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N. Atlantic right whales will be extinct in 25 years, scientists say - unless we act now to save them

By Sarah Kaplan
N. Atlantic right whales will be extinct in 25 years, scientists say - unless we act now to save them
A critically endangered North Atlantic right whale takes a dive for plankton in Cape Cod Bay off the coast of Provincetown, Mass. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Jamie Cotten

PROVINCETOWN, Mass. -The crew of the research vessel Shearwater has been out on the water for six frigid hours with almost nothing to show for it.

On deck, two coverall-clad observers brace themselves against the biting wind and snow, alert for the white plume of a spout or the fleeting wave of a tail.

On the bridge, marine biologist Charles "Stormy" Mayo searches, too, his brow furrowed in a deepening frown. It is early April, and these plankton-rich waters should be full of hungry animals. But all he can see are dark gray waves and dull, cloudy sky.

"Where the hell are the whales?" he demands.

For years, spring has signaled the return of North Atlantic right whales - one of Earth's most endangered species - to Cape Cod Bay.

But lately the imperiled animals have acted in strange and disturbing ways. Females are having fewer calves; this year, not a single newborn was seen this year. The whales are skipping favored feeding grounds and showing up in unusual places. And in the past 11 months, 18 whales have been found floating, dead - the worst mortality event since scientists began keeping records decades ago.

In an era when species are vanishing 100 times faster than usual, "the whales are a metaphor for what we have done to the planet," Mayo says.

A century ago, humans had slaughtered nearly every right whale in the Atlantic. Now climate change seems to be shifting the animals' food source. Their habitat has been polluted with sewage and made noisy by construction and seismic tests. Speeding ships and tangles of hard-to-break fishing rope pose deadly threats.

New technology and tightened regulations could protect the whales from some of the biggest hazards. Yet political efforts have stalled, lawsuits linger unresolved, and fishermen fear what potential remedies might cost them.

Fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales remain, including just over 100 breeding females. With so many dying and so few being born, it is thought that the population will no longer be viable in 25 years unless something changes.

For the first time in his career, Mayo, 74, is using a word he had long avoided: "Extinction."

- - -

North Atlantic right whales are so strange-looking that early sailors sometimes took them for sea monsters. They are massive animals - up to 50 feet long - with broad black bodies and powerful tails. Their long arching mouths, which begin above their eyes, can open wide enough for an adult human to stand inside. But these whales eat mostly plankton, which they filter out of the seawater with long curtains of baleen. Distinctive patches of raised, roughened skin cover each right whale's head - allowing researchers to identify individual animals.

The species gets its common name from whalers, who considered the docile, oil-rich creatures the "right" whale to hunt. In the fishery's heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries, crews setting out from Massachusetts and New York caught as many as 100 per year. One account describes the death of 29 right whales in Cape Cod Bay on a single day in 1700. By 1935, only about 60 remained.

In subsequent decades, they gained the protection of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which helped boost their numbers to a peak of 482 in 2010.

But then something changed, and the population started to decline again. By 2016, the last year for which reliable data is available, it had dropped to 451.

And then disaster struck.

Since last June, 12 whales have been found dead in Canadian waters and six in U.S. waters. At least three had been entangled in fishing gear and four showed blunt force trauma, most likely from being struck by ships. Some of the deaths may be consequences of the whales' unexpected appearance in the Gulf of St. Lawrence last summer. Because whales are usually rare there, Canada had few protections in place.

Now it seems almost certain that the right whale population has fallen into the 430s - lower than it has been in a decade.

And that does not take into account whales that may have died far out at sea, without ever being noticed by humans, said Heather Pettis, executive administrator for the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.

"That's what scares us," she said. "We think we could only be seeing half to a third of all mortalities."

If researchers have seen 18 deaths in the past 11 months, "you can't even let your mind go there," she said. "It does not take very long for irreversible damage to be done to a very small population."

- - -

On a rainy morning in a dreary conference room near the Providence airport, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration assembled its "Take Reduction Team" - a group scientists, government officials and fishery representatives - to figure out how to save the species.

The discussion was heated from the start. For one thing, no one - not whale researchers, not lobster fishermen - can fully explain why right whales are so frequently ensnared in the ropes that connect lobster pots on the seafloor to buoys on the surface.

Whatever causes entanglements, said Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, the episodes have become worse in recent years. Improvements in rope have made the cordage stronger and therefore harder for whales to escape, leading to a surge in the number of extreme cases of entanglement. About 85 percent of all North Atlantic right whales bear entanglement scars, and the problem now causes an average of 3.25 deaths and severe injuries per year.

The number of human-caused losses that can occur without threatening the future of the population, NOAA estimates, is fewer than one per year.

An entanglement can kill a whale quickly by drowning it, or over the course of many painful months. Trailing yards of rope, often with a 50- or 60-pound lobster trap still attached, slows the animal and causes it to lose weight. The lines can cut into the flesh, opening wounds that are easily infected.

Females seem to be hit the hardest, Knowlton said. Only a third of female whales that experience severe entanglement survive, and those that do are less able to have calves.

Fishers have tried bunching together traps on a single line to reduce the amount of rope in the water - but entanglements keep happening. Scientists have suggested ropeless traps that could be summoned to the surface electronically - but lobstermen balked at the prices involved. Color-coding gear so it can be traced might help in tracking the most dangerous places for whales, but a fishing gear manufacturer told the group his company probably would not be able to make and sell enough distinctive rope.

Erica Fuller, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, observed the proceedings with growing frustration.

"We're facing extinction," she said afterward. "We don't have time to say nothing works, or everything is too expensive."

Her organization is one of several conservation groups to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service over a recent biological opinion regarding right whales. The agency is reviewing its opinion.

Fuller noted that after last year's mortalities, Canada acted quickly to implement new protections, including area closures, speed restrictions and a $167 million investment in research on endangered whale species.

"I don't think there are easy solutions," she said. "But I think there are solutions."

- - -

John Haviland, president of the South Shore Lobster Fishermen's Association, was at the meeting to represent the views of fishermen who would be affected by right whale protections. But he said little as the debate ping-ponged.

For the past four years, Haviland's trap-fishing grounds in Cape Cod Bay have been closed during whale season, February through April. The closure has cost him tens of thousands of dollars, he said after the meeting. "It's like going to prison three months every year of my life."

Like most of the lobstermen who operate in the North Atlantic, Haviland has never seen an animal entangled in his lines. And even as his gear sits unused in storage, whale entanglements have gone up.

"You see the angst I have?" he asked.

But Haviland is a pragmatist. After reading about Knowlton's research, he got a grant from the Massachusetts Environmental Trust to develop a sleeve that could be spliced onto ropes to lower their breaking strengths. Haviland compared the hollow, braided contraption to a Chinese finger trap that would snap when a whale pulled on it.

"My thinking is, the right whales have the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act in their favor," Haviland said. "They have two things protecting them. There's nothing protecting the commercial lobster fisherman."

