Archive for the ‘Kristof’ Category

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

April 20, 2014

In “Marx Rises Again” The Putz says old ideas are having a comeback in the new Gilded Age.  In “Still Getting Wolf Whistles at 50″ MoDo says Ford repeats a King Kong of a stunt with its iconic Mustang.  In “How to Get a Job at Google, Part 2″ The Moustache of Wisdom says new graduates may be intrigued by a hiring guru’s advice.  In “In Dad’s Hometown, European Souls” Mr. Kristof says in a village in southwest Ukraine, the kids may know how to speak Russian, but they say they’d rather sing to Taylor Swift.  In “Tolstoy and Miss Daisy” Mr. Bruni says on the eve of Easter, his family’s happy journey came into focus.  Here’s The Putz:

In the season of resurrection, it’s fitting that he’s with us once again — bearded, prophetic, moralistic, promising to exalt the humble and cast down the mighty from their thrones.

Yes, that’s right: Karl Marx is back from the dead.

Not on a Soviet-style scale, mercifully, and not with the kind of near-scriptural authority that many Marxists once invested in him. But Marxist ideas are having an intellectual moment, and attention must be paid.

As Timothy Shenk writes in a searching essay for The Nation, there are two pillars to the current Marxist revival. One is the clutch of young intellectuals Shenk dubs the “Millennial Marxists,” whose experience of the financial crisis inspired a new look at Old Karl’s critique of capitalism. The M.M.’s have Occupy Wall Street as a failed-but-interesting political example; they have new-ish journals (Jacobin, The New Inquiry, n + 1) where they can experiment and argue; they are beginning to produce books, two of which Shenk reviews and praises.

What they lack, however, is a synthesis, a story, of the kind that Marx himself offered. This is where the other pillar rises — Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” a sweeping interpretation of modern economic trends recently translated from the French, and the one book this year that everyone in my profession will be required to pretend to have diligently read.

Piketty himself is a social democrat who abjures the Marxist label. But as his title suggests, he is out to rehabilitate and recast one of Marx’s key ideas: that so-called “free markets,” by their nature, tend to enrich the owners of capital at the expense of people who own less of it.

This idea seemed to be disproved in the 20th century, by the emergence of a prosperous, non-revolutionary working class. But Piketty argues that those developments were transitory, made possible mostly by the massive destruction of inherited capital during the long era of world war.

Absent another such disruption, he expects a world in which the returns to capital permanently outstrip  —  as they have recently  —  the returns to labor, and inequality rises far beyond even today’s levels. Combine this trend with slowing growth, and we face a future like the 19th-century past, in which vast inherited fortunes bestride the landscape while the middle class fractures, weakens, shrinks.

Piketty’s dark vision relies, in part, on economic models I am unqualified to assess. But it also relies on straightforward analysis of recent trends in Western economies, and here a little doubt-raising is in order.

In particular, as the Manhattan Institute’s Scott Winship has pointed out, Piketty’s data seems to understate the income gains enjoyed by most Americans over the last two generations. These gains have not been as impressive as during the post-World War II years, but they do exist: For now, even as the rich have gotten much, much richer, the 99 percent have shared in growing prosperity in real, measurable ways.

Winship’s point raises the possibility that even if Piketty’s broad projections are correct, the future he envisions might be much more stable and sustainable than many on the left tend to assume. Even if the income and wealth distributions look more Victorian, that is, the 99 percent may still be doing well enough to be wary of any political movement that seems too radical, too utopian, too inclined to rock the boat.

This possibility might help explain why the far left remains, for now, politically weak even as it enjoys a miniature intellectual renaissance. And it might hint at a reason that so much populist energy, in both the United States and Europe, has come from the right instead — from movements like the Tea Party, Britain’s UKIP, France’s National Front and others that incorporate some Piketty-esque arguments (attacks on crony capitalism; critiques of globalization) but foreground cultural anxieties instead.

The taproot of agitation in 21st-century politics, this trend suggests, may indeed be a Marxian sense of everything solid melting into air. But what’s felt to be evaporating could turn out to be cultural identity — family and faith, sovereignty and community — much more than economic security.

And somewhere in this pattern, perhaps, lies the beginnings of a  more ideologically complicated critique of modern capitalism — one that draws on cultural critics like Daniel Bell and Christopher Lasch rather than just looking to material concerns, and considers the possibility that our system’s greatest problem might not be the fact that it lets the rich claim more money than everyone else. Rather, it might be that both capitalism and the welfare state tend to weaken forms of solidarity that give meaning to life for many people, while offering nothing but money in their place.

Which is to say that while the Marxist revival is interesting enough, to become more relevant it needs to become a little more … reactionary.

Here’s MoDo:

It’s weird to be jealous of your car.

But I am.

Men look at my car with such naked lust, their eyes devouring the curves and chrome, that I often feel as though I’m intruding on an intimate moment. Women like it, too. They sometimes grin and give it a thumbs up as it growls by, and one girlfriend fondly refers to it as “the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Goddess car.”

But the icon evokes a special feeling in men. It’s the Proustian madeleine of cars, stirring old dreams and new. Guys sometimes follow in the American beauty’s dreamy wake, by car or by bike, and leave mash notes on the windshield with their numbers, pleading for me to sell it.

I won’t. Even though it’s hard on the ego to chauffeur such an object of universal desire, and even though I can rarely put down the top because I’m prone to sunburn, I love my ’65 Mustang convertible. Still sexy at 50, it is midnight blue with a white top and white bucket seats. Bob Marley, ’60s French girl groups and, of course, Wilson Pickett wail from the CD player.

The pony car was launched at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 with a $2,368 sticker price, and some collectors look for “1964 1/2s,” as the first Mustangs off the Ford assembly line are called. But the debut cars were all designated 1965, and mine was produced in that first batch.

It quickly became the fastest-selling new car in history, landing on the cover of Time and Newsweek with Lee Iacocca and showing up in the James Bond movie “Goldfinger.” It sold even faster when Ford executives pulled a King Kong of a stunt in October 1965 and parked a pony on the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building.

Once Ford engineers determined that lowering a car by helicopter onto the world’s tallest building would be too dangerous, they spent an hour cutting a white Mustang convertible into sections that would fit into elevators and then reassembled the car on high.

Bill Ford Jr., the company’s executive chairman, great-grandson of Henry Ford and No. 1 Mustang fan, replicated the icon-on-icon caper Wednesday for the first day of the New York Auto Show — this time disassembling a bright yellow 2015 Mustang convertible into five parts and reassembling it 1,000 feet above Fifth Avenue.

Later, after driving through the car show in one of Ford’s 1,964 50th anniversary, retro Mustangs that come in the car’s original Wimbledon white or Kona blue, the chairman reminisced about his first car, a 1975 electric green Mustang. “Mustang is my all-time favorite car,” he said, noting that it signified fun and freedom in an affordable package.

The car was conceived as “a working man’s Thunderbird” by the late Don Frey and muscled up by Carroll Shelby. Frey, an engineer, had been teased by his kids about how boring the Ford models were.

As USA Today recounted, Frey’s favorite story was getting a letter from a Texas janitor who bought one of the first Mustangs. He wrote Frey: “I’ve been courting this 5,000-acre widow for years. I finally got her in my red pony. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Bill Clinton said leaving his bright blue ’67 Mustang behind in Arkansas was the hardest part of moving to the White House.

The brand almost became extinct after it devolved to a smaller version on top of the Ford Pinto chassis in the mid-’70s — losing its cool image. I had a red one in those days, and it broke down so much, I started calling it the Mustake.

The lame pony, USA Today recalled, was rescued in the early ’90s by engineer John Coletti and other Mustang aficionados at Ford, a group called the Gang of Eight. They slaved away in their spare time in an old Montgomery Ward warehouse in Michigan, coming up with a niftier design.

I always think of my Mustang as the Steve McQueen of cars, given the star’s stunning, sometimes airborne 10-minute chase scene in “Bullitt” through the vertiginous streets of San Francisco, driving a green 1968 Mustang GT 390 in pursuit of a black Dodge Charger.

With his Mustang, Jacqueline Bisset and existential angst, McQueen defined hip in the 1968 classic — despite the atrocious paisley print pj’s he wore in the film.

In 2011, Marc Myers wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal retracing the chase route gingerly in a new Mustang with McQueen’s stunt double, Loren Janes. Janes, then 79, said he did about 90 percent of the driving in the movie and McQueen, though a good driver, did only the close-ups.

Janes told Myers that at the end of filming “Bullitt,” McQueen offered him one of the three tricked-out Mustangs used in the movie, but he passed, afraid he would always want to drive it too fast.

“Besides, I already had this,” Janes said, showing Myers a 1964 Rolex Submariner with the inscription: “To the best damn stuntman in the world. Steve.”

Now that’s cool.

Now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

How’s my kid going to get a job? There are few questions I hear more often than that one. In February, I interviewed Laszlo Bock, who is in charge of all hiring at Google — about 100 new hires a week — to try to understand what an employer like Google was looking for and why it was increasingly ready to hire people with no college degrees. Bock’s remarks generated a lot of reader response, particularly his point that prospective bosses today care less about what you know or where you learned it — the Google machine knows everything now — than what value you can create with what you know. With graduations approaching, I went back to Google to ask Bock to share his best advice for job-seekers anywhere, not just at Google. Here is a condensed version of our conversations:

You’re not saying college education is worthless?

“My belief is not that one shouldn’t go to college,” said Bock. It is that among 18- to 22-year-olds — or people returning to school years later — “most don’t put enough thought into why they’re going, and what they want to get out of it.” Of course, we want an informed citizenry, where everyone has a baseline of knowledge from which to build skills. That is a social good. But, he added, don’t just go to college because you think it is the right thing to do and that any bachelor’s degree will suffice. “The first and most important thing is to be explicit and willful in making the decisions about what you want to get out of this investment in your education.” It’s a huge investment of time, effort and money and people should think “incredibly hard about what they’re getting in return.”

Once there, said Bock, make sure that you’re getting out of it not only a broadening of your knowledge but skills that will be valued in today’s workplace. Your college degree is not a proxy anymore for having the skills or traits to do any job.

What are those traits? One is grit, he said. Shuffling through résumés of some of Google’s 100 hires that week, Bock explained: “I was on campus speaking to a student who was a computer science and math double major, who was thinking of shifting to an economics major because the computer science courses were too difficult. I told that student they are much better off being a B student in computer science than an A+ student in English because it signals a rigor in your thinking and a more challenging course load. That student will be one of our interns this summer.”

Or, he added, think of this headline from The Wall Street Journal in 2011: “Students Pick Easier Majors Despite Less Pay.” This was an article about a student who switched from electrical and computer engineering to a major in psychology. She said she just found the former too difficult and would focus instead on a career in public relations and human resources. “I think this student was making a mistake,” said Bock, even if it meant lower grades. “She was moving out of a major where she would have been differentiated in the labor force” and “out of classes that would have made her better qualified for other jobs because of the training.”

This is key for Bock because the first thing Google looks for “is general cognitive ability — the ability to learn things and solve problems,” he said. In that vein, “a knowledge set that will be invaluable is the ability to understand and apply information — so, basic computer science skills. I’m not saying you have to be some terrific coder, but to just understand how [these] things work you have to be able to think in a formal and logical and structured way.” But that kind of thinking doesn’t have to come from a computer science degree. “I took statistics at business school, and it was transformative for my career. Analytical training gives you a skill set that differentiates you from most people in the labor market.”

A lot of work, he added, is no longer tied to location. “So if you want your job tied to where you are, you need to be: A) quite good at it; and B) you need to be very adaptable so that you have a baseline skill set that allows you to be a call center operator today and tomorrow be able to interpret MRI scans. To have built the skill set that allows you to do both things requires a baseline capability that’s analytical.”

Well, what about creativity?

Bock: “Humans are by nature creative beings, but not by nature logical, structured-thinking beings. Those are skills you have to learn. One of the things that makes people more effective is if you can do both. … If you’re great on both attributes, you’ll have a lot more options. If you have just one, that’s fine, too.” But a lot fewer people have this kind of structured thought process and creativity.

Are the liberal arts still important?

They are “phenomenally important,” he said, especially when you combine them with other disciplines. “Ten years ago behavioral economics was rarely referenced. But [then] you apply social science to economics and suddenly there’s this whole new field. I think a lot about how the most interesting things are happening at the intersection of two fields. To pursue that, you need expertise in both fields. You have to understand economics and psychology or statistics and physics [and] bring them together. You need some people who are holistic thinkers and have liberal arts backgrounds and some who are deep functional experts. Building that balance is hard, but that’s where you end up building great societies, great organizations.”

How do you write a good résumé?

“The key,” he said, “is to frame your strengths as: ‘I accomplished X, relative to Y, by doing Z.’ Most people would write a résumé like this: ‘Wrote editorials for The New York Times.’ Better would be to say: ‘Had 50 op-eds published compared to average of 6 by most op-ed [writers] as a result of providing deep insight into the following area for three years.’ Most people don’t put the right content on their résumés.”

What’s your best advice for job interviews?

“What you want to do is say: ‘Here’s the attribute I’m going to demonstrate; here’s the story demonstrating it; here’s how that story demonstrated that attribute.’ ” And here is how it can create value. “Most people in an interview don’t make explicit their thought process behind how or why they did something and, even if they are able to come up with a compelling story, they are unable to explain their thought process.”

For parents, new grads and those too long out of work, I hope some of this helps.

And here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Karapchiv, Ukraine:

To understand why Ukrainians are risking war with Russia to try to pluck themselves from Moscow’s grip, I came to this village where my father grew up.

