Archive for the ‘Bruni’ Category

Friedman and Bruni

May 20, 2015

The Moustache of Wisdom is having the vapors.  In “Hillary, Jeb, Facebook and Disorder” he moans that huge disruptive inflections in technology, the labor market and geopolitics have the 2016 presidential candidates in a leadership quandary.  He launches into his piece with a whine that the candidates don’t want “to engage with major issues of the day.”  Gee, Tommy — maybe if someone in your cohort of “journalists” would, you know, actually ASK them to address issues we could find out what they think, or if they’re even capable of thinking.  Christ…  In “Platinum Pay in Ivory Towers” Mr. Bruni says that the excessive salaries of some college presidents send a message at odds with higher education.  Here’s TMOW:

For a presidential campaign that has started so early, it’s striking how little most of the candidates want to engage with major issues of the day, let alone the future. Hillary Clinton won’t take a clear stand on two big issues she helped to negotiate as secretary of state: the free-trade deal with Pacific nations and the nuclear deal with Iran. Jeb Bush’s campaign seems stuck on whether he is or is not his brother’s keeper. Marco Rubio was for comprehensive immigration reform before he was against it. While Senators Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders are motivated by clear ideologies, the others, so far, evince much more compelling ambitions to be president than compelling reasons for why they should be.

That can’t last. Just follow the headlines. We’re in the middle of some huge disruptive inflections in technology, the labor market and geopolitics that will raise fundamental questions about the future of work and the social contracts between governments and their people and employers and employees. These will all erupt in the next presidency.

What are the signs of that? Well, my candidate for best lead paragraph on a news article so far this year goes to Tom Goodwin, an executive at Havas Media, whose essay March 3 on Techcrunch.com began: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.”

There sure is. We’re at the start of a major shift on the question of what’s worth owning. What all of the above companies have in common is that they have either created trust platforms that match supply and demand for things people never thought of supplying: a spare bedroom in their home or a seat in their car or a commercial link between a small retailer in North Dakota and a small manufacturer in China. Or they are behavioral platforms that spin off extremely valuable data for retailers and advertisers or they are behavioral platforms on which ordinary people can generate reputations — for driving, hosting or any skill you can imagine — and then market themselves globally.

This is a result of the exponential growth in computing power, storage, networking, sensors and software generation and interoperability, which is allowing us to both gather massive amounts of data and apply software to that data to see patterns at a speed and scope unknown before. And it is taking friction out of so many things at once: from hailing a cab to reserving a room in someone’s home in Timbuktu to buying groceries to learning from anyone anywhere to designing an airplane part on a 3-D printer in a week instead of six months. Complexity is becoming free.

A recent study by the Oxford Martin School concluded that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at high risk of being taken by smart machines and software in the next two decades. And what is interesting, notes James Manyika, a director of the McKinsey Global Institute and co-author of “No Ordinary Disruption,” is that, contrary to expectations, “knowledge workers at the middle and the top” may be more threatened than those doing physical work. For example, The Associated Press now uses computers, not reporters, to generate more than 3,000 financial reports per quarter. This can free up workers to do more creative work, but they have to be trained for it.

On geopolitics, we still have great power rivalries, but the most relevant divide in the world will no longer be East-West, capitalist-communist. It will be the World of Order versus the World of Disorder, as environmental, sectarian and economic pressures are pulverizing weak and failed states. Every day now you read about people fleeing the World of Disorder for the World of Order. Rohingyas, a mostly Muslim group, from Myanmar and Bangladesh are trying to get into Thailand and Malaysia; Africans and Arabs are trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe; Central American parents have sent thousands of their kids to the United States. Israel’s government has started sending letters to 45,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees — who walked, rode and sailed to Israel in search of order and work — telling them they have 30 days to accept $3,500 in cash and a one-way ticket home or to an unnamed third country in Africa or face prison,The Washington Post reported last week. Last year, the U.N.’s refugee agency said there are more displaced people worldwide — some 50 million — than at anytime since World War II.

But here’s the rub: We don’t know what to do. We used to rely on empires, colonizers and dictators to control a lot of these places, but we’re now in a post-imperial, post-colonial and, in many places, post-autocratic age. No one wants to touch these disorderly zones because all you win is a bill. And most are incapable of democratic self-governance. Who will control these areas? What if the answer is nobody? It will be one of the big leadership challenges of the next decade.

So, to paraphrase Trotsky once more: Our presidential candidates may not be interested in talking seriously about the future yet, but the future will be interested in talking to them.

