Foreign Affairs: September/October 2020

I’ve got subscriptions to half a dozen different magazines, most of whom I don’t get through.

So I’m trying something new this month: reviews of different magazines, which highlight stories or articles that stuck with me. I’ll also be honest about any sections that I skipped out on, and why.

My hope is that it’ll incentivize me to read them through, and hopefully point you, dear reader, to articles and magazines that you might otherwise miss?

So here we go:

Overview

The theme of the issue is “The World That Trump Made,” but its contents don’t bear that out.

If anything, the articles drive home the fact that Trump has been mostly ineffective or inactive in global affairs. As a result, the world is one that others have made: Japan, China, Russia, Iran, Israel, etc.

And they will continue to do so, as long as the United States abrogates the leadership role it’s played — for good and for ill — over the last eighty years.

Highlights

“A Grand Strategy of Resilience” is a fantastic pulling together of multiple threads, linking social justice movements to the ability of the US to project power abroad. The author rightly points out that an unjust and unequal society is a fragile one, and that great powers cannot weather the storms of global politics if they are not resilient.

I love the concept of resilience, and favor using it as a lens through which to judge policy. It’s the kind of concept that should appeal to both conservatives and liberals: Because who wouldn’t prefer to live in a more flexible, bounce-back kind of country?

“The Tragedy of Vaccine Nationalism” raises a problem I hadn’t even considered: As different countries race to produce a vaccine for Covid-19, what will we do when/if one is found? Once made, how will presumably limited supplies be allocated? And given how global supply chains have gotten, what will we do if one country refuses to manufacture (or drives up prices on) the parts of the vaccine that its companies make?

The author argues that we should be laying the groundwork now for cooperation in sharing and manufacturing any vaccines, so agreements will already be in place by the time one is found. But like so much else, I fear the major powers have no interest in cooperating, and no leaders capable of admitting they might need other countries.

Disappointments

Went into “The Fragile Republic” expecting a good summary of threats both foreign and domestic. Got thrown out of the article just three paragraphs in, though, when the authors reach back to 1798 as their framing device, but name the opposition party as the “Republicans,” instead of the correct “Democratic-Republicans.”

It seems like a small thing, but it incorrectly projects the existence of the Republican Party back an additional sixty years (!). And if they can’t be bothered to get that one detail right (that even this non-specialist knows), how can I trust anything else they say?

“To Protect And Serve” sounds like it’s going to be a wealth of information about police practice in other countries that we can draw from. But the other than “more training,” the one reform the author advocates is a federal takeover of police departments across the US, which would be politically a non-starter and doesn’t help those of us advocating reform of our local police departments.

Skipped Articles

I skipped out on “The End of American Illusion,” an article written by someone who worked in the Trump regime and thinks only he sees the world clearly. I don’t read paeans to strongmen.

Also skipped “Giving Up on God,” because I’m an atheist and the decline of religion worldwide is both not surprising (because it’s been documented since the 1980s) and not worrying (ditto).

Keeping Score: August 28, 2020

Made it through the intro chapters of the novel!

I’m past the inciting event now, and heading into the chapters of the long middle.

Most of the edits for these chapters, so far, have been small things. Removing some extra words here, adjusting the blocking of some characters there. I’m editing more to make things consistent than anything else. Haven’t had to knocks wood do any major re-working of these.

And thank goodness, because just as I turned the corner of the inciting event, I started to only have fifteen minutes a day to work on it.

It’s stress, more than anything else, but I’ve had some schedule shifts as well that have thrown me off. Made it hard to concentrate, to sink into the novel and see what’s missing with what I’ve written.

But the only way out is through, right? So I’m chugging along, working on it when I can, and trying to be patient. The work stress will pass, my schedule will get sorted, and I’ll get back to spending more time on it each day.

That’s the hope, anyway.

Predicting the Next President, by Allan J Lichtman

Hope. It’s a hard thing to come by, for me, when it comes to the federal government.

