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Preview: Katherine Mangu-Ward: Reason Magazine articles.

Katherine Mangu-Ward: Reason.com articles.





Updated: 2018-04-20T00:00:00-04:00

 



Was Trump Elected to Take Revenge on Job-Stealing Robots?

2018-04-08T06:00:00-04:00

Daron Acemoglu is no ally of robotkind. The MIT economist is one of the most prominent advocates of the theory that automation depresses employment and wages, at least for low-skilled workers. In a 2017 paper, Acemoglu and his Boston University colleague Pascual Restrepo produced a series of maps of "robot exposure" and its economic effects in the United States. The results look awfully similar to maps of the districts that tilted Republican in the last election, with a thick red band stretching through the Rust Belt and the Deep South. As Acemoglu later told The New York Times, "The swing to Republicans between 2008 and 2016 is quite a bit stronger in commuting zones most affected by industrial robots. You don't see much of the impact of robots in prior presidential elections." In other words, the white, non-college-educated, disproportionately male Americans whose old jobs are now performed by machines were especially likely to embrace Donald Trump's form of economic populism and protectionism. Acemoglu's methodology for investigating the causal relationship between robots and employment is controversial, but there's no denying that the places where robots abound—largely due to their adoption in the manufacturing and fabrication plants that dominate certain regions' economies—were also the sites of striking partisan shifts in the last presidential election. Are these voters right to worry? And are they right to look to Trump to slow or stop the economic effects of automation? Robot makers typically go out of their way to reassure the public that they are not looking to replace human beings. Consider Flippy, a burger-cooking robot that started working the lunchtime shift at the Pasadena Caliburger restaurant in March. Its manufacturer has been talking out of both sides of his mouth about whether Flippy is a substitute for people or just a super fun A.I. buddy to hang out with near the griddle. "The kitchen of the future will always have people in it, but we see that kitchen as having people and robots," Miso Robotics CEO David Zito told KTLA. "This technology is not about replacing jobs—we see Flippy as that third hand." But Zito also plays up the liabilities in having human beings do the "dull, dirty, and dangerous work around the grill, the fryer, and other prep work like chopping onions." src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/lMIkWyiJp0k" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> For now, Flippy works with a human partner, who places the cheese and condiments on the cooked patties and wraps the final product. But the public is skeptical of these claims that we can have it all, and Flippy's debut was greeted with the now customary spate of commentary about how the robots are stealing jobs. Robot panic can take other, more visceral forms as well. Consider a video that went viral in February. A headless robot dog with its legs on backward trots up to a closed door. After checking out the door handle, it notices a similar robot approaching—this one equipped with a prehensile arm where its head should be. The second dog robot turns the handle, holds the door open, and waves its pal though before following. The door closes gently behind them. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/fUyU3lKzoio" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> When Boston Dynamics released that footage of its latest creation, SpotMini, reactions ranged from "aw, they're friends" to "oh God, I remember when the velociraptors did that in Jurassic Park." The company, which was once owned by Google, has worked on projects funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and freaking out over its periodic video releases of quasi-mammalian helper robots is a bit of an internet tradition. But this one elicited a particularly strong reaction, even though SpotMini is consciously styled to be cute and pet-like, and to function in domestic environments rather than on battlefields or factory floors. A second video, released a few days later, shows a person trying[...]



19 Crimes

2018-04-01T12:00:00-04:00

Stylish sepia-toned labels on the bottles of 19 Crimes wines feature gritty, unsmiling photos of men and women who received "punish by transportation" to Australia. The Down Under makers of this series of reds also offer a snazzy app that lets you "come face to face with these infamous convicts." Whip out your phone, point it at the bottle, and the app animates the label. The ghostly prisoners themselves tell highly elided, dubiously accurate, and aggressively poetic versions of their life stories.

It's the perfect wine to bring to a dinner party where the assembled guests might be interested in conversation about criminal justice, immigration, or booze. (In other words, the only dinner parties worth attending.)

19 Crimes is also a rare wine with gimmicky marketing that is actually quite drinkable, especially for the price point—about $11 a bottle.




