State of the Union

How Do We Fix the Ivy League?

What’s the problem with Ivy League schools these days? According to William Deresiewicz, their problems are legion. In an article for The New Republic, he cautions parents and students against pursuing an Ivy League institution. The schools are mere machines, he writes, drawing students who are “smart and talented and driven,” yet also “trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” He explains further:

So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error. Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time. I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class. She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion.

Peter Lawler has recognized this problem in the past, and points to our technification of education as a large part of the problem. “I’ve long believed that the main threat to liberal education—real higher education, in my view—is our tendency to judge the success of academics in technical terms,” he wrote recently at Minding the Campus. “… The art of teaching is becoming a technology defined by skills, competencies, machine-based grading, ‘smart’ classrooms, rubrics, and expert-generated ‘best practices.’” Lawler calls professors back to a mode of teaching in which history, philosophy, and literature are not lost in the quantifiable and scientific: in which professors mind their students’ “souls” and virtues.

In his article, Deresiewicz points to some problems in the admissions process, and offers some suggestions on how to fix it. A lot of his propositions are intriguing:

The education system has to act to mitigate the class system, not reproduce it. Affirmative action should be based on class instead of race, a change that many have been advocating for years. Preferences for legacies and athletes ought to be discarded. SAT scores should be weighted to account for socioeconomic factors. Colleges should put an end to résumé-stuffing by imposing a limit on the number of extracurriculars that kids can list on their applications. They ought to place more value on the kind of service jobs that lower-income students often take in high school and that high achievers almost never do.

… More broadly, they need to rethink their conception of merit. If schools are going to train a better class of leaders than the ones we have today, they’re going to have to ask themselves what kinds of qualities they need to promote. Selecting students by GPA or the number of extracurriculars more often benefits the faithful drudge than the original mind.

Deresiewicz is right: admissions departments are more likely to pull students based on their amount of technical abilities and measurable gifts than their more abstract (yet often more virtuous or innovative) talents. Even the colleges who acknowledge this problem are struggling to change. They are used to using numbers to measure and make all decisions, and their desire for quantifiable control can turn almost humorous. As Eric Hoover wrote for Nautilus, Read More…

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Obamacare vs. Dr. Evil’s Legal Eagles

Decades ago, a few friends and I were listening to Not For Kids Only, an album of Appalachian folk songs recorded for charity by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. An older brother entered the scene, barking, “What’re you guys listening to? This stuff’s for kids!” My friend, who, it should be noted, was quite stoned, retorted, “No! It says right here—‘not’ for kids only.’ ”

I thought of my old buddy, bless his heart, when I learned of the D.C. Circuit’s ruling—its “ringing affirmation … of the rule of law,” according to the reliably florid Charles C.W. Cooke—on Obamacare’s insurance-exchange subsidies.

The right’s chortling reaction, in sum: It says right here — “Exchanges established by the State”!

I’d sincerely like to imagine that Cato’s Michael Cannon was stoned when he discovered this quirk in the text of the Affordable Care Act. But I’m afraid it’s a lot easier to imagine the pinkie ring and prideful guffawing of Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil.

I didn’t think “They’re going to make you buy broccoli next” could be topped.

Oh, was I wrong.

The two judges who comprised a majority of the D.C. Circuit panel argued that the government failed to provide evidence that the authors of the law did not intend to funnel subsidies through state exchanges only. Well, why would such evidence exist—if, as seems exceedingly likely, it never occurred to anyone that the subsidies were so structured until Cannon announced his discovery? “It was a carrot dangled in front of states, just like the promise of more Medicaid money,” the plaintiffs speculated. If so, then why the backstop of a federal exchange? What’s the point of the thing if not to convey subsidies to eligible customers? Much to the dismay of supporters of the ACA, there was no Plan B after the Supreme Court allowed states to opt out of the Medicaid expansion. And so the money remains unspent.

