LET’S TALK ABOUT SPACE, BABY

**This piece originally published 5/7/2021 as an Inkstick Media column.*

BLUF: The militarization of space isn’t new. It dates back to WWII — and Reagan was pretty into it, too. But the 2019 announcement of a new military branch, Space Force, kicked off a new national debate. At the end of the day, experts across the political spectrum agree that the threats and competition in space are real. Despite disagreement on whether Space Force is the best solution, it’s a solution that is here to stay.

Last year, Netflix dropped a much anticipated (read: by only national security and military nerds), star studded comedy series about America’s newest branch of the military: Space Force. With Michael Scott and Phoebe Buffay headlining a story about what has largely been seen by the public as an absurdity, the jokes basically wrote themselves. But in all seriousness, what the hell is space force? And more importantly, does America really need it?

Space Force (also known as USSF) was established December 20, 2019 with enactment of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. As the sixth branch of the US military, Space Force was established within the Department of the Air Force. Its mission? “Organize, train, and equip space forces in order to protect US and allied interests in space and to provide space capabilities to the joint force.”

STAR WARS: NATIONAL SECURITY AND SPACE

But the idea that space would eventually become a warfighting domain (like land, sea, and air) isn’t new. A 2020 Cato report notes that “the militarization of space began in the final years of World War II, when Germany began to strike England with V-2 ballistic missiles.” In fact, following the war, both America and the Soviet Union started to develop their own space programs leading to what was later known as the “space race.” Then came the “Star Wars program” launched under President Reagan back in 1983. The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was a missile defense system some initially hoped might render nuclear weapons obsolete, given that Reagan wasn’t a fan of the nuclear deterrence theory known as mutually assured destruction. To further develop this concept of missile defense, in addition to lasers and particle beam weapons, the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) was born in 1984.

The SDI wasn’t Reagan’s only move in space. In 1985, he established a US Space Command as part of the Air Force where it lived until it was merged with the US Strategic Command in 2002 following 9/11. US Space Command was recently restarted, more on that later.

Fun fact: As the SDI political support lost steam when the Cold War came to a close and the program ultimately died in 1993, the Clinton Administration redirected funds toward efforts to theatre ballistic missiles and the agency was renamed the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), and later the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).

In the years following the STRATCOM merge, some military branches (Air Force, Navy and Army) each had its own focus on space. In fact, “A significant portion of US military activities tied to space has resided in the Air Force Space Command, headquartered in Colorado, with over 30,000 people worldwide and launch facilities in Florida and California.” But with the creation of the Space Force, it was announced in October 2020, that the first of three Space Force field command centers would be the Space Operations Command at Colorado’s Peterson Air Force Base. Then, under the Biden Administration, the Space Force announced on April 8, its plan to launch a Space Systems Command in Los Angeles. The Command will, among other things, be in charge of coordinating space programs across the US military. (Hint: you may start to see patterns emerge of military recycling of bases, commands, ideas, etc. for Space Force.)

SPACE JAM: A SIDE NOTE ON SPACE

While the most common perception of a threat in space may be deliberate sabotage or conflict, one of the most overlooked and dangerous parts of space is purely accidental. Enter space debris. Every time a country launches a satellite, loses a toothbrush from the space station, or launches a car for shits and giggles, space becomes a bit more congested. “Right now, there are nearly 6,000 satellites circling our tiny planet. About 60% of those are defunct satellites — space junk — and roughly 40% are operational.” It has been estimated that more than 2,500 operational satellites are chillin’ in space these days — SpaceX alone is responsible for more than half of those operational sats.

AND MAYBE YOU THINK, “INTERESTING BUT WHO CARES!” WELL, FRANKLY, YOU SHOULD CARE. BECAUSE YOU KNOW WHAT’S IN SPACE THAT WE FUNDAMENTALLY DEPEND ON? PURPOSELY LAUNCHED AND USABLE SATELLITES.

These manmade bits are now flying around next to billions of particles of other space matter (think asteroid bits). And every time one of those pieces of debris collides with another piece of debris from a meteor shower, it creates a bunch of other tiny sharp particles that travel at exceptional speeds. “Each of those hundreds of thousands of pieces travel in excess of 4 miles per second. At such velocities, even a tiny fleck of paint can damage a spacecraft.” And maybe you think, “Interesting but who cares!” Well, frankly, YOU should care. Because you know what’s in space that we fundamentally depend on? Purposely launched and usable satellites.

For example: Your car’s GPS, television service, etc. — all of these things are linked to satellites in space. And it doesn’t take much of a space jam fender bender to render those bad boys useless. To remediate this issue and regulate the space environment, some provisions in international law exist, like the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Under the treaty, countries are responsible for their defunct satellites and debris but, like most international law, international space law provisions and treaties have little to no binding effect (or ramifications for accidental or purposeful collisions).

So while cleaning up space junk is not exactly the reason the Space Force was created, it reminds us that — just like the land, sea, and air — space offers a valuable home to vital resources and competition.

You see, the world has come to depend on all these little floating satellites. It isn’t just about ensuring you can navigate your summer road trip; bank transactions, hospital internet, assessing climate change — none of it is possible without 24/7 satellite function. Which means that 1) the more satellites a country launches into space, the more congested orbits become thus the more likely accidents are to occur, and 2) as technology becomes more powerful and the more the globe depends on these satellites, the more tempting it may be to intentionally harm one as a means of warfighting.

As one article put it, “Space right now is a bit like the Wild West, with a wide-ranging mix of government and commercial satellites, all of them sitting ducks.” This concern was the stated rationale of the Trump administration, which argued that space was already being used as “war-fighting domain” by global powers (and competitors) like Russia and China. Not exactly a shocker since history has shown that where there is competition, militarization often follows.

Case in point: In 2007, China deliberately shot down one of its own satellites to prove it could. This is known as the 2007 Chinese Anti-Satellite Test. The action was seen by some as a global warning of its power, basically to say, “FYI: we can render your security systems, military’s GPS, hospital internet, etc. useless in a moment… if we want to.” To make matters worse, the aftermath littered space with 3,037 pieces of satellite shrapnel, adding to that space junk traffic jam.

GALACTIC CAMOUFLAGE: DO WE REALLY NEED A 6TH BRANCH?

As mentioned earlier, the idea of space militarization isn’t new. Some might even argue (raises hand) that the space race, coupled with Reagan’s “Star Wars,” foreshadowed something like “Space Force” was inevitable. And many national security experts on both sides of the aisle think, yeah, something like the Space Force is probably a good idea in theory (some think it may even have been too little too late). In 2019, both the House and Senate explored versions of a space military branch in their National Defense Authorization Acts (or NDAA) but disagreed on its structure, with the Senate backing the Force and the House looking at a “Space Corps.”

The biggest supporters of the Space Force argue that our adversaries are taking swift measures to compete in space and have already turned it into a warfighting domain. As they see it, the US is already behind and Space Force allows the US to 1) put concentrated efforts into one specific force; 2) improve readiness and spacepower, and 3) recruit and retain specific talent (think space, cyber, intel experts) for the branch as opposed to assigning Air Force members without expertise, and promoting accordingly those who do.

  • John W. Raymond, Chief of Space Operations: “Our adversaries are moving deliberately and quickly in order to reduce our advantage [in space]… I’m not confident that we can achieve victory, or even compete, in a modern conflict without space power.”
  • Gen. David Thompson, U.S. Air Force: “Not nearly enough people innately understand what we already have in space in a military sense,” referring to GPS and internet satellites. “For the nation, for national security, for our forces and perhaps ultimately for civil and economic benefits, we now have to be prepared to do that [operate in space] in the face of threats.”

Prominent policy think tanks were mixed in their reception of the branch with the Heritage Foundation supporting its creation; Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) split on the subject, and the Project on Government Oversight and Cato Institute opposed.

However; there have been plenty of subject matter experts and prominent politicians who share criticism of the branch, calling for a different solution despite agreeing that space is or will be a contested arena. Many argue that creating a Space Force will take away the necessary integration of space matters from other military branches and agencies, creating a negative siloed effect. Others think a similar goal of competing with our adversaries in space could be achieved internally within a military branch, along with utilizing Space Command more heavily, without standing up an entirely new branch — which is an incredibly expensive endeavor, as you might imagine.

As Kaitlyn Johnson details in her opposition to the Force, “Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan even noted that standing up the new Service could cost ‘billions,’ though DoD has not completed a formal cost evaluation as of yet.” Shanahan further noted that “Some things are fairly certain to cost DoD: overhead costs, development of doctrine, consolidation of facilities, movement of people and families, a service academy or war college, recruiting pipelines, and of course, new uniforms.” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson also told reporters in 2018 that “her initial $13 billion cost estimate to stand up a Space Force and sustain it for five years is likely to be revised upward as more data is crunched,” noting those numbers are conservative. At a time when the national debt is in the trillions and rising as America faces a pandemic bill, economic rescue, healthcare evaluations, student debt crisis, climate change costs, and still wants everything in the DoD treasure chest, you gotta start to ask — is this expense truly necessary?

  • James Inhofe (R-Okla.) in 2018: “I’m opposed to [creating a sixth branch]… I know the president has strong feelings. I think we can do that without a new branch.”
  • Harlan Ullman, chair of the Killowen Group: “The president proposed a 6th service, a space service, which is not only a bad idea but it would be unworkable… It would confuse, complicate and confound the situation already in the Pentagon. How would you actually organize it? Would you rip out different capabilities from the National Reconnaissance Office? From NASA? Getting this thing done bureaucratically would be a nightmare.”

Others point out that regardless of whether it’s the best solution or not, it would be a waste to stop now.

  • Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation and a former space operations officer for the Air Force: “At this point we have spent thousands of hours and years of effort to create this new bureaucracy in the hope that it will address these challenges. At this point, we have no choice but to see that through. To now go back and spend even more time undoing all this stuff would be worse.”

In addition to those thousands of hours and years spent debating how our country was going to tackle the threats in space, we are also talking billions of dollars already spent over the past two years. The omnibus signed by Trump in December 2020 included $15.2 billion for the US Space Force in Fiscal Year 2021. Before the omnibus, the Air Force was transferring money to the Space Force to get it going which, I can only assume, was a lot harder than using Venmo.  The jury remains out on what Space Force’s budget numbers will look like under Biden as the current administration has said it is here to stay. “We look forward to the continuing work of Space Force.

REBRAND ME UP, SCOTTY!

