The Report of Wenamun & the Perils of Living in the Past

The Report of Wenamun & the Perils of Living in the Past

The Report of Wenamun (also known as The Tale of Wenamun or The Report of Wenamon) is an Egyptian literary work dated to c. 1090-1075 BCE toward the end of the New Kingdom (c.1570 - c. The piece was originally interpreted as an actual official report, but the use of certain stylistic devices (dialogue and symbolism among them) has led scholars to conclude that the work is more along the lines of historical fiction than reportage.

The significance of Wenamun for scholars is the accurate depiction of Egypt's state at the end of the New Kingdom and the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt (c. 1069-525 BCE). The New Kingdom was the era of Egypt's empire when conquest, diplomatic negotiations, and trade filled the royal treasury with riches and elevated Egypt's status to one of the greatest nations of the time. The New Kingdom's decline is characterized by a loss of that status, as well as attendant wealth and military strength, until by the reign of Ramesses XI (1107-1077 BCE) the central government was so inconsequential that the country was ruled jointly by Smendes (c. 1077-1051 BCE) the governor of Tanis and the High Priest Herihor (c. 1080-1074 BCE) of Thebes.

The Report of Wenamun is set during this time when Smendes and Herihor commanded a greater respect than the pharaoh and Egypt was no longer regarded by other nations as a country of very great consequence. Wenamun is a government official sent on a mission by Herihor to procure wood from Byblos to refurbish the great Barque of Amun at Thebes, the ceremonial ship used to transport the image of the god at festivals. The story makes clear how, in the past, the wood was regularly provided without a problem but now, with Egypt's status in decline, the foreign prince is less accommodating.

Wenamun as Historical Fiction

Egypt's decline is clearly depicted through the first-person narration of Wenamun as he describes the difficulties he must endure to complete his mission; a mission which was previously accomplished with far greater ease. Egyptologist Miriam Lichtheim comments on the central theme of the story noting how "the empire had been lost and thus so simple an enterprise as the purchase of Lebanese timber could be depicted as a perilous adventure" (224). Wenamun narrates his journey to make a point of how poorly he is treated as a representative of Egypt when once he would have received only the warmest reception.

It is this aspect of the story which continues to attract the attention of scholars, finding details about the state of Egypt at the end of the New Kingdom, but as a work of literature, it is the style and choice of details which make the work so interesting and enjoyable. Lichtheim writes:

What makes the story so remarkable is the skill with which it is told. The Late-Egyptian vernacular is handled with great subtlety. The verbal duels between Wenamun and the prince of Byblos, with their changes of mood and shades of meaning that include irony, represent Egyptian thought and style at their most advanced. What Sinuhe is for the Middle Kingdom, Wenamun is for the New Kingdom: a literary culmination. (224)

The comparison of Wenamun to Sinuhe is apt. The Tale of Sinuhe is a composition from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, which relates the story of an Egyptian noble driven into exile, his adventures abroad, and return home. Like Wenamun, Sinuhe reflects the time in which it was written. It accurately describes the power and prestige of Egypt at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom with the same power and skill as Wenamun shows in presenting an Egypt in decline.

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It is the stylistic devices - tone, mood, characterization – as well as the skillful use of dialogue which has led scholars to conclude the piece is literature. Official reports, throughout Egypt's history, have none of the flair of the manuscript of Wenamun. The piece is regarded as historical fiction because, although the dialogue and even the events might be made up, the story reflects the truth of Egypt and its emissaries at the time it was written. A 'real' Wenamun would have experienced these same kinds of trials and suffered the same sort of frustration.

The text relies on a reader's understanding of how simple the mission to retrieve wood for Amun's ship would have been earlier in the New Kingdom of Egypt when the country was flourishing and neighboring lands could not do enough to court favor with the pharaoh. This juxtaposition of a dreary present with a bright and shining past is an example of the ubi sunt (Latin for "Where have they gone?") motif in literature. Whether the ancient Egyptians invented this type of story (only dubbed ubi sunt by later scholars) is debated, but there is no doubt they perfected it from the Middle Kingdom onwards, and Wenamun is among the best examples of this kind of work.

The Text & Summary

The story is preserved on two papyrus pages of 142 lines known as Papyrus Moscow 120. There are a number of lacunae throughout where the manuscript is damaged, and the end of the story is lost. It is assumed that Wenamun completes his mission and returns to Egypt where he then offers his report.

Written in the form of an official report, Wenamun begins his story with the date and introduces himself and his mission. He journeys from Thebes to Tanis where he is given a ship and supplies by Smendes and sent on his way. He then arrives at Dor, a port town on the coast of Palestine, where he is robbed by one of his own men, who takes the money he brought to pay for the wood. He appeals to the prince of Dor to find his goods but is laughed at for the presumption. The prince tells him that, according to standard practice, if it had been one of the prince's own people who robbed Wenamun, he would replace the loss; but the Egyptian was robbed by one of his own people, and there is nothing to be done but try to find the thief.

Wenamun waits around for nine days but the thief is not found and the money unrestored, so he leaves Dor and solves his problem by robbing a ship belonging to the Tjeker – one of the Sea Peoples – who were related to the people of Dor. He informs the Tjeker on board that he is not actually stealing their money but only holding it until his own is found. He then sails for Byblos where he is poorly received. The prince of Byblos requests that he leave and refuses to grant him an audience for 29 days until one of his court, in a trance, receives a message from the gods that the envoy from Egypt should be seen.

The meeting between Wenamun and the prince of Byblos is among the most skillfully constructed scenes in the story. Wenamun expects an easy transaction in keeping with past traditions but the times have changed – as the prince informs him – and he will no longer give Egypt the wood for free. The prince further explains, bringing out his accounts, that this was never really the case anyway. The great kings of Egypt sent his father and grandfather lavish goods when they needed wood, and so it is wrong of Wenamun to appear at the port empty-handed and expect to be rewarded.

The image of Egypt Wenamun keeps insisting on is now in the past, & this elevates the story from a simple adventure tale of historical interest to true literature.

Wenamun argues that he is on a mission from Amun, not any earthly king, and deserves a greater showing of respect. All things belong to Amun, he tells the prince, and so the wood that the prince is claiming as his own is Amun's also. The prince concedes this may be true, but he will still not provide the wood without payment. Wenamun sees there is nothing to be done but bend to the will of the prince. He, therefore, sends a ship to Egypt which returns months later with the goods and treasures, and the prince then has a ship loaded with the wood.

At this point, just when it seems Wenamun can successfully return home, the ships of the Tjeker, which have apparently been searching for him, appear in the harbor and demand his arrest. Wenamun falls to the ground in despair and weeps, and the prince sends a songstress and jugs of wine to him at the shore to console him. The Tjeker are granted an audience with the prince, who tells them that he cannot allow the arrest of an emissary of Amun in his land. He asks them to allow him to send Wenamun on his way and they can catch him somewhere off the coast.

Wenamun sets sail but is blown off his course and loses the Tjeker ships, but when he lands on Alasiya (Cyprus), he is attacked by the people (for reasons unspecified), who try to kill him. He fights his way through the crowd and manages to catch the attention of the princess Hatiba as she is walking from one of her houses to another. He requests sanctuary from her and she grants it, telling him he can spend the night, and at this point, the manuscript breaks off.

Commentary

The author's choice of detail combines to present not only a vivid adventure story and a portrait of a once great nation in decline but also to drive home an existential message about the dangers of clinging to the past. The scene between the prince of Byblos and Wenamun, as noted, is the most dramatic example of this, but Wenamun's reception at Byblos where he is first told to leave and then forced to wait 29 days for an audience is also quite telling. Wenamun's expectation of how he should be treated, based on the traditions of the past, is disappointed. He is living in a new time now with new rules he needs to adjust to.

The use of the Tjeker as adversaries is another fascinating detail in the story touching on a new paradigm. The Tjeker are listed among the tribes who made up the Sea Peoples, one of Egypt's most troublesome enemies from the time of Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE) through the reign of Ramesses III (1186-1155 BCE). By the time of the late New Kingdom, these people would have been legendary opponents but they are presented sympathetically in the story. The prince of Dor, who is related to the Tjeker, certainly does not go out of his way to help Wenamun when he is robbed but also is behaving according to custom, as he points out, and seems to make some effort to help find the thief. The Tjeker merchants are also presented in a positive light; they have no quarrel with Wenamun until he robs them to make up for his loss.

Traditionally, non-Egyptian characters are not presented sympathetically in Egyptian literature, but in Wenamun, they all are. The prince of Byblos is hardly the villain of the piece and makes clear that Wenamun is operating from a false assumption based on an idealized image of the past. The prince presents a rational argument as to why he will not provide the wood for free. Wenamun relates how the prince explains his case:

He had the daybook [accounts] of his forebears brought and had it read before me. They found entered in his book a thousand deben of silver and all sorts of things. He said to me: "If the ruler of Egypt were the lord of what is mine and I were his servant, he would not have sent silver and gold to say: 'Carry out the business of Amun.' It was not a royal gift that they gave to my father! I too, I am not your servant, nor am I the servant of him who sent you!" (Lichtheim, 226)

Although in the days of Egypt's empire Wenamun would have been treated better, there is nothing especially vindictive or unfair in the way the prince answers his request. He later even gives Wenamun a head start in escaping from the Tjeker, who actually have every right to arrest him.

Through the careful construction of the narrator's character, the author provides an audience with a fully realized individual who is also a type. Wenamun still clings to an image of Egypt as a powerful nation which commands respect and obedience when actually that paradigm no longer applies. Further, as the prince demonstrates, the vision Wenamun clings to of the past is unrealistic. The image of Egypt Wenamun keeps insisting on is now in the past, and this elevates the story from a simple adventure tale of historical interest to true literature.