The kids here learn English and flirt in low-cut bluejeans. They listen to Rihanna, AC/DC and Taylor Swift. They have crushes on George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, watch “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” and play Grand Theft Auto. The school here has computers and an Internet connection, which kids use to watch YouTube and join Facebook. Many expect to get jobs in Italy or Spain — perhaps even America.

“We feel our souls are European,” Margaryta Maminchuk, 16, told me. “That is why we are part of Europe’s future.” The village school, which is in my great-uncle’s old family mansion, invited me to speak to an assembly, and I asked the students how many identified as European. Nearly all raised their hands.

These villagers aren’t “important” and claim no sophisticated understanding of international events. But it’s average Ukrainians like them who are turning this country around, defying President Vladimir Putin of Russia and his military, quite simply, because they dream to the West.

On past visits to this village, which my family fled in the 1940s, it seemed impossibly backward. It was near the Romanian border, a world apart from Kiev, the capital, and even a decade ago many houses lacked electricity and plumbing. Horses did the plowing. Nobody spoke English. If people went abroad it was to Russia.

Yet Ukraine has changed and opened up. Almost everyone now has electricity, plumbing and television, and many young men and women have traveled to Italy to find jobs. There is bewilderment that Poland is now so much richer than Ukraine — and resentment at Moscow for holding Ukrainians back.

I asked Margaryta, the girl with the European soul, whether she could speak Russian. Everyone in the village can speak it, she acknowledged, but she added primly: “I will not speak Russian. I am a patriot.”

Granted, significant numbers of Ukrainians in the eastern part of the country feel deep bonds with Moscow and want more autonomy. In the short term, despite a diplomatic accord reached with Russia and Ukraine that aims to defuse the crisis, President Putin may succeed in dismembering Ukraine. But, in the long run, he is both undermining his own economy and also driving Ukrainians forever into a Western orbit, as surely as the Soviets propelled Czechs to the West when they invaded in 1968.

Even here in the village, Ukrainians watch Russian television and loathe the propaganda portraying them as neo-Nazi thugs rampaging against Russian speakers.

“If you listen to them, we all carry assault rifles; we’re all beating people,” Ilya Moskal, a history teacher, said contemptuously.

For people with such fondness for American culture, there is disappointment that President Obama hasn’t embraced Ukraine more firmly. “The U.S. is being very slow and cautious,” said Anatoly Marinchuk, a retiree, scolding gently. “You should be firmer, and quicker with financial assistance.”

He’s right, I think.

It’s not just Ukrainians who are watching, and Putin himself, but all the world. We don’t have great tools, but we can do more.

As Wesley Clark and Phillip Karber, two American military experts, suggested in a report to the Obama administration, the United States can do a far better job supplying nonlethal assistance to the Ukrainian military, in part to deter Russia. We can make clearer that Russia would face devastating banking sanctions if it invades Ukraine. We can send more officials on visits, and Obama would warm hearts if he found a way to quote the national poet and hero, Taras Shevchenko.

We should take heart from the recognition that backing Ukraine places us on the right side of history. Ukraine has had wretched national leaders, so today leadership is coming from ordinary people who are driven by deep popular aspirations like those reverberating in my family’s ancestral village.

Without moving an inch, this village has been an ever-changing place. When my father was born, it was Austria-Hungary. Throughout his childhood, it was Romania. In the 1940s, it became the Soviet Union. In 1991, it became the Republic of Ukraine.

And, in 2014, by popular will, it is becoming part of the West.

Ukrainians hope to avoid a war with Russia that they know they would lose. But many believe deeply that their futures depend on reorienting their country to the West. That they won’t compromise on.

Ukraine faces difficult times ahead, but tectonic forces are propelling it westward. In the battle between Putin and Taylor Swift, I bet on Swift.

“We love your culture, and we want to be part of you,” one man from Donetsk told me, almost beseechingly. “If you abandon us, we will never forgive you.”

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

If you were on I-85 near Atlanta on Wednesday morning or I-95 near Baltimore on Thursday afternoon, there’s a chance you spotted them. You’d remember, especially if she was driving when they lumbered by. It’s not often that you see an 18-year-old girl behind the wheel of a gold-colored Cadillac so enormous, so archaic. And it’s not usually a 79-year-old man you find beside her, her lone companion on the long road.

What an odd-looking couple they must have been. But what a sweet affirmation. They were proof, these two, that a family can pass its painstakingly nurtured closeness down through the generations, and that there comes a moment when the values impressed on the youngest members of the brood — the values imposed on them, really — become the values they actually elect.

The 79-year-old is my father. Every year around this time, just before Easter, he migrates north from Georgia, where he spends the cold months, to New York, for the warm ones. He drives, and that makes my three siblings and me increasingly nervous, because he doesn’t have the energy he once did, because we’re worrywarts and because we’re determined to hold on to him for as long as we can.

We were especially concerned this year, when his wife, whom he met and married many years after our mother died, couldn’t join him for the ride. He was going to be piloting that grand and gleaming relic of his all alone.

Over email and phone, my brothers, my sister and I huddled, strategized: Could one of us cancel a few commitments, take two or three days off, figure out a way to tag along with him? Could we persuade him to let that happen?

My niece Leslie, the eldest of his nine grandchildren, caught wind of the conversation and piped up. She’d do it, she said. She’d go. She was in the final weeks of high school and, like most graduating seniors, just biding her time. She had no crucial exams to study for. No more standardized tests to take. And there wasn’t a chance in hell that Grandpa was going to turn her down.

She hopped on a plane from Los Angeles, where my brother Harry and his family live, to Atlanta, where the Cadillac idled. She climbed in and buckled up.

I called to check on her and Dad during the first leg of their two-day, 16-hour trip. He answered. He’d already ceded the driver’s seat, already grown accustomed to being chauffeured.

“You’re a veritable Miss Daisy,” I told him, and he passed the observation along to Leslie. She had no idea what we meant.

He said to me: “My firstborn granddaughter, come all this way to drive me. Can you believe it?”

I can, because he set this up to happen. Leslie is the return on an investment that he made across many decades, with so much of his time and so much of his heart.

He, my mother, my own grandparents and my aunts and uncles always taught my siblings and me to carve out space for family no matter what, to put relatives at the head of the line, to find gestures large and small by which you communicated that you cared and you never left that in doubt.

They methodically infused our get-togethers with a sense of occasion and an even more profound sense of gratitude, advertising and even amplifying their feelings about family as a way of bequeathing them. They wanted the compact that they’d established — the covenant that they’d built — to endure.

Tolstoy wasn’t on the mark. Not all happy families are alike. But all happy families — or, more accurately, all close ones — have this in common: Their bond is forged not by accident but by intent. They make a decision.

And their actions follow their resolve.

When I was growing up, my parents didn’t just take the four of us to see Grandma and Grandpa Bruni. They took us to see Grandma and Grandpa Bruni. The event had emotional italics; it was teased and promoted, like a new “Star Trek” movie.

That was true as well of visits to my aunts and uncles, and these relatives returned our excitement with exuberant welcomes and extravagant meals, sending the message that we were the most cherished creatures on earth. The prosciutto and the pasta and the cannoli had no end. The hugging went on and on.

My siblings and I wanted the same for their children — nine in all, starting with Leslie. This hasn’t been easy to pull off. We’re scattered across the map, so connecting the kids with their grandfather, with one another and with their aunts and uncles has often meant expensive flights, exhausting car rides.

This Easter weekend, my brother Mark and his children will drive nearly five hours each way between the Boston area and Princeton, N.J., for a 24-hour stay. I once flew from Rome to Boston just for a big birthday party for Mark. Everyone does whatever’s necessary for an annual beach week in June when we’re all together. We’re blessed to have the resources for it, and we’re determined that everything else on the calendar yield to it. It’s the priority.

And the kids are subjected to the precise molding and coaching that my siblings and I were. They get the same italics. Uncle Frank is picking a movie for you all to watch. Aunt Adelle is taking you snorkeling. Uncle Mark rented a boat.

And the most glittering promise, the ultimate prize: Grandpa is taking you to dinner.

Grandpa took Leslie to a Waffle House on the first day of their drive and then again on the second. They share, along with genes, an affinity for breakfast foods and carbohydrates.

They don’t share musical tastes, so for most of their trip, they left the radio off and just talked, treating the highway as memory lane. Grandpa told Leslie stories about the woman he still mourns: the grandmother she never got to know, whose first name she inherited. At one point he realized that he had a collection of greatest hits by the Platters with him, and he put it in the CD player, telling Leslie: This was the soundtrack of our romance.

They pulled into his driveway in the suburbs of New York City early Thursday evening, in time to freshen up and head out to a movie together. Afterward I got Leslie on the phone and asked her how it all went. She was still dumbstruck by the heft of Grandpa’s car.

“It’s like a boat,” she said. “It took me a while to realize that if I wanted to stop, I had to start braking really, really far in advance.”

In the background, Grandpa chimed in: “She’s a terrific little driver!”

I asked her about her plans for the next day, and whether she’d have dinner with me in Manhattan and stay over at my place. I was braced for rejection, or a grudging acceptance: An 18-year-old has better ways to spend a Friday night, and she’d surely overdosed on family by this point.

I underestimated her. I underestimated all of us.

“I’m seeing a friend in the city,” she told me, “but I’ll cut it off in time to meet you at the restaurant and spend the night with you,” she told me, sounding genuinely eager.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Totally,” she said. “This is more important.”

Blow, Kristof and Collins

April 17, 2014

In “Minimum Wage, Maximum Outrage” Mr. Blow has a question:  Even if both parties are playing politics with this issue to some degree, which side would you rather be on?  Mr. Kristof, who’s in Kiev, has decided to whale away on The Moustache of Wisdom’s little war drum.  He also has a question.  In “In Ukraine, Seeking U.S. Aid” he says Ukrainians have been bullied relentlessly by Russia. He then poses his question:  Why aren’t we doing more to stand up for them?  Gee, why aren’t Germany and France?  At least they’re on the same damn continent…  Ms. Collins, in “There’s A Moon Out Tonight,” says look on the bright side of things, people, even when doomsday is predicted and the moon is blood red.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

No one should ever endure the kind of economic humiliation that comes with working a full-time job and making a less-than-living wage.

There is dignity in all work, but that dignity grows dim when the checks are cashed and the coins are counted and still the bills rise higher than the wages.

Most people want to work. It is a basic human desire: to make a way, to provide for one’s self and one’s loved ones, to advance. It is that great hope of tomorrow, better and brighter, in which we can be happy and secure, able to sleep without hunger and wake without worry.

But it is easy to see how people can have that hope thrashed out of them, by having to wrestle with the most wrenching of questions: how to make do when you work for less than you can live on?

That is why the minimum wage debate resonates so profoundly with so many: We know what it feels like to not have enough money after you’ve busted your body with too-hard work. We know the worry in parents’ eyes as they sit around a dinner table littered with more bills than dollar bills, trying to figure out whom to pay and how to save.

These scenes play themselves out in more American households than the well-dressed men and women in the marbled halls of Congress will ever care to imagine. These are the forgotten and forsaken, the just getting by on just enough. They don’t have much money to donate to a church, let alone a political campaign, and yet they yearn just the same for someone to look out for them. They struggle to make it to the polls, sometimes on public transportation, and wait hours to vote.

Raising the minimum wage won’t erase all of the problems of the poor, but it is one component, one rooted in basic dignity and fairness, of a much fairer picture of income inequality and poverty.

Most Americans understand this. According to a Gallup poll last year, 71 percent of adults (91 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 50 percent of Republicans) said they would vote for a law that would raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour on Election Day if they could.

But, as one would expect, Republicans in Congress are chafing. Some say that raising the minimum wage could hurt small businesses, though a Gallup poll in November showed that small businesses were split on increasing the minimum wage, with roughly half for and half against it. Furthermore, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project, “the majority (66 percent) of low-wage workers are not employed by small businesses, but rather by large corporations with over 100 employees.”

Others dismiss the push for increasing the minimum wage, which is being advanced aggressively by Democrats, purely as a political move.

On some level, is the focus on the minimum wage a political ploy on the part of Democrats? I have no doubt. But that doesn’t drain the proposal of its merit. Much of what occurs in Washington occurs at the intersection of political advantage and earnest intentions, and it has ever been thus. Whenever one side accuses the other of playing politics, the accusation is often laced with an envy of the other’s adroitness.

So with the minimum wage, we have an issue that’s both smart politics and compassionate policy.

Politicians do things for political ends, even things designed to help real people.

And that political haymaking is going both ways. This week, the Republican governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin, signed a bill banning the state’s cities from “establishing mandatory minimum wages or vacation and sick-day requirements,” according to The Associated Press.

How callous is that? And it should be noted that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “In 2012, Oklahoma’s proportion of hourly paid workers earning at or below the prevailing federal minimum wage ranked third highest among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.” The bureau reported that 7.2 percent of the hourly paid workers in Oklahoma earned the federal minimum wage or less, compared with 4.7 percent nationally.

And things have not been moving in a positive direction. The bureau also notes that:

“From 2011 to 2012, the portion of hourly paid workers in Oklahoma who earned at or below the federal minimum wage rose from 6.8 to 7.2 percent. The percentage of workers earning less than the federal minimum rose 1.5 percentage points in 2012 to 3.9 percent, while the share earning exactly the minimum wage fell 1.0 points to 3.3 percent.”

Now, if both sides are playing politics with the minimum wage to some degree, which side would you rather be on: that of the working people, who are struggling to make a living, or that of the politicians determined to block them?

Next up we have Mr. Kristof and his little drum:

For decades, Ukrainians have been starved, oppressed and bullied by Russians, and, with Russia now inciting instability that could lead to an invasion and dismemberment of eastern Ukraine, plenty of brave Ukrainians here say they’ve had it and are ready to go bear-hunting.

