- The Senate Tries to Figure Out Facebook
- A Single Solution for New York's Two Biggest Problems
- The Myth of 'Learning Styles'
- Maine's Fitful Experiment With a New Way of Voting
- Trump's Soft Spot for Children
- <i>Killing Eve</i> Is a Sign of TV to Come
- Converting to Buddhism as a Form of Political Protest
- The 13 Strangest Moments From the Zuckerberg Hearing
- <em>The Atlantic</em> Daily: Rethink Our Approach
- Mark Zuckerberg Is Halfway to Scot-Free
- <i>The Atlantic</i> Politics & Policy Daily: Sitting Zuck
- Donald Trump's Strange Justice
- The 1918 Flu Pandemic: Photos From a Century Ago
- The Good Friday Agreement in the Age of Brexit
- To Be Inside a Safe Space
- My Facebook Was Breached by Cambridge Analytica. Was Yours?
- 3 Million Uber Drivers Are About to Get a New Boss
- Is It Better to Be Polite or Honest?
- The States Where People Die Young
- The Yankees’ Biggest Strength May Be Their Greatest Weakness
- What Did You Do in the Trade War, Daddy?
- Letters: Who Handles The Dishes?
- The Revelation of Cardi B
- Why the GOP Is Making the Midterm Elections All About Impeachment
- Your Body is a Teeming Battleground
Posted: 11 Apr 2018 03:00 AM PDT
The sound of the camera shutters told the story. On Tuesday, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg entered Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees, dozens of photographers crowded the witness table, and the space filled with the sound of rain beating on a tin roof. By the hearing's end, five hours later, it faded to a slow drizzle.
Zuckerberg had come, ostensibly, to discuss Cambridge Analytica's use of data provided by Facebook users during the 2016 presidential election. He was scheduled to testify at 2:15 p.m., but the line for the public gallery started to form at 7:15 a.m. Reporters and staffers crammed into their reserved seats hours in advance. People seemed giddy to be there.
But by the end of the meandering hearing, observers were left scratching their heads, wondering why they'd convened in the first place.
When Zuckerberg first entered the room, the power dynamics were plainly visible. Senators perched, glowering, above the curved panel. Zuckerberg, visibly uncomfortable, took his seat, a thick cushion propping up his five-foot-seven frame. It didn't take a Silicon Valley devotee to see that the unblinking Zuckerberg was out of his element. His arms hung awkwardly in his pressed blue suit. His neck was as stiff as a two-by-four.
Which is to say that Zuckerberg seemed as anxious as the rest of us, convinced that something "extraordinary"—to borrow Senator John Thune's words—was about to unfold.
Most who stand before the Senate Judiciary Committee are prepared to defend something. Republicans and Democrats alike prefer to ask questions to which they already know the answers, daring witnesses to challenge their carefully considered take on the issue at hand. They also prefer to ask questions that form a narrative; it is the job of a witness to either confirm that narrative, or push back convincingly.
Zuckerberg did neither, but he didn't have to. If anything was extraordinary about Tuesday's hearing, it was how quickly the power dynamic shifted—arguably before Zuckerberg even opened his mouth. Senate Judiciary chairman Chuck Grassley, for example, appeared to read his opening remarks from Facebook's Wikipedia page, ticking off a laundry list of facts (Facebook has two billion users! Offices in 13 U.S. cities!), and inadvertently signaling the language barrier to come. Within minutes, Zuckerberg was fielding questions from lawmakers who, it seemed, did not know the answers.
The hearing thus devolved into a free-for-all. Senators used their time to litigate their personal concerns about Facebook, phrased, conveniently, in television-ad-friendly soundbites. "Appreciate you being here, appreciate you apologizing," said Senator Catherine Cortez Masto. "But stop apologizing and let's make a change." (If Cortez Masto articulated a change to be made, it was lost on Zuckerberg.) Senator Ted Cruz hammered Zuckerberg on Facebook's alleged bias against conservative content; in response, Zuckerberg affirmed his support of free speech. And that was one of the more substantive exchanges of the session: On the whole, senators didn't grapple with the cultural and political implications of Facebook so much as with the basic mechanics by which it operates.
It's not surprising that Facebook's stock soared over the course of the hearing. Almost immediately, Zuckerberg's ashen face regained its color. His wooden posture quickly loosened. The hearing became a real-world simulation of a common Facebook experience: a grandparent asking their grandchild in all caps how, exactly, all this works. Which meant that when lawmakers did ask pertinent questions—Senator Cory Booker, for instance, pressed Zuckerberg on discriminatory housing ads on the site—they lacked the bearings to challenge the Facebook mogul when he dodged the topic and promised "to get back" to them.
Reporters, photographers, and other observers dropped off like flies. This wasn't because of the late hour—Hillary Clinton's Benghazi testimony was 11 hours long—but because it became increasingly clear that, if there were a puzzle that Zuckerberg was to help Congress solve, it would not be presented that evening.
It seemed appropriate, then, that in the last few minutes of the hearing, Senator Jon Tester asked Zuckerberg how he would take measures to ensure the Cambridge Analytica episode never happened again. Zuckerberg responded by simply reiterating the three steps he'd outlined in his opening statement.
Tester seemed satisfied. And suddenly, everyone was back where they had started. Only this time, just a few photographers felt it was worth a snapshot.
Posted: 11 Apr 2018 03:00 AM PDT
When I was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1980s, it was a watchword for urban decay, notorious for its high levels of violent crime and joblessness. Most of our family friends fled the city as soon as they could cobble together a down payment for a house in the suburbs, and it was hard to blame them. But the Salams toughed it out, and we are now delighted to have done so. By the 2010s, New York City had experienced a dramatic revival. Kay Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, vividly describes this transformation in her recent book, The New Brooklyn. Violent crime has plummeted and the local economy has boomed, to the point where there is more anxiety about the galloping pace of gentrification than there is about middle-class families rushing for the exits. Compared to the nightmare that was the crack epidemic, gentrification is a champagne problem, as most New Yorkers of a certain age would happily concede.
Yet New York's good fortune has brought with it two formidable challenges: the challenge of displacement, the product of a rental housing market that has long been starved of inventory, and of meeting the transit needs of a growing city. To address the first, state and local officials have to overcome popular resistance to new housing development, despite the lingering suspicion that it will offer established residents little more than added congestion. The second will require recapitalizing a transit agency that has long since lost the public's trust. Thankfully, Alex Armlovich, also of the Manhattan Institute, has devised a grand bargain that can tackle both challenges at once.
As anyone who has visited New York in recent years can discern, the city is in the midst of an acute transit crisis, which has been greatly exacerbated by the feckless leadership of the notoriously small-minded governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo. Underinvestment and gross mismanagement have badly damaged the city's subways, its lifeblood, and low-income commuters in the outer boroughs have been hardest hit. Money alone won't solve all that ails the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but the agency needs an infusion of funds to, among other things, modernize its dangerously antiquated control systems. The question is where the money will come from. Local commuters aren't exactly thrilled by the prospect of paying higher fares, and local taxpayers are understandably reluctant to shovel more money into a transit agency notorious for its profligacy. Short of a federal bailout, which is nowhere on the horizon, New Yorkers will have to find someone willing to foot the bill.
And then there is displacement, fear of which looms large in the local imagination. As New York City has grown more desirable, it has experienced net population growth. While large numbers of New Yorkers leave the city every year, they are being replaced, and then some, by newcomers from elsewhere, including large numbers of high-skill professionals. Close to 9 percent of households in New York earn over $200,000, and it is no exaggeration to say that much of the rest of the city's workforce caters to this slice of the population. This increase in high-end demand is, for most communities, the stuff of dreams, and it has redounded to the benefit of those fortunate enough to own property. However, New York City has failed to accommodate increased demand for housing by easing local land-use regulations that have, over the course of decades, drastically decreased the number of units that developers are allowed to build.
That artificially constricted supply has prompted affluent households to look beyond neighborhoods that have traditionally been the city's most desirable, and that offer professionals the shortest commutes, to neighborhoods in Brooklyn and elsewhere that had hitherto been dominated by families of modest means. If established neighborhoods in the urban core had built more housing, it stands to reason that there would have been less spillover of the well-off to outlying neighborhoods. Gentrification can be a positive force, to be sure. For one, by reducing the concentration of poverty, it can improve the life chances of the poor children who remain in gentrifying neighborhoods, by reducing their isolation from society's middle-class mainstream, a dynamic I touched on in National Review in 2014.
But these benefits do not extend to poor children who find themselves displaced from these neighborhoods, who might then settle in higher-poverty neighborhoods elsewhere in the city, or in less transit-rich inner suburbs. It is possible for gentrification to lower the concentration of poverty in a neighborhood without causing displacement, provided the supply of housing increases enough to accommodate increased demand, thus holding down rent increases. If the supply of housing does not grow sufficiently, however, displacement is a likely consequence.
Some scholars, such as Joe Cortright of City Observatory, have suggested that the threat of displacement has been overblown, and it is certainly possible to overstate it. What is also true, however, is that an alarmingly high share of New York renter households—more than half, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies—are "cost-burdened," i.e., they spend more than 30 percent of their gross monthly incomes on rent. In other words, many families that have yet to be displaced are very vulnerable to displacement, and anxious about the prospect. No one, least of all Cortright, would deny that this is a real obstacle to upward mobility.
It is imperative that policymakers find some way to boost housing development without triggering the natural defensive reaction of local residents who are confident that its benefits will elude them. Somehow, these benefits have to be made concrete. Over the years, a number of scholars, most notably David Schleicher of Yale Law School, have devised various schemes to do just that, with only modest success. But one wonders if the urgency of New York's transit crisis can create an opening.
Which leads me to Armlovich's ingenious proposal. In a new report for the Manhattan Institute, he sketches out a plan for boosting housing supply while upgrading public transportation. Specifically, he proposes the creation of "transit growth zones," areas around transportation hubs, in which regulations would be eased so that higher-density housing could more easily be built. In these zones, builders would pay fees per square foot to build up to the maximum allowed in New York state, or else fees to build beyond the limit set by current regulations. Such fees and taxes could be channeled to the MTA, provided the agency is willing to lower its obscenely high procurement costs.
Ultimately, the new zones could be a win for everyone. "I estimate that property taxes and one-time development fees from the creation of roughly 411,000 new private housing units over 10 years would generate about $54 billion for the MTA during the same period," he writes. Meanwhile, housing supply would start catching up to unmet demand, easing prices across the city, even as the city's subways are restored to health. Instead of adding to the congestion problem, revenue from new housing development would be leveraged to help.
If Armlovich's vision sounds too good to be true, well, it could be. As the urbanist Stephen Smith has observed, increases in supply are never perfectly keyed to increases in demand. Historically, New York's developers have oscillated between irrational exuberance, leading to an oversupply of new housing, at least for a time, and its morose opposite, in which chastened developers overlearn the lessons of the last cycle of boom and bust. Brooklyn's high-end rental market, for example, has cooled in response to the construction of large numbers of luxury properties. Perhaps developers won't leap at the opportunity afforded by Armlovich's grand bargain, as they are still licking their wounds over the lackluster response to their latest frenzy of building. But I suspect his proposal would indeed stimulate the animal spirits of would-be real estate tycoons, which in turn will help replenish the depleted offers of the MTA.
And if that does indeed happen, New York City would become something more than the "luxury city" envisioned by former mayor Michael Bloomberg, or the grim "tale of two cities" often invoked by his maladroit City Hall successor, Bill de Blasio. Rather, it will become a place where middle-class families, much like the one in which I was raised, will be able to find affordable and dignified places to live, and where their children will find it just a little bit easier to scramble up the ladder of success.
Posted: 11 Apr 2018 03:00 AM PDT
In the early '90s, a New Zealand man named Neil Fleming decided to sort through something that had puzzled him during his time monitoring classrooms as a school inspector. In the course of watching 9,000 different classes, he noticed that only some teachers were able to reach each and every one of their students. What were they doing differently?
Fleming zeroed in on how it is that people like to be presented information. For example, when asking for directions, do you prefer to be told where to go or to have a map sketched for you?
Today, 16 questions like this comprise the VARK questionnaire that Fleming developed to determine someone's "learning style." VARK, which stands for "Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic," sorts students into those who learn best visually, through aural or heard information, through reading, or through "kinesthetic" experiences. ("I learned much later that vark is Dutch for "pig," Fleming wrote later, "and I could not get a website called vark.com because a pet shop in Pennsylvania used it for selling aardvarks—earth pigs!")
He wasn't the first to suggest that people have different "learning styles"—past theories included the reading-less "VAK" and something involving "convergers" and "assimilators"—but VARK became one of the most prominent models out there.
Experts aren't sure how the concept spread, but it might have had something to do with the self-esteem movement of the late '80s and early '90s. Everyone was special—so everyone must have a special learning style, too. Teachers told students about it in grade school. "Teachers like to think that they can reach every student, even struggling students, just by tailoring their instruction to match each student's preferred learning format," said Central Michigan University's Abby Knoll, a PhD student who has studied learning styles. (Students, meanwhile, like to blame their scholastic failures on their teacher's failure to align their teaching style with their learning style.)
Either way, "by the time we get students at college," said the Indiana University professor Polly Husmann, "they've already been told 'You're a visual learner.'" Or aural, or what have you.
The thing is, they're not. Or at least, a lot of evidence suggests that people aren't really one certain kind of learner or another. In a study published last month in the journal Anatomical Sciences Education, Husmann and her colleagues had hundreds of students take the VARK questionnaire to determine what kind of learner they supposedly were. The survey then gave them some study strategies that seem like they would correlate with that learning style. Husmann found that not only did students not study in ways that seemed to reflect their learning style, those who did tailor their studying to suit their style didn't do any better on their tests.
Husmann thinks the students had fallen into certain study habits, which, once formed, were too hard to break. Students seemed to be interested in their learning styles, but not enough to actually change their studying behavior based on them. And even if they had, it wouldn't have mattered.
"I think as a purely reflective exercise, just to get you thinking about your study habits, [VARK] might have a benefit," Husmann said. "But the way we've been categorizing these learning styles doesn't seem to hold up."
Another study published last year in the British Journal of Psychology found that students who preferred learning visually thought they would remember pictures better, and those who preferred learning verbally thought they'd remember words better. But those preferences had no correlation to which they actually remembered better later on—words or pictures. Essentially, all the "learning style" meant, in this case, was that the subjects liked words or pictures better, not that words or pictures worked better for their memories.
In other words, "there's evidence that people do try to treat tasks in accordance with what they believe to be their learning style, but it doesn't help them," says Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. In 2015, he reviewed the literature on learning styles and concluded that "learning styles theories have not panned out."
That same year, a Journal of Educational Psychology paper found no relationship between the study subjects' learning-style preference (visual or auditory) and their performance on reading- or listening-comprehension tests. Instead, the visual learners performed best on all kinds of tests. Therefore, the authors concluded, teachers should stop trying to gear some lessons toward "auditory learners." "Educators may actually be doing a disservice to auditory learners by continually accommodating their auditory learning style," they wrote, "rather than focusing on strengthening their visual word skills."
In our conversation, Willingham brought up another study, published in 2009, in which people who said they liked to think visually or verbally really did try to think that way: Self-proclaimed visualizers tried to create an image, and self-proclaimed verbalizers tried to form words. But, there was a rub, he said: "If you're a visualizer and I give you pictures, you don't remember pictures any better than anyone who says they're verbalizer."
This doesn't mean everyone is equally good at every skill, of course. Really, Willingham says, people have different abilities, not styles. Some people read better than others; some people hear worse than others. But most of the tasks we encounter are only really suited to one type of learning. You can't visualize a perfect French accent, for example.
