Journalist/developer. Interactive editor @frontlinepbs. Builder of @HomicideWatch. Sinophile for fun. Past: @WBUR, @NPR, @NewsHour.
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Google’s Dragonfly abandons “don’t be evil”

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The Google logo on display.

Would you spy on Chinese dissidents for money?

I wouldn’t, and not because I don’t like money or because I think I’m an angelic person who goes far beyond the call of normal morality. Most people just aren’t that low — at least as long as they exist in a broader social context that’s supportive of decent behavior.

But then there’s Google, which after years of resistance has decided to develop a censored search engine called Dragonfly destined for the Chinese market. According to Ryan Gallagher’s blockbuster scoop, Dragonfly “links users’ searches to their personal phone numbers, thus making it easier for the Chinese government to monitor people’s queries.”

It’s not as if Google or its founders are exactly hard up for cash. But the Chinese market is very big and very lucrative, and ultimately, the lure of getting into it proved too large. But of course, once Google crosses this bridge and proves willing to provide this service to the enormous and lucrative Chinese markets, then smaller authoritarian regimes — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, maybe Venezuela, Russia, etc. — that didn’t have this level of market power are going to want it too.

So why is this happening? Well, a big part of it is that while normal people like us live in a morality-supporting social context where if I told people, “I’m going to make some extra cash by helping autocratic regimes spy on their citizens,” they’d be appalled, Google exists in the opposite kind of context. The stock market cares about profits and nothing else, and the prevailing wisdom in corporate America is that shareholder values trump all other considerations. Google is worth discussing in this regard not because it’s an unusually immoral corporation, but because at the behest of co-founder Sergey Brin, it held out much longer than most of corporate America.

But eventually, the inexorable logic of shareholder value will grind down everyone and anything unless something is done about it.

Beyond sociopath economics

The debate around Elizabeth Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act turned rather swiftly to arguing about the specifics of her plan to let workers at large companies elect 40 percent of corporate board members. That’s an important idea. But I also think it’s important to understand it as just one of several suggestions for trying to change the culture of American business away from this relentless focus on shareholder value.

And I think that’s crucial, much more so than any specific legal change.

Now, of course, formally speaking, the way we’re supposed to handle problems in the shareholder value world is that the government makes rules. If we think it’s bad for US tech companies to build censorship tools for autocracies, we could write a law making it illegal. But the Obama Labor Department wrote a regulation that made it illegal for investment adviser firms to deliberately give clients bad advice. The investment adviser firms lobbied against the rule and delayed its implementation, and then when Donald Trump became president, they successfully lobbied to kill it.

According to shareholder value theory, they were obliged to lobby to kill the rule. And now that the rule is dead, they are obliged to try to earn a quick buck by deliberately giving clients bad advice.

That’s just no way for a society to organize itself. The profit motive and market exchange are powerful tools for advancing prosperity. But there is a difference between earning a profit by providing a useful service to your customers and earning a profit by duping your customers. There’s no feasible way to make every instance of duping illegal, but we can realistically imagine a society in which people who rip off customers for money face social opprobrium.

Indeed, it’s a reenforcing cycle. Most Google staff seems mildly discontented about Dragonfly. But if everyone’s assumption is that businesses have to do what’s best for the bottom line, then the staff will get over it and making Dragonfly really will be what’s best for the bottom line. But if Google employees’ understanding is that business is an area for moral action and executives have a real option to say no to being evil, then a decision to deliberately choose evil would meaningfully hurt Google in the Silicon Valley war for talent. And that would be a business reason to avoid being evil.

This is an abbreviated web version of The Weeds newsletter, a limited-run newsletter through Election Day, that dissects what’s really at stake in the 2018 midterms. Sign up to get the full Weeds newsletter from Matt Yglesias in your inbox, plus more charts, tweets, and email-only content.

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chrisamico
5 days ago
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Your Public Library Is Where It’s At

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Brooklyn Public Library Card Sociologist Eric Klinenberg in an op-ed piece for The New York Times: Libraries are being disparaged and neglected at precisely…

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chrisamico
6 days ago
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Our System Is Too Broken to Assess the Sexual Assault Claim Against Kavanaugh

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This, then, was the fatal flaw of #MeToo: We thought that patriarchal systems, based in entrenched power, and supported by others in power, could be brought down by individual, brave women.

