Archive for the ‘Nocera’ Category

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

April 15, 2014

In “A Long Obedience” Bobo gurgles that we often hear the story of Passover as a tale of liberation, but its richest core truth is one of joyful obedience.  “Stu Freeman” of Brooklyn, NY had this to say in the comments:  “Only a Republican could come up with a biblical interpretation like this: “‘Shut Up And Do As I Tell You’ said Moses to the Hebrews.” And the rich and the powerful inherited the earth and made the laws that the rest of us must follow. Thank you, David.”  I’ll warn you – Bobo uses the phrase “sweet compulsion” toward the end of his gurgling…  Mr. Nocera, in “C.E.O. Pay Goes Up, Up and Away!”, says so much for getting executive compensation under control.  Mr. Bruni ponders “The Oldest Hatred, Forever Young” and says well beyond Kansas, anti-Semitism persists.  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

Monday night was the start of Passover, the period when Jews celebrate the liberation of the Israelites from slavery into freedom.

This is the part of the Exodus story that sits most easily with modern culture. We like stories of people who shake off the yoke of oppression and taste the first bliss of liberty. We like it when masses of freedom-yearning people gather in city squares in Beijing, Tehran, Cairo or Kiev.

But that’s not all the Exodus story is, or not even mainly what it is. When John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin wanted to put Moses as a central figure on the Great Seal of the United States, they were not celebrating him as a liberator, but as a re-binder. It wasn’t just that he led the Israelites out of one set of unjust laws. It was that he re-bound them with another set of laws. Liberating to freedom is the easy part. Re-binding with just order and accepted compulsion is the hard part.

America’s founders understood that when you are creating a social order, the first people who need to be bound down are the leaders themselves.

The Moses of Exodus is not some majestic, charismatic, Charlton Heston-type hero who can be trusted to run things. He’s a deeply flawed person like the rest of us. He’s passive. He’s afraid of snakes. He’s a poor speaker. He whines, and he’s sometimes angry and depressed. He’s meek.

The first time Moses tries to strike out against Egyptian oppression, he does it rashly and on his own, and he totally messes it up. He sees an Egyptian soldier cruelly mistreating a Hebrew slave. He looks this way and that, to make sure nobody is watching. Then he kills the Egyptian and hides his body in the sand.

It’s a well-intentioned act of just rebellion, but it’s done without order, a plan or a strategy. Even the Israelites don’t admire it. They just think Moses is violent and impetuous. Moses has to flee into exile. The lesson some draw is that even well-motivated acts of liberation have to be done under the structure of control and authority.

Even after he’s summoned to lead his people at the burning bush, Moses has still not fully learned this lesson. He rushes off to his task, but he doesn’t pause to circumcise his son — the act that symbolizes the covenant with God. A leader who isn’t himself obedient to the rules is not going to be effective, so God tries to kill Moses. Fortunately, Moses’s wife, Zipporah, grabs a sharp stone and does the deed.

This is a vision of obedient leadership. Leaders in the ancient world, like leaders today, tried to project an image of pompous majesty and mastery. But Moses was to exemplify the quality of “anivut.” Anivut, Rabbi Norman Lamm once wrote, “means a soft answer to a harsh challenge; silence in the face of abuse; graciousness when receiving honor; dignity in response to humiliation; restraint in the presence of provocation; forbearance and quiet calm when confronted with calumny and carping criticism.”

Just as leaders need binding, so do regular people. The Israelites in Exodus whine; they groan; they rebel for petty reasons. When they are lost in a moral wilderness, they immediately construct an idol to worship and give meaning to their lives.

But Exodus is a reminder that statecraft is soulcraft, that good laws can nurture better people. Even Jews have different takes on how exactly one must observe the 613 commandments, but the general vision is that the laws serve many practical and spiritual purposes. For example, they provide a comforting structure for daily life. If you are nervous about the transitions in your life, the moments when you go through a door post, literally or metaphorically, the laws will give you something to do in those moments and ease you on your way.

The laws tame the ego and create habits of deference by reminding you of your subordination to something permanent. The laws spiritualize matter, so that something very normal, like having a meal, has a sacred component to it. The laws build community by anchoring belief in common practices. The laws moderate religious zeal; faith is not expressed in fiery acts but in everyday habits. The laws moderate the pleasures; they create guardrails that are meant to restrain people from going off to emotional or sensual extremes.

The 20th-century philosopher Eliyahu Dessler wrote, “the ultimate aim of all our service is to graduate from freedom to compulsion.” Exodus provides a vision of movement that is different from mere escape and liberation. The Israelites are simultaneously moving away and being bound upward. Exodus provides a vision of a life marked by travel and change but simultaneously by sweet compulsions, whether it’s the compulsions of love, friendship, family, citizenship, faith, a profession or a people.

One wonders how many of the mitzvot Bobo feels “sweetly compelled” to actually follow.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

At 79, Graef “Bud” Crystal is the grand old man of executive compensation critics. Once a top compensation consultant, he switched sides in the 1980s, becoming a fierce critic of many of the practices he helped institutionalize, and analyzing executive pay for other media like Fortune and, most recently, Bloomberg News. He’s been known to call his second career “atoning for my sins.”

The other day, Crystal was recalling what it used to be like trying to cobble together pay information about a chief executive based on reading the disclosure documents required by the Securities and Exchange Commission. There was no rhyme or reason to the way the numbers were put together, and shareholders were often left scratching their heads.

“I remember writing an article for Fortune in the late 1980s, using Goizueta’s pay at Coca-Cola,” Crystal told me. (Roberto Goizueta was the chief executive of Coke from 1981 until his death in 1997.) The proxy statement showed that he made $800,000 that year in salary. But about 15 pages later, it showed that he had received an additional $56 million in stock options. Except that, instead of being written numerically, the option grant was spelled out, thus easy to overlook. “It was deliberate obfuscation,” said Crystal.

For the most part, it isn’t like that anymore. In the mid-2000s, the S.E.C. passed rules forcing companies to place all the compensation information for top executives in one place. There were people who thought that this effort at pay “transparency” would help get C.E.O. compensation under control — in effect shaming compensation committees and chief executives from letting executive pay get any more out of hand than it already was.

Not exactly how it turned out, is it?

On Sunday, The New York Times published its annual list of the compensation of the top executives at the 100 largest publicly traded American companies. (The survey is conducted by Equilar for The Times.) Topping the list, as he often has, was Larry Ellison, the chief executive of Oracle, who, despite being the world’s fifth-wealthiest person, raked in an additional $78.4 million in 2013, a combination of cash, stock and stock options. That was more than twice as much as the second and third place finishers, Robert Iger of Disney and Rupert Murdoch of 21st Century Fox. Not that they had anything to complain about, at $34.3 million and $26.1 million respectively.

The Times reported that the median compensation for C.E.O.’s in 2013 was $13.9 million, a 9 percent increase from 2012. The Wall Street Journal, which did its own, smaller survey a few weeks earlier, described the 2013 pay increases as representing “moderate growth.”

Nell Minow, another longtime critic of corporate governance and executive compensation practices, told me that the last time she harbored hope that executive pay might be brought under control was 1993. That was the year that Congress passed a bill capping cash compensation at $1 million. But the law also exempted pay that was based on “performance.”

Two things resulted. “Immediately, everybody got a raise to $1 million,” said Minow. And, second, company boards began setting performance measures that were easy to clear — and larding pay packages with huge stock option grants. “I hadn’t realized how easy it would be to manipulate performance measures,” Minow said.

Since then, nothing has stopped executive compensation from rising. When the market fell after the financial crisis, many companies gave their chief executives big option grants to “make up for” what they’d lost. When performance measures were toughened, chief executives responded by demanding larger grants because they were taking more “risk.”

It’s a rigged game. When the company’s stock goes up, says Crystal, the chief executive views himself as a hero. And when it goes down, “it’s Janet Yellen’s or Barack Obama’s fault.”

Plus, there’s simple greed. When I asked Crystal about Ellison’s pay package, he laughed. “There are billionaires like Warren Buffett and Larry Page who don’t pig out,” he said. (As the chief executive of Google, co-founder Page takes a $1 annual salary.) “But there are others who can’t keep their hands off the dough. Ellison is in that category.”

Soon enough, the S.E.C. is going to require yet another disclosure. As a result of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, companies will have to publish a ratio comparing the chief executive’s pay to the median pay of the company’s employees. At most large American corporations, the ratio is likely to be very high, hinting at how corrosive these huge executive pay packages have become, and the degree to which they play a role in furthering income inequality, a point made in “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the new book by Thomas Piketty, the economist. The ratio is going to make people mad.

But will it reduce executive pay? We already know the answer to that.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Most of the hate crimes in the United States don’t take the fatal form that the shootings in Kansas over the weekend did, and most aren’t perpetrated by villains as bloated with rage and blinded by conspiracy theories as the person accused in this case, Frazier Glenn Miller. He’s an extreme, not an emblem.

This is someone who went on Howard Stern’s radio show four years ago (why, Howard, did you even hand him that megaphone?) and called Adolf Hitler “the greatest man who ever walked the earth.” When Stern asked Miller whether he had more intense antipathy for Jews or for blacks (why that question?), Miller chose the Jews, definitely the Jews, “a thousand times more,” he said.

“Compared to our Jewish problem, all other problems are mere distractions,” he declaimed, and he apparently wasn’t just spouting off. He was gearing up.

On Sunday, according to the police, he drove to a Jewish community center in Overland Park, Kan., and opened fire, then moved on to a nearby Jewish retirement home and did the same. Three people were killed.

They were Christian, as it happens. When hatred is loosed, we’re all in the crossfire.

On Monday, as law enforcement officials formally branded what happened in Kansas a hate crime, I looked at the spectrum of such offenses nationally: assault, intimidation, vandalism.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation keeps statistics, the most recent of which are for 2012. In the United States that year there were 6,573 hate-crime incidents reported to the bureau (a fraction, no doubt, of all that occurred). While most were motivated by race, about 20 percent were motivated by the victims’ perceived religion — roughly the same percentage as those motivated by the victims’ presumed sexual orientation. I didn’t expect a number that high.

Nor did I expect this: Of the religion-prompted hate crimes, 65 percent were aimed at Jews, a share relatively unchanged from five years earlier (69 percent) and another five before that (65 percent). In contrast, 11 percent of religious-bias crimes in 2012 were against Muslims.

Our country has come so far from the anti-Semitism of decades ago that we tend to overlook the anti-Semitism that endures. We’ve moved on to fresher discussions, newer fears.

Following 9/11, there was enormous concern that all Muslims would be stereotyped and scapegoated, and this heightened sensitivity lingers. It partly explains what just happened at Brandeis University. The school had invited Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a celebrated advocate for Muslim women, to receive an honorary degree. But when some professors and students complained, citing statements of hers that seemed broadly derisive of Islam, the invitation was withdrawn. Clearly, university officials didn’t want their campus seen as a cradle or theater of Islamophobia.

But other college campuses in recent years have been theaters of anti-Israel discussions that occasionally veer toward, or bleed into, condemnations of Jews. And while we don’t have the anti-Semitism in our politics that some European countries do, there’s still bigotry under the surface. There are still caricatures that won’t die.

One of them flared last month on the Christian televangelist Pat Robertson’s TV show. His guest was a rabbi who, shockingly, was himself trafficking in the notion that Jews excel at making money. The rabbi said that a Jew wouldn’t squander a weekend tinkering with his car when he could hire a mechanic and concentrate on something else.

“It’s polishing diamonds, not fixing cars,” Robertson interjected.

Polishing diamonds?

In a 2013 survey of 1,200 American adults for the Anti-Defamation League, 14 percent agreed with the statement that “Jews have too much power” in our country, while 15 percent said Jews are “more willing to use shady practices” and 30 percent said that American Jews are “more loyal to Israel” than to the United States.

That’s disturbing, as is the way in which the Holocaust is minimized by its repeated invocation as an analogy. In separate comments this year, both the venture capitalist Tom Perkins and Kenneth Langone, one of the founders of Home Depot, said that the superrich in America were being vilified the way Jews in Nazi Germany had been.

It’s not just Kansas and the heartland where anti-Semitism, sometimes called the oldest hatred, stays young.

A story in The Times last year focused on an upstate New York community in which three Jewish families filed suit against the school district, citing harassment of Jewish students by their peers. The abuse included Nazi salutes and swastikas drawn on desks, on lockers, on a playground slide.

When a parent complained in 2011, the district’s superintendent responded, in an email: “Your expectations for changing inbred prejudice may be a bit unrealistic.”

Well, the only way to breed that prejudice out of the generations to come is never to shrug our shoulders like that — and never to avert our eyes.

