Should We Listen To Charles Murray?

Here’s how the story appeared in Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Newspaper:


This is attention-getting, isn’t it? Here’s the story in Inside Higher Education.  Here it is in The Washington Post.  A mob committed violence to prevent someone from speaking.  A mob. Injuries.  The story doesn’t go down better when we learn that some of the mob members were college students upset about white racism.  At least it doesn’t for me.

Today we are in a struggle for the soul of America.  Roughly half of the voters who showed up at the polls in 2016 voted for Donald Trump.  More than half voted for Republican members of the House of Representatives, the ones that are busy deregulating everything they can reach.  We need to persuade these voters to vote differently in 2018 and 2020.

Are we likely to persuade people by having mobs attack Charles Murray? Of course not. For one thing, mob violence tears apart the civic fabric.  It is likely criminal behavior.  But it’s more than that.

The question of what we make of Charles Murray and his writings is an important one.  I disagree with Charles Murray, often in quite fundamental ways. Nevertheless, I regularly use his writings when I teach public policy.  I especially use The Happiness of People, Losing Ground, and Coming Apart.  (Note: not The Bell Curve. Why not, see below.)  Why do I read and assign others to read Murray’s works?  Because I believe he is one of the clearest, most evidence-based, broad-gauge conservative thinkers about public policy today in the United States. He is immensely influential and admired in conservative intellectual circles.  If we are going to persuade people to vote differently, we are going to have to understand and be prepared to speak intelligently about the ideas being put forward by the other guys. Charles Murray is a good place to start.

As progressives all across the United States perform an inquest on the 2016 election, one common theme emerging is that we missed focusing on those Americans who have been ‘left behind’ by the march of globalization, lost their jobs and lost their dignity.  Thus, lots of people are taking the time to read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, 2016, touted as ‘#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER, NAMED BY THE TIMES AS ONE OF “6 BOOKS TO HELP UNDERSTAND TRUMP’S WIN”‘.  What else might we read to help us understand this?

I suggest Murray’s Coming Apart, first published in 2012, four years before Vance’s excellent book.  (“This is an immensely important and utterly gripping book,” writes Harvard History Professor Niall Ferguson.)  No, I don’t agree with much of Murray’s analysis, still less with his prescriptions, but the book did make me think, as I believe it would make many others think if they gave it a read.  Had many of us read it, we might have approached voters in some midwestern states differently.

Today, as I’m mulling about the shout-down and worse at Middlebury, I find a moment to read Andrew Sullivan’s most recent letter about the Trump era.  As always, Sullivan’s letter is worth reading.  In it I’m surprised to find this:

In America, as Charles Murray has shown in his extraordinary book, Coming Apart, the young and the smart and the talented — the people who would once have formed the core of these small towns — have long since fled to distant colleges and cities. They don’t come back. They would once have been the police chief or the town librarian or the school principal. They once helped make the town a well-run place with a clear identity, where the same families and networks lived together, died together, belonged together. These connections have attenuated … as economics supplants culture, as efficiency erases the individuality of inefficient places, as Amazon rips the heart out of shopping districts, as the smartphone removes us from physical space, and as many more immigrants and their culture alter the feel of a place in ways that disorient those with memories and loyalties.

I don’t think we can understand the politics of this moment — Brexit, Trump, Le Pen — without noticing this abiding sense of loss.

Murray. “Extraordinary book.”  “Can’t understand the politics of this moment without ….” The same Murray that Middlebury students shouted down and chased out of town.  Sullivan isn’t shouting him down; he’s praising Murray.

A group of nearly 500 Middlebury alumni signed a letter before the event objecting to the invitation.  They said “Dr. Murray’s scholarship is of blatantly dreadful quality.” I doubt very many of the 500 had ever read Murray.  The very smartest, best educated conservatives in the U.S. largely don’t agree with that “blatantly dreadful quality” (unsupported) assessment of Murray’s work. We won’t effectively defeat conservative arguments by simple name-calling, and still less by mob behavior. We won’t win future elections by sticking our fingers in our ears or by shoving our fists and elbows in other people’s ribs.

