Archive for the ‘Concern trolling’ Category

Brooks and Nocera

June 16, 2015

Bobo gives us a classic example of concern trolling in “The Democratic Tea Party.”  He gurgles that if  it stands, Democrats’ rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership will go down as a mistake with extensive and long-lasting repercussions.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston has this to say:  “When David Brooks comes riding in on a white horse to save the world it’s probably best to take a close look at the horse, because it’s usually of the Trojan variety.”  Mr. Nocera, in “How to Grade a Teacher,” says there are better ways to evaluate teachers than test scores alone.  Here’s Bobo:

Last week, the Congressional Democrats defeated the underpinnings of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Let’s count up the things these Democrats will have done if this policy stands.

Impoverish the world’s poor. There’s an argument over what trade agreements do to workers in the nation’s rich countries, but there is no question they have a positive impact on people in the poorer ones.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, for example, probably didn’t affect the American economy too much. But the Mexican economy has taken off. With more opportunities, Mexican workers feel less need to sneak into the U.S. As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, a regime that was anti-American has turned into one that is pro-American.

In Asia, the American-led open trade era has created the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. The Pacific trade deal would lift the living standards of the poorest Asians, especially the 90 million people of Vietnam.

As Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, wrote in his Marginal Revolution blog: “Do you get that progressives? Poorest country = biggest gainer. Isn’t that what we are looking for?”

Damage the American economy. According to a survey by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, 83 percent of the nation’s leading economists believe that trade deals have been good for most Americans. That’s not quite the level of consensus on man-made global warming, but it is close.

That’s because free trade is not a zero-sum game. The global poor benefit the most, but most people in rich countries benefit, too. As Jason Furman, the chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors pointed out in a speech at the Brookings Institution, since World War II, reductions in U.S. tariffs have contributed an additional 7.3 percent to American incomes.

Trade treaties have led to significant growth in American manufacturing exports. According to Furman, export-intensive industries pay workers up to 18 percent more than nonexport-intensive ones. Rising imports also give American consumers access to a wider range of inexpensive products, leading to huge standard of living increases for those down the income scale.The authoritative study on the Pacific trade deal, by Peter Petri, Michael Plummer and Fan Zhai, suggests it would raise U.S. incomes by 0.4 percent per year by 2025.

Stifle future innovation. Democrats point out that some workers have been hurt by trade deals. And that’s true. Most manufacturing job losses have been caused by technological improvements.

But those manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. The best way forward is to increase the number of high-quality jobs in the service sector. The Pacific trade deal would help. The treaty is not mostly about reducing tariffs on goods. That work has mostly been done. It’s mostly about establishing rules for a postindustrial global economy, rules having to do with intellectual property, investment, antitrust and environmental protection. Service-sector industries like these are where America is strongest, where the opportunities for innovation are the most exciting and where wages are already 20 percent higher than in manufacturing.

Imperil world peace. The Pacific region will either be organized by American rules or Chinese rules. By voting against the trade deal, Democrats went a long way toward guaranteeing that Chinese rules will dominate.

As various people have noted, the Democratic vote last week was a miniversion of the effort to destroy the League of Nations after World War I. It damaged an institution that might head off future conflict.

The arguments Democrats use against the deal are small and inadequate. Some Democrats are suspicious because it was negotiated in secret. (They seem to have no trouble with the Iranian nuclear treaty, which is also negotiated in secret.)

Others worry that the treaty would allow corporations to sue governments. But these procedures are already in place, and as research from the Center for Strategic and Internatioanl Studies has demonstrated, the concerns are vastly overblown. They mostly protect companies from authoritarian governments who seek to expropriate their property.

In reality, the opposition to the trade pact is part of a long tradition of populist reaction. When economic stress rises, there is a strong temptation to pull inward. The Republican Tea Partiers are suspicious of all global diplomatic arrangements. The Democrats’ version of the Tea Partiers are suspicious of all global economic arrangements.

It would be nice if Hillary Clinton emerged and defended the treaty, which she helped organize.

Rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership will hurt economies from the U.S. to Japan to Vietnam. It will send yet another signal that America can no longer be counted on as the world’s leading nation.

If Bobo’s for it, then thinking people must be against it.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

This is the second column I’ve written about Deborah Loewenberg Ball, the dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. Ball believes the training that teachers get while they are in school needs to be drastically improved. Last year, I wrote about her effort to develop a professional training curriculum that would allow beginning teachers to be far better grounded in their craft than they are now.

Recently, I learned about another effort she has led, which I also think deserves wider attention. It tackles one of the most divisive topics in K-12 education: how to evaluate teachers so that the best can be rewarded and the worst fired.

In New York — a state where the issue has been especially contentious — Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this year pushed through legislation that calls for student test scores to count for as much as 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, up from the current 20 percent. The teachers’ unions were incensed, believing that test scores are a simplistic and unfair means of assessing teachers. So were many parents, who joined a boycott movement that resulted in an estimated 165,000 students opting out of this year’s standardized tests.

A teacher evaluation system “is only good if the teachers respect it and trust it,” says Vicki Phillips, a director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Teachers are convinced that evaluation systems that overly rely on test scores are punitive, which the political rhetoric often underscores. For instance, Cuomo’s stated reason for changing the state’s teacher evaluation was that some 96 percent of teachers got top gradesunder the old process. He scoffed at those results as “baloney.” That’s hardly going to get teachers to buy into your new evaluation system.

Which brings me back to Michigan. In 2011, the State Legislature there changed the tenure law, making it easier to fire incompetent teachers. But it also set up the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness, which was charged with coming up with its first-ever statewide evaluation system. Ball was named chairwoman of the council. Two years later, it came back with its recommendations.

The first thing I noticed about the council’s recommendations is that they completely avoid the divisive political language that has alienated teachers. Instead of casting teacher evaluation as primarily being about getting rid of bad teachers, they put the emphasis on teacher improvement. An evaluation system that stresses improvement instead of punishment has a much better chance of being embraced by teachers.

Such an emphasis isn’t just good politics. It’s also an important way to help make schools better. “Very few teachers can’t improve,” Ball told me recently. And most teachers want to improve — but have no means of getting useful feedback. The council’s idea was that the evaluations could be used not just to rid the system of incompetent teachers — though it would certainly do that — but also to give all the other teachers critical feedback. It also envisions transforming professional development, which is now mostly a wasteland, into a mechanism to put that feedback into practice.

There are two fundamental pieces to the Michigan council’s plan. The first piece is teacher observation. In most schools, it’s the principal who observes the teacher, often haphazardly, and rates him or her based on personal biases, which may or may not be sound. Ball and her colleagues would instead rely on observers who have been trained in using certain tools that have been proved effective. These observations would be the basis for the teacher’s feedback — feedback meant to encourage and help, rather than threaten.

The second piece is what the council calls evaluating “student growth.” Here the point would be not to measure student achievement in absolute terms — Does Johnny read at a fourth-grade level? — but rather to measure whether Johnny had made a year’s worth of improvement from the level he was reading at when he was in the third grade. This would be a more accurate representation of the difference the teacher made, and would take into account the wide range of learning levels teachers often have to contend with.

Some of this growth evaluation would undoubtedly be done through tests. But not all of it, or even most of it. “You have to look at objectives for students for the year and see if they made progress,” says Ball. There are ways to do that that don’t require standardized testing.

I wish I could tell you that this story has a happy ending, but it doesn’t. Legislation that embodied the work of the council failed to pass the Michigan Legislature in the last session. More recently, the chairman of a related Senate committee, Phil Pavlov, has essentially tossed the council’s work aside in favor of “local control.”

That is Michigan’s loss. But perhaps other states and school districts can look at the work of the Michigan council and learn from it. In which case, it could still be America’s gain.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

June 9, 2015

Bobo is just FULL of heart-felt advice for Democrats and the nation.  In “The Mobilization Error” he gurgles that Hillary Rodham Clinton has chosen a campaign strategy that is bad for the nation and probably won’t work.  I love it when he concern trolls.  In the comments “Bos” from Boston points out a standard Bobo tactic:  “This appears to jamming-a-square-peg-in-a-round-hole argument because the dichotomy is an artificial one.”  Bobo has many, many strawmen…  Mr. Cohen, in “The Greek Trap,” says trying to save Greece has become an exercise in the absurd. Let the deluge happen and see how Syriza fares.  Maybe he should read some Krugman.  Mr. Nocera has a question in “Alabama Football Follies:”  Would it still be a real university without football?  Here’s Bobo:

Every serious presidential candidate has to answer a fundamental strategic question: Do I think I can win by expanding my party’s reach, or do I think I can win by mobilizing my party’s base?

Two of the leading Republicans have staked out opposing sides on this issue. Scott Walker is trying to mobilize existing conservative voters. Jeb Bush is trying to expand his party’s reach.

The Democratic Party has no debate on this issue. Hillary Clinton has apparently decided to run as the Democratic Scott Walker. As The Times’s Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman reported this week, Clinton strategists have decided that, even in the general election, firing up certain Democratic supporters is easier than persuading moderates. Clinton will adopt left-leaning policy positions carefully designed to energize the Obama coalition — African-Americans, Latinos, single women and highly educated progressives.

This means dispensing with a broad persuasion campaign. As the Democratic strategist David Plouffe told Martin and Haberman, “If you run a campaign trying to appeal to 60 to 70 percent of the electorate, you’re not going to run a very compelling campaign for the voters you need.”

The Clinton advisers are smart, and many of them helped President Obama win the last war, but this sort of a campaign is a mistake.

This strategy is bad, first, for the country. America has always had tough partisan politics, but for most of its history, the system worked because it had leaders who could reframe debates, reorganize coalitions, build center-out alliances and reach compromises. Politics is broken today because those sorts of leaders have been replaced by highly polarizing, base-mobilizing politicians who hew to party orthodoxy, ignore the 38 percent of voters who identify as moderates and exacerbate partisanship and gridlock. If Clinton decides to be just another unimaginative base-mobilizing politician, she will make our broken politics even worse.

Second, this base mobilization strategy is a legislative disaster. If the next president hopes to pass any actual laws, he or she will have to create a bipartisan governing majority. That means building a center-out coalition, winning 60 reliable supporters in the Senate and some sort of majority in the House. If Clinton runs on an orthodox left-leaning, paint-by-numbers strategy, she’ll never be able to do this. She’ll live in the White House again, but she won’t be able to do much once she lives there.

Third, the mobilization strategy corrodes every candidate’s leadership image. Voters tend to like politicians who lead from a place of conviction, who care more about a cause than winning a demographic. If Clinton seems driven by demographics and microtargeting, she will underline the image some have that she is overly calculating and shrewd.

Finally, the base mobilizing strategy isn’t even very good politics.

It’s worth noting, to start with, that no recent successful first-term presidential campaign has used this approach. In 1992, Bill Clinton firmly grabbed the center. In 2000, George Bush ran as a uniter, not a divider. In 2008, Barack Obama ran as a One Nation candidate who vowed to transcend partisan divides.

The Clinton mobilization strategy is based on the idea that she can generate Obama-level excitement among African-American and young voters. But as Philip Klein documented in The Washington Examiner, Obama was in a league of his own when it came to generating turnout and support from those groups. If Clinton returns to the John Kerry/Al Gore level of African-American and youth support, or if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio can make inroads into the Hispanic vote, then the whole strategy is in peril.

The mobilization strategy over-reads the progressive shift in the electorate. It’s true that voters have drifted left on social issues. But they have not drifted left on economic and fiscal issues, as the continued unpopularity of Obamacare makes clear. If Clinton comes across as a stereotypical big-spending, big-government Democrat, she will pay a huge cost in the Upper Midwest and the Sun Belt.

Furthermore, this strategy vastly exaggerates the supposed death of the swing voter. The mobilizers argue that it’s foolish to go after persuadable voters because in this polarized country there are none left. It’s true there are fewer persuadables, but according to the Pew Research Center, 24 percent of voters have a roughly equal number of conservative and liberal positions, and according to a range of academic studies, about 23 percent of the electorate can be swayed by a compelling campaign.

Today’s political consultants have a lot of great tools to turn out reliable voters. They’re capable of creating amazing power points. But as everybody from Ed Miliband to Mark Udall can tell you, this approach has not succeeded at the ballot box. Voters want better politics, not a continuation of the same old techniques. By adopting base mobilization, Clinton seems to have made the first big decision of her presidential campaign. It’s the wrong one.

Tell the lunatics in the Klown Kar to stop mobilizing the base first, Bobo.  (And boy oh boy are they base…)  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Athens:

Trying to save Greece has become an exercise in the absurd. Greece is near-enough bankrupt. Most Greeks know that. It can never repay its debts, no matter how many deals with creditors are pulled out of a hat.

The country is now run by a radical left party whose ministers have close to zero executive experience. Their executive experience nonetheless exceeds their diplomatic experience. This stands at less than zero — and it shows. The party, Syriza, includes people who want to re-fight the Greek Civil War (1946-49) in the belief the Communists will triumph this time.

For now, the party’s main enemies are international creditors and of course the Germans, who want the Greeks to present a plan of some sort to balance their books before doling out more cash — about $8 billion in fact — as part of an enormous bailout program. The thing is, however, that Syriza was elected precisely to say foreign-imposed austerity had already done enough damage to Greece.

The country, which desperately needs the $8 billion, is drowning under a welter of statistics that present a devastating picture of unemployment, unpayable pensions, youthful pensioners, uncollected taxes, drastic fiscal adjustments, and of course debt. Given all this, Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister, declared the latest proposals from creditors “absurd” — you see what I mean about diplomacy — a view that reportedly caused Jean-Claude Juncker, the chief executive of the European Union, not to pick up a call from Tsipras over the weekend.

There’s one thing about reality: It tends to come back and kick you in the teeth. Forcing Greece and Germany to coexist in a currency union will always be an exercise in smoke and mirrors. Their economies are mismatched, their temperaments even more so.

