Archive for the ‘Uncomfortable truths’ Category

Keller and Krugman

September 16, 2013

Mr. Keller considers “The Missing Partner” and says if you really want peace in Syria, talk to Iran.  That idea ought to send the Teatards into a foaming frenzy.  Prof. Krugman says we should “Give Jobs a Chance,” and that it’s not time for the Federal Reserve to take its foot off the gas pedal.  Here’s Mr. Keller:

I sincerely hope Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, calculating showman (and now my fellow Op-ed writer), wants to play peacemaker in Syria. I’m skeptical of his intentions, as I wrote last week, and my skepticism was compounded when Putin began imposing preconditions for the surrender of Syria’s poison gas, starting with an American vow not to back up diplomacy with the threat of force. I look forward to being proved wrong.

But if the United States really believes in a diplomatic resolution of Syria’s fratricidal war — beyond the important but insufficient goal of chemical disarmament — it needs to pull up a few more chairs to the bargaining table. The most indispensable missing player is Iran.

Russia provides President Bashar al-Assad of Syria with weapons and political cover, including a veto on the U.N. Security Council. But Iran, directly and through its patronage of Hezbollah fighters, has given Assad his battlefield advantage. Russia sees Syria as a pawn in a geopolitical game — a foothold in the region, a diversion for jihadists who might otherwise be menacing Russia, a chance to cut Washington down to size. For Iran, the stakes are higher: Syria is a pillar of resistance to Israel and the United States, and a front in a gathering battle among Islamic powers for dominance in the Muslim world.

Since the election in June of a new and less confrontational Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, and his choice of a seemingly sophisticated and pragmatic foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign affairs journals and think tanks have been abuzz with talk of new opportunity. There is intense speculation that Rouhani has a mandate to strike a deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program, in order to get his country out from under the painful economic sanctions and reduce the threat of an American or Israeli pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. Rouhani’s trip to New York for the U.N. General Assembly later this month is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate good faith.

But there is remarkably little sign that President Obama’s White House or State Department sees this as bearing on Syria. Iran figures in the Syria debate only as an audience we are trying to impress: we must enforce a chemical red line in Syria, the argument goes, so Iran will respect a nuclear red line. We tend to treat Iran as a rogue nuclear program with a country attached to it, rather than as a regional power with which we could do useful business.

I have no illusions about the Iranian regime. I was there for the disputed elections in 2009. I witnessed the savage suppression of the protests in Tehran, and fled the batons of the regime’s paramilitary thugs in the provincial city of Isfahan. I have little faith that Iran’s nuclear enrichment is purely civilian in purpose (though I am convinced that attempting to bomb the nuclear program out of existence would have the opposite of the intended effect.) And I don’t kid myself that the election of an Iranian president more genial than his hate-spewing predecessor means the ultimate authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has gone soft. Iranian politics are rarely as simple as our understanding of them.

Iran has not exactly been a constructive presence in its neighborhood. Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, compares Iran to the arsonist who sets buildings on fire and then shows up offering his services as a fireman. Iran has a strong interest in sustaining Assad’s rule. Syria is Iran’s only consistent ally in the region, the overland corridor for resupplying Hezbollah and a bulwark against Sunni extremists, who make up one growing faction of the anti-Assad rebels. Only the last purpose overlaps with American interests.

So with Iran at the Syria table there is no guarantee diplomacy will work. Without Iran at the table, though, failure is more likely, especially if we hope to go beyond the issue of chemical weapons and halt the “conventional” carnage that is claiming 1,000 lives a week. Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says our differences with Iran over Syria may be irreconcilable, but he points out, “We really won’t know whether Iran can play a more constructive role in Syria unless we try.”

So what’s stopping us? There are several reasons Obama might be reluctant to include Iran in Syria talks, even though he came into office touting dialogue and fresh starts.

One is inertia. There has long been a debate among Iran-watchers between those who urge a single-minded focus on Iran’s flagrant violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and those who argue that a wider menu of discussions might build a bit of trust and help end the nuclear stalemate. American policy has been more or less firmly committed to the first view: keep our eye on the nukes. We are stuck in a policy rut. The price we pay pay for this pinhole focus is that America and Iran are not talking to each other about a range of issues where Iran has influence, including Afghanistan, Iraq, terrorism, as well as Syria. That has meant missed opportunities in the past, notably in the weeks after the U.S. attacked Afghanistan in 2001. Washington and Tehran share a common enemy in the Sunni fanatics of the Taliban. But a flicker of cooperation was snuffed out when President George W. Bush decided to include Iran in his “axis of evil.”

Another reason for not inviting Iran into the Syria conversation is Saudi Arabia. The Saudis don’t want their main regional rival to be seated at the grown-ups’ table. Although our interests do not always coincide, the Saudis have been important partners. They are essential enablers of the tough international sanctions that Obama mobilized against Iran’s nuclear enrichment; the Saudis stepped up supplies to countries that had been dependent on Iranian oil. The Saudis would also be needed for any armistice in Syria, since they and other gulf monarchies have been arming Syrian rebel factions. Russia and Iran together, if they choose, can probably persuade Assad to cease fire; getting the fractious bands of rebels to stop shooting will be much more difficult, and impossible without the Saudis.

And any conciliatory gesture toward Iran is politically risky at home. “There’s a real disinclination to do anything that might appear to be legitimizing Iran’s role in Syria,” said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “But the reality is, they’re part of the fight.”

Would there be a larger payoff to including Iran? Some experts, such as Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council, suggest that enlisting Iran as a partner on Syria and other regional troubles might help break the nuclear impasse; in this view, engagement would allay fears in Tehran that our real aim is to overthrow the theocratic regime. “If Iran is part of the solution in Syria,” Parsi contends, “then we also have a stake in assuring some degree of stability in Iran in order to make sure the solution does not fall apart.” Others say the official Iranian suspicion of America is too deep to be overcome by dialogue. Sadjadpour argues that the regime actually needs America’s hostility to justify its authoritarian rule.

Nonetheless, he recognizes that attempting to engage Iran “is a win-win.” If the Iranians help stabilize the situation in Syria, and if that in turn creates a better climate for a nuclear deal, then the world is a safer place. On the other hand, if we engage the Iranians and they don’t reciprocate then it becomes clearer than ever that the problem is Tehran, not Washington.

It is probably naïve to think reaching out to Iran in this immediate crisis would be a step toward rapprochement. But it could, at least, be a step back from the brink.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

This week the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee — the group of men and women who set U.S. monetary policy — will be holding its sixth meeting of 2013. At the meeting’s end, the committee is widely expected to announce the so-called “taper” — a slowing of the pace at which it buys long-term assets.

