Archive for the ‘Collins’ Category

Nocera and Collins

April 5, 2014

Mr. Blow is off today.  In “Michael Lewis’s Crusade” Mr. Nocera says an imperfect tale of high-frequency trading provides a much needed spark.  Ms. Collins says it’s “All in the Family, Sort Of.”  She’s found more lessons from the campaign trail — when you’re making a photo album, people, no pics of strange pigs or point guards!  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

There is always something just a little frustrating about reading a Michael Lewis book. On the one hand, Lewis’s core point — whether it is that left tackle has become the second most important position in football (“The Blind Side”), or that the stock market has become rigged by high-frequency traders, as his new book, “Flash Boys,” claims — is almost always dead-on. His ability to find compelling characters and tell a great story through their eyes is unparalleled. He can untangle complex subjects like few others. His prose sparkles.

On the other hand, there usually comes a point in a Michael Lewis narrative when it all starts to feel just a little too perfect. “Flash Boys,” which is excerpted in The New York Times Magazine, is no exception. The book’s hero, Brad Katsuyama, is a young executive at the Royal Bank of Canada who realizes that something has gone awry with the stock market.

As he digs deeper, he realizes that secretive high-frequency trading firms, taking advantage of lightning-fast computers, willing accomplices in the stock exchanges and some poorly thought-out federal regulation, have effectively hijacked the equity markets. Roused to action by what he has discovered, Katsuyama quits his job and starts up a new exchange, IEX, which includes a clever “speed bump” that levels the playing field for investors.

So far, so good. But Lewis doesn’t stop there. To make his hero appear even more heroic, he casts Katsuyama as the only person on Wall Street to figure out the high-frequency trading scam, and the only person with the courage to do something about it. That’s not quite the case.

Nearly two years ago, Scott Patterson of The Wall Street Journal wrote a book titled “Dark Pools: The Rise of the Machine Traders and the Rigging of the U.S. Stock Market,” which also exposed the scam. The book is structured remarkably like Lewis’s — Patterson’s got a heroic central character who learns the tactics of the high-frequency bunch and then acts on it by going to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Except Patterson’s hero isn’t Brad Katsuyama; he is Haim Bodek. When I caught up with Bodek, he groused about how Katsuyama had only part of the picture, and how there were other elements of high-frequency trading that needed as much if not more exposure.

Another critic of high-frequency trading who appears in “Dark Pools,” Dan Mathisson of Credit Suisse, actually thought up an electronic exchange in 2011 — long before Katsuyama — aimed at keeping high-frequency traders at bay. There are other companies that also make it possible for institutional investors to trade blocks of stock without being subjected to the abuses of high-frequency traders.

What are those abuses? The one Lewis absolutely nails is a highly sophisticated version of front-running — that is, knowing how someone is going to trade and profiting by getting in front of that trade. This is illegal — except, apparently, when high-frequency traders do it. But even if high-frequency traders aren’t violating the law, the tactic smells to high heaven, creating an unlevel playing field that costs investors money.

Bodek points to other scams — the way, for instance, high-frequency traders have their own special order types, a kind of secret handshake (approved, sadly, by the Securities and Exchange Commission) that moves them to the front of the queue. High-frequency traders are allowed to “co-locate” their computers inside the exchange, the better to ensure their speed advantage over other investors. The Wall Street Journal reported last summer that high-frequency traders can pay to get early peeks at business news releases, information they can trade on before anyone else.

From where I’m sitting, it is a blessing that Lewis chose to write about high-frequency traders. Others may have come before, but nobody else could have created the firestorm that Lewis did by going on “60 Minutes” on Sunday and announcing that high-frequency traders had rigged the market. The F.B.I., the Justice Department and New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, are now investigating high-frequency trading. The Securities and Exchange Commission, whose regulations unwittingly helped create the problem, is also said to be investigating.

Always before, discussions around high-frequency traders took place after events like the “Flash Crash” of 2010. Then the question was whether the computer technology used by high-frequency traders was destabilizing the market.

The arrival of “Flash Boys” has put a more important question on the table: whether high-frequency traders have been given an unfair advantage that needs to be dealt with. Lewis’s answer is clearly yes, and “Flash Boys” is both clear enough and persuasive enough that Lewis’s millions of readers are likely to agree with him.

A little literary license is a small price to pay.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Here’s the latest life lesson from the campaign trail: If you are, say, making a home movie about how great your family is, try to remember to use pictures of your actual relatives, and not random attractive strangers.

We bring you this important tip from South Dakota, where Mike Rounds, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, came up with a debut video in which he tells prospective voters that the rest of the nation “could learn a lot from the people of South Dakota.” Meanwhile, the viewer is treated to pictures of folks building houses, having meetings, playing with the family — doing all sorts of positive things that presumably exemplify the state’s wholesome lifestyle.

Unfortunately, it turns out that they are stock photos from parts unknown. Except we did learn that the fetching woman holding her pen at that meeting is actually in Paris.

“It was a matter of trying to be good stewards with our client’s budget,” said John Pohlman, an executive for the Rounds creative team. In South Dakota, the controversy has devolved into an argument about whether this piece was the first ad of the campaign or just something thrown casually together as a sort of experiment. But not a commentary on whether South Dakotans are photogenic! Be fair.

We’re likely to run into a lot of this kind of screw-up before November. (Perhaps you remember last year when New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner triumphantly opened his new website with a banner that featured a skyline shot of Pittsburgh.) They certainly help pass the time, but should we ever care?

The answer is that you should not criticize a politician for doing something that you could easily imagine yourself doing, too. For instance, this week Senator Dan Coats of Indiana walked into a committee hearing and started happily questioning a witness — until his aide slipped him a note pointing out that Coats had gone to the wrong meeting and was querying a person who had no idea whatsoever what he was talking about. I believe I speak for many Americans when I say that given the excitement level of most Senate hearings, this seems perfectly plausible.

On the other hand, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky recently released a video about the glories of his home state that featured what was supposed to be a triumphant local basketball team but was in fact hated Kentucky rival Duke. Misidentifying a bunch of college athletes is something else that I could totally understand. But there appear to be a lot of people out there who will never, ever get over it. This happened just as the N.C.A.A. tournament was getting into high gear, and, honestly, you’d have thought that McConnell ran across the court naked at halftime.

One of the few potentially significant disasters so far occurred in Iowa, where Representative Bruce Braley, the leading Democratic contender for the Senate, got caught warning some Texas trial lawyers that if Republicans won a majority, the Judiciary Committee would be run by Senator Chuck Grassley, “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” It sounded terrible. Although, to be fair, you could imagine somebody like Senator Grassley warning a roomful of farmers about the possibility of a trial lawyer running the Agriculture Committee.

Everybody zeroed in on the farmer-denigration angle, forcing Braley to send out a press release listing his own personal ties to the land, including many youthful hours spent detasseling corn and baling hay. In which the words “detasseling” and “baling” were both unfortunately misspelled.

Oh, Iowa, Iowa. We spend so much time thinking about Iowa, home of the First Presidential Caucuses, which seem to go on for at least two years. (This just in: new poll finds Mike Huckabee leading the Republican field among Iowa senior citizens!) Iowa gets so much attention, it seems unfair that it has a hot Senate race, too.

You may have heard about Joni Ernst, a hitherto obscure candidate for the Republican nomination, who became famous overnight with her now-immortal castration video, in which she brags about her early experience on the farm, neutering hogs. The video won her a mention on “The Tonight Show,” and the triumphant Ernst posted an invitation to watch the video on the web, next to a picture of a rather optimistic-looking porker. However, as Michael McAuliff reported in The Huffington Post, the animal in question was actually in a stock photo from Denmark.

