Archive for the ‘Blow’ Category

Blow, Kristof and Collins

April 24, 2014

In “Lions to the Ballot Box” Mr. Blow reminds us that much political power plays out on the state and local level, so it’s negligent to stay home when legislatures are being elected.  It’s beyond negligent…  Mr. Kristof thinks we need to do some more meddling.  In “Moldova, the Next Ukraine” he says the gutsy government of this neighbor to Ukraine and Romania needs Western support as Russia gets poised to make a move.  Great.  Let’s have France and Germany step up to the plate this time.  In “Meet Me at the Fair” Ms. Collins says fifty years after the 1964 New York World’s Fair, many predictions were not that far off.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The time for complaining is at an end. Action must be taken. Accountability must be demanded. Muscle must be flexed. Power must be exercised.

Ballots must be cast.

It’s important to vote in presidential election years, to make sure that the leader of the free world is truly representative of the country. But presidential politics is only part of the political apparatus — the part furthest from most individuals. Much of the rest of the political power has a much lower center of gravity, playing itself out on the state and local level. In fact, the more local an election or ballot measure, the more powerful the individual votes, because the universe of all voters shrinks.

This is what more voters must be made to understand: It’s negligent at best, and derelict at worst, to elect a president but stay home when the legislatures with which a president must work are being elected. Apathy insures enmity, as the president and the legislative branch both rightly proclaim that they have been sent to Washington at the behest of diametrically opposed voting populaces — the president by a broader, more diverse (in terms of race, age, income and ideology) demographic group, and many members of Congress by a more narrowly drawn one.

In far too many cases, our representatives simply aren’t representative. Midterm elections draw a much older and whiter group of voters than do presidential-year elections. And that is only counting the people who bother to show up.

As Pew put it in the lead up to the 2010 midterms:

“Turnout in midterm elections typically is less than 40 percent of the voting age population (in 2006 it was 37 percent), and there is no reason to expect that it will be dramatically higher in 2010.”

In fact, nearly 42 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in 2010.

Still, that means that most Americans who are eligible to vote don’t vote in midterm elections. And Democrats constituted 54 percent of the nonvoters. Thirty percent were Republican. That’s why “nonvoters generally express more liberal views than do likely voters,” according to Pew.

This is where the rubber meets the road. We know the kind of government we want. We know that we want to address economic inequality and tax-code reform. We know that we want to address gun violence. We know that we want to stop and reverse the raft of laws enacted in states across this country aimed at restricting women’s reproductive choices. We know that we want to expand the right to marry to all people in all states. We know that we want to pass comprehensive immigration reform. We know that we want to halt and reverse the corrosive effects of big money on our politics.

It’s all doable, but only when voters realize that if there is a surreptitious us-versus-them fight between the cloistered money classes and the Everyman and Everywoman, then there are more of us than there are of them.

And yet as Pew found, the nonvoters are those who most need to have their voices heard. Forty-three percent of all nonvoters make under $30,000. Another 30 percent of nonvoters made $30,000 to $74,999. Those who made more than that represented only 13 percent of nonvoters.

Single people made up nearly 6 out of every 10 nonvoters.

People 18 to 29 were a third of nonvoters, while people 20 to 49 were another third.

As the report explained:

“Reflecting their low incomes, many more nonvoters (31 percent) than likely voters (14 percent) describe their personal financial situation as poor, and fully 51 percent of nonvoters say that they or someone in their household was out of work and looking for a job at some point in the past 12 months. Among voters, 36 percent had this personal experience with unemployment.”

And Hispanics made up 21 percent of nonvoters but only 6 percent of voters. Part of this, of course, is related to citizenship status, but part is lack of participation. In fact, a Pew report issued this month found that both Hispanic and Asian voter turnout in midterm elections has fallen, somewhat consistently, since 1986.

This is particularly disheartening since the proportion of Hispanics in the population is expected to nearly double in the next 50 years and the portion of Asians is projected to increase by more than half.

The growing majority must decide that it will no longer be silent, that it will no longer acquiesce, that it will no longer settle. We are the majority, not interested in social Darwinism and a social paternalism, but rather in a fair shake in a truly free society, where government works for the people and not for the plutocrats.

That is a simple and noble yearning, but it requires more than dreaming: It requires action.

Those struggling, unconquerable in their dignity and holding fast to the idea of equality, will one day roar, but only when they shake loose the lie that these lions are weak and sickly and divested of their power.

Now we get to Mr. Kristof, writing from Chisinau, Moldova:

If there were an Olympic competition for bravest country in the world, the gold medal might well go to Moldova. Wobbly politicians from Europe and America should come here to get spinal transplants.

Think of Moldova as “the next Ukraine,” for Russia may be about to take a bite out of this little country, nestled beside Ukraine and Romania and often said to be the poorest country in Europe. Russia already has bullied Moldova mercilessly for trying to join the European Union, imposing sanctions such as a block on Moldova’s crucial wine exports. Russia is even threatening to cut off the natural gas on which Moldovans depend.

“We hope that you will not freeze,” one senior Russian official publicly warned Moldovans.

Yet the valiant Moldovan government refuses to buckle. It is determined to join the European Union and forge bonds with the West.

“There is no alternative for us but to pursue European integration,” Prime Minister Iurie Leanca, a former diplomat, told me in perfect English in his office here in the capital, Chisinau. “We are European! No one should contest this.”

Moldova’s love for the West is unrequited. Washington barely notices it. No sitting president has ever visited. Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Ukraine this week would have been a perfect moment to drop in and show support, but it didn’t happen. After all, Moldova has a population of less than four million and no obvious strategic significance.

With a few modest gestures, President Obama could reward Moldova’s grit. Instead, in the face of American obliviousness, President Vladimir Putin of Russia may formally annex part of Moldova, Transnistria, in the coming weeks.

Transnistria is a Russian-speaking enclave within Moldova, armed by Moscow and protected by Russian troops. Transnistria claims to have seceded and established an independent country, and, in a troubling omen, its government (which Moscow controls) appealed this month for Russia to annex it.

So Russia could soon swallow both Transnistria and a chunk of southern Ukraine, including Odessa, to access it.

Transnistria remains a police state, so I slipped across the border as a tourist, and the area feels just as the old Soviet Union did. Indeed, Transnistria should market itself as an open-air museum of Soviet rule, complete with Lenin statues, Russian troops on the roads and an intelligence agency still called the K.G.B. The propaganda department is in overdrive, with countless billboards celebrating patriotism and past Russian triumphs.

“You must be proud of your country!” one billboard declared.

Transnistria’s military memorials complete with a tank or armored personnel carrier praise the heroism of local people and denounce those killed “by fascists” in fighting with Moldova’s military in the early 1990s. One giant collection of posters celebrated Russian and local heroes and praised “those great men who contributed to our culture.”

Transnistria’s apartment complexes are dilapidated and identical, and, despite large Russian subsidies, the economy is a mess. But a vast modern sports complex is the pride of the region. The atmosphere was such that I expected to run into the crusty old Soviet leader of the 1970s, Leonid Brezhnev.

“For people here, Putin is a hero,” one young woman told me.

It’s true that the Moldovan government in the past was sometimes heavy-handed or threatening to Russian speakers, and, just as Moldovans had the right to leave the Soviet Union, people in Transnistria should have the right to secede from Moldova. But that should happen when Russian troops are gone and people have the right to speak freely.

Moldova, which is Romanian-speaking, is rural, relaxed and green, but the economy crashed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and perhaps one million people fled the country to find work. In some Moldovan villages, it is difficult to find young women because so many left for jobs abroad. According to human rights monitors and United Nations officials, these women were tricked, raped and trafficked by organized crime into brothels across western Europe.

In recent years, the government has tried to build a pro-Western market economy, and the country is rebounding but still fragile. Many fear that Putin will now direct his “masked warfare” of infiltrators and provocateurs to turn Moldova into the next Ukraine.

It may be too late to deter Putin in Moldova, but, whatever happens, we should back Moldova’s plucky government. The United States can help by supporting infrastructure for Moldova to import natural gas and electricity from Romania, making it harder for Putin to freeze Moldovans into submission. We can nudge the European Union to embrace Moldova’s desire to join.

And if President Obama could visit this gutsy country for a few hours, people would cheer him as he’s never been cheered — and he would see an example of gold medal grit that we can all learn from.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Let’s talk future.

This week is the golden anniversary of the opening of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, when visitors flocked to Queens to see exhibits that included a guy flying around with his jet pack, Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” the brand-new Ford Mustang and Walt Disney’s animated figurines singing “It’s a Small World (After All).”

I am not quite sure we needed “It’s a Small World.” Nice sentiment, terrible tune.

There were computers on display, performing exciting tasks like — looking up a date. (Peering forward, people almost always overestimated the possibility of flying cars and underestimated the potential of computers.) “You will be able to ask for the news of any date that you like,” enthused a woman at the I.B.M. pavilion, where visitors could experience what was supposed to be a futuristic information search. Participants got to write a date on a card, which they then stuck into a box about the size of two refrigerators. Then, after a little wait, a little electronic ticker tape would announce that on Oct. 29, 1950, King Gustav of Sweden had died.

When the fair opened, Isaac Asimov wrote a piece for The Times conjuring up a “Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014.” He was remarkably prescient on some points. He foresaw Skype, although he imagined we’d be doing it with our friends on the moon colonies. He was pretty darned close in predicting population growth and appropriately dubious about robot house cleaners. He knew we’d be going to 3-D movies, but was overoptimistic about how much we’d like them. (If you’re going to be a futurist, there’s no point in looking ahead to a world with an exceedingly high level of technology that’s dedicated to “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”)

The way people see the future can define their present. A century or so ago, when Americans were trying to imagine the year 2000, the talk was about ending social ills. The best-selling novel “Looking Backward” told the story of a man who fell asleep and woke up in a world where crime, unemployment and mental illness had virtually vanished, where college was free, and laundry was cheap and people ate their stupendously delicious meals in communal dining rooms. It sold millions of copies and spawned both progressive movements and a long line of novels with heroes who fell asleep and woke up at the next millennium.

In 1964 at the fair, everyone was thinking about building stuff. General Motors presented a model of a 300-foot-long atomic-powered tree clearer that would be able to wipe out jungles and lay down expressways in a matter of hours. There were underwater houses! Underwater hotels! “In the early ’60s, progress always seemed to be about cars and skyscrapers and gadgets to make your life easier,” said Joseph Tirella, author of “Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America.”

And what about our visions of the future now? Imagining things 50 years in the future, our novelists and scriptwriters generally see things getting worse — civilizations crash, zombies arrive, the environment implodes. We’ve certainly got problems, but it seems a tad over-negative.

Maybe it’s because we’ve lived through decades of amazing technological revolution and been disappointed with the payoff. Ralph Nader — who published his classic indictment of the American auto industry “Unsafe at Any Speed” in 1965 — remembers going to the 1939 World’s Fair as a child and racing to the General Motors pavilion happily crying “G.M.! G.M.!” The exhibits he saw back then, Nader recollected, were better than anything that ever hit the market: “super electric cars, turbine cars. Just a lot of hope springing eternal.”

And who would have imagined 50 years ago that we’d get to the moon and then give up on it? Microwave dinners really did arrive. But, like 3-D, the thrill is limited.

We can’t even hold onto the things we thought we’d locked down. Just this week, The Times reported that Canada may have outstripped the United States when it comes to middle-class wealth. That seemed like a double-whammy. First, it was still more evidence of growing income inequality. Second, the Canadians didn’t even seem all that excited. Trish Hennessy, of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said besting the American middle was “like comparing ourselves to a sinking stone.” Ouch.

It’d be nice to go back to the old utopian futures. Dream you fell asleep in 2014 and woke up 50 years down the line. What do you want to see? Re-imagine the schools and the housing and the public enterprises. Don’t concentrate on computers. The computers will take care of themselves. Also, no more highways. If we’re going to talk transportation, let’s work on those transporters they have in “Star Trek.”

