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kottke.org posts about politics

Obama, An Intimate Portrait by White House photographer Pete Souza

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 07, 2017

For all eight years of Barack Obama’s Presidency, Pete Souza was Chief Official White House Photographer and took over 2 million photos of the President and his activities in office. Souza has collected some of those photos into a book: Obama: An Intimate Portrait, out in November.

Obama: An Intimate Portrait reproduces Souza’s most iconic photographs in exquisite detail, more than three hundred in all. Some have never been published. These photographs document the most consequential hours of the Presidency — including the historic image of President Obama and his advisors in the Situation Room during the bin Laden mission — alongside unguarded moments with the President’s family, his encounters with children, interactions with world leaders and cultural figures, and more.

It’s impossible to pick a favorite photo of Souza’s, but these two are right near the top:

Souza Obama Book

Souza Obama Book

What’s Souza up to these days? Trolling the current inhabitant of the White House on Instagram, as you do.

Beating cancer is a team sport

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2017

Senator John McCain has been diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer. The tumor has been removed and McCain is recovering at home with his family. I wish Senator McCain well and hope for a speedy recovery.

In the wake of his diagnosis, many of those expressing support for McCain reference his considerable personal strength in his fight against cancer. President Obama said:

John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.

McCain’s daughter Meghan references his toughness and fearlessness in a statement released yesterday. Vice-President Joe Biden expressed similar sentiments on Twitter:

John and I have been friends for 40 years. He’s gotten through so much difficulty with so much grace. He is strong — and he will beat this.

This is the right thing to say to those going through something like this, and hearing this encouragement and having the will & energy to meet this challenge will undoubtably increase McCain’s chances of survival. But what Biden said next is perhaps more relevant:

Incredible progress in cancer research and treatment in just the last year offers new promise and new hope. You can win this fight, John.

As with polio, smallpox, measles, and countless other diseases before it, beating cancer is not something an individual can do. Being afflicted with cancer is the individual’s burden to bear but society’s responsibility to cure. In his excellent biography of cancer from 2011, The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee talks about the progress we’ve made on cancer:

Incremental advances can add up to transformative changes. In 2005, an avalanche of papers cascading through the scientific literature converged on a remarkably consistent message — the national physiognomy of cancer had subtly but fundamentally changed. The mortality for nearly every major form of cancer — lung, breast, colon, and prostate — had continuously dropped for fifteen straight years. There had been no single, drastic turn but rather a steady and powerful attrition: mortality had declined by about 1 percent every year. The rate might sound modest, but its cumulative effect was remarkable: between 1990 and 2005, the cancer-specific death rate had dropped nearly 15 percent, a decline unprecedented in the history of the disease. The empire of cancer was still indubitably vast — more than half a million American men and women died of cancer in 2005 — but it was losing power, fraying at its borders.

What precipitated this steady decline? There was no single answer but rather a multitude. For lung cancer, the driver of decline was primarily prevention — a slow attrition in smoking sparked off by the Doll-Hill and Wynder-Graham studies, fueled by the surgeon general’s report, and brought to its full boil by a combination of political activism (the FTC action on warning labels), inventive litigation (the Banzhaf and Cipollone cases), medical advocacy, and countermarketing (the antitobacco advertisements). For colon and cervical cancer, the declines were almost certainly due to the successes of secondary prevention — cancer screening. Colon cancers were detected at earlier and earlier stages in their evolution, often in the premalignant state, and treated with relatively minor surgeries. Cervical cancer screening using Papanicolaou’s smearing technique was being offered at primary-care centers throughout the nation, and as with colon cancer, premalignant lesions were excised using relatively minor surgeries. For leukemia, lymphoma, and testicular cancer, in contrast, the declining numbers reflected the successes of chemotherapeutic treatment. In childhood ALL, cure rates of 80 percent were routinely being achieved. Hodgkin’s disease was similarly curable, and so, too, were some large-cell aggressive lymphomas. Indeed, for Hodgkin’s disease, testicular cancer, and childhood leukemias, the burning question was not how much chemotherapy was curative, but how little: trials were addressing whether milder and less toxic doses of drugs, scaled back from the original protocols, could achieve equivalent cure rates.

Perhaps most symbolically, the decline in breast cancer mortality epitomized the cumulative and collaborative nature of these victories — and the importance of attacking cancer using multiple independent prongs. Between 1990 and 2005, breast cancer mortality had dwindled an unprecedented 24 percent. Three interventions had potentially driven down the breast cancer death rate-mammography (screening to catch early breast cancer and thereby prevent invasive breast cancer), surgery, and adjuvant chemotherapy (chemotherapy after surgery to remove remnant cancer cells).

Understanding how to defeat cancer is an instance where America’s fierce insistence on individualism does us a disservice. Individuals with freedom to pursue their own goals are capable of a great deal, but some problems require massive collective coordination and effort. Beating cancer is a team sport; it can only be defeated by a diverse collection of people and institutions working hard toward the same goal. It will take government-funded research, privately funded research, a strong educational system, philanthropy, and government agencies from around the world working together. This effort also requires a system of healthcare that’s available to everybody, not just to those who can afford it. Although cancer is not a contagious disease like measles or smallpox, the diagnosis and treatment of each and every case brings us closer to understanding how to defeat it. We make this effort together, we spend this time, energy, and money, so that 10, 20, or 30 years from now, our children and grandchildren won’t have to suffer like our friends and family do now.

The US far right’s game plan? A suppression of the majority.

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2017

Rebecca Onion recently interviewed Nancy MacLean, who has written a book about economist James McGill Buchanan, whose work MacLean believes is the origin of the ideas & strategy of the far right in America (most notably represented by the Koch brothers). As told by MacLean in her book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, the goal of this coalition is to switch the US to a “totally new vision of society and government, that’s different from anything that exists anywhere in the world”.

