Archive for the ‘Collins’ Category

Cohen, Nocera and Collins

December 13, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

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

Consider this an opinion primer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blow, Kristof and Collins

December 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of assault.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“[Expletive!] Racists!”

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

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

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

“That was ridiculous.”

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

“O.K., Dad. Anyway, I got to go.”

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

“Dad, I got it. Can I go now?”

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

“Hm. Feels pretty important to me.”

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

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

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

“OK. Later, Dad!”

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

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

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nocera and Collins

December 6, 2014

In “über vs. Uber” Mr. Nocera says the car service may be popular, but you can’t get anyone on the phone if you need to.  Ms. Collins addresses “The Woes of Working Women” and says today we’re tracking the bill that would require employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for workers who become pregnant.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Herta Kriegner, a graphic artist from Austria, likes the German word “über.” It conveys, she told me recently, both a European sensibility and a sense of going “above and beyond” for a customer. In fact, she likes the word so much that 15 years ago, when she started her own small New York design firm, that’s the name she gave it: über.

Naturally, Herta listed über’s number in the Manhattan phone directory. She set it up so that after three rings the calls were routed to her cellphone. Her sister, Elena, a jewelry designer, also used the über office space, and the two women shared the phone number. For the next 12 years, this arrangement worked just fine.

Then, about three years ago, another Uber moved to town — Uber Technologies Inc., the app-based car company that is competing with taxies in cities all over the world. In New York, a city where the taxi monopoly has meant a chronic shortage of cabs, Uber has become very popular.

But unlike über, Uber does not have a phone number listed in the Manhattan directory. Like many online companies, it believes in the efficiency of communicating via email. The messy business of actually talking to people, well, that’s just so old-fashioned, isn’t it?

Just because Uber doesn’t want to talk to customers, though, doesn’t mean customers don’t want to talk to Uber. Sometimes there are problems that scream for human communication: an accident, a cellphone left in a car, a mixup with a bill. And sometimes, even though online communications may be more efficient, people are simply more comfortable talking to another human.

Which is how it came to be that Herta and Elena Kriegner became experts in Uber’s customer service, or lack thereof. When customers or drivers tried to find a number for Uber in Manhattan, they often wound up with the number for über. At first, the calls came every few days. But as Uber has gained in popularity, the calls have come more frequently. Herta showed me a phone log listing more than 500 Uber-related calls that her little company has received just since August.

“I already had my first call this morning,” Herta told me when I went to see her and Elena a few days ago. “It was 8:30. A woman wanted a ride to the airport. I told her she needed the app.”

She and Elena have gotten calls from drivers who are having trouble with their applications, or questions about their insurance. There are mornings when Herta wakes up, turns on her cellphone, and hears a voicemail from an unhappy Uber customer spewing expletives. Recently, she had to go to court to prove that a driver trying to get workman’s compensation was suing the wrong Uber.

Early on, when Uber first learned of this problem, an executive named Ed Casabian told her that it was all because Yelp had mistakenly listed über’s phone number — and that when it was removed all would be well. The number was removed, but the calls kept coming. A short time later, she bumped into Casabian at a trade show, where Uber had a booth. She asked him why the company didn’t talk to its customers or drivers.

“Because it’s not in our business model,” he replied, according to Herta. Thinking the issue was cost, she suggested that Uber set up a call center in India. “We don’t want our customers to talk to someone in India,” said Casabian.

“You would rather have them talk to me?” she asked.

These days, Herta and Elena get between one and 10 calls a day. Not long ago, a woman called to report that her daughter had been harassed by an Uber driver, and what should she do? Elena told her that Uber didn’t talk to customers, and she should instead go to the police and then to the news media. (In a statement — emailed, of course — an Uber spokeswoman said that the company’s “average response time” was less than an hour when customers emailed them with problems.)

As annoying as the calls have been, they have taught Herta and Elena a few things about what constitutes real customer service. One lesson is that many customers are always going to be more comfortable explaining a problem in a conversation with another person, rather than an impersonal email. Yes, it’s inefficient and cuts into profit margins, but companies that actually care about their customers do it anyway. Zappos’s customer service number is on its home page. Amazon’s isn’t hard to find either.

