Archive for the ‘Friedman’ Category

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

April 20, 2014

In “Marx Rises Again” The Putz says old ideas are having a comeback in the new Gilded Age.  In “Still Getting Wolf Whistles at 50″ MoDo says Ford repeats a King Kong of a stunt with its iconic Mustang.  In “How to Get a Job at Google, Part 2″ The Moustache of Wisdom says new graduates may be intrigued by a hiring guru’s advice.  In “In Dad’s Hometown, European Souls” Mr. Kristof says in a village in southwest Ukraine, the kids may know how to speak Russian, but they say they’d rather sing to Taylor Swift.  In “Tolstoy and Miss Daisy” Mr. Bruni says on the eve of Easter, his family’s happy journey came into focus.  Here’s The Putz:

In the season of resurrection, it’s fitting that he’s with us once again — bearded, prophetic, moralistic, promising to exalt the humble and cast down the mighty from their thrones.

Yes, that’s right: Karl Marx is back from the dead.

Not on a Soviet-style scale, mercifully, and not with the kind of near-scriptural authority that many Marxists once invested in him. But Marxist ideas are having an intellectual moment, and attention must be paid.

As Timothy Shenk writes in a searching essay for The Nation, there are two pillars to the current Marxist revival. One is the clutch of young intellectuals Shenk dubs the “Millennial Marxists,” whose experience of the financial crisis inspired a new look at Old Karl’s critique of capitalism. The M.M.’s have Occupy Wall Street as a failed-but-interesting political example; they have new-ish journals (Jacobin, The New Inquiry, n + 1) where they can experiment and argue; they are beginning to produce books, two of which Shenk reviews and praises.

What they lack, however, is a synthesis, a story, of the kind that Marx himself offered. This is where the other pillar rises — Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” a sweeping interpretation of modern economic trends recently translated from the French, and the one book this year that everyone in my profession will be required to pretend to have diligently read.

Piketty himself is a social democrat who abjures the Marxist label. But as his title suggests, he is out to rehabilitate and recast one of Marx’s key ideas: that so-called “free markets,” by their nature, tend to enrich the owners of capital at the expense of people who own less of it.

This idea seemed to be disproved in the 20th century, by the emergence of a prosperous, non-revolutionary working class. But Piketty argues that those developments were transitory, made possible mostly by the massive destruction of inherited capital during the long era of world war.

Absent another such disruption, he expects a world in which the returns to capital permanently outstrip  —  as they have recently  —  the returns to labor, and inequality rises far beyond even today’s levels. Combine this trend with slowing growth, and we face a future like the 19th-century past, in which vast inherited fortunes bestride the landscape while the middle class fractures, weakens, shrinks.

Piketty’s dark vision relies, in part, on economic models I am unqualified to assess. But it also relies on straightforward analysis of recent trends in Western economies, and here a little doubt-raising is in order.

In particular, as the Manhattan Institute’s Scott Winship has pointed out, Piketty’s data seems to understate the income gains enjoyed by most Americans over the last two generations. These gains have not been as impressive as during the post-World War II years, but they do exist: For now, even as the rich have gotten much, much richer, the 99 percent have shared in growing prosperity in real, measurable ways.

Winship’s point raises the possibility that even if Piketty’s broad projections are correct, the future he envisions might be much more stable and sustainable than many on the left tend to assume. Even if the income and wealth distributions look more Victorian, that is, the 99 percent may still be doing well enough to be wary of any political movement that seems too radical, too utopian, too inclined to rock the boat.

This possibility might help explain why the far left remains, for now, politically weak even as it enjoys a miniature intellectual renaissance. And it might hint at a reason that so much populist energy, in both the United States and Europe, has come from the right instead — from movements like the Tea Party, Britain’s UKIP, France’s National Front and others that incorporate some Piketty-esque arguments (attacks on crony capitalism; critiques of globalization) but foreground cultural anxieties instead.

The taproot of agitation in 21st-century politics, this trend suggests, may indeed be a Marxian sense of everything solid melting into air. But what’s felt to be evaporating could turn out to be cultural identity — family and faith, sovereignty and community — much more than economic security.

And somewhere in this pattern, perhaps, lies the beginnings of a  more ideologically complicated critique of modern capitalism — one that draws on cultural critics like Daniel Bell and Christopher Lasch rather than just looking to material concerns, and considers the possibility that our system’s greatest problem might not be the fact that it lets the rich claim more money than everyone else. Rather, it might be that both capitalism and the welfare state tend to weaken forms of solidarity that give meaning to life for many people, while offering nothing but money in their place.

Which is to say that while the Marxist revival is interesting enough, to become more relevant it needs to become a little more … reactionary.

Here’s MoDo:

It’s weird to be jealous of your car.

But I am.

Men look at my car with such naked lust, their eyes devouring the curves and chrome, that I often feel as though I’m intruding on an intimate moment. Women like it, too. They sometimes grin and give it a thumbs up as it growls by, and one girlfriend fondly refers to it as “the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Goddess car.”

But the icon evokes a special feeling in men. It’s the Proustian madeleine of cars, stirring old dreams and new. Guys sometimes follow in the American beauty’s dreamy wake, by car or by bike, and leave mash notes on the windshield with their numbers, pleading for me to sell it.

I won’t. Even though it’s hard on the ego to chauffeur such an object of universal desire, and even though I can rarely put down the top because I’m prone to sunburn, I love my ’65 Mustang convertible. Still sexy at 50, it is midnight blue with a white top and white bucket seats. Bob Marley, ’60s French girl groups and, of course, Wilson Pickett wail from the CD player.

The pony car was launched at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 with a $2,368 sticker price, and some collectors look for “1964 1/2s,” as the first Mustangs off the Ford assembly line are called. But the debut cars were all designated 1965, and mine was produced in that first batch.

It quickly became the fastest-selling new car in history, landing on the cover of Time and Newsweek with Lee Iacocca and showing up in the James Bond movie “Goldfinger.” It sold even faster when Ford executives pulled a King Kong of a stunt in October 1965 and parked a pony on the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building.

Once Ford engineers determined that lowering a car by helicopter onto the world’s tallest building would be too dangerous, they spent an hour cutting a white Mustang convertible into sections that would fit into elevators and then reassembled the car on high.

Bill Ford Jr., the company’s executive chairman, great-grandson of Henry Ford and No. 1 Mustang fan, replicated the icon-on-icon caper Wednesday for the first day of the New York Auto Show — this time disassembling a bright yellow 2015 Mustang convertible into five parts and reassembling it 1,000 feet above Fifth Avenue.

Later, after driving through the car show in one of Ford’s 1,964 50th anniversary, retro Mustangs that come in the car’s original Wimbledon white or Kona blue, the chairman reminisced about his first car, a 1975 electric green Mustang. “Mustang is my all-time favorite car,” he said, noting that it signified fun and freedom in an affordable package.

The car was conceived as “a working man’s Thunderbird” by the late Don Frey and muscled up by Carroll Shelby. Frey, an engineer, had been teased by his kids about how boring the Ford models were.

As USA Today recounted, Frey’s favorite story was getting a letter from a Texas janitor who bought one of the first Mustangs. He wrote Frey: “I’ve been courting this 5,000-acre widow for years. I finally got her in my red pony. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Bill Clinton said leaving his bright blue ’67 Mustang behind in Arkansas was the hardest part of moving to the White House.

The brand almost became extinct after it devolved to a smaller version on top of the Ford Pinto chassis in the mid-’70s — losing its cool image. I had a red one in those days, and it broke down so much, I started calling it the Mustake.

The lame pony, USA Today recalled, was rescued in the early ’90s by engineer John Coletti and other Mustang aficionados at Ford, a group called the Gang of Eight. They slaved away in their spare time in an old Montgomery Ward warehouse in Michigan, coming up with a niftier design.

I always think of my Mustang as the Steve McQueen of cars, given the star’s stunning, sometimes airborne 10-minute chase scene in “Bullitt” through the vertiginous streets of San Francisco, driving a green 1968 Mustang GT 390 in pursuit of a black Dodge Charger.

With his Mustang, Jacqueline Bisset and existential angst, McQueen defined hip in the 1968 classic — despite the atrocious paisley print pj’s he wore in the film.

In 2011, Marc Myers wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal retracing the chase route gingerly in a new Mustang with McQueen’s stunt double, Loren Janes. Janes, then 79, said he did about 90 percent of the driving in the movie and McQueen, though a good driver, did only the close-ups.

Janes told Myers that at the end of filming “Bullitt,” McQueen offered him one of the three tricked-out Mustangs used in the movie, but he passed, afraid he would always want to drive it too fast.

“Besides, I already had this,” Janes said, showing Myers a 1964 Rolex Submariner with the inscription: “To the best damn stuntman in the world. Steve.”

Now that’s cool.

Now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

How’s my kid going to get a job? There are few questions I hear more often than that one. In February, I interviewed Laszlo Bock, who is in charge of all hiring at Google — about 100 new hires a week — to try to understand what an employer like Google was looking for and why it was increasingly ready to hire people with no college degrees. Bock’s remarks generated a lot of reader response, particularly his point that prospective bosses today care less about what you know or where you learned it — the Google machine knows everything now — than what value you can create with what you know. With graduations approaching, I went back to Google to ask Bock to share his best advice for job-seekers anywhere, not just at Google. Here is a condensed version of our conversations:

You’re not saying college education is worthless?

“My belief is not that one shouldn’t go to college,” said Bock. It is that among 18- to 22-year-olds — or people returning to school years later — “most don’t put enough thought into why they’re going, and what they want to get out of it.” Of course, we want an informed citizenry, where everyone has a baseline of knowledge from which to build skills. That is a social good. But, he added, don’t just go to college because you think it is the right thing to do and that any bachelor’s degree will suffice. “The first and most important thing is to be explicit and willful in making the decisions about what you want to get out of this investment in your education.” It’s a huge investment of time, effort and money and people should think “incredibly hard about what they’re getting in return.”

Once there, said Bock, make sure that you’re getting out of it not only a broadening of your knowledge but skills that will be valued in today’s workplace. Your college degree is not a proxy anymore for having the skills or traits to do any job.

What are those traits? One is grit, he said. Shuffling through résumés of some of Google’s 100 hires that week, Bock explained: “I was on campus speaking to a student who was a computer science and math double major, who was thinking of shifting to an economics major because the computer science courses were too difficult. I told that student they are much better off being a B student in computer science than an A+ student in English because it signals a rigor in your thinking and a more challenging course load. That student will be one of our interns this summer.”

Or, he added, think of this headline from The Wall Street Journal in 2011: “Students Pick Easier Majors Despite Less Pay.” This was an article about a student who switched from electrical and computer engineering to a major in psychology. She said she just found the former too difficult and would focus instead on a career in public relations and human resources. “I think this student was making a mistake,” said Bock, even if it meant lower grades. “She was moving out of a major where she would have been differentiated in the labor force” and “out of classes that would have made her better qualified for other jobs because of the training.”

This is key for Bock because the first thing Google looks for “is general cognitive ability — the ability to learn things and solve problems,” he said. In that vein, “a knowledge set that will be invaluable is the ability to understand and apply information — so, basic computer science skills. I’m not saying you have to be some terrific coder, but to just understand how [these] things work you have to be able to think in a formal and logical and structured way.” But that kind of thinking doesn’t have to come from a computer science degree. “I took statistics at business school, and it was transformative for my career. Analytical training gives you a skill set that differentiates you from most people in the labor market.”

A lot of work, he added, is no longer tied to location. “So if you want your job tied to where you are, you need to be: A) quite good at it; and B) you need to be very adaptable so that you have a baseline skill set that allows you to be a call center operator today and tomorrow be able to interpret MRI scans. To have built the skill set that allows you to do both things requires a baseline capability that’s analytical.”

Well, what about creativity?

Bock: “Humans are by nature creative beings, but not by nature logical, structured-thinking beings. Those are skills you have to learn. One of the things that makes people more effective is if you can do both. … If you’re great on both attributes, you’ll have a lot more options. If you have just one, that’s fine, too.” But a lot fewer people have this kind of structured thought process and creativity.

Are the liberal arts still important?

They are “phenomenally important,” he said, especially when you combine them with other disciplines. “Ten years ago behavioral economics was rarely referenced. But [then] you apply social science to economics and suddenly there’s this whole new field. I think a lot about how the most interesting things are happening at the intersection of two fields. To pursue that, you need expertise in both fields. You have to understand economics and psychology or statistics and physics [and] bring them together. You need some people who are holistic thinkers and have liberal arts backgrounds and some who are deep functional experts. Building that balance is hard, but that’s where you end up building great societies, great organizations.”

How do you write a good résumé?

“The key,” he said, “is to frame your strengths as: ‘I accomplished X, relative to Y, by doing Z.’ Most people would write a résumé like this: ‘Wrote editorials for The New York Times.’ Better would be to say: ‘Had 50 op-eds published compared to average of 6 by most op-ed [writers] as a result of providing deep insight into the following area for three years.’ Most people don’t put the right content on their résumés.”

What’s your best advice for job interviews?

“What you want to do is say: ‘Here’s the attribute I’m going to demonstrate; here’s the story demonstrating it; here’s how that story demonstrated that attribute.’ ” And here is how it can create value. “Most people in an interview don’t make explicit their thought process behind how or why they did something and, even if they are able to come up with a compelling story, they are unable to explain their thought process.”

For parents, new grads and those too long out of work, I hope some of this helps.

And here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Karapchiv, Ukraine:

To understand why Ukrainians are risking war with Russia to try to pluck themselves from Moscow’s grip, I came to this village where my father grew up.

The kids here learn English and flirt in low-cut bluejeans. They listen to Rihanna, AC/DC and Taylor Swift. They have crushes on George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, watch “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” and play Grand Theft Auto. The school here has computers and an Internet connection, which kids use to watch YouTube and join Facebook. Many expect to get jobs in Italy or Spain — perhaps even America.

“We feel our souls are European,” Margaryta Maminchuk, 16, told me. “That is why we are part of Europe’s future.” The village school, which is in my great-uncle’s old family mansion, invited me to speak to an assembly, and I asked the students how many identified as European. Nearly all raised their hands.

These villagers aren’t “important” and claim no sophisticated understanding of international events. But it’s average Ukrainians like them who are turning this country around, defying President Vladimir Putin of Russia and his military, quite simply, because they dream to the West.

On past visits to this village, which my family fled in the 1940s, it seemed impossibly backward. It was near the Romanian border, a world apart from Kiev, the capital, and even a decade ago many houses lacked electricity and plumbing. Horses did the plowing. Nobody spoke English. If people went abroad it was to Russia.

Yet Ukraine has changed and opened up. Almost everyone now has electricity, plumbing and television, and many young men and women have traveled to Italy to find jobs. There is bewilderment that Poland is now so much richer than Ukraine — and resentment at Moscow for holding Ukrainians back.

I asked Margaryta, the girl with the European soul, whether she could speak Russian. Everyone in the village can speak it, she acknowledged, but she added primly: “I will not speak Russian. I am a patriot.”

Granted, significant numbers of Ukrainians in the eastern part of the country feel deep bonds with Moscow and want more autonomy. In the short term, despite a diplomatic accord reached with Russia and Ukraine that aims to defuse the crisis, President Putin may succeed in dismembering Ukraine. But, in the long run, he is both undermining his own economy and also driving Ukrainians forever into a Western orbit, as surely as the Soviets propelled Czechs to the West when they invaded in 1968.

Even here in the village, Ukrainians watch Russian television and loathe the propaganda portraying them as neo-Nazi thugs rampaging against Russian speakers.

“If you listen to them, we all carry assault rifles; we’re all beating people,” Ilya Moskal, a history teacher, said contemptuously.

For people with such fondness for American culture, there is disappointment that President Obama hasn’t embraced Ukraine more firmly. “The U.S. is being very slow and cautious,” said Anatoly Marinchuk, a retiree, scolding gently. “You should be firmer, and quicker with financial assistance.”

He’s right, I think.

It’s not just Ukrainians who are watching, and Putin himself, but all the world. We don’t have great tools, but we can do more.

As Wesley Clark and Phillip Karber, two American military experts, suggested in a report to the Obama administration, the United States can do a far better job supplying nonlethal assistance to the Ukrainian military, in part to deter Russia. We can make clearer that Russia would face devastating banking sanctions if it invades Ukraine. We can send more officials on visits, and Obama would warm hearts if he found a way to quote the national poet and hero, Taras Shevchenko.

We should take heart from the recognition that backing Ukraine places us on the right side of history. Ukraine has had wretched national leaders, so today leadership is coming from ordinary people who are driven by deep popular aspirations like those reverberating in my family’s ancestral village.

Without moving an inch, this village has been an ever-changing place. When my father was born, it was Austria-Hungary. Throughout his childhood, it was Romania. In the 1940s, it became the Soviet Union. In 1991, it became the Republic of Ukraine.

And, in 2014, by popular will, it is becoming part of the West.

Ukrainians hope to avoid a war with Russia that they know they would lose. But many believe deeply that their futures depend on reorienting their country to the West. That they won’t compromise on.