When the Supreme Court decided, in the 1954 case of Brown vs. Board of Education, that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, Tennessee-born economist James McGill Buchanan was horrified. Over the course of the next few decades, the libertarian thinker found comfortable homes at a series of research universities and spent his time articulating a new grand vision of American society, a country in which government would be close to nonexistent, and would have no obligation to provide education-or health care, or old-age support, or food, or housing-to anyone.

This radical vision has become the playbook for a network of people looking to override democracy in order to shift more money to the wealthiest few.

I suspect MacLean’s argument is much more fleshed out in her book than in the interview and criticisms are easy to find (although I don’t know how ideologically motivated they are), but what she says could explain what’s happening in our government right now. As I wrote back in December:

More than anything for me, this is the story of politics in America right now: a shrinking and increasingly extremist underdog party has punched above its weight over the past few election cycles by methodically exploiting the weaknesses in our current political system. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, the passing of voter ID laws, and spreading propaganda via conservative and social media channels has led to disproportionate Republican representation in many areas of the country which they then use to gerrymander and pass more restrictive voter ID laws.

In the interview, McLean says that Buchanan advised Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on the structure of his country’s constitution:

This document was later called a “constitution of locks and bolts,” [and was designed] to make it so that the majority couldn’t make its will felt in the political system, unless it was a huge supermajority.

That feels like where we’re heading in this country right now. Perhaps slowly and perhaps it won’t come to that, but it’s difficult to escape the conclusion these days that Republicans (or at least the ascendant far right arm of the party) want anything less than to rule the US no matter what the majority of its citizens might want.

Trump’s disturbing appeal for personal loyalty from gov’t officials

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 06, 2017

Noah Kunin has been working for the US government since 2010 and right after the election, he wrote a short post as to why he was staying on even though he did not support Trump.

My oath to this country was not to a particular office, or person, and certainly not to a political party. It was to the Constitution and to the people (emphasis added).

More recently, he wrote a post on why he is now leaving government service, again citing his duty to the Constitution and the people:

The first thing that happened was the release of the written testimony of the former FBI Director, James Comey. While many focused on the potential obstruction of justice detailed within Comey’s notes, I was immediately drawn to a different issue. According to Comey, the President clearly asked, repeatedly, for his personal loyalty.

I think this is even more dangerous and shocking than the potential for obstruction of justice. Even though I intellectually knew that most of Trump’s decisions are based on personal politics, seeing it in writing, under oath, and from the FBI Director at the time no less, had an unexpectedly massive emotional impact on me.

My previous post put the oath all federal public servants take at its center. Pledging our faith, allegiance, our loyalty not to a person, but to the Constitution and to the people as a whole is absolutely fundamental to our form of government. We cannot even pretend to function as a republic without it.

For anyone in public service to ask for the personal loyalty of anyone else in government is an affront to our core values. For the President to ask it of the FBI Director is beyond “not normal.”

It is an immediate and complete revelation that the President is unfit for the office, and has been from the start.

I think Kunin’s right about Trump’s demand for personal loyalty over loyalty to duty or to county…it’s as disturbing as anything else that Trump has done.

The potent combination of individual freedom and collective action

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 06, 2017

As part of a longer post on the role of capitalism in bringing about gay rights in America, staunch libertarian and Cato Institute executive VP David Boaz writes:

All the advances in human rights that we’ve seen in American history — abolitionism, feminism, civil rights, gay rights — stem from our founding ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The emphasis on the individual mind in the Enlightenment, the individualist nature of market capitalism, and the demand for individual rights that inspired the American Revolution naturally led people to think more carefully about the nature of the individual and gradually to recognize that the dignity of individual rights should be extended to all people.

This passage has been bugging me ever since I saw a link to it on Marginal Revolution in a post titled “Independence Day”. There’s this undercurrent in libertarian writing that suggests that if we just let capitalism rip, unfettered, unregulated, everyone will be automagically free. Independence Day, amirite?!

What’s interesting is that the way all of those freedoms Boaz talks about — abolitionism, feminism, civil rights, gay rights — were attained is through collective action that resulted in government protection. Capitalism is not Miracle Grow for individual rights. People organized and fought for their freedoms. Economic activity is taxed in order to protect our freedoms. Unchecked capitalism led to slavery, child labor, unfair labor practices, monopoly, and the ruin of the environment. Gosh, it’s almost like a system of capitalism combined with liberal democracy would be a fairly good way to both gain and protect individual freedoms. Yes, harness the incredibly useful engine of capitalism but make sure it doesn’t grind humanity up in the process.

Impeachment and its misconceptions explained

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 05, 2017

At the recent Aspen Ideas Festival, legal scholar and former Obama advisor Cass Sunstein shared some views on his understanding of and some misconceptions about impeachment, namely that it doesn’t need to involve an actual crime and “is primarily about gross neglect or abuse of power”. Or as he put it more formally in a 1998 essay in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review:

The simplest is that, with respect to the President, the principal goal of the Impeachment Clause is to allow impeachment for a narrow category of egregious or large-scale abuses of authority that comes from the exercise of distinctly presidential powers. On this view, a criminal violation is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for impeaching the President. What is generally necessary is an egregious abuse of power that the President has by virtue of being President. Outside of this category of cases, impeachment is generally foreign to our traditions and is prohibited by the Constitution.

The “distinctly presidential powers” bit is a high bar to clear. Examining the case for Nixon on that basis, and only some of the reasons for wanting to impeach him hold up.

Richard Nixon nearly faced four counts. One failed count, for tax evasion, was completely inappropriate, Sunstein argued: Though an obvious violation of law, it had no bearing on Nixon’s conduct of the presidency. A second charge, for resisting subpoena, is possibly but not necessarily valid, since a president could have good reasons to resisting a subpoena. A third is more debatable: Nixon was charged with covering up the Watergate break-in. Nixon might have been more fairly prosecuted for overseeing the burglary, Sunstein argued, but nabbing him for trying to use the federal government to commit the cover-up was “probably good enough.” Only the fourth charge, of using the federal government’s muscle to prosecute political enemies, is a clear slam-dunk under the Founders’ principles.

