Archive for the ‘Nocera’ Category

Nocera, solo

December 20, 2014

Ms. Collins is off today, so Mr. Nocera has the place to himself.  In “The Cuomo Cop-Out” he tells us that by banning fracking and pushing casinos, the governor has gotten it backward.  You’d think he’d get tired carrying all that water for Big Energy…  Here he is:

On Wednesday, around noontime, during a year-end cabinet meeting called by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, officials in his administration announced that they had decided not to allow hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, anywhere in the state.

Despite the potential economic benefits of drilling for natural gas, the governor’s environmental commissioner, Joe Martens, and his health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, concluded that the health and environmental risks were too high. Cuomo, for his part, claimed — implausibly — that he had played no role in the decision. “I am not a scientist,” he said, maintaining that he had merely taken the advice of his experts.

A few hours later, a state board approved the building of three casino complexes, the largest of which would be located in the old Catskills borscht belt. After the announcement, Cuomo put out an ebullient statement saying that these projects will “create thousands of local jobs, drive economic development in surrounding communities,” et cetera.

Anyone who cares about the economic viability of New York State should be troubled by these two decisions. It is fracking — despite risks — that has the potential to boost struggling communities, by providing well-paying, middle-class jobs. Casinos, meanwhile, are a road to nowhere. The Cuomo administration got it exactly backward.

Let’s look at the gambling industry first. Although Albany appears not to have noticed, the industry is in deep trouble, especially in the Northeast, which is saturated with casinos. Four Atlantic City casinos have shut down this year. The second-largest casino in Atlantic City, the Taj Mahal, is staying open only because of a cash infusion by Carl Icahn, the financier. Both of the American Indian-run casinos in Connecticut are flirting with bankruptcy. Meanwhile, New Jersey and Massachusetts have plans to build yet more casinos.

“He’s 15 years too late,” the longtime gambling analyst Harold Vogel told The Times in August, referring to Cuomo’s plans.

And it’s not as if there’s no gambling in New York, which has nine “racinos” — essentially slot machines at racetracks — and five smaller casinos. “A successful casino should bring in lots of outsiders,” said Richard McGowan, a Boston College economist and industry expert. But the new casinos in New York won’t do that; they’ll mainly attract locals, while siphoning off revenue and jobs from other gambling spots. “Maybe that’s O.K.,” said McGowan, “but I don’t think they’re going to be an economic engine.”

Which brings me to fracking. In his remarks, Martens pooh-poohed the potential economic gains in New York, noting that more than 60 percent of the Marcellus Shale — the rock formation most likely to yield large deposits of natural gas for the state — has already been declared a no-fracking zone, either for environmental reasons, such as being too close to a watershed, or because communities had voted to ban fracking.

But that still leaves nearly 40 percent of the shale, which runs through the southernmost counties — such as Broome, Tioga and Chemung — to explore. These are some of the most depressed areas of New York State, where jobs are scarce and hope is hard to come by. As of this summer, only one community in any of these counties had voted against fracking.

Indeed, they look across the border into Pennsylvania and they see areas that were once just as depressed, but have been economically rejuvenated thanks to fracking. In Pennsylvania, the average salary for someone in the oil and natural gas industry is more than $80,000 a year. More than $600 million has been distributed to landowners for drilling rights, according to the American Petroleum Institute. When you add in taxes generated, ancillary jobs, and the like, you have everything the southern tier of New York lacks.

Is fracking completely safe? Of course not. But it is worth pointing out that many of the scientific studies examined by New York State are not so much damning as they are inconclusive. There is still much science to be done. The industry needs to be more transparent. States and the federal government need to make sure fracking is regulated properly. All true.

But very little in life is completely safe. Instead of banning fracking, New York could have established a pilot program to see if it could safely regulate fracking, as other states are trying to do, and at least give people some hope. In rejecting fracking, Zucker said that he was guided by whether he would let his family live near fracking. “The answer is no,” he said. Long-term unemployment is also a scourge families would like to avoid.

And then there is Cuomo’s statement that his decision was guided by his experts. What a cop-out. He gets to please his liberal base, abandon the southern part of his state and then wash his hands of the decision.

Whatever that is, it’s not leadership.

But it’s not pandering either.

Brooks and Nocera

December 16, 2014

In “Warren Can Win” Bobo gurgles that Elizabeth Warren’s aggressive ethos speaks to the disillusionment of the Democratic left wing, and that she may yet be their nominee.  In “When Football Gets the Ax” Mr. Nocera says that at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, it became too expensive to keep up with the big boys.  Here’s Bobo:

Elizabeth Warren’s memoir begins with the story of a family in collapse. She was 12 years old when her father had a heart attack.

His recovery was slow. Unable to work, the family’s finances tanked. The Studebaker was repossessed. When he was able to return to work, Montgomery Ward took away his job selling carpeting and gave him a job selling lawn mowers on commission. Warren asked her mother why the old job was gone. “In her view, his company had robbed him of something he’d worked for. And now, she said, ‘They think he’s going to die.’ ”

The financial spiral had the predictable effect on the family’s emotional life. “Sometimes that spring I would overhear my parents arguing,” Warren remembers, “I guess I shouldn’t describe it as arguing; my father never said much of anything, while my mother yelled louder. They drank more, a lot more. . . . I knew that my mother blamed my daddy for not doing ‘what a man is supposed to do’ and taking care of us.”

Her mother ended up getting a job at Sears, her father got a job as a maintenance man and the family finances stabilized — at a low level. Warren concluded the episode this way: “My mother never had it easy. She fought for everything she and my daddy ever had.”

The memoir is called “A Fighting Chance.” The words “fight” or “fighting” appear in the book 224 times. In high school, Warren writes, she couldn’t play a musical instrument or a sport, “but I did have one talent. I could fight — not with my fists, but with my words. I was the anchor on the debate team.” Of her tennis game she writes, “Once I had a weapon in my hand, I gave it everything I had.”

With relish, she describes a fight she later had with a judge on a panel discussion over bankruptcy law. “The judge probably had a hundred pounds on me, and he started shifting himself closer to the microphone and edging me out of his way. I grabbed the table for leverage and pushed my way to the microphone, going shoulder to shoulder with the judge as I hit back with arguments. . . . I glanced over and noticed with satisfaction that the veins in his neck were throbbing and his face was red and sweating. I wondered briefly whether he might have a stroke right there on the small stage.”

Her biggest adult fight has been against the banks, against what she saw as their rapacious exploitation of the poor and vulnerable. The crucial distinction Warren makes is this one: It’s not just social conditions like globalization and technological change that threaten the middle class. It’s an active conspiracy by the rich and powerful. The game is rigged. The proper response is not just policy-making; it’s indignation and combat.

The political class has been wondering if Warren, a United States senator from Massachusetts, will take on Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. This speculation is usually based on the premise that Warren couldn’t actually win, but that she could move the party in her direction. But, today, even for those of us who disagree with Warren fundamentally, it seems clear that she does have a significant and growing chance of being nominated.

Her chances are rising because of that word “fight.” The emotional register of the Democratic Party is growing more combative. There’s an underlying and sometimes vituperative sense of frustration toward President Obama, and especially his supposed inability to go to the mat.

Events like the Brown case in Ferguson and the Garner case in New York have raised indignation levels across the progressive spectrum. Judging by recent polls, the midterm defeat has not scared Democrats into supporting the safe option; it’s made them angrier about the whole system. As the party slips more into opposition status, with the next Congress, this aggressive outsider spirit will only grow.

In this era of bad feelings, parties are organized more around what they oppose rather than what they are for. Republicans are against government. Democrats are coalescing around opposition to Wall Street and corporate power. In 2001, 51 percent of Democrats were dissatisfied with the rise of corporate power, according to Gallup surveys. By 2011, 79 percent of Democrats were. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month, 58 percent of Democrats said they believed that the economic and political systems were stacked against them.

Clinton is obviously tough, but she just can’t speak with a clear voice against Wall Street and Washington insiders. Warren’s wing shows increasing passion and strength, both in opposing certain Obama nominees and in last week’s budget fight.

The history of populist candidates is that they never actually get the nomination. The establishment wins. That’s still likely. But there is something in the air. The fundamental truth is that every structural and historical advantage favors Clinton, but every day more Democrats embrace the emotion and view defined by Warren.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

The most unpopular man in Birmingham, Ala., these days is Dr. Ray Watts, the president of the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Earlier this month, Watts announced that the school was going to eliminate its football team. You can just imagine what happened next.

When Watts told the team that this would be their last season, one player, Tristan Henderson, angrily challenged him in a video that quickly went viral. Later, several hundred supporters chanted and cheered for the coach, and heckled and chased Watts and his police escort, according to Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com.

Mark Emmert, the president of the N.C.A.A., described Watts’s decision as “unfortunate.” A group of important donors wrote a letter to the chancellor of the Alabama university system, calling for an investigation into Watts’s decision. Another big supporter, a Birmingham restaurateur, canceled his $45,000 sponsorship of a television network that aired U.A.B. games and ended the use of his restaurant as the locale for the basketball coach’s weekly radio show. “This is so tragic,” he told a reporter. “It’s like a death.”

Watts, it turns out, is a Birmingham native who played football in high school and who attended the university. He gets how important football is in Alabama. But in pulling together a five-year strategic plan for the school, he came to the obvious conclusion that it simply made no sense to continue fielding a football team. (The school is also eliminating its bowling and rifle teams.)

“Our athletic budget is $30 million,” he told me when we spoke. Of that amount, $20 million comes directly from the school — either through student fees or direct subsidies from the overall university budget. A consultant Watts hired concluded that it would cost an additional $49 million over the next five years to keep the football team competitive with the other schools in Conference USA.

“We could not justify subsidizing football if it meant taking away from other priorities,” he said. Then he added, “This is driven significantly by the changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics.”

Ah, yes, the changing landscape. Let me explain. For the last year or more, the big boys in college athletics — the 64 schools that make up the top five conferences, plus Notre Dame — have been agitating for more freedom to make their own rules. They want, for instance, to be able to give their athletes a stipend that goes beyond a scholarship and more fully reflects the “full cost of attendance.” And through their conference commissioners, the power schools issued a series of veiled threats that if they didn’t get more autonomy, they just might bolt from the N.C.A.A.

Not surprisingly, they got their autonomy. The additional benefits will probably cost each of these schools several million additional dollars per year. But universities like Michigan and Auburn and Notre Dame can afford it. It’s the U.A.B.’s of the world — the so-called mid-majors — that have to decide whether to match the benefits the big schools are giving to athletes or go in another direction.

I have no problem with the power schools giving athletes more benefits; indeed, I’m in favor of it. But what I always thought would happen when this day came — when the financial difference between the power schools and everybody else became overwhelming — is that the smaller schools in Division 1 would be forced to rethink their priorities, just as U.A.B. has. Maybe not get out of football altogether, but de-emphasize it so that the tail finally stops wagging the dog.

But so far, at least, that is not turning out to be the case. At a college sports conference last week in New York, nobody gave U.A.B. any credit for pulling out of football. On the contrary: most of the athletic directors in the room were adamant that they would pay whatever they had to pay to keep pace with the big boys.

