Archive for the ‘Friedman’ Category

The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

November 9, 2014

MoDo is off today.  The Pasty Little Putz is just BUBBLING with wonderful ideas!  He shares one with us this morning in “The Fight Republicans Need Now.”  He squeals that the G.O.P. needs to flesh out its agenda, and a Rand Paul-Marco Rubio rivalry could be the best way to do that.  Yeah.  THAT’S what America needs — a Rand Paul agenda, seasoned with a bit of Marco Rubio.  Just kill me now.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Makers and Breakers,” says the other great geopolitical struggle in the world today is happening on the Internet.  Mr. Kristof says “A Changed China Awaits Mr. Obama,” and that President Xi Jinping of China is tugging his country in a hard-line direction. He says President Obama should stand up to him.  Mr. Bruni considers “Gray Hair and Silver Linings,” and tells us he’s starting to see the worst of aging, but he’s more struck by the best of it.  ORLY?  He was born in 1964, the year after I graduated from high school.  He ain’t seen NOTHING of aging yet.  Here’s The Putz:

For the second time in four years, the Republican Party has won a sweeping midterm victory without having a policy agenda to match. The party has a more-than-comfortable House majority, a solid Senate edge, and it faces a lame-duck president sealed in a bubble of sour self-regard. But if you look for consensus on the ends to which this new power should be turned, you’ll find … well … um … repeal of the medical-device tax?

The good news for Republicans is that they’re closer to having a positive agenda than they were in the backlash year of 2010. Now, unlike then, actual flesh-and-blood Republican politicians have proposed substantial policy ideas on issues as diverse as health care and transportation, higher education and taxes, the safety net and sentencing reform. The party as a whole hasn’t rallied around these proposals, but they’re there and waiting to be taken up.

The bad news for Republicans is that America’s permanent campaign is about to shift into a higher gear, because with the midterms over You Know What is coming next. This means that policy debates in Washington will soon be swallowed up by presidential insanity — and if the next Republican primary campaign is like the last one, the conservative conversation could soon become an idea-free zone.

But there is reason to hope that this time might be different, that the 2016 primaries might feature not only actual ideas but a transformative debate. And that hope seems most likely to be realized if the primary field is winnowed early, and we end up with a contest that gives special prominence to Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.

Rubio and Paul are not necessarily the most qualified of the Republican contenders — they are relatively young, they lack executive experience, and their legislative records are modest. But they are both deeply engaged with the challenges that would await a Republican president in a way that most of their potential rivals currently are not.

Those rivals have either been out of national politics for a while (Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee), or they have been wrestling with state-level issues that don’t necessarily map onto national policy debates. There is, of course, plenty of time for Chris Christie or Scott Walker to raise his sights above pension fights and union battles. But Rubio and Paul are well ahead when it comes to thinking seriously about what a 21st-century conservatism should stand for and pursue.

Seriously, and differently. Rubio has gone further than any other likely 2016 contender in embracing what’s been dubbed “reform conservatism” — a vision of domestic policy that would overhaul the tax code and safety net to support work, family and upward mobility. For the Florida senator, the details of that vision include tax reform that would expand the child tax credit, more substantial wage subsidies for childless adults, a Social Security reform that would open the program’s Thrift Savings Plan for federal employees to more Americans — and a reform of Obamacare (still in the planning stages) that would try to cover similar numbers with less-comprehensive coverage.

Paul, meanwhile, embodies a more libertarian approach to conservative reform, in which the Republican Party would shed its “party of the rich” branding and reach out to new constituencies (minority voters and millennials, especially) by focusing on issues — criminal justice reform, civil liberties, corporate welfare — where a critique of big or heavy-handed government might be unexpectedly resonant.

There is overlap between his vision and Rubio’s, particularly on combating crony capitalism. But there is also a real philosophical difference between the two men on how much government should do to address social problems.

On foreign policy their contrast sharpens, because Paul casts himself as the heir to the realist tradition in Republican foreign policy, while Rubio’s record and statements are more in line with the neoconservatism of the Bush era. To use specific Obama-era examples, a Paul-led G.O.P. would presumably oppose Libya-style humanitarian interventions and eschew gambits like our effort to aid Syria’s rebels, while a Rubio-led G.O.P. might be willing to put American boots on the ground in both situations. These are not small differences, and they might be magnified in larger crises.

This is the point in the column when I would normally signal, subtly or clumsily, whose vision I find more attractive over all. But the reality is that I’m divided. I admire Paul’s outreach to minority voters, and I was very skeptical of the immigration bill Rubio shepherded through the Senate last year. But I have agreed with practically every domestic policy stance the Florida senator has taken since, and his reform agenda seems more sensible on substance and more plausible as politics than Paul’s more stringent libertarianism.

But then on foreign policy my sympathies reverse. Paul’s ties to his father’s more paranoid worldview are problematic, but the realism and restraint he’s championing seem wiser than the G.O.P.’s frequent interventionist tilt. To imagine Rubio as a successful foreign policy president, I have to imagine an administration in the mold of Ronald Reagan’s, where hawkish rhetoric coexists with deep caution about committing U.S. ground troops — and I think there’s reason to worry we’d get incaution and quagmire instead.

I suspect that the Republican electorate would also have mixed sympathies … and that is exactly why the party should want to see these men debate. Maybe that debate would end with one victorious and the other clearly vanquished; maybe it would encourage a kind of partial synthesis, perhaps offered by a savvy rival like Christie. But however the debate turned out, it would involve exactly the issues the Republicans need to work through before they’re given control of the White House once again.

One potential alternative to a Paul-Rubio tilt, meanwhile, is almost too grim to mention: a campaign in which neither man gets traction precisely because they’ve staked out too many positions, and instead the establishment money flows to a candidate (Jeb, Christie, even Romney redivivus) who plays it safe while Ted Cruz and Ben Carson and others have an empty scrum on the right to see who gets to finish second.

Such a campaign, in addition to being deeply tedious, would set the Republican Party’s intellectual clock back to 2012, with predictable results for the party in its inevitable collision with La Hillary.

Whereas to move forward, to win and govern, the G.O.P. needs to figure out exactly what kind of party it should be — and that may only happen if its brightest senatorial stars battle in the open, with a presidential nomination as the prize.

It’s interesting that there is no ability to comment on this thing.  The Times was probably afraid their servers would crash…  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Flip through any newspaper and go from the foreign news to the business pages and what you’ll see is the “other” great geopolitical struggle in the world today. It’s not the traditional one between nation states on land. It’s the struggle between “makers” and “breakers” on the Internet.

This is a great time to be a maker, an innovator, a starter-upper. Thanks to the Internet, you can raise capital, sell goods or services and discover collaborators and customers globally more easily than ever. This is a great time to make things. But it is also a great time to break things, thanks to the Internet. If you want to break something or someone, or break into somewhere that is encrypted, and collaborate with other bad guys, you can recruit and operate today with less money, greater ease and greater reach than ever before. This is a great time to be a breaker. That’s why the balance of power between makers and breakers will shape our world every bit as much as the one between America, Russia and China.

Consider what Robert Hannigan, the director of GCHQ, Britain’s version of our National Security Agency, wrote last week in The Financial Times: The Islamic State, or ISIS, was “the first terrorist group whose members have grown up on the Internet.” As a result, “they are exploiting the power of the web to create a jihadi threat with near-global reach.” And, the simple fact is, he said, “messaging and social media services such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp … have become the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists.” ISIS has used them to recruit, coordinate and inspire thousands of Islamists from around the world to join its fight to break Iraq and Syria.

Hannigan called for a “new deal” between intelligence agencies and the social networks so the companies don’t encrypt their data services in ways that make breakers like ISIS more powerful and difficult to track.

This will be an important debate, because this same free, open command and control system is enabling the makers to collaborate like never before, too. Here in Cleveland, I met two Israeli “makers” whose company relies heavily on Ukrainian software engineers. Their 11-year-old, 550-person company with employees in 20 countries, TOA Technologies, is a provider of cloud-based software that helps firms coordinate and manage mobile employees. It was just sold in a multimillion-dollar deal. Since I don’t know a lot of Israelis in Cleveland who employ code writers in Kharkiv, Ukraine, to service Brazil, I interviewed them.

Yuval Brisker, 55, was trained in Israel as an architect and first went to New York in the late-1980s to study at Pratt Institute. He later met Irad Carmi, now 51, an Israeli-trained flautist, who came to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Over the years, both drifted away from their chosen fields and discovered a love for, and taught themselves, programming. An Israeli friend of Brisker’s started a company in the 1990s dot-com boom, MaxBill, and eventually employed them both, but it went bust after 2001.

“We were both dot-com refugees,” said Brisker. “But one day Irad calls me up and says, ‘My father-in-law just came back from the doctor and asked: “Why is it that I have to wait for the doctor in his office when he knows he’s going to be late and running behind? There must be a technological solution.” The doctor knows he will be late and all his patients have cellphones. … Same with the cable guy. This was wasting millions of man hours.’ ”

In 2003, they started a company to solve that problem. But they had no money, and Carmi was working in Vienna. Carmi second-mortgaged his Cleveland home; Brisker took out loans. They communicated globally using email, Yahoo Messenger and an early Yahoo system that worked like a walkie-talkie. They wrote their business plan on free software without ever seeing each other face to face. Carmi in his travels to Spain discovered Alexey Turchyn, a Ukrainian programmer, who managed the creation of their first constantly updated cloud-based enterprise software. Eventually, they headquartered in Cleveland. Why not? As they say: “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog” — or in Cleveland or Mosul.

It still matters, though, being seen as an “American company,” said Brisker: “People know you represent that kind of entrepreneurialism and freedom of thought and creative expression and bold energy, and they want to be a part of it. They know it can transport them out of the malaise of their local world and enable them to build a new world in its place.”

Malaise? Why do some people respond to malaise with constructive, creative energies and use the Internet to scale them, and others with destructive creative energies and use the Internet to scale those? I don’t know. But more and more people will be superempowered by the Internet to make things and break things — and social networking companies and intelligence agencies working together or apart won’t save us. When every individual gets this superempowered to make or break things, every family and community matters — the values they impart and the aspirations they inspire. How we nurture our own in America and in other countries to produce more makers than breakers is now one of the great political — and geopolitical — challenges of this era.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

President Obama hasn’t even begun his state visit to China and he has already been mocked.

“U.S. public opinion has downgraded Obama,” a state-run Chinese newspaper, Global Times, editorialized about Tuesday’s election. “He has done an insipid job, offering nearly nothing to his supporters. U.S. society has grown tired of his banality.”

What a welcome! Global Times is often shrill, but that tone reflects the way President Xi Jinping is tugging his regime in a more nationalistic, assertive and hard-line direction.

The regime also gave a cold shoulder in September to former President Jimmy Carter, initially trying to block Chinese universities from hosting him. Xi and his No. 2 both declined to meet Carter — even though Carter is the one who established U.S.-Chinese diplomatic relations in 1979.

Then there’s something a bit more personal: China doesn’t seem to want to give me a visa.

I’ve been visiting China for more than 30 years and lived in Beijing for five. I speak Mandarin and have been alternately hailed by Chinese authorities and detained by them. But I’ve had cordial relations with the last few foreign ministers, and, until now, I’ve always received visas.

The Chinese leadership is blocking some visas for New York Times employees because it is upset by Times coverage of profiteering by families of senior officials. It was particularly irritated by Times articles showing that relatives of the former prime minister had amassed $2.7 billion.

Xi has been ruling China for two years now, and he has shown some inclination toward economic and legal reforms. Two years ago, I thought Xi might open things up a bit. Boy, was I wrong! Instead, it increasingly seems that Xi may deepen reforms in some areas but, over all, is a tough-minded nationalist who takes a hard line on multiple fronts so as to challenge nearly everything that Obama stands for:

•• In the East China and South China Seas, Xi has taken an aggressive approach to maritime disputes. There may be a thaw, but risk remains of military accidents, escalation and even war.

•• At home, he has overseen harsh repression of dissidents; activists who once were tolerated are now imprisoned. The brave lawyer Xu Zhiyong was this year sentenced to four years in prison, and China not only imprisons the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo but also torments his wife, Liu Xia, with extrajudicial house arrest.

•• The government has tightened controls on the Internet, blocking not only nytimes.com but also Facebook and YouTube — and making it hard to use Gmail, Google Drive and Google Calendar.

Deng Xiaoping accepted technologies that brought political risks because they would help the economy, but Xi seems willing to sacrifice business convenience for more rigid political control.

Xi comes across as cocky and proud that China is now booming and strong, and he has been willing to poke his finger in the American eye. In 2009, he derided “well-fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than lecture us about our own affairs.”

All this creates a challenge for Obama. The United States doesn’t have many China experts in senior roles, and neither in Beijing nor Washington are many officials fighting for an improved relationship. Meanwhile, the two sides are battling behind the scenes over Chinese cyberwarfare against American targets.

When Obama first traveled to Beijing in 2009, his efforts at conciliation were perceived as signs of weakness, and China then overplayed its hand, Washington responded and relations suffered.

The world needs China to step up and play a constructive role (an excellent example is China’s plan to build an Ebola hospital in Liberia), especially on climate change. But Xi’s vision of the China-U.S. relationship is that America keeps mum about Chinese abuses and irresponsible behavior.

When Xi traveled to Tanzania last year, members of his delegation bought thousands of pounds of illegal, poached ivory from slaughtered elephants, according to a report this month by the Environmental Investigation Agency. These purchases were so huge that the price of ivory doubled on the black market, the group said. This stockpile of illegal ivory was then smuggled to Beijing by diplomatic pouch on the president’s official plane, the agency said.

Chinese officials vociferously denied the report, but the episode is a reminder how much China increasingly matters worldwide, for good or for ill. From the global economy to the survival of elephants to carbon emissions, China today affects almost everything everywhere.

So for those of us who love the Middle Kingdom, it’s sad to see it veer toward a nationalistic and repressive line under Xi. Obama won’t be able to change China, but he has too often signaled weakness in the Middle East and Ukraine. In China, he should stand firm.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni, again with no comments allowed…:

I turned 50 just the other day, but I got the gift that I most needed nearly two years earlier, from a couple of strangers whom I never saw again.

I was in a surgeon’s waiting room, about to have a crimson hillock carved from my back. This, I’ve learned, is one of the rites of aging: Your body starts generating superfluous things that you wish it wouldn’t — hairs, pounds, moles — and the removal of some is a matter of survival, not vanity. In this instance I had a baby cancer between my shoulder blades, and it threatened, if unattended, to go from relatively harmless to decidedly unfriendly.

Seated across from me were a man and a woman, neither of whom looked a day under 70. I could tell from their conversation that they’d just met, and that they’d both been in this place and through this drill many times before. When it came to carcinoma, they were frequent fliers.

“Too much tennis,” the woman said to the man as she pointed to a subtle divot on her neck, where the sun had done its cruel handiwork.

“Golf,” said the man, touching a similar dent on his brow. “Should have worn a hat.”

She gently pulled up the hem of her skirt to reveal a jagged, angry red line just below her knee. It gave her an excuse to show some leg.

Then she reached over to touch a patch on one of his forearms, which had also gone under the knife.

“Yard work,” he said, in what struck me as a deliberately virile, even boastful tone of voice. Her fingers lingered on the spot. He let them.

It reminded me of that scene in “Jaws” when the shark hunters compare scars, except that the battles that my fellow patients had waged weren’t with the deep’s monsters. They were with the body’s betrayals.

Cosmetically, these two had been diminished. But by other yardsticks?

As I watched them turn rogue cells into compatible memories, affliction into flirtation, I couldn’t help feeling that they’d actually been amplified, and that there’s a mercy and a kind of miracle in the way we’re constructed. We have tricks of the mind and tools of the spirit infinitely more potent than the ravages of time.

Its passage isn’t something I’m happy about. There’s a whole lot of downside, and I don’t mean just the odd growths, the weakening knees, the blurring vision and the crawling metabolism, none of which got the message that 50 is the new 40, at least not in my case.

I mean the lost ambitions. There’s a point at which you have to accept that certain hopes and dreams won’t be realized, and 50 sure feels like it.

I mean the lost margin for error. When you’re in your 20s and even your 30s, you can waste months, squander love, say yes to all the wrong things and no to all the right ones. And you can still recover, because there are many more months and loves and crossroads to come. The mistakes of youth are an education. The mistakes later on are just a shame.