When Fixing the Problem Makes It Worse

2018-03-08T06:00:00-05:00

In the front of the SUV, a man in a black T-shirt is unconscious, or nearly so, and slumped over the steering wheel. Next to him on the passenger side, a woman's bra strap slides off her thin shoulder as her head lolls. In the back, a 4-year-old is strapped into his car seat, looking oddly placid. The image, published by a local Ohio police department in 2016, is the most striking of the steady drip of such photos and videos, disseminated by well-meaning authorities with the goal of scaring the pants off of Americans and discouraging abuse of heroin, fentanyl, and other opioids. The opioid crisis—the sharp uptick in opioid-related deaths in recent years—provides endless human fodder for local newscasts. Newspapers and magazines publish story after story about the costs of addiction to families and communities. All of this creates a powerful feeling, even among those generally immune to drug panics, that this time things are different. A narrative has formed: Many of the people whose lives have been ruined or ended by their drug use were perfectly ordinary until they got a prescription for pain pills. The first bottle might have been legit, offered by a doctor after a wisdom tooth extraction or a broken ankle. But lurking in each pill is a bottomless chasm of physical, financial, and social ruin. In the face of very real suffering and dysfunction, it is a deeply human response to want to use whatever resources we have at our disposal to end the crisis. But there is another deeply human response as well: the desire for a simple solution. Luckily, according to the dominant narrative, the solution is simple. Take away the drugs and punish the people who sell them. Ta-da! Depending on your particular blend of prior ideological commitments, the drugs you are most anxious to take away will be the pain pills or the street dope; the sellers to punish first will be Big Pharma or Mexican heroin cartels. But as Senior Editor Jacob Sullum explains in his cover story (page 18), this powerful, compelling narrative is dangerously wrong. What started as a war on pain meds hasn't come close to reducing drug-related deaths. Instead, the crackdown has escalated the problem, killing addicts and leaving patients in agony. During the last election cycle, both campaigns treated this issue as a dire crisis that demands decisive and immediate action. When Donald Trump won, he said he'd make the opioid epidemic a priority. "My take," President Trump declared in February, "is you have to get really, really tough, really mean with the drug pushers and the drug dealers. We can do all the blue ribbon committees we want [but] we have to get a lot tougher than we are." His disdain is confusing, since he created just such a committee less than a year ago—the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis—and staffed it with key members of his campaign inner circle, including Kellyanne Conway and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. That commission has mostly urged more drug enforcement and doubled down on the idea that a border wall will keep out illegal substances. It's not at all obvious that the best way to respond to the surge in drug fatalities is harsher interdiction or stricter regulation of prescriptions—so far those policies have driven the number of deaths up, not down. But when you're holding a massive law enforcement hammer, everything looks like a nail. The opioid crisis is far from the first time seemingly simple solutions have created a new nest of complicated problems. Go back exactly 200 years, and you'll find that our unfortunate biomedical conservatism springs from an erroneous reaction to a scary story. As Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey explains (page 56), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was misinterpreted from its very beginnings as a call to put the brakes on scientific progress. Worried about runaway experimentation? Take away new tech and punish the people who sell it. Cody Wilson's Defense Distributed, a company that dissemin[...]



Stay Tuned With Preet

2018-03-01T12:00:00-05:00

A new podcast from WNYC Studios invites listeners to "join Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney who fought corruption, financial fraud and violent crime, in a series about justice and fairness."

Regular readers know Bharara as the former U.S. attorney who subpoenaed and gag-ordered Reason in 2015 while demanding information about several online commenters who used strong language to condemn the federal judge who sentenced Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht to life in prison.

Naturally, I hoped his foray into podcasting after being unceremoniously fired by President Donald Trump would be terrible. I am sorry to report that Stay Tuned With Preet is measured, informative, thoughtful, and well-produced.

Bharara has the law-and-order bias you'd expect from a guy with his résumé. And there's an insidery chumminess between host and guest that can be grating. But interviews with outgoing Sen. Jeff Flake (R–Ariz.) about his decision to leave Trump's Washington and former New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram about the Mueller investigation are detail-oriented, thorough, and fair. Bharara's voice is even rather velvety, damn him.




