Franklin Foer

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The ideal of leadership in the soft-serve brain of Donald Trump is Vladimir Putin, a swaggering capo with nuclear capabilities, John Gotti topped by a Ushanka, a Bond villain painted so broadly that even the hideous hotelier, who understands politics in the same way that Elmer Fudd understands rabbits, can sort of get it.

Trump has long lusted for a piece of real estate in Russia to call his own, hoping to land his brand in a state known for suspect, remorseless dealings among oligarchs. For 25 years, it’s been a country of the gaudiest capitalism, a place seemingly made for a mogul who dines on vanilla ice cream and shits gold paint.

Putin, a 20th-century leader stuck in the wrong era, is forcing his nation into a past that no longer exists, fiddling while the oil burns. It’s no shock he’s pulling hard for a strongman wannabe in Trump to win the White House. What is bad for us is good for him, or at least that’s the plan.

In a smart Slate piece, Franklin Foer masterfully traces Trump’s lengthy flirtation with Moscow. An excerpt:

One of the important facts about Trump is his lack of creditworthiness. After his 2004 bankruptcy and his long streak of lawsuits, the big banks decided he wasn’t worth the effort. They’d rather not touch the self-proclaimed “king of debt.” This sent him chasing less conventional sources of cash. BuzzFeed has shown, for instance, his efforts to woo Muammar Qaddafi as an investor. Libyan money never did materialize. It was Russian capital that fueled many of his signature projects—that helped him preserve his image as a great builder as he recovered from bankruptcy.

The money didn’t come directly. Hunting for partners with cash, he turned to a small upstart called the Bayrock Group, which would pull together massive real estate deals using the Trump name. Its chairman was a former Soviet official named Tevfik Arif, who made a small fortune running luxe hotels in Turkey. To run Bayrock’s operation, Arif hired Felix Satter, a Soviet-born, Brighton Beach–bred college dropout. Satter changed his name to Sater, likely to distance himself from the criminal activity that a name-check would easily turn up. As a young man, Saterserved time for slashing a man’s face with a broken margarita glass in a barroom brawl. The Feds also busted him for a working in a stock brokerage tied to four different Mafia families, which made $40 million off fraudulent trades. One lawsuit would later describe “Satter’s proven history of using mob-like tactics to achieve his goals.” Another would note that he threatened a Trump investor with the prospect of the electrocution of his testicles, the amputation of his leg, and his corpse residing in the trunk of Sater’s car.
“Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment,” Trump said. “We will be in Moscow at some point.”

What was Trump thinking entering into business with partners like these?•

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Here are 25 pieces of journalism from this year, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me.

  • Exodus” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A brilliant longform piece that lifts off with Elon Musk’s mission to Mars and veers in deep and mysterious directions.
  • Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) Nobody speaks truth to race in America quite like Coates, and the outrage of Ferguson was the impetus for this spot-on piece about the deeply institutionalized prejudice of government, national and local, in the U.S.
  • The Golden Age of Journalism?” (Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch) The landscape has never been more brutal for news nor more promising. The author luxuriates in the richness destabilization has wrought.
  • Amazon Must Be Stopped” (Franklin Foer, The New Republic) Before things went completely haywire at the company, Foer returned some sanity to the publication in the post-Peretz period. This lucid article argues that Amazon isn’t becoming a monopoly but already qualifies as one.
  • America in Decay” (Francis Fukuyama, Foreign Affairs) Strong argument that the U.S. public sector is so dysfunctional because of a betrayal of meritocracy in favor of special interests and lobbyists. The writer’s idea of what constitutes a merit-based system seems flawed, but he offers many powerful ideas.
  • What’s the Matter With Russia?” (Keith Gessen, Foreign Affairs) An insightful meditation about Putin’s people, who opt to to live in a fairy tale despite knowing such a thing can never have a happy ending.
  • The Dying Russians(Masha Gessen, New York Review of Books) Analysis of Russia’s high mortality rate suggests that the root cause is not alcohol, guns or politics, but simply hopelessness.  
  • Soak the Rich” (David Graeber, Thomas Piketty) Great in-depth exchange between two thinkers who believe capitalism has run amok, but only one of whom thinks it’s run its course.
  • The First Smile(Michael Graziano, Aeon) The Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor attempts to explain why facial expressions appear to be natural and universal.
  • The Creepy New Wave of the Internet” (Sue Halpern, New York Review of Books) The author meditates on the Internet of Things, which may make the world much better and much worse, quantifying us like never before.
  • Super-Intelligent Humans Are Coming” (Stephen Hsu, Nautilus) A brisk walk through the process of genetic modification, which would lead to heretofore unknown brain power.
  • All Dressed Up For Mars and Nowhere to Go” (Elmo Keep, Matter) A sprawling look at the seeming futility of the MarsOne project ultimately gets at a more profound pointlessness–pursuing escape in a dying universe.
  • The Myth of AI” (Jaron Lanier, Edge) Among other things, this entry draws a neat comparison between the religionist’s End of Days and the technologist’s Singularity, the Four Horseman supposedly arriving in driverless cars.
  • The Disruption Machine” (Jill Lepore, The New Yorker) The “D” word, its chief promulgator, Clayton M. Christensen, and its circuitous narratives, receive some disruption of their own.
  • The Longevity Gap(Linda Marsa, Aeon) A severely dystopian thought experiment: Will the parallels of widening income disparity and innovations in medicine lead to two very different lifespans for the haves and have-nots?
  • The Genetics Epidemic” (Jamie F. Metzl, Foreign Affairs) Genetic modification studied from an uncommon angle, that of national-security concerns.
  • My Captivity(Theo Padnos, The New York Times Magazine) A harrowing autobiographical account of an American journalist’s hostage ordeal in the belly of the beast in Syria.
  • We Are a Camera” (Nick Paumgarten, The New Yorker) In a time of cheap, ubiquitous cameras, the image, merely an imitation, is ascendant, and any event unrecorded seemingly has less currency. The writer examines the strangeness of life in the GoPro flow.
  • A Goddamn Death Dedication” (Alex Pappademas, Grantland) A knowing postmortem about Casey Kasem, America’s deejay when the world was hi-fi but before it became sci-fi.
  • In Conversation: Chris Rock” (Frank Rich, New York) The exchange about “black progress” is an example of what comedy does at its best: It points out an obvious truth that so many have missed.
  • The Mammoth Cometh” (Nathaniel Rich, The New York Times Magazine) A piece which points out that de-extinct animals won’t be exactly like their forebears, nor will augmented humans of the future be just like us. It’s progress, probably.
  • Hello, My Name Is Stephen Glass, and I’m Sorry(Hanna Rosin, The New Republic) Before the implosion of the publication, the writer wondered what it would mean to forgive her former coworker, an inveterate fabulist and liar, and what it would mean if she could not forgive.
  • Gilbert Gottfried: New York Punk” (Jay Ruttenberg, The Lowbrow Reader) Written by the only person on the list whom I know personally, but no cronyism is necessary for the inclusion of this excellent analysis of the polarizing comic, who’s likely more comfortable when at his most alienating.

