Archive for the ‘Collins’ Category

Kristof and Collins

February 26, 2015

I’m sorry about nothing yesterday — Firefox in its infinite wisdom decided not to let me access WordPress at all.  Suffice it to say I’m no longer using Firefox for this.  Mr. Kristof, in “The Human Stain,” says Israel squanders political capital and antagonizes even its friends with its naked land grab in the West Bank.  In “Adieu, Chris Christie, Adieu” Ms. Collins says with no reform to show off, the reform governor has blown any real chance at winning the Republican presidential nomination.  Gail, never underestimate the lunacy of the current batch of Mole People…  Here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Sinjil, West Bank:

The Israeli elections scheduled for March 17 should constitute a triumph, a celebration of democracy and a proud reminder that the nation in which Arab citizens have the most meaningful vote is, yes, Israel.

Yet Israeli settlements here on the West Bank mar the elections, and the future of the country itself. The 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank— not even counting those in Arab East Jerusalem — impede any Middle East peace and stain Israel’s image.

But let’s be clear: The reason to oppose settlements is not just that they are bad for Israel and America, but also that this nibbling of Arab land is just plain wrong. It’s a land grab. The result is a “brutal occupation force,” in the words of the late Avraham Shalom, a former chief of the Israeli internal security force, Shin Bet.

Most Israeli settlers are not violent. But plenty are — even stoning American consular officials early this year — and they mostly get away with it because settlements are an arm of an expansive Israeli policy. The larger problem is not violent settlers, but the occupation.

“We planted 5,000 trees last year,” Mahmood Ahmed, a Palestinian farmer near Sinjil told me. “Settlers cut them all down with shears or uprooted them.”

Israel has enormous security challenges, but it’s hard to see the threat posed by 69-year-old Abed al-Majeed, who has sent all 12 of his children to university. He told me he used to have 300 sheep grazing on family land in Qusra but that nearby settlers often attack him when he is on his own land; he rolled up his pant leg to show a scar where he said a settler shot him in 2013. Now he is down to 100 sheep.

“I can’t graze my sheep on my own land,” he said. “If I go there, settlers will beat me.”

Sarit Michaeli of B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, accompanied me here and said that the allegations are fully credible. Sometimes Palestinians exaggerate numbers, she said, but the larger pattern is undeniable: “the expulsion of Palestinians from wide areas of their agricultural land in the West Bank.”

Elsewhere, I saw graffiti that said “Death to Arabs” in Hebrew, heard Palestinians say that their olive trees had been poisoned or their tires slashed, and talked to an Arab family whose house was firebombed in the middle of the night, leaving the children traumatized.

The violence, of course, cuts both ways, and some Israeli settlers have been murdered by Palestinians. I just as easily could have talked to settler children traumatized by Palestinian violence. But that’s the point: As long as Israel maintains these settlements, illegal in the eyes of most of the world, both sides will suffer.

To its credit, Israel sometimes lets democratic institutions work for Palestinians. In the southern West Bank, I met farmers who, with the help of a watchdog group, Rabbis for Human Rights, used Israeli courts to regain some land after being blocked by settlers. But they pointed wistfully at an olive grove that they are not allowed to enter because it is next to an outpost of a Jewish settlement.

They haven’t been able to set foot in the orchard for years, but I, as an outsider, was able to walk right into it. A settler confronted me, declined to be interviewed, and disappeared again — but the Palestinians who planted the trees cannot harvest their own olives.

A unit of Israeli soldiers soon showed up to make sure that there was no trouble. They were respectful, but, if they were really there to administer the law, they would dismantle the settlement outpost, which is illegal under Israeli as well as international law.

Kerem Navot, an Israeli civil society organization, has documented “the wholesale takeover of agricultural lands” by Israeli settlers. It notes that this takeover is backed by the Israeli government “despite the blatant illegality of much of the activity, even in terms of Israeli law.”

There are, of course, far worse human rights abuses in the Middle East; indeed, Israeli journalists, lawyers, historians and aid groups are often exquisitely fair to Palestinians. Yet the occupation is particularly offensive to me because it is conducted by the United States’ ally, underwritten with our tax dollars, supported by tax-deductible contributions to settlement groups, and carried out by American bulldozers and weaponry, and presided over by a prime minister who is scheduled to speak to Congress next week.

At a time when Saudi Arabia is flogging dissidents, Egypt is sentencing them to death, and Syria is bombing them, Israel should stand as a model. Unfortunately, it squanders political capital and antagonizes even its friends with its naked land grab in the West Bank. That’s something that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might discuss in his address to Congress.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Chris Christie is political toast.

Cause of his charred presidential prospects: an unreformed state pension system. I know that’s disappointing. Not nearly as exciting as the political near-death experiences that went before. We were hoping the next disaster would be something like Governor Yells at Elmo. Or a reprise of the day he chased a guy down the boardwalk while waving an ice cream cone, this time maybe featuring Tom Hanks or Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Fixing New Jersey’s pension system was supposed to be Christie’s signature achievement. He explained it in his keynote speech at the Republican convention in 2012, right after he told us about his mom, his dad, his wife, his children and his love of Bruce Springsteen. “They said it was impossible to touch the third rail of politics,” he bragged.

By this point some of his listeners were wondering when he’d get to Mitt Romney. But Christie went on about how he had saved New Jersey workers’ pensions and staved off fiscal disaster. Thanks to shared sacrifice and “politicians who led instead of politicians who pandered.”

The politicians in question would be Chris Christie, who appeared to be referring to himself with the royal “we.” No matter. It was still a very big deal because there are crisis-ridden pension plans all over the country in need of rescue.

This is the kind of problem that can be fixed only if both sides agree to sacrifices they’d much rather avoid. That’s particularly problematic in American politics because pandering candidates often promise that they can make the pain go away. (When he first ran for governor, Christie sent out an “Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ” denouncing rumors that he might “attempt to diminish or take away teachers’ pensions and benefits.Let me be clear — nothing could be further from the truth.”)

As soon as he was elected, Christie began negotiating on a law that would, um, diminish the benefits. It also required the state to raise its own pension contributions until the whole system was healthy. Bipartisan agreement!

“He was looked at nationally as a hero,” recalled Stephen Sweeney, the Democratic State Senate president, who had been working on the problem for years. “It was my pension plan he was touting, but anyway …”

Pop Quiz: After the Legislature passed the agreement, the workers started seeing smaller paychecks. What did Chris Christie do to keep his side of the bargain?

A) Found the money to make the higher payments no matter what the political cost, because he’s that kind of guy.

B) Found the money for the first two years when the price tag was low, then punted.

C) Chased the state workers down the boardwalk while waving an ice cream cone.

Yes! He punted in Year 3. Which was, to be fair, after the Republican National Convention.

In order to ease the transition, the law allowed New Jersey to ease into its new big pension payments. Christie came up with the first relatively small bill. And then the second year’s. But, by Year 3, there just wasn’t enough money. The State Legislature passed a budget that paid for the pension contribution with tax increases, including one on incomes over $1 million.

Christie vetoed the taxes, and he reduced the new pension contribution to less than half of the target. Nobody’s going to give you the Republican presidential nomination if you raise taxes on rich people. The unions went to court. This week, on the eve of Christie’s budget address, a judge told him to pay up.

“We don’t need a judge to tell us we have a problem,” the governor said, somewhat inaccurately.

This was during the budget address, which Christie devoted almost exclusively to pensions, in a tone that suggested he was the real victim. (“I have stood behind this podium for five years talking about this problem.”)

Well, it certainly is a mess, and the workers probably aren’t done sacrificing. But it’s hard to imagine this governor luring them to the table. “You can always go back to people when you’re living up to your obligations. But you can’t go back to people when you basically break your word,” said Sweeney.

For the rest of us, the news is that Christie is now about as serious a presidential prospect as Donald Trump. The Republicans certainly aren’t going to nominate him because of his in-depth experience in foreign affairs. And if they just want to pick a governor, they’ll probably lean toward one whose administration has enjoyed fewer than eight credit downgrades.

Sure, there’s Christie’s tough-talking, truth-teller thing. But the idea was that his in-your-face style pushed New Jersey to reform. If there’s no reform, you’d have to presume that the American people are just hungry for a president who will yell at members of the audience during the State of the Union address. Or wave an ice cream cone at Vladimir Putin.

Nocera and Collins

February 21, 2015

In “Football’s L.A. Trick Play” Mr. Nocera tells us why the sport’s savvy capitalists threaten to move to Los Angeles.  Ms. Collins has taken a break from her usual column and has done a piece on Justice Ginsburg, “The Unsinkable R.B.G.”  She says Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s woman-hear-me-roar history, her frail appearance and her role as leader of the Supreme Court’s liberals have rallied her new fan base.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Like most big cities in America, San Diego has its share of problems. It has issues with gangs, poverty and income inequality. It needs to do about $2 billion worth of infrastructure repairs. It has suffered through an epic drought.

Yet lately, these looming problems have been put aside because the city has had a far graver issue to deal with. The Spanos family, which owns the San Diego Chargers, is threatening to move the team to Los Angeles. Sacré bleu!

The Chargers are hardly the first National Football League team to threaten to move to L.A., which, despite being the country’s second-largest media market, hasn’t had a professional football team of its own since the Raiders and the Rams skipped town, to Oakland and St. Louis, respectively, in the mid-1990s.

Take, for instance, the Minnesota Vikings, which “did a fantastic job of threatening to move to Los Angeles,” says Neil deMause, who runs a website called Field of Schemes. (He also is a co-author of a book by that name.) Roger Goodell, the N.F.L. commissioner, even parachuted into St. Paul to imply that a move to Los Angeles might be in the offing. As a result of those threats, the Vikings got a brand new stadium, filled with revenue-enhancing details like state-of-the-art corporate suites. The public — that is, the taxpayer — is picking up the tab for about half of it.

Which of course is precisely why N.F.L. owners threaten to move to Los Angeles. With Los Angeles just sitting there, un-footballed, it gives the 32 owners of N.F.L. franchises enormous leverage over the cities in which they play to extract goodies that few other capitalists would dare ask for — not just run-of-the-mill tax abatements, but egregious benefits like free rent, which of course means bigger profits for the wealthy men and women who own the teams. “The way to really make money is to privatize the revenues, and socialize the costs,” deMause says.

“The basic story is that all professional leagues try to have fewer teams than the number of locations that would like to have them,” says Roger Noll, a sports economist at Stanford University. “That is what monopolists do — contrive scarcity to drive up the price.” Los Angeles, he adds, “is perfect for this purpose, because the threat is so credible.” Indeed, during the first decade of this century, according to figures compiled by Judith Grant Long, an associate professor of sport management at the University of Michigan, states and counties spent at least $10.1 billion subsidizing sports facilities. A new football stadium with all the modern amenities costs around $1 billion.

It is easy enough to understand why N.F.L. owners would want to use the threat of moving to extract public subsidies — why pay for something yourself when you can get taxpayers to pick up the tab? Besides, $1 billion is a lot of money, even for billionaires. But why do cities go along with it? It can’t be because they expect some economic benefit to come from a new sports stadium; according to Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College, “The academic literature says that there should be no expectation that a new arena will boost the local economy.”

It has much more to do with civic pride — the sense that your town is truly big-time. Plus no city wants to feel abandoned, the way Baltimore was in 1984 when the owner of the Colts, Bob Irsay, moved the team to Indianapolis in the middle of the night. This is especially true for cities like San Diego, which live in the shadows of bigger cities like Los Angeles. “It would be a shame if the Chargers left,” says my friend Herb Greenberg, a former CNBC reporter who lives in San Diego. “What would we be left with? A losing baseball team and great weather? That’s it?”

For years, the Chargers had a sweet deal with the city, which, among other things, guaranteed sellouts for 10 years — that is, if a game didn’t sell out, the city would pick up the difference. But since 2002, the Spanos family has been pressing the city to come up with a plan for a new arena.

Recently, the Chargers have upped the pressure. In January, San Diego’s mayor, Kevin Faulconer, announced that he was putting together a task force to find a solution for the Chargers. But the Chargers, unhappy at waiting any further, announced on Thursday that the team was considering moving just outside Los Angeles along with the Oakland Raiders; both teams would play in a yet-to-be-constructed $1.7 billion stadium. They even posted a short video with an architect’s rendering of the arena.

At a hastily assembled news conference on Friday morning, a blindsided Mayor Faulconer sounded not just angry but anguished. He promised to do everything he could to hold onto the Chargers.

