For the US, Afghanistan is a little like Alice in Wonderland: it takes all the running we can do, just to stay in the same place.
In a little over a month, it will be 17 years since the US led an invasion of Afghanistan. It’s the country's longest war, but only one phase in the 40 years of war that have been a part of contemporary Afghanistan.
Many Americans, especially with the amount of news being generated lately, have forgotten why their country went there, what role the US still might have there, and what has been the cost, in terms of both lives and treasure.
In this week's WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman speaks with Laurel E. Miller, a senior foreign policy expert at RAND and former acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department.
Miller talks first about the impact that war fatigue might have on any attempt to find a diplomatic solution, and how the US and Afghanistan still see almost everything through very different sets of lenses.
One result is that, according to Miller, the conflict has been essentially stalemated for a decade and there is no indication on the ground or behind the scenes that the impasse is going to be broken.
Miller explains the ways in which the US has been both a stabilizing and a destructive force. Despite the grim history of military intervention, she believes Washington still has a role to play in Afghanistan, although not on the battlefield.
She brings some clarity to the discussion of how the Taliban might be brought into the political mainstream, and how ISIS — as the common enemy of the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the US — just might provide the impetus for a broad diplomatic solution.
Miller explains that while Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan may not be able to play a significant role in diplomacy, Pakistani buy-in is an absolute prerequisite to any peace in the region.
While acknowledging the difficulty of trying to make peace in one of the most corrupt countries in the world, she offers a fresh look at possible ways out of the 17-years-and-counting conflict.
In July, California’s legislature and governor faced an elegant — and legal — extortion threat. The American Beverage Association, funded by Coke and Pepsi, demanded immediate passage of legislation that preempts any soda taxes imposed by county or local governments for the next 12 years. If Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and the Democratic-controlled legislature refused, Big Soda would go forward with a ballot initiative this November that would severely limit any future tax increases at local and county levels. Brown blinked and signed the preemption law, averting what he saw as a larger, long-term danger.
But the governor’s action opened the door to other extortion schemes cooked up by well-funded corporate interests; Silicon Valley tech firms successfully used similar tactics to press for the removal of an initiative to protect online privacy rights.
Our guest, Mark Pertschuk, is the founder and executive director of Grassrootschange.net, which advocates for healthier communities through grassroots action. He also manages Preemption Watch, which tracks legislation that prevents or invalidates local measures aimed at improving civil rights, health and safety. As president and executive director of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, he was instrumental in the passage of many laws regulating tobacco use.
Pertschuk explains how preemption works, and details the California soda tax case. We also discuss the 13 states that ban most or all regulation of factory farms and agribusiness, and a similar number of states that undermine smoking bans in public places.
And we talk about “good preemption” that sets a floor for regulations, compared to “bad preemption” that puts a ceiling on local laws and regulations.
The financial insecurity facing so many Americans in today’s gig economy is not the result of startups and their new apps, or even of technology in general. Temp work is the result of four decades of deliberate decisions by executives in corporate America — decisions that changed the nature of work and of capitalism itself. So explains Louis Hyman — a professor of economic history at Cornell, and Jeff Schechtman’s guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Hyman takes us back to the 1960s and 70s, when the rise of conglomerates and management consultants brought about a reorganization of the American corporation and a profound change in the relationship of employees to their workplace.
Hyman shows how corporate America traded stability for short-term profits. At the same time, he challenges the myth of the idyllic post–World War II workplace, arguing that it was only “idyllic” for successful white men and basically repressive for everyone else.
He reminds Schechtman that the office and factory of that time offered stable paychecks, but not much self-determination. Today's economy may be volatile, but it offers the possibility of a new kind of individual freedom and a new kind of individualized capitalism. In fact, Hyman says, the corporation may no longer even be necessary to capitalism.
According to Hyman, over the last ten years, 94 percent of net new jobs have appeared outside of traditional employment, and approximately one-third of the workforce now depends on this alternative world of work, either as a primary or supplementary source of income.
He also points out that today’s corporations, like Starbucks and Walmart, are really the drivers of the gig economy, as a direct result of their failure to meet employees’ need for a “living wage.”
He refers to Uber and other gig economy players as the “waste product of the service economy,” because people drive for ride-hailing services or take temp jobs to provide the income that their full-time jobs don’t.
