TIME Travel

Twitter Laments the Certain ‘Ruin’ of Havana by Tourists

Thanks, Obama

Moments after President Obama announced Wednesday that the U.S. would begin restoring relationships with Cuba, which includes loosening the existing travel ban, the perpetual curmudgeons of the Twitterverse declared Havana in all its exclusive, un-commercialized glory officially over. Don’t even think about going there now, some users griped. And if you do, get there literally right now because hipsters are definitely going to ruin it.

Havana, so it seems, according to Twitter, will soon go the way of Brooklyn and the countless other cities effectively ruined by well-meaning yuppies and fanny-pack-donning tourists, who heard great things about a place from their one cool and/or worldly cousin on Facebook.

Take this as a fair warning. Book your flights now before the Starbucks, J.Crew, and McDonald’s pop up.

Others, however, were a bit more upbeat about the potential for more Americans to experience Cuba firsthand.

MONEY Bill Gross

Here’s the Weirdest Economic Commentary You’ll Read Today

141104_INV_BillGrossWeirdThing
Jim Young—Reuters

Bond guru Bill Gross is famous for his wacky but insightful market analyses, and this one is exemplary -- in both regards.

Janus Capital fund manager Bill Gross—most recently in the news for leaving PIMCO, the bond fund giant he co-founded—today published commentary on the global economy and financial markets in his typically quirky style.

Before turning to some important points on inflation, Gross spends a couple paragraphs waxing Yoda-like about humanity… and how he’s made of sand:

I am a philosophical nomad disguised in Western clothing, a wondering drifter, masquerading in a suit near a California beach. Sand forms the foundation of my being and its porosity is at once my greatest strength and deepest wound. I have become after 70 years, a man who believes that no belief is sacred. I have ideals and moral standards, but I believe them specific to me. Had I inherited your body and ego, “I” could just as clearly have assumed “yours.” If so, I wonder, if values are relative, then what are mortals to make of them, and what would a judging God make of us? If a collective humanity is to be rooted in sandy loam, spreading its ideological seeds through howling winds only to root in mutant form at different places and different times, can we judge an individual life?

Then, against all odds, he steers these elaborate metaphors into a commentary on U.S. fiscal and monetary policy—and it turns out he has some important points to make.

Here are the four of them, roughly translated:

  1. Young people should (and do) fear inflation because it means their retirement portfolios will be cut in half or more.
  2. But these days, deflation is just as dangerous a threat as inflation, because the economy has become dependent on inflation to shrink our debt.
  3. The problem is that the monetary policy approach that would ordinarily prevent deflation—printing more money—is not helping to create true growth. “Prices go up, but not the right prices. Alibaba’s stock goes from $68 on opening day to $92 in the first minute, but wages simply sit there for years on end,” Gross writes.
  4. The solution Gross suggests for making the “right prices” go up is government fiscal stimulus — a surprising policy suggestion from a bond fund manager. But he also points out that government spending is a tough sell, thanks to fears about the very debt that makes us dependent on inflation.

These are some wise insights, despite the strange introduction. Actually, there’s evidence that Gross may be in on the joke when it comes to purple prose, or at least that he’s actively cultivating his reputation as an eccentric genius. In any case, today’s commentary wasn’t necessarily Gross’s strangest. He has in the past mused about his dead cat, Cracker Jacks, crows, and, as in the following passage, sneezing:

There’s nothing like a good sneeze; maybe a hot shower or an ice cream sandwich, but no – nothing else even comes close. A sneeze is, to be candid, sort of half erotic, a release of pressure that feels oh so good either before or just after the Achoo! The air, along with 100,000 germs, comes shooting out of your nose faster than a race car at the Indy 500. It feels sooooo good that people used to sneeze on purpose. They’d use snuff and stick it up their nose; the tobacco high and the resultant nasal explosion being the fashion of the times. Healthier than some of the stuff people stick up their nose these days I suppose, but then that’s a generational thing. My generation is closer to the snuff than that other stuff.

