Archive for the ‘Nocera’ Category

Cohen, Nocera and Collins

September 20, 2014

In “We the People of Scotland” Mr. Cohen says the vote to stay in Britain amounted to a powerful reminder of the virtues of democracy.  Mr. Nocera, in “Getting it Wrong,” says speaking after one of the N.F.L.’s worst weeks, Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner, ended up saying what he has already said before.  In “Exercising the Right to Rant” Ms. Collins says never to worry! Our elected representatives have averted a government shutdown by decreeing that we will keep spending whatever it is we’ve been spending for a while.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

The union has survived, comfortably enough in the end. Scotland will remain part of Britain. The queen’s title will stay unchanged: Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her Other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. Phew: In that mouthful lurks a lot of history and stability. Relief is palpable. The pound rallied. David Cameron, the Tory prime minister who risked all, exhaled.

A clear majority of 55 percent of Scots rejected independence in a referendum that had many merits. The questioning of democracy has become fashionable. Stillborn after the Arab Spring, paralyzed by discord in the United States, increasingly pliant to money, dithering in its processes beside the authoritarian systems of China and Russia, often unable to deliver growth or stem rising inequality, democracy has become the problem child of the 21st century.

This vote, in which free people expressed their will over the potential breakup of Britain, amounted to a powerful reminder of democracy’s virtues. Participation was high. Civility in disagreement prevailed. “Aye” and “Nae” did battle; then they had a beer. In the words of the defeated Scottish nationalist leader, Alex Salmond, the referendum was “a triumph of the democratic process.”

More than two in five Scots voted for independence. Many of these “Yes” voters were young or struggling or both. Another merit of this “democratic process” was to demonstrate the alienation felt toward London with its giddy self-regarding boom and toward the Tory children of privilege running Britain. Scotland did not want to go it alone. Nor does it want more of the same. Cameron will have to deliver on his promise of a radical further devolution of power to Scotland, and to other areas of Britain, if he is to respect this result. Technology is a great enabler. It can now bring democracy closer to people, somewhat in the manner of the Athenian city state 2,500 years ago. That must be democracy’s future. Spain would be wrong to deny Catalonia a similar vote. Union can only make a legitimate claim to be stronger if it is prepared to test its strength at the ballot box. Scottish independence would have created havoc for a time, but an independent Scotland was no more an inconceivable notion than an independent Catalonia.

Tolerance and good sense are the bedrock virtues of the United Kingdom. As I listened to the BBC the other day, a segment on Scotland segued into the trial in China of a prominent Uighur scholar accused of separatism, a crime that can result in the death penalty. Ilham Tohti, a critic of Chinese policies toward his Uighur minority, is widely considered a moderate voice calling for dialogue with the Han majority. In China moderate separatism equals, with luck, a moderate prison sentence rather than execution.

Beijing is the great rising power of the world, a reminder in a time of insouciance that what was embodied in the Scottish vote is worth defending. The ballot is no mere trifle. It is liberty. Scotland, nation of the Enlightenment, has given a timely lesson. That, too, was a merit of this vote.

Mine was a family of immigrants in postwar Britain. They came at a time of great transcontinental reflux from retreating empire. For many, these shores have felt like David Copperfield’s experience of coming “home” to Aunt Betsey Trotwood and being given a good, warm bath. Prejudice for incomers has been inescapable in Britain, and sometimes bigotry, but stronger still were the traditions of a liberal nation of diverse peoples. That was the most important idea conserved in this result.

Whenever I walk in lovely Regent’s Park and see the minaret of London’s Central Mosque looming, I think to myself: Is it really that complicated? Can people of different faiths not accept one another’s beliefs and find common cause? They can, sometimes, but it takes centuries. It is fitting that on the day Scotland decided to honor its embracing identity, more than 100 British Muslim imams, organizations and individuals wrote to express “horror and revulsion” at the murders perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, whose voice at the beheadings has carried a British accent.

Scotland has given another important lesson to Cameron. It is the most pro-European corner of Britain. Part of its restiveness stemmed from the appalling spectacle of Cameron toying with British membership of the European Union as he tried to appease his little-England right wing. If re-elected, he has promised a referendum on E.U. membership. Complacency followed by panic over the Scottish vote has not enhanced Cameron’s standing, even in victory. It is time to state unambiguously that the very qualities that prevailed in Scotland — good sense, economic interest, tolerance, openness, diversity and cultural ecumenism — also make an irrefutable case for Britain in Europe.

Next up we have Mr. Nocera, who’s at his best when taking on Big Sport:

I turned on ESPN about 15 minutes before Roger Goodell’s Friday afternoon news conference. There was a round table of analysts and reporters, led by Bob Ley, the journalist who covers the serious side of sports for the network. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought they were prepping for a coming news conference by a politician in trouble rather than the commissioner of the National Football League.

“What do we need to hear from Goodell?” Ley pressed the panel.

“He has to say concretely that this is what we are going to do,” replied Bill Polian, the former president and general manager of the Indianapolis Colts (and now an ESPN analyst).

The screen was split between Ley’s panel and the empty lectern that Goodell would soon step behind. At one point before the news conference, the network switched to a shot in Baltimore of Ravens fans standing in line to trade in their Ray Rice jerseys for a free jersey of a different Ravens player — one who hadn’t been seen in a video cold-cocking someone who was then his fiancée. The wait was several hours long.

Goodell’s news conference came at the end of one of the worst weeks in the history of professional football, a week that ranks right up there with the time Pete Rozelle, the commissioner then, instructed the league to play its games the weekend after President Kennedy was shot.

To recap quickly: The Carolina Panthers, who planned to allow Greg Hardy to play in last week’s home opener, despite his conviction for domestic assault, instead deactivated the defensive end 90 minutes before kickoff and then put him on the “exempt list.” The Minnesota Vikings reactivated their star running back Adrian Peterson after he sat out a game when he was indicted on a charge of child abuse. Then, after a furor that included the loss of a sponsor, the Radisson hotel chain, Peterson was relieved of his duties again. Incredibly, the Vikings’ management then patted themselves on the back for “getting it right.

In Arizona, the Cardinals benched a player named Jonathan Dwyer, who had just posted $25,000 bond after being arrested on charges of aggravated assault against his wife and 17-month-old son. And last Friday, the league acknowledged that one in three players would develop debilitating brain conditions.

Meanwhile, reporters and sports columnists were accusing Goodell of hiding in his bunker — he hadn’t talked to the press since one very shaky CBS interview on Sept. 10 — even as one shoe dropped after another. Far scarier for the league, a raft of sponsors were issuing statements denouncing the N.F.L.’s handling of domestic violence. One sponsor, Procter & Gamble, pulled out of a major on-field initiative for the N.F.L.’s annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month (which, it’s worth noting, is part of the league’s effort to draw more female fans). This was serious: The N.F.L.’s vaunted business model was suddenly showing cracks.

When he arrived at the podium, Goodell made a short statement in which he said … nothing. Maybe that is a little unfair, but not by much. He was sorry he had initially botched the Ray Rice case by giving him just a two-game suspension. He was going to do better. The league was going to “get it right.” He was going to bring in experts to help the league rewrite its rules about player conduct. Everyone in the league would be getting training on domestic violence and sexual abuse. He was going to establish a conduct committee to “ensure that we are always living with the best practices.” And so on.

You would have thought that if Goodell were going to hold a news conference he would have something more to say than that he was sorry and that he was going to consult experts — things he has said before. Stunningly, he didn’t, which became even clearer when reporters started asking questions.

My former Times colleague Judy Battista, who now works for the NFL Network — and thus is effectively an employee of Goodell’s — asked him bluntly what Ray Rice had initially told him and how that contrasted to what he saw months later on the video. He wouldn’t say.

“Why do you feel like you should be able to continue in this role?” he was asked. “Because I acknowledged my mistake” was his answer.

A CNBC reporter asked him to comment on the loss of the Procter & Gamble sponsorship. He answered in vague platitudes. “We’re going to clean up our house, we’re going to get this straight, and we’re going to make a difference.”

And when asked how he could conceivably have given Ray Rice that original two-game suspension, he replied that the league’s policies “had fallen behind.” Yes, that must be it. It was all the fault of the “policy.”

The truth is that the N.F.L. has had a domestic violence problem for years, which Goodell and the league have largely tolerated. The Ray Rice video put that tolerance on vivid display. That is the fact that Goodell can’t say out loud — and why instead he says nothing at all.

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Congress is gone. But not forgotten.

O.K., to be honest, they’re totally forgotten. The members of the House and Senate have been out of session for about a day and the nation has already totally wiped them from the memory bank.

Oh, America’s Legislature, we hardly knew ye.

Before decamping to go home and run for re-election, our elected representatives voted to fund the government and go to war. Pretty much ran the table on their constitutional responsibilities. Normally, that sort of thing would draw attention. “Before I came here I imagined that when war was discussed, everybody would be at their desk,” complained Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, to a rather vacant chamber.

To be fair, Congress actually just gave a vague grunt of acceptance to one part of President Obama’s strategy to combat ISIS. (It could have gone further, but you know how much these guys like leaving everything up to the president.) And it averted a government shutdown by decreeing that we will keep on spending whatever it is we’ve been spending for a couple more months.

“You don’t get perfect,” said Representative Steny Hoyer, the House minority whip.

We were all actually aware of that.

On the plus side — bipartisan! Republicans and Democrats joined together in what was the legislative version of a deep, depressive sigh.

“The bill before us is an imperfect bill.”

“I don’t think we have a better option.”

They were very possibly right. In theory, Congress is supposed to figure out how much money every federal department needs, and then pass some spending bills. However, the system’s been collapsing under partisan pressures for years. The last time it was normal to start every fiscal year with the money plan totally under control, air travel was glamorous.

And when it came to the Obama plans for Syria and Iraq, the members were faced with a rather distressing series of options: A) Give up on the whole idea of doing something about ISIS. B) Come up with their own idea for doing something about ISIS. Or C) Just stay in Washington and keep talking.

While the stay-and-talk option might have been the most honorable path, I think I speak for many Americans in saying that I cannot imagine them coming up with anything helpful. But we should at least reserve the right to rant. They went home! Early!

Let’s discuss, just for the heck of it, a couple of the things Congress did not feel constrained to do before they went back to meet the voters.

What about corporate inversion — the growing tendency of American companies to magically transform themselves into foreign entities in order to avoid paying American taxes? The White House asked Congress to pass a fairly simple plan to deal with that. No dice. Defending his members on Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner said that fixing inversion is way too low a bar and what they should really do is reform “the whole tax code.”

People, how many of you think Congress is going to fix the whole tax code? It’s like saying you aren’t going to open a door because the public really deserves to see the house levitated.

Speaking of the House, its Ways and Means Committee, which is run by Boehner’s very own party, did come up with a sweeping plan for tax reform this year. The speaker promptly made fun of it. (“Blah, blah, blah, blah.”) Having completely and thoroughly slammed the door on any discussion of the bill, he told reporters this week that he was “shocked at how little I have heard about it.”

Then there’s political intelligence. (I know, I know. Stop snickering.) Reformers want to avert the possibility that congressional insiders might pass on insider information to research firms that counsel investors. For instance, imagine there’s a change coming in government payment rates for health insurers. If, say, a Senate staffer leaked that information, it might cause the stock in said firms to soar before the world is informed of the new policy. Which actually happened last year.

Congress had tackled the problem as part of a bill barring members from insider trading that passed in 2012. The House majority leader, Eric Cantor, stripped the provision out at the last minute. Perhaps you remember Eric Cantor. He was the guy who got tossed out of office in a primary in which his totally unknown opponent claimed Cantor was a creature of crony capitalism.

A bipartisan trio of House members is now trying to revive the idea. Louise Slaughter of New York, one of the sponsors, says a bill’s been introduced. But although there is no end to the marvelous achievements people are predicting for the after-election lame-duck session. Congress reforming itself is not one of them.

