The money the military spends on R&D today impacts the defense capabilities of the country decades from now.
Military spending, according to one theory of international relations, is directly tied to the necessary downfall of world powers. But as a Brookings report out last week makes clear, that doesn't mean wantonly slashing defense budgets is the way to go. In fact, there's reason to believe cuts currently on the table could have a disproportionate impact on the U.S.'s military edge.
Immanuel Wallerstein's theory of world-systems analysis holds that countries achieve hegemony by being very efficient at economic production. But maintaining hegemony involves what he calls the "expensive and abrasive" attempt to carry out a "political and military role." As soon as other states catch up in economic efficiency, the hegemonic power's "political clout" goes, and the state starts actually having to use its military instead of relying on threats. As Wallerstein explains, "Its use of military power is not only the first sign of weakness but the source of further decline."
In the current climate of budget cuts, therefore, it seems natural to want the country to scrap a few F-16s instead of, say, the public school system. Give our troops proper tank and body armor, runs the classic (and generally liberal) refrain, but ditch the "nano hummingbirds" -- and let's get rid of a few more warheads while we're at it.
Of course, it's more complicated than that, as most people acknowledge, and last week's Brookings report does a better than average job of explaining why.
This summer, when Democrats and Republicans finally reached their debt ceiling deal, it included $400 billion worth of cuts on national security. But due to other cuts on the table, we could be looking at roughly $1 trillion total. In short, it's a post-war pullback, and though the size of it, according to the Brookings report, "is not unusual by historical standards," it's happening in the midst of China's rise, North Korea's leadership hand-off, the menace of a nuclear Iran, and continuing unrest in the Middle East. But that's not even the main point of the report.
What the report highlights is that "the current wave of defense cuts is also different than past defense budget reductions in their likely industrial impact, as the U.S. defense industrial base is in a much different place than it was in the past." Cutting-edge technology is a big part of the United States' edge, both in actual conflict and as a deterrent, and thus what the signatories of the Brookings piece seem particularly concerned about is the procurement budget -- part of the so-called "investment accounts" -- along with research and development.
Right now, "Reagan-era weaponry is wearing out, and the recent increase in procurement spending has not lasted long enough to replenish the nation's key weapons arsenals with new weaponry" -- we've mainly been focusing on "filling certain gaps in counterinsurgency capabilities." Meanwhile, "unlike the period just after the Cold War, there are no obvious surpluses of defense firms, such that a natural paring process will find the fittest firms and ensure their survival."
In other words, the defense industrial base may be inefficient, but cuts won't make it fitter -- just leaner. The scary part about that is that industrial base health is a long-term thing, and the money the procurement budget is spent on today winds up determining the defense capabilities of the country much further into the future than, say, troop numbers in Afghanistan.
So how do you address that? The Brookings report puts out 10 questions to consider "as presidential candidates and other national leaders develop their platforms." They include ideas like fixed-price contracts, which signatory Dr. Robert Haffa, formerly of the Air Force and currently principal of Haffa Defense Consulting, explained to me over the phone are an attempt at making the defense industry more like other markets. But this is probably impractical -- when companies gives estimates in competing for contracts, they really have no idea what a given plane, for example, might cost to make.
Another idea is reforming regulations to make it easier for new companies to enter the defense contracting market. "It's difficult for a firm, an IT firm particularly, to sell to the Department of Defense because of all the regulations that attach themselves to every competition the Department of Defense takes on," Haffa explained. "It takes a huge amount of proposal money just to compete for a major program, and you have to be very knowledgeable about those regulations."
Reform, of course, takes a while, and the procurement and research and development budgets are likely to be slashed precisely because, as Haffa pointed out, "that's where the fast money is. They can be cut right now and have fewer F-35s."
But the message from the Brookings piece and its signatories is that this is, in a sense, simply externalizing the time cost, because we'll be living with the consequences of quick cuts for years to come. Defense spending is more like entitlements than ideologues on either side might like to admit. Reform is tricky, and quick fixes are tempting. Ultimately, the quick fixes are a type of punt. And that's exactly what modern political systems tend to reward.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
By antagonizing the U.S.’s neighbor to the south, Donald Trump has made the classic bully’s error: He has underestimated his victim.
When Donald Trump first made sport of thumping Mexico—when he accused America’s neighbor of exporting rapists and “bad hombres,” when he deemed the country such a threat that it should be contained by a wall and so clueless that it could be suckered into paying for its own encasement—its president responded with strange equilibrium. Enrique Peña Nieto treated the humiliation like a meteorological disturbance. Relations with the United States would soon return to normal, if only he grinned his way through the painful episode.
