Archive for the ‘Nocera’ Category

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

September 2, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up we have Mr. Nocera:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It never ends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just as curious was what Obama followed that up with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nocera, solo

August 30, 2014

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

What should teacher accountability look like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nocera and Collins

August 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or never consort with Republicans…

Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

August 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnston frames it well.

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

Nocera and Collins

August 9, 2014

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

Too little, too late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some things are really unforgivable.

Nocera and Collins

August 2, 2014

In “Sympathy for the Devil” Mr. Nocera has a question:  Should we care if a big corporation that did an awful thing is being hosed?  He’s playing Gunga Din for BP again.  Ms. Collins, in “Congress: The Road to Roads,” says you thought the current Congress never got any work done. Well, how about that Highway Trust Fund fix?  Here’s Gunga Din Mr. Nocera:

What does it mean for a company “to do the right thing” after an industrial accident?

It used to be standard operating procedure that when something went wrong, companies immediately took to the courts to fight over who got compensated and for how much, trying to minimize their own financial liability. Those fights could take years to resolve, with no guarantee that the plaintiffs would be compensated justly.

But then came the Deepwater Horizon spill, which killed 11 people and spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days in the spring and summer of 2010. BP, whose negligence was largely responsible for the spill, decided to take a different tack. It decided to try to make amends immediately, without waiting to get sued. “It was a shocking tragedy,” recalled Bob Dudley, BP’s American-born chief executive, who spoke to me in New York on Thursday in the midst of a day of meetings with investors. (BP had just announced its second-quarter earnings.) “And we immediately knew we wanted to do the right thing.”

BP spent billions on environmental cleanup and billions more compensating the economic victims of the spill. It waived liability limits. It vowed — to the president of the United States, no less — to put aside $20 billion for compensation alone. Most intriguingly, it brought in Ken Feinberg to oversee a claims process that avoided the court system. Feinberg wound up paying $6.3 billion to around 200,000 claimants, people who could show that the spill had in some way harmed them or their businesses economically.

Why? No doubt the awful P.R. that came from having the country watch the oil gushing from the broken well, day after day, had something to do with it. And no doubt only a company as big as BP could spend the billions required to undo the damage of such a massive spill. (It has spent a total of $27 billion so far, much of which came from selling assets.) But, Dudley says, it was also the company’s objective “to reach reasonable settlements and put this behind us. I don’t regret what we did. I feel proud of us as a company.”

As it turns out, the regret came a little later. Despite the Feinberg claims process — and the billions he doled out — the plaintiffs’ bar still wanted its piece of the action. So a group called the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee sued BP. After that suit was settled, Feinberg was let go, replaced by a local Louisiana lawyer named Patrick Juneau. And Juneau began approving claims from all sorts of businesses that, by any reasonable standard, were never harmed by the oil spill.

The wireless phone retailer who was awarded more than $135,000, even though its building had burned down before the spill. The attorney who was awarded more than $172,000, even though his license had been revoked in 2009. There were dozens — nay, hundreds — of bogus claims like those.

At one point, BP, through Juneau, was spending $100 million a week in claims. Indeed, in the space of two years, Juneau has awarded some $4 billion.

Should you care that a big corporation that did an awful thing — and that has paid mightily for doing so — is now being hosed? “First of all,” said Dudley, “this is the shareholders’ money, not some faceless corporation’s.” Second, said Dudley, it causes other companies to think twice about investing in America. And third, “It’s just not right for people to cash in on an industrial tragedy when they weren’t actually involved.”

So about a year ago, BP changed tack again: It decided to fight the plaintiffs’ lawyers and Juneau’s claims process. Although the plaintiffs say that BP signed a bad agreement — and that it always knew that people who weren’t harmed by the spill were going to get money — BP has put “causation” at the center of its legal claims. In other words, it is arguing that you can’t litigate on behalf of a class of people who weren’t harmed by the accident.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against BP, in a divided vote. But other circuits have voted the other way in different cases — ruling that no matter what the terms of a settlement, no judge can approve it if there is no causal link between the class members and the accident itself.