You're Not Going to Die in a Plane Crash

2018-02-04T06:00:00-05:00

It's extremely difficult—indeed, nearly impossible—to get yourself killed while traveling on an American airline these days. The last fatal accident on a U.S. commercial passenger airline was in 2009, when a Continental Connection flight crashed into a house near Buffalo, killing 49 people aboard and one on the ground. Smaller turbo prop and cargo planes have been occasionally involved in fatal crashes since then. But if you are a typical traveler, you're unlikely to wind up on one of those flights. And 2017 was a particularly good year. Globally, it was "the safest year for aviation ever," as Adrian Young of the Dutch consulting firm To70 told Reuters in January. On top of the fact that there were no passenger jet fatalities, other types of flying got safer as well. There were just 111 accidents worldwide, the company reports, only two of which included deaths—one flight in Angola on a Brazilian-made aircraft and the other on a Czech-made plane in Russia. Another report which came out at the same time, from the Aviation Safety Network, found 10 fatal airline accidents worldwide resulting in 79 deaths, including cargo planes. Those figures don't stop a significant percentage of flyers from freaking out whenever their huge, safe jet hits a patch of turbulence, though. For the sweaty-palmed flyer experiencing a moment of personal panic, knowing the numbers isn't always enough. But what if there were a powerful man—maybe even the most powerful man in the world—doing whatever he could to keep you safe? Would that make you feel better? As his administration headed toward its first anniversary, Donald Trump celebrated with a tweet: "Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news—it was just reported that there were Zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!" The implied claim is nonsensical: that an American president with just under a year in office is responsible for a decadeslong global trend of decreasing numbers of deaths and injuries. Yet many people find it comforting to imagine someone with his sleeves rolled up, being "very strict" about safety. That's because human beings tend to undervalue gradual, impersonal, technology-driven change and tend to overvalue good intentions and tough talk. Asked to clarify the president's tweet, Deputy White House Press Secretary Raj Shah said that Trump "has raised the bar for our nation's aviation safety and security," pointing to his proposed corporatization of the U.S. air traffic control system and some new anti-terrorism measures. The president, Shah said, was "pleased that there were no commercial airline deaths in 2017." That proposal to reform air traffic control would indeed be a positive step, but it is currently stalled with Congress, so it cannot be improving safety already. And those anti-terror measures aren't responsible either. Yes: For national security reasons, carry-on electronics were banned on flights from 10 predominantly Muslim nations for much of the summer, and the Transportation Security Administration now examines certain devices differently. But jet crashes caused by terrorism are even rarer than jet crashes caused by pilot error or technical malfunction. There's no evidence that these small tweaks to the TSA's screening process made a difference in passenger safety. What's more, there were no formal regulatory (or deregulatory) changes reported by the Federal Aviation Administration in Fiscal Year 2017, which is where you would expect rules governing the physical safety of flyers and the integrity of aircraft to show up. When Trump spoke with airline executives in February of last year, safety was not among the topics he discussed. And the 2017 statistics are global, covering many airlines and flights over which U.S. authorities have no control at all. Trump's desire to take credit for the accomplishments of private industry and international standards bodies is buoyed by a catas[...]



