Archive for the ‘Blow’ Category

Brooks, Blow and Krugman

July 31, 2015

In “Two Cheers for Capitalism” Bobo says a big coming debate will be over how much say government should have over business and income equality.  In the comments “David Henry” from Walden Pond says he’s given us “The same old GOP whine in a new bottle. No, Mr. Brooks. Without government “proposals” we would still have child labor, abuse of employees, and no benefits.”  In “The DuBose Family: Grieving But Determined” Mr. Blow says the siblings and mother of Samuel DuBose are struggling to deal with his killing by a university police officer.  Prof. Krugman, in “China’s Naked Emperors,” says the politicians in Beijing who have ruled during economic booms, not unlike many of their American counterparts, have no idea what they’re doing.  Here’s Bobo:

We are clearly heading toward another great debate about the nature of capitalism. Contemporary capitalism’s critics are becoming both bolder and more intellectually rigorous. Protests and discussions are sprouting up all over the place.

For example, this week I was attending the Aspen Action Forum, a gathering of young business and NGO leaders selected because of their work for social change. My friend and Times colleague Anand Giridharadas delivered a courageous and provocative keynote address that ruffled some feathers, earned a standing ovation and has had people talking ever since.

Anand argued that a rough etiquette has developed among those who work in and raise money for nonprofits. The rich are to be praised for the good they do with their philanthropy, but they are never to be challenged for the harm they do in their businesses. “Capitalism’s rough edges must be sanded and its surplus fruit shared, but the underlying system must NEVER be questioned,” he said.

Anand suggested that in these days of growing income inequality, this approach is no longer good enough. “Sometimes I wonder,” he said, “whether these various forms of giving back have become to our era what the papal indulgence was to the Middle Ages: a relatively inexpensive way of getting oneself seemingly on the right side of justice, without having to alter the fundamentals of one’s life.”

The winners of our age, he continued, may be helping society with their foundations, but in their business enterprises, the main occupation of their life, they are doing serious harm. First they are using political and financial muscle to enact policies that help them “stack up, protect and bequeath the money.”

Second, they offload risks and volatility onto workers. Uber’s owners have a lot of security but they deny any responsibility for their workers’ “lives, health, desire for career growth.”

Third, the owners of capital are increasingly remote from their communities. “In the old days, if a company C.E.O. suddenly dumped the defined-benefits pension, you knew who to go see to complain. Today it may be an unseen private equity fund that lobbies for the change.” The virtualization of ownership insulates the privileged from the “devastating consequences” of their decisions.

Anand’s speech struck me as deeply patriotic in its passion and concern. He didn’t offer a policy agenda to address these deep structural problems, but his description of them implied that government would have to get much more heavily involved in corporate governance and private-sector investment decisions than ever before.

Indeed, progressive economists are already walking down this path. Hillary Clinton’s new tax plan is based on the assumption that government officials are smart enough to tell investors how they should time their investments. Her corporate governance proposals are based on the idea that federal officials know better than executives how they should run their own companies. There will be much more of this in years to come.

This strikes me as a departure from recent progressivism. In the recent past progressives have argued for a little redistribution to fund human capital development: early childhood education, child and family leave, better community colleges.

But the next wave of thinking implies that it is not enough to simply give people access to capitalism and provide them with a safety net. The underlying system has to be reconfigured.

This is a bigger debate.

People like me will argue that it’s a wrong turn. First, government planners are not smart enough to plan complex systems in this way. The beauty of capitalism is that it takes a dim view of human reason. No group of experts is smart enough to allocate the resources of society well. Capitalism sets up a system of discovery as different people compete and adapt in accordance with market signals. If you try to get technocratic planners organizing investment markets or internal business governance, you will wind up with perversities and rigidities that will make everything worse.

Second, the attempt to tame the market will end up stultifying it. Everybody knows that capitalism’s creative destruction can be rough. But over the last few decades, a ragged version of global capitalism in places ranging from China to Nigeria has brought about the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. America’s fluid style of capitalism attracts driven and talented immigrants and creates vast waves of technological innovation. This dynamism is always in danger of being stultified by planners who think they can tame it and by governing elites who want to rig it. We should not take it for granted.

The coming debate about capitalism will be between those who want to restructure the underlying system and those who want to help people take advantage of its rough intensity. It will be between people who think you need strong government to defeat oligarchy and those who think you need open competition.

This will be fun.

Fun?  FUN?  Eff off, Bobo.  Go sit in your “vast spaces for entertaining” and STFU.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Terina DuBose Allen had just gotten out of the shower when she answered the phone. It was her brother Aubrey DuBose.

Aubrey warned Terina, “You need to sit down.”

“I’m not sitting down,” Terina responded, sensing something wrong, and worrying maybe something had happened to their mother.

Aubrey said, “Sam is dead.”

Terina recalled to me over lunch Thursday in downtown Cincinnati, “I just screamed,” and she said she dropped to the floor. “Everything in my body went numb.” She continued, “I couldn’t get off the floor for three hours.”

Samuel DuBose was her brother, the second of five siblings. Terina is the oldest. Sam — no one called him Samuel, Terina explained — was a 43-year-old, unarmed Cincinnati man shot in the head and killed on July 19 by a University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing.

Terina struggled to explain the enormity of her and her family’s loss and her reaction to it: “I broke down because we had just lost a really good person, a person in the universe who always had your back.”

I spent much of the day Thursday with the DuBose family, “embedded,” as their lawyers called it. I went with them as they made the media rounds; I sat with them in the courtroom during the arraignment as they saw the man who killed Sam in the flesh for the first time; I ate with them; I was there when they laughed and when they cried uncontrollably in a hotel hallway. Grief comes in waves that keep crashing to shore.

I have had the honor and the solemn duty to be around many families with similar losses in the last couple of years, and there is something of an unsettling sameness: The feeling of being thrust into a harsh spotlight when you’d rather quietly grieve; being motivated by a sense of mission to fight for the person who is lost, all the while emotionally and physically running on empty; resisting the pull of a world trying desperately to reduce the man or woman you loved into a martyr it can champion or, conversely, a menace it can despise.

Tensing’s lawyer, Stew Mathews, said of Tensing: “He’s devastated by this, as is his family, and he is currently lodged in the Hamilton County Justice Center.”

Actually, if you want to see devastation, look no further than the DuBose family. As Terina said at the courthouse, “I wish my brother was in jail and not dead.”

But in addition to the staggering sense of loss is also a steel-spined determination, and no one in that family typifies that more than Terina. She has emerged as something of a spokeswoman and a warrior.

As she spoke to one of the lawyers on the sidewalk, I heard a man say over my shoulder, “She’s strong as hell,” to which a woman responded, “She’s my new idol.”

For instance, she has become a strong advocate for body cameras, although they are not perfect solutions. As she put it, in her brother’s case, they didn’t prevent the crime, but they prevented the cover-up.

Terina’s sister, Cleshawn DuBose, said of her: “We call her ‘Get-Right-Terina.’”

I got the sense of that statement immediately: If you were in the wrong, Terina would get you right.

Terina, who said she holds a graduate degree in strategic leadership and owns her own corporate consulting company, wanted to correct some of the “lies” about her brother.

According to both sisters, Sam wasn’t violent, and he wasn’t a heavy drinker. But, Terina said, “he wasn’t a monk” either.

As Terina said, “I’m trying to give you the real.” Cleshawn chimed in, “We don’t want Sam to be misrepresented.” Terina added, “for the better or the worse.”

Terina summed it up: Sam had been arrested dozens of times on traffic violations. Also, he smoked marijuana, and had years ago served time for selling it.

But as Terina put it, “That was the worst of it.”

Not only are none of those reasons to kill a man, or to say that he “deserved it,” none of those reasons have anything whatsoever to do with the incident that led to Sam’s death.

Sam was a human being — a man, a son, a brother and a father. “Sam was loved and Sam loved, hard,” Terina said.

Midway through the day, Sam’s mother, Audrey DuBose, joined the rest of the family on their rounds.

She was visibly drained, but still spiritually moored. She insisted that Terina and Cleshawn pray with her during one of our car rides: “We need to pray; we need the strength.”

I noticed the way she drew long breaths, the way the water in the bottle she was holding vibrated because her hand was trembling, the way she closed her eyes for long stretches, even when talking. It was the familiar fatigue that hangs on the mothers of killed children.

She confessed to me in a quiet moment: “All I want to do is just shut my door and cover up and never open it again.”

That is what devastation feels like.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Politicians who preside over economic booms often develop delusions of competence. You can see this domestically: Jeb Bush imagines that he knows the secrets of economic growth because he happened to be governor when Florida was experiencing a giant housing bubble, and he had the good luck to leave office just before it burst. We’ve seen it in many countries: I still remember the omniscience and omnipotence ascribed to Japanese bureaucrats in the 1980s, before the long stagnation set in.

This is the context in which you need to understand the strange goings-on in China’s stock market. In and of itself, the price of Chinese equities shouldn’t matter all that much. But the authorities have chosen to put their credibility on the line by trying to control that market — and are in the process of demonstrating that, China’s remarkable success over the past 25 years notwithstanding, the nation’s rulers have no idea what they’re doing.

Start with the fundamentals. China is at the end of an era — the era of superfast growth, made possible in large part by a vast migration of underemployed peasants from the countryside to coastal cities. This reserve of surplus labor is now dwindling, which means that growth must slow.

But China’s economic structure is built around the presumption of very rapid growth. Enterprises, many of them state-owned, hoard their earningsrather than return them to the public, which has stunted family incomes; at the same time, individual savings are high, in part because the social safety net is weak, so families accumulate cash just in case. As a result, Chinese spending is lopsided, with very high rates of investment but a very lowshare of consumer demand in gross domestic product.

This structure was workable as long as torrid economic growth offered sufficient investment opportunities. But now investment is running into rapidly decreasing returns. The result is a nasty transition problem: What happens if investment drops off but consumption doesn’t rise fast enough to fill the gap?

What China needs are reforms that spread the purchasing power — and it has, to be fair, been making efforts in that direction. But by all accounts these efforts have fallen short. For example, it has introduced what is supposed to be a national health care system, but in practice many workers fall through the cracks.

Meanwhile, China’s leaders appear to be terrified — probably for political reasons — by the prospect of even a brief recession. So they’ve been pumping up demand by, in effect, force-feeding the system with credit, including fostering a stock market boom. Such measures can work for a while, and all might have been well if the big reforms were moving fast enough. But they aren’t, and the result is a bubble that wants to burst.

China’s response has been an all-out effort to prop up stock prices. Large shareholders have been blocked from selling; state-run institutions have been told to buy shares; many companies with falling prices have been allowed to suspend trading. These are things you might do for a couple of days to contain an obviously unjustified panic, but they’re being applied on a sustained basis to a market that is still far above its level not long ago.

What do Chinese authorities think they’re doing?

In part, they may be worried about financial fallout. It seems that a number of players in China borrowed large sums with stocks as security, so that the market’s plunge could lead to defaults. This is especially troubling because China has a huge “shadow banking” sector that is essentially unregulated and could easily experience a wave of bank runs.

But it also looks as if the Chinese government, having encouraged citizens to buy stocks, now feels that it must defend stock prices to preserve its reputation. And what it’s ending up doing, of course, is shredding that reputation at record speed.

Indeed, every time you think the authorities have done everything possible to destroy their credibility, they top themselves. Lately state-run media have been assigning blame for the stock plunge to, you guessed it, a foreign conspiracy against China, which is even less plausible than you may think: China has long maintained controls that effectively shut foreigners out of its stock market, and it’s hard to sell off assets you were never allowed to own in the first place.

So what have we just learned? China’s incredible growth wasn’t a mirage, and its economy remains a productive powerhouse. The problems of transition to lower growth are obviously major, but we’ve known that for a while. The big news here isn’t about the Chinese economy; it’s about China’s leaders. Forget everything you’ve heard about their brilliance and foresightedness. Judging by their current flailing, they have no clue what they’re doing.

Blow and Krugman

July 27, 2015

In “At Sarah Bland’s Funeral, Celebration and Defiance” Mr. Blow says mourners praised the life of the young woman, whose death leaves unanswered questions.  In “Zombies Against Medicare” Prof. Krugman says arguments that have already been shown to be false are still used by conservatives to attack a program that has done rather well.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Funerals are often predictably somber — a cloistering and culminating of grief and pain. Not Sandra Bland’s funeral. (Everyone called her Sandy, by the way.) Sandy’s was simultaneously celebratory and defiant.