In the end, some of the biggest issues with Space Force have been with its roll-out. And as any good PR expert will tell you (or your mom before your first interview) you usually only get one shot to make a good impression. So, if you want to be taken seriously, you can’t act like a joke. Because while the threats were real, announcing a new branch of the military in an off-hand, unprepared throwaway was a sure way to garner fast criticism. Instead of taking the time to explain the long-term rationale behind something like the Space Force to the general public, a logo campaign was launched and merchandise sold. To be taken seriously, as any military branch should be, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and lay the public groundwork. Since the Space Force appears here to stay, THE BABES BLUF might start with a roadshop media campaign to explain the threat and need to the public, strategically utilize social media (seriously), and drop the “cool dad” act.

That’s all for this one, babes.

No pressure. No bullshit. Just THE BABES BLUF.

TALKING TO THE CORN GODS: What does agriculture have to do with national security and foreign policy?

*This piece originally published 12/1/2020 as an Inkstick Media column.*

BLUF: By 2050, the demand for food worldwide is anticipated to increase by 59 to 98% and America is not prepared. With a massive decline in American farmers and climate change set to negatively impact the US but actually help our great power competitors, major domestic and foreign policy changes are needed to manage an inevitable crisis.

What is so political about corn? I did a presentation about this once in my American Presidency class in undergrad. To spare you the godawful PowerPoint presentation, here’s that #BLUF: the Iowa caucus may not predict who the President will be but it has been a good indication of party nominee frontrunners. Since Caucus inception in 1972, more than half of the winners have gone on to become their respective party’s nominee, but only three of those have gone on to become president — Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And what does corn have to do with this?

Well, according to Iowacorn.org (yeah, that’s a real site), Iowa has approximately 86,900 farms, 97% of which are family-owned. And do you know what Iowa ranks number one in producing? Soybeans, hogs, eggs, and you guessed it… CORN (and ethanol, also made from corn).

So, Iowa has a lot of corn and corn is used in a biofuel called ethanol. And in 2005, a federal rule called the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) started requiring gasoline refiners to blend billions of gallons of biofuels — mostly ethanol — into their products each year in an effort to promote renewable energy and fight greenhouse gas emissions. Experts now say RFS is doing basically nothing to help climate change and thus now has some bipartisan support to abolish it, but the RFS has been wildly good for states like Iowa because, CORN. Thus, it really isn’t any surprise to anyone that Pete ButtigiegElizabeth WarrenBernie Sanders (a one-time critic of biofuels), and Joe Biden all endorsed biofuels during their Democratic presidential campaigns.

K, so corn = White House, but does it also = national security and foreign policy?

Short answer? Hell yeah.

Turns out, farming in America is much more than just a box to check when you’re looking to get elected to the highest office in the Land of the Free. Food security, crop cycles, droughts, climate change, exports, imports, tariffs, etc., all of this is directly linked to national security and foreign policy. Like 2015 House Agriculture Committee Chairman K. Michael Conaway said, “Agriculture and national security are intertwined in many different ways — whether it is ensuring that food is available to meet nutritional needs for both those within our own borders and those around the world, or insuring that food coming into our borders is disease- and pest-free, or guaranteeing that farmers and ranchers have the needed policy tools in place to continue producing food and fiber.”

FOOD SECURITY MEETS CLIMATE CHANGE MEETS GREAT POWER COMPETITION

According to USAID, food security means having, at all times, both physical and economic access to sufficient food to meet dietary needs for a productive and healthy life. Seems simple enough maybe now but did you know that by 2050, the demand for food worldwide is anticipated to increase by 59 to 98%? Yikes.

And remember that whole thing about corn/ethanol to fight climate change? Yeah, well none of that is going well because climate change — in addition to limited land to farm and limited access to water in some places — is necessitating urgent changes to current farming at home and abroad in order to meet those anticipated demands. These changes may include finding new methods to increase crop yields, precision and urban farming, a focus on renewable resources, and multilateral efforts, just to name a few.

And while America is producing near-record agriculture exports now, we likely will need to have some real “come to Jesus” talks to adjust to this changing landscape. Because I got news for you, it ain’t looking good. According to the Harvard Business Review, “the Midwestern US and Eastern Australia… may also see a substantial decline in agricultural output due to extreme heat,” while “some places are expected to (initially) benefit from climate change. Countries stretching over northern latitudes — mainly China, Canada, and Russia — are forecasted to experience longer and warmer growing seasons in certain areas.”

FARMERS ARE STRAIGHT GIVING UP, WITH THE US LOSING MORE THAN 100,000 FARMS BETWEEN 2011 AND 2018; 12,000 OF THOSE BETWEEN 2017 AND 2018 ALONE.

If your alarm bells aren’t going off right now, they should be. Why? Because everywhere you look, experts have dubbed China and Russia America’s biggest strategic threats and global competitors (see hereherehere, and here).

Former Congressman Collin Peterson (D-Minn) said, “A strong agriculture sector and stable food supply are critical to national security. And agriculture has an important role to play when it comes to our country’s national security interests — something I don’t think a lot of people really understand.” Well, ain’t that the truth. The USDA, National Sustainable Agriculture Association, and others have said that America needs more farmers and drastic changes in policies and trends to meet America’s food demands, for example, the average age of farmers has increased considerably, at just shy of 60 now. In testimony before the House Agriculture Committee,  National Guard Maj. Gen. Darren Owens said that without a strong American agriculture sector, we would be dependent on other nations. With only about 1.3% of the US population working in farming today and concerning stories from family-owned-farms, the vulnerability of our nation’s food supply is something we don’t often hear about in the news, but maybe should be taken more seriously in prime-time conversations.

And it’s not just Americans who depend on agriculture produced by our farmers at home. It’s also necessary to provide both crops and training abroad to minimize potential conflicts over resources, a phenomenon that has already begun and is likely to be exacerbated by climate change and increased food demands. Army Maj. Gen. James Sholar outlined eloquently in a riveting testimony before Congress how peace and conflict are intrinsically linked to food abundance and shortages, respectively.

Hypothetical scenarios for consideration:

  1. Imagine for a second that America has an alliance with X country, and provides that country with crops. Because of climate change or policy changes, the US can no longer provide X country with a particular food source. Not only do US farmers suffer from either loss of crop or loss of income, but that alliance becomes strained. If country X is a strategic ally in a geopolitical region, like say near a major port/base/waterway, and a great power competitor provides that crop instead, the US hasn’t just lost a strategic partnership, it’s lost international strategic ground and impacted its domestic population.
  2. Imagine for a second that America, due to climate change, is unable to produce enough crops to provide food security at home. Now it has to rely heavily on subsidized food imports. With limited options for imports in this scenario, the US might be forced to depend heavily on a strategic competitor, say China or Russia, for food.

In both of these hypothetical scenarios, America’s national security cards are compromised and foreign policy is put on the dining room table front and center. This is where those cornhuskers in Iowa, apple farmers in Washington, and peach growers in Georgia become more than just votes, they become strategic chess pieces.

Keeping the water flowing, temperatures steady, land fertile, markets open, and tariffs low for American farmers ensures that our domestic tables and borders are taken care of. But to do that, we need to have good foreign and domestic policies, trading partners for our exports, treaties that combat climate change to curb the impacts on American crops, and technological advancements (ideally from home but possibly from abroad) to enhance our farming techniques whenever/wherever possible. All of these efforts require strong foreign policy and diplomatic relations.

So what can be done? The bad news is the situation is pretty dire and we (as a global collective) really are running up against a clock. The good news is there are options. Here are just a few:

  1. Ask American farmers what they actually need: According to an absolutely depressing TIME expose, Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies were up 12% in the Midwest from July of 2018 to June of 2019, and up 50% in the Northwest. Farmers are straight giving up, with the US losing more than 100,000 farms between 2011 and 2018; 12,000 of those between 2017 and 2018 alone. As discussed earlier, a lot of this is a result of trade wars (cough foreign policy issue), climate change, globalization, and the rise of corporate farming and the fancy technology that comes along with it. According to the expose, “technology has made farms more efficient than ever before. But economies of scale meant that most of the benefits accrued to corporate farmers, who built up huge holdings as smaller farmers sold out.” And according to John Newton, the chief economist of the American Farm Bureau, global food production has increased 30% over the last decade with more international farmers coming into the market lowering overall prices. This all sounds great in theory and it is for the anticipated increase in food need over time but it also reduces the income seen by individual farmers, especially for those small family farms whose costs aren’t falling with prices and who aren’t always able to use expensive new technologies. Turns out a lot of family farmers agree on what led to this situation and what can be done about it. “In the years after the New Deal, they say, the United States set a price floor for farmers, essentially ensuring they received a minimum wage for the crops they produced. But the government began rolling back this policy in the 1970s, and now the global market largely determines the price they get for their crops. Big farms can make do with lower prices for crops by increasing their scale; a few cents per gallon of cow’s milk adds up if you have thousands of cows.” The ideal solution for these farmers would be to have the government enforce antitrust laws, meaning that grocery stores and food processing facilities would either be prohibited from consolidating or those consolidated businesses would be prohibited from buying food from farmers. These antitrust laws exist but many argue have gone unenforced.
  2. Encourage a focus on international agriculture: One suggestion has been to support and participate in international agriculture — or focus on solutions to global food production and distribution — by examining agricultural economics; comparative agricultural systems; international agribusiness and law; third-world development studies and global applications of climate, soil, water resources, etc. Ambassador John Negroponte, former US deputy secretary of state under President George W. Bush said international agriculture could reduce “the vulnerability of political systems to weather, conflict and other shocks,” recommending the development of “market-oriented systems that improve the operation of agriculture as a business by working with farmers, host governments, investors, civil society and private industry.”
  3. Cooperate on biodefense: According to Dr. Tammy Beckham, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University, food insecurity, no matter the cause, often leads to negative social and geopolitical consequences. She argues that even though “the Arab Spring was not directly about food insecurity, it was likely the rapid rise in international food prices that caused middle-class urban populations in these regions to experience acute food insecurity, which provided the necessary motivation for the people to generate unrest.” Dr. Beckham urged the US government in testimony to take a hard line of defense to control any outbreaks of disease of livestock and/or poultry, including attacks targeting the disruption of food supplies or human safety through “the intentional introduction of a biological agent into domestic agricultural systems.” According to Beckham, there are interagency agreements in place but “the coordination of a comprehensive biodefense program against agricultural and human health threats is lacking… To date, an organized, multi-year, well-funded strategy and commitment has not materialized.”
  4. Take climate change seriously: There really isn’t a place for an only America policy when it comes to climate change (and agriculture). If America is going to survive this at worst and thrive at best, we need to jump headfirst into multilateralism on both climate and ag. This isn’t opinion, this is fact. To meet the needs of American farmers, consumers and global demands impacted by science-backed climate change, a massive rethink is needed for ag and farming that considers the effects of science-backed climate impacts. This rethink includes a shift to focus on conservation agriculture, organic agriculture, and renewable energy. According to a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “agricultural adaptation occurs autonomously at the local level as farmers adjust their planting systems to climatic change.” But, “planned adaptation occurs at the sectoral and national levels and includes policies such as addressing changes in food insecurity, identifying vulnerabilities, reassessing agricultural research priorities, and strengthening agriculture extension and communication systems.” A global mindset shift toward planned adaptation and action is one of the only ways America and its allies will be able to overcome the inevitable crisis we know lies ahead.

