UNDER THE RADAR

Are you half-decent at geography and keeping up with the news? See if you can guess the country I'm talking about without cheating, and see if you can do it before reading every hint.

1. It is home to the deadliest conflict since the end of World War II, responsible for somewhere between 3 and 5.5 million deaths.

2. It is the 11th-largest country in the world by area and has a population greater than France, UK, South Korea, Spain, Poland, or Argentina.

3. It is the world's leading producer and exporter of cobalt, and in the top ten for diamonds and gold.

4. It is the largest country in the world with French as an official language.

5. Foreman and Ali fought in its capital city in 1974 (the "Rumble in the Jungle").

Still searching?

Well.

6. It used to be called Zaire.

The correct answer, if the final one didn't give it away, is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And I am fascinated by it. I have no proper academic experience studying it, but I wish I did. It is the absolute perfect example of the long shadow of colonialism, the minimal attention paid in the western media to conflicts – sometimes enormous conflicts – in the Wrong parts of the world, and a lesson I hoped Americans might learn after Iraq about the fallacy of placing any importance on map lines in that region.

The DRC as a nation-state has zero historical basis. None. It's kind of amazing. This notion of "Zaire" as a historical entity barely goes back 100 years and was drawn up by Belgium with the assent of the other European colonial powers. The USA is a fairly ethnically diverse country, right? We're such a melting pot, right? Well within the modern borders of the DRC there are over two hundred distinct ethnic groups, often with no common language. And some people from outside the continent simply decided, OK you're all a country now.

Hmm. I wonder why it hasn't become a stable democracy yet.

Ethnic conflict is just one of the many reasons behind its enormously bloody civil war, sometimes called the Second Congo War when it is noticed at all. Eight – eight! – different African countries in the region have sent armed groups, massive floods of refugees, or both across the borders into the DRC in the past two decades, contributing to the chaos and death toll. If you think it would be impossible for 3-5 million people to die in a war without anyone noticing, surprise. Here you go.

Like many ex-colonies, DRC is cursed and blessed with resources. If its people had any basis whatsoever for coming together as a modern nation the potential for wealth is there, but of course not only do they have any common national identity but the extensive corruption, in-fighting, and constant outside interference ensure that will never happen.

It is, even by post-colonial African standards, just a broken place. It should not exist as a country, as its people had to be informed that they were to exist as one and were not consulted in the matter. And it amazes me the extent to which such an enormous place with so much turmoil can get so little attention. It's an example begging us to learn something from it, hiding in plain sight. When was the last time you read anything about it on the news?

FEIGNING IGNORANCE FOR FUN AND PROFIT

Former U.S. Attorney and National Review mainstay Andrew McCarthy wrote an absolutely must-read piece on Saturday entitled "Why All the Secrecy?" Don't worry, it's not useful or informative. But you have to read it because there may never be a better example of everything wrong with journalism in the Trump era.

Being a lawyer who not only graduated law school but passed a bar exam and – AND! – rose to one of the more prestigious categories of jobs in the legal profession as a U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Andrew McCarthy absolutely goddamn knows "why all the secrecy." He understands exactly how criminal investigations, grand juries, and the other basics of the criminal justice system work. He knows as well as he knows how to put on a pair of pants that no prosecutor, judge, or investigator on the planet is going to conduct an investigation via the mass media. He knows which part of our nation's legal process is the "Turn over your cards and show the public" stage, and he knows that this certainly is not it.

Yet here he is, writing this entire goddamn piece without once mentioning things that even an observant Law & Order binge-watcher probably knows. He makes some half-hearted attempt to justify why no such rules should apply in this situation, but the fact that he could write this entire thing (and have an editor give it the green light) without using the phrase "Rule 6e" even dismissively is…well, it takes 'brazen' to a new level.

Of course the problem is he's not interested in making any kind of argument that stands up to logic or scrutiny. He is, in the media outlet conservatives often cite as their Serious Intellectual Place, throwing red meat to conspiracy-hungry idiots. The false naivete implicit in the titular question is preposterous, as though this retired Federal prosecutor really can't understand why some level of secrecy is being maintained here. But he doesn't care. In his post-prosecutor career as a journalist he also knows how to attract clicks and to whip his following of increasingly deranged Trump cultists into a frenzy.

