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In Brazil, a rare school shooting fuels a familiar debate over guns

By Marina Lopes and Anthony Faiola
In Brazil, a rare school shooting fuels a familiar debate over guns
Axl Satier disassembles a handgun in Rio De Janeiro. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Lianne Milton

RIO DE JANEIRO - The hooded gunmen worked their way through the hallways with a .38-caliber handgun and a machete, shooting at students from point-blank range and hacking at those who tried to get away.

In a country where attacks on schools are rare, there was no one to stop them. The carnage didn't end until the two attackers shot themselves.

The brutal slaying of five students and two employees at the Professor Raul Brasil State School outside Sao Paulo this month is adding fuel to a debate here that's familiar in the United States: When the shooters opened fire, could a good guy with a gun have limited the losses? Is society safer with fewer firearms, or with more?

The bloodbath on March 13, one of the worst mass shootings in Brazil's history, comes as new President Jair Bolsonaro begins to loosen restrictions on gun ownership.

A 2003 disarmament law effectively prevented most Brazilians from buying guns. Bolsonaro argues that firearms could help law-abiding citizens defend themselves.

Gun rights advocates here say the school attack proves his point.

In grainy security footage, as students and teachers collapse into pools of their blood, the advocates see helpless victims who might have been able to stop the massacre if they had been armed.

"Another tragedy propagated by minors that speaks to the unfortunate disarmament law, still in place," Bolsonaro's son Flavio, a senator from Rio de Janeiro, tweeted hours after the shooting.

Another senator from Bolsonaro's party said that if teachers had been armed, the attack could have been stopped. On the day of the shootings, Brazilian lawmakers introduced legislation to make it easier to manufacture guns in the country.

Mass shootings remain rare in Latin America's largest country, and school shootings are rarer still. But gun violence is rampant.

More than 64,000 people were killed in Brazil in 2017, the most recent year for which figures are available. That was nearly four times the number in the United States.

Bolsonaro, a longtime gun rights advocate, became known during the presidential campaign last year for posing with his fingers in the shape of a pistol. Since suffering a stabbing attack on the campaign trail, the former Army captain says he sleeps with a gun under his pillow - now in the presidential palace.

The 2003 law requires citizens who wanted to purchase a gun to prove that they needed it - and to get the police to agree.

During Bolsonaro's first month in office, he signed a decree that limited the cases in which police could reject their applications.

"This is so good citizens can at this first moment have peace inside their homes," Bolsonaro said. He said more measures could follow.

The decree has boosted interest among Brazilians eager to arm themselves.

At a gun range in Rio de Janeiro, shooting instructor Anderson Moreno showed students how to aim for the chest.

Laudine Roque, 26, wiped her hands on her jeans before pulling the trigger of her handgun. She lives in Campo Grande, a neighborhood with one of the highest homicide rates in Rio. She says several of her neighbors have had break-ins.

"I don't want to be next," she said.

The Olympic Golf Course in the affluent Barra da Tijuca neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro is set to open a state-of-the-art gun range this year to cater to anxious millionaires.

Owner Axl Satier already operates two ranges and gun shops in Rio de Janeiro state.

"We are businessmen, and this is a good opportunity," he said.

Satier hopes members will soon be able to add .38 caliber guns to their clubs. The day after Bolsonaro signed his decree, a line of customers waited outside one of his stores for it to open. He sold out of ammunition in the first week.

"Bolsonaro's election has opened a new space in the market," he said.

Critics say more guns will lead to more killings, as some end up being used by people who are poorly trained and ill-equipped to handle them.

Police have not determined how the gun from this month's shooting was obtained. Of the eight school shootings in Brazil since 2002, half involved guns obtained at home, according to the Sou da Paz Institute.

Sou da Paz - "I come in peace" - works to reduce violence in Brazil.

"The sense of insecurity, the fear Brazilians have of violence and crime, increases the possibility of events like this," Executive Director Ivan Marques said.

"The people who purchased the gun may have been well-intentioned," he said. "But ultimately, it's one more gun in circulation that can become available for these kinds of atrocities."

Brazilians try to rebuild after deadly dam collapse

By Marina Lopes
Brazilians try to rebuild after deadly dam collapse
A house inundated by the collapse of the Brumadinho dam in Brazil about a week after the January disaster. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Pétala Lopes for The Washington Post

BRUMADINHO, Brazil - It was a quiet Friday in January when the residents here first heard the trees falling. A dam at the local iron ore mine had collapsed, generating a wave of toxic waste that crushed everything in its path. Residents tried to outrun the rust-red mud as it engulfed their homes, their cars, their pets. Almost 300 people were killed or went missing.