Many Greeks are awaiting the worst. The rich, of course, already have their money elsewhere. Just about everyone has a few thousand euros stashed away — 5,000 per person where possible. Stores are taking out anti-looting insurance. Public hospitals are making contingency plans for operating when money dries up. More than $5 billion was pulled from bank accounts in April alone by companies and individuals.

Speculation is rampant — absent a debt deal — of a bank run, capital controls and the issue of i.o.u.’s (that will promptly lose 50 percent of their nominal value, especially if adorned with the face of Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis). Shortly thereafter follow economic collapse, unrest and new elections.

That sounds terrible, but I’m not sure. It would represent reality rather than the repetitive evasion of it. Things are very bad here. But just how bad is not clear because it has not been fully tested. The surface has a way of glimmering.

The Greek bailouts have given time to other countries in the eurozone — including Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland — to either get their houses in order or embark seriously on the task. Euro-unraveling contagion is now far less likely. One thing is sure: If a deal is reached with Greece, it will only be the prelude to the next crisis in a few months or so.

Creditors could tell Syriza: You have a century to repay the debt, but now you’re on your own. Fix the country, whether inside the euro or out. Get foreign corporations to put their money in Greece. You want to try the Putin route, with Gazprom stepping in for the I.M.F., go for it! We’re off your back now — so find a way to make Greeks believe in Greece again without the ready excuse that Berlin, or the International Monetary Fund or the European Commission is to blame.

The European Union has done its healing work here. There will not be another civil war, come what may. The sun will still shine; a gazillion islands will still delight; Greeks will still curse every form of authority; they will still smoke in every restaurant in defiance of the law; they will still have more money than they appear to have; tables in cheap “tavernas” will still offer views that have no price. A Greek meltdown is not the same as a Slovakian meltdown. Life is not just.

So many mistakes have been made. They began with the sentimental illusion that the cradle of Western civilization was also an economy competitive enough to join the euro. It was not. Then came all the easy credit handed out in the era when the view was that risk had ceased to exist. The inevitable Greek implosion was followed by austerity measures whose symbol was Germany. These failed to offer Greeks a positive vision of what all the sacrifice might produce. The consequent anger created Syriza and its election victory and incoherent promises of a new way forward. Everyone is now caught in the web of their own contradictions.

More of the same might gain a few months. It will resolve nothing, sapping Europe’s energy, and Greece’s potential, for years to come.

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

Well, that didn’t last very long, did it?

It was only December when Dr. Ray Watts, the president of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, announced that after a strategic review, the school had decided to stop fielding a football team. The main reason for Watts’s decision was financial: two-thirds of the athletic department’s $30 million budget came from a combination of university funds and student fees. When a consultant concluded that the subsidy would have to more than double over the next five years for the football team to be competitive, Watts said, Enough. “We could not justify subsidizing football if it meant taking away from other priorities,” he told me at the time.

The university seemed to me then — and seems to me now — exactly the kind of school that should be rethinking football. It did not have a long football tradition — the team had been around for only 24 years. Its last winning season was in 2004. Its fan support was tepid; playing in a stadium with a capacity of 72,000, it averaged fewer than 20,000 fans a game until last year, when the number jumped to 21,800.

Besides, college sports, especially football, are getting more expensive. The major conferences are beginning to pay their athletes stipends that reflect the “full cost of attendance,” which can add $1 million or more in costs. There is the constant need to upgrade facilities to be able to recruit top-notch athletes. College coaches’ salaries are rising almost as fast as C.E.O. pay.

Schools in smaller conferences — Alabama-Birmingham is in Conference USA — have struggled to keep up, especially state schools whose budgets have been cut by their legislatures. (According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state spending per student in Alabama has declined over 36 percent since 2008.) USA Today does an annual ranking of university athletic department balance sheets, and you can clearly see this trend. Rutgers University had a $36 million deficit; the University of Connecticut, $27 million; the University of Massachusetts, $26 million; Eastern Michigan University, $25 million — and on the list goes.

Now fast forward to June 1 — when Watts did an about-face and announced that the university was not abandoning football after all. In the time between his first announcement in December and his second one last week, there was a huge outcry among the citizens of Birmingham. Despite the lack of fan support and the team’s tradition of losing, people reacted as if nothing were more important than getting their college football team back. There were calls for Watts to be fired.

When I asked Watts whether he had been taken aback by the outcry, he said he had been. A neurologist who was previously the dean of the university’s medical school — and now presides over a $3 billion institution — Watts was yet another college president who found himself spending ridiculous amounts of time dealing with sports.

But he really didn’t have much choice, given the passion the cancellation of football had aroused in the city. So, while continuing to insist that the university would not increase its subsidy beyond the current $20 million, Watts told the various interested parties that he would reinstate football (along with the bowling and rifle teams, which had also been cut) if they found a way to pay for it.

The university also commissioned a second study, which concluded that an additional $17.2 million would be needed over the next five years to field a competitive football team, plus $12 million to $14 million for a new practice facility.

There are those, like Andy Schwarz, a Bay Area economist who is an expert on the economics of college sports (and did his own study on the U.A.B. football decision), who say that the subsidy reported by most universities is wildly overstated, and that schools get numerous benefits for having a football team. But that is not the argument that anyone in Birmingham made. Instead, they accepted the idea that the football team had to be subsidized — and that they had to raise the money.

Which is what they did. By the end of May, the city’s corporate leaders had pledged to make up the additional $17.2 million subsidy, and had made a promising start on raising the $13 million or so needed for the practice facility.

When I asked Hatton Smith, the chief executive emeritus of Royal Cup Coffee and one of the fund-raising leaders, why it was so important to revive the football team, he essentially replied that it was a matter of civic pride. “In most major cities, there is some form of college football,” he said. “We think U.A.B. football adds to the quality of life in our community.” The way he described it, it was as if U.A.B. wouldn’t be a top-notch university anymore without a football team.

Thus does the cart come before the horse.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

April 27, 2014

There’s nothing quite so tiresome as a convert sometimes.  The Putz has his cassock in a twist over “The Pope’s Phone Call.”  He sniffles that expectations of doctrinal changes on subjects like divorce and communion are growing, and that presents perils for Pope Francis.  Only from rigid little freaks like you, Putzy…  MoDo, in “Slaves to Prejudice,” ponders home home on the racist range, where the cows and the antelope play (for free).  The Moustache of Wisdom asks “Who Will Influence Whom?”  He says as Russia pushes Ukraine, Ukraine pushes Europe.  Mr. Kristof, in “Religion for $1000, Alex,” says Americans are a nation of believers, all right. He then asks, but do they really know what they’re believing in?  In “The Angel in Larry Kramer” Mr. Bruni says with an HBO movie of “The Normal Heart,” a complicated hero gets the tribute he’s due.  Here, FSM help us, is the Putz:

This weekend in Rome, the Catholic Church is celebrating a double canonization — two popes, two sainthoods, 2,000 buses full of pilgrims — that serves as a kind of capstone on Pope Francis’s first year in office, and an illustration of his agenda for the church.

The two popes are John XXIII and John Paul II, respectively the pontiff who summoned the Second Vatican Council and the pontiff who put his stamp on its interpretation. In the partially accurate clichés of Catholic punditry, they are the liberalizer and the conservative, the icon of Catholic progressives and the hero of the Catholic right. And in canonizing them together, Francis is engaging in very deliberate symbolism — signaling, not for the first time, a desire to push the church’s left and right toward a kind of synthesis, and to move Catholicism beyond its post-1960s civil war.

For now, that push has been remarkably successful: to an extent that seemed nearly impossible before his elevation, Francis has altered the church’s image among its more disaffected members (and in the secular press) without making any of the doctrinal shifts that conservative Catholics believe the church, by definition, cannot make.

For now. But there may be trouble ahead.

The source of the potential trouble lies in a place where Francis has arguably been most effective — in the distinction he’s drawn between the doctrinal and the pastoral, between how the church expounds its moral rules and how it approaches the human beings trying to live up to them.

This distinction, always part of Catholicism’s lived experience, has allowed the pope to finesse difficult issues like homosexuality and divorce, and reach out to people whose states of life have left them feeling alienated from their faith.

Now, though, it’s come up in a more specific case — an alleged papal phone call, reported on somewhat confusedly last week, to an Argentine woman who was seeking permission to take communion despite being married to a divorced man, a situation the church considers adultery unless the man’s original marriage were annulled.

According to the husband, who wrote about the phone call on Facebook, Pope Francis gave permission for the woman to do so. According to the Vatican, what Pope Francis said is nobody’s business except for the woman herself. Such conversations, a Vatican spokesman said, “do not in any way form part of the pope’s public activities,” and “consequences relating to the teaching of the church are not to be inferred.”

This formulation may be technically correct, but it’s also a little bit absurd. Even in “private” conversation, the pope is, well, the pope, and this pontiff in particular is no naïf about either the media or human nature. Whatever was actually said, the idea that it never occurred to Francis that a pastoral call on such a fraught subject might get media attention seems … unlikely.

And whatever his intentions, the phone call and the coverage of it suggest two obvious perils for a papacy that leans too heavily on the distinction between the doctrinal and the pastoral, between official teaching and its applications.

One is what you might call the late-Soviet scenario, in which Catholic doctrine is officially unaltered, but the impression grows that even the pope doesn’t really believe these things, and that when the church’s leaders affirm a controversial position they’re going through the ideological motions — like Brezhnev-era apparatchiks — and not actually trying to teach a living faith.

The other is the dashed-expectations scenario, in which the assumption that a church teaching is about to change creates widespread disaffection when it doesn’t. This happened with contraception in the 1960s, and it could easily happen with divorce and remarriage under Francis.

Indeed, it could happen even if there are some changes to church rules. The Vatican could relax procedures governing annulments, for instance, in ways that (depending on her circumstances) might address the Argentine woman’s situation, and a press expecting something more sweeping might treat the reform as a big nothing.

There is also a third perilous scenario, even if my own assumptions about the nature of the church tend to rule it out. Francis could actually be considering a truly major shift on remarriage and communion, in which the annulment requirement is dispensed with and (perhaps) a temporary penance is substituted.

Such a shift wouldn’t just provoke conservative grumbling; it would threaten outright schism. The church has famous martyrs to the indissolubility of Christian marriage, and its teaching on divorce and adultery is grounded not just in tradition or natural law, but in the explicit words of Jesus of Nazareth.

This means that admitting to communion people the church considers to be in permanently adulterous relationships wouldn’t just look like a modest development in doctrine. It would look like a major about-face, a doctrinal self-contradiction.

Which is why Pope Francis probably is not actually considering it.

But from small phone calls, large theological crises sometimes grow.

Now here’s MoDo:

When a cranky anarchist in a cowboy hat starts a sentence saying “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” you can be dang sure it’s going downhill from there.

The unsettling thing about Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s ugly rant on the Virgin River on Saturday, The Times’s Adam Nagourney told me, was that there was no negative reaction from the semicircle of gun-toting and conspiracy-minded supporters who had gathered round to hear it. The oblivious 67-year-old Bundy, who has refused for 20 years to pay for his cattle to graze on our land, offered a nostalgic ode to slavery.

Recalling that he saw African-Americans sitting on the porch of a public-housing project in North Las Vegas who seemed to have “nothing to do,” Bundy declaimed: “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?”

The man hailed as a “savior” and “folk hero” by Fox News doubled down Thursday, declaring: “Cliven Bundy’s a-wondering” if the black community was happier during slave days when “they was in the South in front of their homes with their chickens and their gardens and their children around them and their men having something to do.”

By Friday, he was saying that all Americans are slaves to the government and comparing himself to Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Just another dark-ages bigot who goes nuts at the idea that whites are losing clout in an America run by a New Age black president. What’s the use of being white, after all, if you can’t be king of the hill — even if the hill really belongs to the government?

Conservatives saw no hypocrisy in rallying around Bundy for breaking the law, refusing to pay between $1 and $2 a month per cow to graze on federal land, while they refuse to consider amnesty for illegal immigrants committing Acts of Love.

Rand Paul, the libertarian senator from Kentucky who wants to be the Republican presidential nominee, took almost a day to distance himself from the self-immolating Bundy. Paul was so worried about alienating the segment of the party that will decide the nomination, he couldn’t even respond quickly to say the most simple thing on earth: Racism is bad.

As BuzzFeed reported, Chris McDaniel, a G.O.P. state senator mounting a strong challenge to Thad Cochran in the Mississippi Republican primary, has written blog posts blaming the “welfare dependent citizens of New Orleans” for not finding higher ground during Katrina, charging that “Mexicans” entering the country are hurting “our culture” and calling racial profiling of Muslims a “victory for common sense.”

From cockfighting rallies to online gun sweepstakes to cracks about “wetbacks” to waxing nostalgic about slavery, the Republican fringe has gone mainstream. When the younger stars of the G.O.P. race to embrace a racist anarchist lionized by Sean Hannity, it underscores the party’s lack of leadership or direction.

After making noise about reaching out to women (even as Senate Republicans unanimously blocked a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act and Republican legislatures around the country pass more abortion restrictions), the G.O.P. now has the delightful Det Bowers out there doing marital counseling. Politico reported that the wacky 62-year-old evangelical minister, who is challenging Lindsey Graham in the South Carolina G.O.P. Senate primary, once asserted that 95 percent of broken marriages are caused by women giving more attention to their children than to their husbands. “He did run off with some other woman, and you packed his bags,” Bowers said, adding: “You just ran him off. You paid more attention to your children than you did to him. ‘Oh, he doesn’t need me?’ He needs you more than they do. He chose you, they didn’t. An abominable idolatry.”

It’s a measure of how hallucinogenic conservatives are that they are trying to re-litigate slavery during the second term of the first African-American president.

Earlier this month, Jim DeMint, Tea-Party godfather and president of the Heritage Foundation, bizarrely told a Christian radio station that it was not “big government” that freed the slaves, but “the conscience of the American people” and Abraham Lincoln, a Republican. (Umm, wasn’t he big government along with his hundreds of thousands of troops?)