Think positive, or move to Toronto.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

April 17, 2014

In “Minimum Wage, Maximum Outrage” Mr. Blow has a question:  Even if both parties are playing politics with this issue to some degree, which side would you rather be on?  Mr. Kristof, who’s in Kiev, has decided to whale away on The Moustache of Wisdom’s little war drum.  He also has a question.  In “In Ukraine, Seeking U.S. Aid” he says Ukrainians have been bullied relentlessly by Russia. He then poses his question:  Why aren’t we doing more to stand up for them?  Gee, why aren’t Germany and France?  At least they’re on the same damn continent…  Ms. Collins, in “There’s A Moon Out Tonight,” says look on the bright side of things, people, even when doomsday is predicted and the moon is blood red.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

No one should ever endure the kind of economic humiliation that comes with working a full-time job and making a less-than-living wage.

There is dignity in all work, but that dignity grows dim when the checks are cashed and the coins are counted and still the bills rise higher than the wages.

Most people want to work. It is a basic human desire: to make a way, to provide for one’s self and one’s loved ones, to advance. It is that great hope of tomorrow, better and brighter, in which we can be happy and secure, able to sleep without hunger and wake without worry.

But it is easy to see how people can have that hope thrashed out of them, by having to wrestle with the most wrenching of questions: how to make do when you work for less than you can live on?

That is why the minimum wage debate resonates so profoundly with so many: We know what it feels like to not have enough money after you’ve busted your body with too-hard work. We know the worry in parents’ eyes as they sit around a dinner table littered with more bills than dollar bills, trying to figure out whom to pay and how to save.

These scenes play themselves out in more American households than the well-dressed men and women in the marbled halls of Congress will ever care to imagine. These are the forgotten and forsaken, the just getting by on just enough. They don’t have much money to donate to a church, let alone a political campaign, and yet they yearn just the same for someone to look out for them. They struggle to make it to the polls, sometimes on public transportation, and wait hours to vote.

Raising the minimum wage won’t erase all of the problems of the poor, but it is one component, one rooted in basic dignity and fairness, of a much fairer picture of income inequality and poverty.

Most Americans understand this. According to a Gallup poll last year, 71 percent of adults (91 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 50 percent of Republicans) said they would vote for a law that would raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour on Election Day if they could.

But, as one would expect, Republicans in Congress are chafing. Some say that raising the minimum wage could hurt small businesses, though a Gallup poll in November showed that small businesses were split on increasing the minimum wage, with roughly half for and half against it. Furthermore, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project, “the majority (66 percent) of low-wage workers are not employed by small businesses, but rather by large corporations with over 100 employees.”

Others dismiss the push for increasing the minimum wage, which is being advanced aggressively by Democrats, purely as a political move.

On some level, is the focus on the minimum wage a political ploy on the part of Democrats? I have no doubt. But that doesn’t drain the proposal of its merit. Much of what occurs in Washington occurs at the intersection of political advantage and earnest intentions, and it has ever been thus. Whenever one side accuses the other of playing politics, the accusation is often laced with an envy of the other’s adroitness.

So with the minimum wage, we have an issue that’s both smart politics and compassionate policy.

Politicians do things for political ends, even things designed to help real people.

And that political haymaking is going both ways. This week, the Republican governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin, signed a bill banning the state’s cities from “establishing mandatory minimum wages or vacation and sick-day requirements,” according to The Associated Press.

How callous is that? And it should be noted that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “In 2012, Oklahoma’s proportion of hourly paid workers earning at or below the prevailing federal minimum wage ranked third highest among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.” The bureau reported that 7.2 percent of the hourly paid workers in Oklahoma earned the federal minimum wage or less, compared with 4.7 percent nationally.

And things have not been moving in a positive direction. The bureau also notes that:

“From 2011 to 2012, the portion of hourly paid workers in Oklahoma who earned at or below the federal minimum wage rose from 6.8 to 7.2 percent. The percentage of workers earning less than the federal minimum rose 1.5 percentage points in 2012 to 3.9 percent, while the share earning exactly the minimum wage fell 1.0 points to 3.3 percent.”

Now, if both sides are playing politics with the minimum wage to some degree, which side would you rather be on: that of the working people, who are struggling to make a living, or that of the politicians determined to block them?

Next up we have Mr. Kristof and his little drum:

For decades, Ukrainians have been starved, oppressed and bullied by Russians, and, with Russia now inciting instability that could lead to an invasion and dismemberment of eastern Ukraine, plenty of brave Ukrainians here say they’ve had it and are ready to go bear-hunting.

If they could just equip themselves.

“Any chance you could provide some machine guns or sniper rifles?” one former protester asked me hopefully in Kiev’s Independence Square, a scorched collection of roadblocks where so many Ukrainians lost their lives toppling a corrupt ruler earlier this year.

I explained that I was out of both. The next day, when another self-styled commander asked for weapons to fight the Russian invaders, I pointed to the pistol in his belt and told him he was better prepared than I was.

He laughed ruefully, pulled it out and showed that it was a pellet gun. “It’s a child’s toy,” he said scornfully. “And we have only one of these for every 10 men.”

That’s a glimpse of the mood in Ukraine these days. People seem to feel a bit disappointed that the United States and Europe haven’t been more supportive, and they are humiliated that their own acting government hasn’t done more to confront Russian-backed militants. So, especially after a few drinks, people are ready to take down the Russian Army themselves.

“We will defeat the Russian Army, hang the Ukrainian flag over the Kremlin, and turn it into a lake,” boasted Roman Butsyk, a locomotive driver who joined the protest movement.

Usually in international affairs, there’s a good deal of gray, but what is happening in Ukraine is pretty black and white.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia warns that Ukraine is on the brink of civil war. But the chaos in eastern cities is his own creation, in part by sending provocateurs across the border. It’s not clear how many of the troublemakers in the east are Russian security agents and how many are Ukrainians who want to remain in Russia’s orbit, but it’s reasonably clear that there are plenty of both. Ukrainians note that supposed locals in the pro-Russian camp sometimes are unfamiliar with local streets.

Putin has emerged as a great champion of the rights of Russian-speakers everywhere — except in the place where their rights are most endangered. That’s Russia itself.

Meanwhile, Russian propaganda has reached almost North Korean proportions: Putin shrugs at the world and embraces implausible deniability.

Ukrainians mounted their revolution because they wanted to be more like the West, so it frustrates them that the West hasn’t returned the love. Europe fears that sanctioning Russia would hurt business, and even the Obama administration has been cautious and has resisted providing military assistance (except for military meals).

The Ukrainians have a point. A bear is charging them, and we offer spaghetti?

President Obama’s concerns about provoking Putin are understandable, and I disagree with those Republicans who argue that Putin is on a rampage because of Obama’s foreign policy weaknesses. But I do think the White House can do more — with military transfers, financial aid, economic sanctions and moral support — to stand with Ukraine. Vice President Joe Biden’s planned visit to Ukraine is a welcome step to show support.

So far, Putin has arguably gained from his bullying of Crimea: His standing in domestic polls has surged — his approval at home is roughly twice Obama’s — and he has outmaneuvered some local critics, leaving them appearing unpatriotic or on the side of the enemy. It’s crucial that Putin pay a price for aggression so that he doesn’t benefit from bellicosity.

“I understand the U.S. reluctance,” acknowledged Igor Grosul, who sells doormats with the face of the ousted president. “If there is a war between America and Russia, it might be the last war ever.”

Yet Grosul, who was hospitalized in the fight to overthrow the old regime, still would like to see America more engaged. As a Russian speaker himself, he is also indignant at reports that most Russian speakers are pro-Russian.

Clearly, some Russian-speaking Ukrainians genuinely want greater autonomy for their regions, and the country should grant it. But Grosul says that in his city of Mykolaiv, most people are Russian speakers who have turned against Moscow because of the seizure of Crimea and the hysterical anti-Ukraine propaganda.

When Ukrainians ask me what I think, I tell them that I admire their spirit, but that courage is, sadly, no match for a tank. They disagree.

“When we were fighting against the police, we had just wooden sticks,” said Volodymyr Kozak, who helps run a tent museum in Independence Square about the recent battles there. “We can manage against Russia as well.”

These people don’t have much, but they have heart. We should do more to back them up.

And I’m sure we’ll be greeted as liberators, with flowers strewn in the streets, just as we were in Baghdad, right?  Shit…  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Let’s talk about something cheerful. I nominate the apocalypse.

You may not have noticed, but we survived an end-of-the-world moment again this week when a lunar eclipse made the moon look sort of reddish. This is known as a Blood Moon, and, in certain circles, it was seen as the Start of Something Big.

“The heavens are God’s billboard,” said televangelist John Hagee, the author of the best-selling “Four Blood Moons: Something Is About to Change.” This is the same John Hagee who once theorized that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment to New Orleans for scheduling a gay pride parade. He later apologized. And moved on. To the moon.

As doomsday scenarios go, this one is not particularly original: the basic evangelical vision of trouble in the Middle East followed by the Second Coming. And red moons happen all the time. If you wanted a sign of the end of days this week, there are lots better candidates. Kathleen Sebelius for Senate? The idea that anybody believes Donald Trump will buy the Buffalo Bills? Or limes — their price is quadrupling! You can read all about that in my upcoming book, “The End of Guacamole.”

The Blood Moon predictions are going to be with us for a while because there will be four of the same lunar eclipses over the next year and a half. And Hagee’s theories have sold a heck of a lot of books on Amazon. But they lack the exciting specificity of the classic end-of-the-world prophecies. Like polar shifts (earth crust moves, triggering volcanoes, floods and eliminating all life-forms) or the Amazing Criswell, who was waiting for a black rainbow to show up and suck off all the oxygen.

Television is taking up the slack. It’s awash with doomsday stories, with more on the runway. Killer viruses, planetary power failures, nuclear war. Plus your basic Rapture. (“ ‘The Leftovers’ is the story of the people who didn’t make the cut.”) Chris Carter, the “X-Files” creator who’s offering “The After,” was apparently really moved by that Mayan-calendar-ends crisis in 2012. “There was nervousness. It was in the air. …Certainly the power of that played a part in my desire to do something about a world-changing event,” he told TV Guide.

People, do you remember being all that worried about the Mayan calendar? Or zombies? Zombies are still so darned popular. It would be nice if we were being barraged with a new series about a utopian future where everybody got along except your occasional Romulan. Yet here we are.

The feel-good side of end-of-the-world predictions is that everything seems so nice the day after. We’re still here! There’s oxygen!

Unless, of course, you’re someone like Robert Fitzpatrick, a follower of the late Harold Camping, a serial apocalypse predictor who claimed Judgment Day was going to be May 21, 2011. Fitzpatrick spent what he said was his life savings putting warning signs in the New York City subway system. (“Global Earthquake: The Greatest Ever!”) On the plus side, he did give commuters a really fine ride to work on May 22.

If you enjoy worrying about doomsday, be sure to hedge your bets. Remember Y2K and all the millennium end-of-the-world scenarios? Years ago, I worked on a project that involved a collection of all the predictions about terrible things that were going to happen in the year 2000, and I enjoyed it very much. I talked to a guy living on a mountain who was both waiting for the end and writing a movie script about it. Also, an official in a small Illinois town that had been founded on a plan to airlift refugees into space where they would rotate around until the polar shift calmed down. This was all based on the work of the town’s founder, Richard Kieninger, who was eventually kicked out amid rumors of sexual misbehavior. The rest of the community decided to just concentrate on building self-sufficient lifestyles.

So really, pretty happy ending.

And then, the pope! It was only a year ago that the College of Cardinals was meeting in the Vatican to elect a new pope, and some people were pointing out that this one was going to be the last pontiff, according to a 12th-century prediction made by St. Malachy, who also mentioned the destruction of Rome and “many tribulations” everywhere.

True, Malachy’s list was probably a forgery. But who would have predicted that Catholics would get a new pope who was obsessed with the poor and apparently totally uninterested in people’s sex lives? Nobody. Talking heads sniffed when Francis was chosen and said the cardinals “probably did not come up with the most progressive pope in the history of the world.” Actually, that would have been me.

