madness:
This is the best way to earn the press’s trust. They’ll know we’re not spinning like everyone else. SIGTARP will quickly become the only credible source for information in Washington about TARP. We might be embarrassed at times and disclose things that we could—and others would—easily hide, but we’ll shock the press with our honesty. No one else does this, and before long, we’ll have a built in defense when we’re attacked. No matter what they hear, the press will come to us first and believe us, because we’ll prove to them that we tell the truth.
This is perhaps the biggest reason for Biden to pursue the course of radical responsibility-taking: Moments inevitably arise in any presidency when having the trust of the public and the institutions that safeguard the civic interest is critical. Moreover, there is vital capital to be earned by owning our mistakes, and there’s an important distinction that Biden can draw with his political opponents. The president would do well to follow the old adage: Tell the truth—and shame the devil.
You have to give some credit to the new Republican House majority: The first week of their new reign washilarious.Between several days of watching Kevin McCarthy get subjected to ritual humiliation and New York Congressman George Santos’s total commitment to ensuring that not a day would pass without fresh “revelations” about his haphazardly constructed lies, this has been a period of peak content. While it may have been possible for Democrats, like Katie Porter, to practice “the subtle art of not giving a fuck” during this period, I’m sorry to say that the time for chortling is over—and the fuckery that the GOP’s House majority has planned will be anything but subtle.
Already there’s been a lot of hot talk aboutStar Chamber–style investigationsand possibleimpeachments. The House is in session, in chaos, and there’s not much to be done about it until the next election. But there’s one concern that stands out: the likelihood that the GOP will drag the country to thebrink of a debt defaultand perhaps even push us over the edge. I know, I know:How many times are we going to go through this? The Democrats had a chance to disarm this ticking time bomb during the lame-duck session but chose not to. Now it’sessentially understoodthat the threat of a debt limit default isback for the duration.
Well, we can live with the constant fear of a GOP-precipitated debt default for the next year if we want, in the hopes that cooler heads will prevail and cobble together some sort of short-term compromise that might tide the global economy over until the next deadline. Or we can do what we should have done a long time ago: have the president command the U.S. Treasury tomint a magic trillion-dollar platinum coinstash it in the Treasury, andend the dangeronce and for all.
I know what a lot of dull-witted pundits are going to say about this proposal: You can’t just mint a magic coin, it’s a total gimmick, this is crazy talk. You want to know what’s really crazy? Agreeing to remain the secretary of the treasury during a period of time when the House of Representatives’ primo nutters have made it their cause célèbre to regularly threaten to tank the global economy. But just this week, Bloomberg News reported that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen—who herself has called the platinum coin a “gimmick”—will remain in the role for “the duration.” If she wants to survive, let alone enjoy her tenure, she should tell Joe Biden that she’s ready to mint the coin. Honestly, I’d question the judgment of any treasury secretary who wouldn’t do so, given the sadomasochistic alternative of grimly enduring an escalating series of economic nightmare scenarios.
In politics, conflict and complications are inevitable. Simple solutions are in short supply. And we all have a tendency to overthink things. It was, in fact, “overthinking things” that got us into this mess: During the “Grand Bargain” phase of his presidency, Barack Obama thought it would be a great idea to use the occasion of raising the debt ceiling as a momentto enter into larger negotiations on debt reduction. Obama just threw open Pandora’s box, enabled the GOP’s plunge into debt-limit psychosis, and we’ve been struggling to get unfucked ever since.
It was also, not coincidentally, during Obama’s first term that the idea of minting a trillion-dollar coin—which appears to be an entirely legalcheat codethanks to afew sentencesin a 1996 law—first arose. Now Biden, who had a front-row seat to Obama’s massive cock-up, can end this grievous era of totally overthinking it. By embracing the kind of mentality that Alexander the Great deployed when he was faced with the Gordian knot, or which Indiana Jones turned to when challenged by a scimitar-spinning fool whofailed to observe that he was carrying a loaded pistolBiden can write his name alongside these legends. He can reach for the quickest solution to the debt ceiling fiascoandsecureDark Brandon’s place in historyby minting the coin.
