Archive for the ‘Comparing apples and oranges’ Category

Dowd and Friedman

February 19, 2014

MoDo shrieks “History: Get Me Rewrite!”  She tells us that some mistakes in American history cannot be painted over.  The Moustache of Wisdom has “Breakfast Before the MOOC.”  He says Arab youths, eager for the educational tools and resources to realize their full potential, are leading once again.  Apparently by signing up for an online course…  Here’s MoDo:

I found myself sitting on a bar stool last winter next to Robert Caro at an Irish wake in Times Square for my irreplaceable Times colleague Frank Prial.

I had an overpowering urge to grab Caro’s arm and shake him. For the love of Pete, I wanted to yelp at the 78-year-old historian who has spent 38 years chronicling Lyndon Johnson in more than 3,388 pages, was he ever going to get to Vietnam?

But the shy, bespectacled writer picking at his hors d’oeuvres did not look like the sort of man who could be rushed.

As Adam Nagourney wrote in The Times on Sunday, Luci Baines Johnson and other members of L.B.J.’s shrinking circle are pushing to broaden the lens on the president’s legacy so that it is not merely viewed “through the prism of a failed war.”

They are using the 50th anniversary of Johnson’s more impressive domestic policies — including the Civil Rights Act, the Clean Air Act and Medicare — to yank the focus away from “the agony of Vietnam” and “his cross,” as his daughter calls it.

“Nobody wanted that war less than Lyndon Johnson,” the 66-year-old Luci said, adding that he tried mightily to get out.

Maybe ratcheting up the war with more than 500,000 troops and sending so many young Americans to their deaths halfway around the world based on chest-thumping advice and a naïve theory of democratic dominoes was a deterrent to getting out.

In the new Broadway play with Bryan Cranston as L.B.J., “All The Way,” by Robert Schenkkan, there’s a scene where Robert McNamara pushes Johnson to order “retaliatory” airstrikes after the Potemkin Gulf of Tonkin. Hubert Humphrey tries to slow them down, noting that they should not strike back “for an attack which may or may not have happened,” but Johnson, prodded by McNamara, frets about how Barry Goldwater would slam him if he went “soft on the military.”

Johnson was determined not to be seen as weak, not to “cut and run” — the same phrase later used by W. about Iraq when he was determined not to be seen as a wimp and began sending so many young Americans to their deaths halfway around the world based on chest-thumping advice and a naïve theory of democratic dominoes.

Asked by a reporter about Iraq recently, W.’s eyes flashed and he replied, “I am not happy.”

He shouldn’t be. Afghanistan, which he abandoned to pursue a phony “retaliatory” war in Iraq, is crumbling despite all the money, muscle and blood we have poured into it, with our runaway fruitcake puppet Hamid Karzai fiddling while the Taliban burns, vowing to run America out just as they did the Russians and waging vicious attacks on women.

In corrupt and violent Iraq, women are getting detained illegally and tortured. The country is awash in a blood-dimmed tide, with nearly 9,000 killed last year and almost 1,000 killed last month, as Al Qaeda and another jihadist group fight for supremacy. In Falluja, the city where nearly 100 American soldiers died in the fiercest fighting of the war, the black insurgent flag now flies over buildings.

With the help of his own personal librarian, Laura, W. has been trying to reframe his legacy to take the focus off his botched wars, just like L.B.J.’s family. His presidential library highlights his work on AIDS in Africa, belatedly tapering the roles of his sulfurous regents, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

With Laura at his side, W. spent a long time chatting with reporters on the way to Nelson Mandela’s funeral, putting his own spin on his presidency.

The Texan who hated being “put on the couch,” as he called it, said he had a strategy to see into Vladimir Putin’s soul that entailed getting his attention by asking him, at their first meeting, about something he had read, that his mother had a cross that was blessed in Jerusalem.

The Russian leader told him the breakup of the Soviet Union was the worst thing that had ever happened. Tell it to Ukraine, W. dryly noted. He also said of Putin: “You always have to watch out when someone steeples their fingers.”

Just as L.B.J. observed that the two things that make politicians more stupid than anything else are sex and envy, W. said that he was not surprised by how Putin evolved because the three things that can change someone are “a love of power, wealth and sex.”

He said that since his heart surgery, he was spending a lot of time painting skulls. Animal skulls, Laura quickly interjected.

He continued his campaign to downplay the influence of Cheney, stressing that he had “lots of advisers.” Asked how much he sees Cheney, he said “never” and asserted that he had never been that close to his vice president and the age difference precluded a friendship. So he let an acquaintance ruin his presidency?

But just as L.B.J. will always be yoked to Vietnam and McNamara, 43 will always be yoked to his careless misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan and to Cheney.

W. should know: Some landscapes cannot be painted over.

And now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Beginning March 2, Prof. Hossam Haick, will teach the first ever massive open online course, or MOOC, on nanotechnology in Arabic. What’s more interesting, though, he explained to me the other day over breakfast is some of the curious email he’s received from students registering for his MOOC from all over the Arab world. Their questions include: Are you a real person? Are you really an Arab, or are you an Israeli Jew speaking Arabic, pretending to be an Arab? That’s because Haick is an Israeli Arab from Nazareth and will be teaching this course from his home university, the Technion, Israel’s premier science and technology institute, and the place we were having breakfast was Tel Aviv.

His course is entitled Nanotechnology and Nanosensors (https://www.coursera.org/course/nanosar) and is designed for anyone interested in learning about Haick’s specialty: “novel sensing tools that make use of nanotechnology to screen, detect, and monitor various events in either our personal or professional life.” The course includes 10 classes of 3 to 4 short lecture videos — in Arabic and English — and anyone with an Internet connection can tune in and participate for free in the weekly quizzes, forum activities and do a final project.

If you had any doubts about the hunger for education in the Middle East today, Haick’s MOOC will dispel them. So far, there are about 4,800 registrations for the Arabic version, including students from Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and the West Bank. Iranians are signing up for the English version. Because the registration is through the Coursera MOOC website, some registrants initially don’t realize the course is being taught by an Israeli Arab scientist at the Technion, said Haick, and when they do, some professors and students “unregister.” But most others are sticking with it. (MOOC’s have just started to emerge in the Arab world via Coursera, edX, Edraak, Rwaq, SkillAcademy and MenaVersity — some with original content, much still translated.)

Asked why he thought the course was attracting so much interest in the neighborhood, Haick said: “Because nanotechnology and nanosensors are perceived as futuristic, and people are curious to understand what the future looks like.” And because nanotechnology “is so cross- and multi-disciplinary. … It offers a large diversity of research opportunities.”

Haick, 38, whose Ph.D. is from the Technion, where his father also graduated, is a science prodigy. He and the Technion already have a start-up together, developing what he calls “an electronic nose” — a sensory array that mimics the way a dog’s nose works to detect what Haick and his team have proved to be unique markers in exhaled breath that reveal different cancers in the body. In between that and teaching chemical engineering, the Technion’s president, Peretz Lavie, suggested that Haick lead the school into the land of MOOCs.

Lavie, Haick explained, “thinks there is a high need to bring science beyond the boundaries between countries. He told me there is something called a ‘MOOC.’ I did not know what is a MOOC. He said it is a course that can be given to thousands of people over the Web. And he asked if I can give the first MOOC from the Technion — in Arabic.”

The Technion is funding the project, which took nine months to prepare, and Haick is donating the lectures. Some 19 percent of the Technion’s students today are Israeli Arabs, up from 9 percent 12 years ago. Haick says he always tells people, “If the Middle East was like the Technion, we would already have peace. In the pure academy, you feel totally equal with every person. And you are appreciated based on your excellence.” He adds without meaning to boast, “I have young people who tell me from the Arab world: ‘You have become our role model. Please let us know the ingredients of how we become like you.’ ”

I know what some readers are thinking: nice bit of Israeli propaganda, now could you please go back to writing about Israel’s ugly West Bank occupation. No. This story is a useful reminder that Israel is a country, not just a conflict, and, as a country, it’s still a work in progress. It has its lows, like the occupation and economic discrimination against Israeli Arabs, and its highs, like the collaboration between Haick and the Technion, which is providing a tool for those in the Arabic-speaking world eager to grasp the new technologies reshaping the global economy. Those, like members of the B.D.S. — boycott, divestiture, sanctions — movement who treat Israel as if it is only the sum of how it deals with the West Bank and therefore deserves to be delegitimized as a state, would do well to reflect on some of these complexities.

For me, though, Haick’s MOOC is also a reminder of what an utter waste of money and human talent has been the Arab-Israeli conflict. Look how eager all these young Arabs and Persians are for the tools and resources to realize their full potential, wherever they can find that learning. Arab dictators so underestimated their people for so long. That’s what fueled the Arab awakening. It makes you weep for the wasted generations and pray this will be the last of them.

Backwards constructs he the sentences, boggles the mind until…

Blow and Nocera

November 23, 2013

Ms. Collins is off today.  Both Mr. Blow and Mr. Nocera are covering the ACA today.  As might be expected, they’re on different sides.  Mr. Blow, in ” ‘Trouble Don’t Last Always’,” says change is hard and often messy, and the Affordable Care Act means change.  Mr. Nocera goes completely off the rails and compares apples and oranges yet again.  In “Obama’s Bay of Pigs” he shrieks that J.F.K. learned from his mistakes.  He then poses a question:  Can President Obama do the same after the disastrous rollout of Obamacare?  Nice assumption there, that the president is a moron.  “Ross Williams” from Grand Rapids, Minnesota summed up the entire POS in his brief comment:  “This is a ridiculous comparison.”  Here’s Mr. Blow:

There’s an old Gospel song called “Trouble Don’t Last Always.” My mother has repeated that phrase so often that the words are written on my consciousness.

The lesson of that saying is always with me: Though your problems may be present, they are not permanent. Storms pass.

That’s why I have grown weary of the Democratic gnashing of teeth over the problems with the Obamacare rollout and the president’s falling poll numbers.

Panic lacks perspective.

This situation should remind us of a few things:

Although we like to think of nearly everyone as ardently right or left, a significant portion of the electorate is closer to the middle. An October Esquire-NBC News poll put the number of American moderates as high as 51 percent of the population. Many of these people can swing one way or another based on the news of the day or the season.

As much as people like to talk about the Republican Party’s being in its death throes, the party is still very much alive. Things don’t like to die. They change. That change may be slow and hard, but as death draws near, change is often forced. The Republican Party cannot sustain itself as a nationally viable party on its current path, but Republicans will eventually figure that out and a charismatic conservative will be able to sell the change.

Change is hard and often messy, and a movement and a messenger — the progressive cause and this president — whose whole identities are about change will always be linked to any discomfort that change brings.

You can’t promise more than you can produce. When the president told people they could keep their doctors and current insurance plans and that turned out not to be true, that hurt his standing more than any issue with the website ever could. To most people, that sounds dishonest, and dishonesty is an easily understood and widely reviled trait.

Republicans are going to harp on Obamacare and highlight hardship stories for as long as they feel the story has legs — and that may be a while. That happens in politics. You give your opponents a stick, and they’ll whack you with it every time.

That being said, this is not the end of days for this president or his party — no more so than shutting down the government was the end of the Republican Party.

Here is what we must remember:

Obamacare is, in the end, good for America. A report this week from the Council of Economic Advisers found that since 2010, when the Affordable Care Act passed, “Health care spending is the lowest on record,” and, “Health care price inflation is at its lowest rate in 50 years.” The report also said that the law has “substantially improved the long-term federal budget outlook.”

Not only must we lower health care costs so that they don’t bankrupt us; we must improve our health care system, something that Obamacare aims to do. Right now, we spend more than any other country on health care and still don’t have the best health outcomes. To quote from a PBS NewsHour report last year, in the United States:

• There are fewer physicians per person than in most other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

• The number of hospital beds in the U.S. was 2.6 per 1,000 population in 2009, lower than the O.E.C.D. average of 3.4 beds.

• Life expectancy at birth increased by almost nine years between 1960 and 2010, but that’s less than the increase of over 15 years in Japan and over 11 years on average in O.E.C.D. countries.

Fixing our health care system is not only right from a budget and policy perspective; it’s morally right. No one should be turned down for health coverage because of pre-existing conditions. No one should have to live in fear of going broke from getting sick. No one should have to use emergency rooms as his or her only option. As Martin Luther King Jr. once put it, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

Every policy change — particularly large ones — will have winners and losers. For now, the Republicans will keep highlighting the losers. Democrats must keep highlighting the winners, while reminding people that data points are not the data set. In the end, this health care law will be judged by its overall effects on the population and the economy, which I wager will be a net positive.

Anger is exhausting. It eventually subsides, memories fade and the media turn away to chase another ambulance.

As my mother would say, “Trouble don’t last always.”

Now here’s our little fruit-peddler, Mr. Nocera:

This week, when we are remembering John F. Kennedy, I’d like to touch briefly on the greatest fiasco of his presidency: the Bay of Pigs invasion. No sooner had Kennedy taken the oath of office than he discovered that the Pentagon and C.I.A. were preparing to send 1,500 Cuban exiles to invade Cuba. Though they would be greatly outnumbered by Cuban troops, the American military and the C.I.A. assumed that once the attack began, the Cuban people would rise up and overthrow Fidel Castro.

Kennedy was privately skeptical, but he didn’t yet have the confidence in his own judgment to override the experts he was surrounded by. So he gave the go-ahead — only to discover that the experts didn’t know what they were talking about. The exiles were quickly routed, America was humiliated and Kennedy was left to take the blame.

So far, at least, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has been President Obama’s Bay of Pigs. Led to believe that the preparation for Obamacare was on track, Obama was blindsided when that turned out not to be the case. The website where people are supposed to enroll, HealthCare.gov, is a train wreck. People with individual policies saw that they were set to be canceled — and then couldn’t enroll in Obamacare because the website had collapsed. In other cases, people discovered that even the least expensive plan available to them under Obamacare cost more than their old plan. And on and on.

