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Ayatollah Khomeini’s prayers for a massive army of young men to combat Iraq were answered all too well. His urging for fertile females to reproduce with no pregnant pauses spurred Iran’s population to swell to 50 million by 1986. Once the war ended, what was the country to do with all those working-age people who needed jobs, food and clean water? An excerpt follows from Alan Weisman’s Countdown, republished at Matter, which looks at family-planning efforts inside a theocracy.

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Secret meetings commenced with the Supreme Leader to discuss the population blessing that was now a population crisis. Years later, demographer and population historian Abbasi-Shavazi would interview the 1987 planning and budget director, and learn that he had met with the president’s cabinet and explained what excessive human numbers portended for the nation’s future. To feed, educate, house, and employ everyone would far outstrip their capacity, as Iran was exhausted and nearly bankrupt. There were so many children that primary schools had to move from double to triple shifts. The planning and budget director and the minister of health presented an initiative to reverse demographic course and institute a nationwide family-planning campaign. It was approved by a single vote.

A month after the August 1988 ceasefire finally ended the war, Iran’s religious leaders, demographers, budget experts, and health minister gathered for a summit conference on population in the eastern city of Mashhad, one of holiest cities for the world’s Shi’ite Muslims, whose name means “place of martyrdom.” The weighty symbolism was clear.

“The report of the demographers and budget officers was given to Khomeini,” Dr. Shamshiri recalls. The economic prognosis for their overpopulated nation must have been very dire, given the Ayatollah’s contempt for economists, whom he often referred to as donkeys.

“After he heard it, he said, ‘Do what is necessary.’ ”

It meant convincing 50 million Iranians of the opposite of what they’d heard for the past eight years: that their patriotic duty was to be forcibly fruitful. Now, a new slogan was strung from banners, repeated on billboards, plastered on walls, broadcast on television, and preached at Friday prayers by the same mullahs who once enjoined them to produce a great Islamic generation by making more babies:

One is good. Two is enough.

The next year, 1989, Imam Khomeini died. The same prime minister who had hailed fertility rates approaching nine children per woman as God-sent now launched a new national family-planning program. Unlike China, the decision of how many was left to the parents. No law forbade them from having ten if they chose. But no one did. Instead, what happened next was the most stunning reversal of population growth in human history. Twelve years later, the Iranian minister of health would accept the United Nations Population Award for the most enlightened and successful approach to family planning the world had ever seen.

If it all was voluntary, how did Iran do it?•

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Matthias Gebauer and Holger Stark of Spiegel conducted a sit-down about the Islamic State and the future of Iraq and Syria with General John Allen, who for the last four months has answered to the rather cumbersome title of “Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State.” While the IS is relatively small in numbers and is already buckling under the burden of governance, the task at hand in dealing with the terrorist state is still far from finished. From the Q&A:

Spiegel:

Who poses a greater threat to US interests — Assad or the IS?

General John Allen:

Assad is a menace to the region. What he has done to Syria has been the motivating factor for the rise of Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra. So while Daesh carries its own threat to US interests, the political solution in Damascus and ultimately the departure of Assad and his ilk will be an important development for the region. That could help us return to a more stable environment in Syria. Again, if we’ve accomplished our objectives with respect to the political outcome, there will be a government that reflects the will of the Syrian people — and that will have the happy second and third order effect of assisting in the creation of stability more broadly in the region. Solving the political environment in Syria will go a long way towards eliminating or at least addressing some of the underlying causes.

Spiegel:

Assad’s regime seems to be more stable since the military campaign against the Islamic State. Is it possible that the political price you will pay for defeating IS will be a stronger regime?

General John Allen:

I don’t agree with the premise of your question. Assad has experienced significant difficulties in the field in a number of areas. Things are not going well for him in the south, and he continues to suffer under enormous sanctions internationally. And while he does have some support in the international arena, he is not more stable.

Spiegel:

Let’s take a look at the region’s future. Will Syria and Iraq exist in a few years as we know them today?

 

General John Allen:

I think we’ll see a territorially restored Iraq. The early indicators and performance of Prime Minister al-Abadi’s government are very positive. There’s a very interesting and positive trend in the region right now. The prime minister of Iraq was received by the Saudis, and the Saudis have called for the reopening their embassy in Baghdad. Abadi had a very good visit with the King of Jordan. Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan has been to Baghdad and Erbil. And Abadi has very strong relations with the Kuwaitis. The new government just agreed to the final oil deal with Kurdistan. It’s a remarkable development. People have been working on that for 10 years, and Abadi was able to do it since he came into office in September. Syria is more difficult to foresee right now, frankly. Whether we see a secular federalized Syria or something else remains to be determined.”

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You get the feeling sometimes that people with money aren’t necessarily very good at economics, or perhaps their politics are more informed by ego and privilege than reality. The U.S. economy does not have to be a zero-sum game as some seem to think.

From death panels to massive layoffs to runaway inflation, many threats have been leveled at President Obama’s policies, particularly during the 2012 election, by the Romneys, Palins, Trumps, Fiorinas, Wynns and Welchs of the world. From a Hamilton Nolan Gawker post about Westgate Resorts CEO David Siegel, who said he’d be forced to fire all his employees if Obama was reelected:

“Siegel—also known for being the subject of the documentary The Queen of Versailles about his doomed attempt to build himself and his wife America’s largest house—did not end up firing everyone directly after Obama won the election. But what about now, two years later? The pernicious effects of Obama’s socialistic policies have had ample time to take hold. What horrible fate has now been visited upon Siegel’s employees after the Obama administration has see to it that he is thoroughly ‘taxed to death,’ as Siegel warned in his letter?

In October, Siegel raised his company’s minimum pay to $10 an hour. ‘We’re experiencing the best year in our history,’ Siegel said.”

