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Links: May 2018

President Trump needs to learn something about crisis diplomacy — and fast

Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think I’ve seen the word “bellicose” more times in this presidency than in all the time before it.

Climate Change and Vulnerable Communities — Let’s Talk About This Hot Mess.

“Hazardous waste facilities were more likely to be located in minority communities.” Learn from Talia Buford about environmental justice.

All-American Nazis: Inside the Rise of Fascist Youth in the U.S.

Atomwaffen Division is a far-right extremist group with five murder charges in the past year. Among its ranks are active-duty military. Here Janet Reitman unpacks the double murder that exposed Atomwaffen Division’s frighteningly humble origins.

Between 2012 and 2016, according to a report by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, there was a 600 percent increase in followers of American white-nationalist movements on Twitter alone; white-nationalist groups now outperform ISIS in nearly every social metric.

McMaster and Commander

A great long read by Patrick Radden Keefe on H.R. McMaster’s doomed stint as National Security Adviser.

[I]n addition to excelling in combat, he had written a Ph.D. dissertation that became a landmark book, “Dereliction of Duty,” which was published in 1997.

What does it mean to be the national-security adviser when some of the greatest threats confronting the nation may be the proclivities and limitations of the President himself? McMaster’s friend Eliot Cohen, who was a senior official in the George W. Bush Administration, told me that, although they have not spoken about the general’s motives, he thinks McMaster may have believed that he was “defending the country, to some extent, from the President.”

After McMaster accepted the position, one of his Army mentors, the retired general David Petraeus, invoked “Dereliction of Duty,” asking McMaster, “What will be the title of the book they write about you?”

He was an outspoken critic of a phenomenon that he saw as a form of cognitive dissonance: military leaders’ insisting on fighting the war they wanted to be fighting, rather than the war they actually were fighting. He called it the triumph of “theory over practice.”

Invoking Thucydides, he has suggested that peace is merely “an armistice in a war that is continuously going on.”

McMaster’s process “had the veneer of something that Stephen Hadley or Condi Rice or Susan Rice would recognize,” a former staffer told me. “But it’s not getting the work done.” Another former N.S.C. official said, “There are two parallel tracks—there’s the interagency process, and then Trump makes a decision. But there’s often no suggestion that he’s making decisions with reference to that process. It’s two ships in the night.” The President, speaking to Fox News in November, put it more succinctly. When asked about his failure to fill key State Department posts, Trump responded that, when it comes to foreign policy, “I’m the only one that matters.”

An N.S.C. official told me, “The fundamental question is, can you divorce Presidential rhetoric from American foreign policy?”

McMaster tried to reassure the political appointees that the professional staffers weren’t spies but, rather, a valuable source of institutional knowledge. Nevertheless, the hostility persisted. At one point, McMaster asked each N.S.C. directorate to generate a memo outlining the most severe threats that it faced. Harvey was responsible for producing the Middle East directorate’s list. According to someone who saw it, the No. 1 threat was not ISIS, or the war in Syria, but “problematic [Obama] holdovers.” “It was so unhinged,” the person said.

“Some of these senior military officers in the Trump Administration forget that the Constitution they swore to defend includes the Twenty-fifth Amendment. If they believe that the President is unfit, then their job is not to work behind the scenes to mitigate, or paper over, his infirmities. It’s their duty to resign—and go public about why they’re doing it.”

Both Trump and McMaster disdained the Obama Administration’s lofty rhetoric about arcs of history bending toward justice, and saw the world as an arena for brute competition.

There had been instances, with regard to North Korea and also Iran, in which McMaster requested war plans from Mattis, only to have Mattis refuse to supply them. To McMaster and his colleagues, Mattis’s apparent attempts to limit Trump’s options verged on insubordination. One senior N.S.C. official told me that Mattis perceives his role as playing “babysitter” to the President.

According to Pollack, McMaster believed that part of the tension he experienced with Mattis and Tillerson sprang from their perception that he was “too responsive” to the President.

