Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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“Collapse” is unevenly distributed

I was eating a quick between-meeting lunch in a cheap Bogotá restaurant one afternoon in the early 2000s, probably during Álvaro Uribe’s first term. The TV under which I was sitting started playing a treacly theme song, and on came the opening sequence of Padres e Hijos, a long-running soap opera that was dominating Colombia’s daytime ratings at the time. It looked like this 2004 version posted to YouTube:

I stared at this sequence, open-mouthed. I found it so jarring that I remember it today. I’d just sat through several meetings with security experts and human rights activists, hearing of untold horror in Colombia’s countryside, and I would be hearing more before my day’s agenda wrapped up. Did the cultural artifact on the screen above me really come from the same country? A country that, at that moment, was grinding through the most intense period of one of Latin America’s longest armed conflicts?

As the intro indicates, Padres e Hijos focused on an upper-middle-class, dominant-ethnicity Bogotá family. Though they undergo soap-opera tribulations, the Franco family is an Uribe-era Colombian take on the American Dream, and the country’s armed conflict doesn’t seem to be much of a factor in their lives.

I dwelled on this memory while reading this very good, much-shared September 26 essay by Indi Samarajiva, a wealthy young Sri Lankan who lived alongside the brutal denouement of his country’s long civil war.

I moved back to Sri Lanka in my twenties, just as the ceasefire fell apart. Do you know what it was like for me? Quite normal. I went to work, I went out, I dated. This is what Americans don’t understand. They’re waiting to get personally punched in the face while ash falls from the sky. That’s not how it happens.

Samarajiva is writing for a U.S. audience fearful that America as we know it is about to disintegrate. His message is: it’s already happening, but most people are lucky enough not to feel it.

Even as he turned out lights for air raids, waited on gas lines, and saw smoke rising from bombing sites in Colombo, Samarajiva went to concerts, went out dancing, and played Scrabble with friends. There is no moment at which the conflict defined his life. What he calls “collapse” (also the name of a grim but very popular Reddit group) is always there in the background, a steady horror, but he can tune it out.

Samarajiva argues that the United States in 2020 has collapsed, though many of us haven’t noticed it yet. COVID-19 is killing 1,000 people per day. There are mass shootings and protests, crackdowns on dissent, and very long lines at food pantries.

A thousand families are grieving tonight. A thousand more join them every day. The pain doesn’t go away, it just becomes a furniture of bones, in a thousand homes. But that’s exactly how collapse feels. This is how I felt. This is how millions of people have felt, including many immigrants in your midst. We’re trying to tell you as loud as we can. You can get out of it, but you have to understand where you are to even turn around. This, I fear, is one of many things Americans do not understand. You tell yourself American collapse is impossible. Meanwhile, look around.

The science-fiction writer William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The same goes for armed conflict or social collapse.

Are you a U.S. resident with the free time to be reading this? Do you have the means to do so over a broadband connection? Are you reading the screen of one of a few internet-capable devices in your home? If so, then it’s likely that you—like the Franco family in Bogotá—aren’t bearing the brunt of the breakdown already underway here at home.

But first, back to Colombia. The late 1990s and early 2000s, when I was gaping over my sandwich at Padres e Hijos, was the most intense period of Colombia’s conflict. The data show it: this plotting of massacres, kidnappings, homicides, disappearances, and displacements, from the 2013 report of the Colombian government’s Center for Historical Memory, illustrates how badly the country was going off the rails at the turn of the century. That’s when everything peaks:

This was a bloody period, punctuated by paramilitary massacres and guerrilla mass kidnappings that still haunt the country today. About 1 percent of the population was being forcibly displaced each year. A peace process limped along for three years then failed. U.S. intelligence analysts were worrying about Colombia becoming a failed state.

For many Colombians, though—probably the majority, especially in cities—life went on. Even as displaced families begged at busy intersections and the possibility of visiting other cities by land grew too risky, life was, by and large, pretty normal.

