Behind the Headline: The UK votes to leave the EU

Brexit image from The Millennium Report

The vote is in: 51.9% of British voters approved leaving the European Union, a vote that has shocked the world and shaken the world’s economy. Already, the value of the pound sterling has fallen, there is talk of thousands of people in the UK losing jobs, and doomsayers predict the European Union falling apart as others decide to follow Britain’s path. In the run-up to the vote, most economic experts, big businesses, and politicians from around the world urged British voters to stay in the EU, with the most notable exception being U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. In response to the news, British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced his resignation, saying he will leave office in October.

So what, exactly, happened here? What happens now? And how will it affect you? It’s time once again to go Behind the Headline.

What is the European Union, and why was Britain a member?

I’ve talked about the European Union on Cat Flag before, so I’ll be brief: The European Union is a unique political entity covering 28 European countries that functions in some ways like an international organization made up of sovereign nations (members have their own militaries, embassies, passports, seats at the United Nations, and Olympic teams), and in other ways like a national government whose members are federal states (the European Union can pass laws that can override the laws of its own members, citizens of its members are also citizens of the EU, and people and goods can pass freely across its members’ borders with each other while the EU controls immigration and trade with the outside world). Many, but not all, EU members have agreed to use the euro as their common currency and to eliminate all border checkpoints between each other so people can cross from country to country the same way Americans can drive or fly from state to state.

The European Union evolved gradually over the decades into its modern form, originating in post-WWII trade and economic treaties that were designed to try to make a third devastating war in Europe impossible. It wasn’t even called “The European Union” until the 1990s; prior to that, it had been called the “European Communities”. Two simultaneous trends shaped the organization at this time – first, members gave the Union more and more power, and second, the Union admitted more and more members.

It was in this context that the United Kingdom joined in 1973, at a time when the European Communities were still a primarily economic and trade union that looked very different from today’s EU. It was primarily for economic reasons that the British joined; they were struggling economically, and hoped free trade with Europe could provide a big boost. This fact has long played a huge role in Britain’s relationship to the EU. To the British, EU membership was always about what was in it for them, and they never fully committed to complete integration into Europe as other members had. The British refused to adopt the euro, refused to throw open their borders to the same extreme degree as the rest of the Union, and repeatedly got into fights with the EU leadership and other EU members over the EU’s powers. Public approval of the EU has consistently been lower in the UK than most other member countries.

Still, there have always been pro-EU voices in Britain as well. While the vote to leave was close overall, 62% of Scottish voters had cast their ballots in favor of keeping the UK in the EU. British farmers have long been dependent on agricultural subsidies from the EU, and poverty-stricken parts of the UK such as Cornwall have been receiving economic investments from the EU for years. More than a million British citizens live, work, or own property in Europe. The most popular personality on YouTube, Felix Kjellberg, a.k.a. PewDiePie, is a Swedish national who lives in the UK and is able to do so because of the EU’s freedom-of-movement laws. The “Brexit”, as the British voters’ decision to leave has been called in the media, has put all of this in possible jeopardy. Already, many British voices are calling for a do-over because of these facts.

Why did the UK vote to leave?

That’s an easy question to ask, but a hard one to answer. The most common answer the political analysts seem to turn to is immigration. Even though the British had managed to get opt-outs of some of the EU’s open-border policies, at the end of the day, while it remained a part of the EU the British government had to give up control of its immigration policy to the Union’s decision-makers in Brussels. Furthermore, any person who was an EU citizen could freely visit and move to the British Isles. Thanks to the UK’s welfare laws, once somebody got in the UK, he or she could count on government-subsidized housing, taxpayer-funded health care, and government aid to pay for living expenses. Immigration has been a perennial issue in British politics for decades, with some arguing that the British Isles just aren’t big enough and don’t have enough jobs or resources to support too many immigrants, and some of the more extreme anti-immigration voices have been accused by critics of being racist or xenophobic. When you consider the haphazard way the European Union responded to the Syrian refugee crisis, it comes as no surprise that British voters may have felt the UK would be better off deciding for itself what its immigration policy is.

On the other hand, the European Union was in a crisis long before there was any talk of Syrian refugees in the news. Remember when the European Union faced a massive economic emergency in the wake of the Greek debt crisis? Or how Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland, and Cyprus also faced financial crises of their own at the same time? The economies of many of those countries are still weak, with unemployment reaching 24% in Greece, 20% in Spain, and 15% in Croatia as of February. Since EU members are required to send part of their tax revenue to the European Union, and 30% of the EU’s budget is spent on those regions that have lower incomes and weaker economies, British taxpayers have effectively been seeing their pounds spent on these other countries over the years.

