Here's Why "Arming the Opposition" Usually Doesn't Work

| Sat Oct. 3, 2015 9:54 PM EDT

I routinely mock the tiresomely predictable calls from conservative hawks to "arm the opposition." It never seems to matter who the opposition is. Nor does it matter if we're already arming them. If we are, then we need to send them even better arms. Does this do any good? Can allied forces always benefit from more American arms and training? That gets tactfully left unsaid.

Today, Phil Carter, who has firsthand experience with this, writes a longer piece explaining just why the theory of indirect military assistance is so wobbly in practice:

The theory briefs well as a way to achieve U.S. goals without great expenditure of U.S. blood and treasure. Unfortunately, decades of experience (including the current messes in Iraq and Syria) suggest that the theory works only in incredibly narrow situations in which states need just a little assistance. In the most unstable places and in the largest conflagrations, where we tend to feel the greatest urge to do something, the strategy crumbles.

It fails first and most basically because it hinges upon an alignment of interests that rarely exists between Washington and its proxies.

....Second, the security-assistance strategy gives too much weight to the efficacy of U.S. war-fighting systems and capabilities....For security assistance to have any chance, it must build on existing institutions, adding something that fits within or atop a partner’s forces....But giving night-vision goggles and F-16 aircraft to a third-rate military like the Iraqi army won’t produce a first-rate force, let alone instill the will to fight.

....The third problem with security assistance is that it risks further destabilizing already unstable situations and actually countering U.S. interests. As in Syria, we may train soldiers who end up fighting for the other side or provide equipment that eventually falls into enemy hands.

There are some things we should have learned over the past couple of decades, and one of them is this: "train-and-equip" missions usually don't work. Sometimes they do, as in Afghanistan in the 80s. But that's the rare success. In Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan in the aughts, they failed.

So why do we hear cries to arm our allies during practically every conflict? Because it turns out there aren't very many good choices in between doing nothing and launching a full-scale ground war. One option is aerial support and bombing. Another option is arming someone else's troops. So if you know the public won't support an invasion with US troops, but you still want to show that you're more hawkish than whoever's in charge now, your only real alternative is to call for one or the other of these things—or both—regardless of whether they'll work.

And of course, the louder the better. It might not help the war effort any, but it sure will help your next reelection campaign.

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Gun Control's Biggest Problem: Most People Just Don't Care Very Much

| Sat Oct. 3, 2015 12:02 PM EDT

David Atkins writes about the problem of getting gun control legislation passed:

There is a broadening schism in the activist community between those who focus on nuts-and-bolts electoral and legislative politics, and those who spend their energy on issue-area visibility and engagement....Election work and party involvement is increasingly seen as the unhip, uncool, morally compromised province of social climbers and "brogressives" not truly committed to the supposedly "real work" of social justice engagement by non-electoral means.

....There is certainly great value in persuasion, engagement and visibility model....But gun politics in the United States shows above all the weaknesses and limits of the engagement model. The vast majority of Americans support commonsense gun laws....Numerous organizations have engaged in countless petitions and demonstrations to shame legislators into action from a variety of perspectives, but it essentially never works.

....The reason that the United States cannot seem to do anything about guns is simply that the NRA and the vocal minority of the nation's gun owners mobilize to vote on the issue, while the large majority that favors gun safety laws does not....Gun control will pass precisely when legislators become more afraid of the votes of gun control supporters than they are of gun control opponents. That will only happen when interested organizations invest in field work—that much maligned, unsexy work of precinct walking and phonebanking—to mobilize voters on that issue, and when liberal organizations work to unseat Democrats who do the bidding of the NRA and replace them with ones who vote to protect the people.

I'm not sure Atkins has this right. The problem is in the second bolded sentence: "The vast majority of Americans support commonsense gun laws." There's some truth to this, but there's also a big pitfall here, and it's one that liberals are especially vulnerable to. I routinely read lefties who quote polls to show that the country agrees with us on pretty much everything. Voters support teachers, they support the environment, they support financial reform, they support gun control.