The latter commentary, titled “Achoo!”, goes on for another two paragraphs about sneezing before turning to neutral policy rates.

TIME politics

Which Republican Party?

Even if it captures the Congress, rivalries could hamper the GOP in power

The genesis of the modern republican Party may be found in a phone call placed by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in the closing days of a deadlocked 1960 presidential campaign between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. With time running out, Goldwater advised GOP national chairman Thruston Morton, Nixon should skip the urban East and concentrate instead on swing states Texas and Illinois. His own motives were far from disinterested. “I’d like to win this goddamned election without New York,” Goldwater told Morton. “Then we could tell New York to kiss our ass, and we could really start a conservative party.”

Four years later, Goldwater got the part of his wish that mattered most. Meeting in San Francisco’s Cow Palace–the same hall where, just eight years earlier, Republicans had renominated Dwight Eisenhower by acclamation–GOP delegates rejected Ike’s Modern Republicanism (“a dime-store New Deal,” sniffed Goldwater) for a sagebrush libertarian who would block federal aid to education, repeal the graduated income tax and make Social Security voluntary.

The stage was thus set for the most divisive GOP convention since 1912, which opened fissures replicated half a century later, as a fading Eastern establishment battled Sun Belt conservatives for the soul of the party. On its second night, a post-midnight donnybrook pitted Goldwater loyalists against their nemesis, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller, a modernist in politics as in art, cited the Ku Klux Klan, the American Communist Party and the right-wing John Birch Society as examples of political extremism. As millions of television viewers looked on, he struggled to make himself heard above the booing and catcalls. “You lousy lover,” one woman shouted at Rockefeller, whose recent divorce and remarriage had come to symbolize for traditionalists a popular culture in which judges made war on religion and governors emulated Hollywood adulterers in flouting the marriage code.

What occurred in San Francisco was the excommunication of moderate and liberal elements presaging today’s GOP–more unswervingly conservative than even Goldwater envisioned. External events played their part in the transformation. As the 1950s Cold War consensus began to fray, racial divisions accelerated the breakup of the old New Deal coalition. The party of Lincoln morphed into the party of Strom Thurmond. Rockefeller-style pragmatism generated diminished support among Republicans for whom government had become an object of suspicion.

From Birchers to birthers, it’s not hard to find parallels between fantasists who imagined Eisenhower “a dedicated and conscious agent of the communist conspiracy” and their latter-day heirs disputing Barack Obama’s origins and loyalty. Obama is hardly the first American President to experience such abuse. In the 19th century, opposition to Andrew Jackson and his policies gave rise to the Whig Party. Depression-era Americans christened shantytowns of tin and cardboard Hoovervilles in mock tribute to their embattled President. Bill Clinton was accused of crimes far worse than perjury, while George W. Bush came in for sustained ridicule, and worse, from the left.

Obama, however, occupies a unique historical position. No mere presidential polarizer, nearly six years into his tenure he defines the opposition party more than his own. Neocons and Pat Buchanan isolationists; Appalachian miners and emotionally bruised billionaires; Mother Angelica Catholics and Ayn Rand objectivists–disdain for the President is seemingly all that unites a coalition as fractious as the one Ronald Reagan successfully bonded through his optimism and conviction politics. How will the GOP cope with life after Obama? We don’t have to wait until January 2017 to find out.

From the outset, the story line of this year’s election has been predictable, unlike many of the races. Would Republicans recapture the Senate after two attempts foiled by the base’s preference for ideological purity over electability? And what would a wholly GOP Congress do to hamper or harass the Obama White House in the continuing effort to tarnish his legitimacy or downsize his place in the history books? (Whether this campaign advances Republican chances to regain the Oval Office in 2016 is another matter altogether.) Massive electoral losses at the same juncture of their presidencies hardly reduced the legacies of Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower or Reagan.

The Republican fixation on Obama is just the latest example of a party out of power settling for tactical advantage over the hard work of intellectual renewal. Assume for the moment that at least 51 Republican Senators take the oath of office in January 2015. Will a GOP Senate prefer the ideological red meat served up by Ted Cruz? The war-weary, civil-libertarian message crafted by Rand Paul? Will it follow Mario Rubio through the shifting sands of immigration reform? Will it play to the base, content to remain a congressional party, secure behind its gerrymandered redoubts?

