March 2, 2018 in 2,595 words

‘Blowback’ Is Real, and We’re Living Through It

When it comes to unintended consequences of American policy, Donald Trump is just the tip of the iceberg

Pictured above: President Trump announces that the United States is withdrawing from the Paris Accord, June 1, 2017. America’s Shithole.

You want to see “blowback” in action? That’s easy enough. All you need is a vague sense of how Google Search works. Then type into it phrases like “warmest years,” “rising sea levels,” “melting ice,” “lengthening wildfire season,” or “future climate refugees,” and you’ll find yourself immersed in the grimmest of blowback universes. It’s a world which should give that CIA term of tradecraft a meaning even the Agency never imagined for it.

But before I put you on this blowback planet of ours and introduce you to the blowback president presiding over it, I want to take a moment to remember Mr. Blowback himself.

And what a guy he was! Here’s how he described himself in the last piece he wrote for TomDispatch just months before his death in November 2010: “My own role these past 20 years has been that of Cassandra, whom the gods gave the gift of foreseeing the future, but also cursed because no one believed her.”

He wasn’t being immodest. He had, in many ways, seen the shape of things to come for what he never hesitated to call “the American empire,” including—in that 2010 piece—its decline. As he wrote then, “Thirty-five years from now, America’s official century of being top dog (1945–2045) will have come to an end; its time may, in fact, be running out right now. We are likely to begin to look ever more like a giant version of England at the end of its imperial run, as we come face to face with, if not necessarily to terms with, our aging infrastructure, declining international clout, and sagging economy.”

Trump Repeats Nixon’s Folly

This president isn’t the first to embrace a “trade war” to bolster his populist credentials—but in the end, it’s ordinary people who will bear its cost.

Smoke rises at a steel mill in the outskirts of Beijing.

President Trump just raised the price of cars, beer, vacations, and apartment rentals.

That’s not what most headlines say. Those headlines say that Trump will raise tariffs on steel and aluminum. Higher tariffs mean higher prices for those inputs—and therefore for the products ultimately made from those outputs. Automotive and construction top the largest users of steel in the United States. Aluminum is heavily used to make airplanes, cars and trucks, and beverage containers, and also in construction.

The last time the U.S. imposed steel tariffs, back in 2002, the project was abandoned after 20 months. A 2003 report commissioned by industries that consumed steel estimated that the Bush steel tariffs cost in excess of 200,000 jobs—or more than the total number of people then employed in the entire steel industry at the time.

This time the cost-benefit ratio is likely to skew much worse. There are fewer steel jobs to protect this time. Auto sales growth has stalled. The first warnings of consumer price inflation are appearing.

But Trump wanted tariffs, and tariffs he has got. Even by Trump standards, the decision-making process was chaos. As late as 9 p.m. last night, it remained undecided whether there would be an announcement today at all—never mind what that announcement would be. Key congressional committee chairs were unconsulted and uninformed.

The president as so often relied on junk information.

Peter Out

Lived a miner, forty-niner, and his sidekick, Peter Pan.

Dear Word Detective: I have tried to research the origin of the phrase “peter out” — specifically, who was or what is “peter”? — but my sources seem to have petered out. Help. — Ken Young.

Well, there you go. Researching word origins is a lot like catching a cat so you can give it its medicine. The first day, no problem, it trusts you. But unless your cat is extremely thick, it’s going to recognize what it means when, the next day, you sidle casually into the room whistling something tuneless. Then you get to spend the next eight hours fruitlessly searching the entire house (“I know it’s January, but maybe you opened a window without realizing it.”). The trick is to stride confidently toward the front door, ignoring the cat, and then, at the last moment, fling a large salmon net over the critter. Similarly, the last thing you should do when wondering about an etymological puzzle is to look it in the eye and attempt to “do it yourself.” That way lies madness. Just send your question to me, preferably written in the memo space on a large check. (Just kidding. Sort of. Salmon nets aren’t cheap.)

So, who was or what is the “peter” in “peter out”? I’m not surprised that your search for an answer “petered out” (defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “to run out, decrease, or fade; gradually to come to an end or cease to exist”), because the answer is far from clear.