The L.A. gambit wins again.

My take on the whole thing?  Who gives a fck…  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg isn’t planning on going anywhere any time soon.

“Now I happen to be the oldest,” the 81-year-old justice said in the tone of a person who has answered a whole lot of questions about her possible retirement plans. Sitting in her Supreme Court chambers on a dreary afternoon in late January, she added, “But John Paul Stevens didn’t step down until he was 90.”

Until recently, when Ginsburg was asked about retiring, she would note that Justice Louis Brandeis had served until he was 82.

“That’s getting a little uncomfortable,” she admitted.

Over the past few years, she’s been getting unprecedented public nagging about retirement while simultaneously developing a massive popular fan base. You can buy T-shirts and coffee mugs with her picture on them. You can dress your baby up like Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Halloween. A blog called Notorious R.B.G. posts everything cool about the justice’s life, from celebrity meet-ups (“Sheryl Crow is a Ruth Bader Ginsburg fangirl”) to Twitter-size legal theory (“Justice Ginsburg Explains Everything You Need to Know About Religious Liberty in Two Sentences”). You can even get an R.B.G. portrait tattooed on your arm, should the inclination ever arise.

Supreme Court justices used to be known only through their opinions, but in the 21st century they can be celebrities, too. In court, Ginsburg makes headlines with her ferocious dissents against conservative decisions. Outside, the public is reading about her admission that she dozed off at a State of the Union address because she was a little tipsy from wine at dinner. (Plus, she told MSNBC’s Irin Carmon, she had been up all the night before, writing: “My pen was hot.”) This summer, Ginsburg will attend the premiere of “Scalia/Ginsburg,” a one-act opera that the composer Derrick Wang describes as a comedy in which two justices “must pass through three cosmic trials to secure their freedom.” Pieces of it have already been performed, and both Ginsburg and the über-conservative justice Antonin Scalia, a fellow opera lover, are apparently really, really pleased.

Hard to imagine any of that happening to John Roberts.

The retirement talk started around 2011, when the Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy wrote an essay in The New Republic arguing that both Ginsburg and Justice Stephen Breyer should quit while there was still a Democratic president to nominate replacements. “What’s more, both are, well, old,” he added uncharitably.

As time moved on, the focus shifted almost exclusively to Ginsburg (“Justice Ginsburg: Resign Already!”). Perhaps that’s simply because she is older than Breyer, who is now 76. Or perhaps there’s still an expectation that women are supposed to be good sports, and volunteer to take one for the team.

From the beginning, Ginsburg waved off the whole idea. (“And who do you think Obama could have nominated and got confirmed that you’d rather see on a court?”) Anyway, since Republicans took control of the Senate in January, it’s become pretty clear that ship has sailed.

“People aren’t saying it as much now,” she said with what sounded like some satisfaction.

Obviously, a time will come. But as far as clarity on the bench, productivity and overall energy go, that time doesn’t at all seem to be at hand. Her medical history is studded with near disasters — colon cancer in 1999, and pancreatic cancer 10 years later. Both times she returned to the bench quickly. (In the latter case, Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky apologized for predicting she’d probably be dead within nine months.) Last year she had a stent placed in one of her coronary arteries. That happened on a Wednesday, and the court’s public information officer quickly told reporters that Ginsburg “expects to be on the bench on Monday.”

HER physical fierceness is legend. Scalia, her improbable good friend, once recounted a summer when he and Ginsburg had both snagged a gig teaching on the French Riviera. “She went off parasailing!” he told The Washington Post. “This little skinny thing, you’d think she’d never come down.” She has since given up that sort of recreation, but she still works out twice a week in the Supreme Court gym with her personal trainer. Plus there are the daily stretching exercises at home. At night. After work.

It’s the combination of Ginsburg’s woman-hear-me-roar history, her frail-little-old-lady appearance and her role as the leader of the Supreme Court’s dissident liberals that have rallied her new fan base, particularly young women.

The second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court, she’s part of the generation who came of age after World War II and led a revolution that transformed women’s legal rights, as well as their role in the public world. There’s a famous story about the dean at Harvard Law inviting Ginsburg and her tiny group of fellow female law students to dinner, then asking them how they’d justify having taken a place that could have gone to a man. Ginsburg was so flustered she answered that her husband, Marty, was a law student and that it was very important for a wife to understand her husband’s work.

“That’s what I said,” she nodded.

The dean, Ginsburg said, told her later that he had asked only because “there were still doubting Thomases on the faculty and he wanted the women to arm him with stories.” You have to wonder if the dean was trying to rewrite history. Or maybe joking. But Ginsburg believed the explanation: “He was a wonderful man, but he had no sense of humor.”

During law school Marty Ginsburg developed testicular cancer. Ruth helped him keep up with his work by bringing him notes from his classes and typing up his papers, while also taking care of their toddler, Jane. Plus, she made the Harvard Law Review. This is the kind of story that defines a certain type of New Woman of Ginsburg’s generation — people whose gift for overachievement and overcoming adversity is so immense, you can see how even a nation of men bent on maintaining the old patriarchal order were simply run over by the force of their determination. (Ginsburg herself isn’t given to romanticizing. Asked why the women’s rights revolution happened so quickly, she simply said: “Well, the tide was in our favor. We were riding with winners.”)

Ginsburg was married for 56 years — Marty died in 2010. She has a son, a daughter and four grandchildren, one of whom called and said “Bubbe, you were sleeping at the State of the Union!” after the cameras caught her famous nap. She travels constantly. The day we talked, she was preparing to go off to a meeting of the New York City Bar, where she would introduce Gloria Steinem, who would deliver the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law. A few weeks earlier, at a gathering of the Association of American Law Schools, Ginsburg had introduced her old friend Professor Herma Hill Kay, recipient of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lifetime Achievement Award. When you reach this kind of stature, there are lots of echoes.

She’s spent much of her life being the first woman doing one thing or another, and when it comes to the retirement question, she has only one predecessor to contemplate — her friend Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Supreme Court justice, who left the bench at 75 to spend more time with her husband, John, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

“She and John were going to do all the outdoorsy things they liked to do,” Ginsburg recalled. But John O’Connor’s condition deteriorated so swiftly that her plans never worked out. Soon, Ginsburg said, “John was in such bad shape that she couldn’t keep him at home.”

O’Connor has kept busy — speaking, writing, hearing cases on a court of appeals and pursuing a project to expand civics education. But it’s not the same as being the swing vote on the United States Supreme Court. “I think she knows that when she left that term, every 5-4 decision when I was in the minority, I would have been in the majority if she’d stayed,” Ginsburg said.

Besides not retiring, another thing Ginsburg is planning not to do is write her memoirs. “There are too many people writing about me already,” she said. There’s an authorized biography in the works, along with several other projects to which she has definitely not given a blessing.

“But now — this is something I like,” she said, picking up a collection of essays, “The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” The justice also seems to be looking forward to an upcoming “Notorious R.B.G.” book, written by Shana Knizhnik, who created the blog, and Irin Carmon of MSNBC. The name started as a play on the name of the Brooklyn gangsta rapper Notorious B.I.G., but it’s taken on a life of its own as a younger-generation tribute to Ginsburg.

“The kind of raw excitement that surrounds her is palpable,” Carmon said. “There’s a counterintuitiveness. We have a particular vision of someone who’s a badass — a 350-pound rapper. And she’s this tiny Jewish grandmother. She doesn’t look like our vision of power, but she’s so formidable, so unapologetic, and a survivor in every sense of the word.”

So Ginsburg is planning to be on the bench when the Supreme Court decides mammoth issues like the future of the Affordable Care Act and a national right for gay couples to marry. She says she doesn’t know how the health care case will turn out. But like practically every court observer in the country, she has a strong hunch about which way gay marriage will go: “I would be very surprised if the Supreme Court retreats from what it has said about same-sex unions.”

The speed with which the country has already accepted gay rights was, she theorized, just a matter of gay people coming out, and the rest of the country realizing that “we all knew and liked and loved people who were gay.” She recalled Justice Lewis Powell, who told his colleagues he had never met a gay person, unaware that he’d had several gay law clerks. “But they never broadcast it.”

The National Organization for Marriage, a conservative group, recently demanded that Ginsburg recuse herself from the case since she had said that it would not be difficult for the American public to accept a ruling in favor of a national right to gay marriage.

Don’t hold your breath.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

February 19, 2015

In “The Obama Years” Mr. Blow says wherever you think he may rank as a president, there is no doubt that the time of his presidency will be remembered as transformational.  Mr. Cohen has decided to channel MoDo and has written a fever dream.  In “The Great Jewish Exodus” he you should be careful what you wish for: An Israeli leader urges a course that diminishes Jewishness and the liberal world order.  Mr. Kristof addresses “The Cost of a Decline in Unions” and says as unions wane in American life, it’s increasingly clear that they were doing a lot of good in sustaining the middle class.  Which is most likely why TPTB are slowly strangling them.  Ms. Collins has a question in “A Gun on Every Corner:”  Should a local gun permit be treated like a driver’s license that is recognized all over the country?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

As the political parlor game increasingly turns to obsessions about the jockeying to become the next president, my thinking increasingly turns to how history will measure the current one.

While a truly comprehensive appraisal and historical contextualization of a presidency is the scope and scale of books more than columns, there are things that, from my perch and according to the peculiarities of my personal interests, stand out.

Some of these are things for which the president can — in part or in whole — take personal responsibility, but others simply happened on this watch. And yet, I believe that they will all be somewhat associated with him and his stewardship.

In an interview broadcast earlier this month, the president told CNN, “I’m proud of saving the economy.” That may well be the most resounding mark of his presidency, even as people debate the quality of the recovery and his administration’s role in it.

It is nearly impossible to overstate how close we came to economic collapse in 2008 and how frightened we all were.

Now, that has turned around. The private sector has seen job growth for 59 straight months. The unemployment rate was down to 5.6 percent in December, the lowest since 2008, and as Reuters pointed out last month, new claims for unemployment benefits reached “the lowest level in nearly 15 years.”

But this recovery tends to feel more favorable for the wealthy than the working class. As the National Employment Law Project pointed out in an April policy paper, there is an imbalance between the kinds of jobs lost in the recession and the kinds experiencing the greatest growth in the recovery: High-wage industries accounted for 41 percent of the job losses but only 30 percent of the recent employment growth, while lower-wage industries accounted for 22 percent of the job losses but 44 percent of recent growth.

But if you are one of the Americans well off enough to own stocks, life looks much better. In 2009, the Dow Jones industrial average had fallen below 7,000; now it’s above 18,000. And yet, as CNBC pointed out in September, the percent of Americans who hold stock either directly or indirectly is at an 18-year low while “stock ownership for the wealthy is at a new high,” based on 2012 data. As CNBC reported:

“In 2010, the latest period available, the top 10 percent of Americans by net worth held 81 percent of all directly held or indirectly held stocks, according to Edward N. Wolff, an economics professor at New York University who specializes in inequality and Federal Reserve data.”

The Obama years will also be remembered for the reshaping of our politics. There was the rise of the Tea Party and the demise of moderate voices. There were the unfathomable and indefensible rulings by the Supreme Court to bless dark money in the Citizens United case and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. There is an ongoing voter effort to shrink and restrict the voting pool as minorities are beginning to feel their power at the polls.

The Obama years will be remembered as a cultural — and legal — tipping point for equality for all people who do not identify as strictly heterosexual, arguably the civil rights movement of our times. The president signed the bill repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the Supreme Court.

And in 2012, Obama became the first sitting president to support same-sex marriage (a book by David Axelrod even claims that the president was in favor of same-sex marriage, long before he publicly proclaimed it, and indeed when he was publicly saying that he wasn’t). When Obama took office, same-sex marriage was rare; now it’s legal in 37 states. And a case now before the Supreme Court could determine whether it will be legal nationally.

The New Republic even dubbed Obama the “Gay-Rights President,” and it is hard to argue with that.

The Obama years will also be remembered for his signature legislation — the Affordable Care Act. This week, the president said that 11.4 million people had signed up for insurance or renewed coverage under the plan. Needless to say, the program is reducing the number of people who are uninsured but it also appears to be lowering medical costs.

Yet the future of the act is unclear. There is a case (King v. Burwell) before the Supreme Court — a laughable case about a language quibble that may be the most significant linguistic imprecision of a generation — that could spell doom for the law by withholding subsidies from millions of low-income Americans to purchase health insurance.

