Archive for the ‘Cohen’ Category

The Pasty Little Putz, Cohen, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

December 21, 2014

In “North Korea and the Speech Police” The Putz howls that Sony’s self-censorship isn’t really so surprising in an era of hypersensitive political correctness.  In the comments “azlib” from AZ has this to say:  “Oh, please Ross. It wasn’t a “liberal” institution that caved to North Korea. It was a capitalist corporation only concerned with its bottom line. It is also a false equivalence to compare the protests against some political speaker (which is also free speech) with the serious hacking done by North Korea against Sony.  Also, it is interesting you do not include all the right wing hissy fits done to silence liberal critics of the Iraq War. Is that part of our so called censorship culture or is there a double standard going on here?”  Mr. Cohen has a question:  “What Will Israel Become?”  He says the country’s choices narrow. Peace? Or annexation?  The Moustache of Wisdom also has a question:  “Who’s Playing Marbles Now?”  He says there was a lot of Putin envy going around earlier this year. Oh how things have changed.  In “The Gift of Education” Mr. Kristof says in this holiday season, let’s take a moment to celebrate those who share the transformative opportunity of an education.  Mr. Bruni’s panties are in a knot.  In “Hacking Our Humanity” he squeals that conversations aren’t confidential. Spontaneity is ill-advised. This is bigger than Sony. We’re all exposed and diminished.  Well, Frankie, you don’t really have to tell everyone everything about your life by Twitter-twatting and FBing…  Here’s the Putz:

Of course it had to escalate this way. We live in a time of consistent gutlessness on the part of institutions notionally committed to free speech and intellectual diversity, a time of canceled commencement invitations and C.E.O.s defenestrated for their political donations, a time of Twitter mobs, trigger warnings and cringing public apologies. A time when journalists and publishers tiptoe around Islamic fundamentalism, when free speech is under increasing pressure on both sides of the Atlantic, when a hypersensitive political correctness has the whip hand on many college campuses.

So why should anyone be remotely surprised that Kim Jong-un decided to get in on the “don’t offend me” act?

Let’s get some qualifiers out of the way. The North Korean regime is arguably more evil than any other present-day dictatorship, its apparent hack of Sony Pictures is a deadly serious act of cyberterrorism, and the response by Sony — the outright withdrawal, after theater chains balked at showing it, of the offending comedy, “The Interview,” in which the North Korean dictator is blown to smithereens — sets a uniquely terrible precedent.

It’s terrible for cinema, since the film industry, already wary of any controversy that might make its blockbusters hard to sell in Asia, will no doubt retreat even further into the safety of superhero franchises. More important, it’s terrible for any future institution or individual hacked or blackmailed by groups seeking similar concessions.

So the Sony affair is more serious than many other debates about speech and power in the West right now. But the difference is still one of magnitude, not kind.

After all, the basic strategy employed by the apparently North Korean-backed hackers is the same one employed for years by Islamic extremists against novelists and newspapers and TV shows that dare to portray the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light (or in any light at all). And the weak response from Hollywood, where the town’s movers and shakers proved unwilling to even sign a George Clooney-organized public petition pledging solidarity against the hackers, isn’t so very different from the self-censorship by networks and publishers and even opera houses that have fallen afoul of Islamist sensitivities over the years.

Moreover, the demand that “The Interview” be withdrawn because it treats North Korea disrespectfully — as it most certainly does — isn’t all that different from the arguments behind the various speech codes that have proliferated in Europe and Canada of late, exposing people to fines and prosecution for speaking too critically about the religions, cultures and sexual identities of others.

Nor is it all that different from the arguments used in the United States to justify canceling an increasing number of commencement speakers — including Condoleezza Rice and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Christine Lagarde — when some hothouse-flower campus activists decided they couldn’t bear to sit and hear them. Or the mentality that forced out the C.E.O. and co-founder of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, when it was revealed that he had once donated money to a ballot initiative that opposed same-sex marriage. Or the free-floating, shape-shifting outrage that now pervades the Internet, always looking for some offensive or un-P.C. remark to fasten on and furiously attack — whether the perpetrator is a TV personality or some unlucky political staffer, hapless and heretofore obscure.

The common thread in all these cases, whether the angry parties are Hermit Kingdom satraps or random social-justice warriors on Twitter, is a belief that the most important power is the power to silence, and that the perfect community is one in which nothing uncongenial to your own worldview is ever tweeted, stated, supported or screened.

And the other common thread, of course, is the pathetic response from the cultural entities that are supposedly most invested in free speech in our culture — universities, Internet companies, the press and the film industry, all of which seem disinclined to risk much on behalf of the ideals they officially cherish.

As a conservative, you take for granted that these institutions are often political monocultures — that the average commencement speaker, like the average academic, will be several degrees left of center, that Silicon Valley isn’t the most hospitable place to be a religious conservative, that when Hollywood gets “edgy” or “controversial” it’s usually a right-wing ox that’s being gored.

But it would be far easier to live with this predictable liberalism if these institutions, so pious about their commitment to free expression, weren’t so quick to knuckle under to illiberalism in all its varied forms.

“We cannot have a society,” President Obama said on Friday, when asked about the Sony hack, “where some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.”

In theory, that’s absolutely right. But in practice, Kim Jong-un has our culture’s number: Letting angry people impose a little censorship is just the way we live right now.

Putzy, here’s a big pile of salted dicks for you to munch on.  Now here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Jerusalem:

Uneasiness inhabits Israel, a shadow beneath the polished surface. In a violent Middle Eastern neighborhood of fracturing states, that is perhaps inevitable, but Israelis are questioning their nation and its future with a particular insistence. As the campaign for March elections begins, this disquiet looks like the precursor of political change. The status quo, with its bloody and inconclusive interludes, has become less bearable. More of the same has a name: Benjamin Netanyahu, now in his third term as prime minister. The alternative, although less clear, is no longer unthinkable.

“There is a growing uneasiness, social, political, economic,” Amos Oz, the novelist, told me in an interview. “There is a growing sense that Israel is becoming an isolated ghetto, which is exactly what the founding fathers and mothers hoped to leave behind them forever when they created the state of Israel.” The author, widely viewed as the conscience of a liberal and anti-Messianic Israel, continued, “Unless there are two states — Israel next door to Palestine — and soon, there will be one state. If there will be one state, it will be an Arab state. The other option is an Israeli dictatorship, probably a religious nationalist dictatorship, suppressing the Palestinians and suppressing its Jewish opponents.”

If that sounds stark, it is because choices are narrowing. Every day, it seems, another European government or parliament expresses support for recognition of a Palestinian state. A Palestinian-backed initiative at the United Nations, opposed in its current form by the United States, is aimed at pushing Israel to withdraw from the West Bank by 2017. The last Gaza eruption, with its heavy toll and messy outcome, changed nothing. Hamas, its annihilationist hatred newly stoked, is still there parading its weapons. Tension is high in Jerusalem after a spate of violent incidents. Life is expensive. Netanyahu’s credibility on both the domestic and international fronts has dwindled.

“We wake up every morning to some new threat he has found,” said Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist. “We have grown tired of it.”

This fatigue will, however, translate into change only if a challenger looks viable. Until recently nobody has. But in the space of a few weeks something has shifted. The leader of the Labor Party, Isaac Herzog, has been ushered from unelectable nerd to plausible patriot. Polls show him neck and neck with the incumbent. Through an alliance forged this month with Tzipi Livni, the recently dismissed justice minister and longtime negotiator with the Palestinians, the Labor leader created a sense of possibility for the center left. A post-Bibi Israel no longer seems a fantasy.

“This cannot go on,” Herzog, a mild-mannered man working on manifesting his inner steel, told me. “There is a deep inherent worry as to the future and well-being of our country. Netanyahu has been leading us to a dead end, to an abyss.” Summing up his convictions, Herzog declared, “We are the Zionist camp. They are the extreme camp.”

Here we get to the nub of the election. A battle has been engaged for Israel’s soul. The country’s founding charter of 1948 declared that the nascent state would be based “on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex.” This is the embodiment of the Zionism of Herzog and Livni. They are both descendants of important figures in Israel’s creation — Chaim Herzog, a former president of Labor sympathies, and Eitan Livni, a former commander of the rightist Irgun militia. For all their differences Labor and Likud, left and right, did not differ on the essential democratic freedoms for all its citizens, Jew and Arab, that Israel should seek to uphold. The new Herzog-Livni alliance looks like an eloquent reaffirmation of that idea.

It is a fragile idea today. Tolerance is under attack as a wave of Israeli nationalism unfurls and settlements grow in the West Bank. This virulent, Jews-first thinking led recently to a bill known as the nationality law that would rescind Arabic’s status as an official language — and proved a catalyst to the breakup of Netanyahu’s government. It also finds expression in the abuse hurled at anyone, including the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, who speaks up for Arab rights. “Traitor” has become a facile cry.

Danny Danon, a former deputy defense minister who is challenging Netanyahu for the Likud leadership, told me his long-term vision for the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria as he calls it, “is to have sovereignty over the majority of the land with the minimum amount of Palestinians.” The two-state idea, Danon said, “is finished, and most Israelis understand that.”

In fact the two-state idea is alive but ever more tenuous. It is compatible with an Israel true to its founding principles. It is incompatible with an Israel bent on Jewish supremacy and annexation of all or most of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. It can be resurrected, because there is no plausible alternative, despite the fact that almost a half-century of dominion over another people has produced ever greater damage, distrust and division. It can be buried only at the expense of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, for no democracy can indefinitely control the lives of millions of disenfranchised people — and that is what many Palestinians are.

“This election is a critical juncture,” said Ofer Kenig, a political analyst. “We have to choose between being a Zionist and liberal nation, or turning into an ethnocentric, nationalist country. I am concerned about the direction in which this delicate democracy is heading.”

A child of 9 in Gaza has memories of three wars in six years. The child may stand in the remains of the Shejaiya neighborhood in eastern Gaza City, gazing at tangles of iron rods, mountains of stone, jagged outcrops of masonry, and air thick with dust. The child may wonder what force it is that wrought such destruction, so repetitively, and why. It is safe to say that the adult this Palestinian child will one day become does not bode well for Israel. The child has no need for indoctrination in hatred.

I was there the other day, in the rubble. Children stood around. I chatted with the Harara family, whose houses were flattened during the 50-day war with Israel that began this summer. Every day Mustafa Harara, 47, comes to gaze at the cratered vestige of his house. He asks where else he should go. It took him 26 years to build. It took five minutes for Israel to demolish it. The reason is unclear. He is no Hamas militant. His electricity business, located in the same area, was also destroyed.

Since the war, he has received nothing, despite the billions for reconstruction pledged by gulf states and others. In June, President Mahmoud Abbas swore in a new government that grew out of the reconciliation pact his Palestine Liberation Organization had signed with Hamas. There is no unity and, in effect, no government in Gaza.

The Egyptian border is closed. Movement through the Israeli border amounts to a minimal trickle. Israeli surveillance balloons hover in airspace controlled by Israel. The 140-square-mile area is little better than an open-air prison. As incubators for violent extremism go, it is hard to imagine a more effective setting than Gaza.

Abbas has not visited since the war broke out. To come after such suffering would have been courageous; not to was craven. Now he is regarded as a stranger by most of the 1.8 million inhabitants of Gaza, the absent father of a nation in desperate need. “Abbas is the one who destroyed us,” Harara says. “What reconciliation? You cannot mix gasoline and diesel.”

This is the abject Palestinian reality behind the speeches about new paradigms, internationalization of the conflict, United Nations resolutions and the like. The legitimate Palestinian quest for statehood is undermined by debilitating division that Abbas is either unable or unwilling to address. In January, he will have been in power for a decade. He shows no sign of organizing the election needed to confer legitimacy on his rule or to reveal the real power balance in Palestinian politics. The citizens of Gaza represent a significant proportion of Palestinians in the Holy Land. How the Palestinian push for statehood can be effective without real unity and the painful compromises between Fatah and Hamas needed to achieve it is a mystery. Surely it is Job 1.

Everyone in Gaza seems to expect another war. “We are dying slowly, so why not die quickly?” is a common refrain. People seem dazed. There is, quite literally, no way out.

Lutfi Harara, the younger brother of Mustafa, whose home was also destroyed, took me to see the little house with a corrugated iron roof he had cobbled together since the war. He showed me photographs of Haifa, his memories of the Israel where he used to work as an electrician before divisions hardened. From rockets and artillery shells found in the rubble of his home, he has fashioned lamps and a vase and a heavy bell dangling from an olive tree — his version of swords into plowshares, and the one hopeful thing I saw in Gaza.

From his home I went to see a hard-line Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar. He lambasted Abbas — “he is living on stories” — and told me to forget about a two-state compromise at or near the 1967 lines. “Israel will be eliminated because it is a foreign body that does not belong to our area, or history or religion,” he said. Referring to Israeli Jews, he continued, “Why should they come from Ethiopia, or Poland, or America? There are six million in Palestine, O.K., take them. America is very wide. You can make a new district for the Jews.”

Zahar, with his hatred, is almost 70. Abbas will be 80 in March. Many Palestinians in their 20s and 30s whom I spoke to in Gaza are sick of sterile threats, incompetence and the cycle of war.

“There is no such thing as a happy compromise,” Amos Oz told me. “Israelis and Palestinians cannot become one happy family because they are not one, not happy and not family either. They are two unhappy families who must divide a small house into even smaller apartments.” The first step, he said, is to “sign peace with clenched teeth, and after signing the contract, start working slowly on a gradual emotional de-escalation on both sides.”

Israel is a remarkable and vibrant democratic society that is facing an impasse. It must decide whether to tough it out on a nationalist road that must lead eventually to annexation of at least wide areas of the West Bank, or whether to return to the ideals of the Zionists who accepted the 1947 United Nations partition of Mandate Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab (the Arabs did not accept the division and embarked on the first of several losing wars aimed at destroying Israel).

This election constitutes a pivotal moment. Herzog told me, “We are not willing to accept that mothers and fathers on the other side don’t want peace. They also want it, and I understand that they have a lack of hope just like here.” He smiled, as a thought occurred to him. “You know, I would be very happy to visit my mother’s birthplace in Egypt as prime minister.”

