Scientists around the world have noted that the Earth has been spinning on its axis faster lately—the fastest ever recorded. Several scientists have spoken to the press about the unusual phenomenon, with some pointing out that this past year saw some of the shortest days ever recorded.
For most of the history of mankind, time has been marked by the 24-hour day/night cycle (with some alterations made for convenience as the seasons change). The cycle is governed by the speed at which the planet spins on its axis. Because of that, the length of a day has become the standard by which time is marked—each day lasts approximately 86,400 seconds. The day/night cycle is remarkably consistent despite the fact that it actually varies slightly on a regular basis.
Several decades ago, the development of atomic clocks began allowing scientists to record the passage of time in incredibly small increments, in turn, allowing for measuring the length of a given day down to the millisecond. And that has led to the discovery that the spin of the planet is actually far more variable than once thought. Since such measurements began, scientists have also found that the Earth was slowing its spin very gradually (compensated by the insertion of a leap second now and then)—until this past year, when it began spinning faster—so much so that some in the field have begun to wonder if a negative leap negative second might be needed this year, an unprecedented suggestion. Scientists also noted that this past summer, on July 19, the shortest day ever was recorded—it was 1.4602 milliseconds shorter than the standard.
Planetary scientists are not concerned about the new finding; they have learned that there are many factors that have an impact on planetary spin—including the moon’s pull, snowfall levels and mountain erosion. They also have begun wondering if global warming might push the Earth to spin faster as the snow caps and high-altitude snows begin disappearing. Computer scientists, on the other hand, are somewhat concerned about the shifting spin speed—so much of modern technology is based on what they describe as “true time.” Adding a negative leap second could lead to problems, so some have suggested shifting the world’s clocks from solar time to atomic time.
Linda Zall played a starring role in American science that led to decades of major advances. But she never described her breakthroughs on television, or had books written about her, or received high scientific honors. One database of scientific publications lists her contributions as consisting of just three papers, with a conspicuous gap running from 1980 to 2020.
The reason is that Dr. Zall’s decades of service to science were done in the secretive warrens of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Now, at 70, she’s telling her story — at least the parts she’s allowed to talk about — and admirers are praising her highly classified struggle to put the nation’s spy satellites onto a radical new job: environmental sleuthing.
“It was fun,” she said of her C.I.A. career. “It was really a lot of fun.”
Dr. Zall’s program, established in 1992, was a kind of wayback machine that looked to as long ago as 1960. In so doing, it provided a new baseline for assessing the pace and scope of planetary change. Ultimately, it led to hundreds of papers, studies and reports — some classified top secret, some public, some by the National Academy of Sciences, the premier scientific advisory group to the federal government. The accumulated riches included up to six decades of prime data on planetary shifts in snowfall and blizzards, sea ice and glaciers.
“None of this would have happened without her,” said Jeffrey K. Harris, who worked with Dr. Zall as director of the National Reconnaissance Office, which runs the nation’s fleet of orbital spies. “You have to decide if you’re going to break down the wall or climb over it, and she did a little bit of both.”
Some of her biggest fans are surviving members of her team of 70 elite scientists whom Dr. Zall recruited to sift through and analyze mountains of images from a secret archive. The storehouse was accumulated mainly as a byproduct of Washington’s spying on adversaries from space as a means of distinguishing threats and propaganda from deadly capabilities.
“She was an amazing leader,” said Michael B. McElroy, a planetary physicist and professor of environmental studies at Harvard. “She had energy and enthusiasm and a wonderful ability to communicate with people” — as well as the tact to handle large egos. “Having this woman from the C.I.A. telling them what to do wasn’t easy. It was amazing to watch her.”
The top-secret images that Dr. Zall succeeded in repurposing for environmental inquiries came from satellites that were some of Washington’s crown jewels. The spy satellites would zero in on such targets as deadly weapons and render images that in some cases were said to be good enough to show a car’s license plate. The first reconnaissance satellite, known as Corona, was launched in 1960. Federal experts have put the overall cost of its hundreds of successors at more than $50 billion.
An accident of fate let the fleet assess a top environmental concern — the extent to which vast expanses of Arctic and Antarctic ice were retreating. Many spy satellites orbit on north-south paths that pass close to the poles so that, as the planet turns, the vast majority of Earth’s surface passes beneath their sensors over the course of 24 hours. Thus, their many paths converge near the poles.
“It gave us the first real measurements of the ice budget — how much loss you have from season to season,” said D. James Baker, who directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 1993 to 2001 and served on Dr. Zall’s C.I.A. advisory panel.
In normal science, where collaborators share credit, Dr. Zall might have been listed on papers as a co-author or even a lead author. But not in a twilight zone where science was part open, part secret. For decades, hers was a hidden hand.
Dr. Zall’s environmentalism for the C.I.A. began in 1990 when Vice President Al Gore, then a Democratic senator from Tennessee and now a leading climate-change activist, wrote a letter asking the agency to examine whether the nation’s spy fleet might address environmental riddles. The agency put Dr. Zall onto the question. Quickly, she saw how the nation’s archive of surveillance observations could also serve to strengthen assessments of Earth’s changing environment.
“I worked night and day,” Dr. Zall recalled. “I was fascinated.” The secret information, she added, boded well “for all the things I loved.”
