Get the best stories to your readers as they happen. The Washington Post News Service streams breaking news, enterprise and features with photos, graphics and video directly to you.

Saudi wealth and weaponry still can't guarantee oil's protection

By Marc Champion
Saudi wealth and weaponry still can't guarantee oil's protection
The MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missile system stands on display at the Seoul International Aerospace & Defense Exhibition in Seongnam, South Korea, on Oct.19, 2015. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by SeongJoon Cho.

How could Saudi Arabia, a country with the world's third-largest military budget and six battalions of U.S.-built Patriot missile-defense systems, fail to defend the beating heart of the oil industry on which the kingdom depends?

That question lies at the heart of responses to Saturday's attack on Abqaiq, which cut Saudi oil production by half, and is critical to any assessment of whether investors will have to permanently factor higher political risk assumptions into the price of oil.

As audacious as the strike was, it was only the latest in a series and should have come as no surprise. The effectiveness of the Saudi military machine has long been questioned, despite spending $83 billion on defense last year, compared to $45 billion for Russia and $20 billion for regional rival Iran. The kingdom's formidably equipped air force has been bombing Iran-backed Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen since 2015, but has so far failed to tip the civil war in favor of Saudi allies.

Yet any firm answers to the question of Saudi vulnerability will have to wait for more clarity on exactly what happened on Saturday, according to air defense specialists. There are conflicting accounts as to what technologies were used -- a swarm of 10 armed unmanned aerial vehicles, cruise missiles or a mix of the two.

"If it was a mixed attack, if you have small UAVs plus cruise missiles coordinated, coming in at low level -- that is a wicked problem to deal with, even for a capable Western military," according to Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a U.K. think tank. "The best place to stop this stuff is before it gets in the air."

Defending against drones -- whether over airports or on the battlefield -- was a hot topic at the U.K.'s biggest annual defense show last week among the companies that manufacture and sell high-end defense systems to governments around the world, said Barrie.

The nature of oil installations -- large, stationary and inflammable -- in any case makes their defense a formidable challenge, according to Barrie and others. So too their dispersion across Saudi Arabia's vast empty spaces and the need to monitor thousands of miles of porous borders with Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan.

Until U.S.-Iran tensions subside, the risk of further attacks is likely to remain. In recent months, the U.S. has accused Iran of sabotaging tankers carrying oil through the Strait of Hormuz, while Houthi-claimed drones attacked pumping stations for Saudi Arabia's East-West pipeline in May, and the Shaybah oil field in August. A Saudi military official said Monday that Iranian weapons were used in the latest attacks.

"It's very simple: The Iranians have tried several times to raise the price of oil," said Ram Yavne, a retired brigadier general and former head of strategic planning in the Israel Defense Forces, who is now with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, a Washington think tank. "They want to show the world that the price for the U.S. blocking their ability to produce oil is very high."

Iran, the target of crippling U.S. sanctions, has denied responsibility for all of these attacks, including Saturday's. Some attempted strikes were foiled by Saudi missile defenses, but those successes are likely to be forgotten in the wake of the attack on Abqaiq, which took about 5% of the global oil supply off line.

"There is but one rational takeaway from this weekend's drone attacks on the kingdom's infrastructure," according to a note from Citi Research analysis. "That infrastructure is highly vulnerable to attack, and the market has been persistently mispricing oil."

The success of a drone strike against arguably the most important single piece of infrastructure in the global oil industry could also prove an embarrassment for Raytheon Co.'s high-cost Patriots.

"What amazes me is, what happened to the American anti-missile systems?" said Fawaz A. Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics. "This reflects terribly on the U.S. and its defense systems. The Iranians know this now and the lessons learned here will be applied in Syria, Lebanon and others areas in the future."

Saudi Arabia has been in talks to acquire the same S-400 advanced air-defense system that Turkey recently bought from Russia. The Russian weapon, though little tested in combat, has technical advantages over U.S. Patriots. It has a range of 400 kilometers (250 miles), versus the Patriot's 160 kilometers, can destroy targets moving twice as fast and can be mounted for action in five minutes, compared with an hour for a Patriot battery.

Buying S-400s would, however, risk a major rift between Washington and Riyadh, as well as U.S. sanctions -- and without necessarily providing the answer to drone attacks. In July, the U.S. said it authorized deployment of 500 troops to Saudi Arabia, as a strengthened "deterrent."

Russia pairs its S-400s with the smaller Pantsir-S1 system, to handle low flying and short range missiles that would slip past the larger ballistic missile defense system. Though Russia has deployed S-400s in northwestern Syria, it has used the Pantsir system to counter drone strikes.

"Ideally, the Saudis need layered defenses, including short range point defense systems like the German Skyshield or Russian Pantsir to allow rapid engagements of small threats with cheaper systems than the massively expensive Patriot," Justin Bronk, research fellow for air power and technology at the U.K.'s Royal United Services Institute, said in an emailed response to questions.

For the Saudis, the first priority will likely be to ascertain the launch point of the attack. Depending on their size, drones could even be driven into the kingdom and launched at short range. "It's true that this is not the most capable military, said Barrie of the U.K.'s IISS think tank. "But the opposition has an awful lot of advantages."

- - -

Bloomberg's Henry Meyer, Yaacov Benmeleh and Zainab Fattah contributed.

Remembering Ana, my 15-year-old daughter who died of cancer

By Jacqueline Dooley
Remembering Ana, my 15-year-old daughter who died of cancer
Ana Dooley in a selfie at age 14. She died of cancer at 15 in March 2017. MUST CREDIT: Courtesy of Jacqueline Dooley

In a calendar full of months dedicated to specific illnesses, September is particularly painful. This is the month focused on childhood cancer awareness. You'll see gold everywhere - gold ribbons, gold banners, gold-themed profile photos on social media, all in the name of awareness and remembrance for children battling cancer. And kids, like my Ana, who lost that fight.