In August, Peña Nieto invited Trump to Mexico City, based on the then-contrarian notion that Trump might actually become president. Instead of branding Trump a toxic threat to Mexico’s well-being, he lavished the Republican nominee with legitimacy. Peña Nieto paid a severe, perhaps mortal, reputational cost for his magnanimity. Before the meeting, former President Vicente Fox had warned Peña Nieto that if he went soft on Trump, history would remember him as a “traitor.” In the months following the meeting, his approval rating plummeted, falling as low as 12 percent in one poll—which put his popularity on par with Trump’s own popularity among Mexicans. The political lesson was clear enough: No Mexican leader could abide Trump’s imprecations and hope to thrive. Since then, the Mexican political elite has begun to ponder retaliatory measures that would reassert the country’s dignity, and perhaps even cause the Trump administration to reverse its hostile course. With a presidential election in just over a year—and Peña Nieto prevented by term limits from running again—vehement responses to Trump are considered an electoral necessity. Memos outlining policies that could wound the United States have begun flying around Mexico City. These show that Trump has committed the bully’s error of underestimating the target of his gibes. As it turns out, Mexico could hurt the United States very badly.
The early results out of a Boston nonprofit are positive.
You saw the pictures in science class—a profile view of the human brain, sectioned by function. The piece at the very front, right behind where a forehead would be if the brain were actually in someone’s head, is the pre-frontal cortex. It handles problem-solving, goal-setting, and task execution. And it works with the limbic system, which is connected and sits closer to the center of the brain. The limbic system processes emotions and triggers emotional responses, in part because of its storage of long-term memory.
When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.
In the age of the digital hermit, a psychologist explains what it means to avoid other people—and what to do about it.
People today might not actually be avoiding social interaction any more than they did in past decades, but they’re certainly more vocal about it. The rise of digital communication seems to be spawning a nation of indoor cats, all humble-bragging about how introverted they are and ordering their rides and groceries without ever talking to a human.
Sometimes reclusiveness can be a sign of something more serious, though. Social anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses, but it’s still poorly understood outside of scientific circles. The good news is that it’s highly treatable, according to Stefan G. Hofmann, the director of the Social Anxiety Program at Boston University.
I recently talked with Hofmann about how social anxiety works and what people who feel socially anxious can do about it. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Tracking the controversies, allegations, and investigations into the president and his administration
Donald Trump entered the White House as one of the most scandal-tarred presidents in American history—what his imbroglios may have lacked in depth, they made up in variety, encompassing legal, ethical, and sexual controversies. (In a twist, one of Trump’s few competitors for the crown was his rival, Hillary Clinton.) They ranged from race discrimination to mafia connections, from petty hypocrisies to multimillion-dollar alleged frauds.
Now that Trump is president, some of those controversies have continued to shadow him. But the presidency has also occasioned a whole new set of disputes. Looming largest is the question of whether his campaign colluded with Russian agents to interfere in the election, a question being investigated by the FBI as well as panels in both houses of Congress. They also include ethical and legal questions surrounding members of his cabinet, his allegation that Barack Obama spied on him before the election, and various conflicts of interest.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Inside Walmart’s curious, possibly ingenious effort to get customers to build up their savings accounts
Late last summer, Dawn Paquin started keeping her money on a prepaid debit card from Walmart instead of in a traditional checking account. The wages from her factory job—she works from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., inspecting blades on industrial bread-slicing machines—now go directly onto the Visa-branded card, which she can use like a regular debit card, though unlike most debit cards, it is not linked to a checking or savings account. She made the switch after a $4 check she wrote to buy coffee for herself and a friend tipped her checking account below the required minimum and triggered $100 in overdraft fees.
This was before she got the factory gig, and she wasn’t working full-time. Paquin lives in Salem, Illinois, where, she told me recently, if you don’t have a college degree, your job choices are “fast food or factory.” Money was extremely tight. “I kind of had a bit of resentment about banks after that,” she said dryly.
The Supreme Court has ample reason to avoid deciding a case that could erode the Establishment Clause.
During argument in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer last week before the Supreme Court, Justice Elena Kagan mused that the case poses “a hard issue. It's an issue in which states have their own very longstanding law. It's an issue on which I guess I'm going to say nobody is completely sure that they have it right.”
The court did not pay much attention to a question that logically flows from Kagan’s concern: Is this trip really necessary?
Does the court really need to jump into this dispute between a church and a state government—or is it a case where the two parties basically have already kissed and made up?
Missouri’s Constitution, as written in 1875 and readopted in 1945, contains a provision that “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.” The Missouri courts over the years have interpreted this provision quite literally. As a result, a church named Trinity Lutheran in Columbia, Missouri, was denied a state grant to resurface their daycare playground with recycled rubber tires. (The daycare would have been eligible if it had been run by a separate church-affiliated non-profit; but because in this case the money would have gone directly to the church, the provision applied.) The church sued, and the case has wended its way to the Supreme Court.
The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a society so prosperous that people would hardly have to work. But that isn’t exactly how things have played out.
How will we all keep busy when we only have to work 15 hours a week? That was the question that worried the economist John Maynard Keynes when he wrote his short essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” in 1930. Over the next century, he predicted, the economy would become so productive that people would barely need to work at all.
For a while, it looked like Keynes was right: In 1930 the average workweek was 47 hours. By 1970 it had fallen to slightly less than 39.
But then something changed. Instead of continuing to decline, the duration of the workweek stayed put; it’s hovered just below 40 hours for nearly five decades.
So what happened? Why are people working just as much today as in 1970?