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How 'Mass' treads the delicate line of asking a school shooting victim's parents to grieve with the shooter's

By Sonia Rao
How 'Mass' treads the delicate line of asking a school shooting victim's parents to grieve with the shooter's
Filmmaker Fran Kranz, center, poses for a portrait in early October alongside actors Jason Isaacs and Ann Dowd. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bill O'Leary

Fran Kranz was driving in Los Angeles three years ago when, suddenly overwhelmed, he pulled over. The actor had been listening to a news broadcast about the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and needed a moment to collect himself as he processed the anguish of a parent interviewed on the radio.

Maybe it was that Kranz had recently become a father himself, he wonders aloud in an interview with The Washington Post, or he just experienced a human reaction to hearing someone grapple with the trauma of senseless violence. Numbness can at times feel like a natural response to such news in a country where school shooting drills have become part of curriculums. That trauma has shaped our national psyche. Kranz grew up with it; he was a teenager at the time of the Columbine shooting in Colorado.

But after Parkland, he couldn't stop thinking about what the parents of school shooting victims endure, how they are left to wonder what it could possibly mean for their children to have died in this manner. He began to research their stories and, while doing so, also came across accounts from the families of people who have committed similar crimes. He began to see those parents as victims, too.

"There was an opportunity to give equal value to each of their stories," Kranz says. So he took it.

"Mass," Kranz's directorial debut, can be difficult to distill. The film is at its core a contemplation of restorative justice, set six years after a school shooting and centered on a meeting between the parents of a victim (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton) and those of the perpetrator who then killed himself that same day (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd). The tension makes for a heavy but captivating watch, the actors navigating in real time a conversation that goes from strained to charged, then back again.

Kranz's storytelling approach required a delicate hand. What does it mean to assign equal weight to stories of grief that exist in opposition to one another? How do you mourn someone responsible for the destruction of human life? How much responsibility should a parent take on for the actions of their child? "Mass" doesn't provide any firm answers, but it allows its characters to demand them.

"There's a way we live with grief and try to keep the past in a way that helps us survive, but that might not necessarily be the most healthy thing. It might truly be eating away at us," Kranz says. His film dives headfirst into "how we live with grief and take care of the ones we've lost," as well as how we overcome "the fear of sharing it with the people you feel might not deserve to be a part of it."

Dowd knew she wanted to sign onto "Mass" immediately after reading the script but worried whether she would be able to live with the level of heartbreak her character, Linda, experiences. She wondered whether she could capture the journey of a mother who truly believed she and her husband did all they could to care for their son, Hayden, who had increasingly externalized his violent thoughts. But the couple could never have fathomed that he would act upon them by committing such a devastating crime.

Eventually, Dowd says, she accepted "the honor, if you will, of entering the life of someone who not only has the grief of losing her son, but also has the profound guilt of her son killing others. 'As a mother, what did I miss? How did I miss it? I loved my boy, and I know I have no right to do so at this point,' would seem to be the worry that she has. Can you even imagine being that person?"

The premise of "Mass," which Kranz wrote after also researching South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, asks the four parents to envision life from each other's perspectives. Aside from the bookending scenes, the bulk of the film takes place in the empty meeting room of an Episcopal church, where the couples sit across from one another. They've each brought family photos with them and ask about the other couple's surviving children. Their initial interactions feel desperate and forced, as though the brief niceties will dictate how their relationship exists from that point forward.

Of course, the mood evolves. Each character arrives with expectations that unravel as the story goes on, each actor responding to their co-stars with a certain level of improvisation. The victim's mother, Gail (Plimpton), enters the room with seething resentment cloaking her desire to finally forgive. Her husband, Jay (Isaacs), attempts a more methodical approach that counters his wife's surfacing emotions.

But even Jay eventually strays from his original demeanor. When the shooter's father, Richard (Birney), suggests that he understands the fear and agony the victims experienced as Hayden threatened their lives, Jay raises his voice into a defiant yell: "You don't know," he directs at Richard. "I know."

"It felt like an honest sentiment for a father to express," Kranz says. "I wouldn't want to share my child with someone that I hated. My child's memory. And that's the difficulty of the journey Jason's character is on. I don't think he realizes how imprisoning it is, and how held back he is by his anger."

Isaacs describes the emotional rhythm of the film as "beautifully calibrated, like a great symphony."

"Mass" is political by virtue of its subject matter. But it avoids delving into any discussions of legislation beyond a moment in which Jay touches on the moral obligation he feels to speak publicly about what happened to his son, Evan, and another in which Gail says she wishes something had changed after the shooting so Evan's death could carry that added layer of meaning. Kranz's screenplay is more concerned with accountability as it relates to the characters blaming themselves, and one another.

To an extent, Isaacs adds, the exact incident that occurred in the film six years ago is irrelevant.

"It could be a car accident. It could be a political vote. It could be refusing to wear a mask and infecting someone in the family," he says. "It's about people who are divided. Four people walk into a room. We all have a pretty fixed idea of what's gone wrong and who's to blame. ... They have a plan for what's going to happen. And then, like in the best dramatic human encounters, it falls apart."

At times, "Mass" is as interested in exploring marriage as it does parenting; though they never explicitly say it, Linda and Richard's behavior suggests they are no longer together. The film considers how trauma drives people apart, all while moving toward the goal post of it binding the four parents together. A philosophical component that does relate to politics, per Isaacs, is how they're "trying to find a way to free themselves from the crippling, paralyzing trenches they've dug for themselves."

We all operate from these trenches, to some degree - perhaps especially on a societal level. The film takes place in a polarized nation that Isaacs describes as having served for four years as the "epicenter of blame." Political and cultural divisions date back further. Somewhere along the line, according to Kranz, we "normalized hating people." He hopes to help bridge the gaps.

"I worry about a country divided between us and them," he says. "I worry about the country and the world my daughter is going to grow up into. If we can't find a way to repair these relationships, I worry about our future. So I think there's nothing more extraordinary and urgent and heroic than what these characters do that day. ... They're desperately trying to work through that to heal and survive."

48 hours to live: An Oklahoma hospital's rush to find an ICU bed for a covid patient

By Annie Gowen
48 hours to live: An Oklahoma hospital's rush to find an ICU bed for a covid patient
A nearly full moon rises over the main drag that leads to Stillwater Medical Center in Stillwater, Okla., Sept.21, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson

STILLWATER, Okla. - The covid patient in Room 107 was bleeding internally and near death.

So Robin Pressley, transfer coordinator at Stillwater Medical Center, was working fast to try to find an ICU bed at a larger hospital for Johnnie Novotny, a 69-year-old retired gas plant operator who had developed a hematoma and needed more specialized care than doctors at this modest rural hospital could provide.

