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For Ayanna Pressley, the beauty of unexpected wins led to Congress and a historic office

By Kayla Epstein
For Ayanna Pressley, the beauty of unexpected wins led to Congress and a historic office
Freshman congresswoman Ayanna Pressley in her Capitol Hill office. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

From the outside, Room 1108 in the Longworth House Office Building is unremarkable. Inside, it's even less so. But to Ayanna Pressley - who is the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress - it is everything.

The office symbolizes a kind of spiritual lineage for her: Fifty years ago, the space was occupied by Shirley Chisholm, the nation's first black congresswoman.

"This is it! This. Is. It. OK? Come on, this is it! I love the vibe," boomed Pressley, as she strode in for the first time a few weeks before being sworn into office as part of the most diverse freshman class in congressional history. "I love the floor plan. I love the history."

For a space with such pedigree, Longworth 1108 is almost comically cramped. Open the front door too quickly, and you might thwack an aide.

Still, Pressley said she felt "an immediate soul tie to this space." Chisholm, who represented her New York district from 1969 to 1983, is a political icon for liberals and a kind of figurative godmother for Pressley.

But Pressley wasn't supposed to get Chisholm's office. She drew an inauspicious lot during the House room lottery (which took place on Chisholm's birthday, as Pressley proudly told the audience at the drawing).

She shrugged, her disappointment at the bad draw was evident, and later squatted in the office and feebly tried to keep other congressional freshmen from scooping up the space. "Lots of mice in here!" she and an aide joked at one point in an attempt to deter others who stopped in.

When another freshman, California's Katie Hill, inadvertently selected the room, Pressley had to settle for a fallback. But later, during an orientation session, Hill offered to swap offices with Pressley.

What had at first seemed out of reach was now hers. For Pressley, 44, the beauty of the unexpected win is now a familiar experience.

In 2009, she was the first African-American woman elected to the Boston City Council, beating most of a large field that at one point swelled to 15 candidates vying for four at-large seats. But just two years later, she was cast as a political underdog in her first re-election battle.

"The victory was an extraordinary feat for a first-term city councilor who had been expected by many to lose her seat," the Boston Globe wrote in 2011. When the results were tallied, she was the top vote-getter in all the at-large city council races that year.

"It was not a fluke," she said at the time, and the women of color who have since been elected to the city council credit her with paving the way.

In 2018, Pressley was once again the underdog when she challenged longtime Rep. Michael E. Capuano in the Democratic primary, an unusual move in Massachusetts politics.

Pressley had a reason for skipping her place in line, said Lydia Edwards, a Boston city councilor. "You cannot assume the same political machine that produced the same kind of politician - ethnically, in terms of gender - will suddenly produce you. You have to see that path, and form your own."

Pressley campaigned against Capuano - a popular liberal - by making the case that it was time for generational change and that the state's only majority-minority district should see itself reflected in its representative. Her slogan: "Change can't wait."

She trounced him.

After Pressley secured Chisholm's office, one of the first things her staff did was tape to the walls an illustration of Chisholm that had been colored in by Pressley's goddaughter. The sketch of Chisholm's portrait, curls high atop her head, her face frozen in a serious stare, wasn't far from a poster with a drawing of Pressley, who wears her hair in twists and can effect her own unflinching gaze.

The late congresswoman was elected in 1968 and represented Brooklyn, and when she ran for president, her slogan was "Unbought and Unbossed." Pressley set about building a career guided by Chisholm's example and other groundbreaking women, such as the late civil rights leader and congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas.

She got her start in politics after enrolling in Boston University 1992. After her mother fell ill and lost her job, Pressley dropped out to support her and found work with former repersentative Joseph P. Kennedy II, and later John Kerry, when he was a U.S. senator.

As an aide to Kerry, she advocated for constituents who didn't typically get - or even request - attention from Washington's most powerful.

"She came to work with her conscience helping her to guide her where we ought to go, what we ought to be doing," Kerry said. "An example would be Pine Street Inn, where homeless people and folks with serious challenges were finding shelter." The organization helps provide housing and emergency services in Boston, and in 2003, Kerry delivered an address to graduates of its job training program.

"She thought it was just as important to listen to them as it was to everyone else, and she was dead right," he said.

There are many political stars in the class of freshmen elected to Congress last year. Some are new to politics. Many will burn bright and fade. Pressley, who has worked in politics for more than 20 years, could be in Washington for the long haul.

She also arrives at a unique political inflection point along with the most diverse, and most female class in history. Decades ago, as Chisholm herself ran for president, she issued the challenge that "we cannot continue to take things as they are, when we see around us that government is not responsive to certain segments of the population."

Pressley said she wants see that vision made reality.

In December, she made headlines for her frank remarks at a fundraising meeting for the Democratic National Committee, warning them not to be complacent about their electoral gains and to "ask the tough questions about whether or not we provided" women and candidates of color with support "so we can break through more glass and concrete ceilings as rapidly as possible."

Already Pressley's become part of tightknit group of liberal House freshmen known on social media as "The Squad," including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. These liberal women have collectively pushed Democratic leadership to consider policies such as gun control, Medicare-for-all, and a "Green New Deal" focused on addressing climate change.

After Omar posted a photo with Pressley and other women on Instagram with the caption "They ain't ready," it went viral.

"For generations men have dominated every power, every narrative," Pressley said. "We're standing in our power and we're claiming our space and it's about damn time."

Their first challenge was a monumental one: They'd entered some of the most rarefied halls in government as that government remains partially shut down.

It gave Pressley - who tends to speak of her vision of government in sweeping, intersectional terms and rhetorical paragraphs - a very specific problem to attack. She wrote to congressional leadership to demand janitors and food service workers in the government's employ receive back pay.

Two days later, she took to the House floor and slammed Trump for the shutdown's impact on federal employees. "I see right through you and so do the American people," she said. "I rise today in solidarity with the thousands of workers with calloused hands and broken spirits working for no pay."

