Archive for the ‘Concern trolling’ Category

Brooks and Cohen

March 25, 2014

Bobo is trying to convince us he cares.  In “The Republic of Fear” he gurgles that for Americans, security is fundamental. But people in places without our inherited institutions live where the primary realities include violence, theft and radical uncertainty.  It would appear that Bobo has never been out of his neighborhood (where he has vast spaces for entertaining).  “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY had this to say in the comments:  ” ‘We in the affluent world live on one side of a great global threshold.’ — David Brooks, speaking on behalf of the increasingly pathological American ruling class.  The mafia mentality born of deregulated capitalism and globalization knows no boundaries. The USA may spend more on law and order than anybody, but it’s billions of dollars for a paramilitary police/spy state, anti-Occupy Homeland Security fusion centers, and the biggest prison system in the world. We are all considered potential enemies of the state.”  Mr. Cohen ponders “The Story of the Century.”  He has breaking news on Flight 370: Everything is still on the table.  He’s good at parody, and has nailed CNN dead to rights.  Here’s Bobo:

If you’re reading this, you are probably not buffeted by daily waves of physical terror. You may fear job loss or emotional loss, but you probably don’t fear that somebody is going to slash your throat, or that a gang will invade your house come dinnertime, carrying away your kin and property. We take a basic level of order for granted.

But billions of people live in a different emotional landscape, enveloped by hidden terror. Many of these people live in the developing world.

When we send young people out to help these regions, we tell them they are there to tackle “poverty,” using the sort of economic designation we’re comfortable with. We usually assume that scarcity is the big challenge to be faced. We send them to dig wells or bring bed nets or distribute food or money, and, of course, that’s wonderful work.

But as Gary A. Haugen and Victor Boutros point out in their gripping and perspective-altering book, “The Locust Effect,” these places are not just grappling with poverty. They are marked by disorder, violence and man-inflicted suffering.

“The relentless threat of violence is part of the core subtext of their lives, but we are unlikely to see it, and they are unlikely to tell us about it. We would be wise, however, to not be fooled — because, like grief, the thing we cannot see may be the deepest part of their day.”

People in many parts of the world simply live beyond the apparatus of law and order. The District of Columbia spends about $850 per person per year on police. In Bangladesh, the government spends less than $1.50 per person per year on police. The cops are just not there.

In the United States, there is one prosecutor for every 12,000 citizens. In Malawi, there is one prosecutor for every 1.5 million citizens. The prosecutors are just not there.

Even when there is some legal system in place, it’s not designed to impose law and order for the people. It is there to protect the regime from the people. The well-connected want a legal system that can be bought and sold.

Haugen and Boutros tell the story of an 8-year-old Peruvian girl named Yuri whose body was found in the street one morning, her skull crushed in, her legs wrapped in cables and her underwear at her ankles. The evidence pointed to a member of one of the richer families in the town, so the police and prosecutors destroyed the evidence. Her clothing went missing. A sperm sample that could have identified the perpetrator was thrown out. A bloody mattress was sliced down by a third, so that the blood stained spot could be discarded.

Yuri’s family wanted to find the killer, but they couldn’t afford to pay the prosecutor, so nothing was done. The family sold all their livestock to hire lawyers, who took the money but abandoned the case. These sorts of events are utterly typical — the products of legal systems that range from the arbitrary to the Kafkaesque.

We in the affluent world live on one side of a great global threshold. Our fundamental security was established by our ancestors. We tend to assume that the primary problems of politics are economic and that the injustices of the world can be addressed with economic levers. When empires like the Soviet Union collapse, we send in economists with privatization plans instead of cops to help create rule of law. When thuggish autocracies invade their neighbors we impose economic sanctions.

But people without our inherited institutions live on the other side of the threshold and have a different reality. They live within a contagion of chaos. They live where the primary realities include violence, theft and radical uncertainty. Their world is governed less by long-term economic incentives and more by raw fear. In a world without functioning institutions, predatory behavior and the passions of domination and submission blot out economic logic.

The primary problem of politics is not creating growth. It’s creating order. Until that is largely achieved, life can be nasty, brutish and short.

Haugen is president of a human rights organization called the International Justice Mission, which tries to help people around the world build the institutions of law. One virtue of his group is that it stares evil in the eyes and helps local people confront the large and petty thugs who inflict such predatory cruelty on those around them. Not every aid organization is equipped to do this, to confront elemental human behavior when it exists unrestrained by effective law. It’s easier to avoid this reality, to have come-together moments in daytime.

Police training might be less uplifting than some of the other stories that attract donor dollars. But, in every society, order has to be wrung out of exploitation. Unless cruelty is tamed, poverty will persist.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Good morning, this is Brian Bowman of CNN on Day X with breaking news on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: The zombie plane theory still has legs! Some aviation experts say it is gaining steam as the search in the South Indian Ocean, one of the most remote and windy places on the planet, continues in an area somewhere between the size of West Virginia and the United States. Now, what is the zombie scenario? Well, it’s a spooky possibility. That this Triple Seven, after making its famous left turn, flew on autopilot for hours with its crew and passengers incapacitated before crashing into the sea or, if you happen to think the Northern Corridor option is still open, in Central Asia. Of course, there are many theories floating around and vertical gyrations are not an autopilot maneuver and no theory at this point connects all the dots and that is why we have an investigation and why we intend to stay on top of this story.

NEWS FLASH: President Vladimir Putin of Russia has invaded Crimea.

Interesting development there, but back to our main story. We can reveal that everything is still on the table. There is so much inconsistent information on Flight 370 that it is frankly anyone’s guess as to what to take as gospel. But here’s some more breaking news: Today’s search is more visual, less technical. That’s because satellites from three countries have spotted what could be debris or even a wooden pallet from the plane floating in the rough seas of the “Roaring Forties,” where winds howl around the bottom of the world. Now the satellite images are blurry. There’s lots of junk in the sea. Wooden pallets are used in airline cargo holds but also in shipping. And, as you know, there were lots of missteps early on by the Malaysian authorities. Information from them has been a mess. So everything is pretty sketchy. Right now we just need a better haystack.

NEWS FLASH: President Vladimir Putin of Russia has annexed Crimea.

My apologies for these interruptions, folks; we will keep them to a minimum as we move forward with the mystery of Flight 370 on which, incidentally, lamb satay with peanut sauce was almost certainly served to Business Class and peanuts to Economy just before the flight’s transponder stopped. Here’s some breaking news: Contrary to rumors, the last computer transmission from the plane showed no route change. Is that a game changer? No. But it could undermine theories about the pilots preplanning a hijacking. On the other hand, isn’t it a coincidence too far that between Malaysian air space and Vietnamese air space, right in the dead zone, the plane disappears? Well, we’ve been here before, folks. What we need is solid evidence!

NEWS FLASH: President Vladimir Putin of Russia has massed troops on the eastern Ukrainian border.

Other developments, schmother developments: Brian Bowman here bringing you the latest on Flight 370. I must relate a conversation I had with my neighbor this morning. I said I wondered where the plane went, and she said we’ll find out soon, and I asked what she meant, and she said, “Well, they’re coming for America.” And I said “Huh?” and she said, well, they hijacked the plane to come for us. So I asked, “Why us?” And she said, “Well, who else would they be coming for?” As you see, folks, people out there are getting pretty antsy. And here’s some breaking news: Mathematical techniques inspired by an 18th-century Presbyterian minister might help locate the plane. And, gosh, why the heck did the Malaysian authorities hide the fact that this passenger plane was full of lithium batteries, a hazardous and highly inflammable cargo?

NEWS FLASH: Russian troops have invaded eastern Ukraine.

I’ve talked to my producers, folks, and there’ll be no more interruptions in our Flight 370 coverage. Don’t they look at the ratings? So I was reading The Onion and there was this great headline, “Families of Missing Flight Passengers Just Hoping Media Gets Closure It Needs.” Dead on! The piece quoted one relative saying, “This has been an extremely difficult time for the reporters and anchors covering this event; they have put their lives on hold.” And she also said, “It’s not surprising that they are obsessing around the clock, wondering what could have possibly occurred on board that flight.” It was a brilliant story, restored my faith in journalism.

NEWS FLASH: President Vladimir Putin, citing need to restore Russian pride, invades Estonia, NATO member. President Obama says this will not stand. World War III begins.

Folks, Americans are not sleeping tonight. There’s this big object passing over Malaysia and Indonesia. Why were military jets not scrambled? Were the facilities inoperative? Were the personnel asleep? Are they too embarrassed to man up and TELL US? Here’s some big breaking news: We may never know.

Brooks and Krugman

January 24, 2014

Now all of a sudden Bobo haz a consern.  He gurgles that “It Takes a Generation,” and that a real national social mobility strategy must address youth development from ages 0 to 25.  “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY, starts her comment thusly:  “While David Brooks is busy concern-trolling single motherhood and horny teenagers, families are going to bed hungry tonight because of sadistic cuts in the food stamp program.”  In “The Populist Imperative” Prof. Krugman says this is why we’re likely to hear a lot about inequality and social justice from President Obama next week.  Here’s Bobo:

Over the past decade we’ve had a rich debate on how to expand opportunity for underprivileged children. But we’ve probably made two mistakes.

First, we’ve probably placed too much emphasis on early education. Don’t get me wrong. What happens in the early years is crucial. But human capital development takes a generation. If you really want to make an impact, you’ve got to have a developmental strategy for all the learning stages, ages 0 to 25.

Second, we’ve probably put too much weight on school reform. Again, reforming education is important. But getting the academics right is not going to get you far if millions of students can’t control their impulses, can’t form attachments, don’t possess resilience and lack social and emotional skills.

So when President Obama talks about expanding opportunity in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, I’m hoping he’ll widen the debate. I’m hoping he’ll sketch out a stage-by-stage developmental agenda to help poor children move from birth to the middle class.

Such an agenda would start before birth. First, children need parents who are ready to care for them. But right now roughly half-a-million children are born each year as a result of unintended pregnancies, often to unmarried women who are not on contraception or are trying to use contraceptives like condoms or the pill. As the University of Pennsylvania’s Rebecca Maynard and Isabel Sawhill and Quentin Karpilow of the Brookings Institution have argued, if these women had free access to long-acting reversible contraceptives like I.U.D.’s, then the number of unintended births might decline and the number of children with unready parents might fall, too.

Once born, children are generally better off if they grow up within a loving two-parent marriage. It would be great if we knew how to boost marriage rates, but we don’t.

For the time being, we probably should spend less time thinking about marriage and more time thinking about parenting skills. As Richard Reeves, also of Brookings, points out, if we could teach the weakest parents to behave like average parents — by reading more to their kids, speaking more, using consistent, encouraging discipline — then millions of children might have more secure attachments, more structure and better shots at upwardly mobile careers. Programs like Nurse-Family Partnerships and the Baby College in the Harlem Children’s Zone seem to be able to teach these parenting skills.

Once they get to elementary school, children need to learn how to read and write. But that can’t happen in schools where 15 percent of the students are disruptive, where large numbers of students live with so much stress that it has stunted the development of the prefrontal cortexes, sent their cortisol levels surging, heightened their anxiety responses and generally made it hard for them to control themselves.

Therefore, we probably need more programs like Pamela Cantor’s Turnaround for Children, which works in schools to help teachers and administrators create “fortified environments,” in which overstressed children can receive counseling and treatment, in which the psychic traumas that go with poverty are recognized and addressed.

According to work done by Sawhill and others, a significant number of kids stay on track through the early years, but then fall off the rails as teenagers. Sawhill set a pretty low bar for having a successful adolescence: graduate from high school with a 2.5 G.P.A., don’t get convicted of a crime, don’t get pregnant. Yet only 57 percent of American 19-year-olds get over that bar. Only one-third of children in the bottom fifth of family income do so.

Over the next few years, we’ve got to spend a lot more time and money figuring out how to help people from poorer families chart a course through the teenage years. There’s evidence that Career Academies help adolescents navigate the teenage rapids. There’s some evidence that New York’s “small schools of choice” yield measurable results. We as a nation have made awesome progress in reducing teenage pregnancies, so it is possible to change teenage behavior, even in the face of raging hormones.

But it is harder to find successful programs geared toward teenagers than it is to find successful programs geared toward younger children. It feels like less money has been raised to help teenagers, fewer innovative programs have been initiated.

Robert Putnam of Harvard argues that when we design early education programs, they need to be “wrap-around.” They need to have formal and informal programs that bring parents in and instill communal skills. With teenagers, we need more guidance counselors to help them become savvy, so they know how to work the system, and to respond when their needs aren’t being met.

Putnam is emphasizing skills — for toddlers or teenagers — that are hard to see and measure. But that’s the next frontier of human capital development: Building lifelong social and emotional development strategies from age 0 to 25. I’m hoping President Obama goes there.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

“The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.”

John Maynard Keynes wrote that in 1936, but it applies to our own time, too. And, in a better world, our leaders would be doing all they could to address both faults.

Unfortunately, the world we actually live in falls far short of that ideal. In fact, we should count ourselves lucky when leaders confront even one of our two great economic failures. If, as has been widely reported, President Obama devotes much of his State of the Union address to inequality, everyone should be cheering him on.

They won’t, of course. Instead, he will face two kinds of sniping. The usual suspects on the right will, as always when questions of income distribution come up, shriek “Class warfare!” But there will also be seemingly more sober voices arguing that he has picked the wrong target, that jobs, not inequality, should be at the top of his agenda.

Here’s why they’re wrong.

First of all, jobs and inequality are closely linked if not identical issues. There’s a pretty good although not ironclad case that soaring inequality helped set the stage for our economic crisis, and that the highly unequal distribution of income since the crisis has perpetuated the slump, especially by making it hard for families in debt to work their way out.

Moreover, there’s an even stronger case to be made that high unemployment — by destroying workers’ bargaining power — has become a major source of rising inequality and stagnating incomes even for those lucky enough to have jobs.

Beyond that, as a political matter, inequality and macroeconomic policy are already inseparably linked. It has been obvious for a long time that the deficit obsession that has exerted such a destructive effect on policy these past few years isn’t really driven by worries about the federal debt. It is, instead, mainly an effort to use debt fears to scare and bully the nation into slashing social programs — especially programs that help the poor. For example, two-thirds of the spending cuts proposed last year by Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, would have come at the expense of lower-income families.

