Archive for the ‘Kristof’ Category

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Kristof

July 27, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has a question in “Up From Greenwich:” Can the G.O.P. stop being the party of the rich? Once my cats stopped laughing they pointed out what “mancuroc” from Rochester, NY had to say in the comments: “ ‘the Republicans could finally — and deservedly — shake their identity as a party that cares only about the rich.’ And the sun could rise in the west.” In “Angell in the Outfield” MoDo tells us that from Babe to Jeter, Roger Angell has taken his readers out to the old ballgame. This is the kind of writing she’s capable of, and I wish she’d do more of it. The Moustache of Wisdom asks “What Is News?” He tells us that Madagascar, one of the world’s greatest ecosystems, is on the edge. Mr. Kristof tells us about “The World’s Coolest Places.” He says if we’re looking for a summer escape here are some suggestions for adventure way beyond a scintillating beach read. Here’s The Putz:

When Barack Obama won the White House in 2008, he did so in an unusual way for a Democrat: As the candidate of the rich. He raised more in large-dollar donations than any of his rivals and raked in more cash from Wall Street than John McCain. In November, he won the upper class’s votes: By 52 percent to 46 percent, according to exit polls, Americans making more than $200,000 cast their ballots for Obama.

There were several reasons for this shift, some specific to 2008 (elite exhaustion with the Bush presidency, the power of Obamamania) and some reflecting deeper trends: The Republican Party’s post-1970s gains among white working-class voters; the Democratic Party’s post-1980s attempts to shed its anti-business reputation; the increasing cultural liberalism of the affluent; and the rise of the so-called “liberal rich.”

In the wake of Obama’s ’08 victory, these trends confronted Republicans with an interesting dilemma: Should they seek to actively win back the Aspen-Greenwich vote, or embrace their increasingly populist coalition and try to rebuild from the middle out?

Across the first Obama term, they mostly tried the first approach. There was an incredibly strong populist mood on the right — hence the Tea Party’s anti-Washington fervor, the rumblings against Wall Street from figures like Glenn Beck. But the populists marched into blind alleys on policy and rallied round never-gonna-happen standard bearers, while the mainstream of the party mostly stuck to a more generic script — job creators good, class warfare bad, you built that and now the 47 percent are living off your hard work …

Sure enough, in 2012, Mitt Romney won back the over-$200,000 vote, mostly by regaining ground in the suburbs around New York City. But what he didn’t win was the actual election, mostly because voters outside Greenwich and New Canaan decided that a G.O.P. obsessed with heroic entrepreneurs didn’t have their interests close to heart.

So haltingly at first, and then with increasing seriousness, Republicans began to look for a different path back to power — one tailored to the party’s growing dependence on working-class votes, and one designed to deliver populist substance as well as style.

Thus far they have circled around two broad approaches. One, dubbed “reform conservatism,” seeks to make the welfare state and tax code more friendly to work and child-rearing and upward mobility — through larger wage subsidies, bigger child tax credits, and a substantial clearing-out of the insider-friendly subsidies and tax breaks and regulations that drive up costs in health care, real estate, energy and higher education.

The other, “libertarian populism,” is even more zealous about attacking rent-seeking and crony capitalism, while also looking for other places — criminal justice reform, notably — where a libertarian approach to public policy might benefit people lower on the economic ladder.

These two approaches substantially overlap (with the main difference being a skepticism among the libertarians about targeting tax cuts and subsidies specifically to parents and the poor). And together, they provide the foundation on which a number of prominent Republicans — Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul — have built policy proposals over the last year.

Now that list includes Paul Ryan, who last week released a blueprint that folds together many of the strongest reformist and libertarian ideas: There’s a larger earned-income tax credit, proposed cuts to corporate welfare, a call for sentencing reform for nonviolent offenses, a critique of “regressive regulations” like licensing requirements, and much more.

This kind of agenda has a long way to go before we can call it the official Republican program. It could face opposition in 2016 from donors who were pretty happy with the Romney approach, and from activists who regard anything save deep austerity as a sellout to the left.

 But if the G.O.P. fully embraces the ideas its younger-generation leaders are pursuing, the Democrats could suddenly find themselves in a difficult spot. Liberals can theoretically outbid a limited-government populism, yes — but given the fiscal picture, they would need to raise taxes significantly to do so, alienating their own donors, the middle class or both. And the immediate liberal critique of Ryan’s new plan — that it’s too paternalistic, too focused on pushing welfare recipients to work — harkened back to debates that the Democratic Party used to lose.

Meanwhile, Obama-era liberalism has grown dangerously comfortable with big business-big government partnerships. It’s a bad sign when even the tribune of left-wing populism, Elizabeth Warren, feels obliged to defend, against libertarian populist attacks, an icon of crony capitalism like the Export-Import Bank.

So there’s a scenario — still unlikely, but much more plausible than a year ago — in which the pattern of 2012 could be reversed: A deepening association with big money and big business could suddenly become an albatross for Democrats, and the Republicans could finally — and deservedly — shake their identity as a party that cares only about the rich.

Oh, don’t you just hope and pray that’ll happen, Putzy…  Here’s MoDo:

 Roger Angell takes off his brown J. Press sports coat and blue cap, yanks out his hearing aids, stashes his cane, and sits down for a shave and haircut at Delta barbershop at 72nd and Lex., the same spot he’s patronized for 40 years. “I don’t see Henry Kissinger doing any interviews in a barbershop,” he says dryly.

The 93-year-old New Yorker writer has come down from his house in Maine to get spruced up for the Baseball Hall of Fame ceremony this weekend. The old man who has lovingly described so many young men playing the game is getting the sport’s highest writing honor, the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, unprecedented recognition for “a drop-in writer,” as he calls himself, whose leisurely deadlines prevented him from becoming a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

In 1962, he says, he took the advice of New Yorker editor William Shawn to try writing about something exotic, like baseball, describing Shawn’s red-cheeked excitement when Angell explained to him what a double play was.

Baseball writing was a part-time gig for Angell, who served for many years as the magazine’s fiction editor, following in the footsteps of his mother, Katharine Angell White, who left his father to marry her colleague E. B. White. When Angell moved into his mother’s old New Yorker office, he chuckles, his shrink called it the “biggest single act of sublimation in my experience.”

The lover of books and words — who else would use “venery” in a story and write the world’s longest palindrome? — crisply shepherded John Updike, Donald Barthelme and William Trevor, as he himself became so luminous that Sports Illustrated compared him to Willie Mays, the player Angell calls so thrilling he “took your breath away.” It’s refreshing that a sport that has become tarnished by the desire to amp itself up — on steroids, merchandise and video — should honor someone so unamped.

In person, the writer is less “Angellic” — the adjective coined to describe his beguiling writing — than astringent. He has spent most of a century, from Ruth to Jeter, passionately tracking the sport as a fan, but he also proclaims himself a “foe of goo.” He much prefers the sexy “Bull Durham” to the sentimental “Field of Dreams.” He sniffs at being called “the poet laureate of baseball” and winces at a recent reverential Sports Illustrated profile. “It made me sound like the Dalai Lama,” he says. “My God, I’m just a guy who happened to live on for a long time. I’d rather be younger and writing than all this stuff.”

When I ask him if the Jacques Barzun quote “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball” was outmoded, he scoffs: “I didn’t write about baseball because I was looking for the heart and soul of America. I don’t care if baseball is the national pastime or not. The thing about baseball is, it’s probably the hardest game to play. The greatest hitters are only succeeding a third of the time. If you take a great athlete who’s never played baseball and put him in the infield, he’s lost.”

Many in our A.D.D. nation may find baseball soporific now, but not Angell.

“Baseball is linear — it’s like writing,” he says. “In other sports, there’s a lot going on at the same time. You can’t quite take it all in.”

Could soccer ever take over as the national pastime? “I don’t know,” he replied. “I felt I was being waterboarded by The New York Times with the World Cup.”

Do American men focus as much on baseball? “Baseball used to be really attractive for men because the guys that played it were normal size, they had winter jobs as truck drivers or beer salesmen,” he said. “So it was easy to think with a little bit of luck that could have been me. Now the athletes are clearly so much bigger and stronger and vastly more talented.”

Should steroid-tainted players be in the Hall of Fame?

“Barry Bonds belongs in the Hall of Fame,” he said, expressing sympathy for players who get worn down playing every day. “There’s been a lot of cheating, if you want to call it that, particularly about home runs,” he said. “If Ted Williams had had a short right field in Fenway Park, he would have been much better than Babe Ruth, probably.”

We drop by a Ralph Lauren store. He wants to buy a cotton sweater for Cooperstown but doesn’t see anything he likes. “It’s hard to be old and shop,” he says. “The sales staff is probably terrified that I’m changing the age demographic. And I’m no longer sure what I want.”

He said the instructions for Cooperstown were “like D-Day,” but noted mordantly, “Anything I do is O.K. because they’ll say, ‘He’s old. What do you expect? He’s 93. He’s hopeless.’ ”

He wrote a swell New Yorker story about the vicissitudes of old age, talking about how he memorizes poems and writes blogs to stay sharp.

Most surprising, the widower — his beloved wife, Carol, died two years ago — extolled the virtues of sunset sexuality, ratifying Laurence Olivier’s line “Inside, we’re all 17, with red lips.”

He asked me to mention his “fiancée and closest companion, Peggy Moorman,” adding, “Everybody has been so weepy about me and Carol, but Peggy looks after me and is the center of my life.” As he wrote in “This Old Man,” “I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach.”

At least somebody around here knows how to play this game.

Next up we’re faced with The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Fort-Dauphin, Madagascar:

With the world going crazy, I tried running away from the news. It didn’t work.

I’ve been doing an eco-survey of Madagascar, the island nation off the east coast of Africa that contains the highest percentage of plant and animal species found nowhere else on earth — all of them now endangered to one degree or another. My tour guide is Russ Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International and one of the world’s leading primatologists. We saw something the other day that even Mittermeier, who’s been coming here for 30 years, hadn’t seen before. We were trekking through the Berenty Reserve, one of the last remaining slices of Madagascar’s southern spiny desert, an ecosystem characterized by tall, thin, cactus-like plants exclusive to Madagascar. This forest is home to Sifaka lemurs: white, fluffy primates, with very long hind limbs that enable them to bound from tree to tree like forest kangaroos. How these lemurs are able to leap from one sharply spiked vertical tree to another without impaling themselves is a mystery.

After walking through the forest for hours, spotting a lemur here and there, we came upon a particularly dense grove and looked up. There, about 30 feet off the forest floor, were nine Sifaka lemurs huddling together for warmth in two groups — four on one limb, five on another — staring directly down at us. They looked as if they were drawn there by a Disney artist: too cute, too white, too fluffy to be other than the products of a toy factory. “I’ve seen two or three huddled together,” said Mittermeier later that night, “but I’ve never seen a whole group like that. I could have taken a whole chip full of pictures. I didn’t want to leave.”

None of us did. But it wasn’t just because we’d never seen such a thing before. It was because we knew we may never see such a thing again — that no one would, particularly our kids. Why? Just look at the trends: Madagascar has already lost more than 90 percent of its natural vegetation through deforestation, most of it over the last century, particularly the past few decades, said Mittermeier. “What remains is heavily fragmented and insufficiently protected, despite the fact that Madagascar has an essential national network of parks and reserves.”

And that brings me to the question: What is news?

I’ve visited and written a lot about Ukraine and the Middle East lately. The tragic events happening there are real news, worthy of world attention. But where we in the news media fall down is in covering the big trends — trends that on any given day don’t amount to much but over time could be vastly more significant than we can now imagine.

Too bad we’ll never see this news story: “The U.N. Security Council met today in emergency session to discuss the fact that Madagascar, one the world’s most biodiversity-rich nations, lost another percentage of its plant and animal species.” Or this: “Secretary of State John Kerry today broke off his vacation and rushed to Madagascar to try to negotiate a cease-fire between the loggers, poachers, miners and farmers threatening to devour the last fragments of Madagascar’s unique forests and the tiny group of dedicated local environmentalists trying to protect them.”

Because that won’t happen, we have to think about how this one-of-a-kind natural world can be protected with the limited resources here. We know the answer in theory — a well-managed national system of parks and reserves is vital because, given the current trends, anything outside such protected zones would be devoured by development and population growth. For Madagascar, this is particularly vital because, without its forests, neither its amazing plants nor animals will survive — which are a joy unto themselves and also attract critical tourist income for this incredibly poor country — and the people won’t survive either. These forests maintain the clean and sustainable water supplies and soils that Madagascar’s exploding population requires.

“We have to preserve this natural environment,” Hery Rajaonarimampianina, Madagascar’s president, told me in an interview. “One of my major policies is to develop eco-tourism. This can bring a lot of jobs. The problem is the poverty of the people that lead them to destroy the environment. That is very sad.”

Madagascar’s ecological challenge parallel’s the Middle East’s political challenge. The struggle here is all about preserving Madagascar’s natural diversity so its people will have the resilience, tools and options to ensure a decent future. A diverse system in nature is much more resilient and adaptable to change. Monocultures are enormously susceptible to disease. They can be wiped out by a single pest or weather event in a way that a poly-culture cannot.

In the Middle East today, though, the last remnants of poly-cultural nation states and communities are being wiped out. Christians are fleeing the Arab-Muslim world. Islamist jihadists in Syria and Iraq are beheading those who won’t convert to their puritanical Islam. Jews and Palestinians, Shiites and Sunnis keep forcing each other into tighter and tighter ghettos. So a human rain forest once rich with ethnic and religious diversity is becoming a collection of disconnected monocultures, enormously susceptible to disease — diseased ideas.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Travel season is here, when so many Americans decamp to Cape Cod or the Jersey Shore. All of which is wonderful, and some day I plan to do a 10-part series on the world’s best beaches.

But travel can also be an education, a step toward empathy and international understanding. So for those with an adventurous streak who want to get beyond the madding crowd this summer, here are a few little-known travel spots that I recommend.

These just might be the world’s coolest places.

Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands. This coral island in the Pacific Ocean was the site of American nuclear weapons tests in the 1940s and 1950s, but after decades left to itself it is now dazzlingly beautiful in a way that belies its history. Radiation has dissipated, and the deserted white-sand beaches are lined with coconut palms and scattered with seashells and an occasional giant sea turtle — which will hurriedly call to its friends: Look, there’s a rare sight, a human! The island is a reminder of the redemptive power of time and nature.

Potosí, Bolivia. Perhaps no country in Latin America is more picturesque than Bolivia, and the most memorable Bolivian city may be Potosí. European explorers discovered a huge silver mountain here in the 1540s, and, in the 1600s, this was one of the major cities in the world. Tourists can descend the silver mines, and it is a searing and unforgettable experience. You go down hundreds of feet in tiny, sweltering tunnels thick with dust, talk to some of the miners, and get a glimpse of what life is like for the many Bolivians who work each day in the mines. After a couple of hours deep underground, sometimes struggling to breathe and fretting about cave-ins, you may have new empathy for the laborers responsible for silver bowls and cutlery.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Maybe our best family trip started at Victoria Falls, which drenches you with spray and is so vast that it makes Niagara Falls seem like a backyard creek. Then we rented a car and made our way to Hwange National Park, which was empty of people but crowded with zebras, giraffes, elephants and more. Zimbabwe has far fewer tourists than South Africa or Kenya, and there’s less crime as well.

Amritsar, India. The Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, is in northwestern India near the Pakistani border, and it is a delightful place to contemplate the draw of faith. A four-century-old temple set in a lake, it attracts Sikhs from around the world. It is much less visited by tourists than the Taj Mahal, yet it is just as serene, grand and unforgettable. You walk the circuit of the lake barefoot, with your head covered, and, for the full experience, you can sleep and eat in temple buildings.

Tanna, Vanuatu. This remote island in the South Pacific is notable for its live volcano that you can climb at night. From the lip, you look down and see the fires and molten lava. It’s a natural fireworks display. The people of Tanna are also likely to invite you to drink kava, the local intoxicant, or perhaps join a village dance. The local faith tradition is a cargo cult. People believe in a god they call John Frum, perhaps based on an American military officer around the time of World War II who gave islanders their first glimpse of industrial products. One theory is that he introduced himself as “John from America,” but only the first two words survived and became his name.

Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam. Follow a guide in wriggling on your stomach underground through these tunnels dug by Vietcong soldiers who used them and even lived in them during the Vietnam War. The tunnels are now widened to accommodate portly Americans, and they are still a tight fit. After a couple hundred feet of crawling in the tunnels, you’re desperate to come up again, and you understand that military victory is sometimes not about weaponry but about commitment.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with a delicious week at the beach with a pile of books. But if you’re hankering to escape the crowds this summer, encounter new worlds and come back with a tale, think about some of these destinations. The tourism infrastructure may not be great, but the people (or elephants) will make up for it.

