Archive for the ‘Blow’ Category

Blow and Kristof

December 18, 2014

Ms. Collins is off today, so we have Mr. Blow and Mr. Kristof.  In “The Obamas, Race and Slights” Mr. Blow says we can talk about data on white-black bias until we are blue in the face. At some point, it simply comes down to what people believe and how they feel.  In “Welcome Back, Cuba!” Mr. Kristof says sending in gunmen to liberate the Bay of Pigs failed, but perhaps we’ll do better with diplomats, tourists and investors.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The president and the first lady added their voices this week to the raging conversation on race following the protests that erupted in the wake of grand juries not indicting police officers who killed two unarmed black men — Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

In an interview with People magazine, Mrs. Obama recalled a trip to Target during which “the only person who came up to me in the store was a woman who asked me to help her take something off a shelf. Because she didn’t see me as the first lady, she saw me as someone who could help her. Those kinds of things happen in life. So it isn’t anything new.”

Could the Target shopper who asked Mrs. Obama for help simply not have recognized her and needed, presumably, a taller person’s assistance? Sure, in theory. Or could the encounter have been disdainful and presumptuous, a manifestation of some inherent bias? Sure, that too could have been the case.

Could there have been some combination of those forces at play? Also possible.

The truth is, we don’t know. The lady asking for help might not even know. We are not always aware of our biases, let alone are we always able to articulate them. And people can sometimes be hypersensitive to bias when they are submerged in it.

All we know is that Mrs. Obama questions the encounter and has misgivings about it. For her, it’s a feeling. Others might hear this story and feel that Mrs. Obama possibly overreacted or misconstrued the meaning of the request.

But that is, in part, what racial discussions come down to: feelings. These feelings are, of course, informed by facts, experiences, conditioning and culture, but the feelings are what linger, questions of motive and malice hanging in the air like the stench of rotting meat, knotting the stomach and chilling the skin.

As Maya Angelou once put it: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

There are facts, to be sure, reams and reams of social science that confirm the persistence of racial bias in all areas of society. The cover of the January/February 2015 issue of Mother Jones magazine stamps in white letters on a black cover: “Are You Racist? Science has the Answer.” Barely visible, printed in large glossy black letters on the matte black paper is an enormous, all-caps “YES.”

The cover story includes data from the Race Implicit Association Test on the Project Implicit Demonstration website. (Project Implicit was founded by scientists at the University of Washington, Harvard University and the University of Virginia.) The data showed that whites and East Asians had the strongest pro-white/anti-black biases. These biases were also strongest among those 65 and older, although those 18 to 24 ranked second among the age groups (this strand of bias among college aged people deserves its own study). And politically, these biases were greatest among the moderately conservative and weakest among the strongly liberal. But we can talk about data on white-black bias until we are blue in the face. At some point, it simply comes down to what people believe, and yes, how they feel.

It is into this morass of feeling that we must step when discussing race. That is why interpersonal race discussions can feel so strange, messy and uncomfortable — we must confront the amorphousness and the mythologies. We must value the questions even when we cannot answer them. We must allow ourselves to empathize with other people’s feelings.

And we have to allow people — including the First Couple — to talk about their experiences, and then try to put those experiences into a broader context.

Mrs. Obama also said her husband “had his share of troubles catching cabs” when living in Chicago, and the president, for his part, said: “There’s no black male my age, who’s a professional, who hasn’t come out of a restaurant and is waiting for their car and somebody didn’t hand them their car keys.” He indicated this had happened to him.

Mrs. Obama added another incident: “He was wearing a tuxedo at a black-tie dinner, and somebody asked him to get coffee.”

But the president wisely differentiated these slights of privilege — these upper crust indignities that might sound foreign and frivolous to people who don’t regularly dine at restaurants with valet service or attend black-tie dinners — from slights that are more common and consequential:

“It’s one thing for me to be mistaken for a waiter at a gala. It’s another thing for my son to be mistaken for a robber and to be handcuffed, or worse, if he happens to be walking down the street and is dressed the way teenagers dress.”

This gets at another subtlety of race discussions: graduations of severity. There is a difference between the rarefied racial slight and the raw racial assault, but the idea, the intellectual, rational and moral deficits from which they spring, are the same. And the feeling is the same, whether you are donning a black tie or a black hoodie.

And now that we are having these conversations, some people are getting worried. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released this week found that “just 40 percent of Americans believe race relations in the U.S. are good — the lowest share registered by the poll since 1995.”

Some might see that as depressing, but I look at it optimistically. I see the result of vociferous truth-telling and justice-calling, in the face of which fairy tale obliviousness is reduced to ashes. We are being confronted and afflicted by the realities that though racial progress has been made on many measures, that progress isn’t permanent or perfect. Race remains a frame for inequality in this country.

And we can no longer dismiss racial discussions as victimhood affinity. Decrying systemic victimization is not synonymous with embracing the identity of the eternally victimized. On the contrary, identifying, condemning and relentlessly fighting oppression is part of the path to liberation.

How does all this make you feel? A little uncomfortable? Good!

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Is there any element of American foreign policy that has failed more abjectly than our embargo of Cuba?

When I hear hawks denouncing President Obama for resolving to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and ease the embargo, I don’t understand the logic. Is their argument that our policy didn’t work for the first half-century but maybe will work after 100 years?

We probably helped keep the Castro regime in power by giving it a scapegoat for its economic and political failures. Look around the world, and the hard-line antique regimes that have survived — Cuba and North Korea — are those that have been isolated and sanctioned. Why do we think that isolating a regime is punishing it, rather than protecting it?

Few initiatives failed more catastrophically than the American-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. Yet while an armed invasion failed, I bet that we would have done better if we had permitted invasions of tourists, traders and investors.

American tourists in Havana are already asking plaintively why Wi-Fi is so scarce — or why the toilet paper is so rough. We need hordes of them, giggling at ancient cars held together with duct tape, or comparing salaries with Cubans.

Sometimes the power of weaponry fades next to the power of mockery.

When I was a law student in the early 1980s, I financed a visit to the Soviet Union by smuggling in bluejeans and Walkmans and selling them on the black market. My Russian customers regarded my goods with reverence, and me with jealousy. The craving for cool consumer goods was perhaps as much a factor in the toppling of the Soviet empire as the yearning for voting rights.

Our economic embargo hurt ordinary Cubans, reducing their living standards, without damaging Cuban elites. The embargo kept alive the flames of leftism in Latin America, creating a rallying cry for anti-imperialists.

The United States, over the years, considered bizarre assassination plots against Fidel Castro, like an exploding seashell. There were also proposals to humiliate him by drugging him with a hallucinogen, or using a depilatory to make his beard fall out. Our tax dollars at work.

Senator Robert Menendez, a Cuban-American Democrat, objects that “President Obama’s actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.”

Likewise, Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican, denounces the approach as “based on an illusion, on a lie, the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people.”

The critics are absolutely right that the Cuban regime is both oppressive and economically incompetent. But wishing unpleasant governments away doesn’t have a great track record.

My views are shaped by having lived in China for a time in the 1980s when the country was opening up to the West. Waves of foreign visitors were deeply unsettling to Chinese who believed in the system.

In 1983, a British friend of mine returned to his hotel to find his contact lenses missing from their case. He asked the hotel staff, and one cleaner explained proudly that he had washed out the contact lens case in the sink.

An uproar followed. Soon all the Chinese staff in that hotel learned, with wild surmise, that Westerners had access to tiny, invisible glasses that they could put on and take off. They absorbed this with astonishment and envy.

Senator Rubio is right that encounters with new technology and wealth are not immediately lethal to authoritarianism. After all, the Chinese Communist Party is still solidly in place, and even imprisoning the great Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

Yet these encounters are if not lethal, at least corrosive. China has become less monolithic because of its interactions with the world. There’s no political pluralism in China, but there is economic and cultural pluralism. Maoist days are forever gone.

Likewise, I’m struck how often North Korean defectors have told me that they had a change of heart simply by visiting China or Russia and seeing themselves patronized as backward.

During the North Korean famine in the 1990s, the government there tried to console the starving population with television programs about the dangers of overeating, including a documentary about a man who ate too much rice and exploded. At the time, North Koreans would stare at the rare visiting foreigner, especially anyone a bit rotund, with a transparent range of emotions: jealousy, awe, and perhaps a bit of wariness in case of detonation.

So bravo for the new Cuba policy. Sending in gunmen to liberate the Bay of Pigs failed. Maybe we’ll do better with swarms of diplomats, tourists and investors. Preferably plump.

Blow and Krugman

December 15, 2014

In “America, Who Are We?” Mr. Blow says we can shout and protest, but we must vote, too.  Prof. Krugman considers “Wall Street’s Revenge” and explains how the Masters of the Universe got politicians to bring back moral hazard.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Last week I spoke at a seminary and graduate school in New York about the protests following the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases.

It was invigorating and inspiring to be among so many young people with so much passion about social justice, young people beginning to feel their power as change agents and brimming to exercise it by disrupting the status quo.

However, I couldn’t help noticing a disturbing sentiment echoed in a few of the questions about the value of voting. One gentleman even said something to this effect: “It doesn’t make a difference whom you put in office because the office is corrupt.”

I couldn’t disagree more. Voting is not some fruitless, patrician artifact from a bygone era. It is not for those devoid of consciousness and deprived of truth. It is an incredibly important part of civic engagement. No politicians are perfect, but neither are they all the same. The sameness argument is an instrument of deceit employed by the puppet masters to drive down the electoral participation of young idealists.

We don’t vote for people because they are the exact embodiment of our values, but because they are likely to be the most responsive to them.

Also, there has been too much blood spilled, too many bodies buried in the struggle to expand the franchise of voting in America for us to cavalierly shrug it off. And the effort to constrict the pool of eligible voters is too well organized and too well financed for anyone to see his or her vote as lacking value.

And yet, I do understand the bulging frustration that the political system can foster.

I understand the feelings of these young protesters who are chafing at our current representative democracy and yearning for — yelling for — more direct democracy in which “the people” make direct demands and direct decisions, possibly circumventing an admittedly polarized-to-the-point-of-paralysis federal legislative system.

Protests are a form of direct democracy.

But direct democracy works best at the local level, like town hall meetings. It is far more challenging and unwieldy when national policy changes are sought.

I understand the fundamental questions being raised in these protests and others. There is an emotional declaration: The system is broken. There is also a moral, philosophical question: Who are we?

Are we — or better yet, should we be — a nation that tortures detainees, or targets and kills American citizens with drones, or has broad discretion to spy on the American public? Should we be a country hamstrung over how to deal with millions of undocumented immigrants, or our gun violence epidemic, or our growing income inequality? Should we be a country that accepts bias in its criminal justice system, a country of mass incarceration and a country where so many young black men can be killed by the police?

Who are we?

That is a very real question. Who are we now and who do we aspire to be? Do we aspire to the ideas enshrined in our founding documents? Do we truly believe the Declaration of Independence?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

If so, then we must do as the Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. exhorted this nation to do in his Mountaintop speech: “Be true to what you said on paper.”

King continued: “somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”

He read those things in the First Amendment of the Constitution.

America is still straining, against corporatist, elitist, exclusionary forces, to be true in practice to what is clearly written on paper. Representative democracy is not a perfect form of government. It can be fragile and subject to corruption, the only guard against which is unwavering vigilance. But it is a grand idea, exquisite because of its fragility, and deserving of every effort to make it more perfect.

Who are we? We are America — impossibly strong, illogically optimistic, eternally hopeful. This is a laboratory in which one of the greatest experiments in human history is still underway. We can be whoever we want to be, dare to be, dream of being.

We are the young people in the streets, who shout out and die-in for the right to be treated equally and to live freely. We are people who must know that the voice and the vote are mutual amplifiers, not mutually exclusive.

I wish I could be optimistic about the future of the country, but at this point I’m not.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

On Wall Street, 2010 was the year of “Obama rage,” in which financial tycoons went ballistic over the president’s suggestion that some bankers helped cause the financial crisis. They were also, of course, angry about the Dodd-Frank financial reform, which placed some limits on their wheeling and dealing.

The Masters of the Universe, it turns out, are a bunch of whiners. But they’re whiners with war chests, and now they’ve bought themselves a Congress.

Before I get to specifics, a word about the changing politics of high finance.

Most interest groups have stable political loyalties. For example, the coal industry always gives the vast bulk of its political contributions to Republicans, while teachers’ unions do the same for Democrats. You might have expected Wall Street to favor the G.O.P., which is always eager to cut taxes on the rich. In fact, however, the securities and investment industry — perhaps affected by New York’s social liberalism, perhaps recognizing the tendency of stocks to do much better when Democrats hold the White House — has historically split its support more or less equally between the two parties.

But that all changed with the onset of Obama rage. Wall Street overwhelmingly backed Mitt Romney in 2012, and invested heavily in Republicans once again this year. And the first payoff to that investment has already been realized. Last week Congress passed a bill to maintain funding for the U.S. government into next year, and included in that bill was a rollback of one provision of the 2010 financial reform.