The flip side of this attempt to use fiscal scare tactics to worsen inequality is that highlighting concerns about inequality can translate into pushback against job-destroying austerity, too.

But the most important reason for Mr. Obama to focus on inequality is political realism. Like it or not, the simple fact is that Americans “get” inequality; macroeconomics, not so much.

There’s an enduring myth among the punditocracy that populism doesn’t sell, that Americans don’t care about the gap between the rich and everyone else. It’s not true. Yes, we’re a nation that admires rather than resents success, but most people are nonetheless disturbed by the extreme disparities of our Second Gilded Age. A new Pew poll finds an overwhelming majority of Americans — and 45 percent of Republicans! — supporting government action to reduce inequality, with a smaller but still substantial majority favoring taxing the rich to aid the poor. And this is true even though most Americans don’t realize just how unequally wealth really is distributed.

By contrast, it’s very hard to communicate even the most basic truths of macroeconomics, like the need to run deficits to support employment in bad times. You can argue that Mr. Obama should have tried harder to get these ideas across; many economists cringed when he began echoing Republican rhetoric about the need for the federal government to tighten its belt along with America’s families. But, even if he had tried, it’s doubtful that he would have succeeded.

Consider what happened in 1936. F.D.R. had just won a smashing re-election victory, largely because of the success of his deficit-spending policies. It’s often forgotten now, but his first term was marked by rapid economic recovery and sharply falling unemployment. But the public remained wedded to economic orthodoxy: by a more than 2-to-1 majority, voters surveyed by Gallup just after the election called for a balanced budget. And F.D.R., unfortunately, listened; his attempt to balance the budget soon plunged America back into recession.

The point is that of the two great problems facing the U.S. economy, inequality is the one on which Mr. Obama is most likely to connect with voters. And he should seek that connection with a clear conscience: There’s no shame in acknowledging political reality, as long as you’re trying to do the right thing.

So I hope we’ll hear something about jobs Tuesday night, and some pushback against deficit hysteria. But if we mainly hear about inequality and social justice, that’s O.K.

Brooks and Krugman

January 17, 2014

Bobo is trying to convince us all that he gives a crap about “The Inequality Problem.”  He babbles that the current income inequality debate misses the point and prevents a nuanced, bipartisan discussion of our economic and social ills.  It’s more “blame the victim” shit.  The idea that you can have a “nuanced” discussion with a Republican is risible on its face as well.  In “Scandal in France” Prof. Krugman says President François Hollande does a bad, bad thing. And this has nothing to do with his personal life.  Here, FSM help us all, is Bobo:

Suddenly the whole world is talking about income inequality. But, as this debate goes on, it is beginning to look as though the thing is being misconceived. The income inequality debate is confusing matters more than clarifying them, and it is leading us off in unhelpful directions.

In the first place, to frame the issue as income inequality is to lump together different issues that are not especially related. What we call “inequality” is caused by two different constellations of problems.

At the top end, there is the growing wealth of the top 5 percent of workers. This is linked to things like perverse compensation schemes on Wall Street, assortative mating (highly educated people are more likely to marry each other and pass down their advantages to their children) and the superstar effect (in an Internet economy, a few superstars in each industry can reap global gains while the average performers cannot).

At the bottom end, there is a growing class of people stuck on the margins, generation after generation. This is caused by high dropout rates, the disappearance of low-skill jobs, breakdown in family structures and so on.

If you have a primitive zero-sum mentality then you assume growing affluence for the rich must somehow be causing the immobility of the poor, but, in reality, the two sets of problems are different, and it does no good to lump them together and call them “inequality.”

Second, it leads to ineffective policy responses. If you think the problem is “income inequality,” then the natural response is to increase incomes at the bottom, by raising the minimum wage.

But raising the minimum wage may not be an effective way to help those least well-off. Joseph J. Sabia of San Diego State University and Richard V. Burkhauser of Cornell looked at the effects of increases in the minimum wage between 2003 and 2007. Consistent with some other studies, they find no evidence that such raises had any effect on the poverty rates.

That’s because raises in the minimum wage are not targeted at the right people. Only 11 percent of the workers affected by such an increase come from poor households. Nearly two-thirds of such workers are the second or third earners living in households at twice the poverty line or above.

The primary problem for the poor is not that they are getting paid too little for the hours they work. It is that they are not working full time or at all. Raising the minimum wage is popular politics; it is not effective policy.

Third, the income inequality frame contributes to our tendency to simplify complex cultural, social, behavioral and economic problems into strictly economic problems.

There is a very strong correlation between single motherhood and low social mobility. There is a very strong correlation between high school dropout rates and low mobility. There is a strong correlation between the fraying of social fabric and low economic mobility. There is a strong correlation between de-industrialization and low social mobility. It is also true that many men, especially young men, are engaging in behaviors that damage their long-term earning prospects; much more than comparable women.

Low income is the outcome of these interrelated problems, but it is not the problem. To say it is the problem is to confuse cause and effect. To say it is the problem is to give yourself a pass from exploring the complex and morally fraught social and cultural roots of the problem. It is to give yourself permission to ignore the parts that are uncomfortable to talk about but that are really the inescapable core of the thing.

Fourth, the income inequality frame needlessly polarizes the debate. There is a growing consensus that government should be doing more to help increase social mobility for the less affluent. Even conservative Republicans are signing on to this. The income inequality language introduces a class conflict element to this discussion.

Democrats often see low wages as both a human capital problem and a problem caused by unequal economic power. Republicans are more likely to see them just as a human capital problem. If we’re going to pass bipartisan legislation, we’re going to have to start with the human capital piece, where there is some agreement, not the class conflict piece, where there is none.

Some on the left have always tried to introduce a more class-conscious style of politics. These efforts never pan out. America has always done better, liberals have always done better, when we are all focused on opportunity and mobility, not inequality, on individual and family aspiration, not class-consciousness.

If we’re going to mobilize a policy revolution, we should focus on the real concrete issues: bad schools, no jobs for young men, broken families, neighborhoods without mediating institutions. We should not be focusing on a secondary issue and a statistical byproduct.

It’s amazing that he can look at himself in the mirror in the morning without gagging.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

I haven’t paid much attention to François Hollande, the president of France, since it became clear that he wasn’t going to break with Europe’s destructive, austerity-minded policy orthodoxy. But now he has done something truly scandalous.

I am not, of course, talking about his alleged affair with an actress, which, even if true, is neither surprising (hey, it’s France) nor disturbing. No, what’s shocking is his embrace of discredited right-wing economic doctrines. It’s a reminder that Europe’s ongoing economic woes can’t be attributed solely to the bad ideas of the right. Yes, callous, wrongheaded conservatives have been driving policy, but they have been abetted and enabled by spineless, muddleheaded politicians on the moderate left.

Right now, Europe seems to be emerging from its double-dip recession and growing a bit. But this slight uptick follows years of disastrous performance. How disastrous? Consider: By 1936, seven years into the Great Depression, much of Europe was growing rapidly, with real G.D.P. per capita steadily reaching new highs. By contrast, European real G.D.P. per capita today is still well below its 2007 peak — and rising slowly at best.

Doing worse than you did in the Great Depression is, one might say, a remarkable achievement. How did the Europeans pull it off? Well, in the 1930s most European countries eventually abandoned economic orthodoxy: They went off the gold standard; they stopped trying to balance their budgets; and some of them began large military buildups that had the side effect of providing economic stimulus. The result was a strong recovery from 1933 onward.

Modern Europe is a much better place, morally, politically, and in human terms. A shared commitment to democracy has brought durable peace; social safety nets have limited the suffering from high unemployment; coordinated action has contained the threat of financial collapse. Unfortunately, the Continent’s success in avoiding disaster has had the side effect of letting governments cling to orthodox policies. Nobody has left the euro, even though it’s a monetary straitjacket. With no need to boost military spending, nobody has broken with fiscal austerity. Everyone is doing the safe, supposedly responsible thing — and the slump persists.

In this depressed and depressing landscape, France isn’t an especially bad performer. Obviously it has lagged behind Germany, which has been buoyed by its formidable export sector. But French performance has been better than that of most other European nations. And I’m not just talking about the debt-crisis countries. French growth has outpaced that of such pillars of orthodoxy as Finland and the Netherlands.

It’s true that the latest data show France failing to share in Europe’s general uptick. Most observers, including the International Monetary Fund, attribute this recent weakness largely to austerity policies. But now Mr. Hollande has spoken up about his plans to change France’s course — and it’s hard not to feel a sense of despair.

For Mr. Hollande, in announcing his intention to reduce taxes on businesses while cutting (unspecified) spending to offset the cost, declared, “It is upon supply that we need to act,” and he further declared that “supply actually creates demand.”

Oh, boy. That echoes, almost verbatim, the long-debunked fallacy known as Say’s Law — the claim that overall shortfalls in demand can’t happen, because people have to spend their income on something. This just isn’t true, and it’s very much not true as a practical matter at the beginning of 2014. All the evidence says that France is awash in productive resources, both labor and capital, that are sitting idle because demand is inadequate. For proof, one need only look at inflation, which is sliding fast. Indeed, both France and Europe as a whole are getting dangerously close to Japan-style deflation.

So what’s the significance of the fact that, at this of all times, Mr. Hollande has adopted this discredited doctrine?

As I said, it’s a sign of the haplessness of the European center-left. For four years, Europe has been in the grip of austerity fever, with mostly disastrous results; it’s telling that the current slight upturn is being hailed as if it were a policy triumph. Given the hardship these policies have inflicted, you might have expected left-of-center politicians to argue strenuously for a change in course. Yet everywhere in Europe, the center-left has at best (for example, in Britain) offered weak, halfhearted criticism, and often simply cringed in submission.

When Mr. Hollande became leader of the second-ranked euro economy, some of us hoped that he might take a stand. Instead, he fell into the usual cringe — a cringe that has now turned into intellectual collapse. And Europe’s second depression goes on and on.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd and Bruni

July 15, 2012

Mr. Kristof and The Moustache of Wisdom are off today.  The Pasty Little Putz has decided to parade his ignorance about the Episcopal Church this morning.  He has what I’m sure he considers an important question:  “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?”  He states that the more progressive the Episcopal Church becomes, the more it shrinks.  He’s profoundly full of crap on pretty much all levels.  In “The Boy Who Wanted to Fly” MoDo says that Rory Staunton always aimed for the stars. Before a strep infection, discovered too late, cut his life short, the 12-year-old from Queens soared.  Mr. Bruni looks at “Our Newly Lush Life” and says that in New York and other cities, there’s a verdure that defies the dark times.  Here’s The Putz:

In 1998, John Shelby Spong, then the reliably controversial Episcopal bishop of Newark, published a book entitled “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Spong was a uniquely radical figure — during his career, he dismissed almost every element of traditional Christian faith as so much superstition — but most recent leaders of the Episcopal Church have shared his premise. Thus their church has spent the last several decades changing and then changing some more, from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States.

As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

This decline is the latest chapter in a story dating to the 1960s. The trends unleashed in that era — not only the sexual revolution, but also consumerism and materialism, multiculturalism and relativism — threw all of American Christianity into crisis, and ushered in decades of debate over how to keep the nation’s churches relevant and vital.

Traditional believers, both Protestant and Catholic, have not necessarily thrived in this environment. The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.

But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.

Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2005 interview, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop explained that her communion’s members valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves.)

Liberal commentators, meanwhile, consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline. Few of the outraged critiques of the Vatican’s investigation of progressive nuns mentioned the fact that Rome had intervened because otherwise the orders in question were likely to disappear in a generation. Fewer still noted the consequences of this eclipse: Because progressive Catholicism has failed to inspire a new generation of sisters, Catholic hospitals across the country are passing into the hands of more bottom-line-focused administrators, with inevitable consequences for how they serve the poor.

But if liberals need to come to terms with these failures, religious conservatives should not be smug about them. The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.

What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”

Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that perhaps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.

Absent such a reconsideration, their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.

Well, Putzy, at least the Episcopal Church isn’t going bankrupt from paying rape victims.  And if anyone wants real facts on the growth and/or decline in the Episcopal Church here’s the real information.  (.pdf file)  Next up we have MoDo:

Rory Staunton was always looking up.

As soon as he could walk, he wanted to fly. The exuberant freckle-faced redhead from Sunnyside, Queens, yearned to be up in the romantic night sky where, as the French pilot and poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, the stars are laughing.

His parents told him he’d have to wait until he was 16 to take flying lessons. But it’s hard to tell a determined 5-foot-9, 169-pound 12-year-old what to do.

He dreamed of being the next Captain Sullenberger, practicing on a flight simulator on his computer and studying global routes. He read and reread Sully’s memoir, thrilled to learn that the flier’s hair had once been red. He found a Long Island aviation school that would teach 12-year-olds.

On his 12th birthday, his parents shuddered and let Rory fly with an instructor.

How could you resist that sweet Irish face? Sure, Rory drove his parents nuts, sneaking downstairs late at night to gorge on episodes of “Family Guy,” and pretending to do his homework when he was really devouring political stories in The Times.

“He wasn’t the kid who looked at porn online, he looked at CNN online,” said his uncle, Niall O’Dowd, my friend who publishes several Irish publications in New York.

Rory protected underdogs against schoolyard bullies. He revered Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. And at the Garden School in Jackson Heights, he led a campaign to curb the thoughtless use of the word “retarded.”

“The last conversation I had with him, he got right in the face of my brother, Fergus, the government minister in Ireland with the mining portfolio, about fracking,” Niall recalled. “And he wrote the Swedish ambassador to North Korea asking for an explanation about why North Korea fed their big army while their people were dying of hunger.”

Rory was so roaring with life, it was impossible to believe how quickly life drained out of him. On Wednesday, March 28, he fell while playing in the school gym and scraped his elbow, opening a cut. As Dr. Jerome Groopman wrote in The New Yorker in 2008, the most aggressive superbug bacteria often lurk in gyms and on artificial turf.

The following Sunday, Rory died of septic shock from a strep infection, his parents curled around his body in the hospital bed.

Orlaith and Ciaran Staunton are Irish immigrants who embodied the American dream. Ciaran owns O’Neill’s bar on Third Avenue, where Rory made his first visit at 3 days old, and the Molly Blooms pub in Queens.