And I mean the lost people most of all: the ones from whom you’re separated by unmovable circumstances; the ones who’ve died. By 50 you start to see the pace of these disappearances accelerating. It’s haunting, and even harrowing.

But there’s something else that you start to notice, something that muffles all of that, a muscle that grows stronger, not weaker. More than before, you’re able to find the good in the bad. You start to master perspective, realizing that with a shift in it — an adjustment of attitude, a reorientation of expectations — what’s bothersome can evaporate and what only seems to be urgent really isn’t.

I was talking about this recently with a close friend who’s only a bit younger than I am, and she said that with each year, she finds her friendships less volatile and easier, because she increasingly succeeds at looking past their flaws and disappointments and homing in on their pleasures and on what set them in motion to begin with. And she wonders why she didn’t do that sooner, why she gave in to so much fury and sorrow when she could have just let those emotions go.

You get older and you let things go. You say goodbye to the most isolating parts of your pride and, if you’re lucky, you slough off some of your pettiness.

You finally appreciate the wisdom of doing so, and you come to recognize that among multiple vantage points and an array of responses to a situation, you really can elect the most positive one.

There’s truth to those old saws about clouds and silver linings and lemonade from lemons. But it can take a good long while to wake up to that: to divine the lessons beneath the clichés and embrace them without feeling like a sap.

On the morning of my 50th birthday, I got a call with the results of a test that I’d actually forgotten was being done. A tiny dot that had recently appeared on my nose was indeed precancerous and had to be eliminated. There’d be some sort of freezing followed by some sort of chemotherapy cream and then, if that didn’t work, some sort of carving. Been there, done that, and will probably have to do it over and over again. Too much beach and too many tanning beds in my heedless past.

I thought, Oh, well. I’m blessed with insurance. I’m not a model with a career on the line. I’m not a looker being defaced.

And then I thought about the man and the woman in the surgeon’s waiting room, and how they’d stayed with me ever since, becoming more vivid in my mind as I closed in on 50. They’d underscored aging’s upside, helping me understand it more quickly and clearly. They’d embodied the possibility that you gain as much as you lose, and that there are slivers of opportunity and points of connection where you least expect them.

I have no idea how or if their conversation ended. I left before they did that day. Maybe they never exchanged another word.

Or maybe they swapped telephone numbers and, right now, they’re off together on vacation somewhere. They’re moving less nimbly than they once did. They’re wearing much more sunscreen. But they’re savoring the moment in a heightened way, and definitely not taking it for granted.

Friedman and Bruni

November 5, 2014

The Moustache of Wisdom tells us that “The World Is Fast” and that the biggest challenge of all was never discussed during the midterms: the surging of the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law at once.  Mr. Bruni, in “Republicans, Meet Science,” says they haven’t been so well acquainted. In the new, post-midterms Congress, is there hope for a more respectful relationship?  Not with weaponized idiocy like that which Joni Ernst and her ilk will bring…  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

We’ve just had a nonsense midterm election. Never has more money been spent to think so little about a future so in flux. What would we have discussed if we’d had a serious election? How about the biggest challenge we’re facing today: The resilience of our workers, environment and institutions.

Why is that the biggest challenge? Because: The world is fast. The three biggest forces on the planet — the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law — are all surging, really fast, at the same time. The market, i.e., globalization, is tying economies more tightly together than ever before, making our workers, investors and markets much more interdependent and exposed to global trends, without walls to protect them.

Moore’s Law, the theory that the speed and power of microchips will double every two years, is, as Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson posit in their book, “The Second Machine Age,” so relentlessly increasing the power of software, computers and robots that they’re now replacing many more traditional white- and blue-collar jobs, while spinning off new ones — all of which require more skills.

And the rapid growth of carbon in our atmosphere and environmental degradation and deforestation because of population growth on earth — the only home we have — are destabilizing Mother Nature’s ecosystems faster.

In sum, we’re in the middle of three “climate changes” at once: one digital, one ecological, one geo-economical. That’s why strong states are being stressed, weak ones are blowing up and Americans are feeling anxious that no one has a quick fix to ease their anxiety. And they’re right. The only fix involves big, hard things that can only be built together over time: resilient infrastructure, affordable health care, more start-ups and lifelong learning opportunities for new jobs, immigration policies that attract talent, sustainable environments, manageable debt and governing institutions adapted to the new speed.

That’s just theory, you say? Really? Look at one aspect in one country: Mother Nature in Brazil. On Oct. 24, Reuters reported this from São Paulo: “South America’s biggest and wealthiest city may run out of water by mid-November if it doesn’t rain soon. São Paulo, a Brazilian megacity of 20 million people, is suffering its worst drought in at least 80 years, with key reservoirs that supply the city dried up after an unusually dry year.”

Say what? São Paulo is running out of water? Yes.

José Maria Cardoso da Silva, a Brazilian and senior adviser at Conservation International, explains: The drought hit a landscape that had been stripped of 80 percent of the natural forest along the Serra da Cantareira watersheds that feed six artificial reservoirs sustaining São Paulo. The Cantareira supplies nearly half of São Paulo’s water. The forests and wetlands have been replaced by farmfields, pastures and eucalyptus plantations. So today the pipes and reservoirs that gather the water are still in place, but the natural infrastructure of forests and watersheds has been badly degraded. The drought exposed it all.

“Natural forests act like giant sponges soaking up rain and gradually releasing it into streams,” he said. “They also protect watercourses and maintain water quality by reducing sediment and filtering pollutants. The forest loss in Cantareira increased erosion, caused the decline in water quality, and changed seasonal water flows, reducing the resilience of the entire system against climatic extreme events.” The Cantareira system has fallen below 12 percent of capacity.

Sadly, deforestation increased under Brazil’s newly re-elected president, Dilma Rousseff, but this was also barely an issue in Brazil’s election. Yet Reuters quoted Antonio Nobre, a leading climate scientist at Brazil’s National Space Research Institute, arguing that “global warming and the deforestation of the Amazon are altering the climate in the region by drastically reducing the release of billions of liters of water by rainforest trees. ‘Humidity that comes from the Amazon in the form of vapor clouds — what we call ‘flying rivers’ — has dropped dramatically, contributing to this devastating situation we are living today,’ ” Nobre said.

Paul Gilding, the Australian environmentalist and author of “The Great Disruption,” emailed from Brazil to say that the lack of a serious Brazilian response “reinforces to me that we’re not going to respond to the big global issues until they hit the economy. It’s hard to imagine a stronger example than a city of 20 million people running out of water. Yet despite the clear threat, the main response is ‘we hope it rains.’ Why such denial? Because the implications of acceptance are so significant, and we know in our hearts there’s no going back once you end denial. It would demand that the country face up to the urgency of reversing rather than slowing deforestation” and “the need to prepare the country for the risks that a changing climate presents.”

When changes in the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law all get this fast, opportunities and stresses abound. One day, we’ll have an election about how we cushion, exploit and adapt to them — an election to make America and Americans more resilient. One day.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Just days before the midterm elections, we got the latest alarm: The globe is heating up like a griddle, and we’re just lolling here like eggs.

This happened on Sunday, when a United Nations panel issued what The Times called its “starkest warning yet.” But while the report made headlines, it didn’t make the campaign. Like other big issues being shelved for some later, scarier day, climate change wasn’t high on the agenda, especially for Republicans.

As expected, they fared much better than Democrats did in Tuesday’s voting. Come January, they will take control of the Senate. However else they use it, I fervently hope that they start to show more respect for science.

The refusal to accept or respond adequately to climate change is the most obvious example of their disregard — and one of the most enraging ones. In a recent story in The Times, Coral Davenport described the maddening tendency of top Republicans, including Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, to deflect questions about greenhouse gases and volatile weather patterns with some version of the cop-out: “Well, I’m not a scientist.”

No, they’re not. But there are estimable ones all around Washington and the rest of the sizzling globe, and they’re happy to share their wisdom. The United Nations panel did precisely that, cautioning that a continued failure to reduce emissions of those gases would yield “food shortages, refugee crises, the flooding of major cities and entire island nations, mass extinctions of plants and animals, and a climate so drastically altered it might become dangerous for people to work or play outside during the hottest times of the year,” as The Times’s Justin Gillis wrote, laying out the stakes. They couldn’t be graver.

President Obama used his executive authority earlier this year on a plan to cut emissions some. But Congress has been largely useless, with a relationship to science that toggles between benign neglect and outright contempt. And many Americans have a similarly curious attitude, distinguished by woefully insufficient gratitude for the ways in which science has advanced our country and elevated our lives.

On the one hand, we’re enthralled by the idea and occasional romance of science. We certainly love it in our popular entertainment. The most watched comedy on television is “The Big Bang Theory,” which showcases physicists. Their social fumbling is lampooned, but their brainpower is revered.

The biggest event of the fall movie season is the space extravaganza “Interstellar,” which opens this week and is so chockablock with sophisticated physics and rife with cosmological argot that Time magazine assigned a cover story not to a Hollywood reporter but to the senior editor who supervises science coverage.

And Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” has become a veritable cultural icon.

But look at the title of his new book on evolution, also out this week. It’s called “Undeniable,” because, yes, there are many Americans who still deny what Darwin and other scientists long ago proved. They elect mysticism over empiricism.

And you can’t chalk that up to religious fervor alone. Plenty of Americans without any strong religious beliefs opt not to vaccinate their children, ignoring the ironclad scientific arguments in favor of doing so. Plenty reject the virtues of pasteurization and feed their children raw milk. Plenty spend lavishly on herbal supplements and alternative medicine, defying physicians and deciding when myth suits them better than actual fact.

But that kind of fickle approach to science is most troubling in the people who make our laws. As several bloggers and journalists have noted, some Republicans say they’re not qualified to address global warming even as they opine readily and expansively on Ebola. They fault the appointed “Ebola czar” for not being a doctor, then reject what actual doctors tell us about the disease.

If they had proper regard for science, politicians in both parties would fight harder against the devastating cuts to federal research that have happened under sequestration, endangering medical progress and jeopardizing our global leadership. And lawmakers trying to prove their fiscal prudence wouldn’t irresponsibly smear all scientific inquiry by cherry-picking and theatrically denouncing the most arcane, seemingly frivolous studies the government has funded.

If science held the sway it should, the onetime Senate candidate Todd Akin wouldn’t have bought into and mentioned his ludicrous theory that “legitimate rape” precluded pregnancy, and the Republican flamethrower Ted Cruz might have to surrender his florid homophobia, which is reliant on his fantasy that same-sex attractions are some whimsical “personal choices.”

And with the right fealty to science, this next Congress would be forced to accept the overwhelming consensus on climate change and take action. It’s time to wise up and stop wasting all the knowledge we have.

Christ, but you’re naive if you think anything will happen in Congress.

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

November 2, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz tells us all about “How Obama Lost America.”  He insists there are four explanations for the Democrats’ biggest problem heading into the midterms.  MoDo, in “A Cup of G.I. Joe,” says Howard Schultz of Starbucks says America is good at sending people to war but bad at bringing them home. He has a plan to help.  The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Flying Blind in Iraq and Syria.”  He asks with no reporters inside ISIS territory to document the war, how do we know what’s happnening on the ground?  Gee, Tommy, you’re a reporter and I’m sure you have a passport…  Mr. Kristof tells us “Teenagers Stand Up to Backpage,” and that some brave girls who say they were sold for sex on Backpage.com are fighting back in lawsuits that could have far-reaching implications for sex trafficking in America.  Mr. Bruni considers “The Pitiful Wimper of 2014″ and says voters abhor the status quo.  He also has a question:  When will someone present them with anything truly different? Here’s The Putz:

The midterms have featured many variables and one constant. Whether they’re running as incumbents or challengers, campaigning in blue or red or purple states, Democratic candidates have all been dragging an anchor: a president from their party whose approval ratings haven’t been north of 45 percent since last October.

The interesting question is why. You may recall that Mitt Romney built his entire 2012 campaign strategy around the assumption that a terrible economy would suffice to deny Barack Obama a second term. Yet throughout 2012, with the unemployment rate still up around 8 percent, Obama’s approval numbers stayed high enough (the mid-to-upper 40s) to ultimately win. Whereas today the unemployment rate has fallen to 6 percent, a number Team Obama would have traded David Axelrod’s right kidney for two years ago, but the White House hasn’t benefited: The public’s confidence is gone, and it doesn’t seem to be coming back.

So when and how was it lost? When President Bush’s second-term job approval numbers tanked, despite decent-at-the-time economic numbers, the explanation was easy: It was Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. But nothing quite so pat presents itself in Obama’s case, so here are four partial theories instead.

He gets blamed for Republican intransigence. This is the explanation that many Obama partisans favor, because it lets him mostly off the hook. The theory is that with the country as polarized as it is, and with the public inclined to blame the president for gridlock, the natural state for presidential approval ratings is a kind of regression toward the low 40s. This regression can be interrupted only by either some major unforeseen event or the emergence of a challenger — Romney for Obama, John Kerry for George W. Bush — who reminds voters that they dislike the other party more. But once the challenger is beaten, the process resumes: Just as Bush’s post-9/11 ratings declined steadily except when Kerry was on the scene, so too Obama’s numbers were doomed to decay once he won a second term.

It’s the economy — yes, still: This explanation raises an eyebrow at the last one and says, come on: If the economy were enjoying a 1990s-style boom, surely Obama would have a decent chance at Clinton-level approval ratings, gridlock or no gridlock! But even with the improving employment picture this recovery is still basically a disappointment, especially for the middle class. So the contrast between Obama’s position in 2012 and his weaker one today isn’t necessarily a case study in the economy not mattering. It’s an example of voter patience persisting for a while, and finally running out.

It’s Obamacare — yes, still. This is the closest equivalent to Bush and the Iraq War: The health care law is Obama’s signature issue, it remains largely unpopular (even if support for full repeal is weak), and its initial stumbling coincided with the sharpest second-term drop in the president’s approval. Fixing the website may have stabilized the system, but by design Obamacare still creates many losers as well as winners, and a persistent dissatisfaction with shifts in coverage and costs could be the crucial drag keeping Americans dissatisfied with their president as well.

It’s foreign policy — and competence. One of the interesting features of the 2012 campaign was that as much as the economy made Obama’s sales pitch challenging, he had an edge that Democratic politicians often lack: The public trusted him on foreign policy. But that trust began to erode with the Edward Snowden affair, it eroded further during our non-attack on Bashar al-Assad last fall, and recent events in Ukraine and Iraq have essentially made Obama’s position irrecoverable: His approval rating on foreign policy is around 35 percent in most recent polling.

But this harsh judgment probably isn’t explicitly ideological: The public isn’t necessarily turning neoconservative or pining for the days of Bush. Instead, it mostly reflects a results-based verdict on what seems like poor execution, in which the White House’s slow response to ISIS is of a piece with the Obamacare rollout and the V.A. scandal and various other second-term asleep-at-the-tiller moments. It’s a problem of leadership that reflects badly on liberalism but doesn’t necessarily vindicate conservatism.

And it’s because it isn’t explicitly ideological that the Democrats still have a chance in many states on Tuesday. From North Carolina to New Hampshire to Georgia, their candidates are being tugged downward by the Obama anchor, but they’re still bobbing, still only half-submerged, waiting for undecideds to break (or just stay home).

In many ways, Republicans have enjoyed in 2014 the kind of landscape they expected in 2012: a landscape in which nobody save Democratic partisans particularly supports President Obama anymore. What we’re about to find out is whether, amid that disillusionment, just being the not-Obama party is enough.

Next up we have MoDo:

When I close my eyes, I can easily flash back to a time when it was cool to call people in uniform “pigs” and “baby killers.”

If you had any family members in the police or military in the Vietnam era, you know how searing that was.

Now we give our veterans respect, early boarding at airports and standing ovations at ballgames. Yet it’s becoming clear that it’s not enough.

With no draft and fewer than 1 percent volunteering to serve, most Americans have no personal connection to anyone who went to Iraq or Afghanistan. There’s a schism between the warriors and the people they were fighting for.

Instead of ticker-tape parades, the veterans returned to find Americans in a crouch, wishing they could forget the military adventures of the last decade. Hollywood was turning out movies showcasing heroic veterans, but they were from World War II. And scandals scarred Walter Reed and an ill-prepared Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The government does a very good job of sending people to war,” Howard Schultz, the C.E.O. of Starbucks, told me in New York this past week, “and a very poor job of bringing them home.”

