Archive for the ‘Bruni’ Category

Friedman and Bruni

April 22, 2015

In “Deal or No Deal?” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us about the challenges the Obama administration faces in negotiating with Iran.  Mr. Bruni, in “Hollywood Trumps Harvard,” says there are sad morals to the stories of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Mehmet Oz.  Here’s TMOW:

The Obama team’s effort to negotiate a deal with Iran that could prevent the Iranians from developing a nuclear bomb for at least a decade is now entering its critical final stage. I hope that a good, verifiable deal can be finalized, but it will not be easy. If it were, we’d have it by now. Here are the major challenges:

First, you can negotiate a simple arms control agreement with an adversary you don’t trust. We did that with the Kremlin in the Cold War. By simple, I mean with relatively few moving parts, and very clear verification procedures that do not require much good will from the other side — like monitoring Soviet missile sites with our own satellites. You can also negotiate a complicated arms control deal with a country that shares your values: Japan and South Korea regularly submit their nuclear facilities to international inspections.

But what is hard to implement is a complex arms control deal with an adversary you don’t trust — like Iran or North Korea. Each moving part requires some good will from the other side, and, because there are so many moving parts, the opportunities for cheating are manifold. It requires constant vigilance. Are the United States, Russia, China and Europe up for that for a decade? After the Iraq invasion, we took our eye off North Korea, and it diverted nuclear fuel for a bomb. With Iran, the U.S. Energy Department is planning to put a slew of new, on-the-ground monitoring devices into every cranny of Iran’s nuclear complex, which should help. But there also has to be zero-tolerance for cheating — and a very high price if there is.

Second, for us, this is solely an arms control agreement. For Iran, this is “an identity crisis” that it’s being asked to resolve, and it’s still not clear it can do so, says Robert Litwak of the Wilson Center and the author of “Outlier States: American Strategies to Contain, Engage, or Change Regimes.”

America’s engagement with Iran, said Litwak, is like “the Cuban missile crisis meets the Thirty Years’ War.” For us, this is a pure nuclear negotiation, but, for Iran, the nuclear issue “is a proxy for what kind of country it wants to be — an ordinary state or an Islamic revolutionary state. And this divide goes back to the origins of its revolution” in 1979. Most revolutions eventually go through some cultural rebalancing that breaks its fever and turns it toward normalcy and integration, Litwak added: “But Iran has never gone through that process. It tantalized us with reformist presidents who didn’t really hold power and when push came to shove never challenged the fundamentals of the revolutionary deep state that had the monopoly on the use of force” and control of its nuclear program.

There is a hard core in Tehran for whom nuclear weapons are not only a hedge against foreign invasion but also a deliberate thumb in the eye of the world meant to block the very integration that would open Iran to influences from America and the West — an opening they fear would dilute whatever revolutionary fervor is left in its youths, many of whom are fed up with Iran’s isolation. That is why Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was telling the truth when he recently said that he has not made up his mind about this deal. He’s having an identity crisis. He wants sanctions relief without integration. After all, if Iran is a normal state, who needs a medieval cleric to be the “supreme leader?”

The challenge for Obama is whether he can do a deal with an Iran that, as Litwak puts it, “doesn’t change character but just changes behavior.” Obama’s bet — and it is not crazy — is that if you can get the right verification procedures in place and deprive Iran from making a bomb for a decade (that alone is worth a deal, given the alternatives) then you increase the odds of Iran’s own people changing Iran’s character from within. But then so much rides on implementing a fail-proof verification regime and “snapback” sanctions if Iran cheats.

I think President Obama believes that nothing has stymied U.S. Mideast policy more in the last 36 years than the U.S.-Iran cold war, and if that can be prudently eased it would equal a Nixon-to-China move that opens up a lot of possibilities. Again, that’s not crazy. It’s just not easy given the forces in Iran who have an interest in being isolated from the West.

Finally, you have the regional challenge. Iran, with about 80 million people, is simply a more powerful and dynamic state today than most of the Sunni Arab states to its west, half of which have collapsed. Iran, even if it had good intentions, almost can’t help but project its power westward given the vacuum and frailty there. When Nixon opened to China, and helped unleash its economic prowess, China was largely surrounded by strong or economically powerful states to balance it. But an Iran enriched by billions in sanctions relief would be even more powerful vis-à-vis its weak Arab neighbors. Our Gulf Arab allies are deeply worried about this and are looking to the U.S. for both protection and more sophisticated arms. I get that. But unless we can find a way to truly ease tensions between Shiite Persians and Sunni Arabs, we will find ourselves unleashing Iran to the max while arming the Arabs to the teeth. Maintaining that balance will not be easy.

These are not reasons to reject the deal. They are reasons to finish it right.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Call me an idealist, but I’d like to think that the halls of higher education are less vulnerable to the siren calls of fame and fortune than other byways of American life are. I’d like to believe in a bold dividing line between academic virtues and celebrity values, between intellectual and commercial concerns.

But Henry Louis Gates Jr., a renowned Harvard professor, and Mehmet Oz, a surgeon on the faculty at Columbia, get in my way.

I link the two because they’re both in the news, not because they’re equally in thrall to the television camera or identically unabashed peddlers of something other than fact. Oz is by far the more compromised figure.

But Gates, too, exemplifies what happens when a lecturer is bathed in bright lights and gets to hang with Ben Affleck, who will soon be on-screen in Batman’s billowing cape.

Affleck was a guest last October on the PBS documentary series “Finding Your Roots,” in which Gates takes luminaries — Sting, Stephen King, Angela Bassett — on journeys into their pasts. Affleck signed up for the trip.

But when he learned that he had a slave-owning ancestor, he asked that the detail be excised, according to communications between Gates and his friend Michael Lynton, the chief executive of Sony Entertainment. Their exchange was part of the hacked Sony emails recently shared by WikiLeaks.

“We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found,” Gates wrote to Lynton, going on to fret over the “integrity” of the series. “He’s a megastar. What do we do?”

Gates left the detail out.

After the disclosure of this late last week, he insisted, unpersuasively, that the cut reflected nothing more than the need to make room for other ancestors of Affleck’s who warranted inclusion in the episode.

Regardless, it exposed Gates, a trusted authority on the African-American experience, to accusations that he’d sold out. It diminished him.

But wasn’t that inevitable from the moment he hitched scholarship to show business?

“We conflate what a PBS special is with academic work,” Carol Anderson, who teaches at Emory University, told Jamil Smith in The New Republic. “We have to understand that so much of what we see there is packaged for a nonacademic audience that wants the picture of really deep, intellectual discussion, but is not quite ready for what that means.”

What does the audience of “The Dr. Oz Show” want?

To judge by what Oz gives them, it’s winnowed thighs, amulets against cancer and breathless promises of “magic” and “revolutionary” breakthroughs.

Oz has morphed not just willingly but exuberantly into a carnival barker. He’s a one-man morality play about the temptations of mammon and the seduction of applause, a Faustian parable with a stethoscope.

Many Americans probably had no idea that he remained affiliated with Columbia — he’s vice chairman of its surgery department — until they read last week about an email sent to the university by 10 physicians around the country. They accused him of “promoting quack treatments” for “personal financial gain” and urged Columbia to sever its ties with him.

He’s expected to defend himself on television later this week, and his publicity machine has gone into overdrive, seeking to discredit the physicians and frame the issue as one of free speech.

But don’t forget that he was called before a United States Senate panel last year to explain his on-air gushing about green coffee extract, raspberry ketones and other faddish weight-loss supplements. Admonishing him, Senator Claire McCaskill noted that “the scientific community is almost monolithic” in its rejection of “products you called ‘miracles.’ ”

Also remember that the British Medical Journal published a study of scores of his show’s medical recommendations, saying more than half didn’t have sound scientific backing.

And bear in mind that the Sony emails included one that showed Oz to be eager, as Vox reported, “to use his platform on the show to help expand Sony’s fitness and health-tracking devices market.” Sony is one of the producers of “Dr. Oz.”

But well beyond Oz, there’s an unsettling corruption of academia by celebrity culture.

Many professors do double duty as television pundits, even though sound bites, which are inherently unsubtle, run counter to what scholarship exalts. And educational institutions choose speakers largely — and sometimes solely — for their star power. The University of Houston spent $155,000 to schedule Matthew McConaughey for its commencement next month.

Maybe he’s more learned than we realize. Or maybe erudition counts for less than buzz, even in those enclaves that are supposed to be about deep, durable things.

Friedman and Bruni

April 15, 2015

The Moustache of Wisdom asks “What’s Up With You?”  He says the United States and China are now totally intertwined.  Mr. Bruni, in “My Father’s Secret,” says that in his twilight years, a man plays his cards with exquisite care.  Here’s TMOW:

While U.S.-Iran relations are taking up all the oxygen in the room these days, and they’re vitally important for the future of the Middle East, U.S.-China relations are vitally important for the world — and there’s more going on there than meets the eye. The concept of “one country, two systems” was invented to describe the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China. But here’s the truth: the American and Chinese economies and futures today are now totally intertwined, so much so that they are the real “one country-two systems” to watch. And after recently being in China to attend the big Boao Forum on Hainan Island, and hearing President Xi Jinping speak, what is striking is how much each side in this relationship currently seems to be asking the other, “What’s up with you?”

Both countries almost take for granted the ties that bind them today: the $600 billion in annual bilateral trade; the 275,000 Chinese studying in America, and the 25,000 Americans studying in China; the fact that China is now America’s largest agricultural market and the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt; and the fact that last year Chinese investment in the United States for the first time exceeded American investment in China.

But dig underneath and you find these two systems increasingly baffled by the other. Chinese officials still have not gotten over their profound shock at how the United States — a country they took as an economic model and the place where many of them learned capitalism — could have become so reckless as to trigger the 2008 global subprime mortgage meltdown, which started the trope in China that America is a superpower in decline.

Chinese officials were also baffled by an effort by President Obama’s team to resist China’s establishment of an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, by lobbying our biggest economic allies — South Korea, Australia, France, Germany, Italy and Britain — not to join. While the Treasury secretary, Jack Lew, kept stressing publicly, and responsibly, that the only American concern was that the bank operate by international standards, other Obama officials actively pressed U.S. allies to stay out. Except for Japan, they all snubbed Washington and joined the Chinese-led bank. The whole episode only empowered Beijing hard-liners who argue that the United States just wants to keep China down and can’t really accommodate it as a stakeholder.

Americans, though, are asking of President Xi: “What’s up with you?” Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is clearly aimed at stifling the biggest threat to any one-party system: losing its legitimacy because of rampant corruption. But he also seems to be taking out potential political rivals as well. Xi has assumed more control over the military, economic and political levers of power in China than any leader since Mao. But to what end — to reform or to stay the same?

Xi is “amassing power to maintain the Communist Party’s supremacy,” argued Willy Wo-Lap Lam, author of “Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping: Renaissance, Reform or Retrogression?” Xi “believes one reason behind the Soviet Union’s collapse is that the party lost control of the army and the economy.” But Xi seems to be more focused on how the Soviet Union collapsed than how America succeeded, and that is not good. His crackdown has not only been on corruption, which is freezing a lot of officials from making any big decisions, but on even the mildest forms of dissent. Foreign textbooks used by universities are being censored, and blogging and searching on China’s main Internet sites have never been more controlled. Don’t even think about using Google there or reading Western newspapers online.

But, at the same time, Xi has begun a huge push for “innovation,” for transforming China’s economy from manufacturing and assembly to more knowledge-intensive work, so this one-child generation will be able to afford to take care of two retiring parents in a country with an inadequate social-safety net.

Alas, crackdowns don’t tend to produce start-ups.

As Antoine van Agtmael, the investor who coined the term “emerging markets,” said to me: China is making it harder to innovate in China precisely when rising labor costs in China and rising innovation in America are spurring more companies to build their next plant in the United States, not China. The combination of cheap energy in America and more flexible, open innovation — where universities and start-ups share brainpower with companies to spin off discoveries; where manufacturers use a new generation of robots and 3-D printers that allow more production to go local; and where new products integrate wirelessly connected sensors with new materials to become smarter, faster than ever — is making America, says van Agtmael, “the next great emerging market.”

“It’s a paradigm shift,” he added. “The last 25 years was all about who could make things cheapest, and the next 25 years will be about who can make things smartest.”

President Xi seems to be betting that China is big enough and smart enough to curb the Internet and political speech just enough to prevent dissent but not enough to choke off innovation. This is the biggest bet in the world today. And if he’s wrong (and color me dubious) we’re all going to feel it.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni, writing from Atlantic City:

“Wait until you see this trick,” he told me. “This secret. You’re guaranteed to make money. I’ll show you when we sit down at a table.”

A blackjack table, he meant. Dad loves blackjack, especially with my three siblings and me, and we’ll circle a casino floor for an hour just to find a dealer with enough empty seats for three or four or all five of us, so that we can have our own little cabal.

