Archive for the ‘Collins’ Category

Blow, Kristof and Collins

July 31, 2014

In “Age of Identity” Mr. Blow says the struggle against conformity and control is a shared, unifying experience.  Mr. Kristof has a question in “Our Blind Spot About Guns:”  We have made cars safer with sensible regulations. Why can’t we do the same with guns?  Well, Nick, you’re a respected columnist for The Newspaper of Record.  Go ask Wayne LaPierre — I’m sure he’d give you an interview.  Ms. Collins says “None Dare Call it Impeachment,” and that whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, you’ve surely heard the utterance of the I-word recently.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

“Hair is political.”

That was the line that stuck with me when my 17-year-old daughter recently regaled me with the minutiae of a lighthearted argument she’d had with a friend. It was about my daughter’s staunch resistance to straightening or altering her hair in any way.

The friend had insisted that such alterations were no big deal, to which my daughter took umbrage and shot back, “Hair is political.”

In my daughter’s view, such alterations were a sign of suppressive concepts of worth and beauty of which she would have no part. Presenting herself as nature made her was an act of self-loving defiance that demanded not her alteration but the alteration of others’ attitudes about how we expect people to bend in order to belong, about how many destructive subliminal messages we’ve all absorbed and how we must search ourselves for the truth of our own prejudices.

It reminded me of the profound commentary on the subject by the actress Tracie Thoms in Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary “Good Hair”: “To keep my hair the same texture as it grows out of my head is looked at as revolutionary. Why is that?”

But to me, my daughter’s message was bigger than her, or hair, or a debate between teenagers. It was a life lesson that we all have to learn, over and over: Self-acceptance, of all stripes, large and small, is always an inherently political and profoundly revolutionary act.

We are so suffused in a mix of misogyny, patriarchy, racism, sexism, homophobia and hetero-normative exclusionary idealism that we can easily lose sight of the singular acts of ordinary bravery that each of us displays every time we choose not to play along.

Life is an endless negotiation with ourselves and with the world about who we are — the truest truth of who we are — and whether we have the mettle to simply be us, all of us, as we are, backlash notwithstanding.

And every time we answer “yes” to the question of courage, we stand an inch taller and we rise closer to the light.

In fact, Michaela Angela Davis, a self-described “image activist,” calls this the “Age of Identity and Intersections.”

It is a time when more people are asserting themselves as nonconformists as they recognize that there is a variety of intersections to subjugation. It’s a twist on the idea of diversity: not simply honoring a variety of origins as positive, but uniting under a banner that reminds us that the diminution of the very concept of variance has been a historical tool of psychic violence against those deemed “different.”

It is about developing kinship and alliance among the historically alienated.

It is about understanding that open hatred of — or even subtle, sometimes subconscious devaluing of — women, minorities (racial, ethnic, religious or otherwise) and people who don’t hew to sexual or gender norms are not discrete dysfunctions, but are of a kind, a cousin of flawed consciousness.

And when that is understood, the fight against them all becomes more focused. You stop hacking at the branches and start digging at the root.

Sometimes, when we are confronted by another overt act of intolerance in the news — another racial epithet, a further effort to erode women’s access to a full range of reproductive options, one more state attempting to hold on to its bans against marriage equality, another manifestation of rape culture — it can seem that we are going backward in this fight rather than forward.

But I don’t think so. I think that, as the saying goes, it’s darkest before the dawn, that these cases stand out not necessarily because they are growing, but because they are so at odds with this country’s moral trajectory. (Although, it must be said that there are increasing efforts, particularly in Republican-controlled states, to restrict women’s health care.)

Young people in America are growing up in a country that is quickly becoming brown, where women outnumber men in colleges, where acknowledgment of sexual identity is increasingly met with shrugs.

This doesn’t mean that they are immune to bias, but it does give hope that bias will diminish as difference becomes more mainstream, historical privileges become more identified and gender roles become less rigid.

That is why I greet with overwhelming optimism the continuous stream of people who refuse to conform and who insist on acknowledgment of their own identities, as they are, in all of their inherent glories and by way of their “revolutionary acts.”

E.E. Cummings once put it: “To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

And when we understand that that struggle against conformity and control is a shared, unifying experience, the accomplishment is made a little bit easier — and a whole lot sweeter.

Truth is political.

And has an obvious liberal bias…  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

If we had the same auto fatality rate today that we had in 1921, by my calculations we would have 715,000 Americans dying annually in vehicle accidents.

Instead, we’ve reduced the fatality rate by more than 95 percent — not by confiscating cars, but by regulating them and their drivers sensibly.

We could have said, “Cars don’t kill people. People kill people,” and there would have been an element of truth to that. Many accidents are a result of alcohol consumption, speeding, road rage or driver distraction. Or we could have said, “It’s pointless because even if you regulate cars, then people will just run each other down with bicycles,” and that, too, would have been partly true.

Yet, instead, we built a system that protects us from ourselves. This saves hundreds of thousands of lives a year and is a model of what we should do with guns in America.

Whenever I write about the need for sensible regulation of guns, some readers jeer: Cars kill people, too, so why not ban cars? Why are you so hypocritical as to try to take away guns from law-abiding people when you don’t seize cars?

That question is a reflection of our national blind spot about guns. The truth is that we regulate cars quite intelligently, instituting evidence-based measures to reduce fatalities. Yet the gun lobby is too strong, or our politicians too craven, to do the same for guns. So guns and cars now each kill more than 30,000 in America every year.

One constraint, the argument goes, is the Second Amendment. Yet the paradox is that a bit more than a century ago, there was no universally recognized individual right to bear arms in the United States, but there was widely believed to be a “right to travel” that allowed people to drive cars without regulation.

A court struck down an early attempt to require driver’s licenses, and initial attempts to set speed limits or register vehicles were met with resistance and ridicule. When authorities in New York City sought in 1899 to ban horseless carriages in the parks, the idea was lambasted in The New York Times as “devoid of merit” and “impossible to maintain.

Yet, over time, it became increasingly obvious that cars were killing and maiming people, as well as scaring horses and causing accidents. As a distinguished former congressman, Robert Cousins, put it in 1910: “Pedestrians are menaced every minute of the days and nights by a wanton recklessness of speed, crippling and killing people at a rate that is appalling.”

Courts and editorial writers alike saw the carnage and agreed that something must be done. By the 1920s, courts routinely accepted driver’s license requirements, car registration and other safety measures.

That continued in recent decades with requirements of seatbelts and air bags, padded dashboards and better bumpers. We cracked down on drunken drivers and instituted graduated licensing for young people, while also improving road engineering to reduce accidents. The upshot is that there is now just over 1 car fatality per 100 million miles driven.

Yet as we’ve learned to treat cars intelligently, we’ve gone in the opposite direction with guns. In his terrific new book, “The Second Amendment: A Biography,” Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, notes that “gun control laws were ubiquitous” in the 19th century. Visitors to Wichita, Kan., for example, were required to check their revolvers at police headquarters.

And Dodge City, symbol of the Wild West? A photo shows a sign on the main street in 1879 warning: “The Carrying of Fire Arms Strictly Prohibited.”