Schultz was more conversant with espresso shots than rifle shots when he was invited to speak to West Point cadets about leadership in 2011.

His father had served in the Army in the South Pacific during World War II but never spoke of it. As a teenager, he sat in front of the TV with his mother when it was announced that young men with draft numbers from 1 to 125 were going to Vietnam.

“When I tell my story to my kids, they think I’m making it up: ‘What do you mean there was a lottery?’ ” he said. “And I remember it was literally a lottery where they picked out balls. And my number was 332, so I didn’t go. But I would have.”

After touring what he called “the sacred ground” of the military academy, he started to speak and choked up.

“It is I who should be learning from you,” he told the cadets. “You are the true leaders.”

It is good to cast your company in a patriotic glow, of course. But Schultz is also a man of open sentimentality, obsession with transformation and ferocious enthusiasms — be it for coffee, mermaids, basketball, biking, Israel or China. His epiphany at West Point led to an odyssey with veterans, a mission to get Americans to have more “skin in the game.”

“Before going to West Point, I had never even spoken to anyone in uniform,” he shares in a new book he wrote with Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a Washington Post war correspondent. “As I look back, I’m embarrassed.”

He put former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the Starbucks board, committed $30 million from his family foundation to projects including research on post-traumatic stress disorder and brain trauma, and he visited the Pentagon, Walter Reed and military bases. He and Chandrasekaran produced “For Love of Country: What our veterans can teach us about citizenship, heroism, and sacrifice,” a slender volume with harrowing and heroic stories of war and coming home. Schultz’s proceeds will go to the Onward Veterans fund, which was created by the Schultz Family Foundation.

The coffee czar joined a growing list of corporations getting good P.R. by pledging to hire a million veterans, even though there are only about 200,000 post-9/11 veterans out of work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Schultz has hired 1,000 vets and spouses and committed to give jobs to 9,000 more by 2019.

He has organized a Concert for Valor on the Mall on Veterans Day, featuring stars from Bruce Springsteen to Eminem to Rihanna, a way to celebrate soldiers and urge the public to get involved with veterans’ groups vetted by Gates and Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The free concert, put on by Starbucks, HBO and JPMorgan Chase, will be shown live on HBO, even for those without subscriptions.

Schultz said that many vets he talked to had lost “a sense of core purpose.” He writes that tens of thousands of vets have grave injuries that will require a huge financial commitment and that healthy vets eager to join the work force “are too often viewed as damaged goods.”

There is a discernible P.T.S.D. bias among employers. Veterans Affairs estimates that 11 percent to 20 percent of the more than 2.4 million post-9/11 veterans suffer from P.T.S.D. I wondered if it was harder because of the sour view of the two wars. In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Survey in April, 50 percent of the vets polled didn’t believe that Iraq was worth fighting and 41 percent didn’t believe Afghanistan was worth it.

Pfc. James Cathcart — suffering from P.T.S.D. and looking for work in Colorado in January — expressed his anguish to The Times’s Richard Oppel Jr. after ISIS raised its black flag over Falluja, Iraq, where so many Marines and soldiers died and were wounded capturing the city twice: “Lives were wasted, and now everyone back home sees that. It was irresponsible to send us over there with no plan, and now to just give it all away.”

But Schultz said that in his private chats with vets, “I never had one conversation where anyone brought up the politics. What I did hear, countless times, is, ‘I want to go back.’ ”

Chandrasekaran said that we need to weave the vets, recovering from the strain of multiple tours and terrains strewn with I.E.D.s, back into the American narrative.

“In 1946, if your neighbor was watering the street at night because he was kind of crazy from shell shock, you knew that everyone coming back wasn’t crazy because your brother or son or husband had served and was successfully transitioning,” he said. “We don’t have that common understanding anymore. So if someone goes and shoots up Fort Hood, there are all those people who think all vets are a bunch of killers-to-be. And that’s not the case. So the aperture needs to widen.”

Schultz produced glossy film clips for the concert. One shows the macchiato mogul, wearing an Army-green down vest, greeting troops with his blonde wife, Sheri, as heart-tugging piano music plays. I note that it is bound to make viewers wonder if he’s partly motivated by a desire to run for president.

“I have an interest in trying to make a difference,” he said. “I don’t know where that’s going to lead.” He believes that “the country is longing for leadership and for truth with a capital T.”

The American dream is frayed, he says, adding: “We’ve lost our collective and individual responsibility, and to a large degree our conscience, and that has to be addressed. And that is linked to a dysfunctional government and a lack of authentic, truthful leadership. Am I depressing you?”

If the people who send troops off to war aren’t risking their own children as well it’s easier.  Bring back the draft.  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, has accompanied its brutal takeover of large swaths of Iraq and Syria with the kidnapping and beheading of journalists. Any Western journalists who would dare to venture into ISIS territory today would be risking their lives every second. So the United States is now involved in the first prolonged war in the modern Middle East that American reporters and photographers can’t cover firsthand on a daily basis, with the freedom to observe and write what they please and with the sustained presence to offer perspective on how the story is evolving. That is not good.

But it gets worse. The Times reported last week that ISIS had one of its British hostages act as a combat reporter in a propaganda video from the Syrian town of Kobani, “forecasting that the town is about to fall to militants despite waves of American airstrikes,” and suggesting that ISIS was getting even more savvy in promoting its cause by adopting the techniques of a 24-hour news channel. “ ‘Hello, I’m John Cantlie,’ the hostage says in the video, dressed in black, ‘and today we are in the city of Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border. That is, in fact, Turkey right behind me.’ ”

And it will get even worse. Dylan Byers, Politico’s media reporter, wrote on Oct. 23 that the F.B.I. had sent a bulletin to news organizations warning that ISIL had identified reporters and media personalities as “legitimate targets for retribution attacks” in response to the U.S.-led airstrikes.

What are we missing by not having reporters permanently present inside ISIS territory? A lot. We can’t answer for ourselves important questions: How is our bombing campaign being perceived? Is it drawing ISIS fighters and local Iraqi Sunnis closer together or pushing them apart? How is ISIS governing, running schools and the justice system, and how is this perceived by Iraqis and Syrians under its rule? What motivates so many losers and lost souls to join this jihadist movement? Do we have the right message directed at them? I could go on.

Retiring Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns recently authored a piece in Foreign Policy magazine with his parting advice to American diplomats. He quoted Edward R. Murrow, the CBS News giant, advising incoming diplomats that the “really critical link in the international communications chain is the last three feet, which is best bridged by personal contact — one person talking to another.”

The same is true for reporters and photographers. Sure, polls, graphs and Twitter feeds are important. They are one form of data. But interviewing another human being about hopes and dreams, fears and hatreds, is also a form of data collecting and analysis — something the best diplomats, journalists and historians rely upon. You can’t capture in numbers a raised eyebrow or a wry smile or the fear in a refugee’s eyes or the regret in a militiaman’s voice. Sometimes just listening to someone’s silence speaks volumes.

I often reflect on interviews I did with Egyptian women at an all-female voting station in the poorest neighborhood in Cairo in the 2012 election that brought a Muslim Brotherhood leader to the presidency. Almost all of them had voted for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi. But when I asked why, not a single one cited religion. Instead they said that Morsi would bring jobs, security, sidewalks, better living conditions and an end to corruption — in short, better governance. Morsi was eventually toppled for bringing none of those, not because he was impious.

Recently, Vice News used the veteran Al Jazeera and Arabic photojournalist Medyan Dairieh to produce a compelling documentary from Syria, called “The Islamic State.” But that was a one-shot deal done with “conditions in order to get in and get out with your life,” Jason Mojica, the Vice News editor in chief, told a panel at N.Y.U., according to The Huffington Post.

I asked Mina al-Oraibi, assistant editor of the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat, how an Arabic daily covered ISIS:

“We have our correspondents supported by a few local stringers who risk their lives by being in touch with us from Iraq. However, we have a blackout from ISIS-controlled areas in Syria, especially Raqqa. In Iraq, our use of phones and emails to get information leaves us worried about the safety of these reporters, and often they are working without knowing how they will eventually get paid. … Having said that, our coverage is enriched by networks of Iraqis and Syrians reaching out to tell us their stories, in addition to relations with Iraqis, Syrians, and other Arabs who have either interacted with some ISIS militants or had relations with them when they were under other banners.”

But the reality, she added, “is that much of what we know is either from ISIS militants, or anecdotal stories from observers or people with families in places controlled by ISIS.”

Indeed, ISIS is telling us what it wants us to know through Twitter and Facebook, and keeping from us anything it doesn’t want us to know. So be wary of what anyone tells you about this war — good, bad or indifferent. Without independent reporting on the ground, we’re in for some surprises. If you don’t go, you don’t know.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

If prostitution of children is illegal, why is it that we allow an estimated 100,000 underage girls and boys to be sold for sex in America each year — many on a single American website, Backpage.com?

That’s a reflection of law enforcement priorities, but several brave girls who allege that they were pimped on Backpage are trying to change them. They are fighting back in lawsuits that could have far-reaching implications for sex trafficking in America.

Two young women who say they were each sold on Backpage at age 15, and raped hundreds of times as a result, are suing the company in Boston in federal court. Another suit is winding its way through Washington State courts, pursued by three girls who say they, too, were sold for sex on Backpage — in the case of two of them, when they were 13 years old.

The girls in the federal suit are represented pro bono by a major Boston law firm, Ropes & Gray, which has five lawyers on the case. The suit charges that Backpage has “perfected a business model that profits substantially from aiding and participating with pimps and traffickers in the sexual exploitation of children.”

“When on Backpage, I was advertised in the same way as a car or a phone, but with even less value than a bike,” says one of the girls who is a plaintiff in the federal suit. “Men would view their options, and if I seemed like the best one, they would call.”

Now 17, she says she was sold for sex on Backpage when she was 15 and 16; she estimates that she was raped 1,000 times as a result. She is seeking damages and whatever injunctions the court finds appropriate, but she is not explicitly seeking to close down the entire Backpage site.

Some readers may scoff that this is about censorship of free speech. No, it’s about human rights — because one of the most searing rights abuses in America is the sexual exploitation of children.

Nor is the issue prostitution. Whatever one thinks of legalizing sexual transactions among adults, we should all be able to agree that children shouldn’t be peddled like pizzas.

The federal suit lays out what it says is a pattern of Backpage blocking efforts by police or families to trace missing girls and boys. According to the suit, Backpage systematically scrubs photos in sex ads of metadata that would allow authorities to track down people in them.

Backpage also makes it hard to search for missing girls by allowing scrambled phone numbers in sex ads. If you sell a dog on Backpage in the pet section, you must post a numeric phone number; sell sex with a girl, and you can use a nonsearchable version — such as zero12-345-six78nine — that makes it more difficult for police or family members to locate a missing child with a simple Internet search.

Likewise, Backpage allows ads to be paid for with untraceable credit cards or even with Bitcoin. It doesn’t require any age verification or real names.

I first wrote about Backpage a few years ago when it was used to advertise a 13-year-old girl being enslaved in Brooklyn. One day the pimp dropped her off at an apartment building and waited at the entrance to make sure she did not run. She hurt too much to endure another rape, so instead of going to the apartment that had ordered her, she randomly pounded on another door and begged to use the telephone. She called her mother, and then dialed 911. The pimp is now in prison, but Backpage profited on the ad — as it always does.

Attorneys general from 48 states have written a joint letter to Backpage, pleading with it to stop exploiting children.

Liz McDougall, the lawyer for Backpage, declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuits, but she told me: “We remain committed to effective measures of prevention and successful prosecution of this heinous crime.”

That’s absurd. Backpage claims to report possible sex-trafficking cases, but Yiota Souras, the general counsel of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, says that “Backpage’s reporting is not conducted in good faith.” Souras says that if parents report to Backpage that their teenage daughters are being sold on the site, the company doesn’t always remove the ads or prevent new ads for the children from being posted.

The lawsuit says Backpage floods the authorities with reports of possible underage girls to pretend to be helpful, while actually impeding the effort. Meanwhile, Backpage refuses to use screening software that might actually detect ads for underage girls.

Americans rightly waxed indignant at the way the Roman Catholic Church or Penn State turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of minors. But our entire society does the same thing.

Isn’t it time to stop?

Lastly we get to Mr. Bruni:

Imagine a house ablaze. Now picture a team of firefighters pulling up to it. They behold the flames shooting through its roof. They feel its heat on their faces. And they get in position to fight it.

With squirt guns.

That house is America, and those rescuers are the candidates in these misbegotten midterms.

We’re living through a chapter of uncommonly durable and pronounced pessimism, when a majority of adults don’t think their kids will have as many opportunities as they did; when there’s waning faith in social mobility and a widening gap between rich and poor; when our standing in the world is diminished and our sense of insecurity has intensified accordingly; when the environment itself is turning on us and demanding the sorts of long-term adjustments we’ve seldom been good at.

And yet nothing about the discussion during these long months of campaigning has fully reflected that or been scaled to it. None of the candidates have spoken with the necessary urgency or requisite sweep. No one has stepped forward with originality, authenticity and a pledge to tear up the dreary political script of recent years and lead us into a future that we’re ceasing to believe in.

In Iowa, Joni Ernst and Bruce Braley talked of Harleys, hogs and chickens. In Florida, Charlie Crist and Rick Scott bickered over a fan. In Colorado, Mark Udall’s focus was more womb-centric than “The Handmaid’s Tale.” While I believe strongly in reproductive freedom and salute him for defending it, I also wish I could tell you, without intensive research, what sort of script he has for restoring this country’s confidence.

But I don’t know the answer — for him or for just about any of the other 2014 candidates. I know where they stand on the minimum wage and maybe on immigration reform, though there’s been a whole lot of waffling there. I know that they think the Islamic State is evil and Ebola scary.

But a visionary plan? A detailed route back to the optimism at the core of the American character? I didn’t catch those, so I’d be wary of any party leader or pundit who tells you that there’s a clear moral to the outcome of Tuesday’s voting, a bold lesson. After a sometimes breathtakingly cynical campaign bereft of big ideas, few Americans will actually be voting for anything or anyone, at least in the congressional contests.

The midterms have had too little real substance to have too much predictive relevance.

In The Los Angeles Times a month ago, the columnist Doyle McManus drew attention to a poll that “asked voters if they intended their choices to send a message to Washington.”

“Only 13 percent said they would be voting in support of Republican policies,” McManus wrote. “An even smaller number said they would be voting in favor of Democratic ideas. The largest group of all, 42 percent, said they didn’t have a bigger message in mind at all.”

Many of them won’t even like whichever politician they wind up voting for. In Senate race after Senate race, they’re choosing between the lesser of evils. At least as many voters have unfavorable as favorable views of both the Democratic and Republican candidates in Iowa, in North Carolina, in Georgia and in Kentucky, where Mitch McConnell, the Republican, marveled recently at a sinkhole that had opened up in the state’s moist earth. I think of that maw as nature’s response to the election, its attempt to wipe the slate clean, or rather swallow it whole and start from scratch.

It was in Kentucky that the Democratic aspirant, Alison Lundergan Grimes, provided the election’s defining moment, refusing to say whether she’d voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. With an eye toward whatever calibrations might constitute a winning formula, she tossed character, honesty and any kind of mature conversation with voters to the side.

Analysts of this election have cast it as a referendum on competence, a referendum on Obama, a referendum on an economic recovery that’s been slow and spotty. There’s some truth to each of those observations, and to the sum of them.

But if Republicans wrest control of the Senate, it will mostly reflect the particularities of the individual races and states themselves, and the larger takeaway, to the extent that there is one, will be the same as the takeaway from most of the last five elections. The turnover in the chamber will be a retort to the status quo, which is a Democratic Senate majority, along with a Democratic president.

For more than a decade, consistently, more Americans have said that the country is on the wrong track than have said it’s on the right one. This is remarkable.

And in almost every election during that span, the party in control of the White House, the Senate or the House of Representatives has changed. It’s been a nearly constant seesaw, with a sustained message from voters: What we have isn’t working. Give us different.

If you’re the candidate of continuity and sameness, whether a Republican or a Democrat, you’re quite likely vulnerable. That’s why Udall’s aides raised a stink when his opponent, Cory Gardner, ran a TV commercial underscoring the generations of politicians in the Udall family. Udall said it represented an out-of-bounds personal attack, which was ridiculous. What it did was weld Udall to the status quo, and that rightly spooked him.