Gee…  Maybe the Times could program a computer to generate columns about the flat earth and Tommy could be trained to do something creative…  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

Gregory Fenves recently got a big promotion, from provost to president of the University of Texas at Austin. A raise came with it. Instead of his current base of about $425,000, he was offered $1 million.

And he rejected it — as too much.

“With many issues and concerns about administrative costs, affordability and tuition, such a salary will affect the ability of the president to work with the Texas Legislature,” Fenves wrote to a university official, in an email obtained by The Austin American-Statesman and published last week.

He suggested, and agreed to, $750,000.

That’s hardly chump change. But in the context of the shockingly lucrative deals that have become almost commonplace among college presidents, the sum — or, more precisely, the sentiment behind it — is worthy of note and praise.

Too few presidents give adequate thought to the symbolism and dissonance of extraordinarily generous compensation packages, which are in sync with this era of lavish executive pay and glaring income inequality but out of line with the ostensible mission of academia.

Ideally, higher education is dedicated to values different from those that govern Wall Street and corporate America. It supposedly calls students to more soulful concerns, even to sacrifice.

But that message is muddled when some of the people who run colleges wallow in payments and perks that would once have been considered vulgar.

For E. Gordon Gee’s final year as the president of Ohio State University, which he left in 2013, he got a package of more than $6 million, as waswidely reported. It was a one-time bonanza, including deferred payments and severance, but he’d earned roughly $2 million annually over the previous years.

The Chronicle of Higher Education analyzed salary information for private colleges from 2012, the most recent year available, and found that Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, received a package worth over $7 million.

John L. Lahey of Quinnipiac University: about $3.75 million. Lee Bollingerof Columbia University: almost $3.4 million.

Fenves’s salary as the president of the University of Texas puts him well behind that of his counterpart at Texas A & M University, who has an annual base of $1 million plus $400,000 in additional compensation, according to The American-Statesman.

Each profligate compensation package breeds more like it, as schools’ trustees convince themselves that they must keep pace in order to recruit, retain and receive the precious fairy dust of the heaviest hitters.

They reason that “this is a winner-take-all society and that people with extremely high levels of talent are richly rewarded,” said Richard Vedder, the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

“But I think that things are getting out of hand, especially given the tax-exempt nature of universities,” he told me. “They’re in privileged positions, and they were given these privileged positions not to enrich themselves but to serve society. These presidents are expected to live quite nicely but not exorbitantly and not extravagantly.”

Their extravagance strikes an especially discordant note in light of the challenges confronting higher education today, and it undercuts their moral authority.

How do you defend the transfer of teaching responsibilities to low-paid, part-time adjuncts when the president is sitting so pretty? How do you cut administrative costs, which indeed need cutting? How do you explain steep tuition increases, mammoth student debt and the failure to admit more children from poor families?

How do you summon students back to the liberal arts and away from mercenary priorities?

The high salaries are frequently defended on the grounds that a university president’s job is all consuming. But if it is, how do so many of them find time to serve, for hundreds of thousands of extra dollars, on corporate boards? Rensselaer’s Jackson was at one point on five boards simultaneously.

The high salaries are also defended in terms of the fund-raising that certain presidents reputedly excel at, covering their compensation many times over. But do they deserve sole credit for those donations? And at nonprofit institutions, should money be the main yardstick and currency? Shouldn’t ethics compete with economics, as they sometimes do when a school invests its endowment?

The lofty pay of college presidents is part of higher education’s increasingly corporate bent, of the blurred lines between the campus and the marketplace.

And like the private enrichment of many political candidates who speak of “public service,” it’s not just a mirror of our pervasive money culture. It’s a green light for it, from precincts of principle where a flashing yellow would be more appropriate.

Friedman and Bruni

May 13, 2015

The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Moore’s Law Turns 50,” says at 86, the man himself looks back at some of the predictions he made and how they have held up.  Mr. Bruni, in “The Bitter Backdrop to 2016,” says we’re blue in ways that have nothing to do with party.  He then has a question: can any candidate color us confident?  Here’s TMOW:

On April 19, 1965, just over 50 years ago, Gordon Moore, then the head of research for Fairchild Semiconductor and later one of the co-founders of Intel, was asked by Electronics Magazine to submit an article predicting what was going to happen to integrated circuits, the heart of computing, in the next 10 years. Studying the trend he’d seen in the previous few years, Moore predicted that every year we’d double the number of transistors that could fit on a single chip of silicon so you’d get twice as much computing power for only slightly more money. When that came true, in 1975, he modified his prediction to a doubling roughly every two years. “Moore’s Law” has essentially held up ever since — and, despite the skeptics, keeps chugging along, making it probably the most remarkable example ever of sustained exponential growth of a technology.

