Archive for the ‘Kristof’ Category

Cohen and Kristof

July 30, 2015

In “One Congressman’s Iran” Mr. Cohen says a Jewish representative digs deep into the Iran deal and rightly concludes that it should be supported.  Mr. Kristof, in “Why the Naysayers Are Wrong About the Iran Deal,” says sure, the agreement is flawed, but it would make us safer.  First up we have Mr. Cohen:

Representative Sander M. Levin, Democrat of Michigan and the longest-serving Jewish member of Congress, said something important this week: “In my view, the only anchors in public life are to dig deeply into the facts and consult broadly and then to say what you believe.”

His words were important for two reasons. First, they defied a prevalent political culture of ignoring inconvenient facts, consulting narrowly if at all, and never saying what you believe when it’s not what your constituency wants to hear. Second, his statement concerned Iran, an issue where fact-based reasoning on Capitol Hill and beyond tends to take second place to preposterous posturing — as per Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s statement that the nuclear deal with Tehran would march Israelis “to the door of the oven.”

Levin’s reflection led him to the sober, accurate conclusion that the agreement is “the best way to achieve” the goal of preventing Iran from advancing toward a nuclear weapon, an outcome that will make Israel, the Middle East and the world “far more secure.” Not the ideal way, the perfect way, or a foolproof way, but, in the real world of ineradicable Iranian nuclear know-how, the best way attainable. That is also the view of other parties to the deal — the not insignificant or unserious powers of Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

Why? Levin, a longtime friend of Israel, was thorough. Because the accord, if fully implemented, slashes Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium by 97 percent, prevents enrichment above 3.67 percent (a long way from bomb grade) for 15 years, intensifies international inspections exponentially, holds Iran at least a year from having enough material to produce a weapon (as opposed to the current two months), cuts off a plutonium route to a bomb, preserves all American options in combating Iranian support for Hezbollah, and is far better than an alternative scenario where international sanctions would fray and “support from even our best allies if we move to the military option would be less likely.”

Congress was given 60 days to review the deal. Sentiment is generally shoot-from-the-hip hostile. A resolution of disapproval that would be vetoed by President Obama is likely; the president probably has enough support to resist an override of his veto. But before following such an unsatisfactory path to assumption of a historic accord, members of Congress, including Senator Chuck Schumer, the normally outspoken New York Democrat who has discovered his inner reserve on this matter, should do their own version of Levin’s deep-dig questioning. They should also peruse a letter from five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel — including Thomas Pickering — and from former senior officials — including Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns — that urges both chambers not to reject a deal without which “the risks will be much higher for the United States and Israel.”

Yes, the risks will be far greater. There is huge, if uncertain, upside potential to the establishment of an American relationship with Iran through this agreement. The downside potential in its absence is as great — and includes war.

It is intriguing that, along with Israel and Republican members of Congress, the most vociferous criticism of the deal has come from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have had it with what they see as American fecklessness. They have been convinced since the Iraq invasion that the United States is pro-Shia (read pro-Iran). They are so persuaded of Iran’s anti-Sunni imperial designs that they have embarked on an indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen with the purported aim of stopping the Houthis, seen as Iranian proxies.

Now the Saudis are American allies. Iran is, and will for the foreseeable future remain, a hostile power. But what have our “allies” done for the United States of late? Promoted, through madrasas and other means, the conservative Wahhabi Islam whose fierce anti-Western teachings provided the context for the emergence of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and, most recently, Islamic State. Manipulated oil prices, most recently down, in order to undermine America’s liberating energy revolution through an attempt to make shale oil uncompetitive. Shunned Obama’s attempts to reassure Sunni monarchies that the Iran deal will not mean diminished support — and all this, of course, from the country that furnished the manpower for 9/11.

The Saudis are in lockstep with Israel on hostility to the Iran deal but are no friends of Israel. Their goal, despite America’s dwindling dependence on the kingdom for oil, is to preserve a Middle Eastern status quo that limits American strategic options — including the possibility that Iran and the United States might find common cause in combating Islamic State or, years from now, re-establish diplomatic relations.

