Archive for the ‘Another pile of crap’ Category

The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

December 7, 2014

MoDo is off today.  In “The Old Journalism and the New” The Putz thinks he can tell us all about how the drama at a storied magazine points to what’s gained and lost in media’s online shift.  The Moustache of Wisdom tells us “How ISIS Drives Muslim From Islam.”  He says that young Arabs are boldly speaking out against rule by Shariah.  Mr. Kristof suggests some “Gifts That Inspire,” and says Times readers can change lives with any of these holiday gift ideas.  Mr. Bruni says “Hillary 2.0 Would Be Hillary XX” and that there are smart reasons Hillary Clinton, the Iron Lady in 2008, might campaign as the grandmother-in-chief.  Spare me Hillary.  The mere idea gives me the creeping horrors.  Here’s The Putz:

Sometimes media events synchronize almost too neatly. Last weekend, the entity known as Vox Media, whose array of properties includes this year’s big liberal-journalism start-up, Vox.com, announced that its latest round of investment had raised the company’s valuation to a robust $380 million.

Then on Thursday, The New Republic, a storied liberal magazine that’s emphatically not worth $380 million, saw its editor in chief and literary editor sacked by a pair of figures out of a Silicon Valley satire — a tech almost-billionaire, Chris Hughes, who won the meritocracy’s equivalent of the lottery when he roomed with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard, and Hughes’s digital guru, Guy Vidra, whose plan for vertical integration with the singularity can now proceed apace.

Mass resignations followed; eulogies were penned for the T.N.R.-that-was. (And, admittedly, that hadn’t really existed for some time.) But the most interesting in memoriam came from Ezra Klein, Vox.com’s editor in chief, because he wrote as a spokesman for a new model of political journalism pronouncing a parting benediction on the old one.

“The eulogy that needs to be written,” Klein argued, is actually for an entire kind of publication — the “ambitious policy magazine,” whether on the left or right, that once set the terms of Washington’s debates.

With the emergence of the Internet, those magazines lost their monopolies, and the debate “spilled online, beyond their pages, outside their borders,” with both new competitors and specific voices (Klein kindly cites my own) becoming more important than before.

As Klein correctly implies, this shift has produced a deeper policy conversation than print journalism ever sustained. Indeed, the oceans of space online, the easy availability of studies and reports, the ability to go endless rounds on topics — plus the willingness of many experts to blog and bicker for the sheer fun of it! — has made the Internet era a golden age for technocratic argument and data-driven debate.

But there is a price to be paid as well. That price, Klein suggests, is the loss of the older magazines’ ability to be idiosyncratic and nonpandering and just tell their readers what they should care about, because more than ever before you need to care about what readers click on first (like the latest John Oliver SMACKDOWN, in the case of Vox) to get the traffic that pays for the ads that subsidize a seven-part argument about health care costs.

So as much as the new landscape has to offer, Klein concludes, “something is being lost in the transition from policy magazines to policy websites, and it’s still an open question how much of it can be regained.”

All of this is sensible and true. But there’s one large amendment that needs to be offered. The New Republic as-it-was, the magazine I and others grew up reading, was emphatically not just a “policy magazine.” It was, instead, a publication that deliberately integrated its policy writing with often-extraordinary coverage of literature, philosophy, history, religion, music, fine art.

It wasn’t just a liberal magazine, in other words; it was a liberal-arts magazine, which unlike many of today’s online ventures never left its readers with the delusion that literary style or intellectual ambition were of secondary importance, or that today’s fashions represented permanent truths.

Unlike our era’s ascendant data journalism, it also never implied that technocracy was somehow a self-sustaining proposition, or that a utilitarianism of policy inputs and social outcomes suffices to understand every area of life. (And unlike many liberal outlets, in its finest years it published, employed and even occasionally was edited by people on the right of center — something some of us particularly appreciated.)

So when we talk about what’s being lost in the transition from old to new, print to digital, it’s this larger, humanistic realm that needs attention. It isn’t just policy writing that’s thriving online; it’s anything that’s immediate, analytical, data-driven — from election coverage to pop culture obsessiveness to rigorous analysis of baseball’s trade market.

Like most readers, I devour this material. Like most journalists, I write some of it. I’m grateful that the outlets that produce it all exist.

But among publications old and new and reinvented, it’s also hard not to notice that John Oliver videos — or, more broadly, the array of food and sports and gadget sites that surround Klein’s enterprise at Vox Media — aren’t just paying for the policy analysis. They’re actively displacing other kinds of cultural coverage and interaction, in which the glibness of the everyday is challenged by ideas and forms older than a start-up, more subtle than a TV recap, more rigorous than a comedian’s monologue.

And since today’s liberalism is particularly enamored of arc-of-history arguments that either condemn or implicitly whisk away the past, this may be a particular problem for the Internet-era progressive mind.

The peril isn’t just that blithe dot-com philistines will tear down institutions that once sustained a liberal humanism. It’s that those institutions’ successors won’t even recognize what’s lost.

Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

The Islamic State has visibly attracted young Muslims from all over the world to its violent movement to build a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. But here’s what’s less visible — the online backlash against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, by young Muslims declaring their opposition to rule by Islamic law, or Shariah, and even proudly avowing their atheism. Nadia Oweidat, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, who tracks how Arab youths use the Internet, says the phenomenon “is mushrooming — the brutality of the Islamic State is exacerbating the issue and even pushing some young Muslims away from Islam.”

On Nov. 24, BBC.com published a piece on what was trending on Twitter. It began: “A growing social media conversation in Arabic is calling for the implementation of Shariah, or Islamic law, to be abandoned. Discussing religious law is a sensitive topic in many Muslim countries. But on Twitter, a hashtag which translates as ‘why we reject implementing Shariah’ has been used 5,000 times in 24 hours. The conversation is mainly taking place in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The debate is about whether religious law is suitable for the needs of Arab countries and modern legal systems. Dr. Alyaa Gad, an Egyptian doctor living in Switzerland, started the hashtag. ‘I have nothing against religion,’ she tells BBC Trending, but says she is against ‘using it as a political system.’ ”

The BBC added that “many others joined in the conversation, using the hashtag, listing reasons why Arabs and Muslims should abandon Shariah. ‘Because there’s not a single positive example of it bringing justice and equality,’ one man tweeted. … A Saudi woman commented: ‘By adhering to Shariah we are adhering to inhumane laws. Saudi Arabia is saturated with the blood of those executed by Sharia.’ ”

Ismail Mohamed, an Egyptian on a mission to create freedom of conscience there, started a program called “Black Ducks” to offer a space where agnostic and atheist Arabs can speak freely about their right to choose what they believe and resist coercion and misogyny from religious authorities. He is part of a growing Arab Atheists Network. For Arab news written by Arabs that gets right in the face of autocrats and religious extremists also check out freearabs.com.

Another voice getting attention is Brother Rachid, a Moroccan who created his own YouTube network to deliver his message of tolerance and to expose examples of intolerance within his former Muslim faith community. (He told me he’s converted to Christianity, preferring its “God of love.”)

In this recent segment on YouTube, which has been viewed 500,000 times, Brother Rachid addressed President Obama:

“Dear Mr. President, I must tell you that you are wrong about ISIL. You said ISIL speaks for no religion. I am a former Muslim. My dad is an imam. I have spent more than 20 years studying Islam. … I can tell you with confidence that ISIL speaks for Islam. … ISIL’s 10,000 members are all Muslims. … They come from different countries and have one common denominator: Islam. They are following Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in every detail. … They have called for a caliphate, which is a central doctrine in Sunni Islam.”

He continued: “I ask you, Mr. President, to stop being politically correct — to call things by their names. ISIL, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab in Somalia, the Taliban, and their sister brand names, are all made in Islam. Unless the Muslim world deals with Islam and separates religion from state, we will never end this cycle. … If Islam is not the problem, then why is it there are millions of Christians in the Middle East and yet none of them has ever blown up himself to become a martyr, even though they live under the same economic and political circumstances and even worse? … Mr. President, if you really want to fight terrorism, then fight it at the roots. How many Saudi sheikhs are preaching hatred? How many Islamic channels are indoctrinating people and teaching them violence from the Quran and the hadith? … How many Islamic schools are producing generations of teachers and students who believe in jihad and martyrdom and fighting the infidels?”

ISIS, by claiming to speak for all Muslims — and by promoting a puritanical form of Islam that takes present-day, Saudi-funded, madrassa indoctrination to its logical political conclusion — has blown the lid off some long simmering frustrations in the Arab Muslim world.

As an outsider, I can’t say how widespread this is. But clearly there is a significant group of Muslims who feel that their government-backed preachers and religious hierarchies have handed them a brand of Islam that does not speak to them. These same authorities have also denied them the critical thinking tools and religious space to imagine new interpretations. So a few, like Brother Rachid, leave Islam for a different faith and invite others to come along. And some seem to be quietly detaching from religion entirely — fed up with being patronized by politically correct Westerners telling them what Islam is not and with being tyrannized by self-appointed Islamist authoritarians telling them what Islam is. Now that the Internet has created free, safe, alternative spaces and platforms to discuss these issues, outside the mosques and government-owned media, this war of ideas is on.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Along with falling leaves and first snows, it’s time for my annual holiday gift guide, offering suggestions for presents with meaning.

At a time of racial division and inequity in America, Equal Justice Initiative, eji.org, fights on behalf of low-income people snared unfairly by the justice system. The group is led by Bryan Stevenson, an African-American lawyer whom Desmond Tutu has called America’s Mandela.

Equal Justice Initiative fights an uphill battle against mass incarceration. It is a lifeline for innocent people who have been railroaded, and for children in prison. Donations finance its work as the conscience of the justice system.

Camfed, or the Campaign for Female Education, camfed.org, supports girls’ education in Africa.

Supporting Camfed is a way to stand up for girls’ education, especially after the terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria earlier this year. Just $10 buys a girl a school-supplies kit for elementary school. Or $25 buys her the shoes she must have to attend school. Or $300 sends her to a year of high school.

Evidence Action, evidenceaction.org, started by economist geeks, applies lessons from randomized trials to spend money in the most cost-effective ways. For example, a bleach dispenser provides a family with clean drinking water for a year and significantly reduces disease at a cost of just 70 cents per person.

Or 50 cents will deworm a child, making that child less anemic, more healthy and better able to thrive in school. Millions of children worldwide still carry intestinal parasites that impair their learning as well as their health and nutrition.

Red Cloud Indian School is a private Lakota and Jesuit K-12 school educating 600 children on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. On a reservation notorious for alcoholism, unemployment and poverty, the Red Cloud school, redcloudschool.org, is a beacon of hope.

Students volunteer on the reservation, and they go on to some of the best universities in the country, returning as leaders. The school accepts donations and full-time volunteers, and it also sells holiday gifts on its website — including nifty earrings and bracelets made out of porcupine quills, for $18 and up.

Future Doctors for South Sudan, futuredoctors.org, was started by Dr. Ken Waxman, an American physician in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was working in war-torn South Sudan, where a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than to learn to read — partly because there are so few doctors. Dr. Waxman realized that one solution is to train talented young South Sudanese to become doctors themselves.

So he and others are sponsoring brilliant South Sudanese students to attend medical schools in Kenya or Uganda and then go home to practice and help build up their own country.

OneGoal, onegoalgraduation.org, tackles head-on one of the great gaps in this country: 82 percent of American kids from high-income families graduate from college, but only 8 percent of low-income children do. OneGoal offers a three-year program designed to coach disadvantaged high school students to put them on track to success in college.

A new University of Chicago study found that OneGoal lowered arrest rates in high school and made students more likely to enroll in and graduate from college, and thus break the cycle of poverty.

A group called 20/20/20 helps the blind see. It provides free cataract surgery to impoverished people abroad who otherwise might end up beggars. The cost is just $35 per adult or $300 per child (because children require general anesthesia). Imagine being blind for want of $35!

Visit the 20/20/20 website at 20x20x20.org to see a video of two sisters in India who were blind from cataracts and received this surgery. When the bandages come off their eyes and they take in their surroundings, chills will go down your spine. You’ll understand why my purpose is to provide an opportunity to share gifts of hope.

It’s also time to announce my next annual win-a-trip contest, in which I take a university student with me on a reporting trip to the developing world. The winner will write posts for my blog on the New York Times website. I’ve been holding the win-a-trip contest since 2006, and one former winner, Mitch Smith, is now a Times reporter.

One possible destination for our 2015 trip is Congo; another is India and Nepal. Information about the contest and how to apply is at my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground. As before, the Center for Global Development in Washington will screen applications and pick finalists. I’m looking for a smart undergraduate or graduate student with great storytelling skills who wants to help shine a light on neglected issues and doesn’t mind bedbugs or warlords. Please pass the word if you know just the candidate.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

November 2016 is still a long way off, but it’s hard to imagine that the presidential campaign will provide any bit of advertising as strangely entertaining and revealing as a video put online recently by Stand With Hillary, a new “super PAC.”

Haven’t seen it? Oh you must. Right now. I give you leave from this column to go take a look, but hurry back. There’s a lot to talk about.

