The Man Who Knew Too Little

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GLOUSTER, Ohio — At first, the experiment didn’t have a name.

Right after the election, Erik Hagerman decided he’d take a break from reading about the hoopla of politics.

Donald Trump’s victory shook him. Badly. And so Mr. Hagerman developed his own eccentric experiment, one that was part silent protest, part coping mechanism, part extreme self-care plan.

He swore that he would avoid learning about anything that happened to America after Nov. 8, 2016.

“It was draconian and complete,” he said. “It’s not like I wanted to just steer away from Trump or shift the conversation. It was like I was a vampire and any photon of Trump would turn me to dust.”

It was just going to be for a few days. But he is now more than a year into knowing almost nothing about American politics. He has managed to become shockingly uninformed during one of the most eventful chapters in modern American history. He is as ignorant as a contemporary citizen could ever hope to be.

James Comey. Russia. Robert Mueller. Las Vegas. The travel ban. “Alternative facts.” Pussy hats. Scaramucci. Parkland. Big nuclear buttons. Roy Moore.

He knows none of it. To Mr. Hagerman, life is a spoiler.

“I just look at the weather,” said Mr. Hagerman, 53, who lives alone on a pig farm in southeastern Ohio. “But it’s only so diverting.”

He says he has gotten used to a feeling that he hasn’t experienced in a long time. “I am bored,” he said. “But it’s not bugging me.”

CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times

It takes meticulous planning to find boredom. Mr. Hagerman commits as hard as a method actor, and his self-imposed regimen — white-noise tapes at the coffee shop, awkward scolding of friends, a ban on social media — has reshaped much of his life.

Extreme as it is, it’s a path that likely holds some appeal for liberals these days — a D.I.Y. version of moving to Canada.

Democrats, liberals and leftists have coped with this first year of the Trump presidency in lots of ways. Some subsist on the thin gruel of political cartoon shows and online impeachment petitions. Others dwell online in the thrilling place where conspiracy is indistinguishable from truth. Others have been inspired to action, making their first run for public office, taking local action or marching in their first protest rally.

Mr. Hagerman has done the opposite of all of them.

The fact that it’s working for him — “I’m emotionally healthier than I’ve ever felt,” he said — has made him question the very value of being fed each day by the media. Why do we bother tracking faraway political developments and distant campaign speeches? What good comes of it? Why do we read all these tweets anyway?

“I had been paying attention to the news for decades,” Mr. Hagerman said. “And I never did anything with it.”

At some point last year, he decided his experiment needed a name. He considered The Embargo, but it sounded too temporary. The Boycott? It came off a little whiny.

Mr. Hagerman has created a fortress around himself. “Tiny little boats of information can be dangerous,” he said.

He decided that it would be called The Blockade.

Behind the Blockade

For a guy who has gone to great lengths to essentially plug his ears, Mr. Hagerman sure does talk a lot. He is witty and discursive, punctuating his stories with wild-eyed grins, exaggerated grimaces and more than the occasional lost thread.

I recently spent two days visiting his farm on the condition that I not bring news from the outside world. As the sun set over his porch, turning the rolling hills pink then purple then blue, he held forth, jumping from English architecture to the local pigs’ eating habits to his mother’s favorite basketball team to the philosophy of Kant. He can go days without seeing another soul.

This life is still fairly new. Just a few years ago, he was a corporate executive at Nike (senior director of global digital commerce was his official, unwieldy title) working with teams of engineers to streamline the online shopping experience. Before that, he had worked digital jobs at Walmart and Disney.

“I worked 12-, 14-hour days,” he said. “The calendar completely booked.”

But three years ago, he decided he had saved enough money to move to a farm, make elliptical sculptures — and, eventually, opt out of the national conversation entirely.

He lives alone and has never been married. As for money, a financial adviser in San Francisco manages his investments. Mr. Hagerman says he throws away the quarterly updates without reviewing them.

Mr. Hagerman grew up in southeastern Ohio, and after years spent in Brooklyn warehouses, San Francisco tech bubbles and Nike-land in Portland, Ore., the idea of a quiet life became more and more appealing. His mother lives nearby; he sees her a lot since he moved back in 2015. She reluctantly adheres to The Blockade, although they do discuss the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Mr. Hagerman drives from his home into Athens for his morning rituals.CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times
Mr. Hagerman sits down with his sketch book, in his regular seat, in the same room, with his same triple, whole milk latte and cranberry scone he has each day at Donkey Coffee.CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times

Mr. Hagerman begins every day with a 30-minute drive to Athens, the closest city of note, to get a cup of coffee — a triple-shot latte with whole milk. He goes early, before most customers have settled into the oversize chairs to scroll through their phones. To make sure he doesn’t overhear idle chatter, he often listens to white noise through his headphones. (He used to listen to music, “but stray conversation can creep in between songs.”)

At Donkey Coffee, everyone knows his order, and they know about The Blockade. “Our baristas know where he’s at so they don’t engage him on topics that would make him uncomfortable,” said Angie Pyle, the coffee shop’s co-owner.

Mr. Hagerman has also trained his friends. A close friend from his Nike days, Parinaz Vahabzadeh, didn’t think he was quite serious at first and, in the early days of The Blockade, kept dropping little hints about politics.

The new administration compelled her to engage more deeply in politics, not less. She had only recently become a United States citizen, and she was passionate about the immigration debate. She did not let Mr. Hagerman opt out easily. “I was needling him,” she said.

And in response, she received, for the first time, a stern text message. “I’m now officially cross with you,” he wrote. “As you know very well I don’t wish to hear about current events. I know you don’t agree with my wishes but I do expect you to respect them.”

They now speak on the phone several times a week, but never about the news. “I’ve gotten used to it,” she said. “It’s actually nice to not talk about politics.”

Conversations with Mr. Hagerman can have a Rip Van Winkle quality. He spoke several times about his sister, Bonnie, an assistant professor, who lives in, of all places, Charlottesville, Va.