For the 50th anniversary of Moore’s Law, I interviewed Moore, now 86, at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, at a celebration in his honor co-hosted by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Intel. I asked him what he’d learned most from Moore’s Law having lasted this long.

“I guess one thing I’ve learned is once you’ve made a successful prediction, avoid making another one,” Moore said. “I’ve avoided opportunities to predict the next 10 or 50 years.”

But was he surprised by how long it has been proved basically correct?

“Oh, I’m amazed,” he said. “The original prediction was to look at 10 years, which I thought was a stretch. This was going from about 60 elements on an integrated circuit to 60,000 — a thousandfold extrapolation over 10 years. I thought that was pretty wild. The fact that something similar is going on for 50 years is truly amazing. You know, there were all kinds of barriers we could always see that [were] going to prevent taking the next step, and somehow or other, as we got closer, the engineers had figured out ways around these. But someday it has to stop. No exponential like this goes on forever.”

But what an exponential it’s been. In introducing the evening, Intel’s C.E.O., Brian Krzanich summarized where Moore’s Law has taken us. If you took Intel’s first generation microchip, the 1971 4004, and the latest chip Intel has on the market today, the fifth-generation Core i5 processor, he said, you can see the power of Moore’s Law at work: Intel’s latest chip offers 3,500 times more performance, is 90,000 times more energy efficient and about 60,000 times lower cost.

To put that another way, Krzanich said Intel engineers did a rough calculation of what would happen had a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle improved at the same rate as microchips did under Moore’s Law: “Here are the numbers: [Today] you would be able to go with that car 300,000 miles per hour. You would get two million miles per gallon of gas, and all that for the mere cost of 4 cents! Now, you’d still be stuck on the [Highway] 101 getting here tonight, but, boy, in every opening you’d be going 300,000 miles an hour!”

What is most striking in Moore’s 1965 article is how many predictions he got right about what these steadily improving microchips would enable. The article, entitled “Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits,” argued that: “Integrated circuits will lead to such wonders as home computers — or at least terminals connected to a central computer — automatic controls for automobiles, and personal portable communications equipment. The electronic wristwatch needs only a display to be feasible today. … In telephone communications, integrated circuits in digital filters will separate channels on multiplex equipment. [They] will also switch telephone circuits and perform data processing.”

Moore pretty much anticipated the personal computer, the cellphone, self-driving cars, the iPad, Big Data and the Apple Watch. How did he do that? (The only thing he missed, I jokingly told him, was “microwave popcorn.”)

“Well,” said Moore, “I had been looking at integrated circuits — [they] were really new at that time, only a few years old — and they were very expensive. There was a lot of argument as to why they would never be cheap, and I was beginning to see, from my position as head of a laboratory, that the technology was going to go in the direction where we would get more and more stuff on a chip and it would make electronics less expensive. … I had no idea it was going to turn out to be a relatively precise prediction, but I knew the general trend was in that direction and had to give some kind of a reason why it was important to lower the cost of electronics.”

Can it continue? Every year someone predicts the demise of Moore’s Law, and they’re wrong. With enough good engineers working on it, he hoped, “we won’t hit a dead end. … It’s [a] unique technology. I can’t see anything really comparable that has gone on for this long a period of time with exponential growth.”

But let’s remember that it was enabled by a group of remarkable scientists and engineers, in an America that did not just brag about being exceptional, but invested in the infrastructure and basic scientific research, and set the audacious goals, to make it so. If we want to create more Moore’s Law-like technologies, we need to invest in the building blocks that produced that America.

Alas today our government is not investing in basic research the way it did when the likes of Moore and Robert Noyce, the co-inventor of the integrated circuit and the other co-founder of Intel, were coming of age.

“I’m disappointed that the federal government seems to be decreasing its support of basic research,” said Moore. “That’s really where these ideas get started. They take a long time to germinate, but eventually they lead to some marvelous advances. Certainly, our whole industry came out of some of the early understanding of the quantum mechanics of some of the materials. I look at what’s happening in the biological area, which is the result of looking more detailed at the way life works, looking at the structure of the genes and one thing and another. These are all practical applications that are coming out of some very fundamental research, and our position in the world of fundamental science has deteriorated pretty badly. There are several other countries that are spending a significantly higher percentage of their G.N.P. than we are on basic science or on science, and ours is becoming less and less basic.”

How did he first get interested in science, I asked?