It spotlights a man in a cowboy hat who croons in a country-and-western twang about how darned much he adores that there Hillary Clinton. “Hindsight’s always right,” he sings, a clear dig at Barack Obama, the candidate chosen over her in the Democratic primaries. There are images of construction work, a welder, a pickup truck, a tractor, a big red barn, cows. It’s the unveiling of Hard-Hat Hillary. Rodeo Hillary. Hillary, Patron Saint of the Prairie.

But it positions her first and foremost as all woman. The references are incessant. The chorus goes like this: “Thinking about one great lady like the women in my life. She’s a mother, a daughter and through it all, she’s a loving wife.”

A man with a sledgehammer shatters a panel of glass — twice. And the cowboy exhorts his brethren: “Put your boots on and let’s smash this ceiling.” Just in case there was any doubt about what that glass meant.

The video wasn’t produced by Clinton or her aides. But the people who did put it together clearly followed the cues that they felt they were getting, and they read her intentions right. If she runs, she’ll do so with more focus on her gender and a greater emphasis on making history than she did in 2008.

And that’ll be the smart move, because her gender is precisely what offsets certain of her weaknesses as a candidate. To double down on the double X may be her best way to mitigate several otherwise big vulnerabilities.

Back in 2008, “Clinton seemed to develop a tortured approach toward her gender on the campaign trail, sometimes embracing it, sometimes dismissing it, sometimes appearing to overcompensate for it — but rarely appearing at ease with it,” wrote Anne Kornblut of The Washington Post in her 2009 book about that race, “Notes From the Cracked Ceiling.”

She observed that some of Clinton’s key advisers felt that partly because of her gender, she had to routinely assert toughness and be America’s own Iron Lady. There were boxing gloves at her events, along with music from “Rocky.”

Kornblut recalled the time when she was told by a proud Clinton adviser that it was “as though his boss were running with a penis.” And at one campaign event, a labor leader introduced her as “the candidate with ‘testicular fortitude,’ ” Kornblut wrote.

Clinton never gave a gender speech that rivaled Obama’s race speech.

Additionally, “When Obama won the Iowa caucuses, everybody wrote and talked about it as historic,” Kornblut told me last week. “But Jesse Jackson had won primaries. When Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire, it was historic. But the coverage was, ‘Hillary made a comeback. She’s the comeback kid, just like her husband was.’ ”

Kornblut said that, belatedly, a few members of Clinton’s inner circle came to believe that her frequently gender-neutral approach wasn’t just “a big mistake of the campaign. That was the big strategic mistake.”

But with an even longer résumé now, Clinton could emphasize her trailblazing womanhood for 2016 without the worry that many voters would misinterpret it as the main qualification that she’s claiming. And after four years as a secretary of state more hawkish than the president she served, she wouldn’t have to push the image of a dauntless world leader.

Americans’ economic anxieties will almost surely be at the center of the race, and with the right language, Clinton might have “the ability to talk as mom and grandmom about the need to make sure government is on the side of our families,” Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who recently addressed the group Ready for Hillary, told me.

“Being a woman translates into great politics,” he said.

Clinton seemingly agrees. Over the last year she has weighed in strongly on issues like equal pay and child care. She has done women-themed events galore.

In a speech at Georgetown University last week, she said: “We know when women contribute in making and keeping peace, entire societies enjoy better outcomes. Women leaders, it has been found, are good at building coalitions across ethnic and sectarian lines and speaking up for other marginalized groups.”

It’s possible that Clinton has noticed polls. In one by Gallup early this year, when Americans were asked what about a Clinton presidency would be most exciting, the answer given more than any other was that she would be the first woman in the job.

It’s her “unique selling proposition,” wrote Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief, in an analysis of those results.

And that proposition is potentially an inoculation.

Yes, she’s been around forever and isn’t a fresh face. But she can’t be yesterday’s news when she’s tomorrow’s precedent.

Yes, there’s a whiff of dynasty about her. But maybe she gets some of the “new car smell” that Obama said voters were looking for by promising a new altitude of female accomplishment.

Yes, a contest between her and Jeb Bush would be one of two surnames from the past. But only she can claim to represent an uncharted future, at least in one sense.

Yes, detractors will say that she’s a third term of Obama: business as usual. Her supporters can answer that she’s history’s unfinished business.

Yes, she’s now wealthy and well-connected, and would be starting the race with titanic advantages. But if she’s willing to talk about her experience as a woman, she can talk about what it’s been like to make her way in a man’s world. She’s a leader of the pack who can make some underdog noises, an ultimate insider who can potentially connect with outsiders — thanks to gender.

Lehane called it “a sword and a shield.”

When she ran the last time around, Rush Limbaugh asked, “Will Americans want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?” It was a sexist question, but this can be a sexist country, and even some Democrats had that concern.

It’s more than six years later, and Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post recently noted Clinton’s “full-on embrace of grandma-hood, tweeting out pictures of her new granddaughter despite the twin pitfalls of gender and age.” For Clinton 2016, gender might not be a pitfall at all.

Jeez, Frank, shill much do you?

Brooks and Krugman

December 5, 2014

Bobo thinks he’s on to something.  He has a question in “Why Elders Smile:”  Why do studies suggest that the happiest age group is people ages 82 to 85?  If you’re thinking that this sounds suspiciously like Bobo’ian psychobabble you’re right.  In the comments “Jack Chicago” from Chicago lays it out for us:  “This column is just a blend of psychobabble, generalizations and unsupported assertions. Mr Brooks’ broad and shallow approach to these columns is pretty thin stuff.”  Prof. Krugman, in “Democrats Against Reform,” says no, Obamacare wasn’t a mistake. Democrats should be celebrating that they did the right thing.  Here’s Bobo:

A few months ago, Ezekiel Emanuel had an essay in The Atlantic saying that, all things considered, he’d prefer to die around age 75. He argued that he’d rather clock out with all his powers intact than endure a sad, feeble decline.

The problem is that if Zeke dies at 75, he’ll likely be missing his happiest years. When researchers ask people to assess their own well-being, people in their 20s rate themselves highly. Then there’s a decline as people get sadder in middle age, bottoming out around age 50. But then happiness levels shoot up, so that old people are happier than young people. The people who rate themselves most highly are those ages 82 to 85.

Psychologists who study this now famous U-Curve tend to point out that old people are happier because of changes in the brain. For example, when you show people a crowd of faces, young people unconsciously tend to look at the threatening faces but older people’s attention gravitates toward the happy ones.

Older people are more relaxed, on average. They are spared some of the burden of thinking about the future. As a result, they get more pleasure out of present, ordinary activities.

My problem with a lot of the research on happiness in old age is that it is so deterministic. It treats the aging of the emotional life the way you might treat the aging of the body: as this biological, chemical and evolutionary process that happens to people.

I’d rather think that elder happiness is an accomplishment, not a condition, that people get better at living through effort, by mastering specific skills. I’d like to think that people get steadily better at handling life’s challenges. In middle age, they are confronted by stressful challenges they can’t control, like having teenage children. But, in old age, they have more control over the challenges they will tackle and they get even better at addressing them.

Aristotle teaches us that being a good person is not mainly about learning moral rules and following them. It is about performing social roles well — being a good parent or teacher or lawyer or friend.

It’s easy to think of some of the skills that some people get better at over time.

First, there’s bifocalism, the ability to see the same situation from multiple perspectives. Anthony Kronman of Yale Law School once wrote, “Anyone who has worn bifocal lenses knows that it takes time to learn to shift smoothly between perspectives and to combine them in a single field of vision. The same is true of deliberation. It is difficult to be compassionate, and often just as difficult to be detached, but what is most difficult of all is to be both at once.” Only with experience can a person learn to see a fraught situation both close up, with emotional intensity, and far away, with detached perspective.

Then there’s lightness, the ability to be at ease with the downsides of life. In their book, “Lighter as We Go,” Jimmie Holland and Mindy Greenstein (who is a friend from college) argue that while older people lose memory they also learn that most setbacks are not the end of the world. Anxiety is the biggest waste in life. If you know that you’ll recover, you can save time and get on with it sooner.

“The ability to grow lighter as we go is a form of wisdom that entails learning how not to sweat the small stuff,” Holland and Greenstein write, “learning how not to be too invested in particular outcomes.”

Then there is the ability to balance tensions. In “Practical Wisdom,” Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe argue that performing many social roles means balancing competing demands. A doctor has to be honest but also kind. A teacher has to instruct but also inspire. You can’t find the right balance in each context by memorizing a rule book. This form of wisdom can only be earned by acquiring a repertoire of similar experiences.

Finally, experienced heads have intuitive awareness of the landscape of reality, a feel for what other people are thinking and feeling, an instinct for how events will flow. In “The Wisdom Paradox,” Elkhonon Goldberg details the many ways the brain deteriorates with age: brain cells die, mental operations slow. But a lifetime of intellectual effort can lead to empathy and pattern awareness. “What I have lost with age in my capacity for hard mental work,” Goldberg writes, “I seem to have gained in my capacity for instantaneous, almost unfairly easy insight.”

It’s comforting to know that, for many, life gets happier with age. But it’s more useful to know how individuals get better at doing the things they do. The point of culture is to spread that wisdom from old to young; to put that thousand-year-heart in a still young body.

I’m willing to bet that Bobo hasn’t spent much time in a nursing home lately.  You know, the kind that the less-than-fabulously-wealthy can afford.  Not a barrel of laughs…  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

It’s easy to understand why Republicans wish health reform had never happened, and are now hoping that the Supreme Court will abandon its principles and undermine the law. But it’s more puzzling — and disturbing — when Democrats like Charles Schumer, senator from New York, declare that the Obama administration’s signature achievement was a mistake.

In a minute I’ll take on Mr. Schumer’s recent remarks. But first, an update on Obamacare — not the politics, but the actual policy, which continues to rack up remarkable (and largely unreported) successes.

Earlier this week, the independent Urban Institute released new estimates of the number of Americans without health insurance, and the positive results of Obamacare’s first year are striking. Remember all those claims that more people would lose coverage than would gain it? Well, the institute finds a sharp drop in the number of uninsured adults, with more than 10 million people gaining coverage since last year. This is in line with what multiple other estimates show. The primary goal of health reform, to give Americans access to the health care they need, is very much on track.

And while some of the policies offered under Obamacare don’t offer as much protection as we might like, a huge majority of the newly insured are pleased with their coverage, according to a recent Gallup poll.

What about costs? There were many predictions of soaring premiums. But health reform’s efforts to create meaningful competition among insurers are working better than almost anyone (myself included) expected. Premiums for 2014 came in well below expectations, and independent estimates show a very modest increase — 4 percent or less — for average premiums in 2015.

In short, if you think of Obamacare as a policy intended to improve American lives, it’s going really well. Yet it has not, of course, been a political winner for Democrats. Which brings us to Mr. Schumer.

The Schumer critique — he certainly isn’t the first to say these things, but he is the most prominent Democrat to say them — calls health reform a mistake because it only benefits a minority of Americans, and that’s not enough to win elections. What President Obama should have done, claims Mr. Schumer, was focus on improving the economy as a whole.

This is deeply wrongheaded in at least three ways.

First, while it’s true that most Americans have insurance through Medicare, Medicaid, and employment-based coverage, that doesn’t mean that only the current uninsured benefit from a program that guarantees affordable care. Maybe you have good coverage now, but what happens if you’re fired, or your employer goes bust, or it cancels its insurance program? What if you want to change jobs for whatever reason, but can’t find a new job that comes with insurance?

The point is that the pre-Obamacare system put many Americans at the constant risk of going without insurance, many more than the number of uninsured at any given time, and limited freedom of employment for millions more. So health reform helps a much larger share of the population than those currently uninsured — and those beneficiaries have relatives and friends. This is not a policy targeted on a small minority.

Second, whenever someone says that Mr. Obama should have focused on the economy, my question is, what do you mean by that? Should he have tried for a bigger stimulus? I’d say yes, but that fight took place in the very first months of his administration, before the push for health reform got underway. After that, and especially after 2010, scorched-earth Republican opposition killed just about every economic policy he proposed. Do you think this would have been different without health reform? Seriously?

Look, economic management is about substance, not theater. Having the president walk around muttering “I’m focused on the economy” wouldn’t have accomplished anything. And I’ve never seen any plausible explanation of how abandoning health reform would have made any difference at all to the political possibilities for economic policy.

Finally, we need to ask, what is the purpose of winning elections? The answer, I hope, is to do good — not simply to set yourself up to win the next election. In 2009-10, Democrats had their first chance in a generation to do what we should have done three generations ago, and ensure adequate health care for all of our citizens. It would have been incredibly cynical not to have seized that opportunity, and Democrats should be celebrating the fact that they did the right thing.

And one related observation: If more Democrats had been willing to defend the best thing they’ve done in decades, rather than run away from their own achievement and implicitly concede that the smears against health reform were right, the politics of the issue might look very different today.

