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Joe Biden's Mixed Iran Messages
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on Feb. 25.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on Feb. 25.

Photo: jonathan ernst/Reuters

Friday morning’s airstrike against Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria sends a clear message: President Biden will use force to defend American lives. But this welcome development is an exception to the rest of Mr. Biden’s emerging Iran policy.

The President authorized the mission Thursday as a response to deadly rocket attacks against American and allied personnel in Iraq this month. The strikes, meant to target the Iranian proxies Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, destroyed several weapons storage facilities.

The Pentagon didn’t confirm casualty numbers, but media reports suggest well over a dozen pro-Iranian fighters were killed as the U.S. also struck trucks loaded with weapons. The message will be heard in Tehran and by other U.S. adversaries.

On the other hand, there’s Mr. Biden’s seemingly eager desire to return to the flawed 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. After announcing that Washington couldn’t “snap back” United Nations sanctions, the new Administration is consulting with South Korea about releasing at least $1 billion in frozen Iranian assets. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week the U.S. wants to “lengthen and strengthen” the accord—good—but then said President Trump’s sanctions on Iran had failed.

How giving up sanctions will get Iran to agree to a better deal is left unsaid. And, no surprise, Tehran has responded to the overtures by curbing access for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and threatening to further enrich uranium.

The White House is also making the mistake of counting on Europe to help bring Iran into a better nuclear deal pact. Talk about false hope. The U.K., Germany and France failed to help Mr. Trump improve the deal. France and Germany also recently embarrassed the new Administration by rushing to sign a major investment deal with China.

So much for “restoring alliances.” The Europeans have convinced themselves that the nuclear deal will change Iran’s behavior, but this diplomacy is about little more than serving their commercial interests with Iran.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is giving the back of its hand to the countries most endangered by Iran—Israel and the Sunni Arab states. The Administration paused arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates last month. It also withdrew support for a Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen while lifting sanctions against the Houthis. On Friday the Administration released a scathing intelligence report about Saudi officials’ involvement in journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing (see nearby). Amid a flurry of other activity, Mr. Biden also made a point of delaying his first calls to Saudi and Israeli leaders.

All this looks and sounds like Barack Obama redux, though the Middle East has changed in four years. The Administration is still courting Iran, as if the regime and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have shown any desire to change their imperial behavior. These concessions jeopardize the progress of the landmark Abraham Accords between Israel and Arab countries and the containment of Iran, where sanctions have stoked public anger at the regime and undermined its ability to project power around the region.

Mr. Biden says he wants to focus less on the Middle East and more on the Indo-Pacific. The way to do that is to build on the alliances of the Trump Administration and persuade the Europeans to join a united front against Iran. Otherwise Mr. Biden is on a path to strategic disappointment and time-consuming distractions in Iraq, Syria and the Arabian peninsula.

Paul Gigot interviews former Trump national-security official Matthew Pottinger. Photo: ZUMA Press The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 6:30 pm
The Khashoggi Sanction
Friends of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi hold posters bearing his picture in front of Saudi Arabia Istanbul Consulate, Oct. 2, 2020.

Friends of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi hold posters bearing his picture in front of Saudi Arabia Istanbul Consulate, Oct. 2, 2020.

Photo: ozan kose/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The Biden Administration’s release Friday of a classified report on the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is morally satisfying. Whether it furthers U.S. interests or even human rights in the long run is another question.

The report, delivered to Congress in declassified form, puts the onus squarely on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for ordering Khashoggi’s kidnapping and killing. The report doesn’t offer direct evidence of the order; it bases the judgment on the Crown Prince’s control of decision-making in the Kingdom and the involvement of a key adviser and members of his personal security detail.

News of the classified report was leaked at the time, in part to embarrass Donald Trump. The former President viewed the Crown Prince known as MBS as an ally and didn’t want to jeopardize Saudi-U.S. ties. He accepted MBS’s denial without nuance or moral condemnation, which was his habit. President Biden is downgrading those ties, or what he calls a “recalibration,” which will play well on Capitol Hill with progressives and isolationists who want to distance the U.S. from the Saudis.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken also announced Friday what he called a “Khashoggi Ban,” a new visa-restriction policy on individuals who “are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities.” The U.S. will apply the new ban to 76 Saudis, and it might do some good as a warning to foreign officials that they and their families could be barred from the U.S. if they act against opponents abroad. Don’t underestimate how many foreign leaders want to send their children to Stanford or Duke.

But note that the U.S. didn’t apply that sanction to MBS, who is the Saudi defense minister and probably the next King. Democrats and the media are already calling this inadequate and want MBS barred if not indicted. The Biden Administration seems to appreciate that this would lead to a more serious break in U.S.-Saudi relations that would help adversaries in Tehran, Moscow and Beijing.

Mr. Trump had a moral tin ear, but his support for the Saudis and Israel, and opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, helped pave the way for the historic Abraham Accords between Israel and Arab states. The Biden Administration should think twice about alienating the Saudis, who are rare U.S. friends in a dangerous part of the world.

The Khashoggi murder was an especially brutal assault on a political opponent, but we can think of others who could make the new “ban” list. If MBS qualifies, then how about Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin coterie and members of the Chinese State Council ultimately responsible for the arrest of democrats in Hong Kong? Or the terror sponsors in Tehran that Mr. Biden seems intent on courting (see nearby)?

The Khashoggi report and sanctions send a message of U.S. disgust at an awful crime. But in a nasty and brutish world, the U.S. still needs partners like the Saudis.

Paul Gigot interviews former Trump national-security official Matthew Pottinger. Photo: ZUMA Press The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 6:27 pm
Kazuo Ishiguro's 'Klara and the Sun'---and Other Books to Read

Editor’s Note: Readers coming to this page from the Morning Editorial Report newsletter are reaching this page in error due to a technical bug. Please click HERE to reach the books landing page. We apologize for the error and we are working to rectify it.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 6:26 pm
California's Climate Contradictions
Solar panels on rooftops of a housing development in Folsom, Calif., Feb. 12, 2020.

Solar panels on rooftops of a housing development in Folsom, Calif., Feb. 12, 2020.

Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

The contradictions of green energy policies are becoming more obvious in the real world, and now comes more evidence in a new study of California’s electricity rates. The policies even contradict green climate goals.

“California has charted an ambitious course towards decarbonizing its economy,” the study by nonprofit Next 10 and the University of California, Berkeley Energy Institute at Haas declares. “At the same time, California has among the highest electricity prices in the continental U.S. These two facts create a tension: decarbonizing the economy most likely requires electrification of transportation and space and water heating, but high prices push against such a transition. High prices also have troubling implications for equity and affordability.”

No kidding. California’s myriad green-energy subsidies and mandates are baked into electric rates, which are now about 80% higher in northern California than the national average and twice as high in San Diego.

