Archive for the ‘Collins’ Category

Kristof and Collins

July 2, 2015

In “A Toddler’s Death in a Foxhole” Mr. Kristof says as long as the world allows Sudan’s savagery, civilians will die.  Ms. Collins has a “Fourth of July Quiz” and says Happy upcoming Independence Day! Let’s celebrate with a presidential primary quiz.  Here’s Mr. Kristof, who is in the Nuba Mountains, Sudan:

It’s not clear whether the Sudanese Air Force was trying to bomb the village of grass huts, or the girlshigh school next to it.

Hamida Osman, 23, simply knew that a Sukhoi fighter jet was roaring toward her village. She grabbed her only child, Safarina, 2, and jumped into the foxhole that the family had built for those frequent occasions when Sudan decides to bomb its people.

Inside the foxhole, Hamida used her own body to try to shield her daughter. They heard the sound of bombs whistling downward, and then there were two enormous explosions.

The next thing Hamida knew, she was covered with blood and had shrapnel wounds to her arms and legs. She looked down. A piece of shrapnel had taken away much of Safarina’s head.

Another day, another dead civilian. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan, having committed crimes against humanity in South Sudan and Darfur, is now waging them with equal impunity in the Nuba Mountains in the far south of the country, and major nations are once more reacting mostly with indifference. With President Obama headed to East Africashortly, let’s hope he raises these atrocities and pushes for humanitarian access to the Nuba Mountains.

Limping from her injuries, Hamida showed me where the bombs had struck beside her now-incinerated hut.

“I don’t know what they’re trying to hit,” she said, “but they’re always dropping bombs on homes here.”

Sudan is deliberately bombing civilians and girls schools as part of its brutal counterinsurgency campaign against tens of thousands of armed rebels in the Nuba Mountains. The aim seems to be to terrorize the population and depopulate the area.

To keep out aid and eyewitnesses, Sudan bars visits by aid workers, diplomats and journalists. I slipped in through rebel lines without a visa, as I did on my three previous visits to the Nuba Mountains.

In the village of Endeh, schoolchildren gave me an impromptu lesson in the sounds I should listen for: the whoom-whoom of an Antonov bomber, the roar of a Sukhoi fighter, and the warbling of a bomb as it falls through the air. It was eerie: One moment they giggled as they mimicked the sounds, and the next moment they described how a bombing at their school had killed a teacher and three students.

The village rebuilt the school near caves used as shelter during bombings. When the children showed me the caves, I noticed a freshly shed snake skin, from a spitting cobra. The villagers gently explained to me that cobras are, on balance, less terrifying than bombs.

The bombs have fallen in Nuba for four years and they accelerated early this year. Nuba Reports, a monitoring organization, counted 1,764 bombs dropped between December and February, more than ever before in a three-month period.

This isn’t exactly the same as Sudan’s slaughter in Darfur, for that has involved militias burning villages. Here in the Nuba Mountains, the rebels keep out militias, so Sudan kills from the air with bombs, artillery shells and cluster munitions. President Bashir also blockades the area to keep out all food, medicine and supplies. Sudan even bombs trucks carrying food, and its denial of food and medicine probably kills more civilians than the bombings do directly.

The blockade of medicine is particularly infuriating. Only 5 to 10 percent of children in rebel-held areas get vaccinated, and one of the biggest measles outbreaks in Africa last year occurred in the Nuba Mountains.

Unicef and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, are reluctant to send in vaccines for fear of antagonizing the Sudanese government and losing access in other parts of Sudan. So parents see their children dying not only from shelling but also from measles.

Let’s demand humanitarian access — and if it is not granted, aid agencies should send in medicine anyway. It’s unconscionable to let children die because of diplomatic protocol.

There are precedents. In the late 1980s, Sudan similarly blocked aid to rebel-held areas in the south, and the Reagan and first Bush administrations worked with Unicef to start Operation Lifeline Sudan, sending in aid directly to needy areas. Today we need a new Operation Lifeline.

To his credit, President Obama has quietly provided food to the Nuba Mountains, thus averting starvation. It’s a model of what could also be done with medicine. But Obama overall has been weaker than the four previous presidents in standing up to Sudan.

As for Safarina’s killing, it’s unclear whether Sudan was aiming for her village or the girls school. It speaks volumes that Sudan regularly targets both villagers and schoolgirls.

It’s a brutal way to live, and in the case of children like Safarina, to die. And as long as world leaders and aid agencies acquiesce and Sudan pays no price for its savagery, nothing will change.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Happy upcoming Independence Day! Let’s celebrate with a presidential primary quiz.

1       Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is the latest Republican candidate for president. His slogan is:

  • “Telling it like it is.”
  • “Yelling it like it is.”
  • “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
  • “I don’t need any stupid slogan. You got a problem with that?”

2       Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, the second latest Republican to announce he’s a presidential candidate:

  • Is known in New Orleans as “Les Bon Temps Bobby.”
  • Said he once participated in an exorcism.
  • Gave a thrilling Republican response to the State of the Union speech.
  • Is less popular in Louisiana than anybody but Barack Obama.

3       Jeb Bush told a gathering of wealthy Manhattan financiers that his most influential adviser on the Middle East was:

  • His brother George.
  • His brother Marvin.
  • The billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
  • “A wealthy Manhattan financier I just had a great talk with in this very room.”

4       In one of her emails as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton:

  • Misspelled “Benghazi.”
  • Urged John Podesta to wear socks to bed.
  • Debated whether her playlist should include something from the Marvelettes.
  • Tutored an aide on how to use a fax.

5       Which of the following statements about Mike Huckabee is NOT true?

  • Hosted an infomercial promoting a cinnamon-heavy “Diabetes Solution Kit.”
  • Has trouble relating to people who don’t “order fried green tomatoes for an appetizer.”
  • Wrote a strange essay about rape and bondage 40 years ago, which he describes as a precursor to “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
  • Enjoyed frying squirrels in a popcorn popper as a college student

6       Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky:

  • Loves squirrels.
  • Once attempted to equate abortion rights to government support for low-flush toilets.
  • Is the son of guitar legend Les Paul.
  • Decorated his office like a scene from “Downton Abbey.”

7       Senator Ted Cruz of Texas once:

  • Put together a group of advisers who described early childhood education as a “Godless environment.”
  • Tweeted a picture of himself posing with what looked like a rug made from an endangered species.
  • Demanded the return of deep-fried foods to school cafeterias. (“It’s not about French fries; it’s about freedom.”)
  • Called for special supervision of S. military exercises this summer because of concerns that the soldiers might take over and confiscate everyone’s guns.

8       Rick Perry has a campaign theme song that goes: “Rick Perry supporter …

  • “… I love law and order.”
  • “… Let’s protect our border.”
  • “… Can you spare a quarter?”
  • “… Take your hands off my daughter.”

9       Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin:

  • Delivered his college valedictorian speech on women’s rights.
  • Got an across-the-board endorsement from the cast of “Duck Dynasty.”
  • Responded to a child’s question about global warming by saying that he is a former boy scout who “always thought maybe campsites should be cleaner.”
  • Responded to a child’s question about global warming by complaining about “gotcha” inquiries.

10     Which Democrat used part of the presidential announcement speech to call for adoption of the metric system?

  • Hillary Clinton
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Martin O’Malley
  • Lincoln Chafee

11     One candidate for president seemed sure that the mass murder of nine black people in a historic black church was an attack on religion. (“…What other rationale could there be?”) That was:

  • Carly Fiorina.
  • Ben Carson.
  • Rick Santorum.
  • Marco Rubio.

12     Donald Trump:

  • Showed his support for the American worker by having his line of ties manufactured in Kansas.
  • Has signed up to host a repackaged quiz show called “Who Wants to Be a Thousandaire?”
  • Is vowing to “Do for America what I did for Atlantic City.”
  • Says he has a secret plan to defeat ISIS but doesn’t “want the enemy to know what I’m doing.”

13     The first presidential primary debate, featuring the top 10 Republicans, will be in Ohio in August. It’s already causing controversy because:

  • Fox News, the broadcaster, wants to raise ratings by requiring the candidates to answer questions while suspended over the Grand Canyon.
  • The governor of Ohio might not make the cut.
  • Rand Paul has called for a more millennial-friendly “Twitter-off.”
  • Jeb Bush is insisting that all of his male relatives be permitted to pass him notes.

 

 

 

Now here’s the answer key, using A through D since she used bullets:

 

1A, 2B, 3A, 4B, 5C, 6B, 7B, 8B, 9C, 10D, 11C, 12D, 13B

Bruni and Collins

June 27, 2015

In “Our Weddings, Our Worth” Mr. Bruni says the Supreme Court didn’t rule just for marriage equality. It ruled for dignity and joyous lives.  Ms. Collins, in “Supremes Hit a High Note,” says in only a few days, the justices had laudable rulings on gay marriage, national health care and the Fair Housing Act.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

How will the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage alter the way Americans feel about the country, and how we feel about ourselves?

I can’t speak for everyone. But I can speak for this one 12-year-old boy.

He stands out among his siblings because he lacks their optimism about things, even their quickness to smile. He has a darkness that they don’t. He’s a worrier, a brooder. He’s also more self-conscious. He can’t get comfortable with himself.

And while this may be his wiring, it may also be something else. He has noticed that his heart beats faster not for girls but for other boys, and the sensation is as lonely and terrifying as it is intense.

He doesn’t know what to do about it. He’s sure he’ll be reviled for it, because he hears all of the bigoted jokes that people aren’t necessarily aware that they’re telling, all of the cruel asides that they don’t always realize that they’re muttering. He craves some assurance that he’ll be spared their disdain and disgust. But the world hasn’t given him any.

I can speak for a 16-year-old boy. He has a word for what he is — “gay” or “homosexual” or something worse, depending on who’s talking — but he doesn’t have answers for what that’s going to mean. At the mall one afternoon, he surreptitiously breaks away from his friends and steals into a bookstore. He’s looking for something to quiet the fear inside him.

He finds an examination of “being gay in America” that’s called “Alienated Affections.” The phrase rattles him. It sounds like a diagnosis or sinister prophecy. To understand it better, he riffles hurriedly through the pages, glancing over his shoulder repeatedly to make sure that no one’s watching, listening carefully for any approaching steps.

His nerve doesn’t last long; he manages to take in only a reference to drag queens, an explanation of bondage, an exploration of homoeroticism among prisoners.

These are his options? Feathers, chains or the chain gang?

The title of one chapter in particular catches his eye: “Beyond Gay or Gloomy: The Ordinary Miseries of Everyday Life.” Gloomy? Miseries?

He’s not sure he has the stomach for this, or the strength.

He closes the book, along with a bit of his heart.

I can speak for a 20-year-old college student. He has opened up to his family and to many friends about who he is, not because he possesses any particular courage but because being honest involves less strain, less effort, than keeping secrets and dreading their exposure. Also because he wants to meet men like him, develop crushes he can act on, even fall in love.

And so far, there’s been no terrible price. His family doesn’t wholly understand him, but they want and resolve to. For every friend who now keeps a distance, there’s another who draws closer.

He’s overwhelmed with relief.

But he wishes there were a way to be honest without wearing a tag, without being put in a category, without one adjective preceding all others when people describe him. Their tendency do so is a constant reminder that he’s not “normal.”

So are the laws of his land. It’s illegal in many places for two men or two women to have sex. It’s legal in most places for them to be fired because of who and how they love. Even the language in public discussions sends an ugly signal. People are congratulated for their “tolerance” of gays and lesbians.

He is someone to be tolerated.