Brooks and Nocera

December 2, 2014

Bobo, who might have been lounging in his “vast spaces for entertaining” when he wrote it, sends us “Class Prejudice Resurgent” in which he gurgles that racism has fused with classism to create a new, ugly form of prejudice in America.  In the comments “abo” from Paris has this to say: “So Mr. Brooks bemoans classism all the while projecting his upper-class prejudices. The upper class is meritocratic, has grit, has a capacity for delayed gratification. The lower class is disorganized and violent.  As long as the upper class, including Mr. Brooks, think they deserved their positions, America will continue to be two societies, one with their heel on the necks of the other.”  Mr. Nocera addresses “The N.C.A.A.’s Big Bluff” and says internal N.C.A.A. emails that were recently made public shed light on the response to the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State.  Here’s Bobo:

One of the features of all the Ferguson discussion over the past few months is how tinny the comparisons to the civil-rights era have sounded. People have tried to link Ferguson to Selma and Jim Crow, but something is off.

That’s, in part, because we’ve moved from simplicity to ambiguity. The civil rights struggle was about as clear a conflict between right and wrong as we get in national life. The debate about Ferguson elicited complex reactions among most sensible people.

This complexity was best expressed in the short essay that Benjamin Watson, a New Orleans Saints tight end, posted on Facebook, which went viral. Watson listed 12 different emotions the Ferguson mess aroused, including:

“I’m ANGRY because stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes. … I’m OFFENDED because of the insulting comments I’ve seen. … I’m INTROSPECTIVE because sometimes I want to take ‘our’ side without looking at the facts in situations like these.”

But the other reason that the civil-rights era comparisons were inapt is because the nature of racism has changed. There has been a migration away from prejudice based on genetics to prejudice based on class.

Let me explain with a historical detour. In 18th- and 19th-century Britain, there was a division between “respectable” society and those who lived in slums that were sometimes known as rookeries (because the neighborhoods reminded people of rock faces where thieving crows lived in little nooks and crannies).

The people who lived in these slums were often described as more like animals than human beings. For example, in an 1889 essay in The Palace Journal, Arthur Morrison described, “Dark, silent, uneasy shadows passing and crossing — human vermin in this reeking sink, like goblin exhalations from all that is noxious around. Women with sunken, black-rimmed eyes, whose pallid faces appear and vanish by the light of an occasional gas lamp, and look so like ill-covered skulls that we start at their stare.”

“Proper” people of that era had both a disgust and fascination for those who lived in these untouchable realms. They went slumming into the poor neighborhoods, a sort of poverty tourism that is the equivalent of today’s reality TV or the brawlers that appear on “The Jerry Springer Show.”

Today we once again have a sharp social divide between people who live in the “respectable” meritocracy and those who live beyond it. In one world almost everybody you meet has at least been to college, and people have very little contact with features that are sometimes a part of the other world: prison, meth, payday loans, a flowering of nonmarriage family forms. In one world, people assume they can control their destinies. In the other, some people embrace the now common motto: “It don’t make no difference.”

Widening class distances produce class prejudice, classism. This is a prejudice based on visceral attitudes about competence. People in the “respectable” class have meritocratic virtues: executive function, grit, a capacity for delayed gratification. The view about those in the untouchable world is that they are short on these things. They are disorganized. They are violent and scary. This belief has some grains of truth because of childhood trauma, the stress of poverty and other things. But this view metastasizes into a vicious, intellectually lazy stereotype. Before long, animalistic imagery is used to describe these human beings.

This class prejudice is applied to both the white and black poor, whose demographic traits are converging. But classism combines with latent and historic racism to create a particularly malicious brew. People are now assigned a whole range of supposedly underclass traits based on a single glimpse at skin color.

During the civil-rights era there was always a debate about what was a civil-rights issue and what was an economic or social issue. Now that distinction has been obliterated. Every civil-rights issue is also an economic and social issue. Classism intertwines with racism.

It’s often said after events like Ferguson that we need a national conversation on race. That’s a bit true. We all need to improve our capacity for sympathetic understanding, our capacity to imaginatively place ourselves in the minds of other people with experiences different from our own. Conversation can help, though I suspect novels, works of art and books like Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land” work better.

But, ultimately, we don’t need a common conversation; we need a common project. If the nation works together to improve social mobility for the poor of all races, through projects like President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, then social distance will decline, classism will decline and racial prejudice will obliquely decline as well.

In a friendship, people don’t sit around talking about their friendship. They do things together. Through common endeavor people overcome difference to become friends.

I hope Moral Hazard bites you, Bobo.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Not long after the N.C.A.A. came down on Penn State three years ago, after the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, a small group of rabid Penn State supporters began circulating emails to each other. A few journalists were also among those receiving the emails, myself included.

The group regularly denounced the report issued by Louis Freeh, which accused top Penn State officials — including beloved football coach Joe Paterno — of turning a blind eye to protect the football program. They vilified Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A. president, who had fined Penn State $60 million, taken away scholarships, erased more than a decade’s worth of victories and banned the team from the postseason for four years, without so much as a hearing. They condemned anyone who dared to suggest that Joe Paterno was less than saintly. And, of course, they fumed at the news media for piling on.

Amid the hyperbole and self-pity, there was some truth to what they wrote, especially about the N.C.A.A. Clearly, the association overreached, something it has seemed to acknowledge implicitly by lifting some of the sanctions. Internal N.C.A.A. emails that were recently made public show that the staff knew it had no jurisdiction, and that it was “bluffing” in trying to get Penn State to accept its penalties. And many in the news media feel chastened for having egged on this rush to judgment (including me).

But the emails also represent something else. Because the N.C.A.A. placed the blame for what happened on Penn State’s “football culture” — and because its punishments affected people who had nothing to do with Sandusky’s crimes — it allowed the Penn State community to wallow in its own sense of victimization. “It made a lot of people who could have been focusing on the victims feel like victims themselves, because of the N.C.A.A.,” Matt Sandusky told me.

Yes, Matt Sandusky. Matt, who is one of Jerry and Dottie Sandusky’s adopted children, is one of the central characters in a fine new documentary about the Penn State case, called “Happy Valley.” Matt had been abused for many years by Sandusky, and, though he doesn’t mention it in the film, he attempted suicide as a teenager. (Jerry Sandusky stopped abusing him after that, he noted.) Although Matt, at first, lied to prosecutors — claiming that he had never been abused — he decided to speak up after he heard one of the victims testify during the trial. After it was leaked that he was willing to testify, his adopted family turned its back on him.

There are plenty of examples in the film, which was directed by Amir Bar-Lev, of an over-the-top football culture. Angry fans gather at Paterno’s house after he is fired, chanting his name in support. Hordes of students swarm the streets of State College, Pa., in what can only be called a riot. A man who holds a sign accusing Paterno of enabling sexual abuse is bullied.

But is Penn State’s football culture really any worse than at 50 other big-time athletic schools? At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, many athletes stayed eligible by taking no-show classes in the Department of African, African-American and Diaspora Studies. This went on for well over a decade. At Florida State University, police have consistently looked the other way when athletes got into trouble. The football team’s quarterback, Jameis Winston, was accused of sexually assaulting a woman, but he’s still playing. Penn State had a predator in its midst, much as many other organizations have had.

“I don’t think football had much to do with it,” said Jolie Logan, speaking about the Sandusky case. She is the chief executive of Darkness to Light, which is dedicated to educating the public about child sexual abuse. Sandusky, she told me, used the classic techniques of predators, putting himself in a position of being a trusted friend of children, and taking advantage of that trust to abuse them.

But she is also not surprised that football is what people have talked about in the aftermath, rather than the sexual abuse. “It is easier for us to focus on everything else except the actual abuse,” she said.

As for Paterno, his biographer, Joe Posnanski, told me that much of the evidence of his culpability in the Freeh report on Penn State and the Sandusky case is thin — allusions to him in emails written by others. But he also says, in the film, that before Paterno died, he told Posnanski that he wished he had done more to stop Sandusky.

Matt Sandusky, who is now 35, has started a foundation to help other survivors of child sexual abuse. He has joined forces with Darkness to Light to raise awareness and teach people how sexual predators operate and what they can do. He hopes to make this his life’s work. If he succeeds, it will be the one good thing to come out of the whole sorry mess.

The Pasty Little Putz, Kristof and Bruni

November 30, 2014

MoDo and The Moustache of Wisdom are off today.  In “The Retreat to Identity” The Pasty Little Putz says that after Ferguson, it’s harder to make a case for optimism about race and politics in America.  In the comments “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY had this to say:  “In pretending to diss identity politics, Ross perpetuates them. This dog-whistle of a screed immediately signals its intent with the specious claim that “racial cleavages are still less dramatic” than in days of yore. What a shame that the reality had to impinge upon his lollipops-and-roses world. So he has to do a quick propaganda reset, in which liberals still have the chutzpah to talk about a fair economy! And the GOP, for some reason unfathomable to Ross, just can’t get its family values message to resonate with “those people” even as its plutocrat-friendly policies absolutely guarantee their continued misery and oppression.”  Putzy obviously didn’t read Mr. Kristof’s column, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 5,” in which he asks a question:  How can we address the racial biases embedded in our society?  In “Just Plane Ugly” Mr. Bruni says Look! Up in the sky! It’s the very worst of us.  Here, FSM help us, is the Putz:

Last summer, around the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I wrote a column making — gingerly — a case for optimism about race and politics in America.

My argument was basically this: As much as racial controversy has marked the presidency of Barack Obama, our race-related policy cleavages are still less dramatic than at any previous point in America’s history. It isn’t just that there’s no contemporary equivalent of the conflict over Jim Crow, in which one side had to be defeated utterly for racial progress to be possible. It’s that on many racially entangled issues, from education to criminal justice to various socioeconomic challenges, the key policy debates are less polarized than in the 1970s and 1980s, and the impact of potential reforms on whites and blacks seems much less zero sum.

But after watching as Ferguson, Mo., seethed and smoldered, it’s worth offering a case for greater pessimism. Not because the optimistic arguments are no longer credible, but because we’ve just had an object lesson in why they might be proved wrong.

This lesson isn’t exactly new; indeed, it’s been offered by both parties throughout this presidency. Ultimately, being optimistic about race requires being optimistic about the ability of our political coalitions to offer colorblind visions of the American dream — the left’s vision stressing economics more heavily, the right leaning more on family and community, but both promising gains and goods and benefits that can be shared by Americans of every racial background.

In the Obama era, though, neither coalition has done a very good job selling such a vision, because neither knows how to deliver on it. (The left doesn’t know how to get wages rising again; the right doesn’t know how to shore up the two-parent family, etc.) Which has left both parties increasingly dependent on identity-politics appeals, with the left mobilizing along lines of race, ethnicity and gender and the right mobilizing around white-Christian-heartland cultural anxieties.

For a while the media has assumed that this kind of identity-based politics inevitably favors the left, because 21st-century America is getting less white every day.

But that’s too simplistic, in part because the definitions of “white” and “minority” are historically elastic. If a “white party” seems sufficiently clueless and reactionary, it will lose ground to a multicultural coalition. But as African-Americans know from bitter experience, “whiteness” has sustained itself by the inclusion of immigrants as well as by the exclusion and oppression of blacks. That history suggests that a “multicultural party” may always be at risk of being redefined as a grievance-based “party of minorities” that many minorities would prefer to leave behind. (And leadership matters, too: A protean figure like Barack Obama can put together a genuine rainbow coalition, but it’s not clear how many other politicians can do the same.)

The key point here, though, is that whichever coalition is ascendant in this scenario, a politics divided primarily by identity is likely to be more poisonous than one in which both parties are offering more-color-blind appeals.

Unfortunately, identity is also the most primal, reliable form of political division. And Ferguson has provided a case study in exactly how powerfully it works.

There was a moment, early in the debate over the death of Michael Brown, when it felt as if this story might vindicate the case for optimism about racial politics — that the original tragedy might be sufficiently transparent, the subsequent police misconduct in quelling protests sufficiently clear-cut, for Ferguson to become a more powerful exhibit in the increasingly bipartisan case for various criminal justice reforms.

But then it became clear that the situation was murkier — that the cop had witnesses and physical evidence supporting his side of the story, that police had to deal with looters as well as peaceful protesters. As John McWhorter wrote in Time magazine, by the time the grand jury handed down its non-indictment the original narrative about Ferguson could only survive with “a degree of elision” and “adjustment.” Which meant, predictably, that the potential for consensus receded, and how people felt about the story became primarily a matter of identification instead.

Do you identify more with a black teenager or with a cop? With protesters menaced by playing-soldier cops or with business owners menaced by the protest’s violent fringe? With various government spokesmen or with, say, Al Sharpton?

Again, this is not unusual; this is how political division and racial division often interact.

And there’s still nothing inevitable about this interaction. Rand Paul, the Republican who’s pushed hardest to change the old paradigm on race and crime, is still talking about criminal justice reform in the wake of Ferguson. The path to a less identity-driven kind of politics is still open.

But it’s clearer today how easy, how human, it will be to leave that path untaken.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof.  Maybe somebody will sit Putzy down and read this to him:

We Americans are a nation divided.

We feud about the fires in Ferguson, Mo., and we can agree only that racial divisions remain raw. So let’s borrow a page from South Africa and impanel a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine race in America.

