TIME Opinion

Why Troubled Politicians Blame Women Even When It’s Not a Sex Scandal

Former Virginia Gov. McDonnell And Wife Appear In Court For Federal Corruption Case
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen leave the court on January 24, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia after pleading not guilty to a 14 count criminal indictment from federal grand jury charging that the couple violated federal corruption laws by using their positions to benefit a wealthy businessman who gave them gifts and loans. (Mark Wilson--Getty Images) Mark Wilson—Getty Images

The trial of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell shows that it's convenient to have a female scapegoat

Updated August 20, 10:10 am

Men have been blaming their screw-ups on women ever since the Garden of Eden. Because Adam totally didn’t mean to eat that apple! He only did it because that crazy Eve chick tricked him into it. She must have had a crush on the snake.

This week, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s defense team started bringing witnesses to testify about Maureen McDonnell’s craziness and the former governor’s saintliness. The couple is facing federal corruption charges related to luxury gifts and loans they accepted from a political donor. The defense strategy so far has been to pin the blame for the whole mess on the ex-governor’s wife, Maureen McDonnell, saying she had a “crush” on big donor Jonnie R. Williams, Sr., but wasn’t a public official herself so lavish presents to her don’t count as corruption.

Williams, who testified for federal prosecutors under a generous immunity deal, denied any romantic intrigue with Mrs. McDonnell, saying his relationship with the family was a business transaction to help sell health supplements through his company, Star Scientific. “I thought the governor could help bring this product to the marketplace, and it was not the right thing to do,” he testified.

But the defense is arguing that the Governor didn’t have anything to do with the $165,000 in cash and gifts that Williams gave him over a two-year period, it was just little ol’ Maureen being a silly woman in love. Love makes women dumb, right?

Longtime aide McDonnell Janet Vestal Kelly testified for the defense on Monday, calling the former Governor “Mr. Honest,” but said his wife was “diva-ish” and “pathologically incapable of taking any responsibility.” She explained that it was “well known” that Mrs. McDonnell would “hide things,” and that she seemed “kind of flirty” with Williams. Kelly said she didn’t want to “pile on” the former First Lady, but that her staff even worried that Mrs. McDonnell might be mentally ill and they once staged a mutiny because she was so difficult to work for. The defense also presented a letter signed by Mrs. McDonnell’s staff detailing the “worst kind of bullying.” And on Tuesday, Mrs. McDonnell’s sister-in-law, also named Maureen, testified that she was “very manipulative, very unpredictable and very deceptive.” Suddenly, it’s the First Lady’s personality that’s on trial, not her husband’s role as an elected official.

It’s possible that Maureen McDonnell is the lovesick crazy woman the defense team is making her out to be (she did text Williams “I just felt the earth move, and I wasn’t having sex” after an earthquake.) But it’s also possible this is an elaborate ruse to blame the wife in order to get both McDonnells out of some serious prison time. (They face 14 counts of public corruption, obstruction of justice and lying on financial documents.) This could be a clever experiment in political alchemy: by transforming a corruption scandal into a sex scandal, it puts the focus on the woman’s behavior instead of the money trail. And it makes sense: sex scandals are easier for the public to understand, and blaming the woman tends to take some of the heat off the man — just ask Paula Broadwell or Rielle Hunter.

But now “blaming the woman” (or using a woman’s behavior to distract pesky critics and prosecutors), is becoming a catch-all strategy for exonerating male politicians from calamities that might not have much to do with sex at all. Chris Christie said he was “blindsided” by the scandal surrounding the George Washington Bridge closures in Fort Lee, N.J., which he says was orchestrated by his aide Bridget Anne Kelly (who was later publicly shamed for a “personal relationship” she had with another staff member.) Chinese politician Bo Xilai blamed his “crazy” wife for embezzling government money and taking bribes last year (she was convicted in 2012 of murdering a British business associate.) Newt Gingrich staffers blamed the collapse of his 2011 Presidential campaign on a takeover by his wife Callista. And former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens blamed the $250,000 worth of home renovations from a wealthy oil contractor that led to federal corruption charges in 2008 on his wife, Catherine (an investigation later found that prosecutors withheld evidence that would have helped Stevens, who lost his Senate seat and then died in a 2010 plane crash.) None of these were explicitly sex scandals, but they were still spun as the woman’s fault.

Of course, the woman isn’t always blameless — for Stevens, at least, there might have been some truth to his claim that Catherine paid the renovation bills and he might not have known about the thousands of dollars worth of gifts. And it’s possible that Maureen McDonnell did accept Williams’s money without her husband’s knowledge (although this picture of the Governor driving Williams’s car makes that seem unlikely.) Some lawyers say McDonnell’s “crush” defense is so nutty it just might work, others say it could be the truth. But it’s still a mighty convenient tactic, and it’s not just used by men; Hillary Clinton was all too willing to blame Monica Lewinsky for the affair with Bill, even though Lewinsky was a young, inexperienced intern and Bill Clinton was the President of the United States.

The trend could be an unfortunate byproduct of women’s rights; as women are seen as increasingly capable of succeeding, they’re also seen as increasingly capable of screwing up. For example, Mary Todd Lincoln was famous for overspending on White House decorations and falsifying spending records, but Lincoln didn’t try to blame any of his political woes on her (then again Honest Abe had bigger fish to fry.)