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Even before binge-viewing and such media gorging became a thing, before it was technologically convenient to watch a season in a sitting, social critic Neil Postman believed we were amusing ourselves to death, though he didn’t live long enough to watch us kick dirt on our graves. The opening of Scott Timberg’s new Salon piece about Postman, “Meet the Man who Predicted Fox News, the Internet, Stephen Colbert and Reality TV“:

“These days, even the kind of educated person who might have once disdained TV and scorned electronic gadgets debates plot turns from Game of Thrones and carries an app-laden iPhone. The few left concerned about the effects of the Internet are dismissed as Luddites or killjoys who are on the wrong side of history. A new kind of consensus has shaped up as Steve Jobs becomes the new John Lennon, Amanda Palmer the new Liz Phair, and Elon Musk’s rebel cool graces magazines covers. Conservatives praise Silicon Valley for its entrepreneurial energy; a Democratic president steers millions of dollars of funding to Amazon.

It seems like a funny era for the work of a cautionary social critic, one often dubious about the wonders of technology – including television — whose most famous book came out three decades ago. But the neoliberal post-industrial world now looks chillingly like the one Neil Postman foresaw in books like Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. And the people asking the important questions about where American society is going are taking a page from him.

Amusing Ourselves didn’t argue that regular TV shows were bad or dangerous. It insisted instead that the medium would reshape every other sphere with which it engaged: By using the methods of entertainment, TV would trivialize what the book jacket calls ‘politics, education, religion, and journalism.’

‘It just blew me away,’ says D.C.-based politics writer Matt Bai, who read the 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death while trying to figure out how the press and media became obsessed with superficiality beginning in the ‘80s. ‘So much of what I’d been thinking about was pioneered so many years before,” says Bai – whose recent book, All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, looks at the 1987 Gary Hart sex scandal that effectively ended the politician’s career. ‘It struck me as incredibly relevant … And the more I reported the book, the more relevant it became.'”

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I mentioned when the GOP “swept the nation” during the ’14 midterms, that Senate gains were more a result of each state having two national representatives regardless of population rather than some actual shift in ideology. It seems the Republicans are still favored by just the 46% or so of Americans who supported Mitt Romney for President in ’12. At Vox, Dylan Matthews breaks down the numbers even further. The opening:

“On Tuesday, 33 US senators elected in November will be sworn in by Vice President Joe Biden — including 12 who are new to the chamber. The class includes 22 Republicans and 11 Democrats, a big reason why the GOP has a 54-46 majority in the Senate overall.

But here’s a crazy fact: those 46 Democrats got more votes than the 54 Republicans across the 2010, 2012, and 2014 elections. According to Nathan Nicholson, a researcher at the voting reform advocacy group FairVote, ‘the 46 Democratic caucus members in the 114th Congress received a total of 67.8 million votes in winning their seats, while the 54 Republican caucus members received 47.1 million votes.'”

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I use to think that because of the efficacy of the tools we have created and are going to create, that the structure of surveillance couldn’t be dismantled no matter how much we wanted it to be. But a few years back I began to believe that most Americans wanted to watch and be watched, that we like the new abnormal more than we wanted to admit. The information titillated, the attention flattered. There are costs, however, for being on either side of the lens, and we’re all on both now. From Hans de Zwart’s Matter piece, “Ai Weiwei Is Living in Our Future“: 

“After 81 days of staying in a cell he was released and could return to his home and studio in Beijing. His freedom was very limited: they took away his passport, put him under house arrest, forbid him to talk with journalists about his arrest, forced him to stop using social media and put up camera’s all around his house.

Andreas Johnsen, a Danish filmmaker, has made a fantastic documentary about the first year of house arrest. 

A fascinating element of the documentary is that you can see Ai Weiwei constantly experimenting with coping strategies for when you are under permanent surveillance. At some point, for example, he decided to put up four cameras inside his house and livestream his life to the Internet. This made the authorities very nervous and within a few days the ‘WeiWeiCam’ was taken offline.

Close to his house there is a parking lot where Ai Weiwei regularly catches some fresh air and walks in circles to stay in shape. He knows he is being watched and is constantly on the lookout for the people watching him. In a very funny scene he sees two undercover policemen observing him from a terrace on the first floor of a restaurant. He rushes into the restaurant and climbs the stairs. He stands next to the table that seats the agents, who at this point try and hide their tele-lensed cameras and look very uncomfortable. Ai Weiwei turns to the camera and says: ‘If you had to keep a watch on me, wouldn’t this be the ideal spot?’

This scene shows how being responsible for watching somebody isn’t a pleasant job at all.”

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Torture performed by the U.S. government in the aftermath of 9/11 has gotten more Americans killed than those Al-Qaeda attacks did. False information from waterboarding and renditions brought forth “evidence” that led to the invasion of Iraq, which killed 4,500 American soldiers and who knows how many Iraqis. Despite the numbers, some still cling to their belief in these brutal methods.

In the New York Review of Books, Hugh Eakin interviews journalist Mark Danner, who’s been reporting on America turning to torture since the Towers fell, about the recent Senate-report findings. The opening:

Hugh Eakin:

Nearly six years ago, you published the secret report by the International Committee of the Red Cross documenting the CIA’s torture of more than a dozen ‘high value’ detainees. And now we have the Senate’s extensive investigation of the torture program itself. What are some of the most revealing findings of the Senate report?

Mark Danner:

There is a lot in the executive summary that we already knew but that is now told in appalling detail that we hadn’t seen before. The relentlessness, day in day out, of these techniques; the totality of their effect when taken together—walling, close-confinement, water-dousing, waterboarding, the newly revealed ‘rectal rehydration,’ and various other disgusting and depraved things—is recounted in numbing, revolting detail. The effect can only be conveyed by a full reading, through page after awful page of this five-hundred-page document, which is after all less than 10 percent of the report itself.

What I think is strictly speaking new is, first, how amateurish the torture program was. It was really amateur hour, beginning with the techniques themselves, which were devised and run by a couple of retired Air Force psychologists who were hired by the CIA and put in charge though they had never conducted an interrogation before. They had no expertise in terrorism or counterterrorism, had never interrogated al-Qaeda members or anyone else for that matter. When it came to actually working with detained terrorists and suspected terrorists they were essentially without any relevant experience. Eventually, the CIA paid them more than $80 million.

