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It’s hard to know what to make of Bob Woodward, the less talented half of the twentieth-century’s most famous American reporting duo, in the new millennium. 

Like a lot of educated boneheads, he’s been an apologist for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, trusting the deeply dishonest Bush Administrations’ claim of Weapons of Mass Destruction, despite a real paucity of evidence. In 2013, he claimed the Obama Adminsitration had “threatened” him, though this seemed to be more fanciful than fact.

In addition to these two ass-backwards moments, during his 2008 appearance on 60 Minutes to promote his book The War Within, the journalist hinted at knowing about a mysterious new weapon developed by the U.S. military, one that was able to melt buses filled with terrorists from great distances. An excerpt:

“This is very sensitive and very top secret, but there are secret operational capabilities that have been developed by the military to locate, target and kill leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq, insurgent leaders, renegade militia leaders. That is one of the true breakthroughs,” Woodward told Pelley.

“But what are we talking about here? It’s some kind of surveillance? Some kind of targeted way of taking out just the people that you’re looking for?” Pelley asked.

“I’d love to go through the details, but I’m not going to,” Woodward replied…. “If you were an al-Qaida leader … and you knew about what they were able to do, you’d get your ass outta town.”

It sounded to viewers like America had developed some sort of death ray, though it was probably something less dramatic. Who’s to say at this point with Woodward?

· · ·

In the early 1920s, an erstwhile serious British inventor named Harry Grindell-Matthews made a Tesla-ish claim, saying he’d created a death ray that had been perfected at the expense of rats. He was squirrely about demos, however, traveling to France and then America to keep one step ahead of the skeptics. For some reason, journalists of the era decided to support him against military and scientific establishments that were unconvinced by his assertions–and rightly so. 

An article in the July 20, 1924 Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the sensational claims.


From 1924: “The Grindell-Matthews Death Ray, in the future, may control the destiny of the world.”

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Do you remember when Thomas Friedman wanted America to mouth-rape the Middle East?

There are those moments when you hear a talking head on TV say something so stupendously wrong-minded that it’s stunning. Since most of cable news is aimed at attention-grabbing shock, it’s not easy to stand out as a colossal bonehead, but it happens occasionally.

In 2010, Friedman’s op-ed piece in the New York Times tried to convince amnesiac readers that he had been in favor of the Iraq War because he hoped it would bring about democracy in that nation, one that would be supported and sustained by Iraqis themselves.

But he had a very different rationale in 2003 for his loud urging of an American invasion. That was when the columnist and best-selling author guested on the Charlie Rose Show to explain why the U.S. needed to go to war. The comments still stand out to me for their irrationality, immaturity and immorality. Every time Friedman tries to revise his reasons for being an Iraq War cheerleader, these statements should be brought up. An excerpt:

We needed to go over there, basically take out a very big stick right in the heart of that world and burst that bubble, and there was only one way to do it.

What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad and basically saying, ‘Which part of this sentence don’t you understand?’ You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna to let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This.

We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That’s the real truth.•

Friedman has now found a new use for our troops, none of whom happens to be his own children: participation in the invasion and occupation of Syria. In his latest column, the pundit details the chaos of the Trump White House which, early last week, loaned credibility to the Assad regime despite its chemical weapon attacks on its people, before deciding to bomb the country later in the week after fresh chemical offensives, which likely were encouraged by the Administration’s remarks of acceptance. Friedman wants to put that facacta Oval Office in charge of an occupation that will likely require thousands of our military personnel, even though it may have colluded with Russia to disrupt our election and certainly seems to suspiciously obsequious to the Kremlin.

Perhaps we should instead just open a McDonald’s in Aleppo so we can all enjoy everlasting peace?

From Friedman:

If you’re looking for a culprit for why America has refused to intervene in Syria, you have to look both to your left and to your right.

“The only obstacle to putting real U.S. military leverage into Syria is democracy in America,” explained the foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum, author of “Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era.” “The American public simply does not want to spend the blood and treasure to produce what would probably be a less awful but still not good outcome in Syria.” And that is a byproduct of the failed George W. Bush interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Alas, though, I now think doing nothing is a mistake. Just letting Assad keep trying to restore control over all of Syria will mean endless massacres. A negotiated power-sharing solution is impossible; there is no trust.

The least bad solution is a partition of Syria and the creation of a primarily Sunni protected area — protected by an international force, including, if necessary, some U.S. troops. That should at least stop the killing — and the refugee flows that are fueling a populist-nationalist backlash all across the European Union.•

The opening of “Tom Friedman Is Calling for an Invasion of Syria. Trump Should Run the Other Way,” by Stephen M. Walt in Foreign Policy:

In many ways, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman personifies the glib id of the American foreign-policy establishment. Like most members of the foreign-policy “Blob,” he thinks almost everything that happens anywhere is a vital interest of the United States, and is therefore something for which American blood and treasure should be spilled if necessary. Like most Americans, he thinks our country always acts from noble motives, even if the results are (repeatedly) ignoble. Like many U.S. leaders, he rarely acknowledges his own mistakes. If his advice gets followed and things go wrong, then somebody else must have screwed up (like those incompetent Bushies who bungled the occupation of Iraq, or those ungrateful Iraqis who didn’t realize what a wonderful gift we had given them). And instead of learning from experience, he makes the same analytical mistakes over and over again. Hmm. Sounds like some very powerful countries I know.

Case in point: his column in Wednesday’s New York Times discussing the dilemmas President Donald Trump faces in Syria. Friedman correctly points out that a chemical attack by forces allied with President Bashar al-Assad has exposed Trump’s naiveté about the Syrian conflict. And he may even be right in suggesting that the Trump administration’s poorly orchestrated statements about tolerating the Assad regime — made devoid of any diplomatic context or as part of a genuine quid pro quo — may have encouraged Assad to think he could escalate the war with impunity. In criticizing Trump, Friedman is on firm ground.

Now that Trump has ordered cruise missile strikes on the airbase from which the chemical strikes were launched, you might think the president has learned quickly and shown how “flexible” he is (a point Trump emphasized in his own remarks to the press on Thursday). The problem is that these attacks are a purely symbolic act devoid of real strategic significance. They are the Trumpian equivalent of Bill Clinton’s cruise missiles strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. They might deter Assad from further chemical weapons use, but they don’t alter the situation on the ground, don’t make Syrian civilians significantly safer, and don’t move us closer to a solution.

Friedman, however, has the answer. His advice — surprise, surprise! — is straight from the same Establishment playbook that has done so much to screw up the Middle East over the past two-plus decades.•

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Philip Zimbardo, the head warden of the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, a dress rehearsal of sorts for Abu Ghraib, has misgivings about his most infamous research, which featured 18 college-aged male students playing jailers and inmates in a scene that rapidly deteriorated, acknowledging mistakes were made. He still would do it all over again, however.

While the cruel exercise reminded us that humans, under just the right (or, more accurately, wrong) circumstances, can forget their decency, a species that needed to receive that memo just 26 years after the fall of Nazi Germany may be too plagued by a short-term memory to survive its worst instincts. 

In his more recent incarnation, Zimbardo has argued that technology is diminishing males, making guys receptacles for “porn, video games and Ritalin.” Sounds dubious. I don’t know that the geeks at Comic-Con are really what mainly ails us.

I suppose two examples, even such outsize ones, don’t equal a trend, but it would seem Zimbardo is very distrustful of young males, consistently believing them ready foot soldiers for one sort of evil or another. There’s some truth there, but it’s usually their elders who truly drive large-scale violence, conjuring up the sordid scenarios. 

In a Salon Q&A conducted by Chauncey DeVega, Zimbardo considers the danger of America’s resting bitch face, Donald Trump, a Simon Cowell-ish strongman who would undo democracy itself if permitted. The psychologist makes a lot of good points, though his rationale for maintaining that he would still go forward with the SPE if he had it to do all over again is positively Trump-ish: “It’s the most widely known experiment in psychological history,” he points out in defense.

An excerpt:

Question:

You are perhaps most well known for the Stanford Prison Experiment. In hindsight, how do you feel about it?  

Philip Zimbardo:

It’s the most widely known experiment in psychological history. I would do it again. Only I would not play the role of superintendent because in that role you get sucked into it. It was me and two students working around the clock. The prison is breaking down every day. There are parents visiting, parole board hearings, police and prison chaplains coming. There’s escape rumors. It was overwhelming. I know I could not have gone another week.    

Question:

What lessons do you think the Stanford Prison Experiment holds for American society at present?

