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In Caracas of all places, a construction boom suddenly emerges

By Noris Soto
In Caracas of all places, a construction boom suddenly emerges
People walk in the main avenue of Las Mercedes in Caracas Venezuela, on June 15 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Manaure Quintero.

You can still find a place to enjoy a nice steak dinner in Las Mercedes, the Caracas district once known for discos and beer-by-the-bucket pubs. Mostly, though, it's shuttered stores and graffiti-swamped apartment blocks punctuated by busted street lights. And the strangest thing: scaffolding.

On brand-spanking new construction, no less. This seems wildly out of place in the economic basket-case capital of world. But there it is on Paris Street. And over on Jalisco. And on block after block. Las Mercedes, it turns out, is where some of Venezuela's richest citizens, prohibited from moving cash out of the country, are parking it.

The mogul Oswaldo Cisneros and the hotelier Salomon Muci are among those investing in the mixed-use buildings there, with names like Luxor and Tower 302 that will boast "exclusive local shops" and marble finishes, as promotional materials tout. A few other neighborhoods are witnessing mini-construction booms, too, but Las Mercedes may be the busiest with, according to the mayor's office, an astounding 73 projects underway.

The obvious question is, who in crumbling Caracas will rent the slick retail and office spaces and buy the fancy condos? The answer might be, at least in the short term, who cares?

"With the cash and currency-exchange controls in place, investors are wisely deciding to invest in brick," said Alfred Scheer, head of the real-estate developer Vantage Latin America. Someday it might even pay off. "We trust that a political change will come sooner or later and we want to be prepared."

The May 20 election, boycotted by the opposition and denounced by the U.S., the EU and others as unfair, maintained the precarious status quo. It kept Nicolas Maduro in the presidency of a country overwhelmed by rampant crime, crippling shortages of basic goods, widespread hunger and inflation that is running over 20,000 percent.

Bank accounts pay laughable interest or none at all. For those few with spare bolivars, there aren't many options to watching its value evaporate. The currency controls first established in 2003 by the regime of the late Hugo Chavez are quite strict. And the black market isn't that big, so it's tricky to sneak money out.

Many affluent Venezuelans, of course, had protected a good deal of their wealth by shifting it abroad before the government cracked down. But they still have business interests in the country -- Cisneros controls the wireless operator Digitel, for example, and Muci is a director of and owns shares in the Intercontinental Tamanaco Caracas -- and continue to accumulate cash they have to deal with.

So the construction crews are at work in Las Mercedes, and in Chacao and in Valle Arriba in Baruta, where most embassies have their diplomatic offices and residences. The 40-floor Provincial Tower on Francisco de Miranda Avenue is being expanded to add another building. Residences Casa 27 in Campo Alegre is billed as a palatial complex that will have extraordinary views of the golf courses of the Caracas Country Club and the Avila.

On a hill overlooking the city, dozens of units are already for sale in the unfinished Panorama Mirador de Los Campitos Residence; a four-bedroom, four-bath is asking 1.1 trillion bolivars. That's 411 times what an ordinary Venezuelan, if he or she actually has a job, earns in a month.

All the high-end building has some Caraquenos scratching their heads. "This doesn't make sense to me," said Freddy Calderon, who works in a Las Mercedes parking lot. "With the economy at its worst stage, and with all the problems we Venezuelans are facing right now -- it doesn't make sense."

For Caracas boosters, though, it's exciting, a sign that, as Aquiles Martini Pietri put it, the country isn't going to just "sink into a deep hole." He's an official at Fedecamaras, a chamber of commerce, and sees the positive spin.

"There are people who have enough cash flow that allows them to continue investing. There are people who still believe in and are betting on Venezuela."

Gold Street: where South Africa's mining history goes to die

By Ana Monteiro and Felix Njini
Gold Street: where South Africa's mining history goes to die
Paseka Selemela, a former worker at the Savuka mine, guides cars into parking spaces in an area just off Gold Street in Carletonville, South Africa, on May 25, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Guillem Sartorio.

The death rattle of the industry that once symbolized South Africa can be heard in the town of Carletonville-on Gold Street.

That's where Paseka Selemela has been guarding cars since 2010, when the scaffolding business he worked for closed. Prior to that, he was an assistant at a now-shuttered mine owned by AngloGold Ashanti. Nor has he found work in other gold mines around the town, home to the world's deepest shafts. Many of his friends and family members also have joined the legions of the retrenched, including 8,500 people in the area last year alone.

"These people can't find jobs, just like me," Selemela, 34, said under the winter sun, wearing a torn, dirty Chelsea soccer club shirt and jeans that hung loosely on his thin frame. "They try at the retailers, but there is nothing available there. They are employing fewer people because people are buying less. There's no money."

Additional cuts are to come across mines and towns in South Africa, once the world's biggest producer of gold. A volatile currency, uncertainty about regulations and demand, labor union tensions, harder-to-access ore, high operating costs and falling prices mean about half of gold and platinum operations are loss-making.

More than 6 million people are unemployed and looking for work, taking the jobless rate to about 28 percent, a 15-year high. This excludes 2.5 million discouraged job seekers.