If they could just equip themselves.

“Any chance you could provide some machine guns or sniper rifles?” one former protester asked me hopefully in Kiev’s Independence Square, a scorched collection of roadblocks where so many Ukrainians lost their lives toppling a corrupt ruler earlier this year.

I explained that I was out of both. The next day, when another self-styled commander asked for weapons to fight the Russian invaders, I pointed to the pistol in his belt and told him he was better prepared than I was.

He laughed ruefully, pulled it out and showed that it was a pellet gun. “It’s a child’s toy,” he said scornfully. “And we have only one of these for every 10 men.”

That’s a glimpse of the mood in Ukraine these days. People seem to feel a bit disappointed that the United States and Europe haven’t been more supportive, and they are humiliated that their own acting government hasn’t done more to confront Russian-backed militants. So, especially after a few drinks, people are ready to take down the Russian Army themselves.

“We will defeat the Russian Army, hang the Ukrainian flag over the Kremlin, and turn it into a lake,” boasted Roman Butsyk, a locomotive driver who joined the protest movement.

Usually in international affairs, there’s a good deal of gray, but what is happening in Ukraine is pretty black and white.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia warns that Ukraine is on the brink of civil war. But the chaos in eastern cities is his own creation, in part by sending provocateurs across the border. It’s not clear how many of the troublemakers in the east are Russian security agents and how many are Ukrainians who want to remain in Russia’s orbit, but it’s reasonably clear that there are plenty of both. Ukrainians note that supposed locals in the pro-Russian camp sometimes are unfamiliar with local streets.

Putin has emerged as a great champion of the rights of Russian-speakers everywhere — except in the place where their rights are most endangered. That’s Russia itself.

Meanwhile, Russian propaganda has reached almost North Korean proportions: Putin shrugs at the world and embraces implausible deniability.

Ukrainians mounted their revolution because they wanted to be more like the West, so it frustrates them that the West hasn’t returned the love. Europe fears that sanctioning Russia would hurt business, and even the Obama administration has been cautious and has resisted providing military assistance (except for military meals).

The Ukrainians have a point. A bear is charging them, and we offer spaghetti?

President Obama’s concerns about provoking Putin are understandable, and I disagree with those Republicans who argue that Putin is on a rampage because of Obama’s foreign policy weaknesses. But I do think the White House can do more — with military transfers, financial aid, economic sanctions and moral support — to stand with Ukraine. Vice President Joe Biden’s planned visit to Ukraine is a welcome step to show support.

So far, Putin has arguably gained from his bullying of Crimea: His standing in domestic polls has surged — his approval at home is roughly twice Obama’s — and he has outmaneuvered some local critics, leaving them appearing unpatriotic or on the side of the enemy. It’s crucial that Putin pay a price for aggression so that he doesn’t benefit from bellicosity.

“I understand the U.S. reluctance,” acknowledged Igor Grosul, who sells doormats with the face of the ousted president. “If there is a war between America and Russia, it might be the last war ever.”

Yet Grosul, who was hospitalized in the fight to overthrow the old regime, still would like to see America more engaged. As a Russian speaker himself, he is also indignant at reports that most Russian speakers are pro-Russian.

Clearly, some Russian-speaking Ukrainians genuinely want greater autonomy for their regions, and the country should grant it. But Grosul says that in his city of Mykolaiv, most people are Russian speakers who have turned against Moscow because of the seizure of Crimea and the hysterical anti-Ukraine propaganda.

When Ukrainians ask me what I think, I tell them that I admire their spirit, but that courage is, sadly, no match for a tank. They disagree.

“When we were fighting against the police, we had just wooden sticks,” said Volodymyr Kozak, who helps run a tent museum in Independence Square about the recent battles there. “We can manage against Russia as well.”

These people don’t have much, but they have heart. We should do more to back them up.

And I’m sure we’ll be greeted as liberators, with flowers strewn in the streets, just as we were in Baghdad, right?  Shit…  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Let’s talk about something cheerful. I nominate the apocalypse.

You may not have noticed, but we survived an end-of-the-world moment again this week when a lunar eclipse made the moon look sort of reddish. This is known as a Blood Moon, and, in certain circles, it was seen as the Start of Something Big.

“The heavens are God’s billboard,” said televangelist John Hagee, the author of the best-selling “Four Blood Moons: Something Is About to Change.” This is the same John Hagee who once theorized that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment to New Orleans for scheduling a gay pride parade. He later apologized. And moved on. To the moon.

As doomsday scenarios go, this one is not particularly original: the basic evangelical vision of trouble in the Middle East followed by the Second Coming. And red moons happen all the time. If you wanted a sign of the end of days this week, there are lots better candidates. Kathleen Sebelius for Senate? The idea that anybody believes Donald Trump will buy the Buffalo Bills? Or limes — their price is quadrupling! You can read all about that in my upcoming book, “The End of Guacamole.”

The Blood Moon predictions are going to be with us for a while because there will be four of the same lunar eclipses over the next year and a half. And Hagee’s theories have sold a heck of a lot of books on Amazon. But they lack the exciting specificity of the classic end-of-the-world prophecies. Like polar shifts (earth crust moves, triggering volcanoes, floods and eliminating all life-forms) or the Amazing Criswell, who was waiting for a black rainbow to show up and suck off all the oxygen.

Television is taking up the slack. It’s awash with doomsday stories, with more on the runway. Killer viruses, planetary power failures, nuclear war. Plus your basic Rapture. (“ ‘The Leftovers’ is the story of the people who didn’t make the cut.”) Chris Carter, the “X-Files” creator who’s offering “The After,” was apparently really moved by that Mayan-calendar-ends crisis in 2012. “There was nervousness. It was in the air. …Certainly the power of that played a part in my desire to do something about a world-changing event,” he told TV Guide.

People, do you remember being all that worried about the Mayan calendar? Or zombies? Zombies are still so darned popular. It would be nice if we were being barraged with a new series about a utopian future where everybody got along except your occasional Romulan. Yet here we are.

The feel-good side of end-of-the-world predictions is that everything seems so nice the day after. We’re still here! There’s oxygen!

Unless, of course, you’re someone like Robert Fitzpatrick, a follower of the late Harold Camping, a serial apocalypse predictor who claimed Judgment Day was going to be May 21, 2011. Fitzpatrick spent what he said was his life savings putting warning signs in the New York City subway system. (“Global Earthquake: The Greatest Ever!”) On the plus side, he did give commuters a really fine ride to work on May 22.

If you enjoy worrying about doomsday, be sure to hedge your bets. Remember Y2K and all the millennium end-of-the-world scenarios? Years ago, I worked on a project that involved a collection of all the predictions about terrible things that were going to happen in the year 2000, and I enjoyed it very much. I talked to a guy living on a mountain who was both waiting for the end and writing a movie script about it. Also, an official in a small Illinois town that had been founded on a plan to airlift refugees into space where they would rotate around until the polar shift calmed down. This was all based on the work of the town’s founder, Richard Kieninger, who was eventually kicked out amid rumors of sexual misbehavior. The rest of the community decided to just concentrate on building self-sufficient lifestyles.

So really, pretty happy ending.

And then, the pope! It was only a year ago that the College of Cardinals was meeting in the Vatican to elect a new pope, and some people were pointing out that this one was going to be the last pontiff, according to a 12th-century prediction made by St. Malachy, who also mentioned the destruction of Rome and “many tribulations” everywhere.

True, Malachy’s list was probably a forgery. But who would have predicted that Catholics would get a new pope who was obsessed with the poor and apparently totally uninterested in people’s sex lives? Nobody. Talking heads sniffed when Francis was chosen and said the cardinals “probably did not come up with the most progressive pope in the history of the world.” Actually, that would have been me.

Our moral today is that things often turn out better than we might have imagined. Look on the bright side. Even when it’s dark and the moon appears to be a rather unusual color.

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

April 13, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has extruded something called “Diversity and Dishonesty” in which he whines that Mozilla and Brandeis may preach pluralism, but it’s a sham.  “Gemli” from Boston had this to say in the comments:  “There may be a reason that certain institutions “…support diversity, but only as the left defines it.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard the right’s definition of diversity, unless it’s their tendency to treat everyone who doesn’t look like them with equal disdain.”  MoDo, in “A Wit for All Seasons,” says with a quicksilver wit and basic decency, Colbert’s the real deal.  This may be the first column in years where she doesn’t take a gratuitous slap at Obama or Clinton.  The Moustache of Wisdom says “Go Ahead, Vladimir, Make My Day.”  He opines that a Russian gas embargo might be just what the world needs. Seriously.  “Victor” in Cold Spring, NY had this to say:  “Whoa! That’s some pretty tough talk there “Dirty Tommy”. I’m sure you got Vlad shaking in his boots at the prospect of the west going solar in retaliation for a brutal annexation of Ukraine through gas pipeline extortion. This is like some junior high-schooler’s mixed metaphor.”  Mr. Kristof, in “A Loyal Soldier Doesn’t Deserve This,” says here’s a veteran who risked his life and sacrificed his mind for his country. He asks what are we doing for him in return?  Mr. Bruni considers “Women’s Unequal Lot” and says the 77-cent figure so loosely tossed around misrepresents the pay gap and its roots.  Here’s The Putz:

Earlier this year, a column by a Harvard undergraduate named Sandra Y. L. Korn briefly achieved escape velocity from the Ivy League bubble, thanks to its daring view of how universities should approach academic freedom.

Korn proposed that such freedom was dated and destructive, and that a doctrine of “academic justice” should prevail instead. No more, she wrote, should Harvard permit its faculty to engage in “research promoting or justifying oppression” or produce work tainted by “racism, sexism, and heterosexism.” Instead, academic culture should conform to left-wing ideas of the good, beautiful and true, and decline as a matter of principle “to put up with research that counters our goals.”

No higher-up at Harvard endorsed her argument, of course. But its honesty of purpose made an instructive contrast to the institutional statements put out in the immediate aftermath of two recent controversies — the resignation of the Mozilla Foundation’s C.E.O., Brendan Eich, and the withdrawal, by Brandeis University, of the honorary degree it had promised to the human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

In both cases, Mozilla and Brandeis, there was a striking difference between the clarity of what had actually happened and the evasiveness of the official responses to the events. Eich stepped down rather than recant his past support for the view that one man and one woman makes a marriage; Hirsi Ali’s invitation was withdrawn because of her sweeping criticisms of Islamic culture. But neither the phrase “marriage” nor the word “Islam” appeared in the initial statements Mozilla and Brandeis released.

Instead, the Mozilla statement rambled in the language of inclusion: “Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness. … Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions. …”

The statement on Hirsi Ali was slightly more direct, saying that “her past statements … are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” But it never specified what those statements or those values might be — and then it fell back, too, on pieties about diversity: “In the spirit of free expression that has defined Brandeis University throughout its history, Ms. Hirsi Ali is welcome to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.”

What both cases illustrate, with their fuzzy rhetoric masking ideological pressure, is a serious moral defect at the heart of elite culture in America.

The defect, crucially, is not this culture’s bias against social conservatives, or its discomfort with stinging attacks on non-Western religions. Rather, it’s the refusal to admit — to others, and to itself — that these biases fundamentally trump the commitment to “free expression” or “diversity” affirmed in mission statements and news releases.

This refusal, this self-deception, means that we have far too many powerful communities (corporate, academic, journalistic) that are simultaneously dogmatic and dishonest about it — that promise diversity but only as the left defines it, that fill their ranks with ideologues and then claim to stand athwart bias and misinformation, that speak the language of pluralism while presiding over communities that resemble the beau ideal of Sandra Y. L. Korn.

Harvard itself is a perfect example of this pattern: As Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame pointed out when the column was making waves, Korn could only come up with one contemporary example of a Harvardian voice that ought to be silenced — “a single conservative octogenarian,” the political philosophy professor Harvey Mansfield. Her call for censorship, Deneen concluded, “is at this point almost wholly unnecessary, since there are nearly no conservatives to be found at Harvard.”

I am (or try to be) a partisan of pluralism, which requires respecting Mozilla’s right to have a C.E.O. whose politics fit the climate of Silicon Valley, and Brandeis’s right to rescind degrees as it sees fit, and Harvard’s freedom to be essentially a two-worldview community, with a campus shared uneasily by progressives and corporate neoliberals, and a small corner reserved for token reactionary cranks.

But this respect is difficult to maintain when these institutions will not admit that this is what is going on. Instead, we have the pretense of universality — the insistence that the post-Eich Mozilla is open to all ideas, the invocations of the “spirit of free expression” from a school that’s kicking a controversial speaker off the stage.

And with the pretense, increasingly, comes a dismissive attitude toward those institutions — mostly religious — that do acknowledge their own dogmas and commitments, and ask for the freedom to embody them and live them out.

It would be a far, far better thing if Harvard and Brandeis and Mozilla would simply say, explicitly, that they are as ideologically progressive as Notre Dame is Catholic or B. Y.U. is Mormon or Chick-fil-A is evangelical, and that they intend to run their institution according to those lights.

I can live with the progressivism. It’s the lying that gets toxic.

If anyone knows about lying it’s a Republican…  Here’s MoDo:

I don’t remember much about being on Stephen Colbert’s show.

It all passed in a blur of fear.

I remember him coming into the makeup room to remind me that he was going to be in character as a jerk.

I remember that he held up my book about gender and asked if it was “soft-core porn.”

I remember he asked me if I wanted to hold his Peabody and I told him I did, so he jumped up to grab the TV award from the mantel.

The experience reminded me of a 1937 musical called “A Damsel in Distress,” where Fred Astaire guided Joan Fontaine, clearly not a dancer, around a lawn, soaring for both of them.