Oh, Joni Ernst campaign! Iowa has 20 million pigs, and you go for the equivalent of the Frenchwoman at the meeting.

The candidate’s spokesman issued a lighthearted statement claiming the hog “was born and raised in Holland but eventually legally emigrated to Iowa,” and reminding everybody that Bruce Braley had misspelled “bale.”

Holland is actually not in Denmark. But it’s been that kind of year.

Kristof and Collins

April 3, 2014

In “We’re Not No. 1! We’re Not No. 1!” Mr. Kristof says for those who think America is the best at everything, here’s a reality check.  “Chris” from Arizona had this to say:  “No surprises here.  The country is run for the benefit of the 1% at the expense of everyone else.  Unfortunately a huge percentage of Americans are too dumb to realize it.”  Ms. Collins, in “Surprise! The Rich Won One,” says oligarchs have rights, too, you know. Even the founding fathers said so.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

We in the United States grow up celebrating ourselves as the world’s most powerful nation, the world’s richest nation, the world’s freest and most blessed nation.

Sure, technically Norwegians may be wealthier per capita, and the Japanese may live longer, but the world watches the N.B.A., melts at Katy Perry, uses iPhones to post on Facebook, trembles at our aircraft carriers, and blames the C.I.A. for everything. We’re No. 1!

In some ways we indisputably are, but a major new ranking of livability in 132 countries puts the United States in a sobering 16th place. We underperform because our economic and military strengths don’t translate into well-being for the average citizen.

In the Social Progress Index, the United States excels in access to advanced education but ranks 70th in health, 69th in ecosystem sustainability, 39th in basic education, 34th in access to water and sanitation and 31st in personal safety. Even in access to cellphones and the Internet, the United States ranks a disappointing 23rd, partly because one American in five lacks Internet access.

“It’s astonishing that for a country that has Silicon Valley, lack of access to information is a red flag,” notes Michael Green, executive director of the Social Progress Imperative, which oversees the index. The United States has done better at investing in drones than in children, and cuts in social services could fray the social fabric further.

This Social Progress Index ranks New Zealand No. 1, followed by Switzerland, Iceland and the Netherlands. All are somewhat poorer than America per capita, yet they appear to do a better job of meeting the needs of their people.

The Social Progress Index is a brainchild of Michael E. Porter, the eminent Harvard business professor who earlier helped develop the Global Competitiveness Report. Porter is a Republican whose work, until now, has focused on economic metrics.

“This is kind of a journey for me,” Porter told me. He said that he became increasingly aware that social factors support economic growth: tax policy and regulations affect economic prospects, but so do schooling, health and a society’s inclusiveness.

So Porter and a team of experts spent two years developing this index, based on a vast amount of data reflecting suicide, property rights, school attendance, attitudes toward immigrants and minorities, opportunity for women, religious freedom, nutrition, electrification and much more.

Many who back proposed Republican cuts in Medicaid, food stamps and public services believe that such trims would boost America’s competitiveness. Looking at this report, it seems that the opposite is true.

Ireland, from which so many people fled in the 19th century to find opportunity in the United States, now ranks 15th. That’s a notch ahead of the United States, and Ireland is also ahead of America in the category of “opportunity.”

Canada came in seventh, the best among the nations in the G-7. Germany is 12th, Britain 13th and Japan 14th.

The bottom spot on the ranking was filled by Chad. Just above it were Central African Republic, Burundi, Guinea, Sudan and Angola.

Professor Porter notes that Arab Spring countries had longstanding problems leading to poor scores in the “opportunity” category. If that’s a predictor of trouble, as he thinks it may be, then Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran should be on guard. None do well in the category of opportunity.

In contrast, some countries punch well above their weight. Costa Rica performs better than much richer countries, and so do the Philippines, Estonia and Jamaica. In Africa, Malawi, Ghana and Liberia shine. Bangladesh (no. 99) ranks ahead of wealthier India (no. 102). Likewise, Ukraine (no. 62) outperforms Russia (no. 80).

China does poorly, ranking 90th, behind its poorer neighbor Mongolia (no. 89). China performs well in basic education but lags in areas such as personal rights and access to information.

All this goes to what kind of a nation we want to be, and whether we put too much faith in G.D.P. as a metric.

Over all, the United States’ economy outperformed France’s between 1975 and 2006. But 99 percent of the French population actually enjoyed more gains in that period than 99 percent of the American population. Exclude the top 1 percent, and the average French citizen did better than the average American. This lack of shared prosperity and opportunity has stunted our social progress.

There are no quick fixes, but basic education and health care are obvious places to begin, especially in the first few years of life, when returns are the highest.

The arguments for boosting opportunity or social services usually revolve around social justice and fairness. The Social Progress Index offers a reminder that what’s at stake is also the health of our society — and our competitiveness around the globe.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Today, we are going to discuss the Supreme Court decision on political donations. Already, we have run into a terrible problem, which is the difficulty in having a fun conversation about campaign finance laws.

Let me try for a second: On Wednesday, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., who once played Peppermint Patty in a school production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, told the nation it was unconstitutional to say that a rich person could only give a total of $123,200 to congressional campaigns each election cycle. This would have been called the majority decision, except that Clarence Thomas, who never talks in court and had that pubic hair controversy back in the day, wrote a little memo of his own.

Roberts was joined by Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy is the famous swing vote, and also a person who once, as a young student, traveled around Europe for a summer with a bottle of whiskey his father had given him, which he used only to gargle.

Their bottom line was that the founding fathers intended America to be a country in which every citizen had the inalienable right to donate, say, $3.6 million every two years.

How do you feel about that, people? On the one hand, this cannot possibly be a helpful step forward. On the other hand, we already live in a country where billionaires can spend endless amounts of cash trying to influence elections with their own private groups. The Koch brothers’ group has spent more than $7 million on ads in North Carolina against Senator Kay Hagan, and there isn’t even a Republican candidate yet. How much farther could we sink?

“They can now do even worse things,” predicted Fred Wertheimer, the long-suffering leader of Democracy 21, a nonprofit that lobbies for campaign finance reform. There’s a big difference, he claims, between an independent group that has to at least pretend it’s not coordinating its message with a political party, and a rich guy simply “going to a leader in Congress and saying: ‘I’m going to write you a check today for $2.5 million, providing I know what your position is on the following. …’ ”

Wertheimer has been working on this issue for a long time. “Let me see if I can add it up, 41 — no! — 43 years,” he said. “I started with Common Cause in 1971, and I was assigned to two issues: campaign finance reform and legislation to end the Vietnam War.”

And, you know, now the Vietnam War is over.

So Fred Wertheimer is not going to give up on this issue. But what about the rest of us? The vast, vast majority of Americans believe there should be some kind of cap on the amount of money candidates can take in and spend. However, they don’t generally want to master the details of the independent expenditure-only committees or the aggregate spending cap. It’s tough enough being a concerned citizen. You’ve got to be able to identify your state senator and have an opinion on the level of pre-K funding in the municipal budget. There’s a limit.

The downside to the decision is pretty clear, unless you are of the opinion that what this country really needs is more power to the plutocrats. But let’s try to be positive for a minute, and look at the plusses:

Potential upside of opening the door to bigger campaign contributions from rich people:

1) Perhaps Justice Roberts was trying to pile up some right-wing cred so that he can swing left on the Obamacare contraception rule. O.K., I’m totally making that one up.

