Archive for the ‘Kristof’ Category

Blow, Kristof and Collins

March 5, 2015

In “The Feds vs. Ferguson” Mr. Blow says the Ferguson Police Department and the municipal courts treated citizens like a revenue stream, violating their constitutional rights in the process.  Mr. Kristof, in “You Think Your Winter Was Rough?”, says through frostbite, blizzards and frozen rivers, Shawn Forry and Justin Lichter did what seemed impossible: hiking from Canada to Mexico on the Pacific Crest Trail in winter.  In “Pearls Before Congress” Ms. Collins asks .adies and gentleman, are you ready for this? She says we have some bipartisan cooperation in Congress!  Here’s Mr. Blow:

On Wednesday, the Department of Justice released the utterly devastating results of its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.

The report contained charges that the Police Department and the municipal courts treated citizens less like constituents and more like a revenue stream, violating citizens’ constitutional rights in the process.

And it found that this burden was disproportionately borne by the black people in a town that is two-thirds black. This disproportionate weight is exacerbated when people are poor.

As the Justice Department report pointed out:

“Court practices exacerbate the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices. They impose a particular hardship upon Ferguson’s most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty. Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay, and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing.”

According to an August Brookings report:

“Between 2000 and 2010-2012, Ferguson’s poor population doubled. By the end of that period, roughly one in four residents lived below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012), and 44 percent fell below twice that level.”

The view that emerges from the Justice Department report is that citizens were not only paying a poverty tax, but a pigment tax as the local authorities sought to balance their budgets and pad their coffers on the backs of poor black people.

Perhaps most disturbing — and damning — is actual correspondence in the report where the authorities don’t even attempt to disguise their intent.

Take this passage from the report:

“In March 2010, for instance, the City Finance Director wrote to Chief [Thomas] Jackson that ‘unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. . . . Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.’ Similarly, in March 2013, the Finance Director wrote to the City Manager: ‘Court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5%. I did ask the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try.’”

Furthermore, the report made clear that “officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on ‘productivity,’ meaning the number of citations issued.”

The report read like one about a shakedown gang rather than about city officials.

The police appear to have done what was requested of them.The report puts it this way:

“According to data the City reported to the Missouri State Courts Administrator, at the end of fiscal year 2009, the municipal court had roughly 24,000 traffic cases and 28,000 non-traffic cases pending. As of October 31, 2014, both of those figures had roughly doubled to 53,000 and 50,000 cases, respectively. In fiscal year 2009, 16,178 new cases were filed, and 8,727 were resolved. In 2014, by contrast, 24,256 new offenses were filed, and 10,975 offenses were resolved.”

For context, the population of Ferguson is around 21,000 people, according to the Census Bureau.

Some officers balked at this obscenity, particularly as it related to “imposing mounting penalties on people who will never be able to afford them” — one member repeating the adage “How can you get blood from a turnip?” But “enough officers — at all ranks — have internalized this message that a culture of reflexive enforcement action, unconcerned with whether the police action actually promotes public safety, and unconcerned with the impact the decision has on individual lives or community trust has taken hold within FPD.”

And the racial disparities as charged by the Justice Department are unconscionable.

According to the report, “Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement both reflects and reinforces racial bias” and “there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race.”

For instance:

“African Americans are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops even after controlling for non-race based variables such as the reason the vehicle stop was initiated, but are found in possession of contraband 26% less often than white drivers, suggesting officers are impermissibly considering race as a factor when determining whether to search.”

Also:

“FPD appears to bring certain offenses almost exclusively against African Americans. For example, from 2011 to 2013, African Americans accounted for 95% of Manner of Walking in Roadway charges, and 94% of all Failure to Comply charges.”

Furthermore:

“Even where FPD officers have legal grounds to stop or arrest, however, they frequently take actions that ratchet up tensions and needlessly escalate the situation to the point that they feel force is necessary.”

This all brings us full circle to the only reason there was an investigation and the only reason this information has been analyzed and presented — the killing of Michael Brown and the protests that followed.

(Darren Wilson first encountered Michael Brown and his friend walking in the street and ordered them to move to the sidewalk, and a scuffle began, and Wilson ultimately shot Brown. By the way, Wilson was also cleared of civil rights violations by the Justice Department on Wednesday.)

Whatever one thinks about the case of the killing and how it was handled in the courts, it is clear that Brown’s death will not be in vain. It is clear that the frustration that poured out onto the streets of Ferguson was not without merit.

Once again, the oppression people feel as part of their lived experiences, and can share only by way of anecdote, is bolstered by data.

When people say “Black Lives Matter,” they’re not referring only to the lives lost, but also to those stunted and controlled by a system of power that sees them as pawns.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

In October, two young Americans set off on the most daring and foolhardy wilderness expedition since, oh, maybe Lewis and Clark.

They were trying to become the first people ever to backpack from Canada to Mexico on the Pacific Crest Trail in the dead of winter. Once before, in 1983, two people set out to traverse the trail in winter. They never made it. Their bodies were found a month after they fell off an icy cliff.

A winter thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail seemed impossible. The trail is covered by many feet of snow that time of year, and, even if the two explorers managed to find their way, they risked triggering avalanches, plunging through ice into rivers, or simply running out of food while trapped in blizzards.

“People said it was a death sentence,” Shawn Forry, one of the hikers, told me. He had estimated half-jokingly at the start that they had a 17 percent chance of succeeding.

But he spoke to me shortly after he and Justin Lichter reached the Mexican border on Sunday, completing their 2,650-mile odyssey — and surviving frostbite, blizzards, tumbles into frozen rivers and 1,750 consecutive trail miles without encountering a single other hiker.

Perhaps it feels a little self-indulgent to celebrate two guys who took a long walk. But what a walk! Like the 4-minute mile or the free climb of the Dawn Wall at Yosemite, this is something that seemed beyond human capacity — and then humans did it.

So let’s take a break from current affairs and recriminations about human venality to laud a triumph of human strength.

It helped that the two men were enormously experienced. Forry is a wilderness instructorfor Outward Bound. Lichter works on a ski patrol and said he has hiked 35,000 miles, equivalent to nearly one and a half times around Earth. He gave up one long backpack across East Africa when lions were stalking him.

Both Forry and Lichter had hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail in summer — itself an ultimate test of endurance (fewer people have thru-hiked the full trail than have climbed Mount Everest). But they wanted to see it in another season.

“With the snow, there’s so much natural beauty,” Lichter said. “It’s so peaceful. And the frozen rivers have these strange ice formations.”

They used snowshoes and, in California, skis, while carrying loads of up to 45 pounds, including food (they resupplied every week or so). Winter storms were frequent. When it snowed at night, they would get up every 30 minutes to push snow off their tarp to keep it from collapsing on them. In white-outs, they could barely see and stayed close to each other — except when crossing avalanche zones, when they had to separate to ensure that they would not both get buried in the same avalanche.

Even drinking water was a challenge. “You’re surrounded by frozen water, but you don’t have easy access to it to drink,” Forry said. They used a stove to melt snow for drinking water.

The worst period, they said, came in the Oregon mountains when a huge snowfall and below-zero temperatures left them with frostbitten feet. They were able to warm up and avoid permanent damage, yet they still had another 2,000 miles to go.

“At times, you’re pulling your knee up to your chest to take the next step, to get it above the snow — and that’s in snowshoes,” Forry said.

Barney Mann, the chairman of the Pacific Crest Trail Association and unofficial historian of the trail, said that after the frostbite incident he had doubted that Forry and Lichter would succeed.

“It’s the unrelenting cold,” Mann said. “It’s the unrelenting snow. It’s the moment-by-moment challenge of navigation when everything is white.”

One difficult day came in northern California when a storm dropped 10 inches of rain in 24 hours, winds reached 70 miles per hour and both men tumbled into a swollen torrent of a river that left them and their gear drenched and frigid.

Yet, in spite of all those challenges, they still urge people to try winter camping — carefully.

“I really encourage people to get out in the winter,” Forry said. “You have it to yourself, and it’s so peaceful. But start with a day trip — that way if anything goes wrong, you’re near your car.”

•

I’m delighted to announce that the winner of my annual win-a-trip contest is Austin Meyer, a journalism student at Stanford University. We’ll probably travel to India and Bangladesh, although Congo is an alternate possibility. The runners-up are Ashley Bastock of John Carroll University, Taylor Graham of Ithaca College and Sam Friedlander of University of Pennsylvania. Thanks to the Center for Global Development for helping me pick Austin from a dazzling field of 450 applicants. Stay tuned for a great reporting trip!

Self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing stupidity if you ask me…  Suppose they had been injured — they didn’t seem to give much thought to the people who would have had to come out and search for them.  Assholes.  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Welcome to a whole new world.