The collapse was the second deadly dam disaster in Brazil in just three years. In 2015, a dam holding mineral waste burst, gushing toxic mud into a nearby river in Brazil's worst environmental disaster to date. Both dams were owned by Vale, the world's largest iron ore miner.

Since January, Vale's chief executive and other leaders have stepped down, with documents revealing that the company knew the dam had a high risk of collapse before the disaster. The Brazilian government is investigating whether the company willfully misled officials about the dam's safety.

Today, survivors are trying to rebuild their lives in a wasteland.

Residents of Brumadinho had long feared that the dam above their town would break. Denisiana França, 39 and a member of Brumadinho's residents association, said Vale called a town meeting last year to present an escape route in case of emergencies. When she asked whether there was a risk that the dam could collapse, the company assured her that was impossible.

In January, she was home alone when she noticed a drainpipe in her home start to shake. Then her phone rang: It was her boss's husband, who worked at the mine, telling her to run.

"I went downstairs and everyone was crying, watching their houses being taken away," França said. "It was a horror scene. The mud took everything."

She was able to get away from the sludge, but her cousin and a nephew were buried alive. Now, as she helps her neighbors rebuild their homes, she fears the long-term effects of the collapse.

"The disaster broke the town's spirit," she said. "We lost the will to smile, to play. It was so peaceful here. Now we are fighting for space with vultures, who come after the dead animals and body parts in the river. The smell is unbearable."

Father Andre Agostino Theotokos was at a nearby conference when he witnessed the disaster unfolding on television. The next day he traveled to the town to counsel families whose loved ones had disappeared and to organize donations. When he arrived, he was shocked.

"It looked like the moon: the dryness, the silence, the pain. The emptiness of the scene hit my chest," he said. "It got me thinking of man's destructive power, of the greed and abuses in the mining sector."

The dam, made out of hardened silt, is used to store waste produced by the iron ore mine. But because of the way they are constructed, the walls of the dam can liquefy and collapse after heavy rain.

As the mud washed over Brumadinho, survivors of the 2015 dam disaster watched a replay of their tragedy on national television in disbelief.

"I was revolted. The company didn't see what happened here as a warning and take precautions," said Tania Penna Carvalho, 51, whose husband, Daniel, drowned in waste when the first Vale dam burst in 2015. "It is awful. We know what these families are going through."

A Tuskegee hero is buried 75 years after his death in World War II

By Michael E. Ruane
A Tuskegee hero is buried 75 years after his death in World War II
Marla Andrews, right, watches on Friday in Arlington National Cemetery as an honor guard lowers the casket carrying her father, Capt. Lawrence E. Dickson, a Tuskegee Airman whose remains were located in 2017 in Austria. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez

Seventy-five years after his fighter plane crashed in Austria, Tuskegee Airman Capt. Lawrence E. Dickson was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery on Friday as four Air Force jets roared overhead and his daughter and grandchildren looked on.

A stiff wind rustled nearby magnolia trees as the mourners sat before his silver casket and his 76-year-old daughter, Marla L. Andrews, received a folded flag from an Army general who knelt before her.

Earlier, at a church service, a minister likened Dickson to the Old Testament patriarch Joseph, whose bones were carried by his people to the Promised Land from the foreign realm where he died.

"Joseph served his people on foreign soil," said the Rev. Jerry Sanders of Fountain Baptist Church in Summit, New Jersey. "What we do for Captain Dickson today is what they did for Joseph in the long ago."

It was a solemn farewell for a daughter who cherished a father she never knew and who lamented the life she might have had.

"I don't think I would have felt so empty and so alone," Andrews, of East Orange, New Jersey, said Thursday.

"I heard many people say that he was very friendly, he was very warm, he was extremely personable," she said. "I just had the feeling that if he would have lived, it would have been so different."

"But he didn't," she said.

So she strove to raise her children so her father would have been proud of them. And although there were painful times, "I just have to thank God that he got me through as far as he has," she said.

In July, the Defense Department announced that it had accounted for Dickson, who was among more than two dozen black aviators known as Tuskegee Airmen who were still missing from World War II.