Mattis’s interactions with McMaster indicate that he perceives Trump as a radically mercurial figure who must be managed with a degree of manipulation and care that exceeds the usual parameters of his job. McMaster, in his insistence on a doctrinaire approach to his position, could seem, at times, like the Army leaders he once criticized—fighting the war he wanted to fight, rather than the one he was fighting.

Trump is not, in fact, a great negotiator. A one-on-one meeting was already a victory for Kim: whatever the outcome of the talks, he would bolster his legitimacy by sitting down with a U.S. President. And how would such a meeting unfold? As the “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” episode made clear, Trump has a compulsion to blurt out precisely the thing that he has been instructed not to say. And who would prepare him for the talks? Joseph Yun, the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy, quit at the end of February and was not replaced. Trump had still not appointed an Ambassador to South Korea. (The Administration’s candidate for the job, the widely respected scholar Victor Cha, had suddenly been withdrawn, reportedly because the White House deemed him insufficiently hawkish.) And in mid-March Trump fired Tillerson. When South Korea’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, visited Washington several days later, Tillerson’s replacement, Mike Pompeo, had not yet been confirmed as Secretary of State. Kang met with Ivanka Trump instead.

“It is time that we expose those who glamorize and apologize in the service of Communist, authoritarian, and repressive governments,” he declared, criticizing people who nurture “idealized” views of tyrannical regimes. It was as close as McMaster was likely to come to taking a public shot at Trump.

Roy Cohn, Donald Trump, and the New York Cesspool That Created Them

Magazines, New York prominent among them, grabbed the commercial rewards of exploiting his latest stunts as glossily as possible. The most powerful news organizations and media barons often let Trump have his way. In a scathing editorial this month, the Times observed that “Mr. Trump has spent his career in the company of developers and celebrities, and also of grifters, cons, sharks, goons and crooks.” While the Times would start covering his corruption in earnest in the 2000s after Timothy L. O’Brien, the author of the hard-hitting 2005 book TrumpNation, was hired, the paper’s coverage was anything but aggressive during the crucial decades when Trump was amassing his power.

Exhibit A of the Times’ credulousness is the puffy feature that put him on the media map in 1976. “He is tall, lean and blond, with dazzling white teeth, and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford,” read the lead. At this early date, Trump had only proposed ambitious projects, not built them or closed any of the requisite deals, but the profile christened him “New York’s No. 1 real estate promoter of the mid-1970’s” nonetheless. The article accepted Trump’s word that he was of Swedish descent, “publicity shy,” ranked first in his class at Wharton, made millions in unspecified land deals in California, was worth $200 million, and with his father owned 22,000 apartment units. None of this was remotely true, but the sexy brew of hyperbole and outright fantasy, having been certified by the paper of record, set the tone for much that was to come.

Trump knew he could get away with snookering the ostensibly liberal press Establishment because he’d seen Cohn do so. One of the most memorable examples occurred on Sunday, November 17, 1985 — the same day that Trump was the subject of his own first Mike Wallace 60 Minutes profile. That morning’s Times contained a gentle, reflective interview with the dying Cohn at a “Washington-area hospital” in which it was stated as fact that he was “fighting liver cancer” — a fiction Cohn vehemently maintained, much as Trump now tells staff members that the Access Hollywood tape is a hoax. The unnamed Washington-area hospital was the National Institutes of Health, where the Reagans had helped him cut to the front of the line for AIDS treatment. It was a given under Rosenthal’s editorship that the Times would bring up none of this to protect the criminally hypocritical Cohn, who had threatened closeted gay government officials with exposure in the McCarthy era and loudly fought gay rights ever since.

So to return to Hillary Clinton’s flip rhetorical question: Why not go to the Trump-Melania wedding in 2005? These incidents are just a few of the many reasons why a former president and sitting United States senator with presidential ambitions should not have gone to this particular “fun, gaudy, over-the-top spectacle” in Palm Beach. But they just couldn’t stop themselves, any more than so many Democratic leaders of a quarter-century earlier couldn’t resist dressing up for Cohn’s fun, gaudy, over-the-top birthday gala at Studio 54. In the bipartisan New York political culture that nurtured Cohn and Trump, the statute of limitations for nearly every crime or outrage lasts about 48 hours. Nothing sticks; even repeated racist bygones can be bygones. Whether Hillary Clinton attended the wedding (Bill showed solely for the reception) because she’d taken Trump’s money, or because she wanted to be in the mix of power and celebrity no matter how tacky, or because she hoped there might be more favors to extract from Trump or someone else in the wedding party, doesn’t matter. Whatever the explanation, the then–New York senator, sitting in a reserved seat in the front row, lent a touch of civic legitimacy to Trump that the other glitzy celebrities on hand could not. He got what he’d paid for.