There are two primary reasons Obamacare has gotten off to such a terrible start. The first is that it is one of the most complicated things that the federal government has ever tried to do; it was inevitable that there would be problems.

An insurance executive friend says that the systems Obamacare required were an order of magnitude more complex than even the most complicated insurance company systems. That complexity, says Drew Altman, the president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, was necessitated by the many compromises that were required to pass the bill into law. Ted Marmor, a former Yale professor and an expert on entitlement programs, says that it has to coexist within the extraordinarily complicated “patchwork” that is the American health care system.

Marmor was a young special assistant in the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare when Medicare rolled out in 1966 — a rollout that was as smooth as Obamacare’s has been rocky. (“Our biggest worry was getting Southern hospitals to treat black people,” Marmor told me.) Partly that was because Medicare was a relatively straightforward program. But Marmor also believes that it was because the men in charge of the new Medicare program were seasoned pros who knew how to get the job done.

Thus the second reason the Obamacare rollout has been so awful. “They put amateurs in charge,” says Marmor. Obama would have been much better served if, for instance, he had called upon his friend Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, to choose a team of specialists to lead the effort.

To even think that thought, however, requires management skills that this president has never shown. Nor has his initial reaction done much to instill faith. Calling on insurance companies to allow people to keep their old insurance plans — even after they’ve been canceled — is untenable. Even if state boards of insurance would allow such a move, it still wreaks havoc with the calculations upon which premiums are set.

Obama also announced a deadline of Nov. 30 for fixing the problems with HealthCare.gov. But what will that really accomplish? It is an arbitrary deadline that will almost surely not be met — and will sow even more mistrust.

With each day’s stories about the troubled rollout of Obamacare, it is easy to believe that it is doomed. But it’s not — not by a long shot. “We’ll know a lot more when we see what the roughly 15 million to 16 million people who are expected to get coverage that first year think,” says Altman. “And they won’t know themselves what they think about Obamacare until they start getting services.”

Jonathan Gruber, the M.I.T. economist who helped devise the Massachusetts health plan upon which Obamacare is modeled, says the deadline that matters is March 31, 2014. That’s when the individual mandate comes into play — meaning that people will either have signed up for health insurance or pay a fine. “It’s way too early to panic,” he says.

Eighteen months after the Bay of Pigs, President Kennedy was confronted with the Cuban missile crisis. Once again, the generals in the Pentagon wanted him to respond militarily, a route that was likely to lead to war with the Soviet Union. But this time, he trusted his own judgment, took a different path and defused the crisis. He had applied the lessons he had learned from the Bay of Pigs to the Cuban missile crisis.

As President Obama tries to turn Obamacare around, that is the looming question: Can he learn?

Gee — I guess Mr. Nocera has lots of stock in insurance companies as well as oil companies.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

November 27, 2012

Bobo went scrounging in the British tabloids to come up with a failed analogy this time.  In “How People Change” he gurgles that one father’s harsh e-mail prompts some thoughts on what it really takes to change behavior in others.  Trying to equate family life and politics just doesn’t work, Bobo.  Mr. Cohen has secession on his mind.  In “Scottexalonia Rising” he says people are bored. They want to be cyberglobal and hyper-local, world citizens with the passports of microstates.  Mr. Nocera has ideas about “Obama’s New Cabinet.”  He says President Obama need not look further. He thinks he’s got the perfect lineup for a second-term dream team.  All I need to say about that is he proposes Petraeus for Sec. Def.  Mr. Bruni has a question:  “Is Grover Finally Over?”  He says Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge has done wonders for Grover Norquist. But allegiance to it is blessedly waning.  Maybe.  I’ll believe it when I see some actual votes.  Here’s Bobo:

Nick Crews was, by his own admission, a middling father. He enjoyed cuddling with his three kids, but he was frequently away on naval deployments and didn’t stay in touch with them once they went off to boarding school.

Over the years, Crews has watched his children (the oldest is now 40) make a series of terrible decisions. “I bought into the fashionable philosophy of not interfering; letting the children find themselves,” he told Cristina Odone of The Telegraph of London.

Finally, in February, Crews decided he’d had enough. He sent his offspring an e-mail message, which is now known in Britain as the Crews Missile.

“Dear All Three,” he wrote. “With last evening’s crop of whinges and tidings of more rotten news for which you seem to treat your mother like a cess-pit, I feel it is time to come off my perch.

“It is obvious that none of you has the faintest notion of the bitter disappointment each of you has in your own way dished out to us. We are seeing the miserable death throes of the fourth of your collective marriages at the same time we see the advent of a fifth.”

Crews continued: “I wonder if you realise how we feel — we have nothing to say which reflects any credit on you or us. Fulfilling careers based on your educations would have helped — but as yet none of you is what I would confidently term properly self-supporting.”

Then he turned to his grandchildren. “So we witness the introduction to this life of six beautiful children — soon to be seven — none of whose parents have had the maturity and sound judgment to make a reasonable fist at making essential threshold decisions. …

“The predictable result has been a decade of deep unhappiness over the fates of our grandchildren. If it wasn’t for them, Mum and I would not be too concerned, as each of you consciously, and with eyes wide open, crashes from one cock-up to the next. It makes us weak that so many of these events are copulation-driven, and then helplessly to see these lovely little people being woefully let down by you, their parents.”

Crews then finished his e-mail. “I want to hear no more from any of you until, if you feel inclined, you have a success or an achievement or a REALISTIC plan for the support and happiness of your children to tell me about.”

He signed the e-mail, “I am bitterly, bitterly disappointed. Dad.”

That e-mail, released by one of his daughters hoping to get publicity for a book she is translating, has made Crews a hugely popular folk hero in Britain. Many parents are apparently delighted that someone finally had the gumption to give at least one set of overprivileged slackers a well-deserved kick in the pants.

The problem, of course, is that no matter how emotionally satisfying these tirades may be, they don’t really work. You can tell people that they are fat and that they shouldn’t eat more French fries, but that doesn’t mean they will stop. You can make all sorts of New Year’s resolutions, earnestly deciding to behave better, but that doesn’t mean you will.

People don’t behave badly because they lack information about their shortcomings. They behave badly because they’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which they’re unable to escape.

Human behavior flows from hidden springs and calls for constant and crafty prodding more than blunt hectoring. The way to get someone out of a negative cascade is not with a ferocious e-mail trying to attack their bad behavior. It’s to go on offense and try to maximize some alternative good behavior. There’s a trove of research suggesting that it’s best to tackle negative behaviors obliquely, by redirecting attention toward different, positive ones.

It’s foolish to imperiously withdraw and say, come back to me when you have a plan. It’s better to pick one area of life at a time (most people don’t have the willpower to change their whole lives all at once) and help a person lay down a pre-emptive set of concrete rules and rewards. Pick out a small goal and lay out measurable steps toward it.

It’s foolhardy to try to persuade people to see the profound errors of their ways in the hope that mental change will lead to behavioral change. Instead, try to change superficial behavior first and hope that, if they act differently, they’ll eventually think differently. Lure people toward success with the promise of admiration instead of trying to punish failure with criticism. Positive rewards are more powerful.

I happen to cover a field — politics — in which people are perpetually bellowing at each other to be better. They’re always issuing the political version of the Crews Missile.

It’s a lousy leadership model. Don’t try to bludgeon bad behavior. Change the underlying context. Change the behavior triggers. Displace bad behavior with different good behavior. Be oblique. Redirect.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

Banners at FC Barcelona’s Camp Nousoccer stadium have long declared: “Catalonia is not Spain.”

That notion got a boost this weekend as pro-independence parties won Catalonian elections and strengthened the region’s drive for a referendum on secession in defiance of the Spanish Constitution and of Mariano Rajoy, the embattled center-right prime minister.

Indeed, such is Spain’s economic crisis that Rajoy declared in June that “Spain is not Uganda,” prompting the Ugandan foreign minister to retort the next day that, “Uganda does not want to be Spain!”

So a majority of Catalonia’s 7.5 million citizens, it seems, no longer want to be in Spain — and a majority of Ugandans would rather be in Uganda. The crisis of the euro zone has accentuated longstanding Catalonian resentment over tax transfers to Madrid and sharpened the nationalism of the region with the biggest economy in Spain — larger than Greece’s, as Catalans like to point out.

(Elena Salgado, the former Spanish finance minister, noted in 2010 that, “Spain is not Greece.” Later that year, clearly irked, the then Greek finance minister declared that, “Greece is not Ireland.” The former Irish finance minister, Brian Lenihan, retorted that “Ireland is not in Greek territory.” Meanwhile, the secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development weighed in: “Neither Spain nor Portugal is Ireland.”)

The euro crisis is also a crisis of euro-geography. Scotland has scheduled for 2014 a referendum on independence, 307 years after the political union that created the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom mutters about withdrawal from the European Union.

So much for globalization, the disappearance of frontiers in Europe, borderless cyberworlds, hyperconnectivity and all the forces that seem to make a mockery of the nation-state and a case, at some point, for global governance.

People are bored and irked. They can’t get new jobs. They want new borders, especially as the likelihood of actually having to defend them in war has become infinitely remote.

They want to be cyberglobal and hyper-local, citizens of the world with the passports of microstates. The desires seem to balance each other.

Across the Atlantic there are similar trends. In Texas — where Mitt Romney won by nearly 1.3 million votes — secession chatter has increased. Larry Scott Kilgore, a Republican candidate, has announced he will run for governor in 2014 and legally change his name to Larry Secede Kilgore.

Texans, betraying an unlikely European itch, like to point out that the Texas economy is larger than Australia’s [pdf]. Australia, meanwhile, has many citizens of Greek descent but is definitely not Greece.

As Tom Wolfe writes in his new novel, “It’s back to blood! Religion is dying … but everybody still has to believe in something . It would be intolerable — you couldn’t stand it … to finally have to say to yourself, ‘Why keep pretending? I’m nothing but a random atom inside a supercollider known as the universe.”’

As economic difficulties increase so do tribal sentiments. Random-atom angst sends people scurrying for new flags even as 800 million borderless cyberfolk unite in watching “Gangnam Style” on YouTube.

Of course, immigration, lust and love have mixed the blood of the Scottish, Texan and Catalonian tribes (Call them “Scottexalonia” in their shared separation itch.) “I’m a mutt,” Barack Obama once said. So, increasingly, is a wired, remittance-linked world where many live with, say, one foot in Birmingham and another in Lahore.

Glasgow has a substantial Muslim population. Texas is more than a third Hispanic. Catalonia has many Spanish-only speaking immigrants. The urge to throw up new borders is in essence an anachronism.

Or is it? The euro crisis is perceived as a crisis of overreach for pooled sovereignty. Perhaps a reaction is rational (even if the Catalans and Scots say they would like to be in the E.U., once they run their own affairs.) Economic resentment translates into a resurgence of identity with national culture.

In Texas, where the terms of entry into the Union in 1845 are still debated, it is a little different. The main resentments are social not economic. Cohabiting with all the pointy-headed, Subaru-driving, pro-choice liberals who elected Obama is too much for some Texans.

In 1996, I began a piece called “Global forces batter politics” with these words: “Throughout much of the world today, politics lags behind economics, like a horse and buggy haplessly trailing a sports car. While politicians go through the motions of national elections — offering chimerical programs and slogans — world markets, the Internet and the furious pace of trade involve people in a global game in which elected representatives figure as little more than bit players.”

Extrapolate out 16 years from that. National politics, as President François Hollande of France is only the latest to discover, is often no more than tweaking at the margins in the exiguous political space left by markets and other global forces. And that is in France!

Secessionist urges resonate in troubled times. But they face the headwind of business, political and global logic. I suspect that — less Kosovo than Quebec — all of Scottexalonia will succumb eventually to the good sense of union.

Next up we have Mr. Nocera:

Elisse B. Walter?

Is that really whom President Obama named on Monday to be the new chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission? A woman who has been at the S.E.C. for the last four years? And, to boot, someone practically joined at the hip with her predecessor, Mary Schapiro? Say it ain’t so, Mr. President.

No doubt, Commissioner Walter is a fine public servant. What she is not, however, is a fresh face with new ideas. And isn’t that half the point of second-term appointments? They give a president a chance to name cabinet or agency directors who can breathe new life into their departments. Second-term appointments are presidential do-overs.

Take, for instance, Timothy Geithner, the soon-to-be-departing Treasury secretary. All things considered, Geithner wasn’t a bad secretary. In no small part because of him, America’s banks are far better capitalized — and hence safer — than their European counterparts. But you always had the sense that his heart lay more with the bankers he was overseeing than the homeowners who needed help.

That is why our nominee to replace Geithner is his bête noire, Sheila Bair. As the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, a job she held until July 2011, she fought against bank bailouts while pushing for mortgage modifications. Her new book, “Bull By the Horns,” is mostly her inside account of the financial crisis. But she also offers a series of sensible policy suggestions. Wouldn’t you like a Treasury secretary who believes that interest on debt should not be tax deductible — whether for large financial institutions or home mortgages? I sure would.

Let’s move next to the State Department, where an exhausted Hillary Clinton is ready to step down. She has been, without question, Obama’s finest appointment. She was also his riskiest. The current favorite for the job, Susan Rice, the United Nations ambassador, is a safe choice, but she doesn’t have the breadth that the job requires. Who does? How about Bill Clinton? Seriously.