The second great revelation is the degree to which the CIA claimed great results, and did so mendaciously. Sometimes the attacks they said they had prevented were not serious in the first place. Sometimes the information that actually might have led to averting attacks came not from the enhanced interrogation techniques but from other traditional forms of interrogation or other information entirely. But what the report methodically demonstrates is that the claims about having obtained essential, life-saving intelligence thanks to these techniques that had been repeated for years and years and years are simply not true. And the case is devastating.

Hugh Eakin:

This was a central question the Senate investigation was looking at, wasn’t it? The issue of whether actual intelligence was gained from torture. In essence, ‘Was it worth it?’

Mark Danner:

From the beginning the CIA had claimed that these techniques were absolutely essential to saving the lives of tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people. Those claims have been made by many people and it is another revelation of the report that we see CIA people, notably the lawyers, raising these claims before the program even existed. The lawyers seemed to be thinking, ‘This is the only way we’re going to get away with this.’ There is a quote in the report that people would look more kindly on torture—that is the word used—if it was used to stop imminent attacks. This was the so-called ‘necessity defense,’ which, as the CIA lawyers put it, could be invoked to protect from prosecution ‘US officials who tortured to obtain information that saved many lives.’ This idea was there right from the inception of the program.”

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Long before Snowden, Richard Stallman warned of the surveillance state to little effect, a Cassandra of the Cloud. In “Why You Should Not Use Uber,” he continues to rail against a new machine he sees as soulless. An excerpt follows.

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• It requires you to let Big Brother track you, with a portable phone.

  • Uber requires you to identify yourself, both to order a cab and to pay.
  • Uber also records where you get the cab and where you go with it.
  • Uber’s clever policy of not being directly responsible for anything that goes wrong extends to harassment by drivers, and its practice of identifying passengers enables drivers to find out who the passenger is. This makes some women scared to use Uber.This problem comes directly out of the practices listed above that mistreat all users of Uber.
  • Uber is an unregulated near-monopoly, so it can cut rates for drivers arbitrarily.

Drivers are starting to complain that they’re left with little money for their work.

Uber drivers are getting shafted; Uber can arbitrarily cut their pay, and they have to work 15 hours a day. Some are trying to unionize.

We should not accept the whitewash label of ‘sharing economy’ for companies like Uber. A more accurate term is ‘piecework subcontractor economy.’

It would be easy for a non-plutocratic government to prohibit this, and that’s what every country ought to do, unless/until every person gets an adequate basic income so people don’t need to be employed.•

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If the overall American economy continues to brighten over the next two years, particularly employment and wage growth, a couple of very different potential candidates for the Presidency almost surely have no chance: Mitt Romney and Elizabeth Warren. The former’s greatest claim, valid or not, is that he’s a money man who can turn things around; the latter is seen as a populist who can dismantle and reorganize a failed system. Should another recession occur, however, particularly a second Great Recession, protest candidates of all sorts are back on the table.

In “FT Predictions: The World in 2015,” Edward Luce answers the most obvious question about the next U.S. national election:

“Will a serious rival emerge to Hillary Clinton in 2015?

No. We will not know the name of the Republican nominee until 2016. Even then, he — there are no female hopefuls among the 20 or so names doing the rounds — will be so bruised that Mrs Clinton will begin the general election with a head start.

In the Democratic field, she will be challenged by one or two second-tier candidates, such as James Webb, the former Virginia senator, and Martin O’Malley, the outgoing governor of Maryland. But Mrs Clinton will keep her grip on the primaries. Her only real threat, Elizabeth Warren, the populist senator from Massachusetts, will decline to run in spite of strong urging from the liberal left. When it comes to it, Ms Warren will not want to stand in the path of the election of America’s first female president.”

 

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The main difference between the rich and the poor is that the rich have money. They aren’t any less likely to drink, use drugs or divorce than their less-bankrolled brethren, but they can paper over their failings.

My two biggest worries in life are getting sick and becoming homeless, and they’re not at all irrational fears. Everybody knows they can grow ill, but some seem unaware that they can go homeless. Nonsense. Or maybe the economic collapse has disabused us of this foolishness?

A companion to the great 1977 Atlantic article “The Gentle Art of Poverty” is “Falling,” William McPherson’s personal essay in the Hedgehog Review about his not-so-gentle decline into the ranks of the poor in modern America. The opening:

“The rich are all alike, to revise Tolstoy’s famous words, but the poor are poor in their own particular ways. 

Any reasonably intelligent reader could blow that generalization apart in the time it takes to write it. But as with most generalizations, a truth lies behind it. Ultimately, what binds the rich together is that they have more money, lots more. For one reason or another, the poor don’t have enough of it. But poverty doesn’t bind the poor together as much as wealth and the need to protect it bind the rich. If it did, we would hear the rattle of tumbrels in the streets. One hears mutterings, but the chains have not yet been shed.

I have some personal experience here. Like a lot of other people, I started life comfortably middle-class, maybe upper-middle class; now, like a lot of other people walking the streets of America today, I am poor. To put it directly, I have no money. Does this embarrass me? Of course, it embarrasses me—and a lot of other things as well. It’s humiliating to be poor, to be dependent on the kindness of family and friends and government subsidies. But it sure is an education.

Social classes are relative and definitions vary, but if money defines class, the sociologists would say I was not among the wretched of the earth but probably at the higher end of the lower classes. I’m not working class because I don’t have what most people consider a job. I’m a writer, although I don’t grind out the words the way I once did. Which is one reason I’m poor.”