Yes, some of you may remember that Murray came to Earlham in March 2011 at my invitation.  Some students tried to stop that speech by pulling first one and then another fire alarm.  I spoke up for academic freedom on that occasion.  I’d have liked to see a stronger letter from Middlebury’s President on this occasion, one that apologized to Murray at the start of the letter rather than at the end, but she did voice the key concerns.  Because Earlham and Middlebury are institutions of higher education, academic freedom is the central concern.

Today, not on a college campus and hoping for better days for America, I want to speak up for more than academic freedom: for hearing out and thinking clearly about those with whom we disagree.  If Murray is wrong, say why with care.  You might even find insights that you’d otherwise have missed.  Murray noticed the “abiding sense of loss” among the white underclass before we did.

We may learn something; we may win more elections.


On The Bell Curve.  The book that Murray wrote with Richard Herrnstein, first published in 1994, is a controversial book because it deals frontally with the question of race and IQ.  Its subtitle is “Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.” It drew more attention on publication than probably any other social science book since World War II.  On the whole, I agree with this 1995 assessment from three Brookings Institution scholars: “There are indeed some useful messages in the book. But there is also much wrong with it.”  What “useful messages?” What “mistakes?”  That would take some time to say.

The Wikipedia account is a decent place to start if you want to know more, but first it will let you know that the book generated an enormous scholarly literature, much of it quite technical about statistical techniques and the measurement of intelligence.  Taking the book seriously means committing yourself to a very deep dive.  Just reading one or two things, or worse, taking someone else’s word for it, simply won’t do.

I once read a great deal of that commentary; I pay the book little attention today.  I believe it is wrong in its conclusions, and I believe it is not a constructive contribution to discussions of public policy.  I believe it is Murray’s worst book. But I also believe many other scholars have written bad books and still are worth my/our attention.  I set their bad books aside.

Several of Murray’s other books are well worth my/our attention even though I disagree with them.  (Murray’s The Happiness of People, his 2009 Irving Kristol Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute lays an excellent foundation for a conservative opposition to the likes of Donald Trump.)  It simply is a cheap shot to say, as the Middlebury alumni do, “Dr. Murray’s scholarship is of blatantly dreadful quality.”  It’s as much a cheap shot as it is to say (for example) that most conservatives are shallow, or that they are mostly racist.

If Murray is wrong (or if he is a racist), be prepared to say why. And to do that you will have to read him (or listen to him) first.  Or pay him no attention because you think you have more important things to do.  Those at Middlebury had that option, too.


ADDENDUM, 3/6: The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart addresses the same issue in a similar fashion in A Violent Attack on Free Speech at Middlebury.  One cavil: He uses an ungenerous and I believe inaccurate quote from a student group to characterize Murray’s Coming Apart.  If he hasn’t read the book, why not just mention the topic.  If he has, why doesn’t he simply tell us what he makes of it?

See also The Aftermath at Middlebury, from Inside Higher Education.


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We Just Got SCRUBBED in the House

Very little national reporting on this, but on March 1 the House of Representatives passed HR 998, The SCRUB Act.  SCRUB stands for “Searching for and Cutting Regulations that are Unnecessarily Burdensome.”  Quite a title.

SCRUB passed on essentially a party-line vote.  Just 11 Democrats and 5 Republicans broke ranks.  There have been quite a number of such party-line votes in the House already this year, and almost all of them have to do with rolling back regulations.  Useful, important regulations, for the most part, but rolling them back will allow some folks to make piles more money.

Why SCRUB is a bad idea is stated simply and clearly by the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, an organization that gathers about 150 consumer, labor, scientific, research, good government, faith, community, health, environmental, and public interest groups.  (AKA good guys.)  CSS opposed it.  So did, for example, Consumers Union and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

NRDC said SCRUB is “radical and outrageous – really almost a parody of anti-regulatory efforts.”

SCRUB will make it harder to safeguard food, pharmaceuticals, the environment, water quality, workplace safety and much much more.  SCRUB has a “cut-go” feature that requires that for every new regulation, an old one be eliminated — no matter how valuable the current set of regulations.  No need to show that any current regulation is “Unnecessarily Burdensome,” not matter what the title of the bill.

