Archive for the ‘Friedman’ Category

Dowd and Friedman

March 5, 2014

In “Frozen in a Niche?” MoDo has a question:  When will Hollywood accept that the world is curvy, and the curvy world can be profitable?  The Moustache of Wisdom thinks he knows “Why Putin Doesn’t Respect Us.”  He states that Crimea is reflective of how Putinism used to just be a threat to Russia but is now becoming a threat to global stability.  Here’s MoDo:

As the statuesque Cate Blanchett clutched her statuette, she sent an acid air kiss Sandra Bullock’s way.

The “Blue Jasmine” star told her vanquished best-actress rival, who was gamely smiling after losing for “Gravity,” “Sandra, I could watch that performance to the end of time, and I sort of felt like I had.”

But then Blanchett turned all feminist, doing a Nobody-puts-Baby-in-a-niche smackdown. She chided industry colleagues “who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences,” adding: “The world is round, people.”

Of course, as Sam Wasson, a chronicler of a Hollywood obsessed with how many adolescent boys show up for opening weekends of comic-book movies, notes: “Everything is a niche film except for tent-pole movies. So women are one of many niches that don’t get honored the way they used to when grown-ups went to the movies.”

Although Sunday’s Oscars seemed like a pantheon of diversity for women, gays, blacks and transgenders, Hollywood is disintegrating faster than it is transitioning to modernity. As films lose cultural hegemony to TV, Oscar voters and industry top brass are still overwhelmingly white, male and middle-aged.

The percentage of women directing, writing, producing, editing and shooting films has declined since 1998, according to an analysis of the top 250 grossing films of 2013 by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. (The anticipated halo effect from Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first woman to win a directing Oscar for 2009’s “The Hurt Locker” never happened.)

The center’s latest report had some stunning stats: Women accounted for 6 percent of directors, 10 percent of writers, 15 percent of executive producers, 17 percent of editors and 3 percent of cinematographers. And women are still more likely to be working on romantic comedies, dramas or documentaries than the top-grossing, teenage-boy-luring animated, sci-fi and horror movies.

“There’s a great deal of gender inertia going on in Hollywood, both off-screen and on,” said Martha Lauzen, a professor who has conducted the study for the last 16 years. “If you have all white males working behind the scenes in the film industry, you’re going to get a whole lot of white males up on screen.

“Every time that a female-driven film like ‘Bridesmaids’ makes boatloads of money at the box office, it is considered a fluke, a one-off. Women comprise 52 percent of all moviegoers. Yet there’s still an assumption that men will not go to see a woman’s movie, but that women will go to see anything.”

Next week, Lauzen is publishing a new study showing that women made up only 15 percent of protagonists and 30 percent of speaking characters in the top 100 grossing domestic films of 2013.

“The people in the community do not want to be called racist,” she said. “But they don’t really mind being called sexist. For some of them, it’s a badge of honor.”

Some women have boldly broken the silence about the imbalance. Meryl Streep denounced the perversity of icing women out of a business that makes a fortune on films aimed at women.

“Why? Why? Why?” she asked. “Don’t they want the money?”

Jodie Foster told The Los Angeles Times that when men hire directors, they say to themselves, “I’m gonna hand over $60 million to somebody I don’t know. I hope they look like me.” She also criticized “risk-averse” female studio executives who regard female directors as too much of a risk. In Vogue, Claire Danes said she stopped working for two years before she got “Homeland” because she didn’t want to play “the girl.”

The bluntest remarks came from co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment Amy Pascal in Forbes. She talked about the “paltry” amount women make in Hollywood compared to men, about the “unconscious mountain” of rejection against female directors and how “the whole system is geared for them to fail.”

When Pascal greenlit Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers rom-coms, some male executives sniffed “So what’s next?” Adam Sandler, Will Smith, the “Spider-Man” franchise, “The Social Network,” and this year’s “American Hustle” and “Captain Phillips” impressed the guys in the boardroom. Pascal says, given this year’s crop of female protagonists, she feels more sanguine. “Between ‘Gravity,’ ‘Hunger Games,’ ‘Frozen,’ ‘The Heat,’ and others, that’s $4 billion,” she told me. “That’s a gigantic change.”

Pascal said she learned from Geena Davis, who runs an institute in Los Angeles on gender in media, that “the most important thing is having female protagonists. It doesn’t matter if they’re a villain or a hero. It just matters that their actions have consequences.”

She thinks that Hollywood men are no longer reluctant to work with women, saying “any problems are completely unconscious. It’s obvious that women understand how to make money. You can’t have a year like last year and not see something different. Women have to help each other more. It’s our duty.”

And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

Just as we’ve turned the coverage of politics into sports, we’re doing the same with geopolitics. There is much nonsense being written about how Vladimir Putin showed how he is “tougher” than Barack Obama and how Obama now needs to demonstrate his manhood. This is how great powers get drawn into the politics of small tribes and end up in great wars that end badly for everyone. We vastly exaggerate Putin’s strength — so does he — and we vastly underestimate our own strength, and ability to weaken him through nonmilitary means.

Let’s start with Putin. Any man who actually believes, as Putin has said, that the breakup of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century is caught up in a dangerous fantasy that can’t end well for him or his people. The Soviet Union died because Communism could not provide rising standards of living, and its collapse actually unleashed boundless human energy all across Eastern Europe and Russia. A wise Putin would have redesigned Russia so its vast human talent could take advantage of all that energy. He would be fighting today to get Russia into the European Union, not to keep Ukraine out. But that is not who Putin is and never will be. He is guilty of the soft bigotry of low expectations toward his people and prefers to turn Russia into a mafia-run petro-state — all the better to steal from.

So Putin is now fighting human nature among his own young people and his neighbors — who both want more E.U. and less Putinism. To put it in market terms, Putin is long oil and short history. He has made himself steadily richer and Russia steadily more reliant on natural resources rather than its human ones. History will not be kind to him — especially if energy prices ever collapse.

So spare me the Putin-body-slammed-Obama prattle. This isn’t All-Star Wrestling. The fact that Putin has seized Crimea, a Russian-speaking zone of Ukraine, once part of Russia, where many of the citizens prefer to be part of Russia and where Russia has a major naval base, is not like taking Poland. I support economic and diplomatic sanctions to punish Russia for its violation of international norms and making clear that harsher sanctions, even military aid for Kiev, would ensue should Putin try to bite off more of Ukraine. But we need to remember that that little corner of the world is always going to mean more, much more, to Putin than to us, and we should refrain from making threats on which we’re not going to deliver.

What disturbs me about Crimea is the larger trend it fits into, that Putinism used to just be a threat to Russia but is now becoming a threat to global stability. I opposed expanding NATO toward Russia after the Cold War, when Russia was at its most democratic and least threatening. It remains one of the dumbest things we’ve ever done and, of course, laid the groundwork for Putin’s rise.

For a long time, Putin has exploited the humiliation and anti-Western attitudes NATO expansion triggered to gain popularity, but this seems to have become so fundamental to his domestic politics that it has locked him into a zero-sum relationship with the West that makes it hard to see how we collaborate with him in more serious trouble spots, like Syria or Iran. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is engaged in monstrous, genocidal behavior that also threatens the stability of the Middle East. But Putin stands by him. At least half the people of Ukraine long to be part of Europe, but he treated that understandable desire as a NATO plot and quickly resorted to force.

I don’t want to go to war with Putin, but it is time we expose his real weakness and our real strength. That, though, requires a long-term strategy — not just fulminating on “Meet the Press.” It requires going after the twin pillars of his regime: oil and gas. Just as the oil glut of the 1980s, partly engineered by the Saudis, brought down global oil prices to a level that helped collapse Soviet Communism, we could do the same today to Putinism by putting the right long-term policies in place. That is by investing in the facilities to liquefy and export our natural gas bounty (provided it is extracted at the highest environmental standards) and making Europe, which gets 30 percent of its gas from Russia, more dependent on us instead. I’d also raise our gasoline tax, put in place a carbon tax and a national renewable energy portfolio standard — all of which would also help lower the global oil price (and make us stronger, with cleaner air, less oil dependence and more innovation).

You want to frighten Putin? Just announce those steps. But you know the story, the tough guys in Washington who want to take on Putin would rather ask 1 percent of Americans — the military and their families — to make the ultimate sacrifice than have all of us make a small sacrifice in the form of tiny energy price increases. Those tough guys who thump their chests in Congress but run for the hills if you ask them to vote for a 10-cent increase in the gasoline tax that would actually boost our leverage, they’ll never rise to this challenge. We’ll do anything to expose Putin’s weakness; anything that isn’t hard. And you wonder why Putin holds us in contempt?

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Kristof

March 2, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has produced a turd called “The Terms of Our Surrender” in which he asks a question:  What comes after the inevitable ruling on same-sex marriage?  He’s hyperventilating and wringing his hands, of course.  His typical tell?  This sentence:  “I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying.”  I find it telling that the Times is not allowing comments on this piece of crap.  MoDo says you should “Brace Yourself for Hillary and Jeb,” and she also has a question:  America has 320 million people, so how do we keep ending up with the same two surnames running things?  It’s interesting that in this particular hit piece, allegedly about two families, the Bushes take no incoming fire.  In “From the Pyramid to the Square” The Moustache of Wisdom says an Oscar-nominated documentary about the revolution in Egypt has resonated with protesters from Cairo to Caracas to Kiev.  Mr. Kristof has a question in “The Compassion Gap:”  Why didn’t readers of a column on the need for early-childhood interventions see a caring mom instead of her old tattoos?  Here’s The Putz:

It now seems certain that before too many years elapse, the Supreme Court will be forced to acknowledge the logic of its own jurisprudence on same-sex marriage and redefine marriage to include gay couples in all 50 states.

Once this happens, the national debate essentially will be finished, but the country will remain divided, with a substantial minority of Americans, most of them religious, still committed to the older view of marriage.

So what then? One possibility is that this division will recede into the cultural background, with marriage joining the long list of topics on which Americans disagree without making a political issue out of it.

In this scenario, religious conservatives would essentially be left to promote their view of wedlock within their own institutions, as a kind of dissenting subculture emphasizing gender differences and procreation, while the wider culture declares that love and commitment are enough to make a marriage. And where conflicts arise — in a case where, say, a Mormon caterer or a Catholic photographer objected to working at a same-sex wedding — gay rights supporters would heed the advice of gay marriage’s intellectual progenitor, Andrew Sullivan, and let the dissenters opt out “in the name of their freedom — and ours.”

But there’s another possibility, in which the oft-invoked analogy between opposition to gay marriage and support for segregation in the 1960s South is pushed to its logical public-policy conclusion. In this scenario, the unwilling photographer or caterer would be treated like the proprietor of a segregated lunch counter, and face fines or lose his business — which is the intent of recent legal actions against a wedding photographer in New Mexico, a florist in Washington State, and a baker in Colorado.

Meanwhile, pressure would be brought to bear wherever the religious subculture brushed up against state power. Religious-affiliated adoption agencies would be closed if they declined to place children with same-sex couples. (This has happened in Massachusetts and Illinois.) Organizations and businesses that promoted the older definition of marriage would face constant procedural harassment, along the lines suggested by the mayors who battled with Chick-fil-A. And, eventually, religious schools and colleges would receive the same treatment as racist holdouts like Bob Jones University, losing access to public funds and seeing their tax-exempt status revoked.

In the past, this constant-pressure scenario has seemed the less-likely one, since Americans are better at agreeing to disagree than the culture war would suggest. But it feels a little bit more likely after last week’s “debate” in Arizona, over a bill that was designed to clarify whether existing religious freedom protections can be invoked by defendants like the florist or the photographer.

If you don’t recognize my description of the bill, then you probably followed the press coverage, which was mendacious and hysterical — evincing no familiarity with the legal issues, and endlessly parroting the line that the bill would institute “Jim Crow” for gays. (Never mind that in Arizona it’s currently legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation — and mass discrimination isn’t exactly breaking out.) Allegedly sensible centrists compared the bill’s supporters to segregationist politicians, liberals invoked the Bob Jones precedent to dismiss religious-liberty concerns, and Republican politicians behaved as though the law had been written by David Duke.

What makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

Which has a certain bracing logic. If your only goal is ensuring that support for traditional marriage diminishes as rapidly as possible, applying constant pressure to religious individuals and institutions will probably do the job. Already, my fellow Christians are divided over these issues, and we’ll be more divided the more pressure we face. The conjugal, male-female view of marriage is too theologically rooted to disappear, but its remaining adherents can be marginalized, set against one other, and encouraged to conform.

I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying. Christians had plenty of opportunities — thousands of years’ worth — to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.) So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status — this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution.

But it’s still important for the winning side to recognize its power. We are not really having an argument about same-sex marriage anymore, and on the evidence of Arizona, we’re not having a negotiation. Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory — and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.

Now we get to MoDo:

Oy.  By the time the Bushes and Clintons are finished, they are going to make the Tudors and the Plantagenets look like pikers.

Before these two families release their death grip on the American electoral system, we’re going to have to watch Chelsea’s granddaughter try to knock off George P.’s grandson, Prescott Walker Bush II. Barack Obama, who once dreamed of being a transformational president, will turn out to be a mere hiccup in history, the interim guy who provided a tepid respite while Hillary and Jeb geared up to go at it.

Elections for president are supposed to make us feel young and excited, as if we’re getting a fresh start. That’s the way it was with J.F.K. and Obama and, even though he was turning 70 when he got inaugurated, Ronald Reagan.

But, as the Clinton library tardily disgorged 3,546 pages of official papers Friday — dredging up memories of a presidency that was eight years of turbulence held steady by a roaring economy and an incompetent opposition, a reign roiled by Hillarycare, Vince Foster, Whitewater, Webb Hubbell, Travelgate, Monica, impeachment, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Marc Rich — the looming prospect of another Clinton-Bush race makes us feel fatigued.

Our meritocratic society seems increasingly nepotistic and dynastic. There was a Bush or a Clinton in the White House and cabinet for 32 years straight. We’re Bill Murray stuck at 6 a.m. in Harold Ramis’s comic masterpiece, “Groundhog Day.” As Time’s Michael Crowley tweeted on Friday, “Who else is looking forward to potentially TEN more years of obsessing about Hillary Clinton’s past, present and future?”

The Clintons don’t get defeated. They get postponed.

Just as Hillary clears the Democratic field if she is healthy and runs, a major Romney donor told The Washington Post that “if Jeb Bush is in the race, he clears the field.” Jeb acknowledged in Long Island on Monday, referring to his mom’s tart comment that “if we can’t find more than two or three families to run for higher office, that’s silly,” that “it’s an issue for sure.” He added, “It’s something that, if I run, I would have to overcome that. And so will Hillary, by the way. Let’s keep the same standards for everybody.”

We’ve arrived at the brave new world of 21st-century technology where robots are on track to be smarter than humans. Yet, politically, we keep traveling into the past. It won’t be long before we’ll turn on the TV and see Lanny Davis defending President Clinton (the next one) on some mishegoss or other.