Every parent’s nightmare unfolded at warp speed, as the Web site Everyday Health reported and as Jim Dwyer heartbreakingly revealed in Thursday’s Times. Rory might have been saved by a swift dose of antibiotics but instead perished in a perfect storm of false assumptions, overlooked data and overburdened doctors.

Despite the cut, severe leg pain, blotchy skin and other clues pointing to sepsis, Rory’s pediatrician surmised that the vomiting, 102-degree fever, 140 pulse and 36 breaths a minute spelled a stomach bug and sent him to the NYU Langone Medical Center emergency room. Doctors there discharged Rory with an antinausea drug, even though his vital signs were alarming. The lab tests that were ordered came back three hours later showing abnormal production of white blood cells, a sign that infection could be raging, but that red flag was ignored.

“Nobody said anything that night,” his mother told Dwyer. “None of you followed up the next day on that kid, and he’s at home, dying on the couch?”

By Friday, Rory’s body was covered with blue streaks, and a touch made him scream. When Ciaran reached the pediatrician, she advised going back to the E.R. Rory was put in intensive care, where doctors valiantly tried to save his life, even suggesting amputating his nose and toes. But he was turning purple and black.

“For anyone that has carried their son’s or daughter’s coffin, it’s unnatural,” Ciaran told Sean O’Rourke on Friday on RTE, the Irish radio network. “A child who loses a parent becomes an orphan. If a man and wife lose each other, they become widow or widower. It’s so unnatural, there isn’t even a word for families who lose a child.”

Rory’s idol, Sully Sullenberger, was touched and left a message on the child’s tribute page. The hero of the Hudson is now an advocate for applying “lessons learned in blood” in aviation safety to patient safety.

“If something good comes from Rory’s death, it will be that we realize we have a broken system,” he told me. “Patient care is so fragmented. For the most part, medical professionals aren’t taught these human skills that some deride as ‘soft skills.’ So there’s insufficient sharing of information and ineffective communication.

“Some in the medical field look upon these deaths as an unavoidable consequence of giving care. But they’re inexcusable and unthinkable.”

Rory is up there now, with the laughing stars. But even before he got to heaven, he knew, as Saint-Exupéry wrote, that “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

And last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

Whenever you doubt that the future can improve upon the past or that government can play a pivotal role in that, consider and revel in the extraordinary greening of New York.

This city looks nothing — nothing — like it did just a decade and a half ago. It’s a place of newly gorgeous waterfront promenades, of trees, tall grasses and blooming flowers on patches of land and peninsulas of concrete and even stretches of rail tracks that were blighted or blank before. It’s a lush retort to the pessimism of this era, verdant proof that growth remains possible, at least with the requisite will and the right strategies.

The transformation of New York has happened incrementally enough — one year the High Line, another year Brooklyn Bridge Park — that it often escapes full, proper appreciation. But it’s a remarkable, hopeful stride.

It’s also emblematic of a coast-to-coast pattern of intensified dedication to urban parkland. While so much of American life right now is attended by the specter of decline, many cities are blossoming, with New York providing crucial inspiration.

“It represents a great example because it’s our largest urban area in America,” said Ken Salazar, the United States secretary of the interior, on the phone Friday, suggesting that if the Big Apple can carve out green amid its gray, any city can. Salazar plans to visit New York on Tuesday to address an international conference, already under way, called “Greater & Greener: Re-Imagining Parks for 21st Century Cities.”

The location of the conference in New York pays deliberate tribute to the progress this city has made, much of it under the Bloomberg administration, which followed through on plans it inherited, expanding some of them, and hatched many of its own.

While Mayor Bloomberg has suffered frustrations and failures aplenty in his bids, say, to improve public education and relieve congestion in Midtown Manhattan, he has had the greenest of thumbs. One of the principal legacies of his long mayoralty will be a city that, in certain charmed spots on certain charmed days, can feel as relaxed and breezy and kissed by nature as one of those ecologically vain enclaves of the Pacific Northwest. To the bustle of traffic, he has added the rustle of more trees, byways for bicycles, perches with exquisite views.

“Parks were on the front burner for this mayor and for Patti Harris, the deputy mayor, and I think that’s unique in this city’s history,” said Adrian Benepe, who will soon step down after 10 years as Bloomberg’s parks commissioner.

“Great things happened under Mayor La Guardia, largely because of the Works Progress Administration and Robert Moses’s skill in using those funds, but I think, uniquely, this mayor has not just liked parks but understood their value in so many different ways,” Benepe said, adding that Bloomberg embraced “the belief that a city could and should be beautiful and well designed.”

I’D dismiss those sentiments as pure sycophancy or self-congratulation but for several factors. One, Benepe readily volunteers that some of what Bloomberg gets credit for was set in motion by previous mayors or championed in particular by George Pataki, a fervent parks booster, back when he was governor.

Two, Benepe’s praise for Bloomberg is echoed by that of many people outside of city government. Three, it’s consistent with my own grateful observations. I’ve lived in this city on and off for 25 years, and I’ve never felt as called to the outdoors or as rewarded by my time there as I do now.

An astonishing fraction of Manhattan’s waterfront, both on the Hudson and East Rivers, is now punctuated with landscaped piers, dotted with benches and traced by bike and foot paths. And Brooklyn Bridge Park, for those who haven’t seen it, is a revelation, with its panorama of downtown Manhattan, the New York Harbor and Lady Liberty.

“It is remarkable — remarkable — that the city made this investment,” said Michael Van Valkenburgh, a landscape architect whose firm designed the park, which cost more than $350 million. The city contributed nearly two-thirds of that. “There’s a profound amount of interest and activity right now in making and remaking urban parks. I think it’s because we are reinvested in the idea of living in cities.”

Just as encouraging and instructive is the way New York has come up with the necessary money for new and existing parks. The High Line, built mostly with public funds, is maintained primarily with private ones. The plan for Brooklyn Bridge Park is for its operation and upkeep to be paid for by assessments on the real estate developed around it.

Riverside Park South — that stunning braid of waterfront plazas, paths and piers off the West 60s in Manhattan — was what the developers of new residential properties nearby owed the city in return for permission to build. That arrangement long predated Bloomberg’s mayoralty, but under his administration a similar arrangement will give rise to waterfront parkland in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

Bloomberg’s record when it comes to parks isn’t unblemished. Holly M. Leicht, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, an advocacy group, said that the creation of new parks has not always been matched by sufficient care for old ones. “There’s certainly a disparity in conditions,” she said.

But the city has, to its credit, lavished money on parks in all boroughs, not just Manhattan and Brooklyn. One of its most ambitious projects is the conversion of Fresh Kills Landfill, on Staten Island, into Freshkills Park, which will be almost three times the size of Central Park.

The New York story is a national one. In the center of Oklahoma City, a revitalized park complex, Myriad Botanical Gardens, recently took root. In downtown Houston, there’s Discovery Green. Dallas is building a park on a deck over a downtown freeway, and Los Angeles is looking at how to gussy and green up an old concrete river bed.

“We’re living in an era of re-urbanization,” said Catherine Nagel, executive director of the City Parks Alliance, which is sponsoring the conference in New York. And the increased population density means that “we need green space,” she said.

Amazingly, we’re getting it: because citizens have demanded as much; because governments have made it a priority; because public and private partnerships have been cultivated. New York is the bright flower of all that.

 

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

July 10, 2012

Bobo’s concerned.  Bobo’s concern trolling.  In “The Opportunity Gap” he gurgles that in a year consumed by the inequality problem, one demographic has gone largely unreported: our children. He thinks Robert Putnam sheds new light.  It’s classic Bobo.  He’s still annoyed that (poor) people are spawning without being married…  In “Housing’s Last Chance?” Mr. Nocera says eminent domain might be the answer to the foreclosure crisis. Consider the situation in San Bernardino County, California.  Mr. Bruni, in “Love Among the Spuds,” says a lesbian congresswoman tests the soil in Wisconsin.  Here’s Bobo:

Over the past few months, writers from Charles Murray to Timothy Noah have produced alarming work on the growing bifurcation of American society. Now the eminent Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and his team are coming out with research that’s more horrifying.

While most studies look at inequality of outcomes among adults and help us understand how America is coming apart, Putnam’s group looked at inequality of opportunities among children. They help us understand what the country will look like in the decades ahead. The quick answer? More divided than ever.

Putnam’s data verifies what many of us have seen anecdotally, that the children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities. Decades ago, college-graduate parents and high-school-graduate parents invested similarly in their children. Recently, more affluent parents have invested much more in their children’s futures while less affluent parents have not.

They’ve invested more time. Over the past decades, college-educated parents have quadrupled the amount of time they spend reading “Goodnight Moon,” talking to their kids about their day and cheering them on from the sidelines. High-school-educated parents have increased child-care time, but only slightly.

A generation ago, working-class parents spent slightly more time with their kids than college-educated parents. Now college-educated parents spend an hour more every day. This attention gap is largest in the first three years of life when it is most important.

Affluent parents also invest more money in their children. Over the last 40 years upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their kids’ enrichment activities, like tutoring and extra curriculars, by $5,300 a year. The financially stressed lower classes have only been able to increase their investment by $480, adjusted for inflation.

As a result, behavior gaps are opening up. In 1972, kids from the bottom quartile of earners participated in roughly the same number of activities as kids from the top quartile. Today, it’s a chasm.

Richer kids are roughly twice as likely to play after-school sports. They are more than twice as likely to be the captains of their sports teams. They are much more likely to do nonsporting activities, like theater, yearbook and scouting. They are much more likely to attend religious services.

It’s not only that richer kids have become more active. Poorer kids have become more pessimistic and detached. Social trust has fallen among all income groups, but, between 1975 and 1995, it plummeted among the poorest third of young Americans and has remained low ever since. As Putnam writes in notes prepared for the Aspen Ideas Festival: “It’s perfectly understandable that kids from working-class backgrounds have become cynical and even paranoid, for virtually all our major social institutions have failed them — family, friends, church, school and community.” As a result, poorer kids are less likely to participate in voluntary service work that might give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. Their test scores are lagging. Their opportunities are more limited.

A long series of cultural, economic and social trends have merged to create this sad state of affairs. Traditional social norms were abandoned, meaning more children are born out of wedlock. Their single parents simply have less time and resources to prepare them for a more competitive world. Working-class jobs were decimated, meaning that many parents are too stressed to have the energy, time or money to devote to their children.

Affluent, intelligent people are now more likely to marry other energetic, intelligent people. They raise energetic, intelligent kids in self-segregated, cultural ghettoes where they know little about and have less influence upon people who do not share their blessings.

The political system directs more money to health care for the elderly while spending on child welfare slides.

Equal opportunity, once core to the nation’s identity, is now a tertiary concern. If America really wants to change that, if the country wants to take advantage of all its human capital rather than just the most privileged two-thirds of it, then people are going to have to make some pretty uncomfortable decisions.

Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it. Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class.

Political candidates will have to spend less time trying to exploit class divisions and more time trying to remedy them — less time calling their opponents out of touch elitists, and more time coming up with agendas that comprehensively address the problem. It’s politically tough to do that, but the alternative is national suicide.

I just can’t wait until Charles Pierce tees this one up.  Maybe this time poor Moral Hazard will bite Bobo…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

There are few counties in America in as rough shape as San Bernardino County in California. During the housing bubble, the good times were very good. But then came the bust.

Today, San Bernardino County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation: 11.9 percent. Home prices have collapsed. Astonishingly, every second home is underwater, meaning the homeowner owes more on the mortgage than the house is worth. It is well documented that underwater mortgages have a high likelihood of defaulting — and, eventually, being foreclosed on. It has also been clear for some time that the best way to keep troubled homeowners in their homes is by reducing the principal on their mortgages, thus lowering their debt burden and more closely aligning their mortgage with the actual value of the home.

Which is why Greg Devereaux, the county’s chief executive officer, found himself listening intently when the folks from Mortgage Resolution Partners came knocking on his door. They had spent the previous year kicking around an intriguing idea: have localities buy underwater mortgages using their power of eminent domain — and then write the homeowner a new, reduced mortgage. It’s principal reduction using a stick instead of a carrot.

I know. When you first hear this idea, it sounds a little crazy. Eminent domain to take a mortgage? But the more closely you look at it, the more sense it starts to make. It would be a way to break the logjam that keeps mortgages in mortgage-backed bonds — securitizations — from being modified. It could prevent foreclosures. And it could finally stabilize housing prices.

The core issue that Mortgage Resolution Partners is trying to solve is what might be called the securitization problem. Bundling mortgages into securities and selling them to investors was, initially, a wonderful idea because it greatly expanded the amount of capital available for homeownership. But the people who wound up owning the mortgages — investors — were diffuse, often with conflicting interests, while the mortgages were managed by servicers or trustees who didn’t actually own them. And the securitization contracts never anticipated that people might need to modify. So it has been nearly impossible to modify mortgages stuck in securitizations.

It turns out, however, that there is nothing to prevent a government entity from using eminent domain to acquire a mortgage. “Eminent domain has existed for centuries,” said Robert Hockett, a law professor at Cornell who has served as an adviser to Mortgage Resolution Partners. “And it is applicable to any kind of property, including a mortgage.” What matters, Hockett continued, is two things: is the entity paying fair value for the property, and is it for a legitimate public purpose?

Can there be any doubt that keeping people in their homes constitutes a legitimate public purpose? “This is a yoke around the American economy,” said Steven Gluckstern, an entrepreneur with a varied career in insurance and finance who is the chairman of Mortgage Resolution Partners. “When people are underwater, their behavior changes. They stop spending. There are 12 million homes that are underwater,” he added. “Is the answer to really just let them get foreclosed on? Or wait for housing prices to rise?” According to Gluckstern, the fact that the foreclosure crisis is continuing is precisely why housing prices aren’t rising — despite some of the lowest interest rates in history.

As for fair value, since the home has dropped dramatically in value, the mortgage is worth a lot less than its face value. On Wall Street, in fact, traders are buying securitized mortgage bonds at a steep discount — reflecting the true value of the mortgages they’re buying. Yet the homeowner remains saddled with a mortgage that is unrealistically high. The plan calls for the county to buy mortgages at a steep, but fair, discount to its face value, and then to offer the homeowner a new mortgage that reflects much, though not all, of that discount. (Fees and costs would be paid for by the spread.) The money to buy the mortgages would come from investors; indeed, Mortgage Resolution Partners is in the process of raising money.

