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Billy Ray Cyrus is back, but he never really left

By Allison Stewart
Billy Ray Cyrus is back, but he never really left
Billy Ray Cyrus near his Tennessee ranch, enjoying his third moment of superstardom, which came via

THOMPSON'S STATION, Tenn. - On this hot August morning, Billy Ray Cyrus sits in the family room of his brother's house, which lies adjacent to his own sprawling property in the bucolic hinterlands of Nashville. He's talking about - what else? - "Old Town Road," then in its 19th week at the top of the charts, the longest such streak in history. At this moment, it still feels unstoppable, but Cyrus, a longtime student of chart positions, senses its record-shattering run is almost over, and he's right. Within days, he and Lil Nas X will be deposed by Billie Eilish's "Bad Guy."

But the unlikely collaboration between the 58-year-old country singer from Flatwoods, Kentucky, and the 20-year-old rapper from Atlanta was still the unquestioned soundtrack of summer, ascending from viral smash to mainstream hit to world-eating cultural phenomenon. It created a special bond between the pair, which makes sense because Cyrus is one of the few people who can understand the very peculiar position currently occupied by Lil Nas X. "Achy Breaky Heart" was the "Old Town Road" of its day, a genre-bending, gatekeeper-offending, once-in-a-generation crossover sensation that changed the culture forever.

"This young man had clearly defined exactly what he wanted to happen, and that's the way you reach your dreams," Cyrus says approvingly.

Cyrus is serious and polite and peppers his conversation with a mixture of backwoods mysticism, shrewd observations on the entertainment industry and Dale Carnegie-esque inspirational sayings. He believes in intuition, and spirits. He looks for signs in things. He's a you-miss-one-hundred-percent-of-the-shots-you-don't-take kind of guy.

He has also been at the forefront of the cultural conversation at three pivotal and very different points in the last 30 years: for "Achy Breaky," the Disney Channel smash "Hannah Montana," in which he played the father of his real-life daughter Miley, and "Old Town Road." But Billy Ray Cyrus was always here, plugging along, even when the conversation turned away from him. He has been directed by David Lynch and befriended by George Jones, and he just performed at Glastonbury. How weird is that?

Unlike "Friends" or the Spice Girls, "Achy Breaky Heart" was a piece of '90s pop culture few people felt nostalgic for. "I wish Billy Ray Cyrus would make a comeback" is not something anybody has ever said out loud, probably not even Billy Ray Cyrus.

Lil Nas X didn't care about any of that, or maybe he just didn't know. He had grown up with "Hannah Montana," and Cyrus was one of the only country singers he was familiar with. In December, the rapper, hoping to create a viral moment for his brand-new country-trap song, tweeted in Cyrus's direction ("twitter please help me get billy ray cyrus on this").

In mid-March, Cyrus got an email from an executive at Columbia Records, asking whether he would listen to a track by a young Atlanta artist named Lil Nas X. There was an accompanying link to a site called TikTok. Cyrus was mystified. "I'm going, 'Who is Lil Nas? And what is TikTok?' "

TikTok, Cyrus soon discovered, was a social media app specializing in highly meme-able homemade videos. He was mad at himself for not already knowing that. "I'm a student of the game. I should have known what TikTok is. I'm always looking for the next competitive edge."

Cyrus made plans to enter the studio the next day. He spent hours studying "Old Town Road" like it was homework. "(I) learned it really good," he says, "because it was different for me, but I loved it."

Cyrus was paired with hip-hop artist and songwriter Jocelyn "Jozzy" Donald, who worked with him on his guest verse. Jozzy told Cyrus that her mom had a crush on him during the "Achy Breaky" years, which he didn't seem to find surprising. Everybody's mom did.

Jozzy told Cyrus she wanted him to approach the song as a rapper would. "I said, 'We're going to role reverse,' " Jozzy recalled. "You're going to be Magic Johnson, and Lil Nas is going to be Larry Bird. We've gotta get you the hottest bars.' "

It was around this time that the original version of "Old Town Road" was deemed insufficiently country, and it was removed from the Billboard country charts. The decision brought usually subterranean issues of race and genre in the music industry into the daylight. Cyrus says he can't really speculate on those, but he knew that whatever was happening wasn't good. He was also worried that, as the designated country guy, his services would no longer be needed on a song he felt a connection to.

"I started freaking because something inside my spirit knew that this was a special moment, and something very important in my life," he recalls. "My spirit was just going crazy, and I kept pushing. It just looked like it was going to go away."

When the remix landed atop the Billboard Top 100 a few weeks later, it wasn't just a hit, it was a populist uprising. And it was something that looked familiar. "The country world was trying to do to Lil Nas exactly what they did to Billy Ray Cyrus with 'Achy Breaky,' " Jozzy says. "This was his redemption, a little bit."

Growing up in Kentucky, Cyrus played baseball. He wanted to go pro, but when a voice inside his head told him he would be a musician instead, he listened. "When I traded that catcher's mitt in and bought a left-handed guitar, I didn't look back," he says. For 10 demoralizing years, he struggled. He briefly moved to Southern California in search of a record deal and became a successful car salesman instead. He returned home, got married, got divorced and built up a local following. During a now-legendary stand at the Ragtime Lounge in Huntington, West Virginia, he played to overflow crowds every night, an early version of the all-encompassing international celebrity that would follow.