While he and I were talking, I looked over at him at every mention of Charlottesville to see if the name of the city, home to perhaps the ugliest weekend of the Trump era to date, made him flinch.

“So, do you associate Charlottesville” — I would say the name deliberately and with emphasis — “with anything besides your sister?”

He didn’t bite. I think he really didn’t know about the Nazis.

Later, he pointed to a house on a hill and said that before the election, the neighbor had decorated his lawn with an effigy of Hillary Clinton behind bars. I wanted to point out that the recently unveiled Mueller indictment found that a Russian troll had paid for a Hillary impersonator at a Florida rally. But I bit my tongue — Mr. Hagerman didn’t know about Mueller, or Russia, or trolls.

Above Mr. Hagerman’s bed is an art piece from a series he is currently working on at his home.CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times
Mr. Hagerman works on creating a prototype for a new art project in his wood shop in a barn on his property.CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times

Last winter, Mr. Hagerman spent several weeks visiting his twin brother, a tech C.E.O., in San Francisco. Strict arrangements had to be made — the Sunday newspaper kept out of sight, the TV switched off, his teenage niece and nephew under special instructions.

“The bigger challenge was when we would have friends come over and visit,” said his brother, Kris. “We had to have Erik not be there, or we would give them a heads up that Erik has this news blockade going and we gave them the guidelines.

“They were always a little bemused by it. And to some extent a little envious,” he said. “The prospect of just chucking all that for a period of time felt somewhat appealing.”

To be fair, Mr. Hagerman has made a few concessions. He reads The New Yorker’s art reviews, but is careful to flip past the illustrated covers, which often double as political commentary. He watches every Cavaliers game, but only on mute.

He counts a few boats that have sailed past The Blockade. He saw a picture of Kim Jong-un on a newspaper at the coffee shop, signaling that something was up with North Korea. And he overheard someone saying something about Obamacare, which meant health care was back in the news. His brother alerted him to the Equifax breach for his own protection.

“But the blockade has been pretty damn effective,” Mr. Hagerman said.

He said that with some pride, but he has the misgivings about disengaging from political life that you have, by now, surely been shouting at him as you read. “The first several months of this thing, I didn’t feel all that great about it,” he said. “It makes me a crappy citizen. It’s the ostrich head-in-the-sand approach to political outcomes you disagree with.”

It seems obvious to say, but to avoid current affairs is in some ways a luxury that many people, like, for example, immigrants worried about deportation, cannot afford.

“He has the privilege of constructing a world in which very little of what he doesn’t have to deal with gets through,” said his sister, Bonnie Hagerman. “That’s a privilege. We all would like to construct our dream worlds. Erik is just more able to do it than others.”

What if, he began to think, he could address his privilege, and the idea of broader good, near to home?

He has a master project, one that he thinks about obsessively, that he believes can serve as his contribution to American society.

He calls it The Lake.

At the Lake

On a recent spookily warm day, Mr. Hagerman clambered up a steep bank of woods, pushing past vines and stepping past fallen logs.

Wide-eyed, giddy with excitement, he led the way to a flat stretch of brush where he spread his arms and began talking even faster than usual. “This is where we’ll build a giant barn. It will feel like a cathedral. The cloister will be here,” he said, making reference to Chartres, and Oxford, and the grandeur of medieval cathedrals.

About nine months ago, he bought some 45 acres of land on the site of a former strip mine. The property, untouched for decades, has been reclaimed by nature — deer, beavers, salamanders and canopies of majestic trees are thriving.

We walked further to the edge of a steep drop-off. Below, a bright blue lake shimmered in the February heat like a secret. He’ll debate as long as you want whether the body of water counts as a lake or a pond. It’s easier if you just agree it’s a lake.

“You wouldn’t believe how great it feels to go swimming there,” he said. He added, with almost rapturous glee, that the lake sits in the spot where the mining company dug deepest.

Mr. Hagerman chats with Gary Conley, left, a landscape ecologist working with him to conserve wetland habitats on his property outside Athens.CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times
Mr. Conley holds a juvenile salamander from a vernal pool.CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times

Mr. Hagerman sees this land as his life’s work. He plans to restore it, protect it, live on it and then preserve it for the public. “I will never sell this land,” he said.

He wouldn’t put it exactly this way, but he talks about the land in part as penance for the moral cost of his Blockade. He has come to believe that being a news consumer doesn’t enhance society. He also believes that restoring a former coal mine and giving it to the future does.

“I see it as a contribution that has civic relevance that aligns with my passions and what I do well,” Mr. Hagerman said. “I’m going to donate it. It’s going to take most of my net worth. That’s what I’m going to spend the rest of my money on.”

He has filled an entire room of his house with a 3-D rendering of the property to better envision his plans. He has hired Gary Conley, a local landscape ecologist, to advise on the project. Mr. Conley, a gentle bearded outdoorsman who can speak at length about the preferences of the local amphibians, believes that the land could become something special.

Mr. Conley indulges Mr. Hagerman’s fantasies for the land — a walkway modeled on an ancient Mayan ballgame! Land art inspired by “Spiral Jetty”! Windows and concrete blocks, so many blocks! — but Mr. Conley mainly serves as the straight man to inject ecological reality into the plan.

Mr. Conley respects The Blockade. After all, the project of The Lake might not exist without it.

CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times

In those carefree pre-Trump days, Mr. Hagerman would settle into the coffee shop with his newspaper and dig in. But after The Blockade, he could only read the weather — “For elderly men it’s endlessly interesting” — and the real estate listings.

It was during one of those long boring mornings, with no news to read, that he found the listing for The Lake.

“The first time I saw it, I said, ‘This is it,’” he said.

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Trump Rules: In Decline, Offshore Drillers Find a Champion in the Trump Administration

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Energy XXI, which emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy at the end of 2016, was found to have 207 safety violations during 337 inspections. Conditions were so serious that inspectors moved nine times to shut down entire oil platforms, not simply broken components they found.