“My neighbor got a chemistry set and we could make explosives,” he said. “In those days, chemistry sets had some really neat things in them, and I decided about then I wanted to be a chemist not knowing quite what they did, and I continued my work in a home laboratory for some period of time. Got to the point where I was turning out nitroglycerin in small production quantities and turning it to dynamite. … A couple ounces of dynamite makes a marvelous firecracker. That really got my early interest in it. You couldn’t duplicate that today, but there are other opportunities. You know, I look at what some of my grandkids are doing, for example, those robotics and the like. These are spectacular. They’re really making a lot of progress.”

Looking back on Moore’s Law and the power of computing that it has driven, I asked Moore what he thought was its most important contribution over the past 50 years.

“Wow!” he said. “You know, just the proliferation of computing power. We’ve just seen the beginning of what computers are going to do for us.”

How so?

“Oh, I think incrementally we see them taking over opportunities that we tried to do without them before and were not successful,” he added. “It’s kind of the evolution into the machine intelligence, if you wish, and this is not happening in one step. To me, it’s happening in a whole bunch of increments. I never thought I’d see autonomous automobiles driving on the freeways. It wasn’t many years ago [they] put out a request to see who could build a car that could go across the Mojave Desert to Las Vegas from a place in Southern California, and several engineering teams across the country set out to do this. Nobody got more than about 300 yards before there was a problem. Two years later, they made the full 25-mile trip across this desert track, and which I thought was a huge achievement, and from that it was just a blink before they were driving on the freeways. I think we’re going to see incremental advances like that in a variety of other areas.”

Did he worry, I asked Moore, whose own microprocessors seemed as sharp as ever, that machines would really start to replace both white-collar and blue-collar labor at a scale that could mean the end of work for a lot of people?

“Don’t blame me!” he exclaimed! “I think it’s likely we’re going to continue to see that. You know, for several years, I have said we’re a two-class society separated by education. I think we’re seeing the proof of some of that now.”

When was the moment he came home and said to his wife, Betty, “Honey, they’ve named a law after me?”

Answered Moore: “For the first 20 years, I couldn’t utter the terms Moore’s Law. It was embarrassing. It wasn’t a law. Finally, I got accustomed to it where now I could say it with a straight face.”

Given that, is there something that he wishes he had predicted — like Moore’s Law — but did not? I asked.

“The importance of the Internet surprised me,” said Moore. “It looked like it was going to be just another minor communications network that solved certain problems. I didn’t realize it was going to open up a whole universe of new opportunities, and it certainly has. I wish I had predicted that.”

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

Already the polling for the presidential race is feverish, with new findings daily. Which Republican is leading in New Hampshire? How do voters feel, at any evanescent moment, about Hillary Clinton?

But there’s a climate in the country that’s larger than any contender, strangely resistant to the sorts of ups and downs that a campaign endures and as crucial to the outcome of the election as the clash of personalities that commands the lion’s share of our attention.

It’s a mood of overarching uncertainty and profound anxiety. And it’s so ingrained at this point that we tend to overlook it.

For a stunningly long period now, American voters have been pessimistic about the country’s future — and their own. They sense that both at home and abroad, we have lost ground and keep losing more.

And the presidency may well be determined not by any candidate’s fine-tuned calibration on hot-button issues or by cunning electoral arithmetic. It may hinge on eloquence, boldness and a bigger picture.

If one of the aspirants can give credible voice to Americans’ insecurity and trace a believable path out of it, he or she will almost certainly be victorious.

In a column a year ago, I noted that for a solid decade, the percentage of Americans who said that the United States was on the wrong track had exceeded the percentage who said that it was on the right track, according to polling by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal. I wondered about a change in the very psychology and identity of a country once famous for its sunniness about tomorrows.

Since then the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll has asked the right track/wrong track question another 10 times, and “wrong track” has continued to prevail without interruption and by substantial margins. The split as of two weeks ago was 62 percent to 28 percent.

Other polls have yielded similar findings even as unemployment dropped and the recession faded ever further from view.

Some projections validate voters’ gloom. In The Washington Post recently, Robert Samuelson observed that while the American economy expanded at an average annual rate of 4 percent from 1950 to 1973, it’s predicted to grow just 2.1 percent annually over the next decade. The 6 percent increases that weren’t uncommon in the 1990s are apparently long gone.

“We can’t do much about this,” Samuelson wrote, citing the retirement of baby boomers and the spread of new technologies that could sideline workers.

The latter dynamic is the focus of a new book, “Rise of the Robots,” that’s about as scary as the title suggests. It’s not science fiction, but rather a vision (almost) of economic Armageddon.

