Archive for the ‘The New Normal’ Category

Americans trust military, police the most

September 26, 2019

The most respected institution in the United States is the military.  Men, women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Democrats, Republicans and independents all have confidence in the military.

The least respected institution in the United States is Congress, which was supposed to be the institution closest to the people.  Men, women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Democrats, Republicans and independents all lack confidence in Congress.

A majority of Americans lack also lack confidence in the Presidency, and in TV news and newspapers.

What other institution do a majority of us have confidence in?  The police.

These are the results of an Economist / YouGov poll.  It does not bode well for the future of democracy.

If you don’t have confidence in the results of elections or of the legal system or of freedom of the press, why not a police state or military dictatorship?

Here’s a breakdown of what the poll shows about various U.S. institutions, going from most-trusted to least trusted.  I took these charts from a post on the Audacious Epigone web log.

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Congressional committee assignments are for sale

September 12, 2019

Big-money influence on Congress is nothing new.  It does back to the Gilded Age of the 19th century and before.  House Speaker New Gingrich took it a step further in the 1990s with his “pay to play” system.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi actually has taken the process a step further.  Each Democratic congressional representative is expected to pay “dues” to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee by raising money from donors.  Each committee assignment has a specific posted price.

The political scientist Thomas Ferguson wrote about this eight years ago, and I posted about it then.  Recently Ryan Grim and Aïda Chavez of The Intercept obtained the latest posted prices.

The dues for the 2020 cycle, according to the DCCC dues document, range from $150,000 at the low level to $1,000,000 for the Speaker of the House.  The document lays out the price of particular committee assignments.

Leadership posts for the second-, third-, and fourth-ranking Democrats — currently Steny Hoyer, Jim Clyburn, and Ben Ray Luján — range from $900,000 down to $700,000.

The next tier of leadership, which includes Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, DCCC Chair Cheri Bustos, and others, costs just $575,000. Lower-ranking members of leadership owe between $400,000 and $500,000.

That’s less than the chairs of exclusive committees have to chip in. Those four — Richard Neal, chair of Ways and Means; Frank Pallone, chair of Energy and Commerce; Nita Lowey, chair of Appropriations; and Maxine Waters, chair of Financial Services — owe $600,000 each for their gavels. Neal has paid half of his dues, while Lowey and Pallone have paid just under $200,000. Waters hasn’t made any dues payments yet.

The document also lists a goal for money-raised, which it puts at $1.2 million for each of the four. The dues report claims Waters has raised just $40,500, compared to $3.3 million for Neal, $1.4 million for Pallone, and $160,400 from Lowey. (Neal, Pallone, and Lowey are facing primary challenges.)

On those so-called money committees, like Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce, even freshman members are asked to pay higher dues. That’s because those committees have jurisdiction over effectively every major industry, giving members a leg-up in demanding checks from corporations who need — or oppose — legislation before the panel. It is also valuable for industries to have committee members write letters to agencies they oversee.

Chairs of committees not lucky enough to oversee commercially prosperous industries owe just $300,000 in dues and have a listed goal of raising $300,000, compared to the money committees’ $1.2 million. Indeed, even vice chairs of money committees owe more than chairs of regular committees. Yvette Clarke, vice chair of Energy and Commerce, and Terri Sewell, vice chair of Ways and Means, owe $400,000 each. Subcommittee chairs on money panels owe as much as chairs of plebeian committees: $300,000.

An individual seat on a money committee, meanwhile, will run a member of Congress $250,000.  Sad sack rank-and-filers not privileged enough to sit on a money committee owe just $150,000.

Source: The Intercept

Democratic congressional representatives are expected do spend several hours a day on the phone, soliciting donations.  There also is a “points” system by which representatives can earn credit by supporting the party through action rather than money.

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Robotic jobs, robots and the future of work

September 9, 2019

A lot of corporate managers, especially in Silicon Valley, have a goal of replacing workers with automated machines.  The path to that goal is to make work as machine-like and automatic as possible..

I always used to feel sorry for telephone operators 25 years ago because very minute of their workday was monitored so that they always gave a specific automatic response.  Now this has become a pattern.

 Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs recently wrote about how this is becoming the new normal.

[A] feature in the Wall Street Journal … shows how new technologies are enabling employers to spy on a fictitious employee named Chet.

Chet’s boss knows what time he wakes up, because his phone detects changes in his physical activity.  

Chet’s whereabouts are tracked at all times, and his employer can watch him stop for coffee before work, and even knows what part of the building he is in and whether he has strayed into any “unauthorized areas.”

Image via Fast Company

The precise time he arrives at work will be logged, all of his emails will be read, and Chet’s work computer snaps a screenshot every 30 seconds so that the employer can verify that he is staying on task.  

His “phone conversations can be recorded, transcribed and monitored for rate of speech and tone,” his interactions with other employees are recorded and analyzed, and his company even tracks his fitness and can use it to adjust his benefits.

An accompanying Wall Street Journal article indicates that these kinds of employer surveillance techniques are increasingly common, and “there’s almost nothing you can do about it.”

And there are even more invasive possible techniques—I recently read an MIT Technology Review article called “This company embeds microchips in its employees, and they love it,” which I liked because nowhere in the body of the article itself is there any quote indicating that the employees do, indeed, “love it.”  

One of them says that you get used to it after a time, which I do not doubt.

Importantly, though, under the philosophy that Free Markets are fair, there is no actual language with which we can object to these things.  

Unless the employees are being kidnapped and enslaved, this is just “freedom of contract.”

If they didn’t want their employer screenshotting their workspace, or taking pictures of their penis in the company bathroom, they shouldn’t have signed a contract that allowed said employer “all possible latitude to do as they see fit to further the interests of the company.”  Sucks for you, Chet.

In the innocent-seeming paragraph about freedom above, then, we can see the seeds of something perverse and disturbing.

The belief that the state shouldn’t “interfere” in “voluntary transactions” actually means that your boss should get to do whatever they want, and there should be “nothing you can do about it.”  

