Archive for the ‘Blow’ Category

Blow and Krugman

April 20, 2015

Mr. Blow asks a question:  “Has the N.R.A. Won?”  He says perceptions of crime have not been in step with the facts, and gun ownership is rising.  Prof. Krugman, in “Greece on the Brink,” says just as a workable economic compromise should be possible, a new government is wary of Europe’s intentions.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

It is now fair to ask whether the National Rifle Association is winning — or has in fact won — this era of the gun debate in this country.

Gun control advocates have tried to use the horror that exists in the wake of mass shootings to catalyze the public into action around sensible gun restrictions. But rather than these tragedies being a cause for pause in ownership of guns, gun ownership has spiked in the wake of these shootings.

A striking report released Friday by the Pew Research Center revealed that “for the first time, more Americans say that protecting gun rights is more important than controlling gun ownership, 52 percent to 46 percent.”

One of the reasons cited was Americans’ inverse understanding of the reality and perception of crime in this country. As the report spells out, in the 1990s, people’s perception of the prevalence of crime fell in concert with actual instances of violent crime. But since the turn of the century, things have changed: “A majority of Americans (63 percent) said in a Gallup survey last year that crime was on the rise, despite crime statistics holding near 20-year lows.”

Furthermore, it used to be that the people most worried about crime favored stricter gun control, but “now, they tend to desire keeping the laws as they are or loosening gun control. In short, we are at a moment when most Americans believe crime rates are rising and when most believe gun ownership — not gun control — makes people safer.”

The report adds: “Why public views on crime have grown more dire is unclear, though many blame it on the nature of news coverage, reality TV and political rhetoric. Whatever the cause, this trend is not without consequence. Today, those who say that crime is rising are the most opposed to gun control: Just 45 percent want to see gun laws made more strict, compared with 53 percent of those who see crime rates as unchanged or dropping.”

Another cause is most likely the intermingling of politics and high-profile crimes. As The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2012: “As sure as summer follows spring, gun sales rise after a mass shooting. It happened after the shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. It happened after the Tucson, Ariz., shootings last year that killed six. Now, after the killing of 12 people last week at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., gun sales are spiking again — not just in Colorado but around the country.”

It continued: “Self-protection is part of the reason. But a bigger factor, say gun dealers, is fear of something else:  politicians, specifically, their ability to enact restrictions on gun ownership and acquisition of ammunition. When a high-profile shooting takes place, invariably the airwaves are full of talk about gun control.”

It appears to be an extreme example of unintended consequences, or a boomerang: the more people talk about gun control, the more people buy guns. And not only do gun sales surge, but apparently so does N.R.A. membership. As The Huffington Post reported in 2013: “The National Rifle Association’s paying member ranks have grown by 100,000 in the wake of the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn., the organization told Politico.”

The report continued: “In the week after the shooting, Fox News reported that the N.R.A. was claiming an average of 8,000 new members a day. High-profile mass shootings are often followed by periods of increased interest in the N.R.A., but representatives said this rate was higher than usual.”

It was after the Newtown shooting that President Obama established a task force, led by Vice President Joseph Biden Jr., to develop a proposal to reduce gun violence, which the president said he intended to “push without delay.”

Those proposals, including expanded background checks (which were characterized as “misguided” by the N.R.A.’s Chris Cox) and a ban on some semiautomatic weapons, were roundly defeated in the Senate, although polls showed about 90 percent public approval for expanded background checks.

In fact, this month The Washington Times reported: “The American firearms industry is as healthy as ever, seeing an unprecedented surge that has sent production of guns soaring to more than 10.8 million manufactured in 2013 alone — double the total of just three years earlier.”

It continued: “The 2013 surge — the latest for which the government has figures — came in the first full year after the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, signaling that the push for stricter gun controls, strongly backed by President Obama, did little to chill the industry despite the passage of stricter laws in states such as New York, Maryland, Connecticut and California.”

One may begrudge and bemoan the fact, but it is hard to deny it: the N.R.A. appears to be winning this round.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

“Don’t you think they want us to fail?” That’s the question I kept hearing during a brief but intense visit to Athens. My answer was that there is no “they” — that Greece does not, in fact, face a solid bloc of implacable creditors who would rather see default and exit from the euro than let a leftist government succeed, that there’s more good will on the other side of the table than many Greeks suppose.

But you can understand why Greeks see things that way. And I came away from the visit fearing that Greece and Europe may suffer a terrible accident, an unnecessary rupture that will cast long shadows over the future.

The story so far: At the end of 2009 Greece faced a crisis driven by two factors: High debt, and inflated costs and prices that left the country uncompetitive.

Europe responded with loans that kept the cash flowing, but only on condition that Greece pursue extremely painful policies. These included spending cuts and tax hikes that, if imposed on the United States, would amount to $3 trillion a year. There were also wage cuts on a scale that’s hard to fathom, with average wages down 25 percent from their peak.

These immense sacrifices were supposed to produce recovery. Instead, the destruction of purchasing power deepened the slump, creating Great Depression-level suffering and a huge humanitarian crisis. On Saturday I visited a shelter for the homeless, and was told heartbreaking tales of a health care system in collapse: patients turned away from hospitals because they couldn’t pay the 5 euro entrance fee, sent away without needed medicine because cash-starved clinics had run out, and more.

It has been an endless nightmare, yet Greece’s political establishment, determined to stay within Europe and fearing the consequences of default and exit from the euro, stayed with the program year after year. Finally, the Greek public could take no more. As creditors demanded yet more austerity — on a scale that might well have pushed the economy down by another 8 percent and driven unemployment to 30 percent — the nation voted in Syriza, a genuinely left-wing (as opposed to center-left) coalition, which has vowed to change the nation’s course. Can Greek exit from the euro be avoided?

Yes, it can. The irony of Syriza’s victory is that it came just at the point when a workable compromise should be possible.

The key point is that exiting the euro would be extremely costly and disruptive in Greece, and would pose huge political and financial risks for the rest of Europe. It’s therefore something to be avoided if there’s a halfway decent alternative. And there is, or should be.

By late 2014 Greece had managed to eke out a small “primary” budget surplus, with tax receipts exceeding spending, excluding interest payments. That’s all that creditors can reasonably demand, since you can’t keep squeezing blood from a stone. Meanwhile, all those wage cuts have made Greece competitive on world markets — or would make it competitive if some stability can be restored.

The shape of a deal is therefore clear: basically, a standstill on further austerity, with Greece agreeing to make significant but not ever-growing payments to its creditors. Such a deal would set the stage for economic recovery, perhaps slow at the start, but finally offering some hope.

But right now that deal doesn’t seem to be coming together. Maybe it’s true, as the creditors say, that the new Greek government is hard to deal with. But what do you expect when parties that have no previous experience in governing take over from a discredited establishment? More important, the creditors are demanding things — big cuts in pensions and public employment — that a newly elected government of the left simply can’t agree to, as opposed to reforms like an improvement in tax enforcement that it can. And the Greeks, as I suggested, are all too ready to see these demands as part of an effort either to bring down their government or to make their country into an example of what will happen to other debtor countries if they balk at harsh austerity.

To make things even worse, political uncertainty is hurting tax receipts, probably causing that hard-earned primary surplus to evaporate. The sensible thing, surely, is to show some patience on that front: if and when a deal is reached, uncertainty will subside and the budget should improve again. But in the pervasive atmosphere of distrust, patience is in short supply.

It doesn’t have to be this way. True, avoiding a full-blown crisis would require that creditors advance a significant amount of cash, albeit cash that would immediately be recycled into debt payments. But consider the alternative. The last thing Europe needs is for fraying tempers to bring on yet another catastrophe, this one completely gratuitous.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

April 16, 2015

In “Woe of White Men, Again?” Mr. Blow says faux oppression makes a mockery of real oppression. We don’t need Wayne LaPierre and Bill O’Reilly complaining about more power going to people who don’t look like them.  Well, we actually just don’t need Wayne and Bill at all…  Mr. Kristof, in “Starving for Wisdom,” says the humanities enrich our souls, and sometimes even our pocketbooks.  Ms. Collins says you should “Take Your Hillary Temperature,” and has a simple quiz that will show if you’re ready for the candidate.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Hillary Clinton’s entry into the race for the presidency has goosed the egos of some conservative ganders.

Wayne LaPierre, the C.E.O. and executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, on the eve of Clinton’s announcement said of President Obama at the group’s annual meeting, “when he’s finished, he intends to go out with the coronation of Hillary Rodham Clinton.” There were boos. LaPierre continued: “Yeah, I have to tell you, eight years of one demographically symbolic president is enough.” There were cheers.

Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly ratcheted up the rhetoric on Monday. With the words “HILLARY CLINTON FOR PRESIDENT” in yellow and all-caps next to his face, he bemoaned the idea that “our traditional American values are under siege nearly everywhere,” and then added: “If you’re a Christian or a white man in the U.S.A., it’s open season on you. Therefore, Hillary Clinton has an advantage.”

In a way, one would expect nothing more from these men. They are simply playing to their bases.

As U.S. News and World Report put it in 2013 when noting a Pew Research Center report: “White men represent just a third of the U.S. population, but about 60 percent of adults with guns in America today are white men.”

And as for Fox, the website Mediaite reported in December that just 1 percent of Fox News viewers are black.

And yet, this faux oppression makes a mockery of very real oppression. Aside from the hilarity of the incongruous spectacle of two incredibly powerful white men grousing about the lowly plight of white men in general is the utter ridiculousness of the idea itself.

And unfortunately, this isn’t a new idea, but the resurrection — or elongation — of an existing one.

In 2012, the conservative commentator Matt K. Lewis wrote an entry on The Daily Caller under the headline “The silent war on noncollege-educated white men.”

That same year, the conservative blog RedState.com published an essay under the headline, “The Democrat War on White Men.” It included lines like “Democrats hate White Men” (capitalization theirs), “White Men in unions are tolerated and helped by Democrats — but only if they fall in line to punish other White Men” and “White Men were politically neutered and forgotten about.”

Suzanne Venker wrote an opinion piece in 2013 on FoxNews.com under the headline “Men — the new second class citizens.” She included the following passage:

“Yet it is males who suffer in our society. From boyhood through adulthood, the White American Male must fight his way through a litany of taunts, assumptions and grievances about his very existence. His oppression is unlike anything American women have faced.”

In August, Representative Mo Brooks, a Republican of Alabama, said on Laura Ingraham’s radio show that there is a “war on whites that’s being launched by the Democratic Party.”

One thing that makes this line of reasoning so grating is the degree to which money and power in this country continue to be dominated by white men. As The Guardian reported in 2013, the “U.S.’s top-paid executives in 2012 represent technology, coffee, and sporting goods companies — and all are white and male.”

ThinkProgress, expanding on the report, explained:

“A big part of the lack in diversity on the list is the lack of diversity among executives overall. Women hold few of the top jobs at major companies. There are now 22 at the helm of Fortune 500 companies with Lynn Good’s appointment as CEO of Duke Energy in July, which means less than 5 percent of those positions are filled by women.

“Top executives are also not racially diverse. Among Fortune 500 CEOs, six are black, making up just 1.2 percent. There are eight Latino and eight Asian CEOs, accounting for just 1.6 percent each.

“But even when they reach the highest rungs, women are still paid less than their peers.”

In politics, the race and gender inequities are also stark.

As The Washington Post reported in January, “the new Congress is 80 percent white, 80 percent male and 92 percent Christian.”

So much for white Christian men being under attack.

This presidential season has the promise to bring a tremendous amount of diversity. Not only is Clinton the leading figure on the Democratic side, but the Republicans have a plethora of diverse options, at least in terms of race, ethnicity and gender.

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio both have strong ties to the Hispanic community. Rubio is Hispanic and Jeb Bush has a Mexican-born wife and once, inexplicably, listed himself as Hispanic on a voter form.

The disastrous Louisiana governor, Bobby Jindal, who is Indian-American, is mulling a run. (I’m not sure Jindal would approve of that hyphenation, by the way, because in a 2013 Politico essay he chafed at what he saw as us placing “far too much emphasis on our ‘separateness,’” and rebuffed that idea of hyphenation, saying, “Here’s an idea: How about just ‘Americans?’”)

Ben Carson, the brilliant neurosurgeon and baffling political figure, who is African-American (sorry, Governor Jindal), is scheduled to make an announcement in Detroit next month about whether he will enter the race. Carson is the same man who once said that white liberals are “the most racist people there are” and don’t want people to “come off the plantation.”

Even Carly Fiorina, who was forced out as the C.E.O. of Hewlett-Packard, is expected to run for the Republican nomination. But some Republican king makers — or queen makers — seem to see her more as a tool than as a true talent. As Time magazine recently reported: “A Republican strategist told Time last year that Fiorina could be a potent weapon for the GOP in the coming cycle. ‘The most effective way to criticize a woman is to have another woman do it.’ ”

This is a flawed field, to be sure, but it is diverse. The last thing we need is for men like LaPierre and O’Reilly to complain about the prospects of an expansion of power that would include more people who don’t look like them.

America is moving forward, tilting and transforming, and the bulwarks of traditional powers are crumbling.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.”

That epigram from E.O. Wilson captures the dilemma of our era. Yet the solution of some folks is to disdain wisdom.

“Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” Rick Scott, the Florida governor, once asked. A leader of a prominent Internet company once told me that the firm regards admission to Harvard as a useful heuristic of talent, but a college education itself as useless.

Parents and students themselves are acting on these principles, retreating from the humanities. Among college graduates in 1971, there were about two business majors for each English major. Now there are seven times as many. (I was a political science major; if I were doing it over, I’d be an economics major with a foot in the humanities.)

I’ve been thinking about this after reading Fareed Zakaria’s smart new book, “In Defense of a Liberal Education.” Like Zakaria, I think that the liberal arts teach critical thinking (not to mention nifty words like “heuristic”).