“Not a snowball’s chance in hell,” said Slaughter.

Cantor is now a brand-new member of the investment banking industry. With $1.4 million in signing bonuses.

O.K., that was the rant. I feel much better.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

September 16, 2014

In “Goodbye, Organization Man” Bobo actually whines that the global failure to address the Ebola epidemic stems from a much broader crisis in our culture of government.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston points out the following:  “Suddenly Mr. Brooks is outraged that the government he has helped submerge in the bathtub is incapable of mounting an effective, expensive, internationally coordinated effort to respond to disease outbreaks. You can’t rail against big government one day and complain that it’s not there when it’s needed the next.  Brooks has repeatedly advocated for big government to be replaced by grassroots volunteerism, or by a distributed gaggle of local government agencies. But when a virus is knocking at the door of his gated community, suddenly big government is looking a whole lot better.”  Mr. Cohen, in “The Great Unraveling,” sees a time of weakness and hatred, disorientation and doubt, when nobody can see what disaster looms.  In “Criminal Card Games” Mr. Nocera says in the wake of the recent Home Depot breach, you have to wonder if data theft has become a condition of modern life.  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

Imagine two cities. In City A, town leaders notice that every few weeks a house catches on fire. So they create a fire department — a group of professionals with prepositioned firefighting equipment and special expertise. In City B, town leaders don’t create a fire department. When there’s a fire, they hurriedly cobble together some people and equipment to fight it.

We are City B. We are particularly slow to build institutions to combat long-running problems.

The most obvious example is the fight against jihadism. We’ve been facing Islamist terror for several decades, now, but every time it erupts — in Lebanon, Nigeria, Sudan, Syria and beyond — leaders start from scratch and build some new ad hoc coalition to fight it.

The most egregious example is global health emergencies. Every few years, some significant epidemic strikes, and somebody suggests that we form a Medical Expeditionary Corps, a specialized organization that would help coordinate and execute the global response. Several years ago, then-Senator Bill Frist went so far as to prepare a bill proposing such a force. But, as always, nothing came of it.

The result, right now, is unnecessary deaths from the Ebola virus in Africa. Ebola is a recurring problem, yet the world seems unprepared. The response has been slow and uncoordinated.

The virus’s spread, once linear, is now exponential. As Michael Gerson pointed out in The Washington Post, the normal countermeasures — isolation, contact tracing — are rendered increasingly irrelevant by the rate of increase. Treatment centers open and are immediately filled to twice capacity as people die on the streets outside. An Oxford University forecast warns as many as 15 more countries are vulnerable to outbreaks. The president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, warned: “At this rate, we will never break the transmission chain, and the virus will overwhelm us.”

The catastrophe extends beyond the disease. Economies are rocked as flights are canceled and outsiders flee. Ray Chambers, a philanthropist and U.N. special envoy focused on global health, points out the impact on health more broadly.  For example, people in the early stages of malaria show similar symptoms to Ebola and other diseases. Many hesitate to seek treatment fearing they’ll get sent to an Ebola isolation center. So death rates from malaria, pneumonia and other common diseases could rise, as further Ebola cases fail to be diagnosed.

The World Health Organization has recently come out with an action plan but lacks logistical capabilities. President Obama asked for a strategy, but that was two months ago and the government is only now coming up with a strong comprehensive plan. Up until now, aid has been scattershot. The Pentagon opened a 25-bed field hospital in Liberia. The U.S. donated five ambulances to Sierra Leone. Coordination has just not been there.

At root, this is a governance failure. The disease spreads fastest in places where the health care infrastructure is lacking or nonexistent. Liberia, for example, is being overrun while Ivory Coast has put in a series of policies to prevent an outbreak. The few doctors and nurses in the affected places have trouble acquiring the safety basics: gloves and body bags. More than 100, so far, have died fighting the outbreak.

But it’s not just a failure of governance in Africa. It’s a failure of governance around the world. I wonder if we are looking at the results of a cultural shift.

A few generations ago, people grew up in and were comfortable with big organizations — the army, corporations and agencies. They organized huge construction projects in the 1930s, gigantic industrial mobilization during World War II, highway construction and corporate growth during the 1950s. Institutional stewardship, the care and reform of big organizations, was more prestigious.

Now nobody wants to be an Organization Man. We like start-ups, disrupters and rebels. Creativity is honored more than the administrative execution. Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs.

The Ebola crisis is another example that shows that this is misguided. The big, stolid agencies — the health ministries, the infrastructure builders, the procurement agencies — are the bulwarks of the civil and global order. Public and nonprofit management, the stuff that gets derided as “overhead,” really matters. It’s as important to attract talent to health ministries as it is to spend money on specific medicines.

As recent books by Francis Fukuyama and Philip Howard have detailed, this is an era of general institutional decay. New, mobile institutions languish on the drawing broad, while old ones are not reformed and tended. Executives at public agencies are robbed of discretionary power. Their hands are bound by court judgments and regulations.

When the boring tasks of governance are not performed, infrastructures don’t get built. Then, when epidemics strike, people die.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

It was the time of unraveling. Long afterward, in the ruins, people asked: How could it happen?

It was a time of beheadings. With a left-handed sawing motion, against a desert backdrop, in bright sunlight, a Muslim with a British accent cut off the heads of two American journalists and a British aid worker. The jihadi seemed comfortable in his work, unhurried. His victims were broken. Terror is theater. Burning skyscrapers, severed heads: The terrorist takes movie images of unbearable lightness and gives them weight enough to embed themselves in the psyche.

It was a time of aggression. The leader of the largest nation on earth pronounced his country encircled, even humiliated. He annexed part of a neighboring country, the first such act in Europe since 1945, and stirred up a war on further land he coveted. His surrogates shot down a civilian passenger plane. The victims, many of them Europeans, were left to rot in the sun for days. He denied any part in the violence, like a puppeteer denying that his puppets’ movements have any connection to his. He invoked the law the better to trample on it. He invoked history the better to turn it into farce. He reminded humankind that the idiom fascism knows best is untruth so grotesque it begets unreason.

It was a time of breakup. The most successful union in history, forged on an island in the North Sea in 1707, headed toward possible dissolution — not because it had failed (refugees from across the seas still clamored to get into it), nor even because of new hatreds between its peoples. The northernmost citizens were bored. They were disgruntled. They were irked, in some insidious way, by the south and its moneyed capital, an emblem to them of globalization and inequality. They imagined they had to control their National Health Service in order to save it even though they already controlled it through devolution and might well have less money for its preservation (not that it was threatened in the first place) as an independent state. The fact that the currency, the debt, the revenue, the defense, the solvency and the European Union membership of such a newborn state were all in doubt did not appear to weigh much on a decision driven by emotion, by urges, by a longing to be heard in the modern cacophony — and to heck with the day after. If all else failed, oil would come to the rescue (unless somebody else owned it or it just ran out).

It was a time of weakness. The most powerful nation on earth was tired of far-flung wars, its will and treasury depleted by absence of victory. An ungrateful world could damn well police itself. The nation had bridges to build and education systems to fix. Civil wars between Arabs could fester. Enemies might even kill other enemies, a low-cost gain. Middle Eastern borders could fade; they were artificial colonial lines on a map. Shiite could battle Sunni, and Sunni Shiite, there was no stopping them. Like Europe’s decades-long religious wars, these wars had to run their course. The nation’s leader mockingly derided his own “wan, diffident, professorial” approach to the world, implying he was none of these things, even if he gave that appearance. He set objectives for which he had no plan. He made commitments he did not keep. In the way of the world these things were noticed. Enemies probed. Allies were neglected, until they were needed to face the decapitators who talked of a Caliphate and called themselves a state. Words like “strength” and “resolve” returned to the leader’s vocabulary. But the world was already adrift, unmoored by the retreat of its ordering power. The rule book had been ripped up.

It was a time of hatred. Anti-Semitic slogans were heard in the land that invented industrialized mass murder for Europe’s Jews. Frightened European Jews removed mezuzahs from their homes. Europe’s Muslims felt the ugly backlash from the depravity of the decapitators, who were adept at Facebooking their message. The fabric of society frayed. Democracy looked quaint or outmoded beside new authoritarianisms. Politicians, haunted by their incapacity, played on the fears of their populations, who were device-distracted or under device-driven stress. Dystopia was a vogue word, like utopia in the 20th century. The great rising nations of vast populations held the fate of the world in their hands but hardly seemed to care.

It was a time of fever. People in West Africa bled from the eyes.

It was a time of disorientation. Nobody connected the dots or read Kipling on life’s few certainties: “The Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire / And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire.”

Until it was too late and people could see the Great Unraveling for what it was and what it had wrought.

Cripes.  He needs to take a pill…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

What is it going to take to get serious about data breaches?

I ask this question in the wake of the recent Home Depot breach, in which the “bad guys” — presumably cybercriminals in Russia — apparently penetrated the company’s point of sale terminals and came away with an untold number of credit and debit card data. (Home Depot acknowledges that all 2,200 stores in the United States and Canada were likely hacked, but hasn’t yet revealed the number of cards from which data were stolen.)

This, of course, comes after the Target breach of late 2013, in which some 40 million people had their credit card information stolen. Which comes after the Global Payments breach of 2012 and the Sony breach of 2011. All of which come after the T.J. Maxx breach of 2007, in which 94 million credit and debit card records were stolen in an 18-month period.

That’s right: Seven years have passed between the huge T.J. Maxx breach and the huge Home Depot breach — and nothing has changed. Have we become resigned to the idea that, as a condition of modern life, our personal financial data will be hacked on a regular basis? It is sure starting to seem that way.

The Home Depot breach came to light in the usual way. On Sept. 2, a reporter named Brian Krebs, who specializes in cybercrime and operates the website Krebs on Security, broke the news to his readers. Krebs, who is as deeply sourced as any reporter in the country, almost always breaks the news of a new breach. He also reported that the “malware” had been doing its dirty work at Home Depot since April or May. And he discovered that millions of card numbers were being sold on a website called Rescator.cc, which Bloomberg Businessweek recently described as the “Amazon.com of the black market.”

(Interestingly, they are being sold in batches under the names “American Sanctions” and “European Sanction” — an apparent reference to the recent sanctions against Russia.)

The company — “always the last to know,” Krebs says — hastily pulled together some security experts who, sure enough, confirmed the breach. In this instance, Home Depot released a statement saying that it was investigating the breach on Sept. 3, the day after the Krebs report, and confirmed the breach on Sept. 8. As these things go, that’s lightning speed.

Of course, in its materials, the company insists that it cares deeply about its customers’ data and will stop at nothing to plug the leak. But the damage has already been done. Home Depot also claims that debit card P.I.N.’s were not stolen. There is little solace in that, however; the crooks use weak bank security to change the P.I.N., after which they can use it. Sure enough, Krebs’s banking sources have told him that they “are reporting a steep increase over the past few days in fraudulent A.T.M. withdrawals on customer accounts.”

Why the rash of breaches? “It’s easy money,” said Avivah Litan, a security expert at Gartner Inc. “The criminals are distributing this malware, so why not use it? It’s like winning the lottery.”

Kurt Baumgartner, a senior security researcher at Kaspersky Lab, noted that months before the attack on Home Depot began, the F.B.I. alerted retailers about being more vigilant about point-of-sale cyberattacks. The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that Home Depot had, in fact, begun the process of strengthening its systems. But it moved so slowly that the criminals had months to vacuum card data before being discovered. Meanwhile, Bloomberg Businessweek found two unnamed former Home Depot managers who claimed that they were told to “settle for ‘C-level security’ because ambitious upgrades would be costly and might disrupt the operation of critical business systems.”

For years, the banks and the retail industry have spent more time accusing each other of causing the problem than seeking a solution. By October 2015, the United States is supposed to move to a more secure card system, using a chip and P.I.N. instead of a magnetic stripe, as Europe did years ago. But even that won’t put an end to data breaches. It will make it harder and more expensive for criminals to crack, but not impossible.