2) The federal government will no longer be “eliminating a person’s right to choose.” This is the spin from Lincoln Brown, a talk radio host who interviewed Shaun McCutcheon, the plaintiff in the suit that the Supreme Court just decided. This would refer to a right to give several million dollars directly to people running for federal office, not a woman’s right to control her reproductive system. But maybe there could be a trend.

The interview, by the way, is up on McCutcheon’s website, along with the announcement that he is writing a book on the way he made legal history, which will be “ready in a few weeks.” For the C.E.O. of an Alabama coal-mining firm, this guy is one fast typist.

3) More talk about oligarchs!

Watching events in Russia and Ukraine, you can’t help noticing all the stupendously rich oligarchs with their fingers in every political development. It’s a useful word, connoting both awesome power and a group you don’t really want to have around.

In the former Soviet Union, the money elite generally get their power from the politicians. Here, it seems to be the other way around. But the next time casino zillionaire Sheldon Adelson invites the Republican presidential hopefuls to go to Las Vegas and bow before his throne, feel free to say they were just off honoring an oligarch. Apparently, the founding fathers would have wanted it that way.

Blow and Collins

March 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The report found:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blow, Kristof and Collins

March 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The president, while chastising Russian aggression, made clear:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it’s still early.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Collins

March 23, 2014

Apparently The Putz thinks he’s qualified to tell us all about “Russia Without Illusions.”  He says after Crimea, what’s needed is a more realistic assessment about Russian intentions and Western leverage.  MoDo allegedly is writing about Gov. Jerry Brown, but of course the first sentence brings up Hillary.  It takes her until the second sentence to use the phrase “Slick Willie.”  She must be slipping, however, since the first jab at Obama doesn’t come until the 12th sentence.  The thing is called “Palmy Days for Jerry, and she gurgles about Moonbeam through a new prism: A more mellow Jerry Brown gets ready to make California history.  Mr. Kristof, in “He Was Supposed to Take a Photo,” says after being forced into child pornography by her parents at age 4, Raven Kaliana is now fighting against child abusers.  Ms. Collins says “This is What 80 Looks Like,” and that Gloria Steinem occupies a singular place in American culture as the very face of feminism.  Here’s The Putz:

Since the end of the Cold War, America’s policy toward Russia has been shaped by two dangerous illusions.

The first was the conceit that with the right incentives, eyes-to-soul presidential connections and diplomatic reset buttons, Russia could become what we think of, in our cheerfully solipsistic way, as a “normal country” — at peace with the basic architecture of an American-led world order, invested in international norms and institutions, content with its borders and focused primarily on its G.D.P. Not the old Russian bear, and not an “Upper Volta with rockets” basket case, but a stable, solid-enough global citizen — Poland with an Asian hinterland, Italy with nukes.

The second illusion was the idea that with the Cold War over, we could treat Russia’s near abroad as a Western sphere of influence in the making — with NATO expanding ever eastward, traditional Russian satellites swinging into our orbit, and Moscow isolated or acquiescent. As went the Baltic States, in this theory, so eventually would go Ukraine and Georgia, until everything west and south of Russia was one military alliance, and its western neighbors were all folded into the European Union as well.

On the surface, these ideas were in tension: One was internationalist and the other neoconservative; one sought partnership with Russia and the other to effectively encircle it. But there was also a deep congruity, insofar as both assumed that limitations on Western influence had fallen away, and a post-Cold War program could advance smoothly whether the Russians decided to get with it or not.

Now both ideas should be abandoned. After Crimea, as Anne Applebaum wrote last week, it’s clear that Putin’s Russia “is not a flawed Western power,” but “an anti-Western power with a different, darker vision of global politics.” It may not be America’s No. 1 geopolitical problem, as a certain former candidate for president suggested. (Don’t sleep on the Chinese.) But it is a geopolitical threat — a revisionist, norm-violating power — to a greater extent than any recent administration has been eager to accept.

But at the same time, after Crimea there should also be fewer illusions about the West’s ability to dictate outcomes in Russia’s near abroad. Twice in this era — in Georgia in 2008 and now in Ukraine — Russian troops have crossed alleged red lines in conflicts with countries that felt they had some sort of Western protection: Ukraine through the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which supposedly guaranteed its territorial integrity, and Georgia because of our support for its potential entry into NATO. And in both cases the limits of Western power have been laid bare — the disorganization and disunity of “European” foreign policy, and the fact that even the most bellicose U.S. politicians aren’t ready to say that South Ossetia or Simferopol is worth the bones of a single American Marine.

What’s needed, after these illusions, is a more realistic assessment of both Russian intentions (which are plainly more malign than the Obama administration wanted to believe) and Western leverage (which is more limited than Obama’s hawkish critics would like to think).

Such an assessment should yield a strategy intended to punish Putin, in the short and longer run, without creating new flash points in which the West ends up overstretched.

So yes, for today, to sanctions on Putin’s cronies and economic assistance for Ukraine. Yes, as well, to stepped-up cooperation with those former Soviet satellites — the Baltic States, the “Visegrad battle group” quartet of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — with which we actually have binding commitments and mostly stable partners. Yes, in the long run, to a shift in U.S. energy policy that would use our exports to undercut Russia’s petro-power.

But no to sudden overcommitments that would give Putin exactly what his domestic propaganda effort needs — evidence of encirclement, justifications for aggression. Unless we expect an immediate Russian invasion of Estonia, for instance, we probably don’t need a sweeping NATO redeployment from Germany to the Baltics. Unless we’re prepared to escalate significantly over the fate of eastern Ukraine, we shouldn’t contemplate sending arms and military advisers to the unsteady government in Kiev. Unless we’re prepared to go to war for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, we shouldn’t fast-track Georgia’s NATO membership.

And unless the European Union wants to make its current problems that much worse, its economic accord with Ukraine shouldn’t be a prelude to any kind of further integration.

The key here is balance — recognizing that Russia is weak and dangerous at once, that the West has been both too naïve about Putin’s intentions and too incautious in its own commitments, and that a new containment need not require a new Cold War.

When illusions are shattered, it’s easy to become reckless, easy to hand-wring and retrench. What we need instead is realism: to use the powers we have, without pretending to powers that we lack.

And now we get to MoDo’s unrelenting crusade against Hillary, thinly disguised as a piece about Jerry Brown:

I ask Jerry if he’s ready for Hillary.

Back in 1992, when he ran for president against Bill Clinton, Jerry Brown was remorseless in taking on “Slick Willie,” as he called him, and his wife, pelting them with accusations of corruption and conflicts-of-interest in Arkansas. In one seething exchange on the debate stage, Clinton snapped: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife. You’re not worth being on the same platform as my wife.”

In the governor’s office over coffee, I ask a more mellow Brown how he would feel about a Hillary coronation. “The polls say that she’s in an extremely strong position,” he says. “So prominent in her husband’s administration, then a senator, then secretary of state. Those are powerful milestones. I don’t see anyone challenging her at this point.”

So how does he reconcile what he said in 1992 and now? Have the Clintons changed, or has Brown changed?

He crosses his arms and gives me a flinty look, finally observing: “In retrospect, after we see all the other presidents that came afterwards, certainly, Clinton handled his job with a level of skill that hasn’t been met since.”

Take that, President Obama.

And could he see his old nemesis Bill, who endorsed Gavin Newsom for governor instead of Brown in 2009, as First Lad? “Wherever he is, he will fill up the room, that’s for sure,” he replies. “He has a lot of political energy.”