"So why not use the best available science to coexist with the right whale?" he continued. "We're trying to do the right thing."

But last year, when his association applied for an exemption to use the new product in limited areas during the seasonal closure, NOAA concluded that the use of the sleeve would not offset the additional threat to whales.

Haviland's request was denied.

- - -

By the time the Shearwater is halfway back to harbor, the sun emerges, casting a glow over the bay. But the crew has mostly given up hope after not spotting a whale all day.

Mayo descends from whalers who once hunted in these waters, and he has spent the better part of his career looking for these animals. The right whale survey program at the Center for Coastal Studies, which he founded, is the oldest such program in the world.

He saw several whales feeding here just last week and didn't expect them to leave so quickly.

Then again, "Expectations in such a rare animal are not even expectations. They're hopes."

This is the frustrating reality of studying endangered species.

It is spending 20 years sounding the alarm about entanglements and seeing the issue only get worse. It is battling bad weather in search of explanations for shifting migration patterns and the decline in birthrates - not knowing whether the problems can even be solved. It is watching as existing protections - like the Marine Mammal Commission, which the Trump administration has moved to defund, and the Endangered Species Act, which some lawmakers want to "invalidate" - come under threat.

"It's trying to save animals that are very hard to find and struggling for existence in a system that is going to hell," Mayo says.

Suddenly, observer Lauren Goodwin's voice comes crackling over the ship's radio: "Blow!"

Mayo jumps to his feet and scrambles up a ladder to the deck, where Goodwin gazes through binoculars at the seemingly empty sea.

"I think those are fluke prints," she says. "See, there. And there." She points to smooth circles on the choppy water that are created when a whale coasts beneath the surface. "It's coming toward us!"

And then, barely 20 feet away, a sloping black head surfaces.

Everyone on the Shearwater springs into action. Goodwin and another researcher unravel nets to collect samples of whatever the whale is eating. A third crew member pulls out a camera and starts snapping photos of the animal.

Mayo crouches on the deck and gazes at the whale, captivated. With just its craggy head visible above the waves, the comparison to a sea monster seems suddenly apt.

The animal makes a snuffling sound and nods, as if trying to shake something out of its baleen.

"Whoa, whoa!" Mayo says. "Cool! Got something going on there."

He watches for the next several minutes as the whale zigzags through the water, slurping up massive mouthfuls of plankton. During one pass, Mayo notices horizontal white marks across its back.

"See the entanglement scars?" he calls out.

Later, the Center for Coastal Studies will identify the whale as a female called 4617. She's only 2 years old, at least eight years away from being able to breed.

The young animal has been seen in Cape Cod Bay before, but her scars are new - a testament to the risky world in which she is growing up.

"It's distracting, I guess, simply to know what she will go through in her life," Mayo says. "Her life will be shorter. And that shortened life, because it's shorter, will threaten the population. . . . Her future is not a good one."

For now, 4617 seems healthy. She has made it to Cape Cod. Her scars, though troubling, are relatively minor. And the food samples the scientists just collected suggest that she has found plenty to eat.

It's not much, but it's something.

With a flip of her flukes, the whale plunges into a dive, and the Shearwater continues on its way. By the time she resurfaces, 4617 is just a small, dark spot on the horizon, barely visible in the fading light.


Video Embed Code

Video: Researchers say the endangered North Atlantic right whales are getting entangled in fishing ropes now more than ever.(Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

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In New York City, following in David Bowie's footsteps

By Kristen Hartke
In New York City, following in David Bowie's footsteps
Browse like Bowie: He used to stop in at McNally Jackson Books around the corner from his home. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Kristen Hartke

NEW YORK - There are few artists who merit a true pilgrimage - a concerted attempt to walk in the footsteps of greatness - but if there's one luminary worth traveling for, it's David Bowie.

With the final stop of the Victoria and Albert Museum's experiential "David Bowie Is" retrospective exhibition now on view at the Brooklyn Museum, I knew a pilgrimage was in order. But rather than simply fit a museum visit into a typical day trip to New York City, I wanted to plan a visit that would allow me to see New York as Bowie did. New York was the place where he found stability after a restless, decades-long search for both comfort and anonymity within the confines of art and fame.

Bowie, who died in 2016, highlighted his penchant for walking the streets of Manhattan, particularly in the early morning hours, in a 2003 article for New York Magazine. "The signature of the city changes shape and is fleshed out as more and more people commit to the street," he wrote. "A magical transfer of power from the architectural to the human."

I devoted a single, intense day to my pilgrimage, scouring through Bowie's interviews to not only get a sense of the places he frequented in New York but also to try to imagine what his routines might be. I decided to set off from Washington Square Park a few blocks from his home. Bowie referred to the park as "the emotional history of New York in a quick walk."

Circumnavigating the park, with its famous triumphal arch, allowed me to settle into the rhythm of people-watching, something at which I suspect Bowie was adept. Old men arguing politics, municipal workers resting on a bench, moms drying the tears of crying toddlers all populated my vision as I strolled toward Caffe Reggio, just southwest of Washington Square.

Frequented by Bowie, it's a pleasingly cluttered spot where they've been serving up cappuccino for close to a century. It was easy to imagine him tucked into the alcove - somewhat unexpectedly graced by a bust of Queen Nefertiti - perhaps reading a book he'd picked up at McNally Jackson Booksellers, just around the corner from his home. That's at 285 Lafayette St., in Lower Manhattan's Nolita neighborhood, where Bowie lived with Iman, his wife of 24 years, and daughter Lexi.

Fortified with caffeine, I turned my steps toward the perpetually traffic-clogged block he lived on, taking a few moments to stand in front of the building and crane my neck for a glimpse of his rooftop home. I tried to imagine how he might stop for a chat with the doorman in the lobby before heading out on the 10-minute walk down nearby Prince Street to Olive's takeout shop just in time to grab a sandwich for lunch. Bowie's favorite was reportedly grilled chicken with watercress, followed by a warm chocolate chip cookie. While I opted for the roasted shiitake mushroom and goat cheese sandwich, that cookie was, indeed, on point.

With a 3 p.m. timed entry for the exhibition in Brooklyn looming, I hopped onto the C Train at Spring Street to head down to the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian walkway near City Hall. Catching a ride on New York's subway system is, actually, an appropriate addition to spending a day in Bowie's shoes. The Scottish novelist William Boyd once wrote in Harper's Bazaar that Bowie revealed to him, somewhat delightedly, that he was able to navigate New York's public transit system anonymously by carrying a Greek newspaper, thereby convincing curious subway riders that he was just some Greek guy with a remarkable resemblance to the Thin White Duke.

It wasn't until I stepped onto the pedestrian walkway that I finally popped in some ear buds to listen to Spotify's "David Bowie's New York" playlist while on the 1.1 mile walk across the East River. I don't know if Bowie ever walked across the Brooklyn Bridge - he did tend to avoid tourist areas - but I like to think that he made the trek at least once, maybe at dawn, to watch Lower Manhattan wake up through the weblike cables attached to the bridge's two towers.