Philip Zimbardo:

What was dramatic about the study was the rapidity and ease with which intelligent college students who were otherwise normal and healthy followed their roles as prisoners and guards. We gave them no clue of what it means to be a guard. You know, in our culture prison guards are people who have power over prisoners who have less power — except that prisoners have the power of numbers. Guards have to convince prisoners that even though there are fewer of them, they have the weapons; they have other means of power to suppress them. You make them feel helpless and ineffectual.

Question:

What scares you right now? What gives you hope? 

Philip Zimbardo:

Despite all the Trumpism, I’m optimistic about human nature that right will prevail over wrong. Heroism will prevail over evil. For me, again as an educator, it’s really important that teachers have to be anti-Trump in their own political mentality, their own morality. Whether or not they can present those political views in class, they can certainly prevent the Trump political views from being espoused. When kids act Trump-like, they can stop it cold. They can stop Trump-like bullying. They could call it for what it is.

I’m optimistic that Trump and his ideals will go away and people will laugh about it in the near future while saying, How could we have been so stupid?•

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Futurists often speak of an approaching if indeterminate time when we’ll enjoy radical abundance, with 3D printers spitting out cars and homes affordable to all and on-demand EVs charging pennies to ferry us around. That could happen.

Of course, we already have radical abundance, more than enough resources to feed, clothe, home and educate every person on the planet. Distribution, however, has been a problem. And the greater the bounty, the worse it seems to be divided.

Home Deus author Yuval Harari recently predicted to MarketWatch that the “greatest industry of the 21st century will probably be to upgrade human beings.”

This comment is several things:

  1. Probably not true.
  2. Quietly hopeful.
  3. Very worrisome.

On number 2: It suggests we’ll get to a much higher plane of technology, a time when, for better or worse, we can control evolution, which would mean we haven’t yet destroyed ourselves with more rudimentary tools or the emergent ones.

On number 3: If Harari is right, even if his prophecy is remarkably aggressive in its timeline of six or so decades, it will change wealth inequality in a fundamental way. The popular belief in recent decades about new tools has been best articulated by the economist Hal Varian: “A simple way to forecast the future is to look at what rich people have today.” Would that still be true if, as the historian puts it, we’re talking about biotech remaking us into gods? The pattern that delivered computers and cell phones in short shrift from early adapters to the masses might not hold, the disparity never remedied.

From Jeremy Olsham at MarketWatch:

“The greatest industry of the 21st century will probably be to upgrade human beings,” historian Yuval Harari, author of the fascinating new book Homo Deus, told MarketWatch.

As new technologies yield humans with much longer battery lives, killer apps and godlike superpowers, within the next six decades, if Harari is right, even the finest human specimens of 2017 will in hindsight seem like flip phones.

There is, of course, a catch. Many of us will remain flip phones, as the technology to upgrade humans to iPhones is likely to be costly, and regulated differently around the world. These advances will likely “lead to greater income inequality than ever before,” Harari said. “For the first time in history it will be possible to translate economic inequality into biological inequality.”

Such a divide could give rise to a new version of “old racist ideologies that some races are naturally superior to others,” Harari said. “Except this time the biological differences will be real, something that is engineered and manufactured.”•

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It wasn’t the Jazz Singer, but Benito Mussolini agreed to star in a talkie when asked by Fox Movietone News to stand before the company’s motion-picture cameras and address the citizens of the United States. In the 80-second running time, Il Duce used the phrase “make America great.” 

This type of content helped the then-struggling Fox establish, in 1929, a newsreel theater in Times Square, which served as a forerunner to today’s cable outlets.

The Fascist leader, who understood the power of communications like few in his era, would endeavor within a decade of making this short to build his very own Hollywood. Today he would merely need to open his own Twitter account. Progress.

An article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the first foreign leader to have a speaking role on film.

Like most people who order assassins into a Malayasian airport to murder their half-brother with nerve agent, Kim Jong-un makes it difficult to examine his motivations with a sober head.

Historian Bruce Cumings attempts to do just that in an article in The Nation which explains the recent U.S. political bungling that allowed us to arrive at this scary precipice. There was a prime opportunity not even 20 years ago to have a nuke-free North Korea, but, alas, it was bungled by the Bush Administration. In the intervening period both sides of the aisle have ignored the meaning of this failure, exacerbating the situation. 

Now America’s guided by a deeply ignorant, unbalanced President who’s managed after much effort to finally locate one murderous despot he despises. So it’s game on, but it’s the most dangerous game.

An excerpt:

As I wrote for this magazine in January 2016, the North Koreans must be astonished to discover that US leaders never seem to grasp the import of their history-related provocations. Even more infuriating is Washington’s implacable refusal ever to investigate our 72-year history of conflict with the North; all of our media appear to live in an eternal present, with each new crisis treated as sui generis. Visiting Seoul in March, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted that North Korea has a history of violating one agreement after another; in fact, President Bill Clinton got it to freeze its plutonium production for eight years (1994–2002) and, in October 2000, had indirectly worked out a deal to buy all of its medium- and long-range missiles. Clinton also signed an agreement with Gen. Jo Myong-rok stating that henceforth, neither country would bear “hostile intent” toward the other.

The Bush administration promptly ignored both agreements and set out to destroy the 1994 freeze. Bush’s invasion of Iraq is rightly seen as a world-historical catastrophe, but next in line would be placing North Korea in his “axis of evil” and, in September 2002, announcing his “preemptive” doctrine directed at Iraq and North Korea, among others. The simple fact is that Pyongyang would have no nuclear weapons if Clinton’s agreements had been sustained.

Now comes Donald Trump, blasting into a Beltway milieu where, in recent months, a bipartisan consensus has emerged based on the false assumption that all previous attempts to rein in the North’s nuclear program have failed, so it may be time to use force—to destroy its missiles or topple the regime. …

A bigger lesson awaits Donald Trump, should he attack North Korea. It has the fourth-largest army in the world, as many as 200,000 highly trained special forces, 10,000 artillery pieces in the mountains north of Seoul, mobile missiles that can hit all American military bases in the region (there are hundreds), and nuclear weapons more than twice as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb (according to a new estimate in a highly detailed Times study by David Sanger and William Broad).•

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I’ve blogged before about Ross Perot’s McLuhan-ish dream circa 1969: an electronic town hall in which interactive television and computer punch cards would allow the masses, rather than elected officials, to decide key American policies. His technologically friendly version of direct democracy hasn’t made a dent in the decades since, despite quantum leaps in hardware and software, even today when we all potentially hold a voting booth in our pockets. That’s probably for the best.

No, representative democracy did not keep us from Brexit or Trump, but our reality would probably be worse if we turned the vote into The Voice, permitting the populace instant gratification (without much consideration) in choosing our path forward. 

In his provocative post “How Trump and Bannon Could Automate Populism,” John Robb argues for direct democracy at the party level if not the national one, believing immediate interactions between the electorate and representatives will serve as a salve. I’m not so sure. For instance, the GOP is already fully aware that its bloc doesn’t want Obamacare repealed yet it hasn’t be that knowledge but rather dysfunction that’s so far prevented the tearing of that social safety net. It may be that our system is too corrupted at present for apps to make much of a difference. There are many critical questions about our politics, but I don’t know that technology is the correct answer to any of them.

Robb’s opening:

We live in a world where we can get nearly everything instantly.  

Instant information.  Instant entertainment.  Instant communications.  Instant transactions.    

Simply and rightly, we have come to expect our decisions to yield instant results from the systems that serve us.  

Well, that’s true for every system except our political system.    

We’re only allowed to interact with our political system, in a meaningful way, only once every two years and only then by filling out a multiple choice quiz in an election booth.  

That’s akin to an Internet that only available for a couple of hours every two years at 1,200 baud.   

It’s crazy in this day and age.  Worse, there’s increasing evidence it is driving us crazy.   We are filling the time in between these electoral events with around the clock political warfare.  A ceaseless drumbeat of outrage and conspiracy, amplified by the online echo chambers we spend our time in.

Fortunately, I don’t believe this disconnect will last long.   A form of direct democracy is coming.  One that lets people directly influence the decisions of the people they send to Washington.

A form of interactive democracy that doesn’t require any changes to the constitution since it works at the party level and not the national.  

When it does, it’s going to hit us fast, taking off like wildfire since it fulfills a fundamental need that the current system does not provide.•

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Behavioral science, which I just mentioned, is usually sold as a modern means of guiding us to healthier decisions about food and finances, among other areas, nudging us to do right rather than forcing us to. It’s billed as being avuncular rather than autocratic, paternalistic instead of despotic. 