When I visited the Pacific island country of Kiribati years ago, I made a reservation by phone to make sure I would have a place to stay. The man at the hotel agreed to hold me a spot, but he skipped the details.

“I don’t need the name,” he said. “If there’s an American at the airport, I’ll recognize him.”

Blow and Kristof

July 24, 2014

Ms. Collins is off today.  Mr. Blow has a question in “Paul Ryan and His Poverty Prophet:”  Will a new conservative anti-poverty plan, however well-intended, just lead directly to the soup kitchen?  Charles, if ZEGS has anything to do with it that’s probably the desired result.  Mr. Kristof offers “An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality.”  He says if you don’t have time for Thomas Piketty’s comprehensive best seller, here’s a quick five-point take on the gap between the rich and poor.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

After being chastised early this year for proclaiming that there was a “tailspin of culture,” particularly among inner city men, of “not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work,” Paul Ryan is going to take another swipe at an anti-poverty proposal.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Ryan will unveil a six-pronged anti-poverty plan — “including ways to address incarceration and education and to encourage employment” — Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute.

Bob Woodson, president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, and a Ryan mentor, told The Journal, “He’s coming up with a new construct, and I’ve encouraged him.” Woodson continued:

“We cannot and should not generalize about poor people. There are the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. It used to be that way, and it became politically incorrect. We are returning to some of the old values that served people very effectively until the welfare reforms of the 1960s.”

Woodson’s comments mine familiar conservative rhetoric, hinting at welfare failure and abuse, pinning further harm on liberal intentions to help, while sidestepping altogether conservative callousness and Republican Party platforms that have sought for decades to reward those at the top of the economic ladder while ignoring those at the bottom.

Woodson is a smart man, a MacArthur genius fellow, and he’s made his work focus on the plight of the poor and troubled neighborhoods. But at the heart of his logic — if, indeed, there is heart in his logic — is a particular strand of tough-love, up-by-the-bootstraps, stop-helping-poor-folks-so-much-because-you’re-hurting-them thinking. Woodson isn’t a neutral arbiter, but a fiercely minimal-government partisan with an open disdain for the civil rights apparatus in this country.

In a RealClear Radio Hour interview in May, Woodson said of the current civil rights movement:

“It has really abandoned the high ground on which it was founded. It has morphed into a race grievance industry, and it’s been hijacked by the gay movement, it’s been hijacked by the Democratic Party. And so it has lost its authenticity.”

He continued: “The civil rights movement, again, has sold its soul to the highest bidder.”

Speaking about the president’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, Woodson told The Wall Street Journal in April:

“My worry and my fear is that the money and resources will go to the same racial grievance groups, the same members of what I call the poverty Pentagon. They’ll give it to Al Sharpton and the others to do what they’ve been doing for decades, to do what doesn’t work — what in fact is making things worse.”

This idea, espoused by conservative-minded blacks, and aimed with suspicion at the motives of more politically activist blacks — the head-down-and-get-the-work-done crowd vs. the head-high-and-reach-for-the-stars crowd — goes back at least a century, possibly further.

In 1911, Booker T. Washington put it thusly:

“There is another class of coloured people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs — partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.”

Decades earlier, in Washington’s 1895 “Atlanta Compromise” speech of racial appeasement, he beseeched blacks to “cast down your bucket where you are” for the purpose of “cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man” and for whites to do the same “among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant the ruin of your firesides.” And he sought to assuage the audience by declaring: “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.”

This is the kind of thinking from which Ryan’s poverty prophet springs.

According to The Washington Post, Ryan’s “new proposal, called an ‘Opportunity Grant,’ would begin on a pilot basis. It would consolidate a range of safety-net programs — from food stamps to housing vouchers — into a single grant offered to states.”

But, make no mistake: “opportunity” is the new “block.” And, block grants to states don’t have a great track record where poor people are concerned.

First, let’s set the stage: Some of the poorest states in the country consistently vote for Republican presidential candidates, have Republican governors and Republican control of the statehouses. Many of these are the same states that refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which would have extended health care to more low-income Americans. What could possibly go wrong?

Second, let’s look at the evidence: According to a 2012 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the replacement of the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program “with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant under the 1996 welfare law” provides a “cautionary tale about the dangers of converting basic safety-net programs to block grants” because it makes “the cash assistance safety net for the nation’s poorest families with children” grow “weaker, not stronger.”

According to the center:

“In 1995, for every 100 families with children living in poverty, 68 received cash assistance through AFDC to help meet basic needs; by 2010, for every 100 families that were poor, only 27 families received such assistance. Moreover, for families still receiving cash assistance, median benefit levels have plummeted — falling 20 percent since TANF’s creation (after adjusting for inflation).”

We have to look beyond the catchphrase dance — poverty prophet, grievance industry, undeserving poor — and be reminded of the data. Ryan and Woodson may well come forth with a plan with good intentions, but a wider road to the soup kitchen may just as well be paved with those intentions.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

We may now have a new “most unread best seller of all time.”

Data from Amazon Kindles suggests that that honor may go to Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” which reached No. 1 on the best-seller list this year. Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Piketty’s book seems to eclipse its rivals in losing readers: All five of the passages that readers on Kindle have highlighted most are in the first 26 pages of a tome that runs 685 pages.

The rush to purchase Piketty’s book suggested that Americans must have wanted to understand inequality. The apparent rush to put it down suggests that, well, we’re human.

So let me satisfy this demand with my own “Idiot’s Guide to Inequality.” Here are five points:

First, economic inequality has worsened significantly in the United States and some other countries. The richest 1 percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Oxfam estimates that the richest 85 people in the world own half of all wealth.

The situation might be tolerable if a rising tide were lifting all boats. But it’s lifting mostly the yachts. In 2010, 93 percent of the additional income created in America went to the top 1 percent.

Second, inequality in America is destabilizing. Some inequality is essential to create incentives, but we seem to have reached the point where inequality actually becomes an impediment to economic growth.

Certainly, the nation grew more quickly in periods when we were more equal, including in the golden decades after World War II when growth was strong and inequality actually diminished. Likewise, a major research paper from the International Monetary Fund in April found that more equitable societies tend to enjoy more rapid economic growth.

Indeed, even Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, warns that “too much … has gone to too few” and that inequality in America is now “very destabilizing.”

Inequality causes problems by creating fissures in societies, leaving those at the bottom feeling marginalized or disenfranchised. That has been a classic problem in “banana republic” countries in Latin America, and the United States now has a Gini coefficient (a standard measure of inequality) approaching some traditionally poor and dysfunctional Latin countries.

Third, disparities reflect not just the invisible hand of the market but also manipulation of markets. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, wrote a terrific book two years ago, “The Price of Inequality,” which is a shorter and easier read than Piketty’s book. In it, he notes: “Much of America’s inequality is the result of market distortions, with incentives directed not at creating new wealth but at taking it from others.”

For example, financiers are wealthy partly because they’re highly educated and hardworking — and also because they’ve successfully lobbied for the carried interest tax loophole that lets their pay be taxed at much lower rates than other people’s.

Likewise, if you’re a pharmaceutical executive, one way to create profits is to generate new products. Another is to lobby Congress to bar the government’s Medicare program from bargaining for drug prices. That amounts to a $50 billion annual gift to pharmaceutical companies.

Fourth, inequality doesn’t necessarily even benefit the rich as much as we think. At some point, extra incomes don’t go to sate desires but to attempt to buy status through “positional goods” — like the hottest car on the block.

The problem is that there can only be one hottest car on the block. So the lawyer who buys a Porsche is foiled by the C.E.O. who buys a Ferrari, who in turn is foiled by the hedge fund manager who buys a Lamborghini. This arms race leaves these desires unsated; there’s still only one at the top of the heap.

Fifth, progressives probably talk too much about “inequality” and not enough about “opportunity.” Some voters are turned off by tirades about inequality because they say it connotes envy of the rich; there is more consensus on bringing everyone to the same starting line.

Unfortunately, equal opportunity is now a mirage. Indeed, researchers find that there is less economic mobility in America than in class-conscious Europe.

We know some of the tools, including job incentives and better schools, that can reduce this opportunity gap. But the United States is one of the few advanced countries that spends less educating the average poor child than the average rich one. As an escalator of mobility, the American education system is broken.

There’s still a great deal we don’t understand about inequality. But whether or not you read Piketty, there’s one overwhelming lesson you should be aware of: Inequality and lack of opportunity today constitute a national infirmity and vulnerability — and there are policy tools that can make a difference.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Kristof

July 20, 2014

Mr. Bruni is off today.  In “The Parent Trap” The Putz tells us that you must over your children or the neighborhood busybodies and the police may step in.  MoDo, in “A Popular President,” sniffs that Bill — not Barry or Hillary — has the heat.  Standard MoDo crap, but as “Debra” formerly from NYC points out in her comment “… quoting Bill O’Reilly answering Geraldo Rivera to make your point is really….well, I don’t know how to describe that one.”  It’s called grasping for straws, Debra.  The Moustache of Wisdom is banging on his “sharing economy” tin drum again.  In “And Now For a Bit of Good News …” he babbles that from taxi rides to overnight stays, the sharing economy is growing rapidly, and creating a village where your reputation is everything.  “Claus Gehner” from Seattle and Munich had this to say in the comments:  “This column again shows Mr. Friedman’s somewhat simplistic cheerleading for the “hyper-connected world” and the wonders of social media. After being shown wrong with his predictions of all the wonderful things social media would do for the “Arab Spring”, he is still on a roll.”  Mr. Kristof asks “Who’s Right and Wrong in the Middle East?”  He says with Israeli troops in Gaza again, there’s a symmetry in the rhetoric by partisans on both sides of the conflict.  Here’s The Putz:

When I was about 9 years old, I graduated to a Little League whose diamonds were a few miles from our house, in a neighborhood that got rougher after dark. After one practice finished early, I ended up as the last kid left with the coach, waiting in the gloaming while he grumbled, looked at his watch and finally left me — to wait or walk home, I’m not sure which.

I started walking. Halfway there, along a busy road, my father picked me up. He called my coach, as furious as you would expect a protective parent to be; the coach, who probably grew up having fistfights in that neighborhood, gave as good as he got; I finished the season in a different league.

Here are two things that didn’t happen. My (lawyer) father did not call the police and have the coach arrested for reckless endangerment of a minor. And nobody who saw me picking my way home alone thought to call the police on my parents, or to charge them with neglect for letting their child slip free of perfect safety for an hour.

Today they might not have been so lucky. For instance, they might have ended up like the Connecticut mother who earned a misdemeanor for letting her 11-year-old stay in the car while she ran into a store. Or the mother charged with “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” after a bystander snapped a photo of her leaving her 4-year-old in a locked, windows-cracked car for five minutes on a 50 degree day. Or the Ohio father arrested in front of his family for “child endangerment” because — unbeknown to him — his 8-year-old had slipped away from a church service and ended up in a nearby Family Dollar.

Or (I’m just getting warmed up) like the mother of four, recently widowed, who left her children — the oldest 10, the youngest 5 — at home together while she went to a community-college class; her neighbor called the police, protective services took the kids, and it took a two-year legal fight to pry them back from foster care. Or like the parents from two families who were arrested after their girls, two friends who were 5 and 7, cut through a parking lot near their houses — again without the parents’ knowledge — and were spotted by a stranger who immediately called the police.

Or — arriving at this week’s high-profile story — like Debra Harrell, an African-American single mother in Georgia, who let her 9-year-old daughter play in a nearby park while she worked a shift at McDonald’s, and who ended up shamed on local news and jailed.

Some of these cases have been reported, but some are first-person accounts, and in some the conduct of neighbors and the police and social workers may be more defensible than the anecdote suggests.

But the pattern — a “criminalization of parenthood,” in the words of The Washington Post’s Radley Balko — still looks slightly nightmarish, and there are forces at work here that we should recognize, name and resist.

First is the upper-class, competition-driven vision of childhood as a rigorously supervised period in which unattended play is abnormal, risky, weird. This perspective hasn’t just led to “the erosion of child culture,” to borrow a quote from Hanna Rosin’s depressing Atlantic essay on “The Overprotected Kid”; it has encouraged bystanders and public servants to regard a deviation from constant supervision as a sign of parental neglect.

Second is the disproportionate anxiety over child safety, fed by media coverage of every abduction, every murdered child, every tragic “hot car” death. Such horrors are real, of course, but the danger is wildly overstated: Crime rates are down, abductions and car deaths are both rare, and most of the parents leaving children (especially non-infants) in cars briefly or letting them roam a little are behaving perfectly responsibly.

Third is an erosion of community and social trust, which has made ordinary neighborliness seem somehow unnatural or archaic, and given us instead what Gracy Olmstead’s article in The American Conservative dubs the “bad Samaritan” phenomenon — the passer-by who passes the buck to law enforcement as expeditiously as possible. (Technology accentuates this problem: Why speak to a parent when you can just snap a smartphone picture for the cops?)

And then finally there’s a policy element — the way these trends interact not only with the rise of single parenthood, but also with a welfare system whose work requirements can put a single mother behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school.

This last issue presents a distinctive challenge to conservatives like me, who believe such work requirements are essential. If we want women like Debra Harrell to take jobs instead of welfare, we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.

Otherwise we’ll be throwing up defenses against big government, while ignoring a police state growing in our midst.

Next up we have MoDo:

The thing about him is, he just keeps going.

At 67, he continues to be, as Anna Quindlen once wrote, like one of those inflatable toys with sand weighting the bottom — you knock him over and he pops back up.

As Hillary stumbles and President Obama slumps, Bill Clinton keeps getting more popular.

The women, the cheesy behavior, the fund-raising excesses, the self-pity, the adolescent narcissism, the impeachment, the charges of racially tinged insults against Obama in 2008, the foundation dishabille — all that percussive drama has faded to a mellow saxophone riff for many Americans.

A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Annenberg center poll showed that Clinton was, by a long shot, the most admired president of the last quarter-century. A new YouGov poll finds that among the last eight elected presidents, Clinton is regarded as the most intelligent and W. the least.

(Clinton and W. both should have been more aggressive in catching Osama. But certainly, if Clinton had been president post-9/11, there would have been no phony invasion of Iraq, and Katrina would have elicited more empathy.)

A Washington Post/ABC News poll in May found Bill’s approval ratings rebounding to the highest they had been since early in his presidency.

Even some who used to mock his lip-biting have decided that warmth, even if it’s fake at times, beats real chilliness.

Speaking at the 92nd Street Y last month, Bill O’Reilly was asked by Geraldo Rivera whether the country would have been better off electing Hillary instead of Barack Obama.

“With Hillary you get Bill,” O’Reilly replied. “And Bill knows what’s going on. You may not like him but he knows what’s going on. Hillary doesn’t understand how the world works.”

Except for L.B.J. and Nixon, ex-presidents tend to grow more popular. Yet Bill Clinton, wandering the global stage as a former president who may return to the White House as the husband of a president, plays a unique role in American history. (Newly released Clinton library documents revealed that Bill, believing it punchier, preferred to use “America” and “Americans” in speeches rather than “the United States” and “people of the United States.”)

But why is he burning brighter now, when the spotlight should be on his successor and his wife?

Do we miss the days when the National Debt Clock was retired? Are we more accepting that politicians have feet of clay? Are we tired of leaders who act as burdened as Sisyphus? Do we miss having a showman and a show?

“Maybe they admire his vegan body,” said David Axelrod impishly, before replying seriously: “He’s the most seductive character that we’ve seen in American politics in our lifetime. He just has this unbelievably resilient and seductive personality.”

James Carville noted dryly: “People are confused. They don’t know which one they like more, the peace or the prosperity.” He calls Clinton the “anti-Putin,” someone who did not exercise power to harm people but to help them.

42 had greater strengths and greater weaknesses than the average pol.

Rand Paul accused Clinton of “predatory” behavior. Liz Cheney told Politico’s Mike Allen that she trusts Hillary more than she trusts Bill, implying that was because of Monica Lewinsky. And Todd “legitimate rape” Akin defended himself on Fox News this past week by hitting Clinton’s “long history of sexual abuse and indecency.”

But G.O.P. pollster Kellyanne Conway said the words “Monica” and “liberal” rarely come up when she polls about Bill Clinton. The words “global” and “philanthropic” come up. She said that after Clinton, people “shrugged their shoulders at what had once made them raise their eyebrows.”

“He was a good ambassador for the baby boomer generation,” she said. “Who hasn’t screwed up? Who hasn’t had a third and fourth chance?”