And he is always having to explain, to one inquisitive person after another, that he didn’t choose this path, that it’s not a statement or a caprice, that he neither rues nor relishes it, that it’s just there: fundamental, foundational, forever. The ritual grinds him down.

I can speak for a 30-year-old man who owns and lives in a house in the suburbs with another man his age. They’re romantic partners. A couple. A white picket fence surrounds the yard behind their red brick colonial. It keeps the German shepherd from straying off.

But this fantasy has been edited, abridged. The man and his partner have never spoken of children, because that would involve special, intricate arrangements and because most people don’t really approve.

They have never hugged in the front yard, never kissed in front of a window, because what would the neighbors think? What would the neighbors do?

And while he thinks of these as minor adjustments, to the extent that he thinks of them at all, there’s a toll to such vigilance. It’s that old self-consciousness in a new form. And there’s a longing beneath it — to be appraised solely on the expanse and the limits of his talents, on the goodness he musters and the goodness he lacks. To be deemed and regarded as the equal of anybody else.

I can speak for a 45-year-old man who marvels gratefully at the changes all around him. Although he himself doesn’t plan to have kids — he has too little energy at this point, and is too set in his ways — he sees many gay and lesbian couples starting families. If they live in the right places, they pretty much blend in.

But there are still wrong places, and there’s still plenty of oxygen for religious extremists who brand people like him wretched, evil, godless. In some countries, these extremists do more than brand. They kill, and it’s a horrific thing to know and to see. In the man’s country, the extremists don’t go that far, and they’re increasingly a minority, but they’re undaunted, unabashed and too often indulged.

He wonders when he’ll see more cracks in that indulgence. It’s time.

In 2015, on the last Friday of a month fittingly associated with both weddings and gay pride, there’s something bigger than a crack. There’s a rupture.

Following a few extraordinary years during which one state after another legalized same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court rules that all states must do so, that the Constitution demands it, that it’s a matter of “equal dignity in the eyes of the law,” as Justice Anthony Kennedy writes.

I can speak for a 50-year-old man who expected this to happen but still can’t quite believe it, because it seemed impossible when he was young, because it seemed implausible even when he was a bit older, and because everything is different now, or will be.

Tomorrow’s 12-year-old won’t feel the foreboding that yesterday’s did. Tomorrow’s 16-year-old will be less likely to confront, sort through and reject so many sad stereotypes of what it means to be gay or lesbian.

There won’t be so many apologies and explanations for the 20-year-old, 30-year-old or 45-year-old, and there won’t be such a ready acceptance of limits. There won’t be the same limits, period.

And that’s because the Supreme Court’s decision wasn’t simply about weddings. It was about worth. From the highest of this nation’s perches, in the most authoritative of this nation’s voices, a majority of justices told a minority of Americans that they’re normal and that they belong — fully, joyously and with cake.

Now that I’ve stopped sniffling here’s Ms. Collins:

Wow, Supreme Court — what a week.

“The Supreme Court just upheld Obamacare yet again,” said Jeb Bush in a fund-raising shout-out. “This is the direct result of President Obama. He deliberately forced Obamacare on the American people in a partisan and toxic way.”

Whoever actually wrote Bush’s email did a brilliant job since it, a) manages to blame Barack Obama for a Supreme Court dominated by Republican appointees, and b) does sort of sound like the way Jeb Bush talks.

The ever-growing throng of Republican candidates for president were all in a fury over the Obamacare decision, but they divided a bit on gay marriage. Bush took the more moderate road, which involved trying to sound sad and then change the subject.

Once again, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee led the field in howling, demanding that the people “resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat.” Once again we will contemplate the fact that Huckabee used to be known as the tenderhearted Republican.

Donald Trump blamed Jeb Bush for the court’s gay rights decision, which is even more creative than Jeb Bush blaming Barack Obama for the one on health care. I believe Trump’s early line of reasoning goes like this: Jeb Bush as Florida governor helped get his brother the presidency during the Bush-Gore recounts; George Bush then nominated John Roberts to head the Supreme Court, and even though Roberts was on the dissenting side of the gay marriage decision, still.

Or it could have been something completely different. Really, it’s beside the point. Forget I ever brought it up.

“The only alternative left for the American people is to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to reaffirm the ability of the states to continue to define marriage,” said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. There were a lot of calls for a constitutional amendment, which will happen at approximately the same time hell freezes over. The last time the nation managed to rally together and change the Constitution was in 1992, when the people looked deep into their hearts and decided to join hands and prohibit a Congress from raising its own salary.

The Roberts Supreme Court is on a roll. Gay marriage, national health care and a surprising vote of support for the Fair Housing Act, all in a couple of days. Great job, guys! We are totally over the fact that you destroyed the nation’s campaign finance laws, limited workers’ rights to challenge wage discrimination and women’s rights to control their bodies. And basically disemboweled a 50-year-old Voting Rights Act that Congress had renewed by increasingly large margins on four different occasions.

Stop. Trying to be nothing but positive today.

Everybody will remember this week for the gay marriage decision, but let’s talk about the Obamacare ruling. The court decided — in what opponents decried as a wild leap of judgment — that it was not going to strip millions of people of their health coverage and upend one of the most important pieces of legislation in modern history because of a four-word drafting error.

The Affordable Care Act has now been upheld twice by the Supreme Court. The American people, for their part, voted in 2008 to elect a president who promised to create a national right to health insurance coverage, and voted in 2012 to re-elect him over a candidate who promised to undo it.

After all that, not to mention about 60 failed attempts to repeal the act in Congress, Obamacare, for the first time, looks safe. “This is reality,” the president said on Thursday.

Ever since Theodore Roosevelt, our decision makers have pushed for a national health insurance program. Stuff always happened. Back in the 1970s, Representative Wilbur Mills, the super-powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, thought he had President Gerald Ford “convinced on national health.” But Mills failed to get the bill out of committee due, he said much later, to the fact that he was drinking a half gallon of vodka a day and had hallucinations about buzzards chasing him.

Anyone who watched the disaster that health care created for the Clinton administration might have had reason to dodge the subject for another century. But Obama pushed the bill through, even when a great many members of his party were begging him to drop the whole thing and do something easier, about jobs or taxes, that would get more traction in the next election.

Also, give some credit to Nancy Pelosi. When things looked bleakest — after Ted Kennedy had died, and Republicans won his seat — Democrats started to backtrack, but Pelosi stood firm. “We’ll go through the gate. If the gate’s closed, we’ll go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we’ll pole vault in,” she said. “If that doesn’t work, we’ll parachute in. But we’re going to get health care reform passed for the American people.”

And darned if they didn’t.

Ahh, the taste of wingnut tears…  Delicious!  Even better with a side of toasted schadenfreude.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

June 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

As The Associated Press reported Wednesday:

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

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

Furthermore:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She continued:

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

“Slavery,” Bill O’Reilly sighed.

“Slavery,” Crowley agreed.

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

As if the two are necessarily mutually exclusive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honestly, this kind of thing ought to be unconstitutional.

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

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

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

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

Nocera and Collins

June 13, 2015

Mr. Nocera has a question in “Scott Walker’s Wisconsin Audition:”  After union-busting in his home state, what would he do if he became president?  [shudder] The mind boggles.  Ms. Collins also has a question in “Guns in Your Face:”  How would you react if the man in front of you in the Starbucks line had a gun dangling from his shoulder?  Me?  I’d get the fck out of there.  (Starbucks coffee sucks anyway…)  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Anticipating a Republican presidential bid by Scott Walker, the two-term governor of Wisconsin, both The New York Times Magazine and The Washington Monthly recently published lengthy articles about him. (The Times feature, which is in the magazine this weekend, was published online Friday.) Both articles focus on Walker’s successful battles with labor. As they should: If he runs for president, his record of union-busting will be at the very center of his campaign.

Walker’s first labor fight came in 2011, when he pushed through a bill that stripped the state’s public employee unions (firefighters and police officers excepted) of most of their collective-bargaining rights. It also forced the unions to make higher pension and health care contributions. There was a huge outcry, with union members and activists storming the Statehouse, and Democratic legislators fleeing the capital to prevent a quorum. But Walker not only got the bill passed, he then survived a recall election spearheaded by the labor unions. The fight over Act 10 — as the law was called — is the focus of The Washington Monthly article, written by Donald F. Kettl, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

Having crippled the public sector unions, Walker more recently put the hurt on the state’s private-sector unions, signing legislation that made Wisconsin a right-to-work state, meaning that unions could not force employees to join a union or to pay dues. That bill became law in March; it is the focus of Dan Kaufman’s article in The Times Magazine.

As the two magazine articles make clear, there was no pressing need for either law. At the time he proposed Act 10, Walker claimed that busting the public employees’ unions was necessary because Wisconsin was facing a $3.6 billion budget deficit, and that the deficit couldn’t be closed, as he told Chris Wallace of “Fox News Sunday,” “with the current collective bargaining laws in the state.”

But as Kettl points out, that was simply not true. Although there are plenty of states with woefully underfunded pensions, Wisconsin isn’t one of them. And while Walker claims to have saved the state $3 billion during his first term as a result of Act 10, he almost surely could have gotten the same givebacks by bargaining for them, as other states, such as Rhode Island, have done.

To put it another way, Walker busted the public employee unions not because he had to but because he could.

Similarly, there was no deep desire on the part of the business community to have Wisconsin become a right-to-work state, even though it would most likely bring about lower labor costs. Kaufman quotes a leader of the Wisconsin Contractors Coalition, who told him that “right-to-work is going to compromise my quality, my competitiveness.” That’s because the unions have long served to screen workers and keep them up to date on new technologies.

No, what motivated Walker, clearly, was politics. Unions, which have long been traditional Democratic allies, have been in steep decline — except for public employee unions, which now make up just under half of all union workers. By crippling them, Kettl told me, “Walker is trying to put a stake in the heart of a strong piece of Democratic support that has long been a thorn in the side of the Republicans.”

The fact that Wisconsin has historically been strongly pro-union — indeed, the largest public services employee union, AFSCME, was founded in Madison in 1932 — only makes Walker’s triumphs that much more impressive to his fellow Republicans. This is something Walker will undoubtedly highlight if he runs for president. As he put it in his 2013 book, “Unintimidated,” “If we can do it in Wisconsin, we can do it anywhere — even in our nation’s capital.”

As for the right-to-work law, Kaufman points out that Wisconsin’s law was “a virtual copy of a 1995 model bill promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council” — A.L.E.C. — whose conservative backers include Charles and David Koch.

The Koch brothers are staunchly anti-union, of course, and they have supported Walker in both of his gubernatorial races. Their oil baron father, in fact, was an early and enthusiastic supporter of right-to-work legislation, helping to get it passed in Kansas in 1958. They have said they will spend some $900 million on the 2016 elections. At an April fund-raiser, according to The Times, David Koch is reported to have said that Walker would be the Republican nominee. As Kaufman nicely puts it, passing Act 10 was his “audition” for potential big money backers like the Kochs.

Both articles conclude by pondering what Walker would do if he became president. But to read the two articles is to know the answer: If union-busting gets him to the White House, why would he stop there?

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Life in America requires a lot of advance preparation. For instance, when you’re getting ready for a plane trip you imagine what you’ll do if a problem arises — flight delay, long lines at security. But I bet you haven’t considered the best way to react if the man in front of you on the airport escalator has a gun dangling from his shoulder.

That very thing happened recently in Atlanta, when a Georgia resident named Jim Cooley came strutting through the airport lobby with a loaded assault rifle.