Our moral today is that things often turn out better than we might have imagined. Look on the bright side. Even when it’s dark and the moon appears to be a rather unusual color.

Blow and Nocera

April 12, 2014

Ms. Collins is off today.  In “The Self-Sort” Mr. Blow says it’s easy to demonize, or simply dismiss, people you don’t know or see.  Mr. Nocera gives us “The Apple Chronicles” and says these days, the tech industry is battling over patents instead of new products.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

This week, four presidents journeyed to Austin, Tex., to address the Civil Rights Summit and remark on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s legacy on the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

That landmark act brought an end to legal racial segregation in public places.

But now we are facing another, worsening kind of segregation, one not codified but cultural: We are self-sorting, not only along racial lines but also along educational and income ones, particularly in our big cities.

Our cities are increasingly becoming vast outposts of homogeneity and advantage, arcing ever upward, interspersed by deserts of despair, all of which produces in them some of the highest levels of income inequality ever seen in this country.

Some call this progress; I call it a perversion, at least of the concept of diversity — of race, culture, identity and class — that dynamic engine that built urban identities and that is now being erased out of them.

As a report by Kendra Bischoff of Cornell and Sean F. Reardon of Stanford pointed out last year: “The proportion of families living in affluent neighborhoods more than doubled from 7 percent in 1970 to 15 percent in 2009. Likewise, the proportion of families in poor neighborhoods doubled from 8 percent to 18 percent over the same period.”

This is consistent with a 2012 Pew Research Center report that found, “Residential segregation by income has increased during the past three decades across the United States and in 27 of the nation’s 30 largest major metropolitan areas, according to a new analysis of census tract and household income data.”

The report added, “The analysis finds that 28 percent of lower-income households in 2010 were located in a majority lower-income census tract, up from 23 percent in 1980, and that 18 percent of upper-income households were located in a majority upper-income census tract, up from 9 percent in 1980.”

As Richard Florida wrote in The Atlantic last month, “The poor face higher levels of segregation in larger, denser metros.” In affluent cities, he said, “The segregation of poverty is more pronounced,” adding, “The poor also face greater levels of segregation in more advanced, knowledge-based metros.”

According to a study published last year in the journal Education and Urban Society, “Students are more racially segregated in schools today than they were in the late 1960s and prior to the enforcement of court-ordered desegregation in school districts across the country.”

In fact, a report last month by researchers at the Civil Rights Project of the University of California, Los Angeles, found, “New York has the most segregated schools in the country.”

Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream about the coming together of children of different races seems, in some ways, to grow more faint.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll last year found, “About 40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of nonwhite Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race.”

This kind of sorting has real world consequences in terms of behaviors, empathy and socialization. As The Independent of London reported last month, a new study found, “People who live in ethnically diverse streets are less racially prejudiced than individuals living in highly segregated areas and their increased tolerance is due directly to the experience of a more integrated society.”

The findings, the newspaper said, “emerged from the analysis of seven previous studies on community relations carried out between 2002 and 2012 in England, Europe, the United States and South Africa, and specifically tried to rule out the idea that the results can be explained by tolerant people being more likely to live in mixed neighborhoods.”

By ruling this out, the study was able to show that “even the attitudes of the most prejudiced people who did not mix at all with ethnic minorities became more tolerant over time as a result of living in areas where others were mixing on a daily basis.”

We need to see people other than ourselves in order to empathize. If we don’t live around others we do ourselves and our society damage because our ability to relate becomes impaired.

It’s easy to demonize, or simply dismiss, people you don’t know or see. It’s in this context that we can keep having inane conversations about the “habits” and “culture” of the poor and “inner city” citizens.

It’s nearly impossible to commiserate with the unseen and unknown.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

So they’re at it again, Apple and Samsung, fighting over patents in a courtroom in San Jose, Calif. They had a similar fight in 2012, in the same courtroom, which Apple won. Samsung has also won its share of these legal battles, including in Australia.

This time around, Apple alleges that Samsung has violated five of its patents, including the one that allows iPhone users to slide their finger across the bottom of the screen to unlock it. One of its experts testified the other day that Samsung should be forced to pay more than $2 billion for the harm done. Samsung, meanwhile, has retaliated by accusing Apple of violating several of its patents. The legal bills alone have to be running into the tens of millions of dollars.

Perhaps it is just coincidence that this latest trial coincides with the publication of a new book by Yukari Iwatani Kane, titled “Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs.” The coincidence is nonetheless telling. (Disclosure: Kane devotes several pages to a phone call I got from Steve Jobs in 2008 when I was working on a column about Apple’s unwillingness to disclose details of his health problems.)

The Apple Kane chronicles in “Haunted Empire” is not the same company she used to cover as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, when Jobs was alive. That Apple was fearless in its willingness to take risks and bring innovative products to market. This Apple, the post-Jobs Apple, has become risk-averse, its innovative capacity reduced to making small tweaks on products it has already brought to market. Though its leadership still talks a good game, it has so far been unable to deliver on the kind of knock-your-socks-off products for which Apple was once famous.

Part of this was inevitable. Jobs was a once-in-a-generation leader, with product instincts that just aren’t replicable. It is a sobering tale of what happens when a corporation becomes so reliant on one man.

But there are other reasons, too. Kane tracks down Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor and author of the famous business book “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” The book documents how companies stop innovating as they reach a certain critical mass and become more concerned with protecting what they have rather than chasing the new. This makes them vulnerable to newer competitors. “By the time those companies paid attention to the cheap, new innovations they had initially ignored, it was usually too late,” writes Kane, paraphrasing Christensen. Apple, Christensen believed, had long been the exception to his rule. Now, he feared, it was facing the innovator’s dilemma, just as other big companies did.

Meanwhile, the stock market was souring on Apple, and even Carl Icahn was poking around, urging Tim Cook, Jobs’s successor as chief executive, to hand some of its enormous cash hoard to shareholders.

The only real way to stave off further decline is to come out with a product that establishes a whole new category — the way the iPad did in 2010. But that seems unlikely. “Outside the echo chamber of Apple’s headquarters, the notion of the company’s exceptionalism has been shattered,” Kane writes.

Which brings me back to the litigation with Samsung — the company that is coming to market with products that are every bit as good as Apple’s, and at a lower price to boot. This never-ending litigation is yet another sign that Apple is becoming a spent force. Suing each other “is not what innovative companies do,” said Robin Feldman, a patent law expert at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

Nor has the lawsuit been going smoothly for Apple. One document revealed during the trial was an internal Apple presentation, a slide of which read, “Consumers want what we don’t have” — meaning inexpensive phones with large screens, which Apple doesn’t sell. In the earlier trial, although Apple won a verdict against Samsung, the judge refused to force Samsung to remove certain products from the market, as Apple has demanded. Instead, the case had the perverse effect of validating “the Korean company as a worthy rival and supplied it with free advertising,” writes Kane.

These patent war cases can be — and should be — easily settled, as everyone in the business knows. Every smartphone company is now armed to the teeth with patents, and the most sensible way to deal with the issue is to cross-license the patents. Then the companies can get back to the business of innovating. Apple’s utter refusal to do so suggests that it has become less interested — or less capable — of innovating and more interested in protecting what it has already brought to market.

Or, as Apple’s former general counsel, Nancy Heinen, tells Kane, “When patent lawyers become rock stars, it is a bad sign for where an industry is headed.”

Blow and Kristof

April 10, 2014

Ms. Collins is off today.  Mr. Blow asks a question in “We Should Be in a Rage:”  When will we demand the country we deserve? He says if we don’t like the path we’re on, we can alter it.  Mr. Kristof has decided to tell us “Where the G.O.P. Gets it Right.”  He says Republicans actually get some big things right about poverty, but it’s too bad their solutions are mostly wrong.  “Socrates” from Verona, NJ had this to say:  “Every broken clock gets it right twice a day.  There’s nothing more broken in America – intellectually, emotionally, morally, politically – than the Republican Party.”  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Voter apathy is a civic abdication. There is no other way to describe it.

If more Americans — particularly young people and less-wealthy people — went to the polls, we would have a better functioning government that actually reflected the will of the citizenry.

But, that’s not the way it works. Voting in general skews older and wealthier, and in midterm elections that skew is even more severe.

As David Wasserman wrote on the Cook Report last year:

“Voters under the age of 30 were 19 percent of all voters in 2012, but just 12 percent of all voters in 2010. Likewise, voters 65 and up were 17 percent of all voters in 2012, but 21 percent of all voters in 2010. Herein lies the biggest danger for Democratic candidates in 2014.”

Now we hear murmuring that Republicans hold a slight advantage going into 2014, not strictly because that’s the will of the American people, but because that may well be the will of the people willing to show up at the polls.

There is an astounding paradox in it: too many of those with the least economic and cultural power don’t fully avail themselves of their political power. A vote is the great equalizer, but only when it is cast.

The strategy here is simple: Break the spirit. Muddy the waters. Make voting feel onerous and outcomes ambiguous. And make it feel like a natural outgrowth of tedium and bickering, and not a well-funded, well-designed effort. Make us subsist on personality politics rather than principled ones.

The greatest trick up the sleeves of the moneyed and powerful is their diabolical ability to render themselves invisible and undetectable, to recede and operate behind a front, one relatable and common. Our politics are overrun with characters acting at the behest of shadows.

These are the politicians to whom we have become accustomed — too much polish, and too much beam — which is precisely the reason they should warrant our suspicion and not our trust, the way one cannot trust a cook with pots too pretty and not burned black on the bottoms.

And yet too many people shrug or sleep when they should seethe.

We should be in a rage over the Roberts court’s seemingly implacable drive to vest corporations with the rights of people and unleash the full fury of billionaires to bend our politics to their will.

We should be in a rage over the widespread attempts to disenfranchise voters, from the gutting of the Voting Rights Act to the rise of the Voter ID movement — a near-naked attempt by conservatives to diminish the number of Democratic voters.

We should be in a rage over Republican efforts, particularly on the state level, to drag the range of women’s reproductive options back to the 1960s.

We should be in a rage over the extraordinary pressures facing ordinary families. According to The New York Times’ Economix blog, college costs have risen over 500 percent since 1985, medical and gas costs more than 300 percent. And, the Pew Research Center reported Tuesday that “in inflation-adjusted dollars, average weekly child care expenses for families with working mothers who paid for child care” rose 70 percent from 1985 to 2011.

And yet, a report last week from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that “some 69 percent of the cuts in House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s new budget would come from programs that serve people of limited means.”

We should be in a rage over the fact that people in this country can work a full-time job and not earn a living wage.

We should be in a rage that this country’s infrastructure is literally crumbling beneath us. The “2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure,” produced by the American Society of Civil Engineers, gave our infrastructure an overall grade of D+ and estimated that $3.6 trillion would be needed by 2020 to fix it.

We should be in a rage that we are spiraling toward cataclysmic, irreversible climate change with little interest or effort in averting it, with little coverage and less than accurate coverage.

But where rage should be, there is too often a whimper.

When will we demand the country we deserve: reflective of its people, protective of its people, simply of its people? When will the young and the poor and the aggrieved and the forsaken walk abreast to the polls and then to the public squares?

If we don’t like the government we have, we can change it. If we don’t like the path we’re on, we can alter it.

Democracy is durable, but not incorruptible. The very purity of the concept invites those determined to alter it, to tilt it toward oligarchy, to slowly, imperceptibly if possible, bring it to a calamitous end.

The drift of the boat seems inconsequential until it encounters the falls.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Republicans may seem like ultimate Scrooges. Many want to slash food stamps, unemployment benefits and just about any program that helps the needy.

So they know nothing about poverty, right?

Wrong. Actually, conservatives have been proved right about three big ideas of social policy. Liberals may grimace, but hear me out on these points:

STRONG FAMILIES Conservatives highlight the primacy of family and argue that family breakdown exacerbates poverty, and they’re right. Children raised by single parents are three times as likely to live in poverty as kids in two-parent homes.