Why don’t women come forward? The story now unfolding on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and an unidentified woman who alleges that he sexually assaulted her when they were in high school underscores why. This is what we do know: The woman went to her congresswoman with a complaint about President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, that dated back to high school. The complaint is that he and another boy violently assaulted (but did not rape) her at a party. She put that complaint in a letter, which the congresswoman will not discuss, citing confidentiality. That letter was also sent to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office, who promised confidentiality.

In adhering to this promise of confidentiality, Feinstein’s office did not share the letter with other Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee and did not question Kavanaugh about the event during his hearings. It was only this week that other Democrats got wind of the letter and began to demand that its contents be shared with them. On Wednesday, the Intercept was the first to report on the controversy, and on Friday morning, Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer at the New Yorker reported the specifics of the allegations contained in the letter:

In the letter, the woman alleged that, during an encounter at a party, Kavanaugh held her down, and that he attempted to force himself on her. She claimed in the letter that Kavanaugh and a classmate of his, both of whom had been drinking, turned up music that was playing in the room to conceal the sound of her protests, and that Kavanaugh covered her mouth with his hand. She was able to free herself.

Feinstein’s team explained its decision to not make the letter public in the following statement:

Senator Feinstein was given information about Judge Kavanaugh through a third party. The Senator took these allegations seriously and believed they should be public. However, the woman in question made it clear she did not want this information to be public. It is critical in matters of sexual misconduct to protect the identity of the victim when they wish to remain anonymous, and the senator did so in this case.

What we can gather from this chain of events is that at some point this summer, the woman changed her mind—as the New Yorker put it, “after the interactions with Eshoo’s and Feinstein’s offices, the woman decided not to speak about the matter publicly.” We can litigate until the end of time whether Senate Democrats should have been given the letter sooner and who was in the best position to evaluate the weight of her claims. The better question is why a woman making claims about a sexual attack would change her mind about levying them. The controversy that has ensued since the Intercept publicized the existence of this letter and its accusation serves as a perfectly coherent argument for why.

Almost anyone who has played any part in the #MeToo movement might say with confidence that the cost of coming forward is crippling. And indeed, as soon as the New Yorker published its story, Kavanaugh defenders were quick to say that the woman, still unnamed, was a drunk and a liar. Had I been asked to advise this woman, who, according to the New Yorker, is already in trauma, and according to CNN has sought medical help for it, I would have told her to stand down. I would have told her that neither politics nor journalism are institutions that can evaluate and adjudicate facts about systems in which powerful men use their power to harm women. I would have told her that she would be risking considerable peril to her personal reputation, even as she would be lauded as a hero. I would have also told her that powerful men have about a three-month rehabilitation period through which they must live, after which they can be swept up once again in the slipstream of their own fame and success. The women of #MeToo, though, are never quite welcome in the slipstream again. And if you closely observe how one of the most intimate and frightening moments of this anonymous woman’s life is currently being tossed around for political gain, I suspect you might come to agree with me.

The real tragedy is that we do not need this woman’s story to understand who the current Supreme Court nominee is. Because here is what we do know about Judge Kavanaugh: We know that he clerked for and had a yearslong close relationship with a serial abuser of women and claims he knew nothing about it. He claims he doesn’t recall being on a hypersexualized and misogynistic email list and claims he didn’t bother to search to determine whether he was. He claims that when the serial abuser of women for whom he clerked was revealed to be a serial abuser of women, he believed the victims and yet called the abuser, because he was worried about the abuser’s mental health. Worrying more about the accused judge than the accusers one claims to believe is the system protecting the system. This is why women don’t come forward.

Here is what we do know about Judge Kavanaugh. We know that he was part of a group of young men who saw fit to write a creepy racist and misogynistic email chain—and to pledge to keep it secret. We also know that the “neutral” George W. Bush lawyer who vetted Kavanaugh’s papers (and also represents the disgraced judge for whom Kavanaugh once clerked) deemed one of those emails classified, even though it contained no national security or political secrets. Withholding that email was the system protecting the system. That is why women don’t come forward.

Here is what we do know about Judge Kavanaugh. He had an opportunity to use all these questions around all these periods in his life to say anything at all about men and power and the female victims of that power, and about the systems that protect and reify and rehabilitate men in power, and he said nothing. Worse, he said he believed the victims of that system while still doing nothing to support or credit them. This is why women don’t come forward.