The state requires renewables like wind and solar to make up 60% of electricity generation by 2030. The study says renewable prices (albeit with subsidies) are now roughly the same as other power sources, but utilities signed long-term contracts with solar and wind producers years ago when prices were higher. Utilities also need backup power when it’s cloudy, which adds costs. Yet the state sometimes has to pay Arizona to take its excess solar power to avoid overloading the grid.

And here’s the kicker: Folks with solar panels get paid for surplus power they don’t use—sometimes at two to three times the rate of wholesale power. So California pays the well-to-do to generate solar power it doesn’t need and then pays Arizona to take it.

We’ve written for years that state “net-metering” programs shift the grid’s fixed costs to low- and middle-income people without solar panels. The Next 10 study estimates that this cost shift translates into $230 more for an average annual electric bill and $124 for lower-income customers with subsidized rates in San Diego.

Yet 25% to 30% of all residential electricity is discounted for low-income customers, and “the cost of this subsidy is borne by all other customers,” the study says. In other words, the middle class ends up financing rate subsidies for the poor aimed at ameliorating the higher costs of solar subsidies for the well-to-do. California’s cap-and-trade program and utility “public purpose programs” like battery subsidies add several more cents per kilowatt hour.

The study concludes that the state’s electric rates are so regressive that they could discourage people from buying electric vehicles and electrifying their homes by replacing gas-fueled appliances. Instead of raising electric rates, the study suggests making policies more progressive by increasing income taxes to promote its climate goals. So subsidize the rich, then tax them more.

This is especially hilarious since Democratic lawmakers in Sacramento leaned on utilities to finance their climate spending so they wouldn’t have to divert general fund revenues from social welfare. But the poor are being punished nonetheless.

Climate advocates insist it wasn't the wind. Photo: ZUMA Press The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 6:26 pm
If Nice Guys Finish Last, How Could Trump Have Lost?
President Biden speaks in Washington, Feb. 22.

President Biden speaks in Washington, Feb. 22.

Photo: jim lo scalzo/Shutterstock

‘Nice guys finish last,” said Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, whom no one ever called a nice guy. Apparently Durocher was talking about New York Giants manager Mel Ott, whose niceness “Leo the Lip” considered responsible for the Giants’ abysmal 1946 record. But does being nice—decent, generous, kind—really reduce one’s chance for success? Does it do so in politics?

One doesn’t often think of the connection between politics and niceness. Disraeli, Gladstone, Churchill, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Truman—one can find many things to say about each, but niceness isn’t the first word that comes to mind. Some might even view niceness as a detraction in politics. Adlai Stevenson could never drop his modesty while pursuing presidential power.

Would anyone cast a vote for political office, from president down to dogcatcher, because a candidate was nice? Perhaps not. Yet in last year’s presidential election, many Americans voted against Donald Trump less because of his policies than because they thought him a braggart, a bully, a buffoon—all things a nice guy isn’t. Had Mr. Trump been less bumptious, had he attempted to establish himself as a more sympathetic figure, would he be beginning his second term as president? Hard to know, but exhibiting a touch or two of niceness surely wouldn’t have hurt his chances.

How many of our recent presidents or presidential candidates qualified as nice? Ronald Reagan was less nice than charming, which isn’t the same; charm is about outer attractiveness, niceness about inner thoughtfulness. George H.W. Bush, who tried to sell himself as a Texan, never lost the East Coast WASP in himself that came off as more dignified than nice. Bill Clinton’s claims to niceness were squashed by reports of his sexual predations. Barack Obama came off as nice; he seemed a good father and devoted husband. But he could also be acerbic when challenged. Hillary Clinton might have lost the presidency by too clearly establishing her lack of niceness. How many votes, one wonders, did she lose by calling Mr. Trump’s supporters “deplorables”?

The one American president with whom I have had a personal encounter—for a half an hour—is George W. Bush. It took place in the Oval Office in 2003, when I, along with 10 others, received the National Humanities Medal. I didn’t care for the war in Iraq, but as I watched Mr. Bush hand out medals and take photographs with recipients, being especially and genuinely solicitous of the grandchildren a few of them brought along for the occasion, I thought to myself: “This is a nice man.” When Partisan Review editor Edith Kurzweil received her medal, she said to him, “I never believed I’d be in this room.” To which Mr. Bush replied, “Neither did I believe I would.” A nice guy.

During the campaign against Mr. Trump, Democrats attempted to sell Joe Biden as a nice man. That much-overused word “empathy” often came into play. Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, was supposedly acquired by Mr. Biden through the losses of his wife, infant daughter and, more recently, his son Beau. No one could dispute the seriousness of these losses, which made Mr. Biden a man worthy of our sympathy. But that they also made him deeply empathetic is debatable. No one who remembers Mr. Biden’s bullying of Anita Hill at the Clarence Thomas hearings, or his snappishness when opposed in debate or pressed by a journalist, can sustain thoughts of him as a nice man for long.

Some years ago the novelist Saul Bellow introduced me to the term “contrast-gainer.” A contrast-gainer is someone who seems nice, or at least nice enough, next to someone else who clearly isn’t. Next to Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden looks like Mister Rogers, and Mr. Obama gained even greater contrast next to Mr. Trump, making Mr. Obama, a man with no impressive foreign-policy accomplishments to his credit, somehow seem a statesman.

The moral of the story is that if you can’t be nice, at least try not to be unnice, which might cost you the presidency. Nice guys don’t always finish last.

Mr. Epstein is author, most recently, of “Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits.”

Democrats define bipartisanship as Pelosi agreeing with Schumer, then ram a budget resolution of $1.9-trillion through the Senate and House. Images: AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 5:55 pm
What Altered the Public's Taste for Lies?

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Any claim you can imagine can be put into words. That’s why we in journalism don’t put faith in claims. The first and only evidence for a claim sometimes is who’s making it. Citing “two law enforcement officials,” the New York Times reported in January that Capitol Hill policeman Brian Sicknick was killed by a fire extinguisher blow to the head. A statement by his family, though, carefully avoided the issue of cause. A ProPublica report offered details that seemed inconsistent with the Times account. A local CBS station reported that Mr. Sicknick died of a stroke, citing a named police union official.

For all these reasons, I carried an asterisk in my head about the story from day one. Now the New York Times has issued an “update” saying the manner of his death remains unresolved.

False versions of events propagated by news reports have probably turned into accepted history more often than we think, but something seems different today. From Donald Trump’s postelection lies to the Democratic Russia collusion hoax, plainly untrue things have assumed a weirdly dominant role in our national life.

I partly blame Mr. Trump’s arrival on the political stage but not precisely for the reason you might think. His nonconformity, his brand of unauthorized and idiosyncratic lying, triggered a response from our national elites that amounted to “hooray, now we can lie more recklessly too.”

