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The New York Times Just Issued the Best Correction You'll Read All Week

| Thu Sep. 11, 2014 10:47 AM EDT
Former President Dick Cheney

On Tuesday, the New York Times ran the following correction on a story about Dick Cheney telling House Republicans to "embrace a strong military and reject a rising isolationism in his party":

Correction: September 9, 2014

An earlier version of a summary with this article misstated the former title of Dick Cheney. He was vice president, not president.

This is funny because many people believe that Cheney wielded an unprecedented level of influence over former President George W. Bush.

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The Rich Are Eating Richer, the Poor Are Eating Poorer

| Thu Sep. 11, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Over the past decade, the number of farmers markets nationwide has approximately doubled, and the community-supported agriculture model of farming, where people buy shares in the harvest of a nearby farms, has probably grown even faster. Has this explosion of local produce consumption improved Americans' diets? A couple of new studies paint a disturbing picture.

Here's Why Congressional Approval for War Is So Important

| Wed Sep. 10, 2014 10:52 PM EDT

In my previous post, I complained that I wasn't sure what would prevent further escalation in Iraq "aside from Obama's personal convictions." A friend emails to ask just what I'd like to see. In the end, aren't the president's personal convictions all that prevent any military operation from escalating?

It's a fair point, and I'm glad he brought it up. The answer, I think, lies in congressional approval for military action, and this is one of the reasons I think it's so important. If Obama is truly serious about not sending combat troops into ISIS-held areas in Iraq, then let's get a congressional resolution that puts that in writing. Let's get an authorization for war that spells out a geographical area; puts a limit on US troop deployments; and specifically defines what those troops can do.

Would this be airtight? Of course not. Presidents can always find a way to stretch things, and Congress can always decide to authorize more troops. But nothing is airtight—nor should it be. It's always possible that events on the ground really will justify stronger action someday. However, what it does do is simple: It forces the president to explicitly request an escalation and it forces Congress to explicitly authorize his request. At the very least, that prevents a slow, stealthy escalation that flies under the radar of public opinion.

Presidents don't like having their actions constrained. No one does. But in most walks of life that deal with power and the use of force, we understand that constraint is important. Surely, then, there's nowhere it's more important than in matters of war and peace. And that's one of the reasons that congressional authorization for war is so essential.

Obama's Iraq Speech: Light on Substance, and Maybe That's a Good Thing

| Wed Sep. 10, 2014 9:54 PM EDT

Well, that was pretty anticlimactic. Here is President Obama's shiny new plan for defeating ISIS:

  1. More airstrikes, including strikes in Syria.
  2. A few hundred advisors to work with Iraqi troops. They will provide training, equipment, and intelligence.
  3. Counterterrorism to prevent ISIS attacks.
  4. Humanitarian aid.

We are, presumably, already engaged in #3 and #4. We're partially engaged in #1. Basically, then Obama is proposing to (a) expand the air war and (b) provide more aid to the Iraqi army. That's really not an awful lot—which is fine with me.

Will this work? Airstrikes by themselves are obviously limited in what they can accomplish. They can frustrate ISIS plans in specific areas, but they can't do a lot more than that. As we've known all along, real success depends on the Iraqi military. Unfortunately, given the fact that we spent years training Iraqi forces and ended up with an army that cut and run at the first sight of ISIS forces, I have my doubts that further training will really do that much good. But if it doesn't, there's little we can do anyway. So it's probably our only option.

The big question, of course, is whether our assistance will stay limited. If the Iraqi military fails, as it may, will we start pouring in more troops? Obama was clear on this: "We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq." Still, sometimes events run away with things, and I'm not sure what's going to prevent a slow accretion of more and more US forces aside from Obama's personal convictions. This is a thinner reed than I'd like even if I believe that he's entirely sincere in his desire to avoid escalation. We'll just have to wait and see.