Any deep dig into the facts, of Levin’s courageous kind, cannot escape the question of whether a deal with an enemy, Iran, so fiercely opposed by this particular ally, Saudi Arabia, might not, over time, change the Middle Eastern equation in ways favorable to the American national interest.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Mike Huckabee says President Obama is using his nuclear deal to “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.” Mitt Romney describes it as a “generational calamity.” And while polls diverge, one recently taken by CNN suggests the public wants Congress to reject the agreement by a 52 percent to 44 percent majority.

This is one of the pivotal foreign policy decisions of the decade, so let’s examine the arguments:

Obama didn’t deliver what he promised. For example, we wanted “anywhere, anytime” inspections, but we caved and got a complex system that allows Iran to delay inspections. And in the later years of the agreement, Iran won a significant easing of controls. As Jeb Bush put it: “These negotiations began, by President Obama’s own admission, as an effort to deny Iran nuclear capabilities, but instead will only legitimize those activities.”

The U.S. didn’t get all it wanted (and neither did Iran) in an imperfect compromise. True, we didn’t achieve anywhere, anytime inspections, yet the required inspections program is still among the most intrusive ever. Remember too that this deal isn’t just about centrifuges but also about the possibility that Iran will come out of the cold and emerge from its failed 36-year experiment with extremism. That’s why Iran’s hard-liners are so opposed to the deal; they have been sustained by the narrative of the Great Satan as the endless enemy, and conciliation endangers them.

You doves think that a nuclear deal will empower reformers in Iran and turn it once more into the pro-American and pro-Israeli power it was under the shah. But sanctions relief may just give this regime a new lease on life.

Iran’s people are perhaps the most pro-American and secular of those of any country I’ve been to in the Middle East. (On my last trip to Iran, I took two of my kids along, and Iranians bought them meals and ice cream, and served them illegal mojitos.) The public weariness with the regime’s corruption, oppression and economic failings is manifest. I would guess that after the supreme leader dies, Iran will begin a process of change like that in China after Mao died.

That’s speculative. The real impact of the deal is that it will unlock tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets and new oil revenues, giving Iranian hard-liners more resources to invest in nuclear skulduggery and in extremist groups.

True, but that will happen anyway. Remember that this agreement includes Europe, Russia and China as parties. Even if Congress rejects the agreement, sanctions will erode and Iran will get an infusion of cash.

This agreement is a betrayal of Israel. Once Iran gets its hands on W.M.D.s, it will commit genocide.

Iran is widely believed to have developed biological and chemical weaponsback in the 1980s, and it hasn’t used those weapons of mass destruction against Israel. And what American officials find awkward to point out is that Israel is already a significant nuclear power with a huge military edge, which is why it has deterred Iran so far. If I lived in Tel Aviv, would I be nervous? Sure. But I’d be even more nervous without this deal, which reduces the chance that Iran will acquire a nuclear weapon in the next decade. That’s why five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel endorsed the accord. (It’s also notable that American Jews are more in favor of the agreement than the American public as a whole.)

Obama pretends that the alternative to this deal is war. No, the alternative is increased economic pressure until Iran yelps for surrender.As Marco Rubio puts it, “Give Iran a very clear choice: You can have an economy or you can have a weapons program.”

So we apply the same economic pressure that caused the collapse of the Castro regime in Cuba in 1964? The same isolation that overthrew the North Korean regime in 1993? The same sanctions that led Saddam Hussein to give up power peacefully in Iraq in 2000? Oh, wait.…

Look, even you admit that this is a flawed deal. So why risk it? As Rick Perry says, “No deal is better and safer than a bad deal.”

If the U.S. rejects this landmark deal, then we get the worst of both worlds: an erosion of sanctions and also an immediate revival of the Iran nuclear program.

We have a glimpse of what might happen. In 2003, Iran seemingly offered a comprehensive “grand bargain” to resolve relations with the United States, but George W. Bush’s administration dismissed it. Since then, Iran has gone from a tiny number of centrifuges to 19,000, getting within two months of “breakout” to a nuclear weapon. The point: Fulmination is not a substitute for policy, and a multilateral international agreement achieves far more protection than finger-wagging.

Diplomacy is rarely about optimal outcomes; it is about muddling along in the dark, dodging bullets, struggling to defer war and catastrophe for the time being, nurturing opportunities for a better tomorrow. By that standard, the Iran deal succeeds. Sure, it is flawed, and yes, it makes us safer.