Cooley — who was taping the whole encounter and posted it on YouTube — corrected the police officer who stopped him. (“It’s not an automatic! It’s a semi-automatic!”) Then he declined to respond when she asked if he had a permit. (“Am I being detained? … If you’re detaining me then I’m going to have to file a lawsuit.”) And, in the end, he walked away in triumph.

We’ve moved from the right to bear arms to the right to flaunt arms.

While the airport setting gives the incident a particular flair, this kind of thing has been happening quite a bit. In Michigan, the City of Grand Rapids has been in a legal battle with a man who took umbrage when police stopped him while he was walking down a residential street on a Sunday morning wearing camouflage, with a pistol strapped to his leg and singing “Hakuna Matata” from “The Lion King.”

Very few states have flat-out rules against openly carrying guns in public. It’s just something that never came up. “It’s not a practical thing to do,” said Laura Cutilletta of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. But it turns out that anyone with the legal right to carry a concealed weapon — which, in some states, doesn’t even require a permit — generally also has the legal right to walk into a McDonald’s with a gun sticking out of his waistband.

The open display of weaponry freaks out average citizens, especially the ones with children. It outrages police. At one point, even the National Rifle Association said the open carry demonstrations were “downright weird.” But the organization quickly backtracked, apologized, blamed the post on an errant staffer, and averred that “our job is not to criticize the lawful behavior of fellow gun owners.”

You’d think that lawmakers would move quickly to make it illegal, but with a few exceptions, there’s more enabling going on than anything else. After a Kalamazoo man walked into the public library’s summer reading party for children with a 9-millimeter gun strapped to his waist, worried officials asked the State Legislature to add libraries to a very small list of gun-free zones. The Legislature did nothing.

“Look, I got a gun!” yelled a man who walked into a park where kids were playing baseball in — yes! — Georgia. “There’s nothing you can do about it.” The police, who were summoned, determined he was absolutely right.

The Georgia State Legislature passed a law a few years back that made it legal for citizens to take their guns into the airport. At the time, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue was expressing concern about giving his wife the option of toting a pistol when she was “walking from one of those parking lots to pick up a grandchild or something like that.” He did not mention middle-age guys toting semiautomatic assault rifles past the check-in counter. But here we are.

In Texas, where open carry had been banned since the post-Civil War era, protesters staged demonstrations all around the state, toting their guns to family restaurants and storming the State Capitol, where they confronted one unsympathetic lawmaker in his office. In response, the Legislature enabled House members to install panic buttons in their offices, and then legalized open carry for Texans with gun permits.

Some commentators have attributed the whole open-carry phenomenon to white American men trying to work out their insecurities. We’ve got to stop blaming white men for everything. Really, they’ve contributed a lot to the country. Still, you can’t help but notice that there’s a certain demographic consistency to the people who are making a scene over their right to display arms.

It wasn’t always that way. California passed its first ban on open carry in the 1960s in response to the Black Panther Party. “The Legislature was debating an open-carry law when 30 Black Panthers showed up at the Statehouse with their guns,” said Adam Winkler, a professor of law at U.C.L.A. and the author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.”

“The same day Gov. Ronald Reagan made a speech, saying there’s no reason why a law-abiding person should be carrying a gun on the street.”

Maybe the way to turn this debate around would bring new recruits into the gun rights movement. “If open-carry advocates today were Marxist-leaning black radicals,” said Winkler, “we might have a very different situation.”

Exactly.

Kristof and Collins

June 11, 2015

In “From Caitlyn Jenner to a Brooklyn High School” Mr. Kristof says Caitlyn Jenner has started an important national conversation about transgender issues, and none too soon for these Brooklyn high schoolers.  Ms. Collins, in “Battle of the Abortion Decisions,” says it’s been a dismal stretch across the nation for a woman’s right to choose, but there is some good news from Idaho. Who knew?  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

People all over the world have been following the emergence of Caitlyn Jenner, but few as enthusiastically as Spencer and Joshua, two students at a New York City high school who see her as an inspiring role model.

Spencer, 16, was born a girl and given a girl’s name, but he says it never felt right. On the first day of kindergarten, his mom dressed him in a skirt — the school uniform — and he cried.

“That’s for the girls,” he remembers protesting tearfully.

“But you are a girl,” his mom responded, baffled.

Still, he resisted so vociferously that for the rest of the year he was allowed to wear pants rather than the girls’ uniform.

“I knew I felt different from age 4, but I didn’t have a word for it,” he remembers. “In my mind, I kept thinking, ‘Why can’t I be a boy, even though I don’t have boy parts?’ It confused me.”

In third grade, he announced he was lesbian, but he said that didn’t feel right either. Finally, at age 12, after Google searches, he found the word that fit: transgender.

That didn’t make life easier. Spencer says he was bullied and mocked in middle school, and, at 13, he tried to hang himself. But he couldn’t manage to tie the right knot or reach the ceiling fan, and he finally cried himself to sleep in frustration.

Caitlyn Jenner has started an important national conversation, but this must go beyond what she wore on the cover of Vanity Fair. Too often we as a society become distracted in transgender discussions by questions of surgery or of which restroom a person’s going to use. In fact, as Spencer’s story suggests, the fundamental challenge is simply acceptance.

I visited Spencer at his high school, the Academy for Young Writers, in a gritty neighborhood in Brooklyn. It has provided that accepting home, and it offers some lessons for other institutions across the country.

These are complex issues. When a child born a boy comes to identify as a girl, it may be humiliating or dangerous for her to use the boy’s bathroom; it may also be distressing for other girls if a classmate with male anatomy uses their bathroom. And does such a child play on the boys’ sports team, or the girls’ team?

Yet these are issues that we will have to confront. One rough estimate suggests that perhaps one-third of 1 percent of people identify as transgender. That means that in a high school of 1,000 students, a few may well be transgender.

As topics become less taboo, examples become more visible. Miley Cyrus has now been quoted as saying that she regards her sexuality and gender identification as fluid. “I don’t relate to being boy or girl,” she said.

The Academy for Young Writers became a model because of a lapse. In 2011, one of the brightest girls in school, Tiara, seemingly headed for a great university, suddenly seemed poised to drop out. It turned out that the student was now identifying as a boy calling himself Seth — and the school had been oblivious. Seth ended up barely graduating and never went to college at all.

Courtney Winkfield, the principal, resolved that this wouldn’t happen again. She brought in a teacher to mentor students with such issues and to help students craft an anti-bullying policy.

Meanwhile, Spencer showed up and asked to use the boys’ bathroom and to be referred to as “he” and “him.” The school accommodated his request.

Some parents, teachers and students were upset, but the fuss seems to have calmed. Spencer says that thoughts of suicide linger but are now manageable. The school, he says, “saved my life.”

A classmate, Joshua, 15, is still figuring out gender. He uses the male pronoun and often wears boys’ clothing, but, when I visited, he was wearing lipstick, a wig and a dress. (For a photo, he reverted to boys’ clothing.)

“I have thoughts of being female, but not every day,” Joshua said. “I don’t want to put a label on me yet.”

Joshua, who says “you can call me both genders,” recounts a history much like Spencer’s: bullying beginning in kindergarten, and thoughts of suicide starting in fifth grade.

Today, both are on the honor roll. Indeed, with summer vacation looming, they worry about losing school as a safe space.

“It’s very, very scary, summer is,” Joshua said. “I don’t want to be on my own.”

I asked Winkfield what she would say to principals leery of sensitive gender issues. High school isn’t just about getting students college-ready, she said, but also about getting them world-ready.

“It’s easy to make this a granular issue about bathrooms or sexuality,” she said. “It’s really about preparing young people for the incredibly messy and complex world we live in.”

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

It’s been a dismal stretch for a woman’s right to choose. Not everywhere — I swear that if you stay with me there’s going to be a bright spot. But, first, I’m afraid we’re going to have to talk about Texas.

Like many states, Texas has been on a real tear when it comes to women and reproduction. The Legislature keeps piling on indignities, like mandatory pre-abortion sonograms and a script that the doctor has to read to educate the pregnant patient about her condition. Which people in the State Capitol are sure she never thought through on her own.

Texas abortion clinics, which perform a relatively simple procedure with a stupendously low history of complications, are now required to have all the staff, equipment, bells and whistles of a hospital surgical center. Lawmakers tried to describe this as a matter of health and safety, but the debate wouldn’t have fooled anybody. “How would God vote tonight if he were here?” demanded State Senator Dan Patrick. Patrick is now the lieutenant governor.

Since that law passed in 2013, clinics have been closing, even though litigation held off the full impact. The number has now dropped to 18 — for a state that is larger than France, with a population of more than 25 million.

The holdouts were waiting for the federal appeals court to save Texas from itself. But, this week, the court decided that the rules were perfectly reasonable. A three-judge panel based in New Orleans accepted the legislators’ argument that they were just trying to make sure women seeking abortions got “the highest quality of care.” These were the same lawmakers who recently wiped out federal funding for Planned Parenthood’s breast and cervical cancer screening programs.

Advocates are going back to court, but unless they win a postponement, by the end of the month, only a handful of clinics will survive.

“Abortion has happened since time began,” said Fran Hagerty, who leads the Women’s Health and Family Planning Association of Texas. “It’s not going to end. What’s going to end is for women to get care that is safe, that doesn’t put their lives at risk. That’s what’s ending. We all know that. Maybe the legislators know it, too, and they don’t care.”

Actually, safe abortions are in no danger of becoming extinct. They’re readily available to all American women who have money, and they always will be. If the Texas Legislature had been able to wave a magic wand and eliminate the option for middle-class women in their state, the outcry would have been deafening, and political suicide. But those women can go to the clinics in Dallas, San Antonio or Houston — or Chicago or Los Angeles or New York.

Poor pregnant women in anti-abortion states don’t have those options. But they’re often the most desperate, and these days some are resolving the situation with at-home abortions, using pills found on the Internet.

Recently, prosecutors in Georgia attempted to charge a 23-year-old woman with murder after pills she bought online caused her to miscarry when she was five-and-a-half months pregnant. Last year, a 39-year-old mother of three in Pennsylvania was sentenced to prison for ordering pills that her daughter took to induce a miscarriage. “I’m scared,” she told The Times’s Emily Bazelon on the night before she went to jail.

In Idaho, Jennie Linn McCormack, a mother of three, took pills she bought online after she discovered she was pregnant by a former boyfriend. “Her income was about $200 a month,” said her lawyer, Rick Hearn, who is also a doctor. “At her stage of pregnancy, it would have been $2,000 to go to Salt Lake City, which would have been the closest abortion provider. She didn’t even have a car.”

A local prosecutor charged McCormack with a felony that could have meant up to five years in prison. Fortunately, Hearn succeeded in getting the case dismissed. Then he and McCormack filed a class-action lawsuit, with Hearn acting as both lawyer and physician.

Idaho had a veritable pyramid of anti-abortion laws. This isn’t all that surprising. Idaho is the state where the Legislature at one point stampeded and killed a bill aimed at getting federal assistance to track down deadbeat dads because the lawmakers were afraid it would involve imposition of the Islamic law code Shariah.

And — here comes the bright spot — two weeks ago, a federal appeals court found that the laws that could have turned Jennie McCormack into a criminal were themselves against the Constitution.

The justices saved the state from its lawmakers — at least temporarily — by throwing out many of the state’s abortion laws, including some impossible and useless requirements the Legislature had imposed on the clinics.

And, in dismissing the charges against McCormack, Hearn noted, the court actually pointed out how hard the anti-abortion laws are on poor women. “Few people ever do that,” he said.