The Senate still has to act, and the President has to sign the legislation, but the votes are likely there (expect a party line vote) in the Senate and the President will sign when it reaches his desk.

But wait, there’s worth.  Read a letter from Consumer’s Union (the publisher of Consumer Reports) opposing SCRUB and two other bills, The Regulatory Improvement Act of 2017 and OIRA, the Insight, Reform and Regulatory Act.  Today (March 2) the House also passed, by a party line vote of 246-176 the Regulatory Improvement Act of 2017 (15 Democrats broke ranks, and one Republican).  OIRA passed the House on March 1, 241-184, seven Democrats and no Republicans breaking ranks.

We just got SCRUBBED.  You didn’t even have a chance to call your Congressional representatives.

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Trump Vs. Republicans (3): The Speech to a Joint Session

What to make of the President Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night? I’ve read many takes on the speech (more below on this) but the general drift is this: (a) it went over well with the public; (b) Republicans, including those in the Congress, loved it, Democrats not so much; (c) it was filled with familiar untruthful claims about the dire situation of the nation; and (d) regarding Trump’s more subdued tone and sticking with the teleprompter, some declared themselves relieved, others noted this was giving him credit for clearing a much-lowered bar.

But these reactions are mostly as to tone and mood. The more serious question is what work did the speech set out to do, and in that regard did it succeed?

My first reaction was to be struck at how much the speech seemed like a toned down campaign speech, longer on aspiration and quite short on actual policy proposals. Perhaps that was some of the work: it was another campaign speech designed to gather his base of supporters, perhaps even to try to broaden it by looking more presidential.

I think the real work of the speech, however, was to try to begin working out an understanding between the White House (Trump/Pence/Bannon/Priebus) and the Congressional Republicans (McConnell and Ryan, certainly, but also the various factions within the Congressional Republicans). Trump was making a pitch for what the outlines of policy should be: the major issues, the broad outline of proposals to come, the rhetorical connective tissue among these initiatives that will allow them to be pursued together.

Again, longer on aspiration and quite short on actual policy proposals. On none of the key issues he discussed did Trump put forth any more specifics than he has signaled before: not on immigration, not on healthcare, not on trade, not on budget or taxes, not on regulation, not on foreign policy or military spending. (Etc.) Still, he mentioned all those things and did it in the frame of one speech that, while completely undistinguished as to shape or memorable phrase, did hang loosely together.

Ryan called it a “home run,” so at least Trump passed that simple test. McConnell, too seemed pleased (called the speech “inspirational”), and journalists couldn’t find a Republican member of Congress voicing criticism.

The speech was a trial framing of the agenda ahead. He was pitching to the Republican Congressional leadership. How about this as the package of stuff we’ll work together on, he asked, and they nodded assent. They caught the ball and declared it a good throw. In these terms, however, it was a rather small step. He didn’t venture much. We didn’t learn anything new, so stay tuned.  There may well be a good deal of falling out between Trump and various Congressional Republicans as they work on policy and legislative details.

In the weeks and months ahead, we should keep the speech close at hand to use as a scorecard for seeing how the White House and the Congressional Republicans are doing at working together as they put forward specific pieces of legislation. The speech gives us the outline. We’ll look for the policy details; we should especially take notice if anything is thrust onto the agenda that wasn’t mentioned in this speech.

The two most important facts in this post-election period are still these: While still stunned, those who did not vote for Trump are outraged, engaged and mobilizing. And, second, the base of Republican/conservative voters who hung together to vote for Trump are still sticking with him.

To their shame, I add, because whatever the values those voters publicly espouse, whatever the policy initiatives, and despite the appearances of this one speech, the current President has shown himself by character to be unfit to be President.


Some pieces worth reading on the speech, in alpha order, all insightful:

E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, Trump Still Wants You To Be Very, Very Afraid

James Fallows of The Atlantic, Giving Trump a Clean Shave

Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, A Night When Trump Acted Normal

David Frum of The Atlantic, The Three Failures of Trump’s Speech

Susan Reed of Boston’s Cognoscenti, Extreme Vetting of the President: New Rules for News Outlets

Carl Solovox, on the blogsite Medium, Trump’s Address, Easy Version

On the recognition of slain SEAL Ryan Owens, Paul Waldman of The Washington Post, The pundits are wrong. Trump’s handling of the Ryan Owens affair was contemptibly cynical.