There’s no getting around the fact that those who drafted the law are guilty of a linguistic oversight. In a sane world, the matter would have been dispatched through a technical corrections bill, much as President Clinton and Congress ironed out a kink in U.S. Code that granted citizenship to those born abroad and one of whose parents was a U.S. citizen. Before the correction, the government granted citizenship only to those whose fathers were citizens.

But we’re not living in a sane world right now. We’re living in the world of massive resistance.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m hardly a fan of Obamacare. I’m with those who champion a cheaper and cleaner method of achieving universal coverage. I suppose it could be argued that the Halbig case is one way of getting there. But when its mastermind heads the “Anti-Universal Coverage Club,” I kind of doubt it.

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Fear and Loathing in Guantanamo Bay

The Guantanamo Bay detention center briefly reasserted its presence in the public consciousness this month with the news that a single Navy nurse refused to participate in the force-feeding of detainees on hunger strike. Quietly feted by civil liberties advocates, the story quickly slipped off the radar. The Pentagon confirmed that the nurse “has been temporarily assigned to alternate duties with no impact to medical support operations”—in other words, the torturous force feedings, instituted in 2006, will continue unabated.

Gitmo currently houses 149 inmates. Fewer than 20 detainees have been charged, and 78 are cleared for release—a status some have held for more than half a decade. About 45 prisoners are scheduled for indefinite detention, never to see a day in court.

The tepid response to the nurse’s moral stand is not surprising. Despite the fervor of outspoken antiwar protesters during the Bush years, the broader public has never cared much about the welfare of those imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, innocent or no. Support for closing the facility peaked at 51 percent in early 2009. That high corresponded with the first inauguration of President Barack Obama, who took office trumpeting his intentions to put an end to Bush-era abuses like Guantanamo, which he labeled a betrayal of American ideals.

A year after the inauguration, the Obama administration’s now-extensive history of Gitmo excuse-making was well underway. “Political opposition” caused the President to break his promise. Temper your expectations, an anonymous White House official suggested, “The president can’t just wave a magic wand and say that Gitmo will be closed.” But of course—of course!—it’s still going to happen.

Come 2011, we found the President admitting that the facility won’t be closed in the near future. “[W]ithout Congress’s cooperation, we can’t do it,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I stop making the case.” And that narrative—the “I really want to close Guantanamo, but Congress just won’t let me!” line—has persisted ever since, typically with a heavy dose of partisan undertones. As Obama moved an issue he once called vital to the restoration of the United States’ moral authority to the backburner, public opinion followed his cue. By 2010, only 39 percent supported closing the prison. Today, just 27 percent are on board.

What’s fascinating about this unwillingness to close Guantanamo Bay as observed in government and citizens alike is the way it encapsulates the charade of modern American politics: a GOP that abandons its support for limited government out of fear, and a Democratic Party whose civil libertarianism is built more on partisan rancor than ethics.

Let’s look at the Republican opposition first—for those partisan undertones in Obama’s narrative are two-faced but not unfounded. Led by hawks like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), congressional Republicans have indeed worked to keep Gitmo open. Polling suggests they have the full support of their GOP constituents—no less than 81 percent want the detention center to stick around—and even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), perhaps Graham’s staunchest foreign policy opponent in the Senate, agrees with his South Carolinian colleague on this point.

But what about Gitmo meshes with the small government philosophy Republicans espouse? Each prisoner costs taxpayers $2.7 million annually, a massive failure on the fiscal responsibility front (federal prison, for comparison, spends $26,000 a year per inmate).

Even worse for conservatives should be the prison’s blatant trampling of constitutional rights. Read More…

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The Dual Crisis

Official White House photo by Pete Souza
Official White House photo by Pete Souza

The two crises are distinct, but there is only one American government to navigate them, and it is doing poorly. Israel caught a good break when (presumably) Ukrainian separatists shot down a civilian airliner over Ukraine: for days it almost completely diverted the world’s attention. The shooting was almost certainly an accident: the rebels had previously shot down Kiev government troop carriers, and would have no conceivable reason to down a Malaysian civilian carrier. Killing 300 non-combatants is a horrific, if not unprecedented, act; the last time a tragedy of this scope occurred was when the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner in the Persian Gulf in 1988, mistaking it for a warplane.