There’s the Supreme Court again. One could argue that the Supreme Court — the judicial Divine Nine — has shaped the Obama presidency as much as Obama has. That’s not to say that he hasn’t done an amazing job of shaping the judiciary in this country himself. In addition to appointing two new members to the Supreme Court — both women, a first for any president — he has completely transformed the lower courts.

As Jeffrey Toobin pointed out in The New Yorker in October:

“When Obama took office, Republican appointees controlled ten of the thirteen circuit courts of appeals; Democratic appointees now constitute a majority in nine circuits. Because federal judges have life tenure, nearly all of Obama’s judges will continue serving well after he leaves office.

Furthermore, Toobin laid out the diversity of the Obama transformation, writing:

“Sheldon Goldman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a scholar of judicial appointments, said, ‘The majority of Obama’s appointments are women and nonwhite males.’ Forty-two per cent of his judgeships have gone to women. Twenty-two per cent of George W. Bush’s judges and twenty-nine per cent of Bill Clinton’s were women. Thirty-six per cent of President Obama’s judges have been minorities, compared with eighteen per cent for Bush and twenty-four per cent for Clinton.”

This is huge.

And there isn’t space in this column to address the many other things the Obama years will be remembered for: our engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East, Russian aggression, moves on climate policy and the rise of American energy, the re-fighting of issues over women’s reproductive rights and immigration policy, to name a few.

Whether you agree that Obama was a transformational figure or how he ranks among other presidents — a new survey of American Political Science Association members puts him 18th — there is no doubt that the time of his presidency will be remembered as transformational.

Next up we have MoDo Mr. Cohen:

They were gone, as completely as from Baghdad or Cairo, Damascus or Alexandria. They had vanished from Budapest and Brussels, from Frankfurt and Padua, from Paris and Manchester, from Antwerp and Stockholm.

As in the Arab world, Europe wondered what it had lost. The texture of life was thinned, the richness of exchange diminished, the flowering of ideas curtailed. There was an absence.

They did not say much. They packed and left, wheeling their suitcases, carrying their bags and bundles and babies, a little wave offered here and there. Rich and poor, religious and not, they sold what they had and went on their way. People looked askance, as their forbears once had in crueler circumstances, a little uneasy at the exodus, unsure what it meant but certain it was the end of a very long story.

Was Europe not the Continent of Disraeli and Heine and Marx (all baptized, but still), of Freud and Einstein, of Rothschild and Bleichröder, of Dreyfus and Herzl, of Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig? Was it not the home of Yiddish, once the first tongue of millions, a language perhaps unique, as Isaac Bashevis Singer noted, because it was never spoken by men in power?

Was it not the scene of a great 19th-century struggle for emancipation beginning in France and stretching across the Continent to the pogrom-stained Pale of Settlement, a battle that in many instances ushered this stubborn people, with their eternal covenant of ethics entered into with a faceless God, to the summit of the professions, only for this progress, threatening to some, to end in the Nazis’ industrialized mass murder?

Was Europe not, against all odds, the place liberalism triumphed over the deathly totalitarianisms? The land of Isaiah Berlin who quoted Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” The Continent where this people survived after the attempted annihilation (in which the majority of Europeans were complicit), forming new communities, even in Germany; a Continent of crooked timber, of every expression and experiment in their identity, their partial loss of identity, their embrace of merged and multiple identities?

Yes, there was often a sense of otherness, a self-imposed discretion, but there was also reassurance in being part of a great European convergence that over many decades dissolved the borders across which countless wars had been fought and affirmed the right of every European of whatever faith or ethnicity to equal rights, free expression, and the free practice of their beliefs.

Yet now they were gone. Europe, without the Jews, had lost part of itself. It had lost the very right to a conscience. It had been defeated in its essence. It had rebirthed itself after the 20th-century horror only to surrender.

Jewishness had lost one of its constituent elements, the European Jew of the diaspora. As for humanity, it had lost all hope. Humankind had succumbed to the tribal nightmare, to the darkest of tides. Tribal war loomed.

The strange thing was that the prime minister of Israel, the Jewish homeland established in 1948, the certain refuge at last, the place where belonging could never be an issue, had wished it so.

It was the Israeli leader who suggested it was time to abandon the European Jewish experiment. He had been in office many years. He saw himself as the visionary defender and gatherer of his people, the man for every threat (and they seemed to multiply endlessly).

After the shootings of Jews in Brussels and Paris and Copenhagen, as European soldiers and police fanned out to protect synagogues and as he faced a close election, the Israeli leader said this: “This wave of terror attacks is expected to continue, including these murderous anti-Semitic attacks.”

He continued: “We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe” of Jews. He added, “I would like to tell all European Jews and all Jews wherever they are: Israel is the home of every Jew.”

Israel is indeed the home of every Jew, and that is important, a guarantee of sorts. It is equally important, however, that not every Jew choose this home. That is another kind of guarantee, of Europe’s liberal order, of the liberal idea itself. So it was shattering when millions of Jews, every one of them in fact, as if entranced, upped and left their homes in Milan and Berlin and Zurich.

The leader himself was overcome: Where was he to house them? Many of the liberal Jews of Europe, long strangers in strange lands, knowing statelessness in their bones, mindful of Hillel’s summation of the Torah — “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man” — refused to be part of the spreading settlements in the West Bank, Israeli rule over another people.

The prime minister awoke, shaken. It had been such a vivid nightmare. Too vivid! To himself he murmured, “Careful what you wish for.”

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Like many Americans, I’ve been wary of labor unions.

Full-time union stagehands at Carnegie Hall earning more than $400,000 a year? A union hailing its defense of a New York teacher who smelled of alcohol and passed out in class, with even the principal unable to rouse her? A police union in New York City that has a tantrum and goes on virtual strike?

More broadly, I disdained unions as bringing corruption, nepotism and rigid work rules to the labor market, impeding the economic growth that ultimately makes a country strong.

I was wrong.

The abuses are real. But, as unions wane in American life, it’s also increasingly clear that they were doing a lot of good in sustaining middle class life — especially the private-sector unions that are now dwindling.

Most studies suggest that about one-fifth of the increase in economic inequality in America among men in recent decades is the result of the decline in unions. It may be more: A study in the American Sociological Review, using the broadest methodology, estimates that the decline of unions may account for one-third of the rise of inequality among men.

“To understand the rising inequality, you have to understand the devastation in the labor movement,” says Jake Rosenfeld, a labor expert at the University of Washington and the author of “What Unions No Longer Do.”

Take construction workers. A full-time construction worker earns about $10,000 less per year now than in 1973, in today’s dollars, according to Rosenfeld. One reason is probably that the proportion who are unionized has fallen in that period from more than 40 percent to just 14 percent.

“All the focus on labor’s flaws can distract us from the bigger picture,” Rosenfeld writes. “For generations now the labor movement has stood as the most prominent and effective voice for economic justice.”

I’m as appalled as anyone by silly work rules and $400,000 stagehands, or teachers’ unions shielding the incompetent. But unions also lobby for programs like universal prekindergarten that help create broad-based prosperity. They are pushing for a higher national minimum wage, even though that would directly benefit mostly nonunionized workers.

I’ve also changed my mind because, in recent years, the worst abuses by far haven’t been in the union shop but in the corporate suite. One of the things you learn as a journalist is that when there’s no accountability, we humans are capable of tremendous avarice and venality. That’s true of union bosses — and of corporate tycoons. Unions, even flawed ones, can provide checks and balances for flawed corporations.

Many Americans think unions drag down the economy over all, but scholars disagree. American auto unions are often mentioned, but Germany’s car workers have a strong union, and so do Toyota’s in Japan and Kia’s in South Korea.

In Germany, the average autoworker earns about $67 per hour in salary and benefits, compared with $34 in the United States. Yet Germany’s car companies in 2010 produced more than twice as many vehicles as American companies did, and they were highly profitable. It’s too glib to say that the problem in the American sector was just unions.

Or look at American history. The peak years for unions were the 1940s and ’50s, which were also some of the fastest-growing years for the United States ever — and with broadly shared prosperity. Historically, the periods when union membership were highest were those when inequality was least.

Richard B. Freeman, a Harvard labor expert, notes that unions sometimes bring important benefits to industry: They can improve morale, reduce turnover and provide a channel to suggest productivity improvements.

Experts disagree about how this all balances out, but it’s clear that it’s not a major drag. “If you’re looking for big negatives, everybody knows they don’t exist,” Professor Freeman said.

Joseph Stiglitz notes in his book “The Price of Inequality” that when unions were strong in America, productivity and real hourly compensation moved together in manufacturing. But after 1980 (and especially after 2000) the link seemed to break and real wages stagnated.

It may be that as unions weakened, executives sometimes grabbed the gains from productivity. Perhaps that helps explain why chief executives at big companies earned, on average, 20 times as much as the typical worker in 1965, and 296 times as much in 2013, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Lawrence F. Katz, a Harvard labor economist, raises concerns about some aspects of public-sector unions, but he says that in the private sector (where only 7 percent of workers are now unionized): “I think we’ve gone too far in de-unionization.”

He’s right. This isn’t something you often hear a columnist say, but I’ll say it again: I was wrong. At least in the private sector, we should strengthen unions, not try to eviscerate them.

And last but not least here’s Ms. Collins:

Earlier this month — right between Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day — Senator John Cornyn of Texas introduced a bill that would allow people from states with lax gun laws to carry their concealed weapons all around the country.

The goal, Cornyn said in a press release, is to treat local gun permits “like drivers’ licenses.”

“This operates more or less like a driver’s license,” he told a reporter for The Hill. “So, for example, if you have a driver’s license in Texas, you can drive in New York, in Utah, and other places subject to the laws in those states.”

This is perfectly reasonable, except for the part about gun permits being anything whatsoever like drivers’ licenses. If a citizen from Mississippi shows his driver’s license to someone in Connecticut, the Connecticut person has good reason to presume that the licensee can, um, drive. It’s not a perfect system — witness the fact that there are many, many licensed drivers in America who have successfully parallel parked only one time in their entire life. But, still, no matter what state it comes from, a driver’s license generally signifies a certain level of accomplishment when it comes to the basics of stopping, starting and steering.

On the other hand, a permit to carry a concealed weapon from Mississippi is concrete proof of the owner’s ability to fill out an application. In Virginia, you can take an online course. You can get a permit from Florida without ever living in Florida, although you definitely do have to send $112 to the State Department of Agriculture.

In some states, you can be pretty certain that anyone with the legal right to carry a concealed weapon has been checked out carefully. In others, not so much. In 2007, The Sun Sentinel in Florida found that in a six-month period, more than 1,400 people who had pleaded guilty or no contest to felonies had been awarded concealed carry permits, along with 216 people with outstanding warrants, 28 people with active domestic violence injunctions against them, and six registered sex offenders.

The Cornyn bill would set a national bar at the lowest denominator.

“The situation in Florida is dire enough on its own. But this law would present a danger to the rest of us because of Florida’s abhorrently low standards,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “Think about this in terms of states’ rights.”

You’d think that states’ rights would be a winning argument. However, as with so many, many things in this world, states’ rights is a theory that people only like when it’s going to get them something they already want.

In many crowded cities, gun safety means there’s almost nobody carrying but the cops. But it’s impossible to keep that kind of order when people are roaming the streets waving out-of-town gun permits, which local police frequently have no way to verify.

“It’s a nightmare for New York law enforcement,” said Senator Charles Schumer of New York. “In 20 states you can have a repeated history of mental health police visits and you can get a gun. You can have a domestic violence record. In many states, people subject to emergency orders of protection can be allowed to carry.”

Cornyn’s bill has been the top priority of groups like the National Rifle Association for years. That is, in part, because their base is irritated about not being able to drive around the country with a handgun in the glove compartment.

However, I suspect another part of the equation is that the gun lobby is running out of causes to rally the troops. Some states have already pretty much legalized everything. Once you’ve made it O.K. to carry a gun onto a playground, you’ve just about come to the end of the road. The N.R.A. doesn’t want to recruit members by arguing for Texans’ right to wave a pistol around the small appliance department at Target. It wants a big, meaty challenge — like fighting for looser gun regulation in states where the populace doesn’t want looser gun regulation.

Nobody doubts that the House of Representatives would pass a bill like Cornyn’s. (Really, just call them; they’ll come in and do it before dinner tonight.) The Senate has been more resistant, but, in 2013, the same proposal came within three votes of passage. And this is not an issue where minds are changed by an invigorating debate.