Adam Schiff jumped off a cliff with the collusion hoax. Many reporters jumped with him. There was no blowback. Racial incidents proliferated that seemed to have been invented out of whole cloth. Mr. Trump himself miscalculated that his election lies would be the ultimate proof that there’s no such thing as bad publicity for his brand.

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To this day Hillary Clinton and her acolytes hang their hats on the impossibility of proving a negative when it comes to Mr. Trump’s alleged Putin ties. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, they insist, never mind that Mrs. Clinton and her Democrats paid Christopher Steele to create the smoke in the first place. Journalist Craig Unger has yet another book out claiming that any facts consistent with Mr. Trump being a Russian spy, such as the Earth revolves around the sun, are proof that Mr. Trump is a Russian spy.

All these episodes point to the circumspection that no longer seems to discourage public figures from saying things that are shown to be untrue.

Musicologist Ted Gioia may be on to something when he says that after 9/11, the long reign of cool had ended, the reign of hot had begun. Especially but not exclusively on the left, it seems bad form nowadays, and even evidence of some kind of guilt, to subject any passionately-made claim to cool examination. Consider a well-covered racial incident at Smith College where slandering any number of white people became the preferred alternative to a black person having to hear that she was wrong.

Distrust of the media, and the media’s own disavowal of the supposedly tired idol of “objectivity,” is another factor. If no disinterested authority exists who can be trusted to refute a lie without fear or favor, it begets lying. A lawyer for a voting machine company told the New York Times recently: “So many people out there, including people in positions of authority, are just willing to say anything, regardless of whether it has any relationship to the truth or not.’’

Lately there have been a few curative apparitions. Those lawsuits by voting-machine makers may be legally weak but they represent a healthy impulse to get the evidence before a forum where evidence still matters. Adam Schiff so recently imagined himself a U.S. senator. Now he is reported to be practically begging California’s governor to appoint him to the soon-to-be-vacant post of California attorney general, where he can change the subject from his congressional record and bathe away the after-odors of his collusion performance before facing voters again.

In their final hours, Mr. Trump’s latest impeachers sought wisely to shift the focus to his failure to uphold the law after the Capitol siege began. This was better than the incitement charge they started with, guaranteed to rebound indiscriminately on other politicians next time a deranged citizen acts on the overheated rhetoric that has become a staple of both parties.

Coolness, skepticism and a distrust of passion were boomer virtues (amid many boomer vices), maybe because their parents had seen the damage passion and unreason can do in the world. Among readers, these qualities remain in vogue, I notice. Sooner or later perhaps politicians and reporters will embrace them again when they come down from their intoxication with social media and the temporary insanity it induces.

Wonder Land: When progressives single out threats to "our democracy," what they mean is their democracy. Images: Everett Collection/AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 5:55 pm
Hackers May Be Coming for Your City's Water Supply
The Bruce T. Haddock Water Treatment Plant in Oldsmar, Fla., Feb. 9.

The Bruce T. Haddock Water Treatment Plant in Oldsmar, Fla., Feb. 9.

Photo: Chris Urso/Zuma Press

I first saw the inside of a water-treatment plant in 2015. I was conducting a site visit at a municipal facility in New Jersey, where I was the state’s director of cybersecurity. It wasn’t an inspection; the plant manager had asked me to visit.

Changes at the facility over the years had made him uneasy. Analog machinery had given way to digital systems, and critical water-treatment processes were now automated. The plant required little human intervention in day-to-day operations. Thanks to remote-access technologies, more maintenance and monitoring activities were being performed off-site by a third party. All this was great for efficiency, especially for his resource-limited operation, but what about the risk? Optimizing for cost and speed meant connecting more digital and networked technologies to his plant floor. Security was no longer simply a matter of gates, guards and guns. It had become a matter of bits and bytes.

In early February that plant manager’s unease became another’s reality when someone reportedly tried to poison the water supply in the Gulf Coast city of Oldsmar, Fla. According to the Pinellas County Sheriff, a hacker gained remote access to Oldsmar’s water-treatment-plant network and briefly increased the amount of sodium hydroxide in the water by 100 times—enough to cause death or serious injury to anyone who drank or touched it. Thankfully a technician noticed the anomaly and booted the hacker off the network before any damage was done.

What happened in Oldsmar fell just short of the nightmare scenario. The average person is unaware how dependent the country’s critical infrastructure has become on digital technology. At power plants, waterworks and all manner of public utilities, special-purpose computers known as human-machine interfaces connect to ruggedized-process controllers that regulate actuators to spin turbines, rotate robotic arms or, in this case, open valves to release sodium hydroxide.

In a perfect world these communications and the operations they command would be walled off from internet-connected systems. But practical demands to monitor operations in real time, glean data analytics from the plant floor and perform remote maintenance have in many cases exposed vulnerable infrastructure to the other side of the firewall. The result is more web-based hacks of operational technology systems. The bad guys get access to critical infrastructure facilities when corporate devices are inadvertently connected to the internet or a network administrator’s credentials are stolen in a spear-phishing scam.

Oldsmar wasn’t the first cyberattack against water infrastructure. In April 2020 Israel’s National Cyber Directorate urged all water-treatment companies to change their passwords on critical systems. In 2016, according to a report by Verizon’s security unit, hackers with ties to Syria gained access to a water utility in an unknown country and managed to “handicap water treatment and production capabilities.”

Despite the alarmist headlines, Oldsmar is mostly a good-news case study. The treatment center swiftly identified what was happening and took immediate action to keep the poison out of the public water supply. Even if the plant hadn’t responded as quickly as it did, there were other controls in place that would have detected a problem and maintained the system’s integrity.

But redundant controls and a bit of good luck shouldn’t diminish the severity of this cyber threat to public health. The plant operator was tipped off by a mouse arrow moving across a screen and making changes to critical water-treatment processes. But what if the operator didn’t have the benefit of a visual aide to observe the hacker in real time? What if the human-machine interface was manipulated by malware to report “all clear” as the hackers increased concentration of sodium hydroxide to lethal levels? Would the breach have been detected before someone drank or bathed with the corrosive adulterated water?

The answer and the problem are inextricably linked. Detecting toxic water en route to consumers requires sensors in the distribution network. Those sensors must be connected so they can communicate and transmit data for either humans or machines to take preventive actions. Anything that is connected can be manipulated. Should we rip the sensors out lest they be hacked? Of course not. Instead we must reduce vulnerability by extending security to all parts of the network, even those that seem beyond the reach of malicious actors.

“I just don’t trust those computers,” the New Jersey plant manager told me in 2015. We should all be untrusting when it comes to technology, but not at the expense of its embrace. The zero-trust mind-set made all the difference for the city of Oldsmar.