After The Martian, Andy Weir Goes to the Moon

2018-02-01T12:00:00-05:00

In November, writer Andy Weir released a new novel, Artemis, about a settlement on the moon. His first book, The Martian, which you may remember from the blockbuster movie version starring Matt Damon, was powered by plot-driving engineering mishaps and triumphs. Artemis instead gave Weir a chance to unleash his inner "economics dork," he says. This fall, Editor in Chief Katherine Mangu-Ward talked with the author about what he thinks the political economy of the moon would look like. Q: You've described yourself as being a writer of hard science fiction, which is a sub-genre that's been neglected of late. A: There isn't nearly as much of it out there as I'd like, because that's what I'd like to read. I'd actually, deep down, hoped that the success of The Martian would encourage copycats. As for the other sci-fi that exists these days, I feel like it's been hijacked by these dystopian misery worlds where only teenagers can save us from the government, and those are just not the stories I like. Q: But what if only teenagers can save us from the government? A: Well, that would be a world I don't like, I guess. Q: What would your NASA look like in an ideal world? A: Low Earth orbit should be NASA's floor. They shouldn't be doing anything below that. That's my opinion. I believe they should contract out literally all of their launches. They should focus on making space stations, spacecraft, exploratory vessels; sending asteroid return missions, manned Mars missions; going back to the moon. Whatever they want to do, low Earth orbit should be the floor. In the same way that if you are the Hostess company and you manufacture Twinkies, you don't also manufacture trucks to take the Twinkies to the grocery stores. You hire a trucking company. Q: In Artemis, a big part of the economy is tourism. Space tourism has been the buzzword in the private space industry for as long as it's existed in real life. The appeal is obvious, but it's not going to be all glorious shining cities on the moon. What will be the disappointing human side of moon vacations? A: I can only talk about Artemis, which is my model. First off, it's still very expensive. To have a two-week vacation on the moon, it'll cost you about $70,000 in 2015 dollars. It's within reach of the middle class, but they really have to reach. It's a get-a-second-mortgage thing—you have to really want it. In exchange, you get to spend a couple of weeks on the moon, you get to go look at the Apollo 11 landing site, you get to play in one-sixth gravity. It's the sort of thing a lot of people would pay for. The grimiest, worst part, though, I would say, is the food. Importing food from Earth is expensive, so if you're willing to fork over the cash to eat imported food from Earth, then sure, you can have fairly quality meals. But if you're low on money, if you want to eat local food, you're eating algae. Chlorella algae can be grown in vats very quickly. It's extremely nutritious. It has literally everything you need. All the vitamins, all the proteins, the sugars, everything. I've tasted some of this, and it's awful. Q: There's also sex tourism to look forward to. A: Yes. Sex tourism, because the mechanics of sex rely, if you think about it, on gravity in a lot of ways. So the idea is that a couple could go to the moon and, no matter how long they've been together, they have to rediscover sex together. And that could be a cool thing for people. You've been with someone for 20 years and, well, now you get to experiment with each other. It's brand new again. This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a longer version, subscribe to Reason's podcast. [...]



Great News

2018-02-01T12:00:00-05:00

Fans of 30 Rock who have been looking to fill the sitcom-shaped hole in their hearts need look no further than Great News. The backdrop is cable news instead of sketch comedy, but the show successfully copies the basic formula of its august predecessor: a hapless career gal, a peacocking elder statesman, and a colorful cast of supporting weirdos.

Co-producer Tina Fey makes a cameo at the start of the second season, which is currently airing on Thursday nights at NBC. In her role on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" and later at 30 Rock, Fey's characters frequently made thinly veiled accusations against many of the men who have since fallen in the sexual harassment purges of 2017, including Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. In Great News, she pops up as Diana St. Tropez, a high-powered entertainment exec who engages in some timely gender-bent sexual harassment of her own—with a twist!

Ripped-from-the-headlines cultural commentary aside, the show's main appeal is the old-school rat-a-tat dialogue and its unstinting portrait of the clash between boomers and millennials in the workplace. (There are Gen X characters too, but they mostly just look tired.) Katie Wendelson (Briga Heelan) struggles with ambition while her mother (Andrea Martin) takes helicopter parenting to a new level by getting a job as her daughter's intern. Meanwhile, Chuck Pierce (John Michael Higgins), a poor man's Walter Cronkite, shivers in the gales of creative destruction blowing around him and his industry.