Which is why the federal government needs to get involved. With the banks and retailers at loggerheads, only the government has the ability to force a solution — or at least make it painful enough for companies with lax security to improve.

As it turns out, there are plenty of congressional initiatives to crack down on companies with weak data security, including a bill that was filed in February and co-sponsored by Senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. When I asked someone in Markey’s office whether the bill was getting any traction, she replied, “It’s 2014.”

Apparently, we’re on our own.

Nocera and Collins

September 13, 2014

In “N.F.L. Stands By Its Leader” Mr. Nocera says Roger Goodell is very good at doing exactly what his owners want.  In “Candidates Playing Possum” Ms. Collins says control Control of the Senate hinges on the outcome of just a few close races.  She has a question:  Which candidates will show up and debate their opponents?  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

In 2006, the year Roger Goodell was named commissioner of the National Football League, the Washington Redskins were the most valuable team in football, according to Forbes magazine, with a valuation of $1.4 billion. Washington’s revenue that year was $303 million, with profits of more than $108 million. In second place came the New England Patriots, valued by Forbes at $1.18 billion, followed by the Dallas Cowboys at $1.17 billion.

Fast forward to Forbes’s most recent financial analysis of N.F.L. teams, published earlier this month. Today, the Dallas Cowboys, the No. 1 team, are valued at $3.2 billion, almost triple their valuation of just eight years ago, with revenue of $560 million and profits of $246 million. The New England Patriots, meanwhile, saw their valuation jump to $2.6 billion. The Washington team, though now in third place, is still worth $1 billion more than it was in 2006.

And these numbers are, if anything, an understatement: The Buffalo Bills were just sold for $1.4 billion, a record price for a professional football team. Forbes had estimated the Bills’ value at “only” $935 million.

If you want to understand why Goodell’s job is almost certainly safe, despite his complete botch of the Ray Rice domestic violence case and the many calls for his ouster, this is why: The only people who can fire him are the 32 N.F.L. owners — and they have zero interest in letting him go. After all, he makes them money. Currently, the N.F.L. takes in about $10 billion overall; Goodell has told the owners he wants to make it a $25 billion business by the year 2027. You can practically see their mouths watering at the prospect.

Just listen to them circling the wagons: John Mara, the co-owner of the New York Giants, has said flatly that Goodell’s job is not in jeopardy. Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, has come to his defense. In 2012, the owners paid Goodell a staggering $44.2 million. “I think he’s worth it,” Kraft told The Times’s Ken Belson in February, when Goodell’s pay was revealed.

Of course there is another reason the owners think he is “worth it.” He takes the heat for them when they need him to. Daniel Snyder, the owner in Washington, is adamant that he will never give up the nickname “Redskins,” even though it is deeply insulting to Native Americans. Goodell backs him up. The owners don’t want to pay pensions to their referees? Goodell locks them out. “It’s a mistake to view Goodell as powerful,” says Gregg Easterbrook, the author of “The King of Sports: Why Football Must Be Reformed.” “The owners have all the power.”

And so it is in the recent controversy. Football is a violent game, and though they’d never say so out loud, N.F.L. owners accept some violence outside the white lines as an inevitable consequence. Indeed, it happens frequently enough that USA Today compiles a database of N.F.L. players who have been arrested.

The website Sidespin, using that database, found 56 examples of domestic violence committed by pro football players in the years since Goodell became commissioner. Once, in 2011, a player was suspended for the rest of the season — but that was by his team, the Minnesota Vikings, not Goodell. Another time, in 2006, a player was suspended by the league for two games. In every other instance where N.F.L. headquarters mandated a punishment, it was only a one-game suspension. According to Sidespin, in nearly three dozen cases of domestic violence, the N.F.L. took no action at all.

No wonder Goodell thought that his original two-game suspension of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for knocking his then-fiancée out cold was enough: He had never given out a longer suspension for domestic violence during his time as commissioner. Then came the leak of the video of Rice’s punch — followed by the scene of him dragging his unconscious fiancée out of the elevator door — which was so horrifying that even the N.F.L. couldn’t look the other way.

Goodell suspended Rice indefinitely and gave an interview to CBS News in which he tried to accept the blame for his mistake but came across as evasive and defensive. And he ordered up an internal investigation to be headed by Robert Mueller, the former F.B.I. director.

There is a small chance, I suppose, that Mueller will discover that Goodell lied when he said he had not seen the video before it became public earlier this week. In that case, the owners would have no choice but to fire him. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. What is far more likely is that Goodell will survive the calls for his ouster and go back to doing the one thing he truly knows how to do: Make money for his overlords, pro football’s owners.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Election season! Tension mounts! Longtime public servants are aware that the least little slip and they could be out the door. Forced, like ousted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, to labor in the sweatshops of the investment banking industry.

With $1.4 million in signing bonuses. Do you think that’s why he quit the House early, people? I totally believed he just wanted to give his successor a head start.

I digress. We’re talking today about democracy. And debates. Candidates should all feel obliged to debate their opponents. It’s a sign of respect to the public. Even for incumbents who are so safe that they could get caught having an assignation with an armadillo and still get 60 percent of the vote.

Our fixation on debates goes back to that Illinois Senate race when Abraham Lincoln faced off seven times against Stephen Douglas. Their battles were so electric that Lincoln published transcripts in a book, which his fans scooped up eagerly. Voters today may wonder why their Senate debates can’t be like Lincoln-Douglas. Senate candidates today may wonder why their audiences can’t be like the ones in 1858, when people sat enthralled while one man spoke for 60 minutes, followed by a 90-minute response and then a final 30-minute comeback.

This year, control of the Senate hinges on the outcome of a handful of states. Almost all of them are going to involve debates, and I can pretty much guarantee none of them will later be published as best-selling books.

Several have already degenerated into debates about the debates. Former Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, a Republican, said his successor, Democrat Al Franken, gave the state a “big middle corn dog” when Franken declined the traditional debate at the Minnesota State Fair. That state fair can be a pretty rowdy venue. I know you think all Minnesotans are calm and well-behaved, but really, give them enough deep-fried foods and they can get carried away.

Franken, who did spend seven days campaigning at the fair, posing for selfies and eating what his campaign spokesperson said was a large quantity of roasted Minnesota sweet corn, has already done one debate and is scheduled for three more, so I don’t think he can be accused of dissing his constituents.

However, it’s sort of sad when the old political traditions fall by the wayside. This year in Florida, the gubernatorial candidates failed to show up for the annual Wausau Possum Festival, which is usually a must-show event. Perhaps Gov. Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist don’t like possums. Maybe they were averse to the custom of politicians walking onstage and dangling the animals by their tails. Really, it’s the kind of thing that can come back to bite you.

We have mixed feelings about the possums. However, we do want debates. Even if we are planning to totally ignore them, we want our candidates out there.

And, in most of the major races, they’re ready to go. Although in Michigan, the Republican Senate candidate, Terri Lynn Land, is pursuing a kind of stealth strategy, in which she seems to become less and less visible as the campaign goes on. Her opponent, Representative Gary Peters, appeared on the date of a previously scheduled debate this week, sharing the stage with an empty chair before an enthusiastic crowd of more than 30 people. “This is not the ideal format,” he understated.

The empty chair is the traditional prop in these circumstances. However in Alabama, where Gov. Robert Bentley is resisting debates, Democrat Parker Griffith has been toting around an inflatable duck. I have fond memories of a New York City mayoral candidate waving a rubber chicken that was supposed to be the absent Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani’s defense was that he didn’t want to appear in debates that included distracting third-party candidates. This is a longstanding argument. Do you want to watch the Democrat and Republican go head-to-head? Or do you want to be inclusive? And, if so, how far are you prepared to go? Right now in North Carolina, the Senate hopefuls include a former town councilman who is best known for having submitted his resignation letter in Klingon.

“I’ve been in many debates that I think were a disservice to democracy,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York said during this year’s gubernatorial primary. He was perhaps referring to his run for governor in 2010, when he wound up on stage with six other candidates, including a woman whose claim to fame was running a prostitution ring and the nominee of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party.

There are some problems with Cuomo’s analysis, only one of which is that he was using it as an excuse to avoid any debates whatsoever during the primary this year. While the thing with the madam and the rent guy was pretty weird, that was possibly the most memorable gubernatorial debate in state history.

And, of course, we appreciated that everybody had the decency to show up.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

September 9, 2014

In “Becoming a Real Person” Bobo sighs that elite American universities give students extensive résumé guidance but seem to have forgotten the moral component of their mission.  Silly me — almost 69 years old and all this time I thought moral guidance was something that came from home and community, and started as soon as you were old enough to understand the word “no.”  In “A War of Choice in Gaza” Mr. Cohen says the fighting was unnecessary — it rehabilitated a beleaguered Hamas, and gained nothing for Israel.  Mr. Nocera is back to carrying water for Big Bidness.  In “Inversion Delusion” he actually tries to convince us that the argument is bogus that corporations leave the U.S. and set up overseas because of high corporate tax rates.   Here’s Bobo:

This summer, The New Republic published the most read article in that magazine’s history. It was an essay by William Deresiewicz, drawn from his new book, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.”

Deresiewicz offers a vision of what it takes to move from adolescence to adulthood. Everyone is born with a mind, he writes, but it is only through introspection, observation, connecting the head and the heart, making meaning of experience and finding an organizing purpose that you build a unique individual self.

This process, he argues, often begins in college, the interval of freedom when a person is away from both family and career. During that interval, the young person can throw himself with reckless abandon at other people and learn from them.

Some of these people are authors who have written great books. Some are professors who can teach intellectual rigor. Some are students who can share work that is intrinsically rewarding.

Through this process, a student is able, in the words of Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia, to discover “just what it is that’s worth wanting.”

Deresiewicz argues that most students do not get to experience this in elite colleges today. Universities, he says, have been absorbed into the commercial ethos. Instead of being intervals of freedom, they are breeding grounds for advancement. Students are too busy jumping through the next hurdle in the résumé race to figure out what they really want. They are too frantic tasting everything on the smorgasbord to have life-altering encounters. They have a terror of closing off options. They have been inculcated with a lust for prestige and a fear of doing things that may put their status at risk.

The system pressures them to be excellent, but excellent sheep.

Stephen Pinker, the great psychology professor at Harvard, wrote the most comprehensive response to Deresiewicz. “Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotions I have participated in, we’ve never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she could accomplish it.”

Pinker suggests the university’s job is cognitive. Young people should know how to write clearly and reason statistically. They should acquire specific knowledge: the history of the planet, how the body works, how cultures differ, etc.

The way to select students into the elite colleges is not through any mysterious peering into applicants’ souls, Pinker continues. Students should be selected on the basis of standardized test scores:the S.A.T.’s. If colleges admitted kids with the highest scores and companies hired applicants with the highest scores, Pinker writes, “many of the perversities of the current system would vanish overnight.”

What we have before us then, is three distinct purposes for a university: the commercial purpose (starting a career), Pinker’s cognitive purpose (acquiring information and learning how to think) and Deresiewicz’s moral purpose (building an integrated self).

Over a century ago, most university administrators and faculty members would have said the moral purpose is the most important. As Mary Woolley, the president of Mount Holyoke, put it, “Character is the main object of education.” The most prominent Harvard psychology professor then, William James, wrote essays on the structure of the morally significant life. Such a life, he wrote, is organized around a self-imposed, heroic ideal and is pursued through endurance, courage, fidelity and struggle.

Today, people at these elite institutions have the same moral aspirations. Everybody knows the meritocratic system has lost its mind. Everybody — administrators, admissions officers, faculty and students — knows that the pressures of the résumé race are out of control.

But people in authority no longer feel compelled to define how they think moral, emotional and spiritual growth happens, beyond a few pablum words that no one could disagree with and a few vague references to community service. The reason they don’t is simple. They don’t think it’s their place, or, as Pinker put it, they don’t think they know.