The president’s worst cabinet appointment, on the other hand, has been Eric Holder Jr. at the Department of Justice. Under him, the department got prosecutorial scalps by going after the small fry while letting big guys like Angelo Mozilo, the former chief executive of Countrywide, off the hook. Holder has also been tone-deaf in dealing with the Republicans in Congress. Our nominee is a man with a reputation for cleaning up messes: Ken Feinberg, a lawyer who now specializes in victim compensation programs. A former special counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, he knows the territory. A master negotiator, he knows how to bridge divides. And his sense of fair play is exactly what this Justice Department most needs.

Department of Defense? David Petraeus. After disclosing an affair with Paula Broadwell and resigning as C.I.A. chief, Petraeus is currently doing his stint in purgatory. The Defense Department in Obama’s second term is going to need someone who can cut its budget without hurting its mission — and who can reform the most entrenched bureaucracy in Washington. The military brass will run bureaucratic circles around any defense secretary who doesn’t know their tricks. Petraeus can stand up to them.

The current secretary of energy, Steven Chu, is a scientist. A far better choice is a committed environmentalist who also understands the importance of making intelligent energy choices. We know just such a man: Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund. Unlike most environmental groups, the defense fund supports using hydraulic fracturing — fracking — to drill for natural gas. He is on record as saying that there are enormous climate benefits to using natural gas — so long as methane leakage can be minimized. At the Energy Department, Krupp would be in a position to help make sure that happens.

With rumors that Arne Duncan may step down as secretary of Education, we nominate Randi Weingarten to replace him. Risky? You bet. But as the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten has long claimed to support education reform, so long as it is done with the nation’s teachers instead of at their expense. Making Weingarten the next education secretary would give her the chance to put her money where her mouth is.

Which brings us back to the S.E.C. In The Times’s account of Walter’s promotion, it said that the White House might well offer up a new nominee in the future. We know the right man for the job: Sean Berkowitz. Berkowitz, who, in full disclosure, is a friend, led the Enron task force and prosecuted Enron’s top two executives, Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay. So he knows how to nail the bad guys, which has been a problem for the current S.E.C.

Since 2007, he has been the global chairman of litigation for Latham & Watkins, one of the nation’s largest law firms. Oh, and one other thing, Mr. President.

He’s from Chicago.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

I once took a long train ride with Grover Norquist. This wasn’t intentional. We found ourselves next to each other on the line to board an Acela from Washington, D.C., to New York, and we fell into a conversation, by which I mean that he did a great deal of talking, in that faintly maniacal way of his, while I presented a captive audience. He continued to talk as we walked along the platform and was still talking as we entered the train, so it was more or less unavoidable that we sit together. Besides which, I was genuinely fascinated, which is a very different adjective from amused.

This happened earlier this year, around the time that pundits galore were weighing in on whom Mitt Romney should choose as a running mate, and Norquist regaled me with the case for Luis Fortuño. You know, the governor of … Puerto Rico.

It was quite a case, replete with riffs on the importance of the Puerto Rican vote in Florida and references to Fortuño’s degrees from top-tier American universities. But the odds of Fortuño’s selection were somewhere between zilch and hell-freezing-over, and it occurred to me that Norquist’s railway soliloquy wasn’t supposed to be a plausible argument, merely an attention-getting one. It had less to do with serious policy or sensible politics than with sheer performance. Norquist in a nutshell.

Someday someone will write a dark history — a farce, really — of how he managed to bring nearly all of the Republican Party to heel, compelling legislator upon legislator to lash themselves to his no-new-taxes pledge. Until then we’ll have to content ourselves with his misfortune over the last few days. No sooner had a nation digested its turkey than his goose began to be cooked. The spreading rebellion in the Republican ranks was manifest on the post-Thanksgiving Sunday talk shows.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina dissed Norquist on ABC’s “This Week,” saying that “when you’re $16 trillion in debt, the only pledge we should be making to each other is to avoid becoming Greece.” On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Representative Peter King of New York also stressed that the country’s current fiscal woes trumped vows made in less debt-ridden times, and over on “Fox News Sunday,” Senator John McCain signaled a receptiveness to new revenue, another dagger to Norquist’s dark heart.

All three Republican lawmakers were echoing previous comments of their own and of a small but significant cluster of colleagues, whose numbers continued to grow on Monday, when Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, appearing on CBS’s “This Morning,” pronounced himself “not obligated on the pledge.” It’s as if some spell has at long last been broken, and the formerly bewitched villagers are rising up to defy their evil overlord and insist on the possibility of life and even mirth without a deduction for corporate jets.

I celebrate this not because I think tax increases are some budget panacea. They’re not even close. In fact there’s a serious risk of focusing too much on them and too little on entitlement reform and other potential savings, and one of the real values of the Republican Party has been its insistence, in theory if not always in practice, on careful attention to expenditures.

But over recent years the party lost much of its credibility in this discussion, by dint of the lavish spending and escalating debt under George W. Bush and because of a sophomoric, gimmicky purity that’s incarnate in Norquist, who has done his party real damage. He might as well have been onstage during that infamous Republican debate in August 2011 when all eight candidates for the party’s presidential nomination said that they wouldn’t accept even one dollar in tax increases for $10 in spending reductions. They had devolved into dummies, and Norquist was their ventriloquist.

There’s no place for absolutists and absolutism in a democracy, which is designed for give-and-take, for compromise. That’s one of the lessons of “Lincoln,” which moviegoers are thronging to and intellectuals are swooning for precisely because it illuminates and validates the intrinsic and purposeful messiness of our system. It exalts flexibility. It venerates pragmatism.

And I hope that Republicans and Democrats alike will keep those principles in mind as we approach the so-called fiscal cliff. Norquist certainly hasn’t, but then he bears no responsibility for governing and is concerned less with voters and their welfare than with those of us in the news media, who have been too quick to summon him, rewarding his staged and reliable vividness.

In a recent appearance on a Times webcast, he joked that government did need some funding, for “a military strong enough to keep the Canadians on their side of the border,” har-har. And he called taxes “thoroughly icky.” Then he winked, as if this were all just fun and games. To him, maybe. But the fun is fading fast.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

July 29, 2012

The Pasty Little Putz is in a lather.  In “Defining Religious Liberty Down” he ‘splains to us that the Chick-fil-A flap is the latest sign of confusion about what “free exercise” of religion means.  He ends the thing with a textbook example of hyperbole that should be taught in grammar classes.  MoDo considers “Mitt’s Olympic Meddle:”  Off with his head! Mitt Romney barely escapes the Tower of London.  Some “charm offensive.”  At least the British press is honest about him.  The Moustache of Wisdom gives us “Coming Soon: The Big Trade-Off.”  He says as baby boomers age, Americans face tough choices. We can pay for nursing homes or for nursing Afghanistan.  How many Friedman Units will it be before we decide, Tommy?  Mr. Kristof, in “Blissfully Lost in the Woods,” says here’s a little advice for the overburdened and overconnected: take a hike.  Mr. Bruni, in “Political Fortunetelling,” says the future of presidential campaigning awaits us, with familiar families, megabucks and Miley Cyrus.  Here’s The Putz:

The words “freedom of belief” do not appear in the First Amendment. Nor do the words “freedom of worship.” Instead, the Bill of Rights guarantees Americans something that its authors called “the free exercise” of religion.

It’s a significant choice of words, because it suggests a recognition that religious faith cannot be reduced to a purely private or individual affair. Most religious communities conceive of themselves as peoples or families, and the requirements of most faiths extend well beyond attendance at a sabbath service — encompassing charity and activism, education and missionary efforts, and other “exercises” that any guarantee of religious freedom must protect.

I cannot improve upon the way the first lady of the United States explained this issue, speaking recently to a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “Our faith journey isn’t just about showing up on Sunday,” Michelle Obama said. “It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well … Jesus didn’t limit his ministry to the four walls of the church. He was out there fighting injustice and speaking truth to power every single day.”

But Mrs. Obama’s words notwithstanding, there seems to be a great deal of confusion about this point in the Western leadership class today.

You can see this confusion at work in the Obama White House’s own Department of Health and Human Services, which created a religious exemption to its mandate requiring employers to pay for contraception, sterilization and the days-after pill that covers only churches, and treats religious hospitals, schools and charities as purely secular operations. The defenders of the H.H.S. mandate note that it protects freedom of worship, which indeed it does. But a genuine free exercise of religion, not so much.

A similar spirit was at work across the Atlantic last month, when a judge in Cologne, Germany, banned circumcision as a violation of a newborn’s human rights. Here again, defenders of the decision insisted that it didn’t trample on any Jew’s or Muslim’s freedom of belief. But of course to be an adult Jew in good standing, as The Washington Post’s Charles Lane pointed out, one must circumcise one’s son at 8 days old. So while the ruling would not technically outlaw Jewish theology or Jewish worship, it would effectively outlaw Judaism itself.

Now we have the great Chick-fil-A imbroglio, in which mayors and an alderman in several American cities threatened to prevent the delicious chicken chain from opening new outlets because its Christian president told an interviewer that he supports “the biblical definition of the family unit.” Their conceit seemed to be that the religious liberties afforded to congregations (no official, to my knowledge, has threatened to close down any Chicago churches) do not extend to religious businessmen. Or alternatively, it was that while a businessman may have the right to his private beliefs, the local zoning committee has veto power over how those beliefs are exercised and expressed.

I have described all these incidents as resulting from confusion about what freedom of religion actually entails. But of course every freedom has its limits. We do not allow people to exercise beliefs that require, say, forced marriage or honor killing. You can believe in the gods of 15th-century Mesoamerica, but neither Chicago values nor American ones permit the use of Aztec sacrificial altars on the South Side.

To the extent that the H.H.S. mandate, the Cologne ruling and the Chick-fil-A controversy reflect a common logic rather than a shared confusion, then, it’s a logic that regards Western monotheism’s ideas about human sexuality — all that chastity, monogamy, male-female business — as similarly incompatible with basic modern freedoms.

Like a belief that the gods want human sacrifice, these ideas are permissible if held in private. But they cannot be exercised in ways that might deny, say, employer-provided sterilizations to people who really don’t want kids. Nor can they be exercised to deny one’s offspring the kind of sexual gratification that anti-circumcision advocates claim the procedure makes impossible. They certainly cannot be exercised in ways that might make anyone uncomfortable with his or her own sexual choices or identity.

It may seem strange that anyone could look around the pornography-saturated, fertility-challenged, family-breakdown-plagued West and see a society menaced by a repressive puritanism. But it’s clear that this perspective is widely and sincerely held.

It would be refreshing, though, if it were expressed honestly, without the “of course we respect religious freedom” facade.

If you want to fine Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching, or prevent Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, or ban Chick-fil-A in Boston, then don’t tell religious people that you respect our freedoms. Say what you really think: that the exercise of our religion threatens all that’s good and decent, and that you’re going to use the levers of power to bend us to your will.

There, didn’t that feel better? Now we can get on with the fight.

He is SUCH a horse’s ass.  Here’s MoDo:

So the Republican presidential contender, eager to show off more than gubernatorial experience, travels overseas to bolster his foreign policy credentials. Then, in a TV interview, he blurts out a shockingly ill-considered, if undeniably true, observation that snowballs until the poor guy collapses into an international punch line.

It was a vertiginous fall for George Romney, who, while running for president in 1967, asserted that generals and diplomats had given him “the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get” when he toured Vietnam two years earlier.

And it was painful for Mitt, who had to watch his father’s epic gaffe from afar, while he was over in France struggling to drum up a few Mormon converts.

In their book “The Real Romney,” Michael Kranish and Scott Helman quoted Mitt’s sister Jane as saying the episode deeply affected Mitt: “He’s not going to put himself out on a limb. He’s more cautious, more scripted.”

That’s when Mitt began to build his own sterile biosphere, shaping his temperament and political career to make sure he never stumbled into such a costly moment of candor.

Even though the Mormon doesn’t drink coffee, he has measured out his life in coffee spoons, limiting access to reporters, giving interviews mostly to Fox News, hiding personal data, resisting putting out concrete policy proposals, refusing to release tax returns, trimming his conscience to match the moment, avoiding spontaneity. But somehow he ended up making the same unforced error that his dad did.

It’s like the epigraph in John O’Hara’s “Appointment at Samarra.” You can run from fate, but fate will be waiting in the next town, at the next marketplace.

Even as he angled to appear Anglo-Saxon and obsequiously vowed to restore the bust of Churchill to the Oval Office, Mitt condescended to the nation that invented condescension. The Brits swiftly boxed his ears for his insolence and foul calumny.

Conservatives in London oozed scorn. Mayor Boris Johnson mocked “a guy called Mitt Romney,” and Prime Minister David Cameron suggested it was easier to run an Olympics “in the middle of nowhere.” Fleet Street spanked “Nowhere Man” and “Mitt the Twit.”

Conservatives on Fox News were dumbfounded. “You have to shake your head,” Karl Rove said. Charles Krauthammer pronounced the faux pas “unbelievable, it’s beyond human understanding, it’s incomprehensible. I’m out of adjectives.”

The alarming thing about Romney is that he has been running for president for years, but he still doesn’t know how to read a room. He doesn’t take anything in, he just puts it out. He doesn’t hear himself the way the rest of us hear him.

In the Mitt-sphere, populated by his shiny white family, the Mormon Church and a narrow, homogenous inner circle, Romney’s image of himself as wise, caring, smart and capable is relentlessly reinforced. That leaves him constantly surprised that other people don’t love what he is saying.

We may wince when the blithering toff, or want-wit, as Shakespeare would say, arrives at the Brits’ home and throws his Cherry Coke Zero can in the prize rose bushes. But what drives his gaffes is his desire to preen over accomplishments.

As a candidate, he’s expected to stoop to conquer, to play a man of the people. But he really wants voters to know that he earned $250 million, and not even in the same business where his dad made a name for himself.

So he keeps blurting out hoity-toity stuff to make sure we know he’s not hoi polloi — about his friends who are Nascar owners, his wife’s Cadillacs, how he likes to fire people and how he, too, is unemployed. And he builds a car elevator in the middle of an economic slough.