Mr. Weinstein is an associate partner at McKinsey & Co. and former chief technology officer of New Jersey.

Climate advocates insist it wasn't the wind. Photo: ZUMA Press The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 5:53 pm
The American Dream Is Alive on Mars

Illustration: Ken Fallin

There’s some confusion about the time at which Vandi Verma and I are supposed to connect on Zoom. She’s in Pasadena, Calif., and I’m in New York. I assume there’s been an Eastern vs. Pacific clock-mix-up, but Ms. Verma doesn’t think about time “that way.” Instead, she says, “I usually check whether somebody’s talking about Earth time or Mars time.”

Ms. Verma has good reason to pay heed to the time on Mars, currently 134 million miles away. She’s the chief engineer of robotic operations for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars on Feb. 18. The sight of NASA scientists cheering the successful descent from their control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory lifted American hearts. But there were “many fewer people in the room,” she tells me, than when the last rover, Curiosity, reached the red planet in 2012: “There had to be distancing this time because of the pandemic. So there were people in other rooms, and others observing remotely.”

Ms. Verma and her team are responsible for “everything to do with the mobility of the rover,” which includes driving and navigation as well as operating the robotic arm that gathers rock and core samples on Mars. They also oversee the Ingenuity helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft that weighs 4 pounds and spans 4 feet. “This will,” she tells me, “be the first aircraft to attempt powered, controlled flight on another planet.”

Ms. Verma does some of the driving of Perseverance herself, often remotely from home thanks to Covid. Her 18-month-old twins, Arjun and Anya, are usually home, so they’re often on Mars time, too, “although it’s sometimes hard to manage them.” Fortunately, her husband, a systems engineer at JPL, is on hand to help. Ms. Verma thinks she has it easy. Some colleagues have more-taxing “Earth-time counterparts in their life”—significant others and older children who have a hard time coexisting on cross-planetary clocks.

A Mars day, called a sol, is 40 minutes longer than an Earth day, so the time difference changes every day. “You try to get synchronized with Mars, instead of Earth,” Ms. Verma says. “So we’ll eat breakfast at 10 p.m. if that’s when it’s breakfast time on Mars, and dinner at 5 a.m. if it’s night there.” She tries to avoid “Earth light when it isn’t daytime on Mars, because it helps a lot with your circadian rhythm.” Ms. Verma has been driving Mars rovers since 2008, so she has some advice for rookies: “No matter how dark your curtains are, they aren’t ever dark enough to keep the light out. So it helps to put tinfoil on the windows, to completely block the light.”

Although she’s too humble to say so outright, Ms. Verma—who is in her 40s but declines to state her precise age—is arguably the world’s most experienced Martian robot operator. She joined JPL in 2007, shortly after completing her doctorate in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, and by 2008 was driving Spirit and Opportunity, solar-powered rovers that landed in 2004. “I was still an Indian citizen then,” she says, “but I became an American citizen shortly after.”

Ms. Verma was born near an Indian air force base in Halwara, in the state of Punjab, where her father was a pilot who flew Russian-made MiG jet fighters. Her mother, a “traditional housewife who can’t drive a car,” envisioned nothing more outlandish for young Vandi than a college education and an arranged marriage. (She got the former, but met her American husband at work.) But Ms. Verma says she was lost to tradition at age 7, when a family friend gave her a set of books about space for her birthday. “I devoured those books, and I watched Dr. Spock on TV”— Leonard Nimoy’s “Star Trek” character. “I knew what I wanted in life—to be a space scientist.”

After a bachelor’s degree in engineering in India, she came to Carnegie Mellon, and she interned at NASA while earning her doctorate. Once it became clear that she would specialize in robotics, “there really was no other place to go” than JPL, which describes itself on its website as “humanity’s leading center for exploring where humans cannot yet reach.”

Ms. Verma worked on the Curiosity rover before it landed on Mars, and she drove it for five years, in the last of which she also worked on Perseverance, which left Earth on July 30, 2020. “The pandemic started well before we launched,” she says, “and we still had hardware to put together. We still had to take our rover to Cape Canaveral, because we launched from there.”

NASA couldn’t afford to miss the launch window, because the next one wouldn’t come until 2022. “We try to fly at a time when the path that the spacecraft will take from Earth to Mars is the shortest,” she says. “That occurs every two years, because of the orbital mechanics.” The whole team needed to be at the cape, so “our entire operations facility was redone so that we could have the distancing we needed, and the air filtration” to safeguard against the virus. “We just treated it as another hurdle in our way, and worked out how we were going to get around it.”

Perseverance is “the most sophisticated rover we have ever sent to Mars,” its mission the most ambitious. Spirit and Opportunity were looking for water. Curiosity set out to investigate whether Mars could have been habitable. Perseverance will look for biosignatures of past microbial life and signs of other, presumably extinct life-forms.

There’s more: “One of the most important things we’re doing with this rover,” Ms. Verma says, “is collecting samples of Mars’ core.” The rover’s robotic arm will drill the surface and collect samples the size of a piece of chalk. These will be stored, and eventually brought to Earth. “That’ll be the first time we actually bring back samples from Mars,” she says. “The technologies that would be used to study them aren’t even invented, because the samples will come back in the early 2030s. That’s what’s amazing about this mission.”

So Perseverance is the first leg of a round trip to Mars. In 2026, NASA and the European Space Agency plan to launch a “fetch rover,” which will retrieve the samples and convey them to a launch vehicle. It will take off from Mars and deliver the samples to an orbiter put into space by the Europeans. The orbiter will then relay the material to Earth, in the Utah desert. Ms. Verma is keen to be a part of that next stage, even as she acknowledges Perseverance’s mission is intensifying: “The real work is only just beginning. There are so many scientific discoveries that these rovers make every day.”

What are the prospects of a manned mission to Mars? “It’s going to happen,” Ms. Verma says. “There are going to be humans on Mars.” The question is “whether there’s the desire, and how much effort and resources we put into it.” The technology to “make something happen does come about if there is the will, and you use scientific enterprise to find the solution.”

America, she believes, is better placed than other nations to achieve ambitious goals in space. “It’s a country of explorers,” she says, “and of people who just have this urge to push the boundaries. We’re not comfortable staying still.” She also believes that NASA’s strength—and America’s—lies in absorbing the best from everywhere in the world.

She reels off a list of colleagues’ countries of origin: “Greece, Russia, India, Costa Rica, Cambodia, Mexico”—she pauses, then continues—“Argentina, France, Italy, the U.K., Colombia. It’s almost every place I can think of.” Even Perseverance is a bit of a mutt. MEDA, the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer—which provides meteorological information, including data on airborne dust—is from Spain. Rimfax, the radar imager for the Martian subsurface, was designed in Norway. Moxie, an instrument that will generate oxygen from Martian carbon dioxide for future manned missions, is from a research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. SuperCam, the remote microimager that studies the chemistry of rocks and sediment, is French.

