The Pasty Little Putz is whistling past the graveyard. He has a question in “Obamacare Turns a Corner?” He says the website has rallied. But will the right customers buy in? For some completely inexplicable reason MoDo has decided to devote her column space to “Woodrow Wilson, Stud Muffin.” She babbles that Woodrow Wilson was nicknamed Tiger — for Princeton, for feeling caged in the White House, and for his passion as a lover. Lord, I wish she would quit… The Moustache of Wisdom asks “Can’t We Do Better?” and says the latest report on what America’s 15-year-olds are learning is not so good. Mr. Kristof also has a question: “Can Foreign Aid Help This Girl?” He says Haiti has been Exhibit A for foreign aid skeptics. But one Haitian woman, backed by California high school students, is an example of what can be achieved. In “The Bible as Bludgeon” Mr. Bruni says in heated political campaigns, there’s inadequate separation of church and state. Here, FSM help us, is The Putz:
This was the week when liberals decided that it was safe to feel optimistic about Obamacare again.
Not, mind you, because the website’s flaws have all been wiped away, or because the pace of enrollment is where the White House wanted it to be, or because the political backlash over plan cancellations has disappeared. The site may be better, the enrollment pace higher, the backlash no longer front-page news — but the law’s rollout is by any reasonable definition still a dreadful mess.
But a worst-case scenario, in which the website remained unusable well into the new year, seems to have been averted, and with it the danger that insurers or Congressional Democrats would begin to bail on Obamacare entirely.
And liberals have apparently decided that just getting things moving in the right direction makes all the difference. Sure, problems persist, crucial errors remain, and confusion probably looms for some customers and insurers in January, when policies are supposed to take effect. But errors can be fixed, money sluiced around, more temporary changes made. The important thing is there will be no immediate political unraveling … which means that enrollment will keep rising … which means that by 2016, Obamacare will be a locked-in, impossible-to-repeal feature of the American landscape.
This holds true, liberals have begun telling themselves, even if the law’s disruptions cost Democrats dearly in the 2014 midterms. Because a working website will give the White House “three full years to create millions, and perhaps tens of millions, of winners who are getting insurance or protection,” The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein wrote last week, Democrats can “lose on the politics in the midterm election even as they win on the policy in the long term.”
The entrenchment hypothesis is plausible. But it elides one crucial problem: the extent to which the successful implementation of Obamacare actually depends on the law’s political standing.
That’s because the law can work only if people who don’t necessarily benefit immediately from its provisions decide to participate anyway. If they respond to higher premiums by either staying out or dropping out, then Obamacare will be permanently unstable: the dollar figures, both for insurers and the government, simply won’t add up.
The participation of the young and healthy is supposed to be required, of course, by the individual mandate. But the mandate’s penalty is relatively modest and its enforcement mechanisms relatively weak, which means its power ultimately depends more on civic duty than on immediate self-interest.
The law’s advocates have explicitly acknowledged this point. Explaining the case for the mandate last month, The Atlantic’s Matt O’Brien allowed that “a rational self-maximizer” might decide to pay the fine instead of buying costly coverage. But “real people,” he argued, “aren’t rational self-maximizers … We don’t like to feel like we’re doing the wrong thing. We like to follow the rules instead. Feel like we’re a good person.”
The experience of Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts, O’Brien concluded, shows how this works: enrollment in Romneycare spiked when the mandate kicked in, and it spiked for healthy people — presumably because they accepted the “positive responsibility” of the mandate, and bought health insurance because it’s what they were “supposed to do.”
But this example does not necessarily bode well for Obamacare’s unfolding. The Massachusetts law was a bipartisan bill passed in a wealthy, homogeneous state with a pervasive left-liberal ethos. The national health care law aspires to create the same sense of “positive responsibility” in a much more polarized, fragmented, socioeconomically diverse and libertarian-minded society, roughly half of which opposes the law outright.
This was always going to be a lift even without technological problems and “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan” disillusionment. Now it’s much, much heavier.
