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What Happened: October 12, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: Iraq’s future; Biden loses trust; Gas prices hit new high

by
The Scroll
October 12, 2021

The Big Story

Muqtada al-Sadr, Shia cleric and longtime foe of the United States, emerged as the big winner from last Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Iraq—an outcome with major implications for the balance of power in the region. Iraq is currently caught between American and Iranian spheres of influence. But Sadr, despite his religious ties to Iran, is a nationalist whose appeal to Iraqis is his demand for political autonomy and breaking the country’s dependence on foreign powers. Sadr was one of the leaders of the demonstrations in Iraq that started two years ago and led to mass protest against Iranian domination in which hundreds of protestors were killed by Iraqi security forces. In a speech Monday night, Sadr declared “the victory day of the people against the occupation, normalization, militias, poverty, and slavery.” Militias is a reference to the Iranian-backed paramilitary groups that hold power throughout Iraq’s military and government, while normalization likely referred to calls for normalizing relations with Israel. Sadr also led numerous battles against U.S. forces during the American military occupation of Iraq and is not going to suddenly embrace the United States as an ally. But if he is able to reassert a measure of Iraqi independence, that will be enough to challenge the regional status quo.

The Back Pages: Weighing the Pros and Cons of the Subscription Model

The Rest

-President Biden’s approval ratings have been cratering. The liberal polling site FiveThirtyEight aggregated a number of major polls and found that 49.2% of Americans disapprove of the job Biden is doing as president while 44.6% approve. The main reason for the collapse in trust appears to be the administration’s handling of the pandemic and protracted COVID-19 restrictions. Troublingly for the administration, the drop is concentrated among the key constituencies whose support Biden depends on: the young, women, and Black and Latino voters.
Read it here: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/why-has-bidens-approval-rating-gotten-so-low-so-quickly/

-The cost of gas hit a seven-year high Monday, with prices at the pump reaching a national average of $3.27. Crude oil prices in the United States also hit a seven-year high Monday, driven by built-up global demand as productive output rebounds from the pandemic.

-California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 101 into law this week, making ethnic studies classes a requirement for public school students in the state to graduate from high school. For an overview of the curriculum, early drafts of which praised the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel and contained a lesson on Jewish privilege, Tablet published an in-depth account earlier this year. 
Read it here: https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/california-ethnic-studies-curriculum

-A new bill introduced in the House aims to fund a Supply Chain Resiliency and Crisis Office in the Commerce Department. The bipartisan legislation called the Building Resilient Supply Chains Act, introduced by Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), would fund the office with $45 billion to strengthen domestic manufacturing and logistics networks.

-In The New York Times, David Leonhardt revisits the controversy over an article by Brown University economist Emily Oster that attempted to contextualize the minimal risks children face from the novel coronavirus. When it was published in March, the article titled “Your Unvaccinated Kid Is Like a Vaccinated Grandma” sparked a major backlash from people who accused Oster of minimizing the threat. But in the Times, Leonhardt concludes, “Oster is the one who has largely been vindicated. If anything, subsequent data indicates she did not go far enough in describing the age skew of Covid. Today, an accurate version of her headline might be: ‘Your Unvaccinated Kid Is Much Safer Than a Vaccinated Grandma.’”
Read it here: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/12/briefing/covid-age-risk-infection-vaccine.html

-I don’t trust the popular vote to tell me what a good movie is, but I’m in awe of movie review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes’ ability to ruthlessly expose the distance between popular opinions and elite prejudices without even trying.

-A video showing a Virginia father being dragged out of a school board meeting originally went viral under the pretense that the man who was arrested at the end of the video, 48-year-old plumber Scott Smith, was there simply to protest transgender bathroom policies. But in a new article in The Daily Wire, Smith tells the outlet that he was actually trying to tell people in the meeting that his daughter, a student in the school district, was raped by a boy wearing a skirt inside a school bathroom. Smith claims that school officials protected the student accused of the assault, who, it turned out, was also accused of sexual battery for allegedly assaulting a different victim inside a different local school.
Read it here: https://www.dailywire.com/news/loudoun-county-schools-tried-to-conceal-sexual-assault-against-daughter-in-bathroom-father-says
The full article is paywalled, but a detailed summary is available here:

As Loudoun schools sought to pass a controversial transgender policy in June, it concealed that a 9th-grade girl was allegedly raped by a “gender fluid” student in a school bathroom just 3 weeks prior, The Daily Wire has learned.https://t.co/t5IEv1vZZF