It’s an astonishing thing, but the prickly Jerry Brown has, at long last, become something of a diplomat. He’s 75, balding and gray. But he’s still slender and fit, and remains an eclectic party of one.

Two weeks ago Brown ended up on the opposite side of two key planks in the California Democrats’ platform — banning fracking and legalizing pot.

Like Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and California Senator Dianne Feinstein, Brown is wary about legalized pot and wants to chart the evolution of the revolution. As he said on “Meet the Press,” “How many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation?”

I ask the man formerly known as Governor Moonbeam if he ever smoked pot. “We’re dealing with the seventh largest economy in the world and I’m not going to deal with these marginal issues,” he said primly. Actually, it’s the eighth, but maybe he is anticipating a move up.

His lieutenant, Gavin Newsom, told Ronan Farrow on MSNBC that Brown was wrong on the pot issue and should not use words like “potheads,” “stoners” and “hippies.” But Brown says that his remarks to David Gregory were “more of a wry comment” than “a policy pronouncement.”

I asked the governor if he had read Linda Ronstadt’s memoir, in which she praised her former beau as “smart and funny, not interested in drinking or drugs.” She made note of his famous frugality, recalling that once, when they were going to dinner at Rosemary Clooney’s, Jerry wanted to take a box of roses that had been sent to Ronstadt, remove the card and give it to Clooney.

At first Brown clams up, but then he relents. “I visit her at Christmastime” sometimes, he said. “She’s thoughtful and has a lot to say.”

As he raises a ton of money to run for an unprecedented fourth term, which he first announced in a casual tweet, the famous rebel seems strangely content.

He’s never seen “Chinatown,” but he’s trying to deal with the drought by fixing the state’s unsustainable water transport system, which his dad helped put in place and he himself tried to fix 30 years ago. And he’s still fighting for his dream of a high-speed train from Sacramento to San Diego, a project bogged down in lawsuits. He takes a white model of the train from the window and lovingly places it in the middle of a big picnic table, noting that he has liked trains since he was a kid.

He said he wasn’t upset when Newsom joined the opposition last month. “I don’t think he has repeated the comment, do you?” he asked an aide.

His office is full of black-and-white pictures of his father, the former governor of California — two with a stunningly young-looking J.F.K. just before he became president. The onetime Jesuit seminarian is low-key about his role in bringing California back from $27 billion in the red three years ago to a budget surplus of several billion.

“I had a good hand,” he murmurs, “and I played it reasonably well.” He says he thinks his dad would have “enjoyed” seeing his son’s success, achieved partly by belatedly adopting some of Pat Brown’s more social ways with lawmakers.

I ask Brown what he thinks about the young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who have complained that the homeless are ruining the aesthetic of San Francisco.

“There’s not a lot of people who like homeless on the street,” he said. “I wouldn’t tie that to Silicon Valley.”

We’re meeting the same day that Rand Paul is making a speech at Berkeley warning about the N.S.A.’s “assault” on privacy, and Brown says he also worries about that. “There’s a tendency to totalism, total information, and once you have total information you’re making it easier for total control,” he said.

He also finds Tea Party obstructionism “extremely ominous and dangerous.”

Asked what he has done for fun lately, the looser Governor Brown replies that he helped his wife and adviser, Anne Gust Brown, pick out some clothes, noting: “I like elegance, more classic, not too flamboyant with colors.”

Interesting that she uses scare quotes around “assault.”  I guess she’s all in favor of the NSA hoovering up her phone records.  And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

One of Raven Kaliana’s first, hazy memories is of her parents taking her to a professional photo studio, telling her to be good, and then leaving her with a child pornographer. In front of a camera, a man raped her.

She thinks she was 4 years old.

Throughout elementary school in the American West, Kaliana’s parents took her to studios during vacations or over three-day weekends. Her parents said that these forays paid the bills, and that she’d get over it.

“Around the time I was 11, my value started going down because I was beginning to look more like an adult,” Kaliana recalls. “So they started putting me in more dangerous films, things involving torture or gang rape or extreme fetishes.”

Yet Kaliana triumphed: She says that in college she escaped her parents’ control, changed her name and began fighting child abuse. She has produced a puppet play and short film, “Hooray for Hollywood,” based on her own traumatic experiences.

Now living in Britain, Kaliana is trying to use the film — which employs puppets and is not at all explicit — to raise awareness about child sexual abuse, and to encourage frank talk about the problem.

“This happens all over the world; it happens in America,” she said during a visit to New York. “It’s not necessarily children being kidnapped and swept away. A lot of times it’s someone the child trusts: family members or a minister or a coach.”

The child pornography industry is a facet of child abuse that has exploded with the rise of the Internet, and it’s widely misunderstood.

A Justice Department study reports that 21 million unique computer I.P. addresses were tracked while sharing child pornography files in 2009, more than 9 million of them in the United States. It’s not clear how many individuals that represented because some people may have used multiple computers.

It’s also not clear how many children are abused to generate child pornography, but, in 2011, law enforcement authorities in the United States turned over 22 million such images and videos to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to try to identify the victims.

With enormous frustration, police watched one girl they called Vicky being abused year after year; she grew up in wrenching images on their screens. Finally, she was located and her father was arrested for exploiting her.

There’s sometimes a perception that child pornography is about teenage girls pulling off their tops. That’s not remotely what we’re talking about.

“If we were starting over, we wouldn’t call it child pornography,” says Ernie Allen, president of the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “This is different. This is not pornography. These are crime scene photos. These are photos of the abuse of a child.”

Of the images the national center has examined, 76 percent involve prepubescent children with no signs of sexual maturation. One in 10 are infants or toddlers.

More than three-quarters of image series involve sexual penetration, and 44 percent involve bondage or sadomasochism.

“People don’t have an understanding of the kind of content and how horrific it is,” said Julie Cordua, executive director of Thorn, an organization that uses digital strategies to fight sex trafficking. “This is the documentation of the worst kinds of abuse against a child.”

Law enforcement has made progress, and child pornography is no longer readily available for sale on the Internet or easy to find in web searches or on public websites. Instead it is typically traded on peer-to-peer networks or inside password-protected chat rooms. To try to keep out investigators, sometimes the only way to get access is to provide a new photo in which the abuser has written his name on the child.

Just a few days ago, authorities made 14 arrests in connection with a password-protected child pornography website that had 27,000 members. More than 250 children, the youngest 3 years old, were identified in 39 states as having been abused in photos on the site.

I’m also sympathetic to the anonymous hacker who recently took over an entry site to the “dark web” — used for all kinds of illicit purposes — and scrubbed it of child pornography links.

While it’s important to punish perpetrators, it’s also critical to offer help to pedophiles who want it, so as to prevent abuse. Germany has public service announcements advertising a phone number for pedophiles to call to get counseling, and that’s worth trying here.

As for Kaliana, she is no longer in touch with her parents, for whom she has complex feelings that include fear.

“When I was a child, I loved them very much even though they did awful things to me,” she said. “They were in denial. I feel compassion for them.”

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

On Tuesday, Gloria Steinem turns 80.

Do not bother to call. She’s planning to celebrate in Botswana. “I thought: ‘What do I really want to do on my birthday?’ First, get out of Dodge. Second, ride elephants.”

Very few people have aged as publicly. It’s been four decades since she told a reporter, “This is what 40 looks like.” Back then many women, including Steinem herself, fudged their age when they left their 20s, so it was a pretty revolutionary announcement. A decade later she had a “This is what 50 looks like” party at the Waldorf for the benefit of Ms. Magazine. Steinem, who has frequently said that she expects her funeral to be a fund-raiser, has been using her birthdays to make money for worthy causes ever since. Before heading off to Botswana, she, along with Rabbi Arthur Waskow, was feted at a “This is what 80 looks like” benefit for the Shalom Center in Philadelphia.