The minute-plus speech, delivered in her signature, deliberate cadence, was (politely) censored by a House colleague for her direct attack on Trump. But no matter: It triggered dozens of headlines and hundreds of thousands of views on social media.

Last week, Pressley left Chisholm's old office - the first of several offices the late Congresswoman had on Capitol Hill - to march in the cold with furloughed federal workers. As they strode to the gates of the White House, she spoke with marchers, and reporters flocked to her, hoping for a sound bite. She couldn't provide the workers present with much more than that because of the impasse between her party's leadership and Trump.

"It is true that it's unlikely that anything that they're proposing right now is going to become law," Michele Swers, a politics professor at Georgetown University, said of Pressley and other progressive freshmen elected last year. "Realistically, what they can hope for now is to try and set the agenda in a way that's going to influence future policy. You kind of lay down markers of, if Democrats have control, this is what it would look like."

Pressley's approach may be futile, said Genevieve Wood, senior adviser and spokeswoman for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "You're going to see a lot of grandstanding on the left, trying to get their voices heard, trying to fulfill promises (they made) on campaign trail," she said.

Pressley did have promises on her mind on a recent Thursday afternoon.

Her desk displays a black-and-white photo of her late mother, the community organizer and social worker Sandra Pressley. A single mother, she sacrificed to send her daughter to a private school and had sparked Pressley's love of Chisholm in the first place. Pressley's journey to Congress, in many ways, had begun with her. Propped against the wall was a drawing of Pressley and slogan she often repeats: "The people closest to the pain should be the closest to the power."

She sat at the edge of her seat, behind a desk that was in front of a window that she likes to think Chisholm had looked out.

The furniture is too big for the space. There are too few electrical outlets. Temporary walls have been erected to carve out a small office for senior staff.

The office is by no means perfect, but it's still hers.

---

The Washington Post's Jayne Orenstein and Alice Li reported contributed to this report.

Tide of resentment swells against professor's work in Flint as some activists turn against him

By Perry Stein
Tide of resentment swells against professor's work in Flint as some activists turn against him
Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards in a water-testing lab at the university. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Jay Westcott

LeeAnne Walters' four children were breaking out in rashes in 2014. Her teenage son became so weak he could no longer carry his book bag or walk up the stairs. One of her toddler-aged twins continued to miss developmental milestones. And her own hair started falling out, and has yet to fully grow back. Walters suspected the water in her Flint, Michigan, home could be to blame.

In 2015, she tested it and discovered dangerous chemicals, including elevated lead levels. But when she sent her findings to government officials, they insisted publicly that the water was safe, even though they had already issued multiple water-boil advisories because of possible contamination with harmful bacteria. So, she turned to Marc Edwards, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech, who in 2004 had helped alert Washington, D.C.-area residents that their drinking water contained dangerously high levels of lead. He slept on Walters' couch in Flint so he could test the water in the middle of the night, when Edwards says water quality is at its worst. He and his team relied on an emergency grant, but, before the grant kicked in, he committed to spending nearly $150,000 of his discretionary research funds and personal money.

Walters was with Edwards that September as he announced to a group of reporters and residents in front of Flint City Hall that the lead levels in thousands of homes were perilous, exceeding safety standards set by the World Health Organization. The water problems traced back to 2014, when the government had switched the cash-strapped city's water source from treated water in Detroit to the cheaper Flint River. After months of denying there was a problem, state and federal officials said in October 2015 that they would restore Detroit as Flint's water source. "We wouldn't be where we are now in Flint without Marc," Walters told me.

Three years later, however, Edwards found himself staring at a letter addressed to the "Scientific and Engineering Communities" that was posted on a site called FlintComplaints.com. It read, in part, "Residents of Flint request you tell us where we can file a formal complaint against the behavior, since January 2016, of Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech. ... Many of these residents feel that Mr. Edwards' drama, changes in stance, and attacks on residents and researchers have ended up taking Flint residents' voice away and giving it to Mr. Edwards. This has allowed Mr. Edwards to make Flint's Water Crisis about himself and not the people."

The letter, which was posted in May, had, by January, more than 90 names printed at the bottom - mostly Flint residents, but also two Washington, D.C., activists who had worked with Edwards closely during the District of Columbia's lead crisis.

"It hurt," he says. "If the statements were true, I would have signed the letter myself." Clearly, a betrayal had occurred. The question was, who betrayed whom?

---

The issue of whether scientists should engage in activism has become more urgent in the Trump era. For decades, scientists have argued their work should be a nonpartisan affair. It's a norm so deeply rooted that even scientists who participated in the 2017 March for Science on Earth Day espoused that ideal, saying they were there only in response to the administration's attacks on science.

Edwards argues scientists may have to assume an activist role when they witness communities facing powerful institutions, such as the state of Michigan. "I would prefer to be able to sit in the office, advise my students and do my research, and that would be enough, but it's not," Edwards told me in one of several lengthy phone conversations. Still, as a scientist, he's not always comfortable having his work cast as activism. He prefers, he says, to call what he does "investigative science," a blend of "science, investigative reporting and direct collaboration with members of affected communities."

Note the emphasis on collaboration, a very unscientific process that is subject to all manner of variables, including human emotions. Up until Edwards' rift with Flint activists, his collaboration with nonscientists had been less fraught. He seemed to work more successfully with activists in Washington. He and Yanna Lambrinidou, an anthropologist who was instrumental in getting his Washington, D.C., work before congressional investigators, went on to develop and teach a course together at Virginia Tech about engineering ethics. (Lambrinidou would later sign the letter criticizing Edwards, along with another D.C. water activist, Paul Schwartz.) Edwards' work in the District also earned him a stream of professional accolades, including a 2007 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. In January 2016, The Washington Post was still referring to him as "the heroic professor who helped uncover the Flint lead water crisis."

By then, though, his relationship with residents in Flint had started to break down. Edwards and his team had continued testing the water, and their results showed that lead levels were falling in line with federal standards - matching what the government was finding. By August 2016, both he and Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who is also credited with raising the alarm about lead in Flint's water, were saying publicly that the situation in Flint was improving.

