Following my article on the implications of the so-far-very-profitable “sustainable capitalism” approach of Al Gore’s Generation Investment firm in London, and the previous call-and-response you’ll see further down on this page, some more reader response.
First, from a veteran of the U.S. high tech industry who is now a professor in Israel:
Like Felix Salmon, I have an active BS detector that begins to buzz when the success of what is essentially a technical advance (usually something that I encounter in a popular treatment of an engineering breakthrough, like recent stories on i-phone sized cameras with 16 different lenses and imaging chips) is defended by one number and a lot of good intentions.
The Institutional Investor article which you link to leaves me feeling much better about the likelihood that Generation is really doing well for fundamentally sound reasons, and will have a broader impact. It does make the case that others are following similar directions.
A theme in these two articles which caught my interest is that European investors and governments take a broader, more philosophical approach to capitalism than does the US. (Leaving aside the London Whale and similar stories.)
In the world that I see, European support for research in science and technology, this is definitely true. The EU's programs, such as Horizon 2020, have broader boundaries, and their goals combine technical excellence with sustainability and industrial exploitation. "Welfare capitalism" is accepted, e.g. Airbus. In the US, the NSF and DARPA seem to care most about continuing US scientific and military dominance on steadily shrinking uncertain budgets. Perhaps each side of the Atlantic is still thinking in terms that have not changed much since the 1950s.
And from an American with extensive experience in big-project investments (and also environmental projects):
It is going to be a stretch just to get investors to put their money into things that are good for the world and also yield no more than the level of returns that the investors are otherwise accustomed to (especially at no greater than customary risk to the investors). In fact, it is also going to be quite difficult just to find such investment opportunities for them, and to structure them so that they actually are good for the world and also actually do yield even customary returns with customary levels of risk.
It may be possible to invest in things that are good for the world and also produce HIGHER than customary returns at no more than ordinary levels of investor risk. But people familiar with finance and investing will so skeptical of that proposition that even if Generation has indicated that it has already accomplished this (to some extent), the cognoscenti are likely to think: Really? To what extent, exactly? And how scalable/replicable is this – currently – even if Generation has actually accomplished it (to some extent).
Cut through Salmon’s screed, and those are essentially the questions he’s asking. A subsidiary set of questions, to which he also alludes, arises around how acting largely like a hedge fund buying and trading securities – not investing in projects directly, or in start-up companies – actually advances the “good for the world” cause.
On politics, from a reader in California:
I know that Mr. Gore has done a lot to bring the climate change issue to the fore and that with Current TV he promoted progressive ideas, but this Generation thing is a bit of a head-scratcher.
Here is a man who had built the mechanism and personal brand to influence tens of millions of Americans to take action (i.e., vote) on progressive ideas. One would think that he could have carved out a larger roll for himself being involved in the public discourse and getting people more active in politics.
But instead he chooses to get into investment management? Seriously? It seems that the guy he really admired was not Gandhi but Mitt Romney. And meanwhile, after building Bain, Mitt Romney longed to attain to the status and influence that already belonged to Al Gore as a trusted political voice and leader.
I can’t help but think that the 52 year old Gore could have used his energies much better than running after pension funds to play with their money and get returns that were 2-3% higher than average. Whooopde do. I wish he had instead worked in building coalitions to elect leaders that make a difference.
I have responses on many of these points but will save them for an upcoming round. For now, thanks to these and other readers. Again the point of my article was to try to get the “sustainable capitalism” concepts into broader discussion, and scrutiny, by the non-financial-pro part of the public. So responses pro and con all advance the cause.
The new issue has my piece on the Generation Investment Management firm co-founded more than a decade ago by Al Gore, and why Gore thinks its profitable track record can shift capitalist incentives in a pro-environmental direction. I hope you’ll read it, because I think the arguments Gore and colleagues are making bear directly on the “saving capitalism from itself” debate that has been running for years in Europe and which the Democratic candidates waded into during this week’s debate.
Yesterday I posted a long, largely skeptical response by the financial writer Felix Salmon, of Fusion. You’ll see it lower down on this page. Salmon had once looked into Generation himself, and he had questions about both the details of its operation and the significance of its example.
