Archive for the ‘Collins’ Category

Nocera and Collins

November 1, 2014

Mr. Nocera is unsure.  Mr. Nocera is uncertain.  In “The Guantánamo Tapes” Mr. Nocera is still asking:  Does force-feeding detainees amount to torture?  Gee, Joey, why don’t you volunteer to be fed that way for a week or six and then get back to us with your answer.  Asshole.  Ms. Collins presents us with her “Election Day Pop Quiz.”  Are you ready for the midterms? It’s time to test your political smarts.  Here’s Mr. Dithers Nocera:

Jihad Ahmed Mujstafa Diyab is a Syrian man who has been a detainee at the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, since 2002. In 2009, the Guantánamo Review Task Force ruled that he was not a threat to national security and could be released. Yet here we are five years later, and Diyab is still imprisoned at Guantánamo, having never been tried, or even accused of a crime, and with no idea when — or if — he’ll ever get out. Last year, to protest their continued confinement, he and many other detainees began a hunger strike. Most of the detainees have since given up their hunger strikes. Diyab, however, has never completely stopped his.

One reason many detainees abandoned their hunger strikes is because, twice a day, the government used what is called “enteral feeding” to ensure that they were getting nutrients. A more common term is force-feeding. The ordeal begins with something called “forced cell extraction,” which one of Diyab’s lawyers, Jon Eisenberg, described to me as “a highly orchestrated procedure.”

“A five-man riot squad in complete armor pins the guy to the floor, shackles him, and carries him out,” Eisenberg says. Then the detainee is strapped into a restraint chair — which the prisoners have dubbed the “torture chair.” One soldier holds the detainee’s head, while another feeds a tube into his nose and down to his stomach. It is very painful to endure.

Last year, I wrote several columns about force-feeding, asking whether it could be classified as torture. At the time, I didn’t think there would ever be a way to test that premise in an American court. The federal judge who seemed most sympathetic to the detainees’ plight, Gladys Kessler, had concluded that she simply lacked the authority to rule on the conditions of their confinement, based on a 2006 law intended to prevent the prisoners from petitioning the judiciary and challenging their detention.

Lo and behold, Judge Kessler turned out to be wrong. Earlier this year, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled, 2 to 1, that she did have jurisdiction. There are strict medical protocols for force-feeding hospital patients or prisoners. If the military violated those protocols — especially if detainees were force-fed in an abusive, punitive manner — then she could order them to stop.

Thus began eight months of legal wrangling between Diyab’s lawyers and the government that culminated in a three-day hearing that took place earlier this month. Though no one put it like this, its purpose, at least in part, was to decide whether the military’s methods for force-feeding detainees was a form of torture.

One of those who testified on Diyab’s behalf, Steven Miles, a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, said it’s not even a close call. He was first horrified to discover that the government had been lubricating the tube with olive oil instead of a water-soluble lubricant. “When you pass the tube, some of the lubricant can drop into the lungs,” he said. Olive oil in the lungs can cause an inflammatory reaction called lipoid pneumonia. (The government says it stopped using olive oil as a lubricant over the summer.)

After listing a half-dozen other ways the government’s force-feeding violated medical protocols, he concluded: “They turned it from a medical procedure to a penal strategy dressed up to look like a medical procedure. The procedures look nothing like medicine.”

Kessler has not yet issued her ruling, but, in the meantime, another aspect of the case has taken center stage. It turns out that the government has videotapes of Diyab enduring the forced cell extraction and the force-feeding. With some prodding from Kessler, the government was forced to allow the defense to see the videotapes.

On Oct. 8, the last day of the hearing, in a closed courtroom, both Diyab’s lawyers and the government’s lawyers played portions of the tapes, putting them into evidence. When I asked the lawyers what they saw, they told me they were not allowed to say — because the tapes are still classified.

But 16 news media outlets, including The New York Times, have petitioned the court and asked Kessler to allow the public to see the videos. In a ruling she handed down in early October, she agreed that they should be made public. But she then stayed her ruling to give the government time to decide whether to appeal it.

Diyab himself has made it clear that he would like the tapes to be seen by the public. “I want Americans to see what is going on at the prison today,” he said, according to Kessler’s ruling, “so they will understand why we are hunger-striking and why the prison should be closed.”

With any luck, the day may soon be here when we can finally decide for ourselves whether the force-feeding of Guantánamo detainees amounts to torture.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

1.  In Arizona, Scott Fistler will not be on the ballot. He was thrown out of the race for the Democratic congressional nomination in a largely Hispanic district after he employed the innovative technique of:

  • A) Claiming that he spent much of his young adulthood castrating goats.

  • B) Appearing in a campaign ad with his pet python.

  • C) Legally changing his name to Cesar Chavez.

  • D) Attempting to establish his district residency at a local Starbucks.

2.  And Eric Cantor is not on the ballot! After a stunning primary defeat, the House majority leader resigned from Congress in order to serve his country in a new way as an:

  • A) Anti-poverty worker in an Appalachian food bank.

  • B) Assistant principal in a high school for troubled teenagers.

  • C) Volunteer in a West African Ebola clinic.

  • D) Strategic adviser to an investment banking firm.

3.  Republicans who oppose abortion rights have had some success in deflecting the issue by announcing that they favor allowing birth control pills to be sold over the counter. Trying to follow the new script during a debate, Representative Mike Coffman of Colorado got into a bit of trouble when he:

  • A) Couldn’t remember the words “birth control.”

  • B) Claimed he shouldn’t be held responsible for “girl stuff.”

  • C) Suggested the questioner “take it up with my wife.”

  • D) Said he missed the days when campaign issues were “just about wars and money.”

4.  A number of congressional candidates are reality-show stars. Which of the following is not among them:

  • A) The former “Bachelorette” now seeking happiness in Oklahoma politics.

  • B) The former South Carolina state treasurer who appeared on “Southern Charm,” in which he got one of his co-stars pregnant during the first season.

  • C) The 87-year-old former governor of Louisiana who starred in “The Governor’s Wife,” with his own spouse, who is 51 years younger and became pregnant during the first season.

  • D) The “American Idol” runner-up in North Carolina.

5.  Male invitees to an event for the Florida congressman Steve Southerland were told to “tell the misses not to wait up because the after-dinner whiskey and cigars will be smooth & the issues to discuss are many.” When his opponent, Gwen Graham, criticized him, Southerland asked:

  • A) “Would you like to hear my thoughts about Obamacare?”

  • B) “Has Gwen Graham ever been to a lingerie shower?”

  • C) “Have I mentioned my idea about selling birth control over the counter?”

  • D) “Did you know I’m going to be competing next year on ‘Big Brother?’ ”

6.  Citizens in some states will be deciding interesting ballot questions. Alabamians, for instance, will vote on:

  • A) Whether to ban the sale of alcohol and whether to surround the entire state with an electric fence.

  • B) Whether to ban the use of Shariah law and whether to establish a constitutional right to hunt.

  • C) Whether to establish a state holiday honoring the birthday of native son Jim Nabors.

  • D) Whether to change the official state freshwater fish from the largemouth bass to the smallmouth bass.

7.  In the Iowa Senate race, the Democrat Bruce Braley is having an unexpectedly tough time. Which of the following did he not do:

  • A) Get quoted during the government shutdown complaining about the lack of towel service in the congressional gym.

  • B) Get caught on tape warning a group of trial lawyers that if Democrats don’t keep control of the Senate, the Judiciary Committee would be run by “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”

  • C) Brag that he grew up castrating llamas.

  • D) Get into a fight with a neighbor over the wandering habits of her hens, which turned out to be “therapy chickens” used to calm troubled children.

8.  In Florida, the College Republican National Committee has an ad aimed at young women, in which:

  • A) Mothers-to-be discuss which candidate for governor would provide better early childhood education.

  • B) A graduate student tells her friends what Gov. Rick Scott has done to combat global warming.

  • C) An announcer explains how Gov. Rick Scott has created job opportunities.

  • D) A bride-to-be tries to decide whether to buy a wedding dress named Rick Scott or one named Charlie Crist. (“The Rick Scott is perfect.”)

 

I got 7 out of 8 correct.  Here’s the answer key:  1C, 2D, 3A, 4A (I missed this one), 5B, 6B, 7C, and 8D.  (I’ll confess that I hoped I was wrong about #8, but alas it’s Florida so I went for the weaponized stupid…)

Blow and Collins

October 30, 2014

In “The Ebola Hysteria” Mr. Blow says that amid the nonsense, paladins heeding the clarion call to help treat Ebola abroad are being treated like lepers when they return.  Ms. Collins has questions today in “A Political Crystal Ball:”  What if Republicans become the majority in the Senate after the election next week? Would anything really change much?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The absolute hysteria surrounding the Ebola crisis underscores what is wrong with our politics and the policies they spawn.

On Ebola, the possible has overtaken the probable, gobbling it up in a high-anxiety, low-information frenzy of frayed nerves and Purell-ed hands.

There have been nine cases of Ebola in this country. All but one, a Liberian immigrant, is alive.

We aren’t battling a virus in this country as much as a mania, one whipped up by reactionary politicians and irresponsible media. We should be following the science in responding to the threat, but instead we are being led by silliness. And that comes at heavy cost.

The best way to prevent Ebola from becoming a pandemic is to stop it at its source — in West Africa, where the disease is truly exacting a heavy toll with thousands dead and thousands more infected. But the countries in that region can’t do it alone. They need help. The president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, said on Tuesday, “We’ll need a steady state of at least 5,000 health workers from outside the region” to fight Ebola in West Africa. That means health care workers from other countries, including ours.

Many of our health care workers are heroically heeding the clarion call. They are volunteering to head into harm’s way, to put their own lives on the line to save others and to prevent the disease from spreading further. But upon returning to this country some now risk “mandatory quarantine” even if they test negative for the disease and are asymptomatic. (Ebola can be spread only when a patient expresses symptoms.)

The public face of the affront to basic science, civil liberties and displays of valor has become the nurse Kaci Hickox. She accepted an assignment with Doctors Without Borders in Ebola-plagued Sierra Leone. But upon returning to the United States, she was quarantined in a plastic tent in a Newark hospital even after testing negative for the virus. She has been transferred to Maine, but there is a state trooper stationed outside the house where she’s staying.

Hickox is a paladin being treated like a leper.

As Hickox wrote in the Dallas Morning News:

“I had spent a month watching children die, alone. I had witnessed human tragedy unfold before my eyes. I had tried to help when much of the world has looked on and done nothing.”

It would be bad enough if there were just a momentary inconvenience or a legally contestable rights infringement. But it may be more than that. It could deter other health care workers like Hickox from volunteering in the first place.

In other words, irrational governors, like Chris Christie of New Jersey, taking ill-advised steps to control the spread of the disease on a local level could help it to spread on a global one.

That is in part why overly aggressive state-level restrictions have been roundly condemned.

A spokesman for the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said this week:

“Returning health workers are exceptional people who are giving of themselves for humanity. They should not be subjected to restrictions that are not based on science. Those who develop infections should be supported, not stigmatized.”