The model should be the 9/11 commission or the Warren Commission on President Kennedy’s assassination, and it should hold televised hearings and issue a report to help us understand ourselves. Perhaps it could be led by the likes of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and Oprah Winfrey.

We as a nation need to grapple with race because the evidence is overwhelming that racial bias remains deeply embedded in American life. Two economists, Joseph Price and Justin Wolfers, found that white N.B.A. referees disproportionally call fouls on black players, while black refs call more fouls on white players. “These biases are sufficiently large that they affect the outcome of an appreciable number of games,” Price and Wolfers wrote.

If such racial bias exists among professional referees monitored by huge television audiences, imagine what unfolds when an employer privately weighs whom to hire, or a principal decides whether to expel a disruptive student, or a policeman considers whether to pull over a driver.

This “When Whites Just Don’t Get It” series is a call for soul-searching. It’s very easy for whites to miss problems that aren’t our own; that’s a function not of being white but of being human. Three-quarters of whites have only white friends, according to one study, so we are often clueless.

What we whites notice is blacks who have “made it” — including President Obama — so we focus on progress and are oblivious to the daily humiliations that African-Americans endure when treated as second-class citizens.

“In the jewelry store, they lock the case when I walk in,” a 23-year-old black man wrote in May 1992. “In the shoe store, they help the white man who walks in after me. In the shopping mall, they follow me.”

He described an incident when he was stopped by six police officers who detained him, with guns at the ready, and treated him for 30 minutes as a dangerous suspect.

That young man was future Senator Cory Booker, who had been a senior class president at Stanford University and was a newly selected Rhodes Scholar. Yet our law enforcement system reduced him to a stereotype — so young Booker sat trembling and praying that he wouldn’t be shot by the police.

My sense is that part of the problem is well-meaning Americans who disapprove of racism yet inadvertently help perpetuate it. We aren’t racists, yet we buttress a system that acts in racist ways. It’s “racism without racists,” in the words of Eduardo Bonillo-Silva, a Duke University sociologist.

This occurs partly because of deeply embedded stereotypes that trick us, even when we want to be fair. Researchers once showed people sketches of a white man with a knife confronting an unarmed black man in the subway. In one version of the experiment, 59 percent of research subjects later reported that it had been the black man who held the knife.

I don’t know what unfolded in Ferguson between Michael Brown, a black teenager, and Darren Wilson, a white police officer. But there is a pattern: a ProPublica investigation found that young black men are shot dead by police at 21 times the rate of young white men.

If you’re white, your interactions with police are more likely to have been professional and respectful, leaving you trustful. If you’re black, your encounters with cops may leave you dubious and distrustful. That’s why a Huffington Post/YouGov poll found that 64 percent of African-Americans believe that Officer Wilson should be punished, while only 22 percent of whites think so.

That’s the gulf that an American Truth and Reconciliation Commission might help bridge just a little. In 1922, a Chicago Commission on Race Relations (composed of six whites and six blacks) examined the Chicago race riots of 1919. More recently, President Clinton used an executive order to impanel an advisory board on race that focused on how to nurture “one America.”

A new commission could jump-start an overdue national conversation and also recommend evidence-based solutions to boost educational outcomes, improve family cohesion and connect people to jobs.

White Americans may protest that our racial problems are not like South Africa’s. No, but the United States incarcerates a higher proportion of blacks than apartheid South Africa did. In America, the black-white wealth gap today is greater than it was in South Africa in 1970 at the peak of apartheid.

Most troubling, America’s racial wealth gap, pay gap and college education gap have all widened in the last few decades.

There are no easy solutions. But let’s talk.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

The woman in 27E doesn’t have only one carry-on plus a small bag for a laptop or personal items. She has one carry-on plus a purse the size of a bassinet plus some canvas vessel for all of her electronics plus two different plastic totes for various pillows, blankets and possibly an ottoman and a coffee table. Shuffling down the aisle, she looks more like a Peruvian llama than anything human. She grunts and buckles.

She must have heard the announcement that the flight was full and the plea that everyone not bring too much aboard, because those words blared every 45 seconds. But there’s no selective hearing loss like that of the airline passenger. She reaches her row, predictably discovers that there’s insufficient space under the seat in front of hers and proceeds to colonize the space under the seat in front of yours. You arrive to find that what little legroom you’d counted on is gone. She pretends not to see that you’re glaring at her.

A tiff has erupted in Row 18. The man in Seat C has used the overhead for his jacket, which is lovingly folded there, and is protesting any and all attempts to move it. He has miles. He has status. That’s why he was invited to board the aircraft earlier than almost everybody else, and he’s hellbent on milking that privilege for all that it’s worth.

I’m not describing a flight that I just took. Among my Thanksgiving blessings was an avoidance of the unfriendly skies. I’m describing every other flight that I’ve taken over the last year. I’m describing a flight that many Americans surely suffered through this weekend.

And I’m doing it not simply to rue the horrors of air travel these days, which have been rued aplenty. I’m doing it because there are few better showcases of Americans’ worst impulses, circa 2014, than a 757 bound from New York to Los Angeles or from Sacramento to St. Louis. It’s a mile-high mirror of our talent for pettiness, our tendency toward selfishness, our disconnection from one another and our increasing demarcation of castes. It’s a microcosm at 30,000 to 45,000 feet.

Most of the passengers start out in a bad mood, because there’s no good way to get to the airport. The thrifty, efficient rail links that exist in many Asian and European cities remain uncommon in the United States, a reflection of our arrogant and damnable inattention to infrastructure. Even in recent years, during an economic downturn that cried out for the kinds of big projects that create jobs, we made only meager investments. Our airports and the roads and nonexistent tracks around them show it.

“Our infrastructure is on life support right now,” Ray LaHood, the former transportation secretary, told Steve Kroft in a segment of “60 Minutes” from one week ago. It was titled, fittingly, “Falling Apart.”

Kroft noted that there was “still no consensus on how to solve the problem,” which had grown more severe because of “political paralysis in Washington.”

One of the impediments to consensus is manifest on a plane: There’s little sense of a common good, no rules that everybody follows so that nobody gets a raw deal. Instead there’s an ethic of every passenger for himself or herself. The existence of, and market for, the Knee Defender, that device that prohibits the person in front of you from reclining, says it all.

On second thought, no, this does: Immediately following news coverage of a flight that had to be diverted when two passengers scuffled over a Knee Defender’s use, sales of the device reportedly increased.

Courtesy is dead. The plane is its graveyard. There’s a scrum at the gate and then another scrum in the aisle that defy any of the airline’s attempts at an orderly boarding process. There’s no restraint in the person who keeps smacking the back of your chair; no apology from the parent whose child keeps kicking it; no awareness that certain foods, unwrapped in a tight space, turn one traveler’s lunch into every traveler’s olfactory reality.

And nobody really communicates. Conversation between strangers becomes rarer as gadgets get better, enabling everyone to hunker down with his or her own music and own movies and own video games, to shrink the world to the dimensions of a smartphone’s or tablet’s screen, to disappear into a personalized bubble of ceaseless entertainment and scant enlightenment.

On the plane, as in the economy, most people are feeling squeezed. Financially, every flight is a death by a dozen cuts. There’s the baggage fee, the meal fee, the wireless fee. All the base price gets you is a perch that’s tighter than ever and getting tighter still. In The Daily Beast two days before Thanksgiving, Clive Irving described airlines’ sophisticated, inch-by-inch stratagems to “engineer you out of room,” and they sounded like experiments in orthopedic torture. What the rack was to medieval times, Seat 39B is to modern ones.

But Seat 2A? That’s a different story. A different world. The gap between first class and everyone else is writ vivid on a plane, and crossing from one side of the divide to the other seems to be growing more difficult. Frequent-flier programs are being tweaked to reward dollars spent on tickets instead of miles flown, and to give more bonus miles to people who are already at a high status than to people who aspire to be.

“United Continental’s Miles Program to Penalize Average Fliers,” said a headline in The Wall Street Journal earlier this year. The article went on to explain that the airline was “becoming the latest carrier to shift its loyalty program to favor bigger spenders.”

A recent story in The Journal explored this further, noted that Delta was making similar adjustments, and explained, “People who fly on expensive business-class and first-class tickets and have top-tier status in frequent-flier programs will see their accounts flooded with miles.”

In the clouds as on land, the rich get richer, social mobility wanes and people are funneled ever more ruthlessly into gradations of privilege: those in sections with names like “economy comfort”; those eligible for the exit row; those who get to board in the first, second or third waves; those consigned to later stages and middle seats.

Some blot out all of this sorting with Candy Crush. Some seethe. Too many of us lose sight of more than the earth. We forget that simply being up in the air is an experience that others seldom if ever get. If there’s one thing in even shorter supply than legroom, it’s empathy.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

November 25, 2014

Bobo just bursting to tell us all about “The Unifying Leader.”  He squeals that the only way for American political culture to change is for leaders to be more creative in their approach to collaboration.  In the comments “Susan Anderson” from Boston had this to say:  “Blame the victim much? You are better than this. Time to notice that your party is willing to sacrifice the whole country to condemn Obama, who did indeed make an effort to meet your party somewhere a long way towards your end of things. Even that wasn’t good enough for your move-the-goalposts party of selfishness, sociopathy, greed, and wealth, and against dealing with reality in a way that does not exploit to the detriment of not only us, but you and your descendants.”  Well, Susan, he did say that he wasn’t going to apportion blame.  I guess he knew where all the fingers would point…  Mr. Cohen says “Keep Pushing for an Iran Deal,” and that if you don’t like the idea of America at war with Islamic State and with Islamic State’s sworn enemy, Iran, double down on diplomacy.  In “Committed to Carbon Goals” Mr. Nocera says the chief executive of NRG Energy is making his company part of the solution.  Now, alas, here’s Bobo:

Over the past two weeks, President Obama and Republicans in Congress have taken their conflicts to another level. I’m not here to apportion blame, but it would be nice if, in the future, we evaluated presidential candidates on the basis of whether they are skilled at the art of collaboration.

When you look at other sectors of society, you see leaders who are geniuses at this. You can spot the collaborative leader because he’s rejected the heroic, solitary model of leadership. He doesn’t try to dominate his organization as its all-seeing visionary, leading idea generator and controlling intelligence.

Instead, he sees himself as a stage setter, as a person who makes it possible for the creativity in his organization to play itself out. The collaborative leader lessens the power distance between himself and everybody else. He believes that problems are too complex for one brain, but if he can create the right context and nudge a group process along, the team will come up with solutions.

Collaborative political leaders would look very different than the ones we’re used to. In the first place, they would do what they could to create a culture of cooperation, not competition. They’d evoke our shared national consciousness more than our partisan consciousness. They’d take the political people out of the policy meetings. Except in high campaign season, they’d reduce the moronically partisan tit-for-tat, which is the pointless fare of daily press briefings.

Second, a collaborative president would draw up what Jeffrey Walker, vice chairman of the MDG Health Alliance and co-author of “The Generosity Network,” calls Key Influencer Maps. This leader would acknowledge that we live in a system in which a proliferating number of groups have veto power over legislation. He would gather influencers into informal policy-making teams as each initiative was executed.

Third, a collaborative president would offer specific goals to each team, but he would not come up with clear visions. He might say the goal of the education team, say, was to reduce high school dropouts by 10 percent. But he would not tell the team how to get there.

Fourth, a collaborative president would see herself as an honest broker above policy-making process, not as a gladiator in it. In an essay posted on LinkedIn, Walker argues that collaborative organizations usually need a person at the top who “is widely trusted and capable of rallying the interested parties behind the unified effort.” To be an honest broker, a collaborative president would have to repress some of her own ideas in order to serve as referee, guide and nudge for the people she gathered.

Fifth, a collaborative president would tolerate mess. She would acknowledge that if you don’t give midlevel people the freedom to roam, you won’t attract creative people to those jobs. If you adopt a highly prescriptive set of workplace rules, then nobody can do anything bold.

So what if there are leaks to the press, and the policy process becomes semipublic? That’s a price worth paying in order to harvest diverse viewpoints and the fruits of creative disagreements.

Sixth, a collaborative leader embraces an oppositional mind-set. As Linda A. Hill and others argue in a Harvard Business Review essay called “Collective Genius,” successful collaborative groups resist tepid compromises; instead, they combine things that were once seen as mutually exclusive. A collaborative president might jam a mostly Democratic idea, federally financed preschool, and a mostly Republican idea, charter schools, into one proposal.

Seventh, a collaborative president would create a culture in which relationships are more important than one person’s touchy pride. There are going to be people who take cheap shots. The collaborative leader would swallow indignation and be tolerant of error in order to preserve relationships. She would have a merciful sense that every successful working bond is going to require moments of forgiveness.

The collaborative leader is willing to step back from the war posture of politics and be vulnerable. Trust is built when one leader is vulnerable to another and the opposing leader doesn’t take advantage of it to enhance his own power. Then that opposing leader is vulnerable back and the favor is returned. The collaborative leader understands the paradox; you have to take off the armor to build strong bonds.