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“Thank you for your service” is born as much of guilt as gratitude. Americans feel uncomfortable about the work done by our military men and women because the overwhelming majority of us will never know such burden, nor will anyone in our families. That disengagement makes it too easy to keep sending strangers to do our dirty work. (Would we have ever invaded Iraq for no good reason beyond enriching war contractors if the draft hadn’t been abolished?) There’s also a less-obvious price: Awkwardness about this grunt class we’ve created from other people’s children makes it difficult to speak critically and reform a military that often fails to achieve its goals. More skepticism about the purpose and priorities of our armed forces might be as good for those on the ground as the rest of us on the couch. An excerpt from James Fallows’ “The Tragedy of the American Military,” an Atlantic piece I’ll have to add to my “Great 2014 Nonfiction Articles” list:

“This reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military—we love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them—has become so familiar that we assume it is the American norm. But it is not. When Dwight D. Eisenhower, as a five-star general and the supreme commander, led what may have in fact been the finest fighting force in the history of the world, he did not describe it in that puffed-up way. On the eve of the D-Day invasion, he warned his troops, ‘Your task will not be an easy one,’ because ‘your enemy is well-trained, well-equipped, and battle-hardened.’ As president, Eisenhower’s most famous statement about the military was his warning in his farewell address of what could happen if its political influence grew unchecked.

At the end of World War II, nearly 10 percent of the entire U.S. population was on active military duty—which meant most able-bodied men of a certain age (plus the small number of women allowed to serve). Through the decade after World War II, when so many American families had at least one member in uniform, political and journalistic references were admiring but not awestruck. Most Americans were familiar enough with the military to respect it while being sharply aware of its shortcomings, as they were with the school system, their religion, and other important and fallible institutions.

Now the American military is exotic territory to most of the American public. As a comparison: A handful of Americans live on farms, but there are many more of them than serve in all branches of the military. (Well over 4 million people live on the country’s 2.1 million farms. The U.S. military has about 1.4 million people on active duty and another 850,000 in the reserves.) The other 310 million–plus Americans ‘honor’ their stalwart farmers, but generally don’t know them. So too with the military. Many more young Americans will study abroad this year than will enlist in the military—nearly 300,000 students overseas, versus well under 200,000 new recruits. As a country, America has been at war nonstop for the past 13 years. As a public, it has not. A total of about 2.5 million Americans, roughly three-quarters of 1 percent, served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any point in the post-9/11 years, many of them more than once.”

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Margaret Atwood, a deservedly towering literary figure, just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. One question about the prophetic nature of her 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale:

Question:

A lot of Dystopian Fiction from decades ago have had their fears in some ways realized in the modern day:

  • Fahrenheit 451 and the way modern people are glued to their forms of entertainment via smartphones, iPads, computers and television (and as a result there has been a very big turn towards soundbyte-simplified political and social discourse).
  • 1984 and the ubiquitous nature of government surveillance. People just shrug it off as expected with each new NSA scandal.

In what ways do you think the Handmaid’s Tale has been prophetic? What things are you sad to see come to fruition with regard to women’s rights and religious extremism in the Western/American world that you tried to warn us about?

Margaret Atwood:

Hmm, that’s a snake pit. The HM Tale was practically a meme during the last presidential election, due to the Four Unwise Republicans who opened their mouths and said what was on their minds in relation to Unreal Rape and the ability of a raped woman’s body to somehow Just Not Get Pregnant. (Tell that to the all the raped Bangladeshi women who hanged themselves at the Rape Camp where they were kept.) At this time, several states have enacted laws that make it quite dangerous for women to be pregnant in them, because if they lose the baby, or are even suspected of ThoughtCrime — being maybe About to lose the baby — they can be tried for some form of murder or attempted murder. That is, if the New York Times is to be believed. There will be ongoing contention in this area, because people hate to be forced to choose between two things, both of which they consider bad. Stay tuned. If motherhood really Were respected, of course, mothers-to-be would be offered free housing, proper nutrition, and ongoing care and support once the baby was born. But I don’t see any states standing ready to put that in place. With the poverty rates what they are, there would be a lineup for miles.

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Airbnb doesn’t have to be a scorched-earth part of the Peer Economy à la Uber. With hotel rooms often in short supply in many cities, especially in peak-travel seasons, the company could be a nice complement. That hasn’t been the case so far, however, in New York, a city in which the majority of the rentals are reportedly illegal, large-scale landlords keeping their properties off the rental market, going with Airbnb instead, artificially inflating the cost of available apartments. Such practices serve landlords and travelers at the expense of actual New Yorkers. Time will tell if the service can grow beyond these infractions. From an interview with Brian Chesky, the company’s chief, by Tim Bradshaw of the Financial Times:

“Part of Airbnb’s appeal is that each property is different; a backlash against mass production is core to its appeal when compared to that of traditional identikit chain hotels. It can also be considerably cheaper: typically half as much for a private room on Airbnb as one in a hotel, according to one study last year by Priceonomics. Yet it is not just price-sensitive travellers who are switching from hotels to Airbnb: luxury properties are also available, including a Las Vegas penthouse for $1,900 a night, a $1,669 18th-century Umbrian hilltop villa and a 1,000-acre farm in Brazil, with six bedrooms, costing $3,778 a night. With about one million properties to choose from, Airbnb now far exceeds the biggest hotel groups; InterContinental Hotels (IHG), the world’s largest by volume, has close to 700,000 rooms.

Along with Uber, the driver-hailing app, Airbnb is at the forefront of the so-called ‘sharing economy’ — a catch-all term for the growing collection of businesses that are providing additional liquidity to traditional markets by making use of underused assets (Uber for cars, Airbnb for homes).

Airbnb hosts can face problems, such as damages to their property, which led to the company introducing a $1m insurance policy per home after a particularly notorious incident in 2011. Other hosts have returned to find their homes used for sex parties. The company has, though, persuaded millions of consumers that — thanks to its community rating system and identity verification — they can trust Airbnb and each other. However, convincing lawmakers that its short-term leasing service is entirely legal has been a tougher challenge.

The most high-profile case involving regulation has been in New York, one of Airbnb’s biggest markets, where a campaign by Eric Schneiderman, the city’s attorney-general, against short-term letting websites led to a deal when the company handed over details of thousands of listings that the authorities claimed were operating illegally and failing to pay appropriate taxes.”