Consider the findings of a new poll from Harvard’s Institute of Politics. Among the traditionally pro-Obama millennial generation, the core group that the White House needs to “follow the rules” and buy a policy, the president’s approval ratings have dropped to 41 percent, and support for Obamacare has also plunged: 56 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds disapprove of the law, a majority say it will increase costs, and just 18 percent say it will improve their care. Meanwhile, a new National Journal survey finds that a majority of millennials expect the law to be repealed outright.
Those are not numbers that suggest a population that’s poised to fall in line, do its civic duty, and feel warm and fuzzy in the process. Rather, they suggest that the political emotions stirred up by the rollout — frustration, disillusionment, anger — could have substantial consequences for sign-up rates as well.
“If there’s one thing we know how to do,” said a White House official last spring, projecting optimism about Obamacare enrollment, “it’s reach young people.”
Now, though, the fate of their policy may depend on not only reaching them, but reconverting them as well.
Next up we have MoDo raving about Wilson:
On Thursday night, we sat around, talking about the lawyer and constitutional expert in the White House, a leader both didactic and charming, peacenik and hawk; the Ivy League academic who improbably ascended to the Oval Office on brains, not beholden to anyone; the Democrat, eager to fight economic inequality and help the 99 percent, who would give a government bailout if he had to; the dapper man with large ears, elegant speeches he wrote himself, a love of golf.
We sat around talking about Woodrow Wilson.
And it turns out that the League of Nations was not the most intriguing thing about Wilson. The love of women was.
A. Scott Berg, the author of “Wilson,” was relating the story of how the widowed president wooed Washingtonian Edith Galt with flowers and private romantic meetings reminiscent of the widowed president wooing a Washington lobbyist in the movie “The American President.”
“She was widowed very young,” Berg said of the buxom Galt. “She had not been in love with her first husband and so along comes Woodrow Wilson, the great lover. I’m telling you, she didn’t call him Tiger just because he went to Princeton.”
The author, sounding a bit gobsmacked, continued: “Wilson wrote thousands of letters to his first wife, several hundred to his second. These are the most passionate love letters I’ve ever read. They’re not pornographic, so you don’t have to run out to look for that, but they are incredibly romantic, often sexual, very emotional, deeply, deeply emotional letters. At a certain point, they get sickening. They’re just too much.”
After 10 years of marriage to Ellen, his first wife, he wrote her: “Are you prepared for the storm of love making with which you will be assailed?” When he should have been focused on the sinking of the Lusitania, he was addled with gushy courting of the younger Edith. Which may explain why relentless playboy Leonardo DiCaprio, who made waves with Kate Winslet in “Titanic” and made trouble with Carey Mulligan in “Gatsby,” is interested in playing Wilson (a name probably more familiar to modern moviegoers as Tom Hanks’s volleyball confidant).
The Hollywood Reporter revealed that DiCaprio has optioned Berg’s book to produce a movie and star as the 28th president. (Wilson’s wife, Edith, who stealthily took the reins after Wilson had a stroke, must count as 28 1/2.)
Before the discussion with Chris Dodd, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, and Jane Harman, president of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Dodd showed some clips from the 1944 movie “Wilson,” with Alexander Knox playing the president.
“The picture was a huge bomb,” said Berg, who lives in Hollywood. “The film was made by Darryl F. Zanuck, who was one of the greatest producers in Hollywood history. It was the most expensive movie that had been made by Hollywood at that point.” Berg said it cost $3 million, which may pay the catering bill now.
Despite the superficial similarities to the other smarty-pants in the White House now, Wilson was better in one way — he haunted the President’s Room in the Capitol to keep a sustained dialogue going with members of Congress — and far worse in others.
As one young woman from the Wilson Center put it, “History has judged Wilson as a racist and a sexist.”
As the world mourned Nelson Mandela, Berg had to agree that the Virginia-born Wilson was a racist, even if he was “a centrist” for his time.