But stigma feels right as rain for some folks.

When Dr. Kent Brantly, a missionary caring for Ebola patients in Liberia, became the first known American Ebola patient, Ann Coulter called him “idiotic” and chastised him for the “Christian narcissism” of deigning to help people in “disease-ridden cesspools” rather than, say, turning “one single Hollywood power-broker to Christ,” which would apparently “have done more good for the entire world than anything he could accomplish in a century spent in Liberia.”

Oh, the irony of Coulter using this flummery to blast Brantly as idiotic.

This that’s-their-problem-we-have-our-own reasoning is foolish and illogical. It somehow neglects the reality that oceans are not perfect buffers and that viruses, unchecked, will find a way to cross them.

And it reveals a certain international elitism that is not only disturbing but dangerous.

As the World Health Organization’s director general, Dr. Margaret Chan, recently pointed out: “The outbreak spotlights the dangers of the world’s growing social and economic inequalities. The rich get the best care. The poor are left to die.”

Chan also pointed out that there is no vaccine or cure for Ebola — some 40 years after it emerged — in part because “Ebola has been, historically, geographically confined to poor African nations.”

Ebola, like many other diseases, preys on the poor — poor countries and poor populations.

And, on the domestic front, it must not go unmentioned that elections are fast approaching and that politicians are acting — directly or not — out of political self-interest.

In that way, the federal response to Ebola becomes just another opportunity to argue that the federal government is ineffectual, incompetent and out of its depth, particularly under this president. And, in an election year, appearing to be more aggressive than the federal government, while riding a wave of fear, is appealing.

According to a report issued last week by the Pew Research Center, a sizable minority is concerned that Ebola will affect their families. The poll found that “41 percent are worried that they themselves or someone in their family will be exposed to the virus, including 17 percent who say they are very worried.”

Fear has become — and to some degree, has always been — a highly exploitable commodity in the political and media marketplaces. Both profit from public anxiety.

Christie, working feverishly to erase the memories of closed bridges and burned ones, has become the face of the politicians with hard head and heavy hands seeking hefty political reward from leveraging that fear.

He says his quarantine policy is just “common sense.” That’s just nonsense.

And a bald faced political ploy.  Now here’s Ms. Collins:

By now, I’m sure you’re asking yourself: If the Republicans take control of the Senate in next week’s elections, what would it mean to me?

Excellent question!

“We’ll get things done, and it means a stop to the Obama agenda,” said the embattled Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas. Did you notice that “get things done” is immediately followed by “stop?” What do you think that means?

Well, we know that if the Republicans win the majority, all Senate committees would have Republican chairs. The Energy Committee, for instance, might be run by Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a moderate who is in the pocket of oil and gas lobbies. This would be a dramatic change from the current situation in which the Energy Committee is run by Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a moderate who is in the pocket of oil and gas lobbies.

On a far more exciting note, the Environment Committee could wind up being led by James Inhofe, the author of “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”

Under the Republicans, the Senate would be an extremely open body, in which the minority party would be permitted — nay, welcomed — to submit clever amendments designed to make the majority take difficult or embarrassing votes that could be used against them in the next election. The minority leader, Mitch McConnell, has complained about the Democrats’ heavy-handedness on this for years and will undoubtedly be eager to change things if he gets in control.

And what about substance? Republican voters would have every reason to expect that the first item on McConnell’s agenda would be repeal of Obamacare. But many Republican senators have positions on the Affordable Care Act that are nuanced in the extreme. Get rid of the program but keep the part about people with pre-existing conditions. Or the bit that lets young adults stay on their parents’ policies. McConnell himself has said that he wants to let his home state of Kentucky keep its extremely popular version of the program, which is known as Kynect. (“The website can continue, but in my view the best interests of the country would be achieved by pulling out Obamacare root and branch.”)

We look forward to seeing that legislation.

Cynical minds might presume that, with a Republican majority, the Senate would simply continue in its current state of dysfunction, working diligently on an agenda (defund Planned Parenthood, strangle the Environmental Protection Agency in its crib) that will die for lack of 60 votes. Democrats, meanwhile, would fall back in love with the filibuster.

Or maybe not. Some people believe that the Republicans would be eager to prove that they really, actually, genuinely can get things done and would work with the White House on matters of common interest, like tax reform.

“Tax reform” would probably mean lowering some rates and making up for the lost revenue by closing tax loopholes elsewhere. The House Ways and Means Committee did some work on that recently, and the committee chairman actually unveiled a plan. Then John Boehner made fun of him. The plan never came up for a vote. The chairman is retiring.

There are a few matters in which a Republican Senate majority would make a critical difference. One is the budget. This is stupendously important, but since we may have to spend the next two years discussing fiscal cliffs and the rules of reconciliation, it doesn’t seem fair to make us start early.

Also, there’s the matter of presidential nominations. “Two words: Supreme Court,” said Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Senate Democrat. “If they have the majority, they have far more say over who’s the nominee.”

That could have an impact for decades to come. However, it presupposes that there will be a Supreme Court vacancy. On the plus side, the next two years will be a boom time for prayers for the good health of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Presuming the current justices continue in good form, the Republicans could still block other presidential nominations and we would have to get used to government by acting-heads-of. But that’s already pretty close to the norm. One Republican representative recently denounced President Obama for creating an Ebola czar instead of giving the job to the surgeon general, apparently unaware that we have had no surgeon general for more than a year, thanks to the National Rifle Association’s opposition to the administration’s nominee for the job.

Tracked down by The Huffington Post, Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah claimed he really did know the surgeon general’s post was vacant, and that anybody from the office could still do the Ebola job. “I know there’s some confusion there, but I don’t think I was confused,” he said stoutly.

See, Representative Jason Chaffetz is perfectly willing to live with an acting surgeon general. And maybe someone could talk Eric Holder into hanging around for a while longer.

Nocera and Collins

October 25, 2014

In “Carl Icahn’s Bad Advice” Mr. Nocera says Apple should reject an activist shareholder’s suggestion that the company buy back its own stock to raise its share price.  Ms. Collins, in “Once Again, Guns,” says two years after the Sandy Hook tragedy, the top gun-control priority in the United States is still background checks.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Why should Tim Cook care what Carl Icahn thinks?

Earlier this month, Icahn, the famed “activist shareholder,” sent a lengthy letter to the Apple chief executive, which he also posted on the blogging platform Tumblr, so that the rest of us could read it as well. Most of the time, when Icahn takes a stake in a company, it is because the company is having problems; his missives are usually less than pleasant.

But that hardly describes Apple, which continues to churn out record profits and hot products like the recent iPhone 6. According to his letter, Icahn’s investment firm, Icahn Enterprises, owns 53 million shares of the company’s stock. He opens with words of praise for the company and Cook (“you are the ideal C.E.O. for Apple”), and then lays out, at great length, his vision of how Apple will gain market share against its competitors.

There is just one problem, in Icahn’s view. Unlike Icahn, the market is not giving Apple its due; its stock, he writes, is massively undervalued. And how does Icahn propose that Apple solve this problem? By having the company buy back its own shares. Icahn estimates that Apple’s price should be at $203, a little more than double its current price around $100 — and a share repurchase program is the best way to get there. (When a company buys back its own stock, its earnings per share go up because fewer shares are in circulation.)

Icahn has been down this road before with Apple and Cook; indeed it has been something of a theme with him in recent years. A year ago, for instance, Icahn was agitating for a $150 billion buyback (which he later scaled back to $50 billion). He didn’t get it, but in April of this year, Cook and the Apple board approved a $30 billion buyback, which came on top of a $60 billion buyback the year before. Although Apple had more than $100 billion in cash reserves, most of that money was locked up overseas because Apple didn’t want to pay the taxes required to repatriate the money. So instead, it borrowed money to help finance its buybacks.

But to what end? Carl Icahn is hardly the sort of long-term investor who has the best interests of Apple at heart. As William Lazonick, an economist at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, put it in a recent blog post: Massive buybacks reward those “who have contributed the least to Apple’s products and profits.”

“Icahn,” he added, “has contributed absolutely nothing to Apple’s success.”

Lazonick is one of the biggest critics of buybacks in academia. Last month he published an article in Harvard Business Review, titled “Profits Without Prosperity,” in which he made the case that buybacks hurt not only the company that is buying back the stock, but also the country itself. Between 2003 and 2012, he noted, the 449 companies that were publicly listed in the S.&P. 500 index throughout that time spent 54 percent of their earnings buying back their own stock. That cost an astounding $2.4 trillion — money that could have been spent hiring workers or making capital investments.

And why have companies been so willing to buy back their own stock? Companies like to say they are buying their own stock to show faith in the company’s future. Lazonick shreds such justifications, pointing out, for instance, that companies tend to buy stock when it is high, not when it is low.

Rather, he says, the critical incentive for buybacks has been that chief executives are paid primarily in stock. Share buybacks may remove capital from the company, but when they raise the stock price, they enrich the boss.

“The very people we rely on to make investments in the productive capabilities that will increase our shared prosperity are instead devoting most of their companies’ profits to uses that will increase their own prosperity,” he writes.

As for Apple, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when John Sculley was chief executive, the company spent $1.8 billion buying back its own stock. That was money it could have really used when the company then stumbled and needed to issue junk bonds — and issue $150 million in convertible preferred stock to Microsoft — just to survive.

Things are different now, of course. Apple is the king of the hill. Which is why if any company ought to be able to give Carl Icahn the back of its hand, it should be Apple. It should be the one making decisions about how to deploy its capital, rather than bending to the wishes of an activist shareholder.

After Icahn’s letter to Cook was published, the company pointed out that between buybacks and dividends, the company was already in the midst of “the largest capital return program in corporate history.”

Enough already. Let’s hope Tim Cook stops caring what Carl Icahn thinks.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

There’s a TV ad that’s been running in Louisiana:

It’s evening and a mom is tucking in her baby. Getting a nice text from dad, who’s away on a trip. Then suddenly — dark shadow on a window. Somebody’s smashing the front door open! Next thing you know, there’s police tape around the house, blinking lights on emergency vehicles.

“It happens like that,” says a somber narrator. “The police can’t get there in time. How you defend yourself is up to you. It’s your choice. But Mary Landrieu voted to take away your gun rights. Vote like your safety depends on it. Defend your freedom. Defeat Mary Landrieu.”

Guns are a big issue in some of the hottest elections around the country this year, but there hasn’t been much national discussion about it. Perhaps we’ve been too busy worrying whether terrorists are infecting themselves with Ebola and sneaking across the Mexican border.

But now, as usual, we’re returning to the issue because of a terrible school shooting.

The latest — a high school freshman boy with a gun in the school’s cafeteria — occurred in the state of Washington, which also happens to be ground zero for the election-year gun debate. At least that’s the way the movement against gun violence sees it. There’s a voter initiative on the ballot that would require background checks for gun sales at gun shows or online. “We need to be laser focused on getting this policy passed,” said Brian Malte of the Brady Campaign.

