Archive for the ‘Teh Stoopid’ Category

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

April 4, 2014

Bobo seems to have lost what passed for his mind.  In “Party All the Time” he actually tells us that the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision strengthens democracy by enabling the parties to take back power from major donors.  “Eric Flatpick” of Ohio sums the thing up succinctly:  “What pigheaded sophistry.”  Mr. Flatpick had more to say about it, but the summation says it all.  Mr. Cohen has a question in “In Search of Home:”  If you had a few weeks to live, where would you go?  In “Rube Goldberg Survives” Prof. Krugman tells us why those seven million enrollments in Obamacare matter.  Here’s Bobo’s delayed April Fools Day POS:

Over the last several decades, the United States has adopted a series of campaign finance reform laws. If these laws were designed to reduce the power of money in politics, they have failed. Spending on political campaigns has exploded. Washington booms with masses of lobbyists and consultants.

But campaign finance laws weren’t merely designed to take money out of politics; they were designed to protect incumbents from political defeat. In this regard, the laws have been fantastically successful.

The laws rigged the system to make it harder for challengers to raise money. In 1972, at about the time the Federal Election Campaign Act was first passed, incumbents had a campaign spending advantage over challengers of about 3 to 2. These days, incumbents have a spending advantage of at least 4 to 1. In some election years, 98 percent of the incumbents are swept back into office.

One of the ways incumbents secured this advantage is by weakening the power of the parties. They imposed caps on how much donors can give to parties and how much parties can give directly to candidates. By 2008, direct party contributions to Senate candidates accounted for only 0.18 percent of total spending.

The members of Congress did this because an unregulated party can direct large amounts of money to knock off an incumbent of the opposing party. By restricting parties, incumbents defanged a potent foe.

These laws pushed us from a party-centric campaign system to a candidate-centric system. This change has made life less pleasant for lawmakers but it has made their jobs more secure, and they have been willing to accept this trade-off.

Life is less pleasant because with the parties weakened, lawmakers have to do many campaign tasks on their own. They have to do their own fund-raising and their own kissing up to special interests. They have to hire consultants to do the messaging tasks that parties used to do.

But incumbents accept this because the candidate-centric system makes life miserable for challengers. With direct contributions severely limited and parties defanged, challengers find it hard to quickly build the vast network of donors they need to raise serious cash. High-quality challengers choose not to run because they don’t want to spend their lives begging for dough.

The shift to a candidate-centric system was horrifically antidemocratic. It pushed money from transparent, tightly regulated parties to the shadowy world of PACs and 527s. It weakened party leaders, who have to think about building broad national coalitions, and gave power to special interests.

Then came the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which managed to make everything even worse. It moved us from a candidate-centric system to a donor-centric system. Donors were unleashed to create their own opaque yet torrential money flows outside both parties and candidates. This created an explosion in the number of groups with veto power over legislation and reform. It polarized politics further because donors tend to be more extreme than politicians or voters. The candidate-centric system empowered special interests; the donor-centric system makes them practically invincible.

Then along came the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision this week. It has been greeted with cries of horror because it may increase the amount of money in politics. But this is the wrong metric. There will always be money in politics; it’s a pipe dream to think otherwise. The crucial question is where is the money flowing.

The McCutcheon decision is a rare win for the parties. It enables party establishments to claw back some of the power that has flowed to donors and “super PACs.” It effectively raises the limits on what party establishments can solicit. It gives party leaders the chance to form joint fund-raising committees they can use to marshal large pools of cash and influence. McCutcheon is a small step back toward a party-centric system.

In their book “Better Parties, Better Government,” Peter J. Wallison and Joel M. Gora propose the best way to reform campaign finance: eliminate the restrictions on political parties to finance the campaigns of their candidates; loosen the limitations on giving to parties; keep the limits on giving to PACs.

Parties are not perfect, Lord knows. But they have broad national outlooks. They foster coalition thinking. They are relatively transparent. They are accountable to voters. They ally with special interests, but they transcend the influence of any one. Strengthened parties will make races more competitive and democracy more legitimate. Strong parties mobilize volunteers and activists and broaden political participation. Unlike super PACs, parties welcome large numbers of people into the political process.

Since the progressive era, campaign reformers have intuitively distrusted parties. These reformers seem driven by a naïve hope that they can avoid any visible concentration of power. But their approach to reform has manifestly failed. By restricting parties, they just concentrated power in ways that are much worse.

Sweet baby Jesus on a tricycle…  I guess Bobo missed the spectacle of pretty much all the Republican “front runners” prostrating themselves before the loathsome Sheldon Adelson.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

In a fascinating recent essay in The London Review of Books, called “On Not Going Home,” James Wood relates how he “asked Christopher Hitchens, long before he was terminally ill, where he would go if he had only a few weeks to live. Would he stay in America? ‘No, I’d go to Dartmoor, without a doubt,’ he told me. It was the landscape of his childhood.”

It was the landscape, in other words, of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in some indelible place in the psyche and call out across the years.

That question is worth repeating: If I had only a few weeks to live, where would I go? It is a good way of getting rid of the clutter that distracts or blinds. I will get to that in a moment.

In the essay, Wood, who grew up in England but has lived in the United States for 18 years, explores a certain form of contemporary homelessness — lives lived without the finality of exile, but also without the familiarity of home.

He speaks of existences “marked by a certain provisionality, a structure of departure and return that may not end.”

This is a widespread modern condition; perhaps it is the modern condition. Out of it, often, comes anxiety. Wood does not focus on the psychological effects of what he calls “a certain outsider-dom,” but if you dig into people who are depressed you often find that their distress at some level is linked to a sense of not fitting in, an anxiety about belonging: displacement anguish.

Wood describes looking at the familiar life of his Boston street, “the heavy maple trees, the unkempt willow down at the end, an old white Cadillac with the bumper sticker ‘Ted Kennedy has killed more people than my gun,’ and I feel … nothing: some recognition, but no comprehension, no real connection, no past, despite all the years I have lived there — just a tugging distance from it all. A panic suddenly overtakes me, and I wonder: How did I get here?”

Having spent my infancy in South Africa, grown up and been educated in England, and then, after a peripatetic life as a foreign correspondent, found my home in New York, I understand that how-did-I-get-here panic. But Wood and I differ. He has no desire to become an American citizen.

He quotes an immigration officer telling him, “‘A Green Card is usually considered a path to citizenship,’ and continues: “He was generously saying, ‘Would you like to be an American citizen?’ along with the less generous: ‘Why don’t you want to be an American citizen?’ Can we imagine either sentiment being expressed at Heathrow airport?”

No, we can’t. And it’s that essential openness of America, as well as the (linked) greater ease of living as a Jew in the United States compared with life in the land of Lewis Namier’s “trembling Israelites,” that made me become an American citizen and elect New York as my home. It’s the place that takes me in.

But it is not the place of my deepest connections. So, what if I had a few weeks to live? I would go to Cape Town, to my grandfather’s house, Duxbury, looking out over the railway line near Kalk Bay station to the ocean and the Cape of Good Hope. During my childhood, there was the scent of salt and pine and, in certain winds, a pungent waft from the fish processing plant in Fish Hoek. I would dangle a little net in rock pools and find myself hypnotized by the silky water and quivering life in it. The heat, not the dry high-veld heat of Johannesburg but something denser, pounded by the time we came back from the beach at lunchtime. It reverberated off the stone, angled into every recess. The lunch table was set and soon enough fried fish, usually firm-fleshed kingklip, would be served, so fresh it seemed to burst from its batter. At night the lights of Simon’s Town glittered, a lovely necklace strung along a promontory.

This was a happiness whose other name was home.

Wood writes: “Freud has a wonderful word, ‘afterwardness,’ which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it from its very different context. To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of ‘afterwardness’: It is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done. And that may be all right.”

Yes, being not quite home, acceptance, which may be bountiful, is what is left to us.

And now we get to Prof. Krugman:

Holy seven million, Batman! The Affordable Care Act, a k a Obamacare, has made a stunning comeback from its shambolic start. As the March 31 deadline for 2014 coverage approached, there was a surge in applications at the “exchanges” — the special insurance marketplaces the law set up. And the original target of seven million signups, widely dismissed as unattainable, has been surpassed.

But what does it mean? That depends on whether you ask the law’s opponents or its supporters. You see, the opponents think that it means a lot, while the law’s supporters are being very cautious. And, in this one case, the enemies of health reform are right. This is a very big deal indeed.

Of course, you don’t find many Obamacare opponents admitting outright that 7.1 million and counting signups is a huge victory for reform. But their reaction to the results — It’s a fraud! They’re cooking the books! — tells the tale. Conservative thinking and Republican political strategy were based entirely on the assumption that it would always be October, that Obamacare’s rollout would be an unremitting tale of disaster. They have no idea what to do now that it’s turning into a success story.

So why are many reform supporters being diffident, telling us not to read too much into the figures? Well, at a technical level they’re right: The precise number of signups doesn’t matter much for the functioning of the law, and there may still be many problems despite the March surge. But I’d argue that they’re missing the forest for the trees.

The crucial thing to understand about the Affordable Care Act is that it’s a Rube Goldberg device, a complicated way to do something inherently simple. The biggest risk to reform has always been that the scheme would founder on its complexity. And now we know that this won’t happen.

Remember, giving everyone health insurance doesn’t have to be hard; you can just do it with a government-run program. Not only do many other advanced countries have “single-payer,” government-provided health insurance, but we ourselves have such a program — Medicare — for older Americans. If it had been politically possible, extending Medicare to everyone would have been technically easy.

But it wasn’t politically possible, for a couple of reasons. One was the power of the insurance industry, which couldn’t be cut out of the loop if you wanted health reform this decade. Another was the fact that the 170 million Americans receiving health insurance through employers are generally satisfied with their coverage, and any plan replacing that coverage with something new and unknown was a nonstarter.

So health reform had to be run largely through private insurers, and be an add-on to the existing system rather than a complete replacement. And, as a result, it had to be somewhat complex.

Now, the complexity shouldn’t be exaggerated: The basics of reform only take a few minutes to explain. And it has to be as complicated as it is. There’s a reason Republicans keep defaulting on their promise to propose an alternative to the Affordable Care Act: All the main elements of Obamacare, including the subsidies and the much-attacked individual mandate, are essential if you want to cover the uninsured.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration created a system in which people don’t simply receive a letter from the federal government saying “Congratulations, you are now covered.” Instead, people must go online or make a phone call and choose from a number of options, in which the cost of insurance depends on a calculation that includes varying subsidies, and so on. It’s a system in which many things can go wrong; the nightmare scenario has always been that conservatives would seize on technical problems to discredit health reform as a whole. And last fall that nightmare seemed to be coming true.

But the nightmare is over. It has long been clear, to anyone willing to study the issue, that the overall structure of Obamacare made sense given the political constraints. Now we know that the technical details can be managed, too. This thing is going to work.

And, yes, it’s also a big political victory for Democrats. They can point to a system that is already providing vital aid to millions of Americans, and Republicans — who were planning to run against a debacle — have nothing to offer in response. And I mean nothing. So far, not one of the supposed Obamacare horror stories featured in attack ads has stood up to scrutiny.

So my advice to reform supporters is, go ahead and celebrate. Oh, and feel free to ridicule right-wingers who confidently predicted doom.

Clearly, there’s a lot of work ahead, and we can count on the news media to play up every hitch and glitch as if it were an existential disaster. But Rube Goldberg has survived; health reform has won.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Kristof

March 2, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has produced a turd called “The Terms of Our Surrender” in which he asks a question:  What comes after the inevitable ruling on same-sex marriage?  He’s hyperventilating and wringing his hands, of course.  His typical tell?  This sentence:  “I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying.”  I find it telling that the Times is not allowing comments on this piece of crap.  MoDo says you should “Brace Yourself for Hillary and Jeb,” and she also has a question:  America has 320 million people, so how do we keep ending up with the same two surnames running things?  It’s interesting that in this particular hit piece, allegedly about two families, the Bushes take no incoming fire.  In “From the Pyramid to the Square” The Moustache of Wisdom says an Oscar-nominated documentary about the revolution in Egypt has resonated with protesters from Cairo to Caracas to Kiev.  Mr. Kristof has a question in “The Compassion Gap:”  Why didn’t readers of a column on the need for early-childhood interventions see a caring mom instead of her old tattoos?  Here’s The Putz:

It now seems certain that before too many years elapse, the Supreme Court will be forced to acknowledge the logic of its own jurisprudence on same-sex marriage and redefine marriage to include gay couples in all 50 states.

Once this happens, the national debate essentially will be finished, but the country will remain divided, with a substantial minority of Americans, most of them religious, still committed to the older view of marriage.

So what then? One possibility is that this division will recede into the cultural background, with marriage joining the long list of topics on which Americans disagree without making a political issue out of it.

In this scenario, religious conservatives would essentially be left to promote their view of wedlock within their own institutions, as a kind of dissenting subculture emphasizing gender differences and procreation, while the wider culture declares that love and commitment are enough to make a marriage. And where conflicts arise — in a case where, say, a Mormon caterer or a Catholic photographer objected to working at a same-sex wedding — gay rights supporters would heed the advice of gay marriage’s intellectual progenitor, Andrew Sullivan, and let the dissenters opt out “in the name of their freedom — and ours.”

But there’s another possibility, in which the oft-invoked analogy between opposition to gay marriage and support for segregation in the 1960s South is pushed to its logical public-policy conclusion. In this scenario, the unwilling photographer or caterer would be treated like the proprietor of a segregated lunch counter, and face fines or lose his business — which is the intent of recent legal actions against a wedding photographer in New Mexico, a florist in Washington State, and a baker in Colorado.

Meanwhile, pressure would be brought to bear wherever the religious subculture brushed up against state power. Religious-affiliated adoption agencies would be closed if they declined to place children with same-sex couples. (This has happened in Massachusetts and Illinois.) Organizations and businesses that promoted the older definition of marriage would face constant procedural harassment, along the lines suggested by the mayors who battled with Chick-fil-A. And, eventually, religious schools and colleges would receive the same treatment as racist holdouts like Bob Jones University, losing access to public funds and seeing their tax-exempt status revoked.

In the past, this constant-pressure scenario has seemed the less-likely one, since Americans are better at agreeing to disagree than the culture war would suggest. But it feels a little bit more likely after last week’s “debate” in Arizona, over a bill that was designed to clarify whether existing religious freedom protections can be invoked by defendants like the florist or the photographer.

If you don’t recognize my description of the bill, then you probably followed the press coverage, which was mendacious and hysterical — evincing no familiarity with the legal issues, and endlessly parroting the line that the bill would institute “Jim Crow” for gays. (Never mind that in Arizona it’s currently legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation — and mass discrimination isn’t exactly breaking out.) Allegedly sensible centrists compared the bill’s supporters to segregationist politicians, liberals invoked the Bob Jones precedent to dismiss religious-liberty concerns, and Republican politicians behaved as though the law had been written by David Duke.

What makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

Which has a certain bracing logic. If your only goal is ensuring that support for traditional marriage diminishes as rapidly as possible, applying constant pressure to religious individuals and institutions will probably do the job. Already, my fellow Christians are divided over these issues, and we’ll be more divided the more pressure we face. The conjugal, male-female view of marriage is too theologically rooted to disappear, but its remaining adherents can be marginalized, set against one other, and encouraged to conform.

I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying. Christians had plenty of opportunities — thousands of years’ worth — to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.) So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status — this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution.

But it’s still important for the winning side to recognize its power. We are not really having an argument about same-sex marriage anymore, and on the evidence of Arizona, we’re not having a negotiation. Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory — and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.

Now we get to MoDo:

Oy.  By the time the Bushes and Clintons are finished, they are going to make the Tudors and the Plantagenets look like pikers.

Before these two families release their death grip on the American electoral system, we’re going to have to watch Chelsea’s granddaughter try to knock off George P.’s grandson, Prescott Walker Bush II. Barack Obama, who once dreamed of being a transformational president, will turn out to be a mere hiccup in history, the interim guy who provided a tepid respite while Hillary and Jeb geared up to go at it.

Elections for president are supposed to make us feel young and excited, as if we’re getting a fresh start. That’s the way it was with J.F.K. and Obama and, even though he was turning 70 when he got inaugurated, Ronald Reagan.

But, as the Clinton library tardily disgorged 3,546 pages of official papers Friday — dredging up memories of a presidency that was eight years of turbulence held steady by a roaring economy and an incompetent opposition, a reign roiled by Hillarycare, Vince Foster, Whitewater, Webb Hubbell, Travelgate, Monica, impeachment, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Marc Rich — the looming prospect of another Clinton-Bush race makes us feel fatigued.

Our meritocratic society seems increasingly nepotistic and dynastic. There was a Bush or a Clinton in the White House and cabinet for 32 years straight. We’re Bill Murray stuck at 6 a.m. in Harold Ramis’s comic masterpiece, “Groundhog Day.” As Time’s Michael Crowley tweeted on Friday, “Who else is looking forward to potentially TEN more years of obsessing about Hillary Clinton’s past, present and future?”

The Clintons don’t get defeated. They get postponed.

Just as Hillary clears the Democratic field if she is healthy and runs, a major Romney donor told The Washington Post that “if Jeb Bush is in the race, he clears the field.” Jeb acknowledged in Long Island on Monday, referring to his mom’s tart comment that “if we can’t find more than two or three families to run for higher office, that’s silly,” that “it’s an issue for sure.” He added, “It’s something that, if I run, I would have to overcome that. And so will Hillary, by the way. Let’s keep the same standards for everybody.”

We’ve arrived at the brave new world of 21st-century technology where robots are on track to be smarter than humans. Yet, politically, we keep traveling into the past. It won’t be long before we’ll turn on the TV and see Lanny Davis defending President Clinton (the next one) on some mishegoss or other.

When the Clintons lost to Obama, they simply turned Obama’s presidency into their runway. Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, and a passel of other former Obama aides, are now helping Hillary. And Bill is out being the campaigner-in-chief, keeping the Clinton allure on display in 2014.

The new cache of Clinton papers is benign — the press seems more enamored of speechwriters’ doodles than substance — but just reading through them is draining. There are reams of advice on how to steer health care, which must have filled the briefing binders Hillary famously carried. But did she absorb the lessons, given that health care failed because she refused to be flexible and make the sensible compromises suggested by her husband and allies? She’s always on listening tours, but is she hearing? As one White House health care aide advised in the new document dump, “We need to be seen as listening.”

Just as in the reminiscences compiled by Hillary’s late friend, Diane Blair, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas — some of which were printed in the Washington Free Beacon three weeks ago — the new papers reflect how entangled the Clintons’ public and private lives were in the White House.

In a 1995 memo, Lisa Caputo, the first lady’s press secretary, sees an opportunity for the upcoming re-election campaign by “throwing a big party” for the Clintons’ 20th wedding anniversary.

“We could give a wonderful photo spread to People magazine of photos from the party coupled with old photos of their honeymoon and of special moments for them over the past 20 years,” Caputo wrote, adding that they could turn it into “a nice mail piece later on.”

Both sets of papers are revealing on the never-ending herculean struggle about how to present Hillary to the world, how to turn her shifting hairstyles and personas into one authentic image.

“Be careful to ‘be real,’ ” media adviser Mandy Grunwald wrote to her before the launch of her listening tour at Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s farm in upstate New York. “You did this well in the Rather interview where you acknowledged that of course last year was rough. Once you agree with the audience’s/reporters’ reality like that, it gives you a lot of latitude to then say whatever you want.”

Grunwald advises the first lady to “look for opportunities for humor” and “Don’t be defensive.”

It’s hard to understand why so many calculations are needed to seem “real,” just as it’s hard to understand how Hillary veers from feminist positions to un-feminist ones.

In the Blair papers, Hillary’s private view of the Monica Lewinsky affair hewed closely to the lame rationales offered by Bill and his male friends.

“HRC insists, no matter what people say,” Blair said, after talking to Hillary on the phone, “it was gross inappropriate behavior but it was consensual (was not a power relationship) and was not sex within any real meaning (standup, liedown, oral, etc.) of the term.” The president dallying with a 22-year-old intern was not “a power relationship” and certain kinds of sex don’t count?