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Edward Snowden is trying but not traitorous. For all his klutziness, I think he’s a whistleblower in the truest sense, though I doubt his revelations–if that’s what they were–will have much impact. The tools at hand and those to come mean surveillance by the government and leaks by individuals are a permanent part of the landscape. It’s the new abnormal. A discussion of the Internet’s power as oppressor and liberator from a very good interview with Snowden by Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen of the Nation:

The Nation:

This makes us wonder whether or not the Internet actually enhances freedom of speech, and thus democracy? Maybe instead it abets invasion of privacy, reckless opinions, misinformation. What are the Internet’s pluses and minuses for the kind of society that you and The Nation seek?

Edward Snowden:

I would say the first key concept is that, in terms of technological and communication progress in human history, the Internet is basically the equivalent of electronic telepathy. We can now communicate all the time through our little magic smartphones with people who are anywhere, all the time, constantly learning what they’re thinking, talking about, exchanging messages. And this is a new capability even within the context of the Internet. When people talk about Web 2.0, they mean that when the Internet, the World Wide Web, first became popular, it was one way only. People would publish their websites; other people would read them. But there was no real back and forth other than through e-mail. Web 2.0 was what they called the collaborative web—Facebook, Twitter, the social media. What we’re seeing now, or starting to see, is an atomization of the Internet community. Before, everybody went only to a few sites; now we’ve got all these boutiques. We’ve got crazy little sites going up against established media behemoths. And increasingly we’re seeing these ultra-partisan sites getting larger and larger readerships because people are self-selecting themselves into communities. I describe it as tribalism because they’re very tightly woven communities. Lack of civility is part of it, because that’s how Internet tribes behave. We see this more and more in electoral politics, which have become increasingly poisonous.

All this is a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it helps people establish what they value; they understand the sort of ideas they identify with. The curse is that they aren’t challenged in their views. The Internet becomes an echo chamber. Users don’t see the counterarguments. And I think we’re going to see a move away from that, because young people—digital natives who spend their life on the 
Internet—get saturated. It’s like a fashion trend, and becomes a sign of a lack of sophistication. On the other hand, the Internet is there to fill needs that people have for information and socialization. We get this sort of identification thing going on nowadays because it’s a very fractious time. We live in a time of troubles.”

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As the Washington Post enters its Jeff Bezos era, which hopefully will be better and can’t be much worse than what preceded it, here’s a 1976 making-of featurette for Alan J.Pakula’s excellent adaptation of All the President’s Men, which recalls a whole different eon in American journalism. It’s not a media infrastructure that should be artificially preserved–nor could it–but its contributions were vital.

In the short film, Bob Woodward guesses that eventually the identity of Deep Throat would become known. Surprisingly, even though this was the nation’s burning question for years, its 2005 reveal had almost no traction. Ask people walking down any U.S. street to come up with the name W. Mark Felt, and they probably wouldn’t be able to. It’s like that part of our history has mysteriously returned to the shadows. 

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The heinous slayings of two NYPD police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, closes our year with a real heartbreaker. A lot of the reactions to the senseless killings were awful and partisan, with one stirring exception. A few notes:

  • If Bill O’Reilly thinks Mayor de Blasio should resign from office for his tepid remarks about NYPD and race, for showing concern for his dark-skinned son, I wonder when the Fox personality will step down for cheerleading us into the Iraq War, which got 4,500 uniformed Americans killed and many more permanently injured for no reason. 
  • Rudy Giuliani, who was another of the most outspoken champions of rushing our soldiers to needless death in Iraq, believes that President Obama waged a “campaign of anti-police propaganda” for the very cautious remarks he has made about American racial divisions. What he is essentially doing is telling African-Americans that they have to shut up about the raw deal they’ve received in this country and that they continue to receive in mercifully less-awful ways. If you want to hear voices that were more puzzled about Garner’s killing than Obama’s, listen to conservatives like George W. Bush, Charles Krauthammer and John Boehner. They all thought there was something amiss. There was, of course.
  • Giuliani worrying about someone else creating an aura of danger is laughable. When he was New York City’s Mayor, he sent in helicopters to break up an African-American youth march in Harlem the second it was legislated to end, just because some of the speakers were objectionable. When he put whirring blades above the heads of children out of spite, he showed how much concern he had for their lives. 
  • Bernie Kerik, the felon, was always a fake tough guy and phony law-and-order figure. No respectable news organization should be asking for his opinion on these matters.
  • As long as we have two systems of policing and justice in America, we will have significant racial strife. Giuliani and the others can claim law enforcement has been color blind, but that’s just not the case. When you’re more likely to be harassed and arrested because of your skin color–and the statistics bear that out–we aren’t any safer, just more divided.
  • Emerald Garner, whose father was choked to death for allegedly selling loose cigarettes and not immediately submitting to arrest, went to the murdered officers’ memorial, putting aside her own grief and laying a wreath in their honor. This may have been the most beautiful gesture of the year. Watching an act like hers, it’s tempting to think perhaps there’s hope for all of us, everyone.

From an analysis of the bigger picture of American law enforcement by Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic:

“The idea of ‘police reform’ obscures the task. Whatever one thinks of the past half-century of criminal-justice policy, it was not imposed on Americans by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are, at the very least, byproducts of democratic will. Likely they are much more. It is often said that it is difficult to indict and convict police officers who abuse their power. It is comforting to think of these acquittals and non-indictments as contrary to American values. But it is just as likely that they reflect American values. The three most trusted institutions in America are the military, small business, and the police.

To challenge the police is to challenge the American people, and the problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that we are majoritarian pigs. When the police are brutalized by people, we are outraged because we are brutalized. By the same turn, when the police brutalize people, we are forgiving because ultimately we are really just forgiving ourselves. Power, decoupled from responsibility, is what we seek. The manifestation of this desire is broad. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani responded to the killing of Michael Brown by labeling it a ‘significant exception’ and wondering why weren’t talking about ‘black on black crime.’ Giuliani was not out on a limb. The charge of insufficient outrage over ‘black on black crime’ has been endorsed, at varying points, by everyone from the NAACP to Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson to Giuliani’s archenemy Al Sharpton.