Its author, Martin Ford, invokes robots as a metaphor for the technological innovations, including better software and sophisticated algorithms, that have or will put machines in jobs once held by people. Computers, he notes, can now perform legal, pharmaceutical and medical work. They can produce journalism.

In a conversation on Tuesday, he told me: “If you automate all of these jobs, and technology drives down wages, then consumers have less purchasing power, which can lead to a downward economic spiral.”

Lead to? We’ve known ample spiraling already, and the context for Americans’ apprehensions is a flourishing debate about whether the American moment is over.

The title of a gathering of professors, politicians and writers at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., later this week asks: “Is the United States at a Crossroads?” Specific panels will mull related questions: “America’s Decline: Myth or Reality?” and “Is the United States Still the ‘Indispensable Nation’?”

In The Times last month, Jonathan Weisman interviewed officials involved in the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and noted that “concern is rising in many quarters that the United States is retreating from global economic leadership.”

The economist Edwin Truman, who worked in the Obama administration, told Weisman: “We’re withdrawing from the central place we held on the international stage.”

This sense of American drift, of American sputtering, informs President Obama’s current push for a sweeping trade agreement and his support for energy exploration, including drilling in the Atlantic and the Arctic. He’s after some economic juice.

It will inform the 2016 presidential election, too. Politicians and voters will wrangle in the foreground over taxes, the minimum wage, student debt, immigration.

But in the background looms a crisis of confidence that threatens to become the new American way. Let’s hope for a candidate with the vision and courage to tackle that.

In the comments “craig geary” of Redlands, FL had this to say:  “Imagine for a moment that the trillions of dollars wasted on near perpetual war in the Middle East had been spent here, building high speed rail, world class mass transit, switching over, as we must, to clean, infinitely renewable energy, free University education and for universal healthcare.  Our society and outlook would be quite different.”

Friedman and Bruni

May 6, 2015

In “Germany, the Green Superpower” The Moustache of Wisdom says contradictory feelings surface after a week in Berlin.  Mr. Bruni, in “Catholicism Undervalues Women,” says no matter the pope’s words, his church remains a patriarchy.  Here’s TMOW, writing from Berlin:

A week at the American Academy in Berlin leaves me with two contradictory feelings: one is that Germany today deserves a Nobel Peace Prize, and the other is that Germany tomorrow will have to overcome its deeply ingrained post-World War II pacifism and become a more serious, activist global power. And I say both as a compliment.

On the first point, what the Germans have done in converting almost 30 percent of their electric grid to solar and wind energy from near zero in about 15 years has been a great contribution to the stability of our planet and its climate. The centerpiece of the German Energiewende, or energy transformation, was an extremely generous “feed-in tariff” that made it a no-brainer for Germans to install solar power (or wind) at home and receive a predictable high price for the energy generated off their own rooftops.

There is no denying that the early days of the feed-in tariff were expensive. The subsidies cost billions of euros, paid for through a surcharge on everyone’s electric bill. But the goal was not simply to buy more renewable energy: It was to create demand that would drive down the cost of solar and wind to make them mainstream, affordable options. And, in that, the energiewende has been an undiluted success. With price drops of more than 80 percent for solar, and 55 percent for wind, zero-carbon energy is now competitive with fossil fuels here.

“In my view the greatest success of the German energy transition was giving a boost to the Chinese solar panel industry,” said Ralf Fücks, the president of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, the German Green Party’s political foundation. “We created the mass market, and that led to the increased productivity and dramatic decrease in cost.” And all this in a country whose northern tip is the same latitude as the southern tip of Alaska!

This is a world-saving achievement. And, happily, as the price fell, the subsidies for new installations also dropped. The Germans who installed solar ended up making money, which is why the program remains popular, except in coal-producing regions. Today, more than 1.4 million German households and cooperatives are generating their own solar/wind electricity. “There are now a thousand energy cooperatives operated by private people,” said the energy economist Claudia Kemfert.

Oliver Krischer, the vice chairman of the Green Party’s parliamentary group, told me: “I have a friend who comes home, and, if the sun is shining, he doesn’t even say hello to his wife. He first goes downstairs and looks at the meter to see what [electricity] he has produced himself. … The idea now is that energy is something you can [produce] on your own. It’s a new development.” And it has created so much pushback against the country’s four major coal/nuclear utilities that one of them, E.On, just split into two companies — one focusing on squeezing the last profits from coal, oil, gas and nuclear, while the other focuses on renewables. Germans jokingly call them “E.Off” and “E.On.”