In another case of inexplicable foot-dragging, Rand Paul was reluctant to cut loose Jack Hunter, his social media director and co-author on a Tea Party book, after the media wrote about his past life as a shock jock named the Southern Avenger who advocated secession, wore a Confederate flag mask, toasted John Wilkes Booth, and complained that whites are “not afforded the same right to celebrate their own cultural identity” because anything “that is considered ‘too white’ is immediately suspect.”

At Harvard’s Institute of Politics on Friday, Paul said that “The Republican Party will adapt, evolve or die.”

He might want to listen to his own advice.

I’ll ask again — what do you think would happen if a black man or a Muslim pulled the kind of crap Bundy is?  Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Kiev:

Sometimes the simplest question speaks the biggest truth. I was meeting with some Maidan activists here in Kiev last week, and we were talking about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Ukraine was part of Russia’s traditional “sphere of influence” and “buffer zone” with the West, and, therefore, America and the European Union need to keep their hands off. At one point, one of the activists, the popular Ukrainian journalist, Vitali Sych, erupted: “Did anyone ask us whether we wanted to be part of his buffer zone?”

Sych’s question cut right to the core of what is unfolding here. Quite simply, a majority of Ukrainians got mad as hell at the game imposed on them — serving as bit players in Putin’s sphere of influence, so Russia could continue to feel like a great power, and also being forced to tolerate a breathtakingly corrupt pro-Russian regime in Kiev. After a bottom-up revolution in the Maidan, Kiev’s central square, which cost 100-plus lives — “the Heavenly Hundred” as they are referred to here — Ukrainians are asserting their own sphere of influence, a desire to be part of the E.U.

But, in doing so, they’re posing a deep philosophical and political challenge to Putin’s Russia — as well as to the E.U. and America. How so?

If Putin loses, and Ukraine breaks free and joins the E.U., it would threaten the very core identity of the Russia that Putin has built and wants to expand — a traditional Russia, where the state dominates the individual and where the glory of Mother Russia comes from the territory it holds, the oil and gas it extracts, the neighbors it dominates, the number of missiles it owns and the geopolitical role it plays in the world — not from empowering its people and nourishing their talents.

If Putin wins and prevents Ukraine from holding a free and fair election on May 25, his malign influence over his neighbors would only grow. And you would see more of what you saw last week when Joe Kaeser, the chief executive of Siemens, the German engineering giant, went to Moscow to slobber over Putin and reassure him that all their deals would proceed — despite what Kaeser called “politically difficult times.” (That’s German for Putin’s blocking Ukrainians from E.U. membership that Germans already enjoy.)

You can’t walk the cobblestone streets of the St. Sophia Square in Kiev, or tour the magnificent 11th-century onion-domed church of the same name, without learning just how much Russia and Ukraine have influenced one another over the centuries — and today will be no different. The first unified “Rus” state was born in Kiev, when “St. Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev,” unified all the tribes and territories in the region into an entity called by historians “Kievan Rus.” St. Vladimir also made Orthodox Christianity the official religion.

Now fast-forward 1,000-plus years, and you have another “Vladimir the Great” — Mr. Putin — massing troops on Ukraine’s border to re-establish Russia’s influence here. Putin recently hinted that it might be time for him to reclaim “Novorossiya” or New Russia, which is how a region of southeastern Ukraine was referred to by the czars in the 19th century, when it was part of Russia.

So when Putin says New Russia, he really means Old Russia — a Russia that used to dominate Ukraine. And he wants to prevent a New Ukraine from arising that again influences today’s Russia with new ideas, only this time liberal ones.

“This has become an existential fight for everybody,” explained Pavlo Sheremeta, Ukraine’s new economy minister, who added that his liberal Russian friends are calling him, saying: “Please hang on. Don’t betray us.” Don’t let Putin crush the model that Ukraine is trying to build, otherwise Russia will never change.

“Long term, Russia’s success depends on how it competes in the 21st century, and you don’t just compete with oil and tanks and by bullying someone else,” added Sheremeta. That may make you feel strong “at the moment, but it is just a drug. Ukraine’s eventual success can be another proof that democracy, rule of law and human rights are the best recipe for sustainable development — and not the drug [Putin] is giving to his people.”

Nataliya Popovych, a businesswoman and civil society activist here, said Ukrainians have learned from their Orange Revolution in 2004, when they got rid of an old order but just turned everything over to a new group of corrupt politicians. This time the Maidan revolution has spawned a web of civil society groups that are acting as watchdogs on every minister and working to guarantee fair presidential elections.

But it won’t be easy. Ukraine is a complicated place. Its legacy of corruption, venal elites and police brutality mean there are plenty of domestic foes to the Maidan revolutionaries. But Putin’s interventions just make the struggle for a more decent, E.U.-anchored future here that much more difficult.

“The Heavenly Hundred died here for human rights and European values,” Popovych told me. But for these to get consolidated into a new politics in Ukraine, the fledgling new state “has to survive” and that will require the E.U. and America to help protect it.

“We would love this to be all about us,” she said. “But it is a civilizational battle going on. We just happen to be at the center of it.”

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

With Easter and Passover freshly behind us, let’s test your knowledge of the Bible. How many mistakes can you find:

Noah of Arc and his wife, Joan, build a boat to survive a great flood. Moses climbs Mount Cyanide and receives 10 enumerated commandments; for all the differences among religious denominations, the Ten Commandments are a common bedrock that Jews, Catholics and Protestants agree on.

Sodom and his wild girlfriend, Gomorrah, soon set the standard for what not to do. They are turned to pillars of salt.

The Virgin Mary, a young Christian woman, conceives Jesus immaculately and gives birth to him in a Jerusalem manger. Jesus, backed by the Twelve Apostles and their wives, the Epistles, proclaims what we call the Golden Rule: “Do one to others before they do one to you.” The Romans repeatedly crucify Jesus — at Cavalry, Golgotha and other sites — but he resurrects himself each time.

Christianity spreads through the gospels, which differ on details but all provide eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s life from birth to death. Finally, Rome tires of throwing Christians to lions and becomes the first country to adopt Christianity as its religion. The Bible is translated from the original English into countless languages.

So how many errors did you spot? There are about 20 mistakes, which I’ve listed at the end of this column, and they reflect the general muddling in our society about religious knowledge.

Secular Americans are largely ignorant about religion, but, in surveys, religious Americans turn out to be scarcely more knowledgeable.

“Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion,” Stephen Prothero noted in his book, “Religious Literacy.” “Atheists may be as rare in America as Jesus-loving politicians are in Europe, but here faith is almost entirely devoid of content. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates.”

Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they believe that the Bible holds the answer to all or most of life’s basic questions. Yet only one-third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and 10 percent think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

Many Americans know even less about other faiths, from Islam to Hinduism. Several days after 9/11, a vigilante shot and killed an Indian-American Sikh because of the assumption that a turban must mean a Muslim: Ignorance and murderous bigotry joined in one.

All this goes to the larger question of the relevance of the humanities. Literature, philosophy and the arts have come to be seen as effete and irrelevant, but if we want to understand the world around us and think deeply about it, it helps to have exposure to Shakespeare and Kant, Mozart and Confucius — and, yes, Jesus, Moses and the Prophet Muhammad.

Secularists sometimes believe religious knowledge doesn’t matter because the world is leaving faith behind. Really? Faith is elemental in much of the world, including large swaths of America.

How can one understand Afghanistan without some knowledge of Islam? For that matter, how can one understand America without any intellectual curiosity about Evangelicals? Can one understand the world if one is oblivious to the stunning rise of Pentecostals at home and abroad?

Every high school and college graduate in America should, I think, have some familiarity with statistics, economics and a foreign language such as Spanish. Religion may not be as indispensable, but the humanities should be a part of our repertory. They may not enrich our wallets, but they do enrich our lives. They civilize us. They provide context.

And we don’t want to emulate the long-ago Texas governor who, in one of those stories that may be too good to be true, opposed Spanish instruction because: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for us.”

Errors in the Bible story above: Joan wasn’t Noah’s wife (and Arc wasn’t his name); Moses climbed Mount Sinai, not Cyanide; there were 12 (unnumbered) commandments, and Jews, Protestants and Catholics have different versions depending in part on how they compress them into 10; Sodom wasn’t a person; same for Gomorrah; they weren’t the ones turned into salt; the Virgin Mary was Jewish; the immaculate conception is a Catholic doctrine referring to the conception of Mary; Jesus was said to be born in Bethlehem; epistles are letters; the Golden Rule governs what you do “unto others”; Jesus was crucified once; it’s Calvary, not Cavalry, and it’s the same place as Golgotha; Jesus is said to have been resurrected once; although we don’t know much about the gospel writers, they presumably weren’t eyewitnesses but incorporated eyewitness sources; the Gospels of Mark and John do not refer to the birth of Jesus; Armenia was first to adopt Christianity as state religion; the Bible is translated from Hebrew and Greek, not English.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

I learned long ago to open my inbox with trepidation. A journalist is a magnet for complaints.

I also learned to take a deep breath and maybe a stiff drink if an email from Larry Kramer lurked there. A journalist who weighed in on gay issues or AIDS was a magnet for his complaints, which were no mere complaints. They were harangues, tirades, jeremiads about what was being overlooked and minimized, about festering injustices and faltering responses, about the need for everyone to summon a fury and determination commensurate to his.

I dreaded Larry Kramer, and sometimes I even detested Larry Kramer, but always — always — I knew that he was on the side of the angels and that we needed him there, in all his unappeasable and obnoxious glory. He was the blazing conscience of a generation of gay people at a crucial hinge of history, when a critical mass of us came far out of the closet, largely because of the AIDS epidemic. He, among others, demanded no less, making clear that our survival depended on it. His outrage gave birth in the 1980s to the protest group Act Up, with its utterly perfect slogan of “Silence=Death.” And the end of silence marked the beginning of so much else.

How to honor that? To thank him? I’m not sure there’s any adequate way, though there is, finally, a tribute that he long craved, sought and despaired of ever seeing, a movie version of “The Normal Heart,” his strident and devastating play of the plague years, during which his thinly fictionalized alter ego, Ned Weeks, tries to sound an early alarm. It stars Mark Ruffalo as Ned, Matt Bomer as his dying lover and Julia Roberts as a physician who shares his sense of urgency, and it will make its debut on HBO on May 25. There are friends of Kramer’s who say that his excitement about it may be helping to keep him alive.

He’s 78 and in precarious health — there have been sustained complications from a liver transplant more than a decade ago — and I used the past tense to describe his screeds only because they have receded. He seems to have lost the energy for them, and he has pulled back from the spotlight, even turning down requests for interviews about the HBO movie.

But maybe he has also looked at the changed landscape around him — the legalization of same-sex marriage in nearly 20 states, gay characters on every other television show, a new postage stamp commemorating Harvey Milk — and mellowed just the teensiest bit. Over the last few years, his emails changed. “I send you hugs and kisses,” he wrote to me about 18 months ago. Hugs and kisses? Kramer used to send brickbats and Molotov cocktails.

Right now there’s an impassioned conversation about proper credit for the huge successes of the marriage-equality movement. It stems from the publication of a book by my Times colleague Jo Becker, “Forcing the Spring,” which focuses narrowly on a few key figures from the fight to overturn a 2008 California referendum prohibiting same-sex marriage. In giving them such primacy, “Forcing the Spring” has raised hackles, and it suggests a new corollary to an old adage. Perhaps history isn’t simply written by the victors. Perhaps it’s written by the publicity-conscious participants with the foresight to glue journalists to their sides.

But any serious discussion of credit has to travel back many decades, to scores of pioneers who fought for the baseline recognition of gay and lesbian people that was a prerequisite for “I do.” It has to encompass Milk, Urvashi Vaid and, yes, Kramer, whose association chiefly with AIDS activism — with getting doctors, drug companies, politicians and gay men to wake the hell up — shortchanges his broader cause and full effect.

He understood as well as anybody else did that for Americans in the 1980s to care about AIDS, they had to care about homosexuals, and to care about homosexuals, they had to realize how many they knew and loved. He appreciated the need for visibility, from which so much subsequent progress on so many other fronts flowed.

Ryan Murphy, who directed “The Normal Heart” and helped shepherd it onto the screen, said recently that when he looks at blessings in his life — the husband he married in the summer of 2012, the son they had later that year — he sees Kramer’s handiwork, Kramer’s bequest.

“I don’t think we’d have the rights we do today as gay people if it wasn’t for Larry,” he told me. “For me, Larry is a civil rights leader, and I rank him up there with all of the greats.”

Kramer is complicated, though, and “The Normal Heart” acknowledges as much while putting a polite spin on it. Part of what makes him so fascinating is how vividly he demonstrates the braid of flattering and less flattering qualities in many heroes. Is it altruism that draws them to the barricades, or vanity? Where does conviction end and zeal begin, and what’s the line between fearlessness and obstinacy? Kramer grew so accustomed to doing battle — it was his default mode, his reflex — that he picked unnecessary fights.

He blew up at Tony Kushner because Kushner’s evolving screenplay for the movie “Lincoln” wasn’t going to explore the belief that the 16th president was gay. He blew up at the writer Michael Cunningham for some other act of supposed heresy. And he once said, in an interview with New York magazine, that he didn’t understand why “every gay person doesn’t agree with everything I say.”

“I’m serious,” he added.

The actress Ellen Barkin, who won a Tony for the role in “The Normal Heart” that Roberts plays in the movie, recently told me about Kramer’s apoplexy when, midway through the production’s run, some fabric on her character’s wheelchair was changed in a way that he deemed all wrong.

In Barkin’s recollection, Kramer said, “Ellen, did you notice that it’s flowers now? She wouldn’t have flowers.”

“I did notice,” she replied to him, “but it’s fine.”

“It’s not fine!” Kramer sputtered. “It’s not.”