In his interview with Brian Williams in London, Romney couldn’t resist giving himself the laurels for saving the Salt Lake City Games by analyzing whether the British ones were off by a hair, or a hire.

Then he tried to scamper back to the obligatory common-man script and ended up looking clumsy and the one thing he most certainly is not: unuxorious.

After going all the way to London to see the Olympics, he decides he won’t watch his wife’s mare, Rafalca, compete in horse ballet? He tries to win the political horse race by going to the Games, which are literally a race in which he has a horse, and then feigns disengagement?

“This is Ann’s sport,” Romney told Williams dismissively. “I’m not even sure which day the sport goes on. She will get the chance to see it. I will not be watching the event.”

He came across like a wazzock, as The Daily Telegraph called him, using a British insult for a daft know-it-all.

Romney programmed himself into a robot, so he wouldn’t boil over with opinions and convictions, like his more genuine dad.

But if we’re going to have someone who’s removed, always struggling to connect and emote, why not stick with the president we already have?

Better the android you know than the android you don’t know.

Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

When you talk to Chinese officials lately, it doesn’t take long before they express concern about America’s “rebalancing” of forces — the prospect that we’ll shift more troops from the Middle East, where they are containing instability, to Asia, where they would contain China. My standard reply is that China is worrying about the wrong thing. It is not that we’ll shift our Marines from the Middle East to Asia; it’s that we are going to shift them from the Middle East to San Diego — because we can’t afford to be the world’s policeman much longer, and China will have to fill some of the void.

Good luck, world! It’s been fun hanging with you, but we can’t pay for it anymore — not with all of us baby boomers about to retire with no savings. We have a new strategic doctrine coming: “U.S. foreign policy in the age of Alzheimer’s.” We’ll do what we can afford and forget the rest.

Why do I say that? In part it’s because I spent time this week with the Washington staff of The Jewish Federations of North America, or JFNA, which represents the 155 Jewish community federations across America. They may seem like an unlikely interlocutor for a foreign affairs columnist, but they’re not. Like their counterparts, Catholic Charities and Lutheran Services, these Jewish federations operate nursing homes, hospitals, elder-care programs, meals on wheels, job-training, hospices and family social services in cities across America. And the financial challenges they’re all facing today are profound — as the baby boomers are aging — and so too are the trade-offs we’ll have to make between nursing homes in America and nursery schools in Afghanistan. Unless we get some sustained economic growth, Afghanistan is going to lose.

William Daroff, the director of JFNA’s Washington office, starts with this fact: Since the 2008 economic crisis, annual donations to Jewish federations have been flat, while there has been a sharp increase in demand for services and significant cuts in Medicaid and block grants that help pay for them. “We have people who were donors to our programs five years ago, now knocking on the door to use those same programs” — from people in need of job-training to those in need of help to cover a mortgage payment, said Daroff.

And we haven’t seen anything yet, explains Barbara Bedney, the director of public policy for JFNA. “We will see a doubling of the number of older adults — people over the age of 65 — by 2030, as the baby boomers age,” she explained, and one of the fastest growing groups will be the “old-old” — those who are 85 years old and older, who are living longer but requiring even more expensive care. And wait until the baby boomer cohort reaches their 80s. Alzheimer’s Disease Research reports that roughly 5.4 million Americans of all ages had Alzheimer’s disease in 2012, and, by 2050, more than 15 million Americans could be living with the disease — a key reason nursing home residents are predicted to double over the next 30 years.

And many baby boomers, says Steven Woolf, the senior tax policy counsel for JFNA, “are nowhere near prepared in terms of retirement savings” for the kinds of costs they are going to incur after they stop working — in an age in which they will be living longer, the government will have less to offer, they each will have fewer kids to care for them and social service agencies will be swamped with demands.

Indeed, a 2011 survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that a “sizable percentage of workers report they have virtually no savings or investments.” Among those workers polled in its retirement confidence survey, “29 percent say they have less than $1,000. In total, more than half of workers (56 percent) report that the total value of their household’s savings and investments, excluding the value of their primary home and any defined benefit plans, is less than $25,000.”

That could pay for one hospital stay and recuperation in a nursing home, or dealing with just one parent with Alzheimer’s. And all that’s before the next president and Congress agree on a long-term fiscal rebalancing plan that will surely reduce Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits. Fortunately, two-thirds of baby boomer households are expected to receive some kind of inheritance over their lifetime to cushion the blow. Also, baby boomers as a generation have been very volunteer-oriented, and we’re going to need a lot of family volunteers to work with the elderly.

Indeed, says Bedney, today “family informal caregivers provide about 80 percent of elder care,” delivering meals to parents or aunts or driving them from place to place and managing their doctor visits and medications. But there are lots of problems associated with this care, she added: “lost work hours, high stress, declines in physical health.” Up to now, though, family caregivers have been largely ignored by policy makers, which is a mistake we must remedy, because “when we support family caregivers, we enable older adults to ‘age in place’ instead of in a high-cost institution,” said Bedney.

But, as any family caregiver can tell you, it is no picnic. “One of the leading risk factors for the institutionalization of older adults is the declining health of the person taking care of them,” added Bedney. “You’re lifting someone and you do it wrong and you both fall.”

Add up all these trend lines and you can see why, over the next decade, we must get more consistent economic growth as a society and, also, adds Daroff, come up with more policy and technology innovations that allow us to provide a lot more elder care, in particular aging at home, for a lot less money. That will require breakthroughs like remote diagnosis equipment in every home that can track a patient’s weight, blood sugar or lung capacity and dispatch it to a hospital, or clothing with sensors woven into the fabric that will be able track all physical indicators around the clock.

Nursing homes, nursery schools or nursing Afghanistan — these are the trade-offs we’ll have to make in this decade, unless we have a real growth spurt. Mitt Romney gave a big foreign policy speech last week, waxing eloquent about how he would be more assertive of U.S. interests abroad than President Obama and ensure that this is an “American century.” Really? I like American centuries. But to paraphrase an old saying: a foreign policy vision without a real plan to pay for it — and manage all the trade-offs back home — is just a hallucination.

Do bear in mind that Tommy was a drum major for the Iraq war.  It would all get better in just one more Friedman Unit if we “stayed the course.”  Fuck you, Tommy.  Here’s Mr. Kristof, on the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon:

Actually, that dateline isn’t quite right. It shouldn’t be “on” the Pacific Crest Trail, because my daughter and I drifted off the trail. We ended up completely lost in a wilderness of snow, mountains and forests.

No phones. No e-mail. No work. A perfect father-daughter bonding experience.

The adventures began after my 14-year-old daughter and I started out on a 200-mile backpack along the Pacific Crest Trail this month. Ultralight backpacking is one of my family’s summer rituals, but this time we ran into an unusually high snowpack for July.

For the first 50 miles we managed to bound over five-foot snowdrifts and stay on the trail. Then we hit higher elevations in the Three Sisters Wilderness, and later the Mount Jefferson Wilderness: the trail completely disappeared under many feet of snow that lasted for miles.

We gave up on the trail and followed map and compass. Once, we were delighted to find footprints that we eagerly followed. Then the footprints became more distinct and we realized that they had toes. And claws.

“Dad, I think that’s a bear you’re following.”

So we returned to map and compass, scrambling up steep ridges and tumbling down snowy slopes, bounding across vast fields of boulders and lava, and finding patches of bare ground to camp on when darkness fell.

For much of the way, we were mauled by the most bloodthirsty brutes of the American wilderness — not grizzly bears, but mosquitoes. My daughter had DEET repellent and a head net, but neither helped much.

“Look, Dad! I just counted! I have 49 mosquito bites on my forehead alone!”

This trip, even more than most backpacking slogs, was a reminder that we humans are mere bricks in a vast natural cathedral. As we tumbled in snow pits, as rain fell on us, we mused that we’re not landlords of our planet, or even its prime tenants. We’re just guests.

In short, the wilderness humbled us, and that’s why it is indispensable.

In our modern society, we have structured the world to obey us; we can often use a keyboard or remote to alter our surroundings. Yet all this gadgetry focused on our comfort doesn’t always leave us more content or grounded. It is striking how often people who are feeling bewildered or troubled seek remedy in the wilderness. That’s the point of the best-selling new book “Wild,” by Cheryl Strayed, about how she escaped from heroin and grief over her mother’s death by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

“Wild” is a terrific yarn, opening with a moment in which Strayed loses one precious hiking boot over a precipice — and then angrily hurls the other after it. Over time, the forests tame her, providing free therapy and the setting for her maturation. Strayed’s book has been successful, largely by word of mouth, partly because it reflects a truth we recognize.

For decades, youth programs have found benefit in sending troubled adolescents to drink from wilderness streams and lap up truths about themselves. Outward Bound takes a similar path, for everyone from at-risk kids to returning veterans to corporate executives.

Perhaps wilderness is an antidote to our postindustrial self-absorption. It’s a place to be deflated, humbled and awed all at once. It’s a window into a world larger than ourselves, one that doesn’t respond to a remote. It’s an Olympiad for all of us.

Yet, increasingly, it’s for only a tiny minority of us. Getting lost in the wild used to be routine for generations raised on hunting and fishing, yet those pastimes are becoming less common. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service reports that the number of Americans who fish dropped by 15 percent between 1996 and 2006. In that same period, the number of hunters dropped by just over 10 percent.

Likewise, the number of backcountry campers in our national parks has fallen by nearly 30 percent since 1979.

Look, trudging uphill through mosquito swarms isn’t for everyone. But unplugging long enough to encounter nature is less scary and more fortifying than people may expect. My daughter and I were never in any danger and eventually muddled through all 200 miles of our hike. After 10 exhausting, exhilarating days, we emerged from the woods — and my daughter was promptly telling her brothers tales of snow and misadventure that had them yearning for frostbite.

To guarantee wilderness in the long run, we first need to ensure a constituency for it. Environmentalists focus on preserving wilderness, because that’s the immediate priority, but they perhaps should be as energetic at getting young people to interact with it. We need more Americans working through their challenges, like Cheryl Strayed, by hurling boots off precipices. We need more schools and universities to offer classes on the wild, in the wild — with extra credit for students who get lost.

Last but not least is Mr. Bruni:

Talk about putting the cart ahead of the donkey. Last week Public Policy Polling actually sized up voters’ feelings about possible Democratic candidates for… the 2016 presidential race. That’s right: 2016. The 2012 contest still has two conventions, one vice-presidential selection, four debates and a river delta’s worth of mudslinging to go, and already the soothsayers are moving on. Either we Americans are an admirably future-oriented people, or we’re really, really bored.

The polling firm surveyed voters in Iowa, site of those wild and woolly caucuses, and found that they preferred Hillary Clinton to Joe Biden by a 42-point margin. You’ll be hard pressed to believe this, but on the Republican side, which the firm also assessed, things were messier, with Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee so close they might as well be tucked into the same sweater vest.

Those findings came out Monday. On Tuesday news reports noted that Jeb Bush would be giving a speech this fall in Iowawhich can mean only one thing! — and that the Colorado governor, John Hickenlooper, a popular Democrat, had made plans for a summer trip to New Hampshire, verdant cradle of so many a presidential dream. Any day now, I expect Intrade odds for a Bush-Hickenlooper general-election contest, along with a raft of commentary on the implications of a matchup even more syllabically skewed than Bush-Dukakis. Can the longer clump of letters win?

And if we extrapolate just a bit from current trends and add a soupçon of imagination, can’t we see even further into the future? Let’s give it a try.

In the 2020 Republican primary, there are brief surges each by Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and the comedian Dennis Miller. For three weeks, Sarah Palin sends coy signals of a possible candidacy; those weeks happen to coincide with the debut of her Wasilla lounge act, “Rock & Rogue,” and the rollout of a signature eyewear collection at LensCrafters nationwide.

Michele Bachmann attempts a comeback, enabled by a continued erosion of campaign finance regulations. Corporations can now formally sponsor like-minded candidates, and a fast-food chain known for its evangelical bent backs her, leading to bumper stickers and T-shirts that say: “Bachmann 2020, Brought to You by Chick-fil-A.”

But the primary ultimately comes down to dueling dauphins. It’s George P. Bush (son of Jeb) versus Tagg Romney (son of Mitt), whose catchy campaign slogan, “Tagg: You’re It!” gives him an early lead. That advantage is erased when, on a trip to Brazil meant to showcase his foreign-policy bona fides, he alienates the entire country with a profession of admiration for what he mistakenly assumes to be its national anthem, “The Girl From Ipanema.” And so Romney, brought to you by the Marriott International Inc., narrowly loses to Bush, brought to you by Koch Industries.

He faces a Democratic incumbent, Andrew Cuomo, brought to you by the Food Network, which has grown at this point to eight channels of programming, three devoted to the ultra-processed, “semi-homemade” cooking of Cuomo’s significant other, Sandra Lee.

Cuomo promises that if semi-enthusiastic voters give him a second term, he and Lee will at last tie the knot. He also assures voters that he will never again let her choose the menu for a state dinner or come anywhere near the food pyramid, which, under her influence, has begun to resemble something more like a food trapezoid. He prevails.

The 2024 Democratic primary is an inter-dynastic echo of the 2020 Republican one, pitting Beau Biden (son of Joe) against Chelsea Clinton (lineage well known). Solidifying the Democratic Party’s lucrative connection to Hollywood, Clinton says that she plans to make George Clooney her secretary of state. Biden one-ups her — and seals his primary win — by pledging the two-for-one appointment of Brangelina to that post, on the correct theory that the couple’s expansive brood of adopted children alone can provide him his margin of victory at the polls.

The Republican field is utter madness, even if you don’t factor in Palin’s latest faux flirtation with a candidacy. It coincides with the debut of her new reality show, “Sarah at Sixty: A Tundra of Fun.”

