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Community-schools initiative making its way into suburbs

By Debbie Truong
Community-schools initiative making its way into suburbs
Abid Mohammad, public health training assistant at Walt Whitman Middle School in Alexandria, Virginia, gives a high-five to M.J. Arnold, who successfully completed his Spanish homework worksheet during an after-school program lsat month. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey.

One day, after school, parents thronged a hallway at Walt Whitman Middle School in northern Virginia, plucking sweet potatoes, green beans, rice and whole frozen chickens from tables and bins. It was a week before Thanksgiving.

"Everything is good, everything is fresh, very fresh," Sandra Melendez said as her 12-year-old son carried bags of refried beans, fruit and broccoli. Free food from the school's monthly market feeds Melendez's family of seven for two weeks.

The school began the market about a year ago, after administrators learned that families were struggling to get healthy food, said Craig Herring, the principal. It was part of a broader recognition that the school's responsibility to students transcends the purely academic - especially at Whitman, where 64 percent of students are economically disadvantaged.

It became the first community school in Fairfax County in October, adopting a concept that imagines schoolhouses as nerve centers where students and families can also seek health and social services.

Community schools have long been fixtures in urban neighborhoods but have migrated to suburban and rural areas in the past decade as they contend with growing poverty and demographic changes.

They number about 5,000, stretching from the Washington region to Albuquerque, N.M., to Oakland, California, said Jose Munoz, director of the Coalition for Community Schools.

And their ranks are growing - by 2025, the coalition, an alliance of schools, government and philanthropies, wants to increase the number of community schools to 25,000, Munoz said.

Some community schools are outfitted with health clinics or laundry facilities. At Whitman, a school worker guides families to food and housing resources, and is developing a mentorship program.

As Fairfax, a sprawling, affluent county, becomes more racially, culturally and economically diverse, schools are educating students who face steeper challenges, said Mary Ann Panarelli, Fairfax schools' director of intervention and prevention.

"The needs are such that the doors need to be opened a little wider," Panarelli said.

Fairfax County's wealth overall - the median household income is $117,515 - masks the struggles some families endure. A report from the Northern Virginia Health Foundation last year pinpointed more than a dozen "islands of disadvantage" in the region where poverty and a lack of affordable housing and health insurance are endemic.

For the first time, all students at 19 Fairfax elementary schools automatically received free breakfast and lunch this academic year under a U.S. program for the nation's schools with the greatest concentration of students from low-income families. Five of the elementary schools that send students to Whitman Middle qualify for additional federal dollars because they educate a large share of such students.

United Community Ministries in Alexandria is where some of the low-income families of Fairfax County turn for help.

For thousands of families who live around or along Richmond Highway in southeastern Fairfax, the day includes a trip to United Community Ministries, where they can visit a food pantry, train for a job or take literacy and citizenship classes.

The nonprofit helps about 7,000 residents each year who live at or below the federal poverty line, or $25,100 a year for a family of four, said Alison DeCourcey, the executive director. The organization's clients attest to the changing face of Fairfax: Once, most of the people it helped were African-Americans. Now, it is helping more people from Africa, and Latinos and Asians, two of the county's fastest growing populations.

"There's this tremendous economic disparity," DeCourcey said. "These students live on an island of disadvantage."

Children account for 40 percent of those whom United Community Ministries helps. So when another nonprofit, United Way of the National Capital Area, wanted to help pay for a community school in Fairfax, United Community Ministries agreed to help establish Whitman's community school.

Many such schools exist throughout the District, Maryland and Virginia. But Whitman was only the 13th to benefit from a $12.3 million pledge from the United Way to establish community schools at some of the region's poorest middle schools, in the hope it will help curb dropout rates and other academic challenges. Another Fairfax school, Mount Vernon Woods Elementary, became a community school this month.

"When it comes to thinking about the dropout problem, people are really thinking about high school students," said Timothy Johnson, a United Way of the National Capital Area vice president. "We know that if you're waiting until high school to address that, then, many times, it's already too late to turn that ship around in time."

- - -

The warning signs were troubling.

Just 13 percent of seventh-graders and 36 percent of eighth-graders from Buck Lodge Middle School in Prince George's County were on track to graduate high school in 2015, shortly after Kenneth Nance started as principal and Buck Lodge became a community school.

So the school began enrolling those students in after-school programs, arranging more counseling and providing additional math and reading help.

In the years since, the number of Buck Lodge students on track to graduate has climbed: In 2017, it was 26 percent of seventh-graders and 55 percent of eighth-graders, according to school data. Suspensions have tapered, Nance said.

"The culture here is one where kids feel safe and they actually want to be here," the principal said. "The community school model absolutely helps us with that."

Rising economic inequality and residential segregation have sparked a renewal of the century-old community school approach, according to a 2017 report from the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit education research center.

The schools vary in the services they offer and how they operate, but all rely on alliances with neighborhood groups to help students overcome hunger, homelessness and other hardships that impede students' academic success.

Well-run community schools, the research institute found, improve student and school performance and help meet needs of "low-achieving students in high-poverty schools."

In New Mexico, lawmakers passed legislation five years ago, setting requirements for community schools.

The 23 Albuquerque public schools with the most children from low-income families are community schools, providing services such as job training for adults and English language classes, said Kristine Meurer, executive director of the school system's student family and community supports division.

Albuquerque is lobbying the state to go further, pressing officials to provide money to help districts establish community schools. Some schools that received donations to operate full-service health centers, Meurer said, had to scale back hours after the money dried up.

On a blustery November day, as Whitman students scattered to the gym, classrooms and outdoors for after-school stepping, soccer and tennis classes, Delia Montecinos waited for parents as they filed into the family market.

A few months in, as Whitman's community school coordinator, Montecinos has helped families arrange health department trips and directed them to housing resources. She has designed a financial literacy workshop and gathered holiday gifts for students.

Before Montecinos was hired, the school's social worker, psychologist and counselors connected students to social services, sacrificing time they spent helping students cope with social and emotional issues, said Herring, the principal.

The diminutive, soft-spoken Montecinos senses a familiarity with the students who populate Whitman's halls. She once lived in a one-bedroom apartment shared by eight people and relied on BU-GATA - an Arlington County organization that works with low-income, immigrant communities - for tutoring and mentorship when she was a student at Washington-Lee High School and later at George Mason University.

"I was able to get these services," she said. "Thanks to everything that I got, I am where I am."

These bats carry the lethal Marburg virus, and scientists are tracking them to try to stop its spread

By Lena Sun
These bats carry the lethal Marburg virus, and scientists are tracking them to try to stop its spread
Jonathan Towner, a scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, climbs out of a mining cave in Uganda. The Marburg virus claimed the life of one miner and infected several others working there in 2007. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount.