And yet, Barkin told me, he could also be the sweetest man she ever met. “It’s an amazing paradox,” she said.

Both sides of Kramer are reflected in a documentary about him that HBO is producing. Its tentative title is “Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger,” and it begins with archival footage of him bellowing the word “plague,” along with expletives, as his eyes bulge. He looks like a deranged messiah.

And then, later in the unfinished movie, he looks like a dazed child, silent and full of wonder as he exchanges wedding vows with his longtime partner, David Webster, in the intensive care unit of a hospital last year.

The documentary is scheduled for release sometime in 2015, possibly in conjunction with an epic gay history of sorts, “The American People,” that Kramer has been writing for decades. It sprawls to thousands of pages, its heft a hint of the same grandiosity that prompted him to call a second autobiographical play of his “The Destiny of Me.”

“He has said again and again, and I think it is truly, truly felt by him, that he loves gay people and considers us all his children,” said Peter Staley, who worked with Kramer to set Act Up in motion.

Staley’s words reminded me of a remarkable novel, “Two Boys Kissing,” by David Levithan, that I’d just read. Levithan intersperses scenes of gay teenagers in the present with commentary from a Greek chorus of their gay forebears, who watch them and wonder if they’re aware of the dying and the marching that came before.

“We are your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers,” says the chorus. “We taught you how to dance.”

The movie of “The Normal Heart” in fact ends with a gay dance, at Yale University, Kramer’s alma mater. From its sidelines, Kramer, in the form of Ned Weeks, gazes at the next generation, seemingly knowing that it will live with less shame and in less fear than his did. His pride and relief are palpable.

“It was important for me to shoot that because it had hope,” Murphy told me, adding that he encouraged Ruffalo to “give a little smile of ‘thank you, Larry, for what you’ve done.’ ”

Thank you indeed. Hugs and kisses.

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

April 22, 2014

Bobo has extruded a thing called “The Leadership Emotions” in which he gurgles that political leaders have come to rely primarily on consultants’ carefully crafted, poll-based political advice, which can obscure the moral impulses necessary for leadership.  Every time he uses any phrase that includes the word “moral” I break out in hives…  Mr. Nocera has a question in “The Real Port Authority Scandal:”  Should we be financing empty office space in a half-filled building or upkeep on our roads and bridges?  Mr. Bruni, in “Autism and the Agitator,” says Jenny McCarthy got a crazy amount of traction. She shouldn’t get a whitewash.  Here’s Bobo:

Throughout American history, most presidents had small personal staffs. They steered through political waters as amateurs, relying on experience, instinct and conversations with friends.

Then candidates and presidents hired professionals to help them navigate public opinion. By the time Theodore White began his “Making of the President” series in 1960, the strategists, who had once been hidden, came into view. Every successive administration has taken power away from cabinet agencies and centralized more of it with those political professionals who control messaging from within the White House.

This trend is not just in politics. We have become a consultant society. Whether you are running a business or packaging yourself for a job or college admissions, people rely on the expertise of professional advice-givers.

The rise of professional strategists has changed the mental climate of the time, especially in the realm of politics. Technical advisers are hired to be shrewd. Under their influence the distinction between campaigning and governing has faded away. Most important, certain faculties that were central to amateur decision making — experience, intuition, affection, moral sentiments, imagination and genuineness — have been shorn down for those traits that we associate with professional tactics and strategy — public opinion analysis, message control, media management and self-conscious positioning.

A nice illustration of this shift came in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine in the form of Jo Becker’s book adaptation, “How the President Got to ‘I Do’ on Same-Sex Marriage.” It is the inside story of how the president’s advisers shifted the White House position on gay marriage, from one the president didn’t really believe in — opposition to same-sex unions — to one he did.

Not long ago, readers would have been shocked to see how openly everyone now talks about maneuvering a 180-degree turn on a major civil rights issue. It would have been embarrassing to acknowledge that you were running your moral convictions through the political process, arranging stagecraft. People might have maneuvered on moral matters, but they weren’t so unabashed about it.

Today we’re all in on the game. The question is whether it is played well.

There were two sorts of strategists described in Becker’s piece. One group, including the former Republican Party leader Ken Mehlman, has ardent supporters of same-sex marriage who tried to craft the right messaging. Mehlman told Obama to talk about his daughters when he announced his new position.

The other strategists were in charge of the president’s political prospects. Under their influence, the substance of the issue was submerged under the calculus of coalition management: who would be pleased and displeased by a shift. As usual, these strategists were overly timid, afraid of public backlash from this or that demographic.

Becker describes a process in which there were strategy sessions but no conclusion. The strategists were good at trivial things, like picking a TV interviewer for the scripted announcement, but they were not good at propelling a decision. “This was so past the sell-by date,” one senior administration official told Becker, “yet there was still no real plan in place. It just shows you how scared everyone was of this issue.”

The person who finally got the administration to move just went with his heart. Vice President Joe Biden met the children of a gay couple and blurted out that same-sex marriage is only fair. He went on “Meet the Press” and said the same thing.

Biden violated every strategist rule. He got ahead of the White House message. He was unscripted. He went with his moral sense. But his comments shifted the policy. The president was compelled to catch up.

Edmund Burke once wrote, “The true lawgiver ought to have a heart full of sensibility. He ought to love and respect his kind, and to fear himself.” Burke was emphasizing that leadership is a passionate activity. It begins with a warm gratitude toward that which you have inherited and a fervent wish to steward it well. It is propelled by an ardent moral imagination, a vision of a good society that can’t be realized in one lifetime. It is informed by seasoned affections, a love of the way certain people concretely are and a desire to give all a chance to live at their highest level.

This kind of leader is warm-blooded and leads with full humanity. In every White House, and in many private offices, there seems to be a tug of war between those who want to express this messy amateur humanism and those calculators who emphasize message discipline, preventing leaks and maximum control. In most of the offices, there’s a fear of natural messiness, a fear of uncertainty, a distrust of that which is not scientific. The calculators are given too much control.

The leadership emotions, which should propel things, get amputated. The shrewd tacticians end up timidly and defensively running the expedition.

Ah…  It’s been a while since he dragged up the specter of Edmund Burke…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

This is a column about the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, but you won’t read a word in here about the lane-closing scandal in Fort Lee, N.J. This is about another scandal, one that has been going for on so long that people don’t even think of it as scandalous. Indeed, it involves no illegality whatsoever. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a scandal.

The Port Authority is supposed to manage — and improve — important parts of the transportation infrastructure of New York and New Jersey: airports like John F. Kennedy Airport, bridges like the George Washington Bridge, and terminals like the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

And, in fact, all of these need improving, especially the bus terminal, which is 64 years old and thoroughly outmoded. The steep $13 toll that drivers pay to cross the George Washington Bridge, for instance, is supposed to help pay for infrastructure improvements.

For decades, however, at least some of that money has been diverted to real estate — specifically, the World Trade Center, which the Port Authority originally built in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then subsidized for the next several decades, as the Twin Towers languished under its stewardship. It finally exited the business in the summer of 2001, by signing a 99-year lease with Larry Silverstein, the developer.

Which, of course, was only weeks before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Since then, the Port Authority has dived back into real estate, pouring at least $7.7 billion rebuilding the area around Ground Zero. Some of that money went for the 9/11 memorial and museum. But some $4 billion went to an over-the-top PATH station. And another $3.3 billion has gone to build One World Trade Center — which used to be known as Freedom Tower, and, at a symbolic 1,776 feet high, is now the tallest building in the country.

Whether or not building commercial skyscrapers was the right way to rebuild Ground Zero, what can be said for sure is that the Port Authority has shown, yet again, that it doesn’t belong in the real estate business. One World Trade Center is the most expensive high-rise building ever built in America, and it is costing the Port Authority a fortune. Only 55 percent of its 2.6 million square feet has been leased, and most of that is at a significant loss. Meanwhile, 4 World Trade Center, which was developed by Silverstein, has only 60 percent of its space leased. As The Wall Street Journal pointed out recently, between the two buildings, there is more than 2.5 million square feet of unleased space at Ground Zero.

So why in the world would the Port Authority be willing to back another $1.2 billion in loans to help Silverstein build 3 World Trade Center? Yet on Wednesday, that is exactly what the Port Authority board is supposed to vote on.

Silverstein needs the loan guarantee for a simple reason: The market is saying that, with all that empty office space, this is not the time to be building another skyscraper downtown. He has, so far, found one tenant, but banks are insisting that a higher percentage of the building be preleased before the construction of the building will get financing. So Silverstein has turned to the Port Authority instead to be his funder of last resort.

And not all that long ago, it would have been a safe bet that the Port Authority would have gone along. Indeed, the vice chairman of the board, Scott Rechler — a realtor himself — has said that “it’s part of our mission to finish it.”

But this time, somebody on the board has finally stood up and said, “Enough.” That person is Kenneth Lipper, an investment banker and a former deputy mayor of New York, who was appointed to the Port Authority board last year by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York.

“There is simply no reason for the Port Authority to step in,” he told me on Monday. “The private sector is appropriately saying, ‘Not now.’ ” But he also had another objection, one that heralds back to the original purpose of the Port Authority. “Our role is to develop the transportation infrastructure of this region. We have more infrastructure needs than we can finance through our revenue base. As a result, we are triaging necessary transportation improvements to finance what will be an empty building.”

Always in the past, the commissioners have voted unanimously to approve ventures like the Silverstein deal; it was the way things worked at the Port Authority. That’s one reason these expenditures have seemed less outrageous than they really are: there was no opposition. This time, however, there is going to be an actual debate. And if, after that, Silverstein gets his loan guarantees, well, there will finally be no doubt that a scandal has taken place.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

What do you call someone who sows misinformation, stokes fear, abets behavior that endangers people’s health, extracts enormous visibility from doing so and then says the equivalent of “Who? Me?”

I’m not aware of any common noun for a bad actor of this sort. But there’s a proper noun: Jenny McCarthy.

For much of the past decade, McCarthy has been the panicked face and intemperate voice of a movement that posits a link between autism and childhood vaccinations and that badmouths vaccines in general, saying that they have toxins in them and that children get too many of them at once.

Because she posed nude for Playboy, dated Jim Carrey and is blond and bellicose, she has received platforms for this message that her fellow nonsense peddlers might not have. She has spread the twisted word more efficiently than the rest.

And then, earlier this month, she said the craziest thing of all, in a column for The Chicago Sun-Times.

“I am not ‘anti-vaccine,’ ” she wrote, going on to add, “For years, I have repeatedly stated that I am, in fact, ‘pro-vaccine’ and for years I have been wrongly branded.”

You can call this revisionism. Or you can call it “a complete and utter lie,” as the writer Michael Specter said to me. Specter’s 2009 book, “Denialism,” looks at irrational retorts to proven science like McCarthy’s long and undeniable campaign against vaccines.

McCarthy waded into the subject after her son, Evan, was given a diagnosis of autism in 2005. She was initially motivated, it seems, by heartache and genuine concern.

She proceeded to hysteria and wild hypothesis. She got traction, and pressed on and on.

In 2007, she was invited on “Oprah” and said that when she took Evan to the doctor for the combined measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, she had “a very bad feeling” about what she recklessly termed “the autism shot.” She added that after the vaccination, “Boom! Soul, gone from his eyes.”

In an online Q. and A. after the show, she wrote: “If I had another child, I would not vaccinate.”

She also appeared on CNN in 2007 and said that when concerned pregnant women asked her what to do, “I am surely not going to tell anyone to vaccinate.”

Two years later, in Time magazine, she said, “If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the measles.” I’ve deleted the expletive she used before the second “measles.”

And on The Huffington Post a year after that, she responded to experts who insisted that vaccines didn’t cause autism and were crucial to public health with this declaration: “That’s a lie, and we’re sick of it.”

I don’t know how she can claim a pro-vaccine record. But I know why she’d want to.

Over the last few years, measles outbreaks linked to parents’ refusals to vaccinate children have been laid at McCarthy’s feet. The British study that opponents like her long cited has been revealed as fraudulent. And she and her tribe have gone from seeming like pitifully misguided dissidents to indefatigably senseless quacks, a changed climate and mood suggested by what happened last month when she asked her Twitter followers to name “the most important personality trait” in a mate. She got a bevy of blistering responses along the lines of “someone who vaccinates” and “critical thinking skills.”

Seth Mnookin, the author of the 2011 book “The Panic Virus,” which explores and explodes the myth that vaccines cause autism, noted that McCarthy had a relatively new gig on ABC’s “The View” that could be jeopardized by continued fearmongering. What once raised her profile, he said, could now cut her down.

As she does her convenient pivot, the rest of us should look at questions raised by her misadventures.

When did it become O.K. to present gut feelings like hers as something in legitimate competition with real science? That’s what interviewers who gave her airtime did, also letting her tell the tale of supposedly curing Evan’s autism with a combination of her “Mommy instinct” and a gluten-free diet, and I’d love to know how they justify it.

Are the eyeballs drawn by someone like McCarthy more compelling than public health and truth? Her exposure proves how readily television bookers and much of the news media will let famous people or pretty people or (best of all!) people who are both famous and pretty hold forth on subjects to which they bring no actual expertise. Whether the topic is autism or presidential politics, celebrity trumps authority and obviates erudition.

There’s also this: How much time did physicians and public officials waste trying to neutralize the junk in which McCarthy trafficked? As Fred Volkmar, a professor at Yale University’s medical school, said to me, “It diverts people from what’s really important, which is to focus on the science of really helping kids with autism.”