Blow and Kristof

July 23, 2015

In “Questions About the Sandra Bland Case” Mr. Blow says that when there are lapses in logic in what people think would be reasonable explanations, suspicion spreads.  In “Starvation as a Product of War” Mr. Kristof says there’s a looming famine in South Sudan. What’s needed most isn’t food, but an end to the civil war.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I have so many questions about the case in which Sandra Bland was arrested in a small Texas town and died in police custody. These are questions that ought to be easy to answer, questions that I suspect many others may share. Here are just some of my areas of inquiry.

1. On the video released by the Texas Department of Public Safety of Bland’s traffic stop, the arresting officer, Brian Encinia, tells her that the reason for her stop is that she “failed to signal a lane change.” The officer returns to his car, then approaches Bland’s vehicle a second time. He remarks to Bland, “You seem very irritated.” Bland responds, “I am. I really am.” She continues, “I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over, and you stop me. So, yeah, I am a little bit irritated.”

Was Bland simply trying to move out of the way of a police vehicle?

The video shows the officer’s car accelerating behind Bland’s and passing a sign indicating a speed limit of 20 miles per hour. How fast was the officer closing the distance on Bland before she changed lanes? Was it completely reasonable for her to attempt to move out of his way?

2. The officer, while standing at the closed driver’s side door, asks Bland to extinguish her cigarette. As soon as she refuses, he demands that she exit the vehicle. Was the demand to exit because of the refusal? If so, what statute in Texas — or anywhere in America! — stipulates that a citizen can’t smoke during a traffic stop?

3. According to Encinia’s signed affidavit, Bland was “removed from the car” and “placed in handcuffs for officer safety.” The reason for the arrest is unclear to me. At one point, Encinia says, “You were getting a warning until now you’re going to jail.” So, what was the arrest for at that point? Failure to comply? Later in the video, Encinia says, “You’re going to jail for resisting arrest.” If that was the reason, why wasn’t Bland charged with resisting arrest? The affidavit reads, “Bland was placed under arrest for Assault on Public Servant.”

Encinia’s instructions to Bland are a jumble of confusion. After she is handcuffed, he points for her to “come read” the “warning” ticket, then immediately pulls back on her arm, preventing her from moving in the direction that he pointed, now demanding that she “stay right here.” He then commands Bland to “stop moving,” although, as she points out, “You keep moving me!” What was she supposed to do?

4. According to Encinia’s affidavit, at some point after being handcuffed, “Bland began swinging her elbows at me and then kicked my right leg in the shin.” On the dashcam video, a commotion happens out of view of the camera, with Bland complaining that she is being hurt — “You’re about to break my wrist!” and “You knocked my head in the ground; I got epilepsy!” Encinia and another officer insist that Bland stop moving. Encinia can be heard to say, “You are yanking around! When you pull away from me, you are resisting arrest!” (Neither the dashcam video nor a video taken by a bystander shows a discernible kick.)

When Encinia re-enters the frame of the dashcam, he explains to a female officer: “She started yanking away, then kicked me, so I took her straight to the ground.” The female officer points to Encinia’s leg as she says: “Yeah, and there you got it right there.”

Encinia says, “One thing for sure, it’s on video.” Only, it isn’t. Why exactly was Bland walked out of the frame of view of the dashcam for the arrest procedure?

5. The initial video posted by Texas authorities also has a number of visual glitches — vanishing cars, looping sequences — but no apparent audio glitches.

The director of “Selma,” Ava DuVernay, tweeted: “I edit footage for a living. But anyone can see that this official video has been cut. Read/watch. Why?” She included a link to a post pointing out the discrepancies in the video.

According to NBC News:

“Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, blamed a ‘technical issue during posting.’ He said that the department was working to correct the video.”

What kinds of “technical difficulties” were these? Why wouldn’t the audio also have glitches? (Authorities have now released a new, slightly shorter video.)

6. Texas authorities say that, while in the Waller County jail cell, Bland used a trash bag from a trash can in the cell to hang herself. Is it standard procedure to have trash cans with trash bags in jail cells? Is the can secured to the floor? If not, couldn’t it be used by an inmate to hurt herself, or other inmates or jail staff?

According to a report on Wednesday by The Houston Chronicle:

“Bland disclosed on a form at the jail that she previously had attempted suicide over that past year, although she also indicated she was not feeling suicidal at the time of her arrest, according to officials who attended the Tuesday meeting with local and state leaders investigating the case.” Shouldn’t they have known it was a suicide risk?