Think about this. It’s really remarkable. Two years after the Sandy Hook tragedy, the top gun-control priority in the United States is still background checks. There is nothing controversial about the idea that people who buy guns should be screened to make sure they don’t have a criminal record or serious mental illness. Americans favor it by huge majorities. Even gun owners support it. Yet we’re still struggling with it.

The problem, of course, is the National Rifle Association, which does not actually represent gun owners nearly as ferociously as it represents gun sellers. The background check bill is on the ballot under voter initiative because the Washington State Legislature was too frightened of the N.R.A. to take it up. This in a state that managed to pass a right-to-die law, approve gay marriage and legalize the sale of marijuana.

The N.R.A. has worked hard to cultivate its reputation for terrifying implacability. Let’s return for a minute to Senator Mary Landrieu, who’s in a very tough re-election race. Last year, in the wake of Sandy Hook, she voted for a watered-down background check bill. It failed to get the requisite 60 votes in the Senate, but the N.R.A. is not forgetting.

Nor is it a fan of compromise. Landrieu has tried to straddle the middle on gun issues; she voted last year for the N.R.A.’s own top priority, a bill to create an enormous loophole in concealed weapons laws. As a reward, she got a “D” rating and the murdered-mom ad. In Colorado, the embattled Senator Mark Udall, who has a similar voting record, is getting the same treatment.

The N.R.A.’s vision of the world is purposefully dark and utterly irrational. It’s been running a series of what it regards as positive ads, which are so grim they do suggest that it’s time to grab a rifle and head for the bunker. In one, a mournful-looking woman asks whether there’s still anything worth fighting for in “a world that demands we submit, succumb, and believe in nothing.” It is, she continues, a world full of “cowards who pretend they don’t notice the elderly man fall …”

Now when was the last time you saw people ignore an elderly man who falls down? I live in what is supposed to be a hard-hearted city, but when an old person trips and hits the ground, there is a veritable stampede to get him upright.

The ad running against people like Landrieu makes no sense whatsoever. If that background-check bill had become law, the doomed mother would still have been able to buy a gun for protection unless she happened to be a convicted felon. And while we have many, many, many things to worry about these days, the prospect of an armed stranger breaking through the front door and murdering the family is not high on the list. Unless the intruder was actually a former abusive spouse or boyfriend, in which case a background check would have been extremely helpful in keeping him unarmed.

A shooting like the one in Washington State is so shocking that it seems almost improper to suggest that people respond by passing an extremely mild gun control measure. But there is a kind of moral balance. While we may not be able to stop these tragedies from happening, we can stop thinking of ourselves as a country that lets them happen and then does nothing.

Unless your worldview is as bleak as the N.R.A.’s, you have to believe we’re better than that.

Cohen, Kristof and Collins

October 23, 2014

In “Active Fatalism” Mr. Cohen says we We have heroism all wrong. He thinks we should consider Sisyphus happy: He has a task and it is his own.  In “How to Defeat Ebola” Mr. Kristof says to protect America from Ebola, we should ignore the hysteria and focus on stopping the outbreak at its source.  Ms. Collins, in “What Women Want,” says from personhood to motherhood, women’s issues dominate 2014 campaigns.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

A core problem with the modern world is that we have heroism all wrong. It is not just the conflation of heroes with celebrities as role models, giving rise to the endless magazine lists of ways to be more like Beyoncé. The more serious issue is how, in the rush to elevate the authors of exceptional acts, we forget the ordinary man and woman doing their often menial jobs day after day. I am less interested in the firefighter-hero and the soldier-hero (not to mention the hedge-fund honchos and other quick-killing merchants thrust into the contemporary pantheon) than I am in the myriad doers of everyday good who would shun the description heroic.

A few weeks back I was listening to remarks by the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. The minister was the target of an assassination attempt in 1990 that left him partially paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair. He brought up Sisyphus, the Greek mythological figure whose devious attempt to defy the gods and even death itself was punished with his condemnation to the task of pushing a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down again and oblige him to renew the effort through all eternity. No task, it would appear, better captures the meaningless futility of existence. But Schäuble suggested that Sisyphus is a happy man for “he has a task and it is his own.”

The phrase was arresting because the culture of today holds repetitive actions — like working on a production line in a factory — in such contempt. Hundreds of millions may do it, and take care of their families with what they earn, but they are mere specks of dust compared to the Silicon Valley inventor of the killer app or the lean global financiers adept in making money with money. Routine equals drudgery; the worker is a demeaned figure; youths are exhorted to live their dreams rather than make a living wage. Dreams are all very well but are not known to pay the mortgage.

Schäuble was echoing the French writer and philosopher, Albert Camus, who in his book “The Myth of Sisyphus” noted that “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” In besieged Sarajevo during the Bosnian war of 1992-1995 the freest people in the encircled city were those who, every day, dressed impeccably, went to work and did their jobs, thereby demonstrating “inat,” or scorn, for the barbaric gunners in the hills. It was absurd to work, just as the existence of a European city cut off and surrounded by a dirt trench was absurd, but in the everyday duty fulfilled lay liberation of sorts. Similarly, the labor of Sisyphus may be the embodiment of the absurd, which is the human condition, but he is freed by his lucid knowledge and acceptance of his task. He keeps pushing even if the pushing appears to lead nowhere. Camus’ conclusion is that, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

In Camus’ book, “The Plague,” one of the most powerful moments comes in an exchange between the doctor at the center of the novel, Bernard Rieux, and a journalist named Raymond Rambert. Rieux has been battling the pestilence day after day, more often defeated than not. Rambert has been dreaming of, and plotting, escape from the city to be reunited with his loved one. Rieux suddenly speaks his mind:

“I have to tell you this: this whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”

“What is decency?” Rambert asked, suddenly serious.

“In general, I can’t say, but in my case I know that it consists of doing my job.”

The next day, Rambert calls the doctor and says he wants to work with him in the emergency teams battling the plague. Later in the novel, Rieux says, “I feel more solidarity with the defeated than with saints. I don’t think I have any taste for heroism and sainthood. What interests me is to be a man.”

These are almost forgotten ideas in an age much taken, on the one hand, with a kind of sentimental or gimmicky “heroism,” and, on the other, with the revealed truth of religion that is held to resolve the absurdity of life, subsuming the individual into some greater pattern of meaning that brings salvation. I prefer the approach to life summed up by Camus as active fatalism. The true hero is the unsung one who does his or her daily shift, puts food on the table for the children, gives them an education and a roof over their heads. I am with Rieux when he says, “Salvation is too big a word for me. I don’t go that far. What interests me is man’s health, his health first of all.”

I have my heroes. We all do. They are the nameless ones.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

An alarming new symptom of Ebola in America: It seems to make brains mushy and hearts hard.

In New Jersey, two students from Rwanda, which has had no Ebola cases and is 2,800 miles from the affected countries in West Africa, are being kept home. Navarro College in Texas rejected applicants from Nigeria, initially stating that it would not accept students from countries with Ebola cases — a bit problematic because that would mean no longer accepting Americans.

The former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party, Todd Kincannon, suggested (perhaps satirically) one way to control the disease: All people who tested positive for the Ebola virus could be “humanely put down.”

Many Republicans and some Democrats have been calling for a ban on flights from the Ebola-affected West African countries. A Reuters poll indicated that almost three-quarters of Americans favored such a ban on flights.

It’s a superficially attractive idea, but also a reflection of our mixed-up notions of how to protect ourselves. The truth is that Ebola is both less serious and far more serious than we think.

It’s less serious here because, in the end, the United States and other countries with advanced health systems can suppress Ebola outbreaks. Granted, the Dallas hospital bungled its response. Still, if Nigeria and Senegal can manage Ebola successfully, so can the United States. We won’t have an epidemic here.

Yet Ebola is more serious because there is a significant risk that it will become endemic in West Africa and spin off to other countries in the region or to India, Bangladesh or China. Ebola in India would be a catastrophe.

Oxfam rightly warns that more resources are needed to prevent Ebola from becoming the “definitive humanitarian disaster of our generation.” And if the virus lingers or spreads among poor countries, it will periodically travel to America. In a globalized world, Ebola anywhere is a threat to people everywhere.

There are also security risks. Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese terrorist group, tried to collect Ebola samples in Congo in 1992 for bioterror weapons but failed. Today, it would be easy to collect the virus, and a few suicide operatives could deliberately contract Ebola and then travel to the United States to spread the virus. (However, if the aim is mass murder, it would be simpler and probably more effective just to set off bombs.)

In any case, the point is that global health is not just a warm and fuzzy kind of aid. It’s also self-interest. It’s also national security. The best way to protect ourselves is to eradicate Ebola at its source.

A flight ban would hamper that effort by making it more difficult to get health workers and supplies to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Dr. Peter Piot, who helped identify Ebola in 1976, tells me that flight bans would be counterproductive because they would “make aid really more difficult and expensive.”

Likewise, Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, tells me bluntly: “A ban would be worse than ineffective, and would certainly hamper the efforts of groups like ours — and worsen the epidemic.”

Even airport screenings may be a feel-good distraction. An editorial in BMJ, a medical journal, noted that Canada used questionnaires and thermal scanners to screen hundreds of thousands of people for SARS, spent $15 million, and didn’t find a single case. The editorial suggests that airport screening “will have no meaningful effect” and that resources would be better used fighting Ebola in West Africa.

For all the fuss about our own borders, not nearly enough is being done where it counts most: in West Africa. Bravo to President Obama for pledging up to 4,000 troops to fight the disease there, but the United States and other countries must do far more — and quickly! — if Ebola is to be defeated.

The number of Ebola cases is still doubling every two to four weeks, and these countries can’t defeat the outbreak on their own. Liberia is said to have only 50 practicing doctors, according to Reuters, and there appear to be more Liberian doctors practicing in the United States than in Liberia. That brain drain means that Liberia, in effect, is providing medical foreign aid to the United States.

These are lovely countries with friendly people and some heroic health workers, but roads, electricity and other infrastructure are desperately weak. All of Liberia can produce less than one-third as much electricity as the Dallas Cowboys football stadium consumes at peak times.

That’s why the American military’s help in West Africa is crucial, and why it’s a disgrace that less than half of a Sept. 16 United Nations target for Ebola response funds has been raised.

Our values and interests coincide here. So let’s calm down and get to work protecting America from Ebola by stopping this disaster at its source.

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

Women are big this election season. No group is more courted. It’s great! The issues are important. Plus, we all enjoy the occasional pander.

Candidates are re-interpreting their old arguments in a new, woman-centric way. In Michigan, the Democratic Senate candidate defines his opponent’s opposition to Obamacare as a plan to “cut women’s access to … mammograms.” In Kentucky, Republican Mitch McConnell has female surrogates claiming that his opponent, Alison Grimes, is trying to convince women that they “can’t graduate from college without raising your taxes.” This appears to be an oblique reference to Grimes’s call for reduced rates on student loans.