Brooks and Cohen

March 25, 2014

Bobo is trying to convince us he cares.  In “The Republic of Fear” he gurgles that for Americans, security is fundamental. But people in places without our inherited institutions live where the primary realities include violence, theft and radical uncertainty.  It would appear that Bobo has never been out of his neighborhood (where he has vast spaces for entertaining).  “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY had this to say in the comments:  ” ‘We in the affluent world live on one side of a great global threshold.’ — David Brooks, speaking on behalf of the increasingly pathological American ruling class.  The mafia mentality born of deregulated capitalism and globalization knows no boundaries. The USA may spend more on law and order than anybody, but it’s billions of dollars for a paramilitary police/spy state, anti-Occupy Homeland Security fusion centers, and the biggest prison system in the world. We are all considered potential enemies of the state.”  Mr. Cohen ponders “The Story of the Century.”  He has breaking news on Flight 370: Everything is still on the table.  He’s good at parody, and has nailed CNN dead to rights.  Here’s Bobo:

If you’re reading this, you are probably not buffeted by daily waves of physical terror. You may fear job loss or emotional loss, but you probably don’t fear that somebody is going to slash your throat, or that a gang will invade your house come dinnertime, carrying away your kin and property. We take a basic level of order for granted.

But billions of people live in a different emotional landscape, enveloped by hidden terror. Many of these people live in the developing world.

When we send young people out to help these regions, we tell them they are there to tackle “poverty,” using the sort of economic designation we’re comfortable with. We usually assume that scarcity is the big challenge to be faced. We send them to dig wells or bring bed nets or distribute food or money, and, of course, that’s wonderful work.

But as Gary A. Haugen and Victor Boutros point out in their gripping and perspective-altering book, “The Locust Effect,” these places are not just grappling with poverty. They are marked by disorder, violence and man-inflicted suffering.

“The relentless threat of violence is part of the core subtext of their lives, but we are unlikely to see it, and they are unlikely to tell us about it. We would be wise, however, to not be fooled — because, like grief, the thing we cannot see may be the deepest part of their day.”

People in many parts of the world simply live beyond the apparatus of law and order. The District of Columbia spends about $850 per person per year on police. In Bangladesh, the government spends less than $1.50 per person per year on police. The cops are just not there.

In the United States, there is one prosecutor for every 12,000 citizens. In Malawi, there is one prosecutor for every 1.5 million citizens. The prosecutors are just not there.

Even when there is some legal system in place, it’s not designed to impose law and order for the people. It is there to protect the regime from the people. The well-connected want a legal system that can be bought and sold.

Haugen and Boutros tell the story of an 8-year-old Peruvian girl named Yuri whose body was found in the street one morning, her skull crushed in, her legs wrapped in cables and her underwear at her ankles. The evidence pointed to a member of one of the richer families in the town, so the police and prosecutors destroyed the evidence. Her clothing went missing. A sperm sample that could have identified the perpetrator was thrown out. A bloody mattress was sliced down by a third, so that the blood stained spot could be discarded.

Yuri’s family wanted to find the killer, but they couldn’t afford to pay the prosecutor, so nothing was done. The family sold all their livestock to hire lawyers, who took the money but abandoned the case. These sorts of events are utterly typical — the products of legal systems that range from the arbitrary to the Kafkaesque.

We in the affluent world live on one side of a great global threshold. Our fundamental security was established by our ancestors. We tend to assume that the primary problems of politics are economic and that the injustices of the world can be addressed with economic levers. When empires like the Soviet Union collapse, we send in economists with privatization plans instead of cops to help create rule of law. When thuggish autocracies invade their neighbors we impose economic sanctions.

But people without our inherited institutions live on the other side of the threshold and have a different reality. They live within a contagion of chaos. They live where the primary realities include violence, theft and radical uncertainty. Their world is governed less by long-term economic incentives and more by raw fear. In a world without functioning institutions, predatory behavior and the passions of domination and submission blot out economic logic.

The primary problem of politics is not creating growth. It’s creating order. Until that is largely achieved, life can be nasty, brutish and short.

Haugen is president of a human rights organization called the International Justice Mission, which tries to help people around the world build the institutions of law. One virtue of his group is that it stares evil in the eyes and helps local people confront the large and petty thugs who inflict such predatory cruelty on those around them. Not every aid organization is equipped to do this, to confront elemental human behavior when it exists unrestrained by effective law. It’s easier to avoid this reality, to have come-together moments in daytime.

Police training might be less uplifting than some of the other stories that attract donor dollars. But, in every society, order has to be wrung out of exploitation. Unless cruelty is tamed, poverty will persist.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Good morning, this is Brian Bowman of CNN on Day X with breaking news on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: The zombie plane theory still has legs! Some aviation experts say it is gaining steam as the search in the South Indian Ocean, one of the most remote and windy places on the planet, continues in an area somewhere between the size of West Virginia and the United States. Now, what is the zombie scenario? Well, it’s a spooky possibility. That this Triple Seven, after making its famous left turn, flew on autopilot for hours with its crew and passengers incapacitated before crashing into the sea or, if you happen to think the Northern Corridor option is still open, in Central Asia. Of course, there are many theories floating around and vertical gyrations are not an autopilot maneuver and no theory at this point connects all the dots and that is why we have an investigation and why we intend to stay on top of this story.

NEWS FLASH: President Vladimir Putin of Russia has invaded Crimea.

Interesting development there, but back to our main story. We can reveal that everything is still on the table. There is so much inconsistent information on Flight 370 that it is frankly anyone’s guess as to what to take as gospel. But here’s some more breaking news: Today’s search is more visual, less technical. That’s because satellites from three countries have spotted what could be debris or even a wooden pallet from the plane floating in the rough seas of the “Roaring Forties,” where winds howl around the bottom of the world. Now the satellite images are blurry. There’s lots of junk in the sea. Wooden pallets are used in airline cargo holds but also in shipping. And, as you know, there were lots of missteps early on by the Malaysian authorities. Information from them has been a mess. So everything is pretty sketchy. Right now we just need a better haystack.

NEWS FLASH: President Vladimir Putin of Russia has annexed Crimea.

My apologies for these interruptions, folks; we will keep them to a minimum as we move forward with the mystery of Flight 370 on which, incidentally, lamb satay with peanut sauce was almost certainly served to Business Class and peanuts to Economy just before the flight’s transponder stopped. Here’s some breaking news: Contrary to rumors, the last computer transmission from the plane showed no route change. Is that a game changer? No. But it could undermine theories about the pilots preplanning a hijacking. On the other hand, isn’t it a coincidence too far that between Malaysian air space and Vietnamese air space, right in the dead zone, the plane disappears? Well, we’ve been here before, folks. What we need is solid evidence!

NEWS FLASH: President Vladimir Putin of Russia has massed troops on the eastern Ukrainian border.

Other developments, schmother developments: Brian Bowman here bringing you the latest on Flight 370. I must relate a conversation I had with my neighbor this morning. I said I wondered where the plane went, and she said we’ll find out soon, and I asked what she meant, and she said, “Well, they’re coming for America.” And I said “Huh?” and she said, well, they hijacked the plane to come for us. So I asked, “Why us?” And she said, “Well, who else would they be coming for?” As you see, folks, people out there are getting pretty antsy. And here’s some breaking news: Mathematical techniques inspired by an 18th-century Presbyterian minister might help locate the plane. And, gosh, why the heck did the Malaysian authorities hide the fact that this passenger plane was full of lithium batteries, a hazardous and highly inflammable cargo?

NEWS FLASH: Russian troops have invaded eastern Ukraine.

I’ve talked to my producers, folks, and there’ll be no more interruptions in our Flight 370 coverage. Don’t they look at the ratings? So I was reading The Onion and there was this great headline, “Families of Missing Flight Passengers Just Hoping Media Gets Closure It Needs.” Dead on! The piece quoted one relative saying, “This has been an extremely difficult time for the reporters and anchors covering this event; they have put their lives on hold.” And she also said, “It’s not surprising that they are obsessing around the clock, wondering what could have possibly occurred on board that flight.” It was a brilliant story, restored my faith in journalism.

NEWS FLASH: President Vladimir Putin, citing need to restore Russian pride, invades Estonia, NATO member. President Obama says this will not stand. World War III begins.

Folks, Americans are not sleeping tonight. There’s this big object passing over Malaysia and Indonesia. Why were military jets not scrambled? Were the facilities inoperative? Were the personnel asleep? Are they too embarrassed to man up and TELL US? Here’s some big breaking news: We may never know.

Brooks and Krugman

January 24, 2014

Now all of a sudden Bobo haz a consern.  He gurgles that “It Takes a Generation,” and that a real national social mobility strategy must address youth development from ages 0 to 25.  “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY, starts her comment thusly:  “While David Brooks is busy concern-trolling single motherhood and horny teenagers, families are going to bed hungry tonight because of sadistic cuts in the food stamp program.”  In “The Populist Imperative” Prof. Krugman says this is why we’re likely to hear a lot about inequality and social justice from President Obama next week.  Here’s Bobo:

Over the past decade we’ve had a rich debate on how to expand opportunity for underprivileged children. But we’ve probably made two mistakes.

First, we’ve probably placed too much emphasis on early education. Don’t get me wrong. What happens in the early years is crucial. But human capital development takes a generation. If you really want to make an impact, you’ve got to have a developmental strategy for all the learning stages, ages 0 to 25.

Second, we’ve probably put too much weight on school reform. Again, reforming education is important. But getting the academics right is not going to get you far if millions of students can’t control their impulses, can’t form attachments, don’t possess resilience and lack social and emotional skills.

So when President Obama talks about expanding opportunity in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, I’m hoping he’ll widen the debate. I’m hoping he’ll sketch out a stage-by-stage developmental agenda to help poor children move from birth to the middle class.

Such an agenda would start before birth. First, children need parents who are ready to care for them. But right now roughly half-a-million children are born each year as a result of unintended pregnancies, often to unmarried women who are not on contraception or are trying to use contraceptives like condoms or the pill. As the University of Pennsylvania’s Rebecca Maynard and Isabel Sawhill and Quentin Karpilow of the Brookings Institution have argued, if these women had free access to long-acting reversible contraceptives like I.U.D.’s, then the number of unintended births might decline and the number of children with unready parents might fall, too.

Once born, children are generally better off if they grow up within a loving two-parent marriage. It would be great if we knew how to boost marriage rates, but we don’t.

For the time being, we probably should spend less time thinking about marriage and more time thinking about parenting skills. As Richard Reeves, also of Brookings, points out, if we could teach the weakest parents to behave like average parents — by reading more to their kids, speaking more, using consistent, encouraging discipline — then millions of children might have more secure attachments, more structure and better shots at upwardly mobile careers. Programs like Nurse-Family Partnerships and the Baby College in the Harlem Children’s Zone seem to be able to teach these parenting skills.

Once they get to elementary school, children need to learn how to read and write. But that can’t happen in schools where 15 percent of the students are disruptive, where large numbers of students live with so much stress that it has stunted the development of the prefrontal cortexes, sent their cortisol levels surging, heightened their anxiety responses and generally made it hard for them to control themselves.

Therefore, we probably need more programs like Pamela Cantor’s Turnaround for Children, which works in schools to help teachers and administrators create “fortified environments,” in which overstressed children can receive counseling and treatment, in which the psychic traumas that go with poverty are recognized and addressed.

According to work done by Sawhill and others, a significant number of kids stay on track through the early years, but then fall off the rails as teenagers. Sawhill set a pretty low bar for having a successful adolescence: graduate from high school with a 2.5 G.P.A., don’t get convicted of a crime, don’t get pregnant. Yet only 57 percent of American 19-year-olds get over that bar. Only one-third of children in the bottom fifth of family income do so.

Over the next few years, we’ve got to spend a lot more time and money figuring out how to help people from poorer families chart a course through the teenage years. There’s evidence that Career Academies help adolescents navigate the teenage rapids. There’s some evidence that New York’s “small schools of choice” yield measurable results. We as a nation have made awesome progress in reducing teenage pregnancies, so it is possible to change teenage behavior, even in the face of raging hormones.

But it is harder to find successful programs geared toward teenagers than it is to find successful programs geared toward younger children. It feels like less money has been raised to help teenagers, fewer innovative programs have been initiated.

Robert Putnam of Harvard argues that when we design early education programs, they need to be “wrap-around.” They need to have formal and informal programs that bring parents in and instill communal skills. With teenagers, we need more guidance counselors to help them become savvy, so they know how to work the system, and to respond when their needs aren’t being met.

Putnam is emphasizing skills — for toddlers or teenagers — that are hard to see and measure. But that’s the next frontier of human capital development: Building lifelong social and emotional development strategies from age 0 to 25. I’m hoping President Obama goes there.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

“The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.”

John Maynard Keynes wrote that in 1936, but it applies to our own time, too. And, in a better world, our leaders would be doing all they could to address both faults.

Unfortunately, the world we actually live in falls far short of that ideal. In fact, we should count ourselves lucky when leaders confront even one of our two great economic failures. If, as has been widely reported, President Obama devotes much of his State of the Union address to inequality, everyone should be cheering him on.

They won’t, of course. Instead, he will face two kinds of sniping. The usual suspects on the right will, as always when questions of income distribution come up, shriek “Class warfare!” But there will also be seemingly more sober voices arguing that he has picked the wrong target, that jobs, not inequality, should be at the top of his agenda.

Here’s why they’re wrong.

First of all, jobs and inequality are closely linked if not identical issues. There’s a pretty good although not ironclad case that soaring inequality helped set the stage for our economic crisis, and that the highly unequal distribution of income since the crisis has perpetuated the slump, especially by making it hard for families in debt to work their way out.

Moreover, there’s an even stronger case to be made that high unemployment — by destroying workers’ bargaining power — has become a major source of rising inequality and stagnating incomes even for those lucky enough to have jobs.

Beyond that, as a political matter, inequality and macroeconomic policy are already inseparably linked. It has been obvious for a long time that the deficit obsession that has exerted such a destructive effect on policy these past few years isn’t really driven by worries about the federal debt. It is, instead, mainly an effort to use debt fears to scare and bully the nation into slashing social programs — especially programs that help the poor. For example, two-thirds of the spending cuts proposed last year by Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, would have come at the expense of lower-income families.