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Strategy: Follow the Russian Connection

So many, many issues: environmental protection, refugees, healthcare, minimum wage, Islamophobia, Planned Parenthood, religious freedom, attacks on journalists, budget cuts (Medicaid, NEA and NEH), trade pacts, NATO, the E.U. and Brexit, voting rights, LGBTQ rights, tax reform and tax cuts, and on and on.  Every day a new march, a new issue to protest, a new topic for a call to my Senator.

Somehow, successful opposition to the Trump/Republican domination of both houses of Congress and the Presidency has to find some strategic focus.  We can’t go flat out every day in every conceivable direction.  We’ll exhaust ourselves and we’ll also disperse our energies.

What issues merit priority, and why?  It’s not a question of importance (they’re all important).  It’s a question of what will slow down this rush to the right and rebuild a broad progressive coalition that can win back the Congress and the Presidency.  Which issues will gather the threads together?  So this morning, three thoughts on strategic focus.

First, press on health care.  The pressure on Congress to keep the protections of the Affordable Care Act (affordable health care coverage for all, even those with pre-existing conditions) seems to be working.  The pressure has so far been strong and steady.  We haven’t won that battle yet by any means, so the pressure has to continue on every member of Congress.  That’s one priority.

Second, follow the money.  Andrew Sullivan suggests keeping up the pressure on Trump to release his tax returns.  He says, “The advantage of this particular issue is that it unites Republicans and Democrats. A recent poll found that 74 percent of Americans want the returns released, including 53 percent of Republicans. It was a Trump promise, after all.”  That’s shrewd: press for doing what everyone agrees (even Trump!) should be done.  (Sullivan is an unusual conservative, someone alert to the Trump danger early.  He laid down his essential-reading blog a year ago or so, but has returned with a once a week letter to followers.  Sullivan is always worth reading.  This week’s letter is curiously upbeat.)

Third, follow the Russian connection. Press for an independent investigation — independent of the Congress, perhaps a special prosecutor, perhaps a blue ribbon committee drawn from both parties with full subpoena power.  Lacking that (but don’t give in early) press for serious investigations by committees in both houses of Congress, with the Democrats as well as the Republicans having subpoena power.  Whether and how to investigate is a lively issue in  the Congress right now.  This is a moment to press for a full investigation.

The Russia connection, of course, connects to the tax returns issue: we need to know the extent of Trump’s financial ties to Russia; we won’t know until we see the tax returns.  Something is at the bottom of his refusal to release his returns, and this is likely it.  So strategic focus 2 and 3 are really one big issue: press for release of his tax returns and press for an independent investigation of the Russia ties.

Essential reading to help understand the Russia issues, a long, splendid article in this week’s New Yorker: Trump, Putin and the New Cold War, by Evan OsnosDavid Remnick and Joshua Yaffa.  It has little to say about Trump’s financial connections to Russia, but it is far and away the best thing I have read about what Putin has done and is doing, and what he hopes to gain.  We shouldn’t look at the issues around Russia as simply a matter of domestic politics (messing with our election, say).

New Yorker articles are typically longer on factual reporting and underplay big picture topic sentences.  Mostly that’s a good thing: we learn by the layering of fact on fact, not by broad assertion, but you do have to read the whole thing.  In this article, the larger picture only shows toward the end.  Even then, the article leaves you with dots to connect for yourself.  One suggestion.  We need to understand Steve Bannon: what he is doing and what he hopes to gain.  Look at the picture Osnos, Remnick and Yaffa paint of Putin.  Now put Bannon in the same frame.  I think you’ll see a resemblance that helps bring Bannon into focus.

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Republicans vs. Trump (2)

Thirteen months ago, while the primaries were winnowing out the host of Republican candidates, the influential conservative publication The National Review published a powerful editorial against Donald Trump in an effort to stop his candidacy.  In no uncertain terms the intellectual and political heirs of William F. Buckley declared

Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.

Well said, then.  But now?