The VARK questionnaire itself illustrates this problem pretty well. One question, for example, asks:
But of course, any friend-having human in 2018 would email their friends to coordinate group travel, whether or not that email includes the first three elements. (Another question asks, sweetly, "You are helping someone who wants to go to the airport" and suggests different ways of giving directions, along with the option to simply "go with her." It depends on the "her" in question, one would assume!)
The "learning styles" idea has snowballed—as late as 2014, more than 90 percent of teachers in various countries believed it. The concept is intuitively appealing, promising to reveal secret brain processes with just a few questions. Strangely, most research on learning styles starts out with a positive portrayal of the theory—before showing it doesn't work.
Willingham goes so far as to say people should stop thinking of themselves as visual, verbal, or some other kind of learner. "It's not like anything terrible is going to happen to you [if you do buy into learning styles]," he says, but there's not any benefit to it, either. "Everyone is able to think in words, everyone is able to think in mental images. It's much better to think of everyone having a toolbox of ways to think, and think to yourself, which tool is best?"
Husmann says the most important thing, for anyone looking to learn something new, is just to really focus on the material—that's what the most successful students from her study did. Rather than, say, plopping some flashcards in your lap ... "but I'm really watching the football game," she said.
Fleming did not return a request for comment by press time, but his own papers seem to warn against getting too carried away by VARK. "I sometimes believe that students and teachers invest more belief in VARK than it warrants," he wrote in 2006. "You can like something, but be good at it or not good at it ... VARK tells you about how you like to communicate. It tells you nothing about the quality of that communication."
In other words, it might help you learn about yourself, but it might not help you learn.
Posted: 11 Apr 2018 03:00 AM PDT
In two months, Maine voters will go to the polls to select their nominees to succeed the state's pugnacious two-term Republican governor, Paul LePage. Whether all of the candidates accept the results of those party primaries, however, remains a surprisingly open question.
The June 12 balloting will be the first statewide elections in the nation to use ranked-choice voting, a system Maine voters approved in a 2016 referendum designed to ensure that winners secure a majority—and not merely a plurality—of the vote. But a series of legal challenges and disputes in the state legislature over its implementation have clouded the upcoming primaries in uncertainty, and debate over the format has cleaved along partisan lines. Even as they campaign for support under ranked-choice voting, Republicans are calling for the state's highest court to toss the new system at the last minute and order the June primaries to be held under traditional rules.
"It's an absolute disaster," said Mary Mayhew, a Republican gubernatorial candidate and the state's former health commissioner under LePage. "I think it is likely illegal, and it is incredibly confusing to those who administer the elections and to those who are getting ready to vote."
Mayhew is seen as a leading contender among the four Republicans running, but when I asked her if she'd challenge the results if she lost because of ranked-choice voting, she wouldn't rule it out. "I will certainly evaluate my options based on the results," Mayhew told me. "I couldn't possibly decide at this point what my decision will be.
"I have serious concerns about this is going to be implemented, and I believe it is fraught with the vulnerability for error," she continued. "That in and of itself may call into question the results."
Mayhew is facing businessman Shawn Moody and two top Republicans in the state legislature—House Minority Leader Ken Fredette and Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, who leads a caucus that voted to appeal a judge's ruling last week ordering the state to implement ranked-choice voting. All four Republicans have criticized the format, as has the state party.
"The system itself is more expensive, it's going to suppress votes, and we think it's just a bad idea," said Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party. "We're concerned about a constitutional crisis of months of court challenges to results that end up with us not knowing who our candidates are."
Ranked-choice voting, which cities like San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Portland, Maine, use to elect their mayors, has been likened to an "instant runoff": Instead of selecting just one candidate, voters rank their choices in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first place votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and whoever their voters chose as their second choice is added to the tally of the remaining contenders. That process continues until there are only two candidates left, and the one with the most votes wins.
The idea had been bandied about for years in Maine, a state where the frequent viability of independent candidates has led to gubernatorial campaigns in which the winner had received less than a majority mandate in eight of the last 10 elections. It gained momentum after LePage won his first election in 2010 with just 37.6 percent of the vote; advocates for ranked-choice voting argue that independent candidate Eliot Cutler would have prevailed had the system been in use then.
Proponents held up ranked-choice voting as a remedy for the increasing vitriol of elections in Maine, which for a long time had viewed itself as removed from the partisan rancor that dominated national politics. "The quality of our campaigns has deteriorated," said John Brautigam, legal counsel and senior policy advisor for the League of Women Voters of Maine, "and maybe ranked-choice voting holds a way to restore some of that special quality to our democracy here in Maine, to preserve decent relationships among candidates and minimize the negativity, and encourage broader outreach by campaigns to all possible voters."
"People have been focused on LePage, because he's been the most visible example of it," Brautigam said, referring to a governor whose impolitic pronouncements and battles with the state legislature have made national headlines for years. But, he said, the problem went beyond merely the Republican in power.
To supporters of ranked-choice voting, the benefits are manifold. The system diminishes the "spoiler effect," so voters can go with a preferred lower-tier candidate as their first choice without feeling that doing so will help elect the contender they like the least. It also encourages candidates to pay attention to voters who might not make them their first choice. "They have to talk to everybody, and that's really good for democracy," Brautigam said. And, advocates say, the system could reduce the incentive for negative campaigning on the assumption that a candidate won't want to offend supporters of a rival who could make them their second choice.
With backing from the League of Women Voters of Maine and an advocacy group called the Committee for Ranked-Choice Voting, a ballot measure enacting ranked-choice voting for gubernatorial, congressional, and state legislative races passed with a narrow 52 percent of the vote in 2016. The referendum called for the system to be in place for the 2018 elections, but questions about its implementation and legality quickly emerged.
Last May, in response to an inquiry from the Republican-controlled state Senate, Maine's Supreme Judicial Court issued a unanimous advisory opinion that ranked-choice voting violated the state constitution, which calls for state elections to be determined by "a plurality" of voters, not a majority. The ruling was non-binding, but it prompted calls either for the legislature to overturn the ballot measure or to pass a constitutional amendment that would clarify its legality. What the legislature did was pass a law in the fall delaying the implementation of ranked-choice voting until 2022.
But that move sparked an outcry from supporters of the initiative, who accused lawmakers of thwarting the will of Maine voters. Using a process known as the "People's Veto," they amassed enough petitions to nullify the law delaying ranked-choice voting and setting up another statewide referendum on the topic. That means that come June 12, Maine voters will simultaneously be using ranked-choice voting for the first time while also deciding whether to use the system again before 2022.
Because of all the confusion, advocates and political operatives say campaigns have been slower to incorporate ranked-choice voting into their election strategies—if they've done so at all. The League of Women Voters of Maine held a training session a few weeks ago, where they advised candidates on tactics to succeed in the new system. The simplest piece of advice is just to be humble enough to ask voters supporting another candidate to consider making you their second choice.
While campaigns from both parties sent representatives to the training session, so far the Democratic candidates that support ranked-choice voting seem to be making the most use of the advice.
"When we ask [people] for their vote, we also ask for their second-choice vote if we don't get their first choice," said Michael Ambler, campaign manager for Janet Mills, a leading Democratic contender and the state's attorney general. "But it's not changing the positions or anything like that that we're taking."
Still, Ambler told me the system was too untested in Maine for there to be an established wisdom on how to use it most effectively. "I don't think people have built up a lot of expertise with this, so I think people are mostly running the way they would in a different election," he said.
As attorney general, Mills had raised questions about the constitutionality of ranked-choice voting—a position that has drawn criticism from her rivals. But Ambler said she supports its use in the primaries and vowed not to contest the results if she lost under the new format. "We are absolutely committed to accepting the results," he told me.
If Mills and the other Democrats are incorporating the new system into their campaigns, Mayhew is ignoring it entirely. When I inquired whether she was asking voters to make her their second choice if they were supporting someone else, she scoffed. "Just think about that statement? Can you imagine asking someone that?" Mayhew replied. "No, I'm campaigning to be their No. 1 choice."
She argued that ranked-choice voting could disenfranchise voters who pick lower-tier candidates but choose not to select a second choice, and she said it was a poor alternative to the more common use of run-off elections to ensure winners secure majority support. "You want to have a run off? Then have a runoff," Mayhew said. "But as a voter, you're going in to pick the person you most want to win."
The state's Republican Party, which has expressed its opposition to ranked-choice voting in the primary, isn't dissuading candidates from challenging the election results in court. "It's their prerogative," Savage told me.
In addition to the constitutional dispute, there are questions about how Maine will pay for the new system and how the ballots will be counted. The referendum calls for counting to be done at a centralized location, but state law requires ballots to be counted locally.
While the rules for other elections are unclear, the general election for governor this fall will not use ranked-choice voting. And Savage made clear that the GOP's opposition was not due to any perceived electoral disadvantage. "We don't think there's a partisan advantage either way," he said. "This is not a fight about political advantage. It's a fight about respecting Maine's constitution."
Advocates for expanding ranked-choice voting nationwide are watching the Maine process closely, hoping that a successful experience will generate momentum to institute it in other states, like Massachusetts, or major cities like New York or Los Angeles. "There will be aspects of Maine that will be uniquely challenging," said Rob Ritchie, executive director of FairVote, which supports changes to elections like ranked-choice voting and a national popular vote for president. Whereas many cities that use ranked-choice voting can tabulate the results on election night, Maine's rules mean the state will take at least a few days to count all the ballots.
The bigger challenge for advocates of ranked-choice voting, however, has been ensuring that candidates and voters alike understand the rules going in. When Oakland first used the system in 2010, it produced an upset victory by Jean Quan, over a deep-funded frontrunner, Don Perata, who would have won under traditional rules and whose campaign blamed the format for his defeat. "It's not just passing the thing and having it work," Ritchie said. "It has to pass and work well, which it generally does. But people have to understand it as it's happening. You can't take that for granted."
That's cause for concern in Maine, where the legal challenges to ranked-choice voting have created uncertainty about just what rules will govern the June primary. The Supreme Judicial Court could still strike down the system in the next few weeks, forcing state election officials to scramble to put together a new ballot. But for the moment, ranked-choice voting will go forward—whether its Republican critics like it or not. "It's going to be fascinating to see, because now they have to live it," Ritchie said. "Now they have to win with it."
Posted: 11 Apr 2018 03:00 AM PDT
If President Trump decides to launch military strikes on Syria, following the most recent gas attacks by the Assad regime, it's a good bet that children will be central to his rationale.
In a tweet on Sunday, he mentioned young victims of the attacks:
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said, "The images, especially of suffering children, have shocked the conscience of the entire civilized world."
Of course, leaders often use brutality against young people as justification for their policies—who can be against the children? And he might have other reasons to act, including a burgeoning domestic political liability created by the FBI raid on his attorney Michael Cohen. Presidents have often used quick, decisive, and splashy but limited military actions as a distraction from less positive stateside news.
Yet Trump's approach has undergone an abrupt reversal, from demanding that aides devise an early exit strategy from Syria last week to rattling his saber in Damascus's direction. The change of heart echoes an episode last year, right down to the president reacting to victimization of children. At that time, Trump, having complained about the prospects for America getting sucked into a war in Syria, suddenly decided to launch a round of airstrikes against Assad-regime targets after a gas attack in Khan Shaykhun.
In interviews and public appearances to explain the shift, he consistently returned to one reason for his sudden resolve: images of children suffering from the effects of the gas attack.
"I think it's a disgrace. I think it's an affront to humanity. Inconceivable that somebody could do that," Trump told The New York Times. "Those kids were so beautiful. To look at those scenes of those beautiful children being carried out." He discussed the slaughter of children during an interview with Fox News' Maria Bartiromo, too.
At a press conference with Jordan's King Abdullah, Trump said, "It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies—babies, little babies—with a chemical gas that is so lethal—people were shocked to hear what gas it was—that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines."
During a press conference with the secretary-general of NATO, Trump said something similar. "The vicious slaughter of innocent civilians with chemical weapons, including the barbaric killing of small and helpless children and babies, must be forcefully rejected by any nation that values human life," he said, adding, "Everybody in this room saw it all too many times over the last three or four days—young children dying, babies dying, fathers holding children in their arms that were dead. Dead children—there can't be a worse sight, and it shouldn't be allowed. That's a butcher. That's a butcher."
This language is striking because it was so far removed from anything the president had said about foreign policy during the campaign or in his presidency up to this point. The language of moral revulsion and horror, and of humanitarian intervention, was precisely what Trump had rejected. Now here he was, sounding like a street-corner Samantha Power.
That these images would move Trump to speak in such an uncharacteristic way is fascinating. The president's inability to display empathy, or simple lack of interest in doing so, has been the subject of lengthy discussion. He values strength and bluster over softness and compassion. Thus it's all the more peculiar that children seem to sometimes sway Trump to views, and displays of emotion, far removed from his typical demeanor.
Trump seems to dote on his granddaughter Arabella, daughter of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. She's even crashed interviews with the Times. That's not altogether surprising, although Trump has sometimes dealt coldly even with family members.
But one of the more peculiarly human moments of Trump's presidency came when he welcomed the children of reporters into the Oval Office for a Halloween celebration. Trump being Trump, he made a couple of tonally awkward comments. "I cannot believe the media produced such beautiful children," he quipped. "How the media did this, I don't know." Speaking about candy, he told one girl, "You have no weight problems, that's the good news." Watching video of the event, however, what's striking is how comparatively at ease Trump seems, having a good time, chatting with the children, and playing patriarch. It's a level of relaxation and fun he has almost never publicly demonstrated since taking office.
This apparent softness for children has potential policy implications beyond airstrikes in Syria. Take DACA. Trump canceled the Obama-era program that gave legal status to "Dreamers," unauthorized immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, but he has vacillated on what should come next, sometimes demanding that Congress act and at other times insisting it's too late. The language Trump uses tends to offer a hint of where he's leaning at any moment.
In his first and only full press conference of his presidency, shortly after being inaugurated, Trump sounded a much more conciliatory note than he had during the campaign, when he promised to quickly axe DACA:
It took Trump until September to actually rescind the program. But he continued to call for Congress to pass a law to replace DACA, even as he did little to force his GOP allies to act. In January 2018, he told The Wall Street Journal, "It wasn't their fault, their parents came in, it wasn't their fault," though he added, "They've been here a long time, they're no longer children, you know. People talk of them as children, I mean some are 41 years old and older."
By Easter weekend, when Trump was declaring "NO MORE DACA DEAL," the language about children had disappeared from his discussions of the policy. Instead, he talked about how "a lot of people are coming in because they want to take advantage of DACA."
Trump has also spoken repeatedly about children in discussing the opioid crisis and his calls for tougher border security, often buttressing his policy arguments with anecdotes about the pain of parents who have lost children.
At the Republican National Convention in 2016, for example, Trump recalled Sarah Root, who was killed when an unauthorized immigrant driving drunk struck her. "I've met Sarah's beautiful family," Trump said. "But to this administration, their amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn't worth protecting."
The administration has faltered in taking concrete steps on opioids—appointing Kellyanne Conway, a political professional, to lead its efforts, and mostly making threats about executing drug dealers—but the president has seemed unusually engaged and passionate when talking about the crisis in public settings.
"We see America's heart in the parents who won't accept addiction as the fate of their children," he said last month. "We will defeat this crisis, we will protect our beautiful children, and we will ensure that tomorrow is better, brighter, stronger, and greater than ever before." During public appearances, he has called the parents of opioid-overdose victims to speak and be recognized. "Come on up here. Tell us about your boy," Trump invited Jim and Jean Mozer at an event in New Hampshire in March.