We can see here exactly how workers can be talked into forging their own chains: A well-funded operation convinces them of the Philosophy Of Freedom, and then they find out too late that this just means they have no recourse when horrible invasive things are done to them at work, and every moment of their life is monitored by a powerful entity that does not care whether they live or die.

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Preparing for an age of population decline

September 6, 2019

The fertility rate in virtually all countries is declining.  The fertility rate in much of the world, including North America, Europe, Russia, China and Japan, is already below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per average woman.

If this goes on, world population will peak soon after the end of the century and start declining.  Populations of a few countries are declining already.

This is good news.  All other things being equal, it means less danger of famine, less pressure on the environment and less competition for scarce resources.

Click to enlarge.

But there are problems, too.  One is decline of nations as their populations become older and smaller.  Another is a change in the world balance of power during the transition, as some nations shrink while others continue to grow.

Two Canadian writers, Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, explored these issues in a new book, EMPTY PLANET: The Shock of Global Population Decline.

The fertility rate is 1.4 in Japan and 1.1 in South Korea.  In the short term, this means an ever-larger elderly population that must be supported by an ever-smaller working age population.  I don’t think it is an accident that Japan has more robots per person than any other country.

A younger population tends to be more ambitious, innovative and warlike.  An older population tends to be more cautious and peaceful.  Older populations consume less, which is a good thing—but not for a capitalist economy, which requires growing markets.

In the long run, unless there is a change of direction, countries with low fertility rates could literally die out.  Americans and Canadians, with fertility rates of 1.8 and 1.5, have kept up national population numbers through immigration.  But the Japanese and South Koreans accept virtually no immigrants.  They see immigration as a threat to their racial and cultural purity.

In the short run, Japan and South Korea face economic decline and, in the long run, a slow fading from the world scene.  All countries whose birth rates fall below the replacement rate will face this dilemma sooner or later, the authors wrote.

Demographers have a term, “the population transition.”  It describes how countries go from having a high birth rate and high death rate to a high birth rate and low death rate (a population explosion) and end up with a low birth rate and low death rate.

This is often attributed to growing wealth, but Bricker and Ibbitson argued that the key factor is cultural change.  It is a combination of:

  • Feminism, women gaining control of reproduction and finding opportunities outside the home.
  • Urbanization, people moving to cities where, unlike on the farm, additional children are no longer an asset.
  • Modernity, people living for themselves instead of to perpetuate a family, faith or nation.

Feminism, urbanization and modernity explain how the fertility rate in Brazil, a poor country, can be 1.7,  well below the 2.1 replacement rate and below the 1.8 fertility rates of the United States and the United Kingdom.  This is good news because it means that the population transition can take place without the whole world adopting the American consumer culture.

When religion and nationalism are strong, fertility rates, all other things being equal, are likely to be high.  Loyalty to faith and nation  likely explain why the Israeli fertility rate is 3.1 and the Palestinian rate is 3.9.

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World power and the rise and fall of population

September 5, 2019

Modern-day demographers view the nations of the world at different stages of what’s called the demographic transition.   And what stage they’re in has a lot to do with their power on the world scene.

There are nations at an early stage of the transition, with high fertility rates (number of births per woman).  There are nations at a middle stage of the transition, with fertility rates falling but population still growing.  And there are nations at the end stage of the transition, where the fertility rate is less than needed to replace the current population.

A demographer named Paul Morland, in a book called THE HUMAN TIDE: How Population Shaped the Modern World, explained how population growth and decline is related to geopolitical power.  There are nations with small populations that are rich, and there are nations with large populations have been poor and weak, but there are no nations that are both small and powerful.

The first nation to undergo the modern demographic transition was England, Morland’s own country.  In the days of Queen Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada, England was small and poor, compared not only to France, which was Europe’s largest nation, but also to Spain.

The high English birth rate enabled the English to grow strong and to found new nations—the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  In 1870, the English fertility rate was six children per woman.  British statesmen such as Cecil Rhodes foresaw a day when the English would overrun and rule the planet.

The high fertility rate of Anglo-Americans in the early 19th century explains their belief in their “manifest destiny” to create a nation that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  Mexico was no match for the USA because its population growth had not yet taken off.  Texas and California were virtually empty when Anglo settlers poured in.

The demographic transition began in the 20th century.  The English fertility rate was down to three children per woman in 1914 and down to about two in the 1920s and beyond.

The English and French feared the higher German fertility rate.  They may have been more willing to go to war in 1914 than they otherwise would have been, because they feared Germany would have had a greater population advantage in the future.

The Germans, in turn, feared the higher Russian fertility rate.  They may have been more willing to go to war with Russia for the same reasons that the English and French were more willing to go to war with them.

Russia benefitted from its population surge.  During the Second World War, the Red Army suffered many more casualties than the Wehrmacht, but won not only through its courage and fighting ability, but its greater numbers.  If the opposing forces on the Eastern Front had been equal in numbers, Nazi Germany might have won the Second World War.

Now the fertility rate is below the replacement rate in all these countries—the USA (including all races and demographic groups, not just Anglos), the UK, Germany and the Russian Federation.

Americans, English, Germans and Russians are no longer spreading through the world.  Instead Mexicans have been moving into the United States, citizens of the former British Empire are moving into the UK and the formerly subject peoples of Central Asia are immigrating into the Russian Federation.

Morland’s history covered many other nations and all the world’s regions.  He did not of course claim that population is the only factor in world power, only that it is an important one.  There is a correlation, although not a perfect one, between the rise and decline of economic and military power and the rise and decline of population.

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World fertility rates: international comparisons

September 5, 2019

The fertility rate is the estimated number of children an average woman of child-bearing age will bear during her lifetime.

The replacement rate is 2.1 children per woman.  That is the average rate needed for a nation to keep its population stable.

The world average is 2.4 children per woman, down from 5 per woman in 1960.

The fertility rate doesn’t necessarily predict population growth on the short run.

A nation with a large fertility rate may have little or no population growth because of a high death rate.

A nation with a low fertility rate may have a good bit of population growth if its people are living longer or if there are an unusually large number of women of child-bearing age.

But in the present age, the fertility rate is the most meaningful indicator of whether a nation’s population will grow or decline in the long run.

