In “Ambivalence About America” Mr. Cohen tells us that even as Europeans rage at the United States, they love its products. Mr. Nocera tells us about “The Man Who Blew the Whistle.” He says when the S.E.C. announced last month that it was awarding $400,000 to a whistle-blower, it didn’t name the recipient per the Dodd-Frank law. His name is Bill Lloyd, and Mr. Nocera gives us his story. Mr. Bruni tells us all about “The Trouble With Tenure” and says teacher job protections are being challenged, and a lawmaker and former school principal explains why that’s good. Here’s Mr. Cohen:
Attitudes in Europe toward an America that is regrouping are marked today by extreme ambivalence. Europeans have long been known for finishing their diatribes about the United States by asking how they can get their child into Stanford. These days, European after-dinner conversation tends to be dominated by discussion of the latest episode of “House of Cards” or “Homeland” or “Mad Men.” A French diplomat told me that every meeting he attended at the White House during his tour in Washington ended with one of his party asking if it might be possible to see the West Wing. He found it embarrassing.
Europeans complain of the personal data stored or the tax loopholes exploited by the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Starbucks, Google and Twitter, but they are hooked on them all. Google, as recently reported by my colleague Mark Scott, now has an 85 percent share of search in Europe’s largest economies, including Germany, Britain and France, whereas its share of the American market is about 67 percent. American tech companies operate seven of the 10 most visited websites in Europe. Rage at the practices of the National Security Agency is outweighed by addiction to a cyberuniverse dominated by American brands.
The magnetism of Silicon Valley may suggest that the United States, a young nation still, is Rome at the height of its power. American soft power is alive and well. America’s capacity for reinvention, its looming self-sufficiency in energy, its good demographics and, not least, its hold on the world’s imagination, all suggest vigor.
But geostrategic shifts over the past year indicate the contrary: that the United States is Imperial Rome, A.D. 376, with various violent enemies playing the role of the Visigoths, Huns, Vandals et al.; the loss at home of what Edward Gibbon, the historian of Rome’s fall, called “civic virtue,” as narrow interests paralyze politics; the partial handover of American security to private military contractors (just as a declining Rome increasingly entrusted its defense to mercenaries); the place of plunder rather than productiveness in the economy; and the apparent powerlessness of a leader given to talk of the limits of what the United States can do. There is no record of the Emperor Valens’s saying, as Obama did, “You hit singles, you hit doubles,” but perhaps he thought it.
Ambivalence is not peculiar to Europe, of course. To heck with the world’s problems, many Americans now say, we have done our share over all these decades of Pax Americana. If China and India are really rising, let them take responsibility for global security, as America took the mantle from Britain in 1945.
Barack Obama — professional, practical and prudent — would appear to suit this American zeitgeist. He may not be managing decline but he is certainly resisting overreach. He is not the decider. He is the restrainer.
Why, then, is Obama’s no-stupid-stuff approach to the globe so unpopular? Fifty-eight percent of Americans in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll disapproved of his handling of foreign policy, the highest of his presidency. A strange duality seems to be at work. Americans want the troops to come home. They want investment to prioritize domestic jobs, education, health care and infrastructure.
Yet many seem to feel Obama is selling the nation short. They want a president to lead, not be a mere conduit for their sentiments. Americans, as citizens of a nation that represents an idea, are optimistic by nature. It may be true that there is no good outcome in Syria, and certainly no easy one. It may be that Egyptian democracy had to be stillborn. It may be that Vladimir Putin annexes Crimea because he can. Still, Americans do not like the message that it makes sense to pull back and let the world do its worst. America’s bipolarity sees recent bitter experience vying with the country’s innermost nature, its can-do aspiration to be a “city upon a hill.”
It is not easy to read this world of bipolarity (both European and American), Jihadi Springs and Chinese assertiveness. It is too simple, and probably wrong, to say that the United States is in decline.
But Pax Americana is in decline. America’s readiness to use its power to stabilize the world — the current bombing of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria notwithstanding — is fading. For that reason, the world is more dangerous than it has been in a long time. The waning under Obama of the credibility of American power has created a vacuum no magnetic soft power fills.