The result is that the elite universities are strong at delivering their commercial mission. They are pretty strong in developing their cognitive mission. But when it comes to the sort of growth Deresiewicz is talking about, everyone is on their own. An admissions officer might bias her criteria slightly away from the Résumé God and toward the quirky kid. A student may privately wrestle with taking a summer camp job instead of an emotionally vacuous but résumé-padding internship. But these struggles are informal, isolated and semi-articulate.

I’d say Deresiewicz significantly overstates the amount of moral decay at elite universities. But at least he reminds us what a moral education looks like. That is largely abandoned ground.

Drawing the veil of charity over Bobo, let us proceed to Mr. Cohen:

Another round of violence is over in the Holy Land. More than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians and many of them children, have been killed. More than 70 Israelis are dead. The grass, in that appalling Israeli metaphor, has been mown (and will now start growing again). Hamas, through its resistance, has burnished its reputation among Palestinians. Israel is angrier. Nobody is better off.

Periodic eruptions are intrinsic to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy of maintaining the status quo of rule over millions of Palestinians, expansion of West Bank settlements and maneuver to deflect American mediation. Oppressed people will rise up. Israel’s anemic embrace of a two-state objective is the best possible cover for the evisceration of that aim. Still, the question arises: Was this mini-war necessary?

I think not. Certainly it was not in Israel’s strategic interest. Much mystery continues to shroud its genesis, the abduction on June 12 of three Israeli youths near Hebron and their murder, now attributed to a local Palestinian clan including Hamas operatives who acted without the knowledge or direction of the Hamas leadership. (There has been no major investigative piece in the American press on the incident, a troubling omission.)

But enough detail has emerged to make clear that Netanyahu leapt on “unequivocal proof” of Hamas responsibility (still unproduced) for political ends. The prime minister’s aim was to discredit Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, for reconciling with Hamas; vindicate the collapse of the peace talks Secretary of State John Kerry had pursued; stir up Israeli rage over the fate of the teenagers; sweep through the West Bank arresting hundreds of suspected Hamas members, including 58 released under the terms of an earlier deal with Hamas; and consolidate divide-and-rule.

Assaf Sharon of Tel Aviv University, the academic director of a liberal think tank in Jerusalem, has a powerful piece in The New York Review of Books. It makes the important point that Hamas was beleaguered before the violence, isolated by the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the rise of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This weakness lay behind the reconciliation with Abbas. Netanyahu might have used this development to extend Abbas’s authority into a more open Gaza at the expense of Hamas, the very objective now apparently sought after so much needless loss of life.

For more than two weeks after the abduction, persuasive evidence that the teenagers were dead was kept from the Israeli public. A hugely emotional return-our-boys campaign was pursued while the recording of a phone call from one of those boys to the police in the immediate aftermath of the kidnapping was not divulged. In it, shots and cries of pain could be heard. As Shlomi Eldar wrote, “It was a murder in real time, horrifying and monstrous.” After it, “Those who heard the emergency call recording knew that the best one could hope for was to bring the boys to their final resting places.”

The effect of this concealment, whatever its justification, was to whip up an Israeli frenzy. This was the context in which a Palestinian teenager was killed by Israeli extremists. It was also the context of the drift to war: air campaign, Hamas rockets and tunnel raids, Israeli ground invasion. Drift is the operative word. Israel’s purpose was shifting. At different moments it included “zero rockets,” demilitarizing Gaza and destroying the tunnels. “Lacking clear aims, Israel was dragged, by its own actions, into a confrontation it did not seek and did not control,” Sharon writes.

The only certainty now is that this will happen again unless the situation in Gaza changes. That in turn necessitates Palestinian unity and renunciation of violence. It also hinges on a change in the Israeli calculus that settlement extension, a divided Palestinian movement, and vacuous blah-blah on a two-state peace are in its interest, whatever the intermittent cost in blood.

Two other recent pieces are essential reading in the aftermath of the fighting. The first is Connie Bruck’s “Friends of Israel” in The New Yorker, an examination of the political sway of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby group. In it, she quotes Brian Baird, a former Democratic congressman, getting to the nub: “The difficult reality is this: in order to get elected to Congress, if you’re not independently wealthy, you have to raise a lot of money. And you learn pretty quickly that, if Aipac is on your side, you can do that.” She also quotes John Yarmuth, a congressman from Kentucky, on upholding the interests of the United States: “We all took an oath of office. And Aipac, in many instances, is asking us to ignore it.”

Finally, read Yehuda Shaul in The New Statesman on the corrosive effect of the occupation and his experience of military service in the West Bank: “We needed to erase the humanity of Palestinians along with our own humanity.”

And now we get to Joe “Gunga Din” Nocera:

On Monday, the Tax Policy Center in Washington held a panel discussion on the subject of “corporate inversions” — the practice of taking over a small company in someplace like Ireland or the Netherlands, and then using that takeover to “relocate” to the foreign country for tax reasons. One of the panelists was John Samuels, the chief tax lawyer for General Electric.

Samuels started by saying that even the most junior tax lawyers know that, when structuring a cross-border merger, “you should do whatever you can, whatever’s possible, to make sure the ultimate parent or acquirer is a foreign company, not a U.S. company, to avoid having the entire worldwide income caught up in the U.S. tax net.” He went on: “Virtually every major developed country in the world has dramatically reformed its tax system to make it more business-friendly.” He cited Britain as an example. “The U.K. recently abandoned its worldwide system for a territorial system [and] reduced its corporate tax rate to 21 percent.” Quoting the exchequer secretary to the Treasury, he added, Britain “wants to send out the signal loud and clear that Britain is open for business.”

The corporate tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, which is the highest in the industrialized world. And, unlike most other countries, it taxes a company’s worldwide earnings, at that same high rate, once they are repatriated into the United States. (That is what Samuels meant by a “worldwide system.”)

So, at first glance, Samuels’s analysis would seem to make sense: the disparity of our uncompetitive corporate tax rate versus their business-friendly rates must be driving the current mania for inversions. Many other corporate executives have made the same argument. Just a few months ago, Heather Bresch, the chief executive of Mylan, a $7 billion generic drug company, announced that her company would be doing an inversion that would place its new corporate address in the Netherlands, where the tax rate is 25 percent. She complained that the American corporate tax rate needed to become “more competitive.”

But upon closer inspection, this argument turns out to be mainly hogwash. As Edward D. Kleinbard put it in a recent report, “ ‘Competitiveness’ has nothing to do with it.”

Kleinbard, a law professor at the University of Southern California, has emerged as one of the leading critics of inversions. In his view, it isn’t so much that the corporate tax code is too tough or the rate is too high; rather, he says, companies are taking advantage of loopholes in the code that make inversions almost irresistible for corporate executives. As another critic, Kimberly Clausing of Reed College, wrote in a recent paper: “Both the high U.S. tax rate and the worldwide system of taxation have more bark than bite.”

For starters, American multinationals, with their high-powered tax departments, rarely pay 35 percent or anything close to it. And those earnings that are supposed to get taxed upon repatriation? Needless to say, they never get repatriated; by some estimates, $2 trillion in earnings by American multinationals reside, untaxed, outside the country.

Indeed, according to Kleinbard and other critics, gaining access to those earnings is a benefit of inversion. Clausing describes the tactic like this: Foreign affiliates of the American company lend money to the new foreign parent, skipping over the U.S. company and thus avoiding the repatriation tax. Kleinbard calls these “hopscotch” transactions.

Then there is something called “earnings stripping,” which inversion also makes possible. This involves using loans between the foreign “owner” and the American “affiliate” to shift income out of the United States. According to Clausing, Walgreens, which was planning an inversion but pulled back after a public outcry, would have saved “over $780 million in taxes in one year alone.”

For years, executives have called for an overhaul of the corporate tax system; recently, as per Samuels and Bresch, inversions have become a part of the argument. But, in truth, curbing inversions shouldn’t have to wait for wholesale reform. In 2004, George W. Bush pushed through a law that temporarily stopped what was then a flood of inversions.

It can be done again. Laws can be written that, for instance, insist that the foreign targets be much larger companies — thus trying to ensure that the deals are done for strategic reasons rather than solely for tax reasons. And the loopholes that allow for earnings stripping and hopscotching can be closed.

Before that panel discussion on Monday, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew made a speech in which he denounced inversions and essentially pleaded with Congress to take action. He also hinted that the administration might take regulatory action on its own, though there is disagreement among the experts whether regulation alone could stop inversions.

In either case, they need to be stopped. They aren’t just corrosive to the country’s tax base; they are corrosive, in a larger sense, to the country. Thanks to our Swiss cheese of a tax code, multinational companies already have a splendid little deal. They shouldn’t get to sweeten it even more.

Nocera and Collins

September 6, 2014

In “The Price of Glory” Mr. Nocera says college football coaches are grossly overpaid — just like C.E.O.s.  In “Passion for the Pill” Ms. Collins says in Congressional races across the country, women’s issues are looming large. Just listen to some of the Republican candidates.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

“Are Football Coaches Overpaid?” asks a new paper by two Vanderbilt University professors, Randall S. Thomas of the law school, and R. Lawrence Van Horn of the school of management. It’s amazing the things academics can find worthy of study, isn’t it?

My answer is: Of course they are. At a time when state legislatures are cutting back their support for public universities, when most big athletic programs lose money, when tuition has never been higher, there is something terribly askew about the skyrocketing compensation of college football (and men’s basketball) coaches. At the University of Alabama, Nick Saban makes a reported $6.9 million a year, more than most professional football coaches. At Ohio State, Urban Meyer makes $4.6 million. At the University of Texas, Mack Brown made more than $5 million before he resigned last December. Navy’s football coach, Ken Niumatalolo, makes over $1.5 million. Navy, no less!

But as my colleague Steve Eder reported in The Times earlier this week, the Thomas and Van Horn paper comes to a very different conclusion. According to the paper, football coaches are not overpaid. Why not? Because their jobs — and their employment contracts — are very similar to those of chief executives.

“While university presidents are nominally the C.E.O. of the university,” they write, “there are many commentators, including some presidents, who believe that the football coach retains the role as the most powerful decision maker. Football coaches have many of the same job characteristics as C.E.O.s of public companies — they run large organizations with many employees that generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues.”

The idea that football coaches, who run programs made up of maybe 200 people and generating at most $100 million (and that’s at the top) are comparable to public university presidents with budgets of $2 billion is just silly. But there is something apt about comparing them to chief executives. After all, in the land of the overpaid, chief executives are at the top of the heap.

The justification for outlandish executive compensation is that chief executives are being rewarded for performance. But it doesn’t always work that way. In truth, far too many corporate chieftains take home millions of dollars each year whether their companies perform well or not. It’s a rigged game: The board that sets chief executive pay is often made up of other C.E.O.s, who are deeply sympathetic to the man whose pay they are setting. Performance measures can be changed to make the chief executive look good. And so on.

Thomas and Van Horn make the point that it is much easier to measure the performance of a college football coach — he either wins games or he doesn’t. The average tenure of a Division 1 football coach, they report, is just three years, so the coach has every incentive to maximize his earnings. That may indeed explain why football coaches seek bigger salaries, but it doesn’t explain why they are getting them.

There are really two reasons, one of which Thomas and Van Horn mention and the other of which they don’t. The one they mention is television money, which has flooded into college sports in recent years. They point out that after the Pac-12 Conference negotiated an expansive TV deal in 2011 — nearly quadrupling television revenue for some teams in the conference, Washington State was able to pay its new football coach $2.25 million, up from $600,000. “A windfall,” one athletic director calls it.

What they don’t mention is that other than facilities, travel costs and coaches’ salaries, there aren’t many other places to spend the money. The players don’t get paid, but the money has to go somewhere. So the coaches grab the lion’s share. Economists call this rent-seeking behavior.