Dickson, who was 24 when he went down, joined the Army Air Forces from New York and was a member of the 100th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group.

He trained at the Tuskegee Army Flying School and crashed in mountainous southern Austria on Dec. 23, 1944, while on an escort mission.

He was among the more than 900 black pilots who were trained at the segregated Tuskegee airfield in Alabama during the war.

They were African-American men from all over the country who fought racism and oppression at home and enemy pilots and antiaircraft gunners overseas.

More than 400 served in combat, flying patrol and strafing missions and escorting bombers from bases in North Africa and Italy. The tail sections of their fighter planes were painted a distinctive red.

During the service in the Old Post Chapel at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Sanders spoke of the Israelites' escape from slavery, comparing it to men such as Dickson helping African Americans on their exodus from bondage.

"Remember your future is based on my past," Sanders said Joseph reminded his people.

"Where you're going has something to with where I've been," he said. "The bones of Joseph, like the bones of Captain Dickson, tell a story."

During a dig in 2017 at the crash site, near Hohenthurn, Austria, a ring belonging to Dickson was found in the dirt by a University of New Orleans graduate student, Titus Firmin.

Charred remains and other small personal items were also found, along with parts of the airplane.

Last August, the Army presented Andrews with the ring and a formal report on how her father was accounted for.

The 14-karat art deco ring was a precious physical link.

There had been talk for months that a ring had been found during the dig. When an official gave it to her in her home, she said quietly, "Wow, guys."

The excavation had also found the ring's aqua-colored stone, which had broken loose and was found separately.

The ring was inscribed: "P.D.," with a heart with an arrow through it, and "L.E.D. 5-31-43."

P.D. was Andrews' mother, Phyllis Dickson. L.E.D. was her father, and May 31, 1943, was his 23rd birthday.

The Army also gave her a remnant of a harmonica that was found at the crash site, and a small cross.

The identification had been confirmed when DNA was extracted from arm- and leg-bone fragments found at the crash site and matched with DNA from Andrews, a nephew and a distant cousin.

The dig in 2017 was conducted by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the University of New Orleans and the University of Austria at Innsbruck, with help from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

There are 26 Tuskegee Airmen still missing from the war.

Two days before Christmas 1944, Dickson took off from his base in Italy in a P-51D Mustang nicknamed "Peggin," headed for Nazi-occupied Prague.

He was on his 68th mission and had already been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for meritorious service.

He was leading a three-Mustang escort of a fast but unarmed photo reconnaissance plane, according to the account of a wingman, 2nd Lt. Robert L. Martin, many years later.

(Martin died July 26, 2018, at the age of 99 at his home in Olympia Fields, Illinois. His daughter, Gabrielle Martin, was present for Friday's service.)

The four planes headed over the mountains for Prague. About an hour into the trip, Dickson radioed that he was having engine trouble and began losing speed.

His wingmen stayed with him as he dropped back. The twin-engine reconnaissance plane sped on and was soon out of sight.

Dickson decided to turn for home in his crippled plane, and his buddies stuck with him.

He looked for a spot to land or bail out. Martin saw him jettison the canopy of his cockpit before bailing out, but then he lost sight of the airplane.

The two wingmen circled, looking for a parachute, a column of smoke or burning wreckage. There was nothing but an empty, snow-covered valley.

After the war, the Army searched for Dickson in northern Italy, where Martin thought he went down. Other crashed planes and remains were found, but not his.

In 1949, the Army recommended that his remains be declared "nonrecoverable."

In 2017, the Pentagon, armed with new data on the crash location, began investigating the case anew.

"We need to have more reverence for the bones," Sanders said Friday. "There are some things we can learn from bones. There is a . . . blessing in the bones. We need to remember those who have gone before."

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Six takeaways from Barr's letter about Mueller's probe

By e.j. dionne jr.
Six takeaways from Barr's letter about Mueller's probe

E.J. DIONNE COLUMN

(SPECIAL COLUMN FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Dionne clients only)

By E.J. DIONNE JR.

WASHINGTON -- That special counsel Robert Mueller has not resolved all the issues surrounding President Trump is disappointing many of the president's foes, but it's not surprising. Mueller is an honorable man. He is not a bomb thrower. He always defined his role narrowly. All of Trump's attacks on Mueller (and he continued assailing the probe on Sunday night) distracted from the fact that Mueller was not nearly as aggressive as he might have been -- for example, by subpoenaing the president.