“You say: ‘Look, maybe this works in the rural parts of your state but it doesn’t work in Times Square,’ ” said Schumer. “They’re not even open to the argument.”

Now, with the new Republican majority, it’ll be extremely hard to keep a bill from being sent to the president. He could always veto it. Unless, of course, it was tied to some crucial, desperately needed measure.

“This is awful, awful, awful,” said Schumer.

Maybe our best hope is that Congress will do what it does best and fail to pass any legislation whatsoever for the rest of the year.

Collins, solo

February 14, 2015

Mr. Nocera is off today, so Ms. Collins has the place to herself.  In “Scott Walker Needs an Eraser” she says the governor of Wisconsin had a teaching moment after stepping into the spotlight in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.  Here she is:

Lately, the big star in the race for the Republican presidential nomination has been Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin. He gave a rip-roaring speech at a conservative confab in Iowa last month, and it’s been his moment ever since.

Unless the moment ended this week when Walker went to London on an alleged trade mission and refused to say whether he believes in evolution. Or pretty much anything.

“For me, commenting on foreign policy or, in this case, economic policy in a country where you’re a visitor is not the politest of things,” he told a BBC journalist.

Who knows how that will fly with the Republican base? Maybe they’re dying for a president who’ll go on an international trip and confine his remarks to the virtues of Wisconsin cheese.

But about that Iowa speech: It was really a rouser. Basically, Walker talked about the “comprehensive conservative common-sense conservative agenda” he’s imposed on Wisconsin. His common-sense examples included making it easier for people to carry lethal weapons around the state and defunding the main organization that helps low-income Wisconsin women with family planning.

Mainly, though, The Speech was about waging war on public employee unions, particularly the ones for teachers. “In 2010, there was a young woman named Megan Sampson who was honored as the outstanding teacher of the year in my state. And not long after she got that distinction, she was laid off by her school district,” said Walker, lacing into teacher contracts that require layoffs be done by seniority.

All of that came as a distinct surprise to Claudia Felske, a member of the faculty at East Troy High School who actually was named a Wisconsin Teacher of the Year in 2010. In a phone interview, Felske said she still remembers when she got the news at a “surprise pep assembly at my school.” As well as the fact that those layoffs happened because Walker cut state aid to education.

Actually, Wisconsin names four teachers of the year, none of which has ever been Megan Sampson, who won an award for first-year English teachers given by a nonprofit group. But do not blame any of this on Sampson, poor woman, who was happily working at a new school in 2011 when Walker made her the star victim in an anti-union opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal. At the time, she expressed a strong desire not to be used as a “poster child for this political agenda,” and you would think that after that the governor would leave her alone. Or at least stop saying she was teacher of the year.

When it comes to education, Walker seems prone toward this sort of intellectual hiccup. Just recently, he released a proposed budget that would have changed the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement by eliminating the bits about “the search for truth,” educating people and serving society, in favor of the educational goal of meeting “the state’s work force needs.” When all hell broke loose, Walker blamed that one on a drafting error.

“Is this a pattern?” teacher-of-the-year Felske wondered.

That budget also contains another interesting education idea that Walker has yet to blame on inept typists. He wants to change the way teachers are licensed. Basically, the plan would be to let people with “real-life experience” just take a test to demonstrate that they knew their subject matter. It appears to require no training whatsoever in the actual art of teaching.

“Teaching is more than just knowing stuff,” protested Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction. “It is an extraordinarily complex skill.” You may not be surprised to hear that in Wisconsin, the superintendent of education is not appointed by the governor. Evers was elected on his own, and his office is extremely unhappy about Walker’s new plan.

“We don’t know the origins of this idea. It wasn’t discussed,” said John Johnson, a spokesman for the superintendent. “We’re requiring more rigor of our students, but this certainly seems like a decrease in the rigor we require of our teachers.”

The idea could very well become law, whether the educators like it or not, since the Wisconsin Legislature often makes policy changes as part of the budget. We will have to let Wisconsinites worry about that.

But it gives us a fresh look at the wave of attacks on teachers’ unions around the country. We definitely do not want to protect incompetent or lazy teachers. On the other hand, if you believe that teaching is a skill that it takes years of practice to master, you also do not want to encourage politicians to save money by canning the most expensive and most experienced teachers.

Not a problem for Scott Walker. His view of teaching is apparently that anybody can do it. Just the way anybody can be president. As long as they don’t make you talk about evolution.

Cohen, Kristof and Collins

February 12, 2015

In “Curtail Iran and Win” Mr. Cohen says the dismantlement camp is a war camp. But you can’t bomb Iranian knowledge of the fuel cycle out of existence.  He’s making a surprising amount of sense for someone I’ve thought should be registered as a lobbyist for Israel.  In “Muslims, Marriage and Bigotry” Mr. Kristof says the murder of Muslims in North Carolina and upheaval over same-sex marriage in Alabama are reminders of the importance of combating intolerance.  What’s going on in Alabama has more to do with the lunatic fringe of the nullification party than intolerance…  Ms. Collins offers “An Ode to Obamacare” and says it turns out that the Affordable Care Act is no trouble to anybody.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

As a deadline nears for a possible deal with Iran on its nuclear program, discussion is being clouded by false debate. A curtailment camp that sees a viable avenue to ring-fencing limited Iranian enrichment so that the country cannot acquire a bomb confronts a dismantlement camp that believes any deal is bad and every Iranian centrifuge must go.

The Obama administration officials leading the talks are committed curtailers. They seek a tough deal involving intensive verification over an extended period of a much-reduced enrichment program compatible only with civilian nuclear energy and assuring that Iran is kept at least one year from any potential “breakout” to bomb manufacture.

The dismantlers, who believe a deal would be disastrous, are led by Benjamin Netanyahu with strong support in the Republican-controlled Congress, even before the Israeli prime minister addresses a joint session early next month. Netanyahu, whose planned visit has angered Obama, argues that he has an “obligation to speak up on a matter that affects the very survival of my country.”

The falseness of the debate lies in the disingenuousness of the dismantlers. Iran has mastered the fuel cycle. This may be regrettable but is no less true for that. It did so before Obama took office. The country knows its way around basic enrichment technology. Thousands of centrifuges are spinning, although many fewer than would have been without the effective interim agreement concluded in late 2013. What then does it mean to dismantle knowledge? You can’t bomb a people’s knowledge out of existence. Yet this in essence is what the dismantlers propose.

In reality, the dismantlement camp favors escalation that makes a calamitous conflict with Iran more likely; it is a war camp. Iran, a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, will not voluntarily eliminate a nuclear program that is a source of national pride and to which it believes it has a right.

Baloney, the dismantlers say, the country can be sanctioned to its knees — and Senators Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois, have a sanctions bill readied in an attempt to prove just that (Obama has said he will veto it). The sanction-and-dismantle devotees are deluded. Sanctions have hurt Iran, but the country is largely inured to them.

That leaves bombing Iran in an attempt to achieve dismantlement. Yet even optimistic assessments suggest the most a military campaign might achieve is setting the Iranian program back a couple of years. It would also lead the United States into a war with the sworn Shiite enemies of Sunni ISIS just as America and its allies do battle with the Islamic State, as well as place Israel at war with Persians and Arabs for the first time. As double whammies in folly go, this would be up there.

Wise counsel to the dismantlers would run as follows: “In a perfect world Iran would have no enrichment program, but life’s not perfect. This situation comes down to alternatives. Either you get a negotiated solution that ensures over some 15 years that Iran’s program is strictly limited, at least a year from breakout, with eyes and ears on the ground you’ve never had before, and the plutonium path to a bomb cut off by the transformation of the Arak research reactor — or you go for military action. And what would war achieve? It may set the program back some, but it will ensure that Iran goes for a bomb, inflame anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world, and see the current international coalition for sanctions fall apart. That is not good for anyone, including Israel.”

A tough nuclear deal, of the kind sought by Obama, would enhance Israeli security. War with Iran would undermine it.

A little over a month remains until a March 24 deadline for at least the “political framework” of a deal. The main differences, I am told, are over an unrealistic Iranian demand that all sanctions be lifted at once if a deal is reached, and over cuts or modifications to the almost 10,000 operating centrifuges. Because Western officials believe Iran is prepared to send almost all its current stockpile to Russia, which would set back its “breakout” potential, there is more American flexibility on the number of centrifuges. Still, the number would probably need to be at least halved.

These are real but not insurmountable differences. Ushering Iran toward the world through a rigorous deal would have enormous political and economic benefits. As Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, said recently: “We need to seize this opportunity. It may not be repeated.” It remains to be seen if Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme Iranian leader, is in “seizing” mode.

He’s not the only hard-liner. The dismantlers seek another unwinnable war. They cloak their intent with irresponsible talk of a deal as another Munich. Their argument is false. The curtailers are realistic. They are right. It’s far better to circumscribe enrichment than spur it — and possibly an Iranian bomb — through impossible dismantlement demands.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

In North Carolina, three young Muslims who were active in charity work were murdered, allegedly by a man who identified as atheist and expressed hostility to Islam and other faiths. Police are exploring whether it was a hate crime, and it spurred a #MuslimLivesMatter campaign on Twitter.

And, in Alabama, we see judges refusing to approve marriages of any kind because then they would also have to approve same-sex marriages. In one poll conducted last year, some 59 percent of people in Alabama opposed gay marriage. Somehow a loving God is cited to bar loving couples from committing to each other.

These are very different news stories. But I wonder if a common lesson from both may be the importance of resisting bigotry, of combating the intolerance that can infect people of any faith — or of no faith.

I don’t think Muslims should feel obliged to apologize for the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks. Nor do I think atheists need apologize for the killing of the three Muslims.

But it does seem useful for everyone to reflect on our capacity to “otherize” people of a different faith, race, nationality or sexuality — and to turn that other-ness into a threat. That’s what the Islamic State does to us. And sometimes that’s what we do, too.

O.K. I’m sure some of you are protesting: That’s a false equivalency. True, there is a huge difference between burning someone alive and not granting a couple a marriage license. But, then again, it’s not much of a slogan to say, “We’re better than ISIS!”

There has been a pugnacious defensiveness among conservative Christians to any parallels between Christian overreach and Islamic overreach, as seen in the outraged reaction to President Obama’s acknowledgment at the National Prayer Breakfast this month that the West has plenty to regret as well. But Obama was exactly right: How can we ask Islamic leaders to confront extremism in their faith if we don’t acknowledge Christian extremism, from the Crusades to Srebrenica?

More broadly, one message of the New Testament is the value of focusing on one’s own mistakes rather than those of others. “You hypocrite,” Jesus says in Matthew 7:5. “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

We could do with a little more of that spirit these days, at a time when everybody wants to practice ophthalmology on everyone else.

When I posted on my Facebook page about the North Carolina murders, one follower, Frank, wrote dismissively: “Muslims are slaughtering people around the globe (including their own) but let’s highlight this story — seems legit.”

I’ve previously urged Muslims to reflect on intolerance in their camp, and this is an occasion when Christians, atheists and others can do the same. Did the furor in North Carolina that led to the cancellation of the Muslim call to prayer from Duke University’s chapel tower inflame sentiments?

The Alabama legal drama, with Chief Justice Roy S. Moore of the State Supreme Court defying federal authorities, is, of course, different. But it also is redolent of faith as I-am-holier-than-thou chest-thumping, a reminder of the need for humility.

Do Judge Moore and other conservative Christians think that when God made gays and lesbians fall achingly in love with each other, He screwed up?

It seems odd to me that so many conservative Christians are obsessed with homosexuality, which Jesus never mentions, yet seem unworried about issues Jesus did emphasize like poverty and suffering. Jesus explicitly advised a wealthy man, “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21), so maybe that’s the Scripture that Judge Moore should follow to demonstrate his piety.

Then there’s Jesus’s praise for those who make themselves eunuchs (Matthew 19:12); but I’d settle for a little “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

I’ve written often about committed and self-effacing Christians doing outstanding work combating injustice around the world, and it’s frustrating that they don’t get attention. The problem is that their heroism is often overshadowed by sanctimonious blowhards.

Among Americans aged 18 to 24, a 2012 survey found that half or more describe present-day Christianity as “hypocritical,” “judgmental” and “anti-gay.” And more regarded it as immoral to view pornography than to have sex with a person of the same gender. Alabama is, once again, on the wrong side of history.

Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air to Catholics and non-Catholics alike because he seems less moralizing and more moral, less about pointing a finger and more about offering a helping hand. After the tragedy in North Carolina and the legal chaos in Alabama, maybe that’s a good instinct for all of us.

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Let’s sing the praises of Obamacare for a minute.

Get back here! I said just for a minute. O.K., it’s not the tidiest law in history. You’re probably still sulking because you wanted something simple and rational, like a single-payer plan. But it’s here, and about 10 million people have health coverage who didn’t have it before.

Plus, it’s apparently working better than any of us imagined. Here is how great the Affordable Care Act is doing: The Supreme Court is about to hear a challenge to the law, filed on behalf of four Virginia plaintiffs, who claim to have suffered grievous harm by being forced to either buy health coverage or pay a penalty. Lately, reporters have been trying to track down this quartet of pain, and discovered they are:

— A 64-year-old limo driver who does not seem to be required to do anything under the Affordable Care Act because the cost of even a very cheap health care plan would be more than 8 percent of his income. (People who have to pay more than 8 percent are allowed to just opt out of the whole program and stay blissfully uninsured.) Also, he’s a Vietnam veteran and thus presumably eligible for free veteran’s health care, making the whole discussion even more irrelevant.

— A 63-year old man in Virginia Beach who would apparently have been eligible for stupendous savings on health insurance under the new law. And who is also a veteran.

— A woman who listed her address as a motel where she hasn’t been staying since late 2013. And wherever she is, she probably wouldn’t have any Obamacare problems because of the 8 percent rule.

— A 64-year-old woman who seemed to have little or no idea what the case was about. “I don’t like the idea of throwing people off their health insurance,” she told Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones.

That plaintiff, an anti-gay rights activist, also told Mencimer that because of previous health problems, she faced insurance costs of $1,500 a month, a vastly higher premium than she’d pay under Obamacare. Also, The Wall Street Journal determined that her annual rate of pay as a substitute teacher was so low she, too, should be off the hook because of the 8 percent rule. Also, she’s about to qualify for Medicare.

Comments by some of the plaintiffs did suggest that they experienced serious pain over the fact that Barack Obama is president. “… When he was elected, he got his Muslim people to vote for him, that’s how he won,” one told Facebook.

“These are the best they can do?” asked David Levine, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

Wow. Obamacare must be the greatest law in the history of … laws.

All this may not be enough to get the case thrown out of court. But still. “It’s not hard, frankly, to find plaintiffs who want to take down the government,” said Neal Katyal, a law professor at Georgetown who formerly served as acting solicitor general. “The fact that these folks apparently couldn’t find four people who actually had a legitimate grievance is very telling.”

The case the Supreme Court is considering would be outrageous even if the plaintiffs were four disabled orphans being threatened with eviction. Linda Greenhouse had a wonderful opinion column recently in The Times explaining the whole thing, but the bottom line is that there is sloppy wording in two Obamacare subclauses, although they’re easy to interpret correctly if you read the entire law. The simplest way to clear things up, of course, would be for Congress to just fix the language.

Pop Quiz: Last week the House of Representatives took up the issue of Obamacare and:

A) Voted to tweak the wording in those two subclauses.

B) Voted to repeal Obamacare for the 56th time.

C) Voted to repeal Obamacare for the 67th time.

D) Decided to let everything putter along the way it is and passed a resolution demanding that Beyoncé be given the Grammy for best album.

The answer is either B or C. Even the House of Representatives seems to have lost count.

Critics said that since Republicans were offering no alternative health plan, their position was wildly irresponsible, particular to those Obamacare-covered citizens. This is totally unfair because it overlooks an important provision of the bill requiring three House committee chairs to get together and come up with what Republican leaders called a “thoughtful replacement strategy.”

We have been looking forward to that thoughtful replacement strategy since the days when everyone was excited about iPads and zombies on TV.

Really, Obamacare is terrific. You can tell by looking at the people who are against it.

Ain’t that the God’s gospel truth!

Nocera and Collins

February 7, 2015

In “Net Neutrality Rules” Mr. Nocera says the F.C.C. finally made the right decision on how to regulate the Internet.  It remains to be seen how the Republicans will fck it up…  Ms. Collins, in “Politics by Restaurant Review,” says the first entry in the 2016 presidential primary book club comes from Mike Huckabee. She reads it so you don’t have to.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

In 2009, President Obama nominated Julius Genachowski, a trusted friend who had acted as candidate Obama’s technology adviser, to be the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. They both firmly believed in the importance of “net neutrality,” in which Internet service providers, or I.S.P.s, would not be able to give one website an advantage over another, or allow companies to pay to get into a “fast lane” ahead of competitors. That was the surest way to allow innovation to flourish, they believed.

To Genachowski and his staff, creating net-neutrality protections meant reclassifying components of broadband Internet service from lightly regulated “information services” to more highly regulated “telecommunications services.” This would subject I.S.P.s like Comcast and Verizon to certain “common carrier” regulations under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. But, according to The Wall Street Journal, Larry Summers, who was then Obama’s director of the National Economic Council, blocked this effort, fearful of “overly heavy-handed approaches to net neutrality” that could be detrimental to the economy.

So instead, in December 2010, the F.C.C. unveiled net-neutrality protections even while retaining the old “information services” classification. Many F.C.C. staff members knew this was a riskier approach; after all, an earlier attempt by the agency to censure Comcast for violating net-neutrality principles had been vacated by the courts — on the grounds that the F.C.C. lacked the proper authority. Sure enough, in January 2014, the court ruled that while the F.C.C. had general authority to regulate Internet traffic, it couldn’t impose tougher common-carrier regulation without labeling the service providers common carriers.

Is it any wonder that Tom Wheeler, who succeeded Genachowski as chairman of the F.C.C., announced this week that he was proposing to reclassify broadband Internet services as telecommunications services? What choice did Wheeler have? “Title II is just a tool to get enforceable rules to protect end users,” said Michael Beckerman, the president of the Internet Association, a trade group consisting of big Internet companies. Given the prior court decisions, that is really the only tool the government had left.

Is it truly necessary to have government-mandated rules to ensure net neutrality? Yes. One argument made by opponents of Title II classification is that we essentially have had net neutrality all along, so why does the government need to get involved? “There is no market for paid prioritization,” said Berin Szoka, the president of TechFreedom, which vehemently opposes the reclassification.

But this is not necessarily because of the workings of the market. For starters, the fastest broadband providers are mostly cable companies, which are quasi monopolies. As part of its deal in buying NBCUniversal, Comcast agreed to Genachowski’s net neutrality rules until 2018, regardless of the eventual court decision.

But who’s to say what will happen after that? A good dose of competition might help, but other than Google Fiber — which only exists at this point in three cities — it is hard to see where that is going to come from. The way things are now, most people only have two options: their cable company or their phone company. That’s not enough.

Indeed, a persuasive argument can be made that the previous attempts to create net-neutrality rules played an important role in preventing the broadband providers from, say, creating Internet fast lanes. After all, it took more than three years from the time Genachowski proposed the new net-neutrality rules to the time the court of appeals struck them down. Between those rules and the Comcast agreement, net neutrality was essentially government-mandated.

Another objection the broadband providers make is that the 1934 Communications Act is hardly the right vehicle to regulate the modern Internet. To allay these fears, Wheeler has said he would “forebear” those old regulations — such as price regulation — that don’t make sense for our era. But, opponents argue, what is to prevent a future F.C.C. chairman from imposing price regulation? Surely, though, the same can be asked of the broadband providers: What is to prevent them from someday violating net neutrality if there are no rules of the road? This strikes me as by far the more credible worry.

How to classify Internet services shouldn’t even be a question, and it wasn’t before 2002. That’s when Michael Powell, who was then the F.C.C. chairman — and is now the chief lobbyist for the cable industry — decided he wanted Internet services to be classified as an information service.  He essentially commanded the F.C.C. to come up with a rationale for doing so, said Barbara Cherry, a professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, and a former F.C.C. staff member. What Wheeler is doing is not a radical step, she said. “They were classified as telecommunications services because they were telecommunications services.

“Classifying them as information services exclusively,” she added, “was the real radical decision.”

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Today, we’re going to talk about “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy,” Mike Huckabee’s entry into the presidential book-writing sweepstakes. These tomes are going to be piling up soon, and remember: We read them so you don’t have to.

Huckabee is an excellent place to start since his book points to one of the terrible truths of presidential politics: It changes everybody who gets into it, generally for the worse, frequently for the awful.

Some presidential hopefuls just stick their toes into the water and, instantly, they’re gorgon versions of themselves. Look at what’s happened to Chris Christie and Rand Paul. Five minutes ago, a lot of people thought they were a little weird but kind of cool. Now things are trending toward really weird and kind of mean. Remember what happened to John McCain. Remember John Edwards? Maybe the secret strength of Hillary Clinton’s campaign is that since she’s been through this so many times, we can relax and assume she’s already been turned into whatever she’s going to turn into.

While Mike Huckabee is almost certainly not going to be the Republican presidential nominee, he is a real candidate. Won the Iowa caucuses in 2008. And he just quit his cushy job interviewing people on Fox to get back into the game. So, give the man some cred.

He’s also a natural to produce the first presidential-prospect book of 2015. Huckabee churns out books the way other people produce emails. And you have to be impressed by a guy whose oeuvre includes both “Can’t Wait Till Christmas!” and “Kids Who Kill.”

The theme of his newest is that there are two Americas: the coastal one inhabited by the media elite and the fly-over zone where the real people live. But, frequently, Huckabee forgets his topic and just starts ranting about the good old days when kids built forts out of cardboard boxes and men didn’t cuss in front of a woman. Or he’ll spend a chapter or two doing an imitation of your awful Uncle Fred at Thanksgiving, complaining about airport security lines and dirty lyrics in popular music.

When Huckabee does get around to the two Americas, which he calls “Bubble-ville” and “Bubba-ville,” he makes it clear that despite his recent career as host of a national cable TV talk show, he is down with the humble Bubbas. “If people don’t put pepper sauce on their black-eyed peas or order fried green tomatoes for an appetizer, I probably won’t relate to them without some effort,” he writes.

Well, there goes Ohio.

Think about that statement. We’re already tortured by the red-state-blue-state chasm. Now we’re going to divide ourselves by restaurant orders? The first rule for anyone who aspires to lead this country is that you have to at least pretend that you can relate to all its citizens. It is for this reason that health-conscious men and women who compulsively watch their fat intake will be seen wandering around the Iowa State Fair next summer, eating fried Twinkies.

Also, by the way, Huckabee doesn’t really feel comfortable around “people who have never fired a gun, never fished with a cane pole, never cooked with propane, or never changed a tire.”

Mike Huckabee has always run as an evangelical Christian, and when he first campaigned for president in 2008, his message was religious and inclusive. He was rigid on abortion, but he also called for compassion for illegal immigrants. (“It hardly seems Americans should truly feel threatened by people who pluck chickens, pick tomatoes, make beds, wash dishes or mow lawns.”) During the debates, he was generally regarded as the most likable guy on the stage.

But, of course, he didn’t win. Now he’s still going for religion; he devotes a chapter to explaining God’s opposition to gay marriage. But his view about helping the unfortunate gets more crabbed by the minute.

My favorite moment in “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy” is the one where Huckabee singles out President Grover Cleveland for special praise. You hardly ever find Grover in a presidential campaign book. I am kind of a Grover fan myself, mainly because he was involved in one of the most interesting sex scandals in American presidential history. However, Huckabee sends him a shout-out for vetoing a bill that would have appropriated $10,000 to provide seeds to Texas farmers who had been laid low by a terrible drought. (“He knew not to try to redefine the role of the federal government.”)

There goes Texas.

Kristof and Collins

February 5, 2015

In “Bruce Jenner’s Courage” Mr. Kristof says the 1976 Olympic gold medalist is showing a champion’s mettle in preparing to come out as a transgender woman.  Ms. Collins, in “‘American Sniper’ Moral,” asks a question:  What can we learn from the movie about an Iraq war veteran and sharpshooter that’s been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar?   Here’s Mr. Kristof:

When I was a growing up, yearning with my pals to be a track star, one of our heroes was Bruce Jenner. He won a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics in the decathlon, and he adorned our Wheaties boxes. We all wanted to be Bruce Jenner.

I haven’t thought much about him in years. But Jenner is in the news again, widely reported to be preparing to come out as a transgender woman.