Trump Turns One

2018-01-18T09:30:00-05:00

The 45th president does not tend to elicit measured evaluations. Since even before his formal entry into national politics in 2015, Trump has acted as a powerful magnet on the body politic—attracting and repelling onlookers with equal force. A year ago, as we prepared to see a former reality television star sworn into the highest office on Earth, predictions abounded regarding the effects he was about to have on the country and the world. On one side were confident assertions that he would repeal the Affordable Care Act, bring back manufacturing jobs, and end political correctness once and for all. On the other were fears that he was a racist and a dimwit who would certainly abuse the powers of his station and might well start a nuclear war. On the Trump presidency's first birthday, the reality is less extreme than either set of prognosticators envisioned. The Republican Party under his leadership managed one major legislative accomplishment—tax reform that cut the corporate rate and is projected to add nearly $1.5 trillion to the debt—and failed after months of wrangling to enact an Obamacare replacement. Tensions with foreign governments from Iran to Russia to North Korea continue to simmer. The stock market has followed a dramatic upward trajectory, yet anger continues to grow over perceived wealth and income inequality. With the midterm elections now 10 months away, political polarization seems to hit new highs daily, but in many ways the checks and balances of our federalist system are working to keep even the current unscrupulous White House occupant from actualizing his most ambitious plans. As the 365-day mark approaches, have we reached a milestone worth celebrating or taken just another step in our national descent to unthinkable places? Reason asked 11 experts to weigh in on Trump's record so far. From positive signs on transportation policy and regulatory rollback to a worrying rise in nationalist sentiments and redoubled efforts to cleanse the United States of undocumented immigrants, the answers were a mixed bag, highlighting just how much uncertainty awaits the country in the year to come. —Stephanie Slade TAXES AND HEALTH CARE: Victory, Sort of, Maybe Peter Suderman At the beginning of 2017, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan told GOP lawmakers that the new Congress would repeal Obamacare and pass deficit-neutral tax reform by August. At summer's end, Republicans, despite holding majorities in both chambers, had accomplished neither. But eventually they would accomplish parts of each. In March, the House was set to hold a vote on legislation that would have repealed much of the Affordable Care Act while setting up a new system of related federal tax credits. Ryan was initially forced to pull the bill from the floor due to lack of support, but after making a series of tweaks intended to provide states with more flexibility, the body passed a health care bill in May. GOP leaders congratulated themselves for making progress on the issue, but the plaudits were premature. The bill stalled out in the Senate. By September, the Obamacare repeal effort was dead and Republicans had moved on to more comfortable territory: rewriting the tax code. At the center of the new effort was a significant cut to America's corporate tax rate, which at 35 percent was the highest in the developed world. Donald Trump had campaigned on slashing it to 15 percent. The GOP aimed for 20. At first, the tax effort went much like the health care effort. There were disagreements between the House, which hoped to partially offset any revenue losses with spending cuts, and the Senate, which gave itself permission to increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion. Republican senators also disagreed among themselves: Jeff Flake (R–Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R–Tenn.) worried about sinking the country further into the red, for instance, while Marco[...]



Why It's So Hard to Get Pervs Out of Politics

2018-01-08T08:00:00-05:00

Politics is a high-stakes, winner-takes-all game with irresistible appeal to a certain kind of low-quality human being. There are typically only two viable candidates in any national race, and voters have a lot invested in the idea that bad things will happen if their guy loses. That means that if their guy turns out to be, say, an unrepentant pedophile, there will be plenty of voters who pause for a minute and wonder whether having an unrepentant pedophile in office who will consistently vote the way they want is worse or better than having a non-pedophile who will consistently vote in a way that they believe will undermine the American experiment. Partisan duopoly creates powerful incentives to wear blinders about the flaws of your preferred candidate, and to make excuses for failings too glaring to deny. In more concrete terms, voters feel compelled to calculate whether a dubious non-consensual boob grab caught on camera is worth accepting in order to get a decade of votes against Republican Supreme Court nominees, in the case of Sen. Al Franken (D–Minn.). Or whether a few sexual harassment settlements paid by taxpayers are a price they're willing to bear in exchange for a vote against Obamacare repeal, as in the case of Rep. John Conyers (D–Mich.). This non-Euclidean electoral geometry was most famously employed on behalf of Bill Clinton decades ago by his feminist supporters, who were willing to dismiss behavior ranging from a voluntary affair with an intern to much more serious allegations of rape and assault, because they believed he would defend women's rights more effectively than his would-be replacements. South Park famously depicted formal political debates as moronic shoutfests between a giant douche and a turd sandwich. That's a bit of an overstatement: Not all politicians are disgusting. But when a candidate does turn out to be awful, voters often discover too late that—like visitors to Matt Lauer's office or Harvey Weinstein's hotel room—their escape routes have been blocked off. And simply refusing to participate doesn't help with this particular problem; a write-in vote for "neither" won't prevent one of the major party hopefuls from winning in the end. Sure, politicians are ultimately answerable to the electorate. They're scared we might not vote for them next time around, and that guides their behavior. But they also know that they've made themselves extremely hard to remove by building all kinds of institutional safeguards for their jobs. Add in decades of gerrymandering that have rendered many districts a sure thing for one team or the other, plus a national party apparatus that controls access to televised debates, and even the scariest charges can be weathered with the right combination of money, partisan panic, and news cycle distractibility. At press time, it looks like Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican accused of inappropriate behavior toward several teenagers, has narrowly missed being elected to the U.S. Senate. His campaign coincided with a major shift in how Americans process allegations of sexual misconduct. That shift is metabolizing quickly in the private sector, where producer Harvey Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K., journalists Matt Lauer and Leon Wieseltier, and many more were fired (or faced similar sanctions in the marketplace) before they could issue their non-apologies. One reason for the swift response is that consumer-facing industries—the people who make the stuff we buy, watch, and wear—are highly susceptible to boycotts and other forms of reputational damage. Media companies in particular are subject to the decisions of advertisers, who can easily transfer their marketing budgets to another show, another movie, another product, another publication. An allegation of misconduct that takes off on Twitter or Snapchat can do in[...]