Clinton’s impeachment, argued Sunstein in that same Penn Law Review essay, was less well-supported:

I suggest that the impeachment of President Clinton was unconstitutional, because the two articles of impeachment identified no legitimate ground for impeaching the President.

Sunstein explained the intent of the members of the Constitutional Convention in a Bloomberg article back in February. It’s interesting in the light of the Russian collusion investigation that the debate about impeachment at the convention centered around treason.

James Madison concurred, pointing to cases in which a president “might betray his trust to foreign powers.” Gouverneur Morris added that the president “may be bribed by a greater interest to betray his trust; and no one would say that we ought to expose ourselves to the danger of seeing the first Magistrate in foreign pay without being able to guard against it by displacing him.”

So what about Trump? Sunstein doesn’t offer much (no apparent mention of collusion with Russia):

Sunstein, having scolded legal colleagues for playing pundit, was reluctant to address the question directly. Setting aside the impossibility of impeaching Trump under the present circumstances of GOP control of Congress, Sunstein said he was wary of trying to remove the president simply for being bad at his job. Nonetheless, he said Trump’s prolific dishonesty might form a basis for trying to remove him.

“If a president lies on some occasions or is fairly accused of lying, it’s not impeachable — but if you have a systematic liar who is lying all the time, then we’re in the ballpark of misdemeanor, meaning bad action,” he said.

If I were a betting person, I would wager that Donald Trump has a better chance of getting reelected in 2020 than he does of being impeached (and a much better chance than actually being removed from office through impeachment) if the Republicans retain their majority in Congress. Although their healthcare bill has hit a hiccup due to public outcry (and it’s only a hiccup…it will almost surely pass), Congressional Republicans have shown absolutely no willingness to do anything not in the interest of their agenda…so why would they impeach a Republican President who is ticking all of the far right’s action items thus far?

Made In Iowa, a Rust Belt comeback story

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 03, 2017

Produced by Square, Made In Iowa tells the story of what happened after the Electrolux plant closed in the small town of Webster City, Iowa in 2011. The company had decided to move those jobs to Mexico and in the years after the closing, the unemployment rate in the town rose from about 3% to 10%. The video shows how the town rallied around the reopening of the movie theater and pursued an entrepreneurial strategy of revitalizing downtown through opening a number of small businesses. That approach brought the town’s unemployment rate back up to 3%.

But that’s not the entire story. The new jobs are mostly non-union and pay less than Electrolux jobs did. The town’s pivot was not entirely a bootstrap effort…the former workers had the government’s assistance and the advantage of their union’s negotiation of benefits. From a 2013 NPR story about the plant closure:

On March 31, 2011, Electrolux shut its washer-dryer plant in Webster City and sent the jobs to Juarez, Mexico. The employees were warned more than a year in advance of the closure, and many used the time to pay off debt and begin thinking about a new career.

Because their jobs had left the country, the laid-off workers qualified for federally funded retraining. A large number enrolled in two-year programs at community colleges and have been living off unemployment benefits as they learn new skills.

And those new businesses downtown are possible in part because people have access to healthcare through the ACA.

It seems relevant at this point to mention that in the 2016 election, the county in which Webster City is situated went for Trump 58.6% (to Clinton’s 35.8%). I mean, bootstrap all you want, but just don’t forget the massive governmental safety net that makes it possible for communities to recover when shit like this goes down and which party wants to dismantle it.

Trump has put America’s image into the toilet

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 27, 2017

According to a recently conducted survey by the Pew Research Center, the election of Donald Trump has sharply eroded the confidence of other world nations in the United States and its ability to “do the right thing when it comes to international affairs”.

Confidence in President Trump is influenced by reactions to both his policies and his character. With regard to the former, some of his signature policy initiatives are widely opposed around the globe.

His plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, for example, is opposed by a median of 76% across the 37 countries surveyed. Opposition is especially intense in Mexico, where more than nine-in-ten (94%) oppose the U.S. government erecting a wall.

Similar levels of global opposition greet Trump’s policy stances on withdrawing from international trade agreements and climate change accords. And most across the nations surveyed also disapprove of the new administration’s efforts to restrict entry into the U.S. by people from certain Muslim-majority nations.

Trump’s intention to back away from the nuclear weapons agreement with Iran meets less opposition than his other policy initiatives, but even here publics around the world disapprove of such an action by a wide margin.

Trump’s character is also a factor in how he is viewed abroad. In the eyes of most people surveyed around the world, the White House’s new occupant is arrogant, intolerant and even dangerous. Among the positive characteristics tested, his highest rating is for being a strong leader. Fewer believe he is charismatic, well-qualified or cares about ordinary people.

This chart is pretty remarkable:

Pew Trump Us Image

It took George W. Bush more than half of his presidency to reach confidence rates as low as Trump has right out of the gate. Usually in these situations you say something like “there’s nowhere to go but up” but unfortunately there’s plenty of room at the bottom here.

Mark Zuckerberg isn’t running for President

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 26, 2017

The scuttlebutt around the tech/media internet water cooler over the past few months is that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is going to run for President in 2020. This feeling has been fueled by Zuck’s goal for this year of visiting the remaining 30 or so US states that he has yet to visit and the way in which he’s been documenting his trips. Nathan Hubbard argues that Zuck actually has other things on his mind as he tours America:

Zuck isn’t running for President. He’s trying to understand the role the product he created played in getting this one elected.

Facebook has undergone two major evolutionary events in its history, both of which were driven by what Zuck saw as existential threats.