He inducted us into the game decades ago, in Vegas, and we continued to play over the years, because it was another excuse and another way to spend time together: our ritual, our refuge.

Before last weekend, we hadn’t played in a long while. But for his 80th birthday, he got to choose the agenda for a weekend out of town. He picked blackjack. And he picked Atlantic City, because it was closer than Vegas and good enough.

It’s funny how modest his desires can be, given what a grand life he’s lived. He’s the American dream incarnate, all pluck and luck and ferociously hard work and sweetly savored payoff.

He grew up outside New York City, the oldest child of relatively poor immigrants from southern Italy. English was his second language.

He managed to be elected president of his high school over the blond quarterback from the right side of the tracks, then won a full scholarship to college. But first he had to persuade his parents that four years in New Hampshire at a place called Dartmouth could be as beneficial as an apprenticeship in a trade.

He married a grade-school sweetheart and stayed married to her through business school, a sequence of better jobs and a succession of bigger homes until she died at 61, just months shy of his retirement and of what were supposed to be their golden years. He eventually learned how to work the dishwasher, but never how to go more than a few minutes without pining for her.

It’s the phase of his life since my mother that I find most compelling, because it’s a tribute to what people are capable of on the inside, not the outside.

They can open up, soften up and step up. When Mom was around, my father’s assigned role in the family was as the stern disciplinarian — he played the warden, so that Mom could be our friend — and he was never forced to notice our hurts or attend to them, to provide succor and counsel in matters of the heart.

Then he had to, because he was the only parent left. He held my sister’s hand through her divorce. He made sure to tell me and my partner that our place in the family was the same as any other couple’s.

And his nine grandchildren, only two of whom my mother lived to meet, came to know him as their most fervent and forgiving cheerleader, ever vigilant, ever indulgent. Their birthdays are the sturdiest part of his memory. He never fails to send a gift.

A generous man from the start, he has somehow grown even more generous still, not just with items of measurable value but with those of immeasurable worth, like his time. His gestures. His emotions.

He has figured out what makes him happiest, and it’s doing the little bit that he can to nudge the people he loves toward their own contentment. It’s letting us know how much he wants us to get there. It’s being obvious about all of that and, in the process, bringing a smile to our lips, a twinkle to our eyes.

Here’s what happened, on this milestone birthday of his, when we finally found the right blackjack table and fanned out around him and it was time for his trick:

He asked each of us — his kids, our life mates — to stretch out a hand. And into every palm he pressed two crisp hundred-dollar bills, so that our initial bets would be on him and we would start out ahead of the game.

“See?” he said. “You’re already a winner.”

That was it — his secret for blackjack, which is really his secret for life, and has nothing, obviously, to do with the money, which we’re blessed enough not to need too keenly and he’s blessed enough not to miss too badly.

It has to do with his eagerness, in this late stage of life, to make sure that we understand our primacy in his thoughts and his jubilation in our presence. It has to do with his expansiveness.

I pray I learn from his secret. I hope to steal it.

Bruni and Collins

April 4, 2015

In “Bigotry, the Bible and the Lessons of Indiana” Mr. Bruni explains that what’s wrong and what’s righteous changes with time and with enlightenment, unless we resist it.  Ms. Collins, in “And Now, Political Virgins,” says lawmaking in Texas is back to being very, very personal.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

The drama in Indiana last week and the larger debate over so-called religious freedom laws in other states portray homosexuality and devout Christianity as forces in fierce collision.

They’re not — at least not in several prominent denominations, which have come to a new understanding of what the Bible does and doesn’t decree, of what people can and cannot divine in regard to God’s will.

And homosexuality and Christianity don’t have to be in conflict in any church anywhere.

That many Christians regard them as incompatible is understandable, an example not so much of hatred’s pull as of tradition’s sway. Beliefs ossified over centuries aren’t easily shaken.

But in the end, the continued view of gays, lesbians and bisexuals as sinners is a decision. It’s a choice. It prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since — as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing.

It disregards the degree to which all writings reflect the biases and blind spots of their authors, cultures and eras.

It ignores the extent to which interpretation is subjective, debatable.

And it elevates unthinking obeisance above intelligent observance, above the evidence in front of you, because to look honestly at gay, lesbian and bisexual people is to see that we’re the same magnificent riddles as everyone else: no more or less flawed, no more or less dignified.

Most parents of gay children realize this. So do most children of gay parents. It’s a truth less ambiguous than any Scripture, less complicated than any creed.

So our debate about religious freedom should include a conversation about freeing religions and religious people from prejudices that they needn’t cling to and can indeed jettison, much as they’ve jettisoned other aspects of their faith’s history, rightly bowing to the enlightenments of modernity.

“Human understanding of what is sinful has changed over time,” said David Gushee, an evangelical Christian who teaches Christian ethics at Mercer University. He openly challenges his faith’s censure of same-sex relationships, to which he no longer subscribes.

For a very long time, he noted, “Many Christians thought slavery wasn’t sinful, until we finally concluded that it was. People thought contraception was sinful when it began to be developed, and now very few Protestants and not that many Catholics would say that.” They hold an evolved sense of right and wrong, even though, he added, “You could find scriptural support for the idea that all sex should be procreative.”

Christians have also moved far beyond Scripture when it comes to gender roles.

“In the United States, we have abandoned the idea that women are second-class, inferior and subordinate to men, but the Bible clearly teaches that,” said Jimmy Creech, a former United Methodist pastor who was removed from ministry in the church after he performed a same-sex marriage ceremony in 1999. “We have said: That’s a part of the culture and history of the Bible. That is not appropriate for us today.”

And we could say the same about the idea that men and women in loving same-sex relationships are doing something wrong. In fact the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have said that. So have most American Catholics, in defiance of their church’s teaching.

And it’s a vital message because of something that Indiana demonstrated anew: Religion is going to be the final holdout and most stubborn refuge for homophobia. It will give license to discrimination. It will cause gay and lesbian teenagers in fundamentalist households to agonize needlessly: Am I broken? Am I damned?

“Conservative Christian religion is the last bulwark against full acceptance of L.G.B.T. people,” Gushee said.

Polls back him up. A majority of Americans support marriage equality, including a majority of Catholics and most Jews. But a 2014 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that while 62 percent of white mainline Protestants favor same-sex marriages, only 38 percent of black Protestants, 35 percent of Hispanic Protestants and 28 percent of white evangelical Protestants do.

And as I’ve written before, these evangelical Protestants wield considerable power in the Republican primaries, thus speaking in a loud voice on the political stage. It’s no accident that none of the most prominent Republicans believed to be contending for the presidency favor same-sex marriage and that none of them joined the broad chorus of outrage over Indiana’s discriminatory religious freedom law. They had the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary to worry about.

Could this change? There’s a rapidly growing body of impressive, persuasive literature that looks at the very traditions and texts that inform many Christians’ denunciation of same-sex relationships and demonstrates how easily those points of reference can be understood in a different way.

Gushee’s take on the topic, “Changing Our Mind,” was published late last year. It joined Jeff Chu’s “Does Jesus Really Love Me?” published in 2013, and “Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships,” by James Brownson, which was published in 2013.

Then there’s the 2014 book “God and the Gay Christian,” by Matthew Vines, who has garnered significant attention and drawn large audiences for his eloquent take on what the New Testament — which is what evangelicals draw on and point to — really communicates.

Evaluating its sparse invocations of homosexuality, he notes that there wasn’t any awareness back then that same-sex attraction could be a fundamental part of a person’s identity, or that same-sex intimacy could be an expression of love within the context of a nurturing relationship.

“It was understood as a kind of excess, like drunkenness, that a person might engage in if they lost all control, not as a unique identity,” Vines told me, adding that Paul’s rejection of same-sex relations in Romans I was “akin to his rejection of drunkenness or his rejection of gluttony.”

And Vines said that the New Testament, like the Old Testament, outlines bad and good behaviors that almost everyone deems archaic and irrelevant today. Why deem the descriptions of homosexual behavior any differently?

Creech and Mitchell Gold, a prominent furniture maker and gay philanthropist, founded an advocacy group, Faith in America, which aims to mitigate the damage done to L.G.B.T. people by what it calls “religion-based bigotry.”

Gold told me that church leaders must be made “to take homosexuality off the sin list.”

His commandment is worthy — and warranted. All of us, no matter our religious traditions, should know better than to tell gay people that they’re an offense. And that’s precisely what the florists and bakers who want to turn them away are saying to them.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

On Tuesday in Texas, the House of Representatives voted to take $3 million earmarked for prevention of H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases, and spend it instead on abstinence-only sex education. It was a fascinating moment — particularly when the sponsor of the motion, a Republican named Stuart Spitzer, told the House that he had been a virgin until he got married at age 29.

“What’s good for me is good for a lot of people,” he said.

This had historic reverberations. Several years ago, then-Gov. Rick Perry conducted a fabled interview with The Texas Tribune in which Perry defended the state’s stress on abstinence-only sex education while his interviewer pointed out that Texas had one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country.

“I’m just going to tell you from my own personal life. Abstinence works,” Perry retorted.

Does Texas traditionally decide state policy based on politicians’ sexual history? If so, that’s terrifying.

The debate in Austin degenerated when a Democrat demanded to know whether Representative Spitzer — who, I have to point out, is a doctor — had ever tried to proposition other women before his wife accepted.

That was going overboard. The Democrats should have stuck with their earlier lines of argument, which included pointing out that Texas gets more federal money for abstinence-only sex education than any other state, and that Texas has a teen birthrate that is almost twice as high as California’s, which has completely barred schools from limiting their courses on sex to the advisability of not having any.

All that was news to Dr. Spitzer, who did admit that abstinence-only education “may not be working well.” This had no effect whatsoever on his insistence that Texas needed to do more of it. His proposal passed and went to the State Senate.

So that was lawmaking on sex in Texas. Meanwhile, over in Arizona, the State Legislature was passing a bill that requires doctors who perform drug-induced abortions to tell their patients that the procedure may be reversible, even though most scientists say it isn’t.

This business of legislating fiction is rather widespread. The Guttmacher Institute, which keeps track of these things, has counted 12 states where women seeking abortions have to be informed that a 20-week-old fetus can feel pain, research to the contrary notwithstanding. Four states require that women be given inaccurate portrayals of the effects of an abortion on future fertility. In five states, a woman who wants an abortion has to be informed that abortions are linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.

I’m working up to a point here. The nation is becoming more rational about gay sex and more irrational about heterosexual sex. Who would have thought?

Gay residents of Indiana had a big victory this week when the Legislature there amended a “freedom of religion” law it had just passed, making clear that nothing in it would permit businesses to discriminate against, say, gay weddings. Social conservatives are fuming, since discriminating against gay weddings was the entire point.

But the business community rose up in support of gay rights, just as it did last year when the same thing happened in Arizona. Politicians retreated in terror. By summer, most observers expect the Supreme Court to declare that gay Americans have a constitutional right to get married. And then the battle will pretty much be won.

But heterosexual women are being pushed further and further back. The good old Guttmacher Institute recently reported that during the first three months of the year, nearly 800 proposals relating to sexual and reproductive health and rights were introduced in state legislatures.

It was probably inevitable that once gay Americans started coming out of the closet and revealing that they were everybody’s friends, relatives and next-door neighbors, acceptance would follow. I always think about my mother, a conservative Catholic in Ohio, who had amazing gay caregivers in her later years and wound up riding on a float in Cincinnati’s gay pride parade.

Abortion is no longer the dark secret it used to be, but women who’ve had an abortion generally don’t think of it as part of their identity, any more than they identify themselves as consumers of birth control pills or wearers of IUDs. That kind of stuff is private.

Which is the exact reason politicians need to keep their hands off. But they don’t, and the business community certainly didn’t rise up when Indiana became one of the first states to enact a ban on abortions after 20 weeks. Nobody called for a boycott when the State Legislature required that women seeking to end their pregnancies be informed that life begins at conception.

If male legislators could get pregnant, we’d have a different story. Except, of course, for the ones in Texas who are saving themselves for marriage.

I’ve said it a thousand times before — if men got pregnant abortion would be a sacrament.

Friedman and Bruni

March 11, 2015

The Moustache of Wisdom appears to have been living in a cave for a while.  He woke up recently, looked around, and has a question:  “Is It Sheldon Adelson’s World?”  He’s finally noticed that the influence of Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and financial backer of right-wing causes, is being felt in both the United States and Israel.  Mr. Bruni, in “Hillary’s Prickly Apologia,” says she’s got a primary contest, all right. It’s against the ghosts of the 1990s and her own defensive ways.  Here’s TMOW:

The symbolism was too powerful to ignore. As anyone who watched Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech last week in Congress knows, one of the people prominently seated in the House gallery was the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a primary financial backer of both the Republican Party and Netanyahu. As The Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz reported, at one point Adelson’s wife, Miriam, accidentally knocked her purse off the House gallery railing and it hit Representative Brad Ashford, a Nebraska Democrat seated below. The Post noted that Adelson had given $5 million to the G.O.P.’s Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, which had spent $35,000 in a failed effort to defeat Ashford in his 2014 race against Representative Lee Terry. Ashford later joked to The Omaha World-Herald: “I wish I’d opened the purse. Do you think she carries cash?”