Then there’s this analysis in the New Yorker, which looks at the demographic breakdowns of British voters who cast ballots for “Leave the EU” or “Remain in the EU”, and finds that the “Remain” voters tended to be well-educated, young, and well-off while working-class voters generally tended to vote “Leave”. The author of that piece suspects that working-class anger at Britain’s politicians, who have long been known to be more pro-EU than the general British public, helped tip the scales. I admit, though, that I am not an expert on British politics, so make of that as you will.

Is the UK the first country to leave the EU?

No.

In 1982, Greenland, a large arctic island with a population of just over 55,000 living under Danish rule just northeast of Canada, voted to leave the federation, largely due to the island’s inhabitants wanting control of Greenland’s fishing regulations rather than being forced to abide by Brussels’s fishing rules. In 1985, the Greenland Treaty formally ended the island’s membership, and since then the island has been largely self-governing. As Denmark is still part of the EU, Greenlanders are EU citizens, but EU law does not apply there.

So what happens now?

Exit sign image by Alton

In 2009, the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force, and one of the things that it did was create a mechanism by which members could leave. First, a member country would submit some sort of notification to the EU that it intended to leave, and then the EU would negotiate an agreement with that country on what the future relationship of that country to the EU would be after it leaves. For example, a country might want to leave the EU but still have free trade with it, still have a working relationship with it on military matters and security policy, and so on.

There is a two-year deadline from the date of notification to reach an agreement, unless the EU and the country in question should agree to extend that deadline. If no agreement is reached, the country’s membership just up and terminates on the deadline date, and the EU treats the country just like any other foreign country. A country that leaves the EU can rejoin later, but would not receive any special treatment in its application.

In response to the vote, British Prime Minister David Cameron had initially said he would leave it to his successor to formally notify the EU, thus delaying the withdrawal process. The idea behind this would be to give Britain more time to negotiate an exit that would allow the UK to retain access to trade with Europe. However, EU leaders have told the British government to start the process right away and not delay, going so far as to say that “notification” need not be a formal written document; as one official told Reuters, “He can just say it.”

Why so hasty? Well, the United Kingdom, a country that is home to more than 65 million people as well as one of the world’s most important financial centers, has a much bigger impact on the EU than Greenland. People are already speculating in the media about which country might be tempted to leave next, and there are a number of upcoming national elections in several EU members that are facing political shake-ups in the wake of the euro crisis and Syrian refugee crisis. Better to rip the band-aid off quickly, the thinking goes, so the economy and diplomatic relations can re-stabilize and find a “new normal”. If the exit process is delayed too much, it could make things even shakier for far longer.

How does this affect me?

Obviously, if there’s one thing markets don’t like, it’s uncertainty. We’re already starting to feel the economic shocks from the vote, but I expect that will probably stabilize once we have a clearer picture of what is going to happen in the coming years between Britain and Europe. Still, not great news for anybody’s 401(k) plans.

Obviously, the vote also complicates diplomatic relations between the UK and the United States, and likely will for some time, though I doubt our two countries’ long-standing alliance will be diminished. We are both members of NATO, after all.

But what about you, dear Cat Flagger, sitting here reading this? Well, it looks like a vacation to the British Isles just got cheaper, as a weaker pound makes it easier for Americans to afford British prices. This article from BBC News lists several more ways Americans will be directly affected by the Brexit, from the possibility that British investors might want to get into the American real estate market to the strong likelihood that popular TV shows made in Britain such as Doctor Who and Game of Thrones will take a huge hit in the wallet.

In the longer term, I expect international travel in Europe to become more complicated. Anyone travelling from Britain to anywhere else in Europe, or vice-versa, will likely have to abide by new rules and controls, and may even need to get visas. If other countries follow Britain’s lead, that’s even more border controls that weren’t there before a traveler would have to deal with. Trade will also likely be affected in the long-term, as the United States had been in the middle of negotiating a huge trade agreement with the EU that now looks like it may not happen. Expect the cost of goods imported from Europe to go up if the companies that ship them over here have to pay more in tariffs.

For now, we can only wait and see, as it will likely be a while – possibly months – before we get a clearer picture of what a post-Brexit Europe will look like. However, I am optimistic that once we have started to get that clearer picture, things will start to improve. I believe that people are adaptable, and are very good at finding the right path once they know what map it is they are looking at.