Not surprisingly, on Friday afternoon, the day after I spoke to Dudley, BP made a filing to the Supreme Court, asking the court to rule on the Fifth Circuit’s decision. The question remains a simple one: Can you have a class-action lawsuit in which large numbers of the class members have never been harmed by the defendant?

I know what my answer to that question is. Assuming it takes the case, it will be interesting to see what the Supreme Court has to say.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Well, all I can say is thank God we’ve got that Highway Trust Fund fixed.

Congress raced for its August break on Friday, with many complaints about voting on legislation nobody had ever seen (“What bill are we talking about?”) and plaintive cries of: “We can do better than this!”

There is actually no evidence whatsoever that the current Congress can do better than this. But good news — the House and Senate did manage a last-minute agreement to keep the nation’s road-building programs going for a few more months by putting some cash into the exhausted Highway Trust Fund.

The money will mainly come from “pension smoothing.” Perhaps you have never heard of pension smoothing. It involves allowing companies to put less than the required amount into their pension funds, thus creating more profit, which leads to more tax revenue for the government. Until later, when the whole thing turns into geysers of red ink.

I think I speak for us all when I respond: “Say what?”

“It’s traditional that if you’re trying to fund something and you don’t have the funds, you screw around with pensions,” sighed Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. The current session seems to have nearly exhausted Ornstein’s capacity for shock and awe, but he did call the Highway Trust Fund gambit “outrageous.”

House Republicans rejected an attempt by the Senate to drop the pension smoothing. I would not be wowed by the Democrats’ high sense of fiscal integrity on this point, since they did try to use the very same maneuver earlier this year, in an unsuccessful attempt to extend unemployment benefits. On the other hand, the Democrats are not the party that spends all of its time yelling about unfunded entitlements.

In a perfect world, Congress would figure out a serious, long-term plan to fix bridges, improve roads and update airports. We now make about half as much fiscal effort as Europe does on these matters. You may be tired of hearing people ask why we can’t have day care like Sweden. But it does not seem too much to demand a Spanish level of commitment to infrastructure repair.

The best way to get the things back on track would be by raising the gas tax. Such a plan was proposed in the Senate by Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee. This fine, bipartisan effort went nowhere whatsoever.

“I’ve been here seven and a half years,” Corker said in a phone interview. “We have not solved one single problem since I’ve been here. It’s just so frustrating.”

But thanks to Congress, the Highway Trust Fund lives! For a minute. And in another burst of action, the Senate and House approved a $17 billion bill for veterans’ health care. Without, once again, actually financing it.

And then came the border. President Obama had asked Congress for $3.7 billion to take care of the crisis created when tens of thousands of children from Central America’s most violence-ridden countries began crossing over and asking for permission to stay.

So the Senate:

A. Took up a bill to give the president $2.7 billion. The White House seemed pretty satisfied, since half a loaf is now regarded as the height of near-unattainable bipartisan statesmanship. The bill also included $615 million to fight wildfires and $225 million for Israeli defense systems.

B. Killed the border bill on a 50-to-44 vote when Republicans demand changes in the law that guarantees those children immigration court hearings. We will try not to dwell on the fact that the law in question was passed during the Bush administration to combat child sex trafficking.

C. Failed to approve the nomination of an ambassador to Guatemala, one of the countries at the center of the current crisis. Because they were ticked off about something Majority Leader Harry Reid did. Last year. About procedure.

D. Rallied at the last minute and passed the part about Israeli defense systems.

And what, you may ask, was the House doing all this time? At its highest moment of functionality, the House was considering a $659 million border bill that turned the Senate’s half a loaf into a crouton.

From there things slid downhill. Judge their new leadership’s performance for yourself by choosing among the following:

• Wow! The new House leadership had the chops to pass a bill that will never become law.

• Yipes! The new House leadership could not even pass a bill that will never become law without the help of Michele Bachmann. (Bachmann bragged that she and her cohorts had “completely gutted” the leadership’s own version.)

• Remind me again what their names are? Is John Boehner still around?

During a deeply depressing and meaningless debate about deporting children, Representative Louise Slaughter, Democrat of New York, complained that all the House had done in its last week was vote to “sue the president and deregulate pesticides.”