It’s probably easiest to begin by eliminating some possibilities. “Peter out” is almost certainly not related to Saint Peter, one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus (even though he famously wavered in his support of Jesus), and does not appear to be drawn from the name of any other “Peter,” whether historical or fictional.

What we do know about “peter out” is that it was a US invention, and that it first appeared in print in the mid-1800s as mining slang, specifically describing a promising vein of ore (gold, silver, etc.) that did not live up to the miners’ hopes (“He discovered they [the lodes] had only a poor sickly trace of ore, which soon ‘petered out’,” 1877.) By the early 20th century, “peter out” was being used to describe nearly anything that, after a promising start, either failed to “pan out” (another 19th century mining term, from panning for gold nuggets in streams) or simply faded away (“Hurricane ‘Belle’ … petered out before reaching the Quoddy area,” 1976).

Your hotshot coworker would be a terrible boss, and research proves it

Peter Out


In the classic 1969 business book parody The Peter Principle, the Canadian educator Laurence J. Peter took aim at an “ever-present, pestiferous nuisance” found in industries of all sorts: managerial incompetence. The explanation for it, Peter wrote, was his titular principle—that any employee in a hierarchy will rise to the level of his or her own incompetence. (“This Means You!” the book noted cheerily in a subhead.)

Organizations, Peter and his co-author Raymond Hull argued, tend to reward good performance at the rank-and-file level with promotion to management, even when the roles demand utterly different skills. Great teachers don’t necessarily make great principals. Star athletes often flop as team executives. A person good at selling widgets may be hopeless at managing a team of widget salespersons.

The observation about sales organizations is the basis for a new research paper (not yet peer reviewed) from the US National Bureau of Economic Research. Researchers Alan Benson from the Carlson School of Management, Danielle Li of MIT Sloan, and Kelly Shue from the Yale School of Management looked at the career paths of more than 53,000 salespeople at 214 US companies between 2005 and 2011.

They found that the best performers were in fact steered into management at higher rates. A salesperson who closed twice as many deals as the average colleague was about 14% more likely to earn a promotion.

Is imposter syndrome a sign of greatness?

Brilliant ‘Frauds’

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has said, “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud.”

Some of the most successful people in history have suffered from secret fear that they’re terrible at their jobs. “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people,” John Steinbeck wrote in his diary in 1938. “I always feel like something of an impostor. I don’t know what I’m doing,” echoed actress Jodie Foster, speaking at a 2007 Women in Entertainment Power 100 event where she was the guest of honor. But is this anxiety-inducing insecurity actually an asset?

It’s estimated that 70% of people have imposter syndrome, feeling that they don’t deserve to be where they are in life. But when I took an imposter syndrome test, my results were fairly low. A score of 80 or higher shows an intense feeling of imposter syndrome, 61 to 80 shows frequent experience of imposter syndrome, and 41 to 60 shows moderate experience. I scored 46, barely making it into the moderate category.

It’s not that I’m constantly confident. I have plenty of insecurities and worries—skills I know I need to improve and areas where I struggle—but I don’t think I’m a complete imposter at work, either.

True imposters don’t suffer imposter syndrome

There is evidence to suggest that imposter syndrome correlates with success, and that those who don’t suffer imposter symptom are more likely to be the real frauds. People with imposter syndrome tend to be perfectionists, which means they’re likely to spend hours working overtime to make sure they excel in every single field. So if you do suffer from imposter syndrome, chances are you’re doing a pretty good job.

Click to embiggen

The Peter Principle Inc.

The American Can Co. just did something interesting. It agreed to sell its can division. When the sale is completed, the company will presumably change its name and devote itself to its remaining businesses: “financial services” (a collection of businesses including insurance companies, a mutual fund and a mortgage company) and “specialty retailing” (including direct-mail companies and retail chains that sell records, sporting goods and home entertainment equipment). American Can, in business jargon, will have “restructured.”

Restructuring is in vogue these days. Dozens of major companies are doing it. At American Can — and many other companies — the term signifies selling off entire businesses and, sometimes, buying replacements. At other companies, it means closing old factories or streamlining operations. But whatever the details, restructuring is supposed to make firms more efficient and profitable. Only time will tell whether it does. Meanwhile, the restructuring phenomenon reveals something else at work: a corporate Peter Principle.