In any case, that's really all we got tonight. I'd like to write something longer and more insightful, but there just weren't enough specifics in the speech to justify that. The last third of the speech was mostly platitudes about partners, chairing a UN meeting, America is great, God bless the troops, etc. There wasn't an awful lot there.

Does the Web Seem Way Slow Today? It May Be Soon If You Don't Get in the FCC's Face

| Wed Sep. 10, 2014 6:14 PM EDT

No, the internet isn't actually broken today. Those spinning wheels of death you may have seen on Netflix, Tumblr, Reddit, Mozilla, and hundreds of other sites are part of Internet Slowdown Day, an effort to show what might happen if the internet actually did get broken by the bureaucrats at the Federal Communication Commission. The FCC will soon vote on a proposal to essentially eliminate net neutrality, the policy that forces internet providers such as Comcast and AT&T to treat all internet traffic the same. Here are five things you should know about what's happening today:

The Participating websites aren't actually slower: Not even Netflix is crazy enough to make a political statement by throttling itself. The spinning page-load symbols on participating sites are just widgets (see below), which anyone can download here. Some activists are also replacing their social media profile pics with images like this:

In this sense, Internet Slowdown Day is very similar to the SOPA blackout of 2012, when people and major sites across the internet blackened their logos and profile pictures to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have given the federal government wide latitude to enforce copyright law. SOPA showed that when major internet companies team up with grassroots activists, politicians tend to listen.

The real story is who is not participating: Although Google claims to support net neutrality, it's conspicuously silent about Internet Slowdown Day. Last year, Wired's Ryan Singel noted that the terms of service for Google Fiber, the company's relatively new ISP division, included some of the same provisions that Google had long decried as hostile to an open internet. By prohibiting customers from attaching "servers" to its network, Google Fiber was contradicting the principle of treating all packets of information equally, prompting Singel to accuse the search giant of a "flip-flop" on net neutrality. It's not that simple, of course, but tech companies such as Google clearly have much less to gain from net neutrality now that they're multibillion-dollar behemoths. Even if they don't take on the role of actual ISPs, large tech firms can easily afford to pay cable companies for faster service, creating a competitive firewall between their services and those offered by leaner startups.

In america, every day is already an internet slowdown day: Pushing internet traffic into "slow" lanes might be more tolerable if those lanes were still really fast in absolute terms. Sadly, however, the United States ranks a pathetic 25th among nations for download speeds:

This show is bigger than the superbowl: The net neutrality debate has generated a record 1,477,301 public comments to the FCC, the commission said today. As Politico notes, that breaks the previous record of 1.4 million complaints generated by Janet Jackson's 2004 wardrobe malfunction. The number of comments to the FCC will likely continue to grow as Internet Slowdown Day encourages visitors to voice their objections.

the fcc is not your friend: There's no question that the FCC is facing a public backlash against its plan to gut net neutrality. The question is whether the outrage will be sufficient to change its course. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is a major Obama bundler and former head of two major industry groups that staunchly oppose net neutrality. He's likely to side with the cable industry unless essentially forced to do otherwise. All of which is to say that the bar is incredibly high for Internet Slowdown Day. Until "net neutrality" becomes a household term, don't count on Washington to care about it.

Let's Not Give ISIS Exactly What They Want

| Wed Sep. 10, 2014 4:57 PM EDT

Yesterday I wrote a post noting that a supposedly war-weary public had suddenly become awfully war happy. "All it took," I said, "was a carefully stagecrafted beheading video and the usual gang of conservative jingoists to exploit it." Here's a Twitter conversation that followed (lightly edited for clarity):

DS: Think of what you wrote: "All it took was...beheading"? I opposed W's but this is what wars are made from & I think rightly so.

Me: Really? So any group anywhere in the world merely needs to commit an atrocity to draw us into war?

DS: On what other basis should wars be fought if not to stop groups from committing atrocities against Americans?

I'm not trying to pick on anyone in particular here, but it's pretty discouraging that this kind of attitude is so common. There's no question that the beheading of American citizens by a gang of vicious thugs is the kind of thing that makes your blood boil. Unless you hail from Vulcan, your gut reaction is that you want to find the barbarians who did this and crush them.