It's a gargantuan task for newly elected President Cyril Ramaphosa, who came to office in February promising to revive the sluggish economy and clamp down on corruption. He's spearheading a drive to attract $100 billion in new investments that could absorb unemployed youth as well as former mine and factory workers and to provide opportunities for young citizens.

He has his work cut out for him: The economy shrank the most in nine years in the first quarter, led by declines in agriculture, mining and manufacturing, Statistics South Africa said June 5. Gold production fell for the seventh straight month in April, the agency said on June 14.

After gold was discovered near what was to become the economic hub of Johannesburg in 1886, the country became the biggest producer. The metal spawned some of the world's largest mining companies, such as Anglo American. It transformed South Africa from a farming economy into the continent's most industrialized. It provided opportunities for unskilled black males, who were restricted from many jobs because of their race under white-minority-rule, known as apartheid.

In 1980, mining vied with manufacturing as the largest contributor to gross domestic product, with each at about 21 percent. Today, mines account for 7 percent of the economy. In 1987, the sector employed 763,000 people; that's down more than 40 percent to 447,000 now. The government, retailers and banks are now the country's biggest employers.

"A lot of the future of the industry is going to be based on constraining costs and a need to improve safety, but most particularly a focus on innovation and technology," said Roger Baxter, chief executive officer of the Minerals Council of South Africa, which represents most producers. "It will continue to shrink until those initiatives start bearing good fruits."

The newer platinum industry has its own problems. Producers are closing shafts and cutting thousands of jobs because a stronger rand and stagnating prices are squeezing profit margins. At the same time, reduced demand for diesel engines and the rise of electric cars threatens to erode the need for the metal, which is used in converters that control emissions in diesel-fueled vehicles. About 41 percent of platinum used last year was for this purpose, according to research from Johnson Matthey, one of its top refiners.

"The industry is in crisis," said Chris Griffith, CEO of Anglo American Platinum, the world's largest producer. "It's a chicken-and-egg situation. You need to invest yourself out of this situation by investing in growing demand."

South Africa continues to be an important gold-mining jurisdiction worth investing in, said Bernard Swanepoel, a former CEO of Harmony Gold Mining Co. and board member of Impala Platinum Holdings, the world's second-biggest producer.

"I really think it's the last chapter, but the last chapter could be a good chapter," he said. "Thirty more years of gold mining in South Africa could be a good chapter."

And the country's huge mineral endowment means chrome, iron ore and manganese-of which the nation has the world's biggest known reserves-are becoming more important for exports, said Ross Harvey, a mining analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs.

"Minerals such as iron ore have good prospects," he said. "It's an irreplaceable product for the steel industry. But as mines bring in new technology, that will continue to drive down jobs absorption."

Draft rules published June 15 by Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe could hurt new operations. The Mining Charter says nearby communities and employees' groups should get a 5 percent interest in either the asset or the company that owns it. The Minerals Commission and its members are opposed.

Mark Bohlund, an Africa economist at Bloomberg Economics, said the government should be doing more for an industry that's still among the country's top export-revenue earners.

"The government could offer more tax incentives for the mining sector but the scope for this will be constrained by the need to reduce the budget deficit and stabilize public debt," he said. "Beyond that, the government needs to improve its relationship with key mining-sector unions and persuade them to moderate their wage demands."

South Africa has had success expanding its automotive industry, which now accounts for about 7 percent of GDP. Toyota, Ford and BMW all assemble vehicles locally. That can be put down to a state-incentive program that expires at the end of 2020, which both the carmakers and Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies are eager to extend for another 15 years.

The state wants automakers to double the size of their combined workforce to about 225,000 to help to tackle the jobless rate, but the companies are reluctant to commit to specific targets. They view those as unrealistic given the global industry's shift toward robotics and automation, said National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa Director Nico Vermeulen.

For Caldwell Nzimeni and his friends in Carletonville, working in a vehicle-assembly plant isn't an option unless they migrate far from home and manage to acquire manufacturing skills they don't have.

Nzimeni, 29, worked at Mponeng, the world's deepest gold operation, for four years as an engineering assistant. He left in 2015 to complete his engineering studies but has been unsuccessfully applying for mine work for 18 months.

To make ends meet, he rents out shacks made from corrugated iron in the backyard of his home for 200 rand ($14) monthly and does plumbing and home-improvement jobs whenever he can find them. With the downturn in the town's economy, his tenants are struggling to make their payments.

"I had hoped to return in a higher position with my qualification, but it hasn't happened," said Nzimeni, wearing blue work overalls and an old national soccer-team shirt sprayed with cement and grout after returning from an odd job installing a bathroom. "There are no jobs. Since the mines have closed, businesses are falling apart."

Google is training machines to predict when a patient will die

By Mark Bergen
Google is training machines to predict when a patient will die
A member of the medical team prepares equipment during an operation inside theater at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham in Birmingham, England, on Feb. 20, 2017. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Matthew Lloyd.