When the Clintons lost to Obama, they simply turned Obama’s presidency into their runway. Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, and a passel of other former Obama aides, are now helping Hillary. And Bill is out being the campaigner-in-chief, keeping the Clinton allure on display in 2014.

The new cache of Clinton papers is benign — the press seems more enamored of speechwriters’ doodles than substance — but just reading through them is draining. There are reams of advice on how to steer health care, which must have filled the briefing binders Hillary famously carried. But did she absorb the lessons, given that health care failed because she refused to be flexible and make the sensible compromises suggested by her husband and allies? She’s always on listening tours, but is she hearing? As one White House health care aide advised in the new document dump, “We need to be seen as listening.”

Just as in the reminiscences compiled by Hillary’s late friend, Diane Blair, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas — some of which were printed in the Washington Free Beacon three weeks ago — the new papers reflect how entangled the Clintons’ public and private lives were in the White House.

In a 1995 memo, Lisa Caputo, the first lady’s press secretary, sees an opportunity for the upcoming re-election campaign by “throwing a big party” for the Clintons’ 20th wedding anniversary.

“We could give a wonderful photo spread to People magazine of photos from the party coupled with old photos of their honeymoon and of special moments for them over the past 20 years,” Caputo wrote, adding that they could turn it into “a nice mail piece later on.”

Both sets of papers are revealing on the never-ending herculean struggle about how to present Hillary to the world, how to turn her shifting hairstyles and personas into one authentic image.

“Be careful to ‘be real,’ ” media adviser Mandy Grunwald wrote to her before the launch of her listening tour at Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s farm in upstate New York. “You did this well in the Rather interview where you acknowledged that of course last year was rough. Once you agree with the audience’s/reporters’ reality like that, it gives you a lot of latitude to then say whatever you want.”

Grunwald advises the first lady to “look for opportunities for humor” and “Don’t be defensive.”

It’s hard to understand why so many calculations are needed to seem “real,” just as it’s hard to understand how Hillary veers from feminist positions to un-feminist ones.

In the Blair papers, Hillary’s private view of the Monica Lewinsky affair hewed closely to the lame rationales offered by Bill and his male friends.

“HRC insists, no matter what people say,” Blair said, after talking to Hillary on the phone, “it was gross inappropriate behavior but it was consensual (was not a power relationship) and was not sex within any real meaning (standup, liedown, oral, etc.) of the term.” The president dallying with a 22-year-old intern was not “a power relationship” and certain kinds of sex don’t count?

Like her allies Sidney Blumenthal and Charlie Rangel, Hillary paints her husband’s mistress as an erotomaniac, just the way Clarence Thomas’s allies painted Anita Hill. A little nutty and a little slutty.

“It was a lapse,” Blair wrote, “but she says to his credit he tried to break it off, tried to pull away, tried to manage someone who was clearly a ‘narcissistic loony toon’; but it was beyond control.”

The cascade of papers evoke Hillary’s stressful brawls — with her husband, the press, Congress and the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. And they evoke the issue about her that is so troubling and hard to fathom. She is an immensely complex woman with two sides. She is the tireless and talented public servant. And she is the tired warrior who can be insecure and defensive, someone who has cleaved to a bunker mentality when she would have been better served getting out of her defensive crouch.

Talking to her pal Blair, Hillary had a lot of severe words for her “adversaries” in the press and the G.O.P. Blair also said Hillary was “furious” at Bill for “ruining himself and the presidency” by 1994.

Hillary may have had a point when she said in 1993, after criticism of the maladroit firing of the veteran White House travel office staff, that the press “has big egos and no brains.” But it speaks to her titanic battles and battle scars.

Hillary has spent so much time searching for the right identity, listening to others tell her who to be, resisting and following advice on being “real,” that it leaves us with the same question we had when she first came on the stage in 1992.

Who is she?

A better woman than you are, MoDo, even though I don’t want her to run.  And for what it’s worth, the next time you decide to write a hit piece about two families running things you might include the Bushes in your field of fire.  Bitch.  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

The Egyptian strongman Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi was recently in Moscow visiting with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Putin reportedly offered Sisi $2 billion in arms — just what a country like Egypt, where half the women can’t read, needs. The whole meeting struck me as so 1960s, so Nasser meets Khrushchev — two strongmen bucking each other up in the age of strong people and superempowered individuals. Rather than discuss arms sales, Sisi and Putin should have watched a movie together.

Specifically, Sisi should have brought a copy of “The Square” — the first Egyptian film ever nominated for an Oscar. It’s up this year. Sisi has a copy. Or, to be more precise, his film censor’s office does. For the last few months, the Egyptian authorities have been weighing whether to let the film — an inspiring and gripping documentary that follows six activists from the earliest days of the Tahrir Square revolution in 2011 until the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted by Sisi in 2013 — to be shown in Egypt.

“The Square,” about the revolution in Egypt, might be a good movie for Vladimir Putin and other strongmen to see. Credit Netflix/Noujaim Films, via Associated Press

Meanwhile, pirated and downloaded copies of the film, which is also on Netflix, have spread virally across Egypt and been viewed by many Egyptians in homes and coffeeshops and discussed on social media. What’s more, it was recently dubbed into Ukrainian and downloaded (some 300,000 times) by protesters there and shown in the Maidan, which also means the Square, in Kiev. A dubbed version is now spreading in Russia, too, said the film’s director Jehane Noujaim, who also directed “Control Room.”

“This is the globalization of defiance,” Noujaim said to me. “With cheap, affordable cameras and Internet connections, anyone now can change the conversation” anywhere. It’s true.

The film resonates with those who gathered in squares from Cairo to Caracas to Kiev, added the film’s producer, Karim Amer, because it captures an increasingly universal phenomenon: average people uniting and deciding “that the Pharaoh, the strongman, won’t protect us” and the religious sheikh “won’t cleanse us.” We can be and must be “authors of our own story.” It has long been said, added Amer, that “history is written by the victors. Not anymore.” Now versions can come from anywhere and anyone. Power is shifting “from the pyramid to the square” — from strongmen to strong people — “and that is a big shift.”

And that’s why Putin and Sisi need to see the film. (Disclosure: the filmmakers are friends of mine, and I have been discussing their project with them for two years.) It captures some of the most important shifts happening today, starting with fact that in today’s hyperconnected world wealth is getting concentrated at the top, but, at the same time, power is getting distributed at the bottom and transparency is being injected everywhere. No palace will remain hidden by high walls, not even the giant one reportedly being built for Putin on the Black Sea.

But people now can’t just see in, they can see far — how everybody else is living. And as Tahrir and Kiev demonstrate, young people will no longer tolerate leaders who deprive them of the tools and space to realize their full potential. The Square has a Facebook page where Egyptians are invited to answer questions, including: “Who would you most like to watch this movie with?” One answer, from Magda Elmaghrabi, probably spoke for many: “I would watch it with my dad who passed away 9 years ago. He emigrated to the States not for lack of wealth, but for his fears of what would happen in the future for Egypt and whether there would be opportunities for my 2 older brothers. I would love to have discussed what occurred and see his emotional reaction as the Egyptians stood up for what they believed in.”

Another reason Putin, Sisi and all their protesters need to see “The Square” is that it doesn’t have a happy ending — for anyone, not yet. Why?

The Egyptian protesters got sidelined by the army, because while they all wanted to oust the Pharaoh, they couldn’t agree on a broader reform agenda and translate that into a governing majority. But Putin and Sisi will also lose if they don’t change, because there is no stable progress without inclusive politics and economics. I understand the need and longing by those not in the squares for “stability” and “order.” Putin and Sisi both rose to power on that longing for stability after so much revolutionary ferment. But both men have to be asked: Stability to do what? To go where? To jail not just real terrorists, but, in Sisi’s and Putin’s cases, legitimate journalists and opposition and youth leaders? Many Asian autocrats imposed order, but they also built schools, infrastructure and a rule of law that nurtured middle classes that eventually delivered democracy.

So the protesters are long on idealism but short on a shared political action plan. Sisi and Putin are long on stability but short on a politics of inclusion tied to a blueprint for modernity (and not just rising oil prices). Unless they each overcome their deficiencies, their countries will fail to fulfill their potential — and all their “squares” will be stages for conflict, not launching pads for renewal.

Last up today is Mr. Kristof:

Some readers collectively hissed after I wrote a week ago about the need for early-childhood interventions to broaden opportunity in America. I focused on a 3-year-old boy in West Virginia named Johnny Weethee whose hearing impairment had gone undetected, leading him to suffer speech and development problems that may dog him for the rest of his life.

A photo of Johnny and his mom, Truffles Weethee, accompanied the column and readers honed in on Truffles’ tattoos and weight.

“You show a photograph of a fat woman with tons of tattoos all over that she paid for,” one caller said. “And then we — boohoo — have to worry about the fact that her children aren’t cared for properly?”

On Twitter, Amy was more polite: “My heart breaks for Johnny. I have to wonder if the $$ mom spent on tattoos could have been put to better use.”

“This is typical of the left,” Pancho scolded on my Facebook page. “It’s not anyone’s fault. Responsibility is somebody else’s problem.”

To me, such outrage at a doting mom based on her appearance suggests the myopic tendency in our country to blame poverty on the poor, to confuse economic difficulties with moral failures, to muddle financial lapses with ethical ones.

Truffles Weethee has her son, Johnny, 3, in a Save the Children reading program. When her photo appeared in a column a week ago, readers saw reasons to criticize her instead of seeing the caring mom that she is. Credit Audrey Hall/Show of Force

There is an income gap in America, but just as important is a compassion gap. Plenty of successful people see a picture of a needy child and their first impulse is not to help but to reproach.

To break cycles of poverty, we have the tools to improve high school graduation rates, reduce teen pregnancies and increase employment. What we lack is the will to do so.

There may be neurological biases at work. A professor at Princeton found that our brains sometimes process images of people who are poor or homeless as if they were not humans but things.

Likewise, psychology experiments suggest that affluence may erode compassion. When research subjects are asked to imagine great wealth, or just look at a computer screen saver with money, they become less inclined to share or help others. That may be why the poorest 20 percent of Americans give away a larger share of their incomes than the wealthiest 20 percent.

The generosity of the poor always impresses me. In West Virginia, I visited a trailer that housed eight people and sometimes many more. A woman in the home, Lynmarie Sargent, 30, was once homeless with a month-old baby, and that discomfort and humiliation seared her so that she lets other needy families camp out in her trailer and eat. Sometimes she houses as many as 17.

Sargent is an unemployed former addict with a criminal record, struggling to stay clean of drugs, get a job and be a good mom. She has plenty to learn from middle-class Americans about financial planning, but wealthy people have plenty to learn from her about compassion.

A Pew survey this year found that a majority of Republicans, and almost one-third of Democrats, believe that if a person is poor the main reason is “lack of effort on his or her part.”

It’s true, of course, that the poor are sometimes lazy and irresponsible. So are the rich, with less consequence.

Critics note that if a person manages to get through high school and avoid drugs, crime and parenting outside of marriage, it’s often possible to escape poverty. Fair enough. But if you’re one of the one-fifth of children in West Virginia born with drugs or alcohol in your system, if you ingest lead from peeling paint as a toddler, if your hearing or vision impairments aren’t detected, if you live in a home with no books in a gang-ridden neighborhood with terrible schools — in all these cases, you’re programmed for failure as surely as children of professionals are programed for success.

So when kids in poverty stumble, it’s not quite right to say that they “failed.” Often, they never had a chance.

Researchers also find that financial stress sometimes impairs cognitive function, leading to bad choices. Indian farmers, for example, test higher for I.Q. after a harvest when they are financially secure. Alleviate financial worry, and you can gain 13 points in measured I.Q.

The tattoos that readers saw on Truffles are mostly old ones, predating Johnny, and she is passionate about helping him. That’s why she enrolled him in a Save the Children program that provides books that she reads to him every day. In that trailer in Appalachia, I don’t see a fat woman with tattoos; I see a loving mom who encapsulates any parent’s dreams for a child.

Johnny shouldn’t be written off at the age of 3 because of the straw he drew in the lottery of birth. To spread opportunity, let’s start by pointing fewer fingers and offering more helping hands.

Dowd and Friedman

February 26, 2014

Mr. Bruni is on book leave, so we have just MoDo and The Moustache of Wisdom.  In “Parade Marches Backward” MoDo tells us that an Irish drag queen explains why the New York St. Paddy’s Day Parade is a drag.  The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Don’t Just Do Something.  Sit There.”  He asks is the Cold War back? He says actually, today’s geopolitics are so much more interesting.  Here’s MoDo:

I have long been opposed to gays marching in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue.

It isn’t because my father was a past national president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which ran the parade for a century and started the rule that no gays need apply. Faith and begorrah, heaven knows I have nothing against gays. I have something against Irish parades.

It has just always seemed strange to me that gays were fighting so hard for so long to bust into such a hoary, boozy, corny tradition. Didn’t they have something more fun and cool to do?

I was traumatized by a parade as a child when I was awakened one morning on a family trip to a Hibernian convention in St. Louis by a band loudly playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” My sister, brother and I raced to the window and saw our parents leading a march of Hibernians from Mass to breakfast at our hotel. It was mortifying to a child. I still can’t hear that song without wincing.

But certainly, if gays want in, they should get in. And that’s why Mayor Bill de Blasio is right to blow off the parade in protest of the Putinesque restrictions.

De Blasio, who has said his mother was raised a Catholic but did not bring him up in the church, is being joined in the boycott by his mini-me, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. The Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, is coming, but one of his cabinet members has refused to march.

Some New York liberals and elected officials pressed the mayor to bar uniformed police and firefighters from marching, but de Blasio, perhaps fearing a shellacking with a shillelagh, demurred. The mayor of Boston, Martin Walsh, also vowed not to march in his city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade if banner-waving gays are banned, although he’s being more conciliatory than de Blasio, working to broker a deal.

Despite taunts by the Catholic League’s wacky Bill Donohue and Fox News’s tacky Sean Hannity — who berated “Comrade de Blasio” for “being prejudiced toward people’s deeply held fundamental religious belief” — the mayor will keep squeezing until organizers fold. At this point the parade is as insanely antediluvian as Arizona lawmakers who passed a bill allowing businesses to discriminate against gay customers on “religious” grounds. Bonkers.

The largest parade in the Western world, as Niall O’Dowd, the founder of irishcentral.com and The Irish Voice, calls it, is no longer run by the A.O.H., but by the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee, seven volunteers in the Bronx directed by John Dunleavy, a retired bus driver and superintendent. But O’Dowd says that Dunleavy, who seems like he stepped out of a different era, is “king of a Potemkin village.” Even though the parade was started in the 18th century by Protestant Irish troops in the British Army, now the power behind the parade is Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

“Cardinal Dolan is essentially the arbiter,” O’Dowd says. “Every grand marshal is checked with him. The parade chairman always seeks the approval of the cardinal for who marches in the parade.” O’Dowd concedes that the organizers are “equal opportunity offenders. They also used to refuse to allow kids in wheelchairs into the parade. The big issue they face today is: Are they Irish or are they Catholic? If it was just an Irish parade, these people would have the power to let gays march. But the real power is with the Catholic Church.”

