August 21, 2019

Have your neighbors signed up?

Today's Smart Brevity count: 840 words, a 3-minute read.

What else should we write about this summer? Hit reply to this email or message me at [email protected], Kaveh Waddell at [email protected] and Erica Pandey at [email protected].

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: Russian interference, 2020

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Americans are at each other's throats. Politically, socially and culturally, we suspect each other's motives and plain sanity. So certain are we of the other's intent to do the nation harm, some of us have joined political gangs and assaulted one another, resulting in at least 1 death.

  • Which is to say that Americans have played into Russian President Vladimir Putin's hands — again. It is assumed he can attack next year's elections if he so chooses, but since no outsider knows exactly how, what comes next is one of the great underlying mystery-dramas of the 2020 election campaign.
  • The fear is dangerous needling of already-fraught U.S. social turmoil.

The big picture: Espionage and trickery between the West and Russia is not new — it goes back to Peter the Great, 3 centuries ago. But scholars say they are pressed to identify any episode of direct political mischief-making in this long history comparable to the breadth, scale and intensity of the Russian hacking, leaking and social media campaign in the 2016 U.S. election.

  • When it comes to its rivals and enemies, Moscow's objective often is to create chaos, and thus incapacitate the other power as a threat to Russian aims.
  • To get there, the weapon of choice is usually the exploitation of existing divisions in the other society.
  • That is where, in 2016, the U.S. made itself a sitting duck — and where polarized, ultra-bellicose Americans remain perhaps even more exposed to emotional manipulation in the coming election.

Russia hands in Washington and elsewhere are worried. No one can say with absolute certainty that Putin will attack this time, nor if he does, what means he will use. But what no one disputes is that the country — despite mountains of descriptions of Russia's actions last time — is little-better prepared now to defend itself than it was 3 years ago.

  • President Trump and Republican leaders at the federal and state levels have stifled efforts to form a national political strategy to combat a redux of the Russian campaign. One reason: Trump seems to view such efforts as challenges to the legitimacy of his 2016 victory.
  • While the defenses remain down, Trump appears especially prepared to stoke raw political, societal and social emotions, often amplified by political commentators and talk show hosts at Fox and other media outlets.
  • "If Putin is going to throw the match of chaos, he needs kindling here. Our political system provides far too much of it right now," says Richard Fontaine, CEO at the Center for a New American Security.

Some possibilities of what's next:

  • Aric Toler, lead researcher at Bellingcat, a European investigative organization, says that if he had to choose one possible Putin plan for the U.S., it would be more of the same — "a lot of ad hoc actors within and from outside the Russian government/security services with similar targets as in 2016."
  • Mark Galeotti, a leading scholar on Russian intelligence and author of "We need to talk about Putin," foresees an effort "to escalate and magnify the inevitable divisions that become exacerbated in election times. With Trump running, and many Democrat voices prone to castigate his supporters as racists and morons, these opportunities are likely to be plentiful."

The bottom line: "I see no reason to expect that U.S./Western actions since 2016 have changed Moscow’s appetite for risk. Buckle up," said Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment.

2. Numbers along the world's coastlines

Miami after Hurricane Irma, September 2017. Photo: Matt McClain/Washington Post/Getty

When climatologists warn of the dangers of rising sea levels, they often cite a vulnerable point — Miami, for instance, or Vanuatu. But what's the bigger picture for the approximately 150 countries with a coastline?

  • They share some 1 million miles of coastline, according to the Economist.
  • Two-thirds of the world's large cities are on or near these coasts.
  • 1 billion people live less than 33 feet above sea level.

These folks have a lot of property:

3. For retired Americans, a life abroad

Toronto. Photo: Dinendra Haria/SOPA/LightRocket/Getty

Tens of thousands of retired Americans are collecting their Social Security checks in foreign countries where they are living. The locale of choice: Canada, writes MarketWatch's Catey Hill.

Citing government data, Hill reports that 69,942 Americans are collecting their checks in Canada. Rounding out the top 5:

  • Living in Japan, 45,336
  • Mexico, 29,553
  • Germany, 24,992
  • U.K., 23,936

4. Worthy of your time

U.S. at night. Photo: NASA/Getty

Other ways to count (Eugenia Cheng — WSJ)

The scourge of light pollution (Karen Lightman — Axios)

China's influence campaigns (Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Zach Dorfman — The Atlantic)

Doomsday capitalism (Julie Turkewitz — NYT)

Sizing up the turnover at Tesla (Russ Mitchell — LA Times)

5. 1 mascot thing: The Yankees' winning secret

Edwin. Photo: Elsa/Getty

A stuffed parrot named Edwin has been credited for a lucky streak by the New York Yankees. It belongs to Gio Urshela, a third baseman who himself is on a hitting streak.

The 12-inch-tall toy, bought on Amazon for around $12, has served as team mascot and good luck charm since Urshela bought it last month, writes the NYT's James Wagner.

Edwin even has his own seat on the team plane. “I take him with me everywhere,” Urshela told Wagner.

By the numbers: As of Aug. 14, Wagner writes, "the Yankees were 65-35 (a .650 winning percentage) before parrot Edwin arrived and have gone 16-6 (.727) with him in tow." As for Urshela, he's hit 18 home runs so far this season, compared with 8 in all in his prior 3 seasons.

Thanks for reading!