Cyrus could have reigned there indefinitely, but he was closing in on 30, and he worried that if he didn't get a record deal soon, he never would. And he was starting to get a bad feeling about the Ragtime. "I felt like I was gonna die," Cyrus recalls. He means it literally. "The bar was getting pretty rough, and it was getting so packed, it was uncontrollable. Like, every single night, you just couldn't get people in there. It was getting crazy."

His intuition also told him something good was about to happen. He played his song "Some Gave All," an ode to veterans that Cyrus views as the most consequential song of his entire career, for Harold Shedd at Mercury Records and got a record deal on the spot.

His first single was a goofy, danceable ear worm called "Don't Tell My Heart." At least that's what it was called until Cyrus, who had field-tested the song for audiences at the Ragtime, politely suggested renaming it "Achy Breaky Heart."

Cyrus and the song's writer, Don Von Tress, soon became close friends. "I was struck by his charisma and his honesty," Von Tress recalls. "Back in the day when everybody had to have a Stetson stapled to their forehead, here's this guy with a mullet and a cut off sweatshirt and high-top tennies."

Cyrus approached his impending stardom like he was training for the pursuit of a sports championship. He quit drinking, for one thing. "To this day, I can't even drink a beer or nothing," he says. "My inner voice said, 'You're gonna have to really be on top of your game, and alcohol could be a problem.' ... I just quit. If I hadn't, it'd be a different deal for me. I don't think I'd even be alive. (Then) 'Achy Breaky' came out, and I just ran with it."

"Achy Breaky" was instantly polarizing. Pop fans embraced it as a novelty hit. Country purists saw it as degrading and ridiculous. (That the accompanying video, featuring a hip-swiveling Cyrus, helped set off a nationwide line-dancing craze somehow made it worse.) His debut album went on to sell 9 million copies.

Success was alienating. Cyrus toured and recorded nonstop, with Von Tress his frequent collaborator and travel companion. It was hard for them to relate to anybody else. "We were right in the middle of that tornado," Von Tress recalls. "When it exploded, it was just mind-boggling. It dominated everything."

Artists often have complicated relationships with the hits that made them famous: Sometimes a song isn't representative of their body of work, or it's embarrassing, or they just tire of it. Ask Cyrus whether this might be the case for him, and he looks incredulous. "Are you crazy?" he asks. "Are you nuts? Don't ever think that about me."

Cyrus had enough post-"Achy Breaky" hits to fend off official one-hit-wonder status, but by the release of his third album, country radio no longer welcomed him. His father suggested he reinvent himself as an actor, like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton did. "I said, 'I'm not an actor,' " Cyrus recalls. "And he said, 'I'm sure it's just like everything else. You just gotta start. You'll learn.' "

Parton and Cyrus had been friends for years. Parton embraced the entire Cyrus family, which grew to include his second wife, Tish, and six kids. (Dolly is godmother to Miley.) Parton describes Cyrus in an email thusly: "He's tender but tough, pretty but rugged, mysterious but personable. He's a man's man but definitely a woman's kind of guy! Oh, and did I mention he's talented? He's a great singer, songwriter, and entertainer. I've loved him from the start."

Parton also urged him to diversify. Cyrus set his mind to acting and soon found himself with a small part in Lynch's 2001 mind-bending masterpiece, "Mulholland Drive." The director proved influential in molding the singer's minimalist acting style. "He was encouraging," Cyrus remembers. "I had him on such a high pedestal because I was such a fan."

Cyrus went on to play a small-town doctor who moves to the big city in the Pax network series "Doc," which ran for 88 episodes. In 2005, he was cast as Robby Stewart in "Hannah Montana," opposite a tweenage Miley, who played a pop star undercover as an ordinary girl.

The series launched his daughter into orbit and gave Cyrus a new public identity: Miley's dad. (Five days before this interview, Miley and husband Liam Hemsworth announced their separation; Cyrus doesn't talk much about Miley.)

Working together drew father and daughter closer, even if the circumstances were unnatural. "It's obviously incredibly unusual for a tweenage girl to work full time with her own dad," says Disney Channel President Gary Marsh. "It's even more unusual for a dad to work with his own daughter, as a colleague. As far as I could tell, they were the same dynamics I see now with my own 13-year-old daughter."

"Hannah Montana" upended life for the Cyrus family, who were soon followed everywhere by paparazzi. "The good news is, I like people," Cyrus says. "I fear more the day that nobody gives a s---. I think that's a scarier reality, going out somewhere and nobody even caring."

Cyrus was more famous than he'd been in years, but his music career was flagging. During the 2000s and much of the '10s, he tried everything: Patriotic albums. Christian albums. Heavy metal. "Dancing With the Stars." He ditched Billy Ray and renamed himself Cyrus. He even grew his mullet back, hoping that audiences shared his nostalgia for that iconic, long-ago hairstyle. (They did not.)