Being welded to the status quo obviously spooks Hillary Clinton as well, and that’s why, if she runs for president, she’ll bang the “first woman ever” drum in a manner that she didn’t last time around. It’s a way to argue that putting another Democrat in the White House after Obama isn’t mere perpetuation.

The leaders of whichever party fares better than expected or at least better than the other in the midterms will talk a lot about 2016, claiming not just victory but a proven connection with the zeitgeist and what Americans really want.

Your correct response to this inevitable aria of self-congratulation will be laughter, or maybe tears, because what Americans crave and fantasize about is difference of a magnitude and a passion — you might even say an audacity — that was absent from this election cycle.

Here’s a wager for 2016, based not on 2014 but on our trudge through the doldrums and government sclerosis of so many years now: The spoils will go to the candidate who comes to the conflagration with more than a toy and a piddling amount of water.

Friedman and Bruni

October 29, 2014

In “ISIS and Vietnam” The Moustache of Wisdom says there are parallels between the war in Vietnam and the conflict now in Iraq and Syria that haven’t been fully explored.  Mr. Bruni, in “Toward Better Teachers,” tells us that in a new book and an interview, the former head of the nation’s largest school system confronts teacher performance.  In the comments “JKile” from White Haven, PA had this to say:  “You, Mr. Bruni, like most who write about education, have no clue.”  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

In May, I visited Vietnam and met with university students. After a week of being love-bombed by Vietnamese, who told me how much they admire America, want to work or study there and have friends and family living there, I couldn’t help but ask myself: “How did we get this country so wrong? How did we end up in a war with Vietnam that cost so many lives and drove them into the arms of their most hated enemy, China?”

It’s a long, complicated story, I know, but a big part of it was failing to understand that the core political drama of Vietnam was an indigenous nationalist struggle against colonial rule — not the embrace of global communism, the interpretation we imposed on it.

The North Vietnamese were both communists and nationalists — and still are. But the key reason we failed in Vietnam was that the communists managed to harness the Vietnamese nationalist narrative much more effectively than our South Vietnamese allies, who were too often seen as corrupt or illegitimate. The North Vietnamese managed to win (with the help of brutal coercion) more Vietnamese support not because most Vietnamese bought into Marx and Lenin, but because Ho Chi Minh and his communist comrades were perceived to be the more authentic nationalists.

 I believe something loosely akin to this is afoot in Iraq. The Islamic State, or ISIS, with its small core of jihadists, was able to seize so much non-jihadist Sunni territory in Syria and Iraq almost overnight — not because most Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis suddenly bought into the Islamist narrative of ISIS’s self-appointed caliph. Most Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis don’t want to marry off their daughters to a bearded Chechen fanatic, and more than a few of them pray five times a day and like to wash it down with a good Scotch. They have embraced or resigned themselves to ISIS because they were systematically abused by the pro-Shiite, pro-Iranian regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in Iraq — and because they see ISIS as a vehicle to revive Sunni nationalism and end Shiite oppression.

The challenge the U.S. faces in Iraq is trying to defeat ISIS in tacit alliance with Syria and Iran, whose local Shiite allies are doing a lot of the fighting in Iraq and Syria. Iran is seen by many Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis as the “colonial power” dominating Iraq to keep it weak.

Obsessed with communism, America intervened in Vietnam’s civil war and took the place of the French colonialists. Obsessed with jihadism and 9/11, are we now doing the bidding of Iran and Syria in Iraq? Is jihadism to Sunni nationalism what communism was to Vietnamese nationalism: a fearsome ideological movement that triggers emotional reactions in the West — deliberately reinforced with videotaped beheadings — but that masks a deeper underlying nationalist movement that is to some degree legitimate and popular in its context?

I wonder what would have happened had ISIS not engaged in barbarism and declared: “We are the Islamic State. We represent the interests of Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis who have been brutalized by Persian-directed regimes of Damascus and Baghdad. If you think we’re murderous, then just Google ‘Bashar al-Assad and barrel bombs’ or ‘Iraqi Shiite militias and the use of power drills to kill Sunnis.’ You’ll see what we faced after you Americans left. Our goal is to secure the interests of Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. We want an autonomous ‘Sunnistan’ in Iraq just like the Kurds have a Kurdistan — with our own cut of Iraq’s oil wealth.”

That probably would have garnered huge support from Sunnis everywhere. ISIS’s magazine, Dabiq, recently published an article, “Reflections on the Final Crusade,” (transcribed by the Middle East Media Research Institute), which argued that America’s war on ISIS only serves the interests of America’s enemies: Iran and Russia. It quotes U.S. strategists as warning that Iran has created a “Shia-belt from Tehran through Baghdad to Beirut,” a threat much greater than ISIS.

Then why did ISIS behead two American journalists? Because ISIS is a coalition of foreign jihadists, local Sunni tribes and former Iraqi Baath Party military officers. I suspect the jihadists in charge want to draw the U.S. into another “crusade” against Muslims — just like Osama bin Laden — to energize and attract Muslims from across the world and to overcome their main weakness, namely that most Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis are attracted to ISIS simply as a vehicle of their sectarian resurgence, not because they want puritanical/jihadist Islam. There is no better way to get secular Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis to fuse with ISIS than have America bomb them all.

ISIS needs to be contained before it destabilizes islands of decency like Jordan, Kurdistan and Lebanon. But destroying it? That will be hard, because it’s not just riding on some jihadist caliphate fantasy, but also on deep Sunni nationalist grievances. Separating the two is the best way to defeat ISIS, but the only way to separate mainstream Sunnis from jihadists is for mainstream Sunnis and Shiites to share power, to build a healthy interdependency from what is now an unhealthy one. Chances of that? Very low. I hope President Obama has thought this through.

Now we get to Mr. Bruni:

More than halfway through Joel Klein’s forthcoming book on his time as the chancellor of New York City’s public schools, he zeros in on what he calls “the biggest factor in the education equation.”

It’s not classroom size, school choice or the Common Core.

It’s “teacher quality,” he writes, adding that “a great teacher can rescue a child from a life of struggle.”

We keep coming back to this. As we wrestle with the urgent, dire need to improve education — for the sake of social mobility, for the sake of our economic standing in the world — the performance of teachers inevitably draws increased scrutiny. But it remains one of the trickiest subjects to broach, a minefield of hurt feelings and vested interests.

Klein knows the minefield better than most. As chancellor from the summer of 2002 through the end of 2010, he oversaw the largest public school system in the country, and did so for longer than any other New York schools chief in half a century.

That gives him a vantage point on public education that would be foolish to ignore, and in “Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools,” which will be published next week, he reflects on what he learned and what he believes, including that poor parents, like rich ones, deserve options for their kids; that smaller schools work better than larger ones in poor communities; and that an impulse to make kids feel good sometimes gets in the way of giving them the knowledge and tools necessary for success.

I was most struck, though, by what he observes about teachers and teaching.

Because of union contracts and tenure protections in place when he began the job, it was “virtually impossible to remove a teacher charged with incompetence,” he writes. Firing a teacher “took an average of almost two and a half years and cost the city over $300,000.”

And the city, like the rest of the country, wasn’t (and still isn’t) managing to lure enough of the best and brightest college graduates into classrooms. “In the 1990s, college graduates who became elementary-school teachers in America averaged below 1,000 points, out of a total of 1,600, on the math and verbal Scholastic Aptitude Tests,” he writes. In New York, he notes, “the citywide average for all teachers was about 970.”

In an interview with him after I finished the book, I asked for a short list of measures that might improve teacher quality.

He said that schools of education could stiffen their selection criteria in a way that raises the bar for who goes into teaching and elevates the public perception of teachers. “You’d have to do it over the course of several years,” he said. But if implemented correctly, he said, it would draw more, not fewer, people into teaching.

He said the curriculum at education schools should be revisited as well. There’s a growing chorus for this; it’s addressed in the recent best seller “Building a Better Teacher,” by Elizabeth Green. But while Green homes in on the teaching of teaching, Klein stressed to me that teachers must acquire mastery of the actual subject matter they’re dealing with. Too frequently they don’t.

Klein urged “a rational incentive system” that doesn’t currently exist in most districts. He’d like to see teachers paid more for working in schools with “high-needs” students and for tackling subjects that require additional expertise. “If you have to pay science and physical education teachers the same, you’re going to end up with more physical education teachers,” he said. “The pay structure is irrational.”

In an ideal revision of it, he added, there would be “some kind of pay for performance, rewarding success.” Salaries wouldn’t be based primarily on seniority.

Such challenges of the status quo aren’t welcomed by many teachers and their unions. Just look at their fury about a Time magazine cover story last week that reported — accurately — on increasingly forceful challenges to traditional tenure protections. They hear most talk about tenure and teacher quality as an out-and-out attack, a failure to appreciate all the obstacles that they’re up against. They hear phrases like “rescue a child from a life of struggle” and rightly wonder if that, ultimately, is their responsibility.

It isn’t. But it does happen to be a transformative opportunity that they, like few other professionals, have. In light of that, we owe them, as a group, more support in terms of salary, more gratitude for their efforts and outright reverence when they succeed.

But they owe us a discussion about education that fully acknowledges the existence of too many underperformers in their ranks. Klein and others who bring that up aren’t trying to insult or demonize them. They’re trying to team up with them on a project that matters more than any other: a better future for kids.

The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

October 26, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has decided to tell us all about “The Pope and the Precipice.”  He whines that the Catholic Church is inching toward a crisis of faith.  (There’s nothing quite so rabidly hidebound as a convert…)  In the comments “gemli” from Boston points out that “Here we have another pointless tempest in a non-existent teapot.”  In “The Last Train” The Moustache of Wisdom says Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmentalists may have the best model for Middle East peace.  If we didn’t know it already Mr. Kristof tells us that “The American Dream is Leaving America.”  He says fixing the education system is the civil rights challenge of our era, especially as the United States is being eclipsed in economic and educational mobility.  Mr. Bruni takes a look at “Fathers, Sons and the Presidency” and says our country’s history is one of daddy issues. Just look at the last three presidents.  Here’s The Putz:

To grasp why events this month in Rome — publicly feuding cardinals, documents floated and then disavowed — were so remarkable in the context of modern Catholic history, it helps to understand certain practical aspects of the doctrine of papal infallibility.

On paper, that doctrine seems to grant extraordinary power to the pope — since he cannot err, the First Vatican Council declared in 1870, when he “defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.”

In practice, though, it places profound effective limits on his power.

Those limits are set, in part, by normal human modesty: “I am only infallible if I speak infallibly, but I shall never do that,” John XXIII is reported to have said. But they’re also set by the binding power of existing teaching, which a pope cannot reverse or contradict without proving his own office, well, fallible — effectively dynamiting the very claim to authority on which his decisions rest.

Not surprisingly, then, popes are usually quite careful. On the two modern occasions when a pontiff defined a doctrine of the faith, it was on a subject — the holiness of the Virgin Mary — that few devout Catholics consider controversial. In the last era of major church reform, the Second Vatican Council, the popes were not the intellectual protagonists, and the council’s debates — while vigorous — were steered toward a (pope-approved) consensus: The documents that seemed most like developments in doctrine, on religious liberty and Judaism, passed with less than a hundred dissenting votes out of more than 2,300 cast.

But something very different is happening under Pope Francis. In his public words and gestures, through the men he’s elevated and the debates he’s encouraged, this pope has repeatedly signaled a desire to rethink issues where Catholic teaching is in clear tension with Western social life — sex and marriage, divorce and homosexuality.

And in the synod on the family, which concluded a week ago in Rome, the prelates in charge of the proceedings — men handpicked by the pontiff — formally proposed such a rethinking, issuing a document that suggested both a general shift in the church’s attitude toward nonmarital relationships and a specific change, admitting the divorced-and-remarried to communion, that conflicts sharply with the church’s historic teaching on marriage’s indissolubility.

At which point there was a kind of chaos. Reports from inside the synod have a medieval feel — churchmen berating each other, accusations of manipulation flying, rebellions bubbling up. Outside Catholicism’s doors, the fault lines were laid bare: geographical (Germans versus Africans; Poles versus Italians), generational (a 1970s generation that seeks cultural accommodation and a younger, John Paul II-era that seeks to be countercultural) and theological above all.

In the end, the document’s controversial passages were substantially walked back. But even then, instead of a Vatican II-style consensus, the synod divided, with large numbers voting against even watered-down language around divorce and homosexuality. Some of those votes may have been cast by disappointed progressives. But many others were votes cast, in effect, against the pope.

In the week since, many Catholics have downplayed the starkness of what happened or minimized the papal role. Conservatives have implied that the synod organizers somehow went rogue, that Pope Francis’s own views were not really on the table, that orthodox believers should not be worried. More liberal Catholics have argued that there was no real chaos — this was just the kind of freewheeling, Jesuit-style debate Francis was hoping for — and that the pope certainly suffered no meaningful defeat.

Neither argument is persuasive. Yes, Francis has taken no formal position on the issues currently in play. But all his moves point in a pro-change direction — and it simply defies belief that men appointed by the pope would have proposed departures on controversial issues without a sense that Francis would approve.

If this is so, the synod has to be interpreted as a rebuke of the implied papal position. The pope wishes to take these steps, the synod managers suggested. Given what the church has always taught, many of the synod’s participants replied, he and we cannot.

Over all, that conservative reply has the better of the argument. Not necessarily on every issue: The church’s attitude toward gay Catholics, for instance, has often been far more punitive and hostile than the pastoral approach to heterosexuals living in what the church considers sinful situations, and there are clearly ways that the church can be more understanding of the cross carried by gay Christians.

But going beyond such a welcome to a kind of celebration of the virtues of nonmarital relationships generally, as the synod document seemed to do, might open a divide between formal teaching and real-world practice that’s too wide to be sustained. And on communion for the remarried, the stakes are not debatable at all. The Catholic Church was willing to lose the kingdom of England, and by extension the entire English-speaking world, over the principle that when a first marriage is valid a second is adulterous, a position rooted in the specific words of Jesus of Nazareth. To change on that issue, no matter how it was couched, would not be development; it would be contradiction and reversal.

SUCH a reversal would put the church on the brink of a precipice. Of course it would be welcomed by some progressive Catholics and hailed by the secular press. But it would leave many of the church’s bishops and theologians in an untenable position, and it would sow confusion among the church’s orthodox adherents — encouraging doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia (remember there is another pope still living!) and eventually even a real schism.

Those adherents are, yes, a minority — sometimes a small minority — among self-identified Catholics in the West. But they are the people who have done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline: who have given their energy and time and money in an era when the church is stained by scandal, who have struggled to raise families and live up to demanding teachings, who have joined the priesthood and religious life in an age when those vocations are not honored as they once were. They have kept the faith amid moral betrayals by their leaders; they do not deserve a theological betrayal.

Which is why this pope has incentives to step back from the brink — as his closing remarks to the synod, which aimed for a middle way between the church’s factions, were perhaps designed to do.

Francis is charismatic, popular, widely beloved. He has, until this point, faced strong criticism only from the church’s traditionalist fringe, and managed to unite most Catholics in admiration for his ministry. There are ways that he can shape the church without calling doctrine into question, and avenues he can explore (annulment reform, in particular) that would bring more people back to the sacraments without a crisis. He can be, as he clearly wishes to be, a progressive pope, a pope of social justice — and he does not have to break the church to do it.

But if he seems to be choosing the more dangerous path — if he moves to reassign potential critics in the hierarchy, if he seems to be stacking the next synod’s ranks with supporters of a sweeping change — then conservative Catholics will need a cleareyed understanding of the situation.

They can certainly persist in the belief that God protects the church from self-contradiction. But they might want to consider the possibility that they have a role to play, and that this pope may be preserved from error only if the church itself resists him.

So I guess Putzy would love it if the Church went back to burning heretics (just call it a jihad) and selling indulgences…  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

When Secretary of State John Kerry began his high-energy effort to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace, I argued that it was the last train for a two-state solution. If it didn’t work, it would mean that the top-down, diplomatically constructed two-state concept was over as a way out of that conflict. For Israelis and Palestinians, the next train would be the one coming at them.

Well, now arriving on Track 1 …

That train first appeared in the Gaza war and could soon be rounding the bend in the West Bank. Just last week an East Jerusalem Palestinian killed a 3-month-old Israeli baby and wounded seven others when he deliberately rammed his car into a light rail station.