So, to answer the skeptics, here are my three reasons the humanities enrich our souls and sometimes even our pocketbooks as well.

First, liberal arts equip students with communications and interpersonal skills that are valuable and genuinely rewarded in the labor force, especially when accompanied by technical abilities.

“A broad liberal arts education is a key pathway to success in the 21st-century economy,” says Lawrence Katz, a labor economist at Harvard. Katz says that the economic return to pure technical skills has flattened, and the highest return now goes to those who combine soft skills — excellence at communicating and working with people — with technical skills.

“So I think a humanities major who also did a lot of computer science, economics, psychology, or other sciences can be quite valuable and have great career flexibility,” Katz said. “But you need both, in my view, to maximize your potential. And an economics major or computer science major or biology or engineering or physics major who takes serious courses in the humanities and history also will be a much more valuable scientist, financial professional, economist, or entrepreneur.”

My second reason: We need people conversant with the humanities to help reach wise public policy decisions, even about the sciences. Technology companies must constantly weigh ethical decisions: Where should Facebook set its privacy defaults, and should it tolerate glimpses of nudity? Should Twitter close accounts that seem sympathetic to terrorists? How should Google handle sex and violence, or defamatory articles?

In the policy realm, one of the most important decisions we humans will have to make is whether to allow germline gene modification. This might eliminate certain diseases, ease suffering, make our offspring smarter and more beautiful. But it would also change our species. It would enable the wealthy to concoct superchildren. It’s exhilarating and terrifying.

To weigh these issues, regulators should be informed by first-rate science, but also by first-rate humanism. After all, Homer addressed similar issues three millenniums ago.

In “The Odyssey,” the beautiful nymph Calypso offers immortality to Odysseus if he will stay on her island. After a fling with her, Odysseus ultimately rejects the offer because he misses his wife, Penelope. He turns down godlike immortality to embrace suffering and death that are essential to the human condition.

Likewise, when the President’s Council on Bioethics issued its report in 2002, “Human Cloning and Human Dignity,” it cited scientific journals but also Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” Even science depends upon the humanities to shape judgments about ethics, limits and values.

Third, wherever our careers lie, much of our happiness depends upon our interactions with those around us, and there’s some evidence that literature nurtures a richer emotional intelligence.

Science magazine published five studies indicating that research subjects who read literary fiction did better at assessing the feelings of a person in a photo than those who read nonfiction or popular fiction. Literature seems to offer lessons in human nature that help us decode the world around us and be better friends.

Literature also builds bridges of understanding. Toni Morrison has helped all America understand African-American life. Jhumpa Lahiri illuminated immigrant contradictions. Khaled Hosseini opened windows on Afghanistan.

In short, it makes eminent sense to study coding and statistics today, but also history and literature.

John Adams had it right when he wrote to his wife, Abigail, in 1780: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History and Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Hillary Clinton is off and running and thinking about you all the time, everyday American. Right now she’s probably in her van, someplace on the Interstate highway system, wondering how you’re doing.

She could be home, lounging on her patio, looking at the daffodils and sipping a glass of 1961 Latour. But instead she’s at a diner or a town meeting, nodding ferociously and listening to a guy explain his problems with rural electrification. And she is planning on doing this sort of thing for the next 19 months. Just for you.

The initial strategy, as you may have noticed, is to underwhelm. Start very quiet and make it clear that she does not expect special consideration. Just treat her the same way you would a candidate for zoning board of appeals. Or Lincoln Chafee. She’ll be fine.

But what does it all mean for you? How are you going to come up with an opinion about a campaign where the first-day highlight was taken off the security camera at an Ohio Chipotle? Plus, when it comes to issues, she’s been a little … vague.

But you can do this, concerned citizen. She’s been in your life for a quarter of a century now. Poke around a little bit, and you’ll figure out how you feel about this latest incarnation. If you have trouble, we offer as a public service this Hillary Clinton Thermometer. Add up your answers and get your temperature.

When I saw the Hillary Clinton video last Sunday I thought:

  • Will this woman never stop?

  • It was interesting that one of the everyday American couples said their hope for the future was teaching the dog not to eat trash.

  • By the standard of 2016 presidential announcement videos so far, this is the best collection of smiling multiracial, generationally diverse people talking to a camera.

  • Slow but steady, personal but populist. Looking good.

When people say Clinton is wearing the mantle of inevitability, I think:

  • She has been wearing that mantle so long it’s as if she grabbed her high school poncho from the attic closet.

  • What did she do to keep Elizabeth Warren out of the race? Promise her Treasury? Kidnap a grandchild?

  • Nothing says inevitability like Ohio Chipotle.

  • She is inevitable, for the nomination. Which is not bestowed until the summer of 2016. Chill.

The thing I like most about Hillary Clinton is:

  • She has a dog named Seamus.

  • The grandmother thing is nice, but she’ll probably overdo it.

  • No matter what disaster happens, she comes back fighting. I just wish there weren’t so many disasters.

  • She believes in universal health care and tax reform that doesn’t make things worse for people on the bottom. I am a person of simple needs.

So far I am most troubled by:

  • Clinton Foundation fund-raising, emails … Let me count the ways.

  • The fact that she doesn’t have a platform yet. She ran for president once already. How can she not have a platform?

  • The fact that her van is named Scooby.

  • The 19 months.

When I first heard about her plan to drive around visiting with regular Iowans, I thought:

  • This is the phoniest political stunt since Michael Dukakis rode in that tank.

  • You know she’s in that van dialing for dollars.

  • This demonstrates once again that Iowa gets way too much attention.

  • It’s actually the kind of campaigning she enjoys most. Which is corny, but one of the things I like about her.

When it comes to Hillary and foreign policy, my first thought is:

  • Benghazi. Libya. Russian reset button.

  • Kind of hawkish, don’t you think?

  • Good at outreach to women in developing countries. Unfortunately, it’s the men who are the problem.

  • Nobody seems to get this right anymore, but at least she knows what’s out there.

Right now the biggest thing Hillary Clinton has going for her is:

  • Money and the fact that Democratic talent pool is about one inch deep.

  • It looks as if the name recognition part is A-O.K.

  • She can probably keep doing this stuff for another year and a half without staging a Dennis Quaid breakdown.

  • Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush.

The only way you can score this thing is to actually go to the column and take the quiz.  Should you want to do that, here’s the link to the quiz.  When I gave my honest answers I got a result that said I was ready for a vacation and really didn’t want to address this…

Blow and Krugman

April 13, 2015

In “Walter Scott Is Not on Trial” Mr. Blow says that running from the police does not justify being killed by them.  In “It Takes a Party” Prof. Krugman says the 2016 election will be about ideologies, not individuals, despite much media attention to the latter.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I not only watched television pundits discuss the shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., last week, I participated in some of those discussions.

And the most disturbing thread that emerged for me was people who said up front that they saw no justification for Scott being killed, but nevertheless stalked around for a back door that would allow them to surreptitiously blame the victim for his own death. Some formulation of “if only he hadn’t run…” was the way this dark door was eased open.

I find it particularly disturbing the way that we try to find excuses for killings, the way that we seek to deprecate a person when they have been killed rather than insisting that they deserved to remain among the living.

For me, there is only one issue in the Walter Scott case: he is dead, and that cannot be undone. And not only was he killed, but he was killed in a most dishonorable way: shot in the back as he fled. So, for me there is only one question: Should the dead man be dead? Is there anything, under American jurisprudence and universal moral law, that justifies the taking of this man’s life?

All else wanders into the weeds. The judicial system could have easily dealt with any misdeed Scott is accused of — failure to pay child support, failure to present proper documentation for a car he was driving, resisting arrest, fleeing — and none of those offenses, if he were found guilty of any or all, would have carried the death sentence.

Unfortunately, police officers encounter lawbreakers on a regular basis. Unfortunately, some resist arrest. Some flee. These are simply occupational conditions of being an officer — an admittedly tough job that few of us would sign up to do. But none of those offenses grant a license to gun a man down.

A life is the most precious, most valuable thing in creation. It cannot be casually ended. It cannot be callously taken. It must always be honored and protected, and the person living it needn’t be perfect; he or she is human.

The bar of justification for extrajudicial killings is high, and necessarily so, even among suspects accused of crimes. Killing sanctioned by courts in the form of executions are problematic enough, as evidenced by recent exonerations of men who spent decades on death row. How much more problematic could killings be of people who don’t live to get a trial?

It is tragic to somehow try to falsely equate what appear to be bad decisions made by Scott and those made by the officer who killed him. There is no moral equivalency between running and killing, and anyone who argues this obdurate absurdity reveals a deficiency in their own humanity. Death is not the appropriate punishment for disobedience. Being entrusted with power does not shield imprudent use of power. And one of the saddest and most frustrating features of our current debate about police use of force, in communities of color in particular, is the degree to which justice itself has been absorbed into the ideological struggle in this country.

Social justice, equal treatment and violence exerted by structures of power against a vulnerable population shouldn’t become a sprocket in our political machines. This is about right and wrong, not right and left.

Neither should we have such widely differing racial perceptions about whether use of force is appropriate and to what degree. For instance, as The Associated Press reported last week: “Seven of 10 whites polled, or 70 percent, said they can imagine a situation in which they would approve of a police officer striking a man. Most blacks and Hispanics did not agree.”

The article continued: “The poll results don’t surprise experts on American attitudes toward police, who say experiences and history with law enforcement shape opinions about the use of violence by officers.”

Furthermore, we as a nation simply must do a better job of collectiing data about these kinds of cases so that we can all discuss them from a point of mutually accepted fact rather that as an outgrowth of tribal narratives.

As the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, lamented in February:

“How can we address concerns about ‘use of force,’ how can we address concerns about officer-involved shootings if we do not have a reliable grasp on the demographics and circumstances of those incidents? We simply must improve the way we collect and analyze data to see the true nature of what’s happening in all of our communities.”

There will be an investigation and a trial in this case. Evidence will be examined and presented. It is proper to wait for that. But any exculpatory evidence must justify this use of force, not simply seek to excuse it. That will most likely be a high bar.

The video that has now been made public is incredibly disturbing and may prove incontrovertible. We will wait and see. But it is important to remember that waiting is a luxury of time afforded to the living. Time has ceased for Mr. Scott.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

So Hillary Clinton is officially running, to nobody’s surprise. And you know what’s coming: endless attempts to psychoanalyze the candidate, endless attempts to read significance into what she says or doesn’t say about President Obama, endless thumb-sucking about her “positioning” on this or that issue.

Please pay no attention. Personality-based political analysis is always a dubious venture — in my experience, pundits are terrible judges of character. Those old enough to remember the 2000 election may also remember how we were assured that George W. Bush was a nice, affable fellow who would pursue moderate, bipartisan policies.

In any case, there has never been a time in American history when the alleged personal traits of candidates mattered less. As we head into 2016, each party is quite unified on major policy issues — and these unified positions are very far from each other. The huge, substantive gulf between the parties will be reflected in the policy positions of whomever they nominate, and will almost surely be reflected in the actual policies adopted by whoever wins.

For example, any Democrat would, if elected, seek to maintain the basic U.S. social insurance programs — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — in essentially their current form, while also preserving and extending the Affordable Care Act. Any Republican would seek to destroy Obamacare, make deep cuts in Medicaid, and probably try to convert Medicare into a voucher system.

Any Democrat would retain the tax hikes on high-income Americans that went into effect in 2013, and possibly seek more. Any Republican would try to cut taxes on the wealthy — House Republicans plan to vote next week to repeal the estate tax — while slashing programs that aid low-income families.

Any Democrat would try to preserve the 2010 financial reform, which has recently been looking much more effective than critics suggested. Any Republican would seek to roll it back, eliminating both consumer protection and the extra regulation applied to large, “systemically important” financial institutions.

And any Democrat would try to move forward on climate policy, through executive action if necessary, while any Republican — whether or not he is an outright climate-science denialist — would block efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

How did the parties get this far apart? Political scientists suggest that it has a lot to do with income inequality. As the wealthy grow richer compared with everyone else, their policy preferences have moved to the right — and they have pulled the Republican Party ever further in their direction. Meanwhile, the influence of big money on Democrats has at least eroded a bit, now that Wall Street, furious over regulations and modest tax hikes, has deserted the party en masse. The result is a level of political polarization not seen since the Civil War.

Now, some people won’t want to acknowledge that the choices in the 2016 election are as stark as I’ve asserted. Political commentators who specialize in covering personalities rather than issues will balk at the assertion that their alleged area of expertise matters not at all. Self-proclaimed centrists will look for a middle ground that doesn’t actually exist. And as a result, we’ll hear many assertions that the candidates don’t really mean what they say. There will, however, be an asymmetry in the way this supposed gap between rhetoric and real views is presented.

On one side, suppose that Ms. Clinton is indeed the Democratic nominee. If so, you can be sure that she’ll be accused, early and often, of insincerity, of not being the populist progressive she claims to be.

On the other side, suppose that the Republican nominee is a supposed moderate like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. In either case we’d be sure to hear many assertions from political pundits that the candidate doesn’t believe a lot of what he says. But in their cases this alleged insincerity would be presented as a virtue, not a vice — sure, Mr. Bush is saying crazy things about health care and climate change, but he doesn’t really mean it, and he’d be reasonable once in office. Just like his brother.

As you can probably tell, I’m dreading the next 18 months, which will be full of sound bites and fury, signifying nothing. O.K., I guess we might learn a few things — Where will Ms. Clinton come out on trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership? How much influence will Republican Fed-bashers exert? — but the differences between the parties are so clear and dramatic that it’s hard to see how anyone who has been paying attention could be undecided even now, or be induced to change his or her mind between now and the election.

One thing is for sure: American voters will be getting a real choice. May the best party win.