In the recent O’Bannon decision, the judge ruled that universities would have to up the value of their athletic scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance. In most cases, that means an increase of between $1,000 to $3,000 per scholarship.

Not long ago, the News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., interviewed Bubba Cunningham, the athletic director at the University of North Carolina, about his concerns in the wake of the O’Bannon decision. Cunningham estimated that adding on the full cost of attendance would cost his university $1.8 million. At U.N.C. the football coach, Larry Fedora, makes around $1.7 million. The basketball coach, Roy Williams, makes a little over $1.8 million.

“We don’t have $1.8 million discretionary,” he said, referring to the full cost of attendance. “That’s going to create challenges.” He suggested that certain minor sports might be “at risk.” But he also said that certain other options “aren’t realistic.”

“Like what?” asked the interviewer.

“Slowing down facility expansion, or salaries,” he replied.

Which is the final way C.E.O. compensation resembles the pay of college football coaches: It never goes down.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Republican candidates are falling madly in love with contraception.

Who knew?

“I believe the pill ought to be available over the counter, round the clock, without a prescription — cheaper and easier, for you,” declares Colorado Senate candidate Cory Gardner in a new ad. He’s running against the Democratic incumbent, Mark Udall, in a close race.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, during a Senate debate this week, Republican Thom Tillis announced that he, too, strongly believed “over-the-counter oral contraception should be available without a prescription.”

Tillis, a longtime politician, had never mentioned this big idea before. Until the debate, his most famous collision with women’s reproductive rights came when, as speaker of the State House, he allowed the Republican majority to add a last-minute amendment to a bill on motorcycle safety reducing access to abortions.

So big surprise from Thom Tillis. The same thing, more or less, has happened in Senate races in Virginia and Minnesota. Republicans in close elections suddenly turn into cheerleaders for over-the-counter birth control pills. A negative and suspicious mind might almost suspect they were following a script.

During one recent U.S. House debate in Colorado, the Republican incumbent, Mike Coffman, said in an answer to a moderator’s question that he was pro-life, then quickly added: “But I support a woman’s access to … to, uh …

“Um, certainly to this Hobby Lobby decision, to get …”

Painful moments of groping, flailing. What the heck do you call that stuff? Finally, a merciful member of the audience shouted: “Birth control.”

“Birth control!” cried Coffman with relief.

We’re entering another election season in which women’s issues loom large. (In North Carolina, one recent poll showed the gender gap between Tillis and his Democratic opponent, Senator Kay Hagan, is 32 percent.) The Republicans are trying to avoid the disastrous tone-deafness that cropped up two years ago when a leading Senate candidate suggested that a gal could not get pregnant if she was raped. This season, Democrats have been eagerly looking for similar fodder. So far, there’s been nothing quite that awful, although it’s pretty clear there are folks who still haven’t gotten with the program. Male invitees to an event for Florida Congressman Steve Southerland were told to “tell the misses not to wait up” because “the after-dinner whiskey and cigars will be smooth & the issues to discuss are many.”

A spokesman for Southerland indignantly told BuzzFeed, which first obtained the invitation, that “rather than focusing on nonsense stories,” reporters should be asking Southerland’s opponent about Obamacare. Truly, there is nothing that cannot be dismissed by bringing up the Affordable Care Act. Total miracle that the ex-governor of Virginia chose to defend himself against corruption charges by claiming his wife was a terrible person when he could just as easily have argued that taking money from a dietary supplement salesman was not nearly as bad as Obamacare.

I digress. About the pill. There was a time when the Republican Party championed family planning and access to contraception. But that was, you know, before disco. Now it’s a rare Republican candidate who can latch onto a major nomination without calling for an end to abortion rights and the defunding of Planned Parenthood. Many of them have also signed on to the personhood movement, which wants to provide legal rights to every fertilized egg in the country. This idea, with its potential impact on access to birth control, is so unpopular that it failed by a landslide in Mississippi.

All this can create problems for the women’s vote in general elections. In Colorado, the Democrats have pointed out endlessly that Cory Gardner supported personhood amendments to the State Constitution. After he seemed to be losing ground, Gardner said that when personhood came up in 2008 and 2010 he did not really understand the possible consequences. (“This was a bad idea driven by good intentions.”)

Now think about this for a minute. Imagine you’re a politician in a state that’s considering an amendment to the state constitution that is very controversial and all about women’s reproduction. Pretend it’s on the ballot the same time when you’re running for Congress. Pretend you’re very, very concerned with women’s access to contraception.

At what point would you say to yourself: “Wow, I wonder if this could have any impact on birth control?” Choose from the following:

A) First time the subject came up.

B) Not actually until a week before the election because it was a tough year and I had home repair issues to deal with.

C) Some undetermined point between the day the amendment failed by 3 to 1 and, um, right this minute.

Yes! In Gardner’s case the answer is C.

In every election, voters ask the candidates: “What have you done for me lately?” In this case, we might also want to know what they were doing last year.

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

September 2, 2014

In “The Revolt of the Weak” Bobo gurgles that this summer, the bad guys have looked energetic while the good guys have looked tired, putting the norms of civilization under threat.  Mr. Nocera has a question in “The Human Toll of Offshoring:”  What should we be doing to make globalization work for us instead of against us?  In “Obama’s Messy Words” Mr. Bruni says there’s inadequate urgency or reassurance in the president’s language, as Americans gaze with horror at events abroad.  Here’s Bobo:

The toughest part of governing is the effect on the mind of those who govern. As Henry Kissinger said, once you get in government you are not building up human capital; you are just spending it down. People in senior positions are simply too busy to learn fundamental new viewpoints. Their minds are locked within the ones they brought into power.

Then there is the problem of myopia. People at the top of government confront such a barrage of immediate small issues — from personnel to scheduling — that it is hard for them to step back and see the overall context in which they operate.

Finally, there is the problem of the bunker. People in power are hit with such an avalanche of criticism — much of it partisan and ill-informed — that they naturally build mental walls to protect themselves from abuse.

All of which makes it hard to govern now. We are not living in a moment of immediate concrete threat, but we are in a crisis of context.

The specific problems that make headlines right now are not cataclysmic. The venture by President Vladimir Putin of Russia into Ukraine, for all its thuggery, is not, in itself, a cataclysmic historical event. The civil war in Syria, for all its savagery, is not a problem that threatens the daily lives of those who live outside.

These problems are medium-size, but the underlying frameworks by which nations operate are being threatened in fairly devastating ways. That is to say, there are certain unconscious habits and norms of restraint that undergird civilization. These habits and norms are now being challenged by a coalition of the unsuccessful.

What we’re seeing around the world is a revolt of the weak. There are certain weak movements and nations, beset by internal contradictions, that can’t compete if they play by the normal rules of civilization. Therefore, they are conspiring to blow up the rule book.

The first example is Russia. Putin is poor in legitimacy. He is poor in his ability to deliver goods and dignity for his people. But he is rich in brazenness. He is rich in his ability to play by the lawlessness of the jungle, so he wants the whole world to operate by jungle rules.

There has been a norm, generally operating over the past few decades, or even centuries, that big, powerful nations don’t gobble up everything around them just because they can. But this is precisely the norm that Putin is brazenly crushing under foot. If Putinism can effectively tear down this norm, more and more we’ll live in a world in which brazenness is rewarded and self-restraint is punished.

Then there are the Islamist movements like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. This movement is poor in offering a lifestyle that most people find attractive. But it is strong in spiritual purity, so it wants to set off a series of religious wars and have the world organized by religious categories.

There has been a norm, developed gradually over the centuries, that politics is not a totalistic spiritual enterprise. Governments try to deliver order and economic benefits to people, but they do not organize their inner spiritual lives.

This is precisely the norm that ISIS and other jihadi groups are trying to destroy. If they succeed, then the Middle East will devolve into a 30 years war of faith against faith. Zealotry will be rewarded, and restraint will be punished.

Putin and ISIS are not threats to American national security, narrowly defined. They are threats to our civilizational order.

If you are caught up in that day-to-day business of government, you are likely to see how weak Putin and ISIS are. You are likely to conclude that you don’t need to do much, because these threats will inevitably succumb on their own to their internal contradictions. But their weakness is their driving power; they only need to tear things down, and, unconfronted, will do so.

People who conduct foreign policy live today under the shadow of the postwar era. People instinctively understand that just after World War II, Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dean Acheson and others did something remarkable. They stepped outside the immediate crush of events and constructed a context in which people would live for the next several decades.

Some of the problems they faced did not seem gigantic: how to prevent a Communist insurgency from taking over a semifailed government in Greece. But they understood that by projecting American power into Greece, they would be establishing certain norms and creating a framework for civilization.

Then, democratic self-confidence was high. Today, unfortunately, it is low. This summer, the bad guys have looked energetic while the good guys have looked tired. We’ll see at the NATO summit meeting in Wales this week if there’s a leader who can step outside the crush of events and explain how fundamental the threat to the rules of civilization now is.

Next up we have Mr. Nocera:

The subtitle of Beth Macy’s new book, “Factory Man” — “How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local, and Helped Save an American Town” — gives every impression that it is going to be an upbeat read, a capitalistic feel-good story.

And, indeed, Macy, a former longtime reporter for The Roanoke Times in Virginia, doesn’t skimp on the story of a furniture baron named John Bassett III, her colorful main character, a Southern charmer with a fondness for quoting General Patton. After being pushed out of his family’s furniture company in (where else?) Bassett, Va., JBIII, as Macy calls him, buys into another, smaller company, Vaughan-Bassett, in the nearby town of Galax, right around the time that Chinese furniture manufacturers began to move seriously into the American furniture market with low-priced knockoffs of American furniture designs.

As furniture manufacturers all around him — including his family’s company — begin shuttering plants and start marketing and selling the Chinese imports, Bassett decides to fight back. Although he, too, has had to shrink his work force, he refuses to shut down his company, and he mobilizes others in the industry to charge the Chinese with dumping their goods on the market — that is, selling them below the cost of manufacturing them.

In 2005, the government did indeed conclude that the Chinese had been dumping furniture, and it put tariffs on Chinese furniture that helped make the Americans a little more competitive. Thanks to something called the Byrd amendment, some of the money from the Chinese went directly to Bassett’s company, which “invested $23 million in new plant equipment, put some in the employee profit-sharing plan, and used some of it to start a companywide free health clinic for families,” writes Macy. “The money saved upwards of 700 jobs in Galax, which, in turn, as some have argued, have saved the town.” Vaughan-Bassett has since become the largest wooden bedroom furniture maker in the country.

Surely, if they make a movie out of “Factory Man” — and I think there is a pretty decent chance they will — that will be the story line.

What is striking about Macy’s first book, though, is how little she does to make that made-for-the-movies plot stand out. Her wonderful central character notwithstanding, she’s really after something else: the effects of globalization on her little corner of the world, that is, the regions of North Carolina and Virginia where furniture making was once king. From her point of view, that story is anything but upbeat.

Nor does she miss the historic twist in her tale: as she notes early on, in the years after the Civil War, Southern entrepreneurs like Bassett’s grandfather capitalized on “cheap, hungry labor and all those tree-stocked hills” to shift furniture manufacturing from places like Grand Rapids, Mich., to the South, where it thrived for a century or more before the Chinese began doing the same thing to them.

But again and again, she comes back to the factories that have been closed, the jobs that have been lost. “Between 2002 and 2012, 63,300 American factories closed their doors and five million factory jobs went away,” she notes. She finds people who, having been laid off, do exactly what you would hope they might do: go to college and become well-paid knowledge workers.

But far more often she introduces us to people who have been displaced by the Chinese furniture manufacturers and can’t see a better future. It is especially difficult for people who have lost their jobs in what amount to company towns — where there really isn’t any other work to be had. She asks, “What good did it do to have access to cheap consumer goods if you had no money to buy them?”