We certainly know that Mr. Adelson does. And when it came to showering that cash on Republican presidential hopefuls and right-wing PACs trying to defeat President Obama (reportedly $150 million in 2012), and on keeping Netanyahu and his Likud party in office, no single billionaire-donor is more influential than Sheldon. No matter what his agenda, it is troubling that one man, with a willingness and ability to give away giant sums, can now tilt Israeli and American politics his way at the same time.

Israel has much stricter laws on individuals donating to political campaigns, so Adelson got around that in 2007 by founding a free, giveaway newspaper in Israel — Israel Hayom — whose sole purpose is to back Netanyahu, attack his enemies in politics and the media, and enforce a far-right political agenda to prevent any Israeli territorial compromise on the West Bank (which, in time, could undermine Israel as a Jewish democracy). Graphically attractive, Israel Hayom is now the biggest-circulation daily in Israel. Precisely because it is free, it is putting a heavy strain on competitors, like Yediot and Haaretz, which both charge and are not pro-Netanyahu.

Adelson then bought the most important newspaper of the religious-nationalist right in Israel, Makor Rishon, long considered the main backer of Netanyahu’s biggest right-wing rival, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. Last March, in an interview with Israel Army Radio after the Makor Rishon sale, Bennett said: “It saddens me. Israel Hayom is not a newspaper. It is Pravda. It’s the mouthpiece of one person, the prime minister. At every junction point, every point of friction between the national interest and the interest of the prime minister, they chose the side of the prime minister.”

The Washington Post said that last November at a conference of the Israel American Council, a lobbying group Adelson has funded, he joked in a public discussion with another wealthy Israeli: “Why don’t you and I go after The New York Times?” Told it was family owned, Adelson quipped, “There is only one way to fight it: money.” At this same conference Adelson was quoted as saying that Israel would not be able to survive as a democracy: “So Israel won’t be a democratic state,” he added. “So what?”

Last March in Las Vegas Adelson organized his own private Republican primary. Politico wrote at the time: “Adelson summoned [Jeb] Bush and Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin to Las Vegas. … The new big-money political landscape — in which a handful of donors can dramatically alter a campaign with just a check or two.” When Christie, in his speech before Adelson, described the West Bank as “occupied territories,” some Republican Jews in the audience were appalled. So, Politico reported, Christie hastily arranged a meeting with Adelson to explain that he had misspoken and that he was a true friend of Israel. “The New Jersey governor apologized in a private meeting in the casino mogul’s Venetian office shortly afterward,” Politico reported. It said Adelson “accepted” Christie’s “explanation” and “quick apology.”

When money in politics gets this big, when it can make elected officials bow and scrape in two different countries at the same time, it is troubling. I’m sure Adelson cares deeply about Israel, but he lacks any sense of limits in how he exercises his extraordinary financial power — power he is using to simultaneously push Israel and America toward eliminating any two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, toward defunding the Palestinian Authority and toward a confrontation with Iran, not a diplomatic solution. People need to know this.

The most important bonds between Israel and America always emerged from the bottom up — a mutual respect between two democracy-loving peoples. Money can’t buy those bonds, but it can threaten them by going to excess — by taking Israel’s true good will in America and using it to help one party “stick it” to the president, one big donor drive his extreme agenda, one party appear more pro-Israel than the other for electoral reasons or one Israeli politician win re-election. People who go “all the way” like this will one day go over a cliff. They will regret it. So will the rest of us.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

“Convenience.” “Convenience.” “Convenience.” “Convenience.”

Hillary Clinton’s reliance on that word during her news conference at the United Nations on Tuesday minimized the exemption from standard procedure that she allowed herself when she decided — all on her own — to use only a private email address for both personal and government business.

She told reporters that she hadn’t wanted to be weighed down by a second electronic device. It wasn’t secrecy that motivated her. It was purse space and pinkie strain.

And behind her forced smile, which was practically cemented in place, she seemed put out by all the skepticism and all the questions. She shouldn’t be. This latest Clinton controversy is not the work or fault of Republican enemies or a ruthless, unappeasable press corps. It’s her doing.

She made a choice when she stepped into the secretary of state’s job that was bound to be second-guessed if it ever came to light, as everything eventually does. And when it did, she was silent about it for a week, letting suspicions fester.

She was on the spit Tuesday because she placed herself there.

But the real problem with the news conference wasn’t anything specific that she said or didn’t say, any particular tone of voice or set of her shoulders that she aced or bungled.

It was what kept coming to mind as she stood before the cameras once again, under fire once again, aggrieved once again by Americans’ refusal to see and simply trust how well intentioned and virtuous and good for the country she is:

Yesterday.

It was all so very yesterday.

And elections are about tomorrow. Yes, that’s a cliché, but it’s also unassailable political truth.

And Clinton’s challenge is to persuade an electorate that has known her since the Mesozoic era and trudged wearily with her through so much political melodrama that to vote for her is to turn the page, to embrace a new chapter, to move forward.

On Tuesday she didn’t look as if she was leaning into the future. She looked as if she was getting sucked into the past.

That’s not where voters want to go. Oh, sure, the Clinton years are remembered as prosperous ones, and she and Bill don’t hurt her cause by rekindling those memories and stoking a bit of nostalgia.

But nostalgia doesn’t win elections. The promise of solutions to problems and better times ahead does. And right now there’s little horizon in Clinton’s unofficial campaign for the White House; it’s almost all rearview mirror. The conversation — incredibly — has returned to Rose Law Firm records lost and found, to the pricey privilege of the Lincoln Bedroom, to Whitewater.

Her “convenience”-fixated remarks at the United Nations won’t change that.

They may nudge the news narrative in a different direction, because the news narrative is always ready for a different direction, and because she made some smart, deft moves.

She spoke of a wedding and of a funeral and even of yoga, reminding everyone that she’s not merely a functionary but a daughter and a mother, with concerns not just about her upward rise but also about the downward dog.

She made a plea for protected spaces in public life that most voters will find sympathetic.

She made a very good point: that even government officials who have two email accounts decide, whenever they write a new communication, which one to use. So they’re doing a real-time editing not much different from her after-the-fact editing when she made the call about which of her tens of thousands of emails to turn over to the State Department.

But what she needs, not so much to put this behind her as to get ahead, is a kind of reset, a reboot, one in which she sublimates her understandable desire to conduct her business in the way she prefers to a show of openness and transparency. She shouldn’t simply be assuring voters that they can trust her and that no outside arbiter is needed. She should be eliminating the shields and shenanigans that create room for distrust in the first place.

That would be a break with the Clintons of the 1990s, a departure from politics as usual and a sign to voters that in order to make political history, she’s willing to examine her personal history, acknowledge her mistakes and change her ways, electing candor over ceaseless calculation.

No more minced words. No more split hairs. No more donations to the Clinton Foundation that have a whiff of hypocrisy and suggest conflicts of interest.

She’s going to have a primary, all right, but it will be a contest against her own worst impulses, default defensiveness and prickly sense of insult when pressed for explanations. From what I saw Tuesday, victory is uncertain.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  Any time I see her name on a ballot I’m writing in Elizabeth Warren.

Friedman and Bruni

March 4, 2015

The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “What Bibi Didn’t Say:”  Now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has had his say, it’s time to ask: What is in America’s best interest?  Mr. Bruni considers “Hillary’s Messy Habits” and says in recent weeks, as in the past, the Clintons have been needlessly arming their opponents.  Here’s TMOW:

Now that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made his case on Iran before Congress, with all the circus atmosphere it involved, let’s get to the serious questions: What is America’s interest in striking a deal with Iran? Because our interests and Israel’s are not fully aligned. What is the minimum we need to satisfy our interests? And how should we balance the critiques of our policy from the serious Bibi versus the cynical Bibi?

What both the United States and Israel agree on, and I certainly do, is that Iran must be prevented from building a nuclear bomb, because it could be used to threaten the Jewish state and, once loaded onto a missile, Europe and the Arab states as well. Moreover, if Iran gets a bomb, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt would surely be tempted to do so as well, and, suddenly, you’d have a Middle East that is already full of sectarian proxy wars also full of nuclear weapons — with few of the deterrent safeguards you had during the Cold War between Washington and Moscow. There are actors in the Middle East for whom “mutual assured destruction” is an invitation to a party — not a system of mutual deterrence. Also, if Iran gets a bomb, there’s a good chance the whole global nuclear nonproliferation regime, already frayed, would totally unravel, which would be very destabilizing.

Here, President Obama and Netanyahu share the same concerns. And, in fairness, I doubt there would have been the sanctions and negotiations we have today with Iran had Bibi not threatened to go full “Dr. Strangelove” on Tehran.

However, Bibi argues that any deal should eliminate all of Iran’s centrifuges and related components that can enrich material for a bomb. I don’t begrudge him that wish. Most of my Israeli friends share it. But, as Robert Einhorn, a former member of the U.S. negotiating team with Iran, observed in an Op-Ed article in The Times, that position “is neither achievable nor necessary” to safeguard our security or that of our Mideast allies.

Netanyahu never made a convincing argument as to why walking away from Obama’s draft deal with Iran would result in either a better deal, more sanctions or an Iranian capitulation — and not a situation where Iran would continue to build toward a bomb and our only two choices would be to live with it or bomb it, with all the mess that could entail. In that sense, Bibi’s speech was perfect for Congress: I’ve got a better plan, and it won’t cost a thing or require any sacrifice by the American people. The guy could be a congressman.

The U.S. position — shared by China, Russia, Germany, Britain and France — is: Given that Iran has already mastered the techniques to make a bomb and managed to import all the components to do so, despite sanctions, it is impossible to eliminate Iran’s bomb-making capabilities. What is possible is to demand that Iran roll back its enrichment and other technologies so that if Iran decided one day to make a bomb, it would take it a year — more than enough time for the U.S. and its allies to destroy it.

I think such a deal would be in America’s interest if — if — it includes Iran agreeing to constant, intrusive and unannounced inspections of, and limits on, all bomb-making capacities and if, even after the specified 10 years, there are more-than-the-usual inspections. I would also welcome Congress accompanying the deal by granting the president formal authorization — right now — to use “any means necessary” to respond should Iran try to break out of the deal.

These conditions would satisfy U.S. strategic concerns, while opening the possibility — nothing more — for Iran to become more integrated into the global system. Ultimately, the only safeguard against Iran’s nuclear ambitions is an internally driven change in the character of Iran’s regime.

My problem with Netanyahu is that he warned that the interim deal Obama negotiated with Iran — which froze and rolled back parts of Iran’s nuclear program and created these negotiations — would lead to a collapse of sanctions and be violated by Iran. None of it happened.

Moreover, Bibi’s message was that there is nothing more important than deterring Iran. O.K. But, if that were my top priority, would I engineer an invitation to speak to Congress by leveraging only the Republican Party and do it without even informing the president, who is running the Iran talks? And would I do it two weeks before Israeli elections, where it looks as though I am using the American Congress as a backdrop for a campaign ad, raising the question of whether my opposition to Iran is partly a political pose? And if I needed the Europeans to be on my side for tighter sanctions, wouldn’t I announce no more settlement-building in the West Bank in areas everyone knows will be part of any negotiated Palestinian state? Such a move would cost Bibi politically with his base, but would certainly increase Israel’s support from Europe.

Alas, Bibi is Churchill when it comes to isolating Iran, but he is AWOL when it comes to risking his own political future to make it happen. I have a problem with that. I still don’t know if I will support this Iran deal, but I also have a problem with my own Congress howling in support of a flawed foreign leader trying to scuttle the negotiations by my own government before they’re done. Rubs me the wrong way.

Rubs you the wrong way???  That’s all you have to say???  Whatta schmuck…  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

Hillary and Bill Clinton have one home in Washington, D.C., another in Chappaqua, N.Y., and a whole wide world that opens its arms and wallets to them.

But their permanent address is on the fault line where defiance meets self-destruction.

They know what the caricature of them is and they play right into it. They’re familiar with the rap against them and generously feed it. And they tune out their critics, at least the ones they’re not savaging.

Although they’ve long been derided for a surrender of principle when they’re on the hunt for donations, their foundation has raked in money in a manner that opens them up to fresh, predictable accusations of that.

Although they’ve long been cast as greedy — remember the china, flatware and furniture carted out of the White House? — they hit the speaking circuit in a way that only strengthened that impression. Audiences of Wall Street bankers, fees in the hundreds of thousands, extra coddling: They have demanded, received and inevitably been blasted for all of that.

And now, from Michael Schmidt’s story in The Times, we learn that Hillary’s response to her reputation for flouting rules and operating in secrecy was to put what could be construed as a cloak over her communications as secretary of state by using only a private email account.