Worldwide, fertility rates are declining.  If this continues, world population will grow at an ever-slower rate and then decline.  But this will happen sooner—it already has happened sooner—in some nations than others.

Here are the World Bank’s estimates of fertility rates for various nations.  Click on World Bank for the full list.

Niger, 7.2

Somalia, 6.2

Mali, 6.0

Nigeria, 5.5

Iraq, 4.3

Ethiopia, 4.1

Palestine, 3.9

Kenya, 3.8

Pakistan, 3.4

Egypt, 3.2

Israel, 3.1

Uzbekistan, 2.5

WORLD AVERAGE, 2.4

South Africa, 2.4

India, 2.3

Indonesia, 2.3

Argentina, 2.3

Mexico, 2.2

REPLACEMENT RATE, 2.1

Turkey, 2.0.

France, 1.9

North Korea, 1.9

Chile, 1.8

Ireland, 1.8

New Zealand, 1.8

Russia, 1.8

United Kingdom, 1.8

United States, 1.8

Brazil, 1.7

Cuba, 1.7

Australia, 1.6

China, 1.6

Germany, 1.6

Iran, 1.6

Canada, 1.5

Hungary, 1.5

Japan, 1.4

Ukraine, 1.4

Italy, 1.3

Spain, 1.3

Hong Kong SAR, 1.1

Puerto Rico, 1.1

South Korea, 1.1

The fertility rate is calculated by extrapolating the birth rate.  Suppose that in a particular nation, there were 1 million women of child-bearing age and they gave birth to 100,000 children in a given year.  The average was 1/10th of a child per woman in a year.  If the child-bearing years are age 15 through 39, each of these 1 million women could be expected to give birth to an average of 3.5 children during her life.  Adjustments are made according to the age of the mother when the children were born.

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Tales of a dystopian near-future

May 20, 2019

It’s often said that science fiction is not so much a forecast of the future as a mirror of concerns about the times in which it is written.  That is most certainly true of Cory Doctorow’s new book, RADICALIZED: Four tales of our present moment.

The title story is the most powerful and disturbing of the four.  It is about an on-line community of men who’ve been denied, or whose loved-ones have been denied, insurance coverage for treatable cancer, and who, one by one, decide to take revenge.

The first engages in a suicide bombing at a Blue Cross / Blue Shield office to avenge the death of his six-year-old daughter.  The second is a widower who kills a Senator who ran in a platform of health care for all, then voted against Medicare expansion.

The third is the elderly moderator of the forum, who has been subtly encouraging the bombings and killings.  He wheels his wheelchair into the middle of a health insurance conference at a Sheraton before setting off a home-made bomb that blows away himself and a sizable percentage of the guests.

Their objective is not just revenge, but health care reform.  They think that the power of fear may be enough to overcome the power of money.

Joe, the protagonist, joined the on-line forum when he was in despair about his wife not being able to get an “experimental” treatment that would cure her breast cancer.  She turns out to be a lucky one who has a spontaneous remission, but he stays on the forum, arguing against suicide and violence on private lines

He realizes that he is guilty of a crime simply by being aware that crimes are being planned and not reporting it to the police.  But he can’t bring himself to do this.

“Health care terrorism” spreads.  There’s more security at HMO and insurance company offices than at airports.  People who are denied insurance claims are put on terrorist watch lists.  But bombings and killings continue.  And Joe realizes it’s only a matter of time before Homeland Security catches up with him.

The conclusion is that a lot of people, including bystanders, have been killed, but Congress has enacted something called Americare.  Joe’s wife, visiting him in prison, remarks, “Who says violence doesn’t solve anything?

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Decline of the United States by the numbers

May 2, 2019

Historically, the American dream was that each generation would be better off that the generation that came before.  By many measurements, this is no longer true.  Click on any of the charts to enlarge them.

More American women are dying in childbirth.  This is not the mark of an advanced nation..

More Americans are dying of drug overdoses.  This is not a characteristic of a nation that is hopeful about the future.


More Americans are committing suicide.  Neither is this the characteristic of a hopeful nation.

Labor’s share of the American economy is falling.

U.S. student loan debt

Young people are told they cannot advance without college degrees, but they risk being crushed by student debt.

The gains in the economy are going to the top 1 percent of income earners.

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‘It is worse, much worse, than you think’

March 20, 2019

“It is worse, much worse than you think.”  So begins David Wallace-Wells’ THE UNINHABITABLE EARTH: Life After Warming (2019), one of the most important books I’ve read in years.  

It is not proof that global warming is taking place, and it is not a plan to mitigate or reduce global warming.  It is simply a compilation of all the ways that climate change is disrupting the world we live in, and what may happen if nothing is done.

The best-case scenario is a future like the present, only more so—more storms, more droughts, more floods, more wildfires, more tidal waves, more heat waves, but with the basic social order remaining intact.

The worst-case scenario, which can’t be ruled out, is that most or all of the earth’s surface becomes unfit for human habitation.

When I first heard about global warming, I wondered whether it was real.  I didn’t see how it was possible to measure average temperatures over the whole Earth to within a degree or so, or rise in average sea levels within inches.  Actually, I still don’t.

Still, I thought, the possibility of global warming provides one more reason for doing a lot of things that are desirable in themselves—reducing air and water pollution, switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Over the years I came to the realization that since the greenhouse effect was scientific fact, and since greenhouse gasses were being emitted into the air at an ever-increasing rate, there was bound to be a crisis sooner or later.

That crisis is now upon us.

Fourteen of the world’s 20 largest cities have experienced water shortages or drought.  Cape Town, South Africa, nearly ran out of water.  Freshwater lakes from Lake Mead to Lake Chad are drying up.  The number of major floods have quadrupled since 1980 and doubled since 2004.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is dying because of the warming ocean.  The melting of the Arctic ice cap has changed wind patterns in China in ways that caused life-threatening smog in major cities.