The oldest of three children, Linda Susan Zall grew up in North Hornell, N.Y., a village nestled in rolling farmland near the Finger Lakes. Her childhood was spent outdoors raking leaves and speeding through the countryside on sleds and toboggans, bikes and boats.CLIMATE FWD:: Our latest insights about climate change, with answers to your questions and tips on how to help.Sign Up
“I didn’t try to love nature,” Dr. Zall recalled. “I didn’t know anything else.” She lived for snow. “We’d build forts and play in the hills and nearly kill ourselves.”
Her father, the manager of a large dairy, moved his family to Ithaca, N.Y., in the mid-1960s so he could study for a doctorate in food science at Cornell University. She liked what she saw. In 1976, she graduated from Cornell with a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering.
Her mentor at the university, Donald J. Belcher, was a pioneer in applying aerial photography to engineering questions, such as where to build houses and cities. Dr. Belcher was hired by Brazil to pick the best site for its new capital, Brasília.
He put his graduate student onto an aerial project in Alaska that sought to assess changes in permafrost — ground that’s usually frozen but in some places was starting to thaw. “I had my face glued to the window,” Dr. Zall said of viewing the continental wilderness during her flight to Fairbanks. “It was mind-blowing. I get goose bumps thinking about it.”
After Cornell, Dr. Zall gained a higher perspective. Civilian surveillance satellites such as Landsat were flying hundreds of miles up to take images of the planet for farmers, geographers and other specialists. From 1975 to 1984, she worked for the Earth Satellite Corporation. Based in Washington, D.C., it used computersto enhance Landsat images, making their details more accessible.
Dr. Zall then vanished into the C.I.A. It was 1985 — a bruising last chapter of the Cold War — and American satellites were playing outsize roles in scrutinizing Moscow. She used her skills to improve the analysis of reconnaissance images and to plan new generations of spy satellites.
In 1989, she took on a new assignment as the C.I.A.’s liaison to the Jasons — a group of elite scientists that advise Washington on military and intelligence matters. Its ranks would eventually supply her with contacts for top environmental scientists.
Then, quite suddenly, in late 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated. Its collapse diminished not only a main threat to Washington but also a top rationale for maintaining a fleet of costly spy satellites.
New uses beckoned. But the prospect of training spy satellites on environmental questions faced vast resistance from the deeply entrenched fiefs of the intelligence world that were built on decades of colossal budgets.
As Mr. Gore pushed, Dr. Zall provided answers. She wrote a highly classified report describing what the secret reconnaissance could do for Earth science. “Spy Satellite Photos May Aid in Global Environment Study,” The Associated Press reported in May 1992. The article made no mention of Dr. Zall.
Neil Sheehan, the Vietnam War correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who obtained the Pentagon Papers for The New York Times, leading the government for the first time in American history to get a judge to block publication of an article on grounds of national security, died on Thursday at his home in Washington. He was 84.
Susan Sheehan, his wife, said the cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease.
Mr. Sheehan, who covered the war from 1962 to 1966 for United Press International and The Times, was also the author of “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam,” which won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer in 1989. Reviewing it in the Times, Ronald Steel wrote, “If there is one book that captures the Vietnam War in the sheer Homeric scale of its passion and folly, this book is it.”
Intense and driven, Mr. Sheehan arrived in Vietnam at age 25, a believer in the American mission. He left, four years later, disillusioned and anguished. He later spent what he described as a grim and monastic 16 years on “A Bright Shining Lie,” in the hope that the book would move Americans finally to come to grips with the war.
“I simply cannot help worrying that, in the process of waging this war, we are corrupting ourselves,” he wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 1966. “I wonder, when I look at the bombed-out peasant hamlets, the orphans begging and stealing on the streets of Saigon and the women and children with napalm burns lying on the hospital cots, whether the United States or any nation has the right to inflict this suffering and degradation on another people for its own ends.”
Mr. Sheehan’s readiness to entertain the notion that Americans might have committed war crimes prompted Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst who had turned against the war, to leak the Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of American decision-making on Vietnam, to him in 1971. The papers revealed that successive administrations had expanded U.S. involvement in the war and intensified attacks on North Vietnam while obscuring their doubts about the likelihood of success.Now It Can Be Told: How Neil Sheehan Got the Pentagon PapersJan. 7, 2021
At 7,000 pages, the leak was the largest disclosure of classified documents in American history up to that point. After the third day of The Times’s coverage, the Nixon administration got a temporary injunction blocking further publication. The Supreme Court’s ruling 17 days later allowing publication to resume has been seen as a statement that prior restraint on freedom of the press is rarely justified. The Times won a Pulitzer, for public service, for its coverage by Mr. Sheehan and others.
In the days after the temporary injunction against the Times, The Washington Post and several other newspapers began publishing their own articles on the Pentagon Papers — only to be blocked themselves until the Supreme Court upheld the right of The Times and The Post to publish.
Opinion: Remembering Journalist And Friend Neil Sheehan
Now It Can Be Told: How Neil Sheehan Got the Pentagon Papers
When I first got to know Neil Sheehan, he was going through trying times. We were war correspondents of different generations and I was in awe of the intrepid reporter of the Vietnam conflict, first for United Press International, then The New York Times. He was the first to get his hands on the leak of official documents that became known as the Pentagon Papers, which revealed how U.S. government officials had lied to the American people about the Vietnam War.
