Archive for the ‘Blow’ Category

Blow and Kristof

July 17, 2014

In “Tears For the Border Children” Mr. Blow says their fate has been consumed by political theater and callous fabrication. This is not the best face of a great nation. We are more honorable than this.  Well, Mr. Blow, some of us are, and some of us are the Mole People…  In “Leading Through Great Loss” Mr. Kristof says those who have lost the most and have the biggest reason for revenge in the Middle East offer the greatest wisdom.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The fight over how to process and care for masses of children from Central America who have crossed into this country is quickly becoming a spectacle of the obscene.

While the government tries to abide by the law as written and handle the children with as much care as any child would deserve, under any circumstances, the public continues to see images of angry adults intent on confronting buses full of minors.

This month, demonstrators in Murrieta, Calif., forced buses carrying immigrants to turn back. A group in Oracle, Ariz., this week blocked a road to prevent a bus filled with immigrant children from making it to a temporary housing facility.

The latest protest came after the county sheriff tipped local residents off about the incoming bus. According to the Associated Press:

Sheriff Paul Babeu “is credited with stirring up the anti-immigrant protesters via social media postings and a press release Monday and by leaking information about the migrants’ arrival to a local activist.”

Adam Kwasman, a Republican congressional candidate and state legislator, also showed up to protest the children’s arrival. When a school bus was spotted, Kwasman tweeted a picture of it with the words, “Bus coming in. This is not compassion. This is the abrogation of the rule of law.”

Kwasman even regaled a local reporter with what he said he saw on the bus:

“I was able to actually see some of the children in the buses and the fear on their faces. This is not compassion.”

That was until the reporter informed Kwasman that the children on the bus weren’t migrant children but local YMCA campers who, according to “reporters at the scene,” were “laughing and taking pictures on their iPhones.”

Kwasman’s response: “They were sad, too.”

Well, I know that I’m sad. We should all be.

I’m sad that the fate of children has been so consumed by political theater and callous fabrication.

Some of these children will no doubt be found to simply be illegal immigrants and sent back home, but others, likely many, will indeed qualify for refugee status.

In fact, MSNBC reported last week that of more than 400 children who fled their homes, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees “found that almost 60 percent of children had legitimate claims to seek asylum in the United States. Most were escaping recruiting attempts by violent gangs who forced participation or threatened the entire families of children who refused.”

And yet, rather than refer to these children as just that — children — or possibly refugees, some Republicans have taken to calling their entry into the country an “invasion.” They have suggested that these kids are disease-ridden. Representative Louie Gohmert even suggested on the House floor that the wave of children posed an existential threat to the country, and Gov. Rick Perry hinted that the influx could be some sort of Obama administration conspiracy.

All this has raised the tenor of xenophobic hysteria in this country and is likely to poison the well of comprehensive immigration reform.

A Pew Research Center Poll released Wednesday found that most Americans want to speed up the process by which these children are processed in this country, even if some who are eligible for asylum are deported.

When that question is viewed through an ideological lens, 60 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Independents want to speed up the process, while Democrats are evenly split.

At this point, the entire issue has taken on partisan dimensions. Many of the president’s core supporters — blacks, liberal Democrats and young people — are more likely to support following the current policy. On the other hand, constituencies more likely to oppose the president — men, whites, older people and Republicans, particularly those who are supporters of the Tea Party — favor speeding up the process.

In fact, this issue has chilled Republican views of immigration in general. There has been a 10-percentage point drop — from 64 percent in February to 54 percent now — in the share of Republicans who support “a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants.”

This is not the best face of a great nation. This is the underside of a great stone, which when lifted sends creepy things slithering in all directions. We are better than this. We are more compassionate than this. We are more honorable than this.

This is not the time to give in to our lesser angels, but the time to rise with our better ones.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

In the carnage of Gaza and the Middle East, the most unlikely people have stepped forward from their grief to offer moral leadership.

The family of Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old Jewish boy who was one of three kidnapped and murdered, said in a statement after the apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian boy: “There is no difference between Arab blood and Jewish blood. Murder is murder.”

Likewise, the father of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian boy, said: “I am against kidnapping and killing. Whether Jew or Arab, who would accept that his son or daughter would be kidnapped and killed? I call on both sides to stop the bloodshed.”

Thus those who have lost the most, who have the greatest reason for revenge, offer the greatest wisdom. Yet, instead, it is now hard-liners on each side who are driving events, in turn empowering hard-liners on the other side.

Look, when militants in Gaza fire rockets at Israel, then Israel has a right to respond, but with some proportionality. More than 200 Gazans have been killed, three-quarters of them civilians, according to United Nations officials; one Israeli has been killed. In any case, Israel’s long-term interest lies in de-escalating, not moving to the ground war it now threatens.

Remember that the trend had been away from Gaza rocket strikes. Last year, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry website, there were far fewer rocket strikes on Israel than in any year since Hamas took over Gaza in 2006. But then, since June, there were the kidnappings and killings, rockets and the kind of mutual escalation that arises when each side thinks that the other understands only violence.

When missiles are flying, hard-liners on each side are ascendant. They purport to be defenders of their people, but, in fact, they’ve repeatedly demonstrated myopia and taken actions that ultimately created vulnerability and weakness.

After all, it was Israel itself that helped nurture Hamas and its predecessors in the 1970s and ’80s. The late Eyad El-Sarraj, a prominent psychiatrist in Gaza, warned Israel’s governor that he was “playing with fire” by nurturing religious militants. According to the book “Hamas,” by Beverley Milton-Edwards and Stephen Farrell, the governor replied: “Don’t worry, we know how to handle things. Our enemy today is the P.L.O.”

Similar shortsightedness unfolded to the north. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 inadvertently helped lead to the rise of its enemy there, Hezbollah.

Likewise, it was Hamas extremism and violence after the 2005 Gaza withdrawal that undermined Israeli moderates and led to the rise of the hard-liners who today are bombing Gaza. Israel helped create Hamas, and Hamas helped created today’s Israel.

The only way out in the long run is a two-state peace agreement. It’s true that one is not achievable now, but the aim should be to take steps that make a peace deal possible in 10 years or 20 years.

Israel could learn a lesson from Britain and Spain, both of which managed to defeat terrorist challenges that were once seen as insoluble. The analogy is imperfect, for rockets weren’t falling on London or Madrid. But Spain could have sent troops to quash Basque terrorists, and Britain could have bulldozed the offices of the I.R.A.’s political wing in Belfast.

Instead, Spain gave autonomy to the Basque Country and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher negotiated an agreement in 1985 that was criticized at the time for rewarding terrorists. This was painful and controversial, and it was by no means an instant success. Thatcher said in her memoir that the results were “disappointing.” Eventually, this approach proved transformative.

Today, in Middle Eastern terms, the analog would be a minimalist response, not a maximalist one. It would be a halt to settlements, cooperation to bolster Mahmoud Abbas and other moderate Palestinians, and an easing of the economic chokehold on Gaza to strengthen businesses there as a check on Hamas.

None of this is easy or certain. Secretary of State John Kerry’s admirable but failed peace initiative suggests that mutual distrust is so great that it may take years to lay the groundwork, so let’s get started.

When the families of a murdered Palestinian and a murdered Jew each call for humanity toward the other, it’s easy to dismiss the plea as naïve, inconsistent with harsh realities on the ground. But what we’ve actually seen for decades is that aggression on one side boomerangs and leads to aggression on the other.

In contrast, what has worked — albeit not very well and not very quickly, and in different circumstances — is the Spanish and British approaches of tough-minded conciliation and restraint to change the political landscape. That’s the approach that empowers not the hawks, but rather the Fraenkels and the Abu Khdeirs, so that an impossible peace eventually becomes possible.

Blow and Krugman

July 14, 2014

In ” ‘The Buck Stops With Me’ ” Mr. Blow has a question.  He says the president has taken responsibility for the country’s problems many times. Have Republicans?  Jeez, Mr. Blow, the question is enough to make a cat laugh.  Prof. Krugman, in “Obamacare Fails to Fail,” says the Affordable Care Act’s huge success is largely slipping under the radar.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

In trying to lay the blame for the border crisis on the White House’s doorstep, House Speaker John Boehner exploded at a press conference on Thursday, saying of the president:

“He’s been president for five and a half years! When is he going to take responsibility for something?”

The suggestion in the question — that the president doesn’t take responsibility for anything — is so outrageously untrue that it demands strong rebuttal.

President Obama hasn’t taken all the blame Republicans have ascribed to him, nor should he have. But he has often been quick to take responsibility.

In 2009, after the administration came under fire for A.I.G. executives’ receiving bonuses after the bailout, Obama said on the lawn of the White House:

“Ultimately I’m responsible. I’m the president of the United States. We’ve got a big mess that we’re having to clean up. Nobody here drafted those contracts. Nobody here was responsible for supervising A.I.G. and allowing themselves to put the economy at risk by some of the outrageous behavior that they were engaged in. We are responsible, though. The buck stops with me.”

After the failed bombing plot on Christmas Day in 2009 by a young Nigerian man with plastic explosives sewn into his underwear, the president took responsibility for intelligence lapses, saying the next month:

“Moreover, I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer. For ultimately, the buck stops with me.”

In a 2011 interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, the president took responsibility for the economy and the rate at which it was being repaired, saying:

“Well, here’s what I remember, is that when I came into office, I knew I was going to have a big mess to clean up and, frankly, the mess has been bigger than I think a lot of people anticipated at the time. We have made steady progress on these fronts, but we’re not making progress fast enough.

“And what I continue to believe is that ultimately the buck stops with me. I’m going to be accountable. I think people understand that a lot of these problems were decades in the making. People understand that this financial crisis was the worst since the Great Depression. But, ultimately, they say, look, he’s the president, we think he has good intentions, but we’re impatient and we want to see things move faster.”

(It should be noted that this president has produced 45 straight months of job growth, and the June jobs report released this month was particularly strong.)

In an interview in the 2012 election cycle, the president reiterated his philosophy about presidential responsibility in response to a question about Mitt Romney’s relationship to Bain Capital:

“Well, here’s what I know, we were just talking about responsibility, and as president of the United States, it’s pretty clear to me that I’m responsible for folks who are working in the federal government and, you know, Harry Truman said the buck stops with you.”

In a 2013 interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, the president said he was accountable for Washington gridlock:

“Well, look, ultimately, the buck stops with me. And so any time we are not moving forward on things that should be simple, I get frustrated.”

In an interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd after the health care rollout, the president took responsibility for the problems rather than simply pin them on Kathleen Sebelius, then the health and human services secretary, saying: “My priority right now is to get it fixed. … Ultimately, the buck stops with me. I’m the president. This is my team. If it is not working, it is my job to get it fixed.”

(The site is now fixed, the law is working, and according to a Gallup report issued Thursday the uninsured rate has dropped to “the lowest quarterly average recorded since Gallup and Healthways began tracking the percentage of uninsured Americans in 2008.”)

This president is a habitual blame-taker. This is the anti-George W. Bush. The fess-upper in chief. He is the antidote to the eight previous years of obfuscation, fault-dodging and flat-out denial.

This is one of the traits that made Obama an attractive candidate, and it is one of his best traits as a president.

But taking his share of responsibility does not mean he must acquiesce to his opponents and absolve them of guilt, particularly not an intransigent Congress that would rather do nothing than something, particularly not Republican leaders who envision opportunity in opposition. The president has a duty to himself and the country to call them out for the part they play in our problems.