By the time he and Von Tress finished work on "The SnakeDoctor Circus," a concept album about the American condition that emphasized topical concerns such as opioid addiction, Cyrus thought he might never write another song. When "SnakeDoctor" was released in May, he says, "I figured that was probably it for me."

But now Cyrus is enjoying his third foray into pop cultural relevancy in as many decades. He's very famous again, but it's an odd kind of fame: It's his, but not his. He's Hannah Montana's dad, Lil Nas X's sidekick. For Cyrus, celebrity has seldom directly translated into record sales. "SnakeDoctor" did not chart, even at the fevered height of "Old Town Road" summer.

His success this go-round might be proximal, but it's also easier to handle. After decades in which he worked himself to exhaustion onstage and on sets, straining his marriage and missing large portions of his kids' childhoods, he can now do exactly as he pleases. He enjoys collaborations with younger artists and recently released the country-rock throwback song "Chevys and Fords," a collaboration with singer Johnny McGuire. He has begun writing songs again. "I may just have peace of mind for the first time ever," he says. "I feel like I can just lay my burden down."

The one word Cyrus repeatedly uses to describe his life after "Old Town Road" is "magical." "It's just a beautiful, magical story that I look back on and I go, 'I can't imagine my life now without it,' " he says. "I never dreamed another one would come back around. I would've been fine. But now, looking back on it, this was my story."

Washington Monument reopens after years of problems

By Gillian Brockell
Washington Monument reopens after years of problems
A pedestrian walks by the Washington Monument before the iconic structure's reopenining to the public on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019, in Washington. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Matt McClain.

The Washington Monument reopened Thursday after being closed for the better part of eight years.

The monument first closed after it was damaged in an August 2011 earthquake. It reopened in 2014 but closed again two years later after chronic problems with the elevator system; visitors were getting stuck in the elevator several times a week, a National Park Service official told The Associated Press. Security systems were also improved.

Members of the media were allowed inside on Tuesday, getting a bird's-eye view from Washington's tallest structure. The marble obelisk stands at 555 feet, nearly twice the height of the U.S. Capitol.

First lady Melania Trump attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony and was accompanied by local fourth-grade students as part of the NPS's Every Kid in a Park program.

The political will to avert a no-deal Brexit is ebbing fast

By Ian Wishart and Tim Ross
The political will to avert a no-deal Brexit is ebbing fast
Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister ( left) departs a Brexit meeting with Xavier Bettel, Luxembourg's prime minister, in Luxembourg, on Sept. 16, 2019. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Geert Vanden Wijngaert.

Brexit from afar is looking like a disaster about to happen. One European official, watching the situation up close, compared it to two cars driving at high speed toward each other with each expecting the other to swerve out of the way first.

The brinkmanship surrounding the U.K.'s departure from the European Union has been compared to a game of chicken before now. Trust is in short supply, and there's a sinking feeling that the desire to get a deal done to avert the potential economic catastrophe of a no deal is evaporating.

Conversations with officials on the either side of the negotiating table paint a grim picture of the state of play as an Oct. 31 deadline looms. Across EU capitals, the question asked is if Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a plan up his sleeve and if so -- when can they see it.

Will they have to wait for a crunch summit less than two weeks before the crash-out scenario? At a meeting in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron and Finnish Prime Minister Antti Rinne, agreed the U.K. must present a written proposal for a deal by Sept. 30.

These deadlines are largely meaningless -- more a way of trying to exert pressure on the U.K. that under Johnson seems largely impervious to it. His predecessor, Theresa May, buckled at various points and asked for extensions.

But pushing back departure beyond Oct. 31 is a red line for a more combative leader who has framed success around just getting Brexit done. The political cost of backing down and compromising keeps getting higher -- on all sides -- and that makes it hard to see a way out even as talks are ostensibly ongoing.

And while kicking the ball down the road is how many crises are dealt with in Brussels, more than two years of negotiations that keep going around in circles have taken its toll. Brexit fatigue is a thing not just with voters. Europe also wants to move on.

Officials say reaching a successful conclusion is a long shot, and there is evidence of bad blood. Luxembourg's Xavier Bettel vented at a news conference about his frustration with the "nightmare" Brexit process, a view probably many leaders share behind closed doors. He may have been grandstanding, but he showed how patience is running out.

While officials in Berlin, Paris and Dublin have revised their earlier assumptions that Johnson doesn't want a deal, they don't believe he knows how to get there. Over in London, a senior U.K. official said there isn't much sign the EU is prepared to give Johnson what he needs.

"The risk of no deal is very real," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France on Wednesday in comments that sent the pound falling. And while a deal is preferable, he's "not sure we will get there."

The sticking point remains the backstop -- a series of measures the EU says is needed to prevent the return of customs infrastructure on the Irish border. In its existing form it would keep the whole of the U.K. in a customs union with the bloc until a future trade deal solved the border problem.

The EU is willing to adapt that to apply to Northern Ireland only, leaving the rest of the U.K. to diverge from European rules, but the government has said that isn't acceptable either.

Arlene Foster, whose Democratic Unionist Party commands a crucial 10 votes in the House of Commons, said on Wednesday night that she and her colleagues from Northern Ireland are willing to be "flexible," but it would be "madness" to erect barriers between the region and the rest of the U.K.