At this point, six things seem obvious:

First, the full Mueller report must be released as quickly as possible. The letter from Attorney General William Barr makes clear that on the charge of obstruction of justice, Mueller offers material on both sides of the question. Barr quoted Mueller this way: "while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him." So what exactly did Mueller find? The public and Congress need to know.

Second, Barr says he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein "have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel's investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense." The Mueller probe spanned 675 days. It took Barr and Rosenstein just two days to let the president off the hook. How did they decide so quickly? The words "rush to judgment" come to mind. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said he would call Barr to testify. He must.

Third, on the issue of Russian collusion, there is an odd discrepancy between the language Barr uses and what he quotes the report as saying. Barr says: "The Special Counsel's investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election." He quotes Mueller as saying: "The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities." The words "did not find" do not strike me as the same as "did not establish." Perhaps I am parsing, but these are legal matters and that word "establish" raises interesting questions. What did Mueller find? Again, this is an argument for making the whole report public quickly.

Fourth, Congress must continue to hold Trump accountable. Republican efforts to shut down any further inquiry should be laughed away. I pointed out in a recent column that it would have been far better if Congress had been investigating Trump simultaneously with Mueller, which is what happened in Watergate. But just because House Republicans ignored their responsibilities for oversight when they controlled the House doesn't mean Democrats should do the same. As I argued, "What brought Nixon down were the tapes of his White House conversations orchestrating the coverup. And we learned of the tapes when his aide Alexander Butterfield revealed their existence, first to Senate staffers and then at an open hearing. Congress, not the special prosecutor, forced Nixon to resign." Nothing Mueller is quoted as saying justifies pretending that there is nothing left to probe. And, yes, there are still investigations into Trump that will continue in the offices of U.S. attorneys. Those inquiries must be protected.

Fifth, Mueller should testify before Congress, too. It's important for the public to understand how and why he made the judgments he did during his investigation.

Sixth: We have no idea right now if material will emerge over the coming months that will justify impeachment. Impeachment is, in any event, a last resort. In the meantime, everything we have learned about Trump from Mueller's inquiry and from media reports suggests potential corruption, conflicts of interest and a leader who has surrounded himself with shady figures against whom Mueller secured either convictions, indictments or plea deals. The case against Trump is strong. If this case needs to be argued in the political sphere, so be it. The 2020 election is 20 months away.

E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Embrace the exclamation! All those critics are missing the point.

By megan mcardle
Embrace the exclamation! All those critics are missing the point.

MEGAN MCARDLE COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For McArdle clients only)

By MEGAN MCARDLE

Like many Americans, I nurse an inveterate addiction to the exclamation point. Rare is the day when I am able to compose an email reply without a liberal sprinkling of emphatic punctuation, often complemented by a smiley emoticon to emphasize how excited and pleased I was to hear from my correspondent.

This habit strikes many Europeans as something between eccentric and creepy. Having once worked for a British magazine, I am aware of how my effusive punctuation style reads to them. And yet, when I sit down to compose an email to a European, I find myself compelled to add the things anyway. (!!!)

I have been musing on this habit because I am headed to Britain next week to write about Brexit -- or, given the latest developments, the lack thereof. You want to put your best foot forward when asking strangers to explain things to you, and so, as I sat down at my keyboard to type out my interview requests, I thought, "This time I shall be strong: no exclamation points." With great mental effort, I managed to pare them down to the absolute minimum. Which was still approximately 1,000 percent more than most Europeans would consider the utter maximum.

But, in the end, I wonder if I should have just worn the punctuation as a badge of honor, a symbol of national pride. Exclamation points in emails are, after all, as American as apple pie and "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- and like those patriotic staples, they actually have some nice history behind them.

It seems likely that the habit of peppering emails with exclamation points is related to the broader American habit of expressing effusive enthusiasm over almost everything. Some foreigners express wonder at our incredible friendliness (which shows up, among other ways, in our customer service), but others complain that it seems fake -- rather the way Americans regard excessively oleaginous salespeople.

There's something to the complaints of artifice; after all, the store clerks who ask how you're doing don't actually expect to hear about your recent divorce. Emotion and language that would elsewhere signal deep intimacy are in America just a kind of mass-produced social lubricant.