The real question, Mr. Boehner, is not when the president will take personal responsibility for something. He has. Many times. The real question is, When will you?

How about never.  Does never work for you, Mr. Blow?  Because that’s when it will happen.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

How many Americans know how health reform is going? For that matter, how many people in the news media are following the positive developments?

I suspect that the answer to the first question is “Not many,” while the answer to the second is “Possibly even fewer,” for reasons I’ll get to later. And if I’m right, it’s a remarkable thing — an immense policy success is improving the lives of millions of Americans, but it’s largely slipping under the radar.

How is that possible? Think relentless negativity without accountability. The Affordable Care Act has faced nonstop attacks from partisans and right-wing media, with mainstream news also tending to harp on the act’s troubles. Many of the attacks have involved predictions of disaster, none of which have come true. But absence of disaster doesn’t make a compelling headline, and the people who falsely predicted doom just keep coming back with dire new warnings.

Consider, in particular, the impact of Obamacare on the number of Americans without health insurance. The initial debacle of the federal website produced much glee on the right and many negative reports from the mainstream press as well; at the beginning of 2014, many reports confidently asserted that first-year enrollments would fall far short of White House projections.

Then came the remarkable late surge in enrollment. Did the pessimists face tough questions about why they got it so wrong? Of course not. Instead, the same people just came out with a mix of conspiracy theories and new predictions of doom. The administration was “cooking the books,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming; people who signed up wouldn’t actually pay their premiums, declared an array of “experts”; more people were losing insurance than gaining it, declared Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

But the great majority of those who signed up did indeed pay up, and we now have multiple independent surveys — from Gallup, the Urban Institute and the Commonwealth Fund — all showing a sharp reduction in the number of uninsured Americans since last fall.

I’ve been seeing some claims on the right that the dramatic reduction in the number of uninsured was caused by economic recovery, not health reform (so now conservatives are praising the Obama economy?). But that’s pretty lame, and also demonstrably wrong.

For one thing, the decline is too sharp to be explained by what is at best a modest improvement in the employment picture. For another, that Urban Institute survey shows a striking difference between the experience in states that expanded Medicaid — which are also, in general, states that have done their best to make health care reform work — and those that refused to let the federal government cover their poor. Sure enough, the decline in uninsured residents has been three times as large in Medicaid-expansion states as in Medicaid-expansion rejecters. It’s not the economy; it’s the policy, stupid.

What about the cost? Last year there were many claims about “rate shock” from soaring insurance premiums. But last month the Department of Health and Human Services reported that among those receiving federal subsidies — the great majority of those signing up — the average net premium was only $82 a month.

Yes, there are losers from Obamacare. If you’re young, healthy, and affluent enough that you don’t qualify for a subsidy (and don’t get insurance from your employer), your premium probably did rise. And if you’re rich enough to pay the extra taxes that finance those subsidies, you have taken a financial hit. But it’s telling that even reform’s opponents aren’t trying to highlight these stories. Instead, they keep looking for older, sicker, middle-class victims, and keep failing to find them.

Oh, and according to Commonwealth, the overwhelming majority of the newly insured, including 74 percent of Republicans, are satisfied with their coverage.

You might ask why, if health reform is going so well, it continues to poll badly. It’s crucial, I’d argue, to realize that Obamacare, by design, by and large doesn’t affect Americans who already have good insurance. As a result, many peoples’ views are shaped by the mainly negative coverage in the news media. Still, the latest tracking survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that a rising number of Americans are hearing about reform from family and friends, which means that they’re starting to hear from the program’s beneficiaries.

And as I suggested earlier, people in the media — especially elite pundits — may be the last to hear the good news, simply because they’re in a socioeconomic bracket in which people generally have good coverage.

For the less fortunate, however, the Affordable Care Act has already made a big positive difference. The usual suspects will keep crying failure, but the truth is that health reform is — gasp! — working.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

July 10, 2014

Mr. Blow considers “The Crisis of Children at the Border” and says don’t call the president and his administration lawless on the one hand, then blame them for proper law enforcement on the other.  Mr. Kristof, in “Religious Freedom in Peril,” says this is no Supreme Court case. This is about intolerance in some Muslim-majority countries.  Ms. Collins considers “The Rant Agenda” and says from a Congress that is always on vacation, to all those political fund-raisers, to Rick Perry, to Sarah Palin, we the people have a lot to discuss!  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The humanitarian crisis of unaccompanied minors from Central America arriving at our Southwest border has brought out the worst in some of our politicians.

The amount of double-speak coming from fork-tongued conservatives on this issue is sickening. It wraps faux-concern around unwavering, and even emboldened, anti-immigrant, border-militarization rhetoric.

On his show this week, Sean Hannity interviewed Senator Ted Cruz. Hannity ended one statement by asking:

“This is getting out of hand, all because the government refuses to send people home. I’m not sure why we refuse to enforce our laws.”

Cruz responded:

“Sean, it’s a terrific question. What is happening with these children is heartbreaking. And, the president is right that it’s a humanitarian crisis, but it is a crisis of his own creation. This is the direct consequence of President Obama’s lawlessness.”

One of the things Cruz pointed out as Obama’s “lawlessness” was a 2012 executive order that allows Dream Act-eligible students to be taken out of the deportation process and granted work permits.

As then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at the time:

“This grant of deferred action is not immunity… It is not amnesty. It is an exercise of discretion so that these young people are not in the removal system. It will help us to continue to streamline immigration enforcement and ensure that resources are not spent pursuing the removal of low-priority cases involving productive young people.”

But amnesty is precisely what conservatives called it, and they were — and remain — furious about it. So, they are using this crisis to hammer the president, and Democrats in general, on immigration policy

Furthermore, they basically argue that because the administration is enforcing the law, one signed by President George W. Bush and meant to protect children from human trafficking, the administration is encouraging more people from Central America to send their children here.

But one can’t call the president and his administration lawless on the one hand, then blame them for proper law enforcement on the other.

If Congress wants to change or tweak the law about unaccompanied minors arriving in this country — and many conservatives are itching to do so — it can, but it would be creating a “solution” to a “problem” that Congress itself created.

To follow that line of reasoning, one must also accept the premise that the whole of a law designed to protect children arriving alone from dangerous parts of the world is not noble and humane. I reject that logic.

These are children we are talking about, not just numbers, not just data, not political pawns. And, although most may not meet the refugee threshold needed to stay in the United States, many may. How are we supposed to hold our heads high on humanitarian issues if, in our haste for a fix and our fixation on deterrence, we return even a few children to a place where their lives are in danger?

As the White House has put it, this is “an urgent humanitarian situation.”

According to Customs and Border Protection, 52,193 “unaccompanied alien children” were apprehended on the Southwest border of the United States from the beginning of the 2014 fiscal year through June (Oct. 1, 2013 to June 15, 2014). That was nearly twice the number apprehended during the same period in the last fiscal year.

And, as The New York Times reported last month:

“According to an internal draft Homeland Security document, officials recently revised their projections on unaccompanied minors. They now expect more than 90,000 in the 2014 fiscal year, an increase of nearly 20,000 from the previous projection.”

This surge is driven largely by children arriving from a few Central American countries. A United States Department of Homeland Security document obtained by the Pew Research Center found:

“For example, many Guatemalan children come from rural areas, indicating they are probably seeking economic opportunities in the U.S. Salvadoran and Honduran children, on the other hand, come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of traveling alone to the U.S. preferable to remaining at home.”

And the top municipalities by far are in Honduras, the murder capital of the world.

Ask yourself this: If in fact, these children were simply arriving due to the attraction of amnesty, why haven’t we seen the same surge from other nations, including other countries south of us, like Mexico

Many of these children are not safe at home or on the run. There are no easy answers for them and their families, no safe happy places where childhood innocence is protected.

To be sure, sending an unaccompanied child, alone, with a “coyote,” for a treacherous trip hundreds of miles long, is not safe. The children are vulnerable to all manner of mistreatment, and may in fact not even make it.

But that is precisely why we must treat the children who do arrive with compassion. Children aren’t caught up in the politics of this. They are just doing as they’re told, many no doubt shadowed by fear, moving surreptitiously through unknown lands toward the dream of a brighter tomorrow. They dream as any child dreams — of happiness and horrors.

And their parents are no doubt like any parents, forced to make the most wrenching of decisions, sometimes about whether to leave a child in a never-ending hell or have them risk a hellish journey to a better place.

No parent makes such a choice lightly.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

A Sudanese court in May sentences a Christian woman married to an American to be hanged, after first being lashed 100 times, after she refuses to renounce her Christian faith.

Muslim extremists in Iraq demand that Christians pay a tax or face crucifixion, according to the Iraqi government.

In Malaysia, courts ban some non-Muslims from using the word “Allah.”

In country after country, Islamic fundamentalists are measuring their own religious devotion by the degree to which they suppress or assault those they see as heretics, creating a human rights catastrophe as people are punished or murdered for their religious beliefs.

This is a sensitive area I’m wading into here, I realize. Islam-haters in America and the West seize upon incidents like these to denounce Islam as a malignant religion of violence, while politically correct liberals are reluctant to say anything for fear of feeding bigotry. Yet there is a real issue here of religious tolerance, affecting millions of people, and we should be able to discuss it.

I’ve been thinking about this partly because of the recent murder of a friend, Rashid Rehman, a courageous human rights lawyer in Multan, Pakistan. Rashid, a Muslim, had agreed to defend a university lecturer who faced the death penalty after being falsely accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. This apparently made Rashid a target as well, for two men walked into his office and shot him dead.

No doubt the killers thought themselves pious Muslims. Yet such extremists do far more damage to the global reputation of Islam than all the world’s Islamophobes put together.

The paradox is that Islam historically was relatively tolerant. In 628, Muhammad issued a document of protection to the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery.

“No compulsion is to be on them,” he wrote. “If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.”

Anti-Semitism runs deep in some Muslim countries today, but, for most of history, Muslims were more tolerant of Jews than Christians were. As recently as the Dreyfus Affair in France more than a century ago, Muslims defended a Jew from the anti-Semitism of Christians.

Likewise, the most extreme modern case of religious persecution involved Europeans trying to exterminate Jews in the Holocaust. Since then, one of the worst religious massacres was the killing of Muslims by Christians at Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It’s also true that some of the bravest champions of religious freedom today are Muslim. Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, an Iranian lawyer, represented a Christian pastor pro bono, successfully defending him from charges of apostasy. But Dadkhah was then arrested himself and is now serving a nine-year prison sentence.

Saudi Arabia may feud with Iran about almost everything else, but they are twins in religious repression. Saudis ban churches; it insults Islam to suggest it is so frail it cannot withstand an occasional church.

Particularly insidious in conservative Muslim countries is the idea that anyone born Muslim cannot become a Christian. That’s what happened in the case I mentioned in Sudan: The court considered the woman, Meriam Ibrahim, a Muslim even though she had been raised a Christian by her mother. The court sentenced her to die for apostasy; that was overturned, and she is now sheltering with her family in the United States Embassy in Sudan, trying to get permission to leave the country.

A Pew Research Center study found Muslims victims of religious repression in about as many countries as Christians. But some of the worst abuse actually takes place in Muslim-dominated countries. In Pakistan, for example, a brutal campaign has been underway against the Shiite minority. Likewise, Iran represses the peaceful Bahai, and similarly Pakistan and other countries brutally mistreat the Ahmadis, who see themselves as Muslims but are regarded as apostates. Pakistani Ahmadis can be arrested simply for saying, “peace be upon you.”

