The Pasty Little Putz has a question in “Leaving Work Behind:” Are the effects of Obamacare on employment a sign of things to come? “Gemli” from Boston had this to say in the comments: “Douthat tries to intellectualize Republican antics as if they sincerely care about working people, but concern about worker dignity rings hollow when Republicans drive income inequality to extreme levels, weaken safety nets, cut unemployment benefits and kill food stamps.” The Putz would also do well to read some Krugman. MoDo also has a question in “Still Mad as Hell:” What would Paddy Chayefsky say, now that the apocalyptic “Network” has come true a couple thousand times over? This must be the day for questions, since The Moustache of Wisdom titled his column with one: “Whose Garbage Is This Anyway?” He says the Middle East peace process might benefit from a local eco-tour. In “Inside a Mental Hospital Called Jail” Mr. Kristof says for some of the mentally ill, the only place to get medical treatment these days is behind bars. Mr. Bruni considers “A Pope You Can Eat” and says Francis has sensed the world’s appetite for a sweeter kind of sermon. Here’s the Putz:
In 1930, in the darkening valley of the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay on “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” which foresaw a much happier future — one of growth, abundance and the steady decline of full-time work. Eventually, he suggested, civilization might settle on a 15-hour workweek, with three hours of daily labor being sufficient “to satisfy the old Adam in most of us.”
Compared with its Depression-era baseline, much of Keynes’s optimistic vision was prophetic. But the universal 15-hour workweek is not exactly with us yet. Instead, a different trend seems to be emerging, in which well-educated professionals — inspired by rising pay and status-obsessed competition — often work longer hours than they did a few decades ago, while poorer Americans, especially poorer men, are increasingly disconnected from the labor force entirely. (That this trend coincides with widening inequality is not coincidental.)
When economists look ahead to the possibilities awaiting our grandchildren, they often see this divide widening even further, as the digital economy delivers rich rewards to certain kinds of highly educated talent, while revolutions in robotics eliminate many of today’s low-skilled, low-wage jobs.
This context is crucial to understanding the debate that erupted last week over Obamacare’s impact on work-force participation. The Congressional Budget Office had always predicted that the new health care law’s mix of direct benefits and indirect incentives would encourage some people to cut their hours or leave their jobs outright. But its latest report revised the estimate substantially upward, predicting that by 2021, the equivalent of 2.3 million full-time workers — most of them low-wage — could disappear from the American economy.
That big number prompted Republicans to recycle their predictions that the health care law would be a “job killer.” As liberals retorted, this is not exactly right: These would be working hours freely given up, not jobs lost in huge Obamacare-induced layoffs. Any health care reform worthy of the name would have some version of this effect: If you weaken the link between insurance and employment, workers will have one less reason to stay at a job they dislike. And it’s easy to envision cases where the ability to reduce one’s working hours would be an unmitigated good — for ailing near-retirees, for parents of young children.
At the same time, though, the design of Obamacare — Medicaid expansion, subsidies for comprehensive rather than catastrophic coverage, and then the way the subsidy disappears if you get a raise or take a higher-paying job — makes the work disincentive much more substantial than it would be under, say, a conservative alternative that offers everyone a flat credit to buy a catastrophic plan.
So the new law’s impact on work will be felt well beyond families juggling jobs and child care. One of the studies used to model the consequences of Obamacare, for instance, found a strong work disincentive while looking at a population of childless, able-bodied, mostly working-class adults — a demographic that’s already becoming more and more detached from steady, paying work.
And this is where liberalism has a very important choice to make. It’s possible to defend Obamacare’s overall goals while also recognizing its potentially perverse effects, and conceding that we should try to minimize the number of low-skilled workers exiting the labor market.
But it’s also possible to argue that as a rich, post-scarcity society, we shouldn’t really care that much about whether the poor choose to work. The important thing is just making sure they have a decent standard of living, full stop, and if they choose Keynesian leisure over a low-paying job, that’s their business.
There are hints of a division within the liberal mind on this issue. Across the left and center-left, there’s agreement that an unequal society requires a thicker social safety net, and that as technological changes undercut low-wage work, government should help those left behind.