Vladimir Putin, whose government supplied to the rebels the anti-aircraft missile, should acknowledge the error, and express regrets. Yet the source of the Ukraine crisis remains exactly what it was before the downing of MA-17: an aggressive Western move to wrest Ukraine into the Western sphere, culminating eventually in Ukrainian NATO membership. It was the West that encouraged and fomented the coup d’etat which ignited the Ukrainian civil war. The ever present-minded media tends to ignore or overlook this: perhaps the only mainstream American or European writer who strives to keep this context in the public mind is the redoubtable Peter Hitchens, whose regular column and blog in the Mail Online is one of the few mass media venues making any effort to understand the crisis historically.

Obama seems shrunken by the dual crisis. On Monday, he publicly hectored Vladimir Putin to compel the Ukrainian rebels to allow free access to the crash investigators (which of course they should); meanwhile the White House is cranking up new sanctions against Russia, whose main fault lies in having taken measures to prevent Ukraine from being turned into a NATO outpost. (Twenty years hence, if China is sponsoring anti-American coups in Mexico, the anti-Putin brigade may get a taste of how Putin feels.) What most grated about Obama’s statement was its patronizing tone. But its implicit assumption, that Moscow bears direct responsibility and should be punished for whatever the Ukrainian rebels do with weapons supplied to them merits some scrutiny.

If Moscow is responsible, how responsible then is America for the death toll Israel is ringing up in Gaza, which includes hundreds of innocent civilians, many of them children? Unlike the Ukrainian rebels, the Israelis are well trained and know exactly what they are doing. Do the senators who pass unanimous (100 to 0, North Korea style!) resolutions supporting Israel bear responsibility for Israel’s actions?

How responsible is John Kerry, who—in what bids fair to be the single most absurd sentence ever uttered by an American Secretary of State, says “Israel is under siege” by Hamas. Do you suppose Kerry knows what restrictions Israel imposes on Gaza, under “normal circumstances”? Israel controls the population of Gaza, deciding literally who gets in and who gets out. It controls whether Gazans can import spare parts for the devices to help purify their water. It controls whether Gazans can build an airport, or whether Gazans can leave to go to a university. Israel controls whether Gazan fisherman can fish in the seas. And yet, America’s leading diplomat, announces, with a straight face, that Israel is under siege by Hamas. Does Kerry realize that Hamas’s official ceasefire demands—which are of course never mentioned by the American media—are almost entirely devoted to lifting Israel’s siege of Gaza?

And yet one can see the glimmerings of an American media jailbreak. Read More…

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Second-Career Farms: the Future of Agriculture?

As people begin to develop a renewed interest in where their food comes from, many young people and urbanites are seeking out agricultural lifestyles, giving up desk jobs for tractors and field work. But it’s difficult to kickstart a profitable farm, especially as a primary career.

A new initiative in Virginia is striving to help these new farmers—even while encouraging them not to quit their day job. Created through a partnership between Virginia Tech, the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Loudoun Office, and the Loudoun Department of Economic Development, the new program targets Loudoun County residents who are launching second careers in agriculture. Program coordinator Jim Hilleary explained to the Washington Post:

‘Across the nation, there’s this recognition that there is a new type of farmer emerging, and that is generally a second-career farmer,’ he said. ‘Virginia Tech realized that, and they drafted a curriculum for beginning farmers. And what we’ve done here locally is to take part of that statewide curriculum, localize it and apply it to the residents here in Loudoun County.’