Bland was the 28-year-old Illinois woman arrested after a traffic stop in Texas who died in a county jail. Her funeral was held Saturday at DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lisle, Ill., just outside Chicago.

Bland’s casket was white. Many in the family wore white. The pastor wore a white ministerial robe. This was not to be a dark day. The joyous music of the choir seemed to vibrate everything in the building. Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, danced every time the choir sang. One of Bland’s cousins performed a praise dance, a choreographed dance set to religious music.

There were whimpers and tears, to be sure, but there was also laughter and praise. As the church’s pastor, James F. Miller, put it: “This is not a moment of defeat; this is a moment of victory.” He continued: “We’re not funeralizing a martyr or a victim; we’re celebrating a hero!” The crowd erupted.

Over a few days leading up to the funeral I interviewed a few of Bland’s fellow church members and friends. They described a complex person — in other words, a person — who had recently come into her own, realizing her life’s purpose (social justice), a person who to them appeared determined, settled and happy. None of them believe she committed suicide, or that it was even possible.

What I did hear during those interviews and during the funeral itself were words and phrases like these used to describe Bland: “Fearless.” “Activist.” “Life of the party, in a good way.” “Vibrant and full of life.” “Passionate.” “A strong woman; a strong black woman.”

It was abundantly clear to me that the people who knew and loved her loved her fierce-ly and loved her fierce-ness.

That was not to say that Bland didn’t have her ups and downs the way many young people do. But rather, she wasn’t afraid to admit it and wanted to use her testimony to help others. I spoke to a woman with whom Bland was working to start a women’s empowerment forum online, who said that Bland told her that she wanted to share her travails because “it takes a lot of will and resilience when you’re going downhill to stop yourself.”

The Rev. Theresa Dear, who spoke to me on the family’s behalf, said that sure, Sandy was a “mouthy person” and that she could imagine her “raising you know what” in her Texas jail cell.

But, like Bland’s other friends, Dear described this in ways that seemed less acerbic than courageous, less Sister Souljah than Sojourner Truth.

As Dear put it: “Everybody in their lives needs a Sandy Bland posture, a Sandy Bland voice.”

Bland didn’t demur and knuckle under. Some have criticized her for her stance during the traffic stop, suggesting that if she had behaved differently, with more respect for the officer, she might have avoided arrest.

Maybe. But, it must always be remembered that the parameters of “respectable behavior” are both raced and gendered. The needle moves to differing positions for different people. That is, I believe, one of the reasons that this minor traffic stop so quickly escalated.

How dare a woman not present as a damsel? How dare a black person not bow in obsequiousness?

The officer’s irritation seemed to build in direct response to Bland’s unwavering defiance. She refused to break, crumble and cry. She refused to express fear. She challenged his authority, his character and his expression of masculinity.

Now, it is clear to me that Bland’s allies are girding themselves to fight for her life and her legacy. As her mother said in a fiery speech during the funeral: “I’m going to take today and relax. I’m going to take tomorrow and relax. But Monday, it’s on!”

There are so many unanswered questions in this case and so many things that don’t, on their face, make sense. The public wants answers, but more importantly, the family needs answers. As her mother said, “I’m the mama, and I still don’t know what happened to my baby!”

The pastor extolled those gathered to “go online and shut down the Justice Department’s website, asking for a federal investigation.” Indeed, Senator Dick Durbin and Representative Bill Foster both said at the funeral that they’d each sent letters to Attorney General Loretta Lynch requesting such an investigation.

And both Bland’s mother and Pastor Miller took swipes at the media’s portrayal of Sandy.

Miller demanded that responsible media stop showing images of Bland’s scarred body, “lining your pockets with the blood of our child!” As Miller said, “You have stepped on the cat’s tail.”

Then he seemed to, for comedic and theatrical purposes, catch himself, musing out loud, “They want me to sit down because I’m going to get us in trouble.”

But he quickly followed: “I was born black in America; I was born in trouble.” The mourners signaled their agreement.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Medicare turns 50 this week, and it has been a very good half-century. Before the program went into effect, Ronald Reagan warned that it would destroy American freedom; it didn’t, as far as anyone can tell. What it did do was provide a huge improvement in financial security for seniors and their families, and in many cases it has literally been a lifesaver as well.

But the right has never abandoned its dream of killing the program. So it’s really no surprise that Jeb Bush recently declared that while he wants to let those already on Medicare keep their benefits, “We need to figure out a way to phase out this program for others.”

What is somewhat surprising, however, is the argument he chose to use, which might have sounded plausible five years ago, but now looks completely out of touch. In this, as in other spheres, Mr. Bush often seems like a Rip Van Winkle who slept through everything that has happened since he left the governor’s office — after all, he’s still boasting about Florida’s housing-bubble boom.

Actually, before I get to Mr. Bush’s argument, I guess I need to acknowledge that a Bush spokesman claims that the candidate wasn’t actually calling for an end to Medicare, he was just talking about things like raising the age of eligibility. There are two things to say about this claim. First, it’s clearly false: in context, Mr. Bush was obviously talking about converting Medicare into a voucher system, along the lines proposed by Paul Ryan.

And second, while raising the Medicare age has long been a favorite idea of Washington’s Very Serious People, a couple of years ago the Congressional Budget Office did a careful study and discovered that it would hardly save any money. That is, at this point raising the Medicare age is a zombie idea, which should have been killed by analysis and evidence, but is still out there eating some people’s brains.

But then, Mr. Bush’s real argument, as opposed to his campaign’s lame attempt at a rewrite, is just a bigger zombie.

The real reason conservatives want to do away with Medicare has always been political: It’s the very idea of the government providing a universal safety net that they hate, and they hate it even more when such programs are successful. But when they make their case to the public they usually shy away from making their real case, and have even, incredibly, sometimes posed as the program’s defenders against liberals and their death panels.

What Medicare’s would-be killers usually argue, instead, is that the program as we know it is unaffordable — that we must destroy the system in order to save it, that, as Mr. Bush put it, we must “move to a new system that allows [seniors] to have something — because they’re not going to have anything.” And the new system they usually advocate is, as I said, vouchers that can be applied to the purchase of private insurance.

The underlying premise here is that Medicare as we know it is incapable of controlling costs, that only the only way to keep health care affordable going forward is to rely on the magic of privatization.

Now, this was always a dubious claim. It’s true that for most of Medicare’s history its spending has grown faster than the economy as a whole — but this is true of health spending in general. In fact, Medicare costs per beneficiary have consistently grown more slowly than private insurance premiums, suggesting that Medicare is, if anything, better than private insurers at cost control. Furthermore, other wealthy countries with government-provided health insurance spend much less than we do, again suggesting that Medicare-type programs can indeed control costs.

Still, conservatives scoffed at the cost-control measures included in the Affordable Care Act, insisting that nothing short of privatization would work.

And then a funny thing happened: the act’s passage was immediately followed by an unprecedented pause in Medicare cost growth. Indeed, Medicare spending keeps coming in ever further below expectations, to an extent that has revolutionized our views about the sustainability of the program and of government spending as a whole.

Right now is, in other words, a very odd time to be going on about the impossibility of preserving Medicare, a program whose finances will be strained by an aging population but no longer look disastrous. One can only guess that Mr. Bush is unaware of all this, that he’s living inside the conservative information bubble, whose impervious shield blocks all positive news about health reform.

Meanwhile, what the rest of us need to know is that Medicare at 50 still looks very good. It needs to keep working on costs, it will need some additional resources, but it looks eminently sustainable. The only real threat it faces is that of attack by right-wing zombies.

Remove the earnings cap.

Blow and Kristof

July 23, 2015

In “Questions About the Sandra Bland Case” Mr. Blow says that when there are lapses in logic in what people think would be reasonable explanations, suspicion spreads.  In “Starvation as a Product of War” Mr. Kristof says there’s a looming famine in South Sudan. What’s needed most isn’t food, but an end to the civil war.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I have so many questions about the case in which Sandra Bland was arrested in a small Texas town and died in police custody. These are questions that ought to be easy to answer, questions that I suspect many others may share. Here are just some of my areas of inquiry.

1. On the video released by the Texas Department of Public Safety of Bland’s traffic stop, the arresting officer, Brian Encinia, tells her that the reason for her stop is that she “failed to signal a lane change.” The officer returns to his car, then approaches Bland’s vehicle a second time. He remarks to Bland, “You seem very irritated.” Bland responds, “I am. I really am.” She continues, “I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over, and you stop me. So, yeah, I am a little bit irritated.”

Was Bland simply trying to move out of the way of a police vehicle?

The video shows the officer’s car accelerating behind Bland’s and passing a sign indicating a speed limit of 20 miles per hour. How fast was the officer closing the distance on Bland before she changed lanes? Was it completely reasonable for her to attempt to move out of his way?

2. The officer, while standing at the closed driver’s side door, asks Bland to extinguish her cigarette. As soon as she refuses, he demands that she exit the vehicle. Was the demand to exit because of the refusal? If so, what statute in Texas — or anywhere in America! — stipulates that a citizen can’t smoke during a traffic stop?

3. According to Encinia’s signed affidavit, Bland was “removed from the car” and “placed in handcuffs for officer safety.” The reason for the arrest is unclear to me. At one point, Encinia says, “You were getting a warning until now you’re going to jail.” So, what was the arrest for at that point? Failure to comply? Later in the video, Encinia says, “You’re going to jail for resisting arrest.” If that was the reason, why wasn’t Bland charged with resisting arrest? The affidavit reads, “Bland was placed under arrest for Assault on Public Servant.”

Encinia’s instructions to Bland are a jumble of confusion. After she is handcuffed, he points for her to “come read” the “warning” ticket, then immediately pulls back on her arm, preventing her from moving in the direction that he pointed, now demanding that she “stay right here.” He then commands Bland to “stop moving,” although, as she points out, “You keep moving me!” What was she supposed to do?

4. According to Encinia’s affidavit, at some point after being handcuffed, “Bland began swinging her elbows at me and then kicked my right leg in the shin.” On the dashcam video, a commotion happens out of view of the camera, with Bland complaining that she is being hurt — “You’re about to break my wrist!” and “You knocked my head in the ground; I got epilepsy!” Encinia and another officer insist that Bland stop moving. Encinia can be heard to say, “You are yanking around! When you pull away from me, you are resisting arrest!” (Neither the dashcam video nor a video taken by a bystander shows a discernible kick.)

When Encinia re-enters the frame of the dashcam, he explains to a female officer: “She started yanking away, then kicked me, so I took her straight to the ground.” The female officer points to Encinia’s leg as she says: “Yeah, and there you got it right there.”

Encinia says, “One thing for sure, it’s on video.” Only, it isn’t. Why exactly was Bland walked out of the frame of view of the dashcam for the arrest procedure?

5. The initial video posted by Texas authorities also has a number of visual glitches — vanishing cars, looping sequences — but no apparent audio glitches.

The director of “Selma,” Ava DuVernay, tweeted: “I edit footage for a living. But anyone can see that this official video has been cut. Read/watch. Why?” She included a link to a post pointing out the discrepancies in the video.

According to NBC News:

“Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, blamed a ‘technical issue during posting.’ He said that the department was working to correct the video.”

What kinds of “technical difficulties” were these? Why wouldn’t the audio also have glitches? (Authorities have now released a new, slightly shorter video.)

6. Texas authorities say that, while in the Waller County jail cell, Bland used a trash bag from a trash can in the cell to hang herself. Is it standard procedure to have trash cans with trash bags in jail cells? Is the can secured to the floor? If not, couldn’t it be used by an inmate to hurt herself, or other inmates or jail staff?

According to a report on Wednesday by The Houston Chronicle:

“Bland disclosed on a form at the jail that she previously had attempted suicide over that past year, although she also indicated she was not feeling suicidal at the time of her arrest, according to officials who attended the Tuesday meeting with local and state leaders investigating the case.” Shouldn’t they have known it was a suicide risk?

The Bureau of Justice Statistics points out that suicide is the No. 1 cause of non-illness-related deaths in local jails (although blacks are least likely to commit those suicides), and between 2000 and 2011 about half of those suicides “occurred within the first week of admission.”

Why weren’t more precautions taken, like, oh, I don’t know, removing any suicide risks from the cell?

7. Houston’s Channel 2 aired “exclusive video from inside the Waller County jail cell where Sandra Bland was found dead.” In the video, a trash can — a very large one — is clearly visible. But, strangely, it appears to have a trash bag in it. If Bland used the trash bag to hang herself, where did the one in the can come from? Did they replace it? Why would the jail staff do that?