But that narrative contradicted the perspective of advocates and groups such as Water Defense, an environmental nonprofit started by actor Mark Ruffalo, which brought in its own expert to sample the water in Flint. The group announced in February 2016 that it had found "harmful chemicals . . . appearing at levels that often approach or exceed drinking water standards."

Edwards railed against Ruffalo for needlessly scaring residents. "A-List Actor but F-List Scientist: Mark Ruffalo Brings Fear and Misinformation to Flint" was the title of a May 16, 2016, post on Edwards's blog at flintwaterstudy.org. He criticized the findings and methods, and the lead investigator for Water Defense later admitted he overstated the dangers of the water. (Water Defense did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Edwards' tests continued to show that contaminant levels had dropped. In September 2017, his findings were in line with the state's, showing lead levels within federal regulations. That month, when asked whether Flint had reached "the end of the water crisis," Edwards replied: "If you define the end of the water crisis as having water quality parameters back in the range considered normal for other cities with old lead pipes, the answer is yes," albeit with some significant caveats. The state had been providing residents with bottled water for drinking, but Edwards maintained they could also drink out of the tap again if they used filters, and that unfiltered water was safe to bathe in.

To prove his point, he showered in his Virginia home for 20 minutes in water that he concentrated with lead and then took a 20-minute bath "to maximize possible skin absorption," according to an October 2017 paper he wrote about the experiment titled "Lead Sinkers in the Shower: Effects on Water Lead and Human Exposure." The point of the experiment, he says, was to show that bathing in lead-poisoned water was not a significant source of exposure. (He also included this somewhat self-defeating disclaimer: "Dr. Edwards has worked on lead in water issues for 30 years - we do not recommend that anyone try this at home.") Before and after bathing, he wrote, he took three sequential urine samples for testing. They showed no significant increase in the lead levels in his urine.

Some residents, however, heard something else in Edwards' conclusions. Abel Delgado, a Flint resident and activist who signed the letter criticizing the professor, says that he and others felt betrayed when Edwards seemed to imply the crisis was over. The professor appeared to be "giving in to the narrative of the state, and not the narrative that Flint was facing," he says. Residents were saying discolored and smelly water was still streaming from their faucets. Lead usually can't be seen, smelled or tasted in drinking water, experts say. But residents suspected other contaminants.

Lawrence Reynolds, a pediatrician in Flint and a member of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's Flint Water Advisory Task Force, says Edwards was "irresponsible" to tell residents that they no longer had to worry about the water. "Researchers can publish reports and say that the water is safe in 90 to 95 percent of households," Reynolds told me. " In the medical field, we have to deal with the 5 to 10 percent where there is risk."

In February 2018, the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership (a research team consisting of scientists from Wayne State University and other schools) determined that a fatal 2014 outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Flint that received little attention at the time was also the result of the water supply change, and may have been more widespread than previously thought - a finding that the Michigan health department disputed. At least 87 people were infected and 12 died of pneumonia after being exposed to Legionella bacteria in the water. Edwards told me that the Legionnaires' findings were consistent with his own published research. But some observers say that he didn't let the research group have its moment. Instead, Edwards homed in on an alleged discrepancy in the résumé of lead investigator Shawn McElmurry, filing an ethics complaint that accused McElmurry of claiming that he worked in Flint longer than he actually did in order to obtain millions of dollars in grants. McElmurry denies the allegations. A spokesman for Michigan's Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs said the investigation is still pending.

To some Flint residents, Edwards' focus on lead started to seem myopic and his diatribes against critics self-serving. Benjamin Pauli, a Flint resident and assistant professor of social sciences at Kettering University, told me: "The whole framing of the crisis never really fit with what activists were seeing on the ground."

In March, Edwards was in a courtroom in Flushing, Michigan, testifying as a defense witness for Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon. Lyon is one of five state officials charged with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct for failing to warn the public about the extent of the Legionnaires outbreak. But Edwards said that Lyon wasn't to blame and that he was guilty only of trusting Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employees, not manslaughter. The case is still making its way through the courts.

Labor leader Claire McClinton says she and other Flint residents were "disappointed" that Edwards would stand up for Lyon. "I do not feel that the focus should be on Edwards," she told me, "but with that being said, he is a contributor to some of the things that the state has been doing to us."

A few months after that court appearance, the letter criticizing Edwards appeared. He later filed a defamation lawsuit against three of the activists who signed it: Lambrinidou, Schwartz and Melissa Mays, a mother of three in Flint. In his complaint, Edwards claimed that the trio organized a public smear campaign against him, questioning his scientific integrity and motives for working in Flint in social media posts and media interviews. He sought $3 million in damages, saying he has lost some of his grants, potentially preventing him from uncovering contaminated water in other places. Edwards chalks up the activists' criticisms to professional jealousy and, in Lambrinidou's case, romantic feelings that were not reciprocated.

"The Defendants harbor various financial, professional and social incentives to make negative and damaging statements regarding Edwards and his work," the lawsuit reads. Elsewhere it says: "Each of the defendants has made numerous statements expressing malice and resentment toward the credit and accolades Edwards has received." The lawsuit cited some of their public postings that Edwards claims have tarnished his reputation. One 2017 Facebook post by Schwartz read: "He [Edwards] has no knowledge of the social sciences, little connections to either of our communities, a disdain for people of color, low income folks, is a follower of Rush Limbaugh and Ayn Rand, who wrote the callow and disdainful libertarian bible, 'Atlas Shrugged.' " (Lambrinidou, Schwartz and Mays declined to comment for this story through their attorney, William Moran, who called the lawsuit baseless and predicted that it could be dismissed in the coming weeks.)

In Flint, Edwards used public records requests to unearth emails showing that officials in Michigan knew the city's water was contaminated long before they publicly admitted it. Lately, he has used that same strategy to get copies of emails he hopes will explain what caused the activists in Flint and in Washington, D.C., to turn on him. And he continues to use his blog to defend his reputation and update readers on his public spats with activists and other scientists.

