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The lasting testament of Jane Alexander

By Dan Zak
The lasting testament of Jane Alexander
Actress Jane Alexander, 81, is up for a Tony Award for her performance in

DOBBS FERRY, N.Y. - Last autumn, a pilot whale washed up on a cobblestone beach in Nova Scotia that happens to be Jane Alexander's yard. The carcass was seven feet long. It was a baby. No apparent cause of death. Skin like the finest Italian leather: dark black with a gray glow. Jane planned to document its decay and dismemberment, expecting the gulls to strip its blubber by day and the foxes to take its guts at night. But scavengers barely touched it. Eventually, a winter storm pushed the carcass up toward Jane's house, swaddling it in seaweed, so that its melon head poked out of the green-brown shroud. It was tender, beautiful, strange. While she was gone for two weeks, the dune grass grew so tall that the carcass was unfindable upon her return. Not even the dogs sniffed out its remains. It was gone.

"I haven't figured it out yet."

It's mid-September. Another autumn upon us. Jane has driven 15 hours from her coastal Canadian refuge to New York's Hudson Valley. She has a couple of matters to attend to, here in civilization. On Sunday, at age 81, Jane is up for a delayed Tony Award, her eighth career nomination - a tally that ties Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst and pushes her toward a Mount Rushmore of American actresses with one or two more: Julie Harris, Audra McDonald and Chita Rivera.

But first, lunch. Jane orders iced tea. Her hair is an ivory curtain, her mood content but searching. The Hudson River is a white ribbon of sunlight. The whale is still on her mind.

"I know it's important," she says.

Jane's husband died in 2017. The pandemic magnified her loneliness. As a wildlife advocate, she had journeyed to the thick heart of the Amazon and the grassy infinity of the Serengeti. Stuck at home, she would drag her kayak out to the water and wonder, as she paddled, what would happen if she just set off for the horizon. To stay connected to life, she had written her observations about the changing world in a daily log, as if her own life was a field visit. She noted the cycles of flora and fauna on her acres of bog and forest and beach, and human events like Kamala Harris becoming vice president.

And the whale. That rich, unscavenged heap - deposited by nature, disappeared without ceremony. Sign? Gift? Warning?

"It's a metaphor for something," she concludes, inconclusively.

Days before the pandemic froze the world, Jane finished what is probably her last appearance on Broadway, more than a half-century since her sensational debut in "The Great White Hope" opposite James Earl Jones. The new play was called "Grand Horizons," and Jane played a woman who wanted a fresh start after 50 years of marriage.

The Tony nomination is a capstone for Jane's career in the arts, which took off in 1965 at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and brought her back to the capital decades later to steer the National Endowment for the Arts through a series of political storms. In between was a run of film and TV that deserves to be ranked among those of her more famous peers, if only Jane were better at seeking the spotlight than redirecting it to the piping plovers of Nova Scotia or the orchid-eating tree kangaroos of Papua New Guinea - species she has fought to preserve during decades of wildlife advocacy. The 1970 film version of "The Great White Hope" brought her the first of four Academy Award nominations. It only took her two brief scenes to earn a second, for "All the President's Men."

"There's not anything I want to do anymore - except one thing," Jane says, smiling at her last career ambition. "I want to be known as the oldest actor ever to win an Academy Award. I said to my agent: Find me the role so that I can stand up there and say, 'Tony, I beat ya!'" (Her friend Anthony Hopkins took the mantle earlier this year, at age 83.)

Jane's days documenting human dramas onstage, however, may be ending. Doing another play would cut into birding, her beloved ritual, and distract her from her central mission: calling attention to the wonders of the Earth, and the threats against them.

"I know that this chapter of my life is devoted to biodiversity," Jane says, "and what it means for the health of us all."

And: "I want people to recognize that the old lady can somehow help."

- - -

A metaphor can help make life - and death - a little less disorienting. Jane Alexander is still figuring out the meaning of the whale. In the meantime, let's consider the meaning of Jane Alexander.

Her mother's people settled in Nova Scotia in 1751. Her paternal grandfather was Buffalo Bill Cody's doctor in Nebraska. Jane was delivered in Massachusetts in 1939 by obstetrician John Rock, co-inventor of the first birth-control pill. By fifth grade, she was a "nature girl" and "tomboy" playing Long John Silver in "Treasure Island" at school. She came to Washington at age 25 to be Joan of Arc at Arena Stage, her artistic home for the turbulent late '60s. She performed in "The Crucible" and "Macbeth" at night; by day she protested the Vietnam Warat the Pentagon. "The Great White Hope," about a Black boxer fighting a much larger battle outside the ring, blended her classical skills and political proclivities.

"Miss Alexander, as bright as a sparrow and with an almost spiritual beauty, makes a wonderful foil for Mr. Jones, a kind of frail and defiantly loving Desdemona to this 20th-century Othello," Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times when the play transferred from D.C. to Broadway.

She did Ibsen, Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. On-screen she played Calamity Jane, Queen Elizabeth II, Georgia O'Keeffe and two Roosevelts - Eleanor from ages 18 to 60 in a mid-'70s miniseries, then Sara in HBO's "Warm Springs" 30 years later.

Her spooked bookkeeper in "All the President's Men" barely uttered a word but cracked the plot wide open. Meryl Streep had the juicy scenes in "Kramer vs. Kramer" but Jane, as the mutual friend tethering a broken marriage, was the heart of the picture. Madeline Kahn got the big laughs in Wendy Wasserstein's play "The Sisters Rosensweig," but Jane was its backbone.

Her characters tended to be doers, not divas.

"She was not necessarily a dramatic personality," recalls Daniel Sullivan, who directed "The Sisters Rosensweig." "But she was someone so connected to the world, in a careful, forgiving and generous way. And we don't see that a lot anymore, on the stage or in life."

Her finest film is 1983's "Testament," in which Jane plays a housewife who cares for her small town as radioactive fallout drifts in from nuclear war. It is a grim story about an invisible enemy - newly resonant during the pandemic - and it ends not with salvation but with Jane lighting birthday candles in the face of certain death.

"What do we wish for, Mom?" her character's son asks, seeing the futility.

"That we remember it all," Jane says, exuding calm and dignity. "The good and the awful. The way we finally lived. That we never gave up."

"One of the most powerful movie scenes I've ever seen," Roger Ebert wrote.

