2014 - %3, August

Book Review: My Life As a Foreign Country

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 4:33 PM EDT
my life as a foreign country

My Life As a Foreign Country

By Brian Turner

NORTON

In this moving account of his time as a sergeant in Iraq, Brian Turner, whose poem "The Hurt Locker" was the namesake for the Oscar-winning film, delivers a succession of oddly beautiful, appropriately devastating reflections that drive home the realities of war. Turner takes us from training camp to war zone and home again, where, in bed with his wife, he dreams he's a drone, flying over countries of wars past.

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

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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.

Russia Is Going After McDonald’s. (Can We Give Them Jack in the Box?)

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 4:28 PM EDT
A McDonalds in St. Petersburg, Russia

Russia's health inspection agency is scrutinizing more than 100 McDonald's locations and has forced the company to temporarily close multiple others in the country. The agency says McDonalds outlets are getting inspected because some have violated sanitary regulations— but others see retaliation for US sanctions on Russia.

"This is a prominent symbol of the U.S. It has a lot of restaurants and therefore is a meaningful target," Yulia Bushueva, managing director for Arbat Capital, an investment advisory company, told Bloomberg. "I don't recall McDonald's having consumer-safety problems of such a scale in over more than two decades of presence in Russia."

McDonald's was the first fast food chain to enter Russia, and it holds some symbolic importance in the country. The first location opened in Pushkin Square in Moscow in January 1990 to one utterly massive line (see video below). This was shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall but nearly two years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union when Western brands of any stripe were a rare sight in Russia. At the time, the site of the Golden Arches in the center of Moscow signaled the arrival of a new era of prosperity and integration with the world economy.

Today, there are more than 400 McDonald's outlets in the country. Many are owned locally. The company employs more than 37,000 people in Russia and sources 85 percent of its products from Russian suppliers, according to its website.

But as Russia and the West began facing off over Ukraine this spring, McDonald's has fallen victim to their power struggle. In April, McDonald's announced it would close it's three company-owned locations in Crimea "due to operational reasons beyond our control," according to their statement to Reuters.

That decision was praised by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a prominent legislator and Putin supporter, who suggested the chain should leave Russia as well. "It would be good if they closed here too, if they disappeared for good," he said in Russian media. "Pepsi-Cola would be next." Zhirinovsky also proposed instructing members of his Liberal Democratic party to picket outside McDonald's until they closed.

Since August 20, McDonald's has temporarily closed 12 locations throughout Russia, including four in Krasnodar, near the black sea, and the iconic first-ever location in Moscow. Burger King, Subway, and KFC— which have all seen big expansions in Russia in recent years— have remained unscathed.

Friday Cat Blogging - 29 August 2014

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 2:51 PM EDT

It's the return of quilt blogging! Sort of. In any case, there's a quilt in the background because that happens to be where Domino was posing this week. I think she's auditioning to be the model for a new pair of sculptures outside the New York Public Library.

Chart of the Day: When Women Fail, They Pay a Bigger Price Than Men

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 2:19 PM EDT

The chart below is not part of a study that examines a statistically random set of data. It's quite informal, and probably suffers from some inherent sampling biases. Nonetheless, it's pretty astonishing:

Here's the background: Kieran Snyder asked men and women working in the tech industry to share their performance reviews with her. Virtually all of them were high performers who got generally strong reviews. But it wasn't all positive:

In the 177 reviews where people receive critical feedback, men and women receive different kinds. The critical feedback men receive is heavily geared towards suggestions for additional skills to develop....The women’s reviews include another, sharper element that is absent from the men’s:

“You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone.”

[Etc.]

This kind of negative personality criticism—watch your tone! step back! stop being so judgmental!—shows up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. It shows up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.

This comes via Shane Ferro, who concludes that there's probably good reason for women to be more cautious than men in their professional lives. It's easy to tell women they shouldn't be afraid to fail. "But we as a society (men and women), need to stop judging women so harshly for their flaws. For them to be equally good, it has to be okay that they are equally bad sometimes."

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Has Vladimir Putin Painted Himself Into a Corner?

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 1:14 PM EDT

Max Fisher writes today that Vladimir Putin probably never wanted to invade Ukraine. So why did he? It all started when he was elected to a third term as president amid continuing economic stagnation:

Putin expected another boisterously positive reception, but that's not what he happened. Instead, he got protests in major cities, opposition candidates, and, even according to the highly suspicious official tally, only 63 percent of the vote.

