Archive for the ‘WTF?’ 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.

Dowd and Friedman

January 15, 2014

MoDo has her knickers in a twist.  She has a question in “Tines That Try Men’s Souls:”  A cheesy complaint: Why can’t Hizzoner and I eat pizza with a knife and fork?  “pjc” from Cleveland had this to say:  “I am confused. Do articles like these skewer, or perpetuate, the shallowness of American political discourse?”  The answer is perpetuate.  In “The Man on the Wall” The Moustache of Wisdom says that Ariel Sharon was an enduring presence in Israeli political life.  Here’s MoDo:

Far be it from me to defend what Jon Stewart has demolished.

But I would like to speak up on behalf of the fledgling New York mayor’s de Blasphemy, now universally deemed his first mistake and possibly grounds for impeachment: daintily carving up his smoked-mozzarella-and-sausage pizza at Goodfellas in Staten Island with a knife and fork.

I’m not saying it’s right. I know it’s wrong. I’m just saying I do it, too. I eat pizza with a knife and fork because I want only the gooey stuff on top, not the crust.

(When I first started in The Times’s Washington bureau, I soothed my nerves by noshing on pizzas slathered with mashed potatoes, a dish that required a spoon and bigger jeans.)

I almost didn’t become a Times columnist because of a de Blasio-like faux pas. When Arthur Sulzberger Jr. took me to breakfast to discuss the possibility of a column, we were talking when he suddenly looked dismayed. I thought it was my ZERO knowledge about NATO, but it wasn’t.

“Why,” he asked me, “are you eating your muffin with a knife and fork?”

I thought I was being ladylike, which might have been de Blasio’s problem as well. The photos looked way too ladylike for the 6-foot-5 mayor. It seemed more like the prissy move of Warren Wilhelm Jr. of Cambridge — his original name which he changed because of his estrangement from his alcoholic father — than the paesano Bill de Blasio of Brooklyn.

Fearing my future depended on it, I immediately clutched the muffin. But switching to your hands midway, as the mayor also did, simply makes you seem feckless as well as forkless; better to stick to your guns, and tines.

David Letterman’s Top Ten “Odd Habits of Mayor Bill de Blasio” on Monday featured this one: “Refers to himself as ‘Her Majesty.’ ”

Indeed, when F.D.R. served King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, their first hot dogs on a 1939 visit to America, the confused queen ate hers with a knife and fork, afraid to heed the president’s advice to pick it up and relish it.

Pizza can be hazardous to an administration. We all remember what happened when a Clinton intern delivered a pie to the Oval Office during a government shutdown.

But de Blasio’s offense was so trivial that the most irritating part was the labor-loving mayor’s labored explanation, grandly attributing it to “my ancestral homeland.”

“I have been in Italy a lot, and I picked up the habit for certain types of pizza,” he told reporters. “So when you have a pizza like this, it had a lot on it, I often start with a knife and fork but then I cross over to the American approach and pick it up when I go farther into the pizza. It’s a very complicated approach, but I like it.”

He sounded like a parody of the self-serious New York liberal, convinced he’s right about everything from the Sandinistas to stop-and-frisk to a slice in Staten Island.

De Blasio sounded alarmingly like Zosia Mamet’s mega-rambling character, fellow Brooklynite Shoshanna Shapiro, on a recent “Girls,” when she quizzes a quizzical Adam about his favorite utensil.

When he says, “I guess a fork,” she lectures: “O.K., that is crazy. Like, why would you want a cold metal prong stabbing you in the tongue when instead you could have food delivered into your mouth on, like, a cool, soft, pillowy cloud?”

The new mayor should have just laughed it off. Then he might not have ended up getting reduced to rubble by Jon Stewart, who asked “the champion of the middle class”: “Were you elected the mayor of Italy? No! Look out the window of the pizzeria. … Do you see a Sistine Chapel or a Leaning Tower of Pisa? No, you don’t! You see several junkyards and a tanning salon.”

Unlike de Blasio, some pols use food as a way to seem more populist. The aristocratic Poppy Bush pretended his favorite snack was pork rinds, offsetting his request for “just a splash” more coffee at a New Hampshire truck-stop diner.

As with Christie the Bully, embarrassing incidents hurt politicians when they resonate about a deeper suspicion.

Sargent Shriver calling for a Courvoisier in an Ohio mill town bar. Jerry Ford at the Alamo, biting into a tamale without removing the corn husk. Jimmy Carter’s fishing trip that turned into “Paws,” fending off a Killer Rabbit. Michael Dukakis advising farmers to grow Belgian endive, and Barack Obama talking the price of arugula. When John Kerry ordered Swiss cheese on his Philly cheesesteak in 2003, it buoyed Republican efforts to paint him as a Frenchie, fromage-loving surrender monkey.

“The whiff of a limousine-liberal factor,” G.O.P. strategist Mike Murphy told me, does not hurt de Blasio because he comes off as such “a humble, likable guy. He lacks the firing-squad instinct that makes for a true Commie leader.”

The question lurking beneath the surface with de Blasio is: Has he been promoted out of his league?

The answer can’t be determined when he devours his Staten Island pizza as though he were at the Tower of Pisa.

It figures that she eats pizza with a fork…  Now Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

I’ve always thought that the reason Ariel Sharon was such an enduring presence in Israeli political life is that he personally reflected three of the most important states of mind that the state of Israel has gone through since its founding. At key times, for better and for worse, Sharon expressed and embodied the feelings of the Israeli Everyman as much, if not more, than any Israeli leader.

The first was the enduring struggle for survival of the Jewish people in Israel. The founding of a Jewish state in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world would never be a natural act, welcomed by the region. There is a Jewish state today because of hard men, like Ariel Sharon, who were ready to play by the local rules, and successive Israeli prime ministers used him to do just that. Sharon — whom I first met at age 16 when I interviewed him for my high school newspaper after a lecture he gave at the University of Minnesota in 1969 — always had contempt for those in Israel or abroad who he believed did not understand the kill-or-be-killed nature of their neighborhood. He was a warrior without regrets and, at times, without restraints. Not for nothing was a Hebrew biography of him entitled, “He Doesn’t Stop at Red Lights.”

Sharon could have perfectly delivered a Hebrew version of the speech Marine Col. Nathan Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson, delivered in the climactic courtroom scene in “A Few Good Men,” justifying the death of a weak soldier, Santiago, under his command. In Sharon’s case, it would be justifying his no-holds-barred dealing with Arabs who resisted Israel’s existence back in the 1950s and ’60s.

As Jessep told the lawyer trying him: “Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? … I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. … You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.”

Many Israelis wanted Sharon on that wall, which is why he survived so many crises. At the end of the day, they always wanted to know their chief warrior, who played by the local rules, was available.

But, in the 1980s, Sharon also embodied a fantasy that gripped Israel — that with enough power the Israelis could rid themselves of the Palestinian threat, that they could have it all: resettling Jews in their biblical heartland in the West Bank, plus settlements in Gaza, docile Palestinians, peace with the neighbors, and good relations with the world. That fantasy drove Sharon to team up in 1982 with the Christian Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel on a strategic overreach to both oust Yasir Arafat and the P.L.O. from Lebanon and install Gemayel as a pro-Israeli prime minister in Beirut. Ronald Reagan was in power in America; Sadat had just made peace with Israel and taken Egypt off the battlefield. The little Jewish state, Sharon thought, could rearrange the neighborhood.

That Israeli overreach, which I covered from Beirut, ended badly for everyone. Sharon was deemed by a 1983 Israeli commission of inquiry as “indirectly responsible” for the horrible massacre of Palestinian civilians by Phalangists in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The fiasco in Lebanon (which also gave birth to Hezbollah), followed by two Palestinian intifadas, seemed to impress on Sharon the limits of Israeli power.

Indeed, I don’t know what, if any, epitaph the Sharon family will etch on his gravestone one day, but an adaptation of the most memorable line from Clint Eastwood’s classic “Magnum Force” would certainly be appropriate: “A country’s got to know its limitations.”

That was the conclusion that Sharon, the settlements builder, came to late in life — and so, too, did many Israelis. He acted on it by getting elected prime minister and then parting ways with his old Likud/settler allies, moving to the center and orchestrating a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. He surely would have tried something similar in the West Bank if he had not had a stroke. Sharon remained skeptical that the Palestinians would ever make a true peace with Israel, but he concluded that occupying them forever was harmful to Israel’s future and, therefore, a third way had to be found.

Once again, Sharon was expressing the sentiments of the Israeli Everyman — which is probably why President Obama got such a warm reception from Israeli youths when, on his visit to Israel last March, he justified his own peace diplomacy by quoting a wiser and older Ariel Sharon, as telling Israelis that the dream of a Greater Israel had to be abandoned: “If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all,” Sharon said.

Few Israelis are neutral about Sharon. I think that’s because some part of him — the hardheaded survivor, the dreamer that hoped Israel could return to its biblical roots and that the Palestinians would eventually acquiesce or disappear or the sober realist trying to figure out how to share the land he loved with a people he’d never trust — touched something in all of them.

Nothing at all…

January 6, 2014

Well, this is a first.  In all the years I’ve been doing this I have nothing for you.  Keller and Kristof are off today (isn’t Monday usually Krugman’s day?) and Prof. Krugman didn’t post to his blog.  Since his last post said he wouldn’t have a column today and the Times said Kristof was off I wonder if changes are afoot, or if it’s just another example of their “fact checking.”

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

December 17, 2013

Bobo really needs to go back on leave to try to get himself pulled together.  He’s extruded a turd called “The Thought Leader” in which he is trying to examine the life cycle of a new intellectual paragon that has emerged to command our admiration.  Don’t ask me what the eff he’s nattering on about.  “sdavidc9″ ended his comment with this:  “If this cynical essay is not a self-portrait, what is the writer’s relation to the types pictured? Could this be a secret cry of despair?”  Well, we can all rest assured that Bobo’s thoughts lead us nowhere we need to go.  Mr. Nocera, in ” ‘What Is Good Teaching’,” says a documentary shows what goes on in the classroom, and serves as an unwitting primer on how to teach disadvantaged students.  Mr. Bruni (who used to be the food critic for the Times, lest we forget) is in Los Angeles and has written a puff piece so over the top that you’ve got to wonder if he’s related to the owner of the business.  In “Upon This Burger” he squeals that in a food obsessive’s quick riches lies a recipe for modern success.  (I don’t know as I’d want “special powder”  that “smacked intentionally of advanced culinary science” in my burger…)  Here’s Bobo:

Little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wanting to be philosophers. In Renaissance Florence they dreamed of becoming Humanists. But now a new phrase and a new intellectual paragon has emerged to command our admiration: The Thought Leader.

The Thought Leader is sort of a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler. Each year, he gets to speak at the Clinton Global Initiative, where successful people gather to express compassion for those not invited. Month after month, he gets to be a discussion facilitator at think tank dinners where guests talk about what it’s like to live in poverty while the wait staff glides through the room thinking bitter thoughts.

He doesn’t have students, but he does have clients. He doesn’t have dark nights of the soul, but his eyes blaze at the echo of the words “breakout session.”

Many people wonder how they too can become Thought Leaders and what the life cycle of one looks like.

In fact, the calling usually starts young. As a college student, the future Thought Leader is bathed in attention. His college application essay, “I Went to Panama to Teach the Natives About Math but They Ended Up Teaching Me About Life,” is widely praised by guidance counselors. On campus he finds himself enmeshed in a new social contract: Young people provide their middle-aged professors with optimism and flattery, and the professors provide them with grade inflation. He is widely recognized for his concern for humanity. (He spends spring break unicycling across Thailand while reading to lepers.)

Not armed with fascinating ideas but with the desire to have some, he launches off into the great struggle for attention. At first his prose is upbeat and smarmy, with a peppy faux sincerity associated with professional cheerleading.