"Testament" is a cautionary tale, partly born of Jane's activism for nuclear disarmament, but Jane's other choices clocked a changing world. "The Great White Hope" staged an interracial couple in bed, a shocking scene at the time; for that, she and Jones got hate mail and death threats. Twenty years before Ellen DeGeneres came out, Jane and Gena Rowlands played a lesbian couple fighting for custody of a child in the TV movie "A Question of Love." As that aired on ABC in the fall of 1978, Jane was on Broadway playing the first female justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, three years before the nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor - who in 1993 would swear in Jane as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, whose grants had midwifed "The Great White Hope" into existence. Republicans wanted to gut the NEA. Jane set out to protect it.

The NEA is funded through the appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior, which puts the arts on the same ledger as sage-grouse conservation and the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay - a curious bureaucratic pairing that Jane has imbued with elegant meaning: "The care of the land and the care of the soul are both intimate needs of the citizenry."

As chair, Jane visited all 50 states, pointing to seeds of art that germinated in communities because of public funding. She charmed Republican Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, fierce foes of the agency. She championed free speech in the name of artists who were smeared as obscene or degenerate, while schooling herself in the political jujitsu required to influence policy and funding.

"She had to do so much highly visible defensive work with Congress - and got such tepid support from the (Clinton) administration - that I think it's quite an accomplishment, her 3 1/2 years," says Bill Ivey, who succeeded her. "She did a very nice job of leading the agency through its toughest time."

"The reason the NEA exists as strong as it does is because of the work of Jane," says former senator Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. "This is a terrible thing to say about her, but: She would've been a great politician."

"She is the epitome of an artist-citizen," says Michael Kahn, former artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. "And that is, I think, the highest form of being in the world, if you're an artist."

- - -

These days, being in the world means being attuned to loss. Extinctions are accelerating; a million species are on the verge. The current budget for the NEA, meanwhile, is 4 percent smaller than when Jane assumed the chairmanship, while the U.S. population is 26 percent larger. A third of Americans believe in the fantasy that voter fraud delivered Joe Biden to the White House. The pandemic has revealed our interconnectedness but driven us further apart.

Conservation is something that communities do, and community is an endangered concept. Jane thinks there must be a connection between a loss of biodiversity and the fragmentation of society.

We have a land problem, and a soul problem.

"It's a scary moment, where the reality of the tough parts of climate change is playing out," says Susan Bell, chair of the National Audubon Society, whose board includes Jane. "It is a moment where we need calm and inspiring and smart voices saying, 'Everybody breathe, and here's what we need to do.' And Jane is one of those."

She advocates for indigenous stewardship of the boreal forest in Canada. She brings backstories of jaguars from the jungles of Belize and black-necked cranes from the valleys of the Himalayas. She counts birds for Audubon.

"All you have to do is protect the birds," she says, with the succinct intensity she brought to her dramatic roles, "and you begin to protect everything else."

Scientists prize her blend of expertise and empathy, her talent for speaking on behalf of wonders we cannot see, her service on multiple wildlife boards.

"She's incomparable," says Rob Shumaker, president and chief executive of the Indianapolis Zoo, which gives out a "wildlife ambassador" award named in Jane's honor. "She has this tremendous personal commitment and a durability to her efforts, which are largely unmatched. Very, very few other public personas have done this in the way Jane has."

The old lady can help, still. A lunch with her is a pep talk. This is the not the scariest time to be alive, she says. It is the most extraordinary time to be alive. Look at the infrastructure focus in an otherwise chaotic Congress, and how people are recognizing the connectivity between the environment, economics, race and justice. Yes, the world is in peril, but the world is always ending, in a way. The world of your childhood was never going to last; the world of your children will fall away, too. That is the way of life. New wonders replace old wonders. One problem is solved in time to tackle the next one.

We adapt. We age. We breathe. We remember. We do our best. We don't give up.

"I can help you not despair," Jane says at the end of lunch. There's an echo here of a character she played 41 years ago in the Holocaust movie "Playing for Time," about musicians trying to survive a concentration camp by maintaining a prisoners' orchestra.

"I must say, you probably saved us all, so I thank you from my heart," a fearful pianist played by Vanessa Redgrave tells her stoic conductor.

Says Jane, as the conductor, chin held high: "You can thank my refusal to despair."

It's a theme through her life, in worlds imaginary and real. A dead whale doesn't have to be a certain signal or abad omen. It can simplybe evidence of beauty, change and mystery.

Look for a metaphor, if you want. Or look for Jane Alexander, taking notes on small wonders - scenes from a larger work that involves, and implicates, all of us.

This weekend, in the span of 24 hours, she will attend the biennial prize gala of the Indianapolis Zoo, to present her namesake award and then the Tonys, in a fuchsia gown, with her 17-year-old grandson.

Care of the land, care of the soul. She may not be back on Broadway again, but it's not because she sees the end. It's because she sees a thousand other beginnings.

- - -

The Tony Awards will be broadcast in two parts Sunday night. From 7 to 9 p.m. EDT, the awards ceremony will be hosted live from Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre by Audra McDonald and streamed on Paramount Plus (paramountplus.com). Then, from 9 to 11 p.m., a two-hour show will follow on CBS and also stream on Paramount Plus: "The Tony Awards Present: Broadway's Back!" live from the Winter Garden and hosted by Leslie Odom Jr.

Hollywood's climate-change crusade has a whole new wave of energy - and hurdles

By Steven Zeitchik
Hollywood's climate-change crusade has a whole new wave of energy - and hurdles
A kangaroo roots through the charred ground for food as members of Humane Society International disaster response teams rescue koalas and kangaroos on Jan. 20, 2020, on Kangaroo Island, South Australia. The Australian bush fires are the subject of a new movie,

With its shattering footage of the 2019 and 2020 Australian wildfires, the upcoming documentary "Burning" would seem to hold plenty of appeal for people committed to the environment.

The movie makes an eye-opening case for government action to avoid more catastrophes. Its director, Eva Orner, is an Oscar winner. And the film was financed by Amazon, which aims to zap it to hundreds of millions of Prime members worldwide this fall.

But the movie apparently proved too polarizing for at least one prominent public figure: Cate Blanchett. An ostensibly blue-chip environmentalist who has backed carbon taxes, served as a conservation-foundation ambassador and this week was among the celebrity signees to a Natural Resources Defense Council letter to entertainment executives urging climate-change action, the Australian actress initially was announced as an executive producer on the film, lending it crucial star power.

But shortly after being shown a cut of the movie this summer, Blanchett asked that her name be removed from the project, which offers pointed criticism of Australia's center-right prime minister Scott Morrison, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to talk about it publicly. Blanchett's company is still listed in a producing role but her name is no longer in the credits. She also has not engaged in any publicity efforts for the upcoming release.