The incredible revenue growth in mobile (probably the greatest biz execution of our generation) helped Facebook survive a platform shift.

And the fearless acquisitive streak of Instagram, WhatsApp and others helped Facebook survive a shift in how we communicate and organize.

Zuck woke up on Nov 9th acutely aware that FB had facilitated a new shift he didn’t foresee or understand; that’s terrifying to a founder.

He’s the head of product. So he’s ventured out into the world beyond his bubble to do field research and inform how FB will evolve again.

I am also sympathetic to the argument that Zuckerberg doesn’t need to run for President because he’s already the leader of the largest group of people ever assembled in the history of humanity (aside from possibly the British Empire). Facebook doesn’t possess many necessary qualities of a sovereign country, but it also has many advantages that countries don’t. Zuckerberg is already among the world’s most important people and with Facebook still growing, he could one day soon be the most powerful person in the world.

America runs on taxpayer-funded services *and* capitalism

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 26, 2017

Yesterday, Grover Norquist shared a short parable about taxes on Twitter:

How Republicans are born…
Daughter, 8, has been savings up to buy her first Guitar.
Found it for $35. She had 35 exact.
Then…sales tax

Norquist has famously been on a quest to stop tax increases in the US…in 2015 he wrote a book called End the IRS Before It Ends Us.1 Many people took Norquist to task over his remarks:

Did you mention that you drove her to the guitar store on roads that were partly funded by sales taxes?

In a car which only has seat belts preventing you from being badly injured in the event of a crash due to taxpayer funded regulations?

or those same taxes that pay for emergency services that will respond if you do get in an accident?

These responses remind me of a pair of posts written several years ago about the contributions to society of both taxpayer-funded and corporate goods & services. From the liberal version:

After spending another day not being maimed or killed at work thanks to the workplace regulations imposed by the department of labor and the occupational safety and health administration, enjoying another two meals which again do not kill me because of the USDA, I drive my NHTSA car back home on the DOT roads, to my house which has not burned down in my absence because of the state and local building codes and fire marshal’s inspection, and which has not been plundered of all its valuables thanks to the local police department.

And from the conservative viewpoint:

When my Motorola-manufactured Cable Set Top Box showed the appropriate time, I got into my Toyota-manufactured Prius vehicle and set out to my graphic design workplace and stopped to purchase some gasoline refined by the Royal Dutch Shell company, using my debit card issued to me by Bank of the West. On the way to my workplace, I dropped off a package at the local UPS store for delivery, and dropped my children off at a local private school.

  1. How was Norquist radicalized about taxes? In part because his dad was a dick: “After church, his father would buy him and his three younger siblings ice-cream cones and then steal bites, announcing with each chomp, ‘Oops, income tax. Oops, sales tax.’”

What are the largest US cities by population?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 13, 2017

Except for the top three, I’m not sure I could have come up with most of the top 10 largest US cities by population. I’ll give you minute to guess…

1. NYC
2. LA
3. Chicago
4. Houston
5. Phoenix
6. Philadelphia
7. San Antonio
8. San Diego
9. Dallas
10. San Jose

I dunno, San Antonio at #7 really threw me for a loop. Bigger than Dallas? Bigger than San Francisco (by more than 600,000 people)? Of course, when metropolitan areas are taken into account, the picture changes. The San Antonio area drops to #30 while the Bay Area hits #5.

When I was a kid, the list looked a little different…LA had not yet passed Chicago for #2 and Texas had only two cities in the top 10 (and no Austin creepin’ in 11th place):

1. New York
2. Chicago
3. Los Angeles
4. Philadelphia
5. Houston
6. Detroit
7. Dallas
8. San Diego
9. Phoenix
10. Baltimore

That list still carries more weight in my brain than the current ranking. The facts you learn in school influence how you view your country. And some of those facts, dubbed mesofacts by Sam Arbesman, change slowly, so slowly that you’re tricked into thinking they haven’t changed at all. The average age of the US Senate right now is 62. The version of the population list that many Senators learned in school was probably from the 1950 census (or perhaps the 1960 one) and our current President, at 70 years of age, was possibly taught the list from the 1940 census. The entries on those older lists look much more like the industrial America celebrated by truck and beer commercials and represented by classic baseball and football teams — the America that is to be made great again: Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh.

Another instructive list to look at in this regard is the list of cities that had populations of at least 100,000 people but have since dropped below that threshold. On the list (with the % drop in parentheses) are:

Canton, Ohio (-39%)
Gary, Indiana (-59%)
Scranton, Penn (-46%)
Flint, Michigan (-50%)
Erie, Penn (-29%)
Utica, NY (-40%)

That the idea embodied by those kinds of cities still holds much sway in American politics shouldn’t be so surprising.

Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America.

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 06, 2017

That’s the title of a forthcoming book edited by Cass Sunstein (Harvard professor, former Obama regulatory administrator). On Twitter, Sunstein says he’s the editor not the author and that the essays will “offer diverse views”. But by the time this book comes out in March 2018, we might already know the actual answer to the title’s question. (via @tylercowen)

Putin’s playbook for discrediting America and destabilizing the West

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 05, 2017

Last week, journalist Jules Suzdaltsev wrote:

Just wanna make sure you all know there is a Russian handbook from 1997 on “taking over the world” and Putin is literally crossing shit off.

The book in question is The Foundations of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia by neo-fascist political scientist Aleksandr Dugin, whose nickname is “Putin’s Brain”. The book has been influential within Russian military & foreign policy circles and it appears to be the playbook for recent Russian foreign policy. In the absence of an English language translation, some relevant snippets from the book’s Wikipedia page:

The book declares that “the battle for the world rule of [ethnic] Russians” has not ended and Russia remains “the staging area of a new anti-bourgeois, anti-American revolution.” The Eurasian Empire will be constructed “on the fundamental principle of the common enemy: the rejection of Atlanticism, strategic control of the USA, and the refusal to allow liberal values to dominate us.”