Ever the positive thinker, Steinem composed a list of the good things about starting her ninth decade. A dwindling libido, she theorized, can be a terrific advantage: “The brain cells that used to be obsessed are now free for all kinds of great things.”

“I try to tell younger women that, but they don’t believe me,” she said in a pre-Botswana interview. “When I was young I wouldn’t have believed it either.”

Her famous hair is colored, but otherwise, there’s been no outside intervention. She likes to recall a friend who proudly reported having rebutted the feminist-got-a-face-lift rumors by announcing: “I saw Gloria the other day and she looked terrible.”

Actually, she doesn’t look terrible at all. She looks great. She looks exactly the way you would want to imagine Gloria Steinem looking at 80.

Steinem occupies a singular place in American culture. In the 1960s and 1970s, the whole concept of women’s place was transformed — discrimination was outlawed, hearts and minds were opened. In the history of our gender, this might have been the grandest moment. There were all kinds of reasons that the change happened at that particular time, and a raft of female leaders who pushed the movement along. But when people think about it, Gloria Steinem is generally the first name that pops up. She’s the face of feminism.

“It’s a big gift to be recognizable as part of something that matters to people, but that’s not the same as being responsible for something,” she said mildly.

There are two reasons that Steinem turned out to be the image of the women’s liberation movement. One did indeed have to do with her spectacular physical appearance. For young women who were hoping to stand up for their rights without being called man-haters, she was evidence that it was possible to be true to your sisters while also being really, really attractive to the opposite sex. (An older generation tended to be less enthusiastic. The Washington Post columnist Maxine Cheshire once called her “the miniskirted pinup girl of the intelligentsia.”)

“I think for her as an individual, in one sense aging has been a relief,” says her friend Robin Morgan. “Because she was so glamorized by the male world and treated for her exterior more than her interior.”

But the interior always mattered. The other thing that made Steinem unique was her gift for empathy. Women who read about her or saw her on TV felt that if they ran into her on the street, they would really get along with her. And women who actually did run into her on the street felt the same way. More than a half-century into her life as an international celebrity, she remains stupendously approachable, patient with questions, interested in revelations. When she goes to events, young women flock around her. All celebrities draw crowds, of course. The difference is that when Steinem is at the center, she’s almost always listening.

Ruchira Gupta, a journalist and activist, recently toured India with Steinem to publicize “As if Women Matter,” a collection of Steinem’s writings repurposed for an Indian audience. The lines of people wanting to take pictures, ask questions and share stories overwhelmed Gupta, who is 30 years younger. “I would say: ‘I can’t do it, Gloria. This is too much. Why are you giving so much time?’ ” Gupta recalled. Steinem, she said, told her: “This is the only opportunity you might have for human contact with this person. So how can you not engage?”

Steinem still spends most of her life on the move. (The word “still,” she said wryly, now has a tendency to enter into conversations with some regularity.) Today Botswana, tomorrow India, Los Angeles a week from tomorrow. Gupta says there are new invitations for book tours in Bhutan and Bangladesh. Steinem has never taken up sports and gets her exercise, she says, “just running around airports and cities.”

MOST of what she does involves moving the movement forward. Speech to meeting to panel to fund-raiser. She frequently travels alone but it’s not lonely, she says: “On the plane I have my flying girlfriends, who are called flight attendants.” (Flight attendants play a large role in Steinem’s life. Sometimes they get her first-class meals when she’s flying coach. We will now stop to contemplate the fact that Gloria Steinem is 80 and still flying coach.)

She has a network of friends around the world, some of whom she has known from the early days on the barricades. “I’ve noticed that we all of us sort of cling to each other more,” says Robin Morgan. “We say ‘I love you’ at the end of conversations. We call to say, ‘It’s very cold out — did you wear an extra scarf?’ There’s a lot of tenderness.”

Her intimate circle is mainly female. But in her good-things-about-80 list, Steinem wrote about the advantages of turning former boyfriends into friends: “Your old lovers get to be your really old lovers, and you can’t remember who broke up with who, or who got mad at who — just that the two of you remember things that no one else in the world does.” But she’s not planning on adding to their number. Recently, she recalled, she met a young man in her travels and thought, “If I was younger, we’d have had a great passionate affair for two years and been friends the rest of our lives.”

It wasn’t a wistful thought, she says. It was an observation. “I didn’t regret it. That’s the advantage of shifting hormones.”

She has no bucket list of unvisited countries. Asked if there are any people she’s always wanted to meet, she pauses, thinks for a while, and suggests Marleen Gorris, a Dutch film director, and Sven Lindqvist, the author of a book on genocide. Many women, if stumped, would just blurt out something like George Clooney. “That’s funny you mention that,” she said. “I just talked with George Clooney yesterday.”

Age is definitely on her mind. When she was in her 20s, Steinem tried to get publishers interested in a project called “The Death Book,” which she planned as a compendium of “great stories and last words and other anecdotes about dying” that would help readers cheerfully come to grips with their own finale. “Needless to say, I couldn’t sell it.” Now she’s seeing the issue on a more immediate basis.

“Fifty was a shock, because it was the end of the center period of life. But once I got over that, 60 was great. Seventy was great. And I loved, I seriously loved aging. I found myself thinking things like: ‘I don’t want anything I don’t have.’ How great is that?” But, she added, “80 is about mortality, not aging. Or not just aging.”

IT’S a challenge she’s actually wrestled with before. One of the interesting things about being Gloria Steinem is that so many of her casual musings are transcribed by reporters. It turns out that on her 70th birthday she told Time, “This one has the ring of mortality.” Obviously, she got over that and it’s very easy to imagine Gloria Steinem being interviewed at 90 and saying that turning 80 was stupendous, but now it’s time to get seriously serious.

Robin Morgan sees Steinem at 80 as a continually evolving work. “She is a better organizer now than she ever has been. She’s a better persuader. She’s a better writer than she ever has been if she’d give herself the time to sit down and write.”

That last — Steinem’s longstanding battle with writer’s block — weighs on her. She’s been working for more than a decade on a book about life on the road, and it has resisted all her efforts to get it finished, including four stints at a writers’ colony. When asked whether she has any regrets, Steinem says: “Well, actually it’s not so much what I would have done differently. It’s that I would have done it much faster.”

Steinem has always been such a positive cheerleader for the future that we really do expect, on one level, to hear her come up with some strategy for standing up to mortality. She’s always had a victory in mind, a vision of a better tomorrow where there would be no hierarchy of gender or race or income, where life flows as seamlessly as it seems to do in the stories she tells about the early Iroquois or Cherokee.

You do sort of count on her having a plan for the next stage. “We’re so accustomed to narratives, we expect there’s going to be a conclusion, or explanation or answer to the secret,” she said. “And probably the answer is, there isn’t.”

But there’s always an elephant to ride.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

March 13, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

This is a societal disease.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last but not least we have Ms. Collins:

Let’s consider school lunches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless your mother packs them in a brown paper bag.