Nocera and Collins

June 6, 2015

In “Look, Ma, No Hands!” Mr. Nocera says Google’s driverless cars are ready to take the road, and the use of that technology is a good thing for us all.  In “A Political Brand of Sominex” Ms. Collins says can’t sleep? Instead of counting sheep, how about counting up your 2016 presidential candidates?  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

On Wednesday morning, during Google’s annual meeting, a shareholder named John M. Simpson stood up to question the company’s top executives about its self-driving car program. They were not friendly questions.

Simpson, 67, works for a nonprofit called Consumer Watchdog, where he directs its Privacy Project. In recent years, he has focused largely on Google, which, he told me, he hopes to prod into “being more respectful of people’s privacy when they do business.” Owning Google stock allows him to ask questions at the annual meeting.

In the run-up to this week’s meeting, Simpson issued a string of press releases critical of Google’s self-driving vehicles. He feared that Google would collect data from car owners, stripping away even more of people’s privacy. He noted that Google’s “autonomous cars,” as they’re called, have been involved in 11 accidents (two recent fender-benders brings it up to 13). He listed what he said were the technology’s flaws: for instance, that it can’t make out hand signals from a driver in another car.

Finally, Simpson noted that Google — and Google alone — envisions cars that have no steering wheels or brakes, cars where everyone is a passenger. Simpson views this as Google’s hubris, pointing out that other car companies view self-driving technology as a complement, not replacement, for the driver. “We think there always needs to be the ability of a human to take over if need be,” he told me. Having looked into it more closely, I’ve come to the opposite conclusion.

Google’s effort to build a self-driving car is part of the division called Google X, led by a scientist with the too perfect name of Astro Teller. The goal of Google X is to attempt “moonshots” — efforts that require a radical solution that, if they succeed, would solve a huge problem (while making a nice return for Google, of course). The big problem self-driving cars could help solve, said Teller in a recent speech, is the “1.2 million people who die every year in car accidents.”

During the six years Google has been working on self-driving technology, its cars have been taught to understand how to traverse the roads. With their combination of robotics, sensors and computing power, they know how to stop at a stop sign, look for oncoming pedestrians, change lanes, get on the freeway and anticipate all the various problems that drivers face.

Using retrofitted Lexuses, Google has driven a million miles autonomously. More recently, it has built several dozen small cars without steering wheels and brakes and is ready to test them in the streets of Mountain View, Calif. (though the State of California is insisting that Google add a steering wheel and brakes to the cars it sends out for this experiment).

It’s true that Google is alone in envisioning a world of completely driverless cars, while other car companies see self-driving technology as merely an extra feature that can be turned off. Google’s conclusion is not the result of hubris, however. Unlike its new cars, the retrofitted Lexuses also allow for human driving.

Google realized that when people had the ability to drive autonomously, they paid less attention to what they were doing. “People don’t even pay attention to driving when they are driving,” said Teller. The cars, which have 360-degree vision and can “see” much further ahead than humans, were at their safest when people didn’t have the option of taking the controls.

Alain Kornhauser, a self-driving car expert at Princeton University, pointed out to me that when the auto companies install autonomous features to aid drivers, it won’t be the humans who escape accidents by taking over from the technology — which is what Simpson assumes. Rather, the technology will step in to override human error.

Google notes that in every accident its cars have been involved in, all of them minor, the self-driving cars have never been at fault — except on the one occasion when a Google driver took the controls. And all the “flaws” Simpson notes are things that Google has either solved or is in the process of solving.

At the annual meeting, Simpson asked Google if it would pledge not to use any customer data it gathers from driverless cars for marketing purposes. David Drummond, the company’s general counsel, ducked the question, saying it was too early to make any such pledge. Simpson also asked Google to release the accident reports. In truth, Google has released plenty of information about the accidents, and on Friday began issuing monthly reports that include descriptions of accidents.

Simpson and other consumer advocates are right to press Google — and all the big tech companies — on privacy issues. The profligate use of our data has become a big concern for many Americans. But on the question of whether Google should be promoting completely autonomous cars, he couldn’t be more wrong. The sooner they are a reality, the safer we’ll all be.

I wonder if he’s been driving in Savannah…  Here’s Ms. Collins:

When I have trouble falling asleep, I do lists. Like running through the names of all the presidents, along with several factoids for each one. I was rather proud of this talent until friends sent me a video clip of Ellen DeGeneres interviewing a 5-year-old girl who could do it better.

Then, pathetically, I moved on to vice presidents, becoming the only person on my block who knew the backstory on Schuyler Colfax.

There are all sorts of variations of this game. I once tried to mentally list all the contestants on a season of “The Amazing Race” in order of elimination. But the point here is that this could be a practical use for our ever-growing pantheon of presidential contenders. When you get weary and you can’t sleep, count the candidates instead of sheep.

They’re current events and slumber-inducing, too.

Three seems like a good number of facts at this point in the political calendar. All non-issue-related. You don’t really want to dwell on Rick Perry’s agenda when he might be gone again by Labor Day.

And nothing too psychological, like why Lindsey Graham decided to come snarling out of the gate like a rabid otter. (“Kill terrorists, grow jobs.”) Actually, he’s been working on that persona for some time. During a Senate meeting on gun control, Graham wondered what an assault rifle ban would mean “in an environment where the law and order has broken down, whether it’s a hurricane, national disaster, earthquake, terrorist attack, cyberattack where the power goes down and the dam’s broken and chemicals have been released into the air and law enforcement is really not able to respond and people take advantage of that lawless environment.”

O.K., that’s not going to induce slumber. Let’s start over. Close your eyes …

Rick Perry: Former Texas governor. Only candidate for president currently under indictment. Once shot a coyote while jogging. Has a rap-country campaign song that goes: “Rick Perry supporter/Let’s protect our border.”

Whoops, that was four.

Lindsey Graham: Senator from South Carolina. Besties with Senator John McCain. Once suggested he’d drown himself if Barack Obama took North Carolina, but failed to follow through.

George Pataki: Former New York governor. Middle name is Elmer. Father spent his later years in a home for indigent volunteer firefighters.

Rick Santorum: Former senator from Pennsylvania. Held up a big piece of coal during his official announcement. Really fond of sweater vests.

And those are just the Republican candidates we’ve acquired over the past 10 days! Let’s look at the Democrats:

Lincoln Chafee: Former Republican senator. Former independent governor. Used announcement speech to call on the nation to adopt the metric system.

Martin O’Malley: Former governor of Maryland. Plays in Celtic rock band. Allegedly a model for the mayor in “The Wire.”

Bernie Sanders: Senator from Vermont. Wrote a weird piece on rape fantasies 43 years ago that he recently described as “something Like ‘50 Shades of Grey.’ ” Carries a brass key chain from the Eugene V. Debs campaign.

Hillary Clinton: Once claimed, in a 2008 campaign ad, that she was “raised on pinochle and the American Dream.” Likes to watch home-rehab shows on HGTV. Author of five books, including “Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets.”

And now, back to the Republicans. Should we do Scott Walker? No, he’s not an official candidate. Even though it would be interesting to discuss whether “college dropout” is a fair factoid. And Jeb Bush has only announced that he’s going to announce something when he gets back from a trip to Estonia. You have to have some rules about these things or else you’ll have 400 candidates to go through, including your neighbor Fred who just put a sign on his lawn, proclaiming his availability.

Also, I don’t think we have to worry about Donald Trump at this point. Trump has picked a day for a big announcement, but it could well be news that Caitlyn Jenner will be a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice.”

Marco Rubio: Senator from Florida. Owns a sword named Chang. First job was building cages for exotic birds.

Ben Carson: Retired neurosurgeon. Played on screen by Cuba Gooding Jr. Called Barack Obama a “psychopath.”

Rand Paul: Senator from Kentucky. Cuts his own hair. Once accused of forcing a classmate to worship “Aqua Buddha.”

Carly Fiorina: Former C.E.O. of Hewlett-Packard. Got fired from Hewlett-Packard. Once ran for Senate with an ad that portrayed her Republican opponent as a Demon Sheep.

Mike Huckabee: Former governor of Arkansas. Fried squirrels in a popcorn popper during college. Accepted $130,000 in gifts during his tenure in Little Rock, including a stadium blanket and a chainsaw.

Ted Cruz: Senator from Texas. Born in Canada. Claims he stopped liking rock music after 9/11.

Drowsy yet? If it hasn’t worked by now, try imagining them all jumping over a fence.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

June 4, 2015

In “Romanticizing ‘Broken Windows’ Policing” Mr. Blow says some communities are being asked either to accept collateral damage in the war on crime, or complain about excessive force only to have criminals roam free.  Mr. Kristof, in “Chemicals In Your Popcorn?”, says here’s how lax U.S. regulation risks consumer health.  In “Old Age Versus Geese” Ms. Collins addresses the return of Sully Sullenberger and the Miracle on the Hudson.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

There has been a recent spike in violent crimes, particularly shooting, in major cities in the United States. What precisely is fueling it is hard to know. There are more theories and conjecture than there is data. There may in the end be many contributing factors.

But that isn’t stopping the tough-on-crime, fear-mongering iron fist-ers from engaging in wild speculation and the revisionist romanticizing of “broken windows” policies — including the notoriously heinous and morally indefensible, not to mention unconstitutionalas-practiced, stop-and-frisk.

One of the most pernicious and slanderous theories is that protests over police officers’ excessive use of force, or “police bashing” as some prefer to call it, is responsible for the uptick.

As the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald put it last week in The Wall Street Journal, “The most plausible explanation of the current surge in lawlessness is the intense agitation against American police departments over the past nine months.”

Actually, “most plausible” is simply theoretical argumentation and not corollary proof of anything. And, it seems to me that this has the effect, intentional or not, of conflating protests with criminality, of smearing the blood running in the street onto the hands holding the placards, of shifting the burden of law enforcement from those charged with it to those who simply want equity in its application.

One facet of these theories is that criminals have simply been emboldened as officers become more diffident, fearing prosecutions for run-of-the-mill policing, or more sinisterly and conspiratorially, are purposefully engaging in “slow downs.”

First, I think it is actually a good thing for officers of the law not to assume that they will be above it. Each of us, including officers, should consider our actions, particularly use of force, before engaging. This is good and right. But if there are any officers intentionally restraining themselves from doing normal police work because citizens have protested over perceived excessive force, then those officers are guilty of a dangerous, unethical dereliction of duty.

As for protesters and police, it seems to me that most simply want the people sworn to protect and serve them not to feel impervious to accountability in cases of perceived overreach, particularly when it results in the death of a citizen.

People in general understand that police work is hard and that there are criminals in society. They understand that ours is a gun culture and that some of those criminals will gain access to guns. They understand that police will sometimes encounter those armed criminals and will have no choice but to use force, including deadly force, to ensure their own safety and the safety of society at large.

Recently, The Washington Post and The Guardian separately published extensive reports on the killings of people in America by the police. The Post identified “at least 385 people shot and killed by police nationwide during the first five months of this year” and The Guardian found that 408 deaths “were caused by gunshot” over the same period.

And yet, only a handful of these cases have spawned large protests or sustained national media coverage.

People have an intrinsic intelligence about such things. Outrage isn’t constant or random. It is conditional and precise.

The cleaving occurs and the hackles are raised when the person encountered is not engaged in a crime, or is fleeing, or is not armed and therefore poses no perceivable threat.

Furthermore, why is there such a racial skew in those particular kinds of force?

As both The Post and The Guardian pointed out, unarmed African-Americans were more likely to be shot and killed than whites or Hispanics.