The United Kingdom should be cut off from Europe.

Ukraine should be annexed by Russia because “Ukraine as a state has no geopolitical meaning, no particular cultural import or universal significance, no geographic uniqueness, no ethnic exclusiveness, its certain territorial ambitions represents an enormous danger for all of Eurasia and, without resolving the Ukrainian problem, it is in general senseless to speak about continental politics”.

The book stresses the “continental Russian-Islamic alliance” which lies “at the foundation of anti-Atlanticist strategy”. The alliance is based on the “traditional character of Russian and Islamic civilization”.

Russia should use its special services within the borders of the United States to fuel instability and separatism, for instance, provoke “Afro-American racists”. Russia should “introduce geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements — extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilizing internal political processes in the U.S. It would also make sense simultaneously to support isolationist tendencies in American politics.”

Ukraine, Brexit, Syria, Trump, promotion of fascist candidates in European elections (Le Pen in France), support for fascism in the US…it’s all right there in the book. And they’ve done it all while barely firing a shot.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 01, 2017

In the wake of World War II, after the establishment of the United Nations, the international community drew up an international bill of rights that became known as The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The founding document of the UN, the United Nations Charter, contained language about universal human rights, but as the abuses of Nazi Germany became more apparent after the war, the UN felt that a stronger and more explicit declaration was necessary.

The UDHR, adopted by the UN in December 1948, contains 30 articles that cover issues like freedom, legal protections, employment, property rights, leisure, and health. Here are a few of them:

Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 7. All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 9. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 17. (1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 20. (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. (2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 23. (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection. (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24. Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25. (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Reading through them, it’s instructive to think about places in the world where these rights are not being upheld, either explicitly or implicitly, almost 70 years after the UDHR’s adoption. And lest you think I’m referring exclusively to places like Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Syria, or Sudan, consider the treatment of Native Americans, women, people of color, the prison population, LGBT+ people, and the poor here in the United States, the treatment of people in other countries because of US military actions, and how the political goals of the Trump administration and the Republican majority in Congress would further erode those rights both in the US and around the world.

A brief history of America’s shameful inaction on climate change

posted by Jason Kottke   May 31, 2017

This is the most depressing video I have seen in a long time. The premise is devastating in its simplicity: a collection of clips of news programs and politicians (mostly Republicans) talking about climate change next to a pair of charts showing rising global temperatures and falling Arctic sea ice coverage.

I found it striking that before the 2008 election of Obama and (especially) the 2010 midterm election that resulted in a Republican majority in the House, Republican politicians spoke clearly and publicly that climate change was happening and that something needed to be done about it. And now? Republicans deny climate change is happening and Trump is on the verge of pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement.

Update: See also How G.O.P. Leaders Came to View Climate Change as Fake Science.

Those divisions did not happen by themselves. Republican lawmakers were moved along by a campaign carefully crafted by fossil fuel industry players, most notably Charles D. and David H. Koch, the Kansas-based billionaires who run a chain of refineries (which can process 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day) as well as a subsidiary that owns or operates 4,000 miles of pipelines that move crude oil.

Government rules intended to slow climate change are “making people’s lives worse rather than better,” Charles Koch explained in a rare interview last year with Fortune, arguing that despite the costs, these efforts would make “very little difference in the future on what the temperature or the weather will be.”

History, I hope, will not be kind to the Koch brothers. The ruin they have brought upon America for their own personal gain will be felt for decades.

Foursquare: US tourism is down sharply in the age of Trump

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2017

Over the past couple of years, Foursquare has used their location data to accurately predict iPhone sales and Chipotle’s sales figures following an E. coli outbreak. Their latest report suggests that leisure tourism to the United States was way down year-over-year over the past 6 months (relative to tourism to other countries).

Foursquare Tourism

Our findings reveal that America’s ‘market share’ in international tourism started to decline in October 2016, when the U.S. tourism share fell by 6% year-over-year, and continued to decrease through March 2017, when it dropped all the way to -16%. Currently, there is no sign of recovery in the data.

And business travel to the US is suffering as well, relative to other countries:

Business trip activity is up in the U.S. by about 3% (as a share of international traveler global activity), but that trend line is not as high as elsewhere in the world, where YoY trends are closer to 10%. Relative to business travel gains globally, business travel to the U.S. is suffering.

As Foursquare notes, correlation is not causation and there are other factors at play (e.g. a stronger US dollar), but it’s not difficult to imagine that our xenophobic white nationalist administration and its travel & immigration policies have something to do with this decline.

America is a developing nation for most of its citizens

posted by Jason Kottke   May 02, 2017

In his new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, MIT economics professor Peter Temin says that the US “is coming to have an economic and political structure more like a developing nation” and that the US is really two countries at this point:

In one of these countries live members of what Temin calls the “FTE sector” (named for finance, technology, and electronics, the industries which largely support its growth). These are the 20 percent of Americans who enjoy college educations, have good jobs, and sleep soundly knowing that they have not only enough money to meet life’s challenges, but also social networks to bolster their success. They grow up with parents who read books to them, tutors to help with homework, and plenty of stimulating things to do and places to go. They travel in planes and drive new cars. The citizens of this country see economic growth all around them and exciting possibilities for the future. They make plans, influence policies, and count themselves as lucky to be Americans.

The FTE citizens rarely visit the country where the other 80 percent of Americans live: the low-wage sector. Here, the world of possibility is shrinking, often dramatically. People are burdened with debt and anxious about their insecure jobs if they have a job at all. Many of them are getting sicker and dying younger than they used to. They get around by crumbling public transport and cars they have trouble paying for. Family life is uncertain here; people often don’t partner for the long-term even when they have children. If they go to college, they finance it by going heavily into debt. They are not thinking about the future; they are focused on surviving the present. The world in which they reside is very different from the one they were taught to believe in. While members of the first country act, these people are acted upon.