BAT CAVE, QUEEN ELIZABETH NATIONAL PARK, UGANDA - By day, some of the most dangerous animals in the world lurk deep inside this cave. Come night, the tiny fruit bats whoosh out, tens of thousands of them at a time, filling the air with their high-pitched chirping before disappearing into the black sky.

The bats carry the deadly Marburg virus, as fearsome and mysterious as its cousin Ebola. Scientists know that the virus starts in these animals, and they know that when it spreads to humans it is lethal - Marburg kills up to 9 in 10 of its victims, sometimes within a week. But they don't know much about what happens in between.

That's where the bats come in. No one is sure where they go each night. So a team of scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traveled here to track their movements in the hopes that spying on their nightly escapades could help prevent the spread of one of the world's most dreaded diseases. Because there is a close relationship between Marburg and Ebola, the scientists are also hopeful that progress on one virus could help solve the puzzle of the other.

Their task is to glue tiny GPS trackers on the backs of 20 bats so they can follow their movements.

"We want to know where they're going on a nightly basis," said Jonathan Towner, 52, who heads a CDC team that specializes in how these deadly viruses are spread. If the animals are feeding on particular fruit trees, that information could identify communities most at risk and help prevent future outbreaks. "It's much easier to put together a picture and say to local authorities, 'Look, this could be potentially how the virus is spread, this is what the bats are doing.' "

U.S. officials are so concerned about Marburg becoming a global threat that the CDC is asking the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency to pay for the bat trackers, which each cost about $1,000. The CDC is hoping to track more of these Rousettus aegyptiacus bats in several other caves in Uganda.

Marburg's potential to spread was made clear a decade ago when a pair of tourists on separate trips walked into the cave looking for adventure and walked out with the virus. A Dutch woman died 13 days after her visit. The other visitor, an American woman named Michelle Barnes, survived after a long, painful illness. The cave was closed to tourists in 2008.

Marburg was first identified in 1967 when a shipment of infected African green monkeys from Uganda was sent to laboratories in Marburg and Frankfurt, Germany, and Belgrade, in then-Yugoslavia. Seven lab workers died within about a week. Since then, a dozen outbreaks have been reported, killing hundreds of people. Most took place near bat-infested caves or mines, including one last fall along Uganda's eastern border with Kenya. Of four family members sickened, only one survived.

For the CDC scientists, success hinges on getting the tracking units, which are half the size of a pen cap, to stay on a bat body that is only about six inches long. A practice run in Atlanta with the same device on the same kind of bat in a special CDC laboratory failed. Trackers slipped off or were chewed by the bats.

"I have no idea how well this is going to go because it's the first time we've tried it," Towner said. "It could end up in total flames."

- - -

Well before you see the bats - about 50,000 live in the cave - you hear their squeaks and chatter and smell the ammonia from their guano, which also covers the cave's rocky floor. One false step can lead to a fall into a stream underneath. Another could land the scientists on one of the African rock pythons or forest cobras that slither along the ground.

Towner and CDC colleague Brian Amman, 54, discovered a decade ago that this Egyptian fruit bat is a natural reservoir for Marburg. That means the virus can live and grow inside the bats without harming the animal, and be excreted in its urine, feces or saliva.

By comparison, more than 40 years and over two dozen outbreaks after Ebola emerged in Central Africa, researchers still don't know what animal or animals carry it, much less how it spreads to people.

The bat team includes CDC scientist Jennifer McQuiston and Luke Nyakarahuka, an epidemiologist at the Uganda Virus Research Institute, a longtime CDC partner. The CDC allowed a Washington Post reporter and photographer to accompany the team.

In a clearing of the Maramagambo Forest, the scientists' workstation is a table under a tent. Curious baboons perch on nearby tree stumps. Black-and-white colobus monkeys peer from overhead branches. On a drive through the park in search of other bat roosts, the scientists' Toyota Land Cruiser yields the right of way to a majestic waterbuck, its long, curved horns glinting in the sun.

Their task is to catch and glue trackers on 10 bats the first day, repeat the next day.

The tracking software has already prompted a stream of curses from Amman. To test it again, McQuiston and Nyakarahuka each cup a tiny unit in their palms and jog around the clearing to simulate bats on the move. That's supposed to trigger readings. But the screen on Amman's clunky CDC-issued laptop remains blank.

"If it comes back and says zero I don't know what we're going to do," Amman mutters. Several minutes pass in silence. Then, ever so slowly, data points start to show up.

Now they can head to the cave.

Towner and Amman suit up in special helmets and face shields connected to battery-powered respirators that muffle their voices. Underneath protective gowns they wear Kevlar-lined waist-high pants to guard against snake bites. On their hands are cut-resistant leather gloves, like those worn by law enforcement, over two pairs of medical gloves to protect against bat bites. Towner also had a video mounted on his helmet.

"Hey, Brian, right down there is a bunch of males. You see 'em?" shouts Towner in the cave, his voice muffled by the head gear.

The bats take flight, which is when they relieve themselves of what Amman calls the "rain of pee and poo."

Amman, holding a net, heads to where Towner is pointing, veering far away from an enormous python. He returns with two bats, which go into a pillowcase Towner is holding. Each pillowcase will hold about five bats since bats don't like to be alone.

Only males are caught; the scientists don't want to burden females carrying pups.

Catching the bats is the easy part. Getting the trackers on is trickier.

Amman dreads the prospect of using sutures because they are messy and complicated. But given the failure in Atlanta, he has brought the necessary kit. He hopes a last-minute purchase of different veterinary glue may do the trick.

Towner lifts the first bat out of a pillowcase, cradling it in his gloved hands. The bat is calm. Its big brown eyes blink, unaccustomed to the light. Towner places it stomach down, wings tucked in. One hand covers its head, the other its feet.

"Hello, big fella," Amman says to the bat. "You have been selected to take part in the GPS Price is Right sweepstakes."

He squeezes a thin line of glue on its back, another line of glue on the tracker and presses down gently but firmly.

For several long seconds, no one utters a word.

Towner breaks the silence. "That's on pretty good," he says softly, flicking at the device.

"WOO-HOO!" Amman shouts, relief washing over his face. Up go his arms, signaling a touchdown.

"I'm so happy, Jon," he gushes. "I didn't want to suture them. . . . I gotta tell ya. This is just better than Christmas."

They glue the remaining units and release the bats. One near miss occurs when two bats chew through a bag and almost escape.

"Okay, dude," Towner says to the last bat. He uncups his hands to free it. With a flap of its wings, the bat arcs slowly around the trees and glides into the forest.