Perhaps the most vivid demonstration of the possibilities and limitations of children to motivate Trump is his reaction to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Shortly after the shooting, the president hosted students and parents at the White House. He came out of that meeting uncommonly motivated. A few days later, he was lambasting members of Congress for being "afraid of the NRA" and not pushing to increase the minimum age for buying as semiautomatic rifle to 21. Trump's comments briefly turned the gun debate on its head. But over the ensuing days, Trump met with the NRA, and he got further away from his encounter with the children, he backed away from his advocacy for tougher gun controls. Cases involving kids seem to genuinely sway the president's views—but one thing the children cannot do is lengthen his short attention span.
Posted: 11 Apr 2018 03:00 AM PDT
BBC America's new drama Killing Eve, which debuted on Sunday night, is already one of the most critically acclaimed new shows of the year, alongside HBO's Barry and Netflix's The End of the F***ing World. And, like both those shows, it's tricky to categorize. Killing Eve at its core is a cat-and-mouse spy story between an MI6 investigator named Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) and a glamorous assassin known as Villanelle (Jodie Comer). But it's also variously a dark psychological drama about sociopathy, a feminist procedural, and a British workplace comedy that traffics in colloquialisms like dickswab, monkeydick, and heroin Polish. Villanelle as a character would fit seamlessly into a forward-thinking espionage thriller; Eve often comes across like a variation of Melissa McCarthy's character in the Paul Feig comedy Spy.
Killing Eve's sense of humor comes straight from its creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose 2016 BBC/Amazon comedy Fleabag is inarguably one of the best new series of the decade. Adapted from Waller-Bridge's one-woman stage show, Fleabag is equal parts comedy and tragedy—an uproarious, filthy satire about a young British woman's chaotic existence and sexual misadventures that gradually lets her violent self-loathing peek through. It's hysterical, until it's not. Killing Eve, which like Fleabag is mostly set in London, has the same irreverent sense of humor and the same intense exploration of the psychology of its lead characters. Here, those qualities don't always come together with the conventions of the spy story in perfect harmony. But they do make something new, gratifying, and—in its finest moments—thrilling.
Killing Eve also points to where television is heading, thanks to the influence of streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu. Concepts that might once have been impossible sells to networks or premium cable have proven their potential on other platforms, making outlandish, outré, and oddball pitches more appealing. And with Netflix's overwhelming influx of content flooding the marketplace, quirkier stories stand out. The best-reviewed shows of 2018 so far on the website Metacritic include FX's surreal Atlanta and its trippy Legion, HBO's violent but tenderhearted Barry, Killing Eve, and the teenage romance-slash-psychopath comedy The End of the F***ing World. None of these shows fits neatly into a genre or an awards category. But they all take creative risks that pay off.
Killing Eve is subversive at its most basic level, taking the classic good-guy-chases-villain template and placing two women in the primary roles. Oh's Eve is an American working in British intelligence who pieces together that a string of seemingly random murders might have been committed by the same person—and instinct tells her it's a woman. After Eve's personal research goes too far, she's fired, alongside her boss, Bill (David Haig). But an official at MI6 (Fiona Shaw) who's intrigued by Eve's research tasks her with running a new investigation into the killer. Meanwhile, Villanelle becomes aware of the woman tracking her down, and starts hunting her right back.
In Villanelle, Comer gets the more obviously intriguing character, and the British actress is exceptional in the role. Villanelle is brilliant, fearless, funny, and indubitably a psychopath—after she carries out her hits, she pauses long enough to watch the light dim in her victims' eyes. She's also alarmingly charismatic, and prone to pulling surreal, elaborate stunts, like dressing up in a pink princess dress when she's forced to attend a check-in with her handlers. In Killing Eve's press materials, Waller-Bridge describes the show as "a meditation on murder, on loneliness and the potential for a world without conscience," and Villanelle is the embodiment of that hypothesis. She's entrancing and terrifying all at once.
She's matched by Oh's Eve in competence, if not self-assurance. Waller-Bridge consistently makes Eve the punchline as a mid-level civil servant suddenly thrust into active duty—she wears a windbreaker over a glamorous new dress to dinner with a source, and during one terrifying chase scene is physically unable to open a gate. But she's enormously intuitive, and able to piece together information in a way no one else can. Waller-Bridge flips the tropes of the spy novel by giving Eve a supportive husband (Owen McDonnell) and a male boss who becomes her subordinate when she recruits him onto her team, and who struggles with the new power dynamic. Villanelle also has a male handler (Kim Bodnia) who she consistently tries to outsmart, using her femininity and her youth as tools.
There are times when Killing Eve's tonal pendulum swings can be jarring. Without spoiling too much, the fourth episode veers from sharp tragedy to surreal visual comedy to a wackadoo mission in a tiny English village that's more Little Britain than Homeland. But Oh anchors the show as Eve, portraying a woman who's invigorated by her new job and aware of its stakes. She's such a natural fit in the role that it's easy to forget how unusual it is to build a new drama around a 46-year-old lead actress, let alone a 46-year-old lead actress of color. The recent Netflix series Collateral made the creative decision to ignore its female detective's personal life entirely, which ended up making her feel two-dimensional. Killing Eve strikes a better balance by acknowledging Eve's life outside of work without distracting her from her job (ahem, Homeland).
Killing Eve's critical reception implies that more shows like it are bound to follow—series that straddle genres and use existing categories and tropes as stylistic and tonal inspiration rather than models to closely follow. And, hopefully, series that see the potential in casting for skill rather than type, and portray "complexity" in female characters as more than just alcoholism and sporadic rudeness. Waller-Bridge, who's only 32, has already proven herself as one of the most interesting creative forces to watch today, alongside other actor-writer hybrids including Atlanta's Donald Glover, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's Rachel Bloom, and Barry's Bill Hader. Enabled by a wealth of new platforms requiring content, they're redefining what hit television looks and feels like.
Posted: 11 Apr 2018 01:50 AM PDT
SHIRASGAON, India—More than 500 low-caste Hindus filled the Veera Maidan, an open field at the edge of a dusty Maharashtra village, on a recent Sunday night. Neighbors openly gawked from porches as the throngs of people filed in, many dressed in symbolic white saris and kurtas. Under floodlights, they chanted: "I shall have no faith in Rama and Krishna who are believed to be incarnations of God nor shall I worship them. … I do not and shall not believe that Lord Buddha was the incarnation of Vishnu. … I shall hereafter lead my life according to the principles and teachings of the Buddha." Instantly, there were 500 new Buddhists in India.
The converts had been Dalits, those from India's lowest Hindu castes, formerly known as "untouchables." They joined Ambedkarite Buddhism, a movement founded a half-century ago by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a Columbia University-educated lawyer who drafted India's constitution. Ambedkar was born a Dalit, and he saw the Buddha as a radical social reformer who created an outlet from the rigid Hindu caste system. Today, as inter-caste tensions rise under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose party is affiliated with right-wing Hindu nationalists, low-caste Indians are continuing to find the appeal in Ambedkar's message.
Dalits make up nearly 20 percent of the Indian population—and many of them are angry at Modi's government. Last week, hundreds of thousands of them flooded the streets nationwide, protesting ongoing discrimination against them. But their mistreatment within society was rampant even before Modi's BJP took power in 2014. Between 2007 and 2017, crime against Dalits increased by 66 percent and the rape of Dalit women doubled, according to the National Crime Record Bureau. And now Dalit anger—which manifests in regular protests, strikes, and social media furor—stands to make a major impact on India's national elections next year.
Perhaps that's why Modi is trying to win them over—not only as voters, but also as potential party members. The prime minister has been sending Buddhist monks out on the campaign trail and has even attracted some Buddhist politicians to his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He's also been publicly praising Ambedkar.
In 1954, Ambedkar wrote a "blueprint" for the spread of Indian Buddhism in which he recommended printing a compact "Buddhist Gospel" like the Bible and "a ceremony like Baptism" for converts. In 1955, he founded the Buddhist Society of India. In 1956, he publicly converted to Buddhism alongside half a million others. Six weeks later, however, he died.
One of his descendants, Rajratna Ambedkar, became the Society's president three years ago. In response to growing demand, he has vigorously rebooted its program of mass conversions. "Almost every day now, mass Buddhist conversions are taking place across India," he told me. After helping convert 500 people in Shirasgaon last month, for instance, he woke up early the next morning to drive to the city of Surat, where he converted another 500 people that night.
Still, in a country of over 1.2 billion people, the number of registered Indian Buddhists remains tiny at about 8.4 million. About 87 percent of them are Ambedkarites or converts, and the rest are ethnic Buddhists in the Himalayan provinces or Tibetan refugees who followed the Dalai Lama to India. But accurate statistics on Buddhist converts are hard to find because many are not registered as such on the census.
"Often the [census] surveyor doesn't even ask about religion once he hears a Hindu-sounding name," said Shiv Shankar Das, a former researcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University who has studied the neo-Buddhist movement. Modern Ambedkarites hope to change this: "We are trying to convince the Indian government that we are not Dalits anymore, not part and parcel of Hinduism," said Rajratna Ambedkar.
Ambedkarite Buddhism is an increasingly popular option for dissatisfied Dalits because converting from Hinduism to Islam or Christianity is now illegal in several states. Buddhism is considered a "sub-sect" of Hinduism in Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which is a useful loophole for conversion—and a hindrance, because it's a major reason why the Hindu establishment doesn't fully recognize Buddhist identity today. Over the course of Indian history, Buddhism has been uneasily absorbed into the Hindu fold, with some arguing that Buddha was really an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. This is a fiercely contested notion, one that converts to Ambedkarite Buddhism specifically pledge to reject.
In its focus on caste-based inequality, Ambedkarite Buddhism shares concerns of the historical Buddha, the prince whose groundbreaking rejection of Hindu castes, the Vedas, and Vedic rituals spurred his philosophical journey. But Ambedkaritism diverges from the mainstream Buddhist schools, like Theravada and Mahayana, which have developed over the past two millennia. Ambedkar summarily dismissed everything from the Four Noble Truths to meditation to the doctrine of rebirth, deeming them non-canonical interpretations that arose after the Buddha's lifetime. Contemporary Ambedkarite institutions, like the Nagaloka Center in Nagpur, focus instead on training social activists.
The attitude can veer into outright dismissal of the mainstream schools. "Buddhism in places like [the Himalayan regions of] Dharamsala and Ladakh is superstitious Buddhism, not real Buddhism," said Prashik Anand, a small-business owner and Ambedkarite in Nagpur. "The Buddha was more concerned with people's suffering, not things like painting and meditation, which are mostly useless." (It's worth noting that the mainstream Mahayana school also emphasizes alleviating the suffering of others.)
"There is a social aspect to Ambedkarite Buddhism," said Mangesh Dahiwale, a veteran Dalit rights activist in Pune. "It's not just an emancipatory path for individuals. We think it doesn't make sense for you to become Buddhist alone when your society is downtrodden," he said. This contrasts with Buddhism's popular consumption in the West, which is often oriented around individualist concepts like personal fulfillment and peace of mind.
The activist spirit is central to the Ambedkarite revival. Consider two recent alarming incidents of caste violence: In Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, at least 25 Dalit houses were burned and one person was killed when communal tensions boiled over in May 2017. And in Una, Gujarat, four Dalits were publicly flogged for skinning a dead cow in 2016. Both communities used Buddhism as a tool of protest. In a striking gesture, Saharanpur Dalits drowned their Hindu idols in a canal after the incident, and 180 families converted to Buddhism. All four of the Una victims plan to convert to Buddhism on April 14.
Conversion is even becoming a political weapon. A famous Dalit politician and member of parliament known simply as Mayawati has threatened to convert to Buddhism with her many followers if BJP members "don't change their disrespectful, casteist, and communal behavior towards the Dalits."
The strength of the movement may have spooked Modi's BJP, which has pushed back by courting the Dalit Buddhist vote in sundry ways. In 2016, the party deployed Buddhist monks to rally votes in regional elections, although that effort was met with scorn and protests in at least some districts. The prominent Dalit politician Udit Raj, who converted in 2001, is now a BJP member of parliament. So is Swami Prasad Maurya in Uttar Pradesh.
The BJP faces a catch-22, said Dahiwale, because the strongly Hindu party doesn't want to acknowledge that the religion is losing any followers. "Buddhism has become a force in itself, but the government can't oppose it directly, because Buddhism is one of India's greatest cultural exports," he said.
It's unclear whether the BJP's Buddhist politicians feel any special affinity for the party. Raj told me frankly that he decided to join the BJP in 2014 because its fortunes seemed to be rising. "I floated for 12 years as an independent, and then I thought I should reach out to a larger party. After Modiji was elected I thought a Modi 'wave' was coming, and I felt his party could help me win a slot in parliament to serve my people," said Raj. In 2014, Raj said, he attended a meeting in Nagpur run by 22 state leaders and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a controversial Hindu nationalist paramilitary volunteer group that birthed the BJP. They collectively agreed that he would join the party.
Both the RSS and the Ambedkarite Buddhist movement arose from, and are still based in, Nagpur. Nowadays in that city, RSS members in their signature black, boat-shaped "Gandhi caps" share the streets with robed Ambedkarite monks. The RSS includes a dedicated group for outreach to Dalit Buddhists. The group's president claimed last year that it has no political agenda, but mainstream Ambedkarites say that it actually pushes the controversial notion that Buddhism is a sect of Hinduism in a bid to win Dalit Buddhist votes for the BJP.
"The RSS has monks—fake monks," said Santosh Raut, an Ambedkarite university professor in Hyderabad. "A few months ago I went to Bodhgaya [the holy city where the Buddha attained enlightenment] and met a few monks, clearly from the RSS, who were saying how Buddha was the ninth avatar [or reincarnation] of Vishnu," he said. "It was not very convincing."
Even though Ambedkarite Buddhism is undergoing a major resurgence, the national influence of RSS remains in full force through the ruling BJP. As the 2019 presidential election approaches, neither is likely to lose any momentum, which suggests more strained interactions to come.
"To co-opt Buddhist votes or Dalit votes, the RSS will definitely ramp it up next year," said Raut. "But, ironically, it is their actions that are driving so many people to Buddhism in the first place."
Reporting for this piece was supported by a grant from the International Reporting Project.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 07:44 PM PDT
Shortly after 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Mark Zuckerberg sat down in a chair topped with a booster cushion to face 44 U.S. Senators in his first-ever public appearance at a congressional hearing. And that was only the beginning of the weirdness. The dialogue between Facebook's CEO and the members of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees that has followed over the next several hours covered wide and sometimes disjointed ground, with some unexpected asides and unclear arguments.
Zuckerberg, who is not known for being a particularly charismatic public speaker, so far seems to have emerged mostly unscathed, despite some verbal fumbles. A selection of the oddest, most surprising, and most important moments from the testimony follows:
Zuckerberg's hearing continues into Tuesday evening. This post may be updated.
* This article previously misidentified the Senator who made this statement. We regret the error.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 06:29 PM PDT
What We're Following
Facebook Face-Off: Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, appeared before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees on a day of testimony that showed the limits of the senators' ability to press him for answers. One of the major issues discussed was Facebook's handling of a data breach by the political-consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which affected an estimated 87 million people. Here's how to find out whether you were among them.
High-Stakes Raid: Federal agents raided the home, hotel room, and office of Michael Cohen, President Trump's personal lawyer, on Monday. Experts say that such a move would have required extremely strong evidence against Cohen. For his part, Trump described the situation as a "witch hunt." His comments appeared to criticize the rule of law itself, and marked a reversal of his past rhetoric on due process and criminal justice.