My purpose in this story is different from that of some others I’ve written. For instance, in the big Chickenhawk Nation piece I did in January, the narrative structure boiled down to: I’ve been wrestling with this topic for years, I’ve been reporting on it in recently, and now I have a line of argument. So sit back and let me see if I can convince you. Some other long stories, on fields I’ve dealt with for decades, follow that same structure (for instance this and this and this and this or this.)
Many other stories are in more straightforwardly reportorial mode. (The Atlantic is one of a handful of publications comfortable with both.)
For those stories the narrative structure boils down to: I heard about some new subject, I found out what I could, and now I am going to show and tell you what I’ve seen, which you may not have heard about before. Most of my reporting from China was in this second category, and so in this current story about Generation.
At face value, I find the Generation story an example very much worth taking seriously, on a subject of tremendous world-wide importance. And at a minimum I find very interesting. But my main ambition with this story was to move the “sustainable capitalism” argument closer toward the limelight of public attention and discussion, both by financial experts and by informed amateurs. Toward that end, even a note as querulous as Salmon’s helps the discussion.
Nothing that follows should be construed as an response from Al Gore, David Blood, Miguel Nogales, Mark Ferguson, or the other Generation co-founders I write about in the story. I haven’t spoken with any of them. These are my answers, based on things I learned during my reporting or inferences I make. Their intention is to put in context questions like those Salmon raises. Here goes, starting with a lot of specific points.
Is the Generation team cooking the books, index-shopping, “p-hacking,” or in other ways cheating by choosing the MSCI World Index as the benchmark for their success? (Over the past 10 years, that MSCI index had a 7 percent average annual return. Generation averaged 12.1 percent.) Answer: Not as far as I can see. From the start the broadly accepted MSCI World Index was the benchmark for their global-equity fund, which accounts for most of their holdings.
Why not use the better-performing S&P 500 as a benchmark? Because that is a U.S. index; their holdings are international.
What is the MercerInsight assessment that shows Generation’s results to be so strong? It’s from Mercer, a well-known firm that among its products offers a proprietary assessment of asset-manager performance. That is where I got my figures. Also a recent article in Institutional Investor quoted another source, eVestment, as saying that Generation’s returns had been 12.14 percent over the past decade, versus the 12.1 percent I attributed to Mercer.
Does Generation really have $12 billion under management? That’s what they tell the regulators.
Why has Generation closed its best-performing global equity fund? In London they told me they were deliberately capping its size because they did not want to let it get unmanageably large. Instead they have been opening new funds.
Why do they have a $3 million minimum-investment threshold? Their clients are mainly big institutional investors.
Do they hold any bonds? The global-equity fund is mainly for stocks.
Do they actually hold shares longer than other managers? When I asked, they said that their average share-holding duration was 3 years. I didn’t check systematically, but published reports suggest that many managers turn over their entire portfolio within a year or less.
Why are they buying only companies they like, rather than shorting companies they don’t? I asked this in London and was told that they consider themselves an investment fund, not a hedge fund. That is, as one of their people put it to me, “We want to reward companies we think are doing well, not penalize ones we think are doing poorly.” For better or worse it’s a deliberate choice.
Why do they hold less of the Irish company, Kingspan, than they used to? Because (as they told me when I asked) they have a “value” measure as well as a “sustainability” measure. If they like a company but it’s too expensive, they don’t buy. If they like it but it gets too expensive, they sell.
Do they really interact with management, as active “owners”? That’s what they said. “We want to be active owners, not activists,” one said.
Is Al Gore more than a rainmaker? They claim he is.
Why didn’t I write more about the mechanics of buying and selling? I thought I did a fair amount, but for more you can check an explicitly financial publication (Institutional Investor) or a business case study (this proprietary one from Harvard Business School).
Now, the big and important question:
Does anyone at Generation imagine that, on their own, they’re changing the course of capitalism? That’s not what I understood. I understood them to say that their track record deserved consideration as a test case of the proposition that “sustainable” investment could bring high returns.