Now the scientists wait, unsure whether the batteries will last, whether the signal will be able to break through cloud cover to reach the satellite, whether technology will be able to capture this crucial flight of nature.

Amman calls after the bat: "Bring us back some data!"

- - -

Barnes doesn't remember touching any rocks or boulders in the cave. She and her husband were on a two-week safari. The bat cave in Queen Elizabeth National Park was something a tour guide suggested to fill an afternoon, before a trip to see Uganda's famed mountain gorillas.

Barnes, her husband and seven others went inside on Christmas Day 2007. Barnes, then 44, was in the cave for about 15 to 20 minutes, in shorts and sandals. She remembers seeing the dark outlines of pythons and bats overhead.

"They were flying in and out and screeching and making all sorts of noise," she said. "And the smell was super powerful. Everybody had their hand over their noses."

A week later, she and her husband flew through London and then Iowa on their way home to Golden, Colorado.

Her symptoms started en route - headache, rash, nausea - and worsened when she got home. Initially, doctors gave her painkillers and nausea medicine. As her liver, kidney, lungs, gallbladder and pancreas functions slowed, she was rushed to the hospital.

After 11 days, she was sent home. Despite tests for multiple diseases, she had no idea what had made her so sick. For months, she suffered abdominal pain, exhaustion and what she calls "mental fog."

Astrid Joosten spent about 10 minutes in the cave six months after Barnes visited. Thousands of bats were flying around. "All were looking at us with very curious eyes," recalled her husband, Jaap Taal.

She developed a high fever after she flew home to the Netherlands. She got worse, and hemorrhaged. Three days after she was put in an induced coma, Joosten died, with a confirmed Marburg diagnosis.

In Colorado, Barnes read about the case and asked her infectious disease doctor to rerun tests for Marburg. This time, the results were positive, the first known case in the United States.

Barnes now has another distinction. Not only is she the sole American survivor of Marburg, but her immune system is helping to develop a vaccine.

"She has awesome antibodies," said James Crowe, a Vanderbilt University immunologist who is among the researchers who isolated one particularly powerful antibody from Barnes. An experimental vaccine is now in development.

For now, the most effective way to battle outbreaks like Marburg is stopping them at their source.

- - -

The bat cave had always been a popular tourist attraction. "We used to have tourists walk down there," said park veterinarian Margaret Driciru. "Health-wise, it really was not the right idea." Most likely, other Marburg cases have gone undetected because the disease symptoms are similar to malaria and typhoid fever, common illnesses across much of Africa.

Now the park has posted warning signs that bats can carry the Marburg virus. Visitors must stay in an enclosed observatory with glass windows about 65 yards away.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority, which runs the country's parks and is helping the CDC, also has an enormous stake in the project's success. Wildlife is the top tourist attraction, and tourism is Uganda's biggest source of revenue. But if wildlife carry diseases that kill humans and nonhuman primates, like the park's famed chimps, tourists will stop coming.

In a meeting with a park warden, Towner and Amman explain how the trackers may show bats traveling to nearby towns in search of fruit. Any fruit the bat bites can be smeared with Marburg; a person, monkey or other animal eating that fruit can get infected.

"So they move up into the community?" warden Robert Mbagaya asks.

Yes, Towner says. He shows him a video on his cellphone of the bats with their GPS units.

"You see them speeding somewhere and you don't know how far and for how long they go," Towner explains. "But now we will know."

After outbreaks of Nipah virus killed scores of people in Bangladesh over the past decade or so, scientists discovered that humans were getting infected from drinking virus-infected date palm sap. The sap is collected overnight from the trees. Bats were flying to the containers to drink the sweet sap draining from trees into collection pots. In the process, they were contaminating it with their saliva and excretions that are known to contain the virus.

Photographic evidence of bats urinating in the containers helped persuade villagers about Nipah's dangers. Scientists hope flight patterns of the Marburg-carrying bats could be similarly persuasive.

"We wouldn't be able to convince them to not sell the fruit, but we could make the argument to wash it first," Towner said.

During last fall's Marburg outbreak that sickened a cattle farmer's family, "a traditional healer told the family [the sickness] was because of family conflicts," Nyakarahuka said. Ugandan officials eventually met with nearly 150 community religious leaders and elders as part of outreach and education about the disease.

At the Kitaka gold mine, about 30 miles northeast of the bat cave, some residents also doubt that bats can cause serious disease despite a Marburg outbreak in 2007 that infected four miners, killing one. It was there that Towner and Amman discovered that the bats carried live Marburg virus. The mine was closed but has since reopened.

John Niwagaba, 53, searching for bits of gold outside the cave, said sick miners were bewitched. His proof: "I've been bitten by a bat but I didn't get sick," he said, during a break from pounding rocks.

At a nearby village, Monday Richard is the village's sole survivor of a 2012 Marburg outbreak that sickened 14 others in several districts and killed four, including his pregnant wife and toddler. Villagers nicknamed him "Marburg." His older children were not allowed to go to school for two months. He was no longer able to work as a motorbike taxi driver. Now he barely gets by as a banana farmer.

"Marburg has made me suffer," he said.

Investigators can't pinpoint how the outbreak began. But they strongly suspect the spillover was linked to bats in the Kitaka mine.

Richard's seven-months-pregnant wife died while being transferred from one hospital to another. "She started bleeding from the nose. Then blood came out of her oxygen mask. It was all over her face," he said.

He had to bury her and their 18-month-old son the same evening. There was no time for a funeral. On the side of the house, under a banana tree, their unmarked graves lie under a patch of red dirt.

- - -

It's the CDC team's last day in the forest. Time for the final test.

A female spider monkey and her baby look down from a tree as Amman and Towner huddle over a laptop. The lodge has no internet service. The only connection comes from a portable device that seems to take forever to connect. Finally, a green bar appears on the screen. A good sign. Then it grows longer, an even better sign that data is loading.

Then the numbers pop up. Amman can see that Bat No. 14 logged more than 3,000 data points in one night. That means he flew a good distance. So did Bat No. 11.

"Oh man, this is awesome! This dude moved!" Amman exclaims, grinning widely.

Days later, Amman would be able to tell that the bats flew in different directions, some traveling up to 15 miles. At least two flew southwest toward a spot near another town on the other side of the forest. That could mean a broader area of infection risk.

Perhaps the bats were headed to a big fruit tree. Or another cave. Travel between far-flung roosts could be one way the virus is transmitted to other colonies. GPS coordinates show the two bats flew to an area two miles due east from an existing road. That is definitely something to be investigated, perhaps on a future trip.

For now though, the pair of scientists are quietly thrilled that their effort, years in the making, had worked.

"Good job," Amman said quietly, giving Towner a high-five.