Not true. Highway Fund. Highway Fund. Highway Fund.

Brooks and Nocera

July 29, 2014

In “No War Is an Island” Bobo tells us that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is largely a proxy war rooted in broader rivalries throughout the Arab world.  In “Teaching Teaching” Mr. Nocera states teachers shouldn’t be learning on the job as they go.  Here’s Bobo:

It’s amazing how much of the discussion of the Gaza war is based on the supposition that it is still 1979. It’s based on the supposition that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a self-contained struggle being run by the two parties most directly involved. It’s based on the supposition that the horror could be ended if only deft negotiators could achieve a “breakthrough” and a path toward a two-state agreement.

But it is not 1979. People’s mental categories may be stuck in the past, but reality has moved on. The violence between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza, may look superficially like past campaigns, but the surrounding context is transformed.

What’s happened, of course, is that the Middle East has begun what Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations has called its 30 Years’ War — an overlapping series of clashes and proxy wars that could go on for decades and transform identities, maps and the political contours of the region.

The Sunni-Shiite rivalry is at full boil. Torn by sectarian violence, the nation of Iraq no longer exists in its old form.

The rivalry between Arab authoritarians and Islamists is at full boil. More than 170,000 Syrians have been killed in a horrific civil war, including 700 in two days alone, the weekend before last, while the world was watching Gaza.

The Sunni vs. Sunni rivalry is boiling, too. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and other nations are in the midst of an intra-Sunni cold war, sending out surrogates that distort every other tension in the region.

The Saudi-Iranian rivalry is going strong, too, as those two powers maneuver for regional hegemony and contemplate a nuclear arms race.

In 1979, the Israeli-Palestinian situation was fluid, but the surrounding Arab world was relatively stagnant. Now the surrounding region is a cauldron of convulsive change, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a repetitive Groundhog Day.

Here’s the result: The big regional convulsions are driving events, including the conflict in Gaza. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become just a stage on which the regional clashes in the Arab world are being expressed. When Middle Eastern powers clash, they take shots at Israel to gain advantage over each other.

Look at how the current fighting in Gaza got stoked. Authoritarians and Islamists have been waging a fight for control of Egypt. After the Arab Spring, the Islamists briefly gained the upper hand. But when the Muslim Brotherhood government fell, the military leaders cracked down. They sentenced hundreds of the Brotherhood’s leadership class to death. They also closed roughly 95 percent of the tunnels that connected Egypt to Gaza, where the Brotherhood’s offshoot, Hamas, had gained power.

As intended, the Egyptian move was economically devastating to Hamas. Hamas derived 40 percent of its tax revenue from tariffs on goods that flowed through those tunnels. One economist estimated the economic losses at $460 million a year, nearly a fifth of the Gazan G.D.P.

Hamas needed to end that blockade, but it couldn’t strike Egypt, so it struck Israel. If Hamas could emerge as the heroic fighter in a death match against the Jewish state, if Arab TV screens were filled with dead Palestinian civilians, then public outrage would force Egypt to lift the blockade. Civilian casualties were part of the point. When Mousa Abu Marzook, the deputy chief of the Hamas political bureau, dismissed a plea for a cease-fire, he asked a rhetorical question, “What are 200 martyrs compared with lifting the siege?”

The eminent Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff summarized the strategy in The Times of Israel, “Make no mistake, Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel. But Hamas is firing rockets at Tel Aviv and sending terrorists through tunnels into southern Israel while aiming, in essence, at Cairo.”

This whole conflict has the feel of a proxy war. Turkey and Qatar are backing Hamas in the hopes of getting the upper hand in their regional rivalry with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptians and even the Saudis are surreptitiously backing or rooting for the Israelis, in hopes that the Israeli force will weaken Hamas.

It no longer makes sense to look at the Israeli-Palestinian contest as an independent struggle. It, like every conflict in the region, has to be seen as a piece of the larger 30 Years’ War. It would be nice if Israel could withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank and wall itself off from this war, but that’s not possible. No outsider can run or understand this complex historical process, but Israel, like the U.S., will be called upon to at least weaken some of the more radical players, like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Hamas.