Blow and Nocera

April 12, 2014

Ms. Collins is off today.  In “The Self-Sort” Mr. Blow says it’s easy to demonize, or simply dismiss, people you don’t know or see.  Mr. Nocera gives us “The Apple Chronicles” and says these days, the tech industry is battling over patents instead of new products.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

This week, four presidents journeyed to Austin, Tex., to address the Civil Rights Summit and remark on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s legacy on the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

That landmark act brought an end to legal racial segregation in public places.

But now we are facing another, worsening kind of segregation, one not codified but cultural: We are self-sorting, not only along racial lines but also along educational and income ones, particularly in our big cities.

Our cities are increasingly becoming vast outposts of homogeneity and advantage, arcing ever upward, interspersed by deserts of despair, all of which produces in them some of the highest levels of income inequality ever seen in this country.

Some call this progress; I call it a perversion, at least of the concept of diversity — of race, culture, identity and class — that dynamic engine that built urban identities and that is now being erased out of them.

As a report by Kendra Bischoff of Cornell and Sean F. Reardon of Stanford pointed out last year: “The proportion of families living in affluent neighborhoods more than doubled from 7 percent in 1970 to 15 percent in 2009. Likewise, the proportion of families in poor neighborhoods doubled from 8 percent to 18 percent over the same period.”

This is consistent with a 2012 Pew Research Center report that found, “Residential segregation by income has increased during the past three decades across the United States and in 27 of the nation’s 30 largest major metropolitan areas, according to a new analysis of census tract and household income data.”

The report added, “The analysis finds that 28 percent of lower-income households in 2010 were located in a majority lower-income census tract, up from 23 percent in 1980, and that 18 percent of upper-income households were located in a majority upper-income census tract, up from 9 percent in 1980.”

As Richard Florida wrote in The Atlantic last month, “The poor face higher levels of segregation in larger, denser metros.” In affluent cities, he said, “The segregation of poverty is more pronounced,” adding, “The poor also face greater levels of segregation in more advanced, knowledge-based metros.”

According to a study published last year in the journal Education and Urban Society, “Students are more racially segregated in schools today than they were in the late 1960s and prior to the enforcement of court-ordered desegregation in school districts across the country.”

In fact, a report last month by researchers at the Civil Rights Project of the University of California, Los Angeles, found, “New York has the most segregated schools in the country.”

Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream about the coming together of children of different races seems, in some ways, to grow more faint.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll last year found, “About 40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of nonwhite Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race.”

This kind of sorting has real world consequences in terms of behaviors, empathy and socialization. As The Independent of London reported last month, a new study found, “People who live in ethnically diverse streets are less racially prejudiced than individuals living in highly segregated areas and their increased tolerance is due directly to the experience of a more integrated society.”

The findings, the newspaper said, “emerged from the analysis of seven previous studies on community relations carried out between 2002 and 2012 in England, Europe, the United States and South Africa, and specifically tried to rule out the idea that the results can be explained by tolerant people being more likely to live in mixed neighborhoods.”

By ruling this out, the study was able to show that “even the attitudes of the most prejudiced people who did not mix at all with ethnic minorities became more tolerant over time as a result of living in areas where others were mixing on a daily basis.”

We need to see people other than ourselves in order to empathize. If we don’t live around others we do ourselves and our society damage because our ability to relate becomes impaired.

It’s easy to demonize, or simply dismiss, people you don’t know or see. It’s in this context that we can keep having inane conversations about the “habits” and “culture” of the poor and “inner city” citizens.

It’s nearly impossible to commiserate with the unseen and unknown.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

So they’re at it again, Apple and Samsung, fighting over patents in a courtroom in San Jose, Calif. They had a similar fight in 2012, in the same courtroom, which Apple won. Samsung has also won its share of these legal battles, including in Australia.

This time around, Apple alleges that Samsung has violated five of its patents, including the one that allows iPhone users to slide their finger across the bottom of the screen to unlock it. One of its experts testified the other day that Samsung should be forced to pay more than $2 billion for the harm done. Samsung, meanwhile, has retaliated by accusing Apple of violating several of its patents. The legal bills alone have to be running into the tens of millions of dollars.

Perhaps it is just coincidence that this latest trial coincides with the publication of a new book by Yukari Iwatani Kane, titled “Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs.” The coincidence is nonetheless telling. (Disclosure: Kane devotes several pages to a phone call I got from Steve Jobs in 2008 when I was working on a column about Apple’s unwillingness to disclose details of his health problems.)

The Apple Kane chronicles in “Haunted Empire” is not the same company she used to cover as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, when Jobs was alive. That Apple was fearless in its willingness to take risks and bring innovative products to market. This Apple, the post-Jobs Apple, has become risk-averse, its innovative capacity reduced to making small tweaks on products it has already brought to market. Though its leadership still talks a good game, it has so far been unable to deliver on the kind of knock-your-socks-off products for which Apple was once famous.

Part of this was inevitable. Jobs was a once-in-a-generation leader, with product instincts that just aren’t replicable. It is a sobering tale of what happens when a corporation becomes so reliant on one man.

But there are other reasons, too. Kane tracks down Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor and author of the famous business book “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” The book documents how companies stop innovating as they reach a certain critical mass and become more concerned with protecting what they have rather than chasing the new. This makes them vulnerable to newer competitors. “By the time those companies paid attention to the cheap, new innovations they had initially ignored, it was usually too late,” writes Kane, paraphrasing Christensen. Apple, Christensen believed, had long been the exception to his rule. Now, he feared, it was facing the innovator’s dilemma, just as other big companies did.

Meanwhile, the stock market was souring on Apple, and even Carl Icahn was poking around, urging Tim Cook, Jobs’s successor as chief executive, to hand some of its enormous cash hoard to shareholders.

The only real way to stave off further decline is to come out with a product that establishes a whole new category — the way the iPad did in 2010. But that seems unlikely. “Outside the echo chamber of Apple’s headquarters, the notion of the company’s exceptionalism has been shattered,” Kane writes.

Which brings me back to the litigation with Samsung — the company that is coming to market with products that are every bit as good as Apple’s, and at a lower price to boot. This never-ending litigation is yet another sign that Apple is becoming a spent force. Suing each other “is not what innovative companies do,” said Robin Feldman, a patent law expert at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

Nor has the lawsuit been going smoothly for Apple. One document revealed during the trial was an internal Apple presentation, a slide of which read, “Consumers want what we don’t have” — meaning inexpensive phones with large screens, which Apple doesn’t sell. In the earlier trial, although Apple won a verdict against Samsung, the judge refused to force Samsung to remove certain products from the market, as Apple has demanded. Instead, the case had the perverse effect of validating “the Korean company as a worthy rival and supplied it with free advertising,” writes Kane.

These patent war cases can be — and should be — easily settled, as everyone in the business knows. Every smartphone company is now armed to the teeth with patents, and the most sensible way to deal with the issue is to cross-license the patents. Then the companies can get back to the business of innovating. Apple’s utter refusal to do so suggests that it has become less interested — or less capable — of innovating and more interested in protecting what it has already brought to market.

Or, as Apple’s former general counsel, Nancy Heinen, tells Kane, “When patent lawyers become rock stars, it is a bad sign for where an industry is headed.”

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

April 8, 2014

Bobo has taken it upon himself to tell us “What Suffering Does.”  He gurgles that in a culture obsessed with happiness, we should remember that coming to terms with suffering is instructive to the soul.  “Gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “It’s hard to know exactly what Mr. Brooks is selling in this sermonette, but whenever conservatives wax philosophical about the benefits of suffering, I feel a little uneasy.”  As well you should, gemli, as well you should.  Mr. Nocera considers “G. M.’s Cobalt Crisis” and says how the company handles all the recalls and inquiries will show if anything has changed.  In “The Water Cooler Runs Dry” Mr. Bruni says with so much to watch and read and listen to, we have fewer cultural experiences in common.  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself in a bunch of conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.

But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.

Now, of course, it should be said that there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering. Just as failure is sometimes just failure (and not your path to becoming the next Steve Jobs) suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as quickly as possible.

But some people are clearly ennobled by it. Think of the way Franklin Roosevelt came back deeper and more empathetic after being struck with polio. Often, physical or social suffering can give people an outsider’s perspective, an attuned awareness of what other outsiders are enduring.

But the big thing that suffering does is it takes you outside of precisely that logic that the happiness mentality encourages. Happiness wants you to think about maximizing your benefits. Difficulty and suffering sends you on a different course.

First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.

Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquillity begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.

People in this circumstance often have the sense that they are swept up in some larger providence. Abraham Lincoln suffered through the pain of conducting a civil war, and he came out of that with the Second Inaugural. He emerged with this sense that there were deep currents of agony and redemption sweeping not just through him but through the nation as a whole, and that he was just an instrument for transcendent tasks.

It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call. They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. They often feel an overwhelming moral responsibility to respond well to it. People who seek this proper rejoinder to ordeal sense that they are at a deeper level than the level of happiness and individual utility. They don’t say, “Well, I’m feeling a lot of pain over the loss of my child. I should try to balance my hedonic account by going to a lot of parties and whooping it up.”

The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred. Parents who’ve lost a child start foundations. Lincoln sacrificed himself for the Union. Prisoners in the concentration camp with psychologist Viktor Frankl rededicated themselves to living up to the hopes and expectations of their loved ones, even though those loved ones might themselves already be dead.

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability. They hurl themselves deeper and gratefully into their art, loved ones and commitments.

The suffering involved in their tasks becomes a fearful gift and very different than that equal and other gift, happiness, conventionally defined.

I’ll just bet he “found himself in a bunch of conversations.”  More likely he wrenched a bunch of conversations in the direction he wanted them to go.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

The Chevrolet Cobalt is in many ways the perfect representation of the bad, old days of General Motors, when quality didn’t much matter, market share was more important than profitability, and financial decisions came before design and even safety decisions.

First manufactured in 2004, the car was a clunker from the start. “Owners complained about power steering failures, locks inexplicably opening and closing, doors jamming shut in the rain — even windows falling out,” according to Danielle Ivory and Rebecca R. Ruiz, writing in The Times last week.

And then there was the ignition defect that could cause the power to shut down, which led to a huge recall two months ago — and has spiraled the company into crisis. The more we learn about it — and with a handful of investigations underway, there is much that is not yet known — the worse G.M. looks.

The company apparently knew about the defect as far back as 2001, when it discovered the problem during testing of the Saturn Ion. It saw the problem again in 2004, as the Cobalt was about to be rolled out with the same ignition system. According to documents obtained in congressional investigations, engineers came up with a proposed fix, but it was nixed on the grounds that it was too expensive and would take too much time.

Finally, in 2006, engineers at General Motors appeared to have fixed the problem, but they did so without changing the part number, which is a shocking violation of engineering protocol, wrote Micheline Maynard at Forbes.com. It makes G.M. appear to have been engaged in subterfuge, hiding the fact that its ignition had been defective all those years.

Meanwhile, at least 13 people died in accidents that were clearly the result of the faulty ignition design. There are also another 140 people who died in accidents involving the Cobalt in which the cause is unknown. Yet for more than a decade, General Motors did nothing.

What makes this a particularly difficult crisis for G.M. is that it comes at a time when the company is trying to prove to the world that the old G.M. is dead. With a new chief executive in Mary Barra, 52, and a handful of newly designed cars, G.M. wants the world to believe that it has emerged from its bankruptcy as a smarter, nimbler, more transparent company. And maybe it has. But the Cobalt fiasco does not instill confidence; rather, it reminds people why General Motors had to be saved by the government in the first place.

On the one hand, Barra has met with the families of people who were killed in Cobalt accidents, something the old management would never have done. She has also hired Kenneth Feinberg, who has become famous for parceling out money to victims of 9/11 and the BP oil spill. He has been brought on to help the company figure out how to compensate victims and their families — a tricky bit of business since the company is legally off the hook for any accidents that took place prior to the 2009 bankruptcy. Of the many investigations into the Cobalt, one has been ordered by Barra herself, an internal review aimed at, among other things, answering the question of why General Motors took so long to order a recall. These are all gestures aimed at reinforcing the idea that this G.M. is a different kind of company.

On the other hand, Barra was forced to acknowledge before Congress that she hadn’t even known about the problem until the end of January — just a few weeks after she became the chief executive — when she was informed that the company planned a recall. She told Congress that General Motors was a place that had “silos,” and that information was too often not shared. She said so little of substance during her two days of congressional testimony last week that she came across as stonewalling at times. Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, accused her of presiding over “a culture of cover-up.” These are the kinds of moments that make you wonder if General Motors really has changed.

The Cobalt crisis will eventually fade. Feinberg will figure out how to pay victims. Plaintiffs’ lawyers will sue and settle. The investigations will be completed and the results announced. Presumably some heads will roll.

It is what happens over the ensuing months and years that will tell the tale of whether General Motors is truly a different company or whether this has all been for show. The government has sold its stake in G.M. The company is making money now. It is unquestionably a leaner, less bureaucratic place.

What it now needs to prove is that it makes cars that will cause us all to forget about the Cobalt. That’s when we’ll really know if it has changed.