Within a few years, though, his mood has shifted from smarm to snark. There is no writer so obscure as a 26-year-old writer. So he is suddenly consumed by ambition anxiety — the desperate need to prove that he is superior in sensibility to people who are superior to him in status. Soon he will be writing blog posts marked by coruscating contempt for extremely anodyne people: “Kelly Clarkson: Satan or Merely His Spawn?”

Of course the writer in this unjustly obscure phase will develop the rabid art of being condescending from below. Of course he will confuse his verbal dexterity for moral superiority. Of course he will seek to establish his edgy in-group identity by trying to prove that he was never really that into Macklemore.

Fortunately, this snarky phase doesn’t last. By his late 20s, he has taken a job he detests in a consulting firm, offering his colleagues strategy memos and sexual tension. By his early 30s, his soul has been so thoroughly crushed he’s incapable of thinking outside of consultantese. It’s not clear our Thought Leader started out believing he would write a book on the productivity gains made possible by improved electronic medical records, but having written such a book he can now travel from medical conference to medical conference making presentations and enjoying the rewards of being T.S.A. Pre.

By now the Thought Leader uses the word “space” a lot — as in, “Earlier in my career I spent a lot of time in the abject sycophancy space, but now I’m devoting more of my energies to the corporate responsibility space.”

The middle-aged Thought Leader’s life has hit equilibrium, composed of work, children and Bikram yoga. The desire to be snarky mysteriously vanishes with the birth of the first child. His prose has never been so lacking in irony and affect, just the clean translucence of selling out.

He’s succeeding. Unfortunately, the happy moment when you are getting just the right amount of attention passes, and you don’t realize you were in this moment until after it is gone.

The tragedy of middle-aged fame is that the fullest glare of attention comes just when a person is most acutely aware of his own mediocrity. By his late 50s, the Thought Leader is a lion of his industry, but he is bruised by snarky comments from new versions of his formerly jerkish self. Of course, this is when he utters his cries for civility and good manners, which are really just pleas for mercy to spare his tender spots.

In the end, though, a lifetime of bullet points are replaced by foreboding. Toward the end of his life the Thought Leader is regularly engaging in a phenomenon known as the powerless lunch. He and another formerly prominent person gather to have a portentous conversation of no importance whatsoever. In the fading of the light, he is gravely concerned about the way everything is going to hell.

Still, one rarely finds an octogenarian with status anxiety. He is beyond the battle for attention. Death approaches. Cruelly, it smells like reverence.

The thought of little girls in ancient Greece wanting to grow up to be philosophers made me snort…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

In 2006, an idealistic New York public schoolteacher named Kevin Greer joined the faculty of an idealistic new high school, Brooklyn Community Arts and Media. Greer had previously taught English to 12th grade honors students at Dewitt Clinton, a huge high school in the Bronx. At B.C.A.M., which hoped to inspire students with an arts-driven curriculum, he would be teaching ninth graders. Most of the students had not chosen B.C.A.M., but had simply been assigned to the school. They weren’t nearly as self-motivated as Greer’s former students. Many if not most of them read below grade level.

Greer’s first approach to teaching these students was to refuse to concede to their obvious difficulties. He taught Plato and lectured about such things as “the rhetorical strategy of repetition of a phrase at the beginning of clauses. We call it anaphora.” He seemed distant from the students, and they reacted in kind, yawning or talking among themselves. Greer knew he was not getting through to them. He was frustrated.

Three years later, when members of this first B.C.A.M. class were seniors, Greer decided to teach a poetry class revolving around William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” This time, however, his demeanor was completely different. He engaged the students by asking them what their own definition of poetry was — and they responded eagerly. He was more relaxed and more confident. “I had to learn how to really break things down,” he told me recently. “I had to learn to work on several levels at a time.” Because, after all, he had students of various abilities in his classes.

I know these details about Kevin Greer’s classroom performance because I recently saw a documentary about B.C.A.M. that has been passed from teachers’ group to teachers’ group, from reformers to union executives, like samizdat. The film, called “The New Public” and produced and directed by a filmmaker named Jyllian Gunther, tracks that first B.C.A.M. class in both the class’s first and last years at the school.

Once she finished the film, Gunther sent it around the various film festivals. None of them bit. “The New Public” was shown once on PBS, but aside from that, it has not been seen widely. Instead, teachers — as well as those who teach teachers — have slowly found out about it and have embraced it.

Partly this is because it is the rare film that sympathetically conveys how hard it is to be a teacher in an inner-city school. “The New Public” not only shows what goes on in the classroom — which can be rough if the teacher can’t manage the classroom — but she also goes into the homes of the students she has focused on. There, the odds that the students are trying to overcome are made abundantly clear.

But it is also because the movie is an unwitting primer on how to teach disadvantaged students. There are teachers in the movie who know how to connect with their students, and teachers who don’t. Teachers College at Columbia University liked the film so much that it is creating a companion curriculum, so the film can be used to help train teachers. Until Gunther’s movie came along, Teachers College used to show “The Wire” to give prospective teachers a feel for what it’s like to teach in a disadvantaged community.

“What is good teaching?” asked Anand Marri, a professor at Teachers College who has championed the film. “Is teaching different in the Bronx versus the suburbs? How much do you start with where the students are?” For the most part, these elemental questions are ones that schools of education don’t ask nearly enough.

The lack of teacher training in education schools has also been borne out recently by a new report by the National Council on Teacher Quality, entitled “Training Our Future Teachers.” The question the group asked was a simple one: Do education schools teach classroom management? The answer was: not very much.

The group examined 122 teacher-preparation programs and found that while most programs could say they had classroom management as part of their curriculum, classroom management strategies rarely received “the connected and concentrated focus they deserve.” What’s more, “instruction is generally divorced from practice (and vice versa) in most programs, with little evidence that what gets taught gets practiced.”

Education schools, says Kate Walsh, who leads the group, “don’t see their job as training teachers. They see their job as creating professional identity.”

As the country continues to struggle with education reform, it seems obvious that education schools need to change, so that prospective teachers walk into their first classroom knowing how to teach. Maybe “The New Public” can help bring about that change.

In my column on Tuesday, I incorrectly wrote that the University of California, Berkeley, had raised $3 billion in two years. In fact, it has raised $2.9 billion over an eight-year span.

Why don’t these columnists, or the Times’ fact checkers, bother to do their jobs?  I guess they’ve started to rely on commenters to put their facts in order for them…  Now here’s Mr. Bruni’s mash note to a burger joint:

Just five years ago, Adam Fleischman was in a two-bedroom rental with his wife and their year-old son, fumbling around for a career that might stick. Screenwriting hadn’t worked out. Same for finance. He was 38 and, he told me, “It was do or die.”

Today he owns two houses here, one with six bedrooms and a makeshift vineyard out back. He said that he’s toying with the idea of a third in London. He has stakes in multiple businesses and plans for more.

All because of a burger.

In February 2009, with about $40,000, he opened a 30-seat restaurant on La Brea Avenue named Umami Burger. Its signature was a six-ounce patty of coarsely ground, loosely packed, steak-quality beef that had been seasoned just so and was served on a soft, Portuguese-style roll. It cost $8. You ordered it at a table, and could have booze.

Within about a year, there were four Umami Burgers around Los Angeles. Now there are 20 in California and one each in Miami and Manhattan, with many more to come. Fleischman projected that Umami Burger’s revenues for 2013 would be about $50 million. And the burger itself, with a current price tag of $12, has been exhaustively analyzed and justly celebrated.

But what of the enterprise? What secrets does it yield?

Most attention to the inventive stars of the ceaselessly expanding culinary world focuses on what they’ve done in the kitchen, not on their shrewdness as businesspeople. I turned to Fleischman for the lessons beyond the bun.

With Umami Burger, he demonstrated that a seemingly saturated market sometimes harbors unoccupied niches, unmet needs. While you could get venerated burgers in plenty of fast-food joints and in many upscale restaurants that did fancy riffs, it wasn’t as easy to find a carefully made, determinedly original burger at a casual place with prices and a style of service between those poles.

And few casual places devoted themselves as wholeheartedly to burgers as he decided to.

Fleischman specialized, recognizing that there’d be distinction — and a promise of expertise — in that. Let other menus be tempted down unrelated alleyways. His concentrated almost exclusively on a variety of burgers and a variety of accouterments.

He turned constraint into virtue. During his initial expansion, he didn’t have the budget to give the different Umami Burgers a consistent design. So he let each look entirely unlike the others, thus communicating that Umami wasn’t any old chain. It had a more elevated, independent spirit.

This was just one of many ways in which he tapped into the moment and the sensibilities of the customers he was after. Like other food-industry entrepreneurs, he appreciated that young diners of limited means craved distinctive restaurant experiences every bit as much as older, wealthier people did, and that they would eagerly channel that hunger toward the likes of pork buns, tacos, even doughnuts.

But he pulled off an even more precise mind meld with his potential audience, realizing that they also wanted to feel adventurous, erudite. His restaurant’s name and concept indulged their desired sophistication. Umami was familiar principally to food insiders as the “fifth taste,” first defined in Japan, a savory deliciousness apart from salty, bitter, sweet and sour. To incorporate it into patties, Fleischman used a special powder that smacked intentionally of advanced culinary science, and it, along with other splashes and accessories for the burgers, brought a wide world of ingredients into play: shiitake, porcini, Parmesan, miso, soy sauce, fish sauce, kelp.

He even gave each burger a tidy architecture and plenty of color and served it alone on white china, the better to be photographed for Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. “It was conceived as a brand,” he said, “and as a brand that reflected the present day.”

Fleischman clearly understood what most successful purveyors of cars, clothing and cosmetics have also appreciated. He was selling customers more than a product. He was selling them an identity. As surely as he was feeding them, he was flattering them.

But when I asked him for the most important takeaway from his story, he mentioned something else — passion — and the fact the he had finally embraced an endeavor fully reflective of his most profound obsession, which was flavor.

“Do a business that you can’t live without, that you’re not going to be able to sleep at night if you don’t do,” he said.

He meant that as a practical matter. Passion gave him the energy for the 18-hour days that were necessary during that first, whirlwind year.

And without passion in the creation of a business, he said, there’s not likely to be passion in the reception of it. People can sense whether you’re going through the paces or going for something better, something novel. It’s not dollars they want to hand over; it’s devotion. You just have to give them sufficiently juicy cause.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

July 14, 2013

We are spared The Moustache of Wisdom, who is off today.  The Pasty Little Putz decided to bend his attention to “The House’s Immigration Dilemma.”  He pondered deeply, and decided that there are risks wherever Republicans look.  MoDo, gawd help us, has decided to squeal about sex appeal.  She’s still in Paris, and in “The Tortured Mechanics of Eroticism” she gasps that a museum exhibition reveals the secret of centuries of sex appeal: industrial-strength underwear.  Between these two I’ve already lost about 50 IQ points.  Mr. Kristof is in Danja, Niger.  In “Where Young Women Find Healing and Hope” he says the next stop on this year’s win-a-trip journey is a new fistula hospital in Niger that is changing women’s lives with help from Times readers.  In “Tweeting Toward Sacrilege” Mr. Bruni tells us that musing on Egypt and sexual violence, Joyce Carol Oates saw that when you question religion, all hell breaks loose.  Sigh.  Just thinking about twitter-twatting just cost me another 25 IQ points…  Here’s The Putz:

The first thing you need to know about the House Republican view of immigration reform, the fate of which now rests with John Boehner’s restive caucus, is that there is no single House Republican view of immigration reform.

Instead, as the Democrats have come to march in lock step on the issue — dropping the old union-populist skepticism of low-wage immigration in favor of liberal cosmopolitanism and Hispanic interest-group pandering — many of the country’s varying, conflicting opinions have ended up crowded inside the Republican Party’s tent.

So there are Republicans who would happily vote for the Senate bill as is, no questions asked, and Republicans who might never vote for a bill that contains the words “comprehensive” and “reform,” let alone “immigration.”