Implicit in this notion is that outrage over killings by the police should not be any greater than killings by ordinary criminals. But when it comes to outrage over killings of the police, the standard is different. Ismaaiyl Brinsley began his rampage by shooting his girlfriend—an act of both black-on-black crime and domestic violence. On Saturday, Officers Liu and Ramos were almost certainly joined in death by some tragic number of black people who were shot down by their neighbors in the street. The killings of Officers Liu and Ramos prompt national comment. The killings of black civilians do not. When it is convenient to award qualitative value to murder, we do so. When it isn’t, we do not. We are outraged by violence done to police, because it is violence done to all of us as a society. In the same measure, we look away from violence done by the police, because the police are not the true agents of the violence. We are.”

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In a Guardian article, Owen Jones interviews French economist Thomas Piketty, who labels François Hollande’s tenure a “disaster,” discusses the incredible inequity of Middle Eastern finances and comments on the virtues of both the free market and of revolution. An excerpt: 

“The west’s general relationship with the Middle East – ‘the most unequal region in the world,’ he says – is one that troubles him, not least because it exposes grotesque inequalities. ‘Take Egypt: the total budget for education for 100 million people is 100 times less than the oil revenue for a few dozen people in Qatar. And then in London and in Paris we are happy to have these people buying football clubs and buying apartments, and then we are surprised that the youths in the Middle East don’t take very seriously our democracy and social justice.’

Although some on the right have assailed him as a dangerous red, I put it to him that he is not as radical as he is portrayed. He has written that he was ‘vaccinated for life against the conventional but lazy rhetoric of anti-capitalism'; he opposed the introduction of a 35-hour week in France, and the Wall Street Journal even called him ‘a neoliberal economist who sees many virtues in market forces but favours government redistribution to smooth out some of the market’s excesses.’ He looks bemused. ‘I don’t live in the cold war. Some people maybe still live in the cold war, but this is their problem, not mine.’ He unashamedly believes in ‘market forces.’ arguing there is no ‘war of religion’ between left and right in the modern era. But he defends his radicalism, arguing that a global wealth tax makes ‘property temporary, rather than permanent,’ which he describes as ‘a permanent revolution, a very substantial change to the traditional capitalist system.’

Though Piketty supported François Hollande’s presidential bid in 2012, he is contemptuous of the French president. ‘He’s been a disaster,’ is his unequivocal response, clarifying that he was ‘more against Sarkozy than [he] was for Hollande.'”

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The Cuban embargo was a bust, financially and politically. Of course, the idea now being bandied about, that trade and cultural exchange with America will reform a nation with dicey leadership, certainly is in ignorance of the facts, as Russia has proven. Such strategies must be decided on a case-by-case basis, and it certainly would seem that openness is currently the right tack to take with Cuba.

One interesting footnote: In retrospect, Cuba’s inscrutable decision last month allowing 19-year-old baseball prodigy Yoan Moncada to freely leave the island may have quietly announced the new relationship with the U.S. before President Obama did.

The opening of a 1960 Economist article which measured the then-new embargo just right:

“If Hurricane Nikita has subsided, the Fidel squall blows gustily. On Wednes­day, the foundering relationship between the United States and Cuba was all but swamped by the State Department’s announcement of the prohibition of exports to Cuba. Briefly, the embargo, which has been hinted at for some weeks, will affect all exports except medicines and some food. Cuba’s purchases from the United States have lately amounted to something less than $300 million a year. This is roughly half what they were before the revolution; and one of the ways in which the State Department justifies the ban is that Cuba has discriminated against American goods. If every dollar-short country that has discriminated against American goods had been treated in this way, the United States would not have much trade left.

The embargo is bound to have two immediate and harmful results: it to offend a great many Latin Americans who, however much they disapprove of Castro, dislike even more the use of economic pressure for political ends. It will also, as Mr Mueller, the US Secretary of Commerce seemed to admit on Wednesday, push Cuba further into Moscow’s arms. Its utility will depend on the soundness of the State Department’s conviction that if Cuba is squeezed hard enough, Dr Castro will be forced out by his own people. Certainly, in the last few weeks, internal opposition to the regime has grown more active. Small groups of guerrilla fighters in central and eastern Cuba have been captured, and a number of rebels, among them three Americans, have been executed after military trials. But far from helping an incipient opposition, the United States’ embargo may well have the opposite effect. Dr Castro’s supporters are already in an embattled frame of mind, which an atmosphere of siege can only stiffen.”

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As The Colbert Report fades to black on Comedy Central, it’s a good time to recall that the year before “truthiness” laughingly made its way into the lexicon in 2005, Ron Suskind introduced the concept into the American consciousness in one of the best pieces of political journalism in memory, his jaw-dropping New York Times Magazine article, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush.” So inconceivable was the story’s idea that our government was being run by something other than a “reality-based community,” that those in power were operating in willful denial of facts, that many questioned Suskind’s work, but it all, sadly, turned out to be true, so true. Two excerpts follow.

______________________________

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Who besides guys like me are part of the reality-based community? Many of the other elected officials in Washington, it would seem. A group of Democratic and Republican members of Congress were called in to discuss Iraq sometime before the October 2002 vote authorizing Bush to move forward. A Republican senator recently told Time Magazine that the president walked in and said: ”Look, I want your vote. I’m not going to debate it with you.” When one of the senators began to ask a question, Bush snapped, ”Look, I’m not going to debate it with you.”

The 9/11 commission did not directly address the question of whether Bush exerted influence over the intelligence community about the existence of weapons of mass destruction. That question will be investigated after the election, but if no tangible evidence of undue pressure is found, few officials or alumni of the administration whom I spoke to are likely to be surprised. ”If you operate in a certain way — by saying this is how I want to justify what I’ve already decided to do, and I don’t care how you pull it off — you guarantee that you’ll get faulty, one-sided information,” Paul O’Neill, who was asked to resign his post of treasury secretary in December 2002, said when we had dinner a few weeks ago. ”You don’t have to issue an edict, or twist arms, or be overt.”