What should happen is some folks who knew about the faulty switches being indicted for voluntary manslaughter.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

If you’re closing in on 50 but want to feel much, much older, teach a college course. I’m doing that now, at 49, and hardly a class goes by when I don’t make an allusion that prompts my students to stare at me as if I just dropped in from the Paleozoic era.

Last week I mentioned the movie “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Only one of the 16 students had heard of it. I summarized its significance, riffling through the Depression, with which they were familiar, and Jane Fonda’s career, with which they weren’t. “Barbarella” went sailing over their heads. I didn’t dare test my luck with talk of leg warmers and Ted Turner.

I once brought up Vanessa Redgrave. Blank stares. Greta Garbo. Ditto. We were a few minutes into a discussion of an essay that repeatedly invoked Proust’s madeleine when I realized that almost none of the students understood what the madeleine signified or, for that matter, who this Proust fellow was.

And these are young women and men bright and diligent enough to have gained admission to Princeton University, which is where our disconnect is playing out.

The bulk of that disconnect, obviously, is generational. Seemingly all of my students know who Gwyneth Paltrow is. And with another decade or two of reading and living and being subjected to fossils like me, they’ll assemble a richer inventory of knowledge and trivia, not all of it present-day.

But the pronounced narrowness of the cultural terrain that they and I share — the precise limits of the overlap — suggests something additional at work. In a wired world with hundreds of television channels, countless byways in cyberspace and all sorts of technological advances that permit each of us to customize his or her diet of entertainment and information, are common points of reference dwindling? Has the personal niche supplanted the public square?

Both literally and figuratively, the so-called water-cooler show is fading fast, a reality underscored by a fact that I stumbled across in last week’s edition of The New Yorker: In the mid-1970s, when the sitcom “All in the Family” was America’s top-rated television series, more than 50 million people would tune in to a given episode. That was in a country of about 215 million.

I checked on the No. 1 series for the 2012-13 television season. It was “NCIS,” an episode of which typically drew fewer than 22 million people, even counting those who watched a recording of it within a week of its broadcast. That’s out of nearly 318 million Americans now.

“NCIS” competes against an unprecedented bounty of original programming and more ways to see new and old shows than ever, what with cable networks, subscription services, YouTube, Apple TV and Aereo. Yahoo just announced that it was jumping into the fray and, like Netflix and Amazon, would develop its own shows.

In movies, there’s a bevy of boutique fare that never even opens in theaters but that you can order on demand at home. In music, streaming services and Internet and satellite radio stations showcase a dizzying array of songs and performers, few of whom attain widespread recognition. In books, self-publishing has contributed to a marked rise in the number of titles, but it doesn’t take an especially large crowd of readers for a book to become a best seller. Everyone’s on a different page.

With so very much to choose from, a person can stick to one or two preferred micro-genres and subsist entirely on them, while other people gorge on a completely different set of ingredients. You like “Housewives”? Savor them in multiple cities and accents. Food porn? Stuff yourself silly. Vampire fiction? The vein never runs dry.

I brought up this Balkanization of experience with Hendrik Hartog, the director of the American studies program at Princeton, and he noted that what’s happening in popular culture mirrors what has transpired at many elite universities, where survey courses in literature and history have given way to meditations on more focused themes.

“There’s enormous weight given to specialized knowledge,” he said. “It leaves an absence of connective tissue for students.” Not for nothing, he observed, does his Princeton colleague Daniel Rodgers, an emeritus professor of history, call this the “age of fracture.”

It has enormous upsides, and may be for the best. No single, potentially alienating cultural dogma holds sway. A person can find an individual lens and language through which his or her world comes alive.

And because makers of commercial entertainment don’t have to chase an increasingly apocryphal mass audience, they can produce cultish gems, like “Girls” on HBO and “Louie” on FX.

But each fosters a separate dialect. Finding a collective vocabulary becomes harder. Although I’m tempted to tell my students that they make me feel like the 2,000-year-old man, I won’t. I might have to fill them in first on Mel Brooks.

Nocera and Collins

April 5, 2014

Mr. Blow is off today.  In “Michael Lewis’s Crusade” Mr. Nocera says an imperfect tale of high-frequency trading provides a much needed spark.  Ms. Collins says it’s “All in the Family, Sort Of.”  She’s found more lessons from the campaign trail — when you’re making a photo album, people, no pics of strange pigs or point guards!  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

There is always something just a little frustrating about reading a Michael Lewis book. On the one hand, Lewis’s core point — whether it is that left tackle has become the second most important position in football (“The Blind Side”), or that the stock market has become rigged by high-frequency traders, as his new book, “Flash Boys,” claims — is almost always dead-on. His ability to find compelling characters and tell a great story through their eyes is unparalleled. He can untangle complex subjects like few others. His prose sparkles.

On the other hand, there usually comes a point in a Michael Lewis narrative when it all starts to feel just a little too perfect. “Flash Boys,” which is excerpted in The New York Times Magazine, is no exception. The book’s hero, Brad Katsuyama, is a young executive at the Royal Bank of Canada who realizes that something has gone awry with the stock market.

As he digs deeper, he realizes that secretive high-frequency trading firms, taking advantage of lightning-fast computers, willing accomplices in the stock exchanges and some poorly thought-out federal regulation, have effectively hijacked the equity markets. Roused to action by what he has discovered, Katsuyama quits his job and starts up a new exchange, IEX, which includes a clever “speed bump” that levels the playing field for investors.

So far, so good. But Lewis doesn’t stop there. To make his hero appear even more heroic, he casts Katsuyama as the only person on Wall Street to figure out the high-frequency trading scam, and the only person with the courage to do something about it. That’s not quite the case.

Nearly two years ago, Scott Patterson of The Wall Street Journal wrote a book titled “Dark Pools: The Rise of the Machine Traders and the Rigging of the U.S. Stock Market,” which also exposed the scam. The book is structured remarkably like Lewis’s — Patterson’s got a heroic central character who learns the tactics of the high-frequency bunch and then acts on it by going to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Except Patterson’s hero isn’t Brad Katsuyama; he is Haim Bodek. When I caught up with Bodek, he groused about how Katsuyama had only part of the picture, and how there were other elements of high-frequency trading that needed as much if not more exposure.

Another critic of high-frequency trading who appears in “Dark Pools,” Dan Mathisson of Credit Suisse, actually thought up an electronic exchange in 2011 — long before Katsuyama — aimed at keeping high-frequency traders at bay. There are other companies that also make it possible for institutional investors to trade blocks of stock without being subjected to the abuses of high-frequency traders.

What are those abuses? The one Lewis absolutely nails is a highly sophisticated version of front-running — that is, knowing how someone is going to trade and profiting by getting in front of that trade. This is illegal — except, apparently, when high-frequency traders do it. But even if high-frequency traders aren’t violating the law, the tactic smells to high heaven, creating an unlevel playing field that costs investors money.

Bodek points to other scams — the way, for instance, high-frequency traders have their own special order types, a kind of secret handshake (approved, sadly, by the Securities and Exchange Commission) that moves them to the front of the queue. High-frequency traders are allowed to “co-locate” their computers inside the exchange, the better to ensure their speed advantage over other investors. The Wall Street Journal reported last summer that high-frequency traders can pay to get early peeks at business news releases, information they can trade on before anyone else.

From where I’m sitting, it is a blessing that Lewis chose to write about high-frequency traders. Others may have come before, but nobody else could have created the firestorm that Lewis did by going on “60 Minutes” on Sunday and announcing that high-frequency traders had rigged the market. The F.B.I., the Justice Department and New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, are now investigating high-frequency trading. The Securities and Exchange Commission, whose regulations unwittingly helped create the problem, is also said to be investigating.

Always before, discussions around high-frequency traders took place after events like the “Flash Crash” of 2010. Then the question was whether the computer technology used by high-frequency traders was destabilizing the market.

The arrival of “Flash Boys” has put a more important question on the table: whether high-frequency traders have been given an unfair advantage that needs to be dealt with. Lewis’s answer is clearly yes, and “Flash Boys” is both clear enough and persuasive enough that Lewis’s millions of readers are likely to agree with him.

A little literary license is a small price to pay.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Here’s the latest life lesson from the campaign trail: If you are, say, making a home movie about how great your family is, try to remember to use pictures of your actual relatives, and not random attractive strangers.

We bring you this important tip from South Dakota, where Mike Rounds, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, came up with a debut video in which he tells prospective voters that the rest of the nation “could learn a lot from the people of South Dakota.” Meanwhile, the viewer is treated to pictures of folks building houses, having meetings, playing with the family — doing all sorts of positive things that presumably exemplify the state’s wholesome lifestyle.

Unfortunately, it turns out that they are stock photos from parts unknown. Except we did learn that the fetching woman holding her pen at that meeting is actually in Paris.

“It was a matter of trying to be good stewards with our client’s budget,” said John Pohlman, an executive for the Rounds creative team. In South Dakota, the controversy has devolved into an argument about whether this piece was the first ad of the campaign or just something thrown casually together as a sort of experiment. But not a commentary on whether South Dakotans are photogenic! Be fair.

We’re likely to run into a lot of this kind of screw-up before November. (Perhaps you remember last year when New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner triumphantly opened his new website with a banner that featured a skyline shot of Pittsburgh.) They certainly help pass the time, but should we ever care?

The answer is that you should not criticize a politician for doing something that you could easily imagine yourself doing, too. For instance, this week Senator Dan Coats of Indiana walked into a committee hearing and started happily questioning a witness — until his aide slipped him a note pointing out that Coats had gone to the wrong meeting and was querying a person who had no idea whatsoever what he was talking about. I believe I speak for many Americans when I say that given the excitement level of most Senate hearings, this seems perfectly plausible.

On the other hand, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky recently released a video about the glories of his home state that featured what was supposed to be a triumphant local basketball team but was in fact hated Kentucky rival Duke. Misidentifying a bunch of college athletes is something else that I could totally understand. But there appear to be a lot of people out there who will never, ever get over it. This happened just as the N.C.A.A. tournament was getting into high gear, and, honestly, you’d have thought that McConnell ran across the court naked at halftime.

One of the few potentially significant disasters so far occurred in Iowa, where Representative Bruce Braley, the leading Democratic contender for the Senate, got caught warning some Texas trial lawyers that if Republicans won a majority, the Judiciary Committee would be run by Senator Chuck Grassley, “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” It sounded terrible. Although, to be fair, you could imagine somebody like Senator Grassley warning a roomful of farmers about the possibility of a trial lawyer running the Agriculture Committee.

Everybody zeroed in on the farmer-denigration angle, forcing Braley to send out a press release listing his own personal ties to the land, including many youthful hours spent detasseling corn and baling hay. In which the words “detasseling” and “baling” were both unfortunately misspelled.

Oh, Iowa, Iowa. We spend so much time thinking about Iowa, home of the First Presidential Caucuses, which seem to go on for at least two years. (This just in: new poll finds Mike Huckabee leading the Republican field among Iowa senior citizens!) Iowa gets so much attention, it seems unfair that it has a hot Senate race, too.

You may have heard about Joni Ernst, a hitherto obscure candidate for the Republican nomination, who became famous overnight with her now-immortal castration video, in which she brags about her early experience on the farm, neutering hogs. The video won her a mention on “The Tonight Show,” and the triumphant Ernst posted an invitation to watch the video on the web, next to a picture of a rather optimistic-looking porker. However, as Michael McAuliff reported in The Huffington Post, the animal in question was actually in a stock photo from Denmark.

Oh, Joni Ernst campaign! Iowa has 20 million pigs, and you go for the equivalent of the Frenchwoman at the meeting.

The candidate’s spokesman issued a lighthearted statement claiming the hog “was born and raised in Holland but eventually legally emigrated to Iowa,” and reminding everybody that Bruce Braley had misspelled “bale.”

Holland is actually not in Denmark. But it’s been that kind of year.

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

April 1, 2014

Bobo has seen fit to present us with something called “The Employer’s Creed.”  He gurgles that the hiring process deeply affects the kind of people we have in our society. He says a little healthy bias in decision-making might cultivate deeper, fuller human beings.  You know you’re in for a rough ride when he uses the phrase “moral ecology” in the first sentence.  In “A Step Toward Justice in College Sports?” Mr. Nocera says a players’ union would help. But several lawsuits could bring about even bigger changes.  Mr. Bruni considers “Our Crazy College Crossroads” and says:  Accepted? Rejected? Neither seals your fate.  Here’s Bobo:

Dear Employers,

You may not realize it, but you have a powerful impact on the culture and the moral ecology of our era. If your human resources bosses decide they want to hire a certain sort of person, then young people begin turning themselves into that sort of person.

Therefore, I’m asking you to think about the following principles, this Employer’s Creed. If you follow these principles in your hiring practices, you’ll be sending a signal about what sort of person gets ahead. You may correct some of the perversities at the upper reaches of our meritocracy. You may even help cultivate deeper, fuller human beings.