The tendency to cling to the past and compare it favorably with one's present is a constant of the human condition. People tend to not only remember the 'good old days' but insist that the present should oblige them by conforming to that golden standard. In reality, the 'good old days' are never as perfect as they appear in one's memory and the present is never as terrible as it seems by comparison. Wenamun brings most of his problems on himself and then blames others when they do not respond as he thinks they should. In this, Wenamun is a kind of everyman and the story serves as a warning of the danger of insisting on how life should be instead of accepting life as it is.


POP VIEW The Perils of Loving Old Records Too Much

TODAY'S ALTERNATIVE ROCK suffers from a strange kind of nostalgia -- a yearning for a golden age that one never personally experienced. There's a term for this born-too-late feeling: "epigonic." Derived from a peculiar Greek verb that means "to be born after," it describes anyone who labors under the delusion that the present era is less distinguished than its predecessor.

Rock is full of bands that resurrect the sound and the look of a period when music seemed to be more exciting or seemed to mean more than mere commerce -- an activity known in the trade as unit-shifting. But since nothing is more modern than the conviction that earlier generations had it better, these groups have been shifting a lot of units lately.

One of the most successful is Blind Melon. Musically, its blues-tinged grooves hark back to the Southern boogie of the Allman Brothers Band and to West Coast acid rock of the Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead. The video for Blind Melon's MTV breakthrough single, "No Rain," which propelled its self-titled debut album into the Top 3 after nine months as a sleeper, has a pastoral vibe, with the band frolicking in a flower-filled meadow. The quintet's long hair and facial foliage mark them out as stoners, an impression accentuated by the hemp seeds on the album's back cover. The singer Shannon Hoon performs barefoot and has a tendency to shed his clothes onstage or on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Blind Melon grew up on classic rock artists like Traffic and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The band has talked of using "vintage" amplifiers and equipment to recapture the warmth and feel of that era's music, which disappeared with the advent of digital recording and drum machines. Lyrically, Blind Melon's songs also have something of the aura of the early 70's, when the counterculture's momentum had ebbed and its agenda had contracted to an apolitical, feel-good ethos. There's a similar mellow spirit to the Spin Doctors, who combine the radio-friendly raunch of the Steve Miller Band and the truckin' affability of the Dead.

Blind Melon recently toured with Lenny Kravitz, another highly successful retro-rocker. Like Blind Melon, Mr. Kravitz deliberately uses antiquated studio technology to make the rock equivalent of reproduction antiques. He expertly simulates production styles of his heroes like Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Curtis Mayfield.

A supremely videogenic performer who nonetheless professes to hate MTV, Mr. Kravitz carries his fetish for period detail through to his visual presentation. In the video for the Hendrix-pastiche "Are You Gonna Go My Way?," Mr. Kravitz's bassist sports a "white Afro" uncannily reminiscent of the coiffure of Noel Redding, bassist in the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

While Mr. Kravitz's music and image are based in pure post-modern pick-and-mix, his lyrics bypass the irony and complexity of post-modern experience and return to the naivete of an age when people believed music could change the world. Whatever his or Blind Melon's intentions, both provide counterculture for couch potatoes, a consumer package of groovy idealism with all the confrontation and commitment removed.

These days, "alternative" can almost be defined as not contemporary, insofar as most alternative bands spurn the state-of-the-art techniques that underpin rap, new jack swing and techno, preferring to renovate a period style from rock's past. This predilection doesn't mean their music is irrelevant, it just means such bands are distinguishable by the degree of sophistication with which they rework material from rock's archives.

Some bands offer revivalism filtered through tongue-in-cheek humor, as with White Zombie's nouveau biker rock (Steppenwolf) or Raging Slab's resurrection of Southern rock (Black Oak Arkansas). Perhaps the wittiest of the retro bands is Urge Overkill, which combines Cheap Trick-inspired pop-metal anthems with a stylized image influenced by James Brown, the Who and the playboy suaveness of the Rat Pack (Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., et al). Urge Overkill's latest album, "Saturation," is its major-label debut, but even as an indie band playing grubby clubs the threesome comported themselves like stadium superstars.

One could call this esthetic record-collection rock, since a band is interesting in proportion to the esoteric scope of its musical learning. Bands get a camp frisson by rehabilitating something that was once beyond the pale. But the thrill wears off quickly. For instance, when late 80's bands like the Butt hole Surfers and Tad revived Black Sabbath's ponderous riffs, it felt like a daring challenge to the approved canon of underground rock. But after grunge, Sabbath-style heaviness is no longer a novelty, it's an oppressive norm. In indie music, the smart operators seek out neglected genres, to titillate the hipster's easily jaded palette. Where financiers speculate in futures, bands today speculate in pasts.

IN AMERICA, PAVEMENT IS THE king of record-collection rock. Its music is a patchwork of ideas filched from the history of avant-garde and primitivist rock (70's neo-pschedelic bands like Can and Faust, post-punk weirdos like Pere Ubu and the Fall). In Britain, Stereolab rivals Pavement when it comes to arcana. On its two 1993 albums, "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music" and "Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements," the band explores the unlikely links between the droning mantras of Velvet Underground and La Monte Young and early 60's easy-listening (in particular Martin Denny, inventor of a Muzak brand called exotica).

Rock has always had a place for the curator mentality. The Rolling Stones began as obsessive collectors of rare blues records. But they at least went on to create the soundtrack of their time. Too many of today's indie bands are making music about music, scribbling footnotes in the Great Book of Rock. The CDreissue boom has made all kinds of obscure artists readily available. As baby boomers replace their worn LP's with CD's, there's a glut of used vinyl on the market.

All this encourages bands to scale new heights of perversity and obscurantism when it comes to reference points. Swamped by music, dwarfed by previous eras' achievements, twentysomething musicians like Steve Malkmus of Pavement compensate with irony and knowingness. But recently, perhaps tired of being painfully hip, Mr. Malkmus has talked of a return to the "Zen-like simplicity" of soft-rock groups like the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac as a route out of the mire of eclecticism. Such a paradoxical strategy -- going back in time in order to go forward -- is emblematic of the state of rock.

Rock's retrogressive tendencies approach redundancy with the Tribute Album, wherein various artists pay respect to iconic figures like Neil Young, Syd Barrett or Captain Beefheart. A current example is "Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix," a collection of pointlessly faithful versions of the acid rock visionary's classics, by artists as diverse as Eric Clapton, Belly and the Cure.

Esthetically dubious, maybe, but the commercial logic of "Stone Free" and similar projects like the forthcoming KISS tribute is unassailable. As well as intriguing fans of the honored artist, these albums tempt diehard followers of each contributing band to shell out to complete their collections.

On a similar wavelength, the future may see more exercises in nostalgia like Guns 'n' Roses's just released "The Spaghetti Incident?," where one band pays homage to its roots. In this case, Guns 'n' Roses cover a bunch of punk songs by bands like the UK Subs, the Damned, and the New York Dolls. Along with paying respect to artists that influenced them, Guns 'n' Roses is trying to rewrite its place in rock history as a descendant of punk as opposed to heavy metal.

In some ways, sample-based music would seem to be the ultimate form of record-collection rock, since its collage esthetic involves the wholesale appropriation of licks and riffs from old records. But the best sampler music -- from rap groups like Cypress Hill or the Goats, techno artists like the Prodigy or Ultramarine and a precious few rock bands like the Young Gods -- revitalizes the music of the past. They weld together incongruous elements to create a kind of Frankenstein pop, in which musical atmospheres from different eras are compelled to coexist. Or they warp their sources on the sampler keyboard until barely recognizable. Or they simply ransack the archives with an invigorating brutality that's infinitely preferable to the wan reverence of retro-rockers. GROUP DESIGN

Ever wonder where a band comes up with its sound and image? Here's a guide to influences: what's hot and what's not.

*Hardy perennials (obvious but unassailably cool): the Rolling Stones, the Beatles.

*Passe (exhausted by recent overuse): Big Star, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Funkadelic, Neil Young, My Bloody Valentine, Husker Du.

*Hot but maybe not for much longer: Cheap Trick, Pink Floyd and Brian Eno, Can and Faust, the Fall, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Captain Beefheart, Rush.

*Outside contenders for ➔: King Crimson, Gentle Giant, early Roxy Music, Weather Report, dancehall reggae-ragga, Fairport Convention, Foghat.


The Report of Wenamun & the Perils of Living in the Past - History

(FORTUNE Magazine) &ndash It was the sort of e-mail most people delete with nary a glance. The bland subject heading read: "E-mail content training to begin in October." But the message inside was anything but routine. Merrill Lynch was ordering its 50,000-plus employees to attend a reeducation camp of sorts. "It is imperative that every employee knows how to use e-mail effectively and appropriately," wrote Merrill president Stanley O'Neal and chairman David Komansky. "E-mail and other forms of electronic communication are like any other written communication, and are subject to subpoena." Before sending an e-mail, they advised, "Ask yourself: How would I feel if this message appeared on the front page of a newspaper?"

Good question. And one O'Neal and Komansky would get a chance to answer. Some thoughtful Merrill staffer, apparently, zapped the e-mail to the Reuters news service (or to someone else who did), from which it traveled to the pages of the New York Post, the Boston Herald, and the Houston Chronicle, and to Lou Dobbs Moneyline on CNN. Take two seconds to think about it, and two lessons emerge: (1) E-mail is inspiring a very real and growing fear in corporate boardrooms, and (2) that fear can't do anything to stop electronic messages from careening out of control.

Sure, 2002 was the Year of Corporate Scandal. But really it wouldn't be fair to give all the credit to grasping, conniving executives and malevolent, sneaky bookkeepers. No, as those corporate honchos offer their plea bargains, they'll all be able to name an accomplice: e-mail.

For prosecutors, it has become the star witness--or perhaps an even better weapon than that. Think of e-mail as the corporate equivalent of DNA evidence, that single hair left at the crime scene that turns the entire case. In theory you can explain it away, but good luck trying.