There’s an old saying that says, “behind every great man, there’s a great woman.” These days, it seems the inverse is also true: in front of every embarrassed man is an embarrassing woman.

TIME Opinion

Using Homeless Guys as Reality Show Props is Offensive

The only reason for giving these homeless guys money is not to help them, but to exploit them, which is what the video creators don’t get.

The YouTube video, “Making Homeless Guys Arm Wrestle For Money!” opens on a sidewalk with a 20-year-old guy in a black V-neck, and this introduction: “What’s up guys! I’m Coby from Model Pranksters… today we’re in New York City, we’re gonna find two homeless people, put them up to an arm wrestle. The winner gets $100.”

Harmless enough, right? A couple of guys down on their luck get a crack at enough cash to buy their next five or ten meals and we get to watch. (Or, maybe you’re thinking the vary premise sounds patently offensive. But let’s keep going.)

Coby Persin and his sidekick, Justin, head off in search of a vagrant with a meaty bicep. They stumble upon a middle-aged African-American man, panhandling, whose pants are ripped and barely cover his legs. The man agrees to participate in a video for $100, without knowing what he will be asked to do. The Model Pranksters find his opponent and inform the two that they will be arm-wrestling with the winner pocketing $100 and the loser leaving empty-handed. But, there’s a catch. With the competitors out of view, Justin tells us that even the loser will get $50.

Doesn’t that just warm your heart?

The arm-wrestling match ends with the African-American guy winning and Persin handing him two $50 bills. That’s when the video’s big payoff happens. The winner looks at his opponent and says, “Robert, I know how it is, man, working tough, no harm no foul,” offering one of the $50 bills to the match’s loser. The two gladiators hug, and Persin is stunned. “This is like one of the most inspirational things I’ve ever seen,” he says. He gives them both another $100, then some bear hugs, and they all part ways.

Since it was uploaded three weeks ago, the video has been viewed nearly 8 million times. Close to 100,000 people gave it a thumbs up, compared to just 4,641 who awarded it a thumbs down. This is Persin’s most popular video but not his first. That was “How to get any girl’s number,” in which he and his buddies would walk up to girls on Coney Island, ask to use their phone, call themselves with it, et voila! “We stole their number,” he says. More recent titles include “Stealing from the Homeless” and “Picking up Girls with Akon and Snoop Dogg Songs.”

Persin’s “Model Pranksters” channel (named because he once was an Abercrombie and Fitch model) generates enough views to bring in between $6,000 and $10,000 a month, he says. He no longer has to work on anything but these videos. The arm-wrestling “prank” was actually meant to convince potential viewers that they were about to watch “douchebags making homeless guys wrestle for money,” says Persin, which would surely have gotten a lot of views. But they’re not actually douchebags, he says, because they were always going to give the loser that $50.

“If you listen to the guy, he said his day is going slow, he’s not making any money, and we’re giving him $50 and $100 right off the bat,” Persin says. “He can’ t be mad at us. People in the comments section make it seem like we’re bad people, saying ‘You should have just given him the money.’ But then there’d be no video.”

Exactly. The only reason for giving these guys money is not to help them, but to exploit them, which is what Persin and his pals don’t get. Why choose homeless people, anyway? Because they’re probably desperate enough to allow themselves to be exploited for a few greenbacks, and because we have a strange fascination with these “other” people, an interest that is hard to satisfy because we spend so much time avoiding them.

Take the arm-wrestling winner’s generous gesture after the match, for example. It’s the whole reason the video went viral. But if you know anything about homeless people, the move wasn’t all that surprising. Even to their own detriment, at times, homeless people are sometimes far more generous than the rest of us. They realize how a little kindness can make a big difference.

Homeless people who end up in encampments, small communities of tent cities or ramshackle structures in various locales around the world, are often generous even with little resources, says Robert Marbut, a homeless advocate in San Antonio, Texas. “They’re almost communal.”

If one person living in the encampment happens to have more food or money, Marbut says, they’ll share it, he says. “If you have a bad week at work, if I have a good week, it’s OK, we work together.”

Another problem with Persin’s video is that it anticipates some wildly entertaining outcome in a completely irresponsible way. Persin chose these men not because they were down on their luck, but because he thought it would be amusing to have homeless people arm-wrestle. Surely, he expected to find colorful characters to participate in the video. And the reason homeless people can be colorful characters is because many of them — as many a third, by most estimates — are suffering from mental illness. So unlike choosing to hire someone for a job because the person possesses a valuable skill, Persin picked these people because they have a weakness he thought might be entertaining to watch.

But the end of the video taught us all a valuable lesson about humanity and human kindness, right? Definitely. And there’s value in deflating the notion that the more desperate a person is, the greedier he must be. But that lesson has unfortunately subsumed the more important one: That no matter how amusing, it’s wrong to exploit the vulnerable for a cheap thrill. It was insulting in the era of the Romans and the Gladiators, just as it was in 2011 when the rapacious owners of a fetish web site paid homeless people in Florida to take a beating. It wasn’t ok in 2012, either, when a marketing agency at the South By Southwest technology conference paid homeless people $20 a day to walk around as mobile WiFi hot spots.