Even if that’s so, the field’s application is still often fairly creepy, marked by manipulation. It’s real noble contribution would be to teach us about the biases we unwittingly possess and the flaws in our thought processes, so we could analyze them and overcome these failings in time through the development of better critical thinking. Perhaps we’re only in the Proterozoic period of the discipline, and that’s what the branch actually contributes in the long run. 

Until that more enlightened age, capitalism almost demands that abuses of the subject will be employed by enough players hoping to pad their bank accounts through “priming” and other predatory practices. Even if the efficacy of these methods is overstated, there’s still plenty of money to be made on the margins, prodding the more prone among us to purchase or politick in a particular way.

In a wonderfully thought-provoking New York Review of Books piece about Michael Lewis’ book The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, philosopher Tamsin Shaw argues convincingly that the “pressures to exploit irrationalities rather than eliminate them are great.” An excerpt: 

In 2007, and again in 2008, Kahneman gave a masterclass in “Thinking About Thinking” to, among others, Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon), Larry Page (Google), Sergey Brin (Google), Nathan Myhrvold (Microsoft), Sean Parker (Facebook), Elon Musk (SpaceX, Tesla), Evan Williams (Twitter), and Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia).3 At the 2008 meeting, Richard Thaler also spoke about nudges, and in the clips we can view online he describes choice architectures that guide people toward specific behaviors but that can be reversed with one click if the subject doesn’t like the outcome. In Kahneman’s talk, however, he tells his assembled audience of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that “priming”—picking a suitable atmosphere—is one of the most important areas of psychological research, a technique that involves offering people cues unconsciously (for instance flashing smiley faces on a screen at a speed that makes them undetectable) in order to influence their mood and behavior. He insists that there are predictable and coherent associations that can be exploited by this sort of priming. If subjects are unaware of this unconscious influence, the freedom to resist it begins to look more theoretical than real.

The Silicon Valley executives clearly saw the commercial potential in these behavioral techniques, since they have now become integral to that sector. When Thaler and Sunstein last updated their nudges.org website in 2011, it contained an interview with John Kenny, of the Institute of Decision Making, in which he says:

You can’t understand the success of digital platforms like Amazon, Facebook, Farmville, Nike Plus, and Groupon if you don’t understand behavioral economic principles…. Behavioral economics will increasingly be providing the behavioral insight that drives digital strategy.

And Jeff Bezos of Amazon, in a letter to shareholders in April 2015, declared that Amazon sellers have a significant business advantage because “through our Selling Coach program, we generate a steady stream of automated machine-learned ‘nudges’ (more than 70 million in a typical week).” It is hard to imagine that these 70 million nudges leave Amazon customers with the full freedom to reverse, after conscious reflection, the direction in which they are being nudged.

Facebook, too, has embraced the behavioral insights described by Kahneman and Thaler, having received wide and unwanted publicity for researching priming. In 2012 its Core Data Science Team, along with researchers at Cornell University and the University of California at San Francisco, experimented with emotional priming on Facebook, without the awareness of the approximately 700,000 users involved, to see whether manipulation of their news feeds would affect the positivity or negativity of their own posts. When this came to light in 2014 it was generally seen as an unacceptable form of psychological manipulation. But Facebook defended the research on the grounds that its users’ consent to their terms of service was sufficient to imply consent to such experiments.•

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Fascinating article by the New York Times Technology section detailing how Uber and other Gig Economy giants are employing behavioral science to subtlely manipulate their workers into acting in the best interests of the companies. As the piece says: “Most of this happens without giving off a whiff of coercion.”

Businesses have forever tried to nudge consumers into buying their products, whether though legitimate means or the unethical kind (e.g., subliminal advertising), but using Digital Age tools to stealthily treat employees like lab rats is an altogether different thing. The “freedom” promised to contractors who toil in the piecemeal workforce isn’t really quite so free, and there are broader implications for the future.

An excerpt:

Even as Uber talks up its determination to treat drivers more humanely, it is engaged in an extraordinary behind-the-scenes experiment in behavioral science to manipulate them in the service of its corporate growth — an effort whose dimensions became evident in interviews with several dozen current and former Uber officials, drivers and social scientists, as well as a review of behavioral research.

Uber’s innovations reflect the changing ways companies are managing workers amid the rise of the freelance-based “gig economy.” Its drivers are officially independent business owners rather than traditional employees with set schedules. This allows Uber to minimize labor costs, but means it cannot compel drivers to show up at a specific place and time. And this lack of control can wreak havoc on a service whose goal is to seamlessly transport passengers whenever and wherever they want.

Uber helps solve this fundamental problem by using psychological inducements and other techniques unearthed by social science to influence when, where and how long drivers work. It’s a quest for a perfectly efficient system: a balance between rider demand and driver supply at the lowest cost to passengers and the company.

Employing hundreds of social scientists and data scientists, Uber has experimented with video game techniques, graphics and noncash rewards of little value that can prod drivers into working longer and harder — and sometimes at hours and locations that are less lucrative for them.•

The Quartz “Daily Brief” newsletter referred me to “Cars and Second Order Consequences,” a smart Benedict Evans post that tries to anticipate changes beyond the obvious that will be wrought by EVs and driverless. There’s plenty of good stuff on the fate of gas stations, mass transportation and city living when on-demand rides become the new normal.

What really caught my eye, though, was the final idea in the piece, in which Evans imagines how these rolling computers with unblinking vision will change policing. He focuses only on how it will be a boon for law enforcement, but this non-stop surveillance, a totalitarian dream, can easily be abused by governments, corporations and hackers. Let’s recall that a panopticon is a prison building designed to allow all inmates to be observed at all times. There’s no opting out.

An excerpt:

Finally, remember the cameras. Pretty much every vision of automatic cars involves them using HD, 360 degree computer vision. That means that every AV will be watching everything that goes on around it – even the things that are not related to driving. An autonomous car is a moving panopticon. They might not be saving and uploading every part of that data. But they could be. 

By implication, in 2030 or so, police investigating a crime won’t just get copies of the CCTV from surrounding properties, but get copies of the sensor data from every car that happened to be passing, and then run facial recognition scans against known offenders. Or, perhaps, just ask if any car in the area thought it saw something suspicious.•

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In the early 1930s, a shadowy figure named Howard Scott suddenly became a sensation in media and political circles when he announced American society was to collapse within 18 months. He wasn’t a theologian but a technocrat, and he warned that machine labor was poised to bring about universal unemployment. In the dark and desperate early days of the Great Depression, his secular sermon, colored by totalitarian overtones, was widely received.

While Scott’s credentials as a master engineer were more than greatly exaggerated, he didn’t allow a lack of paperwork to restrain his ambitions, arguing that he and a team of technocrats should run a new North American superstate, using facts and figures and numbers and math to do the job that politicians had traditionally handled. The result, it was promised, would be a radical abundance. In California alone, the movement soon boasted over a million members who wore gray suits, drove gray cars and “replaced their names with numbers, such as ‘1x1809x56.'”

America somehow crept from the Dust Bowl in one piece and Scott was more or less defrocked, but his ideas, an odd mixture of populism and anti-government impulses, still resound today, from the campaign trail to Silicon Valley, for better or worse.

An article in the January 1, 1933 Brooklyn Daily Eagle endeavored to unmask Scott.

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Bernie Sanders, whose TV campaign ads were even a shade more alabaster than Trump’s, is a politician, so he has to choose his words carefully when speaking to supporters of the Ku Klux Kardashian, reassuring them that they’re not deplorables, even if many are.

The coded racist language the GOP has employed over the last 50 years became explicit in the candidacy of Trump, who falsely blamed non-white “others” for the nation’s ills, promising to corral them, and to pull away benefits from “those people” living off the system. The not-so-subtle joke was that the conman was talking about taking his crude scissors to a social safety net that was helping to hold aloft many of his very voters.

The punchline has started to land squarely on the jaw of those living in Trump country, a land that time forgot. Three excerpts follow from reports about #MAGA voters now in the crosshairs. They haven’t exactly lost their religion when it comes to their idol, but they have come to realize that being told your supreme may be attached to a steep price tag. 


From Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times:

I came to Trump country to see how voters react as Trump moves from glorious campaign promises to the messier task of governing. While conservatives often decry government spending in general, red states generally receive more in federal government benefits than blue states do — and thus are often at greater risk from someone like Trump.

Ezekiel Moreno, 35, a Navy veteran, was stocking groceries in a supermarket at night — “a dead-end job,” as he describes it — when he was accepted in WorkAdvance two years ago. That training led him to a job at M&M Manufacturing, which makes aerospace parts, and to steady pay increases.

“We’ve moved out of an apartment and into a house,” Moreno told me, explaining how his new job has changed his family’s life. “My daughter is taking violin lessons, and my other daughter has a math tutor.”