George P. Bush winds up getting the nod again. The Biden vs. Bush general-election face-off is the most expensive ever, with a total of $50 billion in spending by the campaigns, the parties, various “super PACs” and three unidentified men from Beijing hoisting steamer trunks of cash off the baggage carousel at J.F.K. When Bush points out that he has added more than 250,000 jobs to the economy through his hiring of ad makers, opposition researchers, telemarketers and assemblers of George P. Bush action figurines, voters gratefully elect him.

By 2036, campaigns have turned so negative and shallow that candidates don’t even bother with policies; they just exchange dismissive emoticons on a new, wordless social media platform. The Republican incumbent, Andrew Rove, flings eye rolls, yawns and — in a homage to the president his father helped elect — an occasional smirk.

Rove’s Democratic opponent, Malia Obama, favors hopey-changey faces and expressions of grit.

The only two traditional news periodicals still in operation publish frequent laments about the tyranny of name recognition, nepotism and family wealth in American government, noting that Rove’s commerce secretary is Craig Romney; his education secretary is Ben Quayle; his labor secretary is Ivanka Trump; and his secretary of defense is Meghan McCain. The potent sway of such journalism is reflected in Obama’s choice of a running mate: Kristin Gore.

Presidential debates no longer exist, replaced by a jingoistic televised competition, “The Patriot Game,” that tests candidates’ love of country and belief in American exceptionalism. The judges Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber favor Obama’s a cappella version of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” to Rove’s hip-hop interpretation of “This Land Is Your Land.”

Obama and Rove perform equally well in the “America Is Better Than Europe Because” segment, each getting 100 percent of the “true or false” questions correct. But in the “American Superlatives” category, Rove stumbles. While he correctly names the United States as the fattest country on earth and as the one with the most handguns per household, he denies it its rightful recognition as the major democracy with, at this point, the lowest voter turnout.

Regardless, the White House at long last goes to a third-party candidate, who benefits from both Republican and Democratic bloodlines. In January 2037, the oath of office is taken by Patrick Arnold Shriver Schwarzenegger.

 

Brooks and Krugman

July 27, 2012

Well, today we get the first of what I pray will be very few of Bobo’s ruminations on the Olympics.  In “The Olympic Contradiction” he gurgles that the Olympics are a peaceful celebration of our warlike nature and a good example of how being contradictory leads to success.  No, the whole thing doesn’t make any much more sense.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Money for Nothing:”  Why do the markets love government debt? The answer might tell us something important about the nature of our economic troubles.  Here’s Bobo:

Abraham Lincoln said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. He was right about slavery, but the maxim doesn’t apply to much else. In general, the best people are contradictory, and the most enduring institutions are, too.

The Olympics are a good example. The Olympics are a peaceful celebration of our warlike nature.

The opening ceremony represents one side of the Olympic movement. They are a lavish celebration of the cooperative virtues: unity, friendship, equality, compassion and care. In Friday’s ceremony, there’ll be musical tributes to the global community and the Olympic spirit. There will be Pepsi commercial-type images of the people from different backgrounds joyfully coming together. There will be pious speeches about our common humanity and universal ideals.

And there will be a lot of dancing. Because we’re social, semi-herdlike creatures, we take a primordial pleasure in the sight of a large number of people moving in unison. Dance is physical, like sports, but, in many ways, it is the opposite of sports. In dance, the purpose is to blend with and mirror each other; in sport, the purpose is to come out ahead. Dancers perform for the audience and offer a gift of emotion; athletes respond to one another and the spectators are just there to witness and cheer.

Dancers, especially at the opening ceremony, smile in warmth and friendship. No true sport is ever done smiling (this is the problem with figure skating and competitive cheerleading).

After the opening ceremony is over, the Olympics turn into a celebration of the competitive virtues: tenacity, courage, excellence, supremacy, discipline and conflict.

The smiling goes away and the grim-faced games begin. The marathoner struggling against exhaustion, the boxer trying to pummel his foe, the diver resolutely focused on her task. The purpose is to be tougher and better than the people who are seeking the same pinnacle.

If the opening ceremony is win-win, most of the rest of the games are win-lose. If the opening ceremony mimics peace, the competitions mimic warfare. It’s not about the brotherhood of humankind. It’s about making sure our country beats the Chinese in the medal chart.

Through fierce competition, sport separates the elite from the mediocre. It identifies the heroes and standards of excellence that everybody else can emulate (a noble loser can serve as well as a talented winner). The idea is not to win friendship; it’s to win glory. We get to see people experiencing the thrill of victory from the agony of defeat and judge how well they respond.

In sum, the Olympic Games appeal both to our desire for fellowship and our desire for status, to the dreams of community and also supremacy. And, of course, these desires are in tension. But the world is, too. The world isn’t a jigsaw puzzle that fits neatly and logically together. It’s a system of clashing waves that can never be fully reconciled.

The enduring popularity of the Olympics teach the lesson that if you find yourself caught between two competing impulses, you don’t always need to choose between them. You can go for both simultaneously. A single institution can celebrate charitable compassion and military toughness. A three-week festival can be crassly commercial, but also strangely moving.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that the mark of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in your mind at the same time. But it’s not really the mark of genius, just the mark of anybody who functions well in the world. It’s the mark of any institution that lasts.

A few years ago, Roger Martin, the dean of the University of Toronto’s management school, wrote a book called “The Opposable Mind,” about business leaders who can embrace the tension between contradictory ideas. One of his examples was A.G. Lafley of Proctor & Gamble.

Some Procter & Gamble executives thought the company needed to cut costs and lower prices to compete with the supermarket store brands. Another group thought the company should invest in innovation to keep their products clearly superior. Lafley embraced both visions, pushing hard in both directions.

The world, unfortunately, has too many monomaniacs — people who pick one side of any creative tension and wish the other would just go away. Some parents and teachers like the cooperative virtues and distrust the competitive ones, so, laughably, they tell their kids that they are going to play sports but nobody is going to keep score.

Politics has become a contest of monomaniacs. One faction champions austerity while another champions growth. One party becomes the party of economic security and the other becomes the party of creative destruction.

The right course is usually to push hard in both directions, to be a house creatively divided against itself, to thrive amid the contradictions. The Olympics are great, but they are not coherent.

Bobo, honey, they’re more coherent than that column was.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

For years, allegedly serious people have been issuing dire warnings about the consequences of large budget deficits — deficits that are overwhelmingly the result of our ongoing economic crisis. In May 2009, Niall Ferguson of Harvard declared that the “tidal wave of debt issuance” would cause U.S. interest rates to soar. In March 2011, Erskine Bowles, the co-chairman of President Obama’s ill-fated deficit commission, warned that unless action was taken on the deficit soon, “the markets will devastate us,” probably within two years. And so on.

Well, I guess Mr. Bowles has a few months left. But a funny thing happened on the way to the predicted fiscal crisis: instead of soaring, U.S. borrowing costs have fallen to their lowest level in the nation’s history. And it’s not just America. At this point, every advanced country that borrows in its own currency is able to borrow very cheaply.

The failure of deficits to produce the predicted rise in interest rates is telling us something important about the nature of our economic troubles (and the wisdom, or lack thereof, of the self-appointed guardians of our fiscal virtue). Before I get there, however, let’s talk about those low, low borrowing costs — so low that, in some cases, investors are actually paying governments to hold their money.

For the most part, this is happening with “inflation-protected securities” — bonds whose future repayments are linked to consumer prices so that investors need not fear that their investment will be eroded by inflation. Even with this protection, investors used to demand substantial additional payment. Before the crisis, U.S. 10-year inflation-protected bonds generally paid around 2 percent. Recently, however, the rate on those bonds has been minus-0.6 percent. Investors are willing to pay more to buy these bonds than the amount, adjusted for inflation, that the government will eventually pay in interest and principal.

So investors are, in a sense, offering governments free money for the next 10 years; in fact, they’re willing to pay governments a modest fee for keeping their wealth safe.

Now, those with a vested interest in the fiscal crisis story have made various attempts to explain away the failure of that crisis to materialize. One favorite is the claim that the Federal Reserve is keeping interest rates artificially low by buying government bonds. But that theory was put to the test last summer when the Fed temporarily suspended bond purchases. Many people — including Bill Gross of the giant bond fund Pimco — predicted a rate spike. Nothing happened.

Oh, and pay no attention to the warnings that any day now we’ll turn into Greece, Greece I tell you. Countries like Greece, and for that matter Spain, are suffering from their ill-advised decision to give up their own currencies for the euro, which has left them vulnerable in a way that America just isn’t.

So what is going on? The main answer is that this is what happens when you have a “deleveraging shock,” in which everyone is trying to pay down debt at the same time. Household borrowing has plunged; businesses are sitting on cash because there’s no reason to expand capacity when the sales aren’t there; and the result is that investors are all dressed up with nowhere to go, or rather no place to put their money. So they’re buying government debt, even at very low returns, for lack of alternatives. Moreover, by making money available so cheaply, they are in effect begging governments to issue more debt.

And governments should be granting their wish, not obsessing over short-term deficits.

Obligatory caveat: yes, we have a long-run budget problem, and we should be taking steps to address that problem, mainly by reining in health care costs. But it’s simply crazy to be laying off schoolteachers and canceling infrastructure projects at a time when investors are offering zero- or negative-interest financing.

You don’t even have to make a Keynesian argument about jobs to see that. All you have to do is note that when money is cheap, that’s a good time to invest. And both education and infrastructure are investments in America’s future; we’ll eventually pay a large and completely gratuitous price for the way they’re being savaged.

That said, you should be a Keynesian, too. The experience of the past few years — above all, the spectacular failure of austerity policies in Europe — has been a dramatic demonstration of Keynes’s basic point: slashing spending in a depressed economy depresses that economy further.

So it’s time to stop paying attention to the alleged wise men who hijacked our policy discussion and made the deficit the center of conversation. They’ve been wrong about everything — and these days even the financial markets are telling us that we should be focused on jobs and growth.

 

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

March 4, 2012

The Pasty Little Putz, in “The Rascal and the Scholar,” gurgles that James Q. Wilson and Andrew Breitbart, prominent conservatives who died last week, helped shape the liberal world — in their very different styles.  Wotta schmuck.  MoDo has a question:  “Have You No Shame, Rush?”  She says a young girl and an old saint teach the unmoored Republicans a lesson in civil discourse.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Take the Subway,” also has a question: How can we keep growing without consuming more resources?  In “When States Abuse Women” Mr. Kristof says a new law in Texas requiring ultrasounds before an abortion comes close to state-sanctioned rape, and it’s emblematic of a broad assault on women’s reproductive rights at the state level.  Mr. Bruni looks at “Snowe’s Sad Retreat” and sighs that politics these days insists that we fit into tidy boxes, and Olympia Snowe never did.  Here’s The Putz:

The right-wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart and the neoconservative scholar James Q. Wilson, who died within 48 hours of each other last week — Wilson at the age of 80, Breitbart so unexpectedly at 43 — had one important thing in common: They were both prominent conservatives who arguably left their most enduring legacy in the lives of affluent, cosmopolitan liberals.

For Wilson, that legacy is the low crime rates that have made urban areas from Portlandia to Brooklyn safe for left-wing hipsters and Obama-voting professionals alike. There are entire worlds of brunches and brownstones, Zipcars and urban mommy message boards that only exist today because of the work that Wilson and others did, in the shadow of the post-1960s crime wave, to better understand policing and prisons and criminal behavior, and to usher in the current age of urban peace.

For Breitbart, that legacy is the media landscape that greets those same hipsters and professionals whenever they settle into their local coffee shop and fire up their laptop or iPhone. Breitbart’s politics were right-wing, but his digital media achievements were entirely bipartisan. In between his Clinton-era work for the Drudge Report and his career as anti-Obama muckraker, he was present at the creation of The Huffington Post, which has emerged as the defining left-leaning publication of journalism’s Internet era.

Their bequests to liberal America aside, of course, Wilson and Breitbart were completely different animals, who embodied different eras in public discourse and different models of political engagement.

Wilson was a scholar’s scholar — learned, careful, rigorous and disinterested. His books and essays built bridges between the academy, the federal government (“Mr. President, James Q. Wilson is the smartest man in the United States,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan reportedly counseled Richard Nixon) and the well-informed readership that subscribed to journals like The Public Interest and magazines like The Atlantic.

Wilson thrived, in other words, in precisely the kind of media-intellectual ecosystem — institutionalist, high-middlebrow, genteel — that Breitbart spent his career putting to the torch. Whether Breitbart was working for Matt Drudge or Arianna Huffington or building his own empire, his first loyalty was always to the sensational scoop, the wild-and-crazy stunt, the overcaffeinated public feud with whichever enemy happened to be hating on him. (His favorite pastime was retweeting the many insults hurled his way on Twitter.) He was a P. T. Barnum figure, at once lovable and deplorable, who embodied the online media landscape like no other figure on the right or left.

It’s easy to see the shift from Wilson’s old-media conversation to Breitbart’s new-media circus — from public intellectuals to talking heads, from social science to showmanship, from The Public Interest and Commentary to blogs and tweets and gossip — as a straightforward story of cultural decline. Certainly there is more noise in Breitbart’s world, more polarization and hysteria. It’s a climate in which the best often seem to lack a platform commensurate to their gifts, while the passionate intensity of the worst finds a wide and growing audience.

But what looks like decline is also in some sense a return to normalcy for the United States. What we think of as the “old media” era — the years from the 1950s through the 1980s, when Wilson came of age and made his most important mark — was really an unusual and inevitably fleeting period in American culture. For a few decades, the consolidation of the newspaper business and the outsize power of the big television networks combined to create a genuine media establishment, capable of setting standards, policing debates and keeping troublemakers and provocateurs on the outside looking in.