Like her allies Sidney Blumenthal and Charlie Rangel, Hillary paints her husband’s mistress as an erotomaniac, just the way Clarence Thomas’s allies painted Anita Hill. A little nutty and a little slutty.

“It was a lapse,” Blair wrote, “but she says to his credit he tried to break it off, tried to pull away, tried to manage someone who was clearly a ‘narcissistic loony toon’; but it was beyond control.”

The cascade of papers evoke Hillary’s stressful brawls — with her husband, the press, Congress and the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. And they evoke the issue about her that is so troubling and hard to fathom. She is an immensely complex woman with two sides. She is the tireless and talented public servant. And she is the tired warrior who can be insecure and defensive, someone who has cleaved to a bunker mentality when she would have been better served getting out of her defensive crouch.

Talking to her pal Blair, Hillary had a lot of severe words for her “adversaries” in the press and the G.O.P. Blair also said Hillary was “furious” at Bill for “ruining himself and the presidency” by 1994.

Hillary may have had a point when she said in 1993, after criticism of the maladroit firing of the veteran White House travel office staff, that the press “has big egos and no brains.” But it speaks to her titanic battles and battle scars.

Hillary has spent so much time searching for the right identity, listening to others tell her who to be, resisting and following advice on being “real,” that it leaves us with the same question we had when she first came on the stage in 1992.

Who is she?

A better woman than you are, MoDo, even though I don’t want her to run.  And for what it’s worth, the next time you decide to write a hit piece about two families running things you might include the Bushes in your field of fire.  Bitch.  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

The Egyptian strongman Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi was recently in Moscow visiting with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Putin reportedly offered Sisi $2 billion in arms — just what a country like Egypt, where half the women can’t read, needs. The whole meeting struck me as so 1960s, so Nasser meets Khrushchev — two strongmen bucking each other up in the age of strong people and superempowered individuals. Rather than discuss arms sales, Sisi and Putin should have watched a movie together.

Specifically, Sisi should have brought a copy of “The Square” — the first Egyptian film ever nominated for an Oscar. It’s up this year. Sisi has a copy. Or, to be more precise, his film censor’s office does. For the last few months, the Egyptian authorities have been weighing whether to let the film — an inspiring and gripping documentary that follows six activists from the earliest days of the Tahrir Square revolution in 2011 until the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted by Sisi in 2013 — to be shown in Egypt.

“The Square,” about the revolution in Egypt, might be a good movie for Vladimir Putin and other strongmen to see. Credit Netflix/Noujaim Films, via Associated Press

Meanwhile, pirated and downloaded copies of the film, which is also on Netflix, have spread virally across Egypt and been viewed by many Egyptians in homes and coffeeshops and discussed on social media. What’s more, it was recently dubbed into Ukrainian and downloaded (some 300,000 times) by protesters there and shown in the Maidan, which also means the Square, in Kiev. A dubbed version is now spreading in Russia, too, said the film’s director Jehane Noujaim, who also directed “Control Room.”

“This is the globalization of defiance,” Noujaim said to me. “With cheap, affordable cameras and Internet connections, anyone now can change the conversation” anywhere. It’s true.

The film resonates with those who gathered in squares from Cairo to Caracas to Kiev, added the film’s producer, Karim Amer, because it captures an increasingly universal phenomenon: average people uniting and deciding “that the Pharaoh, the strongman, won’t protect us” and the religious sheikh “won’t cleanse us.” We can be and must be “authors of our own story.” It has long been said, added Amer, that “history is written by the victors. Not anymore.” Now versions can come from anywhere and anyone. Power is shifting “from the pyramid to the square” — from strongmen to strong people — “and that is a big shift.”

And that’s why Putin and Sisi need to see the film. (Disclosure: the filmmakers are friends of mine, and I have been discussing their project with them for two years.) It captures some of the most important shifts happening today, starting with fact that in today’s hyperconnected world wealth is getting concentrated at the top, but, at the same time, power is getting distributed at the bottom and transparency is being injected everywhere. No palace will remain hidden by high walls, not even the giant one reportedly being built for Putin on the Black Sea.

But people now can’t just see in, they can see far — how everybody else is living. And as Tahrir and Kiev demonstrate, young people will no longer tolerate leaders who deprive them of the tools and space to realize their full potential. The Square has a Facebook page where Egyptians are invited to answer questions, including: “Who would you most like to watch this movie with?” One answer, from Magda Elmaghrabi, probably spoke for many: “I would watch it with my dad who passed away 9 years ago. He emigrated to the States not for lack of wealth, but for his fears of what would happen in the future for Egypt and whether there would be opportunities for my 2 older brothers. I would love to have discussed what occurred and see his emotional reaction as the Egyptians stood up for what they believed in.”

Another reason Putin, Sisi and all their protesters need to see “The Square” is that it doesn’t have a happy ending — for anyone, not yet. Why?

The Egyptian protesters got sidelined by the army, because while they all wanted to oust the Pharaoh, they couldn’t agree on a broader reform agenda and translate that into a governing majority. But Putin and Sisi will also lose if they don’t change, because there is no stable progress without inclusive politics and economics. I understand the need and longing by those not in the squares for “stability” and “order.” Putin and Sisi both rose to power on that longing for stability after so much revolutionary ferment. But both men have to be asked: Stability to do what? To go where? To jail not just real terrorists, but, in Sisi’s and Putin’s cases, legitimate journalists and opposition and youth leaders? Many Asian autocrats imposed order, but they also built schools, infrastructure and a rule of law that nurtured middle classes that eventually delivered democracy.

So the protesters are long on idealism but short on a shared political action plan. Sisi and Putin are long on stability but short on a politics of inclusion tied to a blueprint for modernity (and not just rising oil prices). Unless they each overcome their deficiencies, their countries will fail to fulfill their potential — and all their “squares” will be stages for conflict, not launching pads for renewal.

Last up today is Mr. Kristof:

Some readers collectively hissed after I wrote a week ago about the need for early-childhood interventions to broaden opportunity in America. I focused on a 3-year-old boy in West Virginia named Johnny Weethee whose hearing impairment had gone undetected, leading him to suffer speech and development problems that may dog him for the rest of his life.

A photo of Johnny and his mom, Truffles Weethee, accompanied the column and readers honed in on Truffles’ tattoos and weight.

“You show a photograph of a fat woman with tons of tattoos all over that she paid for,” one caller said. “And then we — boohoo — have to worry about the fact that her children aren’t cared for properly?”

On Twitter, Amy was more polite: “My heart breaks for Johnny. I have to wonder if the $$ mom spent on tattoos could have been put to better use.”

“This is typical of the left,” Pancho scolded on my Facebook page. “It’s not anyone’s fault. Responsibility is somebody else’s problem.”

To me, such outrage at a doting mom based on her appearance suggests the myopic tendency in our country to blame poverty on the poor, to confuse economic difficulties with moral failures, to muddle financial lapses with ethical ones.

Truffles Weethee has her son, Johnny, 3, in a Save the Children reading program. When her photo appeared in a column a week ago, readers saw reasons to criticize her instead of seeing the caring mom that she is. Credit Audrey Hall/Show of Force

There is an income gap in America, but just as important is a compassion gap. Plenty of successful people see a picture of a needy child and their first impulse is not to help but to reproach.

To break cycles of poverty, we have the tools to improve high school graduation rates, reduce teen pregnancies and increase employment. What we lack is the will to do so.

There may be neurological biases at work. A professor at Princeton found that our brains sometimes process images of people who are poor or homeless as if they were not humans but things.

Likewise, psychology experiments suggest that affluence may erode compassion. When research subjects are asked to imagine great wealth, or just look at a computer screen saver with money, they become less inclined to share or help others. That may be why the poorest 20 percent of Americans give away a larger share of their incomes than the wealthiest 20 percent.

The generosity of the poor always impresses me. In West Virginia, I visited a trailer that housed eight people and sometimes many more. A woman in the home, Lynmarie Sargent, 30, was once homeless with a month-old baby, and that discomfort and humiliation seared her so that she lets other needy families camp out in her trailer and eat. Sometimes she houses as many as 17.

Sargent is an unemployed former addict with a criminal record, struggling to stay clean of drugs, get a job and be a good mom. She has plenty to learn from middle-class Americans about financial planning, but wealthy people have plenty to learn from her about compassion.

A Pew survey this year found that a majority of Republicans, and almost one-third of Democrats, believe that if a person is poor the main reason is “lack of effort on his or her part.”

It’s true, of course, that the poor are sometimes lazy and irresponsible. So are the rich, with less consequence.

Critics note that if a person manages to get through high school and avoid drugs, crime and parenting outside of marriage, it’s often possible to escape poverty. Fair enough. But if you’re one of the one-fifth of children in West Virginia born with drugs or alcohol in your system, if you ingest lead from peeling paint as a toddler, if your hearing or vision impairments aren’t detected, if you live in a home with no books in a gang-ridden neighborhood with terrible schools — in all these cases, you’re programmed for failure as surely as children of professionals are programed for success.

So when kids in poverty stumble, it’s not quite right to say that they “failed.” Often, they never had a chance.

Researchers also find that financial stress sometimes impairs cognitive function, leading to bad choices. Indian farmers, for example, test higher for I.Q. after a harvest when they are financially secure. Alleviate financial worry, and you can gain 13 points in measured I.Q.

The tattoos that readers saw on Truffles are mostly old ones, predating Johnny, and she is passionate about helping him. That’s why she enrolled him in a Save the Children program that provides books that she reads to him every day. In that trailer in Appalachia, I don’t see a fat woman with tattoos; I see a loving mom who encapsulates any parent’s dreams for a child.

Johnny shouldn’t be written off at the age of 3 because of the straw he drew in the lottery of birth. To spread opportunity, let’s start by pointing fewer fingers and offering more helping hands.

Dowd and Friedman

January 8, 2014

MoDo has been confusing TV shows with real life again.  In “Beautifying Abbey Road” she wails that as Americans decry a Dickensian class divide, they fawn over a British soap opera of manners.  She really needs to get a life.  I’ll let “Pilatius” from NYC handle what needs to be said about her POS:  ““It’s television!!  Perhaps we can take the next column and discuss the socio-ecomic implications of General Hospital.”  The Moustache of Wisdom says it’s “Not Just About Us” and that as the headlines from the Arab world get worse and worse, there is talk of the “power vacuum” in the region. Getting overlooked is the “values vacuum.”  He manages to write the whole thing without the word “Israel” appearing once.  Stunning…  Here’s MoDo:

In real life, Americans may keen about income inequality. But on TV, they’re keen for it.

“Downton Abbey” continued its upward ascent with viewers Sunday night, a gushing embrace of class snobbery that hasn’t been seen since friends clustered across the country in 1981 — wearing black tie and clutching Teddy Bears and champagne glasses — to watch “Brideshead Revisited.”

I’ve resisted the “Downton Abbey” ferver. My grandmother and her nine sisters were tall, strapping women who immigrated to America from Ireland in the second decade of the 20th century and found jobs as maids, cooks and nannies for rich families with names like Gore and Mellon. So heaven forfend that I would enjoy watching Lord Grantham erupt in horror when his youngest daughter wants to marry the cute Irish chauffeur.

At the start of the fourth season, Maggie Smith’s caustic Dowager Countess still can’t stomach calling the Irishman by his first name, even now that the widowed Tom Branson is the estate manager and father of her great-granddaughter (dubbed a wicked “crossbreed” by the nanny.) As my great-aunts worked tirelessly to grasp shards of the American dream, they were not gliding about mansions playing confidantes to malleable employers, much less co-conspirators in moving the bodies of dead lovers.

It was a much tougher life than the democratized fantasy shown in “Downton Abbey.” Sure, Julian Fellowes’s servants have to iron the newspapers, choose cuff links and scan for scratches in the silver candelabra, but basically the upstairs-downstairs hierarchies work in contented concert, mingling like family — warmly and sometimes spitefully.

Just as there is a yawning gulf between “Gone With the Wind” and the harrowing “12 Years a Slave,” there is a yawning gulf between the Panglossian PBS soap opera of manners and the dehumanizing life most servants led.

In “Castle Rackrent,” an 1800 work that was a pioneer of the historical novel, Maria Edgeworth skewered her own British landlord class for viciousness to the Irish peasantry. Speaking of the grand lady of the house, Edgeworth wrote: “She was a strict observer, for self and servants, of Lent, and all fast-days, but not holidays. One of the maids having fainted three times the last day of Lent, to keep soul and body together, we put a morsel of roast beef in her mouth, which came from Sir Murtagh’s dinner, who never fasted, not he; but somehow or other it unfortunately reached my lady’s ears, and the priest of the parish had a complaint made of it the next day, and the poor girl was forced, as soon as she could walk, to do penance for it, before she could get any peace or absolution, in the house or out of it.”

Niall O’Dowd, the founder of The Irish Voice, IrishCentral.com and Irish America magazine, asserted: “For this generation of Americans, the ‘Downton Abbey’ ‘Yes, m’Lady’ servants are the equivalent to the old minstrel shows on the Bowery. It reflects the colonial cringe, casting an ameliorating light over a period that was full of pretty desperate stuff for people trapped in a rigid, notorious caste system.”

Americans cast off the British monarchy, but they go nuts for Kate Middleton’s procreation story. (“Rich woman has baby,” O’Dowd notes dryly.) And they savor watching a Downton aristocrat dress down a servant for noting inelegantly, “Dinner is on the table.”

We believe in upward mobility. Yet some of the new American moguls are taking on the worst traits of the old British class system: Silicon Valley’s up-and-coming tech titans who complain about having to look at the tatty homeless spoiling their San Francisco “utopia.” The Dickensian conservatives who don’t give a fig about a social safety net ensuring that poor people have food on the table.

As Jim Cramer of CNBC’s “Mad Money” asked MSNBC’s Alex Wagner, “Wasn’t this settled in 1848-1850 with the Irish potato famine? I’m not kidding. Lord John Russell believed what the Republicans did, which is, you know, let them eat potatoes even if they’re rotten.” The issue of laissez-faire, Cramer said, “was decided many years ago by Queen Victoria’s insolence toward the Irish.”

I relented on “Downton” when I read Alessandra Stanley’s review in The Times last week pointing out that the allure “isn’t Anglophilia or a vestigial yearning for a monarch” but the fact that it’s a “show about class differences that panders to contemporary notions of democracy and equality.”

Watching the saga from the beginning this week, I saw the extent of the subversive fantasy: The servants rule the masters. The bad ones manipulate the lords and ladies into doing their bidding. And the good ones instruct and nag their superiors into making the right moves in their royal lives, both personally and professionally. In Sunday’s season premiere, Lady Mary frostily informed Carson the butler that he had overstepped the mark in urging her to move past her grief over her husband’s death and get more involved in running the estate. But she soon humbly apologized for having the cheek to criticize Carson’s cheek. The marble beauty in long black gloves melted into sobs in his arms and then bucked up to rejoin the world.

The butler did it.

Jeez.  I think we ought to make her watch every “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” episode and then write a hissy little column.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Every day the headlines from the Arab world get worse: An Al Qaeda affiliate group, aided by foreign fighters, battles with seven different homegrown Syrian rebel groups for control of the region around Aleppo, Syria. The Iranian Embassy in Beirut is bombed. Mohamad Chatah, an enormously decent former Lebanese finance minister, is blown up after criticizing Hezbollah’s brutish tactics. Another pro-Al Qaeda group takes control of Fallujah, Iraq. Explosions rock Egypt, where the army is now jailing Islamists and secular activists. Libya is a mess of competing militias.

What’s going on? Some say it’s all because of the “power vacuum” — America has absented itself from the region. But this is not just about us. There’s also a huge “values vacuum.” The Middle East is a highly pluralistic region — Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, Druze and various tribes — that for centuries was held together from above by iron-fisted colonial powers, kings and dictators. But now that vertical control has broken down, before this pluralistic region has developed any true bottom-up pluralism — a broad ethic of tolerance — that might enable its people to live together as equal citizens, without an iron fist from above.

For the Arab awakening to have any future, the ideology that is most needed now is the one being promoted least: Pluralism. Until that changes, argues Marwan Muasher, in his extremely relevant new book — “The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism” — none of the Arab uprisings will succeed.

Again, President Obama could have done more to restrain leaders in Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran or Syria from going to extremes. But, ultimately, argues Muasher, this is the Arabs’ fight for their political future. If 500,000 American troops in Iraq, and $1 trillion, could not implant lasting pluralism in the cultural soil there, no outsider can, said Muasher. There also has to be a will from within. Why is it that some 15,000 Arabs and Muslims have flocked to Syria to fight and die for jihadism and zero have flocked to Syria to fight and die for pluralism? Is it only because we didn’t give the “good guys” big enough guns?

As Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister and now a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, put it in an interview: “Three years of the Arab uprising have shown the bankruptcy of all the old political forces in the Arab world.” The corrupt secular autocrats who failed to give their young people the tools to thrive — and, as a result, triggered these uprisings — are still locked in a struggle with Islamists, who also have no clue how to deliver jobs, services, security and economic growth. (Tunisia may be an exception.) “As long as we’re in the this zero-sum game, the sum will be zero,” says Muasher.

No sustainable progress will be possible, argues Muasher, without the ethic of pluralism permeating all aspects of Arab society — pluralism of thought, pluralism in gender opportunities, pluralism in respect to other religions, pluralism in education, pluralism toward minorities, pluralism of political parties rotating in power and pluralism in the sense of everyone’s right to think differently from the collective.

The first Arab awakening in the 20th century was a fight for independence from colonial powers, says Muasher. It never continued as a fight for democracy and pluralism. That war of ideas, he insists, is what “the second Arab awakening” has to be about. Neither the autocrats nor the Islamists can deliver progress. “Pluralism is the operating system we need to solve all our problems, and as long as that operating system is not in place, we will not get there. This is an internal battle. Let’s stop hoping for delivery from the outside.” This will take time.

Naïve? No. Naïve is thinking that everything is about the absence or presence of American power, and that the people of the region have no agency. That’s wrong: Iraq is splintering because Prime Minister Maliki behaved like a Shiite militiaman, not an Iraqi Mandela. Arab youths took their future in their own hands, motivated largely by pluralistic impulses. But the old order proved to be too stubborn, yet these youth aspirations have not gone away, and will not.

“The Arab world will go through a period of turmoil in which exclusionist forces will attempt to dominate the landscape with absolute truths and new dictatorships,” writes Muasher. But “these forces will also fade, because, in the end, the exclusionist, authoritarian discourses cannot answer the people’s needs for better quality of life. …  As history has demonstrated overwhelmingly, where there is respect for diversity, there is prosperity. Contrary to what Arab societies have been taught for decades by their governments to believe — that tolerance, acceptance of different points of view, and critical thinking are destructive to national unity and economic growth — experience proves that societies cannot keep renewing themselves and thereby thrive except through diversity.”

Muasher, who is returning to Jordan to participate in this struggle for diversity, dedicated his book to: “The youth of the Arab World — who revolted, not against their parents, but on their behalf.”

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

April 2, 2013

The only charitable explanation is that Bobo wrote his column yesterday and it’s a particularly ham-handed attempt at a joke.  In “Freedom Loses One” he actually says that if same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land, it will be a victory for living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.  Now he’s just fcking with us…  Mr. Nocera, in “Investor Activism Gone Wild,” says that if J.C. Penney succumbs to its financial troubles, a shareholder activist will shoulder much of the blame.  Mr. Bruni likes it “When TV Takes Its Time.”  He says the answer to too many “Housewives” and too much forensic hullabaloo? The gentle tempo and steadfast puzzles of shows like Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake.”  Yeah, Frank.  On the Sundance channel…  We’re on a fixed income and can’t afford all those premium channels like HBO and Showtime, etc., etc., etc., so I guess I’m doomed to continue watching “Hoarders.”  (I file that one under “shit that makes me feel normal.”)  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

I don’t think we’ve paused sufficiently to celebrate the wonderful recent defeat for the cause of personal freedom. After all, these sorts of defeats don’t happen every day.