People in these black communities, it seems, are being asked to make an impossible choice: accept the sprawling, ruinous collateral damage — including killings of unarmed black people — in police departments’ wars on crime, or complain about excessive force and attempt to curtail it only to have criminals roam free.

And there is one important distinction to make here: the criminals don’t work for the people; the police officers do. It is right and proper for citizens to demand accountability from people whose salaries they pay.

Mac Donald summarized:

“Contrary to the claims of the ‘black lives matter’ movement, no government policy in the past quarter century has done more for urban reclamation than proactive policing. Data-driven enforcement, in conjunction with stricter penalties for criminals and ‘broken windows’ policing, has saved thousands of black lives, brought lawful commerce and jobs to once drug-infested neighborhoods and allowed millions to go about their daily lives without fear.”

Watch carefully the rhetorical sleight of hand here. “Urban reclamation.” From whom for whom? “Proactive policing.” Some are dragnet policies that swept up hundreds of thousands of black and brown men in stop-and-frisk, although nine out of 10 had committed no crime. “Saved thousands of black lives.” This assumed that the drop in the murder rates from the 1990s and before was entirely attributable to policing and not also to cultural shifts, like the end of the crack epidemic. “Allowed millions to go about their daily lives without fear.” This depends in large part on the darkness of your skin and the economics of your community.

Arguments like these dance around delicately to keep people from seeing what they really are: racial pathology arguments. They are based on there being something intrinsically amiss in blackness or black culture that can be altered or corrected only by overwhelming, unrelenting force. It is an argument as old as the ages, some variant of: It takes the bullet and the billy club and the bench warrant to bring these people into obeisance.

What is almost never mentioned as contributing to criminality is the intersection of violence with concentrated poverty — rather than the racial pathology, which is the last redoubt of the intellectual seeking support for cultural condemnation.

How you view “broken windows” policing completely depends on your vantage point, which is heavily influenced by racial realities and socio-economics. For poor black people, it means that they have to be afraid of the cops as well as the criminals.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

What do a pizza box, a polar bear and you have in common?

All carry a kind of industrial toxicant called poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, that do two things: They make life convenient, and they also appear to increase the risk of cancer.

The scientists I interviewed say that they try to avoid these chemicals in their daily lives, but they’re pretty much unavoidable and now are found in animals all over the planet (including polar bears in Greenland and probably you and me). PFASs are used to make nonstick frying pans, waterproof clothing, stain-resistant fabrics, fast-food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, firefighting foam and thousands of other products. Many are unlabeled, so even chemists sometimes feel helpless.

This should be a moment when government steps up to protect citizens. But from tobacco to lead paint to chemicals, industry has used donations, obfuscation and lobbying to defer regulation until the human casualties are too vast to be hidden.

PFASs are “a poster child” for what’s wrong with chemical regulation in America, says John Peterson Myers, chief scientist of Environmental Health Sciences, a research and publishing group in Virginia. PFASs are just about indestructible, so, for eons to come, they will poison our blood, our household dust, our water and the breast milk our babies drink.

Warnings of health risks from PFASs go back half a century and are growing more ominous. In May, more than 200 scientists released aMadrid Statement warning of PFAS’s severe health risks. It was published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal backed by the National Institutes of Health.

The scientists cited research linking PFASs to testicular and kidney cancer, hypothyroidism, ulcerative colitis and other problems.

Arlene Blum is a chemist whose warnings about carcinogens have proved prophetic. In recent years, she has waged an increasingly successful campaign against modern flame-retardant chemicals because of evidence that they also cause cancer, but she told me that PFASs “are even a bigger problem than flame retardants.”

The chemical industry acknowledges that older, “long-chain” PFASs are a problem but says that it is replacing them with “short-chain” versions that should be fine. It’s true that there is less evidence against the short-chains, but that’s perhaps because they have been studied less.

Americans expect that chemicals used in consumer products have been tested for safety. Not so. The vast majority of the 80,000 chemicals available for sale in the United States have never been tested for effects on our health.

Any testing is being done on all of us. We’re the guinea pigs.

Congress may finally pass new legislation regulating toxic chemicals, but it’s so weak a bill that the chemical industry has embraced it. The Senate version is better than nothing, but, astonishingly, it provides for assessing high-priority chemicals at a rate of about only five a year, and it’s not clear that the House will go that far.

Yes, of countless toxicants suspected of increasing the risk of cancer, obesity, epigenetic damage and reproductive problems, the United States would commit to testing five each year. And that would actually be progress.

For safety reasons, Europe and Canada already restrict hundreds of chemicals routinely used in the United States. Perhaps the danger of tainted brands and lost sales abroad — not the risk to Americans — will motivate American companies to adopt overseas limits.

Scientists are already taking precautions and weighing trade-offs in their personal lives. R. Thomas Zoeller, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, says he now avoids buying nonstick pans. Rainer Lohmann, an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island, told me that he is replacing carpets in his house with wood floors in part to reduce PFASs.

Simona Balan, a senior scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute, avoids microwave popcorn and stain-resistant furniture.

Dr. Blum says she avoids buying certain nonstick products and waterproof products, but reluctantly uses a glide wax for backcountry skis that contains PFASs. “Every time I spray it on, I realize the chemicals will be in my body for a very long time and on the planet for geologic time, perhaps longer than mankind,” Dr. Blum said. “But I do enjoy a good glide when I ski.”

Some brands, including Levi’s, Benetton and Victoria’s Secret, are pledging to avoid PFASs. Evaluations of the safety of products are available free atthe GoodGuide and Skin Deep websites.

The chemical lobby is following the same script as the tobacco and lead lobbies a generation ago, throwing around campaign donations and lobbying muscle to delay regulation. The chemical industry spent $190 millionlobbying in the last three years. If only it would devote such sums to developing safer products, rather than to defending its right to produce suspected carcinogens.

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Clint Eastwood is going to make a film about Sully Sullenberger, the pilotwho landed that US Airways flight on the Hudson after a flock of geese knocked out both the plane’s engines.

This news is going to lead us into an interesting discussion of the presidential election. We will also try to get in at least one more mention of the geese. Stupid birds.

Both the movie and the election are, in a way, stories about age. Eastwood is 85 — “at the top of his game, not to mention a global treasure,” said a Warner Bros. executive in a press release.

Some of you probably remember the fabled moment at the 2012 Republican National Convention when Eastwood interviewed an empty chair. It may go down in the annals of history as the worst performance ever by a global treasure.

But Eastwood seemed unfazed, and he went back to making movies, including the preposterously successful “American Sniper.” This just goes to prove that we live in a world in which the possibilities for growth or mutation are endless. Making a spectacle of yourself on national television at the age of 82 would seem to be pretty much a career-ender. However, there is nothing like a movie with a $543 million gross to trigger a new beginning.

Sullenberger’s miracle landing was about aging, too. It happened in January 2009. The nation had just elected 47-year-old Barack Obama president after a campaign in which he vowed to replace the stupid, overheated politics of the baby-boom generation with something more cool and transactional. We were all ready for a youth explosion.

Then Sullenberger, 57, brought his crippled plane down on the river while three flight attendants, aged 51, 57 and 58, coolly herded the passengers to a safe rescue on the wing. Suddenly, we found ourselves getting worried whenever we drew a wrinkle-free flight crew. Old was in.

Obama went on to accomplish many things as president, but that new-generation-politics transformation was definitely not among them. Now Hillary Clinton, 67, is the huge favorite to win the Democratic presidential nomination to succeed him.

Meanwhile, the Republican field is packed with people like first-term senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both 44. Or Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a 47-year-old who has bragged that he could put off running for another 20 years “and still be about the same age as the former secretary of state.”

The obvious response to that is: good idea.

Rubio has been dropping multiple references to the election as a “generational choice” between the politics of tomorrow and people who are “promising to take us back to yesterday.” This is supposed to be a reference to Clinton, but it conveniently also works for 62-year-old Jeb Bush, one of Rubio’s main competitors.

Or really, for Clint Eastwood, although I have the feeling that any of the Republican candidates would be extremely happy to have Eastwood on their team. As long as he didn’t bring that chair to the convention.

“It’s a rigorous physical ordeal, I think, to be able to campaign for the presidency,” Senator Rand Paul, 52, said about Clinton’s candidacy. Now this is a woman who, as secretary of state, visited 112 countries, traveling nearly a million miles. You can criticize a lot of things about Hillary Clinton, but there aren’t many people better at taking the show on the road.

(Except — did you know that the Rolling Stones are on a national tour right this minute? Yes! Mick Jagger, the man who once announced “I’ll never tour when I’m 50,” was in Minnesota on Tuesday, killing time during a 15-city sweep. Jagger, 71, and drummer Charlie Watts, 74, visited the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where a staff member said they showed particular interest in the collection of American folk-art furniture. It is possible this was not how Jagger spent his time between shows in the 1970s. But still.)

Arguments over age and the presidency go back at least to 1840, when the 67-year-old William Henry Harrison was described as “a living mass of ruined matter” in one rather hostile newspaper editorial. And Harrison did sort of prove that age was an issue, when he died one month into his administration.

However, that was an era when doctors made house calls bearing leeches. Now our arguments over age can be a little more sophisticated.

Would you rather have a president with a lot of experience or one with new ideas? And what, by the way, are those new ideas? It’s going to have to be something more novel than reducing business taxes.

We’re electing a new leader to pilot our ship. Do we care more about quick reflexes or a seasoned response to crises? We can talk forever about redirecting the course. But, most of all, you do want someone who will avoid the damned geese.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

May 28, 2015

In “The Rise of Social Liberalism and G.O.P. Resistance” Mr. Blow says as the nation’s views evolve, Republican presidential candidates remain stuck trying to out-conservative one another for the sake of primary voters.  Mr. Cohen, in “Sepp Blatter’s FIFA Reign of Shame,” says that to conclude Blatter should quit feels so obvious it’s not worth saying. But he’s so thick-skinned it’s worth saying twice.  Mr. Kristof considers “Polluted Political Games” and says here’s what can be done to bring the dark money of politics into the sunlight in time for the 2016 elections.  Ms. Collins says “Let’s Do Some Railing” and that one person’s waste is another person’s ride home.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

There is a fascinating phenomenon taking shape in America: As the country becomes less religious, it is also becoming more socially liberal.

It makes sense that these two variables should closely track each other, but the sheer scale and speed of the change is astonishing.

After a Pew Research Center report earlier this month found that “the Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing,” this week Gallup released a report that found that “more Americans now rate themselves as socially liberal than at any point in Gallup’s 16-year trend, and for the first time, as many say they are liberal on social issues as say they are conservative.”

Gallup has tested the moral acceptability of 19 variables since the early 2000s.

And, as Gallup found this week:

“The upward progression in the percentage of Americans seeing these issues as morally acceptable has varied from year to year, but the overall trend clearly points toward a higher level of acceptance of a number of behaviors. In fact, the moral acceptability ratings for 10 of the issues measured since the early 2000s are at record highs.”

Acceptance of gay or lesbian relations is up 23 percentage points over that time. Having a baby outside of marriage is up 16 points. Premarital sex is up 15 points. Divorce and research using stem cells obtained from human embryos are both up 12 points.

At the same time, the death penalty is down three points (within the four-point margin of error) and medical testing on animals is down nine points.

We as a country may still be engaged in a vigorous debate about the proper size and function of government, and about which parties and candidates could best steer America in the right direction, but one thing is less and less debatable: We are rapidly becoming a more socially liberal country.