One historic mistake by liberals in social policy was the condemnation of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s warning in 1965 of the breakdown of the African-American family. He wasn’t racist; he was prescient, for the same breakdown has since occurred in white-working-class families as well.

Yet if Republicans were shown to be right in their diagnosis of family breakdown as a central problem, they have mostly been proved wrong in their prescriptions. Particularly under President George W. Bush, millions of dollars were spent on marriage promotion initiatives, and follow-up studies show that overwhelmingly they failed to have an impact. Abstinence-only sex education is another demonstrated failure.

What does work to strengthen families and reduce out-of-wedlock births?

There are no magic wands, but family-planning programs have reduced unplanned births — and 70 percent of pregnancies among unmarried women under 30 are unplanned. The Guttmacher Institute calculates that without family-planning services, the rate of unintended teen pregnancies would be 73 percent higher.

So it’s hard to think of a more anti-family policy than the closure of family-planning clinics in states like Texas, or the two-thirds cut (after inflation) in the main federal family-planning program since 1980. That’s a national shame.

One landmark initiative to help in this area is the Affordable Care Act, which requires insurers to offer free long-acting contraceptives to all women. Research suggests strongly that this will reduce abortions and out-of-wedlock births, while strengthening marriage, yet Republicans are fighting this mandate.

JOB CREATION President Reagan was right when he said that the best social program is a job. Good jobs also strengthen families. Evidence has grown that jobs are important not only to our economic well-being but also to self-esteem. Indeed, long-term unemployment seems to lead to shortened life expectancy.

Two decades ago, President Clinton pushed to “end welfare as we know it.” Liberals protested that the poor would be devastated, while conservatives hailed this as an avenue out of poverty. In retrospect, neither prediction was right. Welfare reform pushed the poor into jobs, but mostly marginal jobs that rarely offered an escalator to the middle class.

So how do we get good jobs? Expansion of the earned-income tax credit. Job training for people coming out of prison. Reduced incarceration, since a prison record makes people less employable. Subsidies to hire the long-term unemployed. Vocational programs like Career Academies.

Yet these are the kinds of social policies that Democrats tend to embrace and Republicans are leery of.

SCHOOL REFORM Republicans were right to blow the whistle on broken school systems, for education in inner-city schools is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Democrats, in cahoots with teachers’ unions and protective of a dysfunctional system, were long part of the problem.

Bravo to Republicans for protesting that teachers’ unions were sometimes protecting disastrous teachers (including, in New York City, one who passed out drunk in her classroom, with even the principal unable to rouse her). Likewise, some of the most successful schools in the inner cities have been charters in the Knowledge Is Power Program, showing what is possible even in troubled cities.

Yet Democrats, led by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, are coming around, and teachers’ unions have moderated. Republicans sometimes suggest that our biggest educational problem is teachers’ unions themselves. That’s absurd. States with strong teachers’ unions in the North like Massachusetts have better schools than states in the South with weak unions.

Meanwhile, one of the most important evidence-backed school reforms is public preschool and home visitation for disadvantaged kids, yet Republicans are blocking any national move to universal prekindergarten (even though Republican-led states like Oklahoma are leaders in pre-K).

So, come on, Republicans! You’ve highlighted enduring truths about the importance of family, jobs and school reform. But, while your diagnoses deserve respectful consideration, your prescriptions have mostly been proved wrong.

One more thing: These aren’t just abstract policies. These are ethical issues, touching on our obligations to fellow humans.

If we offer the needy nothing but slogans and reprimands — “Strengthen your family! Get a job! Get an education!” — then our antipoverty programs are a cruel joke as bankrupt as Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake.”

Blow and Collins

March 29, 2014

In “The Split of the Ages” Mr. Blow says there is a growing divide between America’s oldest and youngest voters.  Ms. Collins, in “A Christie Life Primer,” says let’s discuss the lessons learned from the latest on the bridge-traffic-jam episode.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Older voters and younger voters used to be largely on the same page when they went to the polls. No more.

Gallup released two reports about the split this week. The first was called “U.S. Seniors Have Realigned With the Republican Party,” and the second was “Young Americans’ Affinity for Democratic Party Has Grown.”

The numbers were striking. Until the age of Obama, Democrats had an ideological leg up among Americans 65 and older. Then those voters shifted to give the Republicans an advantage. That advantage has held, although it’s shrinking.

On the other end of the spectrum, Republicans haven’t held an ideological advantage among Americans ages 18-29 since 1995. But for a decade, the Republican deficit was always 13 points or less. That changed in 2006 when the Democrats won control of the House and the Senate and a majority of governorships and state legislatures. This was, in part, due to George W. Bush’s sinking poll numbers and rising opposition to the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and, particularly, in Iraq. The Democratic advantage among young people since then has been 13 points or more.

The last time a Republican won the 18-29-year-old vote in a presidential election was 1988, when 52 percent voted for George H.W. Bush over Democrat Michael Dukakis, who carried only 10 states and the District of Columbia.

Since pollsters began compiling records of voting by age, the only time that Republicans have won the 18-29-year-old vote nationwide in the races for the House of Representatives was in 1994, during the “Republican Revolution.” That year, armed with their “Contract with America,” Republicans took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

Coincidentally, 1994 was also the year that the percentage of the vote for Republicans was exactly the same among voters ages 18-29 and among voters 60 and older: 51 percent. In fact, until relatively recently, it was not uncommon for the voting of young and elderly Americans to look virtually identical.

Part of the reason for the Democratic swing among young people is the incredible diversity of the group. Gallup estimates that 45 percent of Americans 18-29 are nonwhite. But that doesn’t account for all of the change. As Gallup put it:

“Young adults are not more Democratic solely because they are more racially diverse. In recent years, young white adults, who previously aligned more with the Republican Party, have shifted Democratic. From 1995 to 2005, young whites consistently identified as or leaned Republican rather than Democratic, by an average of 8 points. Since 2006, whites aged 18 to 29 have shown at least a slight Democratic preference in all but one year, with an average advantage of 3 points.”

This should come as welcome news to Democrats and as another reason for fear among Republicans.

Furthermore, since 2004 in presidential elections, young Americans’ share of the vote has inched up as older Americans’ share has fallen. Still, the diversity target is easy and tempting, so Republicans are aggressively pushing voter ID laws. As Politico reported last year, according to a recent study:

“Significantly more minority youths age 18-29 were asked to show identification than white youth: 72.9 percent of black youth were asked for ID, compared with 60.8 percent of Latino youth and 50.8 percent of white youth. Even in states where there are no voter ID laws on the books, 65.5 percent of black youth were asked to show ID at the polls, compared with 55.3 percent of Latino youth and 42.8 percent of white youth.”

Racial bias — sometimes subtle, always sinister — is alive and well.

This is also the reason there is so much conservative resistance to comprehensive immigration reform.

According to a 2011 Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project report, most of the growth in the U.S. population from 2000 to 2010 was due to Hispanics.

The report found:

“Since 2000, nearly 6 million more Latinos have become eligible to vote. The bulk of this growth was attributable to the 5 million U.S. born Latino youths nationwide who turned 18 during this past decade. That translates into an additional half-million U.S. born Latinos coming of age each year — a pattern that is certain to persist, and grow, in the coming decades.”

The wave of demographic change and the liberal leaning of the young can’t be held back indefinitely through obstruction and aggression. A change is coming, and it’s blue.

Well, I guess that makes me a real outlier in my cohort — this 68 year old would no more vote for a current Republican than she’d yank her own fingernails out with pliers.  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Let’s take a minute to search for life lessons in the latest Chris Christie bridge-traffic-jam episode. I believe there are two. First, when the political ship is going down, nobody will bother to rescue the unattached woman and the dork from senior year.

Also, it’s always handy to have a law degree.

On Friday, Christie held a news conference to discuss the results of an investigation into the now infamous lane closings on the George Washington Bridge. The inquiry was commissioned by, um, Chris Christie. It concluded that the villains were Bridget the Aide and David Who Was Not Popular in High School.

“I had nothing to do with this … and this report has supported exactly what I said,” Christie announced rather triumphantly. Negative minds might substitute “announced pompously with an extreme degree of self-righteousness,” but we are taking the high road.

The governor was, indeed, portrayed in a light of near-beatific proportions. He had absolutely no role in the most infamous traffic jam since Woodstock. He was too good, and too busy doing other things, like comforting the victims of a fire — an act of mercy he felt driven to perform even though he had to cancel “a planned trip to Florida with his wife for her birthday.”

The investigators acknowledged that one of the evil-doers, David Wildstein, might have informed Christie about the lane-closing plan. This was apparently at a 9/11 memorial ceremony, and the report calls it “a reference that the Governor does not recall and, even if actually made, would not have registered with the Governor in any event because he knew nothing about this decision in advance and would not have considered another traffic issue at one of the bridges or tunnels to be memorable.”

People, try reading that last quote out loud. Doesn’t it sound a tad over-defensive? In a breathless kind of way? Also, if you were the governor and some official came up to you at a 9/11 ceremony and started talking about access lanes on the George Washington Bridge, wouldn’t you at least say to yourself: “Hmm, that’s a strange topic of conversation.” I mean, it would stick in the mind.

The investigators said they could find no real evidence of why the lane closings were organized. But they fingered Wildstein as planner-in-chief. He was an official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge. Aficionados of this story will remember the governor’s announcement that while he and Wildstein were high school classmates, they didn’t travel in the same circles. (“You know, I was the class president and athlete. I don’t know what David was doing during that period of time.”) The guy appears to be a real jerk, but you still have to have a little sympathy there.

Bridget Anne Kelly, one of Christie’s aides, is depicted in the role of traffic-jam cheerleader, and she is clearly a person of tremendously awful judgment. However, the investigators’ description of her behavior was unusually — personal. They noted that Kelly had been dating Christie’s political adviser, Bill Stepien. And they suggested that she might have thrown herself into the bridge plot during a breakup funk. (“Events in Kelly’s personal life may have had some bearing on her subjective motivations and state of mind.”)

Then when Christie (ever truthful, ever brave) “demanded straight answers from his senior staff,” the report says Kelly “panicked.” Perhaps this was because she was “habitually concerned about how she was perceived by the Governor,” something which is, of course, extremely unusual for people working in a state capitol.

Kelly, who refused to talk with the investigators, is a single mother, in deep legal trouble, unemployed and utterly abandoned by the state’s power structure. Meanwhile, Stepien, who has also declined to cooperate, just got a new job at a consulting company that has strong ties to the Republican Party.

The report found that Bill Baroni, a high-ranking Port Authority official, ignored cries of distress about the traffic jams, all the while texting and emailing with Wildstein. But, the report claimed, he “did not communicate in an overtly partisan or political manner.” And no bad feelings about the refusal to talk with investigators.

Baroni resigned under fire, but he has since gotten a job at one of the state’s top law firms.

The investigators seemed absolutely serene about the refusal to answer questions by David Samson, the chairman of the Port Authority. When Samson resigned on Friday, Christie thanked him for “his service and his friendship,” while expressing shock when a reporter suggested that Samson’s law firm might have found it advantageous to have a partner at the head of an organization with a $27.6 billion capital budget. (“That’s your assumption!”)

Christie said his old buddy had explained that he wasn’t talking to the investigators because of “issues of attorney-client privilege. … I didn’t push it any farther.” It was the kind of thing only another lawyer could understand.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

March 27, 2014

In “Crimea and Punishment” Mr. Blow says the dance between diplomacy and force, between aggressive responses and appropriate ones, is more complicated than sound bites can convey.  But that certainly won’t stop CNN, Faux Noise, et al…  In “A Nation of Takers?” Mr. Kristof says that we should get real about which public welfare programs are wasteful.  Ms. Collins, in “The Season of the Twitch,” says yes, people, November seems so far away, but the campaign trail at this point is filled with missteps and blunders that are fun to follow.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The president is trying to walk a tightrope — thin as a thread and dangling over danger — on the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea.

He must silence critics at home and buck up allies abroad. Neither is easy and nothing is a given.