Now we finally get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

In March, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Mike Rogers, was asked on “Fox News Sunday” how he thought President Obama was handling relations with Russia versus how President Vladimir Putin had been handling relations with the United States. Rogers responded: “Well, I think Putin is playing chess, and I think we’re playing marbles. And I don’t think it’s even close.”

Hmmm. Marbles. That’s an interesting metaphor. Actually, it turns out that Obama was the one playing chess and Putin was the one playing marbles, and it wouldn’t be wrong to say today that Putin’s lost most of his — in both senses of the word.

Rogers was hardly alone in his Putin envy. As Jon Stewart pointed out, Fox News has had a veritable Putin love fest going since March: Sarah Palin opined to the network that: “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.” Fox contributor Rudy Giuliani observed on the same day that in contrast with Obama, Putin was “what you call a leader.”

Only if leading your country to economic ruin is a form of leadership. And this is not Monday-morning quarterbacking. It has been obvious for months that Putin was fighting the market, Moore’s Law, Mother Nature and human nature all at once.

He bet almost his whole economy on oil and gas that only can be exploited long-term at the risk of disruptive climate change; he underestimated the degree to which technological innovation has enabled America to produce more oil, gas, renewable energy and greater efficiency, all at the same time, helping to undermine crude prices; he talked himself into believing that Ukrainians toppled their corrupt leaders only because the C.I.A. told them to — not because of the enduring human quest to realize a better future for their kids; and he underestimated how integrated and interdependent Russia is with the global markets and how deeply sanctions, over time, would bite him.

Let us not mince words: Vladimir Putin is a delusional thug. He created, fell in love with and is now being disabused of a fantasy notion of his and Russia’s power. Might he lash out militarily now to distract his people with more shiny objects? Yes, he might, but then he’d only be violating another rule of geopolitics: “The First Rule of Holes” — when you’re in one, stop digging.

I say that with no satisfaction. In fact, I say it with deep regret. I opposed NATO expansion and our unilateral ripping up of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, when Russia was weak. I wanted — and still want — to see America partner with Russia to help stem global disorder, because in many places in the world we can’t be effective without a Russian partner. Alas, we expanded NATO — and unintentionally helped to foster the political conditions in Russia for Putin’s xenophobic, grievance-based politics to flourish.

But Putin also went nuts. Oil at $110 a barrel went to his head. He thought all of this was about him, his decisions, the economy he and his cronies built and on some Russian geopolitical entitlement based on history. In reality, he had bet everything on drilling oil and gas, not on building his people and their talents. He rode the price up and now it is riding him down.

Along the way, Putin lied to the world and deluded himself. His big lie is that the popular toppling of the corrupt government of Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev was just a Western plot to bring Ukraine into NATO. In Putin’s spook-defined world, no one has agency — except the Central Intelligence Agency (or K.G.B.). It is inconceivable to him that a critical mass of Ukrainians might have looked over at Poland and envied how well it had done since freeing itself from the Kremlin’s orbit and joining the European Union — that they might have then said to themselves, “We want that”— and that to get it they might have taken to the streets and overthrown Putin’s ally in Kiev, demanding a less corrupt, more transparent, democratic government.

Putin cast all of that as a C.I.A.-NATO plot in order to rally the Russian people to his side and justify his ugly grab of Crimea and his Ukraine intervention, which included indirect involvement in the shooting down of a Malaysian civilian airliner. The real truth is that Putin is not afraid of NATO expansion to Ukraine. That was never in the cards. He is afraid of European Union expansion. He does not want Ukraine to join the European customs union, adopt its anti-corruption and transparency regulations and begin to build a successful economy on European principles that every day would stand as a contrast to and critique of the nontransparent kleptocracy Putin and his oil-and-gas clique have built in Russia.

His big delusion is that his mind-set is trapped in a 19th-century worldview, where Russia is entitled to and will always have “spheres of influence” on its borders. But spheres of influence are not like some honorary degree you get from Moscow University and can keep forever. Today, spheres of influence have to be earned and re-earned. Because, today, thanks to technology, emergent citizens are able to articulate and organize for their own aspirations much more effectively. These are “people of influence,” and they’ve asserted themselves in squares from Tahrir to Taksim to the Maidan in Kiev. Ukraine may be the first battleground in history where people of influence have squared off against a sphere-of-influence thinker. I am still betting on the people.

Russia’s decline is bad for Russians, but that doesn’t mean it is good for us. When the world gets this interconnected and interdependent, you get a strategic reverse: Your friends, through economic mismanagement (see Greece), can harm you faster than your enemies. And your rivals falling (see Russia and China) can be more dangerous than your rivals rising. If Russia, an economy spanning nine time zones, goes into recession and cannot pay foreign lenders with its lower oil revenues — and all this leads to political turmoil and defaults to Western banks — that crash will be felt globally.

Warren Buffett observed during the 2008 economic crisis that “only when the tide goes out do you find out who is not wearing a bathing suit.” Well, the oil tide has gone out, and it revealed that Putin was swimming naked. In doing so, the country he threatens most today is Russia — but not Russia alone. A triumphant, oil-fueled Russia riding a petro-surge is dangerous; but a defeated, angry, increasingly impoverished Russia is dangerous as well. So despite all of the above, I’d be willing to see the West work with Putin to ease the sanctions on Russia, but only if Putin is ready to stop stealing other people’s marbles, only if he is truly ready to be part of the solution in places like Ukraine — not the problem.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Port-au-Prince, Haiti:

Most of us in Nikenson Romage’s situation would have given up.

His dad died when he was 3, and his mom — a food vendor — often couldn’t afford his school fees. So he got kicked out of school occasionally for nonpayment, a humiliating ordeal that leads some kids to drop out forever.

But Nikenson would sneak back onto the school grounds and stand outside the open classroom windows to eavesdrop, day after day. He studied on his own, keeping pace so that when his mom scraped together a few dollars, he could re-enter class — until the next time school fees were due.

Against all odds, Nikenson graduated from high school this year, first in his class, with straight A’s, and was elected class president by his peers. Nikenson is a reminder of the basic aphorism of life today: talent is universal, but opportunity is not.

Fortunately, with the help of American donors, Nikenson is now receiving a university education that will propel him into Haiti’s elite. He’s a beneficiary of a program started by Conor Bohan, a young American who was teaching in a Haitian high school and distressed that a top student in the school couldn’t afford $30 to register for college. He sacrificed his savings to send her to college (she’s now a doctor). Then he hit up family and friends to help other Haitians go to college. The program grew and became the Haitian Education and Leadership Program, or HELP, sending hundreds of young men and women to Haitian universities.

“Education works,” Bohan said simply. “Good education works for everybody, everywhere. It worked for you, for me, and it works for Haitians.”

Tackling global poverty is harder than it seems, and Haiti is a case in point. Its streets are full of white S.U.V.’s ferrying around aid workers, yet it remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Over time, I’ve concluded that education may be the single best way to help people help themselves — whether in America or abroad. Yet, as a nation, we underinvest in education, both domestically and overseas. So, in this holiday season, I’d suggest a moment to raise a glass and celebrate those who spread the transformative gift of education.

A few days ago, we saw the news of the horrific Pakistani Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar. The Taliban attacks schools because it understands that education corrodes extremism; I wish we would absorb that lesson as well. In his first presidential campaign, President Obama spoke of starting a global education fund, but he seems to have forgotten the idea. I wish he would revive it!

I’m particularly impressed by the HELP model in part because of a nifty way to make the program sustainable: Winners commit to giving back 15 percent of their incomes for their first nine years in their jobs. That’s a hefty sum: HELP graduates earn an average of $15,000 a year, compared with per capita income in Haiti of a bit more than $800, and university tuition is very cheap by American standards.

One brilliant new high school graduate, Elice Oreste, was working as an apprentice carpenter in a remote village and earning just $50 a month. HELP sent him to college to study industrial engineering, and he just graduated — and promptly found a job at a European company as a maintenance engineer for $1,500 a month.

“The only difference is his access to education,” notes Bohan.

A HELP scholarship is also transforming the trajectory of Anne Martine Augustin, an orphan who is studying electrical engineering. She designed an app for disaster readiness in Haiti that won a World Bank programming competition.

The greatest unexploited resource in poor countries isn’t oil or gold; it’s people like her. So, with the backing of mostly American donors, HELP scours the country for brilliant but impoverished high school graduates. Once selected, the students also get coaching in English, computer use, and leadership and public service. The aim is to nurture an elite corps of change-makers to build up the country.

“Nobody knows Haiti better than Haitians,” says Leonardo Charles, chosen for a scholarship after he scored in the top five in nationwide exams while also serving as high school class president and student newspaper editor “If there is to be change, it will be from us.”

So I raise my eggnog to toast all those promoting education at home and abroad, thereby spreading opportunity. It’s the updated version of giving a person a fishing pole rather than a fish.

At a party, a Western aid worker once asked Bohan whether HELP graduates would be able to find jobs.

“Look around this room,” Bohan says he replied. “I can replace every white person in this room with a Haitian.”

And now finally we get to Mr. Bruni:

There’s a square in the upper right-hand corner of your computer keyboard that probably looks more banged up than it did a week or two ago. It’s the one marked “delete.” I’ll bet that you’ve been giving it a workout lately, pressing it hard and often, moving relentlessly backward over your emails, fretting and fussing and killing off nearly as many words as you birth. Are they open to misinterpretation? Is their tone too mischievous or meanspirited? Delete, delete, delete. Better safe than Sony’d.

And I’ll bet that it’s all been coming back to you and coming to a head: the invasive games that Facebook has played, the data that Uber holds, the alarms that Edward Snowden sounded, the flesh that Jennifer Lawrence flashed to more people than she ever intended. The Dear Leader is late to this wretched party, and the breach that his regime in North Korea apparently orchestrated is less revelation than confirmation. You can no longer assume that what’s meant to be seen by only one other individual won’t find its way to hundreds, thousands, even millions. That sort of privacy is a quaint relic.

The lesson here isn’t that Hollywood executives, producers, agents and stars must watch themselves. It isn’t to beware of totalitarian states. It’s to beware, period. If it isn’t a foreign nemesis monitoring and meddling with you, then it’s potentially a merchant examining your buying patterns, an employer trawling for signs of disloyalty or indolence, an acquaintance turned enemy, a random hacker with an amorphous grudge — or of course the federal government.

And while this spooky realization prompts better behavior in certain circumstances that call for it and is only a minor inconvenience in other instances, make no mistake: It’s a major loss. Those moments and nooks in life that permit you to be your messiest, stupidest, most heedless self? They’re quickly disappearing if not already gone.

It’s tempting to try to forget that by homing in on other strands of the stories that bring it to our attention. As last week ended, the discussion about Sony turned to the entertainment industry’s hasty capitulation to threats of terrorism.

“I think they made a mistake,” President Obama said on Friday, referring to Sony executives’ decision to pull the movie “The Interview” from theaters. “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.” He added that the America government would respond to North Korea’s actions “proportionally,” but that it hadn’t yet determined how.

Days earlier, the focus was as much on the adolescent nastiness that the hacking of Sony’s systems exposed as on the vulnerability to exposure that it underscored. You could gape at the way all of those temperamental titans typed and decide that they got what they deserved, just as you could chalk up those naked celebrity selfies to spectacularly bad judgment.

But there’s a bigger picture, and it’s terrifying. We’re all naked. The methods by which we communicate today — the advances meant to liberate us — are robbing us of control. Smartphones take photos and record audio. Voice mail is violable. Texts wind up in untrustworthy hands (just ask Anthony Weiner). Hard drives and even the cloud have memories that resist erasure. And the Internet can circulate any purloined secret fast and infinitely far.

The specter that science fiction began to raise decades ago has come true, but with a twist. Computers and technology don’t have minds of their own. They have really, really big mouths.

“Nothing you say in any form mediated through digital technology — absolutely nothing at all — is guaranteed to stay private,” wrote Farhad Manjoo, a technology columnist for The Times, in a blog post on Thursday. He issued a “reminder to anyone who uses a digital device to say anything to anyone, ever. Don’t do it. Don’t email, don’t text, don’t update, don’t send photos.” He might as well have added, “Don’t live,” because self-expression and sharing aren’t easily abandoned, and other conduits for them — landlines, snail mail — no longer do the trick.

WE “don’t have real choice,” Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told The Times’s Claire Cain Miller last month. “It’s not like picking up the newspaper and realizing ice cream has too many calories and you can start eating frozen yogurt, information that people can act on.” Rotenberg was explaining a remarkable survey that had just been published by the Pew Research Center, which found that overwhelming majorities of Americans seriously questioned the confidentiality and security of their social-media activity, their online chats, their texts — and yet pressed on with all of these.

This isn’t a contradiction. It’s more accurately labeled a bind.

Many people have begun to sanitize their exchanges, in manners that could be silencing important conversations and gagging creativity. Late last year, the PEN American Center surveyed 528 of its members, including many journalists and fiction writers, and found that 24 percent of them said that they’d avoided some topics in emails and phone calls for fear of surveillance or exposure. Sixteen percent had at times refrained from Internet research for the same reason. There were issues they didn’t dare to engage, stories they didn’t want to touch.

One unnamed writer who participated in the survey complained of “a chilling effect on my research, most of which I do on the Internet. This includes research on issues such as the drug wars and mass incarceration, which people don’t think about as much as they think about foreign terrorism, but is just as pertinent.”

Another expressed the worry “that by the time we fully realize that we live in this condition, it will be too late to alter the infrastructure patterns.”

Maybe encryption services will help. Maybe what Manjoo called an “erasable Internet” will come to the rescue. But that still leaves some essential forms of communication unaddressed, and enhanced protections could be trailed in short order by newly ingenious routes around them.

“The hackers are going to get better,” Obama conceded. “Some of them are going to be state actors. Some of them are going to be nonstate actors. All of them are going to be sophisticated, and many of them can do some damage.”

It’s not just creativity that’s in jeopardy. It’s not just candor. It’s secure islands of unformed thought and sloppy talk, places where people take necessary vacations from judgment, allowances for impropriety that make propriety possible. And these aren’t, or shouldn’t be, luxuries.

Delete, delete, delete. That’s a bit of your humanity being snuffed out.