Moreno was sitting at a table with his boss, Rocky Payton, the factory’s general manager, and Amy Saum, the human resources manager. All said they had voted for Trump, and all were bewildered that he wanted to cut funds that channel people into good manufacturing jobs.

“There’s a lot of wasteful spending, so cut other places,” Moreno said.

Payton suggested that if the government wants to cut budgets, it should target “Obama phones” provided to low-income Americans. (In fact, the program predates President Barack Obama and is financed by telecom companies rather than by taxpayers.) …

Judy Banks, a 70-year-old struggling to get by, said she voted for Trump because “he was talking about getting rid of those illegals.” But Banks now finds herself shocked that he also has his sights on funds for the Labor Department’s Senior Community Service Employment Program, which is her lifeline. It pays senior citizens a minimum wage to hold public service jobs.•


From Yamiche Alcindor of the New York Times:

KINSMAN, Ohio — For years, Tammy and Joseph Pavlic tried to ignore the cracked ceiling in their living room, the growing hole next to their shower and the deteriorating roof they feared might one day give out. Mr. Pavlic worked for decades installing and repairing air-conditioning and heating units, but three years ago, with multiple sclerosis advancing, he had to leave his job.

By 2015, Ms. Pavlic was supporting her husband and their three children on an annual salary of $9,000, earned at a restaurant. That year, they tapped a county program funded by Congress, called the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, to help repair their house.

The next year, they voted for Donald J. Trump, who has moved to eliminate the HOME program.

The Pavlics’ ceiling may no longer be cracked, but in the zero-sum game that Mr. Trump’s budget seeks to set up, the nation is showing new fissures. The president’s budget proposal would cut deeply into the Department of Housing and Urban Development, paring rental assistance and eliminating heating and air-conditioning aid, energy-efficiency assistance, and partnerships with local governments like HOME. With the savings, Mr. Trump says, he would beef up military spending and build a wall along the Mexican border.

“Keeping the country safe compared to keeping my bathroom safe isn’t even a comparison,” Mr. Pavlic, 42, said. “We have people who are coming into this country who are trying to hurt us, and I think that we need to be protected.”

His wife is hoping Mr. Trump changes his mind.

“I am glad that he is our president, but I do believe, though, that if he could see this from a personal point of view that he would probably maybe change his mind about cutting this program,” Ms. Pavlic, 44, said. “Any mom wants their kids to be safe, so any mom wants their home to be safe.”•


From Sean Collins-Walsh of the Austin-America Statesman:

MAVERICK COUNTY — On a cliff overlooking the Rio Grande, Dob Cunningham got out of his four-wheeler, walked across a patch of wildflowers poking out from the rocks and stopped at a small, rough concrete block adorned with horseshoes, spurs and a Masonic emblem. Under raised letters reading “DOB,” the year 1934 was carved into the concrete, with a blank space to the right.It was Cunningham’s headstone.

“That way it’s done,” he said. “I didn’t want anyone to go and spend a bunch of money on it.”

Working as a farm hand in his youth, serving 30 years in the Border Patrol in his prime and tending to an 800-acre ranch with his wife, Kay, in his golden years, Cunningham has spent his whole life on the border, and he’s seen it change. Growing up, he would wade across the river to play baseball with kids in Mexico, and those who came north were polite. In recent years, he said, migrants have broken into his house, and drug smugglers traverse his property regularly.

Cunningham voted for Donald Trump — more importantly, he said, he voted “against Hillary” because he and Kay “didn’t want to see the country go socialism” — and agrees with the president’s desire to secure the border. But he opposes Trump’s plan to build a border wall from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, saying it won’t work along the Rio Grande because of flooding. If the federal government tries to condemn part of his property to build the wall, Cunningham plans to fight as long as he can afford to.

“The government or the illegals won’t run me off,” he said. “We’ve lived here and we’ve raised a daughter here, and I’ve put a lot of sweat and blood in this place. We don’t want to just give it away.”•

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A secondary problem of pathological liars is that occasionally they are telling the truth, but who would know? Believing them will usually get you into trouble, and every now and then so will not believing them. If the President, the person entrusted with our security, is that incessant fabricator, the confusion and peril can become lethal.

The current Administration’s brazen dishonesty and fumbling attempts at cover-ups would not be an existential threat to our democracy were it healthy, but the vital signs have been worrying for over two decades. Trump’s ascension feels more like the other shoe dropping than the first swift kick.

Our populace and politicians are sharply divided along partisan lines, the GOP so deeply dysfunctional, that the Republican-led legislature is now endeavoring to obfuscate in his favor despite seemingly traitorous behaviors, perhaps even treasonous ones, while a good percentage of Americans wouldn’t care if it was proven his campaign conspired with the Kremlin to steal the White House. And the truth only matters if it’s valued.

In a Huffington Post essay about transparency, that quaint, hoary thing, philosopher Daniel Dennett is confident that Trump will eventually choke on his lies. Robert Redford, who has, of course, a strong link to Nixon’s waterloo, isn’t so sure our system today is quite that fail-safe, as he writes in an op-ed in the Washington Post. Deep Throats can talk all day but it won’t matter if too many people aren’t listening.

Two excerpts follow.


From Dennett:

Leaders, democratic just as much as autocratic, need to keep secrets if they are going to be effective. There is an obvious reason why the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps its new employment rate statistics and other economic indicators secret until a precise moment when everybody gets to learn them at the same time.  

But leaders also need to be trusted when they make statements, promises and denials. They can’t divulge too much and they can’t lie too much. Very often saying nothing is the best policy, for obvious reasons, but they must also communicate often with both their people and their opponents. So as far as I know, nobody has ever devised a formula or recipe for how much to communicate and when. We want leaders we can trust, but we also want to trust them to keep secrets when it is in our interest to do so. The problem is, not all leaders understand the nuance.

U.S. President Donald Trump is one of them. The leader of the free world apparently has no concern for his credibility. He is constantly caught in demonstrable falsehoods, which he never acknowledges and for which he never apologizes. And his supporters seem all too willing to say they believe his whoppers, or just forgive him, or even applaud his disruption of ambient trust. But what will happen when he gets caught telling them whoppers about what he is doing for them? He will be tempted, of course, to pile on more lies in order to get out of his tight spot, but a rich vein of wisdom running through all the lore and literature of the world is that such lying cannot be shored up indefinitely with more lying.

Eventually, the truth overpowers the lies and the result is ruin. Trump seems to be unaware of this. He seems to be like the gambler who thinks that by just doubling his bets he’s bound to regain his losses eventually. We know that this is a fallacy; sooner or later he will run out of allies, time or money. We just don’t want to be victims along with Trump when his house of cards collapses, as it will.•


From Robert Redford in the Washington Post:

When President Trump speaks of being in a “running war” with the media, calls them “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth” and tweets that they’re the “enemy of the American people,” his language takes the Nixon administration’s false accusations of shoddy” and “shabby” journalism to new and dangerous heights.

Sound and accurate journalism defends our democracy. It’s one of the most effective weapons we have to restrain the power-hungry. I always said that All the President’s Men was a violent movie. No shots were fired, but words were used as weapons.

In fact, I had a hard time getting producers interested in All the President’s Men. “Newspapers, typing, journalism — there’s no drama here” — so the critique went. I didn’t see it that way. To me it was a story about two journalists hell-bent on getting to the truth. That’s the movie, but the real-life Watergate scandal didn’t have just two people searching for the truth. It had an entire cast of characters in minor and major roles who followed their consciences: President Richard Nixon’s counsel John Dean, whose testimony blew open the congressional hearings; Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, who both resigned rather than follow Nixon’s demand to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox; and, most of all, congressional Democrats and Republicans.

Nixon resigned from office because the Senate Watergate Committee — its Democratic and Republican members — did its job. It’s easy now to think of Watergate as a single event. It wasn’t; it was a story that unfolded over 26 months and demanded many acts of bravery and honesty by Americans across the political spectrum.

The system worked. The checks and balances the Constitution was designed to create functioned when put to their biggest test. Would they still? Which brings me to the other half of the question: What’s different now?

Much.

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Thomas Friedman’s popular notion that nations don’t go to war if they share financial concerns (and a taste for McDonald’s french fries) failed to take something awfully important into account: Not everyone is rational and places material welfare above ideology. That goes for countries as well as terror groups. Some of these actors, in fact, are completely mad and want to blow those Golden Arches to kingdom come.