The howls on the home front have been deafening as Republicans and also-rans — I’m looking at you, Mitt Romney — have suggested that the president misjudged Vladimir V. Putin’s and Russia’s ambition and aptitude for aggression, created an international impression of the president and the United States as timid, feckless, indecisive and without resolve, and failed, over and over, to stand strongly enough with other countries’ dissidents in their quest for freedom and democracy.

On “Face the Nation,” Romney said: “The president’s naïveté with regards to Russia and his faulty judgment about Russia’s intentions and objectives has led to a number of foreign policy challenges that we face.”

He continued, “Unfortunately, not having anticipated Russia’s intentions, the president wasn’t able to shape the kinds of events that may have been able to prevent the kinds of circumstances that you’re seeing in the Ukraine.”

The refused-to-be-vanquished insist on being vindicated.

But as is the case in many of these circumstances, the dance between diplomacy and force, between aggressive responses and appropriate ones, is more complicated than sound bites can convey.

The truth is that the West — the United States and its European allies — doesn’t have much leverage against Russia. And the Europeans are addicted to and reliant upon Russian gas, which adds to their trepidation about antagonizing Moscow.

Recognizing this, President Obama said Wednesday during a speech in Brussels that the European Union needed to reduce its dependency on Russian energy. He has also urged European Union leaders to move forward with the pending trans-Atlantic trade pact, which would allow Europe to receive more gas from the United States.

But that is a long-term strategic goal. That won’t alter the geopolitical landscape of the immediate future.

The president, while chastising Russian aggression, made clear:

“Understand as well this is not another Cold War that we’re entering into. After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology. The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia. In fact, for more than 60 years we have come together in NATO not to claim other lands but to keep nations free. What we will do always is uphold our solemn obligation, our Article 5 duty, to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our allies. And in that promise we will never waver. NATO nations never stand alone.”

While there has been a working partnership between NATO and Ukraine, unfortunately Ukraine is not a NATO member country.

So, what to do other than apply economic sanctions and isolate Russia, and diminish a bit of its prestige, by doing things like kicking the country out of the Group of 8? Does any hit to the Russian economy move Putin’s spirit or dull his ambitions? The answers to these questions are not at all clear.

And the American people are conflicted about the country’s current standing in the world and our role in conflicts like Crimea.

A CBS News poll released this week found that while a majority said that the United States was less powerful as a world leader than it was 10 years ago (while waist-deep in two wars), roughly the same percentage said that the United States should not take the lead in solving international conflicts.

While most don’t agree with President Obama’s handling of Russia and Ukraine, most have confidence in the president’s handling of international crises.

And, most approve of the sanctions the president has initiated against Russia, but most also don’t believe they’ll be effective.

We can’t call both sides of the coin, people.

I attribute much of this internal conflict that many Americans feel to battle fatigue, or should I say war fatigue, since “just one-half of 1 percent of Americans served in uniform at any given time during the past decade,” according to the Department of Defense.

There are too many of our soldiers still in distant lands, wading through the blood of the fallen or being shipped home broken or maimed or dead. The American ideal of being the world’s lone super power, with infinite influence and strong-arm leverage, is colliding with the reality that we are unable to police the world and that our influence has limits, as well as with our utter distaste for the morass of battle without clear objectives, time limits or exit strategies.

The drums of war have been beating on and off in this country for decades; Americans ache for a moment of silence.

A moment would be good, a decade or three would be much better.  Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

In the debate about poverty, critics argue that government assistance saps initiative and is unaffordable. After exploring the issue, I must concede that the critics have a point. Here are five public welfare programs that are wasteful and turning us into a nation of “takers.”

First, welfare subsidies for private planes. The United States offers three kinds of subsidies to tycoons with private jets: accelerated tax write-offs, avoidance of personal taxes on the benefit by claiming that private aircraft are for security, and use of air traffic control paid for by chumps flying commercial.

As the leftists in the George W. Bush administration put it when they tried unsuccessfully to end this last boondoggle: “The family of four taking a budget vacation is subsidizing the C.E.O.’s flying on a corporate jet.”

I worry about those tycoons sponging off government. Won’t our pampering damage their character? Won’t they become addicted to the entitlement culture, demanding subsidies even for their yachts? Oh, wait …

Second, welfare subsidies for yachts. The mortgage-interest deduction was meant to encourage a home-owning middle class. But it has been extended to provide subsidies for beach homes and even yachts.

In the meantime, money was slashed last year from the public housing program for America’s neediest. Hmm. How about if we house the homeless in these publicly supported yachts?

Third, welfare subsidies for hedge funds and private equity. The single most outrageous tax loophole in America is for “carried interest,” allowing people with the highest earnings to pay paltry taxes. They can magically reclassify their earned income as capital gains, because that carries a lower tax rate (a maximum of 23.8 percent this year, compared with a maximum of 39.6 percent for earned income).

Let’s just tax capital gains at earned income rates, as we did under President Ronald Reagan, that notorious scourge of capitalism.

Fourth, welfare subsidies for America’s biggest banks. The too-big-to-fail banks in the United States borrow money unusually cheaply because of an implicit government promise to rescue them. Bloomberg View calculated last year that this amounts to a taxpayer subsidy of $83 billion to our 10 biggest banks annually.

President Obama has proposed a bank tax to curb this subsidy, and this year a top Republican lawmaker, Dave Camp, endorsed the idea as well. Big banks are lobbying like crazy to keep their subsidy.

Fifth, large welfare subsidies for American corporations from cities, counties and states. A bit more than a year ago, Louise Story of The New York Times tallied more than $80 billion a year in subsidies to companies, mostly as incentives to operate locally. (Conflict alert: The New York Times Company is among those that have received millions of dollars from city and state authorities.)

You see where I’m going. We talk about the unsustainability of government benefit programs and the deleterious effects these can have on human behavior, and these are real issues. Well-meaning programs for supporting single moms can create perverse incentives not to marry, or aid meant for a needy child may be misused to buy drugs. Let’s acknowledge that helping people is a complex, uncertain and imperfect struggle.

But, perhaps because we now have the wealthiest Congress in history, the first in which a majority of members are millionaires, we have a one-sided discussion demanding cuts only in public assistance to the poor, while ignoring public assistance to the rich. And a one-sided discussion leads to a one-sided and myopic policy.

We’re cutting one kind of subsidized food — food stamps — at a time when Gallup finds that almost one-fifth of American families struggled in 2013 to afford food. Meanwhile, we ignore more than $12 billion annually in tax subsidies for corporate meals and entertainment.

Sure, food stamps are occasionally misused, but anyone familiar with business knows that the abuse of food subsidies is far greater in the corporate suite. Every time an executive wines and dines a hot date on the corporate dime, the average taxpayer helps foot the bill.

So let’s get real. To stem abuses, the first target shouldn’t be those avaricious infants in nutrition programs but tycoons in their subsidized Gulfstreams.

However imperfectly, subsidies for the poor do actually reduce hunger, ease suffering and create opportunity, while subsidies for the rich result in more private jets and yachts. Would we rather subsidize opportunity or yachts? Which kind of subsidies deserve more scrutiny?

Some conservatives get this, including Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma. He has urged “scaling back ludicrous handouts to millionaires that expose an entitlement system and tax code that desperately need to be reformed.”

After all, quite apart from the waste, we don’t want to coddle zillionaires and thereby sap their initiative!

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Some of you appear to be very, very worried about which party is going to win control of the Senate in November. Really, you should stop for a while. Take a break. No fretting about undecided voters until there’s at least a minimal chance that the undecided voters know who’s running.

Right now, we’re in the season where center stage goes to whoever screws up the most. Relax and enjoy.

For instance, Scott Brown, who’s pursuing the Republican nomination for the United States Senate in New Hampshire, just had an interview with The Associated Press in which he addressed the fact that he has not actually lived in the state since he was 1 and a half years old.

“Do I have the best credentials? Probably not, ’cause, you know, whatever,” he said.

Brown went on to point out his “strong ties” to New Hampshire, which included a recent move back into his longtime vacation house in the state, and that residency from birth to 18 months, which we all know is one of the most developmentally important periods in a person’s life.

You do have to love the “you know, whatever” part. This is a guy who once got elected senator from Massachusetts on the basis of his easygoing, truck-driving persona. We will now stop to contemplate whether it is possible to take that act too far.

Brown is hardly the only walking gaffe on the campaign trail. Thanks to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, candidates all over the country have been reminded to make sure that if their feel-good videos include footage of a victorious college basketball team, said team is actually from the home state and not, um, Hated Rival Duke.

Then there’s the Improbable Leap to Glory. In Iowa, there are five people running for the Republican Senate nomination, and early polls have shown that voters have no earthly idea who any of them are. Then State Senator Joni Ernst unveiled a TV ad in which she announced: “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm.”

The actual theme of the piece was that Ernst planned to go to Washington and cut pork. But it was obviously the castration angle that got noticed. She looked so happy when she said it. The woman was positively glowing. Unlike the famous Sarah Palin interview in front of a turkey-beheading machine, Ernst’s ad featured pigs that were alive, although perhaps looking a little depressed.

The ad went viral, which is, of course, every candidate’s dream.

Going viral doesn’t always work. (We are thinking of the guy who attempted to defeat Representative Nancy Pelosi by depicting her as a zombie priestess.) But it will usually get you farther than you might have gone without it. And if Ernst winds up winning the primary, we will probably spend the entire fall listening to candidates claim they helped neuter feral cats for the S.P.C.A.

Until this week, the strong favorite to win the Iowa Senate race was Representative Bruce Braley, a Democrat. However, Braley locked up the March award for Stupidest Sentient Candidate by warning a bunch of trial lawyers at a Texas fund-raiser that if they didn’t contribute to his campaign, Republicans might take control of the Senate and there would be “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school” running the Judiciary Committee.

That farmer would be Charles Grassley, who has been representing Iowa in the Senate since 1981.

Someone taped Braley at an off-the-record meeting with a special interest group and Republican operatives posted it on the web! Who ever heard of such a thing happening? No way he could have seen that one coming. The congressman apologized in a statement that stressed his love of agriculture, his youth spent “working a grain elevator” and his confidence that he had the support of “hundreds of farmers across Iowa.” This, too, was somewhat alarming since Iowa has nearly 90,000 farms.

On the plus side, he didn’t say “whatever.”

But New Hampshire’s still my favorite. Scott Brown isn’t the only Republican sniffing around the Senate seat, which is currently held by Democrat Jeanne Shaheen. There’s also Bob Smith, a former New Hampshire senator who was tossed out of office in a 2002 primary and moved to Florida, where he ran for elective office twice with a spectacular degree of failure. But he kept — yes! — a vacation home in New Hampshire.

Carpetbagger issues are generally meaningless. Hillary Clinton worked out fine for New York even though she was so short on connections that she once transformed a childhood car ride from Chicago to Scranton into a visit to Elmira. But you can understand why actual New Hampshire residents might start feeling a little sensitive at this point.

Or perhaps, there’s room for one more. You know who else has a vacation home in New Hampshire? Mitt Romney! He’s tanned. He’s rested. He’s ready. He knows about hidden tape recorders.

And it’s still early.

Blow, solo

March 15, 2014

Mr. Blow has the place to himself this morning since Ms. Collins is off and we’ll be spared Mr. Nocera playing Gunga Din for big oil while he’s on book leave.  In “We Can’t Grow the Gap Away” Mr. Blow says the income chasm not only won’t take care of itself as the economy expands; it’s a barrier to growth.  Here he is:

The shocking level of income inequality in this country has set off alarms that grow louder by the day, but little seems to be underway to reverse the trend.

As a January International Monetary Fund paper that was officially released on Thursday points out:

“In the United States, the share of market income captured by the richest 10 percent surged from around 30 percent in 1980 to 48 percent by 2012, while the share of the richest 1 percent increased from 8 percent to 19 percent. Even more striking is the fourfold increase in the income share of the richest 0.1 percent, from 2.6 percent to 10.4 percent.”

In fact, a study published last year in The Journal of Economic Perspectives found that the share of income going to the top 1 percent in America was higher than in other developed countries.