All this is a sad index of rising intolerance, for Pakistan’s first foreign minister was an Ahmadi; now that would be impossible.

I hesitated to write this column because religious repression is an awkward topic when it thrives in Muslim countries. Muslims from Gaza to Syria, Western Sahara to Myanmar, are already enduring plenty without also being scolded for intolerance. It’s also true that we in the West live in glass houses, and I don’t want to empower our own chauvinists or fuel Islamophobia.

Yet religious freedom is one of the most basic of human rights, and one in peril in much of the world. Some heroic Muslims, like my friend Rashid in Pakistan, have sacrificed their lives to protect religious freedom. Let’s follow their lead and speak up as well, for silence would be a perversion of politeness.

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

So little time, so much bad behavior to complain about.

Congress is back! Thank heavens, because there’s a crisis at the border, and the Highway Trust Fund is about to expire. Plus, the Export-Import Bank is teetering on the brink of disaster. (Days ago, we had no idea there was an Export-Import Bank, let alone what it did. Now we’re just getting acquainted, and they want to rip it away.)

And, of course, a huge pile of normal stuff has piled up: hearings, meetings, appropriations bills, plots to destroy Obamacare. It’s all a rush, given that Congress is scheduled to go on another five-week vacation beginning Aug. 1.

So the House speaker, John Boehner, wants to get cracking on the matter of suing the president.

“The legislative branch has an obligation to defend the rights and responsibilities of the American people and America’s constitutional balance of powers — before it is too late,” Boehner said, in an op-ed article posted on the CNN website.

I believe I speak for us all when I respond — say what? According to Boehner’s memo to Republican troops, the crisis that calls out for formal litigation involves “matters ranging from health care and energy to foreign policy and education.” Also, the president acting with “king-like authority.”

People, have you been hanging around this country for the past couple of years? Have you noticed any king-like chief executives? When you make a list of the things you would like to see Congress do before they go back on vacation, how many of you put “curbing the effectiveness of the White House” on the top of the list?

Feel free to rant.

“So sue me,” said the president, when news of Boehner’s alleged plan reached the White House. Remember when he first won the nomination by promising to end partisan gridlock? Do you think Hillary Clinton watches this stuff and laughs bitterly?

On Wednesday, the president arrived in Texas, the epicenter of the humanitarian crisis involving a flood of Central American children crossing the Mexican border. He was there for some previously scheduled fund-raisers. Also feel free to rant about fund-raisers.

The situation is terrible. More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the border since last fall. The administration is supposed to provide them with access to counsel and supervision by the Department of Health and Human Services while they’re taken through the required legal channels. There’s a two-year waiting list to see an immigration judge.

Part of the backlog is because of a law passed at the end of the George W. Bush administration. We are not going to complain about this law, since it was aimed at combating child sex trafficking. If you’re going to rant about George W. Bush, you should really focus on the invasion of Iraq and the ruining of the economy.

President Obama has asked for $3.7 billion to take care of the children and hire more people to process the cases. Speaker Boehner countered that the president should call out the National Guard. That should be extremely helpful in discouraging the flood of young, desperate immigrants, who almost invariably throw themselves into the arms of the first American uniform they see.

The House chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte, called the president’s request for money a “slap in the face to the taxpayers of the United States.” However, he did suggest that he might be able to maybe perhaps do something about fixing the current law. This was during a brief interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, in which Goodlatte used the word “tweak” three times.

Boehner and the House Republicans do not appear to feel any compunction to revisit the Senate’s bipartisan immigration reform bill. Or to take any responsibility for the current crisis. Since, you know, Obama has plenty of power and he should just use it and leave Congress alone.

In Texas, the president met with Gov. Rick Perry, who has complained about the issue of children at the border. He has also suggested that the whole thing might be an Obama plot. (“… I hate to be conspiratorial, but, I mean, how do you move that many people from Central America, across Mexico, into the United States without there being a fairly coordinated effort?”)

Feel free to rant about Rick Perry.

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin announced that Congress should respond to the desperate humanitarian situation by — yes! — impeaching Obama. Boehner, she said dismissively, was trying to bring a “lawsuit to a gunfight.” Always charming the way Palin brings guns into the political debate.

Actually, if the impeachment idea caught on it would be the best possible thing for the White House. Modern history suggests there is nothing the American public hates more than Congress trying to impeach the president. Except maybe a Congress trying to sue the president. And then leaves for vacation.

Blow and Krugman

July 7, 2014

In “Ramparts Against Republicans” Mr. Blow says with the plutocrats betting on the G.O.P., Democrats will need to marshal their forces.  In “Beliefs, Facts and Money” Prof. Krugman outlines how Republicans ignore the evidence and cling to that old-time economic religion.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Republicans believe that they have a chance of taking control of the Senate in November. And they do.

Who will win control is at the moment basically a tossup, but Republicans get the nod by narrow statistical margins.

Republicans need to pick up just six seats to gain control of the chamber. Thirty-six seats are open, and nearly two-thirds are currently held by Democrats. That means Democrats are playing defense in a political climate poisoned by Republican intransigence that has made much of the public sour on Washington in general. And it doesn’t help that the president’s approval rating remains underwater.

As The Los Angeles Times pointed out Friday: “Of the dozen or so most competitive races, virtually all are for seats held by Democrats. Of those, seven are in states that President Obama lost in 2012: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia.”

According to the Cook Report, “Republicans are on track to pick up between four and six seats; it is more likely than not that the number will be at the higher end of — and may exceed — that range.”

The New York Times’s current Senate forecast from The Upshot puts it this way: “According to our statistical election-forecasting machine, it’s a tossup. The Republicans have about a 54 percent chance of gaining a majority.”

Last month, Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com said: “It’s almost certain that Republicans are going to gain seats. The question is whether they’ll net the six pickups necessary to win control of the Senate.” But he continued: “If asked to place a bet at even odds, we’d take a Republican Senate.”

And big-money conservatives are flooding the zone with cash to ensure victory.

Lauren Windsor reported last month in The Nation that Charles and David Koch held their annual summer seminar for “a gang of the world’s richest people,” and, according to a source who attended the conference, “the explicit goal was to raise $500 million to take the Senate in the 2014 midterms and another $500 million ‘to make sure Hillary Clinton is never president.’”

This continues a disturbing trend in which the wealthy tilt right in the fight against the rest. According to a report last month from the Center for Responsive Politics, “So far this cycle, the top 20 deep-pocketed contributors to the joint committees are all giving to conservatives. In contrast, during the 2012 cycle four of the top five donors to [joint fund-raising committees] were giving to Democrats.”

The plutocrats are flexing their muscle and placing their bets: Republicans for the win!

For one thing, it would signal a reward for obstruction, so a government that already has nearly ground to a halt could become even more resistant to action. This could mean another lost year for us as a nation, as Congress whiles away the time in anticipation of a changing of the guard in 2016.

Or, a Congress completely controlled by Republicans could feel a need to put some points on the board, so to speak, redoubling investigative queries into conservative crusades like the Benghazi attacks and scheduling votes on, and possibly even passing, a raft of bills that stoke conservative passions, like limits on abortion.

According to The Daily Independent, a newspaper in Ashland, Ky., Senator Mitch McConnell, while speaking at a national Right to Life Convention in Louisville last month, told the crowd that if Republicans gained control of the Senate, they would schedule a vote on legislation to outlaw abortions after 20 weeks.

To that point, The New York Times’s Jackie Calmes reported last week: “With their Senate majority at stake in November, Democrats and allied groups are now stepping up an aggressive push to woo single women — young and old, highly educated and working class, never married, and divorced or widowed.”

On the heels of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, and the court’s temporary order in the Wheaton College case, this might be smart politics. Both decisions limited women’s rights relating to contraceptive coverage, and both were attacked in strongly worded dissents by female justices, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Notorious R.B.G., as the Internet has crowned her) writing on the former and Justice Sonia Sotomayor on the latter.

But Democrats can’t lean on a single demographic. The corporatists, oligarchs and plutocrats are working in concert. Liberals must marshal all their constituent groups to do the same. Everyone must vote.

Here’s Prof. Krugman:

On Sunday The Times published an article by the political scientist Brendan Nyhan about a troubling aspect of the current American scene — the stark partisan divide over issues that should be simply factual, like whether the planet is warming or evolution happened. It’s common to attribute such divisions to ignorance, but as Mr. Nyhan points out, the divide is actually worse among those who are seemingly better informed about the issues.

The problem, in other words, isn’t ignorance; it’s wishful thinking. Confronted with a conflict between evidence and what they want to believe for political and/or religious reasons, many people reject the evidence. And knowing more about the issues widens the divide, because the well informed have a clearer view of which evidence they need to reject to sustain their belief system.

As you might guess, after reading Mr. Nyhan I found myself thinking about the similar state of affairs when it comes to economics, monetary economics in particular.

Some background: On the eve of the Great Recession, many conservative pundits and commentators — and quite a few economists — had a worldview that combined faith in free markets with disdain for government. Such people were briefly rocked back on their heels by the revelation that the “bubbleheads” who warned about housing were right, and the further revelation that unregulated financial markets are dangerously unstable. But they quickly rallied, declaring that the financial crisis was somehow the fault of liberals — and that the great danger now facing the economy came not from the crisis but from the efforts of policy makers to limit the damage.

Above all, there were many dire warnings about the evils of “printing money.” For example, in May 2009 an editorial in The Wall Street Journal warned that both interest rates and inflation were set to surge “now that Congress and the Federal Reserve have flooded the world with dollars.” In 2010 a virtual Who’s Who of conservative economists and pundits sent an open letter to Ben Bernanke warning that his policies risked “currency debasement and inflation.” Prominent politicians like Representative Paul Ryan joined the chorus.

Reality, however, declined to cooperate. Although the Fed continued on its expansionary course — its balance sheet has grown to more than $4 trillion, up fivefold since the start of the crisis — inflation stayed low. For the most part, the funds the Fed injected into the economy simply piled up either in bank reserves or in cash holdings by individuals — which was exactly what economists on the other side of the divide had predicted would happen.

Needless to say, it’s not the first time a politically appealing economic doctrine has been proved wrong by events. So those who got it wrong went back to the drawing board, right? Hahahahaha.

In fact, hardly any of the people who predicted runaway inflation have acknowledged that they were wrong, and that the error suggests something amiss with their approach. Some have offered lame excuses; some, following in the footsteps of climate-change deniers, have gone down the conspiracy-theory rabbit hole, claiming that we really do have soaring inflation, but the government is lying about the numbers (and by the way, we’re not talking about random bloggers or something; we’re talking about famous Harvard professors). Mainly, though, the currency-debasement crowd just keeps repeating the same lines, ignoring its utter failure in prognostication.

You might wonder why monetary theory gets treated like evolution or climate change. Isn’t the question of how to manage the money supply a technical issue, not a matter of theological doctrine?

Well, it turns out that money is indeed a kind of theological issue. Many on the right are hostile to any kind of government activism, seeing it as the thin edge of the wedge — if you concede that the Fed can sometimes help the economy by creating “fiat money,” the next thing you know liberals will confiscate your wealth and give it to the 47 percent. Also, let’s not forget that quite a few influential conservatives, including Mr. Ryan, draw their inspiration from Ayn Rand novels in which the gold standard takes on essentially sacred status.