The securitization industry is up in arms about this proposal. In late June, after the plan was leaked to Reuters, some 18 organizations, including the Association of Mortgage Investors, wrote a threatening letter to the San Bernardino board of supervisors claiming that the plan would inflict “significant harm” to homeowners in the county. For his part, Devereaux insists that no final decision has been made. But, he says, “this is the first idea that anyone has approached us with that has the potential to have a real impact on our economy.” Other cities are watching closely to see what happens in San Bernardino.

We’re four years into a housing crisis. Nothing has yet worked to stem the terrible tide of foreclosures. It’s time to give eminent domain a try.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni, who’s in Plover, Wisconsin:

Tammy Baldwin, who has a very real chance of becoming the first openly gay or lesbian person elected to the United States Senate, stood with a 73-year-old potato farmer in his fields here the other day and asked him: “How hot am I?”

For the previous half-hour, the farmer had been boastfully showing Baldwin, 50, his equipment: the sorting machine, the stacking machine. And now, in response to her question, he nudged his thermometer close to her. I do mean thermometer, an infrared one, with which he’d just determined that the temperature of the dirt on this scorching July afternoon was 136 degrees.

He took a reading of Baldwin’s skin, which was a crackling 101.

“Wow,” she said, repeating a syllable that was getting a thorough workout as she deftly played a social role as traditional as any: the attractive younger woman stroking the older man’s pride. Her sexual orientation was irrelevant.

Because he didn’t care about it? Or didn’t even know? I had just a few minutes to chat with him before she and a few aides, doing a campaign swing through rural Wisconsin, arrived, and I got the sense that he was familiar only with her politics, the populist tone of which he said he liked.

“And the lesbian part?” wasn’t a phrase I instantly blurted out. The lesbian part shouldn’t be the deciding factor. And to judge from what I observed while shadowing her one day last week, it won’t be.

Baldwin, a Democrat currently serving her seventh term in the House, won’t know until mid-August which of four Republican aspirants she’ll face and precisely what kind of fight she’s in for.

But I don’t think its outcome will be governed by whom and how she loves. Not in 2012. Not with all the change afoot.

Look at the last few weeks, even the last few days. The high-profile wedding in the news over the weekend was of the retiring Congressman Barney Frank and his male partner. The high-profile wedding the weekend before that was of the Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and his male partner.

A male hip-hop star just came out; a prominent pray-away-the-gay advocate just conceded that sexual orientation is Psalms-resistant; Google just announced that it would promote gay rights worldwide, even in countries where homosexual acts are now criminal.

That’s not to mention Anderson Cooper’s recent acknowledgment that he’s gay, which elicited more yawns than gasps. The reaction befit a world in which Ellen DeGeneres is a pitchwoman not only for CoverGirl but also for J.C. Penney, whose catalogs this year included same-sex couples.

The specific issue of same-sex marriage still provokes fierce disagreement. But even factoring that in, the gay rights movement inexorably closes in on its real goal, which is not — as some opponents believe — for everyone to be talking incessantly about homosexuality. Among ourselves we don’t talk incessantly about it, trust me. We talk about dinner, diets and, during a summer like this, air-conditioning. We’re hot all right, but in the same weary, sweaty sense as everyone else.

The goal is for talking about homosexuality to be largely unnecessary. The goal is for the presence, legitimacy and equal rights of gays to be givens.

In 1998, Baldwin became the first openly gay or lesbian non-incumbent candidate elected to Congress. Four years earlier, Wisconsinites in a different district re-elected Steve Gunderson, a longtime Republican congressman, after learning of his homosexuality. He retired after that term.

For most of Baldwin’s congressional career she was coupled, but the two women broke up in 2010. During an interview late last year, she confirmed for me that she was still single.

When I asked last week if that status had changed, she laughed: “During a U.S Senate campaign?” She didn’t mean that dating was politically risky. She meant it was time-consuming.

Before entering the Senate race, she had research done on her vulnerabilities. It suggested that her sexual orientation wouldn’t be a useful weapon in attacks against her, she said.

Only once as I shadowed her did it come up, when a supporter sought advice on how to discuss it with others. She told him to focus their attention on what the election was really about: economic opportunity, security and fairness.

Those were the main topics covered when she mingled with voters outside a Curves gym in the town of Friendship and, later, inside a pub in Nekoosa.

In Plover, during her meet-and-greet with the farmer, the conversation turned to spuds. He told her his services were always available — a phone call away — should she need tuber tutelage.

“Remember Dan Quayle,” he said, recalling how the former vice president never lived down his “potatoe” misspelling. “If you’ve got the wrong information, it can hit you real hard.”

How delicious. He surveyed the possible tripwires on her path into history, and all he saw were gratuitous vowels.

 

Dowd and Friedman

June 20, 2012

In “The Constant Wife” MoDo says if only “Sarge” had lived up to her nickname. Why was Dottie Sandusky, like the rest of the Penn State community, so oblivious?  Gee, MoDo, I don’t know.  Maybe those vast, rolling tracts of football cash?  The Moustache of Wisdom is beating his little tin drum about his fantasy of a “serious, centrist third-party challenger” again.  In “Wasting Warren Buffett” he says there is something seriously lacking in the current campaigns from President Obama and Mitt Romney.  Here’s MoDo, who’s in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania:

Her nickname is “Sarge.”

“I’m strict,” Dottie Sandusky told the court with a proud tilt of her chin. “I like for things to go in a certain way. We expect a lot from our kids.”

Yet the main question about Sarge is why she was so lax.

The 69-year-old grandmother, married to Jerry Sandusky for 45 years, “46 in September,” came to court on Tuesday while defense lawyers debated whether to risk putting her husband on the stand. The coach who excelled in defense has put up a negligible one in court.

Dottie, a small, pert woman with short gray hair and a lime-green sweater, arrived at the trial of her husband as an object of fascination. She embodies the grim mystery at the center of “this drama,” as one of her friends sardonically calls it: How could everyone in the community, including those who seemed to represent the highest ideals, like Dottie Sandusky and Joe Paterno, turn a blind eye to Jerry Sandusky’s aberrant and abhorrent behavior toward vulnerable boys? If the prosecution is right, he is an emotional sociopath who conducted a serial crime spree quite openly at Penn State and in his own home.

On the stand, Mrs. Sandusky saw no evil, heard no evil and spoke only a little evil — against the cherubic-looking boy, now a tightly coiled 28-year-old, who was the most intense rival for her husband’s attentions 15 years ago, getting what he called “creepy love letters” from his predatory “father figure.”

“He was very demanding,” she said of the boy. “And he was very conniving. And he wanted his way, and he didn’t listen a whole lot.”

The accuser had testified that on a trip to the Alamo Bowl in 1999, as Jerry threatened to send him home if he would not perform oral sex in the bathroom, Dottie had come to the edge of the bathroom and called out “What are you doing in there?” before disappearing again after a brief talk with her husband.

Dottie gave a different version. She said that they were staying in an efficiency apartment, with a cot for the boy. She came in one day and Jerry and the boy were in the bathroom area, clothed, having a fight because the boy was refusing to go to a football luncheon for which Sandusky had already bought a $50 ticket.

“He was yelling,” she said of her husband, adding: “I know Jerry was mad the way he looked. He said, ‘We did this for you. You’ve got to do this.’ ” She added with irritation that “we had to pay for his airline ticket; we had to pay for his food,” even though they had expenses for their “own” children and grandchildren.

She did not seem to find it odd that her husband was acting emotional, lavishing gifts and doting on a child “like his girlfriend,” as the grown-up accuser testified. (He noted that Mrs. Sandusky was “kind of cold,” treating the fatherless boys like they were “Jerry’s kids.”)

Mrs. Sandusky seemed to wilt a bit and steel herself as she was shown pictures of the fresh-faced boys who grew up into messed-up men, taken at the age when the abuse allegedly happened — handsome kids whose blue-collar working moms were thrilled to have the famous Jerry Sandusky take the boys on outings and overnights. As Dottie talked, her husband looked away from her, toward the pictures of the boys, for prolonged stretches.

Sounding a little acidic, as though she were describing a romantic rival, she said of one boy: “He was a charmer. He knew what to say and when to say it.”

She was dutifully loyal about her husband but did not express outrage about the charges.

Their life, she said, was “rough because Jerry, he was not around a lot.” When the young couple realized they couldn’t have children, they adopted six. He would come home at 6:30 p.m., “spend an hour or so with the kids, then disappear up to his study to work.”

Asked about the testimony of one accuser that she was in the house when he screamed for help, as Sandusky raped him in the basement, she said she never heard any yelling and denied, as the young man had suggested, that the basement must be soundproof.

Asked about her hearing by her husband’s lawyer, she replied: “I think it’s pretty good.”

She said she did notice some oddly clingy behavior by one boy, who ran across the room while they were watching TV to jump into a La-Z-Boy with Jerry, and who also ran across the gym at a wrestling match to hug Jerry.

Pressed by the prosecutor about those trips by her husband to the basement — the bearlike Sandusky would “crack” the back of the slight boys in bed, an ominous foreplay — she said primly: “He would go down and say good night,” adding, “I didn’t go down and tuck ’em in.”

I need a shower.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Watching this campaign unfold reaffirms how much it would have benefitted from a serious, centrist third-party challenger. It would have been so clarifying to have an independent voice calling out Mitt Romney for running a campaign that consists of decrying the last three and a half years of the Obama presidency, while offering to reinstate the very same failed policies that made the eight years of George W. Bush a disaster that President Obama has spent most of his time cleaning up. And it would have been equally clarifying to have an independent challenger calling out Obama for failing to put a credible, specific economic plan on the table — at the scale of our problem — but relying instead on a campaign that amounts to a series of discrete appeals to each of the Democratic Party constituencies. It feels like a ground war with no air cover.

But there will be no third-party candidate, so the only hope is getting Obama to raise his game. To do that, the president needs to recognize just how badly he wasted Warren Buffett — using him for a two-week, wedge-issue sugar high.

Obama got Buffett to endorse the “Buffett Rule” — a minimum tax rate of 30 percent for any individual who makes more than $1 million a year so that all millionaires have to pay a higher tax rate than their secretaries. The plan had no chance of passing, would have made only a small dent in the deficit and was rightly decried by experts as a gimmick that only diverted attention from what we really need: comprehensive tax reform that can substantially raise revenue in a fairer manner. The Buffett Rule has largely faded away.

What a waste of Warren Buffett’s credibility.

Buffett is a businessman out to make a profit. But he is respected by many as a straight-talking nonpartisan — someone who can “call the game.” What the president should have done is follow the advice of the Princeton University economist and former Fed Vice Chairman Alan Blinder, namely lay out a specific “three-step rehab program for our nation’s fiscal policy.” Call it the Obama Plan; it should combine a near-term stimulus on job-creating infrastructure, a phase-in, as the economy improves, of “something that resembles the 10-year Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan — which would pay for the stimulus 15-20 times over” and a specific plan to “bend the health care cost-curve downward.” Obama has already offered the first; he still has not risen to the second and the third would be an easy extension of his own health care plan.

Obama needs a second look from independents who could determine this election. To attract that second look will require a credible, detailed recovery plan that gets voters to react in three ways: 1) “Now that sounds like it will address the problem, and both parties are going to feel the pain.” 2) “That plan seems fair: the rich pay more, but everyone pays something.” 3) “Wow, Obama did something hard and risky. He got out ahead of Congress and Romney. That’s leadership. I’m giving him a second look.”

I’d bet anything that if the president staked out such an Obama Plan, Buffett and a lot of other business leaders would endorse it. It would give the G.O.P. a real problem. After all, what would help Obama more right now: Repeating over and over the Buffett Rule gimmick or campaigning from now to Election Day by starting every stump speech saying: “Folks, I have an economic plan for America’s future that Warren Buffett and other serious business leaders endorse — and Mitt Romney doesn’t.”

Obama loyalists often say: “Those Republicans are so bad. They’ve tried to block us at every turn.” Yes, the G.O.P. has tried to stymie Obama; it’s been highly destructive. But the people who keep pointing that out don’t have an answer for the simplest next question: Why have they gotten away with it?

My view: It’s because too many Americans in the center-left/center-right do not feel in their guts that Obama is leading — is offering an economic plan at the scale of the problem that has a chance for bipartisan support and that makes them want to get up out of their chairs and do battle. Our situation is different from four years ago; people want to know the president has a plan for getting out of this mess.

When the Grand Bargain talks with John Boehner fell apart, Obama retreated to his base when he should have rallied the center by laying out — in detail — the Grand Bargain the country needs. That would have forced Romney to speak in detail about his plan — the Paul Ryan plan — and reveal it for what it is: a radical plan that few Americans would embrace if they understood it.

Then people would see a real choice: a tough-minded-but-centrist plan with real bipartisan support versus a radical plan to gut Medicare, give more tax cuts to the already wealthy and drastically shrink discretionary spending so eventually nothing is left for education, veterans, roads, research, the F.B.I. or the poor.

And the morning after that happens — when Warren Buffett endorses the Obama Plan, not just the Buffett Gimmick — the president will have his mojo back.

 

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

May 20, 2012

Oh, fergawdsake.  In “A Little Bit Indian” The Pasty Little Putz tries to ‘splain to us why Elizabeth Warren’s embarrassment is a scandal for academia.  Of course he has nothing at all to say about Marco Rubio and his little re-invention problems.  Of course, IOKIYAR.  In “Here Comes Nobody” MoDo says suffocating debate and resisting modernity, the Catholic Church shrinks its appeal.  Rather like the Republicans, not that I’m so sure that they should welcome the comparison.  The Moustache of Wisdom asks “Do You Want The Good News First?” and says a visit to the innovation hubs of Seattle and Silicon Valley stirred both excitement and dread. Here’s why.  Mr. Kristof also has a question:  “Are You Safe on That Sofa?”  He says flame retardants illuminate everything that’s wrong with our money-driven politics.  Mr. Bruni, in “Of Bile and Billionaires,” says a tycoon’s ditched plan is a scary vision of meanness run amok in politics today.  It’s interesting that the Times is playing rather fast and loose with its comments today.  They’re closed on The Putz and MoDo after some comments for each, unavailable for Mr. Kristof, and available for The Moustache of Wisdom and Mr. Bruni.  I wonder what it is that they don’t want to hear?  Here’s The Putz:

“I still have a picture on my mantel and it is a picture my mother had before that — a picture of my grandfather. And my Aunt Bea has walked by that picture at least a thousand times [and] remarked that he — her father, my papaw — had high cheekbones like all of the Indians do. … Being Native American has been part of my story, I guess, since the day I was born.”