At the same time, the plight of the poor has grown worse and has become stubbornly resistant to improvement.

The rate of poverty in America remains stuck at the untenably high level of 15 percent. Among children, the rate is 22 percent.

We are reminded ad nauseam about the record number of Americans receiving food assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. What we hear far less about is that a record high percentage of poor families with children are not receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the federal government’s primary welfare program. In 1997, only 36 percent of such families received no TANF benefits; that number in 2012 climbed to 74 percent.

It stands to reason, then, that food insecurity in this country remains alarming high. The United States Department of Agriculture reported in September that 14.5 percent of the country, or 17.6 million American households, “had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources” in 2012.

This widening gap between the hardscrabble and the high rollers is unseemly and unsustainable.

A January poll by the Pew Research Center and USA Today found that “65 percent believe the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased in the last 10 years.”

A February poll by CNN/ORC International found that “more than six in 10 Americans strongly or somewhat agree that the government should work to narrow that gap, compared to 30 percent who believe it should not.”

The president has called rising income inequality and lack of economic mobility “the defining challenge of our time.” And he has been pushing an economic agenda aimed at making a dent in inequality, including raising the minimum wage, extending emergency unemployment benefits and, this week, moving to expand overtime pay.

While these moves would help, they are not nearly enough.

Addressing this issue is not about ensuring an even redistribution of wealth while disregarding great ideas and hard work. Imbalance is built into a capitalistic economy. But the degree to which that imbalance has grown in this country is not only alarming; it could prove deleterious to our economic health.

There are some who suggest that the solution to this inequality problem — if indeed they concede that it is a problem — is simply to grow the economy.

A February I.M.F. paper pointed out the folly of such a tactic: “It would still be a mistake to focus on growth and let inequality take care of itself, not only because inequality may be ethically undesirable but also because the resulting growth may be low and unsustainable.”

Furthermore, as the I.M.F. pointed out in its January paper, inequality could, in fact, be an impediment to growth: “There is growing evidence that high income inequality can be detrimental to achieving macroeconomic stability and growth.”

A December survey of several dozen economists by The Associated Press found that most believe that growing income inequality is hurting our economy.

We can’t grow our way out of this obscenity. It’s a barrier to growth. We must forthrightly address the issue with policy prescriptions. The I.M.F.’s list includes things like means-testing benefit programs, improving access to higher education and health care for the less well off, and “implementing progressive personal income tax rate structures” while “reducing regressive tax exemptions.”

Surely we can figure out how to fix this. We just don’t have the political will to do so.

As long as euphemisms like “food insecurity” are used instead of the more baldly true “hunger” creatures like Paul Ryan, aka ZEGS, will continue to lie about it and continue to cut food assistance to hungry children.  They are the mole people.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

March 13, 2014

In “Bossy Pants?” Mr. Blow says too many children are born to single mothers, but instead of addressing the issue from a policy perspective some harp on pop culture and blame Beyoncé.  Mr. Kristof takes a look at “The Unhealthy Meat Market” and says a handful of companies control what we put on the dinner table, raising concerns for the lives of humans and animals alike.  Ms. Collins considers “Lunch on the Barricades” and says the basic idea of providing healthy subsidized meals for public school students used to be as universally accepted as Social Security. Not so anymore!  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The same week that Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, helped start a campaign to ban the word “bossy,” so as not to discourage women from being assertive, the “Princeton Mom,” Susan Patton, who penned a widely condemned letter about why young women should focus on marriage in The Daily Princetonian, went on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to flog her new book. This is what she told a group of young women working in the studio’s newsroom:

“You’re going to start looking for a husband in your mid-30’s? You’re going to be competing with girls who are 10 years younger than you. And not only can you not compete for men with women 10 years younger than you, because they are 10 years younger than you: they’re dewy-eyed, they’re fresh, they’re adorable.”

Dewy-eyed, fresh and adorable? What an anachronistic message to send to young working women — that desirable men, who presumably have their druthers, are so superficial and libido-driven that professional women can’t hold a candle to perky ones, that a woman who wishes to marry must submit herself to being chosen by the most superficial of men before the wick of her beauty burns low. This, according to Patton, apparently happens in her 30s, which could be only the first third of a woman’s life. This reinforces the most destructive gender stereotype.

Undoubtedly there’s some evolutionary-biological drive among many men and women to choose mates who are fertile and capable of protecting and caring for children, but those are only base instincts. Much of the youth-fetishizing, particularly as it relates to women, is culturally constructed and reinforced. We hyper-sexualize little girls and juvenilize grown women. Both genuine youth and seasoned maturity are sacrificed to that altar.

This is a societal disease.

And it’s no better for little boys, who are constantly admonished to suck it up, toughen up, don’t cry, be a man, and don’t run, hit or kick like a girl. We plant seeds of misogyny, often without being aware of it, while our boys are still sprouts. And then we wonder why so many men are emotionally suppressed and stunted. It’s because we’ve been telling them all their lives that emotions were effeminate and femininity was a curse.

We build zombie men and lament the dearth of “real” ones.

Yet some still bemoan our current atmosphere as “feminized” — a rhetorical construction that in and of itself is misogynistic because it establishes femininity as a lesser, undesirable expression — rather than understanding that femininity and masculinity aren’t strictly gendered and their expressions not rigidly conveyed.

Our current turn toward tolerance for sexual identities and gender expressions isn’t about more people being less of a man or woman, but about more people feeling safe to be more wholly human. And it’s about freedom — freedom of expression, freedom of self-determination and freedom of fluidity.

And still some see any acknowledgment of and respect for sexual and gender differences as an attack on nature and culture at the expense of procreative couples and traditional families.

Let’s be very clear about something: There is no shortage of hetero-normative behavior in this country, or heterosexual pairings and heterosexual sex, or pregnancies or births.

If there is an issue on which we can mostly agree it is that there are too many children born to single mothers. But there is a smart way to address this problem: increase comprehensive sex education, teach young people to better value their bodies and protect their futures, hold male behavior more fully accountable, make contraception readily available and easily affordable and make sure that all women have a full range of reproduction options, including access to abortion.

But on some of these we are just treading water and on others we’re backpedaling.

As the Guttmacher Institute has pointed out, “more abortion restrictions were enacted in 2011-2013 than in the entire previous decade.”

Instead of seriously addressing this issue from a policy perspective, people like Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly would rather harp on pop culture and blame Beyoncé. O’Reilly, slammed her for her song “Partition,” in which she sings about having sex with her husband, and father of her child, calling it “exploitive garbage” that did harm to the teenage girls, “particularly girls of color,” when she knows “the devastation” of unwanted pregnancies and fractured families.

First, some facts: the phenomenon of single motherhood is becoming much more an adult issue than a teen one. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teenage pregnancy rates have declined to historic lows, and the rate of decline in birthrates for women age 15 to 19 since 1990 was even greater among blacks than among whites and Hispanics. The numbers are still too high among teenagers, but the dimensions of the problem are contracting, not growing.

That said, whether one likes or agrees with the message of a music video is irrelevant here. Condemning artists for being provocative when politicians have proven either impotent or regressive is a tired sleight of hand. Instead of protesting a song in which Beyoncé asks her driver to close the partition, O’Reilly would be better served protesting the Republican laws forcing the closings of abortion clinics.

And in O’Reilly’s chastising, there is an undercurrent of shaming women for being too sexually expressive and not sufficiently chaste. Women shouldn’t be sexually liberated beings. Women and girls, particularly those of lesser means, must be taught to demur, resist and abstain lest they entice a wily man and suffer an unwanted pregnancy. As Ann Coulter told a crowd at CPAC last week, poor people should be told to “keep your knees together before you’re married.”

We have to see our girls and boys as more than skirts and pants, damsels and squires, child-bearers and breadwinners. We must see them as — and encourage them to express themselves as — fully realized beings. Girls must be given safe space to be assertive and boys to be vulnerable without feeling that they have failed a test of gender normativity. We must teach everyone to honor themselves fully — including their sexual selves — so that unwanted pregnancies fall in proportion to a rising sense of self.

We must allow girls and boys, men and women, to be fully free.

“Howard” from Los Angeles left a most cogent comment to Mr. Blow’s piece:  “You want to stop unwanted pregnancies? Stop subsidizing Viagra, start subsidizing contraception.  You want to pontificate about poor people choosing present pleasure when their lives are otherwise collapsing around them as unemployment soars? OK, but don’t call yourself either a true conservative or a true Christian.”  Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Where does our food come from? Often the answer is Tyson Foods, America’s meat factory.

Tyson, one of the nation’s 100 biggest companies, slaughters 135,000 head of cattle a week, along with 391,000 hogs and an astonishing 41 million chickens. Nearly all Americans regularly eat Tyson meat — at home, at McDonalds, at a cafeteria, at a nursing home.

“Even if Tyson did not produce a given piece of meat, the consumer is really only picking between different versions of the same commoditized beef, chicken, and pork that is produced through a system Tyson pioneered,” says Christopher Leonard, a longtime agribusiness journalist, in his new book about Tyson called “The Meat Racket.”

Leonard’s book argues that a handful of companies, led by Tyson, control our meat industry in ways that raise concerns about the impact on animals and humans alike, while tearing at the fabric of rural America. Many chicken farmers don’t even own the chickens they raise or know what’s in the feed. They just raise the poultry on contract for Tyson, and many struggle to make a living.

Concerned by the meat oligopoly’s dominance of rural America, President Obama undertook a push beginning in 2010 to strengthen antitrust oversight of the meat industry and make it easier for farmers to sue meatpackers. The aim was grand: to create a “new rural economy” to empower individual farmers.

Big Meat’s lobbyists used its friends in Congress to crush the Obama administration’s regulatory effort, which collapsed in “spectacular failure,” Leonard writes.

Factory farming has plenty of devastating consequences, but it’s only fair to acknowledge that it has benefited our pocketbooks. When President Herbert Hoover dreamed of putting “a chicken in every pot,” chicken was a luxury dish more expensive than beef. In 1930, whole dressed chicken retailed for $6.48 a pound in today’s currency, according to the National Chicken Council. By last year, partly because of Tyson, chicken retailed for an average price of $1.57 per pound — much less than beef.

Costs came down partly because scientific breeding reduced the length of time needed to raise a chicken to slaughter by more than half since 1925, even as a chicken’s weight doubled. The amount of feed required to produce a pound of chicken has also dropped sharply.

And yet.

This industrial agriculture system also has imposed enormous costs of three kinds.

First, it has been a catastrophe for animals. Chickens are bred to grow huge breasts so that as adults they topple forward and can barely breathe or stand.

“These birds are essentially bred to suffer,” says Laurie Beacham of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which argues that there’s an inherent cruelty in raising these “exploding chickens.”

Poultry Science journal has calculated that if humans grew at the same rate as modern chickens, a human by the age of two months would weigh 660 pounds.

Second, factory farming endangers our health. Robert Martin of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health notes that a farm with 10,000 hogs produces as much fecal waste as a small city with 40,000 people, but the hog operation won’t have a waste treatment plant. Indeed, the hogs in a single county in North Carolina produce half as much waste as all the people in New York City, Martin says.

Another health concern is that antibiotics are routinely fed to animals and birds to help them grow quickly in crowded, dirty conditions. This can lead to antibiotic resistant infections, which strike two million Americans annually (overuse of antibiotics on human patients is also a factor, but four-fifths of antibiotics in America go to farm animals).

Third, this industrial model has led to a hollowing out of rural America. The heartland is left with a few tycoons and a large number of people struggling at the margins.

Leonard writes in his book that in 68 percent of the counties where Tyson operates, per capita income has grown more slowly over the last four decades than the average in that state. We may think of rural America as a halcyon pastoral of red barns and the Waltons, but today it’s also a land of unemployment, poverty, despair and methamphetamines.

It’s easy to criticize the current model of industrial agriculture, far harder to outline a viable alternative. Going back to the rural structure represented by the inefficient family farm on which I grew up in Oregon isn’t a solution; then we’d be back to $6.48-a-pound chicken.