Ukraine faces difficult times ahead, but tectonic forces are propelling it westward. In the battle between Putin and Taylor Swift, I bet on Swift.

“We love your culture, and we want to be part of you,” one man from Donetsk told me, almost beseechingly. “If you abandon us, we will never forgive you.”

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

If you were on I-85 near Atlanta on Wednesday morning or I-95 near Baltimore on Thursday afternoon, there’s a chance you spotted them. You’d remember, especially if she was driving when they lumbered by. It’s not often that you see an 18-year-old girl behind the wheel of a gold-colored Cadillac so enormous, so archaic. And it’s not usually a 79-year-old man you find beside her, her lone companion on the long road.

What an odd-looking couple they must have been. But what a sweet affirmation. They were proof, these two, that a family can pass its painstakingly nurtured closeness down through the generations, and that there comes a moment when the values impressed on the youngest members of the brood — the values imposed on them, really — become the values they actually elect.

The 79-year-old is my father. Every year around this time, just before Easter, he migrates north from Georgia, where he spends the cold months, to New York, for the warm ones. He drives, and that makes my three siblings and me increasingly nervous, because he doesn’t have the energy he once did, because we’re worrywarts and because we’re determined to hold on to him for as long as we can.

We were especially concerned this year, when his wife, whom he met and married many years after our mother died, couldn’t join him for the ride. He was going to be piloting that grand and gleaming relic of his all alone.

Over email and phone, my brothers, my sister and I huddled, strategized: Could one of us cancel a few commitments, take two or three days off, figure out a way to tag along with him? Could we persuade him to let that happen?

My niece Leslie, the eldest of his nine grandchildren, caught wind of the conversation and piped up. She’d do it, she said. She’d go. She was in the final weeks of high school and, like most graduating seniors, just biding her time. She had no crucial exams to study for. No more standardized tests to take. And there wasn’t a chance in hell that Grandpa was going to turn her down.

She hopped on a plane from Los Angeles, where my brother Harry and his family live, to Atlanta, where the Cadillac idled. She climbed in and buckled up.

I called to check on her and Dad during the first leg of their two-day, 16-hour trip. He answered. He’d already ceded the driver’s seat, already grown accustomed to being chauffeured.

“You’re a veritable Miss Daisy,” I told him, and he passed the observation along to Leslie. She had no idea what we meant.

He said to me: “My firstborn granddaughter, come all this way to drive me. Can you believe it?”

I can, because he set this up to happen. Leslie is the return on an investment that he made across many decades, with so much of his time and so much of his heart.

He, my mother, my own grandparents and my aunts and uncles always taught my siblings and me to carve out space for family no matter what, to put relatives at the head of the line, to find gestures large and small by which you communicated that you cared and you never left that in doubt.

They methodically infused our get-togethers with a sense of occasion and an even more profound sense of gratitude, advertising and even amplifying their feelings about family as a way of bequeathing them. They wanted the compact that they’d established — the covenant that they’d built — to endure.

Tolstoy wasn’t on the mark. Not all happy families are alike. But all happy families — or, more accurately, all close ones — have this in common: Their bond is forged not by accident but by intent. They make a decision.

And their actions follow their resolve.

When I was growing up, my parents didn’t just take the four of us to see Grandma and Grandpa Bruni. They took us to see Grandma and Grandpa Bruni. The event had emotional italics; it was teased and promoted, like a new “Star Trek” movie.

That was true as well of visits to my aunts and uncles, and these relatives returned our excitement with exuberant welcomes and extravagant meals, sending the message that we were the most cherished creatures on earth. The prosciutto and the pasta and the cannoli had no end. The hugging went on and on.

My siblings and I wanted the same for their children — nine in all, starting with Leslie. This hasn’t been easy to pull off. We’re scattered across the map, so connecting the kids with their grandfather, with one another and with their aunts and uncles has often meant expensive flights, exhausting car rides.

This Easter weekend, my brother Mark and his children will drive nearly five hours each way between the Boston area and Princeton, N.J., for a 24-hour stay. I once flew from Rome to Boston just for a big birthday party for Mark. Everyone does whatever’s necessary for an annual beach week in June when we’re all together. We’re blessed to have the resources for it, and we’re determined that everything else on the calendar yield to it. It’s the priority.

And the kids are subjected to the precise molding and coaching that my siblings and I were. They get the same italics. Uncle Frank is picking a movie for you all to watch. Aunt Adelle is taking you snorkeling. Uncle Mark rented a boat.

And the most glittering promise, the ultimate prize: Grandpa is taking you to dinner.

Grandpa took Leslie to a Waffle House on the first day of their drive and then again on the second. They share, along with genes, an affinity for breakfast foods and carbohydrates.

They don’t share musical tastes, so for most of their trip, they left the radio off and just talked, treating the highway as memory lane. Grandpa told Leslie stories about the woman he still mourns: the grandmother she never got to know, whose first name she inherited. At one point he realized that he had a collection of greatest hits by the Platters with him, and he put it in the CD player, telling Leslie: This was the soundtrack of our romance.

They pulled into his driveway in the suburbs of New York City early Thursday evening, in time to freshen up and head out to a movie together. Afterward I got Leslie on the phone and asked her how it all went. She was still dumbstruck by the heft of Grandpa’s car.

“It’s like a boat,” she said. “It took me a while to realize that if I wanted to stop, I had to start braking really, really far in advance.”

In the background, Grandpa chimed in: “She’s a terrific little driver!”

I asked her about her plans for the next day, and whether she’d have dinner with me in Manhattan and stay over at my place. I was braced for rejection, or a grudging acceptance: An 18-year-old has better ways to spend a Friday night, and she’d surely overdosed on family by this point.

I underestimated her. I underestimated all of us.

“I’m seeing a friend in the city,” she told me, “but I’ll cut it off in time to meet you at the restaurant and spend the night with you,” she told me, sounding genuinely eager.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Totally,” she said. “This is more important.”

Dowd and Friedman

April 16, 2014

In “Game of Drones” MoDo says it just might be the right time for a “Top Gun” sequel, considering we’re already on the highway to the danger zone.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Not the Same Old, Same Old,” says we’re not dealing anymore with your grandfather’s Israel, and they’re not dealing anymore with your grandmother’s America either.  Here’s MoDo:

It will be tough to go into the big battle against drones without the irrepressible Goose.

And Tom Cruise, now 51, will no longer be playing a snot-nosed jockey with a need for speed on the highway to the danger zone. Three decades later, the mature Maverick will be a seasoned pilot with the chops to prove, as John Henry did against the steam-powered hammer, that man can beat machine. He won’t be going up against Russians in the Cold War, but robots in the Drone War. Instead of Cruise as a loose cannon, it will be Cruise fighting loose drones.

It was a sequel idea proposed by Tony Scott, who directed the blockbuster “Top Gun,” before he committed suicide in 2012.

Jerry Bruckheimer, who co-produced the 1986 movie, which he once described as “ ‘Star Wars’ on earth,” recently revealed to The Huffington Post that he and Cruise are getting “closer and closer” to a deal to make “Top Gun 2.”

“The concept is, basically: Are the pilots obsolete because of drones?” Bruckheimer said. “Cruise is going to show them that they’re not obsolete. That pilots are here to stay.” (With a hackneyed pitch like that, the producer can no doubt count on lavish Navy cooperation again.)

But the producer is missing a more original twist. Instead of unmanned planes controlled by terrorists, the drones could be an army of angry birds amassed by our computer overlords, Google, Facebook and Amazon. Every time one of the tech giants reveals it is venturing into the drone business, the rationale is presented purely as smart business, a benign and even benevolent expansion.

Amazon will be able to drop packages right on your lawn, or even your head. With fleets of solar-powered jet drones, Google and Facebook would be able to expand their customer bases by offering online access to poor and remote areas of the world devoid of telephone wires or cellphone towers.

On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal published a front-page article about Google outbidding Facebook to acquire a New Mexico start-up named Titan that makes solar-powered drones. Facebook then bought a British-based aerospace company that’s working on solar drones.

A Google spokesman said in a statement that “atmospheric satellites,” as Titan’s dragonfly-shaped, battery-powered, bigger-than-jetliners drones were being called, could “help solve other problems, including disaster relief and environmental damage like deforestation.”

But given the privacy breaches of Google and Facebook, and their collusion with N.S.A. spying, we can be forgiven for some skepticism about what happens when the omnivorous and omniscient tech behemoths acquire the extra-judicial killing machines.

“Zuckerberg Vows Facebook Will Shoot Down Google Drones,” Andy Borowitz proclaimed in The New Yorker.

Can we really trust Google, who stole millions of the world’s books and whose Street View vehicles secretly scooped up data around the world, with drones?

Patrick Egan, a Sacramento drone expert who runs a website on the subject, told me that we are already in the Kubrickian future. “Drones are legal in a lot of countries in Europe, and they’re legal in Japan,” he said. He asserts there are more than 14,000 certified drone operators in Japan.

So whether the F.A.A. likes it or not, we’ll soon have Minnesota ice fishermen getting beer delivered by a drone and maybe even the mythical TacoCopter.

My friend Jim Gleick, the author of “The Information” who is working on a book about time travel, is as leery as I am about the company whose unofficial motto is “Don’t Be Evil.”

“We’ve all learned that the nicest people with the best intentions are capable of bringing evil into the world,” he said. “No matter how sincere and idealistic they are, they are concentrating an enormous amount of power in our informational universe in a very small number of hands. A single, giant company responsible only to its managers can’t claim to have the world’s interests at heart. Ultimately, what Google does is for Google.”

He says while Facebook is merely creepy, with an intrusion into privacy that’s so blatant it’s part of the game, Google is “inescapable.”

“You can’t get through life anymore without using Google,” he said.

He said that he bought a Nest thermostat, which connects your home’s temperature to the Internet, and then Google bought Nest. “So now Google not only knows what books I’m reading,” he said, “but they also know whether I’m shivering while I’m reading them.”

Even before one falls from the sky and kills somebody or crashes into a building, the tech drones will mean, as Gleick says, “we’re living in a dystopian novel, with a continuous eye in the sky on everything that happens down below.”

He muses: “Are Google’s drones going to be watching while Amazon’s drones deliver my packages? How will we distinguish the drones with cameras from the drones with cameras and guns? How long before the N.R.A. insists on the rights of drones to bear arms? The Constitution says people have a right to bear arms. And the Supreme Court says that corporations are people. Do the math.”

Forget “Top Gun 2.” This sounds more like “Risky Business.”

Gawd, I’m glad I’m old enough to be dead before this plays all the way out…  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

At first, the article in The Jerusalem Post last week seemed like the same old, same old: A picture of a ransacked Israel Defense Forces post in the West Bank. Then a quote from Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon: “The State of Israel will not tolerate such criminal activity, which is terrorism in all respects.” Those Palestinians will never quit.

 Oh, wait a minute. Yaalon wasn’t talking about Palestinian terrorists. He was talking about Jewish terrorists, renegade settlers, who slashed the tires of an I.D.F. jeep parked in the settlement of Yitzhar, after Israeli soldiers came to demolish illegal buildings. “Settlers clashed with security forces during Monday night’s demolition and lightly injured six officers,” The Post reported. “A group of 50 to 60 settlers then raided an army post located to the west of the settlement, destroying generators, army equipment, heaters and diesel fuel tanks.” Israel’s justice minister, Tzipi Livni, warned that extremist settlers had crossed a line: “An ideology has flourished that does not recognize the rule of law, that does not recognize us or what we represent.”

These small stories tell a bigger one: We’re not dealing anymore with your grandfather’s Israel, and they’re not dealing anymore with your grandmother’s America either. Time matters, and the near half-century since the 1967 war has changed both of us in ways neither wants to acknowledge — but which the latest impasse in talks only underscores.

Israel, from its side, has become a more religious society — on Friday nights in Jerusalem now you barely see a car moving on the streets in Jewish neighborhoods, which only used to be the case on Yom Kippur — and the settlers are clearly more brazen. Many West Bank settlers are respectful of the state, but there is now a growing core who are armed zealots, who will fight the I.D.F. if it tries to remove them. You did not go to summer camp with these Jews. You did not meet them at your local Reform synagogue. This is a hard core.

But even the more tame settlers are more dominant than ever in the Likud Party and in the Israeli army officer corps. It is not a fiction to say today that the Likud prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, represents the “center” of Israel’s right-wing bloc. And it is not an accident that Israel’s housing minister, Uri Ariel, who comes from a pro-settler party to the right of the Likud, approved a tender for 700 homes in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood, across the Green Line — just as Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace talks were coming to a head. As Minister Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator, put it: “Minister Ariel purposefully and intentionally did what he did to torpedo” the peace talks.

There are now about 350,000 Jews living in the West Bank. It took 50,000 Israeli police and soldiers to remove 8,000 settlers from Gaza, who barely resisted. I fear the lift in the West Bank to make peace there is now just too heavy for conventional politics and diplomacy. The only way settler resistance can be trumped would be by a prime minister, and an Israeli majority, who were really excited about the prospects for peace or truly frightened of the alternative.

But I do not believe Netanyahu will ever be anything other than ambivalent. And his ambivalence is reinforced by many factors: Israel today is so much more powerful, economically and militarily, than the Palestinians; Israeli (and Palestinian) security forces have effectively shut down Palestinian suicide bombers and the Israel lobby in Washington has effectively shut down any pressure from the White House or Congress. Israel has never been so insulated.

But these are not your grandfather’s Palestinians either. There is a young generation emerging that increasingly has no faith in their parents’ negotiations with the Jews, have no desire to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” and would rather demand the right to vote in a one-state solution.

At the same time, America has changed. There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when the fate of the Middle East was critical to our economy. After all, there had been an Arab oil embargo in 1973. And, strategically, the Middle East was seen as the arena most likely to trigger a U.S.-U.S.S.R. nuclear war. Peacemaking in Henry Kissinger’s day was a necessity. Today it is a hobby. It is not an unimportant hobby: If Israelis and Palestinians go back to war, it surely would make an unstable region more unstable, creating myriad difficulties for the U.S.  But urgent? America will become the world’s largest oil producer by 2015, and the Soviet Union no longer exists.

The truth is Kerry’s mission is less an act of strategy and more an act of deep friendship. It is America trying to save Israel from trends that will inevitably undermine it as a Jewish and democratic state. But Kerry is the last of an old guard. Those in the Obama administration who think he is on a suicide mission reflect the new U.S. attitude toward the region. And those in Israel who denounce him as a nuisance reflect the new Israel.

Kerry, in my view, is doing the Lord’s work. But the weight of time and all the changes it has wrought on the ground may just be too heavy for such an act of friendship. If he folds his tent, though, Israelis and Palestinians will deeply regret it, and soon.

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

April 13, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has extruded something called “Diversity and Dishonesty” in which he whines that Mozilla and Brandeis may preach pluralism, but it’s a sham.  “Gemli” from Boston had this to say in the comments:  “There may be a reason that certain institutions “…support diversity, but only as the left defines it.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard the right’s definition of diversity, unless it’s their tendency to treat everyone who doesn’t look like them with equal disdain.”  MoDo, in “A Wit for All Seasons,” says with a quicksilver wit and basic decency, Colbert’s the real deal.  This may be the first column in years where she doesn’t take a gratuitous slap at Obama or Clinton.  The Moustache of Wisdom says “Go Ahead, Vladimir, Make My Day.”  He opines that a Russian gas embargo might be just what the world needs. Seriously.  “Victor” in Cold Spring, NY had this to say:  “Whoa! That’s some pretty tough talk there “Dirty Tommy”. I’m sure you got Vlad shaking in his boots at the prospect of the west going solar in retaliation for a brutal annexation of Ukraine through gas pipeline extortion. This is like some junior high-schooler’s mixed metaphor.”  Mr. Kristof, in “A Loyal Soldier Doesn’t Deserve This,” says here’s a veteran who risked his life and sacrificed his mind for his country. He asks what are we doing for him in return?  Mr. Bruni considers “Women’s Unequal Lot” and says the 77-cent figure so loosely tossed around misrepresents the pay gap and its roots.  Here’s The Putz:

Earlier this year, a column by a Harvard undergraduate named Sandra Y. L. Korn briefly achieved escape velocity from the Ivy League bubble, thanks to its daring view of how universities should approach academic freedom.

Korn proposed that such freedom was dated and destructive, and that a doctrine of “academic justice” should prevail instead. No more, she wrote, should Harvard permit its faculty to engage in “research promoting or justifying oppression” or produce work tainted by “racism, sexism, and heterosexism.” Instead, academic culture should conform to left-wing ideas of the good, beautiful and true, and decline as a matter of principle “to put up with research that counters our goals.”

No higher-up at Harvard endorsed her argument, of course. But its honesty of purpose made an instructive contrast to the institutional statements put out in the immediate aftermath of two recent controversies — the resignation of the Mozilla Foundation’s C.E.O., Brendan Eich, and the withdrawal, by Brandeis University, of the honorary degree it had promised to the human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

In both cases, Mozilla and Brandeis, there was a striking difference between the clarity of what had actually happened and the evasiveness of the official responses to the events. Eich stepped down rather than recant his past support for the view that one man and one woman makes a marriage; Hirsi Ali’s invitation was withdrawn because of her sweeping criticisms of Islamic culture. But neither the phrase “marriage” nor the word “Islam” appeared in the initial statements Mozilla and Brandeis released.