The College Republican National Committee has been investing heavily in online ads aimed at fans of the TV show “Say Yes to the Dress,” in which the dresses are named after gubernatorial candidates. If you are in, say, Florida, you’ll see a happy young woman trying on wedding gowns, twirling around and announcing that “The Rick Scott is perfect,” while her irritating mother demands that she take the Charlie Crist dress, even though it’s unflattering and costs more money. As a writer in Jezebel noted, it seems to have been made by people who felt the best way to communicate with female voters is “to explain things in terms of bridal wear.”

In Colorado, some commentators have given Democrat Mark Udall the nickname “Mark Uterus” because Udall has run so hard on women’s reproductive rights. It is definitely true that Udall has devoted a prodigious amount of ad-time to the fact that his opponent, Representative Cory Gardner, is a longtime supporter of the personhood movement, which declares all fertilized eggs are human beings. Voters find this idea so unnerving that a personhood amendment to the Constitution was soundly defeated in Mississippi. As well as Colorado, twice. Where it is on the ballot in November, yet again.

Gardner said he had changed his mind about the state constitutional amendment after it was overwhelmingly rejected in 2010 and he suddenly realized that it would have an effect on contraceptives. He is still a co-sponsor of a federal personhood bill, which he claims is merely “a statement that I support life.” Personally, I can see why Udall might feel that this matter deserves more inquiry.

To rise to the level of hard-core pandering, a candidate has to float free of issues and waft into the ether of personal feelings. Consider Michigan, where Terri Lynn Land, the Republican candidate for Senate, has been running as a person who’s been victimized for being a mother.

The issue here is that Land has developed a tendency to deflect questions by mentioning that she’s a parent. Local columnists have begun to make jokes about it, and there were suggestions that the mom-mentions might make a good drinking game. A spokesperson for Land’s opponent, Gary Peters, said that being a mom was a good thing, but a strange point to bring up when the issue at hand was, say, ISIS.

“Well, I’m a mom, and I tell you, moms look at things from their perspective,” said Land in a comment that her staff mass-mailed under the headline “ ‘Well, I’m a Mom,’ Terri Lynn Land Fires Back.” Soon, prominent female Republicans were dropping hints that Michelle Obama might want to intervene on behalf of motherhood.

What do you think? How much mom-mentioning is too much? Here in New York, we have a candidate for Congress who’s running under the slogan “Doctor. Mother. Neighbor.” Does that sound a little … vague?

One thing we know: male candidates who get in trouble over issues of sexism are not allowed to get out of it by marshaling all the women in their family to pose for a campaign ad. Really, that’s just one step short of dragging your wife into the press conference where you announce you’re resigning due to those sexting charges.

We are thinking here about Representative Steve Southerland, a Florida Republican who sent out invitations to a male-only campaign event that suggested his guests “tell the misses not to wait up” because “the after dinner whiskey and cigars will be smooth & the issues to discuss are many.”

Southerland is running against Democrat Gwen Graham, and doing such a swell job of it that in a year that House Republicans are expecting a big sweep, he’s in trouble. Possibly more endangered than the guy in Staten Island who was indicted for perjury and tax fraud shortly after threatening to throw a TV reporter over a Capitol balcony.

When The Tampa Bay Times asked him about the male-only event, Southerland laughed and said: “I live with five women. That’s all I’m saying. I live with five women. Listen: Has Gwen Graham ever been to a lingerie shower? Ask her. And how many men were there?”

Now he’s up with a new ad in which he stands surrounded by his sister, mother, daughters and his wife, who announces: “Steve’s heart is in the right place.”

But his brain (which I wonder if he has) is right up his ass.

Kristof and Collins

October 9, 2014

In “The Diversity of Islam” Mr. Kristof says we should beware generalizations of Islam or any faith, which sometimes are the religious equivalent of racial profiling.  Ms. Collins has some “Rules to Vote By” and says it’s time for some major-league soul-searching as we look at the candidates running in the midterm elections.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

A few days ago, I was on a panel on Bill Maher’s television show on HBO that became a religious war.

Whether or not Islam itself inspires conflict, debates about it certainly do. Our conversation degenerated into something close to a shouting match and went viral on the web. Maher and a guest, Sam Harris, argued that Islam is dangerous yet gets a pass from politically correct liberals, while the actor Ben Affleck denounced their comments as “gross” and “racist.” I sided with Affleck.

After the show ended, we panelists continued to wrangle on the topic for another hour with the cameras off. Maher ignited a debate that is rippling onward, so let me offer three points of nuance.

First, historically, Islam was not particularly intolerant, and it initially elevated the status of women. Anybody looking at the history even of the 20th century would not single out Islam as the bloodthirsty religion; it was Christian/Nazi/Communist Europe and Buddhist/Taoist/Hindu/atheist Asia that set records for mass slaughter.

Likewise, it is true that the Quran has passages hailing violence, but so does the Bible, which recounts God ordering genocides, such as the one against the Amalekites.

Second, today the Islamic world includes a strain that truly is disproportionately intolerant and oppressive. Barbarians in the Islamic State cite their faith as the reason for their monstrous behavior — most recently beheading a British aid worker devoted to saving Muslim lives — and give all Islam a bad name. Moreover, of the 10 bottom-ranking countries in the World Economic Forum’s report on women’s rights, nine are majority Muslim. In Afghanistan, Jordan and Egypt, more than three-quarters of Muslims favor the death penalty for Muslims who renounce their faith, according to a Pew survey.

The persecution of Christians, Ahmadis, Yazidis, Bahai — and Shiites — is far too common in the Islamic world. We should speak up about it.

Third, the Islamic world contains multitudes: It is vast and varied. Yes, almost four out of five Afghans favor the death penalty for apostasy, but most Muslims say that that is nuts. In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, only 16 percent of Muslims favor such a penalty. In Albania, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan, only 2 percent or fewer Muslims favor it, according to the Pew survey.

Beware of generalizations about any faith because they sometimes amount to the religious equivalent of racial profiling. Hinduism contained both Gandhi and the fanatic who assassinated him. The Dalai Lama today is an extraordinary humanitarian, but the fifth Dalai Lama in 1660 ordered children massacred “like eggs smashed against rocks.”

Christianity encompassed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and also the 13th century papal legate who in France ordered the massacre of 20,000 Cathar men, women and children for heresy, reportedly saying: Kill them all; God will know his own.

One of my scariest encounters was with mobs of Javanese Muslims who were beheading people they accused of sorcery and carrying their heads on pikes. But equally repugnant was the Congo warlord who styled himself a Pentecostal pastor; while facing charges of war crimes, he invited me to dinner and said a most pious grace.

The caricature of Islam as a violent and intolerant religion is horrendously incomplete. Remember that those standing up to Muslim fanatics are mostly Muslims. In Pakistan, a gang of Muslim men raped a young Muslim woman named Mukhtar Mai as punishment for a case involving her brother; after testifying against her attackers and winning in the courts, she selflessly used the compensation money she received from the government to start a school for girls in her village. The Taliban gunmen who shot Malala Yousafzai for advocating for education were Muslims; so was Malala.

Iran has persecuted Christians and Bahais, but a Muslim lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, showed enormous courage by challenging the repression and winning release of a pastor. Dadkhah is now serving a nine-year prison sentence.

A lawyer friend of mine in Pakistan, Rashid Rehman, was a great champion of human rights and religious tolerance — and was assassinated this year by fundamentalists who stormed his office.

Sure, denounce the brutality, sexism and intolerance that animate the Islamic State and constitute a significant strain within Islam. But don’t confuse that with all Islam: Heroes like Mukhtar, Malala, Dadkhah and Rehman also represent an important element.

Let’s not feed Islamophobic bigotry by highlighting only the horrors while neglecting the diversity of a religion with 1.6 billion adherents — including many who are champions of tolerance, modernity and human rights. The great divide is not between faiths, but one between intolerant zealots of any tradition and the large numbers of decent, peaceful believers likewise found in each tradition.

Maybe that is too complicated to convey in a TV brawl. But it’s the reality.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Right now you are probably asking yourself: What should I be looking for in a candidate this election year? Excellent attendance at committee hearings? The ability to write an economic plan from scratch? An affinity for poultry?

It’s time for some major-league soul-searching.

Cribbing

Good news! Many candidates have been serious enough to release their own plans for critical issues like economic development or health care.

Bad news! Some of them seem to have been plagiarized. Monica Wehby, the physician running for the U.S. Senate as a Republican in Oregon, issued a health care plan that BuzzFeed News reported had been taken from work done by Karl Rove’s “super PAC,” and, in another incident, copied from a former primary opponent.

Mary Burke, a candidate for governor of Wisconsin, got caught lifting pieces of her jobs plan from various sources. She came back with an ad saying: “As governor, I’m going to take the best ideas wherever I can find them.” In Georgia, it turns out that the Republican Senate candidate David Perdue’s “five precepts of economic development” were borrowed from Lee Kuan Yew, the ex-prime minister of Singapore.

Generally, this sort of thing is less about ethics than failure to supervise staffers who were supposed to steal ideas and then rewrite them with different words. However, in Perdue’s case, it’s sort of weird when you adopt precepts from a guy who used to have citizens beaten with canes for vandalism.

Bad Behavior

If a candidate gets caught with his pants down, metaphorically or literally, voters should ask:

A) Is this likely to happen again?

B) Will his colleagues think he’s ridiculous?

C) What choice do I have?

We recently learned that Paul Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor in Kansas, was once at a strip club when it was raided by police. Alone with a topless dancer wearing only a G-string. This is kind of embarrassing, but the incident happened 16 years ago. And it’s unlikely voters need to worry a whole lot about waking up to a repetition.

On the other hand, there’s Representative Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina “Love Guv” who recently announced his breakup with his fiancée in a wildly egotistical and embarrassing 2,346-word Facebook posting. In Sanford’s case, the answer to the three questions are: A) Absolutely; B) Yes; and C) None whatsoever, since he is running unopposed.

Animal-Related Bad Behavior

In Iowa, Democrat Bruce Braley’s Senate campaign ran into trouble when Republicans discovered he had once complained to a neighborhood association about the woman next door keeping chickens in her backyard. Birds that were, it turned out, “therapy chickens” used in work with troubled children.

Braley is running against Republican Joni Ernst, who became famous for bragging about her youthful experience castrating pigs. But Chickengate provided Republicans with another opportunity to recall that during the federal government shutdown, Representative Braley was quoted complaining about tough times in the Capitol gym. (“There’s no towel service.”)

Attendance

What if your senator misses committee meetings? This has come up in North Carolina, Kentucky and New Hampshire, where Republicans denounced Senator Jeanne Shaheen for failing to show up for public hearings of the Foreign Relations Committee.

You can pick up useful information at some public hearings. At others, there’s Kevin Costner explaining how to clean up oil spills. Or Elmo from “Sesame Street” urging support for musical education and trying to eat the microphone. Or a member of a boy band expressing his concerns about mountaintop mining.

If your lawmaker seems to be doing something constructive with his or her time, I wouldn’t worry about the committees. “I was on four committees, two subcommittees, a bunch of caucuses,” said a former senator recently. “And plus I was doing my National Guard duty, so I don’t think there’s ever an expectation to have 100 percent attendance.”