Memo to the Fed: Please don’t do it. True, the arguments for a taper are neither crazy nor stupid, which makes them unusual for current U.S. policy debate. But if you think about the balance of risks, this is a bad time to be doing anything that looks like a tightening of monetary policy.

O.K., what are we talking about here? In normal times, the Fed tries to guide the economy by buying and selling short-term U.S. debt, which effectively lets it control short-term interest rates. Since 2008, however, short-term rates have been near zero, which means that they can’t go lower (since people would just hoard cash instead). Yet the economy has remained weak, so the Fed has tried to gain traction through unconventional measures — mainly by buying longer-term bonds, both U.S. government debt and bonds issued by federally sponsored home-lending agencies.

Now the Fed is talking about slowing the pace of these purchases, bringing them to a complete halt by sometime next year. Why?

One answer is the belief that these purchases — especially purchases of government debt — are, in the end, not very effective. There’s a fair bit of evidence in support of that belief, and for the view that the most effective thing the Fed can do is signal that it plans to keep short-term rates, which it really does control, low for a very long time.

Unfortunately, financial markets have clearly decided that the taper signals a general turn away from boosting the economy: expectations of future short-term rates have risen sharply since taper talk began, and so have crucial long-term rates, notably mortgage rates. In effect, by talking about tapering, the Fed has already tightened monetary policy quite a lot.

But is that such a bad thing? That’s where the second argument comes in: the suggestions that there really isn’t that much slack in the U.S. economy, that we aren’t that far from full employment. After all, the unemployment rate, which peaked at 10 percent in late 2009, is now down to 7.3 percent, and there are economists who believe that the U.S. economy might begin to “overheat,” to show signs of accelerating inflation, at an unemployment rate as high as 6.5 percent. Time for the Fed to take its foot off the gas pedal?

I’d say no, for a couple of reasons.

First, there’s less to that decline in unemployment than meets the eye. Unemployment hasn’t come down because a higher percentage of adults is employed; it’s come down almost entirely because a declining percentage of adults is participating in the labor force, either by working or by actively seeking work. And at least some of the Americans who dropped out of the labor force after 2007 will come back in as the economy improves, which means that we have more ground to make up than that unemployment number suggests.

How misleading is the unemployment number? That’s a hard one, on which reasonable people disagree. The question the Fed should be asking is, what is the balance of risks?

Suppose, on one side, that the Fed were to hold off on tightening, then learn that the economy was closer to full employment than it thought. What would happen? Well, inflation would rise, although probably only modestly. Would that be such a bad thing? Right now inflation is running below the Fed’s target of 2 percent, and many serious economists — including, for example, the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund — have argued for a higher target, say 4 percent. So the cost of tightening too late doesn’t look very high.

Suppose, on the other side, that the Fed were to tighten early, then learn that it had moved too soon. This could damage an already weak recovery, causing hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars in economic damage, leaving hundreds of thousands if not millions of additional workers without jobs and inflicting long-term damage as more and more of the unemployed are perceived as unemployable.

The point is that while there is legitimate uncertainty about what the Fed should be doing, the costs of being too harsh vastly exceed the costs of being too lenient. To err is human; to err on the side of growth is wise.

I’d add that one of the prevailing economic policy sins of our time has been allowing hypothetical risks, like the fiscal crisis that never came, to trump concerns over economic damage happening in the here and now. I’d hate to see the Fed fall into that trap.

So my message is, don’t do it. Don’t taper, don’t tighten, until you can see the whites of inflation’s eyes. Give jobs a chance.

They won’t.  It might cost some 1%er a nickel somehow.

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

January 13, 2013

In “The Obama Synthesis” The Pasty Little Putz says the nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan, two men with Bush-era perspectives, tells us something about the president’s foreign policy.  MoDo says “We Offer More Thank Ankles, Gentlemen,” and that all the president’s men can’t figure out why all the president has is men.  The Moustache of Wisdom has consulted his dictionary.  In “Collaborate vs. Collaborate” he says that one word seems to have two different meanings on the two coasts.  He is to be somewhat congratulated, however, because in this column he doesn’t seem to use his usual “but both sides do it” argument.  Mr. Kristof has a question:  “Is Delhi So Different From Steubenville?”  He says India’s horrific rape case is symptomatic of a global problem, and Americans who view it with condescension should also look in the mirror.  Mr. Bruni has decided to be a scold.  All he sees are “Democrats Behaving Badly.”  He whines that between Harry Reid’s inflations and President Obama’s nominations, Democrats are playing a game of arrogance and needless errors.  In his third from the last paragraph he grudgingly notes that Republicans haven’t been perfect…  Here’s The Putz:

As both his critics and admirers argue, the nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense last week tells us something important about Barack Obama’s approach to foreign policy. But so does the man who was nominated alongside Hagel, to far less controversy and attention: John Brennan, now head of the White House’s counterterrorism efforts, and soon to be the director of the C.I.A.

Both men were intimately involved in foreign policy debates during George W. Bush’s administration, but had very different public profiles. As a C.I.A. official, Brennan publicly defended some of Bush’s most controversial counterterrorism policies, including the “rendition” of terror suspects for interrogation in foreign countries. As a senator, Hagel was one of the few prominent Republicans to (eventually) turn against the war in Iraq. Now it’s fitting that Obama has nominated them together, because his foreign policy has basically synthesized their respective Bush-era perspectives.

Like the once-hawkish Hagel, Obama has largely rejected Bush’s strategic vision of America as the agent of a sweeping transformation of the Middle East, and retreated from the military commitments that this revolutionary vision required. And with this retreat has come a willingness to make substantial cuts in the Pentagon’s budget — cuts that Hagel will be expected to oversee.

But the Brennan nomination crystallizes the ways in which Obama has also cemented and expanded the Bush approach to counterterrorism. Yes, waterboarding is no longer with us, but in its place we have a far-flung drone campaign — overseen and defended by Brennan — that deals death, even to American citizens, on the say-so of the president and a secret administration “nominations” process.

Meanwhile, the imprimatur of a liberal president means that other controversial Bush-era counterterror policies are more secure than ever. Just last month, for instance, while Congress was embroiled in furious partisan arguments over the fiscal cliff, the practice of warrantless wiretapping was reaffirmed with broad bipartisan support.

To the extent that it’s possible to define an “Obama Doctrine,” then, it’s basically the Hagel-Brennan two-step. Fewer boots on the ground, but lots of drones in the air. Assassination, yes; nation-building, no. An imperial presidency with a less-imperial global footprint.

This is a popular combination in a country that’s tired of war but still remembers 9/11 vividly. Indeed, Obama’s foreign policy has been an immense political success: he’s co-opted foreign policy realists, neutralized antiwar Democrats and isolated Republican hawks.