She quotes the University of Oregon economist Bruce Blonigen, who tells her, “In reality, we shouldn’t be making bedroom furniture anymore in the United States. Shouldn’t we instead be trying to educate these workers’ kids to get them into high-skilled jobs and away from what’s basically an archaic industry?”

I happen to think Blonigen is right — that is exactly what we should be doing to make globalization work for us instead of against us. But I also find myself deeply sympathetic to Macy’s essential point, which is that globalization inflicts a great deal of suffering on millions of people, something the news media should do a better job of acknowledging and the government should do a better job of mitigating.

Toward the end of her book, Macy travels to Indonesia, where she talks to a factory executive. “What I do worry about every year is the future of the factory,” he tells her. “I worry that someone somewhere else, somewhere cheaper, will start to make furniture, and that will be that for us.”

It never ends.

I love the scorn directed at blue-collar workers by Blonigen (and agreed with by Mr. Nocera) — apparently if you work with your hands you’re not worth considering.  You should be in some pie-in-the-sky high tech job that doesn’t exist.  And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

There are things that you think and things that you say.

There’s what you reckon with privately and what you utter publicly.

There are discussions suitable for a lecture hall and those that befit the bully pulpit.

These sets overlap but aren’t the same. Has President Obama lost sight of that?

It’s a question fairly asked after his statement last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with Islamic extremists in Syria. Not having a strategy, at least a fixed, definitive one, is understandable. The options aren’t great, the answers aren’t easy and the stakes are enormous.

But announcing as much? It’s hard to see any percentage in that. It gives no comfort to Americans. It puts no fear in our enemies.

Just as curious was what Obama followed that up with.

Speaking at a fund-raiser on Friday, he told donors, “If you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart.” He had that much right.

But it wasn’t the whole of his message. In a statement of the obvious, he also said, “The world has always been messy.” And he coupled that with a needless comparison, advising Americans to bear in mind that the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the rapacity of Putin, the bedlam in Libya and the rest of it were “not something that is comparable to the challenges we faced during the Cold War.”

Set aside the question of how germane the example of the Cold War is. When the gut-twisting image stuck in your head is of a masked madman holding a crude knife to the neck of an American on his knees in the desert, when you’re reading about crucifixions in the 21st century, when you’re hearing about women sold by jihadists as sex slaves, and when British leaders have just raised the threat level in their country to “severe,” the last thing that you want to be told is that it’s par for the historical course, all a matter of perspective and not so cosmically dire.

Where’s the reassurance — or the sense of urgency — in that?

And maybe the second-to-last thing that you want to be told is that technology and social media amplify peril in a new way and may be the reason you’re feeling especially on edge. Obama said something along those lines, too. It’s not the terror, folks. It’s the tweets.

Is the president consoling us — or himself? It’s as if he’s taken his interior monologue and wired it to speakers in the town square. And it’s rattling.

When he came along, many of us were fed up with misinformation and “Mission Accomplished” theatrics and bluster. America had paid a price for them in young lives.

And we were tired and leery of an oversimplified, Hollywood version of world affairs, of the Manichaean lexicon of “evil empire” and “axis of evil.” We longed for something less rash and more nuanced.

But there’s plenty of territory between the bloated and bellicose rhetoric of then and what Obama is giving us now. He’s adopted a strange language of self-effacement, with notes of defeatism, reminding us that “America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything”; that we must be content at times with singles and doubles in lieu of home runs; that not doing stupid stuff is its own accomplishment.

This is all true. It’s in tune with our awareness of our limits. And it reflects a prudent disinclination to repeat past mistakes and overreach.

But that doesn’t make it the right message for the world’s lone superpower (whether we like it or not) to articulate and disseminate. That doesn’t make it savvy, constructive P.R. And the low marks that Americans currently give the president, especially for foreign policy, suggest that it’s not exactly what we were after.

In The Washington Post on Sunday, Karen DeYoung and Dan Balz observed that while Obama’s no-strategy remark “may have had the virtue of candor,” it in no way projected “an image of presidential resolve or decisiveness at a time of international turmoil.”

And no matter what Obama ultimately elects to do, such an image is vital. But in its place are oratorical shrugs and an aura of hesitancy, even evasion, as he and John Kerry broadcast that the United States shouldn’t be expected to act on its own. Isn’t that better whispered to our allies and negotiated behind closed doors?

Echoing Hillary Clinton to some degree, Senator Dianne Feinstein just complained that Obama was perhaps “too cautious.”

Not in what he says, he’s not. Not when he draws and then erases red lines. Not with his recent adjectives.

“Messy” is my kitchen at the end of a long weekend. What’s happening in much of Syria and Iraq is monstrous.

Apparently next week Bruni will show up on Wednesday instead of Tuesday.

Nocera, solo

August 30, 2014

Ms. Collins is off today.  In “Imagining Successful Schools” Mr. Nocera says one of the grand old men of education policy says test-based accountability has got to go.  Here he is:

What should teacher accountability look like?

We know what the current system of accountability looks like, and it’s not pretty. Ever since the passage of No Child Left Behind 12 years ago, teachers have been judged, far too simplistically, based on standardized tests given to their students — tests, as Marc S. Tucker points out in a new report, Fixing Our National Accountability System, that are used to decide which teachers should get to keep their jobs and which should be fired. This system has infuriated and shamed teachers, and is a lot of the reason that teacher turnover is so high, causing even many of the best teachers to abandon the ranks.

All of which might be worth it if this form of accountability truly meant that public school students were getting a better education. But, writes Tucker, “There is no evidence that it is contributing anything to improved student performance.” Meanwhile, he adds, test-based accountability is “doing untold damage to the profession of teaching.”

Tucker is one of the grand old men of education policy. In the 1970s, he worked at the National Institute of Education, followed by a stint at the Carnegie Corporation. In 1988, he founded the National Center on Education and the Economy, whose premise, he told me recently, is that, in order to meet the demands of a global economy, our educational system needs to be re-engineered for much higher performance.

Not long after founding the N.C.E.E., Tucker began taking a close look at countries and cities that were re-engineering successfully. What he came away with were two insights. First was a profound appreciation for the fact that most of the countries with the best educational results used the same set of techniques to get there. And, second, that the American reform methods were used nowhere else in the world. “No other country believes that you can get to a high quality educational system simply by instituting an accountability system,” he says. “We are entirely on the wrong track.” His cri de coeur has been that Americans should look to what works, instead of clinging to what doesn’t.

The main thing that works is treating teaching as a profession, and teachers as professionals. That means that teachers are as well paid as other professionals, that they have a career ladder, that they go to elite schools where they learn their craft, and that they are among the top quartile of college graduates instead of the bottom quartile. When I suggested that American cities couldn’t afford to pay teachers the way we pay engineers or lawyers, Tucker scoffed. With rare exception, he said, the cost per pupil in the places with the best educational systems is less than the American system, even though their teachers are far better paid. “They are not spending more money; they are spending money differently,” he said.

Tucker would not abolish tests, but he would have fewer of them. And they would have a different purpose: In the high-performing countries, the tests exist to hold the students accountable, rather than the teachers. Meanwhile, he writes, “in most of these countries, the primary form of accountability for the school and its staff is high-profile publication of the average scores for the exams for each school, often front-page news.”

When a school falls short, instead of looking to fire teachers, the high-performing countries “use the data to decide which schools will receive visits from teams of expert school inspectors. These inspectors are highly regarded educators.”

Tucker envisions the same kind of accountability for teachers as exists for, say, lawyers in a firm — where it is peers holding each other accountable rather than some outside force. People who don’t pull their own weight are asked to leave. The ethos is that people help each other to become better for the good of the firm. Those who successfully rise through the ranks are rewarded with higher pay and status.

Would the teachers’ unions go along with such a scheme? The unions would certainly have to shed some of the things they now have, such as control of work rules. But they would gain so much else: “Management would get their prerogatives back and would be held accountable for results, but the professionals, granted far more autonomy, would be also holding each other accountable for the quality of their work, as professionals everywhere do.”

As our conversation was coming to an end, Tucker told me that he was working with the State of Kentucky to implement some of the reforms he had outlined in his report. If it works there — and there is no reason it shouldn’t — perhaps we’ll finally get over our fixation with test-based accountability, and finally re-engineer our educational system the way every other successful country has.

Nocera and Collins

August 23, 2014

In “Lessons Not Learned” Mr. Nocera says the S.&L. crisis could have helped us avoid the financial crisis.  File this under “No shit, Sherlock.”  He also managed to write the history without the name “McCain,” one of the Keating 5.  Ms. Collins looks at “Gift Horses Gone Wild” and has a question:  Who’s been following the trial of Bob McDonnell in Virginia and knows what FLOVA means?  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

The death of Fernand St Germain last week, at the age of 86, got me thinking about the financial calamity that he was long associated with: the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s. There are things it could have — and should have — taught us as we spiraled toward the financial crisis less than two decades later.

“Freddie” St Germain was the sort of congressman you don’t see much anymore: the lovable rogue, a backslapping, deal-making legislator who saw nothing particularly wrong with taking advantage of his position to feather his own nest. As The Times pointed out in its obituary, he liked to joke that he didn’t put a period after “St” because he was hardly a saint. Entering Congress in 1961, when he was 32 years old, he steadily climbed the seniority ladder until he was the chairman of the House Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs in 1981.

It was a terrible time for the nation’s 4,600 or so S.&L.’s. Inflation was raging, and interest rates spiked as high as 21.5 percent. But the interest rate that S.&L.’s could offer their depositors was fixed at 5.25 percent, an amount established by government regulation. As consumers realized that the value of their deposits was being eroded by inflation, they began to move their money to a newfangled financial device being offered by mutual fund companies: the money market fund, which paid competitive rates of interest.

It was Congress’s view — and it was certainly St Germain’s view — that the S.&L. industry was vital to the American dream of homeownership. Indeed, back then, the only loans the industry was allowed to make were mortgages. Thus, in 1982, Congress passed the Garn-St Germain Depository Institutions Act — which St Germain wrote with Edwin “Jake” Garn, the Republican senator from Utah — which essentially deregulated the industry, allowing S.&L.’s not only to pay market interest rates, but to make loans far afield from home mortgages.

The idea was that S.&L.’s needed to be able to make more profitable loans since they were going to be paying much higher interest rates to gain deposits. What nobody seemed to realize was that financial deregulation was bound to have unintended consequences. S.&L.’s went from being the most cautious of financial institutions to the most heedless. S.&L. operators dove into all kinds of exotic areas. By the late 1980s, it had all come a cropper; ultimately more than 1,000 S.&L.’s — one out of every three still operating in 1988 — went under. The industry’s collapse cost the taxpayers nearly $125 billion.

In some ways, the legislators who deregulated the S.&L. industry felt that they had no choice — if they didn’t act, the S.&L.’s would have been in terrible trouble, just of a different kind. Seventeen years later, when Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Act — thus deregulating the entire financial services industry — it didn’t have that excuse. The drive to abolish Glass-Steagall was ideologically inspired, the core belief being that the market would keep the industry honest. But the S.&L. crisis had proved that wasn’t true.

Rather, bankers were only too happy to privatize profits and socialize losses. During the S.&L. crisis, bankers fueled an unsustainable commercial real estate bubble, sold bonds to customers that turned out to be worthless, and, generally, used shoddy business practices to enrich themselves. In the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, bankers handed out mortgages to millions of people who lacked the ability to repay them, and then bundled those mortgages into toxic subprime mortgage bonds. It was just a variation on a theme.

There is another lesson from the S.&L. crisis. In its aftermath, there were somewhere around 1,100 prosecutions, the most famous of which was that of Charles Keating, the chairman of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, an institution that cost the government $3.4 billion when it collapsed. A few years ago, I asked someone who had been involved in prosecuting S.&L. operators why the government had been so intent on putting them in prison. “Because the country demanded it,” he said.