Some of the rich, connected, and powerful New Yorkers who failed to stand up to Trump before it was too late tried to cover their tracks once the music stopped and he had won the Republican nomination for president. When in April 2016 The Hollywood Reporter called 89 guests who had been at his 2005 wedding to request a comment, it did not receive a single response.

Contrast the Vichy passivity of New York’s elites with the mind-set of the citizenry of Abington, Pennsylvania. As the Times reported this month, this Philadelphia suburb was outraged to learn that another billionaire Trump economic adviser, the New York financier Stephen Schwarzman, had purchased the naming rights of its public high school, his alma mater, in exchange for a $25 million gift. As one horrified Abington graduate put it to the Times, if the school’s name can be auctioned off, “what else is for sale?” The local protests were so loud that the school district rescinded the renaming. Needless to say, no such questions or qualms prevented Schwarzman’s name from being plastered all over the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street flagship in exchange for a gift of $100 million.

The Digital Vigilantes Who Hack Back

A former Justice Department official told me recently that the optics would be “awfully poor” if the department prosecuted a company that had retaliated against foreign hackers. “That’d be a very difficult case to make,” he said. “How would that look? ‘We can’t catch these foreign hackers, but when a bank tries to hack back we prosecute them’? I can’t imagine a jury convicting anyone for that.”

Last spring, during a congressional hearing on cyber capabilities and emerging threats, Admiral Michael S. Rogers, then the director of the N.S.A., told Representative Jim Cooper, of Tennessee, that he was wary of Graves’s proposal. “Be leery of putting more gunfighters out on the streets of the Wild West,” he said. “We’ve got enough cyber actors out there already.”

Graves told me, “We love it when people say, ‘This would only create the Wild West.’ The Wild West currently exists! We’re only asking for a neighborhood watch—an extra set of eyes and ears, to notify law enforcement so they can do their job a little bit quicker.” Such rhetoric appears to endorse the citizen-hacker model suggested by the Shawn Carpenter case. But a Justice Department spokesman told me that private actors could easily “undermine” law-enforcement investigators with their meddling.

Should hacking back become legal, it may well help individual victims of cybercrime, but it is unlikely to make the Internet a safer place. If gun ownership is any indicator, more weapons tend to create more violence, and cyberweapons may be even harder to regulate than guns.

In November, 2017, Keith Alexander, the former N.S.A. director, told a group of journalists, “You can’t have companies starting a war.” Graves’s bill may be well-intentioned, but, if it passes, an American company will inevitably do the cyber equivalent of firing the first shot. If the target is powerful, the consequences could be disastrous. Ledgett, the former N.S.A. deputy director, told me that legalizing hacking back in the private sector would be “an epically stupid idea.”

Are two spaces better than one?

Re­search, by its na­ture, tests nar­row ques­tions. As I said in What Is Good Ty­pog­ra­phy, ty­pog­ra­phy can’t be re­duced to a math prob­lem with one right an­swer. Like­wise, it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a nar­row re­search ques­tion about fonts whose re­sults could be ex­trap­o­lated to every pos­si­ble context.

There’s no ev­i­dence that the re­searchers con­sulted a ty­pog­ra­pher on the de­sign of their study. I wish they had. Not be­cause ty­pog­ra­phers know best. Rather, be­cause that col­lab­o­ra­tion might’ve pro­duced test cases that led to more fruit­ful re­sults. As it stands, the re­searchers ended up test­ing the leg­i­bil­ity of type­writer habits. Given that a com­puter can dis­play any font, at any size, I would’ve pre­ferred that they use a wider ty­po­graphic va­ri­ety. Given how easy it would’ve been to pre­pare printed sam­ples, I would’ve pre­ferred that they not rely strictly on an an­cient CRT.