There’s pushback from her defenders over how rare this really was. There are explanations and information still to come.

But this was reckless, given the questions that would surely be asked if it came to light, the likelihood that it would, and how she’d wind up looking.

Does she have a political death wish?

Until a month ago, one of the arguments I frequently heard in favor of her presumed candidacy for the presidency was that she’d been vetted like nobody’s ever been vetted, with no surprises left. All the skeletons had been tugged from the Clintons’ labyrinthine closets. All the mud had been dug up and flung.

But that assessment shortchanged the couple’s ability to make new messes. It ignored the “Groundhog Day” in which they star.

Republicans are having a field day. The dominant figure at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week wasn’t Jeb Bush, Rand Paul or Scott Walker. It was Hillary Clinton, in absentia.

Referring to the controversial sources of funds raised by the Clinton Foundation in recent years, Ted Cruz joked that she wasn’t present because the conference’s organizers “couldn’t find a foreign nation to foot the bill.”

Reince Priebus added: “Hillary barely comes out in public these days. If there’s not a private luxury jet and a quarter-million-dollar speaking fee waiting for her, you can forget about it.”

That gibe was over the top. But it touched on a worry that many Democrats have: Can Hillary, of all Democrats, persuasively style herself as a champion of the struggling middle class?

It also demonstrates how much ammunition she’s needlessly giving a future Republican rival.

That is, if she runs and if she gets her party’s nomination. Democrats should look closely at the revelations of recent weeks and think hard about finding a primary opponent for her, one more fearsome than those who have stepped forward so far.

Only then would she get the practice she may need in answering the latest charges against her. Only then would Democratic voters see how well she handles that. Only then would they be forced to reckon fully with her habit of clinging to her ways.

She and Bill have lived their entire political lives under fire, some of it deserved, some of it not. It’s as if they decided at a certain point that they’d never get a fair shake and should cut the corners that they could and behave as they wished. Their foes would storm the gates regardless.

But there are times when the Clintons are their own worst enemies.

Insistent that his persecutors would find sexual misdeeds even where none existed, Bill gave them a blue dress and Monica Lewinsky.

Aggrieved by the way her detractors saw her as haughtily above it all, Hillary decided on an approach to emails as secretary of state that has made her look haughtily above it all.

Is that entitlement? Or hubris?

An inability to change? Or a refusal to?

I approached someone who knows the Clintons well, asked how to make sense of this and got an answer that echoed observations about them from the past: “They’d rather seek forgiveness than permission.”

Because they have passion and talent, forgiveness has routinely come. But the longer they live on that fault line, the greater the chance of an irredeemable misstep, and the taller the odds that they’ll reclaim a temporary address: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

February 22, 2015

In “The G.O.P. Policy Test” Putzy has a question:  Which candidates are true reformers, and which are just giving reform lip service?  In his comment “gemli” from Boston has this to say:  “It doesn’t matter what Republicans say. After six years of near-total lack of governance, endless filibusters, dozens of impotent symbolic votes to kill Obamacare and a government shut down, their actions have said it all.”  MoDo also has a question in “Jeb Bush’s Brainless Trust:”  Can you be your own man if you have to keep insisting you are your own man, while using all your family’s donors and advisers?  Mr. Kristof, in “Straight Talk for White Men,” says the evidence is overwhelming that unconscious bias remains widespread in ways that systematically offer benefits based on race and gender.  Mr. Bruni has the final question of the day in “Hillary, Jeb and $$$$$$:”  When candidates rake in this much, what do they give away?  Their souls, Mr. Bruni, assuming they have such things.  Here’s Putzy:

The economy is sluggish but improving. President Obama’s approval rating is mediocre but not disastrous. Memories of Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful presidential campaign are relatively fresh — not least because Romney popped up briefly to remind everyone of them. And the Republicans pondering a run for president in 2016 all seem to sense that they need do to things a little, well, differently if they expect to ultimately win.

Maybe that means talking more about inequality — even putting it right in the heart of your economic pitch, as Jeb Bush seems intent on doing. Maybe it means trying to reach constituencies (young, black, Hispanic) that the Romney campaign mostly wrote off, which is what Rand Paul thinks his libertarian message can accomplish. Maybe it means projecting the most Middle American, Kohl’s-shopping, non-Bain Capital image possible — which is why the recent media fascination with Scott Walker’s lack of a college diploma was probably a boon to the Wisconsin governor.

When it comes to the Republican Party’s basic presidential-level problem, though — the fact that many persuadable voters don’t trust a Republican president to look out for their economic interests — it should be easy to tell whether the way a candidate differentiates himself will actually make a difference. Just look at what he proposes on two issues: taxes and health care.

These are obviously not the only domestic policies worthy of debate. But they’re two places where the immediate link between policy and take-home pay is very clear and two places where abstract promises about “opportunity,” “mobility” and “the American dream” either cash out or don’t.

Precisely because there’s real money on the table, they are places where being a reformer requires more than lip service. One reason issues like immigration and education are appealing to Republican politicians looking to change their party’s image is that policy change in these areas seems relatively cheap — more green cards here, new curricular standards there, and nothing that requires donors and interest groups to part with their favorite subsidies and tax breaks.

But you can’t reform the tax code or health care that easily, which is why those issues offer better, tougher tests of whether a would-be conservative reformer should be taken seriously.

Not coincidentally, they’re policy tests that Obama-era Republicans have often conspicuously failed. On taxes, the party has been enamored of reforms — some plausible, some fanciful — that would cut taxes at the top while delivering little, or even higher taxes, to most taxpayers. (It’s an odd position for a party that is officially anti-tax to take in an age of wage stagnation, but at least the donors have been happy.) On health care, the G.O.P. has profited from the unpopularity of Obamacare, but we are now at Year 6 and counting without anything more than the pretense of a conservative alternative.

These failures have not been for want of policy options; they’ve been for want of ingenuity and will. The list of plausible conservative health care alternatives now literally fills a book — “Overcoming Obamacare,” from The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein, which any G.O.P. presidential contender would do well to at least pretend to have read. The best of these alternatives would allow a Republican candidate to promise, as Romney did not, to mostly maintain Obama’s coverage expansion (albeit with less comprehensive coverage) while lowering health insurance premiums for most Americans.

On tax policy, similarly, several obvious avenues are open to a would-be reformer. One possibility is the family-friendly tax reform championed by Senators Marco Rubio (the presidential contender with the strongest policy agenda to date) and Mike Lee, which would deliver substantial tax relief to families with children. Another is a straightforward payroll tax cut, which would raise take-home pay for existing workers and reduce the cost of hiring new ones.

But again, these kinds of policies cost money. A plausible Obamacare alternative requires a tax credit for purchasing insurance; a middle-class tax cut requires, well, a middle-class tax cut. If you want these things, you probably can’t have certain other priorities beloved by the party’s donor base — like, say, the lowest possible top marginal tax rate.

So embracing reforms that deliver something tangible to middle-class voters means embracing a policy fight.

But Republicans who decide to duck that fight won’t really be tackling Middle America’s biggest challenges — or their party’s biggest political problem.

If Jeb Bush decides that his big reform ideas will be immigration and the Common Core, his “right to rise” rhetoric will be mostly empty. If Scott Walker campaigns on, say, a flat tax and restoring the pre-2009 health insurance status quo, his middle-class shtick will remain just that.

But if the party nominates a candidate who offers something genuinely different on these issues than his predecessors did in 2008 and 2012, the possibility of a different general-election outcome might be there for the taking.

Keep on whistling past the graveyard, Putzy.  Here’s MoDo:

I had been keeping an open mind on Jeb Bush.

I mean, sure, as Florida governor, he helped his brother snatch the 2000 election. And that led to two decade-long botched wars that cost tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. The nation will be dealing for a long time with struggling veterans and the loss of American prestige. Not to mention that W. let Wall Street gamble away the economy, which is only now finally creeping back.

But, all that aside, shouldn’t John Ellis Bush have the right to make the case that he is his own man?

In his foreign policy speech in Chicago on Wednesday, Jeb was dismissive toward those who want to know where he stands in relation to his father and brother. “In fact,” he said, mockingly, “this is a great, fascinating thing in the political world for some reason.”

For some reason?

Like the Clintons, the Bushes drag the country through national traumas that spring from their convoluted family dynamic and then disingenuously wonder why we concern ourselves with their family dynamic.

Without their last names, Hillary and Jeb would not be front-runners, buoyed by networks of donors grateful for appointments or favors bestowed by the family. (When Jeb and W. ran gubernatorial races in 1994, they both mined their mother’s Christmas card list for donors.)

Yet Jeb is bristling with Jane Austen-style condescension, acting as though he would still be where he is if his last name were Tree. The last two presidents in his party were his father and brother, and his brother crashed the family station wagon into the globe, and Jeb is going to have to address that more thoroughly than saying “there were mistakes made in Iraq for sure.”

He says he doesn’t want to focus on “the past,” and who can blame him? But how can he talk about leading America into the future if he can’t honestly assess the past, or his family’s controversial imprint?

In his speech, he blamed President Obama for the void that hatched ISIS, which he also noted didn’t exist in 2003 at the dawn of “the liberation of Iraq.” Actually, his brother’s invasion of Iraq is what spawned Al Qaeda in Iraq, which drew from an insurgency of Sunni soldiers angry about being thrown out of work by the amateurish and vainglorious viceroy, Paul Bremer.

Although Jeb likes to act as though his family is irrelevant to his ambitions, Bushworld stalwarts recite the Bush dynasty narrative like a favorite fairy tale:

The wonky Jeb, not the cocky W., was always 41’s hope. H.W. and Bar never thought W., unprepared, unruly and with a chip on his shoulder, would be president. His parents’ assumption that he was The One got in Jeb’s head and now the 62-year-old feels he needs “to try to correct and make up for some of W.’s mistakes,” as one family friend put it. The older Bush circle seems confident that Jeb sided with his father and Brent Scowcroft on the folly of letting the neocons push America into diverting from Osama to Saddam.

So for Bushworld, Jeb is the redeemer, the one who listens and talks in full sentences that make sense, the one who will restore the luster of the Bush name. But if you want to be your own person, you have to come up with your own people.

W. was a boy king, propped up by regents supplied by his father. Since he knew nothing about foreign affairs, his father surrounded him with his own advisers: Colin Powell, Condi Rice and Dick Cheney, who joined up with his pal Donald Rumsfeld and absconded with W.’s presidency.

Jeb, too, wanted to bolster his negligible foreign policy cred, so the day of his speech, his aide released a list of 21 advisers, 19 of whom had worked in the administrations of his father and his brother. The list starts with the estimable James Baker. But then it shockingly veers into warmongers.

It’s mind-boggling, but there’s Paul Wolfowitz, the unapologetic designer of the doctrine of unilateralism and pre-emption, the naïve cheerleader for the Iraq invasion and the man who assured Congress that Iraqi oil would pay for the country’s reconstruction and that it was ridiculous to think we would need as many troops to control the country as Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, suggested.

There’s John Hannah, Cheney’s national security adviser (cultivated by the scheming Ahmed Chalabi), who tried to stuff hyped-up junk on Saddam into Powell’s U.N. speech and who harbored bellicose ambitions about Iran; Stephen Hadley, who let the false 16-word assertion about Saddam trying to buy yellowcake in Niger into W.’s 2003 State of the Union; Porter Goss, the former C.I.A. director who defended waterboarding.

There’s Michael Hayden, who publicly misled Congress about warrantless wiretapping and torture, and Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary who fumbled Katrina.

Jeb is also getting advice from Condi Rice, queen of the apocalyptic mushroom cloud. And in his speech he twice praised a supporter, Henry Kissinger, who advised prolonging the Vietnam War, which the Nixon White House thought might help with the 1972 election.

Why not bring back Scooter Libby?

If he wants to reclaim the Bush honor, Jeb should be holding accountable those who inflicted deep scars on America, not holding court with them.

Where’s the shame?

For some reason, Jeb doesn’t see it.

Jeez — when you’ve lost MoDo…  Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Supermarket shoppers are more likely to buy French wine when French music is playing, and to buy German wine when they hear German music. That’s true even though only 14 percent of shoppers say they noticed the music, a study finds.

Researchers discovered that candidates for medical school interviewed on sunny days received much higher ratings than those interviewed on rainy days. Being interviewed on a rainy day was a setback equivalent to having an MCAT score 10 percent lower, according to a new book called “Everyday Bias,” by Howard J. Ross.

Those studies are a reminder that we humans are perhaps less rational than we would like to think, and more prone to the buffeting of unconscious influences. That’s something for those of us who are white men to reflect on when we’re accused of “privilege.”

White men sometimes feel besieged and baffled by these suggestions of systematic advantage. When I wrote a series last year, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” the reaction from white men was often indignant: It’s an equal playing field now! Get off our case!