This week, Uber raised $1.2 billion, giving it a valuation of $40 billion. The company’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, said that some of the money would be used to continue its breathtaking expansion. He also said that the company needed to “invest in internal growth and change.”

Here’s a suggestion: Hire some people who will answer the phone.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Today, let’s take a look at the Little Bill That Couldn’t.

Say hello to the Pregnancy Workers Fairness Act. It’s sort of shy, but if you look over there behind the ottoman, you may see it peeking out.

The bill would require employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for workers who become pregnant. You may be stunned to hear that this does not always happen now in the American workplace. Consider Heather Myers, a floor worker in the infant department at a Walmart in Kansas whose obstetrician told her to drink liquids. She was then fired for bringing a water bottle to work.

This week, the Supreme Court heard the case of Peggy Young, a United Parcel Service driver who was put on an unpaid disability leave after her doctor told her she should avoid lifting bundles that weighed more than 20 pounds. That was not much of a problem, since Peggy mainly spent her days delivering envelopes. And we know that UPS had the capacity to make reasonable accommodations because it has changed its policy and now makes … reasonable accommodations.

Young’s case is getting support from both sides of the great, gaping abortion divide. On the day of her hearing, everybody was united behind working women who wanted to have children.

“I think we’re always looking for common ground, and when we can agree — it’s magic,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List.

(Hear that, little bill? Come on out. Everybody’s on your side. We’ll take a selfie!)

This high-minded rapprochement, alas, has not made its way into the halls of Congress. Thirty-three senators have signed onto the Pregnancy Workers Fairness Act, and 142 members of the House. They’re all Democrats.

“This bill has a lot of support, but it’s not yet bipartisan. That’s the problem,” said Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, the lead sponsor in the Senate.

For sure, given that the next session of Congress is going to be entirely run by Republicans.

The lead House sponsor, Jerrold Nadler of New York, says he’s hoping some of the anti-abortion groups who have signed onto Peggy Young’s case will start pressing their congressional allies to come around on a bill that would solve the Peggy Young problem. But, so far, there doesn’t seem to be much progress.

The Susan B. Anthony List hasn’t taken a position on the matter. “We have one bill and that’s our priority and that’s kind of the way it works,” said Dannenfelser. This would be the ban on abortions beyond the first 20 weeks of a pregnancy.

Nadler, listing what progress there has been, mentioned getting the bill included as “part of the Democratic women’s agenda — although it wasn’t mentioned all the time. To my annoyance.”

O.K., not looking good for the Pregnant Workers. Damned bill’s crawled under the couch.

Emily Martin, vice president of the National Women’s Law Center, has been lobbying for the bill, and she says she’s had meetings with Republican lawmakers that were “very positive,” in a no-action kind of way. “It’s been hard to get somebody to take the leap to be the first Republican,” she said.

This is the way politics goes. Nobody’s making you do it, so you don’t. Anyway, businesses probably wouldn’t like it. (The U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce is listed as a supporter. This is not to be confused with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which hasn’t taken a position. “You’ll find that on the majority of issues, we’re on the opposite side of the table,” said Margot Dorfman, who leads the women’s group.)

What we have here is a bill that’s been kicking around for more than a year, during which time a multitude of Democrats have signed on without making any superhuman efforts to win over their Republican colleagues. The Republicans, who have been complaining mightily about being branded anti-women during the election season, have been making quiet murmurs of agreement but don’t want to go out of their way to promote something the Democrats started.

And here we are, in a country where more than two-thirds of mothers work, most of them full time. We have interesting debates about whether young mothers should opt out of the workplace, ignoring that most of them have no option whatsoever on the opting question.

Our institutions cheerfully refuse to restructure themselves to reflect the fact that most families do not contain a non-working parent. Congress has been debating early education programs for more than 40 years and it has hardly made a dent. A great many of our employers don’t bother to make jobs more family-friendly; they don’t even bother to make modest arrangements to accommodate their pregnant workers. Everybody thinks this is extremely unfortunate, but almost nobody does anything about it because there is not a lot of political or financial reward for siding with working mothers.