Pope Francis has shown a more conciliatory attitude toward gays than some conservative American clerics like Dolan, asking, “Who am I to judge?”

Christine Quinn, a lesbian who organized protests on the policy and who says it was wrong for former Mayor Bloomberg to march in the parade, explained to me why she thinks “it’s tragic.”

“My father is 87, and we always hoped we’d get to march in it together one day,” the former council speaker said. “He marched when he was in high school and took me to it as a child. The organizers don’t understand there are real human consequences and pain in this discriminating.”

The Irish Voice reports that a special guest at the St. Patrick’s Day “parade for all” in Queens — which, unlike Manhattan, allows gay marchers to carry banners and signs — will be renowned Dublin drag queen Panti Bliss, whose real name is Rory O’Neill. He told me that in the “glittery, nutty” Dublin parade, “there’s no problem being absolutely as gay as anyone wants.”

He said he was in the Irish parade one year “chained to the top of a papier-mâché, fiery mountain singing ‘Holding Out for a Hero’ by Bonnie Tyler with 50 children dressed up as Celtic warriors in little boats saving the trapped drag queen attacked by a giant one-eyed monster.”

The Manhattan parade organizers, he said, are, ironically, like pious Orangemen, “very much tied up in an old Ireland that doesn’t really exist anymore.”

He finds the prudery odd. “If they’re not kind of gay, they’re not really a parade,” he said. “A heterosexual parade seems to me an organized walk in the traffic lane.”

And now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

With Russia growling over the downfall of its ally running Ukraine and still protecting its murderous ally running Syria, there is much talk that we’re returning to the Cold War — and that the Obama team is not up to defending our interests or friends. I beg to differ. I don’t think the Cold War is back; today’s geopolitics are actually so much more interesting than that. And I also don’t think President Obama’s caution is entirely misplaced.

The Cold War was a unique event that pitted two global ideologies, two global superpowers, each with globe-spanning nuclear arsenals and broad alliances behind them. Indeed, the world was divided into a chessboard of red and black, and who controlled each square mattered to each side’s sense of security, well-being and power. It was also a zero-sum game, in which every gain for the Soviet Union and its allies was a loss for the West and NATO, and vice versa.

That game is over. We won. What we have today is the combination of an older game and a newer game. The biggest geopolitical divide in the world today “is between those countries who want their states to be powerful and those countries who want their people to be prosperous,” argues Michael Mandelbaum, professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins.

The first category would be countries like Russia, Iran and North Korea, whose leaders are focused on building their authority, dignity and influence through powerful states. And because the first two have oil and the last has nukes that it can trade for food, their leaders can defy the global system and survive, if not thrive — all while playing an old, traditional game of power politics to dominate their respective regions.

The second category, countries focused on building their dignity and influence through prosperous people, includes all the countries in Nafta, the European Union, and the Mercosur trade bloc in Latin America and Asean in Asia. These countries understand that the biggest trend in the world today is not a new Cold War but the merger of globalization and the information technology revolution. They are focused on putting in place the right schools, infrastructure, bandwidth, trade regimes, investment openings and economic management so more of their people can thrive in a world in which every middle-class job will require more skill and the ability to constantly innovate will determine their standard of living. (The true source of sustainable power.)

But there is also now a third and growing category of countries, which can’t project power or build prosperity. They constitute the world of “disorder.” They are actually power and prosperity sinks because they are consumed in internal fights over primal questions like: Who are we? What are our boundaries? Who owns which olive tree? These countries include Syria, Libya, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Congo and other hot spots. While those nations focused on state power do play in some of these countries — Russia and Iran both play in Syria — the states that are more focused on building prosperity are trying to avoid getting too involved in the world of disorder. Though ready to help mitigate humanitarian tragedies there, they know that when you “win” one of these countries in today’s geopolitical game, all you win is a bill.

Ukraine actually straddles all three of these trends. The revolution there happened because the government was induced by Russia, which wants to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence, into pulling out of a trade agreement with the European Union — an agreement favored by the many Ukrainians focused on building a prosperous people. This split has also triggered talk of separatism by the more Russian-speaking and Russian-oriented eastern part of Ukraine.

So what do we do? The world is learning that the bar for U.S. intervention abroad is being set much higher. This is due to a confluence of the end of the Soviet Union’s existential threat, the experience of investing too many lives and $2 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan to little lasting impact, America’s rising energy independence, our intelligence successes in preventing another 9/11 and the realization that to fix what ails the most troubled countries in the world of disorder is often beyond our skill set, resources or patience.

In the Cold War, policy-making was straightforward. We had “containment.” It told us what to do and at almost any price. Today, Obama’s critics say he must do “something” about Syria. I get it. Chaos there can come around to bite us. If there is a policy that would fix Syria, or even just stop the killing there, in a way that was self-sustaining, at a cost we could tolerate and not detract from all the things we need to do at home to secure our own future, I’m for it.

But we should have learned some lessons from our recent experience in the Middle East: First, how little we understand about the social and political complexities of the countries there; second, that we can — at considerable cost — stop bad things from happening in these countries but cannot, by ourselves, make good things happen; and third, that when we try to make good things happen we run the risk of assuming the responsibility for solving their problems, a responsibility that truly belongs to them.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Kristof

February 23, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has seen fit to try to tell us all about “The Games Putin Plays.”  He says the events in Ukraine offer a lesson in the limits of Russia’s grand strategy.  MoDo tells us that “Christie Puts the Gloves On,” and that as Chris Christie returns to his forum of choice, the bully is on his best behavior.  The Moustache of Wisdom tells us “How to Get a Job at Google.”  He has a hint: Getting hired is not about your G.P.A. It’s about what you can do and what you know.  Sure it is, Tommy, sure it is…  In “When Even the Starting Line is Out of Reach” Mr. Kristof says one little boy’s story illuminates how we can build opportunity for all.  Here’s The Putz:

The last time geopolitics intruded into an Olympics, during the 2008 Beijing Games, Vladimir Putin was the crisis’s winner: his military delivered a decisive spanking to Russia’s neighbor Georgia, whose government had fatally overestimated the West’s willingness to intervene on its behalf. The mini-war sent a clear message: after a long period of retrenchment, the Russian bear still had an appetite for power politics, and the claws to satisfy it.

Today the Olympics are on Russian soil, and violence is convulsing another nation in Moscow’s traditional orbit. But the crisis in Ukraine is sending a rather different message. So far, events in Kiev have been a lesson in the limits of Russian influence, and the implausibility of Putin’s claim to offer a rival civilizational model to the liberal democratic West.

That such a rivalry is Putin’s goal seems clear enough. After a century in which Russia styled itself a revolutionary power fighting the West’s reactionary capitalists, the former K.G.B. man has sought a return to the ideological role his nation played under the czars — as a conservative bulwark against the West’s revolutionary liberals.

As The Week’s Michael Brendan Dougherty has pointed out, this back flip has been visible across the post-9/11 era. But it’s been thrown into relief by Putin’s recent domestic gambits — the blasphemy trial for Pussy Riot, the crackdown on gay rights, the rhetoric contrasting Russia’s “traditional values” with American and Western European relativism.

Crucially, this rhetoric isn’t just for domestic consumption: it’s also pitched to the developing world. In the British Spectator, Owen Matthews argues that just as it did in the Communist era, “Moscow is again building an international ideological alliance,” with Putin offering himself up as a potential leader for “all conservatives who dislike liberal values,” no matter what country they call home.

But there is a vast difference between Putin’s grand strategy and both its Czarist and its Soviet antecedents.

The czars sought a “Holy Alliance” to defend a still-extant ancien régime — a rooted, hierarchical system that still governed many 19th-century European societies. But today’s Russia, brutalized by Communism and then taken over by oligarchs and grifters, is not a traditional society in any meaningful sense of the term, and the only thing it has in common with many of its potential developing-world allies is a contempt for democratic norms. In the Romanov era, the throne-and-altar idea still had a real claim to political legitimacy. But there is no comparable claim Putin can make for his own authority, and no similar mystique around his client dictators, be they Central Asian strongmen or Bashar al-Assad.

The Soviets’ claim to be in history’s vanguard, meanwhile, earned them allies and fellow travelers not only in Latin America, Asia and Africa, but among the best and brightest of the liberal West. No comparable Western fifth column seems likely to emerge to enable Putin’s goals. A few voices on the American right have praised his traditionalist rhetoric — but only a few. As beleaguered as America’s social conservatives sometimes feel, we’re a long distance from signing up as useful idiots for a thuggish, obviously opportunistic “family values” crusade.

Which is not to say that Putin’s geopolitical approach is all folly. On the contrary, he often plays the great game far more effectively than his European and American counterparts.

But the weakness of Russia, its government’s corruption and the unattractiveness of its alleged traditionalism all combine to foreclose his grandest ambitions.

This is basically what we’re watching happen in Ukraine. Despite the blunders of the European Union — which courted Kiev without seeming to realize that Russia might make a counteroffer — Putin is struggling to win a battle for influence in a country that both the Romanovs and the Soviets dominated with ease.

And the struggle is particularly telling given that the Great Recession exposed the E.U. as a spectacularly misgoverned institution, whose follies consigned many of its member states to economic disarray. Yet even that record hasn’t persuaded the majority of Ukrainians to warm to Moscow’s embrace instead. It takes much more than mere misgovernment to make the European project less attractive than Putin’s authoritarian alternative.

For an interesting parallel to Putinism’s problems, consider what’s happening halfway around the world, in Venezuela, where the laboratory Hugo Chávez built for “Bolivarian Revolution” is descending into the same kind of violence as in Ukraine.

Like Putin’s traditionalism, Chávez’s neosocialism was proposed as an ideological challenger to the American-led world order. (And Chávez had more American cheerleaders than does Putin.) But like Putinism, Chavismo lacks basic legitimacy absent the threat of violence and repression.

The lesson in both cases is not that late-modern liberal civilization necessarily deserves uncontested dominance.

But 25 years after the Cold War, from Kiev to Caracas, there is still no plausible alternative.

Next up we have MoDo, writing from Port Monmouth, NJ:

There’s nothing more amusing than a bully forced to be on his best behavior.

Chris Christie may be cutting back on his butter, but it wouldn’t melt in his mouth at a town hall here Thursday.

For the first time since his revving ambition stalled in a traffic jam, he returned to the forum that helped vault him to the head of the pack.

The New Jersey governor, depicted in The New Republic as Tony Soprano in his underwear getting his paper from the driveway, toned down his tough-guy Jersey act.

The fist-pumping and finger-jabbing were gone at his 110th town hall. As were the swagger, flashes of temper and glossy self-promotional videos. The chastened governor didn’t call anyone a “jerk,” an “idiot” or “stupid.” He even let one guy grab back the microphone that he had confiscated when the question went on too long.

Christie pitched his voice in a warm, helpful tone and, in an instamacy Instagram moment, took a knee to high-five a 3-year-old named Nicole Mariano who keened that Sandy broke her house.

He stayed dispassionate even on the most passionate topic. When a military veteran named Joe Williams urged him to destroy his Springsteen CDs — given the Boss’s tart parody of Christie’s bridge woes with Jimmy Fallon — the governor smiled and said he had the rocker on his iPhone.

Noting that he had been to 132 Springsteen concerts, he said rather wistfully, “Hey, listen, I don’t do drugs. I don’t drink. This is it for me, O.K.? It’s all I got. I still live in hope that someday, even as he gets older and older, he’s gonna wake up and go like, ‘Yeah, he’s all right. He’s a good guy. It’s all right. We can be friends.’ ”

The governor’s exit music was Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own.”

I tend to agree with Bill Maher that Christie is “350 pounds of toast,” and that he should have run for president in 2012 when he had “that new candidate smell” because “the longer you stay in the more likely some bad thing will stick to you.”

Many Republicans on Capitol Hill, already fed up with Christie’s grandstanding on Sandy and his election-eve embrace of President Obama, are casting about for a different presidential contender. The newly constrained Christie is taking a pass on dinner at the White House this Sunday, the better to avoid another photo op with the president.

Americans are so disgusted by political polarization that the minute Christie hugged Obama, he seemed like a white knight.

But in The New Republic, Alec MacGillis argues that the image of Christie as an independent bull in a china shop was never accurate. MacGillis’s reporting shows that Christie worked within the state’s political machinery at the same time as he was setting himself against it — that his strategy all along was to use his power as a corruption-busting prosecutor to bring down many Democratic officials, even as he cultivated bonds with the Democratic bosses left standing, with their influence enhanced.

As long as there’s no smoking traffic cone, there’s always the possibility that Christie can muster enough of the old bonhomie and bombast to clamber back to a rarefied perch as a presidential front-runner. His millionaire pals are sticking to him for the moment, and he can keep his new position as chairman of the Republican Governors Association as long as he continues to rake in the dough for the group, no matter how low-key he gets.

To start his comeback, Christie chose a safely red pocket nestled on Sandy Hook Bay in this blue state.

And the Jersey residents obliged over the nearly two-hour session by not taking “the governor of New Jersey out for a walk,” as Christie calls being confrontational. Questioners stayed mostly on Sandy recovery, tossing out some compliments, and never once directly mentioned the pesky matter of the vindictive lane closures and vivisection of staff.

If you ignored Elizabeth Brady, a Rutgers student and intern for the Monmouth County Democrats, who was outside holding a sign that read “Bruce Springsteen hates you!” and just surveyed the crowd lost in their own issues in the VFW hall, it reminded you of Iowa. And that felt like the point of the exercise, as all the national press swarmed in to see if Christie could escape the house falling on him and resume skipping down the yellow brick road to Iowa.

The governor was a beneficiary of America’s desperate hunger for genuine leadership. You can blame Obama for the Christie tulip craze. The president has been so wan, he confused people into thinking that bluster was clarity. In a climate with no leadership, the bully looks like a man. If you’ve only been drinking water, Red Bull tastes like whiskey.

Obama’s ethereal insipidity made Christie’s meaty pugilism attractive; Obama’s insistence on the cerebral made voters long for the visceral, even the gracelessly visceral.

George W. Bush was the Decider who engaged in thoughtless action. So America veered toward Obama, who engaged in thoughtful inaction. Then they careered toward Christie, another practitioner of thoughtless action.

When all you have is leading from behind, there’s a place in your heart for in-your-face.