The main criticism against minting the coin appears to be that it might worsen inflation. But the truth is, no one knows because we’ve never tried it—and certainly defaulting on the nation’s debt would have more immediate and drastic economic consequences than minting a coin and stashing it away. The idea may seem absurd on its face, but as Zachary Carter argued back in 2021, the real absurdity is the debt ceiling itself. There’s a beautiful symmetry about thwarting the ridiculous problem it poses with an equally ridiculous solution.
What are the biggest problems that the people of Rapid City, South Dakota, have to face? I’d argue that its citizens should be most concerned that the sole reason the state seems to exist is to provide a haven for oligarchs and tax cheats. But not everyone agrees—and in what is becoming a pitched mayoral race in the state’s second-most-populous city, it’s a matter of hot debate. If you listen to city Councilwoman Laura Armstrong, who has already announced her intention to run, she’ll tell you the biggest issues are crime and meth. But a potential rival, her council colleague Jason Salamun, has identified a different villain: TikTok.
Over the past few months, TikTok—the social media platform that Gen Z has taken to in droves and which their aunts don’t quite understand—has earned the opprobrium of lawmakers near and far. The Wall Street Journal, which reported on these Rapid City goings-on, asserts that concerns over the platform have gone “from Washington to Main Street”—and with a bipartisan sheen to boot. It’s hardly the first time a tech company has drawn the critical eye of policymakers. But what critics of TikTok claim is a matter of national security looks, upon closer inspection, to be a familiar concern about privacy that could just as easily be levied—and should be levied—against a whole array of U.S.-based tech companies.
The political war on TikTok has been brewing for some time, but it ramped up in mid-December when bipartisan legislation was introduced in both the House and Senate that would ban TikTok outright in the United States. That this measure suddenly arrived on the scene with such broad approval was, to me, a red flag. Bipartisan legislation typically falls into three categories: the naming of post offices, the funding of unwinnable wars, and stupid pieces of stunt legislation. My suspicions were confirmed when I saw the name of the bill: Averting the National Threat of Internet Surveillance, Oppressive Censorship and Influence, and Algorithmic Learning by the Chinese Communist Party Act, or ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act. As my colleague Matt Ford has written, acronym bills are typically the work of the unhinged or the unserious.
Nevertheless, it does seem as though this bipartisan and bicameral desire to limit TikTok’s ability to, say, briefly cement Louis Theroux’s status as a hip-hop iconwas born of bona fide real-world concerns. As NBC News’s Rebecca Shabad reportedlawmakers took the step after receiving “warnings from the FBI director and cybersecurity experts who have said China could use the social media platform for spying”; Buzzfeed reported in June that China-based employees of TikTok’s parent company had accessed the nonpublic data of U.S. users despite assurances to the contrary. The ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act, put forth in the Senate by Marco Rubio, sought “to protect Americans from foreign adversaries who might use certain social media to surveil Americans, learn sensitive data about them, and spread influence campaigns or propaganda.”
But TechDirt’s Karl Bode took a dim view of Rubio’s proposal, and with good reason. “For several years,” he wrote, “we’ve noted how most of the calls to ban TikTok are bad faith bullshit made by a rotating crop of characters that not only couldn’t care less about consumer privacy, but are directly responsible for the privacy oversight vacuum TikTok (and everybody else) exploits.” Bode noted the dubious legal underpinnings of the measure but found a larger fault at the core of the proposal: “For decades the GOP (and more than a few Democrats) have worked tirelessly to erode [Federal Trade Commission] privacy enforcement authority and funding, while fighting tooth and nail against absolutely any meaningful privacy legislation for the Internet era.”
This door has been open for tech companies of all stripes to abuse in similar fashion. “If you actually care about national security,” wrote Bode, “holding all companies and data brokers accountable for privacy abuses should be your priority. A basic, helpful, well-written privacy law should be your priority. A working, staffed, properly funded FTC should be your priority.”
We have some idea what a more rigorous regulatory regime looks like. European authorities this week dropped hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of fines on Mark Zuckerberg as part of the EU’s larger effort to bring Meta into compliance with the privacy regulations of its member nations. That we don’t have this level of enforcement in America is down to the fact that firms like Meta spend a lot of time and money influencing our lawmakers to retain a status quo in which they have broad latitude to do the very things TikTok stands accused of doing: surveilling Americans, acquiring sensitive data about them, and subjecting them to influence campaigns and propaganda.