Perhaps, given the tribal wars in Washington and dark tides loose in the world, there’s a longing for Bill’s better angels: the Happy Warrior desire to get up every day and go at it, no matter how difficult; the unfailing belief that in the future things will be better; the zest in the hand-to-hand combat of politics and policy, the reaching out to Newt Gingrich and other Republicans — even through government shutdowns and impeachment — and later teaming up with Bush Senior. “There’s a suspicion among a lot of people that Obama doesn’t much care for politics,” Carville said. “It’s amazing that a man can be so successful at something he really doesn’t like. It’s like if you found out that Peyton Manning didn’t like to play football.”

Mike Murphy, the Republican strategist, said that Obama’s fade has been “the best Clinton rehab.”

Murphy noted the irony that first, Bill had to use his extroverted personality, his talent as Explainer in Chief and his “empathy ray gun” to help Obama get re-elected, and now he will need to use those skills to push another clinical, cerebral candidate — his wife — up the hill.

“The one guy he can’t help elect is himself because of that pesky Constitution,” Murphy said. “But of course, that’s what he’d love to do.”

Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

From Ukraine to the Middle East, some bad actors — Hamas, Vladimir Putin and Israeli settlers to name but a few — are trying to bury the future with the past and divide people. Instead of focusing on them even more, I prefer to write about a company that is burying the past with the future, and actually bringing strangers together.

Last year, I interviewed Brian Chesky, one of the co-founders of Airbnb.com, about the emerging sharing economy, led by companies like the on-demand taxi app Uber and Airbnb, which provides a platform for people to rent their spare rooms, homes, castles and yurts to strangers with the same ease you can book a room at Marriott. We just got together again, and Chesky laid out the growth spurt his company has experienced in the last 12 months — a spurt so fast that it’s telling you this new sharing economy is the real deal and will increasingly be a source of income for more and more people.

Chesky offered this sample of Airbnb’s latest metrics:

• “We have over 3,000 castles, 2,000 treehouses, 900 islands and 400 lighthouses available to book on the site. On a recent night, over 100 people were staying in yurts.”

• “Fifty-six percent of guests staying on Airbnb on a recent weekend were doing so for their first time. Last week, guests left reviews for hosts in 42 different languages. Over 17 million total guests have stayed on Airbnb. It took Airbnb nearly four years to get its first million guests. Now one million guests stay on Airbnb every month.”

• “Roughly 120,000 people stayed in Brazil in Airbnb-rented rooms for the World Cup, including travelers from over 150 different countries. Airbnb hosts in Brazil earned roughly $38 million from reservations during the World Cup. The average host in Rio earned roughly $4,000 during the monthlong tournament — about four times the average monthly salary in Rio. And 189 German guests stayed with Brazilians on the night of the Brazil/Germany World Cup semifinal match.”

• July 5, 2014, was Airbnb’s biggest night ever. “Its platform hosted over 330,000 total guests staying around the world — in thousands of cities and over 160 different countries,” said Chesky. In Paris, nearly 20,000 people were staying in Airbnb rooms on July 5. In 2012, that number was under 4,000.

What’s the secret? Who knew so many people would rent out rooms in their homes to strangers and that so many strangers would want to stay in other people’s spare bedrooms?

The short answer is that Airbnb understood that the world was becoming hyperconnected — meaning the technology was there to connect any renter to any tourist or businessperson anywhere on the planet. And if someone created the trust platform to bring them together, huge value could be created for both parties. That was Airbnb’s real innovation — a platform of “trust” — where everyone could not only see everyone else’s identity but also rate them as good, bad or indifferent hosts or guests. This meant everyone using the system would pretty quickly develop a relevant “reputation” visible to everyone else in the system.

Take trusted identities and relevant reputations and put them together with the Internet and suddenly you have 120,000 people staying in Brazilians’ homes instead of hotels at the World Cup. Obviously, there are exceptions and bad apples, and Airbnb provides $1 million in damage coverage for such cases, but the numbers say the system is working for a lot of people.

“I think we’re going to move back to a place where the world is a village again — a place where a lot of people know each other and trust each other … and where everyone has a reputation that everyone else knows,” said Chesky, 32. “On Airbnb, everyone has an identity.”

You can’t rent a room from someone or to someone unless you create a profile. And the more information you put into your profile — license, passport, Facebook page and reviews of people who have stayed with you — the more customers are likely to come. And the better reputation you earn from reviews, “the more other people want to work with you,” Chesky added. “All the social friction because of a lack of trust gets removed.” In the process, “you unlock all this value and the world starts to feel like a community again.”

But what happens to “ownership?”

“There used to be a romanticism about ownership, because it meant you were free, you were empowered,” Chesky answered. “I think now, for the younger generation, ownership is viewed as a burden. Young people will only want to own what they want responsibility for. And a lot of people my age don’t want responsibility for a car and a house and to have a lot of stuff everywhere. What I want to own is my reputation, because in this hyperconnected world, reputation will give you access to all kinds of things now. … Your reputation now is like having a giant key that will allow you to open more and more doors. [Young people] today don’t want to own those doors, but they will want the key that unlocks them” — in order to rent a spare room, teach a skill, drive people or be driven.

But what will this mean for traditional jobs?

Today, said Chesky, “you may have many jobs and many different kinds of income, and you will accumulate different reputations, based on peer reviews, across multiple platforms of people. … You may start by delivering food, but as an aspiring chef you may start cooking your own food and delivering that and eventually you do home-cooked meals and offer a dining experience in your own home.” Just as Airbnb was “able to find use for that space you never found use for, it will be the same for people. That skill, that hobby that you knew was there but never used it,” the sharing economy will be able to monetize it.

How fast that happens will depend, in part, on regulators and tax collectors in different cities — not all of whom like people turning their spare bedrooms into hotels or their kitchens into pop-up restaurants. The sharing economy can complement the existing one, and make the pie bigger. But the bigger the Ubers and Airbnbs get, the more incumbents will resist them. This will be a struggle between the 20th-century economy and the 21st’s.

The 20th-century economy was powered by big corporations that standardized everything because they never really knew their customers, argued Chesky. “The 21st-century economy will be powered by people” — where the buyers all have identities and the producers all have personal reputations — “so I will be able to sell something directly to you and delight you and surprise you, and the selection you’ll be able to choose from won’t be 4 but 4,000,000.”

I don’t know if that’s how it will play out, but given Airbnb’s rapid growth, Chesky’s argument definitely has my attention.

And don’t forget that you’re supposed to take your gently used designer duds to the consignment shop…  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

With Israeli troops again invading Gaza and the death toll rising, some of the rhetoric from partisans on each side is oddly parallel. Maybe it’s time to correct a few common misconceptions among the salvos flying back and forth.

This is a struggle between good and evil, right and wrong. We can’t relax, can’t compromise, and we had no choice but to act.

On the contrary, this is a war in which both peoples have a considerable amount of right on their sides. The failure to acknowledge the humanity and legitimate interests of people on the other side has led to cross-demonization. That results in a series of military escalations that leave both peoples worse off.

Israelis are absolutely correct that they have a right not to be hit with rockets by Hamas, not to be kidnapped, not to be subjected to terrorist bombings. And Palestinians are absolutely right that they have a right to a state, a right to run businesses and import goods, a right to live in freedom rather than relegated to second-class citizenship in their own land.

Both sides have plenty of good people who just want the best for their children and their communities, and also plenty of myopic zealots who preach hatred. A starting point is to put away the good vs. evil narrative and recognize this as the aching story of two peoples — each with legitimate grievances — colliding with each other.

Just because the underlying conflict is between two peoples who each have plenty of right, that’s not to say that there are no villains. Hamas is violent, not only toward Israel, but toward its own people, and, in contrast to Israel, it doesn’t seem to try to minimize civilian casualties — its own or Israel’s. Hamas is not as corrupt as the Palestinian Authority, but it is far more repressive, and my impression from my visits to Gaza is that it’s also unpopular at home. Hamas sometimes seems to have more support on certain college campuses in America or Europe than within Gaza.

Meanwhile, the Israeli right undermines the best partner for peace Israel has had, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, and Israel’s settlements are a gift to Palestinian extremism. These days, in both Gaza and Jerusalem, hawks are in charge, and they empower each other.

The other side understands only force. What else can we do but fight back when we are attacked?

Israeli leaders, starting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, think that the way to protect their citizens is to invade Gaza and blow up tunnels — and, if Gazan civilians and children die, that’s sad but inevitable. And some Gazans think that they’re already in an open-air prison, suffocating under the Israeli embargo, and the only way to achieve change is fire rockets — and if some Israeli children die, that’s too bad, but 100 times as many Palestinian children are dying already.

In fact, we’ve seen this movie before: Israel responded to aggression by invading Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, and Gaza in 2008; each time, hawks cheered. Yet each invasion in retrospect accomplished at best temporary military gains while killing large numbers of innocents; they didn’t solve any problems.

Likewise, Palestinian militancy has accomplished nothing but increasing the misery of the Palestinian people. If Palestinians instead turned more to huge Gandhi-style nonviolence resistance campaigns, the resulting videos would reverberate around the world and Palestine would achieve statehood and freedom.

Some Palestinians understand this and are trying this strategy, but too many define nonviolence to include rock-throwing. No, that doesn’t cut it.

What would you do if your family were in Gaza/Israel, at risk of being killed. You wouldn’t just sit back and sing ‘Kumbaya,’ would you?

If any of us were in southern Israel, frightened sick by rockets being fired by Hamas, we, too, might cheer an invasion of Gaza. And if any of us were in Gaza, strangled by the embargo and losing relatives to Israeli airstrikes, we, too, might cheer the launch of rockets on Tel Aviv. That’s human nature.

That’s why we need to de-escalate, starting with a cease-fire that includes an end to Hamas rocket attacks and a withdrawal from Gaza by Israel. For Israel, this is a chance to use diplomacy to achieve what gunpowder won’t: the marginalization of Hamas. Israel might suggest an internationally supervised election in Gaza with the promise that the return of control to the Palestinian Authority would mean an end to the economic embargo.

Here we have a conflict between right and right that has been hijacked by hard-liners on each side who feed each other. It’s not that they are the same, and what I see isn’t equivalence. Yet there is, in some ways, a painful symmetry — and one element is that each side vigorously denies that there is any symmetry at all.

Blow and Kristof

July 17, 2014

In “Tears For the Border Children” Mr. Blow says their fate has been consumed by political theater and callous fabrication. This is not the best face of a great nation. We are more honorable than this.  Well, Mr. Blow, some of us are, and some of us are the Mole People…  In “Leading Through Great Loss” Mr. Kristof says those who have lost the most and have the biggest reason for revenge in the Middle East offer the greatest wisdom.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The fight over how to process and care for masses of children from Central America who have crossed into this country is quickly becoming a spectacle of the obscene.

While the government tries to abide by the law as written and handle the children with as much care as any child would deserve, under any circumstances, the public continues to see images of angry adults intent on confronting buses full of minors.

This month, demonstrators in Murrieta, Calif., forced buses carrying immigrants to turn back. A group in Oracle, Ariz., this week blocked a road to prevent a bus filled with immigrant children from making it to a temporary housing facility.

The latest protest came after the county sheriff tipped local residents off about the incoming bus. According to the Associated Press:

Sheriff Paul Babeu “is credited with stirring up the anti-immigrant protesters via social media postings and a press release Monday and by leaking information about the migrants’ arrival to a local activist.”

Adam Kwasman, a Republican congressional candidate and state legislator, also showed up to protest the children’s arrival. When a school bus was spotted, Kwasman tweeted a picture of it with the words, “Bus coming in. This is not compassion. This is the abrogation of the rule of law.”

Kwasman even regaled a local reporter with what he said he saw on the bus:

“I was able to actually see some of the children in the buses and the fear on their faces. This is not compassion.”

That was until the reporter informed Kwasman that the children on the bus weren’t migrant children but local YMCA campers who, according to “reporters at the scene,” were “laughing and taking pictures on their iPhones.”

Kwasman’s response: “They were sad, too.”

Well, I know that I’m sad. We should all be.

I’m sad that the fate of children has been so consumed by political theater and callous fabrication.

Some of these children will no doubt be found to simply be illegal immigrants and sent back home, but others, likely many, will indeed qualify for refugee status.

In fact, MSNBC reported last week that of more than 400 children who fled their homes, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees “found that almost 60 percent of children had legitimate claims to seek asylum in the United States. Most were escaping recruiting attempts by violent gangs who forced participation or threatened the entire families of children who refused.”

And yet, rather than refer to these children as just that — children — or possibly refugees, some Republicans have taken to calling their entry into the country an “invasion.” They have suggested that these kids are disease-ridden. Representative Louie Gohmert even suggested on the House floor that the wave of children posed an existential threat to the country, and Gov. Rick Perry hinted that the influx could be some sort of Obama administration conspiracy.

All this has raised the tenor of xenophobic hysteria in this country and is likely to poison the well of comprehensive immigration reform.

A Pew Research Center Poll released Wednesday found that most Americans want to speed up the process by which these children are processed in this country, even if some who are eligible for asylum are deported.

When that question is viewed through an ideological lens, 60 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Independents want to speed up the process, while Democrats are evenly split.

At this point, the entire issue has taken on partisan dimensions. Many of the president’s core supporters — blacks, liberal Democrats and young people — are more likely to support following the current policy. On the other hand, constituencies more likely to oppose the president — men, whites, older people and Republicans, particularly those who are supporters of the Tea Party — favor speeding up the process.

In fact, this issue has chilled Republican views of immigration in general. There has been a 10-percentage point drop — from 64 percent in February to 54 percent now — in the share of Republicans who support “a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants.”

This is not the best face of a great nation. This is the underside of a great stone, which when lifted sends creepy things slithering in all directions. We are better than this. We are more compassionate than this. We are more honorable than this.

This is not the time to give in to our lesser angels, but the time to rise with our better ones.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

In the carnage of Gaza and the Middle East, the most unlikely people have stepped forward from their grief to offer moral leadership.

The family of Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old Jewish boy who was one of three kidnapped and murdered, said in a statement after the apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian boy: “There is no difference between Arab blood and Jewish blood. Murder is murder.”

Likewise, the father of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian boy, said: “I am against kidnapping and killing. Whether Jew or Arab, who would accept that his son or daughter would be kidnapped and killed? I call on both sides to stop the bloodshed.”

Thus those who have lost the most, who have the greatest reason for revenge, offer the greatest wisdom. Yet, instead, it is now hard-liners on each side who are driving events, in turn empowering hard-liners on the other side.

Look, when militants in Gaza fire rockets at Israel, then Israel has a right to respond, but with some proportionality. More than 200 Gazans have been killed, three-quarters of them civilians, according to United Nations officials; one Israeli has been killed. In any case, Israel’s long-term interest lies in de-escalating, not moving to the ground war it now threatens.

Remember that the trend had been away from Gaza rocket strikes. Last year, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry website, there were far fewer rocket strikes on Israel than in any year since Hamas took over Gaza in 2006. But then, since June, there were the kidnappings and killings, rockets and the kind of mutual escalation that arises when each side thinks that the other understands only violence.

When missiles are flying, hard-liners on each side are ascendant. They purport to be defenders of their people, but, in fact, they’ve repeatedly demonstrated myopia and taken actions that ultimately created vulnerability and weakness.

After all, it was Israel itself that helped nurture Hamas and its predecessors in the 1970s and ’80s. The late Eyad El-Sarraj, a prominent psychiatrist in Gaza, warned Israel’s governor that he was “playing with fire” by nurturing religious militants. According to the book “Hamas,” by Beverley Milton-Edwards and Stephen Farrell, the governor replied: “Don’t worry, we know how to handle things. Our enemy today is the P.L.O.”

Similar shortsightedness unfolded to the north. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 inadvertently helped lead to the rise of its enemy there, Hezbollah.

Likewise, it was Hamas extremism and violence after the 2005 Gaza withdrawal that undermined Israeli moderates and led to the rise of the hard-liners who today are bombing Gaza. Israel helped create Hamas, and Hamas helped created today’s Israel.

The only way out in the long run is a two-state peace agreement. It’s true that one is not achievable now, but the aim should be to take steps that make a peace deal possible in 10 years or 20 years.

Israel could learn a lesson from Britain and Spain, both of which managed to defeat terrorist challenges that were once seen as insoluble. The analogy is imperfect, for rockets weren’t falling on London or Madrid. But Spain could have sent troops to quash Basque terrorists, and Britain could have bulldozed the offices of the I.R.A.’s political wing in Belfast.

Instead, Spain gave autonomy to the Basque Country and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher negotiated an agreement in 1985 that was criticized at the time for rewarding terrorists. This was painful and controversial, and it was by no means an instant success. Thatcher said in her memoir that the results were “disappointing.” Eventually, this approach proved transformative.

