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Ban the Olympics

Posted: 19 Feb 2018 04:00 AM PST

Editor’s Note: Read all of The Atlantic's Winter Olympics coverage.

What have the Olympics ever done for us? Other than fuel corruption, make countries spend pointlessly and profligately, inflame nationalist sentiment, act as onanistic stand-ins for geopolitical tensions, and cloak authoritarian leaders in legitimacy, I mean.

It is my real and very honest question every two years: What are the Olympics good for? Why do we continue to have them? Certainly for the athletes participating they can represent the pinnacle of a career worth of hard work; maybe even a life's ambition realized. But for the rest of us, what is the point? Aside from the temporary flash of sumptuous spectacle, there's little good that ever comes of the Games. If anything, they exacerbate some of the worst of human nature.

Nearly every time the Olympics come to a city, they remind us how little human life and dignity are worth compared to the hardware required to pull them off. In the run-up to the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, some 1.5 million Beijingers lost their homes, by one count. By then, one study estimated, some two million people had been forcibly moved in 20 years in order to make room for Olympic structures around the world. In Vancouver, the build-up to the Olympics lead to a housing squeeze, which, in turn, caused homelessness to spike in the years leading up to the 2010 Winter Games there. On top of the construction deaths in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, thousands were displaced as the city made room for stadiums and rinks that would be used a handful of times.

Rarely are the Olympics a good investment for the host country. There are always cost overruns and they are always massive, often leaving host cities in debt for years afterward, and the objects the money is spent on are so transient and ultimately useless that they qualify for an academic term: white elephants. Pre-Olympic talk always focuses on how Olympic Villages and venues will promote development, tourism, and infrastructure, and will host future athletic events. Yet this hardly ever pans out. The subsequent tournaments and championships are inevitably smaller, or, as in Rio's case, don't come at all. And that's just the hard, physical structures. Take, for example, the gobs of cash it took to stockpile snow for the Sochi Winter Olympics—simply because Russia, a country where much of the territory is winter-bound for much of the year, decided to have the Winter Olympics in its one subtropical city.

The vast sums of money it takes to pay for the Olympics don't come from nowhere. They usually come from taxpayer funds that could be paying for something vital. While it was paying for preparations for the Sydney games, for instance, the local government of New South Wales also saw declines in its health and education budgets. In Russia, the cost was footed by state-run banks like VEB at a time when the economy was turning toward full-on recession.

Then there are the naked displays of politics and nationalistic one-upmanship. Despite the Olympic Charter's repeated and explicit ban on political propaganda at the Games, the Olympics have always been as much a political event as an athletic one. When Athenian general Themistocles arrived at the Games in the 5th century BCE, for instance, Plutarch recounted that, "the audience neglected the contestants all day long to gaze on him." According to David Goldblatt's The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, "Olympia was always a place where political capital could be generated and traded."

The modern Olympics came out of a dove-tailing of two 19th-century fads: a fascination with all things ancient, and violent ethno-nationalism. It's no surprise then that the Olympics became a forum for nationalism, a stage for countries to prove that they are the best in that most basic, animalistic way: physical strength. The infamous 1936 Olympics in Adolf Hitler's Berlin—the Jesse Owens upset notwithstanding—were a way to legitimize his new, nationalist regime.

In the first years of the Cold War, Josef Stalin seized on the Olympics as a way to compete with the United States in yet another arena. "The Kremlin viewed athletics as a way of international recognition and legitimacy," writes Erin Elizabeth Redihan in her book The Olympics and the Cold War, 1948–1968. "Stalin and his successors strove to create and maintain an all-encompassing national sports infrastructure that could compete with and hopefully eclipse the United States to meet two interrelated goals: to gain international acclaim and to win the Cold War on the playing field." There is a straight line from this old Soviet policy to the Russian doping scandal that derailed the lives and careers of Russian athletes and officials because the ends—athletic triumph as stand-in for geopolitical might—justify any means.

The 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2014 Olympics in Sochi served much the same purpose: showing the world that the Chinese and Russian regimes had arrived as new geopolitical and economic powerhouses. This time, in Pyeongchang, Kim Jong Un is using his cheerleaders and figure skaters in much the same way he uses his ICBMs: to show the world he has arrived, and is a serious leader not to be messed with. (That, and trying to peel South Korea away from its historic alliance with the United States.)

The Olympics, because of their political nature, have also turned violent, as they did in Munich in 1972, when 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and killed by Palestinian terrorists who wanted to bring attention to their brethren's plight when all the world was watching. Others have been followed by other violence: after a pulling off a successful showing and winning the medal count in Sochi, Putin felt emboldened annex Crimea and start a bloody war in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that is still nowhere near resolved and has taken over 10,000 lives.

And what of the other side of the scale? What do the Olympics give us that you can't glimpse at other championships and smaller-scale competitions? And can we really pretend that the chance to watch a sport few watch except at the Olympics—curling, weightlifting, the bobsled—is worth all the corruption, waste, and political ugliness? Do we really need our hockey games to be shadow wars? I don't think we do.

The FBI's War on Black-Owned Bookstores

Posted: 19 Feb 2018 03:00 AM PST

In the spring of 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover announced to his agents that COINTELPRO, the counter-intelligence program established in 1956 to combat communists, should focus on preventing the rise of a "Black 'messiah'" who sought to "unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement." The program, Hoover insisted, should target figures as ideologically diverse as the Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), Martin Luther King Jr., and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.

Just a few months later, in October 1968, Hoover penned another memo warning of the urgent menace of a growing Black Power movement, but this time the director focused on the unlikeliest of public enemies: black independent booksellers.

In a one-page directive, Hoover noted with alarm a recent "increase in the establishment of black extremist bookstores which represent propaganda outlets for revolutionary and hate publications and culture centers for extremism." The director ordered each Bureau office to "locate and identify black extremist and/or African-type bookstores in its territory and open separate discreet investigations on each to determine if it is extremist in nature." Each investigation was to "determine the identities of the owners; whether it is a front for any group or foreign interest; whether individuals affiliated with the store engage in extremist activities; the number, type, and source of books and material on sale; the store's financial condition; its clientele; and whether it is used as a headquarters or meeting place."

Perhaps most disturbing, Hoover wanted the Bureau to convince African American citizens (presumably with pay or through extortion) to spy on these stores by posing as sympathetic customers or activists. "Investigations should be instituted on new stores when opened and you should recognize the excellent target these stores represent for penetration by racial sources," he ordered. Hoover, in short, expected agents to adopt the ruthless tactics of espionage and falsification they deployed against civil-rights and Black Power activists, and now use them against black-owned bookstores.

Hoover's October 1968 Memo targeting black bookstores.