In Congress, that is. Not in the actual world. Control your expectations, for heaven’s sake.

You may have noticed that in an orgy of bipartisan cooperation, Congress passed a bill this week funding the Department of Homeland Security until the fall. Then, on Wednesday, the House passed a bipartisan bill funding the Amtrak system.

And then everybody went away because it was, you know, going to snow.

But, still, bipartisan cooperation. It all started with the Senate. Republicans have been horrified to discover that whenever the now-minority Senate Democrats don’t like something, they can simply filibuster, requiring 60 votes to move the bill forward. The Democrats always complained bitterly when the Republicans pulled that trick on them, but now they say the circumstances are totally different.

The Democrats demanded that the homeland security funding bill be passed without any side assaults on President Obama’s immigration program. And Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, eventually had to give in.

In a way, you could look at last week’s homeland security crisis as similar to the reported theft of a $150,000 gown, covered entirely in pearls, which actress Lupita Nyong’o wore to the Academy Awards. Later, the disgruntled thief called TMZ and said he had left the dress in a hotel restroom out of disgust after he had two of the pearls appraised and discovered they were fake.

So, good news is that the Department of Homeland Security is going to be funded. Also, that very attractive gown is back. The bad news is that we’ve now hit the point where keeping the government running sounds like a big victory. And the pearls weren’t real.

Irony abounds. Who expected the Senate Republicans to be surprised when the Democrats started filibustering? Who knew dress thieves had such principled standards?

The Senate Democrats’ success really ticked off the Republicans in the House, which nurtures a long and glorious tradition of hating the Senate, no matter who’s in charge. (The Senate ignores the House completely.)

“If we’re going to allow seven Democratic senators to decide what the agenda is … then we might as well just give them the chairmanships, give them the leadership of the Senate,” groused Representative Raúl Labrador.

Labrador is a leading member of a superconservative Republican caucus, which was created recently, with the apparent goal of bossing Speaker John Boehner around. In its debut performance, the caucus managed to kill a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security for just three weeks.

It is true that Labrador is the only member of Congress with the same name as a large, friendly retriever, but he can be really strict.

Pop Quiz: After conservative Republicans killed John Boehner’s bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security for three weeks, Boehner realized that:

A) Homeland security isn’t actually all that big a deal.

B) His own right wing was completely crazy, and, if he wanted to get through the year, he was going to have to work with the Democrats.

C) “If ands and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas.”

Yes! Boehner seems to have realized that he’s going to have to work with the Democrats. Also, he said that thing about the candy and nuts, but nobody really knew what he was talking about.

Both the homeland security bill and the Amtrak funding were passed with unanimous Democratic support, and huge Republican defections. The Amtrak bill, by the way, is more ambitious than your normal kicking-of-the-can-down-the-road legislation. There’s money to actually improve the infrastructure, which is more than Congress has managed to come up with lately for highways and bridges. It also opens up the wonderful world of rail transit to pet dogs and cats, which I have to say is something most of us were not anticipating.

The last bit seems to be the inspiration of a California Republican who owns a French bulldog that likes to travel. It is possible the program may be limited to small animals, but we will refrain making any jokes about aggrieved Labradors.

So this appears to be the path to the future: Senate Democrats will block anything they don’t like, forcing the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, to compromise. In the House, the Labradorians won’t vote for any Senate compromises, so Boehner will need the Democrats to pass any legislation that could actually make it into law.

Here we go — four fiscal cliffs in the offing and if the Republican majority wants to avoid falling off any of them, they’ll have to join hands with the Democrats and tango. We won’t get any big, dramatic reforms, but we might avoid any big dramatic disasters.

Plus poodles on Amtrak. Who knew?

Kristof and Collins

February 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Chris Christie is political toast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

February 22, 2015

In “The G.O.P. Policy Test” Putzy has a question:  Which candidates are true reformers, and which are just giving reform lip service?  In his comment “gemli” from Boston has this to say:  “It doesn’t matter what Republicans say. After six years of near-total lack of governance, endless filibusters, dozens of impotent symbolic votes to kill Obamacare and a government shut down, their actions have said it all.”  MoDo also has a question in “Jeb Bush’s Brainless Trust:”  Can you be your own man if you have to keep insisting you are your own man, while using all your family’s donors and advisers?  Mr. Kristof, in “Straight Talk for White Men,” says the evidence is overwhelming that unconscious bias remains widespread in ways that systematically offer benefits based on race and gender.  Mr. Bruni has the final question of the day in “Hillary, Jeb and $$$$$$:”  When candidates rake in this much, what do they give away?  Their souls, Mr. Bruni, assuming they have such things.  Here’s Putzy:

The economy is sluggish but improving. President Obama’s approval rating is mediocre but not disastrous. Memories of Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful presidential campaign are relatively fresh — not least because Romney popped up briefly to remind everyone of them. And the Republicans pondering a run for president in 2016 all seem to sense that they need do to things a little, well, differently if they expect to ultimately win.

Maybe that means talking more about inequality — even putting it right in the heart of your economic pitch, as Jeb Bush seems intent on doing. Maybe it means trying to reach constituencies (young, black, Hispanic) that the Romney campaign mostly wrote off, which is what Rand Paul thinks his libertarian message can accomplish. Maybe it means projecting the most Middle American, Kohl’s-shopping, non-Bain Capital image possible — which is why the recent media fascination with Scott Walker’s lack of a college diploma was probably a boon to the Wisconsin governor.

When it comes to the Republican Party’s basic presidential-level problem, though — the fact that many persuadable voters don’t trust a Republican president to look out for their economic interests — it should be easy to tell whether the way a candidate differentiates himself will actually make a difference. Just look at what he proposes on two issues: taxes and health care.

These are obviously not the only domestic policies worthy of debate. But they’re two places where the immediate link between policy and take-home pay is very clear and two places where abstract promises about “opportunity,” “mobility” and “the American dream” either cash out or don’t.

Precisely because there’s real money on the table, they are places where being a reformer requires more than lip service. One reason issues like immigration and education are appealing to Republican politicians looking to change their party’s image is that policy change in these areas seems relatively cheap — more green cards here, new curricular standards there, and nothing that requires donors and interest groups to part with their favorite subsidies and tax breaks.

But you can’t reform the tax code or health care that easily, which is why those issues offer better, tougher tests of whether a would-be conservative reformer should be taken seriously.

Not coincidentally, they’re policy tests that Obama-era Republicans have often conspicuously failed. On taxes, the party has been enamored of reforms — some plausible, some fanciful — that would cut taxes at the top while delivering little, or even higher taxes, to most taxpayers. (It’s an odd position for a party that is officially anti-tax to take in an age of wage stagnation, but at least the donors have been happy.) On health care, the G.O.P. has profited from the unpopularity of Obamacare, but we are now at Year 6 and counting without anything more than the pretense of a conservative alternative.

These failures have not been for want of policy options; they’ve been for want of ingenuity and will. The list of plausible conservative health care alternatives now literally fills a book — “Overcoming Obamacare,” from The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein, which any G.O.P. presidential contender would do well to at least pretend to have read. The best of these alternatives would allow a Republican candidate to promise, as Romney did not, to mostly maintain Obama’s coverage expansion (albeit with less comprehensive coverage) while lowering health insurance premiums for most Americans.

On tax policy, similarly, several obvious avenues are open to a would-be reformer. One possibility is the family-friendly tax reform championed by Senators Marco Rubio (the presidential contender with the strongest policy agenda to date) and Mike Lee, which would deliver substantial tax relief to families with children. Another is a straightforward payroll tax cut, which would raise take-home pay for existing workers and reduce the cost of hiring new ones.

But again, these kinds of policies cost money. A plausible Obamacare alternative requires a tax credit for purchasing insurance; a middle-class tax cut requires, well, a middle-class tax cut. If you want these things, you probably can’t have certain other priorities beloved by the party’s donor base — like, say, the lowest possible top marginal tax rate.

So embracing reforms that deliver something tangible to middle-class voters means embracing a policy fight.

But Republicans who decide to duck that fight won’t really be tackling Middle America’s biggest challenges — or their party’s biggest political problem.

If Jeb Bush decides that his big reform ideas will be immigration and the Common Core, his “right to rise” rhetoric will be mostly empty. If Scott Walker campaigns on, say, a flat tax and restoring the pre-2009 health insurance status quo, his middle-class shtick will remain just that.

But if the party nominates a candidate who offers something genuinely different on these issues than his predecessors did in 2008 and 2012, the possibility of a different general-election outcome might be there for the taking.