A woman with late-stage breast cancer came to a city hospital, fluids already flooding her lungs. She saw two doctors and got a radiology scan. The hospital's computers read her vital signs and estimated a 9.3 percent chance she would die during her stay.

Then came Google's turn. An new type of algorithm created by the company read up on the woman -- 175,639 data points -- and rendered its assessment of her death risk: 19.9 percent. She passed away in a matter of days.

The harrowing account of the unidentified woman's death was published by Google in May in research highlighting the health-care potential of neural networks, a form of artificial intelligence software that's particularly good at using data to automatically learn and improve. Google had created a tool that could forecast a host of patient outcomes, including how long people may stay in hospitals, their odds of re-admission and chances they will soon die.

What impressed medical experts most was Google's ability to sift through data previously out of reach: notes buried in PDFs or scribbled on old charts. The neural net gobbled up all this unruly information then spat out predictions. And it did it far faster and more accurately than existing techniques. Google's system even showed which records led it to conclusions.

Hospitals, doctors and other health-care providers have been trying for years to better use stockpiles of electronic health records and other patient data. More information shared and highlighted at the right time could save lives -- and at the very least help medical workers spend less time on paperwork and more time on patient care. But current methods of mining health data are costly, cumbersome and time consuming.

As much as 80 percent of the time spent on today's predictive models goes to the "scut work" of making the data presentable, said Nigam Shah, an associate professor at Stanford University, who co-authored Google's research paper, published in the journal Nature. Google's approach avoids this. "You can throw in the kitchen sink and not have to worry about it," Shah said.

Google's next step is moving this predictive system into clinics, AI chief Jeff Dean told Bloomberg News in May. Dean's health research unit -- sometimes referred to as Medical Brain -- is working on a slew of AI tools that can predict symptoms and disease with a level of accuracy that is being met with hope as well as alarm.

Inside the company, there's a lot of excitement about the initiative. "They've finally found a new application for AI that has commercial promise," one Googler says. Since Alphabet Inc.'s Google declared itself an "AI-first" company in 2016, much of its work in this area has gone to improve existing internet services. The advances coming from the Medical Brain team give Google the chance to break into a brand new market -- something co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have tried over and over again.

Software in health care is largely coded by hand these days. In contrast, Google's approach, where machines learn to parse data on their own, "can just leapfrog everything else," said Vik Bajaj, a former executive at Verily, an Alphabet health-care arm, and managing director of investment firm Foresite Capital. "They understand what problems are worth solving," he said. "They've now done enough small experiments to know exactly what the fruitful directions are."

Dean envisions the AI system steering doctors toward certain medications and diagnoses. Another Google researcher said existing models miss obvious medical events, including whether a patient had prior surgery. The person described existing hand-coded models as "an obvious, gigantic roadblock" in health care. The person asked not to be identified discussing work in progress.

For all the optimism over Google's potential, harnessing AI to improve health-care outcomes remains a huge challenge. Other companies, notably IBM's Watson unit, have tried to apply AI to medicine but have had limited success saving money and integrating the technology into reimbursement systems.

Google has long sought access to digital medical records, also with mixed results. For its recent research, the internet giant cut deals with the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of Chicago for 46 billion pieces of anonymous patient data. Google's AI system created predictive models for each hospital, not one that parses data across the two, a harder problem. A solution for all hospitals would be even more challenging. Google is working to secure new partners for access to more records.

A deeper dive into health would only add to the vast amounts of information Google already has on us. "Companies like Google and other tech giants are going to have a unique, almost monopolistic, ability to capitalize on all the data we generate," said Andrew Burt, chief privacy officer for data company Immuta. He and pediatric oncologist Samuel Volchenboum wrote a recent column arguing governments should prevent this data from becoming "the province of only a few companies," like in online advertising where Google reigns.

Google is treading carefully when it comes to patient information, particularly as public scrutiny over data-collection rises. Last year, British regulators slapped DeepMind, another Alphabet AI lab, for testing an app that analyzed public medical records without telling patients that their information would be used like this. With the latest study, Google and its hospital partners insist their data is anonymous, secure and used with patient permission. Volchenboum said the company may have a more difficult time maintaining that data rigor if it expands to smaller hospitals and health-care networks.

Still, Volchenboum believes these algorithms could save lives and money. He hopes health records will be mixed with a sea of other stats. Eventually, AI models could include information on local weather and traffic -- other factors that influence patient outcomes. "It's almost like the hospital is an organism," he said.

Few companies are better poised to analyze this organism than Google. The company and its Alphabet cousin, Verily, are developing devices to track far more biological signals. Even if consumers don't take up wearable health trackers en masse, Google has plenty of other data wells to tap. It knows the weather and traffic. Google's Android phones track things like how people walk, valuable information for measuring mental decline and some other ailments. All that could be thrown into the medical algorithmic soup.

Medical records are just part of Google's AI health-care plans. Its Medical Brain has unfurled AI systems for radiology, ophthalmology and cardiology. They're flirting with dermatology, too. Staff created an app for spotting malignant skin lesions; a product manager walks around the office with 15 fake tattoos on her arms to test it.