Over the past 40 years, personal freedom has been on a nearly uninterrupted winning streak. In the 1960s, we saw a great expansion of social and lifestyle freedom. In the 1980s, we saw a great expansion of economic freedom. Since then, we’ve had everything from jeans commercials to rock anthems to political conventions celebrating freedom as the highest ideal.

People are much more at liberty these days to follow their desires, unhampered by social convention, religious and ethnic traditions and legal restraints.

The big thinkers down through the ages warned us this was going to have downsides. Alexis de Tocqueville and Emile Durkheim thought that if people are left perfectly free to pursue their individual desires, they will discover their desires are unlimited and unquenchable. They’ll turn inward and become self-absorbed. Society will become atomized. You’ll end up with more loneliness and less community.

Other big thinkers believed that if people are left perfectly free to follow their desires, their baser ones will end up dominating their nobler ones. For these writers, the goal in life is not primarily to be free but to be good. Being virtuous often means thwarting your inclinations, obeying a power outside yourself. It means maintaining a balance between liberty and restraint, restricting freedom for the sake of an ordered existence. As Edmund Burke put it:

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. … Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

Recently, the balance between freedom and restraint has been thrown out of whack. People no longer even have a language to explain why freedom should sometimes be limited. The results are as predicted. A decaying social fabric, especially among the less fortunate. Decline in marriage. More children raised in unsteady homes. Higher debt levels as people spend to satisfy their cravings.

But last week saw a setback for the forces of maximum freedom. A representative of millions of gays and lesbians went to the Supreme Court and asked the court to help put limits on their own freedom of choice. They asked for marriage.

Marriage is one of those institutions — along with religion and military service — that restricts freedom. Marriage is about making a commitment that binds you for decades to come. It narrows your options on how you will spend your time, money and attention.

Whether they understood it or not, the gays and lesbians represented at the court committed themselves to a certain agenda. They committed themselves to an institution that involves surrendering autonomy. They committed themselves to the idea that these self-restrictions should be reinforced by the state. They committed themselves to the idea that lifestyle choices are not just private affairs but work better when they are embedded in law.

And far from being baffled by this attempt to use state power to restrict individual choice, most Americans seem to be applauding it. Once, gay culture was erroneously associated with bathhouses and nightclubs. Now, the gay and lesbian rights movement is associated with marriage and military service. Once the movement was associated with self-sacrifice, it was bound to become popular.

Americans may no longer have a vocabulary to explain why freedom should sometimes be constricted, but they like it when they see people trying to do it. Once Americans acknowledged gay people exist, then, of course, they wanted them enmeshed in webs of obligation.

I suspect that this shift in public acceptance will be permanent, unless it turns out that marriages are more unstable when two people of the same gender are involved.

And, who knows, maybe we’ll see other spheres in life where restraints are placed on maximum personal choice. Maybe there will be sumptuary codes that will make lavish spending and C.E.O. salaries unseemly. Maybe there will be social codes so that people understand that the act of creating a child includes a lifetime commitment to give him or her an organized home. Maybe voters will restrain their appetite for their grandchildren’s money. Maybe more straight people will marry.

The proponents of same-sex marriage used the language of equality and rights in promoting their cause, because that is the language we have floating around. But, if it wins, same-sex marriage will be a victory for the good life, which is about living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.

It’s been a while since I’ve served up a large plate of salted weasel dicks for Bobo, but this one deserves it.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

William Ackman, the investor-activist who runs the $12 billion hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital, is like one of those guys you used to see in a certain kind of old-fashioned comedy. On one shoulder sits an angel, encouraging his better nature. On the other sits a devil, whispering temptation.

When he listens to the angel, Ackman does amazing things. He made a $25 million contribution to the Newark school system, an early and important match against the $100 million that Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, put up in September 2010. Yet unlike virtually every other actor involved in the Zuckerberg grant, who have been squabbling ever since, Ackman attached virtually no strings to his donation. He wants his money to be used to help Newark’s schoolchildren — not to push someone’s reform agenda.

Then there’s his current Herbalife crusade. After making a $1 billion bet that the stock would fall, Ackman released a lengthy report alleging that the company was running an illegal pyramid scheme. I have been sadly constrained from writing columns about the Ackman-Herbalife battle because the company had the wit to hire my fiancée’s employer, David Boies, after Ackman unveiled his attack. I was, as they say, “conflicted out.”

But I will say this: Pyramid schemes are a hidden scourge, hurting millions of people seduced by their get-rich-quick promises. Until Ackman began agitating, the federal government had largely capitulated to the “multilevel marketing” industry (as it likes to be called), even exempting it from a law passed a few years ago specifically aimed at curbing pyramid schemes. Ackman has been heroic in taking on this litigious, well-financed industry. Not since Jim Chanos went after Enron has a hedge fund manager been willing to question whether a company was actually a criminal enterprise. That takes guts.

Also, his track record as an activist has been good; you don’t get $12 billion in assets if you don’t win more than you lose.

But there is always that devil on the other shoulder. A few years ago, Ackman took a position in Target’s stock. Because of the recession, retailers such as Target were struggling. To get the stock up, Ackman began throwing out ideas that amounted to financial engineering. He then mounted an expensive proxy fight to get on the board, which thankfully, he lost. The stock has since rebounded. Target didn’t need financial engineering; it just needed a better economy.

Which brings me to his latest retail foray, J.C. Penney. Is there a single word that can sum up what has befallen J.C. Penney since Ackman took a stake in the company? Yes: disaster.

J.C. Penney had long catered to lower-middle-class families searching for sales. Its chief executive, Mike Ullman, who had been at the helm since 2004, was widely viewed as solid, if a tad unimaginative. He had led J.C. Penney to some of the most profitable years in its history. But, by the fall of 2010, hurt by the same recession that hurt Target, Penney’s stock was way down. That’s when Ackman showed up.

Being a big-time activist-investor, Ackman could hardly allow Ullman to remain at the helm. Activists have to be, you know, active. Within a year, he landed the executive everyone in retail wanted: Ron Johnson, who had built Apple’s retail business. Imagine: a Steve Jobs disciple was going to run downmarket J.C. Penney. What could possibly go wrong?

Pretty much everything. Johnson decided to eliminate the sales that had always been J.C. Penney’s trademark and move to everyday low prices. He thus alienated the core J.C. Penney customer. He kept talking about how he was going to apply the lessons he had learned at Apple to J.C. Penney, even though the companies sold completely different products to completely different customers. As the core customers departed, Johnson and J.C. Penney didn’t have the merchandise or cachet to attract a more upscale, Target-type customer. People abandoned J.C. Penney.

At the end of 2012, J.C. Penney announced that its revenues had fallen by a staggering $4.3 billion. It has laid off some 20,000 people. Walter Loeb, the former longtime retail analyst at Morgan Stanley who now blogs for Forbes.com, is predicting that its revenues will decline another 22 percent in the first quarter of 2013.

Lately, Johnson has brought back sales and devised a new strategy, revolving around “stores within stores” — selling merchandise much the way Bloomingdale’s does. One of its ministores will be devoted to Martha Stewart-designed home goods. You may have read about that. Macy’s, which says it has a contract that prevents Martha Stewart from selling housewares to other retailers, has sued. On the stand during the trial, I’m told, Johnson kept referring to his experience at Apple. Some people never learn.

The question is no longer whether Johnson will learn in time. If the quarter is as bad as Loeb is predicting, he’ll be gone soon. The question is whether Ackman has learned anything. The next time the devil whispers in his ear, let’s hope he doesn’t listen.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni, who enjoys classy TV shows:

If you haven’t caught “Top of the Lake,” a cryptic mini-series on the Sundance Channel right now, you owe yourself a peek, if only to behold and savor Holly Hunter, whose character is a mash-up of Pocahontas, the oracle at Delphi and Cousin Itt from “The Addams Family.” She’s all hair, her silvery mane accounting for easily half of her body weight and seemingly destined to sweep the ground. Perhaps when the character isn’t providing terse counsel to the damaged women around her at an odd spiritual retreat, she moonlights as a broom.

Most of the women at the retreat, built from a network of colorful cargo containers arranged like gigantic Legos on the lip of the aforementioned lake, are on the lam from destructive relationships with men. One is on the lam from a destructive relationship with a chimpanzee as well. Still they can’t help themselves. Their eyes rove to the scruffy local lads in the gorgeous patch of New Zealand where the story is set, and in the third of what will be seven episodes, a woman leaves her container to spend the night in the less Spartan digs of a lakeside drug lord. Minor spoiler alert: as she slips into his bed, he announces that he’s impotent, and the day after, as they frolic sexlessly in the woods, he stumbles across his mother’s grave, kneels in front of it and begins flagellating himself. This is a pretty good definition of a really bad date.

I’m mesmerized by “Top of the Lake,” which is now halfway through its run, and friends who are watching it constantly bring it up. And what we’re mainly responding to isn’t the meat of the yarn, which focuses on the effort to unravel what happened to a 12-year-old girl who is about five months pregnant. It’s the ancillary riddles and vaguely explained curiosities, like the interludes in Lego land. It’s the gentle pacing. It’s the way in which the mini-series, one of whose principal writers and directors is Jane Campion, insists on a certain opaqueness and bucks the bulk of what’s on television, even in this golden age of the medium.

“Top of the Lake” belongs to a budding genre that several critics, including Alessandra Stanley in The Times and Matt Zoller Seitz in Salon, have called Slow TV. Stanley sagely noted the parallel to Slow Food, which rebelled against the metastasis of McDonald’s outposts. Slow TV pushes back at the instant gratification and empty calories of too many elimination contests, too many reality shows, too many efficient, literal-minded forensic dramas that perhaps keep certain plot threads dangling but tie up the episode’s main mystery by the hour’s end.

The term Slow TV has multiple meanings, and has been applied to full-length chronicles of actual, incrementally unfolding events, like a ship’s voyage, and to the practice of spacing out viewings of a fictional serial’s episodes rather than watching them in a marathon session. But I think it’s best deployed in the way Stanley and then Seitz, writing about such shows as “Treme” and “Game of Thrones,” used it: to describe unrushed, atmospheric narratives.

Slow TV mines the pleasures of ambiguity, which are affirmed, as it happens, by one of the best movies I’ve recently seen, “Room 237,” a documentary in limited theatrical release and on cable TV. The title refers to a detail in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of “The Shining,” and the documentary recounts the riot of messages and meanings that obsessive fans have read into Kubrick’s lone foray into horror.

It’s a testament, hilarious at times, to the human genius for overanalysis. One “Shining” fan points to a German-made typewriter in the movie to support his theory that it’s a Holocaust parable; another cites the feathered-headdress logo on baking-powder cans in a few scenes for his belief that “The Shining” is about the massacre of American Indians. A desktop paper tray is determined to be a metaphoric erection, and so on. The abstruseness of some of “The Shining” is arguably a flaw, but “Room 237” reminds you that only an artistic work that resists tidy explanation can accommodate such enjoyable flights of interpretive fancy.

Ambiguity has never been what TV values most, “Twin Peaks” excepted. But it was central to “The Killing,” which highlighted an additional characteristic of Slow or Slowish TV, the willingness to wander off the main road and down an intriguing cul-de-sac, as “Girls” did in a discrete episode with Patrick Wilson as a guest star. Another HBO series, “Enlightened,” partly redeemed its irritations with its habits of straying, and of lingering: on a sigh, on a glare, on a soulless office building. It cared as much for mood as for plot.

The same is true of “Top of the Lake,” which preserves some enigmas, hirsute and otherwise, and surrenders others on its own timetable, making you wait and making you work. Just like life.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

January 18, 2013

Bobo has produced another one of his glorious false equivalency columns.  In “The Next Four Years” he gurgles that it seems as though everything is in place for President Obama’s second term to be filled with more aggressive recriminations and bulldozing.  What false equivalency, you may ask?  Here you go:  “Just as Senator Mitch McConnell made defeating President Obama his main political objective, Democrats seem likely to make winning back the House their primary political objective.”  Oh, as a cherry on top of the sundae he moans about the end of the era of The Grand Bargain…  Mr. Cohen, in “The Blight of Return,” says Illusion and division sap the Palestinian national movement at a time when its West Bank achievements have laid the basis for statehood.  Prof. Krugman addresses “The Dwindling Deficit” and says the budget deficit isn’t our biggest problem. Not by a long shot. In fact, to a large degree, it’s mostly solved.  Here’s Bobo:

President Obama’s second inaugural comes at an interesting moment, what you might call the end of the era of the Grand Bargain. Throughout his first term, Democrats and Republicans didn’t achieve a Grand Bargain on spending and taxes, but there was a sense that history was moving in that direction.

The Simpson-Bowles commission sketched out a vision of what a Grand Bargain might look like. Obama and John Boehner tried to craft some semi-Grand Bargains. There was a lot of talk at think tanks of what the best combination of tax reform and entitlement reform might be.

The “fiscal-cliff” fiasco has persuaded many smart people that a Grand Bargain is not going to happen any time soon. A political class that botched the fiscal cliff so badly are not going to be capable of a gigantic deal on complex issues. It’s like going into a day care center and asking a bunch of infants to perform “Swan Lake.”

Polarization is too deep. Special interests are too strong. The negotiators are too rusty. Republicans are not going to give up their vision of a low-tax America. Democrats are not willing to change the current entitlement programs.

So as the president enters his second term, there has to be a new controlling narrative, a new strategy for how to spend the next four years.

As you know, I am an earnest, good-government type, so the strategy I’d prefer might be called Learning to Crawl. It would be based on the notion that you have to learn to crawl before you can run. So over the next four years, legislators should work on a series of realistic, incremental laws that would rebuild the habits of compromise, competence and trust.

We could do some education reform, expand visa laws to admit more high-skill workers, encourage responsible drilling for natural gas, maybe establish an infrastructure bank. Political leaders would erode partisan orthodoxies and get back into the habit of passing laws together. Then, down the road, their successors could do the big things.

I may be earnest, but I’m not an idiot. I know there is little chance that today’s partisan players are going to adopt this kind of incremental goo-goo approach. It’s more likely that today’s majority party is going to adopt a different strategy, which you might call Kill the Wounded. It’s more likely that today’s Democrats are going to tell themselves something like this:

“We live at a unique moment. Our opponents, the Republicans, are divided, confused and bleeding. This is not the time to allow them to rebuild their reputation with a series of modest accomplishments. This is the time to kick them when they are down, to win back the House and end the current version of the Republican Party.

“First, we change the narrative. The president ran in 2008 against Washington dysfunction, casting blame on both parties. Over the years, he has migrated to a different narrative: The Republicans are crazy. Washington could be working fine, but the Republicans are crazy.

“At every public appearance, the president should double-down on that theme. The Democratic base already believes it. The media is sympathetic. Independents could be persuaded.

“Then, wedge issues. The president should propose no new measures that might unite Republicans, the way health care did in the first term. Instead, he should raise a series of wedge issues meant to divide Southerners from Midwesterners, the Tea Party/Talk Radio base from the less ideological corporate and managerial class.

“He’s already started with a perfectly designed gun control package, inviting a long battle with the N.R.A. over background checks and magazine clips. That will divide the gun lobby from suburbanites. Then he can re-introduce Bush’s comprehensive immigration reform. That will divide the anti-immigration groups from the business groups (conventional wisdom underestimates how hard it is going to be for Republicans to back comprehensive reforms).

“Then he could invite a series of confrontations with Republicans over things like the debt ceiling — make them look like wackos willing to endanger the entire global economy. Along the way, he could highlight women’s issues, social mobility issues (student loans, community college funding) and pick fights on compassion issues, (hurricane relief) — promoting any small, popular spending programs that Republicans will oppose.

“Twice a month, Democrats should force Republicans to cast an awful vote: either offend mainstream supporters or risk a primary challenge from the right.”

Just as Senator Mitch McConnell made defeating President Obama his main political objective, Democrats seem likely to make winning back the House their primary political objective. Experts are divided on how plausible this is, but the G.O.P. is unpopular and the opportunity is there.

This isn’t the Washington I want to cover, but it’s the most likely one. How will Republicans respond to this onslaught? I have no idea.

They’ll double down on the batshit crazy, David.  That’s how they roll nowadays.  Sweet FSM, I really hope that Pierce dissects this one…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

A couple of years ago I had an exchange with the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, that went like this:

“You’re working for a two-state solution?”

“Correct.”

“And Hamas is not.”

“It is true.”

This fundamental issue, at the core of the division of the Palestinian national movement, endures. As John Kerry, President Obama’s nominee to become secretary of state, prepares for office and talk stirs for the umpteenth time of a push for Middle East peace, it is critical to confront the problem, whose dimensions have recently been underscored.

First there was Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader, and his awful speech on his first visit to Gaza last month. “Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north,” he declared. In other words, forget compromise on the 1967 lines with agreed land swaps: Annihilation of the state of Israel remains the goal.

Then there was Mohamed Morsi. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi, now the Egyptian president, was chief of the Brotherhood’s political arm. This week it emerged that in this role in 2010, he said: “We must never forget, brothers, to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews.” He called Zionists “bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.” And he called for all Palestine to be freed.

Morsi’s vile anti-Semitic remarks are of a piece with the old blood libel: Jews with horns, Jews with tails, goats and devils defiling Christian women. And nursing children on hatred? Instilling hatred in the innocent is tantamount to instilling self-destruction.

And so it has been. When the United Nations called in 1947 for the partition of Mandate Palestine and the establishment of Jewish and Palestinian states, the proposed Palestinian state occupied about 42 percent of the territory. Arab armies went to war and lost. Today, with the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians stand to get about 22 percent of the land under any two-state peace. The annihilation ambition has been a recipe for Palestinian defeatism, victimhood and loss.

Wide swaths of the Palestinian leadership have drawn the lesson. The West Bank, under President Mahmoud Abbas and Fayyad, has seen dramatic change over the past several years. New policies — of nonviolence, responsible governance, elimination of militias, central control of security and economic growth — have been embraced to lay the groundwork of statehood, a state explicitly envisaged as existing side-by-side in peace and security with Israel.

The achievements in Ramallah have been widely lauded, including by the World Bank, but Israel has held back, one reason for its current isolation. Rather it has pursued West Bank settlements, to the dismay of Obama, who, according to a Bloomberg column by Jeffrey Goldberg, is convinced that, “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” The settlement expansion is indeed self-defeating. It precludes the two-state peace Israel needs to remain a democratic and Jewish state. But it is in line with the platform of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, which says that, “Settlement of the land is a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.”

Netanyahu may be returned to power in elections this month at the head of an even more right-wing coalition. The ambition to hold all the land is not the exclusive preserve of certain Palestinians. Extremes feed on each other; a majority in the middle is ready for a reasonable compromise that places the future above the past.

That, in part, is what the two-year-old Arab Spring has been about: the future over the past. However faltering (what revolutionary movement was ever smooth?), the awakening has been about overcoming an Arab culture of victimhood, conspiracy and paralysis in the name of agency, engagement and debate. The dinosaurs of the Palestinian movement, like Meshal, should take note.

Pursuit of all of the land, with its accompanying “right of return,” is a form of perennial victimhood, one that has spawned some 4.7 million Palestinian refugees, several times the number who were driven from their homes in the war of 1948. The right of return would be better named the blight of return. It is a damaging illusion that distracts from an achievable peace in the name of Palestinian children and grandchildren nursed on hope. There is the possibility of compensation, but there is in history no right of return. Ask the Greeks of Asia Minor, the Turks of Greece, the Germans of Danzig and Breslau (today Gdansk and Wroclaw) — and the Jews of the Arab world.

When I was in Cairo recently, I saw a senior Western official who meets regularly with President Morsi. She told me she has no doubt of his belief in Israel’s right to exist and the urgent need for a two-state peace. Power is responsibility; it can change people. The United States should test Morsi by pressing him hard to forge Palestinian unity in pragmatism. That would remove an Israeli excuse for oppression that tramples on the Jewish state’s own best interests.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

It’s hard to turn on your TV or read an editorial page these days without encountering someone declaring, with an air of great seriousness, that excessive spending and the resulting budget deficit is our biggest problem. Such declarations are rarely accompanied by any argument about why we should believe this; it’s supposed to be part of what everyone knows.