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Behind the Headline: America’s Never-Ending Presidential Elections

2012 Election map by Gage Skidmore

2012 Election map by Gage Skidmore

It’s presidential election season here in the good old U.S. of A. Already, 23 candidates have thrown their hat into the ring to run for the most powerful position in America. We’ve already had the first presidential debate, the statisticians are hard at work taking opinion polls of American voters and publishing their results, and the candidates have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to fund their campaigns.

Did I mention the election isn’t until November of 2016?

The United States has – by far – the LONGEST election cycle of all the world’s democracies. Most countries’ campaigns for office begin and end over a matter of weeks or months. Canada is currently in the middle of its longest election cycle ever – 78 days. Germany’s longest election cycle was 114 days. In the United Kingdom, people complained last year about a “long campaign” that lasted 139 days. Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) announced his candidacy for the White House 596 days before the election will actually take place.

To put that in perspective, a baby conceived today will not only have already been born, but will be nearly six months old when Election Day arrives. So, why are our elections here in the United States just so darn long? Especially when you consider:

It seems on the surface like long elections are bad for candidates, as it means they have to spend more time and money campaigning to capture a smaller voter base. However, it turns out that there are several contributing factors to America’s ridiculously long campaigns, each one pushing for longer and longer campaigns and making it hard to reverse the trend.

Factor #1: Primaries

Ballot box image from the Smithsonian Institution

Much like the madness of Black Friday, the overly-long U.S. presidential campaign cycle came on gradually, over time. George Washington didn’t even have to run for president at all, he was just sort of proclaimed president by unanimous consent (the only president to have that distinction). Later, when political parties started to become a thing, party leaders would get together at a national convention and decide who their candidate would be in the big contest. Often, this involved shady backroom deals, especially as late 19th-century American politics became dominated by ruthless political machines that bought votes and put forth candidates they could control. To counteract this, reformers began pushing for political parties in the United States to instead choose their candidates through primary elections, a sort of pre-election election to choose who would run for office in the final contest in November.

Today, both the Democrats and Republicans choose their presidential candidate through a system of primaries held on a state-by-state basis. Instead of every Republican and Democrat in America voting all at once, each state decides for itself when it will hold its primary. This can be a problem for states that vote late in the game, since it means that by the time their voters get a say in which candidate they want, it is entirely possible (even likely) that one candidate will already have won enough support to move on to the November prize. This gives each state an incentive to move its primary as early as possible, to vote ahead of everybody else. Iowa and New Hampshire have even written it into their laws that their primaries are held before anybody else’s. This has pushed the primaries earlier and earlier every year; in 2012, Iowans voted on January 3!

Both the Democrats and Republicans decided that from 2016 onward, most states would be barred from holding the primaries before March. However, exceptions were granted for four states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Why them? Because… um… reasons. (No, really – in an interview with Fox News, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee explained the exception by saying “It is years and years and years of history, and that’s a debate, too. It is what it is.”)

Factor #2: First mover advantage

Early bird image by OpenClipartVectors

In 1960, John F. Kennedy shocked Americans by announcing he was running for president in January. This gave him media attention, and soon he had an advantage over his rivals when it came time for the primaries, since his name was already on everyone’s lips. The message was clear: announce early, get your name out there, get attention. In 1991, Bill Clinton announced his candidacy in October, just over a year before the 1992 election. In 1999, George W. Bush announced his own candidacy in June.

Again, this trend of announcing earlier and earlier is a gradual thing that snuck up on us over time. It simply behooves candidates to get their names out there as early as possible to build momentum, garner attention, and put your name in voter’s minds as they have to wade through the list of candidates on primary election day. The 2016 election may be more than a year away, but considering how many candidates have already announced that they are running, anybody who tries to enter the contest now would have no chance of winning, since they would be at a disadvantage in fundraising, gaining media attention, and building a support base.

Factor #3: The media

News image by Gerd Altmann

This brings us to the final factor pushing us to the never-ending campaign: the news. For years, news coverage of election-related headlines has come earlier and earlier. Speculation and horse-race polling get views and clicks, and as we’ve covered before, this is what the advertisers who keep the lights on are looking for. Besides, if candidates are making announcements, giving speeches, and holding debates, that is newsworthy stuff. What, is the news media not supposed to cover that? Of course they will.

Still, political pundits and analysts build their careers upon talking about who is probably or possibly going to make what move and why. Did you know that news sites were talking about the 2016 election before the results of the 2012 election had even been counted? This article from the USA Today discusses the chances of Vice-President Joe Biden running for president in 2016 – on Election Day in 2012! This article from Salon talks about a gambling firm’s predicted odds of various possible candidates running for office in 2016 – two days before the 2012 ballots were even cast! This means that the news media has been talking about next year’s election continuously for the past three years!