Keep on whistling past the graveyard, Putzy.  Here’s MoDo:

I had been keeping an open mind on Jeb Bush.

I mean, sure, as Florida governor, he helped his brother snatch the 2000 election. And that led to two decade-long botched wars that cost tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. The nation will be dealing for a long time with struggling veterans and the loss of American prestige. Not to mention that W. let Wall Street gamble away the economy, which is only now finally creeping back.

But, all that aside, shouldn’t John Ellis Bush have the right to make the case that he is his own man?

In his foreign policy speech in Chicago on Wednesday, Jeb was dismissive toward those who want to know where he stands in relation to his father and brother. “In fact,” he said, mockingly, “this is a great, fascinating thing in the political world for some reason.”

For some reason?

Like the Clintons, the Bushes drag the country through national traumas that spring from their convoluted family dynamic and then disingenuously wonder why we concern ourselves with their family dynamic.

Without their last names, Hillary and Jeb would not be front-runners, buoyed by networks of donors grateful for appointments or favors bestowed by the family. (When Jeb and W. ran gubernatorial races in 1994, they both mined their mother’s Christmas card list for donors.)

Yet Jeb is bristling with Jane Austen-style condescension, acting as though he would still be where he is if his last name were Tree. The last two presidents in his party were his father and brother, and his brother crashed the family station wagon into the globe, and Jeb is going to have to address that more thoroughly than saying “there were mistakes made in Iraq for sure.”

He says he doesn’t want to focus on “the past,” and who can blame him? But how can he talk about leading America into the future if he can’t honestly assess the past, or his family’s controversial imprint?

In his speech, he blamed President Obama for the void that hatched ISIS, which he also noted didn’t exist in 2003 at the dawn of “the liberation of Iraq.” Actually, his brother’s invasion of Iraq is what spawned Al Qaeda in Iraq, which drew from an insurgency of Sunni soldiers angry about being thrown out of work by the amateurish and vainglorious viceroy, Paul Bremer.

Although Jeb likes to act as though his family is irrelevant to his ambitions, Bushworld stalwarts recite the Bush dynasty narrative like a favorite fairy tale:

The wonky Jeb, not the cocky W., was always 41’s hope. H.W. and Bar never thought W., unprepared, unruly and with a chip on his shoulder, would be president. His parents’ assumption that he was The One got in Jeb’s head and now the 62-year-old feels he needs “to try to correct and make up for some of W.’s mistakes,” as one family friend put it. The older Bush circle seems confident that Jeb sided with his father and Brent Scowcroft on the folly of letting the neocons push America into diverting from Osama to Saddam.

So for Bushworld, Jeb is the redeemer, the one who listens and talks in full sentences that make sense, the one who will restore the luster of the Bush name. But if you want to be your own person, you have to come up with your own people.

W. was a boy king, propped up by regents supplied by his father. Since he knew nothing about foreign affairs, his father surrounded him with his own advisers: Colin Powell, Condi Rice and Dick Cheney, who joined up with his pal Donald Rumsfeld and absconded with W.’s presidency.

Jeb, too, wanted to bolster his negligible foreign policy cred, so the day of his speech, his aide released a list of 21 advisers, 19 of whom had worked in the administrations of his father and his brother. The list starts with the estimable James Baker. But then it shockingly veers into warmongers.

It’s mind-boggling, but there’s Paul Wolfowitz, the unapologetic designer of the doctrine of unilateralism and pre-emption, the naïve cheerleader for the Iraq invasion and the man who assured Congress that Iraqi oil would pay for the country’s reconstruction and that it was ridiculous to think we would need as many troops to control the country as Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, suggested.

There’s John Hannah, Cheney’s national security adviser (cultivated by the scheming Ahmed Chalabi), who tried to stuff hyped-up junk on Saddam into Powell’s U.N. speech and who harbored bellicose ambitions about Iran; Stephen Hadley, who let the false 16-word assertion about Saddam trying to buy yellowcake in Niger into W.’s 2003 State of the Union; Porter Goss, the former C.I.A. director who defended waterboarding.

There’s Michael Hayden, who publicly misled Congress about warrantless wiretapping and torture, and Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary who fumbled Katrina.

Jeb is also getting advice from Condi Rice, queen of the apocalyptic mushroom cloud. And in his speech he twice praised a supporter, Henry Kissinger, who advised prolonging the Vietnam War, which the Nixon White House thought might help with the 1972 election.

Why not bring back Scooter Libby?

If he wants to reclaim the Bush honor, Jeb should be holding accountable those who inflicted deep scars on America, not holding court with them.

Where’s the shame?

For some reason, Jeb doesn’t see it.

Jeez — when you’ve lost MoDo…  Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Supermarket shoppers are more likely to buy French wine when French music is playing, and to buy German wine when they hear German music. That’s true even though only 14 percent of shoppers say they noticed the music, a study finds.

Researchers discovered that candidates for medical school interviewed on sunny days received much higher ratings than those interviewed on rainy days. Being interviewed on a rainy day was a setback equivalent to having an MCAT score 10 percent lower, according to a new book called “Everyday Bias,” by Howard J. Ross.

Those studies are a reminder that we humans are perhaps less rational than we would like to think, and more prone to the buffeting of unconscious influences. That’s something for those of us who are white men to reflect on when we’re accused of “privilege.”

White men sometimes feel besieged and baffled by these suggestions of systematic advantage. When I wrote a series last year, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” the reaction from white men was often indignant: It’s an equal playing field now! Get off our case!

Yet the evidence is overwhelming that unconscious bias remains widespread in ways that systematically benefit both whites and men. So white men get a double dividend, a payoff from both racial and gender biases.

Consider a huge interactive exploration of 14 million reviews on RateMyProfessors.com that recently suggested that male professors are disproportionately likely to be described as a “star” or “genius.” Female professors are disproportionately described as “nasty,” “ugly,” “bossy” or “disorganized.”

One reaction from men was: Well, maybe women professors are more disorganized!

But researchers at North Carolina State conducted an experiment in which they asked students to rate teachers of an online course (the students never saw the teachers). To some of the students, a male teacher claimed to be female and vice versa.

When students were taking the class from someone they believed to be male, they rated the teacher more highly. The very same teacher, when believed to be female, was rated significantly lower.

Something similar happens with race.

Two scholars, Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, sent out fictitious résumés in response to help-wanted ads. Each résumé was given a name that either sounded stereotypically African-American or one that sounded white, but the résumés were otherwise basically the same.

The study found that a résumé with a name like Emily or Greg received 50 percent more callbacks than the same résumé with a name like Lakisha or Jamal. Having a white-sounding name was as beneficial as eight years’ work experience.

Then there was the study in which researchers asked professors to evaluate the summary of a supposed applicant for a post as laboratory manager, but, in some cases, the applicant was named John and in others Jennifer. Everything else was the same.

“John” was rated an average of 4.0 on a 7-point scale for competence, “Jennifer” a 3.3. When asked to propose an annual starting salary for the applicant, the professors suggested on average a salary for “John” almost $4,000 higher than for “Jennifer.”

It’s not that we white men are intentionally doing anything wrong, but we do have a penchant for obliviousness about the way we are beneficiaries of systematic unfairness. Maybe that’s because in a race, it’s easy not to notice a tailwind, and white men often go through life with a tailwind, while women and people of color must push against a headwind.

While we don’t notice systematic unfairness, we do observe specific efforts to redress it — such as affirmative action, which often strikes white men as profoundly unjust. Thus a majority of white Americans surveyed in a 2011 study said that there is now more racism against whites than against blacks.

None of these examples mean exactly that society is full of hard-core racists and misogynists. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke University sociologist, aptly calls the present situation “racism without racists”; it could equally be called “misogyny without misogynists.” Of course, there are die-hard racists and misogynists out there, but the bigger problem seems to be well-meaning people who believe in equal rights yet make decisions that inadvertently transmit both racism and sexism.

So, come on, white men! Let’s just acknowledge that we’re all flawed, biased and sometimes irrational, and that we can do more to resist unconscious bias. That means trying not to hire people just because they look like us, avoiding telling a young girl she’s “beautiful” while her brother is “smart.” It means acknowledging systematic bias as a step toward correcting it.

And last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

Last week began with the comedy extravaganza of the “Saturday Night Live” reunion, but not one of its sketches or jokes was half as funny as four words three days later by Jeb Bush.

“I’m my own man,” he said.

And he kept a straight face somehow.

The remark came during a foreign policy speech in Chicago, and he was making clear that he was no slave to the policies and priorities of his father, the 41st president, or his older brother, the 43rd.

I’ll buy that.

But immediately following the speech, donors sought to buy him.

It was estimated that at back-to-back fund-raisers, he hauled in about $4 million for his Right to Rise PAC and for a “super PAC” that supports him.