But then, we need more lubricant than most. Cultures that have more heterogeneity -- a fancy term for "lots of different subcultures, all mashed up together" -- turn out to rely more than others on exaggerated displays of emotion. We smile more, and bigger; we frown more, and bigger, too. That's because we can't rely on subtler cultural signals of mood, or even the same language. Emotionally speaking, where other countries whisper, we have to shout.

So it's not surprising that a country that has experienced high levels of migration for hundreds of years ended up with a culture where the default public presentation resembles that of a Labrador retriever. And when such zeal becomes the default, a more reserved style doesn't simply signal tasteful understatement; it signals a cold indifference to the people around you.

Nor is it surprising that this exaggerated positive affect would make its way into our emails, which most people treat more like a conversation than formal letter-writing. Just as you wouldn't respond to someone who did something for you with a toneless "thanks" -- at least, not unless you were (BEG ITAL)trying (END ITAL)to signal your disappointment with their lackluster efforts -- you can hardly deliver the same words over email unadorned.

Of course, this creates a struggle for Americans who interact with people abroad. We may be aware that our exclamation points and smiley faces make us look, to many foreigners, like a nation of particularly unsophisticated 12-year-old girls. But we'll still struggle to tone it down, because cultural norms like the appropriate level of friendliness to strangers are deeply ingrained by the time we hit correspondence age. Few people can steel themselves to be willfully rude, even to strangers who won't take it that way.

So perhaps the best solution is simply to own it. Fly those emoticons proudly! Exclaim away!

And perhaps it will help to remember that our hyper-extroversion is actually more a sign of sophistication than its opposite -- of a culture that had to get cosmopolitan centuries before that became fashionable, and that somehow figured out a cultural hack to make one people out of many.

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Democrats are conspiring to reelect Trump

By dana milbank
Democrats are conspiring to reelect Trump

DANA MILBANK COLUMN

(Advance for Sunday, March 24, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, March 23, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Milbank clients only)

By DANA MILBANK

Watch in slow motion as Democrats, goaded by the media, conspire to reelect President Trump:

Voters care about the economy and making education and health care affordable. And so Democrats are talking about ... abolishing the electoral college?

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren started the latest distraction at a CNN town hall on Monday. "Get rid of the electoral college," she said, neglecting to mention that this has zero chance of occurring in the foreseeable future.

The media took it from there.

On Tuesday, MSNBC's Garrett Haake pressed former representative Beto O'Rourke: "Getting rid of the electoral college: Is that an idea you're exploring?"

O'Rourke saw "wisdom" in the idea.

On Fox News, Martha MacCallum said "everybody" is talking about "abandoning the electoral college" and asked former representative John Delaney his view.

"It's a total waste of time to talk about it," Delaney replied.

Apparently not. Jimmy Kimmel on ABC on Tuesday night asked California Sen. Kamala Harris if she agreed with Warren. She hedged.

Wednesday morning, Willie Geist of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" put the electoral college question to South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. "It's got to go," Buttigieg affirmed.

Naturally, Trump seized the opportunity. "The Democrats are getting very 'strange'," he tweeted Wednesday. "Actually, you've got to win it at the Ballot Box!"

Just like that, another Democratic litmus test was born. Encouraged by left-wing activists and the media, Democrats are performing acid tests like lab technicians. While the rest of the country built March Madness brackets, Democrats, in their own madness, put themselves in boxes, supporting proposals that are impossible, extreme or oversimplified: Medicare-for-all. A Green New Deal. Guaranteed jobs for all. Impeachment. Reparations to African Americans. Packing the Supreme Court. Late-term abortion. Banning PAC contributions. Abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Legalizing marijuana. Eliminating the filibuster. Opposing all Trump judicial nominees. Boycotting the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference. Abolishing the electoral college.

Many of these have merit. The problem is that they have become a battery of binary tests of ideological purity -- allowing Trump to caricature Democrats as extremist.

Opportunistic activists (generally not the established environmental, labor or abortion-rights groups) see a chance to put an issue on the agenda with a simple yes-or-no question. Some candidates in the crowded field, afraid of being outflanked on the left, reflexively agree with the proposition (never mind that typical Democratic primary voters are not so doctrinaire). Reporters, who love conflict and favor the shorthand of pigeonholing, force others to take the litmus test. And Republicans, with an assist from Fox News, gleefully fan the flames.

Much of the blame lies with the media, which, after creating Trump in 2015 and 2016 with endless, uncritical coverage, now facilitates his reelection with litmus-test coverage of Democrats. Trump got away with platitudinous promises, but now Democrats must take positions on purely theoretical ideas. This is an easy way to advance a story for content-hungry cable news. But for Democrats, the tests are potentially ruinous.

