Sunday, January 6, 2019

Sunday Reading

The Best Path — Margaret Talbot in The New Yorker on the way forward for Democrats.

One of the worst side effects of Trumpism is the way that it drives its opponents into reactive mode, amid an atmosphere of cooked-up chaos. Donald Trump wants to build a “great, great wall,” and last week he considered declaring a national emergency to do it, despite the fact that illegal border crossings have drastically decreased since 2000, and that many of those trying to cross these days are women and children who are not evading border guards but seeking them out, to ask for asylum. At the outset of 2019, we’re in the second week of a partial government shutdown—which Trump said could last for months or years—because congressional Democrats have had to take his fixation seriously and insist that they won’t allocate the five billion dollars that he wants for the wall. (The actual costs of a concrete barrier could climb as high as forty billion dollars, according to an analysis in M.I.T. Technology Review, and a report from the Government Accountability Office warns that the wall could “cost more than projected, take longer than planned, or not fully perform as expected.”)

Democrats are offering two compromises that would reopen government agencies and give the Department of Homeland Security $1.3 billion to improve border-security technology and other measures, including fortified fencing. Meanwhile, some sense of the psychological vagaries that Democrats have to contend with can be derived from the increasingly peculiar way that Trump talks about the wall, as though it were not a policy but a totem—for the protection of his own ego, perhaps. “The wheel, the wall, some things never get old,” he said last week, at a rambling Cabinet meeting.

Still, whatever compromise is eventually reached to reopen the government, the best path forward for the Democrats as they take over the House of Representatives—the most effective way to counter the Administration’s frantic, unmoored agenda-setting, while also motivating voters for 2020—will be to pursue ambitious ideas. These could include the once utopian-sounding Medicare for All; a Green New Deal, to combat climate change while creating jobs; a national fifteen-dollar minimum wage; and a Voting Rights Advancement Act, to revive some of the protections that the Supreme Court eradicated in 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder.

Such proposals are backed by the Party’s fired-up progressives, but not all Democrats in the House support them, and they are highly unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, let alone be signed into law by Trump. Yet they strike many people as fair and humane, if politically complicated. In a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, seventy per cent of respondents were in favor of Medicare for All. Support has also grown among doctors, who were once vocal critics of any single-payer system. It’s true that support tends to drop when pollsters tell people that they may have to pay more taxes, or that the government may exert “too much control.” But opponents can also be swayed when told that the plan would reduce the role of private insurers, or guarantee “that all Americans have health insurance as a basic right.”

Even if such proposals can’t make it out of Congress this term, they can help form a blueprint for a future in which the Democrats control the White House or the Senate. And, by bringing them up now, Democrats create the occasion to hammer out what a Green New Deal might actually look like, or how a national minimum wage might affect the working poor, while forcing Republicans to explain why they reject these approaches. Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic mayor of South Bend, Indiana—and a potential Presidential candidate—told the Times that it was important for Democrats to air big ideas, such as “whether guaranteed income is now right,” in part because only sweeping proposals to improve people’s lives can compete with the starkness and the simplicity of walls and bans and MAGA. In a sign that the Democratic leadership is listening, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, announced last week that she would support holding hearings on Medicare for All.

The 116th Congress is unusual in many ways. It has the largest freshman class in fifty years, the most women ever (a hundred and twenty-seven), the first Muslim and Native American women, and the first Latinas elected from Texas. It skews younger (eleven freshmen are under the age of thirty-five, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, at twenty-nine, is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress) and more progressive (the Congressional Progressive Caucus has grown from seventy-eight members to ninety-six). Its brightest lights are more likely to break protocol—by joining a sit-in at Pelosi’s office, or by dishing about the arcane workings of the Capitol on Instagram—than their predecessors were. The freshman class is hipper, over all, and more unpredictable. It’s one of the most highly educated groups of incoming House members in modern history, according to the Brookings Institution, and also the least politically experienced: only forty-one per cent have held prior office. This may mean that they will be refreshingly unwilling to get hung up on precedent, but it could also make them a fractious bunch.

There are already tensions: between the progressives with activist backgrounds and the moderates who painstakingly peeled away districts that went for Trump in 2016; between senior members who want the newbies to wait their turn and the newbies who aren’t looking for their permission. The Los Angeles Times reported that “several freshmen have asked for—some have demanded—prime slots on powerful legislative committees.” Representative Jackie Speier said of her new colleagues, “They’re going to shake this place up, and that’s kind of a good thing.” Some mutual befuddlement will be unavoidable. When Representative Rashida Tlaib, shortly after being sworn in, told a group of activists, “We’re gonna impeach the motherfucker,” Pelosi allowed that, “generationally, that would not be the language I would use.”