Health Crisis: A new report adds insight into the rising number of early deaths among Americans, pointing to a striking gap in life expectancy among different states. In the states where the death rate of young and middle-aged adults increased, opioids were among the major factors. The makers of the painkiller OxyContin have recently come under scrutiny for the drug's role in the crisis. A few members of the family that owns companies associated with OxyContin's manufacturer have tried to distance themselves from its profits—but a court document appears to contradict some of their claims.
Who We're Talking To
George Mitchell, the former U.S. envoy to Northern Ireland, looks back on the Good Friday Agreement he helped create, which ended a conflict in the region 20 years ago today.
Sam Rosenfeld, a political scientist, explains how the U.S. political-party system got so polarized.
Jessica Weisberg, the author of a new book on the history of advice columns, discusses how such columns reflect Americans' evolving values.
Alana Semuels reports from Atlanta on the resurgence of contract-for-deed arrangements, also known as rent-to-own deals:
Keep reading as Alana explains how Anderson's predicament fits into what a lawsuit argues is a pattern of predatory lending targeting African Americans.
What Do You Know … About Family?
Parents must constantly calibrate how much of the world they should introduce their children to, including which information to educate kids with as well as what might frighten or hurt them. That task is especially daunting for black parents who seek to guard their children from negative stereotypes. And Michelle Nijhuis, a climate-science reporter, wonders how and when to talk with her 9-year-old daughter about climate change. "When we explain to elementary-school students why the sea ice is melting and polar bears are starving," she writes, "are we truly satisfying their curiosity—or are we just sharing our own burdens of worry and responsibility?"
Subscribe to "The Family Weekly" to receive more on American family life in your inbox each Saturday morning.
1. In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, the psychiatrist ____________ articulated her her model of grief, which included five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
2. ____________ recently became the first state to pass a law that protects "free-range" parenting styles.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
3. On average, American men now perform ____________ hours of housework a week, compared with two hours a week in 1965.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
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A reader who once worked at Google argues that "Facebook was clearly, structurally playing fast and loose with people's personal information":
Time of Your Life
Happy birthday to Marina's husband (a year younger than helicopters); to Susan (twice the age of Microsoft Windows); to Robin's daughter (twice the age of the International Space Station); and to Erika (13 years older than Saved by the Bell).
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 03:41 PM PDT
Mark Zuckerberg finally walked into Congress today in a suit and Facebook-blue tie. He sat alone in a chair, behind a brown wooden desk, backed by a short-row of Facebook lawyers, and facing a U of nearly half the Senate, a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees.
And as the first day of the hearings came to a close, not one Senator had landed a good punch on the CEO of Facebook. It felt as if most of the chamber was asking, in one way or another, "What even is Facebook?"
Zuckerberg's performance was not perfect. His stilted delivery played well in the theatrical proceedings, but he professed ignorance about the basic functioning of his own platform, a cornerstone piece of Internet legislation called the Communications Decency Act, and whether Facebook tracked browsing even when users were logged out (they can).
But it was the Senators who truly disappointed. Some wandered off topic, explained how Facebook worked to Zuckerberg, or didn't seem to understand the questions they were asking. Others veered into boring partisan terrain.
There were some interesting lines of questioning. Senator Lindsey Graham raised the company's dominant market position, gesturing towards a possible antitrust argument against the company. "It certainly doesn't feel like that to me," Zuckerberg responded. Senator Richard Blumenthal attempted to pin down Zuckerberg about what his company should have known about Cambridge Analytica's data collection. Senator Markey pushed the need for greater children's privacy protections. Zuckerberg demurred on the need for a new law.
But, by and large, we didn't witness grandstanding, so much as floundering. In this confrontation of technological power with political power, the Senate did not seem able to truly grapple with the way Facebook works or what to ask to extract new information from the company's CEO. Their knowledge of the company's history and technological capabilities are too limited. Even if their staffers delivered good starting questions, they couldn't push Zuckerberg with difficult follow-ups.
For example, when the topic of Myanmar came up, Zuckerberg skated with the promise to hire "dozens" of Burmese speakers. But human rights groups have been pushing Facebook to pay greater attention to the situation for years. And there are many different language groups in the country. No Senator pinned Zuckerberg down on how many people familiar with the languages spoken there worked at Facebook when the company launched in that country.
Senator Dan Sullivan asked Zuckerberg perhaps the most important overarching question, "Do you think you're too powerful?" This is what Sullivan took from Zuckerberg before he moved on: "Most of the time when people talk about our scale, they are referencing we have 2 billion people," Zuckerberg said. "The vast majority are outside the US. I think that's something Americans should be proud of." It was a complete non-response to the pivotal question.
Senator Cory Booker brought up the negligence that Facebook had shown in continuing to allow housing ads that were on their face discriminatory, and suggested that civil-rights groups be allowed to "audit" some of these ads. But when Zuckerberg gave a pat we-should-talk-more response, Booker moved on.
Perhaps tomorrow's hearing will deliver a more memorable moment. Perhaps Zuckerberg will tire. Maybe someone will ask about Facebook's role in political advertising generally or pin Zuckerberg down on what information Instagram shares with Facebook's back-end advertising systems. Why did Facebook hire (and continue to employ) Joseph Chancellor, one of the people who co-founded GSR, the company at the center of the Cambridge Analytica scandal? Will Facebook keep aggressively selling political advertising?
There are still so many questions for Zuckerberg to answer, and based on today's proceedings, there still will be, long after the hearings are over.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 02:51 PM PDT
Today in 5 Lines
Today on The Atlantic
What We're Reading
How Should America Respond?: Max Fisher outlines three options that the United States could pursue in response to the suspected chemical attack in Syria. Each of them raises a host of problems. (The New York Times)
A Recruiting Problem: Seven months before Election Day, Republicans are worried that some of their candidates are "some combination of defective, unimpressive and underfunded." (David M. Drucker, Washington Examiner)
Reaching a Point of Absurdity: Illegal immigration has been embedded in American society for so long "that we have forgotten its intrinsic problems," argues Victor Davis Hanson. (National Review)
'It Is Positively the Most Wonderful Thing I Ever Saw': In March 1951, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver captivated the country with some of the first televised congressional hearings. For his efforts, he won an Emmy. (Michael S. Rosenwald, The Washington Post)
Not So Fast: A new poll found a marked increase in the number of young Americans who say they will vote in the upcoming midterms. The problem is they usually don't. (Philip Bump, The Washington Post)
-Written by Elaine Godfrey (@elainejgodfrey)
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 05:49 PM PDT
How President Trump feels about due process appears to depend on whether he or his associates are the ones being investigated.
Monday, after the news broke that federal investigators had raided the office, hotel room, and home of Trump's longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen, the president called it "an attack on our country, in a true sense," and "an attack on what we all stand for."
It was a curious reversal for a politician who, from the start of his campaign, has ridiculed due process protections as mere "political correctness," but one that has become so common over the first two years of his presidency that it now goes practically unremarked. As a candidate in 2016, Trump declared that "an attack on law enforcement is an attack on all Americans." But no chief executive has attacked law enforcement more frequently than Trump.
Much of the president's rhetoric assumes that the arms of the state are infallible, and that its targets are assumed guilty. Trump has encouraged police to abuse or "rough up" criminal suspects; he has complained that Chicago's police force, facing accusations of racial discrimination and brutality, was being too "politically correct" to stop a rise in homicides; he called for the execution of the Central Park Five and insisted they were guilty even after they were exonerated; and supported the death penalty for drug dealing. He called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States; he has called for killing the families of suspected terrorists; he insisted that Muslims accused of terrorism should be tortured.
The president is happy to characterize entire groups of people, such as black Americans, Latinos, and Muslims, as potential criminals. He began his campaign characterizing Mexican immigrants as "rapists" and drug dealers; exaggerated crime statistics involving black people; and accused Muslims of hating Americans and celebrating acts of terrorism.
It's not that the president believes that systemic bias in law enforcement is impossible, or that he doesn't understand the reason why it's harmful to the cause of justice. It's that the only systemic bias in law enforcement that he identifies or criticizes is the supposed bias against him and his allies. When it comes to racial or religious discrimination, no amount of empirical evidence seems sufficient, but no proof is necessary for the president to be absolutely certain of the innocence of his supporters.
When it comes to Trump's associates, the president becomes a self-styled expert in due process, and a devotee of the idea that one is innocent until proven guilty—or in some cases, even after. Trump has called Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation into Russian interference, which has already led to multiple guilty pleas of former Trump associates, a "witch hunt;" described the prosecution of his former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn "very unfair;" described his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, charged with financial crimes by the special counsel as "a good man;" and he pardoned Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio after the sheriff was held in contempt of court in a case involving racial profiling of Latinos.
Similarly, when Trump's allies have been accused of wrongdoing but not charged with crimes, Trump has insisted on giving them the benefit of the doubt, even in the face of strong public evidence against them. After a number of women went public with accusations that the Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore sought sexual relationships with them when he was an adult and they were teenagers, Trump supported Moore, saying, "Look, he denies it. He denies it." When photographs emerged supporting accusations that White House aide Rob Porter had physically abused his ex-wives, Trump backed Porter. "He says he's innocent, and I think you have to remember that."
This benefit of the doubt is not applied to Trump's critics and political rivals, for whom an accusation appears as good as a conviction. From Hillary Clinton to James Comey to Andrew McCabe to Susan Rice, anyone the president sees as a threat is at risk of being characterized as criminal. During the 2016 campaign, crowds chanted, "Lock her up!" as Trump himself threatened to throw Clinton in prison if elected.
These discrepancies are not merely verbal. They have guided policy in the Trump administration, in many cases causing real human suffering or abdicating the federal government's responsibility to alleviate it. Under Trump, the White House sought to ban immigrants from several mostly-Muslim countries, the Justice Department has backed off its responsibility to oversee local police departments to ensure they are respecting Americans' constitutional rights, the civilian casualties from drone strikes have increased, and immigration authorities have become more aggressive and indiscriminate in who they seek to deport.
Such rhetoric also points to how Trump wishes the law would operate. For those outside Trump's privileged circle, the law bars no cruelty, brutality, or injustice. For Trump and those he considers his allies, no scrupulous adherence to due process is sufficient, and no crime can justify prosecution.
For the gilded class orbiting Trump Tower, impunity. For communities of color and others targeted by his rhetoric, and the public figures who draw his wrath, only the harshest sanctions will do.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 12:20 PM PDT
One hundred years ago, an outbreak of influenza spread rapidly across the world, and killed more than 50 million—and possibly as many as 100 million—people within 15 months. The speed of the pandemic was shocking; the numbers of dead bodies overwhelmed hospitals and cemeteries. Quarantine centers, emergency hospitals, public use of gauze masks, and awareness campaigns were all undertaken swiftly to halt the spread. But as World War I was coming to a close, millions of soldiers were still traveling across the globe, aiding the spread of the disease. While its exact origins are still debated, it's understood that the "Spanish Flu" did not come from Spain. The name seems to have arisen as reporting about influenza cases was censored in war-affected countries, but Spain was neutral, so frequent stories appeared about the deadly flu in Spain. Gathered here are images from the battle against one of the deadliest events in human history, when the flu killed up to 6 percent of the Earth's population in just over a year, between 1918 and 1919.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 11:34 AM PDT
It's been 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement formally brought an end to a period in Northern Ireland known, perhaps too understatedly, as "The Troubles." The three-decade conflict pitted Protestant Unionists, who wanted to preserve Northern Ireland's status as part of the U.K., against Catholic Republicans, who sought to leave the U.K. and join the Republic of Ireland. Fighting among paramilitaries on both sides, as well as the British army, left roughly 3,600 dead during the period.
But then, on April 10, 1998, a breakthrough came. Under the Good Friday Agreement, sectarian violence on the island of Ireland has largely diminished; communal relations between Unionists and Republicans have improved; and the north-south border once hardened by military checkpoints and watchtowers has become almost invisible.
"When I announced the agreement, I described it as a historic achievement, which it was," Senator George Mitchell, the former U.S. envoy to Northern Ireland and one of the principle architects of the Good Friday Agreement, told me. "But at the same time, I said that by itself the agreement did not guarantee peace or political stability or reconciliation. By definition, the agreement deferred major issues to the future. … It stated explicitly that the different political objectives of the two communities in Northern Ireland were both valid and anticipated that the people there would continue to advocate for their objective, but that they would not do so through violence, but rather through democratic and peaceful means."
This goal has largely been achieved. Yet Mitchell's warning about political stability was also prescient. A Sky News poll published Monday found that approximately half of people in Northern Ireland have few to no friends of a different religion to theirs—a metric that also stands in for political divisions. These are evident in the country's government, or rather, its lack of one. Though one of the Good Friday Agreement's principle achievements was the establishment of a power-sharing arrangement that allows Unionists and Republicans to govern in coalition, a political row between the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and its Republican counterpart Sinn Féin caused Northern Ireland's government to collapse in January 2017. Belfast hasn't had a working government since.
And then there is Brexit, which, perhaps more than any one thing, has brought into relief the tenuous foundation on which the Good Friday Agreement rests. One key to the entire arrangement was the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that the European Union guaranteed. Now that once heavily militarized area is the site not only of past pain but of future uncertainty, as the only land border between the U.K. and the EU. So far, U.K. and EU negotiators have failed to agree on a solution that avoids the imposition of a hard border on the island of Ireland once the U.K. leaves the bloc.
"The DUP doesn't want any ambiguity or doubt about the importance of Northern Ireland for the United Kingdom," Katy Hayward, a political sociologist at Queen's University Belfast, told me. She noted that the party's objection to Northern Ireland remaining part of the EU customs union—a solution that has been floated by Brexit negotiators to avoid the need for a customs border—stems from political insecurities of the past. "If there's any sense that Northern Ireland could possibly drift further away from Britain and closer to Ireland, that makes Unionists feel very anxious. … They fear that a United Ireland may come out as a result."
The agreement never resolved the source of this fear. In fact, it explicitly avoided doing so, opting instead to create a system in which both positions could coexist peacefully. The agreement did this first by acknowledging the "continuing, and equally legitimate, political aspirations" of each side. Then came a crafty stipulation:
Though the agreement acknowledges Northern Ireland's constitutional status as a part of the United Kingdom, it leaves open the possibility of a future united Ireland if majorities in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland want it—a decision the accord says would be decided by referendum, and one which both the British and Irish governments would be compelled to honor.
As Mitchell had hoped, Unionists and Republicans do settle their differences through political means. And while the country's assembly has been suspended on more than one occasion due to political deadlock, the DUP and Sinn Féin have still governed in coalition for more than a decade. The achievement this represents is truly historic, and has saved lives.
Yet the underlying sectarianism was, if anything, Hayward said, reinforced by the agreement. "The political status of Northern Ireland could change in the future, and that's really very reassuring to Nationalists," she said. "For Unionists, there's a sense of a need to continually shore up that Unionist identity and not let go of that majority because of fear that if you have a move to a Nationalist identity, then you have a united Ireland. … This is why they've had a growing move toward voting for hardline parties, that's why the DUP and Sinn Féin came into power—because there's that uncertainty, there's that sense of Northern Ireland being in limbo in a political sense."
Brexit is now creating its own kind of limbo. Unionists are reluctant to get some kind of "special arrangement" for Northern Ireland that symbolically separates it from the rest of the U.K. in an effort to maintain close relations to the Republic of Ireland—such as, for example, keeping a customs union with the EU after the rest of the U.K. has already left it. For Republicans, the border causes similar fears of separation—albeit from the Republic of Ireland. "Having a soft border was crucial because that meant the issue of identity was really removed from the table," Jonathan Powell, the U.K.'s chief negotiator on the Good Friday Agreement, told me. "You could live in Northern Ireland all your life and be Irish (have an Irish passport, never notice there was a border), or you could be British, or you could be both. If you have a hard border and we go back to the concrete blocks on small roads and the border point crossings and all that, then the identity issue is reopened."