Despite tough talking in public, Johnson's envoy to the EU and European Commission negotiators have discussed possible solutions, although the U.K. hasn't presented anything on paper. This is a deliberate attempt by the British side to prevent ideas becoming public only then to be immediately rejected, according to U.K. officials.

While the EU is frustrated by this, it does understand the strategy and was always expecting British proposals closer to the EU summit scheduled for Oct. 17-18, one official said.

The German government, for its part, hasn't thrown in the towel. "I'll say again now, just as I said during Boris Johnson's visit, that I continue to see the possibility of an orderly exit," Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin.

The EU is keeping a close eye on U.K. domestic politics, too, which have shaped so much of the trajectory of negotiations. Parliament's victory in forcing Johnson to seek a Brexit delay -- if he hasn't got a deal after next month's summit -- is part of their calculus on when compromise might happen.

Ireland, which of all the EU economies has the most to lose if the U.K. leaves without a deal, doesn't see a reason to compromise until the legal battle in London plays out. It's still waiting to see if Johnson will indeed defy the law as he's said he's prepared to.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, like Johnson himself, is on an election footing. Caving in to the U.K. would risk being seen as a sign of weakness. It's far from clear which, if either, leader will give way.

- - -

Bloomberg's Thomas Penny, Dara Doyle, Patrick Donahue, Gregory Viscusi, Kati Pohjanpalo, Paul Tugwell and Peter Flanagan contributed.

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

Is anybody dumb enough to believe Trump would say something inappropriate?

By dana milbank
Is anybody dumb enough to believe Trump would say something inappropriate?

DANA MILBANK COLUMN

(Advance for Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Milbank clients only)

WRITETHRU: Swaps in new 9th graf to update with developments on Friday.

By DANA MILBANK

WASHINGTON -- President Trump offered a curious defense against a whistleblower's reported allegation that he made a troubling "promise" on a call with a foreign leader.

"Is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially 'heavily populated' call," he asked.

Why, yes. Yes, I am dumb enough to believe it, given that the president has previously: handed over highly classified intelligence to Russia; sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin against U.S. intelligence; devised military strategy in public at Mar-a-Lago; "fell in love" with North Korea's dictator; invited the Taliban to Camp David; altered a weather forecast with a Sharpie; said windmills cause cancer; and hired Rudy Giuliani.

The last may be most worrisome, for when the former New York mayor and current raving madman went on CNN Thursday night to explain the president's promise, his primary defense was to shout out Joe Biden's name -- 24 times. Giuliani said he had proof that Biden bribed the Ukrainian government to protect his son, but "I don't have to give you the proof" -- and, alas, available evidence doesn't support Giuliani's claim.

In the process, Giuliani managed to contradict himself within seconds, first saying he didn't ask Ukraine to investigate Biden, then saying, "Of course I did." He completed his defense of the president with a series of random interjections shouted at host Chris Cuomo: "You are a sellout. ... Come after me! ... Do you think I'm a fool? ... Holy God! ... You don't think there's a Deep State? ... You shouldn't be embarrassed for me. ... Of course I'm aware of what I'm saying! ... You shouldn't have a good night!"

Clearly, Trump and his wild-eyed lawyer can do better. I am here for them.

When The Washington Post reported Wednesday night that the administration was blocking Congress from learning about an "urgent" intelligence-agency whistleblower complaint involving Trump's promise to a foreign leader, it listed possible countries as Russia, North Korea, Qatar, Pakistan and the Netherlands. This left open the hopeful possibility that Trump, having failed to buy Greenland from Denmark, had entered into a promise to buy Aruba from the Dutch. This would likely be a friendly transaction, because the people of Aruba's capital, Oranjestad, would welcome an orange president.

Even if the mystery leader turned out to be Putin, all was not lost. Trump needn't have promised Putin Ukraine. Maybe he promised him something innocuous, such as a Mar-a-Lago membership, a presidential medal of freedom or Alaska. Maybe it was as simple as promising Putin a new steed for his next horseback photo shoot.

The defense became trickier Thursday night, however, when The Post reported that Trump's "promise" did indeed involve Ukraine, and Friday, with reports that he asked Ukraine to investigate Biden's son. This raised the ominous possibility that Trump might have offered to give Ukraine a promised $250 million in military aid against Russia-backed separatists only if Ukraine provided dirt on Biden.

Still, there are plenty of totally benign explanations for why Trump withheld the $250 million:

1. Trump was just joking, like when he asked Russia to hack Hillary Clinton's emails. (The new Ukrainian president was a comedian!)

2. Mexico was supposed to pay for it.

3. Biden took the $250 million!

4. Trump had the $250 million in cash, but it fell out of his pocket while he was boarding Air Force One.

5. Trump needed the $250 million because Saudi emoluments were in arrears at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

6. Biden took it!

7. Trump needed the money because the Air Force stopped booking personnel at Trump's resort in Scotland.

8. The Pentagon repurposed the $250 million to build the wall.

9. Biden took it!

10. Trump needed the funds for hush money.

11. The funds were needed to keep Giuliani under 24-hour supervision in a tranquil setting.

12. Also, Joe Biden!

In the unlikely event all these explanations fail, Trump could finally fall back on this one, which has the virtue of being true: His "promise" wasn't necessary. Russia is already interfering in the 2020 election cycle, undoubtedly to help Trump as it did last time. Trump has also befriended many of the world's most brutal autocrats and strongmen, in North Korea, the Philippines, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Hungary and Brazil -- and some of them are sure to give Trump an assist in the election as well.