What is truly American in all of this is the ambition of NASA and the collective ingenuity of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And Ms. Verma herself—a naturalized citizen born nearly 8,000 miles away who has spent the past 13 years in California in pursuit of a Martian dream.

Mr. Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and at New York University Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.

Climate advocates insist it wasn't the wind. Photo: ZUMA Press The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 3:14 pm
Remember the Good Old Days? No Need to Feel Ashamed If You Do

Photo: Getty Images

Nostalgia has a bad reputation. Some people view it as unhealthy, a mental weakness signifying fear of change and progress. Many see it as a form of escapism, a feeling that people enjoy because it takes them away from reality and back to their youth. I’ve even heard it argued that nostalgia is bad for business, as companies need to focus on the present and prepare for the future, not dwell on the past.

A growing body of research indicates that all these intuitions about nostalgia are wrong. Reflecting nostalgically on the past is a common and healthy experience that helps people find the inspiration and confidence needed to move forward in life, particularly during difficult times. I would go so far as to say that nostalgia is about the future more than the past.

The term was coined in 1688 by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer to capture what was believed to be a medical condition mostly confined to Swiss mercenaries longing for their mountain home while fighting wars in the lowlands of Europe. Symptoms included deep sadness, bouts of weeping, fainting, stomach pain, disordered eating, fever, heart palpitations and suicidal thoughts. This medical-disease framing persisted through the 18th and 19th centuries, though diagnoses expanded beyond the Swiss. With the arrival of the 20th century, nostalgia was no longer treated as a physical disease but began to be thought of as a psychological ailment with symptoms we might associate today with anxiety and depression.

Later in the 20th century, some scholars began to see nostalgia in a more sympathetic light, distinguished from the more unpleasant state of homesickness. Consumer psychologists and marketing researchers documented ways in which sentimentality toward the past predicted product preference and consumer decisions. But we hadn’t yet conducted the systematic studies needed truly to understand nostalgia. This changed in the first decade of this new century when researchers, including my team, approached the study of nostalgia using the modern tools of behavioral science.

We observed that nostalgia doesn’t cause distress. Instead, distress causes nostalgia. External cues such as running into an old friend, seeing an old photo on Facebook, or hearing music from one’s youth can trigger nostalgia, but when it comes to internal psychological triggers, people tend to experience nostalgia in response to feeling sad, lonely, meaningless and uncertain about where they are in life.

Researchers have also studied the details of nostalgic memories of people from across the world. They tend to be personally meaningful social memories of experiences such as weddings, holidays, vacations with family or friends, family gatherings and religious rites of passage. They often contain a mixture of feelings, but the positive typically outweighs the negative. Critically, nostalgic narratives tend to follow a redemptive sequence in which feelings such as sadness and loss are overwhelmed by pleasant and even energizing feelings—happiness, love, gratitude and hope.

There have now been hundreds of experimental studies in which nostalgia is induced to see how it influences people. Some studies have participants spend a few minutes writing about a nostalgic memory or listening to music that makes them nostalgic. Participants in control conditions reflect on nonnostalgic memories or listen to music that they don’t associate with nostalgia. Following these or other inductions, participants respond to questionnaires that assess psychological states. In all, the research indicates that nostalgia’s effects are positive.

In a series of studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2011, my research team found that nostalgia makes people feel more connected to those they care about and feel a greater sense of meaning in life. People naturally use nostalgia, perhaps without even realizing it, to maintain meaning. Revisiting cherished memories of times shared with those we hold dear reminds us that life, though sometimes painful and difficult, is also full of experiences that make it worthwhile.

Maybe nostalgia gives us psychological comfort in times of distress, but does it keep us from moving forward with new ideas and solutions? No. Again, the data indicate the opposite. Nostalgia increases optimism, self-confidence, creativity and motivation to pursue goals.

I believe part of the negative view of nostalgia comes from a misunderstanding of how it is experienced. Most people who feel nostalgic aren’t looking for a wholesale return to the past. Few would trade the advances and comforts of modern life for the good old days. Instead, they are appreciating that there are lessons to be learned from the experiences that have helped imbue their lives with meaning. Nostalgia isn’t a form of escapism. It is a source of inspiration. It pushes people forward, not backward.

Mr. Routledge is a professor of management at North Dakota State University, a faculty scholar at the Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth and a senior research fellow at the Archbridge Institute.

The week's best and worst from Kim Strassel, Bill McGurn, Allysia Finley and Dan Henninger. Photo: Getty Images The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 3:12 pm
The Sound of Liberty in Cuba
Yotuel Romero, among the creators of the song ''Patria y Vida,” describes the Cuban regime’s abuse of human rights on Thursday in Madrid, Spain.

Yotuel Romero, among the creators of the song ''Patria y Vida,” describes the Cuban regime’s abuse of human rights on Thursday in Madrid, Spain.

Photo: Eduardo Parra/Zuma Press

Thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet military empire, one of the world’s remaining communist dictatorships is facing a fresh challenge to its authority. And it couldn’t sound any sweeter.

Agence France-Presse reports:

In Cuba, where music and revolution are intertwined, a song by rappers boldly denouncing the communist government has found viral appeal online -- but angered a regime that keeps close tabs on culture.

The song is called, “Patria y Vida,” or “Homeland and Life,” and has logged more than two million views on Alphabet, Inc.’s YouTube. Sarah Marsh and Rodrigo Gutierrez of Reuters have more on the popular new anticommunist anthem and the Miami-based musicians who helped make it happen:

Gente de Zona, Yotuel of hip-hop band Orishas fame and singer-songwriter Descemer Bueno collaborated on the song with two rappers in Cuba, Maykel Osorbo and El Funky, who are part of a dissident artists’ collective that sparked an unusual protest against repression outside the culture ministry last November.
“Homeland and Life” repurposes the old slogan “Patria o Muerte” (“Homeland or Death”) emblazoned on walls across the Caribbean country ever since Fidel Castro’s 1959 leftist revolution and expresses frustration with being required to make sacrifices in the name of ideology for 62 years.

“It’s over,” says the song’s chorus. What’s most striking is the song’s direct demand for freedom and blunt challenge to the dictatorship and its lies. “Advertising a paradise,” sing the performers, “while mothers cry for their departed children.”

Nora Gámez Torres notes in the Miami Herald:

Yotuel Romero, a singer with the band Orishas and the brain behind the project, told the Miami Herald that the song is part of an “awakening of Cuban youth.”
“It was important to tell the world that Cubans today, we want life, that the doctrine that came out in ‘59 belongs to that moment,” Romero said...
This time, the song appears to have made Cuban authorities so nervous that state media have launched a campaign to combat its message and discredit its authors.