When we met, Neil was working on a book that centered around John Paul Vann, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who served and died in Vietnam. Neil Sheehan admired Vann for his abrasive honesty, especially set against so many official lies. The book took Neil 16 years to write. Susan Sheehan, the great New Yorker writer and Neil’s wife, described those years to us this week for her family simply as “[h]ell. Just hell.”
Neil told me he just found it hard to write a sentence without thinking, “Is this really good enough? … I can’t make a mistake or get something wrong. I owe it to so many to get everything right. If people can know the truth, they can learn from it.” He thought the folly of Vietnam should become a caution for the future.
The tens of thousands of American service members who died in the conflict were not just names on a wall to Neil Sheehan. He remembered the faces and stories of soldiers and Marines he’d known, killed in a war about which they weren’t told the truth; and hundred folds more Vietnamese men, women, children — whole villages destroyed because of American mistakes, arrogance and official lies.
The book Neil finally completed in 1988 titled A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. It’s now considered a classic. I hope that designation doesn’t discourage a new generation from reading it today.
Neil Sheehan died Thursday of complications from Parkinson’s at the age of 84 during a week that a U.S. president’s lies to the American people have brought about tragic results.
Susan Sheehan is sure Neil wouldn’t want to be remembered just by books and awards. He cherished his family. He wrote notes to friends not just when they were riding high, but when they were low. I know this personally. His generous spirit came after a tough childhood and a struggle with drinking. All of this grace resonated in his work, but as Susan Sheehan told us, “He didn’t just want to achieve something. Neil wanted to be a good person.” His life and work may remind us — this of all weeks — of the gift we still have in America when good reporters speak eloquently and bring us the truth.
It was a story he had chosen not to tell — until 2015, when he sat for a four-hour interview, promised that this account would not be published while he was alive.
Published Jan. 7, 2021Updated Jan. 8, 2021, 9:29 a.m. ET
There was one story Neil Sheehan chose not to tell. It was the story of how he had obtained the Pentagon Papers, the blockbuster scoop that led to a 1971 showdown between the Nixon administration and the press, and to a Supreme Court ruling that is still seen as a milepost in government-press relations.
From the moment he secured the 7,000 pages of classified government documents on the Vietnam War for The New York Times, until his death on Thursday, Mr. Sheehan, a former Vietnam War correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, declined nearly every invitation to explain precisely how he had pulled it off.
In 2015, however, at a reporter’s request, he agreed to tell his story on the condition that it not be published while he was alive. Beset by scoliosis and Parkinson’s disease, he recounted, in a four-hour interview at his home in Washington, a tale as suspenseful and cinematic as anyone in Hollywood might concoct.
The Pentagon Papers, arguably the greatest journalistic catch of a generation, were a secret history of United States decision-making on Vietnam, commissioned in 1967 by the secretary of defense. Their release revealed for the first time the extent to which successive White House administrations had intensified American involvement in the war while hiding their own doubts about the chances of success.
Recounting the steps that led to his breaking the story, Mr. Sheehan told of aliases scribbled into the guest registers of Massachusetts motels; copy-shop machines crashing under the burden of an all-night, purloined-document load; photocopied pages stashed in a bus-station locker; bundles belted into a seat on a flight from Boston; and telltale initials incinerated in a diplomat’s barbecue set.
He also revealed that he had defied the explicit instructions of his confidential source, whom others later identified as Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst who had been a contributor to the secret history while working for the Rand Corporation. In 1969, Mr. Ellsberg had illicitly copied the entire report, hoping that making it public would hasten an end to a war he had come passionately to oppose.
Contrary to what is generally believed, Mr. Ellsberg never “gave” the papers to The Times, Mr. Sheehan emphatically said. Mr. Ellsberg told Mr. Sheehan that he could read them but not make copies. So Mr. Sheehan smuggled the papers out of the apartment in Cambridge, Mass., where Mr. Ellsberg had stashed them; then he copied them illicitly, just as Mr. Ellsberg had done, and took them to The Times.
Over the next two months, he strung Mr. Ellsberg along. He told him that his editors were deliberating about how best to present the material, and he professed to have been sidetracked by other assignments. In fact, he was holed up in a hotel room in midtown Manhattan with the documents and a rapidly expanding team of Times editors and reporters working feverishly toward publication.
Peter Marshall was buried and killed in an avalanche during a safety class near Red Mountain Pass in 2019. His family says the school, guide and Backcountry Access violated a raft of laws that led to his death.PUBLISHED ON JAN 7, 2021
The family of a Longmont man killed in an avalanche safety class near Silverton is suing the guide, school and local rescue group as well as the maker of an avalanche airbag and its private equity firm owner. The lawsuit marks the second legal action involving avalanches in recent months based on research, interviews and reports gathered by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
The complex, 68-page wrongful death lawsuit filed by the wife and daughter of Peter Marshall in Boulder County District Court accuses Silverton Avalanche School, San Juan County Search and Rescue and guide Zachary Lovell with a litany of failures, fraud, misrepresentation, negligence and consumer protection law violations related to the avalanche that killed 40-year-old Marshall on Jan. 5, 2019, in Upper Senator Beck Basin.