Can a bigger collision be averted? Not by Washington. It can only come from Israelis and Palestinians acting on their own, directly with one another, with real imagination, to convert what is now an “unhealthy interdependency” into a “healthy interdependency.”

“Never happen!” you say. Actually, that model already exists among Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmentalists — I’ll tell you about it in a second — and the example they set is the best hope for the future.

Here’s why: The Israeli right today, led by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, has some really strong arguments for maintaining the status quo — arguments that in the long run are deadly for Israel as a Jewish democratic state.

“It is the definition of tragedy,” said the Hebrew University philosopher Moshe Halbertal. “You have all these really good arguments for maintaining a status quo that will destroy you.”

What arguments? Israel today is surrounded on four out of five borders — South Lebanon, Gaza, Sinai and Syria — not by states but by militias, dressed as civilians, armed with rockets and nested among civilians. No other country faces such a threat. When Israeli commanders in the Golan Heights look over into Syria today, they see Russian and Iranian military advisers, along with Syrian Army units and Hezbollah militiamen from Lebanon, fighting jihadist Sunni militias — and the jihadists are usually winning. “They’re much more motivated,” an Israeli defense official told me.

That is not a scene that inspires risk-taking on the West Bank, right next to Israel’s only international airport. The fact that Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and Hamas took over there in 2007 and then devoted most of its energies to fighting Israel rather than building Palestine also does not inspire risk-taking to move away from the status quo. Israel offered Hamas a cease-fire eight days into the Gaza war, but Hamas chose to expose its people to vast destruction and killing for 43 more days, hoping to generate global pressure on Israel to make concessions to Hamas. It was sick; it failed; and it’s why some Gazans are trying to flee Hamas rule today.

Diplomatically, President Obama on March 17 personally, face-to-face, offered compromise ideas on key sticking points in the Kerry framework to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and asked him point blank if he would accept them. Obama is still waiting for an answer.

Netanyahu and Abbas each moved on some issues, but neither could accept the whole Kerry framework. So the status quo prevails. But this is no normal status quo. It gets more toxic by the day. If Israel retains the West Bank and its 2.7 million Palestinians, it will be creating an even bigger multisectarian, multinational state in its belly, with one religion/nationality dominating the other — exactly the kind of state that is blowing up in civil wars everywhere around it.

Also, the longer this status quo goes on, the more the juggernaut of Israel’s settlement expansion in the West Bank goes on, fostering more Israeli delegitimization on the world stage. Right after the Gaza war, in which the United States basically defended Israel, Israel announced the seizure of nearly 1,000 more acres of West Bank land for settlements near Bethlehem. “No worries,” Israeli officials said, explaining that this is land that Israel would keep in any two-state deal. That would be fine if Israel also delineated the area Palestinians would get — and stopped building settlements there, too. But it won’t. That can only lead to trouble.

“Ironically, most Israeli settlement activity over the last year has been in areas that will plausibly be Israel in any peace map,” said David Makovsky, a member of the Kerry peace team, who is now back at the Washington Institute. “However, by Israel refusing to declare that it will confine settlement activities only to those areas, others do not make the distinction either. Instead, a perception is created that Israel is not sincere about a two-state solution — sadly fueling a European delegitimization drive. Israel’s legitimate security message gets lost because it appears to some that it is really about ideology.” Adds the former U.S. peace negotiator Dennis Ross: “If you say you’re committed to two states, your settlement policy has to reflect that.”

Alas, though, “rather than trying to think imaginatively about how to solve this problem,” said Halbertal, Israel is doing the opposite — “bringing the regional geopolitical problem into our own backyard and pushing those elements in Palestinian society that prefer nonviolence into a dead end. We are setting ourselves on fire with the best of arguments.”

Is anyone trying to build healthy interdependencies? Last week, I had a visit from EcoPeace Middle East, led by Munqeth Mehyar, a Jordanian architect; Gidon Bromberg, an Israeli environmental lawyer; and Nader al-Khateeb, a Palestinian water expert. Yes, they travel together.

They came to Washington to warn of the water crisis in Gaza. With little electricity to desalinate water or pump in chlorine — and Gazans having vastly overexploited their only aquifer — seawater is now seeping in so badly that freshwater is in short supply. Waste management has also collapsed, so untreated waste is being dumped into the Mediterranean, where it moves north with the current, threatening drinking water produced by Israel’s desalination plant in Ashkelon. It is all one ecosystem. Everyone is connected.

Up north, though, EcoPeace helped to inspire — through education, research and advocacy — Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian mayors to rehabilitate the Jordan River, which they had all turned into an open sewer. Since 1994, Jordan has stored water in the winter from its Yarmouk River in Israel’s Sea of Galilee, and then Israel gives it back to Jordan in the summer — like a water bank. It shows how “prior enemies can create positive interdependencies once they start trusting each other,” said Bromberg.

And that is the point. The only source of lasting security is not walls, rockets, U.N. votes or European demonstrations. It’s relationships of trust between neighbors that create healthy interdependencies — ecological and political. They are the hardest things to build, but also the hardest things to break once in place.

Next up is Mr. Kristof:

The best escalator to opportunity in America is education. But a new study underscores that the escalator is broken.

We expect each generation to do better, but, currently, more young American men have less education (29 percent) than their parents than have more education (20 percent).

Among young Americans whose parents didn’t graduate from high school, only 5 percent make it through college themselves. In other rich countries, the figure is 23 percent.

The United States is devoting billions of dollars to compete with Russia militarily, but maybe we should try to compete educationally. Russia now has the largest percentage of adults with a university education of any industrialized country — a position once held by the United States, although we’re plunging in that roster.

These figures come from the annual survey of education from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or O.E.C.D., and it should be a shock to Americans.

A basic element of the American dream is equal access to education as the lubricant of social and economic mobility. But the American dream seems to have emigrated because many countries do better than the United States in educational mobility, according to the O.E.C.D. study.

As recently as 2000, the United States still ranked second in the share of the population with a college degree. Now we have dropped to fifth. Among 25-to-34-year-olds — a glimpse of how we will rank in the future — we rank 12th, while once-impoverished South Korea tops the list.

A new Pew survey finds that Americans consider the greatest threat to our country to be the growing gap between the rich and poor. Yet we have constructed an education system, dependent on local property taxes, that provides great schools for the rich kids in the suburbs who need the least help, and broken, dangerous schools for inner-city children who desperately need a helping hand. Too often, America’s education system amplifies not opportunity but inequality.

My dad was a World War II refugee who fled Ukraine and Romania and eventually made his way to France. He spoke perfect French, and Paris would have been a natural place to settle. But he felt that France was stratified and would offer little opportunity to a penniless Eastern European refugee, or even to his children a generation later, so he set out for the United States. He didn’t speak English, but, on arrival in 1951, he bought a copy of the Sunday edition of The New York Times and began to teach himself — and then he worked his way through Reed College and the University of Chicago, earning a Ph.D. and becoming a university professor.

He rode the American dream to success; so did his only child. But while he was right in 1951 to bet on opportunity in America rather than Europe, these days he would perhaps be wrong. Researchers find economic and educational mobility are now greater in Europe than in America.

That’s particularly sad because, as my Times colleague Eduardo Porter noted last month, egalitarian education used to be America’s strong suit. European countries excelled at first-rate education for the elites, but the United States led the way in mass education.

By the mid-1800s, most American states provided a free elementary education to the great majority of white children. In contrast, as late as 1870, only 2 percent of British 14-year-olds were in school.

Then the United States was the first major country, in the 1930s, in which a majority of children attended high school. By contrast, as late as 1957, only 9 percent of 17-year-olds in Britain were in school.

Until the 1970s, we were pre-eminent in mass education, and Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz of Harvard University argue powerfully that this was the secret to America’s economic rise. Then we blew it, and the latest O.E.C.D. report underscores how the rest of the world is eclipsing us.

In effect, the United States has become 19th-century Britain: We provide superb education for elites, but we falter at mass education.

In particular, we fail at early education. Across the O.E.C.D., an average of 70 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in education programs. In the United States, it’s 38 percent.

In some quarters, there’s a perception that American teachers are lazy. But the O.E.C.D. report indicates that American teachers work far longer hours than their counterparts abroad. Yet American teachers earn 68 percent as much as the average American college-educated worker, while the O.E.C.D. average is 88 percent.

Fixing the education system is the civil rights challenge of our era. A starting point is to embrace an ethos that was born in America but is now an expatriate: that we owe all children a fair start in life in the form of access to an education escalator.

Let’s fix the escalator.

And the highways, and the bridges, and…  Last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

I’m always thinking back to that lunch in Kennebunkport, because I saw it all there: what drove George W. Bush toward the presidency; what shaped so many of his decisions in office.

I was interviewing his parents at the family’s compound on the Maine coast. The 2000 Republican National Convention was just weeks away, and Bush by then was a well-established political phenomenon. Even so, his father said that he remained amazed that George had made it so far. Never had George’s parents seen such a grand future for him.

Perhaps an hour into our conversation, George’s brother Jeb, the Bush boy who had been tagged for greatness, happened to join us. From that moment on, when I asked his father a question, he’d sometimes say that Jeb should answer it, because Jeb knew best.

And as he gazed at Jeb, I noticed in his eyes what George must have spotted, craved and inwardly raged about for so much of his life: an admiration that he had been hard pressed to elicit. Running for the presidency was his way of demanding it. Winning the White House was his way of finally getting it.

And he went on to govern in defiance of the father who had cast such a long shadow over him and nursed such doubts about him. He went on to show him who was boss. No matter the cost, he invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, whom Dad had spared. No matter the tactics, he secured a second term, which Dad hadn’t.

Will he whitewash all of this in the tribute that he has written to his father, “41,” which is scheduled for publication right after the midterms? I’m guessing yes, but whatever the evasions or revisionism of “41,” it will be more than just a book. It will be the latest chapter in a father-son psychodrama that altered the country’s course.

And it will be a reminder of how many other father-son psychodramas did likewise.

While Bush is only the second child of a president to duplicate his dad’s ascent, he’s hardly the first occupant of the Oval Office whose career can be read as a response to his father’s dominance or disappearance, an answer to his father’s example. The history of American politics is a history of daddy issues, of sons who felt compelled to impress, outdo, usurp, avenge or redeem their fathers.

There are striking leitmotifs. Neither Barack Obama nor Bill Clinton ever really knew his father, and it’s impossible to divorce either’s ambition from that absence. The two men have said as much themselves.

Clinton’s father died in an accident just three months before he was born, leaving the future president with “the feeling that I had to live for two people” and “make up for the life he should have had,” he wrote in his autobiography, “My Life.”

“And his memory infused me, at a younger age than most, with a sense of my own mortality,” he continued. “The knowledge that I, too, could die young drove me both to try to drain the most out of every moment of life and to get on with the next big challenge.”

Shortly after Obama’s birth, his parents separated. Obama saw his father only once subsequently, when he was 10 years old and his father traveled from Kenya to Hawaii for a monthlong visit. The brevity of that contact — the distance between father and son — informed the narrative and title of his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” and was a principal engine of his accomplishments.

“If you have somebody that is absent, maybe you feel like you’ve got something to prove when you’re young, and that pattern sets itself up over time,” he said in an interview with Newsweek in 2008. It’s a pattern detectable in many presidents.

In a 2012 story for Slate titled “Why Do So Many Politicians Have Daddy Issues?” Barron YoungSmith wrote, “American politics is overflowing with stories of absent fathers, alcoholic fathers, neglectful fathers.”

TO look back through the years is to see presidents in rebellion against their fathers and presidents in thrall to them, presidents trying to be bigger and better than the fathers who let them down (Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan) as well as presidents living out the destinies that their fathers scripted for them (John F. Kennedy, William Howard Taft). It’s to behold the inevitably fraught father-son dynamic playing out on the gaudiest stages, with the most profound consequences.

Did Clinton’s unappeasable needs come from the enormous hole that his father left? Did Obama develop his aloofness early, as a shield against the kind of disappointment that his father caused him?

The particular imprints of fathers on sons have been conspicuous in the leading characters from the most recent presidential elections. Paul Ryan was just 16 when he discovered his father dead of a heart attack. He grew up fast, and became zealous about physical fitness. Mitt Romney was trying to complete his own father’s failed quest for the presidency, and at the start of debates where he was allowed notepaper, he’d scrawl “Dad” on the blank sheet.

Al Gore, too, was attending to the unfinished business of his father, who had made it to the Senate but never the White House. And John McCain, the son and grandson of four-star admirals in the Navy, was trying to do those generations of men proud.

The country’s presidents and presidential aspirants were of course also trying to please and honor mothers, and the presidency is perhaps just as much a history of mommy issues. But there’s something singular about the father-son face-off, as there is about the mother-daughter pas de deux. In the parent whose gender we share, we’re more likely to find our yardstick, our template, our rival.

And with fathers and sons, there’s a special potential for misunderstanding, for the kind of chasm in which resentments and compulsions flourish. Men aren’t socialized to express their feelings, to speak their hearts, to talk it out.

So sons and fathers often stand at the greatest remove, neither able to read the other. From what I’ve witnessed, from what I personally know, many men spend the early part of our lives misjudging our fathers, and acting out accordingly, and then the latter part finally coming to know them. It’s one of our longest journeys.

And maybe George W. Bush — who styled himself as the kind of folksy Texan that his father wasn’t — is at last completing his. Maybe he’s reached a point of uncomplicated appreciation. How different things might have been if he’d arrived there earlier.

Friedman and Bruni

October 22, 2014

In “Putin and the Pope” The Moustache of Wisdom muses about two leaders with a lot of influence who matter in very different ways.  Mr. Bruni, in “Capitalism’s Suffocating Music,” says corporate sponsors have turned every last place and personage into ads.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Reading the papers these days I find that the two world leaders who stir the most passion in me are Pope Francis and Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia. One is everything you’d want in a leader, the other everything you wouldn’t want. One holds sway over 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, the other over nine time zones. One keeps surprising us with his capacity for empathy, the other by how much he has become a first-class jerk and thug. But neither can be ignored and both have an outsized influence on the world today.

First, the pope. At a time when so many leaders around the world are looking to promote their political fortunes by exploiting grievances and fault lines, we have a pope asking his flock to do something hard, something outside their comfort zone, pushing them to be more inclusive of gays and divorced people.

Yes, Francis was rebuffed by conservative bishops at a recent Vatican synod when he asked them to embrace the notion that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” adding, “are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?”

But, as an editorial in this paper noted: “The very fact that Francis ordered church leaders to address these challenges seems a landmark in Vatican history.” The pope asked that rejected language be published for all to see, while also cautioning against “hostile inflexibility — that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God.”

“Hostile inflexibility?” Whose leadership does that describe? Look at Putin’s recent behavior: His military was indirectly involved in downing a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine and his K.G.B. has not only been trying to take a bite out of Ukraine but is nibbling on Estonia, Georgia and Moldova, all under the guise of protecting “Russian speakers.”

I opposed NATO expansion because I believed that there are few global problems that we can solve without the help of Russia. By expanding NATO at the end of the Cold War, when Russia was weak, we helped to cultivate a politics there that would one day be very receptive to Putin’s message that the West is ganging up on Russia. But, that said, the message is a lie. The West has no intention of bringing Ukraine into NATO. And please raise your hand if you think the European Union plans to invade Russia.

Yet Putin just exploits these fears for two reasons. First, he has a huge chip on his shoulder — no, excuse me; he has a whole lumberyard there — of resentment that Russia is no longer the global power it once was. But rather than make Russia great again by tapping its creative people — empowering them with education, the rule of law and consensual politics to realize their full potential — he has opted for the shortcut of tapping his oil and gas wells and seizing power from his people.

And instead of creating a Russia that is an example to its neighbors, he relies on the brute force that his oil and gas can still buy him. While he rails against NATO, he is really afraid of European Union expansion — that Ukrainians would rather embrace the E.U. market and democracy rules than their historical ties to Russia because they know that through the E.U. they can realize potentials that would never be possible with Russia.

By seizing Crimea and stoking up nationalism, Putin was not protecting Russia from NATO. He was protecting himself from the viruses of E.U. accountability and transparency, which, if they took hold in Ukraine, could spread to Moscow, undermining his kleptocracy.