Other Republicans, less incrementalist in their approach, nurture visions of political realignment as sweeping as the Goldwater takeover of 1964. Until last Aug. 5, Justin Amash was the Congressman from Facebook, an obscure Michigan lawmaker and Tea Party favorite noted for his shrewd use of social media to promote a Ron Paul–ish agenda of unquestioning faith in markets, support for a flat tax and opposition to environmental (and virtually all other) regulation. Yet Amash disdains the national-security state no less than the welfare state. Indeed, he may be the National Security Agency’s worst nightmare. Earlier this year he exploited bipartisan anger over NSA snooping to produce a near majority for legislation to rein in the agency from collecting phone and Internet data.

No small feat for a two-term Congressman, the son of Palestinian immigrants, who had his philosophical epiphany reading Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. Then came Aug. 5, and the kind of instant fame–or notoriety–that a lifetime of constituent service fails to produce. Amash handily defeated an Establishment-backed candidate in that day’s Republican primary, but it was his stunningly graceless victory speech that immediately went viral. To his elders it established Amash as the least civil of civil libertarians; to his fellow millennials, on the other hand, such trash talk is confirmation of his authenticity.

Amash’s refusal to honor election-night protocol was inevitably contrasted with the legendary good humor of his most illustrious predecessor from Grand Rapids, Gerald Ford. Yet Ford’s own entry into politics was as an insurgent, taking on an isolationist Republican Congressman who opposed the Marshall Plan and voted the Chicago Tribune line. Later, reeling from Goldwater’s crushing defeat at the hands of Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society, Ford wouldn’t hesitate to challenge his party’s minority leader or demand a more creative response to the question posed with every succeeding generation: What does it mean to be a Republican?

All politics is not local but generational. It was true when 22-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, fresh out of Harvard, ran for the New York State assembly to the horror of his fellow patricians; when 32-year-old Nelson Rockefeller, scion of the nation’s most prominent Republican family, accepted an appointment from FDR to be his Latin American coordinator; when a charismatic young Phoenix businessman named Barry Goldwater, fed up with local corruption, declared his candidacy for the city council; and when Jerry Ford came home from World War II convinced that the U.S. could no longer treat the Atlantic and Pacific as divinely provided moats. None of these agents of change was their grandfather’s Republican.

Is today’s GOP poised for its own break with the past? It’s happened before.

The author of six books of American history, Smith has directed the Lincoln, Hoover, Eisenhower, Ford and Reagan presidential libraries

TIME politics

The Border and Obama

The Week That Was From Latin America Photo Gallery
A young girl from Honduras waits for a northbound freight train to depart in Mexico as she makes her way to the U.S. border Eduardo Verdugo—AP

It's time to stop running away from the nation's troubles

The woman from Honduras was tiny and extremely pregnant. “When are you due?” asked Sister Norma Pimentel, the director of Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley. “Ya,” the woman replied in Spanish: “Already”–she was past due. She had left Honduras to save her daughter, who is 12–peak poaching age for the killer gangs that are wreaking havoc in that country these days. “A man came into our house and tried to kill my girl with a machete,” the woman said. “I stopped him.” She showed Sister Norma her right hand, which was slashed down the middle and had healed crumpled. The man also slashed her daughter’s arm, but they managed to fend him off. The woman paid a coyote to get herself and her daughter across the border as soon as possible.

It seems clear to Sister Norma–and to the hundreds of volunteers who staff her processing center on the grounds of the Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas–that this summer’s tide of Central Americans crossing the border are refugees, not immigrants. They have fled, terrified, from countries that are the Latino equivalent of Syria or Iraq–but in Central America it’s anarchy, not religious fanaticism, they are fleeing, the rampaging of militant drug gangs. The refugees here are a lucky subset: they have verifiable family members in the U.S. The Border Patrol releases them to Sister Norma with bus tickets to the places where their families are living. Catholic Charities then provides a way station, a place to take a breath, take a shower and get a meal, new clothes and a medical exam. The center processes as many as 200 families a day. When a family arrives, the entire staff applauds. No doubt, Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh would be appalled, but when you see the relief and smiles and tears on the faces, which seem far more humble than menacing, you cannot help but be moved.

