Blow, Nocera, Bruni and Collins

In “Dire Consequences and Denial” Mr. Blow says there are two fundamentally different perspectives on a budget solution. Only one is supported by a majority of Americans.  Mr. Nocera says “This War Is No Longer Invisible,” and that an Oscar-nominated documentary shortchanges the military’s serious response to rape.  Me?  I think Mr. Nocera shortchanges the problem.  Mr. Bruni, in “The Mummy Returns,” says with a new prime minister as well as a new pope in the offing, Italy is an opera of endless amazement.  Ms. Collins has given us “Sequester For Dummies.”  Don’t worry, Concerned Citizens.  With all the gossip these days swirling around budget cuts, she’s prepared to answer all your important questions.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

It’s crunch time.

The sequester’s automatic, across-the-board spending cuts are set to go into effect on Friday, and there is no plan as yet to stop it.

America, this is your feeble government at its most ineffective and self-destructive.

The White House favors a balanced plan that would include spending cuts and some tax increases for the wealthy. Republicans reject any solution that includes tax increases.

These are two fundamentally different perspectives, only one of which is supported by a majority of Americans.

A Pew Research Center/USA Today survey released Thursday found that only 19 percent of Americans believe that the focus of deficit reduction should be only on spending cuts. Seventy-six percent want a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, with more emphasis on the former than the latter.

But the impasse could have dire consequences. A study last year by Stephen S. Fuller, a professor at George Mason University, estimates that the sequester could cost 2.14 million jobs and add 1.5 percentage points to the unemployment rate. Fuller’s analysis was cited in a Congressional Research Service report prepared for members of Congress.

What’s more, the sequester would reduce military spending by $42.7 billion; nonmilitary discretionary spending would drop $28.7 billion, in addition to a mandatory $9.9 billion reduction in Medicare, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

In anticipation of the very real possibility that the sequester could come to pass, some Republicans are leaning on the shoulder of an old friend: denial.

This week on CNN, Senator Rand Paul pronounced the $85 billion in mandated cuts a “pittance” and a “yawn” that is “just really nibbling at the edges.” He also called President Obama’s warnings about the sequester’s impact “histrionics,” “ridiculousness” and “emotionalism.”

What a perfect segue to Rush Limbaugh, who took to the air this week to denounce predictions about the sequester’s effects as a “manufactured” crisis, saying that “for the first time in my life, I am ashamed of my country.”

Limbaugh continued:

“In truth, we’re gonna spend more this year than we spent last year. We’re just not gonna spend as much as was projected. It’s all baseline budgeting. There is no real cut below a baseline of zero. There just isn’t. Yet here they come, sucking us in, roping us in. Panic here, fear there: Crisis, destruction, no meat inspection, no cops, no teachers, no firefighters, no air traffic control. I’m sorry, my days of getting roped into all this are over.”

Those not denying the crisis are hoping to exploit it.

Karl Rove, writing in The Wall Street Journal on Thursday, called the president “a once-in-a-generation demagogue with a compliant press corps” who will subject the American people in the short term to a “slew of presidential photo-ops with those whom he claims will lose jobs.” Mr. Rove advised House Republicans to “pass a continuing resolution next week to fund the government for the balance of the fiscal year at the lower level dictated by the sequester — with language granting the executive branch the flexibility to move funds from less vital activities to more important ones.”

Rove supports the steep cuts but wants to allow the president “flexibility” in applying them. That Rove is as slick as an eel. In other words, he wants to force the president to rob Peter to pay Paul and take the flak for making all the tough choices.

Another Pew Research Poll released this week found that although many Americans favor cutting government spending in the abstract, most don’t agree with cuts to specific programs. “For 18 of 19 programs tested, majorities want either to increase spending or maintain it at current levels,” Pew found. “The only exception is assistance for needy people around the world.”

Ah, foreign aid, the tired old whipping horse that would do virtually nothing to reduce the deficit, as it accounts for a paltry 1 percent of the federal budget.

Rove’s plan to shift to the president the burden of choosing where to bring down the ax is Rove’s way of getting Republicans “to win public opinion to their side.” That is a roundabout way of acknowledging that right now they’re losing. A Bloomberg poll released this week found the president’s job-approval rating at its highest level and the Republican Party’s favorable rating at its lowest since September 2009.

Furthermore, the Pew/USA Today survey found that if a deal isn’t reached in time, about half the public will blame Congressional Republicans while fewer than a third will blame the president.

And if the sequester happens, we’ll all lose. It will be a disaster for the job market and the economy. But no one can accuse these politicians and pundits of caring about such things as long as their own jobs are secure.