Normally, I wouldn’t care, but when the world is dividing between zones of order and disorder, and the world of order needs to be collaborating to stem and reverse disorder, the fact that Putin is stoking disorder on Russia’s borders, and not collaborating to promote order in the Middle East, is a real problem. What’s more worrying is that the country he threatens most is Russia. If things go bad there — and its economy is already sagging under Western sanctions — the world of disorder will get a lot bigger.

That is why Putin’s leadership matters, and so does the pope’s. I’m focused on Putin because I think he is making the world a worse place for bad reasons, when he could make a difference in Europe and the Middle East with just an ounce more decency and collaboration. America, too, has plenty to learn from the pope’s humility, but say what you will, we’re still focused on trying to strengthen the global commons, whether by protecting people from jihadists in Iraq or fighting Ebola in Africa. We could do more. Putin needs to do a lot more.

“The best leaders don’t set timid and selfish goals that are easy to meet but instead set bold and inclusive goals that are hard to achieve,” remarked Timothy Shriver, the chairman of the Special Olympics, who has just written a book on leadership, “Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most.” “We’re all looking for ways to make sense of a world without a center, but we’ll only find that in people who lead with authentic humility and reckless generosity.”

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Onstage before thousands of fans, Sam Smith sang “Stay With Me,” beseeching his partner in a one-night stand for a few minutes more, and I half wondered if the two of them needed the extra time to finish bottles of Miller Lite, because a printed plug for the beer hovered over his head.

Performing “Summertime Sadness,” Lana Del Rey told a lover to “kiss me hard before you go.” Would she be texting him later with a Samsung Galaxy, the smartphone for which the stage on which she appeared was visibly named?

And while I’d never thought about any car in connection with the musicians in the band Interpol, I came to picture them caroming from gig to gig in a Civic or an Accord. “Honda” floated over them as they gave their concert.

For every stage, a different sponsor. Behind every beat, a different brand.

This happened in early October. I was at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and I was at the limits of my patience. I hadn’t expected all of these corporate come-ons, so pervasive in other precincts, to be assaulting me here of all places.

“Keep Austin Weird” is the Texas capital’s unofficial slogan, a clue to its proudly subversive soul. And a gathering of bare-armed, bare-legged lovers of song and smokers of pot on a gigantic field brings to mind Woodstock, not Austin Ventures, which provides financing to start-ups, and RetailMeNot, which distributes discount coupons. Those firms, too, were sponsors of stages.

Someone shoved a free sample of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal at me on my way in. Someone else handed out free beer cozies advertising Imperial, a brew on sale at the event. Plastered all over the place were posters for “Not That Kind of Girl,” the new memoir by a certain “Girls” creator. The festival had been misnamed. This was Lenapalooza.

I kept thinking of another writer, David Foster Wallace. His novel “Infinite Jest,” published in 1996, imagines a tomorrow in which time itself is auctioned off to the highest bidder and the calendar becomes a billboard. There’s the “Year of the Whopper,” the “Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster” and even the “Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad” — a 12-month paean to posterior discomfort, 52 weeks in honor of hemorrhoids.

Is that future so far off? While recording devices have liberated many of us from commercials on television, the rest of our lives are awash in ads. They’re now nestled among the trailers at movies. They flicker on the screens in taxis.

They’re woven so thoroughly into sporting events, from Nascar races to basketball games, that it’s hard to imagine an era when they weren’t omnipresent. But in a story earlier this year on the website Consumerist, Chris Moran reported that 20 years ago, only one of the major-league baseball stadiums had a corporate moniker, Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

In contrast, 20 of the 30 stadiums now have sponsors.

It’s the same with football, maybe worse. On the weekend after I got back from Austin, I went to watch the New York Jets play, and within five minutes of my arrival at MetLife Stadium, I was confronted with all sorts of sub-sponsors.

Near the Verizon gate, I spotted a V.I.P. section called the Hertz suites and saw signs that identified JetBlue as the official airline of the team, Toyota as its official vehicle and the Microsoft Surface as the official tablet of the National Football League. I resolved to check out the restrooms for an official toilet paper. (Note to Cottonelle: I did, and there’s an unclaimed opportunity for you, if you can beat Charmin to the punch.)

Inside the stadium, the Verizon scoreboard was not to be confused with the Bud Light scoreboard or the Pepsi scoreboard.

When Americans talk about how crass contemporary life can seem, this advertising onslaught is part of what they’re reacting to. And their growing chilliness toward corporations and sense of capitalism run amok aren’t just about the salaries of chief executives and the tax dodges in play. They’re about the way hucksterism invades everything, scooping up everyone.

Matthew McConaughey is at his career’s summit, with a recent Oscar for “Dallas Buyers Club” and a splendid performance in “Interstellar” (to be released next month), and what’s he doing with this clout? He’s putting it behind the wheel of a Lincoln and peddling luxury cars the way Beyoncé has pushed Pepsi all these years.

Sellers keep finding new, willing vessels for their logos everywhere they turn. Will we someday travel from San Francisco to Northern California across the Gulden’s Mustard Bridge, for a hike in the Wells Fargo Redwood Forest?

It’s a vendor’s world. We’re just pawns in it, even when all we want to do is hum a simple tune.

Friedman and Bruni

October 15, 2014

In “A Pump War?” The Moustache of Wisdom says the decline in oil prices is no accident.  He has a question:  What’s really playing out here?  Mr. Bruni, in “Scarier Than Ebola,” says our gravest health threats are those that we understand, but fail to take proper action against.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Is it just my imagination or is there a global oil war underway pitting the United States and Saudi Arabia on one side against Russia and Iran on the other? One can’t say for sure whether the American-Saudi oil alliance is deliberate or a coincidence of interests, but, if it is explicit, then clearly we’re trying to do to President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, exactly what the Americans and Saudis did to the last leaders of the Soviet Union: pump them to death — bankrupt them by bringing down the price of oil to levels below what both Moscow and Tehran need to finance their budgets.

Think about this: four oil producers — Libya, Iraq, Nigeria and Syria — are in turmoil today, and Iran is hobbled by sanctions. Ten years ago, such news would have sent oil prices soaring. But today, the opposite is happening. Global crude oil prices have been falling for weeks, now resting around $88 — after a long stretch at $105 to $110 a barrel.

The price drop is the result of economic slowdowns in Europe and China, combined with the United States becoming one of the world’s biggest oil producers — thanks to new technologies enabling the extraction of large amounts of “tight oil” from shale — combined with America starting to make exceptions and allowing some of its newfound oil products to be exported, combined with Saudi Arabia refusing to cut back its production to keep prices higher, but choosing instead to maintain its market share against other OPEC producers. The net result has been to make life difficult for Russia and Iran, at a time when Saudi Arabia and America are confronting both of them in a proxy war in Syria. This is business, but it also has the feel of war by other means: oil.

The Russians have noticed. How could they not? They’ve seen this play before. The Russian newspaper Pravda published an article on April 3 with the headline, “Obama Wants Saudi Arabia to Destroy Russian Economy.” It said: “There is a precedent [for] such joint action that caused the collapse of the U.S.S.R. In 1985, the Kingdom dramatically increased oil production from 2 million to 10 million barrels per day, dropping the price from $32 to $10 per barrel. [The] U.S.S.R. began selling some batches at an even lower price, about $6 per barrel. Saudi Arabia [did not lose] anything, because when prices fell by 3.5 times [Saudi] production increased fivefold. The planned economy of the Soviet Union was not able to cope with falling export revenues, and this was one of the reasons for the collapse of the U.S.S.R.”

Indeed, the late Yegor Gaidar, who between 1991 and 1994 was Russia’s acting prime minister, observed in a Nov. 13, 2006, speech that: “The timeline of the collapse of the Soviet Union can be traced to Sept. 13, 1985. On this date, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the minister of oil of Saudi Arabia, declared that the monarchy had decided to alter its oil policy radically. The Saudis stopped protecting oil prices. … During the next six months, oil production in Saudi Arabia increased fourfold, while oil prices collapsed. … The Soviet Union lost approximately $20 billion per year, money without which the country simply could not survive.”

Neither Moscow nor Tehran will collapse tomorrow. And if oil prices fall below $70 you will see a drop in U.S. production, as some exploration won’t be cost effective, and prices could firm up. But have no doubt, this price falloff serves U.S. and Saudi strategic interests and it harms Russia and Iran. Oil export revenues account for about 60 percent of Iran’s government revenues and more than half of Russia’s.

The price decline is no accident. In an Oct. 3 article in The Times, Stanley Reed noted that the sharp drop in oil prices “was seen as a response to Saudi Arabia’s signaling … to the markets that it was more interested in maintaining market share than in defending prices. Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, stunned markets by announcing that it was cutting prices by about $1 a barrel to Asia, the crucial growth market for the Persian Gulf producers, as well as by 40 cents a barrel to the United States.” The Times also noted that with America now producing so much more oil and gas, “net oil imports to the United States have fallen since 2007 by 8.7 million barrels a day, ‘roughly equivalent to total Saudi and Nigerian exports,’ according to a recent Citigroup report.”

This resource abundance comes at a time when we’ve also hit a “gusher” of energy technology in Silicon Valley, which is supplying us with unprecedented gains in energy efficiency and productivity, savings that may become as impactful as shale in determining our energy security and global strength. Google, through Nest, and Apple through coding in the iPhone software, are making it easier for average Americans to manage and save energy at home or work.

Bottom line: The trend line for petro-dictators is not so good. America today has a growing advantage in what the former Assistant Energy Secretary Andy Karsner calls “the three big C’s: code, crude and capital.” If only we could do tax reform, and replace payroll and corporate taxes with a carbon tax, we’d have a formula for resiliency and success far better than any of our adversaries.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

We Americans do panic really well.

We could use a few pointers on prudence.

Do me a favor. Turn away from the ceaseless media coverage of Ebola in Texas — the interviews with the Dallas nurse’s neighbors, the hand-wringing over her pooch, the instructions on protective medical gear — and answer this: Have you had your flu shot? Are you planning on one?

During the 2013-2014 flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 46 percent of Americans received vaccinations against influenza, even though it kills about 3,000 people in this country in a good year, nearly 50,000 in a bad one.

These are deaths by a familiar assassin. Many of them could have been prevented. So why aren’t we in a lather over that? Why fixate on remote threats that we feel we can’t control when there are immediate ones that we simply don’t bother to?

On matters exotic, we’re rapt. On matters quotidian, which are nonetheless matters of life and death, we’re cavalier. Tens of thousands of Americans die in car crashes annually, and according to a federal analysis from 2012, more than half of them weren’t wearing seatbelts.

Perhaps that didn’t make a difference in many cases. In some, it probably did. But on this front, as on others, we have clear answers about how to minimize risk and we simply proceed to forget or ignore them.

There’s no way to square skin-cancer statistics in the United States — more than 3.5 million cases diagnosed yearly and almost 10,000 deaths — with the number of Americans showing off their tans. They aren’t all getting body paint. They’ve been lectured about sunscreen and shade and hats. But vanity trumps sanity, and melanoma rides its coattails.

I’m not dismissing the horror of Ebola, a full-blown crisis in Africa that should command the whole world’s assistance. And Ebola in the United States certainly warrants concern. We’re still searching for definitive answers about transmission and prevention.

But Americans already have such answers about a host of other, greater perils to our health, and we’d be wiser to reacquaint ourselves with those, and recommit to heeding them, than to worry about our imminent exposure to Ebola.

“People get very fearful and stressed out and have a lot of anxiety about things like Ebola that aren’t a general health risk,” said Jeffrey Duchin, who is the chairman of the public health committee of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. “Just look at causes of death in the United States. Everything is higher than Ebola, and there are things that we can do about many of them.”

Duchin, a physician, moderated a panel of experts who discussed Ebola at the society’s conference last week. These doctors sought to refocus attention on influenza, which lacks novelty but not potency.

In my conversation with him, Duchin also pointed out that between 2.7 and 5.2 million Americans are believed to be infected with the hepatitis C virus. Deaths related to it can range widely, from 17,000 to 80,000 annually, he said. There’s a test for it. There’s effective treatment. But the C.D.C. says that up to 75 percent of the people with the virus don’t know they have it.

Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, told me: “We have a lot of vaccine-preventable diseases and we see more and more people refusing to have their children take vaccines.”

He was referring to outbreaks of measles and pertussis (or whooping cough) in states and cities where parents have hallucinated a connection between immunizations and autism. They cling to this fiction in the face of scientific information to the contrary.

Both The Hollywood Reporter and Time magazine recently published accounts of anti-vaccine madness among supposedly educated, affluent Americans in particular. According to the story in The Hollywood Reporter, by Gary Baum, the parents of 57 percent of the children at a Beverly Hills preschool and of 68 percent at one in Santa Monica had filed personal-belief exemptions from having their kids vaccinated.

Such numbers, Baum wrote, “are in line with immunization rates in developing countries like Chad and South Sudan.”

On CNN on Monday night, a Dallas pediatrician was asked about what she had advised the families she sees. She said that she urged them to have their children “vaccinated against diseases that we can prevent,” and that she also stressed frequent hand-washing. Ebola or no Ebola, it’s a responsible — and frequently disregarded — way to lessen health risks.

So are these: fewer potato chips. Less sugary soda. Safer sex. Tighter restrictions on firearms. More than 30,000 Americans die from gunshots every year. Anyone looking for an epidemic to freak out about can find one right there.

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

October 12, 2014

In “The Last Right” The Putz thinks he can explain why America is moving so slowly on assisted suicide, while shifting dramatically on other social issues.  MoDo has a question in “Lady Psychopaths Welcome:”  The debate rages: Is “Gone Girl” about a she-monster or a me-monster?  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “I.S. = Invasive Species,” also has a question:  Just how did ISIS spread so far, so fast? He says the National Arboretum might have the answer.  In “When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 3″ Mr. Kristof says a conversation on racial inequality in America continues with a look at the justice system.  In “Appetite, Bill and Barack” Mr. Bruni says our 42nd president brought something to the office that our 43rd and 44th didn’t — what about our 45th?  Here’s The Putz:

On Nov. 1, barring the medically unexpected or a change of heart, a young woman named Brittany Maynard will ingest a lethal prescription and die by suicide.

Maynard is 29, recently married and is suffering from terminal brain cancer. After deciding against hospice care — fearing, she wrote in a CNN op-ed, a combination of pain, personality changes, and the loss of basic mental and physical functions — she and her husband moved from California to Oregon, one of five states that permit physician-assisted suicide. In the time remaining to her, she has become a public advocate for that practice’s expansion, recording testimonials on behalf of the right of the terminally ill to make their quietus.

The tragedy here is almost deep enough to drown the political debate. But that debate’s continued existence is still a striking fact. Why, in a society where individualism seems to be carrying the day, is the right that Maynard intends to exercise still confined to just a handful of states? Why has assisted suicide’s advance been slow, when on other social issues the landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction?

Twenty years ago, a much more rapid advance seemed likely. Some sort of right to suicide seemed like a potential extension of “the right to define one’s own concept of existence” that the Supreme Court had invoked while upholding a woman’s constitutional right to abortion. Polls in the 1990s consistently showed more support — majority support, depending on the framing — for physician-assisted suicide than for what then seemed like the eccentric cause of same-sex marriage.

Yet the latter cause has triumphed sweepingly, while voluntary euthanasia has advanced only haltingly. Part of the explanation lies with the Supreme Court, which in 1997 ruled 9 to 0 that the Constitution does not include a right to suicide. But the court would not have ruled as it did absent a deeper reality: Many liberals seem considerably more uncomfortable with the idea of physician-assisted suicide than with other causes, from abortion to homosexuality, where claims about personal autonomy and liberty are at stake.

Conservatives oppose assisted suicide more fiercely, but it’s a persistent left-of-center discomfort, even among the most secular liberals, that’s really held the idea at bay. Indeed, on this issue you can find many liberal writers who sound like, well, social conservatives — who warn of the danger of a lives-not-worth-living mentality, acknowledge the ease with which ethical and legal slopes can slip, recognize the limits of “consent” alone as a standard for moral judgment.

At the same time, though, there are tensions within the liberal mind on this issue, particularly when the discussion moves from the general (why assisted suicide is unwise as public policy) to the particular (why life is still worth living after all hope is lost, and why a given person facing death shouldn’t avail themselves of suicide).

You can see that tension illustrated, in a fascinating way, in the work of Ezekiel Emanuel, the health care expert and bioethicist (and brother of Chicago’s mayor). Emanuel’s 1997 Atlantic essay on physician-assisted suicide remains the best liberal critique of the idea, and he reiterated his anti-suicide position this fall, again in the Atlantic, in an essay discussing his perspective on aging, medicine and death.

