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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.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 10, 2014

Wed Sep. 10, 2014 10:06 AM EDT

US Marines perform a diving exit during pre-deployment training. (US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Todd F. Michalek)

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Video or It Didn’t Happen: What Jihadi John Knows and Ray Rice Found Out

| Tue Sep. 9, 2014 9:44 PM EDT

One of the most famous anecdotes from the Reagan years comes from Lesley Stahl, then a reporter for the CBS Evening News. After airing a long, critical piece during the 1984 campaign, she got a cheerful call from Dick Darman at the White House. "We really loved it," he said. "Five minutes of free media." Dan Schill tells the rest of the story:

Stahl asked, "Why are you so happy? Didn't you hear what I said?" Giving the punch line of the parable, Darman said to Stahl, "You guys in Televisionland haven't figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. I mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you."

Stahl said she examined her piece again, this time with the sound off, and found that the Reagan official was right—her story had accepted the Reagan frame and was practically an unpaid political commercial—a brilliant montage of Reagan surrounded with flags, children, balloons, and cheering supporters.

Asked if this experience changed the way she produces her stories, Stahl said, "Not really. I'm still trapped, because my pieces are written to the pictures we have."

I was reminded of this story once again yesterday when TMZ released elevator video of Ray Rice slugging his then fiancée and knocking her unconscious. It was a brutal attack and reaction was swift and uncompromising. Rice was released by the Baltimore Ravens, the NFL suspended him indefinitely, and his sponsors began abandoning him almost immediately.

And yet, that video told us nothing. We already knew what had happened. Based on previous video, we knew that Rice had punched Janay Palmer hard enough to knock her out. We just didn't have it on tape.

And it's not only the NFL that reacted differently after the new video was released. Even the folks who criticized the league's anemic response back in February are now far more outraged. The video affected everyone's reaction.

Why? Is it the visceral effect of images? Does it have something to do with an instinct to avoid drawing the most damning conclusions until an image makes it impossible to evade the truth any longer? Or is it all a charade, and lots of people are just pretending to be more outraged because they know it's now expected of them?

I don't know. But the internet is now the domain of LOLcats, BuzzFeed listicles, and charts of the day—the latter for those of us who like images but also like to believe we're too smart to be manipulated by them. The fastest growing social media sites are Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, and others like it. Blogs are often so stuffed with YouTube videos that you can refill your coffee cup while you wait for them to load. Millions of formerly peaceable people—people who already knew perfectly well that ISIS was a barbarous bunch of thugs—suddenly want to go to war because we now have pictures of that barbarism. Images rule everywhere. It's not just Lesley Stahl who's trapped in Lesley Stahl's world anymore. We all are.

Pentagon and Other Agencies Slammed for Police Militarization at Senate Hearing

| Tue Sep. 9, 2014 5:07 PM EDT
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo) at the Senate hearing.

In a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing Tuesday, Democratic and Republican lawmakers slammed officials from the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice for their handling of federal programs that help provide military grade vehicles, equipment, and weapons to local police departments across the country. The hearing was called in response to the events that took place in Ferguson, Missouri, after an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a white police officer, and peaceful protests were met by a heavily militarized police force. "Aggressive police actions [were] being used under the umbrella of 'crowd control,'" noted Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

The panel grilled Alan Estevez, a Department of Defense agent dealing with logistics and acquisition of military equipment; Brian Kamoie, a federal grant regulator at the Department of Homeland Security; and Karol Mason, an attorney from the Department of Justice.

Senators questioned why certain military equipment was on the Pentagon's list of acceptable items for local police departments. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) declared that police militarization gives him "real heartburn" and wondered "how did we get to the point where we think states needs MRAPS"—that is, mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, which have been acquired by a large number of small police departments across the country. In Texas, McCaskill noted, police departments have more than 70 MRAPS, while the state National Guard has just six.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) questioned what police departments could possibly do with the 1,200 bayonets that have been issued in recent years. The Pentagon's Alan Estevez replied that he was unsure. Throughout the hearing, members of the panel underscored the point that police officers are often not adequately trained in how (and when) to use the military-grade equipment their departments acquire. The Pentagon doesn't require police departments to undergo any training before supplying them MRAPS and other military equipment.

Estevez testified that the Pentagon would reevaluate its list of acceptable equipment for police departments. But Brian Kamoie, the Homeland Security official, and the Justice Department's Karol Mason, both acknowledged that their agencies don't do much to regulate how police departments use the grant money they dole out to local law enforcement.

McCaskill condemned the Department of Defense and the other agencies for their lack of oversight over the use of military equipment by local police. "None of them know how it's being utilized," McCaskill said. She pointed out that a police department in Lake Angelus, Michigan, which employs only one police officer, has received 13 military grade assault weapons since 2011. "I think we need to get to the bottom of that," McCaskill said.

Watch the hearing here:

Ebola Is Getting So Bad That Even House Republicans Will Back New Funds to Fight It

| Tue Sep. 9, 2014 4:00 PM EDT
Medical staffers tend to patients infected with the Ebola virus in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

Despite some worries last week that spending-averse Republicans might not support additional funding to fight Ebola, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), the chair of the House appropriations committee, said late Monday that House GOPers will back new money to combat the spread of the disease.