This is, however, a case in which what everyone knows just ain’t so. The budget deficit isn’t our biggest problem, by a long shot. Furthermore, it’s a problem that is already, to a large degree, solved. The medium-term budget outlook isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either — and the long-term outlook gets much more attention than it should.

It’s true that right now we have a large federal budget deficit. But that deficit is mainly the result of a depressed economy — and you’re actually supposed to run deficits in a depressed economy to help support overall demand. The deficit will come down as the economy recovers: Revenue will rise while some categories of spending, such as unemployment benefits, will fall. Indeed, that’s already happening. (And similar things are happening at the state and local levels — for example, California appears to be back in budget surplus.)

Still, will economic recovery be enough to stabilize the fiscal outlook? The answer is, pretty much.

Recently the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities took Congressional Budget Office projections for the next decade and updated them to take account of two major deficit-reduction actions: the spending cuts agreed to in 2011, amounting to almost $1.5 trillion over the next decade; and the roughly $600 billion in tax increases on the affluent agreed to at the beginning of this year. What the center finds is a budget outlook that, as I said, isn’t great but isn’t terrible: It projects that the ratio of debt to G.D.P., the standard measure of America’s debt position, will be only modestly higher in 2022 than it is now.

The center calls for another $1.4 trillion in deficit reduction, which would completely stabilize the debt ratio; President Obama has called for roughly the same amount. Even without such actions, however, the budget outlook for the next 10 years doesn’t look at all alarming.

Now, projections that run further into the future do suggest trouble, as an aging population and rising health care costs continue to push federal spending higher. But here’s a question you almost never see seriously addressed: Why, exactly, should we believe that it’s necessary, or even possible, to decide right now how we will eventually address the budget issues of the 2030s?

Consider, for example, the case of Social Security. There was a case for paying down debt before the baby boomers began to retire, making it easier to pay full benefits later. But George W. Bush squandered the Clinton surplus on tax cuts and wars, and that window has closed. At this point, “reform” proposals are all about things like raising the retirement age or changing the inflation adjustment, moves that would gradually reduce benefits relative to current law. What problem is this supposed to solve?

Well, it’s probable (although not certain) that, within two or three decades, the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted, leaving the system unable to pay the full benefits specified by current law. So the plan is to avoid cuts in future benefits by committing right now to … cuts in future benefits. Huh?

O.K., you can argue that the adjustment to an aging population would be smoother if we commit to a glide path of benefit cuts now. On the other hand, by moving too soon we might lock in benefit cuts that turn out not to have been necessary. And much the same logic applies to Medicare. So there’s a reasonable argument for leaving the question of how to deal with future problems up to future politicians.

The point is that the case for urgent action now to reduce spending decades in the future is far weaker than conventional rhetoric might lead you to suspect. And, no, it’s nothing like the case for urgent action on climate change.

So, no big problem in the medium term, no strong case for worrying now about long-run budget issues.

The deficit scolds dominating policy debate will, of course, fiercely resist any attempt to downgrade their favorite issue. They love living in an atmosphere of fiscal crisis: It lets them stroke their chins and sound serious, and it also provides an excuse for slashing social programs, which often seems to be their real objective.

But neither the current deficit nor projected future spending deserve to be anywhere near the top of our political agenda. It’s time to focus on other stuff — like the still-depressed state of the economy and the still-terrible problem of long-term unemployment.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

January 8, 2013

Bobo thinks he knows “Why Hagel Was Picked.”  He squeals that as our budget braces for Medicare’s tyranny, we just need a good overseer to manage the inevitable military decline.  Jesus…  Mr. Cohen, in “Israel’s True Friends,” says the Hagel nomination will spur a much-needed debate in America on what constitutes friendship toward Israel.  In “Bloomberg Takes on the N.R.A.” Mr. Nocera says the country needs New York’s mayor to lead it to a saner gun policy.  Mr. Bruni, in “For Each Age, Its Agonies,” says “This is 40” and “Girls” uphold the tradition of deeming your own juncture of life the most significant of all.  Here’s Bobo’s latest tirade against old farts like me:

Americans don’t particularly like government, but they do want government to subsidize their health care. They believe that health care spending improves their lives more than any other public good. In a Quinnipiac poll, typical of many others, Americans opposed any cuts to Medicare by a margin of 70 percent to 25 percent.

In a democracy, voters get what they want, so the line tracing federal health care spending looks like the slope of a jet taking off from LaGuardia. Medicare spending is set to nearly double over the next decade. This is the crucial element driving all federal spending over the next few decades and pushing federal debt to about 250 percent of G.D.P. in 30 years.

There are no conceivable tax increases that can keep up with this spending rise. The Democrats had their best chance in a generation to raise revenue just now, and all they got was a measly $600 billion over 10 years. This is barely a wiggle on the revenue line and does nothing to change the overall fiscal picture.

As a result, health care spending, which people really appreciate, is squeezing out all other spending, which they value far less. Spending on domestic programs — for education, science, infrastructure and poverty relief — has already faced the squeeze and will take a huge hit in the years ahead. President Obama excoriated Paul Ryan for offering a budget that would cut spending on domestic programs from its historical norm of 3 or 4 percent of G.D.P. all the way back to 1.8 percent. But the Obama budget is the Ryan budget. According to the Office of Management and Budget, Obama will cut domestic discretionary spending back to 1.8 percent of G.D.P. in six years.

Advocates for children, education and the poor don’t even try to defend their programs by lobbying for cutbacks in Medicare. They know that given the choice, voters and politicians care more about middle-class seniors than about poor children.

So far, defense budgets have not been squeezed by the Medicare vice. But that is about to change. Oswald Spengler didn’t get much right, but he was certainly correct when he told European leaders that they could either be global military powers or pay for their welfare states, but they couldn’t do both.

Europeans, who are ahead of us in confronting that decision, have chosen welfare over global power. European nations can no longer perform many elemental tasks of moving troops and fighting. As late as the 1990s, Europeans were still spending 2.5 percent of G.D.P. on defense. Now that spending is closer to 1.5 percent, and, amid European malaise, it is bound to sink further.

The United States will undergo a similar process. The current budget calls for a steep but possibly appropriate decline in defense spending, from 4.3 percent of G.D.P. to 3 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

But defense planners are notoriously bad at estimating how fast postwar military cuts actually come. After Vietnam, the cold war and the 1991 gulf war, they vastly underestimated the size of the cuts that eventually materialized. And those cuts weren’t forced by the Medicare vice. The coming cuts are.

As the federal government becomes a health care state, there will have to be a generation of defense cuts that overwhelm anything in recent history. Keep in mind how brutal the budget pressure is going to be. According to the Government Accountability Office, if we act on entitlements today, we will still have to cut federal spending by 32 percent and raise taxes by 46 percent over the next 75 years to meet current obligations. If we postpone action for another decade, then we have to cut all non-interest federal spending by 37 percent and raise all taxes by 54 percent.

As this sort of crunch gradually tightens, Medicare will be the last to go. Spending on things like Head Start, scientific research and defense will go quicker. These spending cuts will transform America’s stature in the world, making us look a lot more like Europe today. This is why Adm. Mike Mullen called the national debt the country’s biggest security threat.

Chuck Hagel has been nominated to supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defense cutbacks. If a Democratic president is going to slash defense, he probably wants a Republican at the Pentagon to give him political cover, and he probably wants a decorated war hero to boot.

All the charges about Hagel’s views on Israel or Iran are secondary. The real question is, how will he begin this long cutting process? How will he balance modernizing the military and paying current personnel? How will he recalibrate American defense strategy with, say, 455,000 fewer service members?

How, in short, will Hagel supervise the beginning of America’s military decline? If members of Congress don’t want America to decline militarily, well, they have no one to blame but the voters and themselves.

Disgusting.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

President Obama’s decision to nominate Chuck Hagel, a maverick Republican with enough experience of war to loathe it, as his next secretary of defense is the right choice for many reasons, chief among them that it will provoke a serious debate on what constitutes real friendship toward Israel.

That debate, which will unfold during Senate confirmation hearings, is much needed because Jewish leadership in the United States is often unrepresentative of the many American Jews who have moved on from the view that the only legitimate support of Israel is unquestioning support of Israel, and the only mark of friendship is uncritical embrace of a friend.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, fired an opening salvo by telling CNN that, “This is an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel.”

The comment, based on Hagel’s lack of enthusiasm for war on Iran and his single allusion to advocates of Israel as “the Jewish lobby,” was of a piece with last year’s in-your-face Republican line that Obama, a strong supporter of Israeli security, had thrown Israel “under the bus.”

Jewish voters, who overwhelmingly favored Obama once again, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unsubtle nudges, demonstrated at the ballot box what they thought of this characterization of the president.

Identifying Israel’s enemies is easy. Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader, illustrated why when he declared: “Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on an inch of the land. We will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take.”

That is the sort of absolutist, annihilation-bent position that has been a losing proposition since 1948 and will continue to undermine the legitimate Palestinian quest for statehood alongside a secure Israel — the one embraced by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — for as long as it is advocated by self-serving merchants of hatred.

But deciding who Israel’s real friends are is more difficult — and that decision is critical both for Israel itself and for the future of U.S. policy toward the Jewish state.

The question has been on the president’s mind for a long time. During the 2008 campaign, in a meeting with the Cleveland Jewish community, Obama said: “This is where I get to be honest and I hope I’m not out of school here. I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we’re not going to make progress.”

He suggested that to equate asking “difficult questions” with “being soft or anti-Israel” was a barrier to moving forward.

Five years on, that needed dialogue has scarcely advanced. Self-styled “true friends” of Israel now lining up against the Hagel nomination are in fact true friends only of the Israeli right that pays no more than lip service to a two-state peace (when it even does that); scoffs at Palestinian national aspirations and culture; dismisses the significant West Bank reforms that have prepared Palestine for statehood; continues with settlement construction on the very shrinking land where a Palestinian state is envisaged (and was granted nonmember observer status at the United Nations last November by 138 votes to 9 with 41 abstentions, including Germany); cannot find a valid Palestinian interlocutor on the face of the earth despite the moderate reformist leadership of Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; ignores the grave implications for Israel of its unsustainable, corrosive dominion over another people and the question of how Israel can remain Jewish and democratic without a two-state solution (it cannot); bays for war with Iran despite the contrary opinions of many of Israel’s intelligence and military leaders; and propels Israel into repetitive miniwars of dubious strategic value.

These “true friends” shout the loudest. They are well-organized and remorseless.

Then there are the other friends of Israel, the quieter ones, the many who are unwaveringly committed to Israel’s security within its 1967 borders (with agreed land swaps); who believe continued settlement expansion in the West Bank is self-defeating and wrong; who hold that a good-faith quest for a two-state solution that will involve painful compromises on both sides (Palestinian abandonment of the “right of return” and Israeli abandonment of conquered land) is the only true path to Israeli security and the salvaging of its core Jewish values; who counsel against go-it-alone military adventurism against Iran; and who are troubled by a rightward nationalist drift in Israel whose central political tenet seems to be that holding on to all the land is doable and sustainable.

Hagel, like Obama, is a quiet strong friend of Israel. The movement against him is a relic of a binary with-Israel or against-Israel vision that does not have the true interests of Israel or the United States at heart.

Next up is Mr. Nocera:

TO: Michael Bloomberg

FROM: Joe Nocera

RE: Your Next Act

Dear Mayor Bloomberg,

This time next year, as you’re keenly aware, you will no longer be the mayor of New York. We all know how much you love the job, and how much you’ll miss it. No question about it: though you have had your critics (including, at times, me), you’ve been a very good mayor.

They say that you’re thinking a lot these days about what to do next. When you step down you’ll be 71, and plenty vital enough to do something significant. And of course, with a net worth of $20 billion or so, you certainly have the financial wherewithal to affect the issues that are important to you. You showed it in the last election, ginning up a super PAC and spending around $10 million on a handful of elections across the country where you thought your money could make a difference. Even though you got into the game late, you won more than you lost.

I know you have lots of interests, but after listening to you these past few weeks — ever since the horrible massacre in Newtown, Conn. — I am hoping you will direct your postmayoral energies to one issue: gun control. There is, quite simply, no one else in America who has a better chance of moving the country toward a saner gun policy than you. It is an effort worthy of your talents, and your money.

First, there is your obvious passion for the issue. They say it was your experience as mayor that sensitized you to the issue — and how could it not, with the funerals you’ve had to attend, and the mothers of murdered children you’ve had to console? Since the Newtown tragedy, no other high-profile politician has been as forceful in condemning gun violence and demanding “immediate action” in Congress. Millions of Americans — indeed, a majority of them — agree with you. They are looking for somebody to lead the charge against the National Rifle Association.

Second, though your message has been blunt, your tactics have been politically shrewd. In 2006, you started a new organization to fight gun violence: Mayors Against Illegal Guns. You thought that mayors had the credibility to reframe the issue as one of crime control, rather than gun control. Mayors Against Illegal Guns now has more than 800 mayors, and nearly one million “active supporters.” It has lobbyists in Washington and elsewhere, and has had success resisting recent N.R.A. legislative initiatives. Its short-term agenda — ban assault weapons, require background checks for all gun sales, make gun trafficking a federal crime, and so on — is a good, sensible place to start regulating guns.

Third — and let’s not be coy here — you’re rich. The N.R.A. has an annual budget that is reported to be $300 million. In 2011, the combined budgets of all the groups trying to prevent gun violence came to around $16 million. The best-known of those groups, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, has seen its support and its funding dwindle in recent years. Meanwhile, the N.R.A. and its allies have done a brilliant job at pushing through laws that make it nearly impossible to prevent gun violence. There are more than 200 members of Congress who regularly get a perfect score from the N.R.A. It is going to take money to change that because money is what Congress responds to.

To be honest, Mr. Mayor, I wish you could start tomorrow. With each passing day, the urgency that accompanied the Newtown shooting slips further away. President Obama, who seems absolutely terrified to take on the gun lobby, didn’t even mention guns when asked about his second-term priorities. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, has said that the first months of the new Congressional session will be devoted to the issue of federal spending. Guns, he said, will just have to wait.

In recent years, even in states that experienced horrific mass killings, gun laws have only become looser. In Virginia, the State Legislature repealed a law that barred people from buying more than one handgun a month, and passed a law “to allow permit holders to carry concealed and loaded weapons into bars and restaurants,” according to ProPublica. That same article reported that in Texas, two years after the Fort Hood shooting, legislators “gave gun carriers greater freedom to take their weapons to more places.”

The only two gun bills President Obama has signed were laws that expanded gun rights. “The country needs his leadership,” you said of Obama after he announced that Vice President Joe Biden was going to lead a panel making a new effort to reduce gun violence.

With all due respect, sir, what the country needs is your leadership on this issue. The sooner the better.

We’ll see a rational gun policy in this nation when pigs fly.  Teatard lunatics made a show of carrying weapons to political rallies and that was just fine (remember, IOKIYAR), but OWS peaceful protesters were pepper sprayed.  You think we’ll get gun control?  I don’t.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

In the new movie “This is 40,” the writer and director Judd Apatow casts the arrival of life’s four-decade mark as a uniquely brutal crossroads, flagged by sputtering libido, suffocating commitments and curdled dreams.

Judd, buddy, add another eight years, then talk to me. Your body will be even wobblier, your obligations weightier, and time running out more ruthlessly on the gaudiest of your plans. This is 48: in the mail last week, I got a solicitation from AARP. It included a membership card, ready to be activated just as soon as I send in dues, which won’t be anytime soon. And while that premature come-on reflects the group’s relentlessness more than anything else, it’s an accurate reminder that I’m closer to when I’ll quit working than to when I started, my hopes and my hair so fluffy and intact.

That was in my 20s, a period with travails all its own, depicted in another project that Apatow is involved in, as an executive producer. I speak of “Girls,” whose post-college, pre-mortgage heroines flail professionally, fumble romantically and make deeply puzzling wardrobe choices, their outfits emblems of their befuddlement.

The half-hour comedy-drama will begin its second season this coming weekend, and HBO made the first few episodes available to us media types, who have proved that we simply can’t stop gnawing on it. “Girls” is to cultural arbiters what rawhides are to cocker spaniels.

The new episodes immediately reintroduce Lena Dunham’s naked body, which was introduced aplenty in the old episodes. At this fleshy point I could draw it, I could paint it, I could probably reproduce it in clay. Dunham’s character, Hannah, has a new roommate, gay, and a new playmate, Republican. There’s considerable friction, out of bed as well as in.

And there’s a portrait of the period between 20 and 30 as one of peerlessly keen neediness and doubt. You yearn to believe that you’ve figured out the dating game, not yet realizing that it’s eternally unfathomable. You ache for an assurance that you’re pointed in a purposeful direction, but suspect that you’re going nowhere fast. Your desire to project confidence is inversely proportional to your store of it, and you have some really, really bad furniture. I recall, from my mid-20s, a lacquered black table with fake gold accents that cost me next to nothing except, for many years afterward, an undying, unspeakable shame.

We’re a self-absorbed species, and one wrinkle of our self-absorption is our tendency, reflected in our art and entertainment, to believe that there’s no passage of human existence as fraught with perils and as peculiarly significant as the one we just so happen to be going through. Dunham is 26, and “Girls,” which she created, is predicated on the notion that the 20s herald an inimitable sequence of humiliations and unrivaled state of ambivalence. Apatow is 45, and his new movie maintains that to enter your 40s is to encounter an especially messy set of questions about the road taken and the unsmooth pavement ahead. Could any other age compare?

Well, the 30s are no picnic, as we learned in the television drama “thirtysomething,” whose four-season run began in 1987, when its sires, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, turned 35. The characters they hatched were roughly their age peers, and turned soul searching into an exercise so vigorous it practically burned calories. Angst overwhelmed them as surely as hormones capsize teenagers.

Speaking of teens, they support whole submarkets of publishing and series of movies dedicated to reassuring them that their pimply predicament is by far the worst: cliques, virginity, trigonometry. But I’m clinging to the conviction that the late 40s are tougher — just try to find a 17-year-old whose left shoulder creaks like mine, and who suddenly has to pitch in thousands toward his apartment building’s new elevators — so that I can congratulate myself for every day I successfully muddle through, every smile I courageously summon.

Then again, this passage isn’t really so insufferable. By 48 you’ve come to know, and quite possibly accept, the well-intentioned wretch that you are, and you most likely have the furniture situation worked out.

The 20s, too, have their perks. You get the freedom of full-fledged adulthood but can make big mistakes without paying huge prices, because there are still so many opportunities ahead for amends.

Dunham isn’t blind to this. In “Girls” she finds the exhilaration amid the mortification. And Apatow’s new movie ultimately understands that being weighed down is just a pessimist’s way of looking at — and talking about — being grounded, which so many of us struggle to achieve. What feel like tethers one day feel like roots the next.

This is 25 and 35 and 40 and, I’ll wager, 50: a matchless kind of awful, a particular stripe of wonderful and just another phase in a struggle that, like our narcissism, is ageless.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

December 7, 2012

Bobo is whistling past the graveyard again.  In “The Republican Glastnost” he gurgles that speeches this week by Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Paul Ryan were the faint beginnings of a Republican revival.  No, Bobo, they weren’t.  They were fine examples of pandering, but not revival.  And let’s not forget that Mr. Rubio thinks the world was created 6000 years ago.  Mr. Cohen says “Thanks for Not Sharing,” and that there is a new urge to behave as if life were some global high-school reunion at which everyone has taken a horrific tell-all drug.  Prof. Krugman looks at “The Forgotten Millions” and says the “fiscal cliff” has everyone talking about a fiscal crisis. But what we should be talking about is a very real job crisis.  Here’s Bobo:

Senator Marco Rubio won the Jack Kemp Foundation’s Leadership Award earlier this week. In his speech accepting the award, he sketched out his Republican vision. Some of the policies he mentioned were pretty conventional for someone of his party: limiting regulations, approving the Keystone XL Pipeline. Some were less conventional, at least as the Republican Party has recently defined itself: creating more community health centers, investing in more teacher training, embracing Pell grants.