“V” from Los Angeles had this to say about MoDo’s efforts today:  “Only you, Maureen Dowd, can take a column denigrating Christie and turn it into a column denigrating Obama and his “ethereal insipidity?” Well, you, and David Brooks, and Ross Douthat.”  And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

Last June, in an interview with Adam Bryant of The Times, Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google — i.e., the guy in charge of hiring for one of the world’s most successful companies — noted that Google had determined that “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.” He also noted that the “proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time” — now as high as 14 percent on some teams. At a time when many people are asking, “How’s my kid gonna get a job?” I thought it would be useful to visit Google and hear how Bock would answer.

Don’t get him wrong, Bock begins, “Good grades certainly don’t hurt.” Many jobs at Google require math, computing and coding skills, so if your good grades truly reflect skills in those areas that you can apply, it would be an advantage. But Google has its eyes on much more.

“There are five hiring attributes we have across the company,” explained Bock. “If it’s a technical role, we assess your coding ability, and half the roles in the company are technical roles. For every job, though, the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information. We assess that using structured behavioral interviews that we validate to make sure they’re predictive.”

The second, he added, “is leadership — in particular emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership. Traditional leadership is, were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there? We don’t care. What we care about is, when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.”

What else? Humility and ownership. “It’s feeling the sense of responsibility, the sense of ownership, to step in,” he said, to try to solve any problem — and the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others. “Your end goal,” explained Bock, “is what can we do together to problem-solve. I’ve contributed my piece, and then I step back.”

And it is not just humility in creating space for others to contribute, says Bock, it’s “intellectual humility. Without humility, you are unable to learn.” It is why research shows that many graduates from hotshot business schools plateau. “Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure,” said Bock.

“They, instead, commit the fundamental attribution error, which is if something good happens, it’s because I’m a genius. If something bad happens, it’s because someone’s an idiot or I didn’t get the resources or the market moved. … What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’ ” You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time.

The least important attribute they look for is “expertise.” Said Bock: “If you take somebody who has high cognitive ability, is innately curious, willing to learn and has emergent leadership skills, and you hire them as an H.R. person or finance person, and they have no content knowledge, and you compare them with someone who’s been doing just one thing and is a world expert, the expert will go: ‘I’ve seen this 100 times before; here’s what you do.’ ” Most of the time the nonexpert will come up with the same answer, added Bock, “because most of the time it’s not that hard.” Sure, once in a while they will mess it up, he said, but once in a while they’ll also come up with an answer that is totally new. And there is huge value in that.

To sum up Bock’s approach to hiring: Talent can come in so many different forms and be built in so many nontraditional ways today, hiring officers have to be alive to every one — besides brand-name colleges. Because “when you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people.” Too many colleges, he added, “don’t deliver on what they promise. You generate a ton of debt, you don’t learn the most useful things for your life. It’s [just] an extended adolescence.”

Google attracts so much talent it can afford to look beyond traditional metrics, like G.P.A. For most young people, though, going to college and doing well is still the best way to master the tools needed for many careers. But Bock is saying something important to them, too: Beware. Your degree is not a proxy for your ability to do any job. The world only cares about — and pays off on — what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it). And in an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, it also cares about a lot of soft skills — leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. This will be true no matter where you go to work.

“MetroJournalist” from the NY Metro Area has this to say:  “With all due respect, Mr. Friedman, this is the sort of babble that all executives like to spew. It doesn’t really mean anything.”  Last but not least we have Mr. Kristof, writing from Point Pleasant, WV:

Johnny Weethee, a beautiful and beaming child who at the age of 3 still struggles to speak, encapsulates the shortcomings of our approach to poverty.

As an infant, Johnny was deaf but no one noticed or got him the timely medical care he needed to restore his hearing. He lives in a trailer here in the hills of rural Appalachia with a mom who loves him and tries to support him but is also juggling bills, frozen pipes and a broken car that she can’t afford to fix.

“We weren’t aware of his hearing problems,” said his mother, Truffles Weethee. It was Save the Children, the aid group, that discovered Johnny’s deafness in a screening when he was 18 months old. That led to medical treatment that restored most of his hearing, but after such a long period of deafness in infancy, it’s unclear if he will fully recover his ability to communicate.

Johnny is a happy, friendly child, and it’s infuriating that lapses in infancy may hold him back for the rest of his life — but that’s often how disadvantage works.

One reason American antipoverty efforts over the last half-century haven’t been more effective is that they mostly treat symptoms, not causes. To put it another way, we don’t invest nearly enough in helping children in the first few years of life as their brains are developing. If we miss that window, then adult interventions like higher minimum wages can never be fully effective.

Almost one-fifth of children here in West Virginia are born with drugs or alcohol in their systems, one study found. Those kids may never reach their potential as a result.

What would make a difference? We need an integrated set of early interventions, starting with family planning to help women and girls avoid unwanted pregnancy (four out of five births to teenagers are unplanned or unwanted). We need outreach efforts to help pregnant women curb use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco, as well as free at-home help for new moms who want to breast-feed.

Let’s push for home visitation programs that encourage parents to speak to children and read to them; many low-income homes don’t have a single kid’s book. We also need initiatives to reduce exposure to lead and other toxins. Finally, how about screenings for problems like hearing and visual impairment — all followed by a good prekindergarten.

Rigorous evidence suggests that these kinds of interventions save money because the costs of failure are so great. Yet most kids don’t get such help.

Johnny’s deafness may have been congenital. But there are also preventable causes of hearing loss. Most low-income moms here would like to breast-feed, but only one-third do so — partly because there is no free help available when they run into troubles, according to Tonya Bonecutter, a local Save the Children caseworker. Research suggests that formula-fed babies are 70 percent more likely to get ear infections, and that’s a special concern for low-income families with only haphazard access to medical care.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, a Columbia University professor who is president of the Children’s Health Fund, notes that untreated ear infections can lead to deafness. This comes on top of a well-known finding that low-income children hear 30 million fewer words by the age of 3 than the children of professionals.

“Poor kids are already at a disadvantage,” Dr. Redlener said. “Add chronic, untreated ear infections and you have extreme risk of insufficient language development — inevitably leading to increased rates of learning challenges and school failure.”

Dr. Redlener says that all young children should have a primary care physician who screens them for eight barriers to learning: vision problems, hearing deficits, undertreated asthma, anemia, dental pain, hunger, lead exposure and behavioral problems.

Poverty isn’t just a lack of money, but sometimes a complex web of challenges that keep children from ever reaching the starting line. One home I visited was a trailer jammed with eight people, and some nights it has double that. None of the adults has a job, and most are former drug addicts or alcoholics whose addictions began when they were children. Two are convicted felons, which makes job-hunting difficult. Several dropped out of school. Only one can drive.

They have lofty dreams for their children, but those kids face struggles that middle-class children don’t. Breaking the cycle of poverty means helping those kids get a solid start.

Johnny’s fortunes were transformed by the screening, and now that he can hear again he’s trying to speak. I watched him attend his first day of preschool. Johnny dashed around the classroom, giddily playing with toys and books, trying to repeat words. He beamed.

Let’s broaden the conversation about opportunity, to build not just safety nets for those who stumble but also to help all American kids achieve lift-off.

Dowd and Friedman

February 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Backwards constructs he the sentences, boggles the mind until…

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

February 16, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has given us a fine whine today.  In “Parental Pity Party” he sniffles that first comes the baby, and then all the whining starts about how impossible it all is.  “Dana Lawrence” from Davenport, LA had this to say:  “Don’t worry, Mr. Douthat. You were a whiner long before the baby arrived.”  MoDo is in Paris.  In “Marry First, Then Cheat” she says in France, it’s O.K. to cheat if you’re married, but not if you’re single.  The Moustache of Wisdom is back on his regular “let’s all of you be entrepreneurs” kick.  In “Start-Up America: Our Best Hope” he says the contrast between the vibe in Silicon Valley and the obstruction in Washington is quite telling.  Mr. Kristof says “Professors, We Need You!”  He says academics are some of the smartest minds in the world, and then asks a question:   So why are they making themselves irrelevant?  Mr. Bruni says “Let Our Lawmakers Hide!”  He wants us to behold the costume party that is Congress, where members wear faces at odds with their souls.  Here, unfortunately, is the Putz:

When I became a father, I expected to change in all the predictable ways — to become more responsible and more exhausted, to lose contact with friends and lean more heavily on relatives, to grow steadily balder of head and softer of belly.

What I didn’t expect is that parenthood would make me such a whiner.

I’m not sure I’ve contributed personally to the Internet’s ever-expanding Book of Parental Lamentations — what Ruth Graham, writing for Slate, calls the “endless stream of blog posts and status updates depicting the messy, tedious, nightmarishly life-destroying aspects of parenting.” But in private conversation, I’m often the sort of parent Graham complains is scaring her away from motherhood — all too eager to Tell It Like It Really Is, and enumerate all the horrible aspects of the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me.

Coming from the financially secure and happily married, this whining can feel unseemly, self-indulgent and unfair to one’s kids. In my own case, it’s also philosophically problematic, since a Catholic columnist should presumably be trying to talk his acquaintances into having as many kids as possible.

But a not-so-quiet desperation can seem pervasive among parents, and it’s worth trying to understand why.

Fortunately, Jennifer Senior’s new book, “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” is an excellent primer on possible explanations for the great parental pity party. It ranges across the problems with family policy in the United States (basically, we don’t have one), the changing role of children (who went, she notes, “from being our employees to our bosses”), the unsettling of gender roles, the “having it all” stresses inherent in the maternal quest for work-life balance, and the way economic uncertainty and technological change make it hard for parents to figure out what kind of world they’re supposed to be preparing their children for.

But Senior’s most insightful emphasis, I think, is on the gap that’s opened — thanks to our society’s extraordinary wealth and libertarian social ethic — between the lifestyles and choices available to nonparents and the irreducible burdens still involved in raising children.

As she puts it, parenthood is “the last binding obligation in a culture that asks for almost no other permanent commitments at all.” In this sense, it isn’t necessarily that family life has changed that dramatically in the last few generations. Rather, it’s stayed the same in crucial ways — because babies still need what babies need — while outside the domestic sphere there’s been an expansion of opportunities, a proliferation of choices and entertainments and immediately available gratifications, that make child rearing seem much more burdensome by comparison.

This has two consequences for young, reasonably affluent Americans. First, it creates an understandable reluctance to give up the pleasures of extended brunches and long happy hours, late nights and weekend getaways, endless hours playing Grand Theft Auto or binge-watching “New Girl.” Second, it inspires a ferocious shock when a child arrives and that oh-so-modern lifestyle gives way to challenges that seem almost medieval, and duties that seem impossibly absolute. And the longer the arrival is delayed, the greater that shock — because “postponing children,” Senior points out, can make parents “far more aware of the freedoms they’re giving up.”

“Welcome,” a colleague emailed me after our first daughter was born, “to unavoidable reality.” Which is exactly right: In parts of American society, death and children’s diapers are the only unavoidable realities left.

Unless, of course, you avoid the diapers by avoiding the children altogether, as the developed world’s inhabitants are increasingly inclined to do.

In an earlier column, I described this retreat from childbearing as (in part) a symptom of cultural decadence, in which modern comforts crowd out intergenerational obligations. This idea was not well received by many readers, but I think it’s actually the unacknowledged worldview behind a lot of the parental griping you find online and elsewhere: The “look how impossible my life has become since I had kids” genre is a way of passing judgment, not all that subtly, on people who have opted out of the parental mission altogether.

And though I agree with the implicit message — that parenting is tough, necessary and praiseworthy — a brag disguised as a whine about your own un-decadent hardships is probably not the best way to hold decadence at bay. Better for parents to be cheerful warriors, to emphasize the joy rather than the misery, while also extending tolerance and understanding — rather than judgment infused with envy — to friends and neighbors who choose a different path.

Which is what I pledge to do from here on out. Enjoy your lingering brunches, my childless friends, and I’ll enjoy my rushed meals and puree-stained fingers. Dirty diapers for me, dirty martinis for thee! Let peace and tolerance prevail!

And no, of course my angels had nothing whatsoever to do with that stain on your favorite sweater.

It must be béarnaise sauce.

The idea that he’s spawned is horrifying…  Next up we have MoDo, frolicking in Paris:

Only the French could have an etiquette scandal.

Let Americans get in a lather over peccadillos of state. The French are lamenting the state of propriety. No one in the land of Napoleon is following the code. And it is putting the citoyens of this once luminous empire in a dark mood. They are less concerned about their president’s slamming-door farcical adventures in amour than they are about the blow to their amour-propre. They fret that their image is more Feydeau than Rousseau.

On this Saint-Valentin weekend, as people join un kiss flash mob at the Louvre, we face another Gallic paradox, like the one about red wine and foie gras keeping you thin.

“The whole problem with this Hollande scandal is that he is not married,” says Jean-Marie Rouart, the French novelist. “Had he been married, this affair would never have been revealed.”

He observed that, as an “elected monarch,” the president has to maintain appearances. “In France, having a mistress is not considered cheating,” he says. “We are not a puritanical country. France is Catholic. We accept sin and forgiveness.”

It’s bad enough to hide under a helmet and dismiss your security and go incognito on an Italian scooter to have a tryst in an apartment that is a stone’s throw from the Élysée Palace and has some tenuous connection to the Corsican Mafia. But everyone here except François Hollande seems to agree: You do not install one mistress at the Élysée when you have another mistress. That is simply bad form.

Why should the tabloids stick to the rule of the French press to ignore the private lives of presidents if Hollande breaks the rule of French presidents to lead an “exemplary” public life, which means having a real wife to cheat on?

Many now suspect the 59-year-old Hollande, a.k.a. The Living Marshmallow, allowed Mistress No. 1, beautiful 48-year-old Paris Match writer Valérie Trierweiler, to play the role of first concubine to distract her from his affair with Mistress No. 2, gorgeous 41-year-old actress Julie Gayet. Gayet is a committed Socialist who worked on Hollande’s campaign, making kittenish support videos and sporting an “I only date Super Heroes” T-shirt.

To assuage Trierweiler for being dubbed “a concubine” in the press, the Rottweiler — as she’s known for her aggressive moves in person and on Twitter — got Élysée offices, a staff of four and a monthly budget of $27,000.

But that created some mal de mer among the French, even before the White House had to destroy all its invitations with Valerie’s name when she squared off with her rival, went to the hospital with a case of “the blues,” and was dumped by Hollande in a terse press “communiqué” two weeks before his visit to Washington.

“The concept of the first lady doesn’t exist in France, and even less the first mistress,” sniffed Olivier de Rohan, a vicomte and head of a foundation that protects French art. “The protocol in France is very strict. It is not a question of choice or pleasure. The wife of the president of the republic was always seated as the wife, never paraded as the first lady. I don’t care with whom Hollande sleeps. But the whole thing is totally ridiculous, the head of a great state exhibiting mistresses, one after the other.”

Or as one French journalist murmured, “All this, in the place where de Gaulle was.”

Over good wine and small portions across Paris, there was appalled discussion that Stephen Colbert, who had filleted Hollande’s shenanigans on his show, was seated to the right of Michelle Obama at the state dinner, in the magic circle with the president where Trierweiler would have been, had she not been trundled off to the love guillotine.