The summer of 2017, in the Northern Hemisphere, brought unprecedented extreme weather: three major  hurricanes arriving in quick succession in the Atlantic; the epic “500,000-year” rainfall of Hurricane Harvey, dropping on Houston a million gallons of water for every single person in the entire state of Texas; the wildfires of California, nine thousand of them burning through more than a million acres, and those in icy Greenland ten times bigger than those in 2014; the floods of South Asia, clearing 45 million from their homes.

Then the record- breaking summer of 2018 made 2017 seem positively idyllic.  It brought an unheard-of global heat wave, with temperatures killing 108 in Los Angeles, 122 in Pakistan and 124 in Algeria.  

In the world’s oceans, six hurricanes and tropical storms appeared on the radars at once, including one, Typhoon Mangkhut, that hit the Philippines and then Hong Kong, killing nearly a hundred and wreaking a billion dollars in damages, and another, Hurricane Florence, which more than doubled the average annual rainfall in North Carolina, killing more than 50 and inflicting $17 billion worth of damage.  

There were wildfires in Sweden, all the way to the Arctic Circle, and across so much of the American West that half the continent was fighting through smoke, those fires ultimately burning close to 1.5 million acres.  Parts of Yosemite National Park were closed, as were parts of Glacier National Park in Montana, where temperatures also topped 100.  In 1850, the area had 150 glaciers; today, all but 26 are melted.

The years to come will not be better.  One key fact about the greenhouse effect is that it is additive.  Nothing that is done to reduce greenhouse gasses in the future will remove the greenhouse gasses now in the atmosphere, at least not in the lifetime of any living person or their future children.

Another is that annual greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing.  Half of the emissions that occurred since the start of the industrial revolution took place in the last 30 years.

We can’t predict how successful the world’s nations will be in cutting back on fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse gasses.  We can’t predict the exact impact of these gasses.

All we know for sure is that every addition to the world’s greenhouse gasses makes this worse.  And everything that is done to stop additional greenhouse gasses prevents things from being worse than they otherwise would be.

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Climate, migration and border militarization

March 13, 2019

Click to enlarge.

The two agencies of the U.S. government that take climate change most seriously are the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security.

They foresee droughts, floods and storms on a scale that will create global political instability and millions of climate refugees, mainly from countries already ravaged by war and poverty.  While other parts of the government dither and deny, they have spent billions since 2003 preparing for the coming emergency.

Their preparation, however, is not aimed at preventing or slowing down climate change, nor is it principally aimed at relieving distress.  Rather it is in protecting the U.S. homeland and American business interests from the desperate masses.

A journalist named Todd Miller did a good job of reporting on this in STORMING THE WALL: Climate Change, Migration and Homeland Security, published in 2017.

He attended a Defense, National Security and Climate Change conference in Washington, D.C., in 2015, attended by top military brass and government and corporate officials.  A NASA representative told how the Space Shuttle and F-35 fighter required chrome, columbium and titanium, which are sourced from South Africa, Congo and Zambia, all threatened with political instability due to climate change.

“If these stressing factor result in increased migration,” he said, “it will just increase the potential for instability and conflict,” which would affect the U.S. ability to obtain elements “critical to the alloys we need to support the system.”

It was at that meeting that Miller for the first time heard the expression, “military-environmental-industrial complex.”  Billions of dollars are being spent to, on the one hand, wean the U.S. military itself from dependence on fossil fuels and, on the other, maintain the political and economic status quo in the face of climate-driven upheaval.

He devoted several chapters of the book to migration from central America and Mexico into the southwest USA.  He showed that the border is not a line on the map separating the United States from Mexico.

The border area extends 100 miles into the interior of the United States, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) acts like a military occupying force.  Miller noted that an order by President Obama against racial profiling specifically exempted the Department of Homeland Security.

It also extends down through Mexico into Central America, where there are a series of checkpoints, aided by U.S. military advisers and U.S. military equipment, designed to intercept migrants on their way.  There are fewer arrests nowadays at the international border, but this may not mean that fewer people are trying to cross the border.  It may just mean that more of them are intercepted before they get close.

The U.S. Coast Guard nowadays does more than guard the coasts.  After the 2010 earthquake, the Coast Guard patrolled the coast of Haiti, turning back anyone who tried to flee, and even set up a detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

Migrants leave their home countries for many reasons—commonly poverty, war, tyranny or crime.  But, in the words of a Marine Corps general, climate change is a “threat multiplier.”  Events such as the 2015 drought in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua make all the underlying social problems worse.

The United States is not unique.  The new “smart border” between Turkey and Syria has a new tower every 1,000 feet, a three-language alarm system, and “automated firing zones” supported by hovering zeppelin drones, Miller wrote.

Experts say floods and a rising sea will cause millions to flee Bangladesh.  India has a 2,000-mile ‘iron wall” on its border and soldiers with orders to shoot to kill.  More than 1,000 Bangladeshis were killed between 2001 and 2011 while trying to cross the border.

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Storms, floods and climate apartheid

March 6, 2019

An extreme city, according to Ashley Dawson, is a city in which extremes of rich and poor render it unable to deal with extreme weather events.

In case of storm and flood, the rich people on the high ground almost always get priority over the poor people down by the waterfront—what Dawson calls climate apartheid.

And the people who live in rich places, such as Houston, who are mostly lighter-skinned, get priority over the poorer places, such as Port-au-Prince or San Juan, who are mostly darker-skinned.

Beyond this, Dawson wrote, the incentives of a market economy will almost always favor real estate development over public safety.

The best way to protect cities from high water is to pull back from the shoreline and create or expand wetlands to sponge up the high water.

But property developers, not to mention individual homeowners, want seawalls to protect their investments and enable them to recover their sunk costs.  Our economic system is based on continued growth.  There is no incentive system for pulling back.

Dawson said this is as true of New York City, where he lives, as it is of any city in the world.

This is no small thing.  Nearly half the world’s 7 billion people now live in cities.  Virtually all of them are on ocean coastlines or other bodies of water.  In the Global South, drought is driving increasing numbers of poor people off the land and into urban slums.

Dawson does not view global warming as a doom we can avoid if we try hard enough.  He sees it as an emergency that is already upon us, and that most of us are unprepared for.