Pressley knew that other hospitals in the region were already choked with covid patients due to a summer surge driven by the highly infectious delta variant and the state's large numbers of unvaccinated residents, like Novotny. But she also knew that Novotny's life depended on her success.

After 34 years in nursing, Pressley had developed ways to deal with the stress of her job. So, on this August day, she loaded her diffuser with calming lemongrass oil and pulled out a piece of putty she uses as a makeshift stress ball and began squeezing. Then she fired up her two computer screens, picked up one of her three phones, and started dialing.

12:26 p.m.: Hillcrest Medical Center in Tulsa, Okla. No ICU beds available.

12:29 p.m.: Oklahoma State University Medical Center in Tulsa. At capacity.

12:37 p.m.: St. Anthony Hospital in Oklahoma City. No beds available.

Pressley tried not to get discouraged. Surely, someone was going to take him, she thought. But she was rapidly running through the Oklahoma hospitals on her list. She called the state's medical emergency response center for help, and a coordinator there agreed to call hospitals in Missouri and Arkansas.

Pressley went back to her list.

12:39 p.m.: St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa. No covid beds available.

12:55 p.m.: Ascension St. John Medical Center in Tulsa. At capacity.

12:59 p.m. Ascension St. John Jane Phillips Hospital in Bartlesville. At capacity.

It's just a matter of getting the right hospital, Pressley told herself and kept dialing.

Oklahoma was on the cusp of a summer surge that would peak Aug. 30, with new cases averaging about 2,800 a day. Intensive care unit admissions soared to an all-time high during the first two weeks of August, at a time when the average length of stay for a covid patient increased significantly, overwhelming ICUs, according to Dr. David Kendrick, chairman of the Department of Medical Informatics at the University of Oklahoma. More than 1,500 Oklahomans died of covid in August and September alone as the state's pandemic death toll exceeded 10,600. More than half the state still is not fully vaccinated.

Gov. Kevin Stitt, R, did not institute restrictions for the latest surge, such as limits on gatherings or mask mandates. In fact, he issued an executive order prohibiting state agencies from requiring vaccinations and masks in public buildings. A judge has temporarily blocked a state law banning masks in public schools.

In Payne County, where Stillwater is located, only 35% of the population was fully vaccinated when Novotny became ill in mid-July, and the delta variant was spreading so rapidly that the mayor declared a state of emergency Sept. 3. Triage tents soon rose in the hospital parking lot.

Talk by city leaders of reinstituting a mask mandate raised the ire of residents. Disinformation spread on social media: You won't be able to carry a concealed gun while wearing a mask, people warned; hospitals in Tulsa were turning away unvaccinated patients coming for care. Neither was true. Shelves in feed stores were emptied of ivermectin by customers who falsely believed that the deworming medicine cured covid. At least two people turned up in the Stillwater hospital emergency room after overdosing on the drug, the hospital said.

Yet no matter how bad things got, the staff had always been able to find a way to get their patients the care they needed, even if it meant moving them to another hospital. They'd never had to stand by and watch a patient die when they knew he or she could be saved.

The 117-bed community hospital was already under siege when Johnnie Novotny showed up July 24. It was overflowing with covid patients who were younger and sicker than those during the pandemic's first surge, and they were staying longer, taxing the already depleted staff.

Pressley and her colleagues had never felt more isolated from the community of Stillwater, a town of 48,000 nestled under wide skies where life centers on the rhythms of Oklahoma State University.

The first round of covid "wore them slick," Pressley said of her colleagues. They suffered nightmares, insomnia, anxiety and depression. One respiratory therapist was struggling through his own long-haul covid. Forty nurses had quit since the start of the pandemic and the hospital had 100 job openings.

"We are broken," said Grace Ferguson, 33, a charge nurse who grew up in nearby Pawnee, where her family owns the newspaper. "I never used to cry about work, but now I can't seem to talk about it without my voice cracking. I'm wondering, when am I going to stop crying about this? Maybe never."

Ferguson had known the Novotny family since childhood. Now she was part of the medical team trying to save its patriarch.

Novotny was in the hay meadow on the family's farm that July day when he started feeling sick. He'd put up 200 bales before coming in and was in the shower when he started sweating and coughing, his wife, Angelia, said. She felt ill, too, but her symptoms were less severe, and she was able to do her chores - feeding their cats, chickens and seven peacocks.

But soon, Novotny was so listless that the family decided he needed to go to the hospital in Stillwater, 28 miles away. He was reluctant to go, even though his daughter-in-law Tara Novotny is a nurse there. The couple had been married for 48 years and he'd never been one for doctors, his wife said.

"Are you giving up on me?" he quipped. His oxygen saturation level was so low when he arrived in the emergency room that he was immediately transferred to the third-floor intensive care unit.

Once upstairs, his nurse pointed to her badge so they could see it was "little Gracie Ferguson" who had been in Angelia's reading class as a second- and third-grader at Pawnee Elementary School.

"She told me 'Grace, we don't do anything. I can't believe he tested positive,'" Ferguson recalled. "I'm thinking, 'How could you not believe that's what this is?'"

The couple hadn't gotten vaccinated because they had misgivings about the shot and stay mostly on their farm - except for church on Sundays. Ferguson didn't argue with them.

"It's too exhausting and heartbreaking to have to be like, 'No, you don't understand what I see every day,'" Ferguson said. "I can't open that wound just to argue with somebody who doesn't want to hear."

That wound was losing two to three longtime patients a week and having to shave one patient's beard so his wife could see him on their final goodbye.

Her work locker is still crammed with notes on her patients from the first surge that she can't bear to throw away - the one who loved gospel music, another who needed Garth Brooks played on repeat. She took a trip to Costa Rica when covid cases ebbed, in search of some normalcy, and for a moment it felt like she was going to find it. But now admissions were climbing again and her therapist was telling her that he needed a break during their sessions because her stories were so horrific.

"You feel like you're on an island, and no one's looking to send out search-and-rescue planes to save you," said Matthew Payne, Novotny's doctor. "The case managers are tossing messages in a bottle, and no one is there to pick those up."

Payne, 43, grew up in Stillwater and spends up to two hours every evening calling the families of each of his covid patients. When he spoke to Angelia Novotny as July faded into August, things were not going well.

Johnnie Novotny was growing more anxious and scared each day, at one point ripping out his tubes and tearing the mask for his breathing machine. Angelia was the only one able to calm him, but visitor restrictions meant she could only stay a few hours each day. He told nurses he was lonely and missed human contact after days in a hermetic bubble.