In itself, this rollback is significant but not a fatal blow to reform. But it’s utterly indefensible. The incoming congressional majority has revealed its agenda — and it’s all about rewarding bad actors.

So, about that provision. One of the goals of financial reform was to stop banks from taking big risks with depositors’ money. Why? Well, bank deposits are insured against loss, and this creates a well-known problem of “moral hazard”: If banks are free to gamble, they can play a game of heads we win, tails the taxpayers lose. That’s what happened after savings-and-loan institutions were deregulated in the 1980s, and promptly ran wild.

Dodd-Frank tried to limit this kind of moral hazard in various ways, including a rule barring insured institutions from dealing in exotic securities, the kind that played such a big role in the financial crisis. And that’s the rule that has just been rolled back.

Now, this isn’t the death of financial reform. In fact, I’d argue that regulating insured banks is something of a sideshow, since the 2008 crisis was brought on mainly by uninsured institutions like Lehman Brothers and A.I.G. The really important parts of reform involve consumer protection and the enhanced ability of regulators both to police the actions of “systemically important” financial institutions (which needn’t be conventional banks) and to take such institutions into receivership at times of crisis.

But what Congress did is still outrageous — and both sides of the ideological divide should agree. After all, even if you believe (in defiance of the lessons of history) that financial institutions can be trusted to police themselves, even if you believe the grotesquely false narrative that bleeding-heart liberals caused the financial crisis by pressuring banks to lend to poor people, especially minority borrowers, you should be against letting Wall Street play games with government-guaranteed funds. What just went down isn’t about free-market economics; it’s pure crony capitalism.

And sure enough, Citigroup literally wrote the deregulation language that was inserted into the funding bill.

Again, in itself last week’s action wasn’t decisive. But it was clearly the first skirmish in a war to roll back much if not all of the financial reform. And if you want to know who stands where in this coming war, follow the money: Wall Street is giving mainly to Republicans for a reason.

It’s true that most of the political headlines these past few days have been about Democratic division, with Senator Elizabeth Warren urging rejection of a funding bill the White House wanted passed. But this was mainly a divide about tactics, with few Democrats actually believing that undoing Dodd-Frank is a good idea.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to find Republicans expressing major reservations about undoing reform. You sometimes hear claims that the Tea Party is as opposed to bailing out bankers as it is to aiding the poor, but there’s no sign that this alleged hostility to Wall Street is having any influence at all on Republican priorities.

So the people who brought the economy to its knees are seeking the chance to do it all over again. And they have powerful allies, who are doing all they can to make Wall Street’s dream come true.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

December 11, 2014

In “This Is Your Moment” Mr. Blow says that for young people it’s a time of civic awakening, a realization that equality must be won — by every generation — because it will never be freely granted.  Mr. Kristof asks “What if Whites Were the Minority?”  He says this could be what a white dad tells his teenage son about respecting black authority: It’s a matter of life or death.  Ms. Collins says “It’s Cruel.  It’s Useless.  It’s the C.I.A.,” and that there was a lot to digest in that big Senate Intelligence Committee report.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I was born in 1970, on the heels of the civil rights movement. I didn’t witness my parents’ struggles and their parents’ struggles before them. What I knew of darker days I learned in school, read in books or saw on television. Therefore, as a matter of circumstance, there existed a space between that reality and me. It was more pedagogical than experiential.

As a young man, I could connect my current circumstances and present societal conditions intellectually to previous ones and form a long-arching narrative of undeniable progress from slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow to mass incarceration to me. But that narrative was developed in the mind. Not, more innately, written by personal tribulation or authored by the shock and horror of real events happening in real time — my time — so that the mind and spirit could unite in moral outrage and the voice lift in anguished outcry.

That changed when I reached a series of racial-justice maturation moments, two of which are particularly relevant to our current cultural discussion in this country.

One came in 1991, when I was 20 years old. Rodney King was savagely beaten — on video — by Los Angeles police officers. The video showed “officers taking turns swinging their nightsticks like baseball bats at the man and kicking him in the head as he lay on the ground early Sunday,” as The New York Times put it at the time.

Earlier in the day, before the beating, one of the officers who participated had typed a message on a computer terminal in a squad car, referring to a domestic dispute among blacks this way: “Sounds almost as exciting as our last call. It was right out of ‘Gorillas in the Mist.’ ”

One of the officers reportedly said of King and the beating during an internal affair interview: “It’s like he’s looking at me, doesn’t see me, he’s just looking right through me,” reasoning that King was under the influence of PCP. (Testing of King showed no PCP.)

This is reminiscent of the dehumanizing language used by Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson,Mo. Wilson testified about Brown: “He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”

The four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of assault.

Six years after those acquittals, a black man named James Byrd Jr. was attacked by three white men, beaten, urinated on, tied by the ankle to the back of their truck, dragged on the asphalt and decapitated by a culvert.

After that, I was acutely aware of what W. E. B. Du Bois, in “The Souls of Black Folk,” called the “double consciousness”:

“One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

After that, all innocence inculcated and nurtured by the distance of history and the dreamy visions of perpetual progress melted. A new, harsher sensibility and an endless searching for social justice formed in its place.

I knew then that whatever progress might have been made in previous generations would not continue as a matter of perpetual momentum, but rather as a matter of constant pushing.

So I deeply understand and appreciate the feelings of the protestors — particularly the young ones — who have taken to the streets with outrage and outcry in cities across this great country over the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases.

I even understand the sentiments, recorded by recent polls, that a majority in this country believe race relations are getting worse and that more than a third think police-minority relations are getting worse.

Obviously, in the long sweep of history, no one could make such a claim. Race relations are certainly not worse than they were 50 or 100 or 400 years ago, but there is nagging frustration that things haven’t progressed as fast as many had hoped. And change, rightly or wrongly, is often measure relative to the recent past rather than to the distant one.

Furthermore, for young people in their late teens or early 20s, like my children, whose first real memory of presidential politics was the election of the first African-American president, any seeming racial retrenchment is jarring, and for them, over the course of their lifetimes, things can feel like they are getting worse.

This is their experiential moment, that moment when the weight becomes too much, when the abstract becomes real, when expectations of continual, inexorable progress slam into the back of a slow-moving reality, plagued by fits and starts and sometimes prone to occasional regressions.

It is that moment when consciousness is raised and unwavering optimism falters, when the jagged slope of truth replaces the soft slope of fantasy, when the natural recalcitrance of youth gathers onto itself the force of purpose and righteousness, when we realize that fighting is the only way forward, that equality must be won — by every generation — because it will never be freely granted.

This is a moment of civic awakening and moral maturing for a generation, and they are stepping boldly into their moment. Yes, they are struggling to divine the most effective way forward, but they will not accept being dragged backward. It is a profound moment to which we should gladly bear witness.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

In the responses to my “When Whites Just Don’t Get It” series, I’ve been struck by the lack of empathy some whites show for members of minority groups. So imagine if the world were reversed. Then “the talk” might go like this:

“Son, sit down. You’re 13, old enough to have a conversation that I’ve been dreading.”

“Oh, come on, Dad. I hope this isn’t about the birds and the bees.”

“Nope. That’d be easy. Have you seen the video of the white horticulturalist being choked to death by police?”

“All the kids have seen it. He says he can’t breathe, and black cops still kill him. [Expletive!]”

“Don’t curse. It is wrong, but it’s the way the world works. And that’s why Mom and I are scared for you. With us whites in the minority, some cops are just going to see you as a threat no matter what. You’re going to get stopped by black cops, and I want you to promise you’ll never run or mouth off. Mom and I can’t protect you out there, and white kids are 21 times as likely as black kids to be shot dead by police. So even when a cop curses you, I want you to call him Sir.”

“Anybody curses me, he won’t get away with it.”

“Yes, he will. And if he shoots you, he might get away with it, too. Especially when you keep wearing clothes all the other white boys wear like those polo shirts. Black cops see you in them and suspect trouble. Black folks make the rules, and we have to live by them. Like it or not.”

“[Expletive!] Racists!”

“Hey! I told you not to curse. And don’t hold it against all blacks. Lots have joined with whites in protesting these killings. And even for those who are unsympathetic, most aren’t evil, just clueless.”

“C’mon, Dad. When a 12-year-old white kid is shot dead because he’s holding a toy gun, when a white woman professor is thrown to the ground for jaywalking, when cops smash a car window to taser a white guy in front of kids, that’s not cluelessness. That’s evil. White lives matter.”

“It’s complicated. Remember when you were suspended in the fourth grade for being disruptive?”

“That was ridiculous.”

“Yup. White kids get suspended when black kids don’t. That’s just the way it is. But the black vice principal who suspended you — he’s the same guy who enthusiastically organizes White History Month each year. Intellectually, he believes in civil rights. But he kicks out white kids for the same reason doctors give less pain medication to white patients. Same reason that in experiments a résumé that is identifiably white gets fewer callbacks than the exact same résumé from a black person. It’s not on purpose, but people ‘otherize’ us. That’s why you’ll have to work harder to succeed in life — and even then you’ll be followed around department stores by security guys.”

“O.K., Dad. Anyway, I got to go.”

“Society cares about inequality. But the big inequality debate is about rich and poor, and some folks don’t seem to notice all the inequality that comes with race. White Americans have a per capita income that’s lower than in Equatorial Guinea, and life expectancy is roughly the same as in Sri Lanka. The system here is sometimes rigged. Cops stop and frisk whites four times as often they do blacks. And that criminal record hurts your chance to get a good job, to marry, to vote. Everybody makes mistakes, but black kids get the benefit of the doubt. You don’t, simply because you’re white.”

“Dad, I got it. Can I go now?”

“I guess 13-year-olds aren’t made for listening. Look, this thing we call ‘race’ is such a petty thing in biological terms. A minor adaptation in the last 100,000 years. Race is a social construct. It shouldn’t be what defines us.”

“Hm. Feels pretty important to me.”

“Well, it kills, and that’s why we’re having this talk. But there is also great progress. It’s incredible that we finally have our very first white president.”

“Who lots of blacks say was born in Europe! And whose sons get dissed for embarrassing the White House for dressing like the rest of us.”

“I’m glad the news reports jumped all over those comments. But I wish everyone were as outraged by destructive policies. When our education policy is to send so many white kids to third-rate schools, that’s worse than any racial epithet.”

“OK. Later, Dad!”

“Just remember: Some blacks just don’t get it, but black privilege isn’t their fault. If things were reversed and we whites were in the majority, we might be just as oblivious.”

“Dad, we whites would never be like that!”

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

We learned a lot from that big Senate Intelligence Committee report on C.I.A. interrogation tactics after 9/11. It was what may be the first time in American history that the term “rectal hydration” appeared in family newspapers throughout the land.

One of the most unnerving parts involves the fact that the waterboarding, ice baths and wall-slamming were conducted under the direction of an outside contractor. It isn’t the first time the government turned to private enterprise and wound up with a human rights disaster — think Abu Ghraib. Or Blackwater. But this seems like an excellent place to demand a cease-and-desist.

The specialists’ names are James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. Like many contractors doing work for the government, they’re former government workers themselves — in this case, military psychologists. And like virtually all contractors doing work for the government, they were making a heck of a lot more than they’d have gotten as federal employees. In this case, about $80 million.

Mitchell and Jessen had acquired their expertise by teaching Air Force officers how to resist brutal Cold War-style interrogations. Think pilots who get shot down behind enemy lines and get tortured by Communists. And for all we know, they may have done a great job showing their pupils how to withstand pressure to record a statement denouncing the United States when they crash land in North Korea.

But it’s not precisely the same thing as trying to get a suspected Al Qaeda operative to tell you where Osama bin Laden is hiding. Plus, Mitchell and Jessen had no experience as actual interrogators, did not speak any of the detainees’ languages and had no particular knowledge about Islam or Al Qaeda.

They did have some theories about other psychologists’ work subjecting dogs to random electric shocks until their will to resist was completely broken. Maybe, the two men thought, you could torment human beings into the same state of “learned helplessness.” Worth a try, right? Mitchell and Jessen set about applying the theory to prisoners the C.I.A. had collected. Some of them had already been cooperating with interrogators. Others turned out later to have had no involvement with Al Qaeda whatsoever.

Others, undoubtedly, were bad people with information the C.I.A. needed, who had resisted talking under nonviolent interrogation. The question then becomes whether they cooperated better under “learned helplessness” or simply made up stories to placate their torturers and send the C.I.A. off in the wrong direction.

There’s a lot of precedent for the making-up approach. During World War II, an American pilot was shot down over Japan just after the Hiroshima attack and was tortured repeatedly for information about the atomic bomb, of which he knew nothing. Threatened with beheading, the pilot told his captors that the U.S. had 100 atomic bombs and that Tokyo was next on the target list. The bogus information was immediately shared with the war minister and the Japanese cabinet.