This was on top of another $4 million that he reportedly netted the previous week in one evening alone at the Manhattan home of a private equity bigwig. After Manhattan came the Washington, D.C., area, where he racked up $1 million at two events, according to Politico. An atlas of cities, an avalanche of dough: It’s what successful campaigns are made of, and his is expected to raise between $50 million and $100 million over a span of three months.

Those dollars come with expectations. Money almost always does.

Bush is no more his own man than Hillary Clinton is her own woman. And in her case, too, I’m not talking about the imprint of her family, specifically a husband who served two terms in the White House and still looms impossibly large and loquacious on the post-presidential stage.

I’m talking about financial ties — past, present, future. I’m talking about the reality, growing ever more pronounced and ominous, that you can’t run for a major, fiercely contested political office in this country without becoming a monstrous, ceaseless, insatiable Hoover of money.

The Clintons suck it in like no one before them, with a dearth of caution that boggles the mind. Stories in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post last week tabulated and detailed the fund-raising of the Clinton Foundation over the last decade and a half, calculating that it had raised $2 billion.

And the sources of some of that money should give us pause. As The Wall Street Journal reported, “Recent donors include the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Australia, Germany and a Canadian government agency promoting the Keystone XL pipeline.”

There are firm and necessary laws against American candidates accepting foreign donations. There’s no such prohibition for a philanthropy like the Clinton Foundation, which undeniably does much essential, heroic work around the globe.

But it’s a philanthropy headed by a woman who’s most likely running for president and by her husband and daughter. Their requests and their gratitude cannot be separated entirely from politics. There’s inevitable overlap and blending.

As The Washington Post wrote, the foundation “has given contributors entree, outside the traditional political arena, to a possible president. Foreign donors and countries that are likely to have interests before a potential Clinton administration — and yet are ineligible to give to U.S. political campaigns — have affirmed their support for the family’s work through the charitable giving.”

And this isn’t some minor wrinkle of the foundation’s structure and workings. “A third of foundation donors who have given more than $1 million are foreign governments or other entities based outside the United States, and foreign donors make up more than half of those who have given more than $5 million,” according to The Post’s analysis.

That analysis also showed that “donations from the financial services sector” represented the “largest share of corporate donors.” In other words, the foundation is cozy with Wall Street, which has also funneled Clinton some of her enormous speaking fees.

The Journal noted that “at least 60 companies that lobbied the State Department during her tenure donated a total of more than $26 million to the Clinton Foundation.”

A few prominent Democrats with whom I spoke were spooked, not because they believed that Clinton would feel a pressing need to repay these kindnesses, but because the eventual Republican nominee had just been handed a potent weapon against her.

And in the income-inequality era, how does a candidate crowned with this many dollar signs put herself forward persuasively as a woman of the people and a champion of the underdog?

THE answer — and her salvation — may be that we’ve all become so accustomed to the tide of money washing through politics that we just assume all candidates to be equally (and thoroughly) wet. We give in. And we stop acknowledging frequently or urgently enough that American elections, which should be contests of ideas and character, are as much (if not more) contests of cold, hard cash.

Certainly those of us in the news media are somewhat guilty of this, because something that’s no longer new is no longer news.

Sure, we publish stories about the dizzying, obscene heights of spending by major donors, like one written in The Times last month by Nicholas Confessore. He noted that the Koch brothers had drawn up a budget of $889 million for the 2016 election cycle.

But we discuss the damage being done to Chris Christie’s presidential dreams by the defection of potential donors without digressing to underscore the perversity of a small circle of people having so much consequence.

We report, as we did in January, on how well or poorly Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz performed when they spoke at a gathering put together by the Kochs in Southern California. But we don’t flag the oddity of these auditions, the chilling bizarreness of the way the road to the White House winds not only through the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary but also through plutocrats’ posh retreats.

An astonishing bounty of the comments and developments that make headlines emanate from the arena of fund-raising. We learned that Mitt Romney might enter the 2016 race because he was telling donors as much, and we learned that he had decided otherwise because he was letting donors know. In neither instance did we take sufficient note of that.

We articulate misgivings about how much of Clinton’s or Bush’s thinking may be rooted in the past. But the bigger issue, given the scope of not just their own political histories but also their relatives’, is how heavy a duffel of i.o.u.s each of them would carry into office.

Their prominence is commensurate with their debts. And only so many of those can be forgotten.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

February 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is huge.

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

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

Next up we have MoDo Mr. Cohen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

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

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

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

I was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cohen, Kristof and Collins

February 12, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ain’t that the God’s gospel truth!

Kristof and Collins

February 5, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Things we can learn from “American Sniper”:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

February 1, 2015

Putzy has a question in “Our Loud, Proud Left:”  What is fueling the cultural activism of the later Obama years?  In the comments “gemli” from Boston has part of the answer:  “Where certain pundits see an excess of left-wing political correctness, others may see a reaction to Republican efforts to roll back every progressive initiative that has been enacted over the last half-century. I can see why the left has lost its taste for debate when one side wants to deny basic human rights to gay people using bogus religious-freedom objections, or to kill food stamps, or to increase the unconscionable income disparity. I don’t need to weigh the merits of both sides to know that one side sickens me.”  In “Mitt’s White Horse Pulls Up Lame” MoDo tells us how real Mitt fell in love with reel Mitt.  I’m sure that the Koch brothers had NOTHING to do with him leaving the race…  Mr. Kristof, in “Heroes and Bystanders,” says the best way to honor past victims of genocide is to fight it everywhere that it exists today.  Mr. Bruni looks at “The Vaccine Lunacy” and says for the sake of children’s health, let’s face facts and repudiate fiction.  Here’s The Putz:

For the last week, liberal journalists have been furiously debating whether a new political correctness has swept over the American left. The instigator of this argument was New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, normally a scourge of Republicans, whose essay on what he dubbed “the new P.C.” critiqued left-wing activists for their zeal to play language cop, shout down arguments and shut down debate outright.

It will surprise absolutely nobody that I think the phenomenon that Chait describes is real. But I come not to judge but to explain — because whether you like or loathe the “P.C.” label, the rise of a more assertive cultural left is clearly one of the defining features of the later Obama years. This assertiveness is palpable among younger activists, on campus and online; it’s visible in controversy after controversy, from Ferguson to campus rape. And it’s interesting to think about exactly where it’s coming from.

The first source, probably, is disappointment with other forms of left-wing politics. A decade ago, the left’s energy was focused on Iraq; in President Obama’s first term, it was divided between his quest for a new New Deal and Occupy Wall Street’s free-form radicalism. But now the antiwar movement is moribund, Occupy has gone the way of the Yippies and it’s been years since the White House proposed a new tax or spending plan that wasn’t D.O.A.

What’s more, despite all the books sold by Thomas Piketty, the paths forward for progressive economic policy are mostly blocked — and not only by a well-entrenched Republican Party, but by liberalism’s ongoing inability to raise the taxes required to pay for the welfare state we already have. Since a long, slow, grinding battle over how to pay for those commitments is unlikely to fire anyone’s imagination, it’s not surprising that cultural causes — race, sex, identity — suddenly seem vastly more appealing.

The second wellspring is a more specific sort of disillusionment. Call it post-post-racialism: a hangover after the heady experience of electing America’s first black president; a frustration with the persistence of racial divides, even in an age of elite African-American achievement; and a sense of outrage over particular tragedies (Trayvon Martin, Ferguson) that seem to lay injustice bare.

Post-post-racial sentiment is connected to economic disappointments, because minorities have fared particularly poorly in the Great Recession’s aftermath. And this sentiment’s rejection of respectability politics — that is, the idea that the fate of black Americans rests mostly in their own hands — seems to point naturally toward a kind of redistributionism. (Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent Atlantic essay “The Case For Reparations” made this argument explicitly.)

But again, because the paths to economic redistribution are mostly blocked, the more plausible way to put post-post-racialism into practice is social activism: a renewed protest politics of the kind we’ve seen since Ferguson, and a wider effort to police the culture for hidden forms of racism, which don’t require tax increases to root out.

Finally, the late-Obama left is shaped by the success of the same-sex marriage movement, a rare example of a progressive cause that seems to be carrying all before it. To activists, its progress offers a model for winning even when electoral obstacles loom large: It shows that the left can gain ground at the elite level and then watch the results trickle down, that victories on college campuses can presage wider cultural success and that pathologizing critics as bigoted and phobic can be an effective way to finish up debates.