O.K., rant is over. Sorry, I think I scared the little bill.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

December 4, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And next up we have Mr. Kristof:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And last but not least we have Ms. Collins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nocera and Collins

November 29, 2014

In “Nicotine Without Death” Mr. Nocera tells us that the growing pains in the e-cigarette industry suggest a mix of cautious optimism and deep frustration among executives.  Ms. Collins, in “Doing Some Heavy Lifting,” says the case of the former U.P.S. driver and her eight-year fight about whether she could handle a 21-pound package goes to the Supreme Court.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

I attended Wells Fargo Securities’ “2nd Annual E-Cig Conference” last week, and if I had to describe the mood of the speakers it would be a cross between cautious optimism and deep frustration.

“E-cigs,” of course, is shorthand for electronic cigarettes. Executives from the still-new industry happily talked about its rapid growth and their expectation that it would continue. Bonnie Herzog, who follows the industry for Wells Fargo, reiterated her belief that in 10 years, e-cigarette users will outnumber smokers.

“The winning product hasn’t been invented yet,” said Craig Weiss, the chief executive of NJOY, an e-cigarette start-up. What he meant was that while the e-cigarette devices developed so far have helped some people switch from smoking to “vaping,” they haven’t yet become so good as to “obsolete the cigarette,” which is, he says, his company’s goal. But that day will come, he is convinced; the industry is innovating like crazy.

Yet, at the same time, most everyone at the conference expressed dismay that e-cigarettes aren’t being embraced by the tobacco-control community — even though they are much less harmful than combustible cigarettes, which kill 480,000 Americans each year. Are e-cigarettes completely safe? asked Saul Shiffman, an addiction expert at the University of Pittsburgh. “There is not enough data to say that,” he acknowledged. But on a relative basis, electronic cigarettes are far preferable to the old-fashioned kind. After all, e-cigarettes are essentially nicotine delivery devices, and while nicotine is addictive, it is the tobacco in cigarettes that kills.

Another speaker, Clive Bates, a proponent of electronic cigarettes who runs a website called The counterfactual, noted that in 2010, 80 percent of the public believed that e-cigarettes were safer than regular cigarettes. In 2013, however, that percentage had dropped to 60 percent. His view was that this was largely because of the anti-e-cigarettes bias displayed by far too many people in the public health community.

A good example of this came a week before the conference. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued the results of its latest National Youth Tobacco Survey. The news was good: cigarette smoking among high school students had dropped to 12.7 percent in 2013 — the lowest it has ever been. But the use of e-cigarettes had tripled during those same two years, and stood at 4.5 percent. That was the news that grabbed the headlines. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids issued a press release urgently calling for e-cigarettes to be regulated.

When I spoke to Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, about the C.D.C.’s results, he said they should be comforting for tobacco control advocates: they showed that e-cigarettes are not the “gateway” to cigarettes that many in the public health community feared.

Still, the public health community is not united in opposition to electronic cigarettes. Slowly but surely, some tobacco control proponents are coming to view e-cigarettes as a way to help smokers quit. One such person is Kenneth Warner, a University of Michigan economist who has been an important tobacco-control voice for many years. In mid-November, a long article he co-authored with Harold A. Pollack, of the University of Chicago, entitled “The Nicotine Fix,” was published on The Atlantic’s website.

Warner and Pollack divide the modern tobacco-control community into three groups. First are the Traditionalists, who believe that the way to reduce smoking is to keep doing what they’ve been doing all along: running public service campaigns, putting warnings on cigarette packs, continuing to push for smoke-free workplace laws, and so on. The Traditionalists mistrust any claims of reduced harm because the tobacco industry has made those claims before — with light cigarettes, for instance — and they turned out to be a marketing fiction.

The second group is the Harm Reductionists, who believe, as they put it, that “instead of eliminating a given risky behavior, proponents of this idea seek to reduce the dangers involved — often by substituting a closely related, less dangerous behavior.” To this group, moving smokers to e-cigarettes is like moving heroin addicts to methadone.

The third group is the End-gamers, who want “variations on prohibition” — for instance, prohibiting anyone born after a certain year to possess tobacco products, or reducing the amount of nicotine in cigarettes until they are no longer addictive.