The Intelligence Committee report concludes that all the torturing produced very little information that was useful and possibly quite a bit that was made-up. While we would love to believe that the human rights angle would be most effective in shocking the American people, polls show that when it comes to suspects with possible terror involvement, the public attitude toward torture is kind of meh. So, wisely, the committee’s big point was useless/counterproductive.

“It’s wrong enough that one shouldn’t do it period. But wrong and useless is a tough combination,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. He was on the Intelligence Committee when the report was being prepared and now leads a Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism.

And why the private contractors? Maybe because the actual government interrogators didn’t believe torture worked either. Some complained that, after Mitchell and Jessen arrived, reasonably cooperative prisoners were suddenly brutalized under the theory that the original approach had been too “sissified.”

What made the C.I.A. decide that these guys were a good plan? Have they not watched “Homeland” this season? (Ever since Saul left the C.I.A. to become a private consultant, he’s been a disaster.) “I do think there’s something about the culture of purchase: ‘We don’t have the answer, but we can buy it,’ ” said Baher Azmy, the legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Tim Shorrock, the author of “Spies for Hire,” believes it’s just a way to hide things: “The activities of contractors are so easy to conceal in budgets.”

Naturally, defenders of the C.I.A. are rising up to challenge the report’s findings. The Associated Press got hold of James Mitchell himself, who said that the report was “just factually, demonstrably incorrect,” then declined to say exactly what the inaccuracies were.

Citing a secrecy agreement with the C.I.A., Mitchell didn’t share much else, except that being waterboarded was still better than being killed by a drone.

Blow and Krugman

December 8, 2014

In “A New Age of Activism” Mr. Blow says the energy pouring into the streets is diffuse and organic, but powerful.  Prof. Krugman explains why we had to wait so long for some decent job numbers in “Recovery at Last?”.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

There seems to be a new age of activism rising. From Occupy Wall Street, to the “Stop Watching Us” march against government surveillance, to the Moral Monday protests, to the People’s Climate March, to the recent nationwide protests over the killings of men and boys of color by police, there is obviously a discontent in this country that is pouring into the streets.

And yet much of it confounds and frustrates existing concepts of what movements should look like. Much does not fit neatly into the confines of conventional politics or the structures of traditional power.

It’s often diffuse. It’s often organic and largely leaderless. It’s often about a primary event but also myriad secondary ones. It is, in a way, a social network approach to social justice, not so much captain-orchestrated as crowd-sourced, people sharing, following and liking their way to consensus and collective consciousness.

If there is a unifying theme, it is at least in part that more people are frustrated, aching for a better America and a better world, waking to the reality of the incredible fragility of our freedoms, our democracy and our planet. It is a chafing at grinding political intransigence and growing political corporatism. It is a rejection of the obscenity of economic inequality. And it is a collective expression of moral outrage over systemic bias.

The suspicion of bias, in particular, is what the most recent protests have been about. They are about a most basic question concerning the nature of humanity itself: If we are all created equal, shouldn’t we all be treated equally? Anything less is an affront to our ideals.

Bias in the system often feels like fog in the morning: enveloping, amorphous and immeasurable. But individual cases, like the recent ones, hit us as discrete and concrete, about particular unarmed black men killed by particular policemen — although those particular policemen are representative of structures of power.

These cases make easy focal points for rallying cries, and force us to ask tough questions about the very nature of policing, force and justice:

When is the line crossed from protecting and serving to occupying and suppressing? When do officers stop seeing their role as working for and with a community and start seeing that role as working against and in spite of it? If bias exists in society at large, how do we keep it out of, or at least mitigate the effect of it on, every level of the criminal justice system, from police interactions to prison sentences?

There is a thin line between high-pressure policing and oppressive policing. Heavy hands leave bruised spirits, and occasionally buried bodies.

It cannot be said often enough that most police officers are not bad actors, but neither are most citizens.

Yet prejudice is a societal poison; each of us is in danger of ingesting it, and many of us do. We are constantly making judgments, but most of us are not wearing a holster with a gun. That is when the ante is upped about the nature and quality of those judgments: Did they unfairly weigh against any particular groups? How much force was used and how quickly?

This is why the people are in the streets. There are too many nagging questions, not enough satisfying answers. The people want their pain and anger registered.

But in a way, this is the part that can drive longtime activists to distraction: that this kind of people power doesn’t neatly translate into political power. Why not follow the recent examples of activists for gay rights and immigrant rights, who pressured politicians and worked through the political and judicial systems to achieve specific policy objectives?

But maybe in this moment the exhaling of pain must come before the shaping of policy.

Indeed some activists have already moved beyond chants for “change” and begun to develop sophisticated answers to the retort, “change what?”. The trick is to redirect the passions before they dissipate, to maintain momentum when the media attention fades, and to amplify raised voices with votes cast.

I believe — because the optimist in me must — that votes will soon, somehow, follow the passion, that people will come to see marching not as a substitute for voting but a supplement to it, that more people will work to effect change inside the system as well as outside it.

One of the people’s greatest strengths in a democracy is the flexing of political muscle and the exercising of political power, through ballots and boot leather. This new activism has the potential to create a new political reality. And it will. Eventually. I hope.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Last week we got an actually good employment report — arguably the first truly good report in a long time. The U.S. economy added well over 300,000 jobs; wages, which have been stagnant for far too long, picked up a bit. Other indicators, like the rate at which workers are quitting (a sign that they expect to find new jobs), continue to improve. We’re still nowhere near full employment, but getting there no longer seems like an impossible dream.

And there are some important lessons from this belated good news. It doesn’t vindicate policies that permitted seven years and counting of depressed incomes and employment. But it does put the lie to some of the nonsense you hear about why the economy has lagged.

Let’s talk first about reasons not to celebrate.

Things are finally looking better for American workers, but this improvement comes after years of suffering, with long-term unemployment in particular lingering at levels not seen since the 1930s. Millions of families lost their homes, their savings, or both. Many young Americans graduated into a labor market that didn’t want their skills, and will never get back onto the career tracks they should have had.

And the long slump hasn’t just scarred families; it has done immense damage to our long-run prospects. Estimates of the economy’s potential — the amount it can produce if and when it finally reaches full employment — have been steadily marked down in recent years, and many researchers now believe that the slump itself damaged future potential.

So it has been a terrible seven years, and even a string of good job reports won’t undo the damage. Why was it so bad?

You often hear claims, sometimes from pundits who should know better, that nobody predicted a sluggish recovery, and that this proves that mainstream macroeconomics is all wrong. The truth is that many economists, myself included, predicted a slow recovery from the very beginning. Why?

The answer, in brief, is that there are recessions and then there are recessions. Some recessions are deliberately engineered to cool off an overheated, inflating economy. For example, the Fed caused the 1981-82 recession with tight-money policies that temporarily sent interest rates to almost 20 percent. And ending that recession was easy: Once the Fed decided that we had suffered enough, it relented, interest rates tumbled, and it was morning in America.

But “postmodern” recessions, like the downturns of 2001 and 2007-9, reflect bursting bubbles rather than tight money, and they’re hard to end; even if the Fed cuts interest rates all the way to zero, it may find itself pushing on a string, unable to have much of a positive effect. As a result, you don’t expect to see V-shaped recoveries like 1982-84 — and sure enough, we didn’t.

This doesn’t mean that we were fated to experience a seven-year slump. We could have had a much faster recovery if the U.S. government had ramped up public investment and put more money in the hands of families likely to spend it. But the Obama stimulus was much too small and short-lived — as many of us warned, in advance, it would be — and since 2010 what we have actually seen, thanks to scorched-earth Republican opposition on all fronts, are unprecedented cutbacks in government spending, especially investment, and in government employment.

O.K., at this point I’m sure many readers are thinking that they’ve been hearing a very different story about what went wrong — the conservative story that attributes the sluggish recovery to the terrible, horrible, no-good attitude of the Obama administration. The president, we’re told, scared businesspeople by talking about “fat cats” on Wall Street and generally looking at them funny. Also, Obamacare has killed jobs, right?

Which is where the new job numbers come in. At this point we have enough data points to compare the job recovery under President Obama with the job recovery under former President George W. Bush, who also presided over a postmodern recession but certainly never insulted fat cats. And by any measure you might choose — but especially if you compare rates of job creation in the private sector — the Obama recovery has been stronger and faster. Oh, and its pace has picked up over the past year, as health reform has gone fully into effect.

Just to be clear, I’m not calling the Obama-era economy a success story. We needed faster job growth this time around than under Mr. Bush, because the recession was deeper, and unemployment stayed far too high for far too long. But we can now say with confidence that the recovery’s weakness had nothing to do with Mr. Obama’s (falsely) alleged anti-business slant. What it reflected, instead, was the damage done by government paralysis — paralysis that has, alas, richly rewarded the very politicians who caused it.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

December 4, 2014

In “The Perfect-Victim Pitfall” Mr. Blow says following the non-indictments in Ferguson and Staten Island, don’t fall for some counternarrative that doesn’t apply. Change is what we need, badly.  In “The Consolations of Italy” Mr. Cohen says Italy needs the reforms Prime Minister Renzi is pushing, but its resistance to change is also a strength.  Mr. Kristof, in “Abusing Chickens We Eat,” has a question:  When the label says “raised cage free” and has the U.S.D.A.’s seal of approval, you should be able to trust that the animals weren’t tortured, right?  Ms. Collins writes “Of Taxes, Pigs, and Congress” and says we should pay attention! Congress is hard at work on the bill of the month.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

At some point between the moment a Missouri grand jury refused to indict a police officer who had shot and killed Michael Brown on a Ferguson street and the moment a New York grand jury refused to indict a police officer who choked and killed Eric Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk — on video, as he struggled to utter the words, “I can’t breathe!” — a counternarrative to this nation’s calls for change has taken shape.

This narrative paints the police as under siege and unfairly maligned while it admonishes — and, in some cases, excoriates — those demanding changes in the wake of the Ferguson shooting. (Those calling for change now include the president of the United States and the United States attorney general, I might add.)

The argument is that this is not a perfect case, because Brown — and, one would assume, now Garner — isn’t a perfect victim and the protesters haven’t all been perfectly civil, so therefore any movement to counter black oppression that flows from the case is inherently flawed. But this is ridiculous and reductive, because it fails to acknowledge that the whole system is imperfect and rife with flaws. We don’t need to identify angels and demons to understand that inequity is hell.

The Mike-or-Eric-as-faces-of-black-oppression arguments swing too wide, and they miss. So does the protesters-as-movement-killers argument.

The responses so far have only partly been specific to a particular case. Much of it is about something larger and more general: racial inequality and criminal justice. People want to be assured of equal application of justice and equal — and appropriate — use of police force, and to know that all lives are equally valued.

The data suggests that, in the nation as a whole, that isn’t so. Racial profiling is real. Disparate treatment of black and brown men by police officers is real. Grotesquely disproportionate numbers of killings of black men by the police are real.

No one denies that police officers have hard jobs, but they volunteer to enter that line of work. There is no draft. So these disparities cannot go unaddressed and uncorrected. To be held in high esteem you must also be held to a higher standard.

And no one denies that high-crime neighborhoods disproportionately overlap with minority neighborhoods. But the intersections don’t stop there. Concentrated poverty plays a consequential role. So does the school-to-prison pipeline. So do the scars of historical oppression. In fact, these and other factors intersect to such a degree that trying to separate any one — most often, the racial one — from the rest is bound to render a flimsy argument based on the fallacy of discrete factors.

Yet people continue to make such arguments, which can usually be distilled to some variation of this: Black dysfunction is mostly or even solely the result of black pathology. This argument is racist at its core because it rests too heavily on choice and too lightly on context. If you scratch it, what oozes out reeks of race-informed cultural decay or even genetic deficiency and predisposition, as if America is not the progenitor — the great-grandmother — of African-American violence.

And yes, racist is the word that we must use. Racism doesn’t require the presence of malice, only the presence of bias and ignorance, willful or otherwise. It doesn’t even require more than one race. There are plenty of members of aggrieved groups who are part of the self-flagellation industrial complex. They make a name (and a profit) saying inflammatory things about their own groups, things that are full of sting but lack context, things that others will say only behind tightly shut doors. These are often people who’ve “made it” and look down their noses with be-more-like-me disdain at those who haven’t, as if success were merely a result of a collection of choices and not also of a confluence of circumstances.

Today, too many people are gun-shy about using the word racism, lest they themselves be called race-baiters. So we are witnessing an assault on the concept of racism, an attempt to erase legitimate discussion and grievance by degrading the language: Eliminate the word and you elude the charge.

By endlessly claiming that the word is overused as an attack, the overuse, through rhetorical sleight of hand, is amplified in the dismissal. The word is snatched from its serious scientific and sociological context and redefined simply as a weapon of argumentation, the hand grenade you toss under the table to blow things up and halt the conversation when things get too “honest” or “uncomfortable.”

But people will not fall for that chicanery. The language will survive. The concept will not be corrupted. Racism is a real thing, not because the “racial grievance industry” refuses to release it, but because society has failed to eradicate it.

Racism is interpersonal and structural; it is current and historical; it is explicit and implicit; it is articulated and silent.