All of this is literally just the tip of the corn husk if you will. And because this all started with corn it might as well end there. American lawmakers, whether believers in climate change or not, worshipped the corn gods enough to back RFS — a law that, while ultimately sort of a bust, was a win for both small town cornhuskers and climate change advocates at the time. A similar approach here — AKA recognition that American farmers and climate are in need, big corporations should pony up to assist not hinder, and that there is no time for partisanship — is the kind of thinking we are going to need to address what I hope you now understand is inevitable. Next time you shop local produce, be sure to thank your farmer and then call your representative to see what the hell they are doing about the intersection of agriculture and national security.

That’s all for this one, babes.

No pressure. No bullshit. Just THE BABES BLUF.

IS AMERICA REALLY MADE FOR YOU AND ME?

*This piece originally published 12/1/2020 as an Inkstick Media column.*

BLUF: America has been touted as a melting pot, a place where all are welcome. Yet, immigration to the United States is both extremely difficult and incredibly costly. However, while America may not welcome immigrants with open arms, legal and noncitizen immigrants contribute considerably to society in a way that America’s economy and innovation have come to depend on.

When she walked onto the Inauguration stage, dressed to perfection, Jennifer Lopez bellowed a beautiful patriotic medley.

This land is your land and this land is my land

From California to the New York island

From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me

The words are familiar, sung in plenty of elementary schools and at 4th of July celebrations around our great nation, every year. Famously written by American folk singer Woody Guthrie in 1940, because he was tired of hearing “God Bless America,” the words are not just a popular patriotic jam (in fact the original version includes verses critical of America), but they are often used to paint a picture of America where all are welcome. For example, This Land/Our Land is a music video project featuring six young immigrant musicians performing a new arrangement of the alternative national anthem.

The Biden Administration has signaled immigration is likely to be one of its key issues, with several executive orders on the subject signed in the president’s first week of office. So let’s talk immigration. Is this land really made for you and me?

WHO IS AN IMMIGRANT?

Before we can answer that question, let’s take a closer look at who immigrants are, the causes of immigration, and what immigration looks like in America. According to the US Department of Homeland Security, an immigrant can be a “Permanent Resident Alien or “an alien admitted to the United States as a lawful permanent resident. Permanent residents are also commonly referred to as immigrants.” However, the department also recognizes the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)’s definition of “an immigrant as any alien in the United States, except one legally admitted under specific nonimmigrant categories (INA section 101(a)(15)).” But, an immigrant can also be “an illegal alien who entered the United States without inspection, for example, would be strictly defined as an immigrant under the INA but is not a permanent resident alien.”

Did you get any of that? Me neither. Basically, an immigrant is a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence, or (and I personally like this definition the best) a plant or animal that becomes established in an area where it was previously unknown. Dignity check: President Biden has proposed swapping the term “alien” in all US immigration laws with the word “noncitizen,” calling out the inhumaneness of the term.

An immigrant is different from a migrant in that migrants move temporarily for a variety of reasons (think birds who fly south for the winter, or snowbirds — rich people who take winter holiday at the beach) while immigration requires a degree of permanency. This is not to be confused with “emigrant” which means you are leaving your country for another.

So how does someone legally immigrate to America? Well, it’s complicated. There is the family route (you’re related to someone or married to someone), the employment route (140,000 green cards available annually based on five preferences), the diversity lotto (50,000 awarded randomly from over 14 million annual applicants), and refugee and asylum quotas. For an in-depth look at all of that, check out this explainer. And let’s talk cashmoney, because none of these things are cheap! For example, it costs more than $1,000 just to apply for a green card (which can take years — without a guarantee of approval) and retaining a lawyer can rack up additional thousands of dollars. American citizenship application costs vary by type, encourage legal representation, and should your citizenship be granted… welp, you can expect to pay thousands more in fees.

Fun (f*cked up) facts: According to a US News & World Report article, less than 40% of Americans would pass the citizenship test. For example, only 13% of people surveyed knew what year the US Constitution was ratified (1788); 60% percent didn’t know which countries America fought during WWII, and only 43% knew how many justices are on the court (9). And, guess what! Each year, those immigration lotteries? Well, companies scam the crap out of good folks who give them every saved penny they have.

WHAT CAUSES PEOPLE TO IMMIGRATE?

There are a countless number of causes prompting immigration, including both push and pull factors. Push factors are reasons in one’s originating country causing, and in some cases forcing, a person to leave. Think war, famine, natural disaster, few jobs. Pull factors are reasons a person may be attracted to another country. Think job opportunities, safety, education.

A concern as of late has been how climate will impact migration. A brilliant but deeply disturbing New York Times (NYT) piece demonstrates eloquently how serious climate migration already is but how devastating it is likely to become. Today, 1% of the world’s population lives in what the author calls a “barely livable hot zone” or (a climate similar to the Sahara Desert – FUN!); however, the NYT projects that by the year 2070 — 19% of the world’s population will be forced to leave land too hot to inhabit.

YES, THERE ARE SOME IMMIGRANTS WHO ARE PAID “UNDER THE TABLE,” THUS NOT PAYING INCOME TAX; HOWEVER, THE IRS ESTIMATES THAT MORE THAN 6 MILLION NONCITIZEN IMMIGRANTS FILE INDIVIDUAL INCOME TAX RETURNS EACH YEAR.

If a person has been forced to leave their country, they are often considered to be either a refugee or an asylum seeker. Refugees are classified as such usually before leaving their country (think: Syrian refugees who were classified as such by the United Nations). An asylum seeker leaves their country and crosses or gets to a border then applies for asylum based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or group affiliation and that person fears themselves or their families will be persecuted if they are forced to return home. Asylees and refugees account for a small percentage of total immigrants to America — 61,092 refugees and asylees in 2018 down 42.2% from the 105,350 in 2016.

WHAT DOES IMMIGRATION IN AMERICA LOOK LIKE?

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2020 there were more than 40 million people living in America who were born in another country — more immigrants than any other country in the world. That same study found that in 2017, 77% of immigrants in America are here legally and 45% were naturalized US citizens.

In 2016 America, the top origin country for immigrants was Mexico, about 25%. Surprising to some, the second and third largest origin groups? China and India at 6%! Followed by the Philippines at 4% and El Salvador at 3%.  But times they are a-changin’ because while more than 1 million immigrants are welcomed into America annually, the majority of those immigrants are now coming from China, not Mexico. In 2019, 149,000 immigrants arrived from China, 129,000 from India, with the third most immigrants coming from Mexico at 120,000. One interesting statistic about the future of migration is that Asian immigrants are projected to become the largest immigrant group in the US by 2055, surpassing Hispanic immigrants.

Let’s take a look at some common myths and facts about immigration in America…

MYTH: IMMIGRANTS DON’T PAY TAXES

You might think noncitizen immigrants are getting around the “system” by not having to pay taxes on their job income but, you would be wrong. Yes, there are some immigrants who are paid “under the table,” thus not paying income tax; however, the IRS estimates that more than 6 million noncitizen immigrants file individual income tax returns each year. Yup, that’s right, noncitizen immigrants are paying taxes into a system they may never benefit from (think: paying Social Security that many never cash out on). In fact, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office shows that between 50%-70% of noncitizen immigrants pay federal, state, and local taxes and contribute more than $7 billion into Social Security annually. Not only do noncitizen immigrants contribute to our public services through taxes, they also spend billions of dollars supporting the American economy. In Texas alone, 1.4 million noncitizen immigrants added almost $18 billion to the gross state product, and contributed $1.58 billion in state revenue, while only costing the state about $1.16 billion in services used.

MYTH: IMMIGRANTS ARE A DRAIN ON THE AMERICAN SYSTEM

Not only do noncitizen immigrants contribute significantly every year via taxes they can’t cash in on, did you know that legal immigrants in America actually are doing better than many US-born populations? For example, from 1994 to 2015, immigrant homeownership rose 2.3 percentage points while US-born homeownership remained flat, contributing $3.7 trillion to housing markets nationwide. According to a Center for American Progress report, “working-class households — those with incomes less than twice the federal poverty line — headed by an immigrant rely to a much greater extent on their earnings from work and less on public programs than working-class households headed by a US-born person.” That same report showed that almost 30% of American entrepreneurs are immigrants.

MYTH: IMMIGRANTS HURT THE ECONOMY

A pretty shocking February 2020 policy brief using 2016 Census Bureau data found that reduced immigration, perhaps impacted by Trump’s immigration policies and COVID-19, to the US would have a devastating impact on the long-term future of the economy’s growth over the next four decades. Projections show that if immigration continued at 2016 levels, the US labor force would grow at a 0.45% annual rate from 2016 to 2060, eventually creating a 193-million-person workforce. However, 30% and 50% declines in legal immigration would only grow the US workforce by 0.30% and 0.19% annually — massively decreasing the potential of American economic growth. That same brief stated just how clearly immigration strengthens America’s economy and how devastating it can be without it, “The US will not be able to maintain its current standard of living unless the US government acts to significantly increase immigration, improve labor force participation, and, together with employers, raise labor productivity growth.”

MYTH: NONCITIZEN IMMIGRANTS ARE DANGEROUS

EHHHH/ERR? Whatever sound a beeper makes when you get it wrong. Make that noise because this is incorrect. Data shows that US-born citizens are actually over 2 times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and over 4 times more likely to be arrested for property crimes than noncitizen immigrants.