Dean, the AI boss, stresses this experimentation relies on serious medical counsel, not just curious software coders. Google is starting a new trial in India that uses its AI software to screen images of eyes for early signs of a condition called diabetic retinopathy. Before releasing it, Google had three retinal specialists furiously debate the early research results, Dean said.

Over time, Google could license these systems to clinics, or sell them through the company's cloud-computing division as a sort of diagnostics-as-a-service. Microsoft, a top cloud rival, is also working on predictive AI services. To commercialize an offering, Google would first need to get its hands on more records, which tend to vary widely across health providers. Google could buy them, but that may not sit as well with regulators or consumers. The deals with UCSF and the University of Chicago aren't commercial.

For now, the company says it's too early to settle on a business model. At Google's annual developer conference in May, Lily Peng, a member of Medical Brain, walked through the team's research outmatching humans in spotting heart disease risk. "Again," she said. "I want to emphasize that this is really early on."

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

Siege of port of Hodeida sparks hope for deal in Yemen

By david ignatius
Siege of port of Hodeida sparks hope for deal in Yemen

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN

(SPECIAL COLUMN FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Ignatius clients only)

WRITETHRU- In 3rd graf, 2nd sentence, changes to "intervened" (sted "invaded")

By DAVID IGNATIUS

WASHINGTON -- The brutal war in Yemen may be moving toward a tipping point following a controversial siege of the port of Hodeida by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

A U.N. mediator and a top Emirati diplomat both expressed hope Thursday for a negotiated deal with Houthi rebels that could relieve pressure on the city. But they disagreed about details, and humanitarian groups warned that the assault is choking relief supplies for Yemen's tormented civilian population.

Yemen is caught in a proxy war between the Saudi-UAE coalition, which backs the Yemeni government, and Iran, which supports the Houthis. The Saudis and Emiratis intervened in 2015 after the Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa. But the war bogged down, with heavy civilian casualties. The Houthis alienated many Yemenis last year by killing their ally, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, after he switched sides and backed the Saudis.

Martin Griffiths, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, said in a statement Thursday that he was "confident that we can reach an agreement to avert any escalation of violence in Hodeida." News reports said the Houthis might be willing to turn management of the port over to the U.N., easing the transport of food and other supplies.

Anwar Gargash, the UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs, also expressed hope for a deal in a telephone interview Thursday night. But he said the plan the Houthis seem ready to accept -- for U.N. oversight of the port -- isn't sufficient, and that the UAE and its allies want complete withdrawal of Houthi fighters from the city.

"We feel that if the Houthis are out of Hodeida, they will be much more realistic," Gargash said. "The smart thing is to push hard on the perimeter, not enter the city, and say to the U.N., 'Go back and get a better deal.'"

Past mediation efforts have foundered on just such disagreements about terms. A truce that seemed near in Sanaa many months ago, for example, was scuttled by Saudi and UAE demands that the Houthis surrender their heavy weapons, which they refused to do. In Hodeida, the Houthis don't have much heavy weaponry, Gargash said.

The Hodeida battle has been one of the most important of the three-year war. UAE commanders moved this month to assault the port city, hoping to tip the balance of the protracted conflict. Last week, the UAE-led forces seized control of the airport just outside the city center, and then called on the Houthis to withdraw.

"We don't want to move further than the airport," Gargash said. While he wouldn't rule out an assault on the city center, he said: "It shouldn't be fighting in the streets or homes. We don't want that."

The Hodeida offensive has been condemned by humanitarian groups that said the attack would further impede relief efforts. The port is the main transit point for NGOs bringing food and other assistance into the battered nation of Yemen. Amnesty International warned in a new report this week that the siege had meant a "stranglehold" of the city.

"We feel that taking Hodeida will shorten the war," Gargash said, in explaining the rationale for the offensive. "We've broken the stalemate," by taking the airport, he argued. If the U.N. can reach a deal for evacuation of fighters from the city, he maintained, "it will lay the groundwork for a broader political solution" in other parts of Yemen.

Saudi officials, similarly, believe that their position has grown stronger in Yemen. Like the UAE officials, they keep insisting that if they maintain the squeeze, the Houthis will crack.

Perhaps Hodeida will produce the elusive negotiated deal. Meanwhile, the war grinds on and civilian suffering continues.

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Your only Halley's

By charles krauthammer
Your only Halley's

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER COLUMN

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By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER

EDITORS -- The following Charles Krauthammer column was originally published on Dec. 13, 1985. It's the first of two pieces from his archives that we are resending, at no charge for publication. Krauthammer died Thursday, June 21, at age 68. Find additional memorial content at syndication.washingtonpost.com/nss/special.

A Lutheran minister once called comets the "thick smoke of human sins," a hypothesis that finds little support nowadays among scientists. They prefer to see comets as big dirty snowballs trailing tails of gas and enthralled by gravitation. And coming not from God but from the equally ineffable Oort cloud, a gigantic shell far beyond the solar system where aspiring comets spend eons of quiet desperation until disturbed by some celestial accident and called to race toward the sun and make men weep.