8. NBC News’ John Yang also toured the cell, and in his video he says that “things are really the same as it was that morning” when officers found Bland’s body, including food (“Dinner Untouched” was the language used in title of the video on NBCNews.com) and a Bible on the bed opened to Psalms. (That Bible appears to be closed in the Channel 2 video. Who opened it between the two videos?).

And what page is the Bible opened to in the NBC video? It is open to Psalm 119 and at the top of the page are verses 109-110: “Though I constantly take my life in my hands, I will not forget your law. The wicked have set a snare for me, but I have not strayed from your precepts.” Eerie. Or, convenient.

Also in the Channel 2 video, there are orange shoes on the floor by the bed. In the NBC video, they are gone. Who moved them? Why? Where are they?

Yang says of the trash bag in the can: “Around her neck, they say, was a trash bag, an extra trash bag from this receptacle.” So what gives here? “Extra trash bag”? Was there more than one trash bag in the cell or had that one been replaced?

(It is also worth noting that the video shows what appears to be a rope holding a shower curtain.)

Isn’t this an active investigation? Shouldn’t that cell be treated like a crime scene? Why are reporters allowed to wander through it? Who all has been in it?

Maybe there are innocent and convincing answers to all these questions, and others. I hope so. People need things to make sense. When there are lapses in logic in what people think would be reasonable explanations, suspicion spreads.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Aweil, South Sudan:

One gauge of the famine looming in South Sudan is that people are simply collapsing from hunger.

As I was driving into this city, a woman was lying inert on the road. She was Nyanjok Garang, and she said she hadn’t eaten for three days. She had set out to look for work, maybe washing clothes, in hopes of keeping her two children alive. After a day of fruitless walking she had collapsed.

“My children are hungry,” she said. “I’m hungry. There’s not even a cent left to buy bread.” Her husband is a soldier in the government forces fighting in South Sudan’s civil war, but she doesn’t even know if he is still alive. So she left her children with a neighbor and set out in hopes of finding work — “and then I blacked out.”

A horrific famine enveloped what is now South Sudan in 1988, and there are some signs that this year could see a repeat. As in 1988, weather has led to poor harvests on top of civil war that has made it difficult to plant crops and move food around the country.

President Obama will be focusing on the South Sudan civil war in his trip starting Thursday night to Kenya and Ethiopia, both neighbors to South Sudan. The war is not only a military crisis but also ahumanitarian catastrophe, which makes it all the more important to step up efforts to bring about peace.

You might think that what’s needed to end a famine is food. Actually, what’s essential above all is an international push of intensive diplomacy and targeted sanctions to reach a compromise peace deal and end the civil war. Yes, Obama has plenty on his plate already, but no other country has the leverage America does. And in peace, South Sudan can care for itself. But as long as the war continues, South Sudanese will face starvation — especially women and girls.

The gender dynamics of hunger are obvious: In Aweil, the hospital ward is full of skeletal women and girls, looking like concentration camp survivors. That’s because (as in many places around the world) when food is insufficient, families allocate it to men and boys, and women and girls disproportionately starve.

One 15-year-old girl in the hospital, Rebecca Athian, was so malnourished that her bones pushed through her skin and she had a measure of anemia (a hemoglobin level of 3) that in the West is pretty much unheard-of. Yet the hospital was now forced to discharge her to make way for new patients.

Rebecca has already lost two siblings in the last year, and although the causes of death were never fully determined, it’s a good guess that they were malnutrition-related. Her mother would like to marry Rebecca off, because it would then be her husband’s duty to feed her and keep her alive. But she says Rebecca has been raped, so men are unwilling to marry her.

The United Nations says 4.6 million people in South Sudan — more than one-third of the population — are “severely food insecure,” and the situation will deteriorate in the coming months because the next major harvest won’t come until October or November. Until then, there is nothing to eat.

“It is the first time we’ve seen so many cases like this,” said Dr. Dut Pioth, the acting director of the hospital. “It’s going to be like what we saw in 1988.”

Dr. Dut was 11 years old during that famine, and he remembers some relatives starving to death. His family fled to Khartoum, where he thrived in school and attended medical school. But he is frustrated because what patients often need now isn’t so much medical care, but rather food and peace.

To see starving children is particularly wrenching. They show no emotions: They do not cry or smile or frown, but simply gaze blankly, their bodies unwilling to waste a calorie on emotion when every iota of energy must go to keep major organs functioning.

It’s striking that this area of South Sudan is not directly affected by fighting; it’s calm here. But the hunger is still war-related, for the conflict is keeping food and supplies out. The road from the capital, Juba, has been blocked by fighting, and disputes with Sudan have closed the border to the north. So this area is cut off, prices are skyrocketing, jobs are disappearing, and ordinary workers can’t afford to buy food.

The only certainty is that it will get worse in the coming months, and the women and girls who die will be war casualties. “Those who are dying of gunshots,” Dr. Dut notes, “are fewer than those who are dying of hunger.”

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

July 20, 2015

In “Sandra and Kindra: Suicides or Something Sinister?” Mr. Blow says the deaths of two black women who died in police custody raise so-far unanswered questions.  In “Afghanistan, Empires and the Grateful Dead” Mr. Cohen discusses conflict and loss and a broken-down VW Kombi. He ponders what a long, strange trip it’s been.  Prof. Krugman, in “Europe’s Impossible Dream,” explains how fantasy economics led to disaster.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Although the mantra “Black Lives Matter” was developed by black women, I often worry that in the collective consciousness it carries with it an implicit masculine association, one that renders subordinate or even invisible the very real and concurrent subjugation and suffering of black women, one that assigns to these women a role of supporter and soother and without enough space or liberty to express and advocate for their own.

Last week, the prism shifted a bit, as America and the social justice movement focused on the mysterious cases of two black women who died in police custody.

The first and most prominent was Sandra Bland, a black woman from suburban Chicago who had moved to Texas to take a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A & M University, a historically black school about 50 miles northwest of Houston.

She never started that job. After being arrested following a traffic stop, Bland was found dead in her jail cell. The police say she killed herself. Her family and friends doubt it.

As The New York Times reported last week: Bland “was arrested last Friday in Waller County by an officer with the Texas Department of Public Safety on a charge of assaulting a public servant. She had been pulled over for failing to signal a lane change.”

The Times continued:

“A statement from the Waller County Sheriff’s Office said that the cause of Ms. Bland’s death appeared to be self-inflicted asphyxiation. An autopsy on Tuesday classified her death as suicide by hanging, according to The Chicago Tribune.”

Indeed, the Waller County district attorney, Elton Mathis, told a Houston station last week: “I will admit it is strange someone who had everything going for her would have taken her own life.”

According to NBC News, Mathis also said: “If there was something nefarious, or if there was some foul play involved, we’ll get to the bottom of that.”

The F.B.I. has joined that investigation.

Then, there was the case of 18-year-old Kindra Chapman, arrested on Tuesday in Alabama for allegedly stealing a cellphone.According to AL.com: “Jailers last saw her alive at 6:30 p.m. She was found unresponsive at 7:50 p.m. Authorities said she used a bed sheet to hang herself.” According to the paper, she had been booked in the Homewood City Jail at 6:22 p.m.

The deaths seem odd: young women killing themselves after only being jailed only a few days or a less than a couple hours, before a trial or conviction, for relatively minor crimes.

And the official explanations that they were suicides run counter to prevailing patterns of behavior as documented by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which has found that, on the whole, men are more likely to commit suicide in local jails than women, young people are less likely to do so than older people, and black people are the least likely to do so than any other racial or ethnic group.

That doesn’t mean that these women didn’t commit suicide, but it does help to explain why their coinciding deaths might be hard for people to accept.

Indeed, because state violence echoes through the African-American experience in this country, it is even understandable if black people might occasionally experience a sort of Phantom Lynching Syndrome, having grown so accustomed to the reality of a history of ritualized barbarism that they would sense its presence even in its absence.

We have to wait to see what, if any, new information comes out about these cases. But it is right to resist simple explanations for extraordinary events.

These black women’s live must matter enough for there to be full investigations of the events surrounding their deaths to assure their families and the public that no “foul play” was involved.

Women are not adjuncts to this movement for social justice and the equal valuation of all lives; they are elemental to it.

The same week that news broke about these black women found dead in their jail cells, Google celebrated the 153rd birthday of anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells with a Google Doodle image. There seemed to me a fortuitous righteousness in the timing, an aligning of stars, an act of cosmic symmetry: celebrating a black female civil rights icon at the very moment that black females were the singular focus of the present civil rights movement.

Wells once said: “Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.”

I think that this burden of proof remains, and in this moment has gathered onto itself an increased, incandescent urgency, “like the light from a fire which consumes a witch,” as James Baldwin once phrased it.

In this moment, it falls to many of us to take up the mantle and articulate and illuminate the balance of the sinning against, vs. the sinning, for both black men and women alike.

This week that means investigating the “suicides” of Sandra and Kindra.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

We had not planned to be in Afghanistan for the 1973 coup. In fact we had not planned much of anything. But that’s the way it turned out. When the Afghan king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, was ousted after a 40-year reign, we were in Kandahar in the courtyard of some hotel trying to learn how to ignore the flies. Another guest, who’d mastered the fly trick and attained imperturbability, had a short-wave radio. It picked up the BBC World Service news.

A coup? My two friends and I were on the hippie trail. This was not part of the deal, dude. Even Afghans seemed blown away. They of course had no idea that the overthrow of their monarch would presage decades of unrest in which the Soviet Union would find its quagmire and the United States discover the dangers of a short attention span.

They knew nothing of how the mujahedeen “holy warriors,” schooled in American-backed Wahhabi fundamentalism, would battle Soviet troops until they withdrew to an enfeebled Communist empire, how the Wahhabis would turn on their negligent American patron, how the Taliban would emerge to restore order, or how the United States after 9/11 would fight a long Afghan war with a disastrous Iraqi sidebar.

Nor did we. Afghanistan, even kingless, had majesty. Its coup seemed uneventful. We drove up to Kabul. I think we saw one tank.

The road to Afghanistan from London had led across a Turkey still impenetrable, where only the children smiled, the shah’s Iran, where Mashhad’s cobalt blue mosque made an indelible impression, and the dusty border near Herat, where we first became acquainted with the pride of the Afghan gaze.

Our VW Kombi was called Pigpen, named after the keyboardist of theGrateful Dead who’d died that year. The Dead loomed large, our sunshine daydream. “Truckin”’ was our anthem — until the cassette machine got stolen. Then we strained for the harmonies of “Uncle John’s Band.” In Kabul we had an Ace of Hearts painted on the front of Pigpen.

Up to Bamiyan we went and sat on the heads of the 1,500-year-old Buddhas, since destroyed by the Taliban as “gods of the infidels.” We gazed at the sacred valley. The peace seemed eternal; it would not be. Everything passes except the dream that it will not. In Band-e-Amir, the night sky was of a breathtaking brilliance. On my 18th birthday, I thought I found my star, blotted out the rest, and recalled the line from “Box of Rain” — “Maybe you’ll find direction around some corner where it’s been waiting to meet you.” Later, deep in the Hindu Kush, Pigpen broke down. Like so many before us, we limped out of Afghanistan but we brought the Kombi home. There is much to be said for journeys without maps.

So of course I had to resume the journey earlier this month at Soldier Field in Chicago, where the Grateful Dead sans Jerry Garcia regrouped on their 50th anniversary to bid farewell. I’d last seen them on a Haight-Ashbury pilgrimage in San Francisco in 1974. Well, we’d all changed. Peace signs had not won the day any more than time’s imprint could be effaced. A cynic would take the view that the dollar sign had prevailed. But the magic of the music, in its moments of improvised brilliance, precluded any such heartless reflection. Hugs and hopes of old and young filled the stadium. Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart still did their thing. Listen to “Friend of the Devil” and find yourself back on the road from Herat to Kandahar — four decades, a mere ripple on water.

A Palestinian friend and physician, Sahar Halabi, attended the concert with me. Her odyssey had taken her from Algiers to Liverpool and on to the Midwest. Later, she sent me something she had once written about her search for her family’s home, from which they were ousted in 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence, which Palestinians call their “Nakba,” or catastrophe.