Once in Brooklyn, the exhibition I'd wanted to see since it first opened in London in 2013 was finally within my grasp.

This wasn't my first time hitting the road in pursuit of David Bowie. The summer of my 16th year, I donned a brown polyester uniform five days a week and trudged up the street from my parents' apartment to sling biscuits and mix up dehydrated mashed potatoes at Kentucky Fried Chicken. For other teens, this job might have been to fund a car or a new wardrobe or to save for college; for me, it was all about Bowie.

It was 1983 and I was, unabashedly, unashamedly, what people called a Bowie Girl, to the point that I even wrote my 11th grade Honors English term paper about the many diverse literary influences behind Bowie's lyrics (I got an A+). As the "Serious Moonlight" tour crisscrossed the globe, the closest it was going to get to my home in Florida was Texas; a friend of mine had just moved to Houston, so I cadged an invitation to visit in mid-August and started saving my hard-earned fried chicken money for plane fare and concert tickets.

Rather than a pilgrimage, that particular trip turned out to be a bit of an odyssey, a classic quest marked by adversity - primarily Hurricane Alicia, which slammed into Houston three days before Bowie's arrival, knocking out power and water, flooding the streets, blowing windows out of the skyscrapers looming over the concert venue. I lost sleep with worry that the concert would be canceled, but the show did indeed go on, complete with the man himself dressed in suspenders and baggy trousers while belting out "Let's Dance" to Lenny Pickett's soaring saxophone solos. I may have shed a tear or two (thousand).

This time around, my heart skipped a beat as I walked up to the Brooklyn Museum, knowing that 400 items from the David Bowie Archive were waiting inside, providing an exceptional glimpse into the creative process of an artist whose work I've followed since my tween years when he was writing concept albums in Berlin. Museum attendants handed out headphones for the multigenerational crowds to wear while moving through the exhibit, immersed in interviews and music. We pored over hand-drawn stage designs and diary entries, surrounded by original "Aladdin Sane" costumes made by Kansai Yamamoto, video projections spanning five decades, and a demonstration of the custom text randomization software Bowie co-invented to help combat writer's block.

I'll admit it: Tears were shed again, and not just because I logged eight miles on foot during the course of the pilgrimage. Besides, a Bowie-inspired cocktail from BKW by Brooklyn Winery at the end of the day took care of any residual aches and pains.

When the touring exhibit was originally conceived years ago, Bowie is said to have maintained a hands-off approach with curators with one exception: The tour would begin in London and end in New York, a request that mirrored the trajectory of his own life. Perhaps this was a gift from Bowie to his adopted hometown as thanks for welcoming him into the family, for allowing him to walk the streets of Manhattan as a citizen, not a legend.




- NU Hotel

85 Smith St., Brooklyn


If you decide to stay overnight, NU Hotel is offering special room packages that include two "Lightning Bolt" tickets to the "David Bowie Is" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, breakfast for two and an immersive Bowie hotel experience featuring art shows, pop-up events, food and drink specials, and music. A one-of-a-kind Bowie mural graces the walls of one of the hotel's guest rooms, where fans can also indulge in some of his favorite books and music. The Bowie Essential Package starts at $199 and runs through July 15.


- Caffe Reggio

119 MacDougal St., New York City


Relax with a cappuccino in the cozy confines of this charming coffeehouse that has made its home near Washington Square Park since 1927, becoming one of Bowie's go-to breakfast spots. Cappuccino, $3.75; entrees start at $6.50.

- Olive's

191 Prince St., New York City


Fortify yourself with lunch at Olive's, where Bowie regularly ordered the grilled chicken sandwich with watercress and tomatoes ($11), sometimes along with a warm chocolate chip cookie ($4). Entrees start at $5.50.

- The Norm at the Brooklyn Museum

200 Eastern Pkwy., Brooklyn


Chef Saul Bolton has crafted a Bowie-themed menu at the museum's restaurant to accompany the "David Bowie Is" exhibition, from the cleverly named Diamond Dogfish & Chips to a classic Shepherd's Pie, one of Bowie's favorite comfort foods. The Black Star Cake ($11) is an absolute standout in both flavor and concept, a rich chocolate blackout cake filled with tangy orange cream and decorated with chocolate-dipped gingersnaps cut out in shapes mimicking the design of Bowie's final album art. Entrees start at $11.

- BKW by Brooklyn Winery

747 Franklin Ave., Brooklyn


Walk just a half mile from the Brooklyn Museum to BKW for a special Bowie-inspired cocktail (or two), including the Major Tom, made with mezcal infused with citrus charcoal, and the color-changing Man Who Fell To Earth with white rum, butterfly pea flower, lemon grass, tea and lemon, a chameleon-like riff on a classic Arnold Palmer ($13 for all of BKW's Bowie cocktails). Entrees start at $6.


- David Bowie's home

285 Lafayette St., New York City

Pay your respects to the memory of the Thin White Duke by walking past the building that he called home from 1999 until his death in 2016. The site of a former chocolate factory, it's also just a short stroll from one of Bowie's favorite places to walk, Washington Square Park in the heart of Greenwich Village.

- McNally Jackson Books

52 Prince St., New York City


Bowie was such an avid reader that - as revealed in the Brooklyn Museum exhibit - he even had a specially constructed trunk containing 400 selected titles that went on tour with him. Stop to browse the bookstore just around the corner from Bowie's home, where you can choose to pick up one of his favorites, such as "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz, "As I Lay Dying" by William Faulkner and "Nowhere To Run: The Story Of Soul Music" by Gerri Hirshey.

- Brooklyn Bridge Pedestrian Walkway, Manhattan side

Park Row and Centre Street, New York (near City Hall)

Whether Bowie ever walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, we do know that he loved to walk around New York, so walking just over a mile from Lower Manhattan across the bridge to Brooklyn is worth the spectacular views of the New York skyline from high above the East River. Even in summer, it can get chilly at the top of the bridge, so bring at least a light covering.

- Brooklyn Museum

200 Eastern Pkwy., Brooklyn


The "David Bowie Is" exhibit is open through July 15. Be sure to allow yourself at least two hours to explore the 400 objects from the David Bowie Archive, including concert costumes, handwritten lyrics and original artwork, photographs, videos and custom audio mixes. Purchase tickets online in advance at $20 for weekday standard tickets and $25 for weekend standard tickets, with discounts available for seniors, students and children; museum members visit free. A variety of other specialty tickets are also available, ranging in price from $35 to $2,500, offering options such as priority access and private curator-led tours.




Hartke is a writer based in the District of Columbia.