But in the Obamacare debate and elsewhere, it’s not always clear whether this larger welfare state is supposed to promote a link between work, security and mobility, or to substitute for work’s gradual decline. On the left, there’s a growing tendency toward both pessimism and utopianism — with doubts about the compatibility of capitalism and democracy, and skepticism about the possibility for true equality of opportunity, feeding a renewed interest in 1970s-era ideas like a universal basic income.
On the conservative side, things are somewhat clearer. There are libertarians who like the basic income idea, but only as a substitute for the existing welfare state, not as a new expansion. Both “rugged individualist” right-wingers and more communitarian conservatives tend to see work as essential to dignity, mobility and social equality, and see its decline as something to be fiercely resisted.
The question is whether tomorrow’s liberals will be our allies in that fight.
Yeah, right. We’re about to ally with the mole people. Here’s MoDo:
I often wonder what Paddy would think.
I wish I could have a pastrami on wry with the late writer and satirist at the Carnegie Deli and get an exhilarating blast of truth about “the atomic, subatomic and galactic structure of things today.”
What would Paddy Chayefsky make of Kim Kardashian?
What would he think of Diane Sawyer showing cat videos on the ABC evening news?
What would he say about Brian Williams broadcasting on the Huntley-Brinkley network a video of a pig saving a baby goat while admitting he had no idea if it was phony? (It was.)
What would Paddy rant about the viral, often venomous world of the Internet, Twitter and cable news, where fake rage is all the rage all the time, bleeding over into a Congress that chooses antagonism over accomplishment, no over yes?
What would he think of ominous corporate “synergy” run amok, where “news” seamlessly blends into promotion, where it’s frighteningly easy for corporate commercial interests to dictate editorial content?
What would Paddy say about the Murdochization of the news, where a network slants its perspective because it sells and sells big?
What would he make of former Time Inc. Editor-in-Chief Norman Pearlstine returning in a new position as Time Inc.’s chief content officer, breaking the firewall between editorial and business as he works “with business and edit teams to drive the development of new content experiences and products throughout our portfolio that will fuel future revenue growth,” as C.E.O. Joe Ripp put it?
What would Paddy think of American corporations skipping out on taxes by earning nearly half of their profits in tax-haven countries?
What would he think of the unholy alliance between Internet giants like Google and Facebook and the U.S. national security apparatus?
Chayefsky’s dazzling satire “Network,” with its unforgettable mad prophet of the airwaves, Howard Beale, blossomed from the writer’s curdled feelings about TV. What wouldn’t the network suits do for ratings, he would ask lunch companions like Mel Brooks and Bob Fosse at the Carnegie Deli.
But now America runs on clicks. Chayefsky’s nightmare has been multiplied many times over, with the total media-ization and monetization of everything, the supremacy of ratings and market share, the commercialization of all editorial decisions.
Now that they’re armed with big data and science, corporate bosses are able to figure out how many people are watching which minute of which segment.
An analytics service called Chartbeat gives webmasters instantaneous access to those on the other side of the screen by providing real-time data on their mouse clicks, time spent reading or watching, and even their location.
In his fun upcoming book, “Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies,” Dave Itzkoff, a culture reporter at The Times, offers a vivid portrait of the charming and depressed curmudgeon.
Itzkoff has great anecdotes about Faye Dunaway’s prima donna paranoia about the most brilliant love-work sex scene in movie history. And he dishes up fun factoids, like how Howard Beale got his name from the mother-daughter duo, “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale, and how Peter Finch flubbed and added an extra “as” to one of the most famous lines in movie history, which Chayefsky wrote this way: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.”
The Bronx-born writer, who died of cancer in 1981, was bedraggled and “built like an office safe,” as the director Joshua Logan put it. He did exhaustive research into networks in New York, but then had to film the movie at a Toronto TV station once the American networks realized the piece was a Strangelovey dirge.
Chayefsky said his 1976 masterpiece was “a rage against the dehumanization of people” addicted to “boredom-killing” devices — a dehumanization that has gone to warp speed as we have entered the cloud. He said it was about “how to protect ourselves” from “the illusion we sell as truth.”