But this is a bad misreading of what polls can tell us. There are (at least) two related problems here:

  • Most polls don't tell us how deeply people feel. Sure, lots of American think that universal background checks are a good idea, but they don't really care that much. In a recent Gallup poll of most important problems, gun control ranked 22nd, with only 2 percent rating it their most important issue. Needless to say, though, gun owners are opposed to background checks, and they care a lot.
  • Most polls don't tell us about the tradeoffs people are willing to make. In the abstract, sure, maybe a majority of Americans think we should make it harder to buy guns. But if there's a real-world price to pay how willing are they to pay it? A few months ago, a Pew poll that pitted gun control against gun rights found that gun rights won by 52-46 percent.

There are lots of polls, and some of them probably show a greater intensity among those who support gun control. A lot depends on question wording. But that's sort of my point: If you get substantially different responses because of small changes in question wording or depending on which precise issues you ask about (background checks vs. assault weapons, gun locks vs. large-capacity magazines) that's a sign of low intensity.

Atkins is certainly right that Democratic legislators won't act on gun control until voters are mobilized, but that puts the cart before the horse. You can't mobilize voters on an issue they don't really care much about in the first place. In this case, I think the folks who prioritize issue-area visibility and engagement probably have the better of the argument. Until voters who favor gun control feel as strongly as those who oppose it, all the field work in the world won't do any good.

"Employees Are Bitter" as Whole Foods Chops Jobs and Wages

| Sat Oct. 3, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Whole Foods Market co-CEO and co-founder John Mackey has never hidden his disdain for labor unions. "Today most employees feel that unions are not necessary to represent them," he told my colleague Josh Harkinson in 2013. That same year, Mackey echoed the sentiment in an interview with Yahoo Finance's the Daily Ticker. "Why would they want to join a union? Whole Foods has been one of [Fortune's] 100 best companies to work for for the last 16 years. We're not so much anti-union as beyond unions.”

On September 25, the natural-foods giant gave its workers reason to question their founder's argument. Whole Foods announced it was eliminating 1,500 jobs—about 1.6 percent of its American workforce—"as part of its ongoing commitment to lower prices for its customers and invest in technology upgrades while improving its cost structure." The focus on cost-cutting isn't surprising—Whole Foods stock has lost 40 percent of its value since February, thanks to lower-than-expected earnings and an overcharging scandal in its New York City stores.

Supervisors "in all departments were demoted...and told they were no longer supervisors, but still had to fulfill all of the same duties."

Sources inside the company told me that the layoffs targeted experienced full-time workers who had moved up the Whole Foods pay ladder. In one store in the chain's South region, "all supervisors in all departments were demoted to getting paid $11 an hour from $13-16 per hour and were told they were no longer supervisors, but still had to fulfill all of the same duties, effective immediately," according to an employee who works there.

I ran that claim past a spokesman at the company's Austin headquarters. "We appreciate you taking the time to reach out and help us to set the record straight," he responded, pointing to the press release quoted above. When I reminded him that my question was about wage cuts, not the announced job cuts, he declined to comment.

Another source, from one of Whole Foods' regional offices, told me the corporate headquarters had ordered all 11 regional offices to reduce expenses. "They've all done it differently," the source said. "In some regions, they've reduced the number of in-store buyers—people who order products for the shelves."

I spoke with a buyer from the South region who learned on Saturday that, after more than 20 years with the company, his position had been eliminated. He and other laid-off colleagues received a letter listing their options: They could reapply for an open position or "leave Whole Foods immediately" with a severance package—which will be sweetened if they agree not to reapply for six months. If laid-off employees manage to snag a new position that pays less than the old one did, they are eligible for a temporary pay bump to match the old wage, but only for a limited time.

Whole Foods has "always been an 80/20 company" in its ratio of full- to part-time workers, but managers are now "incentivized to bring down that ratio."

Those fortunate enough to get rehired at the same pay rate may be signing up for more work and responsibility. At his store, the laid-off buyer told me, ex-workers are now vying for buyer positions that used to be handled by two people—who "can barely get their work done as it is." 