But the speech really began to sing toward the end. Rubio made an oblique rebuttal to some of the Republican gaffes during the campaign: “Some say that our problem is that the American people have changed. That too many people want things from government. But I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of our people just want what my parents had: a chance.”

Then he recalled an episode: “I was giving a speech at a fancy hotel in New York City. When I arrived at the banquet hall, I was approached by a group of three uniformed employees from the hotel’s catering department. They had seen my speech at the Republican convention, where I told the story of my father the banquet bartender. And they had a gift for me. They presented me with this name tag, which says, “Rubio, Banquet Bartender.”

As he was telling this story, Rubio motioned to some of the service staff at the Kemp dinner. They stopped to listen to him. “It all starts with our people,” Rubio continued. “In the kitchens of our hotels. In the landscaping crews that work in our neighborhoods. In the late-night janitorial shifts that clean our offices. There you will find the dreams America was built on. There you will find the promise of tomorrow. Their journey is our nation’s destiny. And if they can give their children what our parents gave us, the 21st-century America will be the single greatest nation that man has ever known.”

People at the dinner say that there was a hushed silence for a second as Rubio concluded with this refrain. Then a roaring ovation swelled and filled the room.

The Republican Party has a long way to go before it revives itself as a majority party. But that speech signifies a moment in that revival. And I would say the last month has marked a moment.

Over the past month, the Republican Party has changed far more than I expected. First, the people at the ideological extremes of the party have begun to self-ghettoize. The Tea Party movement attracted many people who are drawn to black and white certainties and lock-step unity. People like that have a tendency to migrate from mainstream politics, which is inevitably messy and impure, to ever more marginal oases of purity.

Jim DeMint, for example, is leaving the Senate to go lead the Heritage Foundation. He is leaving the center of the action, where immigration, tax and other reforms will be crafted, for a political advocacy organization known more for ideological purity and fund-raising prowess than for creativity, curiosity or intellectual innovation.

Second, politics is being reborn. For a time, Republican candidates like Richard Mourdock of Indiana proudly declared that they didn’t believe in compromise. Political activists spent more time purging deviationists than in trying to attract new converts.

But that mania has passed. There are increasing signs that House Republicans are willing to unite behind Speaker John Boehner so he can cut a deal to avert the “fiscal cliff.” There has been an epidemic of open-mindedness as Republicans try to win minority votes and create a version of their party that can be competitive in states like Connecticut and California.

Finally, there has even been some shifting of economic values, or at least in how the party presents those values. The other speaker at the Kemp dinner was Representative Paul Ryan, who spoke about how to alleviate poverty. He didn’t abandon any of his fundamental beliefs, but he framed those beliefs in a more welcoming way and opened up room for growth and new thinking.

The obligations to combat poverty, Ryan said, are beyond dispute. “The real debate is how best we can meet them. It’s whether they are better met by private groups or by government — by voluntary action or by government action. The truth is, there has to be a balance. Government must act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do.”

Like Rubio, Ryan projected a more balanced and attractive vision. He spoke with passion about those who long to rise.

The Republicans may still blow it. If President Obama is flexible and they don’t meet him partway, Republicans would contribute to a recession that would discredit them for a decade. But they are moving in the right direction and moving fast. These are first steps, and encouraging ones.

You keep on whistling, Bobo…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Let us ponder oversharing and status anxiety, the two great scourges of the modern world.

The third, by the way, is the safety obsession of today’s “wuss generation.” But I’ll leave that for another day.

So let us absorb the mass of unwanted shared personal information and images that wash over one, like some great viscous tide full of stuff one would rather not think about — other people’s need for Icelandic lumpfish caviar, their numb faces at the dentist, their waffles and sausage, their appointments with their therapists, their personal hygiene, their pimples and pets, their late babysitters, their grumpy starts to the day, their rude exchanges, their leaking roofs, their faith in homeopathy, their stressing out, and all the rest.

Please, O wired humanity, spare me, and not only the details.

It is tempting to call this unctuous ooze of status updates and vacation snaps seeping across Facebook and Twitter and the rest information overload. But that would be to debase the word “information.”

Now I was determined to get through 2012 without doing a peevish column, not wishing to appear cantankerous or curmudgeonly, determined to be sunny and youthful as the times demand, but everyone has a tipping point. Mine occurred when I came across this tweet from Claire:

“Have such a volcanically deep zit laying roots in my chin that it feels like someone hit me with a right cross.”

Good to know, Claire.

I was just recovering from that when I found Deanna tweeting that she had “picked up pet food” and was heading to “the dreaded consult on colon stuff. The joys of turning 50.” As for Kate she let the world know the status of her labor: “Contractions 3 minutes apart and dilated at 2 cm.”

Social media does not mean that you have to be that social.

And then there was a Facebook post from Scott telling Addie how she is “my lover, my heart” and — my own heart sank — his “best friend.” It is very fashionable these days to call the love of one’s life one’s best friend. I cannot imagine why. Surely one has best friends in part in order to be able to talk to them about the problems with one’s loves.

What is this compulsion to share? Sometimes, of course, it is just a mistake, the wrong button hit, or mishandling of privacy settings on Facebook. But there is a new urge to behave as if life were some global high-school reunion at which everyone has taken some horrific tell-all drug.

My theory is this. Humanity has always been hardwired to fear. That is how we survived. But the fear used to be of wild beasts prowling, the encroaching Visigoths, plague, world war. Now, in the pampered present, all that anxiety has to find a new focus. So, having searched long and hard, and helped by technology, we have come up with being anxious that our status might be falling or — the horror, the horror! — disintegrating.

Number of Twitter followers shrinking or not growing as fast as your friends’? Status anxiety attack begins. No e-mails or texts received in the past 78 minutes? Status anxiety attack accelerates. Got unfriended or discover by chance on LinkedIn that your 29-year-old college roommate is now running an agribusiness fund out of St. Louis that has assets of $47 billion and owns half of Madagascar? Status meltdown kicks in.

The only antidote, the only means to push that status up again, it seems, is to keep sharing more and more. Here I am — the posts and tweets and pix say — a being not anonymous but alive. I overshare therefore I am.

As you have seen, dear reader, oversharing and status anxiety are twinned phenomena turning humanity into crazed dogs chasing their tails.

I thought reading snail mail might provide some relief only to open a letter today from my dentist reminding me that I am due for a visit to the hygienist (I know, I am oversharing here.) The letter went on: “Surveys have shown that the first thing people notice when they meet is a smile. If you would like some advice on how we can help you improve your smile then please ask at your next visit and we’d be happy to advise you on the best solution.”

Being in a dark mood, I imagined some advice like: “After long reflection, sir, we are sorry to inform you that the best solution would be to change your face.”

Aaah, well, I decided to go up and see my 15-year-old daughter who, astonishingly, had her laptop open and was on Facebook. “I can’t believe this girl from camp,” she said. “She’s so in love she shares everything.”

“Like what?”

Adele read a couple of Amanda’s recent posts: “Lying in bed wearing my boyfriend’s sweatshirt wishing I could be with him.” And: “If I could reach up and hold a star for every time you’ve made me smile the entire evening sky would be in the palm of my hand.”

We laughed. You have to.

Last but not least, here’s Prof. Krugman, still a voice crying in the wilderness:

Let’s get one thing straight: America is not facing a fiscal crisis. It is, however, still very much experiencing a job crisis.

It’s easy to get confused about the fiscal thing, since everyone’s talking about the “fiscal cliff.” Indeed, one recent poll suggests that a large plurality of the public believes that the budget deficit will go up if we go off that cliff.

In fact, of course, it’s just the opposite: The danger is that the deficit will come down too much, too fast. And the reasons that might happen are purely political; we may be about to slash spending and raise taxes not because markets demand it, but because Republicans have been using blackmail as a bargaining strategy, and the president seems ready to call their bluff.

Moreover, despite years of warnings from the usual suspects about the dangers of deficits and debt, our government can borrow at incredibly low interest rates — interest rates on inflation-protected U.S. bonds are actually negative, so investors are paying our government to make use of their money. And don’t tell me that markets may suddenly turn on us. Remember, the U.S. government can’t run out of cash (it prints the stuff), so the worst that could happen would be a fall in the dollar, which wouldn’t be a terrible thing and might actually help the economy.

Yet there is a whole industry built around the promotion of deficit panic. Lavishly funded corporate groups keep hyping the danger of government debt and the urgency of deficit reduction now now now — except that these same groups are suddenly warning against too much deficit reduction. No wonder the public is confused.

Meanwhile, there is almost no organized pressure to deal with the terrible thing that is actually happening right now — namely, mass unemployment. Yes, we’ve made progress over the past year. But long-term unemployment remains at levels not seen since the Great Depression: as of October, 4.9 million Americans had been unemployed for more than six months, and 3.6 million had been out of work for more than a year.

When you see numbers like those, bear in mind that we’re looking at millions of human tragedies: at individuals and families whose lives are falling apart because they can’t find work, at savings consumed, homes lost and dreams destroyed. And the longer this goes on, the bigger the tragedy.

There are also huge dollars-and-cents costs to our unmet jobs crisis. When willing workers endure forced idleness society as a whole suffers from the waste of their efforts and talents. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that what we are actually producing falls short of what we could and should be producing by around 6 percent of G.D.P., or $900 billion a year.

Worse yet, there are good reasons to believe that high unemployment is undermining our future growth as well, as the long-term unemployed come to be considered unemployable, as investment falters in the face of inadequate sales.

So what can be done? The panic over the fiscal cliff has been revelatory. It shows that even the deficit scolds are closet Keynesians. That is, they believe that right now spending cuts and tax hikes would destroy jobs; it’s impossible to make that claim while denying that temporary spending increases and tax cuts would create jobs. Yes, our still-depressed economy needs more fiscal stimulus.

And, to his credit, President Obama did include a modest amount of stimulus in his initial budget offer; the White House, at least, hasn’t completely forgotten about the unemployed. Unfortunately, almost nobody expects those stimulus plans to be included in whatever deal is eventually reached.

So why aren’t we helping the unemployed? It’s not because we can’t afford it. Given those ultralow borrowing costs, plus the damage unemployment is doing to our economy and hence to the tax base, you can make a pretty good case that spending more to create jobs now would actually improve our long-run fiscal position.

Nor, I think, is it really ideology. Even Republicans, when opposing cuts in defense spending, immediately start talking about how such cuts would destroy jobs — and I’m sorry, but weaponized Keynesianism, the assertion that government spending creates jobs, but only if it goes to the military, doesn’t make sense.

No, in the end it’s hard to avoid concluding that it’s about class. Influential people in Washington aren’t worried about losing their jobs; by and large they don’t even know anyone who’s unemployed. The plight of the unemployed simply doesn’t loom large in their minds — and, of course, the unemployed don’t hire lobbyists or make big campaign contributions.

So the unemployment crisis goes on and on, even though we have both the knowledge and the means to solve it. It’s a vast tragedy — and it’s also an outrage.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

November 18, 2012

The Pasty Little Putz is stamping his little foot.  In “The Liberal Gloat” he whines that yes, the Democrats had a winning coalition, but the future is not so rosy for its members.  He’s an insufferable little shit.  MoDo has a question:  “Is Rice Cooked?”  She also asks why can’t women named Rice, yearning to be secretary of state, stop spinning?  It’s interesting.  The Times doesn’t seem to have allowed comments on this…  The Moustache of Wisdom says “If You’ve Got the Skills She’s Got the Job,” and that good-paying jobs are out there for those with the right kinds of training and education. Just listen to this businesswoman in Minnesota.  Typical MofW.  He picks a tiny individual case and extrapolates.  Mr. Kristof says “Inside Syria a Grandma Faces Down War,” and that talking to Syrians in rebel-held territory, you get a real sense of frightened moms and dads just trying to keep their kids alive. Or, in some cases, their grandchildren.  Mr. Bruni seems stunned that there’s no privacy any more.  In “Our Hard Drives, Ourselves” he reminds us that the Petraeus scandal, like so many before it, reminds us that cyberspace takes us down, even as it eggs us on.  Frankie, dear, you did realize at the time, didn’t you, what the implications of the Patriot Act were?  To say nothing of how you seem to have just realized how Teh Intertoobz work…  Here’s The Putz:

Winning an election doesn’t just offer the chance to govern the country. It offers a chance to feel morally and intellectually superior to the party you’ve just beaten. This is an inescapable aspect of democratic culture: no matter what reason tells us about the vagaries of politics, something in the American subconscious assumes that the voice of the people really is the voice of God, and that being part of a winning coalition must be a sign that you’re His chosen one as well.

This means the losing coalition must be doomed to wander east of Eden, and liberals have been having a good time with this idea of late. “Those poor, benighted Republicans!” runs the subtext of their postelection commentary. “They can’t read polls! They can’t reach Hispanics! They don’t understand women! They don’t have a team of Silicon Valley sorcerers running their turnout operations!”

Back in 2011, the Obama White House earned some mild mockery for its “win the future” slogan. But now that the president has been re-elected, the liberal conventional wisdom is that the Democrats have done just that — that Republicans are now Radio Shack to their Apple store, “The Waltons” to their “Modern Family,” a mediocre Norman Rockwell to their digital-age mosaic.

Maybe it’s too soon to pierce this cloud of postelection smugness. But in the spirit of friendly correction — or, O.K., maybe curmudgeonly annoyance — let me point out some slightly more unpleasant truths about the future that liberalism seems to be winning.

Liberals look at the Obama majority and see a coalition bound together by enlightened values — reason rather than superstition, tolerance rather than bigotry, equality rather than hierarchy. But it’s just as easy to see a coalition created by social disintegration and unified by economic fear.

Consider the Hispanic vote. Are Democrats winning Hispanics because they put forward a more welcoming face than Republicans do — one more in keeping with America’s tradition of assimilating migrants yearning to breathe free? Yes, up to a point. But they’re also winning recent immigrants because those immigrants often aren’t assimilating successfully — or worse, are assimilating downward, thanks to rising out-of-wedlock birthrates and high dropout rates. The Democratic edge among Hispanics depends heavily on these darker trends: the weaker that families and communities are, the more necessary government support inevitably seems.

Likewise with the growing number of unmarried Americans, especially unmarried women. Yes, social issues like abortion help explain why these voters lean Democratic. But the more important explanation is that single life is generally more insecure and chaotic than married life, and single life with children — which is now commonplace for women under 30 — is almost impossible to navigate without the support the welfare state provides.

Or consider the secular vote, which has been growing swiftly and tilts heavily toward Democrats. The liberal image of a non-churchgoing American is probably the “spiritual but not religious” seeker, or the bright young atheist reading Richard Dawkins. But the typical unchurched American is just as often an underemployed working-class man, whose secularism is less an intellectual choice than a symptom of his disconnection from community in general.

What unites all of these stories is the growing failure of America’s local associations — civic, familial, religious — to foster stability, encourage solidarity and make mobility possible.

This is a crisis that the Republican Party often badly misunderstands, casting Democratic-leaning voters as lazy moochers or spoiled children seeking “gifts” (as a certain former Republican presidential nominee would have it) rather than recognizing the reality of their economic struggles.

But if conservatives don’t acknowledge the crisis’s economic component, liberalism often seems indifferent to its deeper social roots. The progressive bias toward the capital-F Future, the old left-wing suspicion of faith and domesticity, the fact that Democrats have benefited politically from these trends — all of this makes it easy for liberals to just celebrate the emerging America, to minimize the costs of disrupted families and hollowed-out communities, and to treat the places where Americans have traditionally found solidarity outside the state (like the churches threatened by the Obama White House’s contraceptive mandate) as irritants or threats.

This is a great flaw in the liberal vision, because whatever role government plays in prosperity, transfer payments are not a sufficient foundation for middle-class success. It’s not a coincidence that the economic era that many liberals pine for — the great, egalitarian post-World War II boom — was an era that social conservatives remember fondly as well: a time of leaping church attendance, rising marriage rates and birthrates, and widespread civic renewal and engagement.

No such renewal seems to be on the horizon. That isn’t a judgment on the Obama White House, necessarily. But it is a judgment on a certain kind of blithe liberal optimism, and the confidence with which many Democrats assume their newly emerged majority is a sign of progress rather than decline.

He’s really unbearable, and got flayed alive in the comments.  Next up is MoDo:

Our Rice is better than your Rice.

That’s the argument Democrats are aggressively making against Republicans.

And it’s true. Condi Rice sold her soul. Susan Rice merely rented hers on the talk shows one Sunday in September.

Ambitious to be secretary of state, Condi jilted her mentor, Brent Scowcroft, who publicly opposed the Iraq invasion. In 2002, she bolted to the winning, warmongering side with W., Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, helping them twist intelligence and getting Foggy Bottom in return.

Ambitious to be secretary of state, Susan Rice wanted to prove she had the gravitas for the job and help out the White House. So the ambassador to the United Nations agreed to a National Security Council request to go on all five Sunday shows to talk about the attack on the American consulate in Libya.

“She saw this as a great opportunity to go out and close the stature gap,” said one administration official. “She was focused on the performance, not the content. People said, ‘It’s sad because it was one of her best performances.’ But it’s not a movie, it’s the news. Everyone in politics thinks, you just get your good talking points and learn them and reiterate them on camera. But what if they’re not good talking points? What if what you’re saying isn’t true, even if you’re saying it well?”

Testifying on Capitol Hill on Friday, the beheaded Head Spook David Petraeus said the C.I.A. knew quickly that the Benghazi raid was a terrorist attack.

“It was such a no-brainer,” one intelligence official told me.

Intelligence officials suspected affiliates of Al Qaeda and named them in their original talking points for Rice, but that information was deemed classified and was softened to “extremists” as the talking points were cycled past Justice, State, the National Security Council and other intelligence analysts.

As The Times’s Eric Schmitt wrote, some analysts worried that identifying the groups “could reveal that American spy services were eavesdropping on the militants — a fact most insurgents are already aware of.”

Rice was given the toned-down talking points, but she has access to classified information. Though she told Bob Schieffer on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the extremist elements could have included Qaeda affiliates or Al Qaeda itself, she mostly used her appearances to emphasize the story line of the spontaneous demonstration over an anti-Muslim video. She disputed the contention of the president of Libya’s General National Congress, who called the attack “preplanned” when he talked to Schieffer just before Rice.

Some have wondered if Rice, who has a bull-in-a-china-shop reputation, is diplomatic enough for the top diplomatic job. But she would have been wise to be more bull-in-a-china-shop and vet her talking points, given that members of the intelligence and diplomatic communities and sources in news accounts considered it a terrorist attack days before Rice went on the shows. (The president and his spokesman also clung to the video story for too long.)

Rice should have been wary of a White House staff with a tendency to gild the lily, with her pal Valerie Jarrett and other staffers zealous about casting the president in a more flattering light, like national security officials filigreeing the story of the raid on Osama to say Bin Laden fought back. Did administration officials foolishly assume that if affiliates of Al Qaeda were to blame, it would dilute the credit the president got for decimating Al Qaeda? Were aides overeager to keep Mitt Romney, who had stumbled after the Benghazi attack by accusing the president of appeasing Islamic extremists, on the defensive?

Writing in a 2002 book about President Clinton’s failure to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda, Samantha Power, now a National Security Council official, suggested that Rice was swayed by domestic politics when, as a rising star at the N.S.C. who would soon become Clinton’s director for African affairs, she mused about the ’94 midterms, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?”

An Africa expert, Rice should have realized that when a gang showed up with R.P.G.’s and mortars in a place known as a hotbed of Qaeda sympathizers and Islamic extremist training camps, it was not anger over a movie. She should have been savvy enough to wonder why the wily Hillary was avoiding the talk shows.

The president’s fierce defense of Rice had virile flare. But he might have been better off leaving it to aides, so he did not end up going mano a mano with his nemesis John McCain on an appointment he hasn’t even made (though now Obama might feel compelled to, just to prove that he can’t be pushed around), and so he could focus on fiscal cliff bipartisanship.

His argument that Rice “had nothing to do with Benghazi,” raises the question: Then why was she the point person?

The president’s protecting a diplomatic damsel in distress made Rice look more vulnerable, when her reason for doing those shows in the first place was to look more venerable.