This change poses a particular challenge for the Republican Party and its national aspirations, not so much at the congressional seats, many of which are safe, but for presidential candidates.

Part of the issue, as the likely candidate Jeb Bush put it last year, is that for a Republican to become president, he or she would have to be willing to “lose the primary to win the general” election.

It was a catchy phrase and everyone understood what he was saying: Don’t allow the Republican debates and primaries to drag you so far right that you will never be able to recover in the general election. But the problem is that there is no way to compete in the general without first winning the primaries securing the nomination.

And so, Republicans are now involved in another election season that feels like the movie “Groundhog Day”: trying to out-conservative one another to be in the good graces of Republican primary voters, who in many states can be disproportionately religious and socially conservative.

Take Iowa, for instance, whose February caucuses will be the first contests of the 2016 presidential cycle. As the Public Religion Research Institute pointed out earlier this month:

“Iowa Republicans are notably more socially conservative than Republicans nationally. Compared to Republicans overall, Iowa Republicans are more likely to oppose legalizing same-sex marriage (64 percent vs. 58 percent, respectively), and are more likely to say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases (68 percent vs. 58 percent, respectively). The social conservatism evident among Iowa Republicans is based in part on the large presence of white evangelical Protestants. More than four in ten (42 percent) Iowa Republicans are white evangelical Protestant.”

How do you win Iowa, or at least survive it? Some candidates may not focus their attentions there at all. They may skip it, as John McCain did in 2000, and instead focus on the slightly more moderate Republican primary voters in New Hampshire to deliver their first strong showing shortly after the Iowa caucuses.

For example, a March poll conducted by the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston found that more likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters are pro-choice than pro-life on abortion and more favor same-sex marriage than oppose it.

But New Hampshire is somewhat anomalous. It is the most conservative state in a very liberal northeast. Nationally, only 27 percent of Republicans are pro-choice, while 67 percent are pro-life, and nationally only 37 percent of Republicans support same-sex marriage, according to polls by Gallup in 2014 and 2015. At the same time, New Hampshire is the second most nonreligious state in the country — nonreligious being defined by Gallup as people “saying religion is not an important part of their daily lives and that they seldom or never attend religious services” — second only to Vermont. The nonreligious population of New Hampshire is 51 percent; for Vermont, it’s 56 percent.

But Iowa and New Hampshire would be only the first two of a 50-state slog through a Republican electorate that is not necessarily where the rest of the country is — or is going — on religiosity and social liberalism.

There is only so much skipping one can do. At some point, the candidates must face the most conservative voters and one voice must emerge.

This process has not been kind or general-election-friendly for the Republican candidates in the last couple of cycles. But there is no indication that most Republicans — either candidates or voters — have drawn the necessary lessons from those defeats.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

I was living in Paris in 1998 and had tickets for the World Cup Final but instead had to rush off to cover upheaval in Nigeria and ended up in a Lagos hotel watching France beat Brazil 3-0. The commentators were Nigerian, of course. After a couple of first-half French goals against a listless Brazilian side, they pretty much gave up describing the match. Instead they focused on how much money they thought had changed hands to secure France’s triumph. I laughed as the numbers spiraled upward.

The speculation — unfounded in this instance — seemed to me more a reflection of the Nigeria of Sani Abacha, the ruthless and massively corrupt leader who had just died, than of the state of global soccer. In Nigeria back then, nothing moved without payment of a bribe. Now, however, I am not so sure. Those commentators were onto something larger than the match itself. Sepp Blatter, once described by The Guardian as “the most successful non-homicidal dictator of the past century,” had been elected the month before as president of FIFA, soccer’s governing body, in a ballot marked by allegations of cash handouts of $50,000 to African delegates in a Paris hotel. It was the start of Blatter’s 17-year (and counting) reign of shame over the world’s most popular game. He is a man without conscience.

Another unrelated soccer memory stirred at the news of the arrest in Zurich of several top FIFA officials on bribery, fraud and money laundering charges brought by the United States Justice Department. It was of standing 30 years ago at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels with my friends Patrick Wintour of The Guardian and Ed Vulliamy of The Observer. We watched as Liverpool fans charged Juventus fans gathered in the Z-block of the ground. There was a sickening inevitability about what happened as the Juventus supporters were crushed against terrace barriers that collapsed and then a concrete wall.

Later Wintour and Vulliamy filed a report: “We heard a muted but ghastly thud, like quarry dynamited at a distance. It was the sound of tons of concrete and scores of bodies plunging over the edge of the terracing.” You knew. People were dying. There were, in the end, 39 dead, most of them Juventus fans. The match went ahead, a ghastly farce.

It is not true that everything has gotten worse in global soccer under Blatter. Safety has improved and, yes, the World Cup has been held in Africa. But just about everything has. To conclude that Blatter should quit rather than embark on a fifth term as FIFA president (assuming his seemingly inevitable election to a fifth term on Friday) feels so blindingly obvious that it’s not worth saying. But then the FIFA president is so thick-skinned it’s actually worth saying twice: Mr. Blatter, your time is up.

Why? Because the corruption charges against current and former FIFA vice presidents and others reflect an organization rotten to its core, operating in the absence of any meaningful oversight, without term limits for a president whose salary is of course unknown (but estimated by Bloomberg to be “in the low double-digit” millions), overseeing $5.72 billion in partially unaccounted revenue for the four years to December 2014, governing a sport in which matches and World Cup venues and in fact just about everything appears to have been up for sale, burying a report it commissioned by a former United States attorney into the bidding process for the next two World Cups, and generally operating in a culture of cavalier disdain personified by Blatter, whose big cash awards to soccer federations in poorer countries have turned the delegates from many of FIFA’s 209 member associations into his fawning acolytes.

Among those charged is Jeffrey Webb, the successor to Jack Warner as the head of the North and Central American and Caribbean regional confederation within FIFA. Warner was also charged. When Warner’s corruption became so outlandish that he was forced to step down a few years ago, Blatter’s FIFA maintained a presumption of innocence. Enough said.

Bribery occurred “over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, who has supervised the investigation from the days when she was the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York. That sounds about right. The Office of the attorney general of Switzerland has opened a separate criminal investigation into the selection of Russia to host the 2018 World Cup and Qatar the 2022 World Cup.

Just because Russia and Qatar are gas-rich (and back in 1998 a Qatari businessman provided Blatter with a private jet for his first FIFA election campaign) does not mean the process was corrupt. Of course it does not. But that Swiss criminal investigation is thoroughly warranted — and the first requisite for making it thorough, transparent and credible is Blatter’s immediate departure.

Now we get to Mr. Kristof:

I’ve admired the Clintons’ foundation for years for its fine work on AIDS and global poverty, and I’ve moderated many panels at the annual Clinton Global Initiative. Yet with each revelation of failed disclosures or the appearance of a conflict of interest from speaking fees of $500,000 for the former president, I have wondered: What were they thinking?

But the problem is not precisely the Clintons. It’s our entire disgraceful money-based political system. Look around:

• Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey accepted flights and playoff tickets from the Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, who has business interests Christie can affect.

• Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has received financial assistance from a billionaire, Norman Braman, and has channeled public money to Braman’s causes.

• Jeb Bush likely has delayed his formal candidacy because then he would have to stop coordinating with his “super PAC” and raising money for it. He is breaching at least the spirit of the law.

When problems are this widespread, the problem is not crooked individuals but perverse incentives from a rotten structure.

“There is a systemic corruption here,” says Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money. “It’s kind of baked in.”

Most politicians are good people. Then they discover that money is the only fuel that makes the system work and sometimes step into the bog themselves.

Money isn’t a new problem, of course. John F. Kennedy was accused of using his father’s wealth to buy elections. In response, he joked that he had received the following telegram from his dad: “Don’t buy another vote. I won’t pay for a landslide!”

Yet Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s labor secretary and now chairman of the national governing board of Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog group,notes that inequality has hugely exacerbated the problem. Billionaires adopt presidential candidates as if they were prize racehorses. Yet for them, it’s only a hobby expense.

For example, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson donated $92 million to super PACs in the 2012 election cycle; as a share of their net worth, that was equivalent to $300 from the median American family. So a multibillionaire can influence a national election for the same sacrifice an average family bears in, say, a weekend driving getaway.

Money doesn’t always succeed, of course, and billionaires often end up wasting money on campaigns. According to The San Jose Mercury News, Meg Whitman spent $43 per vote in her failed campaign for governor of California in 2010, mostly from her own pocket. But Michael Bloomberg won his 2009 re-election campaign for mayor of New York City after,according to the New York Daily News, spending $185 of his own money per vote.

The real bargain is lobbying — and that’s why corporations spend 13 times as much lobbying as they do contributing to campaigns, by the calculations of Lee Drutman, author of a recent book on lobbying.

The health care industry hires about five times as many lobbyists as there are members of Congress. That’s a shrewd investment. Drug company lobbyists have prevented Medicare from getting bulk discounts, amounting to perhaps $50 billion a year in extra profits for the sector.

Likewise, lobbying has carved out the egregious carried interest tax loophole, allowing many financiers to pay vastly reduced tax rates. In that respect, money in politics both reflects inequality and amplifies it.

Lobbyists exert influence because they bring a potent combination of expertise and money to the game. They gain access, offer a well-informed take on obscure issues — and, for a member of Congress, you think twice before biting the hand that feeds you.

The Supreme Court is partly to blame for the present money game, for its misguided rulings that struck down limits in campaign spending by corporations and unions and the overall political donation cap for individuals.

Still, President Obama could take one step that would help: an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose all political contributions.

“President Obama could bring the dark money into the sunlight in time for the 2016 election,” notes Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. “It’s the single most tangible thing anyone could do to expose the dark money that is now polluting politics.”

I’ve covered corrupt regimes all over the world, and I find it ineffably sad to come home and behold institutionalized sleaze in the United States.

Reich told me that for meaningful change to arrive, “voters need to reach a point of revulsion.” Hey, folks, that time has come.

And last but not least we have Ms. Collins:

Just before Congress slunk away for the three-day weekend — which it was, of course, planning to stretch into a week — senators from the Northeast held a press conference to denounce Republicans for underfunding Amtrak passenger rail service.

“Amtrak has some infrastructure that is so old it was built and put into service when Jesse James and Butch Cassidy were still alive and robbing trains,” said Senator Charles Schumer of New York.

“In Connecticut we have a bridge that was built when Grover Cleveland was president,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

Now you have to admit, this is pretty compelling. Especially if you merge them together and envision Butch Cassidy and Grover Cleveland robbing commuters on the Acela Express.

The Northeast corridor from Boston to Washington is the centerpiece of the nation’s commuter rail system. It carries more people than the airlines, makes a profit, and takes an ungodly number of cars off extremely crowded highways. However, it needs $21 billion of work on its bridges, tunnels, tracks and equipment.

We’ve all been thinking about it since the terrible derailment in Philadelphia earlier this month. In a moment of stupendously bad timing, House Republicans chose the day after the accident to cut more than $1 billion from the $2.45 billion the Obama administration had requested for Amtrak.

Speaker John Boehner said any attempt to link the two things was “stupid.” As only he can.

Let’s take a middle road, people, and assume that while the Philadelphia crash might not be directly related to any funding cut, it’s a good reminder that running packed trains through 19th century tunnels and bridges is asking for trouble.

Amtrak is a managerial mishmash, trapped under the thumb of Congress, and also responsible for long-distance service across the country, touching cities from Chicago to New Orleans to Grand Rapids to Salt Lake City on a series of routes that are never going to make money. Conservative groups that call for the privatization of Amtrak are basically envisioning a system where the Northeast Corridor is left to fend for itself while the money-losing routes fade into history.