My regional office source told me that the layoffs and downscaling of wages for experienced staffers is part of a deliberate shift toward part-time employees. Whole Foods has "always been an 80/20 company," the source said, referring to it ratio of full- to part-time workers. Recently, a "mandate came down to go 70/30, and there are regions that are below that: 65/35 or 60/40." Store managers are "incentivized to bring down that ratio," the source added.

Employees working more than 20 hours per week are eligible for benefits once they've "successfully completed a probationary period of employment," the Whole Foods website notes. But some key benefits are tied to hours worked. For example, employees get a "personal wellness account" to offset the "cost of deductibles and other qualified out-of-pocket health care expenses not covered by insurance," but the amount is based on "service hours."

And part-time employees tend not to stick around. My regional source said that annual turnover rates for part-timers at Whole Foods stores approach 80 percent in some regions. According to an internal document I obtained, the national annualized turnover rate for part-time Whole Foods team members was more than triple that of full-timers—66 percent versus about 18 percent—in the latest quarterly assessment. "Whole Foods has always been a high-touch, high-service model with dedicated, engaged, knowledgeable employees​,"​ the source said. "How do you maintain that, having to [constantly] train a new batch of employees?"

One of Whole Foods' "core values," is to support the "happiness and excellence" of its employees. But that may be hard to reconcile with pleasing Wall Street.

Of course, Whole Foods operates in a hypercompetitive industry. Long a dominant player in natural foods, it now has to vie with Walmart, Trader Joe's, and regional supermarket chains in the organic sector. Lower prices are key to staying competitive, and in order to maintain the same profit margins with lower prices, you have to cut your expenditures. Whole Foods' labor costs, according to my regional source, are equal to about 20 percent of sales—twice the industry standard.

It's not unusual for a publicly traded company to respond to a market swoon by pushing down wages and sending workers packing. But Whole Foods presents itself as a different kind of company. As part of its "core values," Whole Foods claims to "support team member [employee] happiness and excellence." Yet at a time when the company's share price is floundering and its largest institutional shareholder is Wall Street behemoth Goldman Sachs—which owns nearly 6 percent of its stock—that value may be harder to uphold.

Workers join unions precisely to protect themselves from employers that see slashing labor costs as a way to please Wall Street. "There's a fear of unions coming in, because employees are bitter," the regional-office source said. "People talk about it in hushed tones."  

Why Do I Like Reza Farazmand's Stupid Comics So Much?

| Sat Oct. 3, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
Reza Farazmand

Does a man ever grow up? Apparently not. I'm a geezer, for Chrissake, and I can't stop laughing at Poorly Drawn Lines. That's the popular web comic by Reza Farazmand that, come October 6, you can acquire in the form of ink rolled onto processed and flattened dead trees. You know, a book.

Farazmand's gags are, if not poorly drawn, then simply drawn. They poke fun at technology, art, metaphysics, human (and creature) foibles, and the meaning of life. For the most part, they're kind of juvenile and super jaded, kind of like The Far Side meets Mad magazine, except with more swearing. Naturally, my 13-year-old loves 'em. And although they're hit or miss, like all comics, I love 'em, too.

The book's very first strip reads as follows:

Buffalo: Some buffalo can jump as high as 36 feet.

Man: That's not true.

Buffalo: Some buffalo are lonely and lie to gain attention.

[They pause to consider.]

Buffalo: Some buffalo would be down to get a drink later, or...

Man: I have a thing tonight.

Buffalo: Okay.

If I have to explain why that's funny, you don't deserve to get it. (Sorry, Mom.) But plenty of people do, judging from the strip's 650,000-plus Facebook fans. Here are some more examples from the book:

Reza Farazmand

Reza Farazmand

Ben Carson Just Showed the Other GOP Candidates How to Talk About Clean Energy

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 7:26 PM EDT

When asked at a Friday appearance in Iowa if he'd support 50 percent clean energy in the United States by 2030, GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson replied, "I want more than 50 percent."