This success, in turn, has given him a freer hand to choose appointees who embody his worldview. The left objected, successfully, when Brennan was floated as a possibility for C.I.A. director after Obama’s 2008 victory, but the opposition is likely to be weaker this time around. Hagel’s hawkish opponents have a slightly better chance, mostly because his views on Iran and Israel are more dovish than the White House’s own stated positions. But the campaign against his nomination has often been more desperate than effective, offering tissue-thin charges of anti-Semitism and embarrassingly opportunistic criticisms of Hagel’s record on gay rights.

If Hagel does get through, it will be the clearest sign yet that Obama enjoys more trust — and with it, more latitude — on foreign policy than any Democrat since Harry Truman. And in many ways he’s earned it: his mix of caution and aggression has thus far avoided major military disasters (an underrated virtue in presidents), prevented major terror attacks and put an end to America’s most infamous foe.

But that’s a provisional judgment, contingent on events to come. The Obama way of statecraft has offered a plausible course correction after the debacles of the Bush era, but the ripples from many of his biggest choices — to leave Iraq outright, to surge and then withdraw in Afghanistan, to intervene more forcefully in Libya than in Syria — are still spreading, and the ultimate success of those policies is still very much in doubt. Likewise with his looming defense cuts, whose wisdom depends entirely on what actually is trimmed.

Foreign policy is always a balancing act, in which no ideological system can guarantee success, and no effective action is without cost. The recent careers of the two nominees illustrate this point. Hagel was absolutely right to decide that the Iraq war was a blunder, but he was dead wrong (as was Obama) to then assume that the 2007 surge — a salvage job, but a brave and necessary one — would only make the situation worse. The drone campaign that Brennan has overseen has undoubtedly weakened Al Qaeda. But it’s also killed innocents, fed anti-American sentiment and eroded the constraints on executive power in troubling ways.

These are not reasons to deny them the chance to serve this president in his second term. But they are reasons to ask them hard questions, and to look carefully for places where Obama’s post-Bush course correction may need to be corrected in its turn.

It does need to be corrected, Putzy.  Gitmo needs to be closed, drone strikes need to stop…  Now here’s MoDo:

President Obama ran promoting women’s issues.

But how about promoting some women?

With the old white boys’ club rearing its hoary head in the White House of the first black president, the historian Michael Beschloss recalled the days when the distaff was deemed biologically unsuited for the manly discourse of politics. He tweeted: “1/12/1915, U.S. House refused women voting rights. One Congressman: ‘Their ankles are beautiful … but they are not interested in the state.’ ”

Now comes a parade of women to plead the case for the value of female perspective in high office: Women reach across the aisle, seek consensus, verbalize and empathize more, manage and listen better. Women are more pragmatic, risk-averse and, unburdened by testosterone, less bellicose.

Unfortunately, these “truisms” haven’t held true with many of the top women I’ve covered in Washington.

Janet Reno was trigger-happy on Waco, and a tragic conflagration ensued. Hillary Clinton’s my-way-or-the-highway obduracy doomed her heath care initiative; she also voted to authorize the Iraq invasion without even reading the National Intelligence Estimate, and badly mismanaged her 2008 campaign. Condi Rice avidly sold W.’s bogus war in Iraq. One of Susan Rice’s most memorable moments was when she flipped the finger at Richard Holbrooke during a State Department meeting.

Maybe these women in the first wave to the top had to be more-macho-than-thou to succeed. And maybe women don’t always bring a completely different or superior skill set to the table. And maybe none of that matters.

We’re equal partners in life and governance now, and we merit equal representation, good traits and bad, warts and all.

It’s passing strange that Obama, carried to a second term by women, blacks and Latinos, chooses to give away the plummiest Cabinet and White House jobs to white dudes.

If there’s one thing white men have never had a problem with in this clubby, white marble enclave of Washington, it’s getting pulled up the ladder by other men. (New York magazine claims that of late, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has a better record of appointing top women than Obama does.)

Last week, The New York Times ran a startling photo, released by the White House, of the president in the Oval Office surrounded by 10 male advisers (nine white and one black). Valerie Jarrett was there, but was obscured by a white guy (though a bit of leg and “beautiful ankle” did show).

Obama has brought in a lot of women, including two he appointed to the Supreme Court, but it is more than an “optics” problem, to use the irritating cliché of the moment. Word from the White House is that the president himself is irritated, and demanding answers about the faces his staff is pushing forward. Unfortunately, he has only a bunch of white guys to offer an explanation of why the picture looks like a bunch of white guys.

Right from the start, the president who pledged “Change We Can Believe In” has been so cautious about change that there have been periodic eruptions from women and minorities.

Maybe Obama thinks he’s such a huge change for the nation to digest that everything else must look like the Eisenhower administration, with Michelle obligingly playing Laura Petrie. But it’s Barry tripping over the ottoman.

In more “He’s Like Ike” moments, the president spends his free time golfing with white male junior aides. The mood got sour early in the first term when senior female aides had a dinner to gripe directly to Obama about lack of access and getting elbowed out of big policy debates.

Some women around Obama who say that he never empowers women to take charge of anything are privately gratified at the latest kerfuffle, hoping it will shut down the West Wing man cave. It’s particularly galling because the president won re-election — and a record number of women ascended to Congress — on the strength of high-toned denunciations of the oldfangled Mitt Romney and the Republican kamikaze raid on women.

“We don’t have to order up some binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women” to excel in all fields, the president said on the trail, vowing to unfurl the future for “our daughters.”

It may be because the president knows what a matriarchal world he himself lives in that he assumes we understand that the most trusted people in his life have been female — his wife, his daughters, his mother, his grandmother, his mother-in-law, his closest aide, Valerie.

But this isn’t about how he feels, or what his comfort zone is, or who’s in his line of sight. It’s about what he projects to the world — not to mention to his own daughters.

Obama is an insular man who is not as dependent on his staff as some other presidents. With no particular vision for his staff, he surrounds himself with guys who then hire their guy friends.

Most people who work in the top tier of campaigns are men; most people who work for Obama now were on his campaigns; ergo, most people in his inner circle are men. Pretty soon, nobody’s thinking it through and going out of the way to reflect a world where daughters have the same opportunities as sons.

And then the avatars of modernity hit the front page of The Times, looking just as backward as the pasty, patriarchal Republicans they mocked.

Again with the “insular” slap at Obama.  As if she has an earthly clue about what he’s really like…  Now we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

col-lab-o-rate [k uh-lab- uh-reyt]

verb (used without object), col-lab-o-rat-ed, col-lab-o-rat-ing.

1. to work, one with another; cooperate, as on a literary work: They collaborated on a novel.

2. to cooperate, usually willingly, with an enemy nation, especially with an enemy occupying one’s country: He collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.