In a way, the president got what he wanted: a National Intelligence Estimate on W.M.D. that creatively marshaled a few thin facts, and then Colin Powell putting his credibility on the line at the United Nations in a show of faith. That was enough for George W. Bush to press forward and invade Iraq. As he told his quasi-memoirist, Bob Woodward, in ”Plan of Attack”: ”Going into this period, I was praying for strength to do the Lord’s will. . . . I’m surely not going to justify the war based upon God. Understand that. Nevertheless, in my case, I pray to be as good a messenger of his will as possible.”

Machiavelli’s oft-cited line about the adequacy of the perception of power prompts a question. Is the appearance of confidence as important as its possession? Can confidence — true confidence — be willed? Or must it be earned?

George W. Bush, clearly, is one of history’s great confidence men.

______________________________

There is one story about Bush’s particular brand of certainty I am able to piece together and tell for the record.

In the Oval Office in December 2002, the president met with a few ranking senators and members of the House, both Republicans and Democrats. In those days, there were high hopes that the United States-sponsored ”road map” for the Israelis and Palestinians would be a pathway to peace, and the discussion that wintry day was, in part, about countries providing peacekeeping forces in the region. The problem, everyone agreed, was that a number of European countries, like France and Germany, had armies that were not trusted by either the Israelis or Palestinians. One congressman — the Hungarian-born Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress — mentioned that the Scandinavian countries were viewed more positively. Lantos went on to describe for the president how the Swedish Army might be an ideal candidate to anchor a small peacekeeping force on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sweden has a well-trained force of about 25,000. The president looked at him appraisingly, several people in the room recall.

”I don’t know why you’re talking about Sweden,” Bush said. ”They’re the neutral one. They don’t have an army.”

Lantos paused, a little shocked, and offered a gentlemanly reply: ”Mr. President, you may have thought that I said Switzerland. They’re the ones that are historically neutral, without an army.” Then Lantos mentioned, in a gracious aside, that the Swiss do have a tough national guard to protect the country in the event of invasion.

Bush held to his view. ”No, no, it’s Sweden that has no army.”

The room went silent, until someone changed the subject.”•

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Russian oligarchs are generally thought to tacitly approve of Vladimir Putin despite his devastating recent impact on the economy, having been so enriched by his chronic kleptocracy, but that’s not necessarily so of former oligarchs. Once one of the wealthiest people in the world, the erstwhile oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 on charges of fraud and later jailed for nine years. It may be difficult to imagine big business in post-Soviet Russia free of fraud, but Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment was clearly motivated by Putin’s political gamesmanship. Now a free man with a much-diminished-but-still-impressive bankroll, the petrol plutocrat these days identifies more with his recent political-prisoner status and speaks openly of Putin’s ouster. From Neil Buckley at the Financial Times:

“Then he makes a startling admission, telling me that before his arrest, he had — as was rumoured at the time — held talks with deputies from Putin’s ruling United Russia party and other political groups about constitutional changes were Putin to step down as president in 2008, at the end of his second term. The idea was to make it ‘safe’ for Putin to leave office, by reducing the power of any future president and increasing that of parliament. Khodorkovsky, who was briefly a deputy energy minister in the Yeltsin era, says the politicians he was talking to suggested that he should be interim prime minister, to conduct that reform. As he tells it, he was ready to do so, if the next president wanted him.

Did Putin know about this? Was this why he was arrested?

‘Putin knew, but I don’t know if [my arrest] was because of this. It was a whole set of reasons. Of course, he was afraid. He feared I might organise a revolution. You know, I didn’t have that kind of idea then. But I do now.’

He is not planning an actual revolution, he quickly adds: his supporters in Russia do not want it, and it would be dangerous since the country is not, he believes, ready for political change.

Russia is, however, undergoing a severe economic crisis. Combined with a plunging oil price, western sanctions in response to Russian intervention in Ukraine have helped bring about a rapidly devaluing rouble, rising inflation and recession. Some suggest that Putin, despite Ukraine-boosted approval ratings, could fall victim to the problems.

A few days after our conversation, the Russian currency goes into an even more serious meltdown. But Khodorkovsky cautions against over-estimating the impact of the crisis, saying Russia’s reserves should be sufficient to get through its difficulties. A popular uprising is possible but unlikely; the street protests of 2011 proved shortlived.

‘Economic crisis won’t decide anything by itself, unless society understands that there’s an alternative,’ he says. ‘And that’s what we’re trying to show people.’

If things continue to deteriorate, the Russian president could, says Khodorkovsky, be forced from power in various ways, including a palace coup by his entourage. ‘We don’t know of a single authoritarian regime that is eternal, still less one that’s not based on any ideology. There’s the question of whether we’ll live to see this or not, but there’s a chance we will.’ He laughs.”

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The Peer Economy, great for inventory-less intermediaries and (sometimes) consumers, is less wonderful for workers. “Independent contractor” and “freelancer” are often just descriptives for those without security or benefits. When service is cheap and convenient, someone is likely being cheapened and inconvenienced. Since this popular new part of the economy isn’t going to be outlawed (nor should it, really), political answers are required. From John Gapper at Financial Times:

“The growth of the freelance economy brings two challenges.

First, some freelance jobs are really cheap forms of direct employment. Companies call workers ‘independent contractor’ to avoid paying employment taxes and indirect benefits while treating them as employees — they must wear uniforms, obey rules and so on. Many are low-paid workers, such as delivery drivers or warehouse stackers.

This is legally dubious, since many countries impose laws against sham self-employment. In August, the US Appeals Court ruled against FedEx for classifying delivery drivers in California as contractors when they were in effect direct employees. One judge quoted Abraham Lincoln’s quip that calling a dog’s tail a leg does not turn the animal into a five-legged dog.

Many sharing-economy companies, including Uber, classify the providers of their services as contractors and insist on them, for example, driving their own cars. Some Uber drivers in the US have mounted a legal challenge but the sharing economy is too new for the principle to have been tested.

Second, even if workers are self-employed, the company or platform that routes work and orders to them could choose to offer more than the minimum benefits. Employers traditionally provide health and pension plans, as well as training, to create a productive, reliable workforce. It is more expensive but, if it pays off in the standard of service they offer, then it will help them to beat lower-quality competitors.