"That broke my whole heart," said Ferguson, the charge nurse.

"I'm sorry I was mean to you," Novotny said to his wife one day, his voice muffled through his oxygen mask. Angelia was sitting at his bedside amid the chaos of wires and beeping monitors. The hospital room was papered with photos of the couple's 10 grandchildren and Colorado vacations.

Angelia laughed.

"Mean to me? You weren't mean to me, for heaven's sake," she recalled.

They had been in love for a half-century, since he first saw her in her father's wheat field and honked and waved from his blue '57 Chevy. He was never mean, she says, but he could be a perfectionist and short-tempered sometimes, like when he was trying to fix something and thought she was holding the flashlight or the screwdriver wrong. Was he trying to apologize for that, she wondered, or was he thinking he might not make it out of there and wanted to make sure she knew he loved her?

It was Ferguson who first noticed the spongy mass in Novotny's abdomen, the night of Aug. 6. "Was this new?" she asked. It was, Novotny said, and it hurt. She told him he would have to be taken downstairs for a scan to see what was wrong.

"Are you coming with me?" he asked her, half-afraid, half-teasing.

The news was grim. Novotny had developed a hematoma - a collection of blood inside one of his abdominal muscles - that needed immediate attention. They needed an interventional radiologist, a specialist that Stillwater did not have, to perform a procedure to block the blood vessel and stanch the bleeding.

Without the procedure, Novotny would likely be dead in 48 hours, Payne estimated. They had to find him a bed, somewhere.

It was 1:42 p.m. on Aug. 7, when Pressley widened her search for an ICU bed to neighboring states and got her first real lead. Instead of a definitive "no," she got a "maybe" from St. Luke's Community Hospital in Olathe, Kan., nearly 300 miles away. They asked for Novotny's medical and insurance information and for Payne's cellphone number so the doctors could consult. Pressley briefly allowed herself a moment of hope.

Pressley has worked for Stillwater Medical Center for more than 30 years, including the last 16 in the infusion clinic. She switched to transfer coordinator - a job created during the pandemic - in part because she wanted a change. But the job has become so stressful that she sometimes stops in an empty parking lot to catch her breath and decompress before going home to her husband, Ken. She never talks to him about work: Why should they both be depressed?

She made a sign for her office that says "Breathe Deeply." A colleague scrawled "Into the paper bag," underneath it.

At 3:42 p.m., her hope evaporated when St. Luke's called back to say they were declining to take Novotny. No explanation was given. Pressley called Payne, who suggested a Hail Mary. Maybe they could convince one of the larger hospitals in Oklahoma City to take Novotny just for the hematoma procedure and then bring him right back?

"You are just constantly thinking, where could I call, what can I do, who will take this patient for the procedure?" Pressley said. "What can we say to make them take him?"

At 4:07 p.m., the University of Oklahoma Medical Center in Oklahoma City said they wouldn't accept Novotny without having a bed to put him in if something went wrong.

At 4:19 p.m., Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City said the same thing.

At 4:21 p.m. Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City said Novotny was too unstable for transfer and, if he got there and crashed, they had no bed for him.

Pressley had to call Payne and deliver the news: She simply could not find a bed anywhere. Payne's only hope at that point was that Novotny's condition would improve on its own.

Throughout the anxious night that followed, Novotny's blood pressure continued to drop; frequent blood transfusions were having little effect. The hematoma had swollen to the size of a volleyball, which was difficult for all to see. He was slipping away.

Early the next morning, Payne met with the family in a conference room near the intensive care unit, where Angelia, the couple's three adult children, their spouses and others crammed into the tiny space, hoping to hear a miracle. The conference room is next to what used to be a comfortable waiting room for families, but now houses spare ventilators sheathed in white plastic, like an army of ghosts.

"They were absolutely desperate, hoping against hope something might have changed," Payne said. "You basically have to be the dream-stealer and tell them this isn't working and, at this point, it is truly hopeless. We can't get him transferred out."

Payne told the family they had tried 40 hospitals in at least four states and come up empty.

"It's so hard. Nobody could fix him. He just had to lay there and die," Angelia Novotny said.

She had never until that moment realized that her husband wasn't coming home, she said, and in the cramped space she was suddenly overcome by nausea. She raced out for the restroom. She made it as far as the hallway trash can.

One by one, family members went into Room 107 to say goodbye to Novotny, who had been put on a ventilator and was now unresponsive. "Dad, you can't die. You never taught me how to drive a tractor right," the family recalled daughter Michelle saying through tears.

"He doesn't deserve this," Angelia kept repeating.

Novotny's daughter-in-law, Tara, the nurse, arrived, and Ferguson helped tie a blue gown over her baby bump - the grandchild already named Johnnie Novotny III, to say farewell.

Ferguson had stayed over from her night shift to support the family, but she decided she couldn't sit and watch Novotny die. She gave Angelia a hug and slipped out of the room.

"It was terrible to watch," Ferguson said. "It didn't matter that I knew them and he's close to my parents' age. It shouldn't have happened. That's what it boiled down to. It just shouldn't have happened."

Novotny was on a dozen different medications to keep him alive, but it wasn't enough. His heart stopped just after 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 8.

Of the 76 covid-related deaths at the hospital through mid-October, his was the first that occurred because staff couldn't find an ICU bed at a larger hospital, Payne said.

Payne called Pressley later that morning, and his voice cracked a bit when he told her Novotny had died. "This one really got to me," he said.

"You could tell by his voice that this hurt him to the core, you know? And I felt the same," Pressley said. "We did not have a chance to save his life because of bed availability. We just didn't have that chance."

Pressley went to the bathroom to collect herself. After her shift, she went home and went straight to bed, curling up with her three-legged pug, Pearl. Pressley, 61, had hoped to work until 65 but was now thinking she should retire early.

"I stayed in my room for quite a while because I needed to get my head on straight, because I was going down a dark hole thinking that maybe I should switch jobs, maybe I'm not good enough at this," she said. "It's hard to have a patient's death on your shoulders, and it's not like it's on mine 100%, but I'm involved, and if I could have gotten him out of here, maybe he wouldn't have died," she said.

She thought about it for a week and ultimately decided to stay. It felt selfish to leave when they needed so many hands. Why should she take away two of them?

Novotny's family buried him on a hill in Highland Cemetery, just north of Pawnee, where a simple wooden cross marks the grave that is lit by a small solar panel and visible from the road at night. About 150 people came to the Aug. 14 graveside service, where the pastor read the 23rd Psalm.

The couple's 100-year-old farmhouse feels empty for Angelia these days, even with the two grandchildren she babysits there five days a week. Her son offered to fix up one of his rental properties for her in town, she said, but she refused. "I like to be in the country," she said. "I'm not a town person."