Instead, the Mozilla statement rambled in the language of inclusion: “Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness. … Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions. …”

The statement on Hirsi Ali was slightly more direct, saying that “her past statements … are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” But it never specified what those statements or those values might be — and then it fell back, too, on pieties about diversity: “In the spirit of free expression that has defined Brandeis University throughout its history, Ms. Hirsi Ali is welcome to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.”

What both cases illustrate, with their fuzzy rhetoric masking ideological pressure, is a serious moral defect at the heart of elite culture in America.

The defect, crucially, is not this culture’s bias against social conservatives, or its discomfort with stinging attacks on non-Western religions. Rather, it’s the refusal to admit — to others, and to itself — that these biases fundamentally trump the commitment to “free expression” or “diversity” affirmed in mission statements and news releases.

This refusal, this self-deception, means that we have far too many powerful communities (corporate, academic, journalistic) that are simultaneously dogmatic and dishonest about it — that promise diversity but only as the left defines it, that fill their ranks with ideologues and then claim to stand athwart bias and misinformation, that speak the language of pluralism while presiding over communities that resemble the beau ideal of Sandra Y. L. Korn.

Harvard itself is a perfect example of this pattern: As Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame pointed out when the column was making waves, Korn could only come up with one contemporary example of a Harvardian voice that ought to be silenced — “a single conservative octogenarian,” the political philosophy professor Harvey Mansfield. Her call for censorship, Deneen concluded, “is at this point almost wholly unnecessary, since there are nearly no conservatives to be found at Harvard.”

I am (or try to be) a partisan of pluralism, which requires respecting Mozilla’s right to have a C.E.O. whose politics fit the climate of Silicon Valley, and Brandeis’s right to rescind degrees as it sees fit, and Harvard’s freedom to be essentially a two-worldview community, with a campus shared uneasily by progressives and corporate neoliberals, and a small corner reserved for token reactionary cranks.

But this respect is difficult to maintain when these institutions will not admit that this is what is going on. Instead, we have the pretense of universality — the insistence that the post-Eich Mozilla is open to all ideas, the invocations of the “spirit of free expression” from a school that’s kicking a controversial speaker off the stage.

And with the pretense, increasingly, comes a dismissive attitude toward those institutions — mostly religious — that do acknowledge their own dogmas and commitments, and ask for the freedom to embody them and live them out.

It would be a far, far better thing if Harvard and Brandeis and Mozilla would simply say, explicitly, that they are as ideologically progressive as Notre Dame is Catholic or B. Y.U. is Mormon or Chick-fil-A is evangelical, and that they intend to run their institution according to those lights.

I can live with the progressivism. It’s the lying that gets toxic.

If anyone knows about lying it’s a Republican…  Here’s MoDo:

I don’t remember much about being on Stephen Colbert’s show.

It all passed in a blur of fear.

I remember him coming into the makeup room to remind me that he was going to be in character as a jerk.

I remember that he held up my book about gender and asked if it was “soft-core porn.”

I remember he asked me if I wanted to hold his Peabody and I told him I did, so he jumped up to grab the TV award from the mantel.

The experience reminded me of a 1937 musical called “A Damsel in Distress,” where Fred Astaire guided Joan Fontaine, clearly not a dancer, around a lawn, soaring for both of them.

Colbert was as quicksilver with his wit as Fred was with his feet. And like Astaire’s more talented partner Ginger Rogers, who had to dance backward and in heels, Colbert was doing two things at once that were very hard. He was dazzling as a satirist and improv comedian while mimicking a buffoonish right-wing broadcaster.

Jon Stewart once described the level of difficulty to me this way: “It’s as though you’re doing your show in Portuguese.”

The reason “The Colbert Report” worked, Stewart said, when I interviewed the two comics for Rolling Stone in 2006, was that Colbert could act like an obnoxious egoist, but his “basic decency can’t be hidden.”

Colbert is witty and a good interrogator without being twisted, as Johnny Carson was.

He’s inventive, like the comic genius he will replace, but not tortured like David Letterman.

In person, Colbert is a nice guy, but not as monologue-monomaniacal as Jay Leno. Colbert has lived the life of a suburban soccer dad and Catholic Church-going Sunday school teacher in Montclair, N.J., with a beautiful wife he’s nuts about, Evie McGee, and three kids.

He’s not an ingratiating boy next door, like Jimmy Fallon, or a scorchingly candid curmudgeon, like Letterman.

No one, including the CBS president, Les Moonves, and the host himself, is sure what his new show will be like because we’ve so rarely seen Colbert when he wasn’t playing a character.

And it’s a sad double blow, after all. It’s not only Letterman who’s retiring, but the blowhard doppelgänger of Colbert.

Carson was the Walter Lippmann of comedy, wielding enormous influence over the reputations of politicians he mocked. Stewart and Colbert took it a step further. They became Murrow and Cronkite for a generation of young viewers.

It was a measure of how seriously Washington viewed Colbert that in 2007, Rahm Emanuel, then the Democratic Caucus chairman, told freshman Democrats to stay off Colbert’s show. And Colbert has to be the only person who testified before Congress as a bit.

Rush Limbaugh and some other conservatives bristled at news that Colbert was moving to the more mainstream network platform; they know he can be brilliantly effective about the absurdity and doublespeak of politics.

“CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America,” Limbaugh said.

Colbert said in the Rolling Stone interview that his agenda was humor, not social change, noting: “Peter Cook was once asked if he thought that satire had a political effect. He said, ‘Absolutely, the greatest satire of the 20th century was the Weimar cabaret, and they stopped Hitler in his tracks.’ ”

Except for supporting J.F.K., Colbert’s parents were not very political or liberal. Colbert kept a Nixon poster above his office desk. “Nixon was the last liberal president,” he told me. “He supported women’s rights, the environment, ending the draft, youth involvement, and now he’s the boogeyman?”

After his famous appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006, where he sliced W. so surgically that the speech, which fell flat in the room, went viral on liberal websites, Colbert looked shaken.

“I didn’t want to be subversive,” he told me. “I just wanted to be funny.” He said he was not trying to throw a Molotov cocktail, as a critic charged. He agreed with one of his writers, who told him, “You threw a bottle of grape soda that happened to have a lit rag in the neck, and the room was soaked with gasoline.”

He describes himself as “an omnivore,” who loves everything from “A Man for All Seasons” to “Jackass,” from hip-hop to Ovid in the original Latin.

He had 10 older siblings. But after his father and the two brothers closest to him in age died in a plane crash when he was 10 and the older kids went off to college, he said, he was “pretty much left to himself, with a lot of books.”

He said he loved the “strange, sad poetry” of a song called “Holland 1945” by an indie band from Athens, Ga., called Neutral Milk Hotel and sent me the lyrics, which included this heartbreaking bit:

“But now we must pick up every piece

Of the life we used to love

Just to keep ourselves

At least enough to carry on. . . .

And here is the room where your brothers were born

Indentions in the sheets

Where their bodies once moved but don’t move anymore.”

And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

So the latest news is that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has threatened to turn off gas supplies to Ukraine if Kiev doesn’t pay its overdue bill, and, by the way, Ukraine’s pipelines are the transit route for 15 percent of gas consumption for Europe. If I’m actually rooting for Putin to go ahead and shut off the gas, does that make me a bad guy?

Because that is what I’m rooting for, and I’d be happy to subsidize Ukraine through the pain. Because such an oil shock, though disruptive in the short run, could have the same long-term impact as the 1973 Arab oil embargo — only more so. That 1973 embargo led to the first auto mileage standards in America and propelled the solar, wind and energy efficiency industries. A Putin embargo today would be even more valuable because it would happen at a time when the solar, wind, natural gas and energy efficiency industries are all poised to take off and scale. So Vladimir, do us all a favor, get crazy, shut off the oil and gas to Ukraine and, even better, to all of Europe. Embargo! You’ll have a great day, and the rest of the planet will have a great century.

“Clean energy is at an inflection point,” explains Hal Harvey, C.E.O. of Energy Innovation. “The price reductions in the last five years have been nothing less than spectacular: Solar cells, for example, have dropped in cost by more than 80 percent in the last five years. This trend is underway, if a bit less dramatically, for wind, batteries, solid state lighting, new window technologies, vehicle drive trains, grid management, and more. What this means is that clean energy is moving from boutique to mainstream, and that opens up a wealth of opportunities.”

New houses in California now use one-fourth of the energy they used 25 years ago, added Harvey. Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford are in a contest to make the most efficient pickup — because their customers want to spend less on gasoline — so they are deploying new engines and lighter truck bodies. Texas now has enough wind to power more than 3 million homes. New Jersey generates more solar watts per person than California.

And check out Opower, which just went public. Opower works with utilities and consumers to lower electricity usage and bills using behavioral economics, explained Alex Laskey, the company’s co-founder, at their Arlington, Va., office. They do it by giving people personalized communications that display in simple, clear terms how their own energy usage compares with that of their neighbors. Once people understand where they are wasting energy — and how they compare with their neighbors — many start consuming less. And, as their consumption falls, utilities can meet their customers’ demand without having to build new power plants to handle peak loads a few days of the year. Everybody wins. Opower just signed up the Tokyo Electric Power Company and its 20 million homes.

Putting all its customers together since it was founded in 2007, said Laskey, Opower has already saved about “4 terawatt hours of energy” and expects to be soon saving that annually. The Hoover Dam produces about 4 terawatts hours of energy a year. So we just got a new Hoover Dam — for free — in Arlington, Va.

A gas embargo by Putin would also reinforce the message of the United Nations’ latest climate report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned with greater confidence than ever that human-created carbon emissions are steadily melting more ice, creating more dangerous sea level rise, stressing ecosystems around the globe and creating more ocean acidification, from oceans absorbing more C02, posing “a fundamental challenge to marine organisms and ecosystems.”

Sunday, at 10 p.m. Eastern time, Showtime will begin airing a compelling nine-part series, called “Years of Living Dangerously,” about how environmental and climate stresses affect real people. The first episode features Harrison Ford confronting Indonesian officials about the runaway deforestation in one of their national parks, Don Cheadle following evangelicals in Texas wrestling with the tension between their faith and what is happening to their environment, and this columnist exploring how the prolonged drought in Syria contributed to the uprising there. The ninth episode is an in-depth interview with President Obama on environment and climate issues.

I asked Harrison Ford, a longtime board member of Conservation International, whether working on the documentary left him feeling it was all too late. “It isn’t too late; it can’t be too late,” he said. “Is it too late to teach our kids the difference between right and wrong? If we are not ready to redress something happening on our watch, how can we expect our kids to do something about it?” Remember, he added, “nature will be just fine without us. Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature. That is why we can’t save ourselves without saving nature.”

Ford is right. We can still do this. We are closer to both irreversible dangers on climate and scale solutions on clean tech than people realize. Just a little leadership now by America — or a little scare by Putin — would make a big difference.

Correction: April 12, 2014

I have no idea what the correction is or was, as the Times neglected to actually put it on the web site.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

The only reason he is alive, says Mike Yurchison, is his girlfriend, Leigh Anna Landsberger. She sits with him through endless waits at Veterans Affairs, whispering that he’s smarter than she is even if his brain is damaged. She helps him through his seizures, and she nags him to overcome drug addiction.

Leigh Anna gave Mike, 34, something to live for after his brother, an Iraq veteran confronting similar torment, died of a drug overdose, an apparent suicide. She talked him through his grief after the suicide of another Army buddy, Jake, the one who persuaded them to move to Dallas from their native Ohio.

“If it wasn’t for her, I’d be dead right now,” Mike told me. “It was her that got me to start feeling human.”

Yet the shadow of war is difficult to escape, and a United States veteran still kills himself (or, sometimes, herself) almost once each hour. A few weeks ago, Leigh Anna returned the ring Mike had given to her and called off their engagement. She says she still loves Mike, but she is 26 and full of dreams, and he’s a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury that, for all his intelligence, leaves him speaking slowly and sometimes sounding punch drunk. He muddles his age, forgets his address, struggles to hold a job, and he isn’t getting much help from Veterans Affairs.

“I want a family, and I want a lot of things girls want,” Leigh Anna told me, crying softly. “There are things I’m giving up.”

Leigh Anna has stood by Mike for three and a half years, but how much does a girlfriend sign on for? She isn’t sure what to think now. “I’m taking it a day at a time,” she said.

Iraq is but a fading memory for most Americans, and Afghanistan may soon recede as well. But for countless others like Mike and Leigh Anna, the war continues and will for decades to come.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says that it has made progress in reducing its backlog in processing disability compensation claims, but critics say that is because of the way it defines the backlog — and many hundreds of thousands of veterans are still awaiting decisions.

Likewise, the V.A. has improved suicide prevention work, but, by all accounts, it’s not enough, so that veterans are dying unnecessarily.

Mike signed up to join the Army a month after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 as an act of patriotism. “I wanted to go to war and do my part,” he said. I first wrote about him two years ago in a column about the apparent suicide of his younger brother, Ryan Yurchison, who had looked up to Mike and signed up for the Army after he did.

Then a bit more than a month ago, I heard from Cheryl DeBow, the mother of Ryan and Mike.

“I am fearing I may lose my other son as well,” Ms. DeBow tells me, speaking of Mike. “It it’s becoming déjà vu and truly scares me.”

When Mike went to war he was, like Ryan, strong and healthy. So when he returned, Ms. DeBow couldn’t believe the difference. “When he got off the plane from Iraq, his body was shaking and so stiff when I went to hug him,” she said. “It’s as if he wasn’t there.”

He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. (Of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have been treated by the V.A., 55 percent have been diagnosed with a mental disorder.) He says that military doctors prescribed anxiety medication and painkillers that left him addicted to opiates.

Mike suffers from occasional seizures, in which his mouth foams and he becomes as stiff as a board, stops breathing and turns blue. He never had these before the war, and doctors can’t explain them.

Although his mom and girlfriend worry about suicide risks, Mike told me that the thought has barely crossed his mind. I don’t know whether to believe him. He also said: “This is probably going to sound weird, but with my brother dying, then Jake, I keep feeling death is, like, closing in on me. It’s a horrible feeling. It’s almost like this war had a curse, and if you didn’t die there, you’ll die at home. I don’t know why so many veterans are dying at home.”

Mike is also haunted by a particular incident. On an officer’s order in Iraq, he shot a young girl who the officer feared was wearing a suicide vest. The girl died, blood was everywhere, there was no suicide vest — and Mike was shattered.

So the Iraq war goes on in Mike’s head.

The Department of Veterans Affairs rates him 30 percent disabled and pays him a monthly stipend. Mike is stoical and reluctant to complain, saying he knew the risks when he signed up. He has appealed for a higher fraction of disability payment because he is struggling economically.

That’s common. The unemployment rate for veterans who joined the service after 9/11 is higher than the civilian rate, and the homelessness rate for such veterans is significantly higher than for other adults.

Mike periodically visits V.A. doctors but finds them unhelpful, and he gave up on an addiction program because of a long waiting list. An outside doctor prescribes him medicine to help wean him off opiates (and his family says he is making progress), but he has to pay for the doctor and medicine himself.

As for his mental health, he’s not hopeful. “In a lot of ways, it’s getting worse,” he said.

So the pain lingers in Mike, in Leigh Anna, in Ms. DeBow’s fears for her son — and in so many homes across America. These are the families that sometimes wish the injuries were the obvious ones, the amputations or scars that the public recognizes and honors, rather than mental health concerns that are stigmatizing.

Mike agreed to share his story and be photographed, despite embarrassment and innate reluctance, in hopes that the attention might help other veterans in need of assistance.

There are no simple answers, of course, but we as a country can do so much more for these veterans and their loved ones. If we have the wherewithal to repair armored vehicles, we can at least try to repair the people like Pvt. Mike Yurchison who served in them. “My heart is breaking not just for a second son I could lose,” said Ms. DeBow, “but for all those we will lose as well due to government apathy.”

The goddamn Republicans howl about “supporting the troops” while they cut the budgets that actually might.  To say nothing of sending them off to be cannon fodder because of a pack of lies.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

I dropped in on my sister last week. As usual, I was amazed.

I work a single job; she works three or four. There’s her paid one at an executive search firm, finding and screening candidates for corner offices in the retail industry. Then there are the others.

She spends many hours daily as a combined chauffeur, drill sergeant, cheerleader and emotional nursemaid for her two children and two stepchildren. During my visit, on Wednesday night, our chat was interrupted repeatedly so that she could tangle with her son about an unfinished school essay or field questions from her daughter about softball.

She’s the vice president of her New Jersey township’s board of education, because she feels an obligation to better the community in which her kids live. And she’s hosting our family’s Easter celebration, when 20 of us will descend on her. I could see the extra stress settling in. Like too many women, she frets that the smoothness with which she pulls off a holiday is a verdict on her character, her femininity.

Her husband’s a champ. He pitches in, lavishly. But the buck really does stop with her.