In 1979, the Arab-Israeli dispute looked like a clash between civilizations, between a Western democracy and Middle Eastern autocracy. Now the Arab-Israeli dispute looks like a piece of a clash within Arab civilization, over its future.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

I’m starting to wonder if we’ve entered some kind of golden age of books about education. First came Paul Tough’s book, “How Children Succeed,” about the importance of developing noncognitive skills in students. It was published in September 2012. Then came “The Smartest Kids in the World,” by Amanda Ripley, which tackled the question of what other countries were getting right in the classroom that America was getting wrong. Her book came out just about a year ago.

And now comes Elizabeth Green’s “Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone),” which will be published next week, and which was excerpted in The New York Times Magazine over the weekend. The first two books made the New York Times best-seller list. My guess is that Green’s book will, too. It certainly ought to.

Over the past few decades — with the rise of charter school movement and No Child Left Behind — reformers and teachers’ unions have been fighting over how to improve student performance in the classroom. The reformers’ solution, notes Green, is accountability. The unions’ solution is autonomy. “Where accountability proponents call for extensive student testing and frequent on-the-job evaluations, autonomy supporters say that teachers are professionals and should be treated accordingly,” Green writes. In both schemes, the teachers are basically left alone in the classroom to figure it out on their own.

In America, that’s how it’s always been done. An inexperienced teacher stands in front of a class on the first day on the job and stumbles his or her way to eventual success. Even in the best-case scenario, students are being shortchanged by rookie teachers who are learning on the job. In the worst-case scenario, a mediocre (or worse) teacher never figures out what’s required to bring learning alive.

Green’s book is about a more recent effort, spearheaded by a small handful of teaching revolutionaries, to improve the teaching of teaching. The common belief, held even by many people in the profession, that the best teachers are “natural-born” is wrong, she writes. The common characteristic of her main characters is that they have broken down teaching into certain key skills, which can be taught.

“You don’t need to be a genius,” Green told me recently. “You have to know how to manage a discussion. You have to know which problems are the ones most likely to get the lessons across. You have to understand how students make mistakes — how they think — so you can respond to that.” Are these skills easier for some people than others? Of course they are. But they can be taught, even to people who don’t instinctively know how to do these things.

One of Green’s central characters is a woman named Deborah Loewenberg Ball, who began her career as an elementary school teacher and is now the dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Education. “Watching Deborah teach is like listening to chamber music,” Green quotes an admirer. But she didn’t start out that way. She struggled as a young teacher, and, as she became a better teacher, she began to codify, in her own mind at first, the practices that made her successful. And she asked herself, “Why hadn’t she learned any of this before?”

Green has a chapter about why schools of education value things other than the actual teaching of teachers. But the University of Michigan under Ball is one place that is trying to reverse that trend, not just at Michigan but across the country. Ball is pushing the idea that teachers should be prepared to teach — that they should have the tools and the skills — when they walk into that classroom on the first day on the job. That is rarely the case right now.

“We need to shift teaching to be like other fields where you have to demonstrate proficiency before you get a license,” Ball told me not long ago. “People who cut hair and fly airplanes get training that teachers don’t get.”

One thing that Ball and Green both stress is the importance of scale. I’ve also come to see the ability to scale successful programs as the single biggest issue facing public education. It is great that there are charter schools that give a small percentage of public schoolchildren a chance for a good education — and a good life. And it’s all well and good that Michigan graduates maybe 100 or so teachers a year who genuinely know how to teach by the time they get out of school.

But these small-scale successes won’t ultimately matter much unless they are embraced by the country at large. You can’t teach every kid in a charter school. And schools of education need to change their priorities. Learning on the job just shouldn’t cut it anymore.

Nocera, solo

July 26, 2014

Ms. Collins is off today, so Mr. Nocera has the place to himself.  In “Chamber of Commerce Lost Its Way in Right Turn” he says the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is regretting its one-sided support of Republicans.  Here he is:

Twice a year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce convenes what it calls its Committee of 100 — which is composed of heads of regional chambers and Washington trade associations. They hear about the business climate from the chamber’s longtime president, Thomas J. Donohue, and about the political landscape from Bruce Josten, its chief lobbyist.

