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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.

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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.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 29, 2014

Fri Aug. 29, 2014 10:08 AM EDT

US Marines exit the well deck of the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class RJ Stratchko)

Will Democrats Keep Control of the Senate This Year?

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 12:09 AM EDT

Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium thinks that Democrats currently have a 72 percent chance of retaining control of the Senate this year. Most other forecasting outfits think Republicans have a 60-70 percent chance of winning control. Why the difference?

In most cases, added assumptions (i.e. special sauce) have led the media organizations to different win probabilities — which I currently believe are wrong....The major media organizations (NYT, WaPo, 538)...all use prior conditions like incumbency, candidate experience, funding, and the generic Congressional ballot to influence their win probabilities — and opinion polls.

....Longtime readers of PEC will not be surprised to know that I think the media organizations are making a mistake. It is nearly Labor Day. By now, we have tons of polling data. Even the stalest poll is a more direct measurement of opinion than an indirect fundamentals-based measure. I demonstrated this point in 2012, when I used polls only to forecast the Presidency and all close Senate races. That year I made no errors in Senate seats, including Montana (Jon Tester) and North Dakota (Heidi Heitkamp), which FiveThirtyEight got wrong.

I'd sure like to believe this. PEC is my go-to political polling site, after all. But it sure doesn't feel like Democrats are in the driver's seat right now, does it? All of my political instincts scream that Wang's forecast is wrong.

That's probably because I'm a pessimist by nature. But you either believe in poll aggregation or you don't. I do, and PEC has performed well in every election for the past decade. So just as I wouldn't "deskew" bad poll results I didn't like, I guess I won't try to second-guess good poll results that don't seem quite right. If Wang thinks Democrats are currently favored to keep control of the Senate, then so do I.

Quote of the Day: "We Don't Have a Strategy Yet."

| Thu Aug. 28, 2014 5:31 PM EDT

From President Obama, asked if he needs congressional approval to go into Syria:

I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet.

That's not going to go over well, is it? Three years after the Syrian civil war started and (at least) half a year after ISIS became a serious threat in Iraq, you'd think the president might be willing to essay a few broad thoughts about how we should respond.

Don't get me wrong. I think I understand what Obama is doing here. He's basically trying to avoid saying that we do have a strategy, and the strategy is to do the absolute minimum possible in service of a few very limited objectives. And generally speaking, I happen to agree that this is probably the least worst option available to us. Still, there's no question that it's not very inspiring. You'd think the brain trust in the White House would have given a little more thought to how this could be presented in a tolerably coherent and decisive way.

In the meantime, "We don't have a strategy yet" is about to become the latest 24/7 cable news loop. Sigh.

Oh, and the tan suit too. It's quite the topic of conversation in the Twittersphere.

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This is What a Russian Invasion of Ukraine Looks Like

| Thu Aug. 28, 2014 2:56 PM EDT

It has become quite hard for Vladimir Putin to deny that Russia's activities in Eastern Europe aren't benign. On Thursday, Ukraine's president, Petro Poroshenko, announced that "Russian forces have actually entered Ukraine." And at a State Department briefing, spokeswoman Jen Psaki called Russia's activities "an incursion and a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty."

The most striking evidence comes from NATO, which has released satellite photos of what it calls "concrete examples of Russian activity inside Ukraine."

Digital Globe/NATO

According to NATO, the image above depicts a Russian convoy carrying artillery in Krasnodon, an area of Ukraine currently controlled by pro-Russian separatists, on August 21.

Digital Globe/NATO

This shows artillery setting up in firing positions in Krasnodon. "This configuration is exactly how trained military professionals would arrange their assets on the ground, indicating that these are not unskilled amateurs, but Russian soldiers," a NATO press release notes.