The lawsuit also charges Boulder-based Backcountry Access with making a defective Float 32 avalanche airbag, which the lawsuit says did not inflate after Marshall “attempted to trigger” the balloon-like backpack. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center report on the avalanche noted that Marshall’s airbag backpack “was functioning properly, the trigger out of the pack strap, but the bag was not deployed.” It’s unclear how the Marshall family concluded Peter Marshall had attempted to trigger the airbag.
The Marshall family’s lawsuit also names Kohlberg & Company, the private equity firm that acquired Backcountry Access and its parent company, K2 Sports, in 2017.
“The defendants, each of them, acted willfully, wantonly, and recklessly, without regard for the consequences or the rights and safety of Peter Marshall or of others,” reads the lawsuit, which argues the school, guide and airbag maker “created substantial and unreasonable risks of serious injury and death to participants” in the safety class. “Defendants were grossly negligent and that gross negligence was a cause of the injuries, damages, and losses suffered by plaintiffs and the heirs of Peter Marshall.”
Marshall’s death was the first avalanche fatality of the 2018-19 season and the first ever of a student at the Silverton Avalanche School, one of the nation’s oldest avalanche education schools. The slide swept six skiers down a slope, all of them part of a Level 2 American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education class offered by the school.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center report — compiled after several site visits and interviews with school staff, students in the class and search-and-rescue volunteers — noted several mistakes that led to the avalanche. The three most critical mistakes highlighted in the center’s report point to the group skiing together on a slope that was steep enough to avalanche, misjudging the steepness, aspect and avalanche danger on the slope they skied, and a failure to recognize the potential for triggering avalanches on nearby slopes.
The avalanche triggered by the guide, Lovell, also caught Marshall and carried him to the bottom of the slope. A second avalanche on an adjacent slope buried Marshall in several feet of snow. After Lovell and the students collected their gear, they searched for Marshall, probed the snow and began digging for him. He was uncovered after 50 minutes.
The lawsuit homes in on the mistakes highlighted in the avalanche report, breaking down every step taken by the school and Lovell leading to the avalanche.
In the 12 days before the slide, the avalanche center logged 72 avalanches in the North San Juans and noted “considerable” danger, or Level 3 on the five-level danger scale. Avalanche danger that day included threats from a buried weak layer that could trigger persistent slab avalanches on slopes around 35 degrees facing west to north to southeast. The lawsuit says Silverton Avalanche School staff and instructors agreed not to travel in avalanche terrain that weekend with the Level 2 students.
During those discussions, school staff “expressed concern that defendant Lovell seemed inclined to travel in more complex and bigger terrain despite the fragile snowpack and concerning avalanche conditions,” reads the lawsuit, which does not identify the source of those discussions.
The Marshall lawsuit cites several dozen failures by both the school and Lovell. Those include charges of negligence, like failing to communicate the day’s avalanche forecast and allowing instructors to lead students “into, through and below” avalanche terrain. The lawsuit also says the school and Lovell “falsely represented” training and qualifications, which the Marshall family defines as fraud in violation of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act.
Jim Moss, a recreation law attorney who has spent more than 30 years working with outdoor recreation companies and clients, suspects that Marshall signed waivers releasing Silverton Avalanche School from liability in case of an accident. The allegations of fraud — that the school and guide duped Marshall into signing up for the class by, for example, “falsely presenting” that instructors “possessed deep operational experience in avalanche terrain” — work around the waivers, Moss said. Also, charges of gross negligence can eliminate the legality of a waiver.
Moss sees the case, if it goes to trial, hinging on the testimony of expert witnesses.
“This will be a battle of avalanche experts and it will come down to which experts impress the jury,” he said. “These guys put a lot of avalanche stuff in there.”
(Moss also suspects the family might struggle to enlist those avalanche expert witnesses since they named San Juan County Search and Rescue in the lawsuit. The school, which was founded by the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department in the early 1960s and has instructed more than 4,000 students, is an arm of the county’s search and rescue team.)
The lawsuit marks yet another recent and rare instance where a Colorado Avalanche Information Center report anchors legal action. In October, Summit County prosecutor Bruce Brown filed first-ever criminal charges and levied a $168,000 fine against two snowboarders who triggered an avalanche above the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels in March. The slide buried a service road and destroyed remote avalanche mitigation devices but caught no one. The two snowboarders — experienced backcountry travelers Tyler DeWitt and Evan Hannibal — handed over head cam video to CAIC avalanche investigators, thinking their interviews and perspective would, per the CAIC mission, help others avoid future avalanche accidents.
A motion filed by the snowboarders’ attorney in November to suppress the video argued the criminal charges stemming from an avalanche could pose a slippery slope for backcountry skiers who traditionally have worked cooperatively with the avalanche center in detailing avalanche accidents.
“The backcountry community needs to know if CAIC is not an ally in their efforts to improve best avalanche practices, but (operates) merely as an extension of law enforcement,” the motion reads. “This is a posture that needs to be clarified for all parties, because if CAIC is seen as a revolving door to police and prosecutor, then there will be a chilling effect.”
Ethan Greene, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said his team of forecasters and researchers has not seen people less willing to talk about avalanches this season. The center does have a system that allows for backcountry travelers to anonymously submit observations of conditions and avalanches, but, Greene said, mostly those folks are disinclined to share their secret powder stashes.