For those of us who've lost a child to cancer, gold is the color of sorrow, not hope. We are left with the burden of remembering - not just our children, but how they died, how we couldn't save them.

Ana died on March 22, 2017, at age 15, of a rare type of cancerous tumor.

Yet she's always with me, always at the periphery of every thought, every moment. I still say good night to her. I talk to her in the morning as I replenish the bird feeders. It's no burden for me to remember Ana, but keeping her memory alive in the minds and hearts of other people? I'm finding this a challenge, particularly as time passes.

In the beginning, it wasn't difficult because everyone was grieving. Ana was in the thoughts and hearts of an entire community of people who had been with us, cheering us on and rooting for Ana, for five years. But life, as they say, goes on.

Except when it doesn't.

Ana lived for four years and six months after her initial diagnosis in September 2012.

We didn't have a funeral. We couldn't bear to bury her. Instead, we had her body cremated. We picked up her ashes from the funeral home two weeks later. They were in a black, unmarked cardboard box, which I slipped onto a shelf as if it was an oddly shaped book and not the remains of my daughter.

I drive by that funeral home several times a week. At first, it was impossible to suppress the image that rose up, unbidden, whenever I passed it - Ana, laid out on a metal gurney, a blanket pulled up to her chest. Her skin was the color of porcelain and she was so impossibly cold. Except for these details, she could've been sleeping.

She held two identical stuffed alligators under each arm - she'd called them "Choobie," and she'd loved them her entire life. They were cremated with her.

Two months after she died, we had a memorial celebration on what would've been her 16th birthday. We gathered at the small private school in Woodstock, New York, that had embraced Ana - a place she loved and that loved her.

By then we'd moved her ashes to an urn made by a local potter who painted a hummingbird on the front beneath Ana's name. The hummingbird was inspired by a tattoo design that Ana liked. She'd hoped to get the tattoo before she died, but she was too young and far too sick. The potter had combined the hummingbird with one of Ana's drawings - a blue flower with periwinkle petals.

I'm reminded of the tattoo Ana never got every day when I walk past her urn to sit down at my desk.

You see, my office was Ana's bedroom. My work area is spread across one wall, but the rest of the room still belongs to her.

Behind me are Ana's shelves, filled with items she loved - candles, trinkets and bowls she'd made in pottery class. The urn occupies a corner of those shelves.

We glued a chunk of celestite to the lid - it was Ana's favorite stone. Four paper cranes adorn this small altar - one for each member of our immediate family. The last crane Ana ever folded is the orange one.

On average, a child loses 70 potential life years when they die of cancer, compared with 15 potential life years for adults.

Near our home in New York's mid-Hudson Valley, there are several places where we've honored Ana's memory. They are our attempt to let people know that she lived. She was real. A plaque with her name on it is secured to a slab of bluestone in a local park.

We used to take Ana and her younger sister to this park when they were little. Ana loved to catch frogs in the park's tiny pond. She was a master frog catcher, but she was always gentle. She'd catch them, cup them in her hands for a minute or two, then set them free. Ana had called the park "The Frog Pond" and the name stuck. She loved going there even as a teenager.

After we installed the plaque, we scattered some of her ashes in the frog pond.

A yellow magnolia tree was planted near the entrance to the small private school that Ana attended from first through eighth grades. At its base sits a handmade steppingstone that reads, "Ana's Tree."

About 30 miles away in Woodstock, a circular gazebo made from rough-cut logs and a bench swings surrounds another tree at the school where Ana attended ninth and 10th grade. This one is a maple. We planted the tree in Ana's memory during her memorial service two years ago.

Ana's former classmates completed the gazebo and hung their own plaque in her honor last year. The gazebo is a welcome respite for students, teachers and parents who can sit and contemplate the beautiful school grounds that Ana loved.

"The space is never empty," a teacher told me during my last visit.

It never feels like enough - these tokens of our love for Ana - but at least it's something.

As many as 20 percent of mothers and 35 percent of fathers reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) five years after their child's death.

My friend Jodi made me a quilt from some of Ana's favorite clothes. It took me months to do more than drape it over a chair. I could barely look at it, much less touch it.

I have every single item of clothing memorized - the owl pajamas, the sherbet-colored rainbow sweater, the Buffy T-shirt that she'd worn until it had practically disintegrated. I would give anything to wash and fold Ana's clothes again, literally anything.

But all I have is this quilt. These days, I drape it over my legs and run my hands over each square of fabric. It helps with the remembering.

I remember Ana by writing about her. I tell and retell her story - not just the story of how she died, but the story of who she was, of how she lived. I remember her by saying her name. I'll keep saying her name until I can no longer speak.

I light candles for her, watch her favorite TV shows and turn my Facebook page gold in September. I am learning, slowly, to find joy in her memory because that's all I can do. It's all I have left.

Only four drugs have been approved for first-instance use in treating childhood cancer since 1980. And annually, from 2007 through 2016, less than 4 percent of the National Cancer Institute's budget was allocated to fund pediatric cancer research.

The truth is, there's no single way to remember a dead child. Every family copes with this loss differently. I wish there weren't so many of us out here - grieflings, bereaved parents, the tribe of "after." I had no idea how many of us existed until I became one of them. Now I know at least 10 parents who have lost a child to cancer.

My hope is that some day no family will lose a child from cancer and that gold of September will simply represent the autumn harvest and the turning leaves, not the suffering of a child with cancer.