But that shouldn't be your final reaction. This is not an era of conventional military forces with overwhelming power and no real fear of blowback. It's an era of stateless terrorists whose ability to commit extremely public atrocities is pretty much unlimited. And while atrocities can have multiple motivations, one of the key reasons for otherwise pointless actions like one-off kidnappings and beheadings is their ability to either provoke overreactions or successfully extort ransoms. Unfortunately, Americans are stupidly addicted to the former and Europeans seem to be stupidly addicted to the latter, and that's part of what keeps this stuff going.

In any case, a moment's thought should convince you that we're being manipulated. We've read account after account about ISIS and its remarkably sophisticated command and publicity apparatus. The beheading video is part of that. It's a very calculated, very deliberate attempt to get us to respond stupidly. It's not even a very subtle manipulation. It's just an especially brutal one.

So if we're smart, we won't give them what they want. Instead we'll respond coldly and meticulously. We'll fight on our terms, not theirs. We'll intervene if and only if the Iraqi government demonstrates that it can take the lead and hold the ground they take. We'll forego magical thinking about counterinsurgencies. We won't commit Western troops in force because we know from experience that this doesn't work. We'll avoid pitched battles and instead take advantage of our chances when they arise. Time is on our side.

Above all, we won't allow a small band of medieval theocrats to manipulate us. We need to stop giving them exactly what they want. We need to stop doing stupid stuff.

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Book Review: The Human Age

| Wed Sep. 10, 2014 3:32 PM EDT
the human age

The Human Age

By Diane Ackerman

NORTON

Is humankind so dominant that we deserve our very own geologic era? Naturalist Diane Ackerman answers an emphatic "yes" in this ambitious survey of our brief reign on Earth. Despite pockets of purplish prose, The Human Age is a well-crafted and often compelling book: Orangutans with iPads, self-aware robots, and visionary fishermen are characters in her expansive story of how human advancement affects our lives and our environment. Ackerman is neither overly optimistic nor alarmist as she explores the pros and cons of humanity, expressing wonder and concern at all the things we're capable of.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones.

I Have Gone Over to the Dark Side

| Wed Sep. 10, 2014 2:12 PM EDT

I have gone over to the dark side. I've been on the edge for a while, playing passive-aggressive games with my copy editor, but I guess I might as well just fess up. I now routinely use they and them as gender-neutral singular pronouns.1

I'm not proud of this. But he or she has always grated on the ear. Likewise, using he some of the time and she some of the time is just too damn much work. And it's kind of confusing too. How careful are you going to be to use them equally? How much attention are you going to pay to make sure you aren't using them in gendered ways (he when you're writing about doctors, she when you're writing about nurses)? Etc.

What other options are there? None. You can write around the problem, but that usually produces a mess. There have been a few feeble attempts to invent new pronouns, but they've gone nowhere and never will. So we're stuck. The easiest thing is just to use they and them. Everyone knows what you mean, and except for us grammar pedants, nobody cares. I don't think I have the will to resist anymore. I have been assimilated.

1See the previous post for an example—and for the proximate cause of this post.

Mobile Payments: A Solution Still Searching For a Problem

| Wed Sep. 10, 2014 12:30 PM EDT

Lots of people are skeptical of Apple's new mobile payment system. Neil Irwin is one of them:

The core challenge Apple faces is that buying things with a credit card isn’t nearly as onerous a process as they make it out to be.

Mr. Cook showed a video at the product rollout of a woman burrowing in her purse for a credit card, navigating past a box of Tic Tacs — Tic Tacs! — and struggling to open her wallet in order to find her card, then being asked to show her driver’s license before completing the transaction. It had a lot in common, actually, with those infomercials in which actors manage to horribly bungle the most basic tasks until some new product solves a nonproblem.