Bias hiring decisions against perfectionists. If you work in a white-collar sector that attracts highly educated job applicants, you’ve probably been flooded with résumés from people who are not so much human beings as perfect avatars of success. They got 3.8 grade-point averages in high school and college. They served in the cliché leadership positions on campus. They got all the perfect consultant/investment bank internships. During off-hours they distributed bed nets in Zambia and dug wells in Peru.

When you read these résumés, you have two thoughts. First, this applicant is awesome. Second, there’s something completely flavorless here. This person has followed the cookie-cutter formula for what it means to be successful and you actually have no clue what the person is really like except for a high talent for social conformity. Either they have no desire to chart out an original life course or lack the courage to do so. Shy away from such people.

Bias hiring decisions toward dualists. The people you want to hire should have achieved some measure of conventional success, but they should have also engaged in some desperate lark that made no sense from a career or social status perspective. Maybe a person left a successful banking job to rescue the family dry-cleaning business in Akron. Maybe another had great grades at a fancy East Coast prep school but went off to a Christian college because she wanted a place to explore her values. These peoples have done at least one Deeply Unfashionable Thing. Such people have intrinsic motivation, native curiosity and social courage.

Bias toward truth-tellers. I recently ran into a fellow who hires a lot of people. He said he asks the following question during each interview. “Could you describe a time when you told the truth and it hurt you?” If the interviewee can’t immediately come up with an episode, there may be a problem here.

Don’t mindlessly favor people with high G.P.A.s. Students who get straight As have an ability to prudentially master their passions so they can achieve proficiency across a range of subjects. But you probably want employees who are relentlessly dedicated to one subject. In school, those people often got As in subjects they were passionate about but got Bs in subjects that did not arouse their imagination.

Reward the ripening virtues, not the blooming virtues. Some virtues bloom forth with youth: being intelligent, energetic, curious and pleasant. Some virtues only ripen over time: other-centeredness, having a sense for how events will flow, being able to discern what’s right in the absence of external affirmation. These virtues usually come with experience, after a person has taken time off to raise children, been fired or learned to cope with having a cruel boss. The blooming virtues are great if you are hiring thousands of consultants to churn out reports. For most other jobs, you want the ripening ones, too.

Reward those who have come by way of sorrow. Job seekers are told to present one linear narrative to the world, one that can easily be read and digested as a series of clean conquests. But if you are stuck in an airport bar with a colleague after a horrible business trip, would you really want to have a drink with a person like that? No, you’d want a real human being, someone who’d experienced setback, suffering and recovery. You’d want someone with obvious holes in his résumé, who has learned the lessons that only suffering teaches, and who got back on track.

Reward cover letter rebels. Job seeking is the second greatest arena of social pretense in modern life — after dating. But some people choose not to spin and exaggerate. They choose not to make each occasion seem more impressive than it really was. You want people who are radically straight, even with superiors.

You could argue that you don’t actually want rich, full personalities for your company. You just want achievement drones who can perform specific tasks. I doubt that’s in your company’s long-term interests. But if you fear leaping out in this way, at least think of the effect you’re having on the deeper sensibilities of the next generation, the kind of souls you are incentivizing and thus fashioning, the legacy you will leave behind.

It’s really time for him to find something else to do, and give poor Moral Hazard a break.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

If you were going to hold up a school as being exemplary in the way it puts athletics in, as they say, “the proper perspective,” Northwestern University would certainly be one you’d point to. For instance, although it lacks the kind of winning tradition — at least in the big-time sports — that other schools in the Big Ten can boast of, it proudly points to the 97 percent graduation rate of its athletes.

Yet buried in last week’s decision by Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board — in which he said that the Northwestern football team had the right to form a union — was this anecdote about Kain Colter, the former Northwestern quarterback who is leading the union effort. In his sophomore year, dreaming of going to medical school someday, Colter “attempted to take a required chemistry course.” However, “his coaches and advisors discouraged him from taking the course because it conflicted with morning football practices.” Eventually, after falling behind other pre-med students, he wound up switching his major to psychology, “which he believed to be less demanding,” according to Ohr.

Ohr’s essential point was that unlike the rest of the student body at Northwestern, football players had little control over their lives. Their schedules were dictated by the needs of the football team. They had bosses in the form of coaches and other university officials who could fire them. They had to abide by a million petty N.C.A.A. rules, and they lacked many of the freedoms and rights taken for granted by students who didn’t play sports. They put in up to 50-hours a week at their sport — vastly more than is supposedly allowed under N.C.A.A. rules. But then, every school finds ways to evade those rules, whether they have athletics “in perspective” or not.

Anyone who cares about justice had to be encouraged by Ohr’s ruling. In outlining the many ways that Northwestern’s football players were primarily employees of the university, recruited to the campus to generate revenue, Ohr ignored the idyllic myth of the “student-athlete” and dealt in cold, hard facts. (“Student-athlete,” it’s worth remembering, is a phrase invented by the N.C.A.A. in the 1950s precisely to avoid having to grant workers’ compensation to injured college football players on the grounds that they fit the classic definition of employees.)

Having said that, it seems to me that both the fans and the critics of Ohr’s decision have been getting a little ahead of themselves. It is only one team at one school, and while I hear reliably that other teams at other schools are investigating the possibility of forming a union, we are years away from knowing whether a union would necessarily mean players are eventually paid (as proponents hope) or that their scholarships will be taxed (as critics warn). Given the N.C.A.A.’s fierce resistance to anything that might dilute its power — or worse, give power to the athletes themselves — it is a certainty that Ohr’s decision will wind up in a federal appeals court.

The buzz over the union effort has also had the effect, at least temporarily, of distracting attention from other efforts that have the potential to upend the system even more radically. One is a class-action lawsuit that has been active for several years now, the O’Bannon case, named for Ed O’Bannon, the former U.C.L.A. basketball star. Although ostensibly about the licensing and image rights of former college athletes, it is aimed directly at the heart of “amateurism” that is the central rationale of the N.C.A.A.’s refusal to consider paying players anything beyond their scholarships.

Already, I’m told, the legal team driving the case is devising the means to pay players royalties and other compensation, which they will undoubtedly propose to the judge, assuming it goes to trial.

Meanwhile, lawyers on both coasts have recently filed straightforward antitrust class-action suits against the N.C.A.A., arguing that universities and the N.C.A.A. simply lack the legal right to cap players’ compensation. When I asked Jeffrey Kessler, a New York lawyer who has spent years representing professional athletes, why he had taken on this case, he replied, “Our sense is that the world has changed so radically in college sports that even the most casual observers recognize that this is not amateurism. This is a gigantic business.”

Maybe that is what the Ohr decision really represents: a government acknowledgment that college sports is not what it once was, and that no amount of N.C.A.A. propaganda can hide the money-soaked reality anymore. If judges come to these upcoming cases with the same lack of blinders that Ohr showed last week — if they view the cases strictly through the prism of the law rather than the gauzy sheen of amateurism — well, then, a union will be the least of the N.C.A.A.’s worries.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

Over recent days the notices have gone out, an annual ritual of dashed hopes.

Brown University offered admission to the lowest fraction ever of the applicants it received: fewer than one in 10. The arithmetic was even more brutal at Stanford, Columbia, Yale. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had a record number of students vying for its next freshman class — 31,321 — and accepted about one in six who applied from outside the state. Notre Dame took about one in five of all comers.

And right now many young men and women who didn’t get in where they fervently longed to are worrying that it’s some grim harbinger of their future, some sweeping judgment of their worth.

This is for them. And it’s intended less as a balm for the rejected than as a reality check for a society gone nuts over the whole overheated process.

If you were shut out of an elite school, that doesn’t mean you’re less gifted than all of the students who were welcomed there. It may mean only that you lacked the patronage that some of them had, or that you played the game less single-mindedly, taking fewer SAT courses and failing to massage your biography with the same zeal.

A friend of mine in Africa told me recently about a center for orphans there that a rich American couple financed in part to give their own teenage children an exotic charity to visit occasionally and mine for college-application essays: admissions bait. That’s the degree of cunning that comes into this frenzy.

Maybe the school that turned you down ranks high in the excessively publicized “College Salary Report” by PayScale.com, which looks at whose graduates go on to make the most money.

What a ludicrous list. It’s at least as imperfectly assembled as the honor roll that U.S. News & World Report puts together every year. And even if you trust it, what does it tell you? That the colleges at the top have the most clout and impart the best skills? Or that these colleges admit the most young people whose parents and previously established networks guarantee them a leg up?

Maybe it tells you merely that these colleges attract the budding plutocrats with the greatest concern for the heft of their paychecks. Is that the milieu you sought?

About money and professional advancement: Shiny diplomas from shiny schools help. It’s a lie to say otherwise. But it’s as foolish to accord their luster more consequence than the effort you put into your studies, the earnestness with which you hone your skills, what you actually learn. These are the sturdier building blocks of a career.

In “David and Goliath,” Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that a less exclusive university may enable a student to stand out and flourish in a way that a more exclusive one doesn’t. The selectiveness of Gladwell’s science doesn’t nullify the plausibility of his argument.

Corner offices in this country teem with C.E.O.s who didn’t do their undergraduate work in the Ivy League. Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin went to the University of Alabama. John Mackey of Whole Foods studied at the University of Texas, never finishing.

Your diploma is, or should be, the least of what defines you. Show me someone whose identity is rooted in where he or she went to college. I’ll show you someone you really, really don’t want at your Super Bowl party.

And your diploma will have infinitely less relevance to your fulfillment than so much else: the wisdom with which you choose your romantic partners; your interactions with the community you inhabit; your generosity toward the family that you inherited or the family that you’ve made.

If you’re not bound for the school of your dreams, you’re probably bound for a school that doesn’t conform as tidily to your fantasies or promise to be as instantly snug a fit.

Good. College should be a crucible. It’s about departure, not continuity: about turning a page and becoming a new person, not letting the ink dry on who, at 17 or 18, you already are. The disruption of your best-laid plans serves that. It’s less a setback than a springboard.

A high school senior I know didn’t get into several of the colleges she coveted most. She got into a few that are plenty excellent. And I’ve never been more impressed with her, because she quickly realized that her regrets pale beside her blessings and she pivoted from letdown to excitement.

That resiliency and talent for optimism will matter more down the line than the name of the school lucky enough to have her. Like those of her peers who are gracefully getting past this ordeal that our status-mad society has foisted on them, she’ll do just fine.

Blow, Nocera and Collins

March 1, 2014

In “Fathers’ Sons and Brothers’ Keepers” Mr. Blow says we can and must break the cycles of pain for young men of color, building better boys and repairing broken men.  Mr. Nocera addresses “The Bitcoin Blasphemy” and says created to avoid government, the virtual currency won’t survive without it.  Ms. Collins says “Arizona Sort of Helps Out” and has a question:  As gay rights have made great strides lately, why have abortion rights lost ground?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Frederick Douglass once noted, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

The statement is simple, profound and as true as truth can be. And yet we as a society and as individual families neglect the building, facilitate the breaking and balk at the cost and commitment of the repair.

On Thursday, President Obama took a step toward righting that wrong in regard to young men of color by announcing the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a partnership between the public and private sectors aimed at bettering outcomes for some of the nation’s most at-risk young men.

It is a necessary and noble ambition to begin to draw resources together in a common effort to find best practices for addressing stubborn issues, and to better fund and expand those efforts.

This will not be easy. The issues facing many of these men are so complicated and layered with pain that they are incredibly daunting. There is a deficit of hope and a surplus of hurdles — familial, cultural, behavioral and structural.

But we must start somewhere. As the old saying goes, “The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.”

Programs like this usually focus on the easier part of the problem, the personal, rather than the harder part, the structural.

Youth Guidance, whose Becoming a Man group the president highlighted during his announcement, says that through its program, “Participants learn about and practice impulse control, emotional self-regulation, reading social cues and interpreting intentions of others, raising aspirations for the future and developing a sense of personal responsibility and integrity.”

These are important character traits, to be sure, but it’s hard not to think that ideally they would be transferred from parents — particularly fathers — to sons.

That’s why I was encouraged that the president spent quite a bit of time discussing the role of fathers in boys’ lives.

He said of his father: “I didn’t have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time.”

In a previous column, I wrote this of my own father: “I was forced to experience him as a distant form in a heavy fog, forced to nurse a longing that he was neither equipped nor inclined to satisfy.”

When there is an empty space where a father should be, sorrow often grows. The void creates in a child an injury that the child is often unable to articulate or even recognize. And what children miss at home, they will often seek in the street, to ill effect.

Many boys with that empty space lash out and act up, trying to be seen, searching, as people do, for love and affirmation, wanting desperately to be validated. And too many of us, in turn, see them as menaces rather than as boys struggling — often without sufficient instruction and against a tide of systemic inequity — to simply become men. In such a warped world, basic survival can become a metric of success.