The National Rifle Association supported reasonable gun control for most of its history and didn’t even oppose the landmark Gun Control Act of 1968. But, since then, most attempts at safety regulation have stalled or gone backward, and that makes the example of cars instructive.

“We didn’t ban cars, or send black helicopters to confiscate them,” notes Waldman. “We made cars safer: air bags, seatbelts, increasing the drinking age, lowering the speed limit. There are similar technological and behavioral fixes that can ease the toll of gun violence, from expanded background checks to trigger locks to smart guns that recognize a thumbprint, just like my iPhone does.”

Some of these should be doable. A Quinnipiac poll this month found 92 percent support for background checks for all gun buyers.

These steps won’t eliminate gun deaths any more than seatbelts eliminate auto deaths. But if a combination of measures could reduce the toll by one-third, that would be 10,000 lives saved every year.

A century ago, we reacted to deaths and injuries from unregulated vehicles by imposing sensible safety measures that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives a year. Why can’t we ask politicians to be just as rational about guns?

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Let’s talk about something cheerful. How about impeachment?

Hey, it’s been a depressing month for news. If you want to look on the bright side, you’ve got to work with what you’ve got.

The possibility of actual impeachment is not something that keeps Barack Obama up at night. Modern history suggests there’s nothing Congress could do that the American public would hate more. Yet impeachment talk has been bounding around the Republican right for ages. The South Dakota Republican Party passed a resolution calling for impeachment at their annual convention this year. (We all know the famous saying: “As South Dakota goes, so goes North Dakota.”) Sarah Palin brings up impeachment virtually every day. Some members of Congress use it to energize the crazy base.

For instance, Representative Ted Yoho of Florida once posted a list of arguments for impeachment on his campaign website. I am mentioning this in part because it’s always fun to write “Ted Yoho.” Also because I don’t think I’ve ever had an opportunity to note that during his previous election season, Ted Yoho told a church group that he wished the right to vote was limited to property owners.

Last week, the Democrats started picking up the impeachment banner in the form of pretending to take the Republican threats seriously. White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said it would be “foolish to discount the possibility.” Democratic fund-raisers sent out warnings of impending impeachment danger to their own base and were tickled by the enthusiastic response.

Now, Republican leaders are desperately trying to change the subject. The House speaker, John Boehner, called impeachment talk “a scam started by Democrats at the White House.” Karl Rove claimed Obama was trying to create a “constitutional crisis where none exists.”

“Do you think anyone in Washington in the G.O.P. is serious about impeachment?” demanded the radio host Glenn Beck. “Do you think one person? Have you spoken to one person? No one. So who wants it? The president does.” Actually, as Kendall Breitman pointed out in Politico, Beck had called for impeachment his very own self about a year earlier.

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, the majority party was busy showing the nation its serious side by voting to sue President Obama for violating the Constitution. Look, everybody has their own way of demonstrating that they’re sticking to the business at hand. Republicans are upset about the president’s attempt to deal with problems by executive order when Congress fails to address them with legislation. Obama’s record when it comes to executive orders is actually rather paltry compared with some of his Republican predecessors. Nevertheless, the Republicans have many, many complaints, all of which involve mention of the founding fathers.

You could not help but suspect that if Speaker Boehner had it to do all over again, he’d never have brought this idea up. Democrats cheerfully urged a really, really long debate on the subject, but the Republican-dominated Rules Committee decided that the whole thing should be dispatched with as quickly as possible. So fast, in fact, that it gave the lawsuit against the president the same debate time as a bill on deregulating pesticides.

The Republicans focused on — yes! — the founding fathers. It was, said Representative Candice Miller of Michigan, a battle against “tyranny, Mr. Speaker. Tyranny.” She is the leader of the Committee on House Administration, the only woman to lead a House committee under the current leadership. We will not dwell on the fact that Miller’s committee is basically in charge of housekeeping.

Meanwhile, the Democrats kept bringing up the I-word. “I sincerely believe that you are trying to set the stage for a despicable impeachment proceeding,” said Representative G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina. Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, the House Rules chairman, denied that suing the president was a step on the slippery slope to impeachment. He did that by defending the impeachment of President Clinton, which was, of course, so exceedingly successful that Clinton now is the most popular individual in the nation except perhaps for Boo the World’s Cutest Dog and the hamster that eats tiny burritos.

Rather than suing the president for everything he’s ever done, the Republicans tried to improve their legal prospects by picking a particular executive order. They settled on the one postponing enforcement of part of Obamacare that requires businesses to provide health coverage for their employees. “Are you willing to let any president choose what laws to execute and what laws to change?” demanded Boehner.

“Not a single one of them voted for the Affordable Care Act,” said Louise Slaughter, the top Democrat on the House Rules Committee. “They spent $ 79 million holding votes to kill it. And now they’re going to sue him for not implementing it fast enough.”

We will look back on this moment in Washington as The Week That Irony Died.

Nocera and Collins

July 12, 2014

In “American Apparel Is a Lesson in How Not to Run a Company” Mr. Nocera says the juvenile antics of American Apparel’s founder finally catch up with him.  Ms. Collins has some “Rules to Run By.”  She says there’s good news, people!  There have already been many insightful and helpful hints gleaned from this election year that we can now share with 2014 hopefuls.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

In the same week that a hedge fund, Standard General, essentially took over American Apparel, Bloomberg Businessweek published an eye-opening story about the company and its founder and former chief executive, Dov Charney. Eye-opening not in the usual manner when it comes to Charney: The magazine didn’t uncover any new allegations of sexual harassment, nor did the reporter watch him engaging in oral sex, as a writer from Jane magazine once famously witnessed.

Instead, the Businessweek story focused primarily on Charney as a businessman. That’s pretty salacious too, or at least it is if you’re a management wonk. As it turns out, both Charney and the American Apparel board offer a case study in how not to run a company. Here’s the money quote: “All along they were thinking that anything goes in Charneyville,” Thomas White, a professor of business ethics at Loyola Marymount University, told Businessweek, speaking of the directors. “They only started to worry when they looked up and saw financial disaster.”

Anything goes indeed. That infamous Jane magazine story was written a decade ago: That is how long the board has known about his antics. By the middle of 2005, reports Businessweek, Charney was facing two sexual harassment suits. (One was dismissed in arbitration; the other was settled for $1.3 million.) Yet when asked about these early allegations, Allan Mayer, a public relations executive who is co-chair of the board, said, “One of the things you learn when you do crisis management is that where there is smoke, there isn’t always fire.” Of course, another thing you learn in crisis management is that quite often when there is smoke, there really is fire. But Mayer and the rest of the board simply didn’t want to know about it.

Why was the board so willing to look the other way? One reason is that Charney had founded the company. Its identity and that of its founder were intertwined. Charney himself had no other interests outside his company — and his sex life. He viewed himself as indispensable, and the board went along with him. And if his sexually charged advertising helped make American Apparel a hit, well, you could hardly expect the office to be run like a convent.