As it happens, that’s just what I said in the piece: “Their demonstration has its obvious limits: It’s based on the track record of one firm, which through one decade-long period has managed assets that are merely boutique-scale in the industry’s terms…. Generation’s goal is to present an example of a less environmentally and socially destructive path toward high returns.”
Where can you read more, for the sorts of things I didn’t get to in the piece? Here is a start:
“Sustainable Capitalism,” the main “what we’re trying to accomplish” policy paper from the Generation Foundation, the advocacy arm of Generation, published in 2012.
“From the Shareholder to the Stakeholder,” an influential report last year from Oxford University and Arabesque partners, which I mentioned in my piece. It argued that recent evidence showed that long-term-minded, “sustainability”-conscious investors made more rather than less money.
The new issue (subscribe!) has my article on Generation Investment Management, the London-based financial firm Al Gore co-founded more than a decade ago. Generation has been very profitable, and Gore and his colleagues contend that its success should draw attention toward the rewards of environmentally conscious “sustainable capitalism.”
Felix Salmon, the prominent financial writer and senior editor for Fusion, has some thoughts about this piece, what Al Gore and his colleagues are up to, and what it all does or does not mean. As will become obvious, there are parts of Salmon’s letter I like and agree with more than other parts, and I think that many of his complaints boil down to this not being a different kind of article for a different kind of readership in a different, more financial-insidery kind of newspaper or magazine. Or by a different writer! Some other parts, I think, are versions of the “$20 bill on the sidewalk” outlook I mention in the article: the Gore/Generation practices can’t really be that successful, because if they were everyone would already have adopted them. (“That can’t be a $20 bill on the sidewalk, because if it were someone would already have picked it up.”)
But there are also some good fundamental questions he asks about the implications of this model, which I’m resisting answer piecemeal and will begin responding to tomorrow. For now, I’m grateful to Salmon for letting me quote it in full and kick off the discussion.
Felix Salmon writes:
This is a fascinating and yet frustrating article, at least for me. It’s by far the most in-depth thing that has ever been written about Generation, but I feel like it doesn’t really answer any of the questions I had about the company, most of which arose when I wrote this piece about why more investors don’t divest from fossil fuels. The Generation view would have involved me putting something in there about how solar is a much better investment than coal, or some such, but because Generation is so secretive about its results, I couldn’t really do that.
1: *How*, exactly, does the Generation model “shift the incentives of financial and business operations to reduce the environmental, social, political, and long-term economic damage being caused by unsustainable commercial excesses”? Is it basically just by saying to companies “if you behave this way, then we will be more likely to buy your stock”? It seems to me that whether or not Generation has done well for itself and its investors, there’s really no evidence at all that it has shifted any incentives even in the companies it invests in, let alone in the companies that it *doesn’t* invest in.
To take a big example, how, say, are Exxon Mobil’s incentives shifted by the the existence of Generation, and companies like it? The story says that Generation is “reducing the destructive side effects of modern capitalism”, but I don’t see any evidence of that?
2: The benchmark being used here is the MSCI World, which, fine, is as good a benchmark as any, I guess. (Although it ignores the bulk of all investable global assets, in that it includes no fixed-income bonds. Does Generation invest in bonds at all? Or anything other than publicly-listed stocks? From the story I’d guess not, but who knows.)
Still, you have to set your benchmark ex ante, not ex post. Did Generation say, when it was founded, that its benchmark was going to be the MSCI World? Because if it didn’t, this is basically the investment version of p-hacking. [JF note: More on p-hacking here.] The main benchmark that investors tend to use is the S&P 500, which has significantly outperformed the MSCI World over the past 10 years.
3: What is this Mercer “survey” on which the claims of outperformance are based? The piece annoyingly has no hyperlinks, even to things like public Andy Haldane speeches, so I’m unclear on whether the survey is even public. [JF note: I’ll try to restrain myself in general, but this doesn’t have links because it’s an article from the print magazine.] And is the 12.1% figure before or after Generation’s fees? How much is Generation charging for its revolutionary model?