Despite the downside of the gig economy, Hyman argues that the burgeoning expansion of temporary work holds the promise of a complete reinvention of capitalism and economic freedom. If we can get it right, he says, it can be an exciting new world.
Louis Hyman is the author of Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary (Viking, August 21, 2018).
We live in an age of paradox. According to study after study, almost everything we can measure is moving in a positive direction. Worldwide, there is less violence, less pollution (except for greenhouse gases), less war, greater longevity, and most diseases are declining. From the perspective of material living standards, in every part of the world, things are getting better.
But there is another side.
Diseases that were once a death sentence are now manageable, but health care costs are escalating, and the divide between those that can and cannot afford quality healthcare is widening.
Millions of people in the developing world are experiencing a standard of living never imagined possible, yet how people feel about the world is increasingly negative, especially in the United States. Technology has made life easier in so many ways, yet Silicon Valley is becoming the boogeyman.
In spite of all the positive trends, tribalism divides us, social media, politics, and economics reinforce the divide, and the 24/7 always-on culture makes it happen even faster.
So where are the reasons for optimism?
In this WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks with prolific author and longtime Atlantic journalist Gregg Easterbrook about why he believes things are much better than they look.
Easterbrook reminds us that pessimism was in our national psyche long before social media. He argues against the common claim that the good old days were so good. In his view, it is this false pessimism that in large measure gave us Donald Trump.
His goal is to make optimism intellectually respectable. While he agrees there is plenty to worry about, Easterbrook insists that a change in national attitude could go a long way toward making positive change. In fact, he says that history shows that optimism is the best argument for reform: only optimism could have lifted 1.8 billion people, in China and India, out of extreme poverty in a single generation.
In discussing the broader consequences of negative thinking, Easterbrook explains why we have to take a more global view, and why we should not be so quick to discard the mechanisms for reform we already have.
And while it might be OK, as someone once said, to be a pessimist about tomorrow, Easterbrook exhorts us to at least be optimistic about the day after tomorrow.
Gregg Easterbrook is the author of It’s Better Than it Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear (PublicAffairs, February 20, 2018), and The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (Random House Trade Paperbacks, November 9, 2004).
Some days it seems, at least from reading the mainstream news or cable television, that all millennials are voting for Democrats, or that college-educated kids are all going to be part of the “blue wave.”
In fact, there is a whole cadre of young Republicans and conservatives populating college campuses, who see themselves as the post-Trump future of the Republican Party.
Journalist Eliza Gray recently went looking for the heart and soul of young conservatism as part of a story for the Washington Post Magazine. She shares some of her findings, in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, with Jeff Schechtman.
Gray interviewed over 50 young conservative leaders. She started with College Republicans, and her search took her to groups that ranged from William F. Buckley's Young Americans for Freedom, to organizations founded in the Reagan era, to libertarian offshoots of the Ron Paul campaign, as well as some Christian groups.
While Trump is certainly not the model all of them want to emulate, and they are hardly falling in line behind his approach of being “light on policy and heavy on combat,” some still see him as a means to implementing their own policy preferences.
According to Gray, the libertarian streak is perhaps the most prominent feature of these young conservatives, some of whom have taken to calling themselves Conservatarians. But even with their libertarian leanings on issues like sexual preferences and foreign policy, the vast majority are strongly pro-life. And many agree with Trump in his attacks on both the media and popular culture.
As for young, moderate Republicans, they have, says Gray, become an endangered species; according to her research, many were turned off by the rise of Trump.
Gray explains why the biggest heroes of many young conservatives are commentator Ben Shapiro and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. Most are not fans of Sean Hannity.
There is also very little hero worship for what some see as a mean, frequently crude, ideologically fickle 72-year-old man. Many realize they will have to fight to rebuild the party and conservatism in their own image.
Seyed Hossein Mousavian is a Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center at Princeton. A former Iranian ambassador to Germany, he was the chief spokesman for Iran during its nuclear negotiations with the international community. Several years ago, he parted ways with the Iranian government. This week he joins Jeff Schechtman for our WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Mousavian sets the stage with a look at Iran’s reaction to the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA). He talks about the debate that took place inside Iran on whether or not Iran should even enter into negotiations with the US. He reminds Schechtman that 40 years of distrust is a very high hurdle to overcome.