Blow and Collins

March 8, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blow, Kristof and Collins

March 6, 2014

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

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

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

But betting on stasis is stupid. Things change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So now we have Republicans desperately searching for a fallback.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last but not least we come to Ms. Collins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blow, Nocera and Collins

March 1, 2014

In “Fathers’ Sons and Brothers’ Keepers” Mr. Blow says we can and must break the cycles of pain for young men of color, building better boys and repairing broken men.  Mr. Nocera addresses “The Bitcoin Blasphemy” and says created to avoid government, the virtual currency won’t survive without it.  Ms. Collins says “Arizona Sort of Helps Out” and has a question:  As gay rights have made great strides lately, why have abortion rights lost ground?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Frederick Douglass once noted, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

The statement is simple, profound and as true as truth can be. And yet we as a society and as individual families neglect the building, facilitate the breaking and balk at the cost and commitment of the repair.

On Thursday, President Obama took a step toward righting that wrong in regard to young men of color by announcing the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a partnership between the public and private sectors aimed at bettering outcomes for some of the nation’s most at-risk young men.

It is a necessary and noble ambition to begin to draw resources together in a common effort to find best practices for addressing stubborn issues, and to better fund and expand those efforts.

This will not be easy. The issues facing many of these men are so complicated and layered with pain that they are incredibly daunting. There is a deficit of hope and a surplus of hurdles — familial, cultural, behavioral and structural.

But we must start somewhere. As the old saying goes, “The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.”

Programs like this usually focus on the easier part of the problem, the personal, rather than the harder part, the structural.

Youth Guidance, whose Becoming a Man group the president highlighted during his announcement, says that through its program, “Participants learn about and practice impulse control, emotional self-regulation, reading social cues and interpreting intentions of others, raising aspirations for the future and developing a sense of personal responsibility and integrity.”

These are important character traits, to be sure, but it’s hard not to think that ideally they would be transferred from parents — particularly fathers — to sons.

That’s why I was encouraged that the president spent quite a bit of time discussing the role of fathers in boys’ lives.

He said of his father: “I didn’t have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time.”

In a previous column, I wrote this of my own father: “I was forced to experience him as a distant form in a heavy fog, forced to nurse a longing that he was neither equipped nor inclined to satisfy.”

When there is an empty space where a father should be, sorrow often grows. The void creates in a child an injury that the child is often unable to articulate or even recognize. And what children miss at home, they will often seek in the street, to ill effect.

Many boys with that empty space lash out and act up, trying to be seen, searching, as people do, for love and affirmation, wanting desperately to be validated. And too many of us, in turn, see them as menaces rather than as boys struggling — often without sufficient instruction and against a tide of systemic inequity — to simply become men. In such a warped world, basic survival can become a metric of success.

As the president put it, “nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life.”

But sometimes fathers don’t even know how to be the best fathers. Sometimes they simply engage in an intergenerational transference of pain and need. It’s sometimes hard to give what you yourself have not received.

For instance, according to Child Trends, black fathers are substantially less likely than white or Hispanic fathers to hug their children or show them physical affection, or to tell them that they love them.

I don’t scold these fathers; I weep for them and with them. I understand, on a most personal level, that conditioning. Sometimes men don’t see that masculinity is as much about tenderness as about toughness. Sometimes they don’t know how to manage emotions. Sometimes the world has so beaten them and so hardened them that expressing any vulnerability feels like providing an opening for an enemy.

But I also know that being an engaged father can be a reparative therapy — healing your hurt as you protect your progeny. Our children provide a reservoir of the deepest, truest love in a harsh and unforgiving world. They are our respite from the battlefield.

We, as a society, must change our perspective when considering these boys and men, and more fully engage our empathy. That is both a personal and a structural change.

We can and must break these cycles of pain, building better boys and repairing broken men.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

Whenever I read a story about bitcoin, the virtual currency that has been so much in the news these days, I think about a man named Dee Hock. In the early 1970s, Hock created the credit card system that we now know as Visa. Hock was a man who liked to think grandiose thoughts. When it came to Visa, and credit cards in general, Hock used to describe them not just as a way to get a short-term loan but as a new kind of payment system, an exchange of value that was on par with, and that competed with, cash.

As it turns out — and the bitcoin experience is helping to illustrate this — Hock’s description of credit cards was more than a little hyperbolic. Yes, you could now use a small plastic card instead of cash to buy something, but that card had value because it connected both the buyer and the seller to a fiat currency. People trusted it because they believed in their country’s currency and financial institutions. The exchange of value was never the credit card itself; it was still the dollar, the pound, the yen.

Bitcoin, on the other hand, is truly a new form of payment system, unconnected to any currency or any government. Its libertarian proponents in Silicon Valley love that about it; they talk about it as a potential disrupter of traditional financial institutions. It has value not because a government has decreed and backed its value — the classic definition of a fiat currency — but because a community of users has decided to give it value. Its current travails, however, suggest that may also be its inherent flaw: that however much we say we mistrust governments and banks, when it comes to our money, we trust them a lot more than we trust some clever lines of computer code.

The Internet, I should note, could really use a digital currency. For starters, it would make transactions on the web much easier while cutting down on the rampant credit card fraud and identity theft that exists online.

It is also true that there have been many unsuccessful attempts to create a digital currency. Bitcoin is by far the most ingenious attempt, and it solves numerous problems. It allows for anonymity, just like cash, while also rendering transactions public, which ensures against double spending (that is, using the same bitcoins for multiple transactions). It is virtually impossible to counterfeit. And, as Felix Salmon pointed out last year, “to all intents and purposes, bitcoins are invisible to law enforcement and the taxman.”

But so far bitcoins have less resembled a currency than a commodity. Up until now, they have mostly been used for pure speculation. Indeed, because there are only a limited number of bitcoins in circulation, the speculative ride has been pretty wild. In February, the bitcoin dropped in value from around $880 to the mid-$5oos.Bitcoin’s gyrations hardly engender trust among potential users. And the recent bitcoin-related news isn’t exactly reassuring either. First, a well-known bitcoin entrepreneur was arrested for allegedly laundering criminals’ money on an underground website called Silk Road, which traffics in, among other things, illegal drugs. Then, Mt. Gox, the leading bitcoin exchange, went out of business — and nobody knows what happened to the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bitcoins it was holding for customers.

The country’s most prominent bitcoin backer, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, whose firm is funding bitcoin-related start-ups, raced to CNBC to claim that the Mt. Gox failure was just part of the growing pains for bitcoins. And maybe it is. But who in his right mind, whether merchant or customer, is going to engage in commerce with a currency so seemingly unstable, or one that can so quickly disappear?

The great irony of bitcoin is that its anonymous creator (or creators), who goes by the name Satoshi Nakamoto, believed that people would want his new currency because they had learned to mistrust financial institutions. As Salmon notes, when Nakamoto introduced bitcoin, in February 2009, he wrote:

“ ‘The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that’s required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve. We have to trust them with our privacy, trust them not to let identity thieves drain our accounts.’ ”

All of which is true. But however angry we might be at bank compensation or at the role of financial institutions in the financial crisis, we still trust banks to safeguard our money, and we still trust government to back our currency. For bitcoin to succeed, it will have to embrace the one thing it was most intended to avoid: government.

Well, that might make it harder to pay for your drugs and hookers…  Now here’s Ms. Collins:

It’s been quite a week in Arizona. First, the Legislature passed a bill that, in effect, gave businesses the right to discriminate against gay couples. The state’s actual business community was horrified. Everybody from Mitt Romney to Newt Gingrich was ticked off.

Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill, pointing out acerbically that the lawmakers had not managed to send her anything whatsoever on critical issues — like, say, the budget — while they labored with remarkable efficiency on behalf of theologically troubled wedding photographers.

Chastened, the very same elected officials trotted back to their posts and immediately took up the subject of surprise inspections of abortion clinics.