One could say “best party” if we had more than two…  Should be “better party.”  (Can’t help it — every now and then the Grammar Nazi rears her ugly head…)

Blow, Kristof and Collins

April 9, 2015

In “In South Carolina, Shot in the Back as He Ran” Mr. Blow says now is the time for a fundamental change of culture: not just in one particular case or with one particular officer, but also systemically.  Mr. Kristof, in “Enjoying the Low Life?”, says the latest world rankings on the quality of life for ordinary citizens should put the United States to shame.  Ms. Collins has a question in “Rand Paul, Paul Rand Quiz:”  What do we know about the latest Republican candidate for president?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I am truly weary, deep in my bones, of writing these columns about the killings of unarmed people of color by the police. Indeed, you may be weary of reading them. Still, our weariness is but a dim shadow that falls near the darkness of despair that a family is thrust into when a child or parent or sibling is lost, and that family must wonder if the use of deadly force was appropriate and whether justice will be served.

And so, we can’t stop focusing on these cases until there are no more cases on which to focus.

Which brings me to the latest case, a truly chilling one: A video shows an apparently unarmed 50-year-old black man, Walter L. Scott, running away from an officer after an incident during a traffic stop in North Charleston, S.C.

The officer, Michael T. Slager, fires his weapon eight times, striking Scott in the back, upper buttocks and ear.

According to The New York Times:

“Moments after the struggle, Officer Slager reported on his radio: ‘Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser,’ according to police reports.”

But The Times continues:

“Something — it is not clear whether it is the stun gun — is either tossed or knocked to the ground behind the two men, and Officer Slager draws his gun, the video shows. When the officer fires, Mr. Scott appears to be 15 to 20 feet away and fleeing. He falls after the last of eight shots.

“The officer then runs back toward where the initial scuffle occurred and picks something up off the ground. Moments later, he drops an object near Mr. Scott’s body, the video shows.”

In fact, the video appears to dispute much of what the police reports claim.

Scott, of course, dies of his injuries.

After the video surfaces, the officer is charged with murder and fired from the police force. In a news conference, the mayor of the city, Keith Summey, says of the incident: “When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And if you make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street, you have to live by that decision.”

But even the phrase “bad decision” seems to diminish the severity of what has happened. A life has been taken. And, if the video shows what it appears to show, there may have been some attempts by the officer to “misrepresent the truth,” a phrase that one could also argue may diminish the severity of what is alleged to have happened.

This case is yet another in a horrifyingly familiar succession of cases that have elevated the issue of use of force, particularly deadly force, by officers against people of color and inflamed the conversation that surrounds it.

And it further erodes an already tenuous trust by people of color in the police as an institution. CBS News polling has shown that a vast majority of blacks believe that the police are more likely to use deadly force against a black person than a white person (zero percent believe the inverse.) This is not good for the proper function of a civil society.

As a Sentencing Project report put it last year: “Racial minorities’ perceptions of unfairness in the criminal justice system have dampened cooperation with police work and impeded criminal trials.”

And the police are needed in society, so if you don’t trust them, whom do you call when help is truly needed?

This case has also refocused attention on the power of video evidence and is likely to redouble calls for the universal implementation of police body cameras (the video in this case came from a witness). What would have happened if video of this incident had not surfaced? Would the officer’s version of events have stood? How many such cases must there be where there is no video?

But I would argue that the issue we are facing in these cases is not one of equipment, or even policy, but culture.

I would submit that cameras would have an impact on policy and culture, but that a change in culture must be bigger than both. It must start with “good cops” no longer countenancing the behavior of “bad cops.” It will start with those good cops publicly and vociferously chastising and condemning their brethren when they are wrong. Their silence has never been — and is certainly no longer — suitable. We must hear from them, not necessarily from the rank-and-file but from those higher up the ladder.

One of the most disturbing features of the Department of Justice’s report on the killing of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson was the number of witnesses who said that they were afraid to come forward because their version of events contradicted what they saw as community consensus.

But isn’t the unwillingness, or even fear, of “good cops” to more forcefully condemn bad behavior just the same glove turned inside out?

As Radley Balko wrote in the February 2011 issue of Reason magazine, “For all the concern about the ‘Stop Snitchin’  message within the hip-hop community, police have engaged in a far more impactful and pernicious Stop Snitchin’ campaign of their own. It’s called the Blue Wall of Silence.”

This case also highlights once again the issue of police forces not being representative of the communities they serve. As The Times pointed out:

“North Charleston is South Carolina’s third-largest city, with a population of about 100,000. African-Americans make up about 47 percent of residents, and whites account for about 37 percent. The Police Department is about 80 percent white, according to data collected by the Justice Department in 2007, the most recent period available.”

And yet there is a vicious cycle of mistrust — re-enforced by cases like this — that helps to make diversifying police forces difficult. As the International Business Times put it in August, law enforcement agencies “are often hard pressed to find black applicants. Recruiters want to fill their ranks with officers of all backgrounds, experts say, but cultural biases put them at a disadvantage.”

And lastly, there remains a disturbing desire to find perfection in a case, to find one devoid of ambiguity, as if police interactions with the public are not often complicated affairs in which many judgments are made in quick order by all involved and in which a tremendous amount of discretion is allowed to be exercised.

Tuesday on CNN, the North Charleston police chief, Eddie Driggers, was asked the question that is always circling cases like this like a condor: whether he thought race played a role in what happened. His was a diplomatic and humane response: “I want to believe in my heart of hearts that it was a tragic set of events after a traffic stop.” He continued, “I always look for the good in folks, and so I would hope that nobody would ever do something like that.”

I, too, would hope that nobody would ever do something like that, but it seems to me that the end of the line has come for hoping alone. Now is the time for fundamental change: not just in one particular case or with one particular officer, but also systemically. (The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing has already recommended some policy changes.)

And now is the time for not only considering the interplay of race and power in these cases, but also the ability to register and respect humanity itself. That requires a change of culture.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

The United States is the most powerful colossus in the history of the world: Our nuclear warheads could wipe out the globe, our enemies tweet on iPhones, and kids worldwide bop to Beyoncé.

Yet let’s get real. All this hasn’t benefited all Americans. A newly released global index finds that America falls short, along with other powerful countries, on what matters most: assuring a high quality of life for ordinary citizens.

The Social Progress Index for 2015 ranks the United States 16th in the world. We may thump our chests and boast that we’re No. 1, and in some ways we are. But, in important ways, we lag.

The index ranks the United States 30th in life expectancy, 38th in saving children’s lives, and a humiliating 55th in women surviving childbirth. O.K., we know that we have a high homicide rate, but we’re at risk in other ways as well. We have higher traffic fatality rates than 37 other countries, and higher suicide rates than 80.

We also rank 32nd in preventing early marriage, 38th in the equality of our education system, 49th in high school enrollment rates and 87th in cellphone use.

Ouch. “We’re No. 87!” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, does it?

Michael E. Porter, the Harvard Business School professor who helped devise the Social Progress Index, says that it’s important to have conventional economic measures such as G.D.P. growth. But social progress is also a critical measure, he notes, of how a country is serving its people.

“We’re not now No. 1 in a lot of stuff that traditionally we have been,” said Professor Porter, an expert on international competitiveness. “What we’re learning is that the fact that we’re not No. 1 on this stuff also means that we’re facing long-term economic stresses.”

“We’re starting to understand that we can’t put economic development and social progress in two separate buckets,” Porter added. “There’s a dialectic here.”

The top countries in the 2015 Social Progress Index are Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Iceland, New Zealand and Canada. Of the 133 countries rated, Central African Republic is last, just after Chad and Afghanistan.

Sri Lanka does better than India. Bangladesh outperforms Pakistan. Both the Philippines and South Africa do better than Russia. Mongolia comes in ahead of China. And Canada wallops the United States.

One way of looking at the index is to learn from countries that outperform by having social indicators better than their income levels. By that standard, the biggest stars are Costa Rica and Uruguay, with New Zealand and Rwanda also outperforming.

“This takes time,” said Michael Green, executive director of the Social Progress Imperative, which produces the index. “Costa Rica is an overperformer because of its history.”

Green notes that Costa Rica offered free, universal primary education in the 19th century. In the 20th century, it disbanded its military forces and invested some of the savings in education. One payoff: Some surveys have found Costa Ricans among the happiest people in the world.

Then there are the underperformers that do worse than would be expected from their income level. Saudi Arabia leads that list.

The Social Progress Index, now in its second year, might seem a clarion call for greater equality, but that’s not quite right. Professor Porter and his number-crunchers found only a mild correlation between economic equality (measured by Gini coefficient) and social progress. What mattered much more was poverty.

Of course, wealthy countries with high poverty tend to be unequal as well. But inequality at the top seems to matter less for well-being than inequality at the bottom. Perhaps we should worry less about reining in the top 1 percent and more about helping the bottom 20 percent?

On the other hand, one way to finance empowerment programs is to raise taxes on tycoons. And when there is tremendous inequality, the wealthy create private alternatives to public goods — private schools, private security forces, gated communities — that lead to disinvestment in public goods vital to the needy.

In any case, the 2015 Social Progress Index should be serve notice to Americans — and to people around the globe. We obsess on the wrong measures, so we often have the wrong priorities.

As an American, what saddens me is also that our political system seems unable to rise to the challenges.

As Porter notes, Americans generally understand that we face economic impediments such as declining infrastructure, yet we’re frozen. We appreciate that our education system is a mess, yet we’re passive.

We can send people to space and turn watches into computers, but we seem incapable of consensus on the issues that matter most to our children — so our political system remains in gridlock, even as other countries pass us by.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Rand Paul for president! Wow, we’re awash with first-term Republican senators who feel the nation needs their services as leader of the most powerful nation on the planet.

Paul can also perform eye surgery, which is certainly a plus.

What do we know about this man Rand? Well, he’s interesting. Among the throngs of Republicans promising to cut taxes, slash domestic spending and repeal Obamacare, Paul is unusual in that he also wants to stop government surveillance, negotiate a peace treaty with Iran, slash defense spending and eliminate foreign aid.

Except — stop the presses! — Rand Paul is also evolving. The freshman senator who once wanted to eliminate all foreign aid, including to Israel, is now a freshman senator who wants to eliminate some foreign aid while leaving more than enough for a certain “strong ally of ours.” Also, he has learned that Iran probably can’t be trusted. And he now wants to raise defense spending by about $190 billion.

You could argue he was way more interesting before he started to evolve. But onward.

During a postannouncement interview on Fox News, the new presidential contender was asked about an incident when he “took a shot at Dick Cheney.” This would have been a 2009 speech, discovered by Mother Jones, in which Paul basically argued that Cheney had opposed invading Iraq until he went to work for the war contractor Halliburton.

“Before I was involved in politics!” the new candidate retorted. If you agree with his theory that would mean that nothing Rand Paul said before 2010 counts.

It is true that you can’t blame politicians for everything they did when they were young and foolish, but a five-year statute of limitations seems a bit short. I’d accept a rule wiping out anything that happened in college short of a major felony. That would include a former classmate’s claim that when she was at Baylor University, Rand Paul and a friend forced her to bow down and worship the god Aqua Buddha.

That’s way more diverting than the story about Mitt Romney cutting off a classmate’s long hair in high school. But it’s off the record. Do not base you opinion of Rand Paul on the Aqua Buddha incident. Really. Forget I ever mentioned it.

Once Paul began sniffing the presidential air, position changes started coming rapid-fire, and he’s gotten quite touchy when people point that out. “No, no, no, nonononono,” he said, accusing NBC’s Savannah Guthrie of “editorializing” when she listed several of his recent shifts. It was reminiscent of an encounter he had a while back with Kelly Evans of CNBC. (“Shhh. Calm down a bit here, Kelly.”) You might wonder about Rand Paul and TV women, but as we all know it takes three incidents to make a trend. Next time.

The encounter with Evans came after Paul was trying to walk back one of his more interesting policy statements: opposition to mandatory vaccinations. “I guess being for freedom would be really unusual,” he said archly, before claiming that he knew of many “walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders” after being vaccinated. This one has since evolved a lot.

Paul has swung to the left on some issues, like immigration. He acknowledges that there’s global warming, which he believes should be combated in ways that do not inconvenience the coal industry. He has stuck to his guns on opposing government surveillance of American citizens, and you can buy a “Don’t Drone Me, Bro!” shirt on his website. (Also at the website: $20 Rand Paul Flip-Flops, although someone on the team apparently noted the irony and changed their name to Rand Paul Sandals.)

And, of course, Paul is still a libertarian. Because he most definitely believes government should get off your backs and stop messing with your lives. Unless you happen to have an unwanted pregnancy, in which case, rather than allow you access to abortion, he is prepared to tie you to a post until you deliver.

Everything perfectly clear? And, now, a brief Rand Paul Pop Quiz.

1) Senator Paul began his presidential announcement speech by telling the people:

A) “We have come to take our country back.”

B) “We come to take our money back.”

C) “We have come to take our previous statements back.”

*****

2) Rand Paul did not get a bachelor’s degree because:

A) He was out partying all the time with the future governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker.

B) He was so supersmart that Duke University allowed him to skip right over to medical school.

C) He was expelled for the Aqua Buddha affair.

*****

3) An avid user of all media social, Senator Paul once twittered that politics doesn’t involve enough:

A) Good ideas for using more coal.

B) People with an I.Q. above 90.

C) Puppies.

*****

4) The Rand Paul presidential campaign slogan is:

A) “Defeat the Washington machine. Unleash the American dream.”

B) “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.”

C) “Beat Hillary. Release the Kraken.”

*****

Answers: 1-A, 2-B, 3-C, 4-A.

Blow and Brooks

April 7, 2015

In “Did Rolling Stone Hurt the Quest for Justice?” Mr. Blow says we shouldn’t let one false report distract from the larger search for truth.  Bobo is sure he knows “What Candidates Need.”  He says in our next president, we need someone with a portion of Abraham Lincoln’s gifts — someone who is philosophically grounded, emotionally mature and tactically cunning.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

This week the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism issued its damning report about the journalistic lapses by Rolling Stone magazine when it published a salacious, and now-discredited, story about a supposed gang rape at a University of Virginia frat house.