The Bureau of Justice Statistics points out that suicide is the No. 1 cause of non-illness-related deaths in local jails (although blacks are least likely to commit those suicides), and between 2000 and 2011 about half of those suicides “occurred within the first week of admission.”

Why weren’t more precautions taken, like, oh, I don’t know, removing any suicide risks from the cell?

7. Houston’s Channel 2 aired “exclusive video from inside the Waller County jail cell where Sandra Bland was found dead.” In the video, a trash can — a very large one — is clearly visible. But, strangely, it appears to have a trash bag in it. If Bland used the trash bag to hang herself, where did the one in the can come from? Did they replace it? Why would the jail staff do that?

8. NBC News’ John Yang also toured the cell, and in his video he says that “things are really the same as it was that morning” when officers found Bland’s body, including food (“Dinner Untouched” was the language used in title of the video on NBCNews.com) and a Bible on the bed opened to Psalms. (That Bible appears to be closed in the Channel 2 video. Who opened it between the two videos?).

And what page is the Bible opened to in the NBC video? It is open to Psalm 119 and at the top of the page are verses 109-110: “Though I constantly take my life in my hands, I will not forget your law. The wicked have set a snare for me, but I have not strayed from your precepts.” Eerie. Or, convenient.

Also in the Channel 2 video, there are orange shoes on the floor by the bed. In the NBC video, they are gone. Who moved them? Why? Where are they?

Yang says of the trash bag in the can: “Around her neck, they say, was a trash bag, an extra trash bag from this receptacle.” So what gives here? “Extra trash bag”? Was there more than one trash bag in the cell or had that one been replaced?

(It is also worth noting that the video shows what appears to be a rope holding a shower curtain.)

Isn’t this an active investigation? Shouldn’t that cell be treated like a crime scene? Why are reporters allowed to wander through it? Who all has been in it?

Maybe there are innocent and convincing answers to all these questions, and others. I hope so. People need things to make sense. When there are lapses in logic in what people think would be reasonable explanations, suspicion spreads.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Aweil, South Sudan:

One gauge of the famine looming in South Sudan is that people are simply collapsing from hunger.

As I was driving into this city, a woman was lying inert on the road. She was Nyanjok Garang, and she said she hadn’t eaten for three days. She had set out to look for work, maybe washing clothes, in hopes of keeping her two children alive. After a day of fruitless walking she had collapsed.

“My children are hungry,” she said. “I’m hungry. There’s not even a cent left to buy bread.” Her husband is a soldier in the government forces fighting in South Sudan’s civil war, but she doesn’t even know if he is still alive. So she left her children with a neighbor and set out in hopes of finding work — “and then I blacked out.”

A horrific famine enveloped what is now South Sudan in 1988, and there are some signs that this year could see a repeat. As in 1988, weather has led to poor harvests on top of civil war that has made it difficult to plant crops and move food around the country.

President Obama will be focusing on the South Sudan civil war in his trip starting Thursday night to Kenya and Ethiopia, both neighbors to South Sudan. The war is not only a military crisis but also ahumanitarian catastrophe, which makes it all the more important to step up efforts to bring about peace.

You might think that what’s needed to end a famine is food. Actually, what’s essential above all is an international push of intensive diplomacy and targeted sanctions to reach a compromise peace deal and end the civil war. Yes, Obama has plenty on his plate already, but no other country has the leverage America does. And in peace, South Sudan can care for itself. But as long as the war continues, South Sudanese will face starvation — especially women and girls.

The gender dynamics of hunger are obvious: In Aweil, the hospital ward is full of skeletal women and girls, looking like concentration camp survivors. That’s because (as in many places around the world) when food is insufficient, families allocate it to men and boys, and women and girls disproportionately starve.

One 15-year-old girl in the hospital, Rebecca Athian, was so malnourished that her bones pushed through her skin and she had a measure of anemia (a hemoglobin level of 3) that in the West is pretty much unheard-of. Yet the hospital was now forced to discharge her to make way for new patients.

Rebecca has already lost two siblings in the last year, and although the causes of death were never fully determined, it’s a good guess that they were malnutrition-related. Her mother would like to marry Rebecca off, because it would then be her husband’s duty to feed her and keep her alive. But she says Rebecca has been raped, so men are unwilling to marry her.