And Congress wonders why Americans hold them in such contempt…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

“The Invisible War,” a feature-length documentary about sexual assault in the military, is up for an Oscar Sunday night. Directed by Kirby Dick and produced by Amy Ziering, it is a searing, infuriating, unforgettable film.

At its core are 35 former sailors and soldiers who courageously describe on camera the rapes and other sexual assaults they endured in the military — and the military’s fundamental indifference and even hostility. Every victim deals with deep emotional scars that will never go away.

The most heart-wrenching story is that of Kori Cioca, who was raped by a superior while a Coast Guard seaman. The same man also hit her in the face so hard he dislocated her jaw. It was never treated. Today, she can only eat foods like Jell-O and mashed potatoes. She fights with her husband over issues of intimacy, a direct consequence of being raped. She holds out hope that Veterans Affairs will put her on disability — but after months of waiting, she is denied.

About two-thirds of the way through “The Invisible War,” Dick and Ziering turn to the military’s response to sexual assaults. They interview Kaye Whitley, then the director of the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, who comes across as bumbling and out of touch. And they mock a poster campaign meant to increase awareness around issues of sexual assault.

The military acknowledges that sexual assaults are a huge problem; Dick and Ziering cite Defense Department studies showing that one in five female veterans is sexually abused during her service.

But the filmmakers have done both the Defense Department and their own viewers a disservice by being so dismissive of the military’s response. If the military was once indifferent, it isn’t anymore. Anu Bhagwati, the executive director of Service Women’s Action Network — and a fierce victim advocate in “The Invisible War” — told me that the Defense Department “is definitely taking this seriously. After Afghanistan, combating sexual assault is probably its highest priority.”

In fact, the military is clearly determined to change a culture that once condoned rape. Sexual crimes are every bit as frequent on university campuses, but universities, by and large, are still reluctant to tackle the problem openly.

Although the Defense Department first set up an office to combat sexual assaults in 2005, only in the last few years has that effort gained real momentum. Military leaders have held summit meetings that included the most renowned specialists in the field, many of whom have been engaged to set up programs. You can’t go to basic training now without learning that sexual assaults are no longer tolerated.

One program that the military has embraced is “bystander intervention.” Its purpose is not just to teach sailors and soldiers how to intervene when social situations become potentially dangerous. “We can also use the process to teach the dynamics of sexual assault,” said Jeffrey O’Brien, the director of Mentors in Violence Prevention. “It is meant to address the climate of the base.”

When I mentioned bystander intervention to Ziering, she could not have been more contemptuous. “Bystander intervention?” she scoffed. “Rapists are going to find a way.” But her contempt is misplaced. At the Naval Station Great Lakes, a large base in Illinois, bystander intervention, along with other strategies — including posters — have been in place for almost two years. The data show that the incidence of sexual assaults has dropped 73 percent compared with the previous two years, according to Jill Loftus, who leads the Navy’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

The hard part for the Navy — and the other branches, which are all running similar programs — will be taking what has worked at Great Lakes and applying it to every American facility in the world. That is no easy task for an organization as complex and sprawling as the military. But the military has done this before. It integrated its forces with far less trauma than the larger society. Drinking and driving was once a common facet of military life. Now it is a career-ender. The military has shown it can change.

And there’s one more reason to have hope. With a surprising lack of defensiveness, the military has embraced “The Invisible War.” Thanks in part to the film, said Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, who leads the Defense Department’s efforts to end sexual assaults, “when we hear the voices of the victims, we listen.”

His words have the ring of truth.

In my column on Tuesday, I described the strategy of anti-Keystone XL pipeline activists as boneheaded. In writing about the effect of a carbon tax on Canada’s tar sands oil, I was pretty boneheaded myself. I said such a tax would likely make tar sands oil more viable. But, obviously, it would do the opposite, by decreasing demand for oil and making the already expensive tar sands oil even less economically appealing. What was I thinking?

At this point, Mr. Nocera, one wonders if you’re thinking at all…  Next up is Mr. Bruni:

When I was in college, there was an election for student body president in which one of the three top contenders was a joke candidate who campaigned with a paper bag over his head and went by a made-up name evoking a tumescent male appendage. He finished second, if memory serves. I thought I was watching a farce peculiar to the contest’s low stakes and the crude humor of students our age. I had no idea I was getting a preview of Italian politics.

Have you been following the looming election over there? Not the one to determine the next pope, but the one to decide the next prime minister? The former has somewhat overshadowed the latter, though the latter is a spectacle worth noting: the leader of the party in third place in the polls used to be a comedian, while the leader of the party in second — Silvio Berlusconi — will always be one.