Today, in Middle Eastern terms, the analog would be a minimalist response, not a maximalist one. It would be a halt to settlements, cooperation to bolster Mahmoud Abbas and other moderate Palestinians, and an easing of the economic chokehold on Gaza to strengthen businesses there as a check on Hamas.

None of this is easy or certain. Secretary of State John Kerry’s admirable but failed peace initiative suggests that mutual distrust is so great that it may take years to lay the groundwork, so let’s get started.

When the families of a murdered Palestinian and a murdered Jew each call for humanity toward the other, it’s easy to dismiss the plea as naïve, inconsistent with harsh realities on the ground. But what we’ve actually seen for decades is that aggression on one side boomerangs and leads to aggression on the other.

In contrast, what has worked — albeit not very well and not very quickly, and in different circumstances — is the Spanish and British approaches of tough-minded conciliation and restraint to change the political landscape. That’s the approach that empowers not the hawks, but rather the Fraenkels and the Abu Khdeirs, so that an impossible peace eventually becomes possible.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Kristof

July 13, 2014

In “Look Homeward, LeBron” The Pasty Little Putz says the quest for community leads a superstar back to Ohio.  MoDo is back to banging away on one of her favorite little tin drums.  In “Isn’t It Rich?” she hisses that for the Clinton clan, it’s like father, like mother, like daughter.  Oddly enough, in this diatribe about a political dynasty, the name “Bush” appears nowhere…  The Moustache of Wisdom has decided to tell us all about “The World of Maxwell Smart, Part 1.”  He says “Get Smart” was ahead of its time. The world today is cleaving into “Control” and “Kaos.”  In “Those Girls Haven’t Been Brought Back” Mr. Kristof says leaders love to talk a good game on promoting education, but they don’t deliver.  Here’s The Putz:

One of the more significant migrations in recent American history doesn’t involve pioneers heading West, refugees seeking sanctuary, or Joad-like families rambling in search of work. It involves the trajectory of our nation’s most talented citizens, who since the 1970s have been clustering ever more densely in certain favored cities, and gradually abandoning the places in between.

In a mid-2000s piece for The Atlantic, Richard Florida, long a booster of “creative class” conurbations, noted that in 1970 college graduates were distributed pretty evenly around the country, but that three decades later they were much more concentrated. A few regions (the BosWash Northeast, the Bay Area, etc.) were destinations of choice for the well educated, and large swaths of the country emphatically were not. In Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, he noted, half the population had college degrees; for Detroit and Cleveland, the figures were 11 percent and 14 percent.

This migration has happened for understandable personal and professional reasons (said the pundit writing from a coffee shop in northeastern Washington, D.C.), and the dense professional networks it has created have arguably been good for certain kinds of economic dynamism.

But elite self-segregation, and what Charles Murray has dubbed the “coming apart” of the professional and working classes,  has also contributed to America’s growing social problems — hardening lines of class and culture, adding layers of misunderstanding and mistrust to an already polarized polity, and leaching brains and social capital from communities that need them most.

Which brings us to the fascinating story of LeBron James.

The basketball superstar’s trajectory up until Friday looked like the entire migration of the talented in miniature (well, a 6-foot-8 miniature). A child of depressed northeastern Ohio, with its struggling cities and declining population, James grew up to be drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers, played for his home-state team for seven brilliant but championship-free seasons, and then famously bolted for a richer, more glamorous locale.

And why? Not just for the money and amenities, but for the professional network. Like superstars in less-athletic fields, James felt that his productivity would be magnified by the right partnerships — in his case, by sharing a court with fellow stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. And four N.B.A. finals appearances and two rings later, it’s clear he judged correctly.

But now he’s making the migration in reverse, returning to the battered Midwestern city he famously betrayed. And strikingly, his statement announcing the move doubled as a kind of communitarian manifesto, implicitly critiquing the values underlying elite self-segregation in America:

My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio … to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business… Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.

In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.

I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.

Now I don’t want to make too much of an exhortation that is, of course, partially just a rich athlete’s brand-managing P.R. Especially since homecomings are fraught, complicated undertakings — for superstars even more than ordinary mortals, perhaps — and this one is as likely to end with LeBron feuding with ownership or forcing a trade as with a championship.

Moreover, even if everything goes smoothly on the court, LeBron’s “hard work” will be rather more richly rewarded than the typical Ohioan’s, and he’ll be “coming home” while still living, really, in the secure and gilded bubble of the rich and famous. So for a future college graduate deciding between staying on the Acela Corridor or coming back to Akron or Youngstown to raise a family, LeBron’s example is symbolically inspiring without being terribly relevant to the hazards of real life.

But with all those caveats, there will be a spillover effect of some sort from his decision. Even if it only happens on the margins, LeBron really did just make a down-at-the-heels part of America a slightly better place to live and work and settle.

And the return of the King is also a reminder that social trends, like careers, aren’t arrows that fly in one direction only. As real estate prices rise insanely on the coasts, as telecommuting becomes more plausible for more people, as once-storied cities hit bottom and rebound … well, there could be more incentives for less-extraordinary professionals to imitate this heartland native’s unexpected return.

At the very least there’s nothing written that says we have to come apart forever. Or that some Americans with less extraordinary but still substantial gifts can’t find a way, like LeBron, to take those talents home again.

Next up we have MoDo’s screed:

Chelsea Clinton never acted out during the eight years she came of age as America’s first daughter.

No ditching of her Secret Service detail. No fake IDs for underage tippling. No drug scandal. No court appearance in tank top and toe ring. Not even any dirty dancing.

Despite a tough role as the go-between in the highly public and embarrassing marital contretemps of her parents, Chelsea stayed classy.

So it’s strange to see her acting out in a sense now, joining her parents in cashing in to help feed the rapacious, gaping maw of Clinton Inc.

With her 1 percenter mother under fire for disingenuously calling herself “dead broke” when she left the White House, why would Chelsea want to open herself up to criticism that she is gobbling whopping paychecks not commensurate with her skills, experience or role in life?

As the 34-year-old tries to wean some of the cronies from the Clinton Foundation — which is, like the Clintons themselves, well-intended, wasteful and disorganized — Chelsea is making speeches that go into foundation coffers. She is commanding, as The Times’s Amy Chozick reported, up to $75,000 per appearance.

Chozick wrote: “Ms. Clinton’s speeches focus on causes like eradicating waterborne diseases. (‘I’m obsessed with diarrhea’ is a favorite line.)”

There’s something unseemly about it, making one wonder: Why on earth is she worth that much money? Why, given her dabbling in management consulting, hedge-funding and coattail-riding, is an hour of her time valued at an amount that most Americans her age don’t make in a year? (Median household income in the United States is $53,046.)

If she really wants to be altruistic, let her contribute the money to some independent charity not designed to burnish the Clinton name as her mother ramps up to return to the White House and as she herself drops a handkerchief about getting into politics.

Or let her speak for free. After all, she is in effect going to candidate school. No need to get paid for it, too.

There was disgust over Politico’s revelation that before she switched to a month-to-month contract, Chelsea was getting wildly overpaid at $600,000 annually — or over $25,000 per minute on air — for a nepotistic job as a soft-focus correspondent for NBC News.

Chelsea is still learning the answer to a question she asked when she interviewed the Geico gecko: “Is there a downside to all this fame?”

The Clintons keep acting as though all they care about is selfless public service. So why does it keep coming back to gross money grabs? It’s gone from two-for-the-price-of-one to three-for-the-price-of-20.

Hillary’s book — which feels like something she got at Ikea and had someone put together — is drooping because it was more about the estimated $13 million advance and the campaign ramp-up than the sort of intriguing self-examination and political excavations found in the memoirs of Timothy Geithner and Bob Gates. If she had had something to say, the book might have been shorter.

Hillary doesn’t see the disconnect between expressing grave concern about mounting student loan debt while scarfing six-figure sums from at least eight colleges, and counting. She says now that she’s passing the university money to the foundation but, never Ms. Transparency, has refused to provide documentation of that. (She’s still pocketing other huge fees for speeches like her April talk in Las Vegas to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.)

Chozick estimated that the lucrative family speechmaking business has generated more than $100 million for the former president and first lady, whose fees range from $200,000 to $700,000 per appearance. Bill alone earned $17 million last year doing what he likes to do best — talking.

“The issue is that the philanthropic beneficiary of the speeches is a foundation, structured as a public foundation but clearly synonymous with and controlled by the Clinton family,” Rick Cohen writes in The National Philanthropy Quarterly, adding: “Donors and institutions that are paying them and their daughter huge sums for their speeches may very well be buying recognition and face time with powerful political leaders who they hope will be able to deliver political favors in the future.

“It is troubling when corporate donors give to political charities with a more or less obvious expectation that softer and gentler treatment will ensue in the future. It is also troubling when some of the payers are public or nonprofit entities themselves such as colleges and universities, converting taxpayer funds and tax-exempt donations into signals that could end up in positive treatment when these institutions are themselves seeking access and favors, even if it is only a good word put in by one of the Clintons to a federal agency providing funding or to a regulator who might be taking a critical look at university tuitions and endowment payouts.”

The Clintons were fiercely protective of Chelsea when she was a teenager, insisting on respect from the media and getting it. They need to protect their daughter again, this time from their wanton acquisitiveness.

And now we come to The Moustache of Wisdom:

In the 1960s, there was a popular sitcom  — “Get Smart” — about a hapless secret agent named Maxwell Smart, played by Don Adams. Smart went by the code name “Agent 86.” “Get Smart” famously introduced the shoe phone to American audiences, but the show also introduced something else: its own version of the bipolar world. Do you remember the name of the intelligence agency Maxwell Smart worked for? It was called “Control.” And do you remember the name of Control’s global opponent? It was called “Kaos” — “an international organization of evil.”

 The creators of “Get Smart” were ahead of their time. Because it increasingly appears that the post-post-Cold War world is cleaving into the world of “order” and the world of “disorder” — or into the world of “Control” and the world of “Kaos.”

How so? First, we said goodbye to imperialism and colonialism and all their methods of controlling territory. Then we said goodbye to the Cold War alliance system, which propped up many weak and newly independent states with money to build infrastructure and to buy weapons to control their borders and people — because the stability of every square in the global chessboard mattered to Washington and Moscow.

And, lately, we’ve been saying goodbye to top-down, iron-fisted monarchies and autocracies, which have been challenged by massively urbanized, technologically empowered citizens.

So, today, you have three basic systems: order provided by democratic, inclusive governments; order imposed by autocratic exclusivist governments; and ungoverned, or chaotically governed, spaces, where rickety failed states, militias, tribes, pirates and gangs contest one another for control, but there is no single power center to answer the phone — or, if they do, it falls off the wall.

Look around: Boko Haram in Nigeria kidnaps 250 schoolgirls and then disappears into a dark corner of that country. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, a ragtag jihadist militia, carves out a caliphate inside Syria and Iraq and boasts on Twitter of beheading opponents. NATO decapitates Libya’s regime and sets loose a tribal-militia war of all against all, which, when combined with the crackup of Chad, spills arms and refugees across African borders, threatening Tunisia and Morocco. Israel has been flooded with more than 50,000 Eritreans and Sudanese refugees, who crossed the Sinai Desert by foot, bus or car looking for work and security in Israel’s “island of order.”

And, just since October, the U.S. has been flooded with more than 50,000 unaccompanied children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. “They’re fleeing from threats and violence in their home countries,” noted Vox.com, “where things have gotten so bad that many families believe that they have no choice but to send their children on the long, dangerous journey north.”

Why is this happening now? Well, just as I’ve argued that “average is overfor workers, now “average is over for states,” too. Without the Cold War system to prop them up, it is not so easy anymore for weak states to provide the minimums of security, jobs, health and welfare. And thanks to rapid advances in the market (globalization), Mother Nature (climate change plus ecological destruction) and Moore’s Law (computing power), some states are just blowing up under the pressure.

Yes, we blew up Iraq, but you can’t understand the uprising in Syria unless you understand how a horrendous four-year drought there, coupled with a demographic explosion, undermined its economy.

You can’t understand Egypt’s uprising without linking it to the 2010 global wheat crisis and soaring bread prices, which inspired the anti-Hosni Mubarak chant: “Bread, Freedom, Dignity.” You also can’t understand Egypt’s stress without understanding the challenge that China’s huge labor pool poses in a globalized world to every other low-wage country. Go into a souvenir shop in Cairo, buy a Pyramids ashtray and turn it over. I’ll bet it says, “Made in China.” Today’s globalization system rewards countries that make their workers and markets efficient enough to take part in global supply chains of goods and services faster than ever — and punishes those who don’t more harshly than ever.

You can’t understand the spread of ISIS or the Arab Spring without the relentless advance in computing and telecom — Moore’s Law — creating so many cheap command-and-control Internet tools that superempower small groups to recruit adherents, challenge existing states and erase borders. In a flat world, people can see faster than ever how far behind they are and organize faster than ever to protest. When technology penetrates more quickly than wealth and opportunity, watch out.

The combined pressures of the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law are creating the geopolitical equivalent of climate change, argues Michael Mandelbaum, author of “The Road to Global Prosperity,” and “some familiar species of government can’t survive the stress.”

So, please spare me the “it’s all Obama’s fault.” There are plenty of reasons to criticize Obama, but everything is not about what we do. There are huge forces acting on these countries, and it will take extraordinary collaboration by the whole world of order to contain them. I’ll address this on Wednesday.

Oh, goody…  Last but not least we have Mr. Kristof:

It has been almost three months since Islamic militants in northern Nigeria attacked a school that was giving exams and kidnapped more than 250 girls — some of the brightest and most ambitious teenagers in the region.

Their captors have called them slaves and threatened to “sell them in the market.” The girls were last seen, looking terrified, in a video two months ago.

“We are asking for help,” pleaded Lawan Zanah, father of one missing girl, Ayesha, who is 18 and appeared in that video. “America, France, China, they say they are helping, but on the ground we don’t see anything.”

He told me that he and the other parents don’t even know if their daughters are alive. The parents spend their time praying that God will intervene, since the Nigerian government and others don’t seem to be. “We hope God will feel our pain,” he said.

The principal of the school, Asabe Kwambura, told me that 219 girls are still missing and lamented that the international campaign to help — #BringBackOurGirls — is faltering as the world moves on.

“Continue this campaign,” she urged. “Our students are still living in the woods. We want the international community to talk to the government of Nigeria to do something, because they are doing nothing.”

The Nigerian government’s most obvious response has been to hire an American public relations firm for a reported $1.2 million. That money could be better used to pay for security at schools.

Global leaders talk a good game about education, but they don’t deliver. Sad to say, that includes President Obama. When he was running for president in 2008, he announced a plan for a $2 billion global fund for education — and if you’ve forgotten about that, don’t worry, because he seems to have as well. Indeed, Obama is requesting 43 percent less in international aid for basic education in 2015 than the peak that Congress provided in 2010.

Aid to education worldwide from all donor countries has fallen 10 percent since 2010, according to Unesco.

If President Obama wants to support a global fund for education, there is one. It’s called the Global Partnership for Education, and it has offices in Washington. It is strongly supported by other donor countries, but its chairwoman, Julia Gillard, the former prime minister of Australia, notes that the United States has, so far, provided about only 1 percent of the budget for it.

“The United States is not 1 percent of the world’s population,” she said dryly.

To his credit, Obama is upping the sums, offering $40 million this year and more in the future. Representatives Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, and Dave Reichert, a Washington Republican, are also co-sponsoring an Education for All Act that would promote aid for schooling some of the 58 million kids worldwide who aren’t attending primary school.

One group has been responsive: Times readers. After I wrote about the Nigerian girls in May and mentioned a group called Camfed that sends girls to school in Africa, Times readers donated nearly $900,000 to Camfed. Thank you, readers!

Camfed says the money will help 3,000 girls continue in high school across Africa — girls like Katongo, a 16-year-old math whiz in Zambia. Katongo is an orphan who had to drop out of school for lack of money for fees, but she is now on track to become the first person in her family to finish school. She plans to become a nurse.

But while private donations help, they won’t solve the education gap. Neither will aid dollars, although they, too, will help. Ultimately, governments in poor countries need to step up and make education a priority — for what is needed is not just money but also a kick in the pants.

In Mali, 92 percent of children at the end of second grade were unable to read a single word, according to Unesco. In Zambia, 78 percent of third-graders couldn’t read a single word. In Iraq, 61 percent of second-graders couldn’t answer a single subtraction question correctly.