Yet the evidence is overwhelming that unconscious bias remains widespread in ways that systematically benefit both whites and men. So white men get a double dividend, a payoff from both racial and gender biases.

Consider a huge interactive exploration of 14 million reviews on RateMyProfessors.com that recently suggested that male professors are disproportionately likely to be described as a “star” or “genius.” Female professors are disproportionately described as “nasty,” “ugly,” “bossy” or “disorganized.”

One reaction from men was: Well, maybe women professors are more disorganized!

But researchers at North Carolina State conducted an experiment in which they asked students to rate teachers of an online course (the students never saw the teachers). To some of the students, a male teacher claimed to be female and vice versa.

When students were taking the class from someone they believed to be male, they rated the teacher more highly. The very same teacher, when believed to be female, was rated significantly lower.

Something similar happens with race.

Two scholars, Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, sent out fictitious résumés in response to help-wanted ads. Each résumé was given a name that either sounded stereotypically African-American or one that sounded white, but the résumés were otherwise basically the same.

The study found that a résumé with a name like Emily or Greg received 50 percent more callbacks than the same résumé with a name like Lakisha or Jamal. Having a white-sounding name was as beneficial as eight years’ work experience.

Then there was the study in which researchers asked professors to evaluate the summary of a supposed applicant for a post as laboratory manager, but, in some cases, the applicant was named John and in others Jennifer. Everything else was the same.

“John” was rated an average of 4.0 on a 7-point scale for competence, “Jennifer” a 3.3. When asked to propose an annual starting salary for the applicant, the professors suggested on average a salary for “John” almost $4,000 higher than for “Jennifer.”

It’s not that we white men are intentionally doing anything wrong, but we do have a penchant for obliviousness about the way we are beneficiaries of systematic unfairness. Maybe that’s because in a race, it’s easy not to notice a tailwind, and white men often go through life with a tailwind, while women and people of color must push against a headwind.

While we don’t notice systematic unfairness, we do observe specific efforts to redress it — such as affirmative action, which often strikes white men as profoundly unjust. Thus a majority of white Americans surveyed in a 2011 study said that there is now more racism against whites than against blacks.

None of these examples mean exactly that society is full of hard-core racists and misogynists. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke University sociologist, aptly calls the present situation “racism without racists”; it could equally be called “misogyny without misogynists.” Of course, there are die-hard racists and misogynists out there, but the bigger problem seems to be well-meaning people who believe in equal rights yet make decisions that inadvertently transmit both racism and sexism.

So, come on, white men! Let’s just acknowledge that we’re all flawed, biased and sometimes irrational, and that we can do more to resist unconscious bias. That means trying not to hire people just because they look like us, avoiding telling a young girl she’s “beautiful” while her brother is “smart.” It means acknowledging systematic bias as a step toward correcting it.

And last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

Last week began with the comedy extravaganza of the “Saturday Night Live” reunion, but not one of its sketches or jokes was half as funny as four words three days later by Jeb Bush.

“I’m my own man,” he said.

And he kept a straight face somehow.

The remark came during a foreign policy speech in Chicago, and he was making clear that he was no slave to the policies and priorities of his father, the 41st president, or his older brother, the 43rd.

I’ll buy that.

But immediately following the speech, donors sought to buy him.

It was estimated that at back-to-back fund-raisers, he hauled in about $4 million for his Right to Rise PAC and for a “super PAC” that supports him.

This was on top of another $4 million that he reportedly netted the previous week in one evening alone at the Manhattan home of a private equity bigwig. After Manhattan came the Washington, D.C., area, where he racked up $1 million at two events, according to Politico. An atlas of cities, an avalanche of dough: It’s what successful campaigns are made of, and his is expected to raise between $50 million and $100 million over a span of three months.

Those dollars come with expectations. Money almost always does.

Bush is no more his own man than Hillary Clinton is her own woman. And in her case, too, I’m not talking about the imprint of her family, specifically a husband who served two terms in the White House and still looms impossibly large and loquacious on the post-presidential stage.

I’m talking about financial ties — past, present, future. I’m talking about the reality, growing ever more pronounced and ominous, that you can’t run for a major, fiercely contested political office in this country without becoming a monstrous, ceaseless, insatiable Hoover of money.

The Clintons suck it in like no one before them, with a dearth of caution that boggles the mind. Stories in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post last week tabulated and detailed the fund-raising of the Clinton Foundation over the last decade and a half, calculating that it had raised $2 billion.

And the sources of some of that money should give us pause. As The Wall Street Journal reported, “Recent donors include the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Australia, Germany and a Canadian government agency promoting the Keystone XL pipeline.”

There are firm and necessary laws against American candidates accepting foreign donations. There’s no such prohibition for a philanthropy like the Clinton Foundation, which undeniably does much essential, heroic work around the globe.

But it’s a philanthropy headed by a woman who’s most likely running for president and by her husband and daughter. Their requests and their gratitude cannot be separated entirely from politics. There’s inevitable overlap and blending.

As The Washington Post wrote, the foundation “has given contributors entree, outside the traditional political arena, to a possible president. Foreign donors and countries that are likely to have interests before a potential Clinton administration — and yet are ineligible to give to U.S. political campaigns — have affirmed their support for the family’s work through the charitable giving.”

And this isn’t some minor wrinkle of the foundation’s structure and workings. “A third of foundation donors who have given more than $1 million are foreign governments or other entities based outside the United States, and foreign donors make up more than half of those who have given more than $5 million,” according to The Post’s analysis.

That analysis also showed that “donations from the financial services sector” represented the “largest share of corporate donors.” In other words, the foundation is cozy with Wall Street, which has also funneled Clinton some of her enormous speaking fees.

The Journal noted that “at least 60 companies that lobbied the State Department during her tenure donated a total of more than $26 million to the Clinton Foundation.”

A few prominent Democrats with whom I spoke were spooked, not because they believed that Clinton would feel a pressing need to repay these kindnesses, but because the eventual Republican nominee had just been handed a potent weapon against her.

And in the income-inequality era, how does a candidate crowned with this many dollar signs put herself forward persuasively as a woman of the people and a champion of the underdog?

THE answer — and her salvation — may be that we’ve all become so accustomed to the tide of money washing through politics that we just assume all candidates to be equally (and thoroughly) wet. We give in. And we stop acknowledging frequently or urgently enough that American elections, which should be contests of ideas and character, are as much (if not more) contests of cold, hard cash.

Certainly those of us in the news media are somewhat guilty of this, because something that’s no longer new is no longer news.

Sure, we publish stories about the dizzying, obscene heights of spending by major donors, like one written in The Times last month by Nicholas Confessore. He noted that the Koch brothers had drawn up a budget of $889 million for the 2016 election cycle.

But we discuss the damage being done to Chris Christie’s presidential dreams by the defection of potential donors without digressing to underscore the perversity of a small circle of people having so much consequence.

We report, as we did in January, on how well or poorly Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz performed when they spoke at a gathering put together by the Kochs in Southern California. But we don’t flag the oddity of these auditions, the chilling bizarreness of the way the road to the White House winds not only through the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary but also through plutocrats’ posh retreats.

An astonishing bounty of the comments and developments that make headlines emanate from the arena of fund-raising. We learned that Mitt Romney might enter the 2016 race because he was telling donors as much, and we learned that he had decided otherwise because he was letting donors know. In neither instance did we take sufficient note of that.

We articulate misgivings about how much of Clinton’s or Bush’s thinking may be rooted in the past. But the bigger issue, given the scope of not just their own political histories but also their relatives’, is how heavy a duffel of i.o.u.s each of them would carry into office.

Their prominence is commensurate with their debts. And only so many of those can be forgotten.

Friedman and Bruni

February 18, 2015

Today we’ve got The Moustache of Wisdom and Mr. Bruni.  In “Democracy Is in Recession” TMOW says Turkey’s drift away from democracy is part of a much larger trend around the world.  Gee, I wonder why?  “Marie” from Texas hit on the cause in her comment:  “If our “democracy” is looked to as the gold standard that all others should aspire towards and emulate, the recent degradation of so many fledgling democratic systems around world is perfectly understandable. These countries are not, in fact, averting their eyes from our beacon, but have instead fixated their gaze on it. They are doing a wonderful job of following our lead in expediting the changes towards increased militarization, plutocracy, corruption, inequality, callousness, polarization and anti-intellectualism we have been pioneering for some time now. In this, “American Exceptionalism” and Imperialism is alive and well.”  Mr. Bruni considers “College, Poetry and Purpose” and says he reconnected with his Shakespeare professor to get her thoughts on the humanities and higher education today.  Here’s TMOW:

Every month now we get treated to another anti-Semitic blast from Turkey’s leadership, which seems to be running some kind of slur-of-the-month club. Who knew that Jews all over the world were busy trying to take down President Recep Tayyip Erdogan? Last week, it was Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s turn to declare that Turkey would not “succumb to the Jewish lobby” — among others supposedly trying to topple Erdogan, the Hurriyet Daily News reported. This was after Erdogan had suggested that domestic opponents to the ruling Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., were “cooperating with the Mossad,” Israel’s intelligence arm. So few Jews, so many governments to topple.

Davutoglu’s and Erdogan’s cheap, crude anti-Semitic tropes, which Erdogan now relies on regularly to energize his base, are disgusting. For the great nation of Turkey, though, they’re part of a wider tragedy. It is really hard to say anymore that Erdogan’s Turkey is a democracy. Even worse, it is necessary to say that Turkey’s drift away from democracy is part of a much larger global trend today: Democracy is in recession.

As the Stanford University democracy expert Larry Diamond argues in an essay entitled “Facing Up to the Democratic Recession” in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy: “Around 2006, the expansion of freedom and democracy in the world came to a prolonged halt. Since 2006, there has been no net expansion in the number of electoral democracies, which has oscillated between 114 and 119 (about 60 percent of the world’s states). … The number of both electoral and liberal democracies began to decline after 2006 and then flattened out. Since 2006 the average level of freedom in the world has also deteriorated slightly.”

Since 2000, added Diamond, “I count 25 breakdowns of democracy in the world — not only through blatant military or executive coups, but also through subtle and incremental degradations of democratic rights and procedure. … Some of these breakdowns occurred in quite low-quality democracies; yet in each case, a system of reasonably free and fair multiparty electoral competition was either displaced or degraded to a point well below the minimal standards of democracy.”

Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey are the poster children for this trend, along with Venezuela, Thailand, Botswana, Bangladesh and Kenya. In Turkey, Diamond writes, the A.K.P. has steadily extended “partisan control over the judiciary and the bureaucracy, arresting journalists and intimidating dissenters in the press and academia, threatening businesses with retaliation if they fund opposition parties, and using arrests and prosecutions in cases connected to alleged coup plots to jail and remove from public life an implausibly large number of accused plotters. This has coincided with a stunning and increasingly audacious concentration of personal power by … Erdogan.” Rule of law in Turkey is being seriously eroded.

Meanwhile, Freedom House, a watchdog group, found that, from 2006-14, many more countries declined in freedom than improved. This trend has been particularly pronounced in sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa, where declining transparency, crumbling rule of law and rising corruption are becoming the norm.

Why this trend? One reason, says Diamond, is today’s autocrats are fast learners and adapters. They have developed and shared “new technologies of censorship and legal strategies to restrict civil society [groups] and ban international assistance to them,” and we haven’t responded with new strategies of our own. Also, old habits of corruption and abuse of power went into hiding during the 1990s and 2000s, when post-Cold War democracy was ascendant, “but now corrupt autocrats feel the heat is off and they can rule as nastily and greedily as they want.”

Moreover, China, which has no democracy standards or problems with corruption abroad, has displaced the U.S. as the most valued foreign aid provider in much of Africa, while Russia has become more aggressive in undermining virtually every democratic tendency on its borders. Finally, post-9/11, we let the “war on terror” supplant democracy promotion as our top foreign policy priority, so any autocrat who collared terrorists won a get-out-of-jail-free-card from America.

But, Diamond adds, “perhaps the most worrisome dimension of the democratic recession has been the decline of democratic efficacy, energy, and self-confidence” in America and the West at large. After years of hyperpolarization, deadlock and corruption through campaign financing, the world’s leading democracy is increasingly dysfunctional, with government shutdowns and the inability to pass something as basic as a budget. “The world takes note of all this,” says Diamond. “Authoritarian state media gleefully publicize these travails of American democracy in order to discredit democracy in general and immunize authoritarian rule against U.S. pressure.”

Diamond urges democrats not to lose faith. Democracy, as Churchill noted, is still the worst form of government — except for all the others. And it still fires the imagination of people like no other system. But that will only stay true if the big democracies maintain a model worth following. I wish that were not so much in question today.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni, writing from Philadelphia:

Over four decades at two universities, Anne Hall has taught thousands of students, enough to know that they come to college for a variety of reasons, with a variety of attitudes. Many are concerned only with jobs. Some are concerned chiefly with beer.