That illusion is ever more pervasive as people believe and spread wacky viral content like snow-covered Pyramids, a half-toilet in Sochi and a story about Samsung paying Apple a billion-dollar fine in nickels.
Chayefsky warned against “comicalizing the news,” noting “To make a gag out of the news is disreputable and extremely destructive.” But real news became so diminished that young people turned to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to learn about what was going on in the world.
Colbert told Itzkoff that “Network” is his favorite movie. Although Howard Beale is not an inspiration for his bombastic TV alter ego, Colbert said that the Beale character anticipated an attitude those types of broadcasters share, which is “I will tell you what to think.” Beale’s approach, the comic said, was more “quasi-benevolent,” as in “I’m going to remind you that you’re being anesthetized right now.”
If Paddy, who used to say “truth is truth,” could see how far beyond “Network” we’ve gone, he would not only be mad as hell. He’d be scared as hell.
Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Hebron, West Bank:
It was not your usual Holy Land tour, but surely one of the most revealing I’ve ever had. A team from Friends of the Earth Middle East took me around to see how waste, sewage and untreated water flow, or don’t, between Israel and the West Bank. I never realized how political garbage and dirty water could be, or how tracking it could reveal just why making peace here is so urgent.
For starters, who knew that when you flush the toilet in your hotel in the eastern half of Jerusalem the wastewater likely ends up in the Dead Sea — untreated? It flows from Jerusalem’s sewers into the Kidron Stream. If you can stand the stench, you can watch it all rush by about a mile east and downhill from Jerusalem. Germany offered to pay for a treatment plant, but for the past 20 years Israel and the Palestinian Authority have not been able to agree on how to split the treated water — which originates in both Jewish and Arab drains, so nothing has happened. As a result, Mother Nature alone does her best to filter it as it flows down to the Jordan Valley, where Jewish settlers use some of this poorly treated water to irrigate their date palms. The rest ends up in the Dead Sea. Good thing it’s already dead.
We’ve learned in the last few years that the colonial boundaries of the Middle East do not correspond to the ethnic, sectarian and tribal boundaries — and it is one reason that some Arab states are breaking up. But neither do the ecosystem boundaries correspond with any borders or walls. And the fact that Israelis and Palestinians have not been able to reach a power-sharing agreement that would enable them to treat the entire ecosystem here as a system is catching up with them.
When the region got hit in January 2013 with snow and rain from a freak and massive storm, the runoff was so powerful down the Alexander Stream, which flows from the Shomron Mountains near the West Bank town of Nablus into Israel, that it overflowed. So instead of going under the thick cement wall Israel has erected around the West Bank to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers, the flood blew away a whole chunk of that wall. Mother Nature laughs at our “green lines.”
Now consider what is going on in the Hebron Industrial Zone, home to 13 tanning factories, including the Al-Walied for Leather and Tanning Company, where hides are hanging everywhere from the ceiling and a single worker is putting them through a machine that squeezes out the moisture from the softening process.
The problem, explained Malek Abu al-Failat, from the Bethlehem office of Friends of the Earth Middle East, which brings Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians together on one team, is that the tanneries use chromium 3 to soften the hides and then let the effluence flow into the drains and down the Hebron Stream. That effluence exceeds 5,000 milligrams of chromium 3 per liter. The global safety standard is 5 milligrams! When the chromium 3 hits the water and oxygen, it becomes chromium 6, a known carcinogen. So, in 1998, the U.S. Agency for International Development built a treatment plant here that effectively extracts all the chromium 3 and recycles it. But, in 2005, Israel identified the sulfuric acid used in the recycling as a dual-use chemical that Palestinians could employ to make a bomb and banned its use by tanners. So the chromium 6 is now back in the water, which flows from Hebron to Beersheba, one of Israel’s largest cities, and then on to Gaza and out to sea, into waters used by Israel’s desalination plants.