Perhaps we should avoid reading too much into Arizona, where politics appears to be in a permanent state of mental collapse. “We do this kind of thing every day,” said Chad Campbell, the long-suffering minority leader of the House.

But here’s my question for today. The gay rights movement has been having some remarkable success lately. Why do abortion rights keep losing ground?

Think about the three great hot-button issues that have propelled the social right for the last several decades. One is guns — a terrible problem for the nation, but currently rather moot in many state legislatures, which have run out of new things to do on behalf of the National Rifle Association.

“I think the only thing left is to make sure it’s mandatory that all kids get a gun when they’re born,” said Campbell.

That leaves two major causes around which the social right can raise money and political temperatures. For a while, state politicians happily busied themselves banning gay marriage. Then the trajectory changed. Gay Americans now not only have support from their families and friends, they have powerful backing from economic leaders, who see them as valuable employees and customers. The national Republican establishment is terrified of being labeled anti-gay.

Not the same story for abortion rights. Last year, 22 states adopted new abortion restrictions, some of which come close to completely eliminating women’s right of choice. There was a dramatic standoff in the Texas State Legislature when Senator Wendy Davis staved off a draconian anti-abortion bill with a one-woman filibuster. People watched enthralled around the country. Davis catapulted onto the national political stage. But the Legislature came right back and passed the bill a few weeks later.

It’s easy to come up with some explanations. Obviously, abortion is an issue that only relates to one gender, at one particular stage in their lives. And it’s never a feel-good option. “I don’t expect the National Football League to be defending abortion rights anytime soon,” said Susan Cohen of the Guttmacher Institute.

There’s also the particular genius of the Arizona State Legislature. A bunch of states have been considering bills like the one that sparked so much outrage in Phoenix. But their sponsors usually talked in vague terms about religious freedom, playing down the part about restricting gay rights. The Arizona lawmakers made it very clear that they were inspired by the terrifying image of a gay couple walking up to a counter and demanding to be served.

“The fight was such a good one because it was such a frontal assault,” said Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood.

When anti-abortion bills come up, they tend to be cloaked as matters of public safety. Make sure the doctors have hospital visiting privileges. Don’t use this drug. Or that one. Let’s have surprise inspections of the abortion clinics. More sonograms and waiting periods.

Voters tended to shrug. But when they are actually asked, straight-out, if they want to ban all abortions, they’ve said no, even in conservative states like Mississippi and South Dakota. And, Susan Cohen of Guttmacher noted, when the Virginia Legislature tried to require women to have invasive transvaginal ultrasounds if they wanted an early-term abortion, it got the public’s unnerved attention. “And other states said — ‘well, maybe we’d better not do that either.’ ”

It’s hard to imagine, but perhaps what this country needs is less subtle state legislators.

The biggest difference between the fortunes of gay rights and abortion rights, however, is that politicians who vote to limit women’s rights to control their own bodies know that, for the most part, they’re only hurting poor people.

Low-income women are five times as likely to have an unintended pregnancy as their most affluent sisters. And the lawmakers who busy themselves throwing up barriers to abortion in their own states realize, deep in their hearts, that if their middle-class constituents want to end a pregnancy, they can get on a plane and go where it’s easy to take care of the problem.

“Folks of wealth have always been able to end an unwanted pregnancy. And they always will be,” said Richards.

We keep looking for new angles on the song, but the tune stays the same. Follow the lack of money.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

February 27, 2014

In “No Country for Old Mores” Mr. Blow says just as young people are turning away from religions that don’t tolerate gay and lesbian people, they may turn from the Republican Party, too.  We can but pray…  Mr. Kristof, in “Targeting the Johns in Sex Trade,” says police are beginning to realize that fighting sex trafficking and prostitution means arresting the men who sustain it, pimps and johns.  It’s about damn time that happened.  Ms. Collins considers “The State of Arizona” and says what went down over a state bill and a governor’s veto was weird, but it means something.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Arizona’s S.B. 1062, part of the conservative “Jim Queer” crusade to use religious liberty as means of codifying discrimination against people for their sexual identities, once again places conservatives on the wrong side of history and further marginalizes an intolerance-obsessed party during an inclusion-oriented era.

The Arizona bill, which has been copied by Republicans in several other states, would have allowed businesses to deny services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender customers on religious grounds.

The backlash to this bill was swift and strong, and rightfully so, as Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, weighed whether to veto it, which she did on Wednesday. But, in a way, the damage to the Republican brand has already been done. The bigotry continues to coagulate. The harsh read of history draws Republicans further into disapproving resolution.

History doesn’t look kindly on those who stand against equality. Yet, that’s where conservatives have chosen to stand, much to my dismay and their detriment.

The pace of Americans’ changing attitudes has been breathtakingly swift and shows no signs of abating.

In fact, a report by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute produced some rather striking findings.

According to the report, not only do most religiously unaffiliated Americans now support same-sex marriage, but so do most white mainline Protestants, white Catholics, Hispanic Catholics and Jews.

Most Americans across the ideological spectrum, including even a majority of Tea Party supporters, support protecting gay men and lesbians from workplace discrimination, and most Americans believe that discrimination faced by gay people is greater than that faced by Muslims, blacks, women or Jews. The group the participants said faced the least amount of discrimination was evangelical Christians — the current campaign to portray them as an aggrieved and embattled class notwithstanding.

But perhaps the worst harbinger for the future in the report, as far as conservatives are concerned, were the views of millennials (those ages 18 to 33). Seventy percent of these young people believe “that religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues,” the report found.

And, perhaps most illuminating:

“Among millennials who no longer identify with their childhood religion, nearly one-third say that negative teachings about, or treatment of, gay and lesbian people was either a somewhat important (17 percent) or very important (14 percent) factor in their disaffiliation from religion.”

If young people will move away from religion over these issues, it’s not a stretch to believe that many might also move away from a political party because of them.

Furthermore, the courts keep striking down same-sex marriage bans. On Wednesday, another one fell when a federal judge found Texas’ ban on gay marriage to be unconstitutional.

The tide has turned. But Republicans think that they can still move against it.

America is demanding that we move toward equality for all. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently intoned in his “Mountaintop” speech: “All we say to America is to be true to what you said on paper.”

Will America, and the Republican opposition, be true to the Declaration of Independence, which states without equivocation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”?

Respecting the full humanity of another only broadens the humanity of the self.

No one asks that you affirm and approve the behaviors in another’s bedroom, only that you respect the boundaries thereof and keep your limiting measures and limited imaginations out of it.

Sex, sexual and gender identity, and all proclivities of intimacy are personal and not to be dictated by committee or community. We must each follow the wanderings of our heart to find the place where we feel affirmed and fulfilled, both spiritually and physically. And as long as that is between consenting adults, that destination should be sufficient.

But it isn’t. Our views of such things, especially among conservatives, remain rooted in religion and long-expired puritanical constructs of sexual behavior.

One of the arguments opponents to gay rights often rattle off is that homosexual sex can’t lead to procreation. True, but using that as a basis for the denial of rights is illogical and hypocritical. Are people who use contraceptives also to be denied connection, intimacy or marriage? How about the infertile or the elderly? How about the millions of heterosexual people who this very evening will engage in innumerable sex acts that — how shall I put this politely — could never make a baby?

The capacity for procreation is, in fact, what defines a living thing, but that capacity is by no means what defines a human life.