4: More p-hacking: all we’re being told about here is the 10-year return of a single Generation fund, which may or may not be the one which is closed to new investment. Remember that because Generation is highly secretive about its results, it gets to open itself up to Jim Fallows on its own schedule, at exactly the point at which it can claim the best results. What we don’t see in the article is even a simple chart of the value of $1,000 invested in Generation: all we get is a single datapoint of the 10-year annualized return. Which is interesting enough, as far as it goes, but how’s the 5-year return? The 3-year return? And, more importantly, what are the *investor* returns, as opposed to the *investment* returns?
If I could only get one number from Generation, this is the one I’d be most interested in: what is the average annualized return per dollar invested with the company? Here’s my suspicion: that Generation launched with a small amount of seed investment from its founders and maybe a passel of other Davos Man types. (Big institutional investors don’t even tend to consider a fund for investment until it’s at least 3 years old.)
During its first three years, when it was very small, Generation managed to do extremely well — so well, indeed, that it was able to attract billions of dollars in institutional capital. (We’re told Generation has $12 billion in AUM, although investment firms have all manner of ways of exaggerating that number, and I’m not sure I believe it.) But in the years since — in the years in which it has been a multi-billion-dollar investment fund — Generation has not been able to replicate the results it had when it was small, and as a result, none of its institutional investors have seen the 12% returns that you talk about. Has Generation actually managed to prove that it can deliver above-market returns to investors? I’m still unconvinced on that front.
5: Talking of which: Why is the fund closed to new investment? Ambitious investment managers like Blood and Gore don’t tend to do such things unless there’s some kind of problem with the fund in question. Best case scenario is that the fund can’t scale: it works when it’s small, but not when it has real money. Worst case scenario is that the fund is just doing really badly, however well it did in the early years.
For that matter, what’s with the $3m minimum, not being open to normal investors, etc? If this is going to revolutionize capitalism, rather than just being a feel-good diversification play for the ultra-rich, why can’t all of us be part of it? And why is Al Gore, of all people, gating himself off from 99.9% of the population who might be interested in going down this road?
6: The noncommittal quote from David Rubenstein is golden. But isn’t it that case that the likes of Rubenstein have vastly more ability to actually change the way that companies are run than the likes of Blood & Gore? Rubenstein has almost total control of the companies he buys. He can run them as sustainably as he likes, with an eye to as many different bottom lines as he likes. He can change them in deep, far-reaching ways. Whereas all that Generation can do, really, is buy and sell stocks on the secondary market.
Even Larry Fink, with his trillions under management, can’t do much more than that: look how much of his company is iShares, for instance, and other passive investment vehicles which give managers essentially no discretion over what to buy and sell.
7: But also, Rubenstein is right about constraints. Generation is trying to make money by trading in and out of roughly 125 companies, all of which are, to a greater or lesser degree, “sustainable”. That’s great. But what would happen if it then gave itself the *option* to trade in and out of other companies which are *not* sustainable? That option has some value, no? Would it not help if Generation understood Exxon Mobil well enough to be able to short it, rather than just taking long positions in its cleantech competitors?
8: There’s lots of talk in this piece about the problems of short time horizons, with a hinted implication that Generation’s time horizons are long, or at least longer. But some numbers would be really helpful here. Are Generation’s time horizons longer than any other institutional fund manager? How long does Generation hold on to its positions, on average, and how does that number compare to its more conventional competitors? That kind of thing. I’m perfectly willing to believe that Generation’s *analysis* involves a long-term outlook. Almost all stock analysis does. But does its investment behavior reflect that?
9: There’s also a bunch of talk about inequality, and wealth disparity, and that kind of thing — but how does running billions of dollars for major institutional investors, and delivering above-market returns on those billions, *decrease* inequality? Surely the more successful Generation is, the richer rich people like Al Gore become, and the more that inequality goes up.
10. It seems obvious to me that Gore’s job at Generation is the classic chairman job of asset-gathering. He’s not picking stocks, or making buy or sell decisions, or anything like that: he’s a sales guy, trying to persuade huge institutions to give him some of their billions. He’s also had ten years to perfect his sales pitch. When faced with a guy like that, you naturally need to have a certain degree of skepticism about what he’s selling, unless you can independently come to the same conclusions.