So ubiquitous has the smoking e-mail become that some lawyers have taken to calling it "evidence mail." Says Garry Mathiason, whose law firm, Littler Mendelson, defends giant corporations in employment cases: "I don't think there's a case we handle today that doesn't have some e-mail component to it."

Who knew that a nation could become so transfixed by writing? There was the Stephen King of e-mail prose--former Merrill Lynch analyst Henry Blodget--whose output was as prolific as it was haunting. Former Salomon Smith Barney analyst Jack Grubman favored a terser style--he's reportedly a BlackBerry man--for what he would later claim were his fictional musings. But literary style notwithstanding, their e-mails shared a common plot: jacking up stock ratings to please investment-bank clients. Does anybody think the nation's biggest brokerages would have agreed to hand over $1.5 billion in settlements if not for this electronic paper trail?

Nor was the pox limited to the Wall Street houses. Like forgotten land mines, unfortunate e-mails involving Enron, WorldCom, Qwest, Global Crossing, and Tyco exploded sporadically throughout the year. There was even damaging e-mail about e-mail, as happened with the J.P. Morgan Chase banker who warned a colleague to "shut up and delete this e-mail."

But even that seemingly obvious fix can bring its own perils. Five big Wall Street brokerages coughed up $8.25 million in fines in December for failing to preserve electronic messages, as securities rules require. And one cannot forget Arthur Andersen, whose destruction of Enron-related transmissions led to a criminal conviction and eventually to the accounting firm's implosion. While the degree of punishment was exceptional, the fact of it wasn't: Judges are increasingly imposing penalties on companies that can't turn over old e-mails when the court demands them.

And so it boils down to this, to borrow an old phrase: Companies can't live with e-mail, and they definitely can't live without it. As we've seen it's increasingly a legal albatross--and, at the very least, a fast track to public humiliation. But then it's also the most important business technology since the advent of the telephone. It's invaluable in allowing far-flung offices to communicate and it lets employees work from anywhere. It has freed us from the tyranny of phone tag and given us an effortless way to transmit lengthy documents without so much as a busy fax signal. If you have any doubt how much the technology has worked its way into your daily life, just ask yourself this: How many times a day do you check your e-mail?

How to reconcile these two contradictory notions--that e-mail is both salvation and threat? As we're about to show you, there is no easy answer. In fact, this may be one of the most daunting, high-stakes conundrums facing corporate America today.

But one thing is certain: Imposing a technological solution to a behavioral problem, as many companies are trying, seems doomed to failure. After all, e-mail didn't cause Blodget to write what he did--it simply did a good job of recording him.

It's not as if we've never been warned. Only four years ago Microsoft was flayed at its antitrust trial for endless indelicate e-mails, such as the one in which Bill Gates asked, "How much do we need to pay you to screw Netscape?" A decade before that an early form of e-mail provided key evidence in the 1987 Iran-Contra investigation. As it happens, many of the smoking guns consisted of e-mails that Oliver North had erased. Or thought he did.

Now, 15 years later, it sounds obvious to say that "delete" doesn't mean delete. It sounds schoolmarmish to say, "Careful what you write." We know that already. But still, neither lesson has sunk in.

So what is it about e-mail that makes it seem like electronic truth serum? Some years back, researchers at the University of Texas conducted an experiment. They asked volunteers to sit in a cubicle by themselves and respond to a series of personal questions. The subjects had to speak into a microphone, which, they were told, would record what they said. Half the group sat in cubicles with a large mirror facing them the others had no mirror. The researchers found that the mirrorless subjects were noticeably more willing to speak and more likely to say revealing things. E-mail, which at heart is a solitary way of communicating, may convey that same mirrorless feeling.

Perhaps that explains our apparent tendency to confess electronically. In Alphabet to E-Mail: How Written English Evolved and Where It's Heading, linguist Naomi Baron notes that 25 years of research reveal that "people offer more accurate and complete information about themselves when filling out questionnaires using a computer than when completing the same form on paper or through a face-to-face interview. The differences were especially marked when the information at issue was personally sensitive."

That's great news for D.A.s and advice columnists, but a nightmare from the corporation's vantage point. "Companies are really struggling with this," says Jay Ehrenreich, senior manager of PricewaterhouseCoopers' cybercrime prevention and response group. For starters, we're drowning in electronic paperwork. The ease of e-mail means we send and receive more documents than ever before. And as document-management consultant Bob Williams of Cohasset Associates points out, the rise of word processing and e-mail has led to the gradual extinction of the secretary--the person who paid attention to filing and purging. If the typical middle manager were to file papers the way he stores e-mails, his office would be filled with five-foot pillars of vellum and bleached bond. Is it any wonder that embarrassing e-mails keep popping up?

Many corporate managers have concluded that the best solution to this mess is the mass purge. If your business isn't, say, a brokerage or health-care company, both of which have specific rules on how long they must keep records, you can trash e-mails whenever you want, as long as you do so pursuant to the terms of a formal policy. And so companies are cleaning out their electronic closets, now typically wiping all e-mail messages from their servers after 30 to 90 days.

Others limit individuals' storage capacity. For example, Boeing restricts staffers to 15 megabytes of e-mail in their in-box. If they exceed the limit, the system won't allow them to send any e-mail. In theory, employees will judiciously eliminate messages that have outlived their usefulness.

Purging has other benefits--it allows companies to free server space for more productive uses. But as a litigation-avoidance tool it's "pissing into the wind," in the earthy words of Tom Campbell, founder of Kobo.biz, a company that offers high-end web-based e-mail. Purges don't delete the messages that are stored on employees' hard drives they don't eliminate the ones that people print out and file away and they don't eradicate the e-mails that have been sent or forwarded to people outside the company. In other words, a huge percentage of e-mails will escape most purges.

More fundamentally, do businesses want the legal tail to wag the commercial dog? How many documents do you want to throw out in hopes of avoiding future litigation? "To purge the contents of the entire e-mail system," says consultant and lawyer Randolph Kahn, co-author of the forthcoming book E-Mail Rules, "is to potentially dispose of records with business significance that are needed to protect the company's business and legal interests."

And, believe it or not, e-mail can actually come to the rescue of corporations in litigation. In employment cases, says lawyer Mathiason of Littler Mendelson, e-mail evidence is as likely to help a company as it is to hurt it. He cites a recent mediation in which a company was sued because a male executive had allegedly sexually harassed a female employee. Mathiason's team retrieved lurid e-mail attachments that the woman had sent to her ostensible harasser, undercutting her claim that she'd been a victim. Says Mathiason: "The attachments were so gross and so disgusting that, first of all, one of our paralegals wouldn't even look at them, and I could hardly blame that person. We threw those out in the mediation, and the claim went down from $1 million to $10,000."

But for good or ill, e-mails are fundamentally survivors. They are the cockroaches of mass communication. Even if e-mails have been purged from a server, for instance, they may survive on the company's backup tape. And while it can be difficult and expensive to retrieve files from backup tapes, that doesn't get companies off the hook: Courts expect you to produce the e-mails anyway.

Consider one recent case involving a GMAC subsidiary, Residential Funding Corp. In a breach-of-contract lawsuit, RFC had won a $96 million jury award against DeGeorge Financial Corp. That is, until a New York federal appeals court weighed in. At issue was RFC's inability to deliver old e-mails at trial. The fact that RFC had hired a leading electronic discovery firm to recover the messages from backup tapes--and that the effort had failed--was no excuse, the judges said. A company can be punished, the appellate court found, even if its failure to provide e-mails was caused by negligence rather than bad faith. The case was sent back to the trial court and settled in December with an unspecified payment to DeGeorge.

If purging isn't the answer, can e-mail monitoring come to the rescue? These days, 47% of companies engage in the practice, according to the ePolicy Institute, a research and consulting firm in Columbus. There's no getting around the Orwellian flavor of all this scrutiny, though perhaps it's leavened by a certain absurdism in the corporate incarnation: Even the watchers are watched. Witness the very large company that brought in PWC's Ehrenreich as a precautionary measure during the layoff of some of its IT staff. The consultants scanned the hard drives of the soon-to-depart IT employees, hoping to stave off any potential sabotage. That's when they discovered that one IT staffer had quietly snooped into a senior executive's electronic in-box and retrieved some hardcore pornographic e-mails. Rather than report it to his higher-ups, he was gleefully sharing the material with his fellow techies.

Even when monitors do what they're supposed to do, they gear their efforts largely to warding off sexually explicit and junk e-mails--not ferreting out the Blodgets and Grubmans among us. Adam Ludlow, senior network engineer at electronics manufacturer Brother Industries, estimates that spam-and obscenity-hunting software blocks 7,000 of the 20,000 e-mails that arrive at Brother's U.S. servers every day. "MAILsweeper [a software program] probably blocks 2,000 e-mails a day just with the word 'Viagra' in it," he says.

The software also filters what is going in the other direction, waylaying messages with objectionable language. "I don't let any profanity leave this establishment," Ludlow says. He has programmed the software, which Brother bought from a company called Clearswift, not only to search for obscene phraseology, but also to seek out certain technical language. The latter prevents employees from sending, say, new-product designs to any e-mail address that isn't on an approved list.

It's both impressive and chilling--and still only nascent. According to International Data Corp., companies spent $139 million on content-oriented e-mail monitoring in 2001, compared with the $1.67 billion they shelled out for software that blocks viruses. IDC predicts that e-mail monitoring software sales will grow to a $662 million market by 2006.

Companies that sell monitoring software say they've been getting a lot of interest lately. Says Ivan O'Sullivan, vice-president for worldwide corporate development at Clearswift (whose 2,000 U.S. customers include AT&T, Bank of America, Continental Airlines, and General Electric): "In terms of requests for proposals, I haven't ever seen it as hot and busy as it was in the last three months of 2002."