“Our board is totally committed to athletics and competing at the highest level,” said Chris May, the athletic director at Saint Louis University. “We are going to be very aggressive.”

“There is no pressure to drop football,” said Mike O’Brien of the University of Toledo. “It is too important to our university.”

When you ask people why it is so important, you get similar responses: a good football team means more applications; it helps generate donations; it is something the community can rally around. “In many ways, football is our front porch,” said Nagi Naganathan, the interim president of the University of Toledo.

Yet schools that have dropped football have lived to tell the tale. In 1995, the University of the Pacific dropped football — the last major school to do so before U.A.B. “Since then, their enrollment has actually gone up,” emailed David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports management at Ohio University.

“Football,” he added, “doesn’t define a university.”

Unfortunately, for too many schools, it does.

Bread and circuses…

Cohen, Nocera and Collins

December 13, 2014

In “The Way Back to Iran” Mr. Cohen tells of how a young Iranian refugee quit the boardrooms of London to take a risky stake in the land of his birth.  Mr. Nocera, in “Prosecuting Insider Trading,” says recent overturned convictions have changed the rules.  Ms. Collins offers a “Dinner Party Political Primer” and says whatever you do, don’t confuse the cromnibus with the cronut, the pastry that’s half-croissant and half-doughnut at your holiday party.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Rouzbeh Pirouz can still hear the raised voices, the sobbing. There was a list at Tehran airport. If you were on it you could not leave. Aged 7, he passed through the controls, after his mother. His father, a prominent businessman, did not follow. Agents of the newly birthed Islamic Republic stopped him, demanding that he provide an accounting of his activities under the shah. “Go without me!” he insisted. “Never!” Rouzbeh’s mother screamed. Over the head of the small boy, disabled by a neuro-muscular condition, a parental argument raged. They left in tears, without his father. It was 1980, a year after the Iranian revolution, the turning point in his life, the line of fracture. Everything changed.

Vancouver, a quiet place on the western edge of Canada’s vastness, became his home. His family, once no more than a few Tehran blocks apart, was scattered across North America and Europe. The family holdings — orange groves, a mine, property — were expropriated. His father handed over a pile of cash to the enforcers of Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocracy — and was allowed to go. He insisted that Farsi be spoken at home. His language, at least, they could not take from him. It was a link. But Iran was little more than an abstraction to the young Pirouz, a faraway country. “It was the place I’d left,” he says, “and would never go back to.” He went to Stanford, then on to Harvard’s Kennedy School, then to Oxford with a Rhodes scholarship. He imagined for himself a comfortable North American life.

Ayatollah Khomeini globalized Iranians. They were thrust, like Pirouz, from their family circles. The dispersal was painful. The culture, habits and landscape of Iran lay too deep in the new exiles to be completely erased. They adapted, were often successful, and acquired a worldly sophistication. Some ventured back, yielding over time to the tug of memory, whether personal or transmitted. They stayed a few days, or weeks, or perhaps longer, and discovered a country full of vitality, somehow familiar, yet isolated and repressive. The revolution sent Iranians into the world but severed Iran from it. Diaspora and homeland diverged. For those who had fled the Islamic Republic it was very difficult, if not impossible, to connect their new lives to the old.

Such connection, if established, could be a game changer in these troubled times of fracture, doldrums and beheadings. Iran, 35 years after the birth of the Islamic Republic, is the great outlier of the global economy, the last sizeable emerging market to stand apart from integration. Iran’s economy, despite sanctions and isolation, is one of the world’s 20 biggest; its gas reserves are the world’s second-largest. “It will make a gigantic difference when an economy this size joins the world, with implications for both Western and Asian economic interaction,” said Hamid Biglari, who left Iran in 1977 to study in the United States and went on to become the vice chairman of Citicorp, before setting up his own investment company. “A black hole will be connected to the rest of the universe.”

That is the objective for which Pirouz now works. Iran surfaced in his psyche out of nowhere. He was at Oxford, casting around for a subject for his doctorate. A professor suggested Iran; the idea was tempting enough to coax him back to the scene of childhood trauma. On arrival in Tehran he looked around and for the first time in his adult life saw a lot of people who looked like him. His home was gone, yet some sense of comfort remained. Nowhere else felt quite as familiar. Then chance intervened: a fellow Oxford student’s idea for an Internet business, the heady late 90’s dotcom madness, the herd instinct of people plowing money into the company, a timely sale before the crash. The head of his Oxford college, Sir Keith Thomas, thought Pirouz was mad to give up his doctorate for digital shenanigans. “For God’s sake,” he said, “surely you can get a deputy to do this for you!” But Pirouz made the right call. Not yet 30, he found himself with enough to be very comfortable and acquire an office in Mayfair.

He was quickly bored. Money rained down on central London as if a helicopter had unloaded buckets of the stuff. There were thousands of people like him; in Iran there would be very few. When he talked of his itch to go back, friends said he was crazy. His parents were desperately worried; this would end in tears. London attracts global money because there’s the rule of law. In the Islamic Republic, one could disappear into a building with no address, no name, no marking on the door, and sit facing a wall while the same questions and accusations were repeated week after week. The risk was always there.

But the opportunity to do something meaningful, to change ways of thinking in a country where some 60 percent of the population is under 30, was huge. Conspiracy theories are fundamentally paralyzing because their message is that whatever you do, it will not make a difference. Iran, with its history of periodic domination by outside powers, was awash in them. “Iranians never subscribe to the face-value theory of analysis,” Pirouz says. “It might help them if they did.” He decided to invest in the country and its youth to demonstrate that change was possible.

Tehran became Pirouz’s principal home. He set up an investment fund, Turquoise Partners (in time for a bull run on the Iranian stock market that lasted several years), and then devoted his energy to his pet project, the Iranian Business School (IBS), conceived in 2007. Iranians, he had found, are good traders but poor managers. Inefficiency is rife in a bloated state sector. Engineers are given management jobs without having any idea how to manage. Knowledge of the global economy and best practices is scarce. In all, the need for knowledge of advanced business management concepts in a country isolated for 35 years was patent.

So the school, loosely modeled on the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, and the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, made sense. As with India and China it could help, at the right moment, to propel Iran into the global economy. Classes, which started in 2010, offer postgraduate training to future business leaders; hundreds of Iranian men and women have already attended. A significant expansion is now underway. On Oct. 4, 2013, the school received an Office of Foreign Assets Control license from the U.S. government, allowing it to raise money as a charity in the United States, bring American faculty to teach in Tehran and pay them. It is a bridge where very few exist.

“The school will help raise awareness within the Iranian-American business community and open avenues for them to contribute,” Biglari, who chairs the American board of IBS, said. To Pirouz, such connections are critical. They could constitute a turning point. He has always believed that isolating Iran only serves the hard-liners in the end. Sanctions have hurt Iran but you can find the latest iPhone in Tehran at a price: Cartels aligned with the Revolutionary guards grow fabulously wealthy smuggling from Dubai. “An Iran integrated in the global economy, with a growing private sector, will be good for Iran and the world,” Pirouz says. He is committed for the long-term. Haste, goes an Iranian saying, is the devil’s work.

There is an enormous amount to be done. Mismanagement has been the curse of Iran. Banks, obliged to make nonperforming loans to state companies, are largely insolvent. A privatization program was bungled. There are water shortages. The Internet goes out all the time. The nuclear program, the object of the overwhelming bulk of attention paid to Iran, has itself been a colossal exercise in mismanagement, whatever else it may be: The cost of generating electricity from the nuclear facility at Bushehr has been beyond astronomical. A young population is frustrated, tired of Iran’s pariah status, and eager to join the world, as President Hassan Rouhani has promised it will.

This is a world, increasingly, of surface conflict and hidden connection. Of course, in the event of global war, the former will crush the latter. Short of that, it is important to see events on two levels — the confrontations between states and the cooperation between citizens empowered by technology and often, in this age of massive migrant flows, tied by family across continents. Pirouz is one such active citizen.

The Iran debate is always framed in the context of confrontation. Entire cottage industries deploy themselves with ardor to fan conflict. But Iran’s isolation serves nobody. There are real strategic differences between the Islamic Republic and the West that may still frustrate attempts to move beyond the nuclear issue and begin a process of fruitful reintegration. These ideological differences, however, are no greater than those between China and the United States at the time of the Shanghai Communiqué of 1972. It is this belief — in the benefit of connection and the sterility of separation — that has prodded Pirouz into an unlikely return. In the right circumstances, many in the diaspora could follow. Individuals can still defeat entrenched interests and lobbies, good sense prevail over the shallow cacophony.

“Did I come home? Not exactly,” Pirouz says. “The world of my childhood is gone. But I discovered in myself a great yearning for Iran that I did not want to sacrifice to assimilation.” Even his father now spends time in the country that took everything from him. It is, despite everything, his. What remains, for the completion of this story of full circles, is for Iran to return to the world. It is past time.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

In the summer of 1991, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned the conviction, for stock manipulation, of a man named John Mulheren.

Mulheren was a stock trader who had been arrested three years earlier, at the behest of Rudolph Giuliani, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Although Mulheren’s actual indictment didn’t take place until a few months after Giuliani left office, the case was still considered part of his legacy. As U.S. attorney, Giuliani had gone hard at Wall Street, forcing a guilty plea from Michael Milken, the most important financier of his day, and getting Ivan Boesky, a well-known arbitrageur, to turn state’s evidence. According to The Los Angeles Times, by 1988, Giuliani had brought five times as many insider-trading cases as had ever been brought before in his district.

The Mulheren case spoke to another part of Giuliani’s legacy, however. There were examples of Giuliani forcing Wall Street executives to make well-publicized perp walks and then never bringing charges. Defense lawyers complained of heavy-handed tactics, and cases that were brought with scant evidence. Indeed, the evidence against Mulheren was so thin that the Second Circuit’s unanimous decision said that “no rational trier of fact could have found the elements of the crimes charged here beyond a reasonable doubt.” The New York Times described the ruling — and several other reversals that had preceded it — as a “stinging blow” to the U.S. attorney’s office.

On Wednesday, 23 years later, the very same appeals court made a very similar ruling in overturning the convictions, for insider trading, of two hedge fund executives, Anthony Chiasson and Todd Newman. This time the U.S. attorney for the Southern District was Preet Bharara, who, like Guiliani, has built his reputation by prosecuting Wall Street wrongdoing, primarily insider trading. He put Raj Rajaratnam, the hedge fund big shot, in prison for 11 years. He gained a conviction against Rajat Gupta, a former top executive at McKinsey, the august consulting firm. In all, Bharara has ensnared almost 90 people who have either been convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, insider trading.

But as the reversal on Wednesday suggests, Bharara, like Giuliani, has sometimes gotten out ahead of his skis, bringing indictments that were not necessarily warranted by the evidence. Judge Barrington Parker, who wrote the Second Circuit’s decision, was scathing in his appraisal of the evidence, saying that there was no proof that the two “tippees” (as they are called in the ruling) knew they were trading on insider information, or that the tippers, who worked at Dell and Nvidia, had received any personal benefit for their tips. The court reversed the case “with prejudice,” meaning that Bharara won’t be able to retry the two men.