This is modern "opinion" writing, especially on the right: pretending you don't know really obvious and simple things to appeal to people so dumb or myopic that they legitimately don't understand.

Where do I sign? I hear it pays well.

BASIC INGREDIENTS

Many years ago, one of my most successful former students – she had been in a few of my undergrad classes at a previous institution – called me in a panic. I had heard from her fairly regularly on the internet, and our conversations were a mix of me giving her pep talks for the difficult first few years post-graduation and her regaling me with awesome Washington DC insider stories ("I saw ____ vomiting in the bushes last night.") But here I could tell something else was wrong.

Long story short, it turned out to be rather amusing (from my end). She had met a young man she liked, and had "panicked" and invited him over for dinner. Now in the cold light of day she was realizing that she didn't actually know how to cook anything. So, with considerable help from Rachel Ray I talked her through a basic action plan and the problem was solved.

Later, after I thought about the implications, I asked her: out of curiosity, you've been living independently for something like five years. Without even the most basic cooking skills (she really was at Ground Zero; I sent her a copy of the invaluable How to Boil Water cookbook) what the hell had she been eating all this time? Obviously a Young Professional is getting a lot of carry-out and delivery food, a lot of restaurant meals, and so on. But you have to make something to eat sometime. At least occasionally.

The answer: "Healthy Choice frozen meals. And nachos."

It was at that moment that I became convinced that American schools need to devote a semester or two during K-12 to teaching kids how to cook. Home Economics classes get a bad rap because of their historical role as something "For Girls" intended to shepherd young women into a lifetime of uncompensated domestic labor. But think about some of the problems that could be solved if every student left high school with the basic skills and knowledge to make 10 to 15 simple meals with ingredients costing between $5 and $10.

I know there are a lot of other problems, like the cost and geographic availability of food. But the knowledge simply isn't there in a lot of cases, and the blithe assumption that young people are learning to cook from their families or from osmosis or from the internet isn't helping. Imagine how much the dependence on low-priced fast food or high-calorie garbage food (Doritos can be a meal if you have a 2-liter with them!) if young adults were flung into independence with at least some knowledge of what to do with the kitchen part of the apartment other than fill it with chips and granola bars.

How hard would it be for each school district, combining contributions from parents, students, and teachers, to come up with a dozen things suitable to local preferences and spend less than schools routinely spend on less useful pursuits buying the ingredients? Hell, you could probably get half of it for free when the grocery stores are getting ready to throw it out. Or hell, just have the state pony up the money after admitting that this is going to save millions in the long run.

It seems uncontroversial enough, but I'm sure there's something I'm missing that would turn this into a pitched battle in the culture wars.

THE EYES OF SPIRO

It is hard to comprehend 2001 being 17 years ago, a fact that hit me as I realized just how long ago Chris Lehmann's indispensable "The Eyes of Spiro are Upon You" was written. Nothing did, in hindsight, a better job of foreshadowing 21st Century faux-populist conservatism. Now that the movement has matured (a term used only in the strictest sense) and given rise to Trump this seems even more prescient.

Some of you are old enough to remember living through the Nixon years, and some of you are old enough to have been politically aware adults during that time. Everything about "class" in American politics in this century – the Thomas Frank "What's the Matter with Kansas?" argument about the decoupling of status, wealth, and class followed by the tidal wave of white resentment politics – has its roots in the Nixon years. Yesterday in the faux-histrionics following the White House Correspondents Dinner it all came flooding back in a hurry when I saw this widely-circulated tweet:

You probably don't recognize the name. Matthew Schlapp and his wife are the husband-wife team behind one of the largest and most powerful lobbying shops in Washington. So when he complains about "elites" mocking all of "us" it comes off as a bit disingenuous, at least for anyone who understands what the word "elites" means. It turns out, as this generation of right-wing plutocrats is learning, that money can buy power but it can't buy respect and admiration. People who are worth eight figures and who have direct access to the political leaders of the world still manage to see themselves as one of the Little People not because they don't understand that they're rich; even conservatives are self-aware enough to know that. But what they are not is liked.

The media, tastemakers, intellectuals, artist-types…these people are the ones they deem "elite" because those are the people whose approval the rich and powerful desperately crave. And until rich Trump-affiliated lobbyists hear others heaping them with the praise they need and think they deserve, they will never be happy. They will forever see themselves as oppressed because all their money cannot buy them a room they won't get laughed out of.