There are law-and-order Republicans who care only about border security and E-Verify, pro-business Republicans seeking new guest-worker programs and religious-conservative Republicans for whom amnesty is a humanitarian cause.

There are libertarian Republicans who believe “the more, the better” is the only answer on immigration policy and communitarian Republicans who worry about the impact on wages, assimilation and cultural cohesion.

There are calculating, self-interested Republicans who think immigration reform will save their party from extinction, and calculating, self-interested Republicans who worry that it will create millions of new Democratic voters.

This diversity of views makes it difficult to game out exactly how the House might proceed on the issue. But right now, there seem to be two directions that Republicans could ultimately take.

The first is a kind of lowest-common-denominator approach suggested by the majority leader, Eric Cantor. It would advance two ideas that command broad Republican support — more spending on border security and more visas for high-skilled immigrants — alongside an idea many Republican representatives opposed in the past but seem to be warming to right now: a new version of the Dream Act, which would offer citizenship to illegal immigrants who arrived as children.

This combination would probably poll well, minimize intra-Republican divisions and focus on the policy area, high-skilled immigration, where there is the strongest consensus about the benefits to the nation. It would also vindicate the Republican Party’s (often notional) commitment to offering incremental alternatives to bloated liberal bills.

But such incrementalism would punt on the question of how to handle the bulk of the existing illegal-immigrant population, and thus wouldn’t be anything like the game changer sought by many Republican strategists worried about the Hispanic vote. And politically, it would have been much more clever months ago, before the Senate bill raised expectations for how sweeping a reform should be. In the shadow of Rubio-Schumer, a House that passed incremental bills and then refused to negotiate its way to something bigger might well receive the same kind of “do nothing” coverage as a House that did nothing at all.

Hence the (quiet, for now) appeal of the second option, mentioned last week by The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein and The Huffington Post’s Jon Ward, in which the House would find a way to go along with a version of amnesty that either didn’t include the promise of citizenship or made the path so long and arduous that few immigrants would take it.

To its supporters, this combination would deliver illegal immigrants the security and stability that pro-legalization activists are seeking, without running afoul of either the principled Republican desire to avoid rewarding people who have broken America’s laws, or the more cynical Republican desire not to have the newly legalized showing up to vote for Democrats.

But it, too, would come at a cost. We’re living through an era of stratification, a period of mass unemployment, an economic “recovery” in which working-class wages aren’t actually recovering. This is a strange climate in which to create — and then augment, via guest-worker programs — a permanent tier of explicitly second-class, mostly low-skilled residents, deliberately curtail their political leverage and then ask low-wage native workers to compete with them for jobs.

And it’s a particularly strange climate for a Republican Party struggling to shed its “party of the rich” label to identify with such a policy, and give up one of the few issues where it has some credibility with working-class voters.

The party faces risks whatever it does: killing comprehensive reform might further alienate Hispanics, as the conventional wisdom has it, but then again going along with Charles Schumer and a flood of corporate money might exacerbate the kind of “who’s looking out for me?” disaffection that kept many conservative-tilting, economically strapped voters from the polls in 2012.

But a clever-sounding deal that legalizes immigrants as laborers but not as citizens risks disaster on both fronts: rejection by Hispanics as insufficient and ultimately insulting, and rejection by many of America’s tired, poor, huddled workers as another example of the political class’s indifference to their fate.

The party faces its main risks from being run by a gaggle of barking lunatics.  Now gird up your loins — here’s MoDo:

The French may feel shaky about the underpinnings of the economy. But about the underpinnings for the body, they are as rock solid as the Arc de Triomphe.

During a summer when the French are drooping, the best uplift can be found in the Louvre complex at the Museum of Decorative Arts, which has mounted a dazzling exhibition on undergarments and embellishments dating from the 14th century on: corsets and bustles, hoops and push-up bras, crinolines and codpieces. The exhibit, titled “Behind the Seams, the Mechanics of Underwear: An Indiscreet History of the Silhouette,” provides a fascinating contrast between the industrial-seeming tools used to shape the body and the sexiness that results.

Only a French museum would take fine washables so seriously. The word lingerie, after all, derives from the French word linge, meaning “washables.”

Seismic social changes have always been reflected in fashion, and the politics of lingerie can be incendiary. Consider recent reports about Ritu Tawade, a city official in Mumbai who has responded to the horrific rapes in India by crusading to remove lingerie-clad mannequins from store windows, fearing they incite rape.

It was only two years ago that Saudi Arabia, hypocritical home to many racy lingerie stores, compelled them all to employ women instead of men.

In “The Heat,” Melissa McCarthy’s Boston cop warns Sandra Bullock’s F.B.I. agent that her Spanx squish internal organs. It’s the same argument a bloomer brigade of feminist reformers used in the belle époque to denounce corsets — stays that stayed around for 500 years.

Jean Cocteau wrote amusingly in 1913 about the women at Maxim’s: “It was an accumulation of velvet, lace, ribbons, diamonds and what else I couldn’t describe. To undress one of these women is like an outing that calls for three weeks advance notice, it’s like moving house.”

Denis Bruna, the curator of the exhibit, said he has studied the human form in art through the centuries and has read countless ancient texts instructing women to be beautiful and men to be virile. He even tried on the intimate items from the time of the ancien régime.

“It feels good,” the 45-year-old said in French with a droll smile. “It makes you stand up very straight. You feel noble.”

He explained that the hard corsets were mostly worn by aristocratic women who wilted standing at court all day and needed bracing. If you were rich and had servants, you could have stays laced in the back (in the squeezing-the-breath-out-to-get-back-an-18-inch-waist style of Mammy and Scarlett O’Hara). Lower-class women had their stays in the front, so they could lace them on their own.

As though women weren’t trussed up enough, the rigidity was accentuated by a busk, a concave piece of metal, horn or whalebone that was inserted into the front of the corset to hold the torso erect. Sometimes these busks had portraits or love messages engraved on them.

The most wince-worthy displays: iron medical corsets from the 16th century for correcting curved spines; miniature corsets worn by infants and toddlers, because physicians of yore insisted that children’s soft bodies needed support; and corsets for pregnant and nursing women (the latter with little shutters).

The Marie Antoinette “grand habit” silhouette, with the wasp-waist corsets often made from bone at the roof of the whale’s mouth, and 12-foot-wide paniers at the hips were so broad that the side cages had to be retractable by hand so the ladies could get through a door. Was this why French doors came into fashion? Picture them all crashing into one another at court.

The paniers were balanced by pouf hairdos, built on a scaffolding of horsehair and wire, covered with powder and topped with toy sculptures like a little farm or a battleship.

“The lower parts of the woman’s body were less noble, so they were hidden,” Bruna said. “They thought the legs were ugly and sheathed them in pantaloons. The shape represented a pedestal base to make the top prettier.”

Finally, in the World War I era, Coco Chanel began helping women come into their own, unstrapping them from their hourglass constrictions and sheathing them in supple jersey. Maybe that’s why you see Chanel’s image here more often than Joan of Arc’s.

Yesterday’s aristocratic underwear morphs into today’s fetishistic outerwear. The show illustrates the influence of the ancient fashion on modern designers, including a Vivienne Westwood bustle frock and an Alexander McQueen corset dress.

Mirabile dictu, there are even new variations on Renaissance codpieces, or braguettes, a bragging-rights style bound to disappoint. “They’re already being sold in gay shops in France and on the Internet,” Bruna said.

It was commonly thought that the point of lingerie was to incite the lust of men. Yet, as this exhibit shows, women have also used underwear to assert their power and status.

As we celebrate Bastille Day, note this: The mannequins wearing the aristocratic undies have no heads.

I may be driven to putting gin on my corn flakes this morning…  Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

They straggle in by foot, donkey cart or bus: humiliated women and girls with their heads downcast, feeling ashamed and cursed, trailing stink and urine.

Some were married off at 12 or 13 years old and became pregnant before their malnourished bodies were ready. All suffered a devastating childbirth injury called an obstetric fistula that has left them incontinent, leaking urine and sometimes feces through their vaginas. Most have been sent away by their husbands, and many have endured years of mockery and ostracism as well as painful sores on their legs from the steady trickle of urine.

They come to this remote nook of Niger in West Africa because they’ve heard that a new hospital may be able to cure them and end their humiliation. And they are right — thanks, in part, to you as Times readers.

There is nothing more wrenching than to see a teenage girl shamed by a fistula, and I’ve written before about the dreams of a couple of surgeons to build this fistula center here in Danja. Times readers responded by contributing more than $500,000 to the Worldwide Fistula Fund to make the hospital a reality. Last year, the Danja Fistula Center opened.

This is my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a university student along on a reporting trip to shine a spotlight on global poverty. So with my student winner, Erin Luhmann of the University of Wisconsin, I dropped in on Danja to see what you as readers have accomplished here. What we found underscored that while helping others is a complicated, uncertain enterprise, there are times when a modest donation can be transformative.

The first patient we met is Hadiza Soulaye; with an impish smile, she still seems a child. Hadiza said she never went to school and doesn’t know her birth date, but she said that her family married her off at about 11 or 12. She knows that it was before she began to menstruate. She was not consulted but became the second wife of her own uncle.

A year later, she was pregnant. Hadiza had no prenatal care, and a traditional birth attendant couldn’t help when she suffered three days of obstructed labor. By the time Hadiza was taken to a hospital for a Caesarean delivery, the baby was dead and she had suffered internal injuries including a hole, or fistula, between her bladder and vagina.

“I didn’t know what had happened,” she remembered. “I just knew that I couldn’t control my pee, and I started crying.”

Hadiza found herself shunned. Her husband ejected her from the house, and other villagers regarded her as unclean so that no one would eat food that she prepared or allow her to fetch water from the well when others were around. Villagers mocked her: “They would laugh at me and point to my dress,” which was constantly wet with urine.

She endured several years of this ostracism. Worldwide, there are some two million fistula sufferers, sitting in their homes feeling ashamed, lonely and hopeless.

A few months ago, Hadiza heard about the Danja Fistula Center and showed up to see if someone could help. Dr. Steve Arrowsmith, a urologist from Michigan who helped plan this center and has repaired more fistulas than any other American, operated on Hadiza and repaired the damage. He warned her not to have sex for six months to give the repair time to heal.

It typically costs $500 to $1,000 to repair a fistula and turn these women’s lives around. There is no one more joyous than a woman who has undergone this surgery successfully, and Hadiza was thrilled to return to her village.

Yet life is complicated. When she returned home — dry and cured — her husband summoned her to his bed.

“I didn’t have a choice,” she says. “I was his wife.”

The husband tore open the fistula, and she began leaking urine once more. He then threw her out of the house again, so now Hadiza is back at the hospital. She vows that this time, if she can be patched up, she will never return to her husband.

As in Hadiza’s case, a fistula is often a result of a child marriage. Here in Niger, about three-quarters of girls are married before the age of 18.

“Some of these ladies here have never had a period,” Dr. Arrowsmith noted. “They became pregnant the first time they ovulated, and then their uterus was destroyed.”

Aside from repairing fistulas, the Danja center also conducts outreach to improve maternal health and encourage women to deliver in clinics. It has set up a system so that taxi drivers are guaranteed payment when they take a woman in labor to a hospital.

The Danja Fistula Center is also conducting research on how best to treat patients. One approach pioneered here may allow fistula hospitals to move patients out of recovery wards in half the time, effectively doubling capacity.

The fistula center was conceived by Dr. Arrowsmith and Dr. Lewis Wall, an obstetrics professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and it partners with Serving in Mission, an American Christian charity with long experience here in Danja. It also gets backing from the Fistula Foundation, based in the United States. But, in line with the original vision, the Danja Fistula Center is run by Africans, with Dr. Arrowsmith training Dr. Itengré Ouedraogo, a surgeon from Burkina Faso, to be medical director.