That would be the Republican Scott Brown, Senator Shaheen’s opponent, who Democrats claim attended only 44 percent of the meetings of the Homeland Security Committee while he was in the Senate from 2010-12.

Security

Ignore anybody who claims his or her opponent is a threat to national security.

For instance, there’s the Arizona Republican congressional candidate Wendy Rogers, who ran an ad showing the prelude to the beheading of an American journalist as a narrator warned: “Terrorist threats are growing. Are we secure? Are we protected? [...] Kyrsten Sinema allowed her liberal agenda to get in the way of our safety.”

Representative Sinema’s sins were matters like supporting efforts to give Guantánamo Bay detainees trials in U.S. courts.

Also, the ad misspelled “safety.” Really, when you’re warning people that we have to be very, very careful, you ought to check the details.

Nocera and Collins

October 4, 2014

In “Apple’s Irish Luck” Mr. Nocera tells us that it seems all a big company has to do is present its tax-break wish list.  In “The Walrus and the Politicians” Ms. Collins says you’d think that lawmakers in places where ice is melting and the sea levels are rising, like Alaska and Louisiana and Florida, would be on the forefront of climate science, right?  Gee, Ms. Collins, are they Republicans?  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

A few weeks ago, the governor of Nevada, Brian Sandoval, signed into law a tax “incentive package” that his administration had negotiated with Tesla, the electric car company. Tesla is planning to build a giant factory to manufacture the batteries that power its cars, and Nevada was one of five states that were competing fiercely to land the plant.

It ultimately offered a staggering $1.25 billion package of tax breaks that includes sales tax abatements for the next two decades, 10 years of property tax abatements and nearly $200 million in transferable tax credits that Tesla could sell to Nevada companies that wanted to lower their own tax bills. Although Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, insisted that at least one of the other states had offered an even richer tax package, it is clear that the tax breaks Nevada came up with played an important role in landing the Tesla factory.

In reading this week about Apple’s tax dealings in Ireland, I found myself reflecting on the tax deals that American states cut all the time with companies they are trying to lure. It’s not all that different. In a sense, what Ireland has been doing is the global equivalent of what the states do to attract business. And that is especially true in the case of Apple.

Ireland has long had one of the lowest corporate tax rates in Europe; it’s currently 12.5 percent. That low rate, the Irish believe, helped attract industry and create the country’s boom in the years leading up to the financial crisis.

But it did a lot more than simply offer a low corporate tax rate. It set itself up as a kind of European tax haven, so that companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others could, in effect, buy an Irish address to which they could transfer a great deal of their intellectual property and route profits accrued elsewhere through the Irish subsidiary. This is called transfer pricing. Companies could also take advantage of other loopholes in the Irish tax code to get their tax bill considerably lower than 12.5 percent.

As The New York Times reported in a groundbreaking article two years ago — and the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations confirmed last year — Apple takes advantage of every tax break Ireland offers. But according to the European Union’s competition commissioner, Joaquín Almunia, in a letter released this week, the company went a step further in its dealings with the Irish tax authorities.

In 1991, Apple essentially negotiated how much tax the company would pay. It did so after it had explicitly “mentioned by way of background information that Apple was now the largest employer in the Cork area with 1,000 direct employees and 500 persons engaged on a sub-contract basis,” again according to Almunia’s letter. Apple also acknowledged that it had “no scientific basis” for the amount of tax it was willing to pay. The deal was then “reverse engineered” so that Apple’s profits would wind up in the range that would yield the suggested taxes. (Apple now has 4,000 people working in its Cork manufacturing plant, the only Apple-owned factory in Europe; its tax deal with Ireland was reworked in 2007.)

With the recent outcry over corporate tax loopholes, the E.U. decided to take a closer look at some of its members’ tax dealings that had been flagged in the media. In addition to Apple and Ireland, it is looking at Fiat in Luxembourg and Starbucks in the Netherlands. And while the Apple case is far from over — indeed, both Apple and Ireland insist they did nothing wrong — Almunia, at least, has concluded that Apple’s tax deal with Ireland amounts to “state aid.” Under European Commission rules, countries are not allowed to subsidize companies in ways that give them advantages over others in the country.

Here then is one difference between what transpires in the U.S. and what transpires in Europe: The E.U. has rules intended to prevent nations from giving unjustified tax breaks to companies. “In Europe there is now a mechanism to prevent the most harmful abuses” of the tax code, said Matthew Gardner, the executive director of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. It has taken a while — and required an outraged public to spur it on — but the E.U. finally seems intent on curbing excesses like Apple’s tax deal in Ireland.

In truth, most tax subsidies don’t make much sense — not for countries and certainly not for states. “There is a lot of work that shows that tax subsidies vastly overpay for the jobs they create,” said Edward Kleinbard, a law professor at the University of Southern California and the author of the recent book “We Are Better Than This: How Government Should Spend Our Money.”

It’s a good thing that the E.U. is trying to curb unjustified tax breaks. Maybe it’s time to do the same here.

Here’s Ms. Collins:

Let’s consider the walrus crisis.

They’re piling up in Alaska. About 35,000 walruses have formed what looks to be a humongous brown ball along the northern coast. A mass of critters, some weighing 4,000 pounds, are pressed shoulder to shoulder — or flipper to flipper.

Normally, they’d be sitting on chunks of ice, periodically flopping into the water to hunt for snails and clams. But the ice has melted away, and now they’re stuck on land.

On the plus side, walruses are gregarious creatures who like to snuggle. The situation is, therefore, less dire than it would be if you had 35,000 extremely large human beings squashed together on a beach, competing for food. But they’re nervous. “A Russian friend of mine said he saw a rabbit — or a tiny lemming — come near and it caused a stampede,” said Margaret Williams of the World Wildlife Fund.

“Then the little calves get squished. It’s just so unnatural for them to be so close to one another.”

I believe we all would rather see the baby walruses in happier circumstances. Also, this is obviously the sign of worse things to come: melting ice, higher sea levels, warmer oceans, screwed-up weather patterns.

How should we react? Several options:

A) Adopt a walrus family! If every town pitches in, we’ll have this solved in a minute. They can eat 6,000 clams in a single meal, so be sure to stock up.

B) Take this as a signal to get really serious about global warming.

C) Let’s not get carried away. But maybe we could try to cut back on forest fires. Forest fires definitely make things hotter.

The last one is a somewhat snarky adaptation of the climate-change portion of an energy plan recently unveiled by Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, one of the Republican Party’s many, many current presidential hopefuls. Louisiana does not suffer from a walrus problem. However, part of the state is sinking into the sea at a rather rapid rate and you’d think he’d have some strong feelings about global warming.

No sirree. Jindal thinks climate change is just a “Trojan horse” for leftists who want to mess with freedom of choice. But there is, you know, the forest fire idea.

You’d think that the people in charge of the states where climate change was wreaking the most havoc would be in the forefront of the battle to push it back. But no.

In Alaska, entire towns are beginning to disappear under the rising seas. Roads are buckling as the permafrost starts to melt. Polar bears, which used to like to hang out on those ice floes themselves, are land bound, hungry and on the prowl.

Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat, has been forthright about the terrible impact climate change has had, while slightly dodgy about exactly what he wants to do to about it. His opponent, Dan (“the jury’s out”) Sullivan isn’t sure exactly what the heck is going on. He assured one Alaska newspaper that “there is no concrete scientific consensus on the extent to which humans contribute to climate change.”

Actually, there’s a pretty good consensus. A vast, vast majority of climate scientists say that human beings are causing all or part of the changes in climate that are making life miserable for the walrus and destroying the bayou country in Louisiana.

Also, causing the drains in Miami Beach to back up with saltwater, sending the ocean running down the streets. Florida has its own Republican presidential hopeful in Senator Marco Rubio. “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it,” he told ABC News.

(Jeb Bush is from Florida, too. For the record, Bush’s opinion on global warming is that it “may be real.”)

There was a time when Republicans were leaders in the fight to slow climate change — particularly for the concept called “cap and trade,” which had a marketplace-friendly tilt. Among the co-sponsors of a cap-and-trade bill in 2007 was Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican of Alaska. Murkoswki had to run for re-election as an independent in 2010, having lost her party’s nomination to a Tea Party favorite who complains about “climate-change alarmists.”

These days, it takes courage for a Republican to acknowledge that human beings have anything to do with climate change at all.

“If you felt that was a big problem, you would think everybody in the world would be interested in going down this path, but I don’t see any evidence of it so far,” said the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, helpfully.

Pressed on the issue during a recent interview with The Cincinnati Enquirer, the man who hopes to become majority leader of the Senate next year said staunchly: “I’m not a scientist.”

Also on the record as not being a scientist: Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, and Marco Rubio. Florida is absolutely awash in backed-up ocean water and elected officials who are not scientists. Louisiana has a rapidly receding coastline and a governor who’s afraid of the energy industry. Alaska has drowning villages and a political establishment in denial.

We are the walrus.

Kristof and Collins

October 2, 2014

In “What ISIS Could Teach the West” Mr. Kristof says there’s a lesson we can learn from the Islamic State and others we are fighting: the importance of education and women’s empowerment.  Ms. Collins has a question in “Securing Social Security:”  Is that anti-baby-boomer sentiment that’s popping up in Senate debates and congressional races around the country?  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

As we fight the Islamic State and other extremists, there’s something that President Obama and all of us can learn from them. For, in one sense, the terrorists are fighting smarter than we are.

These extremists use arms to fight their battles in the short term, but, to hold ground in the long run, they also combat Western education and women’s empowerment. They know that illiteracy, ignorance and oppression of women create the petri dish in which extremism can flourish.

That’s why the Islamic State kidnapped Samira Salih al-Nuaimi, a brave Iraqi woman and human rights lawyer in Mosul, tortured her and publicly executed her last week. That’s why the Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai, then 15 years old, after she campaigned for educating girls. And that’s why Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls in northern Nigeria and announced that it would turn them into slaves.

In each case, the extremists recognized a basic truth: Their greatest strategic threat comes not from a drone but from a girl with a book. We need to recognize, and act on, that truth as well.

For similar reasons, the financiers of extremism have invested heavily in fundamentalist indoctrination. They have built Wahhabi madrassas in poor Muslim countries like Pakistan, Niger and Mali, offering free meals, as well as scholarships for the best students to study in the gulf.

Shouldn’t we try to compete?

Shouldn’t we use weapons in the short run, but try to gain strategic advantage by focusing on education and on empowering women to build stable societies less vulnerable to extremist manipulation?

The United States’ airstrikes have slowed the advance of the Islamic State and averted a genocide against the Yazidi population in Iraq, but it’s very difficult to win a war from the air. That’s why the Taliban still thrives in Afghanistan after 13 years of American air attacks.

Unfortunately, we’re not playing the long game, as the extremists are. We are vastly overrelying on the military toolbox and underemploying the education toolbox, the women’s empowerment toolbox, the communications toolbox. We’re tacticians; alas, the extremists may be better strategists.

