A Future Less Fuzzy

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Our U.S. intelligence agencies typically work in a secretive world – and that is of necessity for reasons we can all understand. However, they do communicate with us – and we should listen.

“Global Trends: Paradox of Progress.” Global Trends is a product of the Director of National Intelligence, who has stewardship over the sixteen agencies that comprise the U.S. Intelligence Community. The public facing arm of the Director of National Intelligence is the National Intelligence Council (NIC), which is the center of gravity for midterm and long-term strategic thinking within the United States Intelligence Community. The National Intelligence Council was formed in 1979. The NIC’s goal is to provide policymakers with the best information: unvarnished, unbiased and without regard to whether the analytic judgments conform to current U.S. policy. “Global Trends: Paradox of Progress,” is the sixth report of the series.

The NIC’s Global Trends report begins by acknowledging that peering into the future can be scary and even humbling. One reason for this is that events unfold in complex ways for which our brains are not naturally wired. Global Trends goes on to explain that grasping the future is also complicated by the assumptions we carry around in our heads, often without quite knowing we do.

Unlike the first five reports in the Global Trends series, this 2017 report is divided into two parts. The first looks ahead across a five-year horizon, primarily so it can be immediately relevant and useful to the new U.S. Administration. The second looks out to the long term, spanning several decades. What also makes Global Trends: Paradox of Progress different from previous editions is that it doesn’t feature a future year in the title (the previous report, issued earlier this decade, was titled, Global Trends 2030). As the Chairman of the National Intelligence Council explains, “Longtime readers will note that this edition does not reference a year in the title because we think doing so conveys a false precision.”

This edition of Global Trends revolves around a core argument about how the changing nature of power is increasing stress both within countries and between countries, and bearing on vexing transnational issues. The main section lays out the key trends, explores their implications, and offers up three scenarios to help readers imagine how different choices and developments could play out in very different ways over the next several decades. Two annexes lay out more detail. The first provides five-year forecasts for each region of the world. The second provides more context on the key global trends that bear watching by governmental leaders.

More on “Global Trends: Paradox of Progress” in my next National Security blog post.

Want more now? You can read Global Trends: Paradox of Progress here

A Writer’s Writer

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Tributes are still pouring in for one of the greatest writers of our – and maybe any – generation. Tom Wolfe did it all and he did it with wit and verve.

William F. Buckley perhaps said it best, He is probably the most skillful writer in America – I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else.

There are far too many eloquent tributes to capture in one blog post, so I’ll focus on just one, that by Ben Yagoda. Perhaps I picked this one because I spent most of my adult life as an aviator”:

One of the best passages in Tom Wolfe’s best book, “The Right Stuff” (1979), starts out:

“Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot . . . coming over the intercom . . . with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself (nevertheless!—it’s reassuring) . . . the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because ‘it might get a little choppy’ . . . the voice that tells you [ . . . ]: ‘Now, folks, uh . . . this is the captain . . . ummmm . . . We’ve got a little ol’ red light up here on the control panel that’s tryin’ to tell us that the landin’ gears’re not . . . uh . . . lockin’ into position when we lower ’em . . . Now . . . I don’t believe that little ol’ red light knows what it’s talkin’ about—I believe it’s that little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right’ . . . faint chuckle, long pause, as if to say, I’m not even sure all this is really worth going into—still, it may amuse you . . .”

The rendition of the “drawlin’ and chucklin’ and driftin’ and lollygaggin’ ”—the style of speech even pilots from Massachusetts or Oregon universally affect, Wolfe says—goes on for another few hundred words, too long to quote here; I commend it to your attention. The voice, Wolfe ultimately tells us, originated from someone who picked it up in the mountains of West Virginia. Starting in the late 1940s, it drifted “into all phases of American aviation.” “It was the drawl,” he writes, “of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”

You can read his full piece here:

https://www.wsj.com/articles/an-appreciation-tom-wolfe-1526678237?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=1

Want more? You can read a comprehensive New York Times piece here.

Live Smart

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Now and again I’ll read a piece that is uber-enlightening. That happened yesterday when I read Tim Herrera’s “How Smarter Living Taught Me to Be an Adult.”

It’s a catchy title, but the subtitle, “Four things I’ve learned that can help you, too,” is more revealing. Here, briefly, is what he suggests:

Do less — but do it better

In February, I wrote about a work-life philosophy that changed my life: “If it’s not a ‘hell yeah,’ it’s a ‘no.’” The idea sounds simple, but with honest self-examination you realize it affects every part of your life….