He does not view it as merely a scientific and technical problem.  He says it is a social justice issue—a question of who drowns (usually the poor and dark-skinned) and who is saved (usually the rich and light-skinned)

Click to enlarge

When Superstorm Sandy was about to hit New York City in 2012, the city government told residents of the potential flood areas to evacuate.  Soon after subway service was shut down, which meant that those without cars were stranded in their neighborhoods.  Soon after high water left thousands without access to electricity and heat, or to essential supplies.

The first responders were volunteers, including veterans of the Occupy Wall Street movement, who reconstituted themselves as Occupy Sandy.  They did whatever it took to provide food and water and rescue stranded elderly and disabled people on upper floors of apartment buildings.

The official disaster relief agencies showed up only a few days date and, according to Dawson, were happy to make use of Occupy Sandy and other volunteers, but reluctant to help or share information.  The reason, he said, is that the official organizations are engaged in a dog-eat-dog competition for funding and don’t want any of their rivals to gain an advantage.

Dawson wrote that when Mayor Michael Bloomberg showed up at the flood-stricken Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn, the only people he wanted to talk to were the business owners.  They were the ones who got the funds to rebuild.  The neighborhood and Occupy Sandy leaders were brushed aside.

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The fall and fall of U.S. tariff barriers

March 1, 2019

Click to enlarge. Hat to Barry Ritholtz

The United States, like almost all industrial countries, built up its infant industries behind protective tariff walls that shielded them from more efficient, because longer-established, competitors.

This historical graph shows what has happened since then.  Tariffs against foreign imports are down to a tiny fraction of what they were in the 1930s or 1940s.

President Trump deserves credit for forcing trade policy onto the national agenda.  Unlike his predecessors, he does not argue that more and more globalization is the answer  He is right that it is time for a change.

But trade wars aren’t an answer either

Rather the U.S. should do what successful exporting nations do, which is to build up their industries through a carefully targeted industrial policy.

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The widening target of ‘anti-racism’

February 14, 2019

Where once the targets of those concerned to fight injustice were “racism” and “sexism,” today the targets are “whiteness” and “masculinity.”  The underlying premise is plain: that there is no whiteness independent of the domination of nonwhites, and no masculinity independent of the domination of women.

==attributed to Wesley Yang, author of The Souls of Yellow Folk

I think it is great that black people to take pride in themselves and not think they have to be like whites in order to respect themselves.    I think it is great that women to take pride in themselves and not think they have to be like men in order to respect themselves.

I think discrimination against black people and against women are great evils, and I think it is great that these evils are being stigmatized and diminished.

I don’t see how racism and sexism are diminished telling white men they should be ashamed of themselves for being white and male.

My father taught me to live in a way that allows me to respect myself and to be willing to treat others with courtesy and respect, and that is what I believe in.

It is wrong to teach anyone that self-respect is impossible, or is possible only by adopting a certain creed or joining a certain group.

What does the US want all these bases for?

January 21, 2019

Click to enlarge

This map appeared in Smithsonian Magazine’s current issue, and represents a conservative estimate of the extent of U.S. military power.

It shows the U.S. military has a presence in 80 countries.  But Nick Turse, a reporter whose work is published in TomDispatch, was told that the total is really “more than 160” countries.

He said it’s impossible to get an exact number of the bases, the names of the countries in which they are located or even the number of countries in which they’re located.  It wouldn’t surprise me if there is no single individual in the Pentagon who actually has a complete list.

“Because we have been conservative in our estimates, U.S. efforts to combat terrorism abroad are likely more extensive than this map shows,” the Smithsonian writers stated.  “Even so, the vast reach evident here may prompt Americans to ask whether the war on terror has met its goals and whether they are worth the human and financial costs.”

The question is just what those goals are.  Is the worldwide network of bases intended to wage war on terror, or is the war on terror a means to the goal of creating a worldwide network of bases?  Do they make the U.S. more secure, or more likely to be drawn into foreign conflict?

While the U.S. is building bases worldwide at the expense of the American taxpayer, China is building infrastructure throughout Africa and Asia by means of loans to be paid back by the host country.

LINKS

This Map Shows Where in the World the U.S. Military Is Combatting Terrorism by Stephanie Savell and SW Infographics for Smithsonian Magazine.

Bases, Bases Everywhere….Except in the Pentagon’s Report by Nick Turse for TomDispatch.

Has the Government Legalized Secret Defense Spending? by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

Why the U.S. shouldn’t build any more foreign bases by Akhilesh Pillalamarri for Defense News.

The younger generation’s new normal

December 3, 2018

No one under the age of 32 has ever experienced a cooler-than-average month on this planet.

LINK

The Earth has been warmer than average for 406 months in a row by Andrew Freedman for Axios.  Hat tip to kottke.org.

The dangerous new cold war in cyberspace

November 28, 2018

When President Barack Obama was pondering what to do about Russian interference in the 2016 elections, his intelligence chiefs, according to New York Times reporter David Sanger,  considered the following possibilities for retaliation:

  • Reveal the secret tax haven accounts of Vladimir Putin and his oligarch friends.
  • Shut show the servers of Guccifer 2.0, DCLeaks and WikiLeaks, the web sites that disseminated confidential Democratic National Committee e-mails
  • Attack the computer systems of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence system.
  • Cut off the Russian banking system’s connection with SWIFT, the international clearinghouse for banking transactions.

Those are the kinds of things that are now possible.

None of these options were acted upon or even brought officially to the President’s notice.  The reason is that American computer systems would be virtually defenseless against retaliation.

It would be a new form of mutually assured destruction, less lethal than nuclear weapons, but still capable of destroying an industrial society’s ability to function.

For that reason President Obama chose to use economic and diplomatic sanctions instead.

Sanger in his new book, THE PERFECT WEAPON: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age, described this new ongoing cold war and arms race in cyber weapons.

Nations are developing the capability to use the Internet to shut down each others’ electric power grids, financial institutions and other vital public services, as well as engage in espionage and political subversion.

Each country’s cyberwar aims are somewhat different, Sanger wrote.   Russia uses the Internet to spread propaganda and disinformation, but it also has “embeds” in the U.S. electrical grids and voter registration systems.