Someone please tell me why this harpy is still employed.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Traci Tapani is not your usual C.E.O. For the last 19 years, she and her sister have been co-presidents of Wyoming Machine, a sheet metal company they inherited from their father in Stacy, Minn. I met Tapani at a meeting convened by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to discuss one of its biggest challenges today: finding the skilled workers that employers need to run local businesses. I’ll let Tapani take it from here:

“About 2009,” she explained, “when the economy was collapsing and there was a lot of unemployment, we were working with a company that got a contract to armor Humvees,” so her 55-person company “had to hire a lot of people. I was in the market looking for 10 welders. I had lots and lots of applicants, but they did not have enough skill to meet the standard for armoring Humvees. Many years ago, people learned to weld in a high school shop class or in a family business or farm, and they came up through the ranks and capped out at a certain skill level. They did not know the science behind welding,” so could not meet the new standards of the U.S. military and aerospace industry.

“They could make beautiful welds,” she said, “but they did not understand metallurgy, modern cleaning and brushing techniques” and how different metals and gases, pressures and temperatures had to be combined. Moreover, in small manufacturing businesses like hers, explained Tapani, “unlike a Chinese firm that does high-volume, low-tech jobs, we do a lot of low-volume, high-tech jobs, and each one has its own design drawings. So a welder has to be able to read and understand five different design drawings in a single day.”

Tapani eventually found a welder from another firm who had passed the American Welding Society Certified Welding Inspector exam, the industry’s gold standard, and he trained her welders — some of whom took several tries to pass the exam — so she could finish the job. Since then, Tapani trained a woman from Stacy, who had originally learned welding to make ends meet as a single mom. She took on the challenge of becoming a certified welding inspector, passed the exam and Tapani made her the company’s own in-house instructor, no longer relying on the local schools.

“She knows how to read a weld code. She can write work instructions and make sure that the people on the floor can weld to that instruction,” so “we solved the problem by training our own people,” said Tapani, adding that while schools are trying hard, training your own workers is often the only way for many employers to adapt to “the quick response time” demanded for “changing skills.” But even getting the right raw recruits is not easy. Welding “is a $20-an-hour job with health care, paid vacations and full benefits,” said Tapani, but “you have to have science and math. I can’t think of any job in my sheet metal fabrication company where math is not important. If you work in a manufacturing facility, you use math every day; you need to compute angles and understand what happens to a piece of metal when it’s bent to a certain angle.”

Who knew? Welding is now a STEM job — that is, a job that requires knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math.

Employers across America will tell you similar stories. It’s one reason we have three million open jobs around the country but 8 percent unemployment. We’re in the midst of a perfect storm: a Great Recession that has caused a sharp increase in unemployment and a Great Inflection — a merger of the information technology revolution and globalization that is simultaneously wiping out many decent-wage, middle-skilled jobs, which were the foundation of our middle class, and replacing them with decent-wage, high-skilled jobs. Every decent-paying job today takes more skill and more education, but too many Americans aren’t ready. This problem awaits us after the “fiscal cliff.”

“We need to be honest; there is a big case for Keynesian-style stimulus today, but that is not going to solve all our problems,” said the Harvard University labor economist Lawrence Katz. “The main reason the unemployment rate is higher today than it was in 2007, before the Great Recession, is because we have an ongoing cyclical unemployment problem — a lack of aggregate demand for labor — initiated by the financial crisis and persisting with continued housing market problems, consumers still deleveraging, the early cessation of fiscal stimulus compounded by cutbacks by state and local governments.” This is the main reason we went from around 5 percent to 8 percent unemployment.

But what is also true, says Katz, was that even before the Great Recession we had a mounting skills problem as a result of 25 years of U.S. education failing to keep up with rising skills demands, and it’s getting worse. There was almost a doubling of the college wage premium from 1980 to 2007 — that is, the extra income you earn from getting a two- or four-year degree. This was because there was a surge in demand for higher skills, as globalization and the I.T. revolution intensified, combined with a slowdown in the growth of supply of higher skills.

Many community colleges and universities simply can’t keep pace and teach to the new skill requirements, especially with their budgets being cut. We need a new “Race to the Top” that will hugely incentivize businesses to embed workers in universities to teach — and universities to embed professors inside businesses to learn — so we get a much better match between schooling and the job markets.

“The world no longer cares about what you know; the world only cares about what you can do with what you know,” explains Tony Wagner of Harvard, the author of “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.”

Eduardo Padrón, the president of Miami Dade College, the acclaimed pioneer in education-for-work, put it this way: “The skill shortage is real. Years ago, we started working with over 100 companies to meet their needs. Every program that we offer has an industry advisory committee that helps us with curriculum, mentorship, internships and scholarships. … Spanish-speaking immigrants used to be able to come here and get a decent job doing repetitive tasks in an office or factory and earn enough to buy a home and car and put their kids through school and enjoy middle-class status. That is no longer possible. … The big issue in America is not the fiscal deficit, but the deficit in understanding about education and the role it plays in the knowledge economy.”

The time when education — particularly the right kind of education — “could be a luxury for the few is long gone,” Padrón added.

The MofW seems amazed and upset that Ms. Trapani couldn’t find highly skilled welders in her town with a population of  1,457.  Tommy, it may have escaped your notice but sometimes if you run a business you sometimes have to TRAIN people.  Here’s Mr. Kristof, who is still in Bab Al-Salam, Syria:

A stout woman named Warda al-Haji was struggling to construct a mud dike in hopes of stopping rainwater from seeping into the tent that is her family’s fifth home this year. It was futile, but Ms. Haji kept busy to stave off the paralyzing question: Who in my family will be next to die?

Ms. Haji, 54, a strong and outspoken bundle of energy in a black hijab, has already lost her husband, son and daughter-in-law to the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

When you cross from Turkey into rebel-held Syrian territory, the geopolitical construct of “Syria” disappears. Instead, Syrians come into focus: aching, frightened moms and dads just trying to keep their kids alive.

Or, in Ms. Haji’s case, her grandchildren. Several months ago, one of her sons, Abbas, a barber, was riding his motorcycle with his wife, Leila, as she held their 10-day-old daughter in her arms. A government plane dropped a bomb nearby. Miraculously, Abbas and the baby were unhurt, but Leila was hit by shrapnel in the leg and bled to death.

Abbas gave the baby, renamed Leila in honor of her mother, to Ms. Haji to care for, and he crossed into Turkey with his four older children. A few weeks later, another of Ms. Haji’s sons, Muhammad, a fighter with the Free Syrian Army, was killed in an airstrike. Muhammad’s wife was emotionally shattered, and Ms. Haji inherited their seven children, the youngest just 4 months old.

So Ms. Haji now has eight children, two of them sickly infants, to look after in a leaking tent.

“There’s no food and the children get sick,” she said. “We just want to sleep without hearing bombs.”

I accompanied her as she took a sick granddaughter, 10-year-old Rokia, to a clinic. The doctor, Mustafa Hassano, is a reminder that Syrians are distinguished these days not just by their suffering, but also by their heroism.

Syrian doctors routinely treat the war injured, knowing that if they are caught doing this they may be tortured to death by the Assad regime’s security services. Dr. Hassano is wearied by a parade of children like Rokia who are sick as a consequence of war. Rokia has hepatitis A — along with 60 percent of the children in the camp for displaced people here — because of a lack of clean water and sanitation.

Ms. Haji’s life captures the torment of modern Syria. Her husband, Mahmood, an Army officer, was arrested in 1982 on suspicion of sympathizing with a legendary uprising in the city of Hama. He was tortured for months and finally executed, leaving Ms. Haji to raise their five children.

This time, she says, it’s worse, because — like 2.5 million Syrians — she’s homeless as well. People like her feel abandoned by the world.

“We see people in Gaza and cry for them; well, we need people to cry about us,” she said. “We ask for God’s help in ending this, and for Obama’s.”

Look, I know that the world has its own problems and isn’t much interested in Syria’s. There’s compassion fatigue, even when victims are 12-year-old kids like Muhammad al-Hares. He left his village one day to check on his aunt in the city of Aleppo, but found that her home had been destroyed. He tried to return to his own house, but fighting made that impossible.

Muhammad hid in a park in Aleppo as his parents fled their home and had no way to contact him. It took six weeks for him to find his family again. “I was afraid,” Muhammad said. “There were snipers and shelling.”

Syrians are exceptionally warm and welcoming to Western visitors these days. When I say I’m American, Syrians beam and sometimes even try to serve me tea. Yet there’s also a shadow of disappointment that the United States has been so passive as the humanitarian crisis has worsened.

“The U.S. is a great nation, and we hear Americans talking,” said Hussam Shamo, a Syrian relief official looking after 6,000 homeless people here. “But they’re not here.”

Mr. Shamo said that aside from a Turkish aid group, international aid organizations are providing no help in the camp he runs here in Bab al-Salam. “It’s a scandal,” he said, adding that as winter comes people desperately need blankets and mattresses — and also a no-fly zone so that those who still have homes can return to them without fear of bombings.

Some Syrians are starting to grumble, he said, that the United States must secretly want Mr. Assad to stay in power, because it isn’t doing anything significant to oust him.

The problem with Western dithering is not only that it allows the humanitarian crisis to grow, but that it’s also contrary to our own interests. I’m generally a fan of President Obama’s foreign policy, but, on Syria, he has been behind the curve from the beginning. It’s true that there are no good options here, but that’s a poor excuse for paralysis.

NATO should create a no-fly zone in northern Syria and provide weapons (short of antiaircraft missiles) and intelligence and training for the rebels, to break the stalemate. Otherwise, as the war drags on endlessly, more people are killed and injured, neighboring countries are destabilized, and Muslim extremists gain credibility because they do confront the regime. Worst of all, sectarian tensions are growing and could turn Syria into a Somalia.

Most of the displaced here are Sunni Muslims, and leaders of the Assad regime are members of the minority Alawite sect. That conflict is internalized even among children.

A 14-year-old boy, Muhammad Abbas, showed me scars on his stomach where a bomb had gravely injured him (and killed his best friend). He now must use a colostomy bag to collect his wastes.

“I blame the Alawites,” he said venomously. “They should all be killed.”

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni who seems to have just discovered that cyberspace isn’t private:

Ask yourself: if Anthony Weiner had been sitting on a bar stool when his libido flared, would he have reached out and flashed someone? Taken off his shirt, then taken off even more?

Highly doubtful. And it’s just as doubtful that if he’d been flirting with a groupie across a restaurant table, rather than on Facebook, he would have talked as dirty as he did. Too many potential eavesdroppers.

But cyberspace unleashed him, goading him to boldly go where no would-be New York City mayor should. And cyberspace undid him, creating an indelible record of where he’d traveled, and in what manner of undress. In lieu of eavesdroppers whom he could have disputed, he had digital footprints that he couldn’t deny, and they traced a path not to Gracie Mansion but to political ruin.

Like Tiger Woods and so many others before and after him, Weiner met up with what may go down as the greatest contradiction of contemporary life: how safe we feel at our touch pads and keyboards; how exposed and imperiled we really are.

That’s the contradiction that David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell are now coming to terms with, and the oxymoron brought to mind by the imprudent escapades of these two — along with the Tampa socialite with diplomatic “inviolability,” the other general with too much time for e-mail and the F.B.I. agent who made a mannequin sandwich of himself — isn’t “military intelligence.” It’s “electronic privacy.”

There’s no true, dependable privacy when we’re tapping or typing. And on one level we’re conscious of this. Major scandals, minor news stories and the plots of police procedurals remind us, time and again, that the seemingly evanescent communications through our smartphones, tablets, laptops (how presciently named!) and personal computers aren’t evanescent at all. They live on, float around and can be reeled in by a lawyer with a subpoena, a hacker with an agenda or a run-of-the-mill technician just letting his curiosity get the better of him.

But this awareness is more a faint beep at the edges of our thoughts than the screeching siren it should be. It doesn’t fully sink in, because it’s so dissonant with how protected and anonymous a cocoon we seem to inhabit when we’re texting, e-mailing or surfing the Web. A neighbor has no eyes or ears on what we’re up to. Neither does the co-worker in the adjacent cubicle, the pregnant woman nursing a decaffeinated latte at the next table or, for that matter, the significant other snoozing just a few inches away.

There’s a thrilling sense of isolation and permission, and the dim threat of eventual discovery is apparently no match for it. If it were, the example of the disgraced Congressman Mark Foley would have stopped Weiner, and the trials of the displaced Gov. Mark Sanford would have given Petraeus pause.

THE Petraeus drama reflects the enticements and betrayals of our new, disembodied modes of discourse. The come-ons, the flirtations, the stalking, the alleged harassment: all were abetted by the deceptive cloak of cyberspace, and all were immortalized there. It’s a story of people not just behaving badly but e-mailing badly as well. Has that now become a distinction without a difference? Have the lines entirely blurred?

Cyberspace gives people more than an illusion of protection. It gives them nerve, freeing them to engage in a kind of explicit and assertive dialogue that two people sitting across from each other, or even talking on the phone, would in most cases be too shy to broach. It allows for false fronts, a false bravado and, with both, a false, reckless velocity.

Back in the era of a Jane Austen novel, a suitor put pen to paper, his pace slow, his pauses frequent and the reply — itself written in longhand — probably weeks away. Romance had a rhythm that accommodated reconsideration. It had a built-in cooling-off period.

The sexting, cyber-assisted hookups and online affairs of today have nothing of the sort. They unfold at the speed of impulse, in part because they have such a hypothetical, provisional aspect, negotiated as they are in a cloud of sorts, no contact required. But their weightlessness is paired with their durable record.

That contradiction covers more than romantic overtures and erotic play, and anyone who sees nothing of himself or herself in the digital heedlessness of Petraeus or Weiner is focusing too narrowly on the sex.

Be honest: when’s the last time you tossed off a snide aside about a colleague or a secret about a friend in an e-mail whose retrieval would cause you not just embarrassment but actual trouble? A week ago? An hour ago?

You did it despite all the instances when you or someone you knew had mistyped the address at the top of an e-mail — such an easy error, given the way our precocious devices assume our thoughts and finish them for us — and the message had landed where it wasn’t supposed to.

You did it despite the knowledge that an employer with no compunction about intrusion could be spying.

And you did it because that glowing and treacherous screen in front of you is somehow the greenest light of all, persuading you that you’re alone with your malice, your mischief, your game of pretend. After all, how could a communion so faceless prompt a brutal unmasking?

Christ, that was moronic.  I have a vision of Mr. Bruni frantically scrubbing tweets…  What a schmuck.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

May 27, 2012

The Pasty Little Putz has taken it upon himself to instruct us all about “The Facebook Illusion,” and he declares that the Internet economy isn’t as revolutionary as we had hoped.  As usual, he’s wrong again.  About half the comments to his POS suggest that he read Mr. Nocera’s column from a few days ago so he can begin to understand what happened with Facebook’s IPO.  That’s gotta sting!  In “The Party Animals at the Secret Circus” MoDo has a question:  Is Mark Sullivan too naïve to watch over the boys-being-boys in the Secret Service?  The Moustache of Wisdom says “Obama Should Seize the High Ground,” and that President Obama has quite a record of accomplishment to run on for re-election if he would only run on it.   Mr. Kristof, in “From Tragedy to Triumph,” tells about a girl who survived a warlord’s atrocities and is now a one-armed high school basketball star in America — and testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.  Mr. Bruni looks at “The Emotional Tug of Obama,” and says that the president’s saga has a symbolism and sweep that his opponent hasn’t been able to match.  Here’s The Putz:

There were two grand illusions about the American economy in the first decade of the 21st century. One was the idea that housing prices were no longer tethered to normal economic trends, and instead would just keep going up and up. The second was the idea that in the age of Web 2.0, we were well on our way to figuring out how to make lots and lots of money on the Internet.

The first idea collapsed along with housing prices and the stock market in 2007 and 2008. But the Web 2.0 illusion survived long enough to cost credulous investors a small fortune last week, in Facebook’s disaster of an initial public offering.

I will confess to taking a certain amount of dyspeptic pleasure from Facebook’s hard landing, which had Bloomberg Businessweek declaring the I.P.O. “the biggest flop of the decade” after five days of trading. Of all the major hubs of Internet-era excitement, Mark Zuckerberg’s social networking site has always struck me as one of the most noxious, dependent for its success on the darker aspects of online life: the zeal for constant self-fashioning and self-promotion, the pursuit of virtual forms of “community” and “friendship” that bear only a passing resemblance to the genuine article, and the relentless diminution of the private sphere in the quest for advertising dollars.

But even readers who love Facebook, or at least cannot imagine life without it, should see its stock market failure as a sign of the commercial limits of the Internet. As The New Yorker’s John Cassidy pointed out in one of the more perceptive prelaunch pieces, the problem is not that Facebook doesn’t make money. It’s that it doesn’t make that much money, and doesn’t have an obvious way to make that much more of it, because (like so many online concerns) it hasn’t figured out how to effectively monetize its million upon millions of users. The result is a company that’s successful, certainly, but whose balance sheet is much less impressive than its ubiquitous online presence would suggest.

This “huge reach, limited profitability” problem is characteristic of the digital economy as a whole. As the George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen wrote in his 2011 e-book, “The Great Stagnation,” the Internet is a wonder when it comes to generating “cheap fun.” But because “so many of its products are free,” and because so much of a typical Web company’s work is “performed more or less automatically by the software and the servers,” the online world is rather less impressive when it comes to generating job growth.

It’s telling, in this regard, that the companies most often cited as digital-era successes, Apple and Amazon, both have business models that are firmly rooted in the production and delivery of nonvirtual goods. Apple’s core competency is building better and more beautiful appliances; Amazon’s is delivering everything from appliances to DVDs to diapers more swiftly and cheaply to your door.

By contrast, the more purely digital a company’s product, the fewer jobs it tends to create and the fewer dollars it can earn per user — a reality that journalists have become all too familiar with these last 10 years, and that Facebook’s investors collided with last week. There are exceptions to this rule, but not all that many: even pornography, long one of the Internet’s biggest moneymakers, has become steadily less profitable as amateur sites and videos have proliferated and the “professionals” have lost their monopoly on smut.

The German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote a book in 1952 entitled “Leisure: The Basis of Culture.” Pieper would no doubt be underwhelmed by the kind of culture that flourishes online, but leisure is clearly the basis of the Internet. From the lowbrow to the highbrow, LOLcats to Wikipedia, vast amounts of Internet content are created by people with no expectation of remuneration. The “new economy,” in this sense, isn’t always even a commercial economy at all. Instead, as Slate’s Matthew Yglesias has suggested, it’s a kind of hobbyist’s paradise, one that’s subsidized by surpluses from the old economy it was supposed to gradually replace.

A glance at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent unemployment numbers bears this reality out. Despite nearly two decades of dot-com enthusiasm, the information sector is still quite small relative to other sectors of the economy; it currently has one of the nation’s higher unemployment rates; and it’s one of the few sectors where unemployment has actually risen over the last year.

None of this makes the Internet any less revolutionary. But it’s created a cultural revolution more than an economic one. Twitter is not the Ford Motor Company; Google is not General Electric. And except when he sells our eyeballs to advertisers for a pittance, we won’t all be working for Mark Zuckerberg someday.

He’s such a schmuck.  Here’s MoDo:

The Secret Circus, as the traveling Secret Service extravaganza is known, had come to town. And the pack of macho Secret Service agents were hitting the clubs, drinking and hanging out with comely young women in alluring outfits.

That was half a century ago in Fort Worth at the Press Club and a joint called the Cellar, where the waitresses wore only underwear. The carousing started after midnight on Nov. 22, 1963, the day the agents were charged with keeping President Kennedy and Jackie safe in Dallas.

Boys will be boys. And no one doubts that being an agent is a tough job. John Malkovich, playing an aspiring presidential assassin in “In the Line of Fire,” muses to Clint Eastwood’s Secret Service agent: “Watching the president, I couldn’t help wondering why a man like you would risk his life to save a man like that. You have such a strange job. I can’t decide if it’s heroic or absurd.”

The heroism is captured in Robert Caro’s latest book on Lyndon Johnson, “The Passage of Power,” which vividly retells the story of the day J.F.K. was assassinated.