She wrote: “The story of the old large house was a constant in my childhood, not because of the repetition, but because it was a palpable entity which I could almost touch with my imagination. To all of the Palestinian refugees in diaspora, the land of Palestine is not a physical place, only sheer longing.” On a visit to Israel in 2009, she goes back to the place where the house once stood and digs: “The old design of the intertwined blue and red curved lines of the tiles appear, and I understood. These were the tiles of the floors on which my mother took her first unsteady steps.” A fragment is now in her Chicago home.

Fragments, memories, conflicts, the intractability of understanding and the constancy of the Dead: What a long, strange trip it’s been. As Hart said, “I’ll leave you with this: Please, be kind.”

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

There’s a bit of a lull in the news from Europe, but the underlying situation is as terrible as ever. Greece is experiencing a slump worse than the Great Depression, and nothing happening now offers hope of recovery. Spain has been hailed as a success story, because its economy is finally growing — but it still has 22 percent unemployment. And there is an arc of stagnationacross the continent’s top: Finland is experiencing a depression comparable to that in southern Europe, and Denmark and the Netherlands are also doing very badly.

How did things go so wrong? The answer is that this is what happens when self-indulgent politicians ignore arithmetic and the lessons of history. And no, I’m not talking about leftists in Greece or elsewhere; I’m talking about ultra-respectable men in Berlin, Paris, and Brussels, who have spent a quarter-century trying to run Europe on the basis of fantasy economics.

To someone who didn’t know much economics, or chose to ignore awkward questions, establishing a unified European currency sounded like a great idea. It would make doing business across national borders easier, while serving as a powerful symbol of unity. Who could have foreseen the huge problems the euro would eventually cause?

Actually, lots of people. In January 2010 two European economists published an article titled “It Can’t Happen, It’s a Bad Idea, It Won’t Last,” mocking American economists who had warned that the euro would cause big problems. As it turned out, the article was an accidental classic: at the very moment it was being written, all those dire warnings were in the process of being vindicated. And the article’s intended hall of shame — the long list of economists it cites for wrongheaded pessimism — has instead become a sort of honor roll, a who’s who of those who got it more or less right.

The only big mistake of the euroskeptics was underestimating just how much damage the single currency would do.

The point is that it wasn’t at all hard to see, right from the beginning, that currency union without political union was a very dubious project. So why did Europe go ahead with it?

Mainly, I’d say, because the idea of the euro sounded so good. That is, it sounded forward-looking, European-minded, exactly the kind of thing that appeals to the kind of people who give speeches at Davos. Such people didn’t want nerdy economists telling them that their glamorous vision was a bad idea.

Indeed, within Europe’s elite it quickly became very hard to raise objections to the currency project. I remember the atmosphere of the early 1990s very well: anyone who questioned the desirability of the euro was effectively shut out of the discussion. Furthermore, if you were an American expressing doubts you were invariably accused of ulterior motives — of being hostile to Europe, or wanting to preserve the dollar’s “exorbitant privilege.”

And the euro came. For a decade after its introduction a huge financial bubble masked its underlying problems. But now, as I said, all of the skeptics’ fears have been vindicated.

Furthermore, the story doesn’t end there. When the predicted and predictable strains on the euro began, Europe’s policy response was to impose draconian austerity on debtor nations — and to deny the simple logic and historical evidence indicating that such policies would inflict terrible economic damage while failing to achieve the promised debt reduction.

It’s astonishing even now how blithely top European officials dismissed warnings that slashing government spending and raising taxes would cause deep recessions, how they insisted that all would be well because fiscal discipline would inspire confidence. (It didn’t.) The truth is that trying to deal with large debts through austerity alone — in particular, while simultaneously pursuing a hard-money policy — has never worked. It didn’t work for Britain after World War I, despite immense sacrifices; why would anyone expect it to work for Greece?

What should Europe do now? There are no good answers — but the reason there are no good answers is because the euro has turned into a Roach Motel, a trap that’s hard to escape. If Greece still had its own currency, the case for devaluing that currency, improving Greek competitiveness and ending deflation, would be overwhelming.

The fact that Greece no longer has a currency, that it would have to create one from scratch, vastly raises the stakes. My guess is that euro exit will still prove necessary. And in any case it will be essential to write down much of Greece’s debt.

But we’re not having a clear discussion of these options, because European discourse is still dominated by ideas the continent’s elite would like to be true, but aren’t. And Europe is paying a terrible price for this monstrous self-indulgence.

Blow and Kristof

July 16, 2015

Gail Collins is off on book leave.  I sure hope she’s back in time to cover the Clown Car debates…  This morning, in “Trump Builds One Brand and Damages Another,” Mr. Blow says that his true gift is an ability to exploit other people’s emotions, even those whose response to him is revulsion. It’s the art and craft of a demagogue.  In “Dalai Lama Gets Mischievous” Mr. Kristof says the Dalai Lama has a suggestion for China’s Communist leaders: Take up reincarnation.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Donald Trump is exactly what the Republican Party deserves.

The Republican Party has nurtured anti-immigrant, xenophobic nastiness for years, but it has tried to do so, at least at the national level, in language that disguised it as a simple issue of law and order.

Trump has blown all that to bits.

Trump is now leading in the polls as measured by support of likely Republican primary/caucus voters, according to a USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll released this week. Although, it should be noted, he leads with only 17 percentage points in the crowded field, just three points ahead of Jeb Bush, a gap that is still within the poll’s margin of error.

But Trump leading in the polls is all the media needs to allow Trump to also lead the debate. There is nothing a television camera likes more than spectacle.

Let me be clear: Trump will not be the president of the United States. But I firmly believe that Trump not only knows that, he doesn’t want to be president. Trump is brand-building. This is all free publicity for a salesman in the business of selling himself.

In the same USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll, Trump has a staggering unfavorable rating among all voters, including Democrats and independents. According to the newspaper: “In the poll, 61 percent have an unfavorable impression of him and 23 percent a favorable one.” In comparison, “Bush’s favorable-unfavorable rating is 35 percent-42 percent.”

But Trump is milking his moment.

There is a cottage industry among some public people that is breathing new life into the adage “all press is good press.” These people use ignobility as an elevator; they inflame their way to infamy. They get the country talking and their names trending, then they turn that cultural currency into hard currency.

Every minute Trump is on your television screens, it’s good for Trump. Every time Trump’s name is mentioned on social media, it’s good for Trump. Every time someone writes about Trump, it’s good for Trump. This column is good for Trump.

But Trump is an egotist. He is at the center of his own universe. He’s not so much concerned about politics, or his party or the presidency. Trump is good for Trump.

But, what’s good news for the Trump brand could prove disastrous news for the Republican brand.

Trump recently boasted, “I’m, like, a really smart person.” I believe that’s true — not necessarily in the erudite, intellectual sense, but rather in the instinctive, people-reading sense.

When Trump made his campaign announcement last month, he said:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Set aside the fact that he provided no evidence of the Mexican government’s “sending” anyone to this country. Set aside the fact that, asThe Washington Post put it, “data show that new immigrants — including illegal immigrants — are actually less likely to commit crime, not more.”

Facts are not the point for Trump. He spouts so much unsubstantiated idiocy that trying to correct it all would drive any respectable fact-checker mad. Indeed, taking Trump seriously enough to attempt the appropriate fact checks, in a way, only serves to elevate his obvious provocations to serious rhetorical argumentation.

Some corporations distanced themselves from Trump in the wake of his comments, but Trump seems to be making the calculation, probably rightly so, that the business he loses by being in the news is worth less than the free airtime that doing so affords him.

The whole point of Trump’s perfidy is provocation, which is itself a way of positioning him for more profits. Republicans get excited; Trump gets richer. Detractors get angry; Trump gets richer.

This is where his true gifts are on display, this form of emotional intelligence and business acumen, the ability to tap into and exploit other people’s emotions, even those whose response to him is revulsion. This is the art and craft of the demagogue.

You have to see Trump’s statement for what it was: A naked attempt at Willie Horton-izing Mexican immigrants, and thereby the exploiting of the image, substantiated or not, of the brown-bodied predator destroying our country and taking the virtue of our women.

It provides language for people to hide their racism and nativism inside the more honorable shell of civility and chivalry. It allows Trump to tap into anger and call it adulation.

Trump knows how to get a rise out of people, and he’s doing it.

On Sunday, Senator Lindsey Graham, another of the gaggle of Republican presidential candidates, said of Trump on CNN:

“I think he’s hijacked the debate. I think he’s a wrecking ball for the future of the Republican Party with the Hispanic community and we need to push back.”

But the Republican Party isn’t innocent here. Trump isn’t imposing a poisonous view of Hispanics; he’s voicing it. And he’s voicing it in precisely the blunt and noxious terms that a sizable portion of the party feels it and in which they want to hear it discussed.

While some Republicans have sought to distance themselves from Trump, if not completely condemn him, the terrain of those responses has been wobbly. This allows all the more weight to Hillary Clinton’s charge that Republican candidates are “on a spectrum of hostility” when it comes to immigrants.

But there are also Republicans who outright applaud Trump. As Senator Ted Cruz, another Republican presidential candidate, put it:

“When it comes to Donald Trump, I like Donald Trump. I think he’s terrific. I think he’s brash. I think he speaks the truth.”

As long as portions of the Republican Party laud the divisive, fact-challenged Trump as a terrific truth-teller, the party’s brand will continue to sustain incalculable damage, particularly among the vital immigrant population.

There is no need for anyone to have one ounce of sympathy for the G.O.P. Its chicken has come home to roost.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

The Dalai Lama, who may be the only octogenarian spiritual leader with a profoundly mischievous streak, has a suggestion for China’s Communist leaders: Take up reincarnation.

I’m interviewing him in his hotel room in Manhattan, at the end of an overseas tourmarking his 80th birthday, and we’re talking about what happens after he dies. He is the 14th Dalai Lama, each considered a reincarnation of the previous one, and usually after one has died a search is undertaken for an infant to become the next. But he has said that he may be the last of the line, or that the next Dalai Lama might emerge outside Tibet — or might even be a girl.

This talk infuriates Beijing, which is determined to choose the next Dalai Lama (to use as a tool to control Tibet). So, startlingly, the atheists in the Chinese Communist Party have been insisting that Buddhist reincarnation must continue.

“The Chinese Communist Party is pretending that they know more about the reincarnation system than the Dalai Lama,” said the Dalai Lama, laughing. “The Chinese Communists should accept the concept of rebirth. Then they should recognize the reincarnation of Chairman Mao Zedong, then Deng Xiaoping. Then they have the right to involve themselves in the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation.”

The Dalai Lama hinted that he would hold some kind of referendum among Tibetan exiles, and consultations among Tibetans within China, about whether a new Dalai Lama should succeed him. The issue will be formally resolved around his 90th birthday, he said.

One reason to end the line, he suggested, is that a future Dalai Lama might be “naughty” and diminish the position. His biggest concern seems to be that after he dies, China will select a new pet Dalai Lama who may act as a quisling to help the Chinese control Tibet and to give legitimacy to their policies there.

“Sadly, the precedent has been set,” he said, referring to the Panchen Lama, the second most important reincarnated lama in Tibetan Buddhism. After the 10th Panchen Lama died in 1989, China kidnapped the baby chosen by Tibetans as his successor and helped anoint a different child as the 11th Panchen Lama. Nobody knows what happened to the real Panchen Lama.

I admire the Dalai Lama enormously, and in 2007 he bravely used my column to send an important olive branch to Beijing — only to be criticized by fellow Tibetans as too conciliatory, and rejected as insincere by China. But I told him that I also thought there were times when he had been too cautious and had missed opportunities for rapprochement with Beijing. My examples: In the 1980s, when the leaders Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang sought compromise on Tibet; after the 10th Panchen Lama died; and in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.

The Dalai Lama was having none of that — he doesn’t think he missed opportunities. But he acknowledged that Zhao had been sympathetic and added that if Zhao and Hu had not been ousted, “the Tibetan issue would already be solved, no question.”

To my surprise, the Dalai Lama was also enthusiastic about Xi Jinping, the current Chinese leader. He spoke admiringly of Xi’s anticorruption campaign, said Xi’s mother was “very religious, a very devout Buddhist,” and noted Xi himself had spoken positively of Buddhism.

So, President Xi, if you’re reading this, the Dalai Lama would like to visit China. How about an invitation?

I had asked my followers on Twitter and Facebook to suggest questions for the Dalai Lama, and here are his responses to some of the issues they raised:

On the Myanmar Buddhists who have murdered, raped and oppressed Muslims: As he has before, the Dalai Lama strongly condemned the violence. He added: “If Buddha would come at that moment, he definitely would save or protect those Muslims.”