Colbert was as quicksilver with his wit as Fred was with his feet. And like Astaire’s more talented partner Ginger Rogers, who had to dance backward and in heels, Colbert was doing two things at once that were very hard. He was dazzling as a satirist and improv comedian while mimicking a buffoonish right-wing broadcaster.

Jon Stewart once described the level of difficulty to me this way: “It’s as though you’re doing your show in Portuguese.”

The reason “The Colbert Report” worked, Stewart said, when I interviewed the two comics for Rolling Stone in 2006, was that Colbert could act like an obnoxious egoist, but his “basic decency can’t be hidden.”

Colbert is witty and a good interrogator without being twisted, as Johnny Carson was.

He’s inventive, like the comic genius he will replace, but not tortured like David Letterman.

In person, Colbert is a nice guy, but not as monologue-monomaniacal as Jay Leno. Colbert has lived the life of a suburban soccer dad and Catholic Church-going Sunday school teacher in Montclair, N.J., with a beautiful wife he’s nuts about, Evie McGee, and three kids.

He’s not an ingratiating boy next door, like Jimmy Fallon, or a scorchingly candid curmudgeon, like Letterman.

No one, including the CBS president, Les Moonves, and the host himself, is sure what his new show will be like because we’ve so rarely seen Colbert when he wasn’t playing a character.

And it’s a sad double blow, after all. It’s not only Letterman who’s retiring, but the blowhard doppelgänger of Colbert.

Carson was the Walter Lippmann of comedy, wielding enormous influence over the reputations of politicians he mocked. Stewart and Colbert took it a step further. They became Murrow and Cronkite for a generation of young viewers.

It was a measure of how seriously Washington viewed Colbert that in 2007, Rahm Emanuel, then the Democratic Caucus chairman, told freshman Democrats to stay off Colbert’s show. And Colbert has to be the only person who testified before Congress as a bit.

Rush Limbaugh and some other conservatives bristled at news that Colbert was moving to the more mainstream network platform; they know he can be brilliantly effective about the absurdity and doublespeak of politics.

“CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America,” Limbaugh said.

Colbert said in the Rolling Stone interview that his agenda was humor, not social change, noting: “Peter Cook was once asked if he thought that satire had a political effect. He said, ‘Absolutely, the greatest satire of the 20th century was the Weimar cabaret, and they stopped Hitler in his tracks.’ ”

Except for supporting J.F.K., Colbert’s parents were not very political or liberal. Colbert kept a Nixon poster above his office desk. “Nixon was the last liberal president,” he told me. “He supported women’s rights, the environment, ending the draft, youth involvement, and now he’s the boogeyman?”

After his famous appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006, where he sliced W. so surgically that the speech, which fell flat in the room, went viral on liberal websites, Colbert looked shaken.

“I didn’t want to be subversive,” he told me. “I just wanted to be funny.” He said he was not trying to throw a Molotov cocktail, as a critic charged. He agreed with one of his writers, who told him, “You threw a bottle of grape soda that happened to have a lit rag in the neck, and the room was soaked with gasoline.”

He describes himself as “an omnivore,” who loves everything from “A Man for All Seasons” to “Jackass,” from hip-hop to Ovid in the original Latin.

He had 10 older siblings. But after his father and the two brothers closest to him in age died in a plane crash when he was 10 and the older kids went off to college, he said, he was “pretty much left to himself, with a lot of books.”

He said he loved the “strange, sad poetry” of a song called “Holland 1945” by an indie band from Athens, Ga., called Neutral Milk Hotel and sent me the lyrics, which included this heartbreaking bit:

“But now we must pick up every piece

Of the life we used to love

Just to keep ourselves

At least enough to carry on. . . .

And here is the room where your brothers were born

Indentions in the sheets

Where their bodies once moved but don’t move anymore.”

And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

So the latest news is that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has threatened to turn off gas supplies to Ukraine if Kiev doesn’t pay its overdue bill, and, by the way, Ukraine’s pipelines are the transit route for 15 percent of gas consumption for Europe. If I’m actually rooting for Putin to go ahead and shut off the gas, does that make me a bad guy?

Because that is what I’m rooting for, and I’d be happy to subsidize Ukraine through the pain. Because such an oil shock, though disruptive in the short run, could have the same long-term impact as the 1973 Arab oil embargo — only more so. That 1973 embargo led to the first auto mileage standards in America and propelled the solar, wind and energy efficiency industries. A Putin embargo today would be even more valuable because it would happen at a time when the solar, wind, natural gas and energy efficiency industries are all poised to take off and scale. So Vladimir, do us all a favor, get crazy, shut off the oil and gas to Ukraine and, even better, to all of Europe. Embargo! You’ll have a great day, and the rest of the planet will have a great century.

“Clean energy is at an inflection point,” explains Hal Harvey, C.E.O. of Energy Innovation. “The price reductions in the last five years have been nothing less than spectacular: Solar cells, for example, have dropped in cost by more than 80 percent in the last five years. This trend is underway, if a bit less dramatically, for wind, batteries, solid state lighting, new window technologies, vehicle drive trains, grid management, and more. What this means is that clean energy is moving from boutique to mainstream, and that opens up a wealth of opportunities.”

New houses in California now use one-fourth of the energy they used 25 years ago, added Harvey. Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford are in a contest to make the most efficient pickup — because their customers want to spend less on gasoline — so they are deploying new engines and lighter truck bodies. Texas now has enough wind to power more than 3 million homes. New Jersey generates more solar watts per person than California.

And check out Opower, which just went public. Opower works with utilities and consumers to lower electricity usage and bills using behavioral economics, explained Alex Laskey, the company’s co-founder, at their Arlington, Va., office. They do it by giving people personalized communications that display in simple, clear terms how their own energy usage compares with that of their neighbors. Once people understand where they are wasting energy — and how they compare with their neighbors — many start consuming less. And, as their consumption falls, utilities can meet their customers’ demand without having to build new power plants to handle peak loads a few days of the year. Everybody wins. Opower just signed up the Tokyo Electric Power Company and its 20 million homes.

Putting all its customers together since it was founded in 2007, said Laskey, Opower has already saved about “4 terawatt hours of energy” and expects to be soon saving that annually. The Hoover Dam produces about 4 terawatts hours of energy a year. So we just got a new Hoover Dam — for free — in Arlington, Va.

A gas embargo by Putin would also reinforce the message of the United Nations’ latest climate report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned with greater confidence than ever that human-created carbon emissions are steadily melting more ice, creating more dangerous sea level rise, stressing ecosystems around the globe and creating more ocean acidification, from oceans absorbing more C02, posing “a fundamental challenge to marine organisms and ecosystems.”

Sunday, at 10 p.m. Eastern time, Showtime will begin airing a compelling nine-part series, called “Years of Living Dangerously,” about how environmental and climate stresses affect real people. The first episode features Harrison Ford confronting Indonesian officials about the runaway deforestation in one of their national parks, Don Cheadle following evangelicals in Texas wrestling with the tension between their faith and what is happening to their environment, and this columnist exploring how the prolonged drought in Syria contributed to the uprising there. The ninth episode is an in-depth interview with President Obama on environment and climate issues.

I asked Harrison Ford, a longtime board member of Conservation International, whether working on the documentary left him feeling it was all too late. “It isn’t too late; it can’t be too late,” he said. “Is it too late to teach our kids the difference between right and wrong? If we are not ready to redress something happening on our watch, how can we expect our kids to do something about it?” Remember, he added, “nature will be just fine without us. Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature. That is why we can’t save ourselves without saving nature.”

Ford is right. We can still do this. We are closer to both irreversible dangers on climate and scale solutions on clean tech than people realize. Just a little leadership now by America — or a little scare by Putin — would make a big difference.

Correction: April 12, 2014

I have no idea what the correction is or was, as the Times neglected to actually put it on the web site.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

The only reason he is alive, says Mike Yurchison, is his girlfriend, Leigh Anna Landsberger. She sits with him through endless waits at Veterans Affairs, whispering that he’s smarter than she is even if his brain is damaged. She helps him through his seizures, and she nags him to overcome drug addiction.

Leigh Anna gave Mike, 34, something to live for after his brother, an Iraq veteran confronting similar torment, died of a drug overdose, an apparent suicide. She talked him through his grief after the suicide of another Army buddy, Jake, the one who persuaded them to move to Dallas from their native Ohio.

“If it wasn’t for her, I’d be dead right now,” Mike told me. “It was her that got me to start feeling human.”

Yet the shadow of war is difficult to escape, and a United States veteran still kills himself (or, sometimes, herself) almost once each hour. A few weeks ago, Leigh Anna returned the ring Mike had given to her and called off their engagement. She says she still loves Mike, but she is 26 and full of dreams, and he’s a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury that, for all his intelligence, leaves him speaking slowly and sometimes sounding punch drunk. He muddles his age, forgets his address, struggles to hold a job, and he isn’t getting much help from Veterans Affairs.

“I want a family, and I want a lot of things girls want,” Leigh Anna told me, crying softly. “There are things I’m giving up.”

Leigh Anna has stood by Mike for three and a half years, but how much does a girlfriend sign on for? She isn’t sure what to think now. “I’m taking it a day at a time,” she said.

Iraq is but a fading memory for most Americans, and Afghanistan may soon recede as well. But for countless others like Mike and Leigh Anna, the war continues and will for decades to come.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says that it has made progress in reducing its backlog in processing disability compensation claims, but critics say that is because of the way it defines the backlog — and many hundreds of thousands of veterans are still awaiting decisions.

Likewise, the V.A. has improved suicide prevention work, but, by all accounts, it’s not enough, so that veterans are dying unnecessarily.

Mike signed up to join the Army a month after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 as an act of patriotism. “I wanted to go to war and do my part,” he said. I first wrote about him two years ago in a column about the apparent suicide of his younger brother, Ryan Yurchison, who had looked up to Mike and signed up for the Army after he did.

Then a bit more than a month ago, I heard from Cheryl DeBow, the mother of Ryan and Mike.

“I am fearing I may lose my other son as well,” Ms. DeBow tells me, speaking of Mike. “It it’s becoming déjà vu and truly scares me.”

When Mike went to war he was, like Ryan, strong and healthy. So when he returned, Ms. DeBow couldn’t believe the difference. “When he got off the plane from Iraq, his body was shaking and so stiff when I went to hug him,” she said. “It’s as if he wasn’t there.”

He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. (Of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have been treated by the V.A., 55 percent have been diagnosed with a mental disorder.) He says that military doctors prescribed anxiety medication and painkillers that left him addicted to opiates.

Mike suffers from occasional seizures, in which his mouth foams and he becomes as stiff as a board, stops breathing and turns blue. He never had these before the war, and doctors can’t explain them.

Although his mom and girlfriend worry about suicide risks, Mike told me that the thought has barely crossed his mind. I don’t know whether to believe him. He also said: “This is probably going to sound weird, but with my brother dying, then Jake, I keep feeling death is, like, closing in on me. It’s a horrible feeling. It’s almost like this war had a curse, and if you didn’t die there, you’ll die at home. I don’t know why so many veterans are dying at home.”

Mike is also haunted by a particular incident. On an officer’s order in Iraq, he shot a young girl who the officer feared was wearing a suicide vest. The girl died, blood was everywhere, there was no suicide vest — and Mike was shattered.

So the Iraq war goes on in Mike’s head.

The Department of Veterans Affairs rates him 30 percent disabled and pays him a monthly stipend. Mike is stoical and reluctant to complain, saying he knew the risks when he signed up. He has appealed for a higher fraction of disability payment because he is struggling economically.

That’s common. The unemployment rate for veterans who joined the service after 9/11 is higher than the civilian rate, and the homelessness rate for such veterans is significantly higher than for other adults.

Mike periodically visits V.A. doctors but finds them unhelpful, and he gave up on an addiction program because of a long waiting list. An outside doctor prescribes him medicine to help wean him off opiates (and his family says he is making progress), but he has to pay for the doctor and medicine himself.

As for his mental health, he’s not hopeful. “In a lot of ways, it’s getting worse,” he said.

So the pain lingers in Mike, in Leigh Anna, in Ms. DeBow’s fears for her son — and in so many homes across America. These are the families that sometimes wish the injuries were the obvious ones, the amputations or scars that the public recognizes and honors, rather than mental health concerns that are stigmatizing.

Mike agreed to share his story and be photographed, despite embarrassment and innate reluctance, in hopes that the attention might help other veterans in need of assistance.

There are no simple answers, of course, but we as a country can do so much more for these veterans and their loved ones. If we have the wherewithal to repair armored vehicles, we can at least try to repair the people like Pvt. Mike Yurchison who served in them. “My heart is breaking not just for a second son I could lose,” said Ms. DeBow, “but for all those we will lose as well due to government apathy.”

The goddamn Republicans howl about “supporting the troops” while they cut the budgets that actually might.  To say nothing of sending them off to be cannon fodder because of a pack of lies.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

I dropped in on my sister last week. As usual, I was amazed.

I work a single job; she works three or four. There’s her paid one at an executive search firm, finding and screening candidates for corner offices in the retail industry. Then there are the others.

She spends many hours daily as a combined chauffeur, drill sergeant, cheerleader and emotional nursemaid for her two children and two stepchildren. During my visit, on Wednesday night, our chat was interrupted repeatedly so that she could tangle with her son about an unfinished school essay or field questions from her daughter about softball.

She’s the vice president of her New Jersey township’s board of education, because she feels an obligation to better the community in which her kids live. And she’s hosting our family’s Easter celebration, when 20 of us will descend on her. I could see the extra stress settling in. Like too many women, she frets that the smoothness with which she pulls off a holiday is a verdict on her character, her femininity.