Except that men don't weep anymore. Halley's Comet may have brought victory to the Normans in 1066, heralded the descent of Turkish armies on Belgrade in 1456, and, in 1910, killed Mark Twain and then Edward VII. This time around all is forgiven. After all, it knows not what it does. And we know what it is: a forlorn mass of rock and ice, a few miles across, caught in endless revolution around our sun. Now an object, not an omen, it is the source not of panic but of curiosity. Five earthly spacecraft have been sent to greet it and snap its picture.

Science has thoroughly desacralized the universe. It is in the language. When in the last election Walter Mondale warned against militarizing "the heavens," the usage seemed quaint. After Neil Armstrong and George Lucas, what's up there now is simply "space." The heavens were a place for angels, gods and portentous messengers. Space is home to extraterrestrials, the Force and now snowballs cruising through emptiness.

Don't get me wrong. I am not pining for the days of the witch doctor. Things are much better now. There are costs to demystifying the universe and turning it over to science -- the ubiquity of Carl Sagan is among the heavier ones -- but the gain is great.

Halley's, like the rest of space, is friendly now, tamed. This will probably be the first time in history that Halley's will bring wonder unalloyed with fear. Halley's has turned into a celebration, a scientific romance.

The romance is in the return. Halley's comes back, always exactly on time. After its current pass, it will travel 3 billion miles away from Earth and then turn to revisit your children. It is the grandest reminder that an individual can behold of the constancy of nature. This, because of its cycle: it returns about every 75 years, once in a lifetime.

The sun rises regularly, too, but so often that we can't help being dulled to the wonder of its rhythm. And what rhythms, beyond that of the familiar year, really touch us? Sun spots come every 11 years, and what layman cares? Economists are forever coming up with "long waves" (50 years) and other putative business cycles. Even Freud's theory of neurosis was built on the notion of a distant return, the return of the child to the mind of the man. Such cycles can most charitably be called speculative.

Others are merely too long. The ice age will be back too. Fit that in your calendar. Halley's alone is made to human scale. Its span is precisely a lifetime. Birth and death are perhaps the only events that match Halley's periodicity. And neither is nearly as reliable. Birth and death come with regular irregularity (to borrow a term from cardiology). Halley's you can count on.

We know, for example, absolutely nothing about what the world will be like in 2061. Except one thing. In that unimaginable year, a year whose very number has an otherworldly look, Halley's will light up the sky.

One price of demystifying the universe is that science, unlike religion, asks only how, not why. As to the purpose of things, science is silent. But if science cannot talk about meaning, it can talk about harmony. And Halley's is at once a symbol and a proof of a deep harmony of the spheres.

The great author of that harmony was Newton. And one of the earliest empirical demonstrations of his gravitational theories was provided by his friend, Edmond Halley. Twenty-three years after the great comet of 1682, Halley deciphered its logic. He predicted its return in 1758. Halley died 17 years before he could be proved right. The return of the comet was a sensation. It made Halley immortal. True to its nature, science wed the comet forever to the man who did not discover it, but was the first to understand it.

This time around, there will be no sensation. Halley's will give one of the worst shows ever. This may be its dimmest apparition in more than 2,000 years. What we will celebrate, then, is not the spectacle, but the idea.

Halley's is a monument to science, a spokesman for its new celestial harmonies -- and an intimation of mortality. It is at once recurring and, for us individually, singular. This will be my only Halley's and, if you're old enough to read this without moving your lips, your last one too, I'm afraid.

Halley's speaks to me especially acutely. As it turns around the sun, the midpoint on its journey, I will be marking the midpoint in mine, or so say the Metropolitan Life tables. Our perihelions match. Mark Twain was rather pleased with the fact that he came in with Halley's and would go out with it. Ashes to ashes, Oort to Oort. Hail Halley's.

Charles Krauthammer's email address is letters@charleskrauthammer.com.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

The central axiom of partisan politics

By charles krauthammer
The central axiom of partisan politics

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER COLUMN

(SPECIAL COLUMN FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Krauthammer clients only)

By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER

EDITORS -- The following Charles Krauthammer column was originally published on July 26, 2002. It's the second of two pieces from his archives that we are resending, at no charge for publication. Krauthammer died Thursday, June 21, at age 68. Find additional memorial content at syndication.washingtonpost.com/nss/special.

To understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law: Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.

For the first side of this equation, I need no sources. As a conservative, I can confidently attest that whatever else my colleagues might disagree about -- Bosnia, John McCain, precisely how many orphans we're prepared to throw into the snow so the rich can have their tax cuts -- we all agree that liberals are stupid.

We mean this, of course, in the nicest way. Liberals tend to be nice, and they believe -- here is where they go stupid -- that most everybody else is nice too. Deep down, that is. Sure, you've got your multiple felon and your occasional war criminal, but they're undoubtedly depraved 'cause they're deprived. If only we could get social conditions right -- eliminate poverty, teach anger management, restore the ozone, arrest John Ashcroft -- everyone would be holding hands smiley-faced, rocking back and forth to "We Shall Overcome."