Is Trump "dumb enough" to believe he has to ask?

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Latest General Motors saga is déjà vu all over again

By megan mcardle
Latest General Motors saga is déjà vu all over again

MEGAN MCARDLE COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For McArdle clients only)

By MEGAN MCARDLE

MEGAN MCARDLE COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For McArdle clients only)

Latest General Motors saga is déjà vu all over again

By MEGAN MCARDLE

WASHINGTON -- In 1994, Paul Ingrassia, a great writer on the business of making cars, proclaimed a new renaissance in the U.S. auto industry. "This is an American success story, born of a close call with disaster," he wrote, with Joseph White, in the opening of "Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Auto Industry."

Sixteen years later, Ingrassia ruefully recanted his earlier optimism in another book on Detroit, "Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry's Road from Glory to Disaster." He wrote: "Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, every time the Big Three and the [United Auto Workers] returned to prosperity, they would succumb to hubris and lapse back into their old bad habits. It was like a Biblical cycle of repentance, reform, and going astray, again and again."

I suspect that Ingrassia, who died Monday at age 69 from cancer complications, might have looked at the General Motors workers now on strike and thought: "And again."

It's easy to sympathize with either side in the dispute. The unions made massive concessions in 2008 to help the company recover from bankruptcy, and GM is now earning billions in profits every year. Why does so much of workers' pay still come in the form of chancy profit-sharing deals rather than steady wages? Why are there so many tiers of employees -- old GM, new GM, temps -- working the same jobs for vastly different rates of pay? Why are plants being closed?

Management, meanwhile, is determined to ensure that the next recession doesn't turn into a repeat of 2008 -- except next time Washington might decline to help. The company can't let the union claim so much value that everything must go exactly right for GM to stay solvent. So they're cutting unprofitable operations early, shifting the labor force toward lower-paid workers and performance pay, and trying to rein in the staggering cost of employees' incredible health benefits. Taking those steps will ultimately benefit workers if it allows the company to avoid another bankruptcy.

All quite reasonable. So why can't GM and the union explain these things to each other? How have both sides decided that their best option is a painful strike, in the hope that the other side will hurt even worse?

The short answer: "That's how it's always been." For most of the 20th century, Detroit was locked in the industrial equivalent of the Cold War, with two unfriendly superpowers -- a manufacturing oligopoly and its monopoly union -- carving up the American consumer between them. All the while, each sought some way to destroy their rival and take the whole pie for themselves.

That sort of environment doesn't really foster innovation, or quality, or a healthy, sustainable business. They got away with it for decades only because Detroit had the biggest, richest market in the world largely to itself.

Contrary to popular belief, Detroit did try to reform itself when imports showed up to unsettle that profitable equilibrium. GM built collaborative Japanese-style experiments like the NUMMI joint venture with Toyota, and GM's Saturn cars. But Detroit always ended up reverting to form, in large part because the United Auto Workers, born in the adversarial and often bloody organizing efforts of the 1930s, never was able to shed that past and fully embrace collaboration.

There have been echoes of that old order in the years leading up to this strike, during which relations became more and more adversarial, and management and labor kept blindsiding each other with unwelcome news. You hear the echoes, too, in the way GM workers now talk about the strike.

It seems that many ultimately expected 2008 to be a repeat of the past, with workers making concessions to ride out a downturn, then forcing the company to make them whole again -- and then some -- when things got better. Now that things are better, they think GM ought to make good on those expectations.

The problem is that in the good old days, the Big Three were always one really bad downturn away from disaster. And when the disaster finally arrived in 2008, it darn near took everyone's jobs with it. GM didn't need a short-term fix; it needed a long-term restructuring that brought costs and productivity in line with competitors, and kept them there.

With the assistance of a government task force, a bankruptcy judge and $50 billion in taxpayer cash, GM dumped debt, pruned dealer networks and product lines, shed legacy costs and got payrolls down to competitive levels.

Though the numbers have changed, it seems that the most important thing hasn't: management's mutually antagonistic relationship with its assembly line. And unless they find a way to restructure that, in the end, nothing else is likely to matter.

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Children, stop yelling at me, or I will make certain the climate changes for the worse

By alexandra petri
Children, stop yelling at me, or I will make certain the climate changes for the worse

ALEXANDRA PETRI COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Petri clients only)

By ALEXANDRA PETRI

WASHINGTON -- CHILDREN, THINK VERY CAREFULLY ABOUT YOUR NEXT MOVE.

I walk in the halls of power. I wield votes. I enter smoke-filled rooms to which you complain that you lack access, although, at the rate things are going with the climate, soon you will have access to smoke-filled rooms, too. Every room! Even outdoors!

But you seem, somehow, not to get it. You seem to think I am someone you might want to lecture and argue with and protest and even, perhaps, alienate.