IT is often said that Britain and America are two countries divided by a common language. That is also true of Washington and Silicon Valley. The other day, I was interviewing Alan S. Cohen, an expert on networks who has been involved in several successful start-ups. At one point, Cohen began talking about the importance of “collaboration” both within and between firms in Silicon Valley. Then he stopped and said it’s interesting that in Silicon Valley “collaboration” is defined as something you do with another colleague or company to achieve greatness — something to be praised — as in: “They collaborated on that beautiful piece of software.” But in Congress “collaboration” means something very different today. It’s the second definition — collaboration is an act of treason — something you do when you cross over and vote with the other party. In Silicon Valley, great “collaborators” are prized; in Washington, they are hanged. Said Cohen, who was vice president at Nicira, a networking start-up that recently sold for $1.26 billion: “In Washington, when they say ‘collaborator’ they mean ‘traitor’; here they mean ‘colleague.’

It’s not the only reason, but it’s a big reason that Silicon Valley is thriving more than ever, finding more ways to solve bigger and bigger problems faster, and that Washington is only capable of producing 11th-hour, patched-together, Rube Goldberg compromises, with no due diligence, that produce only suboptimal outcomes to our biggest problems. In Washington today collaboration happens only to avert crises or to give out pork, not to build anything great. That is why if Congress were a start-up, the early-stage investors would have long ago been wiped out and the firm shuttered. Cause of death: an inability of the partners to collaborate. “People in Washington,” said Cohen, “forgot that they are developers: ‘I am on this committee. I have to fix this problem and write some software to do it,’ and that requires collaboration. They have forgotten their job and the customer.”

Don’t get me wrong, Silicon Valley is not some knitting circle where everyone happily shares their best ideas. It is the most competitive, dog-eat-dog, I-will-sue-you-if-you-even-think-about-infringing-my-patents innovation hub in the world. In that sense, it is, as politics is and should always be, a clash of ideas. What Silicon Valley is not, though, is only a clash of ideas.

Despite the heated competition, lots of collaboration still happens here for one main reason: to serve the customer the best product or service. One way is through new open-source innovation platforms like GitHub — a kind of “Wikipedia for programmers” — where hobbyists, start-ups and big firms share ideas in order to enlist more people (either within a firm in restricted ways or from the outside in a wide open manner) to help improve their software or Web sites.

Another way is through “co-opetition.” There are many examples here of companies trying to kill each other in one market but working together in another — to better serve customers. Microsoft Windows runs on Apple Macs because customers wanted it. When Apple Maps failed, Apple asked its users to download Google Maps. Finally, within firms, it is understood that to thrive in today’s market, solve the biggest problems and serve customers, you need to assemble the best minds from anywhere in the world.

“When you obsess about the customer, you end up defeating your competition as a byproduct,” said K.R. Sridhar, the founder of Bloom Energy, a fuel-cell company. “When you are just obsessed about the competition, you end up killing yourself” as a byproduct — “because you are not focused on the customer.”

The far-right lurch of the G.O.P.’s base has made this problem worse. When President Obama built his health care plan on Mitt Romney’s operating system in Massachusetts, Romney was so focused on coddling his base to beat Obama — rather than trying to improve Obama’s iteration of Romney’s own design to best serve all the customers — that Romney disowned his own software. What company would do that?

“Sure competition here is sharp-elbowed,” said Reid Hoffman, a co-founder of LinkedIn. “But no one can succeed by themselves. Apple today is totally focused on how it can better work with its [applications] developer community.” It cannot thrive without them. “The only way you can achieve something magnificent is by working with other people,” said Hoffman. “There is lots of co-opetition.” LinkedIn competes with headhunters and is used by headhunters.

With collaboration, one plus one can often turn out to be four, says Jeff Weiner, the C.E.O. of LinkedIn, adding: “I will always work with you — if I know we’ll get to four. You can’t build great products alone. And if everyone understood that you can’t build great government alone our country would be in a different place.”

Tommy, sweetie, the Teatards will not now, nor will they ever, “collaborate” with The Kenyan Usurper for the good of the country.  Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

In India, a 23-year-old student takes a bus home from a movie and is gang-raped and assaulted so viciously that she dies two weeks later.

In Liberia, in West Africa, an aid group called More Than Me rescues a 10-year-old orphan who has been trading oral sex for clean water to survive.

In Steubenville, Ohio, high school football players are accused of repeatedly raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl who was either drunk or rendered helpless by a date-rape drug and was apparently lugged like a sack of potatoes from party to party.

And in Washington, our members of Congress show their concern for sexual violence by failing to renew the Violence Against Women Act, a landmark law first passed in 1994 that has now expired.

Gender violence is one of the world’s most common human rights abuses. Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined. The World Health Organization has found that domestic and sexual violence affects 30 to 60 percent of women in most countries.

In some places, rape is endemic: in South Africa, a survey found that 37 percent of men reported that they had raped a woman. In others, rape is institutionalized as sex trafficking. Everywhere, rape often puts the victim on trial: in one poll, 68 percent of Indian judges said that “provocative attire” amounts to “an invitation to rape.”

Americans watched the events after the Delhi gang rape with a whiff of condescension at the barbarity there, but domestic violence and sex trafficking remain a vast problem across the United States.

One obstacle is that violence against women tends to be invisible and thus not a priority. In Delhi, of 635 rape cases reported in the first 11 months of last year, only one ended in conviction. That creates an incentive for rapists to continue to rape, but in any case that reported number of rapes is delusional. They don’t include the systematized rape of sex trafficking. India has, by my reckoning, more women and girls trafficked into modern slavery than any country in the world. (China has more prostitutes, but they are more likely to sell sex by choice.)

On my last trip to India, I tagged along on a raid on a brothel in Kolkata, organized by the International Justice Mission. In my column at the time, I focused on a 15-year-old and a 10-year-old imprisoned in the brothel, and mentioned a 17-year-old only in passing because I didn’t know her story.

My assistant at The Times, Natalie Kitroeff, recently visited India and tracked down that young woman. It turns out that she had been trafficked as well — she was apparently drugged at a teahouse and woke up in the brothel. She said she was then forced to have sex with customers and beaten when she protested. She was never allowed outside and was never paid. What do you call what happened to those girls but slavery?

Yet prosecutors and the police often shrug — or worse. Dr. Shershah Syed, a former president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Pakistan, once told me: “When I treat a rape victim, I always advise her not to go to the police. Because if she does, the police might just rape her again.”

In the United States, the case in Steubenville has become controversial partly because of the brutishness that the young men have been accused of, but also because of concerns that the authorities protected the football team. Some people in both Delhi and Steubenville rushed to blame the victim, suggesting that she was at fault for taking a bus or going to a party. They need to think: What if that were me?