At first, there were snickers, but, lately, the tone has been respectful. And news reports say Jenner is planning to chronicle the transition in a program for E! television channel and in an interview with Diane Sawyer for ABC News. All this, and comments by family members, suggest that Jenner is willing to be a role model and help educate the world on transgender issues.

Radar Online quoted his mother, Esther Jenner, as confirming the news and saying she was prouder of him now than when he won his gold medal. His stepdaughter, Kim Kardashian, told “Entertainment Tonight” that it was Jenner’s story to tell but added: “I think he’ll share whenever the time is right.”

Good for Jenner. All this is probably harder than the training for the Olympic decathlon — but more important, because transgender people face hate crimes and discrimination at an astonishing rate.

Remember Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old gay university student in Wyoming who in 1998 was tied to a fence, badly beaten and left to die? That was seen as the ultimate hate crime and now seems to belong to a different era.

Yet, just so far this year, at least three transgender people have been reported murdered in the United States. The Human Rights Campaign issued a report the other day listing 13 transgender women murdered in 2014: They were shot, strangled, burned and beaten.

“Violence is something that is disproportionately affecting transgender people — and for specific reasons,” says Elizabeth Halloran of the Human Rights Campaign. “Inability to access employment, housing and safety-net services, as well as family rejection, all conspire to create a reality that makes transgender people — especially transgender people of color, transgender women and transgender people living poverty — more vulnerable to violence.”

Vincent Paolo Villano of the National Center for Transgender Equality said that there has been progress in laws protecting transgender Americans, but that public attitudes remain a problem.

Sex and gender are such befuddling mysteries even for those of us who are in the mainstream that you’d think we’d be wary of being judgmental. Yet much of society clings to a view that gender is completely binary, when, in fact, there’s overwhelming evidence of a continuum.

And considering the violence and discrimination that transgender people endure, no one would go through this except for the most profound of motivations: to be authentic to one’s inner self.

A 2011 survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 57 percent of transgender people interviewed reported significant family rejection. Partly because of widespread job discrimination, they were often impoverished, and almost one-fifth had been homeless. And 41 percent reported having attempted suicide.

“Gender needs to be taught about in schools,” Leelah Alcorn, a transgender 17-year-old who had been sent to conversion therapy by her parents, wrote in a suicide note when she killed herself last year. “Fix society. Please.”

Gays and lesbians began to gain civil rights when Americans realized that their brothers, cousins, daughters were gay. Numbers are elusive, but research at the University of California at Los Angeles suggests that while 3.5 percent of American adults identify as gay, only 0.3 percent are transgender.

Jay Brown, a transgender man who has written an excellent online guide to how the public can support those transitioning, notes that as 65 percent of Americans say they have a family member or close friend who is gay, compared with only 9 percent who have such a connection to someone who is transgender.

Yet there are signs of a real opening, with TV shows dealing with transgender issues, Vice President Joe Biden referring to transgender discrimination as “the civil rights issue of our time,” and President Obama mentioning transgender people in his State of the Union address last month.

That’s the context in which Jenner is now stepping forward. If the aim is to educate us, bravo!

Cynics might say that the television plans are more about self-promotion than leadership. All I know is that Jenner seems to be preparing for a bold public mission involving something intensely personal, in a way that should open minds and hearts. So, in my book, Bruce Jenner is now a gold medalist again. Come on, Wheaties. It’s time to put Jenner back on the box!

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Things we can learn from “American Sniper”:

You know the movie, right? It has not only been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar; it could wind up selling more tickets than the other seven nominees combined. Plus, it’s triggered a left-right controversy that makes the old dust-up over “Duck Dynasty” seem like a tiny cultural blip.

“American Sniper” tells the story of Chris Kyle, a real-life Iraq war veteran and sharpshooter. The film is certainly powerful, and it celebrates our Iraq veterans. But it also eulogizes the killing of Iraq insurgents, including children, and critics feel it ought to be put in the context of an invasion that didn’t need to happen in the first place.

There’s been less conversation about the final scene in the movie, which shows the hero walking through his family home, where the kids are romping. He’s carrying a handgun, which he points at his wife Taya, playfully telling her to “drop them drawers.” Taya says she can see he’s finally getting over his war traumas and back to his old fun-loving self.

This is, by virtually any standard, insane behavior. Mike Huckabee, a big “American Sniper” fan, recently published a book called “God, Guts, Grits and Gravy,” which is so wildly opposed to any weapon regulation that Huckabee opens his chapter on modern education by complaining that public schools are anti-gun. Yet he also presents a list of universally accepted gun safety rules, many of which boil down to don’t point it at anybody as a joke.

“Yeah, but if you want to complain about the casual treatment of guns in movies, you don’t have to look very hard on any Friday night,” said Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. Murphy hasn’t seen the movie, but he’s one of Congress’s leading advocates of gun-control regulation. It’s not the world’s most rewarding job. In recent years, his colleagues have not only refused to pass an extremely modest bill on background checks, they’ve failed to ban the sale of guns to people on the terrorism watch list.

“American Sniper” is on one, supremely obvious level, a celebration of gun culture. But it’s also a cautionary tale. The real Chris Kyle was shot to death while the script was being written. He had volunteered to help a troubled veteran, Eddie Ray Routh, who had a history of violent behavior and was an apparent victim of post-traumatic stress. Kyle felt the best way to get him to relax was to take him to a shooting range. While they were there, Routh turned his gun on Kyle, and one of Kyle’s friends, killing them both.

“American Sniper” could actually be seen, at least in the final scene, as a good-gun, bad-gun message. The real Chris Kyle did enjoy walking around the house, twirling a pistol. His wife said that as the clouds lifted after his Iraq service, he would playfully point a gun at the television and pretend to shoot down the bad guys.

Jason Hall, who wrote the movie screenplay, said the scene was meant to both show Kyle in recovery and presage the violence that was about to occur off-screen.

“There’s a tension in the scene that builds toward the ending,” he said in a phone interview.

The American gun lobby has pushed its cause so far that it, too, may be falling off a cliff. Texas, where Chris Kyle’s alleged murderer is going on trial next week, has always had a gun-friendly culture, so much so that visitors can bring concealed handguns into the State Capitol. Some people definitely do not think this goes far enough, and, on opening day of the Legislature last month, they demanded new laws making it legal to carry handguns in the open, preferably without a license.

One particularly bouncy group, Open Carry Tarrant County, flooded the office of Representative Poncho Nevárez, a non-supportive Democrat. A video of the ensuing scene showed Nevárez, looking extremely wary, asking the demonstrators to leave his office, while one of them yelled back: “I’m asking you to leave my state.” When Nevárez tried to close his door, one of the protesters stuck his foot in it. This was all happening, remember, in a building where carrying concealed weapons is perfectly fine.

When it was all over, some legislators in both parties wore “I’m Poncho” badges in solidarity with Nevárez, who was assigned a security detail after he and his family received threats.

The leader of Open Carry Tarrant County, Kory Watkins, then posted another video in which he claimed that the resistant lawmakers were forgetting their duty was “to protect the Constitution. And let me remind you: Going against the Constitution is treason. And treason is punishable by death.”

Meanwhile, in the Texas Capitol, enthusiasm for watering down the gun laws seems to be dwindling. That could qualify as a happy ending.

Kristof and Collins

January 29, 2015

In “How Do We Increase Empathy?” Mr. Kristof says a column about a buddy who dealt with the consequences of poverty and inequality sparked a conversation about empathy, or the lack thereof.  There seems to be precious little empathy around these days.  It’s more an “FYIGM” era.  In “The Days of Wine and Droning” Ms. Collins says whether you support drones seems to depend on whether you live in a crowded space or an empty space.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

In my last column, I wrote about a high school buddy, Kevin Green, a warm and helpful man who floundered in a tough job market, hurt his back and died at the age of 54. The column was a call for empathy for those who are struggling, but, predictably, scolds complained that Kevin’s problems were of his own making.

Grrrr.

So what do we know about empathy and how to nurture it?

First, it seems hard-wired. Even laboratory rats will sometimes free a trapped companion before munching on a food treat.

“Probably the biggest empathy generator is cuteness: paedomorphic features such as large eyes, a large head, and a small lower face,” Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, tells me. “Professional empathy entrepreneurs have long known this, of course, which is why so many charities feature photos of children and why so many conservation organizations feature pandas. Prettier children are more likely to be adopted, and baby-faced defendants get lighter sentences.”

Not much we can do about looks — although criminal defense lawyers try, by having scruffy clients shave and dress up before appearing in court.

There’s also some research suggesting that wealth may impede empathy. One study by psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley finds that drivers of luxury cars are more likely to cut off other motorists and ignore pedestrians at a crosswalk. Likewise, heart rates of wealthier research subjects are less affected when they watch a video of children with cancer.

Granted, skepticism is reasonable any time (mostly liberal) academics reach conclusions that portray the wealthy in a poor light. But these experiments also find a measure of backing in the real world. For example, among Democratic politicians, personal wealth is a predictor of supporting legislation that would increase inequality, according to a journal article last year by Michael W. Kraus and Bennett Callaghan.

Likewise, the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans give significantly less to charity as a fraction of income (1.4 percent) than the poorest 20 percent do (3.5 percent), according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

That may be partly because affluence insulates us from need, so that disadvantage becomes theoretical and remote rather than a person in front of us. Wealthy people who live in economically diverse areas are more generous than those who live in exclusively wealthy areas.

Wealth may also turn us inward. Some experiments manipulated research subjects to think of money — such as by having them gaze at a pile of Monopoly money and imagine great wealth — and found that when a person then “accidentally” spilled pencils nearby, those thinking of great wealth were less helpful than those imagining tight budgets and picked up fewer pencils from the floor.

So how do we increase empathy?

Dacher Keltner, who runs the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley, says that having people think about suffering activates the vagus nerve, which is linked to compassion. He also cites evidence that uplifting stories about sacrifice boost empathy, as do various kinds of contemplation — prayer, meditation, yoga.

Keltner says that going out into nature also appears to encourage greater compassion. Feelings of awe, such as those generated by incredible images from space, seem to do the same thing, he says.

Professor Pinker, in his superb book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” explores whether the spread of affordable fiction and journalism beginning in the 18th century expanded empathy by making it easier for people to imagine themselves in the shoes of others. Researchers have found that reading literary fiction by the likes of Don DeLillo or Alice Munro — but not beach fiction or nonfiction — can promote empathy.

I used to be cynical about student service projects, partly because they seemed so often to be about dressing up a college application, and trips so often involve countries with great beaches. (Everyone wants to help Costa Rica!) Then there was The Washington Post’s report about the Mexican church that was painted six times over the course of a summer by successive waves of visitors.

Yet I’ve come to believe that service trips do open eyes and remind students of their good fortune. In short, they build empathy.

So let’s escape the insulation of our comfort zones. Let’s encourage student service projects and travel to distant countries and to needy areas nearby. Whatever the impact on others, volunteering may at least help the volunteer. Let’s teach Dickens and DeLillo in schools, along with literature that humanizes minority groups and builds understanding.

Above all, let’s remember that compassion and rationality are not effete markers of weakness, but signs of civilization.

And humanity.  Now here’s Ms. Collins:

The case of the intoxicated government worker who flew a drone onto the White House lawn launched a million jokes. Although none was actually better than the straight-faced headline in The New York Times: “White House Drone Crash Described as a U.S. Worker’s Drunken Lark.”

“My first question is whether the guy’s going to get a D.U.I. for droning under the influence,” said Ben Trapnell, an aviation professor at the University of North Dakota. I had a great phone conversation with Trapnell about drones, a.k.a. unmanned aerial vehicles. It led me to conclude that, like so many other things in American society, this is a matter about which people differ depending on whether they live in a crowded place or an empty place.

Empty, like North Dakota, and you think of a flying camera doing crop inspections. Maybe an Amazon drone arriving at your house on the prairie with the espresso maker you just ordered.

Crowded, and you imagine a mini-helicopter crashing through your apartment window. Or hitting a light pole and falling down on a baby in a stroller. Or running into a plane, which has nearly happened on several occasions.

Even the much-heralded promise of drone-delivered pizza sounds awful if you envision hundreds of pies smashing into one another over Brooklyn every Friday night.

But about the drunk droner. This saga starred an off-duty employee of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency who had been drinking at an apartment not far from the White House when he decided, in the middle of the night, to try out a friend’s drone. He then quickly lost control of the little fellow, which crash-landed in what is at least theoretically the most heavily protected lawn in the United States.