I hope I do not have to say this more than once: I have nothing to lose. So think very carefully about what you will do next. I may not live to see the enormous wave that engulfs your coastal cities, but that does not mean I will not have caused that wave.

Think to yourself about the following sentence: "The congressman fought hard to protect the earth that would be occupied by future generations, generations for whom the congressman had nothing but respect because they had never appeared to bother the congressman when he was just trying to have a nice afternoon and not be asked frustrating questions."

That sounds like a sentence that makes sense!

Now think about the following alternative sentence: "Knowing that the very children who had stormed into his office to make a big scene would be inheriting whatever climate legacy the congressman left behind, the congressman ... "

Do you think that sentence ends well? I don't! And unlike myself, you will have to stick around to see whether I am right!

Yes, pick up your handmade signage and depart. That is wise of you, child! It shows sense. I will remember that when the day comes to vote on policy that can determine whether the temperature is going to climb by more or less than 1.5 degrees Celsius over the next several decades. Absolutely. It is just your stubbornness, no, your rudeness that has resulted in my continued inaction on this point. As for the votes I made when you were even younger, well, I anticipated this kind of behavior from you, based on the sounds you made on airplanes -- and as soon as you stop making your voice heard, you bet, I will behave differently.

Yes, go. Go quietly, please. You do not want me to be thinking, "I wish that child were somewhere unpleasantly hot." REMEMBER, I HAVE THE POWER TO MAKE IT SO.

I truly (BEG ITAL)could(END ITAL) be in favor of fixing climate change, you bet! If it weren't for your tantrums, I might have a vague, nebulous idea that it was something I was doing On Behalf of the Children, whom I conceived of as a kind of gauzy mixture of my grandchildren and particularly cute toddlers who periodically appear in commercials. These imaginary children do not cause scenes.

So stop confronting me instead with the reality of young people! I like preserving the world for them in theory, but when they actually appear, I find them annoying, and they are upset at me, and they do not make me inclined to combat climate change at all. I used to think, boy, I like children! Children are the one demographic that has never tried to lecture me on my policy choices. I WAS A FOOL.

Don't you remember that China exists? Why should we do anything that is within our power to do when we cannot control what China does? Wouldn't that make a fool out of us, really, to be seen making an effort to control the things we can control, when some things are beyond our control? Consider also that even if we were to do something -- and (BEG ITAL)even if (END ITAL) China were to do something -- a single volcano of sufficient size erupting would undo the somethings! Consider that meteors exist. It is possible, too, that alien life exists, is hostile and might strike (in vengeance for that Storm Area 51 thing, maybe) all life out of existence in an instant. I could look past that if you were more polite, though. Promise.

So think carefully about the people you are bothering with your activism. It just makes no sense. (I mean, the health care thing, even -- why, if your planet is so hopelessly befouled, would you ever try to (BEG ITAL)lengthen(END ITAL) the amount of time you spend on it?) I have no other conflicts on this issue than my frustration at hearing you, always demanding MORE! MORE BIRDS! MORE ACTION! MORE TIME!

If you are going to dare to ask for what I have taken for granted, at least be careful to ask in the right way. After all, I can make things very unpleasant for you. And if you doubt that, just watch what I will do next. Unless you stop making your voices heard.

Or maybe even if you don't.

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

The far left is taking a page from its opponents' playbook

By catherine rampell
The far left is taking a page from its opponents' playbook

THE MILLENNIAL VIEW

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Rampell clients only)

By CATHERINE RAMPELL

The leftward drift of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates seems to reflect a common frustration within the party's base: Democrats have simply never dreamed big enough.

Perhaps, lefties suspect, Democratic politicians have been cowed by bad-faith accusations of socialism. Or -- worse -- they've been captured by big-money special interests.

Implicitly or explicitly, a slate of recent books and essays suggests that this was a core failing of the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign and others considered to be Democratic moderates. The takeaway: Democrats' inability to implement single-payer, a student-debt jubilee, a Green New Deal or other ideas on the progressive wish list is because of either insufficient political will or impure motives.

But what if the (BEG ITAL)real(END ITAL) reason is something else entirely? What if it's that Democrats have used research and evidence to inform their ideas -- (BEG ITAL)just as policymakers are supposed to do?(END ITAL)

For most of the past decade or so, the Democratic Party has had a relative monopoly on a valuable political resource -- expertise -- as Republican politicians worked to discredit any independent source of accountability whose findings proved inconvenient to their agenda.

If the Congressional Budget Office said Obamacare repeal plans would leave more people uninsured, the CBO must be lying or wrong. If independent forecasters said tax cuts wouldn't pay for themselves, they must be biased or stupid. If scientists predicted that GOP policies would worsen climate change, those scientists must somehow be trying to make a quick buck.

Trust us, Republican officials said: We know better than the experts.

By contrast, Democratic leadership -- especially under Barack Obama -- was pretty good about trying to achieve progressive goals in efficient, evidence-based ways. Rather than fiats, Democrats relied whenever possible on market-based mechanisms and tweaked incentives.

Exhibit A: the Affordable Care Act, which despite being branded as "socialism" was built upon market-based mechanisms. Exhibit B: efforts to put a price on carbon, rather than wishing away market realities through a vague and sometimes supposedly free Green New Deal.