This whole piece on the book by Lynn Parramore is worth a read. Another small tidbit:

In the Lewis model of a dual economy, much of the low-wage sector has little influence over public policy. Check. The high-income sector will keep wages down in the other sector to provide cheap labor for its businesses. Check. Social control is used to keep the low-wage sector from challenging the policies favored by the high-income sector. Check. Mass incarceration. Check. The primary goal of the richest members of the high-income sector is to lower taxes. Check. Social and economic mobility is low. Check.

The writers strike and the rise of Trump

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2017

The members of the two large writing guilds representing more than 12,000 Hollywood writers recently voted to strike.

Leaders of the Writers Guild of America, East, and the Writers Guild of America, West, announced the results of an online strike authorization vote in an email to members. The unions said that 6,310 eligible members voted; 96 percent of the vote was in favor of a strike.

A three-year contract between the guilds and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the makers of films and TV series, expires at midnight on May 1. Negotiators were set to resume talks on Tuesday, with funding of a failing union health care plan a sticking point.

Last time there was a writers strike in 2007, networks moved to replace their scripted shows with reality programs, including the resurrection of a fading reality show called The Apprentice.

During the last work stoppage, CBS ordered additional seasons of its flagship reality competition shows to fill airtime. And then there’s NBC.

Trump’s “The Apprentice” had been removed from the network’s lineup amid low ratings. But a new programming chief came aboard in 2007, and the network decided to revive the competition show, but with a twist. And when the writers’ strike meant no more new episodes of “The Office” and “Scrubs,” NBC replaced the Thursday night shows in 2008 with “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

That’s a curious butterfly effect. The writers strike made room for The Celebrity Apprentice on TV. The Celebrity Apprentice gave Trump seven more seasons of primetime TV visibility. Trump parlayed that visibility into the highest political office in the land.

Science is a fundamental part of America

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2017

Science in America is an impassioned video from Neil deGrasse Tyson about the threat we face from the political uncoupling of science from the truth in America today.

How did America rise up from a backwoods country to be one of the greatest nations the world has ever known? We pioneered industries. And all this required the greatest innovations in science and technology in the world. And so, science is a fundamental part of the country that we are. But in this, the 21st century, when it comes time to make decisions about science, it seems to me people have lost the ability to judge what is true and what is not, what is reliable what is not reliable, what should you believe what you do not believe. And when you have people who don’t know much about science standing in denial of it and rising to power, that is a recipe for the complete dismantling of our informed democracy.

Should we get rid of the European Union?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2017

As Britain lumbers towards Brexit, other parts of Europe seem to be weighing, electorally and otherwise, if the European Union is something worth keeping or whether it belongs on the trash heap of history next to The League of Nations and the Roman Empire. In this video, Kurzgesagt takes a look at some of the benefits and criticisms of the EU and considers whether the former outweigh the latter.

I’m With Her: designing Hillary Clinton’s campaign identity

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 31, 2017

Hillary Logo Sketch

Pentagram’s Michael Bierut and his team designed the identity for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential campaign (of which I was not initially a fan but came around later). Here’s how it happened.

I put together a three-person team: me, designer Jesse Reed, and project manager Julia Lemle. We would work in secret for the next two months. Our first meeting with the Clinton team began with a simple statement: “Our candidate has 100 percent name recognition.” There is a well-known marketing principle that is often credited to midcentury design legend Raymond Loewy. He felt that people were governed by two competing impulses: an attraction to the excitement of new things and a yearning for the comfort provided by what we already know. In response, Loewy had developed a reliable formula. If something was familiar, make it surprising. If something was surprising, make it familiar.

That same principle applies to political campaigns. In 2008 Sol Sender, Amanda Gentry and Andy Keene were faced with the challenge of branding a candidate who had anything but name recognition. Barack Obama’s design team responded with a quintessentially professional identity program, introducing — for the first time — the language of corporate branding to political marketing. Obama’s persona — unfamiliar, untested, and potentially alarming to much of the voting public — was given a polished logo and a perfectly executed, utterly consistent typographic system. In short, they made a surprising candidate seem familiar.

We faced the opposite problem. Our candidate was universally known. How could we make her image seem fresh and compelling?

This is a great look at how a designer at the top of his game approaches a problem…and reckons with failure. Even this little bit:

It wasn’t clever or artful. I didn’t care about that. I wanted something that you didn’t need a software tutorial to create, something as simple as a peace sign or a smiley face. I wanted a logo that a five-year-old could make with construction paper and kindergarten scissors.

Leading up to the election, how many photos did you see of Hillary logos hand-drawn by kids on signs and t-shirts? Lots and lots…my kids even got into the act.

Anyway, a huge contrast to the process and impact of the Trump campaign’s identity.

How Vladimir Putin rose to power and Made Russia Great Again

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 27, 2017

This video from Vox explains how Vladimir Putin took advantage of the post-Soviet political and economic chaos in Russia to become its leader in a very short period of time and what’s he done with that leadership since then.

Vladimir Putin has been ruling Russia since 1999. In that time he has shaped the country into an authoritarian and militaristic society. The Soviet Union dissolved into 15 new countries, including the new Russian Federation. In Putin’s eyes, Russia had just lost 2 million square miles of territory. But Putin’s regime has also developed and fostered the most effect cyber hacker army in the world and he’s used it to wreak havoc in the West. But the election of Donald Trump brings new hope for the Putin vision. Trump’s rhetoric has been notably soft on Russia. He could lift sanctions and weaken NATO, potentially freeing up space for Putin’s Russia to become a dominant power once again.

Watching this, it’s easy to see how Putin’s progress in Making Russia Great Again, not to mention the authoritarian methods he employs, would be appealing to Trump.