Wall Street houses, in particular, are looking to tighten their monitoring, O'Sullivan says. In the past, they employed software to identify suspicious messages after they were sent and delivered. Now, he says, "more people want to do pre-review of messages in the financial space, rather than look at things after the fact." In pre-review, messages are electronically shanghaied and then "quarantined" until, say, a compliance supervisor reads them. Only with the supervisor's approval is a message routed to its intended recipient. Second, whereas investment banks mostly monitored e-mails that went to people outside the firm, according to O'Sullivan, they're now looking to monitor communications within the firm too. (Need we point out that the infamous Wall Street e-mails were all intracompany messages?)

Better living through software, right? Perhaps. But there are plenty of dangerous things a person can say without using a single hot-button word or combination. Consider two phrases: "This is an accommodation for an important client" and "This company is very important to us from a banking perspective." Both excerpts are from the Merrill Lynch e-mail collection. In the context of allegations that Merrill inflated stock ratings to please investment-banking clients, the phrases are extremely damning.

But if every e-mail that mentions an accommodation for a client sets off an alarm bell, companies will need battalions of censors to comb through the resulting deluge of "suspicious" messages. Even clearly inflammatory wording, such as the Blodget assessment that a stock was "a powder keg," is caught only if the phrase in question is common enough to be included on a programming list. As O'Sullivan acknowledges, "Ultimately, we're not a substitute for good management. We're a tool that organizations who wish to comply can use to assist them in their compliance."

Aggressive monitoring can actually create surprising risks for multinational corporations, which the great majority of the FORTUNE 500 are. Privacy-protection laws for employees are much stricter in Europe than in the U.S. Three Deutsche Bank executives now face prison time in Spain for doing something American companies routinely do: examining an employee's e-mail. Microsoft was fined after a few of its Spanish employees voluntarily submitted personal data to a company website, which sent the information to the human resources department in Redmond, Wash.

The buzz phrase for e-mail consultants in recent years is "having a policy." In theory, companies are shielded from liability by putting their e-mail rules in writing--something four-fifths of American companies already do. "But where employers drop the ball," says Nancy Flynn of the ePolicy Institute, "is that only 24% do any kind of training. So you can't expect your employees to know what to do and what not to do if you don't train them."

Companies such as Boeing and Intel have long had classes on e-mail and Internet use, which focus on commonsense rules and advice (with an occasional quirky mandate: Intel's policy forbids chain letters). Boeing even requires an annual refresher course.

Training, perhaps, is the best tonic--at least when it comes to simple concepts, such as not using offensive language. But can we ever train people when the core of the message is "Don't say anything stupid"? And ultimately, of course, e-mail is simply a recording medium. Though no company would ever admit to such a view, you get the feeling that more than one CEO is thinking, I don't care how you act--just don't write it down. And that, of course, is not an e-mail problem.

Now that some businesspeople appear to crave a return to a world where every exchange isn't record-ed, it's worth recalling that there was a time when just the opposite was true. In the earliest days of the telephone, according to America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940, some businessmen actually resisted the new technology because they couldn't conceive of buying, selling, and negotiating without a permanent paper record.

Indeed, the history of the telephone offers lessons for corporate managers wrestling with e-mail. For all its universal acceptance, e-mail has been in widespread use for less than ten years. We simply haven't figured it out yet. By comparison, it took decades to evolve uses for the phone that seem completely natural now. For nearly half a century, the Bell companies scorned the idea of using a phone to socialize they marketed it for its business and utilitarian purposes only.

Like the telephone, e-mail is occasionally blamed for long-developing changes that it didn't necessarily create (but did accelerate): the increasing overlap of home and work life and the tendency of written language to resemble speech. Both have fed people's tendency to write irreverent, loose e-mail.

Add to that more recent technological developments, such as the popularity of the BlackBerry, which both heighten the intermingling of work and home and accentuate people's tendency to fire off a quick electronic note. Where once an employee would compose himself and dictate a memo to a secretary, who might bring it back for inspection an hour later, a manager is more likely now to thumb-type a two-line e-mail while standing on the sidelines at her daughter's soccer game.

As young as it is, e-mail is already being followed by an even faster technology that could be more dangerous still. Instant messaging is rising fast in corporate America some 45% of Internet users at work currently have access to consumer IM services such as those from AOL, MSN, and Yahoo, according to ComScore Media Metrix. Such systems generally leave little electronic trace unless a user intentionally takes steps to preserve messages. But for the same reason that companies monitor, block, and save e-mail messages, they're likely to eventually do the same with IM.

Among teenagers and college students, IM plays the role that e-mail does for older people, argues Baron: It's casual and written in "spoken" style. Students, she says, save e-mail for more formal correspondence with parents and professors.

So our e-mail problem may disappear--only to be replaced by an IM problem. Says Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future: "By the time we get all four corners of e-mail nailed down, the important communications are going to be instant-messaging. And no one will know what to do with that."


Are we living at the hinge of history?

GPI Working Paper No. 12-2020, to appear in Jeff McMahan, Tim Campbell, James Goodrich, and Ketan Ramakrishnan, eds., Ethics and Existence: The Legacy of Derek Parfit (Oxford: OUP, 2021)

In the final pages of On What Matters, Volume II, Derek Parfit comments: ‘We live during the hinge of history. If we act wisely in the next few centuries, humanity will survive its most dangerous and decisive period. What now matters most is that we avoid ending human history.’ This passage echoes Parfit's comment, in Reasons and Persons, that ‘the next few centuries will be the most important in human history’.

But is the claim that we live at the hinge of history true? The argument of this paper is that it is not. The paper first suggests a way of making the hinge of history claim precise and action-relevant in the context of the question of whether altruists should try to do good now, or invest their resources in order to have more of an impact later on. Given this understanding, there are two worldviews - the Time of Perils and Value Lock-in views - on which we are indeed living during, or about to enter, the hinge of history.

This paper then presents two arguments against the hinge of history claim: first, that it is a priori extremely unlikely to be true, and that the evidence in its favour is not strong enough to overcome this a priori unlikelihood second, an inductive argument that our ability to influence events has been increasing over time, and we should expect that trend to continue into the future. The paper concludes by considering two additional arguments in favour of the claim, and suggests that though they have some merit, they are not sufficient for us to think that the present time is the most important time in the history of civilisation.


The Report of Wenamun & the Perils of Living in the Past - History

We begin the hour with a show-stopping report from BuzzFeed that, if true, could cost the president his job. The explosive report says the president personally instructed his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress to hide the president’s involvement in a real estate deal for a Moscow Trump Tower. BuzzFeed cites two law enforcement officials who say Mueller has evidence that the president personally instructed Cohen to lie. The story’s most explosive and consequential claim is this — that according to BuzzFeed sources, the special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages and a cache of other documents. It’s the most direct allegation yet that President Trump may have committed a crime.

Mike, what were you thinking when that BuzzFeed report first came out earlier this month?

My first thought was, damn, that’s a really good story. And it particularly hurt because I have spent much of the past two years focused on the issue of obstruction of justice.

And this was the clearest case to date that showed the president may have obstructed justice. It was the president telling one of his associates to lie.

If true, this would be bigger than Watergate. If true, this would be obstruction of justice. Well, the revelation is prompting Democrats to say impeachment is a possibility if the reports are true. If, if, if, if true — Then we are likely on our way to possible impeachment proceedings.

Immediately there was a lot of pressure on us to match this story.

So far we have not been able to confirm BuzzFeed’s report.

And we spent much of the day trying to suss out what was going on.

We should note CNN has not independently confirmed BuzzFeed’s reporting, nor for that matter has anyone else.

And we got a fair amount of pushback and struggled to get it confirmed.

MSNBC, NBC News couldn’t confirm that information. If I’m — This information is not verified at The Washington Post. We can’t verify this information independently. — not independently confirm these allegations. No other news organization, other than BuzzFeed, has this story at this point.

And by that evening, we saw something highly unusual.

Here is the breaking news, a rare and stunning move from the special counsel tonight. Robert Mueller’s team disputing an explosive BuzzFeed report alleging the president told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.

The special counsel’s office, which rarely speaks publicly, put out a statement knocking down the story.

Quote, “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate.”

Right — saying very forcefully and very clearly something in this story is wrong.

This was a reporter’s worst nightmare.

This isn’t a correction of the BuzzFeed story. This is an annihilation of it. And this is a bad one for BuzzFeed, man. They maybe should have stuck to some cat listicles. It’s not good. The press is making itself look very, very badly. And it’s going to be very difficult for this media to restore any credibility it once had before. And I think —

Here you have the special counsel, Bob Mueller, who probably has more credibility in Washington right now than anyone else, saying your story’s not true.

So the people are saying heads should roll at BuzzFeed, that you’re hurting the news business as a whole. What do you say?

archived recording (anthony cormier)

I’ve been a reporter for 20 years. This is going to be borne out, Brian. This story is accurate.

It got me thinking of a time when a similar team of journalists found themselves in a very similar situation.

You rolling? So I got in an Uber and went to Georgetown — [RINGING]

Hi, this is Mike Schmidt. Is Bob there?

Good to see you. How are you, pal?

To the home of Bob Woodward.

From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”

Today, the perils of reporting on a presidential investigation.

We’ll see if we can quiet the dog and the door and the phone.

I’m sorry. It’s the real world.

It’s the real Bob Woodward.

Well, the life of living with a dog.

So what’s the story that Woodward told you?

The story Woodward told me starts with the Watergate break-in in June of 1972.

Democratic National Committee is trying to solve a spy mystery. It began before dawn Saturday when five intruders were captured by police inside the offices of the committee in Washington.

It was at 2:30 in the morning. And by 9 o’clock, the editors at The Post were getting on — how are we going to cover this?

Five people have been arrested and charged with breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the middle of the night.

Bob Woodward and his partner Carl Bernstein jumped on that story.

I was sent to the courthouse and saw burglars in business suits. Didn’t make sense. Lead burglar worked for the CIA. So there was an immediate curiosity.

In the weeks and months after the break-in, Woodward and Carl Bernstein are out front on this coverage.