In the summer of 2012, a few months before the elections, the bulk of the meeting, according to people who were there, was devoted to one subject: the importance of electing Republicans. The Chamber of Commerce — which once supported its share of pro-business Democrats — went almost completely to the Republican side, spending millions to oppose such Democratic senatorial candidates as Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who was up for re-election; and former Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia. It ran ads against Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri who often took pro-business positions, accusing her of being anti-jobs because she supported the Affordable Care Act.

The chamber had done much the same thing during the 2010 midterms, with great success, helping to hand the House of Representatives to the Republicans, thanks largely to the influx of Tea Party freshmen. Now, said the chamber brass, it was time to finish the job and give the country a Republican Senate as well.

As it turns out, the 2012 strategy was a flop. According to The Washington Post, the chamber’s candidates lost in 13 of the 15 Senate races it poured money into. On the House side, the chamber went four for 22. Thus did the chamber find itself in the worst of all worlds. It had alienated Democrats, including the kind of pro-business Democrats who believe in the sort of practical politics that business prefers. Yet it had also helped usher in the Tea Party, only to discover that its strain of right-wing populism was as disdainful of business as it was of government.

What brings this to mind is the continuing fight over the Export-Import Bank. It is the classic kind of issue that used to unite the Republican Party and the Chamber of Commerce, pre-Tea Party: backing a government agency that supports trade by helping to finance deals that involve American exports. That is also the kind of issue that is anathema to Tea Party ideologues, who view it as corporate welfare. The chamber has vowed a “full-court press” to save the Ex-Im Bank, but so far at least, the House is indifferent to its entreaties.

And it’s not just the Ex-Im Bank. As Edward Luce noted this week in The Financial Times, this Congress won’t countenance any of the things that business — and the chamber — care about. Immigration reform is dead. Congress won’t raise the gas tax to fund the Highway Trust Fund. Revamping the corporate tax rate can’t even get a hearing. And on, and on.

It is possible that the chamber didn’t quite realize what it was getting when it helped elect those Tea Party freshmen in 2010 — few people did until they began to flex their muscles. But it is equally possible that it didn’t care.  (“The chamber is not an arm of either party and is not ‘aligned’ with either party,” a spokesman told me in an email.)

In the 16 years he has run the Chamber of Commerce, Donohue has turned it into a potent force, in no small part by making it more partisan. But by being so blindly pro-Republican, the chamber “unleashed a Frankenstein that has spun out of control,” said Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, which monitors the Chamber of Commerce. That became most clear during the debt ceiling and deficit fights of the last few years — when the Tea Party Republicans seemed so determined to shrink government that they were even willing to default on the government’s debt. The chamber reacted in horror.

I’m told that after the 2012 election, at yet another Committee of 100 gathering, a former Democratic congressman, Dave McCurdy, who now runs the American Gas Association, stood up and criticized Donohue for his “all-in” Republican strategy. He told Donohue that everybody in the room was pro-business, but they weren’t all Republicans, and that if the chamber really wanted to be effective again, it needed to take on the Tea Party and the right wing of the Republican Party in favor of more moderate candidates of both parties.

As the 2014 midterms near, that seems to be the approach the Chamber of Commerce is taking. It has gotten involved in Republican primaries, siding with the more moderate Republican in a race — though perhaps it is more accurate to say the less radical Republican. At the most recent Committee of 100 meeting, Rob Engstrom, the chamber’s national political director, told the group that the chamber planned to support Mary Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat who is running for re-election to the Senate.

Better late than never.

Cohen and Nocera

July 22, 2014

Bobo and Bruni are off today.  In “The Suns of August” Mr. Cohen says bodies rot, looters roam, and the Russian-enabled downing of Flight 17 marks the nadir of the West.  Mr. Nocera has a question:  “Did Dodd-Frank Work?”  He says we really have no way of knowing whether “too big to fail” is still with us until we have another crisis.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

A century on from World War I, nobody wants the guns of August.

