Archive for the ‘Collins’ Category

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.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

September 18, 2014

In “On Spanking and Abuse” Mr. Blow says drawing blood isn’t an expression of love. It’s an expression of anger and exasperation that morphs into abuse.  Mr. Kristof, in “From D.C. to Syria, a Mess,” says so far the Obama administration is bungling its mission for fighting the Islamic State in Syria.  Ms. Collins says “Sex is the Least of It,” and tells us that Representative Mark Sanford of South Carolina has gone from the Love Guv to the Facebook Congressman.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

According to reports about the Adrian Peterson felony abuse indictment, Peterson’s 4-year-old son pushed another of Peterson’s sons off a video game. Peterson then retrieved a tree branch — called a “switch” — stripped off its leaves, shoved leaves into the boy’s mouth and beat him with his pants down until he bled.

According to a CBS affiliate in Houston, Peterson texted the boy’s mother that she would be “mad at me about his legs. I got kinda good wit the tail end of the switch.”

He also reportedly texted that he “felt bad after the fact when I notice the switch was wrapping around hitting I (sic) thigh” and “Got him in nuts once I noticed. But I felt so bad, n I’m all tearing that butt up when needed! I start putting them in timeout. N save the whooping for needed memories!”

But the boy reportedly said, “Daddy Peterson hit me on my face,” that his father “likes belts and switches,” that “there are a lot of belts in Daddy’s closet,” and that he “has a whooping room.”

Spanking is not against the law in America — although some argue that it should be, as it is in Sweden and some other countries — but, as with most things in life, there are degrees beyond which even something that is generally acceptable, or at least legal, crosses a threshold and becomes not so.

This seems, on its face, from what we now know, a case in which the limits have most likely been exceeded.

Peterson released a statement that read, in part:

“I have to live with the fact that when I disciplined my son the way I was disciplined as a child, I caused an injury that I never intended or thought would happen. I know that many people disagree with the way I disciplined my child. I also understand after meeting with a psychologist that there are other alternative ways of disciplining a child that may be more appropriate.”

It is good that Peterson met with a psychologist and learned alternative disciplinary methods, but that doesn’t heal the child’s wounds, and the fact that Peterson may have been abused in this way does not make it acceptable to pass on the abuse to his own children.

He continued, setting up an even more dangerous proposition:

“I have learned a lot and have had to re-evaluate how I discipline my son going forward. But deep in my heart I have always believed I could have been one of those kids that was lost in the streets without the discipline instilled in me by my parents and other relatives. I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man. I love my son and I will continue to become a better parent and learn from any mistakes I ever make.”

When we promulgate the notion that our success is directly measurable to the violence visited on our bodies as children, we reinforce a societal supposition that pain is an instrument of love, and establish a false binary between the streets and the strap.

I take Peterson at his word that he loves his son, but the drawing of blood isn’t an expression of love. Love doesn’t look like that. That looks like an expression of anger and exasperation that morphs into abuse.

I understand the reasoning that undergirds much of this thinking about spanking: Better to feel the pain of being punished by someone in the home who loves you than by someone outside the home who doesn’t.

But that logic simply doesn’t hold up.

As the nonpartisan research group Child Trends pointed out in a report last year:

“Use of corporal punishment is linked to negative outcomes for children (e.g., delinquency, antisocial behavior, psychological problems, and alcohol and drug abuse), and may be indicative of ineffective parenting. Research also finds that the number of problem behaviors observed in adolescence is related to the amount of spanking a child receives. The greater the age of the child, the stronger the relationship.

“Positive child outcomes are more likely when parents refrain from using spanking and other physical punishment, and instead discipline their children through communication that is firm, reasoned and nurturing. Studies find this type of discipline can foster positive psychological outcomes, such as high self-esteem and cooperation with others, as well as improved achievement in school.”

The group also pointed out just how pervasive the practice is:

“In 2012, according to a nationally representative survey, 77 percent of men, and 65 percent of women 18 to 65 years old agreed that a child sometimes needs a ‘good hard spanking.’ ”

The group continued:

“One of the most frequently used strategies to discipline a child, especially a younger child, is spanking. About 94 percent of parents of children ages 3 to 4 in the United States report having spanked their children in the previous year.”

Spanking is an age-old disciplinary technique, so turning the tide against it may be difficult. Some people even argue that it’s a necessary tool in a parent’s arsenal of options.

I think we need to reconsider that.

Peterson also texted the boy’s mother: “Never do I go overboard! But all my kids will know, hey daddy has the biggie heart but don’t play no games when it comes to acting right.” Actually, Peterson did go overboard, and now the legal system will decide if and how he will be punished for it.

Words fail me.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

President Obama’s rollout of a military campaign in Syria against the Islamic State gets messier by the day.

Obama’s initial framing of the campaign, as a limited effort in partnership with allies, to degrade the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS, made sense, and it was encouraging that Obama dampened expectations and clearly understood how much could go wrong.

Then things went downhill. A “senior administration official,” in a briefing posted on the White House website, explained why Saudi Arabia would be a good partner in battling ISIS: “Saudi Arabia has an extensive border with Syria.”

Oh?