One of the suspects, James McCord, operates his own security company in Washington. He was doing work for the Republican National Committee and the committee to re-elect President Nixon. No one has proved that the Republicans are behind the break-in, but tomorrow the Democrats are expected to file some sort of legal action against the G.O.P. anyway. Mr. Nixon, did you know about the burglary of our Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate?

They are doing everything possible to figure out ties between the burglars who broke into the Watergate and Nixon’s campaign.

Conventional wisdom then was, Nixon’s too smart to do this. But Carl and I didn’t do conventional wisdom, to be honest with you.

And they kind of have the story all to themselves.

They are out front, even when some news organizations are ignoring it.

The Post was ahead, big time.

We started developing sources like the bookkeeper who kept their records on the money and the treasurer, Hugh Sloan. And so it was always about money, or at least that was one path of exploration.

And they discover this slush fund, this pot of money that Nixon’s advisers controlled so they could dole money out to folks like the burglars to do the dirty political deeds that they thought needed to happen as Nixon was running for re-election.

So we found out that John Mitchell, who’d been the attorney general, who’d been Nixon’s campaign manager, controlled dispersal of the funds. So did Maurice Stans, who was the —

As part of that coverage, Woodward and Bernstein were able to establish four people who had access to those funds, people very close to the president, including his campaign manager at the time.

So this reporting is starting to get closer and closer to President Nixon himself?

And that October, Woodward and Bernstein thought they had a huge scoop.

All roads led to Haldeman, the White House chief of staff —

They had learned that H. R. Haldeman, the person closest to the president, controlled the slush fund.

So we interviewed people, including Hugh Sloan, and he finally said it was Haldeman.

And Hugh Sloan, the treasurer of Nixon’s campaign, had testified about that to the grand jury investigating the president.

This was the big story. If he was involved in this, if he could authorize money, that led right to Nixon’s doorstep.

Because this would be the first person inside the White House at the time who was also controlling the funds from the slush fund.

So they were reporting on this just weeks before the November election. They have three sources confirming Haldeman’s the guy. And on deadline, right before they’re about to publish, their editor asked them to get another source.

So Bernstein called a lawyer in the Justice Department and said, you know, we know it’s Haldeman. And the lawyer said, I’d like to help you, I really would, but I just can’t say anything.

So Bernstein comes up with a workaround. And he says to the official —

He said, I’ll count to 10, and if it’s O.K., tell me it’s O.K.

I’m going to count to 10. And if by the time I’m done counting you haven’t said anything, I’ll know the story’s true.

And this was done in a very clever but direct way.

So Bernstein starts counting. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

And the lawyer said, you’ve got it straight now.

You’ve got it straight now.

Bernstein thanked him again and hung up. He told me about it. We have a fourth source.

They tell the editors, and they publish.

As they expected, the story lands with huge impact.

The story came out, lead story. And we feel quite comfortable.

Everyone in Washington is buzzing about it. It shows just how high the conspiracy went into the White House. And Woodward and Bernstein are in the newsroom that day, basking in the glory of the story, when —

A reporter at The Post, education reporter Eric Wentworth, said, have you seen what happened on television? And we hadn’t seen anything.

Did you guys just see what Hugh Sloan’s lawyer said on television?

And what had Sloan’s lawyer said?

I assume you’re referring to the testimony before the grand jury, as reported in The Washington Post this morning?

Sloan’s lawyer, with Sloan standing right next to him —

Our answer to that is an unequivocal no. Mr. Sloan did not implicate Mr. Haldeman in that testimony at all.

Had come out and knocked the story down.

And Sloan’s our source and somebody we’d developed a close relationship with, as you know, with sources. And it is agony.

Here you had his lawyer standing there on national television saying the story’s not true.

I can’t describe the emotions, but they included — we’re finished, we’re going to have to resign.

It’s the worst feeling as a journalist, right?

Yeah. You have a sinking feeling that — it’s so intense you don’t even know where your stomach is. You know it’s somewhere in your body, and it’s crying out really hard.

So what had actually happened? Had they gotten anything wrong?

We were saying, well, we need to write some sort of story. We need to back down. Or we need to explain. And then Bradlee said, look, you’re not even sure whether you got it right or wrong. What part is wrong? You don’t know where you are. You haven’t got the facts. Hold your water for a while.

So Woodward called Sloan’s lawyer.

He said, look, you don’t have to apologize for this. And essentially, it’s true.

The general thrust of the story is right.

But you’re wrong on the grand jury testimony. You connected the dots that were not connectable.

You guys were just off when you said that Sloan testified about this to the grand jury.

And then I finally got to Deep Throat, Mark Felt.

So then Woodward went to Deep Throat.

I mean, this was 3:00 a.m., I think the next day or two days later. The days rushed together.

When you move on somebody like Haldeman, you’ve got to be sure you’re on the most solid ground. What a royal screw-up, he said. And then he said, look —

The whole thing — Watergate, all the espionage — is a Haldeman operation. He’s behind it.

But you guys, by getting that one fact wrong about the grand jury, have done the improbable.

You’ve got people feeling sorry for Haldeman. I didn’t think that was possible.

You’ve made people feel bad for Haldeman, one of the most disliked people in Washington.

And one of the ringleaders of these dirty tricks, with access to the slush fund, a main character in this illegal plot.

The person closest to Nixon.

Mike, I’m curious what Woodward told you was the fatal error in this reporting that led to this error of the grand jury reference? Because four sources is a lot of sources.

There were three things. One was that they were proceeding with confirmation bias.

Carl and I had heard what we wanted to hear.

They thought the information was true. They were simply looking for sources to give them the O.K. to move forward with that.

We didn’t go through that process of sitting with Sloan and saying, O.K., did they ask you at the grand jury about Haldeman’s role?

They never went back to Sloan himself and walked him through exactly what they were going to be saying about his testimony. That really would have given them a chance to flush things out.

Right, because he might have noticed them referring to a grand jury. And he would have said, no, what you are saying is right, but I never said it to a grand jury.

Correct. It would have been a good way to catch it. And the third thing —

The whole Bernstein, you know, silent confirm or hang up method —

Is that when Bernstein, on deadline, called the Justice Department official and used this confusing way of asking him about it, that failed too.

Everyone was just shaking their head, and that only made everyone more ill.

And they missed a final opportunity to catch the mistake.

But as Woodward went back to all these sources and learned that the heart of the story was true, was he able to report that?

So what they did a day or so after the story was write a piece.

Let’s level as much as we can. And we were able in this case to level.

We were wrong on the grand jury, but it was a Haldeman operation.

That while they had gotten the grand jury part wrong, Haldeman had indeed controlled the slush fund. And the general thrust of what they had reported was right.

I’m not sure it had any traction, because it looked like, in the beginning of 1973, Watergate might just recede, go away.

So the story came at a critical time in the narrative because there were questions about whether this was really a story.

Yes, and whether we had it right.

The initial splash of the wrong story overshadows the important news that is right.

The thing about big stories that are big deals is that if there is a part of it that is wrong, it allows the person who doesn’t like the story to drive a Mack truck right through it.

So while they were right in terms of the narrative and arc of what was going on and what had happened and how high this went into the White House, the mistake gave the White House the excuse to jump on that and say, see, look, this story’s wrong, and all their other reporting about this is just like it. It’s been wrong.

I don’t respect the type of journalism, the shabby journalism that is being practiced by The Washington Post. And I used the term shoddy journalism, shabby journalism. And I’ve used the term character assassination.

What you are saying is wrong. You have no credibility because of that.

Mr. Vice President, Mrs. Agnew, all of our very distinguished guests here at the —

Nixon was overwhelmingly re-elected that November.

archived recording (president nixon)

I’ve never known a national election when I would be able to go to bed earlier than tonight.

And the roots of fake news in the American discourse begin to grow.

Happened to every reporter. And this is where I think the whole discussion has been confused. My observation of reporting — we all make mistakes, but the effort is good faith. We are trying to find out what really happened in here. There’s never a moment Carl and myself — saying, well, you know, let’s stretch. Let’s take it too far. We thought we had it. It was a good-faith, stupid, dumbass mistake, but we made it. Now, how much people are willing to accept good faith — there was no intent, there was no deception — I don’t know. And that’s why we have to in this era now, what, 45 years later, 46 years later, try to not make any mistake.

So you’re saying all these decades later, this story is still in the back of your mind as you report.

Indeed it is. I’ve been sitting here with you — thank you for reliving this chapter of my life.

You can’t have that experience and it not be embedded in your head of, how could I have been so stupid and careless? And we laid it out as best we could, but it’s not a very pretty picture about being careful.

Great. I think we got everything, right?

Let’s take a look at what BuzzFeed did to request comment from the special counsel. This first email is from Jason Leopold, the co-author of the story, sent to the special counsel’s office. It says here, “Peter, hope all is well. Anthony and I have a story coming up stating that Cohen was directed by Trump himself to lie to Congress about his negotiations relating to the Trump Moscow project. Assume no comment from you, but just wanted to check. Best, Jason.” Ben, to me, this is a shockingly casual way to ask for comment for such a serious story. Do you think that was an appropriate and sufficient way to ask for comment?

archived recording (ben smith)

You know, Peter, the spokesman for the special counsel, has told The Washington Post, I believe yesterday, or people close to him on background, that if we had asked differently, he would have given us more information.

But come on, one paragraph? That’s a dereliction of duty to send a three-sentence email —

archived recording (ben smith)

[MUSIC] And that was the choice he made, right?

But when I send e-mails to BuzzFeed spokespeople, and I’m about to write about you, it’s a bullet-point, long email, everything that’s going to be included. I want to make sure everything has been checked first. Why didn’t Jason do that? Carr has now said that he would have responded in more detail if he had more detail. He could have said that two minutes later, right? He could have said — [MUSIC] O.K., process question number two, then.

archived recording (ben smith)

Why publish Thursday night as opposed to waiting for a third source or a fourth source, knowing the stakes of this story?

archived recording (ben smith)

We published because we were very, very confident in the sourcing of this story in the way that you would — and, you know, we had been waiting, right? It was not like Anthony walked into my office on Thursday at noon and said, I have this. This is a story we’ve been developing over a long period of time, that we’ve been working on with sources.

