Ron DeSantis’ Mushy Foreign Policy

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, currently the highest-polling potential challenger to Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, is trying to work out a foreign policy platform in public. The NYT devotes two articles today—both with bylines by Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Swan—to his most recent effort.

DeSantis Calls Putin a ‘War Criminal,’ Clarifying Earlier Comment on Ukraine

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida this week clarified his description of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” and said that Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, was a “war criminal” who should be “held accountable.”

Mr. DeSantis, a Republican who is expected to announce a presidential campaign in the coming months, made his latest comments in an interview with the British broadcaster Piers Morgan, who shared them with The New York Post and Fox News, both owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Last week, Mr. DeSantis made one of the most significant statements of the 2024 presidential campaign to date, to the influential Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has criticized the Biden administration’s approach to Ukraine. “While the U.S. has many vital national interests,” Mr. DeSantis said in his statement, “becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.”

Mr. DeSantis did not mention Mr. Putin then and criticized President Biden’s policy as a “blank check” to Ukraine with no clear objectives, one that distracts from U.S. problems.

The line about a “territorial dispute” was heavily criticized by foreign policy hawks, as well as Republicans in Congress and, privately, some Republican donors. It also put Mr. DeSantis’s views more in line with those of former President Donald J. Trump.

But Mr. DeSantis used an apparently lengthy interview with Mr. Morgan early this week to clarify his statement to Mr. Carlson.

“I think he is a war criminal,” Mr. DeSantis said of Mr. Putin, for whom the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant related to war crimes. “I don’t know about that route,” he said of the arrest warrant, “but I do think that he should be held accountable.”

To Mr. Morgan, Mr. DeSantis insisted that his comment about a “territorial dispute” had been “mischaracterized,” but he acknowledged he could have been clearer.

“Obviously, Russia invaded” in 2022, Mr. DeSantis said. “That was wrong. They invaded Crimea and took that in 2014 — that was wrong.”

The change appeared not to have been lost on Mr. Carlson. Just hours after Mr. DeSantis’s new comments about Mr. Putin were made public, Mr. Carlson attacked what he said were people who give in to the news media, asserting that they are forced “to repeat whatever childish slogan they’ve come up with this week.” In a mocking voice, he said, “Vladimir Putin is a war criminal.”

While he was a congressman from Florida, Mr. DeSantis faulted President Obama’s administration for not doing more, as Russia annexed Crimea.

“What I’m referring to is where the fighting is going on now, which is that eastern border region, Donbas, and then Crimea,” Mr. DeSantis said. He added, “There’s a lot of ethnic Russians there. So, that’s some difficult fighting, and that’s what I was referring to, and so it wasn’t that I thought Russia had a right to that, and so if I should have made that more clear, I could have done it.”

But he added, “I think the larger point is, OK, Russia is not showing the ability to take over Ukraine, to topple the government or certainly to threaten NATO. That’s a good thing. I just don’t think that’s a sufficient interest for us to escalate more involvement. I would not want to see American troops involved there. But the idea that I think somehow Russia was justified” in invading is “nonsense.”

He added that he did not believe that the conflict would end with “Putin being victorious. I do not think the Ukrainian government is going to be toppled by him, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Mr. DeSantis’s stance on Russia has been of significant interest to Republicans looking for an alternative to Mr. Trump. A large swath of Republican voters have come to say that the U.S. is providing too much support for Ukraine.

Stipulating that DeSantis is an opportunist, even by the standards of politicians seeking to be President, I tend not to be overly harsh of contenders’ clumsy early attempts to formulate and articulate a foreign policy agenda. With the exception of those with long service in that sphere, most candidates either stumble along early in the journey or articulate an incredibly simplistic agenda. Interestingly, the other piece (by Jonathan Swan, Maggie Haberman and Kitty Bennett) argues that DeSantis is in the former camp:

The DeSantis Foreign Policy: Hard Power, but With a High Bar

When Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida made headlines recently by undercutting U.S. support for Ukraine, Republican hawks, many of whom cling to him as their only hope to defeat former President Donald J. Trump, wondered if they had misread him as an ideological ally.

Mr. DeSantis ditched his previous backing for Ukraine to align himself with the increasingly nationalistic Republican base, which he will need to win the 2024 presidential primary if he runs. But he was never the committed internationalist that some old-guard Republicans had wanted or imagined him to be.

Until now, Mr. DeSantis served as a Rorschach test for Republicans. There was, conveniently, something in his record to please each of the party’s ideological factions, and he had every incentive to be all things to all Republicans for as long as he could get away with it.

Hawks had claimed Mr. DeSantis as their own for his fervent support of Israel and his denunciations of China, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. And restraint-oriented Republicans had claimed Mr. DeSantis for his 2013 decision, as a congressman, to break with Republican hawks and oppose President Barack Obama’s requests to intervene militarily in Syria.

Yet, despite his policy shifts and inconsistencies — this week, he said he had failed to make himself clear on Ukraine and called President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia a “war criminal” — Mr. DeSantis’s worldview is not a mystery.

Unusually for a governor, Mr. DeSantis, whose spokeswoman declined interview requests, has a long paper trail on foreign policy. A close reading of more than 200 of his speeches, votes, writings and television commentaries over the past decade, as well as interviews with his peers, reveal the makings of a DeSantis Doctrine.