"Good job," Towner replied.


Video Embed Code

Video: A group of bats are kept in pillow cases while waiting to be tagged and tracked by a scientists who are studying Marburg virus in Uganda.(The Washington Post)

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Video: A team of scientists capture fruit bats outside a Ugandan cave in hopes of learning more about how the Marburg virus spreads to humans.(The Washington Post)

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Video: Researchers enter a cave in Uganda to capture bats with the hopes of better understanding Marburg virus.(The Washington Post)

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In America's hidden war, troops face peril on many fronts

By Liz Sly
In America's hidden war, troops face peril on many fronts
Sheikh Humaidi al-Shammar, third from left, the leader of the influential Shammar tribe, greets a guest at his residence in Tel Alo, Syria, on Oct. 12, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Alice Martins

RAQQA, Syria - This ruined, fearful city was once the Islamic State's capital, the showcase of its caliphate and a magnet for foreign fighters from around the globe.

Now it lies at the heart of the United States' newest commitment to a Middle East war.

The commitment is small, a few thousand troops who were first sent to Syria three years ago to help the Syrian Kurds fight the Islamic State. President Donald Trump indicated in March that the troops would be brought home once the battle is won, and the latest military push to eject the group from its final pocket of territory recently got underway.

In September, however, the administration switched course, saying the troops will stay in Syria pending an overall settlement to the Syrian war and with a new mission: to act as a bulwark against Iran's expanding influence.

That decision puts U.S. troops in overall control, perhaps indefinitely, of an area comprising nearly a third of Syria, a vast expanse of mostly desert terrain roughly the size of Louisiana.

The Pentagon does not say how many troops are there. Officially, they number 503, but earlier this year an official let slip that the true number may be closer to 4,000. Most are Special Operations forces, and their footprint is light. Their vehicles and convoys rumble by from time to time along the empty desert roads, but it is rare to see U.S. soldiers in towns and cities.

The new mission raises new questions, about the role they will play and whether their presence will risk becoming a magnet for regional conflict and insurgency.

The area is surrounded by powers hostile both to the U.S. presence and the aspirations of the Kurds, who are governing the majority-Arab area in pursuit of a leftist ideology formulated by an imprisoned Turkish Kurdish leader. Signs that the Islamic State is starting to regroup and rumblings of discontent within the Arab community point to the threat of an insurgency.

Without the presence of U.S. troops, these dangers would almost certainly ignite a new war right away, said Ilham Ahmed, a senior official with the Self-Administration of North and East Syria, as the self-styled government of the area is called.

"They have to stay. If they leave and there isn't a solution for Syria, it will be catastrophic," she said.

But staying also heralds risk, and already the challenges are starting to mount.

A Turkish threat to invade the area last month forced the United States to scramble patrols along the border with Turkey, which has massed troops and tanks along the frontier. Turkey regards the main Kurdish militia, the YPG, which is affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party inside Turkey, as a terrorist organization and fears the consequences for its own security if the group consolidates power in Syria.

Syrian government troops and Iranian proxy fighters are to the south and west. They have threatened to take the area back by force, in pursuit of President Bashar Assad's pledge to bring all of Syria under government control. The government and Iran have been cultivating ties with local tribes, and the U.S. announcement of its intent to counter the Iranian presence in Syria may, in response, further encourage such ties.

- - -

Away from the front lines, the calm that followed the ejection of the Islamic State from Raqqa and the surrounding territory is starting to fray. A series of mysterious bombings and assassinations in some of the areas retaken from the militants up to three years ago has set nerves on edge. Most of the attacks are claimed by the Islamic State, and a U.S. military spokesman, Col. Sean Ryan, said there is no reason to believe the Islamic State is not responsible. "We know they're regrouping in those areas," he said.

But there are widespread suspicions that any one of the regional powers opposed to the U.S. presence and the Kurds' pursuit of self-governance may be seeking to destabilize the area, finding allies among disgruntled Arabs uncomfortable with the prospect of being governed long term by the Kurds.

The Kurdish forces have sought to include Arabs in their self-governance experiment but retain dominance over its structures at every level, Arabs complain.

This is a part of Syria where tribal loyalties often trump politics, and the tribes are being courted by all the regional players with an interest in ultimately controlling the area, according to Sheikh Humaidi al-Shammar, the head of the influential Shammar tribe.

At Shammar's outsize mansion, which rises improbably from the empty desert near the Iraqi border, dozens of tribal leaders gathered one recent Friday for his customary weekly divan, sweeping into his cavernous reception room dressed in gold-trimmed robes and flanked by pistol-wielding guards.

The guests ranged, Shammar confided, from sheikhs affiliated with the Assad regime and his ruling Baath Party to representatives of the Islamic State, the Free Syrian Army rebels and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces - a spectrum of those competing for control in northeastern Syria.

Shammar has allied his tribe with the United States and the Kurds, and he has contributed fighters from his small Sanadid militia to battles against the Islamic State. But, he said, he has many concerns: namely, that the U.S. talk of countering Iran will suck the region into a new conflict and that the area's Arabs will be cut out of any deal that is eventually reached with the Kurds.

"Everything is uncertain. We are part of a global game now, and it is out of our hands," he said.

His son Bandar, who leads the Shammar militia, said the tribe supports some form of new arrangement for the Kurds in Syria "because they are our brothers and they sacrificed a lot," he said.

"The main concern of the Arab population is that one ethnicity, the Kurds, is going to build a state for Kurds and impose their authority on the others," he said. "The coalition created the SDF to be multiethnic, but really people see it is not like this. It is a solo actor which authorizes everything and controls everything."

- - -

Kurdish leaders say they are working hard to convince the Arab community that their plan for governing will include it. Education sessions are being held in Arab areas to try to bring Arabs around to the views of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed Turkish Kurdish leader who inspired the YPG's ideology, said Saleh Muslim, a senior official with the Democratic Union Party, the political wing of the YPG.

"We are very sincere about living together," he said. "It's a matter of time. Maybe we need three or four years to make it stable."

Whether the Kurds have three or four years is unclear. U.S. officials hope the American presence will bring leverage in negotiations over an eventual settlement to end the Syrian war, with the aim of securing some form of autonomy for their Kurdish allies as well as rolling back Iranian influence.

But there is no such settlement in sight, and there may not be one. Assad has prevailed against the rebellion elsewhere in Syria and has shown no inclination to make concessions. The expectation among many residents, Kurds and Arabs alike, is that the government will eventually restore its authority over the area.

After Trump said the troops would soon be withdrawn, many here began planning for that eventuality, including the Kurds, who launched talks with Damascus for a direct, bilateral settlement. The talks went nowhere, and now the Americans are staying - but Kurdish officials say they are keeping open channels of communication in case Trump changes his mind again.