Mike, why did this story that Woodward told you remind you of the BuzzFeed story?

Because in both cases, they were really reporting two things — one was the existence of the information. In the BuzzFeed story, it’s the fact that Cohen said Trump asked him to lie to Congress. The second thing they were reporting is that investigators knew about it. It was the same situation that Woodward found himself in because they had reported that Sloan knew about the slush fund and that Haldeman and controlled it, and he had told it to the grand jury. The fact that the investigators knew about it gave the fact validity. It said, this is not just something that’s floating out there that we figured out on our own. This is something that the people investigating the president have figured out. If you don’t have the validity, the backing of investigators knowing it, the reporting at times feels shakier.

Right, which is why the moment BuzzFeed reported that Mueller knew Trump had done this is when Democrats in the House and the Senate were saying, we have to act, this is the moment to impeach the president.

Yes. But it was the second part that they didn’t have locked down, that undercut them in their reporting in the story, that allowed the White House to attack them. So when the public finds out that the second part is not true, that the investigators do not know this, it negates the primary fact that they were reporting on.

Right, and that’s why when the second part is challenged, the first part is so fundamentally undermined. The first part no longer feels like it can be true if the second part also isn’t true. They’re highly linked.

Right, but what will ultimately matter is whether the fact they were bringing forward, that Trump asked Cohen to lie to Congress, is true. That will be the most important thing. When Woodward is in the middle of it and he made this mistake, he thought he was going to have to resign. The public turned on him. The White House went after him. Now, looking back on that, that seems ridiculous to imagine, because most of us don’t even remember that mistake. His reporting on Watergate is remembered as heroic and historic, but that’s because of how the investigation ended. We’re sort of back in that situation now with the BuzzFeed story. Will it be proven out that Trump asked Cohen to lie and that be a central part of the Trump story? If so, the BuzzFeed reporters will be looked at as being at the front of this and really have uncovered important information.

Right. And their error seeming very small.

Right. But if history doesn’t go in that direction, it will be a story that critics and defenders of Trump will point to in the years to come as examples of the media going too far as it tried to cover the investigation.

So what you’re saying is right now, it’s too early to know if the BuzzFeed reporting is what Woodward’s mistake ultimately turned out to be — a small factual error along the way when the big picture of the reporting is accurate, or a sign that what the media thinks might be true, what the president would argue the media perhaps wants to be true, is not, in fact, what the investigators have found.

And the problem is that the public wants an answer now. And usually that takes a lot of time. As Woodward often says, it takes a long time for history to be sussed out.

Here’s what else you need to know. One day after his own intelligence chiefs contradicted him on the threats posed by Iran, North Korea, and ISIS, President Trump lashed out at them in a series of tweets questioning their intellect. The president wrote that the officials, including the heads of the CIA and the FBI, are quote, “naive and passive,” especially about the dangers of Iran and North Korea and suggested that, quote, “perhaps intelligence should go back to school.” And on Wednesday, local police said that the deep freeze that has settled over the Midwest has killed at least eight people, including some who froze to death after exposure to the cold from Milwaukee to Detroit. The record low temperatures in cities like Minneapolis and Chicago reached minus 28 degrees with a wind chill of minus 53, resulting in widespread flight cancellations, school closures, and even the suspension of mail delivery throughout the region.


The Precedent, and Perils, of Court Packing

As the Senate begins hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, some liberals say expanding the size of the Supreme Court would be a fitting response to recent Republican moves in the confirmation wars.

WASHINGTON — There have been nine seats on the Supreme Court for a long time. Could that change?

The Constitution allows Congress to add or subtract seats, and it has done so several times, though not since 1869. Over the years, Congress has reduced the number of seats to as few as five and increased it to as many as 10. The changes were often made for partisan advantage.

There are contemporary analogies, too. In the past decade, according to a recent study, legislation was introduced in at least 10 state legislatures, most controlled by Republicans, to change the size of their highest courts. In Arizona and Georgia, the proposals succeeded. The two states were controlled by Republicans, and the moves made the courts more conservative.

“At the very least, that practice is in tension with the current Republican claim that court packing is an affront to separation of powers and must be off the table,” said Marin K. Levy, a law professor at Duke and the author of the study, which was published in The William & Mary Law Review.

The recent confirmation wars at the federal level have prompted calls to increase the size of the U.S. Supreme Court should Democrats capture the White House and Congress in the election next month.

Some liberals say it would be a fitting response to the Republican blockade of President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick B. Garland in 2016, which effectively reduced the number of seats on the court to eight for more than a year on the premise that an opening in an election year should be filled by the new president. The rush now to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett, whose hearings begin Monday, before the election has only deepened anger on the left.

“The size of the court has changed six times in American history, and the Constitution clearly gives Congress the right to shape the contours of the court,” said Aaron Belkin, the director of Take Back the Court, which he described as “a campaign to inform public opinion about the urgency of court expansion as a necessary step to restore democracy.”

No president has tried to change the size of the court since 1937, when Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced what came to be known as his court-packing plan. It failed in the immediate sense: The number of justices stayed steady at nine. But it seemed to exert pressure on the court, which began to uphold progressive New Deal legislation.

Still, the experiment discouraged serious discussion of changing the size of the court. Indeed, court packing turned into an all-purpose response to efforts to shape the judiciary Republicans accused Mr. Obama of it in 2013, when he sought to fill three existing vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Popular support for expanding the Supreme Court remains low, which may explain the refusal of the Democratic presidential nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., to take a position on it. A survey taken in July, before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last month, found that 19 percent of Republicans and 30 percent of Democrats favored expanding the court.

The authors of an accompanying report — Lee Epstein and James L. Gibson of Washington University in St. Louis and Michael J. Nelson of Pennsylvania State University — said those numbers were telling.

“Support for enlarging the court today is about 20 percentage points lower than support for F.D.R.’s 1937 court-packing plan — a plan so derided that it has long served as a cautionary note about efforts to mess with the size the court,” they wrote.

But Mr. Belkin said public opinion was shifting fast. “There’s been incredible momentum for court expansion, especially when you consider that two years ago there was zero support for it,” he said.

In the recent survey, there was substantially more support for imposing term limits on Supreme Court justices, but that would probably require a constitutional amendment.

A bipartisan group of former state attorneys general, calling themselves Keep Nine, have proposed a different constitutional amendment, one that would fix the court’s size at nine members.

“We want to do what most everyone probably thought was in the Constitution but was not,” said Paul G. Summers, a former attorney general of Tennessee. The proposed amendment, he said, would help insulate the Supreme Court from politics.

In an interview with NPR last year, Justice Ginsburg said she opposed changing the size of her court. “Nine seems to be a good number,” she said. “It’s been that way for a long time.”

“I have heard that there are some people on the Democratic side who would like to increase the number of judges,” she said. “I think that was a bad idea when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to pack the court.”

Professor Epstein said there were reasons to question that analysis.

“The late Justice Ginsburg may have thought that reform was unnecessary and perhaps even detrimental to the court,” she said. “But that need not be the case. Today’s Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike, who support structural changes to the court may be seeking to enhance the court’s legitimacy, not harm it.”


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Joanne told me that upon returning from her classes at San Bernardino Valley College around 1:15 p.m., she called her friend who lived a couple blocks north to find out how close the fire was to our neighborhood.

The friend told my sister that the firestorm was heading our way and within minutes, the sky got pitch dark and smoke started coming into the house.

Dad told Joanne and Kathy, who had also returned home from Valley College, that it was time to run — there was no time to grab anything.

As everyone was gagging and coughing, they scurried to Joanne’s “getaway car” amidst ashes and sparks flying all around.

Combating bumper-to-bumper traffic involving other frantic neighbors, they slowly headed to Arrowhead Elementary School where my mother was working in the cafeteria. Meanwhile, wooden shingles from our roof were bouncing all over the street and sidewalk. Some of the flaming shingles from neighbors’ homes slammed into the car.

The clincher to this nightmarish day was later that afternoon, residents of our neighborhood walked around like zombies at the National Orange Show Events Center, where a temporary evacuation shelter had been established.

In trying to make sense to what was happening, we questioned one of our neighbors about the fate of our home. The visibly shaken woman told us that as she attempted unsuccessfully to hose down her roof, two explosions came from our garage (two of our cars) and then the whole house went down.

The blaze, which may have been purposely set near Panorama Point on Highway 18 in the San Bernardino Mountains, lasted 6 days, most of the damage occurred during the first day. According to statistics after the firestorm ended, the 23,800-acre path of destruction left four dead, 286 homes destroyed, another 49 damaged, and another 64 structures damaged or destroyed.

The Panorama Fire — the worst in San Bernardino County history until the even more devastating Old Fire in 2003 — burned west to the 15 Freeway, east tonear Rim Forest, south below Northpark Boulevard and north to Highway 18 along the rim of the San Bernardino Mountains.


The Perils of Playing House

By Nancy Wartik published July 1, 2005 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Actually, if the strike threat hadn't spurred us to set up housekeeping, something else would have. By then, we were 99 percent sure we'd marry some day -- just not without living together first. I couldn't imagine getting hitched to anyone I hadn't taken on a test-spin as a roommate. Conjoin with someone before sharing a bathroom? Not likely!

With our decision to cohabit, we joined the mushrooming ranks of Americans who choose at some point in their lives to inhabit a gray zone -- more than dating, less than marriage, largely without legal protections. Thirty or 40 years ago, cohabitation was relatively rare, mainly the province of artists and other questionable types, and still thought of as "living in sin." In 1970 only about 500,000 couples lived together in unwedded bliss.