‘Just a Jacksonian’

Tucked between the campaign boilerplate in Mr. DeSantis’s new book, “The Courage to Be Free,” is a short chapter describing how his service in Iraq, as an officer in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, reinforced his doubts about former President George W. Bush’s “messianic impulse.”

“Bush sketched out a view for American foreign policy that constituted Wilsonianism on steroids,” Mr. DeSantis writes, referring to former President Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic liberal internationalism after World War I. He recalls his reaction to a line in Mr. Bush’s second inaugural address: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.”

“I remember being stunned,” Mr. DeSantis writes. “Does the survival of American liberty depend on whether liberty succeeds in Djibouti?”

Mr. DeSantis’s analysis of Mr. Bush’s attempt to use the military to “socially engineer a foreign society” is the sort of thing one hears from conservative elites who call themselves Jacksonians, after President Andrew Jackson, the 19th-century populist. Though The New York Times could find no public record of the Florida governor describing himself as a Jacksonian, the word kept coming up in interviews with people who know Mr. DeSantis.

“I think he’s kind of dead-center where Republican voters are, which is to say that he’s neither an isolationist nor a neoconservative, he’s just a Jacksonian,” said David Reaboi, a conservative national security strategist whom Mr. DeSantis has hosted at the governor’s mansion.

Mr. Reaboi was referring to a 1999 essay by the academic Walter Russell Mead, “The Jacksonian Tradition and American Foreign Policy,” which is still in heavy circulation on the intellectual right. It defines a Jacksonian as having a narrow conception of the U.S. national interest: protection of its territory, its people, its hard assets and its commercial interests overseas.

A Jacksonian does not dream of implanting “American values” on foreign soil. He or she believes that if the U.S. military is to be deployed, it should use as much force as necessary to achieve a quick, clearly defined “victory,” with as few American casualties as possible. A Jacksonian cares little about lopsided casualty counts — so long as they’re in America’s favor — or about international law.

Unlike Mr. Trump, a fellow Jacksonian but one who operates on pure instinct and would never dream of suffering through a foreign policy treatise, Mr. DeSantis has read deeply and has formed a philosophy about America’s place in the world. But you will rarely hear Mr. DeSantis invoke abstract values to justify the use of force — as some of his potential 2024 rivals and current party leaders have done.

He has not framed the Ukraine war as a battle for “freedom,” as former Vice President Mike Pence has done, or as a mission to defend the post-World War II international security framework, as Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, has done. If Mr. DeSantis is elected president, there is unlikely to be any more Biden-esque talk of “autocracies versus democracies.” In Mr. DeSantis’s framing, these are the idealistic mutterings of a “Wilsonian.”

More than two decades ago, Walter Russell Mead argued that there are four impulses that have governed American foreign policy over the years , all of which compete for control. Two of them, Jacksonian and Wilsonian, are described above. The other two are Jeffersonian—essentially, the peacenik version of the Jacksonians, eschewing foreign entanglements because it will corrupt Americn democracy—and the Hamiltonians, who are the Realist counterpart to the Wilsonians, promoting an active foreign policy to further US economic power rather than spread American values.

It may well be that DeSantis—who, despite his many flaws is an educated man who has had plenty of occasion to think about US foreign policy—is instinctively Jacksonian. A tendency toward isolationism and non-interventionism if let alone combined with responding with righteous fury when crossed is not uncommon among Southerners who have served in the military. It is not, however, a foreign policy agenda.

None of the four themes in Mead’s model are, by the way. Like it or not, the United States is a global superpower and has been for more than a century. It has competing interests all over the world that require complicated trade-offs.

I couldn’t place President Biden into one of the four camps. Indeed, like most Presidents, I think he sees foreign policy as a distraction from his domestic agenda. His general foreign policy instinct—going back to at least the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait—has been a cautious reluctance to intervene. We’ve seen that in his slow ratcheting up of support for Ukraine pursuant to last year’s invasion by Russia. While I have quibbles with his decisions on that score, his overall handling of that crisis has been masterful—serving Wilsonian “world order” goals, Hamiltonian economic ones, and Wilsonian “smiting the enemy” goals nicely. Only the Jeffersonians, who kvetch that this plays into the hands of the military-industrial complex and takes money that could be distributed to the poor, are upset.

There is certainly a Jeffersonian strain among the Republican nominating electorate, just as there is among the Democratic nominating electorate. Indeed, the latter is historically larger. Part of what we’re seeing here is simply the increasing tendency of both parties—but especially the GOP—to reflexively oppose the policy of the other party’s President.

SCOTUS Punts on Free Speech Case

Reuters (“U.S. Supreme Court rejects Christian preacher’s challenge to university“):

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a traveling Christian evangelist’s free-speech challenge to a University of Alabama requirement that he obtain a permit before handing out religious pamphlets and preaching from a sidewalk adjacent to its campus.

The justices turned away an appeal by preacher Rodney Keister of a lower court’s ruling rejecting his claim that the university’s permit requirement violated free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

Keister, founder of a Pennsylvania-based group called Evangelism Mission, regularly visits U.S. university campuses in hopes of spreading his Christian message to students, according to court filings.

In 2016, Keister, along with a companion, preached using an amplifier and distributed Christian literature from a sidewalk adjacent to the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, trying to engage passersby. School officials told Keister he needed a permit for a public-speaking event, prompting him and his companion to leave.