Colombia’s economy, which rarely goes into recession, grew at a sluggish 0.6 percent rate in 1998 and dipped into a -4.2 percent slump in 1999. But then it recovered to 2.9 percent growth in 2000 and remained in positive territory; by 2004 it, and the local stock index, were booming. Cars had to be checked by bomb-sniffing dogs at shopping malls’ entrances, but the malls had lots of customers and few empty storefronts. In Bogotá, where mayors Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa were building parks and opening (in December 2000) the TransMilenio rapid transit system, homicide rates fell sharply. Mockus deployed an army of mimes to busy intersections to shame traffic violators and jaywalkers.

Bogotá’s Carrera Séptima in 2002.

Even as paramilitaries massacred communities in Tibú, the Alto Naya, Chengue, and El Salado, Yo Soy Betty la Fea—which ABC would later adapt for a U.S. audience as Ugly Betty—ran on RCN from 1999 to 2001. Even as the FARC kidnapped Ingrid Betancourt and 12 local legislators in Cali, Juanes released his debut album, Fíjate Bien (2000), and followed it up with Un Día Normal (2002). Even as Plan Colombia vastly expanded aerial herbicide fumigation, Shakira released Dónde Están los Ladrones? (1998) and her first English album, Laundry Service (2001), while Aterciopelados produced Caribe Atómico (1998) and Gozo Poderoso (2000). Even as peace talks with the FARC veered toward collapse, Colombia successfully hosted, and won, the 2001 Copa América soccer tournament.

Here in the United States, we’re not going to have a traditional armed conflict or civil war, with organized armed groups controlling territory and fighting pitched battles against the security forces. Instead, as a 2017 New Yorker overview put it after the Charlottesville violence, we may face “low-intensity conflicts with episodic violence in constantly moving locales. [Diplomat Keith] Mines’s definition of a civil war is large-scale violence that includes a rejection of traditional political authority and requires the National Guard to deal with it.”

“Collapse” is even less dramatic than that. Right now, I can step out my front door in central Washington DC and, within a few blocks, see the boarded-up fronts of shops that existed before March, a growing number of tents sheltering homeless people in a park, anti-police graffiti, lines of people at public kitchens during mealtime, and a construction project to counter chronic flooding. Turn on the television or Twitter and it’s lone gunmen, police killings, and protests with some violent elements seeking confrontations that the police are quick to escalate. Out-of-control open-carry militias. Profiles of people, some of them insured, forced into bankruptcy by medical bills. Evictions, cruel immigration detentions, and parents unable to feed their families. Climate events exacerbating all of it.

All of this will keep happening, even if Donald Trump loses on or after November 3, and even if the transfer of power is peaceful. Desperation won’t ease right away, and polarization won’t stop giving way to violence. But the violence won’t be everywhere. As was the case even during the worst years of Colombia’s armed conflict, for most of us it will only be something we see on TV or in our social feeds.

We’ll still have hundreds of new hit streaming shows, reality shows, and movies each year. Especially after the virus fades, there will be thriving hipper-than-thou music scenes. People will obsess over college football, new social apps, and celebrity gossip. Books about how to declutter your house and lose weight will remain on bestseller lists. Art galleries, theaters, and opera houses will be open. There will still be pumpkin spice at Starbucks.

Many of us will be outraged at “collapse” and its causes, and will dedicate our lives to fixing it. We may even succeed. But many of us—perhaps most—won’t bother. As societies all around the world have done, we’ll go through our reasonably prosperous lives while tuning out the human suffering in our vicinity.

How so many of us manage to do that—to tune it out and stay comfortable—is a mystery of human nature that I find baffling, just as I was perplexed by Padres e Hijos during my brief early-2000s Bogotá lunch. Whatever it is, it’s not resilience, and it’s not quite apathy, either. It may, I suspect, be a form of grieving.

Here’s a Better Way to Spend $5.7 Billion at the Border

I wrote this yesterday while watching the House-Senate Conference Committee meet to discuss a border spending package that might keep the government open after February 15 (and avoid a disastrous presidential “national emergency” declaration to build a border wall).

The gist: border security isn’t “solved,” but what’s needed now is adjustments, not a sweeping, pharaonic project like a border wall. If Congress is going to send a bill to the president with $5.7 billion in new border-security spending, there are so many things that the money could be better spent on. I list some in this commentary that WOLA posted today.