I suspect that a lot of the ambition (or aggression, depending on your point of view) from the campus left right now reflects the experience of watching the same-sex marriage debate play out. Whether on issues, like transgender rights, that extend from gay rights, or on older debates over rape and chauvinism, there’s a renewed sense that what happens in relatively cloistered environments can have wide ripples, and that taking firm control of a cultural narrative can matter much more than anything that goes on in Washington.

What’s interesting about this ambition is that it’s about to intersect with a political campaign in which the champion of liberalism will be a Clinton — when the original Clintonism, in its Sister Souljah-ing, Defense of Marriage Act-signing triangulation on social issues, is a big part of what the new cultural left wants to permanently leave behind.

Precisely because this left’s energy is cultural rather than economic, this tension is unlikely to spur the kind of populist, Elizabeth Warrenesque challenge to Hillary that pundits keep expecting.

But it does promise an interesting subtheme for the campaign. Can Hillary, the young feminist turned cautious establishmentarian, harness the energy of the young and restless left? Or will the excesses associated with that energy end up dividing her coalition, as it has divided liberal journalists of late?

Those of us watching from the right — with, perhaps, a little popcorn — will be interested to find out.

Be careful, Putzy, you may very well choke on your popcorn.  Here’s MoDo, writing from Salt Lake City:

When the Mitt Romney documentary premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival last year, one member of the audience was especially charmed by the candidate up on the screen.

That guy is great, Mitt Romney thought to himself. That guy should be running for president.

It was an “Aha” moment that came to him belatedly at age 66, after two failed presidential runs that cost more than $1 billion.

Mitt had a revelation that he should have run his races as Mitt — with all the goofiness, Mormonism, self-doubt and self-mockery thrown into the crazy salad.

Some of his strategists had argued against the movie. But wasn’t it endearing, when the tuxedo-clad Romney ironed his own French cuffs while they were on his wrists? When he listened to “This American Life” on NPR with his family? When he wryly called himself a “flippin’ Mormon”? When he and Ann prayed on their knees just before the New Hampshire primary? When he went sledding with his grandkids?

He was himself as a moderate Massachusetts governor. But when he ran for president in 2008, he was “severely conservative,” as he would later awkwardly brag, and that wasn’t him.

In 2012, he was closer but still not truly himself, putting his faith and centrist record off to the side. He had surrounded himself with Stuart Stevens and other advisers who did not have faith that the unplugged Mitt could win, and the candidate did not have enough faith in himself to push back against them.

“It’s a sad story of discovery,” said a Republican who is friends with him. “He kept going through campaigns and evolving closer to himself. Then he saw the documentary and it was liberating, showing 100 percent of himself instead of 80. But it was too late. You don’t really get three shots.”

Romney got bollixed up by dueling fears that the unkind arena would rage at him if he put up his guard and rage at him if he dropped it. He was haunted by the collapse of his father’s 1968 campaign for president after his father dropped his guard, telling a Detroit TV broadcaster that he thought he had been brainwashed into supporting the Vietnam War by American commanders and diplomats there.

But after Romney saw the documentary “Mitt” — by Mormon filmmaker Greg Whiteley — and felt that he could be Mitt “all the way,” as one friend put it, he was ready to run “a hell of a race.”

Mormons learn firsthand that rejection — as the young Mitt learned in Paris on his mission when he got less than 20 converts in two-and-a-half years — doesn’t mean you should stop trying.

Recent polls had Romney ahead of Jeb Bush and other Republican contenders. He was more in demand on the trail than President Obama during the 2014 campaign. He had shied away in 2012 from explaining the role of faith in his life, worried that Mormonism might still sound strange to voters if he had to explain lore like the white horse prophecy, that a Mormon white knight would ride in to save the U.S. as the Constitution was hanging by a thread.

But, in the last few weeks, Romney had seemed eager to take a Mormon mulligan. Less sensitive about his great-grandparents fleeing to Mexico to preserve their right to polygamy, Romney began joking to audiences that when he learned about the church at Brigham Young University, “Emma was Joseph Smith’s only wife.”

It was foolish to ever think he could take his religion — which is baked into every part of his life — and cordon it off.

In Park City Wednesday, I talked to Jon Krakauer, the author of “Under the Banner of Heaven,” a history of Mormonism, and executive producer of “Prophet’s Prey,” a Showtime documentary, which was premiering at Sundance, about the most infamous Mormon polygamous cult.

“I don’t think he has a choice,” Krakauer said. “I don’t know how people will react, but he has nothing to be ashamed with, with his faith. And by not talking about it, it looks like he does.”

It was the same mistake Al Gore made in 2000 when he listened to advisers who told him he would seem too tree-huggy if he talked about the environment. When that was off-limits, Gore lost the issue he was least likely to be wooden on; it was the one topic that made him passionate — not to mention prescient.

If Mitt was 100 percent himself, he began to think this time, he could move past the debacles of his 47 percent comment caught on tape and his cringe-worthy 13 percent tax rate — both of which had made him seem like the pitiless plutocrat conjured by Democrats.

Two weeks ago, at a Republican meeting in San Diego, Romney talked about his decade as a Mormon bishop and stake president, working “with people who are very poor to get them help and subsistence,” finding them jobs and tending to the sick and elderly.

He changed his residency to Utah and started building a house in a wealthy suburb of Salt Lake City. He got a broker for the luxe La Jolla oceanfront home with the four-car elevator.

It was reported that a 2016 Romney campaign could be based here. Romney had been burning up the phone lines with donors and past operatives and was reassembling his old campaign team. But Jeb Bush popped Mitt’s trial balloon by peeling off the money and the talent.

“He thought there was more interest than there was,” one strategist close to Romney said. “There wasn’t a big groundswell. The donor-activist-warlord bubble had moved on. It’s a tough world. Mitt didn’t want to claw and slug.”

 Or as his 2008 presidential campaign adviser Alex Castellanos put it, “Mitt Romney found he had walked out on stage without his pants.”

At an appearance Wednesday in Mississippi, where he seemed to be honing talking points and attack lines for a possible run, he said Hillary Clinton had “cluelessly” pushed the reset button with Russia.

He blamed the news media and voters for concentrating on the wrong things. “It would be nice if people who run for office, that their leadership experience, what they’ve accomplished in life, would be a bigger part of what people are focused on, but it’s not,” he said. “Mostly it’s what you say — and what you do is a lot more important than just what you say.”

But both in what he said and did, Romney came across as clueless in 2012. He was hawking himself as a great manager, but he couldn’t even manage his campaign. His own advisers did not trust him to be himself. They did not adapt what the Obama team had taught everyone in 2008 about technologically revolutionizing campaigns. His own campaign was in need of a Bain-style turnaround and he was oblivious.

The reel Mitt could have told the real Mitt, as Romney said in the documentary, that the nominee who loses the general election is “a loser for life.”

He seemed shocked, the night of the election, to learn that his White Horse was lame. But how could he have won? The wrong Mitt was running.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

One of the great heroes of the 20th century was Auschwitz prisoner No. 4859, who volunteered to be there.

Witold Pilecki, an officer in the Polish resistance to the Nazi regime, deliberately let himself be captured by the Germans in 1940 so that he could gather information about Hitler’s concentration camps. Inside Auschwitz, he set up resistance cells — even as he almost died of starvation, torture and disease.

Then Pilecki helped build a radio transmitter, and, in 1942, he broadcast to the outside world accounts of atrocities inside Auschwitz — as the Nazis frantically searched the camp looking for the transmitter. He worked to expose the Nazi gas chambers, brutal sexual experiments and savage camp punishments, in hopes that the world would act.

Finally, in April 1943, he escaped from Auschwitz, bullets flying after him, and wrote an eyewitness report laying out the horror of the extermination camps. He then campaigned unsuccessfully for an attack on Auschwitz.

Eventually, he was brutally tortured and executed — not by the Nazis, but after the war, in 1947, by the Communists. They then suppressed the story of Pilecki’s heroism for decades (a book about his work, “The Auschwitz Volunteer,” was published in 2012).

I was thinking of Pilecki last week on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps. I had relatives killed in Auschwitz (they were Poles spying on the Nazis for the resistance), and these camps are emblems of the Holocaust and symbols of the human capacity for evil.

In the coming months, the world will also commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide — which, despite the outrage of Turkish officials at the term, was, of course, a genocide. There, too, I feel a connection because my ancestors were Armenian.

Then, in the summer, we’ll observe the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II — an occasion for recalling Japanese atrocities in China, Korea, the Philippines and elsewhere. All this is likely to fuel more debates focused on the past. Should we honor Armenian genocide victims with a special day? Should Japan apologize for enslaving “comfort women”?