Sheesh! Under that kind of media pressure, is it any wonder candidates want to announce early?

Thus, it seems, we are stuck with election cycles that run nearly two years for the foreseeable future, unless and until these trends start to reverse. I guess we’re all simply going to have to put up with it for a long, long while.

Behind the Headline: California’s Record Drought

Lake Oroville as it appeared in 2011 - before the drought -  and in 2014. (2011 image by Paul Hames, 2014 image by Justin Sullican, both for Getty Images)

Lake Oroville as it appeared in 2011 – before the drought – and in 2014. (2011 image by Paul Hames, 2014 image by Justin Sullican, both for Getty Images)

Today it rained on California’s Central Coast. In San Luis Obispo, I was holed up in a library while there was a heavy downpour at about 10:00 in the morning. To us Californians, any rain of any kind is an answer to prayer right now, as our state is currently suffering from what is being called the worst drought in recorded history.

Already, Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered the state’s first ever mandatory cuts to water usage with the aim of reducing California’s water usage by 25%. The measures he enacted include:

  • Replacing water-hungry grass lawns with more drought-tolerant landscaping options across California, through local government programs encouraging residents to make the switch-over.
  • Requiring cut-backs on water use at colleges and universities, golf courses, cemeteries, and public roads. The little decorative grassy bits in the concrete meridians of some roads? Those will not get any more water at all.
  • Creating a rebate program for people to trade in old appliances for new, more water-efficient models.
  • Restricting water usage at newly-built residential neighborhoods, such as requiring the use of drip irrigation systems, and cracking down on anyone living in established residential areas who are in violation of rules regarding sinks, toilets, and landscaping.
  • Providing assistance for families that need to relocate from areas that have run out of water completely, such as might happen if an area dependent on well-water runs dry.

Further details of how the plan will work are to be announced by the State Water Resources Control Board at some point this week. Already, there are criticisms of the current water conservation plan. This editorial suggests that instead of laying down the hammer on water use, the state could make it more expensive to use too much water with higher taxes. Still others say the restrictions don’t go far enough, arguing that the state’s 26 million acres of farmland should be forced to restrict their water use, too.

Why is this happening? How is it going to affect you? It’s time once again to go Behind the Headline.

So, is this California’s worst drought ever?

California Drought Map by the United States government

No.

This is the worst drought in California’s recorded history, and that’s an important caveat to keep in mind. Of all the indigenous civilizations that existed in California prior to European contact, none of them developed a system of writing, so the oldest historical records we have about the state were written by the Spanish in the 18th century.

Thanks to the hard work of archaeologists and paleontologists who have studied tree rings and other evidence, we now know that there have been far worse droughts in California’s history. They have learned that California has experienced a number of “megadroughts” that have lasted as long as 10-20 years. In 850 A.D., a drought began that lasted 240 years, and in 1140 A.D., another drought struck that lasted 180 years!

Even within recorded history, California has had worse droughts if all you are going by is annual rainfall. A 30-year drought, lasting roughly from 1910 to 1940, saw many years of very low rainfall, including the driest on record so far, 1924, when the entire state saw only 9.23 inches of precipitation.

What makes the current drought so bad isn’t the weather, it’s the people. When those ancient megadroughts hit the state, the only people in California were societies that survived on hunting and gathering. There were 2.3 million Californians in 1910, and there were 6.9 million in 1940. Today, there are nearly 39 million of us, according to the U.S. Census Bureau! That’s 12% of the entire population of the United States.

That’s 39 million people drawing on the same water supply, and that means when a drought hits, that water supply is depleted very quickly. Hence, we are seeing proposals for more desalinization plants that would extract drinkable water from the vast Pacific Ocean right off our coast. Desalinization is an expensive option, but if this drought lasts as long as some of the droughts in California’s history, it might end up as an option many coastal communities pursue.

So California just needs more rain?

Rain alone is not enough to break this drought. What California needs is SNOW.

You're... joking, right? Right?

You’re… joking, right? Right?

I know, California is known for year-round sunshine, beaches, and not having a true winter, but up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, feet of snow can accumulate. These mountains hold the national record for most snow in one month (390 inches, or 32.5 feet) and greatest snow depth recorded (451 inches, or 37.6 feet), as well as second-most snowfall in a single day (67 inches, or 5.6 feet). As winter turns to spring, all of that mountain snow will melt and feed the state’s rivers and lakes.