Hoover's memo offers us a troubling glimpse of a forgotten dimension of COINTELPRO, one that has escaped notice for decades: the FBI's war on black-bookstores. In addition to Hoover's memo, I uncovered documents detailing Bureau surveillance of black bookstores in a least half a dozen cities across the U.S. in conducting research for my book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs. At the height of the Black Power movement, the FBI conducted investigations of such black booksellers as Lewis Michaux and Una Mulzac in New York City, Paul Coates in Baltimore (the father of The Atlantic national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates), Dawud Hakim and Bill Crawford in Philadelphia, Alfred and Bernice Ligon in Los Angeles, and the owners of the Sundiata bookstore in Denver. And this list is almost certainly far from complete, because most FBI documents pertaining to currently living booksellers aren't available to researchers through the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The FBI's reports on black booksellers were highly invasive but often mundane. The FBI reports note phone calls from Coates's number to his former comrades in the Black Panther Party—but also to Viking Press and the American Booksellers Association. Agents in New York reported an undercover source's questionable claim that the Lewis Michaux "was responsible for about 75 percent of the antiwhite material" distributed in Harlem, but another report conceded that he was "no longer very active in Black Nationalist activity as he is getting old." In Philadelphia, agents traced a car's license plate at a Republic of New Africa convention to Dawud Hakim, but not long afterwards they quoted sources stating that the RNA was "now defunct in the Philadelphia area" and that Hakim "has not shown interest in any Black Nationalist Activity."

While perhaps not surprising, it is deeply disturbing that Hoover and the FBI would carry out sustained investigations of black-owned independent bookstore across the country as part of COINTELPRO's larger attacks on the Black Power movement. But Hoover's order that agents track these stores' customers represented not just an attack on black activists, but also an absolute contempt for America's stated values of freedom of speech and expression. Any citizen who stepped into a black-owned bookstore, it seemed, risked being investigated by federal law enforcement.

To be sure, many black bookstores did have direct connections to Black Power activists. Quite a few black booksellers themselves participated in Black Power organizations, even if those organizations didn't operate their stores. But more often the connections between the bookstores and the movement weren't institutional, but intellectual and informal. Customers sought out copies of such titles as The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, which black booksellers gladly sold them. The rapid proliferation of black-owned bookstores in the late 1960s and early 1970s signaled African Americans' growing appetite for black political and historical literature and reading materials on Africa.

Black-owned bookstores also sold works by authors who were not formally associated with Black Power organizations, including critically acclaimed writers such as James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, as well as street-literature favorites like Iceberg Slim, author of the novel Pimp. Black bookstores weren't fronts assigned by activist organizations to distribute political propaganda. They were independent businesses serving black people's growing appetite for books by and about black people.

The Drum and Spear Bookstore in Washington, D.C., seems to have drawn more scrutiny from the Bureau's agents than any other black bookstore. Established by veterans of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the famed direct-action civil rights organization founded in 1960, the store opened in late spring 1968 just weeks after an uprising devastated the District following the assassination of Martin Luther King. The store was an especially convenient and frequent target for federal law enforcement, both because of its ties to prominent figures in the Black Power movement, and its location in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, less than three miles away from the FBI's headquarters.

The Bureau launched its surveillance of Drum and Spear after sources sighted Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) visiting the store in its first weeks of business. Hoover's office soon ordered that the investigation of the store "should be intensified" beyond occasional visits by agents and expanded to cultivating customers, employees, and people who attended meetings at Drum and Spear as undercover sources. From 1968 until the store's closing in 1974, the Bureau compiled nearly 500 pages of investigative files on Drum and Spear.  Plainclothes agents who visited the store aroused employees' suspicions when they sat in parked cars in front of the business for hours. In another incident, two men wearing suits who appeared to be federal agents visited Drum and Spear and asked to purchase the store's entire inventory of Mao's Little Red Book. Agents' reports meticulously detailed the store's contents, relating that its roughly 4,000 copies of 500 titles were divided into five sections—African Works, Works of the American Negro, Fiction, Third World, and Children's Works—while posters and photos of H. Rap Brown, Carmichael, Huey Newton, and Che Guevara decorated its walls.

The 1971 Drum and Spear Catalog.

Hoover was right about one thing: black bookstores were on the rise by the end of the 1960s. As late as 1966, black-owned bookstores operated in fewer than a dozen American cities, and most of them struggled to stay in business. Within just a few years, however, the number of stores had skyrocketed. Dozens of new stores opened throughout the country in the final years of the '60s, roughly tripling their numbers since the start of the decade. As The New York Times reported in 1969, "A surge of book-buying is sweeping through Black communities across the country." What had been about a dozen black bookstores operating in the mid-1960s grew to over 50 by the early 1970s, and around 75 by the middle of the decade.

In Hoover's eyes, black-owned bookstores represented a coordinated network of hate-spewing extremists. His clumsy invocation of the phrase "African-type bookstores" betrayed his lack of understanding of pan-Africanism, a philosophy that people of African descent around the world should unite in pursuit of shared political and social goals. To Hoover, radical anti-government organizations actively fomented black Americans' growing fascination with Africa in the hopes of using it as a weapon against whites. But Hoover grossly mischaracterized the organic groundswell of popular interest in African history, culture, and politics spreading throughout African American communities.

As with much of COINTELPRO, Hoover took a model of counter-intelligence developed to combat the rigidly organized and centralized Communist Party of the United States of America and applied it to a much looser and decentralized array of Black Power groups emerging across the country. The CPUSA for instance, had operated a series of official bookstores carrying party literature in cities across the U.S., which the FBI had monitored since at least the 1930s.

The FBI appears to have wound down its surveillance of black bookstores by the middle of the 1970s, in the wake of Hoover's death and the formal conclusion of COINTELPRO. As the Black Power movement declined in the late 1970s, so did black bookstores, and their numbers significantly dwindled by the start of the '80s (before experiencing a resurgence in the early 1990s). Looking back, it's worth asking if the Bureau's investigations may have undermined the viability of these black-owned businesses, creating undue stress for owners already struggling to make ends meet and scaring away customers who wanted to avoid any encounters with law-enforcement officials.

Indeed, the FBI's war against black bookstores represents a sad chapter in the history of law enforcement in the U.S., a time when federal agents dispensed with all notions of freedom of speech as they targeted black entrepreneurs and their customers for buying and selling literature they deemed politically subversive.

"It's a waste of taxpayers' money," Philadelphia bookseller Dawud Hakim lamented in 1971, having learned that that he was himself a target of the Bureau's misguided surveillance campaign. "We are trying to educate our people about their history and culture. The FBI should be spending their time instead on organized crime and dope peddlers."