"Everything is very complicated and no one knows which way to turn. We don't know who is against whom and who is with whom," said Amjad Othman, an official with the SDF.

All the challenges and complexities of northeastern Syria seemed to be concentrated in the small, strategic town of Manbij. Located beside the Euphrates River, it was liberated from the Islamic State by Kurdish forces over three years ago. Now, to the north, lies territory controlled by Turkish troops and their Free Syrian Army allies, and to the south by the Syrian government and its allies, Russia and Iran.

In the middle are the Americans. It is one of the few places where the U.S. military has a conspicuous presence. There are three small U.S. bases in and around the town, supporting an American effort to keep apart Turkey and the Kurdish-affiliated Manbij Military Council, according to officials with the council. So far, diplomacy has worked to tamp down the tensions, and the U.S. and Turkish militaries recently began conducting joint patrols along the front line.

But attacks, carried out by assassins riding motorcycles and planting roadside bombs, are occurring with increasing frequency behind the front lines. Local officials believe groups affiliated with the Syrian government and Iran are behind some of these, according to Mohammed Mustafa Ali, who goes by the name Abu Adil and is the head of the Manbij Military Council. "We are surrounded by enemies, and they all want to come here," he said.

- - -

Frustrations are building, meanwhile, with the acute lack of funding for reconstruction, impeding the effort to win hearts and minds in Arab non-Kurdish areas, Kurdish officials say. Earlier this year, Trump cut the $200 million that had been earmarked for essential repairs to the worst damaged areas. Though that sum has been replaced by donations from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it is a fraction of the billions of dollars required.

It is in Raqqa, the biggest city in the part of Syria where U.S. troops are based, that the frustration is most keenly felt. The city was devastated by the U.S.-led airstrikes that accompanied the SDF's four-month offensive to drive out the Islamic State, and a year later the city is still in ruins.

Signs of life are returning, with shops and markets reopening in some neighborhoods. About half the population has returned, squeezing into the least damaged buildings, sometimes living without walls and windows. Most roads have been cleared of piles of rubble that were left by the bombardments, but blocks on end are wrecked and uninhabitable. The water was restored in September, but there is still no electricity.

Without more financial support, there is a risk that Raqqa will "devolve into the same vulnerability ISIS found when it first arrived, a 'fractured city ripe for extremist takeover and exploitation,' " a report by the Pentagon's inspector general said last month, quoting a State Department official.

The anger on the streets is palpable. Some residents are openly hostile to foreign visitors, which is rare in other towns and cities freed from Islamic State control in Syria and Iraq. Even those who support the presence of the U.S. military and the SDF say they are resentful that the United States and its partners in the anti-ISIS coalition that bombed the city aren't helping to rebuild.

And many appear not to support their new rulers.

"We don't want the Americans. It's occupation," said one man, a tailor, who didn't want to give his name because he feared the consequences of speaking his mind. "I don't know why they had to use such a huge number of weapons and destroy the city. Yes, ISIS was here, but we paid the price. They have a responsibility."

He spoke wistfully of life under the Islamic State, when, he said, the streets were safe. His business was good because foreign fighters flocked to him to get themselves decked out in the Afghan-style outfits of baggy pants and tunics that were favored by the Islamic State. Now the city is half empty and customers are few.

Everyone says the streets are not safe now. Recent months have seen an uptick in assassinations and kidnappings, mostly targeting members of the security forces or people who work with the local council. But some critics of the authorities have been gunned down, too, and at night there are abductions and robberies.

And there is graffiti, often appearing overnight, a sinister reminder that the Islamic State is trying to stage a comeback.

"Remaining in spite of you," said the writing scrawled in black paint on the collapsed wall of a destroyed building on one recent morning, a reference to the Islamic State's slogan, "Remaining and Expanding."

The paint was fresh.

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

Trump's secrets of success have finally failed him

By richard cohen
Trump's secrets of success have finally failed him


(Advance for Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Monday, Dec. 17, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cohen clients only)


WASHINGTON -- The racket inside Donald Trump's head must sound like the roar of a train. Investigations are coming at him from all sides -- from the special counsel, from the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, from the New York state attorney general, from the relentless poking around of news organizations and, soon, from the hydra-headed investigations of a newly Democratic House of Representatives. And he knows that as he inevitably weakens, the appearance of weakness will encourage others to pile on -- the injured and the outraged, the mistreated and the merely insulted -- and they will materialize with their meretricious lawyers and they will take him down, lawsuit by lawsuit, investigation by investigation, until he writhes on the floor, an ending as squalid as his administration.

The irony -- not that he appreciates irony -- is that the methods that brought him such success have failed him. The non-disclosure agreement has suddenly stopped working. He made virtually everyone sign one, but Stormy Daniels went public anyway, and Karen McDougal did, too. Daniels in particular just breezed by the legal implications and ran straight to the media, where she created a sensation -- a book, television appearances and interviews in staid bookstores.

Daniels pulled the thread and the whole fabric of lies and cover-ups unraveled. All the usual methods failed. Michael Cohen did what Michael Cohen does but it failed and he failed, and now he's turned against the boss, the man who made him. Cohen had dreams of going to the White House and, if not that, of being the president's man in New York City, but now he's a broken man with prison time staring him in the face. He looks just awful.

It's not just people who have failed Trump, but even his lies. He had always used lies for their wonderful utility. Sometimes the truth worked and sometimes lies worked and you just chose the one that worked best. He should have said nothing back in April when he was asked on Air Force One if he knew anything about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels. "No, no," he said. "You'll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney." The camera was on him, close. Did you see the "tell" of a liar? No. Did he blink, look away, drop his voice? No, No. No. The man is not merely an accomplished liar, it doesn't even look like he knows when he is lying.

Roy Cohn, Trump's late consigliere, taught him these strategies. As long as Cohn was around, Trump was the second most amoral man in New York. No one beat Cohn. He was a homophobic homosexual who publicly denied he was gay to the day he died from an AIDS-related condition. He boasted about having helped send Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair when he was a federal prosecutor. They were convicted on shaky charges of "conspiracy" and Cohn lobbied the judge to issue death sentences. Near the end of his life, the New York Bar finally had enough. They kicked him out.

Cohn taught Trump to always deny and always go on the offense. If you got sued, you just didn't defend the suit, you countersued. You let the other party know that the suit would cost them plenty, and it would discourage others from ever suing. Trump and Cohn even countersued the federal government for $100 million when Trump's real estate business was sued for housing discrimination.