Persin has since come to realize that the best part of his video was that it (accidentally) moved people at the end; he has begun experimenting with turning that twist into a theme. Last week, he uploaded “Helping a Homeless Man Through the Power of Music,” where he recruited a few good singers to sit alongside a panhandler and belt out John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” to boost the homeless guy’s take for a few minutes.

Sure enough, the bills immediately began to trickle into the upturned hat of one of the songsters. Passersby shot videos of the moment, and the vagrant was grateful. No arm-wrestling, no click-baiting headline.

And as of Monday, 202,000 views.

TIME europe

Europe’s Economic Woes Require a Japanese Solution

Rome As Italy Returns To Recession In Second-Quarter
A pedestrian carries a plastic shopping bag as she passes a closed-down temporary outlet store in Rome, Italy, on Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014. Italy's economy shrank 0.2 percent in the second quarter after contracting 0.1 percent in the previous three months. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

The region’s economy is starting to resemble Japan’s, and that threatens to condemn Europe to its own lost decades

No policymaker, anywhere in the world, wants his or her national economy to be compared to Japan’s. That’s because the Japanese economy, though still the world’s third-largest, has become a sad case-study in the long-term damage that can be inflicted by a financial crisis. It’s more than two decades since Japan’s financial sector melted down in a gargantuan property and stock market crash, but the economy has never fully recovered. Growth remains sluggish, the corporate sector struggles to compete, and the welfare of the average Japanese household has stagnated.

The stark reality facing Europe right now is that its post-crisis economy is looking more and more like Japan’s. And if I was Mario Draghi, Angela Merkel or Francois Hollande, that would have me very, very nervous that Europe is facing a Japanese future — a painful, multi-decade decline.

The anemic growth figures in post-crisis Europe suggest that the region is in the middle of a long-term slump much like post-crisis Japan. Euro zone GDP has contracted in three of the five years from 2009 and 2013, and the International Monetary Fund is forecasting growth of about 1.5% a year through 2019. Compare that to Japan. Between 1992 and 2002, Japan’s GDP grew more than 2% only twice, and contracted in two years. What Europe has to avoid is what happened next in Japan: There, the “lost decade” of slow growth turned into “lost decades.” A self-reinforcing cycle of low growth and meager demand became entrenched, leaving Japan almost entirely dependent on exports — in other words, on external demand — for even its modest rates of expansion.

It is easy to see Europe falling into the same trap. Low growth gives European consumers little incentive to spend, banks to lend, or companies to invest at home. Europe, in fact, has it worse than Japan in certain respects. High unemployment, never much of an issue in Japan, could suppress the spending power of the European middle class for years to come. Europe also can’t afford to rely on fiscal spending to pump up growth, as Japan has done. Pressure from bond markets and the euro zone’s leaders have forced European governments to scale back fiscal spending even as growth has stumbled. It is hard to see where Europe’s growth will come from – except for increasing exports, which, in a still-wobbly global economy, is far from a sure thing.

This slow-growth trap is showing up in Europe today as low inflation – something else that has plagued Japan for years on end. Deflation in Japan acted as a further brake on growth by constraining both consumption and investment. Now there are widespread worries that the euro zone is heading in a similar pattern. Inflation in the euro zone sunk to a mere 0.4% in July, the lowest since the depths of the Great Recession in October 2009.

Sadly, Europe and Japan also have something else in common. Their leaders have been far too complacent in tackling these problems. What really killed Japan was a diehard resistance to implementing the reforms that might spur new sources of growth. The economy has remained too tied up in the red tape and protection that stifles innovation and entrepreneurship. And aside from a burst of liberalization under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in the early 2000s, Japan’s policymakers and politicians generally avoided the politically sensitive reforms that might have fixed the economy.

Europe, arguably, has been only slightly more active. Though some individual governments have made honorable efforts – such as Spain’s with its labor-law liberalization – for the most part reform has come slowly (as in Italy), or has barely begun (France). Nor have European leaders continued to pursue the euro zone-wide integration, such as removing remaining barriers to a common market, that could also help spur growth.

What all this adds up to is simple: If Europe wants to avoid becoming Japan, Europe’s leaders will have to avoid the mistakes Japan has made over the past 20 years. That requires a dramatic shift in the current direction of European economy policy.

First of all, the European Central Bank (ECB) has to take a page out of the Bank of Japan’s (BOJ) recent playbook and become much more aggressive in combating deflation. We can debate whether the BOJ’s massive and unorthodox stimulus policies are good or bad, but what is beyond argument at this point is that ECB president Draghi is not taking the threat of deflation seriously enough. Inflation is nowhere near the ECB’s preferred 2% and Draghi has run monetary policy much too tight. He should consider bringing down interest rates further, if necessary employing the “quantitative easing” used by the U.S. Federal Reserve.

But Japan’s case also shows that monetary policy alone can’t raise growth. The BOJ is currently injecting a torrent of cash into the Japanese economy, but still the economic recovery is weak. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finally seems to have digested that fact and in recent months has announced some measures aimed at overhauling the structure of the Japanese economy, by, for instance, loosening labor markets, slicing through excessive regulation, and encouraging more women to join the workforce. Abe’s efforts may prove too little, too late, but European leaders must still follow in his footsteps by taking on unions, opening protected sectors and dropping barriers to trade and investment in order to enhance competitiveness and create jobs.