In a 2016 London Review of Books article, Thomas Nagel critiqued Richard English’s Does Terrorism Work? In trying to answer the titular question, the philosopher argued that immoral as it is, politically motivated violence certainly can be used effectively by powerful states (though it sometimes backfires), but he concluded that terror can almost never secure victory for non-government groups (Al-Qaeda, ISIS, etc.), except in rare cases where there are extenuating circumstances. Why then the continued improvisation of explosive devices? Delusion, it seems, takes hold over groups that realize non-violent measures won’t triumph but don’t comprehend that neither will violent ones.

The orgy of conspicuous, torture-porn cruelty ISIS unleashed upon the world, medieval murders edited on cutting-edge technology and uploaded to social media, initially shook the globe, but the gruesome group has been for a good while losing leaders and ground in its former strongholds, taking fire from all manner of enemies. Their methods will not ultimately work in any meaningful, nation-building manner.

That doesn’t mean the horror is over, though. ISIS is still trying to “activate” lone-wolf terrorists online and continues to fight to hold onto shards of Syria, now seemingly irretrievably shattered. Having an American President willfully harassing Muslims probably won’t hurt the cause.

Clarissa Ward of CNN conducted a Reddit AMA to coincide with the debut of her documentary ISIS: Behind the Mask. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

Do you think ISIS recruitment has increased or decreased over the last few years, and what has been the factor for that?

Clarissa Ward:

ISIS recruitment has shifted dramatically in the past few years. They are no longer asking people to leave their homes and make hijra (immigrate) to their so called Islamic State. Now, they are recruiting people online and asking them to carry out attacks at home. The caliphate is becoming virtual. The number of people traveling to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS has drastically reduced though because Turkish authorities have really cracked down on border crossing and because ISIS territory is rapidly diminishing.


Question:

Would you compare the brainwashing of the ISIS soldiers to the brainwashing of Nazis?

Clarissa Ward:

I think there are definite parallels. Very few people, even those who join ISIS, are naturally inclined towards killing others and killing themselves. In the case of ISIS, the indoctrination period is not necessarily long but it is very intensive. For ISIS recruits who travel to the so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq, they go to a training camp where they are inculcated with the ideology day in an day out. They are forbidden from speaking to family members or friends who do not support ISIS, so they are very alienated and removed from any reality other than the propaganda that they are being fed. Slowly, boundaries are broken down and then the military training can begin.


Question:

What is the most surprising thing you found in your research?

Clarissa Ward:

I would say the most surprising or striking thing is how utterly unremarkable many of these Western jihadis are. Sometimes, we have the impression from ISIS propaganda that they are these extraordinary evil characters out of a movie. The reality is much more mundane. When you meet the former ISIS soldier who we spent time with, he seems like any young guy. He wears jeans and sneakers and a hoodie and likes video games and has women problems. But then five minutes later he will say shrug off the brutal executions that ISIS carries out and it’s just this surreal whiplash moment. And how do authorities determine who is a serious security threat and who is a non violent extremist? These are tough questions.


Question:

Why do you think the US has had fewer people join ISIS compared to UK, Belgium, or France?

Clarissa Ward:

Two main reasons: 1) the US is much further away 2) the US has done a better job of integrating Muslims into the fabric of society. At the same time, I am concerned that with the shift in focus to recruiting lone wolves on the internet, the US is still vulnerable.


Question:

What can the US do to thwart the effectiveness of ISIS?

Clarissa Ward:

There are many things that the US can do. Firstly, it can try to blunt ISIS military capabilities and eliminate some of the most effective leaders in the group, which they have been doing with some success. Beyond that, they can work with forces on the ground in the region who are fighting against ISIS. But you can’t eliminate ISIS only with a military track. There needs to be active and creative efforts in the social sphere too.


Question:

As someone who had to cover the Syrian war extensively how soon do you expect the country to bounce back? Within our lifetime?

Clarissa Ward:

Syria breaks my heart every day. I don’t see a future for the country as a unified state as it once was. Realistically, I think it will break down into semi autonomous cantons that will be ruled by different militias/ war lords. It’s a bad outcome for everyone. But the Syrian people are resilient and creative and strong. And if the situation improves enough to get the nearly 10 million people who have been displaced to go back home, then those people can help start to rebuild the country. But you need security first.•

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When debating whether we’re on the verge of a revolution in automation that might displace too many workers in too brief a time, those sanguine on the topic invariably introduce bank tellers into the argument as proof that machines which would appear to kill jobs actually create more of them. The “Automation Paradox” it’s called.

There are two major problems with this theory which I’ll get to after an excerpt from James Bessen’s 2016 Atlantic article on the topic:

Robot panic is in full swing.

But these fears are misplaced—what’s happening with automation is not so simple or obvious. It turns out that workers will have greater employment opportunities if their occupation undergoes some degree of computer automation. As long as they can learn to use the new tools, automation will be their friend.

Take the legal industry as an example. Computers are taking over some of the work of lawyers and paralegals, and they’re doing a better job of it. For over a decade, computers have been used to sort through corporate documents to find those that are relevant to lawsuits. This process—called “discovery” in the profession—can run up millions of dollars in legal bills, but electronic methods can erase the vast majority of those costs. Moreover, the computers are often more accurate than humans: In one study, software correctly found 95 percent of the relevant documents, while humans identified only 51 percent.

But, perhaps surprisingly, electronic discovery software has not thrown paralegals and lawyers into unemployment lines. In fact, employment for paralegals and lawyers has grown robustly. While electronic discovery software has become a billion-dollar business since the late 1990s, jobs for paralegals and legal-support workers actually grew faster than the labor force as a whole, adding over 50,000 jobs since 2000, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The number of lawyers increased by a quarter of a million.

Something similar happened when ATMs automated the tasks of bank tellers and when barcode scanners automated the work of cashiers: Rather than contributing to unemployment, the number of workers in these occupations grew. 

Okay, the two problems: 1) One is that bank tellers handle many functions beyond just dispensing money, so the ATM technology has been more an add-on convenience than a replacement. As AI improves and makes smart machines more flexible, they’ll nudge aside their human counterparts. 2) Just because a class of worker isn’t immediately elbowed aside by robotics doesn’t mean there’s a permanent detente. Emergent automobiles shared the roads with horses for decades before the animals were driven away. We’ll be employed to work alongside robots, in tandem with them, until we’re no longer employed that way. That day will come for almost all positions; it’s just a matter of how quickly.

Reuters piece by Jemima Kelly suggests that reckoning will arrive in a handful of years for bank tellers and customer-service people. Give or take, that’s probably so. An excerpt:

LONDON (Reuters) – Artificial intelligence (AI) will become the primary way banks interact with their customers within the next three years, according to three quarters of bankers surveyed by consultancy Accenture in a new report.

Four in five bankers believe AI will “revolutionise” the way in which banks gather information as well as how they interact with their clients, said the Accenture Banking Technology Vision 2017 report, which surveyed more than 600 top bankers and also consulted tech industry experts and academics.

Artificial intelligence — the technology behind driverless cars, drones and voice-recognition software — is seen by the financial world as a key technology which, along with other “fintech” innovations such as blockchain, will change the face of banking in the coming years.

More than three quarters of respondents to the survey believed that AI would enable more simple user interfaces, which would help banks create a more human-like customer experience.

“The big paradox here is that people think technology will lead to banking becoming more and more automated and less and less personalized, but what we’ve seen coming through here is the view that technology will actually help banking become a lot more personalized,” said Alan McIntyre, head of the Accenture’s banking practice and co-author of the report.

“(It) will give people the impression that the bank knows them a lot better, and in many ways it will take banking back to the feeling that people had when there were more human interactions.”•

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Megan McArdle seems like a basically decent person, but she’s spent much time railing against the Affordable Care Act which has helped my family and friends immeasurably. She has the privilege of worrying about “innovation” when others are fixated on that not-dying thing. Must be nice.

The Libertarian columnist recently went looking for the American Dream in Utah, a state that’s done a commendable job in combating homelessness and other social ills, though it must be noted that it’s whiter and more patriarchal than a Freedom Caucus meeting about maternity leave.

The role of the Mormon Church is clearly paramount in enabling a higher-than-usual upward mobility for the impoverished, and that aspect is clearly not replicable in other quarters of the country unless a large number of Midwesterners who’ve taken Broadway vacations to catch The Book of Mormon have had an epiphany. 

Worse yet, a scary number of Christians seem to have turned away from their charitable roots, not at all asking, “What would Jesus do?” In the recent Presidential election, Christianity was often a euphemism for white supremacy. Maybe that’s because many who identify with the faith have stopped attending church or perhaps the American strain of the religion is so embedded with prejudice that it’s incompatible with true equality.