Digital Globe/NATO

This image shows side-by-side photos of Rostov-on-Don, about 31 miles from the Ukrainian border, taken two months apart. The photo on the left, taken on June 19, shows the area mostly empty. The photo on the right shows the same area on August 20 occupied with tanks and other armored vehicles, cargo trucks, and tents. These units "are capable of attacking with little warning, and could potentially overwhelm and push-back Ukrainian units," according to NATO.

Digital Globe/NATO

According to NATO, this image shows Russian six artillery pieces, probably 6-inch howitzers, positioned six miles south of the Ukrainian border. The guns are pointed toward Ukraine.

5 Terrifying Facts From the Leaked UN Climate Report

| Thu Aug. 28, 2014 2:08 PM EDT
A massive "ice island" breaks free from the Petermann Glacier in Greenland in 2012.

How many synonyms for "grim" can I pack into one article? I had to consult the thesaurus: ghastly, horrid, awful, shocking, grisly, gruesome.

This week, a big report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was leaked before publication, and it confirmed, yet again, the grim—dire, frightful—reality the we face if we don't slash our global greenhouse gas emissions, and slash them fast.

This "Synthesis Report," to be released in November following a UN conference in Copenhagen, is still subject to revision. It is intended to summarize three previous UN climate publications and to "provide an integrated view" to the world's governments of the risks they face from runaway carbon pollution, along with possible policy solutions.

As expected, the document contains a lot of what had already been reported after the three underpinning reports were released at global summits over the past year. It's a long list of problems: sea level rise resulting in coastal flooding, crippling heat waves and multidecade droughts, torrential downpours, widespread food shortages, species extinction, pest outbreaks, economic damage, and exacerbated civil conflicts and poverty.

But in general, the 127-page leaked report provides starker language than the previous three, framing the crisis as a series of "irreversible" ecological and economic catastrophes that will occur if swift action is not taken.

Here are five particularly grim—depressing, distressing, upsetting, worrying, unpleasant—takeaways from the report.

1. Our efforts to combat climate change have been grossly inadequate.
The report says that anthropogenic (man-made) greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase from 1970 to 2010, at a pace that ramped up especially quickly between 2000 and 2010. That's despite some regional action that has sought to limit emissions, including carbon-pricing schemes in Europe. We haven't done enough, the United Nations says, and we're already seeing the effects of inaction. "Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history," the report says. "The climate changes that have already occurred have had widespread and consequential impacts on human and natural systems."

2. Keeping global warming below the internationally agreed upon 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (above preindustrial levels) is going to be very hard.
To keep warming below this limit, our emissions need to be slashed dramatically. But at current rates, we'll pump enough greenhouse gas into the atmosphere to sail past that critical level within the next 20 to 30 years, according to the report. We need to emit half as much greenhouse gas for the remainder of this century as we've already emitted over the past 250 years. Put simply, that's going to be difficult—especially when you consider the fact that global emissions are growing, not declining, every year. The report says that to keep temperature increases to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, deep emissions cuts of between 40 and 70 percent are needed between 2010 and 2050, with emissions "falling towards zero or below" by 2100.

3. We'll probably see nearly ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean before mid-century.
The report says that in every warming scenario it the scientists considered, we should expect to see year-round reductions in Arctic sea ice. By 2050, that will likely result in strings of years in which there is the near absence of sea ice in the summer, following a well-established trend. And then there's Greenland, where glaciers have been retreating since the 1960s—increasingly so after 1993—because of man-made global warming. The report says we may already be facing a situation in which Greenland's ice sheet will vanish over the next millennium, contributing up to 23 feet of sea level rise.

4. Dangerous sea level rise will very likely impact 70 percent of the world's coastlines by the end of the century.
The report finds that by 2100, the devastating effects of sea level rise—including flooding, infrastructure damage, and coastal erosion—will impact the vast majority of the world's coastlines. That's not good: Half the world's population lives within 37 miles of the sea, and three-quarters of all large cities are located on the coast, according to the United Nations. The sea has already risen significantly: From 1901 to 2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.62 feet.