But, to me, the lesson of history is that the best way to honor past victims of atrocities is to stand up to slaughter today. The most respectful way to honor Jewish, Armenian or Rwandan victims of genocide is not with a ceremony or a day, but with efforts to reduce mass atrocities currently underway.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is a shining example of that approach, channeling outrage at past horrors to mitigate today’s — from Syria to Central African Republic. But, in general, the world is typically less galvanized by mass atrocities than paralyzed by them.

Even during the Holocaust, despite the heroism of Pilecki and others like Jan Karski, who tried desperately to shake sense into world leaders, no one was very interested in industrial slaughter. Over and over since then, world leaders have excelled at giving eloquent “never again” speeches but rarely offered much beyond lip service.

This year, I’m afraid something similar will happen. We’ll hear flowery rhetoric about Auschwitz, Armenia and World War II, and then we’ll go on shrugging at crimes against humanity in Syria, Central African Republic, Sudan and South Sudan, Myanmar and elsewhere.

Darfur symbolizes our fickleness. It has disappeared from headlines, and Sudan makes it almost impossible for journalists to get there, but Human Rights Watch reported a few days ago that the human rights situation in Sudan actually deteriorated in 2014.

Indeed, the Sudanese regime is now engaging in mass atrocities not only in Darfur but also in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions. Sudan bombed an aid hospital in January in the Nuba Mountains, and the Belgian branch of Doctors Without Borders has just announced the closure of operations in Sudan because of government obstructionism.

A decade ago, one of the most outspoken politicians on Darfur — harshly scolding President George W. Bush for not doing more — was an Illinois senator, Barack Obama. Today, as president of the United States, he is quiet. The United Nations force in Darfur has been impotent.

Granted, humanitarian crises rarely offer good policy choices, but there’s no need to embrace the worse option, which is paralysis. We’ve seen in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Kurdistan and, lately, Yazidi areas of Iraq and eastern Congo that outside efforts sometimes can make a difference.

So, sure, let’s commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz, the horror of the Holocaust and the brutality of the Armenian genocide by trying to mitigate mass atrocities today. The basic lesson of these episodes is not just that humans are capable of astonishing evil, or that some individuals like Witold Pilecki respond with mesmerizing heroism — but that, sadly, it’s just too easy to acquiesce.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

A few years back, an acerbic friend of mine who was a recent transplant to Los Angeles told me that she itched to write a satirical novel with the following narrative:

A group of wealthy, educated people in Santa Monica who deliberately didn’t vaccinate their children subsequently take them on a “poor-ism” trip to a developing country. The goal is to make them wiser and more sensitive to suffering in the world. While being sensitized, the kids catch diseases that they could have been inoculated against. Some of them die.

As a plot, it lacks subtlety (and compassion). But as a parable, it’s crystal-clear. You can be so privileged that you’re underprivileged, so blessed with choices that you choose to be a fool, so “informed” that you’re misinformed.

Which brings us to Disneyland, measles and the astonishing fact that a scourge once essentially eliminated in this country is back.

You’ve probably heard or read about the recent outbreak traced to the theme park. But there’s a chance that you’re unaware, because it hasn’t received nearly the coverage that, say, Ebola did, even though some of the dynamics at work here are scarier.

It started in mid-December and is now believed to be responsible for more than 70 cases in seven states and Mexico; 58 of those are in California, which of course is where the park is — in Orange County, to be more specific.

As it happens, there are affluent pockets of that county where the fraction of schoolchildren whose parents have cited a “personal belief” to exempt them from vaccinations is higher than the statewide average of 2.5 percent. That’s also true of some affluent pockets of the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas.

It used to be that unvaccinated children in America were clustered in impoverished neighborhoods; now they’re often clustered among sophisticates in gilded ZIP codes where a certain strain of health faddishness reigns. According to a story in The Hollywood Reporter last year, the parents of 57 percent of the children at a Beverly Hills preschool and of 68 percent at one in Santa Monica had filed personal-belief exemptions from having their kids vaccinated.

Why? Many of them buy into a discredited theory that there’s a link between the MMR (mumps-measles-rubella) vaccine and autism. They’re encouraged by a cadre of brash alarmists who have gained attention by pushing that thinking. Anti-vaccine panic was the path that the actress Jenny McCarthy traveled to innumerable appearances on prominent news and talk shows; she later demonstrated her singular version of concern for good health by working as a pitchwoman for e-cigarettes.

Other parents have separate or additional worries about vaccines, which can indeed have side effects. But they’re weighing that downside against what they deem to be a virtually nonexistent risk of exposure to the diseases in question. And that degree of risk depends entirely on a vast majority of children getting vaccines. If too many forgo them, we surrender what’s known as “herd immunity,” and the risk rises. That’s precisely what health officials see happening now.

In 2004, there were just 37 reported cases of measles in the United States. In 2014, there were 644. And while none of those patients died, measles can kill. Before vaccines for it became widespread in 1963, millions of Americans were infected annually, and 400 to 500 died each year.

“I don’t think its fatality rate has decreased,” said Daniel Salmon, a vaccine expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We just haven’t had enough cases for someone to die.”

An estimated 90 percent of unvaccinated people who are exposed to the measles virus become infected, and they themselves can be infectious four days before they develop a telltale rash.

But what’s in play is more than one affliction’s resurgence. The size and sway of the anti-vaccine movement reflect a chilling disregard for science — or at least a pick-and-choose, cafeteria approach to it — that’s also evident, for example, in many Americans’ refusal to recognize climate change. We’re a curious species, and sometimes a sad one, chasing knowledge only to deny it, making progress only to turn away from its benefits.

The movement underscores the robust market for pure conjecture — not just about vaccines, but about all sorts of ostensible threats and putative remedies — and the number of merchants willing to traffic in it. Look at Dr. Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon now drawing millions of viewers daily as a television host peddling weight-loss tricks. The British Medical Journal recently analyzed dozens of his shows and determined that more than half of the suggestions he doled out didn’t have sound scientific backing.

The Internet makes it easier for people to do their own “research” and can lead them to trustworthy and untrustworthy sites in equal measure.

“It can be difficult to know what to believe,” said Kristen Feemster, a infectious diseases specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “So many people can be an expert, because there are platforms for so many voices.”

Salmon noted that the sheer variety and saturation of media today amplify crackpot hypotheses to a point where they seem misleadingly worthy of consideration. “People say things enough times, there must be some truth to it,” he said. “Look at the proportion of people who question where our president was born or his religion.”

And we in the traditional media don’t always help, covering the news in an on-one-hand, on-the-other-hand fashion that sometimes gives nearly equal time to people citing facts and people weaving fiction.

I’m not entirely baffled by the fear of vaccines, which arises in part from a mistrust of drug companies and a medical establishment that have made past mistakes.

But this subject has been studied and studied and studied, and it’s abundantly clear that we’re best served by vaccinating all of those children who can be, so that the ones who can’t be — for medical reasons such as a compromised immune system — are protected.

Right now, Salmon said, only two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, limit vaccine exemptions to such children. If the anti-vaccination crowd grows, other states may have to move in that direction.

There’s a balance to be struck between personal freedom and public safety, and I’m not at all sure that our current one is correct.

We rightly govern what people can and can’t do with guns, seatbelts, drugs and so much more, all in the interest not just of their welfare but of everybody’s. Are we being dangerously remiss when it comes to making them wear the necessary armor against illnesses that belong in history books?

Kristof and Collins

January 29, 2015

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

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

Grrrr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do we increase empathy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And humanity.  Now here’s Ms. Collins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like I said, it’s crowded versus empty.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

January 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

But wait, it gets worse.

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

But wait, it gets worse.

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

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

But wait, it gets worse.

According to the website Truthout:

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

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

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

And yes, again, it gets worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And next up we have Ms. Collins:

Let’s raise the gas tax.

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

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

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

Raise the gas tax and remember the walruses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three reasons the gas tax is a better idea:

1) Walruses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

— President Obama doesn’t like it.

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

Walrus seconds the motion.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

January 18, 2015

In “Mitt the Insurgent” The Putz says a third Romney run is a bad idea, but it’s hard to see what harm it can do.  He has a delicious description of the 2012 Clown Car, in which he calls them “a collection of dwarves and hobbits.”  These are the same people he was writing puff pieces about then…  In “Not Just a Movie” MoDo says the truth of the strategizing on civil rights between President Johnson and Dr. King was dramatic enough. Why twist it?  Mr. Kristof says “Smart Guns Save Lives.  So Where Are They?”  He points out that we protect our cellphones with a PIN or a fingerprint, so why not do the same with firearms?  Mr. Bruni considers “Mark Wahlberg, Penance and Pardons” and says the actor wants his criminal record wiped clean. But what kind of message would that send?  Here’s The Putz:

The idea of yet a third Mitt Romney campaign for the presidency, once the idle dream of a few Romney bundlers and now apparently something embraced by the Man From Bain Capital himself, has been greeted by most Republicans with a mixture of horror, exhaustion and embarrassment. The polite ones sound like a girl before the senior prom who can’t believe that the stumblebum date who ruined her last school dance is in line first to ask her again: No, please, not this time. The rest sound like the characters in the third act of a horror movie, confronting a shambling revenant that just keeps coming: How do we kill this thing?