As the president put it, “nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life.”

But sometimes fathers don’t even know how to be the best fathers. Sometimes they simply engage in an intergenerational transference of pain and need. It’s sometimes hard to give what you yourself have not received.

For instance, according to Child Trends, black fathers are substantially less likely than white or Hispanic fathers to hug their children or show them physical affection, or to tell them that they love them.

I don’t scold these fathers; I weep for them and with them. I understand, on a most personal level, that conditioning. Sometimes men don’t see that masculinity is as much about tenderness as about toughness. Sometimes they don’t know how to manage emotions. Sometimes the world has so beaten them and so hardened them that expressing any vulnerability feels like providing an opening for an enemy.

But I also know that being an engaged father can be a reparative therapy — healing your hurt as you protect your progeny. Our children provide a reservoir of the deepest, truest love in a harsh and unforgiving world. They are our respite from the battlefield.

We, as a society, must change our perspective when considering these boys and men, and more fully engage our empathy. That is both a personal and a structural change.

We can and must break these cycles of pain, building better boys and repairing broken men.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

Whenever I read a story about bitcoin, the virtual currency that has been so much in the news these days, I think about a man named Dee Hock. In the early 1970s, Hock created the credit card system that we now know as Visa. Hock was a man who liked to think grandiose thoughts. When it came to Visa, and credit cards in general, Hock used to describe them not just as a way to get a short-term loan but as a new kind of payment system, an exchange of value that was on par with, and that competed with, cash.

As it turns out — and the bitcoin experience is helping to illustrate this — Hock’s description of credit cards was more than a little hyperbolic. Yes, you could now use a small plastic card instead of cash to buy something, but that card had value because it connected both the buyer and the seller to a fiat currency. People trusted it because they believed in their country’s currency and financial institutions. The exchange of value was never the credit card itself; it was still the dollar, the pound, the yen.

Bitcoin, on the other hand, is truly a new form of payment system, unconnected to any currency or any government. Its libertarian proponents in Silicon Valley love that about it; they talk about it as a potential disrupter of traditional financial institutions. It has value not because a government has decreed and backed its value — the classic definition of a fiat currency — but because a community of users has decided to give it value. Its current travails, however, suggest that may also be its inherent flaw: that however much we say we mistrust governments and banks, when it comes to our money, we trust them a lot more than we trust some clever lines of computer code.

The Internet, I should note, could really use a digital currency. For starters, it would make transactions on the web much easier while cutting down on the rampant credit card fraud and identity theft that exists online.

It is also true that there have been many unsuccessful attempts to create a digital currency. Bitcoin is by far the most ingenious attempt, and it solves numerous problems. It allows for anonymity, just like cash, while also rendering transactions public, which ensures against double spending (that is, using the same bitcoins for multiple transactions). It is virtually impossible to counterfeit. And, as Felix Salmon pointed out last year, “to all intents and purposes, bitcoins are invisible to law enforcement and the taxman.”

But so far bitcoins have less resembled a currency than a commodity. Up until now, they have mostly been used for pure speculation. Indeed, because there are only a limited number of bitcoins in circulation, the speculative ride has been pretty wild. In February, the bitcoin dropped in value from around $880 to the mid-$5oos.Bitcoin’s gyrations hardly engender trust among potential users. And the recent bitcoin-related news isn’t exactly reassuring either. First, a well-known bitcoin entrepreneur was arrested for allegedly laundering criminals’ money on an underground website called Silk Road, which traffics in, among other things, illegal drugs. Then, Mt. Gox, the leading bitcoin exchange, went out of business — and nobody knows what happened to the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bitcoins it was holding for customers.

The country’s most prominent bitcoin backer, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, whose firm is funding bitcoin-related start-ups, raced to CNBC to claim that the Mt. Gox failure was just part of the growing pains for bitcoins. And maybe it is. But who in his right mind, whether merchant or customer, is going to engage in commerce with a currency so seemingly unstable, or one that can so quickly disappear?

The great irony of bitcoin is that its anonymous creator (or creators), who goes by the name Satoshi Nakamoto, believed that people would want his new currency because they had learned to mistrust financial institutions. As Salmon notes, when Nakamoto introduced bitcoin, in February 2009, he wrote:

“ ‘The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that’s required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve. We have to trust them with our privacy, trust them not to let identity thieves drain our accounts.’ ”

All of which is true. But however angry we might be at bank compensation or at the role of financial institutions in the financial crisis, we still trust banks to safeguard our money, and we still trust government to back our currency. For bitcoin to succeed, it will have to embrace the one thing it was most intended to avoid: government.

Well, that might make it harder to pay for your drugs and hookers…  Now here’s Ms. Collins:

It’s been quite a week in Arizona. First, the Legislature passed a bill that, in effect, gave businesses the right to discriminate against gay couples. The state’s actual business community was horrified. Everybody from Mitt Romney to Newt Gingrich was ticked off.

Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill, pointing out acerbically that the lawmakers had not managed to send her anything whatsoever on critical issues — like, say, the budget — while they labored with remarkable efficiency on behalf of theologically troubled wedding photographers.

Chastened, the very same elected officials trotted back to their posts and immediately took up the subject of surprise inspections of abortion clinics.

Perhaps we should avoid reading too much into Arizona, where politics appears to be in a permanent state of mental collapse. “We do this kind of thing every day,” said Chad Campbell, the long-suffering minority leader of the House.

But here’s my question for today. The gay rights movement has been having some remarkable success lately. Why do abortion rights keep losing ground?

Think about the three great hot-button issues that have propelled the social right for the last several decades. One is guns — a terrible problem for the nation, but currently rather moot in many state legislatures, which have run out of new things to do on behalf of the National Rifle Association.

“I think the only thing left is to make sure it’s mandatory that all kids get a gun when they’re born,” said Campbell.

That leaves two major causes around which the social right can raise money and political temperatures. For a while, state politicians happily busied themselves banning gay marriage. Then the trajectory changed. Gay Americans now not only have support from their families and friends, they have powerful backing from economic leaders, who see them as valuable employees and customers. The national Republican establishment is terrified of being labeled anti-gay.

Not the same story for abortion rights. Last year, 22 states adopted new abortion restrictions, some of which come close to completely eliminating women’s right of choice. There was a dramatic standoff in the Texas State Legislature when Senator Wendy Davis staved off a draconian anti-abortion bill with a one-woman filibuster. People watched enthralled around the country. Davis catapulted onto the national political stage. But the Legislature came right back and passed the bill a few weeks later.

It’s easy to come up with some explanations. Obviously, abortion is an issue that only relates to one gender, at one particular stage in their lives. And it’s never a feel-good option. “I don’t expect the National Football League to be defending abortion rights anytime soon,” said Susan Cohen of the Guttmacher Institute.

There’s also the particular genius of the Arizona State Legislature. A bunch of states have been considering bills like the one that sparked so much outrage in Phoenix. But their sponsors usually talked in vague terms about religious freedom, playing down the part about restricting gay rights. The Arizona lawmakers made it very clear that they were inspired by the terrifying image of a gay couple walking up to a counter and demanding to be served.

“The fight was such a good one because it was such a frontal assault,” said Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood.

When anti-abortion bills come up, they tend to be cloaked as matters of public safety. Make sure the doctors have hospital visiting privileges. Don’t use this drug. Or that one. Let’s have surprise inspections of the abortion clinics. More sonograms and waiting periods.

Voters tended to shrug. But when they are actually asked, straight-out, if they want to ban all abortions, they’ve said no, even in conservative states like Mississippi and South Dakota. And, Susan Cohen of Guttmacher noted, when the Virginia Legislature tried to require women to have invasive transvaginal ultrasounds if they wanted an early-term abortion, it got the public’s unnerved attention. “And other states said — ‘well, maybe we’d better not do that either.’ ”

It’s hard to imagine, but perhaps what this country needs is less subtle state legislators.

The biggest difference between the fortunes of gay rights and abortion rights, however, is that politicians who vote to limit women’s rights to control their own bodies know that, for the most part, they’re only hurting poor people.

Low-income women are five times as likely to have an unintended pregnancy as their most affluent sisters. And the lawmakers who busy themselves throwing up barriers to abortion in their own states realize, deep in their hearts, that if their middle-class constituents want to end a pregnancy, they can get on a plane and go where it’s easy to take care of the problem.

“Folks of wealth have always been able to end an unwanted pregnancy. And they always will be,” said Richards.

We keep looking for new angles on the song, but the tune stays the same. Follow the lack of money.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

February 25, 2014

It would appear that Bobo has hacked into MoDo’s files and has stolen a column from her, complete with the breathless exclamation points.  He’s created his very own “Fake Putin Diary!”, and he breathlessly tells us here’s our chance to read the private diary of the one and only Vladimir Putin!  Mr. Cohen, in “Known Unto God,” says in its centennial year, the Great War still divides memory.  Mr. Nocera has a question in ” ‘The Wild West of Privacy’.”  He asks just what should be included in a consumer privacy bill of rights? Then he asked the experts.  Here’s Bobo:

I am surrounded by idiots. I create the greatest Olympics in human history. The Russian team I selected wins the medal count. I do all this while propping up Assad in Syria and sexting half the athletes in the Olympic Village. Meanwhile, that tool Yanukovych can’t even manage to keep himself in power in Kiev.

Why is it that every autocrat but me is always a day late and a dollar short? They try to be a little nice and a little nasty and they end up outraging everybody while intimidating nobody. Yanukovych was ridiculous with his zoo and his rare goats. His son the dentist won 50 percent of all the government contracts issued last January. People like that give kleptocracy a bad name.

That yutz has created two giant vulnerabilities for me, a regional one and a domestic one. My entire worldview is based on the idea that societies exist in one of two states: centralized control or terrorism and chaos. My life project has been to impose top-down order so Russia can return to its former grandeur.

Regionally, that’s meant reconstituting the Russian empire with a Eurasian Union. Domestically, it’s meant restoring the legitimacy of autocratic rule.

The bandits in Ukraine have suddenly called both into question. With no Ukraine in my orbit, I’ve got no empire. I’ve got no Eurasian project. Meanwhile, it wasn’t nice to see an autocrat get toppled just next door. It sets a bad example for the children (my subjects).

Suddenly, I find myself in a moment of extreme vulnerability. Fortunately, I’ve got one of the greatest leaders in human history on my side: myself.

Machiavelli was right. Fortune is a woman; only the audacious win her love. That’s why my technique has always been to create facts on the ground. Act first, while everyone else dithers. Force them to react to my reality. That’s why I alone am Mr. Big on the world stage. Heroes drive history, and I will not be ignored!

The naïve Westerners (forgive the redundancy) think Ukraine is about democratic ideals, or whether the country will turn West or East. Please. There is no room for ideals in my worldview. People are motivated by money and fear.

First, I’m going to evict the Westerners from Ukraine. I liked it better when the West conquered countries with the 82nd Airborne; now they just use the I.M.F. Fortunately, as one expert put it, they always bring a baguette to a knife fight. The West will not actually spend the money necessary to keep Ukraine out of bankruptcy. They won’t want to hand it over to corrupt officials who will immediately ship it to London.

I’ll just outbid them. Ukraine is out of money, and countries with no money have no choices. They are going to have to put themselves up for sale, and I’ve shown I’m willing to pay a higher price.

Moreover, the country has the same politico-economic system as Mother Russia. Something like 80 percent of the economy is controlled by the oligarchs. If the current oligarchs don’t do what I want, I just replace them with some nice Russian ones. Some politicians are good at organizing coalitions. I’m good at organizing corruption.

Then I’ll insinuate myself and manipulate electoral reform law. I can squeeze them with oil and gas supplies. I’m already enlisting Russian troops to preserve the Crimea. If the country threatens to split up, there’s always the Georgia solution. Send in the troops. The West won’t like it, but what will they do? If they try to hurt me, I’ll stop cooperating on Syria, Iran and the places that really matter to them.

Dealing with my domestic vulnerability just takes a little productive paranoia. I’ve already shut down civil society step by step. I’ve even banned independent pollsters and persecuted officials who fought corruption. (Yes, that’s right. I’ve made honesty a crime.) Recent events call for another round of crackdowns. Will my crackdown spark a violent reaction I can’t now anticipate? In less deft hands that might happen, but, remember, I am me.

It’s easy to govern when you’ve got the winds of history at your back. I’ve got the wolves of chaos growling in my face. Capital flight is accelerating. The ruble is devaluing. Social media, the youth culture, the tides of mass protest, democracy and capitalism undermine the authoritarian mind-set.

Yet I impose my will with the beauty of gold and the wisdom of sapphire. I don’t “evolve,” as everybody suggests. Evolution leads to chaos. I learned that from Gorby!

The events of the 1990s gave the world one narrative, the Velvet Revolution narrative. But I’m going to teach another narrative: that what begins with people massing in a city square ends with a strongman triumphing in a palace. In my own way, I will define this age.