The Pasty Little Putz, Cohen, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

December 14, 2014

Oh lordy…  The Pasty Little Putz has extruded a turd called “The Imitation of Marriage” in which he has a question:  Can progressive ideas really save the working-class family?  (As if he gave half a crap about the working class family…)  In the comments section “Richard” from Bozeman had this to say:  “This essay is SO smug that it ascribes values to liberals that are abhorrent to most of us. As for the sexual revolution, what would Douthat know of that?”  Well, Richard, there was the “chunky Reese Witherspoon” incident during his college years.  Mr. Cohen, in “Trying to Reinvent Italy,” says the prime minister struggles to get the country to change its ways.  The Moustache of Wisdom wants to tell us “Why 2014 Is a Big Deal.”  He says this could have been the year that tipped the scales toward action on climate change. Then the price of oil started falling.  Mr. Kristof tells us of “A Shooter, His Victim and Race.”  He says a black man did a terrible thing as a teenager and has been locked up his whole adult life. The white woman he shot in the face now wants him released. Let’s learn from them.  Mr. Bruni, who really should go back to reviewing restaurants, has decided to tell us all about “The Many Faces of Jeb.”  He squeals that we like to pigeonhole politicians, and the ones who might run for president in 2016 don’t make that easy.  Frankie, all I need to know about Jeb is his last name.  Here’s The Putz:

In the last two weeks, my colleagues at The Times’s data-driven project, The Upshot, have offered two ways of looking at the most important cleavage in America — the divide, cultural and economic, between the college educated and the struggling working class.

The first article, by Claire Cain Miller, discussed the striking decline in divorce rates among well-educated Americans, whose families seem to have adapted relatively successfully to the sexual revolution and the postindustrial economy.

The second, by Binyamin Appelbaum, looked at the decline of work itself among less-educated men, and the forces driving this decline: low wages and weak job growth, the availability of safety-net income, the burden of criminal records, and the fraying of paternal and marital bonds.

Appelbaum’s piece is a great jumping-off point for arguments about how policy might improve the fortunes of the unemployed and the working class. But the two articles read together also raise a crucial cultural question: To what extent can the greater stability of upper-class family life, and the habits that have made it possible, be successfully imitated further down the socioeconomic ladder?

Many optimistic liberals believe not only that such imitation is possible, but that what needs to be imitated most are the most socially progressive elements of the new upper class’s way of life: delayed marriage preceded by romantic experimentation, more-interchangeable roles for men and women in breadwinning and child rearing, a more emotionally open and egalitarian approach to marriage and parenting.

The core idea here is that working-class men, in particular, need to let go of a particular image of masculinity — the silent, disciplined provider, the churchgoing paterfamilias — that no longer suits the times. Instead, they need to become more comfortable as part-time homemakers, as emotionally available soul mates, and they need to raise their children to be more adaptive and expressive, to prepare them for a knowledge-based, constantly-in-flux economy.

Like most powerful ideas, this argument is founded on real truths. For Americans of every social class, the future of marriage will be more egalitarian, with more shared burdens and blurrier divisions of labor, or it will not be at all. And the broad patterns of upper-class family life do prepare children for knowledge-based work in ways that working-class family life does not.

But the idea that progressive attitudes can save working-class marriages also has some real problems. First, it underestimates the effective social conservatism of the upper-class model of family life — the resilience of traditional gender roles in work and child rearing, the continued role of religion in stabilizing well-educated family life, and the conservative messages encoded even in the most progressive education.

Notwithstanding their more egalitarian attitudes, for instance, college-educated households still tend to have male primary breadwinners: As the University of Virginia’s Brad Wilcox points out, college-educated husbands and fathers earn about 70 percent of their family’s income on average, about the same percentage as working-class married couples.

The college-educated are also now more likely to attend church than other Americans, and are much less likely to cohabit before marriage than couples without a high school degree. And despite a rhetorical emphasis on Emersonian self-reliance, children reared and educated in the American meritocracy arguably learn a different sort of lesson — the hypersupervised caution of what my colleague David Brooks once dubbed “the organization kid.

Meanwhile, as cohabitation and churchgoing trends suggest, many working-class Americans — men very much included — have gone further in embracing progressive models of identity and behavior than many realize, and reaped relatively little reward for that embrace.

Near the end of “Labor’s Love Lost,” his illuminating new book on the decline of the working-class family, the Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin cites research suggesting that many working-class men, far from being trapped in an antique paradigm of “restricted emotional language,” have actually thrown themselves into therapeutic, “spiritual but not religious” questing, substituting Oprah-esque self-help for more traditional forms of self-conceiving and belonging.

Cherlin, working from progressive premises, sees this as potentially good news: a sign that these men are getting over Gary Cooper and preparing to embrace the more egalitarian and emotionally open patterns of the upper class.

But given that this shift has coincided with lost ground for blue-collar men, another interpretation seems possible. We may have a culture in which the working class is encouraged to imitate what are sold as key upper-class values — sexual permissiveness and self-fashioning, spirituality and emotivism — when really the upper class is also held together by a kind of secret traditionalism, without whose binding power family life ends up coming apart even faster.

If so, it needs to be more widely acknowledged, and even preached, that what’s worth imitating in upper-class family life isn’t purely modern or progressive, but a complex synthesis of new and old.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Italy has long suffered from inertia, its individual vitality smothered by the bureaucracy and opacity of the state. Italians are rich, prudent savers. Their state is poor, profligate and inefficient. For 30 years now, since I was a correspondent in Italy, I have watched the country deploy its ingenuity to evade modernization, culminating in the orgy of baroque escapism known as the Berlusconi years.

So it was with some astonishment that I found Prime Minister Matteo Renzi sweeping in to meet me the other day in jeans and a white open-neck shirt (“I hope you don’t mind, it’s casual Friday!”), without the obsequious retinue of past Italian leaders, bearing a message of change. His aim: the creation of “un paese smart” — a smart country — that has “stopped crying over itself.”

Renzi, who has been in office less than 10 months, is 39. This in itself is something unthinkable for the political gerontocracy that was Italy, the lugubrious state epitomized by the late Giulio Andreotti, who was prime minister seven times. “The new generation should do politics the American presidential way, two mandates and out,” he told me during an hourlong interview in his office at Chigi Palace. “I give myself a maximum of eight years if I win the next election, and then I’ll leave politics.”

He is a man in a hurry: constitutional reform, electoral reform, sales on eBay of a fleet of official luxury cars, women thrust into top jobs (half the cabinet is female), plans to slash the number of members of Parliament and senators (currently almost 1,000 of them). “In America, notoriously smaller and less important than Italy, you have 535 representatives and senators,” Renzi said, smiling, raising his eyebrows. Message received.

He held up his portable device and said he wants the whole labyrinthine Italian public administration simplified on an app. “This is the future of our administration!” he said. “How much pension do I get — all will be here.”

Un paese smart.

The jeans and app talk send a message — no more business as usual. As a European politician in an age when national politics often seem a charade, outpaced by borderless finance, Renzi knows that symbolism is important in producing substance. The “Jobs Act,” Renzi’s pivotal economic reform, was approved by Parliament this month. It simplifies the labor code, makes it easier for companies with over 15 employees to fire workers, and links workers’ protection to their length of service. By Italian job-for-life standards, it is a revolutionary step. To have a job was always to be “sistemato,” which roughly meant security within the system forever.

I asked Renzi why the legislation has an English name. “Because I like what Obama did,” he said. “The most interesting things he’s done have been on the domestic front. He took an economy in crisis in 2009, intervened, relaunched growth, and created jobs, all things that Europe has not succeeded in doing.”

That sounds nice, but of course the American economy is hard-wired for growth, labor mobility and innovation. Italy’s is hamstrung. It is saddled with climbing public debt and recession. Unemployment is over 13 percent. When I arrived in Italy, I found central Rome closed by protests against the “Jobs Act.” Renzi has a big fight on his hands to get Italians to change their ways.

His room to maneuver and pump up the economy is limited. The European Commission is warning that Italy may find itself in breach of the European Union’s Stability and Growth Pact, which sets tight limits on budget deficits and stringent regulations on reducing debt. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said this month that any breach would be “negative for Europe.”

This sort of talk gets Renzi exercised because he believes it makes growth impossible. His Democratic Party is just seven years old. In a Europe where extremist and xenophobic parties have been growing, a reflection of widespread anger at high unemployment and stagnation, it represents an exception: a mainstream party of the center-left that has surged.

This success has set up Renzi as perhaps the second-most-powerful politician in Europe after Merkel. In schematic terms, he’s Mr. Anti-Austerity versus Ms. Austerity. He’s also the only new game in town, with Britain caught in a debilitating debate over a possible exit from the European Union and France turning in circles under weak leadership.

“Here a lot of people have accused Merkel of being the guilty one in the crisis,” Renzi said. “But the fault is not hers. It’s ours. We got ourselves into this. If we had done labor reform 10 years ago, when Germany did it, we would have been a lot better off.” Still, he went on, something has to give in a Europe caught “in a dictatorship of bureaucrats and technocrats,” unwilling to accept that “politics is the realm of flexibility.” Iron Frau, take note.

The European economic model, Renzi declared, is wrong. “We cannot go on reasoning only on the basis of austerity and rigor. In a phase of deflation and stagnation, we can’t. We have to keep our accounts in order, spend money well, yes, because Germany is preoccupied that southern countries don’t spend money wisely — and it’s true — but the central point is that if we tackle our problems, European economics must change in favor of investment in growth.”

I asked Renzi how. He said investment in strategic areas — digital broadband, education, research, energy, the green economy — “should be outside the calculation of the Stability Pact, which is the instrument of rigidity and austerity.”

How, he asked, can he fight criminality and massive unemployment in Sicily if some Stability Pact formula on deficits and debt blocks him?

The eurozone, in which Italy is the third-largest economy, is an unwieldy entity — tied by a shared currency, divided by everything from fiscal policy to culture. Anger over stagnation is boiling over. Renzi is right: Something has to give for Europe and its jobless youth. In the past, even Germany has broken Stability Pact rules in a time of need. Now it’s payback time. But if Renzi gets some margin of budgetary flexibility, he must deliver. Waste and corruption are endemic to Italy. Curtailing them is a Sisyphean task. “First I must put my own country in order,” Renzi acknowledged. “Otherwise I will never be credible.”

A spell has been broken in Italy. Politics have shifted. He compared the country to “a sleeping beauty in the enchanted wood that can be woken up.”

The beauty is certainly stirring. Whether she will now bound forward remains to be seen. Italians, versed in the rise and fall of powers and the vanity of ambition, tend to be skeptical of transformation. It will be an arduous journey. But I’m inclined to give Renzi the benefit of the doubt.

Next up we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

I was just about to go with a column that started like this: When they write the history of the global response to climate change, 2014 could well be seen as the moment when the balance between action and denial tipped decisively toward action. That’s thanks to the convergence of four giant forces: São Paulo, Brazil, went dry; China and the United States together went green; solar panels went cheap; and Google and Apple went home.

But before I could go further, the bottom fell out of the world oil price, and the energy economist Phil Verleger wrote me, saying: “Fracking is a technological breakthrough like the introduction of the PC. Low-cost producers such as the Saudis will respond to the threat of these increased supplies by holding prices down” — hoping the price falls below the cost of fracking and knocks some of those American frackers out. In the meantime, though, he added, sustained low prices for oil and gas would “retard” efforts to sell more climate-friendly, fuel-efficient vehicles that are helped by high oil prices and slow the shift to more climate-friendly electricity generation by wind and solar that is helped by high gas prices.

So I guess the lead I have to go with now is: When they write the history of the global response to climate change, 2014 surely would have been seen as the moment when the climate debate ended. Alas, though, world crude oil prices collapsed, making it less likely that the world will do what the International Energy Agency recently told us we must: keep most of the world’s proven oil and gas reserves in the ground. As the I.E.A. warned, “no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050” — otherwise we’ll bust through the limit of a 2-degree Celsius rise in average temperature that scientists believe will unleash truly disruptive ice melt, sea level rise and weather extremes.

Technology is a cruel thing. The innovators who’ve made solar panels, wind power and batteries so efficient that they can now compete with coal and gas are the same innovators who are enabling us to extract oil and gas from places we never imagined we could go at prices we never imagined we would reach. Is a third lead sentence possible? There is. In fact, there is an amazing lead waiting to be written. It just takes the right political will. How so?

Let’s go back to my first lead. The reason I thought we were decisively tipping toward action was, in part, because of news like this from the BBC on Nov. 7 in São Paulo: “In Brazil’s biggest city, a record dry season and ever-increasing demand for water has led to a punishing drought.” When a metropolitan region of 20 million people runs dry because of destruction of its natural forests and watersheds, plus an extreme weather event scientists believe was made more intense by climate change, denialism is just not an option.

Then you have the hugely important deal that President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China struck on Nov. 12 under which the United States will reduce its carbon emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and China will peak its carbon emissions by or before 2030. China also committed to build by 2030 an additional 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of clean power — or nearly as much new renewable energy in China as all the electrical capacity in America today. That will greatly spur innovation in clean tech and help do for solar, wind and batteries what China did for tennis shoes — really drive down global prices.

Also, last February, Google bought Nest, for $3.2 billion. Nest makes a $250 smart thermostat that can save homeowners tons of money by learning their temperature preferences and automatically managing their air-conditioners and home heating systems for the greatest efficiency. Also this year, Apple announced the development of the Apple HomeKit, which will enable customers to remotely manage their appliances and home energy systems on their iPhones. When Apple and Google start competing to make homes more energy efficient, watch out. We will likely see nonlinear improvements.

But what if Verleger is right — that just as the cost of computing dropped following the introduction of the PC, fracking technology could flood the world with cheaper and cheaper oil, making it a barrier to reducing emissions? There is one way out of this dilemma. Let’s make a hard political choice that’s a win for the climate, our country and our kids: Raise the gasoline tax.

“U.S. roads are crumbling,” said Verleger. “Infrastructure is collapsing. Our railroads are a joke.” Meantime, gasoline prices at the pump are falling toward $2.50 a gallon — which would be the lowest national average since 2009 — and consumers are rushing to buy S.U.V.’s and trucks. The “clear solution,” said Verleger, is to set a price of, say, $3.50 a gallon for gasoline in America, and then tax any price below that up to that level. Let the Europeans do their own version. “And then start spending the billions on infrastructure right now. At a tax of $1 per gallon, the U.S. could raise around $150 billion per year,” he said. “The investment multiplier would give a further kick to the U.S. economy — and might even start Europe moving.”