Warner and Pollack believe that using tactics from all three groups might give us the best chance to end smoking once and for all. Yes, continue the marketing campaigns that have helped reduce smoking, but, at the same time, allow advertising that promotes e-cigarettes as a viable alternative. The Food and Drug Administration could allow makers of e-cigarettes to market their products as “significantly less dangerous than smoking cigarettes.” Finally, they advocate reducing the nicotine levels in cigarettes until they no longer addict.

Reading Warner and Pollack’s article made me, well, cautiously optimistic.

Gotta love the crap he can come out with…  “Marketing fiction” is special.  Joey, what you meant to say was “lie.”  Here’s Ms. Collins:

In their long, frequently triumphant but totally unfinished struggle for equal employment rights, women keep coming up against the matter of lifting heavy bundles.

Next week, the latest chapter arrives at the Supreme Court: Peggy Young, a former United Parcel Service driver, and her eight-year fight about whether she could handle a 21-pound package.

Young was a driver for U.P.S. in Maryland when she got pregnant and was told to get a note from her doctor detailing any necessary work restrictions. “The doctor said: ‘Well then, I’ll recommend you don’t lift anything over 20 pounds,’ ” Young recalled in a phone interview.

Her job at the time involved delivering packages that were generally light. And her co-workers had made it clear that they would take care of anything heavy that did happen to come her way. But U.P.S. put her on an unpaid leave.

“They told me they don’t provide light duty for pregnancy and that I had become a liability,” she said.

The case has echoes of one of the first great legal victories in the women’s rights movement. More than half a century ago, Lorena Weeks, a Georgia telephone company clerk, applied for a better-paying job and was told she was ineligible because it involved lifting a piece of equipment that weighed about 30 pounds. The fact that the object in question was actually pushed around on a dolly and that Lorena’s own job required her to lift a 34-pound typewriter onto her desk every morning did not appear to enter into the company’s equation.

Weeks’ lawyer, Sylvia Roberts, convinced the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that the rule was both paternalistic and arbitrary, punctuating her argument by lifting a series of objects in the courtroom. She told me once that she believed her performance of hoisting a workbench helped win the day. That was in 1969. And, now, here we are with Peggy Young and her packages.

It’s ironic, really, since women of childbearing age probably spend more time picking up heavy — and frequently squirming — objects than most men. Young has two older children who were born three years apart. When she was pregnant with her second child, she noted, “I had zero issues holding my 3-year-old. Who I’m pretty sure weighed more than any packages they’d give me.”

Further irony: the courts have ruled repeatedly that the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act does not require an employer to accommodate a pregnant worker. Basically, a boss just has to prove that he’d be equally unfeeling if she fell down the stairs at home and broke her leg.  (U.P.S. says it believes its policy was “lawful, evenly and consistently applied at the time to all employees.”)

Yet more irony, with a heavy overlay of pathos: During her enforced disability leave, Peggy Young still needed income, and she continued to work as a driver for a florist, lifting packages that were heavier than anything she had handled at U.P.S. And the job didn’t include health benefits.

Ironic finale: U.P.S. did not make accommodations for pregnant workers, but it did make accommodations for employees who get in trouble for drunken driving off the job. “If you lose your license for a D.U.I., you get reassigned temporarily while you work to get your license back,” said Samuel Bagenstos, the attorney who will argue Young’s case in Washington.

How do you think the Supreme Court will react to all this? It’s had a dismal recent history when it comes to workers’ rights. But history is most definitely marching on Young’s side. Since she filed her suit, Maryland has joined a number of states that require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers. And, last month, U.P.S. sent out a notice that it would henceforth offer pregnant women temporary light-duty assignments. So it’ll be sort of hard to argue that Young’s demands were unreasonable.

“The best evidence that they can do this is … that they’re going to do this,” said Bagenstos.

Young’s case is also one of the very, very, extremely rare occasions when both sides of the abortion rights divide come together. Everybody, from the American Civil Liberties Union to Americans United for Life, understands that most American mothers need to work to help support their families, and nobody wants them to have to choose between having a child and keeping their job.

“We have calls from pregnant women who are cashiers who can’t stand for eight hours and ask if they can use a stool, or who need to take extra bathroom breaks. These kind of simple requests are being refused,” said Marcia Greenberger of the National Women’s Law Center. “It’s still very much of a problem, especially for women in low-paying jobs.”