The United Nations says 4.6 million people in South Sudan — more than one-third of the population — are “severely food insecure,” and the situation will deteriorate in the coming months because the next major harvest won’t come until October or November. Until then, there is nothing to eat.

“It is the first time we’ve seen so many cases like this,” said Dr. Dut Pioth, the acting director of the hospital. “It’s going to be like what we saw in 1988.”

Dr. Dut was 11 years old during that famine, and he remembers some relatives starving to death. His family fled to Khartoum, where he thrived in school and attended medical school. But he is frustrated because what patients often need now isn’t so much medical care, but rather food and peace.

To see starving children is particularly wrenching. They show no emotions: They do not cry or smile or frown, but simply gaze blankly, their bodies unwilling to waste a calorie on emotion when every iota of energy must go to keep major organs functioning.

It’s striking that this area of South Sudan is not directly affected by fighting; it’s calm here. But the hunger is still war-related, for the conflict is keeping food and supplies out. The road from the capital, Juba, has been blocked by fighting, and disputes with Sudan have closed the border to the north. So this area is cut off, prices are skyrocketing, jobs are disappearing, and ordinary workers can’t afford to buy food.

The only certainty is that it will get worse in the coming months, and the women and girls who die will be war casualties. “Those who are dying of gunshots,” Dr. Dut notes, “are fewer than those who are dying of hunger.”

Blow and Kristof

July 16, 2015

Gail Collins is off on book leave.  I sure hope she’s back in time to cover the Clown Car debates…  This morning, in “Trump Builds One Brand and Damages Another,” Mr. Blow says that his true gift is an ability to exploit other people’s emotions, even those whose response to him is revulsion. It’s the art and craft of a demagogue.  In “Dalai Lama Gets Mischievous” Mr. Kristof says the Dalai Lama has a suggestion for China’s Communist leaders: Take up reincarnation.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Donald Trump is exactly what the Republican Party deserves.

The Republican Party has nurtured anti-immigrant, xenophobic nastiness for years, but it has tried to do so, at least at the national level, in language that disguised it as a simple issue of law and order.

Trump has blown all that to bits.

Trump is now leading in the polls as measured by support of likely Republican primary/caucus voters, according to a USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll released this week. Although, it should be noted, he leads with only 17 percentage points in the crowded field, just three points ahead of Jeb Bush, a gap that is still within the poll’s margin of error.

But Trump leading in the polls is all the media needs to allow Trump to also lead the debate. There is nothing a television camera likes more than spectacle.

Let me be clear: Trump will not be the president of the United States. But I firmly believe that Trump not only knows that, he doesn’t want to be president. Trump is brand-building. This is all free publicity for a salesman in the business of selling himself.

In the same USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll, Trump has a staggering unfavorable rating among all voters, including Democrats and independents. According to the newspaper: “In the poll, 61 percent have an unfavorable impression of him and 23 percent a favorable one.” In comparison, “Bush’s favorable-unfavorable rating is 35 percent-42 percent.”

But Trump is milking his moment.

There is a cottage industry among some public people that is breathing new life into the adage “all press is good press.” These people use ignobility as an elevator; they inflame their way to infamy. They get the country talking and their names trending, then they turn that cultural currency into hard currency.

Every minute Trump is on your television screens, it’s good for Trump. Every time Trump’s name is mentioned on social media, it’s good for Trump. Every time someone writes about Trump, it’s good for Trump. This column is good for Trump.

But Trump is an egotist. He is at the center of his own universe. He’s not so much concerned about politics, or his party or the presidency. Trump is good for Trump.

But, what’s good news for the Trump brand could prove disastrous news for the Republican brand.

Trump recently boasted, “I’m, like, a really smart person.” I believe that’s true — not necessarily in the erudite, intellectual sense, but rather in the instinctive, people-reading sense.

When Trump made his campaign announcement last month, he said:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Set aside the fact that he provided no evidence of the Mexican government’s “sending” anyone to this country. Set aside the fact that, asThe Washington Post put it, “data show that new immigrants — including illegal immigrants — are actually less likely to commit crime, not more.”

Facts are not the point for Trump. He spouts so much unsubstantiated idiocy that trying to correct it all would drive any respectable fact-checker mad. Indeed, taking Trump seriously enough to attempt the appropriate fact checks, in a way, only serves to elevate his obvious provocations to serious rhetorical argumentation.