A woman named Libby Casanova brings her four children to volunteer every day. She is a pathologist in the real world but does intake at the center; she’s the first person the refugees encounter. “Many of them start to cry when they hear the applause,” she says. “They are so grateful.” Casanova brought her children on the first day so they could see that not everyone was as fortunate as they are–and the kids insisted on coming back and volunteering every day. “This place is making the entire community stronger,” Sister Norma says. And there is an infectious spiritual joy in the air. As Sister Norma says, “Jesus did not say, ‘I was hungry and you asked for my papers.’ “

Barack Obama should see the Catholic Charities mission in McAllen. He should also have a town meeting with the Tea Party nativists who are so angry and threatened by the rush of refugees–43,933 unaccompanied children alone since October–who began to appear from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. His job, after all, is to rise above the rancor and, well, lead. You don’t do this by making a speech to a favored audience. You do it by taking action, setting a personal example. All sorts of Protestant congregations are sending volunteers to Sacred Heart–perhaps he could encourage a Tea Party group to do the same. The President has gone to the scene of other human tragedies. He has acknowledged the suffering personally in the past. But not now, and you have to wonder why.

True political courage is near extinct. I saw the real thing for the first time on the night of April 4, 1968, when riots broke out across the country after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Senator Robert Kennedy decided to go into the heart of the Indianapolis ghetto–he was running for President at the time–and talk to the people. His aides and the local police pleaded with him not to do it. He was putting his life in danger, but he believed he had a responsibility to show up. He spoke for only five minutes, without a text–you can watch it on YouTube–and he calmed the crowd by quoting Aeschylus about the experience of excruciating pain that leads to deeper wisdom. Indianapolis was one of the few major cities that remained quiet that night.

Nowadays politicians are swaddled by their media consultants, who determine whether it is “safe” to be “courageous.” But acts of courage don’t come with a money-back guarantee. They are courageous because they’re potentially dangerous or, more likely, embarrassing. Courage’s reward comes subtly, in the form of trust as the public learns that a politician is willing to take risks to tell the truth. Obama is currently wandering about the country, trying to meet average people, but the choreography is more stringent than the Bolshoi’s. He said he didn’t want to go to the border because it would only be a “photo op” … on the same day his office published a photo of the President and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper shooting pool. Who choreographed that?

There is a “teachable moment” available on the border, where there doesn’t seem to be much chaos these days. There have been fewer people in general coming across in recent years, but there is a specific “Other Than Mexican” (OTM in Border Patrol lingo) humanitarian crisis. The President could even take the opportunity to call a Central American summit to organize a peacemaking force for Honduras, which has become a regional security threat. Indeed, he could host it in Laredo. It is one thing to oppose intervention halfway across the world, in cultures thoroughly alien to our own; it is quite another to work with our neighbors to deal with a humanitarian disaster that is spilling across all our borders. This is one “foreign policy” issue that the public really cares about.

These are precisely the sort of things that Obama doesn’t seem to do anymore. There has been a skein of stories indicating he’s thrown in the towel. He’s so tired of head-banging with Republicans that he has taken refuge in late-night dinners with celebrities and intellectuals. Robert Kennedy did a lot of that too. But Kennedy never gave the impression that politics was distasteful, beneath him, as Obama too frequently does. Kennedy was all about passion; Obama seems all about decorum. He needs to go to the border–on a lot of issues. If he’s going to accomplish anything in the last two years of his presidency, he’s going to have to change his style, which will be near impossible for a man as entrenched behind his flacks-in-jackets as the President is. He’s right about photo ops. Enough already. But there are other “ops”–study ops, passion ops, conversation ops. He needs to do something dramatic to win back the country.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/politics

TIME commentary

The Big Bang Did NOT Occur 50 Years Ago

The Big Bang: Just to be clear, this did not happen in 1964
The Big Bang: Just to be clear, this did not happen in 1964 LAGUNA DESIGN; Getty Images/Brand X

Human beings are a very small part of a very big universe. Figuring some of that universe out is to our credit—but let's not overstate the things we've accomplished.