OWN GOALS

Sometimes, strictly as a mental exercise, I try to figure out how many words I've barfed onto the internet in my life. I've been doing this regularly since, oh, 2002 and had irregular and very 90s things prior to that (remember having a "personal website"?). Add in social media and it has to be in seven figures. The output isn't overwhelming but it's consistent over a long period of time. As a rule I don't go back and re-read things from years ago. If I did, and on the rare occasions that something from the Deep Archive is brought to my attention, usually my thoughts haven't changed too much. But sometimes I read things and cringe a little on the inside. There are things I would express differently, and a few things I would express not at all, compared to Ed from 2004.

Luckily I never went through a white supremacist or "I hate the gays" phase, so there's nothing agonizingly awful that I would feel compelled to apologize for. If there were, though, and when I see things from the past that I would say differently now, there is only one effective way to deal with it: apologize. Apologize and mean it. Everyone is going to find things they said (in writing or otherwise) from 10, 15, or 20 years ago and realize that some combination of personal growth and changing mores combine to make it seem dated and inappropriate now. If you think that's not true in your case, there is an outstanding chance that you're lying to yourself and even greater a chance that you're dangerously narcissistic and see yourself as essentially flawless and incapable of error.

The Joy Reid fiasco is interesting to me not because I give a shit about Joy Reid – Luke Savage once accurately described her as "Fox News for liberals" – but because I will forever be fascinated by people who find themselves in this embarrassing situation and are constitutionally incapable of…not making it worse. Like, the worst possible reaction is to stand by what you said and insist that it is right when it clearly is wrong. The second-worst possible reaction is to pretend that you didn't say it and make up some sort of half-assed, totally implausible story about how someone must have hacked the internet archive because you are a flawless and perfect person who could never say anything that was not awesomely Woke.

A person who can't apologize is a narcissist at best and a sociopath at worst. How hard would it be, for example, for someone like Reid to say:

I look back on these statements from 2007 with intense shame. I apologize sincerely and unconditionally for the damaging, tone-deaf, and malicious things I said on (insert date) in (insert post). These words were irresponsible and whatever I thought they were when I wrote them – clever, funny, 'edgy', provocative – I look back and feel nothing but embarrassment at how wrong and inconsiderate I was. In the future it will be my responsibility to demonstrate by words and actions that this is not the person I am anymore. I am sorry.

Look, people fuck up. This is a thing. I'm going to go out on a limb and assert that for anyone predisposed to like a person like Joy Reid – essentially anyone to the left of Glenn Beck on the political spectrum – that apology would suffice. We generally want to give people second chances. We want to see that they can own their mistakes, express sincere emotions and thoughts about them, and try to move forward. Yes, there are some people in the world who love a good dragging and are going to use any mistake Joy Reid makes to trash her for all eternity. But I don't need to tell you that there are countless examples of people in the public eye who have done shitty things – things much worse and shittier than Joy Reid, even – without being obliterated from the face of the Earth. Sincere humility and remorse can go a long way. My point is not "Say you're sorry and that makes everything ok and that's the end of it." My point is that if you at least try to express your remorse, on balance people who like you or are inclined to like you as a media personality are very likely to give you another chance.

Or, you know, you can claim that you were framed by the now ubiquitous "Russian hackers." You can concoct some obviously horseshit story and see which of your fans are drunk enough on the Kool Aid to swallow it. Fox News personalities do it all the time. You're in good company, Joy.

SEVEN YEARS IN TO-DEBT

Real wages have been stagnant for 40 years, even as economic productivity has continued to grow. One way to make people feel like their incomes are not stagnant or shrinking is to cut taxes constantly, a trick that has been exhausted and overused since St. Ronnie arrived in 1980. A second, which we saw at its worst in the late 00s, is to extend really easy credit. For nearly half a century, this is how lawmakers have tamped down the potential danger of a system in which working people run faster just to stay in place while wealth and income skyrockets for the very richest. Say "tax cuts" constantly (even people not actually benefiting from a given tax cut will think they are) and give anyone with a pulse a mortgage, an auto loan or three, and a handful of credit cards. Open a payday lender in every run-down neighborhood or town, et voila.