Fistulas may be a grim topic, but this center you readers have helped to build is a warm and inspiring place. Women who have suffered for years find hope here, and they proudly display skills they are learning, such as knitting or sewing, that they can use to earn a living afterward. As they await surgery, their dormitories echo with giggles and girl talk. They are courageous and indomitable, and now full of hope as well.

This fistula center continues to exist on a shoestring, struggling for operating funds. But the exuberance of the patients is contagious, and I wanted readers to know that your generosity has built a city of joy. These women may arrive miserable and shamed, but they leave proud, heads held high. And in a complicated world of trouble, that’s a reason to celebrate.

And last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

I wasn’t sure which to bring up first with Joyce Carol Oates: the Muslims or the llamas.

She had tweeted about both in the days before I dropped by to see her last week. This said something about the breadth of her interests. Or about Twitter’s way of playing midwife to mischief.

I veered in the safer direction.

“So where are they?” I asked, looking out the back window of her house here, across a yard as empty as it was green. Nothing grazing. Nothing woolly. Certainly not the “53 llamas” that she had suggested, in a tweet, that she was purchasing to satisfy “a metaphysical yearning.”

She explained that she’d been riffing facetiously off a story in The Times about rampant llama love. “There’s really not room here,” she said. “We only have three acres.” Plenty for Oates and her husband. Not for an Andean offshoot of the clan.

That subject dispensed with, we proceeded to the missives that had really lit up cyberspace and had really prompted my visit.

In the first days of July, Oates, one of America’s most celebrated writers, was monitoring news from Egypt and was struck by something that I’m sure many other people noticed as well. It certainly caught my eye. Amid accounts of street protests were reports of sexual violence, an odd expression and ugly byproduct of the rage.

On her Twitter feed she saw a statistic that chilled her. And she tweeted, “Where 99.3% of women report having been sexually harassed & rape is epidemic — Egypt — natural to inquire: what’s the predominant religion?”

This wasn’t an isolated query. It belonged to a stream of musings that day, all 140 characters or fewer, on Egypt, Islam and women.

She wrote, “If 99.3% of women reported being treated equitably, fairly, generously — it would be natural to ask: what’s the predominant religion?”

She also wrote, “ ‘Rape culture’ has no relationship to any ‘religious culture’ — how can this be? Religion has no effect on behavior at all?”

Fellow writers and intellectuals freaked. On various byways of the Internet, she was blasted for anti-Muslim bigotry. A “furor,” The Wall Street Journal called it, and in a headline no less.

I wondered if she wanted to take it all back.

“Well, I’m not a confrontational person, so I wouldn’t do it again,” she told me, at least not with the exact language she used. She said that she might instead have written, “If all these women are being harassed and raped and so forth, it’s natural to ask what are the social conditions.” You tweet and you learn.

That she tweets at all is astonishing. Where does she find the time? She teaches a full load at Princeton. She also writes long, deeply researched literary reviews. And then there’s her principal vocation and claim to prolific fame: churning out at least a book a year — the novel “The Accursed,” all 670 history-packed pages of it, is her most recent — along with poems, essays and more.

Now 75, she cannot off the top of her head even quantify her oeuvre, which makes anyone else’s look like a lazy internship. More than 100 titles. That’s for certain.

The 99.3 percent figure that she cites for Egyptian women who report having been harassed is questionable, from a United Nations survey that defines harassment broadly. And she hasn’t researched the “epidemic” nature of rape in Egypt. She’s never been there, or anywhere in the Middle East.

But in a world in which sexual violence remains as unconscionably prevalent as in ours, shouldn’t anyone who cares about women — about human rights — be asking all sorts of questions, including delicate ones? And why are questions that stray beyond the secular considered so particularly delicate?

Look critically at someone’s god and gird for the lightning.

Oates calls herself a humanist, rejects the conventional notion of divinity and told me, “I don’t have a sense that there are sacred institutions. To me, all religions and all churches are created by human beings.” In that regard, she added, “They’re not that different from, say, the whole legal culture or the medical culture or the scientific culture.” About which you can say or ask almost anything at all.

SHE finds certain barriers and etiquette curious. “If you thought that women were being mistreated 50 miles from where you are, you might want to go help them,” she said. “But if you were told it was a religious commune or something, you’d think, ‘Uh-oh, that’s their religion, maybe I shouldn’t help them.’ It’s like religion is under a dome. It gives an imprimatur to behavior that shouldn’t be tolerated.”

Is she saying that Islam oppresses women?

Although she expressed concern about Shariah law, she didn’t go that far, and she noted that most religions were patriarchies.

Islam stands out for her in terms of the extra-special sensitivity surrounding discussion of it. She said that while religion in general is still coddled in the United States, where churches get tax exemptions and God is on money and in inaugural speeches, we’ve indeed become less reluctant over time to poke fun or hurl barbs at Christianity or Judaism. She pointed to the unapologetic examination of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

“We can have cartoons about the pope,” she said. “Making fun of the pope just seems to be something that a Catholic might do.” She added, “But if you have a cartoon, or make a film, about radical Islam, then you’re in danger of your life.”

She did neither. She just tweeted, and isn’t sure why a format seemingly designed for uncensored, spontaneous, imprecise musings, not nuanced manifestoes, should become grist for such outrage.

“Once I said that the doorway to Hades was in our basement — I discovered it!” she told me, referring to a past tweet. That’s the degree of literalism she brings to the arena.

Yet readers parse the words they want to and cling to those of their choice. After all, I arrived at her doorstep expecting, on the basis of a single tweet, to meet a herd of exotic pets.

She shook her head, looked toward her llama-less yard and said, “It’s a little surprising to me that social media have turned out to be kind of prissy and prim and politically correct.”

I don’t have a whole lot of time for her books either…

The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman and Keller

June 30, 2013

MoDo and Frank Bruni are off today, so I guess that’s why we get Keller.  The Pasty Little Putz has fallen down the rabbit hole.  In “Democrats Get a Gift From the Roberts Court” he actually tries to ‘splain to us how the voting rights decision could help sustain the Obama majority.  It’s apparently supposed to so outrage “overheated liberals” that we’ll try extra, extra, extra hard to vote.  “Karen Garcia” from New Palz, NY has become one of my favorite NYT commenters.  She begins her comment on this POS thusly:  “I have to hand it to Ross Douthat. He is very skilled at advancing the racist cause of the American Right Wing under the guise of a sensible-sounding pep talk.  Reading between the lines, here’s what he seems to be saying:  Minority people have been rising above their station, actually getting off their butts and voting. And winning. No fair!”  The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Takin’ It to the Streets:”  What’s behind so many popular street revolts in democracies?  Go ask a cab driver, Tommy.  In “Mandela and Obama” Mr. Keller thinks he knows what America’s president might have learned from South Africa’s hero.  Here, FSM help us, is Putzy:

Back in the days when Republicans were reading polls through rose-colored glasses and imagining a Mitt Romney landslide, one of their most plausible arguments was that many pollsters were simply misreading the likely composition of the electorate. There was no way, this theory ran, that core Democratic constituencies would turn out at the same rates as in 2008, when Obamamania was at its peak. Instead, 2012 was set up to be what the conservative writer Ben Domenech called an “undertow election,” in which reduced turnout among young voters and minorities would drag the incumbent down to defeat.

This expectation turned out to be wrong on two counts. First, Republicans faced an unexpected (though in hindsight, predictable) undertow of their own, as many conservative-leaning, working-class white voters looked at what Mitt Romney had to offer and simply stayed home.

Second, instead of declining as expected after the history-making election of 2008, African-American turnout may have actually risen again in 2012. When the Census Bureau released its turnout analysis last month, it showed blacks voting at higher rates than whites for the first time in the history of the survey.

If you believe Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.’s more overheated liberal critics, last week’s Supreme Court decision invalidating a portion of the Voting Rights Act is designed to make sure African-American turnout never hits these highs again. The ruling will allow a number of (mostly Southern) states to change voting laws without the Justice Department’s pre-approval, which has liberals predicting a wave of Republican-led efforts to “suppress” minority votes — through voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting and other measures.

These predictions probably overstate the ruling’s direct impact on state election rules, which can still be challenged under other provisions of the Voting Rights Act and other state and federal laws. But it is possible that the decision will boost the existing Republican enthusiasm for voter ID laws, and hasten the ongoing, multistate push for their adoption.

If so, though, the Roberts Court may have actually handed the Democratic Party a political gift.

How so? Well, to begin with, voter identification laws do not belong to the same moral or legal universe as Jim Crow. Their public purpose, as a curb to fraud, is potentially legitimate rather than nakedly discriminatory, and their effects are relatively limited. As Roberts’s majority opinion noted, the voter registration gap between whites and blacks in George Wallace’s segregationist Alabama was 50 percentage points. When my colleague Nate Silver looked at studies assessing the impact of voter ID laws, he estimated that they tend to reduce turnout by around 2 percent — and that reduction crosses racial lines, rather than affecting African-Americans exclusively.

A 2 percent dip is still enough to influence a close election. But voter ID laws don’t take effect in a vacuum: as they’re debated, passed and contested in court, they shape voter preferences and influence voter enthusiasm in ways that might well outstrip their direct influence on turnout. They inspire registration drives and education efforts; they help activists fund-raise and organize; they raise the specter of past injustices; they reinforce a narrative that their architects are indifferent or hostile to minorities.

This, I suspect, is part of the story of why African-American turnout didn’t fall off as expected between 2008 and 2012. By trying to restrict the franchise on the margins, Republican state legislators handed Democrats a powerful tool for mobilization and persuasion, and motivated voters who might otherwise have lost some of their enthusiasm after the euphoria of “Yes We Can” gave way to the reality of a stagnant, high-unemployment economy.

So a lengthy battle over voting rules and voting rights seems almost precision-designed to help the Obama-era Democratic majority endure once President Obama has left the Oval Office. As Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics has pointed out, for all the talk about how important Hispanics are to the conservative future, the Republican Party could substantially close the gap with Democrats in presidential elections if its post-Obama share of the African-American vote merely climbed back above 10 percent — a feat achieved by Bob Dole and both Bushes. If that share climbed higher still, the Democratic majority would be in danger of collapse.

Such a turn of events wouldn’t just be good news for Republicans. It would be good news for black Americans, as it would mean that both parties were competing for their votes.

But for now, our politics is headed in the opposite direction. Liberal demagogy notwithstanding, voter ID laws aren’t a way for Republicans to turn the clock back and make sure that it’s always 1965. But they are a good way for Republicans to ensure that African-Americans keep voting like it’s always 2008.

It really is time for the Times to come up with a “conservative columnist” who has his medication successfully regulated.  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

The former C.I.A. analyst Paul R. Pillar asked this question in a recent essay in The National Interest: Why are we seeing so many popular street revolts in democracies? Speaking specifically of Turkey and Brazil, but posing a question that could be applied to Egypt, Israel, Russia, Chile and the United States, Pillar asks: “The governments being protested against were freely and democratically elected. With the ballot box available, why should there be recourse to the street?”

It is an important question, and the answer, I believe, is the convergence of three phenomena. The first is the rise and proliferation of illiberal “majoritarian” democracies. In Russia, Turkey and today’s Egypt, we have seen mass demonstrations to protest “majoritarianism” — ruling parties that were democratically elected (or “sort of” in Russia’s case) but interpret their elections as a writ to do whatever they want once in office, including ignoring the opposition, choking the news media and otherwise behaving in imperious or corrupt ways, as if democracy is only about the right to vote, not rights in general and especially minority rights.

What the protesters in Turkey, Russia and Egypt all have in common is a powerful sense of “theft,” a sense that the people who got elected are stealing something more than money: the people’s voice and right to participate in governance. Nothing can make a new democrat, someone who just earned the right to vote, angrier.