The election of 2016 was traumatic. My wife and I watched, horrified, as the candidate we thought not even Republicans were crazy enough to pick won first the primary, and then the general election.

Well, “won.” He lost the popular vote by 3 million, and still walked away with the keys to the White House, because of our country’s old, undemocratic way of electing Presidents.

It was so unnerving, when it happened, that we decided not to go home.

We were living in Arkansas at the time, having moved to nurse my wife’s mother back to health after she suffered a cardiovascular incident. It was our first time living in my wife’s home state in seven years, and in that time, the state we remembered as slightly behind the times but neighborly had curdled into a paranoid, xenophobic place.

Bad enough having to live there at all. Living there while their white nationalist leader commanded the federal government? While they crowed about his “achievements” dismantling the legacy of eight years of Obama’s government? While they felt entitled to air out their racism and sexism with impunity, with pride, even, because their man was in the White House?

We couldn’t do it.

So we lived on the East Coast that winter, crashing with friends — amazing friends, to put up with us for so long — and moved back to California, renting an apartment sight unseen. We drove cross-country, stopped in Arkansas just long enough to pack, and then moved on.

Now, after four years of Trump’s chaos, his rage and his incompetence, we’ve another election looming. And that same fear is back, that he’ll win again, and our country, which has never been innocent, but has at times fought against its darker impulses, will instead succumb to them.

So Lichtman’s theory of presidential elections — that the campaign doesn’t matter, that the candidates themselves almost don’t matter, only the past four years of governing do — gives me hope. Because after four years in power, the GOP has lost seven (!) of his thirteen “keys” to the White House, and you only need to lose six to lose the election.

Which means I can ignore the polls. I can tune out — to some extent — the campaign itself. I can focus on voting, on helping others to vote, and preventing election fraud.

And I can hope.

Keeping Score: August 21, 2020

I seem to always discover new things about the story while I’m writing it.

It shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but it does. Somehow, no matter how much time I spend thinking about and planning a scene, simply by writing it out, my brain will come up with new ideas and connections to other parts of the story.

It’s all good stuff, and I’m grateful, but it’d be a touch more convenient if I could think of these things while I’m outlining. That way, I wouldn’t have to go back and revise other parts of the book to match the new things I’ve come up with while writing a scene.

Don’t get me wrong: the fact that I can come up with anything at all, instead of just staring at the screen like a deer caught in a truck’s headlights, is fantastic.

It’s also just a tad bit annoying, sometimes.

Which is to say: I’m making progress on the novel edits.

Looping, patchwork, scattered progress, but progress all the same.

Right now I’m trying to nail down the intro chapters, the first five or so. I want them to do quite a lot: Introduce the main character, and their (normal-day) problems, lay the ground work for a mystery that pops up later, orient the reader in the setting, introduce some antagonists, and make all that interesting enough so the inciting incident is worth sticking around for.

Oh, and they’ve also got to setup the stakes for the inciting incident, have the incident itself, and then pave the way for those consequences to play out.

It’s a heavy responsibility for those first chapters to carry. And before I started making these changes, they weren’t quite up to it.

But I think they can be! So long as I make the right changes.

So that’s what I’ve been working on this week, and will likely keep working on into next week.

I feel a bit like a director on a movie, making changes to the set design between each take (and also changing the script. and the blocking. the actors hate me). I go in and add a machine there, change the readout on a display there, redirect the lighting over there, and then let the scene play out again. Or scratch a scene entirely and replace it with something new, in a new location.

It’s slow going, but it’s fun! Kind of. Makes me grateful no one’s had to read the earlier drafts. This one’s going to be bad enough.

The End of Policing, by Alex S. Vitale

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve always been afraid of the police.

Not that I have any negative experience to make me afraid. No, I grew up White and privileged, shielded from the things they did to others.

Yet I was afraid. And I was right to be.

Because if the police can pull you over for a broken taillight, insist on a search of your car, and choke you to death when you resist said illegal search, you never want to be pulled over.