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Many of the new corporations of the Information Age have been ostensibly good for consumers, with costs neatly hidden. For instance: Google and Facebook are completely free products, until you consider that you are the product. Amazon’s deep discounts have put all manner of cheap goods in consumers’ hands, great tools like books and tablets and smartphones, but competitors and producers have felt an increasing pinch. Eventually the earth is scorched and prices are largely in the hands of one company and the pipeline seriously shortened. Do the benefits outweigh the costs or vice versa?

In a New Republic article, Franklin Foer makes a convincing case that Amazon is already a clear monopoly, which has brought a virtual Walmartization to America. Those cheap items–Sam Walton’s or Jeff Bezos’–come at a dear price, he argues, favoring the purchaser in the short run but obliterating competitors and suppliers all the while. (And that doesn’t even begin to mention the treatment of workers who are made small so that prices can be likewise tiny.) An excerpt in which Foer looks at the disconnect between Industrial Age laws which govern monopolies and the megacorporations of the Information Age:

“Shopping on Amazon has so ingrained itself in modern American life that it has become something close to our unthinking habit, and the company has achieved a level of dominance that merits the application of a very old label: monopoly. 

That term doesn’t get tossed around much these days, but it should. Amazon is the shining representative of a new golden age of monopoly that also includes Google and Walmart. Unlike U.S. Steel, the new behemoths don’t use their barely challenged power to hike up prices. They are, in fact, self-styled servants of the consumer and have ushered in an era of low prices for everything from flat-screen TVs to paper napkins to smart phones. 

In other words, we’re all enjoying the benefits of these corporations far too much to think hard about distant dangers. Besides, the ideology of Silicon Valley suggests that we have nothing much to fear: If these firms no longer engineer breathtaking technologies, they will be creatively destroyed. That’s why Peter Thiel, the creator of PayPal, has argued that the term ‘monopoly’ should be stripped of its negative connotation. A monopoly, he argues, is really nothing more than a synonym for a highly successful company. Insulation from the brutish spirit of competition even makes them superior organizations—more beneficent employers, better able to both daydream and think clearly. In Thiel’s phrasing: ‘Creative monopolies aren’t just good for the rest of society; they’re powerful engines for making it better.’

Thiel makes an important point: The Internet-age monopolies are a different species; they flummox our conventional ways of thinking about corporate concentration and have proved especially elusive to those who ponder questions of antitrust, the discipline of law that aims to curb threats to the competitive marketplace. Part of the issue is the laws themselves, which were conceived to manage an industrial economy—and have, over time, evolved to focus on a specific set of narrow questions that have little to do with the core problem at hand.”