In the wake of the financial crisis, the Department of Justice also set up a task force to root out the wrongdoing that led to the financial crisis. But it has mostly been a joke. The prosecutions have been mostly small-time stuff: homeowners who lied on liar loans, for instance. Meanwhile, not one single employee of Countrywide Financial has been prosecuted, even though Countrywide loans were at the very heart of the financial crisis.

Earlier this week, Bank of America agreed to pay $16.65 billion to settle a handful of government investigations. Bank of America, of course, bought Countrywide in 2008, and the huge sum it was paying was the government’s way of showing that it was tough on financial crime after all.

But it’s not the same as prosecuting those responsible. After all, the country is still demanding it.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

It’s a tribute to the level of terrible news we’ve been inundated with this summer that the corruption trial of ex-Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell may qualify as a feel-good story. Unless, of course, you are McDonnell.

The former governor and his wife, Maureen, took about $177,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie Williams, the maker of Anatabloc, a dietary supplement that was recently withdrawn from the market under pressure from a deeply unenthusiastic Food and Drug Administration. But back at the time of the gift-giving, Williams, who touts Anatabloc as the best thing since penicillin, was hoping the McDonnells would help him promote it. (We are already feeling cheery, realizing that this is not going to be the sort of alleged misdeed that requires us to say: “There but for the grace of God …”)

McDonnell used to be regarded as a Republican rising star, and Mitt Romney invited the then-governor and his wife on a campaign bus ride during veep-hunting season. We learned during the trial that while they were driving around, Maureen McDonnell tried to convince Ann Romney that Anatabloc would be good for her multiple sclerosis.

Romney picked Paul Ryan. We do not know if there was any connection.

The McDonnells, who hosted a launch party for Anatabloc in the governor’s mansion, most definitely took a pile of presents from Williams. However, it turns out that’s totally legal in Virginia. As long as an elected official reports gifts and there’s no quid pro quo, he can accept a bar of gold from a lobbyist every day. Virginians have always believed that their political culture was too upright to require ethics laws. Because, you know, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

When it comes to lessons learned from the McDonnell debacle, No. 1 is: Do not work under the assumption that your officials will do the right thing because you live in a very honest state. This is probably not a problem you need to worry about if you are in, say, New York or Illinois.

Bob McDonnell has told the jury a lot about his firmness in rejecting some of the goodies that Maureen wanted — like a designer dress for the inaugural. However, he seems to have been far less resolute when Jonnie Williams was doling out things he liked: a luxury vacation, or the use of a private jet. McDonnell told his sons to give back expensive golf clubs (the sons ignored him), but then he accepted a custom golf bag for himself.

The defense is taking the interesting line that Williams could not have gotten any direct benefit from his largess because the McDonnell marriage was too much of a mess for the couple to deliver. They never talked. Maureen was a harridan who ranted at her staff. Plus, she had a crush on Jonnie Williams, to whom she texted after an earthquake: “I just felt the earth move and I wasn’t having sex!!!!”

Bob McDonnell, who turned down a prosecution offer to let him save his wife from trial by pleading guilty to one felony count, has moved out of the family house and is bunking in the rectory with his parish priest. He offered up an email he had sent Maureen describing his “great heartache” over their discord, although he did praise her for doing well on the “FLOVA job.”

FLOVA means First Lady of Virginia. It’s a take on FLOTUS, which is a term for Michelle Obama. It made me wonder if other states do that. Is the wife of the governor of Ohio FLOOH? New York’s would be FLONY, except, of course, we don’t have one since our governor is divorced and living with a celebrity cookbook writer.

Which seems, in this context, like a real selling point for Andrew Cuomo. Another lesson from the trial is that you should never vote for somebody because his family looks nice. When McDonnell ran for governor his campaign aired ads showing the candidate in front of his home, high-fiving the kids and hugging his wife. Now, Virginians could point out the sons who took the golf clubs, the daughter who got $15,000 for her wedding catering, and, of course, the wife who spent way, way more time on the phone with the diet supplement salesman than with her husband.

Both spouses agree that Bob McDonnell was almost never around. This was due, the governor said, both to the demands of his job and the fact that he was committed to raising $55 million for the Republican Governors Association.

I think I speak for many of us when I say that it would be one thing to have your husband absent for days on end because the state was in a budget crisis, and another to have him ditch you because he had to collect donations for the Republican governors.

Maybe our final lesson is: Do not marry a politician.

Or never consort with Republicans…

Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

August 19, 2014

In “Ambivalence About America” Mr. Cohen tells us that even as Europeans rage at the United States, they love its products.  Mr. Nocera tells us about “The Man Who Blew the Whistle.”  He says when the S.E.C. announced last month that it was awarding $400,000 to a whistle-blower, it didn’t name the recipient per the Dodd-Frank law. His name is Bill Lloyd, and Mr. Nocera gives us his story.  Mr. Bruni tells us all about “The Trouble With Tenure” and says teacher job protections are being challenged, and a lawmaker and former school principal explains why that’s good.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Attitudes in Europe toward an America that is regrouping are marked today by extreme ambivalence. Europeans have long been known for finishing their diatribes about the United States by asking how they can get their child into Stanford. These days, European after-dinner conversation tends to be dominated by discussion of the latest episode of “House of Cards” or “Homeland” or “Mad Men.” A French diplomat told me that every meeting he attended at the White House during his tour in Washington ended with one of his party asking if it might be possible to see the West Wing. He found it embarrassing.

Europeans complain of the personal data stored or the tax loopholes exploited by the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Starbucks, Google and Twitter, but they are hooked on them all. Google, as recently reported by my colleague Mark Scott, now has an 85 percent share of search in Europe’s largest economies, including Germany, Britain and France, whereas its share of the American market is about 67 percent. American tech companies operate seven of the 10 most visited websites in Europe. Rage at the practices of the National Security Agency is outweighed by addiction to a cyberuniverse dominated by American brands.

The magnetism of Silicon Valley may suggest that the United States, a young nation still, is Rome at the height of its power. American soft power is alive and well. America’s capacity for reinvention, its looming self-sufficiency in energy, its good demographics and, not least, its hold on the world’s imagination, all suggest vigor.

But geostrategic shifts over the past year indicate the contrary: that the United States is Imperial Rome, A.D. 376, with various violent enemies playing the role of the Visigoths, Huns, Vandals et al.; the loss at home of what Edward Gibbon, the historian of Rome’s fall, called “civic virtue,” as narrow interests paralyze politics; the partial handover of American security to private military contractors (just as a declining Rome increasingly entrusted its defense to mercenaries); the place of plunder rather than productiveness in the economy; and the apparent powerlessness of a leader given to talk of the limits of what the United States can do. There is no record of the Emperor Valens’s saying, as Obama did, “You hit singles, you hit doubles,” but perhaps he thought it.

Ambivalence is not peculiar to Europe, of course. To heck with the world’s problems, many Americans now say, we have done our share over all these decades of Pax Americana. If China and India are really rising, let them take responsibility for global security, as America took the mantle from Britain in 1945.

Barack Obama — professional, practical and prudent — would appear to suit this American zeitgeist. He may not be managing decline but he is certainly resisting overreach. He is not the decider. He is the restrainer.

Why, then, is Obama’s no-stupid-stuff approach to the globe so unpopular? Fifty-eight percent of Americans in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll disapproved of his handling of foreign policy, the highest of his presidency. A strange duality seems to be at work. Americans want the troops to come home. They want investment to prioritize domestic jobs, education, health care and infrastructure.

Yet many seem to feel Obama is selling the nation short. They want a president to lead, not be a mere conduit for their sentiments. Americans, as citizens of a nation that represents an idea, are optimistic by nature. It may be true that there is no good outcome in Syria, and certainly no easy one. It may be that Egyptian democracy had to be stillborn. It may be that Vladimir Putin annexes Crimea because he can. Still, Americans do not like the message that it makes sense to pull back and let the world do its worst. America’s bipolarity sees recent bitter experience vying with the country’s innermost nature, its can-do aspiration to be a “city upon a hill.”

It is not easy to read this world of bipolarity (both European and American), Jihadi Springs and Chinese assertiveness. It is too simple, and probably wrong, to say that the United States is in decline.

But Pax Americana is in decline. America’s readiness to use its power to stabilize the world — the current bombing of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria notwithstanding — is fading. For that reason, the world is more dangerous than it has been in a long time. The waning under Obama of the credibility of American power has created a vacuum no magnetic soft power fills.

The pendulum always swings too far. Obama the restrainer has been the great corrective to Bush the decider. Far from the magician imagined back in 2008, Obama has been the professional moderator. But the president has gone too far; and in so doing has undersold the nation, encouraged foes, disappointed allies, and created doubts over American power that have proved easy to exploit.

Immediately after this was a notation that Bobo was off today, so I guess Mr. Cohen had to send in his screed and do the saber-rattling and dick swinging instead.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Late last month, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an oblique press release announcing that it was awarding an unnamed whistle-blower $400,000 for helping expose a financial fraud at an unnamed company. The money was the latest whistle-blower award — there have been 13 so far — paid as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which includes both protections for whistle-blowers and financial awards when their information leads to fines of more than $1 million.

The law also prevents the S.E.C. from doing anything to publicly identify the whistle-blowers — hence, the circumspect press release. But through a mutual friend, I discovered the identity of this particular whistle-blower, who, it turned out, was willing to tell his story.

His name is Bill Lloyd. He is 56 years old, and he spent 22 years as an agent for MassMutual Financial Group, the insurance company based in Springfield, Mass. Although companies often label whistle-blowers as disgruntled employees, Lloyd didn’t fit that category. On the contrary, he liked working for MassMutual, and he was a high performer. He also is a straight arrow — “a square,” said the mutual friend who introduced us — who cares about his customers; when faced with a situation where his customers were likely to get ripped off, he couldn’t look the other way.

In September 2007, at a time when money was gushing into variable annuities, MassMutual added two income guarantees to make a few of its annuity products especially attractive to investors. Called Guaranteed Income Benefit Plus 6 and Guaranteed Income Benefit Plus 5, they guaranteed that the annuity income stream would grow to a predetermined cap regardless of how the investment itself performed.

Then, upon retirement, the investors had the right to take 6 percent (or 5 percent, depending on the product) of the cap for as long as they wanted or until it ran out of money, and still be able, at some point, to annuitize it. It is complicated, but the point is that thanks to the guarantee, the money was never supposed to run out. That is what the prospectus said, and it is what those in the sales force, made up of people like Lloyd, were taught to sell to customers. It wasn’t long before investors had put $2.5 billion into the products.

The following July, Lloyd — and a handful of others in the sales force — discovered, to their horror, that the guarantee didn’t work as advertised. In fact, because of the market’s fall, it was a near-certainty that thousands of customers were going to run through the income stream within seven or eight years of withdrawing money.

Lloyd did not immediately run to the S.E.C. Rather, he dug in at MassMutual and, as the S.E.C. press release put it, did “everything feasible to correct the issue internally.” For a while, he thought he was going to have success, but, at a certain point, someone stole the files he had put together on the matter and turned them over to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which is the industry’s self-regulatory body. It was only when the regulatory authority failed to act that his lawyer told him about the whistle-blower provisions in Dodd-Frank and he went to the S.E.C., which began its own investigation.

The Dodd-Frank law has provisions intended to protect whistle-blowers from retaliation, but there are certain aspects of being a whistle-blower that it can’t do anything about. “People started treating me like a leper,” recalls Lloyd. “They would see me coming and turn around and walk in the other direction.” Convinced that the company was laying the groundwork to fire him, he quit in April 2011, a move that cost him both clients and money. (Lloyd has since found employment with another financial institution. For its part, MassMutual says only that “we are pleased to have resolved this matter with the S.E.C.”)

In November 2012, MassMutual agreed to pay a $1.6 million fine; Lloyd’s $400,000 award is 25 percent of that. It was a slap on the wrist, but more important, the company agreed to lift the cap. This will cost MassMutual a lot more, but it will protect the investors who put their money — and their retirement hopes — on MassMutual’s guarantees. Thanks to Lloyd, the company has fixed the defect without a single investor losing a penny.