That’s why it’s so significant that California’s snowfall this year was only 6% of what we normally get. That is the biggest cause of the drought, and the biggest reason all of the state’s lakes and rivers are drying up.

Well, at least this is as bad as it gets, right?

I hate to be a pessimist, but this actually could get worse, at least according to this article from National Geographic. To quench California’s mighty thirst, the state is drawing more and more of its water from underground pockets of water called “aquifers” that emerge in gravelly and sandy soil. Aquifers close to the surface get replenished with runoff from lakes and streams, but the deeper you dig for water, the less likely that the water you pump going to be replaced. Some of the deepest aquifers can’t be refilled at all, so when that water runs out, it’s gone forever.

Yet, in response to the drought, groundwater from these aquifers now makes up 60% of the water Californians are consuming. There are almost no restrictions in California law on sucking up this water and selling it. Not only that, but as the water is used up, the ground above it sinks, since there is less mass supporting it. All of this has the potential to radically reshape California’s landscape, both in the figurative sense of people abandoning areas dependent on dried-up aquifers, and in the literal sense of sinking land.

I don’t live in California. Why should I care?

One word: Agriculture.

Tractor image by Thomas McSparron

Did you eat a salad today? Odds are pretty strong that the lettuce you ate came from California. The cheese on your pizza could easily have come from a California dairy. California olives, grapes, and citrus are eaten nationwide, and we produce 90% of all American wines. California is the second-largest rice-growing state in the U.S., and exports a third of its crop to Japan. Yes, you read that right, California supplies rice to Japan.

Agriculture is responsible for 80% of California’s water consumption. That means California’s water crisis could easily lead to higher prices on your groceries. As the water supply dwindles, it gets more expensive, and farmers have to raise their prices. Even worse, many farms will simply get so water-starved that they have to shut down, reducing the supply of many crops and making the remaining farms’ crops more expensive because global demand for food won’t have changed. Already, some California rice farms are closing. As the drought wears on, the price you pay at the grocery store for your food will get higher and higher.

What can I do about this?

If you live in California, you can visit this website with more than 100 tips and tricks to saving water. You can find even more tips here. The less water we all use, the longer the water supply we have will last us.

For those of you not in California, it couldn’t hurt to write your local representatives in Congress and ask what they plan to do about the water crisis. Even if all you do is keep us in your prayers, we would very much appreciate it.

Behind the Headline: Black Friday Comes Early

Mall picture by Skeezix1000

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a day for celebrating one’s blessings and one’s family. Most Americans, myself included, will be working in the kitchen to make a turkey dinner, then sitting down to share the meal with loved ones, laughing in each other’s company. Some might also spend some time watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or maybe some football.

Yet thousands of employees at retail outlets across America will have to gobble down their turkey and then head straight to work. Best Buy, Big Lots, J.C. Penney, Kmart, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Sears, and Toys ‘R’ Us are just a few of the retail chains that will be opening Thanksgiving evening with Black Friday sales offered to their customers a day early. Many of those customers will be spending the holiday camped out in front of the store for hours on end, waiting for it to open so they can get their hands on those Black Friday bargains.

Over the years, Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the “official” start of the Christmas shopping season, has gradually become a bigger and bigger event for retailers. People will line up for hours before the store opens, and then rush in as soon as the doors open to grab whatever they can find for their Christmas shopping list.

That sentence may have sounded like a metaphorical exaggeration, but as this video shows, it is quite literal. Every year, there are reports of violence at retailers during Black Friday sales as shoppers stampede into the stores and fight over products. According to the morbid blackfridaydeathcount.com, there have been 7 deaths and 90 injuries resulting from chaos in the aisles as of 2013. My grandmother and aunt went to a Black Friday sale once. They saw people running through the store just grabbing things without even looking at what they had grabbed. After a woman with a cane started beating people up over an Xbox, my grandmother and aunt both decided to stay away from the stores on that day from now on.

Yet Black Friday only continues to grow stronger. In the past three years, retailers in the United kingdom have taken up the practice, even though they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving there! Businesses have started up offering to hold your place in line for you as you wait for the store to open. This is all on top of the decision by many retailers to, as the San Francisco Chronicle put it, turn Thanksgiving into “Black Thursday”.

Many people are unhappy about this trend. Some have started a trend on social media sites calling for people to “Boycott Black Thursday”. Those retailers that will stay closed on Thanksgiving, such as Barnes & Noble, Costco, GameStop, and Nordstrom, are spinning this fact to showcase how they respect their employees and their families.