A Blanchett representative did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

The episode highlights the trickiness of the entertainment's industry's new battle against climate change. Hollywood is channeling plenty of fresh energy into the cause, with influential creators and companies going beyond charity-benefit gestures to tackle the issue directly in their work. The goal: Inject citizens with an urgency that can convert into political energy.

But a host of challenges - including anxiety about alienating right-wing voters and media, creative obstacles and fears of appearing overly wonky - are impeding the effort.

"I think a lot of what Hollywood is doing on climate change is very well-meaning," said Gavin Schmidt, senior advisor on climate at NASA who also co-founded the influential blog Real Climate. "But it's a challenge - a challenge to communicate the science in the right way, with the right characters, a challenge to take advantage of the millions of people watching. And I think there are a lot of reasons why they haven't risen to the challenge."

Relying on entertainment figures to shoulder the climate-change burden might seem like a large ask. Yet some of the greatest crises of the modern era were given social and political momentum by onscreen work, from the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War ("Dr. Strangelove") to the brutal impact of the AIDS epidemic ("Philadelphia").

Climate change lends itself especially well to these efforts: The issue came to the fore for many with the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," with the 2006 showcasing of Al Gore explaining the dangers of greenhouse gases becoming a surprise hit. At the time of its release, it was the third-highest grossing documentary ever, seen by nearly four million Americans in theaters and tens of millions more at home.

More important, it defined climate change as an issue people should factor into their consumer and voting choices.

Fifteen years later - with wildfires, hurricanes, extreme heat and flash floods having gripped large parts of the country - the push is on to repeat the feat. Getting consumers to understand the message via the entertainment they consume, these figures believe, can be effective in a way public-interest campaigns are not.

That was the motive behind Wednesday night's climate change push on late-night television, when seven rival shows included substantive segments about it. Trevor Noah talked about unexpected everyday consequences to climate change, James Corden sought guidance from Bill Gates and Jimmy Kimmel took to task a host of conservative politicians in an especially pointed episode.

Meanwhile, CBS recently announced that in October it would debut a primetime show, "The Activist." Hosted by Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Julianne Hough, and produced with concert promoter Live Nation and nonprofit Global Citizen, the show's idea was for six activists to "compete in missions, media stunts, digital campaigns and community events aimed at garnering the attention of the world's most powerful decision-makers" ahead of the G20 Summit in Rome in late October.

And in December Netflix will release "Don't Look Up," a black comedy from Adam McKay (he made the housing crisis accessible with "The Big Short") with Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio facing impending global disaster in a film that offers a backdoor warning about climate change.

Some of these efforts, however, have already hit snags.

Shortly after "The Activist" casting was announced, a wide range of pundits and advocates criticized the show for reducing activism to a game. "Dehumanizing," declared online activist Joey Ayoub, one of many such comments.

CBS and its partners quickly backtracked, announcing last week they would scrap the broadcast and re-edit existing footage for a documentary special sans the game-play. "The push for global change is not a competition," the program's producers said.

While the decision to overhaul the show was broadly applauded, it is less clear if it can draw the same audience without weekly reality drama.

Other genres pose their own hurdles. While comedy is seen as a promising tool, "the lack of a single clear villain can make that challenging," says Steve Bodow, the former head writer at "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" who organized Wednesday's effort. "That doesn't mean the issue lacks villains - or that we shouldn't try to find them," he added.

Bodow says he sees humor as a potentially even more effective method than other forms of Hollywood storytelling.

"There's a reason we still remember 'Dr. Strangelove' as a film that changed how the world thought of nuclear holocaust," the writer said, referring to the 1964 Stanley Kubrick Cold War satire. "Comedy can be the best way to penetrate our defenses."

Not that everyone wants to engage in the siege. Two late-night shows, HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" and "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver," opted out of Wednesday's efforts for reasons Bodow declined to explain.

"I'm extremely happy with so many partners we got," he said. "These are seven very different shows with their own identities that all agreed to come together."

The "Burning" filmmakers had to engage in their own finesse.

The movie mixes credentialed experts, devastating images and political accountability from the Australian "Black Summer." The calamity claimed 59 million acres, 2,779 homes and 234 lives; it also uprooted or killed millions of animals.

The film points a finger at Morrison's government for kowtowing to coal interests and not furthering a green agenda, leading to climate change that enabled the fires. The film also criticizes Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky News for blaming the fires on arsonists and downplaying climate change.

"Rupert Murdoch has a lot to answer for what he's done to the planet," Orner said in an interview. As for Australia's leader, she said, "We go after Scott Morrison pretty tough. But he's got a pretty diabolical record."

This summer, with Orner's cut of the film nearly done, Amazon executives made an 11th-hour ask for her to "even out" the political elements, showing bad actors not just in Morrison's center-right government but on the left too, according to a person familiar with the discussions who was not authorized to talk about them publicly.

Orner pushed back, noting that the Australian left's track record on climate change was much stronger. After some back-and-forth - and after the film was accepted to the Toronto International Film Festival - Amazon relented. It demanded few substantive changes and will be taking the film to other festivals and even, potentially, environmental summits.

But the early resistance is likely to reinforce critics' contention that as global gatekeepers modern video streamers can hold too much power - and even, in some cases, be influenced by political concerns and economic pressures.

Orner demurred when asked about political pressure from Amazon, saying she "has a very good relationship" with the company. An Amazon spokesman did not provide a comment for this story on whether the company pushed to tone down the film. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Distribution is just one challenge faced by entertainment firms intent.

"Most climate-change films fall into the didacticism-or-disaster trap," said environmental-culture expert and UCLA professor Ursula Heise, who teaches at the school's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and chairs its English department. She said viewers either feel lectured to, as in a documentary, or anesthetized, as in a big-budget action film like "The Day After Tomorrow."

"People are resistant to didacticism, and disaster is a spectacle - the genre is so established it puts a barrier between you and the consequences," she said. "You just get used to these images." She suggested it might be more effective to embed realities subtly, as the Hugh Jackman film "Reminiscence" did when it casually showed people in the future moving around Miami Beach in gondolas.

Even so, Heise said research indicates that in the immediate aftermath of viewing a film about climate change most viewers will say their beliefs have been affected. But that effect soon deteriorates, and within a few months has vanished completely.

Those behind the films say they wrestle with these realities.

"Films about climate change are tricky for audiences because it's a tough world, and people want escapism," Orner said. "You have to guide people through stories with characters, not bash them over the head telling them what to do."