Actually, Saudi Arabia and Syria have no border at all. Always be skeptical when the White House goes to war with a country that it misplaces on a map.

Soon the administration, after initially avoiding the word “war,” dropped the euphemisms. It announced from multiple podiums that what we’re engaging in actually is a war after all.

The latest puzzle relates to ground troops. Obama seemed to rule them out last week, saying that American troops “will not have a combat mission.” Then on Tuesday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that, if necessary, he might recommend “the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

Uh-oh.

Mr. President, you make it so hard for those of us who are basically sympathetic to your foreign policy. All this feels chaotic, poorly informed and uncoordinated — indeed, like a potential “slippery slope,” as a New York Times editorial warned.

Of course, it’s easy for us in the grandstands to criticize those walking the tightrope. I agree with Obama’s essential plan of authorizing airstrikes in Syria, if done cautiously and in conjunction with air forces of Sunni allies. But we can’t want to defeat ISIS more than the countries in its path, and right now we do.

American involvement must be predicated on an inclusive Iraqi government so that Sunni tribes confront ISIS. It must entail cooperation from Turkey to disrupt ISIS financing. It should incorporate a social media arm to counter ISIS propaganda, cyberwarfare to spy on ISIS and disrupt it, and additional intelligence gathering to monitor foreign fighters who may return home. And Obama is right that Congress should finance and arm some Free Syrian Army commanders, as a counterweight to ISIS. Some fighters have joined ISIS simply because it offers better pay.

We should finance Syrian rebels in part because our past policy — staying aloof — failed and made the problem worse. Nearly 200,000 Syrians have died; Jordan and Lebanon have been destabilized; extremism has grown; and Iraq has now effectively been dismembered and atrocities committed against Yazidis, Christians and other minorities.

The trouble is that alarm and revulsion at ISIS beheadings is creating a rush to intervene, so that some want us to leap from the sidelines right into the fray — even with ground troops. That would backfire by aggravating nationalists.

While I cautiously favor airstrikes, we need to be up front about risks:

First, airstrikes almost inevitably will mean accidental civilian casualties. ISIS would release videos of injured children to argue that America is at war with Islam. That may bolster extremist groups from Africa to Asia.

Second, more fighting in Syria could increase the refugee flow to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. It would be tragic if we inadvertently degraded not ISIS but Jordan.

Third, it seems entirely possible that ISIS filmed and released the beheading videos precisely with the intention of luring America into a war. Its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa would be difficult to bomb without causing civilian casualties, and ISIS may have figured that it could parlay American attacks into new recruits, prestige and influence.

We also have enormous challenges at home and abroad that we may be able to do more about than Syria. A few months ago, we were on alert over a Nigerian terrorist group, Boko Haram, kidnapping several hundred schoolgirls and threatening to sell them into slavery. Those girls are still missing, and Boko Haram has gained even more ground in northern Nigeria. Let’s not become so obsessed with ISIS that we become distracted from other threats.

I see military force as just one more tool. Sometimes it saves lives (Kosovo, Iraqi no-fly zones), and sometimes it costs lives (Iraq, Vietnam). Syria could be the right occasion to use it, but only if we act as if we’re facing a yellow traffic light, not a green one.

For now, we seem to be setting out on an uncertain mission with unclear objectives on an unknown timetable using ambiguous methods with unreliable allies. Some of that is inevitable, for foreign policy is usually conducted in a fog, but I’d be more reassured if the White House could at least locate its enemy on the map.

It would appear that the MOTU have decided it’s time for another shootin’ war.  JUST what we need…  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Let us all contemplate the fact that Representative Mark Sanford of South Carolina is running for re-election unopposed.

Sanford was, of course, the governor who snuck off to Argentina for an assignation while his befuddled aides claimed he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Now he’s the Facebook Congressman, who announced his breakup with his Argentine-squeeze-turned-fiancée in a 2,346-word posting that was mainly a whine about his ex-wife, the divorce settlement and visitation rules. “I think I owe you my thinking on this personal, but now public matter,” he told the world. Which most definitely had not asked for the information.

This is precisely the sort of thing his constituents should have been dreading when they gave the 54-year-old Republican another chance in a special House election last year. Sanford’s problem is less his libido than his remarkable, garrulous self-absorption. The man can’t stop sharing. Returning from his Argentina foray, he gave an interview to The Associated Press, in which he philosophized about the “sex line” that set his mistress, María Belén Chapur, apart from other women for whom he’d lusted.

And he held an endless press conference, perhaps the only moment in American political history in which a politician talked about his illicit sex life so much that everybody got bored with the subject. (“I’ll tell you more detail than you’ll ever want. …”) This was the same appearance in which he made the memorable announcement: “I spent the last five days crying in Argentina.”

And thus was born a legend.

Sanford got a clean start by running for Congress in a campaign that was long on the power of divine forgiveness and short on appearances by Chapur. Once elected, he kept a low profile. Then came the Facebook posting, yet another reminder of the importance of keeping elected officials away from social media.

Sanford ranted about a recent family court filing in which his ex-wife, Jenny, asked that he be required to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and complete an anger management program. The congressman defended himself by sounding both angry and crazy. “I cannot do this anymore,” he wrote, launching into a litany of complaints about Jenny and the lawyers, along with repeated references to his own incredible self-restraint.