So there is a way to make 2014 that truly decisive year in confronting both climate and rebuilding America, but only our political leaders can write that lead.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof, who continues to remind us that yes, Republicans, it IS about race:

Ian Manuel is a black man who has spent most of his life in prison. Yet he still has a most unusual advocate calling for his release: a white woman whom he met when he shot her in the face.

Manuel fired the bullet when he was barely 13, and he fit all too neatly into racial stereotypes, especially that of the black predator who had to be locked away forever. One of the greatest racial disparities in America is in the justice system, and fear of young black criminals like Manuel helped lead to mass incarceration policies that resulted in a sixfold increase in the number of Americans in prison after 1970. Yet, as his one-time victim points out (speaking with a reconstructed jaw), it’s complicated.

Manuel grew up in a housing project here in Tampa to a mom with drug problems, without a dad at home, and he drifted early to crime. By the time he was 13, he had had 16 arrests. He desperately needed help, but instead the authorities kept returning him to a dysfunctional home.

Then, as part of a gang initiation, he was handed a gun, and he joined a couple of other teenagers on July 27, 1990. They confronted Debbie Baigrie, a stay-at-home mom who had gone out with friends for the first time since the birth of her second child.

“Give it up!” Manuel remembers shouting, as he pulled the gun. Baigrie screamed and Manuel fired wildly and repeatedly. One .32-caliber bullet entered Baigrie’s mouth, ripped through her jaw and teeth and went out her cheek. She began running away, awkwardly on high heels, blood pouring down her face and drenching her shirt.

Manuel fired after her, missing, and then he ran away with his friends. Later, arrested in an unrelated case, he confided to a cop without realizing the trouble he could face. “You know that lady that got shot downtown the other night?” he said he told the officer. “I’m the one who did it.”

Although he had just turned 13, prosecutors charged him as an adult, and the judge sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, the lawyer now representing him, says that every single child 13 or 14 years old sentenced to life without parole for a nonhomicide has been a person of color.

Manuel found himself the youngest, tiniest person in a men’s prison — by his account, abused and fearful. One day as his second Christmas behind bars approached, he placed a collect phone call to Baigrie.

Baigrie debated whether to accept the charges. She said her dentist had wept when he had seen her jaw, for the bullet had torn out five teeth and much of her gum. She faced 10 years of repeated, excruciating surgeries, requiring tissue from her palate to rebuild her gum.

Still, she was curious, so she accepted the charges. Manuel said he wanted to apologize for the shooting. Awkwardly, he wished her and her family a Merry Christmas.

“Ian,” she asked bluntly, “why did you shoot me?”

“It was a mistake,” he answered timidly.

Later he sent her a card showing a hand reaching through prison bars to offer a red rose. Baigrie didn’t know whether to be moved or revolted. “I was in such pain,” Baigrie remembers. “I couldn’t eat. I was angry. But I’d go back and forth. He was just a kid.”

Thus began a correspondence that has lasted through the decades. “You are about one in a million who would write to a person that’s tried to take their life,” he wrote in one letter.

“I wish I was free,” he wrote in another. “To protect you from that evil world out there.”

Over time, Baigrie became friendly with Manuel’s brother and mother. Baigrie began to feel sympathetic because, as she says: “When you’re 13, you do stupid stuff.”

Baigrie was also troubled by the racial dimensions of the case. “If he was a cute white boy at 13, with little dimples and blue eyes, there’s no way this would have happened,” she says.

Her husband and friends thought Baigrie was perhaps suffering from some bizarre form of Stockholm syndrome. “People were saying, ‘you’re an idiot,’ ” Baigrie recalls.

Yet she persevered and advocated for his early release. When the Supreme Court threw out life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who had not committed murder, she testified at his resentencing and urged mercy. It didn’t work: Manuel was sentenced to 65 years. He is now scheduled to be released in 2031.

Manuel, now 37, did not adjust well to prison, and his prison disciplinary record covers four pages of single-spaced entries. He was placed in solitary confinement at age 15 and remained there almost continually until he was 33. For a time, he cut himself to relieve the numbness. He repeatedly attempted suicide.

Returned to the general prison population, Manuel did better. He earned his G.E.D. with exceptional marks, including many perfect scores. He drafts poems and wrote an autobiographical essay, which Baigrie posted on her Facebook page. His mother, father and brother are now all dead; the only “family” he has left is Baigrie, who sometimes regards him as a wayward foster son.

Race in America is a dispiriting topic, a prism to confirm our own biases. Some will emphasize the unarguable brutality of Manuel’s crime, while others, myself included, will focus on the harshness of a sentence that probably would not have been given to a white 13-year-old. In other columns, I’ve focused on racism that holds back perfectly innocent people because of their skin color; those are the easiest cases, while Ian is a reminder that racial injustice also affects those who made horrific mistakes or committed brutal crimes. It’s still injustice.

There’s a tragic symmetry here. We as a society failed Manuel early on, and he, in turn, failed us. When you can predict that an infant boy of color in a particular ZIP code is more likely to go to prison than to college, it’s our fault more than his. The losers aren’t just those kids but also crime victims like Baigrie — and, in a larger sense, all of us. Manuel never had a chance to contribute to society and is costing us $47.50 each day he is in prison. That’s a waste of money, of human talent, of life itself.

Overcoming the racial gulf in this country will be a long and painful task, but maybe we can learn something from Baigrie’s empathy.

“Walk a mile in his shoes,” she says. And if Debbie Baigrie and Ian Manuel can unite and make common cause, linked by a bond of humanity that transcends the faint scar on her cheek, then maybe there’s hope for us all.

And last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni, here to tell us about a passenger in the 2016 Clown Car:

As brothers who governed large states at the same time, each Bush was bound to be defined in terms of the other. George was the impulsive one who’d stumbled and then swaggered toward success. Jeb was the cogitator, the toiler. George was the extrovert: He worked the room. Jeb was the introvert: He read the books.

That was how they were discussed back in 1999 and 2000, and the word on their ideological differences was that George was perhaps a bit more moderate, while Jeb was the truer conservative.

What a difference a decade and a half make. How the sands of politics shift.

As Jeb Bush seemingly leans toward a presidential run, many observers are casting him as a centrist. And there are indeed elements of his current message that suggest that if he won “the nomination as well as the presidency, it could reshape Republican politics for a generation,” as Jonathan Martin wrote in The Times late last week. But Martin noted other elements of Bush’s message and record as well, the ones that explain why a separate camp of observers look at him and see someone else. For instance, in Politico Magazine, the journalist S. V. Dáte observed that for him and others “who covered Jeb’s two terms in Tallahassee,” characterizations of Bush as a moderate are “mind-boggling.”

Just what kind of Republican is Jeb Bush? That question is being asked with increasing frequency. And the absence of a clear answer, coupled with the insistence on one, is instructive.

It speaks to the fact that most successful politicians aren’t fixed in one place forevermore. They’re the products of certain unwavering convictions and certain adaptations to circumstance, and the measures of each are different at different moments in their careers.

The futile tussle to define Bush also reflects the way ideological yardsticks change over time. Above all else, it exposes the poverty of our political vocabulary.

Left, center, right. Liberal, moderate, conservative. We reach fast for these labels and itch to put pols in these boxes, no matter how untidy or impermanent the fit. Some of the expected candidates for 2016 are great examples.

Hillary Clinton: liberal or moderate? Depends on which point in her past you choose. Toward the beginning of Bill’s successful 1992 quest for the presidency, she was part of his decision to steer away from the left, as The Times’s Peter Baker and Amy Chozick recently reported. They noted that in the recollection of Al From, the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, Hillary pledged, “We’re going to be a different kind of Democrat by the convention.”

But there were chapters after Bill’s election when she came across as a familiar kind of Democrat, and then there’s the present, when she’s seen as someone so estranged from some traditional Democratic principles that there’s a movement to draft Elizabeth Warren to challenge her. It apparently gathered steam last week, just as Clinton topped a CNBC poll of 500 millionaires who were asked about their preference for president in 2016. She got 31 percent of the vote, while Bush was second with 18. I await a new “super PAC,” Mills for Hills.

The Republican field is almost always broken down into candidates of the right and those of the center: a schematic to which we journalists cling. It’s hugely flawed this time around. Rand Paul evades it so completely that he gets his own adjective — libertarian — even though some of his positions on social issues contradict it.

Chris Christie gets the moderate box, because he was twice elected governor of a blue state; signed legislation granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants in New Jersey; pushed criminal-justice reforms that stress rehabilitation; outlawed therapy that aims to turn gay teenagers straight; and accepted the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. And right after Hurricane Sandy, he and President Obama had their soggy, windswept bromance.

But Christie also opposes same-sex marriage and abortion rights. He has vetoed some sensible gun-control legislation. And he sidesteps questions about immigration reform. He’s not exactly a paragon of moderation.

Marco Rubio, another possible presidential contender, isn’t easily labeled either. Back in 2010, when he won election to the Senate, he was presented as a mascot of the right, a Tea Party darling. But he has endorsed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And his proposals for making college more affordable and student loans less onerous aren’t just bold. They’re progressive.

Bush’s categorization as a moderate owes much to the passion he brings to the issues of immigration and education and his dissent from hard-line conservatives on both. These rebellions are meaningful.

So was his commentary from the sidelines of the 2012 presidential race. After a Republican primary debate in which all eight candidates said that they would refuse a budget deal that included $10 of reduced spending for every $1 in tax increases, he made clear that he didn’t agree with the pack. And he said that his party had drifted rightward enough that someone like Ronald Reagan would have difficulty finding a receptive home in it.

That assessment suggested one reason Bush is now deemed a centrist: The poles have moved.

But much of his record in Florida is that of the “headbanging conservative” he claimed to be during a first, unsuccessful campaign for governor in 1994. (He won the next time, in 1998.) He slashed taxes. He was a friend to gun owners: Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law was enacted on his watch.

In the case of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman deemed by many physicians to be in a persistent vegetative state, he intervened on the side of her parents — but against the wishes of her husband, who was her legal guardian — to prevent the removal of a feeding tube. And he was an assertive opponent of abortion rights. He still opposes them, and same-sex marriage.

But he learned between his 1994 defeat and 1998 victory to reach out to minorities and speak inclusively and hopefully. When he recently told an audience in Washington that a person had to be willing to lose the Republican primary to win the general election, he was in part alluding to that lesson, and he was telegraphing the tone that a Bush campaign would take. He was also signaling a suspicion of labels and boxes.

We should be similarly wary of them, because we’ve routinely seen leaders defy our assumptions. Jeb’s brother George, for example, campaigned for the presidency as someone cautious about overextending the American military and adamant about fiscal restraint. And while we took him for an inveterate backslapper, he now spends much of his time alone at an easel.

That’s how it goes with so many politicians. We think we’ve figured them out, but we’re hasty and they’re slippery.

Cohen, Nocera and Collins

December 13, 2014

In “The Way Back to Iran” Mr. Cohen tells of how a young Iranian refugee quit the boardrooms of London to take a risky stake in the land of his birth.  Mr. Nocera, in “Prosecuting Insider Trading,” says recent overturned convictions have changed the rules.  Ms. Collins offers a “Dinner Party Political Primer” and says whatever you do, don’t confuse the cromnibus with the cronut, the pastry that’s half-croissant and half-doughnut at your holiday party.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Rouzbeh Pirouz can still hear the raised voices, the sobbing. There was a list at Tehran airport. If you were on it you could not leave. Aged 7, he passed through the controls, after his mother. His father, a prominent businessman, did not follow. Agents of the newly birthed Islamic Republic stopped him, demanding that he provide an accounting of his activities under the shah. “Go without me!” he insisted. “Never!” Rouzbeh’s mother screamed. Over the head of the small boy, disabled by a neuro-muscular condition, a parental argument raged. They left in tears, without his father. It was 1980, a year after the Iranian revolution, the turning point in his life, the line of fracture. Everything changed.

Vancouver, a quiet place on the western edge of Canada’s vastness, became his home. His family, once no more than a few Tehran blocks apart, was scattered across North America and Europe. The family holdings — orange groves, a mine, property — were expropriated. His father handed over a pile of cash to the enforcers of Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocracy — and was allowed to go. He insisted that Farsi be spoken at home. His language, at least, they could not take from him. It was a link. But Iran was little more than an abstraction to the young Pirouz, a faraway country. “It was the place I’d left,” he says, “and would never go back to.” He went to Stanford, then on to Harvard’s Kennedy School, then to Oxford with a Rhodes scholarship. He imagined for himself a comfortable North American life.

Ayatollah Khomeini globalized Iranians. They were thrust, like Pirouz, from their family circles. The dispersal was painful. The culture, habits and landscape of Iran lay too deep in the new exiles to be completely erased. They adapted, were often successful, and acquired a worldly sophistication. Some ventured back, yielding over time to the tug of memory, whether personal or transmitted. They stayed a few days, or weeks, or perhaps longer, and discovered a country full of vitality, somehow familiar, yet isolated and repressive. The revolution sent Iranians into the world but severed Iran from it. Diaspora and homeland diverged. For those who had fled the Islamic Republic it was very difficult, if not impossible, to connect their new lives to the old.

Such connection, if established, could be a game changer in these troubled times of fracture, doldrums and beheadings. Iran, 35 years after the birth of the Islamic Republic, is the great outlier of the global economy, the last sizeable emerging market to stand apart from integration. Iran’s economy, despite sanctions and isolation, is one of the world’s 20 biggest; its gas reserves are the world’s second-largest. “It will make a gigantic difference when an economy this size joins the world, with implications for both Western and Asian economic interaction,” said Hamid Biglari, who left Iran in 1977 to study in the United States and went on to become the vice chairman of Citicorp, before setting up his own investment company. “A black hole will be connected to the rest of the universe.”