The report blasted the magazine for failing to engage in “basic, even routine journalistic practice” to verify the veracity of the story. This only amplified the finger pointing of those who believe the issue of college rape is an overhyped fallacy or an ideological instrument, and the hand-wringing among activists who fear real damage to a real issue.

Last year, Kevin D. Williamson wrote in National Review under the headline “The Rape Epidemic Is a Fiction” that the issue of sexual assault on college campuses was “bound up in a broader feminist Kulturkampf only tangentially related to the very real problem of sexual violence against women.” He cited what he called the “thoroughly debunked claim that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in her college years,” a claim repeated by President Obama, as part of his evidence.

However, it should be noted that the Washington Post Fact Checker has refused to rule on the reliability of that claim, saying only that: “Readers should be aware that this oft-cited statistic comes from a Web-based survey of two large universities, making it problematic to suggest that it is representative of the experience of all college women.”

The Fact Checker went on to say: “As an interesting article from the University of Minnesota-Duluth newspaper makes clear, sexual violence is too rarely reported. So the White House should be applauded for calling attention to this issue.”

A Fox News host last month even suggested that the Rolling Stone story was evidence that “there is a war happening on boys on these college campuses.”

On the other side, the author of the Rolling Stone article acknowledged the effect her story may have on sexual assault victims, writing in a statement: “I hope that my mistakes in reporting this story do not silence the voices of victims that need to be heard.”

Sexual assault on college campuses is not the only issue to be caught in the cultural crossfire when some of the facts of a well-publicized case unravel. The same could be said of the Michael Brown/Darren Wilson case in Ferguson. Protests born in the wake of Brown’s killing by Wilson frequently invoked the phrase “hands up, don’t shoot,” a reference to the posture that some witnesses said was held by Brown when he was shot. The Department of Justice found little evidence to support that narrative.

Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee went on Fox News to declare a “war on our nation’s finest, the American police officer” based on a “false narrative out of Ferguson, Mo., this ‘hands up, don’t shoot.’ ” He continued, “We know now for a fact that that never happened.”

Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post wrote a much-talked-about column with a headline “ ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ Was Built On a Lie.” Yet Capehart was careful to make this caveat: “Yet this does not diminish the importance of the real issues unearthed in Ferguson by Brown’s death. Nor does it discredit what has become the larger ‘Black Lives Matter.’ ”

Cases like these raise the questions: What happens when one particular case is shown to have flaws although the overall condition that it illustrated holds true? How much damage is done when ammunition is given to deniers? How do you balance an impulse toward immediate empathy with the patience necessary for a reservation of judgment until a proper investigation can be performed?

Is there an ultimately unhealthy need to identify a “catalyst case” that will shock the conscience and lay waste to civic apathy, a case that will arrest the sensibilities of the weary and dispassionate and move them to action? I would argue that the integrity of truth and the honor of righteousness know no era. They don’t need to win the moment because they will always win the ages.

And therefore, these cases stand as cautionary markers that we can never be so eager to have our convictions confirmed that deliberation is abandoned and our truth-detectors are disarmed. That goes for those in the media as well as the public. Sometimes justice dictates a glacial fortitude, even in a modern period of instant gratification.

In these cases, the error must be acknowledged and absorbed without distorting the mission. One measure of the merits of a movement and a cause are their resilience in the face of tumult, their ability to take a blow and scamper back to their feet, to stay homed in on the beacon of light even after the darkness falls.

Remember what Malcolm X said: “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against.” When you are in honest pursuit of justice, the truth will never hurt you.

Now here’s Bobo:

I have two presidential election traditions. I begin covering each campaign by reading a book about Abraham Lincoln, and I end each election night, usually after midnight, at the statue of the Lincoln Memorial.

I begin by reading a book about Lincoln not because it’s fair to hold any of the candidates to the Lincoln standard, but because he gets you thinking about what sorts of things we should be looking for in a presidential candidate. Any candidate worthy of support should at least have in rudiments what Lincoln had in fullness: a fundamental vision, a golden temperament and a shrewd strategy for how to cope with the political realities of the moment.

Lincoln developed his fundamental vision in a way that seems to refute our contemporary educational practices. Today we pile on years of education. We assign hundreds of books over the years. We cluster our students on campuses with people with similar grades and test scores.

Lincoln had very little formal education. He was not cloistered on a campus but spent his formative years in daily contact with an astounding array of characters. If his social experience was wide, his literary experience was narrow. He read fewer books over his entire formative life than many contemporary students do in a single year. In literary terms, he preferred depth to breadth; grasp to reach. He intensely read Shakespeare, the King James Bible, “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and Parson Weems’s “The Life of Washington.”

This education gave him a moral vision that emerged from life, not from reading.

He saw America as a land where ambitious poor boys and girls like himself could transform themselves through hard, morally improving work. He believed in a government that built canals and railroads and banks to stoke the fires of industry. He believed slavery was wrong in part because people should be free to control their own labor. He believed in a providence that was active but unknowable.

This Whiggish vision was his north star. He could bob and weave as politics demanded, but his incremental means always pointed to the same transformational end. Any presidential candidate needs that sort of consistent animating vision — an image of an Ideal America baked so deeply into his or her bones as to be unconscious, useful as a compass when the distractions of Washington life come in a flurry.

Lincoln’s temperament surpasses all explanation. His early experience of depression and suffering gave him a radical self-honesty. He had the double-minded personality that we need in all our leaders. He was involved in a bloody civil war, but he was an exceptionally poor hater. He was deeply engaged, but also able to step back; a passionate advocate, but also able to see his enemy’s point of view; aware of his own power, but aware of when he was helpless in the hands of fate; extremely self-confident but extremely humble. Candidates who don’t have a contradictory temperament have no way to check themselves and are thus dangerous.

Lincoln’s skills as a political tactician seem like the least of his gifts, but are among his greatest. It’s easy to be a true believer, or to govern or campaign with your pedal to the metal all the time. It’s much harder to know when to tap on the brake and when to step on the gas.

We study Lincoln’s tactical phase shifts in the Grand Strategy class I help with at Yale. There’s never enough time to cover them all.

Most of Lincoln’s efforts were designed to tamp down passion for the sake of sustainable, incremental progress. Others would have delivered a heroic first Inaugural Address, but Lincoln made his a dry legal brief. Others would have stuffed the Emancipation Proclamation with ringing exclamations, but Lincoln’s draft is as dull as possible. Others wanted an immediate end to slavery. Lincoln tried to end it through unromantic, gradual economic means. He hoped that if he limited the demand for slaves (by halting the spread of slavery and by paying people not to keep them) he could drive down the price and render the whole enterprise unprofitable.

This year, Lincoln’s strategic restraint is the most necessary of his traits. We live in a partisan time, with movements who treat trimmers, compromisers and incrementalists harshly. But, to pass legislation, the next president will have to perpetually disappoint the fervent and devise a legislative strategy that can consistently get a House majority and 60 Senate votes.

We will not get a Lincoln. A person with his face could not survive the TV age. A person with his capacity for introspection could not survive the 24/7 self-branding campaign environment. But we do need someone with a portion of his gifts — someone who is philosophically grounded, emotionally mature and tactically cunning.

Well, at least we can find the closest possible approximation.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

April 2, 2015

In “Religious Freedom vs. Individual Equality” Mr. Blow is posing a question:  What to do when people want to retain their right to discriminate — wrapped in the cloak of piety — after most of the country has lost the appetite for it?  Mr. Cohen may or may not have lost his mind.  In “The Order in Saigon’s Chaos” he tries to convince us that Vietnam’s free-for-all traffic might be madness, but there’s equal madness in the West’s safety obsessions.  Mr. Kristof says “A Nuclear Deal With Iran Isn’t Just About Bombs,” and that this is also a chance for creating the conditions to bring Iran out of the cold.  But, but, but…  if we bring them in out of the cold then how the hell can we bomb the crap out of them like Billy “Always Wrong All The Time” Kristol wants to?  In “Indiana Loses Its Game” Ms. Collins says the Hoosier State is in a mess, and its residents should feel free to blame their governor.  Why the hell should they?  They’re the ones who elected him…  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Indiana’s governor is now vowing to “clarify” a religious freedom law he recently signed in that state, because of what he calls a “perception problem” about whether the legislation would allow open discrimination against people whose sexual identities defy the heteronormative construct.

In truth, there is no perception problem. There was a detection problem: People detected precisely what the bill was designed to do, and they objected. And, possibly more important than individuals’ objections, were the objections of big business like Apple and Angie’s List.

Rather than simply protecting the free exercise of religion, the bill provides the possibility that religion could be used as a basis of discrimination against some customers.

One Indiana pizzeria, asserting that it is “a Christian establishment,” has already said that it will not cater gay weddings: “If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no.” By the way, is wedding pizza a thing in Indiana? Just asking…

Objections to the law, which is repulsive and deserving of all manner of reprobation, were swift and vociferous.

It is true that there is a federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as a version of it in some 20 states. But Indiana’s is different.

As Garrett Epps put it in The Atlantic:

“First, the Indiana law explicitly allows any for-profit business to assert a right to ‘the free exercise of religion.’ The federal R.F.R.A. doesn’t contain such language, and neither does any of the state R.F.R.A.s except South Carolina’s; in fact, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, explicitly exclude for-profit businesses from the protection of their R.F.R.A.s.”

He continues:

“Second, the Indiana statute explicitly makes a business’s ‘free exercise’ right a defense against a private lawsuit by another person, rather than simply against actions brought by government.”

This was a whole other animal and people recognized it.

Anything that even hints at state-sponsored discrimination — blatant and codified — is not only discordant with current cultural norms but also anathema to universal ideals of fairness and human dignity.

Walmart has slammed a similar law passed this week in Arkansas — where the behemoth retailer is headquartered — with the C.E.O. saying of the law that it “threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold.”

And according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:

“Similar objections to HB1228 came from the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Little Rock Conventions and Visitors Bureau. The Arkansas Municipal League and the Association of Arkansas Counties have also opposed the legislation.”

To his credit, Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas — whose son asked him to veto the bill — called on the Legislature to recall or amend the bill, and said he was considering using an executive order that would make “Arkansas a place of tolerance.”

For the most part, though, the religious conservative wing of the Republican Party on this issue is rushing headlong into an unwinnable culture battle, or more precisely one that has already been fought and lost.

As Emily Swanson, writing for The Associated Press, put it last month:

“In the late 1980s, support for gay marriage was essentially unheard-of in America. Just a quarter-century later, it’s now favored by [a] clear majority of Americans. That dramatic shift in opinion is among the fastest changes ever measured by the General Social Survey, a comprehensive and widely respected survey that has measured trends [in] a huge array of American attitudes for more than four decades.”

While it is heartening to see these corporations rushing to voice their opposition to the measure, there is still something about it that feels slightly out of kilter: a moral issue being driven by consumerism considerations.

It was in many ways a battle between big business corporate image egalitarianism and small business fundamentalism and religious conservatism, with disgruntled consumers in the middle. Big business had more to lose by appearing intolerant than small businesses had to gain by hewing to an exclusionary holiness.

But aside from whether opposing these pieces of legislation buys good will as an exercise of good public relations, equal treatment is simply the appropriate moral position, now and forever.

These laws raise broad issues.

What to do when people want to retain their right to hate and to discriminate — even if they choose to couch it in fuzzy, nonconfrontational wording or wrap it in the flimsy cloak of piety — after most of the country has lost the appetite for it?

How does America move forward as a beacon of tolerance — some would argue this precept vehemently — while retaining such disproportionate rates of religiosity relative to other wealthy countries?

Where are the lines between religious rights, business rights and human rights?

I would argue that when you enter the sphere of commerce in America — regardless of your “deeply held religious beliefs” — you have entered a nondiscriminatory zone in which your personal beliefs are checked at the register, and each customer is treated equally.

This is not to say that a gay couple on the eve of commitment should want to patronize a bigoted baker for a wedding cake, but rather that the refusal to render services based on that bigotry is untenable.

And yet, as the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center put it last week in citing key findings from a 2015 working paper from Harvard Law School:

“While the First Amendment was intended to protect individual freedom of religion, speech and assembly, as well as a free press, corporations have begun to displace individuals as its direct beneficiaries. This ‘shift from individual to business First Amendment cases is recent but accelerating.’ ”

And last, it raises questions about where one person’s opinion should end and another’s personal liberty should take up.

Too many people in this country continue to have an unhealthy obsession with what other people do in their bedrooms rather than focusing on what they do — or don’t do — in their own.

Mind your own faith and your own business and allow other people to define their own relationships with a god, if he or she believes and chooses such a spiritual communion.

As Langston Hughes wrote in the poem “Personal”:

In an envelope marked:
Personal
God addressed me a letter.
In an envelope marked:
Personal
I have given my answer.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen, who probably doesn’t like to wear his seatbelt:

In Vietnam, where I recently spent a week, streets are a sea of scooters and small motorcycles. Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City if you insist, buzzes to the eddying of this two-wheeled tide. Entire families perch themselves on bikes, often with a small child up front who gets the best view, the hot breeze in her face and, of course, the least chance of emerging unscathed from a collision. Adults wear helmets; children and live animals do not.

Along with the living — a chicken or piglet perhaps — various things may be wedged at angles, including small refrigerators, potted plants, metal frames and bunches of bananas. Bikes, the cars of the newly affluent, and pedestrians weave around one another in a seamless pattern fashioned not by any rule or organizing principle but by individual awareness. Major intersections, unburdened by anything as cumbersome or inflexible as traffic lights, function as massive group exercises in tentative advance, the principle being to coax others to the prudence of the brake by nosing ahead with just the right dose of insistence. Lo, the sea divides. A path opens. There is no logic at work, but there is a great deal of humanity.