The flip side of this attempt to use fiscal scare tactics to worsen inequality is that highlighting concerns about inequality can translate into pushback against job-destroying austerity, too.

But the most important reason for Mr. Obama to focus on inequality is political realism. Like it or not, the simple fact is that Americans “get” inequality; macroeconomics, not so much.

There’s an enduring myth among the punditocracy that populism doesn’t sell, that Americans don’t care about the gap between the rich and everyone else. It’s not true. Yes, we’re a nation that admires rather than resents success, but most people are nonetheless disturbed by the extreme disparities of our Second Gilded Age. A new Pew poll finds an overwhelming majority of Americans — and 45 percent of Republicans! — supporting government action to reduce inequality, with a smaller but still substantial majority favoring taxing the rich to aid the poor. And this is true even though most Americans don’t realize just how unequally wealth really is distributed.

By contrast, it’s very hard to communicate even the most basic truths of macroeconomics, like the need to run deficits to support employment in bad times. You can argue that Mr. Obama should have tried harder to get these ideas across; many economists cringed when he began echoing Republican rhetoric about the need for the federal government to tighten its belt along with America’s families. But, even if he had tried, it’s doubtful that he would have succeeded.

Consider what happened in 1936. F.D.R. had just won a smashing re-election victory, largely because of the success of his deficit-spending policies. It’s often forgotten now, but his first term was marked by rapid economic recovery and sharply falling unemployment. But the public remained wedded to economic orthodoxy: by a more than 2-to-1 majority, voters surveyed by Gallup just after the election called for a balanced budget. And F.D.R., unfortunately, listened; his attempt to balance the budget soon plunged America back into recession.

The point is that of the two great problems facing the U.S. economy, inequality is the one on which Mr. Obama is most likely to connect with voters. And he should seek that connection with a clear conscience: There’s no shame in acknowledging political reality, as long as you’re trying to do the right thing.

So I hope we’ll hear something about jobs Tuesday night, and some pushback against deficit hysteria. But if we mainly hear about inequality and social justice, that’s O.K.

Brooks and Krugman

January 17, 2014

Bobo is trying to convince us all that he gives a crap about “The Inequality Problem.”  He babbles that the current income inequality debate misses the point and prevents a nuanced, bipartisan discussion of our economic and social ills.  It’s more “blame the victim” shit.  The idea that you can have a “nuanced” discussion with a Republican is risible on its face as well.  In “Scandal in France” Prof. Krugman says President François Hollande does a bad, bad thing. And this has nothing to do with his personal life.  Here, FSM help us all, is Bobo:

Suddenly the whole world is talking about income inequality. But, as this debate goes on, it is beginning to look as though the thing is being misconceived. The income inequality debate is confusing matters more than clarifying them, and it is leading us off in unhelpful directions.

In the first place, to frame the issue as income inequality is to lump together different issues that are not especially related. What we call “inequality” is caused by two different constellations of problems.

At the top end, there is the growing wealth of the top 5 percent of workers. This is linked to things like perverse compensation schemes on Wall Street, assortative mating (highly educated people are more likely to marry each other and pass down their advantages to their children) and the superstar effect (in an Internet economy, a few superstars in each industry can reap global gains while the average performers cannot).

At the bottom end, there is a growing class of people stuck on the margins, generation after generation. This is caused by high dropout rates, the disappearance of low-skill jobs, breakdown in family structures and so on.

If you have a primitive zero-sum mentality then you assume growing affluence for the rich must somehow be causing the immobility of the poor, but, in reality, the two sets of problems are different, and it does no good to lump them together and call them “inequality.”

Second, it leads to ineffective policy responses. If you think the problem is “income inequality,” then the natural response is to increase incomes at the bottom, by raising the minimum wage.

But raising the minimum wage may not be an effective way to help those least well-off. Joseph J. Sabia of San Diego State University and Richard V. Burkhauser of Cornell looked at the effects of increases in the minimum wage between 2003 and 2007. Consistent with some other studies, they find no evidence that such raises had any effect on the poverty rates.

That’s because raises in the minimum wage are not targeted at the right people. Only 11 percent of the workers affected by such an increase come from poor households. Nearly two-thirds of such workers are the second or third earners living in households at twice the poverty line or above.

The primary problem for the poor is not that they are getting paid too little for the hours they work. It is that they are not working full time or at all. Raising the minimum wage is popular politics; it is not effective policy.

Third, the income inequality frame contributes to our tendency to simplify complex cultural, social, behavioral and economic problems into strictly economic problems.

There is a very strong correlation between single motherhood and low social mobility. There is a very strong correlation between high school dropout rates and low mobility. There is a strong correlation between the fraying of social fabric and low economic mobility. There is a strong correlation between de-industrialization and low social mobility. It is also true that many men, especially young men, are engaging in behaviors that damage their long-term earning prospects; much more than comparable women.

Low income is the outcome of these interrelated problems, but it is not the problem. To say it is the problem is to confuse cause and effect. To say it is the problem is to give yourself a pass from exploring the complex and morally fraught social and cultural roots of the problem. It is to give yourself permission to ignore the parts that are uncomfortable to talk about but that are really the inescapable core of the thing.

Fourth, the income inequality frame needlessly polarizes the debate. There is a growing consensus that government should be doing more to help increase social mobility for the less affluent. Even conservative Republicans are signing on to this. The income inequality language introduces a class conflict element to this discussion.

Democrats often see low wages as both a human capital problem and a problem caused by unequal economic power. Republicans are more likely to see them just as a human capital problem. If we’re going to pass bipartisan legislation, we’re going to have to start with the human capital piece, where there is some agreement, not the class conflict piece, where there is none.

Some on the left have always tried to introduce a more class-conscious style of politics. These efforts never pan out. America has always done better, liberals have always done better, when we are all focused on opportunity and mobility, not inequality, on individual and family aspiration, not class-consciousness.

If we’re going to mobilize a policy revolution, we should focus on the real concrete issues: bad schools, no jobs for young men, broken families, neighborhoods without mediating institutions. We should not be focusing on a secondary issue and a statistical byproduct.

It’s amazing that he can look at himself in the mirror in the morning without gagging.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

I haven’t paid much attention to François Hollande, the president of France, since it became clear that he wasn’t going to break with Europe’s destructive, austerity-minded policy orthodoxy. But now he has done something truly scandalous.

I am not, of course, talking about his alleged affair with an actress, which, even if true, is neither surprising (hey, it’s France) nor disturbing. No, what’s shocking is his embrace of discredited right-wing economic doctrines. It’s a reminder that Europe’s ongoing economic woes can’t be attributed solely to the bad ideas of the right. Yes, callous, wrongheaded conservatives have been driving policy, but they have been abetted and enabled by spineless, muddleheaded politicians on the moderate left.

Right now, Europe seems to be emerging from its double-dip recession and growing a bit. But this slight uptick follows years of disastrous performance. How disastrous? Consider: By 1936, seven years into the Great Depression, much of Europe was growing rapidly, with real G.D.P. per capita steadily reaching new highs. By contrast, European real G.D.P. per capita today is still well below its 2007 peak — and rising slowly at best.

Doing worse than you did in the Great Depression is, one might say, a remarkable achievement. How did the Europeans pull it off? Well, in the 1930s most European countries eventually abandoned economic orthodoxy: They went off the gold standard; they stopped trying to balance their budgets; and some of them began large military buildups that had the side effect of providing economic stimulus. The result was a strong recovery from 1933 onward.

Modern Europe is a much better place, morally, politically, and in human terms. A shared commitment to democracy has brought durable peace; social safety nets have limited the suffering from high unemployment; coordinated action has contained the threat of financial collapse. Unfortunately, the Continent’s success in avoiding disaster has had the side effect of letting governments cling to orthodox policies. Nobody has left the euro, even though it’s a monetary straitjacket. With no need to boost military spending, nobody has broken with fiscal austerity. Everyone is doing the safe, supposedly responsible thing — and the slump persists.

In this depressed and depressing landscape, France isn’t an especially bad performer. Obviously it has lagged behind Germany, which has been buoyed by its formidable export sector. But French performance has been better than that of most other European nations. And I’m not just talking about the debt-crisis countries. French growth has outpaced that of such pillars of orthodoxy as Finland and the Netherlands.

It’s true that the latest data show France failing to share in Europe’s general uptick. Most observers, including the International Monetary Fund, attribute this recent weakness largely to austerity policies. But now Mr. Hollande has spoken up about his plans to change France’s course — and it’s hard not to feel a sense of despair.

For Mr. Hollande, in announcing his intention to reduce taxes on businesses while cutting (unspecified) spending to offset the cost, declared, “It is upon supply that we need to act,” and he further declared that “supply actually creates demand.”

Oh, boy. That echoes, almost verbatim, the long-debunked fallacy known as Say’s Law — the claim that overall shortfalls in demand can’t happen, because people have to spend their income on something. This just isn’t true, and it’s very much not true as a practical matter at the beginning of 2014. All the evidence says that France is awash in productive resources, both labor and capital, that are sitting idle because demand is inadequate. For proof, one need only look at inflation, which is sliding fast. Indeed, both France and Europe as a whole are getting dangerously close to Japan-style deflation.

So what’s the significance of the fact that, at this of all times, Mr. Hollande has adopted this discredited doctrine?

As I said, it’s a sign of the haplessness of the European center-left. For four years, Europe has been in the grip of austerity fever, with mostly disastrous results; it’s telling that the current slight upturn is being hailed as if it were a policy triumph. Given the hardship these policies have inflicted, you might have expected left-of-center politicians to argue strenuously for a change in course. Yet everywhere in Europe, the center-left has at best (for example, in Britain) offered weak, halfhearted criticism, and often simply cringed in submission.

When Mr. Hollande became leader of the second-ranked euro economy, some of us hoped that he might take a stand. Instead, he fell into the usual cringe — a cringe that has now turned into intellectual collapse. And Europe’s second depression goes on and on.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd and Bruni

July 15, 2012

Mr. Kristof and The Moustache of Wisdom are off today.  The Pasty Little Putz has decided to parade his ignorance about the Episcopal Church this morning.  He has what I’m sure he considers an important question:  “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?”  He states that the more progressive the Episcopal Church becomes, the more it shrinks.  He’s profoundly full of crap on pretty much all levels.  In “The Boy Who Wanted to Fly” MoDo says that Rory Staunton always aimed for the stars. Before a strep infection, discovered too late, cut his life short, the 12-year-old from Queens soared.  Mr. Bruni looks at “Our Newly Lush Life” and says that in New York and other cities, there’s a verdure that defies the dark times.  Here’s The Putz:

In 1998, John Shelby Spong, then the reliably controversial Episcopal bishop of Newark, published a book entitled “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Spong was a uniquely radical figure — during his career, he dismissed almost every element of traditional Christian faith as so much superstition — but most recent leaders of the Episcopal Church have shared his premise. Thus their church has spent the last several decades changing and then changing some more, from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States.

As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

This decline is the latest chapter in a story dating to the 1960s. The trends unleashed in that era — not only the sexual revolution, but also consumerism and materialism, multiculturalism and relativism — threw all of American Christianity into crisis, and ushered in decades of debate over how to keep the nation’s churches relevant and vital.

Traditional believers, both Protestant and Catholic, have not necessarily thrived in this environment. The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.

But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.

Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2005 interview, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop explained that her communion’s members valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves.)

Liberal commentators, meanwhile, consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline. Few of the outraged critiques of the Vatican’s investigation of progressive nuns mentioned the fact that Rome had intervened because otherwise the orders in question were likely to disappear in a generation. Fewer still noted the consequences of this eclipse: Because progressive Catholicism has failed to inspire a new generation of sisters, Catholic hospitals across the country are passing into the hands of more bottom-line-focused administrators, with inevitable consequences for how they serve the poor.

But if liberals need to come to terms with these failures, religious conservatives should not be smug about them. The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.

What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”

Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that perhaps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.

Absent such a reconsideration, their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.

Well, Putzy, at least the Episcopal Church isn’t going bankrupt from paying rape victims.  And if anyone wants real facts on the growth and/or decline in the Episcopal Church here’s the real information.  (.pdf file)  Next up we have MoDo:

Rory Staunton was always looking up.

As soon as he could walk, he wanted to fly. The exuberant freckle-faced redhead from Sunnyside, Queens, yearned to be up in the romantic night sky where, as the French pilot and poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, the stars are laughing.

His parents told him he’d have to wait until he was 16 to take flying lessons. But it’s hard to tell a determined 5-foot-9, 169-pound 12-year-old what to do.

He dreamed of being the next Captain Sullenberger, practicing on a flight simulator on his computer and studying global routes. He read and reread Sully’s memoir, thrilled to learn that the flier’s hair had once been red. He found a Long Island aviation school that would teach 12-year-olds.

On his 12th birthday, his parents shuddered and let Rory fly with an instructor.

How could you resist that sweet Irish face? Sure, Rory drove his parents nuts, sneaking downstairs late at night to gorge on episodes of “Family Guy,” and pretending to do his homework when he was really devouring political stories in The Times.

“He wasn’t the kid who looked at porn online, he looked at CNN online,” said his uncle, Niall O’Dowd, my friend who publishes several Irish publications in New York.

Rory protected underdogs against schoolyard bullies. He revered Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. And at the Garden School in Jackson Heights, he led a campaign to curb the thoughtless use of the word “retarded.”

“The last conversation I had with him, he got right in the face of my brother, Fergus, the government minister in Ireland with the mining portfolio, about fracking,” Niall recalled. “And he wrote the Swedish ambassador to North Korea asking for an explanation about why North Korea fed their big army while their people were dying of hunger.”

Rory was so roaring with life, it was impossible to believe how quickly life drained out of him. On Wednesday, March 28, he fell while playing in the school gym and scraped his elbow, opening a cut. As Dr. Jerome Groopman wrote in The New Yorker in 2008, the most aggressive superbug bacteria often lurk in gyms and on artificial turf.