They were once America's cruelest, richest slave traders. Why does no one know their names?

By Hannah Natanson
They were once America's cruelest, richest slave traders. Why does no one know their names?
A window in the basement of Isaac Franklin and John Armfield's slaveholding

The two most ruthless domestic slave traders in America had a secret language for their business.

Slave trading was a "game." The men, Isaac Franklin and John Armfield, were daring "pirates" or "one-eyed men," a euphemism for their penises. The women they bought and sold were "fancy maids," a term signifying youth, beauty and potential for sexual exploitation - by buyers or the traders themselves.

Rapes happened often.

"To my certain knowledge she has been used & that smartly by a one eyed man about my size and age, excuse my foolishness," Isaac Franklin's nephew James - an employee and his uncle's protege - wrote in typical business correspondence, referring to Caroline Brown, an enslaved woman who suffered repeated rape and abuse at James' hands for five months. She was 18 at the time and just over five feet tall.

Franklin and Armfield, who headquartered their slave trading business in a townhouse that still stands in Alexandria, Virginia, sold more enslaved people, separated more families and made more money from the trade than almost anyone else in America. Between the 1820s and 1830s, the two men reigned as the "undisputed tycoons" of the domestic slave trade, as Smithsonian Magazine put it.

As the country marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown, Americans are being forced to confront the brutality of slavery and of the people who profited from it. Few profited more than the two Virginia slave traders.

Their success was immense: The duo amassed a fortune worth several billions in today's dollars and retired as two of the nation's wealthiest men, according to Joshua Rothman, a professor of history at the University of Alabama who is writing a book on Franklin and Armfield. Several factors set the pair apart, Rothman explained: For one thing, their timing was impeccable. They got into the domestic slave trade just as the cotton economy - and American demand for enslaved labor - exploded, and quit right before the United States sank into the financial panic of 1837.

Their location was also prime, perched so they could collect enslaved people from plantations across Virginia and Maryland and sending them on forced marches - in groups of several hundred known as "coffles" - or on tightly packed ships along the Atlantic Coast to the Deep South. While their business strategy was not especially innovative, it was conducted on a scale "bigger and better than anyone else," Rothman said. Franklin and Armfield transported an estimated 10,000 enslaved people over the course of their careers, according to Rothman.

"They're the ones who turned the business of selling humans from one part of the U.S. to another ... into a very modern, organized business - no longer just one trader who might move a few people from one plantation to another," said Maurie D. McInnis, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies the cultural history of slavery. "They created a modern machinery to support the business of human trafficking."

That was possible largely because of the traders' willingness to be unusually cruel and heartless - even for a business built around the sale of human beings - as they committed atrocities they appeared to relish.

"In surviving correspondence, they actually brag about raping enslaved people who they've been processing through the firm," said Calvin Schermerhorn, a professor of history at Arizona State University. "This seemed to be as much a part of Franklin and Armfield's culture of business as, say, going to the bar after a successful court case might be the culture of a successful law firm's business."

Yet today, almost no one knows their names.

When Franklin and Armfield retired, they passed easily into elite white society, achieving respectable dotage without a murmur. History, too, has largely "let them off scot-free," Schermerhorn said. Few, if any, American high school or college students ever learn about the duo.

"I think America continues to be uncomfortable talking about the original sin of slavery," McInnis said. "And this is one of its most horrific chapters."

- - -

The slave trade was all Isaac Franklin ever knew.

He was born in 1789 to a wealthy planter family in Tennessee that owned "a significant number" of enslaved people, according to Rothman. In his late teens, right around the time the United States passed a law barring the transatlantic slave trade, Franklin and his older brothers grew interested in the domestic version: They began transporting small numbers of enslaved people between Virginia and the Deep South.

Franklin developed a taste for the business and, after taking a brief break to fight in the War of 1812, dedicated himself to slave trading full-time. It was all he did for the rest of his professional life, right up until he retired.

"His brothers never got back into the slave trade, but Isaac really decides this is going to be his game: He's good at it, he likes it, he can make money at it, he sticks with it," Rothman said.

Franklin worked with a few partners over the years but connected with his longest-lasting collaborator - the man who became his closest friend, confidant and nephew by marriage - in the early 1820s. At the time, John Armfield was lacking in purpose: Shiftless and footloose, he had recently been chased away from a county in North Carolina for fathering a child out of wedlock, Rothman said.

His path to the slave trade was less clear-cut than Franklin's. Born in 1797 to lapsed Quakers who farmed several hundred acres in North Carolina and owned a small number of enslaved people, Armfield spent his early adulthood pursuing a variety of unsuccessful ventures, including a small mercantile shop - which he was forced to abandon after his affair.

Though unsure what he wanted to do, Armfield was clear on what he didn't: He loathed farming. So, "floundering about" in the wake of the sex scandal, Armfield decided he would "just dabble in the slave trade," according to Rothman.

Franklin and Armfield met a few years after that in the course of business and immediately developed a rapport, Rothman said - an intimacy that continued for decades and fueled their profitability. In 1834, the two men became family when Armfield married Franklin's niece.

"They are each other's closest friends and that's rooted in their working relationship," Rothman said. "Part of the reason they're successful is they work well together: Each understands the other's strengths, they trust and respect each other."

The two men launched the slave trading firm Franklin & Armfield and moved into the Alexandria townhouse - today a museum - in 1828. From the beginning, they divvied the work according to each man's strength: Armfield, based in Virginia, managed the "buying side of things" and arranged transportation, Rothman said. Franklin, meanwhile, stayed mostly in Natchez, Mississippi, and was responsible for selling their human cargo to plantations in the Deep South.