Finally, the collaborative leader would exile those who consistently refuse to play by the rules. Psychologist David Rand of Yale finds that cooperation exists when people internalize small cooperative habits as their default response to situations. It only takes a few selfish and solitary grandstanders to undermine a culture of trust. Successful leaders have the guts marginalize radicals and nihilists who refuse to play by the rules of the institution (this would be helpful to leaders on Capitol Hill).

We can all think of technocratic reforms to make Washington work better. But, ultimately, it takes a different leadership model and a renewed appreciation for the art of collaboration.

You’ll notice that the name John Boehner appears nowhere in that piece of crap.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

I wrote last May that “unreasonable optimism” surrounded nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers. Unreasonable pessimism should not surround the failure to reach an overall agreement and the decision to extend negotiations for seven months. Anwar Sadat, the former Egyptian president, believed 70 percent of the Israeli-Arab conflict was psychological. The same has been true of the American-Iranian confrontation at the heart of the standoff between Tehran and the West. A barrier has fallen through well over a year of discussions; a 35-year-old trauma has receded.

This immense achievement does not in itself assure success. Plenty of people want enmity preserved. Here are seven questions for the next seven months that may prove helpful:

Why is a deal still by far the best option? Because the alternatives are a continuation of the relentless buildup of Iranian nuclear capacity seen over the past decade or yet another American war in the Middle East that would do little to dent the program, lock in hard-liners for a generation and likely prompt an Iranian dash for a bomb, setting off a regional arms race. If you like the idea of the United States at war with the Sunni killers of Islamic State and at war with Islamic State’s sworn enemy, Shiite Iran, this scenario may hold appeal. If it looks like a nightmare, double down on diplomacy.

But doesn’t the extension of talks favor Iran? No. The interim agreement announced last year has proved effective. As Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out, Iran had about 200 kilograms of 20-percent-enriched uranium. Today, it has none. The number of operational centrifuges has been frozen. International inspections have been redoubled. Not for a decade had the pause button been hit in this way. Yes, Iran has received some sanctions relief, bringing in about $700 million a month, but that scarcely offsets plunging oil revenue.

Why is Israel’s call for complete dismantlement not the way to go? Because it is not achievable in the real world; the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. Diplomacy is about tough compromise, not ideal outcomes. The nuclear know-how attained by Iran cannot be undone. The aim must be to ring fence for at least a decade a strictly monitored program, compatible only with peaceful use of nuclear power, where enrichment is kept below 5 percent. Iran, a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, will not renounce the right set out in that treaty to “nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” at the behest of a nuclear-armed nonsignatory of that treaty, Israel. This is reality; deal with it. Iran’s nuclear program has the emotional resonance the nationalization of its oil had in the 1950s. That nationalization prompted a never-forgotten Anglo-American coup. Calls for dismantlement are seen in Iran through this prism. As Kerry’s negotiating partner, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, said, “You are doomed to failure” if you seek “a zero-sum game.” Setting impossible targets is code for favoring war.

What are the main dangers now to the negotiations? The Republican Congress, hard-liners in Tehran around Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will try to undermine the talks. When the new Congress convenes next year, it may push for new sanctions. There will be talk of “appeasement,” the cheap Chamberlain riff that is a favorite sound bite of naysayers. A sanctions push would be extremely foolish. It would constitute a potential talks-breaker that may prod President Obama into a veto. This would in turn reinforce Washington chatter about “an imperial presidency.” To which Obama should respond that he’s less interested in chatter than the history books.

But isn’t Iran America’s enemy? Yes, Iran supports Hezbollah. It supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Its operatives have killed or plotted to kill Americans since the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979, especially in the early years. But Iran also has overlapping interests with the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a relative island of stability in a violent Middle East. Its young population is overwhelmingly pro-American. Most of them place Israel at the bottom of their list of priorities. The United States does business with plenty of strategic adversaries, including Russia. The Middle East is stymied. Even a cold American-Iranian understanding could redraw the map of the region.

President Hassan Rouhani seems reasonable but doesn’t Khamenei call the shots? The supreme leader and the president need each other. The Iranian economy is a shambles. Khamenei needs Rouhani to fix it. Rouhani needs Khamenei as a shield from the toughest hard-liners. The West will never find better interlocutors than Rouhani and Zarif.

Are there other reasons to favor an accord? Yes. Iran is the last sizable emerging market economy not integrated in the global economy. Integrating it will provide a huge boost. The more contact there is between Iran and the West, the more moderating forces will be reinforced.

And now here’s Mr. Nocera:

Since the early 1990s, the consensus view in the climate science community has been that if the world is going to escape the most catastrophic consequences of climate change, it needs to keep the average global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels. A few years ago, the Presidential Climate Action Project issued a report in which it estimated that to meet that goal, global carbon dioxide emissions would need to be reduced by 60 percent by 2050 — and the industrialized world would need to reduce its emissions by 80 percent.

This would seem, at first glance, an impossible task. Until, that is, you meet a man named David Crane. He is the chief executive of NRG Energy, the largest publicly traded independent power producer in the country. When he took over a decade ago, NRG was just emerging from bankruptcy. Today, it is a Fortune 250 company, with 135 power plants capable of generating 53,000 megawatts of power.

NRG, Crane told an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer, is the country’s fourth-largest polluter. “We emit 60 or 70 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year,” he said, mainly because a third of its power is generated by coal-fired plants. “I’m not apologetic about that because, right now, owning those plants and operating those plants are critical to keeping the lights on in the United States.”

But then he quickly added, “We have to move away from that.” And he has, reducing the company’s carbon footprint by 40 percent in the decade that he’s run the company. And, on Thursday, as The Times reported, he committed NRG to reducing its carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050.

These are terribly ambitious goals, but Crane is not some pie-in-the-sky dreamer. Although he sees climate change as an “intergenerational issue” — a way of ensuring the future for our children and grandchildren — he is also a pragmatic man running a publicly traded company. He firmly believes that the technology exists to make his ambitious goals possible, and that the real problem is the refusal of the rest of the power industry to adapt and change.

Crane likes to say that when he first started hearing about carbon emissions, he didn’t view it all that seriously. “To be frank,” he said in that same Aspen presentation, “I thought this is just the next pollutant that we have to deal with.” But once he got religion — and realized, as he put it, that power producers like NRG are “the biggest part of the problem” — he was determined to make his company a leader in reducing carbon.

One of his early moves was to apply for a license to build a new nuclear power plant. (It already co-owns one nuclear plant.) But the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011 scotched those plans, and NRG wound up writing off more than $300 million. NRG also invested in a wind company, which it sold three years later “because we got a little disenchanted with the way that the wind technology was moving.”

So how is he planning to get that 90 percent reduction? One answer is solar power, in which NRG has invested some $5 billion. Crane is a big believer in the eventual importance of solar, both for consumers — he foresees a day when millions of Americans rely on solar as their primary power source — and for power companies. Even so, Crane told me that solar generates only 3,000 megawatts of the company’s potential for 53,000.

And then there’s coal. When I asked Crane if he would have to eliminate coal to reach his goals, he said no. Coal, he said, will continue to play a big role. A carbon tax would be a great way of reducing emissions. But that is politically impossible.

So, instead, the carbon will need to be captured and then put to some good use. At one of its Texas power plants, NRG is teaming up with JX Nippon of Japan in a $1 billion joint venture to build a carbon-capturing capacity, which it expects will capture 1.6 million tons of carbon each year — some 90 percent of the plant’s emissions. He is also convinced that that carbon will eventually be used to create liquid fuel or get embedded in cement. “We could rebuild America’s roadways with embedded carbon from coal.”

He has another reason for wanting to be out in front on climate change. He says it will make his company more attractive to investors — and consumers. The day is going to come, he believes, when climate change risk will be something investors factor in to their investment decisions. And he believes that the next generation of consumers will demand clean energy. He views the disinvestment campaign now taking place on college campuses as a harbinger of things to come.

“It’s like Wayne Gretzky said,” he told me before hanging up the phone. “We are skating where the puck is going, rather than where it is now.”

Brooks and Krugman

November 21, 2014

Bobo has decided to channel MoDo with a movie review, while simultaneously exhibiting his complete lack of understanding of quantum physics.  In “Love and Gravity” he burbles that Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” illustrates how modern science has changed the way we look at love, philosophy and religion.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston started out this way:  “This column takes us on a long, meandering journey through a couple of wormholes to arrive at a political singularity: social engineering projects (i.e., big government) = bad, while webs of loving and meaningful relationships (i.e., local volunteerism) = good.  Mr. Brooks has expressed this point in dozens of different ways over the years. It’s as though every one of his columns is entangled with every other one, both in the past and apparently in the future. But this one has a truly ethereal bent. Never has a wistful plea for states’ rights been so cosmic.”  Prof. Krugman, in “Suffer Little Children,” says today’s immigrants are the same as our parents and grandparents were. President Obama is doing the decent thing with his immigration initiative.  Here’s Bobo:

Most Hollywood movies are about romantic love, or at least sex. But Christopher Nolan’s epic movie “Interstellar” has almost no couples, so you don’t get the charged romance you have in normal movies where a man and a woman are off saving the world.

Instead, there are the slightly different kinds of love, from generation to generation, and across time and space.

The movie starts on a farm, and you see a grandfather’s love for his grandkids and the children’s love for their father. (Mom had died sometime earlier).

The planet is hit by an environmental catastrophe, and, in that crisis, lives are torn apart. The father, played by Matthew McConaughey, goes off into space to find a replacement planet where humanity might survive. The movie is propelled by the angry love of his abandoned daughter, who loves and rages at him for leaving, decade after decade.

On top of that, there is an even more attenuated love. It’s the love humans have for their ancestors and the love they have for the unborn. In the movie, 12 apostles go out alone into space to look for habitable planets. They are sacrificing their lives so that canisters of frozen embryos can be born again in some place far away.

Nolan wants us to see the magnetic force of these attachments: The way attachments can exert a gravitational pull on people who are separated by vast distances or even by death. Their attention is riveted by the beloved. They hunger for reunion.

When the McConaughey character goes into space he leaves behind the rules of everyday earthly life and enters the realm of quantum mechanics and relativity. Gravity becomes variable. It’s different on different planets. Space bends in on itself. The astronauts fly through a wormhole, a fold in the universe connecting one piece of space with another distant piece.

Most important, time changes speed. McConaughey is off to places where time is moving much more slowly than it is on Earth, so he ends up younger than his daughter. Once in the place of an ancestor, he becomes, effectively, her descendant.

These plotlines are generally based on real science. The physicist Kip Thorne has a book out, “The Science of Interstellar,” explaining it all. But what matters in the movie is the way science and emotion (and a really loud score) mingle to create a powerful mystical atmosphere.

Nolan introduces the concept of quantum entanglement. That’s when two particles that have interacted with each other behave as one even though they might be far apart. He then shows how people in love display some of those same features. They react in the same way at the same time to the same things.

The characters in the movie are frequently experiencing cross-cutting and mystical connections that transcend time and space. It’s like the kind of transcendent sensation you or I might have if we visited an old battlefield and felt connected by mystic chords of memory to the people who fought there long ago; or if we visited the house we grew up in and felt in deep communion with people who are now dead.

Bloggers have noticed the religious symbols in the movie. There are those 12 apostles, and there’s a Noah’s ark. There is a fallen angel named Dr. Mann who turns satanic in an inverse Garden of Eden. The space project is named Lazarus. The heroine saves the world at age 33. There’s an infinitely greater and incorporeal intelligence offering merciful salvation.

But this isn’t an explicitly religious movie. “Interstellar” is important because amid all the culture wars between science and faith and science and the humanities, the movie illustrates the real symbiosis between these realms.

More, it shows how modern science is influencing culture. People have always bent their worldviews around the latest scientific advances. After Newton, philosophers conceived a clockwork universe. Individuals were seen as cogs in a big machine and could be slotted into vast bureaucratic systems.

But in the era of quantum entanglement and relativity, everything looks emergent and interconnected. Life looks less like a machine and more like endlessly complex patterns of waves and particles. Vast social engineering projects look less promising, because of the complexity, but webs of loving and meaningful relationships can do amazing good.

As the poet Christian Wiman wrote in his masterpiece, “My Bright Abyss,” “If quantum entanglement is true, if related particles react in similar or opposite ways even when separated by tremendous distances, then it is obvious that the whole world is alive and communicating in ways we do not fully understand. And we are part of that life, part of that communication. …”

I suspect “Interstellar” will leave many people with a radical openness to strange truth just below and above the realm of the everyday. That makes it something of a cultural event.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The Tenement Museum, on the Lower East Side, is one of my favorite places in New York City. It’s a Civil War-vintage building that housed successive waves of immigrants, and a number of apartments have been restored to look exactly as they did in various eras, from the 1860s to the 1930s (when the building was declared unfit for occupancy). When you tour the museum, you come away with a powerful sense of immigration as a human experience, which — despite plenty of bad times, despite a cultural climate in which Jews, Italians, and others were often portrayed as racially inferior — was overwhelmingly positive.

I get especially choked up about the Baldizzi apartment from 1934. When I described its layout to my parents, both declared, “I grew up in that apartment!” And today’s immigrants are the same, in aspiration and behavior, as my grandparents were — people seeking a better life, and by and large finding it.