These messages could also trigger polemics from the right. Fox News late-night host Greg Gutfeld offered a long monologue ahead of Wednesday's effort railing against it, calling the seven participating hosts "sad sacks of pandering s***" and saying "their lockstep is more synchronized than a parade of North Korean soldiers."

Climate change, he added, is "a hyped issue that demands change, compliance and attention from the peasants - yet the so-called 'results' are so long term it ensures none of these people pushing it will have to be held accountable for their hypocrisies and lies."

Bodow scoffs at these types of critiques. "It's always funny as a TV producer when you talk about climate change," he said before the Gutfeld segment aired. "Some people will say, 'Why do you have an agenda?' 'Why are you politicizing television?' And it's like, I wasn't the one who politicized this."

Some experts pose a different question as Hollywood makes a foray into climate change.

They note such stats as a recent Media Matters study that found that in the 48 hours after the deadly Pacific Northwest heat wave this summer cable-news outlets mentioned climate change in only 17 percent of stories.

"I think it's fair to ask," said NASA's Schmidt, "why we're seeing late-night take the lead on this while news really isn't?"

Terence Blanchard's music is the sound of Spike Lee's movies. Now it's also making history at the Metropolitan Opera.

By Michael Andor Brodeur
Terence Blanchard's music is the sound of Spike Lee's movies. Now it's also making history at the Metropolitan Opera.

This time last year, Terence Blanchard - the multiple Grammy-winning and Oscar-nominated composer, bandleader, jazz trumpeter and longtime collaborator of Spike Lee - was a walking whirlwind of mixed emotions.

On the day I rang him in late September 2020, the covid-19 toll hit the then-unthinkable milestone of 200,000 deaths, one of the officers involved in the shooting of Breonna Taylor was indicted on charges of "wanton endangerment," and a new vacancy on the Supreme Court was further twisting the dynamics of American politics after the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

"I stopped watching the news, dude," he told me. "I just stopped." The coronavirus had taken friends, colleagues and most recently a former teacher of his. And the daily influx of bleak headlines wasn't helping. "2020 sucks," he said on the phone from his home in New Orleans. "I can't wait to get through this."

The only good news came tucked into - why not? - more bad news.

To virtually nobody's surprise, given the trajectory of things at the time, that day the Metropolitan Opera announced the cancellation of its entire 2020-2021 season, citing soaring case numbers and more than $150 million in lost revenue. But if one could squint hard enough to make out the distant edge of this cloud, its lining was silvery. The Met's intended comeback 2021-2022 season - presuming the emergence of a vaccine and a population eager to embrace such a thing - would open on a historic note: with Blanchard's opera, "Fire Shut Up in My Bones," the first production by a Black composer in the Met's 138-year history.

An adaptation of the powerful 2014 memoir by New York Times columnist Charles Blow - with a libretto by "Harriet" and "Eve's Bayou" writer-director Kasi Lemmons - "Fire" tells Blow's story of growing up impoverished in the rural South, a life made more difficult when an older cousin molests him at the age of 7. The show radiates outward from this flash point of trauma, skillfully combining the high spectacle and drama of opera with the wrenchingly personal experience of abuse. Its evocative exploration of grief, trauma, masculinity and sexuality are counterbalanced by buoyant celebrations of Black culture, family and healing. It's an opera primed to meet its moment - but when would that come?

"By the fall of '21, we hope to be in a position where we could just use this as a celebration of coming together more than anything," he told me last September, cautiously hopeful that small signs of progress might lead to enduring change, and wary of even his own inclinations to get "back to normal."

"It's a sea change moment. My only hope is that it lasts. I don't want it to be a moment in time where we all wake up and once we find a vaccine and everyone goes back to life normal, things go back to how they were before. I would hate that," he said. "That would make all of this feel like a huge waste of time."

Cue 2021.

For a month now, Blanchard has been lost in rehearsals, preparations and the crimson embrace of the Metropolitan Opera House - its undulating lobby, those "you're actually here" chandeliers, its soaring proscenium. And more and more, the significance of "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" actually premiering on Sept. 27 for eight performances is sinking in.

"It's a bit overwhelming," he tells me from New York in late August. "Once you get into the rehearsal phase, you start to see how big this production really is. You start to see how dedicated all of the participants are. It's pretty amazing to see this entire cast take ownership of this piece. You know, it's like I originally wrote it, but it doesn't belong to me anymore. So that means a lot."

But perhaps even more than the sophisticated sets (a massive square structure that rotates through lives as a home, a church, a tavern, a country road and the depths of Blow's psyche) and the powerful potential of the Met Orchestra (into which the composer has incorporated a jazz ensemble), Blanchard is inspired by the cast of nearly 80 performers, and what each of them brings to the stage.

"The most important thing about it for me is that these singers are allowed to bring a part of their culture to the opera world that the opera world has always told them to shut off when singing in German or French or Italian," Blanchard says. "And everybody in the production is very cognizant of how William Grant Still and others should have had their music performed at the Met, and we're not taking any of that lightly. We're standing on some very strong shoulders and trying to make sure there's not a weak link in the chain of this production."

The production brings together director James Robinson and Camille Brown as co-directors. Brown, who also choreographed some of the opera's most entrancing passages, previously collaborated with Robinson when she choreographed his 2019 production of "Porgy and Bess," which returns to the Met in late October. With this latest credit she makes some additional "Fire" history as the first Black director to create a main stage production at the Met.

(In 2022, Brown will make her directorial debut on Broadway as director and choreographer for a revival of Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.")

Baritone Will Liverman - the 2020 recipient of the Marian Anderson Vocal Award at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C - sings the role of Charles, first played at the St. Louis premiere by bass-baritone Davóne Tines. But the role of Charles is twofold, as the young talent Walter Russell III takes on the role of Char'es-Baby - Blow's childhood self, with whom Liverman sometime sings in unison as the narrative sweeps us through his memories.

Soprano Angel Blue takes a triple turn in her triad of roles as Destiny/Loneliness/Greta - visitations that open key parts of Charles's inner turmoil; and soprano Latonia Moore plays Blow's resilient mother Billie. Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin will conduct.

Blow, whose "The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto," was published earlier this year, echoed Blanchard, expressing a similar sense of separation from his own work as "Fire" takes new forms and traverses genres.

"I view it as a new piece of art that was inspired by what I did, not necessarily an extension of it," he says by phone. "I don't know how much pride the person who designed the Campbell's soup can could take in the art of Andy Warhol, but it's an inspiration. And you're honored to be an inspiration, but it's new. And that's very interesting - and humbling."