The namesake baby, Johnnie III, was born at Stillwater Medical Center on Sept. 6. The living room of the farmhouse is filled with photos of Novotny holding each infant grandchild. He had to be photoshopped into one with the new baby.

"You know, you never think somebody is going to die," she said. "I thought he would have at least 20 more years."

She asked a neighbor who lost her husband three years ago if things ever get any better.

"I asked her, 'Does the loneliness ever go away?' " she said. "And she said, 'I'd love to tell you, yeah, it does, but no, it doesn't.'"

She has been beating herself up a lot lately. Maybe she should have taken him to a larger hospital in Oklahoma City or Tulsa in the first place, so that he would have had access to more specialists. Maybe she should have taken him to the hospital sooner

Not on her list of regrets: her decision not to get vaccinated.

"I just have so many questions about the shot," she said. "I don't know if I'm persuaded. I guess you want to say I don't believe in it."

On Aug. 14, the day Novotny was buried, Stillwater Medical Center's ICU was full again. In the back of the nurse's station, taped to one of the cupboards, was a child's drawing of an orange tractor and a tiny hay bale. "Get Well," it says, with a heart. It's signed by two of Novotny's grandchildren. One of the staff had rescued it from Novotny's room and hung it up, the only remnant of the patient they knew how to save but couldn't.

- - -

The Washington Post's Jacqueline Dupree and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Fed's embarrassing ethics scandal spurs calls for more oversight

By Craig Torres, et al.
Fed's embarrassing ethics scandal spurs calls for more oversight
Eric Rosengren, then president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 8, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer.

The Federal Reserve's most embarrassing ethics scandal in years has cast a harsh spotlight on the world's most powerful central bank and the arm's-length governance of its 12 regional branches.

Their chiefs are among America's most influential public officials, helping to set borrowing costs for the $23 trillion economy.

But the process of picking them, and assessing their performance in office, has long been shielded from public scrutiny and accountability -- something that's now drawing mounting criticism.

When Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan stepped down last month in the wake of disclosures about his trading activity, his board of directors said his investing was in line with the rules and it lauded his contribution.

Jerome Powell struck a different tone.

"No one is happy," the Fed chair told reporters days before news of the departure of Kaplan and Boston Fed chief Eric Rosengren, who retired citing ill health after his trading also drew scrutiny.

Powell ordered a system-wide review of ethics rules and has since asked the Fed inspector general to take a look at the trading of "certain senior officials."

The contrasting responses point to a question present since the Fed's creation: Who really governs its semi-autonomous regional branches?

While the questions about financial dealings have broadened -- Sen. Elizabeth Warren included transactions by Fed Vice Chair Richard Clarida in urging the Securities Exchange Commission investigate for possible insider trading -- regional Feds remain in focus.

"The notion of a quasi-public private institution that has a direct vote on monetary policy and such a low level of transparency undermines democratic accountability," said Brookings Institution senior fellow Sarah Binder.

She said the Fed needs a degree of transparency that matches its expanding footprint in the economy, which grew even more during the pandemic.

The search for new leaders in Dallas and Boston, which on Tuesday announced it has begun looking for a new president, may shift more influence in that process to Washington.

Democrats such as Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey are urging Powell to improve diversity among the Fed's leaders: regional presidents are currently almost all White and only three are women.

Republicans wrote to the boards of both reserve banks Tuesday, urging them to remain independent of partisan politics and pick candidates that adhere to the "narrow statutory mission" of the Fed without regard to political pressure.

The fight for sway over the central bank and its influential regional branches goes back more than a century and is as complicated as its peculiar public-private structure.

Created in 1913, the Fed system was a compromise. Banks wanted a reserve backstop after enduring a damaging run of financial crises. Populists were suspicious of Wall Street and President Woodrow Wilson wanted a supervisory board in Washington.

The result was a network of a dozen regional banks -- each with shareholders and directors -- and a politically appointed seven-member Board of Governors.

"The Fed still lives with this original sin: it is not clear who the reserve banks are accountable to," said Kaleb Nygaard, a senior research associate at the Yale Program on Financial Stability. "It is something that has been an issue from the very beginning."

Reserve banks initially had significant autonomy, until legislation after the Great Depression concentrated power over monetary policy with the Washington Board.

Reserve banks are governed by regional directors, but who holds real governance power is opaque. There is no public vetting of Fed bank chiefs, unlike Washington Board members who are nominated by the U.S. president and confirmed by the Senate.

Search committees to select regional presidents are run by each board, but they don't produce a public report. Day-to-day governance and relationships between directors and presidents are hard to discern.

Bloomberg News in 2016 sought the annual evaluations of the 12 regional chiefs via Freedom of Information Act requests. The banks declined, with one citing court rulings that "performance evaluations are intensely personal and not subject to public disclosure."

The Boston Fed board chair through a spokesman declined to comment on whether there was an internal review of Rosegren's investment decisions. The Dallas Fed board chair and general counsel both reviewed Rob Kaplan's investment activities and found they "were in compliance with the rules and policies of the Federal Reserve System," said the bank's spokesman James Hoard.

Peter Conti-Brown, an associate professor at University of Pennsylvania, said local boards have "zero accountability."

"The idea that they would have a serious role akin to the U.S. Senate in determining who our central bankers are and how they are behaving I think is wrong," said Conti-Brown. "It is not good democratic hygiene."

The trading controversy is the latest embarrassment for the Fed.

Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker resigned abruptly in 2017 as he announced his role in a leak of confidential information about policy options the central bank was considering in 2012.

The New York Fed also came under fire during the financial crisis after it granted a waiver allowing a Goldman Sachs board member to stay on as a member of the New York Fed board after Goldman Sachs became a bank holding company in September 2008. The change in status put it under New York Fed supervision.

Past congressional efforts to revamp the Fed system haven't gone far. Lawmakers, just as they did when the institution was created, like having a regional balance of power to offset the influence of Washington and Wall Street.

Six former Fed presidents interviewed by Bloomberg News also defended the current structure.

They argued it protects Fed independence because the regional presidents are not political appointees, while local directors provide on-the-ground insight into the regional economy.

"Board members were very valuable to me," said former Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser. Former president of the Atlanta Fed Dennis Lockhart said his boss was his local board: "I did not consider my boss to be the chair of the board of governors."

Even so, Lockhart and other presidents described an inherent give and take within the Fed system. The governors in Washington have ultimate authority over regional bank budgets, for example, they approve presidents and first vice presidents, and can remove any officer.