That’s why I enthusiastically support President Obama’s new immigration initiative. It’s a simple matter of human decency.

That’s not to say that I, or most progressives, support open borders. You can see one important reason right there in the Baldizzi apartment: the photo of F.D.R. on the wall. The New Deal made America a vastly better place, yet it probably wouldn’t have been possible without the immigration restrictions that went into effect after World War I. For one thing, absent those restrictions, there would have been many claims, justified or not, about people flocking to America to take advantage of welfare programs.

Furthermore, open immigration meant that many of America’s worst-paid workers weren’t citizens and couldn’t vote. Once immigration restrictions were in place, and immigrants already here gained citizenship, this disenfranchised class at the bottom shrank rapidly, helping to create the political conditions for a stronger social safety net. And, yes, low-skill immigration probably has some depressing effect on wages, although the available evidence suggests that the effect is quite small.

So there are some difficult issues in immigration policy. I like to say that if you don’t feel conflicted about these issues, there’s something wrong with you. But one thing you shouldn’t feel conflicted about is the proposition that we should offer decent treatment to children who are already here — and are already Americans in every sense that matters. And that’s what Mr. Obama’s initiative is about.

Who are we talking about? First, there are more than a million young people in this country who came — yes, illegally — as children and have lived here ever since. Second, there are large numbers of children who were born here — which makes them U.S. citizens, with all the same rights you and I have — but whose parents came illegally, and are legally subject to being deported.

What should we do about these people and their families? There are some forces in our political life who want us to bring out the iron fist — to seek out and deport young residents who weren’t born here but have never known another home, to seek out and deport the undocumented parents of American children and force those children either to go into exile or to fend for themselves.

But that isn’t going to happen, partly because, as a nation, we aren’t really that cruel; partly because that kind of crackdown would require something approaching police-state rule; and, largely, I’m sorry to say, because Congress doesn’t want to spend the money that such a plan would require. In practice, undocumented children and the undocumented parents of legal children aren’t going anywhere.

The real question, then, is how we’re going to treat them. Will we continue our current regime of malign neglect, denying them ordinary rights and leaving them under the constant threat of deportation? Or will we treat them as the fellow Americans they already are?

The truth is that sheer self-interest says that we should do the humane thing. Today’s immigrant children are tomorrow’s workers, taxpayers and neighbors. Condemning them to life in the shadows means that they will have less stable home lives than they should, be denied the opportunity to acquire skills and education, contribute less to the economy, and play a less positive role in society. Failure to act is just self-destructive.

But speaking for myself, I don’t care that much about the money, or even the social aspects. What really matters, or should matter, is the humanity. My parents were able to have the lives they did because America, despite all the prejudices of the time, was willing to treat them as people. Offering the same kind of treatment to today’s immigrant children is the practical course of action, but it’s also, crucially, the right thing to do. So let’s applaud the president for doing it.

Brooks and Nocera

November 18, 2014

In “Obama in Winter” Bobo whines out a question:  Why has the Obama administration been behaving so strangely since the midterms?  In the comments “Winning Progressive” from Philadelphia has this to say:  “Mr. Brooks criticizes President Obama for not standing down and moving even further right to appease Republicans in the wake of the GOP’s electoral victory in the 2014 midterms. But of course Mr. Brooks, and the rest of the media, didn’t demand that Republicans move to the left and appease Democrats after Republicans lost in 2006, 2008, and 2012. Instead, the GOP was given a free pass by the media to move even further to the right and obstruct everything the Dems tried to do.”  In “Putin Plays Hardball” Mr. Nocera says he is striking back at a critic of Russian capitalism by putting a dead man on trial.  Here’s Bobo:

They say failure can be a good teacher, but, so far, the Obama administration is opting out of the course. The post-midterm period has been one of the most bizarre of the Obama presidency. President Obama has racked up some impressive foreign-policy accomplishments, but, domestically and politically, things are off the rails.

Usually presidents use midterm defeats as a chance to rethink and refocus. That’s what Obama did four years ago. Voters like to feel the president is listening to them.

But Obama’s done no public rethinking. In his post-election news conference, the president tried to reframe the defeat by saying the turnout was low, as if it was the Republicans’ fault that the Democrats could only mobilize their core base. Throughout that conference, the president seemed to detach himself from his own party, as if the Democrats who lost their jobs because of him were a bunch of far-off victims of some ethereal malaise.

Usually presidents at the end of their terms get less partisan, not more. But with his implied veto threat of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, President Obama seems intent on showing that Democrats, too, can put partisanship above science. Keystone XL has been studied to the point of exhaustion, and the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that it’s a modest-but-good idea. The latest State Department study found that it would not significantly worsen the environment. The oil’s going to come out anyway, and it’s greener to transport it by pipeline than by train. The economic impact isn’t huge, but at least there’d be a $5.3 billion infrastructure project.

Usually presidents with a new Congressional majority try to figure out if there is anything that the two branches can do together. The governing Republicans have a strong incentive to pass legislation. The obvious thing is to start out with the easiest things, if only to show that Washington can function on some elemental level.

But the White House has not privately engaged with Congress on the legislative areas where there could be agreement. Instead, the president has been superaggressive on the one topic sure to blow everything up: the executive order to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws.

The president was in no rush to issue this order through 2014, when it might have been politically risky. He questioned whether he had the constitutional authority to do this through most of his first term, when he said that an executive order of this sort would probably be illegal.

But now the president is in a rush and is convinced he has authority. I sympathize with what Obama is trying to do substantively, but the process of how it’s being done is ruinous.

Republicans would rightly take it as a calculated insult and yet more political ineptitude. Everybody would go into warfare mode. We’ll get two more years of dysfunction that will further arouse public disgust and antigovernment fervor (making a Republican presidency more likely).

This move would also make it much less likely that we’ll have immigration reform anytime soon. White House officials are often misinformed on what Republicans are privately discussing, so they don’t understand that many in the Republican Party are trying to find a way to get immigration reform out of the way. This executive order would destroy their efforts.

The move would further destabilize the legitimacy of government. Redefining the legal status of five million or six million human beings is a big deal. This is the sort of change we have a legislative process for. To do something this seismic with the stroke of one man’s pen is dangerous.

Instead of a nation of laws, we could slowly devolve into a nation of diktats, with each president relying on and revoking different measures on the basis of unilateral power — creating unstable swings from one presidency to the next. If President Obama enacts this order on the transparently flimsy basis of “prosecutorial discretion,” he’s inviting future presidents to use similarly flimsy criteria. Talk about defining constitutional deviancy down.

I’m not sure why the Obama administration has been behaving so strangely since the midterms. Maybe various people in the White House are angry in defeat and want to show that they can be as obstructionist as anyone. Maybe, in moments of stress, they are only really sensitive to criticism from the left flank. Maybe it’s Gruberism: the belief that everybody else is slightly dumber and less well-motivated than oneself and, therefore, politics is more about manipulation than conversation.

Whatever it is, it’s been a long journey from the Iowa caucuses in early 2008 to the pre-emptive obstruction of today. I wonder if, post-presidency, Mr. Obama will look back and regret that he got sucked into the very emotional maelstrom he set out to destroy.

Bobo, here’s a big platter of salted dicks for you to eat.  Enjoy, you schmuck.  Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

This week marks the fifth anniversary of Sergei Magnitsky’s death in a Russian prison. He was 37 years old, a member of the emerging middle class who worked as a lawyer for a man named Bill Browder, the leader of the largest Russia-only investment firm in the world. Browder’s company, Hermitage Capital Management, started with $25 million during the Wild West-era of early Russian capitalism and had $4.5 billion in assets by the early 2000s.

Over time, Browder became an activist investor of sorts, exposing corruption in Russian companies and trying to make Russian capitalism more transparent. In doing so, he thought, he could both steer Russian companies a little closer to the Western model while also making money for his firm.

But, when Vladimir Putin became the president of Russia in 2000, he and his cronies were not interested in corporate transparency. How could they line their pockets if everything was transacted out in the open? So Browder became persona non grata. After a trip to Britain in 2005, he was refused re-entry. A few fictitious documents later, and Hermitage had $1 billion in “liabilities.” Then, a handful of officials involved in a takeover of Hermitage requested — and received within 24 hours! — a $230 million tax refund. It was a textbook example of the kind of corporate pillaging for which the Putin kleptocracy became infamous.

Browder pleaded with Magnitsky to flee the country, as his other lawyers had done. But Magnitsky insisted on investigating — and speaking out about — the fraud that had taken place. For his troubles, he was imprisoned in 2008. By summer of 2009, he had developed pancreatitis, which went untreated despite his pleas. He died that November. Browder says that when he learned of Magnitsky’s death, it was “the worst news I had ever received in my life.”

Ever since, Browder has worked to find ways to extract some justice on Magnitsky’s behalf. Well before the current Western sanctions on Russia, for instance, Browder pushed for travel and financial sanctions to be imposed on the Russian officials who were involved in Magnitsky’s imprisonment. In December 2012, Congress passed a bill that did just that, called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. Browder continues to push for similar laws in various European countries.

As you might expect, given the pugnacious nature of Putin’s government, Russia hasn’t take this law lying down. The first thing it did was halt American adoption of Russian children. It has given promotions to several officials who were sanctioned. And it has also continued to go after both Browder and, believe it or not, the deceased Magnitsky.

In July 2013, Russia put both Magnitsky and Browder on trial. The two men were accused of tax evasion going back to 2001 — despite the fact that the statute of limitation in Russia for tax evasion is 10 years. It was the first posthumous trial in Russia’s history. The judge in the case was among those who were on the U.S. sanctions list. To the surprise of no one, Magnitsky and Browder were both convicted, one posthumously and the other in absentia.

There is another thing the Putin government has been doing to get back at Browder. It has made repeated attempts to have him put on Interpol’s “Red Notice” list — which is a kind of international wanted-poster for fugitives. The idea is that when a person on the list is arrested in one country, he or she would be handed over to the country where he or she is wanted.

Interpol has long been accused of allowing its Red Notices to be used for political purposes. A year ago, a group called Fair Trials International released a report accusing a handful of countries of using Interpol to cause problems for dissidents and activists — among them Belarus, Turkey, Iran and Russia.

The first attempt came in May 2013. Browder succeeded in pushing it back. The second attempt came two months later — soon after Browder’s nine-year sentence by a Moscow court. Again, Interpol declined to issue a Red Notice on Browder. This past winter, a Russian delegation visited Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France, to press its case. Thanks to last year’s trial, Russia could now say that Browder had been convicted of a crime.

Sure enough, Interpol — which, just two weeks ago, installed a new secretary general, a German lawyer named Jürgen Stock — has agreed to once again entertain the idea of labeling Browder a fugitive from Russian justice. It is scheduled to make its decision later this week.

You would think that Putin’s government has enough to worry about these days, between the crisis in Ukraine, Western sanctions, and the fall in the price of oil, which could push the Russian economy into recession. But, apparently, there is always time to attack Bill Browder.

Brooks and Krugman

November 7, 2014

Bobo must have gone to Colorado, or he’s smoking something illegally.  In “The Governing Party” he actually tries to convince us that Republicans detoxify the brand with deep roots in the business community, the military, the church and civic organizations.  In the comments “Mary Scott” from NY has this to say:  “Republicans won big Tuesday because they brought government to a complete standstill by their constant obstruction, blamed the gridlock they caused on President Obama and Democrats, vowed to fix the problem that they created and a majority of voters bought that big lie.  … The only thing they’re good at is winning elections. I’ll give them that but it’s laughable to suggest that they have even the slightest ability or inclination to govern.”  To counterbalance Bobo’s fantasy world we have Prof. Krugman, who considers “The Triumph of the Wrong.”  He says it’s not often that a party that is so wrong about so much does as well as Republicans did on Tuesday.  Here’s Bobo:

Every party in opposition goes a little crazy. For Republicans in the early Obama era, insanity took the form of the Sarah Palin spasm. Veteran politicos took the former Alaska governor seriously as a national figure. Republican primary voters nominated the likes of Todd Akin, Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle. Glenn Beck seemed important enough to hold a big rally at the Lincoln Memorial.

Fortunately, serious parties eventually pull back from the fever swamps. That’s what’s happening to the Republican Party. It has re-established itself as the nation’s dominant governing party. Republicans now control 69 of 99 state legislative bodies. Republicans hold 31 governorships to Democrats’ 18.

When the next Congress convenes in January, Republicans will have their largest majority in the House of Representatives since 1931; they will have a majority in the Senate, dominate gubernatorial power in the Midwest, and have more legislative power nationwide than anytime over the past century.

Republicans didn’t establish this dominant position because they are unrepresentative outsiders. They did it because they have deep roots in four of the dominant institutions of American society: the business community, the military, the church and civic organizations.

Look at the Republicans who were elected to office on Tuesday:

The next governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, is the founder of The Hogan Companies, a real estate development firm. He co-chaired a bipartisan commission to reform county government in his state and then founded Change Maryland, an activist group.