The power of an exercise routine

I entered 2017 about 35 pounds overweight and with awful eating habits. I’ve always had a not-so-great relationship with exercise and food, but I reached a turning point last year. It wasn’t through a weird trick or life hack. I used the same advice we’ve heard for all of our lives: Find a routine and commit to it, and find a support network of people who keep you motivated….

Pay yourself

Like with exercise and food, I was never good with money. Paycheck comes in, you’re supposed to spend it, I thought….

Relax

Earlier this month in the S.L. newsletter, I wrote about burnout after feeling a lull in my motivation and energy — my mojo was off. Hundreds of readers shared their experiences with burnout as well, and it was eye-opening to see how all of us feel this way sometimes, and that’s perfectly fine….

Those are just snippets. Want more? You can read the full article here

We Have An App

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Few writers have as much of a knack for taking difficult subjects – especially technology – and making them understandable for the lay person. Tom Friedman is one of those people.

I read his book, “Thank You for Being Late” some time ago, and found it interesting and enlightening. However, I never really felt I was able to capture succinctly just what the book was about. Then I came across an old review of the book in the Wall Street Journal. Here’s how it began:

Change is nothing new. Nobel laureate Bob Dylan sang that the times they were a-changin’ back in 1964. What has changed is the pace of change: “The three largest forces on the planet—technology, globalization, and climate change—are all accelerating at once,” notes New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman in “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.” Gradual change allows for adaptation; one generation figures out trains, another airplanes. Now, in a world where taxi-cab regulators will figure out Uber just in time for self-driving cars to render such services obsolete, “so many aspects of our societies, workplaces, and geopolitics are being reshaped and need to be reimagined.” All of it creates a sense of discomfort and provokes backlash—witness Brexit and the American presidential election. Yet there is cause for optimism, Mr. Friedman believes. Humans are crafty creatures.

In this book, Mr. Friedman tries to press pause. The title comes from the author’s exclamation to a tardy breakfast companion: The unexpected downtime had given him an opportunity to reflect. If we all take such time to think, he claims, we can figure out how to “dance in a hurricane.” It’s a comforting idea, though one wonders why, if Mr. Friedman was so happy for this pre-breakfast downtime, he was busily scheduling daily breakfast meetings in the first place. Likewise, this ambitious book, while compelling in places, skips about a lot. His attempt to cover much of the history of modern technology, for instance, quickly descends into gee-whiz moments and ubiquitous exclamation points. Big-belly garbage cans have sensors that wirelessly announce when they need to be emptied, and so Mr. Friedman marvels that “yes, even the garbageman is a tech worker now. . . . That garbage can could take an SAT exam!”

Want to read more

Avoiding Past Mistakes

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America’s heart is usually the right place when it goes to war, but sometimes we don’t think it through. A recent article by Joe Meacham helped me understand why. Here’s how he began:

The passage, from a book read three decades back, came to mind not long ago. A tweet-driven tumult was, as usual, roiling Washington. Surly and defiant, President Trump was ensconced in the White House, lashing out like King Lear with a cellphone. The issue of the hour was our policy toward a defiant North Korea, and the president had chosen that moment to boast that his nuclear button was bigger than Kim Jong-un’s — hardly an Achesonian diplomatic strategy.

Which doubtless would have pleased, rather than troubled, Trump, who, like Miranda in “The Tempest,” looks upon each day as a “brave new world” that offers him fresh opportunities to star in a global drama of his own direction. Shifting between cable news and my own Twitter feed, I recalled the historian Barbara W. Tuchman’s observation in her 1984 book “The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.” “Wooden-headedness” in statecraft, which she defined as “assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs,” has clearly become a prevailing factor in our politics. As Tuchman wrote, wooden-headedness was best captured in a remark about Philip II of Spain: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.”

Why did the Trojans allow the Greek horse within the gates? How did the Renaissance papacy so badly misjudge the moment, accelerating the Protestant Reformation? What could the British ruling class have done differently to keep the American colonies within London’s reach? Who, if anyone, could have prevented Washington’s tragic misadventure in Vietnam? These were Tuchman’s topics, and now, in our own time, we are forced to ponder the why, the how, the what and the who about America in the Age of Trump. “A prince, says Machiavelli,” Tuchman wrote, “ought always to be a great asker and a patient hearer of truth about those things of which he has inquired, and he should be angry if he finds that anyone has scruples about telling him the truth. What government needs is great askers.” To put it mildly, though, the Trump White House seems more “Shark Tank” than Brain Trust.