The pendulum always swings too far. Obama the restrainer has been the great corrective to Bush the decider. Far from the magician imagined back in 2008, Obama has been the professional moderator. But the president has gone too far; and in so doing has undersold the nation, encouraged foes, disappointed allies, and created doubts over American power that have proved easy to exploit.
Immediately after this was a notation that Bobo was off today, so I guess Mr. Cohen had to send in his screed and do the saber-rattling and dick swinging instead. Here’s Mr. Nocera:
Late last month, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an oblique press release announcing that it was awarding an unnamed whistle-blower $400,000 for helping expose a financial fraud at an unnamed company. The money was the latest whistle-blower award — there have been 13 so far — paid as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which includes both protections for whistle-blowers and financial awards when their information leads to fines of more than $1 million.
The law also prevents the S.E.C. from doing anything to publicly identify the whistle-blowers — hence, the circumspect press release. But through a mutual friend, I discovered the identity of this particular whistle-blower, who, it turned out, was willing to tell his story.
His name is Bill Lloyd. He is 56 years old, and he spent 22 years as an agent for MassMutual Financial Group, the insurance company based in Springfield, Mass. Although companies often label whistle-blowers as disgruntled employees, Lloyd didn’t fit that category. On the contrary, he liked working for MassMutual, and he was a high performer. He also is a straight arrow — “a square,” said the mutual friend who introduced us — who cares about his customers; when faced with a situation where his customers were likely to get ripped off, he couldn’t look the other way.
In September 2007, at a time when money was gushing into variable annuities, MassMutual added two income guarantees to make a few of its annuity products especially attractive to investors. Called Guaranteed Income Benefit Plus 6 and Guaranteed Income Benefit Plus 5, they guaranteed that the annuity income stream would grow to a predetermined cap regardless of how the investment itself performed.
Then, upon retirement, the investors had the right to take 6 percent (or 5 percent, depending on the product) of the cap for as long as they wanted or until it ran out of money, and still be able, at some point, to annuitize it. It is complicated, but the point is that thanks to the guarantee, the money was never supposed to run out. That is what the prospectus said, and it is what those in the sales force, made up of people like Lloyd, were taught to sell to customers. It wasn’t long before investors had put $2.5 billion into the products.
The following July, Lloyd — and a handful of others in the sales force — discovered, to their horror, that the guarantee didn’t work as advertised. In fact, because of the market’s fall, it was a near-certainty that thousands of customers were going to run through the income stream within seven or eight years of withdrawing money.
Lloyd did not immediately run to the S.E.C. Rather, he dug in at MassMutual and, as the S.E.C. press release put it, did “everything feasible to correct the issue internally.” For a while, he thought he was going to have success, but, at a certain point, someone stole the files he had put together on the matter and turned them over to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which is the industry’s self-regulatory body. It was only when the regulatory authority failed to act that his lawyer told him about the whistle-blower provisions in Dodd-Frank and he went to the S.E.C., which began its own investigation.
The Dodd-Frank law has provisions intended to protect whistle-blowers from retaliation, but there are certain aspects of being a whistle-blower that it can’t do anything about. “People started treating me like a leper,” recalls Lloyd. “They would see me coming and turn around and walk in the other direction.” Convinced that the company was laying the groundwork to fire him, he quit in April 2011, a move that cost him both clients and money. (Lloyd has since found employment with another financial institution. For its part, MassMutual says only that “we are pleased to have resolved this matter with the S.E.C.”)
In November 2012, MassMutual agreed to pay a $1.6 million fine; Lloyd’s $400,000 award is 25 percent of that. It was a slap on the wrist, but more important, the company agreed to lift the cap. This will cost MassMutual a lot more, but it will protect the investors who put their money — and their retirement hopes — on MassMutual’s guarantees. Thanks to Lloyd, the company has fixed the defect without a single investor losing a penny.