David Perdue, who was elected senator in Georgia, was senior vice president for Asian operations for the Sara Lee Corporation. He moved to Haggar Clothing before becoming C.E.O., successively, of Reebok, Pillowtex and Dollar General.

Thom Tillis, elected senator in North Carolina, led a research team at Wang Laboratories before going to work at PricewaterhouseCoopers and then IBM.

The next governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, was chairman of the private equity firm GTCR, after having graduated from Dartmouth and Harvard. In 2008, Rauner was named the Philanthropist of Year by the Chicago Association of Fundraising Professionals. Rauner has given more than $20 million toward improving Chicago public schools. He’s also given time and money to a range of causes, including the Y.M.C.A., the A.C.L.U., Morehouse College, the Red Cross and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The new senator from Oklahoma, James Lankford, got a divinity degree and ran Falls Creek, the nation’s largest Christian camp.

Tom Cotton, elected senator in Arkansas, graduated from Harvard before working at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, serving in the Army and going off to McKinsey.

Let’s pause over some of the institutions mentioned in these mini-bios: IBM, Reebok, the Red Cross, McKinsey and the Army. These are not fringe organizations. These are the pillars of American society.

Republicans won this election in part because they re-established their party’s traditional personality. The beau ideal of American Republicanism is the prudent business leader who is active in the community, active at church and fervently devoted to national defense.

During the primary season, groups like the Chamber of Commerce chased away or defeated renegade conservatives and opened the way for the triumph of this sort of institutional conservative. These candidates won in the general election because working-class voters will trust Republican corporate types so long as they are deeply embedded in their communities, so long as they have demonstrated loyalty to the whole society and not just the upper crust.

This year, Republicans won among white-working-class voters by 30 percentage points. They tied Democrats among Asian-Americans. They severely cut their losses among Hispanics.

The new Republican establishment is different from the old one. It is more conservative. It’s shaped more by the ideas of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the American Enterprise Institute than it is by the mores of the country club. But, at least judging by the postelection comments coming from all corners, it does believe in politics, in legislating, in compromise.

During the Palin spasm, Republicans seemed to detest the craft of governing. Hothouse flowers like Senator Ted Cruz preferred telegenic confrontation to compromise and legislation.

But current party leaders are talking about incremental progress, finding areas where they can get bipartisan support: on trade, corporate taxes, the XL oil pipeline, the medical devices tax, patent reform, maybe even tax reform generally.

Republicans are also talking about restoring the traditional practices of the House and Senate. Let individual members introduce bills. Let those bills work through the committee structure and get votes. Pass budgets on time and according to the rules.

If the party is to fully detoxify its image, something will have to pass next year. Midwestern Republican governors will have to develop a compelling governing model. And the volcanic effusions of the Palin era will have to look like 1970s neckties — inexplicable oddities from another age.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet midterms to men of understanding. Or as I put it on the eve of another Republican Party sweep, politics determines who has the power, not who has the truth. Still, it’s not often that a party that is so wrong about so much does as well as Republicans did on Tuesday.

I’ll talk in a bit about some of the reasons that may have happened. But it’s important, first, to point out that the midterm results are no reason to think better of the Republican position on major issues. I suspect that some pundits will shade their analysis to reflect the new balance of power — for example, by once again pretending that Representative Paul Ryan’s budget proposals are good-faith attempts to put America’s fiscal house in order, rather than exercises in deception and double-talk. But Republican policy proposals deserve more critical scrutiny, not less, now that the party has more ability to impose its agenda.

So now is a good time to remember just how wrong the new rulers of Congress have been about, well, everything.

First, there’s economic policy. According to conservative dogma, which denounces any regulation of the sacred pursuit of profit, the financial crisis of 2008 — brought on by runaway financial institutions — shouldn’t have been possible. But Republicans chose not to rethink their views even slightly. They invented an imaginary history in which the government was somehow responsible for the irresponsibility of private lenders, while fighting any and all policies that might limit the damage. In 2009, when an ailing economy desperately needed aid, John Boehner, soon to become the speaker of the House, declared: “It’s time for government to tighten their belts.”

So here we are, with years of experience to examine, and the lessons of that experience couldn’t be clearer. Predictions that deficit spending would lead to soaring interest rates, that easy money would lead to runaway inflation and debase the dollar, have been wrong again and again. Governments that did what Mr. Boehner urged, slashing spending in the face of depressed economies, have presided over Depression-level economic slumps. And the attempts of Republican governors to prove that cutting taxes on the wealthy is a magic growth elixir have failed with flying colors.

In short, the story of conservative economics these past six years and more has been one of intellectual debacle — made worse by the striking inability of many on the right to admit error under any circumstances.

Then there’s health reform, where Republicans were very clear about what was supposed to happen: minimal enrollments, more people losing insurance than gaining it, soaring costs. Reality, so far, has begged to differ, delivering above-predicted sign-ups, a sharp drop in the number of Americans without health insurance, premiums well below expectations, and a sharp slowdown in overall health spending.

And we shouldn’t forget the most important wrongness of all, on climate change. As late as 2008, some Republicans were willing to admit that the problem is real, and even advocate serious policies to limit emissions — Senator John McCain proposed a cap-and-trade system similar to Democratic proposals. But these days the party is dominated by climate denialists, and to some extent by conspiracy theorists who insist that the whole issue is a hoax concocted by a cabal of left-wing scientists. Now these people will be in a position to block action for years to come, quite possibly pushing us past the point of no return.

But if Republicans have been so completely wrong about everything, why did voters give them such a big victory?

Part of the answer is that leading Republicans managed to mask their true positions. Perhaps most notably, Senator Mitch McConnell, the incoming majority leader, managed to convey the completely false impression that Kentucky could retain its impressive gains in health coverage even if Obamacare were repealed.

But the biggest secret of the Republican triumph surely lies in the discovery that obstructionism bordering on sabotage is a winning political strategy. From Day 1 of the Obama administration, Mr. McConnell and his colleagues have done everything they could to undermine effective policy, in particular blocking every effort to do the obvious thing — boost infrastructure spending — in a time of low interest rates and high unemployment.

This was, it turned out, bad for America but good for Republicans. Most voters don’t know much about policy details, nor do they understand the legislative process. So all they saw was that the man in the White House wasn’t delivering prosperity — and they punished his party.

Will things change now that the G.O.P. can’t so easily evade responsibility? I guess we’ll find out.

Nocera and Collins

November 1, 2014

Mr. Nocera is unsure.  Mr. Nocera is uncertain.  In “The Guantánamo Tapes” Mr. Nocera is still asking:  Does force-feeding detainees amount to torture?  Gee, Joey, why don’t you volunteer to be fed that way for a week or six and then get back to us with your answer.  Asshole.  Ms. Collins presents us with her “Election Day Pop Quiz.”  Are you ready for the midterms? It’s time to test your political smarts.  Here’s Mr. Dithers Nocera:

Jihad Ahmed Mujstafa Diyab is a Syrian man who has been a detainee at the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, since 2002. In 2009, the Guantánamo Review Task Force ruled that he was not a threat to national security and could be released. Yet here we are five years later, and Diyab is still imprisoned at Guantánamo, having never been tried, or even accused of a crime, and with no idea when — or if — he’ll ever get out. Last year, to protest their continued confinement, he and many other detainees began a hunger strike. Most of the detainees have since given up their hunger strikes. Diyab, however, has never completely stopped his.

One reason many detainees abandoned their hunger strikes is because, twice a day, the government used what is called “enteral feeding” to ensure that they were getting nutrients. A more common term is force-feeding. The ordeal begins with something called “forced cell extraction,” which one of Diyab’s lawyers, Jon Eisenberg, described to me as “a highly orchestrated procedure.”

“A five-man riot squad in complete armor pins the guy to the floor, shackles him, and carries him out,” Eisenberg says. Then the detainee is strapped into a restraint chair — which the prisoners have dubbed the “torture chair.” One soldier holds the detainee’s head, while another feeds a tube into his nose and down to his stomach. It is very painful to endure.

Last year, I wrote several columns about force-feeding, asking whether it could be classified as torture. At the time, I didn’t think there would ever be a way to test that premise in an American court. The federal judge who seemed most sympathetic to the detainees’ plight, Gladys Kessler, had concluded that she simply lacked the authority to rule on the conditions of their confinement, based on a 2006 law intended to prevent the prisoners from petitioning the judiciary and challenging their detention.

Lo and behold, Judge Kessler turned out to be wrong. Earlier this year, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled, 2 to 1, that she did have jurisdiction. There are strict medical protocols for force-feeding hospital patients or prisoners. If the military violated those protocols — especially if detainees were force-fed in an abusive, punitive manner — then she could order them to stop.

Thus began eight months of legal wrangling between Diyab’s lawyers and the government that culminated in a three-day hearing that took place earlier this month. Though no one put it like this, its purpose, at least in part, was to decide whether the military’s methods for force-feeding detainees was a form of torture.

One of those who testified on Diyab’s behalf, Steven Miles, a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, said it’s not even a close call. He was first horrified to discover that the government had been lubricating the tube with olive oil instead of a water-soluble lubricant. “When you pass the tube, some of the lubricant can drop into the lungs,” he said. Olive oil in the lungs can cause an inflammatory reaction called lipoid pneumonia. (The government says it stopped using olive oil as a lubricant over the summer.)

After listing a half-dozen other ways the government’s force-feeding violated medical protocols, he concluded: “They turned it from a medical procedure to a penal strategy dressed up to look like a medical procedure. The procedures look nothing like medicine.”

Kessler has not yet issued her ruling, but, in the meantime, another aspect of the case has taken center stage. It turns out that the government has videotapes of Diyab enduring the forced cell extraction and the force-feeding. With some prodding from Kessler, the government was forced to allow the defense to see the videotapes.

On Oct. 8, the last day of the hearing, in a closed courtroom, both Diyab’s lawyers and the government’s lawyers played portions of the tapes, putting them into evidence. When I asked the lawyers what they saw, they told me they were not allowed to say — because the tapes are still classified.

But 16 news media outlets, including The New York Times, have petitioned the court and asked Kessler to allow the public to see the videos. In a ruling she handed down in early October, she agreed that they should be made public. But she then stayed her ruling to give the government time to decide whether to appeal it.

Diyab himself has made it clear that he would like the tapes to be seen by the public. “I want Americans to see what is going on at the prison today,” he said, according to Kessler’s ruling, “so they will understand why we are hunger-striking and why the prison should be closed.”

With any luck, the day may soon be here when we can finally decide for ourselves whether the force-feeding of Guantánamo detainees amounts to torture.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

1.  In Arizona, Scott Fistler will not be on the ballot. He was thrown out of the race for the Democratic congressional nomination in a largely Hispanic district after he employed the innovative technique of:

  • A) Claiming that he spent much of his young adulthood castrating goats.

  • B) Appearing in a campaign ad with his pet python.

  • C) Legally changing his name to Cesar Chavez.

  • D) Attempting to establish his district residency at a local Starbucks.

2.  And Eric Cantor is not on the ballot! After a stunning primary defeat, the House majority leader resigned from Congress in order to serve his country in a new way as an:

  • A) Anti-poverty worker in an Appalachian food bank.

  • B) Assistant principal in a high school for troubled teenagers.

  • C) Volunteer in a West African Ebola clinic.

  • D) Strategic adviser to an investment banking firm.

3.  Republicans who oppose abortion rights have had some success in deflecting the issue by announcing that they favor allowing birth control pills to be sold over the counter. Trying to follow the new script during a debate, Representative Mike Coffman of Colorado got into a bit of trouble when he:

  • A) Couldn’t remember the words “birth control.”

  • B) Claimed he shouldn’t be held responsible for “girl stuff.”

  • C) Suggested the questioner “take it up with my wife.”

  • D) Said he missed the days when campaign issues were “just about wars and money.”

4.  A number of congressional candidates are reality-show stars. Which of the following is not among them:

  • A) The former “Bachelorette” now seeking happiness in Oklahoma politics.

  • B) The former South Carolina state treasurer who appeared on “Southern Charm,” in which he got one of his co-stars pregnant during the first season.

  • C) The 87-year-old former governor of Louisiana who starred in “The Governor’s Wife,” with his own spouse, who is 51 years younger and became pregnant during the first season.

  • D) The “American Idol” runner-up in North Carolina.

5.  Male invitees to an event for the Florida congressman Steve Southerland were told to “tell the misses not to wait up because the after-dinner whiskey and cigars will be smooth & the issues to discuss are many.” When his opponent, Gwen Graham, criticized him, Southerland asked:

  • A) “Would you like to hear my thoughts about Obamacare?”

  • B) “Has Gwen Graham ever been to a lingerie shower?”

  • C) “Have I mentioned my idea about selling birth control over the counter?”

  • D) “Did you know I’m going to be competing next year on ‘Big Brother?’ ”

6.  Citizens in some states will be deciding interesting ballot questions. Alabamians, for instance, will vote on:

  • A) Whether to ban the sale of alcohol and whether to surround the entire state with an electric fence.

  • B) Whether to ban the use of Shariah law and whether to establish a constitutional right to hunt.

  • C) Whether to establish a state holiday honoring the birthday of native son Jim Nabors.