There were of course political constraints upon what was possible, particularly since Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declared that the Republicans' top goal was to make Obama a one-term president. They did this largely by sabotaging or obstructing Obama's proposals (revisit Exhibits A and B, respectively).

The more progressive wing of the Democratic Party watched all this in frustration and lashed out … at Democrats. Reliance on market-based mechanisms was craven "neoliberalism." Clinton's fiscally responsible commitment to paying for her policies was a sign of political cowardice.

Down with technocratic fixes to market failures, up with revolution!

So here we are. A significant contingent of the 2020 candidates is promoting bigger and bolder ideas -- yes -- but also (BEG ITAL)worse(END ITAL) ones. Ones that actual experts clearly played little to no role in crafting, because we know what experts have to say about them.

I'm thinking of proposals such as Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' idea for universal rent control, which would cap rent increases everywhere in the United States at 3%, or 1.5 times the rate of inflation (whichever is higher), regardless of local conditions. This idea seems almost designed to troll economists. Study after study of such policies finds that they result in less available housing, a worse housing stock, reduced mobility and a slate of other unintended consequences.

Or consider Sanders' and Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's dueling debt jubilee proposals, which would forgive student loans even for high-income Americans. As experts of varying political persuasions have pointed out, this would be a needlessly expensive giveaway to rich people. (Yes, high-income people have educational debt, too.)

Or, more broadly, the wholesale rejection of any and all fiscal constraints, thanks to a politically convenient but crank economic theory known as "modern monetary theory."

It's fine, I suppose, for a primary to be about the policies Democrats wish they could enact that have little chance of making it through the Senate. Except the problem with these policies isn't just that they're politically infeasible. It's that they're bad. But anyone who points out any weaknesses is accused of not dreaming big enough or being a neoliberal shill.

The far left, in other words, has been taking a page from its opponents' playbook. Experts don't agree with us? Research, evidence and math prove inconvenient? Just trust us, they say. Our plans do everything we say they will.

Now where have we heard that before?

Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Sanctimony is just another form of insult

By ruben navarrette jr.
Sanctimony is just another form of insult

RUBEN NAVARRETTE COLUMN

(Advance for Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Navarrette clients only)

WRITETHRU: Fixing formatting issues.

By RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.

SAN DIEGO -- Allies can sometimes be more insufferable than adversaries.

I'd almost forgotten how condescending, sanctimonious and judgmental the Latino left can be. Then, recently, I got a reminder.

You may not be familiar with the term, but you probably know the cohort. The Latino left was baptized Democrat, and it hates Republicans. It gives Democrats a pass, even when Democratic leaders pursue policies that harm Latinos -- on trade, education, immigration, etc. It'll condemn Republican Donald Trump for demonizing Latino immigrants as "bad hombres," but it turned a deaf ear when Democrat Barack Obama called them "gangbangers." It only got "woke" to the plight of immigrants when Trump took office.

Politically, the Latino left is a cheap date. It voted for Bill Clinton, who militarized the U.S.-Mexico border and signed into law a 1996 immigration bill that made it easier to deport people and harder for them to return. Then it supported Obama, who broke his vow to prioritize immigration reform, separated families, caged children, removed refugees without due process, and deported nearly 3 million illegal immigrants -- nearly all of whom were Latino.

But it is not nearly as forgiving of Latinos who support Republicans. It slanders them with terms like (BEG ITAL)vendido(END ITAL) (sell out), Tio Taco, coconut, etc.

For the last 25 years, I've been called all those names and more -- because I think for myself and don't toe the party line.

But then came the massacre in El Paso, Texas. On Aug. 3, Patrick Crusius allegedly targeted a city on the U.S.-Mexico border that is 60% Latino. Armed with a high-powered rifle, the white male whom Spanish-language (BEG TAL)corridos(END ITAL) call "(BEG ITAL)el monstrúo(END ITAL)" (the monster) allegedly murdered 22 people and injured two dozen others. Police say he told them his goal was to kill "as many Mexicans as possible."

That day, the country's nearly 30 million Mexican Americans got a wake-up call that -- no matter whom we marry, where we go to college, what profession we enter, or where we live -- we'll always just be lowly "Mexicans."

When I condemned the racism that fueled the attack and scolded those who refused to see it, I expected to be criticized by white folks who insist on having the last word. However, I did not expect to also be criticized by other Latinos.

Soon, I was getting jabbed by the Latino left. Ironically, these folks actually agreed with me on El Paso. And yet -- because they see me as a card-carrying Republican due to the many years I've spent beating up Democrats -- they couldn't resist telling me how surprised they were that we were at last allies.

I was finally defending Latinos, they said. I was criticizing racism, they marveled. What took me so long? Where had I been?

One reader wrote: "I greatly admire your new awakening."

Another chimed in: "I was surprised that you wrote the article since you always defended Republican policies."

Nonsense. Where have I been? Where have (BEG ITAL)they(END ITAL) been? I've been right here, punching in all directions from roughly the same spot for the last 30 years.

I've been criticizing racism and defending Latinos and championing immigrants -- and, all the while, taking fire from angry white folks on both the right and the left -- since my first op-eds and columns were printed back in 1989.