I like cars and I find the economics of the industry are a decent proxy for overall trends (the crash of auto lending circa 2002-04 presaged the much more damaging collapse of the housing market in 2008-09). A couple trends in recent years are ominous. One is that prices have skewed so high that only old people can afford new cars. Many brands, under intense pressure from the auto press, keep trying to "get younger" and build sportier cars that appeal to less stodgy buyers. The problem (evidenced by the collapse of "Brands aimed at the kids" like Scion, Saturn, and Volkswagen's now-extinct low price marketing) is that no one under 40 can afford new cars beyond entry level compacts. The idea from the 1950s and 1960s that a high school kid would buy a cheap new car with his after-school job is…gone. Good luck finding all but the most spartan new cars under $25,000. Hell, I bought a used Porsche Cayman, since sold, for less than the cost of a mid-level new Camry now. Cars are expensive. "Affordable" cars in magazines hover around $40,000 or more. You know those fun Minis that seem ideally aimed at The Youths? The average price of a Mini Cooper sold new is $35,000.

A second trend is that loans are getting really long in an attempt to compensate for higher prices. Trucks, which have gotten staggeringly expensive yet are targeted at "white working class" types least able to afford expensive vehicles, are soon to be offered at 84 month loans. Seven years. Seven years of interest for something that has three years of warranty and will have depreciated 50% in its first 12 months after purchase. Think about that.

What companies do with trucks will soon be done for any vehicle. It is nearly impossible to find any new truck, no matter how stripped down, under $30,000 and with options most full-sized trucks are in what used to be Mercedes or Jaguar prices – Ford F-150s can easily be optioned to close to $60,000 and maxing out the options can push it close to $80,000. Trucks are big sellers and they are expensive as hell.

Most people earning good money can't even afford a $50,000+ vehicle, and yet truck sales are often highly dependent on people who have little long term economic stability. The only way Bob the Non-Union Builder is going to afford a new $50,000 Ram is if you can lower the monthly payments and hope he sucks at math.

As recently as a decade ago, 60 month auto loans were spoken of in hushed tones. It had long been assumed that the repayment should not extend much beyond the warranty period, nor past the sharpest depreciation points. Now we've tacked two years onto what was already a tenuously long lending period. Good luck paying seven years' interest on a truck that will be worth about 25% of what was borrowed by the time it is paid off.

PS: I'm sorry about the title, but also not even a little sorry.

BRAIN DRAIN

In my course on Media & Politics one of the themes I harp on is the centrality of newspapers to American journalism. This is a point that needs to be made to people under the age of 25 because reading a newspaper or finding one in the driveway every morning are experiences they do not necessarily have. To them, getting news from a newspaper is what using the telegraph would be to people of previous generations. These kids, like many adults, now get their news from "the internet" writ large, and they do not have any clear or meaningful mental differentiation between the the website of a newspaper (e.g., New York Times Dot Com) and any other site providing news. The same holds true for TV news networks – CNN isn't a TV station to an 18 year old; it's just one of many places on the internet that offers news.

It is not difficult for them to grasp that the business model of newspapers in the current media economic landscape is…perilous. Physical newspapers have a shrinking and aging audience. Newspapers' websites are competing with internet-only entities with vastly lower overhead costs. And their costs are lower, of course, because most of what they are doing is re-reporting things from newspapers. Same for TV news networks and their online entities.

The problem, as I emphasize, is that the vast majority of actual reporting is done by newspapers. Browse the various online news aggregators and pay attention within the stories. They inevitably link to or reference a story "originally" or "first reported in" a major newspaper. It's not as if Slate is hiring and sending out reporters. Some of the largest online entities have a skeleton staff of correspondents (maybe a DC / White House person) but they certainly don't have reporters working, you know, the city hall beat.

It's an inverted pyramid; as newspapers cut more and more staff (either due to legitimate economic necessity or takeover by venture capitalist types who just want to "run a lean operation") there is less and less reporting. And that's bad, especially when the number of "media outlets" re-reporting the work done by actual on-the-ground journalists grows. It's like quadrupling the number of car dealerships, making them all sell the same car model, and then not producing many of them.