  • D) Whether to change the official state freshwater fish from the largemouth bass to the smallmouth bass.

7.  In the Iowa Senate race, the Democrat Bruce Braley is having an unexpectedly tough time. Which of the following did he not do:

  • A) Get quoted during the government shutdown complaining about the lack of towel service in the congressional gym.

  • B) Get caught on tape warning a group of trial lawyers that if Democrats don’t keep control of the Senate, the Judiciary Committee would be run by “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”

  • C) Brag that he grew up castrating llamas.

  • D) Get into a fight with a neighbor over the wandering habits of her hens, which turned out to be “therapy chickens” used to calm troubled children.

8.  In Florida, the College Republican National Committee has an ad aimed at young women, in which:

  • A) Mothers-to-be discuss which candidate for governor would provide better early childhood education.

  • B) A graduate student tells her friends what Gov. Rick Scott has done to combat global warming.

  • C) An announcer explains how Gov. Rick Scott has created job opportunities.

  • D) A bride-to-be tries to decide whether to buy a wedding dress named Rick Scott or one named Charlie Crist. (“The Rick Scott is perfect.”)

 

I got 7 out of 8 correct.  Here’s the answer key:  1C, 2D, 3A, 4A (I missed this one), 5B, 6B, 7C, and 8D.  (I’ll confess that I hoped I was wrong about #8, but alas it’s Florida so I went for the weaponized stupid…)

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

October 28, 2014

Oh, cripes.  In a spectacular, flaming pile of turds called “Why Partyism Is Wrong” Bobo actually says that political discrimination is more prevalent than you would imagine, and its harmful effects haven’t been fully considered.  The hypocrisy is mind-boggling…  Mr. Cohen, in “A Climate of Fear,” says we have the remorse of Pandora, and that the technological spirit we have let slip from the box has turned into a monster.  Mr. Nocera asks a question:  “Are Our Courts For Sale?”  (Joe, everything in this nation is now officially for sale…) He says in the post-Citizens United political system, ads are affecting judges and becoming corrosive to the rule of law.  No shit, really?  Who’da thunk it?  Here’s Bobo’s flaming bag of dog poop:

A college student came to me recently with a quandary. He’d spent the summer interning at a conservative think tank. Now he was applying to schools and companies where most people were liberal. Should he remove the internship from his résumé?

I advised him not to. Even if people disagreed with his politics, I argued, they’d still appreciate his public spiritedness. But now I’m thinking that advice was wrong. There’s a lot more political discrimination than I thought. In fact, the best recent research suggests that there’s more political discrimination than there is racial discrimination.

For example, political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood gave 1,000 people student résumés and asked them which students should get scholarships. The résumés had some racial cues (membership in African-American Students Association) and some political cues (member of Young Republicans).

Race influenced decisions. Blacks favored black students 73 percent to 27 percent, and whites favored black students slightly. But political cues were more powerful. Both Democrats and Republicans favored students who agreed with them 80 percent of the time. They favored students from their party even when other students had better credentials.

Iyengar and Westwood conducted other experiments to measure what Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School calls “partyism.” They gave subjects implicit association tests, which measure whether people associate different qualities with positive or negative emotions. They had people play the trust game, which measures how much people are willing to trust different kinds of people.

In those situations, they found pervasive prejudice. And political biases were stronger than their racial biases.

In a Bloomberg View column last month, Sunstein pointed to polling data that captured the same phenomenon. In 1960, roughly 5 percent of Republicans and Democrats said they’d be “displeased” if their child married someone from the other party. By 2010, 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats said they would mind.

Politics is obviously a passionate activity, in which moral values clash. Debates over Obamacare, charter schools or whether the United States should intervene in Syria stir serious disagreement. But these studies are measuring something different. People’s essential worth is being measured by a political label: whether they should be hired, married, trusted or discriminated against.

The broad social phenomenon is that as personal life is being de-moralized, political life is being hyper-moralized. People are less judgmental about different lifestyles, but they are more judgmental about policy labels.

The features of the hyper-moralized mind-set are all around. More people are building their communal and social identities around political labels. Your political label becomes the prerequisite for membership in your social set.

Politics becomes a marker for basic decency. Those who are not members of the right party are deemed to lack basic compassion, or basic loyalty to country.

Finally, political issues are no longer just about themselves; they are symbols of worth and dignity. When many rural people defend gun rights, they’re defending the dignity and respect of rural values against urban snobbery.

There are several reasons politics has become hyper-moralized in this way. First, straight moral discussion has atrophied. There used to be public theologians and philosophers who discussed moral issues directly. That kind of public intellectual is no longer prominent, so moral discussion is now done under the guise of policy disagreement, often by political talk-show hosts.

Second, highly educated people are more likely to define themselves by what they believe than by their family religion, ethnic identity or region.

Third, political campaigns and media provocateurs build loyalty by spreading the message that electoral disputes are not about whether the top tax rate will be 36 percent or 39 percent, but are about the existential fabric of life itself.

The problem is that hyper-moralization destroys politics. Most of the time, politics is a battle between competing interests or an attempt to balance partial truths. But in this fervent state, it turns into a Manichaean struggle of light and darkness. To compromise is to betray your very identity. When schools, community groups and workplaces get defined by political membership, when speakers get disinvited from campus because they are beyond the pale, then every community gets dumber because they can’t reap the benefits of diverging viewpoints and competing thought.

This mentality also ruins human interaction. There is a tremendous variety of human beings within each political party. To judge human beings on political labels is to deny and ignore what is most important about them. It is to profoundly devalue them. That is the core sin of prejudice, whether it is racism or partyism.

The personal is not political. If you’re judging a potential daughter-in-law on political grounds, your values are out of whack.

Well, if she supports the teatards it probably means she’s a narrow minded little bigot, which are not values I support…  Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

I don’t know about you, but I find dinner conversations often veer in strange directions these days, like the friend telling me the other evening that the terrorists calling themselves Islamic State could easily dispatch one of their own to West Africa, make sure he contracts Ebola, then get him onto the London Underground or the Paris Metro or the New York subway, squeezed up against plenty of other folk at rush hour, and bingo!

“I mean,” he said, “I can’t possibly be the first to have thought of this. It’s easy. They want to commit suicide anyway, right?”

Right: We are vulnerable, less safe than we thought.

A mouthful of pasta and on he went about how the time has come to blow up the entire Middle East, it’s done for, finished; and how crazy the energy market is right now with the Saudis trying to drive down prices in order to make costly American shale oil production less viable, which in turn should ensure the United States continues to buy Saudi crude even now that it has become the world’s largest oil producer.

But of course the Russians are not happy about cheap oil, nor are the Iranians, and the bottom line is it’s chaos out there, sharks devouring one another. Nothing happens by chance, certainly not a 25 percent drop in oil prices. Somebody would pay for this plot.

Not so long ago, I struggled to remind myself, this guy was brimming over with idealism, throwing in a big investment-banking job to go to the Middle East and invest his energies in democratic change, a free press, a new order, bending my ear about how the time had come for the region and his country in particular to join the modern world. Nothing in the Arab genome condemned the region to backwardness, violence and paranoia. His belief was fervid. It was married to deeds. He walked the walk for change. I was full of admiration.

Then a shadow fell over the world: annexations, beheadings, pestilence, Syria, Gaza and the return of the Middle Eastern strongmen. Hope gave way to fever. When Canada is no longer reassuring, it’s all over.

We are vulnerable and we are fearful. That is the new zeitgeist, at least in the West. Fanaticism feeds on frustration; and frustration is widespread because life for many is not getting better. People fret.

Come to think of it, our conversation was not encrypted. How foolish, anybody could be listening in, vacuuming my friend’s dark imaginings into some data-storage depot in the American desert, to be sifted through by a bunch of spooks who could likely hack into his phone or drum up some charge of plotting against the West by having ideas about the propagation of Ebola. Even the healers are being humiliated and quarantined, punished for their generous humanity, while the humanoid big-data geeks get soda, steak and a condo in Nevada.

There were cameras and listening devices everywhere. Just look up, look around. It was a mistake to say anything within range of your phone. Lots of people were vulnerable. Anyone could hack into the software in your car, or the drip at your hospital bed, and make a mess of you.

What has happened? Why this shadow over the dinner table and such strange fears? It seems we have the remorse of Pandora. The empowering, all-opening, all-devouring technological spirit we have let slip from the box has turned into a monster, giving the killers-for-a-caliphate new powers to recruit, the dictators new means to repress, the spies new means to listen in, the fear mongers new means to spread alarm, the rich new means to get richer at the expense of the middle class, the marketers new means to numb, the tax evaders new means to evade, viruses new means to spread, devices new means to obsess, the rising powers new means to block the war-weary risen, and anxiety new means to inhabit the psyche.

Hyper-connection equals isolation after all. What a strange trick, almost funny. The crisis, Antonio Gramsci noted in the long-ago 20th century, “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” Many people I talk to, and not only over dinner, have never previously felt so uneasy about the state of the world. There is something in the air, fin-de-siècle Vienna with Twitter.

Hope, of course, was the one spirit left behind in Pandora’s Box. One of the things in the air of late was a Google executive dropping to earth from the stratosphere, a fall of 135,890 feet, plummeting at speeds of up to 822 miles per hour, and all smiles after his 25-mile tumble. Technology is also liberation. It just doesn’t feel that way right now. The search is on for someone to dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

One of the most shocking ads aired this political season was aimed at a woman named Robin Hudson.

Hudson, 62, is not a congressional or Senate candidate. Rather, she is a State Supreme Court justice in North Carolina, seeking her second eight-year term. It wasn’t all that long ago when, in North Carolina, judicial races were publicly financed. If a candidate spent more than $100,000, it was unusual. Ads mainly consisted of judicial candidates promising to be fair. Any money the candidates raised was almost entirely local.

This ad in North Carolina, however, which aired during the primary season, was a startling departure. First, the money came from an organization called Justice for All NC — which, in turn, was funded primarily by the Republican State Leadership Committee. That is to say, it was the kind of post-Citizens United money that has flooded the political system and polluted our politics.

And then there was its substance. “We want judges to protect us,” the ad began. The voice-over went on to say that when child molesters sued to stop electronic monitoring, Judge Hudson had “sided with the predators.” It was a classic attack ad.

Not surprisingly, the truth was a bit different. In 2010, the State Supreme Court was asked to rule on whether an electronic-monitoring law could apply to those who had been convicted before it passed. Hudson, in a dissent, wrote that the law could not be applied retroactively.

As it turns out, the ad probably backfired. “It clearly exceeded all bounds of propriety and accuracy,” said Robert Orr, a former North Carolina Supreme Court justice. Hudson won her primary and has a good chance of retaining her seat in the election next week.

But her experience is being replicated in many of the 38 states that hold some form of judicial elections. “We are seeing money records broken all over the country,” said Bert Brandenburg, the executive director of Justice at Stake, which tracks money in judicial elections. “Right now, we are watching big money being spent in Michigan. We are seeing the same thing in Montana and Ohio. There is even money going into a district court race in Missouri.” He added, “This is the new normal.”

To be sure, the definition of big money in a judicial election is a lot different than big money in a hotly contested Senate race. According to Alicia Bannon at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, a total of $38.7 million was spent on judicial elections in 2009-10. During the next election cycle, the total rose to $56.4 million.

But that is partly the point. “With a relatively small investment, interest groups have opportunities to shape state courts,” said Bannon. Sure enough, that is exactly what seems to be going on. Americans for Prosperity, financed by the Koch brothers, has been involved in races in Tennessee and Montana, according to Brandenburg. And the Republican State Leadership Committee started something this year called the Judicial Fairness Initiative, which supports conservative candidates.

In that district court race in Missouri, for instance, Judge Pat Joyce, a 20-year judicial veteran, has been accused in attack ads bought by the Republican State Leadership Committee as being a liberal. (“Radical environmentalists think Joyce is so groovy,” says one ad.) Republicans are spending $100,000 on attack ads and have given another $100,000 to her opponent, a man whose campaign was nearly $13,000 in debt before the Republican money showed up.

It should be obvious why this is a problem. Judges need to be impartial, and that is harder when they have to raise a lot of money from people who are likely to appear before them in court — in order to compete with independent campaign expenditures. An influx of independent campaign money aimed at one judge can also serve as a warning shot to other judges that they’ll face the same opposition if their rulings aren’t conservative enough. Most of all, it is terribly corrosive to the rule of law if people don’t believe in the essential fairness of judges.

Yet there seems to be little doubt that the need to raise money does, in fact, affect judges. Joanna Shepherd, a professor at Emory Law, conducted an empirical study that tried to determine whether television attack ads were causing judges to rule against criminal defendants more often. (Most attack ads revolve around criminal cases.) She found, as she wrote in a report entitled “Skewed Justice,” that “the more TV ads aired during state supreme court judicial elections in a state, the less likely justices are to vote in favor of criminal defendants.”

“There are two hypotheses,” she told me when I called to ask her about the study. “Either judges are fearful of making rulings that provide fodder for the ads. Or the TV ads are working and helping get certain judges elected.”

“Either way,” she concluded, “outcomes are changing.”


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 164 other followers