• On eating meat: The Dalai Lama said he had been a pure vegetarian for 20 months but then developed jaundice, so his doctors told him to start eating meat again. He now eats meat twice a week and is vegetarian the rest of the week, he said, but added that he thinks vegetarianism is preferable.

• On Pope Francis: “I admire his stance,” the Dalai Lama said. “He dismissed one German bishop [for too luxurious living]. I was so impressed. I wrote a letter to him. I expressed my admiration.”

• On gender: The Dalai Lama says he considers himself a feminist and would like to see more women leaders because he thinks women are often innately more sensitive and peaceful. “I insist that women should carry a more active role,” he said. “If eventually most of the leaders of different nations are female, maybe we’ll be safer.”

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

July 13, 2015

In “A Bias More Than Skin Deep” Mr. Blow says that despite evidence that racial differences are gradually blurring, racial preferences are very much still with us.  Mr. Cohen considers “The German Question Redux” and says the German model is good for Germans. But imposing it on all Europeans will destroy the union that saved Germany.  Prof. Krugman, in “The Laziness Dogman,” says Jeb Bush is firmly on the side of those who believe that workers must work harder, and affluent “job creators” should be taxed less.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I will never forget the October 2013 feature on National Geographic’s website:

There was a pair of portraits of olive-skinned, ruby-lipped boys, one with a mane of curly black hair, the other with the tendrils of blond curls falling into his face.

The portraits rested above the headline: “The Changing Face of America: We’ve become a country where race is no longer so black or white.” It was about the explosion of interracial marriage in America and how it is likely to impact both our concept of race and the physical appearances of Americans.

As the Pew Research Center pointed out in a 2012 report: “About 15 percent of all new marriages in the United States in 2010 were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity from one another, more than double the share in 1980 (6.7 percent).”

People often think of the browning of America as a factor of immigration or racial/ethnic variances in birth rates, but it must also be considered this way: as a function of interracial coupling and racial identifications.

This freedom and fluidity is, on one level, a beautiful sign of societal progress toward less racial rigidity. But, at the same time, I am left with a nagging question: does this browning represent an overcoming, on some level, of anti-black racism, or a socio-evolutionary sidestepping of it?

As some make choices that challenge the rigid racial caste system in this country — one strictly drawn and enforced, at least in part, to regulate the parameters of freedom and enslavement — is everyone elevated in the process, or are those on the darkest end of the spectrum still subject to a discrimination that is skin-shallow and bone-deep?

How does blackness itself, the obsidian, ethereal blackness of the people who populated my world as a child, fit this shifting paradigm? Is the laughable “postracial” really some strange proxy for “postblack,” as Anna Holmes posited recently in The New York Times Magazine?

Biracial people can have their own challenges adapting to a world that adheres to the illusion of racial purity, in part because their very existence challenges the notion and reveals its ridiculousness.

That must be acknowledged. But what must also be acknowledged is that racial purity itself was an instrument developed for the protection of whiteness from “dilution,” and the furthest one could move from whiteness was blackness.

Blackness was denigrated in direct proportion to the degree that whiteness was preferred or valued as supreme. And on top of this issue of race as defined by color, there is an overlay of gender. In particular, how do women with darker skin fit this paradigm in a culture and world that seem to reflexively conflate lighter-skinned not only with beauty but often withfemininity itself?

I was reminded of this earlier this month when The Washington Post reported on a study about the popularity of multiracial people among online daters.

But even in this openness, there persisted a pro-white/anti-black bias. As The Post pointed out: “Hispanic women preferred men who identified as Hispanic-white above all else. Hispanic men were less selective — they liked Hispanic women, white women and Hispanic-white women about the same. White women responded to white men and Asian-white men the most, followed by Hispanic-white men and black-white men.”

Furthermore, among all groups, according to the study’s co-author, “Men didn’t play racial favorites as much as women did. Except when it comes to black women, who were responded to the least.”

While America’s history in skin-color politics is long and deep, this aversion to darkness — particularly dark femininity — and aspiration to lightness, or even whiteness, isn’t only an American phenomenon. It’s a global sickness informed by history and culture and influenced by colonialism and the export of popular culture.

In 2012, The New York Times ran an article about Chinese women wearing ski masks to the beach to keep from getting darker.

The Guardian reported in 2013 on “India’s obsession with fair skin” that incorporate the use of whitening cleansers that even include “vaginal washes.” As the paper put it: “Last year, Indians reportedly consumed 233 tons of skin-whitening products, spending more money on them than on Coca-Cola.”

And the BBC reported in 2013 that “a recent study by the University of Cape Town suggests that one woman in three in South Africa bleaches her skin”

It seems to me that we as a society — nationally and globally — must find some peace with dark skin itself, to not impute value and character onto color if harmony is truly to be had.

Until that is done, it often feels that we of darker bodies must resist the absorption of oppression and love ourselves defensively, as an equalizer. We must love our dark flesh as an antidote to a world that often disdains it.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Europe, once again at a moment of crisis, faces the quandary of how to deal with German power. The German Question is back.

It has existed, in different forms, since 1945, that moment of complete self-annihilation the Germans call “Stunde nul,” or Zero Hour. How to rebuild the country while keeping it under American tutelage? How to ensure it remained a political pygmy even when it had grown from the ruins to become an economic titan? Whether to reunite it, and how to do so within the framework of NATO and the European Union? How to integrate Germany so completely in Europe that it would never again be tempted to stray down some wayward path, or “Sonderweg”?

By the early 21st century, these issues had been resolved. The United States had helped fashion the German Federal Republic and underwritten its security. The European Union had defused Franco-German enmity, Europe’s perennial scourge; a tacit understanding gave France political primacy even if Germany had the economic muscle.

German unification had been achieved without German neutrality at a moment of Russian weakness and American deftness. A common currency, the euro, had been introduced that obliged Germany to give up the Deutsche mark, revered symbol of recovery, and bound the country’s fortunes irrevocably to the rest of Europe. A united Germany, anchored in the West, its borders undisputed, existed within a Europe whole and free.

The heavy lifting was done. America could lay down its European burden. If a French intellectual had observed in Cold War days that he liked Germany so much he was glad there were two of them, now, slowly, Europeans were getting used to one of them.

But the euro was a poisoned chalice. Conceived to bind Germany to Europe, it instead bound far-weaker European countries to Germany, in what for some, notably Greece, proved an unsustainable straitjacket. It turbo-charged German economic dominance as Berlin’s export machine went to work. It wed countries of far laxer and more flexible Mediterranean culture to German diktats of discipline, predictability and austerity. It produced growing pressure to surrender sovereignty — for a currency union without political union is problematic — and this yielding was inevitably to German power.

Two other developments thrust Germany into the very leadership role its history has taught it to mistrust. France grew weaker. De Gaulle’s all-powerful presidency became an indifferent sort of office presiding over a country of sullen introspection. No fig leaf could disguise that the Franco-German partnership was no longer one of equals. Europe, perhaps to Henry Kissinger’s belated satisfaction, had a phone number — in Angela Merkel’s office.

The second development was that the United States decided it was time to leave Europe to the Europeans. In a matter of war and peace — President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his stirring up of a small war in Eastern Ukraine — Washington is not even a party to the Minsk accords that constitute an attempt to clear up the mess. Germany, of course, is. How times have changed.

Precisely the thing that Germans were most uneasy about, and their neighbors, too, has now occurred. Germany dominates Europe to a degree unimaginable even 15 years ago. When I lived in Berlin around the turn of the century, Germans were still debating whether they could ever be a “normal” country and whether they could ever feel “proud.” Now such rumination just seems quaint. Germany has decided it has no choice but to assume its power.

It wants to use it well. But its domination is stirring resentment, on a massive scale in Greece, where flip references to the Nazis are common; in France, where the feeling has grown that German severity with an already humiliated Greece is overblown; in Italy, where German-imposed austerity is resented; and in other countries of high unemployment and economic stagnation, where old anger toward Germany has not been entirely effaced by the passage of seven decades.

In Britain, the case for staying in the European Union has been complicated by the fact that, as a non-euro country, it will never be part of the inner sanctum of power, the German-dominated eurozone. Anti-European British politicians, not to mention the powerful anti-European Murdoch press, find plenty of fodder with this theme.

Yes, the German Question is back. Is German domination compatible with further European integration or will it prove a fracturing force?

Merkel has tried to tread a fine line between the rage at Greece within her center-right party and her determination to hold the euro — and Europe — together. She has resisted the many German voices saying, “To heck with Greece. Enough!” But, overall, she has erred on the side of the unforgiving imposition of rigidity, austerity and responsibility lessons. German methods are good for Germans. But if Berlin now wants all Europeans to follow those methods, the Europe that offered postwar Germany a path to salvation will break apart.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Americans work longer hours than their counterparts in just about every other wealthy country; we are known, among those who study such things, as the “no-vacation nation.” According to a 2009 study, full-time U.S. workers put in almost 30 percent more hours over the course of a year than their German counterparts, largely because they had only half as many weeks of paid leave. Not surprisingly, work-life balance is a big problem for many people.

But Jeb Bush — who is still attempting to justify his ludicrous claim that he can double our rate of economic growth — says that Americans “need to work longer hours and through their productivity gain more income for their families.”

Mr. Bush’s aides have tried to spin away his remark, claiming that he was only referring to workers trying to find full-time jobs who remain stuck in part-time employment. It’s obvious from the context, however, that this wasn’t what he was talking about. The real source of his remark was the “nation of takers” dogma that has taken over conservative circles in recent years — the insistence that a large number of Americans, white as well as black, are choosing not to work, because they can live lives of leisure thanks to government programs.

You see this laziness dogma everywhere on the right. It was the hidden background to Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent remark. It underlay the furious attacks on unemployment benefits at a time of mass unemployment and on food stamps when they provided a vital lifeline for tens of millions of Americans. It drives claims that many, if not most, workers receiving disability payments are malingerers — “Over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts,” says Senator Rand Paul.

It all adds up to a vision of the world in which the biggest problem facing America is that we’re too nice to fellow citizens facing hardship. And the appeal of this vision to conservatives is obvious: it gives them another reason to do what they want to do anyway, namely slash aid to the less fortunate while cutting taxes on the rich.

Given how attractive the right finds the image of laziness run wild, you wouldn’t expect contrary evidence to make much, if any, dent in the dogma. Federal spending on “income security” — food stamps, unemployment benefits, and pretty much everything else you might call “welfare” except Medicaid — has shown no upward trend as a share of G.D.P.; it surged during the Great Recession and aftermath but quickly dropped back to historical levels. Mr. Paul’s numbers are all wrong, and more broadly disability claims have risen no more than you would expect, given the aging of the population. But no matter, an epidemic of laziness is their story and they’re sticking with it.

Where does Jeb Bush fit into this story? Well before his “longer hours” gaffe, he had professed himself a great admirer of the work of Charles Murray, a conservative social analyst most famous for his 1994 book “The Bell Curve,” which claimed that blacks are genetically inferior to whites. What Mr. Bush seems to admire most, however, is a more recent book, “Coming Apart,” which notes that over the past few decades working-class white families have been changing in much the same way that African-American families changed in the 1950s and 1960s, with declining rates of marriage and labor force participation.

Some of us look at these changes and see them as consequences of an economy that no longer offers good jobs to ordinary workers. This happened to African-Americans first, as blue-collar jobs disappeared from inner cities, but has now become a much wider phenomenon thanks to soaring income inequality. Mr. Murray, however, sees the changes as the consequence of a mysterious decline in traditional values, enabled by government programs which mean that men no longer “need to work to survive.” And Mr. Bush presumably shares that view.

The point is that Mr. Bush’s clumsy call for longer work hours wasn’t a mere verbal stumble. It was, instead, an indication that he stands firmly on the right side of the great divide over what working American families need.

There’s now an effective consensus among Democrats — on display in Hillary Clinton’s planned Monday speech on the economy — that workers need more help, in the form of guaranteed health insurance, higher minimum wages, enhanced bargaining power, and more. Republicans, however, believe that American workers just aren’t trying hard enough to improve their situation, and that the way to change that is to strip away the safety net while cutting taxes on wealthy “job creators.”

And while Jeb Bush may sometimes sound like a moderate, he’s very much in line with the party consensus. If he makes it to the White House, the laziness dogma will rule public policy.