Conditions are often deplorable. Teachers in Africa and Asia often don’t show up at school because they are paid by a government bureaucracy even if they are perennially absent. Of low-income children in Malawi, only 3 percent manage to complete primary school and learn the basics of education — perhaps partly because the average class size in first grade in Malawi is 130 students. In Cameroon, there is only one math book for every 13 second-graders. How can kids possibly learn that way?

Yet we’ve also learned that done right, education changes almost everything. Evidence suggests that educating girls increases productivity, raises health standards, reduces birthrates and undermines extremism.

Drones and missiles can fight terrorism, but an even more transformative weapon is a girl with a book, and it’s one that is remarkably cost-effective. For the price of a single Tomahawk cruise missile, it’s possible to build about 20 schools.

Many of the world’s poor understand the power of education. I’ve seen children in Liberia who lack lights at home do their homework at night under street lamps. I’ve been moved by parents in India and Pakistan going hungry to pay school fees for their children.

A fierce ambition to study explains why those 219 girls in northern Nigeria showed up to take their final exams even though they knew the risks of terrorism. Some of those girls dreamed of becoming teachers, doctors, lawyers — and now they may be enslaved in a forest and perhaps married off to Islamic militants.

I hope we’re doing everything possible to locate and recover those girls: This is a rare case where, if the Nigerian government asked for our help, the world would applaud us for assisting in a raid. So let’s #BringBackOurGirls. But let’s not stop there.

For almost all of history, the great majority of humanity has been illiterate, and now that is changing with stunning rapidity. Lant Pritchett, an education expert at Harvard, notes that schooling has increased much more in the last 60 years than it did in all the centuries from Plato’s Academy until 1950. Education is an escalator that can change the world, and we are now on the cusp of wiping out global illiteracy for good — if we sustain the effort.

Boko Haram is assassinating teachers, attacking schools and kidnapping students because it knows that literacy is the enemy of extremism. Terrorists understand the power of education. Do we?

Blow, Kristof and Collins

July 10, 2014

Mr. Blow considers “The Crisis of Children at the Border” and says don’t call the president and his administration lawless on the one hand, then blame them for proper law enforcement on the other.  Mr. Kristof, in “Religious Freedom in Peril,” says this is no Supreme Court case. This is about intolerance in some Muslim-majority countries.  Ms. Collins considers “The Rant Agenda” and says from a Congress that is always on vacation, to all those political fund-raisers, to Rick Perry, to Sarah Palin, we the people have a lot to discuss!  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The humanitarian crisis of unaccompanied minors from Central America arriving at our Southwest border has brought out the worst in some of our politicians.

The amount of double-speak coming from fork-tongued conservatives on this issue is sickening. It wraps faux-concern around unwavering, and even emboldened, anti-immigrant, border-militarization rhetoric.

On his show this week, Sean Hannity interviewed Senator Ted Cruz. Hannity ended one statement by asking:

“This is getting out of hand, all because the government refuses to send people home. I’m not sure why we refuse to enforce our laws.”

Cruz responded:

“Sean, it’s a terrific question. What is happening with these children is heartbreaking. And, the president is right that it’s a humanitarian crisis, but it is a crisis of his own creation. This is the direct consequence of President Obama’s lawlessness.”

One of the things Cruz pointed out as Obama’s “lawlessness” was a 2012 executive order that allows Dream Act-eligible students to be taken out of the deportation process and granted work permits.

As then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at the time:

“This grant of deferred action is not immunity… It is not amnesty. It is an exercise of discretion so that these young people are not in the removal system. It will help us to continue to streamline immigration enforcement and ensure that resources are not spent pursuing the removal of low-priority cases involving productive young people.”

But amnesty is precisely what conservatives called it, and they were — and remain — furious about it. So, they are using this crisis to hammer the president, and Democrats in general, on immigration policy

Furthermore, they basically argue that because the administration is enforcing the law, one signed by President George W. Bush and meant to protect children from human trafficking, the administration is encouraging more people from Central America to send their children here.

But one can’t call the president and his administration lawless on the one hand, then blame them for proper law enforcement on the other.

If Congress wants to change or tweak the law about unaccompanied minors arriving in this country — and many conservatives are itching to do so — it can, but it would be creating a “solution” to a “problem” that Congress itself created.

To follow that line of reasoning, one must also accept the premise that the whole of a law designed to protect children arriving alone from dangerous parts of the world is not noble and humane. I reject that logic.

These are children we are talking about, not just numbers, not just data, not political pawns. And, although most may not meet the refugee threshold needed to stay in the United States, many may. How are we supposed to hold our heads high on humanitarian issues if, in our haste for a fix and our fixation on deterrence, we return even a few children to a place where their lives are in danger?

As the White House has put it, this is “an urgent humanitarian situation.”

According to Customs and Border Protection, 52,193 “unaccompanied alien children” were apprehended on the Southwest border of the United States from the beginning of the 2014 fiscal year through June (Oct. 1, 2013 to June 15, 2014). That was nearly twice the number apprehended during the same period in the last fiscal year.

And, as The New York Times reported last month:

“According to an internal draft Homeland Security document, officials recently revised their projections on unaccompanied minors. They now expect more than 90,000 in the 2014 fiscal year, an increase of nearly 20,000 from the previous projection.”

This surge is driven largely by children arriving from a few Central American countries. A United States Department of Homeland Security document obtained by the Pew Research Center found:

“For example, many Guatemalan children come from rural areas, indicating they are probably seeking economic opportunities in the U.S. Salvadoran and Honduran children, on the other hand, come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of traveling alone to the U.S. preferable to remaining at home.”

And the top municipalities by far are in Honduras, the murder capital of the world.

Ask yourself this: If in fact, these children were simply arriving due to the attraction of amnesty, why haven’t we seen the same surge from other nations, including other countries south of us, like Mexico

Many of these children are not safe at home or on the run. There are no easy answers for them and their families, no safe happy places where childhood innocence is protected.

To be sure, sending an unaccompanied child, alone, with a “coyote,” for a treacherous trip hundreds of miles long, is not safe. The children are vulnerable to all manner of mistreatment, and may in fact not even make it.

But that is precisely why we must treat the children who do arrive with compassion. Children aren’t caught up in the politics of this. They are just doing as they’re told, many no doubt shadowed by fear, moving surreptitiously through unknown lands toward the dream of a brighter tomorrow. They dream as any child dreams — of happiness and horrors.

And their parents are no doubt like any parents, forced to make the most wrenching of decisions, sometimes about whether to leave a child in a never-ending hell or have them risk a hellish journey to a better place.

No parent makes such a choice lightly.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

A Sudanese court in May sentences a Christian woman married to an American to be hanged, after first being lashed 100 times, after she refuses to renounce her Christian faith.

Muslim extremists in Iraq demand that Christians pay a tax or face crucifixion, according to the Iraqi government.

In Malaysia, courts ban some non-Muslims from using the word “Allah.”

In country after country, Islamic fundamentalists are measuring their own religious devotion by the degree to which they suppress or assault those they see as heretics, creating a human rights catastrophe as people are punished or murdered for their religious beliefs.

This is a sensitive area I’m wading into here, I realize. Islam-haters in America and the West seize upon incidents like these to denounce Islam as a malignant religion of violence, while politically correct liberals are reluctant to say anything for fear of feeding bigotry. Yet there is a real issue here of religious tolerance, affecting millions of people, and we should be able to discuss it.

I’ve been thinking about this partly because of the recent murder of a friend, Rashid Rehman, a courageous human rights lawyer in Multan, Pakistan. Rashid, a Muslim, had agreed to defend a university lecturer who faced the death penalty after being falsely accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. This apparently made Rashid a target as well, for two men walked into his office and shot him dead.

No doubt the killers thought themselves pious Muslims. Yet such extremists do far more damage to the global reputation of Islam than all the world’s Islamophobes put together.

The paradox is that Islam historically was relatively tolerant. In 628, Muhammad issued a document of protection to the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery.

“No compulsion is to be on them,” he wrote. “If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.”

Anti-Semitism runs deep in some Muslim countries today, but, for most of history, Muslims were more tolerant of Jews than Christians were. As recently as the Dreyfus Affair in France more than a century ago, Muslims defended a Jew from the anti-Semitism of Christians.

Likewise, the most extreme modern case of religious persecution involved Europeans trying to exterminate Jews in the Holocaust. Since then, one of the worst religious massacres was the killing of Muslims by Christians at Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It’s also true that some of the bravest champions of religious freedom today are Muslim. Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, an Iranian lawyer, represented a Christian pastor pro bono, successfully defending him from charges of apostasy. But Dadkhah was then arrested himself and is now serving a nine-year prison sentence.

Saudi Arabia may feud with Iran about almost everything else, but they are twins in religious repression. Saudis ban churches; it insults Islam to suggest it is so frail it cannot withstand an occasional church.

Particularly insidious in conservative Muslim countries is the idea that anyone born Muslim cannot become a Christian. That’s what happened in the case I mentioned in Sudan: The court considered the woman, Meriam Ibrahim, a Muslim even though she had been raised a Christian by her mother. The court sentenced her to die for apostasy; that was overturned, and she is now sheltering with her family in the United States Embassy in Sudan, trying to get permission to leave the country.

A Pew Research Center study found Muslims victims of religious repression in about as many countries as Christians. But some of the worst abuse actually takes place in Muslim-dominated countries. In Pakistan, for example, a brutal campaign has been underway against the Shiite minority. Likewise, Iran represses the peaceful Bahai, and similarly Pakistan and other countries brutally mistreat the Ahmadis, who see themselves as Muslims but are regarded as apostates. Pakistani Ahmadis can be arrested simply for saying, “peace be upon you.”

All this is a sad index of rising intolerance, for Pakistan’s first foreign minister was an Ahmadi; now that would be impossible.

I hesitated to write this column because religious repression is an awkward topic when it thrives in Muslim countries. Muslims from Gaza to Syria, Western Sahara to Myanmar, are already enduring plenty without also being scolded for intolerance. It’s also true that we in the West live in glass houses, and I don’t want to empower our own chauvinists or fuel Islamophobia.

Yet religious freedom is one of the most basic of human rights, and one in peril in much of the world. Some heroic Muslims, like my friend Rashid in Pakistan, have sacrificed their lives to protect religious freedom. Let’s follow their lead and speak up as well, for silence would be a perversion of politeness.

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

So little time, so much bad behavior to complain about.

Congress is back! Thank heavens, because there’s a crisis at the border, and the Highway Trust Fund is about to expire. Plus, the Export-Import Bank is teetering on the brink of disaster. (Days ago, we had no idea there was an Export-Import Bank, let alone what it did. Now we’re just getting acquainted, and they want to rip it away.)

And, of course, a huge pile of normal stuff has piled up: hearings, meetings, appropriations bills, plots to destroy Obamacare. It’s all a rush, given that Congress is scheduled to go on another five-week vacation beginning Aug. 1.

So the House speaker, John Boehner, wants to get cracking on the matter of suing the president.

“The legislative branch has an obligation to defend the rights and responsibilities of the American people and America’s constitutional balance of powers — before it is too late,” Boehner said, in an op-ed article posted on the CNN website.

I believe I speak for us all when I respond — say what? According to Boehner’s memo to Republican troops, the crisis that calls out for formal litigation involves “matters ranging from health care and energy to foreign policy and education.” Also, the president acting with “king-like authority.”

People, have you been hanging around this country for the past couple of years? Have you noticed any king-like chief executives? When you make a list of the things you would like to see Congress do before they go back on vacation, how many of you put “curbing the effectiveness of the White House” on the top of the list?

Feel free to rant.

“So sue me,” said the president, when news of Boehner’s alleged plan reached the White House. Remember when he first won the nomination by promising to end partisan gridlock? Do you think Hillary Clinton watches this stuff and laughs bitterly?

On Wednesday, the president arrived in Texas, the epicenter of the humanitarian crisis involving a flood of Central American children crossing the Mexican border. He was there for some previously scheduled fund-raisers. Also feel free to rant about fund-raisers.

The situation is terrible. More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the border since last fall. The administration is supposed to provide them with access to counsel and supervision by the Department of Health and Human Services while they’re taken through the required legal channels. There’s a two-year waiting list to see an immigration judge.

Part of the backlog is because of a law passed at the end of the George W. Bush administration. We are not going to complain about this law, since it was aimed at combating child sex trafficking. If you’re going to rant about George W. Bush, you should really focus on the invasion of Iraq and the ruining of the economy.

President Obama has asked for $3.7 billion to take care of the children and hire more people to process the cases. Speaker Boehner countered that the president should call out the National Guard. That should be extremely helpful in discouraging the flood of young, desperate immigrants, who almost invariably throw themselves into the arms of the first American uniform they see.

The House chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte, called the president’s request for money a “slap in the face to the taxpayers of the United States.” However, he did suggest that he might be able to maybe perhaps do something about fixing the current law. This was during a brief interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, in which Goodlatte used the word “tweak” three times.

Boehner and the House Republicans do not appear to feel any compunction to revisit the Senate’s bipartisan immigration reform bill. Or to take any responsibility for the current crisis. Since, you know, Obama has plenty of power and he should just use it and leave Congress alone.

In Texas, the president met with Gov. Rick Perry, who has complained about the issue of children at the border. He has also suggested that the whole thing might be an Obama plot. (“… I hate to be conspiratorial, but, I mean, how do you move that many people from Central America, across Mexico, into the United States without there being a fairly coordinated effort?”)

Feel free to rant about Rick Perry.

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin announced that Congress should respond to the desperate humanitarian situation by — yes! — impeaching Obama. Boehner, she said dismissively, was trying to bring a “lawsuit to a gunfight.” Always charming the way Palin brings guns into the political debate.

Actually, if the impeachment idea caught on it would be the best possible thing for the White House. Modern history suggests there is nothing the American public hates more than Congress trying to impeach the president. Except maybe a Congress trying to sue the president. And then leaves for vacation.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

July 6, 2014

The Moustache of Wisdom is off today.  The Pasty Little Putz has a question in “A Company Liberals Could Love.”  He babbles that Hobby Lobby and religious organizations serve the common good. So why not encourage, rather than obstruct, them?  Cripes, where to begin…  In the comments “LES” from Southgate, KY also has a question:  “This is a ridiculous argument. Religion is being used as a way around a government mandate. Period. Where is the separation of church and state?”  MoDo is in the dumps.  In “Who Do We Think We Are?” she whines that as Americans celebrate the Fourth of July in blazing red, white and blue, the emphasis this year is on the blue.  Mr. Kristof writes about “When They Imprison the Wrong Guy” and says this legal thriller isn’t a John Grisham tale. It’s a Texas man’s life story. And his perspective on the criminal justice system was unjustly earned.  Mr. Bruni asks “Is Joe Riley of Charleston the Most Loved Politician in America?”  He says in an era of cynicism and stasis, Charleston’s indefatigable mayor talks about how government can and should function.   Here’s the Putz:

For a generation now, liberals have bemoaned the disappearance of the socially conscious corporation, the boardroom devoted to the common good. Once, the story goes, America’s C.E.O.s recognized that they shared interests with workers and customers; once wages and working hours reflected more than just a zeal for profits. But then came Reagan, deregulation, hostile takeovers, and an era of solidarity gave way to the age of Gordon Gekko, from which there’s been no subsequent escape.

There are, however, exceptions: companies that still have a sense of business as a moral calling, which can be held up as examples to shame the bottom-liners.

One such company was hailed last year by the left-wing policy website Demos “for thumbing its nose at the conventional wisdom that success in the retail industry” requires paying “bargain-basement wages.” A retail chain with nearly 600 stores and 13,000 workers, this business sets its lowest full-time wage at $15 an hour, and raised wages steadily through the stagnant postrecession years. (Its do-gooder policies also include donating 10 percent of its profits to charity and giving all employees Sunday off.) And the chain is thriving commercially — offering, as Demos put it, a clear example of how “doing good for workers can also mean doing good for business.”

Of course I’m talking about Hobby Lobby, the Christian-owned craft store that’s currently playing the role of liberalism’s public enemy No. 1, for its successful suit against the Obama administration’s mandate requiring coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and potential abortifacients.

But this isn’t just a point about the company’s particular virtues. The entire conflict between religious liberty and cultural liberalism has created an interesting situation in our politics: The political left is expending a remarkable amount of energy trying to fine, vilify and bring to heel organizations — charities, hospitals, schools and mission-infused businesses — whose commitments they might under other circumstances extol.

So the recent Supreme Court ruling offers a chance, after the hysteria cools and the Taliban hypotheticals grow stale, for liberals to pause and consider the long-term implications of this culture-war campaign.

Historically, support for religious liberty in the United States has rested on pragmatic as well as philosophical foundations. From de Tocqueville’s America to Eisenhower’s, there has been a sense — not universal but widespread — that religious pluralism has broad social benefits, and that the wider society has a practical interest, within reason, in allowing religious communities to pursue moral ends as they see fit.

