The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Really good Russia analysis

Russian-American journalist Julia Ioffe recently interviewed Russia expert Fiona Hill for Puck. It's worth a read:

Do you think Putin’s going to invade Ukraine? And if so, what form would it take?

I do. I think it’s really the form that it’s going to take. There is still a chance that he won’t, right? And we have to really keep on going with diplomacy. But Putin has run a risk now. He said he’s going to do all of these things. He said he’s not going to invade Ukraine, but so what? They’ve said that the last time and the last time and the time before that. So we don’t buy that one. But he can’t be caught out as bluffing. If we call his bluff, he has to do something, because otherwise none of his threats are credible. He has to do something, and they’ve said “military-technical response.” They’ve been shooting down satellites. There was this cyberattack. They’re showing that they could do an awful lot more. 

The thing is, he’s got no one to stop him at home. He’s got no press resistance at all, no opposition. He’s got everybody running around with their heads cut off abroad. So unless there is a unified pushback, he can do things in the manner of his choosing. I know there’s a lot of East Europeans and a lot of Ukrainians saying, Oh, this is just a bluff, he keeps doing this. But you know, the more they say that also, the more likely it is he’ll do something to teach them a lesson.

People I talk to in Moscow, as well as some in the U.S. government, say that some of this is a product of Putin’s COVID isolation for the last two years; that he barely sees anyone because to see him, you have to quarantine for two weeks; that he’s not getting good information. Do you think that’s plausible?

I think it could be, honestly. I really do think that there’s something strange going on there. He seems more emotional, more focused. Maybe he’s been sitting there, stewing the whole time about this. There’s a good case to be made for that because it’s very strange. There are many people, myself and others, who have followed Putin for his entire time in the presidency and we’re all sort of wondering whether there’s something else going on. Is something wrong? Has this made him confront his mortality? There are other changes around him. Lots of people did get sick around him. Does that make him feel that time might be ticking, in ways we would never have credited?

Those two have more expertise about Russia than exists in Foggy Bottom right now. The whole interview is worth reading.

Finance stabs another media outlet

Private equity only knows and only cares about money. Starting from that uncontroversial statement, it takes even less imagination and storytelling skills than private-equity-driven G/O Media possesses to predict the ultimate fate of A.V. Club:

Top editorial staff at the Chicago-based A.V. Club, a sister publication to The Onion, are exiting the entertainment website en masse after refusing a mandatory relocation to new offices in Los Angeles.

The seven employees, including the managing editor, TV editor and film editor, all gave the West Coast move the thumbs-down by a Jan. 15 deadline imposed by the A.V. Club’s owner, New York-based G/O Media.

G/O Media, which is owned by Boston-based private equity firm Great Hill Partners, acquired The Onion, A.V. Club and other digital sites from Spanish language broadcaster Univision for an undisclosed price in 2019. Since then, the company has locked horns several times with the Writers Guild of America, East, the union representing editorial staffers at its portfolio of websites.

In October 2019, Deadspin, the irreverent sports website, was all but shut down by a mass exodus of more than 20 New York-based writers and editors who resigned in protest over the editorial direction under its new owners, G/O Media. After a monthslong standoff with the union, G/O Media announced it was relocating Deadspin to Chicago, where it relaunched in March 2020 under the same roof as The Onion.

Well, why would G/O Media care about the current editorial staff? From the perspective of G/O's vacant-eyed suits, A.V. Club is just a series of cash flows, not a group of writers with a 30-year history and a unique perspective on popular culture. G/O cares less about A.V. Club's content than an earthworm cares about Shakespeare. To increase cash flows, reduce costs.

You can't force people to have consciences or empathy, or to care about art or journalism. But you don't have to reward them for apathy.

Lunchtime roundup, falling temperatures edition

We have one of those lovely January days when a tongue of cold air pushes south from Canada and gives us the warmest temperature of the day at midnight. Yesterday the Inner Drive Techology World Headquarters got up to 6°C around 3:30pm, stayed around 5°C from 6:30 pm until 1am, and since then has cooled down to -5°C. The forecast calls for continued cooling until reaching -13°C around 6am tomorrow.

Yesterday's weather conditions encouraged the formation of "pancake ice" on Lake Michigan. Block Club Chicago has tons of photos and videos of the phenomenon if you're curious.

Block Club Chicago's story on pop-up Covid testing facilities bilking consumers and governments alike got the attention of Bruce Schneier, who assures his readers that no, these guys aren't going to sell your data. They're just ordinary multi-level marketing scammers.