The university’s policy at issue governed when, where and how a person unaffiliated with the school may engage in public speaking on campus including on sidewalks, other than “casual recreational or social activities.” It required a permit application 10 business days in advance – which has since been reduced to five business days – and sponsorship by a student organization or university academic department.

Keister in 2017 filed a civil rights suit against University of Alabama officials, arguing that the sidewalk’s status under the First Amendment is that of a “traditional public forum,” affording speakers the most robust protections available under the Constitution. Following losses in lower courts, Keister’s appeal in 2018 was turned away by the U.S. Supreme Court, prompting him to file an amended civil rights suit against school officials the next year.

A federal judge in 2020 ruled in favor of the school officials, finding that the sidewalk was a “limited public forum” – a status giving public universities and other government entities more leeway to regulate particular classes of speakers or kinds of speech. The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed last year.

Erik Jaffe, an attorney for Keister, expressed disappointment over the Supreme Court’s decision to turn away his client’s appeal.

“Whether public sidewalks remain traditional public forums with full First Amendment protection for free speech, regardless of their proximity to university or other restricted-use property, remains an important and unsettled issue, marked by inconsistent and unpredictable decisions,” Jaffe said. “We hope that the Supreme Court eventually steps in to rationalize and expand constitutional protections in this area, even if they passed on this current opportunity to do so.”

Lawyers representing the University of Alabama officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, in recent years has taken an expansive view of religious rights, though this case came to the justices as a free speech dispute.

It’s hard to know what to make of a non-ruling. While my general preference is that speech of this sort—using amplification and likely to disrupt others’ ability to go about their business—should be subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions, I agree with Jaffe that SCOTUS rulings on these matters lack consistency.

While police departments at Alabama’s state-supported universities tend to be “state police,” giving them jurisdiction off campus and over citizens unaffiliated with the campus, I’m a bit curious as to how the university has the authority to regulate activities on sidewalks “adjacent” to campus. One would think that a matter for the city of Tuscaloosa.

Trump and Waco

This is decidedly not what it will look like at the Waco Regional Airport.

Texas Monthly asks Why Is Donald Trump Kicking Off His 2024 Campaign in Waco?

On Saturday evening, Donald Trump will hold his first official rally of the 2024 campaign cycle. He won’t be doing so in his home state of Florida, however. Nor will he address a crowd of potential swing voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin. No, the twice-impeached former president will formally launch his third bid for the office at Waco Regional Airport—less than ten miles northwest of the heart of the city, along a remote stretch of land broken up mostly by a smattering of McLennan County’s finest gas stations, oil-change shops, and self-storage facilities. As presidential campaign kickoff events go, it’s an unlikely spot. 

I lived in Waco many years ago and haven’t been in the city for over twenty-five years, apart from driving through a decade or so ago. Still, I know enough about the place, and about Texas in general, to know that it is highly bizarre to be holding a major event from the Waco Regional Airport.

I am, in fact, hard-pressed to find any explanation for this choice that the obvious: that it is intended as a signal to the far right given the linkage to the confrontation between federal law enforcement and the Branch Davidians thirty years ago.* That he is openly courting support from individuals who would find Waco symbolic in this way is highly disturbing.

Heidi Beirich, cofounder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, noted in an interview with USA Today  this week that “Waco is hugely symbolic on the far right,” and that “there’s not really another place in the U.S. that you could pick that would tap into these deep veins of anti-government hatred.” Mary Trump, the former president’s niece and a famously outspoken critic of her uncle, said in a tweet  Thursday night that hosting the rally in Waco is “a ploy to remind his cult of the infamous Waco siege of 1993, where an anti-government cult battled the FBI. Scores of people died. He wants the same violent chaos to rescue him from justice.”

The months-long standoff in Waco was a radicalizing event for many in the anti-government movement; Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people in 1995, cited “what the U.S. government did to Waco ” as part of his motivation for the attack. Trump, meanwhile, has increasingly made common cause with anti-government types since losing his 2020 bid to remain in the government’s highest office. In addition to inspiring an insurrection against that government in an attempt to remain in power, and then portraying those  who were convicted of their crimes as wrongfully imprisoned martyrs, Trump’s own beef with the same Justice Department whose ATF and FBI were on the ground at the Branch Davidian compound thirty years ago has escalated since his South Florida beach club was raided last year in an attempt to recover classified documents. He’s declared federal agents  to be “vicious monsters,” echoing rhetoric he has used against rank-and-file members of the FBI since even before his presidency ended, when he called them “scum .”

It is extremely difficult to find an explanation for the choice of location save for a very loud dog whistle.

Still, the Trump people have offered an alternative narrative:

Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for the former president, issued a statement earlier this week that suggests, however, that the campaign would like to be able to maintain some deniability about that coincidence. (Unless, of course, Trump himself chooses to call attention to it during the speech, which is always a possibility.) “President Trump is holding his first campaign rally in Waco in the Super Tuesday state of Texas because it is centrally located and close to all four of Texas’ biggest metropolitan areas—Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio—while providing the necessary infrastructure to hold a rally of this magnitude,” the statement read. “This is the ideal location to have as many supporters from across the state and in neighboring states attend this historic rally.”

This is nonsense, to put it mildly. Waco is, indeed, “close” to those metro areas. But “close” is relative:

It’s roughly ninety minutes from both Austin and Dallas, but a good three-hour drive from Houston or San Antonio. Trump could probably get more bang for his buck if he were to come to Austin proper, which would eliminate all travel time for residents of one of those four cities; it would also cut San Antonians’ travel times in half and shave half an hour or so from the drives of most Houstonians. (DFW residents, meanwhile, would have to drive about as far as folks from Houston and San Antonio will in order to get to Waco.)