Selfishness Is Killing Liberalism

Posted: 19 Feb 2018 03:00 AM PST

The death of liberalism constitutes the publishing world's biggest mass funeral since the death of God half a century ago. Some authors, like conservative philosopher Patrick Deneen, of Why Liberalism Failed, have come to bury yesterday's dogma. Others, like Edward Luce (The Retreat of Western Liberalism), Mark Lilla (The Once and Future Liberal), and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) come rather to praise. I'm in the latter group; the title-in-my-head of the book I'm now writing is What Was Liberalism.

But perhaps, like God, liberalism has been buried prematurely. Maybe the question that we should be asking is not what killed liberalism, but rather, what can we learn from liberalism's long story of persistence—and how can we apply those insights in order to help liberalism write a new story for our own time.

Liberalism is not a doctrine founded on a sacred text, like Communism. It is something more like a set of predispositions—a faith in individuals and their capacity for growth, a tempered optimism that expects progress but recoils before utopian dreams, a belief in open debate and the possibility of persuasion, an insistence upon secularism in the public realm, an orientation towards civil rights and civil liberties. Precisely because it has no canon, liberalism perpetually redefines and renews itself. Liberalism is not intrinsically majoritarian, but because it fully thrives only in democracies, seeks to align itself with the broad public will.

Nevertheless, liberalism has a core, and that is the right of the individual to stand apart. John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" is the closest thing liberalism has to a founding tract. Mill set out to explain why it was in the interest of society in general to give individuals the greatest possible right to speak and act as they wish. Individuals, that is, do not have some kind of "natural right" to free speech independent from its social value. Rather, he wrote, mankind is fallible; our saving grace is that our errors are "corrigible." We acknowledge our fallibility by listening to those with whom we disagree, and testing our ideas against the strongest possible counter-argument. Only thus do we have a chance of approximating, if not actually reaching, the truth.

Read today, this passage sounds as archaic as the chivalric code. In our own world, after all, free speech abounds while the intellectual habits that make free speech actually matter degenerate. The rhetoric of "fake news" turns different sides of the political debate into rival camps, each encased in its own cognitive bubble. In The Open Society, written in the heyday of Nazi Germany, Karl Popper described irrationalism as the sine qua non of the totalitarian state. Popper and Mill compel us to ask an epistemological question: How can the quintessentially rationalist faith of liberalism flourish in an age that systematically demeans rationality?

Whether one begins an account of liberalism with Mill, or Locke, or the Founding Fathers, it is fair to say that all early liberals would have accepted Adam Smith's proposition that prosperity will be best served if men are given free rein to pursue their self-interest. Yet by the end of the 19th century, as the industrial economy both raised living standards and plunged workers—now equipped with the vote—into appalling conditions in factories and mines, the doctrine of laissez-faire became both politically and morally unsustainable to liberals themselves. In 1909, Herbert Croly published The Promise of American Life, an immensely influential book that argued that Jeffersonian individualism no longer offered a real guarantee of freedom. "The democratic principle requires an equal start in the race," Croly wrote, but so long as private property was sacred, equal rights could not guarantee equal opportunity to citizens not born to privilege. Liberalism could not be satisfied merely with the promise of equal rights.

The trunk of liberalism now separated into two boughs. One revived the free-market tradition, arguing that political freedom could not flourish absent full economic freedom. This point of view, associated with Austrian economists like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, flourished in the 1920s, but was discredited—or was certainly seen to have been discredited—by the calamity of the Great Depression. It would not reemerge for decades. The other liberalism was buoyed up by FDR's New Deal and then sustained as the bulwark against totalitarianism by mid-century thinkers like Popper, Isaiah Berlin and George Orwell. This was the moderately interventionist, secular, empirical, pragmatic doctrine that became something like a civic religion in the United States after World War II. The "vital center," as Arthur Schlesinger called it, occupied a spot midway between the strict individualism of 19th-century England and the collectivist social democracy of post-war Europe.

In his famous speech announcing the advent of the Great Society, LBJ used Croly's metaphor of the unequal race. But by the 1960s it was not white middle-class American who needed state intervention, but minorities, above all African Americans, who had been left behind as American became a broadly prosperous nation. This moral commitment carried obvious political dangers, for liberals were now asking Americans to make sacrifices for others. By the end of the decade, liberalism had begun to lose its hold on the white working-class, once the prime beneficiary of government programs. Liberalism has never regained its appeal for those voters. By 1980, the abandoned laissez-faire tradition had revived, and left-liberalism had been replaced by Ronald Reagan's right-liberalism of small government, low taxes, and free-market economics. (This is over-simplifying, of course, for Reagan also ran against liberal secularism and liberal doubts about American power and virtue.)

The Democrats responded to their marginalization by dropping the tainted word "liberal" and accepting crucial parts of the Reagan program. "Neoliberals" or advocates of a "Third Way" like Bill Clinton (or Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder in Europe) endorsed the conservative emphasis on economic growth but applied liberal principles of social justice to public investment and the distribution of wealth; they aspired to forge a liberalism of the middle class. The right-liberal and left-liberal parties traded power; each appeared to have almost exactly half the country on its side. Then, in 2016, the seesaw stopped: Both parties were rejected in favor of a candidate who simultaneously attacked Wall Street and the welfare state, professed little regard for individual rights and none for free speech, opposed globalization and free trade, and called for the country to erect a wall against pretty much the entire outside world.

Donald Trump's election has thus provoked a crisis of identity both for the party of the market and the party of the state. Conservatives need to rescue their own party, now marshaled under Trump's populist banner. Liberals have a problem of a different order; they need to reconstruct their faith as they did in 1912 and 1964 and 1992, when they learned or relearned how to speak to the broad middle of the country. Or rather, liberals need to decide whether that is their goal. Can they, should they, seek to address the deep sense of grievance that the election exposed? Politically, after all, they may not need to: Trump's base is melting down to the hard core, and Democrats may return to power simply by letting his party self-destruct, and by mobilizing a base fired up by righteous fury.

The issue has provoked an important debate inside the center-left. In The Once and Future Liberal, Mark Lilla argues that the growing obsession with identity politics has stripped liberals of the civic language they long used to address the American people collectively. Now, Lilla observes, conversations on race, gender or ethnicity often begin with the privilege-claiming expression, "Speaking as a…" Hurling the ultimate insult, Lilla describes this as the Reaganism—the harsh individualism—of the left.

I doubt whether the near-obsession with identity issues can be uprooted from the heart of the Democratic Party. But liberalism's appeal has always sprung from its commitment to the language of collective interest—the language of "we." This offers liberalism a platform very different from the insistent "I" of conservatism, and the "they" of populism—the not-us, whether elites or their clients. One way of thinking about the choice liberals face is this: At a moment of intense polarization, they must either return to the old "we" or deploy their own version of "us and them."