Here is the dirty little legal secret about insider trading: It’s not always illegal. In fact, there is no law on the books banning the practice; rather, it comes under the general purview of securities fraud. Over the years, prosecutors and the Securities and Exchange Commission have worked to expand what constitutes insider trading — and there have been times when the courts have refused to go along. Indeed, in his ruling, Parker relied on Supreme Court decisions that an insider trade was against the law only if the tippees knew they were getting inside information — and that they also knew that the tipper got a personal benefit from his leak.

Yet in the cases of Chiasson and Newman, the original tippers were never prosecuted for insider trading. “That is what was so baffling,” said Peter J. Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University who writes the White Collar Watch column for Dealbook in The New York Times. “How do you not go after the tipper?” In effect, said Henning, you can’t have a corrupt tippee if you don’t have a corrupt tipper. What’s more, Chiasson and Newman received the information third- or fourth-hand, and they had no idea who the tippers were. So how could they know if the tippers had done something corrupt?

Does this mean that Chiasson and Newman were paragons of virtue? Not necessarily. They could very well have known they were trading on inside information. Even so, given the court’s definition of insider trading, they were free to trade on that information. That is what Bharara ignored in bringing those cases. (A third Wall Street trader, Michael Steinberg, who worked for Steven Cohen’s hedge fund, SAC Capital, is also likely to have his conviction reversed on the same grounds.)

At a Dealbook conference this week, Mary Jo White, the chairwoman of the S.E.C., fretted that the Second Circuit’s ruling was “overly narrow.” And, in his statement after the ruling, Bharara said that he feared it would “limit the ability to prosecute people who trade on leaked inside information.”

That’s true, of course, if you agree with their definition of insider trading. Unfortunately for them, the courts don’t.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

The burdens of being an Informed Citizen are many. This weekend, you’ll probably be going out to some holiday party or dinner where your friends will expect you to have an opinion about the monster spending bill that’s been staggering through Congress.

Consider this an opinion primer.

The bill is called the cromnibus. That’s Congress-speak for continuing resolution and omnibus. You do not need to know about this. However, it is crucial that you avoid confusing the cromnibus with the cronut, a pastry that’s half-croissant and half-doughnut. “Like the cronut, but less delicious,” twittered Ashley Parker of The Times.

The worst thing in it is a section — dropped into the 1,600-page measure at the last minute without any hearings — that allows banks to use their customers’ federally guaranteed deposits to buy credit default swaps. Also other investments with impossible names that we learned to hate during the Wall Street bailout.

Most of the language in the section came directly from Citigroup. I rest my case.

The second-worst thing in the bill allows rich people to make up to $1.5 million in campaign contributions every two-year election cycle. Or $3 million if they happen to be a married couple. God knows how much if they happen to be a wealthy extended family.

Republican leaders suggested this was necessary in order to provide $12.6 million for pediatric cancer research. I am not even going to try to take you down the creative path that led to this connection. You don’t want to bring it up at a dinner party anyway because it will cause the other guests to start throwing food.

Let’s zero in on something simpler, like tired truck drivers.

Yes! The bill loosens the rules that currently limit drivers to 14 hours of work a day, 11 of which can be behind the wheel.

Already, I feel you getting worried, gentle reader. Yes, the person in that monstrous vehicle that’s passing you on the highway at what appears to be about 150 miles an hour may have been sitting there for 10-and-a-half hours, in a marathon he began after three hours of effort on the loading dock.

Last year, Congress reduced the maximum amount of time a driver could be on the road from 82 to 70 hours a week. Then, during the mandated rest period, said driver had to have two consecutive days during which the early morning hours of 1 to 5 a.m. were available for sleep.

“These new rules were adopted after a very thorough, time-consuming administrative process. In fact too time-consuming,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. He leads a subcommittee on surface transportation that conducted multiple hearings on this very matter.

We’ve really hardly gotten started on the new rules. Yet here in good old cromnibus, there’s a provision returning to the old way of doing business.

The sponsor of the change is Susan Collins of Maine. We generally think of Collins as an extremely sympathetic figure, given that she’s possibly the entire Moderate Republican Caucus in the Senate.

She is also the sponsor of another controversial provision in the spending bill, which requires the Women, Infants and Children program to allow low-income pregnant women and mothers to buy white potatoes with their government food money. We had a long phone conversation about this matter, and I have to tell you that Collins is very forceful on this subject. Her bill is only about raw potatoes, not French fries or chips. And WIC will let you buy iceberg lettuce. And did you know that they subsidize potato purchases at farmers’ markets but not grocery stores? It’s way more complicated than you think.

As to the truck drivers, Collins thinks that instead of doing a study on how well the new rules work, we should go back to the old plan and study that. And, anyway, the 1 to 5 a.m. rule “pushes truck traffic into the early morning rush hour.” This is an excellent topic for dinner-table discussion. Would you rather share the highway with a truck whose driver has messed-up circadian rhythms or a truck that’s in front of you when you’re trying to get to work in the morning?

Meanwhile, during the Senate debate, a Democrat gave Collins particular credit for getting more money for mass transit and airport improvements. “It is a compromise piece of legislation,” Patty Murray of Washington reminded her colleagues.

True that. It’s been so long since we had any big compromises that we’ve forgotten how unappetizing they look. Is this one worth it, people? Would you trade better airport traffic control for fewer drivers who get overnight shut-eye? Would you kill off campaign finance reform to save the Obama immigration and health care programs? Let me know how the dining room votes.

And no matter what the result, that thing about the banks is really terrible. Worst. Holiday. Present. Ever.

Brooks and Nocera

December 9, 2014

In “The Cop Mind” Bobo whines that while nothing excuses racist police brutality, the emotional and psychological challenges of being a cop are formidable, and those who bear them deserve respect.  Bobo, they get my respect when they don’t behave like racist thugs.  In “The New Republic’s Rebellion” Mr. Nocera says behind a storied magazine in upheaval is a battle between clicks and profits, and social status and influence.  Here’s Bobo:

Like a lot of people in journalism, I began my career, briefly, as a police reporter. As the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases have unfolded, I’ve found myself thinking back to those days. Nothing excuses specific acts of police brutality, especially in the Garner case, but not enough attention is being paid to the emotional and psychological challenges of being a cop.

Early on, I learned that there is an amazing variety of police officers, even compared to other professions. Most cops are conscientious, and some, especially among detectives, are brilliant.

They spend much of their time in the chaotic and depressing nether-reaches of society: busting up domestic violence disputes, dealing with drunks and drug addicts, coming upon fatal car crashes, managing conflicts large and small.

They ride an emotional and biochemical roller coaster. They experience moments of intense action and alertness, followed by emotional crashes marked by exhaustion, and isolation. They become hypervigilant. Surrounded by crime all day, some come to perceive that society is more threatening than it really is.

To cope, they emotionally armor up. Many of the cops I was around developed a cynical, dehumanizing and hard-edged sense of humor that was an attempt to insulate themselves from the pain of seeing a dead child or the extinguished life of a young girl they arrived too late to save.

Many of us see cops as relatively invulnerable as they patrol the streets. The cops themselves do not perceive their situation that way. As criminologist George Kelling wrote in City Journal in 1993, “It is a common myth that police officers approach conflicts with a feeling of power — after all, they are armed, they represent the state, they are specially trained and backed by an ‘army.’ In reality, an officer’s gun is almost always a liability … because a suspect may grab it in a scuffle. Officers are usually at a disadvantage because they have to intervene in unfamiliar terrain, on someone else’s territory. They worry that bystanders might become involved, either by helping somebody the officer has to confront or, after the fact, by second-guessing an officer’s conduct.”

Even though most situations are not dangerous, danger is always an out-of-the-blue possibility, often in the back of the mind.

In many places, a self-supporting and insular police culture develops: In this culture no one understands police work except fellow officers; the training in the academy is useless; to do the job you’ve got to bend the rules and understand the law of the jungle; the world is divided into two sorts of people — cops and a — holes.

This is a life of both boredom and stress. Life expectancy for cops is lower than for the general population. Cops suffer disproportionately from peptic ulcers, back disorders and heart disease. In one study, suicide rates were three times higher among cops than among other municipal workers. Other studies have found that somewhere between 7 percent and 19 percent of cops suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The effect is especially harsh on those who have been involved in shootings. Two-thirds of the officers who have been involved in shootings suffer moderate or severe emotional problems. Seventy percent leave the police force within seven years of the incident.

Most cops know they walk a dangerous line, between necessary and excessive force. According to a 2000 National Institute of Justice study, more than 90 percent of the police officers surveyed said that it is wrong to respond to verbal abuse with force. Nonetheless, 15 percent of the cops surveyed were aware that officers in their own department sometimes or often did so.

And through the years, departments have worked to humanize the profession. Over all, police use of force is on the decline, along with the crime rate generally. According to the Department of Justice, the number of incidents in which force was used or threatened declined from 664,000 in 2002 to 574,000 in 2008. Community policing has helped bind police forces closer to the citizenry.

A blind spot is race. Only 1 in 20 white officers believe that blacks and other minorities receive unequal treatment from the police. But 57 percent of black officers are convinced the treatment of minorities is unfair.

But at the core of profession lies the central problem of political philosophy. How does the state preserve order through coercion? When should you use overwhelming force to master lawbreaking? When is it wiser to step back and use patience and understanding to defuse a situation? How do you make this decision instantaneously, when testosterone is flowing, when fear is in the air, when someone is disrespecting you and you feel indignation rising in the gut?

Racist police brutality has to be punished. But respect has to be paid. Police serve by walking that hazardous line where civilization meets disorder.

Here’s Mr. Nocera:

I asked Marty Peretz the other day whether his goal during the nearly four decades that he had owned The New Republic was ever to make a profit. “Absolutely not,” he bellowed. “I think we were profitable maybe three of four years.” One year, he said, the magazine’s staff threw a pizza party to celebrate being in the black — “and the party put us back in the red.” He was only half-joking.

No, Peretz owned The New Republic because it gave him a megaphone on issues he cared about, like Israel. Influence accrued to him, as did a certain social status that came with owning a magazine that mattered to the policy elites in Washington, D.C., and Cambridge, Mass.

Strange as this may seem, this has long been the “business model” for policy and political magazines. Harper’s Magazine is published by Rick MacArthur, and its losses are covered by the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation. For years, Mort Zuckerman, the real estate mogul, picked up The Atlantic’s losses.

Peretz told me that during his tenure, The New Republic lost an annual sum in the low six figures, which he covered. So long as the losses were manageable, the owner would write a check. If the losses became too onerous, then the owner would look to sell.

Thus it was that in 2012, with The New Republic’s losses rising to around $3 million, Peretz sold the magazine to Chris Hughes, who got rich by being one of the original executives at Facebook. (He was Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate in college.) With a net worth said to be around $700 million, Hughes was in a position to subsidize his new toy for a very long time. “I told him that if he wanted to maintain a serious and substantial publication, he should look forward to losses for some years,” Peretz said.