Rufus Youngblood, the Secret Service agent in the vice president’s car, grabbed “Johnson’s right shoulder, yanked him roughly down toward the floor in the center of the car, as he almost leaped over the front seat, and threw his body over the vice president, shouting again, ‘Get down! Get down,’ ” Caro writes, adding that L.B.J. said he would never forget Youngblood’s “knees in my back and his elbows in my back.”

The absurd was captured on Wednesday in a Senate hearing into Secret Service shenanigans, focused on the drinking and prostitution scandal in Cartagena last month, but also touching on an incident in 2008 when an on-duty uniformed agent was arrested for soliciting a D.C. police officer posing as a hooker, and an episode in 2002 when three to five agents were ordered home from the Salt Lake City Olympics for misconduct involving alcohol and under-age girls in their hotel rooms.

As The Washington Post reported, noting that some Secret Service employees call the road show “the Secret Circus,” one 29-year-old agent who was forced to resign after the Cartagena meshugas is protesting that he did not know the two women he brought to his room were prostitutes. Like Dudley Moore in “Arthur,” he just thought he was doing great with them.

Mark Sullivan, the Secret Service director, came across like a credulous Boy Scout under rigorous questioning from Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the homeland security panel.

He said he was sure, given that the Secret Service had 200 people in Colombia and only 12 bad apples, that someone on his team would have reported the misconduct — even if Arthur Huntington, the cheapskate cheating agent, hadn’t started a ruckus by handing his hooker $28 for a night worth $800.

Collins reminded Sullivan that he had told the panel about a survey of personnel in the Secret Service — a muscular fraternity that indulges a wheels-up, rings-off swagger — showing that only about 58 percent would report ethical misconduct.

“I came away with a sense of disbelief that Mr. Sullivan is still maintaining that this was an isolated event,” she told me. “I think he’s an extraordinarily honorable person who is so blindly devoted to the Secret Service that he just cannot conceive of agents’ acting in a way that he would personally never act.

“It’s going to make it difficult for him to truly solve the problem if he can’t admit that there was a problem.”

Collins professed a special fondness for law enforcement officers. “But most of the ones I know who have had 29 years of service have a less sanguine view of human nature,” she said. “That’s what Mark Sullivan totally lacks.”

Dryly, she noted: “Thank goodness it was just prostitutes. They could have been spies planting equipment. They could have blackmailed or drugged agents. This is Colombia, for heaven’s sake.”

Collins talked about the actions that led her to believe that the culture of the agency was warped.

“The 12 agents didn’t go out on the town together in one group, where arguably some could have gotten swept away with what was going on,” she said. “They went in small groups but with the same end results.

“And they made no effort whatsoever to conceal what they were doing. They were registered under their own names. The women registered under their own names. They didn’t go to an alternative place or to the women’s homes. They went back to the hotel where the other agents were staying, with no fear of ramifications if they were caught.”

Pronouncing herself “astonished,” Collins said she would keep after Sullivan to treat the matter more seriously.

“I hate to use the word naïve, but …”

Next up is The Moustache of Wisdom:

During a recent discussion in Seattle with a group of educators, one of them surprised me when she pointed out that even though their state did not win President Obama’s education “Race to the Top,” that program was critical in spurring education reform in Washington State. As I listened to her analysis, the thought occurred to me: I wonder how Barack Obama would do if he ran for president as himself. … How he would do if he ran for re-election on all the things he’s accomplished but rarely speaks about.

Barack Obama is a great orator, but he is the worst president I’ve ever seen when it comes to explaining his achievements, putting them in context, connecting with people on a gut level through repetition and thereby defining how the public views an issue.

Think about this: Is there anyone in America today who doesn’t either have a pre-existing medical condition or know someone who does and can’t get health insurance as a result? Yet two years after Obama’s health care bill became law, how many Americans understand that once it is fully implemented no American with a pre-existing condition will ever again be denied coverage?

“Obamacare is socialized medicine,” says the Republican Party. No, no — excuse me — socialized medicine is what we have now! People without insurance can go to an emergency ward or throw themselves on the mercy of a doctor, and the cost of all this uncompensated care is shared by all those who have insurance, raising your rates and mine. That is socialized medicine and that is what Obamacare ends. Yet Obama — the champion of private insurance for all — has allowed himself to be painted as a health care socialist.

Think about this: Obama didn’t just save the auto industry from bankruptcy. Two years later, he also got all the top U.S. automakers to agree to increase mileage for their vehicle fleets to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, from 27.5 m.p.g. today. As Popular Mechanics put it, this “is the largest mandatory fuel economy increase in history.” It will drive innovation, save money and make America less dependent on petro-dictators. Did you know Obama did this?

Finally, how did Obama ever allow this duality to take hold: “The Bush tax cuts” versus the “Obama bailout”? It should have been “the Bush deficit explosion” and the “Obama rescue.” Sure, the deficit has increased under Obama. It was largely to save the country from going into a Depression after a Bush-era binge that included two wars — which, for the first time in our history, we not only did not pay for with tax increases but instead accompanied with tax cuts — plus a 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill that we could not afford, then or now. Congressional Democrats also had a hand in this, but the idea that Bush gets to skate off into history as a “tax-cutter” and not as a “deficit buster” is a travesty. You can’t just blame Fox News. Obama has the bully pulpit.

But Obama is running even with Mitt Romney not simply because of what he didn’t say, but also because of what he didn’t do. As the former Obama budget director Peter Orszag notes, to get the economy moving again, what we’ve needed for the past two years is a plan of “combined boldness” — another stimulus focused on infrastructure that would grow jobs and enhance productivity combined with a credible, bipartisan plan for trimming future growth in Medicare and Social Security and reforming taxes to get our long-term fiscal house in order, as the economy improves.

In short, we needed more stimulus paired with some version of the Simpson-Bowles deficit plan. It is highly unlikely that you could “get one passed without the other, and you shouldn’t want to anyway,” said Orszag. Together they would launch the U.S. economy.

Obama, in fairness, tried a version of this with his “grand bargain” talks with the House speaker, John Boehner, but when those talks failed, Obama made a huge mistake. He should have gone straight to the country and repeated over and over: “I have a plan that will create millions of jobs and send the stock market soaring — near-term stimulus plus Simpson-Bowles — and the Republicans are blocking it.”

Obama could have adapted Simpson-Bowles, but symbolically it was vital to embrace it in some form as his headline deficit plan, because it already enjoyed some G.O.P. support and strong backing from independents, who liked the way it forced both parties to compromise. Had Obama gone to the country with more near-term stimulus married to Simpson-Bowles, he would have owned the left, independents and center-right. It would have split the Republicans and provided a real alternative to the radical Paul Ryan-Romney plan.

Instead, Obama retreated to his left base, offered a stimulus without Simpson-Bowles and started talking about “fairness.” The result has been a muddled message that has alienated independent/center-right voters who put him over the top in 2008. Don’t get me wrong: I want fairness, but fairness that comes from a growing economy and comprehensive tax reform not from redividing a shrinking pie.

In sum, Obama’s campaign right now feels as though it were made in a test tube by political consultants. It’s not the Obama we admire. Rather than pounding the country with “I have a plan” — a rebuilding stimulus plus Simpson-Bowles — which would be an Obama-like message of hope, leadership and unity that would put him on higher ground that Romney can’t reach because of the radical G.O.P. base, Obama is selling poll-tested wedge issues. I don’t think it’s a winner for him or America.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Before I tell you about a one-armed teenager who is a star athlete at her high school in Washington, D.C., let me take you back a dozen years to Sierra Leone, in West Africa.

A little girl there became an unlikely global symbol of human depravity. Sometimes dubbed “peace girl,” she had the sweetest smile and an amputated arm — making her the much-photographed poster child of atrocities committed by a militia that chopped off the arms and feet of civilians. Madeleine Albright, who was then the secretary of state, was photographed cradling the girl, and Sierra Leone’s president took her to peace talks.

Those wrenching images of this girl, whose arm was amputated after she was shot, and other children whose limbs were hacked off by the militia built the global political will to intervene and end Sierra Leone’s civil war (Britain did the heavy lifting). I had been fascinated by the girl as an example of the power of individual stories to help end mass atrocities — and then I heard, from Albright, that she is now an American.

I dropped by her home in Washington and found 15-year-old Memuna Mansaray McShane, a wonderfully adjusted high school freshman who plays on her school’s varsity soccer and basketball teams.

“In basketball, you only use one arm,” she explained. She paused for a moment, and then acknowledged: “Except to shoot or catch the ball.” Another pause and a sheepish smile: “I guess that’s a lot.”

She added defiantly: “I can do anything people with two arms can do. Except monkey bars.”

Memuna has no clear memory of her early childhood in Sierra Leone, but she has a photo of her family on the eve of war. She is with her parents and three brothers, all beaming contentedly in what seems a well-off house in the capital.

Then the militia attacked. Her father fled to a different part of Sierra Leone and later died in unclear circumstances. After he left, Memuna’s mother and grandmother apparently took the 2-year-old girl and hid in a mosque. By some accounts, it was Memuna’s crying that caused the fighters to look for people hiding there.

When the fighters entered, the grandmother picked up Memuna and ran. The gunmen shot the grandmother dead, and some of the bullets shattered Memuna’s arm and grazed her side.

Memuna’s mother apparently ran toward her injured daughter. That’s when the gunmen shot her; she died of her wounds about a month later.

Memuna’s older brother, Alhaji Mansaray, then just 11 years old, scooped up Memuna and carried her to a hospital across town, saving her life. But the hospital was in chaos, and it took three days for a doctor to see her. By then it was necessary to amputate her arm just below the shoulder.

At age 4, Memuna was brought to the United States by the Rotary Foundation for medical treatment. Two years later, she was adopted by Kelly and Kevin McShane; Kelly had worked in Sierra Leone in the Peace Corps.

Memuna was spoiled at first: she had figured out that adults cave at demands from an adorable one-armed girl who cries. But the McShanes would have none of that. They have a son, Michael, the same age as Memuna and a daughter, Molly, two years older, and Memuna ended up having to wash the dishes along with the other kids.

“We just wanted her to be a normal little girl,” Kelly explained.

Indeed, Memuna seems to have had a fairly typical life. “We had trouble teaching her to ride a bike,” Kelly said. “But we went rock climbing, swimming, pretty much everything.”

Memuna was impressed the first time she searched the Web for her own name and saw the photos. “I thought it was pretty cool that I got to meet all these famous people, like Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton,” she said.

The McShanes have made two family trips to Sierra Leone, and Memuna was taken aback at her fame there. “A lot of people were crying and saying, ‘You’re alive!’ ” she remembered. The McShanes hope to bring her three brothers, including the one who saved her life, to Washington for a visit this year if they can get American visas.

Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who helped engineer the Sierra Leone savagery, recently became the first former head of state to be convicted of war crimes by an international court since the Nuremberg trials. Justice triumphed, and Sierra Leone has moved on. So has Memuna.

Once a symbol of suffering caused by the human capacity for evil, she’s now just a teenage girl with dazzling moves on the basketball court. She’s a poster child of nothing at all — just a happy kid who is a powerful emblem of the human capacity for resilience.

Last but not least, here’s Mr. Bruni:

Forget your political affiliation. Never mind your assessment of his time in office so far. If you have any kind of heart, you’re struck by it: the photograph of Barack Obama bent down so that a young black boy can touch his head and see if the president’s hair is indeed like his own. It moves you. It also speaks to a way in which Obama and Mitt Romney, whose campaigns are picking up the pace just as polls show them neck and neck, are profoundly mismatched.

In a story that quickly went viral, The Times’s Jackie Calmes wrote last week about the photograph, which was taken three years ago when the boy, then 5, visited the White House. It has hung there ever since, left on the wall even as other pictures were swapped out, as is the custom, for newer, fresher ones.

David Axelrod, one of the chief architects of Obama’s political career, told Calmes: “It doesn’t take a big leap to think that child could be thinking, ‘Maybe I could be here someday.’ This can be such a cynical business, and then there are moments like that that just remind you that it’s worth it.”

Axelrod’s words, meanwhile, are a reminder that more than three and a half years after Obama made history as the first black man elected to the presidency, he still presents more than a résumé and an agenda. He still personifies the hope, to borrow a noun that he has used, that we really might evolve into the colorblind, fair-minded country that many of us want. His own saga taps into the larger story of this country’s fitful, unfinished progress toward its stated ideal of equal opportunity.

And that gives many voters an emotional connection to him that they simply don’t have to most other politicians, including Romney, a privileged and intensely private man whose strengths don’t include the easy ability to humanize himself. There’s a Mitt-versus-myth element to the 2012 campaign, and it influences the manner in which Romney’s supporters and Romney himself engage the president and make their pitch. They must and do emphasize job-creation numbers over personal narrative, the technocratic over the touchy-feely.

Obama and his advisers don’t exactly tack in the opposite direction. Understandably concerned about longstanding prejudices, they don’t invoke his racial identity all that frequently.

But when they do, it’s powerful. The photograph released last week instantly reminded me of one taken in mid-April, when Obama visited a museum in Dearborn, Mich. It showed him seated in the bus that Rosa Parks made famous. And it, too, pinged fast and far around the Web.

Although race represents a less central dynamic for Obama now than it did in 2008, it’s a factor in his political fortunes nonetheless. It poisons some of his opponents, pumping them full of a toxic zeal beyond the partisan norm. How else to explain their obsession with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or the lunatic persistence of the “birthers,” including the Arizona secretary of state, who didn’t drop his threat to keep Obama off the state ballot until Wednesday? Even as he quieted down, Donald Trump piped up, raising questions yet again about where Obama was born, though Trump’s motivations are surely less racist than narcissistic, even entrepreneurial. For him attention is attention and ratings are ratings, no matter how repulsively drummed up.

BUT race is also a central theme — the central theme — in Obama’s own telling of his journey. It’s how he explains where he has come from and how far he has traveled. His best-selling memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” is subtitled “A Story of Race and Inheritance.” In the first sentences of his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he noted that his “presence on this stage is pretty unlikely” and that his father was “born and raised in a small village in Kenya.”

Race is the obstacle he has overcome, the trail he has blazed. And that, I think, is what Geraldine Ferraro, a supporter of Hillary Clinton’s, was clumsily trying to get at during the Democratic primaries in 2008, when she drew attention to the color of Obama’s skin and said that he “happens to be very lucky to be who he is.”

Although Romney would be the first Mormon president, that milestone doesn’t fit into the country’s history in the same way. Although his religion, like Obama’s race, has made him an outsider in certain circumstances and at certain times, that’s not something he or his supporters really promote.

And to a degree that’s striking in the age of Oprah, he hasn’t succeeded in rummaging through his biography for the sorts of broadly inspirational chapters that can help a candidate bond with voters. Even George W. Bush, another child of privilege and political scion, had his tale of midlife remorse and redemption: an end to drinking, a beginning of Bible study. Romney has … the Salt Lake City Olympics?

On top of which, he seems to be congenitally closed-off and palpably awkward about transforming the personal into the political. He has five sons, all shepherded safely into adulthood. But he hasn’t mined fatherhood for memorable material. And Ann Romney has spoken more poignantly about his support for her in her illness than he has managed to.

In the end, that may not make a whit of difference. If swing voters were driven chiefly by candidates’ biographies, political analysts trying to predict election outcomes wouldn’t dwell so much on external measures like unemployment figures and right-track, wrong-track numbers. And if eloquence alone won the day, then these two candidates’ advocates wouldn’t believe, as more than a few of them do, that after all the speechifying and fund-raising and advertising, the results will boil down to positive or negative economic developments outside either man’s — or either campaign’s — control.

But if there are no clear developments one way or the other? If there’s an ongoing recovery, but a meager, tentative one at that? Then the spoils will most likely go to the candidate who makes the better case for himself. And that’s a battle over more than Bain Capital, the Keystone XL pipeline and the individual mandate. That’s a war for hearts as well.

 

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

April 1, 2012

The Pasty Little Putz will now explain “The Genius of the Mandate.”  He squeaks that health care reform passed this time because it hid the costs and co-opted potential critics.  Typical garbage, and of course he neglects to mention that the mandate was originally a Republican idea.  In “She’s Fit to be Tied” MoDo fizzes on about the story of E: how E L James whipped up a new frenzy toying with old conventions.  She must have found her subject VERY exciting, since she fizzed for 50% longer than usual.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Why Nations Fail,” says a fascinating new book explains who’s up, who’s down and why.  Apparently the premise is “Nations thrive when they develop ‘inclusive’ political and economic institutions, and they fail when those institutions become ‘extractive’ and concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of only a few. ”  So my feeling that the country is on the skids and just about to head over the cliff may be right.  Mr. Kristof looks at “Financiers and Sex Trafficking” and says embarrassed, Goldman Sachs decides to sell its stake in a prostitution Web site.  Mr. Bruni looks at “The Bleaker Sex” and says the new HBO show “Girls” suggests that some realities of modern life have made the bedroom even more befuddling.  From what he says the show sounds ghastly.  Here’s The Putz:

When the Obama White House set out to make the liberal dream of universal health coverage a reality, it faced two obvious political obstacles. The first was the power of the interlocking interest groups — insurance companies, physician associations, pharmaceutical companies — that potentially stood to lose money and power in a comprehensive reform. The second was the price tag of a universal health care entitlement, which promised to be high enough to frighten vulnerable members of Congress.

The key to overcoming both obstacles, it turned out, was the mandate to purchase health insurance.

In arguments before the Supreme Court last week, the health care mandate was defended as a kind of technocratic marvel — the only policy capable of preventing the complex machinery of reform from leaking smoke and spitting lug nuts.

But the mandate is actually a more political sort of marvel. In the negotiations over health care reform, it protected the Democratic bill on two fronts at once: buying off some of the most influential interest groups even as it hid the true cost of universal coverage.

The mandate offered the interest groups what all entrenched industries desire: a fresh and captive market for their products. For the insurance companies, it promised enough new business to offset the cost of covering Americans with pre-existing conditions. For the health care sector as a whole, it guaranteed that disposable income currently being spent on other goods and services would be spent on its instead.

This explains why the health care bill was ultimately backed by so many industry lobbying groups, from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America to the American Medical Association. It explains why the big insurers, while opposing the final legislation, never attacked it as vigorously as they did Bill Clinton’s ill-fated reform effort.

At the same time, by requiring the private purchase of insurance, the mandate kept the true cost of the health care expansion off the government’s books, and largely out of the Congressional debate. As the Cato Institute’s Michael Cannon has noted, during the Clinton era the Congressional Budget Office scored an individual mandate as a form of government spending, which pushed the official cost of the Clinton bill into the trillions. But the Obama White House was savvier in its mandate design, and the C.B.O. was more compliant in its scoring. As a result, a bill that might require over $2 trillion in new health care spending — private as well as public — over its first decade was sold with a $900 billion price tag.

So the mandate was politically brilliant, in a sense. But its brilliance was evanescent. Founding a new entitlement on an insider-friendly sleight-of-hand made the bill much easier to pass. But it’s made it harder to defend thereafter, both in the court of law and the court of public opinion.

The mandate’s constitutionality is a thorny issue, and conservatives normally skeptical of judicial activism should probably be a little less eager to see major legislation set aside by a 5-to-4 majority. But the provision is unpopular enough that it’s unlikely to survive in the long run even if Anthony Kennedy flips a coin and decides to uphold it.

Liberals are counting on the fact that “only” seven million Americans will be initially exposed to the mandate’s requirements. But as the economist Tyler Cowen notes, there’s every reason to think that rising health care costs will make the mandate more burdensome with time. And a provision that’s already become a symbol of government overreach seems unlikely to become more popular once there are thousands of individuals and businesses with concrete grievances against it.

The reality is that the more treatments advanced medicine can offer us (and charge us for), the harder it becomes to guarantee the kind of truly universal, truly comprehensive coverage that liberals have sought for years. The individual mandate conceals these realities, but it doesn’t do away with them. If it’s repealed or swept aside, both left and right might be able to focus on a more plausible goal: not a perfectly universal system, but more modest reforms that would help the hardest-pressed among the uninsured.