Although she’s had enormous professional success, being a woman has surely constrained her. She chose employment that allows her to telecommute frequently, a necessary aspect of her juggling act.

It’s also entirely possible that some of the positions she has held would have paid her more if she were a man.

But the disparities that she faces are so much more complicated than her salary. Decades into the discussion about how to ensure women’s equality, we have a culture that still places a different set of expectations and burdens on women and that still nudges or even shames them into certain roles.

There was too little recognition of that last week at the White House, where President Obama practiced the timeless political art of oversimplification, reducing a messy reality into a tidy figure and saying that working women make only 77 cents for every dollar that working men earn. He left the impression that this was principally the consequence of direct discrimination in the form of unequal pay for the same job.

Some of it is, and that’s flatly unacceptable.

But most of it isn’t. And the misuse of the 77-cent statistic could actually hurt the important cause of giving women a fair shake, because it allows people who don’t value that goal a way to discredit those of us who do, and because it gives short shrift to dynamics that must be a part of any meaningful, truthful, constructive discussion.

The 77-cent figure speaks to the earnings of all women and all men classified as full-time workers. But it doesn’t adjust for the longer hours that such men generally work. It doesn’t factor in the paychecks of the many men and women who are employed part time.

When all of that comes into play and hourly income is calculated, women make 84 cents for every dollar that men do, according to the Pew Research Center. Even that 16-cent difference, though, isn’t entirely about women earning less money for the same work. It’s influenced by many factors, including the greater percentage of women who slow down their careers because of child-rearing responsibilities and fall behind.

To wit: Among younger women, many of whom have yet to hit that pause button, the hourly “wage gap” is 93 cents on the dollar, according to Pew’s number crunching. Other analyses reach similar conclusions.

In the White House, women made 88 cents for every dollar that men did last year, according to a review by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and salaries there are determined by hierarchical rank, not managerial discretion. What created the gap wasn’t unequal pay for equal work; it was a concentration of women in lower positions. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, explained this as if it were some sort of exoneration, when it merely raises other, bigger questions. At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and elsewhere, why are so many women at the bottom?

PATRIARCHIES, like old habits, die hard. In many arenas, we’re simply accustomed to being led by men. It’s our default, our fallback. With Stephen Colbert’s appointment last week to replace David Letterman, we’ve continued a period of intense shuffling of the late-night chairs, and each one that belonged to a man went to another man. Chelsea Handler is ending her own show; the days when Joan Rivers was a guest host for Johnny Carson are long gone; and on the major networks around midnight, it’s a boys’ club. Women get to tuck in the children, but not the national television audience.

By suggesting that the chief culprit for women’s inferior earnings is discriminatory pay, the 77-cent figure lets too many men off the hook, not forcing them to confront their culpability as bosses who care too little for women’s advancement, as husbands who prioritize their own careers and as fathers who don’t participate fully around the house.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, the sociologist who examined the burden of working women in the book “The Second Shift,” told me that since its publication 25 years ago, men have improved — but not enough. Back then, she said, “If you put a woman’s paid and unpaid labor beside her husband’s, and they both worked full time and had kids under 6, she was working an extra month.” Now, she said, it’s an extra two weeks.

That situation, she cautioned, pertains largely to affluent women. For less affluent ones, the issue is often men who are entirely absent. Equal-pay legislation doesn’t begin to address what these women need.

If we’re concerned about them, if we’re concerned about all working women, we have to talk about child care, flexible hours, paid leave. We have to talk about gender stereotypes and whether they steer women into professions with lower compensation. We have to talk about the choices that women make and which of those they feel muscled into.

Obama acknowledged that much only after he dwelt on the 77 cents. “We got to make it possible for more women to enter high-paying fields,” he said, going on to note, “Fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies have women at the helm.”

Being at the helm would probably push my sister over the edge. I checked in with her on Friday at noon, by which point she had driven her son to school, attended a board of education meeting elsewhere, returned to her son’s school for a conference and then gone to the doctor to deal with a case of conjunctivitis — in both of her eyes — and a sore throat. She had hoped, but failed, to get her broken eyeglasses fixed somewhere along the way.

“How can I place senior executives when I’m facing my son’s headmaster with glasses at a 45-degree angle on my head and pinkeye?” she said, with the kind of laugh that’s a sob in drag. “I look like a total hot mess.” Or a cautionary tale. Or, to me, a superhero.

Dowd and Friedman

April 9, 2014

MoDo and The Moustache of Wisdom both have questions to ask today.  MoDo continues the Times’ apparently unending series of apple-polishing pieces on the Bush family.  In “Jeb in the Vortex” she asks this:  In today’s fire-breathing Republican Party, is Jeb Bush’s race over before it begins?  We can but pray…  In “Playing Hockey With Putin” The Moustache of Wisdom asks his question too:  Is the West serious or not about facing off against Russia?  Here’s MoDo, calling W a “raffish Roman candle:”

The epic sibling drama of the Republican Party is finally coming to a climax.

For many years, George and Barbara Bush assumed that their second son, Jeb, would be a winner in politics, while W., their eldest, would be a loser.

Jeb was the prince of the dynasty, destined to be king. (Poppy Bush would only call their dynasty “the d word,” wrinkling his nose in a vain attempt to seem like a Greenwich populist.)

The raffish, Roman candle, W., on the other hand, was discouraged by his mother from running for governor of Texas when his father was in the White House. Bar also did not want W. to run for that office in 1993 at the same time that Jeb was running for governor of Florida, for fear that W. would divert too much money from the Bush Rolodex of donors and turn the contest into “a People magazine story,” as Jeb resignedly called it back when he told me he couldn’t “control” his older brother.

Democrats began mocking them during their twin races as “Tweedledee and Tweedledum,” especially after W. began stealing Jeb’s best campaign lines. Yet when I covered the fraternal gubernatorial bids in the South, it was quickly apparent that W. had a crackle that Jeb did not have, not to mention a crack consultant: Karl Rove. W. was driven by a zeal to prove his parents wrong, one of the most powerful impulses on earth.

Jeb, the Good Son, seemed more phlegmatic, bogged down in wonky discourse about “visioning,” “prioritizing,” “empowering” and “sharing a good exchange of ideas.”

Jeb lost his race and W. won his, starting the reversal that would lead to W. becoming the black-sheep king, once Jeb had helped secure Florida for him. Now Jeb has to figure out if W. has fouled the waters forever, or if Americans, lulled by the ex-president’s winsome paintings, have grown less disgusted by his disastrous wars, misadventures in torture and economic belly flop. Jeb’s father desperately wants him to run and his mother now says it would be O.K., despite her reservations about two families trading Air Force One back and forth.

As Hillary Clinton prepares to restore her dynasty, Jeb Bush is dropping a handkerchief about restoring his.

He has campaigned for Republicans around the country and influential donors in the G.O.P. have started a draft-Jeb movement. He was the speaker at a V.I.P. dinner in Las Vegas with Sheldon Adelson. He has reached out to Southern evangelical leaders. And he had a star turn at the 25th anniversary celebration of his father’s presidency over the weekend at the George H.W. Bush library in College Station, Tex.

But is Jeb’s race over before it begins? He would be running, after all, to lead a party he seems to disdain, a party that has become so fragmented and pulled to the right that it would rather lose the election than be led by someone as moderate as Jeb Bush. Even W. is considered a liberal in today’s fire-breathing G.O.P.

“I do think we’ve lost our way,” Jeb said in an interview on stage with a Fox News reporter, urging Republicans to move out of Crazy Town: “We need to elect candidates that have a vision that is bigger and broader, and candidates that are organized around winning the election, not making a point.”

Sounding nostalgic for a world before Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, the 61-year-old said he would only run if he could bring a “hopeful” message and campaign “joyfully,” avoiding “the vortex of the mud fight.”

Then he stumbled into the vortex by repeating his support for Common Core education standards and by trying to inject some compassion into the immigration issue, which sends older, white Tea Partiers into frenzies of fanaticism.

“Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony,” he said of illegal immigrants sneaking into the country to provide for their families. “It’s an act of love.” (Jeb has been married to the Mexican-born Columba for 40 years.)

Karl Rove and Bill Kristol mused that Jeb’s “Bulworth” moment, as Politico dubbed it, may show he’s been out of the mix for too long. Conservative columnist Byron York suggested that the “mud-fight-averse” Jeb “just doesn’t seem like a politician in top fighting shape.” Michelle Malkin tweeted: “He’s pro-amnesty, pro-Common Core, pro-Big Business & he wants to be president. #CancelJebBush.” Marco Rubio said he would not step aside for his mentor in a presidential race. And Stephen Colbert eulogized, “He will be missed.”

Some of those close to Jeb say he’s serious about running and bringing back a civil tone to Republican politics. Others say he needs to act as though he’s running to keep his speaking fees high and options open. Rush Limbaugh thinks Jeb’s “act of love” comment was a gambit to tick off the Tea Party and “get the conservative backlash to him out of the way.”

Jeb thinks Republicans have lost their way. He may soon learn that a lot of conservatives think they have found their way — and it’s not the joyful, loving, government-can-be-a-force-for-good way. It’s the mean, cruel, gut-the-government way.

When this crowd thinks of a Thousand Points of Light, they’re thinking of torches as they march toward the Capitol.

Now we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

Shortly before the Sochi Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin played in an exhibition hockey game there. In retrospect, he was clearly warming up for his takeover of Crimea. Putin doesn’t strike me as a chess player, in geopolitical terms. He prefers hockey, without a referee, so elbowing, tripping and cross-checking are all permitted. Never go to a hockey game with Putin and expect to play by the rules of touch football. The struggle over Ukraine is a hockey game, with no referee. If we’re going to play — we, the Europeans and the pro-Western Ukrainians need to be serious. If we’re not, we need to tell the Ukrainians now: Cut the best deal with Putin that you can.

Are we serious? It depends on the meaning of the word “serious.” It starts with recognizing what a huge lift it will be to help those Ukrainians who want to break free of Russia’s orbit. Are we and our allies ready — through the International Monetary Fund — to finance Ukraine’s massive rebuilding and fuel needs, roughly $14 billion for starters, knowing that this money is going to a Ukrainian government that, before the overthrow of the previous president, ranked 144 out of 177 on the Transparency International list of most corrupt countries in the world, equal with Nigeria?

Moreover, we can’t help Ukraine unless we and the European Union have a serious renewable energy and economic sanctions strategy — which requires us to sacrifice — to undermine Putin and Putinism, because Ukraine will never have self-determination as long as Putin and Putinism thrive. Putin’s foreign policy and domestic policy are inextricably linked: His domestic policy of looting Russia and keeping himself permanently in power with oil and gas revenue, despite a weakening economy, seems to require adventures like Ukraine that gin up nationalism and anti-Westernism to distract the Russian public. And are we ready to play dirty, too? Putin is busy using pro-Russian Ukrainian proxies to take over government buildings in Eastern Ukraine — to lay the predicate either for a Russian invasion there or de facto control there by Russia’s allies.

Finally, being serious about Russia means being serious about learning from our big mistake after the Berlin Wall fell. And that was thinking that we could expand NATO — when Russia was at its weakest and most democratic — and Russians wouldn’t care. It was thinking we could treat a democratic Russia like an enemy, as if the Cold War were still on, and expect Russia to cooperate with us as if the Cold War were over — and not produce an anti-Western backlash like Putinism.

As the historian Walter Russell Mead put it in a blog post: “The Big Blini that the West has never faced up to [is]: What is our Russia policy? Where does the West see Russia fitting into the international system? Ever since the decisions to expand NATO and the E.U. were taken in the Clinton administration, Western policy towards Russia … had two grand projects for the post-Soviet space: NATO and the E.U. would expand into the Warsaw Pact areas and into the former Soviet Union, but Russia itself was barred from both. … As many people pointed out in the 1990s, this strategy was asking for trouble.”

One of those pointing that out was George Kennan, the architect of containment and opponent of NATO expansion. I interviewed him about it in this column on May 2, 1998, right after the Senate ratified NATO expansion. Kennan was 94. He had been a U.S. ambassador in Moscow. He knew we were not being serious.

“I think it is the beginning of a new Cold War,” Kennan said to me of NATO expansion. “I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the founding fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a lighthearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.”

“What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was,” added Kennan. “I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime. And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia. It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course, there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.”

We need a strategy to help Ukraine and to undermine Putinism today — and to reintegrate Russia tomorrow. It’s a big, big lift. So let’s be honest with ourselves and with the Ukrainians. If Putin’s playing hockey and we’re not, Ukrainians need to know that now.

Just itching for more war, aren’t you Tommy…  How many Friedman Units do you think this one will take?

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

April 6, 2014

In “Health Care Without End” The Pasty Little Putz babbles that Americans will still be arguing about Obamacare in 2030.  He’s wrong again, but that’s nothing new.  MoDo squeals “Bring Me My Dragons!”  She’s been watching TV again, and of course manages to get in her de rigeur slap at Obama.  Same old, same old…  In “Sheldon: Iran’s Best Friend” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us how Sheldon Adelson and Iran are both trying to destroy Israel.  Mr. Kristof tells us of a young woman with a lesson for graduates about the meaning of life in “Her First, And Last, Book.”  Mr. Bruni ponders “The New Gay Orthodoxy” and says the ouster of Mozilla’s chief executive suggests a shrinking room for debate.  Here’s The Putz:

So you think it’s finished? So you think now that enrollment has hit seven million, now that the president has declared the debate over repeal “over,” now that Republican predictions of a swift Obamacare unraveling look a bit like Republican predictions of a Romney landslide, we’re going to stop arguing about health care, stop having the issue dominate the conversation, and turn at last to some other debate instead?

You think it’s over? It’s never over.

I mean, O.K., it will be over in the event of a nuclear war, or a climate apocalypse, or if the robots eventually rise up and overthrow us. (Our capacity for self-destruction is a pre-existing condition that no insurance plan will touch.)

But for the foreseeable future, the health care debate probably isn’t going to get any less intense. Instead, what we’ve watched unfold since 2009 is what we should expect for years, decades, a generation: a grinding, exhausting argument over how to pay for health care in a society that’s growing older, consuming more care, and (especially if current secularizing trends persist) becoming more and more invested in postponing death.

In the near term, this debate will go on because Obamacare has stabilized itself without fully resolving any of its internal problems. The liberal victory lap last week was half-earned: It really was a victory, given the initial website catastrophe, to arrive at seven million enrolled, and that success almost certainly establishes a new coverage baseline for any future overhaul.

But that baseline won’t be anything like universal coverage, and it may fall short of universality by a much larger margin than the law’s supporters hoped. Around a million of the seven million probably won’t make their payments, and many had insurance previously. So even with the new Medicaid enrollees and the twentysomethings added to their parents’ plans, the number of newly insured could end up around three or four or even five million short of the 13 million that the Congressional Budget Office predicted for Obamacare’s first year.

At the same time, the law’s internal structure has been rendered extremely rickety by the administration’s attempts at damage control. Nobody knows what will happen with the various suspended and hollowed-out provisions — whether the employer mandate will ever take effect, whether the individual mandate will be enforced along the lines that its architects argued was necessary for the law to work. And nobody is sure what the pool of enrollees looks like (in terms of age and average health), and what it will mean for premiums next year and beyond.

These realities make it very likely that whatever position Republicans end up taking on a potential Obamacare replacement or reform, by the next presidential election there will be increasingly vocal Democratic constituencies for change — moderates who want to be seen as doing something about rate shock, and liberals looking for a reform (ahem, single payer) that doesn’t leave 30 million Americans uninsured.

Repeal may really be a dead letter, in other words, but don’t be surprised to wake up in 2020 to endless arguments about a reform of the reform of the reform.

And don’t be surprised, either, if the debate over Obamacare is merging, by then, into the yet-more-toxic argument about how to pay for Medicare.

The Medicare debate has been postponed, to some extent, by the recent fiscal consolidation and a slowdown in health care cost inflation. But inflation should rise again as the Obamacare money sluices into the system, and even with a lower rate it would be hard to envision a future for Medicare that doesn’t involve some combination of price controls, benefit reductions and tax increases — all on a much larger scale than the numbers involved in recent debates.

What’s more, the political salience of this debate will rise for the same reason that the costs of Medicare will be rising: because the country will be older over all, and health policy inevitably matters more to the old than to the young.

Which means that the future almost certainly holds more cries of “death panels,” more ads featuring Paul Ryan clones pushing seniors over a cliff, and no doubt as-yet-undreamt-of forms of demagogy. And it means, as well, that if it’s hard to get Washington to focus on other issues now — tax reform, education, family policy, you name it — just wait awhile: It will get much worse.

It’s important to note, of course, that this “worse” will be the result of betterment: our political debates will be consumed by health care because of all that medicine can do for us, and we’ll be arguing about how to sustain what earlier generations would have regarded as a golden age.

But there’s a reason that golden ages can diminish into twilight — because the demands of the present can crowd out the needs of the future, and because what’s required to preserve and sustain is often different, in the end, from what’s required to grow.

He’s such a putz, and so very, very, very predictable.  Now, FSM help us, here’s MoDo:

I’d been hoping to get the flu.