Rat Film

2018-01-01T12:00:00-05:00

(image) Actual rats helped compose the soundtrack of Rat Film, a meditation on urban planning and pest control in Baltimore. Musician Dan Deacon ended up giving a pack of rodents free run of a theremin—a rare electronic instrument typically controlled by a musician's hand gestures—to generate the basis for a piece called "Redlining."

Theo Anthony's film is impressionistic rather than argumentative, and it would have benefited from a slightly more conventional human being somewhere—anywhere!—in the production process to check its excesses. But give Anthony credit: He has combined raw and compelling human stories about poverty with floods of data about the ways governments and other entangled institutions reinforce segregation, even in an era that theoretically frowns on the practice of sorting white from black and rich from poor.

Plus, there's a lot of weird stuff about rats.




The End of Free Speech

2017-12-11T06:00:00-05:00

Ah, fall. Students heading off to campus protests, football players kneeling as the national anthem plays, the smell of burning flags. It's the season of free speech madness. Republicans, as is their habit of late, have positioned themselves as the defenders of First Amendment freedoms in a time of runaway political correctness. This plays well on television: Footage of college students shouting down speakers they don't like, staging sit-ins, and brandishing protest placards runs on an endless loop at Fox News while chyrons blare, "Free Speech Under Fire on Campus." And when a demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, spiraled out of control, it was primarily right-leaning lawmakers and pundits who stood up for the right of white supremacists and Nazis to express their vile opinions about race and Confederate statuary. Meanwhile, signs demanding "No Free Speech for Fascists" cropped up in the hands of lefties at post-Charlottesville rallies around the country. But as the weather cooled, the GOP revealed its true colors. Led by an increasingly vehement and erratic President Donald Trump, the same party that was poised to die on the hill of free speech when it was being threatened by angry progressives was suddenly ready to eliminate First Amendment rights on the football field, revoke citizenship for flag burning, pull broadcast licenses over bad comedy sketches, and expand libel laws to take down annoying members of the media. There are greater threats to speech, it turns out, than a bunch of angry co-eds. In the face of calls for censorship from the left and the right, meanwhile, one of the most important traditional defenders of speech has begun a slow but undeniable retreat. Dealing with internal dissension in the wake of Charlottesville, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) tiptoed away from its proud legacy of free speech absolutism. And poll after poll revealed that Americans of both parties are ready and willing to see speech rights abridged in the service of partisan goals. Nothing that has happened so far in 2017 is yet irreversible. But as the ACLU is undermined from within and the right once again sheds the mantle of free speech in favor of a cape made of the American flag, the sharp edges of our First Amendment rights are eroding. In an era of bipartisan agreement that speech should be limited (paired, of course, with violent disagreement about what speech should be limited), it will be all too easy to forget where the outer boundaries of our freedom of expression once were. And once lost, they won't be easy to reconstruct. Back to School As the fall semester began, campus activists were primed for action. The previous academic year had begun with Yale students surrounding residential college master Nicholas Christakis and shouting about how his wife's opinions on Halloween costumery made them feel unsafe; it ended with Evergreen State College students surrounding professor Bret Weinstein and shouting about how his opinions on student activism made them feel unsafe. Berkeley's campus had been engulfed in angry protests, which culminated in the cancellation of speeches by right-wing provocateurs Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. Many students came back to campus looking to fight. They were not disappointed. Before classes even began, Fordham's dean of students and deputy Title IX coordinator Christopher Rodgers was already under investigation for showing a video questioning popular statistics on campus rape in a resident adviser training session. Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, a book that makes controversial claims about the relationship between race and IQ, faced protests at the University of Michigan. (Unlike at Middlebury College the year before, where his attempt to speak ended in physical assault, Murray [...]