I don't know which is the shorter path to political victory. But if Mill and Popper were right about liberalism's foundation in reason and science, and if Isaiah Berlin was right in thinking that liberal democracy depends upon a skeptical "pluralism" about basic goods, then liberalism simply cannot survive the violent division that now afflicts our culture. Intellectual polarization follows, and reinforces, social polarization. It is in the interest of liberals to take seriously the dictum of Lincoln that a house divided cannot stand.

What would it mean to address the sense of grievance that cost Hillary Clinton the election? Doing so requires liberals to find ways of buffering the effects of the globalization of jobs and products and people, without surrendering to Trump's xenophobia and isolationism. And it requires addressing the issue of inequality, which Donald Trump exploited and then abandoned once he reached the White House, without declaring a self-defeating jihad against Wall Street and corporate America.

But the inequality that makes Trump voters seethe is not the same one that enrages voters on the left; not the "1 percent," but liberals themselves. The meritocracy of professionals and academics and upper-white-collar workers has ossified in recent years into something that looks to people on the outside more like an oligarchy. In The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Edward Luce dubs this phenomenon "hereditary meritocracy." Luce observes that about a quarter of American children from the top 1 percent of the income scale attend an elite university, while only 0.5 percent of those from the bottom fifth do. The well-to-do also have access to tutors and private guidance counselors and fancy summer programs and the like. "Why wouldn't the losers be angry?" Luce asks.

Patrick Deneen, the author of Why Liberalism Died, has a word for this class: the "liberalocracy." While the aristocratic family perpetuated itself through the landed estate, Deneen writes, the liberalocratic family rests upon the legacy of liberal individualism "loose generational ties, portable credentials, the inheritance of fungible wealth, and the promise of mobility." Deneen insists that the hereditary meritocracy is not an aberration of liberalism, but its greatest achievement, since a system built on impersonal considerations of "merit" is impervious to attack in liberal terms.

It's worth pausing for a moment to consider Deneen's intriguing solution to this problem.  Deneen argues that both left- and right-liberalism are the fruit of a poisoned tree. That common source is an individualism which sees man as an autonomous being, standing apart from his fellow man, his past and his place. Liberty, in this formulation, means freedom from coercion, freedom to do as you wish—"negative liberty," as Isaiah Berlin called it. Liberalism has thus presided over the elimination of all the old impediments to individual progress—religion, community, custom. Deneen reminds us of an older tradition, reaching back to Plato, which argues that citizens must gain self-mastery in order to be capable of exercising self-government. Liberty of this sort presupposes an "education in virtue" administered by precisely those institutions that liberalism has done away with. Deneen would have us restore that tradition—he's not very convincing on the means—and reforge the old world of custom, including the traditional family, that once sustained "losers" and provided a whole world of value apart from meritocratic triumph.

Deneen is a Catholic conservative who offers an alternative reading of history that will be appealing to other Catholic conservatives, though perhaps only very reactionary ones. He is capable of writing that higher education began going to hell with the end of compulsory chapel and parietals. He claims that the liberal commitment to equality is a piece of pretty hypocrisy designed to distract the ordinary citizen while elites build their gilded meritocratic cage. But this is a false reading of history, for liberals have long worried about the hold on power of a privileged class—including a liberal class. In The Promise of American Life, Herbert Croly writes that in a free society, men of talent will naturally rise to the top. But that privileged position begins to corrode social bonds when it threatens to become permanent, whether through inheritance or through the exploitation of privilege. "The essential wholeness of the community," he writes, "depends absolutely on the ceaseless creation of a political, economic, and social aristocracy and their equally incessant replacement."

Croly hoped to preserve the "essential wholeness of the community" in part through a steeply progressive estate tax. Teddy Roosevelt, his great patron, agreed. In a famous 1910 speech partly inspired by Croly, Roosevelt, himself a wealthy man, called for a progressive income tax—none then existed—as well as an inheritance tax "increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate." Writing in The Atlantic in 1943, James Conant Bryant, the president of Harvard, declared that an "American radical" "will be lusty in wielding the axe against the root of inherited privilege." He would, in fact, call for the confiscation of all inherited property every generation. The unwillingness to permit a "caste system" to form, Conant wrote, "is the kernel of his radical philosophy."

There is, in fact, no sharper difference between left-liberalism and right-liberalism than the estate tax, with its implicit principle that privilege ought not be transmitted generationally. There is no better rebuttal of Deneen's contempt for liberalism. And there is no better way of standing up against the power of money in politics, the great theme that brought Bernie Sanders to the brink of the Democratic nomination. No less important, the willingness of the left, unlike the right, to gore its own ox might demonstrate to hard-pressed Americans that the liberal elite understands, as it once understood, the meaning of sacrifice.

But do liberals understand sacrifice? Liberalism did grave damage to its reputation in the 1960s by demanding real sacrifices from ordinary people and very little from elites, whose children were not the ones being bused to inner-city schools, nor drafted and sent off to fight in Vietnam. Has anything changed today? So many of the things liberals favor—globalization, a generous immigration policy, an increase in the minimum wage, affirmative action—do them real good and little harm, while impinging, or at least seeming to impinge, on Americans a few steps down the ladder. What do liberals favor that's good for America broadly but not good for them? Still thinking?

This is not a problem for conservatives, who believe in the social value of selfishness. But liberals fancy themselves idealists. They need to prove it by pulling themselves off their perch. What about mandatory national service? Not killing anyone—that's for professionals—but clearing brush in a national park. I would advocate eliminating legacy admissions at elite universities, as others like Richard Reeves of Brookings have argued, save that I can't believe that institutions whose economic model depends on alumni donations will ever do that.

National service and even the estate tax are essentially emblems; perhaps sacrifice itself is a kind of emblem. But it is a language that Americans understand, and appreciate. If liberals are to find a way to speak to Americans who have been trained to regard them as the spawn of Satan, it will not be enough, as Hillary Clinton amply demonstrated, to have the best policies. The death-knell of liberalism really might prove to be premature if liberals can rediscover the deep sources of the collective "we" in the face of Donald Trump's devastating strategy of "me" and "us."

There's Still Time to Act Against Russian Interference

Posted: 18 Feb 2018 02:20 PM PST

This past Friday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller presented an indictment against 13 Russians and three Russian companies for illegally interfering with the U.S. political process, including during the 2016 presidential elections. The indictment gave a vivid look into an extensive political disinformation campaign, but did not address the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee. Nor did it go into any possible ties between the operation and Donald Trump's presidential campaign or organization. This weekend, President Trump responded to the indictment with tweets claiming vindication and criticizing the FBI for supporting the investigation.