It’s not a question of resources, because bombs are more expensive than books. The United States military campaign against the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL, will cost at least $2.4 billion a year and perhaps many times that, according to an estimate from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

In contrast, Obama seems to have dropped his 2008 campaign promise to establish a $2 billion global fund for education. And the United States gives the Global Partnership for Education, a major multilateral effort, less in a year than what we spend weekly in Syria and Iraq.

This is an area where Congress seems more forward-looking than the president because Congress regularly appropriates substantially more for basic education overseas than Obama requests. Bipartisan legislation, the Education for All Act, would elevate the issue; let’s hope that Obama gets behind it.

No one is naïve enough to think that education is a panacea. Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, have been university educated. Iraq, Syria and Lebanon were all reasonably well-educated and supportive of gender equality by regional standards, yet all have been torn apart by civil wars.

Still, the historical record of the last half-century is that education tends to nurture a more cosmopolitan middle class and gives people a stake in the system. In Hong Kong today, we’re seeing how educated youth often behave. They are demanding democracy, but peacefully.

Girls’ education seems to have more impact than boys’ education, partly because educated women have markedly fewer children. The result is lower birthrates and less of a youth bulge in the population, which highly correlates to civil conflict.

I support judicious airstrikes in the short term against the Islamic State, but that should be only one part of a policy combating extremism. And a starting point should be to ensure that the three million Syrian refugees mostly in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon — especially girls — can get schooling. Right now, many are getting none, and one study published last month found that Syria had the worst reversal in educational attainment in recent history, with enrollment rates for Syrian children in Lebanon less than half the level of those in sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet the Unicef request for education funding for Syrians was only 40 percent financed as of mid-August. If we miss this opportunity, those children will be tinder for future wars and extremism, and we’ll be stuck dropping bombs for generations to come.

So let’s learn from the extremists — and from those brave girls themselves who are willing to risk their lives in order to get an education. They all understand the power of education, and we should, too.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

There was this at the Senate debate in Iowa on Sunday:

“I will fight hard to protect Social Security and Medicare for seniors like my mom and dad because our Greatest Generation has worked so hard for the American dream for our families,” said Republican Joni Ernst.

Like many conservatives, Ernst supports some sort of privatization in the Social Security program. She’s a little hazy on the details. But we do know that the Greatest Generation is the name Tom Brokaw gave to the Americans who came through the Depression and spent their young adulthood fighting World War II. They would actually be Joni Ernst’s grandparents.

There are two possible interpretations to her statement:

A) She wants to portray Social Security and Medicare recipients in the noblest light possible.

B) She is promising to protect benefits for everybody over the age of 85.

I detect some anti-boomer sentiment. Ernst is 44, and like most people born after the mid-1960s, she probably resented having to grow up under our self-absorbed shadow.

“But many of those boomers, now in their late 60s, depend on Social Security, especially after the Great Recession,” said Brokaw, who always takes the high road on generational matters.

Maybe Ernst just identifies the whole 60-something generation with Hillary Clinton; Ernst’s husband did refer to Clinton as a “hag” on his Facebook page. Although that incident was less about Social Security than about the inadvisability of giving political spouses access to social media.

The Senate race in Iowa is one of the tightest in the country, and the debate drew so much attention that it got a segment on “The Daily Show.” Jon Stewart highlighted the part where Ernst got personal with her Democratic opponent, Representative Bruce Braley. (“You threatened to sue a neighbor over chickens that came onto your property.”)

We are not going to have time to delve deep into the controversy that is known to political junkies as Chickengate. We are focusing on Social Security! We haven’t talked about this issue for a long time, and it ought to be part of our election-year repertoire.

Conservative Republicans still tend to hew to the theory that the system is “going bankrupt” and needs to be turned into some kind of private retirement investment account. They also generally promise to protect people 55 or over from any change.

“I’m not going to take away your Social Security. Don’t worry about it. Anybody over 55 doesn’t have to worry about any reform measure,” said Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas in a recent debate. He added: “You don’t have to worry about doing anything with Social Security in the next part of this session. Harry Reid will block that real quick.”

Mentioning the mendacity of Majority Leader Harry Reid in every other sentence is a verbal tic Roberts has acquired. However, if you break that statement down, what he seems to be saying is that if you’re, say, 52 and want to make sure Social Security stays the way it is, you will have no problem as long as Democrats control the U.S. Senate.

By the way, Social Security is not going bankrupt. In 2033, incoming payroll taxes will no longer be enough to pay for all the benefits. But they’ll still cover about 75 percent of the payments and we could take care of the rest of the problem with a few tweaks — like getting rid of the cap on Social Security taxes. (Currently, all income over $117,000 is exempt from the payroll tax.)

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also helpfully points out that “by coincidence,” the amount Social Security would need to stay completely in balance over the next 75 years is almost exactly the same as the amount the government lost when Congress extended the Bush tax cuts for people making over $250,000 a year.

And Social Security is a terrific program. It currently lifts more than 15 million elderly Americans out of poverty and provides many millions more with comfort and security they wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. Its administrative costs are well below 1 percent of expenditures. “It’s much more efficient than private sector retirement programs,” said Jason Furman, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, in a phone interview.

Furman actually thinks Social Security spending should be increased, to create a minimum benefit floor. Elderly women who’ve had an irregular work career due to family demands often wind up losing a critical part of their coverage when their husbands die. “Even George Bush wanted to extend the minimum benefit,” he said.

If you happen upon a congressional debate in the next few weeks, feel free to ask the candidates what they’re going to do to protect Social Security. Bring along a 54-year-old friend who might helpfully burst into tears when anyone starts promising to protect the 55-year-olds.

Nocera and Collins

September 27, 2014

In “Paralysis Isn’t Inevitable” Mr. Nocera says solutions to “intractable” problems could be closer than we think.  In “Not For the Faint of Heart” Ms. Collins addresses real fear and loathing on the campaign trail.  Gee, I wonder what Hunter Thompson would have had to say about the current crop of Republicans…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

One of the hardest things for us to do is to envision a future that is different from the present. For instance, we live in an age of paralyzed politics, so it is hard, in the here and now, to imagine what could change that. A second example: It is difficult to think of a scenario where federal gun legislation could be passed over the objections of the National Rifle Association. And a third: Income inequality has been the trend for some three decades; doesn’t it look as if it will always be that way?

What prompts these thoughts are two papers that landed on my desk recently. Although they tackle very different issues, they have one thing in common: They imagine a future that breaks from the present path.

The first is a draft of a speech given earlier this month at TEDMED by Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. (TEDMED is associated with TED Talks.) The second is an article in the latest edition of the Harvard Business Review by Roger Martin, the former dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

Webster’s speech lays out an agenda that he predicts will reduce the murder rate by 30 to 50 percent within 20 years. “I don’t think that our current level of gun violence is here to stay,” he declares in the draft of the speech. Martin’s article is about how the rise of the “talent economy,” as he calls it, has helped further income inequality. But he doesn’t believe a high level of income inequality is an inevitable part of our future.

Let’s tackle Webster first. Politically, he told me, “It’s a loser to call for a gun ban.” Instead, his reforms would make it more difficult for criminals to get their hands on guns. Using background checks, he would keep guns away from people who have a history of violence. He would raise the age of gun ownership to 21. (Webster notes that homicides peak between the ages of 18 and 20.) He would pass laws that make gun dealers more accountable, including “requiring business practices that prevent guns being diverted to criminals.” And he would mandate something called microstamping, “which would make it possible to trace a gun used in a crime to its first purchaser.”

When I asked him why he thought these changes would eventually take place, given the inability of the Senate to pass a background check bill after Newtown, he pointed to polls that show the vast majority of gun owners favor such changes.

“The N.R.A. has been very successful in controlling the conversation and making it about a cultural war,” he told me. “But I believe that narrative won’t persist.” The key, he says, is to change the conversation so that it is about pro- and anti-crime instead of pro- and anti-gun. Once that happens, “gun owners will start to demand changes.” He added, “I think that ultimately that idea will prevail, and it will be a pretty mainstream idea.”

Now to Roger Martin. His essay traces the way “talent” came to replace labor and capital as the most important factor in the economy, so much so that those who were part of the talent economy could become billionaires even as the median income stalled and then slipped back. Chief executives, who have gorged on stock options, are part of the talent economy, and so are hedge fund managers, who charge the infamous “2 and 20” (meaning a 2 percent management fee and 20 percent of the profits), which ensures their wealth no matter how poorly their investors do. The interests of such talent, in his view, simply don’t align with the interests of the rest of us.

Like Webster, Martin also proposed a series of changes to “correct the imbalance,” as he puts it. He suggests that pension funds should see that they are best served when they do not hand capital to hedge funds, for instance. And he wants talent to show “self-restraint.”

When I told him that seemed unlikely, he told me he thought we were approaching a moment like 1935, when, after years of letting labor fend for itself, the government passed laws that protected labor and helped bring about the rise of the labor movement.

If talent doesn’t start taking the rest of the country into account, he said, he feared that the government would once again take significant action to level the playing field.

Given the current political paralysis, I asked, what might bring that about? “Another boom and crash,” he said.

Martin clearly sees his article as a warning to corporate executives and others who are part of the 1 percent. And maybe, just maybe, it will take hold. After all, not long after his article was published, Calpers, the huge California pension fund, announced that it was going to eliminate hedge funds from its portfolio. There’s hope yet.

There will be pie in the sky when we die by and by, and if wishes were horses beggars would ride, and if my grandmother had wheels she’d have been a buggy…  Here’s Ms. Collins:

In an ideal world, ads for congressional candidates would not look like promos for “Homeland.”

But there they are! Grainy shots of barbed-wire, terrorist training camps and men in Arab garb firing large weapons, overlaid with scary sound clips from cable news. (“Are they coming for us?”)

O.K., we’re scared enough. We already had the Iraqi prime minister free-associating about terrorists in the subways this week. We don’t need to be told that if we vote for the wrong candidate in November, it’s curtains.

In an election year, there’s certainly a lot of foreign policy to debate. Should Congress be voting on whether we’re going to war? Which of the candidates think we should send American troops? Should we really be arming Syrian rebels?

You will be stunned to hear that none of these issues are the subject of campaign ads. What we’re getting is stuff like:

“Staci Appel — Passports for Terrorists” (Iowa)

“Dan Maffei Puts Us at Risk” (New York)

“Michelle Nunn’s own plan says she funded organizations linked to terrorists.” (Georgia)

That last one comes from Republican Senate candidate David Perdue. We don’t have time here to follow the intricate, pothole-paved path that led the Perdue camp to that conclusion. But to get there you have to be prepared to believe that Points of Light, a charity founded by George H. W. Bush, has been assisting Hamas.

The Republican fear-mongering has several aims. One is to remind voters that the Democratic candidate in question belongs to the same party as Barack Obama. This is totally fair. It may get boring, but it is not against the rules.

Theme 2 is that Candidate X is making it easier for Americans who trained as terrorists overseas to get back into the country and blow something up.

Staci Appel, a candidate for Congress in Des Moines, fell into a deep hole during a debate when her Republican opponent said that if he were in office, he’d “be urging our State Department” to revoke the passports of people who have admitted they belong to terrorist organizations.