But he also had the classic flaws of a founder. Though his passion got the company up and running, he lacked the skills necessary for guiding a large enterprise. His micromanaging drove off virtually every talented executive he ever hired. In 2007, after the company went public and he had to bring in a chief financial officer, he told The Wall Street Journal that the man he hired was a “complete loser.” Which of course caused the man to quit.

He dreamed oversized dreams — even Charney now acknowledges that after the company’s I.P.O. he probably expanded more quickly than he should have. He took pride in the fact that American Apparel’s clothes were made in America, but when the company was subjected to an immigration audit in 2009, it had to lay off half of its factory workers, according to Businessweek. “The disruption led to delayed shipments and an expensive hiring and training program.”

It has basically been downhill ever since. The company has consistently lost money — while piling up expensive debt — over the last four years. Its sales slowed dramatically. The stock has tanked. It built a new automated distribution center in 2013 that was supposed to save $5 million a year. Instead, it was so error-riddled that it cost the company “at least $15 million,” says Businessweek.

In February, Mayer, the board director, and a consultant close to Charney took him out to dinner and advised him to bring in some seasoned executives. Instead, in May, Charney forced out the general counsel.

To Businessweek — and to anyone else who will listen — Mayer insists that the board fired him because of his behavior. But it is hard to imagine that it would have done so if the company was still making money. Although American Apparel is still using Charney as a consultant, my guess is that he’ll never have a meaningful role at the company again. It needs executives who are grown-ups.

One person who saw it all coming was Robin Lewis, who writes The Robin Report, a blog about retailing. In 2011, he noted the departure of a man named Marty Staff, who had been American Apparel’s president of business development — and the former chief executive of Hugo Boss. Describing the loss of a pro like Staff as American Apparel’s “last chance for survival, lost,” he wrote: “Quite frankly, it amazes me that as C.E.O. of a publicly owned company, given American Apparel’s financial condition and his questionable and storied behavior, Charney still has a job.”

And to think: It only took the American Apparel board three more years to come to the same obvious conclusion.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

The 2014 election year is just kicking into gear, but we’ve learned so much already. Among the political pointers for candidates of the future:

Do not attempt to curry favor with the voters by changing your name.

Scott Fistler tried to improve his extremely remote chance of winning the Democratic Congressional nomination in a largely Hispanic Arizona district by legally changing his name to Cesar Chavez. After a relative of the deceased farm labor leader filed a complaint, Fistler/Chavez was thrown off the ballot. The disappointed ex-candidate told reporters that politics is “a vicious game.”

… although it’s totally fair to go with the one you’ve already got.

Beleaguered Democrats in Texas are nurturing at least faint hopes for their current attorney general candidate, Sam Houston. “I try not to be so cynical to think that people just go in and vote for a name,” Houston said.

Try not to run ads with pictures of local residents who are actually Parisian office workers.

Mike Rounds, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in South Dakota, unveiled a video in which he bragged about how much the rest of the country could learn from the folks who live in his state. It was illustrated with stock photos of models portraying wholesome average citizens, one of whom turned out to be a woman holding a pen in an office in Paris.

… or European coal miners.

Alison Grimes, the Democratic Senate candidate in Kentucky, sent reporters copies of an ad she planned to run expressing her wrath at President Obama’s new clean air rules and showing an angry-looking miner. The man was actually a Ukrainian model holding up a piece of coal. Grimes campaign aides said they had discovered the problem themselves and replaced it with a picture of an American model holding up a piece of coal.

… or maybe you should just take the pictures yourself.

Joni Ernst, the Republican Senate candidate in Iowa, became famous for her video bragging that she had spent her youth on a farm castrating hogs. She urged voters to watch the video in a posting that featured a stock photo of a pig from Denmark.

Try not to compare things to slavery.

Dr. Ben Carson, up-and-coming star of the G.O.P. right wing, spent a good part of the season denying that he had compared the Affordable Care Act to African-American enslavement. When all he actually said was that Obamacare is “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery, and … it is slavery in a way because it is making all of us subservient to the government.”

… or spousal abuse.

Sarah Palin, calling for the impeachment of the president, said the influx of young illegal immigrants over the southern border “is the last straw that makes the battered wife say, ‘no mas.’ ”

Have a staff aide explain how people can take videos of you talking to private groups even when you’re totally off the record.

At a fund-raiser in Texas, Bruce Braley, a candidate for the Senate in Iowa, got caught warning a group of well-to-do trial lawyers that if Democrats don’t keep control of the Senate, the Judiciary Committee would be run by “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”

Watch it when you bring up people’s sexual preference.

Texas governor and potential presidential candidate Rick Perry said people could decide whether or not they wanted to be homosexual just as “I may have the genetic coding that I’m inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that.”

… or fantasy abductors.

“What are your thoughts about Thad Cochran being in with Slender Man?” Glenn Beck asked Chris McDaniel, who was running against Senator Cochran in the Mississippi Republican primary. Slender Man is a weird Internet character who abducts children. McDaniel, who laughed, lost the primary.

When you get the urge to suggest that a politician might be assassinated, repress it.

Johnny Rhoda, a Republican official in Arkansas, said that if Hillary Clinton returned there as a presidential candidate “she’d probably get shot at the state line.” He claimed he was quoted out of context, then turned in his resignation.

… in fact, think twice before discussing anything that involves people being shot.

A candidate for a Republican Congressional nomination in Arizona apologized after saying during a debate that “99 percent” of the mass shootings in America “have been by Democrats.”

If you can’t say anything nice …

Eric Cantor used part of his vast pile of campaign cash to launch a series of attack ads against his totally unknown primary opponent in Virginia. Cantor’s constituents were surprised and delighted to hear that there was actually someone running against him, and promptly voted the House majority leader out of office.

… really, stop advertising.

A new report from the Brookings Institution suggests higher spending on anti-Obamacare ads may lead to higher Obamacare enrollment.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

July 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Cruz responded:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, as The New York Times reported last month:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No parent makes such a choice lightly.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feel free to rant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feel free to rant about Rick Perry.

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

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

Nocera and Collins

July 5, 2014

In “My American Family” Mr. Nocera says a previous generation of immigrants now supports today’s immigrants.  Ms. Collins tells us “About Those Presidential Polls” and says opinions about presidents change, people. Yeah, it’s bad being Barack Obama right now, but it’s way worse to be Warren Harding.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

On the Fourth of July 1951, my parents were married. Not long ago, I asked my mother, who, at 87, is still going strong, why they chose that date. I thought there might have been some symbolism. She quickly disabused me. It was because that was the only time “the market” would be closed, and my father’s family could attend the wedding.

The market was Nocera’s Grocery Store, on Smith Street, in Providence, R.I. My grandfather Lawrence, who also opened a liquor store a short block away, had started it in the early 1930s.

Like many immigrants, Lawrence was a risk-taker. He had gone to Rhode Island from Italy at the age of 8 with an older brother. When Prohibition ended in 1933, he and his brother opened a liquor store. When it became clear that that first store couldn’t support both families, my grandfather opened a second liquor store in the Mount Pleasant section of Providence — then an Irish middle-class enclave — a block from the grocery store. My father, who was a high school math teacher, worked there part time, but his five siblings spent the better part of their adult lives working for either the grocery store or the liquor store.