— Elizabeth Warren, Democratic Senate candidate in Massachusetts, trying to explain why she identified herself as a “minority” law professor in the 1980s and 1990s.

IT happens in a lot of American families. My maternal great-grandfather was born on a Maine island in the 1880s, in the days when Penobscot Indians still rode birch-bark canoes from their inland reservation to the coast for their annual clambake. I always had the definite idea that he had Indian blood himself — maybe Penobscot, maybe Abenaki, maybe another New England tribe. In the photographs I have of him, he certainly looks the part, with a profile suited for an Indian Head penny.

My great-grandfather left an autobiography behind, though (that’s how I know about the canoes and the clambake), and I went back to it recently and couldn’t find even a hint of an Indian connection: just a typical old New England genealogy, mostly English families with some Irish woven in. This would have been immensely disappointing to my 10-year-old self, since I can remember telling friends in American history class, with an air of authority, that I was almost certainly one sixteenth Native American, or at the very least one thirty-second.

It seems that Elizabeth Warren may turn out to be similarly disappointed, after the New England Genealogical Society acknowledged last week that there’s no firm evidence of her great-great-grandmother being Cherokee.

That supposed ancestral tie was what inspired the professor-turned-Senate candidate to identify as an ethnic minority in law school directories early in her career. More important, it was what inspired The Harvard Crimson to refer to Warren as Harvard Law School’s “one tenured minority woman” and The Fordham Law Review to cite her as Harvard Law’s “first woman of color” during the mid-1990s debates over faculty diversity.

Now that same claim — and her clumsy, “my grandfather had high cheekbones” attempts to defend it — has become perhaps the biggest obstacle in her quest to reclaim Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat for liberalism.

The whole story has a tragicomic, Nathaniel Hawthorne meets “Curb Your Enthusiasm” feel. It’s easy to imagine Warren originally checking a box more on a whim than out of any deep determination to self-identify as Cherokee. (She didn’t use the minority-applicant program when applying to Rutgers, where she attended law school, and she identified as “white” during an early teaching job at the University of Texas.) Then it’s easy to imagine her embarrassment when the diversity wars of the 1990s made that whimsical choice something from which she couldn’t dissociate herself without intense public awkwardness. Those wars faded, she no longer listed herself as a Native American, she thought the whole thing was behind her … until she went into politics, where no secret stays buried.

The appropriate response to such a tale is probably sympathy rather than scorn. What does deserve scorn, though, is the academic culture in which an extremely distant connection to a Cherokee ancestor ends up being touted by a law school as proof of its commitment to diversity.

A diverse faculty and campus can be a laudable goal. But the point is to build academic communities that actually contain a wide variety of experiences and perspectives, not to wax self-congratulatory because you’ve met a set of ethnic quotas. The story of Elizabeth Warren, “woman of color,” represents a reductio ad absurdum of the latter tendency, which has been all too prevalent in elite universities — giving us affirmative-action programs that benefit West Indian immigrants more than the descendants of slaves, and faculties that include a wider range of skin tones than of political and religious views.

The irony is that Warren herself probably did make Harvard more diverse, since she grew up the daughter of a janitor in Oklahoma — not a typical background, to put it mildly, for Ivy League students and faculty today. But under the academy’s cramped definitions, it was her grandfather’s Cherokee cheekbones, not her blue-collar roots, that led to her citation as a supposed trailblazer.

That isn’t a serious approach to academic diversity, and in an emerging majority-minority America (already visible in the latest Census birth statistics) where almost everyone will be 1/8 something-or-other, it will be an increasingly untenable one as well.

For many colleges and universities, then, this contretemps represents a timely gift: a chance to think anew about these issues, before the pursuit of a cosmetic diversity leaves them looking as ridiculous as poor Elizabeth Warren does today.

Here’s MoDo:

I always liked that the name of my religion was also an adjective meaning all-embracing.

I was a Catholic and I wanted to be catholic, someone engaged in a wide variety of things. As James Joyce wrote in “Finnegans Wake:” “Catholic means ‘Here comes everybody.’ ”

So it makes me sad to see the Catholic Church grow so uncatholic, intent on loyalty testing, mind control and heresy hunting. Rather than all-embracing, the church hierarchy has become all-constricting.

It was tough to top the bizarre inquisition of self-sacrificing American nuns pushed by the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law. Law, the former head of the Boston archdiocese, fled to a plush refuge in Rome in 2002 after it came out that he protected priests who molested thousands of children.

But the craziness continued when an American priest, renowned for his TV commentary from Rome on popes and personal morality, admitted last week that he had fathered a child with a mistress.

The Rev. Thomas Williams belongs to the Legionaires of Christ, the order founded by the notorious Mexican priest Marcial Maciel Degollado, a pal of Pope John Paul II who died peppered with accusations that he sexually abused seminarians and fathered several children and abused some of them.

The latest kooky kerfuffle was sparked by the invitation to Kathleen Sebelius, the health and human services secretary, to speak at a graduation ceremony at Georgetown University on Friday. The silver-haired former Kansas governor is a practicing Catholic with a husband and son who graduated from Georgetown. But because she fought to get a federal mandate for health insurance coverage of contraceptives and morning-after pills, including at Catholic schools and hospitals, Sebelius is on the hit list of a conservative Catholic group in Virginia, the Cardinal Newman Society, which militates to bar speakers at Catholic schools who support gay rights or abortion rights.

The Society for Truth and Justice, a fringe Christian anti-abortion group, compared Sebelius to Himmler, and protesters showed up on campus to yell at her for being, as one screamed, “a murderer.”

“Remember, Georgetown has no neo-Nazi clubs or skinhead clubs on campus, nor should they,” Bill Donohue, the Catholic League president, said on Fox News. “But they have two — two! — pro-abortion clubs at Georgetown University. Now they’re bringing in Kathleen Sebelius. They wouldn’t bring in an anti-Semite, nor should they. They wouldn’t bring in a racist, nor should they. But they’re bringing in a pro-abortion champion, and they shouldn’t.”

Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl called the invitation “shocking” and upbraided the Georgetown president, John DeGioia. But DeGioia, who so elegantly defended the Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke against Rush Limbaugh’s nasty epithets, stood fast against dogmatic censorship.

Speaking to the graduates, Sebelius evoked J.F.K.’s speech asserting that religious bodies should not seek to impose their will through politics. She said that contentious debate is a strength of this country, adding that in some other places, “a leader delivers an edict and it goes into effect. There’s no debate, no criticism, no second-guessing.”

Just like the Vatican.

Twenty-eight years ago, weighing a run for president, Mario Cuomo gave a speech at Notre Dame in which he deftly tried to explain how officials could remain good Catholics while going against church dictums in shaping public policy.

“The American people need no course in philosophy or political science or church history to know that God should not be made into a celestial party chairman,” he said.

I called Cuomo to see if, as his son Andrew weighs running for president, he felt the church had grown less tolerant.

“If the church were my religion, I would have given it up a long time ago,” he said. “All the mad and crazy popes we’ve had through history, decapitating the husbands of women they’d taken. All the terrible things the church has done. Christ is my religion, the church is not.

“If they make the mistake of saying that a politician has to put the church before the Constitution on abortion or other issues, there will be no senators or presidents or any other Catholics in government. The church would be wiser to take the path laid out for us by Kennedy than the path laid out for us by Santorum.”

Absolute intolerance is always a sign of uncertainty and panic. Why do you have to hunt down everyone unless you’re weak? The church doesn’t seem to care if its members’ beliefs are based on faith or fear, conviction or coercion. But what is the quality of a belief that exists simply because it’s enforced?

“To be narrowing the discussion and instilling fear in people seems to be exactly the opposite of what’s called for these days,” says the noted religion writer Kenneth Briggs. “All this foot-stomping just diminishes the church’s credibility even more.”

This is America. We don’t hunt heresies here. We welcome them.

Next up is The Moustache of Wisdom:

I’ve spent the last week traveling to two of America’s greatest innovation hubs — Silicon Valley and Seattle — and the trip left me feeling a combination of exhilaration and dread. The excitement comes from not only seeing the stunning amount of innovation emerging from the ground up, but from seeing the new tools coming on stream that are, as Amazon.com’s founder, Jeff Bezos, put it to me, “eliminating all the gatekeepers” — making it easier and cheaper than ever to publish your own book, start your own company and chase your own dream. Never have individuals been more empowered, and we’re still just at the start of this trend.

“I see the elimination of gatekeepers everywhere,” said Bezos. Thanks to cloud computing for the masses, anyone anywhere can for a tiny hourly fee now rent the most powerful computing and storage facilities on Amazon’s “cloud” to test any algorithm or start any company or publish any book. Start-ups can even send all their inventory to Amazon, and it will do all the fulfillment and delivery — and even gift wrap your invention before shipping it to your customers.

This is leading to an explosion of new firms and voices. “Sixteen of the top 100 best sellers on Kindle today were self-published,” said Bezos. That means no agent, no publisher, no paper — just an author, who gets most of the royalties, and Amazon and the reader. It is why, Bezos adds, the job of the company leader now is changing fast: “You have to think of yourself not as a designer but as a gardener” — seeding, nurturing, inspiring, cultivating the ideas coming from below, and then making sure people execute them.

The leading companies driving this trend — Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Apple, LinkedIn, Zynga and Twitter — are all headquartered and listed in America. Facebook, which didn’t exist nine years ago, just went public at a valuation of nearly $105 billion — two weeks after buying a company for $1 billion, Instagram, which didn’t exist 18 months ago. So why any dread?

It’s because we’re leaving an era of some 50 years’ duration in which to be a president, a governor, a mayor or a college president was, on balance, to give things away to people; and we’re entering an era — no one knows for how long — in which to be a president, a governor, a mayor or a college president will be, on balance, to take things away from people. And if we don’t make this transition in a really smart way — by saying, “Here are the things that made us great, that spawned all these dynamic companies” — and make sure that we’re preserving as much of that as we can, this trend will not spread as it should. Maybe we could grow as a country without a plan. But we dare not cut without a plan. We can really do damage. I can lose weight quickly if I cut off both arms, but it will surely reduce my job prospects.

What we must preserve is that magic combination of cutting-edge higher education, government-funded research and immigration of high-I.Q. risk-takers. They are, in combination, America’s golden goose, laying all these eggs in Seattle and Silicon Valley. China has it easy right now. It just needs to do the jobs that we have already invented, just more cheaply. America has to invent the new jobs — and that requires preserving the goose.

Microsoft still does more than 80 percent of its research work in America. But that is becoming harder and harder to sustain when deadlock on Capitol Hill prevents it from acquiring sufficient visas for the knowledge workers it needs that America’s universities are not producing enough of. The number of filled jobs at Microsoft went up this year from 40,000 to 40,500 at its campus outside Seattle, yet its list of unfilled jobs went from 4,000 to almost 5,000. Eventually, it will have no choice but to shift more research to other countries.

It is terrifying to see how budget-cutting in California is slowly reducing what was once one of the crown jewels of American education — the University of California system — to a shadow of its old self. And I fear the cutting is just beginning. As one community leader in Seattle remarked to me, governments basically do three things: “Medicate, educate and incarcerate.” And various federal and state mandates outlaw cuts in medicating and incarcerating, so much of the money is coming out of educating. Unfortunately, even to self-publish, you still need to know how to write. The same is happening to research. A new report just found that federal investment in biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health has decreased almost every year since 2003.

When we shrink investments in higher education and research, “we shoot ourselves in both feet,” remarked K.R. Sridhar, founder of Bloom Energy, the Silicon Valley fuel-cell company. “Our people become less skilled, so you are shooting yourself in one foot. And the smartest people from around the world have less reason to come here for the quality education, so you are shooting yourself in the other foot.”

The Labor Department reported two weeks ago that even with our high national unemployment rate, employers advertised 3.74 million job openings in March. That is, in part, about a skills mismatch. In an effort to overcome that, and help fill in the financing gap for higher education in Washington State, Boeing and Microsoft recently supported a plan whereby the state, which was cutting funding to state universities but also not letting them raise tuition, would allow the colleges to gradually raise rates and the two big companies would each kick in $25 million for scholarships for students wanting to study science and technology or health care to ensure that they have the workers they need.

This is not a call to ignore the hard budget choices we have to make. It’s a call to make sure that we give education, immigration and research their proper place in the discussion.

“Empowering the individual and underinvesting in the collective is our great macro danger as a society,” said the pollster Craig Charney. Indeed, it is. Investment in our collective institutions and opportunities is the only way to mitigate the staggering income inequalities that can arise from a world where Facebook employees can become billionaires overnight, while the universities that produce them are asked to slash billions overnight. As I’ve said, nations that don’t invest in the future tend not to do well there.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

If you want a case study of everything that is wrong with money politics, this is it.

Chances are that if you’re sitting on a couch right now, it contains flame retardants. This will probably do no good if your house catches fire — although it may release toxic smoke. There is growing concern that the chemicals are hazardous, with evidence mounting of links to cancer, fetal impairment and reproductive problems.

For years, I’ve written about this type of chemical, endocrine disruptors, but The Chicago Tribune has just published a devastating investigative series called “Playing With Fire” that breaks vast new ground. It is superb journalism.

It turns out that our furniture first became full of flame retardants because of the tobacco industry, according to internal cigarette company documents examined by The Tribune. A generation ago, tobacco companies were facing growing pressure to produce fire-safe cigarettes, because so many house fires started with smoldering cigarettes. So tobacco companies mounted a surreptitious campaign for flame retardant furniture, rather than safe cigarettes, as the best way to reduce house fires.