But as I said—I’m not the ty­pog­ra­phy po­lice. And I’m def­i­nitely not the ty­pog­ra­phy-re­search po­lice. Though I ac­cept the find­ings of the study, the ty­po­graphic con­di­tions seem overly—and un­nec­es­sar­ily—ar­ti­fi­cial. Yes, sci­ence is real. But that cuts both ways. We com­mit to fol­low the ev­i­dence wher­ever it leads. But some­times it doesn’t lead very far be­fore the trail goes cold.

I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye

To his credit, West seemed to remember rappers having to defend their music as music against the withering fire of their elders. And so while, today, you find some of these same artists, once targets, adopting the sanctimonious pose of the arthritic jazz-men whom they vanquished, you will not find Yeezy among them, because Yeezy never got old.

Maybe that was the problem.

Everything is darker now and one is forced to conclude that an ethos of “light-skinned girls and some Kelly Rowlands,” of “mutts” and “thirty white bitches,” deserved more scrutiny, that the embrace of a slaveholder’s flag warranted more inquiry, that a blustering illiteracy should have given pause, that the telethon was not wholly born of keen insight, and the bumrushing of Taylor Swift was not solely righteous anger, but was something more spastic and troubling, evidence of an emerging theme—a paucity of wisdom, and more, a paucity of loved ones powerful enough to perform the most essential function of love itself, protecting the beloved from destruction.

[T]here’s ample evidence, beyond West, that humans were not built to withstand the weight of celebrity. But for black artists who rise to the heights of Jackson and West, the weight is more, because they come from communities in desperate need of champions. Kurt Cobain’s death was a great tragedy for his legions of fans. Tupac’s was a tragedy for an entire people. When brilliant black artists fall down on the stage, they don’t fall down alone.

West calls his struggle the right to be a “free thinker,” and he is, indeed, championing a kind of freedom—a white freedom, freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant; freedom to profit off a people in one moment and abandon them in the next; a Stand Your Ground freedom, freedom without responsibility, without hard memory; a Monticello without slavery, a Confederate freedom, the freedom of John C. Calhoun, not the freedom of Harriet Tubman, which calls you to risk your own; not the freedom of Nat Turner, which calls you to give even more, but a conqueror’s freedom, freedom of the strong built on antipathy or indifference to the weak, the freedom of rape buttons, pussy grabbers, and fuck you anyway, bitch; freedom of oil and invisible wars, the freedom of suburbs drawn with red lines, the white freedom of Calabasas.

It would be nice if those who sought to use their talents as entrée into another realm would do so with the same care which they took in their craft. But the Gods are fickle and the history of this expectation is mixed. Stevie Wonder fought apartheid. James Brown endorsed a racist Nixon. There is a Ray Lewis for every Colin Kaepernick, an O.J. Simpson for every Jim Brown, or, more poignantly, just another Jim Brown. And we suffer for this, because we are connected. Michael Jackson did not just destroy his own face, but endorsed the destruction of all those made in similar fashion.

The Carnage and Chaos of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”

Glover forces us to relive public traumas and barely gives us a second to breathe before he forces us to dance. There is an inescapable disdain sewn into fabric of “This Is America.” The very fact that the dance scenes are already being chopped into fun little GIFs online, divorcing them from the video’s brutality, only serves to prove his point.

Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web

Bari Weiss predictably got a lot of heat for publishing this, as some of the people it tries to legitimize are little more than contrarian agitators. But its larger point of concern about how quickly we shout down anyone saying something we don’t want to hear is an important one.

It seems to me that if you are willing to sit across from an Alex Jones or Mike Cernovich and take him seriously, there’s a high probability that you’re either cynical or stupid. If there’s a reason for shorting the I.D.W., it’s the inability of certain members to see this as a fatal error.

I share the belief that our institutional gatekeepers need to crack the gates open much more. I don’t, however, want to live in a culture where there are no gatekeepers at all. Given how influential this group is becoming, I can’t be alone in hoping the I.D.W. finds a way to eschew the cranks, grifters and bigots and sticks to the truth-seeking.