Naturally, the Cuban dictatorship is also able to distribute its Marxist propaganda via Twitter and the other U.S. social-media platforms that habitually censor Americans. But until Silicon Valley starts cracking down on Cuban dissidents, the Havana regime may not be strong enough to suppress the sound of liberty. Ms. Torres reports:

The uber popularity of those who perform in “Patria y Vida” — Grammy award winners with a global audience and, at the same time, hip-hop and reggaeton stars in Cuba — as well as the delicate political and economic moment the country is going through, help explain both the instant success the song has become and the government’s angry reaction.

Those praying for the end of the communist regime have been disappointed for decades. But in December the Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady noted the new phenomenon of artists and musicians increasingly refusing to remain silent:

In a telephone interview last week I asked Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, one of the leaders of the dissident San Isidro Movement in Havana, what he thinks of Fidel Castro.
His answer stunned me not because I disagreed but because challenging the godlike myth of the comandante, alive or dead, has always been taboo.
“For me he was a bad person, and what he did is not justified by what he did in things like health care,” the 33-year-old performance artist said. “If you repress someone because they wrote a poem you don’t like or you arrest young people continually, you are not a good person. This repression has destroyed the lives of intellectuals.”
Lots of Cubans will tell you similar things privately, but few have dared utter them in public. Until now.

Mr. Otero Alcántara appears in the video for the new song. Ms. O’Grady noted in December that in her conversation with the artist, she “couldn’t shake the feeling of something new unfolding.”

That feeling now has a sound.


Also in the Miami Herald, Syra Ortiz-Blanes reports that this week Cuban dissidents were briefly able to use Google to undermine the communist dictatorship before the Alphabet subsidiary restored the regime’s preferences:

For a few hours, Cuba’s storied Revolutionary Square, where Fidel Castro once gave hours-long speeches to the masses, had a different name on Google Maps this week: Freedom Plaza.
A group of Cubans on the island and in the diaspora launched a campaign to change the name of the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana to the Plaza de la Libertad — and succeeded, though only temporarily.
User requests for the switch made it through Google’s system, the company confirmed, but were eventually flagged and the name reverted back to its revolutionary idiom.
Osmani Pardo, a Cuba-based activist, said the loose-knit network, whose exact size is unknown, aims to empower the Cuban people to assign new words and language to government-run institutions.

Now this is the kind of renaming project all Americans should support. Certainly few historical figures are more deserving of cancellation than the murderous Castro.

Imagine if social media networks could somehow be used to undermine tyrants and open closed societies. But how?


Mr. Freeman is the co-author of “The Cost: Trump, China and American Revival.”


Follow James Freeman on Twitter and Parler.

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Posted on 26 February 2021 | 2:00 pm
The Censorship Party

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Imagine if a pair of Donald Trump’s allies in Congress had sent a letter to cable company CEOs in 2017 blasting CNN and other progressive media outlets and asking why their content is still broadcast. Then imagine that a GOP-run committee in Congress staged a hearing on the societal menace of fake news and the need for government and business to rein in the hostile press.

The media would have treated that as a five-alarm political fire, an existential threat to a free press, the First Amendment and political norms, and a step toward authoritarian rule. “Democracy dies in darkness,” and all that. Yet that’s exactly what Democrats in Congress did this week, targeting conservative media outlets, but the media reaction has been silence or approval.

On Monday Democrats Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney sent letters pressing 12 cable and tech CEOs to drop contracts with right-of-center media outlets including Fox News. Two days later the Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing about “disinformation and extremism” in conservative media. The only notable extremism on display was the majority party’s appetite for regulating and policing the free press.

Rep. Mike Doyle, chair of the subcommittee on communications and technology, declared in opening remarks that “it is the responsibility of this subcommittee to hold these institutions”—meaning press outlets he doesn’t like—“to a higher standard.” He said later that “more free speech just isn’t winning the day over the kind of speech we are concerned about.”

Democrats chose witnesses to lay the rhetorical foundation for press restrictions. One was Kristin Urquiza, whose father died of coronavirus and who spoke at the Democratic convention against Donald Trump. She said “the media didn’t pull the trigger” in her father’s death, “but they drove the getaway car,” because he watched and listened to news that downplayed the virus.

Rep. Eshoo bristled at Republican concerns about government officials investigating broadcast media with the aim of deplatforming disfavored networks. “I call them lies,” she said of the content described by Ms. Urquiza. “I don’t know what you call them. You call that the open market, something that’s competitive?” Rep. Marc Veasey said he saw a tension between “the freedom of speech versus other peoples’ safety.”

Chairman Rep. Frank Pallone generously conceded that the First Amendment protects speech that is “controversial” but distinguished “misinformation that causes public harm.” Apparently Mr. Pallone wants someone, perhaps the government, to determine what constitutes public harm and when speech causes it. Would two years of false Democratic narratives about Russian collusion with Mr. Trump qualify as public harm? How about apologias for riots in the streets last summer?

Progressives seem to believe that they are in a position to dictate the terms of what is acceptable speech in a more controlled media environment. As committee witness Emily Bell of Columbia Journalism School put it, “there has to be a will among the political elite and the media elite and the technology elite to actually do the right thing, as it were.” That means tightening speech restrictions. To borrow another progressive cliche, this is a dog whistle for tech companies and other businesses to censor or block conservatives if government can’t.

This thinking is dangerous at any time, but especially so now as the Democratic Party runs both Congress and the executive branch with the power to punish companies that don’t oblige. The danger is worse since most of the media are abdicating their role as defenders of the free press because they aren’t the political targets. The First Amendment dies in media darkness.

Potomac Watch: "Are you planning to continue carrying Fox News, Newsmax and OANN...? If so, why?” Democrats ask a dozen cable, satellite and broadband providers. Image: Kevin Hagen/Getty Images The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition

Posted on 25 February 2021 | 6:46 pm
The Old New York Won't Come Back
Pedestrians pack the streets of New York in 1952.

Pedestrians pack the streets of New York in 1952.

Photo: Ernst Haas/Getty Images

New York

You can know something yet not fully absorb it. I think that’s happened with the pandemic. It is a year now since it settled into America and brought such damage—half a million dead, a nation in lockdown, a catastrophe for public schools. We keep saying “the pandemic changed everything,” but I’m not sure we understand the words we’re saying.

It will be decades before we fully appreciate what the pandemic did to us, and I mean our entire society—our culture, power structures, social ways, economic realities. We’ll see it more clearly when we look back from 2030 and 2040. A lot is not fully calculable now, and some problems haven’t presented themselves. One is going to be the profound psychological impact on some young people—how anxious and frightened this era will leave them, even how doom-laden. Kids 5 and 7 years old were trapped in a house surrounded by screens, and the screens said “germs” and “death” and “invisible carriers.” The pictures were of sobbing people on gurneys. We should be especially concerned about kids who are neglected and have no calm in the house, because they were left most exposed to the endless vibrations of the adults on the screens, and had no schools or teachers to help them.