The documents show that cigarette lobbyists secretly organized the National Association of State Fire Marshals and then guided its agenda so that it pushed for flame retardants in furniture. The fire marshals seem to have been well intentioned, but utterly manipulated.

An advocacy group called Citizens for Fire Safety later pushed for laws requiring fire retardants in furniture. It describes itself as “a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders.”

But Citizens for Fire Safety has only three members, which also happen to be the three major companies that manufacture flame retardants: Albemarle Corporation, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura Corporation.

Citizens for Fire Safety paid a prominent Seattle physician, Dr. David Heimbach, who testified in some states in favor of flame retardants. Dr. Heimbach, the former president of the American Burn Association, told lawmakers stories of children who had burned to death on cushioning that lacked flame retardants.

According to The Tribune, Dr. Heimbach made these stories up. Dr. Heimbach told me that the stories were real, with details changed to protect the survivors’ privacy. He said he testified for flame retardants because he believed in them, not because of money he received.

The problem with flame retardants is that they migrate into dust that is ingested, particularly by children playing on the floor. R. Thomas Zoeller, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts, told me that while there have been many studies on animals, there is still uncertainty about the impact of flame retardants on humans. But he said that some retardants were very similar to banned PCBs, which have been linked to everything from lower I.Q. to diabetes, and that it was reasonable to expect certain flame retardants to have similar consequences.

“Despite all that we have learned about PCBs, we are making the same mistakes with flame retardants,” he said.

Linda Birnbaum, the top toxicologist at the National Institutes of Health, put it to me this way: “If flame retardants really provided fire safety, there would be reason for them in certain circumstances, like on an airplane. But there’s growing evidence that they don’t provide safety and may increase harm.”

Arlene Blum, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, told me, “For pregnant women, they can alter brain development in the fetus.” Her research decades ago led to the removal of a flame retardant, chlorinated Tris, from children’s pajamas. But chlorinated Tris is still used in couches and nursing pillows (without any warning labels).

The European Union has banned one common flame retardant, Deca BDE, and has generally been more willing to regulate endocrine disruptors than the United States. Why the difference?

“The money is jingling,” notes Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat of New Jersey. Lautenberg has introduced legislation, the Safe Chemicals Act, that would tighten controls — but it has gotten nowhere.

It’s not easy for a democracy to regulate technical products like endocrine disruptors that may offer great benefits as well as complex risks, especially when the hazards remain uncertain. A generation ago, Big Tobacco played the system like a violin, and now Big Chem is doing the same thing.

This campaign season, you’ll hear fervent denunciations of “burdensome government regulation.” When you do, think of the other side of the story: your home is filled with toxic flame retardants that serve no higher purpose than enriching three companies. The lesson is that we need not only safer couches but also a political system less distorted by toxic money.

A correction: My column on Thursday misstated the hometown of Paulina Puskala. It is Marquette, Mich.

Last but not least, we have Mr. Bruni:

Now we know what, in today’s warped political economy, $10 million buys you: a hit job spectacular not only in its cynicism but also in its idiocy.

As Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg reported last week in The Times, a politically agitated billionaire (these days, there don’t seem to be any other kind) was considering forking over that much for an advertising campaign that would have dusted off the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and tried to fashion him anew into a noose for Barack Obama.

But while such a campaign would have been eaten up by many established Obama opponents already bloated with hostility toward him, it would have nauseated most swing voters, who are poised to decide the presidential contest of 2012. Beyond which, these voters have had three and a half years of Obama’s actual presidency, as opposed to his bright promises and others’ dark prophecies, to decide whether he’s a closet black radical, as the advertising campaign would have insinuated, or a “metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln,” which is how it would have described his self-presentation in 2008.

A moment’s pause and a measure of sorely needed levity are in order, to contemplate what a metrosexual Abe Lincoln might look like. Tidier beard, for sure. Better manscaping all in all. Maybe some mole removal. Lose the top hat. Less Potomac, more Provincetown.

But back to business: these Wright ads, now shelved forevermore, would more likely have buoyed than torpedoed the president, because swing voters — who swung for Obama once already — don’t want to be told that they were duped in 2008. They still have some emotional investment in his narrative, and in many cases maintain affection and respect for the man himself. That’s why his re-election prospects and approval ratings aren’t as bad as they might be, given our prolonged economic doldrums and the unpopularity of health care reform.

And he’s a cooler, more charismatic cat than Mitt Romney, whose wisest supporters know that a contest stressing jobs is better for their candidate than a contest stressing personality and emotions.

Joe Ricketts, the billionaire who contemplated a wrongful use of Wright, apparently didn’t get that memo. Perhaps he was distracted by the baseball team his family owns, the Chicago Cubs, or his bison, herds of which he keeps in Wyoming. Rich people collect the darnedest things.

In any case he went rogue, like a missile or a Palin, and in doing so illustrated two disturbing, corrosive dynamics in our political culture right now.

The first is the seemingly metastasizing ranks of magnates with itchy millions and the desire to single-handedly bankroll certain candidates or initiatives. They’re exemplified by Sheldon Adelson, who saw no better use for his wealth than stringing out Newt & Callista’s Execrable Adventure long past the point of box-office viability.

And they’re emboldened, perhaps, by a freewheeling climate around campaign spending right now. In the wake of Citizens United, super PACs could turn out to be the new Gulfstream jets. No tycoon is complete without one.

It’s fascinating how things have evolved and spun out of control. In the quaint old days of Lee Atwater and his disciples, a candidate’s team nudged outside players to do dirty work that it didn’t want its own fingerprints on. The Ricketts saga raises the specter of outside players actually volunteering for even dirtier work that a candidate’s team has no desire for and can’t wrestle control of. The Swift Boat has a motor and mind of its own.

And what nasty waves it makes. That’s the second issue here. A memo prepared for Ricketts expressed frustration that voters “still aren’t ready to hate this president.” Note the word choice in that thought and the goal telegraphed by it. Voters aren’t to be persuaded that Obama lacks the proper skills and plan. They’re to be pumped full of unalloyed disdain for him.

THAT’S how too many campaigns and legislative battles are waged these days: with bile instead of reason, catcalls in place of conversation, and the basest of instincts.

Your opponent isn’t just ill informed. He or she is an idiot.

Your opponent isn’t just wrongheaded. He or she is evil incarnate.

Under Mitt Romney’s leadership, Bain Capital didn’t just close a Kansas City steel mill. “Like a vampire,” it “sucked the life” from the enterprise and those involved in it, according to a former worker whom the Obama campaign chose to showcase in a TV ad it ran on Wednesday night.

There’s a take-no-prisoners approach that does take prisoners: all of us, incarcerated in a system whose crippling partisanship is fueled in part by the hyperbolic language, bellicose tactics and Manichaean tone of candidates and their handlers.

And while there was slander aplenty in our politics past, it wasn’t amplified quite as loudly or spread quite as ferociously as it is by the fight club of today’s hyped-up news outlets, many of which run on the adrenaline of insults and recruit partisan voices to beckon partisan audiences. Turning to Fox News or the Daily Caller, unshakable conservatives can marinate in their contempt for liberals. Turning to MSNBC or the Daily Kos, unshakable liberals can repay the favor.

And the swing voters are turned off. Many of them recoil from meanness run amok and cynicism on steroids, which is why Ricketts’s redeployment of Wright would have been such folly. They want someone to make them feel calmer and more confident, not anxious and gross.

Worth noting: Rob Portman, the Ohio senator mentioned frequently these days as a front-runner for the Republican vice-presidential nomination, won his 2010 race, in a state whose other senator is a Democrat, by 18 points. Yes, it was an excellent year for Republicans, but not quite that excellent for all of them.

He didn’t do it with runaway charisma (though a financial advantage certainly helped). He did it in his steady, subdued manner. In fact the rap on him as a potential running mate for Romney is that he’s too boring.

Maybe so. But there are clearly voters out there who are interested in turning down the heat on our political discourse. Flamethrowers like Ricketts are the last thing they want. And the last thing we need.

Keller and Krugman

April 2, 2012

Mr. Keller has decided to look at “Tyler and Trayvon.”  He says the tragic deaths of two teenagers raise questions about hate-crime laws and our urge to fix the human race.  Want a taste?  He says “The shooting of Trayvon Martin has become a cause before it is even a case.”  Way to miss the point completely, Mr. Keller.  The shooting of Trayvon Martin is a cause precisely because it is NOT a case.  And this dude was the executive editor of the New York Effing Times…  Prof. Krugman looks at “Pink Slime Economics” and says the Republican budget, with its secret plans to close mystery loopholes, may be the most fraudulent ever.  Here’s the former Executive Editor strutting his stuff:

In 2009 President Obama signed a federal bias crimes law named for the victims of two gruesome 1998 atrocities: the young gay man who was tortured, lashed to a fence and left to die; and the black man chained to the back of a pickup by white supremacists and dragged until he was dismembered. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act joined a 40-year accumulation of statutes declaring that crimes committed with a mind full of racial spite or anti-Semitism or homophobic hatred should be punished more severely than identical crimes committed for greed or vengeance.

Today the notion is embedded in our culture. Almost every state has some variety of hate crime law. The most recent F.B.I. count, for 2010, reports 6,628 “criminal incidents” involving bias — instances where local authorities judged that the offender was motivated by hatred of a particular group. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld disparate penalties for bias crimes in 1993. The A.C.L.U., after years of resisting, endorsed a hate crime bill in 2005.

But the fact that it is constitutional and commonplace does not quiet the nagging sense that hate crime legislation resembles something from an Orwell dystopia. Horrific crimes deserve stern justice, but don’t we want to be careful about criminalizing a defect of character? Because our founders believed that democracy requires great latitude for dissent, America, virtually alone in the developed world, protects the right to speak or publish the most odious points of view. And yet the government is authorized to punish you for thinking those vile things, if you think them in the course of committing a crime.

The issue is back with us thanks to the heartbreaking deaths of two teenagers. One is Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate surreptitiously, briefly, video-streamed him kissing another man. The other is Trayvon Martin, the black Florida youngster shot dead by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, was convicted not only of invading Clementi’s privacy and intimidating him, but of acting with an anti-gay bias that could add up to 10 years of prison to his sentence. The shooter in the Trayvon Martin case, George Zimmerman, has not been charged with anything, but politicians are already slinging the h-word.

If the idea of criminalizing hatred makes you queasy, as I think it should, these two cases will not settle your stomach.

Anyone who followed the Rutgers trial closely — or read Ian Parker’s absorbing investigation of the two roommates in The New Yorker — is likely to conclude that Ravi is arrogant, mouthy and insensitive, but not a malicious homophobe. Clementi was an openly gay, socially awkward, complicated 18-year-old, who killed himself for reasons we don’t know. My reading of the case is that the jury seized on those handy bias statutes in a clumsy attempt to punish somebody for a death that remains unexplained. It’s not a great reach to say that Ravi faces up to 10 years in prison for being a jerk.

The shooting of Trayvon Martin has become a cause before it is even a case. It’s natural to admire the resolute grace of his grieving parents and to endorse their demand for answers Florida authorities have been slow to provide. It’s commendable to shine the lamp of shame on Florida’s absurdly permissive gun laws. (This, remember, is the state that tried last year to make it a crime for doctors to talk to patients about the dangers of guns in the home.) But fashioning a narrative from the hate-crimes textbook — bellowing analogies to the racist nightmares of Birmingham and Selma, as the reliably rabble-rousing Reverend Sharpton has done — is just political opportunism. This is the kind of demagoguery that could prejudice a prosecution, or mobilize a mob. Is it not creepy, by the way, that Spike Lee was tweeting the suspected home address of George Zimmerman? As if to say, “Go get him!” (Lee sent apologies and a check to the elderly couple who were scared from their home because, oops, the tweet gave the wrong address. But apparently it’s O.K. to terrorize Zimmerman.)

If the trial of Dharun Ravi illustrates how readily hate crime laws can be abused by juries, the death of Trayvon Martin shows how easily they become pitchforks for showboating politicians.

The anguishing cases of Tyler and Trayvon sent me back to the earlier debates over hate crimes. It is an abundant literature packed with historical analogies, philosophical hair-splitting, political posturing and interesting digressions.

Many of the justifications for anti-hate laws seem to me to fall short: bias crimes terrorize more than the immediate victim; yes, but so does a mugger who frequents a particular neighborhood. We must protect the most vulnerable; fine, then why not assign extra penalties for criminals who prey on the poor, children, or — as a few prosecutors have done — the elderly? Racism and other prejudices are especially offensive motives; worse than sadism, or pedophilia?

Back in 2001, Heidi M. Hurd, a professor who comingles law and philosophy, wrote an article entitled “Why Liberals Should Hate ‘Hate Crime Legislation.’ ” The thesis sounded contrarian; hate crime laws evolved out of a great liberal cause — civil rights — and have been propelled by activists and politicians most of us would call liberal. Hurd, though she is a Democrat, was referring not to the contemporary political left but to traditional, John-Locke-and-John-Stuart-Mill liberalism, which holds that the state is licensed to temper bad behavior, not to perfect human nature. Hate crime laws, she wrote, crossed that line: “The law now regulates not only what we do, but who we are.”

There is nothing novel about the law taking into account a criminal’s state of mind; one of the prerequisites for a conviction under common law is “mens rea” — a guilty mind, malice aforethought, criminal intent. The law also recognizes gradations of guilty purpose. A premeditated killing is more punishable than one committed in the heat of the moment, which is worse than a killing that results from negligence. New York law compounds the punishment if you kill someone to prevent him from being a witness.

The distinction Hurd makes — convincingly, I think — is that when you penalize intent you are punishing matters of choice. One can choose not to pull the trigger, not to throw the rock, not to steal the purse.

“You can’t choose not to be prejudiced or biased — at least not willy-nilly, on the spot,” she told me, when I called her the other day at the University of Illinois. “We pass moral judgments all the time against bigots and chauvinists and homophobes and so forth. But this is a question not of what we should morally blame people for, but of what we should deprive them of liberty for.”

In her criminal law class, Hurd teaches the cases of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, and says that every time she confronts those monstrous crimes a part of her wonders, “Why don’t we use the power of the state to make people less evil?” But, as she points out, those were both crimes eligible for the death penalty. “What are you going to do, kill somebody twice?”