I hadn’t had it in years, and there were so many TV series I’d never seen — “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “House of Cards,” “True Detective” — that required an extended convalescence.

When I finally succumbed to a fever and crumpled in bed a couple of weeks ago with saltines and Gatorade, I grabbed the clicker, murmuring, “Alright, alright, alright.” The only celebrated series I had no interest in was “Game of Thrones.”

I’m not really a Middle-earth sort of girl.

I’d read about George R. R. Martin, the author of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the fantasy epic about a medieval-style land of Seven Kingdoms and beyond that is the basis of the HBO show. The bearded, portly 65-year-old, raised in Bayonne, N.J., and living in a modest house in Santa Fe, N.M., has been dubbed “the American Tolkien” by Time.

I had no interest in the murky male world of orcs, elves, hobbits, goblins and warrior dwarves. If I was going to watch a period drama, I usually favored ones with strong women in intriguing situations, like “Mad Men,” “The Americans” and “Masters of Sex.”

Besides, “Game of Thrones” sounded too dense and complicated for someone suffering from zombie brain.

How could I fathom the agendas and plotlines of all the plotting lords and ladies and whores and bastards and sellswords of Westeros when even Martin himself has had to sometimes check with one of his superfans to make sure he’s keeping the feuding factions straight?

A 2011 New Yorker profile described the nutty passion of Martin’s fans, how they mercilessly mock him on Web forums for not writing faster, and how they keep track of every word to the point where the author has become paranoid about mistakes, such as when a character’s eyes shift from green to blue.

“My fans point them out to me,” he told the magazine. “I have a horse that changes sex between books. He was a mare in one book and a stallion in the next, or something like that.” He added, “People are analyzing every goddamn line in these books, and if I make a mistake they’re going to nail me on it.”

But after I finished tromping around the bayou with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, I decided to watch one “Game of Thrones” to see what the fuss was about. It is not only the most pirated show on the Internet, but one of President Obama’s favorites — although he hasn’t picked up any good tips about ruthlessly wielding power, either from “Game” or from Maggie Smith’s Countess of Grantham on “Downton Abbey,” another show he raves about.

After a marathon of three seasons of “Game” and the beginning of the fourth, starting this Sunday, I’m ready to forgo reality for fantasy.

Who wants to cover Chris Christie’s petty little revenge schemes in New Jersey once you’ve seen the gory revenge grandeur of the Red Wedding?

Who wants to see W.’s portraits of leaders once you’re used to King Joffrey putting leaders’ heads on stakes?

Who wants to hear Hillary Clinton complain about a media double standard for women once you’ve gotten accustomed to the win-don’t-whine philosophy of Cersei, Daenerys, Melisandre, Margaery, Ygritte, Brienne and Arya? As it turns out, the show not only has its share of strong women, but plenty of lethal ones as well.

It all seems so tame and meaningless in Washington after Westeros. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul wouldn’t survive a fortnight in King’s Landing. Charles Dance’s icy Tywin Lannister, ruling over a kingdom more interested in dismemberment than disgruntled members, would have the Rains of Castamere playing as soon as he saw those pretenders to the throne. As for House Republicans, or should that be the House of Republicans, life would be mercifully short.

I fell so deeply into the brocaded, overripe, incestuous universe — dubbed “ ‘Sopranos’ meets Middle-earth” by showrunner David Benioff — I couldn’t climb out.

I fell hopelessly in love with Peter Dinklage’s sexy dwarf, who is a schemer but a noble one by Lannister standards.

When friends would ask me what they could get me in the way of sustenance while I was sick, I would yell: “BRING ME MY DRAGONS!”

I even toyed with the idea of getting the flying, fire-breathing dragon on the cover of the new Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. The description is irresistible: “This is the remote controlled jet-powered dragon that soars through the air at up to 70 m.p.h. and belches propane-powered flame when on the ground. Proving its prowess before takeoffs or after successful raids, the dragon’s LED eyes can be commanded to glow red while it emits a fiery 3-foot blast of flame from a cleverly concealed propane tank and igniter built into its toothy maw. A miniature turbine engine built into the beast’s chest provides thrust that exits the rear at 500 m.p.h., and uses 1/2 gallon of jet aircraft fuel or kerosene for 10 minute flights. With a head that swivels in the direction of turns, the dragon can climb and dive via wing ailerons and elevators built into its V-tail rudder.”

Of course, no one who knows me thinks I should be in possession of propane gas. And the other impediment to joy, and bar to being the khaleesi and mother of dragons, was the price tag: $60,000. As Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out in The New York Review of Books, “People often talk about Tolkien as Martin’s model, but the deep, Christianizing sentimentality of the worldview expressed in ‘Lord of the Rings’ is foreign to Martin, who has, if anything, a tart Thucycididean appreciation for the way in which political corruption can breed narrative corruption, too.”

Martin’s larger Hundred Years’ War theme echoes Shakespeare. As he has pointed out, “Believe me, the Starks and the Lannisters have nothing on the Capets and Plantagenets.” And as Mendelsohn writes, it is “the way in which the appetite for, and the use and abuse of, power fragments societies and individuals; in a world ruled by might, who is ‘right’?”

When a flattering adviser warns Cersei, the queen regent, that “knowledge is power,” she makes a feint

to cut the man’s throat and then informs him, “Power is power.”

In the new season, Tywin Lannister explains to his grandson what makes a bad king: spending all your time whoring, hunting and drinking; being so gullible you don’t recognize the evil around you; being so pious you fast yourself into an early grave; and assuming that winning and ruling are the same thing.

“A wise king knows what he knows and what he doesn’t,” Tywin explains to the boy. “You’re young. A wise young king listens to his councilors and heeds their advice until he comes of age. The wisest of kings continue to listen to them long afterwards.”

Words to die by.

Don’t ask me why she (or the Times) put in that paragraph break in the middle of a sentence…  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

It occurred to me the other day that the zealously pro-Israel billionaire Sheldon Adelson and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, actually have one big thing in common. They are both trying to destroy Israel. Adelson is doing it by loving Israel to death and Khamenei by hating Israel to death. And now even Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey inadvertently got drawn into this craziness.

What’s the logic? Very simple. Iran’s leaders want Israel destroyed but have no desire, in my view, to use a nuclear bomb to do it. That would expose them to retaliation and sure death. Their real strategy is more subtle: Do everything possible to ensure that Israel remains in the “occupied territory,” as the U.S. State Department refers to the West Bank, won by Israel in the 1967 war. By supporting Palestinian militants dedicated to destroying any peace process, Tehran hopes to keep Israel permanently mired in the West Bank and occupying 2.7 million Palestinians, denying them any statehood and preventing the emergence of a Palestinian state that might recognize Israel and live in peace alongside it. The more Israel is stuck there, the more Palestinians and the world will demand a “one-state solution,” with Palestinians given the right to vote. The more Israel resists that, the more isolated it becomes.

Iran and its ally Hamas have plenty of evidence that this strategy is working: Israel’s 47-year-old occupation of the West Bank has led it to build more settlements there and in doing so make itself look like the most active colonial power on the planet today. The 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank reinforce that view by claiming their presence in the West Bank is not about security but a divinely inspired project to reunite the Jewish people with their biblical homeland.

The result is a growing movement on college campuses and in international organizations to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state because of this occupation. This “B.D.S. movement” — to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — is gaining adherents not only among non-Jews on American campuses but even within some Hillels, campus Jewish centers.

Iran could not be happier. The more Israel sinks into the West Bank, the more it is delegitimized and isolated, the more the world focuses on Israel’s colonialism rather than Iran’s nuclear enrichment, the more people call for a single democratic state in all of historic Palestine.

And now Iran has an ally: Sheldon Adelson — the foolhardy Las Vegas casino magnate and crude right-wing, pro-Israel extremist. Adelson gave away some $100 million in the last presidential campaign to fund Republican candidates, with several priorities in mind: that they delegitimize the Palestinians and that they avoid any reference to the West Bank as “occupied territories” and any notion that the U.S. should pressure Israel to trade land for peace there. Both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney took the money and played by Sheldon’s rules.

In case you missed it, the R.J.C., the Republican Jewish Coalition, held a retreat last weekend at an Adelson casino in Las Vegas. It was dubbed “the Sheldon Primary.” Republicans lined up to compete for Adelson’s blessing and money, or as Politico put it: “Adelson summoned [Jeb] Bush and Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin to Las Vegas. … The new big-money political landscape — in which a handful of donors can dramatically alter a campaign with just a check or two — explains both the eagerness of busy governors to make pilgrimages to Las Vegas, and the obsession with divining Adelson’s 2016 leanings.”

Adelson personifies everything that is poisoning our democracy and Israel’s today — swaggering oligarchs, using huge sums of money to try to bend each system to their will.

Christie, in his speech, referred to the West Bank as “occupied territories” — as any knowledgeable American leader would. This, Politico said, “set off murmurs in the crowd.” Some Republican Jews explained to Christie after he finished that he had made a terrible faux pas. (He called something by its true name and in the way the U.S. government always has!) The West Bank should be called “disputed territories” or “Judea and Samaria,” the way hard-line Jews prefer. So, Politico reported, Christie hastily arranged a meeting with Adelson to explain that he misspoke and that he was a true friend of Israel. “The New Jersey governor apologized in a private meeting in the casino mogul’s Venetian office shortly afterward,” Politico reported. It said Adelson “accepted” Christie’s “explanation” and “quick apology.”

Read that sentence over and contemplate it.

I don’t know if Israel has a Palestinian partner for a secure withdrawal from the West Bank, or ever will. But I know this: If Israel wants to remain a Jewish, democratic state, it should be doing everything it can to nurture such a partner or acting unilaterally to get out. Because, I’m certain that when reports about the “Adelson primary” reached the desk of Supreme Leader Khamenei in Tehran, a big smile crossed his face and he said to his aides: “May Allah grant Sheldon a long life. Everything is going according to plan.”

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Two years ago, Marina Keegan’s life brimmed with promise. She was graduating with high honors from Yale University, already a precocious writer about to take up a job at The New Yorker.

She had a play that was about to be produced. She had sparked a national conversation about whether graduates should seek meaning or money.

In keeping with that early promise, Keegan’s first book, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” is scheduled to be published in a few days. The title comes from an essay that she wrote in the graduation issue of the Yale newspaper; it was viewed online more than one million times.

The book is a triumph, but also a tragedy — for it’s posthumous.

“I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short,” Keegan wrote in one of her poems. As a senior, she wrote an aching protest on the website of The New York Times about the rush of students into well-paying jobs on Wall Street — not because of innate interest but because that route was lucrative and practical. One-quarter of Yale graduates entering the job market were going into finance or consulting, and Keegan saw this as a surrender of youthful talents and dreams to the altar of practicality.

“Standing outside a freshman dorm, I couldn’t find a single student aspiring to be a banker, but at commencement this May, there’s a 50 percent chance I’ll be sitting next to one,” she wrote. “This strikes me as incredibly sad.”

Keegan recalled being paid $100 to attend a recruiting session at Yale by a hedge fund: “I got this uneasy feeling that the man in the beautiful suit was going to take my Hopes and Dreams back to some lab to figure out the best way to crush them.”

For my part (and Keegan probably would have agreed), I think that we need bankers and management consultants as well as writers and teachers, and there’s something to be said for being practical. Some financiers find fulfillment, and it’s also true that such a person may be able to finance far more good work than a person who becomes an aid worker. Life is complicated.

Yet Keegan was right to prod us all to reflect on what we seek from life, to ask these questions, to recognize the importance of passions as well as paychecks — even if there are no easy answers.

A young man named Adam Braun struggles with similar issues in another new book that complements Keegan’s. Braun began working at a hedge fund the summer when he was 16, charging unthinkingly toward finance, and after graduation from Brown University he joined Bain Consulting.

Yet Braun found that although he had “made it,” his heart just wasn’t in his work. He kept thinking of a boy, a beggar who had never been to school, whom he had met on a trip to India. Braun asked the boy what he wanted most in the world.

The boy replied, “a pencil.”

Braun quit his job to found Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit that builds schools around the world. His new book, “The Promise of a Pencil,” recounts “how an ordinary person can create extraordinary change.”

I hope this year’s graduates will remember the message in the books by Keegan and Braun about seeking fulfillment, zest and passion in life. This search for purpose in life is an elemental human quest — yet one we tend to put off. And we never know when time will run out.

For Marina Keegan, that was just five days after graduation. Her boyfriend was driving her to her father’s 55th birthday party on Cape Cod. Though he was neither speeding nor drinking, he fell asleep at the wheel. They both were wearing seatbelts, but her seat was fully reclined so that the seatbelt was less effective.

The car hit a guard rail and rolled over twice. The boyfriend was unhurt; Keegan was killed.

Her mother, Tracy Keegan, combed the wreckage. Marina’s laptop had been smashed, but the hard drive was extracted to mine the writings so important to her — and now preserved in her book.

After the crash, Marina’s parents immediately forgave and comforted her boyfriend, who faced criminal charges in her death. They asked that he not be prosecuted for vehicular homicide — for that, they said, would have broken their daughter’s heart. Charges were dropped, and the boyfriend sat by her parents at the memorial service.

The book has been lovingly edited by Anne Fadiman, who taught Keegan writing at Yale. “Every aspect of her life,” Fadiman says, “was a way of answering that question: how do you find meaning in your life?”

Fadiman says that Marina would be “beyond thrilled” at having a book published, but would add: “Please pay attention to my ideas. Don’t read this book just because I’m dead.”

And last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

To appreciate how rapidly the ground has shifted, go back just two short years, to April 2012. President Obama didn’t support marriage equality, not formally. Neither did Hillary Clinton. And few people were denouncing them as bigots whose positions rendered them too divisive, offensive and regressive to lead.

But that’s precisely the condemnation that tainted and toppled Brendan Eich after his appointment two weeks ago as the new chief executive of the technology company Mozilla. On Thursday he resigned, clearly under duress and solely because his opposition to gay marriage diverged from the views of too many employees and customers. “Under the present circumstances, I cannot be an effective leader,” he said, and he was right, not just about the climate at Mozilla but also, to a certain degree, about the climate of America.

Something remarkable has happened — something that’s mostly exciting but also a little disturbing (I’ll get to the disturbing part later), and that’s reflected not just in Eich’s ouster at Mozilla, the maker of the web browser Firefox, but in a string of marriage-equality victories in federal courts over recent months, including a statement Friday by a judge who said that he would rule that Ohio must recognize same-sex marriages performed outside the state.

And the development I’m referring to isn’t the broadening support for same-sex marriage, which a clear majority of Americans now favor. No, I’m referring to the fact that in a great many circles, endorsement of same-sex marriage has rather suddenly become nonnegotiable. Expected. Assumed. Proof of a baseline level of enlightenment and humanity. Akin to the understanding that all people, regardless of race or color, warrant the same rights and respect.

Even beyond these circles, the debate is essentially over, in the sense that the trajectory is immutable and the conclusion foregone. Everybody knows it, even the people who still try to stand in the way. The legalization of same-sex marriage from north to south and coast to coast is merely a matter of time, probably not much of it at that.

There will surely be setbacks, holdouts, tantrums like the one in Arizona, whose Legislature in February passed a bill that would have allowed discrimination against gays and lesbians on religious grounds. (Mississippi enacted a vaguely similar measure last week.) Arizona’s governor of course vetoed the legislation, after being pressured by corporate leaders, and their lobbying underscored the larger and more lasting story. At least beyond the offices of Chick-fil-A, it’s widely believed — no, understood — that being pro-gay is better for business than being antigay. Hence the inclusion of a same-sex couple in the famous faces-of-America commercial that Coca-Cola unveiled during the Super Bowl. Hence a more recent television spot, part of the Honey Maid food company’s “This is Wholesome” ad campaign. It showed two dads cuddling their newborn.

The Mozilla story fits into this picture. Eich was exiled following not just employee complaints but signs and threats of customer unrest: The online dating site OkCupid was urging its users to boycott Firefox.

The business community has in fact been a consequential supporter of marriage equality. Wall Street firms lined the coffers of the campaign for marriage equality in New York, and 20 major financial service companies pay substantial membership dues to belong to and underwrite Out on the Street, an industry group that advocates for L.G.B.T. equality.

“You want to talk about a sea change?” Todd Sears, the group’s founder, said to me. “Fourteen financial services companies signed onto an amicus brief in the Edie Windsor case.” That was the one that asked the Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, which the court essentially did last June.

The language in the high court’s ruling “demolished every argument put forward to justify marriage discrimination,” said Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry. And that ruling, he added, helped to pave the way for all the court victories — in Utah, in Oklahoma, in Texas — since. This coming Thursday, the United States circuit court in Denver will hear an appeal of the decision by a federal judge in Utah to allow gay and lesbian couples there to wed. The case could have a sweeping effect on a region of the country not typically considered progressive. It could also wind up at the Supreme Court and give the justices a chance to do what they stopped short of last year: decree marriage equality nationwide.

Wolfson noted a fascinating angle of the recent court rulings and of the blessing that Eric Holder gave in February to state-level attorneys general who didn’t want to defend bans on gay marriage. Both invoked racial discrimination in the country’s past, casting bans on same-sex marriage in that context.