Today The National Review published a piece by Dan McLaughlin titled How Republicans Should Check Trump.  McLaughlin, a securities lawyer, is a regular contributor to conservative publications.

McLaughlin begins by dismissing, without further comment, the current efforts of Democrats to oppose Trump.  He calls them “hyperventilating resistance,” and a “dead end.”

McLaughlin names some things he (and presumably others at The National Review) do not like about Trump, but overall he treats the Trump presidency as a normal one.  More opposition from Republicans to Trump, he argues again and again, would be outside the boundaries of what has happened in the past.  Therefore, more opposition than Republicans have shown so far would be inappropriate.  Gone completely is the judgment that Trump is completely unfit to be President, the posture of January 2016.

In a confidant tone, McLaughlin says

We have a long history of absorbing and co-opting fringe movements into our remarkably durable two-party system, and that’s exactly what the rest of Republican leadership is trying to do with Trump. The struggle is far from over, but the early returns suggest that he is not as impervious to their efforts as he appeared.

McLaughlin is declaring that Trump can be contained and steered towards acceptable ends.  I believe that is an accurate assessment of the behavior of Republicans so far.  They are acting as if they believe they can achieve their ends (the conservative purposes that Ryan and McConnell have been working for for the past decade and more) by working with this President.  Sure they’d like to see not just Flynn but also Steve Bannon removed from this administration, but McLaughlin (and I believe others) are declaring overall comfort with the shape of things.  Sure (they’re saying) there will be battles over this or that policy issue (trade, Russia, health care) but they believe they can win enough of these battles with ‘their’ president to make this a good season for Republicans.

Today The National Review is singing a different tune.  They see no Republican Fausts.

On cabinet appointments, for example, McLaughlin has mostly praise for Trump’s selection.  The strongest doubt is voiced about Jeff Sessions.

Jeff Sessions is closer to a “Trump-style” nominee, at least on immigration, but is professionally well qualified and has long been a member in good standing of the Senate GOP caucus.

“Professionally well-qualified?” His record on civil rights is thoroughly disqualifying and yet no Republican Senator voted against him.  What good thing does it say about him that he has been “a member in good standing of the Senate GOP caucus?

I have a different assessment than McLaughlin.  I believe there will be much more conflict to come between Trump and the Republican leaders in Congress.  More important, I believe Trump has long ago showed himself the most inappropriate and unfit person ever to achieve the presidency.  Because of his rash character, it would be inappropriate to use the measure of past presidencies to gauge whether we should accept Trump’s cabinet appointments and early actions.

I’m for persistent opposition to this president.  Those who support him today, even in the early going, will deserve our scorn.

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In Praise of Journalism (Media Not So Much)

By now we’ve all seen this tweet.


For those just tuning in, here is Reince Priebus defending the tweet on Sunday. And here is James Fallows in the Atlantic explaining that lies matter because when the government habitually lies, ‘With Such a People You can Do As You Please.’

I imagine we are all tiring of attacks on the media, tiring of talk of fake news, tiring of jokes about alternative facts.  But what are we for?

I’m for journalism.  I’m for journalism because it is a profession that has ethical values at its core.  We stand up for journalism when it adheres to those professional values.  I am committed to paying attention to news organizations that sustain a serious commitment to the professional values of journalism.  “Media” refers to the means, not the content or the ethical commitments.  “News” is just information, trustworthy or not.  I want trustworthy, accurate, truthful, unbiased news.  Hence, I’m for journalism.  In the future, I’m resolved to talk about journalism and journalists when I’m talking about how I come to know the news.  I’ll steer away from the term media, and if I use that term I’ll try to make clear that I’m talking about claims and assertions that do not come from those that honor the professional values of journalism.

There is a Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics.  It has four core commitments, and it has a good deal to say about what each asks of journalists:

  • Seek Truth and Report It
  • Minimize Harm
  • Act Independently
  • Be Accountable and Transparent

Along the same lines, The Ethical Journalism Network has five principles of ethical journalism: truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity and accountability.