Oh, yes! He’s back! Although some of you may recall that Berlusconi retired from political life in late 2011, pledging not to seek re-election, he reassessed the situation in late 2012, realized that his hobbling country desperately needed him, and announced that he would pursue what would be a fourth stint in office, though he was doing so “at great personal sacrifice.”

I’ll tell you what was great: the shriek that rose up from the Continent.

“The Mummy Returns” was the front-page headline in one prominent French newspaper, referring to a 2001 movie and insinuating, perhaps, that the many cosmetic interventions Berlusconi has undergone include embalming. A prominent German newspaper rued the “Return of the Undead.”

Public opinion surveys suggest that Pier Luigi Bersani and his center-left Democratic Party will finish first in the voting in Italy, which concludes on Monday. But with the affections of alienated voters spread in so many directions, the runners-up like Berlusconi, 76, and his People of Liberty Party will most likely do well enough to force Bersani into a hunt for partners in a coalition government. Things could get complicated, and neither Italy nor the European Union needs any additional complications right now.

This mess of an Italian election lays bare the resentments and anxieties threatening European stability: the anger at Germany, which Berlusconi stokes and exploits; the cynicism toward entrenched, conventional politicians of all stripes; the disgust with persistently poor economic conditions; and a hunger for solutions that makes voters vulnerable to swaggering personalities and provocative talk.

The former comedian I mentioned, Beppe Grillo, has suggested that Italy possibly suspend payments on its national debt, lofted the idea of exiting the euro zone and questioned the mandatory vaccination of children. He once joked that an expeditious way to clean political house would be for Al Qaeda to blow up the Italian Parliament. Thousands of Italians throng his rallies to sop up his contempt for the status quo. Polls estimate that he’s supported by at least 15 percent of voters.

Berlusconi, revivified and ridiculous, has polled above 25 percent, thanks in part to promises of tax cuts and a tax amnesty that the country can ill afford. He has even gone so far as to characterize tax collectors in Italy — which, mind you, has a history of epic tax evasion — as “the extortionist arm of an enemy state.”

Out of the mouth of Berlusconi oft times comes twaddle. Last month he publicly opined that while, yes, Benito Mussolini was viciously anti-Semitic and collaborated with the Nazis, the Fascist dictator wasn’t without redeeming qualities. The occasion for this needless encomium was an event commemorating the Holocaust.

The opera of Italian politics provides endless amazement: how can people so good at living be so bad at government? It provides solace, too, enabling the aghast American to glance from Sarah Palin or Herman Cain to a theater of arguably greater absurdity, with an actor of unsurpassed shamelessness and self-delusion. We suffer much in this country, but we don’t suffer the likes of Berlusconi.

And he looks worse than ever, in part because the aged potentate in the foreground of the other election dominating Italian discourse looks so much better, at least if graded on realism and humility. Pope Benedict XVI knew when to quit.

His decision to resign stunned the world, because no pope had done so in nearly six centuries and because his predecessor, John Paul II, had pressed on through profound infirmity, essentially dying bit by bit on a public stage, before a worldwide audience. It’s hard not to believe that Benedict, 85, was influenced by that pained example and concerned about the church’s going through another difficult chapter of compromised leadership by a deteriorating pope.

Over the last week and a half there have been reports that Benedict had gone blind in one eye, had suffered blood pressure so high that his physician hadn’t wanted him to fly, and had struggled both with walking and with sleep. There has also been speculation that he was hurrying out of the papacy before some new scandal or scandals wash up on his doorstep. I doubt we’ll ever have a full, indisputable inventory of the factors behind his surrender of the reins. The papacy and the Vatican don’t work that way.

But whatever the reasons, the surrender demonstrates a recognition of worldly realities and an ability to let go that Berlusconi could learn from.

Berlusconi has contributed enough already. His legend is established, his legacy intact. As a TV mogul, he brought nudity into game shows and populated the airwaves with showgirls. A few of them followed him into politics, where he installed them in cushy posts. He unabashedly used his vast media holdings to burnish his image. He did not use his years in office and his considerable power to implement the range of reforms that the Italian economy still needs.