The indictment revealed two big things: The U.S. government has the ability to unearth the details of a sophisticated Russian interference operation, and can use criminal prosecution to combat it. In fact, the United States has many tools at its disposal to protect the nation, including law enforcement, sanctions, and regulatory actions to block flows of dirty money. It also possesses an entire menu of digital options to target Russian disinformation campaigns—tools like requiring the labeling of bots and foreign political or issue ads on social media, and supporting private groups working to expose Russian disinformation. It's just a matter of using them. What's missing is sustained and consistent top-level leadership.

According to the Mueller indictment, Russia's conspiracy began in 2014, the same year its forces invaded Ukraine. At first, those of us in the Obama administration, where I helped design the Ukraine-related sanctions in coordination with America's European allies, didn't grasp the extent of the Russian campaign inside the United States. Instead, we sought to counter Russia's far more visible aggression in Ukraine through sanctions and strengthening the U.S. and allied military presence on NATO's eastern flank.

By late summer of 2016, the hack of the Democratic National Committee and additional reporting made clear that we had a real problem on our hands. But for some time, the Obama administration seemed to believe that strong action against Russian interference would, on its own, have been seen as politicization of the election process. It wasn't until December 2016, after the election, that we got serious. The administration did manage to sanction Yevgeniy Prigozhin, allegedly the chief funder of the St. Petersburg troll farm at the heart of the Mueller indictment, in connection with his Ukraine-related activity. (Prigozhin also reportedly funds Russian mercenaries in Syria; he's a busy bad guy.) Some of us in the administration knew we should do more—that we should have imposed sanctions on the Russian cyber sector as a whole, which would have given us the authority to go after a wide range of bad actors. But we were out of time.

Trump's policy towards combatting Russian aggression has been, at best, a ragged one. On the plus side, he has maintained (and may increase) Obama's military deployments to NATO's eastern front, and has offered to sell advanced anti-tank weapons to Ukraine and Georgia. His administration has enforced the existing Russia sanctions, including those related to Ukraine- and the Magnitsky Act. It has even gone after Prigozhin's companies.

But for no good reason, Trump almost rescinded the Ukraine-related Russia sanctions in his first days in office. For that near-miss disaster, Congress slapped the administration with an omnibus Russia sanctions bill. The bill is a mixed bag, but the Trump administration has been slow to move on even its best ideas. Those include cyber-related sanctions, and a mandatory report on the Putin power structure. That report, dubbed the "Kremlin report," turned out to be nothing more than a cut-and-paste job assembled using a publicly available Kremlin organizational chart and a Forbes list of billionaires. The Trump administration also hasn't rallied much of a response to Russia's 2016 campaign-related and ongoing disinformation operations, in significant part because the president denies the operation even exists. He has called it a hoax.

But the Russian assault on America's democracy and other Western democracies is real. At least parts of Trump's administration recognize the problem. On Saturday at the Munich Security Conference, H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, said that the evidence of Russia's election interference "is now really incontrovertible." Mueller's indictment indicates that Washington has the collective knowledge to fight back. The classified, high-quality version of the Kremlin report, which the Trump administration acknowledged the existence of after it took widespread criticism over the weak, unclassified version, also suggested that the White House has the means to take effective action if it chose to.

Under proper presidential leadership, what would a policy to fight back look like? It could include taking criminal action against Russian bad actors, including those interfering in American elections, and bringing sanctions against bad cyber hackers and actors and their patrons and funders—or even against the entire Russian cyber sector. Using information from the Kremlin report, sanctions could go after Putin and his inner circle. A campaign to expose dark Russian money coming into the United States—similar to America's post-9/11 efforts against terrorist finance—could also make a big difference. Another vital piece of these efforts: bringing together government actors, social media companies, and civil society groups, to identify Russian disinformation and constrict the space in which it operates.

The room for the Trump administration's pros to maneuver on Russian election interference has been limited. But the Mueller indictment may open doors for more action, since all these steps can be taken without prejudice to the issue of "collusion." Here's hoping that the era of denial and deflection ends.

The Democrats Keep Capitulating on Defense Spending

Posted: 18 Feb 2018 08:50 AM PST

Since earlier this month, when Congress passed a budget deal that massively boosts both defense and non-defense spending, liberal commentators—and even some Republican politicians—have accused the GOP of hypocrisy. Republicans, they noted, are supposed to loathe debt. They're supposed to loathe government spending. Yet, in large numbers, they voted for much more of both.

Fair enough. But what about the Democrats? If Republicans are supposed to worry about the United States bankrupting itself with social-welfare spending, aren't Democrats supposed to worry about the United States bankrupting itself with military spending? Not anymore. In the run-up to the deal, Nancy Pelosi's office fired off an email to House Democrats proclaiming that, "In our negotiations, Congressional Democrats have been fighting for increases in funding for defense." Chuck Schumer's office announced that, "We fully support President Trump's Defense Department's request." Not all congressional Democrats voted for the budget agreement: Thirty-eight percent of Democrats backed it in the House and 76 percent did in the Senate. But even those who voted no mostly did so because they were upset about its lack of protection for immigrant "dreamers"—not because they oppose a higher defense budget. Last year, in fact, when Democrats were offered a standalone vote on big increases in military spending—in the form of House and Senate defense authorization bills—large majorities in both bodies voted yes.

What makes this so remarkable is that the arguments for a large increase in defense spending are extraordinarily weak.

Those arguments can be divided into two types: The first is that America needs a much bigger military budget because the world has gotten much more dangerous. The second is that America needs a much bigger military budget to make up for the savage cuts of the Obama years.

Start with argument number one. The National Defense Strategy, which the Trump administration issued in January to buttress its call for higher defense spending, declares that, "We are facing increased global disorder … creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory." In other words, threats are increasing. But if you look back at previous Pentagon documents you realize that threats are always increasing. The Pentagon's 2015 National Military Strategy (not to be confused with the National Defense Strategy) begins with then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey declaring that, "Today's global security environment is the most unpredictable I have seen in 40 years of service." In 2014, the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review (which the National Defense Strategy replaces, confused yet?) warned of "a world that is growing more volatile, more unpredictable, and in some instances more threatening to the United States." In 2010, the United States faced "a complex and uncertain security landscape in which the pace of change continues to accelerate." In 2006, it confronted "the increasingly dangerous security challenges of the 21st century." The world, in other words, is always getting more complicated, more uncertain, more disorderly and more frightening—and the Pentagon always needs more money to deal with it.