If all this sounds daunting, here’s a hopeful point to keep in mind about that record number of women, a hundred and six of whom are Democrats: research shows that women in Congress are more effective than their male counterparts at securing spending for their districts, which perhaps bodes well for the bipartisan project of infrastructure investment. They also sponsor and co-sponsor more legislation.

Inevitably, the House Democrats will be preoccupied with investigating Trump and with the traps that he keeps setting for them. Their challenge will be to work with the Senate to pass what positive legislation they can—while reminding Americans of how much more might be accomplished once the Trump era is over.

Brace For Impact — Marina Koren in The Atlantic on the impending collision of galaxies.  No, really.

Ah, the Milky Way, our glittering home in the cosmos. Seen in an unencumbered night sky, far from the glare of city lights, it seems magnificent and eternal in its enormity. Nothing could shift this ancient web of stars, nothing could disturb its transcendent stoicism.

Except, that is, another galaxy. Galaxies orbit millions of light-years apart, but gravity, the immutable magnet of the cosmos, can pull them together, producing spectacular collisions that reshuffle stars millions of years. According to the leading theory, the Milky Way will collide with one of its closest neighbors, Andromeda, sometime between 6 billion and 8 billion years from now.

But the Milky Way may face another galactic threat before that, from a different neighbor. A new study predicts our galaxy will collide with a galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud between 1 billion and 4 billion years from now.

This is a rather surprising change in schedule, considering that the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is close enough to be seen with the naked eye, is currently moving away from the Milky Way. What gives?

Marius Cautun, an astrophysicist at Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology, says that recent observations of the Large Magellanic Cloud have revealed that the galaxy has more mass than previously thought. Cautun and his fellow researchers decided to run computer simulations that took this new factor into account and fast-forwarded the conditions of our cosmic neighborhood. They tested multiple scenarios, making adjustments in mass, velocity, and other measures. In the end, the simulations predicted that in several hundred million years, the Large Magellanic Cloud will turn around and head straight for the center of the Milky Way.

“The collision between our galaxy and the [Large Magellanic Cloud] takes place in the majority of cases—over 93 percent,” Cautun says.The collision would be a slow showdown, unfolding over the course of billions of years. Stars from the Large Magellanic Cloud would ricochet like pinballs, dislodging some of the Milky Way’s stars from their orbits. Our galaxy as a whole would survive, but some stars may be flung right out of the Milky Way, Cautun says.Meanwhile, the sleeping, supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way would wake up. Like volcanoes, black holes alternate between peaceful dormancy and ferocious activity, depending on the surrounding conditions. Ours is in a quiet period. But the chaos of the merger would send cosmic gas swirling toward it, and cosmic gas is dinner to black holes. The resulting feast is a spectacular show. A disk of luminous, hot cosmic material swirls around the black hole at great speed, and bursts of high-energy radiation erupt from its center. Cautun says one serving of a Large Magellanic Cloud could lead our black hole to gobble up enough material to grow 10 times its current size.And what would happen to us, if there is any kind of “us”—life in some form—on Earth when this all goes down?It is possible that our sun could be among the small fraction of stars that gets lobbed from the galaxy. The jostling would disturb the orbits of our solar system’s planets, which could be perilous for any inhabitants. Even a small change in the relationship between the sun and the Earth could knock it out of the region where liquid water (and, therefore, life) can exist.If life on Earth survived, though, it would take ages for anyone to realize the planet’s position in the cosmos has shifted. Like the merger, the solar system’s ejection would occur over such a large timescale that it’d be almost meaningless to humans. “Only at the end of the collision could our descendants tell if we have been kicked out of our galaxy,” Cautun says.

The change in scenery would be remarkable. In this scenario, “our descendants will see a very different night sky, much darker than currently, with only a modest bright patch that will correspond to the Milky Way galaxy,” Cautun says. “It will be tremendously more difficult for our descendants to travel to other stars—if they haven’t yet done so by that time.”

If this imagined future scares you, consider that a collision with Andromeda would be much worse. The Milky Way would easily devour the smaller Large Magellanic Cloud and maintain its signature spiral shape, even if its insides will be all jumbled. Andromeda, on the other hand, is about the same size as the Milky Way. Astronomers expect that mashup to be destructive, and the Milky Way as we know it—the neat, shimmering band of stars—is unlikely to survive.

Cautun says that a collision between the Milky Way and the Large Magellanic Cloud would shift our galaxy’s position in space. Even still, Andromeda will still come for it, however many billions of years later.

“Ultimately, there is no escape,” he says.

[Photo: ESO/S. Brunier]

Doonesbury — Correcting the record.