Tuchman’s literary legacy is various and important. She wrote well about many things, including the coming of World War I (“The Guns of August,” a favorite of John F. Kennedy’s, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1963), the Black Plague (“A Distant Mirror”), the Far East (“Stilwell and the American Experience in China”) and the American Revolution (“The First Salute”). There is something notable, though, about “The March of Folly,” a collection of sketches about mature countries getting things woefully wrong.

You can read the full review here

Too Busy?

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Full disclosure – I’m a boomer. I know, we’re the generation accused of not only knowing it all, but of having it all. Fine.

It should come as no surprise that most of our friends are boomers as well – or that the majority of them are retired. But they are busy – often crazy busy. What’s going on?

David Ekerdt’s article in the Wall Street Journal helped shed some light on why – as well as alternative approach. Here’s how he began:

In the 1980s, I interviewed men about their transitions from work to retirement. I didn’t need to talk to them very long before many told me how busy they were. “I’m busier than ever.” “I’m so busy now that I don’t know how I found the time to work.”

Thirty years later, I see no letup in this emphasis on busy retirements. If anything, it has gotten more pronounced, especially as the baby boomers start to leave behind careers in pursuit of their next acts. For today’s retirees, busy boasting is the new status symbol—the idea that there is no time to rest when there are so many places to see, causes to champion, classes to take, languages to learn and businesses to start.

I am all for people pursuing their dreams. But based on decades of studying retirement and retirees, I am convinced that something else is happening here. Too many people may be bending their dreams to the expectations of others. They’re following the paths that cultural norms, peer pressure and commercial interests are mapping out for them, bypassing alternatives for more control and contentment in retirement.

A busy retirement is absolutely fine. But so is a not-so-busy retirement.

How did we get to this place, where busy is seen as the default pace of life? Blame much of it on the cultural value we place on hard work, and the ennobling status that it confers. A full life in retirement provides moral continuity with what went before. How many times do we hear—and laud—the executive who never takes vacation, or answers email at all hours? If this is something to be applauded, why would we expect that to change suddenly, just because a career ends?

Want more? You can read the full piece here

Women Writers

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If there is one field where I believe the playing field between women and men is level, it’s the profession of writing. Both sexes have hit it out of the park with their stories and books.

I wondered about this, that is, until I read a review of Michelle Dean’s new book: “Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion.” Here’s how the review begins:

One must have a mind of winter,” Wallace Stevens writes in his poem “The Snow Man.” It’s the cold eye that beholds, without sentimentality or fear, “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” In “Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion,” the journalist Michelle Dean has rounded up 10 minds of winter, all of them female, all of them prominent writers whose criticism, long-form reporting, fiction and satire have shaped thinking on world events and cultural dramas: Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler and Janet Malcolm. Dean gathered these women together, she says in her preface, “under the sign of a compliment that every one of them received in their lives: They were called sharp.”

It is, of course, a compliment with an edge. Call a man “sharp” and he’s stylish, incisive, smart. Apply it to a woman, Dean writes, and there’s a “sense of terror underlying it. Sharpness, after all, cuts.” A virtue of her book is that it shows how each woman, by wielding a pen as if it were a scalpel or a scimitar, confounded the gender norm of niceness and placed her analytical prowess front and center. Among 20th-century intellectuals, “men might have outnumbered women, demographically,” Dean writes, but “in the arguably more crucial matter of producing work worth remembering, the work that defined the terms of their scene, the women were right up to par — and often beyond it.” I agree with her.

Want more? You can read the full review here

Last Man Standing

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I count myself as one of the many admirers of Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. This regard dates back to well before his current job, going back to his service as a Marine Corps Officer.

Much appropriate good has been said about general Mattis, but it wasn’t until I read Robert Worth’s New York Times Magazine piece about General Mattis that I fully appreciated all of the great qualities he brings to the job. Here is how the article begins:

One morning in mid-November, while answering routine press questions about aircraft carriers off the Korean Peninsula and de-confliction zones in Syria, Jim Mattis quietly hinted at something far more important. The United States would not be withdrawing its forces from Syria after the anticipated defeat of ISIS, as President Trump had been promising since his inauguration. Instead, the defense secretary suggested that American forces not only would remain but could even expand their role. “We’re going to make sure we set the conditions for a diplomatic solution,” Mattis said. “You need to do something about this mess now. Not just, you know, fight the military part of it and then say, ‘Good luck on the rest of it.’ ”

In a quieter time, Mattis’s comments might have made headlines: Here was a potential shift in America’s tortured efforts to manage the Middle East, and one that was bound to ignite conflict with Turkey, a NATO member and ally. In late December, Mattis offered more details at another briefing, saying that America was moving from a purely offensive role in Syria to a “stabilizing” one. He spoke of sending more diplomats and contractors, reopening schools, bolstering public health — a plan that would grow to include deploying new border forces and promoting economic renewal, all with a view toward helping Syrians topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Although the number of United States boots on the ground would remain small, for now, the goals were ambitious and a little gauzy, and sounded an awful lot like the “nation building” that Trump had so often derided during his presidential campaign.