Now, though, Trump has run up against powerful forces. The spectral special counsel, unseen and amply funded, stalks Trump like the Greek furies of mythology, the appropriately female deities of vengeance. They swirl around him, hounding him, causing him to take inventory of his sins, his lies, his deceptions. So many. Robert Mueller is the biggest threat Trump has ever encountered. How can Trump sleep when it seems Mueller doesn't? If Trump had ever seen "Macbeth," he'd know what's happening. Mueller "doth murder sleep."

It is all coming down on Trump. His incessant lying has cost him. The Washington Post reports that most Americans no longer believe him. His deceptions and his encyclopedic immorality brought him success but now will likely bring him epic disgrace. He is about to fail at a level only a few have ever reached. His own name, his family's name, his company's name is being raised up to a Rushmore of shame. Trump can hear it coming, a ceaseless roar in his head. It's what he fears most: mocking laughter.

Richard Cohen's email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Caring about the quality of prisoners' lives helps all of us

By michael gerson
Caring about the quality of prisoners' lives helps all of us


(Advance for Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Monday, Dec. 17, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Gerson clients only)

WRITETHRU: 7th graf, 2nd sentence: "Colson had been" sted "Chuck had been"


WASHINGTON -- Cleveland has written the latest chapter in the unfolding scandal of the American criminal justice system.

A report by the U.S. Marshals Service details a series of failures and abuses in Cleveland's jails: Overcrowding. Frequent lockdowns to make up for understaffing. Food denied as punishment. Pregnant inmates sleeping on the floor. Mice-infested food storage. Young offenders thrown into the adult prison population. Inmates with mental illness denied treatment and placed in isolation.

A merger of Cleveland's city and county systems was sold as a cost-saving measure. It resulted in a penal system in which there were 55 attempted suicides in one year. After the seventh inmate death from suicide or drug overdose, the reorganization was put on hold. The Marshals Service report found "insufficient and unclear answers" about recent inmate deaths. "I'm not saying it should be a hotel or a party," former inmate Cecil Fluker told the county council, "but damn, can we come out alive?"

With no other group dependent on government care does the discourse begin, "Well, who cares?" And there is no doubt that among the more than 2 million incarcerated Americans are some vicious and violent characters who deserve to be right where they are.

But there are several good reasons to care what happens in American jails and prisons.

First, this is a social stress test of sorts, measuring our commitment to human dignity. Do we believe that every life has value? Or do we judge some men and women less than human and beneath our concern?

I was instructed in these matters by the late Chuck Colson when I worked for him in the late 1980s. Colson had been a particularly ruthless and devious special counsel to President Richard Nixon. As a result of the Watergate scandal, he became prisoner 23226. While incarcerated, he found an extraordinary talent for relating to inmates across boundaries of class and race. And he accepted a Christian calling to speak to and for them, eventually visiting 800 prisons in 40 countries. Over time, a prison preacher became one of the most important social reformers of the 20th century, advocating for humane treatment of prisoners and alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders.

I watched Colson demonstrate the most radical and challenging teaching of Christian faith -- a belief in absolute equality before God. He treated murderers and rapists as his equals in the need for grace, and his equals in their capacity to receive grace. And I watched people guilty of terrible crimes become models of moral maturity. If no one, in the end, is beyond God's help, then no one should be beyond our concern.

But even if you find all of this to be pious rubbish, there is another reason to care about prison conditions: Because most prisoners -- numbering more than 700,000 each year -- will come back to communities. And how we behave toward them during their imprisonment matters greatly in determining their level of bitterness and criminality upon their return. An inmate treated like a caged animal is expected to walk through a gate and become a productive citizen. It is insanity.

A final reason to be concerned about conditions behind prison walls is because there are more lives and futures at stake than that of a prisoner. There are about 2.7 million children with an incarcerated mother or father. The children of prisoners are at high risk of future incarceration themselves. Writing off prisoners as worthless and hopeless has the effect of writing off many of their sons and daughters. It is moral malpractice with generational consequences.

There are proper political responses to America's criminal-justice crisis -- support for prison reform, for sentencing reform, for a general end to reliance on routine, mass incarceration. But there are also personal steps that can be taken. The prison outreach ministry Colson founded, Prison Fellowship, organizes an effort each year at Christmas called Angel Tree. It allows people to donate Christmas presents that are given on behalf of prisoners to their children, marked "With love from Mom," or "With love from Dad." It is often a chance for inmates to reconnect with their families. And it is often the highlight of a child's Christmas -- a sign they are still loved.

The most effective social activism matches political vision and personal concern. Those seeking a more just society should also care about the quality of Christmas morning for an inmate's child.

Michael Gerson's email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

The GOP majority's last words: But her emails!

By dana milbank
The GOP majority's last words: But her emails!


(Advance for Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Milbank clients only)


Republicans, in the waning hours of their eight-year reign in the House, are using this precious time to do what they love best: investigating Hillary Clinton's emails.

The House Oversight Committee had one last item on this year's calendar -- a hearing Thursday on the Clinton Foundation. But it didn't stop there! Republicans and their witnesses used the hearing to reprise their greatest hits: her email server, Benghazi, George Soros, Sidney Blumenthal, Huma Abedin, Cheryl Mills, James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, IRS targeting the tea party, Uranium One and a QAnon conspiracy about the Justice Department swooping into Little Rock to seize Clinton documents.

Even the lock-her-up Trump administration had tired of these proceedings. The Justice Department -- under the command of Trump loyalist and former hot-tub promoter Matthew Whitaker -- refused to testify (leading one witness to suggest the administration had joined the cover up) and the IRS also sent regrets.

Instead, Republicans summoned conspiracy theorists, including "investigators" poised to make money as tipsters if the IRS brings a Clinton Foundation case. But even these witnesses refused to provide documents supporting their dubious claims.

"If you're not going to share the information with this committee … my patience is running out," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., recently on the short list to be President Trump's next chief of staff.

"Are you going to prosecute the Clintons?" one witness, John Moynihan, replied. "I don't think you are."

"Don't get cute with me!" Meadows returned.

It was an ignominious end for a Republican majority that spent years in a vain quest to prove the guilt of Clinton and former president Barack Obama. But what they lack in evidence, they have in chutzpah. "It looks like what they're going to focus on is just more investigations," incoming House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Monday of the Democrats. "I think America is too great of a nation to have such a small agenda."

If investigations are the mark of a "small agenda" unbefitting a "great nation," the Republican majority should have governed Liechtenstein.

On Dec. 7, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee hauled in former FBI director Comey to talk more about Hillary's emails. They plan to bring in former attorney general Loretta Lynch and bring back Comey for more private interviews about the same. This all follows scores of probes into the Benghazi attacks, Planned Parenthood (each merited a select committee), IRS targeting, Operation Fast and Furious, Clinton's emails, Solyndra, Obamacare and more. In the first three years of GOP control, the oversight chairman issued more subpoenas (96) than had been issued in the previous eight years.