And these attitudes are understandable. Romney was not, perhaps, quite as terrible a presidential candidate as memories of his worst moments might lead one to believe: He ran ahead of many Republican Senate candidates; he had the most successful presidential debate performance in recent memory; he persuaded the public that he was closer to the ideological middle than President Obama.

But his failures were … conspicuous. There was the threadbare policy agenda, linked to a self-defeating theory that the election would be decided by the unemployment rate alone. There were the various rich-guy disasters that played into the White House’s effort to portray him as the candidate of the richest 0.47 percent. And most unforgivable, given his promise of a ruthless private sector competence, there were the polling failures and ground game debacles that let Obama coast to victory.

What would Romney re-redux offer? Nothing obvious: Romney’s a decade removed from elected office, with nothing on his résumé since except the permanent campaign. As a white, superrich, late-60-something male, he’s the walking embodiment of his party’s image problems. He won the last nominating contest because on the debate stage he looked like Aragorn son of Arathorn among a collection of dwarves and hobbits (plus Jon Huntsman’s elf lord and Ron Paul’s Gollum). Unless meteors strike several state capitols and the United States Senate, that won’t be true this time.

So a third Romney run will almost certainly be a blind alley for a man who should be thinking of a better way to serve his country and his fellow man.

But should Republicans actively fear a Romney run? I think not: If the conventional wisdom is correct about its folly, it’s hard to see what harm it can do, save to Romney’s own ego and self-image, to have that folly ruthlessly exposed.

Another run would be genuinely frightening for Republicans — and this is probably why the reaction against it has been so intense — if there were any chance of Romney doing what he did in 2012: monopolizing fund-raising to a point where other potentially electable candidates stay out; carpet-bombing his opponents with attack ads; and essentially forcing the party faithful to accept him, flaws and all.

But unless G.O.P. power brokers are truly crazy — and based on the response to Romney’s trial balloon they aren’t — that isn’t going to happen. Not even close. Instead, a Romney candidacy would depend on a small circle of backers while ceding immense fund-raising territory to Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio … the list goes on. He wouldn’t quite resemble his old rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, each of whose insurgent campaigns were floated by a single megadonor, but he would be closer to their position than to that of the commanding Mitt of old.

And he would resemble Gingrich and Santorum in other ways. In 2008, he had the backing of key voices in the conservative movement; in 2012, he had the establishment (however reluctantly) behind him. In 2016, he would be on his own, hanging out in Iowa living rooms and New Hampshire diners, trying to win primaries on the basis of debate performances and flesh-pressing and even (gasp!) ideas, like any other long-shot candidate.

Which is why, purely as human drama, Romney 3.0 could actually be interesting to watch. Maybe he’ll campaign more openly as a Mormon, running ads like the moving testimonials that aired just before Clint Eastwood’s prime time weird-out at the Republican convention, in which his faith and works are played up rather than hidden. Maybe he’ll roll out a sweeping policy agenda on poverty, as he claims he wants to do, amid incredibly awkward but maybe touching photo ops with the rural unemployed and inner-city kids. Maybe he’ll sock Mike Huckabee in the jaw during a debate.

Or maybe he’ll be wooden, clueless and entitled; finish sixth in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire; and drop out. In which case he’ll lose some dignity, but we won’t lose anything at all.

So Mitt, it’s your call. I wouldn’t do it, you won’t win it, but I respect a Romney’s right to choose.

Now if only Mitt, Putzy, and the rest of the occupants of the 2016 Clown Car would respect MY right to choose…  Here’s MoDo:

I went Friday morning to see “Selma” and found myself watching it in a theater full of black teenagers.

Thanks to donations, D.C. public school kids got free tickets to the first Hollywood movie about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday weekend — an effort that was duplicated for students around the country.

The kids did plenty of talking and texting, and plenty of fighting over whether there was too much talking and texting. Slowly but surely, though, the crowd was drawn in by the Scheherazade skills of the “Selma” director, Ava DuVernay.

The horrific scene of the four schoolgirls killed in the white supremacist bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church stunned the audience. One young man next to me unleashed a string of expletives and admitted that he was scared. When civil rights leaders are clubbed, whipped and trampled by white lawmen as feral white onlookers cheer, the youngsters seemed aghast.

In a delicately wrought scene in which Coretta Scott King calls out her husband about his infidelities, some of the teenage girls reacted with a chorus of “oooohs.”

DuVernay sets the tone for her portrayal of Lyndon Johnson as patronizing and skittish on civil rights in the first scene between the president and Dr. King. L.B.J. stands above a seated M.L.K., pats him on the shoulder, and tells him “this voting thing is just going to have to wait” while he works on “the eradication of poverty.”

Many of the teenagers by me bristled at the power dynamic between the men. It was clear that a generation of young moviegoers would now see L.B.J.’s role in civil rights through DuVernay’s lens.

And that’s a shame. I loved the movie and find the Oscar snub of its dazzling actors repugnant. But the director’s talent makes her distortion of L.B.J. more egregious. Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it.

DuVernay told Rolling Stone that, originally, the script was more centered on the L.B.J.-M.L.K. relationship and was “much more slanted to Johnson.”

“I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie,” she said.

Hollywood has done that with films like “Mississippi Burning,” which cast white F.B.I. agents as the heroes, or “Cry Freedom,” which made a white journalist the focus rather Denzel Washington’s anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko.

Instead of painting L.B.J. and M.L.K. as allies, employing different tactics but complementing each other, the director made Johnson an obstacle.

Top Johnson aide Jack Valenti told Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, that L.B.J. aspired to pass a Voting Rights Act from his first night as president. Valenti said that his boss talked to him about it the night of J.F.K.’s assassination in the bedroom of Johnson’s house in D.C., The Elms, before the newly sworn-in president went to sleep.

On the tape of a phone conversation between President Johnson and Dr. King the week of L.B.J.’s 1965 inauguration, the president said that he indicated the time was yet ripe to ask Congress for it, and he made it clear that they both needed to think of something that would move public opinion more than a presidential speech.

“Johnson was probably thinking, at least in part, of the spring of ’63, when J.F.K. was privately saying the public wasn’t yet politically ready for a comprehensive civil rights bill,” Beschloss said. “Then came the May 1963 photograph of Birmingham police setting dogs against African-American demonstrators, which helped to move many white Americans who were on the fence about the issue.

“Once Selma happened, L.B.J. was, of course, horrified, but he knew that the atrocity would have an effect on white Americans similar to Birmingham that would make it easier for him to get a Voting Rights Act from Congress.”

In an interview with Gwen Ifill on P.B.S., DuVernay dismissed the criticism by Joseph Califano Jr. and other L.B.J. loyalists, who said that the president did not resist the Selma march or let J. Edgar Hoover send a sex tape of her husband to Mrs. King. (Bobby Kennedy, as J.F.K’s attorney general, is the one who allowed Hoover to tap Dr. King.)

“This is art; this is a movie; this is a film,” DuVernay said. “I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian.”

The “Hey, it’s just a movie” excuse doesn’t wash. Filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth, even as they bank on the authenticity of their films to boost them at awards season.

John Lewis, the Georgia congressman who was badly beaten in Selma, has said that bridge led to the Obama White House. And, on Friday night, the president offset the Oscar dis by screening “Selma” at the White House. Guests included DuVernay, Lewis and Oprah Winfrey, who acts in the film and was one of its producers.

There was no need for DuVernay to diminish L.B.J., given that the Civil Rights Movement would not have advanced without him. Vietnam is enough of a pox on his legacy.

As I have written about “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and “Argo,” and as The New York Review of Books makes clear about “The Imitation Game,” the truth is dramatic and fascinating enough. Why twist it? On matters of race — America’s original sin — there is an even higher responsibility to be accurate.

DuVernay had plenty of vile white villains — including one who kicks a priest to death in the street — and they were no doubt shocking to the D.C. school kids. There was no need to create a faux one.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Just after Christmas, Veronica Rutledge of Blackfoot, Idaho, took her 2-year-old son to a Walmart store to spend holiday gift cards. As they strolled by the electronics section, according to news reports, the toddler reached into his mom’s purse and pulled out a handgun that she legally carried. He pulled the trigger once and killed her.