Now, nearly 5 million opposite-sex couples in the United States live together outside of marriage millions more have done it at some point. Some couples do choose to live together as a permanent alternative to marriage, but their numbers are only a tiny fraction: More than 50 percent of couples who marry today have lived together beforehand. (At least 600,000 same-sex couples also cohabit, but their situation is different, since most don't have the choice to marry.)

"It's not this bad little thing only a few people are doing," says University of Michigan sociologist Pamela Smock. "It's not going away. It's going to become part of our normal, typical life course -- it already is for younger people. They think it would be idiotic not to live with someone before marriage. They don't want to end up the way their parents or older relatives did, which is divorced."

In my and my husband's case, the pre-matrimonial experiment seems to have worked out well. But according to recent research, our year of shacking up could have doomed our relationship. Couples who move in together before marriage have up to two times the odds of divorce, as compared with couples who marry before living together. Moreover, married couples who have lived together before exchanging vows tend to have poorer-quality marriages than couples who moved in after the wedding. Those who cohabited first report less satisfaction, more arguing, poorer communication and lower levels of commitment.

Many researchers now argue that our penchant for combining households before taking vows is undermining our ability to commit. Meaning, the precautions we take to ensure marriage is right for us may wind up working against us.

From toothbrush to registry

Why would something that seems so sensible potentially be so damaging? Probably the reigning explanation is the inertia hypothesis, the idea that many of us slide into marriage without ever making an explicit decision to commit. We move in together, we get comfortable, and pretty soon marriage starts to seem like the path of least resistance. Even if the relationship is only tolerable, the next stage starts to seem inevitable.

Because we have different standards for living partners than for life partners, we may end up married to someone we never would have originally considered for the long haul. "People are much fussier about whom they marry than whom they cohabitate with," explains Paul Amato, a sociologist at Penn State University and one of the theory's originators. "A lot of people cohabit because it seems like a good idea to share expenses and have some security and companionship, without a lot of commitment."

Couples may wind up living together almost by accident. "People move in their toothbrush, their underwear, pretty soon a whole dresser," says Marshall Miller, coauthor with his partner, Dorian Solot, of Unmarried to Each Other: The Essential Guide to Living Together as an Unmarried Couple. "Then someone's lease is up and since they're spending all their time together anyhow. "

Or, two people may move in together without a firm future plan because one partner isn't sure the other is good marriage material: He drinks too much she gets really nasty during fights. Rather than commit, they take a trial run. Once they've shacked up, relatives start noodging: "So when are you going to get married already?" At friends' weddings, people ask, "When will it be your turn?"

"There's an inevitable pressure that creates momentum toward marriage," says Amato. "I've talked to so many cohabiting couples, and they'll say, 'My mother was so unhappy until I told her we were getting married -- then she was so relieved.'" On top of the social pressure, Amato points out, couples naturally start making investments together: a couch, a pet -- even a kid. Accidental pregnancies are more common among cohabiting couples than among couples who don't live together.

Once their lives are thoroughly entangled, some couples may decide to wed more out of guilt or fear than love. "I know a lot of men who've been living with women for a couple of years, and they're very ambivalent about marrying them," says John Jacobs, a New York City psychiatrist and author of All You Need Is Love and Other Lies About Marriage. "What sways them is a feeling they owe it to her. She'll be back on the market and she's older. He's taken up a lot of her time." Women in particular may be afraid to leave an unhappy cohabiting relationship and confront the dating game at an older age. "If you're 36, it's hard to take the risk of going back into the single world to look for another relationship," says Jacobs.

Charles, a 44-year-old New Yorker (who asked that his name be changed), admits that in his 30s, he almost married a live-in girlfriend of three years for reasons having little to do with love. The two moved in together six months after meeting when his sublet came to an end. "I thought it probably wasn't the best idea, but it was so much easier than looking for an apartment," Charles says. "I told myself: 'Keep trying, and maybe it will work.'"

Eventually his girlfriend insisted they either marry or break up, and he couldn't find the strength to leave. The two got engaged. Weeks before the date, Charles realized he couldn't go through with it and broke off the engagement. "Her father told me, 'I'm sorry horsewhips are a thing of the past,'" Charles recalls, still pained by the memory. Even now, he regrets moving in with her. "It was a terrible idea," he says. "You get entwined in each other's lives. If you're not sure you want to be entwined, you shouldn't put yourself in a position where it's definitely going to happen."

Some evidence indicates that women have less control over the progress of the cohabiting relationship. She may assume they're on the road to marriage, but he may think they're just saving on rent and enjoying each other's company. Research by sociologist Susan Brown at Bowling Green State University in Ohio has shown there's a greater chance cohabiting couples will marry if the man wants to do so. The woman's feelings don't have as much influence, she found: "The guy has got to be on board. What the woman wants seems to be less pivotal."

Cohabiting men may carry their uncertainty forward into marriage, with destructive consequences. A 2004 study by psychologist Scott Stanley, based on a national phone survey of nearly 1,000 people, found that men who had lived with their spouse premaritally were on average less committed to their marriages than those who hadn't. By contrast, cohabitation didn't seem to change how women felt about their partners.

Based on this finding and others, Stanley, director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver and another originator of the inertia theory, believes women should be especially wary of moving in before getting engaged. "There are plenty of young men who will say, 'I'm living with a woman but I'm still looking for my soul mate,'" he says. "But how many women know the guy is thinking that way? How many women are living with a guy thinking he's off the market, and he's not?" Men also get trapped in troubled relationships, admits Stanley, but women are more likely to bear the brunt of ill-considered cohabitation decisions for the simplest reason -- they are the ones who have the babies.

The cohabiting type

The inertia theory is not the only way to explain why couples who move in before marriage are less likely to stick it out for the long haul. There may also be something specific about the experience that actually changes people's minds about marriage, making it seem less sacrosanct. "A couple of studies show that when couples cohabit, they tend to adopt less conventional beliefs about marriage and divorce, and it tends to make them less religious," says Amato. That could translate, once married, to a greater willingness to consider options that are traditionally frowned upon -- like saying "so long" to an ailing marriage.

Nonetheless, there's a heated debate among social scientists about whether the research to date has been interpreted properly or overplayed to some extent. Having a family income below $25,000, for example, is a stronger predictor of divorce in the first 15 years of marriage than having shared a premarital address. "Having money, a sense of an economically stable future, good communication skills, living in a safe community -- all of those things are more important," says Smock.

Because it's impossible to directly compare the effects of marriage and cohabitation, there's just no way to prove cohabiters' higher divorce rates aren't a side effect of their other characteristics, says psychologist William Pinsof, president of the Family Institute at Northwestern University. They may just be less traditional people -- less likely to stay in an unhappy marriage in observance of religious beliefs or for the sake of appearances. "Those who choose to live together before getting married have a different attitude about marriage to begin with. I think cohabiting is a reflection of that, not a cause of higher divorce rates," he says. One population of cohabiters also tends to have less money and lower levels of education, which in itself can strain a relationship.

In short, not everyone buys the idea that cohabitation itself is hazardous to your relationship. For some couples, it may serve a useful purpose -- even when it lacks a happy ending. About half of all cohabiters split up rather than marry, and many of those splits save the parties involved from rocky marriages, miserable divorces or both.

That's the attitude Amy Muscoplat, 34, a children's librarian who lives in Santa Monica, California, now has about the man she lived with several years ago. She and Mr. X had dated for nine months when they got engaged a few months later she gave up her rent-controlled apartment by the beach, sold most of her furniture, and the two moved in together. "We moved in in August, and by early September he flipped out," she says. "We were supposed to get married in early November. The invitations had gone out, and then he changed his mind. Living together was the reality check for him, the mirror that made him go, 'Gosh, this might not really work for me.'"

Though she and her family lost thousands of dollars when the wedding was called off, Muscoplat is grateful things fell apart when they did. If they hadn't moved in together, she says, "I think he might have been pushed to the same place at some later point, maybe some day down the road when I was pregnant. I have a religious take on it -- God was really watching out for me and I dodged a bullet."

The debate over cohabitation is partly a rehash of the values and morals conflicts that tend to become political footballs in America today. But on one point, virtually all researchers agree: We need to understand the effects of cohabitation on children. Some 40 percent of all cohabiting households include kids -- that's somewhere close to 3.5 million children living in homes with two unmarried opposite-sex grown-ups.

Cohabiting relationships, by their nature, appear to be less fulfilling than marital relationships. People who cohabit say they are less satisfied and more likely to feel depressed, Susan Brown has found. While the precarious finances of many cohabiters has something to do with it, Brown also points to the inherent lack of stability. Long-term cohabitation is rare: most couples either break up or marry within five years. "Cohabiters are uncertain about the future of their relationship and that's distressing to them," she says.

As a result, cohabitation is not an ideal living arrangement for children. Emotionally or academically, the children of cohabiters just don't do as well, on average, as those with two married parents, and money doesn't fully explain the difference. The stress of parenting in a shakier living situation may be part of the problem, says Brown. "Stability matters. It matters for the well-being of children and adults alike," she adds. "We're better off with commitment, a sense that we're in it for the long haul."

The must-have discussion

Cohabitation rates may be skyrocketing, but Americans are still entirely enchanted with marriage. That's a sharp contrast with some Western societies -- Sweden, France or the Canadian province of Quebec, for example -- where cohabitation is beginning to replace marriage . In the United States, 90 percent of young people are still expected to tie the knot at some point.

Since most Americans are destined for marriage -- and a majority will live together beforehand -- how can we protect against the potentially undermining effects of cohabitation? Follow the lead of one subgroup of cohabiters: Those who make a permanent commitment to each other first. One study that tracked 136 couples through the initial months of marriage found that early intentions seem to make a big difference. About 60 of the couples in the study lived together before getting engaged, while the rest waited either until after they were engaged or after they were married to set up housekeeping. Ten months after the wedding, the group that had cohabited before being engaged had more negative interactions, less confidence about the relationship and weaker feelings of commitment than the other two groups. But the marriages of couples who had moved in together after getting engaged seemed just as strong as those who had moved in together after marrying.