And so, a woman considered coming forward to the Senate Judiciary Committee. We’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well for her. We do not know who she is, or what her precise claims were, or how credible they might be, or whether she had reported the episode contemporaneously, or whether there were other witnesses. We know nothing. What we do know is that she was promised confidentiality and that reporters are now camped out on her doorstep offering to help her become a hero to the #MeToo movement.

The problem is that demanding that any one woman bear the full professional and social and emotional cost of dismantling the machinery of men in power propping up other men in power is expecting entirely too much. We already know that one victim speaking up isn’t enough. The entire vast apparatus of the institution will be brought to bear against her, and that is the same apparatus that she must report to and hope to be believed by, all while knowing she must continue to work within it. Asking that any one woman do such a thing isn’t just a call for moral heroism. It’s also irrational.

It’s particularly irrational when the man in question is in the process of being confirmed to a Supreme Court seat with political stakes that are beyond high. The system that has gotten Brett Kavanaugh to this point has done so by scrambling powerful former clerks to defend him, and positioning powerful Republican lawyers to classify his emails, and standing together to simultaneously claim that it believes the Kozinski accusers and also believes they are political operatives sent to embarrass him.
Why would we think that this is a system into which we could input a complicated allegation of sexual misconduct and get out anything rational or fact-based in return?

In a statement released late Friday, Anita Hill noted that she has seen firsthand what happens when an ostensibly neutral process to adjudicate facts is “weaponized against an accuser,” and she reminds us that nothing about this process treated the woman as anything other than instrumental, and that nothing about this process was “fair” or “neutral.”  When she received a Mirror Award this summer for her reporting on Charlie Rose, my colleague Irin Carmon said this in her speech: “The stories that we have been doing are about a system. The system has lawyers and a good reputation. It has publicists. It has a perfectly reasonable explanation about what happened. It has powerful friends that will ask if it’s really worth ruining the career of a good man based on what one women says, what four women say, what 35 women say. Indeed, the system is sitting in this room. Some more than others. The system is still powerful men getting stories killed that I believe will one day see the light of day.”

The system made certain that whatever this woman had to say, or didn’t have to say, would be evaluated by people with partial information and an agenda, even if she didn’t want to share it in the first place. The system is still sitting in this room. The system kind of is this room. The system keeps asking why women in trauma didn’t come forward earlier or later or publicly or privately or anonymously or with evidence or without evidence. The system is why women don’t talk, and even when they do, why things don’t change.



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chrisamico
8 days ago
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Why Ayanna Pressley’s Upset Win In Massachusetts Isn’t Really Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s

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When Michael Capuano became mayor of Somerville, Massachusetts (my hometown), in 1990, the post-industrial streetcar suburb a few miles north of Boston was still known by the nickname “Slummerville.” Over the next nine years, and then for 20 more from the U.S. House of Representatives, Capuano helped transform Somerville into a hipster haven — one of the most desirable places in Massachusetts for young professionals to live — by rezoning, expanding public transportation and investing in education. Ironically, on Tuesday, the new, progressive voter base that has flooded Somerville as a result played a key role in denying Capuano an 11th term in Congress.

Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley’s 59-41 percent victory over Capuano in the Democratic primary in Massachusetts’s 7th Congressional District will surely get the easy comparisons to Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset of Rep. Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th District back in June. And there are some parallels. Both were liberal women of color running against older, white, male incumbents in majority-minority districts. But as I wrote in my preview of the race, Capuano-Pressley had many important nuances that are worth keeping in mind:

  • It didn’t come out of nowhere. Everyone knew this would be a competitive race. The district was publicly polled at least three times (i.e., pollsters thought it worth surveying). Capuano spent more than $1.7 million on his defense, spurred in part by the knowledge that Pressley was deploying $767,000 of her own. Both sides aired television ads. An “upset” it may have been, but it should not have “stunned” anyone who was paying attention.
  • It wasn’t progressive vs. moderate. Pressley herself said that there was little daylight between her and Capuano on the issues. Capuano has a -.580 DW-Nominate score,44 making him the most liberal Democrat in the Massachusetts delegation and well to the left of Crowley. Meanwhile, more moderate Democrats like Rep. Richard Neal in Massachusetts’s 1st District and Rep. Stephen Lynch in the 8th District won their primaries by 40 and 47 percentage points, respectively. Ideology doesn’t explain Capuano’s loss.
  • It wasn’t insider vs. outsider. Pressley has been an at-large city councilor in Boston for nine years. Before that, she worked for 16 years as a congressional aide to the most establishment Democrats imaginable, Joe Kennedy II and John Kerry. She won a rising star award from Emily’s List in 2015. She was no political newbie like Ocasio-Cortez and in fact was a well-credentialed political insider.
  • It (probably) wasn’t just white vs. nonwhite. Because of the 7th District’s dark-blue hue, Pressley is extremely likely to become the first woman of color to represent Massachusetts in Congress. People will be quick to connect that to the fact that non-Hispanic whites are a minority (42 percent) of the 7th District’s total population. However, non-Hispanic whites make up 55 percent of registered voters in the district, so it probably wasn’t just that nonwhites voted for Pressley and whites voted for Capuano. (This was also probably true of Ocasio-Cortez and Crowley, by the way.) This is apparent from the town-by-town results: Chelsea, which is just 23 percent non-Hispanic white, voted 54-46 for Capuano, while the aforementioned Somerville — 70 percent non-Hispanic white, 58 percent under the age of 35 — voted for Capuano just 50.4-49.6. We’ll have to wait for precinct-level results to know for sure, but it looks like Pressley cinched her victory by winning young, college-educated white voters.

So if none of these things explain the change on the Charles, what does?

Maybe voters agreed with Pressley’s argument that Congress needs politicians with different “lived experiences” — in her case, surviving sexual assault or being raised by a single mother. Maybe identity politics did play a role, just in an unexpected way. Maybe it was “woke” white voters who preferred to see an African-American represent a majority-minority district and voted accordingly. Maybe voters agreed with the assertion that top House Democrats should yield to the next generation of leaders and, unable to vote Nancy Pelosi out of office directly, opted for Pressley (age 44) over Capuano (66). Maybe Pressley’s gender was actually the No. 1 factor; there is clear evidence that women have outperformed men in Democratic primaries this year.

Personally, I think the simplest explanation is the best one: Voters just wanted new blood. Even in the absence of an ideological, qualificational or racial divide, “incumbent” vs. “non-incumbent” alone may be all the contrast you need. That’s backed up by the fact that Capuano wasn’t the only incumbent toppled on Tuesday — far from it. Two members of the Democratic leadership in the Massachusetts state House, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeffrey Sánchez and Assistant Majority Leader Byron Rushing, also lost their primaries. They were, respectively, the highest-ranking Latino and black lawmakers in the legislature, suggesting it was the “highest-ranking” part and not the race part that led to their and Capuano’s defeats. What’s more, both Sánchez’s and Rushing’s districts overlap with the 7th Congressional District, so it was the same voters who engineered all three upsets.45 That said, the anti-incumbent wave was confined to that corner of the state. Neal and Lynch won their primaries, as did Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin over a voguish liberal challenger, 68-32. So there was clearly an energy around the 7th District that did not exist elsewhere — perhaps created by Pressley, perhaps merely harnessed.

Or maybe not. It will be hard to ever know for sure what happened in Massachusetts’s 7th District on Tuesday. There were probably many reasons for Pressley’s win. With so many primaries all over the country, you could connect the dots in just about any way you want.

At the least, I recommend fighting the urge to oversimplify it into a “progressive vs. establishment” proxy war. If any primary demonstrates the shortcomings of that frame, it’s this one.



CORRECTION (Sept. 5, 2018, 9:48 a.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly described Capuano’s tenure as Somerville mayor. He served in that office for nine years, not eight.

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chrisamico
10 days ago
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Captain Marvel and the great ponytail debate for female superheroes

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Captain Marvel's luscious locks are just the latest example of comic-book movies overlooking practical hairstyles for the modern working woman. How are Wonder Woman and her ilk supposed to kick butt with all those thick manes in their face?

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chrisamico
15 days ago
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Movies Watched, July 2018

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Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in “Mission: Impossible–Fallout” In spite of all the high-minded cinema fare I profess to care for so deeply, the movies I get most…

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chrisamico
19 days ago
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This might be the best think piece I’ve read on the Mission: Impossible franchise.
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