“I think these legal proceedings are really between other parties and don’t really involve us, even though they do rely on some of the work we do,” Greene said. “I’m not sure what we can do to avoid that. My hope is that people do not shy away from sharing information with us or other people. Our role is to help people better understand avalanches.”
Joe biden will begin his presidency with a Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress and a freer hand to install his government and pursue—if not necessarily enact—an expansive legislative agenda. Reverend Raphael Warnock defeated Senator Kelly Loeffler in the Georgia runoff last night, and challenger Jon Ossoff was declared the victor over David Perdue today.
Now that Democrats have captured Georgia’s two Senate seats, as projected, come January 20 they will be able to dislodge Mitch McConnell as the majority leader, removing the party’s most formidable congressional foe from a post where he could have blocked Biden at nearly every turn.
The Ossoff victory is an extra-pleasant surprise for Democrats, who, despite signs of momentum in early-voting trends, were cautious about getting their hopes up in a state that only barely shifted blue for Biden after decades in the GOP column. Democrats had fared poorly in recent runoff elections in Georgia, and despite Biden’s narrow victory in November, more voters in the general election had backed the Republican Senate candidates, although neither received the majority needed for an outright win.
Yet the GOP was hamstrung in Georgia from the moment the runoff campaigns began in November. Republicans spent virtually the entire race fighting with one another, as Donald Trump and his loyalists cried foul over the president’s defeat and tried to berate and bully the Republican governor, Brian Kemp, and the Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, into overturning Biden’s nearly 12,000-vote win. Conservatives feared that Trump’s attacks on the integrity of the November election would dampen GOP turnout in the runoff, and those worries proved justified yesterday.
Biden campaigned for Ossoff and Warnock on Monday, telling Georgia voters they could “chart the course” for the nation and “break the gridlock that has gripped Washington.” More tangibly, he said votes for the Democrats would quickly result in Congress sending $2,000 stimulus checks to every American—a rare proposal with joint support from Biden and Trump that McConnell has blocked in the Senate. But behind the scenes, the president-elect’s transition team had been preparing for the strong possibility of GOP control of the Senate. Though Democrats had hoped to capture an outright majority in November, Biden had premised his campaign in part on his decades as a senator and his ability to leverage relationships with Republican lawmakers—including McConnell—to strike the kind of bipartisan deals that had frequently eluded former President Barack Obama. “If there is anyone who can succeed in bringing the Senate back towards functionality and bipartisanship, it’s a President Joe Biden,” Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a close ally of Biden’s who is likely to be central to the new administration’s efforts to engage Republicans, told me.
That promise will still be put to the test. Democratic control of the Senate, under the likely majority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, means that Biden should be able to get most of his Cabinet and judicial picks confirmed, thanks to changes in recent years that eliminated the 60-vote threshold for nominations. And Democrats will also run the committees, preventing Republicans from launching politically motivated investigations into Biden’s son Hunter or specious claims of voter fraud.
Yet on the question that most concerns a new president and millions of his supporters—the passage of major new legislation—the Senate filibuster remains an enormous obstacle to Biden’s agenda. In the closing days of the Georgia campaign, Republicans from Trump on down implored their voters to turn out and “save America from socialism.” A hard turn left, however, was never really on the ballot in Georgia. In fact, Biden could struggle just to get legislation out of the closely divided House, where the Democrats’ advantage shrunk in November to 222–211, the smallest majority for either party in two decades. Opposition from a handful of fiscal centrists in the Blue Dog Coalition or from progressives on the left, such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her allies, could doom bills right out of the gate.
Even though Ossoff has pulled off the win, the Democrats’ Senate majority will be razor-thin. Such a narrow margin won’t allow progressives to achieve their dream of killing the filibuster and its 60-vote threshold. Nor will it allow them to expand the Supreme Court and overtake the conservatives’ 6–3 advantage. One Democrat alone could nix those ideas, and Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the party’s most conservative member, has ruled out supporting either move.
So on most legislation, Biden will have to find at least 10 Republicans—one out of every five in the Senate—to vote alongside Democrats. Biden’s first inclination might be to go around McConnell and strike agreements with bipartisan groups, such as the coalition whose $908 billion proposal formed the basis for the latest round of COVID-19 relief. “That’s his comfort zone,” Jim Manley, a former Senate aide who advised the late Ted Kennedy and then–Majority Leader Harry Reid, told me. But he’d still need the support of at least 10 Republicans and every Democrat to reach 60 votes and defeat a filibuster. There are only so many moderates like Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska still serving in the Senate. “There’s no going around McConnell,” Coons said with a chuckle.
Democrats might get one shot to pass a major bill without Republican votes by using the annual budget process known as reconciliation, which isn’t subject to a filibuster. Reconciliation helped Democrats enact parts of the Affordable Care Act and Republicans approve the Trump tax cuts on party-line votes. But the procedure is limited to policies tied to taxes and spending, and just getting 50 Democrats on board would be a heavy lift: They’d have to write an enormous legislative package that both Manchin, a fiscal hawk, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a democratic socialist, can support. “It’s a relatively challenging and painful process,” Coons said. “So I don’t know how much we’re going to be able to get done through that vehicle.”