"The directors are important and valuable to the president and the reserve bank's independence," said Plosser. "But the ultimate authority rests in Washington."

The Board's leverage over reserve banks is often subtle and is also outside of public view.

Every year, regional bank boards and the Board of Governors work together to evaluate the president of a reserve bank.

These annual reviews focus on a range of issues from the banks' operations to the president's role in monetary policy. They lead up to a renewal vote by the Board of Governors on the president's five-year contracts.

Bloomberg Opinion columnist and former Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota, writing in a 2017 essay, said the power of the Washington board over reserve banks is "surprisingly opaque and should be considerably more transparent."

- - -

Bloomberg's Catarina Saraiva contributed to this report.

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

Our system is biased against reform. Get used to it, Democrats.

By e.j. dionne jr.
Our system is biased against reform. Get used to it, Democrats.


Advance for release Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, and thereafter

(For Dionne clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

Democrats are a maddening bunch, especially to their supporters.

A party that should be celebrating its efforts to expand health coverage, help families with children, build roads and fight climate change is instead engaged in a messy and increasingly angry confrontation over how much it can and should accomplish.

Much of the blame for the public chaos is falling onto Democratic Sens. Joe ManchinIII (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) because they have insisted on cutting the spending level for President Biden's program from $3.5 trillion over a decade to as little as $1.5 trillion.

If Democrats compromise at, say, $2 trillion or $2.5 trillion, a lot of good programs will still have to be cut or thrown over the side. They're popular not just among liberals but also with moderate voters and many of Donald Trump's supporters.

For the life of me, I can't see how it helps middle-of-the-road Democrats in swing districts to do less to help beleaguered households with child-care and elder-care costs, or less to expand health coverage and to beef up Medicare benefits, or less to contain the obvious and dangerous warming of our planet.

Nor is it good for any Democrat to have these priorities set off against each other in a legislative cage match. Those whose programs are lost or gutted will feel very bruised.

Finally, shouldn't Democrats be eager to bypass Senate filibuster rules as quickly as possible to stop the GOP-led attacks being leveled against democratic elections in states across our nation? Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced that he'd try to move forward this week on a sensible, far-from-radical bill that pushes back against the vote suppressors and election subverters.

Manchin himself helped craft it, so he wouldn't want it to die in a filibuster -- would he?

But it's important to acknowledge another reality that goes beyond Manchin, Sinema and the Democratic Party as a whole: Severe structural problems in our politics and institutions are making it far harder to solve problems -- and to have productive debates over how to do so.

We can begin with a Republican Party that, except on physical infrastructure, has largely taken itself out of the business of dealing with social challenges. Ross Douthat, the constructively conservative columnist for the New York Times, recently invoked a dream of how Democrats and Republicans might have had a creative conversation on family policy.

But even as he laid out the arguments and trade-offs, Douthat conceded that Republicans "most interested in family policy" -- Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Josh Hawley (Mo.), for example -- have "the strongest incentives" not to work with Democrats, namely their "desire to be president someday."

The GOP's evasion of responsibility and growing radicalism mean that debates that once took place between the parties are now forced to happen inside the Democratic Party. Manchin and Sinema are stand-ins for the moderate conservatives of yore.

In September, Manchin offered a provocative challenge to progressives fighting for a larger program. "Elect more liberals," he instructed them. It's a goal I embrace wholeheartedly, except that the Senate is structurally biased against liberals and Democrats.

As Laura Bronner and Nathaniel Rakich pointed out at FiveThirtyEight: "Republican senators have not represented a majority of the population since 1999 -- yet, from 2003 to 2007 and again from 2015 to 2021, Republicans had a majority of members of the Senate itself. That means that, for 10 years, Republican senators were passing bills -- and not passing others -- on behalf of a minority of Americans."

Oh, yes, and confirming right-wing Supreme Court justices.

I sat down last week with the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, co-authors of the justly celebrated 2018 book, "How Democracies Die." Both speak with deep worry about the anti-majoritarian nature of the American system with a Senate and electoral college that vastly underrepresent urban and suburban voters as well as racial and ethnic minorities.

This gets in the way of governing, they argue, creating forms of instability that could threaten democracy itself. It also weakens the influence of more moderate voices within conservatism and the Republican Party.

All of which means that Democrats are effectively running what would be a coalition government in countries with multiparty systems -- but without the disciplines that formal coalition agreements typically impose in advance on an alliance's various components. Democrats are making their deals on the fly, and it shows.

None of this gets Democrats off the hook. As the late Donald H. Rumsfeld might advise them, you have to work with the system you have, not the system you wish you had. It is no excuse for making a mess of what should be a moment of achievement.

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

Yale Law School triggers me

By kathleen parker
Yale Law School triggers me


Advance for release Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, and thereafter

(For Parker clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Kathleen Parker

A sign on my desk reads: "I'll be nicer if you'll be smarter."

I'm not feeling nice today -- and I'm talking to you, Yale.

No offense intended toward my many friends -- and certain family members -- who attended the university in Connecticut. But the recent campus skirmish over an alleged triggering event has revealed the absurdity of, oh, just everything -- students' overindulged self-regard; the failure of colleges and universities, generally, to encourage maturity and intellectual rigor in its charges (rather than indulging crippling sensitivity); and our exaggerated notions of triggering as a social and civil guard rail.

Who, anyway, taught the college-bound that they should always be protected, that people should always be "nice," or that feelings should never be hurt?

What happened at Yale is this: A creative, second-year law student at its venerable law school emailed an invitation to classmates for a "Constitution Day Bash," to be held at the "NALSA Trap House" and co-hosted by the Federalist Society (of which he's a member). He promised "American-themed snacks," such as fried chicken and apple pie.

Before we go further, a few questions, definitions and clarifications: First, who knew Constitution Day was a reason for celebration at graduate schools? Second, NALSA stands for "Native American Law Students Association," of which the student is also a member. Third, "trap house," in case you're unaware, is defined by the Urban Dictionary as, "Originally used to describe a crack house in a shady neighborhood . . ."

I don't think the definition was referring to tree-lined streets, but I also don't think shady neighborhoods come in only one race, color or ethnicity. But at least nine other law students inferred as much and filed complaints of racism with the Office of Student Affairs. Rather than tell the complainants to get a life, administrators crumpled in a heap of cheap umbrage. Associate dean Ellen Cosgrove and diversity and inclusiveness director Yaseen Eldik called the alleged offender in for a little chat, which he wisely recorded, and told him that not only was his invitation out of line, but also that his membership in the conservative Federalist Society was triggering.

My sides are splitting with laughter, not from any kinship with the FedSoc, as it is nicknamed, but because I don't have a pillow handy to smother my screams.