In most cases, hate crime laws take offenses that would carry more modest sentences — assault, vandalism — and ratchet up the penalty two or three times because we know, or think we know, what evil disposition lurked in the offender’s mind. Then we pat ourselves on the back. As if none of us, pure and righteous citizens, ever entertained a racist thought or laughed at a homophobic slur.

Bias laws are widely accepted. They are understandable. They are probably here to stay. But they seem to me a costly form of sanctimony.

I suppose if you’re an isolated, rich, white, male MOTU bias laws can be seen as santimonious.  But that statement tells us a great deal about Mr. Keller, more than I really cared to learn.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

The big bad event of last week was, of course, the Supreme Court hearing on health reform. In the course of that hearing it became clear that several of the justices, and possibly a majority, are political creatures pure and simple, willing to embrace any argument, no matter how absurd, that serves the interests of Team Republican.

But we should not allow events in the court to completely overshadow another, almost equally disturbing spectacle. For on Thursday Republicans in the House of Representatives passed what was surely the most fraudulent budget in American history.

And when I say fraudulent, I mean just that. The trouble with the budget devised by Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, isn’t just its almost inconceivably cruel priorities, the way it slashes taxes for corporations and the rich while drastically cutting food and medical aid to the needy. Even aside from all that, the Ryan budget purports to reduce the deficit — but the alleged deficit reduction depends on the completely unsupported assertion that trillions of dollars in revenue can be found by closing tax loopholes.

And we’re talking about a lot of loophole-closing. As Howard Gleckman of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center points out, to make his numbers work Mr. Ryan would, by 2022, have to close enough loopholes to yield an extra $700 billion in revenue every year. That’s a lot of money, even in an economy as big as ours. So which specific loopholes has Mr. Ryan, who issued a 98-page manifesto on behalf of his budget, said he would close?

None. Not one. He has, however, categorically ruled out any move to close the major loophole that benefits the rich, namely the ultra-low tax rates on income from capital. (That’s the loophole that lets Mitt Romney pay only 14 percent of his income in taxes, a lower tax rate than that faced by many middle-class families.)

So what are we to make of this proposal? Mr. Gleckman calls it a “mystery meat budget,” but he’s being unfair to mystery meat. The truth is that the filler modern food manufacturers add to their products may be disgusting — think pink slime — but it nonetheless has nutritional value. Mr. Ryan’s empty promises don’t. You should think of those promises, instead, as a kind of throwback to the 19th century, when unregulated corporations bulked out their bread with plaster of paris and flavored their beer with sulfuric acid.

Come to think of it, that’s precisely the policy era Mr. Ryan and his colleagues are trying to bring back.

So the Ryan budget is a fraud; Mr. Ryan talks loudly about the evils of debt and deficits, but his plan would actually make the deficit bigger even as it inflicted huge pain in the name of deficit reduction. But is his budget really the most fraudulent in American history? Yes, it is.

To be sure, we’ve had irresponsible and/or deceptive budgets in the past. Ronald Reagan’s budgets relied on voodoo, on the claim that cutting taxes on the rich would somehow lead to an explosion of economic growth. George W. Bush’s budget officials liked to play bait and switch, low-balling the cost of tax cuts by pretending that they were only temporary, then demanding that they be made permanent. But has any major political figure ever premised his entire fiscal platform not just on totally implausible spending projections but on claims that he has a secret plan to raise trillions of dollars in revenue, a plan that he refuses to share with the public?

What’s going on here? The answer, presumably, is that this is what happens when extremists gain complete control of a party’s discourse: all the rules get thrown out the window. Indeed, the hard right’s grip on the G.O.P. is now so strong that the party is sticking with Mr. Ryan even though it’s paying a significant political price for his assault on Medicare.

Now, the House Republican budget isn’t about to become law as long as President Obama is sitting in the White House. But it has been endorsed by Mr. Romney. And even if Mr. Obama is reelected, the fraudulence of this budget has important implications for future political negotiations.

Bear in mind that the Obama administration spent much of 2011 trying to negotiate a so-called Grand Bargain with Republicans, a bipartisan plan for deficit reduction over the long term. Those negotiations ended up breaking down, and a minor journalistic industry has emerged as reporters try to figure out how the breakdown occurred and who was responsible.

But what we learn from the latest Republican budget is that the whole pursuit of a Grand Bargain was a waste of time and political capital. For a lasting budget deal can only work if both parties can be counted on to be both responsible and honest — and House Republicans have just demonstrated, as clearly as anyone could wish, that they are neither.

Many of us have known that for years.

Brooks and Krugman

March 30, 2012

Bobo is concern trolling again.  In “A Moderate Conservative Dilemma” he gurgles that Nathan Fletcher, a San Diego mayoral candidate, left the Republican Party to become an independent. He represents a nationally important test case.  Bobo should actually finally admit that all the current Republicans are stark raving insane.  In “Broccoli and Bad Faith” Prof. Krugman says this week’s Supreme Court hearings on the health care law seemed to suggest that some justices were embracing any argument they could use to kill reform.  What a surprise…  Who’d have thunk it?  Here’s Bobo:

Nathan Fletcher was raised in Arkansas, played college baseball in California and enlisted in the Marines as a reserve in 1997. He saw combat in 2004, based in the Sunni Triangle in Iraq.

One day Fletcher’s unit went to relieve a convoy and was, in turn, ambushed by insurgents with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire. According to his military records, the unit “attempted to break through the enemy line of resistance several times in order to relieve the convoy, each time coming under heavy, sustained fire, during which Sergeant Fletcher never wavered in his determination to engage the enemy.”

As detailed in fine reporting by Craig Gustafson of The San Diego Union-Tribune, Fletcher was awarded an achievement medal with a Combat “V” for Valor.

But the war on terror is different from other wars. As an intelligence officer, Fletcher didn’t spend most of his time, in Iraq and later around Somalia, shooting at a faraway enemy. He spent it meeting with locals, providing city services, establishing relationships with people completely unlike himself.

He was good at it. In a 2006 report, his commanding officer wrote that Fletcher “is one of the finest Marines, regardless of rank, I have worked with in over 25 years of service to our corps.”

Fletcher already had political ambitions while he was in the Marines. But he came back from his 10 years in the corps with other attributes. First, survivor’s guilt. The fact that he had survived while others did not gave him a strong sense that he should make the rest of his life count for something. Second, he absorbed the military’s spirit of can-do pragmatism. Third, he is impatient with military metaphors applied to politics.

He ran for the California State Legislature and won. His legislative career was an extension of his intelligence work — meeting with people unlike himself and trying to strike arrangements. He championed a bipartisan law rewriting the state’s sex crimes legislation to be consistent with the latest research.

He was one of very few Republicans willing to negotiate with Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, over a tax reform plan. He gave an impassioned speech against “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He became friends with the Democratic speaker.

Fletcher is tall, good-looking, smart, polished (maybe too much so) and moderate. An article in The Sacramento Bee touted him as a rising Republican star, the kind of Republican who could get elected statewide. It didn’t hurt that his wife has worked for George W. Bush and other Republicans.

The next step was obvious: Run for mayor of San Diego. The city has a tradition of electing pragmatic center-right Republicans. Fletcher ran on some conservative ideas — pension reform and fiscal conservatism — and some less conventionally conservative ones — open space, bike paths and environmental policies. He’s also for comprehensive immigration reform.

He was endorsed by Paul Jacobs, the chairman and chief executive of Qualcomm. Both Mitt and Ann Romney, who have a place in San Diego, maxed out to his campaign, giving $500 each.

But as Scott Lewis of voiceofsandiego.org has detailed, the San Diego Republican Party has moved sharply right recently. A group of insurgents have toppled the old city establishment. As Lewis wrote, “The Republican Party has gone through a fantastically effective effort to enforce conformity around its principles.”

The G.O.P. central committee and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, an activist group, spurned Fletcher in the mayor’s race, endorsing the more orthodox conservative, Councilman Carl DeMaio. The councilman already had much higher name identification, and this endorsement gives him a huge structural advantage. Individual candidates can only raise money in $500 chunks, but a party can raise unlimited money and funnel it to the candidate of its choice.

On Wednesday, in a move reflecting long-term disillusionment and in an effort to shake up the campaign, Fletcher said he is leaving the Republican Party. He is becoming an independent. In his announcement video, he railed against the strategy he saw in both parties — the unwillingness to negotiate with the other side to keep it from being able to take credit for any accomplishment.

He declared, “I believe it’s more important to solve a problem than to preserve that problem to use on a campaign. I am willing to work or share or give all the credit to someone if the idea is good. I don’t believe we have to treat people we disagree with as an enemy. I’ve fought in a war. I have seen the enemy. We don’t have enemies in our political environment here.”

Fletcher is the decided underdog in the June 5 voting. But he represents a nationally important test case. Can the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, who were trained to be ruthlessly pragmatic, find a home in either political party? Can center-right moderates find a home in the G.O.P., even in coastal California? As the two parties become more insular, is it possible to mount an independent alternative?

Put a sock in it, Bobo, until you can admit your side of the equation is barking mad.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Nobody knows what the Supreme Court will decide with regard to the Affordable Care Act. But, after this week’s hearings, it seems quite possible that the court will strike down the “mandate” — the requirement that individuals purchase health insurance — and maybe the whole law. Removing the mandate would make the law much less workable, while striking down the whole thing would mean denying health coverage to 30 million or more Americans.

Given the stakes, one might have expected all the court’s members to be very careful in speaking about both health care realities and legal precedents. In reality, however, the second day of hearings suggested that the justices most hostile to the law don’t understand, or choose not to understand, how insurance works. And the third day was, in a way, even worse, as antireform justices appeared to embrace any argument, no matter how flimsy, that they could use to kill reform.

Let’s start with the already famous exchange in which Justice Antonin Scalia compared the purchase of health insurance to the purchase of broccoli, with the implication that if the government can compel you to do the former, it can also compel you to do the latter. That comparison horrified health care experts all across America because health insurance is nothing like broccoli.

Why? When people choose not to buy broccoli, they don’t make broccoli unavailable to those who want it. But when people don’t buy health insurance until they get sick — which is what happens in the absence of a mandate — the resulting worsening of the risk pool makes insurance more expensive, and often unaffordable, for those who remain. As a result, unregulated health insurance basically doesn’t work, and never has.

There are at least two ways to address this reality — which is, by the way, very much an issue involving interstate commerce, and hence a valid federal concern. One is to tax everyone — healthy and sick alike — and use the money raised to provide health coverage. That’s what Medicare and Medicaid do. The other is to require that everyone buy insurance, while aiding those for whom this is a financial hardship.

Are these fundamentally different approaches? Is requiring that people pay a tax that finances health coverage O.K., while requiring that they purchase insurance is unconstitutional? It’s hard to see why — and it’s not just those of us without legal training who find the distinction strange. Here’s what Charles Fried — who was Ronald Reagan’s solicitor general — said in a recent interview with The Washington Post: “I’ve never understood why regulating by making people go buy something is somehow more intrusive than regulating by making them pay taxes and then giving it to them.”

Indeed, conservatives used to like the idea of required purchases as an alternative to taxes, which is why the idea for the mandate originally came not from liberals but from the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation. (By the way, another pet conservative project — private accounts to replace Social Security — relies on, yes, mandatory contributions from individuals.)

So has there been a real change in legal thinking here? Mr. Fried thinks that it’s just politics — and other discussions in the hearings strongly support that perception.

I was struck, in particular, by the argument over whether requiring that state governments participate in an expansion of Medicaid — an expansion, by the way, for which they would foot only a small fraction of the bill — constituted unacceptable “coercion.” One would have thought that this claim was self-evidently absurd. After all, states are free to opt out of Medicaid if they choose; Medicaid’s “coercive” power comes only from the fact that the federal government provides aid to states that are willing to follow the program’s guidelines. If you offer to give me a lot of money, but only if I perform certain tasks, is that servitude?

Yet several of the conservative justices seemed to defend the proposition that a federally funded expansion of a program in which states choose to participate because they receive federal aid represents an abuse of power, merely because states have become dependent on that aid. Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed boggled by this claim: “We’re going to say to the federal government, the bigger the problem, the less your powers are. Because once you give that much money, you can’t structure the program the way you want.” And she was right: It’s a claim that makes no sense — not unless your goal is to kill health reform using any argument at hand.

As I said, we don’t know how this will go. But it’s hard not to feel a sense of foreboding — and to worry that the nation’s already badly damaged faith in the Supreme Court’s ability to stand above politics is about to take another severe hit.

They’ll probably come up with another one of those “special” decisions that they declare can’t be used as precedent.  Stare decisis be damned.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

March 27, 2012

Bobo wants us all to “Step to the Center.”  (As if he had a clue where that is.)  He gurgles that the Obama health care law represents another stage in the concentration of power.  Mr. Cohen muses on “The Titanic and the End of an Era” and says as on 9/11, purring routine turned to panic with incomprehensible swiftness. Then as now, a maelstrom lurks behind order.  Mr. Nocera assures us that “Government’s Not Dead Yet,” and that the workers at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have the passion to tackle some of the country’s pressing problems.  Despite everything that Republicans tried to keep them from doing it…  Mr. Bruni, in “A Farewell to Newt,” says it’s time to turn away from him and stick to a healthier political regimen.  Here’s Bobo:

On May 23-24, 1865, the victorious Union armies marched through Washington. The columns of troops stretched back 25 miles. They marched as a single mass, clad in blue, their bayonets pointing skyward.

As Wilfred McClay wrote in his book, “The Masterless,” spectators were transfixed and realized that the war had changed them. These troops had gone to war as a coalition of states, with different uniforms in different colors. But they came back as a centralized unit, with a national identity and consciousness.

American history can be seen as a series of centralizing events — the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Progressive Era, the New Deal and the Great Society.

Many liberals have tended to look at this centralizing process as synonymous with modernization — as inevitable and proper. As problems like inequality get bigger, government has to become more centralized to deal with them. As corporations grow, government has to grow to counterbalance them.

Many conservatives have looked at these inexorable steps toward centralization with growing alarm. Complicated problems, many have argued, are best addressed by local people on the ground. Centralized government inevitably leads to oligarchic government. The virtue of the citizenry depends on local control, personal initiative and intimate connections. These things are being bleached away.