But in the past, tensions over pluralism’s proper scope usually occurred when a specific faith — Catholicism and Mormonism, notably — unsettled or challenged the mostly Protestant majority. Today, the potential tensions are much broader, because the goals of postsexual revolution liberalism are at odds with the official beliefs of almost every traditional religious body, be it Mormon or Muslim, Eastern Orthodox or Orthodox Jewish, Calvinist or Catholic.

If liberals so desire, this division could lead to constant conflict, in which just about every project conservative believers undertake is gradually threatened with regulation enforcing liberal norms. The health coverage offered by religious employers; the activity of religious groups on college campuses; the treatments offered by religious hospitals; the subject matter taught in religious schools … the battlegrounds are legion.

And liberals seem to be preparing the ground for this kind of expansive conflict — by making sharp distinctions (as the White House’s mandate exemptions did) between the liberties of congregations and the liberties of other religious organizations, by implying that religion’s “free exercise” is confined to liturgy and prayer, and by suggesting (as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did in her Hobby Lobby dissent) that religious groups serve only their co-believers, not the common good.

That last idea, bizarre to anyone who’s visited a soup kitchen, could easily be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Insist that for legal purposes there’s no such thing as a religiously motivated business, and you will get fewer religiously motivated business owners — and more chain stores that happily cover Plan B but pay significantly lower wages. Pressure religious hospitals to perform abortions or sex-reassignment surgery (or some eugenic breakthrough, down the road), and you’ll eventually get fewer religious hospitals — and probably less charity care and a more zealous focus on the bottom line. Tell religious charities they have legal rights only insofar as they serve their co-religionists, and you’ll see the scope of their endeavors contract.

But this is not a path liberals need to choose — not least because the more authentically American alternative does not require them to abandon their policy goals. (Obamacare’s expansion of contraceptive coverage, for instance, will be almost as sweeping if some religious nonprofits and businesses opt out.)

Rather, it just requires a rediscovery of pluralism’s virtues, and the benefits of allowing different understandings of social justice to be pursued simultaneously, rather than pitted against each other in a battle to the death.

Next up we have MoDo’s whinging:

America’s infatuation with the World Cup came at the perfect moment, illuminating the principle that you can lose and still advance.

Once our nation saw itself as the undefeatable cowboy John Wayne. Now we bask in the prowess of the unstoppable goalie Tim Howard, a biracial kid from New Jersey with Tourette’s syndrome.

With our swaggering and sanguine image deflated by epic unforced errors, Americans are playing defense, struggling to come to grips with a world where we can no longer dictate all the terms, win all the wars and lead all the charges.

“The Fourth of July was always a celebration of American exceptionalism,” said G.O.P. pollster Frank Luntz. “Now it’s a commiseration of American disappointment.”

From Katrina to Fallujah, we’re less the Shining City Upon a Hill than the House of Broken Toys.

For the first time perhaps, hope is not as much a characteristic of American feelings.

Are we winners who have been through a rough patch? Or losers who have soured our sturdy and spiritual DNA with too much food, too much greed, too much narcissism, too many lies, too many spies, too many fat-cat bonuses, too many cat videos on the evening news, too many Buzzfeed listicles like “33 Photos Of Corgi Butts,” and too much mindless and malevolent online chatter?

Are we still the biggest and baddest? Or are we forever smaller, stingier, dumber, less ambitious and more cynical? Have we lost control of our not-so-manifest destiny?

Once we had Howard Baker, who went against self-interest for the common good. Now we have Ted Cruz. Once we had Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner whose fortitude in a Japanese P.O.W. camp was chronicled in Laura Hillenbrand’s book “Unbroken.” Now we’ve broken Iraq, liberating it to be a draconian state run on Sharia law, full of America-hating jihadists who were too brutal even for Al Qaeda.

We’re a little bit scared of our own shadow. And, sadly, we see ourselves as a people who can never understand one another. We’ve given up on the notion that we can cohere, even though the founders forged America by holding together people with deep differences.

A nation of immigrants watched over by the Statue of Liberty — with a government unable to pass immigration reform despite majority support — sees protesters take to the streets to keep Hispanic children trying to cross the border from being housed in their communities.

Andrew Kohut, who has polled for Gallup and the Pew Research Center for over four decades, calls the mood “chronic disillusionment.” He said that in this century we have had only three brief moments when a majority of Americans said they were satisfied with the way things were going: the month W. took office, right after the 9/11 attacks and the month we invaded Iraq.

The old verities seem quaint. If you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll lose out to those guys who can wire computers to make bets on Wall Street faster than the next guy to become instant multimillionaires. Our quiet traditional virtues bow to our noisy visceral divisions, while churning technology is swiftly remolding the national character in ways that are still a blur. Boldness is often chased away by distraction, confusion, hesitation and fragmentation.

Barack Obama vowed to make government cool again, but young people, put off by the dysfunction in our political, financial, military and social institutions, are eschewing government jobs. Idealism is swamped by special interests. The middle class is learning to do more with less. The president, sort of the opposite.

“The world sees us as having gone from a president who did too much to a president who does too little,” said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

David Axelrod, the president’s Pygmalion, mused: “Reagan significantly changed the trajectory of the country for better and worse. But he restored a sense of clarity. Bush and Cheney were black and white, and after them, Americans wanted someone smart enough to get the nuances and deal with complexities. Now I think people are tired of complexity and they’re hungering for clarity, a simpler time. But that’s going to be hard to restore in the world today.”

Young people are more optimistic than their rueful elders, especially those in the technology world. They are the anti-Cheneys, competitive but not triumphalist. They think of themselves as global citizens, not interested in exalting America above all other countries.

“The 23-year-olds I work with are a little over the conversation about how we were the superpower brought low,” said Ben Smith, the editor in chief of Buzzfeed. “They think that’s an ‘older person conversation.’ They’re more interested in this moment of crazy opportunity, with the massive economic and cultural transformation driven by Silicon Valley. And kids feel capable of seizing it. Technology isn’t a section in the newspaper any more. It’s the culture.”

Ben Domenech, the 32-year-old libertarian who writes The Transom newsletter, thinks many millennials are paralyzed by all their choices. He quoted Walker Percy’s “The Last Gentleman”: “Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.” He also noted that, given their image-conscious online life in the public eye, millennials worry about attaching themselves with a click to the wrong clique or hashtag: “It heightens the level of uncertainty, anxiety and risk aversion, to know that you’re only a bad day and half a dozen tweets from being fired.”

Jaron Lanier, the Microsoft Research scientist and best-selling author, thinks the biggest change in America is that “technology’s never had to shoulder the burden of optimism all by itself.”

And that creates what Haass calls a tension between “dysfunctional America vs. innovative America.”

Walter Isaacson, head of the Aspen Institute and author of the best-selling “Steve Jobs,” agreed that “there’s a striking disconnect between the optimism and swagger of people in the innovative economy — from craft-beer makers to educational reformers to the Uber creators — and the impotence and shrunken stature of our governing institutions.”

Nathaniel Philbrick, the author of “Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution,” which depicts the Patriots, warts and all, warns against gilding the past. “They weren’t better than us back then; they were trying to figure things out and justify their behavior, kind of like we are now,” he said. “From the beginning to the end, the Revolution was a messy work in progress. The people we hold up as paragons did not always act nobly but would then later be portrayed as always acting nobly. It reminds you of the dysfunction we’re in the middle of now.

“The more we can realize that we’re all making it up as we go along and somehow muddling through making ugly mistakes, the better. We’re not destined for greatness. We have to earn that greatness. What George Washington did right was to realize how much of what he thought was right was wrong.”

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

On the day after his 32nd birthday, Michael Morton returned from work to find his home in Austin, Tex., surrounded by yellow police tape.

Morton jumped out of his car and raced to the door. “Is Eric O.K.?” Morton asked, thinking that something might have happened to his 3-year-old son. The sheriff said Eric was fine.

What about Chris, Morton’s wife?

“Chris is dead,” the sheriff answered.

Morton reeled after learning that Chris had been bludgeoned in their bed, and then the police arrested him for the murder.

Eric had told his grandma that he actually saw a “monster with the big mustache” hit his mother, but police suppressed this and other evidence. The jury deliberated two hours before convicting Morton of murder in 1987, and he received a sentence of life in prison.

“It seemed as if the word guilty was still ringing through the courtroom when I felt the cold steel of the cuffs close on my wrists — a sensation that in the next quarter-century would become as familiar as wearing a wristwatch,” Morton writes in a stunning memoir to be published on Tuesday.

Chris’s family turned on him, assuming him to be the killer. Eric was raised by Chris’s sister and her husband, and Eric eventually changed his name to match theirs. At age 15, he wrote his dad to say he would stop visiting him.

“I crumpled onto the bunk and just lay there,” Morton writes, “clenching and unclenching my fists, feeling hot tears forming and then falling, clutching the letter to my chest as if I were trying to squeeze all the hurt out of it.”

A great deal has been written about the shortcomings of the American criminal justice system, but perhaps nothing more searing than Morton’s book, “Getting Life.” It is a devastating and infuriating book, more astonishing than any legal thriller by John Grisham, a window into a broken criminal justice system.

Indeed, Morton would still be in prison if the police work had been left to the authorities. The day after the killing, Chris’s brother, John, found a bloodied bandanna not far from the Morton home that investigators had missed, and he turned it over to the police.

Morton had advantages. He had no criminal record. He was white, from the middle class, in a respectable job. Miscarriages of justice disproportionately affect black and Hispanic men, but, even so, Morton found himself locked up in prison for decades.

Then DNA testing became available, and the Innocence Project — the lawyers’ organization that fights for people like Morton — called for testing in Morton’s case. Prosecutors resisted, but eventually DNA was found on the bandanna: Chris’s DNA mingled with that of a man named Mark Alan Norwood, who had a long criminal history.

What’s more, Norwood’s DNA was also found at the scene of a murder very similar to Chris’s — that of a young woman with a 3-year-old child, also beaten to death in her bed, just 18 months after Chris’s murder.

“The worst fact about my being convicted of Chris’s murder wasn’t my long sentence,” Morton writes. “It was the fact that the real killer had been free to take another life.”

With the DNA evidence, the courts released Morton, after 25 years in prison, and then soon convicted Norwood of Chris’s murder. Ken Anderson, who had prosecuted Morton and later became a judge, resigned and served a brief jail term for misconduct.

As for Morton, he’s rebuilding his life. He and Eric have come together again, and he is happily married to a woman he met at church.

“Life’s good now, even on my bad days,” Morton told me, laughing. “Perspective is everything.”

Morton has a measured view of lessons learned. Most of the people he met in prison belonged there, he says, but the criminal justice system is also wrongly clogged with people who are mentally ill. As for complete miscarriages of justice like his own, he figures they are rare but still more common than we would like to think.

My take is that our criminal justice system is profoundly flawed. It is the default mental health system, sometimes criminalizing psychiatric disorders. It is arbitrary, and the mass incarceration experiment since the 1970s has been hugely expensive and grossly unfair. Prisons are unnecessarily violent, with some states refusing to take steps to reduce prison rape because they say these would be costly. And the system sometimes seems aimed as much at creating revenue for for-profit prisons as at delivering justice.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Michael Morton is able to deliver this aching and poignant look at the criminal justice system only because he didn’t get a death sentence. When Morton was finally freed from prison, some of his first words were: “Thank God this wasn’t a capital case.”

Last up we have Mr. Bruni:

The custom here is for a mayor’s portrait to be hung in the City Council chamber only after he leaves office. But in 2007, folks got tired of waiting for Joe Riley to make his exit, and he was put on the wall while still on the job. He’d been running Charleston for more than 31 years.

It’s almost 39 at this point: a period long enough that he can’t remember the color of his hair, now white, when he first took office, in December 1975.

“Brownish-blond, I guess?” he said.

It’s equally hard for many people to recall what Charleston looked like back then. Its center wasn’t the beautifully manicured, lovingly gentrified showpiece it is today.

That transformation helps explain why voters have elected Riley 10 times in a row. They adore the man, or at least many of them do, as I witnessed firsthand when I ambled around town with him last week. More than once, someone spotted him — he vaguely resembles Jimmy Stewart, only lankier — and then followed him for a few blocks just to shower him with thanks.

These admirers had to hustle to catch up with him, because even at 71 he moves fast, unflustered by his new hip and unbothered by the South Carolina summer heat.

Politicians around the country speak of him reverently, casting him as the sagacious Obi-Wan Kenobi (or maybe Yoda) of local government and noting that no current mayor of a well-known city has lasted so long.

“To maintain enormous popularity in your city and equal reservoirs of respect professionally among your peers — I don’t think there’s anyone who’s been able to do that like he has,” Stephen Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis, told me.

I had to visit him. I was exhausted with all the cynicism, including my own, about politics and politicians, and I craved something and someone sunnier. I was curious about the perspective of a leader who had clearly gotten a whole lot right.

What makes for good governance? Riley’s observations warranted attention.

Almost as soon as we sat down together, he talked up the annual Spoleto performing-arts festival, a renowned Charleston event that has bolstered the city’s profile. I wasn’t sure why he was choosing to focus on it or how it factored into any political philosophy.

Then he explained his reasons for pushing for it back before it was first held in 1977. “It forced the city to accept the responsibility of putting on something world-class,” he said.

Yes, he wanted the tourists who would flow into the city and the money they’d spend. Sure, he wanted the luster.

But he was also staging a kind of experiment in civic psychology and doing something that he considered crucial in government. He was raising the bar, and Spoleto was the instrument. It simultaneously brought great talent to Charleston and required great talent of Charleston.

“You need to commit a city to excellence,” he said, “and the arts expose you to that.”

He has fumbled balls and ruffled feathers, drawing censure for the city’s response to a 2007 blaze that killed nine firefighters, and warring with preservationists and environmentalists.

But he has been careful not to pick abstract and unnecessary battles, and he has deliberately concentrated on visible, measurable realities: the safety, beauty and vibrancy of streets; the placement of parks; the construction of public amusements; the availability of housing.

What people want from government, he stressed to me, isn’t lofty words but concrete results. They want problems solved and opportunities created. Mayors — ever accountable, ever answerable — tend to remember that and to wed themselves to a practicality that’s forgotten in Washington, where endless ideological tussles accommodate the preening that too many lawmakers really love best.

“Mayors can’t function as partisans,” he said. And in Charleston they officially don’t. While Riley happens to be a Democrat, candidates for mayor and City Council here aren’t party designees; there are no primaries.

But perhaps nothing, he said, is more vital than making sure that an electorate’s diversity is taken into account — Charleston is about 70 percent white and 25 percent African-American — and that voters feel fully respected by the leaders who represent them. Inclusion is everything, and he has long considered it the South’s mission, and his own, to build bridges between white and black people.

In the Charleston of his youth, schools were segregated, and when he practiced the proper manners that his parents had taught him and once answered a question from an African-American waiter with the words “yes, sir,” they corrected him. You didn’t say “sir” to a black man.

“The rules were phony,” he told me, adding that he and many of his friends realized it even then.

As a member of the South Carolina Legislature in the early 1970s, he advocated unsuccessfully for a state holiday commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. In 1982, as mayor, he hired Charleston’s first African-American police chief, Reuben Greenberg, who held that job for 23 years and was considered a huge success.

One day in 2000, Riley arrived at his office and told a senior adviser, David Agnew, “Maybe I had too much coffee this morning, but I have an idea.” The mayor proposed — and then organized — a five-day, 120-mile march from Charleston to Columbia, the state capital, to urge the removal of the Confederate battle flag that still fluttered over the statehouse.

He was fed up with South Carolina’s image to outsiders as a preserve of stubborn bigotry, Agnew told me, “and he believed that the best instincts of South Carolina were better than what the Legislature was doing.”

Agnew said that Riley received death threats before the march and that Police Chief Greenberg insisted that he wear a bulletproof vest during it.

The walking bloodied and blistered his feet, which he swaddled in bandages so he could get to the finish line. The flag came down later that year, which was also when South Carolina became the last state to sign a King holiday into law.

Now his passion is the establishment of an African-American history museum on Charleston’s harbor. There are similar museums elsewhere, he said, but perhaps none in a setting as fitting. Charleston played a central role in the slave trade: Four of every 10 slaves came on ships that passed through the city. So Charleston, Riley said, should be at the forefront of guaranteeing that people remember what happened.

“It’s a profound opportunity to honor the African-Americans who were brought here against their will and helped build this city and helped build this country,” he told Charleston’s main newspaper, The Post and Courier, last year.