When a student uses the term "trap house" at a place like Yale, at worst he's saying, let's hang out and get high. Any Friday is an excuse for a party, trap houses are everywhere and nearly everyone eats (and enjoys) fried chicken, despite Eldik's claim that the reference was "used to undermine the argument that structural or systemic racism contributes to US health inequalities."

Please, Jesus, stop me from saying what I'm really thinking.

Imagine being alone in an interrogation room with these two diversity experts -- two words that in a sane world would never be paired. Inside, the student was subjected to an Orwellian nightmare. Signaling the racist-undertone trope, the administrators urged the unnamed student to apologize and later suggested that, if he didn't, he might face professional repercussions. The Washington Free Beacon, which broke the story, has posted audio of the conversation in which Eldik says: "You're a law student, and there's a bar [exam] you have to take, and we think it's important to really give you a 360 view."

And this: "I'm worried that this will prolong your own reputation as a person, not only here, but when you leave," adding: "The legal world is small."

I don't know if that was meant to sound threatening, but Eldik, who served in the Obama administration, has mastered the art of insinuating in the nicest way possible that if you don't do what I say, your life is over. Incidents of diversity extortion aren't rare. We read about them often enough to wonder where it might end.

This is life on an American campus in 2021. What a shame. Why don't we start over and reconsider the value of diversity monitoring in our institutions? Based on years of conversations with smart kids, I can assert that these practices more often than not aggravate tensions and almost surely undermine racial harmony.

As for Yale, perhaps its other law students should file a complaint with the school's powerful Alumni Association about the adverse effects on their educations of zealous administrators who are most in need of a 360-degree view -- perhaps as their cars depart New Haven for parts unknown. Just the thought makes me feel nicer.

- - -

Kathleen Parker's email address is

What does Kyrsten Sinema want? A Parisian holiday.

By dana milbank
What does Kyrsten Sinema want? A Parisian holiday.


Advance for release Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, and thereafter

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For Print Use Only.

By Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON -- Earlier this month, a driver illegally parked a Chevy Tahoe in front of the Supreme Court. Capitol Police closed streets and cleared the area. For the next hour, crisis negotiators tried to de-escalate, but the driver refused to talk, saying only that the "time for talking is done." Finally, police apprehended the unarmed occupant, but even then the authorities couldn't discern the motorist's motives.

In this instance, the suspect was a 55-year-old Michigan man. But for those working in the Capitol, the episode might have had a ring of familiarity. For the past couple of months, they've been navigating a running standoff with a similarly confounding and inscrutable perpetrator, a 45-year-old Arizona woman. Her name is Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.

The first-term Democrat has parked herself in the middle of the action in the Capitol, blocking legislative traffic and causing gridlock for the Biden agenda. She won't say what she wants. She won't say anything, for the most part. And Democratic senators can't fathom what caused their young colleague's wheels to spin off in such spectacular fashion.

She and Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., are the two holdouts keeping President Joe Biden's "Build Back Better" agenda (and with it a $1 trillion infrastructure bill) from passage. But while Manchin has consistent (conservative) positions and has been negotiating in good faith with the White House, Sinema chose this week to fly off to the land of Marie Antoinette.

Yes, Sinema is in Paris -- doing a fundraiser, the New York Times reported. The peasants need a child tax credit, Internet access and tuition assistance, and Sinema responds: Qu'ils mangent de la brioche.

Alas, we have seen entirely too much Sinema vérité of late.

During a climactic moment in negotiations a couple of weeks ago, as Biden, the House and Senate desperately tried to reach agreement on the Build Back Better package so the infrastructure bill could pass, Sinema flew home to Arizona -- to see a foot doctor, an aide explained. (They don't have podiatrists in Washington?) It turned out she also attended a spa-resort "retreat" in Phoenix with high-end donors while the frantic negotiations continued in Washington. A few days before that, her fundraising entity held a D.C. event with five corporate lobbying groups at which participants contributed up to $5,800 apiece.

So the entire Biden agenda (not to mention the prospects for a functioning democracy) hangs by a thread because of Sinema, and she's living her best life, flying to Paris, attending a spa retreat and quaffing wine with corporate donors, many of whom oppose said agenda. Her staff says she's conducting "remote" legislative negotiations while this is going on. Very remote. Biden, CNN reported, complained to progressives that Sinema didn't reliably return phone calls from the White House.

"What Does Kyrsten Sinema Want?" asked Time magazine.

"What, Exactly, Does Kyrsten Sinema Want?" posed Vanity Fair.

"Kyrsten Sinema Is Confounding Her Own Party. But . . . Why?" questioned FiveThirtyEight.

"Seriously, Kyrsten Sinema, what are you doing?" inquired late night's Seth Meyers.

What she's doing is attempting to emulate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the "maverick" who sometimes defied his own party. But senator, you're no John McCain. McCain operated from a clear (if occasionally flexible) set of principles. And he always -- always -- explained himself. Sinema sounds less like McCain than Groucho Marx in "Horse Feathers":

McCain never presided over the Senate in a sweater saying "Dangerous Creature." Nor did he post an Instagram photo of himself wearing a ring that said "F--- Off." When McCain gave his dramatic thumbs down on the Senate floor to thwart the GOP's Obamacare repeal, he did it to reject partisanship. When Sinema repeated the gesture in voting against a minimum-wage increase, it was a symbolic vote signifying -- well, it's not clear. McCain forged coalitions; Sinema blows things up.

Sinema generally avoids reporters' questions. She's hardly more forthcoming with colleagues. "Senator Sinema's position is that she doesn't negotiate publicly, and I don't know what that means," observed Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Budget Committee chairman.

None of it adds up. This former Green Party Naderite is preventing massive investments in climate action. She's pleasing corporate interests by blocking Build Back Better, in the process killing the infrastructure bill, which business likes. The "Saturday Night Live" version of Sinema explained her this way: "As a wine-drinking, bisexual triathlete, I know what the average American wants."

Progressive activists have confronted her in person and are warning of a 2024 primary challenge. I suspect neither tactic will work. That's because the person who poses the greatest threat to the Democrats' agenda -- and the democratic agenda -- appears to be dangerously irrational.

- - -

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

You can't stop inflation, but here are some ways to offset the higher costs

By michelle singletary
You can't stop inflation, but here are some ways to offset the higher costs


Advance for release Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, and thereafter

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For Print Use Only. WRITETHRU: In final graf, changes attribution to "Bakkum said" (sted "he said")

By Michelle Singletary

WASHINGTON -- The pandemic has delivered another unwelcome threat to our lives -- inflation.

Consumer prices are rising, and if you're living paycheck to paycheck, this means you have a harder time paying for food, gas and other items.