That is the objective for which Pirouz now works. Iran surfaced in his psyche out of nowhere. He was at Oxford, casting around for a subject for his doctorate. A professor suggested Iran; the idea was tempting enough to coax him back to the scene of childhood trauma. On arrival in Tehran he looked around and for the first time in his adult life saw a lot of people who looked like him. His home was gone, yet some sense of comfort remained. Nowhere else felt quite as familiar. Then chance intervened: a fellow Oxford student’s idea for an Internet business, the heady late 90’s dotcom madness, the herd instinct of people plowing money into the company, a timely sale before the crash. The head of his Oxford college, Sir Keith Thomas, thought Pirouz was mad to give up his doctorate for digital shenanigans. “For God’s sake,” he said, “surely you can get a deputy to do this for you!” But Pirouz made the right call. Not yet 30, he found himself with enough to be very comfortable and acquire an office in Mayfair.

He was quickly bored. Money rained down on central London as if a helicopter had unloaded buckets of the stuff. There were thousands of people like him; in Iran there would be very few. When he talked of his itch to go back, friends said he was crazy. His parents were desperately worried; this would end in tears. London attracts global money because there’s the rule of law. In the Islamic Republic, one could disappear into a building with no address, no name, no marking on the door, and sit facing a wall while the same questions and accusations were repeated week after week. The risk was always there.

But the opportunity to do something meaningful, to change ways of thinking in a country where some 60 percent of the population is under 30, was huge. Conspiracy theories are fundamentally paralyzing because their message is that whatever you do, it will not make a difference. Iran, with its history of periodic domination by outside powers, was awash in them. “Iranians never subscribe to the face-value theory of analysis,” Pirouz says. “It might help them if they did.” He decided to invest in the country and its youth to demonstrate that change was possible.

Tehran became Pirouz’s principal home. He set up an investment fund, Turquoise Partners (in time for a bull run on the Iranian stock market that lasted several years), and then devoted his energy to his pet project, the Iranian Business School (IBS), conceived in 2007. Iranians, he had found, are good traders but poor managers. Inefficiency is rife in a bloated state sector. Engineers are given management jobs without having any idea how to manage. Knowledge of the global economy and best practices is scarce. In all, the need for knowledge of advanced business management concepts in a country isolated for 35 years was patent.

So the school, loosely modeled on the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, and the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, made sense. As with India and China it could help, at the right moment, to propel Iran into the global economy. Classes, which started in 2010, offer postgraduate training to future business leaders; hundreds of Iranian men and women have already attended. A significant expansion is now underway. On Oct. 4, 2013, the school received an Office of Foreign Assets Control license from the U.S. government, allowing it to raise money as a charity in the United States, bring American faculty to teach in Tehran and pay them. It is a bridge where very few exist.

“The school will help raise awareness within the Iranian-American business community and open avenues for them to contribute,” Biglari, who chairs the American board of IBS, said. To Pirouz, such connections are critical. They could constitute a turning point. He has always believed that isolating Iran only serves the hard-liners in the end. Sanctions have hurt Iran but you can find the latest iPhone in Tehran at a price: Cartels aligned with the Revolutionary guards grow fabulously wealthy smuggling from Dubai. “An Iran integrated in the global economy, with a growing private sector, will be good for Iran and the world,” Pirouz says. He is committed for the long-term. Haste, goes an Iranian saying, is the devil’s work.

There is an enormous amount to be done. Mismanagement has been the curse of Iran. Banks, obliged to make nonperforming loans to state companies, are largely insolvent. A privatization program was bungled. There are water shortages. The Internet goes out all the time. The nuclear program, the object of the overwhelming bulk of attention paid to Iran, has itself been a colossal exercise in mismanagement, whatever else it may be: The cost of generating electricity from the nuclear facility at Bushehr has been beyond astronomical. A young population is frustrated, tired of Iran’s pariah status, and eager to join the world, as President Hassan Rouhani has promised it will.

This is a world, increasingly, of surface conflict and hidden connection. Of course, in the event of global war, the former will crush the latter. Short of that, it is important to see events on two levels — the confrontations between states and the cooperation between citizens empowered by technology and often, in this age of massive migrant flows, tied by family across continents. Pirouz is one such active citizen.

The Iran debate is always framed in the context of confrontation. Entire cottage industries deploy themselves with ardor to fan conflict. But Iran’s isolation serves nobody. There are real strategic differences between the Islamic Republic and the West that may still frustrate attempts to move beyond the nuclear issue and begin a process of fruitful reintegration. These ideological differences, however, are no greater than those between China and the United States at the time of the Shanghai Communiqué of 1972. It is this belief — in the benefit of connection and the sterility of separation — that has prodded Pirouz into an unlikely return. In the right circumstances, many in the diaspora could follow. Individuals can still defeat entrenched interests and lobbies, good sense prevail over the shallow cacophony.

“Did I come home? Not exactly,” Pirouz says. “The world of my childhood is gone. But I discovered in myself a great yearning for Iran that I did not want to sacrifice to assimilation.” Even his father now spends time in the country that took everything from him. It is, despite everything, his. What remains, for the completion of this story of full circles, is for Iran to return to the world. It is past time.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

In the summer of 1991, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned the conviction, for stock manipulation, of a man named John Mulheren.

Mulheren was a stock trader who had been arrested three years earlier, at the behest of Rudolph Giuliani, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Although Mulheren’s actual indictment didn’t take place until a few months after Giuliani left office, the case was still considered part of his legacy. As U.S. attorney, Giuliani had gone hard at Wall Street, forcing a guilty plea from Michael Milken, the most important financier of his day, and getting Ivan Boesky, a well-known arbitrageur, to turn state’s evidence. According to The Los Angeles Times, by 1988, Giuliani had brought five times as many insider-trading cases as had ever been brought before in his district.

The Mulheren case spoke to another part of Giuliani’s legacy, however. There were examples of Giuliani forcing Wall Street executives to make well-publicized perp walks and then never bringing charges. Defense lawyers complained of heavy-handed tactics, and cases that were brought with scant evidence. Indeed, the evidence against Mulheren was so thin that the Second Circuit’s unanimous decision said that “no rational trier of fact could have found the elements of the crimes charged here beyond a reasonable doubt.” The New York Times described the ruling — and several other reversals that had preceded it — as a “stinging blow” to the U.S. attorney’s office.

On Wednesday, 23 years later, the very same appeals court made a very similar ruling in overturning the convictions, for insider trading, of two hedge fund executives, Anthony Chiasson and Todd Newman. This time the U.S. attorney for the Southern District was Preet Bharara, who, like Guiliani, has built his reputation by prosecuting Wall Street wrongdoing, primarily insider trading. He put Raj Rajaratnam, the hedge fund big shot, in prison for 11 years. He gained a conviction against Rajat Gupta, a former top executive at McKinsey, the august consulting firm. In all, Bharara has ensnared almost 90 people who have either been convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, insider trading.

But as the reversal on Wednesday suggests, Bharara, like Giuliani, has sometimes gotten out ahead of his skis, bringing indictments that were not necessarily warranted by the evidence. Judge Barrington Parker, who wrote the Second Circuit’s decision, was scathing in his appraisal of the evidence, saying that there was no proof that the two “tippees” (as they are called in the ruling) knew they were trading on insider information, or that the tippers, who worked at Dell and Nvidia, had received any personal benefit for their tips. The court reversed the case “with prejudice,” meaning that Bharara won’t be able to retry the two men.

Here is the dirty little legal secret about insider trading: It’s not always illegal. In fact, there is no law on the books banning the practice; rather, it comes under the general purview of securities fraud. Over the years, prosecutors and the Securities and Exchange Commission have worked to expand what constitutes insider trading — and there have been times when the courts have refused to go along. Indeed, in his ruling, Parker relied on Supreme Court decisions that an insider trade was against the law only if the tippees knew they were getting inside information — and that they also knew that the tipper got a personal benefit from his leak.

Yet in the cases of Chiasson and Newman, the original tippers were never prosecuted for insider trading. “That is what was so baffling,” said Peter J. Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University who writes the White Collar Watch column for Dealbook in The New York Times. “How do you not go after the tipper?” In effect, said Henning, you can’t have a corrupt tippee if you don’t have a corrupt tipper. What’s more, Chiasson and Newman received the information third- or fourth-hand, and they had no idea who the tippers were. So how could they know if the tippers had done something corrupt?

Does this mean that Chiasson and Newman were paragons of virtue? Not necessarily. They could very well have known they were trading on inside information. Even so, given the court’s definition of insider trading, they were free to trade on that information. That is what Bharara ignored in bringing those cases. (A third Wall Street trader, Michael Steinberg, who worked for Steven Cohen’s hedge fund, SAC Capital, is also likely to have his conviction reversed on the same grounds.)

At a Dealbook conference this week, Mary Jo White, the chairwoman of the S.E.C., fretted that the Second Circuit’s ruling was “overly narrow.” And, in his statement after the ruling, Bharara said that he feared it would “limit the ability to prosecute people who trade on leaked inside information.”

That’s true, of course, if you agree with their definition of insider trading. Unfortunately for them, the courts don’t.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

The burdens of being an Informed Citizen are many. This weekend, you’ll probably be going out to some holiday party or dinner where your friends will expect you to have an opinion about the monster spending bill that’s been staggering through Congress.

Consider this an opinion primer.

The bill is called the cromnibus. That’s Congress-speak for continuing resolution and omnibus. You do not need to know about this. However, it is crucial that you avoid confusing the cromnibus with the cronut, a pastry that’s half-croissant and half-doughnut. “Like the cronut, but less delicious,” twittered Ashley Parker of The Times.

The worst thing in it is a section — dropped into the 1,600-page measure at the last minute without any hearings — that allows banks to use their customers’ federally guaranteed deposits to buy credit default swaps. Also other investments with impossible names that we learned to hate during the Wall Street bailout.

Most of the language in the section came directly from Citigroup. I rest my case.

The second-worst thing in the bill allows rich people to make up to $1.5 million in campaign contributions every two-year election cycle. Or $3 million if they happen to be a married couple. God knows how much if they happen to be a wealthy extended family.

Republican leaders suggested this was necessary in order to provide $12.6 million for pediatric cancer research. I am not even going to try to take you down the creative path that led to this connection. You don’t want to bring it up at a dinner party anyway because it will cause the other guests to start throwing food.

Let’s zero in on something simpler, like tired truck drivers.

Yes! The bill loosens the rules that currently limit drivers to 14 hours of work a day, 11 of which can be behind the wheel.

Already, I feel you getting worried, gentle reader. Yes, the person in that monstrous vehicle that’s passing you on the highway at what appears to be about 150 miles an hour may have been sitting there for 10-and-a-half hours, in a marathon he began after three hours of effort on the loading dock.

Last year, Congress reduced the maximum amount of time a driver could be on the road from 82 to 70 hours a week. Then, during the mandated rest period, said driver had to have two consecutive days during which the early morning hours of 1 to 5 a.m. were available for sleep.

“These new rules were adopted after a very thorough, time-consuming administrative process. In fact too time-consuming,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. He leads a subcommittee on surface transportation that conducted multiple hearings on this very matter.

We’ve really hardly gotten started on the new rules. Yet here in good old cromnibus, there’s a provision returning to the old way of doing business.

The sponsor of the change is Susan Collins of Maine. We generally think of Collins as an extremely sympathetic figure, given that she’s possibly the entire Moderate Republican Caucus in the Senate.

She is also the sponsor of another controversial provision in the spending bill, which requires the Women, Infants and Children program to allow low-income pregnant women and mothers to buy white potatoes with their government food money. We had a long phone conversation about this matter, and I have to tell you that Collins is very forceful on this subject. Her bill is only about raw potatoes, not French fries or chips. And WIC will let you buy iceberg lettuce. And did you know that they subsidize potato purchases at farmers’ markets but not grocery stores? It’s way more complicated than you think.

As to the truck drivers, Collins thinks that instead of doing a study on how well the new rules work, we should go back to the old plan and study that. And, anyway, the 1 to 5 a.m. rule “pushes truck traffic into the early morning rush hour.” This is an excellent topic for dinner-table discussion. Would you rather share the highway with a truck whose driver has messed-up circadian rhythms or a truck that’s in front of you when you’re trying to get to work in the morning?

Meanwhile, during the Senate debate, a Democrat gave Collins particular credit for getting more money for mass transit and airport improvements. “It is a compromise piece of legislation,” Patty Murray of Washington reminded her colleagues.

True that. It’s been so long since we had any big compromises that we’ve forgotten how unappetizing they look. Is this one worth it, people? Would you trade better airport traffic control for fewer drivers who get overnight shut-eye? Would you kill off campaign finance reform to save the Obama immigration and health care programs? Let me know how the dining room votes.

And no matter what the result, that thing about the banks is really terrible. Worst. Holiday. Present. Ever.

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, 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.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

November 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now here’s Mr. Nocera:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

November 13, 2014

In “Race, to the Finish” Mr. Blow reviews how we got to this point where African-Americans vote so overwhelmingly Democratic and are suspicious of Republican motives.  Mr. Cohen, in “Mere Human Behavior,” says few resist, and that in a time of terror the mass is enthusiastic, compliant, calculating or cowed.  Mr. Kristof considers “Politicians, Teens and Birth Control.”  He says teenagers may be terrible at planning ahead, but politicians and our country are, too, by failing to invest in comprehensive sex education and birth control.  In “The Lame-Duck Dynasty” Ms. Collins says keeping up with Congress these days is almost like watching a reality TV show. What would we name it?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Last week, the economist and former Richard Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein went on Fox News and delivered a racial tirade completely detached from the the anchor’s line of questioning.

When asked by the anchor about a Fox News poll showing the economy was the No.1 issue for voters, and how that poll result might work for or against Democrats in the midterms, Stein skirted the question altogether and instead spewed an extraordinary string of psychobabble about how “what the White House is trying to do is racialize all politics” by telling lies to African-Americans about how Republican policies would hurt them. He continued: “This president is the most racist president there has ever been in America. He is purposely trying to use race to divide Americans.”

Pat Buchanan, the two-time Republican presidential candidate, assistant to Richard Nixon and White House director of communications for Ronald Reagan, wrote a column this week accusing Democratic strategists of “pushing us to an America where the G.O.P. is predominantly white and the Democratic Party, especially in Dixie, is dominated by persons of color” in their last-minute get-out-the-vote appeals to African-Americans, by invoking Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Jim Crow.