Yet it must be asked if waiting years for the evasive conclusions of an official investigation into the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is better than acting now on what we already know: That the Boeing 777 with 298 people on board was shot down by a missile from a Russian-made SA-11 antiaircraft system fired from an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists, Russian mercenaries and Russian agents. A half-drunk Ukrainian peasant with a 1950s-era rifle doesn’t shoot down a plane at 33,000 feet.

An “enormous amount of evidence,” in Secretary of State John Kerry’s words, points to Russian provision of SA-11 systems and training. The Ukrainian government has damning audio and images that capture the crime. In June, a Ukrainian cargo plane landing in the area was hit with shoulder-fired missiles, killing 49 people. This month, another cargo plane flying at 22,000 feet was hit by a missile. Rocket science is not required.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia has been playing with fire. His irredentism has made him a hero in Russia. It has endangered the world. Crimea was the swaggering precedent to this crime. The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 amounts to an act of war. It was impromptu perhaps, but still. Dutch corpses have rained down on the sunflowers and cornfields of eastern Ukraine, to be defiled even in death, 193 innocent Dutch souls dishonored by the thugs of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

“This is murder, mass murder. Let’s call it what it is,” said Julian Lindley-French, a defense analyst who lives in the small Dutch village of Alphen. “Shock is turning to anger here,” he told me, “and that anger will resonate in the coming weeks. This is the beginning of a period of complex torture for the Netherlands.”

The Dutch response has been of tip-toeing deference to Moscow. As for the European Union, it has been near-nonexistent. When crisis comes, Europe vanishes — the ghost that slithers away. The West has become an empty notion. The Dutch trade a lot with Russia. Europe floats along in a bubble of quasi pacifism. Better to be bullied than belligerent. Nobody wants the guns of August.

“Swift recovery of the victims’ remains is now an absolute necessity and our highest priority,” Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, said in a statement. “I am shocked by the images of completely disrespectful behavior at this tragic place.” He spoke to Putin to express his outrage.

That was pretty much it. Bodies rot in the sun for four days. They are stashed in plastic bags in refrigerated railroad cars at a fly-infested station before finally moving. The black box is a fungible bargaining chip. Louts go looting. It’s a free-for-all! Official investigation teams are barred at the perimeter. Putin spins implausible yarns robed in ghastly official formulas. His plausible deniability is utterly implausible.

A Dutch writer, Sidney Vollmer, addressed a bitter letter to Rutte thanking him for preserving the moral high ground of the Dutch, for “not rushing in for a bunch of rotting corpses” as “their wallets and iPhones make it all the way” to Moscow. The corpses, anyway, “will vanish into the fog of war” and, as everyone knows, “we need Gazprom.”

Dutch passivity has a name: the Srebrenica syndrome. It is becoming the Europe syndrome.

This mass murder is an outrage that should not stand. Falling military budgets have reduced the Dutch special forces to a paltry remnant. Russia would veto any United Nations Security Council Resolution authorizing force for a limited mission to recover the bodies and the evidence. But Ukraine, on whose territory the debris and dead lie, would support it. The American, British, Dutch and Australian governments should set an ultimatum backed by the credible threat of force demanding unfettered access to the site. Putin’s Russia must not be permitted to host the 2018 World Cup. A Western priority must be to transform the Ukrainian army into a credible force.

It won’t happen. Europe is weak. Obama’s America is about retrenchment, not resolve. Putin must be appeased. Nobody is about to call his bluff. The Putin-pacifiers have many arguments. Send forces into Ukraine and you prove the Russian argument that the West has designs on it. Besides, who wants World War III?

The self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic stares down Mark Rutte. The deathly poppy fields of 1914 give way to the deathly sunflower fields of 2014. Dutch flowers wing around the globe, still, a thriving trade.

A reader, Katherine Holden, sent me a poem called “The Flowering of Death.” She writes: “Velvet leaves and sturdy stems transient graves for children mothers lovers doctors teachers fathers students artists siblings seekers fallen from the darkening sky. Flesh-fed rain.”