Inflation hit a 13-year high in September, with consumer prices up 5.4 percent compared with a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Inflation has been a surprising and unwelcome guest, seeming to persist at an elevated level at a time when we're all hoping to put the devastating economic impacts of the pandemic behind," said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate. "Like the pandemic-caused downturn itself, it exacerbates wealth and income inequality. The wealthy can adjust. Those on lower incomes, not so much. It is as if some people just can't catch a much-needed break."

Like Blue Origin's rocket blasting into space, prices are way up compared with what we were used to pre-pandemic. But this isn't a fun ride. Here's how to handle a rise in consumer prices.

- What changes should I make to my budget to beat inflation?

This is a time when you should review how you spend your paycheck. Even if you've cut until it hurts, look for additional trims.

· Obvious places to cut are eating out or streaming services. When was the last time you looked at your mobile plan?

· Use apps and the Internet to find lower prices where they are available, including for gasoline.

"When prices aren't changing all that much, people may be inclined to invest less of their time shopping, thinking that it might not make all that much of a difference," Hamrick said. "Think of shopping right now as investing time to find better deals."

Supply-chain disruptions may continue to push consumer prices up, so you might want to get an early start on your holiday shopping, Hamrick said.

Hamrick makes this great point: Is this a year when something more personal, such as baked goods or a customized photo album, could be substituted at a lower price?

· Put off unnecessary purchases until supply issues are resolved and prices go down.

"Whether it's an updated iPhone or another piece of clothing to mostly hang in the closet, most Americans simply consume more than they need to," Hamrick said.

- Is there anything I can do to reduce my food costs?

In an inflationary environment, substitutions can be your financial friend.

Food and shelter costs rose in September -- and, put together, accounted for more than half of the monthly increase of all items measured in the consumer price index when seasonally adjusted, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Prices for meats, poultry, fish and eggs rose 2.2 percent over the month, and beef prices rose 4.8 percent.

Food prices have largely been rising because of weather-related shortages, transportation issues and lack of staffing. Meat and fish prices are going up faster than vegetable prices, so take that into consideration in your at-home meal planning.

Hamrick said he went shopping recently to make crab cakes for his son, visiting from Los Angeles. A 50 percent price hike for crabmeat changed the menu.

"I bought chicken thighs and cooked them at a fraction of the price," Hamrick said. "Now's the time to try to spend time when possible preparing meals at home, using lower-cost items as much as possible."

- Should I change how I invest for retirement?

Inflation doesn't really change what you should have been doing all along, which is diversifying, said Carolyn McClanahan, a certified financial planner who founded the fee-only Life Planning Partners, based in Jacksonville, Fla.

"Through thick and thin, the best way to prepare for any economic environment is to have a diversified portfolio," McClanahan said. "If you aren't already practicing diversification, now is the time to make that change."

If you're an ultraconservative saver who has shied away from stocks because you're scared of the stock market, you might want to consider that inflation is also a risk. If you don't at least keep pace with inflation, you're losing the purchasing power of your money.

"Where interest rates are right now, investors need to take on slightly more risk to get a return that may beat inflation," said Ben Bakkum, quantitative investing associate at the digital adviser firm Betterment.

- Is there anything I can do to take advantage of a rise in inflation?

If you have some cash that you don't think you'll need for a while, consider purchasing bonds, McClanahan recommends.

Series I Savings Bonds, which are issued by the Treasury Department, allow investors to earn a combination of a fixed interest rate and the rate of inflation, adjusted semiannually. The composite rate for I bonds issued from May through October is 3.54 percent.

To buy and own an electronic I bond, you must establish a TreasuryDirect account. Go to

- Is there any good news about rising inflation?

If you receive Social Security or Supplemental Security Income benefits, you'll see your payments go up because of rising consumer prices. The Social Security Administration announced a 5.9 percent benefit Increase for 2022.

And, if inflation relents next year, which some believe is possible as supply chains normalize, Social Security recipients will continue to get the higher payments anyway, Hamrick said.

Additionally, one of the few potentially beneficial effects of rising inflation will be that the Federal Reserve may well lift benchmark rates sooner rather than later, and more than previously believed, he said. That's welcome news for savers.

"Previously miserly returns on savings should begin to rise," Hamrick said.

It's hard not to panic about inflation when your paycheck doesn't go as far as you need. Still, keep things in perspective. It's not the 1970s, when prices skyrocketed.

"Recent headlines about increasing inflation have been alarming, but inflation itself is not abnormal if it's not out of control," Bakkum said.

- - -

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

At Yale Law School, a party invitation ignites a firestorm

By ruth marcus
At Yale Law School, a party invitation ignites a firestorm


Advance for release Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, and thereafter

(For Marcus clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Ruth Marcus

WASHINGTON -- Maoist reeducation camps have nothing on Yale Law School. If you think this is an exaggeration, OK, it is, but keep reading.

Last month, a second-year law student sent some classmates an invitation to a party -- to celebrate Constitution Day, of all things.

The student, Trent Colbert, who has the unusual profile of belonging to both the Native American Law Students Association (NALSA) and the conservative Federalist Society, emailed: "Sup NALSA, Hope you're all still feeling social! This Friday at 7:30, we will be christening our very own (soon to be) world-renowned NALSA Trap House . . . by throwing a Constitution Day bash in collaboration with FedSoc. Planned attractions include Popeye's chicken, basic-bitch-American-themed snacks (like apple pie, etc.) . . . Hope to see you all there."

"Trap House," according to the Urban Dictionary, was "originally used to describe a crack house in a shady neighborhood," but "has since been abused by high school students who like to pretend they're cool by drinking their mom's beer together." A popular far-left podcast, by three White men, calls itself Chapo Trap House, without incident.

Not at Yale Law School. Within minutes, as reported by Aaron Sibarium of the Washington Free Beacon, the invitation was posted on the group chat for all 2Ls, or second-year law students, of which several asserted that the invite had racist connotations, and had encouraged students to attend in blackface.

"I guess celebrating whiteness wasn't enough," the president of the Black Law Students Association wrote in the forum. She objected to the involvement of the Federalist Society, which, she said, "has historically supported anti-Black rhetoric."

But what erupted on the group chat didn't stay on the group chat. All too typically, the issue was escalated to authorities and reinforced by the administrative architecture of diversity and grievance. And that's when things went off the rails.

Within 12 hours, Colbert was summoned to meet with associate law dean Ellen Cosgrove and diversity director Yaseen Eldik. There, he was told that his message had generated nine student complaints of discrimination and harassment, and was more or less instructed to apologize.