Prior to that period of consolidation, though, the nation’s media were much more, well, Breitbart-ian: more partisan, more sensationalistic, more attuned to scandal and celebrity and less concerned about accuracy and rigor.

In this sense, American journalism in the age of the Internet represents a return to the way that American journalism was practiced in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And a republic that survived the excesses of William Randolph Hearst can presumably survive the excesses of HuffPo and BigGovernment.com.

This doesn’t mean that we need to lionize Breitbart’s frenzied style of political engagement. But his world has virtues as well as vices: it’s less high-minded than the old-media era, but less stifling and conformist as well. More important, the circus is here to stay. Everyone who makes a living in the public square needs to accept its permanence, and reckon with the challenges it poses.

The higher challenge is to encourage and celebrate work like James Q. Wilson’s in an Andrew Breitbart world. The more basic challenge is to prevent the pressure of a sleepless Internet and a furious partisanship from taking the kind of toll that probably helped cut short Breitbart’s life, long before what should have been his time.

Here’s a big old plate of salted rat dicks, Putzy.  Breitbart was a poisonous creature who hated himself to death.  Here’s MoDo:

As a woman who has been viciously slashed by Rush Limbaugh, I can tell you, it’s no fun.

At first you think, if he objects to the substance of what you’re saying, why can’t he just object to the substance of what you’re saying? Why go after you in the most personal and humiliating way?

Then, once you accept the fact that he has become the puppet master of the Republican Party by stirring bloodlust (earning enough to bribe Elton John to play at his fourth wedding), you still cringe at the thought that your mom might hear the ugly things he said.

Now he’s brutalizing a poised, wholesome-looking 30-year-old Georgetown law student as a “slut,” “a prostitute” and “round-heeled” simply for testifying to lawmakers about wanting the school to amend its health insurance to cover contraception.

Sandra Fluke “goes before a Congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her?” Limbaugh coarsely ranted. “It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps. The johns.”

Isn’t this the last guy who should be pointing fingers and accusing others of taking pills for recreational purposes?

He said insuring contraception would represent another “welfare entitlement,” which is wrong — tax dollars would not provide the benefit, employers and insurance companies would. And women would not be getting paid just “to have sex.” They’d be getting insurance coverage toward the roughly $1,000 annual expense of trying to avoid unwanted pregnancies and abortions, and to control other health conditions. This is something men and conservatives should want too, and not just because those outcomes actually do cost taxpayers money.

Limbaugh leeringly suggested that were taxpayers to be stuck with the bill, Fluke and other “feminazis” should give them something back: sex videos. “We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch,” he said.

Fluke was lobbying Georgetown University to change its policy for three years before she became a cause célèbre outcast when the Republican congressman Darrell Issa barred her from an all-male panel on contraception. But her conflict with her Jesuit school did not stop its president, John DeGioia, from eloquently defending his student (who ended up testifying for Nancy Pelosi’s all-Democratic panel).

“She provided a model of civil discourse,” he said in a letter to the school. “This expression of conscience was in the tradition of the deepest values we share as a people. One need not agree with her substantive position to support her right to respectful free expression.”

He branded the reaction of Limbaugh and some other commentators as “misogynistic, vitriolic and a misrepresentation of the position of our student.”

Given this season’s lava spill of hate, it was fitting that DeGioia evoked St. Augustine: “Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth.”

It’s hard to believe that not that long ago, Bob Dole, the former G.O.P. leader and presidential nominee, was a spokesman for Viagra. (Mother Jones pointed out that Rush, a Viagra fan, might be confusing the little blue pill and birth control, since “when and how much sex you have is unrelated to the amount of birth control you need.”)

Rush and Newt Gingrich can play the studs, marrying again and again until they find the perfect adoring young wife. But women pressing for health care rights are denigrated as sluts.

On Thursday, the Senate narrowly voted down a puritanical Republican attempt to let employers and insurance companies deny coverage for contraceptives on any religious or moral grounds they could dream up.

Only a last-minute media glare caused Virginia’s Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, and its Republican-led Legislature to modify a shockingly punitive law aiming to shame and in many cases penetrate women seeking abortions. The version that passed on Thursday is still harsh enough to damage McDonnell’s vice presidential prospects.

By Friday, President Obama, who had started out fumbling the contraception issue, and the Democrats were taking gleeful advantage, raising $1.6 million to combat the G.O.P.’s “war on women.”

Mitt Romney reacted to Limbaugh for days with craven silence before finally allowing on a rope line on Friday night that “it’s not the language I would have used.” Is there a right way to call a woman a slut?

Rick Santorum, whose views on women are medieval, said “an entertainer can be absurd.” Speaker John Boehner offered a tepid comment through a spokesman that Limbaugh’s words were “inappropriate.”

President Obama called Fluke and bucked her up, probably hoping to get Limbaugh to double down. El Rushbo, as he calls himself, obliged. “Did you ever think of backing off the amount of sex you’re having?” he demanded of Fluke on Friday’s broadcast as some advertisers were fleeing: Sleep Train Mattress Centers, Quicken Loans, Select Comfort and AutoZone.

The law student got the call from the president as she was about to go on Andrea Mitchell’s show on MSNBC. She darted into an empty office to talk to Obama and closed the door; soon Chris Matthews was wondering who was inside and sending a staffer to check it out. 

“The president just wanted to make sure I was O.K.,” she said. “And I am O.K. I’m pretty level-headed.”

The childless radio yakker wondered snidely how Fluke’s parents, who live in rural Pennsylvania, would feel about her crusade. Fluke, a Methodist Democrat, said she was particularly touched that the president told her, speaking as the father of two daughters, that her parents should be proud.

“My parents and I don’t always agree politically,” she said, but about the issue of insuring contraception, “we see eye to eye.”

Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, who seems to be in Moscow, even though his byline doesn’t say so:

Our plan was to meet for lunch at noon in Moscow. It was to be just myself and Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. He picked the restaurant. It had been snowing that day, and the Moscow traffic — already nearly impossible because the city, which 15 years ago had 300,000 cars and today hosts nearly four million registered vehicles — was even more impossible than usual. Soon the e-mailing between us started. I was first: “I’m running a few minutes late.” Lukyanov said the same a few minutes later. Then me again: “I am going to be 20 minutes late.” He then saw my 20 minutes and raised me 20. In the end, I was 50 minutes late, and I beat him by two minutes. We sped through an interview about Russian foreign policy in 30 minutes, before I rushed out so as not to be late for my next appointment. As we hurriedly put on our coats, Lukyanov had one piece of advice for me, and it wasn’t that the U.S. should stay out of Syria.

It was: “Take the subway.”

True, Moscow’s gridlock was not as bad as the August 2010 traffic jam on the main north-south highway from Beijing to Inner Mongolia. Said to be the longest in the history of the planet, that baby stretched 60 miles, moved at a speed of 2 miles per day, took 10 days to unsnarl and spawned its own local economy of noodle sellers.

But this is not a column about traffic — per se.

This is a column about energy and environment and why we must not let the poisonous debate about climate change so tie us in knots that we cannot have any energy policy at all, particularly one focused on developing much more efficient use of resources, through better designs and systems. If you are so reckless as to dismiss all climate science as a hoax, and do not accept the data that our planet is getting hotter and the oceans rising, I can’t help you. That’s between you and your beach house — and your kids, whose future you’re imperiling.

But you better believe this: The planet is getting flatter and more crowded. There will be two billion more people here by 2050, and they will all want to live and drive just like us. And when they do, there is going to be one monster traffic jam and pollution cloud, unless we learn how to get more mobility, lighting, heating and cooling from less energy and with less waste — with so many more people. We can’t let the climate wars continue to derail efforts to have an energy policy that puts in place rising efficiency standards, for buildings, windows, traffic, housing, packaging and appliances, that will drive innovation — which is our strength — in what has to be the next great global industry: energy and resource efficiency.

This is the theme of two recent, smart books. The first is called “The Sixth Wave: How to Succeed in a Resource Limited World,” by James Bradfield Moody and Bianca Nogrady. Moody, who works at Australia’s national research agency, and Nogrady, a science journalist, argue that, since the industrial revolution, we’ve seen five long waves of innovation — from water power to steam to electrification to mass production and right up to information and communications technologies. They argue the sixth wave will be resource efficiency — because rising populations, with growing appetites, will lead to both increasing scarcity of resources and dangerously high pollution, waste and climate change.

This will force us to decouple consumption from economic growth. In the past, says Moody, “the more we consumed, the more we grew.” And, therefore, there was a tension between green and gold. But that cannot last, says Moody. When you have a global market, with a burgeoning population, that faces rising scarcity of resources and still so much waste in how we make and consume things “there is a great market opportunity for innovation.”

“We are going to go from green versus gold to green equals gold,” says Moody. Because the only way to grow without consuming more resources is through systemic breakthroughs in efficiency — developing new business models to deliver mobility, heating, cooling and lighting with dramatically fewer resources and pollution.

Here is a simple example that the energy expert Hal Harvey uses: “Consider a standard incandescent light bulb, powered by a coal-fired power plant.  If the coal plant is 33 percent efficient (the average in the U.S.), and the light bulb is 3 percent efficient, then the net conversion of energy to light is just 1 percent.  That is pathetic — and typical. An L.E.D. light, powered by an efficient natural gas turbine, converts 20 percent of the total energy to light— a 20-fold increase.”  Run it on renewables and it’s carbon-free to boot.

This is where Amory Lovins, the physicist who is chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute, begins in his new book, “Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era,” which is summarized in the current Foreign Affairs. The Rocky Mountain Institute and its business collaborators show how private enterprise — motivated by profit, supported by smart policy — can lead America off both oil and coal by 2050, saving $5 trillion, through innovation emphasizing design and strategy.

“You don’t have to believe in climate change to solve it,” says Lovins. “Everything we do to raise energy efficiency will make money, improve security and health, and stabilize climate.”

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Here’s what a woman in Texas now faces if she seeks an abortion.

Under a new law that took effect three weeks ago with the strong backing of Gov. Rick Perry, she first must typically endure an ultrasound probe inserted into her vagina. Then she listens to the audio thumping of the fetal heartbeat and watches the fetus on an ultrasound screen.

She must listen to a doctor explain the body parts and internal organs of the fetus as they’re shown on the monitor. She signs a document saying that she understands all this, and it is placed in her medical files. Finally, she goes home and must wait 24 hours before returning to get the abortion.

“It’s state-sanctioned abuse,” said Dr. Curtis Boyd, a Texas physician who provides abortions. “It borders on a definition of rape. Many states describe rape as putting any object into an orifice against a person’s will. Well, that’s what this is. A woman is coerced to do this, just as I’m coerced.”

“The state of Texas is waging war on women and their families,” Dr. Boyd added. “The new law is demeaning and disrespectful to the women of Texas, and insulting to the doctors and nurses who care for them.”

That law is part of a war over women’s health being fought around the country — and in much of the country, women are losing. State by state, legislatures are creating new obstacles to abortions and are treating women in ways that are patronizing and humiliating.

Twenty states now require abortion providers to conduct ultrasounds first in some situations, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization. The new Texas law is the most extreme to take effect so far, but similar laws have been passed in North Carolina and Oklahoma and are on hold pending legal battles.

Alabama, Kentucky, Rhode Island and Mississippi are also considering Texas-style legislation bordering on state-sanctioned rape. And what else do you call it when states mandate invasive probes in women’s bodies?

“If you look up the term rape, that’s what it is: the penetration of the vagina without the woman’s consent,” said Linda Coleman, an Alabama state senator who is fighting the proposal in her state. “As a woman, I am livid and outraged.”

States put in place a record number of new restrictions on abortions last year, Guttmacher says. It counts 92 new curbs in 24 states.

“It was a debacle,” Elizabeth Nash, who manages state issues for Guttmacher, told me. “It’s been awful. Last year was unbelievable. We’ve never seen anything like it.”

Yes, there have been a few victories for women. The notorious Virginia proposal that would have required vaginal ultrasounds before an abortion was modified to require only abdominal ultrasounds.

Yet over all, the pattern has been retrograde: humiliating obstacles to abortions, cuts in family-planning programs, and limits on comprehensive sex education in schools.

If Texas legislators wanted to reduce abortions, the obvious approach would be to reduce unwanted pregnancies. The small proportion of women and girls who aren’t using contraceptives account for half of all abortions in America, according to Guttmacher. Yet Texas has some of the weakest sex-education programs in the nation, and last year it cut spending for family planning by 66 percent.

The new Texas law was passed last year but was held up because of a lawsuit by the Center for Reproductive Rights. In a scathing opinion, Judge Sam Sparks of Federal District Court described the law as “an attempt by the Texas legislature to discourage women from exercising their constitutional rights.” In the end, the courts upheld the law, and it took effect last month.

It requires abortion providers to give women a list of crisis pregnancy centers where, in theory, they can get unbiased counseling and in some cases ultrasounds. In fact, these centers are often set up to ensnare pregnant women and shame them or hound them if they are considering abortions.

“They are traps for women, set up by the state of Texas,” Dr. Boyd said.

The law then requires the physician to go over a politicized list of so-called dangers of abortion, like “the risks of infection and hemorrhage” and “the possibility of increased risk of breast cancer.” Then there is the mandated ultrasound, which in the first trimester normally means a vaginal ultrasound. Doctors sometimes seek vaginal ultrasounds before an abortion, with the patient’s consent, but it’s different when the state forces women to undergo the procedure.

The best formulation on this topic was Bill Clinton’s, that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” Achieving that isn’t easy, and there is no silver bullet to reduce unwanted pregnancies. But family planning and comprehensive sex education are a surer path than demeaning  vulnerable women with state-sanctioned abuse and humiliation.