It worked like this: Relying on a network of headhunters spread across Virginia, Maryland and Washington, Armfield would round up enslaved people, holding them in an open-air pen behind the house in Alexandria - or sometimes in its crowded, filthy basement - until he'd amassed a sufficient number: usually between 100 and 200. Then, he'd send the group on an arduous 1,000-mile march to slave markets in Natchez or New Orleans - or he'd stuff them into one of the company's three massive ships to make the same journey by water.

At the peak of their business, the two men were moving roughly 1,000 people a year, historians said.

They placed ads in local newspapers seeking enslaved people almost every single day they remained in business. They developed cruel stratagems to boost their bottom line: For example, they "designated less space per person [on their ships] than the trans-Atlantic slave trade vessels did," Schermerhorn said.

While enslaved people waited in Franklin and Armfield's "holding pen" in Alexandria, the two men most likely adopted classic techniques employed by slave traders to enhance enslaved people's salability, McInnis said. That meant feeding their captives large amounts of corn pone and pork to "fatten them up," dying gray hair black "so they looked younger," and - if an enslaved person's skin was scarred with whip marks - smearing wax into the wounds "so they looked healthier," according to McInnis.

"The whole thing was so evil," McInnis said.

Through it all, both regularly raped the women they bought and sold and joked about it in letters, a shared habit that deepened their friendship. Franklin and Armfield each fathered at least one child with an enslaved woman, Rothman said. He suspects the abuse, which had no financial purpose, stemmed from a desire for raw power: "They did it because they could, and they felt like it."

When Franklin wed a rich socialite in 1839, he had been "raping the same enslaved woman" for about five years and had fathered a child with her, Rothman said. Franklin sold the enslaved woman and her baby right after his wedding.

Her fate is unknown.

- - -

One of the most persistent misconceptions about slavery in the United States is that the white upper class refused to associate with slave traders on principle, Rothman said - a myth the case of Franklin and Armfield disproves.

Even while actively trading slaves, the two men enjoyed an excellent reputation and moved in top-tier social circles, according to Rothman. Franklin went to the theater with other rich whites and threw dinner parties, earning a reputation as a "gregarious" host with "the best liquors," Rothman said.

Armfield may have been less extroverted, but he, too, drew accolades for his social graces. When visitors came to the Alexandria townhouse, he always opened the door for them, made elegant small talk and offered them something "nice" to drink, McInnis said.

He was so smooth he managed to impress even a New England abolitionist who visited Alexandria in the 1830s. The abolitionist, knowing full well Armfield's profession, nonetheless wrote: He is "a man of fine personal appearance, and of engaging and graceful manners."

Their good reputations persisted after retirement. Franklin and Armfield quit the business around 1837. Franklin, who was approaching his 50s, "was tired and didn't want to do it anymore," Rothman said. Armfield had no wish to continue without his longtime partner.

Franklin divided his retirement between a large mansion he built in Tennessee and several Louisiana plantations he acquired over the course of his career. He whiled away his final years managing his estates and spending time with his three children and wife, Adelicia Hayes, whom records indicate he adored. Franklin died in 1846 of intestinal issues.

Armfield, meanwhile, purchased an old hotel in the Tennessee mountains and converted it to a luxury summer getaway for the wealthy. He ran it with great success in his final years, earning visits from "very prominent people," including archbishops and the mayor of Nashville, according to Rothman. (Armfield's hotel, which still stands, is used to host events including Methodist retreats.) He died of old age in 1871.

Armfield's marriage never yielded any children, and Franklin's children with Hayes all died without producing offspring, according to Rothman, so the two men have no direct white descendants living today. Armfield has at least one direct black descendant, Rodney Williams, who wrote about his heritage - which he said he discovered through DNA testing - in an essay included in "Slavery's Descendants," published in May.

A group of Franklin's indirect white descendants learned of their relationship to the slave trader a few years ago and, in 2018, donated money and relics to the Alexandria museum located where their ancestor's business once stood.

Neither Franklin nor Armfield earned recrimination from their peers during their lifetimes - and neither man felt the slightest remorse, according to their papers.

"It never occurs to them to think slavery might be bad: Slavery is what made their society work, it made them rich, it was a given that that was what black people were for," Rothman said. "There's no indication anywhere in the record that they felt guilty over what they did."

Rothman is one of a small handful now fighting to remember the two men who arguably served as the founding fathers of America's domestic slave trade. He became interested in Franklin and Armfield after perceiving a relative paucity of books or articles about the duo - what he called "a gaping hole in all of the literature on the slave trade."

It's been six years since Rothman began his research, crisscrossing the country to scour old documents such as property transactions in Louisiana, court cases in Mississippi, ship manifests in Alexandria.

Sometimes, he finds it difficult to keep going. He is loath to spend yet another day probing the dark activities and darker minds of Franklin and Armfield.

Then he remembers why he wanted to write the book.

"People are still talking about how the slave trade was marginal, slave traders were these ostracized dirtbags, and slaveholders only bought and sold people when they had to," Rothman said. "Those kinds of stubborn myths - they need demolition."

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

Trump is a racist. Democrats should stop calling him one.

By dana milbank
Trump is a racist. Democrats should stop calling him one.


(Advance for Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Milbank clients only)


WASHINGTON -- President Trump is a horrendous racist. And it's time for Democrats to stop calling him one.

Counterintuitive? Yes. But substantial evidence shows that labeling Trump "racist" backfires against Democrats. It energizes his supporters without providing any additional motivation to Democrats, and it drives soft partisans -- voters who could be up for grabs in 2020 -- into Trump's arms.