“He made statements, no matter what age they were uttered in, they are racist in nature,” the author said. “More important, he famously brought Jim Crow back to Washington. They were just starting to integrate the Postal Service, the Treasury Department, and it was Wilson’s cabinet members, specifically McAdoo, his Treasury secretary, and Burleson, his postmaster general, who insisted that you can’t have integration in federal offices. The truth is, Wilson’s cabinet was largely made up of Southern racists.”
And he did not want to cross the block of Southern senators and congressmen he needed to get his progressive “New Freedom” agenda passed. When he was president of Princeton, Wilson worked to curb elitism, trying to get rid of eating clubs, but he did not work to curb racism. When a poor student at a Virginia Baptist college wrote beseeching to come, Wilson answered “that it is altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton.”
He made jokes in black dialect and felt that interracial marriage would “degrade the white nations.”
“For me,” Berg said, “the worst thing Woodrow Wilson did as president was what he didn’t do. That was in 1919 when the soldiers came home from the war. Many of them were African-Americans. They came home thinking: ‘This is our moment. We’ve lost brothers, we have shed blood, this is the time we have shown we are full-blooded Americans.’ But he said nothing on the subject. He had global things on his mind.”
Wilson was so consumed with his “New Freedom” agenda, he failed to push for new freedom.
And now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
The latest results in the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which compare how well 15-year-olds in 65 cities and countries can apply math, science and reading skills to solve real-world problems were released last week, and it wasn’t pretty for the home team. Andreas Schleicher, who manages PISA, told the Department of Education: “Three years ago, I came here with a special report benchmarking the U.S. against some of the best performing and rapidly improving education systems. Most of them have pulled further ahead, whether it is Brazil that advanced from the bottom, Germany and Poland that moved from adequate to good, or Shanghai and Singapore that moved from good to great. The math results of top-performer Shanghai are now two-and-a-half school years ahead even of those in Massachusetts — itself a leader within the U.S.”
Not good. We’re now in an era in which globalization and the information technology revolution have merged to drastically shrink what was the basis of our middle class for so many years: the “high-wage, middle-skilled” job. In a less integrated and less automated world of walls, where unions held more sway, many Americans could live an average middle-class lifestyle with average skills. In today’s hyperconnected world without walls — when more Indians, Chinese, computers, robots and software can perform more average blue-collar and white-collar jobs — the only high-wage jobs are increasingly high-skill jobs. “Over the last decade, job growth in the industrialized world has almost exclusively been at the top end of the PISA skill distribution,” explained Schleicher, “while routine cognitive skills, the kinds of things that are easy to teach but also easy to digitize and outsource, have seen the steepest decline in demand.”
President Obama noted last week that this is one reason that the top 10 percent in America now takes home half of our national income, up from a third in 1979. One response is to raise the minimum wage and provide national health care. I hope both work, but neither will solve the problem. “Since the link between skills, jobs and growth is becoming ever tighter, it will be harder and harder for governments to address inequalities through redistribution,” argues Schleicher.
To his credit, Obama has also been calling for more investment in preschool, tech-ed and affordable colleges, but Republicans will only talk about tax cuts. Tax cuts alone won’t cut it either. Our kids face three big adjustments. First, to be in the middle class, they will need to be constantly improving their skills over their lifetime. Second, to do that, they will need a lot more self-motivation. The “digital divide” will soon disappear. Fairly soon, virtually everyone will have a screen and an Internet connection. In that world, argues futurist Marina Gorbis, the big divide will be “the motivational divide” — who has the self-motivation, grit and persistence to take advantage of all the free or cheap online tools to create, collaborate and learn. And third, countries that thrive the most will be the H.I.E.’s — the high imagination-enabling countries — that attract and enable talent to be constantly spinning off new ideas and start-ups, the source of most new good jobs.