One problem: Germany still has tons of cheap, dirty lignite coal that is used as backup power for wind and solar, because cleaner natural gas is more expensive and nuclear is being phased out.

So if that’s the story on renewable power, how about national power? Two generations after World War II, Germany’s reticence to project any power outside its borders is deeply ingrained in the political psyche here. That is a good thing, given Germany’s past. But it is not sustainable. There is an impressive weight to Germany today — derived from the quality of its governing institution, its rule of law, and the sheer power of its economy built on midsize businesses — that is unique in Europe.

When you talk to German officials about Greece, their main complaint is not about Greek fiscal policy, which is better lately, but about the rot and corruption in Greece’s governing institutions. The Greeks “couldn’t implement the structural reforms they needed, if they wanted to,” one German financial official said to me. Athens’ institutions are a mess.

 With America less interested in Europe, Britain fading away both from the European Union and the last vestiges of it being a global military power, France and Italy economically hobbled and most NATO members shrinking their defense budgets, I don’t see how Germany avoids exercising more leadership. Its economic sanctions are already the most important counter to Russian aggression in Ukraine. And in the Mediterranean Sea, where Europe now faces a rising tide of refugees (and where Russia and China just announced that their navies will hold a joint exercise in mid-May), Germany will have to catalyze some kind of E.U. naval response. The relative weight of German power vis-à-vis the rest of Europe just keeps growing, but don’t say that out loud here. A German foreign policy official put their dilemma this way: “We have to get used to assuming more leadership and be aware of how reluctant others are to have Germany lead — so we have to do it through the E.U.”

Here’s my prediction: Germany will be Europe’s first green, solar-powered superpower. Can those attributes coexist in one country, you ask? They’re going to have to.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Like a Pringles vendor sounding an alarm about obesity, Pope Francis fashioned himself a feminist last week.

You are not reading The Onion.

It was an epic mismatch of messenger and message, and I say that as someone who is thankful for this pope, admires him greatly and believes that a change of tone even without a change in teaching has meaning and warrants celebration.

But a change of tone in defiance of fact should be flagged (and flogged) as such. And neither Pope Francis nor any other top official in the bastion of male entitlement known as the Vatican can credibly assert concern about parity between the sexes. Their own kitchen is much too messy for them to call out the ketchup smudges in anybody else’s.

Francis actually went beyond concern. He vented outrage, calling it a “pure scandal” that women didn’t receive equal pay for equal work.

He left out the part about women in the Roman Catholic Church not even getting a shot at equal work. Pay isn’t the primary issue when you’re barred from certain positions and profoundly underrepresented in others.

Pay isn’t the primary issue when the symbolism, rituals and vocabulary of an institution exalt men over women and when challenges to that imbalance are met with the insistence that what was must always be — that habit trumps enlightenment and good sense.

Let’s be clear. For all the remarkable service that the Catholic Church performs, it is one of the world’s dominant and most unshakable patriarchies, with tenets that don’t abet equality.

For women to get a fair shake in the work force, they need at least some measure of reproductive freedom. But Catholic bishops in the United States lobbied strenuously against the Obamacare requirement that employers such as religiously affiliated schools and hospitals include contraception in workers’ health insurance.

Never mind that only a small minority of American Catholics buy into the church’s formal prohibition against artificial birth control. Some Catholic leaders don’t merely cling to that hoary stricture; they promote it, despite its disproportionate effect on women’s autonomy.

And how does their vilification of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization that represents 80 percent of American nuns, square with women’s equality? In 2012 the group was denounced by the Vatican and put under the control of three bishops charged with cleansing it of its “radical feminist” inclinations, including more attention to the poor than to sexual mores.

To his credit Pope Francis declared a truce with the nuns just last month. Also to his credit, he has signaled sympathy for women trying to limit the size of their families and has urged church leaders not to get too caught up in issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

And the trend line in the Vatican and in Vatican City government is apparently toward a greater number of female employees, though in 2014, according to The Associated Press, they held less than 20 percent of the jobs. That needn’t be the case, even factoring in women’s exclusion from the priesthood.

But the church’s refusal to follow some other Christian denominations and ordain women undermines any progress toward equality that it trumpets or tries. Sexism is embedded in its structure, its flow chart.

Men but not women get to preside at Mass. Men but never women wear the cassock of a cardinal, the vestments of a pope. Male clergy are typically called “father,” which connotes authority. Women in religious orders are usually called “sister,” which doesn’t.

And things could be different. Traditions change. History and mythology yield to fresh interpretation.