Here is what the satirist Bassem Youssef, the Jon Stewart of Egypt, wrote in the Egyptian daily Al Shorouk last week, on the first anniversary of the election of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s party: “We have a president who promised that a balanced constituent assembly would work on a constitution that everyone agrees on. We have a president who promised to be representative, but placed members of his Muslim Brotherhood in every position of power. We have a president and a party that broke all their promises, so the people have no choice but to take to the streets.”

A second factor is the way middle-class workers are being squeezed between a shrinking welfare state and a much more demanding job market. For so many years, workers were told that if you just work hard and play by the rules you’ll be in the middle class. That is just not true anymore. In this age of rapid globalization and automation, you have to work harder, work smarter, bring more innovation to whatever job you do, retool yourself more often — and then you can be in the middle class. There is just so much more stress on people in, or aspiring to be in, the middle class, and many more young people wondering how they’ll ever do better than their parents.

Too few leaders are leveling with their people about this shift, let alone helping them navigate it. And too many big political parties today are just vehicles for different coalitions to defend themselves against change rather than to lead their societies in adapting to it. Normally, this would create opportunities for the opposition parties, but in places like Turkey, Brazil, Russia and Egypt the formal opposition is feckless. So people take to the streets, forming their own opposition.

In America, the Tea Party began as a protest against Republicans for being soft on deficits, and Occupy Wall Street as a protest against Democrats for being soft on bankers. In Brazil, a 9 cent increase in bus fares set off mass protests, in part because it seemed so out of balance when the government was spending some $30 billion on stadiums for the Olympics and the World Cup. Writing in The American Interest, William Waack, an anchorman on Brazil’s Globo, probably spoke for many when he observed: “Brazilians don’t feel like their elected representatives at any level actually represent them, especially at a time when most leaders fear the stigma of making actual decisions (otherwise known as leading). … It’s not about the 9 cents.”

China is not a democracy, but this story is a sign of the times: In a factory outside Beijing, an American businessman, Chip Starnes, president of the Florida-based Specialty Medical Supplies, was held captive for nearly a week by about 100 workers “who were demanding severance packages identical to those offered to 30 recently laid-off employees,” according to Reuters. The workers feared they would be next as the company moved some production from China to India to reduce costs. (He was released in a deal on Thursday.)

Finally, thanks to the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, Twitter, Facebook and blogging, aggrieved individuals now have much more power to engage in, and require their leaders to engage in, two-way conversations — and they have much greater ability to link up with others who share their views to hold flash protests. As Leon Aron, the Russian historian at the American Enterprise Institute, put it, “the turnaround time” between sense of grievance and action in today’s world is lightning fast and getting faster.

The net result is this: Autocracy is less sustainable than ever. Democracies are more prevalent than ever — but they will also be more volatile than ever. Look for more people in the streets more often over more issues with more independent means to tell their stories at ever-louder decibels.

Tommy, decibels can’t get louder.  Sounds get louder, and decibels measure that.  Sheesh…  And now we have Mr. Keller’s ruminations:

Gathering valedictory material on Nelson Mandela as he faded in a Pretoria hospital the other day, I came across a little book called “Mandela’s Way.” In this 2010 volume, Rick Stengel, the ghostwriter of Mandela’s autobiography, set out to extract “lessons on life, love and courage” he had learned from three years of immersion in Mandela’s life.

Stengel, who is the managing editor of Time magazine, could not resist comparing his hero to another tall, serene, hope-bearing son of Africa: Barack Obama.

“Obama’s self-discipline, his willingness to listen and to share credit, his inclusion of his rivals in his administration, and his belief that people want things explained, all seem like a 21-century version of Mandela’s values and persona,” he wrote. “Whatever Mandela may or may not think of the new American president, Obama is in many ways his true successor on the world stage.”

A bit much, yes? Well, Stengel was hardly alone back then in awarding the American president a stature he had scarcely begun to earn. The Nobel Committee, which had awarded its peace prize to Mandela for ending the obscenity of apartheid, bestowed that honor on Obama merely for not being George W. Bush.

Different men, different countries, different times. Perhaps even Mandela — who was more successful liberating South Africa than governing it — could not have lived up to the inflated expectations heaped on Obama. But it is interesting to imagine how Obama’s presidency might be different if he had in fact done it Mandela’s way.

Mandela, in his time on the political stage, was a man of almost ascetic self-discipline. But he also understood how to deploy his moral authority in grand theatrical gestures. Facing capital charges of trying to overthrow the state in the Rivonia Trial, he entered the formal Pretoria courtroom dressed in a traditional Xhosa leopard-skin cape to dramatize that he was an African entering a white man’s jurisdiction. And then he essentially confessed to the crime.

In 1995, Mandela, newly elected president of a still deeply divided country, single-handedly turned the Rugby World Cup — the whitest sporting event in South Africa, long the target of anti-apartheid boycotts — into a festival of interracial harmony. He was, in short, the opposite of “no drama.”

Obama’s sense of political theater peaked at his first inaugural. He rarely deploys the stirring reality that he is the first black man to hold the office. As my Times colleague Peter Baker notes, “Obama’s burden as he sees it, different from Mandela’s, is to make the fact that he’s black be a nonissue. Only then will his breakthrough be truly meaningful.” Still, I think Mandela would have sought a way to make a more exciting civic bond out of the pride so many Americans felt in this milestone.

Mandela understood that politics is not mainly a cerebral sport. It is a business of charm and flattery and symbolic gestures and eager listening and little favors. It is above all a business of empathy. To help win over the Afrikaners, he learned their Dutch dialect and let them keep their national anthem. For John Boehner, he’d have learned golf and become a merlot drinker. “You don’t address their brains,” Mandela advised his colleagues, and would surely advise Obama. “You address their hearts.”

Mandela was a consummate negotiator. Once he got you to the bargaining table, he was not going to leave empty-handed. He was an expert at deducing how far each side could go. He was patient. He was opportunistic, using every crisis to good effect. He understood that half the battle was convincing your own side that a concession could be a victory. And he was willing to take a risk. I don’t envy Obama’s having to deal with intransigent Republicans or his own demanding base, but Mandela bargained with Afrikaner militants, Zulu nationalists and the white government that had imprisoned him for 27 years. By comparison, the Tea Party is, well, a tea party.

Mandela usually seemed to be having the time of his life. Perhaps this is because (sadly for his family) the movement was his life. He shook every hand as if he was discovering a new friend and maintained a twinkle in his eye that said: this is fun. We’ve had joyful presidents — Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan. Obama more often seems to regard the job as an ordeal.

Mandela, above all, had a clear sense of his core principles: freedom, equality, the rule of law. He changed tactics, shifted alliances (one day the Communist Party, another day the business oligarchs) but never lost sight of the ultimate goal. In fairness to Obama, Mandela had a cause of surpassing moral clarity. The American president is rarely blessed with problems so, literally, black and white. And if Obama leaves behind universal health care and immigration reform — two initiatives that have consistently defeated previous presidents — that will be no small legacy. But tell me, do you have a clear sense of what moral purpose drives our president?

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, 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.

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

January 6, 2013

Well, it would appear that The Pasty Little Putz has finally gone off the deep end.  The poor soul has obviously lost his mind.  In “Boehner, American Hero” he babbles that in a dysfunctional Washington, this is what success looks like.  Really.  He’s calling the orange weeper a hero.  Someone needs to do some sort of intervention with the Putz…  MoDo looks at “The Surreal World: Capitol Hill” and has a question:  Is C-Span’s V.P. more entertaining than HBO’s Veep?  Of course, she works in her standard hissing at the president for being detached and aloof…  The Moustache of Wisdom suggests we need “More Risk-Taking, Less Poll-Taking.”  He says we’ve had lots of deal-making in Washington lately, but hardly any displays of courage from anyone.  (Apparently The Putz hasn’t yet ‘splained to The Moustache that Weeping John is a hero.)  Mr. Kristof is still in Beijing.  In “Looking for a Jump-Start in China” he says China’s next top leader has the potential to be a game changer, and to nourish China’s rise with sweeping economic and political reforms.  Mr. Bruni addresses “How to Choose a College” and says when picking a school, you can focus on ranking, reputation, ivy. Or you can ask yourself where you’ll really be forced to grow.  Here’s the Putz:

Here are a few things that happened to John Boehner, ostensibly one of the most powerful men in Washington, during the past two weeks.

First his own backbenchers blew up his attempt at a fiscal cliff negotiating maneuver. Then he had to step back and let Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell hammer out the details of the fiscal cliff deal, which he then had to shepherd through his own legislative body with more Democratic than Republican votes. The next day he was dressed down on national television by a grandstanding Chris Christie. The day after that, he survived an utterly incompetent revolt against his re-election as speaker of the House.

These tribulations have earned Boehner press coverage that’s sympathetic without being particularly respectful. It’s increasingly taken for granted that he’s an ineffective speaker who holds his position mostly because nobody else wants the job — an anti-Sam Rayburn, a survivor who’s liked but not feared. The only compliments he ever seems to earn are backhanded, rueful, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I.

Yet at the same time, Boehner has done his country a more important service over the last two years than almost any other politician in Washington.

That service hasn’t been the achievement of a grand bargain with the White House, which he has at times assiduously sought. Nor has it been the sweeping triumph over liberalism that certain right-wing activists expect him to somehow gain. Rather, it’s been a kind of disaster management — a sequence of bomb-defusal operations that have prevented our dysfunctional government from tipping into outright crisis.

Three realities have made these constant defusing operations necessary. First, there’s the grim economic and budgetary situation — a mix of slow growth and huge peacetime deficits that constrains policy makers in unprecedented ways. (It’s far, far easier to be a successful legislator when you’re negotiating over an expanding pie.) Second, there’s the combination of gridlocked government and ideological polarization, which simultaneously requires compromise while reducing the common ground available to would-be deal makers.

Such obstacles might be enough to frustrate even the legislative giants of the past. Pundits talk blithely about the good old days of bipartisanship, but there’s no real precedent in modern American history for a bipartisan bargain in which two bitterly divided sides both accept so many painful sacrifices.

The Republicans’ current position makes things harder still, because Boehner’s party has much more power in Washington than it has support in the nation as a whole. Republicans are a minority party nationally, but thanks to redistricting they control the House despite Democrats’ 2012 successes. This mismatch leaves the base spoiling for fights that can’t actually be won: House Republicans have just enough real power to raise conservative expectations but not nearly enough to bend a liberal president and a Democratic Senate to their will.

Boehner’s job, then, requires constantly pushing hard enough to persuade his caucus that he’s maximizing Republican leverage, while simultaneously looking for ways to make small, can-kicking deals at the last possible moment. Which he’s always found, by hook or by crook: there was no government shutdown in the spring of 2011, no debt default that summer, and the fiscal cliff was averted (at least temporarily) last week.

The fact that all these crises have been resolved at the 11th hour, amid persistent brinkmanship and repeated near-death moments for his speakership, isn’t a sign that he’s a failure. Instead, given the correlation of forces he’s dealing with, this is what success looks like. (For a glimpse of the alternative, just imagine rerunning the last two years with Newt Gingrich in the speaker’s chair.)

You might say that this is no way to run a government. I’d agree. But the nation’s polarization and his party’s dysfunction are beyond a speaker’s ability to undo. As Democrats learned across the 1970s and ’80s, the House is a poor base from which to rebuild a national party. Nobody blames Tip O’Neill or Jim Wright for failing to do what Bill Clinton and Barack Obama ultimately achieved. And anyone who thinks that Boehner would transform the Republican Party for the better by, say, resigning his leadership position and excoriating his colleagues should watch fewer Aaron Sorkin shows.

No, the way out of our predicament is through the ballot box, not the speaker’s office. Either Democrats need to consolidate their advantages and win back the House or Republicans need to find a way to start winning national elections again, at which point the current impasse will be broken and policy will tilt more clearly toward the left or right.

Until then, we’re stuck with the cycle of brinkmanship — another debt-ceiling debate, another shutdown possibility, the spending portion of the fiscal cliff.