This doesn't mean letting Trump off the hook for being the racist he obviously is; I've been using the term for four years because it objectively describes him. But this means talking about his racism in a different way:

Say that he tears America apart by race and threatens our democracy.

Say that he pits Americans against each other by color and religion to distract from his cruelty.

Say that he enables and encourages white supremacists.

Democrats have a moral obligation to call out Trump's racist campaign. But they can't cry "racist" and assume that's the end of the argument.

"The term 'racist' itself has taken on this new meaning," says Duke University political scientist Ashley Jardina, author of the 2019 book "White Identity Politics." "It's become a politicized term. ... Crying racism is seen as crying wolf." In research done during the 2016 campaign, Jardina found out that when voters were read a statement saying some people oppose Trump "because he supports racism," voters with high levels of racial resentment became overwhelmingly more supportive of Trump. Interestingly, the term "white supremacist" doesn't backfire the way "racist" does.

Labeling Trump racist "tends to make more racially resentful whites angry," Jardina tells me. "They hold more strongly the attitudes they have about racial policies, including doubling down on their support for Donald Trump."

These findings were confirmed in polling done by an alliance of progressive groups last month studying possible Democratic responses to Trump's immigration rhetoric about an "invasion" of criminals and drug smugglers. The research found that a response calling Trump racist decreased overall support for Democrats relative to Trump. A response saying Trump uses fear to divide by race worked substantially better. The competing messages produced no major differences among Democrats and independents, but the racism response played much worse among white, non-college-educated voters and soft partisans. The racism response was especially damaging to Democrats after voters were shown an anti-immigration video with Trumpian themes. (Disclosure: my wife is a partner at the firm that conducted the polling.)

The problem with the specific term "racist" can be seen in yet another study done by a trio of Harvard University researchers. Writing last month for The Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog, which is written by academics, they reported that Republicans were two to three times more likely to reject the label "racist" for racially charged attitudes than Democrats (and most independents). Most Republicans don't regard flying the Confederate battle flag as racist for example, and a third of Republicans reject the notion that it's racist to use "a word about a racial group some see as offensive." More than 80% of Republicans say voting for Trump is not racist.

If Democrats tell them otherwise, they'll only dig in deeper.

This isn't to say Democrats should avoid the subject of racism. To the contrary, ignoring it could depress core Democratic voters, particularly non-white voters. "People of color really want to see somebody go after Trump," says Christopher Sebastian Parker, a University of Washington specialist in race and politics. The key to making the attack on Trump resonate for independent voters is to make it more than name-calling. "If you say his racism is a threat to democracy and our lives as Americans, that will turn them against him," he argues. "It cannot be divorced from something more substantive: him as a threat to American identity or a threat to American institutions."

Some of the Democratic presidential candidates in Thursday night's debate in Houston got it right; others fell into the "racist" trap.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker used the term but at least gave it context: "We know Donald Trump's a racist, but there is no red badge of courage for calling him that. Racism exists. The question isn't who isn't a racist. It's who is and isn't doing something about racism."

But South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg probably invited backlash when he was asked if the people who support Trump and his immigration policy are racists. "Anyone who supports this is supporting racism," he said.

I agree with him. But for Democrats to talk that way is counterproductive.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

California's new labor law could slam the brakes on Uber and Lyft

By megan mcardle
California's new labor law could slam the brakes on Uber and Lyft



(For McArdle clients only)


WASHINGTON -- Californians, say hello to AB5, soon to be your newest labor law when Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signs the bill he backed. You probably know it better as the law that on Jan. 1 will force Uber and Lyft and other gig-economy businesses to treat their workers as employees, not independent contractors. (The companies, bless their hearts, say the legislation clearly allows them to treat workers as contractors and that they'll likely push a referendum in 2020 to overturn it.)

Cue celebration on the left. Many contract workers in California will be eligible not just for the state's $12-an-hour minimum wage (increasing to $15 by 2023), and health benefits if they work more than 29 hours a week (thanks, Obamacare!), unemployment insurance and workers' compensation.

That is, if they still have work. It seems to me that if the law survives as written, the best-case scenario for Uber and Lyft involves these companies aggressively culling all but their highest-performing drivers, who will be herded into assigned shifts in affluent high-traffic areas. The worst-case scenario is that Uber and Lyft close up shop in the state of California. That might explain why Newsom is trying to broker talks where labor unions and ride-hailing and food-delivery companies could agree on separate rules for gig-economy workers.

Yes, you in the back, wearing the Che Guevara T-shirt, I can hear you muttering about how they could "just take a little less in profits." That might be fine for older companies that make heavy use of contractors and have old-fashioned things such as profits. But the gig-economy companies are still hemorrhaging cash. Essentially, Uber and Lyft are a charity dedicated to shuttling people among airports, hotels, WeWork "hot desks" and plates of avocado toast.

They have no surplus value for kindly legislators to redistribute. Having gone public, they can't even run to get more cash from the starry-eyed venture capitalists who funded their losses so profligately.

It is true that these firms (BEG ITAL)aspire(END ITAL) to profitability. The aspiration is even faintly plausible. By aggregating both drivers and passengers into massive networks, rather than the fragmented, hand-crafted dispatch systems of the old-style cab companies, Uber and Lyft actually made ride-hailing much more valuable to both passengers and drivers.

Because it's easier for the two to connect, drivers can pick up fares wherever they happen to be, rather than needing to pull a 12-hour shift cruising rich residential and commercial strips. Meanwhile, passengers can find rides much faster than was possible by calling cab companies to see who had a driver available.