I love how all those “limited government” Republicans are all frantic to get up in women’s vaginas…  And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Back in 1999, when I covered Congress, I had a kind of crush on Olympia Snowe. Many of us in the Senate press gallery did.

She moved, dressed and treated people — even reporters, and even when we hounded her through the hallways of the Capitol — with an unforced, uncommon graciousness. She spoke with intelligence and almost never with vitriol.

But those weren’t the main reasons we had such soft spots for her. We liked her best for her disobedience. Unlike the majority of her colleagues in the Senate, be they Democrats or, like her, Republicans, she dared to disagree with her party. Often. And she did it publicly, with her votes and her forthright explanations of them.

Even then, in times that were a bit less harshly partisan, this was unusual, and she had limited company, though it included Susan Collins, Maine’s other senator, also a Republican and also one of our heroes. Snowe and Collins offered proof and reassurance: just because you identified yourself principally with one side in the ceaseless fight, wearing an R or a D, it didn’t mean you signed on automatically to everything it championed, to each plank in its sprawling (and often suffocating) platform. These two senators validated the fact that a person’s values, philosophy and priorities are more complex than a political tribe’s often tyrannical orthodoxy. And that the tribe’s package of positions isn’t necessarily coherent, each fitting naturally with the others. Snowe and Collins made human sense. Their peers usually didn’t. Those dutiful foot soldiers marched in dreary lock step with their given generals, infrequently demonstrating any real individuality, any rebel spunk.

Over the last decade, such allegiance has only hardened. It’s puzzling. Maddening. Just because you choose a team shouldn’t mean you’re suddenly and miraculously on board with everything in its playbook, on down the line: the abortion position, the contraception position, the tax policy, the immigration policy, the attitude toward same-sex marriage, the attitude toward gun control.

But that’s what’s expected. That’s the message gleaned from the relative homogeneity of a party’s leading candidates, who squeeze themselves into tidy, unyielding boxes and insist that we do likewise. Rare is the Democrat of plausible national ambition who tangles in a tough, meaningful way with labor unions or environmentalists, groups that President Obama has been loath to cross. Disappointing them jeopardizes the campaign infantry and financial contributions they provide, and as the sway of interest groups rises, the fealty of politicians to the ones in their corner grows with it.

Rare is the Republican of plausible national ambition who doesn’t kowtow to religious conservatives, a spectacle on florid display during the Republican primaries, including last week, when Mitt Romney signaled support for the Blunt amendment just before Senate Democrats — with an assist from Snowe — defeated it. He may not quite be lighting his hair on fire, to cite his own boast of faux defiance, but there’s ample smoke rising from his fabled mane, as he burns away the Northeastern moderate he was. In fact he used to be Snowe — minus the obvious differences in gender, religion, wealth and pet care. But that was before he reached higher. Before he had much of the independence and many of the idiosyncrasies bled out of him. Before the Republican margin gobbled up the middle and ate a good chunk of Mitt along with it.

Snowe stayed somewhat liberal on social issues, bucking the party, and never drew any serious attention as a potential national candidate. That always depressed me, and I’m not alone.

“I certainly thought John McCain should have picked Olympia Snowe,” said William Weld, the former Massachusetts governor, whose own political future wasn’t helped by his Republican heresies, on the phone Friday. “And I said that to anyone who listened.”

INSTEAD McCain reached to another corner of the country and to Sarah Palin, who called herself a maverick while being a whole lot less of one than Snowe. And Palin and Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell and Jan Brewer became the new faces of Republican womanhood, the ones in the foreground.

While some of the responsibility for that lay with the news media’s fascination with rabid right-wingers who contradict clichéd assumptions of what a woman’s politics should be, some of the responsibility lay with the party itself for embracing red meat over anything with a subtler, more intellectually elegant hue.

As Snowe said at a news conference in Portland, Me., on Friday, “The electorate is increasingly becoming divided into red states and blue states, which elect people representing just one color or the other.” She had provided numbers to back up her claim in an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, writing that before the 1994 election, there were 34 senators representing states that had voted for the presidential nominee of the opposing party. Today, she observed, there are 25.

“We are becoming more like a parliamentary system, where everyone simply votes with their party and those in charge employ every possible tactic to block the other side,” she told reporters in Maine. Moderates on both sides of the aisle now face greater condemnation, she asserted, adding that that was “unfortunate for the country. I think the majority of the American people are in the center in some way.”

She herself has had some difficulty staying there. Her approval rating from the American Conservative Union, which had been below 50 in 2009, was above that mark in each of the last two years, and the frequency with which she votes against members of her party has decreased of late. Still she has been made to feel like an apostate. An outsider.

I think she grew tired of it. I think she has endured too much dislocation in her life already, this survivor who lost both parents before she turned 11, whose first husband was killed in a car accident little more than three years into their marriage. At 65, with more than three decades in Congress behind her, she isn’t prepared to feel abandoned and homeless in the Senate, or to budge any more than she has.

There’s less and less room in American politics for a hodgepodge of positions that don’t adhere to one of the two sanctioned scripts. Unsubtle caricatures outnumber complicated characters. That will be only truer with her retirement at year’s end.

It’s a sad, sad thing, and I sympathized with the pleading in the voice of a reporter who asked Snowe on Friday, “Are you sure?” Nothing good can be read into her exit. Nothing good at all.

 

Keller and Krugman

October 3, 2011

Mr. Keller has a question in “The University of Wherever.”  He asks whether technology can provide an elite education for the masses.  He puts his foot in it by the third graf, in which he implies that the Postal Service and Kodak are both victims of technology.  He should know better about the Postal Service’s woes, which are completely manufactured by a lame duck Congress.  Mr. Krugman, in  “Holding China to Account,” says legislation that would threaten sanctions against currency manipulators won’t solve our economic problems on its own, but it can contribute to a solution.  Here’s Mr. Keller’s thing:

For more than a decade educators have been expecting the Internet to transform that bastion of tradition and authority, the university. Digital utopians have envisioned a world of virtual campuses and “distributed” learning. They imagine a business model in which online courses are consumer-rated like products on Amazon, tuition is set by auction services like eBay, and students are judged not by grades but by skills they have mastered, like levels of a videogame. Presumably, for the Friday kegger you go to the Genius Bar.

It’s true that online education has proliferated, from community colleges to the free OpenCourseWare lecture videos offered by M.I.T. (The New York Times Company is in the game, too, with its Knowledge Network.) But the Internet has so far scarcely disturbed the traditional practice or the economics at the high end, the great schools that are one of the few remaining advantages America has in a competitive world. Our top-rated universities and colleges have no want of customers willing to pay handsomely for the kind of education their parents got; thus elite schools have little incentive to dilute the value of the credentials they award.

Two recent events at Stanford University suggest that the day is growing nearer when quality higher education confronts the technological disruptions that have already upended the music and book industries, humbled enterprises from Kodak to the Postal Service (not to mention the newspaper business), and helped destabilize despots across the Middle East.

One development is a competition among prestige universities to open a branch campus in applied sciences in New York City. This is Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to create a locus of entrepreneurial education that would mate with venture capital to spawn new enterprises and enrich the city’s economy. Stanford, which has provided much of the info-tech Viagra for Silicon Valley, and Cornell, a biotechnology powerhouse, appear to be the main rivals.

But more interesting than the contest between Stanford and Cornell is the one between Stanford and Stanford.

The Stanford bid for a New York campus is a bet on the value of place. The premise is that Stanford can repeat the success it achieved by marrying itself to the Silicon Valley marketplace. The school’s proposal (unsubtly titled “Silicon Valley II”) envisions a bricks-and-mortar residential campus on an island in the East River, built around a community of 100 faculty members and 2,200 students and strategically situated to catalyze new businesses in the city.

Meanwhile, one of Stanford’s most inventive professors, Sebastian Thrun, is making an alternative claim on the future. Thrun, a German-born and largely self-taught expert in robotics, is famous for leading the team that built Google’s self-driving car. He is offering his “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online and free of charge. His remote students will get the same lectures as students paying $50,000 a year, the same assignments, the same exams and, if they pass, a “statement of accomplishment” (though not Stanford credit). When The Times wrote about this last month, 58,000 students had signed up for the course. After the article, enrollment leapt to 130,000, from across the globe.

Thrun’s ultimate mission is a virtual university in which the best professors broadcast their lectures to tens of thousands of students. Testing, peer interaction and grading would happen online; a cadre of teaching assistants would provide some human supervision; and the price would be within reach of almost anyone. “Literally, we can probably get the same quality of education I teach in class for about 1 to 2 percent of the cost,” Thrun told me.

The traditional university, in his view, serves a fortunate few, inefficiently, with a business model built on exclusivity. “I’m not at all against the on-campus experience,” he said. “I love it. It’s great. It has a lot of things which cannot be replaced by anything online. But it’s also insanely uneconomical.”

Thrun acknowledges that there are still serious quality-control problems to be licked. How do you keep an invisible student from cheating? How do you even know who is sitting at that remote keyboard? Will the education really be as compelling — and will it last? Thrun believes there are technological answers to all of these questions, some of them
being worked out already by other online frontiersmen.

“If we can solve this,” he said, “I think it will disrupt all of higher education.”

Disrupt is right. It would be an earthquake for the majority of colleges that depend on tuition income rather than big endowments and research grants. Many could go the way of local newspapers. There would be huge audiences and paychecks for superstar teachers, but dimmer prospects for those who are less charismatic.

It’s ironic — or maybe just fitting — that this is playing out at Stanford, which has served as midwife to many disruptive technologies. By forging a symbiotic relationship with venture capital and teaching students how to navigate markets, Stanford claims to have spawned an estimated 5,000 businesses. This is a campus where grad school applicants are routinely asked if they have done a startup, and some professors have gotten very, very rich.

John Hennessy, Stanford’s president, gave the university’s blessing to Thrun’s experiment, which he calls “an initial demonstration,” but he is cautious about the grander dream of a digitized university. He can imagine a virtual campus for some specialized programs and continuing education, and thinks the power of distributed learning can be incorporated in undergraduate education — for example, supplanting the large lecture that is often filled with students paying more attention to their laptops. He endorses online teaching as a way to educate students, in the developing world or our own, who cannot hope for the full campus experience.

But Hennessy is a passionate advocate for an actual campus, especially in undergraduate education. There is nothing quite like the give and take of a live community to hone critical thinking, writing and public speaking skills, he says. And it’s not at all clear that online students learn the most important lesson of all: how to keep learning.

As The Times’s Matt Richtel recently reported, there is remarkably little data showing that technology-centric schooling improves basic learning. It is quite possible that the infatuation with technology has diverted money from things known to work — training better teachers, giving kids more time in school.

THE Stanford president is hardly a technophobe. Hennessy came up through computer engineering, used his sabbatical to start a successful microprocessor company, and sits on the boards of Google and Cisco Systems.

“In the same way that a lot of things go into the cost of a newspaper that have nothing to do with the quality of the reporting — the cost of newsprint and delivery — we should ask the same thing about universities,” Hennessy told me. “When is the infrastructure of the university particularly valuable — as it is, I believe, for an undergraduate residential experience — and when is it secondary to the learning process?”

But, he notes, “One has to think about the sustainability of all these things. In the end, the content providers have to get paid.”

I see a larger point, familiar to all of us who have lived through digital-age disorder. There are disrupters, like Sebastian Thrun, or Napster, or the tweeting rebels in Tahrir Square. And there are adapters, like John Hennessy, or iTunes, or the novice statesmen trying to build a new Egypt. Progress depends on both.

Who could be against an experiment that promises the treasure of education to a vast, underserved world? But we should be careful, in our idealism, not to diminish something that is already a wonder of the world.

And increasingly unavailable to the hoi polloi, Mr. Keller.  Glad the MOTU are fretting about us, though…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

The dire state of the world economy reflects destructive actions on the part of many players. Still, the fact that so many have behaved badly shouldn’t stop us from holding individual bad actors to account.

And that’s what Senate leaders will be doing this week, as they take up legislation that would threaten sanctions against China and other currency manipulators.

Respectable opinion is aghast. But respectable opinion has been consistently wrong lately, and the currency issue is no exception.

Ask yourself: Why is it so hard to restore full employment? It’s true that the housing bubble has popped, and consumers are saving more than they did a few years ago. But once upon a time America was able to achieve full employment without a housing bubble and with savings rates even higher than we have now. What changed?

The answer is that we used to run much smaller trade deficits. A return to economic health would look much more achievable if we weren’t spending $500 billion more each year on imported goods and services than foreigners spent on our exports.

To get our trade deficit down, however, we need to make American products more competitive, which in practice means that we need the dollar’s value to fall in terms of other currencies. Yes, some people will shriek about “debasing” the dollar. But sensible policy makers have long known that sometimes a weaker currency means a stronger economy, and have acted on that knowledge. Switzerland, for example, has intervened massively to keep the franc from getting too strong against the euro. Israel has intervened even more forcefully to weaken the shekel.

The United States, given its special global role, can’t and shouldn’t be equally aggressive. But given our economy’s desperate need for more jobs, a weaker dollar is very much in our national interest — and we can and should take action against countries that are keeping their currencies undervalued, and thereby standing in the way of a much-needed decline in our trade deficit.

That, above all, means China. And none of the arguments against holding China accountable can stand serious scrutiny.

Some observers question whether we really know that China’s currency is undervalued. But they’re kidding, right? The flip side of the manipulation that keeps China’s currency undervalued is the accumulation of dollar reserves — and those reserves now amount to a cool $3.2 trillion.

Others warn of bad consequences if the Chinese stop buying United States bonds. But our problem right now is precisely that too many people want to park their money in American debt instead of buying goods and services — which is why the interest rate on long-term U.S. bonds is only 2 percent.

