Sunday, October 15, 2017

Last Call For The Specter Of War

NY Times columnist Nick Kristof has returned from a five-day stay in North Korea and is convinced more than ever that the Trump regime is headed for a devastating military conflict with Pyongyang.

North Korea is the most rigidly controlled country in the world, with no open dissent, no religion and no civil society, and there is zero chance that anyone will express dissatisfaction with the government

Still, the conversations were illuminating. Ordinary North Koreans were unfamiliar with the name of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died days after being returned to the United States in a vegetative state after his detention in Pyongyang for stealing a poster. But they knew all about President Trump’s threats to destroy their country. That’s because the government wants them to know about Trump’s threats, because they bolster Kim’s nationalist narrative that he protects Korea from imperialist American aggressors.

Being on the ground in a country lets you see things and absorb their power: the speaker on the walls of homes to feed propaganda; the pins that every adult wears with portraits of members of the Kim family; the daily power outages, but also signs that the economy is growing despite international sanctions; the Confucian emphasis on dignity that makes officials particularly resent Trump’s personal attacks on Kim; the hardening of attitudes since my last visit, in 2005; and the bizarre confidence that North Korea can not only survive a nuclear war with the U.S. but also emerge as victor.

At one factory, we came upon workers doing their “political study.” North Koreans explained that they have political study for two hours a day, plus most of the day on Saturday, so I asked what they focused on these days. “We must fight against the Americans!” one woman answered earnestly. And then the North Koreans in the room dissolved into laughter, perhaps because of the oddness of saying this to Americans.

A visit humanizes North Koreans, who outside the country sometimes come across as robots. In person, you are reminded that they laugh, flirt, worry, love and yearn to impress.

A military officer greeted me with a bone-crushing handshake, and I asked if that was meant to intimidate and convey to the Yankee imperialists that North Koreans are muscular supermen. He laughed in embarrassment, and when we ended the interview, he was much gentler.

I left North Korea fearing that we are far too complacent about the risk of a cataclysmic war that could kill millions. And that’s why reporting from within North Korea is crucial: There simply is no substitute for being in a place. It’s a lesson we should have learned from the run-up to the Iraq war, when the reporting was too often from the Washington echo chamber rather than the field. When the stakes are millions of lives and official communications channels are nonexistent, then journalism can sometimes serve as a bridge — and as a warning.
Yes, we must carefully weigh the risks — physical risks and the danger of being used by propagandists — and work to mitigate them.

But I have a sinking feeling in my gut, just as I had on the eve of the Iraq war, that our president may be careening blindly toward war. In that case, the job of journalists is to go out and report, however imperfectly, and try to ring alarm bells in the night.

I wouldn't exactly call Kristof's column from January 2003 he links in he last paragraph there an objection to the Iraq War, rather more of a grim resignation of the reality of the mess he admits the Bush administration could (and did) cause.  But he does appears to have a much clearer objection to the North Korean drumbeat as there is no good military solution at this point, and no scenario involving US forces that doesn't lead to millions dead in South Korea.

And yet that seems to be where we are headed at this point.  Every diplomatic overture is crushed by Donald Trump's rapacious ego, China isn't doing very much to stop Pyongyang, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is openly telling people that diplomacy will continue "until the first bombs drop".

I'm hoping that the bluster will pass as Trump becomes embroiled in the fallout from the Mueller investigation and soon, but that too raises the possibility that he could order strikes to stay in power. At this point nothing would shock me anymore.

The Far Right Still Simmers In Europe

Despite the decisive defeat in May of Marine Le Pen in France to President Emanuel Macron, reactionary Trumpian racist nationalism is rising across the pond and while it may not be winning outright yet in Europe in 2017, those forces continue to make substantial political gains. German elections last month left Angela Merkel in power but also greatly weakened and with the unabashedly neo-Nazi AfD party with 94 of 709 seats in Germany's Bundestag as the third-largest party in the country.  This weekend we're seeing a similar story play out in Austria as the Nazi apologists in the Freedom Party got nearly 26% of the vote.

Austria’s far-right Freedom party has scored its best result in a national election for almost two decades and could join the country’s next government, in a significant boost for Europe’s nationalist and anti-establishment movements.

Sebastian Kurz, the 31-year-old leader of the mainstream conservative People’s party, looked set to become Austrian chancellor — and the EU’s youngest leader — after narrowly topping Sunday’s poll, with 31.5 per cent according to projections based on early results.

But the projections showed 25.9 per cent of the vote went to the Freedom party, which has earned international notoriety for its xenophobia and airbrushing of Austria’s Nazi past. If borne out by final results, that would be its strongest performance since the 26.9 per cent it won in 1999 when the party was led by the charismatic Jörg Haider.

Its strong showing means the Freedom party could demand a high price to join a coalition led by Mr Kurz. That would almost certainty result a more hardline position from the government in Vienna on many EU topics, including immigration, and the Freedom party occupying top government posts such as the foreign and interior ministries.

However, Mr Kurz could seek another coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats, which gained 27.1 per cent of the vote according to projections, even though that would continue the “grand coalition” government between Austria’s two mainstream parties which disenchanted voters and which Mr Kurz had promised to overhaul.

Austria, which has a population of about 9m, was on the route of refugees fleeing wars in countries such as Syria, and received 130,000 asylum applications in 2015 and 2016.

Kurz's win is a reprieve so far but he may have no choice but to form a coalition with the Freedom Party.  Austria's president, Alexander Van der Bellen, barely beat out the Freedom Party's Norbert Hofer in last year's presidential race, so once again Austria dodges a bullet.

How long that will remain true, I can't tell you.