Madness might be a verdict on all this, but then to the average Vietnamese biker there might be equal madness to Western culture, hemmed in by all the controls that a combination of fear and technology produce. Surely there must be a happy medium between placing a toddler on the handlebars of a scooter and denying children the freedom to roam and discover that is essential to their development. Surely there is an appropriate balance between a free-for-all on the roads and a camera at every corner. But humanity tends to deal more in irrational exuberances than happy mediums. The pendulum swings too far.

In Britain, over-the-top safety obsessions have produced a society where cameras and so-called traffic-calming speed bumps are everywhere, visitors to churches and colleges are warned that medieval paving stones may be a little uneven, schoolchildren have been advised to wear goggles when using certain glues (and helmets under chestnut trees), trainee hairdressers are not allowed scissors in the classroom, and mail delivery gets suspended in an entire region if a postman slips and hurts his shoulder. David Cameron, the prime minister, spoke out five years ago against the health-and-safety culture that had produced “a stultifying blanket of bureaucracy, suspicion and fear that has saturated our country, covering the actions of millions of individuals.” Not much has changed.

Britain is only an extreme example of the broader phenomenon that can see the world’s greatest city, New York, shut down not by a snowstorm but by the possibility of a snowstorm (the blizzard that never happened); and the bizarre term “free-range parenting” applied to American moms and dads who believe their children should be allowed to walk home from school alone and play outside. Earlier this year a Maryland couple was found responsible for “child neglect” because they let kids walk home alone from a neighborhood park. Whatever happened to the land of the free and home of the brave?

I am not recommending that Western urban planners go to Vietnam to study traffic management. I am suggesting that developed Western societies, increasingly fear-driven, tend to fall into a nanny-state mind-set where health, safety and security must all be stringently regulated, adults are viewed as children, and the emotional intelligence of humanity is underestimated or discounted. To cross a highway in Saigon — perhaps with a wave here and there to remind onrushing scooters and cars of your existence — is to experience not just relief at reaching the other side, but wonderment at how unregulated people can work together.

The Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman was intrigued by this phenomenon. His “shared space” idea turned traditional thinking about road safety on its head. For much of the 20th century the assumption was that efficient traffic flow depended on a full separation of cars and pedestrians, complemented by traffic signals, signs, barriers and road markings that would keep people safe. The state took charge through regulation; the individual only had to obey instructions.

Monderman, who died in 2008, had other ideas. He wanted to raise collective awareness and responsibility by doing away with all that separateness, and he believed that safety might be increased by making all travelers intensely aware of one another. Cars, bicyclists and pedestrians would all move on a single curb-free surface, without sidewalks or signs. Sometimes he would test his schemes — developed in various Dutch, German and Scandinavian towns — by walking backward into dense traffic in a shared-space area. Of late the idea of “shared space” has even gained a foothold in London.

I recommend walking backward into a Saigon street, for the heck of it, but also to be reminded of the limits of regulation and the power of shared humanity.

Now we get to Mr. Kristof:

To prove that Americans can be every bit as crazy as Iranians, I took my daughter along on my last trip to Iran, in 2012, for a road trip across the country.

Iranians were stunned to see a 14-year-old Yankee teeny-bopper in their midst. In Mashhad, a conservative Islamic city that might seem wary of Americans, three Iranian women in black chadors accosted my daughter — and then invited her to a cafe where they plied her with ice cream, marveling at her and kissing her on the cheek as she ate.

They weren’t political, but they yearned for Iran to be a normal country again.

As the Iranian nuclear talks creep on into double overtime, let’s remember that this isn’t just about centrifuges but also about creating some chance over time of realigning the Middle East and bringing Iran out of the cold. It’s a long shot, yes, but it’s one reason Saudi Arabia is alarmed, along with Iranian hard-liners themselves. Those hard-liners survive on a narrative of conflict with the West, and depriving them of that narrative undermines them.

It’s odd to be debating a deal that hasn’t been reached, but, frankly, critics are mostly right in their specific objections to a deal, and in their aspirations for it.

“A better deal would significantly roll back Iran’s nuclear infrastructure,” noted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. “A better deal would link the eventual lifting of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to a change in Iran’s behavior.”

All true. Of course, a better deal would also involve gifts of delicious Persian baklava for every American. And a pony.

Netanyahu also suggests that a deal would give “Iran’s murderous regime a clear path to the bomb.” That’s a fallacy.

Iran is already on a path to nuclear capability. Netanyahu should know, because he’s been pointing that out for more than two decades. Beginning in 1992, he asserted that Iran was three to five years from a nuclear capability. Over time, that dropped to “a year or two,” and then to “months.”

But even if Netanyahu’s warnings have been alarmist, he has a point: Iran is getting closer. The problem is that fulminations don’t constitute a policy.

The West essentially has three options:

■ We can try to obtain a deal to block all avenues to a bomb, uranium, plutonium and purchase of a weapon. This would allow Iran to remain on the nuclear path but would essentially freeze its progress — if it doesn’t cheat. To prevent cheating, we need the toughest inspections regime in history.

■ We can continue the sanctions, cyberwarfare and sabotage to slow Iran’s progress. This has worked better than expected, but it’s not clear that we have a new Stuxnet worm to release. And, partly because of congressional meddling, international support for sanctions may unravel.

■ We can launch military strikes on Natanz, Isfahan, Arak, Fordow and, possibly, Tehran. This would be a major operation lasting weeks. Strikes would take place in the daytime to maximize the number of nuclear scientists killed. All this would probably delay a weapon by one to three years — but it could send oil prices soaring, lead to retaliatory strikes and provoke a nationalistic backlash in support of the government.

Imagine if we had launched a military strike against Chinese nuclear sites in the 1960s. In that case, Beijing might still be ruled by Maoists.

On balance, with either the military option or the sanctions option, Iran probably ends up with a nuclear capability within a decade. With a nuclear deal, it’s just possible that we could prevent that from happening. Perhaps no deal is achievable; the Iranian side has been recalcitrant lately. In that case, we continue with sanctions and hope that the economic pressure further delegitimizes the government and eventually forces Iran back to the table.

But, again, this isn’t just about uranium but also about undermining an odious regime and creating the conditions for Iran to become a normal country. I’ve rarely been to a more pro-American country, at the grass-roots, and there’s a pent-up anger at corruption and hypocrisy. That doesn’t mean that there’s going to be a revolution anytime soon. But it means that there’s a chance for movement after the death of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 75 and underwent prostate surgery last year.

In the office of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, whom Khamenei edged out to be supreme leader, I was once jokingly introduced as coming from the “Great Satan.” An aide, referring to Iran’s own regime, immediately quipped: “America is only Baby Satan. We have Big Satan right here at home.”

So, sure, a nuclear deal carries risks and will be ugly and imperfect, but, on balance, it probably reduces the risk that Iran gets the bomb in the next 10 years. It may also, after Ayatollah Khamenei is gone, create an opportunity for Iran to end its chapter in extremism, so that the country is defined less by rapacious ayatollahs and more by those doting matrons in Mashhad.

Last but not least we get to Ms. Collins:

Last year Indiana chose “Honest to Goodness Indiana” as its new tourism slogan. Not everyone was charmed. Some critics said they’d have preferred something more cosmopolitan. Although it doesn’t seem likely they’d be happier with the runners-up, one of which was “Seasoned Just Right.”

Now, however, the slogan makes a kind of sense, especially if you throw in a little punctuation:

Honest to goodness, Indiana! Really, what were you thinking?

Last week, you may remember, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana signed a “religious freedom” law that was widely decried around the country as an attack on gay civil rights. One state business pulled the plug on a planned expansion in protest. Conferences were canceled, events called off. The N.C.A.A., which is based in Indianapolis, was looking extremely uneasy. Other states and cities began imposing Indiana travel bans.

This is the exact same thing that happened in Arizona a year before, except that the governor there responded to the outcry by vetoing the law. Nevertheless, the Republicans who run Indiana claimed they were shocked, shocked by these totally unexpected developments.

“We have suffered under this avalanche for the last several days of condemnation, and it’s completely baseless,” Pence complained to George Stephanopoulos on ABC on Sunday. It was very possibly one of the worst appearances by a governor in television history. The best Pence could do was to babble desperately that “Hoosiers don’t believe in discrimination.”

Stephanopoulos: “Do you think it should be legal in the state of Indiana to discriminate against gays or lesbians?”

Pence: “George …” He never could quite bring himself to just say no.

Pence and the Legislature’s majority party thought they were on safe ground because their law really did look like a federal freedom of religion act passed during the Clinton administration. Except for the part about giving businesses the right to refuse service on religious grounds. Like a bakery declining to provide a wedding cake for a gay couple. Which was absolutely not in any way the example the State Legislature had in mind. No, sirree.

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act is known as RFRA despite the unfortunate resemblance to the sound of a hoarse Labrador retriever. It was passed in 1993 in response to the problems of Native Americans in Oregon, who smoked peyote in a religious ceremony and were then fired from their jobs and denied unemployment benefits.

The Indiana law was passed at a time of major frustration by the state’s social conservatives over a court ruling that made it impossible to pass a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage.

All those who believe the Indiana Legislature was acting out of concern over the right of Native Americans to use peyote raise their hands.

“The politics as it went through the statehouse was clear,” said Deborah Widiss, a law professor at Indiana University.

Pence did have another explanation for why Indiana needed a religious freedom law right now. He said he wanted to expand the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, which held that corporations have the right to refuse to cover the cost of contraception under the Affordable Care Act. “With the Supreme Court’s ruling, the need for a RFRA at the state level became more important, as the federal law does not apply to states,” the governor wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

Think about that for a minute. Indiana passes a law that is widely regarded as a sop to the state’s social conservatives for their inability to ban same-sex marriage. The Republican establishment expresses dismay at this interpretation, and insists that its only intention was to deprive female residents of the right to get birth control.

Yippee.

We seem to have a pattern here. Last year in Arizona when the governor vetoed the anti-gay bill, the Legislature vented its frustration by passing a new anti-abortion law. The gay rights movement is winning, big time. But governments are still insisting on their authority to mess with the sex lives of heterosexual women.

Right now, Indiana is in a mess, and residents are worried about the loss of jobs and investment because of a meaningless and spiteful piece of legislation. They should feel free to blame their governor. Mike Pence was supposed to be one of those evenheaded fiscal conservatives that moderate Republicans point to as a potential presidential candidate. But he didn’t have the foresight to see how badly this would turn out, or the spine to push back. In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson is watching him flounder and making a last-minute attempt to beat back a similar bill there.

Pence and the Legislature want to appease the business community by amending the law. They’re currently trying to find a way to accomplish that mission while not upsetting the social conservatives they made so happy just last month.

Good luck with that one, guys.

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

March 30, 2015

In “The Beating of Floyd Dent” Mr. Blow says another horrifically violent incident furthers the perception that the police are more likely to use force against blacks.  Mr. Cohen says “Iran Matters Most” and that America cannot stop the Sunni-Shia schism in the Middle East or its violence. It’s a time for fierce realism.  Prof. Krugman, in “Imaginary Healthcare Horrors,” says the Affordable Care Act is costing taxpayers much less than expected, but that hasn’t deterred the prophets of disaster.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

“He was beating me upside the head,” Floyd Dent, a 57-year-old longtime autoworker told a gaggle of reporters last week, according to The Detroit Free Press. “I was trying to protect my face with my right arm. I heard one of them say, ‘Tase the M…F.’ ”

Dent was describing what he experienced in a horrifically violent dashboard camera video that shows Inkster, Mich., police officers pulling him over, dragging him from his car, punching him 16 times in the head and tasing him three times, while he lay bloody and struggling on the ground, before arresting him.

According to the website for a local NBC News affiliate: “Police said they first saw Dent’s car through binoculars while watching an area known to have drug activity. They followed Dent’s car and said he didn’t make a complete stop at a stop sign. Police said that when they turned on their flashing lights, Dent didn’t immediately pull over.”

Furthermore: “Police said they ordered Dent to put his hands up, but they could only see one. Police said Dent yelled ‘I’ll kill you’ at the officers. Dent’s attorney, Greg Rohl, said there’s no audio of the alleged threat.”

Finally: “Police said Dent refused to put his hands behind his back. Dent said he thought he was being choked to death and tried to pull the officers’ arms away from his throat. One of the officers said Dent bit him on the arm, and that’s why he started punching Dent. Police said the force was needed to restrain Dent. The officer who said he was bit did not seek medical attention or photograph the bite marks.”

According to The Free Press, “Police initially charged him with assault, resisting arrest and possession of cocaine, insisting they found cocaine beneath the passenger seat of his Cadillac. Dent says police planted the drugs at the time of his arrest. An Inkster district court judge, after reviewing the tape, tossed the assault and resisting charges, but Dent faces an April 1 hearing on the drug charge.”

Dent’s lawyer says the drugs were planted by the officer who punched him, William Melendez. And there is video that the lawyer claims backs up the allegation. As a reporter at the local NBC News affiliate describes it: “In the video, the officer seen throwing the punches, William Melendez, is seen pulling something from his pocket that looks like a plastic baggy with something inside it. Melendez testified in court police found a baggy of crack cocaine under the passenger seat of Dent’s car.”

It should be noted that, according to the local NBC News affiliate website, Dent said a blood test showed no drugs in his system.

It should also be noted that, according to The Free Press, Melendez, who federal investigators in 2003 said “was known on the street as ‘Robocop,’ ” “has been involved in 12 lawsuits related to his conduct as an officer over the years, including similar allegations in a civil rights suit now pending in federal court.”

Those lawsuits allege, “among other things, that he planted evidence, assaulted people in their homes, fabricated police reports and wrongly arrested people.”

Videos like the Dent footage further the perception, especially among African-Americans, that the police are more likely to use force — specifically deadly force — against blacks than whites.

A December CBS News poll found that 84 percent of blacks and 33 percent of whites believe that the police in most communities are more likely to use deadly force against blacks. Just 2 percent of whites, and 0 percent of blacks, believe the police are more likely to use such force against whites.