In what sounded almost like an afterthought, he announced that he was also breaking up with Chapur. “Maybe there will be another chapter when waters calm with Jenny, but at this point the environment is not conducive to building anything given no one would want to be caught in the middle of what’s now happening,” he wrote.

In fact, his fiancée totally did want to be caught in the middle, and had been demanding that Sanford finally come through with a wedding ring. He had been stalling five years. Once it turned out that he was running without an opponent this fall, Chapur might have reasonably expected that the moment had arrived. Sanford then decreed that he needed to wait two more years until his youngest son was no longer a minor.

Chapur declined. She told The Times’s Jim Rutenberg that she didn’t expect her ex-fiancé to keep it a secret. But she had presumably expected a more tasteful announcement — say pamphlets tossed out of a hot air balloon.

“I learned it from the press today,” she told Rutenberg.

So Sanford has defined himself as the exact incumbent you’d make a special trip to the polls to vote against. But there’s no Democrat in the race. “It wasn’t for lack of trying,” said Jaime Harrison, the Democratic state chairman, in a phone interview. The party, he explained, had high hopes of defeating Sanford last year when its candidate was Elizabeth Colbert Busch. When she lost by nine percentage points, “that kind of deflated the spirits of some people.”

You can understand the Democrats feeling as if there are some things worse than a blank space on the ballot. Last election cycle they failed to keep a close eye on who was running in their senate primary and wound up with an unemployed man who was facing obscenity charges for showing a female college student a pornographic picture. Then, the party was preoccupied with fending off another Senate hopeful who had pleaded guilty to three felony charges related to his business dealings.

Stuff happens in South Carolina. Who can forget the time the agriculture commissioner was indicted for taking payoffs to protect a cockfighting ring? Or Thomas Ravenel, the state treasurer who pleaded guilty to buying cocaine and spent 10 months in prison? He’s now running for the Senate as an independent and appearing in a reality TV show called “Southern Charm” in which he got one of his co-stars pregnant during the first season.

You have to wonder how much space there is between Mark Sanford and reality TV. The voters should demand assurances that he isn’t signed up for an upcoming season of “The Bachelor.” Although if he is, there’s not a heck of a lot they can do about it now.

There’s a lot of crazy here in Savannah, but we’re really terrified that the weaponized lunacy in South Carolina will waft across the river, the only thing between us and them…

Nocera and Collins

September 13, 2014

In “N.F.L. Stands By Its Leader” Mr. Nocera says Roger Goodell is very good at doing exactly what his owners want.  In “Candidates Playing Possum” Ms. Collins says control Control of the Senate hinges on the outcome of just a few close races.  She has a question:  Which candidates will show up and debate their opponents?  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

In 2006, the year Roger Goodell was named commissioner of the National Football League, the Washington Redskins were the most valuable team in football, according to Forbes magazine, with a valuation of $1.4 billion. Washington’s revenue that year was $303 million, with profits of more than $108 million. In second place came the New England Patriots, valued by Forbes at $1.18 billion, followed by the Dallas Cowboys at $1.17 billion.

Fast forward to Forbes’s most recent financial analysis of N.F.L. teams, published earlier this month. Today, the Dallas Cowboys, the No. 1 team, are valued at $3.2 billion, almost triple their valuation of just eight years ago, with revenue of $560 million and profits of $246 million. The New England Patriots, meanwhile, saw their valuation jump to $2.6 billion. The Washington team, though now in third place, is still worth $1 billion more than it was in 2006.

And these numbers are, if anything, an understatement: The Buffalo Bills were just sold for $1.4 billion, a record price for a professional football team. Forbes had estimated the Bills’ value at “only” $935 million.

If you want to understand why Goodell’s job is almost certainly safe, despite his complete botch of the Ray Rice domestic violence case and the many calls for his ouster, this is why: The only people who can fire him are the 32 N.F.L. owners — and they have zero interest in letting him go. After all, he makes them money. Currently, the N.F.L. takes in about $10 billion overall; Goodell has told the owners he wants to make it a $25 billion business by the year 2027. You can practically see their mouths watering at the prospect.

Just listen to them circling the wagons: John Mara, the co-owner of the New York Giants, has said flatly that Goodell’s job is not in jeopardy. Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, has come to his defense. In 2012, the owners paid Goodell a staggering $44.2 million. “I think he’s worth it,” Kraft told The Times’s Ken Belson in February, when Goodell’s pay was revealed.

Of course there is another reason the owners think he is “worth it.” He takes the heat for them when they need him to. Daniel Snyder, the owner in Washington, is adamant that he will never give up the nickname “Redskins,” even though it is deeply insulting to Native Americans. Goodell backs him up. The owners don’t want to pay pensions to their referees? Goodell locks them out. “It’s a mistake to view Goodell as powerful,” says Gregg Easterbrook, the author of “The King of Sports: Why Football Must Be Reformed.” “The owners have all the power.”