But the new essay — which ran under the headline “Why I Hope to Die at 75” — was also shot through with precisely the fear of diminishment and incapacity, the anxiety at being any kind of burden, the desire to somehow exit at one’s sharpest and fittest and best, that drives the impulse toward medicalized suicide. It was partially a powerful case against unnecessary medical treatment — but partially a window into a worldview ill equipped to make sense of suffering that’s bound to lead to death, or that does not have a mountain-climbing, op-ed-writing recovery at the end of it.

The same deficit is apparent in responses to Brittany Maynard’s plight. Liberal policy writers are comfortable using her case to discuss the inadequacies of end-of-life care (as the health care expert Harold Pollack did, eloquently, in a piece for The New Republic). But when it comes time to make an affirmative case for what she actually has to live for, they often demur. To find that case, you often have to turn to explicitly religious writers — like Kara Tippetts, a mother of four currently dying of her own cancer, who wrote Maynard a passionate open letter urging her to embrace the possibility that their shared trial could actually have a purpose, that “beauty will meet us in that last breath.”

The future of the assisted suicide debate may depend, in part, on whether Tippetts’s case for the worth of what can seem like pointless suffering can be made either without her theological perspective, or by a liberalism more open to metaphysical arguments than the left is today.

If it can, then laws like Oregon’s will remain unusual, and the politics of assisted suicide the exception to the ever-more-libertarian trend.

If it can’t, then many more tragic stories will have the ending Brittany Maynard has chosen to embrace.

Correction: October 11, 2014 An earlier version of this column misidentified the writer Kara Tippetts. Her name is not Krista Tippett.

You’d think if the schmuck was citing someone’s work he’d bother to get her name right.  And of course the Times’ fact checkers outdid themselves again…  Here’s MoDo:

Fighting Superman is super hard.

“The guy is tough,” says Ben Affleck, who is playing Batman in a new iteration filming now in Detroit where the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel duke it out. The actor is also having a tricky time with less heroic characters in his new hit movie, “Gone Girl,” a twisted and twisty conjugal cage fight that has sparked charges of misogyny, misandry and misanthropy.

Critics complain that Gillian Flynn’s clever creation, Amy Dunne, who punishes the men in her life by conjuring two false charges of rape and one of murder, is as cartoonish as muscly men in tights. They keen that the sleek blonde portrayed by Rosamund Pike in the movie is the latest in a line of stereotypical she-monsters and vagina dentata dames, independent women who turn out to be scary sociopaths.

“Gone Girl” opened last weekend with the backdrop of cover-ups on N.F.L. domestic violence and campaigns against sexual assault in the military and on campus. (California just passed legislation requiring students to give active consent before any sexual activity.)

In The Guardian, Joan Smith contended that the movie’s fake rape scenarios perpetuate the idea that victims of sexual violence “can’t be trusted.”

The New Republic’s Rebecca Traister told The Financial Times that the movie’s depiction of “our little sexual monsters” traded “on very, very old ideas about the power that women have to sexually, emotionally manipulate men. When you boil women down to only that, it’s troubling.”

Not to mention when the boiled-down women boil bunnies.

But, as a devotee of film noir vixens, I side with Flynn, whose philosophy is: “Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids.”

Given my choice between allowing portrayals of women who are sexually manipulative, erotically aggressive, fearless in a deranged kind of way, completely true to their own temperament, desperately vital, or the alternative — wallowing in feminist propaganda and succumbing to the niceness plague — I’ll take the former.

If “Gone Girl” is sending the wrong message about women, then Emma Bovary should have gone to medical school instead of cheating on her husband, Anna Karenina should have been a train engineer rather than throwing herself onto the tracks, and Eve Harrington should have waited her turn.

The idea that every portrait of a woman should be an ideal woman, meant to stand for all of womanhood, is an enemy of art — not to mention wickedly delicious Joan Crawford and Bette Davis movies. Art is meant to explore all the unattractive inner realities as well as to recommend glittering ideals. It is not meant to provide uplift or confirm people’s prior ideological assumptions. Art says “Think,” not “You’re right.”

After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks pushed Socialist Realism, creating the Proletkult to ensure that art served ideology. Must we now have a Gynokult to ensure Feminist Unrealism?

“Good God, we’re in a lot of trouble if people think that Amy represents every woman,” Flynn marveled, telling me: “Once I was being mentioned alongside Ray Rice, I thought, wow, this is going to an interesting place.

“Feminism is not that fragile, I hope. What Amy does is to weaponize female stereotypes. She embodies them to get what she wants and then she detonates them. Men do bad things in films all the time and they’re called anti-heroes.”

Amy may not be admirable, Flynn notes, but “neither are the men on ‘The Sopranos.’ ”

“I think part of what people are pushing back on is that Amy’s not a dismissible bad person,” she said. “She doesn’t get punished.”

David Fincher, the director with the gift for saturating scenes in the darkness that interests him, is equally bemused.

“I don’t think the book or movie is saying that one out of five women in the Midwest needs to be scrutinized for borderline personality disorder,” he said. “The character is hyperbolized. It’s not ‘60 Minutes.’ It’s a mystery that becomes an absurdist thriller that ultimately becomes a satire.”

Flynn, Fincher and Affleck agree the movie is less about the she-monster than the me-monster, the narcissism involved in seducing your aspirational soul mate.

“The whole point is that these are two people pretending to be other people, better people, versions of the dream guy and dream girl,” Flynn said. “But each one couldn’t keep it up, so they destroy each other.”

Or as Fincher puts it, eventually in a relationship, you get to the point where exhaustion sets in and you say, “I don’t feel like repainting the Golden Gate Bridge yet again.”

Affleck said that, as the father of two young girls, he is acutely aware of the dangers that women face in the world.

“But picking apart the plot architecture in this literal way misses the larger point of Gillian’s book and David’s movie,” he said. “Just as Kubrick’s ‘Lolita’ was about pedophilia, plotwise, but actually about obsession, this movie is not simply about a diabolical woman or a man getting railroaded. It’s an indictment of how we lie to one another until, eventually, the mask falls off. Ironically, it is a movie that’s critical of marriage from two people who have great marriages.”

So to the Church of Feminism and the Niceness Thought Police, I say: Let a thousand black orchids bloom.

And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

An Iraqi official recently told me this story: When the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, took over Mosul in the summer, the Sunni jihadist fighters in ISIS, many of whom were foreigners, went house to house. On the homes of Christians they marked “Nassarah,” an archaic Arabic term for Christians. But on the homes of Shiites they marked “Rafidha,” which means “those who reject” the Sunni line of authority as to who should be caliph, or leader of the Muslim community, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. But here’s what was interesting, the Iraqi official said, the term “Rafidha” was largely unknown in Iraq to describe Shiites. It is a term used by Wahhabi fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia. “We did not know this word,” he told me. “This is not an Iraqi term.”

I was intrigued by this story because it highlighted the degree to which ISIS operates just like an “invasive species” in the world of plants and animals. It is not native to either the Iraqi or Syrian ecosystems. It never before grew in their landscapes.

I find it useful at times to use the natural world to illuminate trends in geopolitics and globalization, and this is one of them. The United States National Arboretum website notes that “invasive plant species thrive where the continuity of a natural ecosystem is breached and are abundant on disturbed sites like construction areas and road cuts. … In some situations these nonnative species cause serious ecological disturbances. In the worst cases, invasive plants … ruthlessly choke out other plant life. This puts extreme pressure on native plants and animals, and threatened species may succumb to this pressure. Ultimately, invasive plants alter habitats and reduce biodiversity.”

I can’t think of a better way to understand ISIS. It is a coalition. One part consists of Sunni Muslim jihadist fighters from all over the world: Chechnya, Libya, Britain, France, Australia and especially Saudi Arabia. They spread so far, so fast, despite their relatively small numbers, because the disturbed Iraqi and Syrian societies enabled these foreign jihadists to forge alliances with secular, native-born, Iraqi and Syrian Sunni tribesmen and former Baathist army officers, whose grievances were less religious and more about how Iraq and Syria were governed.

Today, ISIS — the foreigners and locals together — is putting pressure on all of Iraq’s and Syria’s native species with the avowed goal of reducing the diversity of these once polycultural societies and turning them into bleak, dark, jihadist, Sunni fundamentalist monocultures.

It is easy to see how ISIS spread. Think about the life of a 50-year-old Iraqi Sunni male from Mosul. He first got drafted to fight in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that ended in 1988. Then he had to fight in the Persian Gulf war I after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Then he lived under a decade of U.N. sanctions that broke Iraq’s middle class. Then he had to endure the years of chaos that followed the U.S. invasion, which ended with a corrupt, brutal, pro-Iranian Shiite regime in Baghdad led by Nuri Kamal al-Maliki that did all it could to keep Sunnis poor and powerless. This was the fractured political ecosystem in which ISIS found fertile ground.

How do you deal with an invasive species? The National Arboretum says you should “use systemic herbicides carefully” (President Obama’s air war), while also constantly working to strengthen and “preserve healthy native plant habitats” (Obama’s effort to forge a national unity government in Baghdad with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds together).

Generally speaking, though, over the years in Iraq and Afghanistan we have overspent on herbicides (guns and training) and underinvested in the best bulwark against invasive species (noncorrupt, just governance). We should be pressing the Iraqi government, which is rich with cash, to focus on delivering to every Iraqi still under its control 24 hours of electricity a day, a job, better schools, more personal security and a sense that no matter what sect they’re from the game is not rigged against them and their voice will count. That is how you strengthen an ecosystem against invasive species.

“It was misgovernance which drove Iraqis to contemplate a relationship with ISIS with the view that it was less detrimental to their interests than their own (Shiite-led) government,” explained Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment who is a former U.S. adviser in Afghanistan and author of the upcoming “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security.” The Iraqi Army we built was seen by many Iraqi Sunnis “as the enforcer of a kleptocratic network.” That army got “sucked dry by the cronies of Maliki so it became a hollow shell that couldn’t withstand the first bullet.”

The goal of ISIS now is to draw us in, get us to bomb Sunni towns and drive the non-ISIS Sunnis away from America and closer to ISIS, “because,” notes Chayes, “ISIS knows it can’t survive without the support of these non-ISIS Sunnis.”

We always overestimate military training and force and underestimate what Arabs and Afghans want most: decent and just governance. Without the latter, there is no way to cultivate real citizens with a will to fight — and without will there is no training that matters.

Ask any general — or gardener.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Some white Americans may be surprised to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu describe Bryan Stevenson, an African-American lawyer fighting for racial justice, as “America’s young Nelson Mandela.”

Huh? Why do we need a Mandela over here? We’ve made so much progress on race over 50 years! And who is this guy Stevenson, anyway?

Yet Archbishop Tutu is right. Even after remarkable gains in civil rights, including the election of a black president, the United States remains a profoundly unequal society — and nowhere is justice more elusive than in our justice system.

When I was born in 1959, the hospital in which I arrived had separate floors for black babies and white babies, and it was then illegal for blacks and whites to marry in many states. So progress has been enormous, and America today is nothing like the apartheid South Africa that imprisoned Mandela. But there’s also a risk that that progress distracts us from the profound and persistent inequality that remains.

After the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., I wrote a couple of columns entitled “When Whites Just Don’t Get It.” The reaction to those columns — sometimes bewildered, resentful or unprintable — suggests to me that many whites in America don’t understand the depths of racial inequity lingering in this country.

This inequity is embedded in our law enforcement and criminal justice system, and that is why Bryan Stevenson may, indeed, be America’s Mandela. For decades he has fought judges, prosecutors and police on behalf of those who are impoverished, black or both. When someone is both and caught in the maw of the justice system — well, Stevenson jokes that “it’s like having two kinds of cancer at the same time.”

“We have a system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” he adds.

Stevenson, 54, grew up in a poor black neighborhood in Delaware and ended up at Harvard Law School. He started the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Ala., to challenge bias and represent the voiceless. It’s a tale he recounts in a searing, moving and infuriating memoir that is scheduled to be published later this month, “Just Mercy.”

Stevenson tells of Walter McMillian, a black Alabama businessman who scandalized his local community by having an affair with a married white woman. Police were under enormous pressure to solve the murder of an 18-year-old white woman, and they ended up arresting McMillian in 1987.

The authorities suppressed exculpatory evidence and found informants to testify against McMillian with preposterous, contradictory and constantly changing stories. McMillian had no serious criminal history and had an alibi: At the time of the murder, he was at a church fish fry, attended by dozens of people who confirmed his presence.

None of this mattered. An overwhelmingly white jury found McMillian guilty of the murder, and the judge — inauspiciously named Robert E. Lee Key Jr. — sentenced him to die.

When Stevenson sought to appeal on McMillian’s behalf, Judge Key called him up. “Why in the hell would you want to represent someone like Walter McMillian?” the judge asked, according to Stevenson’s account.

Stevenson dug up evidence showing that McMillian couldn’t have committed the crime, and prosecuting witnesses recanted their testimony, with one saying that he had been threatened with execution unless he testified against McMillian. Officials shrugged. They seemed completely uninterested in justice as long as the innocent man on death row was black.

Despite receiving death threats, Stevenson pursued the case and eventually won: McMillian was exonerated and freed in 1993 after spending six years on death row.

I suggested to Stevenson that such a blatant and racially tinged miscarriage of justice would be less likely today. On the contrary, he said, such cases remain common, adding that he is currently representing a prisoner in Alabama who has even more evidence of innocence than McMillian had.

“If anything, because of the tremendous increase in people incarcerated, I’m confident that we have more innocent people in prison today than 25 years ago,” Stevenson said.

Those of us who are white and in the middle class rarely see this side of the justice system. The system works for us, and it’s easy to overlook how deeply it is skewed against the poor or members of minority groups.

Yet consider drug arrests. Surveys overwhelmingly find that similar percentages of blacks and whites use illegal drugs. Yet the Justice Department says that blacks are arrested for such drug offenses at three times the rate of whites.

One study in Seattle found that blacks made up 16 percent of observed drug dealers for the five most dangerous drugs and 64 percent of arrests for dealing those drugs.

Likewise, research suggests that blacks and whites violate traffic laws at similar rates, but blacks are far more likely to be stopped and arrested. The Sentencing Project, which pushes for fairer law enforcement, cites a New Jersey study that racial minorities account for 15 percent of drivers on the turnpike, but blacks account for 42 percent of stops.

THE greatest problem is not with flat-out white racists, but rather with the far larger number of Americans who believe intellectually in racial equality but are quietly oblivious to injustice around them. Too many whites unquestioningly accept a system that disproportionately punishes blacks and that gives public schools serving disadvantaged children many fewer resources than those serving affluent children. We are not racists, but we accept a system that acts in racist ways.

Some whites think that the fundamental problem is young black men who show no personal responsibility, screw up and then look for others to blame. Yes, that happens. But I also see a white-dominated society that shows no sense of responsibility for disadvantaged children born on a path that often propels them toward drugs, crime and joblessness; we fail those kids before they fail us, and then we, too, look for others to blame.

Today we sometimes wonder how so many smart, well-meaning white people in the Jim Crow era could have unthinkingly accepted segregation. The truth is that injustice is easy not to notice when it affects people different from ourselves; that helps explain the obliviousness of our own generation to inequity today. We need to wake up.

And that is why we need a Mandela in this country.

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

After the latest meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative wrapped up three weeks ago, I thought I’d missed the perfect window to write about Bill Clinton’s continued hold on Americans’ hearts, his sustained claim on the spotlight.

Silly me. In short order and with customary brio, Clinton simply traded that stage for the next one: the entire state of Arkansas, his old stamping grounds, through which he barnstormed over recent days in the service of Senate Democrats.

He remained in the headlines. He was still in the mix. Even when he’s not running, he’s running — exuberantly, indefatigably, for just causes, for lost causes, because he hopes to move the needle, because he loves the sound of his own voice and because he doesn’t know any other way to be. Politics is his calling. The arena is his home.

And that’s the real reason that he’s so popular in his post-presidency, so beloved in both retrospect and the moment. In bold contrast to the easily embittered, frequently disappointing occupant of the Oval Office right now, Bill Clinton was — and is — game.