But has the world actually become more dangerous in ways that this boost in defense spending will remedy? For the last decade and a half, the threat that worried the Defense Department most was jihadist terrorism. For the last few years, the jihadist terrorist group that worried it most was ISIS. Yet in his State of the Union Address, Donald Trump declared himself "proud to report that the coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated almost 100 percent of the territory once held by these killers." In other words, the organization that was most frequently blamed in recent years for making the world scarier and scarier has just lost virtually its entire base of operations. Yet the world is getting scarier nonetheless.

As if to preempt this objection, this year's National Defense Strategy declares that, "Interstate strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security." But if the United States is no longer as worried about terrorism and yet the world is becoming more dangerous overall because of "strategic competition" with other great powers, then those great powers—China and Russia—must have become a lot more dangerous in a short time.

One might argue that Russia, because of its meddling in the 2016 election, actually has become a lot more dangerous. The problem with using Russian hacking to justify a bigger defense budget is that the Trump administration devotes only a tiny percentage of its funding boost to countering it. Trump plans to spend $716 billion on defense in Fiscal Year 2019 (which starts this October). Of that, $8.5 billion—a bit more than 1 percent—is allocated to the Pentagon's budget for cyber defense. Another chunk of money—the figures are classified but Gordon Adams, who oversaw the national-security and foreign policy budgets at the Office of Management and Budget during much of the Clinton administration, estimates it at perhaps $10 billion—is going to the National Security Agency. Add that in and you're between 2 and 3 percent of Trump's defense budget. In fact, Trump is raising the public part of the cyber defense budget by a much smaller percentage (4.2 percent) than he's raising the defense budget overall (more than 11 percent). The military may worry about Vladimir Putin's actions in Ukraine and Syria too, but in terms of conventional military strength, Russia is hardly a real threat to the United States. So unless Vladimir Putin is planning on bombing America's polling booths in 2020, it's hard to see how Russia's election meddling justifies Trump's huge defense increases much at all.

For its part, China is a formidable long-term "strategic competitor" to the United States. But that's not exactly news. Hillary Clinton announced a "pivot" of America's national-security focus to Asia way back in 2011. China's growing military power may well justify increasing U.S. defense spending for Asia. But given that the Pentagon is now less worried about jihadist terrorism, shouldn't that free up some more money for containing China? What exactly has China done since Trump took office that requires the Pentagon to boost its budget by a whopping 11 percent between Fiscal Years 2017 and 2019 even as it concedes that terrorism—formerly the number one threat—is now no longer the major worry? When I asked a version of this question to Gordon Adams he explained that "Threats are always better for budgets than peace."

The second major justification for a big boost in military spending is that as a result of budget caps passed in 2011 (which Trump wrongly dubs a "sequester"), the Obama administration's defense budgets were dangerously low. The National Defense Strategy warns that the Pentagon endured "a period of strategic atrophy" in which "Our backlog of deferred readiness, procurement, and modernization requirements has grown." In his State of the Union address, Trump demanded that Congress "end the dangerous defense sequester."

But the budget caps didn't slash defense spending. It's a myth. According to Todd Harrison, the director of Defense Budget Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, total defense spending did decline from $714 billion in FY 2010 to a low of $586 billion in FY 2015. That sounds like a big drop. But it's almost entirely because, between 2010 and 2015, the U.S. largely pulled its troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2010, the United States had 200,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The costs of keeping them there were mostly paid through something called the Overseas Contingency Operations Fund (OCO), which is supposed to pay for temporary expenditures like wars. Between FY 2010 and 2015, OCO spending went down from $163 billion to $63 billion, which makes sense when you realize that by 2015 the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan had dropped to only 10,000. Take away the OCO and look only at the Pentagon's "base budget"—which covers everything except ongoing wars—and the gap between FY 2010 and the depth of the supposed defense spending "atrophy" in FY 2015 drops to only $28 billion.

But even that overstates the drop. Even as troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq fell, the Pentagon kept spending $63 billion for what it claimed was war fighting. How did it do that? By shifting roughly $30 billion that should have been in its base budget into the OCO because the OCO was not subject to budget caps. By doing so, the Pentagon made it appear that the base budget was $28 billion lower in FY 2015 than it had been in FY 2010. But that was an accounting gimmick. Had the $30 billion been in the base budget, where it belonged, it would have been clear that—when you subtract actual war-fighting—the Pentagon's budget in FY 2015 was almost exactly what it had been in FY 2010, before the budget caps began.

Ironically, one of the members of Congress who denounced this budget-busting accounting trick was Mick Mulvaney, who is now Trump's director of Office of Management and Budget. But he couldn't stop it. The Pentagon kept that $30 billion in the OCO for the rest of the Obama administration, even as the base budget began going back up. By Obama's last year in office, notes Harrison, overall defense spending (including the OCO) was higher in inflation-adjusted terms that at any point since World War II.

Yes, that's right. The supposedly atrophied defense budget from which Trump is rescuing America was itself higher in constant dollars than the defense budget at the height of the Vietnam War or the Reagan buildup. Which helps explain why in 2016, in an essay in Foreign Affairs, General David Petraeus and the Brookings Institution scholar Michael O'Hanlon declared that, "America's awesome military" had "few, if any, weaknesses" and that "No radical changes or major buildups are needed."

In fact, not only does the American military not require a "major buildup" to be "awesome," it could probably be awesome for a lot less. In 2015, the Defense Review Board—a panel of corporate leaders and management consultants appointed by the Pentagon itself—looked at the Department's "back office" activities: things like "accounting, human resources, logistics and property management." The Board estimated that simply by making these non-battlefield functions more efficient, the Pentagon could save $25 billion per year, almost the entire budget of the State Department. But none of these savings occurred because, as Bob Woodward reported, "The Pentagon imposed secrecy restrictions on the data making up the study, which ensured no one could replicate the findings. A 77-page summary report that had been made public was removed from a Pentagon website."

Adams, who oversaw the defense budget at OMB for part of the 1990s, told me he thought the $25 billion figure was low. The actual potential savings are probably higher. It's impossible to know for sure because the Pentagon has never produced an auditable financial statement. This is despite the fact that Congress in 1990 passed a law requiring that every federal department do so by 1992. Every department has, except the Pentagon. In 2009, Congress passed another law specifically requiring that the Pentagon produce a financial statement that outside experts could examine. It still hasn't. When the accounting firm Ernst and Young last year audited just one section of the Pentagon, the Defense Logistics Agency, it found, in the words of Politico, which broke the story, that the Agency's "financial management is so weak that its leaders and oversight bodies have no reliable way to track the huge sums it's responsible for."

Despite all this, many Democrats agreed to boost defense spending by more than what Bernie Sanders estimates it would cost to make every four-year public college and university in America tuition-free and by more than what Andrew Kolodny, the co-director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University, estimates it would cost to end the opioid crisis.