These second-career farmers, says the Post, now “account for the majority of new agricultural business owners in the county.” This model will probably continue to increase in popularity: even while a lot of mid-sized farms are suffering, there is a “growing army,” as the New York Times put it, of small local farms, springing up in response to the sprouting market for organic and locavore foods. But many of these aspiring agriculturists don’t know what they’re getting themselves into—and this where Hilleary’s program steps in:

Rather than delve into the technical elements of farming, the worksheet urges aspiring farmers to think more broadly about what they hope to accomplish and to thoroughly consider what a new agricultural venture will demand of spouses, children and other family members.

“That’s where I’d say that this is distinct from other introduction-to-farming programs,” Hilleary said. “It doesn’t teach you how to be a swine producer; it doesn’t teach you how to raise cattle. . . . Rather, it helps you develop a mind-set for the challenges that are to come. And if people say ‘This is not for us,’ then that’s a success, because we just saved them a lot of time and money.”

Modern farming, bombarded by federal regulations and certification requirements, can be an expensive endeavor—even if you only own a small farm. Aspiring farmers need a program like Hilleary’s to help them grapple with the real costs involved in their chosen vocation.

The article reminded me of a piece I read last year about the newest generation of farmers, and how they’re faring: Narratively published a feature about married couple Dan and Kate Marsiglio, who left their teaching jobs in 2005 to start an organic farm. Though they’ve made great improvements over the years, they’ve also found farming to be more difficult than hoped:

In mainstream food magazines and agricultural journals alike, tales of city kids and hedge fund managers trading suits and ties for overalls have many forecasting a future of yeomanry in America. To be sure, new farmers remain hopeful that moment will come. But they’re also the first to report that in beginning farming, the honeymoon period is brief. It is almost a matter of course that regardless of how mentally and physically prepared a new farmer is for long, sweaty days of toil and winters of debt, farming will deliver more stress and heartache than expected.

Eight years after they launched their farm, the Marsiglios are still barely breaking even, and all thought of retirement remains in the murky unknown. Meanwhile, the gritty everyday work of farming grows more wearing with every year.

It will be interesting to see how these new second-career farmers cope with the difficulties of the modern industry—and how they’re received by more established producers in their area. Hilleary mentioned the “raised eyebrows” that these young farmers can get from veteran family farmers, even while “newcomers might have misconceptions about established, conventional farmers.” Hilleary hopes the initiative will bind both groups together: “We want to help them understand that they are tied together by common goals, and they shouldn’t allow themselves to be in categories like old versus new or organic versus conventional,” he said.

The way Americans farm seems to be evolving at present—current growth represents a more decentralized mode of agriculture that seems popular and promising. It may be years or even decades before such endeavors turn into full-time work. But through initiatives like Hilleary’s, perhaps we will build a band of farmers who can confront these challenges head-on.


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Don’t Let the Hawks Hijack MH17

The bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie was premeditated mass murder. Gadhafi was taking revenge for Reagan’s raid on Tripoli in 1986. The downing of KAL 007, flying from Anchorage to Seoul, was mass murder in the second degree. Seeing an aircraft intrude into Russian air space, Soviet officers brutally ordered it shot down.

The downing of the Malaysian airliner that took the lives of 298 men, women, and children was not deliberate terrorism. No one wanted to massacre those women and children. It was a horrendous military blunder, like the U.S. shoot-down of the Iranian Airbus by the Vincennes in 1988. That U.S. cruiser thought it was coming under attack. And Ukraine’s separatists thought they were firing at an army plane. The distinctions are as important as those between first- and second-degree murder, and manslaughter.

The respective reactions confirm this. Gadhafi concealed his role in the Scotland slaughter. Moscow was defiant in the KAL case. America was apologetic over the Iranian airliner. Today, Vladimir Putin, with an indictment being drawn up against him, is blaming Ukraine for the war out of which the tragedy came. But though Putin did not order the plane shot down, the horror of it all has put him in a box. And the course he pursues could determine the future of U.S.-Russian relations for his tenure.