The public conversation instantly turned to terrorism and whether a maniac could use a recreational drone to drop a bomb, or start a chemical attack. This is a terrible worry. But at least we have multitudes of dedicated, vigilant public servants, virtually all of them totally sober, working night and day to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen.

However, we’re not giving enough attention to the threat of normal American idiots. The kind of people who think it’s fun to sit in the backyard and point laser lights at the cockpits of incoming planes, or participate in a YouTube challenge that involves trying to snort a condom up one’s nose. The folks for whose benefit countless utility companies have written tips that include “don’t look for a gas leak with a candle or lighted match.”

Drones are supereasy to buy in stores or online. Regulating their behavior is the responsibility of the Federal Aviation Administration, which is taking its sweet time. “In 2011, Congress asked the F.A.A. to come up with rules. Finally this fall they came out with rules,” said Senator Charles Schumer of New York, who’s been complaining about the delays.

But wait, there’s more! “We don’t even know what they say,” Schumer continued. The F.A.A. isn’t sharing until more of the bureaucracy gets a crack at its handiwork: “They won’t make them public until the Office of Management and Budget reviews them. O.M.B. then sends them to other federal agencies.”

While we’re waiting around, confusion abounds. Commercial drone uses are theoretically prohibited, but there’s a widespread feeling that in the absence of rules, anything goes.

Take Representative Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, whose wedding photographer had a drone taking pictures during the happy occasion. When critics accused him of violating F.A.A. rules, Maloney said he “wasn’t up-to-date on the lack of regulations around the emerging technology.” The same thing was true, the congressman argued, of “most people who are about to get married.” Excellent point! Although most people who are about to get married are not serving on the House transportation subcommittee on aviation.

One of the very few drone regulations that does exist prohibits flying near airports. But clearly some do it anyway. And if you catch one, there’s no ID number to tell you who owns it. “The ones being reported in near collisions are (flown by) hobbyists, and they can go up to 55 pounds,” said a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, which is deeply unenthusiastic about the whole drone idea. “These aren’t like geese. The ones that can be purchased on the internet can go as high as 7-8,000 feet.”

And then you’ve got privacy issues. “They better beware, because I’ve got a shotgun,” said Senator Rand Paul, when asked about drones after the White House incident. This was during an interview, in which CNN was trying to demonstrate that it is possible to communicate with a prominent politician via Snapchat. (It is possible, but probably not a good idea.)

Professor Trapnell in North Dakota wasn’t impressed by the privacy argument. “I’d be more worried about somebody sticking a cellphone on a pole and holding it over the fence,” he argued.

Like I said, it’s crowded versus empty.

Nocera and Collins

January 24, 2015

Well, here’s Gunga Din Nocera again.  Except this time he’s carrying water for TPP.  In “Don’t Blame Nafta” he tells us that over the two decades since the trade deal, manufacturing jobs have vanished, but that it isn’t clear that there’s a link.  And to further clarify what a piece of crap this thing is “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY had this to say in the comments:  “There is nothing even remotely “left-leaning” about the Progressive Economy front group that Joe Nocera cites in this column. It’s a subsidiary of the decidedly right-leaning Global Works Foundation, founded only last year by National Association of Manufacturers consultant Wayne Palmer. The NAM is notorious as one of the most powerful anti-regulatory corporate lobbyists in Washington. And why not? It’s heavily funded by the Koch Brothers, who’d love the TPP to pass so they can spread their pollution at no cost to themselves and for much obscene profit. Before that, Palmer lobbied for Astra Zeneca. Before that, he was chief of staff to Rick Santorum, one of the more notorious right wing politicians of our oligarchy.”  So it would appear that Nocera’s found something else to shill for.  In “And Now: Air Republicans” Ms. Collins says so much for the House passing that bill banning abortions after 20 weeks. Didn’t work out as planned.  Here’s Gunga Din:

On Wednesday, the day after President Obama’s State of the Union address, a handful of Democratic House members, along with one senator, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, held a news conference to denounce one of the very few proposals the president put forward that actually has a chance of passage. The objects of their displeasure were the new trade agreements currently being negotiated by the administration.

“Since I’ve been in Congress, I’ve never seen a trade bill that in any way benefited U.S. manufacturers and workers,” said Representative Louise Slaughter, who has represented the Rochester area for 28 years. She pointed to Kodak as an example of a company harmed by trade accords, especially the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta. Since the deal between the U.S., Canada and Mexico went into effect in 1994, Kodak’s Rochester work force has shrunk to 2,300 from 39,300.

“We are fighting for the future of middle-class families,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. “These trade deals make it much easier for corporations to send American jobs overseas.” Over the past 20 years, Connecticut has lost more than 96,000 manufacturing jobs, she said, because of agreements that failed to protect American workers.

Sanders told the assembled media that while he liked the president’s speech, “he was wrong on one major issue, and that is the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” He added, “I do not believe that continuing a set of bad policies, policies that have failed, makes any sense at all.”

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a trade agreement currently being negotiated between 12 countries, including Japan, Canada, Vietnam, Mexico, Australia and Peru; the countries involved in the negotiations represent nearly 40 percent of global gross domestic product. It is as complex as it is ambitious.

Yet, while the Republican leadership has vowed to work with President Obama on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (as well as on another deal being negotiated with the European Union), the Democrats have been vocal in their opposition. In the short term, they don’t want to give the president so-called fast-track authority, which would allow the administration to negotiate the deal and then hand Congress a finalized agreement that it could only vote up or down, with no amendments. (Fast-track procedures have been used to conclude 14 trade agreements since 1974.)

You’d need a heart of stone not to be sympathetic to the concerns of the Democrats. Over the last two decades, lots of manufacturing jobs have vanished in the United States, inflicting a great deal of pain on workers. During those same 20 years, Nafta has been in force. Linking those job losses to the existence of Nafta is a leap the Democrats — and progressives in general — have made.

The question that needs to be asked, however, is whether that link is justified. “I am skeptical of definitive judgments on Nafta,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We started offshoring television assembly in the 1960s” — decades before Nafta. Yes, many assembly plants have been built in Mexico since Nafta went into effect. But China, where millions more manufacturing jobs have migrated — and with which we have a huge trade deficit — doesn’t even have a trade agreement with the United States.

Edward Gresser, the executive director of Progressive Economy, a left-leaning think tank, noted that other factors were taking place at the same time as Nafta: the growth of container ships, the lowering cost of communications, the rise of global industries. With or without trade deals, globalization is an unstoppable force. What Nafta really is, Gresser told me, is a proxy for globalization.

One mistake the Nafta negotiators made more than two decades ago was taking worker rights and environmental protections out of the agreement itself and putting them into a side letter. They were never effectively enforced. Those negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership expect to rectify that error this go-round. They are also aiming to pry open the Japanese auto and agricultural markets to American producers, and include protections for a free and open Internet. It has, in other words, a lot more potential to do good than harm.

When I spoke to Slaughter on Thursday afternoon, she was still riled up. “These crazy trade agreements,” she called them at one point. She added, “Rochester really suffered.”

She told me about all the jobs lost at Kodak. “I think Nafta brought down Kodak,” she said. But of course it didn’t. Kodak’s problems came about because digital photography made film unnecessary and Kodak didn’t shift course in time. She was blaming Nafta for Kodak’s self-inflicted wounds.

But then her tone brightened. She told me about all the new companies — 55 in all, she said — that had taken space in the old Kodak buildings. Some were even run by former Kodak engineers.

Which, of course, is precisely the way globalization is supposed to work.

Bite me, you prick.  The field where I worked before I retired (medical transcription) has just about all vanished to India.  I wonder if it could possibly have anything to do with the fact that the workers there don’t get paid anything close to what American workers do…  Eat a huge plate of salted dicks, you water carrying shill.  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Tough week for the House Republicans. Speaker John Boehner’s high point must have been not clapping when President Obama talked about job growth in the State of the Union.

After that, things went downhill fast. Anti-abortion groups converged on Washington on Thursday to protest the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. The plan was for the House to welcome them into town by passing a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks. Didn’t work out.

The signs had been bad for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. In committee, its sponsor, Trent Franks, a Republican from Arizona, claimed that the number of rapes resulting in pregnancy was “very low.” He did not actually say that a woman can’t get pregnant if she didn’t enjoy the sex, but it seemed for a minute as if we’d returned to that neighborhood.

Whoops. The bill was amended to provide an exemption for women who had been raped. But that sparked a new fight over whether the exemption should be for all victims of rape or just the ones who had reported the crime to the police. A group of Republican women, including Representative Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, pointed out, correctly, that most victims don’t file such reports.

You may remember that Ellmers was challenged last fall by former “American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken, who she defeated handily. Now Aiken, who turns out to have been filming his campaign, is moving forward to become the star of a TV reality series on elections. And probably having more fun than Ellmers.

“I’m sorry Clay Aiken lost,” tweeted the conservative blogger Erick Erickson when Republican leaders gave up and pulled the 20-week bill from the calendar. A contributor on the Red State blog followed up with the somewhat less playful: “Is Renee Ellmers Worthy of Life?”

Actually, it turns out that Ellmers is a co-sponsor of the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which holds that every fertilized egg has “all legal and constitutional attributes and privileges.” Her concerns about the language of the rape exemption seem to have been a mixture of legal, philosophical and political concerns, all of them nuanced in the extreme. She suggested to National Journal that her party shouldn’t be starting off the year with an issue that wasn’t of interest to “millennials.”

Rape exemptions have come to dominate the abortion debate. Abortion rights groups use lack of concern for rape victims as an illustration of the heartlessness of their opponents. Their opponents propose exemptions to show that they’re reasonable. But, really, it makes no sense either way. The question of when a fetus inside a woman’s body becomes a human being is theological. If you truly believe that human life begins the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg, you can’t admit any exceptions. The only real debate is whether you get to impose your religious beliefs on the entire country.

Not that anybody’s trying to be that rational. “I’m going to need your help to find a way out of this definitional problem with rape,” Senator Lindsey Graham told the anti-abortion marchers. This was four days after Graham announced that he was considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination. It’s very possible that the phrase “this definitional problem with rape” will last longer than his candidacy.

In his speech, Graham gave a shout-out to exemptions for rape and incest. “Some disagree, including the pope,” he noted to the marchers. Francis I has, indeed, been clear and consistent on this matter, despite the moment on a flight back from Manila when he expressed concern about people breeding “like rabbits.” One theologian told CBS News that people should understand that there was a difference between the pope-on-a-plane and the pope-on-the-ground, the latter’s comments being more official.

Perhaps we could all use this distinction in our daily lives. When your spouse quotes something you wish you’d never said, just explain that was an “in-the-air” remark.

Anyhow, about the House and abortion.

The moderate Republican women scored a big win — at least until a backlash from the right had their aides shooing away reporters. But other party members said they, too, were sick of fooling around with the Tea Party’s agenda. “Week 1, we had the vote for the speaker. Week 2, we debated deporting children. Week 3, we’re debating rape and incest. I just can’t wait for Week 4,” Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania complained to Jeremy Peters of The Times.

Humiliated by the collapse of the 20-week bill, House leaders quickly substituted one banning federal funding for abortion, which is already banned.

“This was such a high priority that they didn’t think about it until late last night,” sniped Representative Daniel Kilddee, a Michigan Democrat, during the rather lethargic debate.

The bill passed easily. No matter. It was all just in the air.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

January 22, 2015

In “Inequality in the Air We Breathe?” Mr. Blow says it’s hard to imagine anyone, with a straight face, proposing to openly burn millions of pounds of explosives near, say, Manhattan or Seattle.  Mr. Kristof considers “Reagan, Obama and Inequality” and says the average American has been stuck since the Reagan era in a predawn darkness of stagnation and inequality.  In “The Road Meets the Walrus” Ms. Collins says the gas tax might be a good topic to discuss when people ask you what you thought of President Obama’s State of the Union address.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I grew up in the small town of Gibsland, in northern Louisiana. It is dirt poor, but proud. And it’s an overwhelmingly African-American community.

(There are fewer than 1,000 people in Gibsland; more than 80 percent of them are black; the median household income is $27,292, little over half the national average of $51,939; and the poverty rate is 28 percent, compared with the national rate of 15 percent.)