Congress could, of course, clear this up by passing a federal law requiring fair treatment for pregnant workers. All that’s necessary is for Republicans and Democrats to work together to . . .

Never mind.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

November 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Come on, Boris!

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Absolutely outrageous,” angry Johnson declared.

“Why should I?” poor Johnson asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last but not least here’s Ms. Collins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blow, Kristof and Collins

November 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the midterms, The Associated Press provided this tally:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Americans love children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nocera and Collins

November 15, 2014

Mr. Nocera has a question in “Net Neutrality Rules:”  Why is it so hard to achieve a deal when it’s something that everyone wants?  Well, Joey, not everyone wants it.  There are leading lights [well, dim bulbs…] like Ted Cruz who just HATE it.  And I see his name didn’t appear in your piece.  In “Congress Extends Itself” Ms. Collins says lots of temporary tax breaks have expired. Do you want them extended? We have a definitive NO from the Koch brothers.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Is there anybody out there who opposes net neutrality?

Net neutrality, of course, is the principle that calls for the Internet to remain free and open — with no “fast lanes” that would allow some content providers to take priority over others. This week, Washington was buzzing with talk about net neutrality, yet out-and-out critics were hard to find.

President Obama, of course, is in favor of net neutrality; indeed, he started this whole kerfuffle when the White House released a short video on Monday in which the president called on the Federal Communications Commission to “implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.” Tom Wheeler, the former cable industry lobbyist who is now the chairman of the F.C.C., also wants net neutrality.

So do the big Internet companies like Netflix and Google, the ones that might have to pay Internet service providers, or I.S.P.s, to get on a fast lane if such a thing existed. (That’s called “paid prioritization.”) Net neutrality is favored by lots of small Internet companies — the kind that might not have the means to pay for prioritization — and dozens of public interest groups, too. When the F.C.C. asked for comments on net neutrality, it received an astonishing 3.7 million replies, a vast majority urging the commission to embrace it.

Even some Internet service providers say they agree with the goals of net neutrality. After President Obama’s video was released, Comcast, the biggest of them all, said that it agreed with almost everything the president called for.

Alas, the key word in the previous sentence is “almost.” In his video remarks, President Obama was surprisingly specific about what he hoped Wheeler and the F.C.C. would do: apply Title II of the 1996 Telecommunications Act to the I.S.P.s like Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner Cable. Title II would reclassify these companies as akin to public utilities — like the old telephone company — and would regulate them as such.

Although the president insisted that many of the more onerous parts of Title II — like price regulation — could be held in abeyance, the I.S.P.s dread the thought of being regulated under Title II. They would prefer to be regulated under another part of the Telecommunications Act, section 706, which calls for a lighter touch.

Then there is the question of what, exactly, net neutrality entails. Does it include only “the last mile” — that is, the relationship between the I.S.P. and the Internet user? Or does it also include “interconnection” — the point at which a content company like Netflix joins the I.S.P.’s network and begins its journey to the customer? Currently, Netflix pays a fee to four big I.S.P.s to gain uncongested access to their networks. Not surprisingly, Netflix says that net neutrality means it shouldn’t have to pay this fee. Comcast and its I.S.P. brethren disagree.

One reason federal net neutrality rules have been so difficult to achieve is that in the past, when the F.C.C. has tried to regulate the I.S.P.s without using a Title II designation, it has had its head handed to it in the courts. The courts have essentially ruled that without that classification, the F.C.C. lacks the authority to apply rules that would ensure net neutrality.

Thus it was that a few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal published a story reporting that Wheeler had a compromise idea: use Title II to regulate the back end — the point where Netflix accesses Comcast’s network — and use section 706 for the front end, where the consumer is. It is generally assumed that the F.C.C. leaked Wheeler’s “hybrid” idea as a trial balloon.