But we’re in a transformational time. Some things that might have changed inch by inch over the next few decades were transformed in one large, incredible, 12-month shift. So many institutions will have to be nimble and farsighted now or they won’t survive. They’re going to have to be creative and generous and leave old intransigences behind. To lead in times like this will require the eyes of an artist who sees the broad shape of things, not an analyst who sees data points.

Look at the cities. I’m not sure we see the implications of what has happened there. In New York we are witnessing, for the first time in a century and a half, the collapse of the commuter model. You had to be in the magic metropolis if you were going to be in the top of your profession—finance, theater, law, whatever. Many couldn’t afford to live in the city because it’s where the top, moneyed people were, so they lived in the near-outside—New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut. That is what my people did when they came to America a century ago, settling in Brooklyn and commuting to work as cooks and maids in the great houses of Manhattan.

But now you don’t have to be in the city. The top people are everywhere. You can be pretty much home and be the best. The office towers of Midtown are empty.

Read More Declarations

In the past year the owners of great businesses found how much can be done remotely. They hadn’t known that! They hadn’t had to find out. They don’t have to pay that killer rent for office space anymore. People think it will all snap back when the pandemic is fully over but no, a human habit broke; a new way of operating has begun. People will come back to office life to some degree, maybe a significant one; not everything can be done remotely; people want to gather, make friends, instill a sense of mission; but it will never be what it was.

The closed shops in and around train stations and office buildings, they’re not coming back. The empty towers—people say, “Oh, they can become luxury apartments!’ Really? Why would people clamor for them, so they can have a place in the city and be near work? But near work has changed. So you can be glamorous? Many of the things that made Manhattan glamorous—shows, restaurants, clubs, museums, the opera—are wobbling.

A lot of cities, not only New York, are going to have to reinvent themselves, digging down and finding newer purposes, their deepest value. They’re going to have to take stock in a new way: New York has the greatest hospitals, universities, the media, parks. What else?

And they will be doing this within a hard context. Public spending is skyrocketing due to greater need; the city and state budget deficits are through the roof. New York is Democratic and public sentiment will be for tax increases, big ones.

Here are some numbers from the Partnership for New York City, a business group. The city has lost 500,000 private-sector jobs since March, 2020. Tens of thousands of small businesses, and 5,000 restaurants, have closed. Less than 15% of office workers are back in the workplace they left a year ago.

Tourism, an approximately $70 billion industry, won’t be back until theater is back. When? Judith Miller had a good piece in City Journal on how Broadway’s older houses can’t be retrofitted for social distancing and still make a profit. No one is sure theatergoers will rush back. Theater will be reborn—man will always have shows and stories—but as what? Whatever comes—hybrid productions, tape and live, or more small and intimate theaters—it will have a whole new profit structure and financial realities. Show folk will tell you: A lot will depend on what the unions allow. Can they be nimble and farsighted? Or will they think everything is just an unending 2019?

The Partnership for New York City reports 300,000 residents of high-income neighborhoods have filed change-of-address forms with the U.S. Postal Service. You know where they are going: to lower-tax and no-income-tax states, those that have a friendlier attitude toward money making and that presumably aren’t going hard-left. Florida has gotten so cheeky that this month its chief financial officer sent a letter inviting the New York Stock Exchange to relocate to Miami.

Everyone in public life “knows” these things. But so far in New York’s mayoral debates no one is bluntly addressing these central challenges, no one is stressing them. The candidates seem like very nice people but not one that I saw in two Zoom debates radiated an appropriate sense of alarm or urgency.

“The pandemic has changed everything.” It has. Never have we needed visionaries more than now—people in politics, and out, who have an outsize creativity and a deep knowledge of human beings, who can come up with reasons people want to be here, have to be here, would be happy nowhere else.

That’s the long-term project. In the short term, New York needs to hold on to the wealthy—the top 5% percent in New York pay 62% of state income taxes—and force down crime. If you tax the rich a little higher, most will stay: There’s a lot of loyalty to New York, a lot of psychic and financial investment in it. But if you tax them higher for the privilege of being attacked on the street by a homeless man in a psychotic episode, they will leave. Because, you know, they’re human.

No one can stay fixed in the old world, in the Before Times. We’re in the After Times, and every stakeholder, as they say, is going to have to be generous, patient and farsighted in a way they’ve never been before. That’s the kind of bargain people who know how to survive make. We’re in a battle for our survival, and should start absorbing this.

A New York governor's fall from liberal grace. Photo: Associated Press The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition

Posted on 25 February 2021 | 6:36 pm
'Just Asking' for Censorship

Potomac Watch: "Are you planning to continue carrying Fox News, Newsmax and OANN...? If so, why?” Democrats ask a dozen cable, satellite and broadband providers. Image: Kevin Hagen/Getty Images The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition

The Democratic House majority this week put on a bold demonstration of its newest governing strategy—one it continues to perfect. Call it the “Just Asking” tactic.

The exhibit took place at Wednesday’s House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on “disinformation and extremism in the media.” While lawmakers have spent years fretting over “disinformation” on social media, this was the first time they used a hearing to accuse news outlets of deliberately fomenting it.

The precursor to the hearing was a revealing letter sent Monday by two California Democrats, Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney. The duo demanded the CEOs of a dozen cable, satellite and broadband providers explain what “response” they intended to take to the “right-wing media ecosystem” that is spreading “lies” and “disinformation” that enable “insurrection” and provokes “non-compliance with public health guidelines.” Specifically they asked each CEO: “Are you planning to continue carrying Fox News, Newsmax and OANN . . .? If so, why?”

Just asking.

When Republican members of the committee and outside groups shouted censorship, Ms. Eshoo shrugged. “The First Amendment, my friends, starts with four words: Congress shall make no laws,” and she, Anna Eshoo, had no intention of enacting a law to shut down conservatives. She was merely asking “strong, important questions”—i.e., whether private regulated companies understand that (if they know what’s good for them) they’ll do the dirty work for her, thereby saving her the hassle of complying with the Constitution. She was just asking.

And why wouldn’t she? It’s been working so well for Democrats in other areas. Left-wing activists and politicians spent four years “just asking” social media companies what they intended to do about “disinformation”—today’s code word for conservative ideas. An emboldened left-leaning Silicon Valley is now happily doing Democrats’ bidding, censoring like mad. Twitter, Facebook and others are banning prominent conservatives from their platforms. Twitter locked the account of a newspaper (the New York Post) for the sin of accurately reporting unflattering news about the Democratic presidential nominee’s son. Google and Apple dropped Parler from their app stores. Amazon this week jumped into the virtual book-burning business, purging “When Harry Became Sally” by Ryan T. Anderson, a three-year-old book that addresses tough questions about gender identity.