But a starting point is to recognize bluntly that our industrial food system is unhealthy. It privatizes gains but socializes the health and environmental costs. It rewards shareholders — Tyson’s stock price has quadrupled since early 2009 — but can be ghastly for the animals and humans it touches. Industrial meat has an acrid aftertaste.

Last but not least we have Ms. Collins:

Let’s consider school lunches.

Always an important topic. But to be honest, it’s only coming up right now thanks to Representative Paul Ryan, who took a strong, principled stand against school lunches in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference. (“What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul.”)

Ryan’s point was that mothers who pack their children’s lunches are showing their love, while kids who get their food from the cafeteria lady will feel that nobody cares. Have you ever heard a more terrible thing to say?

Most American mothers work, and they are already guilt-ridden over everything under the sun. They are constantly hearing stories about some other woman who has six kids and manages a major corporation yet still finds time to sew a sequin-crusted mermaid costume for the 8-year-old’s Halloween parade. Most American mothers feel remarkably successful when everybody gets off to school with matching socks. Now Paul Ryan wants to tell them they’ve committed child abuse by failure to fill a brown bag.

Fortunately, the speech ended badly: Ryan included a story about a poor schoolboy begging for a home-packed lunch, which turned out to be rather fictional. But it was still an interesting window into the right’s growing antipathy toward school meals.

School lunches have always been political, in a peculiar agricultural way. The frozen food lobby takes on the fresh produce people. The tomato growers do battle with nutritionists who don’t want to count pizza as a vegetable. The anti-starch advocates versus the potato growers. (In 2011, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Mark Udall of Colorado led a successful bipartisan drive to protect the right of potatoes to roam free across the menus of American school cafeterias.)

But the basic idea of providing healthy subsidized meals for public school students used to be universally accepted. Like Social Security, or federally funded bridge reconstruction.

No more. These days, you can find vocal opposition to any federal program that gives something to poor people. Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia, who’s running for the Republican Senate nomination, has been arguing that kids who qualify for subsidized school meals should be required to do janitorial work in order to demolish the idea “that there is such a thing as a free lunch.”

Then there’s that vision of the hand-packed meal as a symbol of Family. Every once in a while, a rumor crops up that an elementary school somewhere is prohibiting brown bags and forcing all its students to eat Obamafare. This does not actually seem to be happening. However it is true that the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the school lunch program, is wildly sensitive to any suggestions that it would ever get between a child and a homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “What the parent decides is sufficient,” said Undersecretary Kevin Concannon.

(Concannon has a picture in his office that was taken when he toured a school in New Orleans. He’s chatting over lunch with a little girl who pointed to his plate and said: “Mister, if you’re not going to finish your broccoli, I’ll finish it for you.” He has seen the future, and it is eating green vegetables.)

Finally, there’s the rancor toward the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which Congress passed in 2010 with the strong backing of Michelle Obama. Its push toward healthier school menus is a popular target with the right. In theory, this is a rejection of federal interference with local decision-making. But, mainly, I suspect, it’s an attempt to remind average Americans that the first lady gets up to work out at 4:30 a.m. and probably does not approve of some of their lifestyle choices.

Plus, it’s always easy to make fun of kale. Los Angeles schools, which were trailblazers, got no end of grief for their rather abrupt transition from chocolate milk and chicken nuggets to a menu that was heavy on things like vegetable curry and lentils. “Schoolkids in Los Angeles have blown the whistle on the east wing chef-in-chief’s healthy lunch diktats,” announced columnist Michelle Malkin triumphantly.

David Binkle of the Los Angeles Unified School District says that after a rather rocky shakedown, things are going great and student food sales are way up. “And we don’t even have pizza on the menu.” The kids are drinking more milk than ever, even without chocolate flavoring. The lentils are still there, Binkle said, but they tend to be hidden away in salads.

We’ll be hearing more complaints soon; the second phase of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act kicks in this year, and it includes bans on snacks like candy bars, Doritos, or sugary soft drinks, even in vending machines. Gone from the cafeteria forever.

Unless your mother packs them in a brown paper bag.

Blow and Collins

March 8, 2014

We’ll be spared Mr. Nocera’s water carrying for big oil for a while since he’s on book leave.  Today Mr. Blow considers “The Self(ie) Generation” and says we seem to be experiencing a wave of liberal-minded detach-ees, a generation in which institutions are subordinate to the individual.  Ms. Collins, in “Cloudy and Cold,” says two more abortion clinics were forced to close in Texas, and the state is moving on to the next phase of pressuring clinics.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

A fascinating new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that millennials (defined by Pew as Americans ages 18 to 33) are drifting away from traditional institutions — political, religious and cultural.

Before we make a value judgment about these changes, let’s lay them out and understand how fundamentally they will transform the structure of American society and our conception of societal norms.

According to the survey and to Pew’s analysis of it:

■ “Half of millennials now describe themselves as political independents and 29 percent are not affiliated with any religion — numbers that are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the last quarter-century.”

■ “Millennials are the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations had at the same age.”

■ “Just 26 percent of millennials are married. When they were the age that millennials are now, 36 percent of Gen Xers, 48 percent of baby boomers and 65 percent of the members of the silent generation were married.”

■ “Asked a longstanding social science survey question, ‘Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,’ just 19 percent of millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31 percent of Gen Xers, 37 percent of silents and 40 percent of boomers.”

■ Millennials “are ‘digital natives’ — the only generation for which” the Internet, mobile technology and social media “are not something they’ve had to adapt to.”

Younger people in general are less likely to say that they are patriotic or religious, but the gap between millennials and Generation Xers is greater than the gap between most other generations.

Millennials also are far more likely than other generations to say they are supporters of gay rights.

Although half of millennials describe themselves as independent, 57 percent say their views on social issues “have become more liberal” over the course of their lives. This is in direct opposition to older generations, who, Pew says, have about half or more of the group saying their social views “have become more conservative.” One might argue that millennials simply haven’t lived long enough to hit the triggers that might engender more conservatism — marriage, families, mortgages — but it could just as well be that this group of young people is fundamentally different.

Part of the political issue is, again, that millennials seem to shun institutions. Only about a third of them said there was a “great deal of difference” between the Republican and Democratic Parties. Still, Republicans have the most to worry about with this group. As the survey puts it: “Even so, this generation stood out in the past two presidential elections as strikingly Democratic. According to national exit polls, the young-old partisan voting gaps in 2008 and 2012 were among the largest in the modern era, with millennials far more supportive than older generations of Barack Obama.”

Ten years ago, 24 percent of millennials identified as Republicans, but that number has steadily dropped and now stands at a paltry 17 percent. By contrast, the percent identifying as Democrats over the period fell only from 30 percent to 27 percent.

Furthermore, millennials were the sole generation in which a majority supported bigger government with more services as opposed to smaller government with fewer services. And although most millennials, like most people in older generations, disapproved of the new health care law, millennials were the only generation in which a majority said it was the government’s responsibility to ensure universal health care coverage.

Part of this divergence results from the fact that millennials are more racially diverse than any other generation, with 43 percent of Americans in this age group nonwhite. When you look just at white millennials, a majority still support smaller government and reject the notion that it’s the government’s job to ensure universal health care.

If there is an opening for Republicans, it is here: Millennials’ views on abortion and gun rights aren’t much dissimilar from that of other generations, and millennials are far less likely to say they are environmentalists.

All in all, we seem to be experiencing a wave of liberal-minded detach-ees, a generation in which institutions are subordinate to the individual and social networks are digitally generated rather than interpersonally accrued.

This is not only the generation of the self; it’s the generation of the selfie.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

People, have you noticed that the news has been really depressing lately? These are the times when you come to understand why there’s so much interest in watching kitten videos. Do you think it’s the weather?

Consider Texas, where two more abortion clinics were forced to close this week. If the courts don’t intervene, by the end of the year Texas may be down to six places where a woman can go to end a pregnancy. That’s in a state of 268,000 square miles, with 26 million people.

“I felt like I was having a funeral,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, the chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health, which ran the clinics. She and her staff and supporters held a vigil at the shuttered office in McAllen, a very poor town in the Rio Grande Valley. They read profiles of the women the clinic had served. Miller read one of a woman in her 40s, who had three children, two grandchildren and a strong conviction that she could not handle another birth.

The state now requires that any doctor who performs abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital. Few of them do, and it’s not medically necessary. Trying to comply, Miller contacted more than 30 doctors who had referred patients to her clinic and asked them for help — the applications needed to be co-signed by someone who already had admitting privileges. Only one agreed. Then, when Miller asked the hospital for an application for the doctor to sign, the management refused to give her one.

Texas is leading the pack on this crusade, but other states are right behind it, restrained only by legal challenges. If Mississippi’s admitting privileges law is upheld, the state’s last abortion clinic will be closed. Alabama and Wisconsin are in the same situation; if their laws are upheld, they would be down to two clinics each.

Meanwhile, Texas is moving on to Step 2. As of September, it will require the clinics, which perform only simple early-term abortions, to have all the equipment, space and special air and water filters necessary to do a surgical procedure like a hip transplant. Miller determined the cost of complying would be in the neighborhood of $3 million per clinic.

There’s been a vague attempt to cloak all these new laws as health care imperatives, but, really, the cover is pretty thin. During the debate on the Texas bill, State Senator Dan Patrick told his colleagues to ask themselves: “How would God vote tonight if he were here?”

I am mentioning Patrick because this week he came in first for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, campaigning as “a Christian first, a conservative second and a Republican third.” He has also been desperately busy ginning up anti-immigration sentiment; this is the guy who claimed illegal immigrants were threatening Texas with “third world diseases” like leprosy. The lieutenant governor, by the way, is possibly the most powerful public official in the state.

Well, turnout for the primaries was very low. It was freezing down there on Tuesday. Once again, we leap at a chance to blame the weather.

The social right has been waving the banner of religious freedom lately. What that generally means is the right to impose one’s theology on other people. Particularly, it seems, when sex is involved.

For instance, the Supreme Court is scheduled to decide, in its next big Obamacare case, whether the craft-store chain Hobby Lobby can refuse to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives on religious grounds. Hobby Lobby actually already covers its employees’ birth control pills. Its owners just object to a few things, like intrauterine devices, because they have religious convictions against preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. Scientists disagree that’s what an IUD does, but what the heck? It’s their theology.

The war on abortion is often grounded in a simple aversion to sex that does not lead to procreation. If that wasn’t the case, Texas would be making a major-league effort to end its standing as one of the nation’s teen pregnancy capitals by giving kids the best and most effective sex education programs in the country.

That isn’t happening. “By and large, it’s not getting better,” said Susan Tortolero of the University of Texas, an expert in sex education. (This gives me an opportunity to recall one lesson that required the teacher to demonstrate the alleged inability of condoms to protect against sexually transmitted diseases by constructing an 18-foot-long model of “Speedy the Sperm” and dragging it around the classroom.)

Maybe someday we can all come together and create a public space where kids are raised to make responsible decisions about their sex lives. Where every woman has access to help with family planning, even if they’re poor and live in remote rural areas. Where early abortions are available when they’re needed but abortions after the first trimester are extremely rare. After all, if you poke the public, you’ll find that’s where the majority’s preference already dwells.

Or, at least, maybe it will get warm and sunny.

The men (and trust me, it’s men) who have decided they’d rather send women to back alleys to risk infection and death (I remember the old days) will wind up answering to God.  And I think they’ll be surprised…

Blow, Kristof and Collins

March 6, 2014

In “Republicans Place the Wrong Bet” Mr. Blow says conservatives, grasping at straws and straining credulity, paint a picture of a president who is domestically dictatorial but internationally anemic.  Mr. Kristof asks a question:  “Who’s the Villain Here?”  He says when Republicans slam President Obama for Ukraine’s crisis and demand that something be done, it’s childish and dangerous.  Ms. Collins considers “Billion Dollar Babies” and finds an oligarch here, an oligarch there, here an oligarch, there an oligarch, everywhere an oligarch.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Republicans may have bet too heavily on the wrong issue going into the midterm elections.