Which doesn't mean a return to violence. "We're not going to go back to The Troubles again," Powell said. But he's worried that Northern Ireland's current leaders are less capable of compromise than their predecessors. "The cost of making compromise is no longer so life and death as it was for [Ian] Paisley and [Martin] McGuinness," he said of the DUP and Sinn Féin leaders—affectionately known as the "Chuckle Brothers" for their amiable, albeit unlikely, friendship—who ushered in the parties' first power-sharing arrangement in 2007. "I'm worried whether the new generation is up to this challenge, whether they can make it work."
The U.K. and the Republic of Ireland will need to compromise, too. Though the British and Irish governments have historically held a unified stance on Northern Ireland, Brexit has put the two parties at opposite ends of the negotiating table, and Hayward said it's starting to show. "At the moment, neither Unionists or Nationalists are preparing their constituencies for a compromise—the same thing on the British and Irish side as well," she said, adding: "That would be my biggest worry on the impact of Brexit. We're not prepared for it in any sense whatsoever."
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 11:26 AM PDT
It's easy to take for granted the ability to move through public spaces without consequence. But for many marginalized communities, this simply isn't the reality. "[People] say that we're unnatural, that we're perverted, that we're not genuine people," says a transgender woman in Cecilia Golding and Nick Finegan's documentary, The Swimming Club. "It's difficult for trans people to enter public spaces because their bodies are different—there's prejudice," says another.
The film follows members of TAGS (Trans and Gender Non-Conforming Swimming Group), a group of transgender individuals, in London, who swim together in a community pool designated as a safe space. "Swimming is what everyone should have the ability to do," says Roberta, one of the founders of TAGS. For many group members, this is the first opportunity to self-actualize without fear of reproach for having a trans body. As one person describes it: "It's like being a complete human being after being fractured for so long."
After Finegan met Roberta at a techno party in London, he teamed up with Golding to make The Swimming Club. "Neither of us had picked up a camera before—unless you count an iPhone," said Golding. The duo hoped their documentary would be more than a "fly-on-the-wall journalistic piece"; instead, they wanted to convey the emotional release that the act of swimming provides for the group. "This led us to discussions about the colorful kinetic underwater shots and close-up portraits of the swimmers in action," Golding continued.
"From the moment of conception [of the project], both Ceci and I were very conscious of our presence as two cisgender filmmakers," said Finegan. "We hoped we would function as a border-crossing between the marginalized voices of the swimming club and a wider audience that may have no prior experience of trans* and gender-non-conforming people."
"Because of the way society sees us," says a trans woman in the film, "a lot of us experience depression and anxiety. That's not just because we're trans—it's because we just want to feel safe, and we're not."
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 10:34 AM PDT
Facebook has begun to notify users who were affected by the Cambridge Analytica data breach. If you or one of your friends installed the personality-quiz app "This Is Your Digital Life" prior to 2015, then some of your data illicitly made it to the servers of the voter-profiling company.
If your data was ensnared in the breach, you're not alone. I'm also one of Cambridge Analytica's victims. (If you're not sure whether you were affected, you can go to this Facebook page, which will tell you if your information was shared.)
I know I was affected by the breach because I saw a big text box when I opened the Facebook app on my phone this morning. Under a bolded headline reading "Protecting Your Information," the notice read:
Contrary to some media reports, the message did not appear in the app's "Notification" pane. The notice appeared only once: When I closed the app and reopened it, it disappeared.
Last week, Facebook revised its estimate of the size of the breach, saying that it affected about 87 million people. The company had originally estimated that only about 50 million people were affected. According to The Intercept, Cambridge Analytica used that harvested data to make about 30 million "psychographic" profiles of voters in total.
While Facebook says that most users only had their public profile and a few other pieces of data disclosed to Cambridge Analytica, its notice suggests that the company does not know which users had more significant information, such as private status messages or wall posts, sucked up during the lapse.
"A small number of people who logged into 'This Is Your Digital Life' also shared their own News Feed, timeline, posts, and messages, which may have included posts and messages from you. They may also have shared your hometown," says Facebook's help page for victims of the breach.
There is not much you can do if you were affected by the breach—your data, after all, has already left Facebook's control. Mark Zuckerberg, the company's chief executive, is testifying to the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees at 2:15 p.m. on Tuesday in response to questions about this leak, larger privacy issues, and the platform's role in the 2016 election.
Lawyers in the United States and the United Kingdom have also launched a pair of class-action lawsuits against Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and two other companies involved in the breach.
Last week, in an interview with Zuckerberg, I asked him what he wanted Facebook users to know about the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
"Overall, this is a big breach of trust, and I'm sorry that it happened," he told me.
"The most important thing is to make sure that this doesn't happen again going forward. So we're taking a number of steps. We're investigating every single app that had access to this data. We're going to do audits on anyone who we find is doing something suspicious, and we're going to tell people about that. We've taken steps to lock down the platform in the past, and we're continuing to do that to just make sure it can't happen again," he said.
If you're having trouble understanding the Cambridge Analytica debacle, I wrote a brief summary of the story last month. In short, the voter-profiling firm harvested Facebook user data through "This Is Your Digital Life," a third-party app that appeared to be a personality quiz. Cambridge Analytica later used this data to inform purchases made during the Brexit "Leave" campaign, Senator Ted Cruz's campaign in the 2016 presidential primary, and President Trump's campaign during the 2016 general election.
Cambridge Analytica's chief executive, Alexander Nix, was later captured on a hidden camera offering to use Ukrainian sex workers to bribe and blackmail politicians in Sri Lanka. He has since been suspended. Cambridge Analytica also has close ties to key figures in Republican politics: Rebekah Mercer, a major GOP donor and a co-owner of Breitbart news, sits on its board. Her father, Robert Mercer, also invested $15 million in Cambridge Analytica.
Some conservatives have alleged that the official app of the 2012 Obama campaign scanned data from people's friends in a manner similar to the app used by Cambridge Analytica. But people who installed the Obama app knew they were surrendering information to a political campaign, though their friends did not. Meanwhile, users who installed "This Is Your Digital Life," the app used by Cambridge Analytica, had no idea that its aims were political.
Still, the ease with which the Obama app scanned users' friend lists without their consent raises an important point. While the Cambridge Analytica scandal leads the news, experts do not believe it was alone in harvesting large amounts of Facebook data between 2008 and 2014.
Even the developers of rudimentary Facebook apps—like my colleague Ian Bogost, who built a satirical video game on the platform called Cow Clicker—accumulated a massive amount of information about their users, whether or not they intended to. "If you played Cow Clicker, even just once, I got enough of your personal data that, for years, I could have assembled a reasonably sophisticated profile of your interests and behavior," Bogost wrote last month.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 10:00 AM PDT
Every day, the world's 3 million Uber drivers spend 8.5 million hours logged into the ride-hailing company's app. That's roughly 1,000 years of Uber driving packed into any given 24 hours.
Because of this tremendous scale, Uber is the most important test case for the gig economy, the new economic arrangement where contract workers are arranged into a cohesive labor force by software. There are many companies that share Uber's controversial approach to doling out work, but none has amassed 3 million people who use the service to try to make money. Never before has an app's design been so important to so many people.
The Uber app is the drivers' workplace, as much as the city where they're driving is. Each decision about its interface structures drivers' interactions with Uber the company as well as Uber the transportation marketplace. And Uber is now putting the finishing touches on a from-scratch rebuild of the driver app.
The new build of the app draws on technological components of the new rider app, which launched last year. But creating something for drivers is different. An Uber rider needs an app that's simple and fast; drivers' experience of the app is much deeper.
The new version will begin rolling out in the next few weeks, and in an interview with The Atlantic, Uber's CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, said it embodies the new, kinder Uber. Hundreds of drivers were involved in providing detailed ideas and feedback about how the app should work.
"Drivers have lived with our tools every single day, and the insight that they bring into our app and our experience on the road is unique," said Khosrowshahi, who has even tried driving himself. "We would be fools not to use their experience in helping design not just our software, but in thinking about our business."
So Yuhki Yamashita, the product manager for driver experience, and Haider Sabri, the engineering lead, spearheaded a new design process that sought to bring "builders" (Uber's terminology for engineers and designers) closer to the drivers who will be using their software. It's one of the things that Uber can do now. Back when the last driver app was introduced in 2015, there were about 30 engineers working on the app, Sabri said. Now there are hundreds.
Members of the app-building team embedded with hundreds of drivers in Los Angeles; Cairo; Bangalore, India; London; Melbourne, Australia; Jakarta, Indonesia; and São Paolo, Brazil. Drivers could send WhatsApp messages to individual researchers, attend group lunches, or do rides with members of the Uber team using the new app.
Instead of taking all that information and processing it into one or several reports, they created a private Google Plus community (yes G+ still exists!) so that engineers and designers could immediately see feedback coming in from all over the world. Some drivers recorded vlogs reviewing the new app. Others sent detailed messages with screenshots to point out concerns.
The result of that research and building process is a new app that the team hopes will be, as they put it, "empowering" and "personal," and more understanding of how drivers move through their days (and nights) on the platform.
Most intriguingly, the new app will take a more directive approach to making suggestions to drivers about where to go and what to do. It will not only offer single proposals about areas to drive, but offer unprecedented visibility into what Uber's back-end software predicts is going to happen across a city.
The redesign of Uber's driver app began before the company's "180 Days of Change" campaign, which launched last June while Travis Kalanick, Uber's founder and former CEO, was taking a leave of absence, and prior to when Khosrowshahi became the company's chief. Kalanick was forced out by major shareholders after months of news stories about Uber's "aggressive" culture and terrible treatment of female employees, and Kalanick's nasty confrontation with a driver. The six-month program was supposed to "meaningfully improve" the driver experience. It began with a splash: the announcement that Uber, contrary to a long-stated position, would introduce tipping.
Uber notes that it made 38 changes as a result of the process and feedback from drivers, but the reviews on driver websites and forums indicate that drivers remain unsatisfied. Some driver-friendly measures—like allowing them greater flexibility in picking which direction their rides take them—had to be walked back. Others—like paying them back for tolls incurred while getting to riders—never launched. And even when it came to tipping, some drivers felt Uber needed to encourage tipping within the rider app's interface.
In 2018, Uber's new motto has been "building together." The company held a first-of-its-kind forum with drivers and Khosrowshahi in January and has continued to talk a much better game about the people working on the platform.
There is one big reason to believe that Uber might be serious about treating drivers better: Acquiring and keeping drivers on the platform is a major expense. The ride-hailing business is a complex two-sided market, where companies like Uber and Lyft have to compete for both drivers and riders. One way they do so is subsidizing the cost of rides, paying drivers more and charging riders less than is profitable. That's a major contributor to why both companies have lost staggering sums of money so far. Uber, for example, lost $4.5 billion in 2017 and $2.8 billion in 2016. (Lyft's revenues and losses are both much smaller.)
The most obvious thing that keeps drivers happy is more money. "We have mostly been talking with drivers about basic per-mileage rates, deactivation issues, and other bread and butter concerns," said Jeff Ordower of Silicon Valley Rising, a group that's beginning to try to organize drivers in the Bay.
But pay is not the only consideration. Serious investigations of how it feels to work for Uber have found a variety of considerations, big and small, that shape the driver experience.
Luke Stark, a media-studies scholar at Dartmouth College, and Alex Rosenblat, an ethnographer at the Data and Society Research Institute, explored the specific working conditions designed into the Uber app in a 2016 paper. For example, drivers are not given passenger-destination information before they accept a ride. This is good for riders, as Uber drivers cannot discriminate based on where they're headed, but it means that drivers have to accept the ride "blind," which can lead to unprofitable trips. "You're driving around blind," one driver told Stark and Rosenblat. "When it does ping, you might drive 15 minutes to drive someone half a mile. There's no money in it in that point, especially in my SUV."
The app is both the factory and the boss, and its design has ramifications on drivers' autonomy, power, earnings, and quality of life. The technical system determines how rides are assigned, how much drivers get paid for each ride, and how workers are evaluated through rider ratings and other factors. These kinds of tasks all used to fall to humans. Now they don't. Carnegie Mellon researchers have termed these new forms of organizational control "algorithmic management."
"Through the Uber app's design and deployment, the company produces the equivalent effects of what most reasonable observers would define as a managed labor force," write Stark and Rosenblat. "At the same time, the decentralized structure of Uber's systems and their rhetorical invocation of 'platforms' and 'algorithms' may render the impression that Uber has a limited managerial role over driver behaviors."
The Uber driver app has to do a wide variety of things. The app must allow drivers in cities across the globe to find people, provide rides, and deliver food. It must push drivers to the places where riders are waiting, balancing the market's supply and demand. And, from Uber's perspective, it must give drivers the tools to run their own one-person taxi business.
The company viewed the old app as a "one-stop shop to run your business," Yamashita said. The main non-driving screen was a kind of "news feed" with different promotions, events, and other announcements that could be pushed to drivers by corporate or city operational teams. Drivers often found the number of data points overwhelming (or underwhelming). There was an earnings tab that let you see how much money you'd made. There was a ratings tab that helped you keep an eye on your rank within the system.
"With the old app, the attitude was: 'Here's a bunch of information organized in these four different tabs. Go find what you need,'" Yamashita said.
The new app, the team hopes, will act as more of a personal coach than an impersonal shop. This approach can be seen in three changes. In the previous iteration, drivers slid a switch to take themselves online. To the design lead Bryant Jow, that felt impersonal, like the driver was a cog who had to be turned on like a light switch. The switch was replaced with a button that simply says, "Go."
The next change is more significant. Before, when a driver would open the app, they'd see a map of the city with "surge" areas outlined in different warm colors. Drivers had to make a pretty complex calculation about where the most profitable place to drive might be. Now, Uber's app will offer up a simple suggestion that doesn't necessarily tell them to "chase the surge" (a plan most drivers think is dumb), but that will help nudge them to a better area.
The other bit of feedback on the main screen that drivers will receive is a prediction for when they'll be pinged for a ride. Will it be two minutes or 20 minutes? And if the answer is 20 minutes, maybe a driver will opt to do something else rather than spend low-earnings time on the platform.
Taken together, just those adjustments on the home screen are a serious revamp of the nudges that drivers are being given. But Uber has also made a more radical change to the data that it's sharing with drivers. In the old version of the app, drivers could see if an area was surging, or city-operations teams might push a message predicting that a special event might cause heavy demand. Those were the only tools available.
In the new version, there are demand-prediction charts that drivers can access to help plan when they want to drive. This is a major departure for Uber. "This is a highly experimental feature because this is the first time we're trying to show this data," Yamashita said.
Sharing this information is in Uber's interest. They have the very difficult challenge of balancing the load between riders and drivers, so the better decisions that drivers make, the more efficient their matching will be. For those reasons, drivers responded strongly to the idea. But in so doing, they also created a problem for the team: The demand projections that the app was initially showing were not as reliable as drivers were hoping that they would be.
"The honest answer is that they loved the idea of it, and oftentimes it was helpful for them, but we didn't always get it right," Yamashita said. "We realized that we needed to improve these features." That interest and feedback drove a new round of improvements, which they hope will meet drivers' standards for usefulness.
The app will begin to roll out soon to small portions of drivers (say, 5 percent) within select cities. Then, they'll roll out to all the drivers in a few cities, comparing the data they see with similar cities elsewhere.
