In “Worlds Away From Here” The Pasty Little Putz offers, amid a miserable week on Earth, a glimpse of distant planets. He of course starts off with the assumption that nobody follows the news the way he does… MoDo has found another excuse to simultaneously bash the president and display ignorance. She has a question in “No Bully in the Pulpit:” Why doesn’t 90 percent of America equal 60 senators? Lemme see if I can ‘splain it to you in words of one syllable, MoDo: They don’t give a fck what we think or want. Does that clarify matters for you? Oh — and it was interesting that you managed to write an entire column about the failure of gun control legislation without once mentioning the NRA. You stupid bitch. The Moustache of Wisdom has decided to tell us “How to Put America Back Together Again.” He says we need to redouble our efforts to make our country stronger and healthier. A good place to start is with a carbon tax. Right, Tommy. I’m sure the Teatards and the rest of the lunatics in the Republican party will jump all over that. Mr. Bruni is “Questioning the Mission of College,” and says a Texas tussle over accessibility and practicality strikes at the heart of higher education. Can we please just all make the assumption that, until proven otherwise, anything coming out of Texas is bull crap? Here’s The Putz:
And now for some counterprogramming. You probably missed it, what with the Boston Marathon bombing, the ricin-laced letters, the fertilizer plant explosion and an entire city locked down while cops hunted the bombing suspect, but we discovered another world last week. Two, actually — both somewhat larger than Earth, circling a star with the sadly unromantic name of Kepler 62, 1,200 light-years away.
These planets are not the first Earth-like bodies astronomers have discovered, but their size and position make them particularly promising candidates to have liquid water — and with it, perhaps, some form of life.
But their promise only adds to a mystery that’s been building the further our probes and telescopes have pushed into the unknown. If Earth-like planets are relatively common, as scientists increasingly believe, then where are all the Earth-like civilizations?
This mystery is known as the Fermi paradox, after the physicist Enrico Fermi, who raised it at lunch with fellow scientists in 1950. He pointed out that our Sun is a relatively young star, and billions of other suns are billions of years older. If even a tiny fraction of those suns have planets like ours, and even a tiny fraction of those planets developed life, and even a tiny fraction of those life forms achieved human-level intelligence … well, the number of civilizations capable of interstellar communication and travel should be theoretically large enough to crowd our galaxy with signals, ships, artifacts.
In which case, Fermi asked, Where is everybody?
The potential answers to this question can feel as numberless as the stars themselves. (The Wikipedia entry on the Fermi paradox runs to just over 10,000 words.) But two seem particularly plausible. Perhaps life and consciousness are rare enough, mysterious enough, impossible enough, that even multiplying Earth-like worlds a billion times over would not necessarily produce either one again. Or alternatively, perhaps the gulfs between the stars are just too wide to bridge, and our current limited attempts at exploration are as far as any creatures of flesh and blood can ever hope to get.
The first possibility obviously raises theological as well as scientific questions. In one sense, it elevates humanity, restoring us to an almost pre-Copernican position in the cosmos. At the same time, though, plenty of religious believers are untroubled (or even inspired) by the idea of extraterrestrial life, while the possibility that the cosmos might be as empty as it is vast raises troubling questions about what, exactly, its Designer had in mind. (“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread,” wrote the great Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal.)
Maybe, an optimistic believer might venture, the cosmos only seems empty because we haven’t fulfilled our destiny and populated it. But here the second possible answer to Fermi’s paradox intervenes: What if it can’t be populated at all? What if our own solar system is as far as we’ll ever get?
Obviously that’s not a question we’re presently equipped to answer, after less than 60 years of spaceflight. But it haunts our era in subtle, unacknowledged ways.
There’s a sense in which Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 argument about how the idea of the frontier shaped American history can apply to the entire modern project. Exploration, expansion, the promise that a better life was just a long voyage away — all of these helped fuel the sense of historical mission, the assumption of perpetual progress, which shaped and defined the modern age.
Go back and read the science fiction of the 1940s and ’50s, and you’ll be struck by the vaulting confidence that this expansion would continue upward and outward, and that a new age of exploration was just waiting to be born.
Today that confidence has vanished. Our Mars rovers are impressive and our billionaires keep pouring money into private spaceflight, but neither project captures the public’s imagination, and the very term “Space Age” seems antique. The Kepler 62 discovery might have earned more headlines at a less horrific moment, but it would have fallen out of the news soon enough.
It’s possible that we’re less interested in space travel because we feel that it’s a luxury good at a time when we have bigger problems here on Earth. But it’s also possible that we’ve gradually turned inward, to our smartphone screens and Facebook profiles, because we know that spaceflight isn’t going to get us to another world anytime soon.
Obviously exploration is not a cure for unhappiness or evil. But it can be an antidote to the mix of anxiety and exhaustion that seems to permeate the developed world these days.