Blow has a close relationship to music, if not opera. He'd never been to one before Blanchard and Robinson approached him about "Fire" - Blanchard learned of the book from his wife and grew quickly fascinated with its operatic potential after reading it.

Part of the appeal of the story to Blanchard was that its subject was a living, breathing person, and Lemmons's lithe handling of heavy material - he describes her libretto as "rhythmic and romantic and poignant and powerful" - captures this vitality in spare poetry.

At a recent dress rehearsal, the music scaled back to a minimal ensemble and the singers tracing their way through the work, the words hang in the air and flash on the backs of the seats - it's as though the heavy burden of pain related by the memoir has been liberated into poetry, the melodies of Blow's prose finding their way into Blanchard's orchestra through some kind of magic.

While writing the memoir, Blow borrowed a trick from James Baldwin, who finished his first novel in Switzerland listening to a Bessie Smith record he brought from home that helped to unlock his earliest memories. In the back of Blow's mind, the book already had a soundtrack of pop hits in from the background of his youth in Gibsland, La.

"Fire Shut Up in My Bones" had its world premiere in 2019 at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and is the second of Blanchard's operatic works. The first, 2013′s "Champion," a co-commission from OTSL and Jazz St. Louis with a libretto by the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning actor and playwright Michael Cristofer, told the life story of the welterweight boxer Emile Griffith. (Washington National Opera staged its own production at the Kennedy Center in 2017.)

Blow watched and was astonished by the sweeping transformation of his story into a visual, physical and musical experience. He says Lemmons told him: "In opera, everything can sing."

"It was beautiful and fascinating," he says. "If I had to do my life in music, what would it sound like? This is what it sounds like. It was incredible to witness." Blanchard, too, was born and raised in Louisiana, and Blow could hear it in his music for Lee's films. "He doesn't know intellectually where I'm from, he knows where I'm from. And he understands all the subtleties and musicality of the region - not only jazz, but hill country blues and folk, spiritual music, chanting from the fraternal groups, Cajun and zydeco. He understands how to make it all cohesive. Because, to us, it is all just music."

Immediately following the premiere (Blanchard would not allow him to attend rehearsals), the composer approached the author. "I walked over to him nervously and asked, 'Are we OK?'" Blanchard recalls. "And he said, 'Yeah. Watching that reminded me that I'm not that person anymore.'"

"It's funny. I keep saying 'the opera world' like it's a distant thing," Blanchard said on our call last year. "I have to get used to saying 'we,' because I've been a part of it for a number of years now. It's taken a minute to get used to it."

While the "opera world" may feel distant, opera has always been close to Blanchard's heart, and ears. His father, Oliver Joseph Blanchard, was an amateur baritone with a penchant for the great Romantic operas and RCA Victor albums (that were not to be touched by anybody but him), and for sitting at the house piano in New Orleans to sing them - much to the chagrin of young Terence.

"When he would come home sometimes, he'd be in the mood to listen to opera; he'd put that stuff on, man, and you'd just hear doors slamming in the house, people trying to find some peace and quiet."

The only child, Blanchard eventually, perhaps unwittingly, overcame his embarrassment, watching PBS broadcasts with his father, absorbing melodies and structures and the way, say, Puccini turned music and narrative into one texture.

When he started playing piano at age 5 and moved on to trumpet by age 8 (meeting a young Branford Marsalis at summer camp and launching a decades-spanning collaborative relationship), he felt his childhood path diverging from his friends on the football field to his instructors in the rehearsal room. He wasn't just laying his musical groundwork for an ascendant career with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and the Jazz Messengers, he was also laying the emotional foundation that would make Blow's story resonate decades later.

"I don't know what it's like to be molested by a family member," Blanchard says. "But I do know what the isolation of being different is like. And here's the thing about it: It's not just being different, it's having the fortitude not to let the norm change you. And that's what makes Charles's story so powerful. How many people just succumb to what the norms are just because they want to fit in?"

Now 59, Blanchard splits his time between New Orleans and Los Angeles, where he holds the Kenny Burrell Chair in Jazz Studies at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. A decorated jazz trumpeter, bandleader and composer, he has penned the scores for more than 40 feature films - including 17 of Lee's films, earning Oscar nominations for 2018′s "BlacKkKlansman" as well as 2020′s "Da 5 Bloods." He's also scored five Grammys for his own recordings.

After "Champion" was performed in New Orleans (in 2018), the esteemed bass-baritone Arthur Woodley, who sang the role of Old Emile in the production, embraced Blanchard and assured him that the show would have made his father proud. Just as emotional were the words of a total stranger.

"There was a guy who came," Blanchard says, "an African American man, an older man in his 70s, and he told me, 'Man, if this is opera, I would come.' I think when we start to see that there are other stories to be told out there from other points of view, we can really broaden the audience for opera."

To this end, earlier this month, the Met announced it would augment its 3,800 seats by not only continuing its newish tradition of presenting a live opening-night simulcast on multiple screens in Times Square - where 2,000 first-come, first-served seats will be available - but adding another simulcast at Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park for an additional 1,700 viewers. Blanchard and Lemmons will lead an in-person discussion there before the performance.

"I hope that what 'Fire' does is open up the minds of not only the audiences but the presenters as well," he says, "that there are a number of stories out there to be told."

- - -

"Fire Shut Up in My Bones" opens Sept. 27 and runs Oct. 1, 4, 8, 13, 16, 19 and 23 at the Metropolitan Opera, 30 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York City. Tickets at metopera.org.

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'Biden's spending plan is dead' and other misconceptions

By e.j. dionne jr.
'Biden's spending plan is dead' and other misconceptions

E.J. DIONNE COLUMN

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By E.J. Dionne Jr.

WASHINGTON -- Perhaps President Joe Biden's ambitious domestic program will suffer death by a thousand misconceptions. But as soon as you look at it that way, you'll see why congressional Democrats are more likely to embrace the large measure of social reform they promised in last year's election.

This is because the single largest misconception is that Democrats have a political death wish. Such gloom, encouraged by the torrent of threats and counterthreats now emanating from the party's various factions, confuses the inevitable struggles within a highly diverse political coalition for a party-wide blindness to costs of failure.

"If we were in Europe, we'd be 30 different political parties," Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., told me, with just a touch of exaggeration. But McGovern, who chairs the Rules Committee, believes his colleagues understand the bottom-line truth: "If we can't deliver on this, God help us in the next election."