We visited the Al-Minya Sanitary Landfill that was built with grants from the World Bank, European Union and USAID so Palestinians could close down 19 unauthorized and unsanitary dump sites around Bethlehem and Hebron. It was supposed to open in September, but, as I saw, its 65 acres were still pristine because the Israeli military told the Palestinian Authority that if the site didn’t also accept garbage from the Gush Etzion Jewish settlements it could not open, said Failat. Palestinians say it’s unfair that they lose their land to settlements and then have to accept their garbage.
Meanwhile, Gaza, which has been woefully mismanaged by Hamas, is pumping all its drinking water from its coastal aquifer at triple its renewable rate of recharge. As a result, saltwater is seeping in. Last year, the U.N. said that by 2016 there will be no potable water left in Gaza’s main aquifer. Gaza has no big desalination plant and would not have the electricity to run it anyway. I don’t want to be here when 1.5 million Gazans really get thirsty.
Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians actually have all the resources needed to take care of everyone, but only if they collaborate, explained Gidon Bromberg, co-founder of Friends of the Earth Middle East. Israel, which is the world leader in desalination and wastewater recycling, could use its own cheap natural gas and solar power generated in Jordan — where there is lots of sunny desert — “to provide desalinated and recycled water for itself, Gaza, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.”
Everyone would win, which is why Bromberg suggests that Secretary of State John Kerry take Israeli and Palestinian negotiators on an eco-tour to see “the seeping time bomb that’s ticking underneath both of them.” It, too, will explode if they don’t forge a deal that enables them to live apart, but in a framework that also enables them to work together to protect the water, soil and air that they will always have in common and can only be preserved by acting in common.
When he’s done with that maybe Kerry can talk to the Republicans regarding regulations in this country so West Virginia’s water isn’t poisoned again… And now we get to Mr. Kristof, writing from Chicago:
The largest mental health center in America is a huge compound here in Chicago, with thousands of people suffering from manias, psychoses and other disorders, all surrounded by high fences and barbed wire.
Just one thing: It’s a jail. The only way to get treatment is to be arrested.
Psychiatric disorders are the only kind of sickness that we as a society regularly respond to not with sympathy but with handcuffs and incarceration. And as more humane and cost-effective ways of treating mental illness have been cut back, we increasingly resort to the law-enforcement toolbox: jails and prisons.
More than half of prisoners in the United States have a mental health problem, according to a 2006 Justice Department study. Among female inmates, almost three-quarters have a mental disorder.
In the jail here, some prisoners sit on their beds all day long, lost in their delusions, oblivious to their surroundings, hearing voices, sometimes talking back to them. The first person to say that this system is barbaric is their jailer.
“It’s criminalizing mental illness,” the Cook County sheriff, Thomas Dart, told me as he showed me the jail, on a day when 60 percent of the jail’s intake reported that they had been diagnosed with mental illness. Dart says the system is abhorrent and senseless, as well as an astronomically expensive way to treat mental illness — but that he has no choice but to accept schizophrenic, bipolar, depressive and psychotic prisoners delivered by local police forces.
People are not officially incarcerated because of psychiatric ailments, but that’s the unintended effect. Sheriff Dart says that although some mentally ill people commit serious crimes, the great majority are brought in for offenses that flow from mental illness.
One 47-year-old man I spoke to, George, (I’m not permitted to use last names for legal reasons) is bipolar, hears voices and abuses drugs and alcohol. He said he had been arrested five times since October for petty offenses. The current offense is criminal trespass for refusing to leave a Laundromat.
The sheriff says such examples are common and asks: “How will we be viewed, 20, 30, 50 years from now? We’ll be looked on as the ones who locked up all the mentally ill people.
“It really is one of those things so rich with irony: The same society that abhorred the idea that we lock people up in mental hospitals, now we lock people up in jails.”
A few data snapshots:
• Nationwide in America, more than three times as many mentally ill people are housed in prisons and jails as in hospitals, according to a 2010 study by the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center.
• Mentally ill inmates are often preyed upon while incarcerated, or disciplined because of trouble following rules. They are much more likely than other prisoners, for example, to be injured in a fight in jail, the Justice Department says.