But it seems to me that Gore has almost complete control over what he chooses to reveal about Generation’s results, when he chooses to reveal it, and what he keeps secret. No one can do the kind of independent analysis on Generation that Generation does on the companies it invests in. Or if they can, they can only do so under strict NDAs. I’d love to know whether you talked to any of the investors in Generation, to see whether they are actually as happy with Generation’s returns as Gore would like us to think that they are. [JF: OK, I can’t resist on this either. Yes.] Or, better yet, whether he talked to anybody who kicked the tires and decided *not* to invest.
11. How does the actual business of buying and selling work? This is incredibly vague to me. The only example in the article is that of Kingspan, where we’re told that Generation bought 5% of the company in 2007, and then bought more and more stock when it got cheaper. Which implies to me that it should have well over 5% of Kingspan right now — but a quick Google search shows that in fact it only has 3.87%. Did Generation cash out when its investment became profitable? Did it even make money on Kingspan? I’m very unclear on what the Kingspan story is meant to be telling us.
12. There’s a lot of mean stuff written in this article about other firms on both the buy side and the sell side, and how short-termist they are, and how obsessed they are about stock price, and how their live events and conferences are incredibly narrowly focused, and stuff like that. But of course no names are named, at least on the buy side, and I do wonder how much of a straw man this is. The investors I know tend to spend a very great deal of time looking at long-term trends and the like, while it’s obvious to me that Generation, just like any other shop, has traders who are ultimately in charge of buy and sell decisions and who Jim probably didn’t talk to at all. Is Generation really all that different? Isn’t compensation based on 3-year performance, for instance, pretty standard for this kind of company?
13. In any event, even if Generation and investors like it do succeed in getting above-market returns from long-term investments in sustainable companies, how does that change anything? If you’re a long-term investor, after all, then pretty much by definition you’re not a marginal price-setter; that’s always going to be a short-term hedge fund or algobot. The effect on companies’ share prices is going to be de minimis, and the effect of companies’ share prices on the planet is going to be even smaller. I really don’t see how a tweaked investment strategy for rich institutions is going to Reform Capitalism, let alone change the planet, or reduce inequality, or anything like that. I mean, Al Gore is (sorry) no Warren Buffett. And even Warren Buffett hasn’t really changed anything!
Thanks to Felix Salmon for a bracing kickoff to a discussion. Stay tuned for more.
In every issue and most every article, we try to tell you about ideas and developments you might not have come across before. As a reporter, I like the job best, and feel most alive, when being exposed to some new-to-me culture or organization or approach to life. A Chinese factory, a software startup, a genomics-research lab, an aerospace design center, a Border Patrol unit—these are the sorts of places that I’ve had the luck to spend time inside, begin learning about, and try to describe in the magazine. The structure of a great many of our Atlantic stories, and nearly all of mine, then boils down to: “Here’s a question I had, here’s how I looked for answers, and here’s what I found.” That’s what I’ve done in this case, and I think the results contain genuine news.
Through the past few months I’ve had what I found one of the most engrossing of these exposures. It’s the one this piece describes, involving the Generation Investment Management firm of London, which Gore helped found. In the article I do my best to describe why the firm’s approach to the world is interesting, unusual, and potentially quite significant — and why its approach has led to better returns than virtually any other asset-manager in its class. I’ll let you go there yourself to judge the case the company is making. Why the “green Warren Buffett” comparison? Because Buffett shifted investment strategies by showing that his could pay outsized returns. That is what Gore is attempting as well.
Just one other word of set-up: perhaps the most interesting substance sections of tonight’s Democratic debate on CNN about the future of capitalism. That wasn’t something you’d expect from this kind of event, but it came up — and it isdirectly connected with the ideas Gore is dealing with. Over to the article for more.
Meanwhile, I talked with Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace about the piece, for a segment they ran this evening. You can find it here.
Starting the process will rein in a president who is undermining American ideals—and bring the debate about his fitness for office into Congress, where it belongs.
On January 20, 2017,Donald Trump stood on the steps of the Capitol, raised his right hand, and solemnly swore to faithfully execute the office of president of the United States and, to the best of his ability, to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. He has not kept that promise.