Last year, the company paid more than $1.1 million in fines for four different episodes. In one case, it abandoned two offshore wells without ensuring that they had been properly plugged, allowing natural gas to bubble up from the ocean floor.

In 2017, the Interior Department conducted four separate investigations into accidents on Energy XXI platforms (out of 46 conducted across the entire Gulf). One of the inquiries looked at a fire that broke out in October just six miles off the coast, in 49 feet of water, when a gas compressor built in 1979 ruptured and melted.

The most serious offenses involved Black Elk Energy Offshore Operations, which was convicted in August of eight felony violations related to a platform explosion that killed three workers and injured several others. It has since gone out of business, one of at least 19 oil and gas companies that have operated in the Gulf to go bankrupt since 2015.

Representatives from Energy XXI declined repeated requests for comment.

A spokesman for Renaissance said the company had already moved to improve its compliance record this year. “As a company we not only adhere to industry best practices but look to exceed on them in every way,” Renaissance said in a written statement.

Ridgelake Energy, a small company operating in shallow waters, also had a large number of reported violations last year. Its owner, William M. Hines, blamed the run-down condition of equipment he acquired from one of the Gulf’s many bankrupt operators.

“There is a lot of broken stuff out there,” he said. “We are working to get all this back into shape.”

Concern among enforcement officers has been growing because some of the independent companies are looking to extend operations toward the Gulf’s deep waters, where the risks are even greater.

On the same day in February that it filed for bankruptcy, Fieldwood announced that it was going to acquire $700 million in oil wells from Noble Energy, which is leaving the offshore area to focus on shale drilling on land. With that purchase, Fieldwood hopes to start major explorations in deep water, even as it faces scrutiny for violations on the shelf.

A spokesman for Fieldwood said the company was already operating in deep water and would be “be much stronger financially when we come out of this restructuring.”

Lars Herbst, the Gulf director for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, warned offshore operators at a briefing last year that certain kinds of shutdown had doubled. He attributed the spike in such orders, which involve an “unsafe situation” that “poses an immediate danger to the entire facility or personnel,” to a large number of “financially at-risk companies.” Those businesses, he said, operated 449 of the 2,104 active facilities in the Gulf.

More recently, the agency conducted a two-day inspection blitz involving gas leaks on offshore platforms, many of them owned by independent operators in shallow waters. Inspectors found that 17 percent of the 36 platforms and well operations they visited had “oil and gas accumulations,” industry lingo for leaks that can lead to fires, agency records show. Eight facilities either lacked operating gas detectors or had other problems with their leak-detection systems.

“It was quite concerning,” said Jason Mathews, the agency’s chief for safety management in the Gulf.

A Native Son Leads the Charge

The Cajundome in Lafayette is well known as a venue for college basketball games, country music concerts and monster truck shows. But for Mr. Angelle, 56, it is associated with an enduring alliance he forged with the offshore oil and gas industry nearly eight years ago.

Photo
Scott Angelle, second from right, leads the Interior Department’s safety agency. He has long had ties to the oil and gas industry. Credit Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

In July 2010, just three months after the Deepwater Horizon accident, Mr. Angelle, then lieutenant governor, stood in the arena before more than 10,000 locals, offshore workers and industry executives. He promised to pressure the Obama administration to end the moratorium on new offshore drilling, which had deeply angered communities that depended on it. The ban was lifted that October.

“Enough is enough,” he said with a thick Cajun accent in a rousing speech laced with rhymes and applause lines. “And it’s time to quit punishing innocent American workers to achieve some unrealistic political agenda.”

One of nine children whose father owned a local Ford dealership before going into Louisiana politics himself, Mr. Angelle turned the arena on fire by ticking off the names of local families.

“This moratorium is not hurting the stockholders of BP, or Exxon or Chevron,” he declared. “This moratorium is hurting the Cheramies, and the Calaises, and the Dupuises, and the Robins, and the Boudreauxs and the Thibodeauxs!”

Mr. Angelle knew his audience well: After graduating from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, he started his career by scouting for onshore drilling sites. He eventually went on to lead the state agency charged with regulating the oil and gas industry, and made a series of appeals to Interior Department officials — some at the safety agency he now runs — to press the federal government to soften its response to the Deepwater Horizon accident.

His ties to the industry are also financial. Mr. Angelle was paid $1 million to serve for four years on the board of directors at Sunoco Logistics, a pipeline company. And when he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2015, he benefited from large contributions from the industry. One of these was a $1.25 million donation to Louisiana Rising, a political action committee that backed him, from a top executive at an oil and gas company that then had hundreds of Gulf platforms. Mr. Angelle promised voters that he was “fighting for Louisiana’s energy industry” in one advertisement.

After being appointed to his current post, Mr. Angelle made a return visit to the Cajundome last September as part of his outreach to oil and gas executives. Mr. Angelle, agency officials note, has sold off any industry stock assets to comply with federal conflict-of-interest rules.

His job was new, but his message was familiar: How can I help your companies thrive? In addition to safety enforcement, he made it clear that he viewed his role as helping the industry grow.

“One of the things that we want to do is help unlock the next wave of investment into the Gulf of Mexico,” he said at the time. “That is what we want to do.”

The next day, at a meeting with executives in Houston, Mr. Angelle acknowledged that efforts to assist the industry could be hampered if safety problems persisted.

“At the end, we are only as strong as the weakest link,” he said. “And if we have someone who is a bad actor, you owe it to yourselves, you owe it to your families, you owe it to the industry, you owe it to America, to call them out.”

Even before this gathering, the Trump administration had signed off on the first rollback of industry regulations, including the one pertaining to the removal of unproductive offshore platforms. The lobbying effort on that rule was funded in part by companies, like Renaissance and Energy XXI, that were plagued by safety violations. It involved both Mr. Lott and his partner, John Breaux, a Democrat and former senator from Louisiana, according to a disclosure report.