And so it is in the recent controversy. Football is a violent game, and though they’d never say so out loud, N.F.L. owners accept some violence outside the white lines as an inevitable consequence. Indeed, it happens frequently enough that USA Today compiles a database of N.F.L. players who have been arrested.

The website Sidespin, using that database, found 56 examples of domestic violence committed by pro football players in the years since Goodell became commissioner. Once, in 2011, a player was suspended for the rest of the season — but that was by his team, the Minnesota Vikings, not Goodell. Another time, in 2006, a player was suspended by the league for two games. In every other instance where N.F.L. headquarters mandated a punishment, it was only a one-game suspension. According to Sidespin, in nearly three dozen cases of domestic violence, the N.F.L. took no action at all.

No wonder Goodell thought that his original two-game suspension of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for knocking his then-fiancée out cold was enough: He had never given out a longer suspension for domestic violence during his time as commissioner. Then came the leak of the video of Rice’s punch — followed by the scene of him dragging his unconscious fiancée out of the elevator door — which was so horrifying that even the N.F.L. couldn’t look the other way.

Goodell suspended Rice indefinitely and gave an interview to CBS News in which he tried to accept the blame for his mistake but came across as evasive and defensive. And he ordered up an internal investigation to be headed by Robert Mueller, the former F.B.I. director.

There is a small chance, I suppose, that Mueller will discover that Goodell lied when he said he had not seen the video before it became public earlier this week. In that case, the owners would have no choice but to fire him. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. What is far more likely is that Goodell will survive the calls for his ouster and go back to doing the one thing he truly knows how to do: Make money for his overlords, pro football’s owners.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Election season! Tension mounts! Longtime public servants are aware that the least little slip and they could be out the door. Forced, like ousted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, to labor in the sweatshops of the investment banking industry.

With $1.4 million in signing bonuses. Do you think that’s why he quit the House early, people? I totally believed he just wanted to give his successor a head start.

I digress. We’re talking today about democracy. And debates. Candidates should all feel obliged to debate their opponents. It’s a sign of respect to the public. Even for incumbents who are so safe that they could get caught having an assignation with an armadillo and still get 60 percent of the vote.

Our fixation on debates goes back to that Illinois Senate race when Abraham Lincoln faced off seven times against Stephen Douglas. Their battles were so electric that Lincoln published transcripts in a book, which his fans scooped up eagerly. Voters today may wonder why their Senate debates can’t be like Lincoln-Douglas. Senate candidates today may wonder why their audiences can’t be like the ones in 1858, when people sat enthralled while one man spoke for 60 minutes, followed by a 90-minute response and then a final 30-minute comeback.

This year, control of the Senate hinges on the outcome of a handful of states. Almost all of them are going to involve debates, and I can pretty much guarantee none of them will later be published as best-selling books.

Several have already degenerated into debates about the debates. Former Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, a Republican, said his successor, Democrat Al Franken, gave the state a “big middle corn dog” when Franken declined the traditional debate at the Minnesota State Fair. That state fair can be a pretty rowdy venue. I know you think all Minnesotans are calm and well-behaved, but really, give them enough deep-fried foods and they can get carried away.

Franken, who did spend seven days campaigning at the fair, posing for selfies and eating what his campaign spokesperson said was a large quantity of roasted Minnesota sweet corn, has already done one debate and is scheduled for three more, so I don’t think he can be accused of dissing his constituents.

However, it’s sort of sad when the old political traditions fall by the wayside. This year in Florida, the gubernatorial candidates failed to show up for the annual Wausau Possum Festival, which is usually a must-show event. Perhaps Gov. Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist don’t like possums. Maybe they were averse to the custom of politicians walking onstage and dangling the animals by their tails. Really, it’s the kind of thing that can come back to bite you.

We have mixed feelings about the possums. However, we do want debates. Even if we are planning to totally ignore them, we want our candidates out there.

And, in most of the major races, they’re ready to go. Although in Michigan, the Republican Senate candidate, Terri Lynn Land, is pursuing a kind of stealth strategy, in which she seems to become less and less visible as the campaign goes on. Her opponent, Representative Gary Peters, appeared on the date of a previously scheduled debate this week, sharing the stage with an empty chair before an enthusiastic crowd of more than 30 people. “This is not the ideal format,” he understated.

The empty chair is the traditional prop in these circumstances. However in Alabama, where Gov. Robert Bentley is resisting debates, Democrat Parker Griffith has been toting around an inflatable duck. I have fond memories of a New York City mayoral candidate waving a rubber chicken that was supposed to be the absent Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani’s defense was that he didn’t want to appear in debates that included distracting third-party candidates. This is a longstanding argument. Do you want to watch the Democrat and Republican go head-to-head? Or do you want to be inclusive? And, if so, how far are you prepared to go? Right now in North Carolina, the Senate hopefuls include a former town councilman who is best known for having submitted his resignation letter in Klingon.

“I’ve been in many debates that I think were a disservice to democracy,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York said during this year’s gubernatorial primary. He was perhaps referring to his run for governor in 2010, when he wound up on stage with six other candidates, including a woman whose claim to fame was running a prostitution ring and the nominee of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party.