Green Giant

By Adrian Higgins
Green Giant
Jeff Koons' sculpture Split-Rocker at Glenstone is composed of tens of thousands of flowering plants. This side is the dinosaur side, which is made up of magenta, orange, and yellow flowers. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Jennifer Heffner for The Washington Post)

Even if it were not alive, the sculpture known as "Split-Rocker" would be a mind-blowing thing. At 37 feet high and set atop a domed hill, it is surely the most playful if not wondrous piece of artwork at Glenstone, the world-class private art museum on 200 acres in Potomac, Md. And yes, "Split-Rocker" is alive. From mid-spring to mid-fall, 24,000 annuals produce maybe a million blossoms to turn the sculpture into a tapestry of nature's modulated hues.

Crowning a meadow to the side of the Glenstone entrance, "Split-Rocker" is bemusing and strangely powerful, but it has felt like something of an aside as you make your way through the vast campus to the Gallery, the lakeside exhibition building. This is about to change.

A major expansion of Glenstone, in the works for five years and due for completion later this year, will shift the center of gravity away from the Gallery to a new museum that is seven times as large, with "Split-Rocker" becoming the signal sculpture on the landscape, offering its gaze and orientation directly to the new building. This anticipated role drove founders Mitchell and Emily Wei Rales to acquire the work and place it in its prominent spot in 2013.

"Split-Rocker" is the creation of Jeff Koons, perhaps America's most famous contemporary artist and one of its most polarizing. To some, he is a genius who elevates the banal into work powerful enough to alter our imagination and to rekindle childhood wonderment. Others see him as an artist who skillfully caters to an art market where the hyper-rich go to have fun while investing their money.

Koons is best known for his "Balloon Dog," fashioned from highly polished and colored stainless steel. Its orange version, one of five, sold for $58.4 million in 2013, making it the most expensive sculpture by a living artist. At 10 feet high, "Balloon Dog" is big but not monumental. Its mirror-like curves provide sharp, discernible surfaces. By contrast, "Split-Rocker" reads as a gigantic fuzzy green folly on the landscape.

As you approach "Split-Rocker" up a curving path, you see that it represents the heads of two child's rockers, sliced nose to nape and stuck together. One is of a toy pony, the other a dinosaur. The two sides don't quite align; the eye of the dino points forward, the eye of the pony looking out. They each have an identical yellow handle.

Art scholars see something of cubism in its fragmentation, but without the angst. Its playfulness is undeniable, and while it forces the viewer to think about the shallowness of our consumer society, it does so without apparent irony or subversiveness. As the critic Peter Schjeldahl has written: "It takes real effort not to enjoy the charm" of "Split-Rocker" and its predecessor, "Puppy."

For Emily Rales, the museum's director, "Split-Rocker" also brings together the three essential worlds of Glenstone: art, architecture and garden.

She calmly pondered "Split-Rocker" on a warm, breezy morning last May: "We always knew this would be a site for a major piece of sculpture because it was at an elevation above everything else. We looked for a long time for a showcase sculpture like this and eliminated a lot of things, and this finally came to us for sale. It was in the possession of a French collector, and we knew immediately when we saw pictures of it that it would be perfect for here, its scale and the way it combines horticulture with art. It brings everything together in a beautiful way."

I asked her how much it cost as a sense of crassness washed over me. "I can't tell you that," she said. "It was quite significant. What we were most worried about was the maintenance, because that's a cost that never goes away."

The gardener in me wanted to know: How do you grow the blessed thing? Stuffed with tender annuals, it must be replanted each year.

If you know how challenging it can be to keep a hanging basket of half a dozen plants going through the season - with the constant demands of watering, feeding, deadheading and grooming - imagine what that must be like with many thousands of annuals, and most of them reachable only with a cherry picker.

To wrap my head around it, I asked to be there for its spring planting, undertaken after the last frost of the season. In addition to Rales, the team included curatorial administrator Nora Cafritz, deputy superintendent of grounds Matt Partain and several technicians aloft in cherry pickers. Oh, and "Split-Rocker's" very own gardener, Chris Ryan.

To install the sculpture, Glenstone first had to build a platform of architectural concrete measuring 30 1/2 feet by 36 1/2 feet. Ryan positioned a footstool so we could climb onto the platform for a closer look. He knows "Split-Rocker" inside out. Literally.

I clambered atop the plinth and followed him into the beast. You enter in the small gap between the contours of each head. It is like stepping into a cave, or maybe the way a mouse feels were it to nest in a motorcycle helmet. The interior is cluttered with a metal superstructure fashioned from steel pipes. If you had X-ray vision, you could see that the stainless-steel shell is a honeycomb of 240 compartments, each containing potting soil, irrigation tubes and the plant roots. The exterior wall consists of a blanket of perforated geotextile fabric through which the annuals are planted.

Inside, ranks of white PVC pipes with red valves attest to an elaborate irrigation system, with 37 zones. Each watering takes more than 700 gallons, and provides Ryan the opportunity to add fertilizer and fungicide, both organic. The compartments drain back into a cistern to control and conserve the water. Often, the pipes weepdown upon him, which might be welcome in the heat of summer except the droplets often contain fertilizer made from liquefied fish.

In spring, the sculpture was naked in its outer fabric, sort of like a sheep after shearing, though it was a deep green with areas marked by sections delineated in thick black lines. These zones dictated the color of the flowers and were chosen by the artist. If the blooms were the pigment, the planting team became the artist's brushes.

In general, the left side, that of the dinosaur, is smothered in hot colors. The right side, the pony, has a cooler palette of blues, whites, pinks and lavenders.

"Jeff was very involved in the first planting, and since then we have been able to maintain his vision," said Cafritz. "This is a little like painting by numbers, so we know every color at every step." She was clad all in black, including her vinyl gloves, which made her yellow safety harness pop. I noticed that Partain, decked out in khaki, was also wearing a harness, but in a screaming lime green. Perhaps it was the distorting backdrop of the sculpture, but the scene took on a dreamlike quality. I imagined the pair of them rappelling up and down "Split-Rocker" as if they were in some Cirque du Soleil number. It was a ridiculous notion - they were readying for the cherry pickers - but I wondered if the mojo of the sculpture had been creating its own aura of surreality.

Thinking about the plants would bring me back to Earth. They were arranged carefully in their flats by color. Various annuals were mixed together; the blends consisted of five to seven different annuals, but all of the same approximate hue. They would be matched to the appropriate area of "Split-Rocker." These mixtures, not yet in bloom, had been assembled earlier by the Glenstone team working with its grower, TSB Enterprises, in Middletown, Md.

They included verbenas, begonias, marigolds, vincas, impatiens, lantanas, bidens, petunias and calibrachoas. Some were suited for the shadier sides of the sculpture, others for the full afternoon sun, about 15 plant species totaling 70 varieties. I asked if I could plant a section, and soon I was coaxing marigolds and New Guinea impatiens from their cells and threading them through the holes toward the base of the dinosaur side. I firmed the soil around the roots, knowing that they would dry out without good contact. It's not every day that you help Jeff Koons realize his artistic vision. I kept the thought to myself.