If the police can raid your house on an anonymous tip and kill your dog when it tries to protect you from the armed intruders violating your home, then leave without even an apology when they learn it’s the wrong home, you never want to have them pay you a visit.

And if they have the power to insist that the only way you’re going to get help with your heroin addiction is to plead guilty to a crime that hurt no one but yourself, you never want to ask them for help.

But that’s where we are, in the United States. We’ve expanded the role and powers of police so much, that the often the only hand being held out for those who are homeless, or addicts, or mentally disturbed, is the one holding a gun.

As we re-examine the place of police in our society, Vitale’s book is essential reading. It’s not a screed, and not wishful thinking about how everything would be peaceful if the police went away.

Instead, it takes a hard look at what the police are for, and then dares to ask the question: Are they successful at it?

As it turns out, they’re not. They’re not any good at solving homelessness, or making sex work safe, or getting addicts into recovery, or reducing gang violence, or helping the mentally ill get treatment, or disciplining school children, or even something as mundane as actually preventing crime.

Police, in a word, are a failure. They’re an experiment that we need to end.

Because the problems we’ve asked them to address can be, just by different means.

We can get the homeless into homes, and use that as a foundation to get them standing on their own again.

We can invest in businesses in and around gang-troubled neighborhoods, to give the people who might join those gangs the opportunity to do something better.

We can find other ways to discipline children than having them handcuffed and marched out of school.

The End of Police is both a passionate plea for us to find a better way, and a dispassionate look at how badly our approaches to these problems have gone wrong.

It’s not too late to try something else. We just need to make the choice.

Keeping Score: August 14, 2020

I’m rather upset with past me.

Finally dove into editing the novel this week. Stopped procrastinating and worrying about the right way to do it, and just started doing it. Figured I’d look for inconsistencies, and touch up language or dialog along the way.

And at first it worked! I chugged along, making small changes, trimming sentences here and there, for four whole chapters.

But then I noticed something: The chapters I’d written (and edited, now for the third time) were all too short.

I’d left out physical descriptions of the characters, so the reader had no guidance on what they looked like.

I’d left out descriptions of the locations they were moving through, so the reader had no way to orient themselves in space.

And I’d left out any discussion of how the characters should react to a crisis, so the reader had no idea of the alternatives, or how bad the crisis really was.

I could tell all this, for the first time, because the reader was me.

I don’t mean that I was literally lost in my own novel. Thank goodness, no, I still knew where everything was, and what everything looks like.

But I’d had enough time off from the book to approach it like a reader. And I’ve recently read some books that had a quick pace and an interesting plot but never gave me enough time to get oriented in the world, so I always felt a little confused.

Both things that let me recognize it when it started happening in my own book.

So this editing pass — draft number three, for those keeping score at home — is turning out to be a “filling in the gaps” pass. Expanding conversations so each character’s whole train of thought is present (or at least enough for the reader to make the tiny leaps required). Spending more time in a space before the plot pushes us out of it, so I can give the reader something to visualize.

Thankfully I’ve been thinking about all of these things for two years now (or three? is it three years?) so I can fill in the gaps when I spot them. But even as I fill in the gaps, I know I’m creating more work for myself. Because each of those filled gaps is now a first draft, and will need to be revised again (and again) before it’s ready to go out.

So thanks, past me. You keep the plot humming along, but you forgot to lay down all the sign posts along the way.

Which Country Has the World’s Best Health Care? by Ezekiel J Emanuel

Today, the US healthcare system occupies a place very like US beer did in the 1990s.

See back then, US beer was a joke to liberals, or anyone that took beer seriously, and a point of patriotic pride to conservatives.

These days, after decades of shifting regulations that allowed the market for craft beer to first find a foothold, then blossom, US craft beer is world-renowned. Numerous pubs in other countries proclaim they serve “American-style craft beer.” People across the political spectrum can take pride in their local brewers, no snobbery or jingoism required.