Tequila Ocho

2017-12-01T12:00:00-05:00

Tequila is bad for bats, it turns out. Our nocturnal echolocationary pals love the blossoms of the blue agave plant, but liquor makers prefer to harvest agave before it bloomsand booming demand for high-end tequila and mezcal have turned every plant into a prize.

But thanks to the efforts of biologist Rodrigo Medellí­nwho says bat pollination increases biodiversity and helps strengthen local ecosystemssome agave farms are experimenting with letting 5 percent of their plants flower in an effort to lure back the bats. In exchange, they get a holographic seal of approval and a new marketing strategy.

So how does it taste? Tequila Tapatío's new bat-friendly Tequila Ocho is priceyI found a bottle for $70 at one of D.C.'s more eclectic liquor storesbut light and grassy, with a mild flavor. The limpid quality of the spirit matches the ostentatious clarity of the conscience of its drinkers. There's a faint aftertaste of smugness, no doubt due to the corporate social responsibility in the manufacturing process, but that doesn't overwhelm the delicious luxury of drinking bat-friendly margaritas in a world rich enough to care about such things.




How to Talk to Your Kids About Guns

2017-11-11T06:00:00-05:00

Here are two true statements: 1. The number of privately held firearms in America has nearly doubled in the last two decades while the number of gun murders per capita was cut in half. 2. The number of kids abducted by strangers in 2011 was 105, out of approximately 73 million children in the United States. That's down slightly from 115 two decades ago. After Stephen Paddock killed 58 people and injured hundreds more by firing into a crowd from the 32nd floor of his Las Vegas hotel in October, America dove headfirst into our now-traditional national shoutfest about gun laws. One side sees its argument as self-evident: The moment when dozens of people lie dying in the street of gunshot wounds is the right time to pass laws restricting private gun ownership. The other side, by and large, frames its argument in the language of rights and freedoms: You may not like what some people do with some guns, but the Second Amendment exists for a reason. Too often absent from both sides of the debate are well-parsed statistics. Restrictionists will cite the approximately 33,000 annual gun deaths in America, but that number reveals almost nothing about the question the public really wants answered after Vegas or the Orlando nightclub shooting before it: How likely am I to die in an incident of random violence? Two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides, as statistician Leah Libresco explained in The Washington Post shortly after the Vegas shooting, and "almost no proposed restriction would make it meaningfully harder for people with guns on hand to use them." Next are "young men aged 15 to 34, killed in homicides" that are often gang-related, and after that "the 1,700 women murdered per year, usually as the result of domestic violence." The number of people killed in mass shootings is far smaller—there were fewer than 90 incidents that fit the FBI's formal definition of "mass killing" with a gun in the last three decades, most of them with just four victims—yet the center of gravity in the gun control debate isn't suicide hotlines, drug legalization, or domestic violence shelters. Instead, politicians and pundits perseverate on reducing firing speeds, excluding mentally ill people from the right to buy a gun, and building lists of people with ties to terrorist groups: interventions aimed at minimizing the odds of already-rare deaths from mass shootings. A frenzy of attempts at preventive policy making follows each high-profile incident but actually creates the conditions for future failure. Gun prohibition produces the same problems as drug or alcohol prohibition; attempts to restrict harmless sale and possession in order to catch a minority of misusers yield all kinds of unintended consequences. Black markets make the purchase of prohibited items riskier and more expensive, and make the transactions untraceable. Bans are likely to be disproportionately enforced among black and Muslim gun owners, increasing racial disparities. Narrowly tailored restrictions will push product development teams at big firearms manufacturers and garage tinkerers alike to find workarounds that circumvent the letter of the law. And any mass confiscation of illegal weapons or accessories will lead to more violence, as die-hard gun rights believers inevitably fight back against law enforcement. Take a misunderstanding of the scope and nature of a problem, combine it with a desire to "do something" in the face of national anguish, and you get a recipe for both bad law and cultural conflict. A nearly identical problem plagues another heated national conversation: Are our children in danger? How likely is my kid to be grabbed by a kidnapper? Underlying much of the invective about helicopter parents, millennial snowflakes, and tr[...]