The vote illustrates how strange a beast the contemporary Democratic Party has become. On domestic policy—immigration, criminal justice, health care—the party is moving left. On foreign and defense policy, the party barely exists. This month's budget deal was a perfect example. Some Democrats voted for it because the agreement boosted domestic spending. Others voted against it because it didn't take care of immigrant "dreamers." The huge increase in military spending didn't matter much one way or the other.

No wonder Pentagon leaders are happy. The one party that might be ideologically inclined to question their spending habits has decided it doesn't care.

Trump's Furious Tweetstorm Backfires

Posted: 18 Feb 2018 08:52 AM PST

Donald Trump didn't have any control over the decision by Russia's Internet Research Agency  to mount what it called "information warfare against the United States of America." As the indictment released on Friday stated, the effort began in 2014, long before Trump was a declared candidate—much less a serious one—for office.

But by refusing to take information warfare seriously—in an attempt to distance himself from it and any questions it might raise about the legitimacy of his election—the president has paradoxically made the story about himself again and again.

This solipsism was on display Saturday and Sunday morning, as Trump, at Mar-a-Lago and far from the strictures and structures of the White House, unleashed his most aggressive and scattered tweetstorm in some time. In theory, the things he said were designed to push the story away from himself and downplay any connection. In practice, he forced himself into the middle of the story, inextricably linking himself to it.

Over a series of tweets, Trump attacked the FBI; politicized the Parkland shooting for his own vindication; suggested collusion was no big deal; blamed Obama for the collusion; and said the real collusion involved Hillary Clinton. He undermined his national-security adviser; lied about denying that Russia meddled in the election; and finished with an appeal to numbers, citing an infamously unreliable pollster.

The whole series of tweets is too long to reproduce, but a few are worth noting:

This came just hours after the president met with victims and first responders from the Parkland shooting. The FBI clearly erred in this case, as it has acknowledged; there's also no reason to believe it couldn't both follow up on tips in Florida and investigate Russian interference. This missive represents yet another case of the president pressuring the FBI to drop an active criminal investigation.

This is misleading. Trump refers to a statement he made during the general election, but at multiple points since then he has denied Russian meddling outright. In February 2017, he tweeted, "Russia talk is FAKE NEWS put out by the Dems, and played up by the media, in order to mask the big election defeat and the illegal leaks!" He has worked to sow doubt about it. In November 2017, he made a hair-splitting comment, saying Vladimir Putin denied interference and adding, "I believe, I really believe that when he tells me that he means it."

Rather than stick to a single, coherent message, the president is trying out several contradictory ones. It cannot be true that the collusion is no big deal and also that Obama was negligent in handling it and also that the Clinton campaign colluded in worrisome ways:

And as his recourse to poll data indicates, Trump also does not differentiate between domestic politics and the national interest, nor between his own interest and the national interest. With Friday's indictment now public—detailing copious, information about the troll game to interfere with the election—National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster called the evidence of Russian meddling "incontrovertible."

McMaster offered Trump a way out: Acknowledge and condemn the Russian action, say it's an affront to America, and move on. He could also lie low, and let the indictment speak for itself. This is not what Trump has done, though. The official White House statement on the indictment focused instead on claiming, misleadingly, that it vindicated the Trump campaign of collusion with Russia. (The collusion allegations center elsewhere, away from the troll operation.) With his furious, contradictory denials, Trump focuses attention on himself, and raises questions about why he is unwilling to acknowledge what his own top aide calls incontrovertible evidence. By insisting on conflating attacks from Russia with the legitimacy of his electoral victory, he in fact only raises more questions about the latter, without debunking the former.

Trump and McMaster differ on another important point. Speaking about the Russian campaign in Munich on Saturday, McMaster dismissed its efficacy. "It's just not working," he said. Trump disagreed:

The president has the more credible argument here. The U.S. is obviously deeply divided over Russian interference, and Trump continues to play a central role in ensuring that remains the case.

America Is Under Attack and the President Doesn't Care

Posted: 18 Feb 2018 08:55 AM PST

As the rest of America mourns the victims of the Parkland, Florida, massacre, President Trump took to Twitter.

Not for him the rituals of grief. He is too consumed by rage and resentment. He interrupted his holidaying schedule at Mar-a-Lago only briefly, for a visit to a hospital where some of the shooting victims were treated. He posed afterward for a grinning thumbs-up photo op. Pain at another's heartbreak—that emotion is for losers, apparently.

Having failed at one presidential duty, to speak for the nation at times of national tragedy, Trump resumed shirking an even more supreme task: defending the nation against foreign attack.

Last week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian persons and three entities that conspired to violate federal election law, to the benefit of Trump and Republican congressional candidates. This is not the whole of the story by any means. This Mueller indictment references only Russian operations on Facebook. It does not deal with the weaponization of hacked information via WikiLeaks. Or the reports that the Russians funneled millions of dollars of election spending through the NRA's political action committees. But this indictment does show enough to answer some questions about the scale and methods of the Russian intervention—and pose a new question, the most important of them all.

The new question is this: What has been—what will be done—to protect American democracy from such attacks in the future? The Russian attack in 2016 worked, yielding dividends beyond Vladimir Putin's wildest hopes. The Russians hoped to cast a shadow over the Clinton presidency. Instead, they outright elected their preferred candidate. Americans once thought it was a big deal that Alger Hiss rose to serve as acting temporary secretary general of the United Nations. This time, a Russian-backed  individual was installed in the Oval Office.

From that position of power, Trump has systematically attempted to shut down investigations of the foreign-espionage operation that operated on his behalf. He fired the director of the FBI to shut it down. His White House coordinated with the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee to misdirect the investigation. He mobilized the speaker of the House to thwart bipartisan investigations under broadly respected leadership. He has inspired, supported, and joined a national propaganda campaign against the Mueller investigation.

And all the while, Trump has done nothing—literally nothing—to harden the nation's voting systems against follow-on Russian operations. On Sunday, he publicly repudiated his own national-security adviser for acknowledging at the Munich Security Conference the most incontrovertible basics of what happened in 2016.

It's worth thinking about what a patriotic president would have done in Trump's situation. He would be leading the investigation himself. He would be scouring his own campaign—doing everything in his power to reassure the country that whatever the Russians may or may not have done, his government owed Putin nothing. He would have imposed penalties on Russia for their outrageous acts—rather than protecting Russia from penalties voted by Congress. Above all, he would be leading the demand for changes to election laws and practices, including holding Facebook to account for its negligence.

At every turn, Trump has failed to do what a patriotic president would do—failed to put the national interest first. He has left the 2018 elections as vulnerable as the 2016 elections to Russian intervention on his behalf.