Among other things, couples who get engaged before cohabiting probably have a clearer understanding of each other's expectations before they combine households. On that point, Mia Dunleavey, a 39-year-old online financial columnist living in Brooklyn, New York, can speak with the sadder-but-wiser voice of experience. In her late 20s, Dunleavey was involved with a man she hoped to marry. He reluctantly agreed to move in with her, spurred by the fact that his lease was running out, but he vacillated for so long about setting a wedding date that she finally ended the relationship. Soon after, she relocated across the country to move in with a new man she'd fallen in love with, only to find their living styles were utterly incompatible.

Back in New York again, she took stock. "I was terribly disappointed," Dunleavey says. "You have this faith that you're moving in with someone in order to deepen the commitment, and it doesn't necessarily happen at all. Those two things are not correlated.

"At that point, I said, 'Never ever, ever again,'" she continues. "Living together is a waste of time and energy. The piece of china you'd gotten from your mother gets broken in the move. My living-together experience was a catalog of lost and broken things, never mind my heart."

When she fell in love again, she did things differently. She moved in with her intended just two weeks before the wedding -- because by that point, there was no question about their future together. "There was no take-it or leave-it," she says. "The commitment was the foundation of the marriage. Alas, my only experience of living with someone is that when you leave the door open for quasi-commitment, quasi-commitment is what you get."

Miller and Solot don't advise against cohabitation for couples without immediate plans to marry. But they do believe each partner needs to understand clearly what the other is thinking. "The most important thing is for people to treat moving in together as a serious decision, a major life choice," Miller says. "What does it mean to you both for the long and short term? If one person thinks living together means a quick path towards marriage and the other thinks it's just saving on rent and having a friend with benefits, there could be trouble. The important thing is to be on the same page."

As for my husband and me, we had this much going for us when we moved in together: We'd already discussed a lot of the important issues. We knew we wanted similar things: a family a "for better or worse" kind of commitment a partner who knew life had to stop on Sundays, when Six Feet Under or The Sopranos was on. Even before the ring, it was clear to me I'd found someone who'd be willing to work things through. And he has been.


The perils of Big Data: How crunching numbers can lead to moral blunders

The past six months have been brutal for McKinsey & Co., a storied consultancy where I spent my first years after college. A barrage of negative headlines have accused the firm of raising the stature of authoritarian governments, working with ICE (ended after outcry from firm alumni) and failing to advise a client not to use a business partner engaged in bribery. Most recently, reporting revealed that the firm had advised opioid maker Purdue Pharma on how to “turbocharge” sales.

The stories share a common thread: None of them implicate McKinsey directly. Rather, they point to illegal and unethical behavior a few steps away — behavior that McKinsey overlooked or supported. McKinsey’s official response to one of the articles suggested that the firm was being held to a uniquely high bar, that it had been declared guilty by proximity.

In a sense this is true, but this line of thinking exposes a common flaw in business ethics. It’s remarkably easy to overlook massive moral transgressions when you are doing business from a distance, reviewing entries in a spreadsheet or numbers in a presentation.

My time at McKinsey inspired me to study the history of quantitative management and the ethical challenges it creates. What happens when firms like McKinsey parachute into new companies to crunch data and offer advice?

Surprisingly, the history of American and Atlantic slavery offers insight into this question. Running a slave plantation involved lots of data carefully entered into paper spreadsheets and reports that were passed along to absentee owners in England. From the comfort of counting rooms, plantation owners could review this data without having to think too hard about the people it represented.

Some planters received standardized reports every month from their sugar plantations in Jamaica and Barbados. These careful records tracked the daily tasks of the hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people they enslaved, all with an eye to maximizing profits. The accounts monitored the output of plantations as well as the “increase” and “decrease” of laborers, slaveholders’ chilling economic shorthand for births and deaths.

When you understand the context of these records — high mortality, punishing slave labor, racialized violence — the records are horrifying. But without that context, they erase as much as they reveal. They look like antiquarian versions of Excel spreadsheets. And, absent a moral perspective, the productivity enabled by data-driven analysis could be seen not as a marker of degradation but of progress.

Planters in the American South also entered data into early versions of spreadsheets. The most sophisticated among them monitored enslaved people’s productivity in gridded journals, collecting data on the pace of cotton production. They tracked cotton picking on an individual basis, weighing output as many as three times per day. The surviving account books from these plantations contain thousands of data points. Even as the data illuminated productivity, it obscured other aspects of plantation life. It hid the immense human costs of slavery.

Plantation owners could pore over data looking for opportunities to tweak production and increase profits without thinking much about the violence of the system. In a sense, slaveholders’ reports were dashboards that synthesized information into “key performance indicators” so that owners could monitor assets from afar. They could manage assets and maximize value without considering the horrifying violence of plantation life. They could calculate how to accelerate production without considering the exploitative conditions that made this speedup possible. Or ponder how to increase efficiency without dwelling on the synergies between their calculations and the overseer’s whip.


‘The Great Demographic Reversal’ Review: The Perils of Aging

Mountains are thrown up by colliding tectonic plates, but the forces at work in their creation are hidden from view and were, for a time, ill-understood. In advanced societies in recent decades, we have seen striking changes in work, investment and income distribution, yet central bankers and ministers of finance, among others, have failed to grasp the underlying forces that brought them about. In “The Great Demographic Reversal,” Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan, both Britain-based economists, vividly document past demographic changes, along with their broad effects, and outline the strikingly different changes that, in their view, are soon to come. Not only is their book well argued, but it is bold as well. It defies the conventional wisdom that inflation will not be a problem in the near future.

The authors begin by focusing on a critical event: the opening up of an urbanizing China—as well of other, smaller countries, especially in Asia and Eastern Europe—and the insertion of many millions of low-paid workers into the global trading system. This increased workforce sharply increased the production of goods and services, which put downward pressure on global prices. But the wages of workers in advanced countries fell even more as employers moved production offshore or made credible threat to do so. Unskilled and semi-skilled workers bore the brunt of the wage shift, and income inequality rose accordingly.

The ramifications of this positive supply shock, as Messrs. Goodhart and Pradhan show, were wide-ranging. With domestic wages flattened or lowered, and offshore investment beckoning, domestic investment in new plant and equipment stagnated, and income was distributed ever more unequally. The combination of rising global supply and falling domestic demand also had financial effects: With inflation suppressed, interest rates fell to historic lows. This is the world we see around us now. In the U.S., at the moment, the 10-year Treasury yield is less than 1% the European Central Bank charges commercial banks for holding deposits with it and there are now around $17 trillion of bonds world-wide offering a negative rate of return.

As convincing as their portrait of past trends may be, Messrs. Goodhart and Pradhan, in “The Great Demographic Reversal,” are intent on arguing that things are going to change again. Indeed, they note that the new trends are already becoming evident. Urbanization in China is slowing, and its working-age population is shrinking. In advanced countries, the ratio of “dependents” to workers is rising sharply as baby boomers retire. Retirees are not only living longer but are increasingly prone to dementia at older ages. As the need for caregivers intensifies, there will be fewer workers available for other work.

The Great Demographic Reversal

By Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan
Palgrave Macmillan, 260 pages, $29.99

A rising dependency ratio, Messrs. Goodhart and Pradhan explain, is inherently inflationary, since “dependents” consume but do not produce. Meanwhile, workers are likely to consume more as a shortage of labor pushes up wages, and investment will rise in advanced countries as companies substitute capital for more expensive labor. In short, demand will rise even as supply potential falls. While new technology could increase productivity enough to offset the shortage of workers, the authors (quoting conflicting views by respected experts) refuse to assume that it will.

Extrapolating from these prospective developments, Messrs. Goodhart and Pradhan foresee income inequality narrowing—and inflation and interest rates going up. To some, like poorer workers and soon-to-retire savers, these shifts will obviously be good news. But they could well cause severe problems for governments as well as for agents in the private sector that, under the influence of low interest rates, have taken on outsize debt. Messrs. Goodhart and Pradhan ponder various approaches to a debt overhang without endorsing any one policy: e.g., debt restructuring and, for governments, higher or new taxes (e.g., taxes on land and carbon). It’s hard not to conclude that the authors expect inflation to be a significant part of the solution, since it is easier to pay back loans in dollars that are worth less.

Undoubtedly “The Great Demographic Reversal” identifies crucial if overlooked forces that may lead to an inflationary future and higher interest rates. But there are other forces at work to which the authors might have given more attention. A complementary narrative might emphasize, for instance, the role of central banks. They have helped to bring us to our current state, by an excessive reliance on monetary stimulus and debt expansion, and their future policies might yet lead us into a world quite different from the one that Messrs. Goodhart and Pradhan project.

In recent years, central banks, instead of letting prices fall “naturally” in response to demographic shifts, have resisted such a price decline with ever more aggressive monetary expansion. Moreover, the resulting borrowing has gone toward consumption more than productive investments. Debt, both public and private, had hit record high levels even before the pandemic and had been recognized as a “headwind” constraining economic expansion. The economic effects of the pandemic had to be met with still more expansion, adding to the debt-overhang problem. Worse, easy money and easy access to credit can, over time, threaten the stability of the financial sector as the “search for yield” draws investors to riskier creditors. Should these conditions culminate in another financial crisis, a debt-deflation spiral might follow—not inflation.

Even if Messrs. Goodhart and Pradhan are right to predict an inflationary future, inflation might hit much higher levels than the authors suggest. Indeed, history shows that high inflation is a common outcome when large government deficits are increasingly financed—as they are now—by central banks. Still, “The Great Demographic Reversal” provides an instructive glimpse of a possible future and a reminder of the forces that have brought us to this point. No one can say we haven’t been warned.

Mr. White, a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute in Toronto, was formerly the economic adviser at the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland.

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Appeared in the December 8, 2020, print edition as 'The Perils Of Aging.'


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