And what about a wall? I think this is one of the clearest ways I’ve put it so far:

Trump is pushing for a “border wall,” or at least steel fencing—354 miles of which already exists along the border. Fences have a purpose: they slow down border-crossers for a few minutes. That doesn’t matter if the border-crosser is an asylum seeker who simply wants to climb over and get apprehended by U.S. authorities (perhaps after being turned away from an overwhelmed port of entry). It also doesn’t matter in rural areas, where a few-minute head start makes little difference since populated areas and main roads are hours’ walk away. Meanwhile, most densely populated areas along the border now have high pedestrian fencing.

In a normal presidential administration, we’d have a rational conversation about areas along the border where law enforcement professionals might say “some more barrier there would make my job easier.” Then, there would be orderly discussions with border communities, in which all stakeholders (property owners, Native American communities, local government, businesses, environmental organizations, migrant rights advocates) work out the design and placement.

But we’re not in a normal administration. Instead, this president’s rhetoric has made “the wall,” in the words of New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, “a lasting reminder of the white racial hostility surging through this moment in American history.” We cannot support building even a mile of new barrier under these circumstances—denying a voice to border communities and characterizing the “wall” as a means to keep out “rapists” and “animals” from Latin America.


Read the whole thing here.

Elements of the House Democrats’ border security proposal

In advance of the February 15 shutdown deadline, as an alternative to Trump’s border wall, here’s what the House Democrats are proposing. This is as summarized by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-California) in today’s House-Senate conference committee meeting:

  • Ports of entry: 1,000 additional CBP officers; imaging technology; southbound scans
  • Border Patrol stations infrastructure repair / improvement backlog
  • Border security technology between ports of entry
  • Mail processing facilities
  • Aircraft and vessels for CBP and Coast Guard
  • Humanitarian aid and improved facilities
  • Alternatives to detention
  • New HSI agents
  • Fewer detention beds
  • Detention facility inspections and healthcare
  • TSA and FEMA support

Congress Page Revived

I’ve just updated a resource that I created two years ago and—I hate to admit—failed to update much over the past year. But it works again now, so give it a spin sometime, it’s pretty cool.

It’s a database-driven little web app called “Narrow Down Congress” (narrowdown.org). It does one thing: classify members of the U.S. Congress according to groups that you create, and then show you which legislators belong to more than one group.

Why is that useful? Say you’re interested in human rights in Mexico. You have a list of House Foreign Affairs Committee members, a list of legislators who signed a recent letter on worldwide human rights, and a list of legislators who’ve said something about Mexico in the Congressional Record. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know which legislators are on all three lists? Or even just on two of the three? And then export their contact information?

Well, I think it would be interesting. That’s why I made this page, using my advanced beginner-level PHP, MYSQL, and Javascript skills.

And now the site has the entire 116th Congress’s current contact information in it. However, as of now a lot of the existing categories are out of date: committee memberships, for instance, have changed a lot since the last Congress, and many new changes are coming every day right now. But we’ll be updating them constantly, and you’re welcome to make your own.

Check it out. It makes you create a username and password, but that’s just so that the lists you create will still be there the next time you visit. And if it’s still confusing, just click “tutorial” in the upper right-hand corner.

There’s no National Security Emergency at the Border to Justify an Authoritarian Power Grab

Hello from an airplane to San Diego. I cranked this overview out this morning, in advance of president Trump’s prime-time address about the border tonight.

It’s densely packed with facts about the low threat levels for terrorism, gangs, “spillover” violence, drugs, and migration at the border. Nothing justifying an end-run around Congress via a dictatorial “state of emergency” declaration.

Read it here.

What would happen if Trump declares a national emergency?

From today’s Guardian (UK).

I’ve edited this post to reflect that I got it wrong and we’re screwed: a joint resolution requires the President’s signature, or for Congress to override his veto, which is unlikely. This is the result of a 1983 Supreme Court decision. My updates are indicated with italics and strikethroughs.

President Trump keeps hinting that, perhaps within the next few days, he may declare a “state of emergency” at the border and order U.S. military personnel to build a wall. This would allow him to build a wall despite the deadlocked debate currently shutting down the U.S. government. He could call it an “emergency” and go against the intent of Congress, spending money—apparently from Defense Department military construction or operations and maintenance funds—that was not appropriated for wall-building.