FACT: IMMIGRATION IS DIRECTLY LINKED TO NATIONAL SECURITY

Bingo! Finally, we get one right. In many ways, immigration has huge impacts on our national security and our national security decisions shape immigration flows, directly and indirectly. When it comes to ensuring safer borders, effective information sharing with other countries around the world bolsters what we know about the individuals entering our country but also about those push factors that may prompt waves of migration now and into the future. Think climate change: what are we doing to mediate the impact of habitability on other nations, particularly ones that are not consumer-driven like America? Think proxy wars and conventional weapons sales: these can end up exacerbating conflict leading to refugee crises. Dialogue with allies (and, unpopular opinion, enemies) around the globe, can help America tackle the root causes of migration, bolster safety within our borders, and find global solutions to long-term mass migrations (think burden sharing).

The point is, while America was supposed to be made for everyone (we are, after all, a giant “melting pot”), it’s actually really hard to get legal immigration status in America and yet, more than 75% of immigrants in America today are here legally. One could make a pretty valid case that, in many instances, documented or not, the American economy not only needs immigrants, but thrives with them. So while we have not made this land one for all, credit should be given to the millions of immigrants every year who live the American dream and make it their own.

No pressure. No bullshit. Just, THE BABES BLUF.

A VANISHING ACT: Does America still have a middle class?

*This piece originally published 12/1/2020 as an Inkstick Media column.*

BLUF: The American middle class, while still in existence, has dramatically changed over the decades. What once worked well for achieving household success no longer guarantees security — at home or abroad.

I remember watching American Dreams on NBC with my mom in my early teenage years. If you haven’t seen it, the show follows the Pryor family in Philadelphia, PA during the mid-1960s. The main character Meg (Brittany Snow) dances on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. It’s the quintessential story of the so-called “American Dream” — a family of four in suburbia, navigating the ebbs and flows of the middle class. I loved that show, mostly because I definitely wanted to be like Meg, but also because it romanticized the American Dream.

We’ve all heard it before, no matter where you come from — if you work hard, anything is possible in America. The American Dream equation was (supposed to be) pretty simple: hard work = a job and place in the middle class. However, more and more often these days, we hear in the media and from politicians that the middle class is deteriorating. So this BLUF is tackling a pretty big question: does America still have a middle class to dream about?

DEFINING THE MIDDLE CLASS

To be clear, the US government does not define or prescribe a dollar amount specifically to the middle class like it does for poverty. For example, in America, 2020 poverty is defined as a maximum household income of $26,200 for a family of four — this set amount is used as a qualification for a variety of government-provided or subsidized programs (think: food stamps and Medicaid). But an annual amount is not given to define the “middle class.” Instead, it turns out there are at least a dozen different ways to define “the middle class.” According to the US Census Bureau, the average American median income in 2019 was $68,703. According to Pew, in 2018, just over half (52%) of all US adults live in middle-income households, while 29% live in lower-income households, and 19% in upper-income households.

But the middle class isn’t just a number, it’s also an idea. According to a Pew poll, in 2015, people who self-identify as “middle class” have a wide range of household incomes: between $30,000 to $100,000+ annually. And according to a Northwestern Mutual (“SPEND YOUR LIFE LIVING!”) study featured by CNBC, more than 70 percent of Americans consider themselves to be a part of the middle class. Despite expert fluxing definitions, “middle class” is more often a reflection of the way we view ourselves, given about 18% more Americans self-identify as middle class than Pew defines as such.

BLUF activity: This Pew calculator shows you what class you fall into compared to both other adults in your area and among American adults overall. It also shows you how you tee up compared with folks of similar education, age, race/ethnicity, and marital status.

TODAY’S MIDDLE-CLASS DEEP DIVE

At first glance, things look pretty good for today’s American middle class. One chart shows that the median income in America from 2000 to 2019 has generally increased, with some exceptions, from $54,000 to $68,000 — a $14,000 increase in 19 years ain’t bad.

The deeper you look, however, the more the facade of the “thriving middle class” wears off. Because what that income increase doesn’t account for is its failure to keep pace with the costs of being middle class. To demonstrate this, take a second to visualize what a middle-class family is likely to have. Maybe what you pictured was a white picket fence house, a family of four, parents putting a kid through college or saving for it, a car, and a Hawaiian vacation.

Let’s look at how some of those costs varied from 2000 to 2019/2020:

US News/Dave Ramsey/in2013dollars.com/CNN Money/USA Today

This chart supports claims made by Investopedia that the dollar’s buying power is significantly less now than it was 20 years ago. Put bluntly, that $14,000 steady increase is failing miserably to match the pace of inflation, and no longer covers the cost of a middle-class lifestyle. According to CNBC, “Middle-class life is now 30 percent more expensive than it was 20 years ago. The cost of big-ticket items like college, housing and child care have risen precipitously: The cost of public universities doubled between 1996 and 2016 and housing prices in popular cities have quadrupled.”

Remember that simple equation from earlier? Hard work = a spot in the middle class? Yeah, well over time, that equation became hard work + a college degree = middle class. And we already know how much a college degree can cost you. Apparently, back in 1970, only 26% of the workforce had education beyond high school but by 2018 that percentage had risen to 68%. And even though more people are going to college, only 27% of jobs require higher education, which means a bunch of people are shelling out money unnecessarily. This is further compounded by the fact that the “add college and stir” idea isn’t paying off. The unemployment rate for college graduates has remained the same or gotten worse since the 1990s, and 2020 was absolutely abysmal for recent college grad job prospects. Not only are the unemployment rates for college graduates bleak, but a study by Harvard Business Review showed, “median earnings for recent grads were no higher in 2018 than they were in 2000 and 1990 (after adjusting for inflation).” A livable income is no longer a given post-college.

It’s also extremely important to note that what’s considered middle class in rural Arkansas, isn’t synonymous with what you’ll see in middle-class metropolises — this one aspect alone dramatically widens both the definition and wage gap.

Take for example: me. When I moved to DC in 2017, with a Master’s degree in hand, my fellowship paid $36,000 before taxes. That was not poverty level, and in some states might have gotten me pretty far, but in DC — LOL. There were months when I ate nothing but ramen, lived on credit cards, and worked an extra job just to make ends meet. My story is not dissimilar to many other millennials in metro areas with advanced degrees — and I was one of the lucky ones without college loans.

It is also proven that where you end up financially still depends a lot on factors out of someone’s control, like how/where you grew up, your race/ethnicity, and family status. Improvements have been made, let’s not downplay that, but as one report says, “the chance that a child born in the bottom quintile will make it to the top quintile as an adult ranges from around 4% in Charlotte to 13% in San Jose.” If you start at the bottom, hard work isn’t always enough to get you closer to the top.

One other key difference in today’s middle class vs. previous middle classes is the existence of a savings account. The middle-class ideal, according to some, isn’t just about obtaining a house and car in the here and now — it’s also about planning for the future. So, middle-class families typically want to have both a savings account for unforeseen accidents/medical bills/when the refrigerator kicks the bucket, and a retirement account. While savings in America steadily increased between 2000 and 2010, the most recent decade saw a drastic savings dip.

According to one survey, more than one in five working American adults don’t set aside any of their annual income for short-term or long-term goals. Of those saving, 20% save only 5%; 28% save 6-10%; and 16% are saving 15% or more. But according to experts, that probably isn’t enough to cover both an emergency fund and a retirement fund. When asked what is the hold up on saving more, Americans say it’s just “expenses.” Another very common statistic you may have heard is that many Americans don’t feel they could cover an unexpected $400 expense — 39% to be exact, with 12% saying they definitely couldn’t make it work and the remaining 27% saying they could but would need to use a credit card, loan, or sell something. For many folks, the financial security of the middle class is no longer all that secure.

A VERSION OF VANISHED

In sifting through mounds of data, one thing seems certain: America still has a middle class but the way it, and the American Dream, looks has changed dramatically. Perhaps, hard work will give you your own idea of the middle class, but that life now also likely includes periods of unemployment, living paycheck to paycheck, sacrificing vacation time for retirement, and so on. It’s not just that everything is more expensive, it’s also that how the middle-class fares now varies wildly based on where you live, if you had to take loans out for college, and, if after all of those more expensive expenses — there is enough left in the paycheck to save.

AS BEST I CAN TELL, THE IDEA OF THE “DISAPPEARING” MIDDLE CLASS HAS LESS TO DO WITH AN ACTUAL VANISHING ACT AND MORE TO DO WITH HOW UNRECOGNIZABLE AND INDECIPHERABLE THAT CLASS HAS BECOME.

As best I can tell, the idea of the “disappearing” middle class has less to do with an actual vanishing act and more to do with how unrecognizable and indecipherable that class has become.

FOREIGN POLICY DOTS

None of this is great. For every tiny datapoint of hope I found about the middle class, pages and pages of dismal data brought me back to the realization that America’s new middle class isn’t really working. More often than not, the discussion surrounding the future of the middle class focuses on domestic politics, with a strong emphasis on education and economics. And that makes sense intuitively. But there are huge parts of the conversation that have been left out. One of those parts is how the unrecognizable middle class impacts our national security and foreign policy. So, let’s connect some dots.

Plain and simple: when things aren’t going well at home, you’re unlikely to perform well in the classroom or at work. Same can be said for the middle class and foreign policy. For one, funding international priorities is not only harder to swing when financial times are tough, but it’s even tougher to convince taxpayers they should spend their hard-earned dollars on funding early childhood education programs in Afghanistan when those same taxpayers are working their asses off and still don’t feel secure. When your own house is on fire, the general rule of thumb is you buckle down and put out that blaze first. The problem with this narrative in a globalized society is that so much of America’s economy, growth, and security is now (for better or worse) inextricably linked with foreign relations.

Take oil prices: As you likely know, gas prices fluctuate regularly and one thing the middle class has in common is, usually: a car. I can remember times when “filling up” cost more than $4 a gallon and days when it was less than $2. Let’s face it: America runs on oil, and Dunkin. What you might not know is that over decades, America has faced periods of both energy security and insecurity. And while the debates about oil independence and energy alternatives rage on, for the foreseeable future, America will require foreign oil. The link between our relationship with countries and the price of oil is a direct result of American foreign policy.

Take troop bases abroad: Have you ever sat down and really thought about how military families are able to live overseas on American bases? Guess what! Foreign policy. The United States has nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad. Again, there is some debate here on why we need so many but the general idea is: these bases allow America to project power, influence events abroad, and place us closer to potential areas of conflict on speed dial (think closer to Russia/China/the Middle East vs. traveling from North Carolina).