My mother’s side of the family was Boston Irish and English. As my mother tells the story, her grandmother’s sister, a young girl in Ireland, was sent to sell a cow; she used the money to buy a ticket to America. Then, once she settled in Brighton, Mass., she saved enough money to bring her sister over, too. That was my great-grandmother. By the time my mother was born, the Irish dominated Boston politics — and the patronage that went along with it. They voted for Irishmen on the ballot. Not surprisingly, my mother had two uncles who were Boston cops.

My mother says that while growing up in Providence, where she moved as a child, she never thought of herself in particularly ethnic terms; that may have been because her generation had been in America long enough that their tribal identity had begun to fade. But my father and his brothers and sisters were keenly aware that they were Italian-American — and it was not always a happy thought. Like many children of immigrants, what they wanted was to be thought of as Americans, not ethnic Americans. They spoke Italian to my grandmother, who spoke no English, but they rarely spoke Italian to each other. They eventually lost contact with their Italian relatives.

When World War II broke out, my father and his two brothers immediately joined the armed forces; my uncle, Dan, had his elbow shot up during the Normandy invasion. My father and his siblings all had Italian first names, which bothered some of them to no end. Dan’s given name had been Dante; he changed his name long before I was born.

Still, they rooted for the Yankees because of Joe DiMaggio, and voted for John O. Pastore, who became the nation’s first Italian-American governor in 1945, and its first Italian-American senator in 1950. For much of the next three decades, Italian-Americans dominated local politics and patronage in Providence, just as the Irish had in Boston.

My mother tells me that on the eve of her marriage to my father, one of her relatives pulled her aside and said, “They’re not like us, you know.” But my mother could already see that that wasn’t true in any way that truly mattered. As Italians and Irish began to intermarry, tribal instincts lessened to the point of disappearing. My last name is about the only Italian thing about me. The same is true for my siblings and cousins. We epitomize the melting pot. We never vote based on ethnicity alone.

The mayor of Providence today is Angel Taveras. He is the child of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, and is the first Hispanic to serve as the city’s mayor. Over the last decade-plus, Hispanics have become the single largest ethnic group in Providence, outnumbering whites 38.1 percent to 37.6 percent, according to the 2010 census data.

Taveras is now running for governor, and one of the people campaigning to replace him as mayor is Jorge Elorza, the child of Guatemalan immigrants. Also running for mayor is Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, who has, famously, twice been the mayor of Providence, and had to leave office twice on felony convictions. Bob Plain, a liberal political analyst in Rhode Island, told me recently that the Cianci candidacy would be “an interesting referendum on your parents’ Providence.”

My mother, for one, is not longing for a return to those days. She recently threw a meet-and-greet for Taveras, whom she also supported when he was running for mayor.

“He’s going to win,” she said enthusiastically. It’s their turn, I could almost hear her thinking.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Perhaps you’ve heard that Barack Obama was named the worst president since World War II in a recent poll. It isn’t all that surprising. Given the current mood of the country, it’s likely that if St. Francis of Assisi were in the White House, he would be getting terrible ratings, too.

Opinions about presidents change. I am pointing this out mainly because it gives me an opening to bring up Warren Harding.

July is going to be Warren Harding’s month. It’s really exciting, given the fact that Harding hasn’t had a month, or even a day, since around 1928. “Warren Harding is best known as America’s worst president,” wrote John Dean at the beginning of his Harding biography.

Yes! This is the same John Dean who was White House counsel in the Nixon administration. He knows about terrible presidents, and he is totally on Harding’s side.

Later this month the Library of Congress is going to open up a huge cache of love letters that Harding wrote to one of his neighbors in Marion, Ohio. The Times Magazine will be publishing some of the most interesting missives next week. They were sent to Carrie Phillips, who was his wife’s best friend and might conceivably have been a German spy.

If that’s not enough of a draw, I will feel forced to reveal that Harding refers to his most private part as “Jerry.”

“He was a very funny guy. Just a nice sense of humor,” said James Robenalt, who discovered copies of the letters and wrote about them in “The Harding Affair.” Robenalt, like Dean, thinks Harding is a vastly underestimated president.

Not everyone agrees that he’s due for a renaissance. “If you had to reach for a great revisionist mountain to climb, that would be it,” said the presidential historian Michael Beschloss dryly.

When it comes to the long view of presidential achievement, you have to turn to the historians — people who have managed to acquire strong opinions about Millard Fillmore and Benjamin Harrison. We obviously can’t tell yet where Obama will rank. If the Affordable Care Act works out over the long run, he could do very well. Certainly nothing that’s happened so far in his presidency would put him anywhere near the bottom. Most of the chief executives who dwell there came from the Civil War era — like Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, who sided with the slave owners on the way in, or Andrew Johnson, who screwed things up on the way out.

It doesn’t seem fair that Warren Harding is stuck with them. His appointees presided over several really juicy political scandals, including Teapot Dome, which was both one of the worst corruption cases in American history as well as the one with the most interesting name. That was definitely bad, but not really in the same ballpark.

His defenders, like Robenalt and Dean, point out that Harding was, for his time, extremely progressive when it came to racial issues. Plus he got the Senate to approve an international disarmament agreement, which seems impressive when viewed from an era in which the Senate is incapable of rubber-stamping the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities.

Harding’s longtime lover and correspondent, Carrie Phillips, was a German sympathizer during World War I and Robenalt thinks she was actually a German spy. Her family disagrees. Either way, it’s pretty clear from the letters that, while Harding loved her “pillowing breasts,” he had very little appreciation for her theories about foreign affairs.

Nothing nearly that interesting appears to be going on in the current White House. Maybe the public is just bored. “The sixth year is tough for everybody,” said Tim Malloy, a spokesman for the Quinnipiac University poll, which recently announced that it had surveyed 1,446 registered voters, about a third of whom thought Obama is the worst president since 1945. George W. Bush came in second at 28 percent. This isn’t all that wide a margin, until you ask yourself who was running the show when the economy crashed and Iraq got invaded.

After the results came in, Malloy said, the researchers looked back at recent two-term presidents and concluded that all of them bottomed out in the middle of their second term. It makes sense that in a world of incessant communication, there’s just so much you can take of any chief executive. The guy we’ve been stuck with for a long time seems awful, because he’s the guy we’ve been stuck with for a long time. Our attitude toward him doesn’t improve until we’ve been reminded that things could be much worse.

Nearly half the respondents told Quinnipiac that they thought the country would be better off if Obama had lost the last election. It’s an opinion that could easily be reversed by an actual threat of the return of Mitt Romney.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

July 3, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • B) Threw a shoe at her.

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

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

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

  • A) Some of his best friends were roosters.

  • B) The founding fathers liked cockfighting.

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

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

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

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

  • Surprising ways to use the word “sugar.”

  • C) How to close the gender gap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • C) Castrating hogs on an Iowa farm.”

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

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

  • A) I like jumping out of airplanes.”

  • B) One of mine is napping.”

  • C) One of mine is socks.”

  • D) I enjoy siring presidential candidates.”