If Europe fails to act, it is not hard to foresee the region slipping hopelessly into a Japan-like downward spiral. This would prove disastrous for Europe’s young people — already suffering from incomprehensible levels of youth unemployment — and it would deny the world economy yet another pillar of growth.

TIME Economics

The Wealthy and Powerful Discover Inequality

President Obama Hosts Summit On Working Families
Goldman Sachs Chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein participates in a panel discussion on 'Talent Attraction and Retention' during the White House Summit On Working Families at the Omni Shoreham hotel June 23, 2014 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

Even the rich are admitting that inequality is bad for business

As the Gilded Age has been peaking, a number of the rich and their foundations have been helping the hungry, the sick, the homeless, the battered, the less educated and veterans in need of opportunity. However, aside from the palliative approach, “the system,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt liked to call it, until now, has had no serious proactive strategy to address the inequality in incomes and wealth.

The dominant social message has been that for most of the population – the huge middle class – one can work hard and raise oneself up through education, solid contributions, good performance and, ultimately, economic rewards that will be the fruit of these virtues and labor. But there are signs everywhere that this is no longer the case. Wages are flat, returns to education are down, and solid-paying jobs with benefits are the old, not the new, norm. As recent data from the U.S. Department of Commerce shows, employee compensation – wages and benefits – comprise an ever-smaller piece of the economic pie, while wealthy Americans collect significantly more in capital income – interest and dividend payments. As Brookings Institution labor economist Gary Burtless put it, “everything’s coming up roses for people who own a chunk of American capital.” The structure of the economy rewards those who own capital and derive income from that capital. Work hours alone simply do not cut it. Automation and robotization will only accelerate the process.

Who has stepped forward to analyze the problem and start a national conversation about the solution? Many have, but one recent surprising group of trenchant commentators this summer is the wealthy and powerful themselves. In defining the problem of inequality in early June, Goldman Sachs Chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein told CBS This Morning that inequality is “destabilizing” and “responsible for the divisions in the country. The divisions could get wider. If you can’t legislate, you can’t deal with problems. If you can’t deal with problems, you can’t drive growth and you can’t drive the success of the country. It’s a very big issue and something that has to be dealt with.” In mid-July, Bill Gross, a billionaire in Southern California and the founder of PIMCO Asset Management, headlined a USA Today op-ed with the claim that “Economic inequality threatens capitalism.” In the piece, Gross goes on to argue that “income equality is good for business” – underscoring this group of observers’ concern that inequality threatens economic growth – and says that solutions to inequality should guide a Republican platform. In the July issue of Politico, billionaire Nick Hanauer wrote a “memo” to his “fellow zillionaires.” As the first nonfamily investor in Amazon.com and founder of an Internet company that sold to Microsoft to for $6.4 billion, Hanauer represents the high technology side of “the system.” His message would be downright scary if it were not written by a billionaire himself. In his piece, “The Pitchforks Are Coming…For Us Plutocrats,” he wrote, “Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and a more feudal society…. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality.” In mid-July, Walmart President and CEO Bill Simon commented to Reuters and CNBC that its lowered sales were because the “middle and down are still pretty challenged.” Even philanthropy magazines are filled with worry about the inequality conundrum. Alms for the poor and vulnerable just won’t cut it anymore.

This group has not been shy about discussing possible solutions. Bill Gross called attention to Henry Ford’s “broad-based” solution to expand incomes early in the last century – which echo the generous cash profit-sharing checks on top of wages, which every Ford worker still enjoys today – and suggested large increases in the minimum wage. While not offering specifics, Hanauer suggests our policies must “change dramatically,” and he admits the performance/reward gap of the new economy by saying that “I’m not the smartest guy you’ve ever met, or the hardest-working.” Blankfein’s solution is to “grow the pie” and “distribute it in a proper way.” He lays out this criterion for a solution: “If you grow the pie and too few people enjoy the benefits of it and the fruit, then you have an unstable society.”

The insights from the top do not let up, and their analyses are wide-ranging and sharp. However, “the system” has not been systematic about exploring solutions. If one trolls the websites of the foundations of the rich and powerful, there is a decided lack of willingness to look at systematic economic solutions. Occasional ideas should not be mistaken for careful and deliberate problem-solving on this complex problem.

We will never solve the problem of inequality unless we develop mechanisms for the middle class to share in the ownership and profits – the capital – of the economy. The reason is that the private ownership of capital assets, such as businesses, stocks and bonds, are highly concentrated. Moreover, in 2011 almost 90% of all capital gains and all capital income, such as dividends and interest, went to the top 20% of the population.

One possible avenue is to apply to the middle class at large the approaches that the rich and powerful apply to themselves. Most of their income is from having a share of ownership and profits in businesses. In order to give middle class workers access to these types of capital income, we must dramatically expand the tax incentives for businesses of every size to offer shares of ownership to all of their employees. This ownership can come in the form of grants of restricted stock, stock options, ESOPS (Employee Stock Ownership Plans) and profit sharing, a la Henry Ford. There is a long history of citizen shares in American workplaces since the late 1700s, with many worthy examples among the Fortune 500, high tech firms and the thousands of privately held corporations offering generous ESOPs.