Putin panicked. He saw his legitimacy slipping and feared a popular revolt. So he changed strategies. Rather than basing his political legitimacy on economic growth, he would base it on reviving Russian nationalism: imperial nostalgia, anti-Western paranoia, and conservative Orthodox Christianity.

....Then the Ukraine crisis began....In March 2014, Putin indulged his own rhetoric about saving Ukraine's ethnic Russians — and seized an opportunity to reclaim a former Soviet strategic port — when he launched a stealth invasion of Crimea....This is when the crisis began to slip beyond Putin's control....The nationalistic rhetoric inside Russia was cranked up to a fever pitch. Putin's propaganda had built a parallel universe for Russians, in which the stakes in eastern Ukraine were dire not just for Russia but for the world....But the violence in eastern Ukraine was spinning out of control, with Ukrainian military forces looking like they were on the verge of overrunning the rebels.

In a rational world, Putin would have cut his losses and withdrawn support for the rebels. But, thanks to months of propagandistic state media, Russians do not live in a rational world. They live in a world where surrendering in eastern Ukraine would mean surrendering to American-backed Ukrainian Nazis, and they believe everything that Putin has told them about being the only person capable of defeating these forces of darkness. To withdraw would be to admit that it was all a lie and to sacrifice the nationalism that is now his only source of real legitimacy. So Putin did the only thing he could to do to keep up the fiction upon which his political survival hinges: he invaded Ukraine outright.

Is this basically correct? It's more or less the way I view events in Russia, so it appeals to me. But I don't know enough about Russia to have a lot of confidence that this is really the best explanation for Putin's actions.

It's also not clear—to me, anyway—that Putin is truly stuck in a situation he never wanted. I agree that this interpretation makes sense. Eastern Ukraine just flatly doesn't seem worth the price he would have to pay for it. But that's easy to say from seven thousand miles away. I wonder if this is really the way Putin sees things?

There Are No Lessons of History

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 12:37 PM EDT

Adam Gopnik argues that knowing history won't really help you understand the lessons of history. There are just too many of them, and you can always cherry pick whichever lesson supports the thing you wanted to do in the first place. Rather, it should teach us humility:

The best argument for reading history is not that it will show us the right thing to do in one case or the other, but rather that it will show us why even doing the right thing rarely works out.

....The real sin that the absence of a historical sense encourages is presentism, in the sense of exaggerating our present problems out of all proportion to those that have previously existed. It lies in believing that things are much worse than they have ever been—and, thus, than they really are—or are uniquely threatening rather than familiarly difficult. Every episode becomes an epidemic, every image is turned into a permanent injury, and each crisis is a historical crisis in need of urgent aggressive handling—even if all experience shows that aggressive handling of such situations has in the past, quite often made things worse.

Unfortunately, I doubt that Gopnik is right. Outside of academia, I haven't noticed that a knowledge of history is correlated in any way with a calmer perspective on our current problems.

Take President Obama. He's a smart guy. He knows history, and he has an instinctively level-headed attitude toward life in the first place. What's more, he very famously won office partly on the strength of his skepticism toward military intervention and his opposition to "dumb wars."

So what happened after he took office? He almost immediately approved a surge in Afghanistan. Then another surge. That didn't work out especially well, and by 2011, when Libya was going up in flames, Obama was obviously reluctant to get involved. But he did anyway. And that turned into a complete clusterfuck. But even that wasn't quite enough. Two years later he almost got talked into intervening in Syria before turning aside at the last minute. And that brings us to the present day and the threat of ISIS.

As near as I can tell, Obama is now, finally, genuinely, skeptical about military intervention. That's why he's been so reluctant to approve wider air strikes against ISIS even though there's hardly a more deserving target of a bombing campaign anywhere in the world. He understands in his gut that it's not likely to work, and that it definitely won't work without an Iraqi government that can competently provide the ground troops to do the bulk of the fighting. Right now that doesn't exist, so Obama is refusing to be drawn into an unwinnable quagmire. He finally understands.

But this isn't because of his knowledge of history. It's because of Afghanistan. And Libya. And Syria. It took three consecutive slaps in the face to finally convince his gut of what his brain probably believed all along.

In the end, I think this is why I sympathize with Obama's foreign policy choices even though I've been at least moderately opposed to all his interventions. I'd like to think that I would have made different decisions if I'd been in his place, but the truth is I probably wouldn't have. The institutional and political pressures in favor of military action are just too strong. More than likely, I would have caved in too until I eventually learned better from bitter experience.