But the flexibility that makes Uber and Lyft so appealing to drivers -- most ride-share drivers are using the services as a part-time gig they can schedule around their regular obligations -- is possible only because of the current compensation structure, which pays per ride. If Uber and Lyft have to pay you $15 an hour whether or not you carry any passengers ... let us just say that the interests of company and driver suddenly diverge rather sharply.

No, if Uber and Lyft drivers are employees, they're going to have to be treated like, you know, employees: assigned regular shifts, in company-determined areas, with productivity targets and regular administrative spot-checks. For some drivers, that's probably preferable to the current arrangement. But for those who valued the option (BEG ITAL)not(END ITAL) to work when they had something more pressing to do, ride-hail driving will no longer be a good deal.

Should those people quit in significant numbers, Uber's and Lyft's networks will shrink, reducing ridership and making the companies less able to pay drivers. That's why I suspect they will either have to cull their networks and intensely supervise what's left, or simply depart for less onerous climes.

One can argue that if they can't make money with their drivers as employees, then the business was never a good one to start with and deserves to die. But the drivers were providing those rides voluntarily -- no one made them turn on the app -- so it was apparently better than whatever their next-best way of earning money was. It was also better for passengers, many of whom will go back to driving their own cars, or staying put, rather than paying higher prices for less convenience.

You can't fault the drivers for wanting to earn more, of course. Nor the California legislature for wanting to give it to them. But given the well-publicized holes in the corporate financial statements, you (BEG ITAL)can(END ITAL) wonder where the heck they thought the money was going to come from.

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Joe Biden's record player and his hot-air balloon of memory

By alexandra petri
Joe Biden's record player and his hot-air balloon of memory



(For Petri clients only)


Ah, the fifth-third debate! (Do not let anyone tell you you only see three debates. I have been there with you, and there have been five.) Andrew Yang announced he would give away thousands of dollars to a few lucky viewers. The moderators asked whether Cory Booker wanted everyone to be vegan, and he rejected the premise. Climate change, as usual, did not come up until it was nearly too late. Asked on Thursday to address the country's legacy of racism, segregation and slavery, and about his 1975 remark that "I'll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago," Joe Biden said, confusingly, the following:

(BEG BOLD)Biden:(END BOLD) Look, there's institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Red-lining banks, making sure we are in a position where -- look, you talk about education. ... The teachers are -- I'm married to a teacher, my deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them. We have [to] make sure that every single child does, in fact, have 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds go to school. School. Not day care. School. We bring social workers into homes with parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It's not that they don't want to help, they don't know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television -- excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the -- the -- make sure that kids hear words, a kid coming from a very poor school ... (BEG ITAL)(These were actual quotes, verbatim!)(END ITAL)

(BEG BOLD)Moderator:(END BOLD) Uh.

(BEG BOLD)Biden:(END BOLD) (BEG ITAL)(Stepping into the basket of a hot-air balloon.)(END ITAL) Play the phonographs. Leave your gramophone on at night. Pump the pedals of your player piano. Don't leave pies to cool in open windows. Don't let your young boys -- the dandelion wine.

Tell these kids -- I see kids who, they don't wait at the corner for the traffic cop's whistle. Don't let your young men tie their belongings into red handkerchiefs folded four ways into a bundle at the end of a stick and go hike along the railroad tracks. Or when they stop, be sure they stop at a soda counter. Send them to the nickelodeon where they can watch the newsreel (BEG ITAL)and(END ITAL) the feature.

We need doctors willing to put their stethoscope to a beloved dolly and listen for what ails it. And brother, you better watch out, because when that sister of yours grows up, you'll be fighting men off with a stick! No dates until you're 30!

(BEG BOLD)Moderator:(END BOLD) I think he's just describing Norman Rockwell paintings now.

(BEG BOLD)Biden:(END BOLD) America was not always like it is now. We had freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom from ignorance. Platters full of turkey and smiling faces. Individual behaviors, not deep-seated institutional rot, are at the root of what is wrong, and we can fix it. Social workers will help. Listen to more records. Lawrence Welk. We used to be able to talk to each other, fireside chats. The boys went up in their rockets, and Ma watched in her apron and she was ever so proud. And the lights gleamed on the bandstand.

America can be in apple-pie shape once again. America was the way it only looked. We have to remember that. There was a time when people understood what you meant even if you didn't say it just so. That time did exist, for everyone. Crystal radios. A skinned knee.

There is an invisible bar, and the men in the barbershop gather around the ticker to find out whether I cleared it, and, boys, I cleared it. I will never not clear it. I am floating far above it now. Bring the rockets, boys! Together we'll soar through the night of an endless American summer that my campaign alone believes really did exist. When we could reach compromises with people who disagreed, even segregationists, but Barack Obama could still be our best friend. When the past really was the past. When people saw your heart and knew your heart. We can all dream together, the American Dream, and we'll never need to wake up, skipper.

(BEG ITAL)(With some difficulty, the moderators manage to puncture the balloon that is rapidly carrying Biden aloft in a dream of memory.)(END ITAL)

(BEG BOLD)Moderator:(END BOLD) Uh, thank you, Mr. Vice President.

(BEG BOLD)Biden:(END BOLD) (BEG ITAL)(With a jolt.)(END ITAL) Also, these kids, they think they just came up with the idea of confronting Maduro. I confronted Maduro before any of you were even a twinkle in your father's eye! I remember everything, even some things that never quite were. Vote for me and I will take us back there. It's walking distance.

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Trump won -- again

By kathleen parker
Trump won -- again


(Advance for Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Parker clients only)


WASHINGTON -- Watching the Democratic presidential debate Thursday night left one clear impression: Donald Trump won.