“Ideally, we would like to see all transportation spending and taxing devolve to the states,” said Michael Sargent of The Heritage Foundation.

None of the Northeastern senators at the press conference complained about the cross-country money-losers. Perhaps that was out of deference to their colleague, Dick Durbin of Chicago. Perhaps they instinctively understood that no matter what the drain, Amtrak has a better chance of political survival running through 46 states. It’s a theory that works great for the Defense Department.

Maybe the senators just had a national vision of what national rail service is supposed to be.

“It’s worth reminding our colleagues the Northeast Corridor is the only part that makes money,” said Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut in a phone interview. “But that doesn’t mean I want to get rid of the rest of the system. If we only kept the portions of government that made money, there wouldn’t be any point to the State of Connecticut running a Department of Children and Families anymore.”

What’s your off-the-cuff verdict, people?

A) Save the railroad!

B) Prioritize! Every train for itself!

C) They can do anything they want if they’ll just get together and fix the pothole on my corner.

Wow, I believe I see a majority for the pothole. Remind me to tell you about how members of Congress just passed the 33rd super-short-term highway bill because they haven’t been able to come up with any normal road repair funding since 2008.

Transportation unites the country, but the crowded parts and the empty parts have different needs. Cities require mass transit, which is something that tends to irritate many rural conservatives. (It’s that vision of a whole bunch of strangers stuck together, stripped of even the illusion of control.) Remote towns and cities need connections to survive, even though the price tag seems way out of proportion to those of us who don’t live on, say, an Alaskan island.

Amtrak’s operating budget is about the same as the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes commercial air service to remote communities. Most of the flights are at least two-thirds empty. CBS News, in a report earlier this year, found one flight between Kansas City, Mo., and Great Bend, Kan., that generally carried only a single passenger.

Everybody knows that the government can waste money. (If you have any doubts, I will refer you to a recent report by Pro Publica about a glorious new $25 million, 64,000-square-foot headquarters the military constructed for American troops in Afghanistan even though said troops were going home.) But making money-losing links between different parts of the theoretically United States doesn’t seem to be in that category.

Fix Amtrak. Connect the country.

Won’t happen as long as the mole people rule.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

May 14, 2015

In “The President, Fox News and the Poor” Mr. Blow says Obama was right to call out the media’s poverty narratives. There are people who want something for nothing — but they cut across the income spectrum.  Mr. Kristof, in “Crisis at Sea,” says American and Asian officials seem determined to avert their eyes as the toll climbs in the Rohingya refugee crisis.  Ms. Collins states the obvious when she writes “Wow, Jeb Bush is Awful.”  She says as a presidential hopeful, Jeb’s most attractive feature used to be an aura of competence, but that changed this week.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

This week, during a panel discussion on poverty at Georgetown University, President Obama lambasted the media, and in particular Fox News, for creating false, destructive narratives about the poor that paint them broadly as indolent and pathological.

The president said:

“Over the last 40 years, sadly, I think there’s been an effort to either make folks mad at folks at the top, or to be mad at folks at the bottom. And I think the effort to suggest that the poor are sponges, leeches, don’t want to work, are lazy, are undeserving, got traction.”

He continued:

“And, look, it’s still being propagated. I mean, I have to say that if you watch Fox News on a regular basis, it is a constant menu — they will find folks who make me mad. I don’t know where they find them. [Laughter.] They’re like, I don’t want to work, I just want a free Obama phone — [laughter] — or whatever. And that becomes an entire narrative — right? — that gets worked up. And very rarely do you hear an interview of a waitress — which is much more typical — who’s raising a couple of kids and is doing everything right but still can’t pay the bills.”

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough took umbrage. After saying that “the arrogance of it all is staggering,” and that he was “a little embarrassed” for the president, Scarborough demanded of his befuddled panel: “What about the specific clip about Fox News calling poor people leeches, sponges and lazy? Have you ever heard that on Fox News?” One panelist responded, “No, I have not.” Then Scarborough opened the question to them all: “Has anybody ever heard that on Fox News?”

Well, yes.

In 2004, Bill O’Reilly, arguably the face of Fox News, said: “You gotta look people in the eye and tell ‘em they’re irresponsible and lazy. And who’s gonna wanna do that? Because that’s what poverty is, ladies and gentlemen. In this country, you can succeed if you get educated and work hard. Period. Period.”

In 2012, O’Reilly listed what he called the “true causes of poverty” including “poor education, addiction, irresponsible behavior and laziness.”

In 2014, during the week that marked the 50th anniversary of L.B.J.’s “War on Poverty,” O’Reilly again said that “true poverty” (as opposed to make-believe poverty?) “is being driven by personal behavior,” which included, according to him, “addictive behavior, laziness, apathy.”

Even though the president didn’t say that Fox News specifically used the words “sponge,” “leeches” and “lazy,” O’Reilly has indeed, repeatedly, called poor people lazy, and the subtext of his remarks is that many poor people are pathologically and undeservedly dependent on the government dole.

Now who should be embarrassed for whom?

As for the president’s mention of the “Obama phones,” in 2012,FoxNews.com reported on “a viral video of an Obama supporter touting her ‘Obama phone.’” But even they had to admit that the program — Lifeline — was not created under Obama. According to the site: “But even though some beneficiaries may credit President Obama for providing the phones, Lifeline is an extension of a program that has existed since 1985.” Who was president in 1985? Oh, that’s right, the conservatives’ golden, do-no-wrong “Gipper,” Ronald Reagan.

By the way, O’Reilly’s mythology concerning addiction must also be confronted. In February, ThinkProgress gathered data from the seven states that drug-test applicants for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, also know as welfare. The site found this:

“The statistics show that applicants actually test positive at a lower rate than the drug use of the general population. The national drug use rate is9.4 percent. In these states, however, the rate of positive drug tests to total welfare applicants ranges from 0.002 percent to 8.3 percent, but all except one have a rate below 1 percent.”

The problem with all of this is that these misconceptions have a way of seeping into the populace as a whole.

For Fox’s part, they responded by having Stuart Varney, who works for Fox News and Fox Business Network, comment. Varney said: “I think the president is spinning the failure of his own policies, and I think he is blaming us, and I think we are an honest messenger.”

Stop laughing, people! There’s more. Varney continued:

“Look at food stamps for a second. We’ve been asking why is it that after six years of so-called recovery there are still 12 million more people on food stamps today than when the president took office. Why is that? Surely, that’s the failure of the president’s policy. What about Obama phones? Why is it that we’re giving away 13 million Obama phones after six years of recovery? Why are we doing that?”

Never once did Varney address the many times that O’Reilly called poor people lazy or acknowledge that “Obama phones” might be more aptly called “Reagan phones.”

And let’s make sure that we better understand participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.According to SNAP to Health, whose founding supporters were the Aetna Foundation and the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress:

“Stigma associated with the SNAP program has led to several common misconceptions about how the program works and who receives the benefits. For instance, many Americans believe that the majority of SNAP benefits go towards people who could be working. In fact, more than half of SNAP recipients are children or the elderly. For the remaining working-age individuals, many of them are currently employed. At least forty percent of all SNAP beneficiaries live in a household with earnings. In fact, the majority of SNAP households do not receive cash welfare benefits (around 10 percent receive cash welfare), with increasing numbers of SNAP beneficiaries obtaining their primary source of income from employment.”

This information is not hard to find or relay, but that would not fit the anti-Obama narrative. In the 2012 primaries, Newt Gingrich gained quite a bit of traction referring to Obama as the “the best food stamp president in American history.” This idea, including its latent racial connotations, lives on because it confirms an us-versus-them, takers-versus-makers sensibility.

Obama was right to call out the media’s poverty narratives. There are people across the income spectrum who are lazy and addicted and want something for nothing. But it’s unfair and untenable to pretend this is the sole purview of the poor. Negative behavior doesn’t necessarily spring from a lack of money, but rather exposes a lack of character.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

One of the world’s most beautiful regions, the seas of Southeast Asia — home to sparkling white beaches and $7,000-a-night beach villas — is becoming a scene of a mass atrocity.

Thousands of refugees from the persecuted Rohingya minority in Myanmar, fleeing modern concentration camps at home, have fled to sea in boats, and many have drowned. Fearing a crackdown, smugglers have abandoned some of those boats at sea, and neighboring countries are pushing the boats back to sea when they try to land.

The Obama administration, which has regarded Myanmar as one of its diplomatic successes, is largely unhelpful as this calamity unfolds.

“The Andaman Sea is about to become a floating mass grave, and it’s because of the failure of governments, including our own, to do what is necessary,” says Tom Andrews, a former member of Congress who is president of United to End Genocide. “Not only is there not a search-and-rescue operation going on right now — with thousands out to sea — but governments are towing these people out from their shores back to open sea, which is tantamount to mass murder.”

One appalling chapter of World War II came when the SS St. Louis left Germany in 1939 full of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. Cuba and the United States barred them from disembarking, and — after passing so close to Miami that passengers could see the lights on shore — the ship returned to Europe, where many died in the Holocaust.

Now refugees fleeing concentration camps are again denied landfall.

“We’re talking about a flotilla of St. Louises, and people are going to die,” Andrews told me.

Rohingyas are a Muslim minority reviled by the majority Buddhist population in Myanmar. The government has confined some 150,000 of them to 21st-century concentration camps: I visited these camps last year and wrote about starving children and camp inmates dying for lack of medical care.

On Wednesday, there were unconfirmed reports of 20 Rohingya-owned shops being burned down in Maungdaw in western Myanmar near the border with Bangladesh.

The United Nations says that more than 130,000 Rohingyas have fled by sea since 2012. Many fall prey to human smugglers who torture, rape and starve them in Thai camps until relatives pay ransom. The discovery of a mass grave this month from one such camp embarrassed Thai authorities into cracking down on human smugglers, leading the crews to abandon the ships, with their human cargo adrift at sea.

Chris Lewa of The Arakan Project, a human rights group, said she has been in cellphone contact with two ships full of refugees, and she suspects that there are more farther from land and thus out of cellphone range. One is drifting without engines or adequate food, and she, as a private citizen, has been frantically trying to organize a search-and-rescue effort to save the passengers — so far, unsuccessfully.

Come on! If a suspected terrorist were on board, intelligence agencies would use that cellphone number to locate that boat. But 350 desperate refugees adrift at sea, and we’re going to shrug and let them drown?

Governments are probably uninterested in rescuing refugees for fear that they would then have to take them in. Thailand has long had a policy of sending refugee boats on their way, and Indonesia this week pushed two ships carrying hundreds of Rohingya back to sea. As for Malaysia, “we won’t let any foreign boats come in,” an admiral said.

Europe also has a refugee crisis, but at least European countries are mounting search-and-rescue operations to try to save lives. What Southeast Asian governments are doing is the opposite.

As a first step, President Obama should call the leaders of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, urging them to rescue and shelter refugees. The United States can also use military and intelligence assets to locate drifting refugee ships and assist with search and rescue.

Obama must also make clear that Myanmar cannot have a normal relationship with the United States as long as it engages in crimes against humanity. Just this month, the administration welcomed to the White House a senior official of the Myanmar government, Thura Shwe Mann, who has allied himself with extremist anti-Rohingya positions. In its statement afterward, the White House’s press office even avoided using the word “Rohingya,” apparently so as not to offend Myanmar.

That’s craven, but what’s worse is the way American and Asian officials alike seem determined to avert their eyes from atrocities in one of the world’s most beautiful regions.