And if you look at the internal dynamics of the Republican Party, it’s obvious that the currency-debasement, return-to-gold faction has been gaining strength even as its predictions keep failing.

Can anything reverse this descent into dogma? A few conservative intellectuals have been trying to persuade their movement to embrace monetary activism, but they’re ever more marginalized. And that’s just what Mr. Nyhan’s article would lead us to expect. When faith — including faith-based economics — meets evidence, evidence doesn’t stand a chance.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

July 3, 2014

In “Barack the Bear” Mr. Blow says the president is caught in the jaws of a legislative trap, unable to move the country forward because a fraction of it insists on holding him back.  Mr. Kristof, in “Porsches, Potholes and Patriots,” says the anti-tax crusaders love to oppose taxation without representation, but important public investments deserve their due on this patriotic holiday.  Ms. Collins has a “Political Pop Quiz” for us.  Happy July! She challenges us to  see how well we can do on this Halfway Through the Year Political Quiz.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The president is growing hostile to being held hostage — both by the very insular nature of the presidency itself, and by the more stultifying intransigence of Congress.

During a walk a few weeks ago from the White House to the Interior Department, the president proclaimed, “The bear is loose.”

At a Minneapolis town hall last week, Obama said: “With Secret Service, I always tease them, I’m like a caged bear and sometimes I break loose.”

That, however, is the lighter side of things, the side in which the grizzly is merely grumpy because he’s feeling a bit stir-crazy.

But there is the other, more frustrating, and ultimately more consequential side, in which the president is caught in the jaws of a legislative trap, unable to move the country forward because a fraction of it insists on holding him back.

In recent years, major pieces of legislation steered through Congress and signed into law by this president have been few and far between. His major achievements during that time have mostly been confined to military positioning, international negotiations, regulatory adjustments and other executive orders.

But even he is, I’m sure, aware that great presidencies require the cooperation of Congress, and on that measure, his presidency has been clipped. This is not simply about a president, but also about our progress as a nation. Congress can’t simply sit out a presidency and have the country sustain itself.

The nation yearns for action — on employment, on infrastructure, on comprehensive immigration reform, on gun control, on any number of issues — yet all efforts are thwarted by a Congress committed to starving this president of any semblance of progress, committed to the erasure of his inhabitance of the office, as best it can be achieved.

As an excuse for their inexcusable inactions, Republicans insist that they refuse to act because they find this president perfidious — unwilling in his enforcement of existing laws and willfully insistent on breaking others.

They see him as the former constitutional law professor at war with the Constitution.

This is all happening against an international backdrop where many parts of the world in which we have a vested interest appear to be falling apart.

There is a humanitarian crisis mounting on our southern border: A wave of undocumented Central American children have arrived, and we struggle for a way to treat them humanely but also stem the tide.

According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month, the president’s approval rating on foreign policy fell to the lowest level of his presidency.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday even found that President Obama topped the “worst president” list among those who have held the office since World War II. Worse than George W. Bush? Worse than Richard Nixon? Really?

Of course, this result has to be taken with a boulder-size grain of salt. Poll respondents are not presidential historians. They answer how they feel about the president at that moment. But it can’t be dismissed out of hand, either. It is no secret that people are genuinely frustrated and disillusioned and taking out their anger on our political system over all. For instance, Congress now has a record low confidence rating — just 7 percent, according to Gallup.

A fragile period of relative peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors is quickly unraveling following the kidnapping and killing of three teenage Israeli boys. Now, as The New York Times has reported, “the body of an abducted Arab teenager was found in a Jerusalem forest early Wednesday” and “police were investigating the death as a possible Israeli revenge killing” for the killing of the Israeli teenagers.

The social-media savvy, and utterly brutal Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, continues to hold broad sections of both countries, declaring their controlled areas a caliphate, and reportedly carrying out mass executions and even crucifixions in the process.

Violence in Ukraine, pitting that country’s military against pro-Russian forces, has ramped up since the Ukrainian president allowed a 10-day cease-fire to expire.

Uncertainty at home is being reinforced and inflamed by uncertainty abroad.

There are no easy answers for how to move forward on domestic policies if Republicans are blocking the doorways, and there are no easy foreign policy choices without getting Americans embroiled in another foreign conflict for which there is nearly no appetite.

And yet, the president can see the end of his presidency fast approaching, and can look back with regret about what could have been if only Congress were in the ballgame.

So now the president appears legitimately angry. He is promising to go even further with executive actions if Congress refuses to act, and daring members to follow through on their threats to take legal action against him for doing so.

As the president said Tuesday at an event in Washington: “Middle-class families can’t wait for Republicans in Congress to do stuff. So sue me.”

The bear may be trapped, but he’s not browbeaten. He’s growling.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

The anti-tax crusader pulls out of his driveway in his Porsche, hoping that the neighbors are watching. He’s proud that it’s the most expensive car on his block. “That’s the greatness of America” he muses. “That’s what we should celebrate on July 4! I spend money so much more wisely than government.”

Three blocks later, Babbitt, as we’ll call him, swerves to avoid one pothole and lands in another. There’s a sickening thud. With a sinking heart, Babbitt gets out to examine the damage.

“*@# government!” he curses. “They can’t even fix the roads. Now I’ve got a flat, and my rim is bent! What’s the point of owning a hot car when the government can’t even fix the roads?”

Babbitt calls a tow truck and gets to the office two hours late, missing a meeting with a client. “The government is like George III,” he moans. “Robs us blind and doesn’t do anything for us!”

Voters like Babbitt will play a major role in this year’s elections, and politicians are often too timid to point out the blunt truth: Sometimes money is better spent by the government than by individuals. Indeed, it seems to me that we’re at a point where we would be better off as a nation paying a bit more in taxes and in exchange getting better schools, safer food, less congested roads — and, over all, a higher standard of living.

America’s infrastructure is now so wretched that, in some areas, the only people who drive straight are the drunks. Anyone who is sober swerves to avoid potholes.

In New Jersey, the gas tax hasn’t been increased since 1992, and two-thirds of the roads are now evaluated as in poor or mediocre condition. The upshot, one study found, is that the average motorist spends $601 per year in repair costs. It sure seems as if society would be better off spending a little in taxes to improve roads and then saving on car repairs — not to mention in injuries and fatalities averted.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives America a grade of D+ for infrastructure and estimates congestion on highways costs the economy $101 billion annually in wasted time and fuel. A study of American bridges found that more than 66,000 in America are structurally deficient; laid end to end, the deficient ones would reach from Canada to Mexico.

Yet on the campaign trail, it’s a brave politician who acknowledges that taxes have their uses. Around July Fourth, we should be able to celebrate that some of our greatest national achievements aren’t tax cuts but public investments:

• America was the first country to invest in mass elementary education for boys and girls, then in high schools, and then in widespread college education. As Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz of Harvard have argued, this may be the best explanation for America’s rise to global pre-eminence.

• The United States invested in the electrical grid, with public projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority and rural electrification. These hugely raised living standards and economic output.

• President Dwight Eisenhower, who had been part of an army convoy that took 62 days to cross the United States on wretched roads, invested in the 1950s in the interstate highway system. The interstates knitted together the country and created huge economic efficiencies.

These were visionary schemes that, if newly proposed today, might not get off the ground. Our schools have tumbled by global standards, we haven’t ensured access to the Internet the way we did to the electrical grid, and our highway trust fund is almost broke.

So, on Independence Day, let’s celebrate a heritage not just of opposing taxation without representation, but also of wise public investment. In the 1790s, President George Washington and other patriots crushed the Whiskey Rebellion, a progenitor of modern anti-tax crusades. It’s time for patriots again to defend reasonable taxes.

The ratio of tax to G.D.P. has changed little in the United States in the last six decades. Other countries, as they grew richer, chose to increase taxes and services, but the United States has resisted that trend and is now near the bottom of the pack of industrialized countries in taxation levels, notes Andrea Louise Campbell, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The wealthy, in particular, pay low income taxes in the United States. And loopholes mean that the corporate tax burden is lower in the United States than among our peers.

So as we celebrate July Fourth, let’s get real about government. Sure, tax money is sometimes squandered, as is money in business. But what strengthens us as a nation is often investments in public goods that benefit all Americans — and, after all, there’s not much point in saving on taxes to buy a Porsche when the roads all have potholes.

And last but not least here’s Ms. Collins’ quiz:

Chris Christie has spent the last several months wrestling with Bridgegate. One of the key players in the fiasco, David Wildstein, went to high school with the governor. Christie stressed that although they had known each other as teenagers…

  • A) “We had a different lunch period.”

  • B) “We didn’t travel in the same circles in high school. You know, I was the class president and athlete.”

  • C) “He did not sign my yearbook ‘Remember all the fun we had in detention hall.’”

  • D) “The story about us getting suspended for stealing traffic cones is greatly exaggerated.”

Representative Paul Ryan gave a speech about the National School Lunch Program in which he said:

  • A) “I am a real big fan of those lentil salads.”

  • B) “I propose we shut down the government until they bring back white bread.”

  • C) “Every time I see a fish stick it reminds me of the happy days I’ve spent noodling. Do you know about noodling? You stick your fist down a catfish’s throat and pull him out of the water.”

  • D) “What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul.”

The House majority leader, Eric Cantor, was unexpectedly defeated for re-election on a day…

  • A) When a fortuneteller had warned him to beware of college professors carrying books about Ayn Rand.

  • B) That he began at a Washington Starbucks, hosting a fund-raising gathering for lobbyists.

  • C) When he promised his children they would go noodling for catfish after the victory party.

  • D) When he awoke from a nightmare in which he was posing for photos at his polling place. and realized he had forgotten to put on his pants.

Hillary Clinton got around $250,000 for giving a speech at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries convention. While she was talking someone …

  • A) Discovered that she had charged Friends of Composting only $200,000.

  • B) Threw a shoe at her.

  • C) Asked her if she was going to run for president. Clinton said no one had ever brought that up before and that she probably would.

  • D) Presented her with a surprise award for Most Different-Colored Pantsuits.

The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, beat back a Tea Party challenge from a candidate named Matt Bevin, whose terrible campaign included an appearance at a rally for cockfighting. In defense Bevin said that …

  • A) Some of his best friends were roosters.

  • B) The founding fathers liked cockfighting.

  • C) He was trying to wean the crowd off the sport of kittenbaiting.

  • D) He had wandered in mistakenly while searching for the parking lot.

Mike Huckabee denounced Democrats for making women believe “that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.”
This was during a meeting of the Republican National Committee that was supposed to be discussing:

  • A) What to do with people who keep running for president without any noticeable encouragement from the public.

  • Surprising ways to use the word “sugar.”

  • C) How to close the gender gap.

  • D) How to turn the gender gap into a money-raising attraction, like the Grand Canyon.

After the State of the Union speech, a TV reporter approached Representative Michael Grimm of New York to ask about allegations that Grimm broke campaign finance laws. Grimm responded by …

  • A) Proposing that they talk instead about President Obama’s remarks on income inequality.

  • B) Asking the reporter if he had ever stopped to enjoy the great view of the Capitol rotunda from the balcony where they were standing.

  • C) Threatening to throw the reporter over the balcony, then adding: “No, no, you’re not man enough, you’re not man enough. I’ll break you in half. Like a boy.”

  • D) Explaining that his real problems were pending indictments for hiring illegal immigrants to work at his restaurant and paying them under the table.