Liberals believe that human nature is fundamentally good. The fact that this is contradicted by, oh, 4,000 years of human history simply tells them how urgent is the need for their next seven-point program for the social reform of everything.

Liberals suffer incurably from naivete, the stupidity of the good heart. Who else but that oracle of American liberalism, The New York Times, could run the puzzled headline: "Crime Keeps On Falling, but Prisons Keep On Filling." But? How about this wild theory: If you lock up the criminals, crime declines.

Accordingly, the conservative attitude toward liberals is one of compassionate condescension. Liberals are not quite as reciprocally charitable. It is natural. They think conservatives are mean. How can conservatives believe in the things they do -- self-reliance, self-discipline, competition, military power -- without being soulless? How to understand the conservative desire to actually abolish welfare, if it is not to punish the poor? The argument that it would increase self-reliance and thus ultimately reduce poverty is dismissed as meanness rationalized -- or as Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., put it more colorfully in a recent House debate on welfare reform, "a cold-blooded grab for another pound of flesh from the demonized welfare mothers."

Liberals, who have no head (see above), believe that conservatives have no heart. When Republicans unexpectedly took control of the House of Representatives in 1994, conventional wisdom immediately attributed this disturbance in the balance of the cosmos to the vote of the "angry white male" (an invention unsupported by the three polls that actually asked about anger and found three-quarters of white males not angry.)

The "angry white male" was thus a legend, but a necessary one. It was unimaginable that conservatives could be given power by any sentiment less base than anger, the selfish fury of the former top dog -- the white male -- forced to accommodate the aspirations of women, minorities and sundry upstarts.

The legend lives. Years ago it was Newt Gingrich as the Grinch who stole Christmas. Today, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman declares the Bush administration the moral equivalent of Jean-Marie Le Pen, France's far right, xenophobic, anti-Semitic heir to European fascism. Both apparently represent the "angry right." But in America, writes Krugman, it is worse: "Here the angry people are already running the country."

This article of liberal faith -- that conservatism is not just wrong but angry, mean and, well, bad -- produces one paradox after another. Thus the online magazine Slate devoted an article to attempting to explain the "two faces" of Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal. The puzzle is how a conservative could have such a "winning cocktail-party personality and talk-show cordiality." Gigot, it turns out, is "Janus-faced": regular guy -- "plays basketball with working reporters" -- yet conservative! "By day he wrote acid editorials ... by night he polished his civilized banter [on TV]."

A classic of the genre -- liberal amazement when it finds conservatism coexisting with human decency in whatever form -- is the New York Times news story speaking with unintended candor about bioethicist Leon Kass: "Critics of Dr. Kass' views call him a neoconservative thinker. ... But critics and admirers alike describe him as thoughtful and dignified."

But? Neoconservative but thoughtful and dignified. A sighting: rare, oxymoronic, newsworthy.

The venerable David Halberstam, writing in praise of the recently departed Ted Williams, offered yet another sighting: "He was politically conservative but in his core the most democratic of men." Amazing.

The most troubling paradox of all, of course, is George W. Bush. Compassionate, yet conservative? Reporters were fooled during the campaign. "Because Bush seemed personally pleasant," explained Slate, "[they] assumed his politics lay near the political center."

What else could one assume? Pleasant and conservative? Ah, yes, Grampa told of seeing one such in the Everglades. But that was 1926.

Charles Krauthammer's email address is letters@charleskrauthammer.com.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

If Melania really doesn't care, then who does?

By ruth marcus
If Melania really doesn't care, then who does?

RUTH MARCUS COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE. (This replaces the column that would usually be for release Sunday, June 24.))

(For Marcus clients only)

By RUTH MARCUS

"I Really Don't Care. Do U?" So First Lady Melania Trump advertised, in large letters on the back of a jacket made superfluous by the muggy summer weather, as she traveled to and from visiting migrant children at a Texas shelter.

It was impossible to divine with certainty what Trump was trying to communicate, except to know that the huffy official response -- "There was no hidden message," her communications director insisted -- was obviously untrue, unless in the sense that the message was not hidden at all, but emblazoned on the back of the jacket.

When you leave the house, you may grab whatever ratty sweatshirt is at hand. Not Melania Trump, former fashion model. The last news-making jacket that she wore was a $51,000 floral applique number from Dolce & Gabbana. Did the first lady have this one, off the rack from Zara for $39, stashed in her closet, awaiting the perfect moment?

In any event, the #ItsJustAJacket claim, and the accompanying lecture to the media to "spend their time & energy on her actions & efforts to help kids -- rather than speculate & focus on her wardrobe -- was, as things tend to be in Trumpworld, quickly contradicted by the president, who advised that the nonexistent message was actually a middle finger to "the Fake News Media." The first lady, he said, "has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares!"

Yeah, right. It was a message to the traveling press -- just one that required two tries and presidential interpretation to deliver.

But the more interesting, and more answerable question, may be why Melania Trump's self-proclaimed insouciance felt so unnerving. I think it has to do with our national craving for a sense that someone, anyone, in this depraved administration retains some moral compass and basic human decency. If not Melania, then who? If not now, when?