Well…  Jeb! has had his 47% moment early…

Blow and Krugman

June 29, 2015

In “My Murdered Cousin Had a Name” Mr. Blow tells us that for people who were both black and gay, obstacles were everywhere in years past.  In “Greece Over the Brink” Prof. Krugman says ever-harsher austerity has been a dead end, and those who demand more of it have been wrong every step of the way.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Friday, for me, was a bit surreal. As America was celebrating the victory of marriage equality at the Supreme Court, it was also mourning black people in South Carolina murdered by a white supremacist.

All the while I thought about a cousin of mine who was murdered years ago. We grew up in the same segregated Louisiana hamlet of about a thousand people. Everyone said that he was gay (only they used pejoratives in place of that word) because of the way he carried himself and the fact that he didn’t date women or marry one.

However, he never addressed his sexuality in my presence. It was not a thing that in that time and place one proclaimed. Small, rural communities like ours maintained their own, unwritten Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell protocols. He simply lived by his own terms.

And yet, my cousin’s difference became more evident to me when he started to stop by the small upholstery shop down the street where one of my brothers was an apprentice and where I sometimes visited.

As I wrote in my memoir, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”:

“Lawrence felt at ease coming to the shop and saying things there that he didn’t say elsewhere, the air always pregnant with a ‘maybe.’ Maybe he was flirting. Maybe not. If he went too far, maybe that would be okay. Maybe he was being mocked. Maybe he was being entertaining. Maybe, just maybe. He knew the things he was saying were dangerous, because just being himself was dangerous. He was operating outside the rules.”

Others like Lawrence hid more or lived in repression more.

“But not Lawrence. He wouldn’t pretend. He wouldn’t hide.”

In the book I called him Lawrence, but that was not his name. One of my mother’s only requests was that I change everyone’s names. She was expressly worried about publishing “Lawrence’s” name. I acquiesced.

You see, more than a decade after I remember him coming to the upholstery shop, he was found murdered — tied to a bed — in a neighboring town. The gossip was that his life had been taken because of the way he had lived it. To my knowledge, no one was ever charged with that murder. Such were the dangers of being both black and different.

In a 1984 interview, when my cousin and I both still lived in that small town, James Baldwin was asked about the roots of homophobia. He responded: “Terror, I suppose. Terror of the flesh.”

But when living black gayness, or any similar otherness, in America, that terror of flesh is doubled. You are on the margins of the margin.

For, you see, even in gayness, blackness is set apart. As Baldwin put it:

“A black gay person who is a sexual conundrum to society is already, long before the question of sexuality comes into it, menaced and marked because he’s black or she’s black. The sexual question comes after the question of color; it’s simply one more aspect of the danger in which all black people live.”

Baldwin concluded:

“The gay world as such is no more prepared to accept black people than anywhere else in society.”

My cousin’s life and death underscored this duality for me:

“Five years after Lawrence was tied to the bed and killed, Matthew Shepard, a young, white, openly gay man, was tied to a fence and killed in a small Wyoming city. While Lawrence’s death hardly made the local papers, Matthew’s provoked an international outcry. That discrepancy would haunt me.”

My cousin’s name was Larry, and he was kind and beautiful and brave and worthy. That name, more than ever, deserves to be written, spoken, celebrated, not because he was famous or because he lived a remarkable life. It deserves to be spoken because he did not. His anonymity gives his name all the more power, because he could have been anyone.

Larry lived a kind of amplified erasure: black and nonhetero-normative. And, he lived it as boldly as he could at a time when it was dangerous to do so and in a place where there was little support or protection.

I wish that Larry had survived to see a time when the country was fighting to affirm both parts of his identity, fighting to acknowledge that his black life mattered and his love life mattered. I wish he had lived to see more people come to understand the intersectionality of oppression — that racism and homophobia are born of the same beast.

I wish he could have lived to proudly proclaim his difference and have his halves reconciled.

I wish he had lived to see the day that society — and indeed the law — didn’t attempt to diminish a person’s dignity based on how they articulated the parameters of their attraction or lived the reality of their intimacy.

I wish he had lived to see a black president eulogize a black man killed and also advocate for the full and rich lives that L.G.B.T.Q. people live. I wish Larry had lived to see Friday.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

It has been obvious for some time that the creation of the euro was a terrible mistake. Europe never had the preconditions for a successful single currency — above all, the kind of fiscal and banking union that, for example, ensures that when a housing bubble in Florida bursts, Washington automatically protects seniors against any threat to their medical care or their bank deposits.

Leaving a currency union is, however, a much harder and more frightening decision than never entering in the first place, and until now even the Continent’s most troubled economies have repeatedly stepped back from the brink. Again and again, governments have submitted to creditors’ demands for harsh austerity, while the European Central Bank has managed to contain market panic.

But the situation in Greece has now reached what looks like a point of no return. Banks are temporarily closed and the government has imposed capital controls — limits on the movement of funds out of the country. It seems highly likely that the government will soon have to start payingpensions and wages in scrip, in effect creating a parallel currency. And next week the country will hold a referendum on whether to accept the demands of the “troika” — the institutions representing creditor interests — for yet more austerity.

Greece should vote “no,” and the Greek government should be ready, if necessary, to leave the euro.

To understand why I say this, you need to realize that most — not all, but most — of what you’ve heard about Greek profligacy and irresponsibility is false. Yes, the Greek government was spending beyond its means in the late 2000s. But since then it has repeatedly slashed spending and raised taxes. Government employment has fallen more than 25 percent, and pensions (which were indeed much too generous) have been cut sharply. If you add up all the austerity measures, they have been more than enough to eliminate the original deficit and turn it into a large surplus.

So why didn’t this happen? Because the Greek economy collapsed, largely as a result of those very austerity measures, dragging revenues down with it.

And this collapse, in turn, had a lot to do with the euro, which trapped Greece in an economic straitjacket. Cases of successful austerity, in which countries rein in deficits without bringing on a depression, typically involve large currency devaluations that make their exports more competitive. This is what happened, for example, in Canada in the 1990s, and to an important extent it’s what happened in Iceland more recently. But Greece, without its own currency, didn’t have that option.

So have I just made the case for “Grexit” — Greek exit from the euro? Not necessarily. The problem with Grexit has always been the risk of financial chaos, of a banking system disrupted by panicked withdrawals and of business hobbled both by banking troubles and by uncertainty over the legal status of debts. That’s why successive Greek governments have acceded to austerity demands, and why even Syriza, the ruling leftist coalition, was willing to accept the austerity that has already been imposed. All it asked for was, in effect, a standstill on further austerity.

But the troika was having none of it. It’s easy to get lost in the details, but the essential point now is that Greece has been presented with a take-it-or-leave-it offer that is effectively indistinguishable from the policies of the past five years.

This is, and presumably was intended to be, an offer Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, can’t accept, because it would destroy his political reason for being. The purpose must therefore be to drive him from office, which will probably happen if Greek voters fear confrontation with the troika enough to vote yes next week.

But they shouldn’t, for three reasons. First, we now know that ever-harsher austerity is a dead end: after five years Greece is in worse shape than ever. Second, much and perhaps most of the feared chaos from Grexit has already happened. With banks closed and capital controls imposed, there’s not that much more damage to be done.

Finally, acceding to the troika’s ultimatum would represent the final abandonment of any pretense of Greek independence. Don’t be taken in by claims that troika officials are just technocrats explaining to the ignorant Greeks what must be done. These supposed technocrats are in fact fantasists who have disregarded everything we know about macroeconomics, and have been wrong every step of the way. This isn’t about analysis, it’s about power — the power of the creditors to pull the plug on the Greek economy, which persists as long as euro exit is considered unthinkable.

So it’s time to put an end to this unthinkability. Otherwise Greece will face endless austerity, and a depression with no hint of an end.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

June 25, 2015

In “Confederate Flags and Institutional Racism” Mr. Blow says taking down symbols is well and good. But we are focusing on the 10 percent of the iceberg above the water and not the 90 percent below.  Mr. Kristof says “Tearing Down the Confederate Flag Is Just a Start” and that he’s all for celebrating the drawing down of the flag, but now let’s pivot from symbolic moves to substantial ones.  Ms. Collins is “Poking the Republican Pyramid” and says the field of presidential candidates is full of past and present governors with records worth considering.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

In the wake of the Charleston massacre, there is a rapidly growing consensus sweeping the country to remove the Confederate flag, a relic of racial divisiveness, from civic spaces.

Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina has called for its removal from the grounds of that state’s capitol.

Alabama’s governor, Robert Bentley, has used executive powers to take down Confederate flags at that state’s capitol grounds.

As The Associated Press reported Wednesday:

“U.S. Senator Roger Wicker became Mississippi’s second top-tier Republican to call for changing the flag that state has used since Reconstruction. Wicker said it ‘should be put in a museum and replaced by one that is more unifying.’”

“Lawmakers in Tennessee said a bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest must go from their Senate. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe was among several state leaders taking aim at vanity license plates with Confederate symbols.”

Furthermore:

“Wal-Mart, e-Bay, Amazon, Target and Sears were among those removing Confederate merchandise from stores and online sites, and at least three major flag makers said they will no longer manufacture the Confederate flag.”

All of this is well and good. We should move overt symbols of racial division to places like museums, where they can be displayed in proper context and where education is part of the mission.

And yet, there is a part of me that still believes we are focusing on the 10 percent of the iceberg above the water and not the 90 percent below.

When do we move from our consensus over taking down symbols to the much harder and more important work of taking down structures?

I worry much less about individual expressions of racism than I do about institutional expressions of racism. And we live in an age where people are earnestly trying to convince us that institutional racism doesn’t exist.

In an interview for the podcast “WTF With Marc Maron,” President Obama used a racial slur to make the point that eliminating the use of such language from polite society wasn’t the “measure of whether racism still exists or not.”

The slur got most of the attention; far less was devoted to the point the president was making about the resilience of institutional, intergenerational racism.

As the president put it: “It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened” 200 to 300 years ago.

This is not to deny progress, but only to point out that the process isn’t complete. It is to point out that overt displays of racism are not the appropriate measure thereof. Focus less on the individual and more on the institutions.

Yet The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page this week juxtaposed Civil Rights-era institutional racism with our present day environment to argue that institutional racism no longer exists in this country.

According to The Journal: “Back then and before, the institutions of government — police, courts, organized segregation — often worked to protect perpetrators of racially motivated violence, rather than their victims.”

It continued: “Today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists.”

The Fox News contributor Monica Crowley said this week on “The O’Reilly Factor”:

“Are there individual racists in this country? Sadly, yes. Does institutional racism exist anymore? No, it does not.”

She continued:

“We’ve got to understand that when we talk about racists or racism in America, it is not created by government action or codified law or social acceptance. O.K. But you have people on the far left who believe that America is a nation that was founded on genocide, theft, crimes and lies.”

“Slavery,” Bill O’Reilly sighed.

“Slavery,” Crowley agreed.

On Fox News’s “Hannity,” after the contributor Deneen Borelli said of the president, “I have dubbed him today Rapper in Chief,” the guest host David Webb posed the question to another guest: “Is America institutionally racist, that’s racism which requires codified law, a social acceptance, societal acceptance — and we know that racists, racists will always exist. Bias, prejudice in some form, black, white, in any form will always exist. Is America institutionally racist or are there racists in America?”

As if the two are necessarily mutually exclusive.

Webb later answered his own question: “I say we’re not.”

All of these definitions of institutional racism are incredibly narrow, and therefore take an incredibly myopic view of what institutional racism looks like. These definitions require a sort of direct discrimination, an articulation either in law or custom, to be deemed real.

But institutional racism will not be limited in that way. Institutional racism is often like a pathogen in the blood: You can’t see it; you have to test for it. But you can see its destructive effects as it sickens the host.

Furthermore, institutional racism doesn’t require the enlisting of individual racists. The machine does the discriminating. It provides a remove, a space, between the unpleasantness of racial discrimination — and indeed hatred — and the ultimate, undeniable and, for some, desirable outcome of structural oppression.

I prefer the Aspen Institute’s definition: “Institutional racism refers to the policies and practices within and across institutions that, intentionally or not, produce outcomes that chronically favor, or put a racial group at a disadvantage.”

Yet institutional racism’s defenders — or more precisely, its concealers — demand an articulated proof for something that moves in silence. They demand to see chapter and verse for something that is unwritten. They demand to know the names of the individual architects of a structure built subconsciously over time by each member of the vast multitudes adding their own bit, like beavers adding branches to a dam.