When the health care law’s website wasn’t working, the law itself was at its most unpopular and its most newsworthy, and the president’s poll numbers were cratering, many Republicans made the calculation that they could ride the wave of woe to an overwhelming electoral victory in November.

But betting on stasis is stupid. Things change.

The White House called in the geek squad, and they fixed the site. Last week, the White House also announced that four million people have now enrolled in the health care program. The president’s poll numbers have stabilized, albeit in negative territory. The news winds shifted. And Democrats have found an issue that they can campaign on and that America likes — helping the working class through things like raising the minimum wage.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Wednesday found that 50 percent of respondents would be more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who supports increasing the minimum wage, as opposed to 19 percent who said that they were less likely. Twenty-eight percent said that it wouldn’t make a difference.

A closer look at the numbers reveals that 72 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of the all-important independents would be more likely to vote for candidates who support the increase.

The same poll found that 34 percent of respondents are more likely to vote for candidates who support the federal health care law, while 36 percent are less likely to vote for them and 27 percent said it wouldn’t make a difference.

Seventy percent of Republicans were less likely to vote for a candidate who supported the law, while only 35 percent of independents are less likely to vote for a candidate who supports it.

The strength in these numbers is obviously on the side of what the Democrats are for, rather than what the Republicans are against.

This is by no means the determining factor for the midterms, but the sense of impending doom among Democrats is beginning to ease.

To be sure, there are still issues. The health care law remains unpopular, and Obama keeps adjusting the rules that govern it. It remains unclear whether the program will sign up enough young, healthy people to make it work as desired. As CNN put it:

“For months, administration officials embraced CBO estimates anticipating that 18- to 34-year-olds would comprise roughly 40 percent of the total. The current number is about 27 percent.”

And as The New York Times pointed out last week, polls show that Republicans maintain a small electoral edge. But small is the operative word here. As the paper pointed out, “42 percent say they will back Republicans in November, and 39 percent indicate that they will back Democrats, a difference within the poll’s margin of sampling error.”

So now we have Republicans desperately searching for a fallback.

Darrell Issa, the chairman of Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sought to keep the fading I.R.S. “scandal” on life support by once again calling the former I.R.S. official Lois Lerner to testify. He sought a link between how an I.R.S. official managed an avalanche of new applications by politically active groups for tax-exempt status and the White House, or at least a wider anti-Tea Party conspiracy. Once again, Republicans failed. Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right, again. And Issa made himself the chief spectacle in a quixotic partisan scene, again, by cutting off the Democratic congressman Elijah Cummings’s mic when he attempted to speak. Bad form.

Paul Ryan has begun to focus on poverty from a Republican perspective, releasing a report this week that calls for cutting programs designed to help the poor. Only in the Republican house of mirrors does this make sense, but he essentially makes the argument that current programs haven’t eliminated poverty but, in some ways, have made it worse. The mitigating factors at play are given short shrift.

Furthermore, Ryan’s version of Compassionate Conservative 2.0 seems to be built on bad, or at least distorted, math, as is Ryan’s wont. As The Fiscal Times reported Tuesday, “several economists and social scientists contacted on Monday had reactions ranging from bemusement to anger at Ryan’s report, claiming that he either misunderstood or misrepresented their research.”

And since President Vladimir V. Putin moved Russian forces into Crimea, Republicans have fallen over one another to be among the first to hang the crisis around the president’s neck.

Senator John McCain said this week that we should care about Putin’s push “because this is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America’s strength any more.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, never one to be bettered on the outrage scale, attempted once again to demonstrate that among some Republicans, all roads lead to Benghazi, Libya. In a series of tweets Tuesday, the senator said:

“It started with Benghazi. When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression. #Ukraine

“Putin basically came to the conclusion after Benghazi, Syria, Egypt — everything Obama has been engaged in — he’s a weak indecisive leader.”

“I think Putin believes Obama is really all talk and no action. And unless we push back soon, the worse is yet to come.”

Conservatives are painting a picture of a president who is domestically dictatorial but internationally anemic, but that is schizophrenic and strains credulity.

They seem to be grasping at straws now that their best cudgel is splintering.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Shrewd reporting about the Ukraine crisis comes from The Onion, which declared that American reaction is evenly divided — between the “wholly indifferent” and the “grossly misinformed.”

In the latter category, it seems, belong the chest-thumpers who blame the Crimea catastrophe on President Obama.

“We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression,” scolded Senator Lindsey Graham (revealing his own weakness: grammar). “President Obama needs to do something!”

Likewise, Senator John McCain complains that Obama’s foreign policy is “feckless,” so that “nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.”

Representative Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, worries that Russia is “running circles around us.” The Washington Post warns in a stinging editorial that “President Obama’s foreign policy is based on fantasy.” The Wall Street Journal cautions that the basic problem is “Obama’s retreat from global leadership.”

Oh, come on! The villain here is named Putin, not Obama, and we should have learned to feel nervous when hawks jump up and down and say “do something!” We tried that in Iraq. When there are no good options, a flexing of muscles by NATO or by American warships in the Black Sea would only reinforce President Vladimir Putin’s narrative to his home audience while raising the risk of conflict by accident or miscalculation.

Look, it’s true that Obama’s foreign policy has often been disappointing. Tripling the number of American troops in Afghanistan was a mistake. So was rejecting the advice of Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus to arm the moderate Syrian opposition. The Obama pivot to Asia has stalled, serious engagement with Pakistan ended with the death of Richard Holbrooke, and Obama has appointed some appallingly uninformed campaign donors to be ambassadors.

Then again, Obama’s focus on nation-building at home is a nice change of pace from the Bush years. Moreover, Middle East peace talks are a plus, and talking to Iran is preferable to loose talk about bombing Natanz.

The basic constraint is that there are more problems in international relations than solutions. The critics I cite often rely on two fallacies: first, that Putin is driven by Obama’s weakness; second, that the seizure of Crimea is a great win for Russia.

The Soviet Union didn’t invade Hungary because of President Eisenhower’s weakness, nor Czechoslovakia because of President Johnson’s weakness. Russia didn’t help dismember Moldova because of George H.W. Bush’s weakness or invade Georgia because of George W. Bush’s.

We don’t have much leverage because Putin cares far more about Ukraine than he does about being in the G-8. So, by all means, let’s raise the cost of aggression with banking sanctions (which proved most effective against North Korea and Iran), but let’s also recognize that, in the long run, it’s Putin who has stumbled here.

Russia has just driven Ukraine into the West’s orbit and acquired a long-term headache. Russia is already pouring billions of dollars into the bits of Georgia and Moldova that it pilfered, and now it’ll have to subsidize Crimea (which depends on Ukraine for water and electricity).

Putin’s other problem: If Crimea becomes independent, its pro-Russian population will no longer vote in Ukrainian elections. The upshot would be Ukraine skewing even more to the West.

My father grew up in western Ukraine, near Chernivtsi. Our family house was in better shape in the 1930s than it is today. A highway that my grandfather helped build a century ago was barely passable on my last visit. Corruption is far worse today. The entire system has failed, so, of course, western Ukrainians look across the border at a thriving Poland, now firmly embedded in Europe, and see that as a far better model for the future.

Likewise, in a couple of decades, Russians may well look over the border at a thriving, European Ukraine and want that model for themselves as well. So be strong, Senators Graham and McCain: Putin’s advantage is temporary.

Republicans should be pointing to Obama’s genuine giant foreign policy failure — Syria — and not Ukraine. The right’s demands that Obama confront Putin also seem odd because many on the right have praised Putin and his traditional values. The American Conservative suggested in December that Putin might be “one of us,” and Rudy Giuliani lately hailed Putin’s decisiveness and said: “That’s what you call a leader.”

Giuliani’s proposed solution to the Ukraine crisis: “We push him around. That’s the only thing a bully understands.”

It’s heart-stoppingly brave of unarmed Ukrainian soldiers, singing for courage, to walk toward Russian troops who point machine guns at them and then fire in the air. But idle calls from a television studio for Obama to “do something” or to push Putin around, that strikes me as not brave, just puerile.

Last but not least we come to Ms. Collins:

The Koch brothers are in the news more than Justin Bieber.

This week, the billionaire siblings from Kansas made the top 10 in Forbes’s list of wealthiest people on the planet. In fact, if you lump Charles and David Koch together, they’re No. 1. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid embarked on a rampage of anti-Koch speeches, denouncing the brothers as cancer-causing polluters who pour unlimited money into conservative political campaigns in an “un-American” attempt to subvert democracy.

Then Charles Koch gave an interview to The Wichita Business Journal! I know, I know. But given the supreme lowness of the brothers’ low profile, it was an electric moment.

“Somebody has got to work to save the country and preserve a system of opportunity,” Koch said, explaining his late-life calling as the nation’s premier right-wing megadonor.

My question for today is: Do you think it’s fair to call these guys oligarchs? We have been thinking about oligarchs lately since our attention has been fixed on the former Soviet Union, which is Oligarch Central. In fact, the new Ukrainian government just responded to the tensions in its eastern region by dispatching two billionaires to serve as provincial governors.

“Oligarch” sounds more interesting than “superrich person with undue political influence.” The Koch brothers have a genius for being publicly boring, while plowing vast sums of money into political action groups designed to make it difficult for anybody to make a good estimate of how much they’ve given to promote their goal of, um, saving the country.

Maybe it would help focus the public mind if we started referring to them as the Wichita oligarchs.

We do need to focus. The country has had very rich folks trying to influence national policy forever. But these days they seem to be getting very richer by the moment, and thanks to the Supreme Court, there’s no longer any real lid on what they can spend.

Who would you want to count as an oligarch? I’d definitely vote for any billionaires who underwrite campaigns against environmental regulation while their company shows up as No. 14 on the list of Toxic 100 Air Polluters. We’re looking at you, Kochs. (Thank you for the information, Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts.)

Michael Bloomberg? Bloomberg bought himself 12 years as New York City mayor; his final election cost him more than $100 million, or $174 per vote, which sounds pretty darn oligarchic. Although when it comes to promoting a political career, being mayor will get you a good seat at a large number of parades.

Warren Buffett? He’s richer than any individual Koch. But, I’m sorry. I do not see an oligarch running around demanding that the government raise his taxes.

I would definitely have voted for the late Harry Simmons of Texas, who donated $31 million to political action committees in the last presidential election cycle. The collapse of campaign finance laws was a big time-saver for Simmons, whose estranged daughter once said that he gave her $1,000 for each blank political contribution card she signed. But Simmons died last year, as did Bob Perry, a billionaire Texas realtor who shared Simmons’s enthusiasm for that Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry.

“The question we’re asking is: who’s going to fill the oligarch vacuum?” said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice. “And what do you call the level right under oligarchs? We’ve got plenty of them.”

What comes below oligarchs? I guess mini-garchs. And below them, microgarchs. If you have a chance, try to refer to Donald Trump as a microgarch. It will drive him crazy.

But back to the real money: How about Paul Singer? He’s a hedge fund billionaire who’s sort of famous as the conservative donor who supports gay rights. As oligarchs go, however, he has a troubled track record: Rudy Giuliani in 2008, Chris Christie in 2012, Chris Christie, um, now.

Tom Steyer? This is another hedge fund billionaire. He’s also an environmental activist who’s investing $100 million in a fund to reward politicians who support climate change legislation and punish those who don’t. The Center for Public Integrity, which dubs Steyer’s new fund a “single-issue vanity super PAC,” is not a fan. But at least he’s not crusading for healthier hedge funds.

Sheldon Adelson? You remember Sheldon Adelson. He’s the billionaire casino owner who’s currently funding a campaign to combat online gambling. Adelson claims he’s propelled by a “moral standard,” which apparently involves saving betters from losing money in any venue that does not involve going to a casino. But we will always remember him as the guy who invested more than $16 million in the presidential prospects of Newt Gingrich.

This is truly only the billionaire beginning. Feel free to offer nominees. But don’t get carried away. We want to be selective here. Start calling everybody an oligarch and it won’t be special anymore. It’ll just be like calling them lobbyists.


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