I asked Edwards if he thought, looking back, that he had been a bit naive not to have anticipated the reaction to his findings that lead levels in Flint's water had fallen to safe levels. He says he had expected a backlash but not what he views as a concerted effort to destroy his professional reputation. He stands by his actions, which he perceives as truth telling. "It comes down to duty versus self-preservation," he says. "In a post-truth world, science has become just another weapon of tribal warfare, and rising above that takes courage."

LeeAnne Walters didn't sign the letter criticizing Edwards and still works with him. They have written a peer-reviewed journal article about water testing in Flint. "He has been honest with me. I have talked to other professors, and they try to dumb things down, and that's why I think we work so well together," she told me. They are collaborating on another project, which, she says, will focus "on how everyday citizens can better work with academics."

Despite Edwards' allegations that comments by Mays, Schwartz and Lambrinidou have cost him grants, he remains busy. In April, the Environmental Protection Agency gave Edwards and Virginia Tech a portion of a $2 million grant "to create a consumer-based framework to detect and control lead in drinking water."

Throughout 2018, he raised questions about the water system in Denmark, South Carolina, and the state eventually stopped adding a potentially harmful chemical. "I am motivated by shame," he says. "I cannot stand the thought that science could be abused to hurt innocent people as I witnessed it in Flint and other cases."

But in Denmark, his relationships with some residents may be souring. Meg Morgan Adams, an advocate with Edisto Riverkeeper, a nonprofit group that has collected water samples in Denmark, says that Edwards helped bring public attention to issues with their water supply but largely left before any problems were fixed. While Edwards still has support in the town, she says that some people felt he unnecessarily pitted residents against the government, making it harder to accomplish anything. (Edwards stands by his approach in South Carolina, and says that while he does not frequently go to Denmark, he corresponds with several residents via phone and email a few times a week. "We always try to cooperate until the system fails," he says.)

"They are frustrated because it's all well and good that their water quality is getting national attention, but it's not fixing the water infrastructure," says Adams, who lives outside Denmark. "A lot of people are sick of the drama."

The future of a bankrupt PG&E may be a breakup

By David R. Baker and Mark Chediak
The future of a bankrupt PG&E may be a breakup
A firefighter searches a burned-out building in Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 15, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by David Paul Morris.

PG&E Corp.'s looming bankruptcy could lead to an unprecedented spectacle -- a major American power company being taken over by the state or broken up for city governments to run.

More often, it works the other way. Local governments have a long history of selling off municipal utilities, switching them from the public sector to the private. Witness the ongoing efforts to privatize Puerto Rico's troubled power authority.

But with PG&E planning to file for bankruptcy this month -- the result of mounting wildfire liabilities that could reach $30 billion -- a government takeover has become a real possibility. In fact, the future of the power giant that has long reigned over a broad swath of California could very well involve a complete dismantling of its system and a takeover by multiple municipalities.

PG&E's own hometown of San Francisco has signaled interest in buying some of the company's assets. The city's utilities commission said Tuesday that Mayor London Breed asked it to study the possibility. The commission, which pipes water from the Sierra Nevada mountains to the city and runs its own hydroelectric dams, has had a testy relationship with PG&E. Seizing the company's local assets has, for years, been a lodestar goal of the city's political left.

"I think, as a city, this is an unparalleled opportunity to move to energy independence, to independence from Pacific Gas and Electric," Aaron Peskin, a member of the San Francisco board of supervisors, said at a hearing related to the matter Tuesday.

Many California counties and cities -- including San Francisco -- have recently started buying electricity on behalf of their residents, through a system known as community choice aggregation. Those programs still rely on PG&E and the state's other traditional utilities to deliver the electricity they purchase. Several are privately debating whether to bid for chunks of PG&E, said Mark Toney, director of a utility watchdog group. He declined to name the organizations, because they have not yet decided to make their interest public.

Toney and his group, the Utility Reform Network, have long been critical of PG&E. But the prospect of seeing the company dismembered troubles him, since it may create service disparities at a time of growing climate-related risks.

San Francisco may have the resources and will to take over part of PG&E's network, he said. Less-prosperous rural communities may not. And those communities, particularly in the wooded Sierra foothills, face a greater risk that power lines may spark wildfires. Maintaining the electric grid there would be more expensive than in the city.

"We need to be careful that we don't end up with a two-tier system of reasonably priced power for people living in the cities, and extremely expensive power for people living in rural communities," Toney said.

A takeover by the state or local governments is one of many possible outcomes for PG&E. When the company's Pacific Gas and Electric utility went through bankruptcy proceedings, from 2001 to 2004, it emerged intact, without major structural changes. Now, possibilities also include selling off its gas business as well as its San Francisco headquarters.

Steven Malnight, the utility's senior vice president for energy supply and policy, said in an interview Monday that PG&E at this point would not rule out any potential outcomes.

"It's pretty early in this process to speculate on what will emerge from the process," he said. "But we have been very clear that we're open to exploring all options."

The California Public Utilities Commission has opened a proceeding to look at the structure of PG&E, including carving the utility owner into smaller, regional subsidiaries or converting it into a government-owned company, while Gov. Gavin Newsom has said all options are on the table. Any effort to break up the company, or sell off pieces of it, would have to be hashed out in bankruptcy court and approved by the judge overseeing the proceedings.

Negotiations over which assets would be purchased and at what price could be fraught. The City of Boulder in Colorado, for example, has been in talks for years with incumbent utility Xcel Energy Inc. on an effort to municipalize the city's electric distribution system, with the issue still unresolved.

"The people who see this as an easy fix aren't correct," said Severin Borenstein, faculty director of the Energy Institute at the University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business. "You need the expertise for, in the case of San Francisco, a pretty significant grid operation. You also need to go through the process of valuing the hardware and transferring it."

PG&E is such a big, complex company that the state government probably wouldn't want to run it whole, several analysts have concluded. The company serves about 16 million people scattered across a vast swath of Northern and Central California.