Increasingly, opposition to gay marriage is being equated with racism — as indefensible, un-American. “What was once a wedge issue became wrapped in the American flag,” said Jo Becker, a Times writer whose sweeping history of the marriage-equality movement, “Forcing the Spring,” will be published this month. Becker mentioned what she called a rebranding of the movement over the last five years, with two important components. First, gay marriage was framed in terms of family values. Second, advocates didn’t shame opponents and instead made sympathetic public acknowledgment of the journey that many Americans needed to complete in order to be comfortable with marriage equality.

There was no such acknowledgment from Mozilla employees and others who took to Twitter to condemn Eich and call for his head. Writing about that wrath in his blog, The Dish, Andrew Sullivan said that it disgusted him, “as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society.” A leading supporter of gay marriage, Sullivan warned other supporters not to practice “a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else.”

I can’t get quite as worked up as he did. For one thing, prominent gay rights groups weren’t part of the Mozilla fray. For another, Mozilla isn’t the first company to make leadership decisions (or reconsiderations) with an eye toward the boss’s cultural mind-meld with the people below him or her. And if you believe that to deny a class of people the right to marry is to deem them less worthy, it’s indeed difficult to chalk up opposition to marriage equality as just another difference of opinion.

But it’s vital to remember how very recently so many of equality’s promoters, like Obama and Clinton, have come around and how relatively new this conversation remains. It’s crucial not to lose sight of how well the movement has been served by the less judgmental posture that Becker pointed out.

Sullivan is right to raise concerns about the public flogging of someone like Eich. Such vilification won’t accelerate the timetable of victory, which is certain. And it doesn’t reflect well on the victors.

Crap, Mr. Bruni.  He was shit-canned because he was bad for business.  He’s still perfectly free to exercise his rights of free speech to decry same sex marriage.

Friedman, solo

April 2, 2014

The Moustache of Wisdom is flying solo today, since MoDo has the day off.  He has a question in “Follow the Money:”  Do the debates about Ukraine tell us something new about today’s world?  Here he is:

If you follow the debates about Ukraine, you can see three trends: those who use the crisis for humor, those who use it to reinforce preconceived views and those trying to figure out if it’s telling us something new about today’s world.

For humor, I like Seth Meyers’s line: “Despite the fact that the Ukraine has been all over the news for the past few weeks, a survey found that 64 percent of U.S. students still couldn’t find Ukraine on a map. Said Vladimir Putin, ‘Soon nobody will.’ ”

For self-reinforcement, the op-ed pages are full of the argument that Putin’s seizure of Crimea signals a return of either traditional 19th-century power politics or the Cold War — and anyone who thought globalization had trumped such geopolitics is naïve.

For new thinking, I’m intrigued by an argument made by Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist, and Nader Mousavizadeh, a geopolitical consultant and Reuters columnist, in different ways: That Putin represents a new hybrid — leaders who are using the tools, and profits, from globalization to promote, as Mousavizadeh put it, “strategic choices in direct opposition” to Western “values and interests.” Or as Gessen said in The Washington Post: “Russia is remaking itself as the leader of the anti-Western world. … This is exactly how Russians see the events in Ukraine: The West is literally taking over, and only Russian troops can stand between the Slavic country’s unsuspecting citizens and the homosexuals marching in from Brussels.”

My own view is that today’s global economic and technological interdependence can’t, of course, make war obsolete — human beings will always surprise you — but globalization does impose real restraints that shape geopolitics today more than you think. The Associated Press reported from Moscow last week that “recent figures suggest that Russia suffered roughly $70 billion of capital outflow in the first three months of the year, which is more than in all of 2013.” Putin didn’t miss that.

For reinforcement, I’d point to the very original take on this story offered by Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins foreign policy expert whose new book, “The Road to Global Prosperity,” argues that while global economics does not eliminate geopolitics, it does indeed trump global geopolitics today. It’s the key to trumping Putin, too.

As Mandelbaum (my co-author on a previous work) explains in his book, it is not either-or. Geopolitics never went away, even as globalization has become more important. For globalization to thrive, it needs a marketplace stabilized by power. Britain provided that in the 19th century. America does so today and will have to continue to do so even if Putin becomes a vegetarian pacifist.

But get a grip, Mandelbaum said in an interview: “Putin is not some strange creature from the past.  He is as much a product of globalization as Davos Man.”

Putin runs a petro state. If it were not for the growth in the global market that globalization created and the energy revenues that it produces for Russia, Putin and the oligarchs who form his power base would be living off exports of vodka and caviar. Putin can’t survive without the revenues globalization provides him to buy off his people and former Soviet republics.

And that tells us how to “end Putinism,” says Mandelbaum, “which would be good not only for the world, but also, and especially, for Russia. The tools are primarily economic: denying Russian oligarchs access to the Western financial system and reducing the energy revenues flowing into Putin’s coffers.”

It is a new kind of containment. When containment was primarily military in the Cold War, America bore a disproportionate share of the Western burden. Now that it’s economic, “the Europeans will have to contribute much more,” argues Mandelbaum. “The Germans will have to be willing to forgo their sales of machine tools and cars to Russia, the French will have to cut back or give up arms sales to the Putin regime, and the British will have to stop the Russian oligarchs from using London as a playground and money-laundering site. Most importantly, the Europeans will have to wean themselves from Russian gas.”

As for Americans, we’ll need to pay higher energy taxes to promote conservation, and safely expand natural gas and renewable energy, which together will lower the demand for oil worldwide and reduce the money Putin has to play with. We can deflate this guy tomorrow without firing a shot if we’re all ready to do something rather than asking the 1 percent in the military to do everything. That is what Putin thinks we don’t have the guts to do.

“In the age of globalization, when the tools of geopolitics are more economic, everyone needs to sacrifice a little — rather than just a few of us giving up a lot — to sustain a global order where our values predominate,” said Mandelbaum. Crimea is not a test of whether globalization is still enormously powerful in shaping today’s world, he added, “that is already clear. It is a test of the West and whether we will use this system to shape events our way.”

The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman and Kristof

March 30, 2014

MoDo is off, so the day is getting off to a good start.  The Pasty Little Putz has seen fit to lecture us about “The Christian Penumbra.”  He ponders and ponders, and asks his question:  Is religion good for American society?  He seems to have decided that it depends.  “Gratianus” from Moraga, CA had this to say:  “Though I have great respect (and some envy) for the solace and confidence that religion can provide to the faithful, I’d rather live in a world that sacrificed those goods if it meant that we also did away with the intolerance, ignorance and arrogance that seem inextricably woven into much of the American evangelical mindset. Frankly, the social virtues that Douthat ascribes to active Christians are just as widely found among well-educated, financially secure atheists and agnostics.”  The Moustache of Wisdom is all agog.  He’s on a submarine!  He’s excited!  In “Parallel Parking in the Arctic Circle” he fizzes that on a nuclear submarine deep under the ice, the view was quite stunning.  In “A Quiz: Do You Speak Dictator?” Mr. Kristof says after the recent actions of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, it’s time to test your dictator skills.  Here’s The Putz:

Here is a seeming paradox of American life. One the one hand, there is a broad social-science correlation between religious faith and various social goods — health and happiness, upward mobility, social trust, charitable work and civic participation.

Yet at the same time, some of the most religious areas of the country — the Bible Belt, the deepest South — struggle mightily with poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray.

Part of this paradox can be resolved by looking at nonreligious variables like race. But part of it reflects an important fact about religion in America: The social goods associated with faith flow almost exclusively from religious participation, not from affiliation or nominal belief. And where practice ceases or diminishes, in what you might call America’s “Christian penumbra,” the remaining residue of religion can be socially damaging instead.

Consider, as a case study, the data on divorce. Earlier this year, a pair of demographers released a study showing that regions with heavy populations of conservative Protestants had higher-than-average divorce rates, even when controlling for poverty and race.

Their finding was correct, but incomplete. As the sociologist Charles Stokes pointed out, practicing conservative Protestants have much lower divorce rates, and practicing believers generally divorce less frequently than the secular and unaffiliated.

But the lukewarmly religious are a different matter. What Stokes calls “nominal” conservative Protestants, who attend church less than twice a month, have higher divorce rates even than the nonreligious. And you can find similar patterns with other indicators — out-of-wedlock births, for instance, are rarer among religious-engaged evangelical Christians, but nominal evangelicals are a very different story.

It isn’t hard to see why this might be. In the Christian penumbra, certain religious expectations could endure (a bias toward early marriage, for instance) without support networks for people struggling to live up to them. Or specific moral ideas could still have purchase without being embedded in a plausible life script. (For instance, residual pro-life sentiment could increase out-of-wedlock births.) Or religious impulses could survive in dark forms rather than positive ones — leaving structures of hypocrisy intact and ratifying social hierarchies, without inculcating virtue, charity or responsibility.

And it isn’t hard to see places in American life where these patterns could be at work. Among those working-class whites whose identification with Christianity is mostly a form of identity politics, for instance. Or among second-generation Hispanic immigrants who have drifted from their ancestral Catholicism. Or in African-American communities where the church is respected as an institution without attracting many young men on Sunday morning.

Seeing some of the problems in our culture through this lens might be useful for the religious and secular alike. For nonbelievers inclined to look down on the alleged backwardness of the Bible Belt, it would be helpful to recognize that at least some the problems they see at work reflect traditional religion’s growing weakness rather than its potency.

For believers, meanwhile, the Christian penumbra’s pathologies could just be seen as a kind of theological vindication — proof, perhaps, of the New Testament admonition that it’s much worse to be lukewarm than hot or cold.

But it’s better to regard these problems as a partial indictment of America’s churches: Not only because their failure to reach the working class and the younger generation is making the penumbra steadily bigger, but because a truly healthy religious community should be capable of influencing even the loosely attached somewhat for the better.

The problems in the penumbra also have an unacknowledged place in our current controversies over religious liberty, from the debates (which reached the Supreme Court last week) over the scope of religious exemptions from the health care law’s contraceptive mandate, to the legal questions raised by the advance of same-sex marriage.

These arguments turn on constitutional issues, competing visions of freedom, the scope of pluralism versus the rights of gays and women. But they’re also partially about what kind of institutions are best equipped to address social problems in an individualistic age, and whether we should want the Christian penumbra to be reclaimed for religion or become more thoroughly secularized instead.

Among religious conservatives, not surprisingly, the hope is that traditional forms of faith — if left to build, or re-build, without being constantly disfavored, pressured and policed — can make a kind of comeback, and fill part of the void their own decline has left.

On the secular side, though, there’s a sense that there’s a better way — that a more expansive state can offer many of the benefits associated with a religious community, but in a more enlightened, tolerant, individual-respecting form. And if delivering these benefits requires co-opting or constraining religious actors — be they charities and schools or business owners — well, that’s either a straightforward win-win, or a relatively modest price to pay.

In this sense, the Christian penumbra isn’t just a zone of social disorder. It’s a field of ideological battle.

I want one Talibangelical, just once, cite me an example of “traditional forms of faith” being “pressured and policed.”  Other, of course, than whining that they sometimes get laughed at, and not everyone agrees with them and equating that with religious persecution.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from aboard the USS New Mexico in the Arctic:

I never thought I’d ever get to see what the Arctic ice cap looks like from the bottom up.

It’s quite stunning — blocks of blue ice tumbling around in a frigid sea amid giant, jagged ice stalactites. I was afforded that unique view while surfacing from beneath the Arctic Circle last weekend aboard the U.S.S. New Mexico, an attack submarine. I had spent the night on the sub as part of a group accompanying Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, who was observing the Navy’s submarine arctic warfare exercise.

We had flown into the Arctic by small plane and landed on a snow airstrip at the Navy’s ice research station Nautilus, 150 miles north of the North Slope of Alaska. When we got there, the New Mexico, which had been patrolling the waters below, had already found an opening of thin ice and slushy water. The sub used its conning tower, or sail, to smash through to the surface, then “parallel park,” as one officer put it, between two floating islands of thick ice, and pick us up.

As we slipped back under water, the ship’s upward-looking camera (specially installed for underice travel where you can’t raise the periscope) carried a view of all the ice that had frozen around the sub in its few hours on the surface, which then cracked into huge chunks as we headed down. With the sub’s officers constantly checking the sonar and camera — and barking out speeds and directions to the two pilots steering the sub with a joystick and digital readouts that glowed in the dark control room — we gently submerged. The trick was to avoid the ice keels — forests of ice stalactites that extended down from the thicker surface ice into the arctic waters. Once we safely descended about 400 feet, we proceeded on our way. Watching these officers maneuver an 8,000-ton nuclear sub, 377 feet long, through islands of unstable Arctic ice — we surfaced the same way — was a breathtaking and breath-holding experience.

But this wasn’t tourism. Climate scientists predict that if warming trends continue, the Arctic’s ice cap will melt enough that — in this century — it will become a navigable ocean for commercial shipping year round, and for mineral and oil exploration. Russia has already made extensive claims to the Arctic, based on the reach of its continental shelf, beyond the usual 12 miles from its coastline; these are in dispute. To prepare for whatever unfolds here, though, the U.S. Navy keeps honing its Arctic submarine skills, including, on our trip, test-firing a virtual torpedo at a virtual enemy sub, studying how differences in water temperatures and the mix of freshwater from melted ice and saltwater affect undersea weapons and the sounds a sub makes (vital for knowing how to hide), as well as mapping the Arctic’s seabed topography.

“In our lifetime, what was [in effect] land and prohibitive to navigate or explore, is becoming an ocean, and we’d better understand it,” noted Admiral Greenert. “We need to be sure that our sensors, weapons and people are proficient in this part of the world,” so that we can “own the undersea domain and get anywhere there.” Because if the Arctic does open up for shipping, it offers a much shorter route from the Atlantic to the Pacific than through the Panama Canal, saving huge amounts of time and fuel.

You learn a lot on a trip like this, starting with the fact that I’m not claustrophobic. Sleeping in the middle rack of three stacked beds, appropriately called coffins, I now know that.

More important, you learn how crucial acoustics are when operating deep under ice with no vision and no GPS satellite to guide you. Or, as the New Mexico’s captain, Todd Moore, 40, put it: It’s like every day “engaging in a knife fight in a dark room: the only thing you can do is go after what you hear.” You can’t see the adversary. You can’t see the ice keels, but you can hear enemy subs, surface ships, whales, calving icebergs, schools of fish and bounce sound waves off them with sonar to measure distances. The New Mexico not only carries supersensitive sonar but also tows a giant electronic ear 1,000 feet behind it that can listen to the ocean without interference from the sub’s own engine noise.

“We can hear shrimp crackling 200 feet under water,” explained Lt. Cmdr. Craig Litty. They can also hear someone drop a wrench in the engine room of a Russian sub several miles away.

You certainly learn how self-contained a sub is. The New Mexico repairs its own broken parts, desalinates its own drinking water, generates its own nuclear power and makes its own air by taking purified water, zapping it with electricity, separating the H2O into hydrogen and oxygen, then discharging the hydrogen and circulating the oxygen. The only thing that limits them is food-storage capacity and the sanity of the 130 crew; 90 days underwater is no problem.

My strongest impression, though, was experiencing something you see too little of these days on land: “Excellence.” You’re riding in a pressurized steel tube undersea. If anyone turns one knob the wrong way on the reactor or leaves a vent open, it can be death for everyone. This produces a unique culture among these mostly 20-something submariners. As one officer put it: “You become addicted to integrity.” There is zero tolerance for hiding any mistake. The sense of ownership and mutual accountability is palpable.

And that is why, said Adm. Joseph Tofalo, the Navy’s director of undersea warfare, who was also on the trip, “There is no multiple-choice exam for running the sub’s nuclear reactor.” If you want to be certified to run any major system on this ship, he added, “everything is an oral and written exam to demonstrate competency.”

Late at night, I was sipping coffee in the wardroom and a junior officer, Jeremy Ball, 27, came by and asked me if I could stay for Passover. He and two other Jewish sailors were organizing the Seder; the captain and several other non-Jewish shipmates said they’d be happy to join, but there was still room. Ball said he’d been storing “a brisket in the freezer” for the holiday and would pick up matzo when they surfaced in Canada.

Thanks, I said, but one night’s enough for me. But I had to ask: How do all of you stand being away from your families for so long underwater, receiving only a two-sentence “family-gram” once a week?

“Whenever you board this submarine in port, that American flag is flying and you salute that flag,” said Ball. “And every time I salute that flag, I remember the reason I joined the Navy: service to country, being part of something bigger than myself and in memory for the attacks of 9/11.”

Remind me again what we’re doing in Washington these days to deserve such young people?

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

With President Vladimir V. Putin thuggishly stealing Crimea from Ukraine, and serious concern about whether he will also invade eastern Ukraine, a debate is unfolding about whether President Obama is doing enough to stand up to tyranny. That leads me to offer a quiz, so test your skills: Do you speak dictator?