So now let’s look at the latest PISA. It found that the most successful students are those who feel real “ownership” of their education. In all the best performing school systems, said Schleicher, “students feel they personally can make a difference in their own outcomes and that education will make a difference for their future.” The PISA research, said Schleicher, also shows that “students whose parents have high expectations for them tend to have more perseverance, greater intrinsic motivation to learn.” The highest performing PISA schools, he added, all have “ownership” cultures — a high degree of professional autonomy for teachers in the classrooms, where teachers get to participate in shaping standards and curriculum and have ample time for continuous professional development. So teaching is not treated as an industry where teachers just spew out and implement the ideas of others, but rather is “a profession where teachers have ownership of their practice and standards, and hold each other accountable,” said Schleicher.
We’re going through a huge technological transformation in the middle of a recession. It requires a systemic response. Democrats who protect teachers’ unions that block reforms to give teachers more ownership and accountability, and who refuse to address long-term entitlement spending that threatens to deprive us of funds to invest in the young, are harming our future. Republicans who block investments in things like early education and immigration reform — today we educate the world’s top talent in our colleges and then send them back to their home countries — are harming our future.
Conservatives need to think differently about the near-term safety nets we need to ease some people through this period, and liberals need to think more seriously about how we incentivize and unleash risk-takers to start new companies that create growth, wealth and good jobs. To have more employees, we need more employers. Just redividing a slow-growing pie will not sustain the American dream.
And now we get to Mr. Kristof, writing from Port-au-Prince, Haiti:
Almost four years after the earthquake that devastated Haiti, Darline St. Luc, 13, is one of the hundreds of thousands of people who are still homeless. She and her family get by in a leaky, rat-infested shack made out of old USAID grain sacks, and she says that she sometimes goes days without eating.
It has been months since Darline had a bite of meat, and she says she doesn’t quite remember what an egg tastes like. Her dad died this year, and she had to drop out of school in September because she couldn’t afford the $200 needed for a school uniform, shoes, books and supplies.
Yet, this month, Darline is back in school because of an extraordinary Haitian woman who has turned a torture chamber into a school — backed by high school students from Los Altos, Calif., who raised money for it.
Let’s acknowledge that Haiti is Exhibit A for many people who think that foreign aid is, in the words of the late Senator Jesse Helms, “money down a rathole.” Billions of dollars have poured into this country and countless aid workers drive around in white S.U.V.’s, yet Haiti remains the poorest country in the hemisphere.
Angus Deaton, a development economist at Princeton University, says that he began his career believing in foreign aid but gradually came to conclude that it is unhelpful and even harmful. In a new book, “The Great Escape,” Deaton suggests that aid fuels corruption without improving economic growth. Referring to aid workers, he concludes: “Dedicated and ethical people are doing harm.”
I disagree, but this is an important argument to have because so much rides on it. And a starting point is to acknowledge that aid sometimes wasn’t effective because it was intended mostly to prop up allies, or to support American businesses. Deaton says that some 70 percent of aid from the United States may never reach the recipient country, at least in cash — so it’s not surprising that it doesn’t always bolster the lives of Haitians like Darline.
More broadly, whether or not aid boosts economic growth, it unquestionably saves lives. Haiti’s infant mortality rate has been nearly halved since the 1990s. Worldwide as well, aid has dramatically reduced child deaths and, after a lag, brought down birthrates, too. Here in Haiti, women average 3.3 babies today, down from around 6 in the 1980s.
Aid’s impact on economic growth is more complicated. But there is reason to think that as people become educated and better nourished they will become more productive and demand better economic governance, laying the foundation for improved growth rates.
And if Haiti is Exhibit A for skeptics, it’s worth noting that Haiti may be on the move again. The economy is growing faster than America’s, kidnappings are down and new garment factories are reviving the manufacturing sector. And Haitians themselves are stepping up to build their own aid networks for girls like Darline — because they see that the right kind of aid can achieve remarkable returns.