Where did Black Friday come from? Why are so many retailers supporting it and helping it grow? What will become of Thanksgiving? It’s time to go Behind the Headline.

How did Black Friday get its start?

Black Friday logo from Purple Slog

Very, very gradually. The tradition of giving gifts on Christmas inherently turns the holiday into a major boon for retailers, who can usually rely on the “Spirit of the Season” to boost sales. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, retailers began to sponsor parades in major cities (such as the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade), proclaiming that the “official” start of the Christmas shopping season began when the parade ended, usually with Santa Claus reaching a main square. There was a sort of unwritten gentleman’s agreement between these stores that they would wait until after Thanksgiving to begin advertising Christmas sales.

My mother used to work at Macy’s before I was born. She remembered that as the store prepared to close the night before Thanksgiving, a special crew would come in and start pulling out the Christmas decorations. The idea was that when shoppers came in the day after Thanksgiving, the store would be bright and shiny with trees, lights, and ornaments. To put out Christmas decorations any earlier would be seen as unthinkable and quite tacky.

However, the fact of the matter is that Christmas is so important to many retailers that confining it to a single month was bothersome. Plus, there are plenty of people (myself included) who like to start Christmas shopping a bit early. As early as 1939, retailers schemed with then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt to try to add a week to the holiday shopping season by moving Thanksgiving a week earlier. The public was not amused, and Thanksgiving was moved back in 1941. Still, in the mid-1970s the gentlemen’s agreement started to be broken, as more and more retailers started a practice known as “Christmas Creep”, putting up their Christmas decorations and advertising Christmas sales earlier and earlier, until today some businesses count the holiday season as starting on September 30!

The advantage of Christmas Creep to retailers is that it not only takes advantage of early-bird shoppers, it also allows them to start advertising their Day-After-Thanksgiving-Sales early. This means more people show up to buy gifts on that day. Stores encouraged this with so-called “Doorbuster” sales, a term coined in 1949 by J.C. Penney. These sales are classic “loss-leaders”, the store marks it down so low that it actually loses money on the sale, but once the customer is in the store he or she decides, “Well, while I’m here, let me get this other thing I need. Ooh! And this is a nifty item! My niece will love that! Hey, what’s this?”

Of course, the term “Doorbuster” was just meant as a clever marketing term, but in 2008 that’s literally what happened at a Wal-Mart in Vallet Stream, N.Y. Five minutes before opening, the massive crowd gathered at the front entrance smashed in the front door and stampeded into the store, trampling an employee to death.

So it’s called “Black Friday” because of the violence, then?

Nope. It’s because of traffic.

Traffic image by Gemma Longman

In the 1960s, Philadelphia police coined the term for the day after Thanksgiving because of all the traffic jams that held up the city on that day. There would be so many people on the road shopping for Christmas gifts and then going to see the Army-Navy football game that police would have to pull all-hands-on-deck overtime duty directing traffic. By 1975, the term was starting to spread outside the city. Retailers started putting a positive spin on it, thinking of the “Black” in Black Friday as referring to being “in the black”, i.e. making a profit.

As far as I can tell from my research, the violence and rioting associated with Black Friday is a very recent phenomena. As far as I can tell, the earliest reports I found in my research of Black Friday violence occurred in 2006, with a stampede at a mall in southern California that injured 10 people. Since then, it’s gotten so bad that the U.S. government has created guidelines for ensuring employee safety on the day.

If Black Friday is so dangerous, why don’t retailers abandon the practice?

It's all about the Benjamins, Baby!

It’s all about the Benjamins, Baby!

It turns out that while Black Friday is not the biggest source of revenue for stores in the year (that would be the week right before Christmas, because procrastination), it is the day of the year when they are most able to take advantage of their customers and squeeze the most out of them. Many of the “spectacular bargains” are actually being sold to you at the price the store normally sells it; they just raised the official full-ticket price to an unholy sum right before the sale. Besides, all those people who just race through and grab things without looking are sure to have snatched more than a few overpriced goods in their loot.

Having said that, this report from CNN reveals that pushing Black Friday up to Thanksgiving actually doesn’t give stores a sales boost at all. So why are they doing it? Because of their competition – “My rival is opening at 6 P.M. on Thanksgiving. If I don’t also do the same, all my Black Friday customers will go to his store instead.”

In other words, for many retailers, the risks of rioting and violence as well as the public backlash from opening on Thanksgiving might well be worth it.

Maybe not for long, though.

How do we stop this madness?

Two words: Stay home.