Abacus

2017-11-01T12:00:00-04:00

(image) You might have heard that no bank faced criminal charges after the financial crisis of 2008. But that's not quite true. Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a New York Chinatown–based institution founded in 1984 by Thomas Sung, was charged in 2012 with fraud and accused of falsifying mortgage applications by the Manhattan District Attorney's office. The bank and the family that runs it are the focus of a new documentary from Hoop Dreams director Steve James, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.

The Sung family bankers fit classic archetypes—the steely immigrant patriarch, the small, fierce matriarch, the loyal Americanized daughters who nag their father to eat. In 2009, when one daughter discovered during a closing that an Abacus loan officer had been skimming money from clients, they halted the closing, fired the officer, and reported the issue to their regulator. They initially cooperated with federal inquiries, but slowly realized that at some point their family and the bank itself had become the focus of the investigation—and was potentially being cast as a scapegoat for the whole American banking system.




It's Time to Privatize the V.A.

2017-10-30T06:00:00-04:00

There's a building in Washington, D.C., that's mostly empty space. The Pension Building, as it was known when it was commissioned by Congress in 1881, fills an entire city block. Like an M.C. Escher fever dream, columns of every size rise in stacked colonnades around a stupendously massive atrium. By the time the last of the 15 million red bricks had been stacked six years later, there were enough offices ringing the edges of the building to house 1,500 clerks serving 324,968 pensioners, mostly Civil War veterans. The building was grand by design, a memorial to the fallen as well as a place of honor for surviving Union soldiers, their widows, and their orphans. Service pensions were a big deal in Washington in the 1880s; they made up almost one-third of the federal budget. Forty percent of the legislation introduced in the House in the 49th Congress and 55 percent in the Senate consisted of special pension acts. These days, meeting obligations to veterans is less of a priority. Sure, there's still grandstanding about how "only the best is good enough for our troops." But in 2014, news leaked out that the Veterans Health Administration (VHA)—which currently consumes 38 percent of the Department of Veterans Affairs' $182 billion budget, and which was previously celebrated by Democrats as an exemplary experiment in single-payer health care—was falsifying patient records in an effort to cover up long and occasionally fatal wait times for appointments. President Barack Obama's administration responded to the crisis quickly—and ineffectively. In October of last year, then–Veterans Affairs (V.A.) Secretary Bob McDonald could be found bragging that two-thirds of the system's medical centers had new directors. But in fact, those fixes were little more than an enormous game of musical chairs. Only two of the new directors came from outside the system; the rest were promotions from inside the dysfunctional health centers and a reshuffling of center heads around the country. In Ohio, USA Today reported at the time, directors in Chillicothe and Columbus simply switched places. Mid-panic, Congress did take a baby step—more of a scootch, really—toward offering some veterans the option of obtaining care in the private sector. The Veterans Choice Act allows vets who have to wait more than 30 days for care or live more than 40 miles from a traditional V.A. hospital to use V.A. funds to access other providers. The whole program was a $10 billion experiment over three years, a relatively small part of the agency's overall budget. There's another route to choice, of course. As with all publicly provided goods, many people who can afford to opt out of the system already do—bottom-up privatization. Of the approximately 22 million veterans in the United States, only 9 million are enrolled in the Veterans Health Administration to begin with. While the best way reduce the burden of veterans' care is not to send Americans to war in the first place, privatizing the system—allowing returning soldiers, sailors, and Marines to seek the care they prefer in the private market rather than shoehorning them into another government bureaucracy—would be a good place to start. When Donald Trump was elected, this looked like an area where he might do some real good. At Mar-a-Lago in December, he called together members of the press and then, through a spokesman, suggested he might consider major changes at the V.A.: "We think we have to have kind of a public-private option, because some vets love the V.A.…Definitely an option on the table to have a system where potentially vets can choose either/or or all private." During the campaign, Bernie Sanders re[...]