The rule had taken effect late in the Obama administration after government auditors estimated that it would cost nearly $40 billion to remove the old wells, but determined that oil companies had issued just $2.9 billion worth of bonds to cover the expense.

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Dial P for Privacy: The Phone Booth Is Back

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But these aren’t grimy street cubicles or sterile, forbidding isolation chambers. “Each room is named after our favorite fictional female characters — like Ramona Quimby, Lieutenant Uhura, and Lisa Simpson — and provides members with a quiet space for private conversation,” Ms. Gelman said. Each tiny space is equipped with a power outlet, a shallow shelf, a stool and a quaint, nonfunctional — but highly Instagrammable — retro telephone. (A third location of The Wing, in Dumbo, which opened earlier this month, has four phone booths hidden behind bookshelves, Clue-style.)

Five new, maple-sided, portable, modular Zenbooth phone booths were installed late last year at the 17th Street headquarters of Gizmodo Media Group, the home of several websites, including Deadspin, Lifehacker, Jezebel and Splinter (where this reporter was previously employed).

But because approximately 230 employees work out of the GMG headquarters, the booths are frequently occupied by writers and editors looking to make a private call. Thus, the company’s facilities manager, Will Sansom, recently ordered four additional Zenbooths — including one two-seater that acts a small stand-alone meeting room — explaining that there has been “positively positive feedback across the board.”

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The private phone booths at the SoHo branch of The Wing. “Sometimes you just need a minute to yourself,” said Audrey Gelman, one of the club’s founders. Credit Dolly Faibyshev for The New York Times

Other companies that have recently purchased Zenbooths include Volkswagen, Lyft, Meetup and Capital One. The Berkeley, Calif., company was launched in 2016, and its products range from $3,995 (for a standard one-person booth) to $15,995 (for a two-person “executive” booth). The one-person booth is a soundproof, eco-friendly, American-made box that’s about 36 inches wide and 34 inches deep, with an insulated glass door, a ventilation fan, power outlets and a skylight — and it can be assembled in roughly an hour. (It does not, however, contain an actual phone.)

Sam Johnson, a co-founder of the company, said it produced “hundreds” of Zenbooths a month in 2017. This year, it’s on track to quadruple that production. But he doesn’t call them phone booths. “We’re manufacturing quiet spaces and privacy,” he said.

Zenbooth is not the only free-standing office phone booth in the game. Companies like Cubicall, Nomad, and TalkBox, among others, are offering up solutions to the modern office’s privacy problem.

The Cubicall, which starts at $6,495, allows businesses to customize the exterior wall with a design or logo; the Nomad, priced at $2995, is partially made from recycled plastic bottles, and TalkBox, which starts at $4,500, has whiteboard walls for writing notes and ideas on the spot and counts companies both large (Google) and small (Ipsy, the cosmetics subscription service) among its clients.

But doesn’t installing a free-standing phone booth in your company’s sleek office admit some kind of failure of planning?

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In the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock film “The Birds,” Tippi Hedren tried to find shelter from her attackers in a phone booth. Credit Universal Pictures/Photofest

Yes, says Nikil Saval, the co-editor of n+1 magazine and the author of “Cubed: A Secret History Of The Workplace.”

“There has rarely been a premium placed on privacy for American office workers,” Mr. Saval said in a phone interview, noting that while cubicles cut down on visual distractions, “you still have to deal with noise, and noise travels pretty easily. It’s an incredibly common problem in open office plans.”

Added Mr. Saval: “The clearest instance of how much of a problem it is? People put on headphones all the time. Headphones have become the new walls. It’s also a signal: Don’t disturb me. Because you’re constantly surrounded by other people, and you’re cheek to jowl, just crammed in with other people.”

Mr. Saval said surveys have shown that while workers overwhelmingly prefer private offices to open-plan arrangements or cubicles — where they are often forced to hear a co-worker make dinner reservations, check in on the babysitter or, most awkwardly, argue with a significant other — there are economic forces that take precedence. “There are no measurable benefits as far as human interaction, sociability, running into each other, serendipitous encounters,” he said of the open floor plan. “It’s just cheaper, and that’s why it exists.”

Thus, the return of the phone booth signals a gesture toward more civility. Talking on the phone for others to overhear, especially in a work environment, has become at best an etiquette issue, and at worst, what Mr. Saval calls a pollutant. However small the footprint, the option for privacy is welcome.

As Ms. Gelman put it, “Sometimes you just need a minute to yourself.”

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Trade War Prospect Shakes Part of Trump Base: Midwest Farmers

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That means balancing the concerns of the two sectors so that neither steelworkers nor farmers get a raw deal, he said.

Navigating among competing domestic and global interests is complicated, though.

Two weeks after the administration imposed a tariff on solar panels, China opened an anti-dumping investigation into American exports of sorghum, a grain used in livestock feed. The United States was virtually China’s sole foreign source of sorghum last year, with $1 billion in sales. Almost half of the American crop is grown in Kansas.

This week, the European Commission presented its members with a $3.5 billion list of American products that could be targets of retaliatory measures, and agricultural products were on the list.

On Thursday, the House speaker, Representative Paul Ryan, issued a statement that said, “I disagree with this action and fear its unintended consequences,” and added, “We will continue to urge the administration to narrow this policy so that it is focused only on those countries and practices that violate trade law.”

Mr. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, is no doubt trying to assure constituents like Mike Cerny, a soybean and corn farmer in Sharon who works about 2,500 acres of land, some his own, some his customers’.

Mr. Cerny, who voted for Mr. Trump, said he liked most of Mr. Trump’s policies, particularly tax cuts. But if the tariffs “were to start some kind of a trade war, this would not be good for his support in farm country,” he added.

His perspective is shared by Davie Stephens, vice president of the American Soybean Association, who farms about 5,500 acres in Kentucky, the home state of Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader.

“Of course I’m worried about the tariffs,” he said. He and other association members plan to meet with Mr. McConnell and other members of Congress when they visit the capital next week. “We’re making sure we do have that access to the global market,” Mr. Stephens said, after he finished unloading a forklift on his farm in Wingo, in western Kentucky.