Such a move would break longstanding norms about the use of presidential power without checks and balances in our democracy. It would also violate longstanding norms about the use of the U.S. military on U.S. soil. And according to Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman, an emergency declaration would not only “be illegal, but if members of the armed forces obeyed his command, they would be committing a federal crime.”

But what would happen if Trump did it anyway? The National Emergencies Act of 1976 (Chapter 34 of Title 50 of the U.S. Code) is pretty clear about what comes next.

  • Congress can vote to strike down a national emergency declaration by passing a joint resolution (a bill that doesn’t require requires the president’s signature). In fact, whether Congress wants to do so or not, the law requires it to meet, within six months of an emergency declaration, to consider whether to vote on a joint resolution.
  • The House of Representatives, with its big new Democratic Party majority, would be virtually certain to approve a joint resolution to shut down Trump’s emergency declaration. After such a resolution gets introduced, the House technically has 15 days to get it out of committee and 3 more days to debate and vote on the floor. But Speaker Pelosi’s House would probably approve a joint resolution rejecting a state of emergency before the ink even dried on the president’s proclamation.
  • The joint resolution would then go to the Senate. The National Emergencies Act would then give the Senate fifteen days to get it through committee, and three days for the full chamber to debate and vote on it. (The Senate could also hold a vote not to consider the resolution—but that amounts to a vote on the resolution.)
  • It’s not clear what would happen in the Senate. Though president Trump’s Republican Party holds a 53-to-47 seat majority, the Senate is not guaranteed to uphold a “national emergency” declaration for military wall-building. The handful of moderate Republicans, some of them Trump critics, would be uncomfortable with the process and unenthusiastic about spending billions on a border wall. Even some conservative Republicans would be uncomfortable with using the National Emergencies Act to circumvent Congress’s power to appropriate money. Some would also be troubled about using the military for such a long-term domestic mission.
  • We would probably see days of tense, high-stakes political theater, but there is some likelihood (30 to 70 percent?) that the Senate would also approve a joint resolution striking down Trump’s emergency declaration. Unfortunately, Trump would then be able to veto the resolution. Overriding that veto would require the votes of two-thirds of both houses of Congress, which is unlikely. The national emergency would stand.
  • But wWhat if the Senate disagrees with the House? The National Emergencies Act foresees this. “In the case of any disagreement between the two Houses of Congress,” the law explains, both houses must name representatives to a conference committee, which would then have six days to file a report that the House and Senate would have to vote on within another six days. In other words, the two houses are required to compromise, then vote on the compromise agreement.
  • This is where things get vague. What if the two houses are still deadlocked? “In the event the conferees are unable to agree within forty-eight hours, they shall report back to their respective Houses in disagreement,” the law reads.

What happens then? I don’t know—you’d better ask a constitutional lawyer. Because if the situation reaches that point, the United States would find itself in one of the worst constitutional crises in its history.

Gigantic 116th Congress spreadsheet

Below, here as a Google Sheet, and here as an Excel file, is a very detailed spreadsheet of all U.S. representatives and senators who were sworn in today.

I made it by mashing up the data I found useful from the unitedstates/congress-legislators database on GitHub and the freshly updated spreadsheet of member and demographic data compiled by DailyKos. Shortly I’ll add it to a web resource on the Congress that I created in early 2017 but haven’t kept up lately. Time to revive it.

Information here includes:

  • Legislators’ names, states, parties, districts, address and phone info.
  • Legislators’ genders, birthdays, religions, race/ethnicity, and lgbt data.
  • How people voted in legislators’ districts/states during the past few presidential and legislative elections.
  • Demographic information about legislators’ districts and states (ethnicity, education level, income).

What a “partial” government shutdown would affect

I just went through the outstanding appropriations bills and came up with this incomplete list of agencies that would be affected if parts of the U.S. federal government “shut down” at midnight tonight.

President Trump insists that he won’t sign a 2019 budget bill—not even a stopgap to keep the government open for a few weeks—unless it includes $5 billion to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Senate rules require 60 votes to stop debate and vote on such a bill. There are only 51 Republicans in this Senate, and 53 in the Senate that begins on January 1 (when the House becomes majority Democratic). So this “partial shutdown” could drag on for a very long time.