“Right now, the greatest threat to free speech in this country is not any law passed by the government—the First Amendment stands as a bulwark,” says Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr. “The threat comes in the form of legislating by letterhead. Politicians have realized that they can silence the speech of those with different political viewpoints by public bullying.”

Read More Potomac Watch

What was new this week was Democrats’ brazenness: their shocking and open targeting of news organizations. The left has long worked to shut down speech with which it disagrees, but officials in the past did it with more subterfuge. It came via legislation for “campaign finance reform,” or via their successful effort to push the IRS to target conservative nonprofits; or via Sen. Dick Durbin’s campaign to pressure companies out of funding free-market nonprofits. Liberal activists have honed intimidation campaigns, threatening boycotts and other actions against companies that advertise on disfavored platforms or donate to right-leaning groups.

Congress’s engagement this week is an acknowledgment of the limits of that activist effort. As Angelo Carusone, president of the left-wing outfit Media Matters keeps noting, activists have discovered that their campaign against Fox’s advertisers isn’t enough, since Fox gets much of its revenue from subscription fees. So the only way to kill it off is to bully cable companies into dropping the network. Activists began a grassroots effort to do that last year but haven’t made headway. Enter Ms. Eshoo and Mr. McNerney. (Disclosure: Fox’s and the Journal’s parent companies share common ownership, and I am a Fox News contributor.)

Democrats may have a harder time bending these providers to their demands than they did Big Tech. Carriage decisions are governed by contract law; disappearing a cable channel isn’t as easy as disappearing a Twitter account. And customers would likely revolt, with financial implications for providers.

There’s also growing political risk from the other side. The GOP finally understands what is happening and is beginning to counter it. Gov. Rick DeSantis’s vow to protect Florida’s citizens from Big Tech overreach is a shot across the censors’ bows. There’s also this week’s letter to cable providers from West Virginia’s Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey urging them to think “very carefully” about how they respond to Democratic pressure, given any wide deplatforming of conservative channels could very easily raise questions of “collusive, coordinated and anticompetitive behavior.”

But don’t doubt that Democrats will escalate their overt demands that companies act as their political enforcers, outsourcing the censorship the Constitution forbids. And don’t buy the excuse that this is “oversight.” As law professor Jonathan Turley told Ms. Eshoo at the hearing: “Making a statement and putting a question mark at the end of it doesn’t change the import of the statement.” This isn’t just asking. It’s an order.

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Posted on 25 February 2021 | 6:27 pm
Biden's Stimulus and the 'Financialization' of Taxes
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell speaks to a Senate committee remotely from Washington, Feb. 23.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell speaks to a Senate committee remotely from Washington, Feb. 23.

Photo: Us Senate Tv Via Cnp/Zuma Press

A central Republican criticism of the $1.9 trillion Covid “stimulus” Democrats plan to ram through Capitol Hill is that taxes will have to rise eventually to pay back all the debt funding this spree. That’s more controversial than it ought to be—Democrats and their intellectual enablers seem certain money grows on trees—but it also elides an interesting question: Which taxes?

This is what no one bothered to talk about when Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell testified to Congress this week about the current conduct of monetary policy—and yes, I mean taxation. Theorists and practitioners increasingly blur the lines between monetary and fiscal policy on the spending side of the government’s ledger. The next shoe to drop will be the entanglement between the Fed and Treasury on the revenue side.

Mr. Powell already does his part and then some by suppressing government borrowing costs for that large and growing portion of the federal budget Congress chooses to pluck out of thin air. This commitment was on display this week, although only obliquely since convention dictates no one admit the Fed cares about the government’s financing needs.

Mr. Powell talked up the Fed’s ability to stimulate economic growth as Covid-19 recedes, touted the stimulative potential of the kind of fiscal blowout Democrats are contemplating—and still predicted economic growth sluggish enough to justify low rates for a protracted period while also expressing a willingness to sustain exceptionally loose policy through any short bouts of inflation this nongrowth might produce. If this sounds contradictory, remember the only point that matters is the one lawmakers (and markets) actually heard: Low federal borrowing rates forever, no matter what happens.

Expect monetary policy to bleed slowly but surely into tax matters as well. The vector will be capital-gains taxation, which is booming in the current recession, contrary to all economic logic.

Surging capital-gains revenue helps explain why blue states such as California aren’t currently in the red. Politicians are taking notice. Minnesota’s and Washington’s governors are proposing higher capital-gains tax rates, the Journal reported this week, as are Democratic lawmakers in Connecticut. Some New York Democrats aim to leave no capital gain behind, even the unrealized sort—a plan is on the table to mark taxpayers’ assets to market and then tax paper gains every year.

Capital gains also figure prominently in most Democratic plans to tax the rich at the federal level. President Biden proposed on the campaign trail last year that wealthier filers pay a capital-gains rate equal to their ordinary income rate, which he would raise to 39.6%.

Note that if you’re of a tax-raising bent, this is a conversation worth having thanks only to Mr. Powell and his predecessors. Capital-gains tax revenue should be highly pro-cyclical, rising when the economy booms and sagging during downturns. Yet a perusal of data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests that, except for the panic of 2008, the revenue troughs of recessions in recent decades (measured as a percentage of overall revenue) have been successively shallower. There may not be a trough at all this time around.

It’s a fiscal consequence of the Fed’s growing skill at asset-price reflation. Treasury will benefit from Mr. Powell’s success in stoking stock and other asset markets to record highs over the past year even as the pandemic and attendant lockdowns throttled the Main Street economy. The growing disconnect between Wall Street prices and Main Street profits holds open the prospect that capital-gains taxation will grow ever more reliable as a revenue source. Expect lawmakers to take full advantage.

If it happens, this will mark a new and very different way of taxing Americans. The government traditionally relied for revenue on the economy’s underlying productivity. The overall dependence on personal-income and corporate-profits taxation ties fiscal health to wage growth and corporate success. This was a practical incentive, although not always a strong or effective one, for lawmakers to care about the Main Street economy.

To make the government proportionately more dependent on Fed-inflated capital gains, as Democrats are wont to do, would weaken an important tie between Congress’s fiscal role and the real economy. This is especially dangerous given mounting evidence in the economics literature that monetary and financial excess saps Main Street productivity rather than bolstering it.

Free-market critics of Mr. Powell and his predecessors argue that the “financialization” of economic activity that results from current monetary policies is profoundly dangerous to the economy and damaging to society. Now we may end up financializing revenue collection, too.

Journal Editorial Report: Paul Gigot interviews economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin. Image: Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition

Posted on 25 February 2021 | 12:09 pm