This year, many retailers are offering so-called “Black Friday” discounts and sales early if you shop online. Amazon, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Lowe’s, Toys ‘R’ Us and Overstock are just a few of the businesses offering their online shoppers Black Friday prices without having to visit the store. Plus, every year since 2005, retailers have also offered deals on “Cyber Monday”, the Monday after Thanksgiving. Last year, retailers offering Cyber Monday sales made more than $2 billion!

Businesses do what makes money. That is the nature of capitalism. If retailers see that online sales like these are making more money than their in-store bedlams, they will start to focus more of their attention on the online sales. So, you can choose to spend your Thanksgiving standing in line waiting for the doors to open, then pushing and shoving your way through a cramped sea of bodies to violently assault the store shelves and risk getting beat up over a Blu-ray player, or you can enjoy your Thanksgiving and buy those Christmas gifts online. I know which one I’ll be doing.

Behind the Headline: Who are Isis?

Militants from the radical Islamic group known as "Isis" have carved out a dominion for themselves in Syria and Iraq. Image from Reuters.

Militants from the radical Islamic group known as “Isis” have carved out a dominion for themselves in Syria and Iraq. Image from Reuters.

Fighters from a radical militant group known as “Isis” (short for “The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”) claim to have overrun a large military base near Raqqa, Syria, though these reports could not be independently verified at press time. Meanwhile, a video has emerged showing Isis demolishing a sacred shrine in the Iraqi city of Mosul. For the past two months, this jihadist movement has refused to leave the headlines, appearing seemingly out of nowhere and seizing control of huge chunks of Syria and Iraq, setting up a government for these territories they now rule, kicking out Christians, and declaring their leader to be the new caliph, or successor to the Prophet Muhammad.

Who are these people that the U.S. State Department is calling “worse than Al Qaeda”? Where did they come from, and why are they doing this? It’s time once again to go behind the headline.

Who are Isis, and where did they come from?

Map of the areas under ISIS control by Doug Mataconis

Map of the areas under ISIS control by Doug Mataconis

The story behind Isis begins with the U.S. invasion of Iraq back in 2003. In the chaotic period following Saddam Hussein’s fall, the Jordanian-born terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zaraqi moved in and began a campaign to oppose the U.S. military occupation. After al-Zaraqi swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden, his terrorist network became known in Western media as “Al Qaeda in Iraq”. For years, their suicide bombings and other attacks killed hundreds and frustrated attempts to stabilize the country. However, they started suffering a number of major setbacks. Al-Zaraqi was killed by a U.S. bomb in 2006, and not long thereafter Sunni Muslim tribal leaders in those parts of Iraq where they were operating started to turn on them. By 2008, Al Qaeda in Iraq was struggling for survival.

They started to regain some of their strength as U.S, forces withdrew from Iraq, but the event that really got them back on their feet was the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. The movement’s new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, decided to get involved in the new conflict across the border, and announced the merger between his movement and the Al-Nusra Front, a jihadist movement fighting both the dictatorship of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and more moderate, pro-democracy, Western-backed rebels. It was at this time that the movement changed its name to “Isis”, reflecting that it was operating in Syria as well as Iraq.

The alliance with the Al-Nusra front was short-lived; the two groups parted ways in 2013 and started fighting each other. By then, however, Isis had already gained a foothold in Syria. They started imposing a strict interpretation of Sharia law in the towns they occupied, forcing men to wear beards and women to wear a full veil. They use threats of violence against people’s families to keep them in line. To ensure that their orders are enforced as strictly and dispassionately as possible, they intentionally put people in charge who are not from the village, or even the country, they are policing, so there will be no temptation to be lenient. They execute those who violate their rules in public, and have gone so far as to chop off the hands of people caught stealing.

Isis soon found itself in a power struggle with its parent terrorist network, and by February of 2014, Al Qaeda completely disavowed Isis. Far from disrupting Isis’s momentum, the split only gave Isis the freedom to launch a massive offensive in Iraq. On June 9, they captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city with about 1.8 million inhabitants. Twenty days later, Al-Baghdadi declared that the organization would change its name to “The Islamic State” and that he was assuming the long-extinct title of “caliph”, or leader of all Muslims worldwide, adopting the new name “Caliph Ibrahim”. On July 5, he released a video sermon in which he called on all Muslims around the world to support him. Since then, his ambitions have only grown, according to The Fiscal Times, who predict that he may soon try to expand his domain into even more Middle Eastern countries. The threat Isis presents has brought even the United States and Iran together in a mutual desire to stop them.