And I would note those distance estimates are largely to the outskirts of those regions. I seem to recall taking almost two hours from where I lived in Austin to visit friends in Waco. Depending on where one lives in the DFW area might have an hour (or perhaps quite a bit more) added to the trip. The central locale argument is simply ridiculous, especially in such a smaller metro area.

There is just no good reason to have this rather significant event in Waco, TX, especially at the airport.

It is my nature not to be alarmist, but it is also hard to deny the rather obvious courting of the far right by Trump given the events of January 6, 2021, not to mention rhetorical fusilades like “I am your retribution ” as he recently declared at CPAC.

And, I would note, it does not matter what Trump believes (if, in fact, he believes in anything other than self-aggrandizement), what matters is that he is willing to encourage and mobilize whatever elements of society he deems useful in his quest to return to power.

This reality should not be ignored.


*I was in grad school in Austin at the time, so between relative proximity to the event in real-time and the fact that I had lived in the Waco area during parts of middle and high school, those events will always be quite vivid in my mind. That they took place three decades ago checks out mathematically, but they feel in some ways more proximate to me.

Americans Don’t Live as Long as We Should

NPR (“‘Live free and die’? The sad state of U.S. life expectancy“):

Just before Christmas, federal health officials confirmed life expectancy in America had dropped  for a nearly unprecedented second year in a row – down to 76 years. While countries all over the world saw life expectancy rebound during the second year of the pandemic after the arrival of vaccines, the U.S. did not .

One would naturally jump to the hyper-politicization of vaccination, masking, and other pandemic-related countermeasures but that doesn’t seem to be it.

Then, last week, more bad news: Maternal mortality in the U.S. reached a high in 2021 . Also, a paper  in the Journal of the American Medical Association found rising mortality rates among U.S. children and adolescents.

“This is the first time in my career that I’ve ever seen [an increase in pediatric mortality] – it’s always been declining in the United States for as long as I can remember,” says the JAMA paper’s lead author Steven Woolf , director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Now, it’s increasing at a magnitude that has not occurred at least for half a century.”

Across the lifespan, and across every demographic group, Americans die at younger ages than their counterparts in other wealthy nations.

How could this happen? In a country that prides itself on scientific excellence and innovation, and spends an incredible amount of money on health care, the population keeps dying at younger and younger ages.

The answer, alas, is that there are many, many answers, each contributing a bit to the puzzle.

One group of people are not surprised at all: Woolf and the other researchers involved in a landmark, 400-page study ten years ago with a name that says it all: “Shorter Lives, Poorer Health.”  The research by a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences and funded by the National Institutes of Health compared U.S. health and death with other developed countries. The results showed – convincingly – that the U.S. was stalling on health advances in the population while other countries raced ahead.

The authors tried to sound an alarm, but found few in the public or government or private sectors were willing to listen. In the years since, the trends have worsened. American life expectancy  is lower than that of Cuba, Lebanon, and Chechnya.

Ten years later, here’s a look back at what that eye-popping study found, and why the researchers involved believe it’s not too late to turn the trends around.

I don’t take comparisons with less developed countries seriously, as they’re as likely to be a function of differential methods and degrees of diligence in record-keeping. But there’s no denying the larger trends.

Americans are used to hearing about how their poor diets and sedentary lifestyles make their health bad. It can seem easy to brush that off as another scold about eating more vegetables and getting more exercise. But the picture painted in the “Shorter Lives” report could shock even those who feel like they know the story.

“American children are less likely to live to age 5 than children in other high-income countries,” the authors write on the second page. It goes on: “Even Americans with healthy behaviors, for example, those who are not obese or do not smoke, appear to have higher disease rates than their peers in other countries.”

The researchers catalog what they call the “U.S. health disadvantage” – the fact that living in America is worse for your health and makes you more likely to die younger than if you lived in another rich country like the U.K., Switzerland or Japan.

That just seems weird, even downright implausible, no?

“We were very systematic and thorough about how we thought about this,” says Woolf. The panel looked at American life and death in terms of the public health and medical care system, individual behaviors like diet and tobacco use, social factors like poverty and inequality, the physical environment, and public policies and values. “In every one of those five buckets, we found problems that distinguish the United States from other countries.”

Yes, Americans eat more calories and lack universal access to health care. But there’s also higher child poverty, racial segregation, social isolation, and more. Even the way cities are designed makes access to good food more difficult.

“Everybody has a pet thing they worry about and say, ‘it’s oral health’ or ‘it’s suicides’ – everyone has something that they’re legitimately interested in and want to see more attention to,” says John Haaga , who was the director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Research at the National Institute on Aging at NIH, before he retired. “The great value of an exercise like this one was to step back and say, ‘OK, all of these things are going on, but which of them best account for these long-term population level trends that we’re seeing?’ “

The answer is varied. A big part of the difference between life and death in the U.S. and its peer countries is people dying or being killed before age 50. The “Shorter Lives” report specifically points to factors like teen pregnancy, drug overdoses, HIV, fatal car crashes, injuries, and violence.

“Two years difference in life expectancy probably comes from the fact that firearms are so available in the United States,” Crimmins says. “There’s the opioid epidemic, which is clearly ours – that was our drug companies and other countries didn’t have that because those drugs were more controlled. Some of the difference comes from the fact that we are more likely to drive more miles. We have more cars,” and ultimately, more fatal crashes.