Here’s the answer key:

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


Nocera and Collins

June 28, 2014

In “G. M.’s Rival Could Teach It a Lesson” Mr. Nocera says accountability and teamwork were crucial to Ford’s turnaround.  In “The Eggs and Us” Ms. Collins says we need to talk about the personhood movement, people. Persons. Persons who need persons …  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

“How do you change the culture?” the “Today” show’s Matt Lauer asked Mary Barra, the chief executive of General Motors, earlier this week. “How do you go about communicating to the people who have been part of the history of this company for years that things must change?”

In the three weeks since Anton Valukas, the former federal prosecutor, issued his blistering report about the company’s decade-long failure to properly handle the Chevy Cobalt ignition switch problems, that has become the burning question surrounding the company. The idea that a “new, improved” General Motors emerged from the company’s 2009 brush with bankruptcy has been exposed as bogus. In his report, Valukas talks about the “G.M. nod” (that’s when managers nod in agreement about a course of action, but then do nothing) and the “G.M. salute” (arms folded and pointed outward to others, as if to say that the problem is someone else’s responsibility.) Bureaucratic malaise still rules. Silos still reign. So does a certain unjustified arrogance.

“When I was covering G.M., I would ask them sometimes how they were so sure a plan or product would work,” recalls Bryce Hoffman, a former reporter for The Detroit News. “They would say, ‘We’re G.M. It will work.’ ”

I had called Hoffman less to talk about General Motors than to ask him about Ford. Two years ago, Hoffman published a book entitled “American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company.” Mulally, who became Ford’s chief executive in 2006 after a long career at Boeing, did indeed save Ford, in no small part by doing exactly what Barra hopes to do at G.M.: He changed Ford’s culture. The company went from losing $12.7 billion in 2006 to making $8.6 billion last year. On the eve of Mulally’s retirement — July 1 is supposed to be his last day — it seemed like a good idea to take a look back at how he did it. There might be some lessons for G.M.

To be sure, part of what he did was to come up with a plan — simplifying the product line; making smaller, more fuel-efficient cars; borrowing every penny available to Ford so it could ride out the rough years ahead. But he also stuck with the plan. Once he had his vision for the company, he repeated it at the start of every meeting, whether the audience was Ford executives, securities analysts or journalists. Ford had been notorious for changing its business plan every six months. That stopped under Mulally.

“That laserlike focus and consistency was huge,” says Hoffman.

Before Mulally showed up, Ford had a cutthroat, careerist culture, in which executives were more than happy to make themselves look good by making a rival executive look bad. “European cars were tweaked so that they could not meet U.S. safety requirements without expensive engineering changes, and cutting-edge technology developed in America was kept from the team in Europe,” writes Hoffman, citing one of the most famous examples of Ford executives undercutting one another.

So a second key goal for Mulally was to get the company’s executives to be accountable, and to begin working together. His primary vehicle for accomplishing this was a meeting he held every Thursday morning; all the company’s top executives were expected to attend. Each executive was expected to give an update on the status of his or her division and point out any potential problems. Mulally instituted a red, yellow and green colored system — with red signaling a big problem, and green meaning everything was fine.

For the first several weeks, every executive’s report was all green. Mulally finally said, “We’re going to lose billions of dollars this year. Is there anything that’s not going well here?” When one executive decided to admit to a serious problem at the Thursday meeting, he — and the other executives — assumed he would be fired. Instead Mulally starting clapping: “Great visibility,” he said. That executive, Mark Fields, is about to succeed Mulally as Ford’s next chief executive.

Finally, there was the compensation system. Executives used to be paid based on the performance of their divisions. Now, the bulk of their compensation is based on meeting the company’s larger corporate goals. “It made everyone invested in everyone else’s success,” says Hoffman.

Mulally had several big advantages over Mary Barra. First, he was an outsider; he could easily see what was wrong with the culture because he had never been steeped in it. Second, the system he brought to Ford was one that he had already mastered at Boeing — he knew it would work. Barra seems to understand at least some of what is wrong with G.M.’s culture — she herself is the one who told Valukas about the G.M. nod. The tougher question is whether she knows how to change it.

She might want to start thinking about a Thursday morning meeting.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Let’s talk personhood, people.

Personhood is an anti-abortion movement that holds that life begins at conception, giving fertilized eggs all the rights of a human being. It might make it impossible to kidnap them for in-vitro fertilization. It could outlaw some forms of contraception.

Senator Rand Paul claims every fertilized egg is protected by the 14th Amendment. Many current Senate candidates are personhood supporters, including Cory Gardner, who is running a very close race in Colorado against Mark Udall.

No! Wait! Wait! Cory Gardner just changed his mind. Obviously, this is going to take a little unraveling. Give me a minute.

The abortion issue has been on everyone’s mind lately. On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous finding that the 35-foot buffer zones around Massachusetts abortion clinics violated protesters’ freedom of speech. We do not have time to discuss this in detail, except to point out that this decision came from people who work in a building where the protesters aren’t allowed within 250 feet of the front door.

Bigger news is expected on Monday, when the court is scheduled to tell us whether business owners have a right to express their religious beliefs by eliminating certain contraceptives from their employees’ health care coverage. This is the Hobby Lobby case, which is going to bring us right back to personhood in no time at all.

The Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, believes as a matter of faith that human life begins at the moment of conception. So, despite the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employee health plans cover contraceptives, the Greens draw the line at anything that they believe might endanger a fertilized egg, like Plan B, or IUDs. Many scientists would disagree with the Greens’ theory about how contraceptives work, but it doesn’t matter. Religion trumps.

Both Hobby Lobby and the personhood movement mark a turning point in our long, grueling national battle over reproductive rights. Many Americans are repelled by late-term abortion, but they don’t necessarily feel the same emotional affinity for a fertilized egg. The fact that this is actually a debate about theological dogma gets a lot clearer when you’re closer to the start of the gestational saga.

When given the opportunity, voters have made it very clear that they don’t like the idea of hurting childless couples’ chances for in-vitro fertilization out of concern for the constitutional rights of the eggs. A personhood amendment to the State Constitution was rejected in a referendum in Mississippi. Also twice in Colorado.

But the beat goes on. Presidential hopeful Rand Paul introduced a version of the personhood law in the Senate. “I am 100 percent pro-life. I believe life begins at conception and that abortion takes the life of an innocent human being. It is the duty of our government to protect this life as a right guaranteed under the Constitution. For this reason, I introduced S. 583, the Life at Conception Act on March 14, 2013,” he said on his website.

On March 19, 2013, Paul discussed the matter on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, who asked whether there should be any exception for rape, incest or the life of the mother. Instantly, Paul announced that there were actually “thousands of exceptions. You know, I’m a physician, and every individual case is going to be different and everything is going to be particular to that individual case and what’s going on with that mother and the medical circumstances of that mother.”

To summarize: 100 percent pro-life except for thousands of exceptions.

This should be a big issue in November. North Dakota has a personhood referendum coming up. A number of Republican candidates in key Senate races are personhood supporters, including Joni Ernst in Iowa; Thom Tillis, who’s running against Senator Kay Hagan in North Carolina; Tom Cotton, who’s challenging Mark Pryor in Arkansas; and, until about five minutes ago, Cory Gardner in Colorado.