Wait, what is a Caliph, and why has Isis’s leader claimed that title?

When the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 AD, the early leaders of the new religion of Islam met to decide who should lead the faithful. The caliph, whose title is Arabic for “successor”, was to be the supreme leader of all Muslims, sort of like how the pope is leader of all Roman Catholics. However, there was a major dispute among the early Muslim leadership over who should be the caliph, and these political divisions eventually led to the split of the Islamic faithful into two main sects: Sunnis and Shias. Sunnis supported the election of Abu Bakr, while the Shias supported Ali. The rivalry between the two led to a civil war, and over time these rival political factions started to adopt different religious teachings and practices as well.

Over the centuries, various dynasties of caliphs ruled over various parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, such as the Sunni Umayyads and Abbasids, or the Shia Fatmids. Each of these three dynasties could trace their ancestry to a relative of the Prophet Muhammad, but centuries later, as the Turkish Ottoman Empire conquered and dominated most of the Middle East, the Ottoman sultans started to claim the title of caliph, and they were powerful enough that nobody dared challenge that claim.

As far as most mainstream Muslims are concerned, there has been no caliph since the Ottomans were overthrown in the 1920s. The re-establishment of a caliphate has been a goal of jihadist and radical Islamic movements for decades, yet Al-Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate was ridiculed by Isis’s opponents as “delusional”. If Al-Baghdadi can claim that title with no real merit, this USA Today editorial points out, what’s to stop any old average Joe from declaring himself caliph? It’s a meaningless declaration.

So, Isis is just another terrorist group with a crazy leader, right?

Actually, in many ways it has become a country for all practical intents and purposes. Ruling an area the size of Pennsylvania, it has a fully-functioning government, collecting taxes, providing key services like police, hospitals, garbage collection and welfare for the poor, and according to the U.S. State Department, they have a “full-blown army”. They have a capital city and are able to maintain control of both their own forces and the people in the areas they have captured quite effectively. Not only that, but Isis has access to enough oil and water to be economically viable as an independent country. The fear is that Isis will use their new domain as a safe haven for terrorists, as the Taliban had done in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

How do they keep power over the people?

ISIS forces image from The Telegraph

Largely through fear. As mentioned earlier, they are extremely strict and extremely brutal. They videotape themselves executing captured prisoners of war or other perceived enemies and post those videos online for the world to see. Any Muslim who doesn’t accept their radical version of Sunni Islam is killed, and Christians are told they must either convert to Islam or pay a “jizya” – an ancient tax early Muslims imposed on Christians living in their lands for the right to keep their religion. Almost all Christians in Isis-held cities have chosen to leave instead.

Having said that, they do have some legitimate support in the areas they rule. In Syria, the civil war has wreaked so much havoc that many Syrians find the Isis-held areas to be a peaceful safe haven where they don’t have to live in constant fear of being blown up or shot. In Iraq, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has done such a poor job accommodating the country’s Sunni minority that many Sunni Arab tribes and former supporters of Saddam Hussein’s regime have turned to Isis as an alternative, striking deals with Isis in return for cash and protection.

However, it’s not entirely clear how long Isis will enjoy this support. Isis has started destroying anything that smacks of their broad definition of “idolatry”, destroying irreplaceable artifacts from ancient civilizations, statues, Christian churches, and Islamic mosques and sacred shrines that don’t match their ideas about Islam.

Because nothing wins you support in the Middle East like destroying mosques!

Because nothing wins you support in the Middle East like destroying mosques!

What are Isis’s goals here?

As far as I can tell, power.

Last year, they claimed to want to conquer every land once ruled by Muslims, as far west as Spain and as far east as China. Journalist Sarah Birke argued that the biggest difference between Isis and other jihadist groups that have come before them is that Isis “tends to be more focused on establishing its own rule in conquered territory”. This is an important distinction: Isis is not content with just being a terrorist group. They want to rule, and to conquer, as the ancient empires of old had done.

John Gray wrote a column for BBC News where he argued that all of Isis’s talk of Islamic purity is a thin disguise for what amounts to a very modern revolutionary movement that has more in common with the Nazis, the Soviet Union and the Khmer Rouge than with early Islam. They are a totalitarian dictatorship, he writes, who believe they can use “systematic violence” to remake society to fit their vision. An anonymous former Isis fighter who spoke to BBC News appears to have confirmed as such, describing their use of propaganda, brainwashing, and fear to get people to do what they want.

The only question left is what, exactly, can be done about them, and so far, answers to that question have proven elusive.