Take the American farmer: Bad relationships with foreign partners aren’t empty threats, they impact middle-class America in very tangible ways. For example, a multi-year trade war to bring manufacturing back home by the Trump administration resulted in China placing tariffs on more than $70 billion of American products, inadvertently wreaking havoc on farmers. But in January 2020, the US and China agreed to a deal in which China committed to increasing its imports of US goods, including agriculture products. And sure enough, in October 2020, the US Department of Agriculture announced that China was on track to import a record $27 billion in ag goods from the US in fiscal year 2021 — becoming the top foreign export for American farmers.

Take targets for disinformation: As I discuss in another #BLUF, disinformation is considered one of the top threats to America’s national security. Both domestic and foreign-waged disinformation campaigns have similar goals, including causing internal division and chaos in the United States, and shaking the confidence of the American electorate in their political leadership and government. The more insecure Americans feel, the more susceptible to disinformation we are, and the less secure we become — a vicious cycle.

Foreign policy and national security don’t have pause buttons. America can’t just pull a Ross/Rachel and “take a break” from international relations to sort out the middle class. On the contrary, our wellbeing at home is heavily influenced by relations outside our borders: from manufacturing to healthcare, and oil to defense.

The data doesn’t lie. It’s true, the American middle class no longer looks the way it did during the heyday of American Bandstand. The data hints that it’s likely because our individual success is not a magic, one-size-fits-all equation. But maybe it never really was and that’s why we assumed it had vanished.

And that’s all for this one, babes.

No pressure. No bullshit. Just, THE BABES BLUF.

Turning 30: we make plans, some higher power laughs

BLUF: More often than not, life does not go the way people plan. Statistically, it is not uncommon to wait longer, or never achieve, most major milestones.

If you had asked me when I was 21 where I saw myself when I was 30 and what major milestones I would have achieved, these would have been my answers: 

  1. Join the Peace Corps
  2. Go to law school
  3. Become a lawyer 
  4. Get married
  5. Own a house
  6. Have a dog
  7. Make six figures
  8. Build a savings account
  9. Travel the world

Spoiler alert: I just turned 30 and how did I do?

3.5/9

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a straight A student, but I certainly wasn’t the kind of girl who got Fs. So, I got to thinking about my “failure,” whilst reflecting on the decade I left behind. I wondered how many other women hadn’t achieved their anticipated goals. Turns out, there wasn’t a whole lot of data on this exact question but there were some disturbingly brilliant articles about women’s confidence gaps, the inability to have it all, and good data re: the timelines for major life milestones. 

According to a Harvard study, the average woman has 9.46 life goals (good to know younger me was right on track with my nine). These were categorized as “things that occupy your thoughts on a routine basis, things that you deeply care about, or things that motivate your behavior and decisions.” Turns out, men have less: only 8.41 life goals.  But, if you haven’t achieved those goals yet, don’t worry because a lot of those major life milestones are happening later these days anyway!

“Mawage”: The average age of marriage for men and women is on the rise. In the UK the average for both men and women to tie the knot is now just over the 30 year mark. In the US, the average has been steadily increasing to men being 29 and women being 27. Experts suggest the trend of increasing marital age is likely to continue in the US, moving into the 30s. Bonus: there is also this beautiful new trend of marrying yourself – and no, it doesn’t always mean replacing a partner. (Thanks, Carrie Bradshaw!) 

Babies: If you are choosing to have ’em, and plenty of babes aren’t (totally fine!), then the average age of popping out your first kiddo depends a lot on where you live, your education level, and your marital status. But the general trend is increasing, with the average age of first-time mothers at 26, up from 21 in 1972, and for fathers it’s 31, up from 27. In many urban cities, most first-time mamas are over 30.

Bungalows: Turns out buying a house in America is getting really expensive – like reaaalllly expensive (see my forthcoming January Inkstick x TBB on this). So, it’s not a huge surprise that more people are waiting. The average home buying age in the US is now 34. 

Mo’ money: Plenty of time. Most women’s salaries peak at 41

So, good news! The data certainly helped me realize that I’m not alone in my “failure.” And, because I just turned 30 (and can do what I want), I’d like to take a minute and get personal (and real). The past decade didn’t go as planned. I mean truly… it (clap) did (clap) not (clap) go (clap) as (clap) planned (clap). Maybe it looked glamorous and bullet-proof from the outside (thanks, social media) but let’s call it like it was.

I did join the Peace Corps but it dealt me a massive trauma that threw me pretty far off kilter. However, it was an experience that built me back up stronger than ever. I wouldn’t do it again, but I’m not sure I would change anything either.

I definitely did not go to law school (and thank goodness because I know a lot of lawyers these days – most whom don’t love their jobs) but I ended up with a Master’s degree (who would’ve thought) and a career I LOVE, changing the world in my own tiny way. 

I’m not married and I’ve lost best friends who I thought would be the bridesmaids at my nonexistent wedding. But, I’ve cultivated a pack of incredible, fearless friends all over this country (and world) who blow me away everyday. That group may be small but, hot damn, they are mighty.

I don’t have any kind of property to my name and I pay an absurd amount for an apartment that I don’t own. But, I’ve hand drawn my dream home (because I know what I want now) for when that day comes. 

I don’t make six figures but as someone who started off in national security making $36k and living in a 268 sq. ft. apartment (wtf) in DC… yeah, I am pretty pleased with where my finances currently are.

I’ve made mistakes that hurt people. Really hurt people. And I’ve had to spend a good amount of time learning to forgive and accept forgiveness. 

In the past decade, I’ve lived in four states and two countries. I’ve published more than two dozen articles, including a book chapter. I launched THE BABES BLUF and now get paid to write a column I adore, trying to bridge a gap I am passionate about closing.

I won awards, learned several languages, joined boards, launched startups, won grants, sat on panels, and have been on TV a few times (peep an upcoming Netflix series I am in with the brilliant, Erin Connolly). None of those major achievements were on my list at 21. Best of all? I’ve met people with different ideas, practicing various religions, across the financial and political spectrum, from all over the world.

So… when all is said and done, frankly, I’m grateful that the world didn’t hand 20-something-year-old-me what she thought she wanted back then because: 1) I’m not sure I would have really liked the person she turned into, but 2) I really love who I am now, and 3) without that “failure,” I wouldn’t be right here writing the words you are reading.

No, I still do not have my shit together but that’s totally okay. 

All of this is to say: Wherever you are right now is exactly where you are supposed to be. There is no right time to accomplish everything on your list. So, if you’re freaking out about what you haven’t done yet or what never worked out – you’re not a failure and you’re certainly not alone. When your life or list doesn’t go as planned, learn to refresh the page and recalibrate the navigation. 

That’s all for this one, and until 2021, babes.

No pressure. No bullshit. Just, THE BABES BLUF.

This is a look back on the past decade. Missing plenty of people and milestones but I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you to the people in my life (the ones still in it and the ones who have moved on). I am grateful for people and experiences of my 20s and so excited to welcome the 30s (champagne in hand). Thank you.

THE UNFOLLOWING: social media circles in an era of political awakening

*This piece originally published 12/1/2020 as an Inkstick Media column.*

BLUF: Several studies have shown that Americans feel more polarized than ever. Unfriending/unfollowing on social media based on civil, dissenting opinions may contribute to deepening that divide.

I’m just a small-town girl from a conservative corner of the PNW. The little city I call home is not unlike other small towns in America, I imagine, with the exception of our nuclear motif.

*pause for effect*

Yes, you read that right. My small hometown produced the plutonium used in “Fat Man” on that fateful day back in 1945. But my town is proud of our history — something I won’t get into right now. So, growing up,  a hot date meant hitting the lanes at “Atomic Bowl,” my high school’s mascot was a mushroom cloud, and the best pizza was easily from the “black book” at Atomic Brew Pub. Yeah, we took the nuclear thing to a whole new level.

So no one really should’ve been too surprised when a girl from small town USA ended up living in the DC swamp working in national security. And, with a minor detour at a Catholic university, two years volunteering with the Peace Corps, and a Master’s degree from a purple state — my social media content pretty much spans the political spectrum.

In the age of 24-hour news cycles, TikTok, Twitter, dating apps, Facebook and the gram: we’ve all heard the warnings about social media toxicity. We’ve all deleted (then re-added and subsequently deleted again) the influencer we hate to love. Yet when it comes to political differences, unfollowing a human being — especially someone we know well — is trickier. On the one hand, we have our mental health to think about (and rightly so); but, on the other hand, does unfollowing dissenting voices do more harm than good?

As you will come to learn in reading my [Inkstick Media] column, at THE BABES BLUF: we don’t do opinion; partisanship or BS. Just facts (and personal anecdotes — often against my better judgment).

So, let’s take a data-driven look at the phenomena I like to call “the unfollowing” or the practice of unfollowing/unfriending individuals on social media because of political opinions, and the ways in which this practice can contribute to polarization.

In 2016, Leticia Bode looked at unfriending and unfollowing political content on social media in an article for Research & Politics. Interestingly enough, data from a 2012 Pew Research survey used in this article suggested that political unfriending was “relatively rare,” with results demonstrating that less than 10% of 907 respondents were unfriending/unfollowing for political reasons. Shockingly (to me at least), folks were more likely to unfriend someone due to the quantity of political posts (read: about your pyramid scheme diet products), and less so about the content of those posts themselves.

However, in 2016, a study by the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found some updated and interesting results about Christmas (i.e. did you know that 47% of Americans think stores and businesses should greet customers with “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas” out of respect for people of different religious faiths while 46% say they should not?) and political unfollowing.

According to that study, after the 2016 Presidential Election “Only 13% of the public say they blocked, unfriended, or stopped following someone on social media because of what they posted about politics. Again, sharp political divisions emerged in the tendency to remove people because of the political opinions they expressed.” 13% was a slight increase from the 2012 Pew data, but not alarmingly so. But the data starts to get interesting when you look at political ideologies of those partaking in the unfollowing. For example, liberals were by far the most likely of political ideologies to block, unfriend, or stop following someone because of what they posted on social media, coming in at 28% — a huge difference from conservatives (8%) and moderates (11%). And if you break it down even further by party affiliation and gender? Yup, 30% of Democratic women said “they blocked, unfriended, or stopped following someone on a social networking site because of what they posted about politics.” Next closest was Dem men at 14%, Rep women at 10%, Rep men at 8%.