Of course, he was distracted. He was constantly grappling with criminal charges, including the accusation that he’d had sex with an underage prostitute. He denied the sex but made no bones about his outsize libido and his quickness to exercise it. At one point in 2011, when he was still prime minister, he told a crowd: “Did you hear the latest poll? They asked women between 20 and 30 years old if they want to make love to Berlusconi. Thirty-three percent said yes! Sixty-seven percent said, ‘Again?’ ”

That’s my question for him: again? Must he feed yet another time, more zombie than mummy, on Italy’s body politic? This contest has very real stakes. Italy’s economy is one of the 10 largest in the world, and it’s sputtering. With any luck, Italians will grapple maturely with that and vote in a way that doesn’t give the comedians in the race too much leverage or exacerbate the country’s political chaos. If they fail to, it’s no laughing matter.

Almost makes you think that the MOTU have decided just to let the entire world go to shit…  Now here’s Ms. Collins:

You’ve been having a tough year, Concerned Citizen. You keep waiting for Congress to take up immigration or guns — something you have an opinion about. All you get are arcane budget fights. Unless you live in the Beltway, it’s hard to build a dinner party around sequestration gossip.

But here we are. Sequester, sequester, sequester. Coming March 1. Ask me anything:

Did you know one of the most popular TV shows in Norway was about firewood? Maybe you should have this discussion with a Norwegian.

According to Sarah Lyall of The Times, the book “Solid Wood: All About Chopping, Drying and Stacking Wood — and the Soul of Wood-Burning,” was on the Norwegian best-seller list for more than a year. I admit that a Norway dinner party sounds like a really tough lift. And to anticipate your next question, the jury is out on whether the bark should face up or down.

But about the sequester …

Is this the fiscal cliff where they shut the government down? Because if it isn’t, I want to wait for that one.

This is the cliff before the one where they shut the government down. You really need to keep this stuff on a calendar. If the standoff in Washington continues, at the end of March the government will run out of money, and families will have to cancel their vacations because all the federal parks will be shuttered. The sequester kicks in next week and simply imposes large, irrationally targeted budget cuts. So the parks will probably stay open, but they’ll lay off the grizzly bear containment warden.

You’re making up the grizzly bear part.

There reportedly is a projected cut in bear-incident-reduction at Yosemite. Also, some bad news for protecting the piping plovers in Michigan. And do not count on finding a comfort station on the scenic route from Natchez to Nashville.

There are much more dramatic possibilities if the sequester sticks over the long run; you’re talking $85 billion in cuts over seven months, and about $1.2 trillion over the next decade. But let’s focus on the first wave. They’re across-the-board reductions, with every little agency piece getting a whack. So your opinion about them should depend on whether you think that government generally does useful things with its money.

I certainly don’t want them to hurt the piping plover.

Cute little birds and animals always get sympathy. If the head of the National Institutes of Health was a kitten, scientific research would probably have made the protected-programs list.

Why would they cut scientific research? That’s crazy. The federal budget is almost $4 trillion. Why can’t they just cut out the most useless stuff?

Because this was supposed to be a trigger so dreadful and dire and stupid that Congress would force itself to come up with a reasonable deficit reduction plan to avoid it. Ha. Ha.

So let them change the rules and tell the agencies to just cut the least important programs.

Uselessness is in the eye of the beholder. The Pentagon looks at some of its ships and planes, and sees aging maintenance nightmares we don’t need. However, Congress thinks they might come in handy. Debates over the defense budget can sound a little bit like a clip from “Hoarders.” Don’t touch that cruiser! I might want to fix it up and give it to the grandkids!

Actually, I think this is a bad time to cut anything. The people keeping those boats welded together need jobs, too. We should wait until the economy picks up.

Perfectly rational thought, but remember these sequester cuts are on an automatic trigger. To avert it, you have to come up with an alternative that’s acceptable to the Republicans in the House of Representatives — possibly the only people in the country who would prefer furloughing air traffic controllers to a minimum tax on millionaires.

O.K., what if you just told the agencies to give Congress some plans on making things more efficient?

President Obama has been trying, with no success whatsoever, to just get Congress to promise an up-or-down vote on his plans to eliminate duplication and inefficiency in the Commerce Department. He’s actually made several speeches about it, noting the multitudinous different government entities that currently share responsibility for regulating salmon.


I brought that one up because I know how much you like critters.

I miss the presidential election and making fun of Mitt Romney’s dog.

We’ll get to the 2016 race soon. Just this week I tripped over a news report from South Dakota that began: Senator John Thune, the third-ranking Republican in his chamber, told a group of second graders that he does not plan on running for president.

Meanwhile we’ve only got this stupid cliff. What’s the first bad thing that will happen?

My money’s on the airports. So very, very easy to make life miserable at airports.

My advice?  Buy catfood futures.  All the olds and poors will be chowing down on Purina pretty soon.


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