Instead, he has mounted a concerted challenge to the separation of powers, to the rule of law, and to the civil liberties enshrined in our founding documents. He has purposefully inflamed America’s divisions. He has set himself against the American idea, the principle that all of us—of every race, gender, and creed—are created equal.
Insights into the little-studied realm of last words
Mort Felix liked to say that his name, when read as two Latin words, meant “happy death.” When he was sick with the flu, he used to jokingly remind his wife, Susan, that he wanted Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” played at his deathbed. But when his life’s end arrived at the age of 77, he lay in his study in his Berkeley, California, home, his body besieged by cancer and his consciousness cradled in morphine, uninterested in music and refusing food as he dwindled away over three weeks in 2012. “Enough,” he told Susan. “Thank you, and I love you, and enough.” When she came downstairs the next morning, she found Felix dead.
During those three weeks, Felix had talked. He was a clinical psychologist who had also spent a lifetime writing poetry, and though his end-of-life speech often didn’t make sense, it seemed to draw from his attention to language. “There’s so much so in sorrow,” he said at one point. “Let me down from here,” he said at another. “I’ve lost my modality.” To the surprise of his family members, the lifelong atheist also began hallucinating angels and complaining about the crowded room—even though no one was there.
Big tech companies now trade at one of the smallest premiums in history.
On September 28, 2018, tech died.
That’s according to a widely circulated eulogy prepared by Vincent Deluard, a strategist at INTL FCStone, a financial-services company. “If technology is everywhere, the tech sector no longer exists,” he wrote. “If the tech sector no longer exists, its premium is no longer justified.” When the Financial Times got its hands on the document, it leaned into the death thesis, declaring: “The tech sector is over.”
In news reports, death has several definitions. When it applies to a person, it means the end of life. When it applies to a company or industry, it means the end of growth. Print is dead, live TV is dead, and Millennials killed American cheese; but you can still read a print newspaper with the TV on while eating a cheeseburger.
Dr. Sherman Hershfield woke up one morning and was surprised to find himself behind the wheel of his car. Somewhere between his Beverly Hills apartment and his practice in the San Fernando Valley, the silver-haired physician had blacked out. Somehow he’d avoided a crash, but this wasn’t the first time. “I didn’t know what was going on,” he admitted.
Apart from his frequent blackouts, Hershfield was in fine health for a man in his 50s. He was tall and lean, ran six miles a day, and was a strict vegetarian. “I believe a physician should provide exemplary motivation to patients,” he once wrote. “I don’t smoke and have cut out all alcohol.” Hershfield specialized in physical medicine and rehabilitation, and for decades had helped patients with brain injuries learn to walk again and rebuild their lives. Even with his experience, Hershfield didn’t know what was wrong inside his own head.
America’s largest internet store is so big, and so bewildering, that buyers often have no idea what they’re going to get.
Updated at 5:28 p.m. ET on January 17, 2019.
There’s a Gatorade button attached to my basement fridge. If I push it, two days later a crate of the sports drink shows up at my door, thanks to Amazon. When these “Dash buttons” were first rumored in 2015, they seemed like a joke. Press a button to one-click detergent or energy bars? What even?, my colleague Adrienne LaFrance reasonably inquired.
They weren’t a joke. Soon enough, Amazon was selling the buttons for a modest fee, the value of which would be applied to your first purchase. There were Dash buttons for Tide and Gatorade, Fiji Water and Lärabars, Trojan condoms and Kraft Mac & Cheese.
The whole affair always felt unsettling. When the buttons launched, I called the Dash experience Lovecraftian, the invisible miasma of commerce slipping its vapor all around your home. But last week, a German court went further, ruling the buttons illegal because they fail to give consumers sufficient information about the products they order when pressing them, or the price they will pay after having done so. (You set up a Dash button on Amazon’s app, selecting a product from a list; like other goods on the e-commerce giant’s website, the price can change over time.) Amazon, which is also under general antitrust investigation in Germany, disputes the ruling.
It’s not meant to be comforting, but somehow it is.