The Coalition for Cultural Freedom

This column is a junky extension of the one above.

“The defense of intellectual liberty today imposes a positive obligation: to offer new and constructive answers to the problems of our time,” wrote the authors of the Freedom Manifesto.

Okay, so what “new and constructive answers to the problems of our time” are these “anti-SJW” types proposing? What are they doing beyond fighting for preservation of the status quo, from which they all conveniently seem to benefit?

How the Online Left Fuels the Right

Because the red pill experience is so intense, progressives should think about how to counter dynamics that can make banal right wing beliefs seem like seductive secret knowledge. Attempts at simply repressing bad ideas don’t seem to be working.

Some might argue that respectfully debating ideas seen as racist or sexist legitimates them. There’s something to this, but refusing to debate carries a price as well — it conveys a message of weakness, a lack of faith in one’s own ideas. Ultimately, the side that’s frantically trying to shore up taboos is the side that’s losing. If there’s an Intellectual Dark Web, we should let the sun shine in.

Alexa and Siri Can Hear This Hidden Command. You Can’t.

Even absent the obvious dangers of inviting giant corporations to spy on you, smart speakers’ appeal eludes me.

Last year, researchers at Princeton University and China’s Zhejiang University demonstrated that voice-recognition systems could be activated by using frequencies inaudible to the human ear. The attack first muted the phone so the owner wouldn’t hear the system’s responses, either.

The technique, which the Chinese researchers called DolphinAttack, can instruct smart devices to visit malicious websites, initiate phone calls, take a picture or send text messages. While DolphinAttack has its limitations — the transmitter must be close to the receiving device — experts warned that more powerful ultrasonic systems were possible.

That warning was borne out in April, when researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign demonstrated ultrasound attacks from 25 feet away. While the commands couldn’t penetrate walls, they could control smart devices through open windows from outside a building.

How 2 M.T.A. Decisions Pushed the Subway Into Crisis

This interactive piece by Adam Pearce is easily the best explanation of how the NYC subway got so fucked up.

A world record Super Mario Bros speedrun explained

“It’s like watching a swiss clock maker explain his machine.”

The Strange Cocoon of Trump and Hannity, Two Friends Who Like to Talk Before Bed

Another time, he listed the number of push-ups (100) and sit-ups (100) he does each day. He’s discussed this hobby with such frequency that, in 2016, he inspired the Washington Free Beacon to create a 2:23 supercut titled Sean Hannity Karate Update. (Applying the term karate to his workouts greatly agitates him. “Why does everyone say karate? Not even close to what I do,” he tweeted once. A year later, he tweeted again: “Oh and by the way, I never did ‘karate’ in my life. Another lie.”)

When he’s not doing karate […]

Worst to First: Ranking Every Episode of ‘Seinfeld’

By happenstance, I just finished rewatching all nine seasons of Seinfeld, so I was pleased to be perfectly primed for this. In addition to the thoughtful rankings, there are lots of fun factoids.

Multi-Layered Lettering Challenges the Aesthetics of Graffiti in New Works by Pref

This delightfully inventive lettering is a pretty good way to start your day.

Trump vs. the “Deep State”

Trump has elevated loyalty to the primary consideration. Since he has no fixed ideology, the White House cannot screen for ideas, so it seeks a more personal form of devotion. Kellyanne Conway, one of his most dedicated attendants, refers reverently to the “October 8th coalition,” the campaign stalwarts who remained at Trump’s side while the world listened to a recording of him boasting about grabbing women by the genitals.

A culture of fealty compounds itself; conformists thrive, and dissenters depart or refuse to join. By May, the President was surrounded by advisers in name only, who competed to be the most explicitly quiescent. Peter Navarro, the head of the White House National Trade Council, told an interviewer, “My function, really, as an economist is to try to provide the underlying analytics that confirm his intuition. And his intuition is always right in these matters.”