Is Gopnik's brand of historical fatalism any better than historical blindness? It's hard to say. But it probably doesn't matter. When it comes time to actually do things, we learn from experience, not the past.

The NFL Finally Fixed Its Weak Domestic-Violence Penalties

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 11:12 AM EDT
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell

The National Football League has drastically toughened its punishments for domestic violence after weeks of uproar over its weak response to the case of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. Rice received a two-game suspension after allegedly assaulting his fiancée, while players who tested positive for marijuana—some in states where weed is legal—were handed four-game and even season-long suspensions.

In a letter to NFL owners Thursday, commissioner Robert Goodell wrote that the league had fallen short in "a recent incident of domestic violence" and announced that a first-time domestic-violence offender would now receive a six-game suspension. Repeat offenders, he wrote, would face indefinite bans, with the possibility to apply for reinstatement after a year.

To be clear, there's no epidemic of domestic violence among NFL players; this graph from FiveThirtyEight shows that NFL players are generally less likely to be arrested than the rest of 25-to-29-year-old American men*:

 morris-datalab-nfl-vaw-1

Rather, this smells a lot like a PR-related move from the league, which has seen its reputation suffer in the wake of Rice's light penalty. After all, it's not like the NFL jumped to punish any of the following four players, all of whom were involved in domestic incidents during Goodell's tenure as commissioner:

  • AJ Jefferson: In February, Jefferson allegedly strangled his girlfriend and was arrested and charged with assault. The Minnesota Vikings released him hours later, but he was picked up by the Seattle Seahawks this spring.
  • Chad Johnson: In 2012, Johnson was arrested for head-butting his wife and charged with misdemeanor domestic battery. He pleaded no contest, was sentenced to probation and was cut by the Miami Dolphins.
  • Brandon Marshall: The Chicago Bears' star wide receiver has one of the lengthier rap sheets in the league. Since 2004, he has been arrested five times, twice on domestic-violence charges, and has been involved in 10 disputes—many involving violence against women—in which no charges were filed. Marshall was suspended one game in 2009 over charges he'd abused his girlfriend in 2008 (he was acquitted); in 2007, he was arrested after preventing his girlfriend's taxi from leaving his home, completed anger management, and did not receive punishment from the NFL.
  • Quinn Ojinnaka: The former Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman was suspended for one game in 2010 after a dispute in which he threw his wife down a flight of stairs and out of their home. (The dispute is said to have begun over Ojinnaka contacting a woman via Facebook.)

Ultimately, the NFL is deeply invested in maintaining a clean, family-friendly image, and Goodell is clearly responding to claims that the league takes smoking pot more seriously than it does violence against women. While it's good that future domestic-violence offenders will receive more appropriate punishment, the timing of his letter—just a day after a vocal outcry about Rice's punishment—makes it seem like the move of an embarrassed league looking to crack down on players who embarrass it.

Goodell is burnishing his reputation as an authoritarian who's concerned with appearances, rather than a commissioner who leverages the league's reach and resources to actually address issues like domestic violence.

*Note: As commenter Bumpasaurus pointed out, the data from the FiveThirtyEight chart is "adjusted for poverty status." NFL players are wealthy, and compared to other, wealthy individuals in the same age group, "the domestic violence arrest rate is downright extraordinary."

BREAKING: Economy Continues to Stagnate

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 10:32 AM EDT

If, despite my warnings, you allowed yesterday's upward GDP revision to kindle a tiny spark of excitement about the economy, today's news should bring you right back down to earth:

Household spending fell in July, a sign that cautious consumers could hold back economic growth in the second half of the year....Personal income, reflecting income from wages, investment, and government aid, rose 0.2% in July—the smallest monthly increase of the year....Meanwhile, the report showed a key measure of inflation—the personal consumption expenditures price index—rose 1.6% in July from a year earlier. That matched the prior month's annual gain, and is below the Federal Reserve's 2% long-run target for the 27th straight month.

Spending is down, which is no surprise since personal income is pretty much flat. This suggests that perhaps we could tolerate a wee bit higher inflation as a way of getting the economy moving, but of course we can't do that. Sure, inflation has been below its target for 27 months, but you never know. The 28th month might be different! And even the prospect of a single month of moderate inflation runs the risk of turning us into Zimbabwe.

So instead we just sit and stagnate.