China’s interest is in electronic espionage to acquire U.S. intellectual property and trade secrets for its high tech industry.  North Korea and Iran just retaliate against U.S. economic sanctions.

He reported that the United States Cyber Command has the most powerful offensive cyber weapons, yet the United States is vulnerable to cyber retaliation from even as backward a country as North Korea.

One way to defend against this would be to strengthen defenses, by encouraging all American institutions to protect their data by means of secure cryptography.

Sanger reported that the FBI, CIA and NSA are reluctant to do this because they want access to private computer and communications systems themselves.

Cyber surveillance is, as he said, a powerful means to track spies, terrorists and criminals and, I would add, dissidents and protesters.

So we Americans are more vulnerable than we know to cyber attacks, and our government isn’t telling us about our vulnerability.

∞∞∞

The first major act of cyberwarfare, according to Sanger, was the unleashing of the Stuxnet virus against Iran’s nuclear development program in 2010.

The attack, according to Sanger, was planned by the National Security Agency and Israel’s Unit 8300 military cyber unit in order to appease Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, so that he would not order a bombing attack on Iran.

The operation, called Olympic Games, took out about 1,000 of Iran’s 6,000 or so centrifuges, and caused the Iranians to shut down many more out of fear, he wrote.

But a year later, Iran had 18,000 centrifuges in operation.  At best, its nuclear development program was delayed for a year, not stopped permanently.

The Iranians might never have been completely sure what hit them, except the the Stuxnet virus spread beyond Iran into industrial computer systems all over the world.  Computer scientists analyzed the virus and figured out its purpose.

He said the United States developed another plan, called Nitro Zeus, a cyber attack that, in case of war, would shut down all of Iran’s electrical and electronic systems.

 The significance, Sanger pointed out, was that it set a precedent, like the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

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2018: Year of the Democratic woman

November 25, 2018

American women did very well in the 2018 elections for themselves, and also for the Democratic Party.  The results aren’t all in, but here’s a preliminary tally.

At least 102 women were elected to the House of Representatives, including 89 Democrats and just 13 Republicans.  Among the 36 newcomers, only one was a Republican.

The makeup of the Senate stayed the same, with 17 Democratic and six Republican women.  There’s a runoff election in Mississippi on Tuesday, in which a white Republican woman is running against a black Democratic man, so there’s a possibility of one more Republican woman.

A record 43 women of color were elected to Congress.  Only one was a Republican.

The number of women governors increased from six (two Democrats, four Republicans) to nine (six Democrats, three Republicans).  The number of women serving in state legislatures will cross 2,000 for the first time.  I don’t know how many are Democrats, but I bet a lot of them are.

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Hispanics and Anglos get along just fine

November 12, 2018

Ron Unz, known as a leader of the campaign against bilingual education in California years ago, wrote a sensible article on his web site about Hispanic immigration into California and the United States as a campaign issue.

Hispanics are now about 60 40 percent of the population of California, so that state is an example of what is likely to happen as they become a larger fraction of the overall U.S. population.  Here are some of his main points: –

  • Anglos and Hispanics in California get along just fine.
  • Most American-born Californians have nothing against immigrants.  Sanctuary cities are popular.
  • Hispanics as a group as law-abiding.  The killing by an illegal immigrant used in recent Republican campaign ads was the result of a firearm accident.  There is no Hispanic immigrant crime wave.
  • Most immigrants, including Hispanic immigrants, want their children educated in the language of their new country.
  • Most immigration into the United States is legal immigration.  Increased border security will do little to reduce net immigration.
  • Immigration of unskilled workers does hurt the wages and job opportunities of existing citizens.  The way to deal with this is (1) a higher minimum wage and (2) lower numbers of legal immigrants.
  • Republicans in California condemned themselves to minority status by being anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant.  The same thing could happen to Republicans in Texas and the nation as a whole.

HIs article is worth reading in its entirety.

LINK

Racial Politics in America and in California by Ron Unz for The Unz Review.

Airports, security culture and the new normal

November 1, 2018

Source: Philosophy Tube.  Hat tip to Alex Page.

At the dawning of the “war on terror”, the new airport security rules seemed shocking and unnatural.  Conservatives as well as liberals objected to them.  The “no-fly” lists—the idea that the government could ban people from traveling by air and not give a reason—seemed outrageous.

But I’ve ceased to think about this.   The video above—about the thoughts and experiences of a young Englishman flying from London to New York—reminds me of how abnormal our security state really is.

The other thing I get from the video is how the United States is spreading police-state thinking to other countries.  I was brought up to think of my country as a beacon of freedom and democracy, and I think that, in some ways and to some extent, it was.

But nowadays cruel and ruthless dictators can point to the U.S. example to justify torture, warrantless arrests, extrajudicial killings and military intervention.

The question asked by the video is, “When will security ever go back to normal?”  The present security culture has been in existence for 15 years.  It now seems normal to many of us, maybe most of us.   Until and unless we stop thinking of it as normal, it won’t change.

A growing China reboots totalitarianism

October 22, 2018

Source: Dissident.

My great fear during the Cold War was that the totalitarian USSR would outlast the democratic USA.  I was afraid that a dictatorship would be able to take a longer view than a democracy, and would be better able to prioritize military and diplomatic power.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell, for one, scoffed at these fears.  He said that a democracy would always be able to outlast a dictatorship because dictators insulate themselves from bad news, while, in a democracy, contested elections and a free press provide a reality check.  The fall of Communism in Europe in 1989-1991 appeared to prove him right.

Now the Chinese government has created a new and more effective totalitarianism.  It uses social media and other new techniques to control the population more effectively than Mao ever dreamed of—while keeping the old Communist police state as backup.

When China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, Western leaders hoped that as China made economic progress, it would become more liberal and democratic.

China has made enormous economic progress.  Hundreds of millions of Chinese have been raised from poverty.  China is a major manufacturing nation.

Economic historian Adam Tooze said Chinese economic expansion was the main force pulling the world out of recession after 2008 and today contributes as much to world economic growth as the USA and Europe put together.