For the rebels in Ukraine are seen as Putin’s proxies. They have been armed and advised by Russia. And it was a Russian SA-11 that brought the airliner down. While the separatists say they got the surface-to-air missiles from an army depot, there is evidence the missile was provided by Russia, and Russians may have advised or assisted in the fatal launch. This crisis has caused President Obama to insist that Putin cut off the rebels. And if he does not rein them in, and abandon their cause, Putin is likely to face new U.S.-EU sanctions that could cripple his economy and push his country further out into the cold.

And the ostracism of Putin and the sinking of Russia’s economy is what some in the West have long had in mind. The Day of the Hawk is at hand. John McCain and John Bolton are calling for punitive sanctions, declaring Russia an adversary, putting defensive missiles and U.S. troops in Eastern Europe, and arming Kiev. ”That’s just for openers,” says McCain, who wants “the harshest possible sanctions on Vladimir Putin and Russia.”

“So first, give the Ukrainians weapons to defend themselves and regain their territory,” McCain adds, “Second of all, move some of our troops into areas that are being threatened by Vladimir Putin.” Right. Let’s get eyeball to eyeball with the Russians again.

In this “moment of moral and strategic clarity about the threat that Vladimir Putin’s regime poses to world order,” the Wall Street Journal said this weekend, we should send “arms to Ukraine until Mr. Putin stops arming the separatists.” The Washington Post urges “military assistance to Ukraine” and sanctions “to force Mr. Putin to choose between continued aggression in Ukraine and saving the Russian economy.”

But if aiding rebels in overthrowing their government is “aggression,” is that not exactly what we are doing in Syria? Hopefully, those who prodded the U.S. to send surface-to-air missiles to the Syrian rebels are having second thoughts today. But before we sink the Russian economy and send weapons to Ukraine, perhaps we should consider the potential consequences. Read More…

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Fall Intern Wanted

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The American Conservative is now accepting applications for the fall internship. Join a start-up team dedicated to reestablishing principled, reality-based conservatism.

Editorial interns gain experience in all aspects of producing the website and print magazine. Our priority is intellectual honesty, and we are dedicated to producing frank, original arguments based on substantive analysis. This internship offers real experience in all the moving parts of a media organization and exposure to both editorial and marketing work.

Editorial Assistant responsibilities include:

  • Preparing pieces for the web, writing headlines, curating images
  • Contributing headlines and story ideas
  • Proofreading, editing
  • Conducting research
  • Managing TAC’s presence on social media platforms
  • Blogging for the web and writing for the print magazine
  • Devising strategies for audience development and engagement
  • Participating in team meetings

Clerical duties, such as answering the phone and handling the mail, are also involved.

All candidates should possess:

  • Eagerness to work tirelessly in a small but ambitious team
  • Superb writing and editing ability
  • Strong communication and organizational skills
  • Love of considered, lengthy journalism as well as an appreciation of horse-race politics
  • Excellent news/culture/opinion judgment
  • A background in intellectual conservatism and keen understanding of The American Conservative’s sensibility.

Interns will join our team in Washington, D.C., from September through December, and will receive a stipend. College students or recent graduates who would like to apply should send a résumé and cover letter to jcoppage@theamericanconservative.com and golmstead@theamericanconservative.com by August 4. We also consider applications submitted through partner organizations including the Collegiate Network and the National Journalism Center. We’ll post more information about our spring 2015 internships in the coming months.

For those past their own internship years who want to help launch the careers of outstanding young journalists and set the agenda for the next generation, please consider donating to our internship program here.

Follow @amconmag

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Autonomy and Automation in Old Age

The world’s fast-growing elderly population faces more age-related disease, higher health costs, and fewer children to care for them than ever, while the resulting caregiver shortage puts them at an increased risk of abuse and neglect. Some medical professionals, like geriatrics professor Louise Aronson, are proposing robots as a solution to both assist overwhelmed human caregivers and replace those guilty of mistreatment, as “most of us do not live in an ideal world, and a reliable robot may be better than an unreliable or abusive person, or than no one at all.”