Biases are pervasive, but can also be spectral: moving in and out of consideration with little or no notice, without leaving a trace, even without our own awareness. Sometimes the only way to see bias is in the aggregate, to stop staring so hard at a data point and step back so that you can see the data set. Only then can you detect the trails in the dust. Only then can the data do battle with denial.

I would love to live in a world where that wasn’t the case. Even more, I would love my children to inherit a world where that wasn’t the case, where the margin for error for them was the same as the margin for error for everyone else’s children, where I could rest assured that police treatment would be unbiased. But I don’t. Reality doesn’t bend under the weight of wishes. Truth doesn’t grow dim because we squint.

We must acknowledge — with eyes and minds wide open — the world as it is if we want to change it.

The activism that followed Ferguson and that is likely to be intensified by what happened in New York isn’t about making a martyr of “Big Mike” or “Big E” as much as it is about making the most of a moment, counternarratives notwithstanding.

In this most trying of moments, black men, supported by the people who understand their plight and feel their pain, are saying to the police culture of America, “We can’t breathe!”

Next up we have Mr. Cohen, writing from Rome:

It is always a pleasure to return to Rome and find that some things never change. I dissipated part of my youth here in a trance of happiness and, even at this distance, I find that happiness accessible. As we grow older memory gains in importance, a labyrinth of infinite possibility.

So much of life today is jolting that a measure of dilatory inefficiency becomes comforting. The transactional relationships of London or New York or Singapore give way to the human relationship of Rome. People actually take a few seconds to look at each other. They chat without purpose.

The heavy hotel room key (rather than anonymous key card); the perfect carciofi alla Romana (little artichokes Roman style) dissolving in the mouth; the unchanging answer to any man-in-the-street question about the state of the Italian Republic (“fa schifo” – it stinks); the “manifestazione,” or demonstration, that closes a wide area of central Rome; the style of the “barista” making three espressos, two lattes and two cappuccinos at once (eat your heart out, plodding Starbucks); the focus of the maître grating truffles with the clinical majesty of a matador; the grumbling and the small courtesies; the sound of voices rather than engines; the high-ceilinged apartments in their cool half-light; the whining scooters on the banks of the muddy Tiber; the shutters clattering down on stores at lunch time, only to reopen in the late afternoon. All of this consoles in its familiarity.

Rush on world, the voice of Rome seems to murmur: ambition will founder, conquest will unravel, riches will be lost, power will be dissipated, palaces will crumble, great loves will end, borders will be redrawn; and you, shed at last of your illusions, will be left to find comfort in beauty, family, your corner of the city, and a steaming plate of bucatini all’amatriciana.

It was Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa who observed that everything must change so that everything stays the same. Here it sometimes seems that everything must stay the same so that one or two things may change (the city clocks, unlike when I lived here 30 years ago, now tend to function).

Then, of course, there is politics. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, aged 39, is a revolutionary politician in that his youth, direct language, dynamism and relative transparency have shaken up old habits. There is something of the young Tony Blair about him. He is a showman pushing change through force of character. His ambition for Italy, he has said, “is not to do better than Greece but to do better than Germany.”

Fighting words: After the Berlusconi years, Italy needed this shake-up desperately. Renzi’s “Jobs Act,” the cause of the current demonstrations, is an attempt to make it a little easier for corporations to fire employees.

That, by Italian standards, would be big. Renzi’s slogan, in effect, is change or die. Unemployment is over 13 percent, public debt continues to climb, and Italy has known three recessions in six years. The country is problematic. Still, caution with official numbers is advisable. Family solidarity, private wealth and the black economy cushion the crisis the statistics declare. Italy is poor; Italians are richer than it.

Like almost all Europeans, they are being outpaced by the hunger for wealth, long working days and unregulated economies of the emergent world, where most people scarcely know what social security means. Still, Italians contrive to live better than seems possible in a declining economy.

There is nothing that unusual for a Roman about going home for lunch (or even having “la Mamma” prepare it). Resistance to change can also be healthy. It is a buffer against dislocation and loneliness, preserving the ties of family and sociability. Cultural skepticism about change runs deep. Unlike Americans, Italians have no desire to reinvent themselves. Rome restrains the itch to believe all can be changed utterly. Style is its refuge.

Italy needs change; Renzi is right to push for it. New investment will only come when the bureaucratic rigidities that curtail the economy are overcome. But change will always have its limits here. Behind Italian frivolity lies a deep-seated prudence.

The past year has been sobering. A quarter-century on from the fall of the Berlin Wall we see how deluded we were to imagine, even for a moment, that the old battles of nation-states and rival ideologies would give way to a world driven by enlightened self-interest and the shared embrace of Western liberal democracy and the rule of law.

Al Qaeda, Vladimir Putin and the Chinese Communist Party thought otherwise. Powers still do what they do: seek to further their interests, accumulate resources and advance their ideologies, at the expense of others if necessary. Beheadings and plague have not been banished from the world.

Italians tend to shrug. They knew this all along. There are compelling reasons to prefer beauty to the squalid affairs of the world.

And next up we have Mr. Kristof:

If you buy a Perdue chicken in the grocery store, you might think it had lived a comfortable avian middle-class existence.

“Doing the right thing is things like treating your chickens humanely,” Jim Perdue, the company’s chairman, says in a promotional video. The company’s labels carry a seal of approval from the Department of Agriculture asserting that the bird was “raised cage free,” and sometimes “humanely raised,” although it says it is phasing that one out.

Customers approve. Most of us are meat-eaters who still want animals treated humanely, and one survey found that 85 percent of consumers would prefer to buy chicken with a cage-free “humanely raised” label like Perdue’s.

Enter Craig Watts, 48, a North Carolina farmer who says he raises about 720,000 chickens each year for Perdue. He watched the video of Jim Perdue and had an attack of conscience. “My jaw just dropped,” he said. “It couldn’t get any further from the truth.”

So Watts opened his four chicken barns to show how a Perdue chicken lives. It’s a hellish sight.

Watts invited an animal welfare group, Compassion in World Farming, to document conditions, and it has spent months doing so. The organization has just released the resulting video on its website.

Most shocking is that the bellies of nearly all the chickens have lost their feathers and are raw, angry, red flesh. The entire underside of almost every chicken is a huge, continuous bedsore. As a farmboy who raised small flocks of chickens and geese, I never saw anything like that.

One reason seems to be modern breeding: Chickens are now bred to have huge breasts, and they often end up too heavy for their legs. Poultry Science journal has calculated that if humans grew at the same rate as modern chickens, a human would weigh 660 pounds by the age of eight weeks.

These chickens don’t run around or roost as birds normally do. They stagger a few steps, often on misshapen legs, and then collapse onto the excrement of tens of thousands of previous birds. It is laden with stinging ammonia that seems to eat away at feathers and skin.

I called Perdue to see what the company had to say. Jim Perdue declined to comment, but a company spokeswoman, Julie DeYoung, agreed that undersides of chickens shouldn’t be weeping red. She suggested that the operator was probably mismanaging the chicken house.

That doesn’t go over well with Watts, whose family has owned the farm since the 1700s and says he has been raising chickens for Perdue since 1992, meticulously following its requirements.

As Watts sees it, Perdue realized that consumers were concerned about animal welfare and food safety, and decided to manipulate the public.

The claim about the chickens being raised “cage free” is misleading because birds raised for meat are not in cages. It’s egg-laying chickens that are caged, not the ones we eat. So “cage free” is meaningful for eggs but not for chicken meat. Moreover, Perdue’s chickens are crammed so tightly in barns that they might as well be in cages. Each bird on the Watts farm gets just two-thirds of a square foot.

So why is our government giving its seal of approval to these methods as humane, in ways that seem to mislead consumers?

“U.S.D.A. is the accomplice of Perdue in the fooling of consumers,” says Leah Garces, American director of Compassion in World Farming, who calls it a marketing scam.

Perdue may now be backing away from some of its claims. It settled a suit with the Humane Society of the United States by agreeing to remove the “humanely raised” line from some packaging, even as it denied wrongdoing.

All this leaves millions of Americans, me included, in a bind. We eat meat, yet we want to minimize cruelty to animals. This is an uncertain, inconsistent and perhaps hypocritical path, and it’s hard enough without giant food companies manipulating us — in collusion with our own government.

Garces suggests that such consumers look for labels that say “certified humane,” “global animal partnership” or “animal welfare approved.” But they’re expensive and harder to find.

Perdue’s methods for raising chickens are typical of industrial agriculture. So the conundrum is this. Big Ag has been stunningly successful in producing cheap food — the price of chicken has fallen by three-quarters in real terms since 1930. Yet there are huge external costs, such as antibiotic resistance and water pollution, as well as a routine cruelty that we tolerate only because it is mostly hidden.

Torture a single chicken and you risk arrest. Abuse hundreds of thousands of chickens for their entire lives? That’s agribusiness.

I don’t know where to draw the lines. But when chickens have huge open bedsores on their undersides, I wonder if that isn’t less animal husbandry than animal abuse.

And last but not least we have Ms. Collins:

Great news! After a year of hapless floundering, Congress appears well on its way to passing a major tax bill that will be signed by President Obama.

The bill, which the House approved on Wednesday, takes 50-odd expired tax breaks and extends them — for several weeks.

“It will die on Jan. 1. It’s for last year!” said Representative James McDermott of Washington during a rather desultory House debate.

“I’m gonna vote yes like everybody else. But it makes no sense,” McDermott added helpfully.

Well, if that’s the bar, nothing is ever going to get done.

Most of the tax breaks that expired at the start of the year because of Congressional inaction are helpful to businesses. If the bill becomes law, they’ll be retroactively revived. Employers who have been making investments out of blind faith will be rewarded. Then it’ll be 2015 and the whole drama starts all over again.

People, does that make sense to you? Well, it did to the House, which easily passed the bill after a brief debate during which members from both parties came together and agreed that their work was “not perfect.”

“A terrible way to make tax policy,” said Dave Camp, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which makes, um, tax policy.

Camp, who is retiring, got many, many plaudits during the debate for his efforts to produce serious tax reform this year. At the time, his fellow Republicans were horrified by his proposal to make modest reductions in the top business tax rate by closing beloved tax loopholes. Speaker John Boehner made fun of him. The bill never got out of Camp’s own committee.

On the plus side, he was really popular on Wednesday as he introduced what was left of his tax bill, which was the legislative equivalent of a wilted piece of arugula.

“I would prefer to be debating reform,” said Representative Pete Sessions, the powerful chairman of the Rules Committee. This was shortly after he acknowledged the bill was “far from perfect.”

Sessions is from Texas. Next year, the House will have six committee chairs from Texas, while John Cornyn of Texas will be No. 2 leader in the Senate. Also, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas is clearly running for president, as is Gov. Rick Perry. This has nothing to do with the tax bill. I just thought you ought to be prepared.

But about taxes. Everybody agrees we need tax reform. Our current tax policy has about as many fans as that airplane passenger who took a pet pig to her seat as an “emotional support animal.”

There is not going to be any major tax reform. There are members of Congress, like Camp and the Senate Finance chairman Ron Wyden who believe there’s got to be a way. If you run into either of them on the street, give him a hearty handshake. But don’t hold your breath.

The latest battle over those expired tax breaks began when the House Republicans tried to make some permanent. And, really, they ought to be forever or not at all. But it created a problem for lawmakers who were worried about low-wage workers. There are parts of the earned-income tax credit and the child tax credit that expire in 2017, at which point their supporters expected to trade extensions with the business advocates.

There was a time when we thought that kind of trading was depressing sausage-making. Now, of course, we regard the era when that stuff worked as Athens in the age of Pericles.

Senator Wyden says he thought negotiations were going along pretty well for a plan that made both the most important business tax breaks and the biggest ones for low-income workers permanent. Then, he said, the Republicans disappeared.

What do you think was bothering the Republicans? A) The sudden realization that tax cuts actually do add to the federal deficit. Or B) President Obama’s executive order giving undocumented immigrants the right to stay in the country.

Yes! Some Republicans said they were worried that the tax breaks for low-wage workers would help the undocumented immigrants. We do not need to discuss whether or not this is actually a problem. We just need to acknowledge that whenever the Republicans do not want to do something for the next two years, they’re going to play the immigrant card.

Enter Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who was possibly interested in a deal that dropped the breaks for low-wage workers but added a permanent sales tax deduction for people who live in states without income taxes. Such as Nevada.

Returning from Thanksgiving vacation, Wyden said, “I heard all these rumors about what was being worked out. And about an hour later the president called and said he was going to veto what was being discussed.”

And here we are. With maximum effort, it’s possible Congress might manage to pass a last-minute retroactive bill to keep some popular tax cuts alive for the holiday season. Which Obama would sign.

But I have seen the future, and it’s worse.