Her husband’s a champ. He pitches in, lavishly. But the buck really does stop with her.

Although she’s had enormous professional success, being a woman has surely constrained her. She chose employment that allows her to telecommute frequently, a necessary aspect of her juggling act.

It’s also entirely possible that some of the positions she has held would have paid her more if she were a man.

But the disparities that she faces are so much more complicated than her salary. Decades into the discussion about how to ensure women’s equality, we have a culture that still places a different set of expectations and burdens on women and that still nudges or even shames them into certain roles.

There was too little recognition of that last week at the White House, where President Obama practiced the timeless political art of oversimplification, reducing a messy reality into a tidy figure and saying that working women make only 77 cents for every dollar that working men earn. He left the impression that this was principally the consequence of direct discrimination in the form of unequal pay for the same job.

Some of it is, and that’s flatly unacceptable.

But most of it isn’t. And the misuse of the 77-cent statistic could actually hurt the important cause of giving women a fair shake, because it allows people who don’t value that goal a way to discredit those of us who do, and because it gives short shrift to dynamics that must be a part of any meaningful, truthful, constructive discussion.

The 77-cent figure speaks to the earnings of all women and all men classified as full-time workers. But it doesn’t adjust for the longer hours that such men generally work. It doesn’t factor in the paychecks of the many men and women who are employed part time.

When all of that comes into play and hourly income is calculated, women make 84 cents for every dollar that men do, according to the Pew Research Center. Even that 16-cent difference, though, isn’t entirely about women earning less money for the same work. It’s influenced by many factors, including the greater percentage of women who slow down their careers because of child-rearing responsibilities and fall behind.

To wit: Among younger women, many of whom have yet to hit that pause button, the hourly “wage gap” is 93 cents on the dollar, according to Pew’s number crunching. Other analyses reach similar conclusions.

In the White House, women made 88 cents for every dollar that men did last year, according to a review by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and salaries there are determined by hierarchical rank, not managerial discretion. What created the gap wasn’t unequal pay for equal work; it was a concentration of women in lower positions. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, explained this as if it were some sort of exoneration, when it merely raises other, bigger questions. At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and elsewhere, why are so many women at the bottom?

PATRIARCHIES, like old habits, die hard. In many arenas, we’re simply accustomed to being led by men. It’s our default, our fallback. With Stephen Colbert’s appointment last week to replace David Letterman, we’ve continued a period of intense shuffling of the late-night chairs, and each one that belonged to a man went to another man. Chelsea Handler is ending her own show; the days when Joan Rivers was a guest host for Johnny Carson are long gone; and on the major networks around midnight, it’s a boys’ club. Women get to tuck in the children, but not the national television audience.

By suggesting that the chief culprit for women’s inferior earnings is discriminatory pay, the 77-cent figure lets too many men off the hook, not forcing them to confront their culpability as bosses who care too little for women’s advancement, as husbands who prioritize their own careers and as fathers who don’t participate fully around the house.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, the sociologist who examined the burden of working women in the book “The Second Shift,” told me that since its publication 25 years ago, men have improved — but not enough. Back then, she said, “If you put a woman’s paid and unpaid labor beside her husband’s, and they both worked full time and had kids under 6, she was working an extra month.” Now, she said, it’s an extra two weeks.

That situation, she cautioned, pertains largely to affluent women. For less affluent ones, the issue is often men who are entirely absent. Equal-pay legislation doesn’t begin to address what these women need.

If we’re concerned about them, if we’re concerned about all working women, we have to talk about child care, flexible hours, paid leave. We have to talk about gender stereotypes and whether they steer women into professions with lower compensation. We have to talk about the choices that women make and which of those they feel muscled into.

Obama acknowledged that much only after he dwelt on the 77 cents. “We got to make it possible for more women to enter high-paying fields,” he said, going on to note, “Fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies have women at the helm.”

Being at the helm would probably push my sister over the edge. I checked in with her on Friday at noon, by which point she had driven her son to school, attended a board of education meeting elsewhere, returned to her son’s school for a conference and then gone to the doctor to deal with a case of conjunctivitis — in both of her eyes — and a sore throat. She had hoped, but failed, to get her broken eyeglasses fixed somewhere along the way.

“How can I place senior executives when I’m facing my son’s headmaster with glasses at a 45-degree angle on my head and pinkeye?” she said, with the kind of laugh that’s a sob in drag. “I look like a total hot mess.” Or a cautionary tale. Or, to me, a superhero.

Blow and Kristof

April 10, 2014

Ms. Collins is off today.  Mr. Blow asks a question in “We Should Be in a Rage:”  When will we demand the country we deserve? He says if we don’t like the path we’re on, we can alter it.  Mr. Kristof has decided to tell us “Where the G.O.P. Gets it Right.”  He says Republicans actually get some big things right about poverty, but it’s too bad their solutions are mostly wrong.  “Socrates” from Verona, NJ had this to say:  “Every broken clock gets it right twice a day.  There’s nothing more broken in America – intellectually, emotionally, morally, politically – than the Republican Party.”  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Voter apathy is a civic abdication. There is no other way to describe it.

If more Americans — particularly young people and less-wealthy people — went to the polls, we would have a better functioning government that actually reflected the will of the citizenry.

But, that’s not the way it works. Voting in general skews older and wealthier, and in midterm elections that skew is even more severe.

As David Wasserman wrote on the Cook Report last year:

“Voters under the age of 30 were 19 percent of all voters in 2012, but just 12 percent of all voters in 2010. Likewise, voters 65 and up were 17 percent of all voters in 2012, but 21 percent of all voters in 2010. Herein lies the biggest danger for Democratic candidates in 2014.”

Now we hear murmuring that Republicans hold a slight advantage going into 2014, not strictly because that’s the will of the American people, but because that may well be the will of the people willing to show up at the polls.

There is an astounding paradox in it: too many of those with the least economic and cultural power don’t fully avail themselves of their political power. A vote is the great equalizer, but only when it is cast.

The strategy here is simple: Break the spirit. Muddy the waters. Make voting feel onerous and outcomes ambiguous. And make it feel like a natural outgrowth of tedium and bickering, and not a well-funded, well-designed effort. Make us subsist on personality politics rather than principled ones.

The greatest trick up the sleeves of the moneyed and powerful is their diabolical ability to render themselves invisible and undetectable, to recede and operate behind a front, one relatable and common. Our politics are overrun with characters acting at the behest of shadows.

These are the politicians to whom we have become accustomed — too much polish, and too much beam — which is precisely the reason they should warrant our suspicion and not our trust, the way one cannot trust a cook with pots too pretty and not burned black on the bottoms.

And yet too many people shrug or sleep when they should seethe.

We should be in a rage over the Roberts court’s seemingly implacable drive to vest corporations with the rights of people and unleash the full fury of billionaires to bend our politics to their will.

We should be in a rage over the widespread attempts to disenfranchise voters, from the gutting of the Voting Rights Act to the rise of the Voter ID movement — a near-naked attempt by conservatives to diminish the number of Democratic voters.

We should be in a rage over Republican efforts, particularly on the state level, to drag the range of women’s reproductive options back to the 1960s.

We should be in a rage over the extraordinary pressures facing ordinary families. According to The New York Times’ Economix blog, college costs have risen over 500 percent since 1985, medical and gas costs more than 300 percent. And, the Pew Research Center reported Tuesday that “in inflation-adjusted dollars, average weekly child care expenses for families with working mothers who paid for child care” rose 70 percent from 1985 to 2011.

And yet, a report last week from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that “some 69 percent of the cuts in House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s new budget would come from programs that serve people of limited means.”

We should be in a rage over the fact that people in this country can work a full-time job and not earn a living wage.

We should be in a rage that this country’s infrastructure is literally crumbling beneath us. The “2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure,” produced by the American Society of Civil Engineers, gave our infrastructure an overall grade of D+ and estimated that $3.6 trillion would be needed by 2020 to fix it.

We should be in a rage that we are spiraling toward cataclysmic, irreversible climate change with little interest or effort in averting it, with little coverage and less than accurate coverage.

But where rage should be, there is too often a whimper.

When will we demand the country we deserve: reflective of its people, protective of its people, simply of its people? When will the young and the poor and the aggrieved and the forsaken walk abreast to the polls and then to the public squares?

If we don’t like the government we have, we can change it. If we don’t like the path we’re on, we can alter it.

Democracy is durable, but not incorruptible. The very purity of the concept invites those determined to alter it, to tilt it toward oligarchy, to slowly, imperceptibly if possible, bring it to a calamitous end.

The drift of the boat seems inconsequential until it encounters the falls.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Republicans may seem like ultimate Scrooges. Many want to slash food stamps, unemployment benefits and just about any program that helps the needy.

So they know nothing about poverty, right?

Wrong. Actually, conservatives have been proved right about three big ideas of social policy. Liberals may grimace, but hear me out on these points:

STRONG FAMILIES Conservatives highlight the primacy of family and argue that family breakdown exacerbates poverty, and they’re right. Children raised by single parents are three times as likely to live in poverty as kids in two-parent homes.

One historic mistake by liberals in social policy was the condemnation of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s warning in 1965 of the breakdown of the African-American family. He wasn’t racist; he was prescient, for the same breakdown has since occurred in white-working-class families as well.

Yet if Republicans were shown to be right in their diagnosis of family breakdown as a central problem, they have mostly been proved wrong in their prescriptions. Particularly under President George W. Bush, millions of dollars were spent on marriage promotion initiatives, and follow-up studies show that overwhelmingly they failed to have an impact. Abstinence-only sex education is another demonstrated failure.

What does work to strengthen families and reduce out-of-wedlock births?

There are no magic wands, but family-planning programs have reduced unplanned births — and 70 percent of pregnancies among unmarried women under 30 are unplanned. The Guttmacher Institute calculates that without family-planning services, the rate of unintended teen pregnancies would be 73 percent higher.

So it’s hard to think of a more anti-family policy than the closure of family-planning clinics in states like Texas, or the two-thirds cut (after inflation) in the main federal family-planning program since 1980. That’s a national shame.

One landmark initiative to help in this area is the Affordable Care Act, which requires insurers to offer free long-acting contraceptives to all women. Research suggests strongly that this will reduce abortions and out-of-wedlock births, while strengthening marriage, yet Republicans are fighting this mandate.

JOB CREATION President Reagan was right when he said that the best social program is a job. Good jobs also strengthen families. Evidence has grown that jobs are important not only to our economic well-being but also to self-esteem. Indeed, long-term unemployment seems to lead to shortened life expectancy.

Two decades ago, President Clinton pushed to “end welfare as we know it.” Liberals protested that the poor would be devastated, while conservatives hailed this as an avenue out of poverty. In retrospect, neither prediction was right. Welfare reform pushed the poor into jobs, but mostly marginal jobs that rarely offered an escalator to the middle class.

So how do we get good jobs? Expansion of the earned-income tax credit. Job training for people coming out of prison. Reduced incarceration, since a prison record makes people less employable. Subsidies to hire the long-term unemployed. Vocational programs like Career Academies.

Yet these are the kinds of social policies that Democrats tend to embrace and Republicans are leery of.

SCHOOL REFORM Republicans were right to blow the whistle on broken school systems, for education in inner-city schools is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Democrats, in cahoots with teachers’ unions and protective of a dysfunctional system, were long part of the problem.

Bravo to Republicans for protesting that teachers’ unions were sometimes protecting disastrous teachers (including, in New York City, one who passed out drunk in her classroom, with even the principal unable to rouse her). Likewise, some of the most successful schools in the inner cities have been charters in the Knowledge Is Power Program, showing what is possible even in troubled cities.

Yet Democrats, led by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, are coming around, and teachers’ unions have moderated. Republicans sometimes suggest that our biggest educational problem is teachers’ unions themselves. That’s absurd. States with strong teachers’ unions in the North like Massachusetts have better schools than states in the South with weak unions.

Meanwhile, one of the most important evidence-backed school reforms is public preschool and home visitation for disadvantaged kids, yet Republicans are blocking any national move to universal prekindergarten (even though Republican-led states like Oklahoma are leaders in pre-K).

So, come on, Republicans! You’ve highlighted enduring truths about the importance of family, jobs and school reform. But, while your diagnoses deserve respectful consideration, your prescriptions have mostly been proved wrong.

One more thing: These aren’t just abstract policies. These are ethical issues, touching on our obligations to fellow humans.

If we offer the needy nothing but slogans and reprimands — “Strengthen your family! Get a job! Get an education!” — then our antipoverty programs are a cruel joke as bankrupt as Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake.”

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

April 6, 2014

In “Health Care Without End” The Pasty Little Putz babbles that Americans will still be arguing about Obamacare in 2030.  He’s wrong again, but that’s nothing new.  MoDo squeals “Bring Me My Dragons!”  She’s been watching TV again, and of course manages to get in her de rigeur slap at Obama.  Same old, same old…  In “Sheldon: Iran’s Best Friend” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us how Sheldon Adelson and Iran are both trying to destroy Israel.  Mr. Kristof tells us of a young woman with a lesson for graduates about the meaning of life in “Her First, And Last, Book.”  Mr. Bruni ponders “The New Gay Orthodoxy” and says the ouster of Mozilla’s chief executive suggests a shrinking room for debate.  Here’s The Putz:

So you think it’s finished? So you think now that enrollment has hit seven million, now that the president has declared the debate over repeal “over,” now that Republican predictions of a swift Obamacare unraveling look a bit like Republican predictions of a Romney landslide, we’re going to stop arguing about health care, stop having the issue dominate the conversation, and turn at last to some other debate instead?

You think it’s over? It’s never over.