The following Sunday, Rory died of septic shock from a strep infection, his parents curled around his body in the hospital bed.

Orlaith and Ciaran Staunton are Irish immigrants who embodied the American dream. Ciaran owns O’Neill’s bar on Third Avenue, where Rory made his first visit at 3 days old, and the Molly Blooms pub in Queens.

Every parent’s nightmare unfolded at warp speed, as the Web site Everyday Health reported and as Jim Dwyer heartbreakingly revealed in Thursday’s Times. Rory might have been saved by a swift dose of antibiotics but instead perished in a perfect storm of false assumptions, overlooked data and overburdened doctors.

Despite the cut, severe leg pain, blotchy skin and other clues pointing to sepsis, Rory’s pediatrician surmised that the vomiting, 102-degree fever, 140 pulse and 36 breaths a minute spelled a stomach bug and sent him to the NYU Langone Medical Center emergency room. Doctors there discharged Rory with an antinausea drug, even though his vital signs were alarming. The lab tests that were ordered came back three hours later showing abnormal production of white blood cells, a sign that infection could be raging, but that red flag was ignored.

“Nobody said anything that night,” his mother told Dwyer. “None of you followed up the next day on that kid, and he’s at home, dying on the couch?”

By Friday, Rory’s body was covered with blue streaks, and a touch made him scream. When Ciaran reached the pediatrician, she advised going back to the E.R. Rory was put in intensive care, where doctors valiantly tried to save his life, even suggesting amputating his nose and toes. But he was turning purple and black.

“For anyone that has carried their son’s or daughter’s coffin, it’s unnatural,” Ciaran told Sean O’Rourke on Friday on RTE, the Irish radio network. “A child who loses a parent becomes an orphan. If a man and wife lose each other, they become widow or widower. It’s so unnatural, there isn’t even a word for families who lose a child.”

Rory’s idol, Sully Sullenberger, was touched and left a message on the child’s tribute page. The hero of the Hudson is now an advocate for applying “lessons learned in blood” in aviation safety to patient safety.

“If something good comes from Rory’s death, it will be that we realize we have a broken system,” he told me. “Patient care is so fragmented. For the most part, medical professionals aren’t taught these human skills that some deride as ‘soft skills.’ So there’s insufficient sharing of information and ineffective communication.

“Some in the medical field look upon these deaths as an unavoidable consequence of giving care. But they’re inexcusable and unthinkable.”

Rory is up there now, with the laughing stars. But even before he got to heaven, he knew, as Saint-Exupéry wrote, that “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

And last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

Whenever you doubt that the future can improve upon the past or that government can play a pivotal role in that, consider and revel in the extraordinary greening of New York.

This city looks nothing — nothing — like it did just a decade and a half ago. It’s a place of newly gorgeous waterfront promenades, of trees, tall grasses and blooming flowers on patches of land and peninsulas of concrete and even stretches of rail tracks that were blighted or blank before. It’s a lush retort to the pessimism of this era, verdant proof that growth remains possible, at least with the requisite will and the right strategies.

The transformation of New York has happened incrementally enough — one year the High Line, another year Brooklyn Bridge Park — that it often escapes full, proper appreciation. But it’s a remarkable, hopeful stride.

It’s also emblematic of a coast-to-coast pattern of intensified dedication to urban parkland. While so much of American life right now is attended by the specter of decline, many cities are blossoming, with New York providing crucial inspiration.

“It represents a great example because it’s our largest urban area in America,” said Ken Salazar, the United States secretary of the interior, on the phone Friday, suggesting that if the Big Apple can carve out green amid its gray, any city can. Salazar plans to visit New York on Tuesday to address an international conference, already under way, called “Greater & Greener: Re-Imagining Parks for 21st Century Cities.”

The location of the conference in New York pays deliberate tribute to the progress this city has made, much of it under the Bloomberg administration, which followed through on plans it inherited, expanding some of them, and hatched many of its own.

While Mayor Bloomberg has suffered frustrations and failures aplenty in his bids, say, to improve public education and relieve congestion in Midtown Manhattan, he has had the greenest of thumbs. One of the principal legacies of his long mayoralty will be a city that, in certain charmed spots on certain charmed days, can feel as relaxed and breezy and kissed by nature as one of those ecologically vain enclaves of the Pacific Northwest. To the bustle of traffic, he has added the rustle of more trees, byways for bicycles, perches with exquisite views.

“Parks were on the front burner for this mayor and for Patti Harris, the deputy mayor, and I think that’s unique in this city’s history,” said Adrian Benepe, who will soon step down after 10 years as Bloomberg’s parks commissioner.

“Great things happened under Mayor La Guardia, largely because of the Works Progress Administration and Robert Moses’s skill in using those funds, but I think, uniquely, this mayor has not just liked parks but understood their value in so many different ways,” Benepe said, adding that Bloomberg embraced “the belief that a city could and should be beautiful and well designed.”

I’D dismiss those sentiments as pure sycophancy or self-congratulation but for several factors. One, Benepe readily volunteers that some of what Bloomberg gets credit for was set in motion by previous mayors or championed in particular by George Pataki, a fervent parks booster, back when he was governor.

Two, Benepe’s praise for Bloomberg is echoed by that of many people outside of city government. Three, it’s consistent with my own grateful observations. I’ve lived in this city on and off for 25 years, and I’ve never felt as called to the outdoors or as rewarded by my time there as I do now.

An astonishing fraction of Manhattan’s waterfront, both on the Hudson and East Rivers, is now punctuated with landscaped piers, dotted with benches and traced by bike and foot paths. And Brooklyn Bridge Park, for those who haven’t seen it, is a revelation, with its panorama of downtown Manhattan, the New York Harbor and Lady Liberty.

“It is remarkable — remarkable — that the city made this investment,” said Michael Van Valkenburgh, a landscape architect whose firm designed the park, which cost more than $350 million. The city contributed nearly two-thirds of that. “There’s a profound amount of interest and activity right now in making and remaking urban parks. I think it’s because we are reinvested in the idea of living in cities.”

Just as encouraging and instructive is the way New York has come up with the necessary money for new and existing parks. The High Line, built mostly with public funds, is maintained primarily with private ones. The plan for Brooklyn Bridge Park is for its operation and upkeep to be paid for by assessments on the real estate developed around it.

Riverside Park South — that stunning braid of waterfront plazas, paths and piers off the West 60s in Manhattan — was what the developers of new residential properties nearby owed the city in return for permission to build. That arrangement long predated Bloomberg’s mayoralty, but under his administration a similar arrangement will give rise to waterfront parkland in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

Bloomberg’s record when it comes to parks isn’t unblemished. Holly M. Leicht, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, an advocacy group, said that the creation of new parks has not always been matched by sufficient care for old ones. “There’s certainly a disparity in conditions,” she said.

But the city has, to its credit, lavished money on parks in all boroughs, not just Manhattan and Brooklyn. One of its most ambitious projects is the conversion of Fresh Kills Landfill, on Staten Island, into Freshkills Park, which will be almost three times the size of Central Park.

The New York story is a national one. In the center of Oklahoma City, a revitalized park complex, Myriad Botanical Gardens, recently took root. In downtown Houston, there’s Discovery Green. Dallas is building a park on a deck over a downtown freeway, and Los Angeles is looking at how to gussy and green up an old concrete river bed.

“We’re living in an era of re-urbanization,” said Catherine Nagel, executive director of the City Parks Alliance, which is sponsoring the conference in New York. And the increased population density means that “we need green space,” she said.

Amazingly, we’re getting it: because citizens have demanded as much; because governments have made it a priority; because public and private partnerships have been cultivated. New York is the bright flower of all that.

 

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

July 10, 2012

Bobo’s concerned.  Bobo’s concern trolling.  In “The Opportunity Gap” he gurgles that in a year consumed by the inequality problem, one demographic has gone largely unreported: our children. He thinks Robert Putnam sheds new light.  It’s classic Bobo.  He’s still annoyed that (poor) people are spawning without being married…  In “Housing’s Last Chance?” Mr. Nocera says eminent domain might be the answer to the foreclosure crisis. Consider the situation in San Bernardino County, California.  Mr. Bruni, in “Love Among the Spuds,” says a lesbian congresswoman tests the soil in Wisconsin.  Here’s Bobo:

Over the past few months, writers from Charles Murray to Timothy Noah have produced alarming work on the growing bifurcation of American society. Now the eminent Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and his team are coming out with research that’s more horrifying.

While most studies look at inequality of outcomes among adults and help us understand how America is coming apart, Putnam’s group looked at inequality of opportunities among children. They help us understand what the country will look like in the decades ahead. The quick answer? More divided than ever.

Putnam’s data verifies what many of us have seen anecdotally, that the children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities. Decades ago, college-graduate parents and high-school-graduate parents invested similarly in their children. Recently, more affluent parents have invested much more in their children’s futures while less affluent parents have not.

They’ve invested more time. Over the past decades, college-educated parents have quadrupled the amount of time they spend reading “Goodnight Moon,” talking to their kids about their day and cheering them on from the sidelines. High-school-educated parents have increased child-care time, but only slightly.

A generation ago, working-class parents spent slightly more time with their kids than college-educated parents. Now college-educated parents spend an hour more every day. This attention gap is largest in the first three years of life when it is most important.

Affluent parents also invest more money in their children. Over the last 40 years upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their kids’ enrichment activities, like tutoring and extra curriculars, by $5,300 a year. The financially stressed lower classes have only been able to increase their investment by $480, adjusted for inflation.

As a result, behavior gaps are opening up. In 1972, kids from the bottom quartile of earners participated in roughly the same number of activities as kids from the top quartile. Today, it’s a chasm.

Richer kids are roughly twice as likely to play after-school sports. They are more than twice as likely to be the captains of their sports teams. They are much more likely to do nonsporting activities, like theater, yearbook and scouting. They are much more likely to attend religious services.

It’s not only that richer kids have become more active. Poorer kids have become more pessimistic and detached. Social trust has fallen among all income groups, but, between 1975 and 1995, it plummeted among the poorest third of young Americans and has remained low ever since. As Putnam writes in notes prepared for the Aspen Ideas Festival: “It’s perfectly understandable that kids from working-class backgrounds have become cynical and even paranoid, for virtually all our major social institutions have failed them — family, friends, church, school and community.” As a result, poorer kids are less likely to participate in voluntary service work that might give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. Their test scores are lagging. Their opportunities are more limited.

A long series of cultural, economic and social trends have merged to create this sad state of affairs. Traditional social norms were abandoned, meaning more children are born out of wedlock. Their single parents simply have less time and resources to prepare them for a more competitive world. Working-class jobs were decimated, meaning that many parents are too stressed to have the energy, time or money to devote to their children.

Affluent, intelligent people are now more likely to marry other energetic, intelligent people. They raise energetic, intelligent kids in self-segregated, cultural ghettoes where they know little about and have less influence upon people who do not share their blessings.

The political system directs more money to health care for the elderly while spending on child welfare slides.

Equal opportunity, once core to the nation’s identity, is now a tertiary concern. If America really wants to change that, if the country wants to take advantage of all its human capital rather than just the most privileged two-thirds of it, then people are going to have to make some pretty uncomfortable decisions.

Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it. Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class.

Political candidates will have to spend less time trying to exploit class divisions and more time trying to remedy them — less time calling their opponents out of touch elitists, and more time coming up with agendas that comprehensively address the problem. It’s politically tough to do that, but the alternative is national suicide.

I just can’t wait until Charles Pierce tees this one up.  Maybe this time poor Moral Hazard will bite Bobo…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

There are few counties in America in as rough shape as San Bernardino County in California. During the housing bubble, the good times were very good. But then came the bust.

Today, San Bernardino County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation: 11.9 percent. Home prices have collapsed. Astonishingly, every second home is underwater, meaning the homeowner owes more on the mortgage than the house is worth. It is well documented that underwater mortgages have a high likelihood of defaulting — and, eventually, being foreclosed on. It has also been clear for some time that the best way to keep troubled homeowners in their homes is by reducing the principal on their mortgages, thus lowering their debt burden and more closely aligning their mortgage with the actual value of the home.

Which is why Greg Devereaux, the county’s chief executive officer, found himself listening intently when the folks from Mortgage Resolution Partners came knocking on his door. They had spent the previous year kicking around an intriguing idea: have localities buy underwater mortgages using their power of eminent domain — and then write the homeowner a new, reduced mortgage. It’s principal reduction using a stick instead of a carrot.

I know. When you first hear this idea, it sounds a little crazy. Eminent domain to take a mortgage? But the more closely you look at it, the more sense it starts to make. It would be a way to break the logjam that keeps mortgages in mortgage-backed bonds — securitizations — from being modified. It could prevent foreclosures. And it could finally stabilize housing prices.

The core issue that Mortgage Resolution Partners is trying to solve is what might be called the securitization problem. Bundling mortgages into securities and selling them to investors was, initially, a wonderful idea because it greatly expanded the amount of capital available for homeownership. But the people who wound up owning the mortgages — investors — were diffuse, often with conflicting interests, while the mortgages were managed by servicers or trustees who didn’t actually own them. And the securitization contracts never anticipated that people might need to modify. So it has been nearly impossible to modify mortgages stuck in securitizations.

It turns out, however, that there is nothing to prevent a government entity from using eminent domain to acquire a mortgage. “Eminent domain has existed for centuries,” said Robert Hockett, a law professor at Cornell who has served as an adviser to Mortgage Resolution Partners. “And it is applicable to any kind of property, including a mortgage.” What matters, Hockett continued, is two things: is the entity paying fair value for the property, and is it for a legitimate public purpose?

Can there be any doubt that keeping people in their homes constitutes a legitimate public purpose? “This is a yoke around the American economy,” said Steven Gluckstern, an entrepreneur with a varied career in insurance and finance who is the chairman of Mortgage Resolution Partners. “When people are underwater, their behavior changes. They stop spending. There are 12 million homes that are underwater,” he added. “Is the answer to really just let them get foreclosed on? Or wait for housing prices to rise?” According to Gluckstern, the fact that the foreclosure crisis is continuing is precisely why housing prices aren’t rising — despite some of the lowest interest rates in history.