Gardner had supported the unsuccessful personhood referendums in Colorado when he was a state representative. Then he went to Congress in 2010, and twice co-sponsored Life Begins at Conception bills there. Then he announced he was running for the Senate against Mark Udall.

Then he announced that he had changed his position on personhood entirely. “The fact that it restricts contraception, it was not the right position,” he told The Denver Post recently.

Supporters said it was unfair to presume that his change of heart was inspired by the need to run a statewide race in a state that had twice rejected the idea by 3 to 1 majorities.

Give him a break. This doesn’t have to be a spur-of-the-moment flip-flop for purely partisan purposes. Maybe he never noticed the contraception problem. While he was co-sponsoring the bills in Congress.

Once again, we are reminded that men do not get pregnant.

Or corporations. We keep being told they’re people, but if they were people who could reproduce, I guarantee you contraceptives would not only be free, there would be a tax break for taking them.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — if men got pregnant abortion would be a sacrament.

Kristof and Collins

June 26, 2014

Mr. Blow is off today.  In “Obama’s Weakness, Or Ours?” Mr.  Kristof says critics scoff at President Obama for his caution on foreign policy. But that’s actually smart.  Ms. Collins tells us that “Mississippi Goes for the Money.”  She says the runoff in Mississippi was not your average Senate primary race. It featured Brett Favre, Chuck Woolery and even some aggrieved farm animals.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

The odds are that you think President Obama’s foreign policy is a failure.

That’s the scathing consensus forming, with just 36 percent of Americans approving of Obama’s foreign policy in a New York Times/CBS News poll released this week. Foreign policy used to be a source of strength for the president, and now it’s dragging him down — and probably other Democrats with him.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, warns that Obama “has weakened the national security posture of the United States.” Trent Franks, a Republican member of the House from Arizona, cites foreign policy to suggest that Obama is “the most inept president we have ever had.”

Obama is no Messiah, but this emerging narrative about a failed foreign policy is absurdly harsh. Look at three issues where Republicans have been unfairly jabbing him with pitchforks:

Trading five Taliban prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl was unpopular with the public, and the Obama administration may have made the trade in the incorrect belief that Bergdahl was near death. Then again, here’s an American soldier who spent five years in Taliban custody, some of that reportedly in a cage after trying to escape. If we make heroic efforts to bring back American corpses, how can we begrudge efforts to bring back a soldier who is still alive?

Sure, there are risks. But the five Taliban prisoners have probably aged out of field combat, and, if they return to Afghanistan after their year in Qatar, they would likely have trouble finding American targets because, by then, the United States will no longer be engaged in combat.

More broadly, there’s nothing wrong with negotiating with the Taliban. The blunt truth is that the only way to end the fighting in Afghanistan is a negotiated peace deal involving the Taliban, and maybe this deal can be a step along that journey.

Russian aggression in Ukraine was infuriating, but it’s petty Washington politics to see it as emanating from Obama weakness. After all, President George W. Bush was the most trigger-happy of recent presidents, and he couldn’t prevent Russia from invading Georgia in 2008 and helping carve off two breakaway republics.

Obama diplomacy appears to have worked better than military force would have. Contrary to early expectations, Russia did not seize southeastern Ukraine along with Crimea, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia this week called on Parliament to rescind permission to invade Ukraine. Be wary, but let’s hope the Bear is backing down.

The debacle in Iraq is a political and humanitarian catastrophe, but it’s a little rich for neocons to blame Obama after they created the mess in the first place. Obama was unengaged on Iraq and Syria, but it’s not clear that even if he had been engaged the outcome would have been different.

Suppose Obama had kept 10,000 troops in Iraq as his critics wish. Some would have been killed; others injured. We would have spent another $50 billion or so in the Iraqi sands (that’s more than 25 times what Obama requested to start universal prekindergarten, but Congress balks at the expense). And Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki might have felt even less need to keep Sunni tribes on his side. Would all this really have been the best use of American lives and treasure?

Yes, Obama has made his share of mistakes, especially in Syria, where he doesn’t seem to have much of a policy at all. Partly balancing that, he helped to defuse the Syrian chemical weapons threat.

Look, the world is a minefield. President Clinton was very successful internationally, yet he bungled an inherited operation in Somalia, delayed too long on Bosnia, missed the Rwanda genocide and muffed the beginning of the Asian financial crisis — and all that happened during a particularly skillful administration.

As for former Vice President Dick Cheney complaining about Obama’s foreign policy, that’s a bit like the old definition of chutzpah: killing your parents and then pleading for mercy because you’re an orphan. In the Bush/Cheney years, we lost thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, we became mired in Afghanistan, Iran vastly expanded the number of centrifuges in its nuclear program, and North Korea expanded its arsenal of nuclear weapons. And much of the world came to despise us.

Blowing things up is often satisfying, and Obama’s penchant for muddling along instead, with restraint, is hurting him politically. But that’s our weakness more than his. Obama’s foreign policy is far more deft — and less dangerous — than the public thinks, and he doesn’t deserve the harsh assessments. If there’s one thing we should have learned in the Bush/Cheney years, it’s that swagger and invasion are overrated as foreign policy instruments.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Mississippi has sent us a message. I believe it boils down to: We Want Our Stuff.

Big election night! As you no doubt have heard, Senator Thad Cochran, a Republican who specializes in sending billions of dollars in federal pork back into his state, defeated a Tea Party challenger who ran against government spending.

It wasn’t easy. Cochran’s fierce and energetic opponent, Chris McDaniel, forced him into a primary runoff. To survive, Cochran turned to Democrats, who took advantage of Mississippi’s open primary laws and tossed Thad a vote. Or at least turned out to give McDaniel a kick in the shin.

“We are not prone to surrender, we Mississippians,” McDaniel declaimed once the results were announced. “A strong and sturdy people we are. A brave people we are!” He appeared to either be planning to demand an investigation or try out for a role in the next Hobbit sequel.

“Those guys are not good losers,” mused Curtis Wilkie, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi.

The runoff was kind of fascinating. Cochran, who is something less than a fireball orator, rambled on at one event about his childhood visits to a farm and doing “all kinds of indecent things with animals.” One of the many, many political action committees involved in the campaign put that in a McDaniel ad, along with a rant about Obamacare and a demand that voters “tell Thad Cochran you’re no farm animal.”

Meanwhile, McDaniel got support on the stump from former “The Dating Game” host Chuck Woolery and the parents from the reality show “19 Kids and Counting.” I am not sure how all these thoughts merge together, but as you can see, it was way more interesting than your average Senate primary.

These days, when a Republican politician gets into primary trouble, his first move is usually to leap farther right, assuring voters that he is capable of being even angrier and crazier than his opponent. That’s what gives the Tea Party its power. To use a zombie metaphor — and who among us does not love a zombie metaphor? — the Tea Party (Dead But Undead) wins not by killing its opponents but by turning them into drooling, staggering replicas of itself.