There are some problems with Cuomo’s analysis, only one of which is that he was using it as an excuse to avoid any debates whatsoever during the primary this year. While the thing with the madam and the rent guy was pretty weird, that was possibly the most memorable gubernatorial debate in state history.

And, of course, we appreciated that everybody had the decency to show up.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

September 11, 2014

In “The Cost of War” Mr. Blow says Americans must think about what it means to engage in another foreign war, and weigh that against the urgent needs we have at home.  Mr. Kristof offers a “Critique From an Obama Fan” and says the president is right to expand the attack on ISIS into Syria if it’s done prudently with modest goals.  In “A Man With a Plan” Ms. Collins says President Obama makes a comeback from weeks in which he was attacked for everything from playing golf to saying “we don’t have a strategy yet.”  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Here we go again.

Wednesday night, during a prime-time speech, the president laid out his plan for dealing with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS.

He made clear that “while we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland,” he still “will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.”

He called it “a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy” and not a war. Yet, for all practical purposes, a war seems to be what it will be.

And most Americans, before the speech, seemed to be on board if not leading the way.

According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll published Tuesday, a vast majority of Americans see ISIS as a threat to the United States, a slight majority believe the president hasn’t moved aggressively enough, and most support expanding United States airstrikes into Syria.

But I implore the president and the nation to proceed with caution.

We can kill anti-American fighters and even their leaders, but we can’t kill anti-American sentiment. To some degree, every time we commit our forces in the Middle East we run the risk of further inflaming that sentiment.

For every action, there is a reaction. And there are also consequences, some of them unintended.

The president said that his plan “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” But this seems a hard thing to completely guarantee. It seems reasonable to worry that it could lead to at least some American boots on the ground and some American blood soaked into it.

The president did, however, say:

“We will send an additional 475 service members to Iraq. As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission — we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.”

But missions creep, wars get foggy and the very definition of victory can become elusive.

And need I remind you, we’ve been here before, worked up into a patriotic tizzy, fears stoked and muscles flexed. Although nothing may soon rival the staggering deception and disaster of the Iraq war, it still stands as our most recent and most instructive lesson about committing to armed conflict. George Bush and Dick Cheney are in a category of their own.

When we invaded Iraq in 2003, about three out of four Americans approved of President Bush’s handling of the situation, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll. Three years later, that approval had fallen by half.

We don’t want to look back three years from now and ask, “What have we done?”

An ABC News poll in early March of 2003 found that most Americans believed the Iraq war would last several months at most — it officially lasted nearly nine years — and nearly eight in 10 thought Iraq posed a direct threat to the United States at the time.

And the cost of that war, particularly in death toll, was staggering.

According to the website Iraqbodycount.org, more than 4,800 members of United States and coalition forces were killed between 2003 and 2013, as well as 468 contractors.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted the month we invaded found that nearly seven in 10 Americans thought the final result of the Iraq war would be that we would “win,” whatever that meant. Most Americans also thought that we should do everything we could to minimize Iraqi civilian casualties.

And while it is not clear how many civilian deaths resulted solely from United States military action in that country, Iraqbodycount.org puts the total number of Iraqi civilian deaths “from violence” since 2003 as high as 144,000.

Furthermore, a March 2013 study estimated that the financial cost of the Iraq war could be more than $2 trillion.

And now, to compound the waste of money, with our air offensive we are essentially paying to blow up millions of dollars of our own equipment that we left behind in Iraq, as Jason Fields wrote for Reuters last month.

As Fields puts it:

“And Islamic State’s captured an enormous amount of U.S. weaponry, originally intended for the rebuilt Iraqi Army. You know — the one that collapsed in terror in front of the Islamic State, back when they were just ISIL? The ones who dropped their uniforms, and rifles and ran away? They left behind the bigger equipment, too, including M1 Abrams tanks (about $6 million each), 52 M198 howitzer cannons ($527,337), and MRAPs (about $1 million) similar to the ones in use in Ferguson.”

Fields continues:

“Now, U.S. warplanes are flying sorties, at a cost somewhere between $22,000 to $30,000 per hour for the F-16s, to drop bombs that cost at least $20,000 each, to destroy this captured equipment. That means if an F-16 were to take off from Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey and fly two hours to Erbil, Iraq, and successfully drop both of its bombs on one target each, it costs the United States somewhere between $84,000 to $104,000 for the sortie and destroys a minimum of $1 million and a maximum of $12 million in U.S.-made equipment.”

We are doing this at a time when many of our roads and bridges are crumbling beneath us. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that we need to invest $3.6 trillion in infrastructure by 2020.

The Department of Agriculture released a report this month saying that the percentage of Americans who are “food insecure” (lacking “access to enough food for an active, healthy life”) has remained relatively unchanged (14.3 percent) since the numbers spiked during the recession in 2008.

And yet, in February, the 2014 Farm Bill was signed into law, a bill that will, according to MSNBC, “cut $8.7 billion in food stamp benefits over the next 10 years, causing 850,000 households to lose an average of $90 per month.”

We are still arguing about the cost of the Affordable Care Act and Republicans are still wasting time and money trying to repeal it.