As he showed me the stretch of waterfront where he envisioned the museum rising, he talked about the horrors that slaves endured and “the amazing resilience of the human spirit.”

He is trying to secure the financing, bringing prominent architects on board and hoping that everything will be nailed down by December 2015. That’s when he has vowed to retire, at the end of 40 years. It’s time, he said.

The museum would be completed later, a legacy consistent with a conviction that he has held from the start. You can’t have “a great, successful city,” he said, “unless it’s a just city.”

Wise words. They hold true for a country as well.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

July 3, 2014

In “Barack the Bear” Mr. Blow says the president is caught in the jaws of a legislative trap, unable to move the country forward because a fraction of it insists on holding him back.  Mr. Kristof, in “Porsches, Potholes and Patriots,” says the anti-tax crusaders love to oppose taxation without representation, but important public investments deserve their due on this patriotic holiday.  Ms. Collins has a “Political Pop Quiz” for us.  Happy July! She challenges us to  see how well we can do on this Halfway Through the Year Political Quiz.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The president is growing hostile to being held hostage — both by the very insular nature of the presidency itself, and by the more stultifying intransigence of Congress.

During a walk a few weeks ago from the White House to the Interior Department, the president proclaimed, “The bear is loose.”

At a Minneapolis town hall last week, Obama said: “With Secret Service, I always tease them, I’m like a caged bear and sometimes I break loose.”

That, however, is the lighter side of things, the side in which the grizzly is merely grumpy because he’s feeling a bit stir-crazy.

But there is the other, more frustrating, and ultimately more consequential side, in which the president is caught in the jaws of a legislative trap, unable to move the country forward because a fraction of it insists on holding him back.

In recent years, major pieces of legislation steered through Congress and signed into law by this president have been few and far between. His major achievements during that time have mostly been confined to military positioning, international negotiations, regulatory adjustments and other executive orders.

But even he is, I’m sure, aware that great presidencies require the cooperation of Congress, and on that measure, his presidency has been clipped. This is not simply about a president, but also about our progress as a nation. Congress can’t simply sit out a presidency and have the country sustain itself.

The nation yearns for action — on employment, on infrastructure, on comprehensive immigration reform, on gun control, on any number of issues — yet all efforts are thwarted by a Congress committed to starving this president of any semblance of progress, committed to the erasure of his inhabitance of the office, as best it can be achieved.

As an excuse for their inexcusable inactions, Republicans insist that they refuse to act because they find this president perfidious — unwilling in his enforcement of existing laws and willfully insistent on breaking others.

They see him as the former constitutional law professor at war with the Constitution.

This is all happening against an international backdrop where many parts of the world in which we have a vested interest appear to be falling apart.

There is a humanitarian crisis mounting on our southern border: A wave of undocumented Central American children have arrived, and we struggle for a way to treat them humanely but also stem the tide.

According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month, the president’s approval rating on foreign policy fell to the lowest level of his presidency.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday even found that President Obama topped the “worst president” list among those who have held the office since World War II. Worse than George W. Bush? Worse than Richard Nixon? Really?

Of course, this result has to be taken with a boulder-size grain of salt. Poll respondents are not presidential historians. They answer how they feel about the president at that moment. But it can’t be dismissed out of hand, either. It is no secret that people are genuinely frustrated and disillusioned and taking out their anger on our political system over all. For instance, Congress now has a record low confidence rating — just 7 percent, according to Gallup.

A fragile period of relative peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors is quickly unraveling following the kidnapping and killing of three teenage Israeli boys. Now, as The New York Times has reported, “the body of an abducted Arab teenager was found in a Jerusalem forest early Wednesday” and “police were investigating the death as a possible Israeli revenge killing” for the killing of the Israeli teenagers.

The social-media savvy, and utterly brutal Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, continues to hold broad sections of both countries, declaring their controlled areas a caliphate, and reportedly carrying out mass executions and even crucifixions in the process.

Violence in Ukraine, pitting that country’s military against pro-Russian forces, has ramped up since the Ukrainian president allowed a 10-day cease-fire to expire.

Uncertainty at home is being reinforced and inflamed by uncertainty abroad.

There are no easy answers for how to move forward on domestic policies if Republicans are blocking the doorways, and there are no easy foreign policy choices without getting Americans embroiled in another foreign conflict for which there is nearly no appetite.

And yet, the president can see the end of his presidency fast approaching, and can look back with regret about what could have been if only Congress were in the ballgame.

So now the president appears legitimately angry. He is promising to go even further with executive actions if Congress refuses to act, and daring members to follow through on their threats to take legal action against him for doing so.

As the president said Tuesday at an event in Washington: “Middle-class families can’t wait for Republicans in Congress to do stuff. So sue me.”

The bear may be trapped, but he’s not browbeaten. He’s growling.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

The anti-tax crusader pulls out of his driveway in his Porsche, hoping that the neighbors are watching. He’s proud that it’s the most expensive car on his block. “That’s the greatness of America” he muses. “That’s what we should celebrate on July 4! I spend money so much more wisely than government.”

Three blocks later, Babbitt, as we’ll call him, swerves to avoid one pothole and lands in another. There’s a sickening thud. With a sinking heart, Babbitt gets out to examine the damage.

“*@# government!” he curses. “They can’t even fix the roads. Now I’ve got a flat, and my rim is bent! What’s the point of owning a hot car when the government can’t even fix the roads?”

Babbitt calls a tow truck and gets to the office two hours late, missing a meeting with a client. “The government is like George III,” he moans. “Robs us blind and doesn’t do anything for us!”

Voters like Babbitt will play a major role in this year’s elections, and politicians are often too timid to point out the blunt truth: Sometimes money is better spent by the government than by individuals. Indeed, it seems to me that we’re at a point where we would be better off as a nation paying a bit more in taxes and in exchange getting better schools, safer food, less congested roads — and, over all, a higher standard of living.

America’s infrastructure is now so wretched that, in some areas, the only people who drive straight are the drunks. Anyone who is sober swerves to avoid potholes.

In New Jersey, the gas tax hasn’t been increased since 1992, and two-thirds of the roads are now evaluated as in poor or mediocre condition. The upshot, one study found, is that the average motorist spends $601 per year in repair costs. It sure seems as if society would be better off spending a little in taxes to improve roads and then saving on car repairs — not to mention in injuries and fatalities averted.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives America a grade of D+ for infrastructure and estimates congestion on highways costs the economy $101 billion annually in wasted time and fuel. A study of American bridges found that more than 66,000 in America are structurally deficient; laid end to end, the deficient ones would reach from Canada to Mexico.

Yet on the campaign trail, it’s a brave politician who acknowledges that taxes have their uses. Around July Fourth, we should be able to celebrate that some of our greatest national achievements aren’t tax cuts but public investments:

• America was the first country to invest in mass elementary education for boys and girls, then in high schools, and then in widespread college education. As Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz of Harvard have argued, this may be the best explanation for America’s rise to global pre-eminence.

• The United States invested in the electrical grid, with public projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority and rural electrification. These hugely raised living standards and economic output.

• President Dwight Eisenhower, who had been part of an army convoy that took 62 days to cross the United States on wretched roads, invested in the 1950s in the interstate highway system. The interstates knitted together the country and created huge economic efficiencies.

These were visionary schemes that, if newly proposed today, might not get off the ground. Our schools have tumbled by global standards, we haven’t ensured access to the Internet the way we did to the electrical grid, and our highway trust fund is almost broke.

So, on Independence Day, let’s celebrate a heritage not just of opposing taxation without representation, but also of wise public investment. In the 1790s, President George Washington and other patriots crushed the Whiskey Rebellion, a progenitor of modern anti-tax crusades. It’s time for patriots again to defend reasonable taxes.

The ratio of tax to G.D.P. has changed little in the United States in the last six decades. Other countries, as they grew richer, chose to increase taxes and services, but the United States has resisted that trend and is now near the bottom of the pack of industrialized countries in taxation levels, notes Andrea Louise Campbell, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The wealthy, in particular, pay low income taxes in the United States. And loopholes mean that the corporate tax burden is lower in the United States than among our peers.

So as we celebrate July Fourth, let’s get real about government. Sure, tax money is sometimes squandered, as is money in business. But what strengthens us as a nation is often investments in public goods that benefit all Americans — and, after all, there’s not much point in saving on taxes to buy a Porsche when the roads all have potholes.

And last but not least here’s Ms. Collins’ quiz:

Chris Christie has spent the last several months wrestling with Bridgegate. One of the key players in the fiasco, David Wildstein, went to high school with the governor. Christie stressed that although they had known each other as teenagers…

  • A) “We had a different lunch period.”

  • B) “We didn’t travel in the same circles in high school. You know, I was the class president and athlete.”

  • C) “He did not sign my yearbook ‘Remember all the fun we had in detention hall.’”

  • D) “The story about us getting suspended for stealing traffic cones is greatly exaggerated.”

Representative Paul Ryan gave a speech about the National School Lunch Program in which he said:

  • A) “I am a real big fan of those lentil salads.”

  • B) “I propose we shut down the government until they bring back white bread.”

  • C) “Every time I see a fish stick it reminds me of the happy days I’ve spent noodling. Do you know about noodling? You stick your fist down a catfish’s throat and pull him out of the water.”

  • D) “What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul.”

The House majority leader, Eric Cantor, was unexpectedly defeated for re-election on a day…

  • A) When a fortuneteller had warned him to beware of college professors carrying books about Ayn Rand.

  • B) That he began at a Washington Starbucks, hosting a fund-raising gathering for lobbyists.

  • C) When he promised his children they would go noodling for catfish after the victory party.

  • D) When he awoke from a nightmare in which he was posing for photos at his polling place. and realized he had forgotten to put on his pants.

Hillary Clinton got around $250,000 for giving a speech at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries convention. While she was talking someone …

  • A) Discovered that she had charged Friends of Composting only $200,000.

  • B) Threw a shoe at her.

  • C) Asked her if she was going to run for president. Clinton said no one had ever brought that up before and that she probably would.

  • D) Presented her with a surprise award for Most Different-Colored Pantsuits.

The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, beat back a Tea Party challenge from a candidate named Matt Bevin, whose terrible campaign included an appearance at a rally for cockfighting. In defense Bevin said that …

  • A) Some of his best friends were roosters.

  • B) The founding fathers liked cockfighting.

  • C) He was trying to wean the crowd off the sport of kittenbaiting.

  • D) He had wandered in mistakenly while searching for the parking lot.

Mike Huckabee denounced Democrats for making women believe “that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.”
This was during a meeting of the Republican National Committee that was supposed to be discussing:

  • A) What to do with people who keep running for president without any noticeable encouragement from the public.

  • Surprising ways to use the word “sugar.”

  • C) How to close the gender gap.

  • D) How to turn the gender gap into a money-raising attraction, like the Grand Canyon.

After the State of the Union speech, a TV reporter approached Representative Michael Grimm of New York to ask about allegations that Grimm broke campaign finance laws. Grimm responded by …

  • A) Proposing that they talk instead about President Obama’s remarks on income inequality.

  • B) Asking the reporter if he had ever stopped to enjoy the great view of the Capitol rotunda from the balcony where they were standing.

  • C) Threatening to throw the reporter over the balcony, then adding: “No, no, you’re not man enough, you’re not man enough. I’ll break you in half. Like a boy.”

  • D) Explaining that his real problems were pending indictments for hiring illegal immigrants to work at his restaurant and paying them under the table.

Former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown moved his residence to the family vacation house in New Hampshire so he could run against Senator Jeanne Shaheen. In an Associated Press interview, Brown was asked whether the fact that he had not actually lived in New Hampshire since he was a year and a half old would make a difference. He replied:

  • A) “Look, everybody knows that a person’s brain develops mostly during the first year.”

  • B) “Do I have the best credentials? Probably not, ‘cause, you know, whatever.”

  • C) “Do you want to go for a ride in my truck? I have a really cool truck.”

  • D) “Is this New Hampshire? I thought I was running in Maine.”

The Republican nominee for the Senate in Iowa became famous for a video in which she bragged that “I grew up…

  • A) In a town where it was every little girl’s dream to be crowned Miss Ethanol.”

  • B) Hoping that one day I would be able to make a difference and vote against Obamacare 60 times in a single year.”

  • C) Castrating hogs on an Iowa farm.”

  • D) Licking the butter cow at the state fair.”

10  George H.W. Bush sent out a fund-raising letter for the Republican National Committee that began: “Friend, I don’t know what your guilty pleasures are in life but…

  • A) I like jumping out of airplanes.”

  • B) One of mine is napping.”

  • C) One of mine is socks.”

  • D) I enjoy siring presidential candidates.”

 

Here’s the answer key:

1B, 2D, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6C, 7C, 8B, 9C, 10C

 

The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman and Kristof

June 29, 2014

MoDo and Mr. Bruni are off today.  The Pasty Little Putz thinks he knows something about “Stopping Campus Rape.”  He tells us that there are changes colleges could make in campus life that would address the root causes of sexual assaults.  He’d love to regress to the 50s, when I guess he thinks rape never happened.  In “Arsonists and Firefighters” The Moustache of Wisdom says some argue that it is not inevitable that the Middle East erupt in sectarian conflagration.  In ” ‘Jane’ Didn’t Get the Help She Needed” Mr. Kristof says “Jane Doe” has a life story at the age of only 16 that is a good example of how the juvenile justice system is failing many of those most in need.  Here’s The Putz:

In the debate over sexual violence on college campuses, two things are reasonably clear. First, campus rape is a grave, persistent problem, shadowing rowdy state schools and cozy liberal-arts campuses alike.

Second, nobody — neither anti-rape activists, nor their critics, nor the administrators caught in between — seems to have a clear and compelling idea of what to do about it.

The immediate difficulty is that what many activists want from colleges — a disciplinary process that leads to many more expulsions for sexual assault — is something schools are ill equipped to offer. As Michelle Goldberg acknowledges in a judicious article for The Nation, dealing with serious crimes in a setting that normally handles minor infractions risks a worst-of-both-worlds scenario: a process whose lack of professionalism leaves victims more “devastated than vindicated,” even as its limited protections for the accused lead to endless lawsuits claiming kangaroo-court treatment.

The deeper problem, which applies for courts of law as well, is that even with a near-perfect justice system, sexual assault on campus often happens in a context that by its nature defies easy adjudication. Most campus assaults involve incapacitation, usually involving alcohol, rather than brute force; most involve friends and acquaintances and partners and exes; and most women assaulted while under the influence do not themselves use the word “rape” to describe what happened. As long as these patterns persist, it is difficult to see any disciplinary or legal change that would inspire substantially more formal accusations, let alone clear and airtight verdicts.

But this does not mean our society is helpless against sexual violence on campus. Rather, we’re searching ineffectively for better after-the-fact responses because we aren’t willing to deal with some of the root causes, or upset the underlying legal and cultural status quo.

As examples, here are three shifts I suspect would, in combination, do more to reduce the rate of sexual assault than any disciplinary change being contemplated. The first would require action by legislators; the other two, by administrators. Probably none of them will happen; all of them, in theory, could.

First, our lawmakers could reduce the legal drinking age to 18 from 21. The key problem in college sexual culture right now isn’t drinking per se; it’s blackout drinking, which follows from binge drinking, which is more likely to happen when a drinking culture is driven underground.

Undoing the federal government’s Reagan-era imposition of a higher drinking age is probably too counterintuitive for lawmakers to contemplate. And obviously it wouldn’t eliminate the lure of the keg stand or tame the recklessness of youth. But it would create an opportunity for a healthier approach to alcohol consumption — more social and relaxed, less frantic and performative — to take root in collegiate culture once again.

Second, college administrators could try to break their schools’ symbiotic relationship with the on-campus party scene. This is not an easy task, mostly for financial reasons: The promise of Blutarskian excess often attracts the kind of well-heeled kids whose parents pay full freight, and the “party pathway” through academe involves two intertwined phenomena — big-time sports and wild Greek life — that basically define college for many deep-pocketed alums.

But what Murray Sperber has dubbed the “beer and circus” atmosphere around college athletics, combined with what Caitlin Flanagan’s recent Atlantic article terms “the dark power” of (some) fraternities, are the deep forces shaping the vulnerable trajectory of many campus nights. Weaken those forces, rein in their often-misogynistic excesses, and what’s lost in alumni dollars would probably be gained in lower rates of sexual violence, and a safer campus over all.

Finally, colleges could embrace a more limited version of the old “parietal” system, in which they separated the sexes and supervised social life. This could involve, for instance, establishing more single-sex dorms and writing late-night rules that apply identically to men and women. Bringing a visitor to your room after 10 p.m. or midnight might require signing in with an adult adviser, who would have the right to intervene when inebriation seemed to call consent and safety into question.