Nothing stops him or slows him or sours him, at least not for long. Nothing is beneath him, because he’s as unabashedly messy and slick as the operators all around him. He doesn’t recoil at the rough and tumble, or feel belittled and diminished by it. He relishes it. Throw a punch at him and he throws one at you. Impeach him and he bounces back.

It’s that very gameness that fueled his undeniable successes as a president, and that’s worth keeping in mind when the midterms end and we turn our attention more fully to the 2016 presidential race. Who in the emerging field of contenders has his level of enthusiasm, his degree of stamina, his intensity of engagement?

Neither of the two presidents who followed him do, and that absent fire explains many of their shortcomings in office. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama felt put out by what they had to do to get there. Neither masked his sense of being better than the ugly process he was lashed to.

Bush was always craving distance from the stink and muck of the Potomac, and routinely averted his gaze: from the truth of Iraq, from the wrath of Katrina. In a different way, Obama also pulls away, accepting stalemates and defeats, not wanting to get too dirty, not breaking too much of a sweat. “The audacity of mope,” his countenance has been called.

It comes into sharper, more troubling focus with each passing season and each new book, including Leon Panetta’s, “Worthy Fights,” which was published last week. The reservations expressed by Panetta, who served under Obama as both C.I.A director and defense secretary, seconded those articulated by so many other Democrats.

The president, Panetta wrote, “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.” He exhibits “a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause,” in Panetta’s words, and he “avoids the battle, complains and misses opportunities.”

As Washington absorbed Panetta’s assessment and debated whether it was an act of disloyalty or of patriotism, Arkansas opened its arms to Clinton, who beamed and pressed the flesh and talked and talked.

He talked in particular about Mark Pryor, the incumbent Democratic senator, who seems poised to be defeated by Tom Cotton, a rising Republican star. And while it’s doubtful that Clinton’s backing will save Pryor, it’s almost certain that no other Democrat’s favor would serve Pryor any better.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC/Annenberg poll that came out last week suggested that a campaign plug from Clinton would carry more weight with voters than one from Obama, the first lady, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney or Chris Christie. He’s the endorser in chief.

That gives him an invitation and a license to step onto soapboxes wide and far. Last month he stumped in Maine, North Carolina, Georgia and Maryland. This month he’s bound for Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He’s wanted. He’s welcomed.

And, yes, that’s partly because he’s a reminder of an epoch more economically dynamic than the current one, of an America less humbled and fearful. It’s also because he has no real responsibility and thus no real culpability: He can’t let us down. On top of which, absence has always made the heart grow fonder.

BUT he never really went away. He abandoned the White House only to begin plotting by proxy to move in again. He’s the past, present and future tenses all entwined, and that’s a clue that there’s something other than just nostalgia behind the outsize affection for him. He’s missed because he demonstrates what’s missing in the commanders in chief since.

He’s missed for that gameness, an invaluable asset that fueled so many leaders’ triumphs but wasn’t abundant in leaders who suffered many defeats.

Jimmy Carter, for one. “He was not just detached and not just unfamiliar with congressional politics but he also didn’t like it, didn’t want to play it — and that was a huge obstacle for him,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian who has written books about Carter and Bush and has one about Lyndon Baines Johnson, “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” scheduled for publication in January. “It really damaged him.”

“Clinton was the last president we’ve had who loved politics,” Zelizer added. “Bush — and you can see this in his post-presidency — didn’t have a taste for what Washington was all about. Executive power was partly a way to avoid Congress entirely. And Obama is just like Bush that way.”

It’s interesting to note that neither Bush nor Obama knew any really big, bitter political disappointments en route to the White House. (Bush’s failed 1978 congressional race, so early in his career and so distant from his subsequent bid for Texas governor, doesn’t count.) Their paths were relatively unimpeded ones, while Clinton suffered the humiliation of being booted from his job as governor of Arkansas after one term, then having to regain it.

Scars like that do a politician good. They prove that he or she loves the sport enough to keep going, and has the grit for it. We’d be wise to look for them in the politicians angling for the presidency next. The ugliness of the job isn’t going to change. Might as well elect someone with the appetite for it.

Clinton showed us the downside of unappeasable hunger, but he also showed us the upside, and he’s showing us still. He gets love and he gets his way simply by never letting up in his demand for them. There’s a lesson in that.

Friedman, solo

October 8, 2014

Mr. Bruni is off today, so The Moustache of Wisdom has the place to himself.  He has a question in “Running on Empty:”  Who’s to blame for the recent major lapses from the Secret Service?  Here he is:

I’m sure there are many technical explanations for the recent breakdowns in Secret Service protection that allowed an armed intruder to run right through the front door of the White House and an armed felon to ride on an elevator with President Obama. But I’d also put some blame on the nation’s political class.

Just look at Washington these days and listen to what politicians are saying and watch how they spend their time. You can’t help but ask: Do these people care a whit about the country anymore? Is there anybody here on a quest for excellence, for making America great?

Yes, yes, I know. They’re all here to do “public service.” But that is not what it looks like. It actually looks as if they came to Washington to get elected so they could raise more money to get re-elected. That is, until they don’t get re-elected. Then, like the former House majority leader, Eric Cantor, they can raise even more money by cashing in their time on Capitol Hill for a job and a multimillion-dollar payday from a Wall Street investment bank they used to regulate.

Getting elected and raising money to get re-elected — instead of governing and compromising in the national interest — seems to be all that too many of our national politicians are interested in anymore. There are exceptions, to be sure, but it feels as if many do not take pride in their work in government.

We’re at war in the Middle East, with American military lives on the line, but Congress could not stir itself to return from a pre-election recess to either debate the wisdom of this war or give the president proper legal authorization, let alone take some responsibility. When everyone is so busy running, is it any surprise that no one is running the federal government?

According to PolitiFact, “Wyoming Republican Senator John Barrasso said, ‘This is the earliest Congress has adjourned in over 50 years.’ … Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine called it ‘the second-earliest recess before a midterm since 1960.’ Both senators are correct (if you excuse Barrasso’s use of adjourn instead of recess). For Barrasso, ‘over 50 years,’ takes us back to any year up to 1963, or 51 years ago. The record shows that since 1963, Congress often has taken short breaks in September, given lawmakers several weeks in October to campaign in election years, and even closed the books for the year in October. But an extended break from mid-September to mid-November has not occurred. Kaine’s claim is spot on.”

What does this have to do with the Secret Service lapses? It certainly doesn’t excuse them, but if you’re a federal worker today and you look up at the “adults” who are supposed to be supervising you, what do you see? You see too many self-interested, self-indulgent politicians who are only there to grandstand, spend most of their time raising money to win elections and then, when you, as a federal worker, make a mistake, be the first to rush to the microphones with feigned concern to investigate your competence — as long as the cameras are running.

Tell me that doesn’t filter down to every department, including the Secret Service. When so many above you are just cynically out for themselves, it saps morale, focus and discipline. If so many above you are just getting theirs, well then, why shouldn’t Secret Service agents doing advance work for the president’s trip to Colombia in April 2012 take prostitutes back to their rooms and have some fun on D.C.’s dime, too?

Any wonder that Gallup reported on Sept. 8 that “only 8 percent of the one-third of all Americans who are following national politics ‘very closely’ approve of the way Congress is handling its job.” As Jon Stewart noted: “Here’s how dysfunctional the Secret Service is at this point, Congress had to help them come up with solutions.”

I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but you feel today in Washington a certain laxness, that anything goes and that too few people working for the federal government take pride in their work because everything is just cobbled together by Congress and the White House at the 11th hour anyway. It’s been years since anyone summoned us for a moonshot, for something great. So just show up and punch the clock.

In December 2010, I went to the White House for an interview. I entered through the Secret Service checkpoint on Pennsylvania Avenue. After putting my briefcase through the X-ray machine and collecting it, I grabbed the metal door handle to enter the White House driveway. The handle came off in my hand.

“Oh, it does that sometimes,” the Secret Service agent at the door said to me nonchalantly, as I tried to fit the wobbly handle back into the socket. People who take pride in their work don’t just let the handle come off a White House door like that.

Again, I’m not excusing the Secret Service, but the recent breakdowns don’t surprise me when so much of the political class that oversees the service is so self-absorbed, risk-averse and shortsighted. When the people governing us become this cynical, polarized and dysfunctional, it surely seeps down into the bureaucracy. As above, so below.

Friedman and Bruni

October 1, 2014

In “Order vs. Disorder, Part 4″ The Moustache of Wisdom ‘splains that the strategy of “containment” this go-round is not what it was during the Cold War.  In “Serving Without Protecting” Mr. Bruni says a hearing into the White House security breach underscores the public shame of the Secret Service.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

I’ve been arguing for a while now that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to the wider East-West clash of civilizations what Off Broadway is to Broadway. It’s where you can see many trends at a smaller scale first. That is why I study it closely. Whether it is airline-hijacking, suicide-bombing or trying to do nation-building with the other — Israelis called it “Lebanon invasion” and “Oslo”; we called it “Iraq” and “Afghanistan” — what happens there often moves to the larger stage. So, as I have asked before: What’s playing Off Broadway now?

It’s a play called “Containment.” When faced with a barrage of rockets from the Hamas militants in Gaza, Israel largely retaliated with artillery and air power. These inflicted enough pain on Hamas and the Gaza civilian population that Hamas eventually agreed to a cease-fire — but not to surrender.

Indeed, Israel chose to deliberately leave Hamas in power in Gaza because it did not want to put Israeli boots on the ground and try to destroy it — which would have required bloody house-to-house fighting — and because Israel also did not want to leave Gaza as an ungoverned space. Israel’s adopting a strategy of containment toward Gaza also became viable after Egypt’s top military commander, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, replaced the Muslim Brotherhood government led by Mohamed Morsi. The Brotherhood saw Hamas as an ally and allowed it to dig tunnels into Egypt and smuggle in goods for profit and rockets to hit Israel. Sisi, who sees the Brotherhood as his archenemy, has closed those tunnels.

So containment, as a purely military strategy to stem disorder, can work for Israel, for now. Containment also seems to be where the U.S.-led coalition is heading, for now, against the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS. Since neither we nor our coalition partners are willing — or, thus far, in the case of the Iraqi Army and Syrian “moderates,” able — to put many boots on the ground to oust ISIS, we will rely on air power to prevent ISIS from expanding and maybe to shrink it.

But here we come to the most important difference between the containment we used to defeat the Soviet Union and the containment of Hamas and ISIS. We and the Israelis are both using containment to seal off a problem that we each perceive as too costly, politically and in human terms, to try to eliminate. But that strategy has its limits.

As Mark Mykleby, a retired Marine colonel and the co-director of the Strategic Innovation Lab at Case Western Reserve University, put it to me: “In the Cold War, we contained the Soviets militarily to set the conditions for the U.S.S.R. to collapse on itself, but that wasn’t the whole story. We also rebuilt the shattered economies of our former enemies, built international institutions like the I.M.F. and World Bank, and redesigned our own governing institutions to address our new post-World War II reality so that we would have the strategic scaffolding in place to continue building a post-Cold War world once the Soviet Union did in fact collapse.

“In the case of Gaza,” he added, “the Israelis are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of a chronic problem by simply ‘containing’ the Palestinians.” Without a strategy for improving living conditions there, that could prove very damaging to Israel in the long run as Gaza becomes a human disaster zone. The West is doing something similar with ISIS: containing without building “the regional scaffolding to support and leverage” a more modern, consensual and pluralistic Middle East that might fill the ISIS space.

Containment, said Mykleby, only makes long-term sense if you commit money and political capital to fill that space with something decent. Israel is not doing that because Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and be a partner to a two-state solution. And because right-wing Jewish settlers so dominate Israel’s ruling coalition that Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu cannot or will not put on the table anything close to what the more moderate Palestinian Authority demands for a two-state deal. Nor is it clear the Palestinians could deliver the security Israel demands. In short, the whole relationship is broken, making a strategy beyond containment very hard.

On Broadway, we’re hamstrung in building a post-ISIS political strategy by the fact that some of our coalition partners have no shared vision for a post-ISIS Syria or Iraq and do not want democracy in this region. Also, some of them, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are purveyors of the intolerant, anti-pluralistic Sunni ideology that inspires ISIS fighters. Even Turkey’s Islamist government has some pro-ISIS sympathies.

In short, containment in both theaters is necessary but not sufficient for long-term stability. But, unlike the Cold War where our containment strategy was largely the product of like-minded democracies working to liberate like-minded people from a bad system, in the Middle East, we have few like-minded partners.

The most we can hope for are “least bad” allies and “least bad” outcomes. In today’s Middle East, least bad is the new good.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

My mother used to leave the front door unlocked. She used to leave the side and back doors unlocked, too. This was mostly a function of sloppiness — she had four kids, three pets and a whole lot else on her mind — but when pressed about it, she reasoned that anyone bent on intrusion would find a way and that it was all a matter of chance in the end.

She missed her calling as the director of the Secret Service.

What we’ve discovered over the last week and a half about the crackerjack operations of this elite agency boggles the mind, and nothing I learned during Tuesday’s congressional hearing into its procedures did anything to un-boggle it.

The subject was how, on Sept. 19, a deranged man managed to get deep inside the White House — much deeper, it turns out, than the agency initially let on. We were first given the impression that he’d merely made it through the front door. Only later did The Washington Post and other news organizations unearth that he had zipped down the vestibule, past a staircase, through the East Room and almost to the Green Room. By the time all the facts emerge, we’ll find out that he treated himself to a grilled cheese and a glass of Ovaltine in the kitchen, where he was interrupted mid-sandwich and given a doggie bag.

At the hearing, there were acute questions and ludicrous ones, genuine concern and disingenuous grandstanding, florid preening and runaway egos, which is to say that many politicians were crowded into one room.

There was verbiage so oblique it barely qualified as English, which is to say that government officials testified. Front and center was the head of the Secret Service, Julia Pierson, who behaved in the manner of so many beleaguered bureaucrats before her. She pledged reviews, reports, inquiries and assessments — a brimming thesaurus of self-examination — and tried to run out the clock.

She muttered sentences like this: “In downtown areas, there is sound attenuation.” This was a reference to the Secret Service’s confusion in 2011 over whether someone had been shooting at the White House or a motor vehicle in its vicinity had backfired.

The answer was shooting: Seven bullets hit one of this country’s defining symbols, which is also the president’s private residence, in which he and his family must feel — and be — unconditionally safe. And it wasn’t Secret Service agents who identified the evidence. It was a housekeeper, happening upon shattered glass days after the fact.

These aren’t minor, random smudges on the record of the Secret Service, which was also embarrassed a few years ago when agents on assignment in Colombia partied with prostitutes. They’re cause for grave worry and a different kind of housecleaning.

Nothing about the events of Sept. 19 honors the responsibilities and capabilities of a great nation. According to Pierson’s testimony, two agents that day had eyes on the intruder, who was known to them as a potential troublemaker and had shown up at the White House fence less than a month earlier with a hatchet. They were right not to detain him then: He’d committed no crime. But how could their monitoring of him during his return visit be so lax that he even got over that fence?

Not a beast or a beep worked properly. The guard dogs didn’t guard. The alarm boxes didn’t alarm. The front door couldn’t be locked automatically as he sprinted toward it, because it wasn’t rigged that way. We can fly drones over Pakistan, but we can’t summon a proper locksmith to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Time and again, Washington validates the naysayers who like to dismiss it as the capital of bureaucratic incompetence. The president unveils his signature health care reform — arguably the cornerstone of his legacy — and the website repeatedly crashes. The I.R.S. loses whole years of emails. A contractor for the National Security Agency steals away with a seemingly bottomless trove of classified documents.

The Department of Homeland Security fails to keep track of more than 6,000 foreigners in the country on student visas, or so ABC News reported in early September. And don’t even get me started on the Department of Veterans Affairs.

There’s precedent, yes, for White House intrusions. An uninvited guest once watched a movie with Franklin Delano Roosevelt before being detected.

And America isn’t alone. In 1982, Queen Elizabeth II awoke in Buckingham Palace to encounter a strange man in her bedroom. He and she reportedly chatted for 10 minutes.

I guess the palace didn’t have all the “layers” and “rings” of security repeatedly mentioned at the congressional hearing, though a lot of good all those layers and rings did us. In the end, it’s people who make the difference. The Secret Service needs better ones.

I can’t resist…  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “While this recent lapse is alarming, we should remember that in 2000 a deranged man managed to get deep inside the White House, and stayed there for eight years.”


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