If companies abdicate the role, then society needs to devise other ways to offer long-term support and security to the self-employed.

 

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In addition to wealth inequality in America, there also seems to be haves and have-nots in terms of courage. Ever since 9/11, we’ve wanted to be swaddled and protected, and sure, we should be vigilant, but how about those of us who are civilians show some degree of the bravery we ask of members of our military? Our fears led us into wrong-minded war in Iraq, horrid torture and a surveillance state. How has that made us any better?

Sony’s capitulation to cyberterrorists is the latest confounding example of our state of panic. From Jason Koebler’s Vice interview with security expert Peter W. Singer:

Question: 

Let’s just cut to the chase—Are these hackers terrorists? Are they cyberterrorists?

Peter W. Singer: ​

There’s two layers to it now. There’s the definition of terrorism and the reaction to it, which has been a combination of being both insipid and encouraging to future acts.

The first is what has already happened. Sony has labeled what happened to it as cyberterrorism and various media ​have also described it as cyber terrorism. The reality is having your scripts posted online does not constitute a terrorist act. The FBI describes it as an ‘act that results in violence.’ Losing your next James Bond movie script that talks about violence is not the same thing as an act of violence.

What has happened to Sony already does not meet the definition. They’re saying ‘This is an act of war.’ We’re not going to war with North Korea over this act just because Angelina Jolie is now mad at a Sony executive. Acts of war have a different standard.

Literally, we are in the realm of beyond stupid with this.

Question:

And then we have the actual threats of violence.

Peter W. Singer: ​

​This same group threatened yesterday 9/11-style incidents at any movie theatre that chose to show the movie. Here, we need to distinguish between threat and capability—the ability to steal gossipy emails from a not-so-great protected computer network is not the same thing as being able to carry out physical, 9/11-style attacks in 18,000 locations simultaneously. I can’t believe I’m saying this. I can’t believe I have to say this.

This group has not shown the capability to do that. Sony is rueing any association it has with the movie right now. We are not in the realm of 9/11. Did movie chains look at the reality of the threat? Or did the movie theater chains utterly cave in? This is beyond the wildest dreams of these attackers.”

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Fidel Castro visited by Ed Sullivan in 1959 after the triumphant revolution, promising a democratic Cuba that never materialized, though perhaps he was just pacing himself.

Things fall apart, sure, but which nations are most likely to? In “The Calm Before the Storm,” a Foreign Affairs piece by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Gregory F. Treverton, the authors use five criteria to assess which states are most likely to crumble: a centralized governing system, an undiversified economy, excessive debt and leverage, a lack of political variability, and no history of surviving past shocks. (I wonder further if kleptocracy has had historical influence on such upheavals.) It’s an interesting thought experiment, though I think it only works as a rough outline. I mean, our new friend Cuba has long been on the wrong side of a number of those measurements, but that country hasn’t cratered. An excerpt:

“When it comes to overall fragility, countries can vary from exhibiting no signs of fragility to being very fragile.


Saudi Arabia is an easy call: it is extremely dependent on oil, has no political variability, and is highly centralized. Its oil wealth and powerful government have papered over the splits between its ethnoreligious units, with the Shiite minority living where the oil is. For the same reason, Bahrain should be considered extremely fragile, mainly on account of its repressed Shiite majority.


Egypt should also be considered fragile, given its only slight and cosmetic recovery from the chaos of the revolution and its highly centralized (and bureaucratic) government. So should Venezuela, which has a highly centralized political system, little political variability, an oil-based economy, and no record of surviving a massive shock. Some of the same problems apply to Russia. It remains highly dependent on oil and gas production and has a highly centralized political system. Its one redeeming factor is that it surmounted the difficult transition from the Soviet era. For that reason, it probably lies somewhere between moderately fragile and fragile.
 …

Then there is the China puzzle. China’s stunning economic growth makes its future hard to assess. The country has recuperated remarkably well from the major shocks of the Maoist period. That era, however, ended nearly four decades ago, and so the recovery is hardly a recent comeback and thus less certain to protect against future shocks. What’s more, China’s political system is highly centralized, its economy is dependent on exports to the West, and its government has been on a borrowing binge as of late, making the country more vulnerable to slowdowns in both domestic and foreign growth. Are the gains from past turmoil big enough to offset the weakness from debt and centralization? The most likely answer is no—that what gains China has accrued by learning from trauma are dwarfed by its burdens. With each passing year, those lessons recede further into the past, and the prospects of a Black Swan of Beijing loom larger. But the sooner that event happens, the better China will emerge in the long run.”

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China now has the world’s largest economy, but it came at a steep price: Inhaling has become a danger, the atmosphere so toxic. The architecture has begun to alter to accommodate this new reality, bubbles and domes dotting downtowns which seem like parts of Martian cities only survivable under cover. The opening of Oliver Wainwright’s Guardian report “Inside Beijing’s Airpocalypse“:

“The scene could be straight from a science-fiction film: a vision of everyday life, but with one jarring difference that makes you realise you’re on another planet, or in a distant future era.

A sports class is in full swing on the outskirts of Beijing. Herds of children charge after a football on an artificial pitch, criss-crossed with colourful markings and illuminated in high definition by the glare of bright white floodlights. It all seems normal enough – except for the fact that this familiar playground scene is taking place beneath a gigantic inflatable dome.

‘It’s a bit of a change having to go through an airlock on the way to class,’ says Travis Washko, director of sports at the British School of Beijing. ‘But the kids love it, and parents can now rest assured their children are playing in a safe environment.’

The reason for the dome becomes apparent when you step outside. A grey blanket hangs in the sky, swamping the surroundings in a de-saturated haze and almost obscuring the buildings across the street. A red flag hangs above the school’s main entrance to warn it’s a no-go day: stay indoors at all costs. The airpocalypse has arrived.

Beijing’s air quality has long been a cause of concern, but the effects of its extreme levels of pollution on daily life can now be seen in physical changes to the architecture of the city. Buildings and spaces are being reconfigured and daily routines modified to allow normal life to go on beneath the toxic shroud.”

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