I mean, O.K., it will be over in the event of a nuclear war, or a climate apocalypse, or if the robots eventually rise up and overthrow us. (Our capacity for self-destruction is a pre-existing condition that no insurance plan will touch.)

But for the foreseeable future, the health care debate probably isn’t going to get any less intense. Instead, what we’ve watched unfold since 2009 is what we should expect for years, decades, a generation: a grinding, exhausting argument over how to pay for health care in a society that’s growing older, consuming more care, and (especially if current secularizing trends persist) becoming more and more invested in postponing death.

In the near term, this debate will go on because Obamacare has stabilized itself without fully resolving any of its internal problems. The liberal victory lap last week was half-earned: It really was a victory, given the initial website catastrophe, to arrive at seven million enrolled, and that success almost certainly establishes a new coverage baseline for any future overhaul.

But that baseline won’t be anything like universal coverage, and it may fall short of universality by a much larger margin than the law’s supporters hoped. Around a million of the seven million probably won’t make their payments, and many had insurance previously. So even with the new Medicaid enrollees and the twentysomethings added to their parents’ plans, the number of newly insured could end up around three or four or even five million short of the 13 million that the Congressional Budget Office predicted for Obamacare’s first year.

At the same time, the law’s internal structure has been rendered extremely rickety by the administration’s attempts at damage control. Nobody knows what will happen with the various suspended and hollowed-out provisions — whether the employer mandate will ever take effect, whether the individual mandate will be enforced along the lines that its architects argued was necessary for the law to work. And nobody is sure what the pool of enrollees looks like (in terms of age and average health), and what it will mean for premiums next year and beyond.

These realities make it very likely that whatever position Republicans end up taking on a potential Obamacare replacement or reform, by the next presidential election there will be increasingly vocal Democratic constituencies for change — moderates who want to be seen as doing something about rate shock, and liberals looking for a reform (ahem, single payer) that doesn’t leave 30 million Americans uninsured.

Repeal may really be a dead letter, in other words, but don’t be surprised to wake up in 2020 to endless arguments about a reform of the reform of the reform.

And don’t be surprised, either, if the debate over Obamacare is merging, by then, into the yet-more-toxic argument about how to pay for Medicare.

The Medicare debate has been postponed, to some extent, by the recent fiscal consolidation and a slowdown in health care cost inflation. But inflation should rise again as the Obamacare money sluices into the system, and even with a lower rate it would be hard to envision a future for Medicare that doesn’t involve some combination of price controls, benefit reductions and tax increases — all on a much larger scale than the numbers involved in recent debates.

What’s more, the political salience of this debate will rise for the same reason that the costs of Medicare will be rising: because the country will be older over all, and health policy inevitably matters more to the old than to the young.

Which means that the future almost certainly holds more cries of “death panels,” more ads featuring Paul Ryan clones pushing seniors over a cliff, and no doubt as-yet-undreamt-of forms of demagogy. And it means, as well, that if it’s hard to get Washington to focus on other issues now — tax reform, education, family policy, you name it — just wait awhile: It will get much worse.

It’s important to note, of course, that this “worse” will be the result of betterment: our political debates will be consumed by health care because of all that medicine can do for us, and we’ll be arguing about how to sustain what earlier generations would have regarded as a golden age.

But there’s a reason that golden ages can diminish into twilight — because the demands of the present can crowd out the needs of the future, and because what’s required to preserve and sustain is often different, in the end, from what’s required to grow.

He’s such a putz, and so very, very, very predictable.  Now, FSM help us, here’s MoDo:

I’d been hoping to get the flu.

I hadn’t had it in years, and there were so many TV series I’d never seen — “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “House of Cards,” “True Detective” — that required an extended convalescence.

When I finally succumbed to a fever and crumpled in bed a couple of weeks ago with saltines and Gatorade, I grabbed the clicker, murmuring, “Alright, alright, alright.” The only celebrated series I had no interest in was “Game of Thrones.”

I’m not really a Middle-earth sort of girl.

I’d read about George R. R. Martin, the author of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the fantasy epic about a medieval-style land of Seven Kingdoms and beyond that is the basis of the HBO show. The bearded, portly 65-year-old, raised in Bayonne, N.J., and living in a modest house in Santa Fe, N.M., has been dubbed “the American Tolkien” by Time.

I had no interest in the murky male world of orcs, elves, hobbits, goblins and warrior dwarves. If I was going to watch a period drama, I usually favored ones with strong women in intriguing situations, like “Mad Men,” “The Americans” and “Masters of Sex.”

Besides, “Game of Thrones” sounded too dense and complicated for someone suffering from zombie brain.

How could I fathom the agendas and plotlines of all the plotting lords and ladies and whores and bastards and sellswords of Westeros when even Martin himself has had to sometimes check with one of his superfans to make sure he’s keeping the feuding factions straight?

A 2011 New Yorker profile described the nutty passion of Martin’s fans, how they mercilessly mock him on Web forums for not writing faster, and how they keep track of every word to the point where the author has become paranoid about mistakes, such as when a character’s eyes shift from green to blue.

“My fans point them out to me,” he told the magazine. “I have a horse that changes sex between books. He was a mare in one book and a stallion in the next, or something like that.” He added, “People are analyzing every goddamn line in these books, and if I make a mistake they’re going to nail me on it.”

But after I finished tromping around the bayou with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, I decided to watch one “Game of Thrones” to see what the fuss was about. It is not only the most pirated show on the Internet, but one of President Obama’s favorites — although he hasn’t picked up any good tips about ruthlessly wielding power, either from “Game” or from Maggie Smith’s Countess of Grantham on “Downton Abbey,” another show he raves about.

After a marathon of three seasons of “Game” and the beginning of the fourth, starting this Sunday, I’m ready to forgo reality for fantasy.

Who wants to cover Chris Christie’s petty little revenge schemes in New Jersey once you’ve seen the gory revenge grandeur of the Red Wedding?

Who wants to see W.’s portraits of leaders once you’re used to King Joffrey putting leaders’ heads on stakes?

Who wants to hear Hillary Clinton complain about a media double standard for women once you’ve gotten accustomed to the win-don’t-whine philosophy of Cersei, Daenerys, Melisandre, Margaery, Ygritte, Brienne and Arya? As it turns out, the show not only has its share of strong women, but plenty of lethal ones as well.

It all seems so tame and meaningless in Washington after Westeros. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul wouldn’t survive a fortnight in King’s Landing. Charles Dance’s icy Tywin Lannister, ruling over a kingdom more interested in dismemberment than disgruntled members, would have the Rains of Castamere playing as soon as he saw those pretenders to the throne. As for House Republicans, or should that be the House of Republicans, life would be mercifully short.

I fell so deeply into the brocaded, overripe, incestuous universe — dubbed “ ‘Sopranos’ meets Middle-earth” by showrunner David Benioff — I couldn’t climb out.

I fell hopelessly in love with Peter Dinklage’s sexy dwarf, who is a schemer but a noble one by Lannister standards.

When friends would ask me what they could get me in the way of sustenance while I was sick, I would yell: “BRING ME MY DRAGONS!”

I even toyed with the idea of getting the flying, fire-breathing dragon on the cover of the new Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. The description is irresistible: “This is the remote controlled jet-powered dragon that soars through the air at up to 70 m.p.h. and belches propane-powered flame when on the ground. Proving its prowess before takeoffs or after successful raids, the dragon’s LED eyes can be commanded to glow red while it emits a fiery 3-foot blast of flame from a cleverly concealed propane tank and igniter built into its toothy maw. A miniature turbine engine built into the beast’s chest provides thrust that exits the rear at 500 m.p.h., and uses 1/2 gallon of jet aircraft fuel or kerosene for 10 minute flights. With a head that swivels in the direction of turns, the dragon can climb and dive via wing ailerons and elevators built into its V-tail rudder.”

Of course, no one who knows me thinks I should be in possession of propane gas. And the other impediment to joy, and bar to being the khaleesi and mother of dragons, was the price tag: $60,000. As Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out in The New York Review of Books, “People often talk about Tolkien as Martin’s model, but the deep, Christianizing sentimentality of the worldview expressed in ‘Lord of the Rings’ is foreign to Martin, who has, if anything, a tart Thucycididean appreciation for the way in which political corruption can breed narrative corruption, too.”

Martin’s larger Hundred Years’ War theme echoes Shakespeare. As he has pointed out, “Believe me, the Starks and the Lannisters have nothing on the Capets and Plantagenets.” And as Mendelsohn writes, it is “the way in which the appetite for, and the use and abuse of, power fragments societies and individuals; in a world ruled by might, who is ‘right’?”

When a flattering adviser warns Cersei, the queen regent, that “knowledge is power,” she makes a feint

to cut the man’s throat and then informs him, “Power is power.”

In the new season, Tywin Lannister explains to his grandson what makes a bad king: spending all your time whoring, hunting and drinking; being so gullible you don’t recognize the evil around you; being so pious you fast yourself into an early grave; and assuming that winning and ruling are the same thing.

“A wise king knows what he knows and what he doesn’t,” Tywin explains to the boy. “You’re young. A wise young king listens to his councilors and heeds their advice until he comes of age. The wisest of kings continue to listen to them long afterwards.”

Words to die by.

Don’t ask me why she (or the Times) put in that paragraph break in the middle of a sentence…  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

It occurred to me the other day that the zealously pro-Israel billionaire Sheldon Adelson and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, actually have one big thing in common. They are both trying to destroy Israel. Adelson is doing it by loving Israel to death and Khamenei by hating Israel to death. And now even Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey inadvertently got drawn into this craziness.

What’s the logic? Very simple. Iran’s leaders want Israel destroyed but have no desire, in my view, to use a nuclear bomb to do it. That would expose them to retaliation and sure death. Their real strategy is more subtle: Do everything possible to ensure that Israel remains in the “occupied territory,” as the U.S. State Department refers to the West Bank, won by Israel in the 1967 war. By supporting Palestinian militants dedicated to destroying any peace process, Tehran hopes to keep Israel permanently mired in the West Bank and occupying 2.7 million Palestinians, denying them any statehood and preventing the emergence of a Palestinian state that might recognize Israel and live in peace alongside it. The more Israel is stuck there, the more Palestinians and the world will demand a “one-state solution,” with Palestinians given the right to vote. The more Israel resists that, the more isolated it becomes.

Iran and its ally Hamas have plenty of evidence that this strategy is working: Israel’s 47-year-old occupation of the West Bank has led it to build more settlements there and in doing so make itself look like the most active colonial power on the planet today. The 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank reinforce that view by claiming their presence in the West Bank is not about security but a divinely inspired project to reunite the Jewish people with their biblical homeland.

The result is a growing movement on college campuses and in international organizations to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state because of this occupation. This “B.D.S. movement” — to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — is gaining adherents not only among non-Jews on American campuses but even within some Hillels, campus Jewish centers.

Iran could not be happier. The more Israel sinks into the West Bank, the more it is delegitimized and isolated, the more the world focuses on Israel’s colonialism rather than Iran’s nuclear enrichment, the more people call for a single democratic state in all of historic Palestine.

And now Iran has an ally: Sheldon Adelson — the foolhardy Las Vegas casino magnate and crude right-wing, pro-Israel extremist. Adelson gave away some $100 million in the last presidential campaign to fund Republican candidates, with several priorities in mind: that they delegitimize the Palestinians and that they avoid any reference to the West Bank as “occupied territories” and any notion that the U.S. should pressure Israel to trade land for peace there. Both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney took the money and played by Sheldon’s rules.

In case you missed it, the R.J.C., the Republican Jewish Coalition, held a retreat last weekend at an Adelson casino in Las Vegas. It was dubbed “the Sheldon Primary.” Republicans lined up to compete for Adelson’s blessing and money, or as Politico put it: “Adelson summoned [Jeb] Bush and Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin to Las Vegas. … The new big-money political landscape — in which a handful of donors can dramatically alter a campaign with just a check or two — explains both the eagerness of busy governors to make pilgrimages to Las Vegas, and the obsession with divining Adelson’s 2016 leanings.”

Adelson personifies everything that is poisoning our democracy and Israel’s today — swaggering oligarchs, using huge sums of money to try to bend each system to their will.

Christie, in his speech, referred to the West Bank as “occupied territories” — as any knowledgeable American leader would. This, Politico said, “set off murmurs in the crowd.” Some Republican Jews explained to Christie after he finished that he had made a terrible faux pas. (He called something by its true name and in the way the U.S. government always has!) The West Bank should be called “disputed territories” or “Judea and Samaria,” the way hard-line Jews prefer. So, Politico reported, Christie hastily arranged a meeting with Adelson to explain that he misspoke and that he was a true friend of Israel. “The New Jersey governor apologized in a private meeting in the casino mogul’s Venetian office shortly afterward,” Politico reported. It said Adelson “accepted” Christie’s “explanation” and “quick apology.”

Read that sentence over and contemplate it.

I don’t know if Israel has a Palestinian partner for a secure withdrawal from the West Bank, or ever will. But I know this: If Israel wants to remain a Jewish, democratic state, it should be doing everything it can to nurture such a partner or acting unilaterally to get out. Because, I’m certain that when reports about the “Adelson primary” reached the desk of Supreme Leader Khamenei in Tehran, a big smile crossed his face and he said to his aides: “May Allah grant Sheldon a long life. Everything is going according to plan.”

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Two years ago, Marina Keegan’s life brimmed with promise. She was graduating with high honors from Yale University, already a precocious writer about to take up a job at The New Yorker.

She had a play that was about to be produced. She had sparked a national conversation about whether graduates should seek meaning or money.

In keeping with that early promise, Keegan’s first book, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” is scheduled to be published in a few days. The title comes from an essay that she wrote in the graduation issue of the Yale newspaper; it was viewed online more than one million times.