Donald Trump is unsuited for many aspects of the presidency, none so much as the president's role as healer-in-chief. We are suffering from the national trauma of hearing the cries of children separated from their parents, possibly permanently. But this president cannot alleviate that trauma; he is the one who chose to inflict it.

Consider the reputational and political damage that accrued to George W. Bush with his incompetent and seemingly unfeeling -- recall the famous airplane flyby -- response to Hurricane Katrina. But Katrina was an act of God. The crying children are an act of Trump.

And so this administration must outsource its compassion. To some extent, this is convenient for the president, too. Trump does tough, and leaves the soft stuff to the women around him. Hence his eagerness to announce, as he backtracked from his lock-'em-up approach, that Melania Trump -- "My wife feels very strongly about it" -- and his daughter Ivanka had implored him to do so.

"The dilemma is that if you're weak ... if you're really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people," Trump said Wednesday. "And if you're strong, then you don't have any heart. ... Perhaps I would rather be strong, but that's a tough dilemma."

He would rather be strong -- the Trump presidency in a nutshell.

Which leaves us with Melania Trump. Is it possible that she meant to say that she didn't give a hoot about the children? But she didn't seem like someone who was being dispatched to Texas under duress -- more like someone who was signaling, as best she could, that she did not back this immoral program.

Convict Melania Trump of selfish complicity, maybe -- certainly of a relentless failure of self-awareness with her #bebest insistence that she cares about combating cyber-bullying. Say that she issued a pre-reversal statement notable for its mealy mouthed evenhandedness.

Still, that was more than Certain Others could choke out (Ivanka Trump, that means you, as my colleague Karen Tumulty noted.) And a sitting First Lady was never going to go full Laura Bush, comparing her husband's policies with the internment of Japanese-Americans.

Perhaps this is too kind to Melania Trump, and it is more accurate to understand her as calculating collaborator than prisoner in a gilt-encrusted cage. Yet one of the astonishing aspects of the family separation debacle has been that no administration official -- not a single one -- had enough of a moral compass to quit in protest.

And so we are reduced to grasping at the crumbs of compassion tossed by Melania Trump. If she really doesn't care, no one in this benighted administration does. Which may well be true but does not make it any less tragic.

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

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

The real hoax about the border crisis

By catherine rampell
The real hoax about the border crisis

THE MILLENNIAL VIEW

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Rampell clients only)

By CATHERINE RAMPELL

It's all a hoax. A great big hoax.

Not the family separations, the babies alone in cages, the drugged immigrant children, the stolen toddlers too traumatized to speak, the wailing children whom Ann Coulter slanders as "child actors."

Sadly, those cruelties are all too real.

The hoax is the premise that President Trump's administration has invented to rationalize such crimes against humanity: his narrative that America has been "infest[ed]" with hordes of crime-committing, culture-diluting, job-stealing, tax-shirking, benefits-draining "aliens."

No part of that description is remotely true. Yet the Trump administration seems to have successfully shifted the national dialogue away from "(BEG ITAL)Do(END ITAL) we have a border immigration problem?" to "What's the right way to (BEG ITAL)fix(END ITAL) our border immigration problem?"

Truly, it's bizarre. Unauthorized border crossings have been falling over time. In fact, apprehensions of unauthorized immigrants along the Southwest border last fiscal year declined to about 300,000, the lowest level since 1971, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. They've risen in recent months, though year-to-date they're still below historical levels.

Let's say you believe, though, that even those numbers are too high, because of the calamities these immigrants have been inflicting upon America's public safety, culture and economy.

Trump, after all, suggests that even one border-crosser is too many, since most come bringing crime, drugs and general bloodthirst.

In fact, immigrants in general, and undocumented immigrants in particular, commit crimes at far lower rates than native-born Americans. That includes violent crime, according to research from the Cato Institute. Another recent study, published in the journal Criminology, found that states with larger shares of undocumented immigrants tended to have (BEG ITAL)lower(END ITAL) crime rates. The finding jibes with lots of earlier research, too.

Which makes sense: Most immigrants want to stay off law enforcement's radar. One wrong move, after all, could get them deported -- in some cases, to their death.

So let's consider the (BEG ITAL)other(END ITAL) claims that Trump makes about our supposed alien infestation, such as foreigners' alleged assault on our culture and values.

The gothic horrors of a "taco truck on every corner" notwithstanding, recent waves of immigrants have actually proved themselves reasonably adept at assimilating into American culture. Particularly those given the opportunity to escape the shadows.

"Immigrants are now more assimilated, on average, than at any point since the 1980s," according to a 2013 study by Jacob L. Vigdor for the Manhattan Institute, using metrics such as English-language ability and intermarriage rates.

But maybe you say immigrants' real damage is economic, as those not-at-all-bigoted "economic nationalists" claim. Immigrants are stealing our jobs, our benefits and shortchanging Uncle Sam!

This is a curious claim to make in a labor market with 3.8 percent unemployment. Nonetheless, let's consider what the research says about the longer-term relationship between immigration levels and job market health.