The balloon, however, was quickly burst. Net neutrality advocates didn’t think it went far enough, while the I.S.P.s thought it went too far. At which point, the president decided to weigh in. Wheeler may or may not take the president’s suggestion — he doesn’t have to, as the F.C.C. is an independent agency — but, at a minimum, new net neutrality rules, which the agency has been trying to accomplish for a half-dozen years, will be delayed again. And whatever the F.C.C. decides, there will surely be a new round of lawsuits. Sigh

Net neutrality is demonstrably a good thing, and it needs to be enshrined in law, not just done in good faith as it is now. The real problem is with the law itself: It was never meant to regulate broadband. Title II is too blunt an instrument, while section 706 doesn’t give the F.C.C. enough authority. That’s why the agency has seemed to be dancing on the head of a pin as it tries to come up with net neutrality rules that will pass muster.

Of course, there is another way to accomplish net neutrality. Congress could pass a law that allowed the F.C.C. to write net neutrality rules — but went no further.

Yeah, right. Better keep dancing, Chairman Wheeler.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Let’s play: So You Think You Can Make Tax Policy!

Really, it’s going to be exciting. Along the way we will get to discuss the latest exploits of the billionaire Koch brothers, machinations by possible presidential hopeful Paul Ryan, and gossip about at least one entertainment celebrity.

One of the very, very few things the current Congress seems determined to deal with before it vanishes into the night is the problem of “tax extenders.” Extenders are strange but much-loved little financial mutants. Sort of like hobbits or three-legged kittens.

Congress, in its wisdom, has created a raft of temporary tax breaks for everybody from teachers to banks that make money overseas. Most are really intended to be permanent. But calling them short-term measures tricks the Congressional Budget Office into underestimating how much they cost.

“If you pass a new tax cut, you’ve got to find offsetting spending cuts. But these are in a sense free,” said Howard Gleckman of the Tax Policy Center.

It’s just a matter of thinking proactively. Sort of like the much-repeated TMZ report that Britney Spears’s new boyfriend was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement before their first meeting.

So. A pile of these temporary breaks have expired. Do you want them extended?

The Koch brothers say no! At least when it comes to the ones that help alternative energy companies compete with the Koch fossil-fuel energy companies. Particularly tax breaks for wind. The Koch brothers really, really hate wind power. Maybe it’s because they’re from Kansas. Where you and I see a prairie, they see a competitor.

It’s been quite a week for our favorite American oligarchs. Their team won control of the Senate and a raft of state governments. The lame-duck Congress devoted much of the week to a bill encouraging the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Which connects the tar sand oil fields in Canada to the Texas refineries. The Koch brothers happened to be big investors when it comes to tar sands.

Already, we have one argument in favor of extending the tax breaks. Thwart Koches!

This year, members of the Senate Finance Committee made a bipartisan decision to throw up their hands and just extend everything. Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans agreed, they would work together on a grand tax reform package. Hehehehe

Never going to happen. When Republicans think about tax reform, they think of reducing the top rate for individuals and corporations from the current 39.6 percent to 25 percent. This is absolutely impossible, unless you are prepared to see the deficit soar like an over-caffeinated salmon.

Many Republicans believe they can get around this problem with “dynamic scoring.” This is based on a popular idea, much like the one about the tooth fairy, which presumes that tax cuts are going to create an explosion of economic activity that will replace all the lost revenue. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback was following that theory when he cut taxes in his state dramatically, thus ushering in an exciting new era of exploding deficits, plummeting bond ratings and underfunded school systems.

The next leader of the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax bills, is probably going to be Paul Ryan. Before the election, Ryan made a speech to the Financial Services Roundtable in which he seemed to suggest that if the Republicans won control of the Senate, it would be a message from the American people that it was time to do dynamic scoring on those tax bills. (“I really prefer to call it reality-based scoring.”)

The current Ways and Means chairman, Dave Camp, is a tragic figure who actually attempted to do tax reform with an ambitious proposal that eliminated some temporary taxes and made the rest permanent. It included a 4 percent reduction in the top tax rate, because no matter how hard Camp struggled, he could not honestly get it lower.

He might just as well have proposed a bill declaring God dead. The committee never even voted on it. John Boehner made fun of it. Camp was the political version of Justin Bieber, without the parties.

After the election, both parties appeared inclined to just extend all the tax cuts for two years while making principled mumbling about reform down the line.

But then the Koch brothers roared into the picture. They feel that it’s wrong for the government to give a special benefit to an industry that’s one of their competitors. Especially a government that they and their associates devoted nearly $60 million to getting into office. Politico reported that their representatives have been meeting with Speaker Boehner’s staff.