Still, the ugly process and the relentless focus on the bill's current $3.5 trillion price tag are taking a toll and feeding other misunderstandings. Only rarely is it pointed out that this is spent out over 10 years and thus amounts to just 1.2 percent of the economy. Worse, the focus on a single abstract total means little attention to what the Build Back Better initiatives would actually do - for children, families, education, health care, housing and climate.

"When Democrats allow a debate to be only about a number," Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., a leading moderate, said in an interview, "it's like talking about a Christmas party and only discussing the hangover."

Substantively, added Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., starting the discussion this way gets things exactly backward. "We should work from what policies we want to enact," he said, "rather than an arbitrary number."

Yes, as Van Hollen recognizes, Democrats will eventually have to agree on an overall spending level to work out what fits. Still, the question of what would constitute an acceptable outcome cannot be divorced from deciding which projects would have to be scaled back under a lower figure - or thrown over the side altogether.

Thus, Biden has been pressing Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and other more conservative Democrats to be specific about what they do and don't want in a final package.

At his news conference on Friday, Biden said this was a central theme in his meetings with congressional Democrats this past week. "Forget a number," Biden told them. "What do you think we should be doing?" He added that when some of his interlocutors listed all their priorities, they discovered that "it adds up to a number higher than they said they were for."

And no, the entire cost will not just be thrown onto the national debt. A frustrated Biden pointed out that if all the revenue increases he has proposed were enacted, "it is zero price tag on the debt."

Here's one more misconception: the idea that all middle-of-the-road Democrats are of the same mind. In fact, most House Democrats, including many moderates, agree with the original goal of passing the Senate's bipartisan physical infrastructure bill in tandem with the larger Build Back Better bill.

There will be much teeth-gnashing over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's pledge of a vote on the Senate bill by Monday. It's an artificial deadline, and there is no way a full agreement on the rest of Biden's plan can be reached in time to meet it.

Meanwhile, it's foolish to imagine that more progressive House Democrats will give up their only leverage, which is to hold back their votes for the smaller bill until they know Senate Democrats are fully onboard with the broader one.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, noted in an interview that the bigger bill still under negotiation includes "the majority of the president's agenda and what we ran on in 2020."

"We were promised the two would move together, and we're just enforcing the agreement we made," Jayapal said. Which happens to be true. It may ultimately fall to Biden to persuade the House Democrats eager for a quick vote on the bipartisan bill to show some short-term patience in the interest of longer-term success.

In my ideal world, we would spend more than $3.5 trillion, given how much needs to be done to give low- and middle-income Americans what Biden called "a little breathing room."

But in the world as it exists, compromise is likely to require something smaller. That's OK. What would not be OK: for Democrats to walk away from the best opportunity they have had in at least two generations to repair and reconstruct our nation's social contract. Despite all their grousing, I think they know that.

- - -

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

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The Mississippi bait and switch on abortion

By ruth marcus
The Mississippi bait and switch on abortion

RUTH MARCUS COLUMN

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By Ruth Marcus

WASHINGTON -- In June 2020, when lawyers for Mississippi asked the Supreme Court to hear a case involving the state's 15-week abortion ban, they took care to assure the justices that this wasn't the big one, the case that would call on the court to overrule Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion.

"To be clear, the questions presented in this petition do not require the Court to overturn Roe or Casey," their petition for review said, referring to the 1992 decision in which a closely divided court declined to do away with Roe.

The only reference to such a dramatic step came in an obliquely worded footnote: "If the court determines that it cannot reconcile Roe and Casey with other precedents or scientific advancements showing a compelling state interest in fetal life far earlier in pregnancy than those cases contemplate, the Court should not retain erroneous precedent."

The justices let Mississippi's request languish for nearly a year before agreeing to hear the case - limited, the court said, to a single question: "Whether all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional."

But when Mississippi filed its full brief with the court this summer, the gloves came off - not coincidentally, perhaps, because in the intervening months, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died and been replaced by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, an avowed critic of the court's abortion jurisprudence.

"Roe and Casey are egregiously wrong," the state argued. "Overruling Roe and Casey makes resolution of this case straightforward." From a mere footnote, the case for overruling Roe mushroomed into the vast majority of the brief.

The justices, who this week set Dec. 1 for oral argument in the case, get to decide what they will decide, so it's possible they'll be put off by Mississippi's bait and switch and avoid tackling that question. That's what the Biden administration urged in the brief it filed last week, in the case Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization.

Mississippi has "now dramatically changed course, devoting their merits brief to a frontal assault on Roe and the fifty years of precedent reaffirming its central holding. The Court has previously declined to indulge such tactics," it argued. "It may wish to do the same here - particularly given the gravity of the issue petitioners have belatedly injected into this case. But if the Court considers that issue, it should once again reaffirm Roe's central holding that the Constitution protects a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy before viability."

Will the court hold back? Maybe. It's clear that none of the six conservative justices believes that the Constitution protects a right to abortion, but that's different from saying a majority is willing to say flatly that Roe is overruled.

One sign: In 2020, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. voted with the court's liberals (who then numbered four) to invalidate a Louisiana abortion law that was effectively identical to a Texas law the court had struck down four years earlier - over Roberts' dissent. That suggests the chief justice, at least, is not eager to take the plunge.

But Roberts' relevance has been diminished; he now has five conservative colleagues, who may not share his reticence. And an ominous sign in the opposite direction: The court chose to review the Mississippi case despite the fact that it satisfied none of the usual criteria for review - no circuit splits, conflict with precedent or unsettled question of law.

My best guess is that the court won't accept Mississippi's invitation - but also that supporters of abortion rights shouldn't take too much solace in this facade of restraint. The constitutional right to abortion is hangs by a fraying thread. The question the justices have already agreed to decide may sound less threatening than overruling Roe - in practice, it threatens to amount to the same thing.

The many abortion cases that have come to the court since 1973 have involved restrictions on abortion - rules such as mandatory sonograms and waiting periods, or bans on certain abortion methods; the test was always whether those restrictions impose an "undue burden" on abortion access. But the court has never approved a flat prohibition on abortion before the fetus is viable, about 24 weeks into pregnancy.

If Mississippi's prohibition on abortion after 15 weeks is allowed to stand, what stops a state from outlawing abortion at 12 weeks, or 10, or - as Mississippi has already tried to do - six? This would, the Biden administration points out, "invite perpetual give-it-a-try legislation."

As the abortion clinic challenging the law asks in its brief, "Stripped of the viability line, how would federal courts evaluate these arguments on a case-by-case basis? What state interests would count as compelling or otherwise sufficiently strong to categorically outweigh the individual liberty interest at stake?"