Over the years, Mr. Stephens, 67, said, he has voted for Republican and Democratic presidents. “I’ve supported everything they’ve tried to do for farmers,” he said, “but any tariff could hurt farmers if our consumers retaliate.”

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AT&T Backs Off Political Argument in Antitrust Case

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Noticeably absent in AT&T’s filing was an earlier argument it had made: that the government singled out the company’s deal because of presidential politics. President Trump was a vocal critic of the deal during his presidential campaign, and while in office, he has consistently blamed CNN, a channel owned by Turner and part of Time Warner’s television business, for unfair coverage of his administration.

AT&T originally argued to the court that the Justice Department’s suit was a case of “selective enforcement” — that the government was essentially blocking the deal because the president was against it.

But late last month, Judge Richard J. Leon, who is overseeing the trial, rejected demands by AT&T for detailed email and phone logs between the White House and the Justice Department related to the deal. AT&T and Time Warner has dropped “selective enforcement” as a defense, according to the new filings.

Even absent the question of presidential interference in the deal, the trial is pivotal for the telecom and media industries, providing a clue about the chances of other industry deals, like Disney’s bid for 21st Century Fox. AT&T’s chief executive, Randall Stephenson, and Time Warner’s chief executive, Jeffrey Bewkes, are expected to take the stand.

“This is the single most important decision this year” for technology, telecom and media firms, said Amy Young, a research analyst at Macquarie Group in New York. “It will frame regulation and mergers and acquisitions going forward and raise questions about all the consolidation in the past, too.”

If the judge sides with AT&T and Time Warner, he would usher in the creation of a new kind of corporate behemoth — one with nationwide reach via wireless and satellite television service that would also have control over a movie studio and channels like HBO, CNN and TNT, which has valuable basketball sports rights.

The company would have a leading position to negotiate licensing deals with rival telecom and media firms. It would also be in a stronger position against fast-growing streaming video services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

If the Justice Department prevails in this suit, it would signal a new era of scrutiny for the media and telecom industries. In 2011, Comcast won approval for its purchase of NBCUniversal that also created an enormous telecom and media company. The Justice Department insisted on several conditions that restricted Comcast from anti-competitive business practices.

The trial will also reveal much about the state of the industry. Rivals such as Comcast, Dish and Sony are expected to be called as witnesses to reveal details about their business dealings with AT&T and Time Warner in the past. The Justice Department is expected to argue that a combined AT&T and Time Warner would have the incentive to make it harder for competing media companies to distribute their programming through AT&T, and for Time Warner brands to limit their distribution outside of AT&T.

The Justice Department will also present economic analysis suggesting that the new company is likely to raise prices for consumers.

“As will be shown at trial, the government is challenging this merger to address the real concerns of real people who populate the real marketplace today,” the Justice Department said in its brief.

AT&T said it would challenge the government’s arguments that the merger would increase consumer prices and hamper competition by raising licensing fees for Time Warner content. The company said it would argue that the merger of two companies that do not compete would be a stronger competitor in a market that had many new companies from Silicon Valley, like Facebook and Netflix.

“As will be demonstrated at trial, the new video revolution is defined by the spectacular rise of Netflix, Amazon, Google, and other vertically integrated, direct-to-consumer technology companies as market leaders in both video programming and video distribution,” AT&T said in its brief.

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Steve Bannon Is Done Wrecking the American Establishment. Now He Wants to Destroy Europe’s.

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In Zurich, Mr. Bannon says, he had a “fascinating” meeting on Tuesday with leaders of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany party.

They included Alice Weidel and Beatrix von Storch, who recently reacted to a New Year’s Eve public service announcement by the German police that went out in various languages, including Arabic, by tweeting, “Are they seeking to appease the barbaric, Muslim, rapist hordes of men?”

But it is Italy, where populist forces smashed the country’s establishment by combining to win more than half the vote on Sunday, that Mr. Bannon has turned into his de facto headquarters.

In a sprawling interview here, he declined to name whom he had met, other than to describe them as a broad array of politicians, operatives and investors.

(A spokesman for Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant League, said the two would have liked to have met, but did not. A spokesman for the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which won a third of Italian votes, did not return a request for comment.)

Aside from the occasional coffee at Campo de’ Fiori or photo-op at Piazza Navona, Mr. Bannon has been holed up in hotel rooms, taking meeting after meeting.

In Rome, he stayed at the luxurious Rafael hotel, where Bettino Craxi, the face of Italy’s corrupt establishment and mentor to Silvio Berlusconi, was pelted with coins in 1993 by an angry mob as he departed the political scene.

In Milan, he sat in a room at the grand Principe di Savoia, opposite a copy of Titian’s portrait of the Duke of Mantua, a master of intrigue in Renaissance Italy and a longtime sufferer of syphilis, surrounded by red damask wallpaper. Jams were on a room service cart, and a copy of a book titled “Headlines All My Life” was on the desk.

In both cities, he wore a blue and white striped button down over a polo shirt. In Rome the polo was orange. In Milan it was blue.

He sipped sparkling water and described a grand vision for a global populist future.

In the United States, Mr. Bannon said, he is working on a project to create a think tank to “weaponize” populist economic and social ideas.

He sees that work spreading to Europe, where a proliferation of populist websites in the image of Breitbart News, either owned by him or others, will spread those ideas, under his guidance.

As a final component, he wants to train an army of populist foot soldiers in the language and tools of social media.

Mr. Bannon said that a common message he had received from populists throughout Europe was a desire to establish a media outlet for their views.

“They see what Breitbart did and they want it in their own language,” said Mr. Bannon, who slipped into the present tense when talking about the website from which he recently separated. “That’s the key. Right now my sites are in English, they want one in their own language,” he said, calling that “phase two.”