Institutional racism isn’t so much a grand design as it is an accumulation of racial detritus.

Symbols are important. Those Confederate flags must come down. That will be a spiritual victory. But we must not stop there. Institutional racism is the real prize on this hunt. Bring that down and cheers can truly go up.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Suppose African-Americans marked their heritage with flags depicting Nat Turner’s rebellion of 1831, in which slaves massacred about 60 whites before the uprising was crushed? The flag wouldn’t be celebrating the murder of whites, of course, but would simply commemorate a factual milestone in black history!

Suppose Mexican-Americans waved a flag depicting the battle of the Alamo? The point would not be to celebrate the slaughter of Texans, but to express pride in Mexican heritage!

Suppose Canadian-Americans displayed a flag showing the burning of the White House in the War of 1812? Nothing against the Yanks, mind you — just a point of Canadian historical pride!

Suppose American women waved flags of Lorena Bobbitt, who reacted to domestic abuse in 1993 by severing her husband’s penis and throwing it into a field? The aim wouldn’t be to approve of sexual mutilation, of course — but Bobbitt’s subsequent acquittal was a landmark in the recognition of domestic violence!

Well, you get the point. That’s how the Confederate battle flag looked to many of us. And at least Nat Turner was fighting for his own freedom, while the Confederate battle flag was the banner of those who fought freedom, defended slavery, clubbed civil rights workers — and, most recently, murdered black churchgoers. And it’s exhilarating to see the same distaste expressed in the Southern mainstream.

“The Confederate battle flag was the emblem of Jim Crow defiance to the civil rights movement, of the Dixiecrat opposition to integration, and of the domestic terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan,” noted Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention. “White Christians ought to think about what that flag says to our African-American brothers and sisters.”

The last year has brought a far-reaching conversation about race in America. But much of that conversation seemed polarizing more than clarifying, leaving each side more entrenched than ever — so it’s thrilling to see a wave of action now.

South Carolina may finally remove the flag from the State House grounds, Alabama has removed four Confederate flags from its state Capitol grounds, and Mississippi may also take a Confederate battle cross off the state flag. Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland and North Carolina seem poised to keep the Confederate flag off license plates. A bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, is expected to be evicted from the Tennessee State House. Walmart, Sears, Amazon, e-Bay and other retailers will no longer sell Confederate merchandise.

So we’re finally seeing not just conversation but movement.

But the movement is in some ways chimerical. It’s about a symbol — and now the progress on the symbol needs to be matched by progress on racial inequality in daily life.

America’s greatest shame in 2015 is not a piece of cloth. It’s that a black boy has a life expectancy five years shorter than a white boy. It’s that the net worth of the average black household in 2011 was $6,314, compared with $110,500 for the average white household, according to census data.

It’s that almost two-thirds of black children grow up in low-income families. It’s that more than one-third of inner-city black kids suffer lead poisoning (and thus often lifelong brain impairment), mostly from old lead paint in substandard housing.

More consequential than that flag is our flawed system of school finance that perpetuates inequity. Black students in America are much less likely than whites to attend schools offering advanced science and math courses.

The one public system in which America goes out of its way to provide services to African-Americans is prison. Partly because of our disastrous experiment in mass incarceration, black men in their 20s without a high school diploma are more likely to be incarcerated than employed, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

So I’m all for celebrating the drawing down of the Confederate battle flag, but now let’s pivot from symbolic moves to substantial ones.

That means, for example, early childhood programs, which offer the most cost-effective interventions to create a more even starting line. These include home visitation, high-quality preschool and literacy programs.

A Stanford University randomized trial examined a simple, inexpensive program called Ready4K!, which simply sent three text messages a week to parents to encourage them to read to their preschoolers — and it was astonishingly successful. Parents read more to children, who then experienced learning gains — and this was particularly true of black and Hispanic children. And because this was text messaging, the cost was less than $1 a family for the whole school year.

So, sure, good riddance to Confederate flags across the country! And then let’s swivel to address the larger national disgrace: In 2015, so many children still don’t have an equal shot at life because of the color of their skin.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Is it my imagination, or are half the governors in the country running for president?

On the Republican side they’re piling up like … those huge stacks of walruses we see off the coast of Alaska now that there’s global warming. A stack of governors! Different from the walruses only in 1) lack of tusks, and 2) failure to believe that melting ice floes are a serious problem.

This week Bobby Jindal (Louisiana). Next week maybe Chris Christie (New Jersey). Sometime in July, Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and probably John Kasich (Ohio). We’ve already got a bunch of former governors in the race, like Jeb Bush (Florida) and Rick Perry (Texas). The guys who are still in office have been stalling, attempting to disguise their total disinterest in their current jobs until a state budget is passed. Although Walker, in a stroke of true political genius, has decided that really means the day the budget is supposed to be passed.

That’s Wisconsin’s problem. Our question for today is what we can learn about our own national priorities from the governor-candidates God has given us.

Almost all governors brag about their economic development programs — hey, it’s economic development! But we could have an excellent conversation about how often these things really work. They’re frequently huge, thudding wastes of money. Louisiana, for instance, covers about a third of the in-state production costs for any movie that’s filmed there, a policy that will pay off only if it turns out that tourists visit New Orleans just because it was the site of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

“Louisiana sank more into ‘Green Lantern’ than it is putting into the University of New Orleans this year,” a state paper noted in December.

Next door in Texas, then-Gov. Rick Perry claimed that his Texas Enterprise Fund created more than 12,000 jobs with a $50 million investment in an institute for genomic medicine. It was actually more like 10 jobs once you stopped counting every single biotech job created anywhere in the entire state for the previous six years.

In Florida, when Jeb Bush was governor, he came up with a plan for biotech corridors that would spawn tens of thousands of jobs, transforming the state just the way Disney World did in the 1970s, except possibly without any pirates. Reuters studied the results and estimated that Florida state and local governments had anted up $1.32 billion and generated 1,365 jobs, or $1 million per new employee.

Often, the goal of these programs is to simply lure a business from one state to another. Then we get a battle of the tax breaks, creating a hole that will have to be filled by you, the ordinary taxpayer.

Ohio, home of potential presidential candidate John Kasich, offered Sears a $400 million deal to ditch Illinois and move to Columbus. Sears decided to stay put after the Illinois Legislature passed a super-emergency $275 million counteroffer. One economics professor suggested the company should pay Ohio a 10 percent commission.

“We’re disappointed that it didn’t work out,” Kasich said in a statement. “But it is very exciting that Ohio was in serious contention up to the very end, and that it took a special session of the Illinois Legislature to beat us.”

Honestly, this kind of thing ought to be unconstitutional.

The great irony here is that finding the lowest taxes generally isn’t a top business priority. What companies really want is to be near suppliers and markets. Maybe occasionally the C.E.O.’s house. “As a part of business cost structure, state and local taxes are about 2 percent,” said Greg LeRoy, the executive director of Good Jobs First, a nonprofit that tracks these programs.

But tax cuts do help make friends. In Wisconsin, the State Economic Development Corporation board — which Scott Walker used to lead — approved a $6 million tax credit for Ashley Furniture Industries, whose owners forked over $20,000 to Walker’s re-election campaign. As The Wisconsin State Journal reported, in return for the tax credit, Ashley Furniture promised to expand the company headquarters and keep at least half of its current jobs in the state for the next five years. Doesn’t that sound like a kind of low bar?

Under Chris Christie, New Jersey has handed out $630 million to get companies to move jobs to the woebegone city of Camden. Which would seem like a worthy goal, except that most of the jobs in question were already in the state — in fact, frequently in an adjoining neighborhood. “Most of the jobs coming to Camden are filled by existing employees who currently work just a few miles away,” reported The Associated Press. “Nearly all the recipients boast notable political connections.”

I think we have a topic. Nudge the governor pile and let the debate begin.

Blow and Krugman

June 22, 2015

In “In Charleston, A Millennial Race Terrorist” Mr. Blow says some are even hesitant to call the Charleston killings a hate crime, despite many signs that it was that and more.  Prof. Krugman, in “Slavery’s Long Shadow,” says despite changing attitudes on several fronts, race in America is an issue that won’t go away.  And today the New York Times is reporting that the campaigns of Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum and Rand Paul got donations from the leader of an extremist group tied to Dylann Roof, the suspected gunman in the attack at a church in Charleston.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

“You don’t have to do this,” said Tywanza Sanders to the young man who suddenly rose and drew a gun, and according to witnesses, said he was there “to shoot black people.”

He had been sitting in the Bible study session at Charleston, S.C.’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church for an hour, next to the pastor, debating scripture.

Dylann Storm Roof, the unassuming, boyish-looking man with the bowl-cut hair, replied: “Yes. You are raping our women and taking over the country.”

Then he “took aim at the oldest person present, Susie Jackson, 87.” This according to Sanders’s cousin, Kristen Washington, as reported in The New York Times.

Roof opened fire, killing nine; Jackson was the eldest slain, and her nephew, Sanders, the youngest at 26. Four of the dead were reverends — one of whom was the church’s pastor, a South Carolina state senator, Clementa Pinckney.

This was a savage act of barbarism by a young man baptized in a theology of race hate.

There are so many threads to pull on this story that one hardly knows where to begin, but let’s begin here: Roof was only 21 years old. He is a millennial race terrorist. Roof was born in 1994, 30 years after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law.

He had a white power flag fetish. He was once pictured wearing a jacket emblazoned with an apartheid-era South African flag and another flag of “Rhodesia, as modern-day Zimbabwe was called during a period of white rule,”according to The Times. Apartheid ended the year Roof was born, and Rhodesia became Zimbabwe long before that.

Who radicalized Roof? Who passed along the poison? We must never be lulled into a false belief that racism is dying off with older people. As I’ve written in this space before, Spencer Piston, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University, has found that “younger (under-30) whites are just as likely as older ones to view whites as more intelligent and harder-working than African-Americans.”

Racism is to social progress what cockroaches are to nuclear fallout — extraordinarily resilient.

Furthermore, there is a widely published photo of Roof sitting on his car with an ornamental license plate with Confederate flags on it. That is the same Confederate flag that flies on the grounds of the state Capitol. What signal is South Carolina sending?

There is the thread of couching his cowardice as chivalry, framing his selfish hatred as noble altruism in defense of white femininity from the black brute. So much black blood has been spilled and so many black necks noosed in the name of protecting white femininity, and by extension, white purity. Roof is only this trope’s latest instrument.

Then there is the question of whether to call this terrorism. Terrorism, as commonly defined, suggests that the act must have some political motivation. (By defining it this way, we conveniently exclude that long legacy of racial terrorism as a political tool of intimidation and control in this country.) And yet, this case may even reach that bar.

Reuters reported Friday that the case “is being investigated by the Justice Department as a possible case of domestic terrorism.” But whether it reaches the legal definition of domestic terrorism (it has already passed the common sense definition), some conservatives have even been reticent to call it a hate crime, which it surely is, rather preferring to twist this massacre into their quixotic crusade to establish evidence of a war on Christianity in this country.

On Fox News’s “Fox and Friends,” one host called the killings “a horrifying attack on faith.”

Another anchor on the show chimed in, responding to the comments of a guest: “Extraordinarily, they called it a hate crime. Uh, and some look at it as, ‘Well, it’s because it was a white guy, apparently, and a black church,’ but you made a great point just a moment ago about the hostility towards Christians. And it was a church! So, maybe that’s what they’re talking about. They haven’t explained it to us.”

Oh Fox, there is so much that needs explaining to you. First, Roof was a member of a Lutheran church in Columbia, S.C. As Rev. Tony Metze of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church confirmed to the Huffington Post, “He was on the roll of our congregation.” Lutheranism is one of the branches of Protestant Christianity.

Beyond that, according to CNN, “a friend recalled a drunken Roof ranting one night about his unspecified six-month plan ‘to do something crazy’ in order ‘to start a race war.’ ”

CNN also reported that Roof confessed his intention to cause a race war to investigators. This wasn’t a war on Christianity, but a war on black people.

Roof was a young man radicalized to race hatred who reportedly wanted to start a race war and who killed nine innocent people as his opening salvo. If that’s not terrorism, we need to redefine the term.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

America is a much less racist nation than it used to be, and I’m not just talking about the still remarkable fact that an African-American occupies the White House. The raw institutional racism that prevailed before the civil rights movement ended Jim Crow is gone, although subtler discrimination persists. Individual attitudes have changed, too, dramatically in some cases. For example, as recently as the 1980s half of Americans opposed interracial marriage, a position now held by only a tiny minority.