I returned six weeks later on a hot July day to see how the plants had filled out. Blossoms of differing colors and wide-ranging forms entirely covered the fabric skin. From afar, the color organization was evident. The muzzle of the dinosaur was draped in yellows and golds, but the side of the head was a cascade of hot pinks, red and orange. On the pony, the mane was marked by pink and white stripes falling vertically. The side of the face was a medley of coral pink, magenta pink, blues, lavender and white.

As I got close to the sculpture, however, its forms blurred into a waterfall of mixed annuals. Close up, it had morphed from a piece of art into flower beds in strange planes. I could see the enormousness of Ryan's challenge.

"Split-Rocker" is so large that it is no one thing, horticulturally. The flowers under the chin function as a huge hanging basket. The sides are what gardeners today call a living wall. The top is an undulating rooftop garden, one surely with issues of unrelenting sun, high wind and dryness. Conversely, the flowers in the chin are cast in shade and prone to unavoidable waterlogging.

At the back, the vertical ridge of the mane produces an area that is in constant shade, not the best place for these sun-loving annuals.

Ryan spends many hours aloft in a cherry picker to stay in control of "Split-Rocker." This is during hours or days when Glenstone is closed. (Note well: Glenstone is closed until May, when a new Louise Bourgeois exhibition opens. Admission is free, but visitors need an appointment.) He removes dead and congested plants, cuts off faded blooms and grooms areas that have become shaggy. He hand-waters many of the plants missed by the irrigation tubes.

Some just need to be replaced as the hot weeks wear on: The alyssum around the eyes, for example, might be replaced with vinca, or the bidens under the handles substituted for yellow flowering lantana.

The summer morning air was sticky and the temperature already 93 degrees, so we squeezed inside "Split-Rocker" to get out of the sun. I noticed two life-size, plastic peregrine falcons resting on a shelf within the skull. "The biggest challenge this year has been the starling infestation," Ryan said. He had positioned the decoys on "Split-Rocker" to scare off the starlings, which had begun to build nests and were pulling plants out of their sockets. "I started with one, but I thought they were getting used to it," he said. "Sure enough, it worked."

Through the season, he may replace as much as 5 percent of the plants to fill gaps caused by natural losses. "It's typical to lose flowers; there's no way to keep them all alive." Deer have been known to reach the platform and munch on some blooms, but rarely.

Ryan studied plant science at the University of Maryland and thought he would wind up as a golf course groundskeeper. When he's at parties and the like, I asked, how does he begin to explain what he does for a living? "Most people don't believe it's a job," he said.

In November, the freezes turn the annuals brown and lifeless. After they are all removed, Ryan confronts his principal winter chore: replenishing the soil lost to compaction and erosion. He uses the exterior planting holes to repack the boxes. He adds as much as seven tons of fresh planting mix each winter, stuffing in the soil with a stick. It's a cold and bleak task. "There's no break in maintaining a giant living sculpture," he said.

"We did a study to see how complicated and expensive it would be to maintain this," Rales told me. Even that diligence couldn't anticipate the rigors of such a challenging horticultural feat. "It was definitely more than we thought it would be," she said, with a laugh. "But Mitch and I couldn't let go of this opportunity."

"The first two years there were lots of mistakes," she said. The first was erecting scaffolding to plant it, a problem now averted with the cherry pickers. "Originally, it took a week to plant it, and now it's one day," she said.

The annuals that flourished in France would not hold up as well in the heat and humidity of Maryland.

"We did a test with perennials one year," Rales said. "It seemed labor-intensive and wasteful to plant every season. We thought we could achieve the same effect by planting selected areas with perennials. But it didn't work; it wasn't as crisp and precise."

One year, a whole area turned brown as the plants succumbed to disease, but Rales was steadfast in her aversion to chemical fungicides. Even with the watering system figured out, the heat and humidity take their toll. Varietal selection is key to success.

"Every time I see a plant die I get a little worried, but I have learned not to worry too much," Ryan said.

Koons' obsessiveness with materials and fabricating techniques is well known and has brought him to moments of financial peril. When he was creating his "Balloon Dog" sculptures he reportedly first got a balloon artist to make 85 versions before he was satisfied, and then CAT-scanned the winner.

What strikes me about "Split-Rocker" is that once he unleashed nature on his work, he could no longer be Jeff Koons, the control freak. (I tried several times to reach him for this article but was unsuccessful.)

Koons put his own spin on it during an earlier showing of "Split-Rocker" at Versailles, when he told an interviewer: "The balance between control and giving up control reminds us of the polarity of existence."

He has also said that the three states of being for this sculpture - creation, change and death - bestow on the observer a "concept of mortality and how life is a cycle."

I suspect he had a limited understanding of what it would take to cultivate a Chia Pet that is channeling Godzilla. No matter, we're glad it all came together to blossom on a hill in suburban Maryland.

As Emily Rales puts so well, "Who doesn't love flowers?"

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

Trump is a breed apart

By dana milbank
Trump is a breed apart


(Advance for Sunday, April 22, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, April 21, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Milbank clients only)


"This is not normal," James B. Comey said last week after President Trump threatened him with jail.

If I had a nickel for every time somebody said that, I could repay the national debt. There is so much abnormality from this president that we're numb.

I'd like to pause, therefore, to reflect on just one thing the president did this week that, amid Russian hookers and his assaults on truth, law and decency, got little attention: his talk of immigrants "breeding" in America's sanctuary cities.

"There is a Revolution going on in California. Soooo many Sanctuary areas want OUT of this ridiculous, crime infested &amp; breeding concept," the president tweeted on April 17.

What could he mean? Immigrants are breeding thoroughbred horses? Prize-winning cattle?

Or perhaps Trump was using "breeding" in the sense now popular among white supremacists?

Hmm. I wonder ...

The image of Latinos breeding makes them not quite human, parasites among a host people, an enemy within given sanctuary when they should be cast out. The aliens among us are not like us, but, unfairly protected, they breed and bring danger.

Where have I heard this before? Maybe it was 1919: "Through thousands of years of the closest kind of inbreeding, Jews in general have maintained their race ... And thus comes the fact that there lives amongst us a non-German, alien race which neither wishes nor is able to sacrifice its racial character or to deny its feeling, thinking, and striving. Nevertheless, it possesses all the political rights we do."

Adolf Hitler continued, recommending "elimination of the privileges of the Jews" and eventually "the irrevocable removal of the Jews in general. For both these ends a government of national strength, not of national weakness, is necessary."

The notion later became a staple of Nazi propaganda. From 1944: "Jewry is the product of the inbreeding of asocial, criminal, sick, degenerate, and rejected elements ... [It] leads a rootless, parasitic life at the expense of the host peoples. Its current homeland is largely the criminal neighborhoods of the great cities of the world."

Sanctuary cities, if you will.

Some object to Nazi comparisons, however apt, because they tend to silence debate. So let's look at the modern custom in this country of likening immigrants to breeding animals.