Blow and Krugman

December 1, 2014

In “Crime and Punishment” Mr. Blow outlines how racial bias distorts the way we talk about justice.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Being Bad Europeans:”  Whose irresponsible behavior is at the core of the region’s slow-motion disaster?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

One thing the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Mo., has sent back to the surface is just how difficult it is to have cross-racial discussions about crime and punishment in this country. That is largely because, perceptually and experientially, we live in vastly different worlds, worlds in which phrases like “bad choices,” “personal responsibility” and “tailspin of culture” must battle for primacy with “structural inequity,” “systemic bias” and “culture of oppression.”

Let’s begin to unpack this by pointing to what the data say about our distortions of perception when it comes to crime.

A September report by the Sentencing Project found that “white Americans overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color, and associate people of color with criminality.” For some crimes, the overestimation was “by 20-30 percent.”

This is particularly significant in light of the fact that Americans overestimate the presence of crime in general. As a Gallup report pointed out recently: “For more than a decade, Gallup has found the majority of Americans believing crime is up, although actual crime statistics have largely shown the crime rate continuing to come down from the highs in the 1990s and earlier.”

If we continue to think that crime is up, data be damned, and we associate people of color with that crime, of course our concepts of guilt, innocence, veracity and compassion in encounters between police and people of color will be affected.

This is not to say that statistics don’t tell us that crime rates are disproportionately high in minority neighborhoods, but rather than ascribe that to some racial pathology — and doing so is racist on its face — we must consider the intersection of race and concentrated poverty, which is attended by everything from poorer-performing schools to fewer job opportunities.

And these areas of concentrated poverty are growing, according to a July Brookings report: “As poverty increased and spread during the 2000s, the number of distressed neighborhoods in the United States — defined as census tracts with poverty rates of 40 percent or more — climbed by nearly three-quarters.”

The report continued: “The population living in such neighborhoods grew by similar margins (76 percent, or 5 million people) to reach 11.6 million by 2008-2012.”

Are people of color simply choosing to live in high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods, or have these residential patterns been imposed by generations of discriminatory housing and employment practices, and been exacerbated by the Great Recession, which was disproportionately brutal for black people?

For instance, as a 2011 report of the Center for Responsible Lending said:

“African-American and Latino borrowers are almost twice as likely to have been impacted by the crisis. Approximately one-quarter of all Latino and African-American borrowers have lost their home to foreclosure or are seriously delinquent, compared to just under 12 percent for white borrowers.”

When the police and justice systems become involved, more bias is introduced.

First of all, as The Washington Post reported, “more than three-quarters of cities on which the Census Bureau has collected data have a police presence that’s disproportionately white relative to the local population.” This is the case even though 46 percent of whites and 56 percent of blacks in an August New York Times/CBS New poll thought that “the racial makeup of a community’s police department should be similar to the racial makeup of that community as a whole.”

This continues, in part, because of a cycle of mistrust and abuse of power. As the International Business Times put it in August: “Law enforcement agencies, therefore, are often hard pressed to find black applicants. Recruiters want to fill their ranks with officers of all backgrounds, experts say, but cultural biases put them at a disadvantage.”

Would you want to join a force that you saw as oppressive and discriminatory toward your community? For some, the answer may be yes, to effect change or just because they are so drawn to the profession. But obviously for many the answer is no.

The Times/CBS poll found that 45 percent of African-Americans, compared with just 7 percent of whites, believed they had experienced a specific instance of discrimination by the police because of their race. Thirty-one percent of whites even acknowledge that police in most neighborhoods are more likely to use deadly force against a black person.

This is not unfounded. Young blacks are significantly more likely than young whites to be arrested for things like drug usage although their usage is roughly the same as whites.

This conversation is hard because we are yelling across a canyon of disparity. Maybe the first thing to do is to work on filling the canyon, leveling the field — that will help bridge the gap.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The U.S. economy finally seems to be climbing out of the deep hole it entered during the global financial crisis. Unfortunately, Europe, the other epicenter of crisis, can’t say the same. Unemployment in the euro area is stalled at almost twice the U.S. level, while inflation is far below both the official target and outright deflation has become a looming risk.

Investors have taken notice: European interest rates have plunged, with German long-term bonds yielding just 0.7 percent. That’s the kind of yield we used to associate with Japanese deflation, and markets are indeed signaling that they expect Europe to experience its own lost decade.

Why is Europe in such dire straits? The conventional wisdom among European policy makers is that we’re looking at the price of irresponsibility: Some governments have failed to behave with the prudence a shared currency requires, choosing instead to pander to misguided voters and cling to failed economic doctrines. And if you ask me (and a number of other economists who have looked hard at the issue), this analysis is essentially right, except for one thing: They’ve got the identity of the bad actors wrong.

For the bad behavior at the core of Europe’s slow-motion disaster isn’t coming from Greece, or Italy, or France. It’s coming from Germany.

I’m not denying that the Greek government behaved irresponsibly before the crisis, or that Italy has a big problem with stagnating productivity. But Greece is a small country whose fiscal mess is unique, while Italy’s long-run problems aren’t the source of Europe’s deflationary downdraft. If you try to identify countries whose policies were way out of line before the crisis and have hurt Europe since the crisis, and that refuse to learn from experience, everything points to Germany as the worst actor.

Consider, in particular, the comparison between Germany and France.

France gets a lot of bad press, with much talk in particular about its supposed loss in competitiveness. Such talk greatly exaggerates the reality; you’d never know from most media reports that France runs only a small trade deficit. Still, to the extent that there is an issue here, where does it come from? Has French competitiveness been eroded by excessive growth in costs and prices?

No, not at all. Since the euro came into existence in 1999, France’s G.D.P. deflator (the average price of French-produced goods and services) has risen 1.7 percent per year, while its unit labor costs have risen 1.9 percent annually. Both numbers are right in line with the European Central Bank’s target of slightly under 2 percent inflation, and similar to what has happened in the United States. Germany, on the other hand, is way out of line, with price and labor-cost growth of 1 and 0.5 percent, respectively.

And it’s not just France whose costs are just about where they ought to be. Spain saw rising costs and prices during the housing bubble, but at this point all the excess has been eliminated through years of crushing unemployment and wage restraint. Italian cost growth has arguably been a bit too high, but it’s not nearly as far out of line as Germany is on the low side.

In other words, to the extent that there’s anything like a competitiveness problem in Europe, it’s overwhelmingly caused by Germany’s beggar-thy-neighbor policies, which are in effect exporting deflation to its neighbors.

But what about debt? Isn’t non-German Europe paying the price for past fiscal irresponsibility? Actually, that’s a story about Greece and nobody else. And it’s especially wrong in the case of France, which isn’t facing a fiscal crisis at all; France can currently borrow long-term at a record low interest rate of less than 1 percent, only slightly above the German rate.

Yet European policy makers seem determined to blame the wrong countries and the wrong policies for their plight. True, the European Commission has floated a plan to stimulate the economy with public investment — but the public outlay is so tiny compared with the problem that the plan is almost a joke. And meanwhile, the commission is warning France, which has the lowest borrowing costs in its history, that it may face fines for not cutting its budget deficit enough.

What about resolving the problem of too little inflation in Germany? Very aggressive monetary policy might do the trick (although I wouldn’t count on it), but German monetary officials are warning against such policies because they might let debtors off the hook.

What we’re seeing, then, is the immensely destructive power of bad ideas. It’s not entirely Germany’s fault — Germany is a big player in Europe, but it’s only able to impose deflationary policies because so much of the European elite has bought into the same false narrative. And you have to wonder what will cause reality to break in.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

November 27, 2014

In “Fury After Ferguson” Mr. Blow points out that this is about whether black boys and men, as well as the people who love them, must fear both the criminal and the cop.  Mr. Cohen, in “Get Real, Boris Johnson!,” says London’s mayor, an American citizen, goes mano a mano with the Internal Revenue Service. He should give up and pay up.  Mr. Kristof considers “Bill Cosby, U.V.A. and Rape” and says recent high-profile reports of sexual assaults should make us all pause and reflect on a culture that enables violence against women.  Ms. Collins is “Counting Benghazi Blessings.”  She says Congress has been very busy this year, so let’s give thanks for all the investigations into the 2012 attack on an American compound in Libya.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The reaction to the failure of the grand jury to indict in the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, touched something deep and ancient and anguished in the black community.

Yes, on one level, the reaction was about the particulars of this case.

It was about whether Wilson’s use of force was appropriate or excessive that summer day when he fired a shot through Brown’s head and ended his life.

It was about whether police officers’ attitudes towards the people they serve are tainted. Why was Wilson’s description of Brown in his testimony so laced with dehumanizing rhetoric, the superhuman predator and subhuman evil, “Hulk Hogan” and the “demon”?

It was about whether the prosecutor performed his role well or woefully inadequately in pursuit of an indictment. Why did he take this course of action? Why didn’t he aggressively question Wilson when Wilson presented testimony before the grand jury? Why did he sound eerily like a defense attorney when announcing the results?

And yet the reaction was also about more than Wilson and Brown. It was about faith in fundamental fairness. It was about whether a population of people with an already tenuous relationship with the justice system — a system not established to recognize them, a system used for generations to deny and subjugate them, a system still rife with imbalances toward them — would have their fragile and fraying faith in that system further shredded.

As President Obama put it: “The fact is, in too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color. Some of this is the result of the legacy of racial discrimination in this country.”

He continued, “There are still problems and communities of color aren’t just making these problems up.”

No, they are not. An October analysis by ProPublica of police shootings from 2010 to 2012 found that young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police officers than their white counterparts.

And yet, people like the former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani want to blame the victims. On “Meet the Press,” he dodged the issue of white police forces policing black populations, and raised another: intra-racial murder statistics in the black community. After proclaiming that “93 percent of blacks are killed by other blacks,” he asked a fellow panelist, Michael Eric Dyson, a black Georgetown University professor, “why don’t you cut it down so so many white police officers don’t have to be in black areas?”

Classic blame-the-victims deflection and context-free spouting of facts. What Giuliani failed to mention, what most people who pay attention to murder statistics understand, is that murder is for the most part a crime of intimacy. People kill people close to them. Most blacks are killed by other blacks, and most whites are killed by other whites.

In fact, it is so intimate that one study has found that people likely to be involved in murder cases can be predicted by their social networks. A Yale study last year examining “police and gun homicide records from 2006 to 2011 for residents living within a six-square-mile area that had some of the highest rates for homicide in Chicago” found that “6% of the population was involved in 70% of the murders, and that nearly all of those in the 6% already had some contact with the criminal justice or public health systems.”

As a co-author of the study put it, the relationship among killers and those killed was like a virus: “It’s not unlike needle sharing or unprotected sex in the spread of H.I.V.”

So, what are we saying to the vast majority that are not involved: that they must accept the unconscionable racial imbalance in the police shooting numbers as some sort of collateral damage in a war on crime? No!

It’s an unfathomable, utterly immoral argument, and let’s not give Giuliani a pass for making it. After all, New York’s obscenely race-biased stop-and-frisk program was introduced under Giuliani, and some of the most notorious police violations of black men in recent history happened on his watch. As The New York Times recounted in a lengthy 2001 profile:

“In the summer of 1997, a police officer brutalized a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima in a bathroom of a Brooklyn station house. In the winter of 1999, four members of the Police Department’s Street Crime Unit, searching the Bronx streets for a rapist, shot and killed an unarmed African immigrant named Amadou Diallo; they had mistaken his wallet for a gun. And in the winter of 2000, just as Mr. Giuliani was gearing up his candidacy for the United States Senate, an undercover officer shot and killed an unarmed black security guard named Patrick Dorismond after a brief struggle in Midtown; the victim had been offended by the undercover officer’s inquiries about buying some drugs.”

Also, race is not the best lens through which to consider criminality. Concentrated poverty may be a better lens. According to a July Brookings report:

“Poor individuals and families are not evenly distributed across communities or throughout the country. Instead, they tend to live near one another, clustering in certain neighborhoods and regions. This concentration of poverty results in higher crime rates, underperforming public schools, poor housing and health conditions, as well as limited access to private services and job opportunities.”

If we are serious about fighting crime, we must seriously consider the reason— on both an individual and systemic level — these pockets of concentrated poverty developed, are maintained, and have in fact grown and spread.

But this is not about Giuliani and the police aggression apologists. This is about whether black boys and men, as well as the people who love them, must fear both the criminal and the cop.

Sadly, for many, the Ferguson case reaffirmed a most unsettling sense that they are under siege from all sides.

So people took to the streets. Who could really blame them?

Some simply saw protests marred by senseless violence. I saw that, to be sure, and my heart hurt seeing it. But I also saw decades, generations, centuries of pain and frustration erupting once more into view. I saw hearts crying and souls demanding to be heard, to be seen, to be valued.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” King, a great champion of nonviolence, wasn’t advocating rioting, but rather honoring hearing.

Even long-suffering people will not suffer forever. Patience expires. The heart can be broken only so many times before peace is broken. And the absence of peace doesn’t predicate the presence of violence. It does, however, demand the troubling of the comfortable. When the voice goes unheard, sometimes it must be raised. Sometimes when calls for justice go unmet, feet must meet pavement. Sometimes when you are unseen, you can no longer remain seated. Sometimes you must stand and make a stand.