• Some 40 percent of people with serious mental illnesses have been arrested at some point in their lives.
In the 1800s, Dorothea Dix led a campaign against the imprisonment of the mentally ill, leading to far-reaching reforms and the establishment of mental hospitals. Now we as a society have, in effect, returned to the 1800s.
Among those jailed here is Russell, 46, who is being held for burglarizing a garage. He has been diagnosed with severe depression and said that he self-medicates with alcohol and drugs. Most of his adult life has been spent behind bars for one offense after another, and he said he became aware of his mental health problems when he was being clubbed by a thug with a baseball bat and realized that he was enjoying it.
“I just want to be normal,” he said as we spoke in a large dormitory room for inmates with psychiatric problems. “I want to have a job. I’ve never had a job. I want to be able to say hi to a co-worker.” He stopped, and there were tears in his eyes.
In 1955, there was one bed in a psychiatric ward for every 300 Americans; now there is one for every 3,000 Americans, the 2010 study said. So while more effective pharmacological treatments are theoretically available, they are often very difficult to access for people who are only borderline functional.
“Some people come here to get medication,” says Ardell Hall, a superintendent of a women’s unit at the jail. “They commit a crime to get in.”
India, a 42-year-old woman, suffers from manic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She said she tried at various times to get psychiatric care but found it almost impossible, so she self-medicates when on the outside with heroin — and has spent almost all of her adult life in jails and prisons on a succession of nonviolent offenses relating to drugs and shoplifting.
Taxpayers spend as much as $300 or $400 a day supporting patients with psychiatric disorders while they are in jail, partly because the mentally ill require medication and extra supervision and care.
“Fiscally, this is the stupidest thing I’ve seen government do,” Dart says. It would be far cheaper, he adds, to manage the mentally ill with a case worker on the outside than to spend such sums incarcerating them.
Cook County has implemented an exemplary system for mental health support for inmates. While in jail, they often stabilize. Then they are released, go off their medications and the cycle repeats.
One woman in the jail, Kristen, said she had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders. On the outside, her prescription medication cost $100 a month, so she skipped it.
“When I’m not on my medicine on a regular basis, I don’t make decisions well,” she said, explaining her long arrest record for theft and narcotics offenses. I asked her if access to medicine would keep her out of jail, and she said: “I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, to be totally honest. But it would help.”
As Sheriff Dart puts it: “We’ve systematically shut down all the mental health facilities, so the mentally ill have nowhere else to go. We’ve become the de facto mental health hospital.”
Do we really want to go back two centuries? Doesn’t that seem not only inhumane but also deluded — on our part?
And we end today’s festivities with Mr. Bruni:
The pope, a porn star and a parrot walk into a bar.
Well, almost. Their point of intersection just a week and a half ago was actually St. Peter’s Square, and “porn star” stretches things: The performer in question was reportedly a former male stripper who had graduated to racy movies and, this being Italy, was once head of his town council. Sounds like prime minister material to me. A chip off the old Silvio.
He brought the bird, named Amore, to meet the pope, meaning Francis, who was taking one of his routine spins among the flock in the popemobile. Amore caught Francis’ eye, perched briefly on one of his fingers and squawked what the crowd was chanting: “Papa!” Those syllables, I’d bet, were a big improvement over other utterances Amore has learned to mimic.
It’s amazing what you miss if you don’t stay on top of Vatican news these days.
Did you hear about the Harley? A gift to Francis that he put his signature on but apparently never used, the motorcycle was just auctioned off for more than $275,000.
Or his recent introduction to a life-size likeness of himself made out of chocolate? Pope Benedict XVI was known as “God’s Rottweiler.” Pope Francis has a dessert doppelgänger. That pretty much says it all.
It was Pope John Paul II who was often called a rock star, but it’s Francis who just landed on the cover of Rolling Stone, as if he were Jagger, Springsteen or Spears. Seeing him there was like finding Mitch McConnell scowling below the logo of Tiger Beat.