Cochran is plenty conservative on most issues, except the one the Tea Party cares most about. He’s a true believer in the power of the federal government to use tax dollars to improve the lives of its citizens. He spreads a wide net, from cotton subsidies to food stamps to military contracts to special education in public schools.

Instead of racing to the right, Cochran ran on his talents as a collector of federal money. When Mississippians turned on their TVs, there was former Senator Trent Lott, warning voters that without Cochran, Mississippi might lose the Stennis Space Center. Or football hero Brett Favre, reminding people that Cochran got them a ton of help for rebuilding after Katrina. Or an announcer thanking Thad for “our aerospace industry, shipbuilding, military bases, research and development, agricultural breakthroughs.”

Nobody came straight out and said: “Look, Mississippi gets three bucks back from the federal government for every dollar we send in. Don’t kill the golden goose.” But the message was pretty clear, and in some ways a little revolutionary. Like voters in many poor, conservative states, Mississippians have spent decades happily deluding themselves that they’re victims of Washington rather than its top beneficiaries. You could argue that Thad Cochran staged an intervention for his state’s residents, in which he pierced, at least temporarily, their veil of denial.

McDaniel played right into the old fantasy world, assuring voters that they could eliminate federal spending on education, which amounts to a quarter of Mississippi’s public school budget, without suffering any financial damage. He seemed shocked when it didn’t work. In his refuse-to-concede speech, he denounced Cochran for “once again, reaching across the aisle” a practice he seems to find as offensive as federal aid to education.

McDaniel blamed his defeat on “liberal Democrats.” Actually, most of Cochran’s support came from Republicans, but since he won by less than 7,000 votes, you could definitely argue that Democratic Mississippians — most of whom are black — were the ones who saved his bacon. “First time in my life I ever voted in a Republican primary,” said Wilkie, 73.

Cochran will almost certainly be re-elected in November. When he gets back to Washington he’ll be 77, starting a new six-year term. With nothing to lose and scores to settle. Really, he could do anything. March in a gay pride parade. Announce that an angel had appeared to him in a dream and told him that God wants us to increase the gas tax to combat global warming.

Or at least maybe someday, if the president needs a vote, Cochran will remember who gave him a hand, and return the favor.

That will happen when pigs fly.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

June 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At one point in the article, the Cheneys state:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Is this 2014 or 2003?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Mitt Romney is back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kristof, Nocera and Collins

June 14, 2014

In “Obama, McCain and Maliki” Mr. Kristof says all sides bear some of the responsibility for the deteriorating crisis in Iraq.  Mr. Nocera has a question in “Try a Little Common Sense:”  Should free speech always trump the right to privacy?  Ms. Collins gives us “A Game of Groans:”  Pick a route, any route, on the road to replenishing the Highway Trust Fund! Ready to go, people?  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

The debacle in Iraq isn’t President Obama’s fault. It’s not the Republicans’ fault. Both bear some responsibility, but, overwhelmingly, it’s the fault of the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

Some on the left suggest that President George W. Bush is at fault because he invaded Iraq in the first place. Senator John McCain argues that the White House bears such responsibility that President Obama should replace his national security team.

Let’s remember that Iraq isn’t a political prop. It’s a country whose 33 million people are on the edge of a precipice. Iraq is driven primarily by its own dynamic, and unfortunately, there are more problems in international relations than there are solutions.

The debate about who lost Iraq is an echo of the equally foolish debate in the mid-20th century about “who lost China.” China wasn’t ours to lose then, and Iraq isn’t ours to lose today.

The Democratic narrative is that President Bush started the cascade of dominoes. The problem with that logic is that Obama administration officials were boasting just a couple of years ago about how peaceful and successful Iraq had become because of their fine work. At a minimum, they catastrophically misjudged the trend.

The Republican line is that by pulling out the last American troops in December 2011, President Obama allowed gains to evaporate and a hopeful story to unravel. Well, that’s conceivable, but unlikely. And Prime Minister Maliki seemed uncomfortable with the kind of reasonable status of forces agreement that would have enabled American troops to remain.

Where Obama does bear some responsibility is in Syria, the staging area for the current mayhem in Iraq. In retrospect, Obama erred when he vetoed the proposal by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Gen. David Petraeus to arm moderates in Syria.

No one can know if that would have succeeded. But it is clear that Obama’s policy, to the extent there was one, failed. Activists say that 160,000 have died in Syria, and President Bashar al-Assad has recovered momentum. In the absence of foreign support, some frustrated Syrian rebels quit units led by moderate commanders and joined the extremists, simply because then they would be better paid and better armed.

The upshot was that extremist forces, particularly ISIS, for the Islamic State for Iraq and Syria, gained strength and established safe havens in northern Syria. ISIS used these bases to assault northern Iraq in the last few days.

What happened next was stunning: ISIS, with some 4,000 fighters, routed an Iraq Army that has more than 200,000 active-duty soldiers. Several divisions disintegrated.

That’s where Prime Minister Maliki comes in, for this is a political, not military, story. For several years, Maliki has systematically marginalized Sunnis, weakened Sunni Awakening militias that had been a bulwark against extremists, and undermined the professionalism of the armed forces. Some Sunnis so feared their own government that they accepted ISIS as the lesser of two evils.

So Maliki created his own nemesis and ignored danger signs, blindly proceeding without wanting to hear the truth. In all this, he echoes Saddam Hussein.

In 2002, in the Saddam era, I published a searing anti-Saddam column while I was in Iraq. A senior government official summoned me to his office in Baghdad, as a portrait of Saddam stared down at us, and began a threatening tirade. It became apparent that this official hadn’t actually read the full column, so I nervously asked my Iraqi interpreter to read it to him in Arabic.

I was paying my interpreter a hefty daily rate, and, for financial reasons, he didn’t want to see me expelled or jailed. So, in rendering my column into Arabic, he skipped whole paragraphs and turned it into mush. Deflated, the government official let me off with a stern warning, and I was reminded of how megalomaniac regimes mislead themselves. In the same way, Maliki probably had no idea that his Army was crumbling.

As the United States debates what to do, let’s remember Maliki’s central role in all this. Hawks are right that Iraq could be a catastrophe. We could see the establishment of a terrorist caliphate, untold deaths, soaring oil prices, more global terrorism.

In that context, hawks favor American airstrikes. But such strikes also create risks, especially if our intelligence there is rusty. And while airstrikes might be necessary to slow ISIS, they’re not sufficient.

The crucial step, and the one we should apply diplomatic pressure to try to achieve, is for Maliki to step back and share power with Sunnis while accepting decentralization of government.

If Maliki does all that, it may still be possible to save Iraq. Without that, airstrikes would be a further waste in a land in which we’ve already squandered far, far too much.

Next up we have Mr. Nocera:

Last month, around the same time the European High Court ruled that Europeans had a “right to be forgotten” by the search engine Google, a man named Tim Barefield approached me with the following story:

Barefield’s brother Robert and Robert’s partner, Stephen, were vacationing in Cambodia earlier this year. On the day they visited the Angkor Wat temple, something terrible happened to Stephen: Near the top of the temple, he suddenly fell over backward and died.