Shares of profits and equity at the workplace will help, but will not be sufficient because much of the population works in the public sector – in the military, government or non-profits. Big ideas are necessary. For soldiers and teachers and others, we need to explore how to apply the lessons of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation to the rest of America. The Corporation receives oil and mineral rental, royalty and revenue-sharing payments from corporations allowed to use Alaska’s resources. This capital is invested in a diversified portfolio so that every Alaskan citizen can receive an annual dividend check.

To replicate this arrangement here, assets and leases of the Federal government and states should be made available to private corporations – similar to the Alaskan initiative – in order to pay citizen dividends nationwide. The wind and solar energy fields popping up around the nation should be largely owned by these corporations, as should the wireless spectrum controlled by the Federal Communications Commission and other future technologies receiving tax subsidies funded by citizens at large. States and cities should stop the corporate welfare of huge tax abatements and receive ownership shares to be deposited in citizen share corporations. For example, the DeBlasio Administration should do a top to bottom review of New York City’s tax abatements and monetize them as equity shares for the middle class. These corporations can be licensed by the Treasury and borrow funds to invest in the new technologies and robots of the future. As a sign of hope for the younger generation, we should revisit the idea of Baby Bonds, where an account is set up for each newborn using the same low interest loans that the Treasury and the Federal Reserve recently used to bail out Wall Street and revive its capital ownership. These Baby Bond funds would also be privately managed to be invested in assets that pay regular capital income. Relatives and the rich could make deposits to the accounts, the children could learn how to track them in elementary school, and the dividend income could supplement wages in adult life.

If citizens do not privately own more of the economy, the flat wages of the middle class will never dig us out of inequality. It is time for the rich and powerful to encourage both political parties to set up a national bipartisan commission to explore these and other useful ideas. Charity and philanthropy will never be enough.

Joseph Blasi’s latest book, The Citizen’s Share: Reducing Inequality in the Twenty First Century (written with Richard B. Freeman and Douglas L. Kruse) tells the story of the American history of the shares in business and the economy. Blasi is the J. Robert Beyster Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University.

TIME Media

Stop Pretending Nothing Happens in August

President Richard Nixon Resignation At White House In Washington On August 9Th 1974
President Richard Nixon Resignation at White House in Washington on August 9th 1974. Keystone-France—Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

The month of beach vacations is also when World War I broke out, Iraq invaded Kuwait and the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The headlines these days all seem to demand exclamation marks. Iraq is teetering on the brink! Russian troops are massing on the Ukrainian border! Gaza lies in ruins! World’s worst Ebola epidemic afflicts Africa!

Oh, and it is also National Goat Cheese Month. Welcome to another quiet and peaceful August.

Yeah, right. One of the puzzles of summer is why so many of us persist in pretending that August is a month when nothing happens, when we can step back, tune out, take a break, and recharge. Europeans even think they are entitled to take the entire month off.

Perhaps there’s something about late summer, a couple months gone since school let out in June, that makes us forget our history. This year, August is full of reminders. We’re commemorating the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation and the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I.

Bellicose August also brought the Gulf of Tonkin incident that triggered our involvement in Vietnam, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the failed coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in 1939 that enabled Hitler to invade Poland on September 1, and the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945 and ensuing Japanese surrender. Hurricane Katrina also occurred in August, but let’s leave Mother Nature out of it.

There’s a melancholic quality to August, a month nearly synonymous with “waning days of summer.” Less acknowledged in our cultural vernacular is the extent to which the “waning” feeling is as much about the end of another year as it is about the end of summer.

Sure, we sing “Auld Lang Syne,” kiss under the mistletoe, and wish each other a “Happy New Year” when December turns to January. But who among us doesn’t feel that the real reset moment each year, the new beginning, comes in September, the day after Labor Day? The fall is when we start school and football season and the U.S. government fiscal year, and when we get serious, if we ever do, about our work.

August, then, is about the waning not only of summer, but also of each passing year, and lost possibilities. It is about the waning of life, even. There is a grasping, desperate quality to many of the historical events that took place in August—hence the resonance of the title of Barbara W. Tuchman’s historical bestseller about the outset of World War I, The Guns of August. It’s quite fashionable to study the sequence of events that led to the so-called “Great War,” which in retrospect appear like dominoes falling as if on a predetermined course. The rest of the war is far less fashionable to read about, as it proves too muddled a narrative. Best to focus on the August beginning, and how it ended all that came before.

Mischief conspires with melancholia in August, the notion that mice can play while the cat’s vacationing. It’s not clear whether Saddam Hussein thought he would get away with taking over Kuwait if he did so while the American president was summering in Maine, or whether that president’s son, when he was in office a decade later, would have taken warnings of an airborne al Qaeda plot more seriously had he been briefed about them at some time and place other than August at his Texas ranch.

August and the waning days of summer (and of the year, I insist) is when we let our guards down, creating an opening for those with an agenda, be it the invasion of Poland or Kuwait, or the shorting of the pound (George Soros famously bet against the British currency in August 1992, and won big). So keep your eye on colleagues who seem especially busy and eager to stick around the office this month. Who knows what they’re up to?