If you ever find yourself sinking into the plush blue couch of Dr. Jane Prelinger, you should know that she doesn’t want you to call her Dr. Prelinger. In her office, even when you’re on the couch and she’s facing you from her chair, looking at you through heavy eyeliner and the frame of her white-blond bangs, she insists: You’re just two humans. “It’s Faith and Jane,” she told me when I was in that position. “Here, it’s human to human.”
Jane is an existential therapist. She sees a lot of different clients with a lot of different problems, but she thinks all of those problems can be reduced to the same four essential issues: death, meaninglessness, isolation, and freedom.
Existential therapy isn’t new. Its roots go back to the existential philosophers of the 20th century, and specifically to Jean-Paul Sartre, who summed up his philosophy in 1943 when he wrote that humans are “condemned to be free.” Unlike other animals, humans are conscious and aware of their own mortality—but that means they have the possibility, and responsibility, of deciding in each moment what to do and how to be.
For someone who actively avoids criticizing the president, Senator Jim Risch has a lot to say about how he will deal with Trump.
It’s a familiar pattern: President Donald Trump’s Republican allies disagree with him on a major issue. They send statements and tweets, and repeat talking points on cable news. But will those in positions of power actually stand up to the president when they are at odds with him?
For Jim Risch, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a big test could come if Trump decides to withdraw from NATO, the military alliance with Europe that the U.S. has led for more than 70 years, as he has reportedly suggested he may do.
“There is zero appetite in the United States Congress to leave NATO,” Risch told me on Wednesday. “Fair statement?” he asked, turning to an adviser. “Maybe one voice,” the adviser joked. Risch amended his statement: “Almost zero appetite.”
Astronomers have produced the best measure yet of the planet’s signature bands.
Saturn has confounded scientists since Galileo, who found that the planet was “not alone,” as he put it. “I do not know what to say in a case so surprising, so unlooked-for, and so novel,” he wrote. He didn’t realize it then, but he had seen the planet’s rings, a cosmic garland of icy material.
From Earth, the rings look solid, but up close, they are translucent bands made of countless particles, mostly ice, some rock. Some are no larger than a grain of sugar, others as enormous as mountains. Around and around they go, held in place by a delicate balance between Saturn’s gravity and their orbiting speed, which pulls them out toward space.
Scientists got their best look at the planet nearly 400 years after Galileo’s discovery, using a NASA spacecraft called Cassini. Cassini spent 13 years looping around Saturn until, in September 2017, it ran out of fuel and engineers deliberately plunged it into the planet, destroying it. More than a year later, scientists are still sorting through the data from its final moments, hoping to extract answers to the many questions that remain about Saturn.
Palliative-care doctors explain the “existential slap” that many people face at the end.
Nessa Coyle calls it “the existential slap”—that moment when a dying person first comprehends, on a gut level, that death is close. For many, the realization comes suddenly: “The usual habit of allowing thoughts of death to remain in the background is now impossible,” Coyle, a nurse and palliative-care pioneer, has written. “Death can no longer be denied.”
I don’t know exactly when my mother, who eventually died of metastatic breast cancer, encountered her existential crisis. But I have a guess: My parents waited a day after her initial diagnosis before calling my brother, my sister, and me. They reached me first. My father is not a terribly calm man, but he said, very calmly, something to this effect: “Your mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer.”
Gorgeous and weird, lichens have pushed the boundaries of our understanding of nature—and our way of studying it.
Science is sometimes caricatured as a wholly objective pursuit that allows us to understand the world through the lens of neutral empiricism. But the conclusions that scientists draw from their data, and the very questions they choose to ask, depend on their assumptions about the world, the culture in which they work, and the vocabulary they use. The scientist Toby Spribille once said to me, “We can only ask questions that we have imagination for.” And he should know, because no group of organisms better exemplifies this principle than the one Spribille is obsessed with: lichens.
Lichens can be found growing on bark, rocks, or walls; in woodlands, deserts, or tundra; as coralline branches, tiny cups, or leaflike fronds. They look like plants or fungi, and for the longest time, biologists thought that they were. But 150 years ago, a Swiss botanist named Simon Schwendener suggested the radical hypothesis that lichens are composite organisms—fungi, living together with microscopic algae.