Ever since the passage of Dodd-Frank reform, the financial industry has been none too happy about the whistle-blower provisions, and there have been rumblings that congressional Republicans might try to roll back some of it. The S.E.C. now has an Office of the Whistleblower, and a website where potential whistle-blowers can report fraud. It has given out $16 million in whistle-blower awards.
There are, without question, parts of the Dodd-Frank law that are problematic, not least the provisions dealing with the Too Big to Fail institutions.
But the whistle-blower provisions? They are working as intended. That is the moral of Bill Lloyd’s story.
And now here’s Mr. Bruni, writing from Denver:
Mike Johnston’s mother was a public-school teacher. So were her mother and father. And his godfather taught in both public and private schools.
So when he expresses the concern that we’re not getting the best teachers into classrooms or weeding out the worst performers, it’s not as someone who sees the profession from a cold, cynical distance.
What I hear in his voice when he talks about teaching is reverence, along with something else that public education could use more of: optimism.
He rightly calls teachers “the single most transformative force in education.”
But the current system doesn’t enable as many of them as possible to rise to that role, he says. And a prime culprit is tenure, at least as it still exists in most states.
“It provides no incentive for someone to improve their practice,” he told me last week. “It provides no accountability to actual student outcomes. It’s the classic driver of, ‘I taught it, they didn’t learn it, not my problem.’ It has a decimating impact on morale among staff, because some people can work hard, some can do nothing, and it doesn’t matter.”
I sat down with Johnston, a Democrat who represents a racially diverse chunk of this city in the State Senate, because he was the leading proponent of a 2010 law that essentially abolished tenure in Colorado. To earn what is now called “non-probationary status,” a new teacher must demonstrate student progress three years in a row, and any teacher whose students show no progress for two consecutive years loses his or her job protection.
The law is still being disputed and has not been fully implemented. But since its enactment, a growing number of states have chipped away at traditional tenure or forged stronger links between student performance and teacher evaluations. And the challenges to tenure have gathered considerable force, with many Democrats defying teachers unions and joining the movement.
After a California judge’s recent ruling that the state’s tenure protections violated the civil rights of children by trapping them with ineffective educators in a manner that “shocks the conscience,” Arne Duncan, the education secretary, praised the decision. Tenure even drew scrutiny from Whoopi Goldberg on the TV talk show “The View.” She repeatedly questioned the way it sometimes shielded bad teachers.
“Parents are not going to stand for it anymore,” she said. “And you teachers, in your union, you need to say, ‘These bad teachers are making us look bad.’ ”
Johnston spent two years with Teach for America in Mississippi in the late 1990s. Then, after getting a master’s in education from Harvard, he worked for six years as a principal in public schools in the Denver area, including one whose success drew so much attention that President Obama gave a major education speech there during his 2008 presidential campaign.
Johnston said that traditional tenure deprived principals of the team-building discretion they needed.
“Do you have people who all share the same vision and are willing to walk through the fire together?” he said. Principals with control over that coax better outcomes from students, he said, citing not only his own experience but also the test scores of kids in Harlem who attend the Success Academy Charter Schools.
“You saw that when you could hire for talent and release for talent, you could actually demonstrate amazing results in places where that was never thought possible,” he said. “Ah, so it’s not the kids who are the problem! It’s the system.”
When job protections are based disproportionately on time served, he said, they don’t adequately inspire and motivate. Referring to himself and other tenure critics, he said, “We want a tenure system that actually means something, that’s a badge of honor you wear as one of the best practitioners in the field and not just because you’re breathing.”
There are perils to the current tenure talk: that it fails to address the intense strains on many teachers; that it lays too much fault on their doorsteps, distracting people from other necessary reforms.
But the discussion is imperative, because there’s no sense in putting something as crucial as children’s education in the hands of a professional class with less accountability than others and with job protections that most Americans can only fantasize about.
We need to pay good teachers much more. We need to wrap the great ones in the highest esteem. But we also need to separate the good and the great from the bad.
Johnston frames it well.
“Our focus is not on teachers because they are the problem,” he said. “Our focus is on teachers because they are the solution.”