Trump appointee Carl Higbie resigned after the publishing of his earlier complaints that black women think "breeding is a form of government employment."

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., has spoken of immigration policy as "allowing any kind of vagrant, or animal ... to come in."

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a Trump ally, described the screening of immigrants: "You get the pick of the litter and you got yourself a pretty good bird dog."

Dan Stein, the president of the anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform, famously said immigrants are conducting "competitive breeding" to dilute the white majority.

White nationalist Richard Spencer's National Policy Institute frets about white "displacement by the subject race through differential fertility rates and interracial breeding."

Alex Jones's Infowars, which Trump has also celebrated, has published headlines saying things such as "Top Imam: Muslim Migrants Should Breed With Europeans to 'Conquer Their Countries.'"

Dive into the fever swamps of the Internet and social media and you will find the conspiracy theory that minorities' higher birthrates are designed to bring about "white genocide" in America: "we can't let the Muslims and Mexicans outbreed us ... their goal is to come here and breed whites out of existence ... what they will do is breed like rats and displace white people and white culture. ... They're outbreeding us and outvoting us."

Perhaps it is just coincidence that Trump used the language of white supremacists; the White House claims the president is concerned with sanctuary cities breeding crime, not people. Presumably, then, it was also happenstance that he called Mexican immigrants rapists, demanded a "shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," said a federal judge should be disqualified because of his Mexican ancestry, defended the use of anti-Semitic imagery during his campaign, declared that Haitian immigrants all have AIDS and that African countries are "shitholes," said there were "very fine people" marching with the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, called for firing "son-of-a-bitch" black NFL players who kneel during the national anthem, sharing anti-Muslim videos, and warned that those removing Confederate monuments are "trying to take away our culture."

A day after Trump's "breeding" tweet, he visited a drug-interdiction operation and declared that "human trafficking is worse than it's ever been in the history of the world."

Thus did the president erase three centuries of American history, during which millions of Africans were captured and enslaved in this hemisphere.

Trump is a breed apart.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Where are the conservatives we need?

By e.j. dionne jr.
Where are the conservatives we need?


(Advance for Monday, April 23, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Sunday, April 22, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Dionne clients only)


WASHINGTON -- Political opponents cannot be expected to lavish boundless affection on those they battle day after day.

But in a well-ordered democratic system, those who fight on behalf of competing parties, interests and ideas can usually find some room for mutual esteem and even occasionally try to profit intellectually from each other. It's when politics becomes unhinged that we squander the gift of social learning through reasoned argument.

The last several days underscore why not only political progressives but genuine moderates are at wit's end with the Republican Party and what passes for contemporary American conservatism.

If conservatism in the United States has claimed to stand for anything, it is the idea that government authority should be limited. Conservatives regularly argue (especially when Democrats are in the White House) that the executive's clout should be checked and that legitimate law enforcement authorities deserve our respect, particularly when they are investigating abuses of power.

The behavior of House Republicans in demanding James Comey's memos about his conversations with President Trump, which were subsequently leaked to the media, shows a GOP that has abandoned all principle. It is willing to do whatever it takes to protect a president who has no regard for the truth, the law or established norms.

Any doubts that Republicanism and conservatism have given themselves over to one man, his whims and his survival were dispelled by the GOP's use of the congressional oversight process to undermine a legitimate probe into a hostile power's interference in our elections.

As it happens, the actual memos are embarrassing to Trump and support Comey's veracity. And if the Republicans' obstructionist triumvirate of Reps. Devin Nunes of California, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and Trey Gowdy of South Carolina had hoped to prove that Comey leaked classified information, the memos reveal exactly the opposite.

It should be stunning that the chairs of the Intelligence, Judiciary and Oversight Committees are more interested in doing Trump's bidding than in figuring out how Vladimir Putin may have helped to elect our current president. It's possible to imagine that, somewhere, Ronald Reagan is weeping.

This episode speaks to a larger question: that the corruption of American conservatism is the primary cause of our inability to have constructive debates that move us to resolve issues rather than ignore them.

The ongoing frustration of many of us who really did respect conservatism once upon a time is not just about the movement's capitulation to Trump. It is also triggered by the supposedly substantive side of the news: The only thing Republicans in Congress know how to do now that their corporate tax cut has proved to be unpopular is -- to propose (BEG ITAL)more(END ITAL) tax cuts. There is an emptiness where problem-solving conservatism used to be.

In the period when democracy planted deep roots in Western Europe and was thriving in the United States, conservative parties were led by figures such as Dwight Eisenhower in the United States, Harold Macmillan in Britain, Konrad Adenauer in Germany, and Charles de Gaulle in France.

All of them understood from the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and a destructive world war that moderation is conservatism's best impulse and that market economies require a social dimension. Capitalism could not work absent an active government that fostered a degree of economic equality and security.

Applying the insights of this more responsible version of conservatism to our time would lead us to seek the best approaches to the very discontents that helped put Trump in the White House in the first place -- for example, growing inequality. A 2016 Congressional Research Service report found that income inequality has been increasing since 1970. And between 2000 and 2015, incomes actually went down for the bottom 60 percent of earners. There are many causes for division and resentment in our country, and this is surely one of them.

Liberal democracy also faces challenges in Europe, where a 2017 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study found that "social cohesion" is threatened by the rise of economic inequality over nearly four decades.

We need a politics where the democratic left and right compete over who can most effectively and efficiently excise this social cancer from our body politic. Such a debate could be both instructive and productive.

Alas, except for a small, honorable cadre of writers and think-tankers, the American right has taken itself out of the game. Our politics will remain broken as long as conservatism confines its energies to cutting taxes and defending a reckless president at all costs.

E.J. Dionne's email address is Twitter: @EJDionne.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Echoes of Barbara Bush in this past week's three heroines

By ruth marcus
Echoes of Barbara Bush in this past week's three heroines


(Advance for Sunday, April 22, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, April 21, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Marcus clients only)

WRITETHRU: 2nd graf: Tammie Jo Shults STED Shultz


WASHINGTON -- Something tells me that Barbara Bush would have enjoyed reading the news over the last week -- and I don't mean the glowing tributes to the former first lady. No, some of the rest of the news, about who in the Trump administration is confused about what; about the nerves-of-steel pilot who brought a crippled airliner to safety; about the kerfuffle over infants on the Senate floor. All three episodes involve women of a very different age than Bush but a similar sensibility: confident and no-nonsense, intolerant of fools and foolishness.

The generational divide is stark between Bush and the three women involved in these stories -- United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who holds a position once occupied by Bush's husband; Southwest Airlines pilot Tammie Jo Shults, a Navy pilot like the former president; Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Army veteran who lost both her legs in a war started by Bush's eldest son.

The horizons for women of Barbara Bush's time were constrained and derivative. Their assigned role was to care for and support husbands and children; paid work was something that was done out of financial necessity or, perhaps, patriotic duty. In her memoir, Bush described how, "much to my mother's distress," she worked in a nuts-and-bolts factory in the summer of 1943, before heading off to Smith College.