All would like A’s. And too many get them, she said, even from her, because a professor standing up to grade inflation is in a lonely place.

But what, in an overarching sense, should students be after? What’s the highest calling of higher education?

When I asked her this on Monday night, she shot me a look of exasperation, though it gave way quickly to a smile. And I remembered that smile from 30 years earlier, when she would expound on Othello’s corrosive jealousy, present Lady Macbeth as the dark ambassador of guilt’s insidious stamina and show those of us in her class that with careful examination and unhurried reflection, we could find in Shakespeare just about all of human life and human wisdom: every warning we needed to hear, every joy we needed to cultivate.

She answered my question about college’s purpose, but not right away and not glibly, because rushed thinking and glibness are precisely what she believes education should be a bulwark against. She’s right.

I introduced her in a column last week, writing that when I was recently pressed to describe a transformative educational experience, what came to mind were her voice and her animation as she read aloud the wondrous words of “King Lear.”

Her field is Renaissance poetry. I studied that and Shakespeare’s plays with her when I was an English major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the mid-1980s. I never got to know her well, though. I didn’t keep in touch.

But after my column appeared, she sent me an email. It included a lament about changes in the humanities that made me want to hear more. I was curious to know what the professor who was the highlight of my time in college thought of college today.

So I visited her in Philadelphia, where she has been a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania since 1998. She’s 69.

She expressed regret about how little an English department’s offerings today resemble those from the past. “There’s a lot of capitalizing on what is fashionable,” she said. Survey courses have fallen out of favor, as have courses devoted to any one of the “dead white men,” she said.

“Chaucer has become Chaucer and …” she said. “Chaucer and Women in the Middle Ages. Chaucer and Animals in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare has become Shakespeare and Film, which in my cranky opinion becomes Film, not Shakespeare.”

She didn’t want to single out any particular course for derision but encouraged me to look at what Penn is offering this semester. There’s Pulp Fictions: Popular Romance From Chaucer to Tarantino. Also Sex and the City: Women, Novels and Urban Life. Global Feminisms. Comic Books and Graphic Novels. Psychoanalysis, Literature and Film. Literatures of Psychoanalysis.

And while she applauds the attempt to engage students and diversify instruction, she worries about an intellectual vogue and academic sensibility that place no one masterpiece, master, perspective or even manner of speech above others.

Not long ago, she said, she asked students to try to go for an entire class without letting the word “like” drop needlessly — part conjunction, part stutter — into their speech. One of them responded that Hall was a “cultural capitalist” defending her particular “cultural capital.”

She has qualms about the way a university now markets campus amenities to students and marvels at “how many sites there are for feeding them.” The increased weight given to the evaluations that they fill out can be a disincentive for professors to be rigorous.

“The student became the customer who’s always right,” she said.

And yet, she said, there are still many earnest young men and women who come before her wanting nothing more or less than to be bigger, better. She praised an undergraduate business major in the class that she is currently teaching, Poetry and Politics in Ancient Greece.

“She said that going to college develops something in you that’s like a muscle, in the same way that when you go out and play tennis or whatever sport, you develop certain muscles,” Hall told me, adding that she agreed with the student.

That brought Hall to her own answer about college’s mission: “It is for developing the muscle of thoughtfulness, the use of which will be the greatest pleasure in life and will also show what it means to be fully human.”

Bruni, solo

February 11, 2015

The Moustache of Wisdom is off today, so Mr. Bruni has the place to himself.  In “College’s Priceless Value” he says when it comes to learning, there’s a thin line between luxury and necessity.  Here he is:

What’s the most transformative educational experience you’ve had?

I was asked this question recently, and for a few seconds it stumped me, mainly because I’ve never viewed learning as a collection of eureka moments. It’s a continuum, a lifelong awakening to the complexity of the world.

But then something did come to mind, not a discrete lesson but a moving image, complete with soundtrack. I saw a woman named Anne Hall swooning and swaying as she stood at the front of a classroom in Chapel Hill, N.C., and explained the rawness and majesty of emotion in “King Lear.”

I heard three words: “Stay a little.” They’re Lear’s plea to Cordelia, the truest of his three daughters, as she slips away. When Hall recited them aloud, it wasn’t just her voice that trembled. It was all of her.

She taught a course on Shakespeare’s tragedies: “Lear,” “Macbeth,” “Othello.” It was by far my favorite class at the University of North Carolina, which I attended in the mid-1980s, though I couldn’t and can’t think of any bluntly practical application for it, not unless you’re bound for a career on the stage or in academia.

I headed in neither direction. So I guess I was just wasting my time, at least according to a seemingly growing chorus of politicians and others whose metrics for higher education are skill acquisition and job placement.

Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin and a likely presidential candidate, signaled his membership in this crowd when he recently proposed a 13 percent cut in state support for the University of Wisconsin. According to several reports, he simultaneously toyed with changing the language of the university’s mission statement so that references to the “search for truth” and the struggle to “improve the human condition” would be replaced by an expressed concern for “the state’s work force needs.”

I’m not sure where “Lear” fits into work force needs.

The debate over the rightful role of college goes a long way back. Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, documented as much in his 2014 book, “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.” He noted that Thomas Jefferson exalted learning for learning’s sake, while Ben Franklin registered disdain for people who spent too much time in lecture halls.

Ronald Reagan did, too. In 1967, just after he became the governor of California, he moved to slash spending for the University of California system and its eclectic menu of instruction, announcing that taxpayers shouldn’t be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity” and that “there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without.”

That was a pivotal moment in the discussion of higher education’s ideal benefits, after which “the balance started to tip toward utility,” according to a recent essay by Dan Berrett in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Titled “The Day the Purpose of College Changed,” it looked back at Reagan’s remarks. It also recalled President Obama’s, in particular a seemingly dismissive comment last year about art history degrees. Obama has called for a rating system that would take into account how reliably colleges place their graduates into high-paying jobs.

Neither he nor Walker is wrong to raise that issue, given the high cost of higher education and the fierce competition in the world. Students shouldn’t be blind to the employment landscape.

But it’s impossible to put a dollar value on a nimble, adaptable intellect, which isn’t the fruit of any specific course of study and may be the best tool for an economy and a job market that change unpredictably.

And it’s dangerous to forget that in a democracy, college isn’t just about making better engineers but about making better citizens, ones whose eyes have been opened to the sweep of history and the spectrum of civilizations.

It’s also foolish to belittle what those of us in Hall’s class got from Shakespeare and from her illumination of his work.

“Stay a little.” She showed how that simple request harbored such grand anguish, capturing a fallen king’s hunger for connection and his tenuous hold on sanity and contentment. And thus she taught us how much weight a few syllables can carry, how powerful the muscle of language can be.

She demonstrated the rewards of close attention. And the way she did this — her eyes wild with fervor, her body aquiver with delight — was an encouragement of passion and a validation of the pleasure to be wrung from art. It informed all my reading from then on. It colored the way I listened to people and even watched TV.

It transformed me.

Was this a luxury? Sure. But it was also the steppingstone to a more aware, thoughtful existence. College was the quarry where I found it.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

February 1, 2015

Putzy has a question in “Our Loud, Proud Left:”  What is fueling the cultural activism of the later Obama years?  In the comments “gemli” from Boston has part of the answer:  “Where certain pundits see an excess of left-wing political correctness, others may see a reaction to Republican efforts to roll back every progressive initiative that has been enacted over the last half-century. I can see why the left has lost its taste for debate when one side wants to deny basic human rights to gay people using bogus religious-freedom objections, or to kill food stamps, or to increase the unconscionable income disparity. I don’t need to weigh the merits of both sides to know that one side sickens me.”  In “Mitt’s White Horse Pulls Up Lame” MoDo tells us how real Mitt fell in love with reel Mitt.  I’m sure that the Koch brothers had NOTHING to do with him leaving the race…  Mr. Kristof, in “Heroes and Bystanders,” says the best way to honor past victims of genocide is to fight it everywhere that it exists today.  Mr. Bruni looks at “The Vaccine Lunacy” and says for the sake of children’s health, let’s face facts and repudiate fiction.  Here’s The Putz:

For the last week, liberal journalists have been furiously debating whether a new political correctness has swept over the American left. The instigator of this argument was New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, normally a scourge of Republicans, whose essay on what he dubbed “the new P.C.” critiqued left-wing activists for their zeal to play language cop, shout down arguments and shut down debate outright.

It will surprise absolutely nobody that I think the phenomenon that Chait describes is real. But I come not to judge but to explain — because whether you like or loathe the “P.C.” label, the rise of a more assertive cultural left is clearly one of the defining features of the later Obama years. This assertiveness is palpable among younger activists, on campus and online; it’s visible in controversy after controversy, from Ferguson to campus rape. And it’s interesting to think about exactly where it’s coming from.

The first source, probably, is disappointment with other forms of left-wing politics. A decade ago, the left’s energy was focused on Iraq; in President Obama’s first term, it was divided between his quest for a new New Deal and Occupy Wall Street’s free-form radicalism. But now the antiwar movement is moribund, Occupy has gone the way of the Yippies and it’s been years since the White House proposed a new tax or spending plan that wasn’t D.O.A.

What’s more, despite all the books sold by Thomas Piketty, the paths forward for progressive economic policy are mostly blocked — and not only by a well-entrenched Republican Party, but by liberalism’s ongoing inability to raise the taxes required to pay for the welfare state we already have. Since a long, slow, grinding battle over how to pay for those commitments is unlikely to fire anyone’s imagination, it’s not surprising that cultural causes — race, sex, identity — suddenly seem vastly more appealing.

The second wellspring is a more specific sort of disillusionment. Call it post-post-racialism: a hangover after the heady experience of electing America’s first black president; a frustration with the persistence of racial divides, even in an age of elite African-American achievement; and a sense of outrage over particular tragedies (Trayvon Martin, Ferguson) that seem to lay injustice bare.

Post-post-racial sentiment is connected to economic disappointments, because minorities have fared particularly poorly in the Great Recession’s aftermath. And this sentiment’s rejection of respectability politics — that is, the idea that the fate of black Americans rests mostly in their own hands — seems to point naturally toward a kind of redistributionism. (Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent Atlantic essay “The Case For Reparations” made this argument explicitly.)

But again, because the paths to economic redistribution are mostly blocked, the more plausible way to put post-post-racialism into practice is social activism: a renewed protest politics of the kind we’ve seen since Ferguson, and a wider effort to police the culture for hidden forms of racism, which don’t require tax increases to root out.

Finally, the late-Obama left is shaped by the success of the same-sex marriage movement, a rare example of a progressive cause that seems to be carrying all before it. To activists, its progress offers a model for winning even when electoral obstacles loom large: It shows that the left can gain ground at the elite level and then watch the results trickle down, that victories on college campuses can presage wider cultural success and that pathologizing critics as bigoted and phobic can be an effective way to finish up debates.

I suspect that a lot of the ambition (or aggression, depending on your point of view) from the campus left right now reflects the experience of watching the same-sex marriage debate play out. Whether on issues, like transgender rights, that extend from gay rights, or on older debates over rape and chauvinism, there’s a renewed sense that what happens in relatively cloistered environments can have wide ripples, and that taking firm control of a cultural narrative can matter much more than anything that goes on in Washington.

What’s interesting about this ambition is that it’s about to intersect with a political campaign in which the champion of liberalism will be a Clinton — when the original Clintonism, in its Sister Souljah-ing, Defense of Marriage Act-signing triangulation on social issues, is a big part of what the new cultural left wants to permanently leave behind.

Precisely because this left’s energy is cultural rather than economic, this tension is unlikely to spur the kind of populist, Elizabeth Warrenesque challenge to Hillary that pundits keep expecting.

But it does promise an interesting subtheme for the campaign. Can Hillary, the young feminist turned cautious establishmentarian, harness the energy of the young and restless left? Or will the excesses associated with that energy end up dividing her coalition, as it has divided liberal journalists of late?

Those of us watching from the right — with, perhaps, a little popcorn — will be interested to find out.

Be careful, Putzy, you may very well choke on your popcorn.  Here’s MoDo, writing from Salt Lake City:

When the Mitt Romney documentary premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival last year, one member of the audience was especially charmed by the candidate up on the screen.

That guy is great, Mitt Romney thought to himself. That guy should be running for president.

It was an “Aha” moment that came to him belatedly at age 66, after two failed presidential runs that cost more than $1 billion.

Mitt had a revelation that he should have run his races as Mitt — with all the goofiness, Mormonism, self-doubt and self-mockery thrown into the crazy salad.

Some of his strategists had argued against the movie. But wasn’t it endearing, when the tuxedo-clad Romney ironed his own French cuffs while they were on his wrists? When he listened to “This American Life” on NPR with his family? When he wryly called himself a “flippin’ Mormon”? When he and Ann prayed on their knees just before the New Hampshire primary? When he went sledding with his grandkids?