Some corporations distanced themselves from Trump in the wake of his comments, but Trump seems to be making the calculation, probably rightly so, that the business he loses by being in the news is worth less than the free airtime that doing so affords him.

The whole point of Trump’s perfidy is provocation, which is itself a way of positioning him for more profits. Republicans get excited; Trump gets richer. Detractors get angry; Trump gets richer.

This is where his true gifts are on display, this form of emotional intelligence and business acumen, the ability to tap into and exploit other people’s emotions, even those whose response to him is revulsion. This is the art and craft of the demagogue.

You have to see Trump’s statement for what it was: A naked attempt at Willie Horton-izing Mexican immigrants, and thereby the exploiting of the image, substantiated or not, of the brown-bodied predator destroying our country and taking the virtue of our women.

It provides language for people to hide their racism and nativism inside the more honorable shell of civility and chivalry. It allows Trump to tap into anger and call it adulation.

Trump knows how to get a rise out of people, and he’s doing it.

On Sunday, Senator Lindsey Graham, another of the gaggle of Republican presidential candidates, said of Trump on CNN:

“I think he’s hijacked the debate. I think he’s a wrecking ball for the future of the Republican Party with the Hispanic community and we need to push back.”

But the Republican Party isn’t innocent here. Trump isn’t imposing a poisonous view of Hispanics; he’s voicing it. And he’s voicing it in precisely the blunt and noxious terms that a sizable portion of the party feels it and in which they want to hear it discussed.

While some Republicans have sought to distance themselves from Trump, if not completely condemn him, the terrain of those responses has been wobbly. This allows all the more weight to Hillary Clinton’s charge that Republican candidates are “on a spectrum of hostility” when it comes to immigrants.

But there are also Republicans who outright applaud Trump. As Senator Ted Cruz, another Republican presidential candidate, put it:

“When it comes to Donald Trump, I like Donald Trump. I think he’s terrific. I think he’s brash. I think he speaks the truth.”

As long as portions of the Republican Party laud the divisive, fact-challenged Trump as a terrific truth-teller, the party’s brand will continue to sustain incalculable damage, particularly among the vital immigrant population.

There is no need for anyone to have one ounce of sympathy for the G.O.P. Its chicken has come home to roost.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

The Dalai Lama, who may be the only octogenarian spiritual leader with a profoundly mischievous streak, has a suggestion for China’s Communist leaders: Take up reincarnation.

I’m interviewing him in his hotel room in Manhattan, at the end of an overseas tourmarking his 80th birthday, and we’re talking about what happens after he dies. He is the 14th Dalai Lama, each considered a reincarnation of the previous one, and usually after one has died a search is undertaken for an infant to become the next. But he has said that he may be the last of the line, or that the next Dalai Lama might emerge outside Tibet — or might even be a girl.

This talk infuriates Beijing, which is determined to choose the next Dalai Lama (to use as a tool to control Tibet). So, startlingly, the atheists in the Chinese Communist Party have been insisting that Buddhist reincarnation must continue.

“The Chinese Communist Party is pretending that they know more about the reincarnation system than the Dalai Lama,” said the Dalai Lama, laughing. “The Chinese Communists should accept the concept of rebirth. Then they should recognize the reincarnation of Chairman Mao Zedong, then Deng Xiaoping. Then they have the right to involve themselves in the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation.”

The Dalai Lama hinted that he would hold some kind of referendum among Tibetan exiles, and consultations among Tibetans within China, about whether a new Dalai Lama should succeed him. The issue will be formally resolved around his 90th birthday, he said.

One reason to end the line, he suggested, is that a future Dalai Lama might be “naughty” and diminish the position. His biggest concern seems to be that after he dies, China will select a new pet Dalai Lama who may act as a quisling to help the Chinese control Tibet and to give legitimacy to their policies there.

“Sadly, the precedent has been set,” he said, referring to the Panchen Lama, the second most important reincarnated lama in Tibetan Buddhism. After the 10th Panchen Lama died in 1989, China kidnapped the baby chosen by Tibetans as his successor and helped anoint a different child as the 11th Panchen Lama. Nobody knows what happened to the real Panchen Lama.