AN ECHO CHAMBER IS LITERALLY “A ROOM WITH SOUND-REFLECTING WALLS USED FOR PRODUCING HOLLOW OR ECHOING SOUND EFFECTS” BUT THE TERM IS OFTEN USED FIGURATIVELY TO DESCRIBE THE CONVENIENCE AND COMFORTABILITY OF LISTENING ONLY TO WHAT YOU WANT TO HEAR, AKA FOLLOWING PEOPLE WHO THINK THE WAY YOU THINK.

Maybe the explanation for this is that Dem women just have more diverse friends on social media to begin with? Seems unlikely, as another study found that neither Biden nor Trump voters in 2020 had more than “a few” friends who support the other candidate.

The deeper you look into partisan and ideological divides, the starker the picture becomes. A 2020 PRRI poll shows that 8 in 10 Republicans believe the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists, but 8 in 10 Democrats believe the Republican Party has been taken over by racists. Using innumerable data points, an in-depth 2019 Pew study shows clearly what many of us have been thinking — Dems and Republicans really are more polarized than ever before, or at least, that is our perception.

Now, perhaps, you feel seen or attacked (or both) by reading all that data — I certainly felt some kind of way when I did.

But then I saw the October 2019 Civility Poll from the Institute of Politics and Public Service out of Georgetown University. The Civility Poll found that “the average voter believes the US is two-thirds of the way to the edge of a civil war. On a 0-100 scale with 100 being ‘edge of a civil war,’” with the mean response being 67.23. (Are you stressed yet?) Well, that very same poll found that 8 in 10 voters want “compromise and common ground.”

The survey of all this data tells me one thing: America is truly divided; but, we’ve also started to recognize it.

So what does this mean when it comes to one’s decision to join “the unfollowing”?

When making the decision to unfollow a polite but dissenting view (I am not talking about obscenities and hostile posts), it is important to recognize how that decision might contribute to your echo chamber. An echo chamber is literally “a room with sound-reflecting walls used for producing hollow or echoing sound effects” but the term is often used figuratively to describe the convenience and comfortability of listening only to what you want to hear, aka following people who think the way you think. It’s certainly not a new concept, but it is one that has been exacerbated by social media. In a 2016 academic paper, Jonathan Bright writes, “These patterns have concerned many theorists of democracy, who have argued that exposure to a diverse range of viewpoints is crucial for developing well informed citizens … who are also tolerant to the ideas of others. By contrast, exposure to only like-minded voices may contribute towards polarization towards ideological extremes.” Essentially the same has been said by others like Kristina Lerman, a USC professor looking at the structure of modern social networks: echo chambers contribute to polarization and increase divisions in our society.

To make matters worse, your personalized echo chamber is being cultivated for you as you read this article. Maybe by now you’ve seen the documentary on Netflix, “The Social Dilemma,” breaking down how social media sites are creating incredibly brilliant (and disturbing) algorithms to curate every single thing you see on your feed. You’re not paranoid, when you look up late night cookie recipes — you better believe Insomnia Cookies is about to show up everywhere. As such, it should not come as a surprise to anyone that when you disengage or unfollow someone/something, you’ve just given your personalized algorithm data it can use to essentially perfect your echo chamber and buy your engagement time. After all, the more time your scroll, the more money they make.

The act of unfollowing may not just be narrowing our blinders but also fundamentally distorting the way we see people of differing opinions. Dr. Tania Israel, a professor in the counseling, clinical and school psychology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara runs workshops on cross-the-aisle conversations and said in an NPR article, “Both sides tend to view themselves as eminently fair and right, and the other side as irrational… We’re flattening people out in terms of our view of them and we’re not really seeing the full complexity of people on the other side.” Israel has stated that, in her opinion, “The only useful comment that you can make on somebody’s social media post is ‘Can we find a time to talk about this? I’m interested in hearing more.’”

I personally have found it exhausting to engage with friends and family who have dissenting political views — even considering hitting “unfollow” on multiple occasions. I am usually stopped by one of two things:

1// The reminder of an essential national security tenet — know your opponent’s position: During my time in DC, whether behind closed doors at a roundtable, sparring over drinks, or battling for FY budgets — one integral part of each of these debates and negotiations has been  understanding what I’m up against, if for no other reason than to prep my counterpoints. After all, if you don’t know your opponent or his/her position, you don’t have a shot in hell at getting what you want. All that’s to say, maybe the “kumbaya” thing doesn’t resonate with you at all — fair, you’re (gasp) entitled to your opinions. But maybe you find the argument that you should “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” more convincing.

2// #Science — the fact that the earth is not flat: Remember when people literally thought the Earth was flat? But after research and exploration, we began to understand not only the shape of the Earth but also the size of the galaxy? Humans aren’t flat. As we learn more about and from each other, we gain a better understanding of the human race, which could lead to incredible advancement.

If none of that works for you, try asking yourself: by unfollowing this person, am I making that 67.23 mean about civil war increase or decrease? JK. Not really.

All of this needs to be caveated by another important message: In any environment, toxic comments or treatment should never be excused nor accepted. And in an era where politics and mental health are both starting to get the public recognition many have been yearning for, Ebonie Barnes, a licensed mental health counselor, puts it best, “While I don’t believe you should unfollow anyone simply because of differing views, I do believe that it is emotionally unhealthy to inundate yourself with posts that cause you distress. If that means unfriending, unfollowing or muting the feed of someone who you know personally, so be it!”

In semi-short, there is no real scientific answer to guide your unfollowing, that decision ultimately belongs to you in America. But there is data to show trends between political unfriending and polarization. So next time you find your finger hovering over that “unfollow” button, think twice before you click.

And that’s all for this one, babes.

No pressure. No bullshit. Just, THE BABES BLUF.

1 vote, 2 vote, red vote, blue vote: understanding how general election votes are counted

BLUF: Vote counting processes and deadlines vary by state and county; however, rigorous checks are in place to ensure transparency. Vote counts are unofficial until they have been canvassed, certified, and sent to the U.S. Congress. The Electoral College casts their votes based on certified state results on December 14.

I don’t know if you’ve heard but there was recently a general election. A historic election with more votes cast for a U.S. general election than ever before.

And the people have many questions, including: how are those millions of votes counted?

But here, at THE BABES BLUF, we don’t do partisanship – we do facts.

So let’s start with the kinds of ballots cast in the 2020 general election!

  • Absentee votes: These are votes cast by a voter who is unable to vote in-person at their polling place on Election Day. Typically, absentee votes are for registered voters living abroad (i.e. for work, volunteering, Peace Corps), serving in the military (thank you to our service men and women!), traveling at the time of an election, or are attending school away from their legal residence. These ballots must be both requested and returned by a registered voter by specific dates in advance of the election, and acceptable excuses vary by state.
  • Early votes: These are votes cast in person during a specific voting period by registered voters in advance of Election Day. Not all states have early voting and designated early voting periods vary by state.
  • Mail-in votes: The only real difference between mail-in voting and absentee voting is that absentee ballots are specifically requested when you cannot make it to your polling station on Election day while mail-in voting is usually prompted by state decision to mail ballots to registered voters. Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Utah, and Hawaii are all states which, prior to COVID, chose to conduct their elections through a mail-in process often referred to as all-mail voting. This year, more states opted to include mail-in voting as an option because of the pandemic.
  • Day of votes: These are votes cast at an assigned polling place based on a registered residential address. Day-of polling places can differ from previous elections and often aren’t the same as early polling locations. Some states use paper ballots for day-of voting while others use electronic options like touch screens.
  • Provisional votes: These are votes cast when there is a question about a voter’s eligibility (i.e. you forgot your ID at home, their name isn’t showing up on the polling location roster, etc.). A voter can still cast a provisional ballot but they are held for counting until officials have guaranteed its legitimacy.
  • Online votes: GOTCHA! Not a real thing.

So registered voters cast their ballots and then what?

Well, shockingly, vote counting procedures vary by state and can also differ by county (because why not complicate democracy). However, the general process for counting ballots goes a little something like this:

EARLY VOTES: If ballots were cast early by mail or absentee, some states had the chance to start counting those votes in advance of November 3. Other states weren’t allowed to begin the ballot tally until the morning of the election – some not until after polls closed. The decision of when to count early votes is decided at the state level.

Counting these types of ballots is a lengthy process as one might imagine because they require being physically removed from envelopes (imagine the paper cuts!), ensuring voter registration, and matching signatures to names on file before being finally scanned. This time consuming process is happening at higher rates in 2020 than ever before before of #COVID. Which is why the nonpartisan law and policy institute Brennan Center for Justice stated, “it may take days, if not weeks, to count an expected record number of mail-in votes.” NOTE: All legitimate absentee or mail-in ballots are eventually counted in every general election. Depending on your state, absentee and mail-in ballots must be received or postmarked by Election Day to count.

“If it takes a little longer this year, it’s not because it’s chaos or misconduct, it’s just how we know people are being careful and counting carefully.”

Michael Waldman, president of the nonpartisan law and policy institute Brennan Center for Justice

BONUS: The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has state-by-state breakdowns for your convenience to learn about the mail-in voting policies for the 2020 general election, including when ballot processing and counting begins. Remember – it varies by state. (see a trend, yet?)

THE LIFE OF A VOTE:

  1. Paper ballots cast at polls on Election Day are scanned and entered into a secure box.
  2. They remain in those secure boxes until polls close and are then transported to the county’s board of elections for counting.
  3. Every step of the way there are bipartisan escorts and oversight.
  4. “The board of elections uses memory cards with information from the scanned ballots cast at polling stations across the county to count the votes. This tabulation system is secure and not connected to the internet.” (Learn about this and the life of your ballot in this cool 2018 interactive voting experience)
  5. Once votes are counted at the county level, they are sent (by truck or helicopter – fancy votes) to their respective secretary of state’s office for final announcement and posting of results.
  6. Following Election Day, “canvassing and certification” begins.
  7. The canvass is the official tally of votes for any given election to ensure that every valid ballot cast is included in the election totals – including early, mail-in, absentee, provisional and day-of poll votes. Local elections do their own canvas in the two weeks after an election and then the state does its own canvas and report, as well.
  8. Certification is when a state’s top election official – either the secretary of state or governor – signs off to certify its state’s results. That certified result is given to Congress who certifies the results, too. (so much certifying)
  9. The election night results shown on the news are unofficial. (More on this a little later) In 2020, those results (mostly) did not include on-time absentee ballots and the record number of mail-in votes cast. Those results also did not include provisional ballots which take time to validate.
  10. (Most) states have set deadlines by which they must canvass and certify election results.
  11. Breakdown of battleground deadlines for canvass and certification: Pennsylvania – November 11; Nevada and Wisconsin – December 1; Texas – December 3.