Some of the news organizations that Trump’s tweet calls out has a stated commitment to journalistic ethics.  You can read them yourself:

The New York Times has a Standards and Ethics Statement framed around three core principles:  Fairness, Integrity and Truth.  “Without fear or favor” is a touchstone phrase the NYTimes has used as its ethical anchor since the paper’s founding.  It also has a 57 page handbook of Ethical Journalism that guides all of its work.

CNN’s parent TimeWarner has a statement of journalistic integrity.  It includes this statement on “comprehensive journalism.”

Comprehensive Journalism.  Our network news brands are leaders in practicing, promoting and defending the highest principles of journalistic integrity.

Much of popular journalism today comes with a political or ideological slant: it aims to win people to a point of view, not necessarily to an understanding of the facts. CNN does not try to appeal to a specific point of view or political constituency. To the contrary, the reporters, producers, editors and writers at CNN aim for comprehensive journalism. In their news coverage, they strive to present the whole story, fairly and completely, so that readers and viewers may come to their own conclusions. And in their presentation of opinion and analysis, they strive to represent a range of viewpoints.

Comprehensive journalism also means that we do not let our financial interests determine the topics we cover. Our reporters, producers, writers and editors cover issues that are newsworthy and of interest to our readers and viewers, not because an issue may be of interest to advertisers.

The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) maintains a website on which you can find the statements of journalistic ethics of most major newspapers.  For example, here is the statements from the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.  I found this statement from The Wall Street Journal to be especially thin on commitment to the core values of journalism.

For news, I trust organizations that have and uphold journalistic ethics.

ASNE doesn’t include the major broadcast networks.  I searched the websites for NBCNews, ABC News and CBS News for statements of their commitments to the professional values of journalism.  Finding nothing, I have written each asking whether they have such a statement.  I’m disappointed.

There are other prominent news organizations not called out in the Trump tweet, most notably Fox News.  Here is the Fox Nation Statement of Purpose.  I know of no other statement of a code of ethics for Fox News.  Notice that the words truth and accountability are nowhere to be found.  And it reads like a political program, not a commitment to journalistic ethics.

The Fox Nation was created for people who believe in the United States of America and its ideals, as expressed in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a community that believes in the American Dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. One that believes being an American is an honor, as well as a great responsibility – and a wonderful adventure.

This is a place for people who believe we live in a great country, a welcoming refuge for legal immigrants who want to contribute their talents and abilities to make our way of life even greater. We believe we should enjoy the company and support of each other, delighting in the creativity, ingenuity, and work ethic of one and all, while observing the rules of civility and mutual respect and, most importantly, strengthening our diverse society by striving for unity.
The Fox Nation is committed to the core principles of tolerance, open debate, civil discourse, and fair and balanced coverage of the news. It is for those opposed to intolerance, excessive government control of our lives, and attempts to monopolize opinion or suppress freedom of thought, expression, and worship.

We invite all Americans who share these values to join us here at Fox Nation.
Addendum.  Worth reading is Bret Stephens’ Daniel Pearl Lecture at UCLA, Don’t Dismiss President Trump’s Attacks on the Media as Mere Stupidity.  Stephens stands up for intellectual integrity, but because he is a journalist working for Time Magazine, celebrating a courageous journalist,  I wish he had said more about journalism.  James Fallows gives Stephens a shout-out in his piece while noting that he and Stephens agree about little else.  (Fallows also has links to quite a number of other splendid pieces on why truth-telling and journalism matter.)
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Worries and Dissents 17.2.20

On the dissents front, here’s a piece from Commentary by Nicholas Eberstadt that aims to support the Trumpian view that things are less well off (more chaotic) than ‘those in the bubble’ say they are.  Our Miserable 21st Century.  One snippet:

The abstraction of “inequality” doesn’t matter a lot to ordinary Americans. The reality of economic insecurity does. The Great American Escalator is broken—and it badly needs to be fixed.

Eberstadt points to a good deal of economic insecurity.  If we have a different diagnosis of what’s wrong and what’s right with this country, here’s an assessment we need to address.

On the worries front, in One Press Conference, Two Audiences, Conor Friedersdorf reminds us that not everyone experienced last week’s lunatic press conference in the same way.  Many saw it as a triumph.  He asks:

Can conservatives or libertarians or liberals pierce the bubble? Are they even trying?

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