Sunday Long Read: The Women Of Generation Wrecks

Generation X, now in their 40's, remain the least financially stable and most downwardly mobile generation compared to their parents in American history by most standards: wealth compared to our parents, percentage of home ownership, retirement nest egg size (which for an increasing number of us is zero), and burden of student loans which we're still paying off.  It's bad enough for me, but in every case the women of Gen X are faring far worse than their Boomer mothers, and the collective mid-life crisis of women who grew up during the 80's is now an economic landmine in the heart of the American economy.

Is it any wonder that women our age possess a bone-deep, almost hallucinatory panic about money? It's not an idle worry. By some estimates, we carry more debt than any other age group (about $37,000 more than the national consumer debt average). We're some of the best-educated women in history, and yet we're downwardly mobile; about two-thirds of us have less wealth than our parents did at the same age.

This isn't because we spent too much on Pearl Jam CDs. The cost of a home has increased by more than 80 percent from 1970 to 2000, the last year for which data is available. (Between 2000 and 2005 and since 2013, home prices have outpaced salary growth.) In the late '70s annual tuition for a four-year college was less than $11,000 in today's dollars, now it's three times that. Which helps explain why 40-somethings haven't saved nearly enough for retirement. More than half of unmarried Gen Xers have less than $50,000 saved. When a woman takes time off to care for a sick relative—and it is usually the woman who takes time off—the potential cost in terms of lost wages and Social Security benefits averages $324,000 over her lifetime. Women not only earn less than men but also invest less—and then they live longer. That, writes investment expert Sallie Krawcheck, is "the gender gap that's really hurting us." Meanwhile, the safety net is vanishing; in 2040, the Social Security trust fund is due to run out—right as many of us hit retirement age.

"I call my midlife crisis Betty," says a 43-year-old filmmaker in Brooklyn, New York. "Betty is on me about being single and broke. Not having money reaches deep into you, and it creates a vicious and pernicious situation." In their 40s, our parents' generation could expect to own a house and to have money saved. In our 40s, we are often still scrambling like we did at age 25, and not just in creative fields, like filmmaking. Fifty-six percent of women still live paycheck to paycheck, and, according to a 2014 study on women and their money by Prudential, Gen X women are less confident in their ability to achieve their most important financial goals than either millennials or boomers.

Even women with cash in the bank—I had to work to find some—sound concerned. "I have a million dollars in my retirement account," says a 49-year-old New York City–based biotech executive, "and I'm still worried. Our kids are going to have to take out loans for school. Then, there are the retirement calculators on the internet. All of the information is: 'Lady, you better save money because no one else will take charge of your financial future!' I was incredibly frugal my whole life. I've been working my ass off. Since I was 10 years old, babysitting. And still I am stressed out about money."

Stress about money, of course, goes hand in hand with stress about work. If you've never lost a job or had to prove yourself in an industry that's changed massively in the few years you were away (and if this is you, I'm so happy for you!), then you might not realize how holding on in today's workforce, or trying to ascend, can feel like a feat of endurance. A 2011 report by the Center for Work-Life Policy (now the Center for Talent Innovation), which described Gen X as the “wrong place, wrong time” generation, noted that “thwarted by boomers who can't afford to retire and threatened by the prospect of leap-frogging millennials…49 percent of Gen Xers feel stalled in their careers.”Although the wage gap is now 82 cents on the dollar (as of the last annual Bureau of Labor Statistics report) and far more women these days are out-earning their husbands (29 percent of the time when both have jobs), women are still underrepresented among top earners. A report by PayScale that compared 1.4 million salary profiles found that in 2016 "men are 85 percent more likely than women to be VPs or C-Suite execs by mid-career." That's now, when many Gen X women are mid-career. New data from the BLS shows that women's median weekly earnings are highest for women 35-44 and slightly less for women 45-54. Men's earnings, not surprisingly, are higher than women's in all age groups, including these Gen X–heavy cohorts, but it's notable that earnings for men 45-54 are higher than men 35-44—there's no plateau for them.

One bright light that's often noted in our post–Great Recession world, where many industries are convulsing, is that jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math are growing. But women hold only 25 percent of STEM jobs. The result is that unlike the job-hopping millennials, many women our age feel lucky to have steady work, even if it's not their dream job. But if there were a recipe for a midlife crisis, it could be showing up day after day for a job that's slowly corroding your soul.

"Sometimes, I have these moments of clarity, usually during lengthy conference calls," says Lori, 41, a contracts analyst in Charlotte, North Carolina. "This voice in my head suddenly starts shouting: What are you doing? This is pointless and boring! Why aren't you out there doing something you love? Name one thing you love! Cheese? Okay, great. Let's get some goats and start making cheese, and we can sell it from a truck. We'll call it something clever. And then, I spend the rest of the conference call thinking up names for my imaginary cheese truck: Hmm, some pun on a wheel? Fromage on a Wheel?"

So why doesn't she become the Fromage on a Wheel lady?

"I have friends who have told me over the years, 'Just quit your job and be a baker or be a cheesemaker,'" she says. "I've never had that option. Especially now, we have a child. You want to provide security and safety and health insurance. Those things overrule your own personal preferences. What if something really bad happens? Or if we lose a job?" She shudders.

For a lot of Gen X men, there's nothing to fall back on.  For Gen X women, it's only worse across the board.  They were expected by now to have it all: a successful career, a family, a home, and everything that goes with it.  Instead they got squeezed out by the Boomers and the Millennials and ended up in limbo.  And now we're headed for the Age of Austerity.

And as it always has been in America, it's harder for women on top of everything else.

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