This glosses over a hundred years of history that will be tucked quietly away into some attic of amnesia.

Let’s review how we got to this point where African-Americans vote so overwhelmingly Democratic and are suspicious of Republican motives.

As NPR reported in July, “If you’d walked into a gathering of older black folks 100 years ago, you’d have found that most of them would have been Republican” because it was the “party of Lincoln. Party of the Emancipation. Party that pushed not only black votes but black politicians during that post-bellum period known as Reconstruction.”

As Buchanan, writing in American Conservative, pointed out, “The Democratic Party was the party of slavery, secession and segregation, of ‘Pitchfork Ben’ Tillman and the K.K.K. ‘Bull’ Connor, who turned the dogs loose on black demonstrators in Birmingham, was the Democratic National Committeeman from Alabama.”

But allegiances flipped.

The first wave of defections by African-Americans from Republican to Democrat came with Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal in the 1930s. According to the Roosevelt Institute: “As Mary McLeod Bethune once noted, the Roosevelt era represented ‘the first time in their history’ that African-Americans felt that they could communicate their grievances to their government with the ‘expectancy of sympathetic understanding and interpretation.’”

By the mid 1930s, most blacks were voting Democratic, although a sizable percentage remained Republican. Then came the signing of the Civil Rights Act by the Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson — although he wasn’t perfect on the issue of race, and the bill passed partly because of Republican support.

In response to the bill, Barry Goldwater waged a disastrous campaign built in part on his opposition. As NPR put it: “Goldwater can be seen as the godfather (or maybe the midwife) of the current Tea Party. He wanted the federal government out of the states’ business. He believed the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional — although he said that once it had been enacted into law, it would be obeyed. But states, he said, should implement the law in their own time.” Whites were reassured by the message, but blacks were shaken by it.

Richard Nixon, for whom both Stein and Buchanan would work, helped to seal the deal. Nixon had got nearly a third of the African-American vote in his unsuccessful 1960 bid for the White House, but when he ran and won in 1968 he received only 15 percent. In 1972, he was re-elected with just 13 percent of the black vote. That was in part because the Republican brand was already tarnished among blacks and in part because the Nixon campaign used the “Southern strategy” to try to capitalize on racist white flight from the Democratic Party as more blacks moved into it.

As Nixon’s political strategist Kevin Phillips told The New York Times Magazine in 1970: “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans.”

That’s right: Republicans wanted the Democrats’ “Negrophobes.”

The history of party affiliations is obviously littered with racial issues. But now, there is considerable quarreling and consternation about the degree to which racial bias is still a party trait or motivating political factor for support of or opposition to particular politicians or policies.

It is clear that our politics were “racialized” long before this president came along — and that structure persists — but that’s not the same as saying the voters are racist.

To get more directly at the issue of racism in political parties, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight Politics looked at “a variety of questions on racial attitudes in the General Social Survey” and specifically at “the numbers for white Democrats and white Republicans.”

This wasn’t a perfect or complete measure of racial bias, but more a measure of flagrant bias — the opinions of people aware of their biases and willing to confess them on a survey.

That said, they found that:

“So there’s a partisan gap, although not as large of one as some political commentators might assert. There are white racists in both parties. By most questions, they represent a minority of white voters in both parties. They probably represent a slightly larger minority of white Republicans than white Democrats.”

Still, the question is how much of this muck at the bottom of both barrels sullies what’s on top? The best measure many find for this is in the rhetoric and policies of party leaders.

The growing share of the Democratic Party composed of historically marginalized populations — minorities, women, Jews, L.G.B.T.-identified persons — pushes the party toward more inclusive language and stances. The Republican Party, on the other hand, doesn’t have that benefit. They can’t seem to stop the slow drip of offensive remarks, like those of the Republican governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, who referred to the president’s policies last week as “tar babies” or the obsessive-compulsive need to culturally diagnose and condemn black people, like Stein’s saying this week that “the real problem with race in America is a very, very beaten-down, pathetic, self-defeating black underclass.”

At that rate, Republicans will never attract more minorities, try as they may to skip over portions of the racial past or deny the fullness of the racial present.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

When I was a correspondent in Germany 15 years ago, I attended a ceremony at a military base renamed for a soldier in Hitler’s army who disobeyed orders. His name was Anton Schmid. He was a sergeant whose conscience was moved by the suffering of Jews in the Vilnius ghetto.

Thousands were being shot by the Germans, with help from Lithuanian collaborators, every day. It was the same story throughout Lithuania in the fall of 1941. In my grandmother’s home town of Zagaré, more than 2,200 Jews, by the Nazi count, were shot on a single day, Oct. 2, 1941.

In a letter to his wife, Stefi, Schmid described his horror at the sight of this mass murder and of “children being beaten on the way.” He wrote: “You know how it is with my soft heart. I could not think and had to help them.”

Schmid, forging papers for the Jewish underground and hiding children, managed to save more than 250 Jews before he was arrested in 1942 and summarily executed. In his last letter to his wife he wrote, “I merely behaved as a human being.”

But the human beings had all vanished, swept up in the Nazi death trance. “Merely” had become the wrong adverb; “exceptionally” would have been closer. Schmid’s resistance was almost unknown. It can be singular just to be human. It can be very lonely. It can cost your human life.

I thought of Schmid when I was asked recently to give a talk at Groton School (alma mater of Franklin D. Roosevelt) in Massachusetts honoring Ron Ridenhour. A helicopter gunner in Vietnam, he gathered information that led to the official probe into the 1968 My Lai massacre. He did not do what was easy. He did what was right. He took on entrenched interests within the U.S. military, bureaucratic resistance and personal hostility from fellow G.I.s and from his superiors.

His actions led to the conviction of William Calley for the murder of unarmed South Vietnamese civilians. Ridenhour broke ranks, at considerable personal risk, in the name of truth, decency and justice.

Massacres tend to take place in giddy seasons when passions boil up, judgment is jettisoned, and the herd instinct of the human race rises. Suddenly the stranger is the enemy; suddenly all is permitted; suddenly societal restraints and taboos are lifted; suddenly blood rises and is spilt.

To stand apart, in conscience, at moments like this, is rare. The fact is few resist. In a time of terror, the mass is enthusiastic, compliant, calculating, or cowed.

The righteous few move to an inner compass. Their anonymous acts, however hopeless, constitute a powerful rebuke to perpetrator and bystander. Resistance is never pointless, even if short-lived or doomed. The “Tank Man” of Tiananmen Square, never identified, is still riveting.

Whether to opt for conscience or convenience is a recurrent question. For me, although I did not realize it fully at the time, it was posed very early by exposure to Apartheid in South Africa. The easy thing and the right are seldom the same. In a time of conflict, the stakes are raised because choosing one or the other can be a matter of life and death. To save yourself or save another: It can come down to that.

My parents left South Africa in 1957 because they could not abide the abuse and the waste of apartheid. I was not quite 2 but had already absorbed what racism is, felt it like a microbe in the blood. When I became politically conscious, in my teens, I refused for several years to go back. Among my family, there were those who resisted, an aunt in particular who joined the Black Sash anti-apartheid movement. She was always skirting arrest.

But most of my relatives went along, as did most of the Jews. I heard more than one remark that when you are busy persecuting tens of millions of blacks, you don’t have much time left over for tens of thousands of Jews. The blacks were a buffer against what had happened in Europe. For South African Jews, aware of the corpse-filled ditches and gas chambers of the Europe they had fled, the Sharpeville massacre and the sight of blacks without passes being bundled into the back of police vans were discomfiting. But this was not genocide, after all. With conspicuous exceptions (more proportionately among Jews than any other white South Africans — the lawyers who defended Nelson Mandela were overwhelmingly Jews who took that risk), most Jews preferred to look away.

How, people ask, could the Holocaust happen? How could a civilized nation in the middle of Europe get away with industrialized mass murder? Because the Schmids and Ridenhours of this world are rare; it is easier to avert one’s gaze.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Here’s a story of utter irresponsibility: About one-third of American girls become pregnant as teenagers.

But it’s not just a story of heedless girls and boys who don’t take precautions. This is also a tale of national irresponsibility and political irresponsibility — of us as a country failing our kids by refusing to invest in comprehensive sex education and birth control because we, too, don’t plan ahead.

I kind of understand how a teenage couple stuffed with hormones and enveloped in each other’s arms could get carried away. But I’m just bewildered that American politicians, stuffed with sanctimony and enveloped in self-righteousness, don’t adequately invest at home or abroad in birth-control programs that would save the government money, chip away at poverty, reduce abortions and empower young people.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans seem particularly interested in these investments. The inflation-adjusted sum spent on Title X family planning in the United States has fallen by two-thirds since 1980.

A few depressing facts:

•• American teenagers become pregnant at a rate of about one a minute.

•• Some 82 percent of births to teenagers in the U.S. are unplanned.

•• American and European teenagers seem to be sexually active at roughly similar rates, although Americans may start a bit earlier. But the American teenage birthrate is three times Spain’s rate, five times France’s, and 15 times Switzerland’s.

•• Young Americans show a lack of understanding of where babies come from. Among teenagers who unintentionally became pregnant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the most cited reason for not using contraception was “I didn’t think I could become pregnant.” And 18 percent of young men somehow believed that having sex standing up helps prevent pregnancy, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Hello?

A teenager who has a baby often derails her own education and puts the child on a troubled trajectory as well. In Oklahoma last year, I met one family where the matriarch had a baby at 13, her daughter had a baby at 15, and that child, in turn, gave birth at 13. That’s how poverty replicates.

Medicaid spends an average of $12,770 for a birth. Yet we spend only $8 per teenage girl on programs to avoid pregnancy. In financial terms, that’s nuts. In human terms, it’s a tragedy.

Internationally, we and other donor countries also underinvest in family planning in poor countries. Globally, 220 million women don’t want to become pregnant but lack access to contraception.

Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution has written an important new book, “Generation Unbound: Drifting Into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage.” She notes that most young single moms in America don’t intend to become pregnant but drift into it fatalistically, partly because they rely solely on condoms or other less reliable forms of birth control.

Condoms are 82 percent effective in preventing pregnancy in any one year, according to the C.D.C. But that means that after four years of relying only on condoms, most women will have become pregnant at least once.

So Sawhill advocates a move to what she calls “childbearing by design, not by default.” That means providing long-acting reversible contraceptives, or LARCs, to at-risk girls and young women who want them. LARCs are IUDs, or implants that can remain in place for years, and the failure rate is negligible.

Teenage birthrates in America have already dropped by more than half since 1991. But Sawhill calculates that if LARCs became much more widespread, the proportion of children born outside marriage could drop by a quarter, and the proportion of children who are poor would drop sharply as well.

“By turning drifters into planners, we would not only help those women achieve their own goals but also create much stronger starts for their children,” Sawhill writes.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently urged doctors to recommend LARCs for sexually active teenagers. One obstacle is the initial cost — $500 to $1,000 — so that many young people can’t afford them.

A study in St. Louis offered free birth control, including LARCs, to sexually active teenagers and found that pregnancy rates for them plunged by more than three-quarters. Abortions fell by a similar rate. That’s what we need nationwide.

The Affordable Care Act provides free access to all forms of contraception, which helps. But many pediatricians aren’t trained in inserting LARCs.

So we need more women’s health clinics, yet, instead, some are being closed as casualties of abortion wars. Moreover, states and schools should embrace comprehensive sex education, teaching contraception, the benefits of delaying sex and, also, the responsibility of boys.

A starting point for the United States should be to rebuild Title X spending on family planning. Surely we can afford to spend as much in this area as we did back in 1980.

So, of course, let’s ask teenagers to show responsibility toward sex. But let’s demand the same of our politicians.

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

How am I going to get you interested in the lame-duck Congress? Did you even know they came back? Perhaps it’s like reports that Randy Jackson is leaving “American Idol” — the amazing news is that “American Idol” is still on the air.

See? You’re already a little more engaged because I mentioned an old hit television show. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

There actually is an interesting “American Idol” story abroad in the political world these days. Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken ran as a Democrat for Congress in North Carolina this year. It was an effort so improbable that it inspired little hope even among Democrats who believed their party was going to do very well in the elections. And, indeed, Aiken lost by 18 percentage points. Although he turned out to be a sort of a winner, since he was secretly filming his entire adventure for a four-part reality TV series for the Esquire Network.

Perhaps you did not even know there was an Esquire Network, although its programming, which includes “Brew Dogs,” “Friday Night Tykes” and “White Collar Brawlers” is currently available in more than 74 million American households.

Some of Aiken’s donors demanded that their faces be blotted out of what the creators like to refer to as the “documentary.” Really, you should not drag innocent bystanders into your reality TV show. People should be more considerate, like Senators Martin Heinrich and Jeff Flake, who staged their “Rival Survival” show on a deserted island, where there was absolutely nobody for the camera to film except the two politicians.

The theme of “Rival Survival,” which aired recently on the Discovery Channel (“Naked and Afraid,” “Dude, You’re Screwed,” “Moonshiners”), was whether two lawmakers from opposing parties could get along when left alone on a remote island with no food, water or shelter. And the answer was: Yes! Heinrich and Flake got along great. They also proved incapable of building a proper camp, boiling water or catching any fish. I believe there is an important metaphor in there somewhere.

But about the lame-duck Congress.

The House and Senate are back. Much like “Rival Survival,” the big suspense involves whether the chastened Democrats and empowered Republicans will manage to work together.

On Wednesday, the initial answer was: For sure! “I have been able to strike compromise with my Republican colleagues, and I’m ready to do it again,” said the majority leader, Harry Reid, when the Senate staggered back into session. Reid said Congress should listen to the will of the voters — who, he noted quickly, had voted in four red states to raise the minimum wage.

“Let’s step back and focus on what can be accomplished together,” said the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell. He most definitely made no mention of the minimum wage.

“Let’s begin with trusting each other, moving forward and passing the Keystone pipeline,” said Democrat Mary Landrieu.

Yes! Keystone XL. Landrieu is facing a runoff election Dec. 6, and she wants to send a message to her state that she knows how to help Big Oil.

“Elections have consequences,” she said, calling for a quick vote on a bill authorizing construction of the pipeline. “And this one does. … And one of the consequences is that a clear path for Keystone has been opened up.”