And after a week as grimly claustrophobic as this one, with its spasms of nihilistic violence, its frantic online rumor mill, its locked-down Boston streets, it seems worth hoping that the human desire for wider horizons — for new worlds to wonder at, reach for and understand — will someday be fulfilled again.
Time to get to work on that warp drive.
Here’s hoping you decide to take the first flight… Next up is that bitch MoDo:
The graying man flashing fury in the Rose Garden on behalf of the Newtown families, the grieving man wiping away tears after speaking at the Boston memorial service, is not the same man who glided into office four years ago.
President Obama has watched the blood-dimmed tide drowning the ceremony of innocence, as Yeats wrote, and he has learned how to emotionally connect with Americans in searing moments, as he did from the White House late Friday night after the second bombing suspect was apprehended in Boston.
Unfortunately, he still has not learned how to govern.
How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn’t know how to work the system. And it’s clear now that he doesn’t want to learn, or to even hire some clever people who can tell him how to do it or do it for him.
It’s unbelievable that with 90 percent of Americans on his side, he could get only 54 votes in the Senate. It was a glaring example of his weakness in using leverage to get what he wants. No one on Capitol Hill is scared of him.
Even House Republicans who had no intention of voting for the gun bill marveled privately that the president could not muster 60 votes in a Senate that his party controls.
President Obama thinks he can use emotion to bring pressure on Congress. But that’s not how adults with power respond to things. He chooses not to get down in the weeds and pretend he values the stroking and other little things that matter to lawmakers.
After the Newtown massacre, he and his aides hashed it out and decided he would look cold and unsympathetic if he didn’t push for some new regulations. To thunderous applause at the State of the Union, the president said, “The families of Newtown deserve a vote.” Then, as usual, he took his foot off the gas, lost momentum and confided his pessimism to journalists.
The White House had a defeatist mantra: This is tough. We need to do it. But we’re probably going to lose.
When you go into a fight saying you’re probably going to lose, you’re probably going to lose.
The president once more delegated to the vice president. Couldn’t he have come to the Hill himself to lobby with the families and Joe Biden?
The White House should have created a war room full of charts with the names of pols they had to capture, like they had in “The American President.” Soaring speeches have their place, but this was about blocking and tackling.
Instead of the pit-bull legislative aides in Aaron Sorkin’s movie, Obama has Miguel Rodriguez, an arm-twister so genteel that The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker wrote recently that no one in Congress even knows who he is.
The president was oblivious to red-state Democrats facing tough elections. Bring the Alaskan Democrat Mark Begich to the White House residence, hand him a drink, and say, “How can we make this a bill you can vote for and defend?”
Sometimes you must leave the high road and fetch your brass knuckles. Obama should have called Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota over to the Oval Office and put on the squeeze: “Heidi, you’re brand new and you’re going to have a long career. You work with us, we’ll work with you. Public opinion is moving fast on this issue. The reason you get a six-year term is so you can have the guts to make tough votes. This is a totally defensible bill back home. It’s about background checks, nothing to do with access to guns. Heidi, you’re a mother. Think of those little kids dying in schoolrooms.”
Obama had to persuade some Republican senators in states that he won in 2012. He should have gone out to Ohio, New Hampshire and Nevada and had big rallies to get the public riled up to put pressure on Rob Portman, Kelly Ayotte and Dean Heller, giving notice that they would pay a price if they spurned him on this.
Tom Coburn, the Republican senator from Oklahoma, is one of the few people on the Hill that the president actually considers a friend. Obama wrote a paean to Coburn in the new Time 100 issue, which came out just as Coburn sabotaged his own initial effort to help the bill.
Obama should have pressed his buddy: “Hey, Tom, just this once, why don’t you do more than just talk about making an agreement with the Democrats? You’re not running again. Do something big.”
Couldn’t the president have given his Rose Garden speech about the “shameful” actions in Washington before the vote rather than after?
There were ways to get to 60 votes. The White House just had to scratch it out with a real strategy and a never-let-go attitude.
Obama hates selling. He thinks people should just accept the right thing to do. But as Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, noted, senators have their own tough selling job to do back home. “In the end you can really believe in something,” he told The Times’s Jennifer Steinhauer, “but you have to go sell it.”
The president said the Newtown families deserved a vote. But he was setting his sights too low. They deserved a law.
You too, MoDo, are hereby offered a huge plate of salted weasel dicks for a snack. And it really is time for you to STFU about the Senate. Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
Until we fully understand what turned two brothers who allegedly perpetrated the Boston Marathon bombings into murderers, it is hard to make any policy recommendation other than this: We need to redouble our efforts to make America stronger and healthier so it remains a vibrant counterexample to whatever bigoted ideology may have gripped these young men. With all our warts, we have built a unique society — a country where a black man, whose middle name is Hussein, whose grandfather was a Muslim, can run for president and first defeat a woman in his own party and then four years later a Mormon from the opposition, and no one thinks twice about it. With so many societies around the world being torn apart, especially in the Middle East, it is vital that America survives and flourishes as a beacon of pluralism.