Former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown moved his residence to the family vacation house in New Hampshire so he could run against Senator Jeanne Shaheen. In an Associated Press interview, Brown was asked whether the fact that he had not actually lived in New Hampshire since he was a year and a half old would make a difference. He replied:

  • A) “Look, everybody knows that a person’s brain develops mostly during the first year.”

  • B) “Do I have the best credentials? Probably not, ‘cause, you know, whatever.”

  • C) “Do you want to go for a ride in my truck? I have a really cool truck.”

  • D) “Is this New Hampshire? I thought I was running in Maine.”

The Republican nominee for the Senate in Iowa became famous for a video in which she bragged that “I grew up…

  • A) In a town where it was every little girl’s dream to be crowned Miss Ethanol.”

  • B) Hoping that one day I would be able to make a difference and vote against Obamacare 60 times in a single year.”

  • C) Castrating hogs on an Iowa farm.”

  • D) Licking the butter cow at the state fair.”

10  George H.W. Bush sent out a fund-raising letter for the Republican National Committee that began: “Friend, I don’t know what your guilty pleasures are in life but…

  • A) I like jumping out of airplanes.”

  • B) One of mine is napping.”

  • C) One of mine is socks.”

  • D) I enjoy siring presidential candidates.”

 

Here’s the answer key:

1B, 2D, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6C, 7C, 8B, 9C, 10C

 

Blow and Krugman

June 23, 2014

In “The Frustration Doctrine” Mr. Blow says the many Americans who are disgusted with Washington should speak up instead of marginalizing themselves by not voting.  Amen.  Twice.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “The Big Green Test:”  Are conservatives willing to settle for “second best” solutions for global warming?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Americans’ confidence in American leadership is flagging to such a degree that it poses a critical threat to our democracy, particularly as moneyed interests seek to manipulate the malaise and stir policy and politician away from principle and toward profit.

President Obama’s approval ratings remain underwater, and an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last week found that his numbers have gotten even worse on foreign policy. As NBC put it:

“The percentage of Americans approving of President Barack Obama’s handling of foreign policy issues has dropped to the lowest level of his presidency as he faces multiple overseas challenges, including in Iraq.”

Furthermore, in the bad-news column for the administration and the country, a majority in the Journal poll felt that, for the remainder of his presidency, the president would not be able to lead and “get the job done,” whatever getting the job done meant to the individuals answering.

It was not clear if these respondents held this view because of the obstacles of Congressional obstruction, the premature hyperventilating about the 2016 cycle or if they believed there was something personally lacking in the president.

Whatever the case, assigning a president to lame-duck status more than two years before his term ends is probably not good for the psyche of a nation.

Congress doesn’t fare better. Confidence in the legislature is actually much lower. According to a Gallup poll released last week, confidence in Congress has dropped to a historic low with only 7 percent of respondents saying they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the institution.

In fact, the Gallup poll, conducted early this month, found that less than a third of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the Supreme Court, and various other institutions, including public schools, banks, the criminal justice system, organized labor and big business.

Only three groups broke the 50 percent confidence mark: the military, the police and small businesses.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week also found that nearly two-thirds of Americans continue to believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction.

As many Americans, particularly those in the middle, throw up their hands in disgust and walk away in dismay, hyperpartisans — particularly conservatives — exert more influence.

According to a Pew Research Center report issued this month, while there are more moderates than consistent liberals or conservatives, those moderates are the least likely to be politically active. The ambivalent middle appears to be the cradle of apathy.

And while the consistently liberal are more likely to do things like volunteer for a candidate or a campaign, consistent conservatives are much more likely than liberals to vote.

This behavioral imbalance is only amplified by donors, who are exerting more influence on the parties and candidates by distributing more cash. And almost all of the biggest donors are now giving to Republican joint fund-raising committees (J.F.C.’s).

According to a report issued this month by the Center for Responsive Politics:

“This year, there’s been a clear shift in the profile of J.F.C. contributors, with Republicans topping the list of the heftiest donors. So far this cycle, the top 20 deep-pocketed contributors to the joint committees are all giving to conservatives. In contrast, during the 2012 cycle four of the top five donors to J.F.C.’s were giving to Democrats.”

Big money flooding our politics is what the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. F.E.C. and McCutcheon v. F.E.C. rulings have wrought.

That’s why, earlier this month, the Senate held a debate in the Judiciary Committee on a constitutional amendment proposed by a Democrat that was a direct response to the Supreme Court decisions.

Then there are the enormous and profound voter suppression efforts sweeping many parts of the country, particularly the South, and disproportionately disenfranchising people of color, as a new report from the Center for American Progress and the Southern Elections Foundation points out.

There is a concerted effort to confuse, obfuscate and disenfranchise — to push more people away from the process, so that those who remain have more influence.

We can’t afford to get frustrated and check out. We have to ask ourselves: Is frustration part of the plan? Is your exasperation an entree to your marginalization? And, if your vote isn’t valuable, why are so many working so hard to take it away?

Don’t let your frustration become your foil; wield it like a sword. Vote.

Not that it will really do any good, no matter who’s elected.  They’ll still be controlled by big money and lobbyists…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

On Sunday Henry Paulson, the former Treasury secretary and a lifelong Republican, had an Op-Ed article about climate policy in The New York Times. In the article, he declared that man-made climate change is “the challenge of our time,” and called for a national tax on carbon emissions to encourage conservation and the adoption of green technologies. Considering the prevalence of climate denial within today’s G.O.P., and the absolute opposition to any kind of tax increase, this was a brave stand to take.

But not nearly brave enough. Emissions taxes are the Economics 101 solution to pollution problems; every economist I know would start cheering wildly if Congress voted in a clean, across-the-board carbon tax. But that isn’t going to happen in the foreseeable future. A carbon tax may be the best thing we could do, but we won’t actually do it.

Yet there are a number of second-best things (in the technical sense, as I’ll explain shortly) that we’re either doing already or might do soon. And the question for Mr. Paulson and other conservatives who consider themselves environmentalists is whether they’re willing to accept second-best answers, and in particular whether they’re willing to accept second-best answers implemented by the other party. If they aren’t, their supposed environmentalism is an empty gesture.

Let me give some examples of what I’m talking about.

First, consider rules like fuel efficiency standards, or “net metering” mandates requiring that utilities buy back the electricity generated by homeowners’ solar panels. Any economics student can tell you that such rules are inefficient compared with the clean incentives provided by an emissions tax. But we don’t have an emissions tax, and fuel efficiency rules and net metering reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So a question for conservative environmentalists: Do you support the continuation of such mandates, or are you with the business groups (spearheaded by the Koch brothers) campaigning to eliminate them and impose fees on home solar installations?

Second, consider government support for clean energy via subsidies and loan guarantees. Again, if we had an appropriately high emissions tax such support might not be necessary (there would be a case for investment promotion even then, but never mind). But we don’t have such a tax. So the question is, Are you O.K. with things like loan guarantees for solar plants, even though we know that some loans will go bad, Solyndra-style?

Finally, what about the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal that it use its regulatory authority to impose large reductions in emissions from power plants? The agency is eager to pursue market-friendly solutions to the extent it can — basically by imposing emissions limits on states, while encouraging states or groups of states to create cap-and-trade systems that effectively put a price on carbon. But this will nonetheless be a partial approach that addresses only one source of greenhouse gas emissions. Are you willing to support this partial approach?

By the way: Readers well versed in economics will recognize that I’m talking about what is technically known as the “theory of the second best.” According to this theory, distortions in one market — in this case, the fact that there are large social costs to carbon emissions, but individuals and firms don’t pay a price for emitting carbon — can justify government intervention in other, related markets. Second-best arguments have a dubious reputation in economics, because the right policy is always to eliminate the primary distortion, if you can. But sometimes you can’t, and this is one of those times.

Which brings me back to Mr. Paulson. In his Op-Ed he likens the climate crisis to the financial crisis he helped confront in 2008. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good analogy: In the financial crisis he could credibly argue that disaster was only days away, while the climate catastrophe will unfold over many decades.

So let me suggest a different analogy, one that he probably won’t like. In policy terms, climate action — if it happens at all — will probably look like health reform. That is, it will be an awkward compromise dictated in part by the need to appease special interests, not the clean, simple solution you would have implemented if you could have started from scratch. It will be the subject of intense partisanship, relying overwhelmingly on support from just one party, and will be the subject of constant, hysterical attacks. And it will, if we’re lucky, nonetheless do the job.

Did I mention that health reform is clearly working, despite its flaws?

The question for Mr. Paulson and those of similar views is whether they’re willing to go along with that kind of imperfection. If they are, welcome aboard.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

June 19, 2014

In “The Gall of Dick Cheney” Mr. Blow says Bush may have been a disastrous president, but at least he isn’t chiding the current administration as it tries to right his wrong in Iraq.  Mr. Kristof, in “On Iraq, Echoes of 2003,” says all the options for addressing the crisis in Iraq are bad. But American military intervention risks making things worse.  In the comments “RoughAcres” from New York says “From Bremer to Bolton, from Cheney to McCain, from Romney to Kristol… NONE of them have the slightest idea what they’re talking about.  Can we stop asking their opinion? PLEASE?”  Amen.  In “Mitt! Again! What?” Ms. Collins says Mitt Romney may not officially be running for anything, but he is still making waves. What can we say? Everything old is old again.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The situation in Iraq is truly worrisome, as militants threaten to tear the country asunder and disrupt the fragile, short-lived period absent all-out war there.

We have strategic interests in preventing Iraq from unraveling, not least of which is that we don’t need the country to become a haven for terrorists, particularly those who might see America as a target.

And of course, there is the uneasy subject of oil: Volatility in the region has already sent global oil prices soaring. On Wednesday, militants were said to have taken control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery.

We have to tread carefully here. There are no saints to be seen in this situation. Everyone’s hands are bloody. And, we don’t want to again get mired in a conflict in a country from which we have only recently extricated ourselves.

As we weigh our response, one of the last people who should say anything on the subject is a man who is partly responsible for the problem.

But former Vice President Dick Cheney, who was in the administration that deceived us into a nine-year war in Iraq, just can’t seem to keep his peace.

In an Op-Ed published with his daughter, Liz, in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, the Cheneys write:

“Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.”

This, from the man who helped lead us into this trumped-up war, searching for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, a war in which some 4,500 members of the American military were killed, many thousands more injured, and that is running a tab of trillions of dollars.

During the lead-up to the war, Mr. Cheney said to Tim Russert: “I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators.” Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Even if it were indeed rare to be “so wrong,” as Mr. Cheney puts it, he was vice president in an administration that was much more tragically wrong. His whole legacy is wrapped in wrong.

At one point in the article, the Cheneys state:

“Iraq is at risk of falling to a radical Islamic terror group and Mr. Obama is talking climate change. Terrorists take control of more territory and resources than ever before in history, and he goes golfing.”

Mr. Cheney must think that we have all forgotten the scene from “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary, in which President George W. Bush, brandishing a club on a golf course, looks into the camera and says,

“I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you.”

That is quickly followed by, “Now, watch this drive,” and a shot of Bush swinging at the ball.

In fact, on one of the rare occasions that Mr. Cheney was actually right, in 1994, he warned about the problems that would be created by deposing Saddam Hussein:

“Once you got to Iraq and took it over, and took down Saddam Hussein’s government, then what are you going to put in its place? That’s a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq you can easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off. Part of it the Syrians would like to have to the west. Part of eastern Iraq, the Iranians would like to claim, fought over for eight years. In the north you’ve got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey. It’s a quagmire.”