And you know, they have a point. If Congress actually wanted to do serious reform, it should get rid of special tax breaks for the wind and solar energy sectors. While, of course, also removing all the tax breaks for drilling oil.


Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

November 13, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But allegiances flipped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That said, they found that:

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

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

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

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

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

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

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

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

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

A few depressing facts:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

But about the lame-duck Congress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the world’s a stage.

Nocera and Collins

November 8, 2014

In “Big Money Wins Again in a Romp” Mr. Nocera says the $4 billion spent to influence the outcome of the midterms isn’t as big a problem as the post-election purpose of that spending.  Ms. Collins tells us that “Republicans ♥ Pipeline,” and that for the next Congress, the Keystone pipeline gets voted most likely to succeed.  It’ll be interesting to see who howls the loudest when the sumbitch leaks all over farmland…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Two days after the midterm elections, I met up with a man named Ira Glasser, the former longtime head of the American Civil Liberties Union. For days, the media had been full of news about the enormous sums of money likely to be spent by special-interest groups and others to influence the outcome of Senate races, House races, gubernatorial races — even judicial races. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which issued a report just days before the midterms, nearly $4 billion was expected to be spent, in toto, on the midterms. Glasser had no problem with any of this.

As you would expect of someone who once ran the A.C.L.U. — he retired in 2001 — Glasser is a First Amendment absolutist. And to him, that means that he supports the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling on Citizens United because he believes virtually all campaign finance laws violate the First Amendment.

“So money equals speech?” I asked. No, he said. “But nobody speaks very effectively without money. If you limit how much you spend on speech, you are also limiting speech.”

As Glasser talked, I kept finding myself circling back to the same question: But what about what happens after the election? It is not the spending itself that is the problem, but rather the purpose of that spending.

Big contributors want something for their money. At its most benign, they want access, the ability to have their side heard whenever there is the possibility that legislation might affect their industry. Far less benignly, they want more — they want to know that their bidding will be done.

It can be subtle, this influence. “Maybe it’s the amendment that does not get introduced in committee because the congressman knows that it is not in sync with the desires of his money patrons,” said Representative. John Sarbanes, Democrat of Maryland, who has focused much of his legislative effort on campaign finance reform. “The donation is lingering somewhere in the atmosphere. It’s human nature.”

Of course it can be not so subtle, too. “On any given Wednesday night in Washington,” says Nick Penniman, the executive director of Issue One, which is dedicated to reducing the influence of money in politics, “you’ll have a member of, say, the finance committee, standing in the board room of a lobbyist’s office, surrounded by bank lobbyists. At some point, someone will hand a staffer an envelope with the checks in it, and the congressman will have raised $100,000 in 45 minutes. And they know exactly who was responsible for putting it together, and whose phone calls therefore need to be returned.”

Penniman makes a distinction between “ideological givers” — donors like the Koch brothers, motivated by the chance to get like-minded people elected — and “transactional givers,” those who donate because they expect something concrete in return. “These are folks who give just as generously to both sides of the aisle.” Sarbanes agreed: “Big money wins regardless of which party wins the election.”

“In fact,” he added, “the more money that is spent, the greater the dependence that is created.”

There are two other reasons big money is corrosive to our politics. One is that the need to raise money has become close to all-consuming. The current issue of Esquire magazine — which has a nifty package of articles about what is wrong with Congress and some suggestions for how various problems might be fixed — quotes Donna Edwards, Democrat of Maryland: “It’s a never-ending hustle. You get elected to this august body to fix problems, and for the privilege, you find yourself on the phone in a cubicle, dialing for dollars.”

The retiring Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, has said that he believes that the constant need to raise money means that “you don’t have the time for the kind of personal relationships that so many of us built up over time.” When people don’t know each other, it is a lot easier to think the worst of them. Polarization is the result.

Finally, there is the effect of big money on the rest of us. The public, Sarbanes believes, knows full well the insidious influence of money in politics. “The rational voter will say to himself, why should I bother voting if the person I’m voting for is a captive of special interests,” he said. “As a result, people are staying at home.”