For conservatives, these reforms might look like the proposals that James Capretta and Robert Moffit outline in the latest issue of National Affairs — a tax credit available to people whose employers don’t offer insurance, better-financed high-risk pools and stronger guarantees of continuous coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.

Liberals, for their part, would probably focus on gradually expanding Medicaid and Medicare to cover more of the near-elderly and the near-poor, creating a larger public system alongside the private marketplace. Indeed, the White House apparently considered switching to exactly this approach in the aftermath of Scott Brown’s surprise Senate win.

In the end, incrementalism wasn’t ambitious enough to satisfy President Obama. But given the drift of last week’s Supreme Court arguments, he may be wishing that he’d settled for something less ideal, but more sustainable, than the bill the mandate built.

At least TRY to be honest, Putz.  Almost all your lot in the House support Paul Ryan’s POS.  Weasel.  Here’s MoDo and her fizzing:

When I was 14, I sneaked into the empty bedroom of my scholarly older brother to poke around in his bookcase. Tucked behind his law school tomes and Winston Churchill memoirs, I found the “Story of O.”

I was quickly submerged in the submissive: masks, chains, brands, whips, blindfolds, piercings.

In the classic bondage novel written in 1954 by the French author Anne Desclos under the name Pauline Réage, a beautiful, young fashion photographer agrees to be the slave of a powerful master who turns her into “a mannequin of perversion,” as The Times’s 1966 review said.

Even skimming, the book was too scary for me, so I stuck it back in its hidden spot and scampered away.

Now comes the story of E, a London writer named Erika whose pseudonym is E L James. The plump, happily married 40-something mother and former television producer seems like “a normal lady,” as one shocked Hollywood agent put it.

Yet she has written the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy, bondage-themed romanticas that have evoked hysteria, whipping up a frenzy with the housewives of Long Island and rippling out from there.

James started writing the series as “Twilight” fan fiction under the pen name Snowqueens Icedragon, spinning another strange, obsessive love story in misty Washington State with a pale, virginal 21-year-old brunet student named Anastasia Steele and a breathtakingly handsome, 27-year-old telecommunications mogul named Christian Grey.

There is, naturally, a barrier, but this time it’s not supernatural; it’s that Grey wants Ana to be his “sub.” (Not the sandwich, though she does fix him subs with the French bread he favors.)

“I type ‘Submissive’ into Wikipedia,” Ana says. “Half an hour later, I feel slight queasy and frankly shocked to my core.” But soon she decides “some of this stuff is HOT.” Especially because he gives her looks so steamy that they “could be solely responsible for global warming.”

Even though James writes like a Brontë devoid of talent, her saga is the first smash hit in the era of “Mommy’s naughty reader,” as a 10-year-old dubbed it in The Wall Street Journal. Women can now download electronic erotica on their Kindles, Nooks and iPads anywhere they want, with no bodice-ripping Fabio cover to give them away.

“I told my mah-jongg group, ‘Oh my God, you have to read it,’ ” Janice Abarbanel, a 57-year-old jewelry maker and mother of two, told The Boston Globe. “It makes you think you could add more spice to your life.”

Even though bondage movies have had a troubled history — the embarrassing “9 ½ Weeks” and “Exit to Eden” — Hollywood had a bidding war over the movie rights, which were sold to Universal and Focus Features for $5 million.

In a season when Rick Santorum and other conservatives are on a tear trying to debase women, it’s natural to wonder why women are thronging to the story of an innocent who jumps into the arms of a Seattle sadist with a “Red Room of Pain” full of chains, clamps, whips, canes, flogs and cuffs, falling in love to the soundtrack of the Police’s “King of Pain.”

Admittedly, Grey, the libertine with the gray eyes and copper curls, uses winking smiley emoticons, believes in monogamy and likes to dance to Frank Sinatra. So he’s not as ominous as the orgy-loving sadists in the “Story of O.”

But he does want Anastasia to sign a contract to be a weekend Submissive, to always keep her eyes cast down, call him “Sir,” stay “shaved and/or waxed” and not snack between meals (except fruit). The contract stipulates that “the Dominant may flog, spank, whip or corporally punish the Submissive as he sees fit, for purposes of discipline, for his own personal enjoyment or for any other reason, which he is not obliged to provide.”

He shows he’s not a total ogre in the appendix, when he stipulates there will be “no acts involving fire play,” children, animals or “gynecological medical instruments.” He gives her safe words: “yellow” means caution and “red” means stop. And he buys her a platinum and diamond bracelet to cover the bruises on her wrist.

Anastasia’s typical response to sex or anything else is “Holy cow!” In fact, she utters that phrase 84 irritating times in the trilogy.

“ ‘Venus in Fur’ it ain’t,” Erica Jong told me. “It’s dull and poorly written. A girl falling in love with a rich guy is very 80s.”

Although the book is being snapped up because it seems daring, a woman I know who works as a phone dominatrix under the nom de dom Jennifer Hunter dismisses it as “just another conventional depiction of female submission. And more off-putting than most. Same old same old.”

James cleaves to hoary conventions out of Harlequin: powerful and wealthy heroes with a sense of entitlement who need to be rescued; smart and strong-willed heroines who tame their men.

“Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded,” a novel written in two volumes by Samuel Richardson and published in 1740, tells the story of a 15-year-old maidservant whose noble master becomes infatuated with her. He kidnaps her, locks her up in one of his estates and tries to seduce and rape her, but eventually her innocence, intelligence, resistance and love persuade him to straighten up, ignore class differences and marry her.

Just so, Anne Rice, the godmother of vampire and S&M fantasies, told me, “ ‘Twilight’ is like ‘Jane Eyre.’ ” Or Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.” As is “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

A mousy, virginal girl who is spirited beneath her shy demeanor falls in love with a rich, arrogant man. She learns that he’s damaged, but decides to persevere and heal him through her transforming love. H.E.A., as they say in romantica: Happily Ever After.

The Harvard-educated Hunter asserts that most women are sexually submissive — “the sexually dominant woman is that rara avis” — and scoffs at the idea that anything in the book is offensive except its overwrought prose.

“Every good dominant knows that the submissive is really the partner in control,” she says. “All a submissive woman has to do is relax and enjoy the ride while delicious sexual acts are visited upon her. She’s the star of the proceedings. Someone is ministering to her needs for a change. Master is choreographing all the action. The book seems to have resonated with so many women because, after a long day of managing employees, making all the decisions and looking after children, a woman might be exhausted about being in charge and long to surrender control.”

Helen Fisher, the anthropologist and Rutgers professor, warns keening feminists: “Let’s not confuse the bedroom and the boardroom. This is the world of fantasy and play.” In the animal kingdom, she says, females surrender and males dominate, with female robins looking for the male robin with the reddest breast and best leafy real estate.

Rice agrees that submission fantasies are no big deal: “A woman has the right to pretend she’s being raped by a pirate if that’s what she wants to pretend. Very few people act out their fantasies, except in Northern California.”

Possibly TMI, MoDo…  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

I’m reading a fascinating new book called “Why Nations Fail.” The more you read it, the more you appreciate what a fool’s errand we’re on in Afghanistan and how much we need to totally revamp our whole foreign aid strategy. But most intriguing are the warning flares the authors put up about both America and China.

Co-authored by the M.I.T. economist Daron Acemoglu and the Harvard political scientist James A. Robinson, “Why Nations Fail” argues that the key differentiator between countries is “institutions.” Nations thrive when they develop “inclusive” political and economic institutions, and they fail when those institutions become “extractive” and concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of only a few.

“Inclusive economic institutions that enforce property rights, create a level playing field, and encourage investments in new technologies and skills are more conducive to economic growth than extractive economic institutions that are structured to extract resources from the many by the few,” they write.

“Inclusive economic institutions, are in turn supported by, and support, inclusive political institutions,” which “distribute political power widely in a pluralistic manner and are able to achieve some amount of political centralization so as to establish law and order, the foundations of secure property rights, and an inclusive market economy.” Conversely, extractive political institutions that concentrate power in the hands of a few reinforce extractive economic institutions to hold power.

Acemoglu explained in an interview that their core point is that countries thrive when they build political and economic institutions that “unleash,” empower and protect the full potential of each citizen to innovate, invest and develop. Compare how well Eastern Europe has done since the fall of communism with post-Soviet states like Georgia or Uzbekistan, or Israel versus the Arab states, or Kurdistan versus the rest of Iraq. It’s all in the institutions.

The lesson of history, the authors argue, is that you can’t get your economics right if you don’t get your politics right, which is why they don’t buy the notion that China has found the magic formula for combining political control and economic growth.

“Our analysis,” says Acemoglu, “is that China is experiencing growth under extractive institutions — under the authoritarian grip of the Communist Party, which has been able to monopolize power and mobilize resources at a scale that has allowed for a burst of economic growth starting from a very low base,” but it’s not sustainable because it doesn’t foster the degree of “creative destruction” that is so vital for innovation and higher incomes.

“Sustained economic growth requires innovation,” the authors write, “and innovation cannot be decoupled from creative destruction, which replaces the old with the new in the economic realm and also destabilizes established power relations in politics.”

“Unless China makes the transition to an economy based on creative destruction, its growth will not last,” argues Acemoglu. But can you imagine a 20-year-old college dropout in China being allowed to start a company that challenges a whole sector of state-owned Chinese companies funded by state-owned banks? he asks.

The post-9/11 view that what ailed the Arab world and Afghanistan was a lack of democracy was not wrong, said Acemoglu. What was wrong was thinking that we could easily export it. Democratic change, to be sustainable, has to emerge from grassroots movements, “but that does not mean there is nothing we can do,” he adds.

For instance, we should be transitioning away from military aid to regimes like Egypt and focusing instead on enabling more sectors of that society to have a say in politics. Right now, I’d argue, our foreign aid to Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan is really a ransom we pay their elites not to engage in bad behavior. We need to turn it into bait.

Acemoglu suggests that instead of giving Cairo another $1.3 billion in military aid that only reinforces part of the elite, we should insist that Egypt establish a committee representing all sectors of its society that would tell us which institutions — schools, hospitals — they want foreign aid to go to, and have to develop appropriate proposals.

If we’re going to give money, “let’s use it to force them to open up the table and to strengthen the grass-roots,” says Acemoglu.

We can only be a force multiplier. Where you have grass-roots movements that want to build inclusive institutions, we can enhance them. But we can’t create or substitute for them. Worse, in Afghanistan and many Arab states, our policies have often discouraged grass-roots from emerging by our siding with convenient strongmen. So there’s nothing to multiply. If you multiply zero by 100, you still get zero.

And America? Acemoglu worries that our huge growth in economic inequality is undermining the inclusiveness of America’s institutions, too. “The real problem is that economic inequality, when it becomes this large, translates into political inequality.” When one person can write a check to finance your whole campaign, how inclusive will you be as an elected official to listen to competing voices?

Not at all.  This has been another example of SASQ.  Now on to Mr. Kristof:

The biggest forum for sex trafficking of under-age girls in the United States appears to be a Web site called Backpage.com.

This emporium for girls and women — some under age or forced into prostitution — is in turn owned by an opaque private company called Village Voice Media. Until now it has been unclear who the ultimate owners are.

That mystery is solved. The owners turn out to include private equity financiers, including Goldman Sachs with a 16 percent stake.

Goldman Sachs was mortified when I began inquiring last week about its stake in America’s leading Web site for prostitution ads. It began working frantically to unload its shares, and on Friday afternoon it called to say that it had just signed an agreement to sell its stake to management.

“We had no influence over operations,” Andrea Raphael, a Goldman Sachs spokeswoman, told me.

Let’s back up for a moment. There’s no doubt that many escort ads on Backpage are placed by consenting adults. But it’s equally clear that Backpage plays a major role in the trafficking of minors or women who are coerced. In one recent case in New York City, prosecutors say that a 15-year-old girl was drugged, tied up, raped and sold to johns through Backpage and other sites.

Backpage has 70 percent of the market for prostitution ads, according to AIM Group, a trade organization.

Village Voice Media makes some effort to screen out ads placed by traffickers and to alert authorities to abuses, but neither law enforcement officials nor antitrafficking organizations are much impressed. As a result, pressure is growing on the company to drop escort ads.

After my last column on this issue, 19 U.S. senators wrote the company, asking it to stop abetting traffickers. On Thursday, antitrafficking campaigners protested outside the Village Voice newspaper (which is owned by Village Voice Media). A petition on Change.org criticizing the company has gathered 220,000 signatures.

In Washington State, the governor signed a bill into law on Thursday that could expose Backpage to criminal sanctions if it advertises under-age girls for sex without verifying their ages. (There’s some uncertainty about the constitutionality of the law.)

Village Voice Media has been able to resist pressure partly because, as a private company, it doesn’t disclose its owners. But I’ve obtained documents that, with some digging, shed light on who’s behind it.

The two biggest owners are Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey, the managers of the company, and they seem to own about half of the shares. The best known of the other owners is Goldman Sachs, which invested in the company in 2000 (before Backpage became a part of Village Voice Media in a 2006 merger).

A Goldman managing director, Scott L. Lebovitz, sat on the Village Voice Media board for many years. Goldman says he stepped down in early 2010.

Let’s be clear: this is a tiny investment by a huge company, and I have no reason to think that Goldman’s top executives knew of its connection to sex trafficking. Goldman prides itself on its work on gender: its 10,000 Women initiative does splendid work supporting women in business around the globe. Full disclosure: Goldman’s foundation was one of about 15 funders of a public television documentary version of a book that my wife and I wrote about the world’s women.

That said, for more than six years Goldman has held a significant stake in a company notorious for ties to sex trafficking, and it sat on the company’s board for four of those years. There’s no indication that Goldman or anyone else ever used its ownership to urge Village Voice Media to drop escort ads or verify ages. Elizabeth L. McDougall, chief counsel for Village Voice Media, told me Friday that she was “unaware of any dissent” from owners.

Several lesser-known financial companies also hold significant stakes in Village Voice Media, and one person close to the company says that there are about a dozen owners in all. One is Trimaran, an investment company in New York. It wouldn’t disclose the size of its stake but told me that it had “no influence whatsoever” on management and is now trying to sell its shares.

Two other companies, Alta Communications and Brynwood Partners, did not respond to my repeated inquiries about ties to Village Voice Media (Brynwood may be an asset manager rather than an owner). One thought: If the minority shareholders, Goldman included, worked together instead of rushing for the exits, they might be able to pressure Village Voice Media to get out of escort ads.

There are no easy solutions to sex trafficking. I think the most important single step is for prosecutors to focus more on pimps and johns. Closing down the leading Web site used by traffickers would complicate their lives, and after so many years of girls being trafficked on this site, it’s time to hold owners accountable.

Concentrate on pimps and johns?  Right…  Dream on, Mr. Kristof.  Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

The first time you see Lena Dunham’s character having sex in the new HBO series “Girls,” her back is to her boyfriend, who seems to regard her as an inconveniently loquacious halfway point between partner and prop, and her concern is whether she’s correctly following instructions.

“So I can just stay like this for a little while?” she asks. “Do you need me to move more?”

He needs her to intrude less. “Let’s play the quiet game,” he answers.

The second time, she’s an 11-year-old junkie with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, or so he tells her, commencing a role play in which he alone assigns the roles. He has highly specific fantasies, and she’s largely a fleshy canvas for them.

You watch these scenes and other examples of the zeitgeist-y, early-20s heroines of “Girls” engaging in, recoiling from, mulling and mourning sex, and you think: Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this? Salaries may be better than in decades past and the cabinet and Congress less choked with testosterone. But in the bedroom? What’s happening there remains something of a muddle, if not something of a mess.

“Girls” makes its debut in two weeks. Dunham, just 25, is not only its star but also its principal writer and director, and she has already been accorded a voice-of-her-generation status. She even lampoons this in “Girls” by having her character, an aspiring writer, claim such a mantle for herself.

The show is drawing inevitable — and apt — comparisons to “Sex and the City,” in whose long shadow it blooms. “Girls,” too, is a half-hour comedy (of sorts) about four women finding themselves and fortifying one another in the daunting, libidinous wilds of New York City.

But it’s a recession-era adjustment. The gloss of Manhattan is traded for the mild grit of Brooklyn’s more affordable neighborhoods. The anxieties are as much economic as erotic. The colors are duller, the mood is dourer and the clothes aren’t much. It’s “Sex and the City” in a charcoal gray Salvation Army overcoat.

It comes along at a moment of fresh examination of women’s progress. A just-published book, “The Richer Sex,” by Liza Mundy, asserts that women are well on their way to becoming the primary breadwinners in a majority of American families; it rated the cover of Time magazine two weeks ago. It will be joined later this year by “The End of Men,” by Hanna Rosin, which answers the question posed by the title of Maureen Dowd’s prescient 2005 best seller, “Are Men Necessary?” As Rosin sees it, not so much, because women have achieved unprecedented autonomy.

But “Girls” also amplifies a growing chorus of laments over what’s happening on the sexual frontier, a state of befuddlement reflective in part of post-feminist power dynamics and in part of our digital culture and virtual fixations.

Are young women who think that they should be more like men willing themselves into a casual attitude toward sex that’s an awkward emotional fit? Two movies released last year, “No Strings Attached” and “Friends With Benefits,” held that position, and Dunham subscribes to it as well.

In a recent interview, presented in more detail on my Times blog, she told me that various cultural cues exhort her and her female peers to approach sex in an ostensibly “empowered” way that she couldn’t quite manage. “I heard so many of my friends saying, ‘Why can’t I have sex and feel nothing?’ It was amazing: that this was the new goal.”

She added: “There’s a biological reason why women feel about sex the way they do and men feel about sex the way they do. It’s not as simple as divesting yourself of your gender roles.”

The Web confuses things further, unfurling a seemingly infinite cosmos of ready possibility and abetting lightning-fast connections. Several popular cellphone apps give someone with a sudden whim for a date the pictures and physical proximities of similarly inclined prospects. An assignation may be no more than 10 minutes and 20 blocks away.

Dunham noted that the Web also fosters a misleading sense of familiarity between people who have shared nothing more than keystrokes. “All sorts of promiscuity don’t feel like promiscuity,” she said. “But a month of text messages does not a personal connection make. I’ve fallen victim to the sensation that I understand some guy’s essence when I’ve really just read 15 of his tweets.”

And there’s an emerging literature of complaint from young men and women alike about the impact of free or cheap online pornography. Early last year, New York magazine ran an article by Davy Rothbart, 36, who admitted faking an orgasm with a real live woman, learned that other men had done so as well and wondered if a “tsunami of porn” was to blame. It was titled “He’s Just Not That Into Anyone.”

Last February GQ pondered the problem from a feminine perspective. A young woman writing under a pseudonym cited her and her friends’ experiences to assert that for more and more men, “the buffet of fetishistic porn available 24/7” had created very particular and sometimes very peculiar, ratcheted-up desires.

“To compare it to another genre of online video,” she wrote, “why watch a clip of one puppy frolicking in a field when you can watch eight different puppies cuddling with a sweet-faced baby armadillo tickling a panda bear? And after seeing that, why ever settle for a boring ol’ puppy frolicking in a field again?”

“Guys my age watch so much pornography,” Dunham told me, adding that she has been subjected to aggressive positioning and “a lot of errant hair pulling” and has thought: “There’s no way that you, young Jewish man from Chappaqua, taught this to yourself.”

These experiences inform her “Girls” sex scenes, which have a depersonalized aspect. So does the sadomasochistic relationship in the best-selling erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a publishing-industry phenomenon about a virginal college student presented with a contract to become the “Submissive” to a dashing older man’s “Dominant.” The contract covers waxing, hygiene and the frequency with which she must work out. She haggles him down from four times a week to three.

Credibly or not, the college student seems exhilarated at the start. Dunham’s more convincingly rendered characters seem perplexed, and their frustration with men raises questions about whether less privacy means more intimacy and whether sexual candor is any guarantor of sexual satisfaction.

People can be so available in a superficial sense that they’re inaccessible in a deeper one. Or, as Dunham put it, “People underestimate the importance of making solid connections.”

Eeewww…  I need a shower.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 162 other followers