Financial markets are notoriously slow in August, the month of lowest trading volumes, when bankers follow their clients to the beach. But “slow” can be a deceptive term in business as in life, given that lower volume and less liquidity in a market can make it more volatile, and more susceptible to speculation. If you buy or sell 1,000 shares of a company, you are far more likely to influence that stock price on a day when only 5,000 shares trade hands than on a day when 100,000 shares trade hands.

That same dynamic applies to anyone seeking to influence the outcome of any event: your influence increases the fewer people are engaged. Which is what makes this such a dodgy month, and the current news headlines so ominous.

And now, I’m off to the beach for a week. It’s August, after all.

Andres Martinez is editorial director of Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Trade Winds column. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

TIME psychology

5 Secrets to Improve Learning and Memory

I’ve already posted a research round-up on becoming an expert at anything. That was focused on the big picture of how to master something over a period of years.

This time let’s get less macro and focus more on the nitty-gritty of what you need to do when you sit down, roll up your sleeves and try to learn something new.

Yeah, It’s Gonna Take Effort

No, I’m not going to lecture you like Grandpa about the virtues of hard work, but your brain takes in a lot every day and remembering everything isn’t realistic. Research consistently shows effort is how you let your grey matter know something is worth retaining.

The more effort you expend, the better you learn:

…undergraduates in the study scored 29 to 63 percentage points higher on tests when they used study techniques like recording complete notes, creating comparative charts, building associations, and crafting practice questions on their screens.

You’re not going to learn much passively. Re-reading material four times was not nearly as effective as reading it once and writing a summary. Even just writing by hand is beneficial. More effort, better results.

There is a system for developing a near-photographic memory and it works, but takes some practice.

The two key things to remember here are testing yourself and spacing out learning over time.

In more than two dozen studies published over the past five years, he has demonstrated that spaced repetition works, increasing knowledge retention by up to 50 percent. And Kerfoot’s method is easily adapted by anyone who needs to learn and remember, not just those pursuing MDs.

Get Invested

Feeling a connection to the material is powerful. Finding an angle on the subject that makes you curious about it is gold.

Is it too boring? Get invested by betting on your ability to remember it. Yeah, like gambling. Promise yourself a reward before you go to bed and you’ll learn more as you sleep.

Don’t just try to drill knowledge in, connect it to things you already know. Really try to understand it, not just memorize it. This is why teaching someone else is a great way for helping you learn. If you can’t explain it, you don’t know it.

Steroids For Your Brain

Save the healthy eating for another time, coffee and a donut is steroids for your brain. Yes, it’s science. Yes, Red Bull isn’t just for partying, it’s also for studying.

I don’t want to recommend cigarettes to anyone but if you’re already a smoker, light up before you learn. Nicotine does improve cognitive performance.

Fundamentals

We’re always looking for a magic bullet. Truth is that just as with getting in shape, fundamentals like getting enough sleep and regular exercise have far greater effects than well-marketed supplements. Seriously, naps after learningare powerful.

You need to calm down and concentrate. Turn off the music. No group studying. Stop kidding yourself — you can’t multitask. (Guys, when studying stay away from pretty girls. Don’t even think about them.)

Little Tricks

There are lots of little tips that can help as well:

Too lazy for all this? Get a good luck charm. Seriously, they work.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree

TIME psychology

How to Be Happy at Home and Fulfilled at Work

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Do what you’re good at.

Using your “signature strengths” — those qualities you are uniquely best at, the talents that set you apart from others — makes you stress less:

The more hours per day Americans get to use their strengths to do what they do best, the less likely they are to report experiencing worry, stress, anger, sadness, or physical pain…

Using your strengths makes you feel better:

Americans also gain a boost in positive emotions the more they use their strengths. The more hours per day adults believe they use their strengths, the more likely they are to report having ample energy, feeling well-rested, being happy, smiling or laughing a lot, learning something interesting, and being treated with respect.

Using your signature strengths on a daily basis can make you significantly happier for months.

Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

When 577 volunteers were encouraged to pick one of their signature strengths and use it in a new way each day for a week, they became significantly happier and less depressed than control groups. And these benefits lasted: Even after the experiment was over, their levels of happiness remained heightened a full month later. Studies have shown that the more you use your signature strengths in daily life, the happier you become.

A job that lets you use your talents will make you consistently happier at work:

The more signature strengths were applied at the workplace, the higher the positive experiences at work. This study showed that character strengths matter in vocational environments irrespective of their content. Strengths-congruent activities at the workplace are important for positive experiences at work like job satisfaction and experiencing pleasure, engagement, and meaning fostered by one’s job.

Increasing the amount of flow you experience at work is largely the result of using your unique talents. That may be one of the reasons the most creative people focus on doing what they’re good at:

Via Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Ghandi:

(2) Creative individuals leverage their strengths. They determine their strongest area and build their achievements around these potent intelligences. They do not worry about what they do not do as well; they can always get help from others and perhaps barter their areas of strength with those who have complementary skills.

 

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME Opinion

No, Catcalling Is Not a Form of Empowerment

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A New York Post writer explains why she loves being catcalled and finds it empowering. Here's why she's wrong.