5. Even if we act now, there's a real risk of "abrupt and irreversible" changes.
The carbon released by burning fossil fuels will stay in the atmosphere and the seas for centuries to come, the report says, even if we completely stop emitting CO2 as soon as possible. That means it's virtually certain that global mean sea level rise will continue for many centuries beyond 2100. Without strategies to reduce emissions, the world will see 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit of warming above preindustrial temperatures by the end of the century, condemning us to "substantial species extinction, global and regional food insecurity, [and] consequential constraints on common human activities."

What's more, the report indicates that without action, the effects of climate change could be irreversible: "Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems."

Grim, indeed.

In the Restaurant Biz, It Pays To Be a Man

| Thu Aug. 28, 2014 1:22 PM EDT

Via Wonkblog, here's a chart showing the pay gap between men and women in the restaurant industry. It comes from a recently released EPI report, and as you can see, not only are men better paid in virtually every category, but the premium goes up for the highest paying jobs. Bussers and cashiers are paid nearly the same regardless of gender. But when you move up to cooks, bartenders, and managers, the premium ranges from 10-20 percent.

This data isn't conclusive. There are other reasons besides gender for pay gaps, and the EPI report lists several of them. Whites make more than blacks. High school grads make more than dropouts. Older workers make more than younger ones. You'd need to control for all this and more to get a more accurate picture of the gender gap.

But in a way, that misses the point. There are lots of reasons for the gender gap in pay. Some is just plain discrimination. Some is because women take off more time to raise children. Some is because women are encouraged to take different kinds of jobs. But all of these are symptoms of the same thing. In a myriad of ways, women still don't get a fair shake.

Ex-George Washington University President Responds to Controversy Over His Sexual Assault Remarks

| Thu Aug. 28, 2014 1:12 PM EDT

A former university president came under fire this week for the advice he gave on how to combat sexual assault on college campuses. On Tuesday, George Washington University President Emeritus Stephen Trachtenberg appeared on NPR's Diane Rehm Show and said, "Without making the victims responsible for what happens, one of the groups that have to be trained not to drink in excess are women. They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave." Critics pounced. Jezebel slammed his comments as "jaw-droppingly stupid," and the website noted, "If this is the attitude freely and blithely expressed by a former University President, it's no wonder that more than 75 schools are currently under investigation by the Department of Education for botching sexual assault investigations."

The following day, Trachtenberg told the school newspaper, The GW Hatchet, that his remarks had been taken "out of context," but he reiterated his main point: "What I'm saying is you want to have somebody you care about like your daughter, granddaughter or girlfriend to understand her limits because she will be less likely to be unable to fight off somebody who is attacking her."

On Thursday, Mother Jones asked Trachtenberg to comment on the ongoing controversy, and he replied with a written statement. Regarding Jezebel, he said:

Jezebel has a world view that informs their prose. They are an advocate for an important cause and they take every opportunity to make their case. Sometimes in their enthusiasm they may get a little overheated. It's hard to resist an apparent opportunity when you believe you are on the side of the angels. 

In response to other questions—including why he chose to use the word "misbehave" to describe sexual assault—Trachtenberg said:

I chose that word because I was thinking and speaking quickly under time constraints on a radio show. Under different circumstances I might have used another perhaps stronger word. I am an educator. I believe in the power of education. I think that education about drinking and its effects on an individual can help protect that person from vulnerability. Knowledge makes one stronger. I also believe that having skills gives one power. If you know how to defend yourself you have strength that can be helpful in the event things turn physical. These two ideas are not meant to solve all problems. They are not blame shifters. They are what they are. Better to know things then not. No silver bullets here. We need to educate men too. Date rape is largely the responsibility of young men and alcohol and opportunity. We can address these issues as a community. Men and women and institutions together. Victims should do their best but they are victims and not to blame. My recommendation is to change the culture of the campus so that men and women protect and nurture each other as a family would. It will take work but it can be done.

Is this an apology? You be the judge.