The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, aka the New Silk Road, involves investing more than $1 trillion over the next 10 years to create a railroad, highway, pipeline and electrical grid extending over the whole of the interior of Eurasia, creating an integrated economy centering on China.

But if there was a possibility that this would make China more liberal and democratic, President Xi Jinping has moved to head it off.  Since 2013, China has been cracking down not only on corruption, but also on human rights lawyers, religious believers and critics o the government.

Xi Jinping has abolished the term limits that bound his predecessors and encouraged a Mao-style cult of personality.  There are even Institutes for the Study of Xi Jinping Thought.

Social media in China are monitored, and the Chinese government is in the process of implementing a scheme by which every Chinese citizen will be given a social credit score, based on an algorithm that takes into account credit history and good citizenship, but also opinions and associations, which can determine access to education, health care, credit and even public transportation.  This is powerful, because there is no individual against whom you can protest or to whom you can appeal.

In Xinjiang, members of the native Muslim Uighur population can be sent to Mao-style reeducation camps for the least little thing, even wearing a beard.  Surveillance cameras using facial recognition technology are everywhere.

China’s leaders have found a way to harness capitalism to the service of a capitalist government—much as Lenin tried to do with his New Economic Policy in the 1920s, allowing limited private business but maintaining ultimate control.  Maybe the USSR would have become like today’s China if not for Stalin’s forced collectivization drives.

There is a possibility that much of the rest of the world may come to regard China as a better example to follow than the United States.  Unless things change, the Chinese totalitarian model may prevail not through subversion or military force, but by force of successful example and as a price of doing business with China.

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Pro-family vs. anti-family conservatives

October 18, 2018

The conservative blogger Rod Dreher put up an interesting post this morning quoting an evangelical Christian man who says he and his wife can’t afford to have children because of corporate business practices and neoliberal economic policies supported by both Republicans and Democrats.

He and his wife are both employed in STEM fields and earn six-figure incomes, but their employers constantly remind them that they can be replaced at any time by immigrants from India willing to work at one-third their salaries.  Losing a job would mean losing health insurance, which might mean bankruptcy.

A cousin actually went bankrupt because his newborn had a rare disease, and his insurance company decided that the medical staff on duty that day were not in its network, even though the hospital itself was in-network.  Then there is the cost of education, which can bankrupt even an affluent family.

The most interesting part was his contrast of European and American conservatives.

Europe’s conservatives actually are pro-family there and support pro-natalist policies. The US media as usual is embarrassingly confused about populists like Matteo Salvini, Victor Orban, the AfD in Germany, the NF in France, Vox in Spain, the Sweden Democrats and the conservatives in Denmark, Poland, Austria and the Netherlands.

These aren’t racists like the media claims, in fact quite the opposite, they are not the ones calling for invasion of foreign countries, but rather for the preservation of their own native European Christian cultures, Christian values and distinctive identities within their ancient homelands. And above all for supporting the family unit. [snip].

Europe’s populist conservatives all favor universal healthcare, low-cost childcare, free or low-cost tuition for colleges, 6 weeks of vacation (great for bonding with the family) and protection of the local labor market and wages. When I worked in Europe all Americans and other foreigners (including many tech workers from India) were paid the same or higher wages than locals, and if any employer tried to undermine the local labor market and wages, he’d be greeted with a prison term.

Source: Rod Dreher | The American Conservative

If somebody like that doesn’t think he can afford to live what used to be considered a normal life, what about the rest of us?

I’m reminded of Chris Arnade and his contrast of the “front-row kids” and “back-row kids”—the ones who get ahead because they value education, adaptability and individual success most, and the ones who are left behind because they value family, tradition and community more.

This is a good example of the coming together of the cultural conservative critique and economic radical critique of our current political economy.

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Patrisse Khan-Cullors and liquid modernity

October 14, 2018

Patrisse Khan-Cullors

When They Call You a Terrorist: a Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele is an eloquent and just outcry against injustice.  It also reflects a world and a way of thinking that I’m not comfortable with.

A few months ago I learned a new phrase—”liquid modernity.”  The idea is that we no longer live in a world of fixed structures—political, economic, social and moral—that we can either cling to or fight against.  Everything is fluid and ever-changing, and individuals have to continually reinvent themselves and start anew.

I can best explain what I mean by comparing and contrasting Patrisse Cullors today and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago.

I make the comparison not to rank them or nor to denigrate Cullors.  She has overcome difficulties I can barely imagine and accomplished orders of magnitude more in 30-some years I have in 80-some.  The comparison is to show how thinking about justice and society has changed in 50 years.

Black Lives Matter and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference are not opposites.  They both engaged in non-violent protest in order to bring about social justice.  Although most Americans now venerate Dr. King, it is through a golden haze of amnesia that makes us forget he and his movement were as controversial and as hated in their day as Black Lives Matter is today.

The SCLC was tightly organized and highly disciplined.  Dr. King was highly protective of its image.  People who wanted to participate in SCLC protests had to submit to training in the discipline of non-violence and provide assurance that they would not do anything to harm the cause.

Although Dr. King had a low opinion of the average white American’s sense of justice, he was concerned about white public opinion and sought out white allies, including journalists, labor leaders and Christian and Jewish clergy.

Which is not to say he was subservient to white opinion.  His opposition to the Vietnam War, while justified in the light of history, cost him the support of President Johnson and many white allies.

Black Lives Matter is loosely organized.  In its early days, it consisted of people following a meme on Twitter and Facebook, and there was confusion as to who had a right to speak for Black Lives Matter and who didn’t.   It’s now a more formal organization with authorized chapters.  I’m not familiar with its inner structure, but my impression is that it still is not highly centralized.

This has advantages, of course.  Individuals and local chapters are able to act on their own initiative without getting permission from a central governing body.

Black Lives Matter does not rely on the mainstream press to get the word out.  Communication is by means of social media, which did not exist in Dr. King’s time.

Nor do Black Lives Matter leaders frame their statements or their actions with an eye to what white people think of them.   Its emphasis is on solidarity among black people, whether male or female, native-born or immigrant, straight or LGBTQ, and unity in pressing their case.