The president's malignant narcissism surely explains much of this passivity. He cannot endure the thought that he owes the presidency to anything other than his own magnificence. "But wasn't I a great candidate?" he tweeted plaintively at 7:43 a.m on Sunday morning.

But Americans who cherish democracy and national sovereignty need to start discussing a bigger and darker question.

Authoritarian nationalist parties across the western world have outright cooperated with the Russians. Russian money has helped to finance the National Front in France, and the election and re-election of the president of the Czech Republic. In Germany, Russia first created a hoax refugee-rape case—then widely publicized it—in an effort to boost its preferred extremist party in that country's 2017 election, the Alternative for Germany. Russia supported pro-AfD comment in media favored by Germany's surprisingly substantial Russian-speaking communities.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo predicted to the BBC at the beginning of 2018 that Russia "will be back" to help its preferred candidates in November 2018. To what extent does President Trump—to what extent do congressional Republicans—look to Russian interference to help their party in the 2018 cycle?

Most observers predict a grim year for the GOP in 2018. But the economy is strong, and selective tax cuts are strategically redistributing money from blue-state professionals to red-state parents. The Republican national committee commands a huge financial advantage over its Democratic counterpart. (Thing look more even at the level of the individual candidates.) A little extra help could make a big difference to Republican hopes—and to Trump's political survival.

Nothing has been done in the past 15 months to prevent that help from flowing. You have to wonder whether the president does not privately welcome that help, as he publicly welcomed help from WikiLeaks in the summer of 2016.

Trump's own tweets reveal that among the things he most fears is the prospect of Representative Adam Schiff gaining the gavel of the House Intelligence Committee from the clownish present chairman, Devin Nunes. How far would Trump go to stop a dreaded political opponent, inside the law and outside? How far has Donald Trump gone in the past?

Trump continues to insist that he and his campaign team did not collude with Russia in the 2016 election. We know that they were ready and eager to collude—that's on the public record. ("If it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer.") The public does not yet know whether the collusion actually occurred, and if so, in what form and to what extent. But in front of our very eyes we can observe that they are leaving the door open to Russian intervention on their behalf in the next election. You might call it collusion in advance—a dereliction of duty as grave as any since President Buchanan looked the other way as Southern state governments pillaged federal arsenals on the eve of the Civil War.

The More Gender Equality, the Fewer Women in STEM

Posted: 18 Feb 2018 05:00 AM PST

Though their numbers are growing, only 27 percent of all students taking the AP Computer Science exam in the United States are female. The gender gap only grows worse from there: Just 18 percent of American computer-science college degrees go to women. This is in the United States, where many college men proudly describe themselves as "male feminists" and girls are taught they can be anything they want to be.

Meanwhile, in Algeria, 41 percent of college graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math—or "STEM," as its known—are female. There, employment discrimination against women is rife and women are often pressured to make amends with their abusive husbands.

According to a report I covered a few years ago, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates were the only three countries in which boys are significantly less likely to feel comfortable working on math problems than girls are. In all of the other nations surveyed, girls were more likely to say they feel "helpless while performing a math problem."

So what explains the tendency for nations that have traditionally less gender equality to have more women in science and technology than their gender-progressive counterparts do?

A scatterplot of countries based on their number of female STEM graduates and their Global Gender Gap Index (y-axis), a measure of opportunities for women (Psychological Science)

According to a new paper published in Psychological Science by the psychologists Gijsbert Stoet, at Leeds Beckett University, and David Geary, at the University of Missouri, it could have to do with the fact that women in countries with higher gender inequality are simply seeking the clearest possible path to financial freedom. And often, that path leads through STEM professions.

The issue doesn't appear to be girls' aptitude for STEM professions. In looking at test scores across 67 countries and regions, Stoet and Geary found that girls performed about as well or better than boys did on science in most countries, and in almost all countries, girls would have been capable of college-level science and math classes if they had enrolled in them.

But when it comes to their relative strengths, in almost all the countries—all except Romania and Lebanon—boys' best subject was science, and girls' was reading. (That is, even if an average girl was as good as an average boy at science, she was still likely to be even better at reading.) Across all countries, 24 percent of girls had science as their best subject, 25 percent of girls' strength was math, and 51 percent excelled in reading. For boys, the percentages were 38 for science, 42 for math, and 20 for reading. And the more gender-equal the country, as measured by the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index, the larger this gap between boys and girls in having science as their best subject. (The most gender-equal countries are the typical snowy utopias you hear about, like Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. Turkey and the United Arab Emirates rank among the least equal, according to the Global Gender Gap Index.)

The gap in reading "is related at least in part to girls' advantages in basic language abilities and a generally greater interest in reading; they read more and thus practice more," Geary told me.

What's more, the countries that minted the most female college graduates in fields like science, engineering, or math were also some of the least gender-equal countries. They posit that this is because the countries that empower women also empower them, indirectly, to pick whatever career they'd enjoy most and be best at.

"Countries with the highest gender equality tend to be welfare states," they write, "with a high level of social security." Meanwhile, less gender-equal countries tend to also have less social support for people who, for example, find themselves unemployed. Thus, the authors suggest, girls in those countries might be more inclined to choose STEM professions, since they offer a more certain financial future than, say, painting or writing.

When the study authors looked at the "overall life satisfaction" rating of each country—a measure of economic opportunity and hardship—they found that gender-equal countries had more life satisfaction. The life-satisfaction ranking explained 35 percent of the variation between gender equality and women's participation in STEM. That correlation echoes past research showing that the genders are actually more segregated by field of study in more economically developed places.

The upshot of this research is neither especially feminist nor especially sad: It's not that gender equality discourages girls from pursuing science. It's that it allows them not to if they're not interested.

The findings will likely seem controversial, since the idea that men and women have different inherent abilities is often used as a reason, by some, to argue we should forget trying to recruit more women into the STEM fields. But, as the University of Wisconsin gender-studies professor Janet Shibley Hyde, who wasn't involved with the study, put it to me, that's not quite what's happening here.

"Some would say that the gender STEM gap occurs not because girls can't do science, but because they have other alternatives, based on their strengths in verbal skills," she said. "In wealthy nations, they believe that they have the freedom to pursue those alternatives and not worry so much that they pay less."

Instead, this line of research, if it's replicated, might hold useful takeaways for people who do want to see more Western women entering STEM fields. In this study, the percentage of girls who did excel in science or math was still larger than the number of women who were graduating with STEM degrees. That means there's something in even the most liberal societies that's nudging women away from math and science, even when those are their best subjects. The women-in-STEM advocates could, for starters, focus their efforts on those would-be STEM stars.

Then again, it could just be that, feeling financially secure and on equal footing with men, some women will always choose to follow their passions, rather than whatever labor economists recommend. And those passions don't always lie within science.