MARCH 29, 2014

1. Putin’s most lethal policy has been

  • The invasion of Crimea

  • Warfare in Chechnya

  • Attacks on dissidents, gays and Pussy Riot

2. Which leader has the higher domestic approval rating?

  • Putin, after stealing Crimea, increasing his leverage

  • Obama, after achieving quasi-universal health care, giving us leverage

  • They now are about the same: Putin’s popularity tanked because of concern about the economic impact of sanctions

3. Which dictatorship has a speaker on the wall of private homes, issuing propaganda to wake people up each morning and put them to bed at night?

  • Turkmenistan

  • North Korea

  • Cuba

4. Which country has perpetuated war in eastern Congo, the most lethal conflict since World War II?

  • Pro-American Rwanda, with military support to rebels

  • China, with military support to both sides

  • Russia, by purchasing minerals, providing cash for munitions

5. The countries with the highest incarceration rates are:

  • North Korea and the United States

  • Russia and China

  • Uzbekistan and Iran

6. Which leader has slaughtered the largest number of his own citizens?

  • Putin

  • Bashar al-Assad in Syria

  • Omar al-Bashir in Sudan

7. One parallel with Russia’s invasion of Crimea is Morocco’s seizure of Western Sahara, which led to vigorous protests by:

  • The Arab League, for Morocco’s violation of an Arab people’s right to self-determination

  • The United States, for Morocco’s use of force and torture to suppress a people

  • Almost nobody

8. The United States imprisons people without trial in Guantánamo because

  • It costs only $900,000 per prisoner per year. Oh, never mind.

  • Republicans don’t want to give Obama the satisfaction of closing the prison, and Obama hasn’t tried very hard himself to close it.

  • Waterboarding is permissible under Cuban law

9. Which countries have suffered the most casualties this year?

  • Afghanistan and Pakistan

  • Ukraine, Russia and Moldova

  • Central African Republic, Syria and South Sudan

10. Equipment from which country is primarily used to suppress the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain?

  • Iran

  • India

  • United States

11. If the United States wants to curb human rights abuses, we would have greatest impact on:

  • Russia, because of its dependence on oil and gas exports

  • Cuba, because it is small and nearby

  • Countries like Bahrain, Israel, Morocco and Ethiopia, because they are allies who care about what we think, say and do

12. In sum, we should vigorously protest Putin’s invasion of Crimea and make clear that ferocious sanctions will be imposed if there is any invasion of eastern Ukraine. But a more surefire way to inject moral values into international relations is to:

  • bully small nations, because they have no choice but to agree

  • bomb rogue states into better behavior

  • demand better of allies and ourselves

 

The answer key:  1B, 2A, 3B, 4A, 5A, 6C, 7C, 8B, 9C, 10A, 11C, 12C

Posted in Douthat, Friedman, Kristof, STFU, The Moustache of Wisdom, The Pasty Little Putz | Leave a Comment »

Friedman, solo

March 26, 2014

Life is good.  MoDo is off today.  In “Putin and the Laws of Gravity” The Moustache of Wisdom says Let’s see how Russia’s plan of challenging Mother Nature, human nature and Moore’s Law all at once works out.  Here he is:

One thing I learned covering the Middle East for many years is that there is “the morning after” and there is “the morning after the morning after.” Never confuse the two.

 The morning after a big event is when fools rush in and declare that someone’s victory or defeat in a single battle has “changed everything forever.” The morning after the morning after, the laws of gravity start to apply themselves; things often don’t look as good or as bad as you thought. And that brings me to Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

The morning after, he was the hero of Russia. Some moronic commentators here even expressed the wish that we had such a “decisive” leader. Well, let’s see what Putin looks like the morning after the morning after, say, in six months. I make no predictions, but I will point out this. Putin is challenging three of the most powerful forces on the planet all at once: human nature, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law. Good luck with that.

Putin’s seizure of Crimea certainly underscores the enduring power of geography in geopolitics. Russia is a continental country, stretching across a huge landmass, with few natural barriers to protect it. Every Kremlin leader — from the czars to the commissars to the crooks — has been obsessed about protecting Russia’s periphery from would-be invaders. Russia has legitimate security interests, but this episode is not about them.

 This recent Ukraine drama did not start with geography — with an outside power trying to get into Russia, as much as Putin wants to pretend that it did. This story started with people inside Russia’s orbit trying to get out. A large number of Ukrainians wanted to hitch their economic future to the European Union not to Putin’s Potemkin Eurasian Union. This story, at its core, was ignited and propelled by human nature — the enduring quest by people to realize a better future for themselves and their kids — not by geopolitics, or even that much nationalism. This is not an “invasion” story. This is an “Exodus” story.

 And no wonder. A recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek noted that, in 2012, G.D.P. per person in Ukraine was $6,394 — some 25 percent below its level of nearly a quarter-century earlier. But if you compare Ukraine with four of its former Communist neighbors to the west who joined the European Union — Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania — “the average G.D.P. per person in those nations is around $17,000.” Can you blame Ukrainians for wanting to join a different club?

 But Putin is also counting on the world doing nothing about Mother Nature, and Mother Nature taking that in stride. Some 70 percent of Russia’s exports are oil and gas, and they make up half of all state revenue. (When was the last time you bought something that was labeled “Made in Russia”?) Putin has basically bet his country’s economic present and future on hydrocarbons at a time when the chief economist of the International Energy Agency has declared that “about two-thirds of all proven reserves of oil, gas and coal will have to be left undeveloped if the world is to achieve the goal of limiting global warming at two degrees Celsius” since the Industrial Revolution. Crossing that two-degrees line, say climate scientists, will dramatically increase the likelihood of melting the Arctic, dangerous sea level rises, more disruptive superstorms and unmanageable climate change.

The former Saudi oil minister, Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, once warned his OPEC colleagues something Putin should remember: “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.” It ended because we invented bronze tools, which were more productive. The hydrocarbon age will also have to end with a lot of oil, coal and gas left in the ground, replaced by cleaner forms of power generation, or Mother Nature will have her way with us. Putin is betting otherwise.

How do you say Moore’s Law in Russian? That’s the theorem posited by Gordon Moore, an Intel co-founder, that the processing power of microchips will double roughly every two years. Anyone following the clean power industry today can tell you that there is something of a Moore’s Law now at work around solar power, the price of which is falling so fast that more and more homes and even utilities are finding it as cheap to install as natural gas. Wind is on a similar trajectory, as is energy efficiency. China alone is on a track to be getting 15 percent of its total electricity production by 2020 from renewables, and it’s not stopping there. It can’t or its people can’t breathe. If America and Europe were to give even just a little more policy push now to renewables to reduce Putin’s oil income, these actions could pay dividends much sooner and bigger than people realize.

The legitimacy of China’s leaders today depends, in part, on their ability to make their country’s power system greener so their people can breathe. Putin’s legitimacy depends on keeping Russia and the world addicted to oil and gas. Whom do you want to bet on?

So, before we crown Putin the Time Person of the Year again, let’s wait and see how the morning after the morning after plays out.

Posted in Friedman, The Moustache of Wisdom | Leave a Comment »

Dowd and Friedman

March 19, 2014

MoDo has decided to spin “Another Tale of Two Cities.”  Trust me, she’s no Dickens.  She in Los Angeles and sniffs that Democratic mayors on each coast provide a stark contrast in style.  “Meredith” from NYC had this to say in the comments:  “Try for some independent thought. I’m waiting for the cute, derogatory nickname Dowd picks out for Deblasio. The term abrasive signals a future hatchet job.”  In “From Putin, A Blessing in Disguise” The Moustache of Wisdom says if this is Cold War II, let’s make this race an Earth Race.  Here’s MoDo:

The tremors may have had morning TV anchors diving under the desk, but it takes more than a 4.4 quiver to rattle Eric Garcetti.

“I don’t lose my head,” said the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, who was in bed with his wife, Amy Wakeland, when the earthquake struck at dawn Monday. “I’ve always kind of enjoyed the small ones. The small ones are kind of fun.”

He said dryly that it was 10 minutes before they remembered to check on their 2-year-old daughter. He did check in with “Earthquake Lucy,” as he calls seismologist Lucy Jones, an expert on loan from the U.S. Geological Survey, who told him that it was a new fault line under the Santa Monica Mountains and that there was only a 5 percent chance that it would usher in a bigger quake later that day.

Garcetti was so unconcerned that he went to Tom Bergin’s pub for St. Paddy’s Day and played bartender for two hours, even though Irish is the one ethnicity he’s not, and he ended up with a bit of a hangover. There was some grumbling that the mayor was too invisible Monday morning, that he should have used the shake to shake people out of the complacency that has set in since the $42 billion, magnitude 6.7 quake in Northridge that left 57 dead in 1994.

Critics say that City Hall has its own version of “Where’s Waldo?” called “Anyone Seen Eric?”

“He’s so low profile,” said one TV writer. “He’s harder to find than Flight 370.”

The doubters concede that the 43-year-old former city councilman and son of Gil Garcetti, the O.J. prosecutor, is bright, charming and multifaceted: a salsa-dancing, jazz-piano-playing Rhodes Scholar who grew up in the Valley in a Brady Bunch world, mingling Jewish, Italian and Mexican heritage. (“The guilt must cancel out,” the mayor laughs, “because I live my life with very little guilt.”)

Critics say that Garcetti’s most vivid move in office so far — working for one day at a red metal table in a parking lot in Boyle Heights, a Latino neighborhood — was a stunt that only a high school class president would deem clever.

The soft-spoken Garcetti did speak out about the earthquake, warning Angelenos to be more vigilant, including at a breakfast interview sponsored by Los Angeles Magazine Tuesday; he just did it in what he calls his “calm and grounded” way. He is confident that his “back-to-basics” approach is reaping benefits, despite criticism in L.A. Weekly last month that he’s off to a slow start and struggling to find an agenda. He says he wants to be “humble” as he helps the city restore its “hustle,” and, to that end, he recently made a cup of coffee for a startled Chinese construction mogul who could bring business here.

He has been a stark contrast to New York’s new Democratic mayor, Bill de Blasio, who has been highly visible but abrasive and obsessive about one cause: funding a pre-K program by taxing the wealthy. While de Blasio came to power belittling Michael Bloomberg’s tenure, Garcetti went to Manhattan before he was sworn in eight months ago to seek out Bloomberg’s advice.

“I pull some of the metric-based leadership from Bloomberg,” he said, during an interview at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, in a room covered in Spanish tile that served as the first locale for a fledgling little event called the Academy Awards. But he stressed that he also thinks it’s really important “to connect emotionally.”

While de Blasio has been publicly battling Gov. Andrew Cuomo on raising taxes and closing charter schools, Garcetti has been quietly and amiably working with Gov. Jerry Brown on climate change and on providing tax inducements that would stem the exodus of film and TV production companies to Louisiana and Canada. Garcetti recalled that Governor Brown told him over dinner, “You only have a few chances to really communicate. Don’t waste them.”

“I’m not that interested in a bunch of flash early on,” Garcetti said, noting that you have to build a team, figure out your style and “find a narrative for your city.”

While de Blasio is seen as a captive of unions and foe of business, Garcetti has pushed back against the powerful public works employees’ union and reached out to business.

“He’s much more of a Bloomberg mayor than a de Blasio mayor,” said one prominent C.E.O. here. “He clearly understands the need to partner with us and not bash us.”

The grand hope of liberals that de Blasio would turn New York into a lab for populist government theories has faded, as that stumbling mayor’s disapproval rating has more than doubled since January.

Ben White and Maggie Haberman wrote Tuesday in Politico that there is a determined backlash by the 1 percent against class-based appeals on income inequality and soaking the rich, dubbed the ineffective “politics of envy” by Larry Summers. Garcetti says he empathizes with de Blasio on the steep learning curve at a breathless pace, and is glad he has no “snow politics.”

“I share Bill’s sense of social justice in urban centers, but I realize that the job of mayor is to fix things,” he said. “We’re not running for president. We’re not writing self-help books. We are people who first and foremost have to take care of the basics.”

He said that he and de Blasio both have to get used to being chief executives. So far, Garcetti likes it. “It feels like you had on an off-the-rack suit,” he said, smiling, “and then you get a custom-made one.”

As was also pointed out in the comments, a 4.4 earthquake is extremely minor, like a heavy truck going by your house.  But MoDo’s “when the earthquake struck” tries to make it sound more serious.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

There are a lot of people who seem intent on restarting the Cold War — in both Moscow and Washington. I am not one of them. But if we’re going to have a new Cold War, then I have one condition: I want a new moonshot.

The Space Race and the technologies it produced weren’t purely an offshoot of the U.S.-Soviet missile competition, but they were certainly energized by that competition. Well, if we’re going to go at it again, this time I want an Earth Race. I want America to lead in developing an energy policy that will weaken the oil-and-gas-autocracy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and, as a byproduct, produce the technologies that will mitigate climate change, make America a global technology and moral leader and ensure that the next generation can thrive here on Earth.

And as opposed to the stimulus/deficit debate, in the energy case, there really is now the raw material for a “Grand Bargain” between Democrats and Republicans — if President Obama wants to try to forge it. Such an energy grand strategy would be a first. It’s shocking how devoid of strategic intent U.S. energy policy has been. Both political parties have repeatedly let our economy be hostage to Middle Eastern and Latin American oil despots and to energy booms and busts.

The key ingredients for a new U.S. energy strategy, argues Hal Harvey, the C.E.O. of Energy Innovation, is, first, “to optimize affordability, reliability and clean together, rather than one at the expense of the other.” Second to “take advantage of new technology,  we finally have the capacity to build an energy system we can be proud of, and by choosing this future, we will stimulate even more technologies that deliver energy that is indeed affordable, reliable and clean.” And, third, to “ensure that our natural gas bonanza actually ushers in a truly clean future.”

Here’s the deal Obama should offer oil-patch Republicans and Democrats. “You really want to open up the country to the exploration of natural gas? You really want to be free to export oil and gas to global markets — so long as it’s consistent with our national interests — and affect global markets in ways that could weaken Putinism? You really want the Keystone pipeline? Fine, I’ll give you all of it. And in return you’ll give me a bridge to a secure, clean-energy future for America.”

Harvey argues that such a deal should include the following: First, to ensure that natural gas is a boon rather than a curse, the oil and gas industry — and the lawmakers they control — have to accept national rules for extracting natural gas based on known best practices, including strategies that eliminate the leakage of methane, which is so much more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Second, we need to set a national clean energy standard for electricity. One popular approach is to require utilities to raise the fraction of their electricity from zero-carbon sources — such as wind, solar or nuclear — by, say, 2 percent per year. Such a standard creates a market for renewables, which drives down costs, and helps ensure that natural gas is a transition fuel that replaces coal, not solar, wind and other clean power sources. Thirty states have some variant of this, and it has been hugely successful in stimulating development of new technology.

 Third, we have to accelerate energy efficiency and clean power technologies by building up our research and development programs to the levels they merit, probably triple today’s levels. This is the source of our long-term advantage.

Fourth, we have to impose a revenue-neutral carbon tax — a Republican idea, championed by one of America’s most respected statesmen, Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz — that would replace payroll and corporate taxes.

I don’t like Keystone. Extracting oil from tar sands leads to even higher carbon emissions than drilling and devastates the landscape. But, if approval is the price for a truly transformational clean energy policy, I’m in. You’re not going to move the vested interests without a trade, but it has to be a smart trade.

This is a grand bargain on energy that would advance our growth, national security and climate policy. If paired with similar efforts by our NATO allies, it would, in time, sharply reduce Putin’s ability to blackmail his neighbors, using energy. It would also protect Americans from price shocks, as both the sun and the wind are free, make our farmers, our coastal cities and our public health system much more resilient and tilt our energy policy toward exploiting our advantage — technology — rather than oil.

Nader Mousavizadeh, the co-founder of Macro Advisory Partners, recently recalled for me what a U.S. energy company executive once told him: “The one thing we’re never going to run out of is technology.” We need to play to our strength.

I would hate to see Obama spend the next two and a half years just counting healthcare.gov sign-ups. He needs to recognize that Putin’s Crimea adventure has created the opportunity for a legacy project of moving America into a clean energy future — a move that would make us stronger, Putin weaker and the world safer.

He wants an “earth race?”  How about advocating against handouts to big energy?  How about making it easier for people to use alternative energy sources?

Posted in Dowd, Friedman, MoDo, The Moustache of Wisdom | 2 Comments »

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Kristof

March 16, 2014

In “The Age of Individualism” The Pasty Little Putz asks a question:  Will the millennials come back to community?  The best comment I could find was from “RDeanB” from Amherst, MA:  “There’s nothing to be learned here, except that the writer is a conservative who employs circular reasoning. But we knew that.”  MoDo has taken the opportunity to do a hit piece on two of her favorite targets.  In “Dems in Distress” she gleefully hisses that compared to the aloof Barry, desperate Democrats see the triangulating Bill Clinton as Mother Teresa.  She really needs to go off and cover the fashion shows in Paris…  The Moustache of Wisdom also has a question in “The Three Faces of President Obama:”  As Vladimir Putin’s Crimean adventure plays out, what is the West to do?  In “Go West, Young People! And East!” Mr. Kristof says every college in America should make it a requirement to study abroad. Why study Spanish in a classroom in Indiana when you could learn it in Bolivia?  Here’s The Putz:

In the future, it seems, there will be only one “ism” — Individualism — and its rule will never end. As for religion, it shall decline; as for marriage, it shall be postponed; as for ideologies, they shall be rejected; as for patriotism, it shall be abandoned; as for strangers, they shall be distrusted. Only pot, selfies and Facebook will abide — and the greatest of these will probably be Facebook.