The reason for the phased "responsible" rollout, as Yamashita put it, is that they found themselves in trouble last year. As part of the "180 Days of Change" push, Uber gave drivers the ability to set their general direction for giving rides six times per day, when previously the "destination filter" had only let drivers do that twice.
It doesn't seem like the biggest change. And when Uber tested it with a small number of drivers in each city, it worked fine. But this feature was huge for drivers, who immediately took advantage of the ability to drive in their chosen directions throughout the day. They loved it. So many took advantage of the feature that Uber said that it hurt the overall market conditions.
"As an individual driver, you're like, 'Of course I want six! That's so much better for me,'" Yamashita said. "But then when everyone has it, it creates these weird things where there are certain riders not getting service and that really messes up the marketplace." Uber decided to revert the change. They'd just gotten an entirely new way of working, and the company retracted it. It was as if the factory line had been reconfigured to benefit workers, then the company put it the back the old way. Drivers were not happy.
Nonetheless, Uber maintains that what is good for drivers, as a group, is good for Uber. "If you optimize for your driver partners, that is a long-term winner," said Khosrowshahi. "That is certainly our it intention with this app."
Drivers, to put it mildly, have not always thought Uber was looking out for their best interests. In 2017, before Kalanick resigned, he got into a fight over fare cuts with an Uber driver. In the wake of that incident, a driver told the Associated Press that "a lot of drivers feel that Uber always looked out for themselves first and foremost and relegated drivers to a second tier."
For drivers, the money they make remains their number-one issue across all the places they provide feedback to the company and consult with each other. And the app won't directly change their cut of the ridesharing proceeds. In fact, Khosrowshahi maintained that even if he wanted to increase earnings for drivers, he couldn't just hike rates without hurting them just as much.
"In general, if rates overall go up, demand goes down and if demand goes down, driver utilization goes down, and then overall earnings often go down or don't go up," he said. "There is actually very little that we can do in terms of overall earnings for drivers."
But what about the direct lever that Uber has to increase drivers' take-home pay, which is cutting into Uber's slice of the pie?
"If you look at the earnings of the company, I don't think you can accuse us of over-earning," he said of the company's multibillion-dollar losses. "Our goal is to be in a fair position and that's what we're optimizing for."
As the new app rolls out to workers on the platform, we'll see if they agree.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 01:16 PM PDT
The advice column as we know it today started with a deception. In The Athenian Mercury, a London magazine that ran from 1690 to 1697, the Athenian Society—supposedly a group of 30-some experts across many fields—answered anonymous reader questions. They replied to all sorts of queries, as Jessica Weisberg recounts in her new book Asking for a Friend: "Why alcohol killed erections and made people slur, why horse excrement was square, if people born with missing body parts were also missing part of their soul, and if the sun was made of fire."
In actuality, the Athenian Society was just a handful of men—a publisher named John Dunton, his two brothers-in-law, and a man who "they were 50 percent sure was a doctor," Weisberg says.
But dubious expertise has never stopped anyone from giving advice. And since the days of the Mercury, people have continued to gobble up guidance from wherever it is on offer. Americans, especially, are enamored with advice, Weisberg writes, whether that comes in the classic form of a column like Dear Abby, from a self-help book like Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, or from the anonymous masses on Quora or Reddit.
Weisberg takes a wide sample of advice-givers across time and profiles each of them in-depth: from Benjamin Franklin to Miss Manners to Joan Quigley*, the astrologer who advised Nancy Reagan. She considers the book a work of "emotional history." Advice both shapes and reflects the society it exists in; she believes diving into particulars of the advice given across centuries (mostly) in the United States offers a unique perspective on Americans' concerns and values.
I spoke with Weisberg over the phone about many of these issues. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
Julie Beck: You write that "America is unique in its hankering for advice." When did that hunger start, and why do you think it's a particularly American craving?
Jessica Weisberg: It started right away. One of the very first best sellers in America was an etiquette book that was written by a British statesman. It was by a guy named Lord Chesterfield, and it wasn't intended as an etiquette book. Lord Chesterfield had a son who was born out of wedlock, and they didn't have that much contact. So Chesterfield just wrote his son a lot of letters to sort of try to make up for this lack of human contact. The letters had been compiled without his knowledge by his son's widow.
In his letters, he just says: Be super strategic, never say how you feel, imitate people, never be authentic. People were just up in arms about it, reading it obsessively and arguing about it. And then Benjamin Franklin came shortly after that with Poor Richard's Almanack, which, again, was an advice book.
This was a time when everything was changing and people were seeking to create a society and a culture with different values and standards than what had come before. People were thinking about these things; George Washington wrote about manners. It felt like a very essential part of our culture from very early on.
As time has gone on, the obsession with advice has taken a lot of different forms, and I think it really reflects the cultural tendency toward optimism. The American dream is a dream, but it really does loom large in a lot of people's imaginations.
Beck: Lord Chesterfield was British, and a lot of American society was rebelling against Britain at that time. Were people all super against it, or were there some people who were really compelled by those old British ethics and manners?
Weisberg: There was definitely a tension. I think a lot of people liked it, not necessarily because of the content of the advice, but because it was good reading—with a lot about meeting fancy people all around Europe. The repulsion to it was just this idea that people shouldn't be authentic. John Adams was very upset about this idea that people would say something that didn't express what they actually felt. That didn't reflect this new American ethos that he wanted to create.
But on the other side, Lord Chesterfield was really nervous about his son fitting in. He's like: "You should be respectful of everybody; you should always take on the character of the situation you're in." If you think about that, there's something very democratic about that advice. To be adaptable and be comfortable in all social settings. There is something kind of American about that as well.
Beck: The book is organized into these chapter-length profiles of different advice columnists, or just advice-givers. When you look at the broad sweep of them, how has advice-giving in America evolved over time?
Weisberg: Well, first of all, the early advice-givers in America are all white, male, and straight. Over time you see that changing some. Definitely, you see more women doing it in the 20th century. And today, even though the big national perches are still largely occupied by white cisgendered people, there are more opportunities for other people as our culture changes.
And how much vulnerability the advice-givers are giving of themselves—that changes a lot over time. Like, Benjamin Franklin is not admitting his own struggles with fidelity. Whereas you read later advice-givers and they're talking about their own challenges with their marriages. Now, we don't trust people unless they admit to their own mistakes, at least a little bit. Whereas there was a sense of objectivity and authority that advice-givers from many years ago tried to present.
Beck: It seems like now we're in an era of preferring relatability in our advice.
Weisberg: There's still that tension. I think advice-givers still need to present both qualities. I just think vulnerability is the more salable quality, more than it used to be, and more than expertise at this point.
Beck: What does that say about what we are actually looking for from advice? It seems like if we wanted the right answer to our question, we'd turn to experts. So is it more that we're looking to feel like something is right, which is kind of a squishier thing?
Weisberg: Throughout time, when people are looking for advice, they're really looking for someone to be vulnerable with. I think that's why, even in the earliest days of advice-giving, it was mostly anonymous. People are just creating this space to be vulnerable. And anonymity is the technology for it. The internet allows for that [even more], there's a certain level of distancing in our communications online and I think this privileging of vulnerability feeds into that as well.
Beck: So we want this space to be vulnerable. Is it maybe less about getting the right answer and more about being reassured that what we already think and do is normal, or at least acceptable?
Weisberg: I think so. I think when people are looking at advice they're often looking for affirmation. In advice before the internet, advice columns sort of functioned as a Reddit channel. It was a way for people to chime in and have an anonymized community where they can share their deepest secrets, maybe get some feedback on it and hopefully feel affirmed in their choices.
Beck: I want to talk about another tension, which is the community versus the individual. Whether you privilege community over yourself, or be true to yourself and who cares what everyone else thinks—has that changed over time?
Weisberg: Early advice is so much more concerned with how other people perceive you and contemporary advice is much more individually oriented. That reflects a change in our culture. But I think people certainly still crave affirmation from their community. I don't think those things are mutually exclusive, but it's interesting what people were preaching when. They were preaching cultural acceptance, and societal acceptance, and how to make your boss happy, in earlier generations. And now people are saying, focus on you. But I know I as an individual I certainly crave both, and I think most people do.
Most advice-givers, the ones that I profiled, define their job as an essentially centrist position—trying to find a balance between the individual and the society she is in. I think advice-givers for that reason are associated with social conservatism. This idea that there's a right way to behave. And I sort of bristled at that.
Beck: Like Miss Manners?
Weisberg: Yeah, like who are you to tell me how I should act? The idea of norms can be oppressive. But I also talked to Miss Manners and she said there should be norms because bigotry is unacceptable. And norms do allow us to live in a more peaceful society. There are certainly situations in which I appreciate norms.
I wrote this book largely during the presidential election and the early moments of the Trump administration. And I thought about my subjects really differently because of that. Because I was seeing a lot more public bigoted behavior, and that seemed unacceptable to me. [Advice columnists] are people who wanted to prevent that. That position comes with a certain kind of centrism, but also with a certain kind of idealism. With the idea that we should all behave respectfully toward each other.
Beck: That leads into the last tension I wanted to talk about. You named two chapters after it: Politeness versus honesty. How do you think advice columnists have typically answered that question? Has it changed over time?
Weisberg: I started that idea with Lord Chesterfield, because he believed that politeness was far more important than honesty or authenticity. There was no comparison in his mind. And the second chapter is about Miss Manners, and she kind of feels the same way. But what's interesting is that Miss Manners comes from a long line of labor historians, and sees politeness as a way of respecting the dignity of human labor, and as really necessary for a democracy to work.
Beck: I see a lot of modern advice columns saying that if you're being overly polite to people and you're not really telling them what you really feel and think, then that's damaging in its own way. That the best thing is always to be honest.
Weisberg From a personal point of view, it's a struggle to censor yourself, but I've been at many family occasions where I've done that for the sake of keeping the peace. I prefer to be honest, and sometimes that preference overrides my care for the tension in the room. Then there are times when I feel like avoiding the tension in the room should take priority. And often that is a selfish decision. I want to avoid conflict.
That touches on that earlier tension you mentioned. Who is advice for? Is it for the individual seeking it or is it for the society she lives in?
Beck: What do you think? Who is it for?
Weisberg: I think it depends on the individual advice-giver. Benjamin Franklin is definitely for the society he lived in. Miss Manners is often for the society she lives in. Martha Beck, who's a life coach, is all about the individual. I tried to do a range in the book. But I think what I found really interesting about these people as a class of individuals is they were trying to navigate that tension in a really unique way, in a way I don't feel like any other profession does as explicitly.
Beck: So is it better to be honest or be polite?
Weisberg: Personally? I would say honest. Because for all that Miss Manners says about politeness being good for democracy, I think honesty is really important for democracy, too. Nothing changes unless you state your point of view, and state it honestly and state it courageously. I think it is really important both for the individual and for the society she lives in to be honest. I just wish everyone could be honest with consideration for the people they're being honest with. And that's hard. That's really hard.
* This piece originally misidentified Nancy Reagan's astrologer as Judith Martin. Martin writes the Miss Manners column; the astrologer's name is Joan Quigley. We regret the error.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 09:17 AM PDT
We've known for some time now that Americans are increasingly dying younger, but the scale and nature of the problem has been a little bit murky. There was speculation that the downturn in American life expectancy was all thanks to "deaths of despair," but some experts have said that might not be the full story, and that obesity and tobacco are still major factors in American mortality.
A new study out today in the Journal of the American Medical Association drills down into which states are showing increases in deaths among the young, and why. In doing so, it reveals a profound disparity among the states when it comes to both life expectancy and disability.
Most startlingly, since 1990, 21 states have seen an increase in the death rate among people aged 20 to 55. In five states—Kentucky, Oklahoma, New Mexico, West Virginia, and Wyoming—the probability of early death among young adults rose by more than 10 percent in that time frame. Meanwhile, in New York and California, young and middle-aged people became much less likely to die in the same time period. The authors note that opioids, alcoholism, suicide, and kidney disease—which can be brought on by diabetes and alcoholism—were the main factors leading to the increases in early deaths.
In 2016, the 10 states with the highest probability of premature death among 20- to 55-year-olds were West Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arkansas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Tennessee, and South Carolina.
Meanwhile, the 10 states with lowest probability of premature death among this age group were Minnesota, California, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Washington, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Hawaii.
"Overall the nation and some of our states are falling behind other, less developed countries," Ali Mokdad, a University of Washington epidemiologist who co-wrote the study, said in a statement. "The strain on America's health resources is getting worse, and the need for prevention services and greater access to and quality of medical care is increasing."
Though not an immediate cause of death, major depression increased by more than 27 percent across the country between 1990 and 2016, and anxiety rose by 31 percent.
Some of the findings track with the "diseases of despair" hypothesis—the idea that Americans are self-medicating their misery with alcohol and drugs—but it's also clear that Americans' poor diets are a major part of the problem. Between 1990 and 2016, Alzheimer's disease and opioid abuse became more prominent causes of death and disability, but so did diabetes. A poor diet was the leading cause of death, followed by tobacco use and high blood pressure.
"To an increasing degree, overweight, obesity, and sugary diets are driving up health-care costs and are costing Americans years of healthy life," said the University of Washington's Chris Murray, who also authored the study, in a statement. "They are undermining progress toward better health."
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 10:32 AM PDT
On the opening day of the season, Giancarlo Stanton—who last year hit 59 home runs en route to the National League MVP award before a December trade brought him to the New York Yankees—muscled two homers out of Toronto's Rogers Centre. The first came on a low fastball that he shot to right. MLB's Statcast measured it as the hardest-hit opposite-field blast since the system's inception in 2015. The second went to straightaway center and landed well up into the second deck; no advanced numbers were needed to appreciate it. For Yankees fans who had spent the winter envisioning how Stanton would pair with Aaron Judge, who in a 2017 Rookie of the Year campaign hit 52 homers of his own, the 6–1 win doubled as a welcome forecast. It was easy to imagine six months of long balls and blowouts.
At New York's home-opener victory five days later, though, concern cut the celebration. Stanton struck out each of the five times he stepped to the plate, and after his last appearance, a smattering of boos sounded. To someone just now joining the season, highlights from those two games could provide a handy summary: of the much-hyped Yankees' 5–5 start and of their star hitters' boom-or-bust tendencies, yes, but more importantly of the risk-reward calculations that increasingly govern baseball. Since the days of Babe Ruth, players have wanted to hit home runs, and teams have wanted to employ the players who do. Now, as homers and strikeouts alike pile up in record numbers, the question of how to find the balance between them is among the most pressing in the sport.
If Stanton and Judge are able to reprise their performances from last year while wearing the same uniform, they'll become just the sixth pair of teammates in MLB history to hit 100 combined homers in a season. (They'd be the third pair of Yankees to do so, joining the storied duos of Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.) At first glance, Stanton and Judge are a perfect stylistic fit: the former, with his garish biceps, chopping balls to every section of outfield seating. The latter, at 6-foot-7, sweeping his bat through the zone and lifting pitches into the clouds. But the pair would also be an outlier, likely shattering the mark for strikeouts within the 100-homer group. Together, they struck out 371 times in 2017, with Judge's 208 the most in all of baseball; no other 100-homer duo has ever tallied more than 306 Ks. So far this year, Stanton leads the majors with 20 strikeouts (opposite three homers), and Judge's 13 (with two home runs) are modest only by comparison.
In their outsized way, the Yankees' sluggers exemplify contemporary baseball's trends. Last season, MLB players set all-time highs in both total homers (6,105) and strikeouts (40,104). The correlation between the numbers isn't hard to figure. Many of today's hitters favor big, uppercutting swings designed to produce fence-clearing fly balls; the whiffs that inevitably result are just the cost of doing business. "Guys don't care if they strike out," the former pitcher and current broadcaster Al Leiter said after the league's home-run mark was broken in September, "and it's basically turn and burn."