McEldowney, the retired Ambassador, said, “I believe to the depth of my being that by undermining our diplomatic capability we are putting our country at risk. Something awful is inevitably going to happen, and people will ask, ‘Where are the diplomats?’ And the tragic answer will have to be ‘We got rid of them in a fire sale.’ ”

In March, he got what appeared to be good news: the White House had nominated a new member. Then he discovered that the appointment was not to the empty post but to his post. As a result, all the work he has conducted since January, 2017, will be legally void. At first, he wondered if there had been a clerical error, but officials at the White House confirmed that there had not, offering no further explanation. “It is mind-boggling that everything I’ve been doing for a year and a half will be wiped off the map,” he told me.

Trump’s struggle to attract competent people reflects a broader problem. For decades, Presidents and Congress have created a steadily increasing number of political appointees. Kennedy submitted two hundred and eighty-six appointments for Senate approval; Trump is allotted more than twelve hundred.

Last fall, Trump appointees in the department became frustrated by bad press over efforts to expand mining and drilling, and by Freedom of Information Act requests that sought details of their contacts with powerful industries. Allen received another order: send FOIA requests about political appointees to the subjects themselves before releasing the results to the public. He was taken aback. “It was just a blatant conflict of interest,” he said. “The person who may be under suspicion, that they’re requesting records on, is going to be an approval authority in the chain. That just doesn’t seem O.K.”

The early mistakes in Iraq were like land mines sown in the soil. They continued erupting for years, in the form of division and decay. Similarly, the mistakes that the Trump Administration has made are likely to multiply: the dismantling of the State Department; the denigration of the civil service; the exclusion of experts on Iran and climate change; the fictional statistics about undocumented immigrants; and the effort to squelch dissent across the government. Absent a radical change, the Administration has no mechanism for self-correction. It will not get normal; it will get worse.

Giving and Taking Criticism

Criticism only succeeds when everyone wants things to be better. The moment you sniff out that a critic’s goal is not to help you make things better, BOY BYE.

People are always suspicious of designers. Even designers are suspicious of designers.

What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest an Answer

More gun ownership corresponds with more gun murders across virtually every axis: among developed countries, among American states, among American towns and cities and when controlling for crime rates. And gun control legislation tends to reduce gun murders, according to a recent analysis of 130 studies from 10 countries.

I Don’t Know How to Waste Time on the Internet Anymore

The internet is a utility world for me now. It is efficient and all-encompassing. It is not very much fun.

The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy

Every piece of the pie picked up by the 0.1 percent, in relative terms, had to come from the people below. But not everyone in the 99.9 percent gave up a slice. Only those in the bottom 90 percent did. At their peak, in the mid-1980s, people in this group held 35 percent of the nation’s wealth. Three decades later that had fallen 12 points—exactly as much as the wealth of the 0.1 percent rose.

The Institute for Policy Studies calculated that, setting aside money invested in “durable goods” such as furniture and a family car, the median black family had net wealth of $1,700 in 2013, and the median Latino family had $2,000, compared with $116,800 for the median white family. A 2015 study in Boston found that the wealth of the median white family there was $247,500, while the wealth of the median African American family was $8.

It turns out—who knew?—that people who are struggling to keep it all together have a harder time hanging on to their partner. According to the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, 60 years ago just 20 percent of children born to parents with a high-school education or less lived in a single-parent household; now that figure is nearly 70 percent. Among college-educated households, by contrast, the single-parent rate remains less than 10 percent. […] The rate of single parenting is in turn the single most significant predictor of social immobility across counties, according to a study led by the Stanford economist Raj Chetty.

We’re leaving the 90 percent and their offspring far behind in a cloud of debts and bad life choices that they somehow can’t stop themselves from making. We tend to overlook the fact that parenting is more expensive and motherhood more hazardous in the United States than in any other developed country, that campaigns against family planning and reproductive rights are an assault on the families of the bottom 90 percent, and that law-and-order politics serves to keep even more of them down. We prefer to interpret their relative poverty as vice: Why can’t they get their act together?