Our healthcare system has not experienced anything close to that kind of renaissance. Conservatives refuse to countenance any critique of the system, while liberals use it as a tired punching bag. We’re warned of the dangers of “socialist medicine,” all the while my mother-in-law is constantly harassed about a $4,000 bill she doesn’t owe (the hospital filed it wrong with her insurance), doctors and nurses are overworked, and millions go without any sort of insurance.

And, frankly, Medicare for All sounds great, but it scares the bejeezus out of anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders. Not to mention it’s sort of vague on details, and seems to require a rather large leap to get from here to there.

So I was primed for a retread of the old arguments in Which Country Has the World’s Best Healthcare?. US healthcare is terrible, Canada’s is great, etc etc.

Thankfully, that’s not what I got at all. Instead, I found the missing manual, a way to evaluate different healthcare systems around the globe. Along with a proper sense of the history and workings of eleven of them.

Emanuel describes a set of axes along which to measure a healthcare system. Things like patient wait times, or costs at the point of service, or choice of doctors. Then he proceeds to examine each country’s system in turn, looking at the things it does well, the challenges it faces, and — most importantly — how and why it does those things well or badly.

True, the US performs terribly on basically every axis. That’s not news. What is news is that multiple countries manage to provide better coverage, better care, and cheaper care, without giving up private practices, or even — in some cases — letting go of private insurance!

Reading this, I felt both relieved and angry.

Relieved, because with so many different systems out there, no one’s got a monopoly on the “right” way to do things.

Angry, because for so long the debate in the US has been framed as single payer or status quo. When the truth is that we can do a lot to improve our system without letting go of the basic free market nature of it.

How much further would we liberals have gotten, if we’d argued for a regulation of drug prices, instead of single-payer? Or insisted that insurance coverage for children be provided for free, as part of any policy, like it is in other countries with well-regulated markets?

We don’t have to have the government take over as the single payer for everyone. We don’t need to radically overhaul the system. We need to properly regulate it, to get the outcomes we want: patients being able to choose their doctor, use their insurance to help pay for their care, and not go broke obtaining the prescriptions they need.

Framed as the proper regulation of a free market, what could the conservative response have been? I suppose they could argue that Greed is Good, and everyone that has to choose between paying the rent and buying their blood pressure meds deserves it, so the CEO of some corp can enjoy a multi-million dollar bonus.

But that doesn’t have quite the same ring as “death panels,” does it?

So ultimately, I’m grateful that Emanuel and his team chose to write this book, and publish it now. It’s high time we brought a more nuanced, useful debate, to the argument over healthcare.

Keeping Score: August 7, 2020

I need to get back to working on the novel.

I’ve let it sit these past few weeks, untouched, while I finished getting one short story into shape and started plotting a new one.

But if I’m going to meet my personal deadline of having the novel ready to submit to agents by December 1st, I’m going to need to edit this second draft.

To be honest, I’m intimidated. I’ve never edited anything this long before.

How do I even do it? Read it all through, and then go back and edit passages? That sounds…like it’ll take forever.

Or do I work chapter by chapter, editing each one until it’s done, and then moving on? That sounds like an easy way to lose sight of inconsistencies (or to having to go back and edit previous chapters anyway, as inconsistencies show up).

I think what I’m going to do is a series of editing passes. Pick one thing to look for — like the consistency of a single character’s dialog — and edit all instances of that. Then pick something else — the descriptions of a ship, say — and edit all of those.

I’m hoping this will give me a structure in which to do multiple reads over the book, without getting lost in the weeds of any individual chapter. And it should broaden my perspective so I can stitch the book together, so to speak, with these edits. Make it more coherent, more whole.

But what do I do with the short story I’ve been outlining? I don’t want to lose momentum on that. And I worry that the novel, once I start editing it, will take up all the room in my brain for narrative.

I want to work on both. Use the story as a break from the novel, and use the novel as a break from the story. They’re different enough — one’s near-future sci-fi, the other is early modern period fantasy — that I should be able to keep them separate in my head. And editing is different enough from drafting that I’ll be exercising different writing muscles with each.