Ever since the passage of Dodd-Frank reform, the financial industry has been none too happy about the whistle-blower provisions, and there have been rumblings that congressional Republicans might try to roll back some of it. The S.E.C. now has an Office of the Whistleblower, and a website where potential whistle-blowers can report fraud. It has given out $16 million in whistle-blower awards.

There are, without question, parts of the Dodd-Frank law that are problematic, not least the provisions dealing with the Too Big to Fail institutions.

But the whistle-blower provisions? They are working as intended. That is the moral of Bill Lloyd’s story.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni, writing from Denver:

Mike Johnston’s mother was a public-school teacher. So were her mother and father. And his godfather taught in both public and private schools.

So when he expresses the concern that we’re not getting the best teachers into classrooms or weeding out the worst performers, it’s not as someone who sees the profession from a cold, cynical distance.

What I hear in his voice when he talks about teaching is reverence, along with something else that public education could use more of: optimism.

He rightly calls teachers “the single most transformative force in education.”

But the current system doesn’t enable as many of them as possible to rise to that role, he says. And a prime culprit is tenure, at least as it still exists in most states.

“It provides no incentive for someone to improve their practice,” he told me last week. “It provides no accountability to actual student outcomes. It’s the classic driver of, ‘I taught it, they didn’t learn it, not my problem.’ It has a decimating impact on morale among staff, because some people can work hard, some can do nothing, and it doesn’t matter.”

I sat down with Johnston, a Democrat who represents a racially diverse chunk of this city in the State Senate, because he was the leading proponent of a 2010 law that essentially abolished tenure in Colorado. To earn what is now called “non-probationary status,” a new teacher must demonstrate student progress three years in a row, and any teacher whose students show no progress for two consecutive years loses his or her job protection.

The law is still being disputed and has not been fully implemented. But since its enactment, a growing number of states have chipped away at traditional tenure or forged stronger links between student performance and teacher evaluations. And the challenges to tenure have gathered considerable force, with many Democrats defying teachers unions and joining the movement.

After a California judge’s recent ruling that the state’s tenure protections violated the civil rights of children by trapping them with ineffective educators in a manner that “shocks the conscience,” Arne Duncan, the education secretary, praised the decision. Tenure even drew scrutiny from Whoopi Goldberg on the TV talk show “The View.” She repeatedly questioned the way it sometimes shielded bad teachers.

“Parents are not going to stand for it anymore,” she said. “And you teachers, in your union, you need to say, ‘These bad teachers are making us look bad.’ ”

Johnston spent two years with Teach for America in Mississippi in the late 1990s. Then, after getting a master’s in education from Harvard, he worked for six years as a principal in public schools in the Denver area, including one whose success drew so much attention that President Obama gave a major education speech there during his 2008 presidential campaign.

Johnston said that traditional tenure deprived principals of the team-building discretion they needed.

“Do you have people who all share the same vision and are willing to walk through the fire together?” he said. Principals with control over that coax better outcomes from students, he said, citing not only his own experience but also the test scores of kids in Harlem who attend the Success Academy Charter Schools.

“You saw that when you could hire for talent and release for talent, you could actually demonstrate amazing results in places where that was never thought possible,” he said. “Ah, so it’s not the kids who are the problem! It’s the system.”

When job protections are based disproportionately on time served, he said, they don’t adequately inspire and motivate. Referring to himself and other tenure critics, he said, “We want a tenure system that actually means something, that’s a badge of honor you wear as one of the best practitioners in the field and not just because you’re breathing.”

There are perils to the current tenure talk: that it fails to address the intense strains on many teachers; that it lays too much fault on their doorsteps, distracting people from other necessary reforms.

But the discussion is imperative, because there’s no sense in putting something as crucial as children’s education in the hands of a professional class with less accountability than others and with job protections that most Americans can only fantasize about.

We need to pay good teachers much more. We need to wrap the great ones in the highest esteem. But we also need to separate the good and the great from the bad.

Johnston frames it well.

“Our focus is not on teachers because they are the problem,” he said. “Our focus is on teachers because they are the solution.”

Nocera and Collins

August 9, 2014

In “This Is Reform?” Mr. Nocera says the real reformer is Judge Claudia Wilken, not the college sports establishment.  In “It’s a Can’t-Lose Year” Ms. Collins says seriously, people. It’s only a bad year if you’re Santa Claus.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Too little, too late.

On Thursday, the 18 members of the N.C.A.A.’s Division 1 board of directors voted 16 to 2 to allow the five richest conferences to play by their own rules, at least a little bit.

Those who have been advocating this “reform” — especially the athletic directors and conference commissioners of the Big 5 conferences — have talked endlessly about how it is all about giving the athletes at the 65 big-time schools that make up their conferences a better deal.

If only. To be sure, the new Division 1 plan would give the players some help that they haven’t had before. The schools would be able to offer their athletes a small stipend so their athletic scholarships would cover the “full cost of attendance.” They could pass rules giving their athletes better medical insurance. The players could gain the ability to hire agents and advisers while they are still playing college ball. And so on.

But these changes hardly constitute wholesale reform. Rather, the big conferences thought they were doing the minimum they could get away with to make their problems go away, even as lawsuits have been bearing down on them, a union drive has taken place among the Northwestern University football players, and critics have given full-throated voice to the enormous inequities in big-time college football and men’s basketball, the two sports that generate billions of dollars for everyone in college athletics except the athletes themselves.

Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner of the Big 12, admitted as much to my colleague Juliet Macur the other day. He told her, as she put it in her Times column on Friday, that the conferences “had to make a pre-emptive move to try to save themselves.” Precisely.

As it turns out, it didn’t work. On Friday, in California, Judge Claudia Wilken, who presided over the so-called O’Bannon case in June, ruled that, by limiting the amount of scholarship money the players could get, the N.C.A.A. was in violation of the nation’s antitrust laws. She ruled that not only should players get the full cost of attendance, but that trust funds should be set up for players that could contain $5,000 a year. That may not sound like much, but according to the plaintiffs’ lawyers I spoke to, it could add up to some $300 million.

In a recent article on the sports website Deadspin, the economist Andy Schwarz shrewdly noted that there are actually two very distinct schools of N.C.A.A. critics. He called them Team Reform and Team Market.

Team Reform, he wrote, consists of those who believe that college sports have gotten out of hand, and are not reflective of the values of higher education. They want to put the genie back in the bottle — and they are unlikely to be happy with the judge’s decision.

Team Market, to which Schwarz (and I) belong, believes that there’s nothing all that wrong with commercialized college sports — which has tens of millions of followers, after all — so long as the value, as he puts it, goes to the value creators, which most definitely include the players. Team Market is thrilled with the judge’s decision.

The N.C.A.A. and the big-time college sports establishment are not terribly worried about Team Reform, which has generally been toothless and has no real way to effect its agenda. But they have long been terrified of Team Market, which has the potential to truly change the nature of college sports. The O’Bannon case is only the first lawsuit to go to trial; there are other antitrust lawsuits coming down the pike that could force even bigger changes.

I know there are those who complain that all these changes will allow the rich in college sports to becoming richer, at the expense of all the other schools in Division I. To which I say: so what.

In fact, I think that could potentially be a good thing. If you separate off the 65 schools in the Big 5 conferences — plus a few others like Boise State in football and the University of Connecticut in basketball — and allow their athletic departments to become ever richer and more powerful, they will be more easily seen for what they are: a form of professionalized and commercialized entertainment that has very little to do with higher education. They are the ones that can afford to put money in trust for players — and that is what is likely to happen. They are not going to suddenly join Team Reform.

At the same time, the also-ran schools may be forced to rethink athletics entirely. Unable to pay their players, perhaps they’ll decide that the better part of valor is to de-emphasize sports and make them truly collegiate activities rather than part of a multibillion dollar entertainment complex.

Ultimately the Big 5 conferences hoped the changes they were making would be the last in a process that would shut off further reform. As we learned on Friday, it is more likely to be just the beginning.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Wow, it appears that Republicans in Tennessee just gave a vote of confidence to a right-wing congressman-doctor who has a history of having sex with his patients and encouraging the women in his life to end inconvenient pregnancies by abortion.

This would be Representative Scott DesJarlais, one of the most conservative members of the House of Representatives. The vote in Thursday’s primary was so close that they may still be recounting on Inauguration Day.

But the real point is that DesJarlais did not get resoundingly repudiated. When the campaign began, almost everybody expected him to lose big, including the Republican establishment in Tennessee, which piled support and money on his opponent, a state senator named Jim Tracy.

Tracy was, by most reports, a better retail politician. And the only genuine policy issue appeared to be whether the district would rather have, as its socially conservative representative, the doctor who was fined for carrying on sexual affairs with his patients or the other guy.

So how the heck did DesJarlais end up doing so well? Maybe it’s just because he’s already there. It’s been a terrific primary season for incumbents. Only three members of Congress have lost their seats: the House majority leader, Eric Cantor; 91-year-old Representative Ralph Hall of Texas; and Representative Kerry Bentivolio, a Michigan reindeer farmer who once said in a deposition that he sometimes believed he was truly Santa Claus. Bentivolio sort of fell into office two years ago, when a judge tossed the incumbent Republican off the primary ballot for submitting forged nominating petitions.

So despite all the whining about unpredictable voters, a seat in Congress is still a hard thing to lose. Unless you’re over 90. Or if your nickname is “the accidental congressman.” Or you’re so pompous and self-satisfied you become the kind of guy who spends Primary Day out of town, having coffee with lobbyists at a Washington, D.C., Starbucks.

DesJarlais had argued that his sins — which included affairs with patients that won him a fine from the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners — were all in the distant past.

Indeed, the hanky-panky that’s been made public all dates back before his 2001 divorce. And there definitely should be a statute of limitations on this sort of thing. For instance, absolutely nothing a politician did in college counts, and we have totally forgotten the thing about Rand Paul kidnapping a member of the Baylor swim team and telling her to bow down and worship the god Aqua Buddha. Wiped it from the memory bank.

DesJarlais was first elected during the big anti-Obama Republican sweep of 2010. The stories of his sexual transgressions weren’t really confirmed until the end of the 2012 campaign. But, since then, voters have heard quite a lot about how their anti-abortion congressman’s first wife had two abortions with his consent. DesJarlais said in his divorce trial that the first was “therapeutic” and the second was because “things were not going well between us.”

The transcript from the divorce proceedings also included a phone conversation in which DesJarlais nagged an ex-lover to end her pregnancy. (“You told me you’d have an abortion, and now we’re getting too far along without one.”) He claimed he actually just wanted her to admit that she was making the whole pregnancy story up. In the annals of explanations, it ranks right up there with “I’m leaving you because you’re too good for me.”

It was quite a bit of information for the voters to get past, but many of them did. Maybe the key was right-wing radio hosts, who stuck with their Tea Party favorite. Maybe it was his second wife, who campaigned loyally at his side in yet another example of why being a political spouse is the worst job in America.

Maybe it was God. “I’ve heard him say ‘God has forgiven me’ many times,” said Chas Sisk, the state government reporter for The Tennessean.

Americans do love a repentant sinner, and, to tell the truth, having to campaign through a sexual scandal is punishment enough for a lot of bad behavior.

But then there’s the part about abortion. As a member of Congress, DesJarlais eagerly and persistently urged that women be deprived of the right to do the very thing that he seemed so enthusiastic about when an unwanted pregnancy interfered with his own life. “Dr. D’s Prescription for Tennessee: Protect our traditional Tennessee values: Scott is pro-gun, pro-life and pro-marriage and PROUD OF IT,” announced his first campaign website.

So, at best, we have a man who made a decision that worked for him at the time. Then he regretted it and changed his moral principles. Then he decided that nobody else was ever going to have the right to make that moral choice for herself, if he had anything to do with it.

Some things are really unforgivable.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 161 other followers