My mother, one of my brothers and a raft of relatives still live in Gibsland. Another brother moved to the next town over, Minden, a big city relatively speaking (it has 13,000 people), where he is a high school teacher. Minden, just west of Gibsland, is also majority African-American and relatively poor — 55 percent of the residents are black, the median household income is $30,411 and 24 percent of the residents are poor.

For years, one of the largest employers in that area was the Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant, about four miles from Minden. The Environmental Protection Agency eventually listed the plant as a Superfund site because for more than 40 years “untreated explosives-laden wastewater from industrial operations was collected in concrete sumps at each of the various load line areas,” and emptied into “16 one-acre pink water lagoons.” It was determined that the toxic contamination in soil and sediments from the lagoons was a “major contributor” to toxic groundwater contamination.

But wait, it gets worse.

When the plant ceased production, as The Times-Picayune of New Orleans pointed out, “the Army awarded now-bankrupt Explo Systems a contract in 2010 to ‘demilitarize’ the propellant charges for artillery rounds” on the site. The company conducted “operations” there “until a 2012 explosion sent a mushroom cloud 7,000 feet high and broke windows a mile away in Doyline,” another small community in the area.

But wait, it gets worse.

According to The Shreveport Times, “investigation by state police found the millions of pounds of propellant stored in 98 bunkers scattered around” the site. It turned out that when Explo went bankrupt, it simply abandoned the explosives, known as M6. Now there was a risk of even more explosions, so there was need for a plan to get rid of the M6, and quickly.

(By the way, Shreveport is the largest city near the site, and it, too, is majority black, has a median household income well below the national average and a poverty rate well above it.)

But wait, it gets worse.

According to the website Truthout:

“After months of bureaucratic disputes between the Army and state and federal agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) recently announced an emergency plan to burn 15 million pounds of M6 — up to 80,000 pounds a day over the course of a year — on open ‘burn trays’ at Camp Minden, a disposal process that environmental advocates say is outdated and has been outlawed in other countries. The operation would be one of the largest open munitions burn in U.S. history.”

Indeed, Robert Flournoy, an environmental toxicologist and former Louisiana Tech professor, wrote in The Shreveport Times this week:

“The E.P.A. says this is a safe way to destroy the propellant. I strongly disagree with their decision and their safety statement. I have over 42 years of environmental experience and can say without a doubt the open-tray method is not safe. The E.P.A. has produced no data to the safety of such a burn and repeatedly ignores requests for such data from media, citizens, state officials and environmental professionals. In addition to the air contamination risk, we have three other issues: explosive detonation, groundwater contamination and soil contamination.”

And yes, again, it gets worse.

A local television news station, KTBS in Shreveport, pointed out last week:

“It’s expected to be the nation’s largest open burn in history. And now, it seems there’s even more explosive material at Camp Minden than we all previously thought. We’ve all heard the number 15 million pounds of explosives, but documents from the E.P.A. show there’s millions more pounds.”

This week, a group of “71 social and environmental justice organizations” across the country sent a letter of protest to the E.P.A.’s assistant administrator Cynthia Giles, saying in part:

“By definition, open burning has no emissions controls and will result in the uncontrolled release of toxic emissions and respirable particulates to the environment.”

Feeling the pressure from local citizen and environmentalist rightly concerned about the immediate and long-term health implications, the E.P.A. recently delayed the burn by 90 days to allow the state’s department of environmental quality and the National Guard to “select their own alternative for disposing of the explosive material,” according to The Times-Picayune.

Still, these little places in the woods aren’t yet out of the woods. It’s still not clear what will eventually happen with the explosives.

We have to stop and ask: How was this allowed to come to such a pass in the first place? How could this plant have been allowed to contaminate the groundwater for 40 years? How could the explosives have been left at the site in the first place? How is it that there doesn’t seem to be the money or the will to more safely remove them? Can we imagine anyone, with a straight face, proposing to openly burn millions of pounds of explosives near Manhattan or Seattle?

This is the kind of scenario that some might place under the umbrella of “environmental racism,” in which disproportionately low-income and minority communities are either targeted or disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous materials and waste facilities.

There is a long history in this country of exposing vulnerable populations to toxicity.

Fifteen years ago, Robert D. Bullard published Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality. In it, he pointed out that nearly 60 percent of the nation’s hazardous-waste landfill capacity was in “five Southern states (i.e., Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas),” and that “four landfills in minority ZIP codes areas represented 63 percent of the South’s total hazardous-waste capacity” although “blacks make up only about 20 percent of the South’s total population.”

More recently, in 2012, a study by researchers at Yale found that “The greater the concentration of Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans or poor residents in an area, the more likely that potentially dangerous compounds such as vanadium, nitrates and zinc are in the mix of fine particles they breathe.”

Among the injustices perpetrated on poor and minority populations, this may in fact be the most pernicious and least humane: the threat of poisoning the very air that you breathe.

I have skin in this game. My family would fall in the shadow of the plume. But everyone should be outraged about this practice. Of all the measures of equality we deserve, the right to feel assured and safe when you draw a breath should be paramount.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Since the end of the 1970s, something has gone profoundly wrong in America.

Inequality has soared. Educational progress slowed. Incarceration rates quintupled. Family breakdown accelerated. Median household income stagnated.

“It’s morning again in America” — that was a campaign slogan by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. But, in retrospect, the average American has been stuck since the Reagan era in a predawn darkness of stagnation and inequality, and we still haven’t shaken it off, particularly since 2000. Inequality has increased further under President Obama.

That’s the context for Obama’s call, in his State of the Union address, for greater economic fairness. But first, the caveats. His proposals are dead on arrival in Congress. They won’t be implemented and probably won’t change the public’s thinking: Research by George C. Edwards, a political scientist, finds that presidential speeches rarely persuade the public much.

Remember the 2014 State of the Union address? Of course not. Of 18 proposals in it, there was action on two, according to PBS. Or Obama’s passionate call in his 2013 State of the Union for measures to reduce gun violence? Nothing much resulted, and the word “guns” didn’t even pass his lips this time.

Yet the bully pulpit still can shape the national agenda and nag at the American conscience. I don’t fully agree with Obama’s solutions — how could he skip over early-childhood interventions?! — but he’s exactly right in the way he framed the inequality issue: “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?”

Some background. Even with the global Great Depression, the United States performed brilliantly in the first three-quarters of the 20th century, with incomes and education mostly rising and inequality flat or falling — and gains were broadly shared by poor and rich alike. High school graduation rates surged, G.I.’s went to college, and the United States led the world in educational attainment.

And, in part of this remarkable era, the top federal income tax rate exceeded 90 percent. Republicans might remember that point when they warn that Obama’s proposals for modestly higher taxes would savage the American economy.

Then, for average Americans, the roof fell in around the end of the 1970s. The ’70s were “the end of normal,” the economist James K. Galbraith argues in a new book of that title. Afterward, the economy continued to grow over all, but the spoils went to the wealthy and the bottom 90 percent barely benefited.

Median household income is little greater today than it was in 1979. Today, the typical family in Canada appears better off than the typical American family.

By some measures, education — our seed corn for the future — has pretty much stalled. More young American men today have less education than their parents (29 percent) than have more education (20 percent). Among industrialized countries as a whole, 70 percent of 3-year-olds go to preschool; in the United States, 38 percent do.

I wonder if the celebration of unfettered capitalism and “greed is good” since the Reagan era didn’t help shape social mores in ways that accelerated inequality.

In any case, Reagan was right on one point — “the best social program is a productive job” — and Obama offered sound proposals to increase incentives for work. Better child-care and sick-leave policies would also make work more feasible. The United States is the only country among the 34 in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that provides no paid maternity leave.

Oddly, Obama didn’t push early-childhood initiatives, focused on kids from newborns to 5 years old, that have a particularly strong evidence base for creating opportunity.

Early-education initiatives poll well, and some of the leaders in programming have been red states like Oklahoma. So while the Obama agenda is mostly for show, expansion of preschool could actually occur at least at the state level.

Obama rightly heralded the fall in teenage pregnancy rates. But he had little to do with it (although the MTV show “16 and Pregnant” played a role!), and about 30 percent of American girls still get pregnant by age 19. Making reliable birth control available to at-risk teenagers would help them, reduce abortion rates and even pay for itself in reduced social spending later.

In America, we have subsidized private jets, big banks and hedge fund managers. Wouldn’t it make more sense to subsidize kids? So if higher capital gains taxes can pay for better education, infrastructure and jobs, of course that trade-off is worthwhile.

Congressional Republicans seem focused on a pipeline that isn’t even economically viable at today’s oil prices. Let’s hope that the national agenda can broaden along the lines that Obama suggests, so that the last 35 years become an aberration rather than a bellwether.

And next up we have Ms. Collins:

Let’s raise the gas tax.

There are several reasons we need to discuss this now. One is that plummeting gasoline prices make the idea very timely. Also, people will be asking you this week what you thought of President Obama’s State of the Union address. Even though he did not mention the gas tax, bringing it up will allow you to avoid having an opinion on whether it’s time to close the capital gains stepped-up-basis loophole.

The gas tax raises much-needed money for roads and mass transit. Our roads, you may have noticed, are falling apart. Every time you hit a pothole, yell: “Raise the gas tax!”

Even more important, it encourages Americans to use fuel-efficient cars. While we’re all happy as clams about falling gas prices, every gallon produces more than 19 pounds of planet-warming emissions. We just had the hottest year on record. The ice floes are melting. Walruses keep piling up along the Alaskan shore, where the babies can get squashed.

Raise the gas tax and remember the walruses.

Plus, it’s not really a tax! Or at least not necessarily. Just ask Ronald Reagan. When he entered office, Reagan said he didn’t see the likelihood of a gas tax increase “unless there’s a palace coup.” But then, you know, stuff happened and The Great Communicator discovered that a levy on gasoline wasn’t really a tax, but merely a “user fee.” So no problem at all, and under his administration the, um, fee was more than doubled.

Ah, Ronald Reagan. Perhaps you noticed, during the State of the Union, that President Obama was urging Congress to bring the capital gains tax back up to Reagan-era levels? Who’d have thought? We live in ironic times, people.

But about the gas tax. It was also raised under George H.W. (The Good One) Bush, and then again under Bill Clinton. Remember Al Gore breaking the tie in the Senate? Ah, Al Gore.

And that was it. The federal gas tax, currently 18.4 cents a gallon, is not indexed for inflation, and it has not gone up since 1993. The Highway Trust Fund, which pays for the federal highway construction program, keeps falling deeper into the red. It’s currently scheduled to implode sometime this spring.

The White House has been very clear about its lack of enthusiasm for solving the problem with a gas tax increase. Mainly, the objection is that if Congress wouldn’t pass Obama’s proposal to pay for early education with a tobacco tax, it’s not going to fund road repair with a gas tax. This is a pretty good point. However, deeply cynical souls could also argue that the current majority likes road construction more than preschool.

During the State of the Union, Obama made his pitch for another idea: reform the tax on overseas business profits, creating a one-time-only windfall of revenue for the government to use in a mega-road-building spree.

Three reasons the gas tax is a better idea:

1) Walruses.

2) Half the members of Congress are eyeing that very same windfall to pay for their own pet programs.

3) Only works once. “It’s just a coward’s way out,” says Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican. Genuine fiscal conservatives hate the idea of paying for permanent ongoing programs with one-shot revenues. Corker has been known to complain that he’s been in the Senate for eight years and never saw Congress permanently solve a problem.

Last year Corker and Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat of Connecticut, floated the idea of raising the gas tax 12 cents over two years. “Our bet when we went out on a limb last year was that we could position it as a topic for serious discussion this year, and I hope it’s going to pay off,” said Murphy.

And it’s working, sort of. A number of prominent Republicans have been muttering things like “nothing is off the table.” Senator James Inhofe, the new chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and a man whose position on global warming makes him an enemy to walruses everywhere, has said a gas tax is “one of the options.” An option that is not off the table! Truly, the worm has turned.

On the other hand, Representative Paul Ryan, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, recently announced: “We won’t pass a gas tax.” That would seem to be somewhat discouraging, but there are still these gleams of hope that Republicans might come around since:

— You can call it a user fee. (Ask Ronald Reagan.)

— President Obama doesn’t like it.

— Compromise is possible. Many conservatives hate the fact that the Highway Trust Fund also helps support mass transit and invests in things like highway beautification and bike paths. There might be some room for give here. Let’s throw something in the fund under the proverbial bus. I nominate “transportation museums.”

Walrus seconds the motion.


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