“When we were doing it, we were joking we should call it ‘Live free and die,’ based on the New Hampshire slogan, [‘Live free or die’],” Crimmins says. “The National Academy of Sciences said, ‘That’s outrageous, that’s too provocative.’ “

Some of these things are interrelated. We’re fatter because we drive more and walk less than just about anybody else. And, because cars allow sprawl, that makes it harder to have high-quality healthcare and great selections of fruits and vegetables close to everybody.

But we’re also more prone to suicide and drug addiction than our wealthy counterparts. And more violent.

There are some things Americans get right, according to the “Shorter Lives” report: “The United States has higher survival after age 75 than do peer countries, and it has higher rates of cancer screening and survival, better control of blood pressure and cholesterol levels, lower stroke mortality, lower rates of current smoking, and higher average household income.” But those achievements, it’s clear, aren’t enough to offset the other problems that befall many Americans at younger ages.

This suggests that we’re investing our healthcare resources poorly. We decided six decades ago that old people shouldn’t have to worry about paying for healthcare so established Medicare. But we’re left to fend for ourselves for the first 64 years of our lives.

We’ve also apparently done a better job of convincing young people not to take up smoking that to take up exercising and healthy eating. Or, you know, not killing themselves.

The NIH should undertake a “thorough examination of the policies and approaches that countries with better health outcomes have found useful and that may have application, with adaptations, in the United States,” the authors wrote.

In other words: let’s figure out what they are doing that works in other places, and do it over here.

That’ll never catch on, unfortunately. Americans are practically allergic to doing things the European way.

Dr. Ravi Sawhney, who helped conceive of and launch the “Shorter Lives” study at NIH before he left the agency, had high hopes that the report would make a mark. “I really thought that when the results came out, they would be so obvious that people would say: Let’s finally do this,” he says.

Ten years on, how much of the detailed action plan has been done?

“To be brief, very little of that happened,” Woolf says. At the time, he says, NIH officials didn’t seem very interested in raising awareness about the panel’s findings or in following up on its proposed research agenda. “There was some media coverage  at the time that the report rolled out, but NIH was not involved in trying to promote awareness about the report.”

Crimmins agrees. “There was a little bit more research, but there wasn’t any policy reaction,” she says. “I thought there might be, because it’s embarrassing, but it just tends to be ignored.” Those who are interested in this issue, she notes, tend to be those invested in “marvelous things they think are going to delay aging,” even though people older than 75 are the only age group in the country that already does comparatively well.

But they’re the only ones organized on this issue, so their voice is amplified. Plus, all of the leaders are old, too!

Woolf calls it a misconception to assume that America’s great scientific minds and medical discoveries translate to progress for the health of the population. “We are actually very innovative in making these kinds of breakthroughs, but we do very poorly in providing them to our population,” he says.

The nature of our fee-for-service distribution system means we do a really good job of providing the best care to those who can pay the fees. If you’ve got good insurance—which you do if you’re elderly—and near a good hospital, you’re getting world-class care. Otherwise, your mileage will vary.

Sawhney thinks the federal government should try harder to fix the problems documented in the “Shorter Lives” report. He doesn’t think lack of public awareness is the problem. “I really think that most Americans know that Americans are more overweight and obese and that we have higher rates of disease and live shorter lives than other countries,” he says, “It’s just the NIH and the CDC that don’t want to take the responsibility for that failure or to do anything about it.”

Crimmins says, in her experience, lawmakers and federal health officials don’t like talking about how the U.S. is lagging behind other countries.

“I convened a meeting in Washington with the National Center for Health Statistics [part of CDC] about increasing healthy life expectancy,” she recalls. “It was a relatively small meeting, but we brought experts from Canada.” An official at the time gave what she calls a “typical” response, saying: “Oh, we can’t have anything but an American solution to these issues – we can’t listen to other countries.”

“International studies are not the flavor of the month – they never will be,” says Haaga. “The problem with foreign countries is that they’re not in someone’s congressional district.”

It’s more than a missed opportunity, says Woolf. It’s a tragedy.

“If you add up the excess deaths that have occurred in the United States because of this unfolding problem, it dwarfs what happened during COVID-19, as horrible as COVID-19 was,” Woolf says. “We’ve lost many more Americans cumulatively because of this longer systemic issue. And if the systemic issue is unaddressed, it will continue to claim lives going forward.”

Again, it’s not so much “an issue” as dozens of little ones.

Rather than feel overwhelmed at the immensity of the problems, Sawhney suggests, the focus should instead be on the fact that every other rich country has been able to figure out how to help people live longer, healthier lives. That means that Americans could do it too, he says.

He believes that the changes might not be as hard as some policymakers and health officials seem to think. “You look at these healthier countries, they’re free countries – England, France, Italy – they’re not banning delicious foods. They’re not chaining people to treadmills,” he says. “Americans love to travel to Europe, to Australia, to Canada to enjoy their foods and their lifestyles, and so the idea that we might say, ‘Hey, maybe we could bring some of those lifestyles back’ – I don’t think people are going to go up in arms that we’re taking away their freedoms.”

Getting policy ideas from other countries is just an obvious move, Woolf adds. “If a martian came down to earth and saw this situation, it would be very intuitive that you [would] look at other countries that have been able to solve this problem and apply the lessons learned,” he says.