And now, this coda: On Thursday, unable to get the administration's cooperation, the oversight committee brought in Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, whose investigations director was banned from Fox News after alleging the "Soros-occupied State Department" funded the migrant caravan. Later came Moynihan, who employs the man behind the false allegation in 2008 that a tape had Michelle Obama disparaging "whitey," and who in 2013 used doctored audio to declare John Kerry a rapist.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia, top Democrat on the subcommittee conducting the oversight hearing, asked why the panel, instead of examining what landed Michael Cohen a prison sentence or New York's fraud prosecution of the Trump Foundation, was "regifting" its frustrated anti-Clinton efforts. Even the Trump administration, he surmised, has decided "there's no there there."

The Republicans couldn't get their own witnesses to document the allegations they made against the Clintons. "I feel like you're using us for your own benefit," Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., told Moynihan.

"Excuse me, sir, you invited us," Moynihan interjected.

"But you didn't turn over the documents," Hice protested.

"Then disinvite us," Moynihan proposed.

Behind the Republicans on the dais, in a painting, a young Abraham Lincoln looked concerned.

Without new evidence or allegations, Republicans encouraged Fitton to speculate about the Clintons' guilt. (Q: "Mr. Fitton, would you say that's a quid pro quo?" A: "It certainly seems that way.")

"Quid pro quo: Had to look it up," announced Rep. Rod Blum, R-Iowa. "It's Latin for 'something for something.'" There was laughter in the gallery at the 63-year-old legislator's new discovery. But Blum did know this: "If it looks like a pig, if it sounds like a pig, and if it smells like a pig, it's probably a pig. And I think based on what I read today, something smells here."

Yes, it does. But a House cleaning is coming.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Who should decide what topics are off-limits?

By megan mcardle
Who should decide what topics are off-limits?



(For McArdle clients only)


Noah Carl, a young British social scientist, stands accused of peddling "racist pseudoscience." And as I discovered, even asking whether the accusation is true invites the same sort of unwelcome attention.

Hundreds of academics have signed an open letter about Carl's work, calling on his employers to publicly disassociate themselves from his research and investigate his appointment to a Cambridge University fellowship. The letter, released earlier this month, cited Carl's attendance at a much-criticized conference on intelligence in London, but it didn't go into detail about his research.

Carl's published papers address sensitive subjects such as Islamist terrorism and immigration. More provocatively still, he has argued in favor of researching race and IQ. But since the open letter didn't cite specifics, defenders of Carl's academic freedom could only guess at what had provoked it.

That is not, critics of the open letter said, how academia should work. Jonathan Haidt, a research psychologist at New York University, told me, "Academic norms are very clear, which is that you're supposed to rebut arguments; you don't use guilt-by-association."

I wrote to signatories asking for more-specific critiques. Many responded thoughtfully. But the sheer number forced me to send group emails, which turned lively when a member of the Cambridge English faculty promptly warned the others that Wikipedia placed me on the political right.

I protested that while the description was accurate, I was simply trying to understand their case. In a flurry of replies, she said that "It would be horrible to respond in good faith and then find out you were mugged," delved into a decade-old blog argument I'd had about Obamacare, and shared correspondence from someone else condemning the "racist banality" of my writing. Further protest from me was obviously useless; my political inclinations were proof enough of my ill intention.

Investigating links between race, IQ and genes has long been anathema; Carl's case suggests that it is now anathema even to ask whether those investigations should be forbidden. And I seemed to be proving that it is anathema to ask whether it should be anathema to ask ...

All somewhat ironic, considering that I already leaned toward believing that research into race and IQ should be off-limits. And that the defenders of Carl's academic freedom were the ones who had best made that case.

While some signatories provided detailed methodological criticism, research psychologist Lee Jussim argues that his critics are using excessively high standards that wouldn't apply if he had come to different conclusions. But I asked Jussim to respond to a deeper critique I've long been worried about, one concerning Carl's most controversial paper.

There's a history, I said, of scientists finding whatever they expect, from scientists insisting that humans had 48 chromosomes, even as their experiments kept showing 46, to the eugenics that fueled the Holocaust. One of Jussim's own papers shows that left-leaning social psychologists have long been inadvertently biasing their research toward answers the left finds congenial.

Given flawed scientists and imperfect scientific methods, and given the fraught history of Western racism, isn't the likelihood of getting it wrong just too high? And the potential cost of those particular errors simply too catastrophic to risk? All societies place some questions out of bounds because they're too toxic; we don't debate whether child molestation or spousal murder are acceptable.

Without hesitation, Jussim agreed. Carl wasn't endorsing a link between race and IQ, Jussim pointed out, just starting a discussion about whether we should study it. "If we had that discussion" he said, "I would personally advocate for a moratorium for all the reasons you just described."

"The question is not 'Should we have third rails in science?'" Haidt said. "That's a valid argument. But the question now is 'Should we randomly shoot anyone who gets within an unspecified distance of a third rail?'"

My own experience illustrates why the answer to that second question should be "no".

The Cambridge English professor wasn't the only one who seemed to assume my reflexive agreement with Carl, making reasoned argument fruitless. In fact, I've long suspected the impossibility of doing such research with what historian and signatory Daniel Cleary calls an adequate "duty of care." But I wasn't better persuaded by implicit accusations of bad faith. Instead my conviction was bolstered by people like Jussim and Cleary, who argued methods rather than character.

In fairness, however, I did emerge with two prior beliefs basically confirmed: first, that research into race and IQ should stay off limits, but, second, that those limits are better established by debate than denunciation.

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

The collapsing gun lobby

By e.j. dionne jr.
The collapsing gun lobby


(Advance for Monday, Dec. 17, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Dionne clients only)


WASHINGTON -- Sometimes, dramatic shifts in American politics go unnoticed. They are buried under other news or dismissed because they represent such a sharp break from long-standing assumptions and expectations.

So please open your mind to this: Taken together, the events of 2016 and the results of the 2018 election will be remembered as the beginning of the end of the gun lobby's power.

Supporters of reasonable gun regulation have been so cowed by National Rifle Association propaganda over the last quarter century that we are reluctant even to imagine such a thing. No matter how many innocents are slaughtered, no matter how many Americans organize, demonstrate and protest, we assume the NRA and its allies will eventually overpower us.

And let's concede up front that the vast overrepresentation of rural states in the U.S. Senate tilts the system, undemocratically, toward those who claim that government is powerless to take meaningful steps against mass killings. The fact that Wyoming and Idaho have as many Senate votes as New York and California underscores the challenges that remain.