Many of the agencies listed here will continue to operate to some extent, by requiring “essential” staff to report for work (though who knows when they’ll be paid), by depending on fee-based revenue, or other means. But if this shutdown is prolonged, nearly all will find themselves unable to operate normally, if at all.

Department of Agriculture

  • Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
  • Child Nutrition Programs
  • Food Safety and Inspection Service
  • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program)

Department of Commerce

  • Bureau of the Census
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Department of Homeland Security

  • Domestic Nuclear Detection Office
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
  • Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers
  • Transportation Security Administration
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
  • U.S. Coast Guard
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol
  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
  • U.S. Secret Service

Department of Housing and Urban Development

  • Federal Housing Administration
  • Government National Mortgage Association

Department of the Interior

  • Bureau of Indian Affairs
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Forest Service
  • National Park Service
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • U.S. Geological Survey

Department of Justice

  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives
  • Drug Enforcement Administration
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Federal Prison System
  • U.S. Attorneys

Department of State

  • Export-Import Bank of the United States
  • Inter-American Foundation
  • Millennium Challenge Corporation
  • Overseas Private Investment Corporation
  • Peace Corps
  • U.S. African Development Foundation
  • U.S. Agency for International Development
  • U.S. Trade and Development Agency

Department of Transportation

  • Federal Aviation Administration
  • Federal Highway Administration
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Department of the Treasury

  • Office of Foreign Assets Control
  • Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence
  • U.S. Mint

The White House

  • Council of Economic Advisers
  • Executive Office of the President
  • Homeland Security Council
  • National Security Council
  • Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
  • Office of National Drug Control Policy

The Judiciary

  • Courts of Appeals, District Courts, and Other Judicial Services
  • Supreme Court of the United States
  • U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

Independent Agencies

  • Broadcasting Board of Governors
  • Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
  • Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
  • Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
  • Federal Election Commission
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
  • General Services Administration (GSA)
  • John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
  • NASA
  • National Archives and Records Administration
  • National Endowment for Democracy
  • National Endowment for the Arts
  • National Endowment for the Humanities
  • National Gallery of Art
  • National Science Foundation
  • National Transportation Safety Board
  • Office of Government Ethics
  • Office of Personnel Management (OPM)
  • Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
  • Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
  • Selective Service System
  • Small Business Administration
  • the Smithsonian Institution
  • U.S. Institute of Peace
  • U.S. International Trade Commission
  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  • Washington, DC
  • Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

My pessimistic (or perhaps realistic) House spreadsheet

I hesitate to share this because it reveals how unhinged the midterm elections have made me. But here’s a spreadsheet of 70 House districts that could conceivably go either way in tomorrow’s vote.

To win a majority of the House of Representatives, Democrats will have to carry 33 of these 70. Nearly half. That is, they need to hold the ten Democrat-held districts listed here, and take 23 more.

After an unhealthily obsessive study of polls and coverage, I’ve given each of the 70 districts a score.

  • If it looks like a likely Democratic pickup, it gets a 1.
  • If it’s too close to call but I think it’s a plausible Democratic win, it gets a 0.5. That way, every two “plausible” districts equals one Democratic pickup.
  • If it’s a longshot, it gets a 0.
  • If it’s close but there’s a plausible chance that a Democratic seat could flip Republican, it’s a -0.5.
  • If the Democrat is likely to lose, it’s a -1 (that’s Radinovich’s seat in Minnesota, and a result of court-ordered redistricting in Pennsylvania-14).

I’ll update this through election night. But as of 5:00PM on Monday the 6th, I see the Democratic Party just barely squeaking by with a net gain of 23 seats, giving them a bare 218-217 majority:

You may score these districts more optimistically than I do. But I’ve been burned before, and by my reckoning, the Democrats will just barely make it.

Most analysts seem to be expecting the Democrats to pick up about 35 seats. (I’m closer to the RealClearPolitics map, which predicts a 26.5 seat Democratic pickup, for a 221.5-213.5 majority.) Sorry, but I just don’t see 35 seats.

There’s no wiggle room. This spreadsheet explains why I’m feeling pretty anxious about the Trump administration being subjected to any meaningful oversight and accountability over the next two years.

If I’m wrong and it’s a blowout, I’ll be delighted to admit how cracked my crystal ball is on Wednesday.

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