Check out this story of the photojournalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his mid-action photo of a car hitting protesters in Charlottesville – a photo he took on his last day working for the Charlottesville Daily Progress. The next week he started a job…running the social media account of a brewery. Why? It pays more and has more stability. While I don't begrudge the individual for choosing, as I would, the best paying and most stable career option, it's an incredibly sad commentary that our system better rewards tweeting for a beer company than producing iconic, sometimes world-changing journalism.

Mr. Kelly is hardly alone. Anecdotally, I know a ton of journalists (not including freelancers) and every one of them sweats out having a paycheck from month to month. Staff cuts and ominous meetings with the new managing editor and ombudsman are commonplace to the point of numbness. When the opportunity arises, they frequently switch careers. They stop doing real journalism and almost inevitably transition into more lucrative but (I say this without judgment) more frivolous work. Lots of kids used to grow up wanting to be a reporter like April O'Neill or Clark Kent; nobody grew up wanting to be a Brand Ambassador for a skincare pyramid scheme. Yet we all choose the latter eventually because we all need to eat. I get it. It's incredibly hard to make a lower middle-class income in journalism, a few high profile media outlets aside. I'd take the beer tweets job too, man.

In short, this is a totally unsustainable model. Almost all mass media depend on newspaper reporting as primary source material to endlessly repackage as "different" pieces as the ability of newspapers to survive financially (and employ actual reporters) shrinks every day. This edifice will collapse, and soon.

END OF THE LINE

In 2015 a Ph.D. and MD team of researchers published a paper, "The Myth Regarding the High Cost of End-of-Life Care," that struck me as very interesting. One important component of debates on healthcare costs is the perceived high cost of treatments that do not meaningfully extend life or improve the quality of life – the perception, in other words, that doctors throw every procedure and medicine available (at patient insistence) at people who are unavoidably terminal.

The Aldridge-Kelley paper is one of just a few proper studies I've come across that characterizes it as a myth (see also this University of Michigan analysis). Their conclusion that end-of-life costs comprise about 13% of all healthcare spending and thus is not out of line with common sense expectations is contradicted by data thrown around in every healthcare policy debate I've ever seen. In fact, a Medicare study argues that end-of-life spending on healthcare is unchanged over 20 years.

This is an issue, in other words, in which we seem to be influenced heavily by anecdotal evidence ("Well, my grandmother…") and numbers sourced from groups like insurance companies or issue activists with an agenda. Of course Insurance, Inc. likes the narrative that they're forced to cover pointless procedures on dying people.

In fairness, my take on the methodology of the studies mentioned above is that they all define health care spending in a way that is likely to under-count true spending. They exclude the cost of prescription drugs, for example. The estimates they offer could reasonably be characterized as conservative. However, their underlying conclusion remains persuasive in the context of the really big medical expenditures that naturally accompany the end of life – hospitalizations, hospice or nursing home stays, major surgeries, implants, drugs administered as an inpatient, and so on.

The news item about Barbara Bush brought this point back to mind. She's 92 and has reached the point at which she and the other people involved have concluded that she's dying and medical care is futile now beyond providing palliative treatment. And really, isn't that what usually happens? How common is this straw man really, the dying person who demands putative miracle cures right up to the very end?

In some ways high end of life costs are unavoidable. That trip to the ER after a major car accident and the ten surgeries that follow are the cause of mortality and they can't be distributed throughout life. Hospice stays and hospitalizations are other examples of incredibly costly things that aren't going to happen unless…well, unless you're in failing health. And for every single one of us human beings, failing health is a process that begins at different points but always ends with death. Many of us are lucky enough that "failing health" and death are relatively proximate on our timeline. Whenever it happens, unless we die of unnatural causes, it's very likely to be expensive. Nothing about that is new.

It is worth remembering that the available data does not support the argument that end-of-life care is disproportionately expensive. A cynic might even wonder if it is yet another attempt to blame the individual for spiraling costs of the ridiculous system – "industry" is a better term, in fact – that so many Americans in positions of power seem dead-set against changing. The way people use a badly flawed system is a symptom, not a cause, of those flaws.

WE MUST APPEAL TO IDIOTS

There are bad arguments, and then there are arguments that are offensive and insulting in addition to being bad. James Traub offers up the latter in this widely-circulated piece from The Atlantic this weekend. For those interested in a more complete takedown rapidly written up by Jamelle Bouie, the title of which says everything you need to know about how bad the initial argument is: "Democrats Shouldn't Give In to White Racism." Kinda embarrassing that that needs to be said.