This slope isn't just slippery, it would be perilous - for women, certainly, but also for the courts as they try to stake out a toehold on this treacherous terrain. There is not much hope, given the makeup of this court, of invalidating the Mississippi law. The looming choice is between two forms of disaster, immediate and slow-motion.

- - -

Ruth Marcus' email address is ruthmarcus@washpost.com.

To contain China, joining the Pacific trade pact might be more effective than new submarines

By fareed zakaria
To contain China, joining the Pacific trade pact might be more effective than new submarines

FAREED ZAKARIA COLUMN

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By Fareed Zakaria

On Sept. 15, the United States and Britain announced that they were signing an agreement with Australia to share technology for nuclear-powered submarines as part of a new "enhanced trilateral security partnership" to be known as AUKUS. This event was treated as big news around the world -- and rightly so. It is a sign that the fulcrum of geopolitics has moved east and that Asia will be at the center of international affairs for decades to come.

The day after that announcement, however, came another that received relatively little coverage. China formally applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the successor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade pact negotiated and promoted by the Obama administration in large part to counter China's growing economic dominance in Asia. (President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement three days after entering the White House.) Taken together, the two announcements show the complexity of the China challenge.

In the wake of Washington's withdrawal from Afghanistan, many have commented on the United States' short-term thinking, its mercurial foreign policy and its lack of staying power. But the AUKUS deal illustrates that, on the big issues, the opposite is true. For 15 years now, the United States has been gradually pivoting away from Europe and the Middle East and toward Asia.

During the Cold War, Europe was the central arena in which geopolitical competition took place. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States began shifting its gaze east. Despite the post-Cold War demobilization, Bill Clinton pledged to keep 100,000 troops in the Far East. Then came 9/11, which forced the United States to focus on the Middle East. But it kept one eye on Asia. President George W. Bush broke with decades of policy and "normalized" India's nuclear program, largely to gain an ally to deter China. President Barack Obama came into office consciously articulating a pivot to Asia. The day after he announced the stationing of 2,500 U.S. troops in Australia, he declared, "The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay."

Trump's own strategy toward China involved the usual personalized circus, zigzagging between slavish admiration for Chinese President Xi Jinping and attacks on the country over trade deficits and, later, for the coronavirus. But his administration followed and deepened the pivot strategy, withdrawing more troops from the Middle East and turning attention to the Pacific. It strengthened "the Quad" -- a loose and mostly ineffective security dialogue among the United States, Australia, Japan and India -- expanding military cooperation among the four nations, with an implicit goal of deterring China.

The crucial accelerator of the pivot to Asia has been China. Beijing's belligerent foreign policy -- a break from previous decades -- has unnerved most of its neighbors. India was long the most reluctant member of the Quad, wary of alienating its huge neighbor to the north and in getting involved in a U.S. strategy to counter Beijing. But New Delhi dramatically changed its approach, especially after bloody skirmishes on the Indochinese border that gained Beijing nothing more than some frozen wasteland in the Himalayas.

Today, India readily engages in joint military exercises with the Quad and has banned Chinese involvement in various aspects of the Indian economy. Similarly, China's imperious 14 grievances issued to Australia last year played a crucial role in pushing Canberra to search for a more robust deterrent against Beijing -- and thus to ask the United States for nuclear-powered submarines.

And that brings me to China's bid to join the CPTPP. Could it be a return to an older, more strategic Chinese approach that asserts Beijing's influence using economic, technological and cultural means? Xi does not seem like a man who acknowledges error -- but could it be that he is quietly attempting a course correction after seeing the disastrous results of his "wolf warrior" diplomacy? Could China actually join the CPTPP? It's unlikely, since in key areas it remains a "nonmarket economy," which is incompatible with the group's requirements. But were it somehow to manage that process, it would be a remarkable move of jiu-jitsu. A trade and investment pact designed to combat Chinese influence would end up becoming one more platform in which China's weight was paramount.

The submarine deal is a big and smart strategic move. It plays to U.S. strengths, which are military and political. But what if the China challenge is fundamentally economic and technological? For the United States, rejoining CPTPP is politically difficult, but it might be strategically more important than about eight Australian submarines that may not begin to be deployed until 19 years from now.

Don't take my word for it. Ash Carter, Obama's defense secretary, said in 2015 that the United States joining the TPP was as important as deploying another (nuclear-powered) aircraft carrier in Asia. Kurt Campbell, now the top White House policymaker on Asia, went further that same year. "If we did everything right in Asia . . . and not get TPP, we can't get a passing grade," he said. "We can do everything wrong . . . and get TPP, and we have a B." What if he was right?

- - -

Fareed Zakaria's email address is fareed.zakaria.gps@turner.com.

In the long run, slow and steady stock-buying easily beats trying to time market dips, experts say

By michelle singletary
In the long run, slow and steady stock-buying easily beats trying to time market dips, experts say

MICHELLE SINGLETARY COLUMN

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By Michelle Singletary

WASHINGTON - Some investors clutch their hearts when the stock market dives. Others see an opportunity to dive in and "buy the dip."

As indexes such as the Dow and S&P 500 took a sharp drop recently, people started tweeting #BuyTheDip. The S&P fell 1.7% Monday, its worst day in two months, noted Callie Cox, senior investment strategist with Ally Invest.

You may be wondering what it means to "buy the dip."

Investopedia, my go-to site for good investor information, explains the investment strategy this way: " 'Buy the dips' means purchasing an asset after it has dropped in price. The belief here is that the new lower price represents a bargain as the 'dip' is only a short-term blip and the asset, with time, is likely to bounce back and increase in value."

To put it another way, for those of you who were born to bargain-shop, this means stuff is on sale.

Market dips in 2020, courtesy of a global pandemic that made stocks cheaper to buy, have resulted in a spike in first-time investors, according to a report earlier this year by the Finra Investor Education Foundation and NORC at the University of Chicago.

During 2020, there was a surge in retail investors who opened taxable, non-retirement investment accounts via online brokers. These new investors were younger, had lower incomes and were more racially diverse, the report found.

One reason new investors opened accounts was that dips in the market made stocks cheaper to buy.

Dan Egan, director of behavioral finance and investing at the online investment firm Betterment, said he understands why people gravitate to a "buy the dip" strategy. Psychologically, it can get people off the investing sidelines.

"It does give you this sense of confidence of, 'Well, at least I didn't buy at the top,'" Egan said. "It's a way of minimizing regret and feeling comfortable with getting invested at a specific point in time."

The stock market can be scary, and buying when stocks are down, from a behavioral point of view, can help people get invested and benefit from growth in the market, Egan said.