That could also be an excerpt from Dick Cheney’s diary…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Any sentient being who walks the byways of northern Europe, so placid now with their glistening poplar trees and villages clustered around church spires, must occasionally feel the intrusion of the painful thought that beneath the soil lie the corpses of millions, young men sacrificed for the gain of a few meters, and often in Kipling’s phrase only known unto God.

World War I erupted at a time when much of humanity was persuaded that rapid technological development, scientific progress and accelerated communications (connectivity in today’s parlance) had consigned warfare to the past. It was sparked by a single gunshot in Sarajevo, made possible by strategic miscalculation, and ended with the collapse of several empires, the world of yesterday demolished in an unimaginable bloodbath whose unsettled scores would soon produce another cataclysm.

In the very banality of the chain of events that led to slaughter, in its apparent unnecessariness, the Great War (in the British phrase) offers an eternal warning to those inclined to take peace for granted. Peace is hard work. Its alternative is never far beneath the surface.

It being the centennial of the outbreak of the war, numerous commemorations are planned. But memorialization diverges. Germans, when they think about World War I, see nothing “great” in it. Rather they see the seeds of Hitler’s rise, and it is to his war above all that they have devoted their anguished reckonings. The French who, like the British, call it “La Grande Guerre,” have a different view; they stopped the Germans racing to Paris, as in 1871. Glory is a word that surfaces in Paris and London, notwithstanding Wilfred Owen’s dismissal of the “old lie”: That in youth’s prime “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”

I decided a few weeks ago to bow my head to the dead by visiting the cemetery at St. Symphorien in Belgium, where the first British soldier killed on the Western Front is buried, and also what are thought to be the last Commonwealth soldiers killed. In all 284 German and 230 Commonwealth servicemen find their final resting place here.

The cemetery, watched over by wind turbines, was deserted. I was the only visitor. The German graves are in gray stone, the British in white. I read the names of the conscripts. An “Unteroffizier Rolf Berger” from Hamburg, a “Musketier Otto Finke” from Kiel: German kids cut down. It crossed my mind that perhaps the Finke family, after their loss, would end up fleeing Hitler.

The British and Commonwealth graves are set out in lines: Lt. D.C.C. Sewell, aged 20, with the inscription “Thy Will Be Done.” W.G. Bathgate, Highlanders, 23 August 1914, “Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori.” And that most devastating of all epitaphs: “A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God.”

Among the crosses was a single Star of David, on the grave of Private P. Goldberg of the Middlesex Regiment, died Aug 23, 1914. I was reminded of my great-grandfather’s brother, Michael Adler, a distinguished rabbi who compiled the 1916 Prayer Book for Jewish Sailors and Soldiers at the front during World War I and served as chaplain to Jewish soldiers.

I have a precious copy of the prayer book. It begins with a “prefatory note” signed by my forbear: “It is hoped that this book will meet the wants of the very large number of English Jews who are taking part in the present Great European War.” The first prayer for the 16,000 British Jews on active service includes this line: “Fill our hearts with courage and steadfastness that we may perform our duty to our King and Country for the honor of Israel and the Empire.”

The word order suggests Adler’s attempt to balance loyalties: first King, then Israel (not yet reborn as a modern state), then Empire. Jewish allegiance to the crown had been questioned: Thousands of Yiddish-speaking East European Jews were not yet naturalized and so could not serve. In November 1915, The Jewish Chronicle reported examples of recruiting officers saying, “Lord Kitchener does not want any more Jews in the Army.” But Jews clamored to prove their loyalty.

Adler initially encouraged them. By the end of the war, however, having seen the carnage, he had other thoughts. On July 6, 1918, he wrote, “All this colossal upheaval will have been in vain unless civilized mankind resolves once and for all that every effort should be made that war shall cease henceforth.”

His words went unheeded. Europe would plunge again into horror. And Iron Crosses for valor at the Somme did nothing to keep German Jews from the gas.

And now we have Mr. Nocera:

We are fast approaching a privacy crisis in the United States. Google, Facebook and other big Internet companies collect information about us, which they deploy in the service of advertisers. Big data brokers, like Acxiom, have developed sophisticated tools that allow them to know almost as much about us as we know about ourselves; they then sell that data to all kinds of companies that want to learn everything from our habits to our health, from our sexual orientation to our finances. The digital age has made it easy to collect medical data, which is supposed to be protected under federal law. Huge data breaches at big retailers like Target have made it seem unsafe to use credit cards. And I haven’t even mentioned the Edward Snowden revelations about the massive data collection by the National Security Agency.

“The United States,” says Barry Steinhardt, the founder of Friends of Privacy USA, “is basically the Wild West of privacy.”

As The Times noted in an editorial on Monday, it was two years ago that the Obama administration issued a report calling for a consumer privacy bill of rights. Although the report went nowhere, it was full of sound, broad principles: “a sensible framework that would help establish fairness and accountability for the collection and use of personal information,” as a group of privacy advocates put it in a letter they sent to the president on Monday.

The advocates called on President Obama to work with Congress to finally pass privacy legislation. In that spirit, I thought it would be a useful exercise to call some privacy experts and ask them what should be in such a bill. Here’s what they had to say.

REGULATE DATA BROKERS Almost everyone I spoke to saw data brokers as a far bigger threat to privacy than, say, Facebook. These are companies that collect a hundred different data points, both off-line and online, and create scores and profiles that they sell to anyone who wants to buy them. At a minimum, people should know what information of theirs is being compiled. Better yet, people should have a right to control what information of theirs gets sold and what remains private.

OPT-IN INSTEAD OF OPT-OUT The typical terms of agreement that we check when we want to use the services of an Internet company invariably gives the company the right to redeploy our information for their own benefit. Some companies also give consumers the right to opt-out of that information-gathering, but it is usually a process that requires some effort. A far better approach would have customers opting in instead of opting out. This would also likely force companies to explain to their customers why they need the data and what they will use it for, which is another thing that should be included in any privacy bill.

GIVE COMPANIES AN INCENTIVE TO PREVENT DATA BREACHES One reason breaches like the recent Target disaster have taken place is that they bring with them very little consequence. But it would be easy enough to create consequences — a data breach could be treated like an oil spill, with fines attached. The government could also make it easier for people to sue. Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation also says that companies should be doing far more encrypting than they do now. Privacy legislation could give them a push in that direction.

NO MORE SECRETS It’s not just data brokers that need to be more transparent. It is every entity that collects data. People should be able to see the information that is collected on them. For instance, there are companies that compile scores about people — risk scores, or health scores, or fraud scores. Those scores should be known to the people who are being scored because it can affect everything from their ability to get insurance to their chances of landing a job.

“You should have the right to know what information is being collected about you, who has access to it, how it is being used, and to limit that use,” says Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “And if companies violate those rights, there should be consequences.”

In 1967, Senator William Proxmire, who would later serve as the head of the Senate Banking Committee, pushed through the Truth in Lending Act in the face of fierce opposition from the credit card industry. It was, however, the best thing that ever happened to the industry because it showed consumers, for the first time, that they had some protection from fraud or shady practices.

In some ways, it is the same now with privacy. As much as the companies like Google and Facebook and Acxiom would oppose privacy legislation, they need it — for their sake as well as ours.

Sometimes, government has to save business from itself.

And today’s Senator Proxmire is…?  We’re doomed.

Blow, Nocera and Collins

February 22, 2014

In “Accommodating Divisiveness” Mr. Blow says the ugly words of Ted Nugent don’t belong in politics.  Amen.  Mr. Nocera has a question:  “Will the Net Stay Neutral?”  He then supplies a typically “Nocerian” answer:  If the Federal Communications Commission can’t ensure equal Internet access, maybe companies like Google can.  Right.  Sure…  Ms. Collins says “Texas Strikes Again,” and that voting has begun in the primaries.  She says one thing you can say about this election season in Texas is that it certainly is not boring.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Ted Nugent, a.k.a. the Motor City Madman, an ex-rocker who’s off his rocker, is at it again.

Last month Nugent said:

“I have obviously failed to galvanize and prod, if not shame, enough Americans to be ever vigilant not to let a Chicago communist-raised, communist-educated, communist-nurtured subhuman mongrel like the Acorn community organizer gangster Barack Hussein Obama to weasel his way into the top office of authority in the United States.”

Of that string of catchphrases, the term “subhuman mongrel” has garnered the most attention, and rightfully so.

That is the kind of wording the Nazis used to justify Jewish genocide, as Wolf Blitzer pointed out on CNN this week. In checking the statement, PolitiFact highlighted the research of David Myers, a historian at the University of California at Los Angeles, who said that the Nazis called the Jews “untermensch,” or subhuman, and that that word and “mischling,” or mongrel, “were intoned with daily regularity by the Nazi propaganda machine.”

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Furthermore, the view of blacks as subhuman chattel was a prevailing sentiment of those who tried to justify the institution of slavery in America and around the world.

And mongrel is often used as a pejorative term for a person of mixed-race heritage, which President Obama is.

No matter how you cut it, Nugent was so far over the line that the line was no longer visible from where he stood.

Now, Nugent is a bit player, a bomb-thrower not worthy of much attention in his own right, but the fact that he and so many like him feel at home within the Republican Party and aligned with conservative causes is.

By no means are all, or even most, Republicans this extreme, nor do they condone this level of extremism. But far too many extremists seem to seek — and find — a home within the Republican ranks. There exists a foul odor of accommodation.

Nugent has been campaigning with the Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott, who chose to demur rather than denounce Nugent for his vile comment. The same was true of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who would say only that he didn’t agree with Nugent’s sentiments and “You’ve never heard me say such a thing, nor would I.”

To be sure, Democrats have sometimes gone too far as well — by, for example, comparing the whole of the Tea Party to the Ku Klux Klan, as Representative Alan Grayson did last year. And even after having his comparison rebuked by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, Grayson dug in his heels, refusing to apologize, instead saying “sometimes the truth hurts.

But there are two important differences here. First, the Democratic Party is not suffering a diversity crisis; the Republican Party is.

Second, the impression beginning to take hold is that the Republican Party is a home for the hateful, not necessarily because the party invites them, but because it doesn’t forcefully enough reject them.

How does this sit with minority members in the party’s ranks and those it hopes to attract? How can they be expected to find a home among such hostility? And why aren’t more party leaders willing to take a stand and stamp out the bigotry?

Minority voters who happen to be conservative are looking at these incidents, no doubt, and hearing the horror of supposed friends’ silence. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put it: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

For better or worse, ours is a two-party system, and I fervently believe that a healthy, idea-oriented opposition helps keep everyone honest. If we disagree on the size and role of government, let’s have that debate. If we disagree on the role America should play in helping to police the world’s quarrels, let’s have that debate. If we disagree on the best way to jump start the economy, best prepare our children, fix our broken immigration system or adjust our system of taxation, let’s have all those debates. But when the debate devolves into invectives born of hate — racist, misogynistic, homophobic or otherwise — it ceases to be healthy or productive and instead dredges up the worst of who we were and, in some cases, remain.

Nugent has since apologized, if you can call it that. He said in an interview with the conservative radio host Ben Ferguson, “I do apologize — not necessarily to the president — but on behalf of much better men than myself.”

With people like that under the Republican tent, they may as well fold it up where minorities are concerned.

Next up we have Mr. Nocera:

It is no doubt a coincidence that six days after the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger was unveiled, Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, announced that his agency was planning — yet again — to come up with rules to ensure that no Internet service provider could discriminate against any company or website. And it is also a coincidence — for sure! — that on the same day as the Wheeler announcement, Google let it be known that it was going to begin discussions with 34 cities to expand its Google Fiber business. Google Fiber provides high speed Internet service, though so far only in Kansas City and Provo, Utah. (It is about to begin service in Austin, Tex.)

But such a lucky coincidence it is. Because the Wheeler and Google announcements speak directly to the aspects of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal that many people find troubling. Even though a combined Comcast-Time Warner Cable will control 30 percent of the cable television market, cable TV is not really the issue. With more and more media consumers getting their television from sources other than their cable boxes, the cable industry suddenly has actual competition.

But Internet broadband is a different story. If the deal goes through, the combined companies will have a nearly 40 percent share of the country’s Internet connections, giving rise to legitimate worries about innovation, competition, and a free and open Internet.

Broadband, at this point, is a vital resource, akin to what landline telephony used to be. The old landlines used to be regulated as a “common carrier,” which, under the law, gave the F.C.C. enormous regulatory powers. But even though broadband pipes have similarities with the old telephone landlines, the F.C.C. has never been willing to regulate them as a common carrier, a move that would undoubtedly create a huge storm among Republicans.

Instead, it has classified broadband as an “information service,” which requires a lighter regulatory touch. Twice it tried to erect net neutrality rules. Both times the rules were struck down by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, most recently a month ago, on the grounds that the regulations too closely resembled common carrier regulations. But the appeals court panel also gave the agency a glimmer of hope: It said the F.C.C. could enact regulations so long as they could be justified as promoting the expansion of the network infrastructure.