Want more? You can read the full piece here

We’re Better Than This

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News of the recent White House Correspondent’s Association Dinner has reached a near-saturation point, so I’d posting this blog advisedly.

My day job – as well as my personal and professional interests – revolve around international relations. That leads directly to worrying about America’s standing in the world.

From where I set, the White House Correspondent’s Association Dinner knocked America’s standing down more notches than I care to think about.

I’ve had many thoughts as to why this event was so troubling but had trouble articulating them. Then I read Peggy Noonan’s op-ed and things became clear. Here’s how she began:

It’s over, the conversation has turned and won’t bubble up again till early next year but a final thing should be said about the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. It’s been persuasively argued that the dinner hurt journalism (true) and politics in general (yes). But I think it hurt America.

Here, with apologies but to make a point (the TV clips don’t capture it) is a sample of the comic stylings of Michelle Wolf, in the centerpiece speech of the evening. To put things in historical context, the tampon joke is very much like what Walter Lippmann said of Mamie Eisenhower. Oh wait, that’s wrong. But the banging bimbos reference is reminiscent of what Bobby Kennedy said about Scotty Reston. Oh dear, that’s wrong too. Anyway here’s what Michelle Wolf said.

On Mike Pence : “He thinks abortion is murder, which, first of all, don’t knock it till you try it. And when you do try it, really knock it—you know, you’ve got to get that baby out of there.” Paul Ryan has been circumcised. “Unfortunately, while they were down there they also took his balls.” Ivanka Trump is “about as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons.” “She’s the Diaper Genie of the administration: on the outside, she looks sleek, but the inside, it’s full of sh—.” “Like a porn star when she’s about to have sex with Donald Trump, ‘Let’s get this over with.’ ” “Oh, you don’t think he’s good in bed.” Of Sarah Sanders: “Like, what’s Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women? Oh I know, Aunt Coulter. ” Also, she’d like to make fun of Democrats but they’re “harder to make fun of because you guys don’t do anything.” Lucky them.

The above is an abridged version of Ms. Wolf’s quotes, because most of them didn’t make it past my editors. These are the tamer ones.

What’s wrong with those remarks? You’re thinking of words like vulgar, grubby and immature, and you’re right, and you’re detecting an embarrassing fixation on sexual organs and bodily functions, and you’re right there too.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Facebook

Facebook has been in the news recently – that’s an understatement. The recent travails the tech giant has undergone are well-chronicalled, and don’t need repeating here.

But some were identifying the downside of Facebook’s size some time ago. Here is what Ross Douthat shared almost two years ago in his piece: “Facebook’s Subtle Empire:”

IN one story people tell about the news media, we have moved from an era of consolidation and authority to an era of fragmentation and diversity. Once there were three major television networks, and everyone believed what Walter Cronkite handed down from Sinai. Then came cable TV and the talk radio boom, and suddenly people could seek out ideologically congenial sources and tune out the old mass-culture authorities. Then finally the Internet smashed the remaining media monopolies, scattered news readers to the online winds, and opened an age of purely individualized news consumption.

How compelling is this story? It depends on what you see when you look at Facebook.

In one light, Facebook is a powerful force driving fragmentation and nicheification. It gives its users news from countless outlets, tailored to their individual proclivities. It allows those users to be news purveyors in their own right, playing Cronkite every time they share stories with their “friends.” And it offers a platform to anyone, from any background or perspective, looking to build an audience from scratch.

But seen in another light, Facebook represents a new era of media consolidation, a return of centralized authority over how people get their news. From this perspective, Mark Zuckerberg’s empire has become an immensely powerful media organization in its own right, albeit one that effectively subcontracts actual news gathering to other entities (this newspaper included). And its potential influence is amplified by the fact that this Cronkite-esque role is concealed by Facebook’s self-definition as “just” a social hub.

These two competing understandings have collided in the last few weeks, after it was revealed that Facebook’s list of “trending topics” is curated by a group of toiling journalists, not just an impersonal algorithm, and after a former curator alleged that decisions about which stories “trend” are biased against conservative perspectives.

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