We, as Americans, must think long and hard about what it will really mean for us to engage in another foreign war and weigh that against the urgent needs we have right here at home.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

I’m probably one of the few Americans left with some sympathy for President Obama’s foreign policy, and even I have to admit that his Syria policy has been a mess.

His “red line” about chemical weapons turned out to be more like a penciled suggestion. His rejection of the proposal by Hillary Rodham Clinton and David Petraeus to arm moderate Syrian factions tragically empowered both the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

Dismissing ISIS as a “J.V. team,” as Obama did in January, was silly — compounded by the White House’s contorted attempts to deny that he had said that. Obama’s ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, resigned this year because he found our government’s policy impossible to defend.

The tragedy in Syria isn’t Obama’s fault, but that of Syrians; still, the president has been painfully passive toward what has unfolded: the deaths of nearly 200,000 Syrians, the destabilization of neighboring countries by three million refugees, the near collapse of Iraq, the beheading of two American journalists, mass atrocities against Yazidi and Christian religious minorities and growing risks of ISIS terrorism against American and European targets.

And, yes, that’s the judgment of an Obama fan.

So it’s just as well that the president is trying for a reset — oops, wrong word — let’s just say “a new strategy” in Syria.

“America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” Obama declared in his speech Wednesday night. He described it as a “counterterrorism campaign” that would “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.

There’s some inconsistency there. Counterterrorism is the right prism through which to approach this, rather than all-out war, but it’s unlikely to destroy ISIS any more than it did the Taliban or militancy in Yemen.

Indeed, the president, in his speech, said that his strategy in  Syria “is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” That’s a plausible comparison, but Obama may be the only person in the world who would cite conflict-torn Yemen and Somalia as triumphs.

Unfortunately, there are more problems than solutions in international relations, and calls for more aggressive action by some Republican critics could make things worse. Dick Cheney has compiled an almost perfect record of being wrong on foreign affairs, so, on Wednesday, when he called for the United States to be more aggressive and get “back on offense,” we should all insist upon caution.

My take is that Obama is right to expand military action against ISIS into Syria if it’s done prudently with modest goals of containing and degrading a terror group. ISIS is a proper target, having butchered Americans, dismembered Iraq and attempted genocide against minorities like the Yazidis.

A 17-year-old Yazidi girl told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in a phone call that she was being kept by ISIS as a sex slave along with many others. The newspaper got her cellphone number from her parents, who are in a refugee camp.

“They treat us as if we are their slaves,” the newspaper quoted the girl as saying. “The men hit us and threaten us when we try to resist. Often I wish that they would beat me so severely that I would die.”

ISIS also could pose a terror threat within the United States. At least 100 and perhaps many more Americans have traveled to Syria to join jihadi groups, and some could return to carry out attacks.

So striking ISIS in Syria makes sense, but we also have to recognize that airstrikes will be of limited benefit and carry real risks as well.

“We’re going to war because we’ve been spooked,” notes Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma. “But if we do it wrong, we could ensure that the violence spreads.”

One danger is that if our bombs kill innocents, ISIS would use its video-making and social media skills to galvanize the Sunni Islam world, saying the American “infidels” who are slaughtering Sunni children must be punished. That’s why it’s crucial to have Sunni partners, including United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

We also need a partner on the ground to take advantage of airstrikes and seize back territory. That means moderate Syrian rebels, but there are many fewer of them now than there were two years ago. The middle has been vanishing.

Bolstering the Syrian opposition is still worth trying, and a senior administration official says that the White House will try to expand support. But there’s a danger that more arms will lead not to the destruction of ISIS but to the creation of another Somalia.

So let’s move ahead with eyes wide open. We’ve seen the perils of Obama’s inaction, and let’s now avoid the perils of excessive action.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

It’s a tough time to be a concerned citizen. The truth of the matter is, the job has always been messy.

But it’s way worse when the subject is foreign policy.

We gathered around our TVs and computers and peered at our smartphones Wednesday night to hear President Obama explain his plan for combating ISIS, even though we have pretty much lost faith in plans when it comes to the United States involvement in the Middle East.

He sounded very strong. And, really, that’s something. We’d have been happy to come away just saying something like “he appeared to believe he’s on the right track.”

The problem with the substance was that when it comes to Iraq and Syria, we’re too good at imagining the downside. The president said he had waited to launch his plan until Iraq got an inclusive government. That certainly made sense. Except that we have children entering middle school who had not been born when we started waiting for Iraq to get an inclusive government.

Then there’s the arming of Syrian rebels. No surprise that Obama wants an ally that isn’t the Assad regime. But some of the fighters in ISIS were Syrian rebels. Obviously, the administration feels its rebels are not going to become anti-Western terrorists. But the anti-Western terrorists in ISIS are waving around a ton of our weaponry that they took from the allies we armed in Iraq. Just saying.

Obama promised no American combat troops would be sent into battle. We don’t want boots on the ground. The idea of airstrikes sound much safer. Unless you happen to be an innocent civilian in the vicinity.

The president assured the American people that the strategy of air power plus “support for partner forces” would work because it’s already been a big success in Yemen and Somalia. Concerned citizens then turned to each other and said: “Yemen and Somalia?”