Wheeler’s announcement, then, was an acknowledgment that the agency was going to try to clutch the straw it had been handed by the courts. But it is going to be a tricky business. If the rules are too heavy-handed, they’ll most likely be tossed out of court again. But if they are too light, Internet service providers will find ways around them. Among people who favor net neutrality, there is a good deal of skepticism that he can pull it off.

Meanwhile, Comcast is committed to net neutrality until 2018. (It agreed to this date as part of its deal to purchase NBCUniversal.) It also says Time Warner Cable will be bound by the 2018 date if the latest deal goes through. But what happens after that? With its size and clout it would certainly have the ability to charge companies like Netflix, which devours enormous amounts of bandwidth, to pay to get to the front of the line. And though Netflix can afford it, what happens when new companies come along that use even more bandwidth — but can’t afford the ante? That is the real fear: that if Internet service providers become a tollbooth, they will wind up stifling innovation.

Which brings us to Google Fiber. “Google doesn’t want to find itself in the position of a gold mine operating next to a monopoly railroad,” says Craig Moffett, an independent media analyst. Moffett adds that there are only two ways for Google to be sure that Comcast — or any other big Internet service provider — won’t become a bottleneck for its services. It can hope that Wheeler succeeds in coming up with new net neutrality regulations. Or it can create competition for Comcast, which would result not only in ensuring net neutrality, but would also most likely lead to faster Internet speeds and lower prices. Indeed, in Austin, which Google is about to invade, Time Warner Cable announced that it would greatly increase Internet speeds for no additional cost. That’s the power of competition.

I seriously doubt that the Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal will be blocked by regulators. Comcast’s executives are correct when they note that the two companies don’t overlap in any jurisdiction, ironic though that claim is, given the quasi-monopoly status of cable companies. And I’m not at all convinced that Wheeler will succeed in coming up with regulations that will both make net neutrality the law of the land and pass muster with the courts.

I guess it’s time to root for Google.

Last but not least we get to Ms. Collins:

Election season in Texas! They’re voting right now in the primaries. And I know you are interested because whatever happens in Texas has a way of coming back and biting the rest of the nation.

For instance, Gov. Rick Perry is retiring and threatening to run for president. (He’s been to Israel!) So is Senator Ted Cruz. And now, in answer to the great national outcry for more candidates named George Bush, Texas Republicans appear ready to nominate George Prescott Bush for land commissioner.

“My friends and family call me George P, so feel free to call me P,” the 37-year-old energy consultant and son of Jeb told CNN. This was one of his more expansive interviews during a campaign that has mainly involved driving around the state in a bus while keeping as far away from reporters as humanly possible. P’s genius for avoiding the media is so profound that, in a primal moan of despair, The Austin American-Statesman endorsed his primary opponent, a businessman who advocates barring children of illegal immigrants from public schools.

Texans really love elections. Well, not the voting part — turnout is generally abysmal. But they have a ton of elective offices — land commissioner, agriculture commissioner, state school board. (There are a couple of conservative-versus-crazy Republican school board primaries, and the results may influence a pending war over requiring social studies students to learn how Moses impacted the founding fathers.)

Also, it’s really easy to get on the ballot. There are 12 Republicans running to replace Representative Steve Stockman, who is in a field of seven Republicans running against Senator John Cornyn. You may remember that Stockman is the one whose campaign office was condemned by the fire marshal. We suspect Cornyn will survive. In an editorial endorsing the incumbent, The Dallas Morning News wearily listed the other alternatives, including a businessman who “told this editorial board that ranchers should be allowed to shoot on sight anyone illegally crossing the border on to their land, referred to such people as ‘wetbacks,’ and called the president a ‘socialist son of a bitch.’ ”

Well, it’s not boring. And on the positive front, experts in Texas say there’s absolutely no chance that the guy who legally changed his name to SECEDE is going to win a nomination for governor.

The primary voting culminates on March 4, after which there will be run-offs in May for the races in which no candidate got more than 50 percent of the vote. Conventional wisdom holds that by March 5 the world will know that the race to succeed Rick Perry will pit Democrat Wendy Davis against Republican Greg Abbott.

Abbott, the current attorney general, recently made national headlines when he appeared at a rally with Ted Nugent, the right-wing rocker who once referred to President Obama as a “subhuman mongrel.” Nugent, whose last hit record is older than Beyoncé, has recreated himself as a celebrity ranter. Mostly, he rants about gun rights, which is as difficult in Texas as taking a strong stand in favor of oxygen. But his vow to be either “dead or in jail” if Obama was re-elected earned him a visit from the Secret Service. One of his more printable references to Hillary Clinton was “two-bit whore for Fidel Castro.”

Abbott told The Houston Chronicle that he was unaware of what Nugent “may have said or done in his background.” Since Nugent is as impossible to ignore in Texas politics as the heat, this may have been a fib. Otherwise, Abbott is an attorney general with an astonishing lack of interest in the world around him.

What we are seeing here is a microcosm of the national political scene. Texas Republicans are terrified of two things — the angry white, mostly male Republican far right and the state’s huge population of young Hispanics. Nugent is a sop to the first. George P. Bush, whose mother is Mexican-American, is a Hail Mary pass thrown in the general direction of the second.

Although Texans as a group are not particularly crazy when it comes to the immigration issue, the Tea Party folk have been pushing it hard. Dan Patrick, a state senator who’s currently one of the leading candidates for lieutenant governor, has been campaigning against the “illegal invasion,” which he once claimed was threatening Texas with “Third World diseases” like “tuberculosis, malaria, polio and leprosy.” (Patrick, an equal opportunity offender, also once boycotted the opening prayer in the Senate because it was being delivered by a Texas cleric who happened to be a Muslim.)

Immigrant-bashing is a shortcut to a runoff in a Republican primary. Meanwhile, it’s a continuing offense to the voter base of the 2020s. What do you do?

P! We have seen the future, and it’s running for land commissioner.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

February 18, 2014

Bobo has produced a towering pile of crap in which he tries to convince us he’s really a nice guy at heart.  In “The Prodigal Sons” he gurgles that the prodigal son parable provides an apt lesson as we strive to craft modern social policies.  Of course everything that Bobo shills for is in stark opposition to the parable, but we’re not supposed to notice that.  In the comments “Michael O’Neill” from Bandon, Oregon had this to say:  “Beyond the total knee slapper of David Brooks as a member of the middle class is the idea that Mitt’s 47% are layabouts who are partying on food stamps, Medicaid and minimum wage jobs.”  In “Britannia Rues the Waves” Mr. Cohen says Scotland looks south and wonders. Britain could break up.  Mr. Nocera, in “Joyce Does It Her Way,” says an artist’s commitment to feminism and her music provides lessons for us all.  Mr. Bruni considers “Hillary’s Secrets” and says there are ugly implications to leaving her and other public figures without any safe space.  Here, unfortunately, is Bobo:

We take as our text today the parable of the prodigal sons. As I hope you know, the story is about a father with two sons. The younger son took his share of the inheritance early and blew it on prostitutes and riotous living. When the money was gone, he returned home.

His father ran out and embraced him. The delighted father offered the boy his finest robe and threw a feast in his honor. The older son, the responsible one, was appalled. He stood outside the feast, crying in effect, “Look! All these years I’ve been working hard and obeying you faithfully, and you never gave me special treatment such as this!”

The father responded, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” But he had to celebrate the younger one’s return. The boy was lost and now is found.

Did the father do the right thing? Is the father the right model for authority today?

The father’s critics say he was unjust. People who play by the rules should see the rewards. Those who abandon the community, live according to their own reckless desires should not get to come back and automatically reap the bounty of others’ hard work. If you reward the younger brother, you signal that self-indulgence pays, while hard work gets slighted.

The father’s example is especially pernicious now, the critics continue. Jesus preached it at the time of the Pharisees, in an overly rigid and rule-bound society. In those circumstances, a story of radical forgiveness was a useful antidote to the prevailing legalism.

But we don’t live in that kind of society. We live in a society in which moral standards are already fuzzy, in which people are already encouraged to do their own thing. We live in a society with advanced social decay — with teens dropping out of high school, financiers plundering companies and kids being raised without fathers. The father’s example in the parable reinforces loose self-indulgence at a time when we need more rule-following, more social discipline and more accountability, not less.

It’s a valid critique, but I’d defend the father’s example, and, informed by a reading of Timothy Keller’s outstanding book “The Prodigal God,” I’d even apply the father’s wisdom to social policy-making today.

We live in a divided society in which many of us in the middle- and upper-middle classes are like the older brother and many of the people who drop out of school, commit crimes and abandon their children are like the younger brother. In many cases, we have a governing class of elder brothers legislating programs on behalf of the younger brothers. The great danger in this situation is that we in the elder brother class will end up self-righteously lecturing the poor: “You need to be more like us: graduate from school, practice a little sexual discipline, work harder.”

But the father in this parable exposes the truth that people in the elder brother class are stained, too. The elder brother is self-righteous, smug, cold and shrewd. The elder brother wasn’t really working to honor his father; he was working for material reward and out of a fear-based moralism. The father reminds us of the old truth that the line between good and evil doesn’t run between people or classes; it runs straight through every human heart.

The father also understands that the younger brothers of the world will not be reformed and re-bound if they feel they are being lectured to by unpleasant people who consider themselves models of rectitude. Imagine if the older brother had gone out to greet the prodigal son instead of the father, giving him some patronizing lecture. Do we think the younger son would have reformed his life to become a productive member of the community? No. He would have gotten back up and found some bad-boy counterculture he could join to reassert his dignity.

The father teaches that rebinding and reordering society requires an aggressive assertion: You are accepted; you are accepted. It requires mutual confession and then a mutual turning toward some common project. Why does the father organize a feast? Because a feast is nominally about food, but, in Jewish life, it is really about membership. It reasserts your embedded role in the community project.

The father’s lesson for us is that if you live in a society that is coming apart on class lines, the best remedies are oblique. They are projects that bring the elder and younger brothers together for some third goal: national service projects, infrastructure-building, strengthening a company or a congregation.

The father offers each boy a precious gift. The younger son gets to dedicate himself to work and self-discipline. The older son gets to surpass the cold calculus of utility and ambition, and experience the warming embrace of solidarity and companionship.

Sanctimonious little turd, isn’t he?  Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Pity poor Scotland. Within days it has been warned that if it has the temerity to vote for independence in September it can forget about a currency union with the pound and forget about becoming a member of the European Union, two ideas Scottish nationalist leaders have presented as entirely feasible.

The first warning came from George Osborne, the British chancellor of the Exchequer, who declared that, “If Scotland walks away from the U.K. it walks away from the U.K. pound.” He added that “there’s no legal reason why the rest of the U.K. would need to share its currency with Scotland.”

The second was delivered by José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, who told the BBC it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible,” for Scotland to join the European Union because it would require the unanimous approval of other member states. That was a remote possibility given the dim view taken by some countries, notably Catalonia-fearing Spain, on secession. Spain, Barroso noted, had not recognized Kosovo, which broke away from Serbia.

“Bluff, bluster and bullying” was the verdict of Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party and the campaign for independence, to Osborne’s apparent threat. John Swinney, Scotland’s finance minister, called Barroso’s remarks “pretty preposterous.” Scots, both men suggested, would not be cowed.

The battle for Scotland is heating up 307 years after the union of 1707. A pretty successful union it has been, too, but, unthreatened and restless, Scots troop off to Norway, another small country with oil, and think, hey, why not? Some are more inclined to recall the victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn 700 years ago than Englishmen and Scots together in the trenches of World War I a century ago.

Recent polls suggest a close outcome, with the plurality that favors staying inside the union eroding fast. The refusal of David Cameron, the British prime minister, to debate Salmond has not helped the union’s cause.

The Tories are cordially disliked in Scotland. Cameron, an old Etonian, has been singled out as a “toff” out of touch with ordinary people. Scots distrust him. They are overwhelmingly favorable to the European Union, about which the prime minister has shown a fatal ambiguity, possibly opening the door to Britain’s departure.

Two points need underlining. The first is that the threats from Osborne and Barroso are ill-advised and could well rebound against them. The Scots are proud people. It is wiser to debate them than admonish them, or raise the specter of isolation from afar.

The second is that Britain in Europe, its union intact, offers the best chance for the nation to count and prosper in the 21st century. A Scottish departure, followed by rump Britain limping out of the European Union, would be a disaster. It is a safe bet that the Northern Irish question, quieted but unresolved, would then resurface with a vengeance.

Imagine the Chinese gazing at the North Sea after this fragmentation and trying to make out what the little speck of land bobbing around out there signifies.