In the two years that Hughes has owned it, The New Republic regained its reputation for smart, lively, engaging journalism. But he also appears to have quickly tired of losing money. A few months ago, he hired a new chief executive, Guy Vidra, from Yahoo. Vidra immediately began using words like “disruption” and “innovation” and “breaking stuff” (though he didn’t use the word “stuff”). The first time many New Republic staff members heard their company described as a “vertically integrated digital media company” was when Vidra made his first big presentation to the writers and editors. In an op-ed article that Hughes wrote in The Washington Post — after The New Republic’s editor in chief and literary editor had resigned, and most of the staff had walked out with them — he said that The New Republic could no longer be a “charity,” and that his goal was to make it a “sustainable business.” In other words, he wants to make a profit.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It is just hard to see how he is going to get there.

The truth is, the jury is still out on the profit-making ability of digital publications. Slate, which has been around since 1996, makes money, but not much. The Atlantic under David Bradley, its current owner, has a terrific digital presence, not to mention 500,000 print subscribers. It also makes money. But, again, those profits are modest. Venture capitalists are throwing money at new online media ventures like Vox, but we are a long way from knowing whether they will ever be profitable. None of the digital media companies have gone public, so their profits or losses are hidden from view.

The New Republic, on the other hand, has a print circulation of around 42,000. Its current website is lively, but clearly it wasn’t generating the number of clicks that its new owner wanted. Even before Vidra joined, The New Republic’s business executives were trying to get the editors to do things that would attract more clicks. One executive suggested that Michael Kinsley — a former New Republic editor himself — come up with a listicle, à la BuzzFeed. (“10 reasons why health care isn’t a free market.”)

Is it any wonder that the staff walked out when this plan was finally unveiled? Their earnest little magazine is the opposite of BuzzFeed. That’s what they loved about it. Or at least it was.

When I spoke to Vidra late Monday, he stressed to me that The New Republic was not going to abandon its heritage of thoughtful journalism and provocative ideas. When I asked him whether he would follow the model of The Atlantic, he demurred. He instead suggested that Vox Media was a more appropriate model for what he had in mind.

After we spoke, I went to the Vox website. I scrolled down until I saw a headline that stopped me cold. “Everybody farts,” it read. “But here are 9 surprising facts about flatulence you may not know.”

Goodbye, New Republic.

Nocera and Collins

December 6, 2014

In “über vs. Uber” Mr. Nocera says the car service may be popular, but you can’t get anyone on the phone if you need to.  Ms. Collins addresses “The Woes of Working Women” and says today we’re tracking the bill that would require employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for workers who become pregnant.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Herta Kriegner, a graphic artist from Austria, likes the German word “über.” It conveys, she told me recently, both a European sensibility and a sense of going “above and beyond” for a customer. In fact, she likes the word so much that 15 years ago, when she started her own small New York design firm, that’s the name she gave it: über.

Naturally, Herta listed über’s number in the Manhattan phone directory. She set it up so that after three rings the calls were routed to her cellphone. Her sister, Elena, a jewelry designer, also used the über office space, and the two women shared the phone number. For the next 12 years, this arrangement worked just fine.

Then, about three years ago, another Uber moved to town — Uber Technologies Inc., the app-based car company that is competing with taxies in cities all over the world. In New York, a city where the taxi monopoly has meant a chronic shortage of cabs, Uber has become very popular.

But unlike über, Uber does not have a phone number listed in the Manhattan directory. Like many online companies, it believes in the efficiency of communicating via email. The messy business of actually talking to people, well, that’s just so old-fashioned, isn’t it?

Just because Uber doesn’t want to talk to customers, though, doesn’t mean customers don’t want to talk to Uber. Sometimes there are problems that scream for human communication: an accident, a cellphone left in a car, a mixup with a bill. And sometimes, even though online communications may be more efficient, people are simply more comfortable talking to another human.

Which is how it came to be that Herta and Elena Kriegner became experts in Uber’s customer service, or lack thereof. When customers or drivers tried to find a number for Uber in Manhattan, they often wound up with the number for über. At first, the calls came every few days. But as Uber has gained in popularity, the calls have come more frequently. Herta showed me a phone log listing more than 500 Uber-related calls that her little company has received just since August.

“I already had my first call this morning,” Herta told me when I went to see her and Elena a few days ago. “It was 8:30. A woman wanted a ride to the airport. I told her she needed the app.”

She and Elena have gotten calls from drivers who are having trouble with their applications, or questions about their insurance. There are mornings when Herta wakes up, turns on her cellphone, and hears a voicemail from an unhappy Uber customer spewing expletives. Recently, she had to go to court to prove that a driver trying to get workman’s compensation was suing the wrong Uber.

Early on, when Uber first learned of this problem, an executive named Ed Casabian told her that it was all because Yelp had mistakenly listed über’s phone number — and that when it was removed all would be well. The number was removed, but the calls kept coming. A short time later, she bumped into Casabian at a trade show, where Uber had a booth. She asked him why the company didn’t talk to its customers or drivers.

“Because it’s not in our business model,” he replied, according to Herta. Thinking the issue was cost, she suggested that Uber set up a call center in India. “We don’t want our customers to talk to someone in India,” said Casabian.

“You would rather have them talk to me?” she asked.

These days, Herta and Elena get between one and 10 calls a day. Not long ago, a woman called to report that her daughter had been harassed by an Uber driver, and what should she do? Elena told her that Uber didn’t talk to customers, and she should instead go to the police and then to the news media. (In a statement — emailed, of course — an Uber spokeswoman said that the company’s “average response time” was less than an hour when customers emailed them with problems.)

As annoying as the calls have been, they have taught Herta and Elena a few things about what constitutes real customer service. One lesson is that many customers are always going to be more comfortable explaining a problem in a conversation with another person, rather than an impersonal email. Yes, it’s inefficient and cuts into profit margins, but companies that actually care about their customers do it anyway. Zappos’s customer service number is on its home page. Amazon’s isn’t hard to find either.

This week, Uber raised $1.2 billion, giving it a valuation of $40 billion. The company’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, said that some of the money would be used to continue its breathtaking expansion. He also said that the company needed to “invest in internal growth and change.”

Here’s a suggestion: Hire some people who will answer the phone.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Today, let’s take a look at the Little Bill That Couldn’t.

Say hello to the Pregnancy Workers Fairness Act. It’s sort of shy, but if you look over there behind the ottoman, you may see it peeking out.

The bill would require employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for workers who become pregnant. You may be stunned to hear that this does not always happen now in the American workplace. Consider Heather Myers, a floor worker in the infant department at a Walmart in Kansas whose obstetrician told her to drink liquids. She was then fired for bringing a water bottle to work.

This week, the Supreme Court heard the case of Peggy Young, a United Parcel Service driver who was put on an unpaid disability leave after her doctor told her she should avoid lifting bundles that weighed more than 20 pounds. That was not much of a problem, since Peggy mainly spent her days delivering envelopes. And we know that UPS had the capacity to make reasonable accommodations because it has changed its policy and now makes … reasonable accommodations.

Young’s case is getting support from both sides of the great, gaping abortion divide. On the day of her hearing, everybody was united behind working women who wanted to have children.

“I think we’re always looking for common ground, and when we can agree — it’s magic,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List.

(Hear that, little bill? Come on out. Everybody’s on your side. We’ll take a selfie!)

This high-minded rapprochement, alas, has not made its way into the halls of Congress. Thirty-three senators have signed onto the Pregnancy Workers Fairness Act, and 142 members of the House. They’re all Democrats.

“This bill has a lot of support, but it’s not yet bipartisan. That’s the problem,” said Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, the lead sponsor in the Senate.

For sure, given that the next session of Congress is going to be entirely run by Republicans.

The lead House sponsor, Jerrold Nadler of New York, says he’s hoping some of the anti-abortion groups who have signed onto Peggy Young’s case will start pressing their congressional allies to come around on a bill that would solve the Peggy Young problem. But, so far, there doesn’t seem to be much progress.

The Susan B. Anthony List hasn’t taken a position on the matter. “We have one bill and that’s our priority and that’s kind of the way it works,” said Dannenfelser. This would be the ban on abortions beyond the first 20 weeks of a pregnancy.

Nadler, listing what progress there has been, mentioned getting the bill included as “part of the Democratic women’s agenda — although it wasn’t mentioned all the time. To my annoyance.”

O.K., not looking good for the Pregnant Workers. Damned bill’s crawled under the couch.

Emily Martin, vice president of the National Women’s Law Center, has been lobbying for the bill, and she says she’s had meetings with Republican lawmakers that were “very positive,” in a no-action kind of way. “It’s been hard to get somebody to take the leap to be the first Republican,” she said.

This is the way politics goes. Nobody’s making you do it, so you don’t. Anyway, businesses probably wouldn’t like it. (The U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce is listed as a supporter. This is not to be confused with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which hasn’t taken a position. “You’ll find that on the majority of issues, we’re on the opposite side of the table,” said Margot Dorfman, who leads the women’s group.)

What we have here is a bill that’s been kicking around for more than a year, during which time a multitude of Democrats have signed on without making any superhuman efforts to win over their Republican colleagues. The Republicans, who have been complaining mightily about being branded anti-women during the election season, have been making quiet murmurs of agreement but don’t want to go out of their way to promote something the Democrats started.

And here we are, in a country where more than two-thirds of mothers work, most of them full time. We have interesting debates about whether young mothers should opt out of the workplace, ignoring that most of them have no option whatsoever on the opting question.

Our institutions cheerfully refuse to restructure themselves to reflect the fact that most families do not contain a non-working parent. Congress has been debating early education programs for more than 40 years and it has hardly made a dent. A great many of our employers don’t bother to make jobs more family-friendly; they don’t even bother to make modest arrangements to accommodate their pregnant workers. Everybody thinks this is extremely unfortunate, but almost nobody does anything about it because there is not a lot of political or financial reward for siding with working mothers.

O.K., rant is over. Sorry, I think I scared the little bill.

Brooks and Nocera

December 2, 2014

Bobo, who might have been lounging in his “vast spaces for entertaining” when he wrote it, sends us “Class Prejudice Resurgent” in which he gurgles that racism has fused with classism to create a new, ugly form of prejudice in America.  In the comments “abo” from Paris has this to say: “So Mr. Brooks bemoans classism all the while projecting his upper-class prejudices. The upper class is meritocratic, has grit, has a capacity for delayed gratification. The lower class is disorganized and violent.  As long as the upper class, including Mr. Brooks, think they deserved their positions, America will continue to be two societies, one with their heel on the necks of the other.”  Mr. Nocera addresses “The N.C.A.A.’s Big Bluff” and says internal N.C.A.A. emails that were recently made public shed light on the response to the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State.  Here’s Bobo:

One of the features of all the Ferguson discussion over the past few months is how tinny the comparisons to the civil-rights era have sounded. People have tried to link Ferguson to Selma and Jim Crow, but something is off.