— Luke Rosiak (@lukerosiak) October 11, 2021

-An Instagrammer randomly spotted the son of a U.S.-sanctioned cousin of Bashar al-Assad, someone whose father both financed and acted as a diplomatic back channel for the mass-murdering Syrian dictator, in a $300,000 Ferrari 488 Spider in Los Angeles, sitting alongside an Israeli model. It’s darkly amusing that Ali Makhlouf—whose father, Rami, is one of the more shadily fascinating bit players in the Syria disaster—didn’t have the presence of mind to keep the roof of his suspiciously expensive convertible up while driving alongside a beautiful woman from an enemy country. Lucky for us, Ali seems to be a bit of a dim bulb. When the Instagrammer asks him in the video to describe the day job that allowed him to afford such a vehicle, Makhlouf and his passenger can’t stop themselves from breaking into laughter—if he’d said, “My job is to be the playboy son of an accused war criminal who is nevertheless of potential use to various foreign governments and intelligence agencies,” the exchange would hardly have been more revealing, or any more surreal.
Watch here: https://twitter.com/AsaadHannaa/status/1447937887450931202

-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called for limiting the political influence of Israel’s religious parties in comments Tuesday. “I am happy there are Haredim, but we need to limit their political sway,” Bennett said at The Jerusalem Post Conference in Jerusalem. Along with the nationalist right and secular left, Bennett said the Haredim constituted one of the three essential political pillars of Israeli society. Bennett, who is Orthodox, is Israel’s first observant prime minister.


The Back Pages

Scroll contributor Ross Anderson weighs the pros and cons of the online subscription model

We like sugar, so we buy chocolate; we like feeling tipsy so we drink booze; and we want to attract a mate, so we try not to do too much of either. Incentives drive everything we do, individually and collectively, and money trumps almost all else. In turn, this is why “free” products turn sour so quickly—precisely because there actually are none. The alternative to the false allure of “free” products in the online marketplace is the niche subscription model that is becoming more popular and has its own set of costs and benefits worth surveying here in more detail.

As the internet-era adage goes: If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer—you’re the product being sold. Thus, the “free” part of free apps is just the lure used to get people into the room where they can then be converted into customers for web stores or raw human materials for data-mining operations.

A parallel process is at work in “free” online journalism. The quality of online media has been eroded by the incentive to pursue stories most likely to generate short-term clicks and traffic, even if that means discarding discretion and undermining the publication’s own credibility in the long run.

To escape this destructive loop, some companies are pursuing a simple alternative. They make their customers pay for things, which has the benefit of clarifying what is really being sold—not you without your awareness, hopefully—in a given commercial transaction. By aligning what is being advertised with what is being sold, makers are incentivized to improve their products and innovate more of the proverbial “better mousetraps” rather than design more effective and invasive billboards.

For example: Though Neeva (previously mentioned in The Scroll) is a small, new company entering the expensive business of search, it’s already out-innovating Google in search usage, precisely because it’s incentivized to produce a quality, improving product that justifies its monthly fee, not spend its R&D budget on how to sell to you or sell your data. The same holds true of other markets, like browsing with Mighty, email with Superhuman and Hey, and even Raindrop’s bookmark management and Oku’s Goodreads replacement—sectors so niche, there was no advertising or data-mining opportunity and thus little innovation, until now.

Perhaps the most notable example of how subscription incentives can transform a sector is with Substack. Online media has been—to borrow Steven Bannon’s expression—flooded with shit, because the ad-supported model has the shallowest form of incentives (getting someone to click your link) and thus makes the most successful content similarly shallow. Substack is different. Despite the hubbub about disinformation and hot-takes, it has the richest measure for engagement—whether you are willing to pay for it, repeatedly—and so rewards quality content; which is why engaging, deep, non-sexy (except you, Bari) and nonpartisan writers and publications have thrived there. Being reactionary and inflammatory quickly goes stale, and the success of a few shock-jocks on Substack is more a function of their Twitter virality. Indeed, the shallow incentives that currently drive social media platforms obsessed with “engagement” metrics—whatever it takes to get a like, no further reading required—may evaporate if a quality, subscription-based social media takes off or Substack introduces a personalized recommendation feed.

Subscriptions drive up quality; but not all the consequences are positive. Netflix was an alternative to the cable nightmare; but now, the endless number of streaming services have just replicated it with an even higher price-tag. Similarly, the proliferation of subscriptions reduces access to quality information whilst threatening to erode much of the benefit of an independent platform. At publications like The New York Times, the business-driven turn to subscriptions as an alternative to the volatility of the ad market has only heightened the paper’s tendency to pander to partisan biases as subscribers now feel the news should cater to their ideological concerns. 

Substack may provide a way for quality journalism to escape the narrative capture of elite institutions. But we should probably ask: If only the wealthy pay for a major number of news subscriptions, won’t Substack end up creating new but equally distant elite narratives? And, as excited as I get about these new services, they aren’t defeating Google or Facebook; they’re the digital equivalent of Elysium, protecting the privacy of those who can buy a ticket and leaving the rest to ruin. Do we really want a future that has not only significant income inequality but also a major privacy and information inequality too?

For good and bad, these are the incentives of subscription models. And incentives matter.

Find more of Anderson’s writing at thatrosschap.com.

Send your tips, comments, questions, and suggestions to scroll@tabletmag.com.

Tablet’s afternoon newsletter edited by Jacob Siegel.

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