Consider the Green New Deal, now co-sponsored in the Senate by Warren, Harris, Cory Booker, N.J., Kirsten Gillibrand, N.Y., and Amy Klobuchar, Minn. They've committed to "guaranteeing a job," higher education and paid vacations "to all people of the United States."

Or take Medicare-for-all, promoted by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and others. It gets 56 percent support in the Kaiser Family Foundation poll, but that drops to 37 percent when private health insurance is eliminated or people are required to pay more in taxes, and 26 percent if it means delayed tests and treatments.

The purity tests are promoted by groups such as Progressive Change Campaign Committee (Medicare-for-all), Indivisible (filibuster), Sunrise Movement (Green New Deal), National Popular Vote (electoral college), MoveOn (boycotting AIPAC) and Demand Justice (judicial picks) -- and furthered by charismatic progressives such as New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The press takes it from there.

Here's "Morning Joe" on Wednesday: "Would you support adding seats to the Supreme Court?" "Would you support getting rid of the electoral college?" "Medicare-for-all?" "Do you support reparations for slavery?" Obama said that he accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. Do you?

Here's CNN's Erica Hill, also Wednesday: "There are calls to expand the Supreme Court. Where do you stand on that?" "Getting rid of the electoral college, and really giving people their vote?" "What about reparations?"

Fox News: "The Green New Deal ... How do you vote?"

Woe to those who don't answer correctly. On NBC, Chuck Todd observed that O'Rourke "was once for Medicare-for-all. On Friday, he backtracked."

Fear not: On Monday, he'll be asked again.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Mayor Pete's case for community

By e.j. dionne jr.
Mayor Pete's case for community

E.J. DIONNE COLUMN

(Advance for Monday, March 25, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Sunday, March 24, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Dionne clients only)

By E.J. DIONNE JR.

WASHINGTON -- Pete Buttigieg has broken through the noise of a cacophonous Democratic presidential field by raising issues that usually fall by the wayside in an era when politics feels prepackaged and defined by short-term obsessions.

The South Bend mayor frequently talks about matters that are not strictly political, do not necessarily lend themselves to solutions by government, and have more to do with how we live our lives than where we stand on an ideological spectrum. It will be useful if his recent comments on two themes, religion and community, have a contagious effect.

During an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" last week, Buttigieg made a modest plea: "I do think it's important for candidates to at least have the option to talk about our faith," he said. He specifically targeted the idea that "the only way a religious person could enter the politics is through the prism of the religious right."

An Episcopalian and a married gay man, Buttigieg pointed to the core Christian concept that "the first shall be last; the last shall be first."

He added: "What could be more different than what we're being shown in Washington right now -- often with some people who view themselves as religious on the right, cheering it on? … Here we have this totally warped idea of what Christianity ought to be like when it comes into the public sphere that's mostly about exclusion. Which is the last thing that I imbibe when I take in scripture in church."

Buttigieg's assertiveness about religion's role ought to draw attention to other Democratic hopefuls who are openly faithful. "I don't know how many speeches of mine you can listen to and not have me bring up faith," New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said last year. Like Buttigieg, Booker suggested that works count for more than words. "Before you tell me about your religion," Booker said, "first show it to me in how you treat other people." New York magazine writer Ed Kilgore has asked whether Booker might turn out to be "the candidate of the Christian left."

There could be real competition for the title. When I interviewed Elizabeth Warren during her first race for the U.S. Senate in 2012, she spoke powerfully about her Methodist faith. It "stresses the importance of community, because it says, in fact, it's about action and it's about action together," she said. "There is God in ... the hungry, the poor, the stranger," she continued, "there is God in each of us."

In our public life, we don't hear God talked about this way as much as we should.

Buttigieg also broke ground in placing the rise of white ethno-nationalism in the context of "a kind of disorientation and loss of community and identity."

"The sense of belonging can be very powerful," he told The Washington Post's Greg Sargent last week, "and we're very fragile without it."

Conservatives have tended to talk about community breakdown more than liberals have -- see, for example, Timothy P. Carney's new book "Alienated America." Carney doesn't discount economics, but he sees the collapse of social capital as leaving "a scar far deeper than an unemployment rate."