Yet racial hatred is still a potent force in our society, as we’ve just been reminded to our horror. And I’m sorry to say this, but the racial divide is still a defining feature of our political economy, the reason America is unique among advanced nations in its harsh treatment of the less fortunate and its willingness to tolerate unnecessary suffering among its citizens.

Of course, saying this brings angry denials from many conservatives, so let me try to be cool and careful here, and cite some of the overwhelming evidence for the continuing centrality of race in our national politics.

My own understanding of the role of race in U.S. exceptionalism was largely shaped by two academic papers.

The first, by the political scientist Larry Bartels, analyzed the move of the white working class away from Democrats, a move made famous in Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Mr. Frank argued that working-class whites were being induced to vote against their own interests by the right’s exploitation of cultural issues. But Mr. Bartels showed that the working-class turn against Democrats wasn’t a national phenomenon — it was entirely restricted to the South, where whites turned overwhelmingly Republican after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Richard Nixon’s adoption of the so-called Southern strategy.

And this party-switching, in turn, was what drove the rightward swing of American politics after 1980. Race made Reaganism possible. And to this day Southern whites overwhelmingly vote Republican, to the tune of 85 or even 90 percent in the deep South.

The second paper, by the economists Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote, was titled “Why Doesn’t the United States Have a European-style Welfare State?” Its authors — who are not, by the way, especially liberal — explored a number of hypotheses, but eventually concluded that race is central, because in America programs that help the needy are all too often seen as programs that help Those People: “Within the United States, race is the single most important predictor of support for welfare. America’s troubled race relations are clearly a major reason for the absence of an American welfare state.”

Now, that paper was published in 2001, and you might wonder if things have changed since then. Unfortunately, the answer is that they haven’t, as you can see by looking at how states are implementing — or refusing to implement — Obamacare.

For those who haven’t been following this issue, in 2012 the Supreme Court gave individual states the option, if they so chose, of blocking the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid, a key part of the plan to provide health insurance to lower-income Americans. But why would any state choose to exercise that option? After all, states were being offered a federally-funded program that would provide major benefits to millions of their citizens, pour billions into their economies, and help support their health-care providers. Who would turn down such an offer?

The answer is, 22 states at this point, although some may eventually change their minds. And what do these states have in common? Mainly, a history of slaveholding: Only one former member of the Confederacy has expanded Medicaid, and while a few Northern states are also part of the movement, more than 80 percent of the population in Medicaid-refusing America lives in states that practiced slavery before the Civil War.

And it’s not just health reform: a history of slavery is a strong predictor of everything from gun control (or rather its absence), to low minimum wages and hostility to unions, to tax policy.

So will it always be thus? Is America doomed to live forever politically in the shadow of slavery?

I’d like to think not. For one thing, our country is growing more ethnically diverse, and the old black-white polarity is slowly becoming outdated. For another, as I said, we really have become much less racist, and in general a much more tolerant society on many fronts. Over time, we should expect to see the influence of dog-whistle politics decline.

But that hasn’t happened yet. Every once in a while you hear a chorus of voices declaring that race is no longer a problem in America. That’s wishful thinking; we are still haunted by our nation’s original sin.

Blow and Kristof

June 18, 2015

In “The Delusions of Dolezal” Mr. Blow says her performance of blackness may have been born of affinity, but was based on a lie. It’s a spectacular exercise in hubris, narcissism and deflection.  Mr. Kristof, in “Malachi’s World,” says this year’s win-a-trip journey starts with a stop in Baltimore to look at some of the challenges presented by poverty here at home.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Rachel Dolezal, a woman with no known black heritage, has apparently, through an elaborate scheme of deception and denial, claimed for years to be a product of black heritage.

This has sparked a national conversation about how race is constructed and enforced, to what extent it is cultural and experiential, and whether it is mutable and adoptable.

If this were simply a matter of a person appreciating, emulating or even appropriating the presentation and performance of a race other than the one society prescribes to her based simply on her appearance, it wouldn’t be a story.

But this isn’t simply that. This is about privilege, deceitful performance and a tortured attempt to avoid truth and confession by co-opting the language of struggle, infusing labyrinthine logic with the authority of the academy, and coat-tailing very real struggles of transgender people and transracial adoptees to defend one’s deception.

This is a spectacular exercise in hubris, narcissism and deflection.

And we have been distracted from real conversation about real things in order to try to contextualize a false life based on a false premise. For a moment, blackface seemed to matter more than actual black lives.

On this issue of appearance, Ezra Dolezal, her adopted brother, hasdescribed her transformation as a form of “blackface.” When Matt Lauer asked, “Have you done something to darken your complexion?” she responded, “I certainly don’t stay out of the sun.” (TMZ reportedWednesday that according to their “tanning sources,” Dolezal was a “loyal customer at Palm Beach Tan in Spokane” and “was a fan of Mystic Tan…a brand of spray tan.” Make of all that what you will.)

Dolezal added: “This is not some freak ‘Birth of a Nation’ mockery blackface performance. This is on a very real, connected level.”

Full stop. Let’s just marvel at the efficient catchphrase saturation in those sentences. She takes the whole universe of possible attacks and issues them in her own tongue as a method of neutralizing them. It is a clever, if calculated, bit of argumentation, the kind that one might practice in a mirror.

But Dolezal didn’t stop there. She also told the MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, “I have really gone there with the experience, in terms of being a mother of two black sons and really owning what it means to experience and live blackness.”

Yes, but she did so by choice and with a trap door. She was always aware that she could remove her weave and stop tanning (assuming that’s true) and return to what society registers as whiteness. People of actual black heritage don’t have that option. Her sons don’t have that option. And make no mistake: Having that option is a privilege.

The whole notion of “transracial” as it has been applied to Dolezal is flawed in part because it isn’t equally available to all.

Whiteness in this country has historically been incredibly narrowly drawn to protect its purity, and this was not simply enforced by social mores, but also by law. Conversely, blackness was broadly drawn, serving as something of a collecting pool for anyone with even the most minute detectable and provable Negro ancestry. If you weren’t 100 percent white, you were black.

This meant that society became accustomed to blackness presenting visually in an infinite spectrum of possibilities, from pass-for-white lightness to obsidian darkness lacking all ambiguity.

This means that the way Dolezal was able to convincingly present and perform blackness as a light-skinned black woman is a form of one-directional privilege that simply isn’t available to a black person starting at the other end of the melanin spectrum.

Racial passing has been a societal feature probably for as long as race has been a societal construct. But it was more often practiced by a person who was not purely white by heritage passing herself or himself off as such. In some ways, this may have been understandable, even if distasteful, as these people identified as white in a society that privileged whiteness and devalued, diminished or attempted to destroy — both spiritually and physically — others.

Choosing a life of privilege over one of oppression must have seemed particularly attractive to some, particularly to those whose parents are different races and who, one could argue, could make the most compelling case to identify with whichever parent’s heritage they chose.

But Dolezal wasn’t passing in that sense. She was commandeering and concocting a biography of burden to obscure the shift and lay claim to authenticity.

According to a report in The Washington Post, however, the transracial-adoption (“when a child of one race is adopted by the family of another”) community has not taken kindly to being linked to Dolezal’s deception. Kimberly McKee, the assistant director of the Korean-American Adoptee Adoptive Parent Network and a professor at Grand Valley State University where she studies transracial adoption, told The Post, “You’re turning something that is a historical experience into something that’s almost being made a joke.”

A letter signed by McKee and 21 other scholars and advocates made the point even more forcefully: “We find the misuse of ‘transracial,’ describing the phenomenon of a white woman assuming perceived markers of ‘blackness’ in order to pass as ‘black,’ to be erroneous, ahistorical, and dangerous.”

Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find scientific support for transracialism, as it is being applied for Dolezal’s deception and identity, as a legitimate area of serious inquiry beyond a sociological phenomenon.

How can one be born discordant with a racial identity if race is a more socialized construct than rigid, biological demarcation and determinism? In other words, how can one be born discordant with an experience one has yet to have?

At best, this appears to be an issue of having an affinity for a culture that grows around a social construct. That is because, to my sense of it, cultural race identity has more scientific grounding than biological race identity, and those cultures of racial identity are in fact a response to the structure itself. Some people perform in response to their privilege and others to their lack thereof.

In that regard, one can not only like and want to emulate the look of another racial group (though, one must be ever-questioning of oneself as to what motivates this, making sure that it isn’t the outgrowth self-hatred), but one can even prefer the culture that developed around that look.

But changing appearance and even cross-cultural immersion doesn’t alter the architecture of race that gave birth to and reinforced those differences in the first place.

Dolezal’s performance of blackness may have been born of affinity, but it was based on a lie — one she has never sufficiently recanted — and her feeble attempts to use professorial language and faux-intellectual obfuscations only add insult to the cultural injury.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Baltimore:

Meet Malachi, a charming toddler I met here.

The first puzzle was that Malachi, at the age of 2 years and 4 months, still doesn’t speak. He says only two words: “no” and “ouch.” He doesn’t say “mom” or “dad.”

That leads to the second puzzle: Where are his mom and dad?

Candace Williams, 26, Malachi’s caregiver, seems to be doing a fine job. She says that Malachi’s mom, who lives in York, Pa., has 11 children and a drug problem and left him with her.

Williams says the mom periodically asked her to look after Malachi but then wasn’t very diligent about picking him up. “I would have him for months at a time,” Williams recalled.

Then, on the boy’s second birthday in February, Williams dropped by to wish him well. She says she found food and knives on the floor and the house in chaos. At that point, she says, the mom handed her the boy. As far as Williams is concerned, Malachi is now her child to raise, although she has no papers to document that.

And the boy’s father? He is in prison for a drug-related offense, Williams said.

As for his inability to speak, that may be because he has tested positive for lead poisoning — an echo of Freddie Gray, the black man whose arrest and subsequent death sparked the rioting in Baltimore. As a child, Gray also suffered from lead poisoning.

It should be a scandal that lead (mostly from old paint) still poisons 535,000 children in the United States from ages 1 to 5, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disproportionately affecting poor children, it robs them of mental abilities and is associated with disruptive behavior and crime in adulthood. If this were afflicting wealthy kids, there would be a national outcry.

I’m on the first leg of my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a university student on a global reporting trip; we will go this fall to India and Nepal. This year I’ve added an American swing to look at domestic challenges. So my student winner, Austin Meyer of Stanford University, and I have visited Baltimore to examine the challenges of the inner city.

Some 58 percent of whites said in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in late April that the riots in Baltimore were the result of “people seeking an excuse to engage in looting and violence.” Many middle-class and affluent Americans don’t fully appreciate, I think, the inequity and frustrations boiling in some communities across the United States.

Malachi exemplifies the challenges some kids face in places like this. Americans often say that poverty is about bad choices or personal irresponsibility, but Malachi himself hasn’t made any bad choices.

Sean Berry-Bey, who has known Malachi’s mother for years and for a time looked after other children of hers, firmly backs Williams’s account that the boy was neglected and mistreated.

When I reached the mother, she started to dispute all this and told me that Williams was just looking after Malachi for a few months. Then she declined to speak further.

I’m impressed by Williams’s commitment, and she’s getting no government assistance. Indeed, she recently lost her job as an armored truck driver — she says caring for Malachi interfered with her work — so there’s now greater financial pressures on the household.

It is easier, of course, to describe a problem than to prescribe a solution, and helping people is harder than it looks.

One valuable program is WIC, which provides nutritional support for women, infants and children. Yet because it gives free infant formula to low-income mothers, it unintentionally discourages breast-feeding.

“If I had to buy formula, with no WIC vouchers, I’d breast-feed,” Alia Brooks, a teenage single mom in Baltimore, told me.

In short, helping people is complicated. Yet we do have programs that help — not everyone, not all the time, but often. Indeed, WIC is among them.

We accompanied a health department lead abatement team that took lead readings in Malachi’s home and offered sage advice on how to get medical care and access to social services for the boy — and also provided steel wool to plug rat holes.

Lynnelle Boyd, a member of the team, also figured out that the family has an immediate problem: Williams may be paying rent to someone who doesn’t actually own the house. Boyd explained how to reduce the risk of eviction.

That’s the reason for our win-a-trip reporting journey in America, to underscore that global poverty and inequity exist not just in India or Nepal, but right here in the United States, still waiting to be addressed.


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