SAFE HARBOR DEADLINE: Either candidate may legally contest county and state election results for a variety of reasons but the very last day for resolution of those contested election results is known as the “safe harbor” deadline. This date is December 8.

FINAL DAYS: The Electoral College then meets in its own state on December 14 to formally cast their electoral votes to the U.S. Congress for the President of the United States.

OK BUT… WHAT DOES HISTORY TELL US?

So glad you asked! Turns out: the United States has never officially had final results on Election Night. And this makes sense because reading how lengthy the vote counting process is above, it has about the same likelihood of happening in one night as Santa delivering gifts to every single home in the world on December 24. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE CHRISTMAS (and Santa) but it ain’t happening.

News outlets call races based on data analysis of partial ballot counts. This comes down to a pretty simple equation: Candidate A is far enough ahead that, given the number of outstanding ballots and the regions those ballots are coming from, Candidate B would realistically be unable to close the gap. What is making that equation tougher to guarantee this year is the unprecedented number of mail-in votes we discussed earlier.

To learn more about how the media decides to call or a project a state’s winner, check out the Associated Press’ (one of the most respected media in journalism) process here.

#DidYouKnow that in early American days, elections could take almost a year because states decided voting periods not the federal government? Yup, that’s right. It is rumored that for the election of 1800, voting began in some states as early as April and continued through October. Recognizing this might become a problem and should be standardized, Congress passed legislation in 1945 to establish a national Election Day on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. (so close to being simple yet so far)

Isn’t there something about Bush v. Gore? Yes, ma’am. The infamous 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore took 35 days. Gore conceded to Bush, on December 13, after the Supreme Court decision to halt the Florida recount.

Speaking of recounts: According to a report released by FairVote, from 2000 to 2015, there were 27 recounts in statewide races across the country. Of those 27, only three resulted in a change of the election result but the average vote change was 282 votes.

Also, because us babes like to know what we need to know, this bad boy has some key dates for milestones between now and January 20 – Inauguration Day.

The 2020 General Election will officially be called after the Electoral College formally cast their votes for President of the United States on December 14 and those results are delivered to officials by December 23.

And that’s all for this one, babes.

No pressure. No bullshit. Just, THE BABES BLUF.

Love Ferns: what’s the easiest plant to keep alive?

BLUF: Pothos plants (or pothos ivy) do well in any environment. It can grow in a spectrum of light, is not sensitive to temperature extremes or changes, and can survive weeks of water neglect (not recommended). Bonus: the plant is known to purify the air in your home.

We’ve all been there. You’re scrolling through the gram and see apartments and homes perfectly adorned with a lush jungle of greenery. It looks so easy and so chic.

So, you head over to the nearest overpriced botanical boutique or hardware store (a great hidden gem for plants, btw.). And you select a cart (or arm) full of green beauties. After carefully picking out some discount pots and a bag of soil, you are on your way home to recreate that epic jungle.

A few weeks go by and your plants are thriving. YOU GOT THIS. Who knew you had such a green thumb!

But a month goes by and one of the leaves starts to brown on the edges. You change up its water and move its location.

Another week goes by and now you see some yellowing elsewhere, again, you move it and change the water.

Before you know it, all your plants have become Karen and nothing you do can please them. Is it too hot? Too cold? Are they drowning or thirsty? What is that tiny thing crawling on it – a good bug or a death eater? Do they want music or massages?! YOU JUST DON’T KNOW!

Well before you give up entirely, #thebabesbluf is here to help.

A common mistake in picking plants, is not knowing which greenery is best for your home and lifestyle. Because remember, at THE BABES BLUF: we get it, you’re busy.

So after much research on several plant blogs, we have found the perfect jungle pieces for beginners and babes with busy schedules.

The winner is: pothos ivy!

Benefits: Besides being quite pretty (think, overflowing vines that drape perfectly on your shelves), pothos ivy has an air-purifying quality that absorbs toxins from common home materials and products. Two birds, one stone. It is also extremely easy to train for trellis (or ruler/fork) climbing if you prefer that look to falling vines.

Care instructions: Water it ideally every few weeks but even if you forget for a month, this lil lady will probably still be fine. It prefers room temp and to be dry between baths.

Pothos propagation: Want more bang for your buck? Watch this quick video on cutting your pothos ivy for propagation (it’s way easier than you think) to grow more plant babies that will never grow up to be a Karen. Plop your trimmings in water (I love propagation stations like this or this to give you a little home decor while they grow), give them about a month, and replant those babes in soil to turn your drab house into the jungle home of your dreams.

Bonus: They are cheap and the propos are FREE.

True story: I rescued a pothos plan from the trash three years ago. She is thriving today and has produced multiple plant children all over my apartment.

Runner-ups?

  • Aloe: Everyone loves aloe in the summer when you’ve inevitably burnt yourself to a crisp accidentally by wading in the kiddie pool with a glass (read: bottle) of wine. But, we also love this plant because unlike other succulents (which I swear are literally the hardest things to keep alive despite the world telling us otherwise), this bad boy really does do well in most indoor spaces. Just give it lots of sun and let it grow with minimal watering. Bonus: you can cut it off and open it up for your summer burns.
  • Snake plants: This bugger is so easy and is great floor decor (think next to your bed or shelf, on either side of a fireplace, etc.) It does well in basically any lighting, room temperature, with minimal watering.
  • Spider plants: These little guys prefer sunny homes but do okay in low to medium light, if needed. It likes a regular watering schedule (can be every few weeks) and you will need to trim off dead leaves, which are inevitable from time to time so remain calm and snip snip.
  • English Ivy: Like pothos ivy, this plant is absolutely beautiful (some might even say elegant), and is pretty easy to both grow and propagate. What drops it from the number one spot? While it only needs water every few weeks, it’s a little more sensitive to temp and prefers a mid-50’s to 70’s.
  • ZZ plants: These little ladies are so cool aesthetically, and a favorite for offices and homes because they are extremely drought tolerant and need almost no light to survive. On the smaller side, they are slow to grow but can reach two to three feet over time. Cons? They are poisonous so if you have pets or kids – maybe keep this one in your office and wash your hands after handling.
  • Rubber trees (not plastic trees): These trees can grow up to 8 feet tall and do well in most room temp homes. Make sure the surface of the rubber tree’s soil is dry before watering again.
  • Chinese evergreen: These plant thrive in medium to low light conditions or indirect sunlight and do best in warm temps with some humidity. That said, it is flexible enough to tolerate less than ideal conditions. Avoid drafts from window sills and A/C to keep it from browning.
  • Parlor Palms: Another great plant for filtering air, parlor palms made NASA’s top-50 list for plants that clean the air. It does fine in any light and even in homes where your parents refuse to turn on the heater to save on that energy bill. Plus, the thing barely needs any water.
  • Peace Lily: I can tell you from personal experience, this gorgeous plant is pretty hard to kill – even when you think you definitely murdered it, vwa-la, she comes right back to life. This houseplant favors low humidity and also low light, making it great for rooms with few windows. This plant tolerates most room temps up to 85 degrees and regular watering. Bonus: it blooms unexpectedly from time to time – a nice surprise in tough times.
  • Ficus Plant: This plant, which is actually an indoor tree, likes full and bright sun and can go several days without a good water. Bonus: Missing slumber parties with your girls in quarantine? The stems of this babe can be braided!

Life hack: go ahead and buy some of those fake succulents and bigger plastic pots. Be thoughtful about how they look but mix them in with your real plants and it’s actually harder to tell what’s real and what’s not (like disinformation).

So before you decide you don’t have a green thumb and give up on that in-home jungle (the one besides your wild children), pick plants that make your life better not harder.

And that’s all for this one, babes.

No pressure. No bullshit. Just, THE BABES BLUF.

Werewolves: disinformation and how to spot it

BLUF: Disinformation is false information deliberately being shared, or true information being distorted, with the intent to mislead and influence public opinion. The tactic can be traced as far back as 1923 to the Soviet Union and has been called the top threat to U.S. national security.

When I was in the 1st grade, this kid named Jonathan Elliot (and no I will not protect your name because this clearly left a lasting impression on me) told everyone in my class, and on the playground, that I was a werewolf.

Because I do, unfortunately, have pretty hairy (although, luckily blonde) arms.

Now that might not seem like a huge deal but when you’re in the 1st grade and someone starts a rumor like that: two things happen.

  1. A few kids start picking on you for having hairy arms (I did)
  2. A few kids start being afraid of you because they now think there is a small possibility that you are, in fact, a werewolf (I wasn’t)

This is smallest, purest form of disinformation.

But let’s break it down.

Disinformation, as a concept, is actually quite simple. It is the deliberate sharing of false or misleading information in an effort to bias, sway, or change public opinion.

What Jonathan did was share false information about me in an effort to turn our classmates against me because I did not like him (and because he was in the 1st grade and that’s how boys handle rejection – super well). While luckily this didn’t end up ruining my reputation for life, it was a simple, deliberate attempt to spread false information in an effort to bias the kids in our class to not like me, maybe even fear me.

K, but you’re fine now so why does any of this matter? Let’s try tweaking the scenario:

Instead of being 6, I am now 29 and running for office in a predominately conservative town. And Jonathan is my running mate. During one of our debates before the election, he comments that my arms are hairy. People laugh it off. But then, his campaign team finds that 78 percent of voters in our district, oppose abortion. So they hire a firm, who puts out a false story about the possibility of my recently having an abortion. How do they know? Because an unidentified source said she performed that abortion and another unverified pharmacist asserts that a common, noticeable side effect of medication taken after the type of procedure source one purportedly performed on me is (you guessed it): long, flowing arm hair. This unverified, story with two questionable sources, starts to make its way through our social media universe until my opponent retweets that story – adding in a clip of him at the debate pointing out my arm hair – demanding answers. And what started as unfortunate hairy arms has lost me 6 points in the polls because the citizens of our town (falsely) believe it is possible that I not only had an abortion, but am now lying about it.

This is how disinformation works. One tiny well thought out seed of doubt, exploited to make you start questioning: what is real and what is fake?

Add a multi-billion dollar industry, advanced technology, a society with 24-news cycles, a population enamored with social media, sprinkle in political motivation and America has the werewolf scenario on steroids.