See also Here are 10 critics of Vladimir Putin who died violently or in suspicious ways.

The importance of social capital in public life

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 24, 2017

In 1993, Robert Putnam, who later went on to write Bowling Alone (which inspired Meetup), wrote a piece for The American Prospect called The Prosperous Community: Social Capital and Public Life about social capital and its contribution to political and economic well-being of a society. Much has changed since then, but Putnam’s piece is solidly relevant to the political situation in America today.

How does social capital undergird good government and economic progress? First, networks of civic engagement foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity: I’ll do this for you now, in the expectation that down the road you or someone else will return the favor. “Social capital is akin to what Tom Wolfe called the ‘favor bank’ in his novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities,” notes economist Robert Frank. A society that relies on generalized reciprocity is more efficient than a distrustful society, for the same reason that money is more efficient than barter. Trust lubricates social life.

Networks of civic engagement also facilitate coordination and communication and amplify information about the trustworthiness of other individuals. Students of prisoners’ dilemmas and related games report that cooperation is most easily sustained through repeat play. When economic and political dealing is embedded in dense networks of social interaction, incentives for opportunism and malfeasance are reduced. This is why the diamond trade, with its extreme possibilities for fraud, is concentrated within close-knit ethnic enclaves. Dense social ties facilitate gossip and other valuable ways of cultivating reputation—an essential foundation for trust in a complex society.

This quote by 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume that leads off the piece succinctly sums up the challenges involved and the potential consequences in not addressing them properly:

Your corn is ripe today; mine will be so tomorrow. ‘Tis profitable for us both, that I should labour with you today, and that you should aid me tomorrow. I have no kindness for you, and know you have as little for me. I will not, therefore, take any pains upon your account; and should I labour with you upon my own account, in expectation of a return, I know I should be disappointed, and that I should in vain depend upon your gratitude. Here then I leave you to labour alone; You treat me in the same manner. The seasons change; and both of us lose our harvests for want of mutual confidence and security.

(via @timoreilly)

“Are Liberals on the Wrong Side of History?”

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 20, 2017

Adam Gopnik writes about three books — Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra, A Culture of Growth by Joel Mokyr, and Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari — that address the tension between liberalism and conservatism, going back to Voltaire v. Rousseau during the Enlightenment (and even further back, to Plato).

For Mishra, elements in modernity that seem violently opposed, Zionism and Islamism, Hindu nationalism and Theosophical soppiness — not to mention Nazi militarism — share a common wellspring. Their apostles all believe in some kind of blood consciousness, some kind of shared pre-rational identity, and appeal to a population enraged at being reduced to the hamster wheel of meaningless work and material reward. Mishra brings this Walpurgisnacht of romanticized violence to a nihilistic climax with the happy meeting in a Supermax prison of Timothy McVeigh, perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing, and Ramzi Yousef, perpetrator of the World Trade Center bombing: the fanatic, child-murdering right-wing atheist finds “lots in common” with the equally murderous Islamic militant — one of those healing conversations we’re always being urged to pursue. (“I never have [known] anyone in my life who has so similar a personality to my own as his,” Yousef gushed of McVeigh.)

Very interesting context and a stimulating argument for the middle way by Gopnik — in his estimation, Betteridge’s law applies to the title. He didn’t care much for Homo Deus, and I have to admit, as a big fan of Sapiens, that I’ve run out of steam with this new one and found myself nodding my head at Gopnik’s objections. I’m gonna get back to it, I’m sure, but with less enthusiasm than before.

How a bad grade on a college paper resulted in a Constitutional amendment

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 17, 2017

In college, Gregory Watson got a C on a paper in a government class about an ancient proposed amendment to the US Constitution written by James Madison in 1789.

Gregory was intrigued. He decided to write his paper about the amendment and argue that it was still alive and could be ratified. He got to work, being very meticulous about citations and fonts and everything. He turned it in to the teaching assistant for his class — and got it back with a C.

Motivated by what he considered an unfair grade, Watson spent the next 20 years working to get the amendment ratified. In 1992, Watson’s hard work paid off and the proposed amendment became the 27th Amendment to the US Constitution.

No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened.

Now his former teacher thinks he deserves an A+. What a heartwarming story.

Or perhaps a terrifying one. If you look at the maps for the past 5 Presidential elections, you’ll notice that the red states outnumber the blue ones. Republicans dominate governorships and state legislatures too. The consolidation of liberal voters into fewer and fewer states (and cities) is likely to continue, making the state counts more lopsided. If you can get a proposed amendment out of Congress (or a national convention called for by 2/3 of the states), then 3/4 of the states (currently 38) are needed to ratify the amendment and make it the law of the land. Now, this doesn’t seem very likely, does it? Well, Gregory Watson got it done. Just imagine if he had resuscitated a half-ratified amendment outlawing immigration or something.

Top-notch trolling: Reasons To Vote For Democrats

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 10, 2017

The #1 bestselling book on Amazon right now is called Reasons To Vote For Democrats: A Comprehensive Guide. It’s by Michael Knowles, costs $8.03, and is filled with 266 blank pages. I have to admit, that’s pretty damn funny.

The most exhaustively researched and coherently argued Democrat Party apologia to date, “Reasons To Vote For Democrats: A Comprehensive Guide” is a political treatise sure to stand the test of time. A must-have addition to any political observer’s coffee table.

The follow-on joke is never as funny as the original, but you can also buy a blank book called Reasons to Vote for Republicans. (via buzzfeed)

Update: We’ve got some prior art, folks. David King published a blank book called Why Trump Deserves Trust, Respect & Admiration back in November 2016 (there’s a Kindle version, LOL). And this copy of All I Know About the Ladies by R.V. Harris looks significantly older than that. (via @alexhern & @typeter)

Update: One more round of prior art: The Wit and Wisdom of Spiro T. Agnew and Everything Men Know About Women. (via @MattyPKing & @EdwardGoodmann)

What if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had swapped genders?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 10, 2017

Maria Guadalupe, an economics and political science professor, and Joe Salvatore, a professor of educational theater, recently put on a pair of performances that restaged the three Presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But this time, they had a woman play the Trump role (as “Brenda King”) and a man play the Clinton role (as “Jonathan Gordon”), with each attempting to portray the precise mannerisms, styles, and speech of the respective candidates. How would audiences react to the gender-switched candidates?