Yes, the Bible says that all 12 of Jesus Christ’s apostles were men. But I’ll see you that dozen and raise you one Mary Magdalene, to whom Jesus supposedly appeared first after the resurrection. Isn’t her role as foundational to the church’s birth?

Isn’t it more important that there be enough priests to bring the Eucharist to Catholics than that all those priests be men?

Can the church afford to alienate a generation of young women mystified by its intransigence?

“They’ve grown up in a world where all doors have been open to them,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. “And it just strikes a disconnect when they see the church with no female leadership — at least they’re not the ones at the altar.”

Francis hasn’t sanctioned any discussion of putting them there. When pressed about that by an Italian reporter last year, he reminded her that “women were taken from a rib.”

Was he ribbing her? He laughed and said so. But the metaphor remains, and it casts women as offshoots, even afterthoughts.

Friedman and Bruni

April 29, 2015

In “On Trade: Obama Right, Critics Wrong” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us that President Obama’s trade agreements can enhance our national security as much as our economic security.  In the comments “HDNY” from New York, NY had this to say:  International trade agreements should not be cloaked in secrecy and kept from the view of those whose jobs they are going destroy. If this deal is good, there should be a way to show that to the American people. You can’t just say, “You won’t like this, and it’s going to hurt, but we know what’s best and we’re doing this for your own good.””  Mr. Bruni, in “Love, Marriage and Music,” says the Supreme Court should give us an anthem of true equality.  Here’s TMOW, writing from Berlin:

I strongly support President Obama’s efforts to conclude big, new trade-opening agreements with our Pacific allies, including Japan and Singapore, and with the whole European Union. But I don’t support them just for economic reasons.

While I’m certain they would benefit America as a whole economically, I’ll leave it to the president to explain why (and how any workers who are harmed can be cushioned). I want to focus on what is not being discussed enough: how these trade agreements with two of the biggest centers of democratic capitalism in the world can enhance our national security as much as our economic security.

Because these deals are not just about who sets the rules. They’re about whether we’ll have a rule-based world at all. We’re at a very plastic moment in global affairs — much like after World War II. China is trying to unilaterally rewrite the rules. Russia is trying to unilaterally break the rules and parts of both the Arab world and Africa have lost all their rules and are disintegrating into states of nature. The globe is increasingly dividing between the World of Order and the World of Disorder.

When you look at it from Europe — I’ve been in Germany and Britain the past week — you see a situation developing to the south of here that is terrifying. It is not only a refugee crisis. It’s a civilizational meltdown: Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq — the core of the Arab world — have all collapsed into tribal and sectarian civil wars, amplified by water crises and other environmental stresses.

But — and this is the crucial point — all this is happening in a post-imperial, post-colonial and increasingly post-authoritarian world. That is, in this pluralistic region that lacks pluralism — the Middle East — we have implicitly relied for centuries on the Ottoman Empire, British and French colonialism and then kings and dictators to impose order from the top-down on all the tribes, sects and religions trapped together there. But the first two (imperialism and colonialism) are gone forever, and the last one (monarchy and autocracy) are barely holding on or have also disappeared.

Therefore, sustainable order — the order that will truly serve the people there — can only emerge from the bottom-up by the communities themselves forging social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens. And since that is not happening — except in Tunisia — the result is increasing disorder and tidal waves of refugees desperately trying to escape to the islands of order: Europe, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

At the same time, the destruction of the Libyan government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, without putting boots on the ground to create a new order in the vacuum — surely one of the dumbest things NATO ever did — has removed a barrier to illegal immigration to Europe from Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Eritrea, Syria and Sudan. As one senior German official speaking on background said to me: “Libya had been a bar to crossing the Mediterranean. But that bar has been removed now, and we can’t reinvent it.” A Libyan smuggler told The Times’s David D. Kirkpatrick, reporting from Libya, now “everything is open — the deserts and the seas.”

Here’s a prediction: NATO will eventually establish “no-sail zones” — safe areas for refugees and no-go zones for people-smugglers — along the Libyan coast.

What does all this have to do with trade deals? With rising disorder in the Middle East and Africa — and with China and Russia trying to tug the world their way — there has never been a more important time for the coalition of free-market democracies and democratizing states that are the core of the World of Order to come together and establish the best rules for global integration for the 21st century, including appropriate trade, labor and environmental standards. These agreements would both strengthen and more closely integrate the market-based, rule-of-law-based democratic and democratizing nations that form the backbone of the World of Order.