And how does Ira Glasser react to these tales of corruption? He doesn’t deny them. “Of course there is corruption,” he says. “Of course there is undue influence of money.” But he doesn’t believe that those problems are as great as they are made out to be, or that they trump his First Amendment concerns. “The question is whether the remedy does more harm than good and violates the constitution,” he says.

Me, I’m not convinced. Are you?

Not in the least.  Here’s Ms. Collins:

The Keystone XL oil pipeline is so popular! Ever since the Republicans won control of the Senate, it’s become the Taylor Swift of political issues.

“We can act on the Keystone pipeline,” said the House speaker, John Boehner, as he launched into his description of the next Congress. The House, which believes strongly in the power of repetition, has already passed a bill authorizing construction of the final phase of the pipeline eight times.

It was also the first thing the future Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, mentioned in his postelection press conference. “When you say energy these days, people think of the Keystone pipeline, but that’s only part of it,” he said. You have to wonder who he’s been hanging around with, since many Americans are actually capable of thinking about energy for quite a long period of time without ever landing on “pipeline from Canada to Nebraska.”

McConnell then went on to describe an energy agenda in which the only specific item he mentioned was you-know-what. (“I mean, the employment figures connected with Keystone are stunning if we would just get going.”)

Actually, employment figures are not that stunning. There’d be a few thousand workers necessary to build it, but if we want construction jobs, we’ve got a ton of roads and bridges that need repair.  “Keystone is certainly overhyped as a job creator, mostly because the vast majority of jobs are temporary,” said Tim Boersma of the Brookings Institution.

It’s hard to figure where all the enthusiasm comes from. The Keystone XL would carry oil from the tar sands of Canada to Nebraska, where it would hook up with an existing pipeline to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. Environmentalists hate it because oil from the tar sands expels more carbon into the atmosphere. If the pipeline isn’t built, the oil will still get to the refineries by train, but at least we wouldn’t appear to be encouraging the energy industry to drill the worst stuff possible.

The only people who would seem to have an intense practical interest in which way this plays out would be Nebraskans who will have to live with the pipeline, and the people who control the tar sands land in Canada. That group happens to include the famous campaign-contributing Koch brothers.

So, question answered.

Keystone opponents were heartened Tuesday by the defeat of Representative Lee Terry, a veteran Omaha Republican and staunch Keystone defender. Some Nebraskans are worried the pipeline would create spills that would threaten the water supply. “When you start to mess with Nebraska water, you definitely have a fight on your hands,” said Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska, an anti-pipeline group.

Terry was one of only three Republican members of Congress who lost on Tuesday, so defeating him was quite a coup. Although he was the Nebraska Republicans’ weakest link. During the government shutdown, Terry made news when he dismissed proposals that members of Congress forgo their salaries for the duration of the crisis. (“I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college, and I’ll tell you we cannot handle it.”) Also, some voters disliked Terry’s campaign ads, which linked his opponent to everything from terrorist beheadings to the parole of a serial killer named Nikko Jenkins. And then there was the last-minute surprise that came when Nikko Jenkins announced in court that he was endorsing Lee Terry.

But about the pipeline.

If the Keystone project came up for a vote in the new Senate, it would probably draw enough Democratic support to hit the magic number of 60. Then it would be up to President Obama, who is constantly being criticized by Republicans for standing between America and a jobs-rich energy boom. This would be the same president who’s opened up massive new areas for oil exploration, increased the sale of leases for drilling on federal land and cut back on the processing time for drilling permits.

Story of Obama’s life. He trots down the center, irritating his base, while Republicans scream at him for failing to do something that he’s actually been doing all along.

In the end it’s completely up to the president. But the story is really about the Republicans. They’re about to take over Congress and show us how they can govern. So the first thing they’re going to do is hand a windfall to the energy interests that shoveled nearly $60 million into their campaigns? Terrific.

Let them prove they’re better than that. There’s a nice bipartisan energy efficiency bill that’s been sitting in limbo in the Senate. It would help manufacturers reduce energy costs, promote model building codes and do a bunch of other useful things. If the Republicans would forget about posturing for their campaign contributors, drop Keystone and pass the energy efficiency bill instead, it really would be a new day.

We’d all be incredibly impressed. Honest.


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