Biden’s best hope—a long shot, perhaps—is that the most significant effect of the Georgia victories won’t be the Senate majority itself, but the jolt it could send through the Republican Party. The runoff elections were inseparable from the parallel effort, stoked by Trump and backed by more than a quarter of the Senate GOP in defiance of McConnell’s wishes, to challenge the certification of Biden’s victory. I spoke with Coons before the polls closed, and he sounded nearly distraught at this development, which he’d found inconceivable even a few weeks ago. “If the people of Georgia send a signal by the outcome of this election that they’re not going to continue to reward blindly following that kind of behavior, I think that’s a good thing,” Coons said. “And I think that sends a signal to Republicans that they may need to recalibrate how closely they’re following Trump and listening to his rhetoric in the months and years ahead.”
Manley, who told me there was “a partisan poison seeping through the Senate,” was more doubtful that the Georgia losses would result in a GOP epiphany. And he cast the ultimate impact of the hard-fought, costly Democratic success that will dethrone McConnell and recapture the majority in a humbler light. “It puts you on the field in a good position,” Manley said. “It doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative.”
A double victory in Georgia could create serious difficulties for Democrats—and might even make it less likely for Biden to win reelection.10:46 AM ETYascha MounkContributing writer at The Atlantic
When the networks declared Joe Biden the winner of the presidential election, his agenda seemed stillborn. Because most observers assumed that Republicans would win at least one of the two Georgia Senate runoffs and retain control of the upper chamber, they thought that Biden wouldn’t get much of anything done. But Raphael Warnock defeated Kelly Loeffler in Georgia last night, and Jon Ossoff currently leads David Perdue in the tally, leaving the Democrats likely to take control of the Senate.
This is good news. Georgians seem to have repudiated Donald Trump’s ongoing assault on democratic institutions. Judging from the apparent results, they no longer want Mitch McConnell and the obstructionist Republicans to be in charge of the United States Senate. And they hope to give the incoming president a chance to actually govern the country.
Democrats will, if the current vote tallies stand, enjoy unified control of Congress. That would allow them to push through Biden’s nominations for the Cabinet, the judiciary, and key agencies like the Federal Reserve. And by taking over the leadership of the chamber’s committees, they would actually be able to shape Congress’s agenda.
For these reasons, if I were a resident of Georgia, I would not have hesitated for a moment before voting for Ossoff and Warnock. But a double victory would, nonetheless, create serious difficulties for Democrats—and might even make it less likely for Biden to win reelection.
If democrats enjoy full control of the government, progressives will push to advance a wish list that includes the Green New Deal, radically overhauling health care, a new Voting Rights Act, packing the Supreme Court, and granting statehood to Washington, D.C.
But even victories in Georgia wouldn’t give Democrats nearly enough power to make those kinds of changes. In the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has to hold together a slim 11-vote majority that includes both democratic socialists like Cori Bush and staunch moderates like Abigail Spanberger. In the Senate, the filibuster means that any major legislation will require 60 votes—which is to say at least 10 Republican senators—to advance.
Even when a simple majority is sufficient, Democrats need every single member of their caucus, including blue-dog Democrats from deep-red states, like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to get on board. And because Manchin has already said that he is not willing to abolish the filibuster, hopes for far-reaching institutional reforms really are dead on arrival.
Most of the deeply progressive policies on which leftist activists have set their heart simply don’t enjoy a majority in the United States Congress. And even if, against the odds, Biden and his team somehow manage to push one of these projects through a recalcitrant Congress, a Supreme Court dominated by conservative judges might well quash it after the fact.
On paper, Biden looks set to gain unified control over Congress. In practice, he won’t enjoy many of its traditional benefits. But he will suffer from all of its downsides.
If perdue or loeffler had held on to their Senate seat, which now seems unlikely, Fox News would still have done its best to inspire vitriol against Biden. But a president who has repeatedly promised to be a restorative rather than a revolutionary figure in office, and who doesn’t even have control of the Senate, would have made it much harder for conservative talking heads to inspire fear about the radical changes afoot. If Ossoff and Warnock win, their job will get a good bit easier.
Republican control of the Senate would also have made it much simpler for Biden to manage the expectations of the party’s activist wing. If activists had pushed for progressive policies that were deeply unpopular with most Americans, Biden could truthfully have pointed to Mitch McConnell’s majority as a reason to desist. Every one of McConnell’s obstructionist moves would have delayed a civil war within the Democratic Party by another week or month.
Finally, a Republican Senate would have provided the White House with a compelling culprit for anything that might go wrong in the next four years. When facing the voters again in 2024, Biden could have blamed his opponents’ refusal to cooperate or compromise for the country’s problems—and asked them for a clearer mandate to finish the job.
All in all, Ossoff and Warnock winning is better than the alternative. The moderate changes—such as greater infrastructure spending and much-needed fixes to the Affordable Care Act—Democrats should be able to push through a Congress in which Joe Manchin casts the decisive vote can make a positive difference in the life of average Americans. And it would have been depressing if voters in Georgia had rewarded Trump and the Republican Party for their irresponsible refusal to accept the outcome of the 2020 election.
But the relief over the likely result in Georgia should not make us forget that the White House will in some ways face the worst of both worlds. Conservatives will rally around an obstructionist agenda. Progressives will blame Biden for his inevitable failure to enact radical policies. But whatever he does, he simply does not have enough power to force the change that many in his party desire.
YASCHA MOUNK is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, and a senior adviser at Protect Democracy. He is the author of The People vs. Democracy.