Since “urging” is pretty much all members of Congress do these days, it sounds like a relatively harmless way to pass the time. However, Appel demurred, and said “we need to make sure that we work through the system.”

Perhaps she misunderstood what he was saying. But you know what happened next. The poor woman was eventually forced to run her own ad announcing that she “Supports Revoking Passports for Terrorists.”

Meanwhile, up in New Hampshire, Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown has been bragging that when he was last in office — during a previous incarnation as the senator from Massachusetts — he sponsored a bill to revoke the citizenship of anyone who gives aid to a terrorist group.

That’s a lot different from passports. You can certainly try somebody for treason, but there’s no way to just decree that an American is no longer an American. The founding fathers were very clear on that point. If you resurrected James Madison and showed him Obamacare and citizenship-stripping, I can guarantee you which one would freak him out.

The most popular terrorism-connected campaign theme is overall border security, since it allows conservative candidates to roll up ISIS terrorists with illegal Hispanic immigrants. “She’s for amnesty, while terrorism experts say our border breakdown could provide an entry for groups like ISIS!” announced that David Perdue ad against Michelle Nunn in Georgia. Some experts believe that even at this early hour, Perdue has wrapped up the title of Worst Commercial of the Campaign.

The “terrorism experts,” by the way, are actually the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Brown took up the same theme this week, lacing into both President Obama and his opponent, Senator Jeanne Shaheen, for a “passive, pathetic attitude” on protecting the borders.

This was during his first foreign affairs speech as a candidate in New Hampshire. Shaheen’s campaign took the occasion to remind the world that when he was representing Massachusetts, Brown had boasted about his “secret meetings with kings and queens,” which appear to have all been fictional.

Except for citizenship-revoking, Brown’s speech was general in the extreme. It would be great to hear some specifics.

Right now the United States spends more on border security than on all the rest of its criminal law enforcement agencies combined. Under President Obama, the Department of Homeland Security has constructed nearly 650 miles of fences. The number of border patrol agents has doubled to more than 20,000. They patrol every mile of the border every day, aided by 10 drones.

When candidates announce they want to beef up border security, how much more do you think they want to spend? Should there be an agent every 500 feet? A line of officers holding hands from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico? Inquiring minds want to know.

Maybe they could put it in an ad.

Kristof and Collins

September 25, 2014

In “The Ebola Fiasco” Mr. Kristof says world leaders fumbled the response to Ebola. Now, instead of a tiny cost in money, we will all pay hugely in lost lives and resources for other initiatives.  Ms. Collins says “Florida Goes Down the Drain” and that climate change is the new unmentionable these days on Capitol Hill and in state capitols.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is a tragedy. But, more than that, the response to it has been a gross failure.

It’s a classic case where early action could have saved lives and money. Yet the world dithered, and with Ebola cases in Liberia now doubling every two to three weeks, the latest worst-case estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is that there could be 1.4 million cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone by late January.

We would never tolerate such shortsightedness in private behavior. If a roof leaks, we fix it before a home is ruined. If we buy a car, we add oil to keep the engine going. Yet in public policy — from education to global health — we routinely refuse to invest at the front end and have to pay far more at the back end.

We know how to confront the Ebola virus. In Uganda, an excellent American-backed prevention initiative trained local health workers to recognize the virus and stop it from spreading, so, in 2011, an Ebola outbreak there stopped after just a single case.

We also know from our catastrophic mishandling of AIDS a generation ago — or the mishandling of cholera in Haiti more recently — that it’s imperative to stop infectious diseases early. Yet the reaction to the Ebola outbreak after it began in December in Guinea was a global shrug: It was mishandled by local countries and by the rest of the world, so, instead of a tiny cost in money and lives, we will now all pay hugely.

If the worst-case scenario comes to pass in West Africa, it may become endemic in the region and reach the West. Ebola is quite lethal but not particularly contagious, so it presumably wouldn’t cause an epidemic in countries with modern health systems. This entire tragedy is a failure of humanity.

As donor countries scramble to respond (which may cost $1 billion in the next six months, according to the United Nations, although nobody really knows), the risk is that they will raid pots of money intended for other vital purposes to assist the world’s needy. Jamie Drummond of the One campaign says he worries that governments may try to finance Ebola countermeasures with money that otherwise would buy childhood vaccines or ease emerging famines in Somalia and South Sudan.

Vaccines are a bargain. Since 1990, vaccines and other simple interventions (such as treatments for diarrhea) have saved nearly 100 million children’s lives, according to Unicef. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, is now in the middle of trying to raise an additional $7.5 billion to subsidize vaccinations of 300 million additional children around the world. On top of the $2 billion it has, Gavi says this would save 5 million to 6 million lives and produce economic benefits of $80 billion to $100 billion.

Such an investment should be a no-brainer. In the 21st century, we have the resources to fight more than one fire at a time.

“I am worried,” said Seth Berkley, the chief executive of Gavi. “You wouldn’t want to reduce immunizing children around the world to deal with an emergency even as severe as Ebola.”

We invest vast sums to address national security risks that have a military dimension, hence President Obama’s decision to renovate the American nuclear arsenal at a cost that could reach $1 trillion over three decades. So let’s remember that infectious diseases can also constitute a national security threat.

Our shortsightedness afflicts so many areas of public policy. We spend billions of dollars fighting extremists today, but don’t invest tiny sums educating children or empowering women, even though that’s the strategy with a solid record of success at reducing extremism in the medium term — and even though we can finance at least 20 schools for the cost of deploying one soldier abroad for one year.

At home, we don’t invest adequately in family-planning programs even though pregnancy prevention initiatives for at-risk teenagers pay for themselves many times over. We don’t invest in early education programs that have a robust record in reducing later criminal behavior, preferring instead to pay for prisons.

Indeed, this is such a market failure that new financial instruments — social impact bonds — address it. The bonds pay for job training or early education programs and then earn a financial return for investors when the government saves money.

Yet the worst consequence of our myopia isn’t financial waste. It’s that people are dying unnecessarily of Ebola. It’s that some children in the United States grow up semiliterate. And it’s the risk that the cost of leaders’ mismanagement of Ebola will be borne by children going without vaccines.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

On Miami Beach, rising sea levels have interesting consequences. The ocean periodically starts bubbling up through local drainpipes. By the time it’s over, the concept of “going down to the water” has extended to stepping off the front porch.

It’s becoming a seasonal event, like swallows at Capistrano or the return of the buzzards to Hinckley, Ohio.

“At the spring and fall high tides, we get flooding of coastal areas,” said Leonard Berry, the director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies. “You’ve got saltwater coming up through the drains, into the garages and sidewalks and so on, damaging the Ferraris and the Lexuses.”

Ah, climate change. A vast majority of scientific studies that take a stand on global warming have concluded that it’s caused by human behavior. The results are awful. The penguins are dwindling. The polar bears are running out of ice floes. The cornfields are drying. The southwest is frying.

There is very little on the plus side. Except maybe for Detroit. As Jennifer Kingson reported in The Times this week, one scientific school of thought holds that while temperatures rise and weather becomes extreme in other parts of the country, Detroit’s location will turn it into a veritable garden spot.

Miami is probably not used to being compared unfavorably to Detroit. But there you are. “We’re going to wander around shin-deep in the ocean — on the streets of Miami,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who is planning to go on a climate-change tour this month with Florida’s senior senator, Bill Nelson. (The junior senator, Marco Rubio, who’s no fan of “these scientists,” will presumably not be joining the party.)

Once a week, when the Senate is in session, Whitehouse gets up and makes a speech about rising sea levels or disappearing lakes or dwindling glaciers. He’s kind of the congressional climate-change guy. He’s also looking for bipartisan love and feeling lonely. “I’ve got exactly no Republican colleagues helping me out with this,” he said.

There was a time, children, when the parties worked together on climate-change issues. No more. Only 3 percent of current Republican members of Congress have been willing to go on record as accepting the fact that people are causing global warming. That, at least, was the calculation by PolitiFact, which found a grand total of eight Republican nondeniers in the House and Senate. That includes Representative Michael Grimm of New York, who while laudably open-minded on this subject, is also under indictment for perjury and tax fraud. So we may be pushing 2 percent in January.

This is sort of stunning. We’re only looking for a simple acknowledgment of basic facts. We’ll give a pass to folks who accept the connection between human behavior and climate change, but say they don’t want to do anything about it.

Or that China should do something first.

Or: “Who cares? I’m from Detroit!”

In Congress, Republican environmentalists appear to be terrified of what should be the most basic environmental issue possible. Whitehouse blames the Supreme Court’s decisions on campaign finance, which gave the energy barons carte blanche when it comes to spending on election campaigns. It’s certainly true that there’s no way to tick off megadonors like the fabled Koch brothers faster than to suggest the globe is warming.

“At the moment, there’s a dogma in the Republican Party about what you can say,” Tom Steyer told me. He’s the billionaire who formed a “super PAC” to support candidates who acknowledge that climate change exists, that it’s caused by human behavior, and that we need to do something major about it.

Steyer has committed to spending about $100 million this year on ads and organizing in seven states. Many in the campaign-finance-reform community think this is a terrible idea, and that you do not combat the power of right-wing oligarchs to influence American elections by doing the same thing on the left. They have a point. But think of the penguins.

Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, who’s running for re-election, has been asked many times whether he believes in man-made climate change. Lately, he responds: “I’m not a scientist.” Scott is also not a doctor, engineer, computer programmer, personal trainer or a bus driver. Really, it’s amazing he even has the confidence to walk into the office in the morning.

The governor did visit last month with some climate scientists. He began the meeting by making it clear that he did not intend to go anywhere near the word causes. After the group had pulled out their maps and projections — including the one that shows much of Miami-Dade County underwater by 2048 — Scott asked them questions. Which were, according to The Miami Herald, “to explain their backgrounds, describe the courses they taught, and where students in their academic fields get jobs.”

If they’re lucky, the students will wind up someplace where there’s no seawater in the garage.

Cohen, Nocera and Collins

September 20, 2014

In “We the People of Scotland” Mr. Cohen says the vote to stay in Britain amounted to a powerful reminder of the virtues of democracy.  Mr. Nocera, in “Getting it Wrong,” says speaking after one of the N.F.L.’s worst weeks, Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner, ended up saying what he has already said before.  In “Exercising the Right to Rant” Ms. Collins says never to worry! Our elected representatives have averted a government shutdown by decreeing that we will keep spending whatever it is we’ve been spending for a while.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

The union has survived, comfortably enough in the end. Scotland will remain part of Britain. The queen’s title will stay unchanged: Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her Other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. Phew: In that mouthful lurks a lot of history and stability. Relief is palpable. The pound rallied. David Cameron, the Tory prime minister who risked all, exhaled.

A clear majority of 55 percent of Scots rejected independence in a referendum that had many merits. The questioning of democracy has become fashionable. Stillborn after the Arab Spring, paralyzed by discord in the United States, increasingly pliant to money, dithering in its processes beside the authoritarian systems of China and Russia, often unable to deliver growth or stem rising inequality, democracy has become the problem child of the 21st century.