Let’s rewind a bit. Where did disinformation come from? Well, as I pointed out earlier, it comes from the pretty basic idea that human nature can be exploited through deception. And no one has done it better than the Russians.

In 1923, a special disinformation unit was setup at the behest of Soviet Union leadership to conduct active intelligence operations. The office, under the order of Joseph Stalin – the former ruler of the USSR – was designed to cause diversions by creating and distributing misleading information through the media of open societies (aka democracies, like America). And they have been mastering this ever since.

It is important to note that Russia approaches war much differently than open, democratic countries. To Russian doctrine, nonmilitary instruments (like disinformation) can rival the effectiveness of conventional weaponry. Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov, Russian Army General and currently Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia (what a mouthful), said once, “The information space opens wide asymmetrical possibilities for reducing the enemy’s fighting potential.” To make it simple – what someone lacks in beauty (advanced military technology), they can make up for in book smarts (disinformation).

The United States’ first major brush with disinformation was called Operation INFEKTION (or FORWARD II or DENVER), a 1980s campaign by the KGB to plant the idea that the United States had created and spread HIV/AIDS as part of a biological weapons research project (similar to a disinfo campaign now about COVID). OPERATION INFEKTION involved “an extraordinary amount of effort — funding radio programs, courting journalists, distributing would-be scientific studies,” according to journalist Joshua Yaffa.

The goal of this campaign by the Soviet Union, according to the U.S. State Department, was to undermine the United States’ credibility, isolate Americans at home and abroad, and cause problems for us in countries who hosted our military bases. Some analysts believe the intent was also to distract from the Soviet’s own offensive biological warfare program, or retaliate against accusations the United States had made for what was later called the yellow rain incident. Because, like Jonathan, even grown men don’t always handle things maturely.

Okay, so Russia started it but what does it mean for America now?

Well as many of you know, there have been multiple reports of ongoing disinformation campaigns to influence more than just the U.S. election, and not just by Russia anymore but also by China and Iran (although less so). The goal of disinformation by those countries right now being threefold, to 1) influence votes, 2) cause internal divisions and chaos in the United States, and 3) shake the confidence of the American electorate in their political leadership and government. Now, some experts are saying the threat is moving closer to home – with disinformation being formulated and pushed domestically. Several different reports and U.S. officials have called disinformation one of, if not the top, threat to U.S. national security.

“Putin, sadly, has got all of our political class, every single one of us, including the media, exactly where he wants us. He’s got us feeling vulnerable…on edge, and he’s got us questioning the legitimacy of our own systems.”

Fiona Hill author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, and famous for her time in Trump’s Administration and testimony in his impeachment hearings, said in a CBS 60 Minutes interview.

According to the State Department,

On average, a false story reaches 1,500 people six times more quickly than a factual story. This is true of false stories about any topic, but stories about politics are the most likely.

U.S. Department of State Report, WEAPONS OF MASS DISTRACTION: Foreign State-Sponsored Disinformation in the Digital Age

And it matters. Because the American people are finding it harder and harder to spot disinformation when they see it. For example, you can read articles about real disinformation here, here, here, here, and here,. Perhaps you remember the controversy of Kendall Jenner holding up a “Black Lives Matter” sign – a picture that went viral and was later proven to be photoshopped.

To show you how advanced disinformation technology is already, take a peek at this website which shows you, every time you refresh the page, a person who very much looks real but is not! How? The site uses a complicated algorithm to produce computer-generated faces that we recognize as human when none of those people are real.

Are you looking to test how well do you would do when confronted with disinformation? This guide to election security and disinformation gives you plenty of tools/skills/info to help you spot the nasty junk, then gives you a chance to check your skills in their VERIFY game.

Maybe instead you need some quick, easy tools to fact check information? Try:

  1. Snopes – a quick way to search an issue and see if it’s real
  2. MediaBiasFactCheck.com – a website that shows you the media bias of the outlet you are reading
  3. Bot check – if seeing something on social media, double check that the original poster of that information is not a bot by seeing how often they are posting information (is it all day even in the middle of the night – probably a bot); do they have a real picture of themselves (if not – might be a bot); does their profile username make sense or does it have a bunch of random letters or numbers (if the latter – bot).
  4. Verify – try to find another tier 1 source (of a different political view) reporting on a controversial issue; if you can only find one outlet talking about it then it’s likely unverified and doesn’t fit most editors’ source requirements

Disinformation might be fake news, but it is a very real weapon being used to target all of us everyday in big and small ways. It’s extra important to remember, that none of us are immune to weapons of mass distraction and all of us are likely already victims (insert girl raising hand emoji – it happens to me too!). As technology advances and the outcomes of disinformation grow is efficacy, it will only become increasingly more pervasive and difficult to spot. The best thing we can all do is practice objectivity and verify before we trust.

And that’s all for this one, babes.

No pressure. No bullshit. Just, THE BABES BLUF.

Voting: does it even matter?

BLUF: In presidential elections, some votes matter more than others (i.e. in swing or “purple” states); in midterm elections, every single vote matters with countless examples in history of outcomes decided by slim margins – sometimes just one vote.

It’s that time of the month election cycle again. You know the one. Where we are all irritable, stressed out, and frustrated that something so necessary to our well-being can cause this much pain and agony.

I am not talking about your period ladies. I am talking about your civic duty to V O T E!

I hear it all the time, “My vote doesn’t even count in my state.” And those folks aren’t necessarily wrong but they definitely aren’t right.

Let’s start at the very beginning (because that’s a very good place to start), the year is 1779 and only property owning or tax paying males white males can vote (we are talking 6 percent of the population!).

Then basically from 1870 to 1984, a series of constitutional amendments and Acts are passed to make voting more equal and inclusive. Some of these include:

1868: The 14th Amendment gives full citizenship and voting rights to all men born or naturalized in the U S of A.

1870: The 15th Amendment eliminates racial barriers to voting but several states use poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation etc. to prevent many from voting. Note: Native Americans still can’t vote.

1920: The 19th Amendment gives babes the right to vote nationwide (took em long enough!)

1924: The Indian Citizenship Act gives Native Americans citizenship and the right to cast their votes!

It wasn’t until 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed, that all men and women ages 21 and up were allowed to vote regardless of race, religion, or education. The same year, the 14th Amendment was ratified to eliminate poll taxes across the country. In 1971, the voting age was lowered to 18 and in 1975 the Voting Rights Act banned literacy tests. And last but not least, in 1984, polling places were required to be accessible to folks with disabilities.

You gotta read all of that to realize in America, voting was not always a granted or guaranteed right to all of us. We have come a long way. But like all good things, there will always be room for improvement to ensure access and equality in America’s voting. Okay, so we are clear that we should not take for granted how hard people have fought, and continue to fight, for the right to vote.

Now to the nitty gritty. DOES YOUR VOTE MATTER?

First and foremost, because of the giant elephant in the room this year, if you cast a ballot, your vote is 96 percent ish likely to be counted. According to this MIT research paper, depending on the state in which you vote, risk of losing your vote is around 4 percent (which isn’t great but isn’t terrible considering over 100 million people have voted in the past two presidential elections. So, if we are being literal, your vote counts about 96 percent of the time.

Now when it comes to figuratively “counting” aka “does my vote really sway the election,” the answer sort of depends on the kind of election.

Midterm elections in America are “direct elections,” meaning that you cast your vote for your local and state representatives and those candidates are elected by whoever has the most votes. Period. No other fuss. Whether a candidate wins by 1 vote or 100,001 votes doesn’t matter. Most votes = winner. And historically, that’s happened more often than you might think. According to a 2003 research article, “The Empirical Frequency of a Pivotal Vote” by Casey B. Mulligan and Charles G. Hunter:

One of every 89,000 votes cast in U.S. Congressional elections, and one of 15,000 in state legislator elections, “mattered” in the sense that they were cast for a candidate that tied or won by one vote.

Mulligan, C.B., Hunter, C.G. The Empirical Frequency of a Pivotal Vote. Public Choice 116, 31–54 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1024244329828

In the 2018 midterm elections, seven state house or senate elections were decided by 45 votes or less with the Kentucky and Alaska House of Representatives elections both being decided by a SINGLE VOTE.

CLOSE CALL ELECTIONS FROM 2018 UNITED STATES MIDTERMS (adapted from this chart: sort by year 2018/country US)

Turns out that’s not how all elections in America work and where the confusion/frustration of “counting” enters the chatroom.

Presidential elections in America are “indirect elections,” meaning you vote for your choice either by mail or in person, and then the electors of your state casts their votes (determined by your state’s popular vote) and those votes determine who becomes President. This is where “won the popular vote but lost the election” and discussions of “abolish the electoral college” enter the chatroom. (Future blog: the electoral college)

SIDE BAR: Not every U.S. state has the same number of electoral votes design. For example, Florida has 29 electoral votes. If President Donald Trump were to win sFlorida’s popular vote on Nov. 3, the 29 electors nominated by the Republican Party in Florida will be selected. These 29 people will gather on Dec. 14 to cast their votes for president of the United States.

So, does your vote matter in a presidential election? Right now, if you live in a state where the largest population center is predominantly Republican or Democratic leaning – your electoral college votes are likely not swayed by your single vote. This is where “purple states” become extra important during a presidential election. (Future blog: purple states)

But, to prove my point that even in a presidential election your vote still matters, here is a scenario:

Say every election for the last 20 years, your state’s electoral college votes were “blue” aka for the Democratic nominee. However, you historically vote “red.” But when voting starts for the 2024 election, no one shows up. No one casts their ballot by mail. No one lines up at the polls. No one votes by mail. Maybe some kind of “Leftovers” plot kicks into effect and you’re the only person left in your state, or maybe everyone just decided they didn’t need to vote because their vote “didn’t matter” – IDK. But you are the only person who casts your vote.

Guess what! All of your states’ electoral college votes? Go RED for the first time in 20 years.

This, albeit hypothetical, scenario is to show you that just because “historically” your vote has been outnumbered, does not mean that will always be the case. Every election is a blank slate.

So, as complicated as U.S. elections are, your vote definitely matters in direct elections and matters a little less (but are still definitely important) in indirect elections.

You can check to be sure you are registered to vote at: www.vote.org

Also check out my favorite voting resource to take a quiz and see which candidate(s) you actually align most with (spoiler alert: the answer might surprise you!): https://www.isidewith.com/

And that’s all for this one, babes.

No pressure. No bullshit. Just, THE BABES BLUF.