No one of good character and conscience condones rioting or looting or any destruction of property. Those enterprises aren’t only criminal, they’re fruitless and counterproductive and rob one’s own neighborhood of needed services and facilities and unfairly punish the people who saw fit to follow a dream and an entrepreneurial spirit, and invest in themselves and those communities in the first place.

But people absolutely have a right to their feelings — including anger and frustration. Only the energies must be channeled into productive efforts aimed at delivering the changes desired. That is the hard work. That is where stamina is required. That is where the long game is played.

As the old Negro spiritual proclaims: “Walk together children/Don’t you get weary/Oh, talk together children/Don’t you get weary.”

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Come on, Boris!

The mayor of London and would-be prime minister of Britain is funny, smart, erudite and charming. He’s franker than most politicians. He runs a booming city in a boozing country, even if central London has become a private club for the world’s super-rich. He’s a lovable rogue adept at getting out of tight corners of his own creation. He uses a cultivated dishevelment to disarm stuffier fellow Tories and stiffer opponents of the left. But this time bustling, bristling Boris Johnson has gone too far.

It is one thing to flip-flop on immigration (one minute he’s sort of for it, then he’s really against it), or make unsubstantiated claims about European Union regulations, or be the loosest of political cannons. It is another for Johnson, who was born in New York and is a United States citizen, to declare himself above American law and refuse to pay the tax he owes. Blond-haired provocateur takes on the United States Internal Revenue Service: This could get interesting.

In a recent interview with National Public Radio during an American book-promotion tour, Johnson said, “The United States comes after me, would you believe it, for capital gains tax on the sale of your first residence, which is not taxable in Britain.” Asked if he would pay the tax bill, the mayor replied: “No is the answer. I think it’s absolutely outrageous. Why should I?” He then indulged in some whining about how he hadn’t lived in the United States since he was five and paid his taxes in Britain “where I live and work.” The whole “doctrine of global taxation” applied by the United States was, he declared, “incredible.”

Come on, Boris! Give us a break. Get used to it.

All American citizens (even those who have presided over the London Olympics) are, last time I checked, legally obliged to file a tax return and liable for United States taxes on their global income. Even green card holders (permanent residents) are taxable on what they earn worldwide. It is safe to say that no American expat loves this. We may well find it unreasonable, unjust and preposterous. We may envy the Russian and Arab and French and Chinese high-rollers holed up in Mayfair and Knightsbridge and Chelsea, whose global income is not taxed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, as it would be if they lived in the United States.

As principles of Western democracies go, equality before the law is important, indeed fundamental. Under United States law, a capital gain on the sale of a first residence is not fully tax-exempt, as in Britain.

“Absolutely outrageous,” angry Johnson declared.

“Why should I?” poor Johnson asked.

It’s the law, that’s why. You can avoid everything in life but death and the tax man. They will come get you.

Johnson could, of course, have given up his American citizenship. In 2006, he wrote he was “getting a divorce from America.” But he never broke the bond, presumably because his inner American — the loud, freedom-loving, rambunctious character wrapped up inside a Latin-spouting eccentric Englishman — resisted.

Johnson has in the past been assiduous on tax matters. Louis Susman, the former American ambassador to Britain, once told me of his embarrassment when, in 2011, Johnson buttonholed President Obama at Buckingham Palace and, by way of opening gambit, demanded from him a check for several million pounds to cover unpaid congestion charges of diplomats at the United States Embassy. The president was not amused.

The United States, along with other countries, argues that diplomatic immunity covers the charge for bringing a vehicle into central London during office hours. William Hague, the former British foreign secretary, said last year that the embassy had 63,000 fines for a total of 7.2 million pounds, or about $11.3 million at current rates. The United States, at that time, was the highest debtor, followed by Russia, which owed £4.89 million from 42,310 fines and Japan, which owed £4.85 million from 42,206 fines.

(Nigerian diplomats owed the most in parking fines, followed by Saudi Arabia, and the worst offenders for alleged drunk driving were Russian diplomats.)

The holiday season is upon us. It’s a time of celebration, reflection and reconciliation. Pay up, Boris. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do — and then fight like crazy to change the law, if you will.

As for those congestion charges, their applicability to diplomats is unclear. Are they a tax, from which diplomats would be exempt, or a “service rendered,” for which they could be considered liable?

It’s Thanksgiving, a day to give thanks, even for the taxman, who reminds us that we’re all in this together. I think Matthew Barzun, the American ambassador, who knows Johnson well, might consider a compromise that settles the matter before the embassy moves south of the River Thames in 2017 to a site outside the congestion zone.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

The world’s wrath and revulsion seem to be focused on Bill Cosby these days, as he goes in the public mind from “America’s Dad” to an unofficial serial rape suspect.

Yet that’s a cop-out for all of us. Whatever the truth of the accusations against Cosby — a wave of women have now stepped forward and said he drugged and raped them (mostly decades ago), but his lawyer denies the allegations — it’s too easy for us to see this narrowly as a Cosby scandal of celebrity, power and sex. The larger problem is a culture that enables rape. The larger problem is us.

We collectively are still too passive about sexual violence in our midst, too willing to make excuses, too inclined to perceive shame in being raped. These are attitudes that facilitate violence by creating a protective blanket of silence and impunity. In that sense, we are all enablers.

The revelation of an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity by Rolling Stone underscores how thin our veneer of civilization sometimes is. The article, whose account is unconfirmed, describes an 18-year-old freshman at the university who goes to her first frat party and is led upstairs by her date, pinned down, beaten and punched, and raped by seven men.

Administration policy makes matters even worse. A dean acknowledged in an interview with student-run media that even students at the university who admit to sexual assault invariably avoid expulsion, and that no student had been expelled for rape in years. The student’s report pointed out that the University of Virginia treats cheating more seriously than rape.

The problem once more isn’t just one university, but the broader culture. It’s ubiquitous. This month an inspector-general report in New Orleans revealed that only 14 percent of sexual assault cases referred to the special victims unit there were even investigated. A 2-year-old was treated in a hospital emergency room for a sexual assault and had a sexually transmitted disease, yet detectives closed the case without an investigation.

Meanwhile, prison rape, mostly of men and boys, is too often treated as a joke rather than an appalling human rights abuse. A Justice Department report last year found that in juvenile detention centers, almost 1 youth in 10 had been sexually abused in the course of a single year. At two juvenile centers, the rate of abuse was 30 percent or more.

Then there’s sex trafficking. Ernie Allen, the former president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, estimates that 100,000 children in the United States are trafficked into the sex trade annually. Police and prosecutors often respond by arresting the victims — the kids — rather than the pimps and the johns.

Too often boys are socialized to see women and girls as baubles, as playthings. The upshot is that rapists can be stunningly clueless, somehow unaware that they have committed a crime or even a faux pas. The Rolling Stone article describes how the rape victim at the University of Virginia, two weeks after the incident, ran into her principal assailant.

“Are you ignoring me?” he blithely asked. “I wanted to thank you for the other night. I had a great time.”

Likewise, a university student shared with me a letter her ex-boyfriend wrote her after brutally raping her in her dorm room. He apologized for overpowering her, suggested that she should be flattered and proposed that they get back together. Huh?

Granted, humans are infinitely complex, and consent and coercion represent two poles on a continuum that can fade into grays. We shouldn’t short-circuit the rights of men accused of misconduct, and frustratingly often it may be impossible to attain certainty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Yet let’s be real. The dominant problem is not an epidemic of men falsely accused of rape, but of women who endure sexual violence — including about one female college student in five, according to the White House.

One study published in 2002 found that about 90 percent of college rapes were committed by a tiny number of serial rapists.

So bravo to those speaking up, male and female alike. In Norman, Okla., high school students say that a male student raped several girls and distributed a pornographic video of one of them. Frustrated by what they saw as administration passivity, the students have been waging protests to educate school officials about right and wrong.

Sure, sexual violence may be embedded in parts of American culture, but, in my lifetime, we’ve changed other cultural norms. Drunken driving is no longer comical or silly, but repugnant. What will it take to get a serious response to all accusations of rape?

Last but not least here’s Ms. Collins:

This year, in a break from tradition, I am giving thanks for the House Intelligence Committee’s final report on Benghazi.

Also family and friends. But I give thanks for them every year. This is our first opportunity to be grateful for the House Intelligence Committee’s Benghazi report. So let’s jump at it.

Really, you don’t get good news like this all the time. The committee spent two years conducting a bipartisan investigation into the terrible night in 2012 when four Americans, including the Libyan ambassador, were killed in a violent attack on an American compound. It found that while mistakes were made, the Americans on the ground in Libya made reasonable decisions, as did the people trying to support them. The C.I.A. was brave and effective. Nobody in the White House thwarted a possible rescue or deliberately tried to mislead the public about what happened.

Whew. You can imagine the excitement when this report was unveiled. Or, actually, quietly posted on the committee’s website. On Friday evening. On the eve of a holiday week.

The Intelligence Committee is, of course, led by members of the Republican majority. The only time Republicans don’t talk about Benghazi, it turns out, is when they report about their findings.

The silence was pretty deafening. Except for Senator Lindsey Graham, who helpfully told CNN: “I think the report’s full of crap.” And Newt Gingrich, who theorized that the Intelligence Committee had been “co-opted by the C.I.A.”

Newt knows. (“I’ve talked to four different people who have a real interest in this topic at a professional level. They are appalled by this report.”)

There have always been two ways of looking at Benghazi. One is as a terrible loss that might have been mitigated if the diplomatic compounds had been better protected, and that the State Department needs to rethink its traditional bureaucratic approach to overseeing security. The other, far more exciting, possibility is that this is all about Obama-Clinton perfidy. Was there a team of potential rescuers who were kept away from the fray because the administration didn’t want to admit it had underestimated the terror threat in Libya? Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, confided at a Republican fund-raising dinner that he had “suspicions” that Hillary Clinton told then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “to stand down.” The Intelligence Committee didn’t find any evidence whatsoever that that had occurred. But they were, you know, co-opted.

The committee and its staff spent what one Democratic member said was “thousands of hours” reading intelligence reports, cables and emails about the incident. It was a heck of a commitment. Although, to be fair, surely no more than the House Armed Services Committee, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which have been looking into exactly the same events and coming up with pretty much the same conclusions.

Still to come: A special $3.3 million House Committee that Speaker John Boehner has created to pursue what Chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina says will be the “final, definitive accounting of the attack.” The effort is needed, Boehner said, because the “American people still have far too many questions” to let the inquiries drop now after nobody has had a chance to look into the matter except a special independent review board, the House Intelligence Committee, the House Armed Services Committee, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

And then, of course, there’s the House Oversight Committee, under the irrepressible Representative Issa, which shows no sign of wrapping up its Benghazi investigations. Issa has already sent Gowdy a 37-page letter listing what he said were State Department efforts to obstruct his probes. But he’s required to step down as chairman at the end of the year, and his replacement, Jason Chaffetz of Utah, seems to be planning a less lively approach. The top Democrat on the committee, Elijah Cummings, said Chaffetz had shown “a sincere interest in working together,” as opposed to Issa’s sincere interest, at one point, in cutting off Cummings’s microphone at a public hearing.

We give thanks for all the congressional investigations into Benghazi. Who says Congress can’t reduce unemployment? In March, the Defense Department said that it had devoted “thousands of man-hours to responding to numerous and often repetitive congressional requests regarding Benghazi, which includes time devoted to approximately 50 congressional hearings, briefings and interviews” at a cost of “millions of dollars.”

Meanwhile, there are rumblings from some Senate Republicans that what the next Congress needs is a good joint House-Senate Benghazi investigation. On the other hand, the House Agricultural Committee seems to have no interest whatsoever in initiating a probe. For this, we are truly thankful.

Blow and Krugman

November 24, 2014

In “Bigger Than Immigration” Mr. Blow says that for conservatives, this debate is really about the fear of seeing traditional power slip away.  Prof. Krugman, in “Rock Bottom Economics,” says it’s amazing and depressing that we’ve spent six years at the big zero.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Don’t let yourself get lost in the weeds. Don’t allow yourself to believe that opposition to President Obama’s executive actions on immigration is only about that issue, the president’s tactics, or his lack of obsequiousness to his detractors.

This hostility and animosity toward this president is, in fact, larger than this president. This is about systems of power and the power of symbols. Particularly, it is about preserving traditional power and destroying emerging symbols that threaten that power. This president is simply the embodiment of the threat, as far as his detractors are concerned, whether they are willing or able to articulate it as such.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last week found that the public “wants immigration policy along the lines of what President Barack Obama seeks but is skeptical of the executive action.” When The Journal looked at some of the people who “say they want to see a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — which is beyond what Mr. Obama’s executive order would do — but say they disapprove of presidential executive action,” it found that the group was “overwhelmingly white and more likely to be Republican than not” and some said that they simply “don’t like anything associated with the president.”

Pay attention to the overall response from all sources, particularly the rhetoric in which it is wrapped.