The 50 percent by 2030 mark comes from the advocacy group NextGen Climate, which has launched a campaign pushing candidates on the issue. And while Carson hasn't yet released any details on how he plans to accomplish this goal—and sometimes struggles to explain what climate change is, exactly—the former neurosurgeon has recently voiced his support for green issues.

"I don't care whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative, if you have any thread of decency in you, you want to take care of the environment because you know you have to pass it on to the next generation," he said Wednesday. "There is no reason to make it into a political issue."

All 8,400 Apollo Moon Mission Photos Just Went Online. Here Are Some of Our Faves.

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 5:46 PM EDT

Every photo ever taken by Apollo astronauts on moon missions is now available online, on the Project Apollo Archive's Flickr account. That's about 8,400 images, grouped by the roll of film they were shot on. You can finally see all the blurry images, mistakes, and unrecognized gems for yourself. The unprocessed Hasseblad photos (basically raw scans of the negatives) uploaded by the Project Apollo Archive offer a fascinating behind-the-scenes peek at the various moon missions…as well as lots and lots (and lots) of photos detailing the surface of the moon. Here's a very small taste. All photos by NASA/The Project Apollo Archive.


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Jeb Bush on Oregon Mass Murder: "Stuff Happens"

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 3:45 PM EDT

While speaking to reporters during a campaign stop in Greenville, South Carolina, on Friday, Jeb Bush weighed in on the latest school shooting to take place in the United States, this time in Oregon, just a day before.

"We're in a difficult time in our country and I don't think more government is necessarily the answer to this," Bush said. "I think we need to reconnect ourselves with everybody else. It's very sad to see. But I resist the notion, and I had this challenge as governor—look, stuff happens. There's always a crisis. The impulse is always to do something and it's not necessarily the right thing to do."

You can watch the full video here:

When asked by a reporter if he stood by the "stuff happens" part of his quote, Bush did not back down:

The astonishingly callous summation of Thursday's deadly rampage that killed 10 people and injured seven others was buffered by Bush's criticism against renewed calls for gun control.

Friday Cat Blogging - 2 October 2015

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 3:01 PM EDT

Here's Hopper playing hide-and-seek with the camera. In the background, Hilbert lounges about obliviously, probably waiting for dinner to be served.

Senator Blumenthal to Introduce Gun Legislation After Oregon Shooting

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 1:55 PM EDT

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) announced a plan to introduce new gun legislation in the wake of Thursday's school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon that left 10 dead and 7 others injured.

The proposed legislation, which seeks to ban gun sales without background checks pending beyond 72 hours, cites June's massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, inside a historic church, and the revelation soon after that a loophole in the background check process allowed shooter Dylann Roof to obtain a gun.

"While certain facts remain unknown, the FBI has acknowledged that a fully completed background check would have uncovered Dylann Roof’s prior arrest on a drug charge and his drug addiction, thereby barring him from purchasing the .45-caliber handgun with which he took nine lives," a statement released by Blumenthal's office said.

This is hardly the first time the senator has been front and center of the gun control debate. Following the 2012 Newtown shooting massacre in Blumenthal's state of Connecticut that killed 26 people, including 20 children, he came in out in strong support of gun safety measures. Congress, of course, failed to pass the legislation.

Back in May of 2014, he again pushed lawmakers to revive the gun legislation debate, "saying Congress will be complicit" if members fail to act again. Despite repeated calls, the introduction of new gun control legislation today will likely meet the same fate.

Oregon Sheriff Handling School Massacre Shared a Sandy Hook Conspiracy Video

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 1:49 PM EDT

The month after the December 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, Sheriff John Hanlin of Douglas County, Oregon, posted a video called "The Sandy Hook Shooting - Fully Exposed" to his personal Facebook page. The video makes a number of conspiratorial claims, including about there being more than one shooter and that the grieving parents who appeared on news reports were acting.

The sheriff, who has done an admirable job in not glorifying the perpetrator from yesterday's mass shooting at Umpqua Community College, is also an avid guns rights supporter and a possible member of the Oath Keepers, a group that claims to be upholding their oath to defend the Constitution from any perceived threats—such as expanded gun control.