Two World Cup-related excerpts from Franklin Foer, New Republic editor and football fanatic. The first is from an Ask Me Anything at Reddit and the second from his excellent TNR article about the mixed legacy of Brazilian soccer, including a largely forgotten chapter in Pele’s life.



What do you think of the protests in Brazil? Is hosting the World Cup good for the people of Brazil in the long run?

Franklin Foer:

Over the past decade, the Brazilian middle class has exploded. A broad swath of the population has been lifted from poverty. This is a great thing and an amazing accomplishment of Lula’s party, the PT. But the new middle class has very sensible concerns about the expenditure of public money. They are asking very wise questions about a ridiculous 11 billion price tag; they aren’t falling for the old bread-and-circus routine. I don’t foresee the protests in Brazil spinning violently out of control. In the long run, this tournament isn’t great for Brazil. It highlights the country’s shortcomings, rather than affirming its greatness. I wish the Brazilians had focused their infrastructure planning and expenditure on a more limited number of cities and venues. This would have contained costs and created a greater likelihood of success.”


From The New Republic:

“Over time, Brazil grew dangerously dependent on soccer. It came to define the nation in the eyes of the world, and it played an outsized role in its own sense of self-worth. Victories came so easily during the ’60s and ’70s that the country didn’t just demand trophies; they wanted those triumphs procured with what Freyre called Futebol Arte and what the world knows as Jogo Bonito, the beautiful game. As one coach of the national team complained, ‘It got to the point where we beat Bolivia 6-0 and one newspaper in São Paulo accused us of playing defensively.’

The almost unbearable pressure on managers inevitably led the team away from improvisational genius. The tactics used to win the 1994 World Cupperhaps the worst World Cup of them allsquelched inventiveness and favored the deployment of pragmatic hard men, who had a greater skill at knocking opponents off the ball than running at them with step-over dribbling.

And there was a far graver cost to success than that. Dictators and aspiring dictators skillfully harnessed mass enthusiasm for the game. Getúlio Vargas, the authoritarian leader who presided from 1930 to 1945, explicitly used soccer to create a new sense of national identity, a campaign of brasilidade, or Brazilizationand to ballast his own power. He built stadiums, then held rallies in them. His successors mimicked this approach. During the reign of the military dictatorship in the ’70s, the government plastered Pelé’s face on posters alongside its slogan: ‘NOBODY CAN STOP THIS COUNTRY NOW.’

Pelé, it should be remembered as you watch him in commercials for Subway’s $5 foot-long, didn’t just lend his visage to the cause; he spoke up on behalf of the dictatorship. ‘We are a free people. Our leaders know what is best for [us],’ he said in 1972. At that very moment, the writer David Zirin has noted, Brazil’s current president, Dilma Rousseff, was being tortured in prison.”

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Every now and then, the perfect writer meets the perfect subject. Such is the case with Franklin Foer’s article of a doomed May-December D.C. relationship in this week’s New York Times Magazine. An excerpt fromThe Worst Marriage in Georgetown,” a love story, among other things:

From their first date, Viola and Albrecht enjoyed provoking one another. At night, they would lie in their separate beds, arguing in German. But every so often, their disagreements would escalate. In 1992, Muth was convicted of beating Drath, the beginning of a rap sheet that hardly reflects the many lesser occasions of abuse. Once when they were staying at the Plaza Hotel, he threw her clothes into the hall and locked her out of the room. ‘He has all my credit cards,’ she told Gary Ulmen on the phone, who rushed to the hotel and lent her cash to buy a train ticket back to Washington.

Where Drath nursed deep feelings ­and wrote passionately about her love for him, Muth was in the relationship for something else. He described their marriage as transactional, an example of a Washington coupling where husband and wife merge in order to aggregate their talents and social capital. When a local television reporter named Kris Van Cleave asked Muth how his marriage overcame so many obstacles, Muth replied, ‘Why does Secretary Clinton remain with President Clinton?’

Perhaps Drath should have suspected that he was gay earlier — he was actively having affairs with men. But once she came to terms with Muth’s sexual orientation, he did little to disguise it. He even briefly moved in with a boyfriend in 2002. ‘He was the boy, she was the wife,’ Muth explained in an e-mail he sent to friends. ‘You have the one for one set of reasons, the other another, the lives were fully integrated.’ They were so integrated that the boyfriend suffered the same abuse as the wife. When Muth threatened to kill him, he obtained a restraining order.

In May 2006, Drath was eating dinner on her couch while Muth sat on the other side of the room, drunk. Your daughter isn’t a lawyer, he blared to his wife, she’s a saleswoman. (In fact, she is a judge in Los Angeles.) It might have been best to let Muth rant, but Drath defended her daughter, telling Muth that he wasn’t smart enough to get into law school. According to the detectives’ report, he responded by swinging a chair at her, knocking her from the sofa and then repeatedly pounding her head against the floor. The next morning, Drath escaped to her daughter’s home and phoned 911. When the police finally arrested Muth, he left Drath behind — an exit everyone close to her hoped would be final.”

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