In his interview with Sargent, Buttigieg turned the argument in a progressive direction by stressing work itself. For many Americans, the "very basic human desire for belonging … historically has often been supplied by the workplace ... based on the presumption of a lifelong relationship with a single employer." Economics can matter in surprising ways.

At its best, political argument is about learning. Our exchanges give us a chance to see things through someone else's eyes. That sounds positively utopian these days. What's important about Buttigieg's remarks on religion and community is that he broached issues that the political right is more eager than the left to talk about. He takes conservatives seriously enough to challenge them on concerns that genuinely engage them.

If some liberals, as conservatives complain, seek to marginalize religion's public role, might one reason be the bizarre and reprehensible invocation of faith by Christian nationalists to justify bigotry? Conservatives are right to worry about the decay of community. But the left is right to insist that this problem is aggravated by radical changes in our economy that have shattered communities, and individual lives.

Campaigns (and -- I know what you're thinking -- the media) are generally not good at encouraging debates of this sort. The very unlikeliness of Buttigieg's candidacy gives him an opportunity to change this -- and good for him for trying.

E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

The 2020 race is on -- between the commentariat and the modelers

By megan mcardle
The 2020 race is on -- between the commentariat and the modelers

MEGAN MCARDLE COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For McArdle clients only)

By MEGAN MCARDLE

We in the political commentariat tend to like complex and nuanced campaign narratives. We pore over the details of the policy prescriptions, hunt for subtle trends in national sentiment and analyze how this remark or that alliance will affect a candidate's chances with America's amazing variety of demographic constituencies.

The opposite approach is taken by a group of academics and consultants focused on politics: They prefer blunt, brute-force models that forecast elections using only a handful of factors. Nate Silver, whose models for FiveThirtyEight rely heavily on polls, is the most famous of this group, but some of the forecasters work on a level even more removed from day-to-day detail and political personalities, looking at questions such as whether there's an incumbent in the race, or a recession in the offing.

The fact that some of these models perform pretty well has not discouraged the commentariat from pursuing its hobby. And now, with President Trump, we who tell stories about the electorate may have an opportunity to beat the abstract indicators.

As it stands now, many narrow-factor models predict Trump winning in a landslide. He is an incumbent, and voters seem to generally prefer the devil they know to the one they don't. He is also presiding over a strong economy, and voters seem to be particularly reluctant to toss out the devil-in-residence during good economic times.

You can protest that presidents don't make the economy grow, and you'd be right. Presidents can play ham-fisted havoc with the economy, but they have a negligible ability to deliver upside surprises. Yet it's obvious that voters (BEG ITAL)think(END ITAL) they can, which means that any incumbent whose first term happens to coincide with a boom goes into a reelection campaign is heavily favored.

That axiom has only one caveat: Donald Trump. His approval ratings are far from where we'd expect them to be, given the strength of the economy. Only one president has ever been in this ballpark at this point in his first term and gone on to reelection. And that president was Ronald Reagan, at a time when the United States was just beginning to pull out of a brutal recession. Reagan had enjoyed an average 57 percent approval rating his first year in office, and after a rough couple of years post-recession, his approval ratings began rising back toward what we might think of as their natural point, peaking at 60 percent in 1986. Trump, by contrast, entered office with a 45 percent approval rating, according to Gallup, a high point he has matched only once since then. It is currently bouncing between the high 30s and the low 40s.

It seems possible that the models predicting Trump's reelection, however well they've worked in the past, may contain a hidden assumption: a normal sort of president who will not repel swing voters with intemperate vulgarities or disappoint the base by not really pursuing a policy agenda. Which means narrative may beat predictive numbers in the next election.

But as we begin to construct those narratives, we should remember that journalists are apt to undervalue the strong economy because the economy for the news business isn't good. Journalism's business model faces an existential threat, and the pervasive sense of economic gloom in the industry can color the reporting on what is in truth a generally healthy economy.

For the rest of the country, unemployment is low, and workers who gave up and exited the labor force between 2010 and 2014 are clearly being drawn back in by the lure of open jobs and briskly increasing hourly earnings. Gross domestic product growth is strong, inflation is quiescent, and the stock market is near its all-time peak. Those things could change of course, but until they do, we shouldn't let our own troubles -- or our tendency to assume that every single thing Trump says is a lie -- blind us to the truth of economic growth under his administration.