Farmland meets the desert, separated by an irrigation canal, near Fruita, Colo. Credit…Nick Cote for The New York Times
By Ben Ryder Howe
Jan. 3, 2021
There is a myth about water in the Western United States, which is that there is not enough of it. But those who deal closely with water will tell you this is false. There is plenty. It is just in the wrong places.
Cibola, Ariz., is one of the wrong places. Home to about 300 people, depending on what time of year you’re counting, the town sits on the California border, in a stretch of the Sonoran Desert encircled by fanglike mountains and seemingly dead rocky terrain. Driving across the expanse, where the temperature often hovers near 115 degrees, I found myself comforted by the sight of an oncoming eighteen-wheeler carrying bales of hay, which at least implied the existence of something living where I was headed.
Thanks to the Colorado River, which meanders through town, Cibola is a verdant oasis that chatters at dusk with swooping birds. Along both banks, a few hundred acres produce lush alfalfa and cotton, amid one of the more arid and menacing environments in North America.
This scene is unlikely to last, though. A few years ago a firm called Greenstone, a subsidiary of a subsidiary of the financial-services conglomerate MassMutual, quietly bought the rights to most of Cibola’s water. Greenstone then moved to sell the water to one of the right places: Queen Creek, a fast-growing suburb of Phoenix 175 miles away, full of tract houses and backyard pools.
Transferring water from agricultural communities to cities, though often contentious, is not a new practice. Much of the West, including Los Angeles and Las Vegas, was made by moving water. What is new is for private investors — in this case an investment fund in Phoenix, with owners on the East Coast — to exert that power.
When I reached Holly Irwin, a county supervisor who lives in Cibola, by phone a couple of weeks after my visit, she was angry.
“They’re going to make big bucks off the water, and who’s going to suffer?” she said. “It’s the rural counties going up against big money.”
Grady Gammage Jr., a spokesman for Greenstone, said, “In my view there is enough water both to sustain a significant agricultural economy on the river and to support urban growth in central Arizona.”
In the West, few issues carry the political charge of water. Access to it can make or break both cities and rural communities. It can decide the fate of every part of the economy, from almond orchards to ski resorts to semiconductor factories. And with the worst drought in 1,500 years parching the region, water anxiety is at an all-time high.
In the last few years, a new force has emerged: From the Western Slope of the Rockies to Southern California, a proliferation of private investors like Greenstone have descended upon isolated communities, scouring the driest terrain in the United States to buy coveted water rights.
The most valuable of these rights were grandfathered in decades before the population explosion in desert cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas, and privilege water access to small, often family-owned farms in stressed communities. Rechanneling water from rural areas to thirsty growth spots like Queen Creek has long been handled by municipal water managers and utilities, but investors adept at sniffing out undervalued assets sense an opportunity.
As investor interest mounts, leaders of Southwestern states are gathering this month to decide the future of the Colorado River. The negotiations have the potential to redefine rules that for the last century have governed one of the most valuable economic resources in the United States.
The Law of the River
Of all the accomplishments of moving and storing water in the West — from Hoover Dam to the mammoth Colorado-Big Thompson reservoir network — none may be more impressive than a yellowing, sparsely worded 13-page document called the Colorado River Compact. Drafted in 1922, it allocates the river’s annual flow, dividing the water among seven states desperate for their share.
Today, the river provides water to 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland — not just in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California but also to 29 Native American tribes and the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California.
“Back in the 1920s, they knew that if they didn’t reach agreement, there were going to be winners and losers, so with a lot of wrangling and quarreling, they eventually agreed to agree,” said Russell George, a former state representative from western Colorado who founded the Interbasin Compact Committee, a statewide governmental body devoted to seeking consensus on water issues.
“Everybody gave a little. Everybody got a little,” he added. “And it had to be a pretty good process, because it lasted 100 years.”THE GREAT READ: Every weekday, we recommend one piece of exceptional writing from The Times — a narrative or essay that takes you someplace you might not expect to go.Sign Up
Increasingly, the river is threatened by drought, with flows down 20 percent over the last 20 years. As a result, the talks starting in January will be a vehicle for urgent attempts to manage the water, including replenishing downstream reservoirs. By design, the five-year process is ponderous and built to be consensus-driven, with an eye toward shared sacrifice.
Most of the water in the 1,450-mile-long river comes from Colorado, and as that state’s top water official from 2013 to 2017, James Eklund directed the creation of a comprehensive long-term plan to address climate change, the first by a state in the West. He believes that the last best hope against the drought is a market-based solution, one that allows private investors seeking a profit a significant hand in redrawing the map of water distribution in the West.
“I have seen time and again the wisdom of using incentives that attract private sector investment and innovation,” Mr. Eklund said. “Dealing with the threat of climate change to our water requires all sectors, public and private, working together.”
To proponents of open markets, water is underpriced and consequently overused. In theory, a market-based approach discourages wasteful low-value water uses, especially in agriculture, which consumes more than 70 percent of the water in the Southwest, and creates incentives for private enterprise to become involved. Investors and the environment may benefit, but water will almost certainly be more expensive.
“The whole history of the American West is about moving water,” Mr. Gammage of Greenstone said. “One of the things I think we’ve learned over time is that a resource like water is best allocated through kind of a combination of market forces and regulatory oversight.”
A traitor to her gender, loyal to the patriarchy until the end.