Rebuilding our strength has to start with healing our economy. In that regard, it feels as if our budget drama has dragged on for so long that it has not only been drained of all emotional energy but nobody even remembers the plot anymore. It’s worth recalling: What are we trying to do?
We’re trying to put America back on a sustainable growth track that will expand employment, strengthen our fiscal balance sheet to withstand future crises and generate resources to sustain the most needy and propel the next generation. That requires three things: We need to keep investing in the engines of our growth — infrastructure, government-financed research, education, immigration and regulations that incentivize risk-taking but prevent recklessness. We need to reform Social Security and Medicare so they can support all the baby boomers about to retire. And we need to raise more revenues, in the least painful way possible, because we can’t just cut everything. As I’ve said, you can lose weight quickly by cutting off both thumbs, but that will be a problem at work.
It was good to see President Obama put out a budget proposal that addressed all three needs. The attacks on him from the left are unfair because, ultimately, we will need to do all three even more. As Bloomberg News reported on Monday: “Typical wage-earners retiring in 2010 will receive at least $3 for every $1 they contributed to the Medicare health-insurance program, according to an Urban Institute study.” That’s unsustainable. The Republican budget plan, though, would cut so much so fast — including taxes — that it would leave virtually nothing for investing in our growth engines. That’s irresponsible.
So what to do? We need a more “radical center” — one much more willing to suggest radically new ideas to raise revenues, not the “split-the-difference-between-the-same-old-options center.” And the best place to start is with a carbon tax.
A phased-in carbon tax of $20 to $25 a ton could raise around $1 trillion over 10 years, as we each pay a few more dimes and quarters for every gallon of gasoline or hour of electricity. With that new revenue stream, we’d have so many more options. One, preferred by Republicans like the statesman George Shultz and the Nobel laureate Gary Becker, is to make the carbon tax “revenue neutral.” It could be offset entirely by a rebate or by cutting tax rates for every U.S. citizen and corporation, which would increase spending. Another option, the one I’d prefer, would devote half the carbon-tax revenues to individual and corporate tax cuts, use a quarter for new investments in infrastructure, preschool education, community colleges and research — which would create jobs now and tomorrow — and then use a quarter on deficit reduction.
In short, if you added such a carbon tax to Obama’s budget, you’d have the makings of a radical grand bargain: Republicans would have the income tax cuts they want; Democrats would get the additional infrastructure stimulus they want, plus a new revenue stream to start gradually addressing the deficit, while reducing the amount that we’d have to bite from entitlements now; and the country would have a vehicle to address climate change, to drive clean-tech innovation (and to take money away from people who fund jihadist hate sites on the Internet).
However we divide the money, a carbon tax would enable a radical grand bargain that would be more fiscally responsible for the long run and more stimulative in the short run, paving the way to more sustainable growth. (Yes, a carbon tax is not painless. We would have to, and easily can, cushion the poor from its impact.) We’d be serving the present and the future. Here’s one example how: Today states are slashing budgets for community colleges, just when every good job requires more skill. That is truly cutting off our thumbs to lose weight. Last week, I interviewed Gary Green, the president of Forsyth Technical Community College, in Winston-Salem, N.C., with 10,000 students.
“We have a labor surplus in this country and a labor shortage at the same time,” Green explained to me. Workers in North Carolina, particularly in textiles and furniture, who lost jobs either to outsourcing or the recession in 2008, often “do not have the skills required to get a new job today” in the biotech, health care and manufacturing centers that are opening in the state.
If before, he added, “you just needed a high school shop class or a short postsecondary certificate to work in a factory, now you need an associate degree in machining,” a two-year program that requires higher math, I.T. and systems skills. In addition, some employers are now demanding that you not only have an associate degree but that nationally recognized skill certifications be incorporated into the curriculum to show that you have mastered the skills they want, like computer-integrated machining.
I know: If we can’t get some simple gun control, how do we get a carbon tax to pay for all of this? With both, you have to try and keep trying, until the unimaginable becomes the inevitable. Our goal is not just balancing the budget. It’s generating the resources in the most intelligent way possible to renew America for the 21st century. I hope the president swings for the fences. It’s the only way to revive the country and a moribund Republican Party.
“Margaret Thatcher’s big ideas set the context for the creation of New Labour,” said Don Baer, the former Clinton administration communications chief. “Ronald Reagan’s big ideas did the same for the New Democrats.” Maybe only big ideas from President Obama can give birth to New Republicans — and the revival of the country. Competition works. But if we treat every good big idea as “dead on arrival” then so are we. We cannot allow that. A more interdependent world desperately needs an America at its best.