Speaker John Boehner has accused Obama of acting like a “king” and an “emperor.” Representative Louie Gohmert referred to Obama’s “ new royal amnesty decree.”

Andrew C. McCarthy, in National Review, went further, suggesting that Obama’s legal justification was a slippery slope to all manner of crime and vice:

“Can the president make fraud and theft legal? How about assault? Cocaine use? Perjury? You’d have to conclude he can — and that we have supplanted the Constitution with a monarchy — if you buy President Obama’s warped notion of prosecutorial discretion.”

There is no denying the insinuations in such language: a fear of subjugation by people like this president, an “other” person, predisposed to lawlessness.

As usual, issue-oriented opposition overlaps with a historical undercurrent, one desperate for demonstration (of liberal folly) and preservation (of conservative principles and traditional power).

From this worldview, liberalism isn’t simply an alternate political sensibility, but a rot, an irreparable ruination, a violation of the laws of the land as the founding fathers (most of whom owned slaves at some point) envisioned, but also of the laws of nature, which they see as being directed by God. There are so many examples of this: opposition to L.G.B.T. rights, to the science undergirding climate change and efforts to arrest that change, and to allowing women a full range of reproductive options.

Maybe that’s why the president cited Scripture when laying out his immigration plan: “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too.”

But that is surely to have fallen on deaf ears, if not hostile ones. Conservatives slammed the usage, and Mike Huckabee went so far as to accuse the president of trying to rewrite the Bible while bizarrely invoking the Bill Cosby sexual assault allegations:

“I always thought that Scripture was eternal and unchanging, but apparently, now that Obama is president, Scripture gets rewritten more often than Bill Cosby’s Wikipedia entry.”

How dare the president — seen by some as a threat to Christianity — invoke Christianity in his defense!

As Paul Ryan put it in 2012, the president’s policies put us on a “dangerous path,” one that “grows government, restricts freedom and liberty, and compromises those values, those Judeo-Christian, Western civilization values that made us such a great and exceptional nation in the first place.”

Senator Tom Coburn upped the rhetoric last week, suggesting to USA Today that there could be a violent reaction to the president’s actions:

“You’re going to see — hopefully not — but you could see instances of anarchy.”

He added, “You could see violence.”

This is not completely unlike the language used by Joni Ernst, just elected senator in Iowa, who spoke during a 2012 N.R.A. event of her gun and the “right to defend myself,” possibly “from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.”

Make no mistake: This debate is not just about this president, this executive order or immigration. This is about the fear that makes the face flush when people stare into a future in which traditional power — their power — is eroded, and about their desperate, by-any-means determination to deny that future.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Six years ago the Federal Reserve hit rock bottom. It had been cutting the federal funds rate, the interest rate it uses to steer the economy, more or less frantically in an unsuccessful attempt to get ahead of the recession and financial crisis. But it eventually reached the point where it could cut no more, because interest rates can’t go below zero. On Dec. 16, 2008, the Fed set its interest target between 0 and 0.25 percent, where it remains to this day.

The fact that we’ve spent six years at the so-called zero lower bound is amazing and depressing. What’s even more amazing and depressing, if you ask me, is how slow our economic discourse has been to catch up with the new reality. Everything changes when the economy is at rock bottom — or, to use the term of art, in a liquidity trap (don’t ask). But for the longest time, nobody with the power to shape policy would believe it.

What do I mean by saying that everything changes? As I wrote way back when, in a rock-bottom economy “the usual rules of economic policy no longer apply: virtue becomes vice, caution is risky and prudence is folly.” Government spending doesn’t compete with private investment — it actually promotes business spending. Central bankers, who normally cultivate an image as stern inflation-fighters, need to do the exact opposite, convincing markets and investors that they will push inflation up. “Structural reform,” which usually means making it easier to cut wages, is more likely to destroy jobs than create them.

This may all sound wild and radical, but it isn’t. In fact, it’s what mainstream economic analysis says will happen once interest rates hit zero. And it’s also what history tells us. If you paid attention to the lessons of post-bubble Japan, or for that matter the U.S. economy in the 1930s, you were more or less ready for the looking-glass world of economic policy we’ve lived in since 2008.

But as I said, nobody would believe it. By and large, policy makers and Very Serious People in general went with gut feelings rather than careful economic analysis. Yes, they sometimes found credentialed economists to back their positions, but they used these economists the way a drunkard uses a lamppost: for support, not for illumination. And what the guts of these serious people have told them, year after year, is to fear — and do — exactly the wrong things.

Thus we were told again and again that budget deficits were our most pressing economic problem, that interest rates would soar any day now unless we imposed harsh fiscal austerity. I could have told you that this was foolish, and in fact I did, and sure enough, the predicted interest rate spike never happened — but demands that we cut government spending now, now, now have cost millions of jobs and deeply damaged our infrastructure.

We were also told repeatedly that printing money — not what the Fed was actually doing, but never mind — would lead to “currency debasement and inflation.” The Fed, to its credit, stood up to this pressure, but other central banks didn’t. The European Central Bank, in particular, raised rates in 2011 to head off a nonexistent inflationary threat. It eventually reversed course but has never gotten things back on track. At this point European inflation is far below the official target of 2 percent, and the Continent is flirting with outright deflation.

But are these bad calls just water under the bridge? Isn’t the era of rock-bottom economics just about over? Don’t count on it.

It’s true that with the U.S. unemployment rate dropping, most analysts expect the Fed to raise interest rates sometime next year. But inflation is low, wages are weak, and the Fed seems to realize that raising rates too soon would be disastrous. Meanwhile, Europe looks further than ever from economic liftoff, while Japan is still struggling to escape from deflation. Oh, and China, which is starting to remind some of us of Japan in the late 1980s, could join the rock-bottom club sooner than you think.

So the counterintuitive realities of economic policy at the zero lower bound are likely to remain relevant for a long time to come, which makes it crucial that influential people understand those realities. Unfortunately, too many still don’t; one of the most striking aspects of economic debate in recent years has been the extent to which those whose economic doctrines have failed the reality test refuse to admit error, let alone learn from it. The intellectual leaders of the new majority in Congress still insist that we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel; German officials still insist that the problem is that debtors haven’t suffered enough.

This bodes ill for the future. What people in power don’t know, or worse what they think they know but isn’t so, can very definitely hurt us.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

November 20, 2014

In “The Solid South Will Rise Again” Mr. Blow points out the obvious:  The region has become so Republican, particularly since President Obama was elected, that there isn’t much left there for the Democrats to salvage.  Well, decades of tinkering with gerrymandered districts has helped too…  Mr. Kristof has a question:  “Do Politicians Love Kids?”  He says if American politicians are looking for a genuinely bipartisan issue to work together on, here’s a suggestion: invest in early education.  That’ll likely happen when pigs fly.  Ms. Collins, in “Tough Times for Penguins,” says that new era of bipartisan cooperation in Washington didn’t last long. Still, we’re doing better than the king penguins.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Democrats have abandoned Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who is in a tough runoff election. (Tough is the mild way of putting it. Polls show her down by double digits to her Republican opponent.)

Not only has the Democratic Party pulled its financial support for her campaign, but this week Senate Democrats refused to rally around her push for passage of the Keystone XL pipeline bill.

Maybe Democrats are simply giving up on Landrieu. Or maybe it’s something bigger: They’re giving up on the South, at least in the short term.

This region has become so solidly Republican, particularly since President Obama was elected, that there isn’t much left there for the Democratic Party to defend or salvage. For instance, prior to the 2010 midterms there were 54 Blue Dog Democrats in Congress. In the outgoing Congress, there are only 19 left, including eight from the South.

And Republican gerrymandering has further weakened Democratic power, even when Democrats vote in high numbers. As Lee Fang wrote this month at Republic Report, “Republican gerrymandering means Democratic voters are packed tightly into single districts, while Republicans are spread out in such a way to translate into the most congressional seats for the G.O.P.”

After the midterms, The Associated Press provided this tally:

“In January, the G.O.P. will control every governor’s office, two U.S. Senate seats, nearly every majority-white congressional district and both state legislative chambers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas.”

It is important and relevant that The Associated Press pointed out the racial dichotomy because, in the South, ideology and racial identity are nearly inseparable.

I’m reminded of the story that one of my brothers told about being transferred along with a white co-worker to Mississippi. He and the co-worker were shopping for homes at the same time. The co-worker was aghast at what he saw as redlining on the part of the real estate agent, who never explicitly mentioned race. When the coworker had inquired about a neighborhood that included black homeowners, the agent responded, “You don’t want to live there. That’s where the Democrats live.” The co-worker was convinced that “Democrats” was code for “black.”

He may well have been right. Mississippi is among the most racially bifurcated states politically, with one of the highest percentage of black voters in the country. In 2012, 96 percent of blacks voted for the Democratic presidential ticket, according to exit polling data, while 89 percent of whites voted for the Republican ticket.

Landrieu’s Louisiana isn’t much different. In 2012, Obama won only 10 of the state’s 64 parishes. Most of the 10 had a majority-black population, and the rest had black populations approaching 50 percent. Earlier this month, Landrieu got 94 percent of the black vote but only 18 percent of the white vote.

Pat Buchanan has echoed The Associated Press in his assessment of the near complete political and racial divide in the South, writing last week, “South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas will not send a single white Democrat to Congress, if Mary Landrieu loses her runoff. The only Democrats in the House from Deep South states will be African-Americans.”

As Gallup pointed out in March, “Whites have become increasingly Republican, moving from an average 4.1-point Republican advantage under Clinton to an average 9.5-point advantage under Obama.”

And this increasingly homogenous Southern delegation is likely to wield increased influence, as The Associated Press points out:

“In Washington, Senate Republicans haven’t parceled out leadership assignments, but Southerners figure prominently among would-be major committee chairmen: Mississippi’s Thad Cochran (Appropriations); Alabama’s Jeff Sessions (Budget) and Richard Shelby of Alabama (Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs); Bob Corker of Tennessee (Foreign Relations); Richard Burr of North Carolina (Intelligence); Lamar Alexander of Tennessee (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions); Johnny Isakson of Georgia (Veterans Affairs).”

Furthermore, many of the likely most talked about Republican presidential candidates are from the South: Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio and Mike Huckabee.

The degree to which the South remains solidly Republican may well depend on the changing racial composition of Southern states, specifically a rise in their non-white population.

According to the Census Bureau, six of the 10 states with the largest “black alone-or-in-combination populations” in 2010 were Southern states: Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia. And the four that experienced substantial growth between 2000 and 2010 in their black alone-or-in-combination populations were all Southern: “Florida grew by 29 percent, Georgia by 28 percent, Texas by 27 percent and North Carolina by 21 percent.”

In addition, as the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project pointed out last year, nine of the 10 states with the fastest-growing Hispanic populations were also in the South: Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, North Carolina, Mississippi, Maryland and Georgia.

This regional hyper-racialization of our politics has many origins, some historical and some current, but it does not bode well for the future of the country as a whole.

We are self-sorting ourselves into hardened, impenetrable citadels of ideological sameness that harks back to the nation’s darker days.

You’ll notice that there’s not a word about Howard Dean and his 50 State Strategy, you know, the strategy that was actually working until Dean was kicked to the curb…  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

We Americans love children.

Indeed, we love them so much that, on average, child care workers earn almost as much per hour ($10.33) as workers who care for animals ($10.82), according to a new study from the University of California, Berkeley.

We love them so much that only 38 percent of American 3-year-olds are enrolled in education programs. The average is 70 percent among the 34 industrialized countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

So if politicians are genuinely looking for a bipartisan issue to break through the Washington gridlock, here’s a suggestion: invest in early education.

A poll over the summer found that 71 percent of voters supported a major federal investment in early education, including huge majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents alike. Leaders in doing this have been tinted both blue (New York City) and red (the State of Oklahoma) — as well as camouflage green (the United States military has an excellent preschool program). Jim Messina, the campaign manager for President Obama in 2012, and Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s rival campaign that year, this month wrote a joint memo advocating that both parties back investments in early education.

“Perhaps the biggest political opportunity for both parties lies in the nonpartisan issue of early childhood education,” Messina and Madden wrote.

Early education is the low-hanging fruit of public policy. It has the approval in principle of both President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, and abundant research suggests that early help for disadvantaged children could chip away at inequality, save public money and help those children reach the starting line.

I dropped in the other day on James Heckman, an owlish University of Chicago professor and Nobel Prize-winning economist who is the leading scholarly advocate of early interventions. He’s a numbers geek who advocates investing in early childhood programs simply because that is where society gets the most bang for the buck — returns of 7 percent to 10 percent per year, by his calculations.

Heckman argues that the cheapest way to reduce crime is to invest in early childhood programs for at-risk kids. He has crunched the numbers and found that to get the same reduction in crime by adding police officers would cost at least five times as much.

At 70 and showing no signs of slowing down, Heckman co-authored two major studies published in Science this year that underscored that the real question isn’t whether we can afford early education initiatives, but whether we can afford not to provide them:

• One follow-up found that adults who, as disadvantaged children, had been randomly assigned to attend an excellent preschool were much healthier than those who had been randomly assigned to the control group.