The book is a triumph, but also a tragedy — for it’s posthumous.

“I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short,” Keegan wrote in one of her poems. As a senior, she wrote an aching protest on the website of The New York Times about the rush of students into well-paying jobs on Wall Street — not because of innate interest but because that route was lucrative and practical. One-quarter of Yale graduates entering the job market were going into finance or consulting, and Keegan saw this as a surrender of youthful talents and dreams to the altar of practicality.

“Standing outside a freshman dorm, I couldn’t find a single student aspiring to be a banker, but at commencement this May, there’s a 50 percent chance I’ll be sitting next to one,” she wrote. “This strikes me as incredibly sad.”

Keegan recalled being paid $100 to attend a recruiting session at Yale by a hedge fund: “I got this uneasy feeling that the man in the beautiful suit was going to take my Hopes and Dreams back to some lab to figure out the best way to crush them.”

For my part (and Keegan probably would have agreed), I think that we need bankers and management consultants as well as writers and teachers, and there’s something to be said for being practical. Some financiers find fulfillment, and it’s also true that such a person may be able to finance far more good work than a person who becomes an aid worker. Life is complicated.

Yet Keegan was right to prod us all to reflect on what we seek from life, to ask these questions, to recognize the importance of passions as well as paychecks — even if there are no easy answers.

A young man named Adam Braun struggles with similar issues in another new book that complements Keegan’s. Braun began working at a hedge fund the summer when he was 16, charging unthinkingly toward finance, and after graduation from Brown University he joined Bain Consulting.

Yet Braun found that although he had “made it,” his heart just wasn’t in his work. He kept thinking of a boy, a beggar who had never been to school, whom he had met on a trip to India. Braun asked the boy what he wanted most in the world.

The boy replied, “a pencil.”

Braun quit his job to found Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit that builds schools around the world. His new book, “The Promise of a Pencil,” recounts “how an ordinary person can create extraordinary change.”

I hope this year’s graduates will remember the message in the books by Keegan and Braun about seeking fulfillment, zest and passion in life. This search for purpose in life is an elemental human quest — yet one we tend to put off. And we never know when time will run out.

For Marina Keegan, that was just five days after graduation. Her boyfriend was driving her to her father’s 55th birthday party on Cape Cod. Though he was neither speeding nor drinking, he fell asleep at the wheel. They both were wearing seatbelts, but her seat was fully reclined so that the seatbelt was less effective.

The car hit a guard rail and rolled over twice. The boyfriend was unhurt; Keegan was killed.

Her mother, Tracy Keegan, combed the wreckage. Marina’s laptop had been smashed, but the hard drive was extracted to mine the writings so important to her — and now preserved in her book.

After the crash, Marina’s parents immediately forgave and comforted her boyfriend, who faced criminal charges in her death. They asked that he not be prosecuted for vehicular homicide — for that, they said, would have broken their daughter’s heart. Charges were dropped, and the boyfriend sat by her parents at the memorial service.

The book has been lovingly edited by Anne Fadiman, who taught Keegan writing at Yale. “Every aspect of her life,” Fadiman says, “was a way of answering that question: how do you find meaning in your life?”

Fadiman says that Marina would be “beyond thrilled” at having a book published, but would add: “Please pay attention to my ideas. Don’t read this book just because I’m dead.”

And last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

To appreciate how rapidly the ground has shifted, go back just two short years, to April 2012. President Obama didn’t support marriage equality, not formally. Neither did Hillary Clinton. And few people were denouncing them as bigots whose positions rendered them too divisive, offensive and regressive to lead.

But that’s precisely the condemnation that tainted and toppled Brendan Eich after his appointment two weeks ago as the new chief executive of the technology company Mozilla. On Thursday he resigned, clearly under duress and solely because his opposition to gay marriage diverged from the views of too many employees and customers. “Under the present circumstances, I cannot be an effective leader,” he said, and he was right, not just about the climate at Mozilla but also, to a certain degree, about the climate of America.

Something remarkable has happened — something that’s mostly exciting but also a little disturbing (I’ll get to the disturbing part later), and that’s reflected not just in Eich’s ouster at Mozilla, the maker of the web browser Firefox, but in a string of marriage-equality victories in federal courts over recent months, including a statement Friday by a judge who said that he would rule that Ohio must recognize same-sex marriages performed outside the state.

And the development I’m referring to isn’t the broadening support for same-sex marriage, which a clear majority of Americans now favor. No, I’m referring to the fact that in a great many circles, endorsement of same-sex marriage has rather suddenly become nonnegotiable. Expected. Assumed. Proof of a baseline level of enlightenment and humanity. Akin to the understanding that all people, regardless of race or color, warrant the same rights and respect.

Even beyond these circles, the debate is essentially over, in the sense that the trajectory is immutable and the conclusion foregone. Everybody knows it, even the people who still try to stand in the way. The legalization of same-sex marriage from north to south and coast to coast is merely a matter of time, probably not much of it at that.

There will surely be setbacks, holdouts, tantrums like the one in Arizona, whose Legislature in February passed a bill that would have allowed discrimination against gays and lesbians on religious grounds. (Mississippi enacted a vaguely similar measure last week.) Arizona’s governor of course vetoed the legislation, after being pressured by corporate leaders, and their lobbying underscored the larger and more lasting story. At least beyond the offices of Chick-fil-A, it’s widely believed — no, understood — that being pro-gay is better for business than being antigay. Hence the inclusion of a same-sex couple in the famous faces-of-America commercial that Coca-Cola unveiled during the Super Bowl. Hence a more recent television spot, part of the Honey Maid food company’s “This is Wholesome” ad campaign. It showed two dads cuddling their newborn.

The Mozilla story fits into this picture. Eich was exiled following not just employee complaints but signs and threats of customer unrest: The online dating site OkCupid was urging its users to boycott Firefox.

The business community has in fact been a consequential supporter of marriage equality. Wall Street firms lined the coffers of the campaign for marriage equality in New York, and 20 major financial service companies pay substantial membership dues to belong to and underwrite Out on the Street, an industry group that advocates for L.G.B.T. equality.

“You want to talk about a sea change?” Todd Sears, the group’s founder, said to me. “Fourteen financial services companies signed onto an amicus brief in the Edie Windsor case.” That was the one that asked the Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, which the court essentially did last June.

The language in the high court’s ruling “demolished every argument put forward to justify marriage discrimination,” said Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry. And that ruling, he added, helped to pave the way for all the court victories — in Utah, in Oklahoma, in Texas — since. This coming Thursday, the United States circuit court in Denver will hear an appeal of the decision by a federal judge in Utah to allow gay and lesbian couples there to wed. The case could have a sweeping effect on a region of the country not typically considered progressive. It could also wind up at the Supreme Court and give the justices a chance to do what they stopped short of last year: decree marriage equality nationwide.

Wolfson noted a fascinating angle of the recent court rulings and of the blessing that Eric Holder gave in February to state-level attorneys general who didn’t want to defend bans on gay marriage. Both invoked racial discrimination in the country’s past, casting bans on same-sex marriage in that context.

Increasingly, opposition to gay marriage is being equated with racism — as indefensible, un-American. “What was once a wedge issue became wrapped in the American flag,” said Jo Becker, a Times writer whose sweeping history of the marriage-equality movement, “Forcing the Spring,” will be published this month. Becker mentioned what she called a rebranding of the movement over the last five years, with two important components. First, gay marriage was framed in terms of family values. Second, advocates didn’t shame opponents and instead made sympathetic public acknowledgment of the journey that many Americans needed to complete in order to be comfortable with marriage equality.

There was no such acknowledgment from Mozilla employees and others who took to Twitter to condemn Eich and call for his head. Writing about that wrath in his blog, The Dish, Andrew Sullivan said that it disgusted him, “as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society.” A leading supporter of gay marriage, Sullivan warned other supporters not to practice “a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else.”

I can’t get quite as worked up as he did. For one thing, prominent gay rights groups weren’t part of the Mozilla fray. For another, Mozilla isn’t the first company to make leadership decisions (or reconsiderations) with an eye toward the boss’s cultural mind-meld with the people below him or her. And if you believe that to deny a class of people the right to marry is to deem them less worthy, it’s indeed difficult to chalk up opposition to marriage equality as just another difference of opinion.

But it’s vital to remember how very recently so many of equality’s promoters, like Obama and Clinton, have come around and how relatively new this conversation remains. It’s crucial not to lose sight of how well the movement has been served by the less judgmental posture that Becker pointed out.

Sullivan is right to raise concerns about the public flogging of someone like Eich. Such vilification won’t accelerate the timetable of victory, which is certain. And it doesn’t reflect well on the victors.

Crap, Mr. Bruni.  He was shit-canned because he was bad for business.  He’s still perfectly free to exercise his rights of free speech to decry same sex marriage.

Kristof and Collins

April 3, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) More talk about oligarchs!

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

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

The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman and Kristof

March 30, 2014

MoDo is off, so the day is getting off to a good start.  The Pasty Little Putz has seen fit to lecture us about “The Christian Penumbra.”  He ponders and ponders, and asks his question:  Is religion good for American society?  He seems to have decided that it depends.  “Gratianus” from Moraga, CA had this to say:  “Though I have great respect (and some envy) for the solace and confidence that religion can provide to the faithful, I’d rather live in a world that sacrificed those goods if it meant that we also did away with the intolerance, ignorance and arrogance that seem inextricably woven into much of the American evangelical mindset. Frankly, the social virtues that Douthat ascribes to active Christians are just as widely found among well-educated, financially secure atheists and agnostics.”  The Moustache of Wisdom is all agog.  He’s on a submarine!  He’s excited!  In “Parallel Parking in the Arctic Circle” he fizzes that on a nuclear submarine deep under the ice, the view was quite stunning.  In “A Quiz: Do You Speak Dictator?” Mr. Kristof says after the recent actions of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, it’s time to test your dictator skills.  Here’s The Putz:

Here is a seeming paradox of American life. One the one hand, there is a broad social-science correlation between religious faith and various social goods — health and happiness, upward mobility, social trust, charitable work and civic participation.

Yet at the same time, some of the most religious areas of the country — the Bible Belt, the deepest South — struggle mightily with poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray.

Part of this paradox can be resolved by looking at nonreligious variables like race. But part of it reflects an important fact about religion in America: The social goods associated with faith flow almost exclusively from religious participation, not from affiliation or nominal belief. And where practice ceases or diminishes, in what you might call America’s “Christian penumbra,” the remaining residue of religion can be socially damaging instead.

Consider, as a case study, the data on divorce. Earlier this year, a pair of demographers released a study showing that regions with heavy populations of conservative Protestants had higher-than-average divorce rates, even when controlling for poverty and race.

Their finding was correct, but incomplete. As the sociologist Charles Stokes pointed out, practicing conservative Protestants have much lower divorce rates, and practicing believers generally divorce less frequently than the secular and unaffiliated.

But the lukewarmly religious are a different matter. What Stokes calls “nominal” conservative Protestants, who attend church less than twice a month, have higher divorce rates even than the nonreligious. And you can find similar patterns with other indicators — out-of-wedlock births, for instance, are rarer among religious-engaged evangelical Christians, but nominal evangelicals are a very different story.

It isn’t hard to see why this might be. In the Christian penumbra, certain religious expectations could endure (a bias toward early marriage, for instance) without support networks for people struggling to live up to them. Or specific moral ideas could still have purchase without being embedded in a plausible life script. (For instance, residual pro-life sentiment could increase out-of-wedlock births.) Or religious impulses could survive in dark forms rather than positive ones — leaving structures of hypocrisy intact and ratifying social hierarchies, without inculcating virtue, charity or responsibility.

And it isn’t hard to see places in American life where these patterns could be at work. Among those working-class whites whose identification with Christianity is mostly a form of identity politics, for instance. Or among second-generation Hispanic immigrants who have drifted from their ancestral Catholicism. Or in African-American communities where the church is respected as an institution without attracting many young men on Sunday morning.

Seeing some of the problems in our culture through this lens might be useful for the religious and secular alike. For nonbelievers inclined to look down on the alleged backwardness of the Bible Belt, it would be helpful to recognize that at least some the problems they see at work reflect traditional religion’s growing weakness rather than its potency.

For believers, meanwhile, the Christian penumbra’s pathologies could just be seen as a kind of theological vindication — proof, perhaps, of the New Testament admonition that it’s much worse to be lukewarm than hot or cold.

But it’s better to regard these problems as a partial indictment of America’s churches: Not only because their failure to reach the working class and the younger generation is making the penumbra steadily bigger, but because a truly healthy religious community should be capable of influencing even the loosely attached somewhat for the better.

The problems in the penumbra also have an unacknowledged place in our current controversies over religious liberty, from the debates (which reached the Supreme Court last week) over the scope of religious exemptions from the health care law’s contraceptive mandate, to the legal questions raised by the advance of same-sex marriage.

These arguments turn on constitutional issues, competing visions of freedom, the scope of pluralism versus the rights of gays and women. But they’re also partially about what kind of institutions are best equipped to address social problems in an individualistic age, and whether we should want the Christian penumbra to be reclaimed for religion or become more thoroughly secularized instead.

Among religious conservatives, not surprisingly, the hope is that traditional forms of faith — if left to build, or re-build, without being constantly disfavored, pressured and policed — can make a kind of comeback, and fill part of the void their own decline has left.

On the secular side, though, there’s a sense that there’s a better way — that a more expansive state can offer many of the benefits associated with a religious community, but in a more enlightened, tolerant, individual-respecting form. And if delivering these benefits requires co-opting or constraining religious actors — be they charities and schools or business owners — well, that’s either a straightforward win-win, or a relatively modest price to pay.