Yet another objection is the claim that Chinese products don’t really compete with U.S.-produced goods. The rebuttal is fairly technical; let me just say that those making this argument both overstate the case and fail to take the indirect effects of Chinese currency policy into account.

In the last few days a new objection to action on the China issue has surfaced: right-wing pressure groups, notably the influential Club for Growth, oppose tariffs on Chinese goods because, you guessed it, they’re a form of taxation — and we must never, ever raise taxes under any circumstances. All I can say is that Democrats should welcome this demonstration that antitax fanaticism has reached the point where it trumps standing up for our national interests.

To be fair, there are some arguments against action on China that would carry some weight if the times were different. One is the undoubted fact that inflation in China, which is raising labor costs in particular, is gradually eliminating that nation’s currency undervaluation. The operative word, however, is “gradually”: something that brings the United States trade deficit down over four or five years isn’t good enough when unemployment is at disastrous levels right now.

And the reality of the unemployment disaster is also my answer to those who warn that getting tough with China might unleash a trade war or damage world commercial diplomacy. Those are real risks, although I think they’re exaggerated. But they need to be set against the fact — not the mere possibility — that high unemployment is inflicting tremendous cumulative damage as we speak.

Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, said it clearly last week: unemployment is a “national crisis,” with so many workers now among the long-term unemployed that the economy is at risk of suffering long-run as well as short-run damage.

And we can’t afford to neglect any important means of alleviating that national crisis. Holding China accountable won’t solve our economic problems on its own, but it can contribute to a solution — and it’s an action that’s long overdue.

Well, if that’s what we’re to expect from Mr. Keller in the future I can understand why the Times only wants to have him pontificating from his aerie every other week.

Brooks, Cohen and Herbert

June 29, 2010

Bobo has taken off the military hat he wears when he’s playing at being Lt. Col Bobo and being an authority on military strategy and has decided to play sociologist again today.  In “Bill Wilson’s Gospel” he ‘splains us all about how the story of Alcoholics Anonymous teaches us about human nature and the kinds of social programs that do and don’t work.  Mr. Cohen has a question in “The Black and the White of It:”  Can South Africa’s World Cup be more than a racial honeymoon?  He’s in Johannesburg this week.  Mr. Herbert, in “Wrong Track Distress,” says with no end to the employment crisis in sight, the U.S. desperately needs to enact an aggressive jobs-creation campaign.  Which won’t happen, I’ll bet.  Here’s Bobo:

On Dec. 14, 1934, a failed stockbroker named Bill Wilson was struggling with alcoholism at a New York City detox center. It was his fourth stay at the center and nothing had worked. This time, he tried a remedy called the belladonna cure — infusions of a hallucinogenic drug made from a poisonous plant — and he consulted a friend named Ebby Thacher, who told him to give up drinking and give his life over to the service of God.

Wilson was not a believer, but, later that night, at the end of his rope, he called out in his hospital room: “If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything. Anything!”

As Wilson described it, a white light suffused his room and the presence of God appeared. “It seemed to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing,” he testified later. “And then it burst upon me that I was a free man.”

Wilson never touched alcohol again. He went on to help found Alcoholics Anonymous, which, 75 years later, has 11,000 professional treatment centers, 55,000 meeting groups and some 1.2 million members.

The movement is the subject of a smart and comprehensive essay by Brendan I. Koerner in the July 2010 issue of Wired magazine. The article is noteworthy not only because of the light it sheds on what we’ve learned about addiction, but for what it says about changing behavior more generally. Much of what we do in public policy is to try to get people to behave in their own long-term interests — to finish school, get married, avoid gangs, lose weight, save money. Because the soul is so complicated, much of what we do fails.

The first implication of Koerner’s essay is that we should get used to the idea that we will fail most of the time. Alcoholics Anonymous has stood the test of time. There are millions of people who fervently believed that its 12-step process saved their lives. Yet the majority, even a vast majority, of the people who enroll in the program do not succeed in it. People are idiosyncratic. There is no single program that successfully transforms most people most of the time.

The second implication is that we should get over the notion that we will someday crack the behavior code — that we will someday find a scientific method that will allow us to predict behavior and design reliable social programs. As Koerner notes, A.A. has been the subject of thousands of studies. Yet “no one has yet satisfactorily explained why some succeed in A.A. while others don’t, or even what percentage of alcoholics who try the steps will eventually become sober as a result.”

Each member of an A.A. group is distinct. Each group is distinct. Each moment is distinct. There is simply no way for social scientists to reduce this kind of complexity into equations and formula that can be replicated one place after another.

Nonetheless, we don’t have to be fatalistic about things. It is possible to design programs that will help some people some of the time. A.A. embodies some shrewd insights into human psychology.

In a culture that generally celebrates empowerment and self-esteem, A.A. begins with disempowerment. The goal is to get people to gain control over their lives, but it all begins with an act of surrender and an admission of weakness.

In a culture that thinks of itself as individualistic, A.A. relies on fellowship. The general idea is that people aren’t really captains of their own ship. Successful members become deeply intertwined with one another — learning, sharing, suffering and mentoring one another. Individual repair is a social effort.

In a world in which gurus try to carefully design and impose their ideas, Wilson surrendered control. He wrote down the famous steps and foundations, but A.A. allows each local group to form, adapt and innovate. There is less quality control. Some groups and leaders are great; some are terrible. But it also means that A.A. is decentralized, innovative and dynamic.

Alcoholics have a specific problem: they drink too much. But instead of addressing that problem with the psychic equivalent of a precision-guidance missile, Wilson set out to change people’s whole identities. He studied William James’s “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” He sought to arouse people’s spiritual aspirations rather than just appealing to rational cost-benefit analysis. His group would help people achieve broad spiritual awakenings, and abstinence from alcohol would be a byproduct of that larger salvation.

In the business of changing lives, the straight path is rarely the best one. A.A. illustrates that even in an age of scientific advance, it is still ancient insights into human nature that work best. Wilson built a remarkable organization on a nighttime spiritual epiphany.

Here’s Mr. Cohen:

South Africa is a country where race is not the subtext of existence. It’s the text.

I was at dinner the other night with my cousins, white South Africans divided as to whether they still have prospects here. The elder men said things like, “I now feel like a visitor,” or “The future is for the blacks.” They see race relations worsening, corruption spreading and inefficiency rampant.

Not the youngest among them, a law student in his mid-20s, proud African, brimming with indignation at his elders’ perceived conceits: “Is it race or is it class?” he asked. “What is freedom to them?” he demanded, voice rising. “They want houses, schools, sewage. They want justice.”

Conversation turned to this tidbit: Under apartheid, blacks could not be bricklayers because the job was classified as whites-only skilled labor. The student’s mother expressed anger, prompting a furious rebuke from him: “Why are you angry now when you weren’t 30 years ago? Your anger’s useless now. Drop it. When it would have been useful you didn’t have it. Now it’s payback time for them.”

“They” are the eternal other, of course, the blacks in this white conversation, the whites in mirror-image black conversations.

There are plenty of iterations of “they” in a land where the 1950 Population Registration Act (evil legislation is always innocuously named) ran a fine comb through types of inferior being, among them Indians and mixed-race “coloreds.” Almost a generation from apartheid’s end, South Africa is struggling to compose these differences into something foreign to nature: a sustainable rainbow.

The world has much at stake in this quest. South Africa — 79 percent black, 9.5 percent white and 11.5 percent Asian or mixed race — is the ground zero chosen by history and geography for the dilemma of otherness, the violent puzzle of race with its reflexive suspicions and repetitive eruptions.

At moments, as during this first African World Cup, the rainbow shimmers. This was supposed to be the competition of smash-and-grab and of machete attacks. Many stayed away.

The fear merchants, always hard at work, have been proved wrong. German grandmas do not lie savaged on the road to Rustenburg.

Unity has unfurled, calm broken out. Smiles crease black and white faces alike. To the point that the most asked question here is: Will this moving honeymoon last beyond the World Cup?

It’s a good question. South Africa, in the run-up, smoldered, crime eating at its heart like a surrogate for the post-apartheid bloodletting that never was.

There was the murder in April of the white supremacist Eugène Terre’Blanche, hacked to death after the leader of the African National Congress (A.N.C.) Youth League, Julius Malema, revived the “kill the Boer” line of black struggle. There were Malema’s endorsements of Zimbabwe’s disaster merchant, Robert Mugabe. There was the unhappy sight of the A.N.C., torn between its liberation mythology and the mundanity of governance, gripped by paralysis as unemployment climbed over 25 percent and its “tenderpreneurs” prospered.

A tenderpreneur is an insider pocketing millions from rigged government tenders for everything from air-conditioners to locomotives. The word denotes failure, that of black economic empowerment, which has come to mean much for the few and little for the many. If the powerful steal with front companies, why should the weak not steal with guns?

Yes, as my young cousin said, blacks want justice, from other blacks as well. If President Jacob Zuma does not use the lessons of this World Cup — that color lines can blur, that things can get done — to build momentum for reform, he will have failed. He must put the tenderpreneurs out of business. He must reverse the crumbling of education. Jobs do not lie in digging more stuff out the ground. The knowledge economy is where opportunity resides.

Is it class or race? South Africa is not going to rainbow race away, but it can bring blacks out of their miserable shacks and educate them — if its leaders are prepared to lead by example. I say it’s more class than race.

I was driving the other day with my colleague, Jere Longman, who mentioned that growing up in a small town in Lousiana in the early 1960s, he would see a “whites only” sign outside the launderette and imagine that meant white clothes alone. Almost a century separated the end of slavery from the end of Jim Crow segregation in the United States. Sixteen years have passed since the first free elections here.

There are no quick fixes. But I take heart from the African patriotism of my young cousin. I take heart from another 20-something white South African, a young woman who told me: “I am so happy for Ghana and so proud to be an African.”

That was after Ghana, lone African World Cup survivor, booted the United States out, a victory dedicated by its players to Africa, Nelson Mandela’s “proud continent.” We all know what Ghana long shipped to America: slaves.

It’s a pity President Obama couldn’t find time to be here in the land where race is text and the way it gets written will affect everyone’s future.

Oh, sweet baby Jesus on a pogo stick — get a grip, Mr. Cohen.  President Obama has more more important shit to do than give you fodder for a column.  Get over it.  Here’s Mr. Herbert:

It’s getting harder and harder for most Americans, looking honestly at the state of the nation, to see the glass as half full. And that’s why the public opinion polls contain nothing but bad news for Barack Obama and the Democrats.

The oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the war in Afghanistan and, above all, the continuing epidemic of joblessness have pushed the nation into a funk. All the crowing in the world about the administration’s legislative accomplishments — last year’s stimulus package, this year’s health care reform, etc. — is not enough to lift the gloom.

Mr. Obama and the Democrats have wasted the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity handed to them in the 2008 election. They did not focus on jobs, jobs, jobs as their primary mission, and they did not call on Americans to join in a bold national effort (which would have required a great deal of shared sacrifice) to solve a wide range of very serious problems, from our over-reliance on fossil fuels to the sorry state of public education to the need to rebuild the nation’s rotting infrastructure.

All of that could have been pulled together under the umbrella of job creation — short-term and long-term. In the immediate aftermath of Mr. Obama’s historic victory, and with the trauma of the economic collapse still upon us, it would have been very difficult for Republicans on Capitol Hill to stand in the way of a rebuild-America campaign aimed at putting millions of men and women back to work.

Mr. Obama had campaigned on the mantra of change, and that would have been the kind of change that working people could have gotten behind. But it never happened. Job creation was the trump card in the hand held by Mr. Obama and the Democrats, but they never played it. And now we’re paying a fearful price.

Fifteen million Americans are unemployed, according to the official count, which wildly understates the reality. Assuming no future economic setbacks and job creation at a rate of 200,000 or so a month, it would take more than a decade to get us back to where we were when the Great Recession began in December 2007. But we’re nowhere near that kind of sustained job growth. Last month, a measly 41,000 private-sector jobs were created.

We are in deep, deep gumbo.

The Obama administration feels it should get a great deal of credit for its economic stimulus efforts, its health care initiative, its financial reform legislation, its vastly increased aid to education and so forth. And maybe if we were grading papers, there would be a fair number of decent marks to be handed out.

But Americans struggling in a down economy are worried about the survival of their families. Destitution is beckoning for those whose unemployment benefits are running out, and that crowd of long-term jobless men and women is expanding rapidly.

There is a widespread feeling that only the rich and well-placed can count on Washington’s help, and that toxic sentiment is spreading like the oil stain in the gulf, with ominous implications for President Obama and his party. It’s in this atmosphere that support for the president and his agenda is sinking like a stone.

Employment is the No. 1 issue for most ordinary Americans. Their anxiety on this front only grows as they watch teachers, firefighters and police officers lining up to walk the unemployment plank as state and local governments wrestle with horrendous budget deficits.

And what do these worried Americans see the Obama administration doing? It’s doubling down on the war in Afghanistan, trying somehow to build a nation from scratch in the chaos of a combat zone.

By nearly 2 to 1, respondents to the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll believed the United States is on the wrong track. Despite the yelping and destructive machinations of the deficit hawks, employment and the economy are by far the public’s biggest concern. Mr. Obama is paying dearly for his tin ear on this topic. Fifty-four percent of respondents believed he does not have a clear plan for creating jobs. Only 45 percent approved of his overall handling of the economy, compared with 48 percent who disapproved.

It’s not too late for the president to turn things around, but there is no indication that he has any plan or strategy for doing it. And the political environment right now, with confidence in the administration waning and budgetary fears unnecessarily heightened by the deficit hawks, is not good.

It would take an extraordinary exercise in leadership to rally the country behind a full-bore jobs-creation campaign — nothing short of large-scale nation-building on the home front. Maybe that’s impossible in the current environment. But that’s what the country needs.


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