Nor should we let our dour outlook tempt us to give those blunt, brute-force models shorter shrift than they deserve. It is highly possible that the 2020 campaign will see those simple models bested by grand narratives and complex stories. But if we let our own circumstances dominate those narratives, we're likely to wind up surprised on Election Day, having succumbed -- as we did three years ago -- to blunt-force trauma.

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Has America gone socialist?

By robert j. samuelson
Has America gone socialist?

ROBERT J. SAMUELSON COLUMN

(Advance for Monday, March 25, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Sunday, March 24, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Samuelson clients only)

By ROBERT J. SAMUELSON

WASHINGTON -- We Americans are all socialists now. That's news. Since at least 1906, scholars have contended just the opposite. What happened in 1906 was that Werner Sombart, a now-obscure German sociologist, published a book titled "Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?" Unlike Europe, America was hostile to socialism, Sombart argued.

Prosperity was one cause; it weakened revolutionary consciousness. The economy enjoyed some natural advantages: fertile land, ample resources and good harbors. But the larger cause was the resistance of American workers. Obsessed with "getting ahead," they felt that socialism might hold them back.

Sombart wrote:

"I believe that emotionally the American worker has a share in capitalism: I believe he loves it. Anyway, he devotes his entire body and soul to it. ... [T]he worker … wants to earn as much as his strength will allow, and to be as unrestrained as possible."

Well, history has finally caught up with Sombart. The term socialism is now increasingly bandied about by pundits, scholars and presidential candidates. The result is much confusion. Many Democrats deny that their proposals (say, Medicare-for-all) are socialism; Republicans claim that they are, trying to tap into Americans' historical opposition.

Let's try to dispel some confusion.

It's true that traditional socialism has fared poorly in recent decades. This strand of socialism, following Karl Marx's political timetable, involved government owning more and more of the "means of production" -- entire industries -- for the good of the proletariat. Central planning, not markets, determined what would be produced and by whom, in theory.

After World War II, this traditional socialism flourished in Europe. The Great Depression had discredited private enterprise. Great Britain -- one example -- went on an orgy of nationalizations: coal, 1946; electric power, 1947; railroads, 1948; steel, 1951. Later, ailing car companies joined the list.

It was an unhappy experience. Writes economist Marc Levinson in his absorbing "An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy":

"[The unions at state-owned firms] repeatedly won large wage increases unmatched by productivity improvements. ... Management was in disarray, because experienced private-sector executives were reluctant to take on jobs in which key decisions were determined ... by the government."

As other countries faced similar problems, nationalizations waned, and privatization -- the selling of state-owned firms -- gained. Democrats discount the failures of Marxist socialism, which (it's argued) differs fundamentally from what's being proposed today: These are mostly income transfers for the poor, the aged and the middle class.

That's relevant up to a point. It's true that modern socialism, as opposed to the traditional strain, is mostly about the welfare state. But the ultimate goal is similar. It is to control as much of the economy as possible to advance agendas of economic and social justice -- to edge toward the socialist ideal of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

This has already produced huge changes. In many advanced countries, government spending constitutes roughly half of the economy's output (gross domestic product). In 2017, the figures were 56 percent in France, 44 percent in Germany, 49 percent in Sweden, 49 percent for Italy and 41 percent for the United Kingdom, reports the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

It is here that the U.S. experience increasingly resembles that of other advanced countries. In 2017, U.S. government spending for national, state and local budgets was 38 percent of GDP, according to the OECD's calculations. If the part of health care that is not now financed by government -- approaching 10 percentage points of GDP -- is added to existing government spending, the U.S. total would be comparable to many European countries.

This is where Sombart becomes less relevant or, perhaps, not relevant at all. Americans are now all socialists in the sense that they broadly support the programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance and others) that constitute the largest share of government spending.

We don't call these benefits "socialism," because that would, given our history, stigmatize them, and we don't want to do that. They enjoy public approval, because they seem the decent thing to do, and of course, they now have millions upon millions of beneficiaries who magnify their political clout.

Both parties are addicted to this socialism, though Democrats are more so than Republicans. Just because it is inconvenient to question the drift toward an ever-larger -- even socialist -- welfare-state does not mean that we can escape the possible consequences of moving in this direction.

Is the collective weight of higher government spending, taxes, budget deficits and regulations permanently eroding the economy's capacity to grow? Could Europe's sluggish growth indicate that some countries have already reached their limits? Could we be next? The questions linger even if we ignore them.

(c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group

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