“In France, it would be extremely rude to do that,” Rohan said about Colbert. “The Americans have no protocol.”

Before the dinner, Colbert joked that if the first lady were just the last person you slept with, America’s would have been Monica Lewinsky in 1998. He later crowed about the significance of his placement, yelling “I’m the first lady of France! Merci!” as he was showered with roses. His project, he said, would be “bringing Jean Valjean to justice.”

The nation that once worshipped Jerry Lewis was flummoxed by this “terrible faux pas,” as it was dubbed. (Even though Colbert shares a name with a top adviser to Louis XIV, many harbor dark suspicions that he’s Irish.) They wondered how a late-night comic outranked Christine Lagarde, a possible contender to succeed Hollande? Why were more French luminaries not invited? Why did Mary J. Blige sing for Hollande “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” a famous Jacques Brel chanson begging a lover not to leave?

Did Michelle, Le Point snarked, think she was providing Colbert with “fresh material” for another searing sketch?

The French have spent centuries making fun of us for our puritanism, and now they feel the unbearable sting of our mockery, as our press and comedians chortle at a mediocre pol caught up in a melodrama with all the erotic charge of week-old Camembert. (Maybe that’s why the French got so swept up in the ridiculous but glamorous rumor about Obama and Beyoncé.)

All those French expressions we siphon because English isn’t nuanced enough — finesse, etiquette, savoir-faire, rendezvous, je ne sais quoi, comme il faut — Hollande flouted.

In the minds of many here, the French president is a loser because he’s so unrefined he might as well be American.

She’s such a bitch…  Next up we’re faced with The Moustache of Wisdom. who’s in Palo Alto:

The most striking thing about visiting Silicon Valley these days is how many creative ideas you can hear in just 48 hours.

Jeff Weiner, the chief executive of LinkedIn, explains how his company aims to build an economic graph that will link together the whole global work force with every job being offered in the world, full-time and temporary, for-profit and volunteer, the skills needed for each job, and a presence for every higher education institution everywhere offering a way to acquire those skills.

Aaron Levie, the chief executive of Box, explains how his online storage and collaboration technology is enabling anyone on any mobile device to securely upload files, collaborate, and share content from anywhere to anywhere. Laszlo Bock, who oversees all hiring at Google, lays out the innovative ways his company has learned to identify talented people who have never gone to college. Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb, explains how his start-up has, in the blink of an eye, become one of the biggest providers of overnight rooms in the world — challenging Hilton and Marriott — without owning a single room. Curt Carlson, the chief executive of SRI International, which invented Siri for your iPhone, recalls how one leading innovator just told him that something would never happen and “then I pick up the paper and it just did.”

What they all have in common is they wake up every day and ask: “What are the biggest trends in the world, and how do I best invent/reinvent my business to thrive from them?” They’re fixated on creating abundance, not redividing scarcity, and they respect no limits on imagination. No idea here is “off the table.”

Then, after you’ve been totally energized by people inventing the future, you go back to your hotel room and catch up with the present: the news from Washington. Two headlines stand out like flashing red lights: House Speaker John Boehner says immigration reform in 2014 is off the table and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says the “fast track” legislation we need to pass vital free-trade agreements with the European Union and some of our biggest trading partners in the Asia-Pacific region is off the table. Forget about both until after the 2014 midterm elections, if not 2016.

Summing this all up, The Associated Press reported on Feb. 9 something that you could not make up: “WASHINGTON (AP) — Little more than a week after Groundhog Day, the evidence is mounting that lawmakers have all but wrapped up their most consequential work of 2014, at least until the results of the fall elections are known.”

What a contrast. Silicon Valley: where ideas come to launch. Washington, D.C., where ideas go to die. Silicon Valley: where there are no limits on your imagination and failure in the service of experimentation is a virtue. Washington: where the “imagination” to try something new is now a treatable mental illness covered by Obamacare and failure in the service of experimentation is a crime. Silicon Valley: smart as we can be. Washington: dumb as we wanna be.

True, some libertarians in Silicon Valley cheer Washington’s paralysis. But it is not so simple. There is a certain “league minimum” that we need and are entitled to expect from Washington, especially today. America just discovered huge deposits of energy and gold at the same time. That is, thanks to advances in drilling technology we have unlocked vast new sources of natural gas, which — if extracted with environmentally sound practices — will give us decades of cheap, cleaner energy and enable America to restore itself as a center of manufacturing.

At the same time, the dominance of American companies in cloud computing, and the “Internet of Things” — billions of devices with sensors — have given us a huge lead in the era of Big Data, where the winners will be those who are best at amassing, analyzing and protecting that data and use software to quickly apply what they learn from the data to improve any product or service. These data mountains and the tools to exploit them are the new gold. And we’ve got it.

In such an era, one of the two most valuable things Washington can do to create more good jobs and wealth is to open more export markets. The other is to have an immigration policy that not only provides a legal pathway to citizenship for those here illegally but enables America to attract the best brainpower and apply that talent to the data mountains and software opportunities we’re creating.

But Washington these days won’t even do the league minimum. As The Economist observed in an essay entitled “When Harry Mugged Barry,” both the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with big Asian markets like Japan, which is almost done, and the U.S.-European Union trade deal, which is being negotiated, are “next generation” agreements that even the playing field for us by requiring higher environmental and labor standards from our trading partners and more access for our software and services.

“Studies suggest that proposed deals with Asia and Europe could generate global gains of $600 billion a year, with $200 billion of that going to America,” The Economist added. “And that understates the benefits, since the deals would spur competition in the market for services, which make up most of rich countries’ output but are seldom traded across borders. Opening industries like finance and transport to greater competition could bring great savings to consumers.”

The U.S. trade representative, Michael Froman, told me that if we’re able to conclude these two trade deals, America would have free trade with “two-thirds of the world.” If you combine that with our lead in cloud computing, social media, software and natural gas for low-cost manufacturing — plus our rule of law and entrepreneurial cultural — you understand, says Froman, why one European C.E.O. told him that America will be the “production platform of choice” for manufacturers all over the world to set up their operations and export to the world.

But it will all have to wait at least until after 2014 when we might have a week to legislate before we get ready for 2016. God forbid either party should challenge their respective bases who oppose freer trade or immigration. That would actually require leadership.

We cannot and should not abolish politics, but sometimes we can’t afford politics as usual. And this time, with rising inequality, is one of them. We need to be doing everything we know how to do to create good jobs and growth. “When your mind-set isn’t about creating abundance,” says Carlson of SRI, “you go into extractive mode, which is a death spiral.”

Start-up America is our best hope. Sure, we’re doing better than most everyone else, but just being the “cleanest dirty shirt” has never been the American dream.

Here’s what “MetroJournalist” in the NY area had to say about that:  “Here we go again. Start a new company. Have Thomas Friedman shill for it. Wash. Rinse. Spin. Repeat.”  Now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.

One reason is the anti-intellectualism in American life, the kind that led Rick Santorum to scold President Obama as “a snob” for wanting more kids to go to college, or that led congressional Republicans to denounce spending on social science research. Yet it’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves.

“All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public,” notes Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and now the president of the New America Foundation.

There are plenty of exceptions, of course, including in economics, history and some sciences, in professional schools like law and business, and, above all, in schools of public policy; for that matter, we have a law professor in the White House. But, over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

The latest attempt by academia to wall itself off from the world came when the executive council of the prestigious International Studies Association proposed that its publication editors be barred from having personal blogs. The association might as well scream: We want our scholars to be less influential!

A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.

Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian who writes for The New Yorker and is an exception to everything said here, noted the result: “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.”

As experiments, scholars have periodically submitted meaningless gibberish to scholarly journals — only to have the nonsense respectfully published.

My onetime love, political science, is a particular offender and seems to be trying, in terms of practical impact, to commit suicide.

“Political science Ph.D.’s often aren’t prepared to do real-world analysis,” says Ian Bremmer, a Stanford political science Ph.D. who runs the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, one-fifth of articles in The American Political Science Review focused on policy prescriptions; at last count, the share was down to 0.3 percent.

Universities have retreated from area studies, so we have specialists in international theory who know little that is practical about the world. After the Arab Spring, a study by the Stimson Center looked back at whether various sectors had foreseen the possibility of upheavals. It found that scholars were among the most oblivious — partly because they relied upon quantitative models or theoretical constructs that had been useless in predicting unrest.

Many academic disciplines also reduce their influence by neglecting political diversity. Sociology, for example, should be central to so many national issues, but it is so dominated by the left that it is instinctively dismissed by the right.

In contrast, economics is a rare academic field with a significant Republican presence, and that helps tether economic debates to real-world debates. That may be one reason, along with empiricism and rigor, why economists (including my colleague in columny, Paul Krugman) shape debates on issues from health care to education.

Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook. Likewise, it was TED Talks by nonscholars that made lectures fun to watch (but I owe a shout-out to the Teaching Company’s lectures, which have enlivened our family’s car rides).

I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!

Well, at least we have Prof. Krugman, the voice crying in the wilderness.  And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

An idea for the Senate: brown paper bags. You know, the kind in which you cut little holes for your eyes and your nose and a bigger, wider hole for your mouth. Senators could wear these in the chamber, so that the C-Span cameras and the outside world wouldn’t know precisely who’s supporting what. Or maybe ski masks, though those wreak havoc on hairdos. Alternately, the lawmakers could communicate in code: anything to obscure their actions and make it easier for them to actually cast votes in line with their best judgment and consciences. Oh, you thought they always did that? Well then I won’t spill the beans on Santa or the Easter bunny, either.

Last week was a doozy, and not in the usual way. The nation didn’t lurch toward another cliff; the suffixes -geddon and -pocalypse didn’t come out to play; the air didn’t grow thick with dire “s” words like stalemate, standoff and the direst of all, shutdown. No, last week ended with Congress’s having steered clear of disaster by passing a measure to lift the debt ceiling. Congress functioned, more or less. And yet — here’s the clincher — it looked as ugly as usual, if not uglier.

At issue was the way it functioned, a dysfunction of its own. Over in the House, Republican leaders brought the lifting of the debt ceiling to a vote so that they and a smattering of their party colleagues could pass the measure with the help of nearly all of the Democrats. You might naïvely wonder how this wouldn’t estrange the leaders from their caucus. But you’d be failing to take into account that many members of that caucus wanted the measure to succeed, recognizing that this was in the nation’s interest, but wanted at the same time to vote no, so as not to draw attacks from party extremists. In Congress, this isn’t considered a contradiction. It’s not even considered undignified. It’s considered canny self-preservation. (You serve, above all, to get re-elected.) The phenomenon is common enough that in a recent story in The Times, my colleagues Ashley Parker and Jonathan Weisman assigned it a name: Vote No, Hope Yes.

In a given chamber of Congress, the majority party usually takes responsibility for raising the debt ceiling, while the minority is permitted to balk and rail theatrically about wanton government spending. In fact Barack Obama did such balking and railing when he was in the Democratic minority of the Senate. Now Democrats run the show there, and they were poised to provide the necessary support to get the ceiling lifted. But the inimitable and irrepressible Ted Cruz insisted on a 60-vote threshold to allow the measure to be taken up, and getting past this hurdle required at least five Republicans to side with Democrats.

If the Republicans in the Senate had really cared to doom the measure, this was their big chance. But their true and ardent desire was to appear adamantly opposed without being so, and thus to appease party loudmouths without actually letting those loudmouths get their way.

This was where the brown paper bags would have come in very handy, because to avoid a filibuster and let the measure ultimately succeed, some Republicans had to step up and actually cast a vote in favor of its consideration. Their solution: to conduct this first, procedural vote in silence — an extremely rare and exceedingly curious thing — so that it wasn’t immediately clear to observers which Republicans were effectively helping to make sure the debt ceiling got raised. The theory, presumably, was that by the time it did become clear, those same Republicans would have proceeded to cast a subsequent “no” vote against the raise itself, whose passage required only the simple majority of votes that Democrats alone could provide.

The world’s greatest deliberative body at work! Make sure the children are watching! Inspiring civic lessons for all!

This isn’t just about the debt ceiling. On too many other fronts, the gulf between how lawmakers know they should behave and what they have the political courage to do is painfully wide. This has happened with Hurricane Sandy relief, with the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, with budgetary matters.

The week before last, immigration reform fell apart, and not because of the number of lawmakers who think it’s a horrid idea, but because of the number who think it’s probably a good idea but don’t want to commit to that and confront any blowback.

And last week the Senate, in a 95-3 vote, and the House, by a 326-90 margin, reversed a portion of a budget agreement that would have limited cost-of-living increases in many military veterans’ pensions to 1 percent below the rate of inflation.

Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator and a veteran, told me that the limit, which the Pentagon endorsed, was utterly reasonable and absolutely necessary, and he assured me that most lawmakers knew this. But they worried that if they stood by that conviction, veterans groups would succeed in branding them enemies of the nation’s heroes.

“It’s all about inoculating yourself against the sound bite,” he said. “And now it’s more than a sound bite. It’s also what’s trending on Twitter.” Most lawmakers, he added, believe that the failure to rein in Medicare and Social Security represents a serious threat to the country’s future, but they’re too politically timid to reflect that in their votes.

SUCH cowardice and self-interest aren’t new. But certain wrinkles are. Kerrey mentioned Twitter and, indeed, complaints and catcalls circulate with unprecedented efficiency and reach. It’s quicker for interest groups and opponents to fasten targets on lawmakers’ backs. It’s easier to rouse the rabble.

“With the ability to use computers, it’s worsened,” Mike Castle, a Delaware Republican who served in the House for nearly two decades, said. He added that websites and social media, not to mention cable TV and talk radio, have turned the political atmosphere more broadly and instantaneously caustic. “You have that constant carping. It has made Congress a more difficult place to achieve the greater good.”

Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University, noted that in the past, some votes in Congress wouldn’t even be recorded by individual lawmakers’ names. There was also more hidden back-room dealing. “That kind of insularity allowed legislators to take positions that might not be politically great but were the right thing to do,” he said.

I asked Kerrey: Do the politicians who frequently buck their own consciences at least feel misgivings about that? Struggle with it?

“Now you’re presuming that they’re in contact with their consciences on a regular basis,” he said. “I haven’t actually met many human beings who are. That’s a tough transaction: looking out for your conscience.”

Here’s what “mancuroc” from Rochester, NY had to say:  “A better idea for the Senate (and the House): compulsory uniforms bearing the logos each of their top twenty direct and indirect contributors, whether they be corporations, superpacs, lobby groups or just plain folks who happen to be billionaires.”  Amen.