Please don't shoot the messenger. My left index finger recoiled a bit as it reached for the "T" on the keyboard. But it's true for this reason: Democrats are too earnest. They care too much. They're too smart. They know too much.

Whoever says, as California Sen. Kamala Harris did, "The American people are so much better than this" needs to get out more.

This isn't to recommend that primary candidates should be more like Trump, not that they could. But as a panel of candidates, they're missing a key element essential to voter interest. Not brilliant policies or the rote delivery of statistics but a clear and firm message as well as that other thing that Trump had in 2016 -- "it."

We're used to saying "it girl," but boys have "it," too. And it isn't necessarily good. In fact, in men it's probably just a little bit bad. Bad enough to attract attention, to convey toughness, to seduce with dazzle or at least bedevil those around him. Love him or hate him -- or just wish him away -- Trump had the X-factor in spades and jokers.

Yes, yes, many Americans are surely ready for something different. But a Trump-like figure in the mix gives everyone a point of reference for contrasts and pivots.

As elder statesman and Democratic front-runner, Joe Biden was the obvious person to serve this role, but he's the opposite of the brooding, sarcastic, hunkering Trump from the 2016 campaign. Whereas Trump was the impudent scoundrel, dominating the field with the aloof self-confidence of an undefeated bully, Biden is the welcome guy at Walmart who wants to give everybody a great, big ol' hug.

Three years ago, Trump knew nothing, of course, but he made certain that viewers would not be bored. He hurled glib insults and tagged better men with insulting (but largely accurate) nicknames -- and the crowds loved him. Today, Democratic contenders are so busy trying to demonstrate how un-Trump they are that they risk putting everyone to sleep. Be honest. Did you make it to the end of Thursday night's three-hour affair?

Also missing from the mix is a jester to the king. For Republicans in the 2016 cycle, it was South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. Barely registering in the polls, Graham was so liberated by the impossibility of his nomination that he said only true things, including that Trump was a "race-baiting, xenophobic bigot" and "jackass." We watched the "kids table" GOP debates prior to the top guns just to find out what Graham would say. Miss that guy.

On Thursday, the zany Andrew Yang did offer some comic relief when he said, "I'm Asian, so I know a lot of doctors," thus supposedly making him an expert on health care. Otherwise he was plainly auditioning for a game show of his own. He offered to give $1,000 a month to 10 families for a year to show how his guaranteed minimum income policy would work. He also suggested giving all Americans $100 "democracy dollars" to spend on political causes.

Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro was laughable if not funny when he tried to make Biden look little. Fuming mad in that studied, must-show-passion way, Castro jabbed Biden for "forgetting" what he had just said, which wasn't true, but Castro was brandishing his narrative as the Latino, new-generation tough guy. It backfired.

Honorable mention goes to former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who broke out with his strongest stand yet on gun control: "Hell, yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47," he intoned, sounding very fierce. Also noteworthy, Biden earned a new voter bloc among the incarcerated population when he said, "Nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime."

In sum: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was very Bernie. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was A-plus perfect. Harris was prosecutorial. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker was bookishly faithful to his narrative. Biden was grown-up. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar was emphatically moderate. And South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the Mr. Rogers of American politics, would make everything tidy.

Entertainment value, obviously, should play no part in a voter's calculation. But as all public speakers know, audiences don't remember what you said; they remember how you made them feel. Trump made people feel excited, if for all the wrong reasons. This crew? Serotonin on the rocks without a twist.

Kathleen Parker's email address is

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Should we love or hate 'negative' interest rates?

By robert j. samuelson
Should we love or hate 'negative' interest rates?


(Advance for Monday, Sept. 16, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Samuelson clients only)


WASHINGTON -- The idea that interest rates could be "negative" seems so counterintuitive that it defies easy understanding. Yet, here we are. Some foreign central banks (among them, the European Central Bank and the central banks of Denmark and Sweden) have adopted them. No less a figure than former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has suggested that it's just a matter of time before negative rates come to the United States.

What gives?

It's more than an academic question. President Trump is virtually begging for negative interest rates. He has urged the Fed to drop interest rates to zero; that's a preamble to negative rates. This and other monetary policies are already shaping Trump's tumultuous relationship with the Fed. Last week, the ECB deepened its negative rates as part of a package to fend off a recession. It's time to see what the fuss is all about.

Negative rates represent another technique by which central banks, such as the Federal Reserve, try to maintain full employment and low inflation. The conventional approach is to raise or lower a "policy" interest rate. In the U.S. case, that's the Fed funds rate, which is the rate on overnight loans between banks. Movements in this rate are assumed to spread to longer-term rates on business loans, mortgages and consumer credit. The shifts stimulate or restrain the economy.

The problem arises when rates have been cut to zero and the economy still isn't performing as desired. The Fed funds rate can't be cut further to prod lenders to lend. Negative interest rates are one possible response. The Fed or other central banks would charge interest on the reserves that commercial banks leave at their central banks. For example: Denmark's central bank charges 0.65% on designated reserves.

The theory is simple. If banks can't be bribed to lend (through lower interest rates), maybe they can be coerced to lend through penalty payments on reserves. To escape the penalty fee, banks would lend out their reserves. This, it's argued, would affect other interest rates and stimulate the economy.

What's crucial is that the negative rates on short-term debt spread to negative rates on longer-term bonds that have a larger effect on consumer and business borrowing. This already seems to be happening. At present, there are roughly $16 trillion of negative-yielding bonds out of a global bond market of about $113 trillion, reports the Institute of International Finance, an industry research and advocacy group.