That was quite prescient. And yet, the Bush administration pushed us into the Iraq war anyway, and the quagmire we now confront.

That’s why it’s so galling to read Mr. Cheney chastising this administration for its handling of the disaster that Mr. Cheney himself foresaw, but ignored.

I know that we as Americans have short attention spans, but most of us don’t suffer from amnesia. The Bush administration created this mess, and the Obama administration now has to clean it up.

The Cheneys wrote: “This president is willfully blind to the impact of his policies,” Mr. Cheney seemingly oblivious to the irony.

George W. Bush may well have been a disaster of a president (in a 2010 Siena College Research Institute survey, 238 presidential scholars ranked Bush among the five “worst ever” presidents in American history), but at least he has the dignity and grace — or shame and humility — to recede from public life with his family and his painting, and not chide and meddle with the current administration as it tries to right his wrong.

Mr. Cheney, meanwhile, is still trying to bend history toward an exoneration of his guilt and an expunging of his record. But history, on this, is stiff, and his record is written in blood.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Is this 2014 or 2003?

I’m flinching at a painful sense of déjà vu as we hear calls for military intervention in Iraq, as President Obama himself — taunted by critics who contend he’s weak — is said to be considering drone strikes there.

Our 2003 invasion of Iraq should be a warning that military force sometimes transforms a genuine problem into something worse. The war claimed 4,500 American lives and, according to a mortality study published in a peer-reviewed American journal, 500,000 Iraqi lives. Linda Bilmes, a Harvard expert in public finance, tells me that her latest estimate is that the total cost to the United States of the Iraq war will be $4 trillion.

That’s a $35,000 tax on the average American household. The total would be enough to ensure that all children could attend preschool in the United States, that most people with AIDS worldwide could receive treatment, and that every child worldwide could attend school — for the next 83 years. Instead, we financed a futile war that was like a Mobius strip, bringing us right back to an echo of where we started.

We might have learned some humility. Yes, the military toolbox is handy and often useful. But one of the most basic lessons of international relations is a frustrating one: There are more problems than solutions. Governments, like doctors, should weigh the principle, “First, do no harm.”

Yet Paul Bremer, the former American envoy in Iraq, argues for airstrikes and even a few boots on the ground. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, likewise, favors military intervention.

Perhaps more surprisingly, so does Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “I think most important is that we take direct action now against ISIS,” she said, according to the Washington newspaper The Hill in reference to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Sunni militant group that has swept into northern Iraq.

The least surprising hawk is Dick Cheney, who in a Wall Street Journal op-ed article with his daughter Liz preserves an almost perfect record of being wrong. From the vice president who himself obtained every possible deferment to avoid Vietnam, who asserted “with absolute certainty” in 2002 that Saddam was making nuclear weapons, and insisted in 2005 that the Iraqi insurgency was in its “last throes,” we now have a blast at President Obama for failing to extinguish the continuing throes.

Iraq has formally requested American military intervention, and my fear is that we will be inadvertently sucked into a civil war — an echo of what happened to the United States in Lebanon from 1982 to ’84 or Somalia from 1992 to ’94. Look, failing to intervene is a bad option in this case. But intervening is a worse one.

Let’s acknowledge that hawks are right, that Iraq presents a serious problem. But is American military intervention really the best response at this time? Not at all.

Remember that the ISIS invasion was accomplished by a tiny force of perhaps 4,000 fighters, and that Iraq has an army 50 times as large. It’s possible for the Shiite-led Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to defeat ISIS, but the essential first step is for Maliki (or a replacement) to reach out and work with Sunnis and Kurds instead of marginalizing them.

In The New York Times, Alissa J. Rubin and Rod Nordland reported this week that Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders met with Maliki, with the Sunnis proposing in effect a Sunni army to vanquish ISIS. That would have been a perfect way to nurture unity and deploy moderate Sunnis to crush the Sunnis of ISIS, defusing sectarian tensions. Instead, Maliki rejected the idea.

Many Sunnis in Iraq dislike ISIS, but they have learned to loathe and distrust Maliki even more. The way out of the mess in Iraq is for the government to share power with Sunnis and Kurds, accept decentralization and empower moderate Sunni tribes.

If all that happens, it may be reasonable for the United States to back a united Iraqi government by authorizing airstrikes against ISIS fighters. Without that, we simply become an accomplice to Maliki’s intransigence, assisting one party in a civil war. As Gen. David Petraeus told a London conference, “This cannot be the United States being the air force for Shia militias.”

Unfortunately, it looks as if Maliki is doubling down, revving up his Shiite base rather building a common front. The Iraqi government should be releasing Sunni prisoners as a good-will gesture. Instead, prisoners have been executed by police.

Military force can be a powerful, indispensable tool, as we saw in Kosovo and with the no-fly-zone over Kurdistan. But the $4 trillion lesson from the Iraq war is that while our military capabilities are dazzling and sometimes intoxicating, they cannot be the solution to every problem.

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Mitt Romney is back.

Don’t leap to any conclusions. After all, there are a lot of different ways to be back. You can be back as in “back running for president.” Or just back as in “back in the public eye.” Or back driving to Canada with a dog strapped to the car roof.

Until recently, Romney just seemed to be looking for a public persona, maybe something between Jimmy Carter (Nobel Peace Prize, eliminating Guinea worm disease) and former Republican presidential hopeful Fred Thompson (starring in TV ads for reversible mortgages).

Romney was host of an “ideas summit” in Utah last week that drew several eager presidential wannabes and a raft of Republican establishment financial figures. Also the former governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, the token Democratic speaker.

“It was an ideas conference. I am a person of a lot of ideas,” Schweitzer said in a phone interview.

The potential Republican candidates ranged from Rand Paul, who seemed to be regarded as interesting but scary, to Mike Huckabee, who we really have to stop encouraging by mentioning his name. But not Jeb Bush, who had a scheduling conflict. Did that mean Jeb Bush is not going to run in 2016? Moderate Republicans are really desperate to have Bush, even though he would very possibly be the most boring presidential nominee since … I don’t know. There have been a lot of very dull presidential nominees, but they were not the third member of their family to run at the top of the ticket.

Instantly — instantly — people began speculating that Mitt might be The One. Romney himself made the news talk show rounds, happily denying that he was interested.

“I brought a number of the 2016 contenders here to meet with my fund-raisers,” Romney said of his summit. “Had I been running, I wouldn’t be doing (that).”

Excellent point. Much of the warmth currently being beamed in Romney’s direction has to do with the fact that this is a guy who raised $1 billion for his presidential race and is still friends with the people who helped him do it. Romney, some people speculated, might just want to become the party’s “kingmaker.” You can’t deny that kingmaker sounds like an attractive career goal.

And Republicans have traditionally been nicer to their loser presidential candidates than Democrats. Everyone has forgotten that John McCain even ran. They’ve most definitely forgiven George H.W. Bush for losing his second term. Just the other day, I received a fund-raising letter from H.W. on behalf of the Republican National Committee that began: “Friend, I don’t know what your guilty pleasures are in life, but one of mine is socks.” This has nothing to do with Mitt Romney, but I really did want to mention it.

Could powerful moderates in the Republican Party be desperate enough to want to bring back Mitt? The guy who raised $1 billion for his presidential race and still managed to lose the election? He doesn’t seem to have changed. Still, the little tufts of gray hair by his ears. The way he reacts to difficult questions by looking as if he just whiffed an unpleasant smell. The good old heh-heh-heh.

These are trying times for Republicans. Actually, things are pretty bad for both parties: The Democrats could lose the Senate, and Hillary Clinton’s book sales are iffy. But, at the moment, the Republicans’ traumas are a lot more action-packed. The defeat of the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, terrified many of the party establishment’s supporters, particularly since Cantor’s opponent ran against Wall Street, big business and bank bailouts.

It’s a problem, if you’re a big-money donor, to be worried that your party is being taken over by crazy people who will alienate the voters in a national election by opposing immigration reform and contraception. It’s a catastrophe to be worried that it’s being taken over by economic populists.

Mitt Romney is never going to run as a man of the people. You will remember how well that worked the last time around. Instead, he’s talking foreign policy. It’s the topic of the moment. And unlike, say, Chris Christie, Romney has the aura of a serious guy. Unlike, say, Jeb Bush, he is not related to anybody who invaded Iraq.

To win against Hillary Clinton, Romney said on “Meet the Press,” “the playbook, I believe, is to look at her record. I think you have to consider what’s happened around the world during the years that she was secretary of state. And you have to say it’s been a monumental bust.” The Obama administration, he said, should have armed Syrian rebels and made the president of Iraq ask American troops to stay in his country.

We will try to move past the deep, deep, deep irony of Republicans trying to score political points on Iraq. Really try. It’s just Mitt Romney. And he’s not even running for anything.

Blow and Krugman

June 16, 2014

In “Dangerous Divisiveness” Mr. Blow says that at a peak moment of partisanship, we should stop to do a self-audit of our allegiances and assumptions.  Prof. Krugman, in “Yes He Could,” says this is the Barack Obama we’ve been waiting for.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

For an increasing number of Americans, the tenor of politics has reached a near-religious pitch, in which people on opposing ends of the ideological scale take on theological properties: good or evil, angels or demons, here to either save our way of life or destroy it.

According to a report released last week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press: “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades.”

The report continued:

“The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10 percent to 21 percent. And ideological thinking is now much more closely aligned with partisanship than in the past. As a result, ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished: Today, 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.”

This is not to suggest that there is absolute parity in our polarization. As the report makes clear, while 27 percent of Democrats see the Republican Party as a threat to the nation’s well-being, 36 percent of Republicans see the Democratic Party as a threat. Conservatives were also more likely to say that it was important to live in places where people shared their political views. Additionally, conservatives were more likely to say they would be unhappy if a close relative married a Democrat than were liberals to say they would be unhappy to have a Republican in-law.

This phenomenon coincides, to a certain degree, with the rise of talk radio and the stridently ideological cable news — profit-driven provocateurs whose livelihoods ride on their abilities to rouse rabble, stir passions and diabolize opponents.

And many of their listeners, viewers and readers become the apostles of passion, enforcing rigid binary ideologies that accommodate little subtlety. Any seeming equivocation is deemed evidence of apostasy. This, in itself, is dangerous.

Our politics are now strung with tripwires of hypersensitivities and micro-aggressions. Every position is assumed to have a sinister subtext, made all the more complicated by the fact that some actually do have such subtexts.

The phenomenon, more recently, is epitomized by views about President Obama, which, depending on which silo one is in, either read as blind allegiance or blind hatred. This robs him of the glory of his legitimate achievements and artificially shields his missteps.

To be fair, his presidency, in many ways, has been hamstrung by opposition. In the wake of his ascension came the rise of the Tea Party, the incredible assertion by the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, that conservatives’ top priority should be to keep Obama from being re-elected (that didn’t work out so well), the stunning assault on voter rights, the influx of conservative billionaires like the Koch brothers into the political arena, blatant gerrymandering after the last census and the unprecedented levels of obstruction by Republicans in Congress.

Still, there are real and legitimate debates to be had about the size and role of government, how to grow and expand the economy, how to help the least fortunate in the short and long term, how to position America militarily in the world as the last remaining superpower, how to protect — or expand the recognition of — the right of the individual, especially when those individuals are members of minority groups, while respecting the democratic desires of the majority of our citizens.