“People are dying at sea,” said Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights, a human rights group that has done excellent work monitoring the Rohingya. “We know that, right now. And it could worsen considerably in the coming weeks.”

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Let’s discuss Jeb Bush’s terrible week.

I’m really troubled by his awful performances, and I’m generally a person who takes bad news about politicians pretty well. For instance, a friend just sent me a story about the Texas agriculture commissioner’s vow to bring deep-fried foods back to school cafeterias. (“It’s not about French fries; it’s about freedom.”) I would classify this as interesting, yet somehow not a shocking surprise.

But today we’re talking about Jeb Bush. As a presidential hopeful, Bush’s most attractive feature was an aura of competence. Extremely boring competence, perhaps. Still, an apparent ability to get through the day without demonstrating truly scary ineptitude.

Then, about a week ago, The Washington Post reported that during a private meeting with rich Manhattan financiers, Bush announced that his most influential adviser on Middle Eastern matters was his brother George.

This was a surprise on many fronts. For one thing, Jeb had apparently missed the memo on how everything you say to potential donors at private meetings can wind up on an endless YouTube loop for all eternity.

Also, he had begun his all-but-announced campaign for the presidency with an “I’m my own man” sales pitch. Now he was saying, in effect, “Well, I can always ask my brother.”

Then, on Monday, Fox News aired an interview in which host Megyn Kelly asked Jeb whether “knowing what we know now” he would have authorized the invasion of Iraq.

“I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody,” Bush replied.

Now no one, including Hillary Clinton’s worst enemy in the entire world, thinks that if she could go back in time to 2002, knowing that the invasion of Iraq was going to be a total disaster and that she would lose the presidential nomination in 2008 to a guy who ran on that very issue, she would still have voted to authorize the use of force. So, obviously, Bush misheard the question, right?

Apparently not. He then went on: “I mean, so just for the news flash to the world if they’re trying to find places where there’s big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those.”

We had now learned that: 1) Jeb Bush still thinks invading Iraq was a good idea; and 2) he has inherited more of the family syntax issues than we knew.

Fast-forward one day: “I interpreted the question wrong, I guess,” Bush told Sean Hannity in a radio interview. “I was talking about given what people knew then, would you have done it, rather than knowing what we know now. And knowing what we know now, you know, clearly there were mistakes.”

He still didn’t claim that he’d have done anything different than his brother had done. (“That’s a hypothetical.”) But he was really nailing down that business about mistakes.

Then Bush was off to Nevada, campaigning in his own special way. (“I’m running for president in 2016, and the focus is going to be about how we, if I run, how do you create high sustained economic growth.”)

He also announced that hypothetical questions were a “disservice” to the U.S. troops and their families.

What is going on here? It’s not actually about foreign policy. Jeb Bush clearly knows nothing whatsoever about foreign policy, but then neither do the majority of other Republican presidential hopefuls.

The bottom line is that so far he seems to be a terrible candidate. He couldn’t keep his “I’m-my-own-man” mantra going through the spring. He over-babbled at a private gathering. He didn’t know how to answer the Iraq question, which should have been the first thing he tackled on the first day he ever considered that he might someday think for even a minute about running for president.

This is obviously a problem for the Bush camp, but it’s a big one for the nation’s army of concerned citizens, too. There are lots of Americans who are not going to vote Republican next year, but who nevertheless have found some comfort in the idea that Jeb Bush would almost certainly be the Republican nominee.

They might disagree with him on a lot of issues, but at least he wasn’t Ted Cruz. “I’m a fan of Jeb Bush,” Cruz said cruelly, when asked about the Iraq incident. “I’ll give him credit for candor and consistency.”

If the version of Jeb Bush we’ve been seeing lately is the one we’re going to be stuck with, then one of the other Republican contenders is going to win. Maybe the guy who thinks Obamacare is the worst thing since slavery. Or the guy who once linked vaccines to children with mental disorders. The guy who used to peddle a “Diabetes Solution Kit.” The guy with the bridge traffic jam!

Right now, you know, it’s all hypothetical.

Kristof and Collins

May 7, 2015

In “Our Biased Brains” Mr. Kristof asks a question:  Where does this ingrained propensity to racial bias come from?  In “Beyond the Demon Sheep” Ms. Collins points out that some candidates think we should be actually drawn to their lack of political experience.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

To better understand the roots of racial division in America, think about this:

The human brain seems to be wired so that it categorizes people by race in the first one-fifth of a second after seeing a face. Brain scans show that even when people are told to sort people by gender, the brain still groups people by race.

Racial bias also begins astonishingly early: Even infants often show a preference for their own racial group. In one study, 3-month-old white infants were shown photos of faces of white adults and black adults; they preferred the faces of whites. For 3-month-old black infants living in Africa, it was the reverse.

This preference reflected what the child was accustomed to. Black infants living in overwhelmingly white Israel didn’t show a strong preference one way or the other, according to the study, published in Psychological Science.

Where does this ingrained propensity to racial bias come from?

Scholars suggest that in evolutionary times we became hard-wired to make instantaneous judgments about whether someone is in our “in group” or not — because that could be lifesaving. A child who didn’t prefer his or her own group might have been at risk of being clubbed to death.

“It’s a feature of evolution,” says Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard psychology professor who co-developed tests of unconscious biases. These suggest that people turn out to have subterranean racial and gender biases that they are unaware of and even disapprove of.

I’ve written about unconscious bias before, and I encourage you to test yourself atimplicit.harvard.edu. It’s sobering to discover that whatever you believe intellectually, you’re biased about race, gender, age or disability.

What’s particularly dispiriting is that this unconscious bias among whites toward blacks seems just as great among preschoolers as among senior citizens.

Banaji’s research projects show that unconscious racial bias turns up in children as soon as they have the verbal skills to be tested for it, at about age 4. The degree of unconscious bias then seems pretty constant: In tests, this unconscious bias turns out to be roughly the same for a 4- or 6-year-old as for a senior citizen who grew up in more racially oppressive times.

In one set of experiments, children as young as about 4 were shown ambiguous photos of people who could be white or Asian. In some, the people in the photos were smiling; in others, they were frowning.

White American kids disproportionately judged that the people who were smiling were white and that those who were frowning were Asian. When the experiment was conducted in Taiwan with exactly the same photos, Taiwanese children thought that the faces when smiling were Asian, when frowning were white.

The American children were also shown faces that were ambiguous as to whether the person was white or black. In those cases, white kids disproportionately thought that the smiling people were white and the frowning ones were black.

Many of these experiments on in-group bias have been conducted around the world, and almost every ethnic group shows a bias favoring its own. One exception: African-Americans.

Researchers find that in contrast to other groups, African-Americans do not have an unconscious bias toward their own. From young children to adults, they are essentially neutral and favor neither whites nor blacks.

Banaji and other scholars suggest that this is because even young African-American children somehow absorb the social construct that white skin is prestigious and that black skin isn’t. In one respect, that is unspeakably sad; in another, it’s a model of unconscious race neutrality. Yet even if we humans have evolved to have a penchant for racial preferences from a very young age, this is not destiny. We can resist the legacy that evolution has bequeathed us.

“We wouldn’t have survived if our ancestors hadn’t developed bodies that store sugar and fat,” Banaji says. “What made them survive is what kills us.” Yet we fight the battle of the bulge and sometimes win — and, likewise, we can resist a predisposition for bias against other groups.

One strategy that works is seeing images of heroic African-Americans; afterward, whites and Asians show less bias, a study found. Likewise, hearing a story in which a black person rescues someone from a white assailant reduces anti-black bias in subsequent testing. It’s not clear how long this effect lasts.

Deep friendships, especially romantic relationships with someone of another race, also seem to mute bias — and that, too, has implications for bringing young people together to forge powerful friendships.

“If you actually have friendships across race lines, you probably have fewer biases,” Banaji says. “These are learned, so they can be unlearned.”

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Do you want the next president to be somebody who brags about not being a politician?

Think about that for a minute. “Politician” isn’t a popular term right now. But claiming that you’re not one when you run for president is a little like applying for a job as brain surgeon by announcing, “I am not a physician.”

This week we acquired three new candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. Two are running on the not-a-politician line. That would be Carly Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett-Packard, and Ben Carson, a retired — yes! — neurosurgeon.

The third is the former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. We have met Huckabee before, and we will have many future opportunities to discuss his remarkable transformation from poor country lad to governor of Arkansas, from likable conservative candidate for president in 2008 to the rather mean right-winger we’re stuck with now.

But today let’s consider Fiorina and Carson, who want you to elect them to the highest office in the land because they have never held elective office.

Carson (“I’m not a politician”) became a Tea Party hero when he began denouncing Obamacare (“the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery”), comparing American society to Nazi Germany and claiming the president resembled “most psychopaths.”

Some political experts believe he is the kind of Republican who can do well in Iowa. Is that true, Iowa? I would rather think better of you.

Fiorina is running as the anti-Hillary. (“I think if Hillary Clinton faces a woman opponent, she will get a hitch in her swing.”) She is the kind of person who tells you that when she went to college she studied philosophy, ancient Greek, Latin, French and German, then adds that she also took Italian, “But that was just for the fun of it.”

That last bit comes from her memoir, which chronicles her rise to head of Hewlett-Packard in 1999, followed by a rather inglorious firing in 2005 for reasons that she most definitely feels were not her fault.

In her first campaign video, she’s shown watching Clinton’s announcement. We now have videos of candidates attacking other candidates’ videos. Soon we will drop debates entirely in favor of tweet-offs.

“Our founders never intended us to have a professional political class,” Fiorina says, turning to the camera.

Virtually every elected president in American history — not counting the occasional military hero — made his way to the top by getting elected to other offices first. There are a couple of exceptions who just served in the cabinet, like Herbert Hoover. We can all look forward to hearing a candidate vow to return us to the golden days of the Hoover administration.

Fiorina’s answer is to go back to men like Thomas Jefferson (state legislator, governor, diplomat, secretary of state, vice president), who she says believed strictly in “citizen government.” The founders may not have liked the idea of a political class, but they picked presidents who were part of one. Public men, whose experience in private enterprise frequently involved running a plantation into the ground.

Fiorina, whose tenure at Hewlett-Packard included a controversial merger deal and the layoff of about 30,000 employees, is actually an excellent example of why we don’t want the country to be run like a business. The American people aren’t just shareholders. They would like their government to be efficient, and they would like the budget to balance. But they also want a lot of other stuff — protection from evildoers, compassion for the needy, assistance in retirement, highways without potholes, good schools, a healthy environment.

Who gets what first is a political question. One that preferably would be resolved without having any internal crises so exciting that the chief executive gets tossed out of office.

People who run for president boasting that they aren’t politicians are frequently just trying to compensate for a lack of political skill. Carson (who presumably wants to run government like an operating room) is going to appeal to the folks who think the military is plotting to take over Texas, but otherwise, his only political gift seems to be for making outrageous statements. Fiorina ran for the Senate in 2010 and was beaten by Barbara Boxer, who was thought to be a vulnerable incumbent until Fiorina got hold of her, racking up a grand total of 42 percent of the vote.

On the plus side, Fiorina’s campaign produced one of the all-time great attack videos, in which her more moderate primary opponent was depicted as a Demon Sheep, portrayed by a man crawling across the grass with what looked like a wooly rug over his back and a piece of cardboard on his face. After that it was downhill all the way.

If you’re shopping for candidates with no experience in the business they want to lead, I’d say at least go for the one with the Demon. But really, there are smarter buys.


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