(Fifty-seven percent of whites and 10 percent of blacks said they thought race did not affect the use of deadly force.)

And it is important to register where the most recent cases are centered.

As Isabel Wilkerson, author of the monumental book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” put it in a January New York Times essay titled “When Will the North Face Its Racism?”: “High-profile cases of police brutality have recently come to be associated with the North rather than the South. And it is in the South that two recent cases of police shootings of unarmed black people resulted in more vigorous prosecution.”

She concluded: “If the events of the last year have taught us anything, it is that, as much progress has been made over the generations, the challenges of color and tribe were not locked away in another century or confined to a single region but persist as a national problem and require the commitment of the entire nation to resolve.”

So much about Dent’s case is troublesome, and so he has become the latest touchstone in our coalescing conversation about the intersection of police forces and communities of color, particularly in the parts of this country that African-Americans fled to in search of a better life.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Do the Iran deal. Defeat the barbaric marauders of Islamic State. In the fragmenting mayhem of the Middle East, these must be the American and Western priorities.

They are objectives rooted in the strict Western interest. An Iranian nuclear accord lasting at least a decade that ring-fences a fiercely monitored and strictly limited enrichment program compatible only with civilian use is not an ideal outcome, but it is the best conceivable outcome of protracted talks that have already reversed the nuclear momentum in Iran and established a bridgehead between Washington and Tehran.

Any such agreement — and the deadline is imminent — must leave Iran a minimum of a year from any ‘‘break-out’’ to a bomb. The alternatives are far worse. Centrifuges and enrichment levels would resume their upward curve. War drums would beat again despite the fact that calls to attack Iran are an irresponsible invitation to disaster.

American or Israeli bombs on Persia (or both) would have all sorts of ghastly consequences, but the fundamental argument against such folly is that they would cause no more than a hiccup in Iran’s nuclear program before spurring it to renewed and unmonitored intensity. This would be war without purpose, or war on false pretenses. We’ve seen enough of that.

Iran is a hopeful and youthful society. Nurture the hope. Don’t imprison it. A deal lasting 10 years would condemn Iran and America to a working relationship over that period. I use the word ‘‘condemn’’ advisedly. It would not be pretty. In fact it would be ugly. There would be plenty of disagreements.

But jaw-jaw is better than war-war. Much can be achieved with nations that have fundamental ideological differences with the United States; look at the history of Chinese-American relations since they resumed in the 1970’s. During the next decade the Islamic Republic is likely to go through a leadership change. Its society is aspirational and Westward-looking. ‘‘Death to America’’ has become a tired refrain. What these elements will produce in terms of change is unpredictable, but the chance of positive developments is enhanced by contact and diminished by punitive estrangement of Tehran.

Would it be preferable that Iran not have the nuclear capacity it has acquired? Sure. Can there be absolute guarantees a deal would be honored? No. But diplomacy deals with the real world. The toughest, most important diplomacy is conducted with enemies. Opponents of an accord have offered no serious alternatives.

Only elementary knowledge of Iran is needed to know that sanctions will never bring this proud nation to its knees. It would rather starve than cave. What better assures Israel’s security, a decade of strict limitation and inspection of Iran’s nuclear program that prevents it making a bomb, or a war that delays the program a couple of years, locks in the most radical factions in Tehran, and intensifies Middle Eastern violence? It’s a no-brainer.

I like the current inconsistencies in President Obama’s Middle East policy. Some ask how it can make sense to pursue an Iran deal while backing Arab states, principally Sunni Saudi Arabia, in a campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen. To which the answer is first that interests drive foreign policy, not the pursuit of consistency (Stalin was once the most effective of American allies); and second that America is making it clear to Iran, even before any possible deal, that it will not abandon its allies, including Egypt and the Saudis, just because a nuclear agreement has been reached. This is an important message. The United States will oppose Iran where its interests and those of its allies demand that, deal or no deal.

One area where American and Iranian interests broadly coincide is in defeating Islamic State, the latest expression of the metastasizing Salafi Islamist ideology of murderous hatred toward Western civilization that produced 9/11 and recent murderous rampages in Europe. Islamic State is also a Sunni revanchist movement in Iraq and Syria, directly opposed to Shia Iran. There is nothing uplifting about the overlap in American and Iranian interests, but that does not make it any the less important. Rolling back Islamic State requires at least tacit Iranian cooperation.

America cannot stop the Sunni-Shia schism in the Middle East that its invasion of Iraq exacerbated. It cannot rebuild the Sykes-Picot order, or the borders that went with it. It cannot reverse its failure to prevent the worst in Syria (which will forever blot Obama’s record), nor its failure, outside Tunisia, and particularly in Egypt, to nurture the hope of the Arab spring for more representative societies freed from the paralyzing (and mutually reinforcing) confrontation of dictatorship and Islamism. It cannot prevent the violence inherent in all these developments. Nor should it hide its eyes from the fact that this violence will last a generation at least.

This is not cause for despair but reason to concentrate, fiercely, on the two attainable objectives that matter most now.

Last but not least we have Prof. Krugman:

There’s a lot of fuzzy math in American politics, but Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, recently set a new standard when he declared the cost of Obamacare “unconscionable.” If you do “simple multiplication,” he insisted, you find that the coverage expansion is costing $5 million per recipient. But his calculation was a bit off — namely, by a factor of more than a thousand. The actual cost per newly insured American is about $4,000.

Now, everyone makes mistakes. But this wasn’t a forgivable error. Whatever your overall view of the Affordable Care Act, one indisputable fact is that it’s costing taxpayers much less than expected — about 20 percent less, according to the Congressional Budget Office. A senior member of Congress should know that, and he certainly has no business making speeches about an issue if he won’t bother to read budget office reports.

But that is, of course, how it’s been all along with Obamacare. Before the law went into effect, opponents predicted disaster on all levels. What has happened instead is that the law is working pretty well. So how have the prophets of disaster responded? By pretending that the bad things they said would happen have, in fact, happened.

Costs aren’t the only area where enemies of reform prefer to talk about imaginary disasters rather than real success stories. Remember, Obamacare was also supposed to be a huge job-killer. In 2011, the House even passed a bill called the Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act. Health reform, opponents declared, would cripple the economy and in particular cause businesses to force their employees into part-time work.

Well, Obamacare went into effect fully at the beginning of 2014 — and private-sector job growth actually accelerated, to a pace we haven’t seen since the Clinton years. Meanwhile, involuntary part-time employment — the number of workers who want full-time work but can’t get it — has dropped sharply. But the usual suspects talk as if their dire predictions came true. Obamacare, Jeb Bush declared a few weeks ago, is “the greatest job suppressor in the so-called recovery.”

Finally, there’s the never-ending hunt for snarks and boojums — for ordinary, hard-working Americans who have suffered hardship thanks to health reform. As we’ve just seen, Obamacare opponents by and large don’t do math (and they’re sorry when they try). But all they really need are a few sob stories, tales of sympathetic individuals who have been impoverished by some aspect of the law.

Remarkably, however, they haven’t been able to find those stories. Early last year, Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers-backed group, ran a series of ads featuring alleged Obamacare victims — but not one of those tales of woe stood up to scrutiny. More recently, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington State took to Facebook to ask for Obamacare horror stories. What she got instead was a torrent of testimonials from people whose lives have been improved, and in some cases saved, by health reform.

In reality, the only people hurt by health reform are Americans with very high incomes, who have seen their taxes go up, and a relatively small number of people who have seen their premiums rise because they’re young and healthy (so insurers previously saw them as good risks) and affluent (so they don’t qualify for subsidies). Neither group supplies suitable victims for attack ads.

In short, when it comes to the facts, the attack on health reform has come up empty-handed. But the public doesn’t know that. The good news about costs hasn’t made it through at all: According to a recent poll by Vox.com, only 5 percent of Americans know that Obamacare is costing less than predicted, while 42 percent think the government is spending more than expected.

And the favorable experiences of the roughly 16 million Americans who have gained insurance so far have had little effect on public perceptions. Partly that’s because the Affordable Care Act, by design, has had almost no effect on those who already had good health insurance: Before the act, a large majority of Americans were already covered by their employers, by Medicare or by Medicaid, and they have seen no change in their status.

At a deeper level, however, what we’re looking at here is the impact of post-truth politics. We live in an era in which politicians and the supposed experts who serve them never feel obliged to acknowledge uncomfortable facts, in which no argument is ever dropped, no matter how overwhelming the evidence that it’s wrong.

And the result is that imaginary disasters can overshadow real successes. Obamacare isn’t perfect, but it has dramatically improved the lives of millions. Someone should tell the voters.

Blow and Krugman

March 23, 2015

In “Gov. Jindal’s Implosion” Mr. Blow says Louisiana’s governor has made a mess of his state and wrecked his reputation in the process.  But he’s still hoping to climb into the 2016 Clown Car…  Prof. Krugman, in “This Snookered Isle,” says a misleading fixation on budget deficits has become entrenched despite, not because of, what serious economists had to say.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

What happened to Bobby Jindal?

He was the next wave of Republican. He was young and smart — a Rhodes scholar. He was the son of immigrants and the first Indian-American governor in this country’s history.

He had even bounced back from his disastrous rebuttal to President Obama’s first State of the Union address. (Personally, I thought that his claim of having participated in an exorcism performed on his friend in college would have been more of an issue than it was, but that was just me.)

Jindal had all the right rhetoric.

He told Cal Thomas of Shreveport’s The Times: “As Republicans we don’t need to obsess about our opponents, we don’t need to define ourselves in opposition to our opponents. Let [Democrats] look backward; we need to look forward.”

In 2013, he demanded that the G.O.P. “stop being the stupid party.”

Jindal was the brainy Moses coming to deliver his people from the bondage of inanity. But that was then.

Now, Jindal has gone from being one of the most popular governors in the country to one of the least popular.

In the latest CNN/ORC poll of Republicans and independents who lean Republican, only 1 percent said that he was the candidate they would most likely support for the Republican nomination. Even “none/no one” got 6 percent.

And in a desperate attempt at relevancy — and press — he has lately been sliding further into Islamic hysteria.

In January, he caused a controversy by claiming that parts of Europe were “no-go zones” because of Muslim extremists. Jindal said that there were cities “where non-Muslims simply don’t go in,” like Birmingham in Britain. Prime Minister David Cameron said in response: “When I heard this, frankly, I choked on my porridge and I thought it must be April Fools’ Day. This guy is clearly a complete idiot.”

That hasn’t stopped Jindal. Last week on Fox News, he set about defending his statement that America “shouldn’t tolerate those who want to come and try to impose some variant, or some version, of Shariah law.” But he went so far as to say of prospective immigrants:

“In America we want people who want to be Americans. We want people who want to come here. We don’t say, ‘You have to adopt our creed, or any particular creed,’ but we do say, ‘If you come here, you need to believe in American exceptionalism.’ ”

What? Where is that written? I can’t find this “need to believe in American exceptionalism” anywhere in the Immigration and Nationality Act. Isn’t American exceptionalism itself a creed?

The smart-on-paper Jindal increasingly comes across as nuttier than a piece of praline.

On Friday, Robert Mann, a columnist at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, called for Jindal’s resignation, citing all of the problems in the state that the governor isn’t focusing on as he tries to gin up a greater national profile:

“We have some of the nation’s highest poverty and worst health outcomes and you’ve done little to address them. Baton Rouge, your hometown, has the nation’s second-highest H.I.V. rate (New Orleans is fourth), but you’ve done nothing to address that crisis. What you have done is hollow out higher education and inject needless confusion and rancor into the state’s elementary and secondary education system. Meanwhile, the state’s health care system is a fractured, dysfunctional mess under your privatization schemes. Now, you’ve outsourced the state’s tax policy to Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.”

Louisiana’s fiscal picture is dire. As Politico reported in February:

“Jindal is preparing a budget to close a $1.6 billion shortfall in Louisiana, a particularly daunting task after the $400 million in additional money he had to scare up to fill a budget gap for the current year. The president of Louisiana State University said earlier this month that the state’s flagship school is preparing for a 40 percent cut in its operating budget next year.”

In fact, The Times-Picayune reported in January that “Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration said Louisiana’s colleges and universities should be prepared to sustain anywhere from $200 million to $300 million in cuts during the 2015-16 school year.”

But in February, Jindal strained credulity, claiming, “The total higher education budget, including means of total finance — is actually a little bit, just slightly, higher than when I took office.” The Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog quickly smacked that down, awarding Jindal three Pinocchios.

Jindal has made a mess of Louisiana and wrecked his reputation in the process. His odds of becoming president of the United States have shrunk to nil.

Sometimes what looks good on paper is a disaster in practice.

I just can’t resist…  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “In the new world order, Jindal deals with poverty by creating more of it. He deals with racism by fomenting Islamic hysteria. He deals with health care by privatizing it into dysfunction. He deals with education by shutting it down. In short, he’s a mainstream Republican. On what grounds would they reject him for national office? I can easily imagine him joining the marquee of dim bulbs casting a shadow in the next Republican primary.”

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The 2016 election is still 19 mind-numbing, soul-killing months away. There is, however, another important election in just six weeks, as Britain goes to the polls. And many of the same issues are on the table.

Unfortunately, economic discourse in Britain is dominated by a misleading fixation on budget deficits. Worse, this bogus narrative has infected supposedly objective reporting; media organizations routinely present as fact propositions that are contentious if not just plain wrong.

Needless to say, Britain isn’t the only place where things like this happen. A few years ago, at the height of our own deficit fetishism, the American news media showed some of the same vices. Allegedly factual articles would declare that debt fears were driving up interest rates with zero evidence to support such claims. Reporters would drop all pretense of neutrality and cheer on proposals for entitlement cuts.

In the United States, however, we seem to have gotten past that. Britain hasn’t.