The United States could help change the way the world confronts these issues. On a remote crossing of the Nepal-India border, I once met an Indian police officer who said, a bit forlornly, that he was stationed there to look for terrorists and pirated movies. He wasn’t finding any, but India posted him there to show that it was serious about American concerns regarding terrorism and intellectual property. Meanwhile, that officer ignored the steady flow of teenage Nepali girls crossing in front of him on their way to Indian brothels, because modern slavery was not perceived as an American priority.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has done a superb job trying to put these issues on the global agenda, and I hope President Obama and Senator John Kerry will continue her efforts. But Congress has been pathetic. Not only did it fail to renew the Violence Against Women Act, but it has also stalled on the global version, the International Violence Against Women Act, which would name and shame foreign countries that tolerate gender violence.

Congress even failed to renew the landmark legislation against human trafficking, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The obstacles were different in each case, but involved political polarization and paralysis. Can members of Congress not muster a stand on modern slavery?

(Hmm. I now understand better the results of a new survey from Public Policy Polling showing that Congress, with 9 percent approval, is less popular than cockroaches, traffic jams, lice or Genghis Khan.)

Skeptics fret that sexual violence is ingrained into us, making the problem hopeless. But just look at modern American history, for the rising status of women has led to substantial drops in rates of reported rape and domestic violence. Few people realize it, but Justice Department statistics suggest that the incidence of rape has fallen by three-quarters over the last four decades.

Likewise, the rate at which American women are assaulted by their domestic partners has fallen by more than half in the last two decades. That reflects a revolution in attitudes. Steven Pinker, in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” notes that only half of Americans polled in 1987 said that it was always wrong for a man to beat his wife with a belt or a stick; a decade later, 86 percent said it was always wrong.

But the progress worldwide is far too slow. Let’s hope that India makes such violence a national priority. And maybe the rest of the world, especially our backward Congress, will appreciate that the problem isn’t just India’s but also our own.

Good luck getting Congress to do anything when it’s rife with people who think that there is a term like “legitimate rape.”  Now here’s Mr. Bruni, who haz a huge sad about bad manners:

For the textbook definition of not knowing enough to quit while you’re ahead, please turn your attention to Harry Reid, he of the scabrous tongue and rotten temper, a boxer in his youth and a pugilist to this day, throwing mud along with punches and invariably soiling himself.

Reid, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, couldn’t just stand back and relish the recent spectacle of House Republicans making callous fools of themselves by stalling aid to communities walloped by Hurricane Sandy. He wasn’t satisfied that these Republicans were vilified not only in the news media but also by some members of their own tribe, like Peter King and Chris Christie. No, he had to get into the ring himself, and his genius strategy once there was to pit one storm’s victims against another’s, to stage a bout between Atlantic City’s splintered boardwalks and Louisiana’s failed levees. What a titan of meteorological tact.

Noting that Congress had provided help after Hurricane Katrina more quickly and generously than after Sandy, Reid said: “The people of New Orleans and that area, they were hurt, but nothing in comparison to what happened to the people in New York and New Jersey. Almost one million people have lost their homes. One million people lost their homes. That is homes, that is not people in those homes.”

Let’s put aside, for the moment, his fleeting difficulty distinguishing a biped with a weak spot for reality TV from a wood, brick or maybe stucco structure in which several bipeds watch TV. Let’s focus instead on his math. The one million figure is easily more than twice the combined tally of domiciles not only destroyed but also damaged in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. It’s an invention. And if comparisons are to be made, consider this one: as a result of Katrina, 1,833 people died — more than nine times as many as died in connection with Sandy. Using the word “nothing” anywhere in the vicinity of Katrina defies both belief and decency, and Reid was indeed forced last week to apologize, his effort to shame his Republican foes having brought a full measure of shame to his own doorstep, yet again.

Why did he make the effort in the first place? Democrats came out of the 2012 elections looking good, and the country’s changing demographics suggest that they could come out of 2016 and beyond looking even better, especially if Republicans don’t accomplish a pretty thorough image overhaul. And that overhaul isn’t exactly proceeding at a breakneck pace. The perseverance of far-right obstructionists in the House stands in the way, leaving the party in grave trouble. If its foes were smart and humble, they’d do what a sports team with a big lead does. They’d play error-free ball.

Not Reid. And not President Obama, whose recent actions have been careless at best and cavalier at worst. There was the gratuitously provocative nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, followed by the gratuitously insulting invitation of Louie Giglio, a Georgia pastor, to give the inaugural benediction. That plan was abandoned after the revelation of Giglio’s past remarks that homosexuality offends God, that homosexuals yearn to take over society and that a conversion to heterosexuality is the only answer for them. Giglio would have been the second florid homophobe in a row to stand with Obama and a Bible in front of the Capitol — Rick Warren, in January 2009, was the first — and while it appears that this double bigotry whammy wasn’t the administration’s intent, it’s an example of vetting so epically sloppy that it gives an observer serious pause about the delicacy with which Obama and his allies, no longer worried about his re-election, are operating.

The pick of Hagel underscores that indelicacy. There’s a potent case to be made for his installation as secretary of defense, but there are potent cases for others, and it’s hard to believe that Obama couldn’t have found someone who shared his values and would further his agenda but wouldn’t be such a guaranteed lightning rod for his Jewish, LGBT and female supporters, all of whom played crucial roles in his November victory.

Regarding women, Hagel’s record on reproductive freedom is as conservative as his record on gay rights, and it included his support for a ban on abortions in military hospitals, even for servicewomen prepared to pay for the procedures themselves. What’s more, Obama rolled Hagel out in a cluster of other high-profile nominees (John Brennan, Jack Lew, John Kerry) sure to be noted for their gender uniformity and to rekindle questions about the predominantly male club of advisers and golf and basketball partners who have the president’s ear. The upset was predictable and avoidable.

It has been noted, rightly, that the president put two additional women on the Supreme Court and that his percentage of female appointees is as good as President Bill Clinton’s was. But given the march of time since then, and given the questions raised during his first term about how valued women in the administration felt, and given his drumbeat that he was a champion for women in a way Mitt Romney could never be, shouldn’t he be surpassing Clinton? Going out of his way? There’s a perverse streak of defiance in him, and as donors and even Democratic lawmakers have long complained, gratitude isn’t his strong suit.

While Hagel lurched toward his confirmation hearings and Giglio skittered away, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced that it was sending each of the 35 Republican freshmen in the House a “tea party membership card,” which spelled out their rights to put “ideology over solutions,” to be horrid to women, to coddle Big Oil and “to create and/or ignore any national crisis.” Thus did the Dems turn legitimate gripes into schoolyard taunts that were more likely to inflame G.O.P. freshmen than to bully them into bipartisanship. What, beyond the theater of the gesture, was the point of it?