Christian politicians are often are even worse when it comes to tending to the poor, pushing punishing policies trained on hurting those who have the least, creating a prison state and denying minorities of voting rights. They simply don’t want poorer citizens, especially non-white ones, to thrive, and there’s no moral equivalency in this regard between conservatives and liberals. For many, power trumps church teachings: Mike Pence was very eager to strike a deal with the devil, while Mike Huckabee has gleefully defended Trump’s incessant outrages.

There’s good stuff from McArdle about Utah’s social services programs, the role of volunteerism and the promotion of self-reliance, but she comes away only moderately hopeful that the Salt Lake miracle can be duplicated elsewhere in the U.S. Of course, if you’re a Libertarian who doesn’t really like government very much, there’s no other conclusion to be drawn. If Obamacare really helped your loved ones, however, you might feel differently.

An excerpt:

“Big government” does not appear to have been key to Utah’s income mobility. From 1977 to 2005, when the kids in Chetty et al’s data were growing up, the Rockefeller Institute ranks it near the bottom in state “fiscal capacity.” The state has not invested a lot in fighting poverty, nor on schools; Utah is dead last in per-pupil education spending. This should at least give pause to those who view educational programs as the natural path to economic mobility.

But “laissez faire” isn’t the answer either. Utah is a deep red state, but its conservatism is notably compassionate, thanks in part to the Mormon Church. Its politicians, like Senator Mike Lee, led the way in rejecting Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. And the state is currently engaged in a major initiative on intergenerational poverty. The bill that kicked it off passed the state’s Republican legislature unanimously, and the lieutenant governor has been its public face.

This follows what you might call the state’s “war on homelessness” — a war that has been largely victorious, with most of the state’s homeless resettled in permanent housing through a focus on “Housing First.” That means getting people into permanent shelter before trying to diagnose and address the problems that contributed to their homelessness, like mental illness and substance abuse.

This approach can be cheaper than the previous regime, in which too many individuals ended up in emergency rooms or temporary shelter seeking expensive help for urgent crises. But Housing First runs into fierce emotional resistance in many quarters, because it smacks too much of rewarding people for self-destructive behaviors. Utah’s brand of conservatism overcame that, in part because the Mormon Church supported it.

That’s the thing about the government here. It is not big, but it’s also not … bad.•

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During the odious Presidential election season, I quipped that Trump’s campaign might land him in the Oval Office or a prison cell or perhaps both. Everything is still on the table.

Terrible things are happening in the country, but they’re nothing compared to what’s coming. Francis Fukuyama may be cheered that our checks and balances are neutralizing the autocratic aims of a Commander-in-Chief who wants to run NATO the way Gotti ran Queens–a debatable point–but that doesn’t mean the orange supremacist and his Rasputin of Seinfeld residuals, Steve Bannon, won’t leave in their wake a shocking death toll. Utter incompetence, incomparable ignorance, disastrous diplomacy, putrid policy and rampant kleptocracy will leave us vulnerable on many fronts. The results will be felt across decades though sometimes they’ll just suddenly go boom. 

We’re a joke now, but it’s no laughing matter.

In a wonderfully worded Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, Graydon Carter dissects this Madoff-magnitude Presidency, while Roger Cohen of the New York Times analyzes how the dysfunction and dishonesty are playing out on the world stage.


From Carter:

It can reasonably be said that our dear leader is now the most ridiculed man on the planet. In fact, he may well be the most ridiculed man in history. For a preening narcissist who takes himself terribly seriously, being the butt of the joke heard round the world has got to hurt. The handpicked assortment of craven nitwits and supplicants that he has surrounded himself with have valiantly tried to insulate him from the derision. But they’re only human. Your heart has to go out to the ones doing the heavy lifting: banty Sean Spicer, the M. C. Escher of the English language, and Kellyanne Conway, the president’s temperament fluffer. (Look away from CNN, Mr. President. There’s something shiny and bright over there!) Engaging as it is to watch these overworked mouthpieces, I fear their days must be numbered. Comments about microwaves that turn into spy cameras and what should be understood when the president puts words in quotation marks are having minimal effect in reducing the scorn heaped upon their boss. Hats off to them for their tenacity, but no amount of spin is going to change the fact that the Trump White House, like the company its inhabitant has run for the past four decades, continues to be a shambolic mess.

Trump’s one brief moment of acting presidential—when he read off a teleprompter for 60 minutes and 10 seconds during his address to Congress—served only to show just how low the bar for presidential behavior has plummeted since January. Watching TV commentators applaud him for containing himself for a little over an hour was like hearing a parent praise a difficult child for not pooping in his pants during a pre-school interview. Besides, vintage Trump is not going anywhere anytime soon. A couple of weeks earlier, during a visit by the Japanese prime minister, Shinzō Abe, the president told an acquaintance that he was obsessed with the translator’s breasts—although he expressed this in his own, fragrant fashion.

Trump may be a joke, but the chaos and destructive forces around him are not.•


From Cohen:

When Donald Trump met Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany earlier this month, he put on one of his most truculent and ignorant performances. He wanted money — piles of it — for Germany’s defense, raged about the financial killing China was making from last year’s Paris climate accord and kept “frequently and brutally changing the subject when not interested, which was the case with the European Union.”

This was the summation provided to me by a senior European diplomat briefed on the meeting. Trump’s preparedness was roughly that of a fourth grader. He began the conversation by telling Merkel that Germany owes the United States hundreds of billions of dollars for defending it through NATO, and concluded by saying, “You are terrific” but still owe all that dough. Little else concerned him.

Trump knew nothing of the proposed European-American deal known as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, little about Russian aggression in Ukraine or the Minsk agreements, and was so scatterbrained that German officials concluded that the president’s daughter Ivanka, who had no formal reason to be there, was the more prepared and helpful. (Invited by Merkel, Ivanka will attend a summit on women’s empowerment in Berlin next month.)

Merkel is not one to fuss. But Trump’s behavior appalled her entourage and reinforced a conclusion already reached about this presidency in several European capitals: It is possible to do business with Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but these officials are flying blind because above them at the White House rages a whirlwind of incompetence and ignorance. 

Trump’s United States of America has become an unserious country, the offender of the free world.•

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The narrative of the recent election is that Trump won over “forgotten Americans,” though Hillary Clinton received the most votes from households making under $50k. The MAGA voters who were fetishized in the Election Day post-mortem were white, and somehow their struggles were awarded greater currency than people who had less. Part of that is because they tipped a vital election by being located in certain states which gave them a certain political capital, but the truth is their skin color fit into the noxious demagoguery of the campaign season. 

I’ve published a couple of posts about the new Case-Deaton paper about morbidity and mortality, which tries to divine the reason for middle-aged Caucasians enduring a “great die-off.” The report has not yet been peer-reviewed, and in Pacific·Standard, Mark Harris pushes back at the findings, arguing the research is marked by suspect methodology (above my head) but also that it misleadingly fixates on white Americans who still enjoy healthier and wealthier lives across the board than, say, African-Americans. The latter group has a significantly shorter lifespan than their white counterparts.

If the trend lines truly show one race making progress and another faltering, even if the declining group is richer, it’s certainly valuable to report as much so that we can attempt to stem a serious problem. The danger, however, is that attention will be pulled from those who need it most because of a compelling story line. 

From Harris:

Dubious methodology aside, there is still some useful information in the Case and Deaton report. America does seem to have a serious problem ensuring longevity for its population as compared to its peer nations. But, though the international perspective is the strongest part in their paper, it’s not what the researchers or the newspapers led with. Why put the statistical alchemy in front? Why is the story more dramatic or attractive when it’s about white people?

Mistakes and missteps also propel social science forward, as the Olshansky paper did. Still, Case and Deaton didn’t publish their findings in a peer-reviewed public-health journal, at least not first. Brookings is a center of political influence in Washington, and I have no doubt that Capitol Hill staffers have already written up their briefs on the report and passed them to their bosses — that is, if they work half as fast as Internet journalists do.

By the time it makes its way to the top of the policymaker food chain, how will this report be understood? I’d wager it’s something like the Brookings blog headline: “Working Class White Americans Are Now Dying in Middle Age at Faster Rates Than Minority Groups.” I asked [Arline] Geronimus if that was, to her understanding, a true statement: “I think that’s misleading, I really do. Oh boy,” she laughs, “there’s so much wrong with that. That headline makes it sound like problems are worse for white Americans than black Americans.” The narrative is wrong, but it’s not the first time Geronimus has heard it since the election. The Case and Deaton paper, she says, fits conveniently in this story, and it’s one she fears Americans are primed to believe.•

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From the December 17, 1893 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Attendant to the fall of the Soviet Union was the collapse of the country’s social safety nets. Gorbachev’s transitional government and Yeltsin’s reformist one couldn’t stem a low birth rate and great die-off, as Russia depopulated by 5% between 1992 and 2009. The fall of Communism clearly was the cause, right?