The school that Darline attends was founded by Rea Dol, 46, who grew up impoverished in the Haitian countryside. Dol dropped out of school in the eighth grade, then returned to school in fits and starts. Eventually Dol started a literacy program and then a school housed in a former secret police base with a torture chamber.
This school, called the SOPUDEP school after a local community organization that supports it, now serves 835 low-income children from prekindergarten through 12th grade. Dol asks for school fees from those who can pay, but, when there’s no money, she sometimes waives the fee and even provides a free uniform and books.
The school is an exemplary marriage of local leadership and foreign donors. A Canadian foundation has been very supportive, and Dol once ran into Seth Donnelly, a Los Altos High School teacher, in a Haiti guesthouse. That led Los Altos students to raise $200,000, allowing Dol to take over two other schools in Haiti and start building a big new one.
Helping people is harder than it looks, whether for Dol or for international aid groups. After the earthquake, Canadian supporters sent her a 20-foot shipping container of books and clothing, but Haitian customs officials seized it, held the container for a year, and then charged $15,000 for duty and storage fees — a sum that donors had to make up.
Yet Dol soldiers on and works closely with a network of other Haitians also trying to build a better Haiti. She delivered some of the books to support a new library for Sakala, a program that promotes education in a notorious slum called Cité Soleil.
Daniel Tillias, a Haitian who leads Sakala, says that the library shows that local people can solve their own problems and overcome an aid-driven culture of dependency and passivity.
“People say, ‘why should we build a library? Unicef should do it for us,’ ” Tillias said. “People need to understand that the only person who can build a better life for you is yourself.”
Darline still faces enormous challenges. She has never seen a doctor or a dentist in her life. Rats scurry around her home and the public outhouses. And now that she is 13, men harass her; she worries that in the insecurity of the crime-ridden makeshift encampment where she lives, she may be raped, as two of her sisters were.
“When I go to the toilet, men are scarier than the rats,” Darline said. “I can kill the rats, but I can’t kill the men.”
In this bleak environment, school offers a ray of hope for a better future. Darline eats a free meal every day at school, so her nutrition improves and she’s less anemic.
I was there in her hut when Dol handed Darline a school uniform and told the family that she could return to school. The family lit up with joy, and Darline is now dreaming of graduating from high school, maybe even going to college through a university fund that Dol has established at SOPUDEP.org.
Now five other children living near Darline have trooped to the school to see if they, too, can get a free education. Dol is scrambling to find the money to make that happen — because anyone in this slum sees that the right kind of aid can, indeed, transform a child’s life.
Last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:
You can make a successful run for political office in this country without an especially thick résumé, any exceptional talent for expressing yourself, a noteworthy education or, for that matter, a basic grasp of science.
But you better have religion. You better be ready to profess your faith in and fealty to God — the Judeo-Christian one, of course. And you better be convincing. A dust-up last week in the 2014 race for a United States Senate seat from Arkansas provided a sad reminder of this, showing once again that our ballyhooed separation of church and state is less canyon than itty-bitty crack.
The Democratic incumbent, Mark Pryor, released a television commercial. Yes, I know, it’s awfully early for this sort of thing, given that the election is 11 months off. But Pryor’s in trouble. His approval rating recently dipped below 40 percent. His state right now is much redder than it is blue. Republican strategists see his defeat as key to retaking the Senate majority.
And his Republican opponent, an up-and-coming congressman named Tom Cotton, is no slouch. Good-looking. Smart. Delayed a promising legal career to serve in the Army in Afghanistan and Iraq. Makes the hearts of his conservative compatriots quiver and their wallets open like steamed clams. A profile of him in the National Journal last week called him “too good to be true,” noting his “perfect pedigree” and observing that his “timing couldn’t be better.” Arkansas, it said, is “a hellscape for Democrats.”
So Pryor is taking a heavenly tack. His new commercial focuses not on health care, the sequester, immigration or anything like that. It extols the Bible. “This is my compass, my North Star,” he says in the 30-second spot. “It gives me comfort and guidance to do what’s best for Arkansas.”