Wow. Who knew that was the message? Many environmentalists are violently against the Keystone project because it would carry oil to the Gulf refineries from the tar sands of Canada, which is particularly bad when it comes to carbon emissions. The pipeline may wind up getting built anyway, but nothing is going to happen until a court case over its route is resolved in Nebraska. A vote right now by Congress would be meaningless, and it’s a terrible moment to take a symbolic stand, since President Obama was just in China, announcing an agreement on fighting global warming.

There’s that. But then, on the other hand, there’s an election in Louisiana. While Landrieu was demanding a vote on her pipeline bill in the Senate, the House was gearing up to pass exactly the same bill, under the sponsorship of Representative Bill Cassidy, who happens to be her opponent in the Senate runoff next month.

There is also going to be a runoff for the House seat in the district Cassidy currently represents. The Democratic candidate is Edwin Edwards, former governor, former incarcerated felon due to a series of political corruption cases and former star of the reality show “The Governor’s Wife,” on A&E (“Storage Wars,” “Duck Dynasty,” “Bad Ink”).

Maybe they could do a series about the Keystone Pipeline (“Tar Sands Tough Guys”) or the Louisiana runoffs. (“Bayou Blowhards”). Or the Lame-Duck Congress! Maybe the nation would get engaged if it could see the behind-the-scenes story of the appropriations process (“Fiscal Cliffhangers”) or the day-to-day achievements of the House of Representatives (“Name That Post Office.”)

All the world’s a stage.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

November 6, 2014

In “Looking Back, Looking Forward” Mr. Blow says now Republicans must demonstrate that they are capable of solutions, and not just sullenness. They have to pass actual legislation.  Which means President Obama had better get out the veto pen…  Mr. Cohen, in “The Bear Turns,” says the West needs a new policy to resist, restrain and retain Russia.  Yes, Mr. Cohen, by all means let’s resurrect the Cold War.  That was such fun.  Mr. Kristof considers “America’s Broken Politics” and says we painlessly inherited democracy, but by allowing political dysfunction to set in, we’ve botched it.  Ms. Collins says we should “Always Look on the Bright Side,” and that there are some positive ways to interpret the midterms. You just have to look for them.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The Republicans proved Tuesday that the establishment still knows how to win.

They fielded stronger candidates. They had few gaffes and little going off script. Extreme views were couched in softer language or played down altogether.

Candidates adopted a faux rustic aura, like a strip mall Olive Garden. The campaigns were savvy in their simplicity: anti-Obama, anti-Washington. Republicans damaged the Obama brand as best they could, then attached all Democratic candidates to it.

As the Weekly Standard reported last week:

“According to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), Republicans ran nearly 12,000 anti-Obamacare ads in Senate races during the week of October 13-19. That’s almost twice as many ads as they ran on jobs/unemployment, more than twice as many as they ran on international affairs, and more than three times as many as they ran on taxes. In fact, it’s more than they ran on jobs/unemployment, taxes, and social issues combined. It’s also more than they ran on jobs/unemployment and immigration combined.”

Over the same period, but to a far lesser degree, Democrats focused more on issues like education, Social Security, prescription drugs and social issues.

And outside money played a large part in it. As Nicholas Confessore reported in The New York Times, “All told, Republican outside groups spent about $205 million on television advertising, according to a Democrat tracking media purchases, while Democratic groups spent $132 million,” and “the political network overseen by the conservative billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch appeared to be the largest overall source of outside television spending on behalf of Republicans.”

The nearly dimwitted, Goober-esque affectations came together with an ocean of dark money in a midterm where the map and the math already favored them to give Democrats a drubbing.

It didn’t help that the Republican strategy pushed Democrats so far back on their heels that they never found enough footing to trumpet their own successes. Many were so busy running away from an association with the president that they never got around to running on Democratic principle.

This was a huge mistake. When someone from your party occupies the White House, you are shackled to them no matter what you say. Better to move together than chop off your own leg trying to free yourself.

Now the president has to determine if there is common ground to be found with a newly ascendant Republican legislature, and Republicans have to determine if they want to squander their victory on vengeance and if they can quash their own internal civil war.

One could certainly make the argument that the president, with an eye toward legacy and posterity, would want to find some areas of compromise, possibly on tax and energy policies. Part of a presidency is judged by which major bills are passed during it, and the present obstructionist do-nothing Congress has certainly hampered the Obama presidency in that respect.

Taking the next few months, before the 2016 presidential race truly sucks all the air out of Washington, to make some headway might be good for him.

However, during a news conference on Wednesday, the president was not contrite or cowed. He presented as a man hopeful for a little compromise but bracing for a lot of fighting. He didn’t tuck his tail as much as bare his fangs.

This defiant stance could actually stiffen the spines of some staunch progressives who are already looking at a list of promises by Obama, only about half of which have been kept in full, according to PolitiFact (some compromises were made and some efforts were simply blocked), and feeling some commingling of betrayal, buyer’s remorse and battle fatigue.

There may even be a compromise to be had on immigration. The president reiterated Wednesday that he would issue an executive order first but, if Congress could pass comprehensive legislation afterward, the order would be supplanted.

On the Republican side, they have a conundrum. As the saying goes: “Be careful what you set your heart upon — for it will surely be yours.”

Republicans ran against Washington, but now they are Washington. Now that they control both houses of Congress, they must demonstrate that they are capable of solutions, and not just sullenness. They have to pass actual legislation and not just demonstration bills that the president will be sure to veto.

Obama has vetoed only two bills in six years. That’s the fewest since James Garfield, who held the office for only 200 days. Obama’s pen has plenty of ink, and I’m sure he’s itching to use it.

The American people, for their part, are eager to have their faith reaffirmed that Washington is not irreparably broken and that our politicians aren’t implacably insolent.

There is only a small window for politicians in Washington to provide some proof.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

For close to a quarter-century there was a basic assumption in the West about Russia: It would, with zigzags and pauses, after huffs and hesitations, gradually integrate with the Western world. Whatever the misgivings in Moscow about the expansion of NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this appeared to be the course set in the Kremlin, more energetically by Dmitri Medvedev, but even by earlier incarnations of Vladimir Putin.

From Berlin to Washington, the idea was that interdependence would grow. Russian membership (now suspended) in the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries was an important sign of the direction set. Modernity would do its work, breeding openness and connectedness. Autocracy and crony capitalism would yield over time (maybe even a long time, but still) to more representative government in Moscow and law-based markets.

This view of Russia, it is now clear, was wrong. Putin has decided on another course. He has opted for confrontation with the West as the basis for Russian development and the consolidation of his own power. Perhaps it was the street protests in Moscow of late 2011. Perhaps it was a perception of Western perfidy in Libya earlier that year. Perhaps it was some inkling about a moment of American weakness. Perhaps it really was the upheaval in Ukraine. Perhaps it was simply his inner K.G.B. officer rising to the surface as the years advanced.

In the end the reasons are secondary to the reality, which is that Putin has changed direction, igniting a wave of Russian nationalism. This is perhaps the greatest strategic volte-face of the 21st century, with huge and as yet scarcely digested implications. It is Putin who has pivoted to Asia, far more than President Obama, as Russia’s $400 billion gas deal with China this year suggests. He has lost interest in the West as the magnet of Russian development, portraying it rather as the flawed and predatory civilization against which a new Russia can define itself.

Did the West lose Russia? Certainly more could have been done to reassure Moscow and knit the fabric of interdependence closer. The Cold War’s peaceful end was, after all, the work of Mikhail Gorbachev, as much as anyone’s; the ending did not have to yield a stark narrative of winner and loser, much less Western triumphalism.

But the attempt at outreach to Russia from Washington and European capitals was real. Putin’s talk of Russian encirclement is baloney. The expansion of NATO was, on balance, a wise call, laying the basis for freedom and rapid development from Poland to the Baltics, as well as paying a Western debt to abandoned and imprisoned Central Europeans that dated from Yalta. Nothing is more certain than that, absent NATO membership, events in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia would have borne a striking resemblance to those in Georgia and Ukraine in recent years. Putin’s Russia would have bitten back in any Baltic no man’s land. Poland would not be the little miracle of development it is today without its anchor in the Western alliance.

The past, in any event, is gone. What matters now is determining how to deal with the new Russia. Karl Kaiser, an adjunct professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, told me that in recent meetings with Russian foreign policy experts one of the most striking things was their conviction that Western economic sanctions against Moscow for the annexation of Crimea could be a useful stimulus to a more autarchic model of development that would work well for Russia. “It’s actually quite scary,” he said.

In Washington, the mood is one of exasperation. Resets with Russia: been there, done that. In Europe, where Germany played a pivotal role in the imposition of sanctions, the mood is rather different. European trade with Russia dwarfs that of the United States. Russia is a critical supplier of energy. At a deeper level, most Europeans feel long-term security on the Continent can only be assured with Russia, rather than against it. If “limited conflict” with the West, as one senior German diplomat put it to me, is now Putin’s preferred approach, how is that to be managed? Germany is in the midst of an in-depth foreign policy review to be concluded early next year. Answering that question must be one of its priorities.

The Russian annexation of Crimea was an outrage, and Putin’s stirring-up of a bloody little war in eastern Ukraine an act of boundless cynicism. The danger now is that his anti-Western turn could spill over into arms control issues. The last thing the world needs is a new Russian-American arms race.

This is not a second Cold War. It is the end of a Western illusion. Cooperation is still possible; there are signs of Russian helpfulness on Iran. But Europe and the United States have not yet framed a policy that at once resists, restrains and retains Russia. It must, for the new reality is combustible.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Let’s face it: The American political system is broken.

The midterm elections were a stinging repudiation of President Obama, but Republicans should also feel chastened: A poll last year found Congress less popular than cockroaches.

So congratulations to those members celebrating election victories. But our democratic institutions are in trouble when they can’t outpoll cockroaches. Which didn’t even campaign.

“Politics is the noblest of professions,” President Eisenhower said in 1954, and politics in the past often seemed a bright path toward improving our country. President Clinton represented a generation that regarded politics as a tool to craft a better world, and President Obama himself mobilized young voters with his gauzy message of hope. He presented himself as the politician who could break Washington’s gridlock and get things done — and we’ve seen how well that worked.

I’m in the middle of a book tour now, visiting universities and hearing students speak about yearning to make a difference. But they are turning not to politics as their lever but to social enterprise, to nonprofits, to advocacy, to business. They see that Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America in her dorm room at Princeton University, has had more impact on the education system than any current senator, and many have given up on political paths to change.

A national exit poll conducted by Edison Research found that a majority of voters disapproved of Republicans and Democrats alike, and only 20 percent trust Washington to do what’s right most or all the time.

President Obama is licking his wounds in the White House, and he doesn’t seem to accept that the election is a judgment on his presidency. I’m sorry. When Democrats lose in Colorado and struggle in Virginia, when voters say they’re sending a message to the White House, it’s time for Obama to shake up his staff, reach out beyond his insular circle of longtime aides, and recalibrate.

Critics are right that he should try harder to schmooze with legislators, although I’m skeptical that Republicans are that charmable. After all, some polls have shown more than a third in the Republican Party said he was born abroad and about one-fifth suspected that he could be the antichrist.

Yet it’s not just Obama who is looking ragged today. The entire political system is. Political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal have charted the attitudes of the political parties back to 1879, and they found party polarization in recent years to be greater than at any time since their charts began.

That’s partly because Democrats have become more liberal, but mostly because Republicans have become more conservative — indeed, more conservative than at any time since 1879.

Politicians have also figured out what works for their own careers: playing to their base, denouncing the other side, and blocking rivals from getting credit for anything. Since many politicians are more vulnerable in a primary than in a general election, there’s not much incentive for compromise.

After Obama took office, Republicans assiduously tried to block him, even shutting down the federal government. Republican governors prevented their own citizens from getting health insurance through federally financed Medicaid. I see that as obstructionism, but it paid off in these midterms.

Bravo to Obama’s comments Wednesday about trying to cooperate with Republicans on issues including early education. But I’m not holding my breath. Incentives today militate against bipartisan cooperation, and that’s one reason the current Congress is on track to be the least productive in the post-World War II era.

(Maybe we taxpayers could save money by paying members of Congress not by salary but by the piece, so much for each enacted law?)

One bright spot in the midterms was voter action on ballot measures. They did actually break the gridlock. Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia legalized marijuana in some situations. Five states supported an increase in the minimum wage. Washington State approved universal background checks for gun purchases. California reduced prison sentences.

So even if politicians are stalemated, voters managed to get things done. Yet we also get the national government we deserve, and that’s an indictment of all of us.

I find America’s political dysfunction particularly sad because I’ve spent much of my journalistic career covering people risking their lives for democracy, and sometimes dying for it — from Taiwan to Ukraine, Congo to South Korea. It was 25 years ago that I saw people massacred near Tiananmen Square for demanding political change. They risked their lives because they dreamed that democracy would improve their lives and give them greater freedom and dignity.

For those of us in the United States it was easy. We painlessly inherited democracy, yet I’m afraid we’ve botched it.

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

Our topic for today is: looking on the post-election bright side.

The polling places hadn’t even opened before the Senate’s right-wing firebrand, Ted Cruz, was demanding that the majority-leader in-waiting, Mitch McConnell, take a hard line against President Obama or risk losing his new job. Cruz is from Texas, and he wants to recreate the Alamo, if you can imagine Obamacare in disguise as the Mexican Army.

Think of that as a plus. The one thing McConnell and his supporters dislike more than the Democratic agenda is Ted Cruz. It could be an important bonding opportunity. President Obama has never spent much time with the Republican leadership, but now you can sort of imagine them sitting around, sipping drinks and making fun of what Cruz said on Fox News.

Another potential downer: Republicans have fewer veteran women in the Senate, so when they take over there will be fewer women running important committees. But, on the plus side, the overall number of women in Congress will rise, albeit at a rate that would get us to equal representation sometime around 2078. Once all the votes are counted, Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, says the percentage of women in the House and Senate, now 18.2 percent, will, at best, go up to “maybe 19.3” percent.

“We’re calling it Not a Landmark Year,” Walsh said.

This could be a useful exercise in living with lowered expectations. Washington might actually want to embrace “Not a Landmark Year” as a slogan. If Ted Cruz tries to get the House Republicans to run the country off a fiscal cliff, the moderates could start chanting: “NALY! NALY!”