Friedman, solo

February 12, 2014

MoDo is off today, so we have The Moustache of Wisdom flying solo.  In “Israel’s Big Question” he says as Secretary of State John Kerry readies his framework for peace, there is some soul-searching to do.  Here he is:

I’ve written a series of columns from Israel in the past two weeks because I believe that if Secretary of State John Kerry brings his peace mission to a head and presents the parties with a clear framework for an agreement, Israel and the Jewish people will face one of the most critical choices in their history. And when they do, all hell could break loose in Israel. It is important to understand why.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not without reason, is asking the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the “nation state of the Jewish people,” confirming that if Israel cedes them a state in the West Bank, there will be two-states-for-two-peoples. But, for Netanyahu to get an answer to that question, he will have to give an answer to a question Israelis have been wrestling with, and avoiding, ever since the 1967 war reconnected them with the heartland of ancient Israel, in the West Bank, known to Jews as Judea and Samaria. And that is:

What is the nation state of the Jewish people?”

Kerry, by steadily making the answer to that question unavoidable, has set the whole Israeli political system into a roiling debate, with some ministers shrilly attacking Kerry and slamming Netanyahu for even putting the question on the table — as if the status quo were sustainable and just hunky-dory.

For instance, Kerry recently observed at a conference in Munich that if the current peace talks failed “there’s an increasing delegitimization campaign that’s been building up [against Israel]. People are very sensitive to it. There are talks of boycotts and other kinds of things.”

Some Israeli ministers and American Jewish leaders blasted Kerry for what they said was his trying to use the B.D.S. movement — “boycotts, divestment and sanctions” — as a club to pressure Israel into making more concessions. I strongly disagree. Kerry and President Obama are trying to build Israelis a secure off-ramp from the highway they’re hurtling down in the West Bank that only ends in some really bad places for Israel and the Jewish people.

I like the way Gidi Grinstein, the founder of the Reut Institute, a nonprofit that works on the thorniest problems of Israeli society, puts it: “We are in a critical moment in our history — far more significant than many realize.” Ever since 1936, “the Zionist movement has sought to establish a sovereign Jewish and democratic majority in Zion, and, therefore, eventually accepted the principle of two-states-for-two-peoples: a Jewish state and an Arab state.” Although there is a powerful settler movement in Israel that would like to absorb the West Bank today, the State of Israel has continued to tell the world and the Jewish people that, under the right security conditions, it would cede control of that occupied territory and its 2.5 million Palestinians and forge a two-state deal.

If Kerry’s mission fails — because either Israelis or Palestinians or both balk — he will either be tacitly or explicitly declaring that this two-state solution is no longer a viable option and “that would plunge Israel into a totally different paradigm,” said Grinstein, who recently authored the book “Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability.”

It would force Israel onto one of three bad paths: either a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank or annexation and granting the Palestinians there citizenship, making Israel a binational state. Or failing to do either, Israel by default could become some kind of apartheid-like state in permanent control over the 2.5 million Palestinians. There are no other options.

But what these three options have in common, noted Grinstein, is that they would lead to a “massive eruption of the B.D.S. movement” and “the B.D.S. movement at heart is not about Israel’s policies but Israel’s existence: they want to see Israel disappear. What is keeping the B.D.S. movement contained is that we’re still in the paradigm of the two-state solution.” If that paradigm goes, he added, not only will the B.D.S. movement launch with new momentum, but the line between it and those around the world who are truly just critical of Israel’s West Bank occupation will get blurred.

Furthermore, being the “nation state of the Jewish people,” means that the values of Israel cannot be sharply divergent from the values of the Jewish diaspora (the vast majority of American Jews vote liberal) or from the values of America — Israel’s only true ally. Added Grinstein: “If that happens, the relationship between Israel and America and American Jewry will inevitably become polarized.”

To avoid that, no one expects Israel to concede to whatever Palestinians demand or to accept insecure borders or to give Palestinians a free pass on their excesses. And Kerry is not asking that. Israel should bargain hard and protect its interests. “But Israel has to be seen as credibly committed to ending its control over the Palestinians in the West Bank,” concluded Grinstein, otherwise it won’t just have a problem with B.D.S., but eventually with America and a growing segment of American Jews  — “turning Israel from a force of unity for Jews to a force of disunity.”

So responding to the Kerry plan, when it comes, is about something very deep: What is the nation state of the Jewish people — and how will Jews abroad and Israel’s closest ally, America, relate to it in the future?

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

February 9, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has a question in “Leaving Work Behind:”  Are the effects of Obamacare on employment a sign of things to come?  “Gemli” from Boston had this to say in the comments:  “Douthat tries to intellectualize Republican antics as if they sincerely care about working people, but concern about worker dignity rings hollow when Republicans drive income inequality to extreme levels, weaken safety nets, cut unemployment benefits and kill food stamps.”  The Putz would also do well to read some Krugman.  MoDo also has a question in “Still Mad as Hell:”  What would Paddy Chayefsky say, now that the apocalyptic “Network” has come true a couple thousand times over?  This must be the day for questions, since The Moustache of Wisdom titled his column with one:  “Whose Garbage Is This Anyway?”  He says the Middle East peace process might benefit from a local eco-tour.  In “Inside a Mental Hospital Called Jail” Mr. Kristof says for some of the mentally ill, the only place to get medical treatment these days is behind bars.  Mr. Bruni considers “A Pope You Can Eat” and says Francis has sensed the world’s appetite for a sweeter kind of sermon.  Here’s the Putz:

In 1930, in the darkening valley of the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay on “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” which foresaw a much happier future — one of growth, abundance and the steady decline of full-time work. Eventually, he suggested, civilization might settle on a 15-hour workweek, with three hours of daily labor being sufficient “to satisfy the old Adam in most of us.”

Compared with its Depression-era baseline, much of Keynes’s optimistic vision was prophetic. But the universal 15-hour workweek is not exactly with us yet. Instead, a different trend seems to be emerging, in which well-educated professionals — inspired by rising pay and status-obsessed competition — often work longer hours than they did a few decades ago, while poorer Americans, especially poorer men, are increasingly disconnected from the labor force entirely. (That this trend coincides with widening inequality is not coincidental.)

When economists look ahead to the possibilities awaiting our grandchildren, they often see this divide widening even further, as the digital economy delivers rich rewards to certain kinds of highly educated talent, while revolutions in robotics eliminate many of today’s low-skilled, low-wage jobs.

This context is crucial to understanding the debate that erupted last week over Obamacare’s impact on work-force participation. The Congressional Budget Office had always predicted that the new health care law’s mix of direct benefits and indirect incentives would encourage some people to cut their hours or leave their jobs outright. But its latest report revised the estimate substantially upward, predicting that by 2021, the equivalent of 2.3 million full-time workers — most of them low-wage — could disappear from the American economy.

That big number prompted Republicans to recycle their predictions that the health care law would be a “job killer.” As liberals retorted, this is not exactly right: These would be working hours freely given up, not jobs lost in huge Obamacare-induced layoffs. Any health care reform worthy of the name would have some version of this effect: If you weaken the link between insurance and employment, workers will have one less reason to stay at a job they dislike. And it’s easy to envision cases where the ability to reduce one’s working hours would be an unmitigated good — for ailing near-retirees, for parents of young children.

At the same time, though, the design of Obamacare — Medicaid expansion, subsidies for comprehensive rather than catastrophic coverage, and then the way the subsidy disappears if you get a raise or take a higher-paying job — makes the work disincentive much more substantial than it would be under, say, a conservative alternative that offers everyone a flat credit to buy a catastrophic plan.

So the new law’s impact on work will be felt well beyond families juggling jobs and child care. One of the studies used to model the consequences of Obamacare, for instance, found a strong work disincentive while looking at a population of childless, able-bodied, mostly working-class adults — a demographic that’s already becoming more and more detached from steady, paying work.

And this is where liberalism has a very important choice to make. It’s possible to defend Obamacare’s overall goals while also recognizing its potentially perverse effects, and conceding that we should try to minimize the number of low-skilled workers exiting the labor market.

But it’s also possible to argue that as a rich, post-scarcity society, we shouldn’t really care that much about whether the poor choose to work. The important thing is just making sure they have a decent standard of living, full stop, and if they choose Keynesian leisure over a low-paying job, that’s their business.

There are hints of a division within the liberal mind on this issue. Across the left and center-left, there’s agreement that an unequal society requires a thicker social safety net, and that as technological changes undercut low-wage work, government should help those left behind.

But in the Obamacare debate and elsewhere, it’s not always clear whether this larger welfare state is supposed to promote a link between work, security and mobility, or to substitute for work’s gradual decline. On the left, there’s a growing tendency toward both pessimism and utopianism — with doubts about the compatibility of capitalism and democracy, and skepticism about the possibility for true equality of opportunity, feeding a renewed interest in 1970s-era ideas like a universal basic income.

On the conservative side, things are somewhat clearer. There are libertarians who like the basic income idea, but only as a substitute for the existing welfare state, not as a new expansion. Both “rugged individualist” right-wingers and more communitarian conservatives tend to see work as essential to dignity, mobility and social equality, and see its decline as something to be fiercely resisted.

The question is whether tomorrow’s liberals will be our allies in that fight.

Yeah, right.  We’re about to ally with the mole people.  Here’s MoDo:

I often wonder what Paddy would think.

I wish I could have a pastrami on wry with the late writer and satirist at the Carnegie Deli and get an exhilarating blast of truth about “the atomic, subatomic and galactic structure of things today.”

What would Paddy Chayefsky make of Kim Kardashian?

What would he think of Diane Sawyer showing cat videos on the ABC evening news?

What would he say about Brian Williams broadcasting on the Huntley-Brinkley network a video of a pig saving a baby goat while admitting he had no idea if it was phony? (It was.)

What would Paddy rant about the viral, often venomous world of the Internet, Twitter and cable news, where fake rage is all the rage all the time, bleeding over into a Congress that chooses antagonism over accomplishment, no over yes?

What would he think of ominous corporate “synergy” run amok, where “news” seamlessly blends into promotion, where it’s frighteningly easy for corporate commercial interests to dictate editorial content?

What would Paddy say about the Murdochization of the news, where a network slants its perspective because it sells and sells big?

What would he make of former Time Inc. Editor-in-Chief Norman Pearlstine returning in a new position as Time Inc.’s chief content officer, breaking the firewall between editorial and business as he works “with business and edit teams to drive the development of new content experiences and products throughout our portfolio that will fuel future revenue growth,” as C.E.O. Joe Ripp put it?

What would Paddy think of American corporations skipping out on taxes by earning nearly half of their profits in tax-haven countries?

What would he think of the unholy alliance between Internet giants like Google and Facebook and the U.S. national security apparatus?

Chayefsky’s dazzling satire “Network,” with its unforgettable mad prophet of the airwaves, Howard Beale, blossomed from the writer’s curdled feelings about TV. What wouldn’t the network suits do for ratings, he would ask lunch companions like Mel Brooks and Bob Fosse at the Carnegie Deli.

But now America runs on clicks. Chayefsky’s nightmare has been multiplied many times over, with the total media-ization and monetization of everything, the supremacy of ratings and market share, the commercialization of all editorial decisions.

Now that they’re armed with big data and science, corporate bosses are able to figure out how many people are watching which minute of which segment.

An analytics service called Chartbeat gives webmasters instantaneous access to those on the other side of the screen by providing real-time data on their mouse clicks, time spent reading or watching, and even their location.

In his fun upcoming book, “Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies,” Dave Itzkoff, a culture reporter at The Times, offers a vivid portrait of the charming and depressed curmudgeon.

Itzkoff has great anecdotes about Faye Dunaway’s prima donna paranoia about the most brilliant love-work sex scene in movie history. And he dishes up fun factoids, like how Howard Beale got his name from the mother-daughter duo, “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale, and how Peter Finch flubbed and added an extra “as” to one of the most famous lines in movie history, which Chayefsky wrote this way: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.”

The Bronx-born writer, who died of cancer in 1981, was bedraggled and “built like an office safe,” as the director Joshua Logan put it. He did exhaustive research into networks in New York, but then had to film the movie at a Toronto TV station once the American networks realized the piece was a Strangelovey dirge.

Chayefsky said his 1976 masterpiece was “a rage against the dehumanization of people” addicted to “boredom-killing” devices — a dehumanization that has gone to warp speed as we have entered the cloud. He said it was about “how to protect ourselves” from “the illusion we sell as truth.”

That illusion is ever more pervasive as people believe and spread wacky viral content like snow-covered Pyramids, a half-toilet in Sochi and a story about Samsung paying Apple a billion-dollar fine in nickels.

Chayefsky warned against “comicalizing the news,” noting “To make a gag out of the news is disreputable and extremely destructive.” But real news became so diminished that young people turned to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to learn about what was going on in the world.

Colbert told Itzkoff that “Network” is his favorite movie. Although Howard Beale is not an inspiration for his bombastic TV alter ego, Colbert said that the Beale character anticipated an attitude those types of broadcasters share, which is “I will tell you what to think.” Beale’s approach, the comic said, was more “quasi-benevolent,” as in “I’m going to remind you that you’re being anesthetized right now.”

If Paddy, who used to say “truth is truth,” could see how far beyond “Network” we’ve gone, he would not only be mad as hell. He’d be scared as hell.

Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Hebron, West Bank:

It was not your usual Holy Land tour, but surely one of the most revealing I’ve ever had. A team from Friends of the Earth Middle East took me around to see how waste, sewage and untreated water flow, or don’t, between Israel and the West Bank. I never realized how political garbage and dirty water could be, or how tracking it could reveal just why making peace here is so urgent.

For starters, who knew that when you flush the toilet in your hotel in the eastern half of Jerusalem the wastewater likely ends up in the Dead Sea — untreated? It flows from Jerusalem’s sewers into the Kidron Stream. If you can stand the stench, you can watch it all rush by about a mile east and downhill from Jerusalem. Germany offered to pay for a treatment plant, but for the past 20 years Israel and the Palestinian Authority have not been able to agree on how to split the treated water — which originates in both Jewish and Arab drains, so nothing has happened. As a result, Mother Nature alone does her best to filter it as it flows down to the Jordan Valley, where Jewish settlers use some of this poorly treated water to irrigate their date palms. The rest ends up in the Dead Sea. Good thing it’s already dead.

We’ve learned in the last few years that the colonial boundaries of the Middle East do not correspond to the ethnic, sectarian and tribal boundaries — and it is one reason that some Arab states are breaking up. But neither do the ecosystem boundaries correspond with any borders or walls. And the fact that Israelis and Palestinians have not been able to reach a power-sharing agreement that would enable them to treat the entire ecosystem here as a system is catching up with them.

When the region got hit in January 2013 with snow and rain from a freak and massive storm, the runoff was so powerful down the Alexander Stream, which flows from the Shomron Mountains near the West Bank town of Nablus into Israel, that it overflowed. So instead of going under the thick cement wall Israel has erected around the West Bank to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers, the flood blew away a whole chunk of that wall. Mother Nature laughs at our “green lines.”

Now consider what is going on in the Hebron Industrial Zone, home to 13 tanning factories, including the Al-Walied for Leather and Tanning Company, where hides are hanging everywhere from the ceiling and a single worker is putting them through a machine that squeezes out the moisture from the softening process.