"In the short run, managing a single 70,000 square-mile service territory could prove incredibly challenging to the state," Helen Kou, an analyst with BloombergNEF, wrote in a research note. "This could represent a transition phase while it works on splitting up PG&E into smaller pieces."

Hugh Wynne, a utilities and renewable energy analyst for Sector & Sovereign Research, argues that a carve-up could add to PG&E's value -- if the company sheds the more expensive, fire-prone areas north of San Francisco Bay. He estimates that PG&E's possible $30 billion liability from the 2017 and 2018 fire seasons sprang from just 12 percent of the company's transmission and distribution network.

"The wildfire risk associated with that region is rendering the entirety of PG&E's transmission and distribution system impossible to finance," Wynne said.

- - -

Bloomberg's Romy Varghese contributed.

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

Bill Barr and the art of the smokescreen

By e.j. dionne jr.
Bill Barr and the art of the smokescreen

E.J. DIONNE COLUMN

(Advance for Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Dionne clients only)

2ND WRITETHRU: 2nd graf, last sentence: "obstruction of justice statute" sted "conflict-of-interest statute"; 2nd to last graf, last sentence: "no problem with their being compared to witch hunters." sted "no problem with their being called witches." 1ST WRITETHRU: 5th from last graf, 2nd sentence: "evasive and flatly declined" sted "evasive and flatly declined"

By E.J. DIONNE JR.

WASHINGTON -- Warning lights should have been flashing early on during William Barr's confirmation hearings on Tuesday. But our nation's political class is so eager to think that an establishment figure would never capitulate to President Trump that the moment went by with barely a nod.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, asked the would-be attorney general about his June 8, 2018 memo that offered an expansive view of presidential authority. Barr eviscerated what he took to be special counsel Robert Mueller's interpretation of the obstruction of justice statute.

His focus on Section 1512 of the criminal code surely overjoyed Trump since Barr asserted that "there is no (BEG ITAL)legal(END ITAL) prohibition ... against the president acting on a matter in which he has a personal stake." The attorney general and Department of Justice lawyers, Barr said, citing a 1922 case, are merely the president's "hand." Barr added that "the discretion they exercise is the president's discretion."

Barr went on to argue that "the Constitution's grant of law enforcement power to the president is plenary." Barr used the word "plenary" six times. Merriam-Webster defines it as "absolute, unqualified."

And there was this shot at former FBI Director James Comey for suspecting corruption when Trump asked him to "see his way clear" to stopping the investigation of the president's national security adviser Michael Flynn, who has since pled guilty to lying to the FBI.

"The formulation that Comey 'see his way clear' explicitly leaves the decision with Comey," Barr wrote. "Most normal subordinates would not have found these comments obstructive."

(BEG ITAL)Most normal subordinates(END ITAL)? Does Barr consider Comey "abnormal"?

Barr's entire performance on Tuesday -- one heck of a smokescreen -- seemed designed to get senators to forget about his memo. Barr spoke effusively about his admiration for Mueller and insisted that he would never interfere with him.

Everyone outside Trump's orbit wants this to be true since, in our partisan world, Republican senators are expected to fall in line behind Barr. But Feinstein's question unmasked how disingenuous the nominee's protestations may have been.

Her simple query: "How do you know what Mueller's interpretation of [Section] 1512 is?"

Barr's answer: "I was speculating. I said at the beginning I was writing in the dark, and we are all in the dark. Every lawyer, every talking head, everyone who thinks about or talks about it doesn't have the facts."

He was (BEG ITAL)speculating(END ITAL)? In the first instance, why should we be comfortable at this fragile moment for our institutions with an attorney general nominee who would compose a detailed and acerbic 19-page assertion of boundless presidential power on the basis of mere speculation? And an attorney general is rather more than a "talking head."

The memo itself belies his benign reading of his own words. Yes, the second paragraph used the word "appears" about what Mueller was up to, but there was little circumspection in the rest of Barr's legal torrent.

"Mueller's obstruction theory is novel and extravagant," Barr wrote without hesitation. He also referred to "Mueller's core premise," "Mueller's proposed regime" and "Mueller's sweeping obstruction theory." For someone operating "in the dark," he didn't show a smidgen of humility or restraint.

On Tuesday, Barr could have given substance to his commitment to "allowing the special counsel to complete his work." But he was persistently evasive and flatly declined to promise steps showing that the Barr of presidential supremacy would not be the same as Barr the attorney general.

He declined to pledge he would recuse himself from the probe if the Justice Department ethics office said he should because of his tendentious memo. On what grounds might he go against the office's advice? "If I disagreed with it," he said. A lot of help that was.

He offered no guarantee that the public would see whatever report Mueller issued. If anything, he seemed to tilt toward secrecy when he said the special counsel's conclusions "will be handled as a confidential document."

He even defended Trump's use of the phrase "witch hunt" to refer to the Russia collusion investigation. "If someone felt they were falsely accused, they would view an investigation as something like a witch hunt," he said. Barr, you see, supports Mueller and the FBI, but has no problem with their being compared to witch hunters.

I understand the will to believe. But any senator who votes to confirm him in the hope that he'll fight back against Trump's abuses is choosing to ignore the many red flags Barr waved before us amidst all the smoke.

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

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

The dubious splendor of a thousand hamburgers

By alexandra petri
The dubious splendor of a thousand hamburgers

ALEXANDRA PETRI COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Petri clients only)

By ALEXANDRA PETRI

Behold the feast! The delicacies came from all corners, from the Golden Arches (rescued from the Hamburglar's clutches), from the Wendy's of red braids and squared-off corners, from the linoleum-floored apologetic Domino's, and from the Burger King of ominous advertisements and chicken fries they came. Clad in gleaming cardboard they came, heaped one upon the other -- and smelling of hot oil.

And they were glorious and resplendent with many sauces, the sauce that is in the container that is orange and the sauce in the container that is teal, all borne upon a silver platter, to be presented to the victors.

A hecatomb of hamburgers and "many, many french fries."