Lawmakers are currently negotiating a temporary spending bill that would fund the government's operations through December. Late Friday, the White House asked Congress to add $30 million to this stopgap spending measure to pay Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staff in the United States and Africa. That came on top of $58 million the administration already requested to accelerate the production and testing of new drugs and maintain the development of two experimental Ebola vaccines, bringing the total White House request for Ebola-related funds to $88 million. Rogers wouldn't say whether Republicans would agree to fund the full amount.

The House is due to vote on the bill on Thursday.

If approved, the new money will add to a slow but growing American relief effort, as government agencies steer their budgets to fight Ebola, following calls from the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders to dramatically step up their involvement. On Monday, the Pentagon announced it would deploy one $22 million, 25-person field hospital to Liberia, the current epicenter of the epidemic. The hospital—part of a wider effort coordinated by the US Agency for International Development (USAID)—will be turned over to the Liberian government as soon as it's built and will not be staffed by American government employees.

But with Liberia's medical staff stretched thin, finding the right people to staff the hospital may prove difficult. Liberia's health care system—already strained before the outbreak with one doctor for every 100,000 people—has been hit hard by Ebola. Since the outbreak began, 152 medical workers have contracted the disease in Liberia, the WHO said on Monday, about 7 percent of all suspected and confirmed patients. Seventy-nine of these medical workers have died from the disease.

A single 70-bed facility needs 200 to 250 medical personnel to staff it, according to WHO, and Liberia "urgently needs" 1,000 more beds to treat the currently infected patients.

While there's no cure or approved treatment for Ebola, hospitals and treatment centers are needed to quarantine infected patients. In its statement, the WHO said that sick people in Liberia's capital, Monrovia, were traversing town in taxis looking for a hospital bed, bringing the disease—which is spread through bodily fluids such as blood and saliva—into the city's public transit system.

In a statement to Mother Jones, a spokesman for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), one of the few medical groups which has been actively fighting the disease since the outbreak, said that organization had also dramatically increased its budget for the effort to almost $39 million today. Still, he said, this would not be enough to stave off the disease. 

"Much more help is needed from actors other than MSF," he said.

The most recent figures released by the WHO reported more than 2,000 people either known or believed to have been infected with Ebola, and more than 1,200 known or believed to have been killed in Liberia since the outbreak was first detected in March. More than 2,000 are believed to have been infected and more than 1,000 killed elsewhere in West Africa since the outbreak began, almost all of them in Guinea and Sierra Leone. About 49 percent of the infections in these three countries occurred in the last three weeks. 

On Monday, the WHO said infections in Liberia were increasing "exponentially." On Tuesday, the country's defense minister, Brownie Samukai, called Ebola the worst threat to the country since its last civil war ended in 2003. "Liberia is facing a serious threat to its national existence," he said of the epidemic.

Almost All the Books People Say Influenced Them Were Written for Children

| Tue Sep. 9, 2014 3:40 PM EDT

Recently, a status update ran around Facebook asking people to "List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don't take more than a few minutes, and don't think too hard. They do not have to be the 'right' books or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way." Facebook's data scientists went though 130,000 responses and came up with a list of the 100 most common entries.

It should be noted that though the books may not have had to be the "right books" or "great works of literature," human nature being what it is, most of the titles on the list are, in fact, the 'right books,' by which i mean, books you can proudly define yourself as a reader of. ("I am the type of person who was affected by To Kill A Mocking Bird." "I am the type of person whose political opinions were formed by 1984.")  No one is listing Fifty Shades of Gray. They are listing books that they think say something complimentary about who they are as a person.

Almost all of these books are YA. They may not be in the YA section at Barnes & Noble, but children and adolescents are their primary audience. On the one hand, duh: People are most open to being affected by books when they're young. Also, duh duh: Most people probably stop reading much fiction when they leave high school and are no longer required to. On the other hand, one of the books that probably affected me when I was growing up was the forgettable crime novel Silent Witness by Richard North Patterson. I read it when I was about 10 because my father was reading it and I wanted him to like me and for us to have something to talk about. That's not to say you too were influenced by Silent Witness, but that, I think, that phenomenon—reading books aspirationally for social reasons—is pretty common and I'm surprised there aren't more straightforward adult titles on this list.

One other fun fact: There are no Ayn Rand books on this list.

Without further ado, here are the top 20 along with what percent of responses included the title:
1. Harry Potter series - J.K. Rowling - 21.08%
2. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee - 14.48%
3. The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien - 13.86%
4. The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien - 7.48%
5. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen - 7.28%
6. The Holy Bible - 7.21%
7. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams 5.97%
8. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins - 5.82%
9. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger - 5.70%
10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald - 5.61%
11. 1984 by George Orwell - 5.37%
12. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott - 5.26%
13. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - 5.23%
14. The Stand by Stephen King - 5.11%
15. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell - 4.95%
16. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle - 4.38%
17. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood - 4.27%
18. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis - 4.05%
19. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho - 4.01%
20. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery - 3.95%

Head on over to Facebook for the full 100 titles and some neat data visualizations.