Let’s try one more positive interpretation of what the election has wrought: There’s a school of thought that believes Tuesday was actually a great day for reproductive rights. Let me take you through it.

The front lines of the anti-abortion movement belong to the “personhood” people, who strive to give constitutional rights and protections to the “preborn” from the moment of conception. When Americans are confronted with this idea, they quickly come to hate it. Personhood amendments have been defeated wherever they pop up, including Mississippi. This year, one was rejected in Colorado for the third time, by around 65 percent to 35 percent. A personhood amendment lost in North Dakota, 64 percent to 36 percent. In addition, the state senator who was its major sponsor lost her re-election bid, as did one of the measure’s more outspoken House supporters.

We are only mentioning those last details because the number of state legislators who are defeated for re-election in this country is about as low as the number of state legislators who are endowed with the power of levitation.

This year, not only were the personhood proposals rejected, candidates who had previously supported the movement started madly backing away. The most famous example was in Colorado, where Representative Cory Gardner, the Republican Senate candidate, suddenly realized a state personhood amendment was a “bad idea.” In a move that left debate questioners incredulous, Gardner insisted that a personhood bill he had co-sponsored in Congress would have no effect, but was “simply a statement that I support life.”

Gardner also announced that he believed birth control pills should be available over the counter. He made a TV ad about it and sent out pink mailings.

Gardner’s turnaround was so swift and strange that the incumbent senator, Mark Udall, made it the center of his campaign. A Denver Post editorial claimed it was Udall’s “obnoxious” obsession. Now to me, obnoxious is a candidate who steals his opponent’s yard signs. Or who opposes abortions except for the one he pressured his mistress to get, like that guy in Tennessee. But whatever. Udall lost.

Planned Parenthood sent out a press release describing Colorado as an absolute triumph: “Voters have made clear that you can’t win statewide elections in Colorado by openly opposing women’s health and restricting access to safe and legal abortion.”

The theory here — and I am really going to go with it — is that the real story is not anti-choice Republicans weaseling around their political history, but voters of America forcing anti-choice candidates to change their positions.

“Cory Gardner ran aggressively as a supporter of women’s issues. It was sort of a miraculous conversion. We’ll be happy to hold him to it,” said Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, in a phone interview.

The question is what happens when people like Gardner get into office. McConnell promised that he’d bring up a bill in the Senate banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Would the repentant personhood backers go along? At the very least, they would appear to be obliged to add language vastly expanding women’s access to free birth control.

O.K., it’s not an ideal compromise. But then it’s not a landmark year.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

October 31, 2014

In “Our Machine Masters” Bobo says the age of artificial intelligence is finally at hand, and he has a question: Will we master it, or will it master us?  Mr. Cohen, in “An Old Man in Prague,” says Sir Nicholas Winton saved Jewish children, and for decades said nothing. The deed speaks for itself.  In “Apologizing to Japan” Prof. Krugman says Western economists were scathing in their criticisms of Japanese policy, but the slump we fell into isn’t just similar to Japan’s. It’s worse.  Here’s Bobo:

Some days I think nobody knows me as well as Pandora. I create a new music channel around some band or song and Pandora feeds me a series of songs I like just as well. In fact, it often feeds me songs I’d already downloaded onto my phone from iTunes. Either my musical taste is extremely conventional or Pandora is really good at knowing what I like.

In the current issue of Wired, the technology writer Kevin Kelly says that we had all better get used to this level of predictive prowess. Kelly argues that the age of artificial intelligence is finally at hand.

He writes that the smart machines of the future won’t be humanlike geniuses like HAL 9000 in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” They will be more modest machines that will drive your car, translate foreign languages, organize your photos, recommend entertainment options and maybe diagnose your illnesses. “Everything that we formerly electrified we will now cognitize,” Kelly writes. Even more than today, we’ll lead our lives enmeshed with machines that do some of our thinking tasks for us.

This artificial intelligence breakthrough, he argues, is being driven by cheap parallel computation technologies, big data collection and better algorithms. The upshot is clear, “The business plans of the next 10,000 start-ups are easy to forecast: Take X and add A.I.”

Two big implications flow from this. The first is sociological. If knowledge is power, were about to see an even greater concentration of power.

The Internet is already heralding a new era of centralization. As Astra Taylor points out in her book, “The People’s Platform,” in 2001, the top 10 websites accounted for 31 percent of all U.S. page views, but, by 2010, they accounted for 75 percent of them. Gigantic companies like Google swallow up smaller ones. The Internet has created a long tail, but almost all the revenue and power is among the small elite at the head.

Advances in artificial intelligence will accelerate this centralizing trend. That’s because A.I. companies will be able to reap the rewards of network effects. The bigger their network and the more data they collect, the more effective and attractive they become.

As Kelly puts it, “Once a company enters this virtuous cycle, it tends to grow so big, so fast, that it overwhelms any upstart competitors. As a result, our A.I. future is likely to be ruled by an oligarchy of two or three large, general-purpose cloud-based commercial intelligences.”

To put it more menacingly, engineers at a few gigantic companies will have vast-though-hidden power to shape how data are collected and framed, to harvest huge amounts of information, to build the frameworks through which the rest of us make decisions and to steer our choices. If you think this power will be used for entirely benign ends, then you have not read enough history.

The second implication is philosophical. A.I. will redefine what it means to be human. Our identity as humans is shaped by what machines and other animals can’t do. For the last few centuries, reason was seen as the ultimate human faculty. But now machines are better at many of the tasks we associate with thinking — like playing chess, winning at Jeopardy, and doing math.

On the other hand, machines cannot beat us at the things we do without conscious thinking: developing tastes and affections, mimicking each other and building emotional attachments, experiencing imaginative breakthroughs, forming moral sentiments.

In the age of smart machines, we’re not human because we have big brains. We’re human because we have social skills, emotional capacities and moral intuitions. I could paint two divergent A.I. futures, one deeply humanistic, and one soullessly utilitarian.

In the humanistic one, machines liberate us from mental drudgery so we can focus on higher and happier things. In this future, differences in innate I.Q. are less important. Everybody has Google on their phones so having a great memory or the ability to calculate with big numbers doesn’t help as much.

In this future, there is increasing emphasis on personal and moral faculties: being likable, industrious, trustworthy and affectionate. People are evaluated more on these traits, which supplement machine thinking, and not the rote ones that duplicate it.

In the cold, utilitarian future, on the other hand, people become less idiosyncratic. If the choice architecture behind many decisions is based on big data from vast crowds, everybody follows the prompts and chooses to be like each other. The machine prompts us to consume what is popular, the things that are easy and mentally undemanding.

I’m happy Pandora can help me find what I like. I’m a little nervous if it so pervasively shapes my listening that it ends up determining what I like. I think we all want to master these machines, not have them master us.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

An old man went to Prague this week. He had spent much of his life keeping quiet about his deeds. They spoke for themselves. Now he said, “In a way perhaps I shouldn’t have lived so long to give everybody the opportunity to exaggerate everything in the way they are doing today.”

At the age of 105, Sir Nicholas Winton is still inclined toward self-effacement. He did what any normal human being would, only at a time when most of Europe had gone mad. A London stockbroker, born into a family of German Jewish immigrants who had changed their name from Wertheim and converted to Christianity, he rescued 669 children, most of them Jews, from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. They came to Britain in eight transports. The ninth was canceled when Hitler invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. The 250 children destined for it journeyed instead into the inferno of the Holocaust.

Winton, through family connections, knew enough of the Third Reich to see the naïveté of British officialdom still inclined to dismiss Hitler as a buffoon and talk of another war as fanciful. He raised money; he procured visas; he found foster families. His day job was at the Stock Exchange. The rest of his time he devoted to saving the doomed. There were enough bystanders. He wanted to help. Now he has outlived many of those he saved and long enough to know that thousands of their descendants owe their lives to him.

Back in Prague, 75 years on, Winton received the Order of the White Lion, the highest honor of the Czech Republic. The Czech Air Force sent a plane. He was serenaded at Prague Castle, in the presence of a handful of his octogenarian “children.” The only problem, he said, was that countries refused to accept unaccompanied children; only England would. One hundred years, he said, is “a heck of a long time.” The things he said were understated. At 105, one does not change one’s manner.

Only in 1988 did Winton’s wartime work begin to be known. His wife found a scrapbook chronicling his deeds. He appeared on a BBC television show whose host, Esther Rantzen, asked those in the audience who owed their lives to him to stand. Many did. Honors accrued. Now there are statues of him in London and Prague. “I didn’t really keep it secret,” he once said. “I just didn’t talk about it.”

Such discretion is riveting to our exhibitionist age. To live today is to self-promote or perish. Social media tugs the private into the public sphere with an almost irresistible force. Be followed, be friended — or be forgotten. This imperative creates a great deal of tension and unhappiness. Most people, much of the time, have a need to be quiet and still, and feel disinclined to raise their voice. Yet they sense that if they do not, they risk being seen as losers. Device anxiety, that restless tug to the little screen, is a reflection of a spreading inability to live without 140-character public affirmation. When the device is dead, so are you.

What gets forgotten, in the cacophony, is how new this state of affairs is. Winton’s disinclination to talk was not unusual. Silence was the reflex of the postwar generation. What was done was done because it was the right thing to do and therefore unworthy of note. Certainly among Jews silence was the norm. Survivors scarcely spoke of their torment. They did not tell their children. They repressed their memories. Perhaps discretion seemed the safer course; certainly it seemed the more dignified. Perhaps the very trauma brought wordlessness. The Cold War was not conducive to truth-telling. Anguish was better suffered in silence than passed along (although of course it filtered to the next generation anyway.)

But there was something else, something really unsayable. Survival itself was somehow shameful, unbearable. By what right, after all, had one lived when those 250 children had not? Menachem Begin, the former Israeli prime minister whose parents and brother were killed by the Nazis, put this sentiment well: “Against the eyes of every son of the nation appear and reappear the carriages of death. … The Black Nights when the sound of an infernal screeching of wheels and the sighs of the condemned press in from afar and interrupt one’s slumber; to remind one of what happened to mother, father, brothers, to a son, a daughter, a People. In these inescapable moments every Jew in the country feels unwell because he is well. He asks himself: Is there not something treasonous in his existence.”

Winton’s anonymity, for decades after the war, was of course also the result of the silence or reserve of the hundreds he had saved. How strange that seems today, when we must emote about everything.

The deed speaks — and occasionally someone lives long enough to know in what degree.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman, who is in Tokyo:

For almost two decades, Japan has been held up as a cautionary tale, an object lesson on how not to run an advanced economy. After all, the island nation is the rising superpower that stumbled. One day, it seemed, it was on the road to high-tech domination of the world economy; the next it was suffering from seemingly endless stagnation and deflation. And Western economists were scathing in their criticisms of Japanese policy.

I was one of those critics; Ben Bernanke, who went on to become chairman of the Federal Reserve, was another. And these days, I often find myself thinking that we ought to apologize.

Now, I’m not saying that our economic analysis was wrong. The paper I published in 1998 about Japan’s “liquidity trap,” or the paper Mr. Bernanke published in 2000 urging Japanese policy makers to show “Rooseveltian resolve” in confronting their problems, have aged fairly well. In fact, in some ways they look more relevant than ever now that much of the West has fallen into a prolonged slump very similar to Japan’s experience.

The point, however, is that the West has, in fact, fallen into a slump similar to Japan’s — but worse. And that wasn’t supposed to happen. In the 1990s, we assumed that if the United States or Western Europe found themselves facing anything like Japan’s problems, we would respond much more effectively than the Japanese had. But we didn’t, even though we had Japan’s experience to guide us. On the contrary, Western policies since 2008 have been so inadequate if not actively counterproductive that Japan’s failings seem minor in comparison. And Western workers have experienced a level of suffering that Japan has managed to avoid.

What policy failures am I talking about? Start with government spending. Everyone knows that in the early 1990s Japan tried to boost its economy with a surge in public investment; it’s less well-known that public investment fell rapidly after 1996 even as the government raised taxes, undermining progress toward recovery. This was a big mistake, but it pales by comparison with Europe’s hugely destructive austerity policies, or the collapse in infrastructure spending in the United States after 2010. Japanese fiscal policy didn’t do enough to help growth; Western fiscal policy actively destroyed growth.

Or consider monetary policy. The Bank of Japan, Japan’s equivalent of the Federal Reserve, has received a lot of criticism for reacting too slowly to the slide into deflation, and then for being too eager to raise interest rates at the first hint of recovery. That criticism is fair, but Japan’s central bank never did anything as wrongheaded as the European Central Bank’s decision to raise rates in 2011, helping to send Europe back into recession. And even that mistake is trivial compared with the awesomely wrongheaded behavior of the Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank, which raised rates despite below-target inflation and relatively high unemployment, and appears, at this point, to have pushed Sweden into outright deflation.

The Swedish case is especially striking because the Riksbank chose to ignore one of its own deputy governors: Lars Svensson, a world-class monetary economist who had worked extensively on Japan, and who had warned his colleagues that premature rate increases would have exactly the effects they did, in fact, have.

So there are really two questions here. First, why has everyone seemed to get this so wrong? Second, why has the West, with all its famous economists — not to mention the ability to learn from Japan’s woe — made an even worse mess than Japan did?

The answer to the first question, I think, is that responding effectively to depression conditions requires abandoning conventional respectability. Policies that would ordinarily be prudent and virtuous, like balancing the budget or taking a firm stand against inflation, become recipes for a deeper slump. And it’s very hard to persuade influential people to make that adjustment — just look at the Washington establishment’s inability to give up on its deficit obsession.

As for why the West has done even worse than Japan, I suspect that it’s about the deep divisions within our societies. In America, conservatives have blocked efforts to fight unemployment out of a general hostility to government, especially a government that does anything to help Those People. In Europe, Germany has insisted on hard money and austerity largely because the German public is intensely hostile to anything that could be called a bailout of southern Europe.

I’ll be writing more soon about what’s happening in Japan now, and the new lessons the West should be learning. For now, here’s what you should know: Japan used to be a cautionary tale, but the rest of us have messed up so badly that it almost looks like a role model instead.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

October 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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