That’s, in part, because we’ve moved from simplicity to ambiguity. The civil rights struggle was about as clear a conflict between right and wrong as we get in national life. The debate about Ferguson elicited complex reactions among most sensible people.

This complexity was best expressed in the short essay that Benjamin Watson, a New Orleans Saints tight end, posted on Facebook, which went viral. Watson listed 12 different emotions the Ferguson mess aroused, including:

“I’m ANGRY because stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes. … I’m OFFENDED because of the insulting comments I’ve seen. … I’m INTROSPECTIVE because sometimes I want to take ‘our’ side without looking at the facts in situations like these.”

But the other reason that the civil-rights era comparisons were inapt is because the nature of racism has changed. There has been a migration away from prejudice based on genetics to prejudice based on class.

Let me explain with a historical detour. In 18th- and 19th-century Britain, there was a division between “respectable” society and those who lived in slums that were sometimes known as rookeries (because the neighborhoods reminded people of rock faces where thieving crows lived in little nooks and crannies).

The people who lived in these slums were often described as more like animals than human beings. For example, in an 1889 essay in The Palace Journal, Arthur Morrison described, “Dark, silent, uneasy shadows passing and crossing — human vermin in this reeking sink, like goblin exhalations from all that is noxious around. Women with sunken, black-rimmed eyes, whose pallid faces appear and vanish by the light of an occasional gas lamp, and look so like ill-covered skulls that we start at their stare.”

“Proper” people of that era had both a disgust and fascination for those who lived in these untouchable realms. They went slumming into the poor neighborhoods, a sort of poverty tourism that is the equivalent of today’s reality TV or the brawlers that appear on “The Jerry Springer Show.”

Today we once again have a sharp social divide between people who live in the “respectable” meritocracy and those who live beyond it. In one world almost everybody you meet has at least been to college, and people have very little contact with features that are sometimes a part of the other world: prison, meth, payday loans, a flowering of nonmarriage family forms. In one world, people assume they can control their destinies. In the other, some people embrace the now common motto: “It don’t make no difference.”

Widening class distances produce class prejudice, classism. This is a prejudice based on visceral attitudes about competence. People in the “respectable” class have meritocratic virtues: executive function, grit, a capacity for delayed gratification. The view about those in the untouchable world is that they are short on these things. They are disorganized. They are violent and scary. This belief has some grains of truth because of childhood trauma, the stress of poverty and other things. But this view metastasizes into a vicious, intellectually lazy stereotype. Before long, animalistic imagery is used to describe these human beings.

This class prejudice is applied to both the white and black poor, whose demographic traits are converging. But classism combines with latent and historic racism to create a particularly malicious brew. People are now assigned a whole range of supposedly underclass traits based on a single glimpse at skin color.

During the civil-rights era there was always a debate about what was a civil-rights issue and what was an economic or social issue. Now that distinction has been obliterated. Every civil-rights issue is also an economic and social issue. Classism intertwines with racism.

It’s often said after events like Ferguson that we need a national conversation on race. That’s a bit true. We all need to improve our capacity for sympathetic understanding, our capacity to imaginatively place ourselves in the minds of other people with experiences different from our own. Conversation can help, though I suspect novels, works of art and books like Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land” work better.

But, ultimately, we don’t need a common conversation; we need a common project. If the nation works together to improve social mobility for the poor of all races, through projects like President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, then social distance will decline, classism will decline and racial prejudice will obliquely decline as well.

In a friendship, people don’t sit around talking about their friendship. They do things together. Through common endeavor people overcome difference to become friends.

I hope Moral Hazard bites you, Bobo.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Not long after the N.C.A.A. came down on Penn State three years ago, after the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, a small group of rabid Penn State supporters began circulating emails to each other. A few journalists were also among those receiving the emails, myself included.

The group regularly denounced the report issued by Louis Freeh, which accused top Penn State officials — including beloved football coach Joe Paterno — of turning a blind eye to protect the football program. They vilified Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A. president, who had fined Penn State $60 million, taken away scholarships, erased more than a decade’s worth of victories and banned the team from the postseason for four years, without so much as a hearing. They condemned anyone who dared to suggest that Joe Paterno was less than saintly. And, of course, they fumed at the news media for piling on.

Amid the hyperbole and self-pity, there was some truth to what they wrote, especially about the N.C.A.A. Clearly, the association overreached, something it has seemed to acknowledge implicitly by lifting some of the sanctions. Internal N.C.A.A. emails that were recently made public show that the staff knew it had no jurisdiction, and that it was “bluffing” in trying to get Penn State to accept its penalties. And many in the news media feel chastened for having egged on this rush to judgment (including me).

But the emails also represent something else. Because the N.C.A.A. placed the blame for what happened on Penn State’s “football culture” — and because its punishments affected people who had nothing to do with Sandusky’s crimes — it allowed the Penn State community to wallow in its own sense of victimization. “It made a lot of people who could have been focusing on the victims feel like victims themselves, because of the N.C.A.A.,” Matt Sandusky told me.

Yes, Matt Sandusky. Matt, who is one of Jerry and Dottie Sandusky’s adopted children, is one of the central characters in a fine new documentary about the Penn State case, called “Happy Valley.” Matt had been abused for many years by Sandusky, and, though he doesn’t mention it in the film, he attempted suicide as a teenager. (Jerry Sandusky stopped abusing him after that, he noted.) Although Matt, at first, lied to prosecutors — claiming that he had never been abused — he decided to speak up after he heard one of the victims testify during the trial. After it was leaked that he was willing to testify, his adopted family turned its back on him.

There are plenty of examples in the film, which was directed by Amir Bar-Lev, of an over-the-top football culture. Angry fans gather at Paterno’s house after he is fired, chanting his name in support. Hordes of students swarm the streets of State College, Pa., in what can only be called a riot. A man who holds a sign accusing Paterno of enabling sexual abuse is bullied.

But is Penn State’s football culture really any worse than at 50 other big-time athletic schools? At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, many athletes stayed eligible by taking no-show classes in the Department of African, African-American and Diaspora Studies. This went on for well over a decade. At Florida State University, police have consistently looked the other way when athletes got into trouble. The football team’s quarterback, Jameis Winston, was accused of sexually assaulting a woman, but he’s still playing. Penn State had a predator in its midst, much as many other organizations have had.

“I don’t think football had much to do with it,” said Jolie Logan, speaking about the Sandusky case. She is the chief executive of Darkness to Light, which is dedicated to educating the public about child sexual abuse. Sandusky, she told me, used the classic techniques of predators, putting himself in a position of being a trusted friend of children, and taking advantage of that trust to abuse them.

But she is also not surprised that football is what people have talked about in the aftermath, rather than the sexual abuse. “It is easier for us to focus on everything else except the actual abuse,” she said.

As for Paterno, his biographer, Joe Posnanski, told me that much of the evidence of his culpability in the Freeh report on Penn State and the Sandusky case is thin — allusions to him in emails written by others. But he also says, in the film, that before Paterno died, he told Posnanski that he wished he had done more to stop Sandusky.

Matt Sandusky, who is now 35, has started a foundation to help other survivors of child sexual abuse. He has joined forces with Darkness to Light to raise awareness and teach people how sexual predators operate and what they can do. He hopes to make this his life’s work. If he succeeds, it will be the one good thing to come out of the whole sorry mess.

Nocera and Collins

November 29, 2014

In “Nicotine Without Death” Mr. Nocera tells us that the growing pains in the e-cigarette industry suggest a mix of cautious optimism and deep frustration among executives.  Ms. Collins, in “Doing Some Heavy Lifting,” says the case of the former U.P.S. driver and her eight-year fight about whether she could handle a 21-pound package goes to the Supreme Court.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

I attended Wells Fargo Securities’ “2nd Annual E-Cig Conference” last week, and if I had to describe the mood of the speakers it would be a cross between cautious optimism and deep frustration.

“E-cigs,” of course, is shorthand for electronic cigarettes. Executives from the still-new industry happily talked about its rapid growth and their expectation that it would continue. Bonnie Herzog, who follows the industry for Wells Fargo, reiterated her belief that in 10 years, e-cigarette users will outnumber smokers.

“The winning product hasn’t been invented yet,” said Craig Weiss, the chief executive of NJOY, an e-cigarette start-up. What he meant was that while the e-cigarette devices developed so far have helped some people switch from smoking to “vaping,” they haven’t yet become so good as to “obsolete the cigarette,” which is, he says, his company’s goal. But that day will come, he is convinced; the industry is innovating like crazy.

Yet, at the same time, most everyone at the conference expressed dismay that e-cigarettes aren’t being embraced by the tobacco-control community — even though they are much less harmful than combustible cigarettes, which kill 480,000 Americans each year. Are e-cigarettes completely safe? asked Saul Shiffman, an addiction expert at the University of Pittsburgh. “There is not enough data to say that,” he acknowledged. But on a relative basis, electronic cigarettes are far preferable to the old-fashioned kind. After all, e-cigarettes are essentially nicotine delivery devices, and while nicotine is addictive, it is the tobacco in cigarettes that kills.

Another speaker, Clive Bates, a proponent of electronic cigarettes who runs a website called The counterfactual, noted that in 2010, 80 percent of the public believed that e-cigarettes were safer than regular cigarettes. In 2013, however, that percentage had dropped to 60 percent. His view was that this was largely because of the anti-e-cigarettes bias displayed by far too many people in the public health community.

A good example of this came a week before the conference. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued the results of its latest National Youth Tobacco Survey. The news was good: cigarette smoking among high school students had dropped to 12.7 percent in 2013 — the lowest it has ever been. But the use of e-cigarettes had tripled during those same two years, and stood at 4.5 percent. That was the news that grabbed the headlines. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids issued a press release urgently calling for e-cigarettes to be regulated.

When I spoke to Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, about the C.D.C.’s results, he said they should be comforting for tobacco control advocates: they showed that e-cigarettes are not the “gateway” to cigarettes that many in the public health community feared.

Still, the public health community is not united in opposition to electronic cigarettes. Slowly but surely, some tobacco control proponents are coming to view e-cigarettes as a way to help smokers quit. One such person is Kenneth Warner, a University of Michigan economist who has been an important tobacco-control voice for many years. In mid-November, a long article he co-authored with Harold A. Pollack, of the University of Chicago, entitled “The Nicotine Fix,” was published on The Atlantic’s website.

Warner and Pollack divide the modern tobacco-control community into three groups. First are the Traditionalists, who believe that the way to reduce smoking is to keep doing what they’ve been doing all along: running public service campaigns, putting warnings on cigarette packs, continuing to push for smoke-free workplace laws, and so on. The Traditionalists mistrust any claims of reduced harm because the tobacco industry has made those claims before — with light cigarettes, for instance — and they turned out to be a marketing fiction.

The second group is the Harm Reductionists, who believe, as they put it, that “instead of eliminating a given risky behavior, proponents of this idea seek to reduce the dangers involved — often by substituting a closely related, less dangerous behavior.” To this group, moving smokers to e-cigarettes is like moving heroin addicts to methadone.