He was himself as a moderate Massachusetts governor. But when he ran for president in 2008, he was “severely conservative,” as he would later awkwardly brag, and that wasn’t him.

In 2012, he was closer but still not truly himself, putting his faith and centrist record off to the side. He had surrounded himself with Stuart Stevens and other advisers who did not have faith that the unplugged Mitt could win, and the candidate did not have enough faith in himself to push back against them.

“It’s a sad story of discovery,” said a Republican who is friends with him. “He kept going through campaigns and evolving closer to himself. Then he saw the documentary and it was liberating, showing 100 percent of himself instead of 80. But it was too late. You don’t really get three shots.”

Romney got bollixed up by dueling fears that the unkind arena would rage at him if he put up his guard and rage at him if he dropped it. He was haunted by the collapse of his father’s 1968 campaign for president after his father dropped his guard, telling a Detroit TV broadcaster that he thought he had been brainwashed into supporting the Vietnam War by American commanders and diplomats there.

But after Romney saw the documentary “Mitt” — by Mormon filmmaker Greg Whiteley — and felt that he could be Mitt “all the way,” as one friend put it, he was ready to run “a hell of a race.”

Mormons learn firsthand that rejection — as the young Mitt learned in Paris on his mission when he got less than 20 converts in two-and-a-half years — doesn’t mean you should stop trying.

Recent polls had Romney ahead of Jeb Bush and other Republican contenders. He was more in demand on the trail than President Obama during the 2014 campaign. He had shied away in 2012 from explaining the role of faith in his life, worried that Mormonism might still sound strange to voters if he had to explain lore like the white horse prophecy, that a Mormon white knight would ride in to save the U.S. as the Constitution was hanging by a thread.

But, in the last few weeks, Romney had seemed eager to take a Mormon mulligan. Less sensitive about his great-grandparents fleeing to Mexico to preserve their right to polygamy, Romney began joking to audiences that when he learned about the church at Brigham Young University, “Emma was Joseph Smith’s only wife.”

It was foolish to ever think he could take his religion — which is baked into every part of his life — and cordon it off.

In Park City Wednesday, I talked to Jon Krakauer, the author of “Under the Banner of Heaven,” a history of Mormonism, and executive producer of “Prophet’s Prey,” a Showtime documentary, which was premiering at Sundance, about the most infamous Mormon polygamous cult.

“I don’t think he has a choice,” Krakauer said. “I don’t know how people will react, but he has nothing to be ashamed with, with his faith. And by not talking about it, it looks like he does.”

It was the same mistake Al Gore made in 2000 when he listened to advisers who told him he would seem too tree-huggy if he talked about the environment. When that was off-limits, Gore lost the issue he was least likely to be wooden on; it was the one topic that made him passionate — not to mention prescient.

If Mitt was 100 percent himself, he began to think this time, he could move past the debacles of his 47 percent comment caught on tape and his cringe-worthy 13 percent tax rate — both of which had made him seem like the pitiless plutocrat conjured by Democrats.

Two weeks ago, at a Republican meeting in San Diego, Romney talked about his decade as a Mormon bishop and stake president, working “with people who are very poor to get them help and subsistence,” finding them jobs and tending to the sick and elderly.

He changed his residency to Utah and started building a house in a wealthy suburb of Salt Lake City. He got a broker for the luxe La Jolla oceanfront home with the four-car elevator.

It was reported that a 2016 Romney campaign could be based here. Romney had been burning up the phone lines with donors and past operatives and was reassembling his old campaign team. But Jeb Bush popped Mitt’s trial balloon by peeling off the money and the talent.

“He thought there was more interest than there was,” one strategist close to Romney said. “There wasn’t a big groundswell. The donor-activist-warlord bubble had moved on. It’s a tough world. Mitt didn’t want to claw and slug.”

 Or as his 2008 presidential campaign adviser Alex Castellanos put it, “Mitt Romney found he had walked out on stage without his pants.”

At an appearance Wednesday in Mississippi, where he seemed to be honing talking points and attack lines for a possible run, he said Hillary Clinton had “cluelessly” pushed the reset button with Russia.

He blamed the news media and voters for concentrating on the wrong things. “It would be nice if people who run for office, that their leadership experience, what they’ve accomplished in life, would be a bigger part of what people are focused on, but it’s not,” he said. “Mostly it’s what you say — and what you do is a lot more important than just what you say.”

But both in what he said and did, Romney came across as clueless in 2012. He was hawking himself as a great manager, but he couldn’t even manage his campaign. His own advisers did not trust him to be himself. They did not adapt what the Obama team had taught everyone in 2008 about technologically revolutionizing campaigns. His own campaign was in need of a Bain-style turnaround and he was oblivious.

The reel Mitt could have told the real Mitt, as Romney said in the documentary, that the nominee who loses the general election is “a loser for life.”

He seemed shocked, the night of the election, to learn that his White Horse was lame. But how could he have won? The wrong Mitt was running.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

One of the great heroes of the 20th century was Auschwitz prisoner No. 4859, who volunteered to be there.

Witold Pilecki, an officer in the Polish resistance to the Nazi regime, deliberately let himself be captured by the Germans in 1940 so that he could gather information about Hitler’s concentration camps. Inside Auschwitz, he set up resistance cells — even as he almost died of starvation, torture and disease.

Then Pilecki helped build a radio transmitter, and, in 1942, he broadcast to the outside world accounts of atrocities inside Auschwitz — as the Nazis frantically searched the camp looking for the transmitter. He worked to expose the Nazi gas chambers, brutal sexual experiments and savage camp punishments, in hopes that the world would act.

Finally, in April 1943, he escaped from Auschwitz, bullets flying after him, and wrote an eyewitness report laying out the horror of the extermination camps. He then campaigned unsuccessfully for an attack on Auschwitz.

Eventually, he was brutally tortured and executed — not by the Nazis, but after the war, in 1947, by the Communists. They then suppressed the story of Pilecki’s heroism for decades (a book about his work, “The Auschwitz Volunteer,” was published in 2012).

I was thinking of Pilecki last week on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps. I had relatives killed in Auschwitz (they were Poles spying on the Nazis for the resistance), and these camps are emblems of the Holocaust and symbols of the human capacity for evil.

In the coming months, the world will also commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide — which, despite the outrage of Turkish officials at the term, was, of course, a genocide. There, too, I feel a connection because my ancestors were Armenian.

Then, in the summer, we’ll observe the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II — an occasion for recalling Japanese atrocities in China, Korea, the Philippines and elsewhere. All this is likely to fuel more debates focused on the past. Should we honor Armenian genocide victims with a special day? Should Japan apologize for enslaving “comfort women”?

But, to me, the lesson of history is that the best way to honor past victims of atrocities is to stand up to slaughter today. The most respectful way to honor Jewish, Armenian or Rwandan victims of genocide is not with a ceremony or a day, but with efforts to reduce mass atrocities currently underway.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is a shining example of that approach, channeling outrage at past horrors to mitigate today’s — from Syria to Central African Republic. But, in general, the world is typically less galvanized by mass atrocities than paralyzed by them.

Even during the Holocaust, despite the heroism of Pilecki and others like Jan Karski, who tried desperately to shake sense into world leaders, no one was very interested in industrial slaughter. Over and over since then, world leaders have excelled at giving eloquent “never again” speeches but rarely offered much beyond lip service.

This year, I’m afraid something similar will happen. We’ll hear flowery rhetoric about Auschwitz, Armenia and World War II, and then we’ll go on shrugging at crimes against humanity in Syria, Central African Republic, Sudan and South Sudan, Myanmar and elsewhere.

Darfur symbolizes our fickleness. It has disappeared from headlines, and Sudan makes it almost impossible for journalists to get there, but Human Rights Watch reported a few days ago that the human rights situation in Sudan actually deteriorated in 2014.

Indeed, the Sudanese regime is now engaging in mass atrocities not only in Darfur but also in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions. Sudan bombed an aid hospital in January in the Nuba Mountains, and the Belgian branch of Doctors Without Borders has just announced the closure of operations in Sudan because of government obstructionism.

A decade ago, one of the most outspoken politicians on Darfur — harshly scolding President George W. Bush for not doing more — was an Illinois senator, Barack Obama. Today, as president of the United States, he is quiet. The United Nations force in Darfur has been impotent.

Granted, humanitarian crises rarely offer good policy choices, but there’s no need to embrace the worse option, which is paralysis. We’ve seen in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Kurdistan and, lately, Yazidi areas of Iraq and eastern Congo that outside efforts sometimes can make a difference.

So, sure, let’s commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz, the horror of the Holocaust and the brutality of the Armenian genocide by trying to mitigate mass atrocities today. The basic lesson of these episodes is not just that humans are capable of astonishing evil, or that some individuals like Witold Pilecki respond with mesmerizing heroism — but that, sadly, it’s just too easy to acquiesce.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

A few years back, an acerbic friend of mine who was a recent transplant to Los Angeles told me that she itched to write a satirical novel with the following narrative:

A group of wealthy, educated people in Santa Monica who deliberately didn’t vaccinate their children subsequently take them on a “poor-ism” trip to a developing country. The goal is to make them wiser and more sensitive to suffering in the world. While being sensitized, the kids catch diseases that they could have been inoculated against. Some of them die.

As a plot, it lacks subtlety (and compassion). But as a parable, it’s crystal-clear. You can be so privileged that you’re underprivileged, so blessed with choices that you choose to be a fool, so “informed” that you’re misinformed.

Which brings us to Disneyland, measles and the astonishing fact that a scourge once essentially eliminated in this country is back.

You’ve probably heard or read about the recent outbreak traced to the theme park. But there’s a chance that you’re unaware, because it hasn’t received nearly the coverage that, say, Ebola did, even though some of the dynamics at work here are scarier.

It started in mid-December and is now believed to be responsible for more than 70 cases in seven states and Mexico; 58 of those are in California, which of course is where the park is — in Orange County, to be more specific.

As it happens, there are affluent pockets of that county where the fraction of schoolchildren whose parents have cited a “personal belief” to exempt them from vaccinations is higher than the statewide average of 2.5 percent. That’s also true of some affluent pockets of the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas.

It used to be that unvaccinated children in America were clustered in impoverished neighborhoods; now they’re often clustered among sophisticates in gilded ZIP codes where a certain strain of health faddishness reigns. According to a story in The Hollywood Reporter last year, the parents of 57 percent of the children at a Beverly Hills preschool and of 68 percent at one in Santa Monica had filed personal-belief exemptions from having their kids vaccinated.

Why? Many of them buy into a discredited theory that there’s a link between the MMR (mumps-measles-rubella) vaccine and autism. They’re encouraged by a cadre of brash alarmists who have gained attention by pushing that thinking. Anti-vaccine panic was the path that the actress Jenny McCarthy traveled to innumerable appearances on prominent news and talk shows; she later demonstrated her singular version of concern for good health by working as a pitchwoman for e-cigarettes.

Other parents have separate or additional worries about vaccines, which can indeed have side effects. But they’re weighing that downside against what they deem to be a virtually nonexistent risk of exposure to the diseases in question. And that degree of risk depends entirely on a vast majority of children getting vaccines. If too many forgo them, we surrender what’s known as “herd immunity,” and the risk rises. That’s precisely what health officials see happening now.

In 2004, there were just 37 reported cases of measles in the United States. In 2014, there were 644. And while none of those patients died, measles can kill. Before vaccines for it became widespread in 1963, millions of Americans were infected annually, and 400 to 500 died each year.

“I don’t think its fatality rate has decreased,” said Daniel Salmon, a vaccine expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We just haven’t had enough cases for someone to die.”

An estimated 90 percent of unvaccinated people who are exposed to the measles virus become infected, and they themselves can be infectious four days before they develop a telltale rash.

But what’s in play is more than one affliction’s resurgence. The size and sway of the anti-vaccine movement reflect a chilling disregard for science — or at least a pick-and-choose, cafeteria approach to it — that’s also evident, for example, in many Americans’ refusal to recognize climate change. We’re a curious species, and sometimes a sad one, chasing knowledge only to deny it, making progress only to turn away from its benefits.

The movement underscores the robust market for pure conjecture — not just about vaccines, but about all sorts of ostensible threats and putative remedies — and the number of merchants willing to traffic in it. Look at Dr. Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon now drawing millions of viewers daily as a television host peddling weight-loss tricks. The British Medical Journal recently analyzed dozens of his shows and determined that more than half of the suggestions he doled out didn’t have sound scientific backing.

The Internet makes it easier for people to do their own “research” and can lead them to trustworthy and untrustworthy sites in equal measure.

“It can be difficult to know what to believe,” said Kristen Feemster, a infectious diseases specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “So many people can be an expert, because there are platforms for so many voices.”

Salmon noted that the sheer variety and saturation of media today amplify crackpot hypotheses to a point where they seem misleadingly worthy of consideration. “People say things enough times, there must be some truth to it,” he said. “Look at the proportion of people who question where our president was born or his religion.”