On my vague mental list of things that might someday come back into fashion, the papacy was never present. I used to cover it for The Times, from 2002 to 2004, and was convinced then that my beat wasn’t just a dying man — John Paul could barely walk and struggled to talk — but a dying institution, at least in the United States and much of Europe.
But the bevy of bulletins from Rome and the merry nature of so many of them suggest that people everywhere, even in the more godless precincts of the Western world, can’t get enough of this new pope and are committed to giving him the benefit of the doubt. The United Nations last week issued a blistering and wholly warranted report about the Roman Catholic Church’s coddling of sexually abusive priests and its evasion of full accountability, but in none of the news coverage was Francis put on the hot seat. There was this implicit notion that the mess predated and had little to do with him, which is ridiculous: He’s been a part of this institution for a long time, and if he’d been agitating for reform and full transparency all these years, he’d never have ascended to the top.
He’s no renegade. But he is the equivalent of a corporate turnaround artist or a political strategist who deftly breathes fresh life into a sputtering enterprise. I use those secular metaphors because his rehabilitation of the papacy has so much secular resonance and so many secular lessons.
Like this: If you’re going to define yourself in opposition to a predecessor whom many people had misgivings about, go all the way. Francis is the Bill de Blasio to Benedict’s Michael Bloomberg, doing a complete semiotic overhaul. Less investment in festive footwear, more in the washing of other people’s feet. He’s not telling priests to stop being priests, any more than de Blasio is telling the police to stop being the police. He’s just urging them to tamp down the brusqueness and bullying. No more theological stop-and-frisk.
He understands that tone trumps content — that it’s everything, really. The writer Damon Linker has contributed lively, intelligent pieces of commentary to the publications The Week and The New Republic that take Francis-fawning journalists to task for seeing a revolution that’s just not there. Linker asserts that the church, under this pope, has not in fact changed its teaching about homosexuality, the ordination of women, celibacy or any of that.
And he’s absolutely correct. But he gives short shrift to what a difference a smile and a shrug make. Francis, who has mastered both, may not be telling the church’s scolds that they have to relinquish their dogma, but his manner and diction are telling everyone else that he’s not going to harangue them — that it’s neither his inclination nor his place. And that’s huge. “Who am I to judge?” he said. This, from a pope, is like Streisand saying, “Who am I to sing?” It’s a bit of self-effacement that you never saw coming.
Francis has also grasped that timing is everything, a point proved by the reception to his recent apostolic exhortation about the corrosive effects of greed in the world. This statement was lauded as a bold, overdue enunciation of muffled Catholic principle, but his predecessors, even Benedict in his fur-lined stole, didn’t exactly cheer the excesses of corporate titans and upbraid the underclass for being loafers hooked on government largess. Charity for the poor is as consistent a message as any the church preaches. Francis just landed his sermon at the perfect moment of welling anxiety about income inequality, and he had the additional savvy to pepper it with words and phrases at the heart of the heated political debate about what to do.
Besides, he’s attentive to the coordination of message and optics. Advocating generosity toward the needy is infinitely more effective when you’ve traded the usual papal residence for a less-regal guesthouse and the customary chariot for a Ford Focus. It has a practicing-what-you-preach modesty and authenticity to it.
Above all, Francis has recognized and taken advantage of the fact that people of all stripes — liberals, conservatives — are as hungry for saints as they are for, well, chocolate. They may not have much patience for the vocabulary of shame and the fustiest definitions of sin, but they want examples of goodness and calls to grace, and they’ll respond eagerly to the ones that don’t come with exclusionary rules and harping about penance. That’s part of what gave Mandela and Gandhi such currency beyond their countries. They were spiritual leaders minus the catechism. The world has no glut of these.
“I believe in God, not in a Catholic God,” Francis has said, and he’s even expressed respect for atheists. When one of the stars of “Philomena” and the woman on whom it’s based visited the Vatican last week, he wasn’t put off by complaints about the movie’s anti-Catholicism or suspicion that the pair’s visit was part of an Oscar campaign. He welcomed and met with them.
An ecumenical papacy, he realizes, has more sway and stamina than a narrowly, stridently pious one. It’s a big tent he’s unfurling. Parrots and porn stars welcome.