The Obama health care law represents another crucial moment in the move toward centralization. With its state insurance exchanges, Obamacare is not as centralized as a single-payer system. Still, it centralizes authority in at least four ways.

First, while government has always had the power to regulate contracts and business activity, Obamacare compels people to enter into activity so that it can regulate them. This new ability to compel activity opens up vast new powers.

Second, Obamacare centralizes Medicare decisions — and the power of life and death — within an unelected Independent Payment Advisory Board. Fifteen experts are charged with controlling costs from the top down.

Third, Obamacare would continue the centralization of the nation’s resources — absorbing an estimated $1.76 trillion over the next 10 years.

Finally, it would effectively make health care a political responsibility. When you go to a campaign town hall in, say, Britain, you discover that many of the questions are about why somebody’s back or dental surgery didn’t go well and what the candidate can do to fix it. Once voters assume that national politicians are responsible for their health care, national politicians become more active in running the health system.

So this is a big moment. Obamacare forces us again to have an election about how centralized government should be.

Those of us in the Hamiltonian tradition sit crossways in this debate. Alexander Hamilton was not shy about concentrating power in Washington if he thought centralized authority was necessary to achieve national goals. On the other hand, he did not believe central decision-makers had the ability to direct an infinitely complex and changing world. He centralized goal-setting while decentralizing decision-making.

In that tradition, my own view is that the individual mandate is perfectly acceptable policy. We effectively have a national health care system. We all indirectly pay for ill, uninsured people who show up at emergency rooms. If all Americans are in the same interconnected health care system, I think it’s reasonable for government to insist that all Americans participate in the insurance network that is the payment method for that system.

But I think the Obama administration made a disastrous error in centralizing so many of the cost-control elements of the new health care system. I don’t care how many comparative effectiveness research studies are commissioned, there is no way centralized dirigistes can keep up with a complex, innovative system. There is no way government can adapt quickly to failure.

There is no way planners can know how many employers will drop coverage, how many doctors will refuse to see patients in expanded Medicaid, how to write uniform rules governing the state insurance exchanges, how many people will or won’t enter high-risk pools, how Congress will undermine any painful cuts the executive branch does make, how doctors will evade efforts to control their revenue, how doctor shortages will pop up, how spending is best controlled.

From a Hamiltonian perspective, the decentralized premium support model is a better way to control costs: government insists everybody has coverage but then encourages companies, families and Medicare beneficiaries to engage in a regulated process of discovery to find the best care at the lowest cost.

So, yes, let’s have another round in the debate about how centralized American government should be. Let’s watch liberals and conservatives duke it out. But remember there has always been a Hamiltonian alternative: centralize the goals, but decentralize the means people take to get there. Universal coverage is a worthy goal. Decentralized competition is the way to make it affordable.

Right, Bobo.  Sure.  Because it’s worked so VERY well up until now.  Putz.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

I was on a packed rush-hour Tube the other day when my eye was caught by a headline in one of the free tabloids that help pass the time in the Underground: “Menu from Titanic’s last lunch to fetch £100,000 at auction.”

That’s a lot for a menu, but then there is no limit to the fascination with the Titanic. Indeed, I found myself leaning over to read what the first-class passengers on that maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City ate on April 14, 1912, a century ago next month.

There was cockie leekie (a soup of fowl and leeks); egg à l’Argenteuil (scrambled eggs with asparagus tips); veal and ham pie; Norwegian anchovies; corned ox tongue; grilled mutton chops with mashed, fried or baked jacket potatoes; and custard pudding. Recommended libation: iced draught Munich lager.

Somehow all this was captivating, glimpsed on the London Underground one hundred years later. I could see Ruth Dodge of San Francisco, wife of Washington Dodge, a successful banker, mother of Washington Jr., slipping the menu into her purse, a small memento, as she then thought, of a happy interlude.

I say “happy interlude,” but of course I cannot be sure of that, even before disaster struck the great liner and turned those mutton chops into something more.

Whether or not this was in fact your last lunch depended heavily on your sex. Only 33 percent of the men in first class survived, whereas 97 percent of the women in the same class did. “Women and children first” meant something. The overall survival rate for men was 20 percent against 74 percent for women. The lower your class of travel, the lower your chances were.

But of course these numbers are the product of hindsight. The Dodges had no idea what was about to happen to them; none of the more than 2,200 people aboard did. Life, as Kierkegaard noted, is lived forward but understood backward — if you are still around to comprehend it.

Looking back at the Titanic’s doomed load — the high fliers with successful lives, and the humble headed for the New World in search of one — is like looking back at old black-and-white photographs. We are struck above all by how ephemeral the expressions, so full of vitality in the moment, are; and indeed by the brevity of the lives themselves. It was Roland Barthes who observed that, “Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”

In the case of the Titanic, catastrophe came with an inconceivable swiftness. What, I wondered on that crowded Tube, is it that explains our fascination? In part it is this rapid transition from purring routine to panicked disarray, the same on the Titanic a century ago as in the Twin Towers a decade ago, with similar countdowns from impact to implosion leaving an hour or two for agonized reflection, and the way this reminds us of the maelstrom always lurking behind order. The Titanic was unsinkable. Its fate therefore proves that nothing is.

Perhaps the menu suggests another factor in our fascination. The Titanic sank at the end of an era and on the eve of Europe’s catastrophe.

Today, the very language — cockie leekie or grilled mutton (not lamb) chops — evokes the twilight of the Edwardian era, before the eruption of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, and before the clash of classes and ideologies that the various decks on the Titanic contrived to keep at bay. That clash would become the tragic heart of the 20th century. At dinner in first class that evening the seventh course was roast squab and cress: enough said.

Today, early in another century again marked by war, we do not know how far the era-changing event of 2001 will cast its shadow. But again, as in the muddle on the Titanic, we have people second-guessing the second guesses of people who themselves do not know, and the potential for disaster in at least one region of the world is real.

On this anniversary there are new TV series and books about the Titanic. James Cameron’s movie is being released in 3D. You can hardly turn on the radio in London without hearing Celine Dion. There are memorial cruises — some at 50 percent off! — departing from New York and Southampton to the site where 1,517 souls were lost (many, as in the Twin Towers, without any trace ever being found.)

I have no doubt that in 2101 there will be a similar frenzy of commemoration of 9/11, delivered to any device you choose or even direct to your brain via the chip in your left forearm. I am not unhappy that I will not be there to see it.

Theodor Adorno, the German sociologist, remarked that memory is the only help left to the dead. “They pass away into it,” he wrote, “and if every deceased person is like someone who was murdered by the living, so he is also like someone whose life they must save, without knowing whether the effort will succeed.”

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

I met up recently with my old mentor, Charlie Peters, the founder, editor and driving force behind The Washington Monthly, where I worked in the late-1970s. Charlie is a supreme idealist who believes deeply in the good that government can do. He saw it growing up with Roosevelt’s New Deal and then again as a member of Sargent Shriver’s Peace Corps, where he served as the agency’s first director of evaluation.

Now 85, Charlie still believes that that government can make a difference in people’s lives. Knowing that many Americans have turned against this idea, he is writing a book “to give evidence that it has happened — and to show it can happen again,” he told me. The New Deal and the Great Society were eras when “money was not the driving force in choosing a career,” he said. “Passion was. People wanted to be able to do something about the country’s most pressing problems — and government was the place to do that.”

As Charlie spoke, it occurred to me that there is one agency in today’s government where you can still see that passion: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Last week, I went to Washington to spend some time with some of the bureau’s new employees.

The brainchild of Elizabeth Warren, the consumer bureau was part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and it has been charged with looking out for the interests of financial consumers. Warren initially brought it to life, and her charisma and rock-star status was a powerful early draw. “I saw her on TV, and then read her book ‘The Two-Income Trap,’ ” said Sean O’Mealia, 25, who joined the bureau from a consulting company. “I really believed in what she was saying about helping consumers. That was my motivating force.”

Warren, alas, left after Senate Republicans made clear that they would never confirm her as director, and President Obama named Richard Cordray, the former attorney general of Ohio, to be the agency’s first director. He has been trying to instill a culture that can best take advantage of the young talent flocking to its door. “To corral their sense of idealism and put it in the service of improving life for the average consumer, that is a tremendous thing,” he said. In thinking about how to instill that culture, Cordray kept reflecting on Charlie’s old boss, Sargent Shriver. “He built on the awareness that there is tremendous talent and energy in young people.” That is what Cordray was trying to do.

To judge by the people I spent the day talking to, he’s done it well. Angela Peoples, 25, had been the legislative director at the United States Student Association, which had pushed hard to ensure that the new bureau would have authority over student loans. In her still-young career, she had met many students who felt trapped by their loans, and it is the issue she most cared about. Her boss, Rohit Chopra, 30, a former consultant, said, “A whole generation of people are overleveraged with student loans. They won’t be able to get a mortgage or save for retirement. They won’t be able to do the things that are profitable for the banks.”

I met a designer, Audrey Chen, 33, who had worked at Comedy Central and was thrilled to be designing documents that would allow consumers to understand and compare financial offerings. O’Mealia told me how much he admired Cordray’s commitment to consumers and how he and other young staff members had become concerned that Cordray was working so hard that he wasn’t eating enough. (They took to getting him fruit every night to make sure that he had something to eat.) I met Garry Reeder, 26, who had gone from “a trailer park in North Carolina” to an M.B.A. student at Columbia University. “You can’t do that without credit,” he said. “But credit also makes a lot of people’s lives more difficult.” He wanted to make sure that people fully understood what they were getting into when they made a financial transaction. “You can’t have a system where the only way an institution does well is if the other party doesn’t fully understand the transaction.”

When I reported back to Charlie about my inspiring day at the new consumer bureau, he wasn’t surprised. “The beautiful thing about a new agency is that everyone is very driven to accomplish the mission. As they mature,” he added, “that’s when people become more concerned with self protection, and maneuvering for the next promotion.” True enough, but a problem for another day.

The last person I spoke to at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was Holly Petraeus, the wife of David Petraeus who leads the agency’s office for the military and their families. “I think there are still idealists in Washington,” she said. “And they work in this building.”

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

It’s not easy letting him go. Not easy at all. Sort of like swearing off bedtime Ben & Jerry’s: there’s valor and the promise of self-improvement in the sacrifice, but also the sad awareness that the world just got a little less naughty. A little less fun.

No matter. It’s time to cut Newt out of our diets.

He has no nutritional value, certainly not at this point, as he peddles his ludicrous guarantee of $2.50-a-gallon gasoline, a promise that would be made only by someone with his own bottomless strategic reserve of crude. Doubly oily entendre intended.

There were calls for him to desist two weeks ago, after he lost Alabama, which abuts his home state of Georgia. But they fell on a deaf Newt.

There were fresh appeals last week, when he failed to wring even one measly delegate from Illinois on Tuesday and then Louisiana on Saturday. But Newt doesn’t need anything as prosaic as delegates, so long as there’s still pocket lint from Sheldon Adelson and the warmth of Callista’s frozen smile.

If he refuses to quit, we in the news media must quit him. Starve him of his very sustenance: attention. Exert a kind of willpower that we’ve lacked in this primary, which we turned into too much of a circus by encouraging too many clowns.

We’ve begun. As the weekend came to a close, The Times’s Trip Gabriel reported that Gingrich’s “full-time traveling press corps is down to a handful of embedded television reporters.” The Associated Press, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and even Politico had packed up their bags. I envision Newt as a larger, grayer, windier version of the little boy at the end of “Shane,” watching the last of these stubborn scribes recede into the horizon, begging them for one last sweet tweet, promising a tasty sound bite about Trayvon Martin or Robert De Niro or … “The Hunger Games!” There must be some harbinger of cultural decline to rail about there! Do “Hunger Games” contestants use food stamps? Those are always good for a diatribe or three.

I implore Fox News to pull up its drawbridge, CNN to bolt its doors. If a Newt falls in the forest and not a single news anchor listens, can he really hang around?

He says he’s propelled by a desire to promote “big ideas,” but his candidacy has devolved into ever smaller talk and ever more desperate sideshows that drag an already undistinguished debate ever lower. Late last week he actually resurrected the Obama-as-Muslim bile, saying the president’s policies raise legitimate suspicion in voters’ minds.

In truth Newt 2012 has never been a lofty enterprise. Although he loves to tout his intellectualism, he got what brief traction he did for visceral and theatrical reasons, with fits of rage and flights of fancy.

He took off when he lashed out at “the elites,” pretending not to be one of them. He soared when he savaged the news media. He rocketed to a colony on the moon.

And he illustrated a dynamic that will survive this campaign season and that we should all think about: how much the profusion of cable channels, Web outlets, other news platforms and commentary of all kinds (including this column) rewards flamboyance, histrionics and a crowded field. A brash candidate is never more than a bellow away from three minutes of air time or two paragraphs somewhere. The beast is ravenous, and I don’t mean Newt.

Yes, the serial surges of the Republican contest since August had grounding in a fickle electorate and changeable polls. But we eagerly abetted them. En route to our beige destiny of Mitt, we craved color. And showcased it.

Newt is one of the few surviving peacocks, especially if you discount Ron Paul, who’s less peacock than emaciated ostrich — never airborne, head in the sand — and so consistently discounted that no one even bothers to implore him to fold his tent. No one can remember that he pitched one.

It’s time to forget Newt as well. His delegate count is closer to Paul’s than to Rick Santorum’s. His strategy — a generous noun — hinges on a replay of the 1920 Republican convention, which picked Warren G. Harding on the 10th ballot.

The 10th ballot? That’d really send the Republican nominee into the general election with a head of steam. I can see the bumper stickers now. Newt: Battle ready. Ballot hardened.

Great politicians are memorialized with holidays, monuments, libraries. For Newt I think an ice cream flavor is in order, something in the clogged vein of Chubby Hubby or Chunky Monkey, although not so physique-focused. Nutty Professor is too obvious a suggestion, though it opens the door to pralines, aptly Southern.

Maybe Peaches ’n’ Scream? That would honor the state he comes from while acknowledging the state he’s been in — unsubtle, overwrought.  Not qualifying for the Virginia primary was a blow akin to Pearl Harbor. The Palestinians are “an invented” people.

Newt is empty calories. A pointless pint of them.

A pint?  More like a fat-laden gallon…


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 158 other followers