In other Chicago journalism news, Chicago Public Media's board voted unanimously yesterday to acquire the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper. The deal will create the biggest non-profit journalism organization in Chicago, and has the backing of billionaire Michael Sacks. (Note: I am a Leadership Circle contributor to Chicago Public Media, and once worked for Sacks at GCM.)

Now, Cassie and I will brave the cold for a few minutes so she can take care of her important business.

The sign of a dying culture

In his final novel, Friday (1986), Robert Heinlein spoke through an atavistic character to warn America of its impending doom:

Sick cultures show a complex of symptoms such as you have named...but a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot. ... It is a bad sign when the people of a country stop identifying themselves with the country and start identifying with a group. A racial group. Or a religion. Or a language. Anything, as long as it isn't the whole population.

David Brooks spent his column today saying we've gotten to that point:

[S]omething darker and deeper seems to be happening as well — a long-term loss of solidarity, a long-term rise in estrangement and hostility. This is what it feels like to live in a society that is dissolving from the bottom up as much as from the top down.

Some of our poisons must be sociological — the fraying of the social fabric. Last year, Gallup had a report titled, “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time.” In 2019, the Pew Research Center had a report, “U.S. Has World’s Highest Rate of Children Living in Single Parent Households.”

And some of the poisons must be cultural. In 2018, The Washington Post had a story headlined, “America Is a Nation of Narcissists, According to Two New Studies.”

But there must also be some spiritual or moral problem at the core of this. Over the past several years, and over a wide range of different behaviors, Americans have been acting in fewer pro-social and relational ways and in more antisocial and self-destructive ways.

Right on cue, the National Park Service reported that "Adrian, Ariel, Isaac and Norma" defaced a 3,000-year-old piece of indigenous rock art at Big Bend National Park in Texas just after Christmas. And author Alex McElroy says toxic masculinity has given way to "petulant masculinity," which she does not see as an improvement.

In other news, perhaps not as dire:

And apparently, I have to try some Paper Thin Pizza.

About as well as expected

NPR's Steve Inskeep worked for six years to land a 15-minute interview with the XPOTUS, and yet no one felt any shock or surprise when it ended abruptly:

Trump and his team have repeatedly declined interviews with NPR until Tuesday, when he called in from his home in Florida. It was scheduled for 15 minutes, but lasted just over nine.

After being pressed about his repeated lies about the 2020 presidential election, Trump abruptly ended the interview.

When pressed, it was excuse after excuse — it was "too early" to claim fraud, his attorney was no good, things just seem suspicious.

But it all comes back to the same place: He has no evidence of widespread fraud that caused him to lose the election.

The tone of the interview changed. Trump then hurried off the phone as he was starting to be asked about the attack on the Capitol, inspired by election lies.

Philip Bump rolls his eyes at "the eternal lure of reasoning with the irrational:"

Many or most of us like to consider ourselves rational, considering the evidence before us and reaching reasoned conclusions based on what we see. Presented with a refutation of a belief, we like to think, we would change our minds and acknowledge our errors. Ergo: Present Trump with refutations of his claims, and he’d crumble.

The problem, of course, is that this isn’t how it works. Humans are emotional more robustly than they are rational, and when a belief is rooted in emotion — desire, fear, anger — you can’t reason your way around it. Put succinctly, you can’t combat irrationality with reason.

This pattern repeated a few times. Inskeep would offer a rational, accurate, indisputable point about the election results, and Trump — uninterested in rationality or accuracy but very interested in disputes — would wave them away.

Why bother even trying to convince Trump of reality when it’s not going to make a dent?

The answer, I think, is in keeping with the spirit of this article. Emotionally, I and others in the media think it’s important to confront falsehoods with accurate information. Rationally, I know it won’t make a difference; rationally, I’m sure Steve Inskeep understood it was unlikely that Trump would suddenly cop to simply making things up. But the virtue of combating misinformation holds an appeal that rational consideration can’t uproot.

I refuse to believe that it’s unimportant to tell the emperor that he’s not wearing clothes, even if it doesn’t prompt him to put on pants.

I listened to the first few minutes of it this morning, and marveled at Inskeep's ability not to laugh in the XPOTUS's face. Inskeep, of course, is a professional, unlike the interviewee. And Bump has a good point: when arguing with a fantasist, there is no middle ground.