The extent to which teams accept those strikeouts, though, can make all the difference. Last season's World Series champion Houston Astros—who hit for considerable, if not quite Yankee-level, power—featured only two 100-strikeout players. Their American League Championship Series win over New York, in which Judge struck out 11 times in seven games, made for something of a case study in competing philosophies of homer-hunting. At this early juncture of 2018, the Astros are again off to a splendid start. The mindset governing their at-bats hasn't changed, with their hitters still favoring putting the bat on the ball to swinging from the heels. "We do prefer a model where contact is made," the Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow said last June. "We're seeing the results of that."
During the 162-game regular season, teams of a certain quality tend to find their footing regardless of the particulars of their approach. But in the cauldron of a five- or seven-game postseason series, the inherent variability of power hitting can make all the difference. As Lunhow put it, "Sometimes you go on big winning streaks because you have guys hit home runs. But you can just as easily go on a long losing streak, because guys are striking out." It's possible to recover from a string of losses in April, less so in October.
The Yankees understand the risks facing a team founded on sluggers, even if those sluggers include two of the world's best. "I want us to be obsessed with controlling the strike zone," their first-year manager Aaron Boone said after taking the job, more concerned than his new players had been with the high strikeout totals. New York also has the failsafes of a deep-pocketed organization—a well-rounded roster and excellent bullpen—so they don't live and die by the fortunes of their headlining duo. Compensating for Stanton's lousy home opener, the resourceful shortstop Didi Gregorius drove in eight runs with a pair of homers and a double. After the game, Boone acknowledged the self-correcting aspect of his team's style. "I like when the big boy doesn't get any and we're able to score 11 [runs]," he said. "Because there's going to be a lot of days when we hop on his back."
Still, the Yankees' brand of baseball is destined to produce almost as much anxiety as it does offensive fireworks. On Sunday afternoon, Stanton again struck out five times—becoming just the third player in the last 100 years to do so twice in a season and ended the game by whiffing with runners on base in the 12th inning. More boos were heard in Yankee Stadium. Judge, who added two to his own strikeout total, preached patience and positivity: "We're going to look back on this in August and laugh about it."
Judge is almost certainly right, at least to a degree. He and Stanton have the type of talent that can hardly be suppressed indefinitely. In the coming weeks and months, their numbers will take on the familiar, astronomic bearing, and high-wattage power displays will offset the occasional bad nights. (A 7–2 shellacking of the Tampa Bay Rays last Wednesday, in which Stanton, Judge, and complementary basher Gary Sanchez all homered, offered a taste of what Yankee fans hope becomes routine.) But the start of this season is more than just a fluke waiting to be corrected; it's also a reminder of modern baseball's blown-out scale, and of the pitfalls built into it. As more players accept one extreme as the cost of another, a game long romanticized for its slow and subtle action has become, in large part, one of high panic and big payoffs—a kind of nightly crapshoot.
Tuesday evening, New York will start a series with the Boston Red Sox. It's a matchup not only of traditional rivals but also of momentary opposites, with Boston sitting at an MLB-best 8–1 despite having hit only seven home runs as a team. The focus of the baseball world will narrow on the series, as always, giving the Yankees and their fans the season's first semblance of real pressure. The law of averages might suggest New York's sluggers are due for a breakout; memories of recent games would tamp that hope. This uncertainty is a state the team's fans will have to get used to. They can be reasonably confident of a good season, but not of a good week.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 01:49 PM PDT
While Donald Trump has diverted his attention to other matters, here are some questions and answers to bear in mind, when he is back to talking about winning a trade war.
Q. Is there a "China problem" to be dealt with?
A. Yes. This was the theme of a piece I did just before the 2016 election: "China's Great Leap Backward." Its argument was that through the decades since the beginning of China's post-Mao reform movement, in the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping, two assumptions had guided U.S. policy toward China—but that China's recent behavior was calling both of them into question.
As China prospered, it would not necessarily become a liberal democracy—even though all the other rich countries in the world, from Europe to North America to Northeast Asia, happened to function that way. But it would become more rather than less integrated into the world order for which those liberal democracies had set most of the rules. And this would apply in areas from economics to strategic and military interactions.
The other assumption was that, despite the certainty of economic frictions and the larger dislocations that came with China's emergence as a great power, the businesses relationship between the U.S. and China could be more complementary, and win-win, than it was an inevitable Darwinian fight to the death. And this, in turn, was because the structures of the U.S. and Chinese economies were so different, offering the potential for at least as many constructive relationships as mutually destructive ones.
The contrast with Japan was instructive. Japan had already become a world industrial power by the 1930s. Its rebuilding effort after World War II was, like Germany's, mainly a matter of re-establishing a world-class business, technological, and educational establishment that had helped power the fascist war effort, was destroyed, and then was redirected into non-military competition.
By the 1980s, Japan had large, technically sophisticated companies with their own research centers and internationally recognized brands. They competed head-to-head with their U.S. counterparts: Toyota versus GM, Toshiba versus IBM, Hitachi versus Intel and Texas Instruments, and on down a long list. In the years since then, despite its political and demographic challenges and supposed economic collapse, Japan has grown steadily richer—its GDP per capita is up 35 percent in the past 20 years, versus about 25 percent for the United States— and it has retained or increased its market share in most of the advanced-technology areas its policy focuses on. Japan's population was less than half as large as that of the United States (and a tenth as large as China's), and it was nothing like an all-fronts rival or competitor. But for its biggest firms and their American counterparts, it was a genuine head-to-head, win-or-lose type of showdown in those days.
China had never gone through the industrial and corporate revolution that Japan pulled off in the late 1800s. As it began its interaction with the United States 40 years ago, it was a mainly peasant country striving to get into the age of low-end, low-wage manufacturing. Over the next two decades, that is mainly what it did. (This is a story that I told in my book China Airborne.)
China is vastly richer now than it was a generation ago. Its population now includes hundreds of millions of industrial and service-sector workers, instead of nearly a billion peasants, as it did before. But it still is far short of Japan and South Korea, Western Europe, or North America in "commanding heights" corporations with international brand-name power and technology leadership. The gap is closing—but still there is no Chinese brand name on the world market comparable to Mercedes or Apple, to Samsung or GE, to Oxford or Harvard, to BBC or the New York Times. The Chinese aerospace ministry is trying its best, but it is many years behind either Airbus or Boeing.
Exactly how, when, and whether China closes that gap, and what rules it works by in trying to do so, is (or should be) the heart of the trade friction now. Over the past half dozen years, complaints from Western companies and governments have mounted about the tools the Chinese government is using toward this end: selective regulations, "buy Chinese" policies, industrial espionage carried out either through high-tech hacking means or through contracts that obliged Western companies to "share" technology if they want to enter the Chinese market. This has coincided with Xi Jinping's tightening grip on China's political system and parts of civic life in the country.
Are these real problems? Yes. Which leads us to …
Q. Are tariffs a good way to deal with this?
A. No. Or at least not in the way they're being discussed right now.
Q. Why not? Aren't you just being anti-Trump?
A. Here's the problem. What the U.S. is doing now won't work.
A rhetorically escalating threat-and-counter-threat between the U.S. and China may be emotionally satisfying to those who believe, as Trump has said constantly over the decades, that China is "cheating" and "robbing" the United States.
But if the goal is to get the Chinese government to change its behavior, there is very little reason to think that public threats, lectures, and showdowns will do the trick.
You could go through lots of game-theory reasoning to get to this point—for instance, that while the Chinese economy is in principle more exposed to the pain of a trade war than the U.S. is (because China is poorer, and more dependent on exports), in reality its government faces no mid-term elections, or presidential re-election runs, or public elections at all. Also, it can more easily offset an economic downtown in the short run just by ramping up the infrastructure machine— building another new high-speed rail line someplace in China, building ports and railways through the rest of the world via its "One Belt One Road" program, or in other ways turning on the job spigot for long enough to last out a trade showdown.
And, as Paul Krugman has spelled out in The New York Times, even though manufacturers would adjust in the long run to a shift in international prices (from tariffs and other factors), right at the moment, factories to produce much of what's made in China don't exist in the United States. Companies could decide to build them—but that's a matter of years of planning and construction, and billions of dollars, reliant on the idea that Trump-era tariffs would last.
I have no idea whether the strains and contradictions affecting the Chinese system of government will prove unsustainable within the next few years (as Minxin Pei has argued forcefully) or whether it will veer and manage its way through the next set of crises as it has so many before. But when it comes to withstanding short-term domestic pressures of a trade slowdown—a drop in growth rate in China, versus pressures on farmers, aircraft manufacturers, and ordinary shoppers in America—I'll bet on the Chinese any time.
Also, if yelling at and threatening a Chinese government were a shrewd way of changing its behavior, presumably it would have worked at some previous time in history. I'm not aware of such examples.
Q. So what does work?
A. Ah, you would ask.
There's a reason certain problems are considered "hard" problems. Holding down health-care costs. Reducing gun violence, in a country that already has hundreds of millions of firearms and where people have radically different views about gun "rights." Reducing the influence of misleading information and phony news.
Establishing the right long-term relationship with China is a genuinely hard problem. That was the point of the article I wrote late in 2016: Whoever led the U.S. government, with whatever set of policies on other issues, would have to deal with a China that was too big to ignore, too strong to insult, too valuable a potential partner (on issues ranging from climate change to North Korea) and too threatening a potential adversary to approach with anything other than a well thought-out plan.
The core of such a plan, I said, was trying to shape reality in ways that encouraged and discouraged various forms of Chinese behavior. The much-loathed Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, was one of those possible shaping tools. The TPP was the rare policy that Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders all opposed, but its idea was to ally the United States with enough other Pacific Rim trading nations to create a rule-based economic reality too great and influential for China to ignore. Long-term industrial strategies, like the one the Clinton administration applied (successfully) in the early 1990s to revive the U.S. info-tech industry relative to Japan, also can have effect—and can include precisely thought-through tariffs as part of their power. Different times and different details require ever-shifting strategies, but they have nothing in common with tweeted-out demands and threats.
It's been 18 months since I wrote this passage, but I'd say more or less the same thing now:
The hacking decreased then. (Last fall Wired ran a fascinating account of what changed, and what didn't.) Public shouting and desk-pounding played absolutely no role in a quiet, coordinated, decisive plan to shape the reality within which the Chinese government made its choices.
If Chinese writers were putting this principle into a traditional chengyu, the four-character phrases that are popular vehicles for homilies and wisdom, they'd presumably work with the four characters meaning voice small, force great. Or, in turn-of-the-20th century American parlance, "speak softly, and carry a big stick."
The tariff policy so far has been voice big, power small. Yell loudly, armed with a twig.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 07:08 AM PDT
Doing Dishes Is the Worst
Last week, Caroline Kitchener wrote about a new report that examines the strain dishwashing can have on heterosexual relationships.
I always love reading The Atlantic, but today I take issue with some of the wording in your article "Doing Dishes Is the Worst." You say (both in the article and in the Facebook status promoting the article), "Women who wash the vast majority of the dishes themselves report more relationship conflict, less relationship satisfaction, and even worse sex, than women with partners who help" (emphasis added). While your article points out that women traditionally are the ones doing dishes, using phrases like "partners who help" reinforces the idea that women are managers in charge of household duties, and the best men can do is "help"—rather than take an equal role in both the mental and physical labor of chores. This excellent comic explains it perfectly.
At one point you say that a woman might see a "male partner handling or helping with the dishes," which is slightly better phrasing but still problematic.
If you want to support the teamwork your article admires (and I'm confident that you genuinely do!), you can start by paying attention to how your words enforce existing power dynamics.
I am a married, college-degreed male. I do the bulk of the dishes in our household. I was on the brink of despair in regards to this chore when I discovered that the soap dispensers my wife had glued above the sink were the perfect distance apart to accommodate our tablet. As dishes are a mostly mindless task, with little chance of losing a fingertip (unlike with meal prep), I discovered that visual, streaming media was the perfect accompaniment to the previously odious burden. Now, I have no problem washing piles of dishes if it can help me catch up on Oscar nominees and some of the best HBO dramas ever produced.
Nice article about dishwashing and having couples share the work. However, you fail to mention that there might be one party so obsessed with the process and procedure of doing the dishes that such sharing becomes, itself, a source of stress.
I have washed dishes, dried them, and occasionally been allowed to put them away. I am now 80. I grew up in Chicago, lived in New York and Toronto, and after my divorce lived in the UK. There I learned to iron, and I love to do that. My wife loves when I do it also.
I now find that washing "toughies" is what I enjoy. For example, big glass pitchers, ordinary frying pans, and sharp knives. These are items that I believe don't belong in a dishwasher.
Women have been working outside the home in droves for over 25 years, yet they've been expected to handle the majority of household chores in addition to their regular jobs. Of course there's resentment; it's not about the dishes, it's about keeping the patriarchy intact by devaluing women's work inside and outside the home. It's about exhausting and overwhelming women with responsibilities to drive home the notion patriarchy is still alive … and strong.
Your article on doing dishes has me shaking my head. Who waits till mold has time to form on the dish before washing it?
Everyone shares chores. Household rule: No one goes to bed with dirty dishes in the sink. Mom will not be happy if she comes into the kitchen in the morning and there are dirty dishes. And heavens knows if mom isn't happy, no one will be happy!
Be considerate, do your share. It does not hinge on your gender, just your humanity and consideration. Be kind, be helpful. Be happy!
Several readers responded on Facebook:
Chris Klaes wrote: Correlation isn't causation. It's likely that the type of relationships where women carry the majority of household tasks are indicative of a relationship dynamics that aren't conducive to healthy, fulfilling, and equitable partnerships.
Kelly Hill Kretzer wrote: I have also felt this resentment, as the dishwashing usually falls to me. The problem is less about the grossness level, but more about the frequency. Mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, and taking out the garbage are tasks that do not have to be done every day. If the dishes don't get washed tonight, then there will be twice as many tomorrow—and they will be grosser. And if my husband is "too busy," then the choice is left to me. When the dishwasher went down, I thought I was going to lose my mind! A minimum of 20 minutes of my life was lost to dishwashing, sometimes when I was too tired to stand. Thankfully, I have a new dishwasher. Sigh.
Wendelyn Wood Anderson wrote: I admit that my relationship with all three of my cats does suffer a bit due to the fact that not only do I do ALL the dishes in our household but clean the litter boxes as well.
Caroline Kitchener replies:
Who knew dishes could drum up so much controversy! First, kudos to all of you who wrote in to say that you enjoy this task. I'm impressed. In my house, even when it's my turn to wash, I will strike all manner of deals to get out of it: "I'll vacuum the whole apartment!" "I'll run out right now to get your favorite candy." Dan, I am going to try your HBO-dishwashing combo strategy. It could be revolutionary.
Sara, I want to address your point about the language I used. You are 100% right. "Women with partners who help" implies that the dishwashing responsibility falls, automatically, on the woman. I can assure you that's not how I feel. Who knows—maybe that phrasing is indicative of some antiquated ideas about gender and chores that I have, buried deep within my subconscious. (Let's hope it was just a poor phrasing choice.)
Thanks for reading, everyone. Happy washing.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 11:57 AM PDT
It's one of the best things mass entertainment has produced this year: Cardi B's rendition of "Be Careful" on Saturday Night Live. As her band turned a loungey and minimal beat into a hushed, tense Latin jazz jam, the 25-year-old rap arriviste born Belcalis Almanzar addressed a cheating partner: "You still stutter after certain questions / You keep in contact with certain exes." Shot from the waist up, using her jewel-studded nails to alternately clutch the mic and point blame, she seemed to wince with each syllable, yet kept each one legible, forthright. As her movements and inflections became more animated, the camera pulled out. She wore wedding-dress white. She appeared to be pregnant.