We must wrestle with these each in its own turn.

There are some moral issues on which there can be no ambiguity. For instance, people cannot be treated differently because of the way they were born, developed or identify;  women must have access to the full range of reproductive options; and something must be done about the continued carnage of gun violence in this country.

There are other areas, however — the continued existence of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, the use of drones, government surveillance — that require critical, nonpartisan examination, regardless of who is in charge, in part because many of these policies overlap Republican and Democratic administrations.

We must continuously audit our allegiances, not only to keep adversaries at bay, but also to keep allies loyal and true, and to understand that our friends and our rivals aren’t necessarily discrete and oppositional on every issue. Loyalties too freely given and too uncritically maintained become fertile ground for — and, in fact, issue license for — the corruption of conscience and the betrayal of principle.

There’s a bit of squishy “both sides do it” crap in there…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Several times in recent weeks I’ve found myself in conversations with liberals who shake their heads sadly and express their disappointment with President Obama. Why? I suspect that they’re being influenced, often without realizing it, by the prevailing media narrative.

The truth is that these days much of the commentary you see on the Obama administration — and a lot of the reporting too — emphasizes the negative: the contrast between the extravagant hopes of 2008 and the prosaic realities of political trench warfare, the troubles at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the mess in Iraq, and so on. The accepted thing, it seems, is to portray Mr. Obama as floundering, his presidency as troubled if not failed.

But this is all wrong. You should judge leaders by their achievements, not their press, and in terms of policy substance Mr. Obama is having a seriously good year. In fact, there’s a very good chance that 2014 will go down in the record books as one of those years when America took a major turn in the right direction.

First, health reform is now a reality — and despite a shambolic start, it’s looking like a big success story. Remember how nobody was going to sign up? First-year enrollments came in above projections. Remember how people who signed up weren’t actually going to pay their premiums? The vast majority have.

We don’t yet have a full picture of the impact of reform on the previously uninsured, but all the information we do have indicates major progress. Surveys, like the monthly survey by Gallup, show a sharp drop in the percentage of Americans reporting themselves as uninsured. States that expanded Medicaid and actively promoted the new exchanges have done especially well — for example, a new survey of Minnesota shows a 40 percent drop in the number of uninsured residents.

And there’s every reason to expect a lot of additional progress next year. Notably, additional insurance companies are entering the exchanges, which is both an indication that insurers believe things are going well and a reason to expect more competition and outreach next year.

Then there’s climate policy. The Obama administration’s new rules on power plants won’t be enough in themselves to save the planet, but they’re a real start — and are by far the most important environmental initiative since the Clean Air Act. I’d add that this is an issue on which Mr. Obama is showing some real passion.

Oh, and financial reform, although it’s much weaker than it should have been, is real — just ask all those Wall Street types who, enraged by the new limits on their wheeling and dealing, have turned their backs on the Democrats.

Put it all together, and Mr. Obama is looking like a very consequential president indeed. There were huge missed opportunities early in his administration — inadequate stimulus, the failure to offer significant relief to distressed homeowners. Also, he wasted years in pursuit of a Grand Bargain on the budget that, aside from turning out to be impossible, would have moved America in the wrong direction. But in his second term he is making good on the promise of real change for the better. So why all the bad press?

Part of the answer may be Mr. Obama’s relatively low approval rating. But this mainly reflects political polarization — strong approval from Democrats but universal opposition from Republicans — which is more a sign of the times than a problem with the president. Anyway, you’re supposed to judge presidents by what they do, not by fickle public opinion.

A larger answer, I’d guess, is Simpson-Bowles syndrome — the belief that good things must come in bipartisan packages, and that fiscal probity is the overriding issue of our times. This syndrome persists among many self-proclaimed centrists even though it’s overwhelmingly clear to anyone who has been paying attention that (a) today’s Republicans simply will not compromise with a Democratic president, and (b) the alleged fiscal crisis was vastly overblown.

The result of the syndrome’s continuing grip is that Mr. Obama’s big achievements don’t register with much of the Washington establishment: he was supposed to save the budget, not the planet, and somehow he was supposed to bring Republicans along.

But who cares what centrists think? Health reform is a very big deal; if you care about the future, action on climate is a lot more important than raising the retirement age. And if these achievements were made without Republican support, so what?

There are, I suppose, some people who are disappointed that Mr. Obama didn’t manage to make our politics less bitter and polarized. But that was never likely. The real question was whether he (with help from Nancy Pelosi and others) could make real progress on important issues. And the answer, I’m happy to say, is yes, he could.

Unfortunately all too many people who should read this won’t — they’ll be too busy screeching about what Obama hasn’t done.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

June 12, 2014

In “The Cantor Omen” Mr. Blow says we already have a deadlocked system in Washington, and that stacking the deck against politicians who deign to compromise doesn’t bode well for us as a nation.  Mr. Kristof says “She Gets No Respect,” and that whether it’s a response to the name of a hurricane or a presidential candidate, bias against women persists.  Ms. Collins, in “Putting a Cap on Cantor,” says the defeat in Virginia of the House majority leader was “a 10 on the political Richter scale,” and there is a moral in this somewhere.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

While the beltway chatter grows over the political death of Eric Cantor, the first House leader to be unseated in a primary, it would be easy to lose sight of just how unsettling his demise is for our politics in general.

On one level, it is a glaring example — and condemnation — of the staggering levels of voter apathy that exist the further an election race is from presidential politics. Only about 65,000 people voted in the Republican primary in Virginia’s Seventh District on Tuesday. This is in a district of nearly 760,000 people, and in which Mitt Romney bested President Obama in 2012 by 15 percentage points.

In case you’re struggling with the math here, Ezra Klein of Vox broke it down this way: in 2012, 381,000 residents of the Seventh District “voted in the congressional election. Two hundred twenty-three thousand of them for Eric Cantor.” He continued:

“Cantor’s loss last night came at the hands of about 5 percent of his constituents. It came at the hands of about 9 percent of the total number of people who voted in the district’s 2012 congressional election. It came at the hands of about 16 percent of the people who voted for Cantor in that election. And though Cantor’s defeat is national in its effects, less than three-hundredths of 1 percent of the people who voted in the 2012 House elections voted against Eric Cantor last night.”

What does it say about America as a society and as a class of voters when so many sit home, and allow the voices of so few to carry so much weight?

Not only did recent Republican redistricting — and yes, gerrymandering — create fewer swing districts and safer, more politically homogenous ones, it has also most likely created districts in which that very security gives rise to more strident candidates.

First, the big picture: as Nate Silver pointed out on his FiveThirtyEight blog in 2012, the number of swing districts — “those in which the margin in the presidential race was within five percentage points of the national result” — has dramatically decreased over the last two decades.

As Silver said: “Republicans were in charge of the redistricting process in many states, and they made efforts to shore up their incumbents, while packing Democrats into a few overwhelmingly Democratic districts.”

Therefore, as Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post has written, in 2012 Democrats won about a million more votes over all for the House than Republicans, and yet they received only about 46 percent of the total seats. Ingraham estimates that “Democrats are underrepresented by about 18 seats in the House, relative to their vote share in the 2012 election.” This is how distorted our elections have become.

And now that many of these representatives no longer have to worry about appealing to moderates, minorities and women — “stop chasing ethnic groups, stop chasing genitalia,” the conservative talk show host Mark Levin told Fox News on Tuesday night — they are open to challenges from more ideologically extreme (some would say “pure”) candidates.

We have to worry about the message Cantor’s loss sends to the Republican caucus — that if they bend, even a little, in the interest of not completely grinding government to a halt and if they suggest an openness to even the most minor movement of necessary legislation like immigration reform, they could be vulnerable, and lose their seats.

We already have a deadlocked political system in Washington where doing nothing is viewed by many small-government — and some anti-government — conservatives as a victory. Stacking the deck against politicians who deign to compromise with their Democratic counterparts in general, and this president in particular, does not bode well for us as a nation.

Sure, a more strident Republican base is more likely to nominate a more strident presidential candidate, and, on the national scale, this is likely to help the Democratic candidate — Hard Choices Hillary, anyone? — but that will be of limited effect when it comes to actual governance.

The party of the president is crucially important when it comes to things like foreign policy and the selection of federal and Supreme Court justices, but laws are not passed in the executive branch, and as long as our legislative branch is teeming with obstructionists, we’re at an impasse.

Cantor’s defeat on Tuesday may now be the subject of schadenfreude and chops licking, but it may also be a terrible omen.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Here’s a riddle: Why would a Hurricane Alexandra be deadlier than an identical Hurricane Alexander?

Because females don’t get respect. Not even 100 mile-per-hour typhoons, if they’re dubbed with female names.

Researchers find that female-named hurricanes kill about twice as many people as similar male-named hurricanes because some people underestimate them. Americans expect male hurricanes to be violent and deadly, but they mistake female hurricanes as dainty or wimpish and don’t take adequate precautions.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, underscored how unconscious biases shape our behavior — even when we’re unaware of them.

Researchers examined the most damaging hurricanes between 1950 and 2012, excluding a couple of outliers like Katrina in 2005. They found that female-named storms killed an average of 45 people, while similar hurricanes with male names killed about half as many.

The authors of the study, Kiju Jung and others at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Arizona State University, also conducted experiments asking people to predict the intensity and riskiness of a hurricane. When asked about a male hurricane, like Alexander, people predicted a more violent storm than when asked about a female hurricane, like Alexandra.

Likewise, research subjects were more willing to evacuate to avoid Hurricane Victor than when it was Hurricane Victoria. The more masculine the name, the more respect the hurricane drew. The researchers estimated that changing the name of a hurricane from Charley to Eloise could nearly triple the death toll.

Women were as likely as men to disrespect female hurricanes.

We often assume that racism or sexism is primarily about in-your-face bigots or misogynists, but research in the last couple of decades — capped by this hurricane study — shows that the larger problem is unconscious bias even among well-meaning, enlightened people who embrace principles of equality.

This affects the candidates we vote for, the employees we hire, the people we do business with. I suspect unconscious bias has been far more of a factor for President Obama than overt racism and will also be a challenge for Hillary Rodham Clinton if she runs for president again.

“It’s a mistake to assume that gender bias is only or mainly about misogynists,” said Susan Fiske, a psychology professor at Princeton University and the editor of the hurricane study. “Much gender bias is more automatic, ambiguous and ambivalent than people typically assume.

“Gender bias is not mostly about ‘I hate them, I hate them,’ ” she added. “A lot of it is about ‘I cherish them because they are nice, even if incompetent and needing protection.’ ”

Yale researchers contacted science professors at major research universities and asked them to evaluate an application from a (mythical) recent graduate for a laboratory position. The professors received a one-page summary of the candidate, who in some versions was John and in others Jennifer.

On a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 the highest, the professors rated John an average of 4, and Jennifer a 3.3. On average, the professors suggested a salary for Jennifer of $26,508, and $30,328 for John. Professors were more willing to mentor John than Jennifer.

The professors’ assessments were unrelated to their own age or gender.

Other studies have reached similar conclusions, often by sending out identical résumés for job applicants — some with a female name and some with a male name. The male versions do better.

For example, evaluators assess the C.V. of “Brian Miller” as stronger than that of an identical “Karen Miller.” Stanford Business School students who read about “Heidi” rate her more power-hungry and self-promoting than those who read about an otherwise identical “Howard.”