The first time I was harassed on the street it was physical. Walking down St. Marks Place in Manhattan, I screamed when a man riding a bicycle grabbed me from behind and continued riding. No one nearby said a word, no one chased after the guy, no one asked me if I was OK. In fact, the surrounding crowd of people made me feel embarrassed for screaming.

Since then, I’ve been grabbed only one other time, but the number of times I’ve been verbally harassed is too many to count. It gets my blood boiling every time—I’ve tried ignoring them, I’ve tried giving them dirty looks, I’ve tried talking back to them. I’ve even gone to such lengths as wearing a sweater over my workout clothes every single time I step out the door, even mid-summer, as my curves in Spandex seem to give men—of any age, race or neighborhood—the welcome invitation to comment on my body.

So when the New York Posts’s Doree Lewak published an article called “Hey, ladies—catcalls are flattering!” it made me almost as angry as when men comment on my body. Lewak attempts to make the point that seeking out attention goes hand-in-hand with feminism, which is about self-empowerment. She adds that she prefers compliments to crude comments. But the message she’s sending is wrong. Street harassment is a gateway to physical harassment. If you send the message that any kind of verbal harassment is acceptable, you send the message that all harassment is OK.

Lewak cites her “first time,” when she was 20 and construction workers called after her. But it’s not just construction workers who are verbally harassing women. The construction-worker whistle is an outdated stereotype that Lewak is using to simply stir up controversy. If women only had to put up with whistling from a few men in hard hats, an eye roll could suffice as a reaction. What women are actually dealing with are verbal attacks that make us feel unsafe, that make us feel threatened.

She also writes that these hardy construction workers “need something to look at” when they’re breaking for lunch, and she’s happy to be that distraction—which is her right. But the assertion that men “deserve” or should be allowed to expect this is something else altogether.

To legitimize catcalling is to give voice to those who don’t deserve it: the man who told me he wanted to perform oral sex on me, the man who said he wanted it the other way around and the man who said he could have me if he wanted me. Instead of empowering all women, you empower the man who grabbed my dress in the East Village, who licked his lips and looked me up and down.

Self-empowerment means being empowered from within. Not being empowered by catcalls.

TIME foreign affairs

How Hope for a Kurdish State Vanished Overnight

IS-led militants driven from Mosul Dam
Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces take security precautions against possible ISIS-led attacks around the Mosul Dam on August 19, 2014 in Mosul, Iraq. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Many thought it would be the future of Iraq. Then ISIS came along

Just one month ago, the Chief of Staff to Kurdish President Barzazi and the Kurdish Defense Minister travelled to Washington, D.C., and policy makers wondered if, finally, the time was ripe for an independent state. The Iraqi province of Kurdistan was held up as what Iraq could be: a secure area with a booming economy and a what was thought to be a well-trained army.

After the American-led no fly zone in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991, the Kurds focused on internal economic growth by taking advantage of the vast supply of oil. The Kurdish Regional Government convinced oil companies like ExxonMobil, Total and Gazprom to defy the government in Baghdad and invest in the region by showing them how stable their investment would be–while the rest of Iraq became engulfed in the rising number of IEDs.

A model for regional stability, an independent Kurdistan was the future of Iraq, many (including Vice President Biden) thought.

Then ISIS came.

In June, ISIS took over the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit, and quickly focused their sights on the northeastern Kurdish region. While groups like the Afghan Taliban receive funding through the illicit trade of illegal drugs like heroin, ISIS is much more sophisticated, said Steve Levine, a New America Future Tense Fellow, at a recent panel discussion held at New America. They are doing something that no terrorist group has been able to do so far: gain control of standard resources like wheat fields, oil refineries and dams that power hydroelectric plants. They’re organized, they have a central command and control center, they’re logistically sophisticated and they have democratized violence using social media for their own purposes. All of these things have allowed ISIS to continue their advance and drive at the heart of the Kurdish independent region, that is, oil refineries in the north, and so the bubble has burst on dreams of an independent Kurdistan.

As recently as last week, the Kurdish city of Erbil was attacked in a strong offensive by ISIS, and American diplomats living in the city were in danger. Fearing another Benghazi disaster, which left four American diplomats dead, President Obama ordered the use of targeted airstrikes to slow the advance of ISIS. Bolstered by these airstrikes, the Peshmerga have pushed back ISIS in concentrated areas. But in vast areas without air support, the losses of the Peshmerga have continued. Without proper training and experience, the Peshmerga simply have not performed as expected, said Derek Harvey (Ret.), a Former Senior Analyst for Iraq for General David H. Petraeus. The losses currently being felt by the Peshmerga may be due to the fact that after the Iraqi government pulled out of several towns, and that the Kurds over-extended their territory, extending their borders by almost 40 percent overnight, said Denise Natali, a Senior Research Fellow at the National Defense University.

At the same time that Kurds have been taking these significant territorial losses, the backbone of their economy — their oil industry — evaporated almost overnight. All of the major oil companies in the Kurdish region have left, and the economy has come to a virtual standstill, said Natali. More so, Kurdish tankers that are currently carrying oil have been operating in international legal limbo and sitting just off shore. Unable to dock and unload their cargo, a legal battle has began in American civil courts. To the delight of the government in Baghdad, the State Department has actively called countries and oil traders to discourage the oil from being purchased.