Mousavian details the 10 years of negotiations that took place between Iran and the Europeans, beginning in 2003, long before the US was ever brought into the talks. In fact, he reminds us that this effort with the US was the first time there had been any high-level negotiations or even just talks between Iran and the US in more than four decades.
Mousavian strenuously argues that Iran has been complying with all aspects of the agreement, as attested by 11 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections.
According to Mousavian, the Iranians see this deal as something worth saving, and that it should be a model for other non-proliferation deals around the world. In an obvious reference to Israel, he argues that if other nations, particularly in the Middle East, were to agree to the same deal, it could make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone.
From a diplomatic perspective, Iran is clearly making every effort to paint the US as the bad guy for pulling out of the deal, and Iran, which says it has been fully complying with the deal, as the good guy.
Mousavian says that the US’s rejection of the JCPOA is increasing tensions in the region. From Iran’s perspective, if the US had abided by the deal, the trust generated might have formed the basis for further negotiations on a whole range of complex issues in the region, including Yemen, Syria, Iraq, etc. Now that the trust is broken, he says, there is very little chance for US and Iranian diplomacy on these, or any other issues. The net result makes the world less safe.
The only hope now appears to be that all those years of direct negotiations between the Europeans and Iran will pay off and that China will assume a bigger role as an honest broker in this region and provide economic relief from the US sanctions. The problem is that in order to keep the agreement alive, all remaining countries may need to violate the secondary sanctions provisions of the deal. These secondary sanctions put pressure on third parties to stop their activities with the sanctioned country, i.e. Iran, by threatening to cut-off the third party's access to the sanctioning country.
On a more encouraging note: Mousavian says that, in spite of all the mistrust, Iran might still be willing to enter into new negotiations with the Trump administration. After all, he says, the US and Iran are the two biggest powers in the region and it makes sense for them to find a way to talk.
For now, however, nothing further will happen if the US president and members of his administration keep spouting about regime change. Mousavian reminds us that such efforts have failed for 40 years, and that President Trump needs to learn from the lessons of history.
From long before the rise of Fox News, talk radio has been the essential medium through which millions and millions of hard-core conservatives comprehend the world.
From its inception, talk radio has been built around codes of tribal identity, grievances, and scorn. Originally tapped as entertainers, talk show hosts soon learned to mobilize public anger in ways that boosted their listenership enormously. Talk radio’s modern era began 30 years ago this month, with the national launch of Rush Limbaugh’s show.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks with Michael Harrison, founder and longtime editor and publisher of Talkers Magazine, often referred to as “the bible of the talk radio industry.”
Schechtman and Harrison discuss how talk became big business by giving us an unparalleled group of personalities who thrived in an atmosphere — that they helped drive — of personal and political divisiveness. In a way, Limbaugh begat Fox News, MSNBC, the Tea Party, and, finally, Trump. All without ever losing his own audience or identity, which was overwhelmingly conservative. The Economist said last year: “[T]o understand the Republican party, get in a car, turn on the radio and drive.”
With the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 — the FCC policy that had required the holders of broadcast licenses to present matters of public importance in a fair and equitable way — all aspects of politics became fair game. And in 1988, a little-known Sacramento, CA, sports host moved into politics.
The way he caught on was dramatic. Love him or hate him, it became clear, as Harrison points out, that Rush was a once-in-a-generation talent.
Harrison and Schechtman chat about the early days of talk radio, and how Rush changed it. About the difference, initially, between Rush’s idea of entertainment and how his audience often took him very seriously. Harrison speculated that, in the early days, Limbaugh was a kind of right-wing Jon Stewart.
He combined everything that had come before in talk radio. He was conservative, he was angry, he was well-informed, and he had humor. In his early years, before he began to take himself too seriously, you never knew if his vitriolic flights of rhetoric were real or shtick.
Starting with just 56 stations in 1988, he was heard on 800+ stations only three years later. In 2008, he signed a $400 million eight-year deal and his success inspired many imitators.
The roll call of clones he spawned includes Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Neal Boortz, Dennis Prager, Michael Savage, Hugh Hewitt, Laura Ingraham, and Mark Levin. To say that Limbaugh and his emulators made possible Trump’s election may be hyperbole. Or maybe not.