And we in the traditional media don’t always help, covering the news in an on-one-hand, on-the-other-hand fashion that sometimes gives nearly equal time to people citing facts and people weaving fiction.

I’m not entirely baffled by the fear of vaccines, which arises in part from a mistrust of drug companies and a medical establishment that have made past mistakes.

But this subject has been studied and studied and studied, and it’s abundantly clear that we’re best served by vaccinating all of those children who can be, so that the ones who can’t be — for medical reasons such as a compromised immune system — are protected.

Right now, Salmon said, only two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, limit vaccine exemptions to such children. If the anti-vaccination crowd grows, other states may have to move in that direction.

There’s a balance to be struck between personal freedom and public safety, and I’m not at all sure that our current one is correct.

We rightly govern what people can and can’t do with guns, seatbelts, drugs and so much more, all in the interest not just of their welfare but of everybody’s. Are we being dangerously remiss when it comes to making them wear the necessary armor against illnesses that belong in history books?

Blow, Friedman and Bruni

January 28, 2015

In “Reducing Our Obscene Level of Child Poverty” Mr. Blow says a new report on our nation’s “moral disgrace” reminds us that allowing child poverty to remain this widespread costs more than eliminating it would.   The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Czar Putin’s Next Moves:”  Is anyone paying attention to the awful things President Vladimir Putin of Russia is doing to Ukraine, not to mention his own country?  Mr. Bruni says “We Dodged Icy Doom.  Let’s Gripe.”  He explains that whether they prepare for too little snow or too much, politicians can be assured of our unhappiness.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I’m not someone who believes that poverty can ever truly be ended — I’m one of those “the poor will always be with you” types — but I do believe that the ranks of the poor can and must be shrunk and that the effects of poverty can and must be ameliorated.

And there is one area above all others where we should feel a moral obligation to reduce poverty as much as possible and to soften its bite: poverty among children.

People may disagree about the choices parents make — including premarital sex and out-of-wedlock births. People may disagree about access to methods of family planning — including contraception and abortion. People may disagree about the size and role of government — including the role of safety-net programs.

But surely we can all agree that no child, once born, should suffer through poverty. Surely we can all agree that working to end child poverty — or at least severely reduce it — is a moral obligation of a civilized society.

And yet, 14.7 million children in this country are poor, and 6.5 million of them are extremely poor (living below half the poverty line).

Today, the Children’s Defense Fund is releasing a report entitled “Ending Child Poverty Now” that calls this country’s rate of child poverty “a moral disgrace.”

As the report points out:

“America’s poor children did not ask to be born; did not choose their parents, country, state, neighborhood, race, color, or faith. In fact if they had been born in 33 other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries they would be less likely to be poor. Among these 35 countries, America ranks 34th in relative child poverty — ahead only of Romania, whose economy is 99 percent smaller than ours.”

It points out many of the corrosive cruelties of childhood poverty: worse health and educational outcomes, impaired cognitive development and the effects of “toxic stress” on brain functions. It also points out the “intergenerational transmission” properties of poverty:

“In one study, people who experienced poverty at any point during childhood were more than three times as likely to be poor at age 30 as those who were never poor as children. The longer a child was poor, the greater the risk of adult poverty.”

But the report is more than just an excoriation of the hollowness of our professed American values and our ethical quandary. It also serves as an economic manifesto, making the point that allowing child poverty to remain at these unconscionable levels costs “far more than eliminating it would,” calculating that an immediate 60 percent reduction in child poverty would cost $77.2 billion a year, or just 2 percent of our national budget.

For context, the report puts it this way:

“Every year we keep 14.7 million children in poverty costs our nation $500 billion — six times more than the $77 billion investment we propose to reduce child poverty by 60 percent.”

The report cites the M.I.T. Nobel laureate economist and 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Dr. Robert Solow, who wrote in his foreword to a 1994 C.D.F. report, “Wasting America’s Future”: “As an economist I believe that good things are worth paying for; and that even if curing children’s poverty were expensive, it would be hard to think of a better use in the world for money.”

To pay for the effort, the report calls for some of the same things the president called for in his State of the Union speech last week, like closing tax loopholes and eliminating tax breaks for the wealthy. But it also called for a reduction in the military budget. This is an echo, in a way, of the concerns Martin Luther King had about military spending sapping money from efforts to help the poor, which he laid out in his not-nearly-cited-enough 1967 anti-Vietnam speech at the Riverside Church:

“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

What would we get for our $77 billion, anyway? Things like the creation of subsidized jobs, an increase in the earned income tax credit, a raise of the minimum wage, an expansion of child care subsidies and housing subsidies, and an increase in SNAP benefits.

The report holds up Britain, which took some of the same steps as a case study of how such an approach can work because they “managed to reduce child poverty by more than half over 10 years, and reductions persisted during the Great Recession.”

We can do this too, if just stop seeing helping these children as an us-versus-them struggle between makers and takers, if we stop getting so hung up on prudishness about sex and traditional views of what constitutes a family, if we stem our impulse to punish children for their mothers giving birth before marriage.

By the way, Britain’s out-of-wedlock birthrate is even higher than ours.

Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Zurich:

Last March, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine, supposedly in defense of Russian-speakers there, was just like “what Hitler did back in the ‘30s“ — using ethnic Germans to justify his invasion of neighboring lands. At the time, I thought such a comparison was over the top. I don’t think so anymore. I’d endorse Mrs. Clinton’s comparison purely for the shock value: It draws attention to the awful things Putin is doing to Ukraine, not to mention his own country, whose credit rating was just reduced to junk status.

Putin’s use of Russian troops wearing uniforms without insignia to invade Ukraine and to covertly buttress Ukrainian rebels bought and paid for by Moscow — all disguised by a web of lies that would have made Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels blush and all for the purpose of destroying Ukraine’s reform movement before it can create a democratic model that might appeal to Russians more than Putin’s kleptocracy — is the ugliest geopolitical mugging happening in the world today.

Ukraine matters — more than the war in Iraq against the Islamic State, a.k.a., ISIS. It is still not clear that most of our allies in the war against ISIS share our values. That conflict has a big tribal and sectarian element. It is unmistakably clear, though, that Ukraine’s reformers in its newly elected government and Parliament — who are struggling to get free of Russia’s orbit and become part of the European Union’s market and democratic community — do share our values. If Putin the Thug gets away with crushing Ukraine’s new democratic experiment and unilaterally redrawing the borders of Europe, every pro-Western country around Russia will be in danger.

“Putin fears a Ukraine that demands to live and wants to live and insists on living on European values — with a robust civil society and freedom of speech and religion [and] with a system of values the Ukrainian people have chosen and laid down their lives for,” Natalie Jaresko, Ukraine’s finance minister, told a Ukraine seminar at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week.

The U.S. and Germany have done a good job organizing the sanctions on Russia. While the Obama administration recently decided to deploy some American soldiers to Ukraine in the spring to train the Ukrainian National Guard, I’d support increasing our military aid to Ukraine’s Army now so it can better defend itself from the estimated 9,000 troops Putin has infiltrated into Ukraine.

Ukraine also needs $15 billion in loans and grants in the next year to stabilize its economy, in addition to its bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Ukrainians had dug themselves into a deep, deep hole with their 20-plus years of industrial levels of corruption from a series of bad governments after Kiev became independent of the Soviet Union. The reason for hope is that the revolution and latest elections in Ukraine have brought in a new generation of reformers, who are rapidly transforming ministries and passing tax and transparency regulations. They are actually welcoming hardheaded, good-governance benchmarks as a condition for Western aid. But if they deliver, we must deliver.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has been traveling across Europe this week in part to lock in the aid package for Kiev. The U.S. has committed its share, but the European Union is still balking a bit. Putin’s aim is to sow enough instability that the West will hold back aid so the Ukraine reformers will fail to deliver and be discredited. That would be a shame.

Global financier George Soros, who’s been helping foster Ukrainian reform, told the Davos gathering that “there is a new Ukraine that is determined to be different from the old Ukraine. … What makes it unique is that it is not only willing to fight but engage in executing a set of radical reforms. It is up against the old Ukraine that has not disappeared … and up against a very determined design by President Putin to destabilize it and destroy it. But it is determined to assert the independence and European orientation of the new Ukraine.”

Ukraine could also impact the price of oil. The two biggest actors who can shape that price today are Saudi Arabia’s new king, Salman, and Russia’s czar, Putin. If the Saudis decide to cut back production significantly, the price of oil will go up. And if Putin decides to fully invade Ukraine, or worse, one of the Baltic states, and test whether NATO will really fight to defend either, the price of oil will go up. With his economy in shambles, Putin’s regime is now almost entirely dependent on oil and gas exports, so he’s really hurting with the oil price collapse. The odds of Putin fully invading Ukraine or the Baltics are low, but do not rule out either.

Triggering a big geopolitical crisis with NATO is an easy way for Putin to shock the oil price back up. Putin’s covert Ukraine interventions up to now have not succeeded in that. In sum: Today’s oil price will be most affected by two men — King Salman and how he uses his spare capacity to produce oil and Czar Putin and how he uses his spare capacity to produce trouble.

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

“You can’t be a Monday morning quarterback on something like the weather,” Bill de Blasio said right after the snow.

Oh really? On Tuesday morning we hurled second guesses and grievances the way Tom Brady tosses an inadequately inflated football.

By “we” I mean not just us New Yorkers, who were promised the icy end of the world and then forced to make do with something less dramatic, but also all of those who gazed upon the city, state and region and gleefully joined a chorus of instant complaint.

We grilled de Blasio, wondering if he might be using an emergency — and his role as responder in chief — to shake off that nastiness with the police and turn the page.

We put Andrew Cuomo on the hot seat, noting that as long as he was gasping at the possibility of a record-breaking blizzard, he didn’t have to deal with the actuality of jaw-dropping corruption on his watch.

And we marveled that Chris Christie was even present in New Jersey. He spent months gallivanting around the country collecting i.o.u.s for a presidential campaign, then thundered home just in time to close roads and prophesy disaster? What a storm queen.

That’s one perspective, and a sizable share of the cynicism is warranted. These guys are showboats who always preen and play the angles. It’s called getting elected.

But before we reflexively shovel too much censure on them, let’s get a few things straight.

None of them hallucinated those forecasts of two feet (or more) of snow, nor did they cherry-pick apocalyptic ones. Meteorologists and broadcasters aplenty tripped over their adjectives to describe the frigid horrors in wait for residents of the northeastern United States.

Our politicians heard what we heard, and the same tidings that had us picking grocery-store shelves clean and standing in epic checkout lines had them cordoning off bridges and tunnels. Everyone braced for the worst, which is a whole lot smarter than hoping for the best.

“All signs were that this was going to be very bad,” Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of homeland security, told John Berman and Kate Bolduan on CNN, adding that for de Blasio not to take many or most of the steps that he did “would have been complete negligence.”

And it was indeed a bad storm. In New England, people did get several feet of snow. They also got that much in areas of Long Island that aren’t all that far from the New York City border, as the mayor noted at his news conference on Tuesday.

But from the howls of inconvenience and accusations of overreaction in the city itself, you would have thought that Central Park’s snowfall (almost 10 inches) was everybody’s. Untrue. In matters meteorological as in others, Manhattan is solipsism central.

Still, there are questions to be fairly asked. Was it really necessary, at 11 p.m. Monday, to take the extraordinary step of shutting down the subways? Especially when it turned out that some trains were still running, empty, as a way of maintaining the system?

That was Cuomo’s call, and it could have waited, if indeed it ever had to be made. Friends who’ve lived through Moscow’s brutal winters tell me that its mass transit never lets up. And while Russia’s people are hardier, their vehicles are not.

To varying degrees, Cuomo, de Blasio, Christie and other politicians overreacted, at least slightly, but who’s to blame? They’ve seen leaders past — including the New York mayors John Lindsay in 1969, Michael Bloomberg in 2010 and de Blasio himself just a year ago — endure or be undone by charges of insufficient girding for snow.

And they know that these days, thanks to Twitter and the like, the verdict will be especially hasty and the jury unusually large and loud. TV networks, pressed for money and ratings, will pay rapt attention, because weather is an easy news story to cover: straightforward, theatrical. The correspondents get to wear their ski-chalet best and to roar over the wind’s whisper.

In a more nuanced environment, the politicians in the snow’s path could have charted a better midcourse between readiness and run-for-cover alarm. They could have trusted us to understand that their talents don’t include soothsaying and that their plans will never be precisely right.

But that’s not the climate we live in. No, ours is so gripe-happy that not long after dawn Tuesday, on the Business Insider website, Henry Blodget reacted to the transportation shutdown with this sweeping judgment: “New York has become a nanny state.”

Perhaps. But imagine if all the snow predicted had arrived and scores of motorists were stranded. We’d be asking those nannies why they’d abandoned us, and we’d be looking for their replacements.


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