Here is your reward, you the sportsmen! If you conduct yourself in such a manner that you obtain a glorious victory, you will go unto the White House, where you will be presented with a feast fit for the president himself: some formerly warm hamburgers suppurating in their cardboard boxes on a table, some french fries under a heat lamp in little White House cups, and at least one Domino's pizza. Are you delighted by this? You ought to be! The president is!

Am I lovin' it? I am not sure.

Trump has this remarkable propensity for appearing in Cursed Images. Contemplate the above. This is certainly a cursed image. There is something about it; it is the sort of thing you should look at through a paper plate, or not at all.

The charm and mystery of McDonald's hamburgers is that they taste the same everywhere you go. You can eat one in the parking lot outside a shuttered Toys 'R' Us, or in the White House, and the taste is much the same. This is maybe also the curse of McDonald's hamburgers.

These hamburgers were not, in themselves, objectionable. And yet. Maybe it was the plating! Maybe it was the candelabra. (Yes, I think it was the candelabra. The candelabra was what made it risible. Put a candelabra next to it, and . . . Fine Dining!)

There is something in the ostentatious presentation of so much fast food, still in containers, as though the plating could solve the problem. They were liable to get cold, of course, and they might produce waste with so many boxes, of course, but it was not exactly that.

There is something in the thought that opulence is Three Hundred McDonald's Hamburgers -- or a thousand! Piled a mile high, the president said. The idea that infinite riches means . . . infinite McDonald's. There is a certain snobbery in this frustration. But there is something beyond that.

If there is no shame in fast food, then what is the embarrassment here? People love to associate shame with fast food. Why are you serving your children fast food, why have you not individually grown a chicken by hand with love and without pain and gently coaxed an egg each morning from beneath its warm feathers into your waiting palm, to whisper a poem into as you prepare it lovingly for your children before sending them off to school?

But, in this case, I think the shame is not in liking the fast food, but in naively presenting it as though it is the best you could hope to deserve, as though this is a Great Reward. Eat Like A President: try Filet-O-Fish!

This is the frustration of Trump. He is given access to the best of everything and he wants McDonald's. He is given access to the best information and he watches Fox News. It is not the thing itself, but the suspicion that he thinks this is as good as it gets, despite all suggestions to the contrary.

Is this really all he thinks is on top of the mountain? It would be one thing if he were doing this as a deliberate insult. But he seems so proud of the three hundred -- or is it one thousand? -- hamburgers.

It is the creeping dread that to the president, better is just the same, but more and bigger. The idea that all that was needed to transform junk into something remarkable was to put the Trump seal on it, to say that it was excellent, to put it on a silver charger under a painting of Abraham Lincoln and say it was a rare honor to eat it. The unnerving question is: Does he really believe this is true?

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Britain, into chaos leaping?

By george f. will
Britain, into chaos leaping?

GEORGE WILL COLUMN

(Advance for Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Will clients only)

By GEORGE F. WILL

LONDON -- The poet Rupert Brooke voiced the exhilaration of those Britons who welcomed the war in 1914 as a chance to escape monotonous normality, "as swimmers into cleanness leaping." They got four years mired in Flanders' mud. In a 2016 referendum, Britons voted, 52 percent to 48 percent, for the exhilaration of emancipation from the European Union's gray bureaucratic conformities. They thereby leapt into a quagmire of negotiations with an EU determined to make separation sufficiently painful to discourage other nations from considering it.

On Tuesday, Parliament emphatically rejected the terms of separation that Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the EU. So, there is no majority, in Parliament or the country, for anything other than, perhaps, a second referendum, which might be impossible to organize before the March 29 deadline for leaving the EU -- although the EU might extend the deadline, hoping for a British reversal. Another democracy recently rethought something momentous. On Sept. 29, 2008, with the U.S. financial system nearing collapse, the House of Representatives voted 228 to 205 against the George W. Bush administration's bailout plan. The Dow promptly plunged 7 percent (777 points off 11,143) and four days later the House reversed itself, 263 to 171.

Britain's 2016 referendum came hard on the heels of the 2015 surge of asylum-seekers into Europe. Much more than the margin of Brexit victory probably was provided by anxiety about Britain's and Europe's social cohesion. Since then, however, the immigration issue has cooled: Those identifying it as "the most important issue confronting Britain" plummeted from 48 percent in June 2016 to 17 percent in October 2018.

Of the four nations that comprise the U.K., Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain, Wales and England voted Leave. Many Remainers disparage many Leavers as "(BEG ITAL)English(END ITAL) nationalists." Brexiteers can cite a noble pedigree for their sentiments: Speaking in 1933 to the Royal Society of St. George, Winston Churchill said: "On this one night in the whole year we are allowed to use a forgotten, almost a forbidden word. We are allowed to mention the name of our own country, to speak of ourselves as 'Englishmen.'" The EU has dangerously promoted the blunderbuss principle that nationalism -- the belief that one's nation has uniquely admirable aspects -- is always dangerous. This principle stigmatizes normal and often defensible judgments.

In 2016, many Brexiteers had an aspiration with a glistening pedigree -- Churchill's vision of British greatness ensured by looking not across the English Channel but across the Atlantic to ever-closer relations with what Churchill called "the Great Republic." This prospect lost luster when, 138 days after the referendum, that republic elected Donald Trump, whom many of Charles Darwin's countrymen think evolution passed by.

Diminishment and loss of control have been recurring British anxieties since the nation emerged depleted from World War II. In the Brexit debate, references to Suez have rekindled painful memories of the 1956 British-French-Israeli invasion intended to reverse Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal. The invasion was halted by a furious President Eisenhower using the leverage of Britain's financial weakness. Brexit is an attempt to revive national control and stature. It is subtracting from both.

Brexiteers believe that the fact that leaving the EU has proven to be so difficult a prison break validates Euroskepticism. They ask: Britain, which has been in the EU since 1993, was self-governing since the Romans departed in 410, so how calamitous can Brexit be? Very, respond Remainers, with increasing plausibility as the prospect of a "hard Brexit" -- divorce with no new U.K.-EU legal and commercial relationships in place -- becomes more probable.