The hardest thing for average Americans is knowing just how worried to be. The tone of alarm in Washington has been hyper-shrill. Denouncing the president’s failure to take on ISIS faster, Representative Michele Bachmann told The Huffington Post: “We haven’t seen anything like this since Hitler and the blitzkrieg in World War II.”

Well, Michele Bachmann. Who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

During the run-up to the speech, Republicans had been irate about the president’s failure to act sooner, explain his plan faster and, in general, be tougher. Never had so many people demanded specifics without ever offering any of their own.

“President Obama’s chronic passivity has helped the jihadists,” John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said in a floor speech this week. Cornyn slammed the administration’s “don’t do stupid stuff” mantra, claiming Obama “doesn’t seem to fully grasp the magnitude of the threats and challenges that America is now dealing with.”

Cornyn mixed up Iranians and Iraqis a few times, but concerned citizens understand that these things get complicated. More to the point, not doing something stupid is actually a super foreign policy goal. Just look back on our recent history of meddling in the Middle East and what do you see? A heck of a lot of stupid stuff we wish we hadn’t done.

In his speech, the president was pushing back after weeks in which he was attacked for everything from playing golf on his vacation to saying “we don’t have a strategy yet” on the ISIS surge in Syria. On that, the critics had a point. You’re not supposed to say you don’t have a strategy. Even when everything on the ground has shifted and you need to consult your allies, get the Iraqi government to reorganize and collect new intelligence. You still don’t say “no strategy.” You say, “I’ll discuss strategy after I brief the congressional leaders.” And then fail to invite them.

Anyway, now there’s definitely a strategy. The hawks in Congress were not all necessarily overwhelmed. “The president doesn’t really have a grasp of how serious the threat of ISIS is,” said Senator John McCain on CNN. Other Republicans, like House Speaker John Boehner, issued responses that began with, “Finally …”

And how about the concerned citizens? We’re feeling insecure. It’s comforting to have Dick Cheney around, so we can at least know what we definitely want to avoid. This week, in a Washington speech, the former vice president said Obama has to “understand we are at war and that we must do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to win,” and spend way more money on defense.

Which means that:

A) Fighting ISIS is going to be more complicated than just war.

B) The president should put timetables on everything.

C) The defense budget needs to go down.

Remember that no matter what else happens, Dick Cheney will never steer us right.

Nocera and Collins

September 6, 2014

In “The Price of Glory” Mr. Nocera says college football coaches are grossly overpaid — just like C.E.O.s.  In “Passion for the Pill” Ms. Collins says in Congressional races across the country, women’s issues are looming large. Just listen to some of the Republican candidates.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

“Are Football Coaches Overpaid?” asks a new paper by two Vanderbilt University professors, Randall S. Thomas of the law school, and R. Lawrence Van Horn of the school of management. It’s amazing the things academics can find worthy of study, isn’t it?

My answer is: Of course they are. At a time when state legislatures are cutting back their support for public universities, when most big athletic programs lose money, when tuition has never been higher, there is something terribly askew about the skyrocketing compensation of college football (and men’s basketball) coaches. At the University of Alabama, Nick Saban makes a reported $6.9 million a year, more than most professional football coaches. At Ohio State, Urban Meyer makes $4.6 million. At the University of Texas, Mack Brown made more than $5 million before he resigned last December. Navy’s football coach, Ken Niumatalolo, makes over $1.5 million. Navy, no less!

But as my colleague Steve Eder reported in The Times earlier this week, the Thomas and Van Horn paper comes to a very different conclusion. According to the paper, football coaches are not overpaid. Why not? Because their jobs — and their employment contracts — are very similar to those of chief executives.

“While university presidents are nominally the C.E.O. of the university,” they write, “there are many commentators, including some presidents, who believe that the football coach retains the role as the most powerful decision maker. Football coaches have many of the same job characteristics as C.E.O.s of public companies — they run large organizations with many employees that generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues.”

The idea that football coaches, who run programs made up of maybe 200 people and generating at most $100 million (and that’s at the top) are comparable to public university presidents with budgets of $2 billion is just silly. But there is something apt about comparing them to chief executives. After all, in the land of the overpaid, chief executives are at the top of the heap.

The justification for outlandish executive compensation is that chief executives are being rewarded for performance. But it doesn’t always work that way. In truth, far too many corporate chieftains take home millions of dollars each year whether their companies perform well or not. It’s a rigged game: The board that sets chief executive pay is often made up of other C.E.O.s, who are deeply sympathetic to the man whose pay they are setting. Performance measures can be changed to make the chief executive look good. And so on.

Thomas and Van Horn make the point that it is much easier to measure the performance of a college football coach — he either wins games or he doesn’t. The average tenure of a Division 1 football coach, they report, is just three years, so the coach has every incentive to maximize his earnings. That may indeed explain why football coaches seek bigger salaries, but it doesn’t explain why they are getting them.

There are really two reasons, one of which Thomas and Van Horn mention and the other of which they don’t. The one they mention is television money, which has flooded into college sports in recent years. They point out that after the Pac-12 Conference negotiated an expansive TV deal in 2011 — nearly quadrupling television revenue for some teams in the conference, Washington State was able to pay its new football coach $2.25 million, up from $600,000. “A windfall,” one athletic director calls it.