Granted, Republicans had done their own adolescent taunting, calling Democrats lap dogs in the Nancy Pelosi obedience school. But Democrats pride and market themselves as the reasonable adults in the equation, and that’s part of their currency with many voters. Why fritter it away?

And why abide the overwrought antics of Reid? He once compared opponents of Obama’s health care reform to enemies of emancipation. He took valid questions about Romney’s low tax bill and spun them into the unsubstantiated claim that Romney hadn’t paid any taxes for an entire 10-year period. Then he said the burden was on Romney to prove the charge untrue. Good thing our criminal courts don’t work that way.

Just before and after the 2012 election, it looked as if Republicans might be successfully burying themselves. All Democrats had to do was hammer the nail in the coffin. But the way they’re behaving, they’ll raise the dead.

Blow, Nocera, Kristof and Collins

December 8, 2012

In “Dinosaurs and Denial” Mr. Blow says Senator Marco Rubio created quite a stir with comments about the age of Earth, but his answer was in line with the consensus of the Republican Party.  Mr. Nocera has a question in “It’s Hard to Be a Hero:”  What would you do if you saw someone pushed onto the subway tracks?  Mr. Kristof presents some uncomfortable truths in “Profiting From a Child’s Illiteracy.”  He says conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency.  In “Twenty and Counting” Ms. Collins says so there are going to be more women in Congress. But what does that mean?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Finally, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida — a Tea Party darling and possible 2016 presidential candidate — admits that dinosaurs and humans didn’t co-exist.

Last month, when GQ asked Rubio “how old do you think the Earth is?” he stammered through an answer.

“I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says. I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians.” He continued, “Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.”

This week, in an interview with Politico, he attempted to mop up that mess.

He said, “There is no scientific debate on the age of the Earth. I mean, it’s established pretty definitively. It’s at least 4.5 billion years old.”

But then he hedged: “I just think in America we should have the freedom to teach our children whatever it is we believe. And that means teaching them science. They have to know the science, but also parents have the right to teach them the theology and to reconcile those two things.”

Why the hedge? Because he is in a party of creationists. According to a June Gallup report, most Republicans (58 percent) believed that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. Most Democrats and independents did not agree.

This anti-intellectualism is antediluvian. No wonder a 2009 Pew Research Center report found that only 6 percent of scientists identified as Republican and 9 percent identified as conservative.

Furthermore, a 2005 study found that just 11 percent of college professors identified as Republican and 15 percent identified as conservative. Some argue that this simply represents a liberal bias in academia. But just as strong a case could be made that people who absorb facts easily don’t suffer fools gladly.

Last month, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said on CNN:

“We need to stop being the dumb party. We need to offer smart, conservative, intelligent ideas and policies.”

This is exactly the kind of turn the Republicans need to take, but Jindal’s rhetoric doesn’t completely line up with his record. As The Scotsman of Edinburgh reported in June, “Pupils attending privately run Christian schools in the southern state of Louisiana will learn from textbooks next year, which claim Scotland’s most famous mythological beast is a living creature.” That mythological beast would be the Loch Ness monster.

The Scotsman continued: “Thousands of children are to receive publicly funded vouchers enabling them to attend the schools — which follow a strict fundamentalist curriculum. The Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) programme teaches controversial religious beliefs, aimed at disproving evolution and proving creationism. Youngsters will be told that if it can be proved that dinosaurs walked the Earth at the same time as man, then Darwinism is fatally flawed.”

This is all because of a law that Jindal signed. Thankfully, last week a state judge ruled that the voucher program is unconstitutional. But Louisiana isn’t the only red state where creationism has state support.

Kentucky has a Creationist Museum that warns visitors to “be prepared to experience history in a completely unprecedented way,” according to its Web site. It continues: “Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden. Children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s Rivers.” Unprecedented is certainly one word for it.

Now the museum group is planning to build a creationist theme park, with $43 million in state tax incentives. It should be noted that Mitt Romney won Kentucky by 23 points last month. President Obama won only four of Kentucky’s 120 counties.

And the beginning of the world isn’t the only point of denial. So is the potential end of it. A March Gallup poll found that Republicans were much less likely than Democrats or independents to say that they worried about global warming. Only 16 percent of Republicans said that they worried a great deal about it, while 42 percent of Democrats and 31 percent of independents did.

This as the National Climatic Data Center reported that “the January-November period was the warmest first 11 months of any year on record for the contiguous United States, and for the entire year, 2012 will most likely surpass the current record (1998, 54.3°F) as the warmest year for the nation.”

Surely some of this is because of party isolationism and extremism and what David Frum, the conservative columnist, called the “conservative entertainment complex.” But there is also willful ignorance at play in some quarters, and Republicans mustn’t simply brush it aside. They must beat it back.

If the Republicans don’t want to see their party go the way of the dinosaurs, they have to step out of the past.

Well, if you make sure that your core constituency is pig-ignorant they’re easier to defraud with tales of “death panels” and the like…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

On a crisp January day in 2007, a 50-year-old construction worker named Wesley Autrey became a New York hero when he rescued a man who had fallen onto the subway tracks.

A train had just left the station, so the platform was nearly empty except for Autrey, his two daughters and a young man who was having a seizure of some sort. The man fell onto the tracks, in a position, Autrey told me recently, “where he was going to lose his limbs.” With another train fast approaching, Autrey instinctively jumped onto the tracks, positioned the man’s body safely between the rails, and lay on top of him. Five cars passed over them before the train screeched to a halt.

What prompted me to telephone Autrey was the death on Monday of Ki-Suck Han, a Queens man who was pushed onto the 49th Street subway tracks, allegedly by Naeem Davis, a drifter with whom police said he had been having an altercation. This time, there were plenty of people on the platform, most notably R. Umar Abbasi, a photographer who took some horrifying pictures as the subway train closed in on Han.

The 22 seconds or so between Han being pushed and the train reaching him was about the same amount of time that Autrey had nearly six years earlier. Yet, on Monday, no one on the crowded platform made a move to help Han until it was too late. (A doctor tried to administer C.P.R., but he was already dead.)

“People were just standing in fear and shock, not really knowing what was going on” one bystander told a crowd of reporters. “Some people started running out of the platform. Other people just stood there.”

When one of Abbasi’s gruesome photographs landed on the front page of The New York Post, the reaction was fierce. “Someone’s taking that picture,” said Al Roker on NBC’s “Today Show.” “Why aren’t they helping this guy up?”

Abbasi defended himself in part by saying he used his flash to warn the conductor, but he was also quick to point the finger at others: “Why didn’t the people who were close enough help him?” he asked. “If I had reached him in time, I would have pulled him up,” he insisted. We all harbor the hope that if we found ourselves in the same position as Wesley Autrey — or Umar Abbasi — we would act with courage instead of cowardice.