In historical research he’s been doing, “I found that there are dozens and dozens of countries on almost every continent of the world that have outperformed the United States for 50 years,” he says. “It’s worth taking a look at what they’ve done and Americanizing it – you don’t have to take it right off the shelf.”

Some of the policies he’s identified as helpful  include universal, better coordinated health care, strong health and safety protections, broad access to education, and more investments to help kids get off to a healthy start. These policies are “paying off for them,” he says, and could for Americans, too.

Even on a purely monetary basis, this would likely pay for itself. But we’re societally allergic to much of this.

Making Cheap Booze More Expensive

USA Today (“The argument for making alcohol more expensive: It could save lives, study suggests.“):

In 2018, the Scottish government made drinks more expensive if it contained more alcohol.  

It was an effort to reduce drinking in Scotland, which has the highest rate of death due to alcohol consumption in the United Kingdom. 

Now in a study published this week, Scottishpublic health officials reported its minimum unit pricing policy was associated with a 13% reduction in deaths from alcohol consumption since it was implemented.

That sounds pretty significant. Until the base rate is revealed:

That translates to about 150 deaths per year, according to the report published Monday in The Lancet.


So, certainly, 150 fewer unnecessary or premature deaths is a good thing. But that has to be weighed against the additional costs borne by the entirety of society. It seems more a boon for the treasury than a major health initiative.

Researchers discovered the reduction in deaths was mainly due to long-term conditions, including a 11.7% decrease in deaths from alcoholic liver disease and 23% decrease from alcohol dependence syndrome.

The most significant impact was among people who lived in socio-economically deprived areas, where death rates are “more than five times higher compared to those living in the least deprived areas,” said Grant Wyper, public health intelligence adviser at Public Health Scotland. 

So, again, that’s good! But another way of looking at it—indeed, my initial reaction when I saw the headline—is that we’re simply making it harder for poor people to drink. Those more well off will simply grumble at the increased cost but most aren’t going to change their lifestyle over it. The policy essentially punishes the poor for making choices society doesn’t approve of while allowing those who can afford it to carry on.

A minimum unit price for alcohol sets a floor price per unit of alcohol, according to the Scottish government, which means a drink will be more expensive if it contains more alcohol.

The minimum unit pricing in Scotland was set at 50 pence, or about 70 cents, per 8 grams of alcohol. One standard drink in the U.S. contains about 14 grams of alcohol. There is no national minimum unit pricing in the United States, though some states do have their own policies.

Unlike other alcohol policies, minimum unit pricing targets cheap alcohol typically consumed by heavy drinkers or young people.

“People who buy a lot every day tend to look for the best bargains,” said Tim Stockwell, former director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria.

“Cheap alcohol is sought out by vulnerable people, young drinkers, heavy drinkers, people with alcohol dependence.”

So, sure, that makes sense. Why, I myself will stock up if I happen to be near the DC Costco or if there’s a sale at the local state-run liquor store. But, again, the policy is aimed at those whose behaviors can be governed by price controls.

Previous studies have shown how minimum unit pricing on alcohol has impacted sales and consumption, experts say, but few have shown how it directly impacts health outcomes, like death.

“Deaths from alcohol is the final arbiter,” Stockwell said. “It’s the most exact measure of the effectiveness of the policy compared to all the other studies indicating benefits.”

The study shows how minimum unit pricing impacted Scotland’s most vulnerable population, he said, something opponents of the policy have long debated.

“Any argument about whether it’s affecting heavy drinkers cannot be sustained,” Stockwell said. “The biggest effect was in socioeconomic regions of Scotland with the lowest incomes, so it’s a strategy that reduces health inequities.”

That’s an interesting way to frame it! The policy is intentionally regressive but thereby helps poor people!

Few states, like Connecticut and Oregon, have implemented a version of minimum unit pricing for alcohol, Stockwell said, and it may be a while before more states catch on.

“It takes decades for policy to follow research,” he said. “Alcohol producers want to make a profit, retailers want a profit, and consumers want a bargain.”

In a 2022 report,  the World Health Organization outlined the benefits of minimum unit pricing, recommending pricing and taxation policies on alcohol. Some countries like Canada, Australia, and Ireland have joined Scotland in instituting such policies.

As more data shows the benefits of minimum unit pricing and how it reduces harm in vulnerable populations, experts hope that more countries will follow suit. Along with such policies, leaders must also work to address systemic issues that make this population particularly vulnerable to alcohol-related harms and diseases.

Getting Paid for Internet Content

Last Sunday, I highlighted a lawsuit against the Internet Archive by four publishing houses , claiming that their copying of books into digital form violated their copyrights. I awoke this morning to news that a federal judge had ruled in favor of the publishers.

AP (“Judge rules online archive’s book service violated copyright“):

A federal judge has sided with four publishers who sued an online archive over its unauthorized scanning of millions of copyrighted works and offering them for free to the public. Judge John G. Koeltl of U.S. District Court in Manhattan ruled that the Internet Archive was producing “derivative” works that required permission of the copyright holder.

The Archive was not transforming the books in question into something new, but simply scanning them and lending them as ebooks from its web site.

“An ebook recast from a print book is a paradigmatic example of a derivative work,” Koeltl wrote.

The Archive, which announced it would appeal Friday’s decision, has said its actions were protected by fair use laws and has long had a broader mission of making information widely available, a common factor in legal cases involving online copyright.