Many factors have pushed down interest rates, said economist Sonja Gibbs of the IIF in an interview. For starters, there are the cuts in official policy rates. In addition, there's heavy demand for safe-haven supplies of bonds -- bonds that can be easily sold if there are unanticipated personal business needs. Banks are also big buyers of bonds to satisfy their capital requirements.

For the moment, there is no need for the Fed to resort to negative interest rates, because the Fed funds rate is still in positive territory -- 2% to 2.25%. The worry is that if or when the rate drops to zero, the Fed will need some other way to stimulate economic growth. (The Fed's main decision-making body meets this week and is expected to cut rates to a range of 1.75% to 2%.)

If the case for negative interest rates is so strong, why all the controversy? The answer, of course, is that the case isn't that strong. Some technical and political factors may impede success, wrote Jennifer McKeown in a report for Capital Economics, a consulting firm.

In some countries -- Denmark, Switzerland and Sweden -- zero-interest policies seem to have sparked some additional lending, "albeit quite slowly," McKeown noted. One common fear has so far been muted: the possibility that banks would stage a "flight into cash" to avoid the penalty interest rates on their reserves. This would weaken banks' profitability without necessarily spurring faster economic growth.

There is also the perverse possibility that the plunge in long-term interest rates would frighten many consumers into believing that their retirement savings are being eroded, leading them to save more and spend less. "If so," McKeown observed, "monetary policy [becomes] counterproductive."

What ultimately matters most is the public's reaction to negative rates. They would be so out of the ordinary that they may be off-putting. Banks are scared that passing along the fees to depositors might trigger a public relations disaster. But if the negative rates aren't passed along to depositors, their effectiveness in stimulating spending may be minimal.

The larger issue here is barely discussed -- the dependence of U.S. economic growth on constant doses of "stimulus," whether bloated budget deficits, super-low interest rates or negative rates. Their waning effectiveness raises hard questions of whether the economy can achieve adequate growth on its own.

(c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group

Democrats finally realized who their real opponent is

By e.j. dionne jr.
Democrats finally realized who their real opponent is


(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE. Normally advance for Monday, Sept. 16, 2019, and thereafter.)

(For Dionne clients only)


WASHINGTON -- After spending the first half-hour of Thursday's debate tearing each other apart over health care -- which happens to be their party's strongest issue -- the Democratic presidential candidates realized that their opponent is Donald Trump and acted accordingly.

As a result, despite jabs and disagreements throughout a three-hour marathon, they offered a far less divisive performance than they (and an additional 10 contenders) turned in during the first two debates.

Having often been critical of Barack Obama's policies during the summer, they fell all over each other to praise the last Democratic president's many virtues. Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke was the beneficiary of a remarkable display of comradely cheerleading, as one rival after another praised his response to last month's mass shooting in O'Rourke's hometown of El Paso. And they underscored the degree to which they broadly agree on issues ranging from gun control, climate change, immigration -- and even, despite their fierce disputes on Medicare-for-all, on the need to guarantee health insurance to all Americans.

Thursday's debate seems likely to have a paradoxical political effect. On the one hand, nothing obvious happened to disturb the current advantages of the three leaders in the contest, Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. On the other hand, several candidates running further back in the polls made their presence felt in ways that will keep them in the minds of voters as plausible alternatives should the leaders falter.

Biden had his strongest performance in the debates so far. He showed moments of spark and fluency, and generally avoided the gaffes and awkward pauses that hurt him in the June debate. But he did get a bit lost on an answer about Afghanistan and offered a rather dated reference to a "record player."

Warren was energetic and forceful throughout, returning again and again to her themes of battling corruption, inequality and corporate power, even when discussing gun control. Sanders was his uncompromising and combative self, which, no doubt, reinforced the loyalty of his base.

But it was potentially a breakthrough evening for California Sen. Kamala Harris, who has slipped in recent polling. Viewers saw what might be called "Harris Unplugged." She was far looser, leavened her arguments with humor, and largely kept her focus on Trump. Her opening statement was directed to the president and ended with the words: "And now, President Trump, you can go back to watching Fox News." New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker showed passion throughout, assuming the role of preacher in describing "a crisis of empathy in our nation."

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar unapologetically cast herself as the moderate in the race. "If you feel stuck in the middle of the extremes in our politics and you are tired of the noise and the nonsense," she said, "you've got a home with me, because I don't want to be the president for half of America. I want to be the president for all of America." South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg continued to display moments of eloquence, notably in telling the story of his coming out as gay.

Biden came in for a variety of gibes, as one would expect for the front-runner, but only former HUD Secretary Julián Castro launched attacks with gusto, and even a touch of meanness. When Biden denied that his health-care plan required poor people to buy in, Castro argued that Biden was contradicting himself, and seemed to reference the former vice president's age by asking, "Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?" The crowd booed.

The relative comity did not mean that Democratic divisions went unmentioned. There were clear ideological divides -- particularly on health care.

Making arguments Republicans are certain to echo, Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar hit hard against Medicare-for-all plans that they said would require higher taxes and force Americans to give up private insurance. Warren and Sanders defended them as guaranteeing universality and taking insurance company profits out of the system.

It was the best debate so far, partly because the ABC News moderators did not focus quite as much as earlier questioners did on inspiring conflict. They also covered a broader range of issues, particularly on matters related to race and racism. Only political junkies were likely to have stuck with the ordeal to the end. Those who did were likely the most loyal Democrats who, on the whole, heard more of what they wanted to hear about Trump's shortcomings and a bit less about divisions in their own ranks that could haunt them next fall.

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

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

The sharpest pens in the industry serve up points of view to chew on.

Bury your dead-tired strips and grab something fresh, meaningful and hilarious.

Serious therapy and serious fun to give readers a break from breaking news.