Photo
Mr. Bannon onstage during an event hosted by Die Weltwoche, the right-wing Swiss weekly magazine, this week in Zurich. Credit Adrian Bretscher/Getty Images

He could be forgiven the slip, as the site still seems to be in his thrall. (“Stephen K. Bannon took Zurich by storm Tuesday, addressing a sell-out crowd,” began Breitbart’s article on the speech.)

But Mr. Bannon, who said he was paying for the trip, said he was weighing whether to buy a name-brand outlet, like Newsweek or United Press International, or to start a new one, or to connect entrepreneurs with capital or invest himself.

He imagined a scoop-driven and high-metabolism outlet “like Axios,” he said, referring to the buzzy Washington newsletter, but with a populist bent that would devour Europe’s sleepy legacy papers.

“Whether I do it or a local entrepreneur does it,” he said, “there are going to be these populist nationalist news sites that pop up in the next year on line. That will only take these things to the next level.”

With Europe more aggressively tackling the migration issue, Mr. Bannon was aiming to move the future battle of populism to other terrains.

He said that the reason it was so important to get populist nationalist governments in place was to prepare for a coming great-powers clash with an axis of ancient Turkish, Persian and Chinese civilizations. “Elites can’t fight that fight,” he said. “Because people have to buy into it.”

He is also increasingly interested in motivating people to fight media conglomerates like Facebook that monetize their data. And he has become fascinated with crypto currencies and how they can help populist movements, the subject of a speech he gave in Zurich this week.

In preparation for the speech, organized by Die Weltwoche, a conservative Swiss magazine, Mr. Bannon said he visited the town of Zug, known as Crypto Valley for its bustling cryptocurrency industry. He was impressed.

“If Brussels and the European Central Bank is worried about Italy going to the lira, their concerns should be that all these communities and states are going to crypto,” he said in Milan.

In the meantime, he said, he admires Italy’s populist parties for already being on the technological cutting edge.

The Five Star Movement, a web-based party that preaches direct, online democracy, and the League, the hard-right, formerly northern-based secessionist party, both dominated social media during the campaign.

Often, their critics say, they did it with spurious and inflammatory fake news about migrants and crime. Many of those messages seemed propelled by automated bots rather than real supporters.

“You can’t just have just all humans, I’m sure they have some bots,” Mr. Bannon said, unbothered. “The thing is that they are generating enthusiasm on shoestrings.”

He said he hoped the two parties would eventually join forces — something not out of the question as the Italians try to form a government after an inconclusive election.

But he spoke also almost sympathetically about Matteo Renzi, the now vanquished Italian leader who only years ago seemed to be the future of Italy and the European center-left.

Mr. Renzi, he said, was “an object lesson to every rising politician in Europe,” and not a good one.

The former prime minister, he said, had tried to play by Brussels’s rules when it came to the migration crisis, and instead the European Union allowed other countries to close their borders, leaving Italy to take the brunt of the burden.

“They hung him out to dry,” he said.

Mr. Bannon said Italian voters on Sunday also spurned Pope Francis, who has urged tolerance for migrants.

“This vote was a rejection of the pope,” said Mr. Bannon, a Catholic who has nonetheless been a longtime critic of the pope’s politics. “The pope likes to see himself as a radical and an anti-establishment revolutionary for the little guy; the little guy put the pope in his place on Sunday.”

He said he had intended to return to Rome to visit his allies in the Vatican, including the American cardinal Raymond Burke, but then France’s National Front extended its invitation.

“They said, ‘Hey would you stay for the weekend?’ ” Mr. Bannon said. “ ‘All our people would love to hear you speak.’ ”

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William Pulte, Pathbreaking Home Builder, Is Dead at 85

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William John Pulte was born on May 16, 1932, in Ann Arbor, Mich. His father, also named William, was an insurance adjuster; his mother, the former Marguerite Hannah Lynch, was a homemaker.

Young William started working construction in high school and, after graduating, decided to forgo a college scholarship to build a home, and maybe a company.

His first project was a five-room bungalow that sat near the Detroit City Airport. He built it with a group of friends and sold it for $10,000. He was 18.

“It only took one house to figure out that I was going to let other people do the building and I was going to do the thinking,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 1990.

Growing up around the auto industry, Mr. Pulte became enamored of factory production and techniques like the assembly line. In the postwar decades, he and other builders turned home building into a large-scale production, lowering the cost of homeownership with standardized layouts and designs that would be lampooned by cultural critics but were key to the growth of the American middle class.

He founded Pulte Homes in Detroit in 1950, and in 1959 he built his first subdivision, Concord Green, in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. When the homes were not selling as fast as he had hoped, he visited Levittown, Pa., one of several planned communities created by William Levitt, the pioneer of mass-produced housing.

“He was a student of William Levitt and Henry Ford,” said Mr. Pulte’s grandson William Pulte. “He started out building one home, then two homes, then three homes. Then he took it to the subdivision, then took it to cities across America.”

Photo
Mr. Pulte in a family photo at age 18 in 1950. His first project was a five-room bungalow near the Detroit City Airport, which he built with a group of friends and sold for $10,000.

Mr. Pulte was fascinated by home buyers’ changing preferences. One of his tried and true sales techniques was to build three-bedroom homes with an unfinished bonus room, enticing entry-level customers who couldn’t afford a standard four-bedroom home but were confident that they would have the money to finish the house down the line.

“He was always thinking about the consumer, and it allowed him to be competitive with anyone,” the grandson said.

Pulte Homes went national in the 1960s, expanding to Chicago, Atlanta and the District of Columbia. The company went public in 1969, and its fortunes began to soar. In 1995 it became the nation’s largest home builder; in 1999 it became a Fortune 500 company.

Pulte now sells about 20,000 homes a year.

In 2001, after decades of following baby boomers up the ladder, from starter homes to family homes, Pulte followed them into their senior years with the acquisition of Del Webb Corp., a retirement-community pioneer.

Mr. Pulte retired from his company’s board in 2010, shortly after Pulte bought Centex Corporation, creating a home-building behemoth offering everything from starter homes to so-called active adult communities.