But that stint did not foreshadow any burst of career-mindedness. Bush would soon drop out of Smith -- "The truth is, I just wasn't interested. I was just interested in George" -- to devote herself to her husband.

As the late Marjorie Williams wrote in a 1992 Vanity Fair profile, "By 1974, when other women were discovering the wounded, angry sister who had so often shadowed the bouncing figure in the women's magazines, Barbara could still send this description of her activities to the Smith Alumnae Quarterly: 'I play tennis, do vol. work and admire George Bush!'"

We tend to think of Bush as formidable to the point of scary, impregnable beneath her triple strand of pearls. So it is telling that Bush's self-described moment of vulnerability involved the rise of the women's movement during the 1970s and the implicit judgment she thought it cast on her life choices, helping trigger a depression so intense, she wrote in her memoir, "I felt the urge to drive into a tree or an oncoming car."

As Bush recalled in a 1989 interview, "Suddenly women's lib had made me feel that my life had been wasted."

It wasn't, of course, anything but. Still, it is impossible to read about Bush's life without wondering: What if she had been born a half-century later? What could this woman have become? And it was impossible, as the plaudits poured in following Bush's death on Tuesday, not to imagine Bush cheering on Haley's cheek, Shults's steadfastness and Duckworth's pragmatism.

Can't you just hear Bush herself in Haley's brusque retort to Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow's assertion that "there might have been some momentary confusion" about whether the administration planned new sanctions on Russia?

Haley promptly rejected Kudlow's suggestion, with its overtones, intended or accidental, of you-silly-girl sexism: "With all due respect, I don't get confused." Bush might only have omitted the respect part. Like Haley, she knew sexism when she saw it, and wasn't shy about calling it out. "I don't know how women can vote for someone who said what he said about Megyn Kelly," Bush told CBS' Norah O'Donnell in February 2016 about Donald Trump, when Jeb Bush was running against him. "It's terrible. And we knew what he meant, too."

Can't you just imagine Bush in the pilot's seat, calmly bringing the plane in for a safe landing? Talk about nerves of steel. This is, after all, the woman who decreed there would be no crying in front of her dying daughter, Robin. As Barbara Bush wrote in her memoir: When "poor George had the most dreadful time and could hardly stand to see his daughter get a transfusion," Barbara herself remained resolute -- even if the memory of Robin could bring her to tears decades later.

And can't you just imagine Bush telling the male senators to grow up and change their fusty rules to accommodate Duckworth and her infant daughter? Bush dressing down Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who fretted, "But what if there are 10 babies on the floor of the Senate?" Or, perhaps, Bush being Bush, which is to say equal opportunity unsparing, tartly instructing Duckworth to get some baby-sitting help, for goodness' sake.

Mostly, though, I think Barbara Bush would have applauded this trio -- and appreciated how they seized opportunities she never had.

Ruth Marcus' email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Global boom or bust?

By robert j. samuelson
Global boom or bust?


(Advance for Monday, April 23, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Sunday, April 22, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Samuelson clients only)


EDITORS: The attached table is part of the column. We suggest inserting it between the 9th and 10th grafs. See note in the column.

WASHINGTON -- The global economy is on the mend -- but will the recovery be quashed by too much worldwide debt?

Just last week, the International Monetary Fund raised its forecast for world economic growth to 3.9 percent for both 2018 and 2019. Most advanced societies -- the United States, Japan, Europe -- grew faster in 2017 than expected, and the momentum has carried into 2018.

Consider: In October 2017, the IMF predicted 2.3 percent growth for the U.S. economy in 2018; now the forecast is 2.9 percent. For the world, growth in 2018 is expected to be nearly 1 percentage point higher than in 2016.

Superficially, this seems small potatoes. It isn't. By some estimates, the size of the world economy is $130 trillion in 2018. An extra 1 percentage point of production translates into nearly $1.3 trillion more of clothes, cars, computers, tractors, tourism, health care -- and much more.

To explain the growth surge, the IMF cites multiple causes. Businesses began to exhaust surplus production capacity, so they invested more in new plants, computers and machinery -- an area of lagging spending. International trade has accelerated. The Trump tax cut will temporally spur growth. Credit conditions remain easy, despite higher interest rates. That is, the rates are still historically low.

Against this backdrop, many private economists are equally optimistic. Karen Dynan of Harvard and the Peterson Institute says the global economy is entering a "cyclical boom." But risks remain. Both Dynan and IMF chief economist Maurice Obstfeld warn of dangers to the recovery.

One possibility is a trade war between the United States and some trading partners, including China, Mexico, Canada and Japan. "That major economies are flirting with trade war at a time of widespread economic expansion may seem paradoxical, especially when the expansion is so reliant on [business] investment and trade," Obstfeld said at a press briefing. Even more disruptive might be a shooting war on the Korean peninsula or elsewhere.

Perhaps the biggest danger is debt. If the world economy is overly dependent on debt -- loans to households, businesses and governments -- and debts are reaching (or have already reached) unsustainable levels, then there's obviously a huge contradiction at the core of the recovery.

Glance at the table below. It shows worldwide debts in trillions of U.S. dollars for 2001, 2007 and 2016. The data come from the IMF and (again) cover businesses, households and governments. "Emerging-market" countries include China, India and other developing nations with sizable economies. Low-income developing countries are very poor -- say, Bangladesh.


No one knows the "right" level of debt. It varies among borrowers and it may change abruptly -- depending on shifting economic and financial circumstances. What seems prudent on Tuesday may become inadequate on Wednesday.

As the table shows, total global debt is still growing. From 2007 to 2016, it expanded by 41 percent; China's fourfold increase is noteworthy. According to the IMF, worldwide debt is now at a record high as a share of the global economy (gross domestic product), about 12 percentage points more of global GDP than in 2009 during the Great Recession.

The great fear of high debt levels is that -- given a recession, a runup in interest rates or some other financial surprise -- business and household borrowers won't be able to service their debts. Some will default; to avoid default, others will cut their spending. The economic consequences would be harsher recessions.

As for governments, they may face higher interest rates that crowd out other spending. (Of course, the strategic use of higher deficits to defuse recessions is also possible.) Still, governments, including ours, have trouble raising taxes or cutting spending to reduce their borrowing needs.

What would be ideal now is for the worldwide pickup in economic growth to continue so that the most exposed borrowers could slowly reduce their debts while their incomes increased. The crucial question is how much the global recovery depends on more debt. If the answer is "a lot," we are courting trouble.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

The United States is mortgaging its future

By catherine rampell
The United States is mortgaging its future



(For Rampell clients only)


American exceptionalism has meant many things over the years, often referring to our spirit and commitment to individual liberty.

Today it could refer to our exceptional fiscal recklessness.