This is nothing new. We have been hearing variants of this argument from within the Democratic Party since the 1960s – "In order to appeal to the majority of whites, we need to be willing to throw minorities under the bus." Ergo, the more the Party does to stand up for the rights of and issues of particular relevance to African-Americans and Hispanics, the more it will push away white voters of the kind who (in Traub's words) inherently see the appeal of a "message of collective responsibility and common purpose." But they also, you know, don't like black people very much.

The last time we saw this strategy in practice – trying to build a white majority by pandering to racist tendencies and throwing minorities in the meat grinder – was during the presidency of Bill Clinton. Despite the near-worship with which many Democrats see him today, there is unequivocal evidence that "Welfare Reform" and "Sentencing Reform," two positions the 1990s Democrats adopted explicitly to steal the GOP's thunder in the never-ending battle to appeal to white reactionaries, have inflicted more pain and suffering on black and Hispanic communities than can adequately be conveyed in this space. Sentencing reform will, from the perch afforded us by history in a few more decades, be recognized as one of the most shameful moments in Democratic politics. And they embraced it willingly in a calculated effort to appeal to the kind of white voter who thinks the problem with this country is that not enough people (wink) are being locked up in prison.

The fundamental flaw in this logic has always been apparent and is never explained. It presupposes some additional value gained from building a *white* majority, as if one white voter is worth more than one vote. It makes even less sense here in 2018 than it did in the mid-90s given our changing demographics to throw the moral high ground in the crapper in a (likely failed) attempt to woo the kind of white voter who wants a social welfare system but is also kinda racist when as an alternative the Party could make a better effort to appeal to the 30% and growing of the electorate that is not white. Rather than, as Traub suggests, dialing back on the ol' equality for all thing in order to appeal to some stereotype of a midwestern blue collar white voter why not, say, try to push up black turnout by a couple percent by going hard on problems with racial disparities in policing and the justice system as a whole? Or maybe try holding out on DACA for more than two days so the nation's millions of Hispanic voters don't feel like the old, white Democratic leadership is always going to sell them out at the first opportunity?

Traub may not be a person who holds racist beliefs. I don't know him. But what he's proposing here is racist on a very fundamental level. It is racist because it implies at every stage of his logic that getting more white people to vote for Democrats is what really matters here. I thought winning elections and having a coherent ideology that differs from the increasingly batshit Republican Party was most important. Everything about recent elections – the huge numbers of eligible non-voters, the changing demographics of the electorate, the disparity in issue preferences between younger and older voters – suggests that there are more votes to be won by taking positions that appeal to the 50-60% of eligible Americans who are not voting than to craft shameful appeals to white "moderates" that require backing down on commitment to full equality for LGBTQ people, African-Americans, immigrants, Latinos, and other marginalized groups that should see the Democratic Party as their natural political home for some reason more compelling than "The GOP is even worse."

It is difficult to say which part of this argument is worse: that someone is proposing that the Democrats throw African-Americans under the bus for the umpteenth time to try to appeal to whites who want stuff from the government but don't like black people, or that even the most cursory look at reality suggests very strongly that it wouldn't work anyway.

TIP OF NOSE

Listening to Trump talk about the southern border and Mexico makes it more apparent than any other issue (China and tariffs being a close second) how much the guy literally just says whatever he thinks of to get through the moment with zero forethought, ideology, or long term strategy.

If he's mad at Mexico and immigrants, Mexico has a weak border policy and Mexico sucks.

If he's mad at the American political system and immigrants, Mexico has a strong border policy and Congress won't equal it.

As was blatantly obvious before the election, there is no policy, no *anything* lending coherence to these outbursts. He says whatever will square with, at most, his previous four or five sentences, and then moves on. It's like writing non-canon fan fiction; as soon as that rant is over, it's like nothing that was said ever happened. It's self-contained and has no effect on anything before or after it.

On the plus side, some of the "Never Trump" right-wingers who voted for him anyway are probably starting to recognize how useless all their theories about how he would grow into the office were.

Oh, who are we kidding. They don't reflect on their decisions.