Even in retirement, Mr. Pulte kept a close eye on his company. In 2016, he waged a public campaign to remove Pulte’s chief executive, Richard Dugas, calling his decision to appoint him “perhaps the biggest mistake of my career.”

Mr. Dugas resigned shortly after, and as part of the settlement Mr. Pulte’s grandson William joined the board.

Pulte is now based in Atlanta and operates in about 50 markets around the United States, with brands like Centex, Pulte Homes, Del Webb, DiVosta Homes and John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods.

Besides his grandson William, Mr. Pulte’s survivors include his wife, Karen, as well as 13 children, 26 other grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. One of his sons died in 2011.

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Op-Ed Contributor: Inflation? Bring it on. Workers Could Actually Benefit.

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It’s not exactly clear why prices haven’t risen very much. It may be because greater international competition keeps prices down; because the decline of union contracts means that fewer companies give automatic cost-of-living adjustments; because consumers can compare prices so easily on the internet; because oil prices have fallen recently; or simply because, after years of low inflation, people expect price increases to be limited.

Even if inflation does creep up above 2 percent, we shouldn’t be too worried. The Fed’s inflation target is not a ceiling; it’s a desirable average. Having operated below it for many years, the economy may not be harmed if it runs for a few years above that target.

In fact, a high-pressure economy, with wages and prices a little higher than we’ve become used to, might actually do a lot of good for the people who need it most. Working families need a tight labor market — and higher wages — to get ahead. It would be a costly mistake to raise rates too much or too soon.

We are in the midst of a big fiscal and monetary experiment. And as with any experiment, the consequences are unknown. What we do know is that the costs of the Great Recession were enormous — at least $4 trillion in lost income, or about $30,000 per household, according to my calculations. The biggest losses were experienced by those in the bottom and middle portions of the income distribution who lost jobs and saw much of the equity in their homes destroyed.

They are the ones who stand to gain the most if unemployment continues to fall and wages keep rising. Businesses, desperate for workers, reach deeper into the ranks of those who are still jobless, do more training to get those workers up to speed, and pay higher wages as they compete to hire or retain their work force. Discouraged workers — the millions who’ve left the labor force — might actually re-enter it, and workers could find their shrinking share of national income rise again.

Besides, economists are not sure when super-low unemployment will set off inflation. The Congressional Budget Office’s current estimate for full-employment, 4.7 percent, is down from around 5.7 percent in 2012. And models used by the Fed and the budget office have failed to identify the point at which further total spending growth in the economy will bump up against a ceiling and bring not just a little more inflation but possibly an unsustainable spiral of ever-rising price growth.

It may be that the United States economy’s “potential” — estimates for what gross domestic product could be if all of our country’s resources, including unemployed labor, were utilized — is much larger than we think. A recent paper by economists at the University of Texas and the University of California, Berkeley, argues that official estimates of potential are too pessimistic.

Moreover, it’s possible that letting a high-pressure economy run over a longer period will actually increase that potential by pushing firms to improve productivity and draw more workers into the labor market. The evidence is mixed but can’t be dismissed.

Of course, higher growth alone may not be enough to improve the lives of those left behind over the last few years. The recent tax bill’s benefits are skewed and temporary, and people do need stronger safety nets and other help to pay for the rising costs of housing, health care and college.

But a stronger economy might help the left behind as much as, if not more than, any of these specific measures. The old models don’t seem to be working, and the downside risks of this experiment are limited. Let’s run a truly high-pressure economy and see what happens.

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Strategies: A Battle Over Trade Crashes the Bull Market’s Birthday Party

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Mr. Yardeni, the author of a coming book, “Predicting the Markets: A Professional Autobiography,” tried, gamely, to handicap the probability that trade tensions would turn virulent conflict and seriously damage the economy and the markets.

“This trade stuff isn’t good in the short term, we can say that for sure,” he said. “Beyond that, I can’t predict very much with certainty because I don’t really know how far the president is going with this and I’m not sure that he knows either.”

That uncertainty puts investors in an awkward position.

It’s not that the specific actions taken by President Trump — tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum — will wreak global havoc. Steel and aluminum may not be important enough for that: They accounted for only 2 percent of American imports last year, or 0.2 percent of gross domestic product, as The Economist has pointed out.

Furthermore, on Thursday, Mr. Trump carved out exceptions even to this particular trade restriction. He said that for now, at least, he would not impose tariffs on Mexico and Canada, two of America’s closest allies, pending renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and might not impose them on Australia, either.

Still the president has begun what, if it continues, would be a colossal shift in longstanding United States policy. Instead of relying on multilateral institutions that have been pillars of world trade — and American power — since World War II, the president vowed to revise America’s approach, stressing bilateral costs and benefits, and national security, very narrowly defined.

The Trump tilt has left many people flabbergasted.

Michael Froman, who served as United States trade representative in the Barack Obama administration, said he was troubled by this possible shift. “I don’t really know what it means to enter a global trade war” as government policy, he said on a conference call at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he is a distinguished fellow.

Serious people, he said, have tried to devise ways to “exit trade wars,” not start them. Mr. Froman pointed out that foreign governments — including close allies — have already prepared lists of American exports targeted for retaliation.

The European Union, for example, says it might begin with American products like Harley-Davidsons, Kentucky bourbon and blue jeans, and go on from there. Once such a process begins, it could spiral downward, with the tit-for-tat tariffs between America and its trading partners during the Great Depression a vivid historical lesson.

The implications are chilling, in the view of many strategists.

On Wednesday, for example, Marco Pirondini, head of United States equities at Amundi Pioneer in Boston, declared in a note to investors that President Trump had begun a “dangerous” and “risky” second phase of his economic agenda. The first phase, he said, “focused on tax cuts and deregulation” with “extremely positive” results for corporate earnings, many taxpayers and investors in the stock market.