Aronson’s robotic geriatrics are no fantasy but an existing solution in places like Japan, which has the world’s grayest population and the economic resources available for $100K, yard-tall robots to be feasible. Yet Japan’s relationship with robots shows that making robot caregivers cheaper might not make them any more successful. Japan’s elderly have rejected the robots, asking instead for humans. The only robots with modest success among Japanese elderly have imitated pets, providing limited social engagement rather than medical care and companionship—tasks still preferably assigned to human caregivers.

As Japan shows, the robot caregiver solution does not fail on economic or technological grounds, where boundaries are largely surmountable with time. Rather, turning an intimate job like geriatrics into an automated service sector is a misunderstanding of the profession at hand, which requires both emotional and ethical investment in patients.

Caitrin Nicol Keiper, countering David Levy’s Love and Sex with Robots, explained that such encouragement of human-robot intimacy stems from a misunderstanding of the human as mere biochemical machine. The caregiver shortage does not merely stem from a lack of medical aides to perform mechanical tasks, but also an absence of loving companions who ensure the experience of disability and old age is not a solitary one. These robots, after all, are often explicitly designed to counter the negative health effects of loneliness.

But that loneliness has been cemented in a medical and legal culture that is guided above all else by the principle of individual bodily autonomy. Advance directives and living wills allow patients to lay out their medical decisions ahead of time, discouraging the real-time participation of family members or other caregivers in the medical lives of the elderly. As Leon Kass, then chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, reflected in a 2005 report on geriatrics, “Living wills make autonomy and self-determination the primary values at a time of life when one is no longer autonomous or self-determining, and when what one needs is loyal and loving care.”

This cultural reluctance to participate communally in the care of the elderly often expresses itself as avoiding the “burdening” of loved ones. But as Gilbert Meilaender asked in 1991, “Is this not in large measure what it means to belong to a family: to burden each other and to find, almost miraculously, that others are willing, even happy, to carry such burdens?” He continued, “I have tried, subject to my limits and weaknesses, to teach that lesson to my children. Perhaps I will teach it best when I am a burden to them in my dying.”

As Meilaender and Kass suggest, the central problem is not medical incompetence, or even moral indifference, but a break in generational relationships. Neither the elderly nor their medical professionals want them to be dependent on robots rather than people, but, especially among the childless or otherwise socially disconnected, the aged may have little choice. As such, the inhumanity of Aronson’s geriatrics may not be a particularly medical problem, but a social problem. As long as we culturally insist on autonomy, we will technologically insist on automation.


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Pentagon Audit Goes Once More Into the Breach

Image courtesy Congresswoman Barbara Lee
Image courtesy Congresswoman Barbara Lee

H.R. 5126 is the latest effort in a longstanding and increasingly bipartisan movement to send the Pentagon sailing into the azure waters of Sound Fiscal Policy. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), and co-sponsored by Reps. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), Dan Benishek (R-Mich.), and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

For those seeking immediate, significant cuts to military spending, the measure might be less than satisfying, but Jill Shatzen, Communications Director for Rep. Burgess, said that the primary goal of the bill was to “put a little pressure on them in order to gain compliance.” The bill will “reduce by one-half of one percent the discretionary budget authority of any Federal agency for a fiscal year if [it] does not receive a qualified or unqualified audit opinion by an external independent auditor[.]“ A similar bill proposing five percent budget penalties for un-auditable Pentagon programs failed in 2013, so a more modest approach has been taken.

Led by Rafael DeGennaro, the Audit the Pentagon Coalition has secured endorsements from a diverse range of political figures. “[H.R. 5126] is a well-crafted and moderate piece of legislation,” DeGennaro said at a press conference. “It’s backed by a broad coalition: from Grover Norquist on the right to Ralph Nader — who endorsed it only recently — to Code Pink on the left.”