This vote, in which free people expressed their will over the potential breakup of Britain, amounted to a powerful reminder of democracy’s virtues. Participation was high. Civility in disagreement prevailed. “Aye” and “Nae” did battle; then they had a beer. In the words of the defeated Scottish nationalist leader, Alex Salmond, the referendum was “a triumph of the democratic process.”

More than two in five Scots voted for independence. Many of these “Yes” voters were young or struggling or both. Another merit of this “democratic process” was to demonstrate the alienation felt toward London with its giddy self-regarding boom and toward the Tory children of privilege running Britain. Scotland did not want to go it alone. Nor does it want more of the same. Cameron will have to deliver on his promise of a radical further devolution of power to Scotland, and to other areas of Britain, if he is to respect this result. Technology is a great enabler. It can now bring democracy closer to people, somewhat in the manner of the Athenian city state 2,500 years ago. That must be democracy’s future. Spain would be wrong to deny Catalonia a similar vote. Union can only make a legitimate claim to be stronger if it is prepared to test its strength at the ballot box. Scottish independence would have created havoc for a time, but an independent Scotland was no more an inconceivable notion than an independent Catalonia.

Tolerance and good sense are the bedrock virtues of the United Kingdom. As I listened to the BBC the other day, a segment on Scotland segued into the trial in China of a prominent Uighur scholar accused of separatism, a crime that can result in the death penalty. Ilham Tohti, a critic of Chinese policies toward his Uighur minority, is widely considered a moderate voice calling for dialogue with the Han majority. In China moderate separatism equals, with luck, a moderate prison sentence rather than execution.

Beijing is the great rising power of the world, a reminder in a time of insouciance that what was embodied in the Scottish vote is worth defending. The ballot is no mere trifle. It is liberty. Scotland, nation of the Enlightenment, has given a timely lesson. That, too, was a merit of this vote.

Mine was a family of immigrants in postwar Britain. They came at a time of great transcontinental reflux from retreating empire. For many, these shores have felt like David Copperfield’s experience of coming “home” to Aunt Betsey Trotwood and being given a good, warm bath. Prejudice for incomers has been inescapable in Britain, and sometimes bigotry, but stronger still were the traditions of a liberal nation of diverse peoples. That was the most important idea conserved in this result.

Whenever I walk in lovely Regent’s Park and see the minaret of London’s Central Mosque looming, I think to myself: Is it really that complicated? Can people of different faiths not accept one another’s beliefs and find common cause? They can, sometimes, but it takes centuries. It is fitting that on the day Scotland decided to honor its embracing identity, more than 100 British Muslim imams, organizations and individuals wrote to express “horror and revulsion” at the murders perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, whose voice at the beheadings has carried a British accent.

Scotland has given another important lesson to Cameron. It is the most pro-European corner of Britain. Part of its restiveness stemmed from the appalling spectacle of Cameron toying with British membership of the European Union as he tried to appease his little-England right wing. If re-elected, he has promised a referendum on E.U. membership. Complacency followed by panic over the Scottish vote has not enhanced Cameron’s standing, even in victory. It is time to state unambiguously that the very qualities that prevailed in Scotland — good sense, economic interest, tolerance, openness, diversity and cultural ecumenism — also make an irrefutable case for Britain in Europe.

Next up we have Mr. Nocera, who’s at his best when taking on Big Sport:

I turned on ESPN about 15 minutes before Roger Goodell’s Friday afternoon news conference. There was a round table of analysts and reporters, led by Bob Ley, the journalist who covers the serious side of sports for the network. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought they were prepping for a coming news conference by a politician in trouble rather than the commissioner of the National Football League.

“What do we need to hear from Goodell?” Ley pressed the panel.

“He has to say concretely that this is what we are going to do,” replied Bill Polian, the former president and general manager of the Indianapolis Colts (and now an ESPN analyst).

The screen was split between Ley’s panel and the empty lectern that Goodell would soon step behind. At one point before the news conference, the network switched to a shot in Baltimore of Ravens fans standing in line to trade in their Ray Rice jerseys for a free jersey of a different Ravens player — one who hadn’t been seen in a video cold-cocking someone who was then his fiancée. The wait was several hours long.

Goodell’s news conference came at the end of one of the worst weeks in the history of professional football, a week that ranks right up there with the time Pete Rozelle, the commissioner then, instructed the league to play its games the weekend after President Kennedy was shot.

To recap quickly: The Carolina Panthers, who planned to allow Greg Hardy to play in last week’s home opener, despite his conviction for domestic assault, instead deactivated the defensive end 90 minutes before kickoff and then put him on the “exempt list.” The Minnesota Vikings reactivated their star running back Adrian Peterson after he sat out a game when he was indicted on a charge of child abuse. Then, after a furor that included the loss of a sponsor, the Radisson hotel chain, Peterson was relieved of his duties again. Incredibly, the Vikings’ management then patted themselves on the back for “getting it right.

In Arizona, the Cardinals benched a player named Jonathan Dwyer, who had just posted $25,000 bond after being arrested on charges of aggravated assault against his wife and 17-month-old son. And last Friday, the league acknowledged that one in three players would develop debilitating brain conditions.

Meanwhile, reporters and sports columnists were accusing Goodell of hiding in his bunker — he hadn’t talked to the press since one very shaky CBS interview on Sept. 10 — even as one shoe dropped after another. Far scarier for the league, a raft of sponsors were issuing statements denouncing the N.F.L.’s handling of domestic violence. One sponsor, Procter & Gamble, pulled out of a major on-field initiative for the N.F.L.’s annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month (which, it’s worth noting, is part of the league’s effort to draw more female fans). This was serious: The N.F.L.’s vaunted business model was suddenly showing cracks.

When he arrived at the podium, Goodell made a short statement in which he said … nothing. Maybe that is a little unfair, but not by much. He was sorry he had initially botched the Ray Rice case by giving him just a two-game suspension. He was going to do better. The league was going to “get it right.” He was going to bring in experts to help the league rewrite its rules about player conduct. Everyone in the league would be getting training on domestic violence and sexual abuse. He was going to establish a conduct committee to “ensure that we are always living with the best practices.” And so on.

You would have thought that if Goodell were going to hold a news conference he would have something more to say than that he was sorry and that he was going to consult experts — things he has said before. Stunningly, he didn’t, which became even clearer when reporters started asking questions.

My former Times colleague Judy Battista, who now works for the NFL Network — and thus is effectively an employee of Goodell’s — asked him bluntly what Ray Rice had initially told him and how that contrasted to what he saw months later on the video. He wouldn’t say.

“Why do you feel like you should be able to continue in this role?” he was asked. “Because I acknowledged my mistake” was his answer.

A CNBC reporter asked him to comment on the loss of the Procter & Gamble sponsorship. He answered in vague platitudes. “We’re going to clean up our house, we’re going to get this straight, and we’re going to make a difference.”

And when asked how he could conceivably have given Ray Rice that original two-game suspension, he replied that the league’s policies “had fallen behind.” Yes, that must be it. It was all the fault of the “policy.”

The truth is that the N.F.L. has had a domestic violence problem for years, which Goodell and the league have largely tolerated. The Ray Rice video put that tolerance on vivid display. That is the fact that Goodell can’t say out loud — and why instead he says nothing at all.

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Congress is gone. But not forgotten.

O.K., to be honest, they’re totally forgotten. The members of the House and Senate have been out of session for about a day and the nation has already totally wiped them from the memory bank.

Oh, America’s Legislature, we hardly knew ye.

Before decamping to go home and run for re-election, our elected representatives voted to fund the government and go to war. Pretty much ran the table on their constitutional responsibilities. Normally, that sort of thing would draw attention. “Before I came here I imagined that when war was discussed, everybody would be at their desk,” complained Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, to a rather vacant chamber.

To be fair, Congress actually just gave a vague grunt of acceptance to one part of President Obama’s strategy to combat ISIS. (It could have gone further, but you know how much these guys like leaving everything up to the president.) And it averted a government shutdown by decreeing that we will keep on spending whatever it is we’ve been spending for a couple more months.

“You don’t get perfect,” said Representative Steny Hoyer, the House minority whip.

We were all actually aware of that.

On the plus side — bipartisan! Republicans and Democrats joined together in what was the legislative version of a deep, depressive sigh.

“The bill before us is an imperfect bill.”

“I don’t think we have a better option.”

They were very possibly right. In theory, Congress is supposed to figure out how much money every federal department needs, and then pass some spending bills. However, the system’s been collapsing under partisan pressures for years. The last time it was normal to start every fiscal year with the money plan totally under control, air travel was glamorous.

And when it came to the Obama plans for Syria and Iraq, the members were faced with a rather distressing series of options: A) Give up on the whole idea of doing something about ISIS. B) Come up with their own idea for doing something about ISIS. Or C) Just stay in Washington and keep talking.

While the stay-and-talk option might have been the most honorable path, I think I speak for many Americans in saying that I cannot imagine them coming up with anything helpful. But we should at least reserve the right to rant. They went home! Early!

Let’s discuss, just for the heck of it, a couple of the things Congress did not feel constrained to do before they went back to meet the voters.

What about corporate inversion — the growing tendency of American companies to magically transform themselves into foreign entities in order to avoid paying American taxes? The White House asked Congress to pass a fairly simple plan to deal with that. No dice. Defending his members on Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner said that fixing inversion is way too low a bar and what they should really do is reform “the whole tax code.”

People, how many of you think Congress is going to fix the whole tax code? It’s like saying you aren’t going to open a door because the public really deserves to see the house levitated.

Speaking of the House, its Ways and Means Committee, which is run by Boehner’s very own party, did come up with a sweeping plan for tax reform this year. The speaker promptly made fun of it. (“Blah, blah, blah, blah.”) Having completely and thoroughly slammed the door on any discussion of the bill, he told reporters this week that he was “shocked at how little I have heard about it.”

Then there’s political intelligence. (I know, I know. Stop snickering.) Reformers want to avert the possibility that congressional insiders might pass on insider information to research firms that counsel investors. For instance, imagine there’s a change coming in government payment rates for health insurers. If, say, a Senate staffer leaked that information, it might cause the stock in said firms to soar before the world is informed of the new policy. Which actually happened last year.

Congress had tackled the problem as part of a bill barring members from insider trading that passed in 2012. The House majority leader, Eric Cantor, stripped the provision out at the last minute. Perhaps you remember Eric Cantor. He was the guy who got tossed out of office in a primary in which his totally unknown opponent claimed Cantor was a creature of crony capitalism.

A bipartisan trio of House members is now trying to revive the idea. Louise Slaughter of New York, one of the sponsors, says a bill’s been introduced. But although there is no end to the marvelous achievements people are predicting for the after-election lame-duck session. Congress reforming itself is not one of them.

“Not a snowball’s chance in hell,” said Slaughter.

Cantor is now a brand-new member of the investment banking industry. With $1.4 million in signing bonuses.

O.K., that was the rant. I feel much better.


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