As for fair value, since the home has dropped dramatically in value, the mortgage is worth a lot less than its face value. On Wall Street, in fact, traders are buying securitized mortgage bonds at a steep discount — reflecting the true value of the mortgages they’re buying. Yet the homeowner remains saddled with a mortgage that is unrealistically high. The plan calls for the county to buy mortgages at a steep, but fair, discount to its face value, and then to offer the homeowner a new mortgage that reflects much, though not all, of that discount. (Fees and costs would be paid for by the spread.) The money to buy the mortgages would come from investors; indeed, Mortgage Resolution Partners is in the process of raising money.

The securitization industry is up in arms about this proposal. In late June, after the plan was leaked to Reuters, some 18 organizations, including the Association of Mortgage Investors, wrote a threatening letter to the San Bernardino board of supervisors claiming that the plan would inflict “significant harm” to homeowners in the county. For his part, Devereaux insists that no final decision has been made. But, he says, “this is the first idea that anyone has approached us with that has the potential to have a real impact on our economy.” Other cities are watching closely to see what happens in San Bernardino.

We’re four years into a housing crisis. Nothing has yet worked to stem the terrible tide of foreclosures. It’s time to give eminent domain a try.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni, who’s in Plover, Wisconsin:

Tammy Baldwin, who has a very real chance of becoming the first openly gay or lesbian person elected to the United States Senate, stood with a 73-year-old potato farmer in his fields here the other day and asked him: “How hot am I?”

For the previous half-hour, the farmer had been boastfully showing Baldwin, 50, his equipment: the sorting machine, the stacking machine. And now, in response to her question, he nudged his thermometer close to her. I do mean thermometer, an infrared one, with which he’d just determined that the temperature of the dirt on this scorching July afternoon was 136 degrees.

He took a reading of Baldwin’s skin, which was a crackling 101.

“Wow,” she said, repeating a syllable that was getting a thorough workout as she deftly played a social role as traditional as any: the attractive younger woman stroking the older man’s pride. Her sexual orientation was irrelevant.

Because he didn’t care about it? Or didn’t even know? I had just a few minutes to chat with him before she and a few aides, doing a campaign swing through rural Wisconsin, arrived, and I got the sense that he was familiar only with her politics, the populist tone of which he said he liked.

“And the lesbian part?” wasn’t a phrase I instantly blurted out. The lesbian part shouldn’t be the deciding factor. And to judge from what I observed while shadowing her one day last week, it won’t be.

Baldwin, a Democrat currently serving her seventh term in the House, won’t know until mid-August which of four Republican aspirants she’ll face and precisely what kind of fight she’s in for.

But I don’t think its outcome will be governed by whom and how she loves. Not in 2012. Not with all the change afoot.

Look at the last few weeks, even the last few days. The high-profile wedding in the news over the weekend was of the retiring Congressman Barney Frank and his male partner. The high-profile wedding the weekend before that was of the Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and his male partner.

A male hip-hop star just came out; a prominent pray-away-the-gay advocate just conceded that sexual orientation is Psalms-resistant; Google just announced that it would promote gay rights worldwide, even in countries where homosexual acts are now criminal.

That’s not to mention Anderson Cooper’s recent acknowledgment that he’s gay, which elicited more yawns than gasps. The reaction befit a world in which Ellen DeGeneres is a pitchwoman not only for CoverGirl but also for J.C. Penney, whose catalogs this year included same-sex couples.

The specific issue of same-sex marriage still provokes fierce disagreement. But even factoring that in, the gay rights movement inexorably closes in on its real goal, which is not — as some opponents believe — for everyone to be talking incessantly about homosexuality. Among ourselves we don’t talk incessantly about it, trust me. We talk about dinner, diets and, during a summer like this, air-conditioning. We’re hot all right, but in the same weary, sweaty sense as everyone else.

The goal is for talking about homosexuality to be largely unnecessary. The goal is for the presence, legitimacy and equal rights of gays to be givens.

In 1998, Baldwin became the first openly gay or lesbian non-incumbent candidate elected to Congress. Four years earlier, Wisconsinites in a different district re-elected Steve Gunderson, a longtime Republican congressman, after learning of his homosexuality. He retired after that term.

For most of Baldwin’s congressional career she was coupled, but the two women broke up in 2010. During an interview late last year, she confirmed for me that she was still single.

When I asked last week if that status had changed, she laughed: “During a U.S Senate campaign?” She didn’t mean that dating was politically risky. She meant it was time-consuming.

Before entering the Senate race, she had research done on her vulnerabilities. It suggested that her sexual orientation wouldn’t be a useful weapon in attacks against her, she said.

Only once as I shadowed her did it come up, when a supporter sought advice on how to discuss it with others. She told him to focus their attention on what the election was really about: economic opportunity, security and fairness.

Those were the main topics covered when she mingled with voters outside a Curves gym in the town of Friendship and, later, inside a pub in Nekoosa.

In Plover, during her meet-and-greet with the farmer, the conversation turned to spuds. He told her his services were always available — a phone call away — should she need tuber tutelage.

“Remember Dan Quayle,” he said, recalling how the former vice president never lived down his “potatoe” misspelling. “If you’ve got the wrong information, it can hit you real hard.”

How delicious. He surveyed the possible tripwires on her path into history, and all he saw were gratuitous vowels.

 

Dowd and Friedman

June 20, 2012

In “The Constant Wife” MoDo says if only “Sarge” had lived up to her nickname. Why was Dottie Sandusky, like the rest of the Penn State community, so oblivious?  Gee, MoDo, I don’t know.  Maybe those vast, rolling tracts of football cash?  The Moustache of Wisdom is beating his little tin drum about his fantasy of a “serious, centrist third-party challenger” again.  In “Wasting Warren Buffett” he says there is something seriously lacking in the current campaigns from President Obama and Mitt Romney.  Here’s MoDo, who’s in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania:

Her nickname is “Sarge.”

“I’m strict,” Dottie Sandusky told the court with a proud tilt of her chin. “I like for things to go in a certain way. We expect a lot from our kids.”

Yet the main question about Sarge is why she was so lax.

The 69-year-old grandmother, married to Jerry Sandusky for 45 years, “46 in September,” came to court on Tuesday while defense lawyers debated whether to risk putting her husband on the stand. The coach who excelled in defense has put up a negligible one in court.

Dottie, a small, pert woman with short gray hair and a lime-green sweater, arrived at the trial of her husband as an object of fascination. She embodies the grim mystery at the center of “this drama,” as one of her friends sardonically calls it: How could everyone in the community, including those who seemed to represent the highest ideals, like Dottie Sandusky and Joe Paterno, turn a blind eye to Jerry Sandusky’s aberrant and abhorrent behavior toward vulnerable boys? If the prosecution is right, he is an emotional sociopath who conducted a serial crime spree quite openly at Penn State and in his own home.

On the stand, Mrs. Sandusky saw no evil, heard no evil and spoke only a little evil — against the cherubic-looking boy, now a tightly coiled 28-year-old, who was the most intense rival for her husband’s attentions 15 years ago, getting what he called “creepy love letters” from his predatory “father figure.”

“He was very demanding,” she said of the boy. “And he was very conniving. And he wanted his way, and he didn’t listen a whole lot.”

The accuser had testified that on a trip to the Alamo Bowl in 1999, as Jerry threatened to send him home if he would not perform oral sex in the bathroom, Dottie had come to the edge of the bathroom and called out “What are you doing in there?” before disappearing again after a brief talk with her husband.

Dottie gave a different version. She said that they were staying in an efficiency apartment, with a cot for the boy. She came in one day and Jerry and the boy were in the bathroom area, clothed, having a fight because the boy was refusing to go to a football luncheon for which Sandusky had already bought a $50 ticket.

“He was yelling,” she said of her husband, adding: “I know Jerry was mad the way he looked. He said, ‘We did this for you. You’ve got to do this.’ ” She added with irritation that “we had to pay for his airline ticket; we had to pay for his food,” even though they had expenses for their “own” children and grandchildren.

She did not seem to find it odd that her husband was acting emotional, lavishing gifts and doting on a child “like his girlfriend,” as the grown-up accuser testified. (He noted that Mrs. Sandusky was “kind of cold,” treating the fatherless boys like they were “Jerry’s kids.”)

Mrs. Sandusky seemed to wilt a bit and steel herself as she was shown pictures of the fresh-faced boys who grew up into messed-up men, taken at the age when the abuse allegedly happened — handsome kids whose blue-collar working moms were thrilled to have the famous Jerry Sandusky take the boys on outings and overnights. As Dottie talked, her husband looked away from her, toward the pictures of the boys, for prolonged stretches.

Sounding a little acidic, as though she were describing a romantic rival, she said of one boy: “He was a charmer. He knew what to say and when to say it.”

She was dutifully loyal about her husband but did not express outrage about the charges.

Their life, she said, was “rough because Jerry, he was not around a lot.” When the young couple realized they couldn’t have children, they adopted six. He would come home at 6:30 p.m., “spend an hour or so with the kids, then disappear up to his study to work.”

Asked about the testimony of one accuser that she was in the house when he screamed for help, as Sandusky raped him in the basement, she said she never heard any yelling and denied, as the young man had suggested, that the basement must be soundproof.

Asked about her hearing by her husband’s lawyer, she replied: “I think it’s pretty good.”

She said she did notice some oddly clingy behavior by one boy, who ran across the room while they were watching TV to jump into a La-Z-Boy with Jerry, and who also ran across the gym at a wrestling match to hug Jerry.

Pressed by the prosecutor about those trips by her husband to the basement — the bearlike Sandusky would “crack” the back of the slight boys in bed, an ominous foreplay — she said primly: “He would go down and say good night,” adding, “I didn’t go down and tuck ’em in.”

I need a shower.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Watching this campaign unfold reaffirms how much it would have benefitted from a serious, centrist third-party challenger. It would have been so clarifying to have an independent voice calling out Mitt Romney for running a campaign that consists of decrying the last three and a half years of the Obama presidency, while offering to reinstate the very same failed policies that made the eight years of George W. Bush a disaster that President Obama has spent most of his time cleaning up. And it would have been equally clarifying to have an independent challenger calling out Obama for failing to put a credible, specific economic plan on the table — at the scale of our problem — but relying instead on a campaign that amounts to a series of discrete appeals to each of the Democratic Party constituencies. It feels like a ground war with no air cover.

But there will be no third-party candidate, so the only hope is getting Obama to raise his game. To do that, the president needs to recognize just how badly he wasted Warren Buffett — using him for a two-week, wedge-issue sugar high.

Obama got Buffett to endorse the “Buffett Rule” — a minimum tax rate of 30 percent for any individual who makes more than $1 million a year so that all millionaires have to pay a higher tax rate than their secretaries. The plan had no chance of passing, would have made only a small dent in the deficit and was rightly decried by experts as a gimmick that only diverted attention from what we really need: comprehensive tax reform that can substantially raise revenue in a fairer manner. The Buffett Rule has largely faded away.

What a waste of Warren Buffett’s credibility.

Buffett is a businessman out to make a profit. But he is respected by many as a straight-talking nonpartisan — someone who can “call the game.” What the president should have done is follow the advice of the Princeton University economist and former Fed Vice Chairman Alan Blinder, namely lay out a specific “three-step rehab program for our nation’s fiscal policy.” Call it the Obama Plan; it should combine a near-term stimulus on job-creating infrastructure, a phase-in, as the economy improves, of “something that resembles the 10-year Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan — which would pay for the stimulus 15-20 times over” and a specific plan to “bend the health care cost-curve downward.” Obama has already offered the first; he still has not risen to the second and the third would be an easy extension of his own health care plan.

Obama needs a second look from independents who could determine this election. To attract that second look will require a credible, detailed recovery plan that gets voters to react in three ways: 1) “Now that sounds like it will address the problem, and both parties are going to feel the pain.” 2) “That plan seems fair: the rich pay more, but everyone pays something.” 3) “Wow, Obama did something hard and risky. He got out ahead of Congress and Romney. That’s leadership. I’m giving him a second look.”

I’d bet anything that if the president staked out such an Obama Plan, Buffett and a lot of other business leaders would endorse it. It would give the G.O.P. a real problem. After all, what would help Obama more right now: Repeating over and over the Buffett Rule gimmick or campaigning from now to Election Day by starting every stump speech saying: “Folks, I have an economic plan for America’s future that Warren Buffett and other serious business leaders endorse — and Mitt Romney doesn’t.”

Obama loyalists often say: “Those Republicans are so bad. They’ve tried to block us at every turn.” Yes, the G.O.P. has tried to stymie Obama; it’s been highly destructive. But the people who keep pointing that out don’t have an answer for the simplest next question: Why have they gotten away with it?

My view: It’s because too many Americans in the center-left/center-right do not feel in their guts that Obama is leading — is offering an economic plan at the scale of the problem that has a chance for bipartisan support and that makes them want to get up out of their chairs and do battle. Our situation is different from four years ago; people want to know the president has a plan for getting out of this mess.

When the Grand Bargain talks with John Boehner fell apart, Obama retreated to his base when he should have rallied the center by laying out — in detail — the Grand Bargain the country needs. That would have forced Romney to speak in detail about his plan — the Paul Ryan plan — and reveal it for what it is: a radical plan that few Americans would embrace if they understood it.

Then people would see a real choice: a tough-minded-but-centrist plan with real bipartisan support versus a radical plan to gut Medicare, give more tax cuts to the already wealthy and drastically shrink discretionary spending so eventually nothing is left for education, veterans, roads, research, the F.B.I. or the poor.

And the morning after that happens — when Warren Buffett endorses the Obama Plan, not just the Buffett Gimmick — the president will have his mojo back.

 


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