There's reason to believe that new immigrants may depress wages for earlier waves of immigrants who have similar skill sets. However, recent studies suggest that immigration (both authorized and unauthorized) actually boosts labor force participation rates, productivity and wages and reduces unemployment rates for native-born American workers, whose skills these immigrants tend to complement.

But don't these people drain the public coffers?

Immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, pay taxes -- taxes that fund government benefits that in many cases they are not legally eligible to collect.

A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that the net fiscal impact of first-generation immigrants, compared to otherwise similar natives, is positive at the federal level and negative at the state and local levels. That's due mostly to the costs of educating their children. When their children grow up, though, they are "among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the U.S. population, contributing more in taxes than either their parents or the rest of the native-born population." In other words, by the second generation, immigrants are net-positive for government budgets at all levels.

What about the most destitute immigrants who come here, though? Surely they're sucking the government dry!

Nope.

An internal government report (BEG ITAL)commissioned by Trump(END ITAL) found that refugees brought in $63 billion more in tax revenue over the past decade than they cost the government. Finding those results inconvenient, the administration suppressed them, though they were ultimately leaked to The New York Times last year.

It's hard to comprehend how Trump has so successfully hijacked the national conversation around immigration. With virtually no facts on his side, he has managed to fabricate a multipart border emergency, and convince a majority of his own party that this imagined emergency necessitates state-sanctioned child abuse. Sadly, Trump's manufactured crisis has now led to very real tragedy.

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

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Charles Krauthammer, a diagnostician of our public discontents

By george f. will
Charles Krauthammer, a diagnostician of our public discontents

GEORGE WILL COLUMN

(SPECIAL COLUMN FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Will clients only)

By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON -- When he was asked how to become a columnist, Charles Krauthammer would say, with characteristic drollery, "First, you go to medical school." He did, with psychiatry as his specialty because, he said with characteristic felicity, it combined the practicality of medicine and the elegance of philosophy. But he also came to the columnist craft by accident. Because of one.

It has been said that if we had to think about tying our shoes or combing our hair we would never get out of the house in the morning. Life is mostly habitual -- do you actually remember any details of driving home last evening? The more of life's functions that are routinely performed without thinking, the more thinking we can do. That, however, is not how life was for Charles after his accident.

In 1972, when he was a 22-year-old student at Harvard Medical School, he was swimming in a pool. Someone pushed the diving board out, extending over a shallower part of the pool. Charles, not realizing this, dove and broke his neck. At the bottom of the pool, "I knew exactly what happened. I knew why I wasn't able to move, and I knew what that meant." It meant that life was going to be different than he and Robyn had anticipated when they met at Oxford.

He left two books at the pool. One was a text on the spinal cord. The other was Andre Malraux's novel "Man's Fate."

Paralyzed from the neck down, he completed medical school, did an internship and, one thing leading to another, as life has a way of doing, became not a jewel in the crown of the medical profession, which he would have been, but one of America's foremost public intellectuals. Nothing against doctors, but the nation needed Charles more as a diagnostician of our public discontents.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Charles wrote speeches for the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Walter Mondale, who did not realize -- neither did Charles -- that the campaign harbored a thinker who soon would be a leading light of contemporary conservatism. Dictating columns when not driving himself around Washington in a specially designed van that he operated while seated in his motorized wheelchair, crisscrossing the country to deliver speeches to enthralled audiences, Charles drew on reserves of energy and willpower to overcome a multitude of daily challenges, any one of which would cause most people to curl up in a fetal position. Fortunately, with more brain cells to spare than the rest us have to use, he could think about doing what was no longer habitual, and about national matters, too.

Charles died at 68, as did, 19 years ago, Meg Greenfield, the editor of The Washington Post's editorial page. For many years, Meg, Charles and this columnist met for Saturday lunches with a guest -- usually someone then newsworthy; now completely forgotten -- at a Washington greasy spoon whose name, the Chevy Chase Lounge, was grander than the place. Like Meg, Charles was one of those vanishingly rare Washingtonians who could be both likable and logical. This is not easy in a town where the local industry, politics -- unlike, say, engineering; get things wrong and the bridges buckle -- thrives on unrefuted errors.

Medicine made Charles intimate with finitude -- the skull beneath the skin of life; the fact that expiration is written into the lease we have on our bodies. And his accident gave him a capacity for sympathy, as Rick Ankiel knows.

Ankiel was a can't-miss, Cooperstown-bound pitching phenomenon for the St. Louis Cardinals -- until, suddenly and inexplicably, he could not find the plate. Starting the opening game of a playoff series at age 21, the prodigy threw five wild pitches and his career rapidly spiraled far down to ... resurrection as a 28-year-old major league outfielder, for a short but satisfying stint in defiance of F. Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that there are no second acts in a life. As Charles wrote, Ankiel's saga illustrated "the catastrophe that awaits everyone from a single false move, wrong turn, fatal encounter. Every life has such a moment. What distinguishes us is whether -- and how -- we ever come back."

The health problems that would end Charles' life removed him from the national conversation nine months ago, so his legion of admirers already know that he validated this axiom: Some people are such a large presence while living that they still occupy space even when they are gone.

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

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

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