The narrative I’m talking about goes like this: In the years before the financial crisis, the British government borrowed irresponsibly, so that the country was living far beyond its means. As a result, by 2010 Britain was at imminent risk of a Greek-style crisis; austerity policies, slashing spending in particular, were essential. And this turn to austerity is vindicated by Britain’s low borrowing costs, coupled with the fact that the economy, after several rough years, is now growing quite quickly.

Simon Wren-Lewis of Oxford University has dubbed this narrative “mediamacro.” As his coinage suggests, this is what you hear all the time on TV and read in British newspapers, presented not as the view of one side of the political debate but as simple fact.

Yet none of it is true.

Was the Labour government that ruled Britain before the crisis profligate? Nobody thought so at the time. In 2007, government debt as a percentage of G.D.P. was close to its lowest level in a century (and well below the level in the United States), while the budget deficit was quite small. The only way to make those numbers look bad is to claim that the British economy in 2007 was operating far above capacity, inflating tax receipts. But if that had been true, Britain should have been experiencing high inflation, which it wasn’t.

Still, wasn’t Britain at risk of a Greek-style crisis, in which investors could lose confidence in its bonds and send interest rates soaring? There’s no reason to think so. Unlike Greece, Britain has retained its own currency and borrows in that currency — and no country fitting this description has experienced that kind of crisis. Consider the case of Japan, which has far bigger debt and deficits than Britain ever did yet can currently borrow long-term at an interest rate of just 0.32 percent.

Which brings me to claims that austerity has been vindicated. Yes, British interest rates have stayed low. So have almost everyone else’s. For example, French borrowing costs are at their lowest level in history. Even debt-crisis countries like Italy and Spain can borrow at lower rates than Britain pays.

What about growth? When the current British government came to power in 2010, it imposed harsh austerity — and the British economy, which had been recovering from the 2008 slump, soon began slumping again. In response, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government backed off, putting plans for further austerity on hold (but without admitting that it was doing any such thing). And growth resumed.

If this counts as a policy success, why not try repeatedly hitting yourself in the face for a few minutes? After all, it will feel great when you stop.

Given all this, you might wonder how mediamacro gained such a hold on British discourse. Don’t blame economists. As Mr. Wren-Lewis points out, very few British academics (as opposed to economists employed by the financial industry) accept the proposition that austerity has been vindicated. This media orthodoxy has become entrenched despite, not because of, what serious economists had to say.

Still, you can say the same of Bowles-Simpsonism in the United States, and we know how that doctrine temporarily came to hold so much sway. It was all about posturing, about influential people believing that pontificating about the need to make sacrifices — or, actually, for other people to make sacrifices — is how you sound wise and serious. Hence the preference for a narrative prioritizing tough talk about deficits, not hard thinking about job creation.

As I said, in the United States we have mainly gotten past that, for a variety of reasons — among them, I suspect, the rise of analytical journalism, in places like The Times’s The Upshot. But Britain hasn’t; an election that should be about real problems will, all too likely, be dominated by mediamacro fantasies.

Blow, Friedman, Kristof and Collins

March 19, 2015

In “Stop Playing the ‘Race Card’ Card” Mr. Blow says people who claim that certain accusations of racism are exaggerated seek to do what they condemn: shut down the debate with a scalding-hot charge.  The Moustache of Wisdom has another question in “Bibi Will Make History:”  How is the rest of the world going to react to an Israeli government that rejects a two-state solution and employs anti-Arab dog whistles to get elected?  By cutting off aid would be a start…  In “Deadliest Country For Kids” Mr. Kristof says oil and diamonds give Angola a wealth that is rare in sub-Saharan Africa, yet it has the highest rate of under-5 child mortality in the world.  Ms. Collins says “Oh, No! It’s a New Senate Low!”  But she says there is good news to share, too. The House has been on a roll, if you overlook some a terrible budget proposal and assaults on hapless poor people.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

So, Starbucks’ chief executive, Howard Schultz, wants us to serve the country coffee and a race dialogue.

This week Schultz announced that the chain’s baristas would have the option to write the words “race together” on cups of coffee and engage customers in a racial dialogue.

The suspicion and ridicule of this idea has been swift and broad. It has been mocked as impractical, hypocritical and even opportunistic.

Kate Taylor wrote in Entrepreneur Magazine:

“Tone-deaf and self-aggrandizing aspects of Race Together haven’t helped in establishing a strong base for employees to build on. Starbucks’ press photos for the event appear to feature only white employees. The press release on Race Together bizarrely leads with the subheading ‘It began with one voice,’ painting Howard Schultz as a visionary progressive for daring to discuss race — something others, especially people of color, haven’t exactly been silent on in recent months or the last couple centuries.”

And yet, I would like to assume that the motive is noble even if something about it feels a shade off. Wanting to do something — even this — has to have a greater moral currency than resigning oneself to doing nothing.

So, in that spirit, let me start this portion of the conversation with this: Let’s all agree to strike the phrase “playing the race card” from all future conversation.

I was reminded of how toxic this term is in an interview, published this week, that former Vice President Dick Cheney did with Playboy magazine.

The interviewer asked:

“At different points, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have suggested that racism is a factor in criticism of them. Is there any truth in that?”

Cheney responded:

“I think they’re playing the race card, in my view. Certainly we haven’t given up — nor should we give up — the right to criticize an administration and public officials. To say that we criticize, or that I criticize, Barack Obama or Eric Holder because of race, I just think it’s obviously not true. My view of it is the criticism is merited because of performance — or lack of performance, because of incompetence. It hasn’t got anything to do with race.”

Before we dissect the use of “playing the race card here,” let’s deal with the questioner and the answer more broadly. They both trade in racial absolutes, which is a mistake and diverts from honest dialogue.

In January of 2014, President Obama told The New Yorker:

“There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President.” But he continued, “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.”

Furthermore, he explained:

“You can be somebody who, for very legitimate reasons, worries about the power of the federal government — that it’s distant, that it’s bureaucratic, that it’s not accountable — and as a consequence you think that more power should reside in the hands of state governments. But what’s also true, obviously, is that philosophy is wrapped up in the history of states’ rights in the context of the civil-rights movement and the Civil War and Calhoun. There’s a pretty long history there. And so I think it’s important for progressives not to dismiss out of hand arguments against my Presidency or the Democratic Party or Bill Clinton or anybody just because there’s some overlap between those criticisms and the criticisms that traditionally were directed against those who were trying to bring about greater equality for African-Americans.”

Attorney General Holder for his part told ABC News in July:

“You know, people talking about taking their country back. … There’s a certain racial component to this for some people. I don’t think this is the thing that is a main driver.”

Neither man was dealing in absolutes, but in nuance. The deliberate use of “some” people in both cases blunts the kind of retort that Cheney delivers. And there is empirical evidence that “some” people is correct here. In a New York Times/CBS News poll taken in 2008 when Obama was running for office, 19 percent of respondents said they didn’t think most people they knew would vote for a black presidential candidate and 6 percent said that they wouldn’t vote for one themselves.

Cheney’s attempt at blanket absolution from what was not a blanket accusation holds no weight.

But now, back to that detestable phrase, “playing the race card.”

I have a particular revulsion for this phrase because of all that it implies: that people often invoke race as a cynical ploy to curry favor, or sympathy, and to cast aspersions on the character of others.

Maybe there are some people who do this, but I have never known a single person to admit to it or be proven to have done it.

Sure, living in a society still replete with racial bias can make one hypersensitive, to the point of seeing it even when it isn’t there. But this to me isn’t evidence of malicious intent, but rather the manifestation of chronic injury.

Furthermore, there are surely still people like the ones Booker T. Washington described:

“There is another class of coloured people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs — partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.”

But those who can realize a profit pale in comparison to the vast majorities of regular people trying to get by. To confuse the two is a deliberate deception.

It is one thing to debate the presence of racial motive in a circumstance, but it is quite another to suggest that people who suspect a racial component are exploiting some mythological, vaunted position and prerogative of aggrieved groups or exerting the exclusionary authority of the dominant group.

And furthermore, what other forms of discrimination are so routinely diminished and delegitimized in this way — cast as a game, a tactic or a stratagem?

The truth is that the people who accuse others — without a shred of evidence — of “playing the race card,” claiming that the accusations of racism are so exaggerated as to dull the meaning of the term, are themselves playing a card. It is a privileged attempt at dismissal.

They seek to do the very thing they condemn: shut down the debate with a scalding-hot charge.

Now, about that coffee…

Next up we have TMOW:

Well, it’s pretty clear now: Benjamin Netanyahu is going to be a major figure in Israeli history — not because he’s heading to become the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, but because he’s heading to be the most impactful. Having won the Israeli elections — in part by declaring that he will never permit a two state-solution between Israelis and Palestinians — it means Netanyahu will be the father of the one-state solution. And the one-state solution means that Israel will become, in time, either a non-Jewish democracy or Jewish non-democracy.

Yes, sir, Bibi is going to make history. And the leader in the world who is most happy that Netanyahu ran on — and won on — a one-state solution is the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Oh, my goodness. They must have been doing high-fives and “Allahu akbars” all night in the ruling circles of Tehran when they saw how low Bibi sank to win. What better way to isolate Israel globally and deflect attention from Iran’s behavior?

The biggest losers in all of this, besides all the Israelis who did not vote for Netanyahu, are American Jews and non-Jews who support Israel. What Bibi did to win this election was move the Likud Party from a center-right party to a far-right one. The additional votes he got were all grabbed from the other far-right parties — not from the center. When the official government of Israel is a far-right party that rejects a two-state solution and employs anti-Arab dog whistles to get elected, it will split the basic unity of the American Jewish community on Israel. How many American Jews want to defend a one-state solution in Washington or on their college campuses? Is Aipac, the Israel lobby, now going to push for a one-state solution on Capitol Hill? How many Democrats and Republicans would endorse that?

Warning: Real trouble ahead.

You cannot win that dirty and just walk away like nothing happened. In the days before Israelis went to the polls, Netanyahu was asked by the Israeli news site, NRG, if it was true that a Palestinian state would never be formed on his watch as prime minister, Netanyahu replied, “Indeed,” adding: “Anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state, anyone who is going to evacuate territories today, is simply giving a base for attacks to the radical Islam against Israel.”

This makes null and void his speech in June 2009 at Bar Ilan University, where Netanyahu had laid out a different “vision of peace,” saying: “In this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side by side, in amity and mutual respect. Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other.” Provided the Palestinian state recognizes Israel’s Jewish character and accepts demilitarization, he added, “We will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.”

Now, if there are not going to be two states for two peoples in the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean, then there is going to be only one state — and that one state will either be a Jewish democracy that systematically denies the voting rights of about one-third of its people or it will be a democracy and systematically erodes the Jewish character of Israel.

Just look at the numbers: In 2014, the estimated Palestinian Arab population of the West Bank was 2.72 million, with roughly 40 percent under the age of 14. There are already 1.7 million Israeli Arabs citizens — who assembled all their parties together in the latest election onto one list and came in third. Together, the West Bankers and Israeli Arabs constitute 4.4 million people. There are 6.2 million Israeli Jews. According to statistics from the Jewish Virtual Library, the Jewish population of Israel grew by 1.7 percent over the past year, and the Arab population grew by 2.2 percent.

If there is only one state, Israel cannot be Jewish and permit West Bank Palestinians to exercise any voting rights alongside Israeli Arabs. But if Israel is one state and wants to be democratic, how does it continue depriving West Bankers of the vote — when you can be sure they will make it their No. 1 demand.

I doubt, in the heat of the campaign, Netanyahu gave any of this much thought when he tossed the two-state solution out the window of his campaign bus in a successful 11th-hour grab for far-right voters. To be sure, he could disavow his two-state disavowal tomorrow. It would not surprise me. He is that cynical. But, if he doesn’t — if the official platform of his new government is that there is no more two-state solution — it will produce both a hostile global reaction and, in time, a Palestinian move in the West Bank for voting rights in Israel, combined with an attempt to put Israel in the docket in the International Criminal Court. How far is the Obama administration going to go in defending Israel after it officially rejects a two-state solution? I don’t know. But we’ll be in a new world.

No one on the planet will enjoy watching Israel and America caught on the horns of this dilemma more than the clerical regime in Tehran. It is a godsend for them. Iran’s unstated position is that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem must be perpetuated forever. Because few things serve Iran’s interests more than having radical Jewish settlers in a never-ending grinding conflict with Palestinians — and the more bloodshed and squashing of any two-state diplomatic options the better. Because, in that conflict, the Palestinians are almost always depicted as the underdogs and the Israelis as the bullies trying to deprive them of basic rights.

From Iran’s point of view, it makes fantastic TV on Al Jazeera, and all the European networks; it undermines Israel’s legitimacy with the young generation on college campuses around the globe; and it keeps the whole world much more focused on Israeli civil rights abuses against Palestinians rather than the massive civil rights abuses perpetrated by the Iranian regime against its own people.

It is stunning how much Bibi’s actions serve Tehran’s strategic interests.

And that is why I am certain that Benjamin Netanyahu is going to be a historic, very impactful prime minister in Jewish history. I just hope that — somehow — a Jewish democratic Israel survives his tenure.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof, writing from Lubango, Angola:

This is a country laden with oil, diamonds, Porsche-driving millionaires and toddlers starving to death. New Unicef figures show this well-off but corrupt African nation is ranked No. 1 in the world in the rate at which children die before the age of five.

“Child mortality” is a sterile phrase, but what it means here is wizened, malnourished children with twig limbs, discolored hair and peeling skin. Here in Lubango in southern Angola, I stepped into a clinic and found a mother carrying a small child who seemed near death. He was unconscious, his eyes rolling, his skin cold and his breathing labored, so I led the mom to the overburdened nurses.

Just then, 20 feet away, a different mother began screaming. Her malnourished son, José, had just died.

Westerners sometimes think that people in poor countries become accustomed to loss, their hearts calloused and their pain numbed. No one watching that mother beside her dead child could think that — and such wailing is the background chorus in Angola. One child in six in this country will die by the age of five.