Nonetheless, we are in a new and better world on guns, organizationally and electorally. This conclusion is compelled not by wishful thinking but by the evidence.

Investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election have the NRA in its sights. As Rosalind Helderman, Tom Hamburger and Michelle Ye Hee Lee reported in the Washington Post, the guilty plea entered into last week by Maria Butina, a Russian agent who courted NRA leaders, "has intensified questions about what the gun rights group knew of the Russian effort to shape U.S. policy, and whether it faces ongoing legal scrutiny."

One of the things we need to know more about: Why "NRA spending on the 2016 elections surged in every category." The bulk of this money went to supporting Donald Trump. As the Post journalists wrote, the key question -- which is being posed openly by Democrats but is no doubt of interest to prosecutors -- is "whether the group's spending spike was tied to its Russian connections."

The article also noted that in 2018, the NRA's political spending "plummeted." While the organization has denied wrongdoing in 2016, it is clearly in disarray and some suburban Republican candidates this year were fearful of cashing its checks.

But the NRA's troubles are only part of the story. What may matter more is that 2018's voters changed the political calculus on the gun issue.

Consider the history. Democratic terror over the NRA's power took hold in earnest after the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans picked up 54 seats and gained control of the House for the first time since the early 1950s. Many factors explained the outcome, including a backlash against then-President Bill Clinton, opposition to tax increases passed to balance the budget, and the failure of the administration's health plan.

But for many Democrats, it was politically convenient to focus the blame for their heavy losses in rural and southern districts on gun-control legislation enacted not long before the election. The gun lobby's claims to influence were enhanced when it helped George W. Bush move heavily rural states his way six years later.

In 2018, by contrast, the battleground districts where Democrats defeated Republicans were largely in suburbs where most voters are tired of politicians who capitulate to gun extremists. Democrats campaigned enthusiastically for sane regulation, and it helped them win.

Voters who told exit pollsters that they cast ballots on the basis of gun policy voted for Democrats overwhelmingly, 70 percent to 29 percent. The exit poll (conducted by Edison Research and reported by CNN) offered other evidence of which side was most energized by the issue. For example, among voters in households without guns, Democrats in House races prevailed by 72 percent to 26 percent. Those in households with guns voted Republican, but by a narrower margin, 61 percent to 36 percent.

There is much credit to go around for shifting the political terrain on guns. The activist students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School certainly deserve their share, as do established gun-control groups that stepped up their own engagement while also backing the Florida organizers and helping to link them to other young people around the country.

The 2018 elections should be as empowering for those who want to end our nation's shameful immobility in confronting mass shootings as the 1994 upheaval was for the gun lobby. There is much more work to do, but those who undertake it can know that they now have the wind at their backs.

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

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Good luck to the Fed

By robert j. samuelson
Good luck to the Fed


(Advance for Monday, Dec. 17, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Samuelson clients only)


WASHINGTON -- The nine-year economic recovery is dead. Long live the recovery.

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) -- the Federal Reserve's main policymaking body -- meets this week to decide whether or not to raise interest rates. No matter what it does, the decision is likely to be criticized.

Since late 2015, the Fed has increased short-term interest rates eight times from (effectively) zero to a range of 2 percent to 2.25 percent. The expectation is for another increase to 2.5 percent. The case for acting now, which seems supported by Fed chairman Jerome Powell, is to avert higher inflation and to discourage financial speculation, fueled by low interest rates.

Just recently, a new Fed study, called the "Financial Stability Report," warned that lenders have relaxed credit standards on more than $4 trillion of corporate debt. The report also found that prices of stocks, commercial real estate (say, office buildings) and farmland were high by historic measures. Prudence requires raising interest rates.

And yet, not everyone concurs. Some economists fear that higher rates might trigger an economic slowdown or a recession. Wild stock market swings feed their anxieties.

By this view, the Fed shouldn't press its luck. Inflation is near the Fed's target of 2 percent. At last reading, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was up 2.2 percent over the past year; the deflator of Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) was slightly lower, at 2.0 percent. There's ample time to react if inflation worsens.

Meanwhile, the recovery is a powerful jobs program. We shouldn't kill it. Remember: The unemployment rate among African-Americans, usually in double digits, is an historically low 5.9 percent. Interestingly, President Trump, who has been highly critical of Powell, is in this camp, along with some liberals.

Hanging over the debate is a technical -- but important -- argument over the so-called "yield curve."

The yield curve refers to the relationship between short-term and long-term interest rates: For example, between a three-month Treasury bill and a 10-year Treasury note. Normally, long-term interest rates are higher than short-term rates, because investors assume more risk by lending money for, say a decade rather than for three months. ("Yield" means interest rate or some other measure of return.)

But there's a well-known exception to the standard relationship. It's called an "inverted" yield curve, when short-term rates exceed long-term rates. This is not just a rare curiosity. As economists Michael Bauer and Thomas Mertens of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco point out in a series of papers, an inverted yield curve has proven to be an amazingly reliable predictor of a recession.

An inverted yield curve, they write, "has correctly signaled all nine recessions since 1955 and had only one false positive, in the mid-1960s, when [the inverted yield curve] was followed by an economic slowdown but not an official recession."

All this is now relevant, because interest rates are drifting toward an inverted yield curve. Since the early 1980s, the gap (called "spread") between three-month Treasuries and 10-year Treasuries has typically varied from 1 to 4 percentage points. Now the spread is much less than 1 percentage point, and if the Fed raises short-term rates, it might narrow further.

Just why inverted yield curves forecast recessions is unclear, Bauer and Mertens write. There are many theories.

Banks and other financial institutions make money by borrowing short at low interest rates and lending long at higher rates. An inverted yield curve frustrates this strategy. Another possibility: By raising short-term rates, the Fed may squeeze current borrowers while dampening long-term inflation. Long-term rates would then decline, because rates reflect expected inflation.

Whatever the causes, the outcomes don't follow a mechanical formula. Since the mid-1950s, the time spans between inverted yield curves and recessions have varied from six months to two years, report Bauer and Mertens.

The dilemma is plain.

The current job expansion is an important venture in social policy. People who were tossed out of the labor market are returning, along with many who were never in the market. This may have long-term benefits. If the Fed is too aggressive in fighting weak inflation and mild speculation, it might kill the recovery and sacrifice these gains.

On the other hand, the Fed could become too concerned with a recovery. Throughout history, the Fed has been prone to overstay episodes of easy money and loose credit. By the time this is obvious, the damage has already occurred. Inflation has accelerated; or speculation has become widespread. The economy then enters a long stretch of poor performance.

It's not obvious (to me, at least) which argument is stronger. So, good luck to the FOMC's members. They will need it.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

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