In response, the communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Brad Dayspring, pounced. But his complaint was not that Pryor was injecting gratuitous God talk into a campaign with less nebulous matters to discuss. Dayspring questioned whether Pryor was truly devout enough, emailing reporters a comment that Pryor made last year, when he said — cogently and correctly — that the Bible “is really not a rule book for political issues” and that “everybody can see it differently.”
What should have been a back-and-forth about the proper place of religious testimonials in the electoral process was instead, astonishingly, a contretemps over whether Pryor had flip-flopped on Scripture as a legislative how-to manual. The implication was that Scripture is totally suitable as such.
And while it’s tempting to attribute this silliness to a Southern politician’s need to appeal to the Christian fundamentalists prevalent in that region, the Arkansas episode is indicative of how thoroughly Americans from coast to coast let religion permeate public life.
As full of insight and beauty as the Bible is, it’s not a universally and unconditionally embraced document, and it’s certainly not a secular one. Yet it’s under the hand of almost every American president who takes the oath of office.
It’s in classrooms, some of which teach creationism. The Texas Board of Education has been withholding approval of a widely used biology textbook because it presents evolution as more than just a theory. Thus, in the nation’s second most populous state, whose governor essentially kicked off his 2012 presidential campaign with a stadium rally for tens of thousands of evangelicals, religion is trumping scholarship, at least for now.
“So help me God.” “Under God.” “In God We Trust.” Perhaps we’re meant to register these ubiquitous phrases as unspecific inspirations, vague recognitions of an undefined higher power, general appeals to generous living. But they’re rooted in a given religious tradition and are arguably the gateways to the Arkansas ridiculousness and to the overwrought accusations of a “war on Christmas” that herald the holiday season as surely as Frosty the Snowman and Black Friday do.
Three of four Americans are at least nominally Christian. But that leaves one in four who aren’t. One in five Americans don’t claim any binding religious preference or affiliation, and their ranks have grown significantly over the last two decades. Out-and-out atheists remain a sliver of the population, but a restive sliver at that. On some Sundays in some cities over recent months, they’ve gathered by the hundreds for church-style celebrations without psalms, making the point that good will and community don’t depend on divinity.
The centrality of religion in this country’s birth and story can’t be denied. And shouldn’t be. And having the Bible at inaugurations honors tradition more than it offends pluralism. But using the Bible as a litmus test for character betrays the principles of religious liberty and personal freedom, along with the embrace of diversity, that are equally crucial to America’s identity and strength. It also defies the wisdom of experience. How many self-anointed saints have been shown not to practice what they preach? How many of the ostentatiously faithful have fallen? Theirs is an easy pose, and sometimes an empty one.
The intrusion of religion into campaigns gets ugly. During both of Barack Obama’s presidential bids and over the years in between, his enemies tarred him with what they clearly saw as the most damning accusation of all: He’s not Christian! The same kind of charge was infamously hurled at Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat, on the road to her election to the Senate in 2008. Her opponent, Elizabeth Dole, ran a commercial that showed Hagan’s face while a voice — not Hagan’s, though viewers could easily have thought it was — said, “There is no God.”
So did Hagan denounce this as a wrongful commingling of piety and politics? No, she labeled it defamatory, saying in a commercial of her own that it was an example of “bearing false witness against fellow Christians.”
“I taught Sunday school,” she stressed in her ad, trotting out her religious bona fides, as if they were necessary and integral. “My faith guides my life.”
For his own part, Pryor said the same thing last year when he also made his comments about the Bible as a questionable policy playbook. He wasn’t distancing himself from Christianity, merely from the literalism of a text that was written long ago and includes some passages and prescriptions that no one heeds exactly. He was putting a particular creed in its proper place in government.
To applaud that isn’t an affront to the faithful. It’s actually more respectful of religion than not, because letting the government and its servants go too far in celebrating one religion over others creates the possibility of looking up someday to find that the religion being promoted isn’t your own.