The most important stories of the day

Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle read through a week of newspapers to understand the hot topics of 100 years ago:

First, there is news of the great Washington Naval Conference, which has commanded half of the front page since opening in mid-November. The idea of the conference is for the great powers to jointly reduce their armaments, so everyone can spend the money on better things.

Inside the paper, we may spend some time browsing the ads, perhaps pausing over the homage to the REO Speed Wagon — still a modern commercial vehicle in 1921, rather than an elderly rock band. We find predictions that Russia will soon be forced to abandon communism and embrace capitalism to feed its people.

Once you imagine your descendants peering back in surprise across the centuries, chuckling at the sight of you passionately arguing some historical irrelevancy, it gets easier to relax and stop shouting at each other. Or heck, maybe even put down our phones and attend to the biggest story most of us will ever live through — not what’s happening in the news but in the homes where we read it.

Somehow, though, I think the storming of the US Capitol a year ago, and the likelihood of more political violence this year, might be remembered.

Inflated importance

The Times reported last night that the Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) price index had its highest rate of increase since 1982 in November, and yet they (and most other news outlets) completely missed the bigger story:

The data came as a rising number of Omicron infections makes the inflation and economic outlook hazier. On one hand, the virus could slow the growth of the economy and of prices if it prompts furloughs at a time when the government is no longer stepping in to fill the void, costing households and hurting demand. On the other hand, surging global caseloads could push prices up as they close factories and keep cars, furniture, toys and other goods in short supply.

Even before the new variant surfaced, consumer spending failed to eke out a gain last month after adjusting for inflation, the Thursday data showed. Economists said the lack of growth might simply reflect that people shopped for the holidays earlier this year to guard against shortages — spending surged in October. But the blip underscores how challenging it is to understand incoming data about consumption, growth and prices in a pandemic-stricken economy.

James Fallows expressed the same frustration I feel whenever I read one of these "OMG inflation!" stories. Because, you see, households are much better off now than they have been for the last several years, for a simple and obvious reason:

I contend that [news stories like this] fit a general recent pattern of emphasis from the “serious” media: placing vastly more stress on the threat of inflation, which indeed is getting worse, than on the evil of unemployment, which is getting much better. (For more about this pattern of coverage, see Eric Boehlert among others.)

As a reminder: current U.S. job prospects are not simply “better” when judged on the historical curve, with these record-low unemployment claims. They are almost unbelievably better, in light of the sudden loss of more than 20 million U.S. jobs in just one month last year, as the pandemic took hold.

The over-emphasis on inflation numbers, relative to employment trends, blurs the fact that while both are problems, for the people living through it unemployment is much worse.

Inflation erodes a family’s purchasing power. Unemployment eliminates it.

That makes a huge difference.

Yes. We have mild inflation compared with what some of us remember in the 1970s and 1980s, but with miraculously low unemployment numbers which we did not have back then.

Who worries about inflation the most? People on fixed incomes, surely; but the Social Security Administration will give pensioners the highest cost-of-living adjustment in 40 years next Saturday.

No, the biggest victims of inflation are net creditors. As we get a bit of post-disaster price increases with concomitant wage increases, the debts we owe (mortgages, student loans, even credit cards) become easier to pay. In other words, their real value has declined in the past 12 months. So net creditors—big banks, hedge funds, the like—are losing money. Everyone: awwww.

Expect, therefore, to see more emphasis on inflation numbers and less on employment numbers as the economy re-adjusts after 20 months of pandemic-induced coma. And expect that your student loans and mortgages will be that much easier to pay off in the near future.

Visiting the remote bits of the world

I've just added two places to my shortlist of vacation spots once travel becomes a little easier.

On Tuesday, I saw Japan's entry for this year's Academy Award for best foreign film, Drive My Car (ドライブ・マイ・カー). Most of it takes place in Hiroshima, Japan. Clearly director Ryusuke Hamaguchi loves the city. For obvious reasons most of the central parts of Hiroshima only date back 70 years, but the hills and islands surrounding the postwar downtown look like the Pacific Northwest.

And this morning, the New York Times Canada Letter reported from Newfoundland. I've wanted to see the Maritime Provinces for years. Maybe Cassie and I can spend a couple of weeks some summer driving from Maine to Nova Scotia to PEI and then take a ferry to "The Rock?" (There's a ferry from North Sydney, N.S., to Channel-Port aux Basques, Nfld.)

For what it's worth, I think I'd fly to Western Japan...

Evening reading

Messages for you, sir:

I will now go hug my dog, who set a record yesterday for staying home alone (8 hours, 20 minutes) without watering my carpets.