Andrew Parsons/Zuma; Mother Jones Illustration
Ghislaine Maxwell is the worst type of woman. Lucky to be born into wealth and pomp and unable to do without either, she became a friend to Jeffrey Epstein and a traitor to her gender, loyal to the patriarchy until the end.
Maxwell was Epstein’s girlfriend for a time, and then—allegedly—a procurer of young girls for him. Currently awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges after her arrest in July, she maintains her innocence. “She needed to be essential for him,” a longtime Epstein friend told Mother Jones’ Leland Nally recently. Recruiting girls “is how she kept her place. She had value for him….She ran his house.”
Keeping her place was her life’s work. Maxwell catered to the needs of the men around her. First there was her father, media baron Robert Maxwell, by all accounts a bullying patriarch whose favor Ghislaine sought and won. And then, after his death, there was Epstein. Maxwell was fine helping him hurt other women, literal children, as long as it kept him grotesquely satisfied and kept her in “the lifestyle she’d lost when her father died,” as Vanity Fairput it. According to two of Epstein’s accusers, she not only enabled but participated in the sexual abuse. She knew what it felt like to be manipulated and exploited, and despite this knowledge she decided the harm was worth inflicting on others in turn.
Maxwell is the sinister caricature of the complicit white woman—a familiar type in America. Wherever there are overlapping systems of power, there is the figure of the subordinate who subordinates—the plantation mistresses using violence to control their slaves, the racists falsely accusing Black men of rape. The 47 percent plurality of white women who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 are another version. They are here, all around, and not trying even a little bit to change.
The complicit white woman has accurately assessed that whitemen have the power in this world, and that a woman’s chance for survival often depends on how well she serves their ends—the awful truth, as the consciousness-raising feminists of another age would’ve put it. That was Maxwell. She understood her position as a rich white woman, and she understood the power that came with it if one played the game. She embraced the awful truth and never looked back.
And so, we are at the end of a year that has brought a presidential impeachment trial, a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 338,000 of us, a huge social movement for racial justice, a presidential election, and a president who has refused to accept the results of that election and is now trying to split his own political party.
It’s been quite a year.
But I had a chance to talk with history podcaster Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers yesterday, and he asked a more interesting question. He pointed out that we are now twenty years into this century, and asked what I thought were the key changes of those twenty years. I chewed on this question for awhile and also asked readers what they thought. Pulling everything together, here is where I’ve come out.
In America, the twenty years since 2000 have seen the end game of the Reagan Revolution, begun in 1980.
In that era, political leaders on the right turned against the principles that had guided the country since the 1930s, when Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt guided the nation out of the Great Depression by using the government to stabilize the economy. During the Depression and World War Two, Americans of all parties had come to believe the government had a role to play in regulating the economy, providing a basic social safety net and promoting infrastructure.
But reactionary businessmen hated regulations and the taxes that leveled the playing field between employers and workers. They called for a return to the pro-business government of the 1920s, but got no traction until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, when the Supreme Court, under the former Republican governor of California, Earl Warren, unanimously declared racial segregation unconstitutional. That decision, and others that promoted civil rights, enabled opponents of the New Deal government to attract supporters by insisting that the country’s postwar government was simply redistributing tax dollars from hardworking white men to people of color.
That argument echoed the political language of the Reconstruction years, when white southerners insisted that federal efforts to enable formerly enslaved men to participate in the economy on terms equal to white men were simply a redistribution of wealth, because the agents and policies required to achieve equality would cost tax dollars and, after the Civil War, most people with property were white. This, they insisted, was “socialism.”
To oppose the socialism they insisted was taking over the East, opponents of black rights looked to the American West. They called themselves Movement Conservatives, and they celebrated the cowboy who, in their inaccurate vision, was a hardworking white man who wanted nothing of the government but to be left alone to work out his own future. In this myth, the cowboys lived in a male-dominated world, where women were either wives and mothers or sexual playthings, and people of color were savage or subordinate.
With his cowboy hat and western ranch, Reagan deliberately tapped into this mythology, as well as the racism and sexism in it, when he promised to slash taxes and regulations to free individuals from a grasping government. He promised that cutting taxes and regulations would expand the economy. As wealthy people—the “supply side” of the economy– regained control of their capital, they would invest in their businesses and provide more jobs. Everyone would make more money.
From the start, though, his economic system didn’t work. Money moved upward, dramatically, and voters began to think the cutting was going too far. To keep control of the government, Movement Conservatives at the end of the twentieth century ramped up their celebration of the individualist white American man, insisting that America was sliding into socialism even as they cut more and more domestic programs, insisting that the people of color and women who wanted the government to address inequities in the country simply wanted “free stuff.” They courted social conservatives and evangelicals, promising to stop the “secularization” they saw as a partner to communism.
After the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, talk radio spread the message that Black and Brown Americans and “feminazis” were trying to usher in socialism. In 1996, that narrative got a television channel that personified the idea of the strong man with subordinate women. The Fox News Channel told a story that reinforced the Movement Conservative narrative daily until it took over the Republican Party entirely.
The idea that people of color and women were trying to undermine society was enough of a rationale to justify keeping them from the vote, especially after Democrats passed the Motor Voter law in 1993, making it easier for poor people to register to vote. In 1997, Florida began the process of purging voter rolls of Black voters.