That’s only the tip of the suffering. Because of widespread malnutrition, more than one-quarter of Angolan children are physically stunted. Women have a 1-in-35 lifetime risk of dying in childbirth.

In a Lubango hospital, I met a 7-year-old boy, Longuti, fighting for his life with cerebral malaria. He weighed 35 pounds.

His mother, Hilaria Elias, who had already lost two of her four children, didn’t know that mosquitoes cause malaria. When Longuti first became sick, she took him to a clinic, but it lacked any medicine and didn’t do a malaria test. Now Longuti is so sick that doctors say that even if he survives, he has suffered neurological damage and may have trouble walking and speaking again.

Yet kids like Longuti who are seen by a doctor are the lucky ones. Only about 40 percent to 50 percent of Angola’s population has access to the health care system, says Dr. Samson Agbo, a Unicef pediatrics expert.

Angola is a nation of infuriating contradictions. Oil and diamonds give it a wealth that is rare in sub-Saharan Africa, and you see the riches in jewelry shops, Champagnes and $10,000-a-month one-bedroom apartments in the capital, Luanda.

Under the corrupt and autocratic president, José Eduardo dos Santos, who has ruled for 35 years, billions of dollars flow to a small elite — as kids starve.

President dos Santos, whose nation’s oil gives him warm, strong ties to the United States and Europe, hires a public relations firm to promote his rule, but he doesn’t take the simplest steps to help his people. Some of the poorest countries, such as Mauritania and Burkina Faso, fortify flour with micronutrients — one of the cheapest ways possible to save lives — yet dos Santos hasn’t tried that. He invests roughly three times as much on defense and security as on health.

“Children die because there is no medicine,” lamented Alfred Nambua, a village chief in a thatch-roof village on a rutted dirt road near the northern city of Malanje. The village has no school, no latrine, no bed nets. The only drinking water is a contaminated creek an hour’s hike away.

“Now there’s nothing,” said Nambua, 73, adding that life was better before independence in 1975.

“In the colonial period, when I was sick, they were afraid I would die and gave me good care,” he said, and he pretended to shiver in imitation of malaria. “Now when I’m sick, no one cares if I die.”

Statisticians say that Angola’s child mortality is, in fact, declining — but achingly slowly.

“Death in this country is normal,” said Dr. Bimjimba Norberto, who runs a clinic in a slum outside the capital. A few doors down, a funeral was beginning for Denize Angweta, a 10-month-old baby who had just died of malaria.

“If I lived in another country, I could still be playing with my daughter,” Denize’s father, Armondo Matuba, said bitterly.

It may get worse. With falling oil prices, the government has proposed a one-third cut in the health budget this year.

I’ve often criticized Western countries for not being more generous with aid. Yet it’s equally important to hold developing countries accountable.

It’s difficult to see why Western countries should continue to donate to Angola and thus let rich Angolans off the hook as they drive Porsches.

There are many ways for a leader to kill his people, and although dos Santos isn’t committing genocide he is presiding over the systematic looting of his state and neglect of his people. As a result, 150,000 Angolan children die annually. Let’s hold dos Santos accountable and recognize that extreme corruption and negligence can be something close to a mass atrocity.

And last but not least we have Ms. Collins:

The United States Senate is worse than ever.

I know this is hard for you to believe, people. But, really, this week was a new bottom. The Senate found itself unable to pass a bill aiding victims of human trafficking, a practice so terrible that it is one of the few subjects on which members of Congress find it fairly easy to work in bipartisan amity.

“This has got to get done for me to continue having faith in this institution,” said Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat who’s particularly concerned about sexual exploitation of Native American women. She has always struck me as one of the more cheerful members of the Senate, so this seems like a bad sign.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives has passed twelve bills against human trafficking already this year.

Wow, the House is doing great! If you overlook the introduction of a budget that features terrible math and many assaults on hapless poor people, the lower chamber has been on a roll lately. Speaker John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, rescued the budget for the Department of Homeland Security, and now they’re working out a plan to avoid the next fiscal cliff, which involves keeping Medicare running.

Plus, this week, the Republican majority got rid of disgraced Representative Aaron Schock, who decorated his office as if it was a scene from “Downton Abbey.” In the wake of questions about his mileage reimbursement requests, Schock announced his resignation. Since he had never successfully sponsored any legislation in his six-year congressional career, his greatest legacy may be a reminder that members of the House of Representatives should avoid brightening the workplace with vases of pheasant feathers.

So the House is working on a new fiscal-cliff plan, passed 12 human trafficking bills and subtracted Aaron Schock. Maybe it’s going to become the center of bipartisan cooperation the nation has been waiting for!

O.K., probably not. Anyway, it’s been doing better than the Senate.

At the beginning of the month, the Senate was working on its own anti-trafficking bill, sponsored by Republican John Cornyn of Texas, with several Democratic co-sponsors. The idea was to fine sexual predators and give the money to groups that help sex-trafficking victims.

Sounded promising. The Senate Judiciary Committee had easily approved Cornyn’s bill earlier this year. Then before it reached the floor, someone discovered that it had acquired a clause forbidding the use of the money to provide victims with access to abortions.

“They’re putting poison pills in their own bills!” said Senator Chuck Schumer in a phone interview.

Before we discuss how badly the Republicans behaved, we need to take time out to note that none of the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee seem to have noticed that somewhere along the line, this change had been inserted in the bill. (One senator acknowledged that an aide knew, but never shared the information.)

It was easy to miss, the Democrats contended, being very oblique and supertiny. “Out of a 112-page bill, there is this one sentence,” complained Democrat Dick Durbin.

I believe I speak for many Americans when I say that missing a change in important legislation is excusable only if the Senate Judiciary Committee is suffering from a shortage of lawyers.

No one seemed clear on how the new language got there in the first place, but abortion restriction is not something you casually toss into a bill that you want to pass with support from both parties. It would be as if the Democrats had quietly added a stipulation requiring all trafficking victims be barred from carrying a concealed weapon.

Cornyn argued that it made no difference whatsoever because there were plenty of exemptions that would allow any sexually exploited trafficking victim to qualify for an abortion anyway. That was a good point, except for the part where you wondered why he was so insistent that this allegedly meaningless language be preserved at all costs.

“My wish is that we hadn’t junked that bill up with abortion politics,” said Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican who has to run for re-election next year in Illinois. Many Republicans agreed with him, but in public they dug in their heels. In retaliation, the Democrats brought all progress to a halt with a filibuster.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who thought he was going to show how to make the Senate work, was irate, and said there would be no vote on Loretta Lynch, President Obama’s attorney general nominee, until Democrats gave in.

Possible theme for the session: “Republicans who can’t lead meet Democrats who can’t read.”

Lynch did get some support from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who penned a letter urging Republicans to get behind her. When Giuliani is the most sensible voice in the room, there’s not much farther down to go, unless they start bringing in pheasant feathers.

Blow and Krugman

March 16, 2015

In “Flash Point Ferguson” Mr. Blow says the protest movement’s progress has been tarnished by violence. That doesn’t have to be the case.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Israel’s Gilded Age:”  Why is the country’s inequality a political issue? Because it didn’t have to be this extreme.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Ferguson, Mo., is once again a flash point in this nation’s struggle to come to grips with itself, as its citizens are embroiled in a profound conversation about bias, policing, the criminal justice system, civil rights and social justice.

The Department of Justice has released its scathing report documenting widespread racial targeting of citizens with fine and tickets. The city manager, the police chief and a judge cited in the report have stepped down. Cases will now be adjudicated outside the corrupt system described in the report. According to an article last week in The Times:

“The Missouri Supreme Court, citing the need for ‘extraordinary action’ to restore trust in Ferguson’s court system after the Department of Justice blasted it for routinely violating constitutional rights, assigned a state appeals court judge on Monday to oversee all municipal cases.”

But unfortunately, two police officers have also been shot in Ferguson. (The officers were treated at a hospital and released.)

All of it has caused the nation’s attention to once again turn to this small town and the sustained protests there.

Sometimes we understandably want justice to come quickly — but justice, if it is to be permanent, often inches forward. For those in the grip of injustice, toiling in the shadow of oppression, the wait can be nearly unbearable. But that hasn’t necessarily happened in this case.

It could be argued that the protest movement born in Ferguson in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson — a movement that quickly expanded from a focus on a single case to a sprawling indictment of the system — has been one of the most successful in recent history, both in terms of the speed at which it has garnered results and the breadth of those results.

And yet, that progress has been tarnished by flashes of violence.

That doesn’t have to be the case. There is a moral continuity that bridges and binds all people of good conscience.

There is universal condemnation of predation. No one should ever be targeted for harm. No cause can turn wrong to right. Violence can never be liberated from its inherent abhorrence.

As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in the 1967 book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.” King continued, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.”

Violence is weakness masquerading as strength. It is a crude statement of depravity voiced by the unethical and impolitic. It reduces humanity rather than lifts it.

The violent must find no asylum in the assembly of the righteous. We can and must stand up to injustice and against vigilante justice simultaneously.

(Authorities announced Sunday that an arrest had been made in the shootings. The prosecutor insisted the suspect had been a “demonstrator” — a fact that protest leaders denied — although the prosecutor did acknowledge that the shooter said he had a dispute with people in front of the police department “which had nothing to do with the demonstrations that were going on.”)

To those peaceful protesters who eschew violence as much as the rest of us, we must say: Hold tight. Be encouraged, steadfast and unmovable. We know the fatigue that builds from feeling that one must always fight. But your efforts are not in vain.

This is your moment. History has heard you, and justice is coming to meet you.

And we can do as a nation what those protesters have shown us can be done. We can elevate dialogue so that racial realities — both interpersonal and structural — can be acknowledged and remedies developed and implemented.

We can register indignation while preserving civility.

On “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” President Obama put it this way:

“What had been happening in Ferguson was oppressive and objectionable and was worthy of protest. But there was no excuse for criminal acts. And whoever fired those shots shouldn’t detract from the issue — they’re criminals. They need to be arrested. And then what we need to do is to make sure that like-minded, good-spirited people on both sides — law enforcement who have a terrifically tough job and people who understandably don’t want to be stopped and harassed just because of their race — that we’re able to work together to try to come up with some good answers.”

We can honor the lives of police officers — and applaud them when proper service is rendered — and at the same time marvel at the persistence and efficacy of the protesters who have gotten the nation’s attention and gotten results.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Why did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel feel the need to wag the dog in Washington? For that was, of course, what he was doing in his anti-Iran speech to Congress. If you’re seriously trying to affect American foreign policy, you don’t insult the president and so obviously align yourself with his political opposition. No, the real purpose of that speech was to distract the Israeli electorate with saber-rattling bombast, to shift its attention away from the economic discontent that, polls suggest, may well boot Mr. Netanyahu from office in Tuesday’s election.

But wait: Why are Israelis discontented? After all, Israel’s economy has performed well by the usual measures. It weathered the financial crisis with minimal damage. Over the longer term, it has grown more rapidly than most other advanced economies, and has developed into a high-technology powerhouse. What is there to complain about?

The answer, which I don’t think is widely appreciated here, is that while Israel’s economy has grown, this growth has been accompanied by a disturbing transformation in the country’s income distribution and society. Once upon a time, Israel was a country of egalitarian ideals — the kibbutz population was always a small minority, but it had a large impact on the nation’s self-perception. And it was a fairly equal society in reality, too, right up to the early 1990s.

Since then, however, Israel has experienced a dramatic widening of income disparities. Key measures of inequality have soared; Israel is now right up there with America as one of the most unequal societies in the advanced world. And Israel’s experience shows that this matters, that extreme inequality has a corrosive effect on social and political life.

Consider what has happened at either end of the spectrum — the growth in poverty, on one side, and extreme wealth, on the other.

According to Luxembourg Income Study data, the share of Israel’s population living on less than half the country’s median income — a widely accepted definition of relative poverty — more than doubled, to 20.5 percent from 10.2 percent, between 1992 and 2010. The share of children in poverty almost quadrupled, to 27.4 percent from 7.8 percent. Both numbers are the worst in the advanced world, by a large margin.

And when it comes to children, in particular, relative poverty is the right concept. Families that live on much lower incomes than those of their fellow citizens will, in important ways, be alienated from the society around them, unable to participate fully in the life of the nation. Children growing up in such families will surely be placed at a permanent disadvantage.

At the other end, while the available data — puzzlingly — don’t show an especially large share of income going to the top 1 percent, there is an extreme concentration of wealth and power among a tiny group of people at the top. And I mean tiny. According to the Bank of Israel, roughly 20 families control companies that account for half the total value of Israel’s stock market. The nature of that control is convoluted and obscure, working through “pyramids” in which a family controls a firm that in turn controls other firms and so on. Although the Bank of Israel is circumspect in its language, it is clearly worried about the potential this concentration of control creates for self-dealing.

Still, why is Israeli inequality a political issue? Because it didn’t have to be this extreme.

You might think that Israeli inequality is a natural outcome of a high-tech economy that generates strong demand for skilled labor — or, perhaps, reflects the importance of minority populations with low incomes, namely Arabs and ultrareligious Jews. It turns out, however, that those high poverty rates largely reflect policy choices: Israel does less to lift people out of poverty than any other advanced country — yes, even less than the United States.

Meanwhile, Israel’s oligarchs owe their position not to innovation and entrepreneurship but to their families’ success in gaining control of businesses that the government privatized in the 1980s — and they arguably retain that position partly by having undue influence over government policy, combined with control of major banks.

In short, the political economy of the promised land is now characterized by harshness at the bottom and at least soft corruption at the top. And many Israelis see Mr. Netanyahu as part of the problem. He’s an advocate of free-market policies; he has a Chris Christie-like penchant for living large at taxpayers’ expense, while clumsily pretending otherwise.

So Mr. Netanyahu tried to change the subject from internal inequality to external threats, a tactic those who remember the Bush years should find completely familiar. We’ll find out on Tuesday whether he succeeded.


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