Now, however, with the resignation of Gary D. Cohn, the president’s top economic adviser, who opposed Mr. Trump’s shift on trade, it is clear that Mr. Trump “is focused on changing trade relations as a means of reducing trade deficits and incentivizing U.S.-based production,” Mr. Pirondini said.

Many global companies will suffer, he said, adding that Mr. Trump’s policy is likely to be accompanied by “increasing inflationary pressures and margin pressure for corporations, and more volatility for equities.”

In an interview, he added that Mr. Trump was using “theatrical” methods to improve his negotiating position. That could have unforeseen negative consequences.

Mr. Pirondini said he did not expect that the president would actually embrace a full-scale trade war — which he defined as a contraction in global trade that exceeds any associated economic contraction. But he said Mr. Trump’s policy tilt might ignite a series of conflicts with America’s trade partners, to say nothing of the Asian giant that appears to be the real focus of Mr. Trump’s ire: China. Until trade tensions are resolved, he said, the stock market is likely to endure episodes of heightened turmoil.

As if the market needed more drama this year. Mr. Rosenberg of Gluskin Sheff says stocks have entered “a late-stage bull market.” Factors like rising interest rates, soaring debt loads, incipient inflation and stretched valuations have made equities vulnerable, he said.

The stock market is already in what, in Wall Street jargon, is correction territory: By Feb. 8, stocks had declined more than 10 percent from their Jan. 26 peak and haven’t recovered all their losses.

“There is a very good chance that we will have another 10 percent correction, below the trough that the market hit in February,” Mr. Rosenberg said.

By some definitions, a decline of 20 percent or more would end the bull market. That may be semantics, however. A bear market, in Mr. Rosenberg’s view, would be associated with a “pernicious and protracted decline.” Because the economy is reasonably strong — and stimulus from the recent tax cut has not had its full effect — stocks could rebound quickly, he said.

Whatever you call it, Mr. Rosenberg counsels prepare for a coming decline by raising the cash portion of their portfolios.

Many other strategists are more sanguine.

Ed Clissold, chief United States strategist with Ned Davis Research Group, said that a technical analysis of the market showed that it had “retested” important support levels. “Market breadth isn’t what we’d want to see,” he said, “and if the market remains choppy for a very long time, that will be a concern. But so far, so good.”

Laszlo Birinyi, an independent analyst who has weathered decades of crises, said, “I don’t think we will know how important these trade issues are for a long time, so it’s best not to pay too much attention to them. Many big events in the news — Brexit, the November election — set off panics but turn out to be fine for the stock market.”

Mr. Yardeni points to the benefits of the new tax law, which has nearly doubled Wall Street’s expectations for the earnings growth rate of the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, to 19 percent from 10.

“That hasn’t all been factored into stock prices yet,” he said. “We may have to get through these trade issues first. But I don’t think the bull market is over yet.”

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‘There Are a Lot of Stories That Need to Be Told’

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Photo
David Steward II, the chief executive of the comic book publisher Lion Forge, in his office at the company’s St. Louis headquarters. Credit Whitney Curtis for The New York Times

On its website, the comic book publisher Lion Forge states that it is “committed to ‘Comics for Everyone.’” It reflects a particular passion of David Steward II, the chief executive officer of Lion Forge, which is based in St. Louis. “Not only is it the right thing to do, we thought the market was craving authentic characters who had appropriate representation,” Mr. Steward said in a recent phone interview. The approach seems to be working. In February, the Young Adult Library Services Association named “Lighter Than My Shadow,” a graphic novel by Katie Green about a young woman’s battle with eating disorders, one of the top 10 “great graphic novels for teens” published in 2017. During our interview, Mr. Steward, 40, talked about his career path, diversity in comics, the challenges of the industry and more. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

How did you get your start?

I went to college at American University and graduated with a degree in international business marketing. Then I worked for my dad’s company, World Wide Technology, and realized very quickly it was not for me. Over a dinner, my dad said, “If you’re doing something you’re passionate about, you’ll never work a day in your life.” That stuck with me and got my wheels turning about what I was really passionate about.

What comics did you like as a kid?

I had a Marvel encyclopedia. I didn’t get access to real comic books until around the time Milestone, a comic publishing imprint that showcased African-American superheroes, came out. I remember it was cool to have characters that I could see myself in. When I discovered Comixology, a digital distributor of comics, I started reading again. My girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, was an avid prose reader. We would be hanging by the pool, and she would read her books and I would read comics.

How did you go from liking comics to wanting to create them?

I knew I wanted to do something that utilized creative storytelling. Digital comics were on the forefront of all that. You could do flip books and light animation and add soundscapes. Carl Reed, a co-founder of Lion Forge, was working in animation and was looking for the next thing, too. We got together with a couple of other guys and started exploring: Who are the players? What are they doing? Is the market saturated? We wanted to use digital as the litmus test for what you should print. You could tell the retailer: “This title sold well first digitally. We think people will look for it in the store to collect.”

Why did you feel the timing was right for Lion Forge’s diverse heroes?

The New 52 was launching at DC, and I remember distinctly they had relaunched Static Shock, which is cool because they brought that title to the forefront, but then they didn’t have any black creators on it. I remember thinking, “What is this?” It was kind of like a reflection of what someone else thinks that an African-American person is, which is different from actually having more of an authentic representation. Whatever group we are representing, we are definitely having someone of that group be a part of it.

How did you approach creating these comics and catering to the audience?

I feel like for everybody to participate, you have to have representation that looks like everyone in this country. We’ve been careful to make sure that it is an inclusive line of characters. Kind of like the United Colors of Benetton [laughs], but it feels natural and organic. Another thing is not only looking at core comic book readers, but how can you reach those folks interested in comics but maybe haven’t been invited in? Anybody who comes to our site or our catalog of books will find something there for them. I feel I achieved that goal in the last year with “Lighter Than My Shadow.” My wife hasn’t really picked up one of our books — other than when I’ve asked her to. [Laughs.] She saw “Lighter Than My Shadow” on my bedside table and wanted to read it. I’ve truly passed the last mile here.

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