America’s economic future “depends on being integrated with the world,” said Ian Goldin, the director of the Oxford Martin School, specializing in globalization. “But the future also depends on being able to cooperate with friends to solve all kinds of other problems, from climate to fundamentalism.” These trade agreements can help build trust, coordination and growth that tilt the balance in all these countries more toward global cooperation than “hunkering down in protectionism or nationalism and letting others, or nobody, write the rules.”

As Obama told his liberal critics Friday: If we abandon this effort to expand trade on our terms, “China, the 800-pound gorilla in Asia will create its own set of rules,” signing bilateral trade agreements one by one across Asia “that advantage Chinese companies and Chinese workers and … reduce our access … in the fastest-growing, most dynamic economic part of the world.”  But if we get the Pacific trade deal done, “China is going to have to adapt to this set of trade rules that we’ve established.” If we fail to do that, he added, 20 years from now we’ll “look back and regret it.”

That’s the only thing he got wrong. We will regret it much sooner.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

At some point in my childhood, just before my teens, I was struck by the fact that almost all of the songs that I was hearing on the radio, half-consciously humming along to or committing to memory were about love.

Different shades of love, yes, and different stages of it: the heat and hunger of its infancy, the expansive warmth of its maturity, the bleeding pain when all that’s left of it is shards. But love nonetheless.

Starland Vocal Band mulled the naughty pleasures of an “Afternoon Delight.” Daryl Hall pined for the sweet validation of a sweetheart’s gesture in “Sara Smile.” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” Elton John implored Kiki Dee, and back then he hadn’t informed the world, or fully accepted, that the people most likely to hold that kind of power over him didn’t have names like Kiki.

Those were all huge hits in 1976, which is when I turned 12. And the No. 1 single that year?

“Silly Love Songs,” which Paul McCartney thought that “people would have had enough of.” No way, because there’s nothing silly about love, and when it comes to music, love is almost all there is.

When it comes to life, too.

On Tuesday love went to the Supreme Court, where the lawyers and the justices spoke of “equal participation” and “equal protection,” of “due process” and “animus,” of the Constitution and states’ rights.

There were legal terms and points of reference aplenty. It’s easy to become lost in them, and just as easy to follow the leads of journalists who are framing the proceedings as a high drama starring enigmatic actors: Justice Anthony Kennedy with his swing vote, Chief Justice John Roberts with his sensitivity to the court’s legacy.

But it’s important to step back and remember what this is really about: the most exquisite emotion that any of us can have, the most exalted bond, and whether we’re content to tell one group of Americans that their love is less dignified — and less worthy of celebration — than another group’s.

There’s no alternate message for gays and lesbians to read into prohibitions against same-sex marriage, because our society, like so many others, decided long ago that marriage was the most formal recognition of love, the ultimate blessing bestowed on it.

For many years now the tireless, dauntless advocates who blazed the trail to Tuesday have eloquently detailed the practical reasons for legalizing same-sex marriage, the measurable rights that it establishes or ensures.

It eliminates anxieties and injustices regarding hospital visits, medical decisions, estates, Social Security benefits, child custody, child care, immigration and more. It’s the best way to replace limbo with stability, freeing good people to get on with the rest of their lives.

But the expansion of marriage to include gays and lesbians does something even broader and deeper than that. It alters the very soundtrack of our existences, removing a refrain of disapproval, however minor, however muted.

I long detected that refrain in all of those silly love songs, which dominated the pop charts of my youth and dominate the pop charts now, because they traced a landscape that I would almost certainly have to tiptoe across, that was only partly hospitable to the likes of me.

So while they filled me with longing, as they were meant to, they also filled me with an unintended sadness. With envy, too, because I knew that for other people — straight people — worry and shame didn’t intrude on the melodies.

So much has changed. One of the most widely played love songs of last year, “Stay With Me,” is performed by Sam Smith, whose fans are fully aware that he’s gay. They’re aware, too, that the “one-night stand” that he mentions in the opening line is with another man.

At a music festival later this year, he’s scheduled to appear with Elton John,now out of the closet, now knighted and now with kids and a husband, whom he married under British law, which allows it.

American law remains a patchwork: equality in this state, inequality in that one. That’s where the Supreme Court comes in.

It can endorse inconsistency. Or the justices can do what’s right and what’s necessary, acknowledging that there’s no way to divorce a person’s way of loving from his or her humanity — that they’re entwined, like verse and chorus, and to treat one as inferior is to treat both that way.

We’ll probably get a ruling in June.

And with any luck, that judgment will turn all the love songs of yesterday, today and tomorrow into universal anthems that make the same promise to every listener, no matter the object of his or her affection.

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.


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