Now in their mid-30s, the men who had gone to the preschool had average blood pressure of 126 over 79; the controls were a much more worrisome 143 over 92. Those men who had attended the preschool were less than one-third as likely to be severely obese. Because they were also doing better in life, those preschool graduates were far more likely to have health insurance.

• Another follow-up looked at adults in Jamaica who 20 years earlier had been growth-stunted toddlers. At that time, some had been assigned to a control group and some to get a weekly one-hour visit from a health aide who coached parents on doing more to engage their children. Again, the results were stunning. Those who as children had been in the group getting the weekly visits were less likely to commit violent crimes than those in the control group. They stayed in school longer, and they earned 25 percent more as adults.

“It blew me away,” Heckman said of the Jamaica study. What was remarkable was how simple and low-cost the assistance was — a one-hour weekly visit by a health aide — yet it changed the lives of the children who participated.

“Early education” isn’t just about pre-K but rather an umbrella term for all interventions between pregnancy and age 5. Some of the most effective seem to occur during pregnancy and infancy, counseling at-risk women not to drink, smoke or take drugs while expecting, and then after birth, helping them breast-feed and read to the child, while avoiding lead paint and other toxins.

Why are these early interventions so effective? Apparently because the first few years are the window when the brain is forming and when basic skills like self-control and grit are developed.

Washington will probably be a discouraging gridlocked mess for the next couple of years. But here’s a rare issue where it’s just conceivable that we could make progress and build a stronger and more equitable future for our nation.

If our politicians really do love children, here’s a way to prove it.

The love the IDEA of children, not the messy, needy little creatures themselves.  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Scientists say that fur seals in the Antarctic are having sex with the penguins.

This may have been going on for some time. A South African research team has published a paper on it, “Multiple Occurrences of King Penguin Sexual Harassment by Antarctic Fur Seals.” There’s also a video featuring a rather large seal and a really unhappy looking bird.

“This may be an emergent behavior,” the team wrote ominously.

I am bringing you this disturbing news because it may make you feel better about politics, Congress, and the general state of the nation. True, virtually everything that’s happened since the election suggests things are going to get worse rather than better. But hey, at least we’re not being governed by seals.

All this brings us to Washington, where congressional leaders from both parties have been making copious promises about seeking common ground. Generally, the specifics end with some vague reference to doing “tax reform.”

“Reagan and Tip O’Neill saved Social Security for a generation, did the last comprehensive tax reform. We need to do that again,” said Mitch McConnell, the next Senate majority leader, in his paean to bipartisan cooperation.

Reagan and Tip O’Neill agreed to the largest peacetime tax increase in American history. Do you think that’s what McConnell has in mind? Otherwise, one is forced to consider the possibility that he is making things up. The Democrats and Republicans are definitely in accord about the need for tax reform. However, given the fact that they disagree completely about what that reform should entail, chances of progress do not seem great.

But maybe wishing can make it so. Even as young fur seals are apparently compensating for the shortage of mating partners by looking at a king penguin and imagining that it is a female seal.

On Thursday, President Obama is expected to announce he’s protecting millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation through use of his executive power. And that will probably be the end of the talk of amity. The Republicans feel that if Obama usurps the congressional prerogative to make immigration policy, he will have poisoned the well, waved the red flag and generally ruined all the possibility for a new era of cooperation. They were saying that all this week, as they worked feverishly to pass a bill that would override the executive branch’s power to grant permits for projects that cross the national border.

That would be the Keystone pipeline bill. It failed when Senate supporters fell one vote short of the 60 needed to stop a Democratic filibuster. This happened on the same day that a bill to get the federal government out of the business of collecting citizens’ phone records died in a Republican filibuster.

Yes, people, both parties did it. However, since the Republicans are the ones promising to usher in a new order, we are going to pay special attention to them.

“I thought we had a new day coming, when McConnell said he wanted to go back to the regular order of having votes, and amendments and all,” said Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. This was in a phone interview, so it was hard to determine conclusively whether Leahy was being somewhat wry. “He said the next few weeks would set a positive tone for Congress.”

Leahy’s bill, the USA Freedom Act, was a response to the Edward Snowden leaks, particularly the revelation that the federal government is stockpiling everybody’s phone records. It was the bipartisan product of six public hearings and painful negotiations that attracted the support of über-conservative senators like Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah. One of its major features was a requirement that the call records stay with the phone companies. The National Security Agency could retrieve them, but it would have to be specific about whose calls were being traced and why they were needed.

McConnell led the battle to keep the status quo. (“This is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind our backs.”) During the debate, after the minority leader finished his remarks, Leahy asked if he would respond to a few questions, but McConnell was already on his way out of the room. “He said: ‘I’m sorry but I don’t have time.’ In 40 years I’d never seen anybody do that,” Leahy said.

Well, McConnell had been through a lot. The run-up to the debate on Leahy’s bill was a preview of what the new Senate will have in store as it attempts to operate with a trio of young presidential hopefuls in its ranks. Ted Cruz liked the bill and mentioned the Bill of Rights repeatedly. Marco Rubio of Florida hated the bill and summoned up the terror of terror. Rand Paul, that celebrated libertarian, attempted to have it all by announcing that he was voting with McConnell against the bill because it wasn’t strong enough. But he did say he felt bad about it.

At least the seals never promised the penguins it’d be a new tomorrow.

Blow and Krugman

November 17, 2014

In “Partisanship Breaks the Government” Mr. Blow says the Republicans’ goal is to have a destructive fight.  Prof. Krugman considers “When Government Succeeds” and tells us that there is a lot of good news that Republicans don’t want you to notice.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

This could be a rather heated winter. All three branches of government are on course to collide over partisan politics, constitutional authority and scope of power, particularly as vested in the executive branch.

The president has wasted no time moving beyond the Democrats’ midterm defeats. He is setting about ensuring his legacy. His advisers say he feels liberated by not having to worry about any more congressional elections.

He has secured a historic climate change agreement with China that John Boehner called part of the president’s “job-crushing policies” and his “crusade against affordable, reliable energy.”

President Obama went further on Saturday, signaling that he will soon announce “that the United States will contribute $3 billion to a new international fund intended to help the world’s poorest countries address the effects of climate change,” according to The Times.

Obama has also called on the Federal Communications Commission to adopt net-neutrality rules that Ted Cruz called “Obamacare for the Internet.”

But the tipping point will likely come when the president takes executive action on immigration, which, according to reports, could protect up to five million unauthorized immigrants from deportation. Republicans are beside themselves at the prospect.

Amnesty! Out-and-out lawlessness! Shredding the Constitution! No claim — and no recourse — is out of bounds, it seems.

Many conservatives, like Rush Limbaugh, are demanding another government shutdown to stop it. Others, like Charles Krauthammer, have suggested that Obama’s actions on immigration might be “an impeachable offense.”

The grown-ups on the right — to the degree such people exist — know full well that shutdowns and impeachment proceedings are suicidal, but such is the political blood lust on that end of the spectrum that one can’t be sure that cooler heads will prevail over hot ones.

Short of those two nearly nuclear options, John Boehner is reportedly considering suing the president over his planned action on immigration.

This is what the G.O.P. base wants: a fight. According to last week’s report from the Pew Research Center, Republicans, by a margin of more than two to one, want Republican leaders to “stand up to Obama, even if less gets done in Washington,” as if it were possible for this do-nothing Congress to do less.

Congressional Republicans have been sent to Washington with a mandate not so much to conduct business but rather to collect a bounty, to do what they promised and what their supporters expect: Stop Obama at any cost and at every turn, to erase his name or at least put an asterisk by it.

If the speaker should file such a suit, it could drag the Supreme Court into this partisan drama.

But it seems the court isn’t waiting for that. It has already thrust itself into the partisan fray by, to the surprise of many, taking up yet another challenge to the Affordable Care Act. This one, like the last, could prove fatal to the law.

It centers on the question of whether people who signed up through the federal exchanges are eligible for subsidies or if those subsidies are only available to people signing up through exchanges set up by states, something many Republican-led states refused to do.

Some have called this ambiguity little more than a typo in a voluminous bill. Linda Greenhouse, my Times colleague and expert interpreter of all things Supreme Court, called the decision to take the case “worse” than the court’s ruling on Bush v. Gore, as well as “profoundly depressing,” and suggested that the court is beginning to look evermore like “just a collection of politicians in robes.”

But the typo defense is complicated by the comments of an architect of the law, Jonathan Gruber, a health economist. In 2012, he said, “if you’re a state and you don’t set up an exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits.” This suggested that the clause was no accident, or at least one he and others found fortuitous.

While these battles may offer some ephemeral partisan gain — mostly for Republicans — they will suppress support for all three branches of government and further diminish public faith in the efficacy of government as a whole.

According to a June poll by Gallup, “Americans’ confidence in all three branches of the U.S. government has fallen, reaching record lows for the Supreme Court (30 percent) and Congress (7 percent), and a six-year low for the presidency (29 percent).” While the blood sport of these clashes is likely to enthrall pundits and policy wonks, I fear that it won’t be good for the republic — particularly Democrats.

Liberal ideology depends on a productive federal government; conservatism rises when that government is crippled.

Republicans, in all their cynicism, are increasing their efforts to break the government.

Isn’t America great?

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The great American Ebola freakout of 2014 seems to be over. The disease is still ravaging Africa, and as with any epidemic, there’s always a risk of a renewed outbreak. But there haven’t been any new U.S. cases for a while, and popular anxiety is fading fast.

Before we move on, however, let’s try to learn something from the panic.

When the freakout was at its peak, Ebola wasn’t just a disease — it was a political metaphor. It was, specifically, held up by America’s right wing as a symbol of government failure. The usual suspects claimed that the Obama administration was falling down on the job, but more than that, they insisted that conventional policy was incapable of dealing with the situation. Leading Republicans suggested ignoring everything we know about disease control and resorting to extreme measures like travel bans, while mocking claims that health officials knew what they were doing.

Guess what: Those officials actually did know what they were doing. The real lesson of the Ebola story is that sometimes public policy is succeeding even while partisans are screaming about failure. And it’s not the only recent story along those lines.

Here’s another: Remember Solyndra? It was a renewable-energy firm that borrowed money using Department of Energy guarantees, then went bust, costing the Treasury $528 million. And conservatives have pounded on that loss relentlessly, turning it into a symbol of what they claim is rampant crony capitalism and a huge waste of taxpayer money.

Defenders of the energy program tried in vain to point out that anyone who makes a lot of investments, whether it’s the government or a private venture capitalist, is going to see some of those investments go bad. For example, Warren Buffett is an investing legend, with good reason — but even he has had his share of lemons, like the $873 million loss he announced earlier this year on his investment in a Texas energy company. Yes, that’s half again as big as the federal loss on Solyndra.

The question is not whether the Department of Energy has made some bad loans — if it hasn’t, it’s not taking enough risks. It’s whether it has a pattern of bad loans. And the answer, it turns out, is no. Last week the department revealed that the program that included Solyndra is, in fact, on track to return profits of $5 billion or more.

Then there’s health reform. As usual, much of the national dialogue over the Affordable Care Act is being dominated by fake scandals drummed up by the enemies of reform. But if you look at the actual results so far, they’re remarkably good. The number of Americans without health insurance has dropped sharply, with around 10 million of the previously uninsured now covered; the program’s costs remain below expectations, with average premium rises for next year well below historical rates of increase; and a new Gallup survey finds that the newly insured are very satisfied with their coverage. By any normal standards, this is a dramatic example of policy success, verging on policy triumph.

One last item: Remember all the mockery of Obama administration assertions that budget deficits, which soared during the financial crisis, would come down as the economy recovered? Surely the exploding costs of Obamacare, combined with a stimulus program that would become a perpetual boondoggle, would lead to vast amounts of red ink, right? Well, no — the deficit has indeed come down rapidly, and as a share of G.D.P. it’s back down to pre-crisis levels.

The moral of these stories is not that the government is always right and always succeeds. Of course there are bad decisions and bad programs. But modern American political discourse is dominated by cheap cynicism about public policy, a free-floating contempt for any and all efforts to improve our lives. And this cheap cynicism is completely unjustified. It’s true that government-hating politicians can sometimes turn their predictions of failure into self-fulfilling prophecies, but when leaders want to make government work, they can.

And let’s be clear: The government policies we’re talking about here are hugely important. We need serious public health policy, not fear-mongering, to contain infectious disease. We need government action to promote renewable energy and fight climate change. Government programs are the only realistic answer for tens of millions of Americans who would otherwise be denied essential health care.

Conservatives want you to believe that while the goals of public programs on health, energy and more may be laudable, experience shows that such programs are doomed to failure. Don’t believe them. Yes, sometimes government officials, being human, get things wrong. But we’re actually surrounded by examples of government success, which they don’t want you to notice.

And of course the “liberal media” doesn’t seem to be saying a word, does it???


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