It would probably be better to call the whole thing off and accept that the fiscal picture won’t change much in two years. But if we’re going to go through it again, I’m glad that the speaker who prevented dysfunction from producing disaster last time is around to try again.

He really should have his medications adjusted…  Here’s MoDo:

It was hard not to feel sorry for John Boehner, wounded, weepy, mercilessly flogged by Chris Christie. The miserable-looking Boehner was even scaring small children.

After squeaking out re-election as House speaker when crazed conservatives rebelled on Thursday, Boehner summoned gruff bonhomie as he presided at a ceremonial swearing-in for House members.

But some of the kids posing for pictures seemed a little alarmed at Boehner’s awkward pats, brusque small talk and barked orders when someone posed the wrong way.

The speaker opened his arms to help out Sean Duffy, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin who was juggling five small children and two stuffed animals. Duffy, who met his wife, Rachel, through MTV after they were on different seasons of “The Real World,” tried to hand over his young daughter, who recoiled.

“No?” the rejected speaker asked her, muttering sardonically, “You could be a member of our caucus.” He followed the girl as she rolled away on the floor, trying to tickle her and making Donald Duck quacking noises. That kind of thing may work on Michele Bachmann, but Miss Duffy was having none of it.

It was a day for old-pol shtick. And if Boehner was the nicotine-stained prince of darkness in the House, Joe Biden was the garrulous white knight over in the Senate. Fresh from his deal-making triumph with Mitch McConnell — no Tickle Monster, he — Biden presided over the Senate ceremonial swearing-in and lived up to his reputation for “bringing sexy back to the Medicare-eligible set,” as Politico once put it.

Every time Biden spied a member’s mom, he called out with utter delight, “Mom!” as though she were his own, enfolding the glowing woman in a tender embrace.

“Mom, I’ll see you in a little bit,” he flirted with the mother of Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. “I hope I’ll sneak over and see you.” To the mother of Senator Deb Fischer, a new Republican from Nebraska, he cooed, “You’ve got beautiful eyes, Mom.”

The bouncy, irrepressible Biden also had better karma with kids, persuading one little boy to raise his hand to take the oath with his father, the new Connecticut senator, Chris Murphy. It turned into a YouTube moment so adorable it even melted the hearts of jaded journalists who usually prefer videos of Ukrainian pols fistfighting.

The prolix vice president had his off-kilter moments, of course. He made a risqué frisking joke to the husband of Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and he gushed over a brunette accompanying Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey: “You are so pretty. God love you, holy mackerel.”

But it was hard not to fall for his daffy charm — a rare 86 minutes of feeling good about a Congress that has now officially entered Ionesco territory as the most absurd place on earth.

When the young daughter of Senator Ted Cruz, the new Tea Party hotshot from Texas, began crying, the vice president reassured her, noting that he was a Democrat but that “it’s O.K.”

When Tim Scott, the first black senator from South Carolina, came up with his muscular brother, a former football player, to pose, the 70-year-old Biden deadpanned, “Need any help with your pecs, let me know.”

The vice president has come in for his share of mockery by late-night comics. But fox-trotting in to save the day on the fiscal cliff as the “dancing partner” of McConnell, Biden seemed more like an indispensable partner to the detached president who loathes dealing with Congress — a capable, genial Captain Kirk balancing out Obama’s brilliant but rigid Spock.

As the presidential historian Michael Beschloss said on Twitter, “Biden did for the president on Capitol Hill what J.F.K. was always too wary to let the experienced L.B.J. do for him.”

A petition even popped up on the White House Web site suggesting that the Obama administration create a reality show around the vice president. C-Span ratings would go through the Capitol dome, giving Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s “Veep” a run for its money.

It was sweet justice for a man who was the victim of friendly fire from White House aides after he blurted out his support for gay marriage during the campaign while the president was still dithering, spurring Obama to do the right thing. From the beginning of their alliance in 2008, Biden felt passionately that he needed to interpret the dispassionate Obama for regular folk. It was an attitude that probably annoyed Obama, who does not like to feel dependent or beholden, having fought his way up in the world mostly under his own steam.

But when Obama let Biden take over the cliff talks, and when he noted with asperity that he would not debate Congress again over paying its bills, he dug into his revulsion at playing the game, his reluctance to even fake the flattering, schmoozing and ring-kissing needed to coax Congress into doing what he wants.

Even members of his own party have lost faith in his ability to use the White House as a social lubricant to get his agenda passed, or to use that big brain of his to become a more clever negotiator, rather than a scolding lecturer.

“His inability to engage the politicians here has been a real liability,” one Democratic lawmaker complained. It’s odd, given that he was renowned for making a group of egotists feel that they were being heeded at The Harvard Law Review.

The vice president was in the Senate for 36 years while the president merely breezed through. Obama radiates contempt at Congress for not being a bunch of high-minded, effective people, and for expecting him to clean up its mess. He thinks reasonable people should see things his way in a reasonable amount of time, and gets impatient when ideology, ego, identity politics and pork-project whining hold up progress.

Biden is a realist. He understands lawmakers’ limitations, motivations and needs. He leans right in and speaks — and speaks and speaks — their language. That’s who he is. And he believes, as creaky and unwieldy as the system is, that it still has integrity. More Rocky than Spocky, Biden can spread everything out on the table and negotiate his way through all of his former colleagues’ shortcomings, weaknesses, fears and frailties.

It’s actually fun for him, while Obama seems so often to be pulling back, aggrieved by the need to engage. The president and his staff seem clueless about what Republicans on the Hill are thinking. And Obama ignores those who urge him to be less insular and — like Jefferson, Lincoln, L.B.J. and Reagan — socialize more with political players, combining fairy dust, elbow grease, intimidation and seduction to get his way.

Joe Biden has a valuable skill: He knows how to stoop to conquer.

MoDo, you’re wrong in your first statement.  I would find it extremely difficult to feel sorry for Weeping John.  Next up is The Moustache of Wisdom:

The U.S. military trains its fighter pilots on a principle called the “OODA Loop.” It stands for observe, orient, decide, act. The idea is that if your OODA Loop is faster and more accurate than the other pilot’s, you’ll shoot his plane out of the sky. If the other pilot’s OODA Loop is better, he’ll shoot you down. Right now, our national OODA Loop is broken. We’re are doing something crazy — taking the country back and forth to the financial brink to produce suboptimal, midnight compromises without any overall plan for how this will lead to growth in the world in which we’re living. We’re doing the worst thing a country can do — cutting taxes and spending without a plan. Maybe you can grow without a plan. But if you want to ensure that every scarce dollar gets the biggest bang, you can’t cut without a plan. It’s deciding and acting without observing and orienting. It’s how fighter pilots get shot down.

President Obama, by his own admission, focused his campaign almost exclusively on the need to raise taxes on the wealthy, and the Republicans focused theirs on lowering them. But neither one offered the country what we need most: a description of what world we’re living in, what is new, and how we maximize our ability to compete and grow in this world — and then offering up a comprehensive, detailed plan of appropriate phased-in spending cuts, tax reforms and investments in research, infrastructure and early childhood education to create more good jobs and the workers to fill them.

What world are we living in? It’s a world in which we face three major challenges: responding to the merger of globalization and the information technology revolution, which is changing every job and workplace; dealing with our mounting debt and entitlement burdens, driven by steadily rising health care costs and unsustainable defined benefits; and, finally, developing energy sources that can grow the world economy without tipping it into disruptive climate change. (At one point last week, the Senate approved a $60.4 billion aid package to help New York and New Jersey recover from Hurricane Sandy. If fully implemented, that would mean we’d spend on one storm all the new tax revenue for next year that the House and Senate just agreed to in the fiscal-cliff negotiations.)

What each party should be saying is, “Given this world, here are the specific tax reforms, spending cuts, investments and policy innovations we need to grow our middle class, sustain our retirees and shrink inequality.” Instead, we have no leaders ready to trust the public with the truth, so both parties are shooting themselves in the foot and our future in the head. As Matt Miller, author of “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas” noted in The Washington Post, “Republicans haven’t identified anything remotely equal to the savings we need. And because many liberals haven’t thought through the long-term budget implications, or wrongly assume that taxes can rise indefinitely or that the Pentagon can be shrunk to something less than a triangle, they resist sensible steps to slow the growth of Social Security and Medicare, not realizing that this course will assure before long that there isn’t any new money to spend on, say, poor children.”

I expect nothing from the G.O.P. It’s lost and leaderless. I expect a lot from Obama, who knows what needs to be done and has said so in the past. I expect him to stop acting as a party leader and start acting like the president of the whole country. When I heard Obama say, after the election, that this time he was going to take his plan to the country, and not make the mistake again of just negotiating with Congress, I thought, “Great, I can’t wait to hear what he says.” But all he took to the country was a plan for increasing taxes on “millionaires and billionaires.” There was nothing comprehensive, nothing bold, no great journey for America and no risks for him. Really disappointing.

Maybe Obama has a strategy: First raise taxes on the wealthy, which gives him the credibility with his base to then make big spending cuts in the next round of negotiations. Could be. But raising taxes on the wealthy is easy. Now we’re at the hard part: comprehensive tax reform, entitlement cuts, radical cost-saving approaches to health care and new investments in our growth engines. This will require taking things away from people — to both save and invest. A lot of lobbies will fight it. The president will need to rally the center of the country and the business community to overcome them. He’ll have to change the polls, not just read the polls. He will have to take on his own base and the G.O.P.’s.

Obama has spent a lot of time lately bashing the rich to pay their “fair share.” You know what? There are definitely some Wall Street bankers and C.E.O.’s who deserve that bashing. But there are many successful Americans who got their wealth the old-fashioned way — by risk-taking, going into debt to start a business or pursue a dream. It’s time for the president to do some risk-taking — to stop just hammering the wealthy, which is so easy, and to start selling the country on a strategy to multiply them. We need to tax more millionaires, but we also need more millionaires and middle classes to tax. The president was elected to grow our national pie, not just re-divide it.

One of the commenters on this thing put in a link to The Thomas Friedman Op/Ed Generator.  Honest to God, you can’t tell the difference between what’s generated and a real column…  Next we have Mr. Kristof:

Here is my prediction about China: The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning writer, will be released from prison.

These won’t happen immediately — Xi won’t even be named president until March — and I may be wrong entirely. But my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.

Here’s my case for Xi as a reformer.

First, it’s in his genes. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a pioneer of economic restructuring and publicly denounced the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in 1989. Xi’s mother chooses to live in Shenzhen, the most capitalist enclave in the country.

Xi is also one of the first Chinese leaders to send a child to the United States as an undergraduate. His daughter is a junior at Harvard, reflecting her parents’ emphasis on learning English and their admiration for American education.

It helps that the bar is low for Xi: he follows President Hu Jintao, who is widely regarded in China as a failure. Even government ministers complain that he squandered his 10 years as leader. Today there is pent-up demand for change.

President Hu, who always reads speeches from texts, is a robot who surrounds himself with robots. One such robot aide is Ling Jihua, whose 23-year-old son was driving a Ferrari one night last March with two half-naked women as passengers. The car crashed on a Beijing road, killing the young man and badly injuring the women, one of whom later died.

Ling feared a scandal and reportedly began a cover-up. He went to the morgue, according to the account I got from one Chinese official, and looked at the body — and then coldly denied that it was his son. He continued to work in the following weeks as if nothing had happened. The cover-up failed, and the episode underscored all that was wrong with the old leadership: the flaunting of dubious wealth, the abuse of power and the lack of any heart.

Xi is trying to send a message that he is different. His first act upon becoming Communist Party general secretary in November was to replicate a famous “southern tour” by Deng Xiaoping in 1992 that revived economic reforms. Xi and his team have also startled officials by telling them to stop reading empty speeches at meetings.

Another good sign: I hear that Wang Yang, a reformist who has been the party chief in Guangdong Province and is perhaps the single most capable leader in China today, will be named a vice premier in March.