The pregnancy revelation itself did what celebrity pregnancies always do—outshine all other tabloid topics, at least for a few days—but the arresting performance itself, and what it represents, shouldn't be discounted. Cardi B joins Beyoncé and M.I.A. in smashing, among other things, preconceptions about motherhood as a career derailer. She's done so while rapping about male betrayal, coinciding with gossip that her fiancé, the rapper Offset of Migos, had cheated on her. It's another chapter in the post-modern celebrity cookbook, with the mixing of the musical and meta making for a savory, complex meal.
Cardi B dishes in similar fashion across her perfectly pitched debut, Invasion of Privacy, which arrived on Friday and should be infiltrating party playlists for the rest of the year. Her story is all-American, 2018: Of Dominican and Trinidadian parentage, she went from Bronx exotic dancer to Instagram phenom to reality-show curio to Taylor Swift–dethroning hitmaker at an accelerating rate in the space of just a few years. Throughout that rise, her savvy has been indistinguishable from her talent and charm. She molds herself to her surroundings as need be, raps openly about doing so, and still radiates individuality—crass and brash, woundable but not beatable. There is no one else like Cardi B, and she practically commands that people relate to her.
She's talked a lot about sweating the details on her long-awaited first album, and the effort pays off as Invasion of Privacy confidently ticks through the popular subgenres of rap. The cinematic opener sketches her story with riffs on the rags-to-riches formulation: "I was covered in dollars, now I'm drippin' in jewels," goes one typical flip. Then there are the dance songs. "Drip" distills the with-our-powers-combined shtick of collaborators Migos to its mechanistic essence. "I Like It" is blockbuster-scale Latin trap, outfitting a 1967 boogaloo classic with thunderous bass and of-the-moment Spanish-language stars J Balvin and Bad Bunny. "She Bad" offers the strip-club anthem only she could make, with the rapper YG hissing the song title as Cardi B brags of writing verses while twerking.
Whatever the backdrop, she thrives. After all, her breakout hit "Bodak Yellow" conveyed how Cardi B didn't need all that much more than a steady beat to command attention with her voice. It's a precision-trained shout, pushing words in distinctive directions without losing their shape. On "Money Bag," one of a few fearsome Privacy tracks that feel like "Bodak Yellow" sequels, the electro pings behind her are distorted and jagged, and her delivery is similarly spiky, spitting. Meanwhile, the words mold rap tropes to her own persona, with delightful results. "With them pretty-ass twins, you look like Beyoncé," her man marvels, to which she adds, "And my bitches with me pretty, too, they look like bridesmaids."
The rebellion of lyrics like that is obvious enough: She's embracing femininity with a snarl. But the musical surroundings are so energizing, and she so at ease, that there's nothing try-hard about such subversions. The same could be said of the matter-of-fact way she raps about the anxiety that comes with trying to commodify one's self-image, as social media encourages everyone to do and stripping encouraged her specifically to do. She portrays her boob job in the same way as her Lamborghini truck—trophies of going "from WIC to lit"—which, somehow, only bolsters her claims of realness. "'Fore I fixed my teeth, man, those comments used to kill me," she says, referencing her now-famous dental makeover. "But never did I change, never been ashamed." It's an appealing message for the Instagram era. Why not revel in, rather than hide, doing what it takes for the likes? Likes, she insists, aren't just for vanity. They're money.
She raps about sex and love with refreshing candor, too. Though a real highlight, "Be Careful" is just one in a diverse set of spurned-lover confessions that reconcile toughness and sensitivity. That she sometimes mentions Offset in song, and has given interviews talking about the trust issues between them, only makes the drama crackle more. Kehlani or Ali Tamposi will sing an aching hook and Cardi B will mourn that her lover doesn't reply to her texts sooner—but she'll also threaten to poison his cereal, upload his mistress's nudes, and rat on him to his mom. This is Cardi B rollickingly sharing her feelings and preempting the gossip machine. It's also, perhaps, a prophecy about her relationship with the public that she's so ably courted. Ignore her at your own risk.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 06:41 AM PDT
To the old-fashioned, it might seem crazy that the Republicans plan to fight the 2018 election as a referendum on a Trump impeachment.
Traditional wisdom was: If the president of your party is unpopular, try your utmost to de-nationalize off-year elections. Focus the voters on local issues and down-ballot candidates! "Maybe you don't like Trump. But you like the new factory openings in our district, don't you?"
So why are Republicans edging toward the opposite approach?
The short answer: They have no choice. The old saying, "All politics is local," is outdated. All politics is national. In his forthcoming book, The Great Alignment, the political scientist Alan Abramowitz argues that national-party ID holds an overwhelming sway over local results. This election will be about the president, as 2014 and 2010 and 2006 were about the president. Republicans might as well face up to that fact. Rather than run away from an association that cannot be escaped, it's tactically smarter to embrace the association and try to mobilize such turnout as can be mobilized in at-risk seats like the one they lost in the Pennsylvania special election of March 13, 2018.
The impeachment issue works because it speaks to reluctant Trump supporters, the "I wish he wouldn't tweet so much" brigade. Message to them: If you stay home, you're not just teaching the president a lesson, enabling a course correction on the way to the next presidential election. You're actually voting in that presidential election now, whether you know it or not. So show up and vote for two more years!
It's also a smart strategy because it's … sort of true. Think of what we've learned already about Trump misconduct without congressional subpoena power. Imagine what might be revealed if the Democrats got hold of gavels in the House, Senate, or both. It might not literally lead to impeachment, but non-stop scandal politics would be almost guaranteed.
Which leads to the most important point. To survive, President Trump needs more than Republican votes, more than a Republican hold on one chamber or the other. He needs active Republican complicity in his future efforts to deflect investigations, whatever they may pursue. As his legal situation deteriorates, some Republicans from marginal seats may be tempted to drift away, to let justice take its course—possibly even to say or do something if justice is obstructed. Trump needs all of them bolted down, and the surest way to bolt them down is to force all Congress members to commit themselves early and fully to his protection.
Removal from office requires 67 votes in the Senate—and a broad consensus in the country that the president must go. It cannot effectively be carried out on a party-line basis, as Republicans painfully discovered during the Clinton presidency. By forcing Republicans to disavow impeachment now, Trump narrows the risks of defection later. It's not just about the midterm results. It's about press-ganging every last Republican, down to the most reluctant, aboard Trump's voyage of the damned.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 08:43 AM PDT
I went to medical school, at least in part, to get to know death and perhaps to make my peace with it. So did many of my doctor friends, as I would find out. One day—usually when you're young, though sometimes later—the thought hits you: You really are going to die. That moment is shocking, frightening, terrible. You try to pretend it hasn't happened (it's only a thought, after all), and you go about your business, worrying about this or that, until the day you put your hand to your neck—in the shower, say—and … What is that? Those hard lumps that you know, at first touch, should not be there? But there they are, and they mean death. Your death, and you can't pretend anymore.
I never wanted to be surprised that way, and I thought that if I became a doctor and saw a lot of death, I might get used to it; it wouldn't surprise me, and I could learn to live with it. My strategy worked pretty well. Over the decades, from all my patients, I learned that I would be well until I got sick and that although I could do some things to delay the inevitable a bit, whatever control I had was limited. I learned that I had to live as if I would die tomorrow and at the same time as if I would live forever. Meanwhile, I watched as what had been called "medical care"—that is, treating the sick—turned into "health care," keeping people healthy, at an ever-rising cost.
In her new book, Barbara Ehrenreich ventures into the fast-growing literature on aging, disease, and death, tracing her own disaffection with a medical and social culture unable to face mortality. She argues that what "makes death such an intolerable prospect" is our belief in a reductionist science that promises something it cannot deliver—ultimate control over our bodies. The time has come to rethink our need for such mastery, she urges, and reconcile ourselves to the idea that it may not be possible.
Ehrenreich is well equipped for her mission; she has a doctorate in biology and years of social and political work behind her, as well as decades of writing. I first discovered her in medical school, when I read her early book Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (1973). From it I learned that my small group of nine women in the otherwise male class of 77 belonged to a long, if forgotten, tradition. I also learned that social progress is not always an upward-trending line. The author of more than a dozen books, Ehrenreich has a reputation for chronicling cultural shifts before others notice them. She delights in confronting entrenched assumptions, popular delusions, grandiose ambitions—and in teasing out their unexpected consequences.
Often she incorporates firsthand experience into her analysis. For her best-known book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001), she spent a year working at unskilled jobs. In Living With a Wild God (2014), she recounted her own spiritual epiphanies in adolescence and her struggle, as a determined atheist, to understand her "furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once." Before all that, in 2000, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and begun paying special attention to surprising new science about cancer, cells, and our immune system. Now 76, Ehrenreich explores that science in Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. Once again, she is swept up by big questions. Not least among them is "whether the natural world is dead or in some sense alive" and behaving in unpredicted and unpredictable ways that have much to tell us about our approach to mortality.
She starts by looking at the many preventive medical procedures we are encouraged, even badgered, to undergo—those regular physical exams, colonoscopies, blood tests, mammograms. She had always pretty much done what doctors advised (she underwent chemotherapy), figuring that it made sense to treat disease before illness overwhelmed the body. But after watching many fitness-obsessed people die early, and realizing that she herself is now "old enough to die," she questions that premise. Where is the evidence that all the effort at prevention saves lives or delays death?
It's hard to find, she discovers. In people who have a strong family history of heart disease, treating high cholesterol does decrease mortality, on average. But for those who don't have that predisposition, it doesn't. Colonoscopies have not been proved more effective at reducing deaths from colon cancer than other, cheaper, less-invasive tests. Sometimes procedures cause more trouble than they prevent. Mammograms, for instance, detect tumors that might never be fatal, and can lead to over-treatment, which carries its own risks. The insight is counterintuitive—although finding diseases early on should prolong lives, the screenings we undergo don't seem to lower mortality rates overall—and Ehrenreich decides that she will no longer get most preventive care.
She is just as clear-eyed about other approaches to delaying our decay—exercise, diet, meditation. Though she became a "fitness devotee" herself in middle age, she finds symptoms of cultural malaise rather than health benefits in the fitness and diet obsessions of the past 40 years. Wellness programs do little to reduce companies' immediate health-care costs, and the pursuit of fitness, Ehrenreich argues, is often simply one more "class cue." Workouts easily become just that—work, another demand for self-discipline, competition, and control. Ironically, when she reached her 70s, her knees began giving her trouble not from age-appropriate arthritis but from overexertion.
Turning from her critique of preventive medicine and fitness culture as death-postponement strategies, Ehrenreich is even more unsettled by research indicating that our immune system is not the magical "protective cloak" she learned about in graduate school. What really gets her rethinking her scientific beliefs is the evolving story of the macrophage—the specialized white blood cell that she always thought of as her good shepherd "through the valley of the shadow of death."
Macrophages have traditionally been understood as one of our crucial first-line defenses against disease. They are found throughout our body—in our bones, brain, lymph nodes, lungs, and breasts—and circulate in our blood. They look like the amoebas we learned about in high school, those slippery, one-celled, independent creatures that move by stretching out and contracting, and eat by wrapping themselves around their prey, invaginating and absorbing it. The usual story went like this: Whenever macrophages find threats to our well-being in our midst—bacteria, viruses, fungi, or cancer cells—they kill them and eat them by engulfing and absorbing them. Ehrenreich assumed that keeping her immune system—and valiant macrophages—strong through exercise, diet, and positive thoughts was the key to not getting sick, not getting cancer, not getting old.
But research around the turn of the millennium suggested a different view. Macrophages do not always kill our cancer cells; sometimes they even help them grow and spread. They escort certain cancer cells through the tight walls of our blood vessels, and protect them as they circulate in our bloodstream, looking for a congenial new home. When such a site is found—in a bone or breast, liver or lung—macrophages then support those cancer cells as they mature into the metastases that will go on to kill us.
Scientists are now discovering that the macrophage is as much wolf as shepherd in other diseases as well. It may play a role in auto-immune disorders, and even in the usual afflictions of aging—heart attacks, strokes, arthritis. We thought we knew the causes of those (cholesterol, cigarettes, inactivity) and therefore the recourse (diet, abstinence, exercise); but now it appears that inflammation, caused in large part by our macrophages, may be a trigger. Ehrenreich ponders the heretical question: Can it be that instead of working to keep our immune system healthy, we should all along have been doing the opposite?
Ehrenreich is not, however, an apostle of unwellness, and Natural Causes is not a how-to book. Instead she focuses on the conceptual and "deep moral reverberations" of the discovery that our immune system can aid and abet a "cellular rebellion against the entire organism." What if our convenient "holistic, utopian" view of the "mindbody" as a "well-ordered mechanism"—kept in harmony by positive thinking and solicitous tending—is wrong?
Ehrenreich proves a fascinating guide to the science suggesting that our cells, like the macrophages that sometimes destroy and sometimes defend, can act unpredictably and yet not randomly. It is almost as if our cells can choose when and how to behave—unregulated by any deterministic mechanism. But that would mean they have "agency, or the ability to initiate an action," as she puts it. And what would that imply? If macrophages are actually deciding which cancer cells to destroy or to preserve, "maybe, crazy as it sounds, they are not following any kind of 'instructions,' but doing what they feel like doing."
Researchers are now finding this same agency everywhere, Ehrenreich reports—in fruit flies; in viruses; in atoms, electrons, and photons. Such discoveries must mean that agency, the capacity for making decisions—electrons jumping up a quantum level or not, photons passing through this hole in a screen rather than another—is not the rare, and human, prerogative we once thought.
Ehrenreich detects a paradigm shift in the making, away from holism and toward "a biology based on conflict within the body and carried on by the body's own cells as they compete for space and food and oxygen." This vision of the body as an embattled "confederation of parts"—the opposite of a coherent whole, subject to command and control—is "dystopian," she writes. And yet it has liberating, humbling implications. "If there is a lesson here," she proposes, it's that "we are not the sole authors of our destinies or of anything else." Of course, the struggle to win the battles within our body may be one we'll never be able to resist. Who knows? Perhaps we'll devise high-tech ways to induce, or persuade, our traitorous immune cells to cooperate with our health. But whatever technological miracles appear in our future, Ehrenreich hopes we can come to accept that the ultimate outcome will be, as it has always been, out of our control.
I wonder, though. Does she truly hope for that? It is, after all, only natural to try to stay healthy as long as possible, and to fight to get well when we are sick. I think Ehrenreich is really talking about herself—about her own fight for control, and her own desire to be able to give up and accept the end when the time comes. Is it possible for her to relinquish control and make her peace? Yes and no. Or rather no and yes. No, she can't, and yes, she will.
No, because I've noticed, in my life as a doctor, that the truism is true: People die the way they've lived—even the demented and even, somehow, the brain-dead. The brave die bravely; the curious, with curiosity; the optimistic, optimistically. Those who are by nature accepters, accept; those who by nature fight for control die fighting for control, and Ehrenreich is a fighter.
Yes, because I've also noticed that everyone I've seen die does come to accept the inevitable loss of control at his or her finally unevadable death. Usually that happens over weeks or months, sometimes over years; occasionally it happens over days, hours, or even minutes. This acceptance is perhaps as developmentally determined as childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. At the end, something magical appears to occur—something beautiful, something Other—that seems to heal the spirit, allay all fear, and settle, finally, the struggle for control.
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