What’s likely to happen once all the shouting is over? As Bode notes, a stateside TikTok ban is not going to prevent China’s exploits in the field of data acquisition: “You could ban TikTok immediately and the Chinese government could simply buy this (and more) data from a rotating crop of dodgy data brokers and assorted middlemen.” Meanwhile, the tech industry’s surveillance-capitalism panopticon will continue its work. Lawmakers could take bigger and more effective efforts to secure our privacy, but until then we’ll get a few brief and repetitive seconds of feckless and ineffectual parliamentary song-and-dance from lawmakers across the land. How very TikTokian.
This week, The New Republic will be devoting some of our time to looking back at the villains, ghouls, and do-gooders who shaped the past year in politics. A new Scoundrel of the Year will take their place alongside such luminaries as Mark Zuckerberg and Ron DeSantis, and the entire TNR staff will be making contributions to the cause. In looking back on the work TNR has published in 2022, I keep coming back to one big idea that I’ve tried to nurture on these pages: the necessary fight for the Good Life.
Longtime readers may remember how I tried to elucidate the borrowed-from-Keynes concept of the Good Life as a means of offering a then-wayward Democratic Party a way to get its messaging unstuck. To my mind, the elements of the Good Life boiled down to this: “More shared prosperity to reduce economic inequality; more widely distributed political power so that people have more control over their own lives; more political stability to keep upheaval at bay; and, most important of all, more time with the people we love.”
These are simple ideas that can inform a broad compact with America—one that would recover wealth that was stolen from us and provide a more just and equitable future. Democrats, of course, didn’t end up taking the beating many expected in the midterms, in part because they told a good story about democracy, the fountain from which the Good Life flows. They’ll have an opportunity to keep advancing this vision. Some of my favorite pieces from the past year might help light the way.
Democrats should stop panicking about elections, Walter Shapiro argued: The election “reminds Democrats … that it is time to go back to trusting the American people.” A good place to begin—but there is work to be done. As Joe Lowndes and Daniel Martinez HoSang documented at length, the GOP has made inroads with candidates of color, and Democrats have to take that threat seriously. I’ve urged Democrats to be more proactive, rather than waiting to benefit from GOP wreckage.
But when Republicans do wreck things, it’s good to go on offense. Meredith Shiner’s clarion call for Democratic action after Roe was gutted is a good reminder that time is of the essence in an emergency. One Democrat who spoke the loudest about countering the threats of far-right extremists—and one of the few who seemed to step out in support of the increasingly threatened LGBTQ community—was Michigan’s Mallory McMorrow, who did one of my favorite interviews with our editor, Michael Tomasky.
You can’t have the Good Life without a thriving economy, and while Democrats may not get any of their economic ideas to Joe Biden’s desk in 2023, they need to keep pushing for them, even if ultimately they’re getting voted down by the GOP House (which has its own benefits). One big policy to push: a revived and extended child tax credit, which, as Grace Segers has relentlessly documented, provided massive gains in the war against poverty. The Biden administration has, for the most part, helped to build a labor economy that favors workers and boosts the democratizing influence of unions. The president backed the wrong horse in the recent rail strike fiasco, but Steven Greenhouse provided a blueprint for his administration to get back on the right track.
As TNR editor Michael Tomasky noted, Democrats actually have a pretty good economic tale to tell—but they “need to tell a sharper economic story that identifies enemies of working people’s economic interests by name.” The coming year should be a boom time for shaming the worst of the worst, from the private equity firms sucking the American dream dry to the corporate interests that are keeping ordinary people down, as Sarah Miller wrote so eloquently.
Naturally, the biggest enemy of the Good Life continues to be the GOP and a conservative movement that, as Graham Gallagher illuminated at length, is only getting strangermore off-putting, and more un-American by the day. We’ve worked hard to chronicle this transformation: from Laura Jedeed and Ana Marie Cox’s on-the-ground coverage of a truly cracked CPAC to Melissa Gira Grant’s constant chronicling of the way the QAnon movement keeps burrowing itself deeper into the halls of power.