Economic globalization, with the increasing importance of just-in-time inventory management of complex supply chains, raises the stakes for Britain, whose trade with the EU far exceeds its trade with either America or China. Steep tariffs and other controls could snap into place March 29, and The Wall Street Journal reports that officials at the Port of Dover "estimate that for every two minutes of delay trucks experience before embarking [on cross-Channel ferries], a 17-mile traffic backup will be created on the M20 highway heading to the port."

May's stolid pursuit of other people's goal -- in the referendum she voted Remain -- has evoked the criticism that "stamina is not a strategy." Actually, it might be: As the March 29 deadline for leaving the EU draws near, her agreement might seem marginally less unpalatable than, and the only alternative to, a hard Brexit, which could be "into chaos leaping."

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Can immigration save the U.S. from its birthrate crisis?

By megan mcardle
Can immigration save the U.S. from its birthrate crisis?

MEGAN MCARDLE COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For McArdle clients only)

By MEGAN MCARDLE

The primary asset of any society is its people. That's true in the lofty spiritual sense and in the crass financial one: Other people produce both the economic goods and the tax revenue that sustain the nation.

Like any other asset, this one needs to be replenished by continual reinvestment. A society that stops replacing itself is like a trust-fund kid dipping into the capital. The accounts empty at an accelerating pace, and a bill eventually comes due that cannot be paid.

Virtually the entire rich world is now in varying stages of that cycle. In 2000, only three rich-world countries -- the United States, New Zealand and Iceland -- averaged two or more children per woman. Today, only New Zealand is still replacing itself. The average for American women has dropped to 1.76 children, according to a new report from the National Vital Statistics System.

"Good!" a certain type of environmentalist might say. But other people may notice that the country's whole political economy assumes population growth. Whether retirements are funded through government or private accounts, the United States still needs enough productive workers to support retirees without impoverishing themselves; no matter how the health-care system is structured, it still must be funded and staffed by the able-bodied.

With a shrinking population, even seemingly unrelated areas, such as debt finance, will need rethinking. Debt implicitly assumes growing incomes, growing gross domestic product. But GDP growth is a direct function of the labor force's size. Without that growth, debts bite harder with every passing year.

Societies preparing for an aging population ought to be running surpluses to pay down debt and planning for much longer working lives. But almost no one seems ready to do that. Instead, three alternatives are generally proposed: raising birthrates through family subsidies; boosting innovation to offset workforce decline with higher productivity; and replenishing the population through immigration.

Unfortunately, there's little evidence that "family policy" has more than a marginal impact on total lifetime fertility. Sociologist Brad Wilcox, who oversees the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, notes that even "krybbe"-to-"grav" Nordic welfare states have failed to keep birthrates above replacement. And while technological innovation can certainly make the most of existing workers, it's unlikely to fully offset workforce decline. After a certain point, aging populations tend to innovate less, because older people are generally more risk-averse and less creative than younger ones.

That leaves immigration. Even the hardiest of immigration hard-liners might reconsider their position if the alternative were working to age 90. But the exigencies of an aging population are likely to force immigration advocates to do some rethinking, too. The idea that Social Security and Medicare can be saved by importing younger workers turns out to have some complications.

First-generation migrants typically cost the government somewhat more than they pay in taxes. That doesn't mean that migration is a bad deal for the United States, despite what restrictionists claim. By providing low-skill, labor-intensive services, migrants let native-born Americans spend more time on more productive work, boosting everyone's incomes.

But when native-born, higher-skill workers become scarcer, the equation changes. To put it another way: You can't save Social Security's finances by replacing an engineer who makes $100,000 a year with someone who had to drop out of school in eighth grade and is struggling to learn English. The way that system is structured, the math doesn't work. This limits our ability to close budget gaps through immigration.

An immigration solution to the United States' demographic challenge would probably mean a very different immigration policy, something like the points system used by countries such as Canada and Australia, which selects for migrants reasonably fluent in English and likely to be net tax contributors. Family reunification, which reinforces the United States' historical bias in favor of low-skill migration, might well have to be curtailed.

That change would be politically fraught, to say the least. And given that the United States, unlike Canada and Australia, has a long border with a significantly poorer country, it may not even be possible. Moreover, most of the countries that send migrants to the rest of the world themselves have declining birthrates. Scouring countries in demographic decline clean of their working-age populations to feed rich-world economies seems both unethical and impractical.

The good news is that demographic crises move at a glacial pace; we have years to weigh these unpalatable options. But, like glaciers, demographic crises are nearly impossible to stop once they really get going. So unless births bounce back soon, we'll probably have to choose.

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Will the global credit boom go bust?

By robert j. samuelson
Will the global credit boom go bust?

ROBERT J. SAMUELSON COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Samuelson clients only)

By ROBERT J. SAMUELSON

WASHINGTON -- We are in the midst of a worldwide credit boom that may be without precedent. The debt explosion suggests that the global economy -- all the national economies combined -- is being driven heavily by massive government and private borrowing.

Is this debt buildup stable? Or is it the harbinger of a sharp economic slowdown or crash? No one really knows, but the numbers certainly give pause. While everyone is fixated on President Trump and his opponents, hardly anyone is paying attention.

The latest figures come from the Institute of International Finance (IIF), an industry research and advocacy group. It reports that in September, worldwide debt totaled $244 trillion, or almost a record 318 percent of world gross domestic product. That figure covers all government, household and non-financial business borrowing. (World GDP means total global output.)

Here's a detailed breakdown. Government debt has tripled from $20 trillion in 2000 to $65 trillion in 2018, rising as a share of GDP from 55 percent to 87 percent. Household debt has increased over the same years, from $17 trillion to $46 trillion (from 44 percent to 60 percent of GDP). Finally, non-financial corporate debt rose from $24 trillion to $73 trillion (71 percent of GDP to 92 percent).