In 1994, I co-hosted a nightly radio show in Los Angeles. A constant topic of conversation was Proposition 187. I hammered the nativist Republicans pushing the anti-immigrant ballot initiative, including California Gov. Pete Wilson.

For three decades, I've beat up on dozens of Republicans at the local, state and federal level. What confuses people is that I've also -- at the same time -- beat up dozens of Democrats at the local, state and federal level.

For years, I've been attacked by self-righteous white people on the right. Now I'm being damned with faint praise by self-righteous brown people on the left.

I've come full circle. And the trip taught me something about our broken national conversation.

Too many Americans think they know everything -- about everything. We've figured out everyone's biases and motives. We never doubt our own position, but we're skeptical of everyone else's. We never budge. Why should we? We're right. And everyone else is wrong.

Whether you're a conservative, or a liberal, makes no difference. This sort of worldview is the definition of ignorance.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com. His daily podcast, "Navarrette Nation," is available through every podcast app.

(c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group

The fight over shutting down the CFPB consumer complaint database is over. It's staying.

By michelle singletary
The fight over shutting down the CFPB consumer complaint database is over. It's staying.

THE COLOR OF MONEY COLUMN

(Advance for Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Singletary clients only)

By MICHELLE SINGLETARY

WASHINGTON -- Consumers have won a big victory in favor of transparency for a change.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has decided it won't remove from public view a complaint database that consumers use to ask for help in resolving financial issues, such as problems with a debt collector, mortgage lender or student loan servicer.

For example, if you've tried but failed to get a credit bureau to remove erroneous information from your credit file, you're almost certain to get a response if you submit a complaint to the CFPB.

This isn't the typical "complaint box" where grievances go to die.

Since launching the database, the bureau has handled 1.9 million complaints and forwarded more than 1.3 million to companies for a reply, CFPB Director Kathleen Kraninger said during a recent speech at the National Consumer Empowerment Conference. More than 5,000 companies have responded to 97% of consumers filing a complaint, she said.

In fact, the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a nonpartisan consumer-advocacy group, analyzed complaints made through the CFPB and found that more than 223,000 grievances resulted in relief for consumers. More than 75,000 people got money back from the companies they complained about, according to the report released earlier this year.

"The database opens a window onto the marketplace," said Ed Mierzwinski, U.S. PIRG senior director for Federal Consumer Programs. "There is no perfect way to study the financial industry. We need this window open."

But as you might imagine, the companies being complained about don't like the complaint database being public. They argue that people are only getting one side of the story and that the complaints might not be accurate. It should be noted that the Bureau also gives companies the option to post a public response.

"Since its inception, the Consumer Complaint Database has not been without controversy," Kraninger said in a statement about the changes.

Mick Mulvaney, the former interim head of the CFPB and now acting White House chief of staff, didn't want to keep the database public despite the fact that the bureau is required to provide certain information to Congress about complaints and responses. In referring to the rule Mulvaney said, "I don't see anything in here that I have to run a Yelp for financial services sponsored by the federal government."

Consumer advocates contend that the complaint narratives potentially provide insight into illegal or unfair practices.

But to appease businesses, the CFPB is making some changes to the complaint system, most notably adding disclaimers, which the agency is calling "enhancements."

The bureau is also exploring how to put consumer complaints in context by adding market share and company size. The theory being large companies with a huge consumer base would of course have more complaints.

In the meantime, let me put the CFPB disclosure language in context with Mierzwinski's assistance.

(BEG ITAL)CFPB says(END ITAL): "This database is not a statistical sample of consumers' experiences in the marketplace … Complaint volume should be considered in the context of company size and/or market share. For example, companies with more customers may have more complaints than companies with fewer customers."

(BEG ITAL)I say(END ITAL): Don't let this clear shill for the companies deter you from looking through the information for similarities to your situation. Go to consumerfinance.gov/complaint to view other people's stories. Click "yes" to show complaints with narratives.

"The database has tremendous value," Mierzwinski said. "That's why industry wanted it shut down, not because it needed to be viewed in context but because it opened a clear window on the marketplace they wanted kept shut."

(BEG ITAL)CFPB says(END ITAL): We don't verify all the allegations in complaint narratives." And "Unproven allegations in consumer narratives should be regarded as opinion, not fact."

(BEG ITAL)I say(END ITAL): Well here we go -- the old "alternative fact" defense, a line made infamous by White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.

Yes, in telling their story consumers are conveying the situation from their point of view. But think about how unjust something must feel for someone to take the time to file a grievance.

"One complaint may not say much about a firm, but if as few as two or three consumers tell the same story, others might say, 'that's exactly what happened to me' and file a complaint, too, which will lead to needed changes at the firm, or even to a pattern or practice enforcement action," Mierzwinski said.

(BEG ITAL)CFPB says(END ITAL): "Complaints can give us insights into problems people are experiencing in the marketplace and help us regulate consumer financial products and services under existing federal consumer financial laws."

(BEG ITAL)I say(END ITAL): The CFPB made the right call in not shutting down the consumer complaint database. Let there be light.

--0-- --0-- --0--

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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