While virtually all voters say today that they would vote for a qualified woman for president (only 30 percent said so in 1930), experiments by Cecilia Hyunjong Mo of Vanderbilt University suggest that in practice people favor male candidates because they associate men with leadership.

Professor Mo found that people, when asked to make pairs of images, have no trouble doing so with male names and words like “president” or “governor.” But some struggle to do so quickly with female names, and those people are more likely to vote for male candidates.

“There appears to be a gulf between our conscious ideals of equality and our unconscious tendency to discriminate at the ballot box,” Mo writes.

I suspect that unconscious biases shape everything from salary discrimination to the lackadaisical way many universities handle rape cases. They also help explain why only 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 C.E.O.’s and 18.5 percent of members of Congress are women.

This deep bias is as elusive as it is pernicious, but a start is to confront and discuss it. Perhaps hurricanes, by catching us out, can help us face our own chauvinism.

Last but not least here’s Ms. Collins:

Pardon me. I’m having trouble getting my thoughts together today. I’m so upset about Eric Cantor.

Yes! The House majority leader was tossed out of office Tuesday in an apocalyptic, stunning, incredible earthquake of an election in Virginia that has left the nation absolutely floored in shock.

“This is a 10 on the political Richter scale,” announced Representative Steve Israel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The Democrats were sort of gleeful about the whole situation, to tell the truth.

Cantor was beaten — trounced, really — by David Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, who had no money and so little name recognition it’s possible that Cantor himself could not have picked him out in a crowd.

What could have happened? Was it Tea Party rage that sent nearly 14 percent of the eligible voters in Virginia’s 7th congressional district stampeding to the polls, delivering a message that shook the nation to its core? Or was it something personal? Cantor’s not the most charismatic guy in the universe. Do you think his constituents sensed that he was spending election morning in a D.C. Starbucks, at what The Washington Post described as a “monthly meeting with large donors and lobbyists?”

Americans always get a little kick out of David and Goliath stories, even if — as in this case — David turns out to be a pet of right-wing commentators, who ran on a “no amnesty!” platform. We don’t actually know a whole lot more about Brat at this point. His hobby is “pickleball,” which is apparently a mixture of badminton, tennis and Ping-Pong. It sounds very interesting, although not as much as Paul Ryan’s hobby of walking along a stream and trying to grab catfish by their throats.

The website for Brat’s candidacy noted that he served on Virginia’s Joint Advisory Board of Economists under two governors and claimed that everyone in the state comes to him for budgetary insight “knowing that he tested his rural values against the intellectual elite while at Princeton.” Actually, he went to Princeton Theological Seminary, which is an entirely different place. But at the moment, people are more fascinated by the fact that his entire election budget was $200,000, which is only slightly more than what Cantor’s campaign spent on steak dinners.

There are definitely some downsides to this development. Brat, who leads Randolph-Macon’s BB&T Moral Foundations of Capitalism program, once co-authored a paper on “The Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand,” and there is possibly nothing the nation needs less than a new Ayn Rand fan in Congress.

Also, we really do not need the Republicans in the House to become even more paranoid about a primary from the right. They’ve been nervous for a long time, but this is a whole new scenario. It’s the difference between worrying about burglars and hearing that a gopher in your neighbor’s backyard suddenly grew to be 6 feet long, broke down the door and ate all the furniture.

Cantor’s district in Virginia is heavily Republican, so the Democratic nominee — Jack Trammell, an associate sociology professor at Randolph-Macon College — is a long shot. But you never can tell. Brat could wind up being a terrible candidate. In one of his first interviews after the victory, he was asked for his position on raising the minimum wage and replied: “I don’t have a well-crafted response on that one.” Now, you could understand why a guy in his position wouldn’t have a detailed plan for what to do about Syria, but an economics professor who has spent the last several months telling people that he wants to help working-class America really ought to have thought this one out.

And, by the way, what do you think is going on with the faculty at Randolph-Macon College?

But the election comes later. Why do you think Cantor blew the primary? Many observers think he’d lost touch with his constituents. This comes up a lot in congressional races, but generally not with lawmakers who live within a two-hour drive of the Capitol.

Armed with a 26-to-1 cash advantage, Cantor apparently couldn’t resist introducing voters to his hitherto unknown opponent by running attack ads, howling about “Liberal College Professor David Brat” and featuring pictures of Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, who was in office for part of the time that Brat was on the economic advisory board.

In Virginia, Democrats and independents are allowed to vote in the Republican primary. Maybe some of them saw the ads and thought: “Great! A liberal professor! And Tim Kaine was a great governor. At least he didn’t get indicted like the last one.”

Maybe not. But as the sun sinks on Eric Cantor, we have to reflect that one of the plusses to this story is that the House majority leader may have lost his seat because he made a mistake in presuming that Americans hate college professors more than professional politicians.

Blow and Krugman

June 9, 2014

In “Religious Constriction” Mr. Blow says we can’t let political leaders cast science and facts out of the culture.  Prof. Krugman considers “Interests, Ideology and Climate” and says the monetary stakes, it turns out, are not the biggest obstacle to rational action on global warming.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I am both shocked and fascinated by Americans’ religious literalism.

One Gallup report issued last week found that 42 percent of Americans believe “God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago.”

Even among people who said that they were “very familiar” with the theory of evolution, a third still believed that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago.

It’s not clear what the respondents meant by being “very familiar” — did they fully understand the science upon which evolution’s based, or was their understanding something short of that, as in, very familiar with it as being antithetical to creationist concepts?

Whatever the case, on this issue as well as many others in America, the truth is not the light.

That is in part because, compared with other developed countries, America stands out for the level and intensity of its religiosity. People are generally more likely to  say that religion is an important part of their daily lives in relatively poor countries, but as Gallup pointed out in a 2010 report:

“The United States is one of the rich countries that bucks the trend. About two-thirds of Americans — 65 percent — say religion is important in their daily lives. Among high-income countries, only Italians, Greeks, Singaporeans and residents of the oil-rich Persian Gulf states are more likely to say religion is important. Most high-income countries are further down the religiosity spectrum.”

And, in America, when people say that they are religious, they overwhelmingly mean Christian. In fact, nearly eight in 10 Americans identify as Christians.

It’s not only that Americans are more religious — Christian, in particular — but that for many, their beliefs in their religious text — the Bible, in particular — are literal.

As Gallup pointed out in a report issued last Wednesday, nearly a third of Americans continue to believe that the Bible “is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.”

Furthermore, nearly half believe that it is “the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally.”

(I am curious which parts would get a pass from most of these respondents and which wouldn’t. Would the origins of the world fall into the literal camp? What about the rules — all or some — in books like Deuteronomy?)

About a fifth of Americans said they believe the Bible is “an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man.”

Now, I don’t seek to deny anyone the right to believe as he or she chooses. I have at points in my own life been quite religious, and my own children have complicated views about religion. As my oldest son once told me, “I’d hate to live in a world where a God couldn’t exist.”

That is his choice, as it is every individual’s choice, and I respect it.

What worries me is that some Americans seem to live in a world where facts can’t exist.

Facts such as the idea that the world is ancient, and that all living things evolved and some — like dinosaurs — became extinct. Facts like the proven warming of the world. Facts like the very real possibility that such warming could cause a catastrophic sea-level rise.

How does America remain a world leader in an increasingly technological, science-based world, when so many of our citizens — and even our leaders, including Republicans who might run for president — deny basic science?

Marco Rubio told GQ in 2012: “Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.”

During a debate in 2007, Mike Huckabee made clear that he believed that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” but didn’t know when it was done or how long it took.

Bobby Jindal has voiced his support of creationism being taught in public schools alongside intelligent design and “the best science” and allowing students to “make up their own minds.”

Americans, particularly political leaders, who choose religious piety must also create an intellectual framework in which things of faith that exist without proof can make space for truths for which there is proof.

Religious fundamentalism at the expense of basic scientific facts threatens to obscure America’s beacon of light with a bank of fog.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

There are three things we know about man-made global warming. First, the consequences will be terrible if we don’t take quick action to limit carbon emissions. Second, in pure economic terms the required action shouldn’t be hard to take: emission controls, done right, would probably slow economic growth, but not by much. Third, the politics of action are nonetheless very difficult.

But why is it so hard to act? Is it the power of vested interests?

I’ve been looking into that issue and have come to the somewhat surprising conclusion that it’s not mainly about the vested interests. They do, of course, exist and play an important role; funding from fossil-fuel interests has played a crucial role in sustaining the illusion that climate science is less settled than it is. But the monetary stakes aren’t nearly as big as you might think. What makes rational action on climate so hard is something else — a toxic mix of ideology and anti-intellectualism.

Before I get to that, however, an aside on the economics.

I’ve noted in earlier columns that every even halfway serious study of the economic impact of carbon reductions — including the recent study paid for by the anti-environmental U.S. Chamber of Commerce — finds at most modest costs. Practical experience points in the same direction. Back in the 1980s conservatives claimed that any attempt to limit acid rain would have devastating economic effects; in reality, the cap-and-trade system for sulfur dioxide was highly successful at minimal cost. The Northeastern states have had a cap-and-trade arrangement for carbon since 2009, and so far have seen emissions drop sharply while their economies grew faster than the rest of the country. Environmentalism is not the enemy of economic growth.

But wouldn’t protecting the environment nonetheless impose costs on some sectors and regions? Yes, it would — but not as much as you think.

Consider, in particular, the much-hyped “war on coal.” It’s true that getting serious about global warming means, above all, cutting back on (and eventually eliminating) coal-fired power, which would hurt regions of the country that depend on coal-mining jobs. What’s rarely pointed out is how few such jobs still exist.

Once upon a time King Coal was indeed a major employer: At the end of the 1970s there were more than 250,000 coal miners in America. Since then, however, coal employment has fallen by two-thirds, not because output is down — it’s up, substantially — but because most coal now comes from strip mines that require very few workers. At this point, coal mining accounts for only one-sixteenth of 1 percent of overall U.S. employment; shutting down the whole industry would eliminate fewer jobs than America lost in an average week during the Great Recession of 2007-9.

Or put it this way: The real war on coal, or at least on coal workers, took place a generation ago, waged not by liberal environmentalists but by the coal industry itself. And coal workers lost.

The owners of coal mines and coal-fired power plants do have a financial interest in blocking environmental policy, but even there the special interests don’t look all that big. So why is the opposition to climate policy so intense?

Well, think about global warming from the point of view of someone who grew up taking Ayn Rand seriously, believing that the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest is always good and that government is always the problem, never the solution. Along come some scientists declaring that unrestricted pursuit of self-interest will destroy the world, and that government intervention is the only answer. It doesn’t matter how market-friendly you make the proposed intervention; this is a direct challenge to the libertarian worldview.

And the natural reaction is denial — angry denial. Read or watch any extended debate over climate policy and you’ll be struck by the venom, the sheer rage, of the denialists.

The fact that climate concerns rest on scientific consensus makes things even worse, because it plays into the anti-intellectualism that has always been a powerful force in American life, mainly on the right. It’s not really surprising that so many right-wing politicians and pundits quickly turned to conspiracy theories, to accusations that thousands of researchers around the world were colluding in a gigantic hoax whose real purpose was to justify a big-government power grab. After all, right-wingers never liked or trusted scientists in the first place.

So the real obstacle, as we try to confront global warming, is economic ideology reinforced by hostility to science. In some ways this makes the task easier: we do not, in fact, have to force people to accept large monetary losses. But we do have to overcome pride and willful ignorance, which is hard indeed.


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