Everyone wants the suns of August. Summer vacations rule. Nobody wants the guns — and damn the bigger guns appeasement may bring.

This article was updated to reflect news developments.

Yeah.  Let’s rattle the sabers and swing our dicks.  That will be helpful…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Ralph Nader has written a new book, entitled “Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.” If you spend any time looking into the current state of affairs with the Dodd-Frank Act — Monday was the fourth anniversary of the law enacted to ensure that the country never suffers through another financial crisis like the one in 2008 — you’d have to say that he has a point.

There are many aspects of the law on which Democrats and Republicans disagree. But there is one area in which the two sides are largely in agreement: “Too Big to Fail” is still with us.

“In no way, shape or form does the Dodd-Frank Act end too big to fail,” said Representative Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

“The chances of another financial crisis will remain unacceptably high as long as there are financial institutions that are ‘too big to fail,’ ” wrote Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, in an opinion article she co-wrote with, among others, Republican Senator John McCain.

Dodd-Frank, of course, was supposed to end “Too Big to Fail,” the catchphrase for a financial institution whose collapse had the potential to bring down the entire financial system. That prospect is why, less than a month after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the government handed billions of dollars to the big banks to help stabilize them.

In some ways, eliminating the possibility of future bank bailouts was the whole point of Dodd-Frank. Partly this was for populist reasons: Americans were outraged that the banks were bailed out, while the country got the worst of the Great Recession.

But it was also just good public policy. Karen Petrou, the managing partner of Federal Financial Analytics, told me that if the too-big-to-fail provisions in the law worked, “the rest of the law wouldn’t matter that much because the market would discipline the institutions.” But, she added, “I don’t think the Federal Reserve or the F.D.I.C.” — the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation — “is prepared to handle a systemic crisis for one of the big banks.”

To be sure, the Treasury Department insists that the days of “Too Big to Fail” are over. In a recent speech, Mary John Miller, the Treasury’s undersecretary for domestic finance, said, “No financial institution, regardless of its size, will be bailed out by taxpayers again.” She added, “Shareholders of failed companies will be wiped out; creditors will absorb losses; culpable management will not be retained and may have their compensation clawed back.” But the markets don’t believe it, and neither do most people who pay attention to Dodd-Frank.

There are two essential problems. The first is that it is hard to imagine that the government wouldn’t blink, as it did in 2008. “Does anyone really believe that if any of the big banks were about to go down, that the government would allow that to happen?” asked Dean Baker, a co-founder of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research. “No.”

The second problem is that it is difficult to envision how the law itself would “resolve” these institutions. In one part of Dodd-Frank, the banks are required to write “living wills,” laying out how they could wind down without causing a financial catastrophe. Although they are now on their third round of living wills, the documents are thousands of pages, and the government hasn’t yet told them whether the second round of living wills, filed a year or so ago, passed muster.

The law also says that if the regulators find the living wills too unwieldy and difficult to execute, it can force banks and financial institutions to shed assets and simplify their structures to make them easier to wind down. Warren and other lawmakers have pointed to this provision as something that could — if regulators pushed for it — force the banks to look more like they did pre-deregulation: with a division between commercial banks and investment banks.

Meanwhile, there is another part of Dodd-Frank that calls for banks to wind down through a process called orderly liquidation. In this scenario, the government puts the functioning parts of the bank into a new “bridge financial company,” and forces the private sector — shareholders, certain creditors, even assessments on other financial institutions if it comes to that — to take losses. Although the Treasury Department insists that the law forbids public money from being used, there are a lot of economists who have a hard time believing that taxpayer money would not somehow be used if things got really bad.

One person who does believe is Sheila Bair, the former chairwoman of the F.D.I.C. “I do think they could handle a big bank failure,” she told me. “It would be messy and difficult, but they could do it.”

Which is the ultimate problem: We have no way of knowing whether “too big to fail” still exists until we have another crisis. Let’s just hope we don’t have to find out anytime soon.

Nocera, solo

July 19, 2014

Ms. Collins is off today, so Mr. Nocera has the place to himself.  In “The $300,000 Drug” he says a miracle cystic fibrosis treatment carries a heavy price.  Here he is:

Kalydeco is truly a wonder drug.