Yet behavioral science suggests otherwise. The most famous case of bystanders failing to act took place in 1964, when Kitty Genovese, a young woman living in a quiet Queens neighborhood, was brutally stabbed to death. Despite her repeated screams for help, some 38 people who heard her from their apartments did nothing — not even call the police.

A.M. Rosenthal, the renowned former executive editor of The Times, who was then the metropolitan editor — and who had gotten the tip that led to the story — wrote a short book called “Thirty-Eight Witnesses.” In it, Rosenthal asked the question that haunted the country in the aftermath of the murder: Why?

Why didn’t anyone do anything?

Rosenthal could only guess at the answer because there had been no research on what is now known as “pro-social behavior.” But after the story gripped the country, two young social scientists — Bibb Latané, then at Columbia University, and John Darley, who taught at New York University — conducted a series of experiments on the behavior of bystanders.

Their startling conclusion, which is now known as the bystander effect, is that the more people who witness a crime, the less likely any one of them will come to the aid of the victim. Partly this is because when people see others not doing anything, they become confused, not sure if it really is an emergency — “a collective ignorance” says Latané. Another reason, though, is something called the diffusion of responsibility. “You think to yourself, there are all these other people here. This isn’t entirely my problem,” says Latané.

Go back to the beginning of this column. The crucial detail in 2007, when viewed through the prism of behavioral science, is that the subway platform was nearly empty. Autrey acted heroically — even leaving his two young children unattended to do so — because there was no one else who could help. On Monday, the 49th Street subway platform was full of people, each possibly thinking that someone else was closer, someone else was stronger, someone else should be responsible for the heroic act. As a result, no one acted.

“I wouldn’t do the wrong thing,” one man waiting for a subway train told The Times on Tuesday. That’s what we all want to think. It’s why we are so quick to condemn those who do nothing at such moments.

But let’s be honest: We don’t really know how we’d act until the moment is upon us. Sadly, the science says we’re more likely to do nothing than respond like Wesley Autrey.

Next up is Mr. Kristof, writing from Jackson, KY.  He should make us all squirm a bit:

This is what poverty sometimes looks like in America: parents here in Appalachian hill country pulling their children out of literacy classes. Moms and dads fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability.

Many people in hillside mobile homes here are poor and desperate, and a $698 monthly check per child from the Supplemental Security Income program goes a long way — and those checks continue until the child turns 18.

“The kids get taken out of the program because the parents are going to lose the check,” said Billie Oaks, who runs a literacy program here in Breathitt County, a poor part of Kentucky. “It’s heartbreaking.”

This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency. Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire.

Some young people here don’t join the military (a traditional escape route for poor, rural Americans) because it’s easier to rely on food stamps and disability payments.

Antipoverty programs also discourage marriage: In a means-tested program like S.S.I., a woman raising a child may receive a bigger check if she refrains from marrying that hard-working guy she likes. Yet marriage is one of the best forces to blunt poverty. In married couple households only one child in 10 grows up in poverty, while almost half do in single-mother households.

Most wrenching of all are the parents who think it’s best if a child stays illiterate, because then the family may be able to claim a disability check each month.

“One of the ways you get on this program is having problems in school,” notes Richard V. Burkhauser, a Cornell University economist who co-wrote a book last year about these disability programs. “If you do better in school, you threaten the income of the parents. It’s a terrible incentive.”

About four decades ago, most of the children S.S.I. covered had severe physical handicaps or mental retardation that made it difficult for parents to hold jobs — about 1 percent of all poor children. But now 55 percent of the disabilities it covers are fuzzier intellectual disabilities short of mental retardation, where the diagnosis is less clear-cut. More than 1.2 million children across America — a full 8 percent of all low-income children — are now enrolled in S.S.I. as disabled, at an annual cost of more than $9 billion.

That is a burden on taxpayers, of course, but it can be even worse for children whose families have a huge stake in their failing in school. Those kids may never recover: a 2009 study found that nearly two-thirds of these children make the transition at age 18 into S.S.I. for the adult disabled. They may never hold a job in their entire lives and are condemned to a life of poverty on the dole — and that’s the outcome of a program intended to fight poverty.

There’s no doubt that some families with seriously disabled children receive a lifeline from S.S.I. But the bottom line is that we shouldn’t try to fight poverty with a program that sometimes perpetuates it.

A local school district official, Melanie Stevens, puts it this way: “The greatest challenge we face as educators is how to break that dependency on government. In second grade, they have a dream. In seventh grade, they have a plan.”

There’s a danger in drawing too firm conclusions about an issue — fighting poverty — that is as complex as human beings themselves. I’m no expert on domestic poverty. But for me, a tentative lesson from the field is that while we need safety nets, the focus should be instead on creating opportunity — and, still more difficult, on creating an environment that leads people to seize opportunities.

To see what that might mean, I tagged along with Save the Children, the aid group we tend to think of as active in Sudan or Somalia. It’s also in the opportunity business right here in the United States, in places like the mobile home of Britny Hurley — and it provides a model of what does work.

Ms. Hurley, 19, is amiable and speaks quickly with a strong hill accent, so that at times I had trouble understanding her. Ms. Hurley says that she was raped by a family member when she was 12, and that another family member then introduced her to narcotics. She became an addict, she says, mostly to prescription painkillers that are widely trafficked here.

Equipped with a crackling intelligence, Ms. Hurley once aspired to be a doctor. But her addictions and a rebellious nature got her kicked out of high school, and at 16 she became engaged to a boyfriend and soon had his baby.

Yet there are ways of breaking this cycle. That’s what Save the Children is doing here, working with children while they’re still malleable, and it’s an approach that should be a centerpiece of America’s antipoverty program. Almost anytime the question is poverty, the answer is children.

Save the Children trains community members to make home visits to at-risk moms like Ms. Hurley, and help nurture the skills they need in the world’s toughest job: parenting. These visits begin in pregnancy and continue until the child is 3 years old.

I followed Courtney Trent, 22, one of these early childhood coordinators, as she visited a series of houses. She encourages the mothers (and the fathers, if they’re around) to read to the children, tell stories, talk to them, hug them. If the parents can’t read, then Ms. Trent encourages them to flip the pages on picture books and talk about what they see.

Ms. Trent brings a few books on each visit, and takes back the ones she had left the previous time. Many of the homes she visits don’t own a single children’s book.

She sat on the floor in Ms. Hurley’s living room, pulled a book out of her bag, and encouraged her to read to her 20-month-old son, Landon. Ms. Hurley said that she was never read to as a child, but she was determined to change the pattern.

“I just want him to go to school,” she said of Landon. “I want him to go to college and get out of this place.” Ms. Hurley said she was clean of drugs, working full time at a Wendy’s, and hoping to go back to school to become a nurse. I’d bet on her — and on Landon.