The problem, explained Malek Abu al-Failat, from the Bethlehem office of Friends of the Earth Middle East, which brings Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians together on one team, is that the tanneries use chromium 3 to soften the hides and then let the effluence flow into the drains and down the Hebron Stream. That effluence exceeds 5,000 milligrams of chromium 3 per liter. The global safety standard is 5 milligrams! When the chromium 3 hits the water and oxygen, it becomes chromium 6, a known carcinogen. So, in 1998, the U.S. Agency for International Development built a treatment plant here that effectively extracts all the chromium 3 and recycles it. But, in 2005, Israel identified the sulfuric acid used in the recycling as a dual-use chemical that Palestinians could employ to make a bomb and banned its use by tanners. So the chromium 6 is now back in the water, which flows from Hebron to Beersheba, one of Israel’s largest cities, and then on to Gaza and out to sea, into waters used by Israel’s desalination plants.

We visited the Al-Minya Sanitary Landfill that was built with grants from the World Bank, European Union and USAID so Palestinians could close down 19 unauthorized and unsanitary dump sites around Bethlehem and Hebron. It was supposed to open in September, but, as I saw, its 65 acres were still pristine because the Israeli military told the Palestinian Authority that if the site didn’t also accept garbage from the Gush Etzion Jewish settlements it could not open, said Failat. Palestinians say it’s unfair that they lose their land to settlements and then have to accept their garbage.

Meanwhile, Gaza, which has been woefully mismanaged by Hamas, is pumping all its drinking water from its coastal aquifer at triple its renewable rate of recharge. As a result, saltwater is seeping in. Last year, the U.N. said that by 2016 there will be no potable water left in Gaza’s main aquifer. Gaza has no big desalination plant and would not have the electricity to run it anyway. I don’t want to be here when 1.5 million Gazans really get thirsty.

Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians actually have all the resources needed to take care of everyone, but only if they collaborate, explained Gidon Bromberg, co-founder of Friends of the Earth Middle East. Israel, which is the world leader in desalination and wastewater recycling, could use its own cheap natural gas and solar power generated in Jordan — where there is lots of sunny desert —  “to provide desalinated and recycled water for itself, Gaza, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.”

Everyone would win, which is why Bromberg suggests that Secretary of State John Kerry take Israeli and Palestinian negotiators on an eco-tour to see “the seeping time bomb that’s ticking underneath both of them.” It, too, will explode if they don’t forge a deal that enables them to live apart, but in a framework that also enables them to work together to protect the water, soil and air that they will always have in common and can only be preserved by acting in common.

When he’s done with that maybe Kerry can talk to the Republicans regarding regulations in this country so West Virginia’s water isn’t poisoned again…  And now we get to Mr. Kristof, writing from Chicago:

The largest mental health center in America is a huge compound here in Chicago, with thousands of people suffering from manias, psychoses and other disorders, all surrounded by high fences and barbed wire.

Just one thing: It’s a jail. The only way to get treatment is to be arrested.

Psychiatric disorders are the only kind of sickness that we as a society regularly respond to not with sympathy but with handcuffs and incarceration. And as more humane and cost-effective ways of treating mental illness have been cut back, we increasingly resort to the law-enforcement toolbox: jails and prisons.

More than half of prisoners in the United States have a mental health problem, according to a 2006 Justice Department study. Among female inmates, almost three-quarters have a mental disorder.

In the jail here, some prisoners sit on their beds all day long, lost in their delusions, oblivious to their surroundings, hearing voices, sometimes talking back to them. The first person to say that this system is barbaric is their jailer.

“It’s criminalizing mental illness,” the Cook County sheriff, Thomas Dart, told me as he showed me the jail, on a day when 60 percent of the jail’s intake reported that they had been diagnosed with mental illness. Dart says the system is abhorrent and senseless, as well as an astronomically expensive way to treat mental illness — but that he has no choice but to accept schizophrenic, bipolar, depressive and psychotic prisoners delivered by local police forces.

People are not officially incarcerated because of psychiatric ailments, but that’s the unintended effect. Sheriff Dart says that although some mentally ill people commit serious crimes, the great majority are brought in for offenses that flow from mental illness.

One 47-year-old man I spoke to, George, (I’m not permitted to use last names for legal reasons) is bipolar, hears voices and abuses drugs and alcohol. He said he had been arrested five times since October for petty offenses. The current offense is criminal trespass for refusing to leave a Laundromat.

The sheriff says such examples are common and asks: “How will we be viewed, 20, 30, 50 years from now? We’ll be looked on as the ones who locked up all the mentally ill people.

“It really is one of those things so rich with irony: The same society that abhorred the idea that we lock people up in mental hospitals, now we lock people up in jails.”

A few data snapshots:

• Nationwide in America, more than three times as many mentally ill people are housed in prisons and jails as in hospitals, according to a 2010 study by the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center.

• Mentally ill inmates are often preyed upon while incarcerated, or disciplined because of trouble following rules. They are much more likely than other prisoners, for example, to be injured in a fight in jail, the Justice Department says.

• Some 40 percent of people with serious mental illnesses have been arrested at some point in their lives.

In the 1800s, Dorothea Dix led a campaign against the imprisonment of the mentally ill, leading to far-reaching reforms and the establishment of mental hospitals. Now we as a society have, in effect, returned to the 1800s.

Among those jailed here is Russell, 46, who is being held for burglarizing a garage. He has been diagnosed with severe depression and said that he self-medicates with alcohol and drugs. Most of his adult life has been spent behind bars for one offense after another, and he said he became aware of his mental health problems when he was being clubbed by a thug with a baseball bat and realized that he was enjoying it.

“I just want to be normal,” he said as we spoke in a large dormitory room for inmates with psychiatric problems. “I want to have a job. I’ve never had a job. I want to be able to say hi to a co-worker.” He stopped, and there were tears in his eyes.

In 1955, there was one bed in a psychiatric ward for every 300 Americans; now there is one for every 3,000 Americans, the 2010 study said. So while more effective pharmacological treatments are theoretically available, they are often very difficult to access for people who are only borderline functional.

“Some people come here to get medication,” says Ardell Hall, a superintendent of a women’s unit at the jail. “They commit a crime to get in.”

India, a 42-year-old woman, suffers from manic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She said she tried at various times to get psychiatric care but found it almost impossible, so she self-medicates when on the outside with heroin — and has spent almost all of her adult life in jails and prisons on a succession of nonviolent offenses relating to drugs and shoplifting.

Taxpayers spend as much as $300 or $400 a day supporting patients with psychiatric disorders while they are in jail, partly because the mentally ill require medication and extra supervision and care.

“Fiscally, this is the stupidest thing I’ve seen government do,” Dart says. It would be far cheaper, he adds, to manage the mentally ill with a case worker on the outside than to spend such sums incarcerating them.

Cook County has implemented an exemplary system for mental health support for inmates. While in jail, they often stabilize. Then they are released, go off their medications and the cycle repeats.

One woman in the jail, Kristen, said she had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders. On the outside, her prescription medication cost $100 a month, so she skipped it.

“When I’m not on my medicine on a regular basis, I don’t make decisions well,” she said, explaining her long arrest record for theft and narcotics offenses. I asked her if access to medicine would keep her out of jail, and she said: “I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, to be totally honest. But it would help.”

As Sheriff Dart puts it: “We’ve systematically shut down all the mental health facilities, so the mentally ill have nowhere else to go. We’ve become the de facto mental health hospital.”

Do we really want to go back two centuries? Doesn’t that seem not only inhumane but also deluded — on our part?

And we end today’s festivities with Mr. Bruni:

The pope, a porn star and a parrot walk into a bar.

Well, almost. Their point of intersection just a week and a half ago was actually St. Peter’s Square, and “porn star” stretches things: The performer in question was reportedly a former male stripper who had graduated to racy movies and, this being Italy, was once head of his town council. Sounds like prime minister material to me. A chip off the old Silvio.

He brought the bird, named Amore, to meet the pope, meaning Francis, who was taking one of his routine spins among the flock in the popemobile. Amore caught Francis’ eye, perched briefly on one of his fingers and squawked what the crowd was chanting: “Papa!” Those syllables, I’d bet, were a big improvement over other utterances Amore has learned to mimic.

It’s amazing what you miss if you don’t stay on top of Vatican news these days.

Did you hear about the Harley? A gift to Francis that he put his signature on but apparently never used, the motorcycle was just auctioned off for more than $275,000.

Or his recent introduction to a life-size likeness of himself made out of chocolate? Pope Benedict XVI was known as “God’s Rottweiler.” Pope Francis has a dessert doppelgänger. That pretty much says it all.

It was Pope John Paul II who was often called a rock star, but it’s Francis who just landed on the cover of Rolling Stone, as if he were Jagger, Springsteen or Spears. Seeing him there was like finding Mitch McConnell scowling below the logo of Tiger Beat.

On my vague mental list of things that might someday come back into fashion, the papacy was never present. I used to cover it for The Times, from 2002 to 2004, and was convinced then that my beat wasn’t just a dying man — John Paul could barely walk and struggled to talk — but a dying institution, at least in the United States and much of Europe.

But the bevy of bulletins from Rome and the merry nature of so many of them suggest that people everywhere, even in the more godless precincts of the Western world, can’t get enough of this new pope and are committed to giving him the benefit of the doubt. The United Nations last week issued a blistering and wholly warranted report about the Roman Catholic Church’s coddling of sexually abusive priests and its evasion of full accountability, but in none of the news coverage was Francis put on the hot seat. There was this implicit notion that the mess predated and had little to do with him, which is ridiculous: He’s been a part of this institution for a long time, and if he’d been agitating for reform and full transparency all these years, he’d never have ascended to the top.

He’s no renegade. But he is the equivalent of a corporate turnaround artist or a political strategist who deftly breathes fresh life into a sputtering enterprise. I use those secular metaphors because his rehabilitation of the papacy has so much secular resonance and so many secular lessons.

Like this: If you’re going to define yourself in opposition to a predecessor whom many people had misgivings about, go all the way. Francis is the Bill de Blasio to Benedict’s Michael Bloomberg, doing a complete semiotic overhaul. Less investment in festive footwear, more in the washing of other people’s feet. He’s not telling priests to stop being priests, any more than de Blasio is telling the police to stop being the police. He’s just urging them to tamp down the brusqueness and bullying. No more theological stop-and-frisk.

He understands that tone trumps content — that it’s everything, really. The writer Damon Linker has contributed lively, intelligent pieces of commentary to the publications The Week and The New Republic that take Francis-fawning journalists to task for seeing a revolution that’s just not there. Linker asserts that the church, under this pope, has not in fact changed its teaching about homosexuality, the ordination of women, celibacy or any of that.

And he’s absolutely correct. But he gives short shrift to what a difference a smile and a shrug make. Francis, who has mastered both, may not be telling the church’s scolds that they have to relinquish their dogma, but his manner and diction are telling everyone else that he’s not going to harangue them — that it’s neither his inclination nor his place. And that’s huge. “Who am I to judge?” he said. This, from a pope, is like Streisand saying, “Who am I to sing?” It’s a bit of self-effacement that you never saw coming.

Francis has also grasped that timing is everything, a point proved by the reception to his recent apostolic exhortation about the corrosive effects of greed in the world. This statement was lauded as a bold, overdue enunciation of muffled Catholic principle, but his predecessors, even Benedict in his fur-lined stole, didn’t exactly cheer the excesses of corporate titans and upbraid the underclass for being loafers hooked on government largess. Charity for the poor is as consistent a message as any the church preaches. Francis just landed his sermon at the perfect moment of welling anxiety about income inequality, and he had the additional savvy to pepper it with words and phrases at the heart of the heated political debate about what to do.

Besides, he’s attentive to the coordination of message and optics. Advocating generosity toward the needy is infinitely more effective when you’ve traded the usual papal residence for a less-regal guesthouse and the customary chariot for a Ford Focus. It has a practicing-what-you-preach modesty and authenticity to it.

Above all, Francis has recognized and taken advantage of the fact that people of all stripes — liberals, conservatives — are as hungry for saints as they are for, well, chocolate. They may not have much patience for the vocabulary of shame and the fustiest definitions of sin, but they want examples of goodness and calls to grace, and they’ll respond eagerly to the ones that don’t come with exclusionary rules and harping about penance. That’s part of what gave Mandela and Gandhi such currency beyond their countries. They were spiritual leaders minus the catechism. The world has no glut of these.

“I believe in God, not in a Catholic God,” Francis has said, and he’s even expressed respect for atheists. When one of the stars of “Philomena” and the woman on whom it’s based visited the Vatican last week, he wasn’t put off by complaints about the movie’s anti-Catholicism or suspicion that the pair’s visit was part of an Oscar campaign. He welcomed and met with them.

An ecumenical papacy, he realizes, has more sway and stamina than a narrowly, stridently pious one. It’s a big tent he’s unfurling. Parrots and porn stars welcome.

Dowd and Friedman

February 5, 2014

In “High School Maniacal” MoDo says from the high school baseball team to the George Washington Bridge, Chris Christie and David Wildstein span the years.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “The Third Intifada,” says the weapons of this uprising in the Middle East are nonviolent.  Here’s MoDo:

High school never ends.

Chris Christie has given us proof of that, as though we needed it.

Still, anyone who clings to high school the way the 51-year-old governor of New Jersey does makes me nervous.

In his hilariously lame attempt to demonize his old schoolmate and handpicked point man at the Port Authority, David Wildstein, by dredging up stuff Wildstein did as a teenager 35 years ago at Livingston High, Christie has confirmed the biographical, metaphysical and psychological primacy of high school.

On Saturday, Politico published some leaked talking points from Christie’s office with these nyah-nyah complaints about Wildstein: “As a 16-year-old kid, he sued over a local school board election.” And, “He was publicly accused by his high school social studies teacher of deceptive behavior.”

As Shawn Boburg of The Record of Bergen County has reported, Wildstein unsuccessfully sued at 16 to get on the ballot for the county Republican committee and then ran for the local school board at 17, even though he was below the legal age requirement. His social studies teacher charged Wildstein with tricking him into signing an endorsement letter for that race.

Wait, this is supposed to be good for Christie? That he gave a $150,000-a-year job to a guy he knew was a wayward, duplicitous teen?

The Washington Post reported this week that Christie wasn’t always so scornful of silly adolescent litigation. When Christie was a senior, he and his family considered suing to stop a transfer student from co-opting his role as catcher — even if it meant that the team, which went on to win the state championship, would have to forfeit the spring season. But he thought better of it.

The Record compared the yearbook profiles of Christie with the not-so-wild Wildstein: “Christie, a year younger, was a perennial class president and baseball player who wrote in his senior yearbook in 1980 about high school sweethearts and going to concerts. There are no remembrances, school clubs or sports teams next to Wildstein’s 1979 senior picture. The space is blank.”