The next 48 hours were pure hell: It took so long for an ambulance to show up that other tourists wound up risking their own lives to get his body down the steep side of the temple. The next day, after Stephen’s body had been taken to a local hospital, Robert was grilled by the police and was even told that prosecutors might have to be called in. It took a $1,500 bribe to get his partner’s body released to the American Embassy.

A few months later, back in Connecticut, Robert searched his partner’s name on Google; he wanted to read some of the tributes that friends had written on an obituary site. Instead, he was confronted with an awful photograph of Stephen’s body in the hospital morgue, his belly bloated, with a cotton swab in one of his nostrils. The picture, Robert believes, was taken by a policeman and then either given or sold to a Cambodian website. Google had then linked to the website.

“I was in shock after Stephen died in Cambodia,” Robert later told me. “When I saw that picture, I went into shock again.”

Thus began the next part of his ordeal. His brother Tim knew someone who used to work at Google, so he sent her an email explaining the situation; she in turn sent it on to a Google executive who suggested that the Barefields try to get the Cambodian website to take down the photograph. They did so, to no avail. They used search optimization techniques, trying to at least push the picture off Google’s first page. It worked, but only temporarily; to this day, when you perform a Google image search, it pops up, jarringly, among several dozen happier images of Stephen. Meanwhile, the exchanges with the Google executive, Craig Scott, went nowhere. He expressed his sympathy, but Google’s position was firm: There was nothing it could do.

All of which raised, in the Barefields’ minds, a simple question: What real harm would be caused by delinking that picture — a photograph that had zero value to anyone, was not in any way newsworthy, but inflicted a great deal of pain on those, like Robert, who had known and loved Stephen?

With all the discussion about the right to be forgotten, it is a timely question. From an American perspective, the European right to be forgotten seems overly broad — an infringement on the right to free speech.

But different rights knock up against the right to free speech all the time.

“We routinely seal juvenile records,” said Marc Rotenberg, the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Newspapers sometimes withhold sensitive information or graphic photographs. A few years ago, Google itself replaced an image in Google Maps after a father realized that it showed his son, who had been shot and killed.

When I asked Google why it was so adamant about not delinking material, even material that had no public-interest value, I was told that it was because Google merely reflected what was on the Internet. It removed only what it was legally obliged to, such as copyrighted material.

But surely this can’t be the final word. Google also told me that with the privacy concerns raised by the right to be forgotten, it was forming a committee, made up mostly of non-Google hands, to explore how it should approach requests like, well, the one made by the Barefields.

When I was talking to Rotenberg, he pointed me to an interesting case that had taken place in 2001. The Nascar great, Dale Earnhardt, had died in a crash that February at the Daytona 500. Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa, sued to prevent the release of his autopsy photos, claiming that their release would violate her privacy. The Orlando Sentinel, conducting its own investigation into the cause of Earnhardt’s death, wanted to see the photos, which it had a right to under the state’s public record law.

In the end, the newspaper and Mrs. Earnhardt negotiated a deal in which a third-party expert was allowed to view the autopsy photos and answer questions put to him by the Sentinel. The paper got its answers, and the public interest was satisfied. But the autopsy pictures were never released to the wider world.

If common-sense solutions like this can be found in the analog world, surely they can be found in the digital universe as well.

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Today let’s find fun ways to talk about the Highway Trust Fund.

I’m thinking about a game, where players move tiny cars around the board, trying to make money for road and bridge repair. If nobody wins, construction workers will be laid off, the economy will tank and every player has to spend the winter sitting in a 7-foot-wide pothole.

This could happen! O.K., not necessarily the pothole part. But the Trust Fund is about to run out of money. It’s a fiscal cliff for the nation’s road crews.

Totally important subject. Plus, you know, we’ve got a game.

Gather around the board. Players have to pick a route toward raising at least $15 billion before Congress bolts for summer vacation. Every approach has its own dangers.

Plus, there are penalty cards. For instance, if somebody draws “Wait for comprehensive tax reform!” the entire game will come to a halt while all the most thoughtful players go into another room and put their heads down for two hours. Everybody else will be allowed to hang around the bar and drink merlot.

Ready to go? Pick your own route to the finish line:

1) Gas Tax Turnpike

The Trust Fund gets its money from a federal gas tax, which is currently 18.4 cents a gallon. I say currently as in “ever since 1993.” That was part of the dreadful Clinton tax increases that led to a long, dark winter of balanced budgets and 4 percent unemployment rates.

The player hops over to a picture of Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who recently introduced a bill that would raise the gas tax 6 cents a year for the next two years. On the day before his press conference, a 118-year-old swing bridge in Murphy’s home state got stuck in the open position, blocking trains carrying thousands of commuters.

“Somebody in the Senate needs to break the ice,” he said.

Once a player hits Murphy’s picture, she has to sit there until the senator gets some co-sponsors. He’s working on it.

2) Loophole Lane

“Everybody’s looking for an answer, and it’s staring us in the face,” says Senator Patty Murray of Washington, where a bridge north of Seattle collapsed last year.

Murray points out that Representative Dave Camp, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has already come up with a long list of tax loopholes he’d like to close. The Senate Democrats should just volunteer to take a couple, she says. The only problem with this plan is that the Republicans in the House who are not Dave Camp have greeted his ideas as if they were a pack of rabid muskrats.

This route involves crossing the treacherous John Boehner Gulch.

3) Surprise Street

In order to avoid the Gulch, a player may decide to take a spending-cut route. She then draws from a deck. If the card reads “Repeal Obamacare,” the other players have the right to grab the board and thwack her over the head.

Other cards read: “Stop Saturday mail delivery.” Weren’t expecting that one, right? But, yes, some House Republicans have been looking at getting the money from the Postal Service, which could save about $20 billion over 10 years by ending weekend mail.

On this route, players skip two turns out of every seven.

4) Holiday Highway

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky are proposing a tax holiday for multinational corporations.

Multinationals like to sit offshore on top of piles of cash that they plan to bring back to the United States the very moment we declare that they will only have to pay a teeny portion of the taxes that they rightfully owe. Then there’s a holiday — whoopee! — and a one-time flood of money. The problem is that it encourages these guys to park their profits abroad waiting for Congress to cave in once again.

Players who pick this route get to wear special party hats. The downside is that Senator Elizabeth Warren will come into the room and bop them with a kazoo.

5) Prestidigitation Parkway

The last time we had this Highway Trust Fund problem, Congress just shifted cash from its general fund. The deficit actually did not get bigger. This worked because Congress is a magic place, and accounting is a mystical occupation.

Many Republicans oppose this idea on principle. These are different principles from the ones that caused them to approve $75 billion worth of permanent tax breaks this week in the House without paying for them in any way whatsoever.

On this route, a player simply grabs a bunch of money from the middle of the board and smirks.

So, which way do you want to go, people? The gas tax certainly makes the most sense. Closing loopholes is always good. But if we’re predicting the future, I’d put my little car on the parkway where nobody actually has to do anything, all decisions get put off and everybody announces that the problem will be resolved just as soon as we get comprehensive tax reform.

In the meantime, break out the merlot.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

June 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women were as likely as men to disrespect female hurricanes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last but not least here’s Ms. Collins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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