“When kids come to us through this program and come here, we can see a big difference,” Ron Combs, the principal at Lyndon B. Johnson Elementary School here, told me. “They’re really ready to go. Otherwise, we have kids so far behind that they struggle to catch up.

“By second or third grade, you have a pretty good feeling about who’s going to drop out,” he added.

A group of teachers were in the room, and they all nodded. Wayne Sizemore, director of special education in Breathitt County, puts it this way: “The earlier we can get them, the better. It’s like building a foundation for a house.”

I don’t want to suggest that America’s antipoverty programs are a total failure. On the contrary, they are making a significant difference. Nearly all homes here in the Appalachian hill country now have electricity and running water, and people aren’t starving.

Our political system has created a particularly robust safety net for the elderly, focused on Social Security and Medicare — because the elderly vote. This safety net has brought down the poverty rate among the elderly from about 35 percent in 1959 to under 9 percent today.

Because kids don’t have a political voice, they have been neglected — and have replaced the elderly as the most impoverished age group in our country. Today, 22 percent of children live below the poverty line.

Of American families living in poverty today, 8 out of 10 have air-conditioning, and a majority have a washing machine and dryer. Nearly all have microwave ovens. What they don’t have is hope. You see it here in the town of Jackson, in the teenage girls hanging out by the bridge over the north fork of the Kentucky River, seeking to trade their bodies for prescription painkillers or methamphetamines.

A growing body of careful research suggests that the most effective strategy is to work early on children and education, and to try to encourage and sustain marriage. Bravo to Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio for backing a landmark initiative to add one-eighth of 1 percent to the local sales tax to finance a prekindergarten program. Early interventions are not a silver bullet, and even programs that succeed as experiments often fall short when scaled up. But we end up paying for poverty one way or another, and early childhood education is far cheaper than adult incarceration. I hope that the budget negotiations in Washington may offer us a chance to take money from S.S.I. and invest in early childhood initiatives instead.

One reason antipoverty initiatives don’t get traction in America is that the issue is simply invisible.

“People don’t want to talk about poverty in America,” Mark Shriver, who runs the domestic programs of Save the Children, noted as we drove through Kentucky. “We talk more about poverty in Africa than we do about poverty in America.”

Indeed, in the 2012 election campaign, poverty was barely mentioned. A study by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a liberal watchdog organization, found substantive discussion of poverty in just 0.2 percent of campaign news reports.

Look, there are no magic wands, and helping people is hard. One woman I met, Anastasia McCormick, told me that her $500 car had just broken down and she had to walk two miles each way to her job at a pizza restaurant. That’s going to get harder because she’s pregnant with twins, due in April.

At some point, Ms. McCormick won’t be able to hold that job anymore, and then she’ll have trouble paying the bills. She has rented a washer and dryer, but she’s behind in payments, and they may soon be hauled back. “I got a ‘discontinue’ notice on the electric,” she added, “but you get a month to pay up.” Life is like that for her, a roller coaster partly of her own making.

I don’t want to write anybody off, but I admit that efforts to help Ms. McCormick may end with a mixed record. But those twin boys she’s carrying? There’s time to transform their lives, and they — and millions like them — should be a national priority. They’re too small to fail.

The kids can’t vote, and probably their parents either don’t vote or have been brainwashed (see Mr. Blow above).  It’s not a happy picture…

You may have heard that there are going to be 20 women in the Senate next year. I’ve been trying to figure out what that means.

Well, it means one-fifth. Whoop-di-do.

Still, up to now there have only been 39 women senators in all of American history. In 2001, the entire female caucus published a book about their experiences called “Nine and Counting.”

So I say, look on the bright side. In the House, 78 women were just elected. True, that’s still under 20 percent. Nevertheless, when it comes to the proportion of women in the lower chamber of its national legislature, next year the United States is almost certainly going to soar past the United Arab Emirates and possibly even Indonesia.

Feel free to blame the Republicans. After the elections, the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, pointed out that next session most of the Democratic members will be something other than white men. The Democrats named Representative Nita Lowey of New York the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, the chamber’s historic Alpha Dog Central. Meanwhile, over on the Republican side, Speaker John Boehner announced a list of new committee chairs that was entirely, um, pale male. After the ensuing outcry, he stuck Representative Candice Miller of Michigan in a vacant top post on the House Administration Committee, a panel she had never served on.

“In her new post, Candice will provide the leadership needed to keep operating costs down, save taxpayer dollars, and help lawmakers use new technology to better engage with their constituents,” said Boehner.

Having any committee chairmanship is better than not having one. But I believe I speak on behalf of many American women when I say: oh good grief.

But let’s cheerfully return to the fact that there are going to be more women in Congress. What does it mean? These days, the answers are mainly about interpersonal relations than any particular issue. “It’s not that they’re going to agree on everything,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. “I think in some ways, it will be about: Will they talk to each other and work with each other on some things and at least be able to communicate with each other?”

She’s right, and while sociability is a pretty low bar, this is the Washington in which everyone complains that bipartisan dinner parties are a thing of the past. The Senate women most definitely dine together. Regularly, in the Capitol, in a room named after the late Strom Thurmond, an infamous pincher of ladies’ bottoms.

“I know, the irony,” said Olympia Snowe, Republican from Maine.

But about the issues. There are plenty of veterans who remember the days when women banded together in bipartisan battles on behalf of their sex. Lowey pointed to a fight to get the National Institutes of Health to study women as well as men when it did clinical trials. (“Even the lab rats were male.”)

Now, not so much. Barely at all, as a matter of fact. The House women’s caucus did hold some hearings on the question of pay parity, but it never took a position on what to do to reduce the wage gap between male and female workers, since the Democratic and Republican co-chairs don’t agree on actual bill proposals.

One of the reasons is the dwindling band of moderate, pro-choice Republican women. Diversity is always a good thing — if you’ve got to have a Tea Party, I’d rather not have an all-male one. But a female lawmaker who opposes giving poor women access to family planning services is not really playing for the team.

In the Senate, the small band of Republican women has included influential moderates like Snowe; Susan Collins, also of Maine; and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who was forced to run as a write-in when a Tea Party candidate swiped the Republican nomination. “Any time I’ve been successful I’ve had a woman Republican helping me on the other side of the aisle,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

The other day Gillibrand proudly noted that every woman in the Senate had supported an amendment to the defense bill she’d sponsored, despite Republican opposition. In the current session, she said, “I think it’s the first thing we all voted on.”

The amendment would expand treatment for the autistic children of members of the military. Really, folks, you would not think rallying around that one would be all that hard. But once again, we’re going to celebrate the clearing of a bar rather than pointing out that it’s kind of low.

And all but one of the current 17 women voted in favor of ratifying the United Nations treaty on the disabled. Although the Senate being the Senate, the treaty failed.


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