What about you? What do you do, when you’ve got a longer piece to edit and a shorter one to draft? Do you alternate working days? Finish the shorter piece before editing the longer? How do you handle two stories that both need your attention?

Are Job Degree Requirements Racist?

Since reading Ibram X Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, I’m starting to re-examine certain policies I’ve taken for granted. What I’ve previously thought of as meritocratic or race-neutral might be neither; it might instead be part of the problem.

In that book, he gives a clear criteria for whether a policy or idea is a racist one: Does it establish or reinforce racial inequality?

With that in mind, I thought I’d look at my own house — the tech industry — and at our very real tendency to run companies composed mostly of white males.

There are many reasons why this happens, but I’d like to drill into just one: The university degree requirement.

Most “good jobs” these days require some sort of university degree. Tech goes one step further, and asks for a degree specifically in computer science or another STEM field.

The degree isn’t enough to get the job, of course. Most interview processes still test skill level at some point. But the field of candidates is narrowed, deliberately, via this requirement.

The question is: Does requiring this technical degree bias the selection process towards White people?

Criteria

Before diving into the statistics, let’s back up and talk about the criteria here. How can we tell if the degree requirement biases selection?

In order to do that, we need to know what an unbiased selection process would look like.

And here is where it’s important to note the composition of the general US population (and why the Census being accurate is so very very important). If all things are equal between racial groups, then the composition of Congress, company boards, and job candidates will reflect their percentages in the population.

Anything else is inequality between the races, and can only be explained in one of two ways: either you believe there are fundamental differences between people in different racial groups (which, I will point out, is a racist idea), or there are policies in place which are creating the different outcomes.

With that criteria established, we can examine the possible racial bias of requiring university degrees by looking at two numbers:

  • How many people of each racial group obtain STEM degrees in the United States?
  • How does that compare to their level in the general population?

Who Has a Degree, Anyway?

According to 2018 data from the US Census, approximately 52 million people (out of a total US population of 350 million) have a bachelor’s degree in the US.

Of those 51 million, 40.8 million are White.

Only 4.7 million are Black.

That means White people hold 79% of all the bachelor degrees, while Black people hold only 9%.

Their shares of the general population? 76.3% White, 13.4% Black.

So Whites are overrepresented in the group of people with bachelor degrees, and Blacks are underrepresented.

So by requiring any university degree, at all, we’ve already tilted the scales against Black candidates.

Who is Getting Degrees?

But what about new graduates? Maybe the above numbers are skewed by previous racial biases in university admissions (which definitely happened), and if we look at new grads — those entering the workforce — the percentages are better?

I’m sorry, but nope. If anything, it’s worse.

Let’s drill down to just those getting STEM degrees (since those are the degrees that would qualify you for most tech jobs). In 2015, according to the NSF, 60.5% of STEM degrees were awarded to White people, and only 8.7% of them went to Black people.

The same report notes that the percentage of degrees awarded to Black people (~9%) has been constant for the last twenty years.

So universities, far from leveling the racial playing field, actually reinforce inequality.

Conclusion

Simply by asking for a university degree, then, we’re narrowing our field of candidates, and skewing the talent pool we draw from so that White people are overrepresented.

Thus, we’re more likely to select a White candidate, simply because more White people are able to apply.

That reinforces racial inequality, and makes requiring a university degree for a job — any job — a racist policy.

What can we do instead? To be honest, if your current interview process can’t tell candidates who have the right skills from candidates who don’t, then requiring a college degree won’t fix it.

If your interview process leans heavily on discovering a candidate’s background, instead of their skills, re-balance it. Come up with ways to measure the skills of a candidate that do not require disclosure of their background.

In programming, we have all sorts of possible skill-measuring techniques: Asking for code samples, having candidates think through a problem solution during the interview, inviting essay answers to questions that are open-ended but can only be completed by someone with engineering chops.

By asking for a demonstration of skill, rather than personal history, we’d both make our interviews better — because we’d be filtering for candidates who have shown they can do the job — and less biased.

And if we’re serious about increasing diversity in our workplaces, we’ll drop the degree requirement.