That said, Scots must look south these days and wonder. Growing areas of England are under water, a fact Cameron has been among the last to grasp. Politicians appear to spend much of their time squabbling over how to dredge a river. Officials issue frantic edicts on “health and safety.” A barmy prince declares that “there is nothing like a jolly good disaster to get people to start doing something.” The world’s financial center is turning into the world’s aquatic center, its main attraction a ship of fools.

At the helm sits Cameron drifting across the Somerset Levels. Thames floodwaters are closing in on London; his Environment Agency is a laughing stock run by a man a member of his own Conservative party has called a “little git.”

There are shades of the Hurricane Katrina debacle. Chris Smith, the chairman of the Environment Agency, has become Britain’s Michael Brown, the American disaster-response director of whom President George W. Bush famously observed, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

Smith is doing a heck of a job.

Scots seem to be drawing the conclusion that they would be better off by themselves. (They might, however, want to take a closer look at the balance sheets of Scottish banks before breaking away.)

“We want you to stay,” Cameron pleaded in a recent speech. The Gettysburg Address it was not. He sounded sincere even if the thought must cross his mind that the chances of Labor ever winning an election again would be minimal, absent Scotland. He might then rule in perpetuity.

That is a very sobering thought. The satirist Peter Cook once suggested Britain was about to sink “giggling into the sea.” Never has that vision seemed closer. Giggle away. The bits of Britain could go one by one.

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

I’d like to tell you a story about a Brazilian musician you’ve probably never heard of. Her name is Joyce Moreno; she is 66 and has been singing and composing professionally for 47 years, during which time she has made more than 30 recordings. I flipped for her music when I first heard her last spring at Birdland, in Midtown Manhattan, and I’ve been listening to her, more or less obsessively, ever since.

But that’s not the reason I want to tell you about her. A few months after I first heard her play, we struck up an email correspondence. When Joyce came to New York in September for an engagement, my wife and I had dinner with her and her husband, the Brazilian drummer Tutty Moreno. And during my recent trip to Rio de Janeiro, I interviewed her, figuring that I would write about her when I got back. Somewhat to my surprise, what has stuck with me from those encounters has less to do with her music, glorious though I think it is, and more to do with the way she has conducted her career. She has lessons to teach that go well beyond music.

Joyce’s career began in controversy. When she was 19, she wrote a song that began, “I was told that my man doesn’t love me.”

In the Brazil of that era, her blunt, first-person, female-centric lyric was considered by many to be vulgar — not the sort of thing a woman was supposed to sing about.

“It was strange,” she told me — bewildering to be at the center of such a storm at such a young age. But she never backed down from the way she approached her songwriting. In a country that didn’t exactly embrace feminism, she was always a staunch feminist, and that’s reflected in some of her best lyrics.

As is true for every Brazilian of her generation, she also had to deal with the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. In December 1968, the dictatorship issued a decree that, among other things, instituted broad censorship of the arts. Some of the country’s most important musicians, like Gilberto Gil, were imprisoned and then sent into exile.

Other musicians and artists had to submit their work to the censors. Joyce recalls that she was forbidden to use words like “pregnant” in her songs.

“I was censored because I had a feminine point of view,” she says. By 1980, however, the worst of the censorship had ended, and Joyce recorded a song called “Feminina,” which became, in many ways, her anthem.

“Oh, Ma,” it begins. “Please explain to me, teach me

Tell me, what is feminine?

It’s not in the hair, the mojo or the look

It’s being a female everywhere.”

In the early 1980s, she had a handful of small hits, “Feminina” included. But, says Nelson Motta, a Brazilian writer and producer, “her music has never been very commercial from a Brazilian standpoint,” and, over time, she became someone who was more respected than listened to.

Several times during her career, she seemed on the cusp of breaking out. Once, early in her career, she recorded an album produced by Claus Ogerman, who had arranged songs for Antônio Carlos Jobim and Frank Sinatra. For reasons that have never been clear to her, the album was never released. “It was painful,” she told me, “but I lived with it.”

Years later, Verve signed her to a two-record contract. As is so often the case, however, the label and the musician had very different ideas about what the recordings should sound like. “They said they liked what I was doing,” she told me, “but then they wanted me to do something completely different.” Joyce found the experience miserable, and it reinforced her belief that she could be happy only by staying true to herself, no matter what effect that had on her career.

And so it has been. She is more popular in Japan than she is in Brazil. She cuts her own records, even though it means she often has to pay for it out of her pocket. “It is a way of preserving my independence as an artist,” she said.

“Joyce has never worried about being popular,” says Motta. When I saw her give a concert in Rio de Janeiro in December, there were maybe 250 people in the hall — and the admission was free. I felt disappointed for her, but it didn’t bother her at all. Afterward, she autographed copies of her new CD and posed for pictures. When I asked her about it, she said, “I’m fine with where my career is. I’ve had a very lucky life.”

Would that we could all so easily make our peace with what life throws us — the good, the bad and everything in between.

Last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

Her perseverance often awes me. Her arrogance sometimes galls me. And her particular braid of high-mindedness and high-handedness almost always leaves me puzzled and exhausted.

But what I’ve been feeling for and about Hillary Clinton over the last week is sadness. Does she have even a smidgen of privacy left? Can she utter a syllable or think a thought with any assurance that it won’t be exposed, analyzed, ridiculed?

When she was talking decades ago with Diane Blair, whose journals are part of “The Hillary Papers,” she no doubt assumed an audience of one: her dear friend. Her best friend. But this corner of Hillary’s life, like every other, has now been put on public display. Get as close as you like. Gawk. Judge.

I’m not suggesting that The Washington Free Beacon, the news site that presented “The Hillary Papers,” did anything unusual or wrong. By recognizing that an archive of documents at the University of Arkansas hadn’t received much scrutiny and going through it, The Free Beacon provided candid, intimate glimpses of the Clintons that hadn’t existed before. This was indeed a scoop, one that many other media organizations would have been happy to trumpet.

But to absorb it in the context of the endless drip-drip-drip about Hillary over the years was to worry that we’ve lost sight of any boundaries and limits — that maybe even Hillary herself has stopped hoping for anything kinder. When the archive was opened to the public in 2010, she gave a tribute to Blair, who died in 2000.

Details in the documents were fresh. Most of the truths they fleshed out weren’t. We already knew that Hillary had found tortured rationales for Bill’s infidelities. We already knew that her compromised brand of feminism accommodated the vilification of women who dared to threaten the couple’s purchase on power.

What’s at least as interesting is what the documents say about the political arena that the Clintons inhabit: the toll it takes, the cynics it makes. Early in her White House years, Hillary’s guard has already gone up. Blair chats with Janet Reno, Bill Clinton’s attorney general, and writes, in April 1993, that while “Janet wants to connect” with Hillary, she “finds HC a ‘mask.’ ”

This is even before the fever pitch of impeachment and the Starr Report in all its lurid detail and the sustained analysis of every provisional hairstyle and the millions of pages by authors determined to turn her into a symbol of this, that or the other. She has been called a Rorschach, but as I read “The Hillary Papers,” I couldn’t stop thinking of her as a carcass. With a tireless zest, we pick her clean.

The latest book about her, “HRC,” by the journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, was published last week. It focuses on recent years, and is flattering: The Hillary here is resourceful and diligent and has enough guile and grace to win over the people whom she sets out to.

She’s also obsessed with loyalty, which governs her decisions, leading to bad ones. That’s perhaps inevitable when you’ve been so thoroughly peered and poked at. You do your damnedest to carve out a safe space.

Blair was surely supposed to be that, and it’s not clear why she was taking notes or what she intended to do with them. It’s also not clear that the Hillary in those notes is the truest one. With our friends, yes, we bare our souls. But we also let off steam, allowing ourselves a theatricality and sloppiness that exaggerate our emotions.

Blair’s journals are the kind of material from which biographies and histories have long been woven. But it doesn’t always surface so soon, and it is now augmented by the eavesdropping and tattling of cabinet secretaries (see “Duty,” by Robert Gates) and political allies and handlers eager to make themselves look better, even at a benefactor’s expense (see “Game Change” and the robust genre to which it belongs).

Frenzied media feed on this, to a degree that arguably goes beyond our obligation to keep politicians honest, and it’s troubling in two regards. How many decent, gifted people who contemplate public office look at what someone like Hillary endures and step away? And the people who aren’t scared off: How cold and hard are they, or how cold and hard do they become?

“HRC” recalls that just after the 2008 presidential election, a photo came to light of one of Barack Obama’s speechwriters, Jon Favreau, pretending to cup the breast of a cardboard cutout of Hillary. The image is shocking, but then again not. For a good long while, we’ve done with Hillary as we pleased, frequently looking past her humanity, routinely running roughshod over her secrets. She has gained so much — tremendous influence, significant riches — but lost so much, too. Was that the bargain she expected? Has she made peace with it?

Nocera, solo

February 15, 2014

Mr. Blow and Ms. Collins are off today, so Mr. Nocera has the place to himself.  In “Innovation, Optimism and Jobs” he asks a question:  What bounty will the digital revolution bring?

Is digital technology destroying middle-class jobs? Does it exacerbate income inequality? Does it boost economic growth and productivity — without creating the jobs that ought to come with economic growth?

Last month I gave space to a book titled “Who Owns the Future?” by the computer scientist Jaron Lanier. His answer was an unequivocal yes. He tellingly compared the great photography company of the analog age, Kodak, with the hot photography company of the moment, Instagram. At its peak, Kodak employed 140,000 people; Instagram had only 13 employees when it was bought by Facebook (for $1 billion!) in 2012.

Lanier isn’t the only one to have noticed the Kodak-Instagram example. So have Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, two economists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose newly published book is titled “The Second Machine Age.” As they put it, “Rapid and accelerating digitization is likely to bring economic rather than environmental disruption, stemming from the fact that as computers get more powerful, companies have less need for some kinds of workers.”

In some ways, “The Second Machine Age” is an odd book. For the most part, its tone is one of sunny optimism about all the wonderful things technology will soon bring us, from driverless cars to more powerful forms of artificial intelligence. “Innovation,” they write, is the “most important force that makes our society wealthier.” The authors believe that we are at a moment when technological innovation is about to accelerate, and make the world much wealthier, just as the Industrial Revolution did 250 years ago.

Yet buried in their sunny prose is a darker forecast: that while this digital revolution will be great for innovators, entrepreneurs and other creative people, not everyone will participate — especially those who do jobs that software can do better. The authors label the good that technology will do “the bounty.” The downside they call “the spread.”

Not everybody buys the technology-is-going-to-change-everything mantra espoused by Brynjolfsson and McAfee. Robert J. Gordon, a macroeconomist at Northwestern University, calls them “techno-optimists.” In his view, the next 40 years of innovation is not going to look much different from the past 40 years, which he believes haven’t been nearly as transformative or wealth-creating as the discovery of electricity and the invention of the light bulb.

Unlike Brynjolfsson and McAfee, Gordon believes that economic growth is going to be anemic for years to come, and that, he says, has nothing to do with the rate of technological innovation. Rather, he describes a series of “headwinds” facing the American economy: a stagnant educational system and income inequality, for starters. When I asked him whether future innovation would cost jobs, he said he thought it would, but no more or less than has always been the case.

In truth, it is probably too early to know whether this round of technological innovation will ultimately cost or create jobs. The history of innovation has also been a history of job creation — though not necessarily right away. After people figured out how to harness electricity, it took decades before businessmen figured out how to maximize its use in factories.

It also required both behavioral and governmental change. People had to abandon farms, move to cities and undertake very different kinds of lives. Factories used children as workers, until governments passed child labor laws.

In America, as the country became industrialized, free education became the law of the land. It was one of the greatest policy decisions ever. The authors of “The Second Machine Age” contend that we don’t have to be “tech determinists,” as Brynjolfsson put it when we spoke; we also have the ability to take control of our destiny rather than letting technology take control of us.

On Friday, I called Tyler Cowen, the George Mason University economist (and a contributor to The New York Times) to ask what he thought about the relationship between technological innovation and jobs. He told me that he mostly agreed with Brynjolfsson and McAfee about the future, though he disagreed with their assessment of the past. (One of his recent books is titled “The Great Stagnation.”)

Yes, he said, technology would replace humans for certain kinds of jobs, but he could also envision growth in the service sector. “The jobs will be better than they sound,” he said. “A lot of them will require skill and training, and will also pay well. I think we’ll get to driverless cars and much better versions of Siri fairly soon,” he added. “That will make the rate of labor force participation go down.”

Then he chuckled. He had recently been in a meeting with someone, explaining his views. “So what you’re saying,” the man concluded, “is that the pessimists are right. But it’s going to be much better than they think.”

I’m old enough to have retired, but my former job as a medical transcriptionist has pretty much vanished.  More and more docs are using voice recognition, which can actually be a problem for patients.  When docs get tired they make mistakes (Levaquin t.i.d. for example) and Dragon isn’t going to catch that.  As far as Kodak goes, Rochester damn near fell apart.


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