“Libraries are more than the customer service departments for corporate database products,” Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle wrote in a blog post Friday. “For democracy to thrive at global scale, libraries must be able to sustain their historic role in society — owning, preserving, and lending books. This ruling is a blow for libraries, readers, and authors and we plan to appeal it.”


In a statement Friday, the head of the trade group the Association of American Publishers, praised the court decision as an “unequivocal affirmation of the Copyright Act and respect for established precedent.

“In rejecting convoluted arguments from the defendant, the Court has underscored the importance of authors, publishers, and lawful markets in a global society and global economy. Copying and distributing what is not yours is not innovative — or even difficult — but it is wrong,” said Maria Pallante, the association’s president and CEO.

As much as I support the idea of the Internet Archive, I tend to think the judge got it right here. An internet-based library, like a physical library, should have to pay rightsholders for their content. Surely there’s a way to do that.

At the other extreme, though, is this:

LA Times (“California bill would force Big Tech to pay for news content“):

In the latest attempt by legislators to rein in Silicon Valley, a measure has been introduced in California that would force tech companies such as Facebook and Google to pay publishers for news content from which their platforms profit.

The California Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, announced by Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) on Monday, if approved, would direct digital advertising giants to pay news outlets a “journalism usage fee” when they sell advertising alongside news content. Additionally, the bill would require publishers to invest 70% of the profits from that fee in journalism jobs.

The bill has strong support from news advocacy groups including the California News Publishers Assn. and the News/Media Alliance. (The Los Angeles Times is a member of both organizations and supports the proposed legislation.)

“Big Tech has become the de facto gatekeeper of journalism and is using its dominance to set rules for how news content is displayed, prioritized and monetized,” said CNPA Chairperson Emily Charrier. “Our members are the sources of that journalism, and they deserve to be paid fair market value for news they originate.”

The California measure is similar to a federal bill introduced last year that would allow publishers to collectively bargain for payments from tech companies that have news content on their platforms.

News/Media Alliance Executive Vice President Danielle Coffey said she hopes Congress reintroduces legislation at the federal level “to give news publishers across the U.S. the same ability to be fairly compensated by the dominant tech platforms.”

Facebook’s parent company, Meta Platforms, and Google declined to comment on the proposed California bill but have opposed the federal bill.

Meta published a statement via Twitter in December that said it would “consider removing news from our platform altogether” if federal lawmakers moved ahead with the legislation, and that “publishers and broadcasters put their content on our platform themselves because it benefits their bottom line.”

Wicks said she wanted to improve on the federal legislation, which went the route of altering antitrust laws, to be more inclusive of smaller newspapers and focus on the basic issue of paying publishers for content.

“What we’re sort of trying to do here really is level the playing field,” Wicks said. “We just want to make sure that work [of publishers] is honored in a way as opposed to being exploited by Facebook or Google or others who repurpose that content without paying for part of it.”

Unlike on Google’s platform, which aggregates content from news sources, Facebook’s users are the ones reposting news content to its site. Even so, Wicks said Facebook still bears responsibility for how the algorithm promotes content and displays it in a way that might keep users on the platform rather than clicking through links.

Wicks was inspired by the success of similar legislation passed in Australia in early 2021, which led to digital platforms paying nearly $140 million to Australian news organizations in its first year, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.  One Australian publisher estimated tech money could fund up to 30% of editorial salaries, the CJR reported.

As someone on both sides of this equation—a content producer as well as one who relies on others’ content—this strikes me as nuts.

As noted in the report, the business models of Google and Facebook are different. While they’re both data mining operations, the former is an advertising company that creates value by organizing the Internet while the latter is a social media company that allows people to share content. And they both simultaneously add value to content creators and make it harder for them to make money.

For years, Google was far and away OTB’s biggest referer and Facebook was right up there. Over time, Google’s search algorithms changed and OTB became much less prominent in their results. And Facebook made it next to impossible to automatically post our content there, so I largely stopped trying. That’s frustrating, but it’s not like either of them owe me referrals. (Not that it much matters; I stopped selling ads or even bothering to monitor traffic levels years ago.)

Unlike the Internet Archive, though, both Google and Facebook don’t simply scrape articles from sites. If I want to read a news article I find on either platform, I have to follow a link to the original platform.

Here’s what Google News is showing as I compose this post:

It’s not a particularly well-curated list of news that interests me but it’s tailored to where I live. It’s true that, if I just want to scan the headlines, there’s no need to visit the sites of the New York Times, NBC News, or the other sources from which the Google News “front page” is crafted. But the page is filled with links directly to those stories—some of which are likely paywalled—and even branded with the names and logos of the content providers. Why should Google have to pay for this?

Facebook is weirder since the content I see on my home page is posted by people I follow and determined by an algorithm I don’t understand. But to the extent news content is posted, it’s the same thing: a link to the original source with whether photo, headline, and excerpt the site generates. So, for example, if someone were to post a link to the aforementioned OTB post from last Sunday, they would get this:

To be sure, most people would just comment on the titular question without bothering to click through and read the article. But, hell, people do that here, too.

It seems to me that, if publishers think Google, Facebook, and other sites are depriving them of revenue through their aggregation practices, they should be able to opt out. If, say, the LA Times doesn’t want its stories indexed by Google or shared on Facebook, they should be able to fill out a form on those sites and, after some verification that it’s a legitimate request, the site’s algorithms would ensure those sites are excluded.