In this sense, the Christian penumbra isn’t just a zone of social disorder. It’s a field of ideological battle.

I want one Talibangelical, just once, cite me an example of “traditional forms of faith” being “pressured and policed.”  Other, of course, than whining that they sometimes get laughed at, and not everyone agrees with them and equating that with religious persecution.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from aboard the USS New Mexico in the Arctic:

I never thought I’d ever get to see what the Arctic ice cap looks like from the bottom up.

It’s quite stunning — blocks of blue ice tumbling around in a frigid sea amid giant, jagged ice stalactites. I was afforded that unique view while surfacing from beneath the Arctic Circle last weekend aboard the U.S.S. New Mexico, an attack submarine. I had spent the night on the sub as part of a group accompanying Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, who was observing the Navy’s submarine arctic warfare exercise.

We had flown into the Arctic by small plane and landed on a snow airstrip at the Navy’s ice research station Nautilus, 150 miles north of the North Slope of Alaska. When we got there, the New Mexico, which had been patrolling the waters below, had already found an opening of thin ice and slushy water. The sub used its conning tower, or sail, to smash through to the surface, then “parallel park,” as one officer put it, between two floating islands of thick ice, and pick us up.

As we slipped back under water, the ship’s upward-looking camera (specially installed for underice travel where you can’t raise the periscope) carried a view of all the ice that had frozen around the sub in its few hours on the surface, which then cracked into huge chunks as we headed down. With the sub’s officers constantly checking the sonar and camera — and barking out speeds and directions to the two pilots steering the sub with a joystick and digital readouts that glowed in the dark control room — we gently submerged. The trick was to avoid the ice keels — forests of ice stalactites that extended down from the thicker surface ice into the arctic waters. Once we safely descended about 400 feet, we proceeded on our way. Watching these officers maneuver an 8,000-ton nuclear sub, 377 feet long, through islands of unstable Arctic ice — we surfaced the same way — was a breathtaking and breath-holding experience.

But this wasn’t tourism. Climate scientists predict that if warming trends continue, the Arctic’s ice cap will melt enough that — in this century — it will become a navigable ocean for commercial shipping year round, and for mineral and oil exploration. Russia has already made extensive claims to the Arctic, based on the reach of its continental shelf, beyond the usual 12 miles from its coastline; these are in dispute. To prepare for whatever unfolds here, though, the U.S. Navy keeps honing its Arctic submarine skills, including, on our trip, test-firing a virtual torpedo at a virtual enemy sub, studying how differences in water temperatures and the mix of freshwater from melted ice and saltwater affect undersea weapons and the sounds a sub makes (vital for knowing how to hide), as well as mapping the Arctic’s seabed topography.

“In our lifetime, what was [in effect] land and prohibitive to navigate or explore, is becoming an ocean, and we’d better understand it,” noted Admiral Greenert. “We need to be sure that our sensors, weapons and people are proficient in this part of the world,” so that we can “own the undersea domain and get anywhere there.” Because if the Arctic does open up for shipping, it offers a much shorter route from the Atlantic to the Pacific than through the Panama Canal, saving huge amounts of time and fuel.

You learn a lot on a trip like this, starting with the fact that I’m not claustrophobic. Sleeping in the middle rack of three stacked beds, appropriately called coffins, I now know that.

More important, you learn how crucial acoustics are when operating deep under ice with no vision and no GPS satellite to guide you. Or, as the New Mexico’s captain, Todd Moore, 40, put it: It’s like every day “engaging in a knife fight in a dark room: the only thing you can do is go after what you hear.” You can’t see the adversary. You can’t see the ice keels, but you can hear enemy subs, surface ships, whales, calving icebergs, schools of fish and bounce sound waves off them with sonar to measure distances. The New Mexico not only carries supersensitive sonar but also tows a giant electronic ear 1,000 feet behind it that can listen to the ocean without interference from the sub’s own engine noise.

“We can hear shrimp crackling 200 feet under water,” explained Lt. Cmdr. Craig Litty. They can also hear someone drop a wrench in the engine room of a Russian sub several miles away.

You certainly learn how self-contained a sub is. The New Mexico repairs its own broken parts, desalinates its own drinking water, generates its own nuclear power and makes its own air by taking purified water, zapping it with electricity, separating the H2O into hydrogen and oxygen, then discharging the hydrogen and circulating the oxygen. The only thing that limits them is food-storage capacity and the sanity of the 130 crew; 90 days underwater is no problem.

My strongest impression, though, was experiencing something you see too little of these days on land: “Excellence.” You’re riding in a pressurized steel tube undersea. If anyone turns one knob the wrong way on the reactor or leaves a vent open, it can be death for everyone. This produces a unique culture among these mostly 20-something submariners. As one officer put it: “You become addicted to integrity.” There is zero tolerance for hiding any mistake. The sense of ownership and mutual accountability is palpable.

And that is why, said Adm. Joseph Tofalo, the Navy’s director of undersea warfare, who was also on the trip, “There is no multiple-choice exam for running the sub’s nuclear reactor.” If you want to be certified to run any major system on this ship, he added, “everything is an oral and written exam to demonstrate competency.”

Late at night, I was sipping coffee in the wardroom and a junior officer, Jeremy Ball, 27, came by and asked me if I could stay for Passover. He and two other Jewish sailors were organizing the Seder; the captain and several other non-Jewish shipmates said they’d be happy to join, but there was still room. Ball said he’d been storing “a brisket in the freezer” for the holiday and would pick up matzo when they surfaced in Canada.

Thanks, I said, but one night’s enough for me. But I had to ask: How do all of you stand being away from your families for so long underwater, receiving only a two-sentence “family-gram” once a week?

“Whenever you board this submarine in port, that American flag is flying and you salute that flag,” said Ball. “And every time I salute that flag, I remember the reason I joined the Navy: service to country, being part of something bigger than myself and in memory for the attacks of 9/11.”

Remind me again what we’re doing in Washington these days to deserve such young people?

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

With President Vladimir V. Putin thuggishly stealing Crimea from Ukraine, and serious concern about whether he will also invade eastern Ukraine, a debate is unfolding about whether President Obama is doing enough to stand up to tyranny. That leads me to offer a quiz, so test your skills: Do you speak dictator?

MARCH 29, 2014

1. Putin’s most lethal policy has been

  • The invasion of Crimea

  • Warfare in Chechnya

  • Attacks on dissidents, gays and Pussy Riot

2. Which leader has the higher domestic approval rating?

  • Putin, after stealing Crimea, increasing his leverage

  • Obama, after achieving quasi-universal health care, giving us leverage

  • They now are about the same: Putin’s popularity tanked because of concern about the economic impact of sanctions

3. Which dictatorship has a speaker on the wall of private homes, issuing propaganda to wake people up each morning and put them to bed at night?

  • Turkmenistan

  • North Korea

  • Cuba

4. Which country has perpetuated war in eastern Congo, the most lethal conflict since World War II?

  • Pro-American Rwanda, with military support to rebels

  • China, with military support to both sides

  • Russia, by purchasing minerals, providing cash for munitions

5. The countries with the highest incarceration rates are:

  • North Korea and the United States

  • Russia and China

  • Uzbekistan and Iran

6. Which leader has slaughtered the largest number of his own citizens?

  • Putin

  • Bashar al-Assad in Syria

  • Omar al-Bashir in Sudan

7. One parallel with Russia’s invasion of Crimea is Morocco’s seizure of Western Sahara, which led to vigorous protests by:

  • The Arab League, for Morocco’s violation of an Arab people’s right to self-determination

  • The United States, for Morocco’s use of force and torture to suppress a people

  • Almost nobody

8. The United States imprisons people without trial in Guantánamo because

  • It costs only $900,000 per prisoner per year. Oh, never mind.

  • Republicans don’t want to give Obama the satisfaction of closing the prison, and Obama hasn’t tried very hard himself to close it.

  • Waterboarding is permissible under Cuban law

9. Which countries have suffered the most casualties this year?

  • Afghanistan and Pakistan

  • Ukraine, Russia and Moldova

  • Central African Republic, Syria and South Sudan

10. Equipment from which country is primarily used to suppress the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain?

  • Iran

  • India

  • United States

11. If the United States wants to curb human rights abuses, we would have greatest impact on:

  • Russia, because of its dependence on oil and gas exports

  • Cuba, because it is small and nearby

  • Countries like Bahrain, Israel, Morocco and Ethiopia, because they are allies who care about what we think, say and do

12. In sum, we should vigorously protest Putin’s invasion of Crimea and make clear that ferocious sanctions will be imposed if there is any invasion of eastern Ukraine. But a more surefire way to inject moral values into international relations is to:

  • bully small nations, because they have no choice but to agree

  • bomb rogue states into better behavior

  • demand better of allies and ourselves

 

The answer key:  1B, 2A, 3B, 4A, 5A, 6C, 7C, 8B, 9C, 10A, 11C, 12C

Posted in Douthat, Friedman, Kristof, STFU, The Moustache of Wisdom, The Pasty Little Putz | Leave a Comment »

Blow, Kristof and Collins

March 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The president, while chastising Russian aggression, made clear:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it’s still early.

Posted in Blow, Collins, Kristof | Leave a Comment »

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Collins

March 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I ask Jerry if he’s ready for Hillary.

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

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

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

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

Take that, President Obama.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She thinks she was 4 years old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

On Tuesday, Gloria Steinem turns 80.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there’s always an elephant to ride.

Posted in Collins, Douthat, Dowd, Kristof, MoDo, The Pasty Little Putz | Leave a Comment »

Kristof, solo

March 20, 2014

Mr. Blow and Ms. Collins are off today, so Mr. Kristof has the place to himself.  In “TV Lowers Birthrate (Seriously)” he says MTV shows like “16 and Pregnant” and the “Teen Mom” franchise may be as effective a tool as condoms or the pill.  Here he is:

In the struggle to break cycles of poverty, experts have been searching for decades for ways to lower America’s astronomical birthrate among teenagers.

We’ve tried virginity pledges, condoms and sex education. And, finally, we have a winner, a tool that has been remarkably effective in cutting teenage births.

It’s “16 and Pregnant,” a reality show on MTV that has been a huge hit, spawning spinoffs like the “Teen Mom” franchise. These shows remind youthful viewers that babies cry and vomit, scream in the middle of the night and poop with abandon.

Tweets containing the words “birth control” increased by 23 percent on the day after each new episode of “16 and Pregnant,” according to an analysis by Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland and Phillip B. Levine of Wellesley College. Those tweets, in turn, correlate to increased Google searches along the lines of “how get birth control pills.”

Kearney and Levine find that regions with a higher audience for “16 and Pregnant” and the “Teen Mom” franchise had more of a drop in teenage births. Over all, their statistical analysis concludes that the shows reduced teenage births by 5.7 percent, or 20,000 fewer teenage births each year. That’s one birth averted every half-hour.

To put that achievement in context, I’ve been fulminating about the teenage birthrate for years, and I don’t think I’ve averted a single birth.

Because abortion rates fell at the same time, the reduced birthrate appears to be the result principally of more use of contraception. It’s also a reminder of the paramount need for clinics that offer free, long-acting contraception: When a teenage girl searches the web for birth control, let’s make sure she finds solutions.

Kearney and Levine, both economists, are experts in why teenage birthrates are so high in America (one factor: teenage births reflect poverty as well as transmit it to the next generation). Girls in the United States are almost 10 times as likely to have babies as Swiss girls, and more than twice as likely as Canadian girls. In no other developed country are teenagers as likely to get pregnant as the United States.

But here’s the good news: Teenage birthrates have plunged by 52 percent since 1991 — one of America’s great social policy successes, coming even as inequality and family breakdown have worsened. The steady drop in teenage births accelerated greatly beginning in 2009, when MTV began airing “16 and Pregnant.”

“It’s another reminder that great storytelling can be a powerful catalyst for change,” says Stephen K. Friedman, the president of MTV. By all accounts, the MTV shows worked because they focused on compelling stories, not on lecturing or wagging fingers.

“If the government tried this, it would have a good message, but three people would watch it,” Professor Levine said.

Middle-class Americans tend to think of contraception in terms of condoms or pills, but just as critical is a girl having a prospect of a better life if she delays childbearing. Kearney and Levine find that one of the factors in the long-term decline in teenage births is the improvement in job possibilities for women.

For example, girls who were randomly assigned to attend Promise Academy, a middle school in Harlem Children’s Zone, were less likely to become pregnant because they were also more likely to excel and have a shot at college.

As a haughty journalistic scribbler, I tend to look down on television, so it’s a bit painful to acknowledge its potential for good. But the evidence is overwhelming.

A careful study by Robert Jensen of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Emily Oster of the University of Chicago found that before television arrived in Indian villages, traditional attitudes ruled: Women had to get a man’s permission to leave the house, and 62 percent of women said it was acceptable for husbands to beat wives. Then villagers watched Indian soap operas with middle-class urban families in which women aren’t beaten and leave the home freely. These norms infiltrated the village, and the arrival of television turned out to be equivalent, in nurturing more egalitarian attitudes, to five years of female education.

The master of injecting causes into storytelling is Neal Baer, the television producer behind “ER” and “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.” Baer, a doctor who helps lead the Global Media Center for Social Impact at U.C.L.A.’s school of public health, wove issues like vaccination and rape-kit testing into his shows, raising awareness in ways that no news program could. Polling showed that one “ER” episode about cervical cancer doubled the audience’s awareness of links between the human papillomavirus and cervical cancer.

Some more good news. After a hiatus, MTV will introduce season five of “16 and Pregnant” on April 29. Family planning clinics had better stock up!

Posted in Kristof | Leave a Comment »


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