And now here’s Mr. Bruni:
The flagship campus of the University of Texas here has been in the national news often over the last year, mainly because of a legal challenge to its race-conscious, diversity-minded admissions policy. The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in October; its decision, not yet rendered, could affect affirmative action nationwide.
But there’s another, equally weighty contest being waged at the school, and it concerns nothing less than the future of higher education itself.
Do we want our marquee state universities to behave more like job-training centers, judged by the number of students they speed toward degrees, the percentage of those students who quickly land good-paying jobs and the thrift with which all of this is accomplished? In the service of that, are we willing to jeopardize some of the trailblazing research these schools have routinely done and the standards they’ve maintained?
Those questions are being asked and fostering acrimony on campus after campus, the one here in Austin chief among them. In public remarks over the last few years, Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities, has called Texas both the “epicenter of public debate about the function” of higher education and “ground zero” in a welling crisis.
Rawlings is referring to the tension between the nine regents who set policy for the University of Texas at Austin, all of them appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, and the university’s president, Bill Powers. The regents’ apparent animosity toward Powers, whose most recent request for a modest in-state tuition increase they denied, reached a point where state lawmakers passed several resolutions in February making their support for him clear. That was a slap at the regents — and, by extension, at Governor Perry.
And while it reflected political factionalism, it also tapped into a philosophical divide. The regents, Perry and a conservative think tank with great sway over the governor have all called for, or mused publicly about, reforms at the university that many other Texans have deep and warranted reservations about.
The reformers want professors evaluated by how many students they teach and how many research dollars they attract, metrics that favor large classes and less speculative, visionary science.
They want the school to figure out a way, despite huge cutbacks in public funding, to offer students a four-year degree for a sum total of $10,000 in tuition, which is a small fraction of the current cost and seemingly impossible without a diminution in the quality of instruction.
They want expanded online classes. And they want programs tailored more precisely to the job market of the moment.
Powers says he’s open to much of this — to a point. “I and every other university president I know has made efficiency and affordability and using new teaching systems a high priority,” he told me when I met with him last week. The issue, he added, is how to do this while still “educating students at the highest level.”
The pressures on him and university administrators around the country stem from the severity of the country’s economic downturn and state governments’ accordant budgetary woes. Funding of public universities hasn’t just declined; it’s plummeted. Increases in tuition have been necessary, even as students find it more difficult to afford. Some students can’t make it to the finish line of a bachelor’s degree, which betters their odds of employment. Others graduate with crippling debt into a grim job market and wind up with work that doesn’t reflect the level or focus of their education.
And so colleges in Virginia are now required to provide information for a database that shows what graduates majored in and what they wound up earning 18 months after getting their diplomas. Florida lawmakers have toyed with encouraging students to study engineering by making their tuition cheaper than humanities majors’. Pat McCrory, the new governor of North Carolina, recently advocated legislation to distribute funds to the state’s colleges based not on their enrollments — or, as he said on a radio show, on “butts in seats” — but instead on “how many of those butts can get jobs.”
“If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to a private school,” he added. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”
How practical versus idealistic should the approach to college be? I’m somewhat torn, and past columns have reflected that. I applaud proposals to give young people better information about how various fields of study match up with the job market and about projected returns on their investments in college. And for students who want college to be an instant pivot into a job with decent pay, a nudge toward certain disciplines makes excellent sense.
But college is about more than that, with less targeted, long-term benefits that aren’t easily captured by metrics. And some of the reforms being promoted right now lose sight of that and threaten to lessen the value of a degree.
“You just don’t know what your education is going to result in,” Rawlings told me by phone last week. “Many of the kids graduating from college these days are going to hold a number of different jobs in their lives, and many of those jobs have not yet been invented. For a world like that, what’s the best education? Seems to me it’s a very general education that enables you to think critically.” For precisely that reason, he said, the push in China now is for more young people to study humanities, even as the new emphasis here is vocational.
He and Powers raised an additional concern: that the devaluation of any university research that doesn’t have an imminent payoff or attract outside sponsorship could put the country at a global disadvantage down the line. “You never know where scientifically driven curiosity will lead you,” Powers told me, and he’s dead right. Sometimes game-changing, immensely lucrative epiphanies lie on the far side of seemingly esoteric inquiries.
I’d sound yet another alarm. Scratch the surface of some of the efforts to reform state universities and you find more than just legitimate qualms about efficiency and demands for accountability. You find the kind of indiscriminate anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism popular among more than a few right-wing conservatives.
It’s worth noting that Governor Perry has dismissed global warming as “one contrived, phony mess” and that many of the voices calling most loudly for change at the University of Texas are from the Tea Party fringe.
In other words there’s some crude, petty politics in all of this. And as we tackle the very real, very important challenge of giving young Americans the best and most useful education possible in an era of dwindling resources, that’s the last thing we need.