But the fact is that degree holders earn so much more than the rest not primarily because they are better at their job, but because they mostly take different categories of jobs. Well over half of Ivy League graduates, for instance, typically go straight into one of four career tracks that are generally reserved for the well educated: finance, management consulting, medicine, or law. To keep it simple, let’s just say that there are two types of occupations in the world: those whose members have collective influence in setting their own pay, and those whose members must face the music on their own. It’s better to be a member of the first group. Not surprisingly, that is where you will find the college crowd.

Why do America’s doctors make twice as much as those of other wealthy countries? Given that the United States has placed dead last five times running in the Commonwealth Fund’s ranking of health-care systems in high-income countries, it’s hard to argue that they are twice as gifted at saving lives. Dean Baker, a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has a more plausible suggestion: “When economists like me look at medicine in America—whether we lean left or right politically—we see something that looks an awful lot like a cartel.”

Who is not in on the game? Auto workers, for example. Caregivers. Retail workers. Furniture makers. Food workers. The wages of American manufacturing and service workers consistently hover in the middle of international rankings. The exceptionalism of American compensation rates comes to an end in the kinds of work that do not require a college degree.

If the system can be gamed, well then, our ability to game the system has become the new test of merit.

So go ahead and replace the SATs with shuffleboard on the high seas, or whatever you want. Who can doubt that we’d master that game, too? How quickly would we convince ourselves of our absolute entitlement to the riches that flow directly and tangibly from our shuffling talent? How soon before we perfected the art of raising shuffleboard wizards? Would any of us notice or care which way the ship was heading?

The poorest quintile of Americans pays more than twice the rate of state taxes as the top 1 percent does, and about half again what the top 10 percent pays.

The 2017 tax law raises the amount of money that married couples can pass along to their heirs tax-free from a very generous $11 million to a magnificent $22 million. Correction: It’s not merely tax-free; it’s tax-subsidized. The unrealized tax liability on the appreciation of the house you bought 40 years ago, or on the stock portfolio that has been gathering moths—all of that disappears when you pass the gains along to the kids. Those foregone taxes cost the United States Treasury $43 billion in 2013 alone—about three times the amount spent on the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

According to a widely used school-ranking service, out of more than 5,000 public elementary schools in California, the top 11 are located in Palo Alto. They’re free and open to the public. All you have to do is move into a town where the median home value is $3,211,100.

The source of the trouble, considered more deeply, is that we have traded rights for privileges. We’re willing to strip everyone, including ourselves, of the universal right to a good education, adequate health care, adequate representation in the workplace, genuinely equal opportunities, because we think we can win the game. But who, really, in the end, is going to win this slippery game of escalating privileges?

Mass incarceration, fearmongering, and segregation are not just the results of prejudice, but also the means of reproducing it.

The raging polarization of American political life is not the consequence of bad manners or a lack of mutual understanding. It is just the loud aftermath of escalating inequality. It could not have happened without the 0.1 percent (or, rather, an aggressive subset of its members). Wealth always preserves itself by dividing the opposition.

The politics of resentment is a means of increasing inequality, not reducing it. Every policy change that has waded out of the Trump administration’s baffling morass of incompetence makes this clear. The new tax law; the executive actions on the environment and telecommunications, and on financial-services regulation; the judicial appointments of conservative ideologues—all will have the effect of keeping the 90 percent toiling in the foothills of merit for many years to come.

In The Great Leveler, the historian Walter Scheidel makes a disturbingly good case that inequality has reliably ended only in catastrophic violence: wars, revolutions, the collapse of states, or plagues and other disasters. It’s a depressing theory. Now that a third wave of American inequality appears to be cresting, how much do we want to bet that it’s not true?

The defining challenge of our time is to renew the promise of American democracy by reversing the calcifying effects of accelerating inequality. As long as inequality rules, reason will be absent from our politics; without reason, none of our other issues can be solved.

Conservatives continue to recycle the characterological solutions, like celebrating traditional marriage or bringing back that old-time religion. Sure—reforging familial and community bonds is a worthy goal. But talking up those virtues won’t save any families from the withering pressures of a rigged economy. Meanwhile, coffee-shop radicals say they want a revolution. They don’t seem to appreciate that the only simple solutions are the incredibly violent and destructive ones.

We should be fighting for opportunities for other people’s children as if the future of our own children depended on it. It probably does.