That’s the implication, at least, of what the polling industry keeps telling us about the rising American generation, the so-called millennials. (Full disclosure: I am not quite one of them, having entered the world in the penultimate year of Generation X.) A new Pew survey, the latest dispatch from the land of young adulthood, describes a generation that’s socially liberal on issues like immigration and marijuana and same-sex marriage, proudly independent of either political party, less likely to be married and religious than earlier generations, less likely to identify as patriotic and less likely — by a striking margin — to say that one’s fellow human beings can be trusted.

In political terms, the millennials are liberals on the surface, which is why the Pew report inspired a round of discussion about whether they’re likely to transform electoral politics in the short run (no, because cohort replacement is slow, and it’s Generation X that’s actually moving into positions of influence right now), whether they will push our political debates leftward in the long run (probably, because youthful voting patterns tend to persist across the life cycle), and whether this gives the Democratic Party a hammerlock on the future (it doesn’t, because political coalitions always adapt and fracture in unexpected ways).

But the millennials’ skepticism of parties, programs and people runs deeper than their allegiance to a particular ideology. Their left-wing commitments are ardent on a few issues but blur into libertarianism and indifferentism on others. The common denominator is individualism, not left-wing politics: it explains both the personal optimism and the social mistrust, the passion about causes like gay marriage and the declining interest in collective-action crusades like environmentalism, even the fact that religious affiliation has declined but personal belief is still widespread.

So the really interesting question about the millennials isn’t whether they’ll all be voting Democratic when Chelsea Clinton runs for president. It’s whether this level of individualism — postpatriotic, postfamilial, disaffiliated — is actually sustainable across the life cycle, and whether it can become a culture’s dominant way of life.

One can answer “yes” to this question cheerfully or pessimistically — with the optimism of a libertarian who sees such individualism as a liberation from every form of oppression and control, or the pessimism of a communitarian who sees social isolation, atomization and unhappiness trailing in its wake.

But one can also answer “no,” and argue that the human desire for community and authority cannot be permanently buried — in which case the most important question in an era of individualism might be what form of submission it presages.

This was the point raised in 1953 by Robert Nisbet’s “Quest for Community,” arguably the 20th century’s most important work of conservative sociology. (I wrote the introduction when it was reissued.) Trying to explain modern totalitarianism’s dark allure, Nisbet argued that it was precisely the emancipation of the individual in modernity — from clan, church and guild — that had enabled the rise of fascism and Communism.

In the increasing absence of local, personal forms of fellowship and solidarity, he suggested, people were naturally drawn to mass movements, cults of personality, nationalistic fantasias. The advance of individualism thus eventually produced its own antithesis — conformism, submission and control.

You don’t have to see a fascist or Communist revival on the horizon (I certainly don’t) to see this argument’s potential relevance for our apparently individualistic future. You only have to look at the place where millennials — and indeed, most of us — are clearly seeking new forms of community today.

That place is the online realm, which offers a fascinating variation on Nisbet’s theme. Like modernity writ large, it promises emancipation and offers new forms of community that transcend the particular and local. But it requires a price, in terms of privacy surrendered, that past tyrannies could have only dreamed of exacting from their subjects.

This surrender could prove to be benign. But it’s still noteworthy that today’s vaguely totalitarian arguments don’t usually come from political demagogues. They come from enthusiasts for the online Panopticon, the uploaded world where everyone will be transparent to everyone else.

That kind of future is far from inevitable. But as Nisbet would argue, and as the rising generation of Americans may yet need to learn, it probably cannot be successfully resisted by individualism alone.

Having survived another of Putzy’s offerings, next we have MoDo’s ravings:

Scott Brown, the Republican who admitted he wore pink leather shorts on his first date with his wife-to-be, is back.

And Democrats are scared to death.

It’s not that Democrats are particularly scared that the 54-year-old former Massachusetts senator is going to get elected as a New Hampshire senator — although it’s conceivable that a charming, carpetbagging, middling politician could jump across the border and unseat Jeanne Shaheen.

But Shaheen is popular, and strategists don’t think that flinty “Live Free or Die” voters will welcome the Boston transplant with open arms.

This is what’s really freaking out Democrats: They know that Brown, after making some real money working for Fox News since his loss to Elizabeth Warren two years ago, wouldn’t even be getting into the race if the political environment weren’t so toxic for Democrats.

Republicans have been white-hot for Brown to get in, and he finally pulled the trigger Friday, establishing an exploratory committee and asserting that “the Obamacare Democrats are on the wrong side” of a big political wave.

G.O.P. leaders think that even if Brown can’t win, he will force Democrats to spend a bunch of money in New Hampshire and curtail what they can spend in other more crucial races like Colorado, Alaska, Montana, Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina and Michigan.

Brown jumping in was just one blast of bad news for Democrats. They also lost a special election last Tuesday in Florida by a hair, a defeat David Plouffe called “a screaming siren.” Alex Sink, a promising candidate, sunk after she could not overcome the blast of ads linking her to President Obama and his health care law.

Republicans had been so worried about losing the Florida election that they prematurely trashed their own candidate, a former lobbyist named David Jolly, telling Politico that his campaign was a Keystone Kops operation. Then they ended up swearing him in on Thursday, murmuring “bygones.”

So now Democratic panic has set in.

With the health care sign-up period coming to an end this month, Democrats in Congress are looking over at the White House and realizing that the president is not only incapable of saving them, but he looks like a big anchor tied around their necks.

The president is still a good fund-raiser for Democrats. But while the Koch brothers are pounding the party’s Senate candidates and a few House candidates around the country, congressional Democrats are wondering when Obama’s vaunted powerhouse national advocacy network, Organizing for Action, will finally step in with some money to offset the wave of outside spending by the Republicans.

The state of relations between congressional Democrats and the administration has been deteriorating every week, but now it’s hitting a new bottom — and not only with the extraordinary open feud between the C.I.A. and the Senate intelligence committee. Hill Democrats are seething at Obama, fearing that the onetime messiah is putting them in a slough that will last until — or through — 2016.

Top Democrats who were fans of the president and prone to giving him the benefit of the doubt now say they’ve completely lost confidence in the White House’s ability to advance an agenda and work with them in a way that’s going to give Democrats a fighting chance in November.

At the heart of all this, really, is that the White House totally blew the rollout of the health care law and Democrats have not recovered. It provided a huge opening for Republicans, who had just shut down the government and were tanking in the polls and in despair themselves.

Now there’s a lot of spring in the step of Republicans as spring approaches.

It’s not just congressional Democrats who are kvetching. Mark Zuckerberg called the president to vent about government incursions on privacy. And the New Yorker editor, David Remnick, talked to The New Republic about Obama’s “locutions,” his habit of going, “On the one hand. On the other hand. That is to say.”

“On the other hand, excuse me,” Remnick said, laughing, “I wish I could hear a lot more from him about, say, Ukraine, than I have, other than just ‘We are keeping out.’ ”

Obama’s approval ratings will shape the midterms, and some Hill observers compare his crumpling numbers to an illness. The president didn’t do the basic things to take care of himself, and now he’s gone terminal and contagious.

The closest the president came to getting a leg up on mounting a defense was on Friday when he told Ryan Seacrest in a radio interview that he had been unfairly maligned for his mom jeans: “Generally, I look very sharp in jeans.”

Due to the inability of the president and congressional Democrats to move their agenda through Congress, the president is having to govern through executive order and revising federal regulations.

Republicans have latched on to this to make the case around the country that Obama is a dictator and an imperial president. But governing through executive order isn’t a sign of strength. It’s a sign of weakness.

And it’s that weakness that has Democrats scared to death.

It’s time she had her meds adjusted again…  Now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

Barack Obama is surely the first president to be accused of acting in foreign policy like Pollyanna, John Wayne and Henry Kissinger in the same month.

Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s land grab in Crimea, conservatives have denounced President Obama as a man who doesn’t appreciate what a merciless, Hobbesian world this really is. He’s a Pollyanna — always looking for people’s good side. Meanwhile, liberals have been hammering Obama for what they say is his trigger-happy drone habit, having ordered the targeted killing by air of hundreds of individuals; he’s John Wayne, seeking vigilante justice against those who have harmed, or might be planning to harm, the United States. And, just to round things out, Obama has been accused by critics on the left and right of being a Kissingerian hyperrealist who is content to watch the Syrian regime crush its people, because, as tragic as that is, American interests there are minimal.

It can’t be easy being Pollyanna, John Wayne and Henry Kissinger all at once. So who is Obama — really — on foreign policy? I’d say less Pollyanna than his critics claim, more John Wayne and Henry Kissinger than he’d admit, but still undefined when it comes to the greatest leadership challenges in foreign policy — which go beyond Crimea but lurk just over the horizon.

If Obama has been a reluctant warrior in Crimea, it’s because it’s long been part of Russia and home to a Russian naval base, with many of its people sympathetic to Russia. Obama was right to deploy the limited sanctions we have in response to Putin’s seizure of Crimea and try to coolly use diplomacy to prevent a wider war over Ukraine — because other forces are at play on Putin. Do not underestimate how much of a fool Putin will make of himself in Crimea this weekend — in front of the whole world — and how much this will blow back on Russia, whose currency and stock markets are getting hammered as a result of Vladimir’s Crimean adventure.

Putin has organized, basically overnight, a secession referendum on Crimea’s future — without allowing any time for the opposition to campaign. It’s being held under Russian military occupation, in violation of Ukraine’s Constitution, with effectively two choices on the ballot: “Vote 1 if you want to become part of Russia,” or “Vote 2 if you really want to become part of Russia.” This is not the action of a strong, secure leader. By Monday, it should have its own Twitter hashtag: #Putinfarce.

And if Obama has been a Kissingerian realist in his reluctance to dive into the Syrian civil war, or Ukraine, it’s because he has learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that the existence of bad guys in these countries doesn’t mean that their opponents are all good guys. Too many leaders in all these countries turned out to be more interested in using their freedom to loot rather than liberate. Where authentic reformers emerge in Syria or Ukraine we should help them, but, unlike Senator John McCain, most Americans are no longer willing to be suckers for anyone who just sings our song (see dictionary for Hamid Karzai), and they are now wary of owning the bailouts and gas bills of countries we don’t understand.

As for John Wayne Obama, “the quickest drone in the West,” every American president needs a little of that in today’s world, where you now have legions of superempowered angry people who wish America ill and who have access to rockets and live in ungoverned spaces.

So I have no problem with Obama as John Wayne or Henry Kissinger. If you want to criticize or praise him on foreign policy, the real tests fall into two categories: 1) How good is he at leading from behind on Ukraine? And 2) How good is he at leading from in front on Russia, Iran and China?

There is probably no saving Crimea from Putin in the short term, but we do not want to see him move beyond Crimea and absorb the parts of eastern Ukraine where the Russophones reside. We should be ready to offer arms to the Ukraine government to prevent that. But let us never lose sight of the fact that the key to keeping more of Ukraine out of Russia’s paws will depend on the ability of Ukrainians to come together in a way that is inclusive of both the majority that sees its future with the European Union and the minority of Russophones who still feel some affinity for Russia.

If the Ukraine drama pits a united Ukraine — seeking a noncorrupt democracy tied to Europe — against a Putin trying to forcibly reintegrate Ukraine into a Russian empire, Putin loses. But if Ukrainians are divided, if hyper-nationalist parties there dominate and pro-Russians are alienated, Putin will discredit the Ukraine liberation movement and use the divisions to justify his own interventions. Then our help will be useless. We can’t help them if they won’t help themselves. Ukrainians have already wasted a quarter-century not getting their act together the way Poland did.

The big three issues where Obama must lead from the front are: changing the character of Russia’s government, preventing Iran from getting a nuke and preventing a war in the South China Sea between Beijing and Tokyo. I will save China and Iran for later.

But regarding Russia, I vehemently opposed NATO expansion because I held the view then, and hold it today, that there is no big geopolitical problem that we can solve without Russia’s cooperation. That requires a Russia that does not define its greatness by opposing us and recreating the Soviet empire, but by unleashing the greatness of its people. It is increasingly clear that that will never be Putin’s Russia, which stands for wholesale corruption, increasing repression and a zero-sum relationship with the West. Putin is looking for dignity for Russia now in all the wrong places — and ways. But only Russia’s people can replace Putinism.

The way the United States and European Union help, which will take time, is by forging new energy policies that will diminish Europe’s dependency on Russian gas — the mother’s milk of Putinism. But we Americans also have to work harder to make our country a compelling example of capitalism and democracy, not just the world’s cleanest dirty shirt when it comes to our economy and not just the best democracy money can buy when it comes to our politics.

The most important thing we could do to improve the prospects of democracy in the world “is to fix our democracy at home,” said Larry Diamond, a democracy specialist at Stanford University. “The narrative of American decline and democratic dysfunction damages the luster of democracy in the world and the decisions of people to feel it is a model worth emulating. That is in our power to change. If we don’t reform and repair democracy in the United States, it is going to be in trouble globally.”

Last but not least we have Mr. Kristof:

I’m delighted to announce that the winner of my 2014 “win-a-trip” contest is …

Oh, hang on. Maybe I should first exhort students to travel on their own — and cite Utah.

Utah may well be the most cosmopolitan state in America. Vast numbers of young Mormons — increasingly women as well as men — spend a couple of years abroad as missionaries and return jabbering in Thai or Portuguese and bearing a wealth of international experience.

More than 130 languages are spoken daily in commerce in Utah, according to the University of Utah, and that’s one reason it sometimes tops the Forbes list of best states to do business. The state is a center for trade and for global companies.

American universities should also be sending people abroad, but they are still quite insular. The number of Americans studying abroad has tripled over the last 20 years, but, still, fewer than 10 percent of college students study overseas during undergraduate years. Three times as many foreigners study in America as the other way around.

(A shout-out goes to Goucher College in Baltimore, which requires students to study abroad. Others should try that.)

All young Americans should learn Spanish — el idioma extranjero de mayor importancia en los Estados Unidos — partly because growing numbers of seniors will finance retirement by moving to cheaper countries like Mexico, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Yet it makes no sense to study Spanish on a college campus when it is so much cheaper and more exhilarating to move to Bolivia, study or get a job and fall in love with a Bolivian.

It’s also more effective. I have a one-question language test that people who have lived abroad do better on than those who studied in a classroom. Try my test yourself: In a foreign language you’ve studied, how do you say “doorknob”?

As you’re looking blank and thinking of those four wasted years studying French (poignée de porte) or Spanish (pomo), consider this joke: If someone who speaks three languages is trilingual, and a person who speaks four languages is quadrilingual, what is a person called who speaks no foreign language at all?

Answer: An American.

One of the aims of higher education is to broaden perspectives, and what better way than by a home stay in a really different country, like Bangladesh or Senegal? Time abroad also leaves one more aware of the complex prism of suspicion through which the United States is often viewed. If more Americans had overseas experience, our foreign policy might be wiser.

That’s partly why I started my win-a-trip contest. I wanted to encourage American students to engage more with the world and with the issue of global poverty. So I’m pleased to announce that my win-a-trip winner, from the University of Notre Dame, is … But wait! First, a personal aside.

I took a gap year myself after high school and worked on a farm near Lyon, France. I stayed with the Vallet family, picked and packed fruit, and discovered that red wine can be a breakfast drink. That led to further travel as a university student. I slept on the floor of Indian temples and rode on the tops of Sudanese trains, and the experiences changed me by opening my eyes to human needs and to human universals.

Gap years are becoming a bit more common in the United States and are promoted by organizations like Global Citizen Year. Colleges tend to love it when students defer admission to take a gap year because those students arrive with more maturity and less propensity to spend freshman year in an alcoholic haze.

Here’s a suggestion: How about if colleges gave students a semester credit for a gap year spent in a non-English-speaking country?

There’s a misconception that gap years or study-abroad opportunities are feasible only for the affluent. There are lots of free options (and some paid ones) at idealist.org, which lists volunteering opportunities all over the world. It’s also often possible to make money teaching English on the side.

So go west, young men and women! And go east! Y al norte y al sur!

Back to my win-a-trip contest: I’m delighted to announce that my winner is Nicole Sganga, a 20-year-old from Long Island and the University of Notre Dame. Nicole is a junior majoring in political science and film and has already worked for CBS News in Washington and London.

I’m not sure yet where we’ll travel for our reporting together on neglected issues. Perhaps Congo. Maybe Myanmar. I welcome your suggestions on my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground, for places to go and themes to cover.

Thanks to the Center for Global Development for helping screen applications, and to all the students who applied. If you didn’t win, I hope you’ll go out and win your own trip!

Posted in Douthat, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof, MoDo, STFU, The Moustache of Wisdom, The Pasty Little Putz | Leave a Comment »


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