This need not represent a return to any kind of chastity-based ethic. The point would be to create hurdles for predators, clearer decision points for both sexes and —  in the event that someone sneaked an intended partner in, and the encounter ended badly  —  a reason short of a rape conviction to discipline or expel.

Colleges have gestured in this direction with programs encouraging bystanders to step in if a pairing-off seems to be turning sour or violent. But taking on a formal, chaperone-like role themselves would cut against the ideological spirit of the modern university, and no doubt would be widely denounced as puritanical, heteronormative, reactionary.

Embracing such a role, though, would probably make the typical campus a place of greater safety than it is today.

So as this debate continues, it’s an alternative worth pondering. There are ways, apart from ineffective tribunals, to reduce sexual violence on campus. We just aren’t ready to embrace them.

Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

What’s the real fight in the Middle East today? Is it just sectarian (Sunnis versus Shiites) and national (Israelis versus Palestinians and Arabs versus Persians)? Or is it something deeper? I was discussing this core question with Nader Mousavizadeh, a former senior United Nations official and the co-founder of Macro Advisory Partners, a geopolitical advisory firm, and he offered another framework: “The real struggle in the region,” he said, “is between arsonists and firefighters.”

There is a lot of truth in that. The sectarian and nationalist fires you see burning around the Middle East are not as natural and inevitable as you may think.

“These are deliberate acts of arson,” argues Mousavizadeh, “set by different leaders to advance their narrow and shortsighted political, economic and security objectives.” In the West, he warns, “a mix of fatigue and fatalism is in danger of creating a narrative of irreversible Sunni-Shia conflict. This is historically false and releases the region’s leaders from their responsibility to wield power in a legitimate and accountable way.”

To be sure, he added, the sectarian divides are real, but it is “not inevitable” that the region erupt in sectarian conflagration. It takes arsonists to really get these sectarian fires blazing, and, “unless they set them and fan them and give them fuel,” they will more often than not die out.

How so? Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, is an arsonist. When confronted with a nonviolent, grass-roots protest against his tyrannical rule, he opened fire on the demonstrators, hoping that would provoke Syria’s Sunni majority to respond with violence against his Alawite/Shiite minority regime. It worked, and now Assad presents himself as the defender of a secular Syria against Sunni fanatics.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is an arsonist. The minute America left Iraq, he deliberately arrested Sunni leaders, deprived them of budgets and stopped paying the Sunni tribesmen who rose up against Al Qaeda. When this eventually triggered a Sunni response, Maliki ran in the last election as the defender of the Shiite majority against Sunni “terrorists.” It worked.

Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt launched a violent crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, killing, wounding and arresting many hundreds, and then he ran for president as the defender of Egypt against Muslim Brotherhood “terrorists.”

The Palestinian extremists who recently kidnapped three Israeli youths were arsonists, aiming to blow up any hope of restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and to embarrass Palestinian moderates. But they had help. Radical Jewish settler supporters in the Israeli cabinet, like Naftali Bennett and housing minister Uri Ariel, are arsonists. Ariel deliberately announced plans to build 700 new housing units for Jews in Arab East Jerusalem — timed to torpedo Secretary of State John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy. And they did.

There are firefighters in all these places — people like Tzipi Livni and Shimon Peres in Israel, former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Mohammad Javad Zarif in Iran and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq — but they are now overwhelmed by the passions set loose by the arsonists.

It is hard for people who have not lived in the Arab world to appreciate that Shiites and Sunnis in places like Iraq, Lebanon or Bahrain often intermarry. Those that do are jokingly called “Sushi.” Sectarian massacres are not the norm. A poll just released by Zogby Research Services, conducted in seven Arab countries, found that “strong majorities in every country favor U.S. policies that support a negotiated solution to the conflict [in Syria], coupled with more support for Syrian refugees. Majorities in all countries oppose any form of U.S. military engagement” or arming of opposition groups.

I recently gave the commencement address at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, in Kurdistan. Its student body is 70 percent Kurdish, and the rest are mostly Shiites and Sunnis from across Iraq. With the right leadership, people in the region can and do get along. It is why for all the talk of breaking Iraq into three parts, it is has never been the preferred choice of most Iraqis.

As one of my Kurdish hosts remarked to me, “The Shiites of Basra still long for the famous yoghurt of Erbil,” Kurdistan’s largest city. “When Ramadan comes, the Kurds will feel deprived if they cannot break the daily fast with the famous dates of Basra.” And Kurds have come to enjoy “shisha,” smoking water pipes, which are a tradition they got from the Arabs. There are more ties that bind than don’t. You actually have to work at burning them up.

To be sure, harmony between different sects requires order, but it does not have to be iron-fisted. Iraqis just last April held fair elections on their own. They can do it. These societies need to go from being governed by iron fists “to iron institutions that are legitimate, inclusive and accountable, and strong enough to hold the frame of society together,” argued Mousavizadeh.

That requires the right leadership. “So when the region’s leaders come to Washington to plead for engagement and intervention, ask for money or ask for arms,” he added, “Let them first answer the question: Are you an arsonist or are you a firefighter?”

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

If you want to understand just how miserable a childhood can be, 16-year-old “Jane Doe” is a good place to start.

That’s what the authorities in Connecticut call her to protect her identity. She was removed a few days ago from an adult prison where she had been confined by herself for two months — not as punishment but because the state said it had nowhere else to put her that would be safe.

Now Jane is in a girls’ detention center in Middletown, Conn. She’s one of almost 70,000 American youths incarcerated on any given day — and a reminder of how ineffective our programs for troubled children are.

Like many detained kids, Jane has been through hell. Because her father was in prison and her mother was a drug abuser, she was raised by relatives. At age 8, she says in an affidavit provided to the courts, her cousin began to rape her anally, causing her to lose control of her bowels.

“My grandfather made me sleep outside on the porch for two days because I couldn’t hold my stool and had an accident,” she recounts. “He told me, ‘only animals do that,’ and if I didn’t stop he would treat me like one.”

A history of abuse is common for troubled kids. One study of 2,500 people sentenced to life imprisonment while juveniles found that almost half had been physically abused. Among girls, 77 percent reported sexual abuse.

More than 60 percent of incarcerated youths in America are confined for nonviolent offenses. Two-thirds are children of color.

Jane, who is Hispanic, seems to have had little help as a young child, when social services are most effective. But at 12, she says in the affidavit, she was placed by state authorities in a school for troubled youths. Even after coming under state supervision, she recounts repeated sexual abuse by staff, relatives and other youths.

Jane was particularly vulnerable because she is transgender. She was born male but identifies as female.

At 15, Jane was living on the streets. A pimp sold her for sex, she says; she eventually escaped but continued to sell sex herself.

“All I wanted was someone to tell me they loved me, that everything would be all right,” she says in the affidavit. “But that never happened.”

She was periodically violent to staff and girls in the youth centers she was sent to, court documents show. Connecticut cited that history of violence, and a need to protect others, in isolating Jane in an adult prison beginning in April. “It was devastating for her,” says her lawyer, Aaron J. Romano. (Connecticut officials deny that it was so grim and say that she had educational opportunities.)

Now that Jane is out of prison and in youth detention, the aim is to provide her care that, both her advocates and the state say, would ideally lead to placement in a loving foster-care family, with outside support to help the transition.

“We’re already looking for an appropriate foster family,” Joette Katz, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, told me.

Through her lawyer, Jane answered questions I sent to her. She was scornful of the juvenile justice system: “It doesn’t work,” she said flatly. But she spoke poignantly of her desire to become a nurse and a mentor for other transgender children. “I would love to be a role model for young trans kids,” she said.

The larger lesson is the way we systematically over-rely on the criminal justice toolbox to deal with youths, rather than on social services or education. The United States incarcerates children at a rate that is 10 or 20 times higher than in some other industrial countries.

A generation ago, perhaps it was plausible that the shock of juvenile detention would scare a kid back to the straight-and-narrow path. Now that’s not tenable. Robust research shows that incarcerating kids often just turns them into career criminals.

The cost of detaining a youth is about $100,000 a year. And one study found that the cost to society of a high-risk 14-year-old who doesn’t straighten out is at least $3.2 million over his lifetime.

Thus it would be economically efficient, as well as humane, to invest in interventions from the beginning of life that reduce delinquency. That means home visitation to at-risk families, lead abatement, early education, and schools for low-income children that are as good as those for the middle class.

As a result partly of costs, youth detention rates are dropping since peaking in about 1995. But we still fail systematically to invest adequately in children like Jane, who is a reminder that it’s much easier to help a child at 6 than at 16.

“Everyone thinks I am some kind of wild animal,” she wrote despairingly from prison last month. “If this is helping me, then I’m all set with being helped.”

Kristof and Collins

June 26, 2014

Mr. Blow is off today.  In “Obama’s Weakness, Or Ours?” Mr.  Kristof says critics scoff at President Obama for his caution on foreign policy. But that’s actually smart.  Ms. Collins tells us that “Mississippi Goes for the Money.”  She says the runoff in Mississippi was not your average Senate primary race. It featured Brett Favre, Chuck Woolery and even some aggrieved farm animals.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

The odds are that you think President Obama’s foreign policy is a failure.

That’s the scathing consensus forming, with just 36 percent of Americans approving of Obama’s foreign policy in a New York Times/CBS News poll released this week. Foreign policy used to be a source of strength for the president, and now it’s dragging him down — and probably other Democrats with him.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, warns that Obama “has weakened the national security posture of the United States.” Trent Franks, a Republican member of the House from Arizona, cites foreign policy to suggest that Obama is “the most inept president we have ever had.”

Obama is no Messiah, but this emerging narrative about a failed foreign policy is absurdly harsh. Look at three issues where Republicans have been unfairly jabbing him with pitchforks:

Trading five Taliban prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl was unpopular with the public, and the Obama administration may have made the trade in the incorrect belief that Bergdahl was near death. Then again, here’s an American soldier who spent five years in Taliban custody, some of that reportedly in a cage after trying to escape. If we make heroic efforts to bring back American corpses, how can we begrudge efforts to bring back a soldier who is still alive?

Sure, there are risks. But the five Taliban prisoners have probably aged out of field combat, and, if they return to Afghanistan after their year in Qatar, they would likely have trouble finding American targets because, by then, the United States will no longer be engaged in combat.

More broadly, there’s nothing wrong with negotiating with the Taliban. The blunt truth is that the only way to end the fighting in Afghanistan is a negotiated peace deal involving the Taliban, and maybe this deal can be a step along that journey.

Russian aggression in Ukraine was infuriating, but it’s petty Washington politics to see it as emanating from Obama weakness. After all, President George W. Bush was the most trigger-happy of recent presidents, and he couldn’t prevent Russia from invading Georgia in 2008 and helping carve off two breakaway republics.

Obama diplomacy appears to have worked better than military force would have. Contrary to early expectations, Russia did not seize southeastern Ukraine along with Crimea, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia this week called on Parliament to rescind permission to invade Ukraine. Be wary, but let’s hope the Bear is backing down.

The debacle in Iraq is a political and humanitarian catastrophe, but it’s a little rich for neocons to blame Obama after they created the mess in the first place. Obama was unengaged on Iraq and Syria, but it’s not clear that even if he had been engaged the outcome would have been different.

Suppose Obama had kept 10,000 troops in Iraq as his critics wish. Some would have been killed; others injured. We would have spent another $50 billion or so in the Iraqi sands (that’s more than 25 times what Obama requested to start universal prekindergarten, but Congress balks at the expense). And Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki might have felt even less need to keep Sunni tribes on his side. Would all this really have been the best use of American lives and treasure?

Yes, Obama has made his share of mistakes, especially in Syria, where he doesn’t seem to have much of a policy at all. Partly balancing that, he helped to defuse the Syrian chemical weapons threat.

Look, the world is a minefield. President Clinton was very successful internationally, yet he bungled an inherited operation in Somalia, delayed too long on Bosnia, missed the Rwanda genocide and muffed the beginning of the Asian financial crisis — and all that happened during a particularly skillful administration.

As for former Vice President Dick Cheney complaining about Obama’s foreign policy, that’s a bit like the old definition of chutzpah: killing your parents and then pleading for mercy because you’re an orphan. In the Bush/Cheney years, we lost thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, we became mired in Afghanistan, Iran vastly expanded the number of centrifuges in its nuclear program, and North Korea expanded its arsenal of nuclear weapons. And much of the world came to despise us.

Blowing things up is often satisfying, and Obama’s penchant for muddling along instead, with restraint, is hurting him politically. But that’s our weakness more than his. Obama’s foreign policy is far more deft — and less dangerous — than the public thinks, and he doesn’t deserve the harsh assessments. If there’s one thing we should have learned in the Bush/Cheney years, it’s that swagger and invasion are overrated as foreign policy instruments.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Mississippi has sent us a message. I believe it boils down to: We Want Our Stuff.

Big election night! As you no doubt have heard, Senator Thad Cochran, a Republican who specializes in sending billions of dollars in federal pork back into his state, defeated a Tea Party challenger who ran against government spending.

It wasn’t easy. Cochran’s fierce and energetic opponent, Chris McDaniel, forced him into a primary runoff. To survive, Cochran turned to Democrats, who took advantage of Mississippi’s open primary laws and tossed Thad a vote. Or at least turned out to give McDaniel a kick in the shin.

“We are not prone to surrender, we Mississippians,” McDaniel declaimed once the results were announced. “A strong and sturdy people we are. A brave people we are!” He appeared to either be planning to demand an investigation or try out for a role in the next Hobbit sequel.

“Those guys are not good losers,” mused Curtis Wilkie, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi.

The runoff was kind of fascinating. Cochran, who is something less than a fireball orator, rambled on at one event about his childhood visits to a farm and doing “all kinds of indecent things with animals.” One of the many, many political action committees involved in the campaign put that in a McDaniel ad, along with a rant about Obamacare and a demand that voters “tell Thad Cochran you’re no farm animal.”

Meanwhile, McDaniel got support on the stump from former “The Dating Game” host Chuck Woolery and the parents from the reality show “19 Kids and Counting.” I am not sure how all these thoughts merge together, but as you can see, it was way more interesting than your average Senate primary.

These days, when a Republican politician gets into primary trouble, his first move is usually to leap farther right, assuring voters that he is capable of being even angrier and crazier than his opponent. That’s what gives the Tea Party its power. To use a zombie metaphor — and who among us does not love a zombie metaphor? — the Tea Party (Dead But Undead) wins not by killing its opponents but by turning them into drooling, staggering replicas of itself.

Cochran is plenty conservative on most issues, except the one the Tea Party cares most about. He’s a true believer in the power of the federal government to use tax dollars to improve the lives of its citizens. He spreads a wide net, from cotton subsidies to food stamps to military contracts to special education in public schools.

Instead of racing to the right, Cochran ran on his talents as a collector of federal money. When Mississippians turned on their TVs, there was former Senator Trent Lott, warning voters that without Cochran, Mississippi might lose the Stennis Space Center. Or football hero Brett Favre, reminding people that Cochran got them a ton of help for rebuilding after Katrina. Or an announcer thanking Thad for “our aerospace industry, shipbuilding, military bases, research and development, agricultural breakthroughs.”

Nobody came straight out and said: “Look, Mississippi gets three bucks back from the federal government for every dollar we send in. Don’t kill the golden goose.” But the message was pretty clear, and in some ways a little revolutionary. Like voters in many poor, conservative states, Mississippians have spent decades happily deluding themselves that they’re victims of Washington rather than its top beneficiaries. You could argue that Thad Cochran staged an intervention for his state’s residents, in which he pierced, at least temporarily, their veil of denial.

McDaniel played right into the old fantasy world, assuring voters that they could eliminate federal spending on education, which amounts to a quarter of Mississippi’s public school budget, without suffering any financial damage. He seemed shocked when it didn’t work. In his refuse-to-concede speech, he denounced Cochran for “once again, reaching across the aisle” a practice he seems to find as offensive as federal aid to education.

McDaniel blamed his defeat on “liberal Democrats.” Actually, most of Cochran’s support came from Republicans, but since he won by less than 7,000 votes, you could definitely argue that Democratic Mississippians — most of whom are black — were the ones who saved his bacon. “First time in my life I ever voted in a Republican primary,” said Wilkie, 73.

Cochran will almost certainly be re-elected in November. When he gets back to Washington he’ll be 77, starting a new six-year term. With nothing to lose and scores to settle. Really, he could do anything. March in a gay pride parade. Announce that an angel had appeared to him in a dream and told him that God wants us to increase the gas tax to combat global warming.

Or at least maybe someday, if the president needs a vote, Cochran will remember who gave him a hand, and return the favor.

That will happen when pigs fly.


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