The new leaders would probably prefer to accelerate economic change while minimizing political relaxation, but that is increasingly difficult as China develops an educated, worldly and self-confident middle class. Over the years, most of China’s neighbors — from Taiwan to Mongolia, South Korea to Thailand — have become more democratic, and now even Myanmar is joining the parade. How can mighty China be more backward than Myanmar?

For 25 years, I’ve regularly been visiting my wife’s ancestral village in the Taishan area of southern China. At first, the villagers were semiliterate and isolated, but now their world has been transformed. On this visit, we dropped by a farmhouse where a former peasant was using the Internet to trade stocks on his laptop. His daughter is in college, and he watches Hong Kong television on a big screen.

People like him are ever harder to control or manipulate, and they’re steamed at China’s worsening corruption. A couple of decades ago, a friend who is a son of a Politburo member was paid several hundred thousand dollars a year to lend his name to a Chinese company so that it could get cheap land from local governments. These days, the family members of leaders can rake in billions of dollars over time.

The 70 richest delegates to China’s National People’s Congress have a collective net worth of almost $90 billion, Bloomberg News reported. That’s more than 10 times the collective net worth of the entire American Congress.

Granted, there is evidence to counter my optimistic take. Most troubling, the authorities are cracking down on the Internet. That’s a great leap backward, but I am skeptical that it will be sustained. Right now a fascinating test case is unfolding: a senior propaganda official censored a New Year’s message in a major Guangdong newspaper, and now journalists are publicly demanding that he be fired. Stay tuned.

Xi is also more nationalistic than President Hu, and I worry that a confrontation with Japan over disputed islands could escalate out of control — in which case all bets are off.

Still, the pre-eminent story of our time is the rise of China. For the last decade it has been hobbled by the failed leadership of President Hu. I’m betting that in the coming 10 years of Xi’s reign, China will come alive again.

And last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

My niece Leslie is still more than nine months away from sending in a college application and more than 18 from stepping into her first college class, but already she’s swimming in numbers: the average SAT scores for one university’s student body; the percentage of applicants another school admits; how much money, on average, the graduates of yet another school tend to make once they’ve been in the work force awhile. This is the kind of information spotlighted in the articles and books that are supposed to guide her and her peers. These are the types of factoids that the adults around them often focus on.

Which school will bequeath the best network? Which diploma has the most cachet? Various relatives pitch Leslie on the virtues of their alma maters, and as surely as my niece swims in numbers, she drowns in advice. But much of it strikes me as shortsighted and incomplete, and I worry that she’ll be coaxed to make her choice in a way that disregards the inimitable opportunity that college presents, the full bounty and splendor of those potentially transformative years. I have the same worry about other secondary-school students who, like her, possess the economic and intellectual good fortune — and the hard-won transcripts — to entertain a wealth of alternatives, because I think we let them get too distracted by rankings, ratings, brands. We don’t point them toward assessments and dynamics that are arguably more meaningful.

Last week was the deadline to apply to many colleges and universities, though the admissions dance — the dreaming, scheming, waiting and worrying — has really become a year-round, nonstop phenomenon, starting well before the final stretch of high school. Leslie’s a junior and has already visited half a dozen campuses, to see how they feel.

And if she’s like most of my peers when I was her age, she’ll wind up picking one that gives her a sense of comfort, of safety. That’s what too many kids do. They perpetuate what they’re familiar with, gravitating to the same schools that their friends are or duplicating their parents’ paths. And there’s so much lost in that reflex, so much surrendered by that timidity.

If you’re among the lucky who can factor more than cost and proximity into where you decide to go, college is a ticket to an adventure beyond the parameters of what you’ve experienced so far. It’s a passport to the far side of what you already know. It’s a chance to be challenged, not coddled. To be provoked, not pacified.

Does brand matter? To a point. There are indeed future employers who see certain diplomas as seals of approval, as pre-screening of a sort, and there are many successful people who got that way by milking contacts made at storied universities. But there are just as many who prospered without the imprimatur of one of the hyper-exclusive schools near the top of the annual U.S. News & World Report list. And even if you’re confining yourself to those schools, you can and should ask questions about them that prospective freshmen frequently don’t.

How many of a college’s or university’s students are coming from other countries? Favor schools with higher percentages of foreigners, because as much of your education will happen outside as inside any lecture hall, and globalism is here and real. The dexterity with which you can navigate other cultures — your awareness of, and openness to, them — could be more valuable and happy-making than any knowledge gleaned from a book.

When it comes to the internationalism of a school, don’t assume the loftiest ones win the race. In one measure of this, Carnegie Mellon, Boston University and Brandeis came out ahead of Harvard, Stanford, Williams or Duke.

You might also take into account what percentage of a school’s students travel in the opposite direction and do some study abroad. That could be an indication of your future classmates’ daring or curiosity, and those classmates will presumably bring the fruits of their experiences back to campus. According to U.S. News & World Report, of the 41 schools that claim to have sent more than 50 percent of their students to a study-abroad program, only one, Dartmouth, is in the Ivy League.

I use the word “claim” deliberately and urge skepticism with rankings. They depend on honest reporting from schools, and in recent years both Claremont McKenna College and Emory University were forced to admit inflation in what they’d trumpeted about the test scores or other achievements of their students. Also, what does “study abroad” mean? A semester or a week, and in Mumbai or just Montreal? As it happens, more than half of the American college students who take an academic detour from the United States still head to Europe, and the most popular destination is Britain, according to the Institute of International Education. They’re not exactly honing new language skills there.

SO dig as deeply as you can into what the statistics that colleges showcase do and don’t assure. And treat your undergraduate education as a rare license, before you’re confined by the burdens of full-fledged adulthood and before the costs of experimentation rise, to be tugged outside your comfort zone. To be yanked, preferably. If you’ve spent little time in the thick of a busy city, contemplate a school in precisely such a place. If you know only the North, think about the South. Seek diversity, not just in terms of nationality, ethnicity and race, but also in terms of financial background, especially if your bearings have been resolutely and narrowly upper middle class. You’ll most likely encounter a different economic cross-section of classmates at one of the top state universities than you will at a small private college. Doesn’t that have merit, and shouldn’t that be weighed?

And if your interests and circumstances don’t demand an immediate concentration on one field of study, go somewhere that’ll force you to stretch in multiple directions. (A core curriculum isn’t a bad thing at all.) The world is in constant flux, life is a sequence of surprises, and I can think of no better talents to pick up in college than fearlessness, nimbleness and the ability to roll with change, adapt to newness and improvise.

I have 11 nieces and nephews in all. There are 10 younger than Leslie. I hope all of them have the options that she seems to, and I hope they ask themselves not which school is the surest route to riches but which will give them the richest experiences to draw from, which will broaden their frames of reference. College can shrink your universe, or college can expand it. I vote for the latter.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

November 13, 2012

Bobo has decided that he must step up to the plate and offer President Obama his advice.  [sigh]  In “Obama the Dealmaker” he gurgles that President Obama has a chance to build a great middle-class economy, but he must isolate those who distract with their partisan incentives and instead present a clear offer.  It’s just too effing rich.  It’s OBAMA’S job to isolate the folks who distract with partisan incentives?  Lemme clue you in, you idiot — it’s YOUR party that’s infested with tea party lunatics and Grover Norquist worshipers.  Mr. Cohen addresses “The Need for U.S.-Iran Talks” and says armed conflict with Iran in 2013 is still possible and there is no more immediate strategic challenge for the re-elected president.  I no more think that Iran will attack Israel than I think I’m the Queen of the May, but YMMV.  Mr. Nocera tells us “A Texas Prosecutor Faces Justice” and that too often, a prosecutor’s conduct goes unchallenged. Not this time.  In “The Siren and the Spook” Mr. Bruni says in clucking over the David Petraeus-Paula Broadwell affair, we’re casting roles and assigning blame with our usual chauvinism.  Here’s Bobo:

During his first term, President Obama faced a wicked problem: How do you govern in a highly polarized, evenly divided country with House Republicans who seem unwilling to compromise? Obama never really solved that one, and he was forced to pass his agenda on partisan lines (during the first two years) or not pass it at all (the final two).

Now re-elected with Republicans still in control of the House, Obama faces the problem again. You might say the success of his second term rests upon him solving it.

Some on the left are suggesting that he adopt a strategy of confrontation and conquest. The president should use the advantages of victory to crush the spirit of the Republican House majority, they say. Reject the Grand Bargain approach. Instead, take the country over the so-called fiscal cliff. Blame it on the Republicans who are unwilling to even raise taxes on the rich. Wait until they fold, and then you will have your way.

The first thing to say about this strategy is that it is irresponsible. The recovery is fragile. Europe may crater. China is ill. Business is pulling back at the mere anticipation of a fiscal cliff. It’s reckless to think you can manufacture an economic crisis for political leverage and then control the cascading results.

Second, it’s terrible politics. Obama could probably triumph in a short-term confrontation, pushing through higher tax rates on the rich that wouldn’t even produce enough revenue to cover a tenth of the deficit. But he’d sow such bitterness that it would be the last thing he’d pass for the rest of his term. The Republican House majority isn’t going to magically disappear.

Finally, it misunderstands the state of the G.O.P. This is not the Republican Party of 2010. Today’s Republicans no longer have an incentive to deny Obama victories. He’s never running again. Most of today’s Republicans understand that they need to decontaminate their brand. They’re more open to compromise, more likely to be won over with deal-making than brow-beating.

The liberal left wing, like the Tea Party types, has an incentive to build television ratings by fulminating against their foes. But President Obama and John Boehner have an incentive to create a low-decibel businesslike atmosphere. The opinion-entertainment complex longs for the war track. The practitioners should long for the deal-making track.

Before he gets lost in the mire of negotiations, the president could step back and practically describe the task ahead. Between 1947 and 2007, the U.S. economy grew an average of 3.3 percent a year. But over the next few decades, according to forecasts from the Congressional Budget Office, it’s projected to grow only at 2.3 percent per year. The task ahead is to make the sort of structural changes that will get America back on its old growth trajectory.

Then the president could remind everyone that there’s lots to do. Some of the things on the to-do list are things Democrats relish doing: investing in infrastructure and basic research; reforming immigration to attract global talent; investing in student loans and community colleges; trimming the annual $1.1 trillion in tax loopholes, many of which go to corporations and the rich.

Other things the Republicans will surely relish doing: simplifying a tax code that has bloated to 74,000 pages; streamlining the Code of Federal Regulation that has metastasized to 165,000 pages; slowing entitlement spending.

But the point is the only way to get things done in a divided polarized country is side by side — an acceptable Democratic project paired with an acceptable Republican one.

The fiscal-cliff talks are just the first chapter in this long process. In this first episode, the Democrats should get higher revenues from the rich (elections have consequences) and the Republicans should get some entitlement reform. But the main point is to lay the predicate for the bigger deals to come.

This is about horse-trading. It’s about conducting meetings in which people don’t lecture each other; they deal. It’s about isolating those who want an economic culture war. It’s about making clear offers and counteroffers.

If you want a great example of how these deals might work, check out a new paper at Third Way called The Bargain. It offers a perfect model of how you might structure a series of big trades to move the country back on the growth path — on innovation policy, tax policy, spending policy and so on.

The more you put on the table, the more trading is possible, the better the atmosphere and the more you might get done. If you only put one idea on the table at a time, then everybody gets gridlocked and nothing gets done.

The economic crisis interrupted him last time, but President Obama still has a chance to build a great middle-class economy. It’ll take a dealmaker, not a warrior.

Yeah.  It’s Obama’s job to crawl to Boehner and beg for a deal?  Let me see if I can remember what we were told years ago…  Oh, yeah — WE WON.  GET OVER IT.  Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

Mitt Romney used the word “peace” or “peaceful” a dozen times in the last presidential debate, as if he’d been communing with the ghosts of John Lennon and Mohandas Gandhi. But the American people were not fooled. In re-electing Barack Obama, they voted for peace and against a third war in a Muslim nation in little over a decade.