Perhaps the most important story that defenders of the Good Life will need to tell over the next year is that Trump’s electoral defeat in 2020 and his weakened profile at the end of this year’s midterm cycle don’t point to the return of a normal, credible, democracy-minded Republican Party. Osita Nwanevu wrote:
The Republican Party understands the climate its rhetoric and strategies have created kills people and will continue to do so; it remains important to Republican politicians that the men being provoked to murder have the right tools at their disposal. It’s of some comfort that many Americans have come to see the right’s degeneracy for what it is and that Republicans continue to pay an electoral penalty for it. But given the mounting structural advantages the GOP enjoys within the federal system, this election barely qualifies as a setback.
We’re not out of the woods yet, but the world only spins forward. On to a new year: a new chance to cut, a new chance to cure.
What kind of criminal activity must a corporation commit to face real consequences—for the justice system to compel the company into nonexistence or jail its executives? In recent weeks, there has been some cheerful news on that front: Sunny Balwani, the president of Theranos, will join his former flame and company founder Elizabeth Holmes in a lengthy prison sentence—a deserved punishment for their outlandish lies about their fraudulent blood-extraction machine.
But for every Theranos, there’s a Wells Fargowho readers might remember as the ne plus ultra example of a bad bank, its executives seemingly bent on finding newer and more innovative ways to scam its customers. Wells Fargo has been given permission to constantly apologize for its wrongdoing and immediately return to it, with no one facing real consequences. The truth is, instances like Theranos, where clear-cut corporate criminals face clear-cut punishments, are considerably rare. All of which brings us to Hertz, which this week joined the ranks of those who’ve gotten away with egregious malfeasance.
Hertz, a car rental firm that’s joined at the balance sheet with several other well-known brands (Thrifty, Dollar), made some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it news: It was forced to “pay about $168 million to settle disputes with hundreds of customers,” reported The New York Times. “Disputes” puts it too politely. Over the course of many years, the company sicced the police on its own customers, who were wrongly accused of having stolen vehicles. This was all due to Hertz’s error: The company mistakenly misclassified cars as stolen or failed to account for customers making payments to extend their rentals.
As CBS News reported a year ago, dozens of customers were wrongly subjected to terrifying encounters with police. But some customers were subjected to even worse. According to the Times, one woman who was arrested, despite having paid her rental extension, was jailed for 37 days—during which time she was “separated from her fiancé and two children, missed her nursing school graduation and discovered she was pregnant.” Another renter, after learning there “was a warrant for his arrest on charges that he stole a Hertz car, had actually paid for and returned the vehicle.” But after he missed a hearing date, he was “arrested again, and jailed for six and a half months.”
Now a $168 million fine might seem like a lot, but it pales in comparison to the company’s $7.3 billion in revenue and $19.7 billion in assets at the end of 2021. Additionally, no company executives have been punished for what amounts to a wholly fraudulent exploitation of the criminal justice system.
Hertz was a troubled firm beyond the crimes it committed; the company filed for bankruptcy during the pandemic, and its employees are thus familiar with their jobs being at risk. But this episode still provides an illuminating example of why our labor politics needs a big rethink. Firms do things all the time that put jobs at risk. Sometimes they commit crimes. Sometimes an idiot just acquires a company and starts firing everyone who won’t join his inane ego trip. An economy in which employers have to compete for labor allows workers to be more mobile and more capable of leaving bad jobs behind, which can help soften the blow whenever the justice system lowers the boom on bad corporate actors. Moreover, this episode is simply the latest and greatest example of why it pays to have a unionized workforce.
But an even better solution would be to promote and enact policies granting workers larger ownership stakes in companies like Hertz. This would give workforces that are already too vulnerable to the errant whims of overpaid executives more transparency into the decisions cascading from the company boardroom as well as a better opportunity to prevent bad, costly actions that put workers’ jobs at risk. Democrats have, in the recent past, proposed such ideas; as The New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu noted in May 2020, polling from YouGov indicated that there was broad support for them among voters, including for “policies incentivizing the voluntary transfer of ownership stakes to employees, and even making companies with more than 250 employees grant those employees half of their stock over time.”
Without the emergence of a course-altering remedy, we will be stuck with a status quo in which we have to hope that slap-on-the-wrist financial penalties will be enough to steer our corporate masters onto more just and prudent paths. The New York Times’ reporting offered some insight into how that will play out at Hertz: “On Monday, Hertz said it believed it would recover a ‘meaningful portion’ of the settlement amount from its insurance carriers and that the $168 million would be paid by the end of this year.” The system works, just not for you.