It’s risible but sort of alarming that, decades later, Christie is boasting that he was more of a big shot than Wildstein in high school, putting down the guy he created a job for, and going out of his way to say they were not even friends back when they were both connected to the Livingston Lancers — Christie as an ebullient, trim catcher; Wildstein as a quiet, bespectacled statistician.

“Well, let me just clear something up, O.K., about my childhood friend David Wildstein,” Christie said at his marathon press conference in January, a month after Wildstein had fallen on his sword for the governor. “It is true that I met David in 1977 in high school. He’s a year older than me. David and I were not friends in high school. We were not even acquaintances in high school.”

Bristling with narcissism and punitive aggression, he drove his point home: “We didn’t travel in the same circles in high school. You know, I was the class president and athlete. I don’t know what David was doing during that period of time.”

This display makes you think that Christie must have liked lording it over peons even back then, an uncomfortable echo of his office contemptuously impressing its will on the mayor of Fort Lee.

Watching Christie throw Wildstein off the sled and then publicly belittle him, it’s easy to imagine the deep gratification, deferred by decades, that Wildstein must have experienced turning on Christie.

It has become a cliché to portray candidates in their “Breakfast Club” cliques. But the funny thing about Christie’s desperate attempt to mine the past to save his once shiny future is that it’s not a metaphor.

It isn’t that Trenton politics are like high school. They are actually about high school.

Livingston, I presume, is the Hotel California for Christie. He can never leave.

High school looks like the beginning of adulthood and feels like it, but it isn’t adulthood. It’s some kind of dress rehearsal. It’s the first experience of a grown-up emotional and physical life, where you feel the rush of your powers and your vulnerability. Every reversal is gigantic. It’s a perfect storm of potency and ignorance, power and inexperience.

High school is the place where people get wounded — somebody else does better, an endless source of injuries, slights and offenses. Everyone comes out of high school needing vindication or revenge or compensation. It’s all about somebody else getting the pretty girl or the cute guy or the higher grade or the position on the sports team. Or the opposite: the Biffs, the quarterbacks who look back and realize they can never be that again.

The two kinds of people who never let go are the injured and the injurers, people who got slammed and the prom kings and queen bees who swanned at the top only in their teens. In a way, you could define adulthood as a passage into a time when you realize high school no longer matters.

Christie’s senior yearbook quote was “Great Hopes make Great Men.”

He’s now learned another lesson: Great Heaps of vengeful traffic cones break the Hopes of Men who would be Great.

Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, who is still at Ramallah:

For a while now I’ve wondered why there’s been no Third Intifada. That is, no third Palestinian uprising in the West Bank, the first of which helped to spur the Oslo peace process and the second of which — with more live ammunition from the Israeli side and suicide bombings from the Palestinian side — led to the breakdown of Oslo. You get many explanations from Palestinians: they’re too poor, too divided, too tired or that they realize these uprisings, in the end, did them more harm than good, especially the second. But being here, it’s obvious that a Third Intifada is underway. It’s the one that Israel always feared most — not an intifada with stones or suicide bombers, but one propelled by nonviolent resistance and economic boycott.

But this Third Intifada isn’t really led by Palestinians in Ramallah. It’s led by the European Union in Brussels and other opponents of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank across the globe. Regardless of origin, though, it’s becoming a real source of leverage for the Palestinians in their negotiations with Israel.

Secretary of State John Kerry was recently denounced by Israeli leaders for warning publicly that the boycott and campaign to delegitimize Israel will only get stronger if current peace talks fail. But Kerry is right.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid told Israel Army Radio on Monday that if no two-state solution is reached with the Palestinians, “it will hit the pocket of every Israeli.” Israel’s economy depends on technology and agricultural exports to Europe and on European investments in its high-tech industries. According to Lapid, even a limited boycott that curbed Israeli exports to Europe by 20 percent would cost Israel more than $5 billion a year and thousands of jobs. That’s why he added: “Israel won’t conduct its policy based on threats. But to pretend that the threats don’t exist, or that they’re not serious, or it’s not a process happening in front of us, is also not serious.”

Just recently, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the Netherlands’ largest pension fund management company, PGGM, “has decided to withdraw all its investments from Israel’s five largest banks because they have branches in the West Bank and/or are involved in financing construction in the settlements.” And The Jerusalem Post reported that Danske Bank, Denmark’s largest bank, has decided to boycott Israel’s Bank Hapoalim for “legal and ethical” reasons related to its operating in the settlements.

This Third Intifada, in my view, has much more potential to have a long-term impact because, unlike the first two, it is coinciding with the offer from the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, as part of a two-state deal, to let Israeli troops stay for five years as they make a phased withdrawal from the West Bank to the 1967 lines and to then let U.S.-led NATO forces fill in any strategic void to reassure Israel.

To put it differently, the Third Intifada is based on a strategy of making Israelis feel strategically secure but morally insecure.

The first two intifadas failed in the end because they never included a map of a two-state solution and security arrangements. They were more raw outbursts of rage against the occupation. You cannot move the Israeli silent majority when you make them feel strategically insecure and morally secure, which is what Hamas did with its lunatic shelling of Israel after it withdrew from Gaza; few Israelis were bothered by pummeling them back. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, though, got all he wanted by making Israelis feel strategically secure but morally insecure about holding any of his land.

This Third Intifada is also gaining strength because of the passing from the scene of two key leaders: Nelson Mandela and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. For Israel, Ahmadinejad was the gift who kept on giving: an Iranian president who denied the Holocaust and rebuffed global efforts to get Iran to stop building a nuclear bomb. He was hard to love. The replacement of Ahmadinejad by the negotiation-friendly, Holocaust-recognizing Hassan Rouhani is much more problematic for Israel. But my gut also tells me that the death of Mandela has left many of his followers looking for ways to honor his legacy and carry on his work. On some college campuses, they’ve found it: boycotting Israel until it ends the West Bank occupation.

Israelis are right to suspect some boycotters of using this cause as a cover for anti-Semitism, given how Israel’s misdeeds are singled out. But that doesn’t mean that implanting 350,000 settlers in the West Bank and turning a blind eye to dozens of wildcat settlements — that even Israel deems “illegal” — is in Israel’s interest or smart.

If Israel really wanted to slow down the boycott campaign, it would declare that as long as Kerry is trying to forge a deal, and there is hope for success, Israel will freeze all settlement activity to give peace its best chance. Unlikely, I know. But one thing I know for sure: this incessant trashing of Kerry by Israeli ministers, and their demand that Palestinians halt all “incitement” — but that Israel be free to keep building settlements in their face — is not winning Israel friends in Europe or America. It is only energizing the boycotters.

Friedman and Krugman

February 3, 2014

The good news is we’re spared Mr. Keller.  The bad new is that we have The Moustache of Wisdom on Monday morning.  In “Abbas’s NATO Proposal” he tells us that in an interview Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, stepped up his call to use NATO forces to secure a future peace deal.  In “Delusions of Failure” Prof. Krugman says on health care reform the Republican Party is deceiving voters — and itself.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Ramallah, West Bank:

At Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport there is a photo exhibition of great moments in Israeli airline history. One large black-and-white photograph caught my eye. It was a picture of Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat seated with Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin on a flight, with both men laughing — their faces radiating friendship.

As Secretary of State John Kerry enters a key moment in his vital effort to forge a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, one can’t help but be struck by how far away we are from any such photograph between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. To say that they don’t trust each other would be a vast understatement, but without trust an agreement that will involve so many difficult, complex compromises for both sides, in such a small space, is inconceivable — as inconceivable as building a house with bricks but no cement.

I and my colleague, The Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren, sat down with President Abbas in his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Saturday afternoon to probe his thinking on this issue. He returned — with greater enthusiasm than ever — to an idea whose time may have come: Summon NATO to provide the cement.

After Israelis and Palestinians agree on the contours of a Palestinian state, said Abbas, let Israeli troops remain in the West Bank for a five-year transitional period to work with Palestinian and Jordanian security forces and reassure the Israeli public that it is not going to get hit with the flurry of rockets it got hit with after Israel quit the Gaza Strip. And then have the Israeli forces replaced indefinitely by an American-led NATO force, with troops throughout the territory, at every crossing and within Arab East Jerusalem — along with, of course, Palestinian police and security units. Abbas was clearly going out of his way to show that he is prepared to go a long way to address Israel’s security concerns, but in a way that is consistent with his own sovereignty concerns.

Let NATO forces stay, said Abbas, “for a long time, and wherever they want, not only on the eastern borders but also on the western borders, everywhere … For a long time, for the time they wish. NATO can be everywhere, why not?”

Such a force, he said, “can stay to reassure the Israelis, and to protect us. We will be demilitarized. … Do you think we have any illusion that we can have any security if the Israelis do not feel they have security?”

Up to now Netanyahu has reportedly been demanding a very extended stay of Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley — some reports say up to 40 years — to ensure that Israel will always be able to repel any possible invasion from the east. With Lebanon, Iraq and Syria in turmoil, and Jordan under stress, Israeli officials say they cannot possibly anticipate what kind of security threats could emerge on their eastern front in the coming decades.

But Abbas says he could not possibly accept a lengthy Israeli military presence in a sovereign Palestinian state. “At the end of five years my country will be clean of occupation,” said Abbas. And that will not be based on some “performance” test scored only by Israel, he added. That would be “a humiliation for us. … They will make a test for us and of course we will fail.”

Israel has never wanted to have American or any other international forces in the West Bank, although it has tolerated international forces in South Lebanon, the border with Syria and a U.S.-led multinational force in Sinai to monitor the Camp David peace with Egypt. Right now, even though the Palestinian security services in the West Bank have done a solid job of preventing attacks against Israel emerging from there, Israel regularly sends commando units in at night to capture or kill Palestinian militants it believes are planning violence against Israel — those whom the Palestinians cannot or will not eliminate. The Israeli Army and intelligence agencies don’t want to outsource that job, or lose that freedom of maneuver, to NATO forces, even ones led by an American general. (Kerry has proposed only a U.S. military high-tech monitoring role with sensors and satellites, but no troops on the ground.)

“The Israelis do not want the third party,” said Abbas. “[Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert, he welcomed this idea. Mr. Netanyahu told me directly, when we were in his house, ‘I cannot rely on anybody to protect my security except my army. …’ He doesn’t want to leave the borders to us. I told him: ‘If you will not trust your allies, so whom do you trust? I am not bringing for you Turkey and Indonesia.’ He said, ‘I trust my army only. …’ The Israelis are occupiers and they want to stay forever. When they say they want to stay for 40 years, it means they will not go out from our territory.”

There are many “core” issues in these negotiations — Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, border lines and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, to name but a few. But the mother of them all — for the Israeli silent majority — is who will ensure that if Israeli forces totally withdraw from the West Bank that five, 10 or 40 years from now it won’t become a base for attacks that could close their international airport in Tel Aviv.

All one can say for now is this: There is no perfect security in this neighborhood. There will be no deal between Israelis and Palestinians if Israel insists on a lengthy stay in the West Bank. And there will be no deal if Palestinians cannot assure the Israeli silent majority that they can truly secure any evacuated territory. We have to find some overlap between these three realities and that’s why Abbas’s NATO suggestion is worth considering.

Yes, it will require Israel, the Palestinian Authority and America to all agree to do something they’ve long felt was outside their strategic comfort zones. But this is nothing. For them to strike a comprehensive peace deal on all the other core issues, they will have to leave many, many more comfort zones behind.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The Republican response to the State of the Union was delivered by Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Republican representative from Washington — and it was remarkable for its lack of content. A bit of uplifting personal biography, a check list of good things her party wants to happen with no hint of how it plans to make them happen.

The closest she came to substance was when she described a constituent, “Bette in Spokane,” who supposedly faced a $700-a-month premium hike after her policy was canceled. “This law is not working,” intoned Ms. McMorris Rodgers. And right there we see a perfect illustration of just how Republicans are trying to deceive voters — and are, in the process, deceiving themselves.

I’ll get back to “Bette in Spokane” in a minute, but first, is Obamacare “not working”?

Everyone knows about the disastrous rollout, but that was months ago. Since then, health reform has been steadily making up lost ground. At this point enrollments in the health exchanges are only about a million below Congressional Budget Office projections, and rising faster than projected. So a best guess is that by the time 2014 enrollment closes on March 31, there will be more than six million Americans signed up through the exchanges, versus seven million projected. Sign-ups might even meet the projection.

But isn’t Obamacare in a “death spiral,” in which only the old and sick are signing up, so that premiums will soon soar? Not according to the people who should know — the insurance companies. True, one company, Humana, says that the risk pool is worse than it expected. But others, including WellPoint and Aetna, are optimistic (which isn’t a contradiction: different companies could be having different experiences). And the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has run the numbers, finds that even a bad risk pool would have only a minor effect on premiums.

Now, some, perhaps many, of those signing up on the exchanges aren’t newly insured; they’re replacing their existing policies, either voluntarily or because those policies didn’t meet the law’s standards. But those standards are there for a reason — the same reason health insurance is now mandatory. Health reform won’t work if people go uninsured, then sign up when they get sick. It also can’t work if currently healthy people only buy fig-leaf insurance, which offers hardly any coverage.

And what this means, in turn, is that while we don’t know yet how many people will be newly insured under reform, we do know that even those who already had insurance are, on average, getting much better insurance. Since the goal of health reform was to make Americans more secure — to reduce their risk of being unable to afford needed health care, or of facing financial ruin if they get sick — the law is doing its job.

Which brings me back to Bette in Spokane.

Bette’s tale had policy wonks scratching their heads; it was hard to see, given what we know about premiums and how the health law works, how anyone could face that large a rate increase. Sure enough, when a local newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, contacted Bette Grenier, it discovered that the real story was very different from the image Ms. McMorris Rodgers conveyed. First of all, she was comparing her previous policy with one of the pricier alternatives her insurance company was offering — and she refused to look for cheaper alternatives on the Washington insurance exchange, declaring, “I wouldn’t go on that Obama website.”

Even more important, all Ms. Grenier and her husband had before was a minimalist insurance plan, with a $10,000 deductible, offering very little financial protection. So yes, the new law requires that they spend more, but they would get far better coverage in return.

So was this the best story Ms. McMorris Rodgers could come up with? The answer, probably, is yes, since just about every tale of health reform horror the G.O.P. has tried to peddle has similarly fallen apart once the details were revealed. The truth is that the campaign against Obamacare relies on misleading stories at best, and often on outright deceit.

Who pays the price for this deceit? In many cases, American families. Although health care enrollment is actually going pretty well at this point, thousands and maybe millions of Americans have failed to sign up for coverage because they believe the false horror stories they keep hearing.

But conservative politicians aren’t just deceiving their constituents; they’re also deceiving themselves. Right now, Republican political strategy seems to be to stall on every issue, and reap the rewards from Obamacare’s inevitable collapse. Well, Obamacare isn’t collapsing — it’s recovering pretty well from a terrible start. And by the time that reality sinks in on the right, health reform will be irreversible.


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