The third group is the End-gamers, who want “variations on prohibition” — for instance, prohibiting anyone born after a certain year to possess tobacco products, or reducing the amount of nicotine in cigarettes until they are no longer addictive.

Warner and Pollack believe that using tactics from all three groups might give us the best chance to end smoking once and for all. Yes, continue the marketing campaigns that have helped reduce smoking, but, at the same time, allow advertising that promotes e-cigarettes as a viable alternative. The Food and Drug Administration could allow makers of e-cigarettes to market their products as “significantly less dangerous than smoking cigarettes.” Finally, they advocate reducing the nicotine levels in cigarettes until they no longer addict.

Reading Warner and Pollack’s article made me, well, cautiously optimistic.

Gotta love the crap he can come out with…  “Marketing fiction” is special.  Joey, what you meant to say was “lie.”  Here’s Ms. Collins:

In their long, frequently triumphant but totally unfinished struggle for equal employment rights, women keep coming up against the matter of lifting heavy bundles.

Next week, the latest chapter arrives at the Supreme Court: Peggy Young, a former United Parcel Service driver, and her eight-year fight about whether she could handle a 21-pound package.

Young was a driver for U.P.S. in Maryland when she got pregnant and was told to get a note from her doctor detailing any necessary work restrictions. “The doctor said: ‘Well then, I’ll recommend you don’t lift anything over 20 pounds,’ ” Young recalled in a phone interview.

Her job at the time involved delivering packages that were generally light. And her co-workers had made it clear that they would take care of anything heavy that did happen to come her way. But U.P.S. put her on an unpaid leave.

“They told me they don’t provide light duty for pregnancy and that I had become a liability,” she said.

The case has echoes of one of the first great legal victories in the women’s rights movement. More than half a century ago, Lorena Weeks, a Georgia telephone company clerk, applied for a better-paying job and was told she was ineligible because it involved lifting a piece of equipment that weighed about 30 pounds. The fact that the object in question was actually pushed around on a dolly and that Lorena’s own job required her to lift a 34-pound typewriter onto her desk every morning did not appear to enter into the company’s equation.

Weeks’ lawyer, Sylvia Roberts, convinced the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that the rule was both paternalistic and arbitrary, punctuating her argument by lifting a series of objects in the courtroom. She told me once that she believed her performance of hoisting a workbench helped win the day. That was in 1969. And, now, here we are with Peggy Young and her packages.

It’s ironic, really, since women of childbearing age probably spend more time picking up heavy — and frequently squirming — objects than most men. Young has two older children who were born three years apart. When she was pregnant with her second child, she noted, “I had zero issues holding my 3-year-old. Who I’m pretty sure weighed more than any packages they’d give me.”

Further irony: the courts have ruled repeatedly that the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act does not require an employer to accommodate a pregnant worker. Basically, a boss just has to prove that he’d be equally unfeeling if she fell down the stairs at home and broke her leg.  (U.P.S. says it believes its policy was “lawful, evenly and consistently applied at the time to all employees.”)

Yet more irony, with a heavy overlay of pathos: During her enforced disability leave, Peggy Young still needed income, and she continued to work as a driver for a florist, lifting packages that were heavier than anything she had handled at U.P.S. And the job didn’t include health benefits.

Ironic finale: U.P.S. did not make accommodations for pregnant workers, but it did make accommodations for employees who get in trouble for drunken driving off the job. “If you lose your license for a D.U.I., you get reassigned temporarily while you work to get your license back,” said Samuel Bagenstos, the attorney who will argue Young’s case in Washington.

How do you think the Supreme Court will react to all this? It’s had a dismal recent history when it comes to workers’ rights. But history is most definitely marching on Young’s side. Since she filed her suit, Maryland has joined a number of states that require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers. And, last month, U.P.S. sent out a notice that it would henceforth offer pregnant women temporary light-duty assignments. So it’ll be sort of hard to argue that Young’s demands were unreasonable.

“The best evidence that they can do this is … that they’re going to do this,” said Bagenstos.

Young’s case is also one of the very, very, extremely rare occasions when both sides of the abortion rights divide come together. Everybody, from the American Civil Liberties Union to Americans United for Life, understands that most American mothers need to work to help support their families, and nobody wants them to have to choose between having a child and keeping their job.

“We have calls from pregnant women who are cashiers who can’t stand for eight hours and ask if they can use a stool, or who need to take extra bathroom breaks. These kind of simple requests are being refused,” said Marcia Greenberger of the National Women’s Law Center. “It’s still very much of a problem, especially for women in low-paying jobs.”

Congress could, of course, clear this up by passing a federal law requiring fair treatment for pregnant workers. All that’s necessary is for Republicans and Democrats to work together to . . .

Never mind.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

November 25, 2014

Bobo just bursting to tell us all about “The Unifying Leader.”  He squeals that the only way for American political culture to change is for leaders to be more creative in their approach to collaboration.  In the comments “Susan Anderson” from Boston had this to say:  “Blame the victim much? You are better than this. Time to notice that your party is willing to sacrifice the whole country to condemn Obama, who did indeed make an effort to meet your party somewhere a long way towards your end of things. Even that wasn’t good enough for your move-the-goalposts party of selfishness, sociopathy, greed, and wealth, and against dealing with reality in a way that does not exploit to the detriment of not only us, but you and your descendants.”  Well, Susan, he did say that he wasn’t going to apportion blame.  I guess he knew where all the fingers would point…  Mr. Cohen says “Keep Pushing for an Iran Deal,” and that if you don’t like the idea of America at war with Islamic State and with Islamic State’s sworn enemy, Iran, double down on diplomacy.  In “Committed to Carbon Goals” Mr. Nocera says the chief executive of NRG Energy is making his company part of the solution.  Now, alas, here’s Bobo:

Over the past two weeks, President Obama and Republicans in Congress have taken their conflicts to another level. I’m not here to apportion blame, but it would be nice if, in the future, we evaluated presidential candidates on the basis of whether they are skilled at the art of collaboration.

When you look at other sectors of society, you see leaders who are geniuses at this. You can spot the collaborative leader because he’s rejected the heroic, solitary model of leadership. He doesn’t try to dominate his organization as its all-seeing visionary, leading idea generator and controlling intelligence.

Instead, he sees himself as a stage setter, as a person who makes it possible for the creativity in his organization to play itself out. The collaborative leader lessens the power distance between himself and everybody else. He believes that problems are too complex for one brain, but if he can create the right context and nudge a group process along, the team will come up with solutions.

Collaborative political leaders would look very different than the ones we’re used to. In the first place, they would do what they could to create a culture of cooperation, not competition. They’d evoke our shared national consciousness more than our partisan consciousness. They’d take the political people out of the policy meetings. Except in high campaign season, they’d reduce the moronically partisan tit-for-tat, which is the pointless fare of daily press briefings.

Second, a collaborative president would draw up what Jeffrey Walker, vice chairman of the MDG Health Alliance and co-author of “The Generosity Network,” calls Key Influencer Maps. This leader would acknowledge that we live in a system in which a proliferating number of groups have veto power over legislation. He would gather influencers into informal policy-making teams as each initiative was executed.

Third, a collaborative president would offer specific goals to each team, but he would not come up with clear visions. He might say the goal of the education team, say, was to reduce high school dropouts by 10 percent. But he would not tell the team how to get there.

Fourth, a collaborative president would see herself as an honest broker above policy-making process, not as a gladiator in it. In an essay posted on LinkedIn, Walker argues that collaborative organizations usually need a person at the top who “is widely trusted and capable of rallying the interested parties behind the unified effort.” To be an honest broker, a collaborative president would have to repress some of her own ideas in order to serve as referee, guide and nudge for the people she gathered.

Fifth, a collaborative president would tolerate mess. She would acknowledge that if you don’t give midlevel people the freedom to roam, you won’t attract creative people to those jobs. If you adopt a highly prescriptive set of workplace rules, then nobody can do anything bold.

So what if there are leaks to the press, and the policy process becomes semipublic? That’s a price worth paying in order to harvest diverse viewpoints and the fruits of creative disagreements.

Sixth, a collaborative leader embraces an oppositional mind-set. As Linda A. Hill and others argue in a Harvard Business Review essay called “Collective Genius,” successful collaborative groups resist tepid compromises; instead, they combine things that were once seen as mutually exclusive. A collaborative president might jam a mostly Democratic idea, federally financed preschool, and a mostly Republican idea, charter schools, into one proposal.

Seventh, a collaborative president would create a culture in which relationships are more important than one person’s touchy pride. There are going to be people who take cheap shots. The collaborative leader would swallow indignation and be tolerant of error in order to preserve relationships. She would have a merciful sense that every successful working bond is going to require moments of forgiveness.

The collaborative leader is willing to step back from the war posture of politics and be vulnerable. Trust is built when one leader is vulnerable to another and the opposing leader doesn’t take advantage of it to enhance his own power. Then that opposing leader is vulnerable back and the favor is returned. The collaborative leader understands the paradox; you have to take off the armor to build strong bonds.

Finally, the collaborative leader would exile those who consistently refuse to play by the rules. Psychologist David Rand of Yale finds that cooperation exists when people internalize small cooperative habits as their default response to situations. It only takes a few selfish and solitary grandstanders to undermine a culture of trust. Successful leaders have the guts marginalize radicals and nihilists who refuse to play by the rules of the institution (this would be helpful to leaders on Capitol Hill).

We can all think of technocratic reforms to make Washington work better. But, ultimately, it takes a different leadership model and a renewed appreciation for the art of collaboration.

You’ll notice that the name John Boehner appears nowhere in that piece of crap.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

I wrote last May that “unreasonable optimism” surrounded nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers. Unreasonable pessimism should not surround the failure to reach an overall agreement and the decision to extend negotiations for seven months. Anwar Sadat, the former Egyptian president, believed 70 percent of the Israeli-Arab conflict was psychological. The same has been true of the American-Iranian confrontation at the heart of the standoff between Tehran and the West. A barrier has fallen through well over a year of discussions; a 35-year-old trauma has receded.

This immense achievement does not in itself assure success. Plenty of people want enmity preserved. Here are seven questions for the next seven months that may prove helpful:

Why is a deal still by far the best option? Because the alternatives are a continuation of the relentless buildup of Iranian nuclear capacity seen over the past decade or yet another American war in the Middle East that would do little to dent the program, lock in hard-liners for a generation and likely prompt an Iranian dash for a bomb, setting off a regional arms race. If you like the idea of the United States at war with the Sunni killers of Islamic State and at war with Islamic State’s sworn enemy, Shiite Iran, this scenario may hold appeal. If it looks like a nightmare, double down on diplomacy.

But doesn’t the extension of talks favor Iran? No. The interim agreement announced last year has proved effective. As Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out, Iran had about 200 kilograms of 20-percent-enriched uranium. Today, it has none. The number of operational centrifuges has been frozen. International inspections have been redoubled. Not for a decade had the pause button been hit in this way. Yes, Iran has received some sanctions relief, bringing in about $700 million a month, but that scarcely offsets plunging oil revenue.