Developed by Vertex Pharmaceuticals, it is the first drug that attacks not just the symptoms but the underlying cause of cystic fibrosis, a genetic lung disease that usually kills victims by the time they reach their 40s. It doesn’t work for every sufferer of the disease, but rather for a small subset — probably around 2,000 people — who have a specific genetic mutation that the drug targets. But for those it helps, it is life changing.

“I still pinch myself every day,” says Emily Schaller, 32, who has been taking the drug since she participated in its Phase III trials five years ago. “I can take deep breaths. I can run without coughing.”

Two years ago, as it was coming to market, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the head of the Food and Drug Administration, described Kalydeco an “an excellent example of the promise of personalized medicine.” Personalized medicine describes drugs that treat so-called orphan diseases — that is, diseases with a small population — or subsets of people with broader diseases. This kind of targeted medicine has been the Holy Grail ever since the genome was first sequenced about a decade ago. Now it is becoming a reality.

There is one other way that Kalydeco is an excellent example of personalized medicine: its cost. It’s more than $300,000 a year. Because patients will likely be taking the drug for the rest of their lives, it could cost millions of dollars to keep just one patient on Kalydeco. That raises another important question about the coming of personalized medicine. How are we, as a society, going to pay for it?

What brings this question to the fore is a fight taking place in Arkansas, where the state’s Medicaid program is balking at paying for Kalydeco for a handful of young patients with cystic fibrosis. Although state officials won’t say so publicly, it is clear that cost is a key issue; The Wall Street Journal got ahold of emails that show Arkansas officials “discussing Kalydeco’s cost, and their worries about the expense of future cystic fibrosis drugs.”

It’s likely that Arkansas will eventually fold. Most state Medicaid programs — and private insurers — are paying Kalydeco’s cost because it works so well, and because the patient population is so small.

What happens, though, when there are 200 such drugs? Or when they are targeted not at cystic fibrosis, which has maybe 30,000 sufferers, but at diabetes or (heaven forbid) cholesterol? A drug called Sovaldi, marketed by Gilead Sciences, takes aim at hepatitis C. It is described as a “breakthrough” drug. But each pill costs $1,000 — and the full regimen costs $84,000. And the hepatitis C population isn’t 30,000 — it is over 3 million. If everyone with hepatitis C took Sovaldi, it would cost something like $300 billion, which is about what the country now pays for all prescription drugs combined.

“This is the future of medicine,” says Barry Werth, “and there’s going to be a reckoning.” Werth is the author of “The Antidote,” a terrific book about Vertex and its race to discover and bring to market these new kinds of drugs. “Everyone wants to see these drugs succeed,” he told me. “Wall Street is all charged up. There really hasn’t been any pushback yet on cost.”

And even when the pushback comes, as it surely will, how will we get the pharmaceutical companies to change their pricing? Brian O’Sullivan, a cystic fibrosis specialist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told me that he thought the price of drugs like Kalydeco was “not sustainable.” But in the next breath, he marveled at how well the drug worked and said he didn’t want to “scare companies away from doing cystic fibrosis research” by focusing too much on the cost.

When I asked Vertex how it could possibly justify charging $300,000 for Kalydeco, a company spokesman pointed to the small patient population and “the benefit that the medicine provides.” He also said that the company had spent $6.5 billion on research in its existence, and had only two drugs approved by the F.D.A. In effect, he was saying that the Vertex drug was priced, in part, to recoup not just the research and development that led to Kalydeco but all the company’s R&D. (For cystic fibrosis sufferers with no insurance, Vertex provides the drug for free.)

When I asked Werth how Vertex could charge $300,000, he had a much simpler answer: “Because they can.”

Vertex has another cystic fibrosis drug that has just come through its Phase III trial and is likely to be on the market soon. It attacks a different, more common problem than Kalydeco and may broaden the number of patients who can be helped to more than 15,000. In my talks with people in the cystic fibrosis community, I got the strong sense that they are hoping this next drug will cost less.

Dream on.

 


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 159 other followers