Daniel Ellsberg Wants More Leaks

NYT editorial board member Alex Kingbury interviews 91-year-old Daniel Ellsberg and discovers that “The Man Who Leaked the Pentagon Papers Is Scared” about the possibility of a nuclear war and that we’re not doing enough to combat climate change. I find that less interesting than his expansionistic view of leaking government secrets.

Q. The number of people with the security clearances to view classified material has expanded, perhaps exponentially, since the leak of the Pentagon Papers, and I wonder, aside from a few people like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, why haven’t there been more Dan Ellsbergs? Why aren’t there more people who, when presented with evidence of something that they find morally objectionable, disclose it?

A. Why aren’t there more? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself. Many of the people whistle-blowers work with know the same things and actually regard the information in the same way — that it’s wrong — but they keep their mouths shut. As Snowden said to me and others, “Everybody I dealt with said that what we were doing was wrong. It’s unconstitutional. We’re getting information here about Americans that we shouldn’t be collecting.” The same thing was true for many of my colleagues in government who opposed the war. Of course, people are worried about the consequences.

I find it fascinating that neither Kingsbury nor Ellsberg distinguish between the actions of Ellsberg, Snowden, and Manning. Ellsberg was, at the time he leaked the Pentagon Papers, a rather seasoned official who tried and failed to get the truth out through proper channels. Only after key Senators refused to do anything did he go to the press and, even then, he was careful to release only documents that showed the malfeasance he was highlighting. Snowden was more reckless, neither attempting to go through channels nor being particularly careful about what he released—but he was at least highlighting a particular program. Manning actually enlisted with the intention of committing espionage; he simply released documents willy-nilly.

Before my case and the Obama administration’s prosecutions of whistle-blowers, they needn’t have been worried about going to jail. But apart from that, they fear losing their jobs, their careers, risking the clearances on which their jobs depend. People who have these clearances have often invested a lifetime in demonstrating that they can be entrusted to keep secrets. That trust becomes a part of your identity, which it is difficult to sacrifice, so that one loses track of a sense of higher responsibility — as a citizen, as a human being.

I think this is all true. But it’s also true that the overwhelming number of people who have security clearances actually access very little secret information and almost none are privy to the sort of secrets Ellsberg himself had. (He had been in senior advisory positions in government and was back at RAND working on a top secret project commissioned by Secretary of Defense McNamara.) And the relatively few people who encounter troubling information are acculturated to a chain of command, operating on the presumption that those senior to them are acting under good intentions and sound legal advice.

Q. We tend to think of the classification system as a system of protection. But you sometimes talk about it, and I think correctly, as a system of control.

A. That is what it is. It is a protection system against the revelation of mistakes, false predictions, embarrassments of various kinds and maybe even crimes. And then the secrecy system in its application is predominantly to protect officials, administrations from embarrassment and from accountability, from the possibility that their rivals will pick these things up and beat them over the head with it. Their rivals for office, for instance.

This is utter bullshit. To be sure, we reflexively over-classify for a variety of reasons. (More on that later.) But the amount that’s intentionally covering up mistakes and the like is less than a rounding error. Indeed, essentially none of it is classified by people at that level; it’s almost all done at the operational levels and below.

Q. How should the average reader understand the difference between the importance of a risotto recipe  that was disclosed by the Russian hack of John Podesta’s email account and serious secrets like those disclosed by Snowden? Steven Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists, who studies secrecy, for instance, once called the indiscriminate disclosure of military files by WikiLeaks a kind of “information vandalism .”

A. I disagree with Steve. I think he greatly underestimates the amount of overclassification. The media as a whole has never really investigated the secrecy system and what it’s for and what its effects are. For example, the best people on declassification outside the media, the National Security Archive, month after month, year after year, put out newly disclosed classified information that they have worked sometimes three or four years, 10 years, 20 years to make public. Very little of that was justified to be kept from the public that long, if at all. An expert estimated  in Congress in 1971 that 5 percent of classified information met the criteria for secrecy at the time it was classified, and after a few years that decreased to half of one percent.

I’ve never met Aftergood but have followed his work for at least the last twenty years. He’s painfully aware of overclassification, as are any of us who have clearances. I agree with Ellsberg that it’s too hard and takes to long to de-classify what has been classified. But relying on 52-year-old analyses is rather silly. Further, all of the incentives point in the direction of classifying—but not for the nefarious reasons Ellsberg cites.

Mostly it’s simply CYA: the penalties for failure to classify that which ought be classified are much higher than for the reverse (essentially none). Additionally, there are powerful bureaucratic incentives to classify. Having possession of highly classified information makes you more valuable. And decisionmakers are, for weird psychological reasons, far more likely to pay attention to Information That Only Very Special People Get to See than they are to that which can be gleaned from open sources.

Ellsberg is, quite naturally, anchored to his own experiences with the Vietnam War, the lies told in its advancement by the Johnson administration, and the overzealous prosecution of his leak by the Nixon administration. He’s 91 years old and has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, with perhaps just months to live.

I believe his actions in leaking the Pentagon Papers, while violating his oath, were legitimately motivated by patriotism. Ultimately, though, I believe that the system for protecting state secrets, established in law by Congress and overseen by an elected President and his Senate-confirmed officials, is a necessary but imperfect system. We can’t have every idiot private with a security clearance act as a personal arbiter of our nation’s secrets.