Colbert secretly recorded that conversation, and another the next day, and the Free Beacon has posted them. The audio offers an unsettling insight into the hair-trigger and reflexively liberal mind-set of the educational diversity complex.

Eldik told Colbert that the email's "association with FedSoc was very triggering for students who already feel like FedSoc belongs to political affiliations that are oppressive to certain communities. That of course obviously includes the LGBTQIA community and Black communities and immigrant communities."

Sorry, but if you're triggered by the Federalist Society, you don't belong on a law school campus.

The administrators leaned on Colbert to think about "asking for forgiveness" to help "make this go away." They drafted a note that they thought would suffice, apologizing for "any harm, trauma or upset" the email caused," and adding, in language reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, "I know I must learn more and grow. And I will actively educate myself so I can do better." Dunce cap, anyone?

When Colbert resisted, saying he would prefer to discuss the issue face to face with anyone who was offended, the administrators acted on their own that same night, emailing the entire second-year class. "An invitation was recently circulated containing pejorative and racist language. We condemn this in the strongest possible terms."

A conversation the next day was even more unsettling, warning of repercussions down the line. "You're a law student, and there's a bar you have to take," Eldik said, as reported by the Free Beacon. "So we think it's really important to give you a 360 view."

After the Free Beacon story broke, Yale issued a statement denying that it had any intent of disciplining Colbert or alerting bar authorities down the line. "No student is investigated or sanctioned for protected speech," the statement said.

Good to know. But that's not the biggest challenge at Yale or at other law school campuses. It's how to deal with a grievance culture in which every slight, real or perceived, is greeted with outsize demands for disciplinary consequences. There is -- or should be -- a distinction between sophomoric provocation and outright racism.

Every first-year law student learns in torts class about the plaintiff with the "eggshell skull" -- someone who suffers a greater injury than normal and must be compensated accordingly. But in the modern world, it seems, everyone' skulls are susceptible to cracking at the slightest provocation. "Taking the worst possible reading and then twisting it to make it worse is a practice that is all too common," Colbert told me.

At Stanford Law School earlier this year, a graduating student was at risk of losing his diploma after circulating a mock announcement: "The Stanford Federalist Society presents: The Originalist Case for Inciting Insurrection."

Some Federalist Society crybabies then filed a complaint about the invite's author with the university's Office of Community Standards for attributing "false and defamatory beliefs to persons he listed on the event flier." The investigation was dropped, but the whole episode was pretty rich, given conservatives' complaints about liberal cancel culture.

At Yale, the shoe is back on a familiar liberal foot. These students may be among the best and brightest, but they also need to do some growing up.

- - -

Ruth Marcus' email address is

A new problem for Democrats: Americans suddenly want smaller government after all

By catherine rampell
A new problem for Democrats: Americans suddenly want smaller government after all


Advance for release Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, and thereafter

(For Rampell clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Catherine Rampell

Inconvenient but true: Americans want government to do less. Not more. Democrats cannot afford to just hand-wave this problem away.

In the first few months of the Biden administration, fawning media coverage declared that the president had inspired a new "paradigm" or "consensus" for robust, active government, harking back to the New Deal or Great Society. Or at least maybe the pre-Reagan era.

And right as President Biden was taking office, voters did seem to want a more muscular public sector.

Case in point: Since 1992, Gallup has been asking whether government should do more to solve the country's problems. Late last year, the share answering in the affirmative surged. For the first time ever, more than half of respondents (54%) said they wanted more from their government. For context, the previous peak was shortly after 9/11, when the share touched 50%.

Note that the nation was again grappling with trying circumstances when this poll was conducted last year.

Yes, Biden was running for president at the time, and pitching many of the policies he's trying to enact now. But we were also in the midst of a botched federal response to covid-19. The Trump administration had abdicated responsibility to help distribute coronavirus tests and other equipment, and officials pushed ludicrously pollyannaish forecasts about death tolls. They sometimes pretended the pandemic didn't exist.

Understandably, the public demanded more from the government. If there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are fewer libertarians in a pandemic.

Fast-forward to today. Gallup conducted this poll again a month agov -- and found that the share saying government should do more to solve problems has fallen back down to earth. Only 43% of Americans support more active government. That's fairly close to the long-term average.

Respondents of all political persuasions, Democrats included, expressed weaker support for ambitious government than they had a year earlier. Independents showed the biggest decline, with 38% saying they wanted government to do more, down from 56% in 2020.

Gallup is not the only pollster documenting such patterns. The Pew Research Center also found that Americans' demand for more robust government reached a high-water mark in August 2020, and had receded by the time it asked again in April 2021.

This is likely to present a problem for the Democratic Party, which is trying to pass a cradle-to-grave expansion of the welfare state.

Democratic lawmakers argue that every major plank of their agenda is popular, so they should just pass them all. Most of their individual policies do poll well in isolation. Survey after survey has found strong support for universal pre-K, paid leave, free community college, Medicare expansions, lower Medicare drug prices and so on.

It might be tempting for Democrats to conclude that whatever voters' preferences about the general size of government, they'll still support a big government expansion so long as they like the components of that expansion.

But there are problems with this logic.

The first is that the public doesn't actually know what the components are. A recent poll from CBS News found that only 10% of respondents claimed to know a lot of specific details about what's in Democrats' legislation; most said they either knew no specifics or nothing at all. Given that survey respondents have historically been loath to admit ignorance, these numbers probably overstate how much the public understands Democrats' agenda.

That's partly the fault of media coverage that emphasizes the bill's price tag rather than its contents. But it's also inherently difficult to sum up this grab-bag legislation, particularly when debate even among lawmakers still revolves around the top-line number.

A second problem is that, according to the CBS poll, one of the few things Americans say they have heard about the bill is its huge size. And as we've just established, they're not so keen on hugeness.

Finally, there's the problem of execution.

Progressives have lately signaled a willingness to shrink the bill's sizev -- but not its scope. That is, they say that the way to reduce the bill's price tag is to keep its many programs and just give each of them less money. Maybe fund each for only a few years, for example.

But nearly all of these initiatives (child care, paid leave, etc.) are complex and will be difficult to get off the ground. Shortchanging them, or adding uncertainty about their duration, increases the odds of a bungled rollout. And if you think opposition to "big government" is too high now, imagine the political blowback after months of coverage about expensive, incompetently executed safety-net expansions. I'm already having flashbacks to the 2010 tea party revolution.

These are among the reasons I keep saying: Democrats should do fewer things better, not more things poorly. Focusing their agenda will enable more effective "messaging," better-executed programs and more supportive voters tomorrow.

And perhaps more supportive voters today, too.

- - -

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

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