What they don’t mention is that other than facilities, travel costs and coaches’ salaries, there aren’t many other places to spend the money. The players don’t get paid, but the money has to go somewhere. So the coaches grab the lion’s share. Economists call this rent-seeking behavior.

In the recent O’Bannon decision, the judge ruled that universities would have to up the value of their athletic scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance. In most cases, that means an increase of between $1,000 to $3,000 per scholarship.

Not long ago, the News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., interviewed Bubba Cunningham, the athletic director at the University of North Carolina, about his concerns in the wake of the O’Bannon decision. Cunningham estimated that adding on the full cost of attendance would cost his university $1.8 million. At U.N.C. the football coach, Larry Fedora, makes around $1.7 million. The basketball coach, Roy Williams, makes a little over $1.8 million.

“We don’t have $1.8 million discretionary,” he said, referring to the full cost of attendance. “That’s going to create challenges.” He suggested that certain minor sports might be “at risk.” But he also said that certain other options “aren’t realistic.”

“Like what?” asked the interviewer.

“Slowing down facility expansion, or salaries,” he replied.

Which is the final way C.E.O. compensation resembles the pay of college football coaches: It never goes down.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Republican candidates are falling madly in love with contraception.

Who knew?

“I believe the pill ought to be available over the counter, round the clock, without a prescription — cheaper and easier, for you,” declares Colorado Senate candidate Cory Gardner in a new ad. He’s running against the Democratic incumbent, Mark Udall, in a close race.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, during a Senate debate this week, Republican Thom Tillis announced that he, too, strongly believed “over-the-counter oral contraception should be available without a prescription.”

Tillis, a longtime politician, had never mentioned this big idea before. Until the debate, his most famous collision with women’s reproductive rights came when, as speaker of the State House, he allowed the Republican majority to add a last-minute amendment to a bill on motorcycle safety reducing access to abortions.

So big surprise from Thom Tillis. The same thing, more or less, has happened in Senate races in Virginia and Minnesota. Republicans in close elections suddenly turn into cheerleaders for over-the-counter birth control pills. A negative and suspicious mind might almost suspect they were following a script.

During one recent U.S. House debate in Colorado, the Republican incumbent, Mike Coffman, said in an answer to a moderator’s question that he was pro-life, then quickly added: “But I support a woman’s access to … to, uh …

“Um, certainly to this Hobby Lobby decision, to get …”

Painful moments of groping, flailing. What the heck do you call that stuff? Finally, a merciful member of the audience shouted: “Birth control.”

“Birth control!” cried Coffman with relief.

We’re entering another election season in which women’s issues loom large. (In North Carolina, one recent poll showed the gender gap between Tillis and his Democratic opponent, Senator Kay Hagan, is 32 percent.) The Republicans are trying to avoid the disastrous tone-deafness that cropped up two years ago when a leading Senate candidate suggested that a gal could not get pregnant if she was raped. This season, Democrats have been eagerly looking for similar fodder. So far, there’s been nothing quite that awful, although it’s pretty clear there are folks who still haven’t gotten with the program. Male invitees to an event for 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.”

A spokesman for Southerland indignantly told BuzzFeed, which first obtained the invitation, that “rather than focusing on nonsense stories,” reporters should be asking Southerland’s opponent about Obamacare. Truly, there is nothing that cannot be dismissed by bringing up the Affordable Care Act. Total miracle that the ex-governor of Virginia chose to defend himself against corruption charges by claiming his wife was a terrible person when he could just as easily have argued that taking money from a dietary supplement salesman was not nearly as bad as Obamacare.

I digress. About the pill. There was a time when the Republican Party championed family planning and access to contraception. But that was, you know, before disco. Now it’s a rare Republican candidate who can latch onto a major nomination without calling for an end to abortion rights and the defunding of Planned Parenthood. Many of them have also signed on to the personhood movement, which wants to provide legal rights to every fertilized egg in the country. This idea, with its potential impact on access to birth control, is so unpopular that it failed by a landslide in Mississippi.

All this can create problems for the women’s vote in general elections. In Colorado, the Democrats have pointed out endlessly that Cory Gardner supported personhood amendments to the State Constitution. After he seemed to be losing ground, Gardner said that when personhood came up in 2008 and 2010 he did not really understand the possible consequences. (“This was a bad idea driven by good intentions.”)

Now think about this for a minute. Imagine you’re a politician in a state that’s considering an amendment to the state constitution that is very controversial and all about women’s reproduction. Pretend it’s on the ballot the same time when you’re running for Congress. Pretend you’re very, very concerned with women’s access to contraception.

At what point would you say to yourself: “Wow, I wonder if this could have any impact on birth control?” Choose from the following:

A) First time the subject came up.

B) Not actually until a week before the election because it was a tough year and I had home repair issues to deal with.

C) Some undetermined point between the day the amendment failed by 3 to 1 and, um, right this minute.

Yes! In Gardner’s case the answer is C.

In every election, voters ask the candidates: “What have you done for me lately?” In this case, we might also want to know what they were doing last year.


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