The truth seems to be that the demographic disaster was deeply rooted in earlier decades, and high rates of cardiovascular disease and fatal accidents may have their origins in mental-health issues. Those bizarre “Meanwhile in Russia” WTF photos didn’t develop overnight.

Some, including Anne Case and Angus Deaton, see the same crisis now befalling the U.S., with a shocking decline of health and lifespan among white, middle-class Americans, formerly a reliably healthy group. These “deaths of despair” are the result of complicated causes, not linked solely to finances. The remedy is likewise complex.

Two excerpts follow, one about Russia’s rash of needless deaths after the Soviet breakup, and another about America’s current, similar epidemic.


From Masha Gessen’s 2014 New York Review of Books essay “The Dying Russians“:

Sometime in 1993, after several trips to Russia, I noticed something bizarre and disturbing: people kept dying. I was used to losing friends to AIDS in the United States, but this was different. People in Russia were dying suddenly and violently, and their own friends and colleagues did not find these deaths shocking. Upon arriving in Moscow I called a friend with whom I had become close over the course of a year. “Vadim is no more,” said his father, who picked up the phone. “He drowned.” I showed up for a meeting with a newspaper reporter to have the receptionist say, “But he is dead, don’t you know?” I didn’t. I’d seen the man a week earlier; he was thirty and apparently healthy. The receptionist seemed to think I was being dense. “A helicopter accident,” she finally said, in a tone that seemed to indicate I had no business being surprised.

The deaths kept piling up. People—men and women—were falling, or perhaps jumping, off trains and out of windows; asphyxiating in country houses with faulty wood stoves or in apartments with jammed front-door locks; getting hit by cars that sped through quiet courtyards or plowed down groups of people on a sidewalk; drowning as a result of diving drunk into a lake or ignoring sea-storm warnings or for no apparent reason; poisoning themselves with too much alcohol, counterfeit alcohol, alcohol substitutes, or drugs; and, finally, dropping dead at absurdly early ages from heart attacks and strokes.

Back in the United States after a trip to Russia, I cried on a friend’s shoulder. I was finding all this death not simply painful but impossible to process. ‘It’s not like there is a war on,’ I said.

‘But there is,’ said my friend, a somewhat older and much wiser reporter than I. ‘This is what civil war actually looks like. ‘It’s not when everybody starts running around with guns. It’s when everybody starts dying.’

My friend’s framing stood me in good stead for years. I realized the magazine stories I was writing then were the stories of destruction, casualties, survival, restoration, and the longing for peace. But useful as that way of thinking might be for a journalist, it cannot be employed by social scientists, who are still struggling to answer the question, Why are Russians dying in numbers, and at ages, and of causes never seen in any other country that is not, by any standard definition, at war?”•


From “Mortality Crisis Redux,” by Pia Malaney of the Institute of New Economic Thinking:

Case and Deaton estimate that the upturn in mortality rates in the US is starkly divergent from other developed countries, and accounts for 96,000 deaths that could have been avoided between 1996 and 2013.  Their latest work delves deeper into the underlying causes of this decline. “Deaths of Despair” — by suicide, drug overdose or alcohol abuse — cannot be completely explained simply by stagnant or declining incomes. Income profiles for middle aged blacks and Hispanics look similar, without a corresponding rise in mortality.  Rather, the authors posit, it can be traced to a “cumulative disadvantage over life,” where declining labor market opportunities have led to declining outcomes not just in the labor market but also in health, marriage, and child rearing. In other words, the stress accompanying the shock of downward mobility is likely driving this health crisis.

These results bear a striking resemblance to another demographic crisis:  Though we are used to thinking of the Cold War as an economic and political contest without casualties the fall of the Berlin Wall showed us that when economic systems and expectations collapse, people die just a surely as they do in a shooting war. In the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, life expectancy in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe fell dramatically. In Russia alone, it was estimated that between 1989 and 1995 there were 1.3 to 1.7 million premature deaths as life expectancy fell from 70 in 1989 to 64 in 1995. The proximate causes there too, were a significant increase in suicides and drug and alcohol abuse, leading to an increase in cardiovascular and liver diseases.  The primary victims?  Middle aged men and women. Once again, in-depth studies found that it was not direct deprivation, nor collapse of the health system that were driving these deaths.  Rather they could be traced to the psychological stress likely brought on by the shock of the severe economic transition.  Unable to cope with the aptly named “shock therapy,” older (mostly) men essentially drank themselves to death. The country has still not recovered, with mortality rates amongst working age men considerably higher than other EU and BRIC countries.•

In an recent post, I commented on new Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s puzzling contention that AI replacing human workers is “not even on our radar screen.” It makes me think his radar screen is not plugged in. Maybe a robot could do it for him?

In a Financial Times opinion piece, Lawrence Summers, who previously held the same White House post, isn’t convinced that smart machines will lead to a large-scale job loss, but he is sure that a big technological switch is under way.

Cora Lewis penned a troubling BuzzFeed article about the impact on employment of autonomous machines, asserting that based on fresh research about six human workers are disappeared every time a new robot is utilized in a factory. If true, that still doesn’t mean Summers is definitely wrong in believing the Second Machine Age transition may not lead to a net job loss, but it would require lots of new positions to be created. What happens if they’re not?

Two excerpts follow.


From Summers:

In reference to a question about artificial intelligence displacing American workers, Secretary Mnuchin responded that: “I think that is so far in the future — in terms of artificial intelligence taking over American jobs — I think we’re like so far away from that (50 to 100 years) that it is not even on my radar screen”. He also remarked that he did not understand tech company valuations in a way that implied that he regarded them as excessive. I suppose there is a certain internal logic. If you think AI is not going to have any meaningful economic effects for a half century than I guess you should think that tech companies are overvalued. But neither statement is defensible.

Mr Mnuchin’s comment about the lack of impact of technology on jobs is to economics about what global climate change denial is to atmospheric science or what creationism is to biology. Yes, you can debate whether technological change is to the net good. I certainly believe it is. And you can debate what the job creation effects will be relative to the job destruction effects. I think this is much less clear given the trends downwards in adult employment especially for men over the last generation.

But I do not understand how anyone could reach the conclusion that all the action with technology is half a century away. AI is behind autonomous vehicles which will affect millions of jobs driving and dealing with cars within the next 15 years even on conservative projections. It is transforming everything from retailing to banking to the provision of medical care. Almost every economist who has studied the question believes that technology has had a greater impact on the wage structure and on employment than international trade and certainly a far greater impact than whatever increment to trade is the result of much debated trade agreements.•


From Lewis:

Every new robot added to an American factory in recent decades reduced employment in the surrounding area by 6.2 workers, according to a new study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Researchers worked to separate the impact of robots from other big-picture economic trends that hit the US workforce in the same period, like imports from China and Mexico, computer software replacing office work, and offshoring. With all that taken into account, they estimated that for every one robot per thousands workers in a given area of the country, the employment rate went down by .2-.3 percentage points, and wages fell by between .25 and .5 percent.

“We see negative effects of robots on essentially all occupations, with the exception of managers,” wrote economists Daron Acemoglu of MIT and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University in the study. “Predictably, the major categories experiencing substantial declines are routine manual occupations, blue-collar workers, operators and assembly workers, and machinists and transport workers.”•

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The “tapp my phones” charge Trump leveled against President Obama on Match 4 in an angry tweet seemed bizarre at first but so initially did the neophyte politician’s defense of the nation’s tyrannical adversary Vladimir Putin during the campaign. The two strange episodes are likely deeply intertwined.

The support of Putin appears now to have been compensation for Russia hacking the election, and not because of some supposed lurid recording of a Moscow pee party. The current wiretapping tale Trump is spinning might just be spasms of his usual ugly ego or it may be an effort to preempt what’s coming next, with the Administration having probably already been informed about the existence of FBI tapes that could prove deeply damaging or even take down the whole operation. Were illicit activities coordinated between Trump Tower and the Kremlin? Was Russian money illegally funneled into the campaign? It’s not clear yet, but the behavior of the new President and his cohort makes these questions worth asking. Something major could be on the horizon.

· · ·

In a Politico piece, Francis Fukuyama crows a bit about a prediction he offered in January, when he argued that our checks and balances would thwart this aspiring autocrat. He argues that so far his forecast has proven true, using the failed Obamacare repeal as his prime example. 