This strikes me about the same way as those old Visa ads about the horrors of paying for your bottle of spring water with cash. You monster! How dare you impede the march of civilization! But just as cash is, in fact, pretty easy to use, Irwin's core observation is that paying with a credit card is pretty easy too, especially for low-dollar purchases that require only a quick swipe. Using your mobile phone doesn't really provide much of an advantage.

But wait! Maybe credit cards really do pose problems. Because I'm a grumpy old man, I often find myself muttering under my breath at the supermarket checkout line. Why? Because there's someone ahead of me who apparently has never used a credit card before to pay for anything. They wait until the entire purchase is rung up. Then it suddenly occurs to them that they'll be required to offer payment for all this stuff. Then they retrieve their card. Then they stare at the card reader as if it had been designed by Martians. Then they stare at it some more. Then the checker tells them to push the button that says "Approve." Etc.

This is annoying to people like me who are easily annoyed. But here's the problem: will mobile payments make things better? I guess it's possible, but my 30 years of experience with computing devices doesn't make me hopeful. How likely is it that people who still have trouble with card swipers, which have been around for decades, will be seamlessly waving their iPhones around with no problems and no breakdowns? I dunno. Maybe Apple is the company that can finally make it happen. But until I see the real-life evidence, my guess is that it will be about as seamless as trying to teach people how to change the privacy settings on their Facebook account.

There really are issues with credit cards as payment devices. They're fairly easily stolen and they're pretty insecure. Still, these things are relative. As long as you use a credit card instead of a debit card, you're not responsible for most losses, and various forms of modern technology have made credit cards much more secure than in the past. And as Irwin points out, they're pretty easy to use. It's just possible that the Steve Jobs reality distortion field could have convinced everyone otherwise, but I'm not sure Tim Cook is up to the task.

Yet More Data Suggests That Health Care Costs Really Are Slowing Down

| Wed Sep. 10, 2014 10:55 AM EDT

Jonathan Cohn points us to the latest Kaiser/HRET survey of employer health plans and passes along some good news:

Its main finding: This year, the average annual price of a single person’s coverage is $6,025 and the average annual price for a family policy is $16,834. (Those are the full prices for coverage, including the portion that employers pay directly.)

That’s a lot of money, obviously. But the cost of the family policy is only 3 percent higher than it was last year, and the cost of the single policy rose by even less....What to think about this? Generally speaking, it’s a positive development when premiums aren’t rising too quickly, since it means that workers have more money in their paychecks.

....Critics of the Affordable Care Act insisted it would cause employers to jack up premiums. There’s no evidence of that happening. And of course this data is consistent with all the other recent data we’ve gotten on health care spending under Obamacare. National health care spending, the amount of money we spend as a country, is rising at historically low rates.

I'd place a fair amount of emphasis on that last point. The chart on the right shows the annual increase in premiums for family coverage since 2000. As you can see, premium increases have been falling pretty steadily during the entire period. In the early aughts, employers were routinely seeing double-digit increases. But in the past few years, that's dropped to around 3-4 percent, which is only slightly higher than the general rate of inflation.

This is all consistent with other data on health care inflation rates, which shows a fluctuating but steady decrease since the early 80s and an even more concrete decrease over the past decade. Obviously this trend has nothing to do with Obamacare, which is benefiting from a bit of a tailwind here.

At the same time, Cohn is right to point out that Obamacare critics all insisted that it would cause premiums to skyrocket. It didn't. Some premiums went up thanks to new minimum requirements for coverage and the start of community rating, which requires insurance companies to cover everyone, even those with preexisting conditions. But that mostly affected the individual market, and even there premium increases have been pretty manageable for the vast majority of people.

How long will this slowdown in health care inflation last? My guess is that it's more or less permanent. It will vary a bit from year to year, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it hit 3-4 points above the general inflation rate in some years. But the downward trend has been in place for three decades now, and that's long enough to suggest that it was the double-digit increases of the 80s and early 90s that were the outliers. Aside from those spikes, the current smaller increases are roughly similar to health care spending increases over the past half century.