The law that H.R. 5126 seeks to enforce, passed in 1990, required the Pentagon to pass an annual audit and has been utterly disregarded since. “The current law is strong and clear,” said DeGennaro, ”The deadline was [25] years ago. We need to impose immediate financial consequences on un-auditable agencies.” Norquist, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, emphasized at a press conference that establishing baseline accountability is an important first step to reform, regardless of political affiliation. ”There is always going to be a discussion on how and what to spend on defense,” Norquist said, “but do any of us know how much we are spending? You can’t begin to have a conversation without the facts.” Norquist is a long-time supporter of the effort to audit the Pentagon. TAC‘s Michael Ostrolenk interviewed him in 2012 about his efforts at the time. During the interview, he quipped that “[s]pending is not caring. Spending is what politicians do instead of caring.”

DeGennaro said that by requiring each individual agency to be responsible for passing an audit, H.R. 5126 sidesteps the mistake of treating the Pentagon as a “monolith.” Necessary spending cuts can be decided once the numbers are available and the agencies are once more operating within definable boundaries.

Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, a former officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, strongly supported the Pentagon audit in a 2013 interview with TAC: “Audit the Pentagon?” he asked. “Absolutely—a no brainer. Just do it.”


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Why Facebook Matters

I wanted to get off Facebook—to deactivate my account entirely. It seemed like such a waste of time, a distraction from real-life interactions and relationships. If Facebook no longer pulled at my attention, I thought, perhaps I would be a better friend, and invest in those people who are truly closest to me. I could invest time in the place I live, rather than in a virtual world full of acquaintances and people I barely know.

So I decided to take a break from Facebook to see whether my social relationships would improve or change at all. Before logging off, I let friends know that I’d be away, and gave them my email. It wasn’t really a full “unplugging” experiment, since I use the computer so much for work. But it meant that, in the evenings, I spent much less time online. I occasionally worked on writing projects or wrote emails—but not much else. I wrote long email letters or made phone calls to my closest friends and family members. I continued to use Instagram, but tried to send direct-message pictures to my family, rather than simply using the “public” feature. I marked friends’ birthdays on my personal calendar before deactivating my Facebook account, and tried to email or call them on their birthdays, rather than leaving the prosaic “Happy birthday!” wall post.

Leaving Facebook showed me how much time I do, in fact, rely on it to fill moments of pause. When I sat in the car, waited for the metro, or stood in line, social media was the first thing I turned to. Without Facebook, my fingers itched. What else could I browse—Instagram? Twitter? Anything to feel connected. Anything to pass the time. I realized how frenzied and information-obsessed my brain can become, and made an effort to cultivate quiet, and to appreciate the moments of stillness.

However, despite these advantages, my month away from Facebook wasn’t a time of great awakening, social revitalization, or spiritual growth. Though it did serve a few good purposes, there were also strong disadvantages to leaving Facebook—primarily, the sense of disconnection from family and friends. The world didn’t pause its social media usage when I did: friends would ask me why I hadn’t responded to messages or event invites, whether I had seen this picture or that link. I realized how much I relied on Facebook to get updates from more distant family members or old friends in my home state; though Instagram provided some information, I hadn’t thought about the fact that relationships, engagements, weddings, and graduations are primarily announced (and commented upon) via Facebook.

I began to evaluate my experiment. The thing I craved most about non-Facebook interactions was their closeness, their intimacy and depth. I was tired of the self-aggrandizing statuses, the public displays of affection between couples (or even friends) that would have been more meaningful, at least in my eyes, if shared privately.

But Facebook also does one thing very well—better, perhaps, than any other social media tool: it enables us to form and cultivate little platoons. And this, I realized, was what I had missed in the last month. Though I was able to invest in individual friendships, my lack of Facebook presence made it harder to host events, or to check up on the groups of people who meant so much in my life. I realized that not everyone checks email with the same rapidity I do—but everyone checks their Facebook notifications. I tried to coordinate a dinner with friends via email a few days ago—and only received one reply over the course of the next 48 hours. Then I created a Facebook event, and invited all the same people. They RSVP’d within 10-15 minutes. Read More…

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