His larger contention may ultimately stand as correct, but wasn’t the AHCA debacle less the work of our democracy’s efficacy than of Republican dysfunction and White House ineptitude? The writer acknowledges as much, but goes on to assert that gerrymandering, a political system guided by outside money and Freedom Caucus members fearing Tea Party fury turned out to be blessings (before pointing out is in his final paragraph how unhealthy this situation). The Oval Office’s inability to torpedo the ACA is really more the result of odd and unhappy circumstances, of sickness rather than health. And a potential despot who didn’t possess the attention span of a small child would have had a strong shot to make this bill of goods stick.

If we look at Trump’s attempts to undermine the press and neutralize other levers of the government, the legislative branch has been a great disappointment in regards to checking his power, with Congress working to obstruct investigations into the deeply shady behavior of the Administration during the campaign and since. The judicial branch has been reliable and the media mostly so, but the House has been pretty much complicit in the Presidential power grab and kleptocracy, even if it’s too much of a mess to get out of its own way on the policy it has long prioritized. 

Fukuyama is probably right that Trump will fail to bend the system to his will, but it’s worth wondering what a hyper-competent version of him could accomplish. 

The opening:

Back in January, I argued in these pages that whatever President Donald Trump’s proclivities toward being a strongman ruler, the American system of checks and balances in the end had a good chance of containing him. Friday’s failure of the Republican attempt to repeal Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act underscores how difficult our political system makes any kind of decisive political action. During Obama’s presidency, House Republicans voted some 60 times to repeal parts or the whole of the ACA, and Trump himself pledged that he would replace it with “something wonderful” on Day One of his administration. And yet it appears the ACA will continue to be, as House Speaker Paul Ryan admitted, “the law of the land.” This happened despite the fact that we no longer have divided government, with the Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency.

The fundamental reason for the failure of the American Health Care Act lies, of course, in the internal divisions within the Republican Party. The bill was extremely unpopular from the beginning due to the fact it would have potentially resulted in 24 million fewer Americans having health insurance, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Democrats, though a minority, were therefore uniformly opposed to repeal, meaning that the Republicans could afford only 26 defections for the legislation to fail. The hard-line Freedom Caucus in the end could not be badgered or threatened to accept “Obamacare Lite,” coming, as many of them do, from safe, gerrymandered districts. 

This is where the mounting number of institutional checks within the American system came into play. Had this vote been held 75 years ago, the powerful committee chairmen in the House, together with the Republican Party leadership, could have corralled these renegades through a combination of bribes or threats. Today, such tools do not exist: Earmarks have been eliminated along with the powers of the committee chairs, and there is too much money from groups outside the control of the party hierarchy. The Freedom Caucus holdouts were much more frightened of a Tea Party challenge in the primaries than they were of either Paul Ryan or Donald Trump.•

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Recently, I posted about Jack Healy’s excellent New York Times article about the Winemiller farming family in Ohio’s Clermont County, which boasts a low 4.1% unemployment rate. The parents have already lost two of three adult children to heroin overdoses, with the third one battling to beat the same poison. The father is a staunch Trump supporter, drawn by his tough-on-crime talk, hoping someone, anyone, can capture and kill the demons that has run over his life. The faith is misplaced, but grief can sometimes harden into vengeance.

Such demises can be categorized in Case-Deaton terms as “deaths of despair.” The husband-and-wife economists offered, in 2015, a shocking report about the sharp spike in mortality for white, middle-aged Americans, especially those who possess a high-school-or-less education. The epidemic seems driven by suicide, alcohol, opioids and obesity, self-destructive behaviors associated with hopelessness, dysfunction and poor childhood training. Deaton even compared the findings to the scourge of AIDS. The paper was published, appropriately, on December 8, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

Economics is certainly partly to blame for the steep decline of those in this demographic, though the full picture is far more complicated. In a follow-up paper, the economists write that the “story is rooted in the labor market, but involves many aspects of life, including health in childhood, marriage, child rearing, and religion.” The duo stresses the importance of dealing with the opioid problem but promise no quick fix for what’s a deeply entrenched disaster. Somehow we need to break free from our often-myopic politics to address these troubles, staying the course over long term. As Case and Deaton write: “The epidemic will not be easily or quickly reversed by policy.”

An excerpt: 

Taking all of the evidence together, we find it hard to sustain the income-based explanation. For white non-Hispanics, the story can be told, especially for those aged 50–54, and for the difference between them and the elderly, but we are left with no explanation for why Blacks and Hispanics are doing so well, nor for the divergence in mortality between college and high-school graduates, whose mortality rates are not just diverging, but going in opposite directions. Nor does the European experience provide support, because the mortality trends show no signs of the Great Recession in spite of its marked effects on household median incomes in some countries but not in others.

It is possible that it is not the last 20 years that matters, but rather that the long-run stagnation in wages and in incomes has bred a sense of hopelessness. But Figure 2.4 shows that, even if we go back to the late 1960s, the ethnic and racial patterns of median family incomes are similar for whites, blacks, and Hispanics, and so can provide no basis for their sharply different mortality outcomes after 1998.

There is a microeconomic literature on health determinants that shows that those with higher incomes have lower mortality rates and higher life expectancy, see National Academy of Sciences (2015) and Chetty et al (2016) for a recent large-scale study for the US. Income is correlated with many other relevant outcomes, particularly education, though there are careful studies, such as Elo and Preston (1996), that find separately protective effects of income and education, even when both are allowed for together with controls for age, geography, and ethnicity. These studies attempt to control for the obviously  important reverse effect of health on income by excluding those who are not in the labor force due to long-term physical or mental illness, or by not using income in the period(s) prior to death. Even so, there are likely also effects that are not eliminated in this way, for example, that operate through insults in childhood that impair both adult earnings and adult health. Nevertheless, it seems likely that income is protective of health, at least to some extent, even if it is overstated in the literature that does not allow for other factors.•

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Trumpism can perhaps best be described as all the ugly impulses of 1930s Fascism minus the social safety nets.

The current Administration just did their damndest to strip healthcare from the poorest Americans, many of whom supported the orange supremacist into the White House, a move, if it had succeeded, which would have literally killed off part of his base.

Several times during election season I wrote that despite the shocking nature of Trump’s anti-campaign, it really was in a larger sense business as usual for modern Republicans. As Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich sold Family Values hokum they never cared about in order to orchestrate tax breaks for the wealthy and fray social safety nets, the current President peddled protectionism, prejudice and profanity in the name of the same old financial predation.

In a smart Aeon essay, political scientist Sheri Berman recalls that the sustained political success of despots in Germany and Italy between the World Wars was possible in part due to the aggressive social welfare extended to long-suffering loyalists. The opening:

An analogy is haunting the United States – the analogy of fascism. It is virtually impossible (outside certain parts of the Right-wing itself) to try to understand the resurgent Right without hearing it described as – or compared with – 20th-century interwar fascism. Like fascism, the resurgent Right is irrational, close-minded, violent and racist. So goes the analogy, and there’s truth to it. But fascism did not become powerful simply by appealing to citizens’ darkest instincts. Fascism also, crucially, spoke to the social and psychological needs of citizens to be protected from the ravages of capitalism at a time when other political actors were offering little help.

The origins of fascism lay in a promise to protect people. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a rush of globalisation destroyed communities, professions and cultural norms while generating a wave of immigration. Right-wing nationalist movements promising to protect people from the pernicious influence of foreigners and markets arose, and frightened, disoriented and displaced people responded. These early fascist movements disrupted political life in some countries, but they percolated along at a relatively low simmer until the Second World War.•

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“No one has ever gone broke underestimating the taste of the American public,” wrote H.L. Mencken, who was a truly miserable bastard even when he was completely correct.

Some among us have profited wildly from the downmarket: P.T. Barnum, Robert L. Ripley, Chuck Barris, Howard Stern, wrestling promoters, Reality TV producers, and let us not forget, our current Commander-in-Chief, who pulled a con to make the Cardiff Giant scam seem puny by comparison. 

Exactly 150 years ago, Barnum made a play for a major political perch, though none nearly as bigly as the Presidency. The showman took a respite from peddling anomalies, curiosities and menageries to run for Congress in Connecticut. He already held a seat in the state legislature and would later serve as Mayor of Bridgeport, displaying in both posts a relatively progressive record on race and an abiding disdain for contraception. He was defeated, however, in the congressional contest by William Henry Barnum, who is often referred to as “no relation” but I believe was a distant cousin.

An article in the October, 1867 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which reported on Barnum’s failed bid to trade one sideshow for another, remarked on his less-than-honorable reaction to defeat, which included “trumped-up charges.”

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