The Peter Principle, you recall, holds that people rise to their level of incompetence. The same dynamic affects large companies; they tend to expand to their level of incompetence and inefficiency. There’s a crude cycle of corporate growth and decay. Corporate success sows the seeds for future failure. Successful companies strive to do more and get bigger. But this striving makes firms unwieldy or prompts them to diversify into areas where they are inept. These mistakes make companies less efficient. The fact that so many companies are restructuring tacitly acknowledges this reality.

POINT OF REFLECTION: This article was first published September 3, 1986.

To Break a Phone Addiction, Turn Your Screen Gray

If our bodies could talk.

Emotions and attention are tied to color perception, so what if everyone removed the color from their phones? In this episode of If Our Bodies Could Talk, senior editor James Hamblin continues a quest for focus.

Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

Iraq has one of the world’s youngest populations and most of them grew up knowing nothing but war and chaos.

THANKS to HBO and VICE News for making this program available on YouTube.

During meetings to discuss gun reform, President Trump unexpectedly sides with Democrats on issues like universal background checks and age restrictions.

THANKS to Comedy Central and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah for making this program available on YouTube.

Donald Trump enacted tariffs on imported steel and aluminum because he was allowed to.

Hope Hicks is gone. H.R. McMaster is on his way out. Jeff Sessions is a southern riddlemaster.

THANKS to CBS and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for making this program available on YouTube.

Seth takes a closer look at the key White House aides mired in scandal, the Russia probe heating up and President Trump publicly attacking his own attorney general.

THANKS to NBC and Late Night with Seth Meyers for making this program available on YouTube.

Max working on his cardio and leg kicks.


The Bitter Truth About Fighting Chronic Pain Without Opioids

If you’ve tried to get painkillers from your doctor recently, or read literally any news story about white rural America, you know that we have an opioid epidemic. Fortunately, it turns out there is a clear, simple solution to the problem. Here’s a quote from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, breaking it down for the rest of us simple-minded shits:

“The plain fact is, I believe — and I am operating on the assumption that this country prescribes too many opioids — I mean, people need to take some aspirin sometimes and tough it out a little. That’s what General Kelly — you know, he’s a Marine — he had a surgery on his hand, a painful surgery … he goes, ‘I’m not taking any drugs. It did hurt though.’ He did admit it hurt. But, I mean, a lot of people, you can get through these things.”

As someone who lives with awful chronic pain, I of course agree with him. Sometimes you do have to just tough it out. It really is that simple. I’m not being sarcastic at all. Allow me to share my inspirational story.

5. Simply Plan Your Entire Life Around The Pain

When I was a kid, I had a diving accident that did permanent damage to my neck and back. The details aren’t important — it really is the kind of thing that could have happened to any sensible person — but the result was that from ten feet in the air, I landed headfirst on a sandbar that was covered by just a couple of feet of water. I was completely vertical, like a goddamn Tom And Jerry cartoon. It hurt. And I didn’t even get the dignity of a wacky *boing!* sound.

As a result, for the last 30 years, I’ve dealt with chronic back pain. At its worst, it feels like a star collapsed inside my body. Sometimes, though, it changes gears and feels like someone hammered a red-hot nail into my neck and left it there. When that happens, sneezing or coughing will send a lightning bolt up my spine, a jolt of agony that makes me feel like I’m going to piss my pants. That can last for weeks. I’ve had broken bones that didn’t hurt like this. Other times, the muscles will suddenly get so weak that they just turn to Jell-O. Here, try this: Drop to the floor and do crunches until you physically can’t anymore, and then keep doing them for several more minutes. The muscle death you feel, coupled with that pulsating burn? That’s what I feel on most days, from sunup to sundown.

But I of course can power through it without the help of my painkiller prescription, via the irrepressible power of the human spirit. It just takes a little extra planning if I know I’m going to be doing anything extreme, like being on my feet for a couple of hours. For example, I recently took my daughter to the mall for some birthday shopping. After an hour and a half, I physically couldn’t walk anymore. By the time we got back to the car, I thought I was going to have to beg a stranger to help cram me into the driver’s seat, urging them to press on through my screams. Had I planned better, I could have simply quadrupled my dose of aspirin and Skyped with my daughter from the car while she shopped.

Ed. More tomorrow? Probably. Possibly. Maybe. Not?