Why is Israel’s call for complete dismantlement not the way to go? Because it is not achievable in the real world; the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. Diplomacy is about tough compromise, not ideal outcomes. The nuclear know-how attained by Iran cannot be undone. The aim must be to ring fence for at least a decade a strictly monitored program, compatible only with peaceful use of nuclear power, where enrichment is kept below 5 percent. Iran, a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, will not renounce the right set out in that treaty to “nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” at the behest of a nuclear-armed nonsignatory of that treaty, Israel. This is reality; deal with it. Iran’s nuclear program has the emotional resonance the nationalization of its oil had in the 1950s. That nationalization prompted a never-forgotten Anglo-American coup. Calls for dismantlement are seen in Iran through this prism. As Kerry’s negotiating partner, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, said, “You are doomed to failure” if you seek “a zero-sum game.” Setting impossible targets is code for favoring war.

What are the main dangers now to the negotiations? The Republican Congress, hard-liners in Tehran around Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will try to undermine the talks. When the new Congress convenes next year, it may push for new sanctions. There will be talk of “appeasement,” the cheap Chamberlain riff that is a favorite sound bite of naysayers. A sanctions push would be extremely foolish. It would constitute a potential talks-breaker that may prod President Obama into a veto. This would in turn reinforce Washington chatter about “an imperial presidency.” To which Obama should respond that he’s less interested in chatter than the history books.

But isn’t Iran America’s enemy? Yes, Iran supports Hezbollah. It supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Its operatives have killed or plotted to kill Americans since the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979, especially in the early years. But Iran also has overlapping interests with the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a relative island of stability in a violent Middle East. Its young population is overwhelmingly pro-American. Most of them place Israel at the bottom of their list of priorities. The United States does business with plenty of strategic adversaries, including Russia. The Middle East is stymied. Even a cold American-Iranian understanding could redraw the map of the region.

President Hassan Rouhani seems reasonable but doesn’t Khamenei call the shots? The supreme leader and the president need each other. The Iranian economy is a shambles. Khamenei needs Rouhani to fix it. Rouhani needs Khamenei as a shield from the toughest hard-liners. The West will never find better interlocutors than Rouhani and Zarif.

Are there other reasons to favor an accord? Yes. Iran is the last sizable emerging market economy not integrated in the global economy. Integrating it will provide a huge boost. The more contact there is between Iran and the West, the more moderating forces will be reinforced.

And now here’s Mr. Nocera:

Since the early 1990s, the consensus view in the climate science community has been that if the world is going to escape the most catastrophic consequences of climate change, it needs to keep the average global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels. A few years ago, the Presidential Climate Action Project issued a report in which it estimated that to meet that goal, global carbon dioxide emissions would need to be reduced by 60 percent by 2050 — and the industrialized world would need to reduce its emissions by 80 percent.

This would seem, at first glance, an impossible task. Until, that is, you meet a man named David Crane. He is the chief executive of NRG Energy, the largest publicly traded independent power producer in the country. When he took over a decade ago, NRG was just emerging from bankruptcy. Today, it is a Fortune 250 company, with 135 power plants capable of generating 53,000 megawatts of power.

NRG, Crane told an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer, is the country’s fourth-largest polluter. “We emit 60 or 70 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year,” he said, mainly because a third of its power is generated by coal-fired plants. “I’m not apologetic about that because, right now, owning those plants and operating those plants are critical to keeping the lights on in the United States.”

But then he quickly added, “We have to move away from that.” And he has, reducing the company’s carbon footprint by 40 percent in the decade that he’s run the company. And, on Thursday, as The Times reported, he committed NRG to reducing its carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050.

These are terribly ambitious goals, but Crane is not some pie-in-the-sky dreamer. Although he sees climate change as an “intergenerational issue” — a way of ensuring the future for our children and grandchildren — he is also a pragmatic man running a publicly traded company. He firmly believes that the technology exists to make his ambitious goals possible, and that the real problem is the refusal of the rest of the power industry to adapt and change.

Crane likes to say that when he first started hearing about carbon emissions, he didn’t view it all that seriously. “To be frank,” he said in that same Aspen presentation, “I thought this is just the next pollutant that we have to deal with.” But once he got religion — and realized, as he put it, that power producers like NRG are “the biggest part of the problem” — he was determined to make his company a leader in reducing carbon.

One of his early moves was to apply for a license to build a new nuclear power plant. (It already co-owns one nuclear plant.) But the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011 scotched those plans, and NRG wound up writing off more than $300 million. NRG also invested in a wind company, which it sold three years later “because we got a little disenchanted with the way that the wind technology was moving.”

So how is he planning to get that 90 percent reduction? One answer is solar power, in which NRG has invested some $5 billion. Crane is a big believer in the eventual importance of solar, both for consumers — he foresees a day when millions of Americans rely on solar as their primary power source — and for power companies. Even so, Crane told me that solar generates only 3,000 megawatts of the company’s potential for 53,000.

And then there’s coal. When I asked Crane if he would have to eliminate coal to reach his goals, he said no. Coal, he said, will continue to play a big role. A carbon tax would be a great way of reducing emissions. But that is politically impossible.

So, instead, the carbon will need to be captured and then put to some good use. At one of its Texas power plants, NRG is teaming up with JX Nippon of Japan in a $1 billion joint venture to build a carbon-capturing capacity, which it expects will capture 1.6 million tons of carbon each year — some 90 percent of the plant’s emissions. He is also convinced that that carbon will eventually be used to create liquid fuel or get embedded in cement. “We could rebuild America’s roadways with embedded carbon from coal.”

He has another reason for wanting to be out in front on climate change. He says it will make his company more attractive to investors — and consumers. The day is going to come, he believes, when climate change risk will be something investors factor in to their investment decisions. And he believes that the next generation of consumers will demand clean energy. He views the disinvestment campaign now taking place on college campuses as a harbinger of things to come.

“It’s like Wayne Gretzky said,” he told me before hanging up the phone. “We are skating where the puck is going, rather than where it is now.”

Kristof and Nocera

November 22, 2014

Ms. Collins is off today.  In “Immigration Enriches You and Me” Mr. Kristof says immigration has not diminished our country, but hugely enriched it.  Mr. Nocera considers “Uber’s Rough Ride” and says the car-service app has engineering talent and business savvy. All it lacks is some grown-ups to manage it.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

A book, “The Christian Examiner,” warns that “ill-clad and destitute” immigrants are “repulsive to our habits and our tastes.”

A former mayor of New York City cautions that they bring disease, “wretchedness and want” to America. And Harper’s Weekly despairs that these immigrants are “steeped in ignorance” and account for a disproportionate share of criminals.

Boy, those foreigners were threatening — back in the mid-1800s when those statements were made about Irish immigrants.

Once again, the United States is split by vitriolic debates about how to handle immigrants, following President Obama’s executive action to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. To me, the outrage seems driven by three myths:

Immigrants threaten our way of life.

Many Americans see foreigners moving into their towns, see signs in Spanish, and fret about changes to the traditional fabric of society.

That’s an echo of the anxiety Theodore Roosevelt felt in 1918 when, referring to German and other non-Anglo European immigrants, he declared, “Every immigrant who comes here should be required within five years to learn English or leave the country.” That’s an echo of the “yellow peril” scares about Chinese and Japanese immigrants.

It’s true that undocumented immigrants may lower wages in some sectors, harming low-skilled native-born Americans who compete with them. One study suggests that a 10 percent increase in the size of a skill group lowers the wages of blacks in that group by 2.5 percent.

Yet just look around. Immigration has hugely enriched our country. For starters, unless you are a full-blooded American Indian, we have you.

Nations, like carpets, benefit from multiple kinds of threads, and Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, was right: “It is a good rule of thumb to ask of a country: Are people trying to get into it or out of it?”

Immigrants today are different because they’re illegals. They’re parasites.

Look, people aren’t legal or illegal, behaviors are. If an investment banker is convicted of insider trading, he doesn’t become an illegal. So let’s refer not to “illegal immigrants” but to “undocumented immigrants.”

They have contributed $100 billion to Social Security over a decade without any intention of collecting benefits, thus shoring up the system, according to Stephen C. Goss, the chief actuary for the Social Security Administration.

At the state and local level, households headed by unauthorized immigrants paid another $11 billion in taxes in 2010 alone.

If these migrants are given work permits and brought into the system, they will contribute $45 billion over five years in payroll taxes to the United States economy, according to the Center for American Progress.

Parasites? No, they’re assets.

Immigration reform is an unconstitutional power grab by a dictator.

Senator Ted Cruz compared Obama’s executive action to the Catiline conspirators seeking to overthrow the Roman Republic. House Speaker John Boehner suggested that it was the action of an “emperor.”

Look, I’ve reported in many dictatorships (and been detained in some of them). And Obama is no dictator.

It’s difficult for me to judge the legality of Obama’s executive action, because I’m not an expert on legal issues like prosecutorial discretion. But neither are critics furious at Obama. We have a broken, byzantine immigration system — anybody who deals with it is staggered by the chaos — because politicians are too craven to reform it. At least Obama is attempting to modernize it.

Yes, it’s troubling that Obama previously argued he didn’t have this authority. Yes, his executive action is on a huge scale — but it is not entirely new. Obama’s action affects 45 percent of undocumented immigrants, compared to the 40 percent affected by President George H.W. Bush’s in 1990. Let’s leave the legal dispute for the experts to resolve.

I see a different hypocrisy in Obama’s action. He spoke eloquently Thursday evening about the need to treat migrants humanely — and yet this is the “deporter in chief” who has deported more immigrants than any of his predecessors. We as taxpayers have spent vast sums breaking up families and incarcerating honest men and women who just want to work. By a 2011 estimate, more than 5,000 children who are United States citizens are with foster families because their parents have been detained or deported.

We need empathy, and humility. My father, a refugee from Eastern Europe, was preparing a fraudulent marriage to an American citizen as a route to this country when he was sponsored, making fraud unnecessary. My wife’s grandfather bought papers from another Chinese villager to be able to come to the United States.

So remember: What most defines the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America is not illegality but undaunted courage and ambition for a better life. What separates their families from most of ours is simply the passage of time — and the lottery of birth.

And now here’s Mr. Nocera:

The Uber app is a thing of beauty.

You click a button, and it immediately shows you your location. You hit another button, and it tells you how quickly an Uber car will arrive to take you where you want to go. If you want a ride during a heavy commuter time, it will charge you more — surge pricing, as they call it at Uber — but you’ll know in advance how much extra, and you’ll be given a chance to decide whether to accept or not. On the app, you can keep track of the car that is coming to get you. Sure enough, the car arrives, you hop in and off you go. The fare is charged via the app, so no cash changes hands between the driver and the customer.

Uber does what the best Internet companies do. It disrupts a business model that has existed for a very long time. In the case of Uber, that industry is the taxi business, which, almost everywhere, is highly regulated. Taxi drivers hate Uber. In many cities, they protest against it — or fight it in court. In some cities, a service like Uber’s is against the law.