If you’re over 50, you probably remember the Big Bang—indeed, it would be hard to forget it. One moment you’re part of an infinitely tiny, infinitely dense point that contains the entirety of the universe, and the next moment you’re accelerating outward faster than the speed of light, expanding along with space-time itself. That’s a remember-when day if ever there was one.

You might argue that the Big Bang occurred a bit earlier than 50 years ago—13.8 billion years earlier, in fact—and most people might agree with you. What actually happened 50 years ago was that Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Labs made measurements of the cosmic background radiation that provided the first solid evidence of the Big Bang’s existence. Still, that didn’t stop Bell Labs itself from noting the event with a recent e-mail blast inviting recipients to “Celebrate the 50th Anniv. of the Big Bang.” In light of a just-released AP poll showing that a stunning 51% of Americans say they are “not at all confident” or “not too confident” that the Big Bang even occurred, the last thing we need is more confusion on the point.

OK, it’s not entirely fair to pick on Bell Labs. The mere fact that whoever composed the message felt a need to abbreviate the word “anniversary” reflects how hard it is to get anyone to open an e-mail message today unless the subject line is short and semaphores excitement. Still the e-mail does, even indirectly, speak to a certain anthropocentrism in the way we think about science and the entire enterprise of discovery. It’s not the event or the phenomenon itself that counts, it’s the fact that we—a clever if sublimely narcissistic species—at last stumbled onto it.

Geneticists have been guilty of this for a while now, talking about having “discovered” the genes for this or that trait, even though the genes were there all the time and the only things that changed was that we finally looked for them. Some researchers are self-correcting—preferring to talk about “pinpointing” or “identifying” genes—but others still opt for the Christopher Columbus phrasing, if only because it makes their work sound more dramatic.

Columbus himself came in for similar revisionist thinking since, like the genes, the New World was there all along. And of course, if anyone did any discovering, it was the indigenous people who had lived there for thousands of years before the Europeans even hoisted anchor and ventured out.

Explorers have always gotten the hyperbole treatment. Ever since the mid-20th century we’ve been talking about the “conquest of space,” despite the fact that with the exception of nine trips to our nearby Moon, we’ve never gotten out of low Earth orbit. Calling that the conquest of space is a little like paddling around in Boston Harbor and saying you’ve conquered the oceans.

We do something similar with heroic accounts of “taming the continent,” something of an overstatement given that multiple centuries worth of droughts, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, dust bowls, forest fires and more have shown that the continent has retained its feral ability to bite back. We even overstate our talent for causing wholesale destruction—something you’d think we wouldn’t want to boast about. Environmentalists themselves have long warned that there’s a misplaced egotism in feel-good slogans about “saving the Earth.” The Earth will be perfectly fine, thank you very much. It’s survived multiple glaciations, asteroid hits and more in its long life and it will surely survive us, even if we temporarily toxify the place so much that the very species that created the mess—us—can’t live here anymore.

In the case of the Big Bang, it’s understandable to play up, even inadvertently, a graspable time frame like 50 years ago as opposed to a far less fathomable 13.8 billion. My colleague Michael Lemonick once playfully considered opening a story in TIME with the line, “Twelve million years ago last week a supernova exploded.” The then-science editor prudently nixed the idea—too great a risk of real misinformation leaking into the popular conversation. But the idea did speak to the way we all wrestle with the tininess of the time scales on which we live our lives compared to the vastness of the cosmic clock.

Human beings are undeniably an ingenious species. The things we’ve built, created and sussed out are genuinely remarkable. But they’re pinholes in the curtain compared to all there is to know. There’s no harm in being proud that we’re allowing some light in—just not too proud.

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