"Debt has fueled a good deal of economic growth," says economist Sonja Gibbs of the IIF. Higher borrowing is widespread, though countries borrow differently. Government debt, for example, is highest among mature economies, such as the United States and France. By contrast, business borrowing has been more common in so-called "emerging-market" countries (China, India, Mexico).

There are no universal rules on how much debt is too much. A lot depends on investor psychology -- that is, confidence or fear. Behavior can be self-fulfilling. If banks and bond-holders believe debts will be repaid, then they will be, because borrowers will raise new loans to replace the old. Similarly, if lenders fear debts won't be repaid, they may withhold new loans.

For the moment, confidence seems to be holding. One reason may be low interest rates, which make it easier for borrowers to carry large debts.

Still, the debt buildup poses dangers. The first -- and maybe the most likely -- is that both borrowers and lenders become more cautious. Lenders fear defaults and delinquencies; corporate borrowers worry that they won't be able to "roll over" existing loans, while household borrowers fear losing their homes or cars.

If economic growth slows, then servicing outstanding debts becomes harder. "The risk is not [an economic] blowout but a slow slog -- slower growth," says Gibbs. "As debt service gets bigger, it takes away from what you can do with more borrowing. It diverts from more productive uses."

Another risk is that over-indebted businesses in emerging-market countries trigger some sort of financial crisis. Loan losses force some banks to close or stop lending. The circumstances are particular to individual countries or industries, but if too many local crises occur, the global economy could lose steam.

Finally, there's "rollover risk" -- the possibility that borrowers won't be able to renew existing loans. That prospect seems particularly strong among emerging-market borrowers. According to the data from the IIF, emerging-market borrowers face $2 trillion of maturing debt in 2019, with about a quarter of those loans made in dollars (most of the rest are in local currency). To avoid default, borrowers must somehow raise those dollars, either from a new loan or from other sources.

When it comes to global debt, we may be in unexplored territory. The only certainty, as the IIF's Dylan Riddle puts it, is that "there's been a breathtaking accumulation of debt in the last decade or so."

(c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group

How to fight back against your own hypocrisy

By esther j. cepeda
How to fight back against your own hypocrisy

ESTHER CEPEDA COLUMN

(Advance for Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)

By ESTHER J. CEPEDA

CHICAGO -- Hypocrisy is a human condition. Everyone -- no matter how kind, respectful or generous -- occasionally engages in some form of it, either for his or her own benefit or because there are few, if any, alternatives.

I had two moments of facing my own hypocrisy last weekend as I stood in front of my beloved childhood Sears. Shuttered and ready to be redeveloped, the North Side store on Lawrence Avenue in Chicago was the first Sears, Roebuck & Co. retail location to be built from the ground up in 1925, according to Preservation Chicago's website.

Even though, logically, I know that Sears was the behemoth, price-slashing "everything store" disrupter of its time, it's still awful to see a cherished piece of your childhood disappear.

That pang, however, was nothing compared to the anger that welled up in me as I read the painful account of Austin Murphy in last month's edition of The Atlantic: "I Used to Write for Sports Illustrated. Now I Deliver Packages for Amazon."

It's nice, I suppose, that Murphy is making the best of what sounds like an absolutely horrible job. But most people who take work delivering packages in a vehicle that has bald tires and broken headlights are not in the privileged position in their lives that the author is in -- his wife makes plenty of money but he needs a little extra income to facilitate the refinancing of their home.

In this context, it's less devastating to learn that Murphy was inconvenienced by long days behind the wheel on a grueling schedule than reading that his black co-worker has to dress in as much Amazon-branded clothing as possible to stay safe on the job.

Murphy writes: "A woman had challenged him as he emerged from her side yard -- where he'd been dropping a package, as instructed. 'What are you stealing?' If you're a black man and your job is to walk up to a stranger's front door -- or, if the customer has provided such instructions, to the side or the back of the property -- then yes, rocking Amazon gear is a way to protect yourself, to proclaim, 'I'm just a delivery guy!'"

Though you feel terrible for the 57-year-old college-educated Murphy when he describes how difficult it is to find a place to relieve himself, it's worse to know that other grown adults who did not have the opportunity to attain higher education and have few other options and no safety net to fall back on are apparently riding around in clunkers hoping to find a place to go to the bathroom. This was the author's point, of course.

The reality is that many drivers don't find places willing to let them use the restroom. Which is why, I've just learned, YouTube videos of delivery drivers peeing into empty plastic bottles or in residential neighborhoods are a thing.

Many employees have leveled complaints about working conditions in Amazon warehouses (accusations range from no time for bathroom breaks to practices that have led to physical injuries, and some have said there is suffocating heat in the summer and freezing temperatures in the winter). Amazon has categorically denied that it mistreats employees, and recently raised its minimum wage for its workers to $15 an hour. There was even a profile in The New York Times that alleged white-collar misery at the corporate offices. Amazon rebutted those claims as well, arguing in part that quotes from employees were taken out of context.

So yes, I'm a hypocrite, because I've known of the accusations about unfair and unsafe working conditions, but I've not canceled my Prime membership, which I use (BEG ITAL)a lot(END ITAL). I also am syndicated by The Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos.

But, even if the accusations were all true, my opting-out of buying Amazon products would hardly make a dent in the company's bottom line. Boycotts rarely work, and people living outside of big cities often wouldn't have access to certain goods without Amazon.

For millions of Americans, Amazon's services and selection are more important than a few scattered news reports alleging mistreatment of its workers in the name of servicing our desire for fast shipping.

Like the rest of us, Amazon workers, especially its laborers, deserve humane work environments and conditions.

The behemoth isn't going anywhere anytime soon, so we need to start telling Amazon -- via tweets, Facebook comments, letters or emails to their customer-service accounts -- to treat their workers right.

Call, fax or email your elected representatives. Share allegations of mistreatment of Amazon workers with your network and ask them to demand an independent investigation, too.

Paying customers have more clout than mere onlookers, so the responsibility is on us -- companies often don't change until their adoring customer base demands it.

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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