But, if you live in a place like New York City, Uber is a godsend. It is nearly impossible to get a cab in Manhattan when it is raining, or during the “shift change” that starts at around 4 o’clock or 5 o’clock in the afternoon, right when people are getting out of work and need a taxi most. There are only 14,000 or so yellow cabs in Manhattan, which is not nearly enough. Thanks to Uber, getting a ride someplace is much easier than it was before the company arrived on the scene.

What’s more, unlike many start-ups, Uber appears to be a pretty well-run company. Though it is now five years old, it is already in more than 200 cities. It dominates the rival car services like Lyft. And it has a valuation of around $17 billion.

So how does all of that — the cleverness to come up with the idea, the skill to create the company, the discipline to make it work — square with the portrait of Uber that has emerged this week? It appears to be a company run by juveniles.

On Monday, Ben Smith, the editor of Buzzfeed, published an article about a conversation he had had with Emil Michael, a top Uber executive, in which Michael suggested that Uber might do “opposition research” into the private lives of reporters, especially Sarah Lacy of Pando Daily, who has been a fierce critic of the company. Michael thought that he was speaking off the record, but even so. It’s the sort of revenge fantasy that one would expect a serious corporate executive to have outgrown.

The Buzzfeed article unleashed a torrent of other criticism about the company. Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, once told GQ magazine that the company should be called “Boober” because it made it so easy for him to get women. The company has reportedly run a dirty-tricks campaign against Lyft, including ordering rides that are then canceled, and trying to damage its ability to complete a round of financing. Uber has been rumored to track the rides of its customers, in violation of its own privacy rules. And so on. Peter Thiel, the well-known investor, has described Uber as the most “ethically challenged” company in Silicon Valley. (Thiel, it should be noted, has money in Lyft.)

Part of the problem is that, to an unusual degree, Uber has an “us-versus-them” mentality. That attitude manifests itself when the company is fighting taxi regulations or other obstacles the taxi establishment places in its path. But it also seeps into the way it views everyone it comes into contact with, including journalists.

But part of it is that there simply isn’t anybody in Silicon Valley willing to tell Uber’s principals to grow up. They have a hot company that is disrupting an outmoded industry — and, therefore, they are lionized, not matter how boorish their behavior. They are like the star football player at State U. who can get away with anything because he scores touchdowns on Saturday. Engineering talent and business savvy don’t necessarily impute maturity.

One of the smartest things Google’s founders did was hire Eric Schmidt, a technology veteran, to be the chief executive until one founder, Larry Page, felt he was ready to run the company. Ditto for Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, who hired Sheryl Sandberg to give the company the ballast he wasn’t ready to provide.

Companies that never grow up tend to go the way of Groupon or MySpace, two now-faded comets. As good as Uber’s app is, there are limits to how much bad publicity it can absorb before it hurts the bottom line.

At Uber, the inmates are running the asylum. That needs to change, while there’s still time.

Brooks and Nocera

November 18, 2014

In “Obama in Winter” Bobo whines out a question:  Why has the Obama administration been behaving so strangely since the midterms?  In the comments “Winning Progressive” from Philadelphia has this to say:  “Mr. Brooks criticizes President Obama for not standing down and moving even further right to appease Republicans in the wake of the GOP’s electoral victory in the 2014 midterms. But of course Mr. Brooks, and the rest of the media, didn’t demand that Republicans move to the left and appease Democrats after Republicans lost in 2006, 2008, and 2012. Instead, the GOP was given a free pass by the media to move even further to the right and obstruct everything the Dems tried to do.”  In “Putin Plays Hardball” Mr. Nocera says he is striking back at a critic of Russian capitalism by putting a dead man on trial.  Here’s Bobo:

They say failure can be a good teacher, but, so far, the Obama administration is opting out of the course. The post-midterm period has been one of the most bizarre of the Obama presidency. President Obama has racked up some impressive foreign-policy accomplishments, but, domestically and politically, things are off the rails.

Usually presidents use midterm defeats as a chance to rethink and refocus. That’s what Obama did four years ago. Voters like to feel the president is listening to them.

But Obama’s done no public rethinking. In his post-election news conference, the president tried to reframe the defeat by saying the turnout was low, as if it was the Republicans’ fault that the Democrats could only mobilize their core base. Throughout that conference, the president seemed to detach himself from his own party, as if the Democrats who lost their jobs because of him were a bunch of far-off victims of some ethereal malaise.

Usually presidents at the end of their terms get less partisan, not more. But with his implied veto threat of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, President Obama seems intent on showing that Democrats, too, can put partisanship above science. Keystone XL has been studied to the point of exhaustion, and the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that it’s a modest-but-good idea. The latest State Department study found that it would not significantly worsen the environment. The oil’s going to come out anyway, and it’s greener to transport it by pipeline than by train. The economic impact isn’t huge, but at least there’d be a $5.3 billion infrastructure project.

Usually presidents with a new Congressional majority try to figure out if there is anything that the two branches can do together. The governing Republicans have a strong incentive to pass legislation. The obvious thing is to start out with the easiest things, if only to show that Washington can function on some elemental level.

But the White House has not privately engaged with Congress on the legislative areas where there could be agreement. Instead, the president has been superaggressive on the one topic sure to blow everything up: the executive order to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws.

The president was in no rush to issue this order through 2014, when it might have been politically risky. He questioned whether he had the constitutional authority to do this through most of his first term, when he said that an executive order of this sort would probably be illegal.

But now the president is in a rush and is convinced he has authority. I sympathize with what Obama is trying to do substantively, but the process of how it’s being done is ruinous.

Republicans would rightly take it as a calculated insult and yet more political ineptitude. Everybody would go into warfare mode. We’ll get two more years of dysfunction that will further arouse public disgust and antigovernment fervor (making a Republican presidency more likely).

This move would also make it much less likely that we’ll have immigration reform anytime soon. White House officials are often misinformed on what Republicans are privately discussing, so they don’t understand that many in the Republican Party are trying to find a way to get immigration reform out of the way. This executive order would destroy their efforts.

The move would further destabilize the legitimacy of government. Redefining the legal status of five million or six million human beings is a big deal. This is the sort of change we have a legislative process for. To do something this seismic with the stroke of one man’s pen is dangerous.

Instead of a nation of laws, we could slowly devolve into a nation of diktats, with each president relying on and revoking different measures on the basis of unilateral power — creating unstable swings from one presidency to the next. If President Obama enacts this order on the transparently flimsy basis of “prosecutorial discretion,” he’s inviting future presidents to use similarly flimsy criteria. Talk about defining constitutional deviancy down.

I’m not sure why the Obama administration has been behaving so strangely since the midterms. Maybe various people in the White House are angry in defeat and want to show that they can be as obstructionist as anyone. Maybe, in moments of stress, they are only really sensitive to criticism from the left flank. Maybe it’s Gruberism: the belief that everybody else is slightly dumber and less well-motivated than oneself and, therefore, politics is more about manipulation than conversation.

Whatever it is, it’s been a long journey from the Iowa caucuses in early 2008 to the pre-emptive obstruction of today. I wonder if, post-presidency, Mr. Obama will look back and regret that he got sucked into the very emotional maelstrom he set out to destroy.

Bobo, here’s a big platter of salted dicks for you to eat.  Enjoy, you schmuck.  Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

This week marks the fifth anniversary of Sergei Magnitsky’s death in a Russian prison. He was 37 years old, a member of the emerging middle class who worked as a lawyer for a man named Bill Browder, the leader of the largest Russia-only investment firm in the world. Browder’s company, Hermitage Capital Management, started with $25 million during the Wild West-era of early Russian capitalism and had $4.5 billion in assets by the early 2000s.

Over time, Browder became an activist investor of sorts, exposing corruption in Russian companies and trying to make Russian capitalism more transparent. In doing so, he thought, he could both steer Russian companies a little closer to the Western model while also making money for his firm.

But, when Vladimir Putin became the president of Russia in 2000, he and his cronies were not interested in corporate transparency. How could they line their pockets if everything was transacted out in the open? So Browder became persona non grata. After a trip to Britain in 2005, he was refused re-entry. A few fictitious documents later, and Hermitage had $1 billion in “liabilities.” Then, a handful of officials involved in a takeover of Hermitage requested — and received within 24 hours! — a $230 million tax refund. It was a textbook example of the kind of corporate pillaging for which the Putin kleptocracy became infamous.

Browder pleaded with Magnitsky to flee the country, as his other lawyers had done. But Magnitsky insisted on investigating — and speaking out about — the fraud that had taken place. For his troubles, he was imprisoned in 2008. By summer of 2009, he had developed pancreatitis, which went untreated despite his pleas. He died that November. Browder says that when he learned of Magnitsky’s death, it was “the worst news I had ever received in my life.”

Ever since, Browder has worked to find ways to extract some justice on Magnitsky’s behalf. Well before the current Western sanctions on Russia, for instance, Browder pushed for travel and financial sanctions to be imposed on the Russian officials who were involved in Magnitsky’s imprisonment. In December 2012, Congress passed a bill that did just that, called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. Browder continues to push for similar laws in various European countries.

As you might expect, given the pugnacious nature of Putin’s government, Russia hasn’t take this law lying down. The first thing it did was halt American adoption of Russian children. It has given promotions to several officials who were sanctioned. And it has also continued to go after both Browder and, believe it or not, the deceased Magnitsky.

In July 2013, Russia put both Magnitsky and Browder on trial. The two men were accused of tax evasion going back to 2001 — despite the fact that the statute of limitation in Russia for tax evasion is 10 years. It was the first posthumous trial in Russia’s history. The judge in the case was among those who were on the U.S. sanctions list. To the surprise of no one, Magnitsky and Browder were both convicted, one posthumously and the other in absentia.

There is another thing the Putin government has been doing to get back at Browder. It has made repeated attempts to have him put on Interpol’s “Red Notice” list — which is a kind of international wanted-poster for fugitives. The idea is that when a person on the list is arrested in one country, he or she would be handed over to the country where he or she is wanted.

Interpol has long been accused of allowing its Red Notices to be used for political purposes. A year ago, a group called Fair Trials International released a report accusing a handful of countries of using Interpol to cause problems for dissidents and activists — among them Belarus, Turkey, Iran and Russia.

The first attempt came in May 2013. Browder succeeded in pushing it back. The second attempt came two months later — soon after Browder’s nine-year sentence by a Moscow court. Again, Interpol declined to issue a Red Notice on Browder. This past winter, a Russian delegation visited Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France, to press its case. Thanks to last year’s trial, Russia could now say that Browder had been convicted of a crime.

Sure enough, Interpol — which, just two weeks ago, installed a new secretary general, a German lawyer named Jürgen Stock — has agreed to once again entertain the idea of labeling Browder a fugitive from Russian justice. It is scheduled to make its decision later this week.

You would think that Putin’s government has enough to worry about these days, between the crisis in Ukraine, Western sanctions, and the fall in the price of oil, which could push the Russian economy into recession. But, apparently, there is always time to attack Bill Browder.


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