Americans are tired of their trillion-dollar wars. A recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 67 percent of Americans believe the Iraq war was not worth it, 69 percent think the United States is no safer from terrorism as a result of the Afghan war, and 71 percent say the Iraq experience should make the country more cautious about using force [pdf].

The risk was real that Romney — surrounded by hawks like the former United Nations ambassador John Bolton, beholden to the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, and prodded by his friend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel — might take the United States to war in Iran. Certainly, any chance of a diplomatic resolution of the crisis caused by Iran’s nuclear program would have receded for the foreseeable future.

Armed conflict with Iran in 2013 is still possible. If a reminder were needed, Iran’s firing shots earlier this month at a U.S. drone provided it. Israel is impatient with the steady progression of Iranian enrichment. Obama, while opposed to war and largely impervious to Netanyahu’s clumsy prodding, has said he will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. There is no more immediate strategic challenge for the re-elected president.

The question of whether the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace or for a breakthrough with Iran should be the first diplomatic priority for Obama’s second term amounts to a no-brainer. It’s Iran, stupid. (There are no good options in Syria and — as with most Middle Eastern issues — American noncommunication with Iran on the matter is unhelpful. Iran’s constructive role in the 2001 Bonn conference on Afghanistan is too often forgotten.)

War with Iran would be devastating, to a Middle East in transition, to U.S. interests from Afghanistan to Egypt, and to the global economy. The time available for averting conflict is limited. Israel-Palestine, by contrast, is a draining confrontation but not today the potential spark to a conflagration; nor does it offer any new encouraging elements; nor is it likely that Netanyahu, if re-elected next year, would cease using Iran as a diversion from serious engagement with the Palestinians, who are divided in crippling ways they and the United States are reluctant to address.

But do any new avenues with Iran exist? Is there any political space for them? During Obama’s first term Republican machismo prevailed on many fronts. Demonization of Iran was a never-ending source of rhetorical inspiration. Democrats were not far behind.

Diplomacy is in urgent need of resurrection. It is becoming a lost art in an age of declamation. During a recent conversation, William Luers, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and the director of The Iran Project, and Stephen Heintz, the president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, told me they avoid the phrase “diplomatic solution” in conversations about Iran on Capitol Hill. Instead they say “political solution.” Diplomacy just sounds too wimpy.

But, as they well know, diplomacy with Iran is needed. Diplomacy involves accepting that in order to get what you want you have to give something. The key question is: “What do I want to get out of my rival and what do I have to give to get it?”

Pressure alone, in the form of sanctions, is not going to stop Iran’s nuclear program. At some point, as with Nixon’s bold breakthrough with China, undertaken against furious protests (just as vehement as Aipac would be on talks with Iran), the questions must be asked: “What do we want, what do they want, and what do we both want?” Areas of overlapping interest must be developed.

This will take unusual courage from Obama — and more good sense from an economically squeezed Islamic Republic than normally emanates from Tehran. Still, Obama is now a second-term president. He is freer — and the macho school of foreign policy is weaker. He must develop, through a special envoy, a direct line of communication with Tehran. Iranian-American trauma, now decades old, is inseparable from the nuclear crisis.

What do we want from Iran? Open up all its nuclear facilities, get rid of all its 20 percent enriched uranium, end all threats to Israel, stop rampant human rights abuses, changed policies on Hamas and Hezbollah, a constructive approach to Syria. What can we offer? Lift some sanctions, stop a range of covert actions, take regime change off the table, put the right to limited enrichment (up to 5 percent) on the table, and address the regional role of Iran.

A creative diplomat could juggle the above and work to build confidence through phased tradeoffs. But first Obama must get beyond the conventional wisdom on Iran, think big, act bold, ignore the visceral Iran-haters and stop believing coercion alone is the answer.

Next up is Mr. Nocera:

In just about a month from now, Texas will witness a rare event: a former prosecutor is going to be held to account for alleged prosecutorial misconduct.

He is Ken Anderson, who for nearly 17 years was the district attorney in Williamson County, a fast-growing suburb of Austin. (In 2002, Gov. Rick Perry made him a district judge.) As Pamela Colloff writes, in a brilliant two-part series in Texas Monthly, Anderson was the kind of prosecutor who “routinely asked for, and won, harsh sentences and fought to keep offenders in prison long after they became eligible for parole.”

One of Anderson’s most high-profile prosecutions was of a man named Michael Morton. In 1987, Anderson prosecuted him for a heinous crime: His wife, Christine, was bludgeoned to death. Morton was then in his early 30s, with a 3-year-old son and a job at Safeway. He had never been in trouble. Yet the Williamson County sheriff, Jim Boutwell, from whom Anderson took his cues, was convinced that Morton had committed the crime.

Evidence that could be used against him — such as a plaintive note Morton wrote to his wife after she fell asleep when he was hoping to have sex — was highlighted. Evidence that suggested his innocence — most importantly, a blood-stained bandana discovered near Morton’s house — was ignored. Worst of all, Anderson’s office hid from the defense some crucial evidence that would undoubtedly have caused the jury to find Morton not guilty. By the time Morton was sentenced — to life — only his parents and a single co-worker believed he was innocent.

But he was. In October 2011, after 25 years in prison, Morton was set free. Nine years earlier, the Innocence Project, which works on behalf of people who have been wrongly prosecuted, got involved in Morton’s case. After years of legal wrangling, they got hold of the hidden evidence, and a court agreed to allow DNA testing on the bloody bandana. The DNA test not only absolved Morton, but pointed to a man who had subsequently killed another woman.

Colloff’s articles are gripping and powerful, but they’re not as unusual as they ought to be. Stories about innocent people wrongly imprisoned are a staple of journalism. (Colloff herself has written about two other such prisoners in Texas.) Barry Scheck, the co-founder of the Innocence Project, told me that the group has gotten 300 people exonerated, mostly by using sophisticated DNA testing.

Sam Millsap, a former Texas prosecutor, now crusades against the death penalty because a man he prosecuted — on the basis of a single eyewitness — was put to death. He later learned that the witness had been wrong. “I’d love to be able to tell you I am the only former elected prosecutor in the country who finds himself in the position of having to admit an error in judgment that may have led to the execution of an innocent man, but I know I am not,” he said in a talk he gave a few years ago.

Very few prosecutors, however, are willing to admit they’ve made errors. They fight efforts to reopen cases. “They want finality,” said Ellen Yaroshefsky, a professor at Cardozo School of Law. The standard for introducing evidence postconviction is that it has to be strong enough to have changed the result. It rarely is.

Some prosecutors have another incentive: hiding misconduct. Brandon Garrett, who teaches law at the University of Virginia and has written a book, “Convicting the Innocent,” about exonerations, told me that in almost every case, prosecutorial misconduct is involved.

What makes the Morton case unusual is that, thanks to the Innocence Project’s re-investigation, Ken Anderson will soon go before a Texas Court of Inquiry. If the court believes that Anderson’s alleged misconduct rises to the level of a crime, it could refer the matter to a grand jury. But the Court of Inquiry exists only in Texas, and is almost never used even there.

In truth, Anderson isn’t the only Williamson County prosecutor who faced consequences as a result of the Morton case. His successor, John Bradley, was the one who had fought for years against the DNA testing of the bandana. Seven months after Morton was set free, Bradley, who had always been a shoo-in for re-election as district attorney, was resoundingly defeated.

When I spoke to him the other day, he told me that he now believes he had been wrong to fight so hard against the DNA testing. “We shouldn’t set up barriers to the introduction of new evidence,” he said. Although it would mean more work for prosecutors, Bradley now believes that examining important new evidence is “a legitimate and acceptable cost to doing business in the criminal justice system.”

Bradley will leave office soon. He told me he was going to start a law practice specializing in appellate work. Here’s hoping he argues some appeals for the wrongly imprisoned.

And some people wonder why I view the American criminal “justice” system with an extremely jaundiced eye…  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

There were remarks galore about her unusually toned arms and the way she dressed to show them off. I even spotted a comment about how much of her armpits one of her outfits revealed, as if underarm exhibitionism were some sort of sexual sorcery, some aphrodisiac, the key to it all.

What else could explain his transgression? Why else would a man of such outward discipline and outsize achievement risk so much? The temptress must have been devious. The temptation must have been epic.

That was the tired tone of some of the initial coverage of, and reaction to, the affair between David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, which had many people claiming surprise where there wasn’t cause for any, reverting to clichés that should be retired and indulging in a sexism we like to think we’ve moved past.

Broadwell has just 13 percent body fat, according to a recent measurement. Did you know that? Did you need to? It came up nonetheless. And like so much else about her — her long-ago coronation as homecoming queen, her six-minute mile — it was presented not merely as a matter of accomplishment, but as something a bit titillating, perhaps a part of the trap she laid.

There are bigger issues here. There are questions of real consequence, such as why the F.B.I. got so thoroughly involved in what has been vaguely described as a case of e-mail harassment, whether the bureau waited too long to tell lawmakers and White House officials about the investigation, and how much classified information Broadwell, by dint of her relationship with Petraeus, was privy to. The answers matter.

Her “expressive green eyes” (The Daily Beast) and “tight shirts” and “form-fitting clothes” (The Washington Post) don’t. And the anecdotes and chatter that implicitly or explicitly wonder at the spidery wiles she must have used to throw the mighty man off his path are laughably ignorant of history, which suggests that mighty men are all too ready to tumble, loins first. Wiles factor less into the equation than proximity.

Sure, the spotlight these men have attracted and the altitude they’ve reached should, theoretically, give them greater pause. But they’ve either become accustomed to or outright sought a kind of adulation in the public arena that probably isn’t mirrored in their marriages. A spouse is unlikely to provide it. A spouse knows you too well for that, and gives you something deeper, truer and so much less electric.

It has to be more than mere coincidence that Bill Clinton had an affair with a White House intern; Newt Gingrich with a Congressional aide (now his wife); John Edwards with a woman who followed him around with a camera, creating hagiographic mini-documentaries about his presidential campaign; and Petraeus with a woman who made him the subject of a biography so worshipful that its main riddle, joked Jon Stewart, was whether Petraeus was “awesome or incredibly awesome.”

These mighty men didn’t just choose mistresses, by all appearances. They chose fonts of gushing reverence. That’s at least as deliberate and damnable as any signals the alleged temptresses put out.

Petraeus’s choice suggests an additional measure of vanity. Broadwell exercises compulsively, as he does. She’s fascinated by all matters military, as he is. “Petraeus once joked I was his avatar,” she told The Charlotte Observer a while back. So by his own assessment, he was having an affair with a version of himself.

And yet it’s the women in these situations who are often subjected to a more vigorous public shaming — and assigned greater responsibility.

The Web site Business Insider posted an interview with an unnamed former colleague of Petraeus’s who knew Broadwell and characterized her as “a shameless self-promoting prom queen.” The colleague all but exonerated Petraeus by saying: “You’re a 60-year-old man and an attractive woman almost half your age makes herself available to you — that would be a test for anyone.”

The headline of The Washington Post story that weighed in on Broadwell’s wardrobe asserted that he “let his guard down,” a phrase that portrays him as passive, possibly even a victim. The story notes that his former aides considered him “the consummate gentleman and family man.”

It goes on to say that Broadwell was “willing to take full advantage of her special access” to him.

An article in Slate asked “how could he — this acclaimed leader and figure of rectitude — allow such a thing to a happen?” The italics are mine, because the verb is a telling one. “She went a bit ga-ga for the general,” the article later observes, adding: “She may have made herself irresistible.”

Such adamant women, such pregnable men. We’ve been stuck on this since Eve, Adam and the Garden of Eden. And it’s true: Eve shouldn’t have been so pushy with the apple.

But Adam could have had a V8.


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