Salvatore says he and Guadalupe began the project assuming that the gender inversion would confirm what they’d each suspected watching the real-life debates: that Trump’s aggression — his tendency to interrupt and attack — would never be tolerated in a woman, and that Clinton’s competence and preparedness would seem even more convincing coming from a man.

But the lessons about gender that emerged in rehearsal turned out to be much less tidy. What was Jonathan Gordon smiling about all the time? And didn’t he seem a little stiff, tethered to rehearsed statements at the podium, while Brenda King, plainspoken and confident, freely roamed the stage? Which one would audiences find more likeable?

The audience’s reaction to the performances was surprising.

We heard a lot of “now I understand how this happened” — meaning how Trump won the election. People got upset. There was a guy two rows in front of me who was literally holding his head in his hands, and the person with him was rubbing his back. The simplicity of Trump’s message became easier for people to hear when it was coming from a woman — that was a theme. One person said, “I’m just so struck by how precise Trump’s technique is.” Another — a musical theater composer, actually — said that Trump created “hummable lyrics,” while Clinton talked a lot, and everything she was was true and factual, but there was no “hook” to it. Another theme was about not liking either candidate — you know, “I wouldn’t vote for either one.”

Here’s a clip from one of the rehearsals:

I think it’s important not to take away too much from this experiment (and perhaps the same should be said of televised political debates in general) but after watching that short clip and hearing about the audience’s reaction, I couldn’t help but think of Al Gore. In the lead-up to the election, I’d never thought of Clinton that way — meaning very smart, compassionate, and supremely qualified but ultimately a bit dull and uninspiring a la Gore — but maybe she did lack a critical charisma compared to Trump.

Since the Kennedy/Nixon debates, we’ve known that how candidates handle themselves on television — in debates, interviews, televised speeches, etc. — is critical to the voters’ perceptions of them. Gore, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Mitt Romney, Bob Dole, Walter Mondale, John Kerry…they all were bested by more charismatic candidates (Reagan, Obama, Bill Clinton) that were in some cases not as qualified on paper. Even the Bushes (especially Dubya) had an aw shucks-y folksiness that could charm people sympathetic to their message. Perhaps Hillary Clinton belongs on that list as well. (via mr)

George W. Bush’s book of paintings of US military veterans

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 02, 2017

Profiles In Courage

After leaving office in 2009, George W. Bush famously turned his attention to painting. That pursuit has now resulted in a book of portraits of post-9/11 US veterans painted by Bush called Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors.

Growing out of President Bush’s own outreach and the ongoing work of the George W. Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative, Portraits of Courage brings together sixty-six full-color portraits and a four-panel mural painted by President Bush of members of the United States military who have served our nation with honor since 9/11 — and whom he has come to know personally.

The author proceeds from the book will be donated to the George W. Bush Presidential Center, “a non-profit organization whose Military Service Initiative works to ensure that post-9/11 veterans and their families make successful transitions to civilian life with a focus on gaining meaningful employment and overcoming the invisible wounds of war”. There’s a certain — I don’t know, let’s call it irony — in Bush honoring those whom he personally caused to be put in the harm’s way in the first place, under false pretenses no less.

OJ: Made in America is about more than just OJ

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 01, 2017

Ezra Edelman’s fantastic documentary OJ: Made in America won the Oscar for best documentary this year. In a video for Fandor, Joel Bocko explains while the film’s focus is on Simpson, it also explores seven broader themes about contemporary America: sports, the media, Los Angeles, class, domestic abuse, policing, and race.

OJ: Made in America emerges not simply as a brilliant biography, it’s also a stunning social portrait that can stand beside any novel, epic film, or piece of longform journalism.

And in this video for The Atlantic, Edelman explains how, before murdering his ex-wife, Simpson was an advertising pioneer, the first black athlete to become a nationally known product pitchman, appearing in commercials for Hertz, Chevy, and Schick.

One of the most interesting aspects of Edelman’s film is how Simpson’s feelings about being black shifted after his arrest. For most of his life, he distanced himself from the black community, famously declaring “I’m not black, I’m OJ.” He didn’t get involved in the politics of the day or speak out like Muhammed Ali and other prominent black athletes did. He enjoyed preferential treatment by the LAPD, who help him keep his abuse of women under wraps. Black America had nothing to offer a man who enjoyed being rich and famous in white America. But then the trial happened and he hired Johnny Cochran, who made race into the central issue of the case, deftly aligning Simpson with a black community who had endured decades of racism and brutality in LA at the hands of society and the police.

Map of where Germans voted for the Nazis in 1933

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 01, 2017

Nazi Support Map 1933

In March 1933, a unified Germany held its last relatively free election before WWII. Hitler had already become Chancellor but he held one last election, seeking a mandate under which to rule. This map shows which areas of Germany supported the Nazi Party most strongly.

However, it’s also important to note that while the Nazis won the most seats in 1933, they did not win a majority of them or the popular vote.

Support varied widely across the country. It was highest in the former Prussian territories in the north-east of Germany (with the exception of Berlin) and much weaker in the west and south of the country, which had, up until 1871, been independent German states.

Across Germany as a whole, the Nazis won 43.91% of the popular vote and got 44.51% of the seats. This made them by far the largest party in the German Reichstag, but still without a clear majority mandate.

I know history doesn’t repeat itself, but this sure is rhyming like Kanye.