But Egan and Cox warn about being overly confident about this strategy.

"When the stock market is going through a sell-off, you may not be able to buy the dip, because of your emotions," Cox said. "Buy the dip is one of those things that works really well on paper, but it doesn't work well in real life. It's something that I personally struggle with because, as an investor, I want to buy the dip, but I'm human, and sometimes I don't feel good when the market's going down. Buy the dip is market timing."

Buying on dips doesn't necessarily guarantee better returns, they said. While you wait for a downturn, you could be missing out on significant upturns in the stock market.

"The issue with buying the dip as a strategy is that you can end up sitting out of the market for those long periods of time when it rallies," Egan said.

It's also impossible to know when the market will dip to its lowest point during a particular period, leaving many people waiting for the right time to buy. You could be waiting a long time.

Then there's the question of how low is low enough?

"Obviously, if you buy at a 1 percent dip, that's not going to be dramatically different than just buying whenever you put the money in, because 1 percent dips happen pretty frequently," Egan said. "At the far opposite end, there is this 'buy if the market drops 50 percent from all-time highs.' You're going to very rarely invest if that's the case, because the market doesn't drop that dramatically that often."

So, what if your strategy is to buy when the market is down 5 percent or 10 percent?

Cox points out that the S&P hasn't gone through a pullback of 5 percent or more from 52-week highs since October 2020, the third-longest streak since 2005.

"So if you wanted to invest late last year but wanted to wait for a 5 percent-plus dip, you've missed out on a 30 percent rally since the beginning of November 2020," she said.

In a recent market report, Cox advocated for dollar-cost averaging. This is a strategy in which you automate the process by investing the same amount of money on a regular basis regardless of the stock price.

"The world tends to frame investing as an all-or-nothing pursuit," Cox writes. "You're either all in and bullish, or on the sidelines with no skin in the game. But in reality, many people tend to gradually put their money in the market based on the calendar, instead of trying to guess the next top or bottom. That's a strategy called dollar cost averaging, and it rewards consistency over timing."

Besides, using dollar-cost averaging, you'll eventually be buying during dips.

"Dollar-cost averaging works really well because, if you're investing a fixed amount of money at different times, you naturally buy fewer shares when the share price is high and then more shares when the share price is low, so you get a little more exposure to those dips when they happen," Cox said.

I like Charles Schwab's caution about market timing, "Our research shows that the cost of waiting for the perfect moment to invest typically exceeds the benefit of even perfect timing."

In other words, don't let your efforts to beat the market lead you to sit out too long.

- - -

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

How a humble metal box began the most beneficial economic development in human experience

By george f. will
How a humble metal box began the most beneficial economic development in human experience

GEORGE F. WILL COLUMN

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By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Gene Seroka, a lifelong Democrat and the son of a Teamsters Union member, was not amused when in 2016 a reactionary presidential aspirant used the Port of Los Angeles, of which Seroka is director, as a venue for a speech declaring: "Free trade ships our jobs overseas." Seroka lives in bustling reality -- trade volume at his port has grown tenfold since 1985 -- not Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) fact-free nostalgia for a time before ocean-borne trade transformed the world.

"The Blue Age" -- the oceans are "blue water" -- is Gregg Easterbrook's account of this transformation. He notes that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach generate 1.4 million of California's 18 million jobs, about $400 billion in economic activity, and fees that fund much of these cities' municipal governments.

The Port of Los Angeles, this nation's largest, ranks only 18th globally, although traffic through it measured in TEUs (20-foot equivalent units) has grown from 900,000 in 1994 to 9.4 million in 2018. Although a freeway was built for the truck traffic in and out of the port, transporting a TEU across Los Angeles from the port costs more than it does to bring a TEU from Shanghai to the port. Los Angeles port crane operators who move containers earn up to $300,000 a year, a fact that might offend Sanders, tribune of the proletariat and scourge of the rich.

As of last Sunday, the world's problem with supply chains was apparent as a record 73 ships waited offshore for spaces to unload hundreds of thousands of containers in Seroka's port. Sanders must be aghast: Americans are getting what they want.

Weight has always moved more easily on water than on land, and much more cheaply than through air. "At every stage in history," Easterbrook says, 95% of goods in commerce travel via water. He says the explosive growth of waterborne international trade has coincided with increased jobs and living standards "in nearly every nation."

He notes that when Sanders was a child, 60% of humanity lived in extreme poverty, defined by the World Bank as subsisting on $1.90 per day. Today, thanks largely to waterborne free trade that Sanders calls "a race to the bottom," about 10% live in extreme poverty.

This decline in extreme poverty, to which Sanders seems either oblivious or indifferent, has happened primarily in Asia. An Oxford economist calculates that in this century, 130,000 Chinese had been lifted up from such poverty every day. But trade has brought to the West inexpensive imports and competition -- improved domestic products -- that have helped produce about 20 years with negligible inflation. This has directly and primarily benefited American workers, the objects of Sanders's rhetorical caring.

All this has been made possible by a world-altering 1956 technology that few people, accustomed to digital marvels, count as a technology: large rectangular steel boxes -- shipping containers. Meet the well-named ship Ever Loading: It is as long as four football fields, its crew of just 23 ride bicycles around its deck, and it carries 8,000 containers.

In the 100 years from 1920 to 2020, Easterbrook says, "global population trebled, while global GDP rose twentyfold." The inflation-adjusted dollar value of global trade more than doubled in the quarter-century from 1994 to 2019. Since the World Trade Organization was founded in 1995, Easterbrook writes, "the United States has consistently led the West in job creation." Today, the United States has 11% of the global trade market. China, with four times the U.S. population, has 13%.

Although teaching economics to Sanders is akin to tutoring a typhoon, Easterbrook notes that U.S. manufacturing employment, which peaked in 1979, had fallen by 5 million before Chinese imports became significant in 2001. And, "Research conducted by economists at Ball State University in Indiana and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology" shows this net impact of trade with China: "The United States lost about 1.5 million manufacturing jobs -- hardly inconsequential, but well less than the minus 5 million manufacturing employment that happened entirely for American domestic reasons." These reasons include technology-driven productivity improvements and the rise of the knowledge economy.

Sanders, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, oversaw drafting the $3.5 trillion spending bill that he and like-minded progressives consider not merely compatible with, but essential to, national well-being. So, as congressional Democrats struggle to enact Sanders's vision, bear in mind his incomprehension of, and hostility to, the most beneficial economic development in human experience: free trade across blue waters.

- - -

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

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