We are greater than our base elements. We feel — love, sorrow, a need for connection, the pains of longing. And we aspire, in our greatest hours, to justice. S.B. 1062 and the Republican preoccupation that fuels it was simply not our greatest hour.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof, writing from Chicago:

Several police officers are waiting in a hotel room, handcuffs at the ready, when they get the signal. A female undercover officer posing as a prostitute is with a would-be customer in an adjacent room, and she has pushed a secret button indicating that they should charge in to make the arrest.

The officers shove at the door connecting the rooms, but somehow it has become locked. They can’t get in. The undercover officer is stuck with her customer. Tension soars. Curses reverberate. A million fears surge.

Then, suddenly, the door frees and the police officers rush in and arrest a graying 64-year-old man, Michael. His smugness shatters and turns to bewilderment and shock as police officers handcuff his hands behind his back.

Michael had reason to feel stunned. Police arrest women for prostitution all the time, but almost never their customers.

Yet that is beginning to change. There’s a growing awareness that sex trafficking is one of the most serious human rights abuses around, with some 100,000 juveniles estimated to be trafficked into the sex trade in the United States each year.

Some women sell sex on their own, but coercion, beatings and recruitment of underage girls are central to the business as well. Just a few weeks ago, New York City police officers rescued a 14-year-old girl in Queens who had run away from home and ended up locked up by pimps and sold for sex. According to court documents, she was told she would be killed if she tried to run away, but after three months she managed to call 911.

Police increasingly recognize that the simplest way to reduce the scale of human trafficking is to arrest men who buy sex. That isn’t prudishness or sanctimony but a strategy to dampen demand.

Polling suggests that about 15 percent of American men have bought sex, and back-of-envelope calculations suggest that a man has about a 1 in 100,000 chance of being arrested while doing so.

Yet stings to arrest johns are marvels of efficiency. Here in Chicago, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office places ads on prostitution websites. When men call, an undercover officer directs them to a hotel room. The officer negotiates a price for a sex act, and then other officers jump in and arrest the customer.

It’s an assembly line, almost creating traffic jams in the hotel. One time, a customer had just been handcuffed when the undercover officer’s phone rang: it was another john downstairs in the lobby.

“Just give me a few minutes to freshen up,” the undercover officer purred.

Donna M. Hughes, an expert on human trafficking at the University of Rhode Island, notes that police often are tougher on men who download child pornography than on johns who have sex with girls or women.

“I think there is still the old idea around that ‘bad woman’ lure men into bad behavior,” Professor Hughes said. “And the police don’t want to bring shame on the whole family by arresting the man.”

Thomas Dart, the sheriff here, says that a basic problem is that the public doesn’t much sympathize with victims of trafficking. He remembers his department once raiding a dog-fighting operation to free pit bulls, and soon afterward raiding a sex-trafficking operation to free girls and women sold for sex. There was an outpouring of sympathy for the pit pulls, he said, but some carping about why the department was in the morals business and worrying about sex.

Yet, slowly, understanding is growing that this isn’t about policing morals but about protecting human rights. In more and more states, pimps are prosecuted more often, and minors are not arrested in prostitution cases but are directed to social programs. Sometimes that’s true of adult women, too.

As appreciation grows that human trafficking is one of the most serious of human rights abuses, so is the recognition that a starting point in addressing it is to stop making excuses for the men who perpetuate it — and start arresting them.

That’s happening more often, although the punishments are typically minimal. Here in Chicago, the men arrested were taken to another hotel room and made to watch a video about the risks of prostitution — such as sexually transmitted diseases — and then given a $500 ticket. They are advised to pay the fine immediately or a registered letter will be sent to their home address. There is no criminal record, and the men are released in about 30 minutes.

The men’s cars are also towed, which costs them another $700 or so. Mike Anton, commander of the vice unit, says that he always tells the married men that they can avoid towing fees if they call their wives to have them pick up the car.

“None of them has ever taken me up on that,” he added.

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Arizona. Wow. How often do you find yourself saying, “Go, entrenched interests of the business community!” Yet here we are.

Responding to howls from the state’s economic interests, Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have allowed businesses to discriminate against gay people on the grounds of religious conviction. Brewer is an erratic politician, but she’s not crazy. After all, she did once refer to the State Capitol as “that hell hole.”

It would have been hard to ignore the pressure. American Airlines and Apple said the bill was a terrible idea. So did the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. The list went on and on. “The entire business community is galvanized in a way that I’ve never seen against this legislation,” said Senator John McCain. Several of the state senators who had voted for the bill, including one of the co-sponsors, were so terrified that they begged Brewer to use her veto pen to save them from themselves.

What do you think this whole scene means? True, Arizona is a rather strange state. But you don’t generally see a Legislature go out of its way to tick off its own moneyed power structure. And you hardly ever see a business establishment howling this loud about something that doesn’t involve tax hikes.

This has been building up for a long time. The old order in Arizona has been fuming because it’s been elbowed out of political control by people who are less interested in economic development than arresting illegal immigrants, exposing Barack Obama as a Kenyan and combating the scourge of same-sex marriage.

“I remember having a meeting with some folks I’d call country-club Republicans, and listening to them bemoan the fact that they have no more influence because of the Clean Elections law,” said Rodolfo Espino, a professor at Arizona State University.

We will come to a screeching halt here and re-examine that thought.

Yes! Part of the super-weirdness of Arizona politics appears to be the result of the state’s 1998 public financing law, which provided tons of matching funds to unwealthy-but-energetic candidates from the social right at the expense of the pragmatic upper class. The Supreme Court took the teeth out of the law in 2011, but, by then, the traditional Republican elite had lost its place at the head of the political table.

I know, I know. Many of us would like to empower the grass-roots with public campaign financing. Don’t give up. Just remember to make sure that the roots in your neighborhood have a more expansive vision than the ones that popped up in the Grand Canyon State.

Meanwhile, the business community has both practicality and righteousness on its side. The bill really is bad for business. Plus, it’s narrow and mean. It was written in response to incidents in New Mexico and Colorado in which gay couples successfully sued commercial establishments whose owners refused to take their wedding photographs or make them a wedding cake.

Fear of being forced to bake for homosexuals is apparently so deep-seated that the Arizona lawmakers were able to ignore the fact that unlike New Mexico and Colorado, their state has no law barring discrimination against gays in public accommodations. It’s already possible for a business to refuse to even sell them a Valentine.

“Can you give me a specific example of someone in Arizona who’s been forced to do something against their religious belief, or (was) successfully sued because of their faith?” Anderson Cooper asked State Senator Al Melvin.

“Again, I think if anything, you — this bill is pre-emptive to protect priests,” said Melvin.

This was on CNN, and I really recommend watching it as a gold-standard example of the perils of putting state senators on national television. At one point, Cooper asked whether under the proposed law, a bank officer could refuse to lend money to a divorced woman because of religious convictions about the sanctity of marriage.

“I don’t know of anybody in Arizona that would discriminate against a fellow human being … no Christian or no Jew that I know of,” said Melvin.

Have I mentioned that he is running for governor?

And Arizona businesses aren’t the only ones recoiling from the scene. This week Delta, which is headquartered in Atlanta, urged rejection of both the Arizona bill and another religious-rights measure that’s pending in the Georgia Legislature. The sponsor acknowledged the Arizona backlash would probably kill its chances anytime soon. Meanwhile, in Ohio, sponsors of a right-to-refuse bill announced they were pulling the plug.

Maybe we have reached a critical historical juncture. Struggles for human rights always begin with brave men and women who stand up, isolated, against the forces of oppression. But, in the United States, victory really arrives on the glorious day when the people with money decide discrimination is bad for business.

Thanks, Arizona.


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