In fact, even if the oil industry was operating as usual, the idea of an economically vibrant Kurdish state was a myth. “The Kurdish economy has been propped up by the government in Baghdad, the United States, and even Iran,” said Natali. “Even if the oil industry is operating at full capacity, they would essentially be a client state of Turkey.”

The advance of ISIS has shown that Kurdistan cannot succeed without a strong Iraq, and vice versa. The U.S. airstrikes that have bolstered the Kurds have been closely coordinated with the government back in Baghdad, and the intelligence shared between the two armies has been essential. As for the Kurdish oil, it can only be exported if Baghdad drops its proprietary claims and allows it to be sold on the international market. Put simply: the fantasy of a Kurdish independent state has evaporated for the time being. But if the Kurds continue to work with the government in Baghdad, there’s a chance that they could prevent ISIS from spreading into Jordan or Lebanon and further destabilizing the region, and, if they’re lucky, they could start to rebuild the region — together.

Justin Lynch is the Social Media Coordinator at the New America Foundation. Emily Schneider is a research associate for the national security program at New America. This piece originally appeared on The Weekly Wonk.

TIME U.S.

Ferguson Pastor: How to Handle a Confrontation With the Police

The Rev. Willis Johnson confronts 18-year-old Joshua Wilson as protesters defy police and block traffic on West Florissant Avenue at Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 13, 2014.
The Rev. Willis Johnson (right) talks to 18-year-old Joshua Wilson as protesters defy police and block traffic on West Florissant Avenue at Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 13, 2014. Sid Hastings—The Washington Post/Getty Images

Within African-American communities and families, “the talk” is too often a cautionary tale

Every parent has had “the talk” at some time or another. All of us, no matter what our socioeconomic situation, race or ethnicity, have sat across from our children and shared with them what to do or how to behave when faced with the sometimes troubling realities of life. There is no script that tells us what to say, where to stand or how to feel. Despite this, as parents know, we try to equip our children for when these inevitable yet unpredictable situations arise.

As a pastor and community leader in Ferguson, Missouri, I have tried to keep protestors out of harm’s way. Within African-American communities and families, “the talk” too often has been a cautionary tale of how to respond to the police – how to navigate the precarious relations between citizens and those who are supposed to protect and serve the community.

Like many young men, when I was beginning to drive, my father sat me down and told me what to do if ever pulled over by the police. I was to present myself respectfully and do whatever was asked of me in order to remove myself from the immediate situation—to get out of harm’s way. He also taught me to be observant, and to get a badge number or an officer’s name if possible so that there would be a means to protect myself should it come to that. Unfortunately, I have had to use my father’s instructions throughout my life. I have been stopped while driving as a teen, as a university student, and just weeks ago.

My own experiences with the police are not much different from that of anyone else. I have been pulled over for just cause. Who hasn’t? But the reality is that you do not have to have done anything wrong to be stopped. Most recently, an officer followed me for about a quarter of a mile before turning on his siren lights. I was stopped for not having two license plates and got off with a warning. But throughout this encounter, I replayed my father’s instructions in my mind.

Anytime I am pulled over, I turn down my music and sit still. I make my hands visible. While I look in the direction of the officer, I rarely make eye contact. I usually have my ID, registration and insurance card ready. But if I don’t, I ask permission to reach into my console before doing so. Through my body language, I try to show deference to the officer. And I will often share that I am a pastor, to try to diffuse the situation. However, even that has the potential to be received as dangerous. A sharp mind can be considered a threat to the police.

Most people think you must have done something in order to be stopped. But that is not always the case. My father’s advice and the advice of many parents is don’t give the police probable cause. Don’t even put yourself in the situation where police can get handcuffs on you because they will put them on as tight as they can. Because if they stop you for anything, they will find something.

The talk my father gave me as a teen was a natural progression of regular talks that began as a small boy. The earliest version of this talk was to simply follow directions. His advice helped shape my encounters with police, and I have drawn on his wisdom in my own conversations with my children, especially my teenage son. And I know it will not be the last conversation I have with either my son or daughter on the subject. This is our reality.

My conversations with my children focus on ways in which they might be able to succeed and thrive in a challenging world, not just on surviving a particular situation. Our talks are about recognizing the dangers lurking around the corner, while also creating a way of being in the world. Above all else, these talks are about my desire to protect my children.

Situations like the one we face in Ferguson are not isolated incidents in our country, or even our world. For so many families across the country, these conversations are a regular occurrence. My role as a pastor and community leader is to not tell people what to think, but to encourage them to ask questions and to use the community as a resource. There is no one-size-fits-all guide. The talk I have with my children will sound different than yours. If you do not know where to begin, seek out faith communities, veteran parents, social workers and teachers in your school system. There are people willing to guide you through this rite of passage.

There is a whole lot of talk going on right now. The shooting of Michael Brown has fueled conversation at the national level. At some point, the cameras and reporters will go home and the headlines about Ferguson will recede. And parents will still sit across from their children and begin “the talk.” As a human being, and as a citizen, pastor and father, I am invested in what that conversation sounds like. I think you should be, too.

A third-generation educator, Dr. F. Willis Johnson is senior minister of the Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri, a predominately African-American intergenerational urban church plant. He was educated at United Theological Seminary in Dayton.

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