The previous month, a 3-year-old boy in Washington State was shot in the face by a 4-year-old. Earlier, a 2-year-old boy in Pennsylvania shot and killed his 11-year-old sister.

About 20 children and teenagers are shot daily in the United States, according to a study by the journal Pediatrics.

Indeed, guns kill more preschool-age children (about 80 a year) than police officers (about 50), according to the F.B.I. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This toll is utterly unnecessary, for the technology to make childproof guns goes back more than a century. Beginning in the 1880s, Smith & Wesson (whose gun was used in the Walmart killing) actually sold childproof handguns that required a lever to be depressed as the trigger was pulled.

“No ordinary child under 8 years of age can possibly discharge it,” Smith & Wesson boasted at the time, and it sold half-a-million of these guns, but, today, it no longer offers that childproof option.

Doesn’t it seem odd that your cellphone can be set up to require a PIN or a fingerprint, but there’s no such option for a gun?

Which brings us to Kai Kloepfer, a lanky 17-year-old high school senior in Boulder, Colo. After the cinema shooting in nearby Aurora, Kloepfer decided that for a science fair project he would engineer a “smart gun” that could be fired only by an authorized user.

“I started with iris recognition, and that seemed a good idea until you realize that many people firing guns wear sunglasses,” Kloepfer recalls. “So I moved on to fingerprints.”

Kloepfer designed a smart handgun that fires only when a finger it recognizes is on the grip. More than 1,000 fingerprints can be authorized per gun, and Kloepfer says the sensor is 99.999 percent accurate.

A child can’t fire the gun. Neither can a thief — important here in a country in which more than 150,000 guns are stolen annually.

Kloepfer’s design won a grand prize in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Then he won a $50,000 grant from the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation to refine the technology. By the time he enters college in the fall (he applied early to Stanford and has been deferred), he hopes to be ready to license the technology to a manufacturer.

There are other approaches to smart guns. The best known, the Armatix iP1, made by a German company and available in the United States through a complicated online procedure, can be fired only if the shooter is wearing a companion wristwatch.

The National Rifle Association seems set against smart guns, apparently fearing that they might become mandatory. One problem has been an unfortunate 2002 New Jersey law stipulating that three years after smart guns are available anywhere in the United States, only smart guns can be sold in the state. The attorney general’s office there ruled recently that the Armatix smart gun would not trigger the law, but the provision has still led gun enthusiasts to bully dealers to keep smart guns off the market everywhere in the U.S.

Opponents of smart guns say that they aren’t fully reliable. Some, including Kloepfer’s, will need batteries to be recharged once a year or so. Still, if Veronica Rutledge had had one in her purse in that Idaho Walmart, her son wouldn’t have been able to shoot and kill her.

“Smart guns are going to save lives,” says Stephen Teret, a gun expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “They’re not going to save all lives, but why wouldn’t we want to make guns as safe a consumer product as possible?”

David Hemenway, a public health expert at Harvard, says that the way forward is for police departments or the military to buy smart guns, creating a market and proving they work.

An interfaith group of religious leaders is also appealing to gun industry leaders, ahead of the huge annual trade show in Las Vegas with 65,000 attendees, to drop opposition to smart guns.

Smart guns aren’t a panacea. But when even a 17-year-old kid can come up with a safer gun, why should the gun lobby be so hostile to the option of purchasing one?

Something is amiss when we protect our children from toys that they might swallow, but not from firearms. So Veronica Rutledge is dead, and her son will grow up with the knowledge that he killed her — and we all bear some responsibility when we don’t even try to reduce the carnage.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

Every time I read about the actor Mark Wahlberg’s bid to be pardoned by the state of Massachusetts for crimes he committed in his youth, I flash back to the days I spent with him for a Times magazine profile just before “Boogie Nights” came out. I remember a specific detail.

He was then trying to pivot from being Marky Mark, the trash-talking rapper and underwear model, to being a serious actor. Over lunch one day, I asked him about his bulky eyeglasses, which sent a signal of studiousness that struck me as too emphatic. They weren’t familiar from any old images of him that I’d seen.

Was he nearsighted?

No, he said.

Farsighted?

No.

So what were they for?

He stalled and squirmed a bit. Then he conceded that they were just for effect.

In the story I submitted, I fleetingly mentioned the glasses. A fact checker questioned my description of them as “nonprescription,” because Wahlberg’s publicist, a savvy one, had insisted to her that it was an error and that we must take it out. But I had Wahlberg on tape. The description stayed.

Ah, Hollywood. It’s a place where reinvention rules supreme; where truth is often whatever script you can convincingly perform and persuasively sell; and where any details or bits of the past that run counter to your purposes are annoyances to be deleted. That applies both to what’s put on-screen — as “Selma,” “American Sniper” and a few of the other movies nominated for a Best Picture Oscar last week demonstrate — and to what you’re putting out there about yourself.

Elsewhere life is less easily manipulated. Wahlberg is confronting that now.

While there’s not yet been any decision about his pardon application, which was filed late last year, it has drawn no small measure of extra attention to him, much of it rightly negative.

What I wish it would do is amplify and broaden a conversation in America about the contradictions in the way we treat people who’ve done their time.

Generally, we send them back out into the world with the exhortation that they build or rebuild productive lives, which we’re invested in having them do. But we simultaneously saddle them with a dizzying range of restrictions, varying from state to state, that make that significantly more difficult.

We deny them kinds of government assistance available to others. We prevent them from engaging in all sorts of business transactions and jobs, and some of these prohibitions make little or no sense.

“We have people with real talents who aren’t able to employ those talents,” Mark Osler, a law professor who is an expert on pardons, told me. If our goal is to prevent recidivism, this isn’t a smart way to go about it.

Pardons eliminate many restrictions. And for people who’ve served their sentences, they should be more common. But they’re granted in a small enough minority of cases that it’s impossible to argue that Wahlberg’s should be one.

He’s 43 now. His crimes occurred at 16, in Dorchester, Mass. On a night when he has said that he was heavily intoxicated, he used a stick to hit a Vietnamese man on the head with such force that it knocked him unconscious. As he fled the police, he punched another Vietnamese man in the eye. All the while, he used racial slurs.

It wasn’t out of character. When he was 15, according to court documents, he was involved in two incidents of using racial slurs as he physically threatened black children. That matter was referred to civil court and he got off with a warning.

For the subsequent crimes, he served 45 days in prison, and he has said in interviews over time that once he got out, he was determined to be a different man.

That transformation was gradual and fitful. As Marky Mark in the early 1990s, he was known for using crude language about women. He was implicated in brawls.

He dedicated an autobiographical picture book to his penis.

Since then there have been many fine movies, an Oscar nomination, a wife, four kids. Several prominent Hollywood producers with whom I spoke last week said that his reputation in the industry today is sterling. They praised him as a joy to work with: sincere, diligent, humble.

In his pardon application, he said that he tried to get to church almost daily and that he devoted considerable time to working with troubled kids through the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, which has raised about $9.6 million over the years.

But he can afford that in a way that very few ex-cons can. And, oddly, one of many reasons Wahlberg cited for wanting a pardon has to do with money. He and his brothers are expanding their chain of Wahlburgers restaurants, and licensing in some states is complicated by his record of a felony conviction.

Advocates for Asian-Americans have complained that before filing his pardon application, Wahlberg never reached out to the Vietnamese community in Dorchester or to the victims of his crimes.

Some good could come from his appeal. “It shines a light on a beneficent power that has atrophied in Massachusetts,” Margaret Love, a lawyer with extensive knowledge about the pardon process, wrote in a recent blog post. With any luck, she added, it will encourage pardons “for the dozens of ordinary individuals whose futures may depend on it.”

But nothing that Wahlberg has said publicly suggests that he was motivated by that. He declined to be interviewed for this column.

And when I spoke with Love, asking her about the proper fate of his particular request for a pardon, she said, “Given the irregularity and the absence of pardons, I think it would be a very bad idea to single out someone of such a high profile.”

That’s exactly right. In Massachusetts, just four pardons have been granted over the last dozen years. If Wahlberg got one of the next ones, it would be going to a person whose unpardoned offenses don’t shadow him the way most former prisoners’ do. He’s the wrong poster boy for the right cause.

Financial generosity shouldn’t be a factor in his (or anyone else’s) favor: That’s just the criminal-justice system’s version of income inequality.

In his application he argued that getting a pardon could be an inspiration to people trying to turn their lives around and hoping for forgiveness. But to the less advantaged of them, it would be the opposite: a confirmation that being white, rich and famous earns you special treatment.

What he’s asking for isn’t just an image overhaul, a routine Hollywood rewrite.

If he can’t see that, he needs better glasses.


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