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Managerial feudalism and BS jobs

May 23, 2018

BULLSHIT JOB: A form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the condition of employment, the employee fells obliged to pretend that this is not the issue.  [David Graeber]

∞∞∞

Huge numbers of people work in jobs that they themselves think are completely unnecessary.  Many of them would prefer to do something useful, but useful jobs on average pay less.  Sometimes they quit and take a lower-paying useful job anyway.

Some five years ago, David Graeber, an American who teaches anthropology at the London School of Economics, wrote an essay for an obscure left-wing magazine called Strike!, about the phenomenon of bullshit jobs.

The article struck a nerve.  It got more than a million hits on the Internet, crashed the Strike! web site several times and was translated into more than 10 languages.

A YouGov poll soon after found that 37 percent of full-time employees in the United Kingdom thought their work made no meaningful contribution to the world.  A survey in the Netherlands put the number as high as 40 percent.  I imagine a survey in the United States would be much different.

Graeber himself communicated with hundreds of unhappy, useless employees via e-mail.

The result is his new book, Bullshit Jobs: a Theory.

He learned about a museum guard whose job was to report if a certain empty room ever caught on fire; a military sub-contractor who drove more than a hundred miles in order to give a German soldier permission to move a piece of equipment from one room to another; a receptionist who, to fill her time, was tasked with jobs such as sorting paperclips by color.

But most of his reports are about people who worked in offices—making studies that were never read, making proposals that were never acted on or not doing anything at all, but doing their best to look busy.

How can there be so many admittedly useless jobs?  We live in a time of austerity and layoffs.  Full-time jobs are being replaced by temporary jobs.  That is true of government as well as the private sector.

One thing that free-enterprise advocates and Marxists agree on is that competitive capitalism produces economic efficiency.  Free-marketers think everybody benefits and Marxists think that only the capitalists benefit, but they agree on the drive of business to maximize profit.

Maybe this is wrong.  Maybe competitive capitalism is a myth.  Maybe we live under what Graeber calls managerial feudalism.

Back in the days before the French Revolution, the peasants, who were the main producers of wealth, paid so much in taxes and rent they could barely live.  They supported an aristocracy, who, in turn, supported an economic class of coachmen, door keepers, lace makers, dancing masters, gardeners and the like, who were generally better paid than the peasants.

Just like the aristocrats of old, the prestige of managers in organizations is based on the number of people they have working for them.  Prestige is not based on whether they are useful or not.  In fact, employees whose work is essential are a threat.  They have the power to quit or go on strike or to unexpectedly reveal they know more than the boss.

So the incentive is to diminish the role and power of those who do necessary work while inventing new jobs whose existence depends on the discretion of the job creators.

A large number of new jobs are administrative staff.  They are different from administrators who make actual decisions.  Their job is collect quantitative information about the work of the useful employees on the principle that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

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Robots will not (necessarily) replace us

November 15, 2017

You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot—And Sooner Than You Think, argues Kevin Drum in Mother Jones.

His argument is simple.  Historically, computing power doubles every couple of years.   There is no reason to think this will stop anytime soon.   So at some point the capability of artificial intelligence will exceed the capability of human intelligence.  Machines will be able to do any kind of job, including physician, artist or chief executive officer, better than a human being can.

This will happen gradually, then, as AI doubles the last few times, suddenly.

When that happens, humanity will be divided into a vast majority who serve no economic function, and a tiny group of capitalists who own the means of production.   Rejection of automation is not an option, according to Drum.   It only means that your nation will be unable to compete with nations that embrace it.

The only question, according to Drum, is whether the wealthy capitalists will have enough vision to give the rest of us enough of an income to survive and to create a market for the products of automation.

I have long believed that automation is driven as much by administrators’ desire for command and control as it is by the drive for economic efficiency.   An automated customer service hotline does not provide better service, but it eliminates the need to deal with pesky and contentious human beings.

I also believe that, in the short run, the danger is not that computer algorithms will surpass human intelligence, but that people in authority will treat them as if they do.

Drum presents interesting information, new to me, about the amazing progress of machine intelligence in just the past few years.   But that’s not necessary to his argument.

His argument is based on continuation of exponential growth and (unstated) continuation of the current economic system, which works for the benefit of high-level executives and administrators and of holders of financial assets at the expense of the rest of us.

There’s no law of physics that says development of technology has to result in higher unemployment.  Under a different system of incentives and ownership, technology could be used to expand the capability of workers and to make work more pleasant and fulfilling.

To the extent that automation eliminated boring and routine jobs, it could free up people to work in human services—in schools, hospitals, nursing homes—and in the arts and sciences.

Technology does not make this impossible.   Our current economic structure does.   Our current economic structure was created by human decisions, and can be changed by human decisions.  Technological determinism blinds us to this reality.

Sexual abuse more common than I like to admit

November 10, 2017

I can’t get my mind around the number of prominent people who have been credibly accused of rape and sexual abuse, including rape and sexual abuse of minors.  They seem to be in all walks of life and reflect the full spectrum political and religious beliefs.   The world is a very different place from what I want to believe it is.

Not everybody accused of sex crimes or sex abuse is guilty.   People have gone to prison or had their lives ruined on false sex charges.

I know many highly moral college professors and business executives make it a rule to never talk to a female student or subordinate behind closed doors or without a witness present.   I know of someone whose life was almost ruined by a false charge of sexual abuse.   I don’t discount the danger of hysteria and over-reaction.

But recent high-profile scandals—Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, Roy Moore, Bill O’Reilly, Kevin Spacey, Leon Wieseltier, Harvey Weinstein—make it impossible to pretend that sexual abuse is rare or exceptional.

I am—or have been—part of the problem.   I turned a blind eye to evidence of Bill Clinton’s abuse of Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick and other women.   I wanted him to defeat the Republicans in the 1992 election, and so I just refused to think about what he had done.

Supporters of Donald Trump in last year’s election did the same thing as I did then.  It’s time to stop tolerating and making excuses for sexual abuse.

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