In its newly released April 2018 Fiscal Monitor, the International Monetary Fund projected that the United States is the only -- yes, (BEG ITAL)only(END ITAL) -- advanced economy in the world expected to have its debt burden get worse over the next five years.

Every other rich country, including perennial fiscal basket cases such as Greece and Italy, is projected to lower its debt as a share of its economy. That is thanks in large part to the global economic recovery, which is bringing in more tax revenue and reducing the need for expensive automatic stabilizers such as unemployment benefits.

Here in the United States, though, we've taken our economic recovery and squandered it.

In December, Republicans passed massive, top-heavy tax cuts; this year, Congress oversaw a run-up in new spending. The result: trillion-dollar annual deficits as far as the eye can see.

In fact, within a decade, our debt-to-GDP ratio will be at its highest level since 1946. That year, of course, we had good reason for loading up on debt: We had just fought World War II. Today, with unemployment at an 18-year low and the country enjoying one of the longest recoveries on record, it is difficult to explain why we've spilled so much red ink.

Which is exactly why economists and international institutions have been advising the United States not to fritter away this opportunity to get our fiscal house in order.

"Because growth is good, we say, 'When the sun is shining, please fix the roof,'" IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde told me during an interview last month. "Build buffers, use your fiscal space to actually do the structural reforms that will improve your overall productivity and your capacity to resist" economic challenges.

Instead of taking this advice, Republican leadership is now eyeing even (BEG ITAL)more(END ITAL) deficit-financed tax cuts.

This week, outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan said the House planned to make permanent the individual tax cuts currently set to expire in 2025. This would add trillions of dollars to long-term deficits.

Trump administration officials have likewise expressed interest in more and different tax cuts, including on capital gains. This would make the existing GOP tax overhaul even more plutocratic, since households making more than $1 million account for about two-thirds of all capital-gains income, according to the IRS.

This type of behavior has sometimes earned fiscal scolding along the lines of: Households have to spend within their means; why can't the feds? Such criticisms are misguided. Governments are not, in fact, like households, and deficits are not a moral issue. But running up our debt, especially at the current moment, does have economic consequences.

First and foremost, it means we will have less room to maneuver when -- not if -- we next have a recession and actually need to stimulate the economy.

Second, as the economy recovers, interest rates will continue to rise. Which means our already enormous debt burden will become increasingly expensive -- and force us to cut funds for things we'd much prefer to spend money on. In its recent budget outlook, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that under existing law, we'll spend more on interest than on our entire military by 2023.

And third, in the long run, high government-debt levels are bad for growth.

That's because government debt can crowd out private investment; there is a finite amount of capital out there, and the more that is drawn to U.S. Treasurys, the less there is available for entrepreneurs and private businesses.

In other words, we're mortgaging our future. And for what? Not investments in things that might actually pay off, such as infrastructure or human-capital development, but tax cuts for the rich. This is not how a big-boy country, the richest and most economically sophisticated in the world, is supposed to behave.

In fact, we're making the very same policy mistakes that we -- and international institutions -- have historically admonished poorer, less economically advanced countries for committing. Up to and including silly protectionist measures that will make our own consumers and businesses worse off.

"I used to work at the IMF where we, for emerging markets, would ask questions such as who is going to buy the government debt and what will the currency implications be and how much faith does the rest of the world have in the ability of this country to pay back their debt," says Torsten Slok, the chief international economist at Deutsche Bank.

"Now," he says, "I'm getting the same questions from investors about the United States."

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

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

The Senate must confirm Pompeo

By marc a. thiessen
The Senate must confirm Pompeo


(Advance for Friday, April 20, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, April 19, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Thiessen clients only)


WASHINGTON -- For the first time in the history of the republic, it appears increasingly likely that a majority of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote against the president's nominee for secretary of state. If this happens, it would be a black mark not on Mike Pompeo's record, but on the reputation of this once-storied committee.

There are no instances of a secretary of state nominee ever receiving an unfavorable committee vote since such votes were first publicly recorded in 1925 (before that, the committee voted in closed session). Democrat John Kerry was approved in a unanimous voice vote, including from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who opposes Pompeo. Democrat Hillary Clinton was approved 16 to 1, despite concerns about foreign donors to the Clinton Foundation. Madeleine Albright was approved unanimously, with the strong support of my former boss, the committee's conservative then-chairman, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who called Albright "a tough and courageous lady" and voted for her despite saying that she was "sincerely wrong" in some of her foreign policy views.

Other Democrats, including Warren Christopher and Cyrus Vance, were also approved unanimously in committee, as were Republicans Colin Powell, James Baker and George Shultz. Indeed, no secretary of state going all the way back to Henry Kissinger had ever received more than two negative votes in the Foreign Relations Committee -- until Donald Trump became president.

Last year, all 10 Democrats on the committee voted "no" to Rex Tillerson's nomination, making him the first secretary of state in history to be approved on a party-line vote. Now, thanks to the opposition from those 10 Democrats and Paul, it appears that Pompeo could soon become the first secretary of state nominee in history to receive a negative recommendation from the committee.

There is simply no excuse for this. There are no ethical questions hanging over Pompeo's nomination. He has engaged in no disqualifying personal conduct. And no one questions that he is extraordinarily qualified for the job. Indeed, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said that Pompeo "has a clear record of public service to his nation -- in uniform, in Congress, and as the director of the CIA." Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he believes that Pompeo "will work hard to restore morale at State and work to supplement, not atrophy, the diplomatic tools at the Secretary of State's disposal." Yet both are voting against him. Indeed, nine of the committee's 10 Democrats have already declared their opposition to Pompeo -- including two, Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., -- who voted for him to lead the CIA.

Their opposition comes just as President Trump is preparing for a high-stakes nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Pompeo recently returned from North Korea, where he met with Kim and laid the groundwork for this historic meeting. Democrats ought to ask themselves how their actions will be seen in Pyongyang. To deliver such an undeserved rebuke to Pompeo at such a critical diplomatic moment would be a shameful abdication of the committee's responsibilities.

It would also breach two centuries of precedent in which the committee has carefully examined the credentials and qualifications of the president's nominee for secretary of state but acknowledged that the president should have his choice of who should be his chief diplomatic adviser. It is one thing for senators to use a nomination as leverage to gain commitments on specific policy matters. (Helms insisted that Albright work with him on his plans to reform the United Nations and reorganize the State Department, which she did.) Effective senators understand how to use the nomination process to win policy fights. But for senators to vote down a highly qualified nominee over their disdain for the president is completely unwarranted and, quite frankly, a breach of Senate norms.

A negative vote would hurt the Foreign Relations Committee more than Pompeo. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will bring his nomination to the floor regardless of what the committee does, and it is expected that some Democrats -- such as Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who has publicly announced her support -- will vote for him. And when Pompeo is confirmed by the full Senate, he would be more than justified in determining that the State Department is best served by working closely with the appropriators and Senate leadership, and bypassing a committee that can't make policy, can't legislate and can't lead.

Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

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