I admire the Dalai Lama enormously, and in 2007 he bravely used my column to send an important olive branch to Beijing — only to be criticized by fellow Tibetans as too conciliatory, and rejected as insincere by China. But I told him that I also thought there were times when he had been too cautious and had missed opportunities for rapprochement with Beijing. My examples: In the 1980s, when the leaders Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang sought compromise on Tibet; after the 10th Panchen Lama died; and in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.

The Dalai Lama was having none of that — he doesn’t think he missed opportunities. But he acknowledged that Zhao had been sympathetic and added that if Zhao and Hu had not been ousted, “the Tibetan issue would already be solved, no question.”

To my surprise, the Dalai Lama was also enthusiastic about Xi Jinping, the current Chinese leader. He spoke admiringly of Xi’s anticorruption campaign, said Xi’s mother was “very religious, a very devout Buddhist,” and noted Xi himself had spoken positively of Buddhism.

So, President Xi, if you’re reading this, the Dalai Lama would like to visit China. How about an invitation?

I had asked my followers on Twitter and Facebook to suggest questions for the Dalai Lama, and here are his responses to some of the issues they raised:

On the Myanmar Buddhists who have murdered, raped and oppressed Muslims: As he has before, the Dalai Lama strongly condemned the violence. He added: “If Buddha would come at that moment, he definitely would save or protect those Muslims.”

• On eating meat: The Dalai Lama said he had been a pure vegetarian for 20 months but then developed jaundice, so his doctors told him to start eating meat again. He now eats meat twice a week and is vegetarian the rest of the week, he said, but added that he thinks vegetarianism is preferable.

• On Pope Francis: “I admire his stance,” the Dalai Lama said. “He dismissed one German bishop [for too luxurious living]. I was so impressed. I wrote a letter to him. I expressed my admiration.”

• On gender: The Dalai Lama says he considers himself a feminist and would like to see more women leaders because he thinks women are often innately more sensitive and peaceful. “I insist that women should carry a more active role,” he said. “If eventually most of the leaders of different nations are female, maybe we’ll be safer.”

Cohen and Kristof

July 9, 2015

In “Iran’s Unserious Critics” Mr. Cohen says a good nuclear deal was made in 2013; a still better one can be had now.  Mr. Kristof considers “Jimmy Carter, His Legacy and a Rabbit” and says we owe Jimmy Carter an apology. He may well have done more to improve the lives of more people than any other recent president.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

The Republican chorus gets ever louder: Walk away from an Iran nuclear deal. But of course there is a deal in place, an interim one, much derided by that same chorus when it was concluded in November 2013. At the time, Bob Corker of the Senate Foreign Relations committee lambasted the accord as requiring “no sacrifice on their part whatsoever.”

Now Corker, a Republican of Tennessee and the committee’s chairman, seems to think it’s good enough to leave in place for the moment, holding back criticism of it even as he urges President Obama to avoid a “bad deal” that would hurt “the United States, the region and the world.” The change of tune is not surprising. The interim agreement, respected to the letter by Iran, has proved a milestone.

It has curtailed the country’s nuclear program in a way not seen in many years. Instead of steadily adding centrifuges, the pattern before Obama’s diplomacy, Iran has stopped installation, eliminated or diluted its 20-percent-enriched uranium, and permitted intensified international inspection, among other measures. It has proved Corker’s prediction of “no sacrifice” dead wrong.

This is instructive. It does not mean Iran is to be trusted. It does mean that hard-nosed agreements with Iran can stick and that Tehran must be taken seriously in its declared readiness to reach a fair deal with the United States and its partners. It makes nonsense of Florida Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s statement that the Vienna talks are a “diplomatic charade.”

All the overblown doomsday criticism is easy because the prospective deal is not perfect — diplomacy does not do perfection — and because the Islamic Republic is a hostile power with a record of deception. The tough but worthy endeavor is preventing a nuclear-armed Iran through a rigorous, unambiguous and enforceable agreement that also brings a hopeful, young, highly educated nation closer to the world.

The bottom line is that none of the critics of an Iran deal, from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to all the harrumphing Republican presidential hopefuls, has offered a single credible alternative that accomplishes even what has been achieved since 2013.

Absent an accord, Iran will in time resume where it left off 20 months ago. The United States, under Obama or his successor, is not about to go to war with Iran; forget about it. We’ll get the next facile metaphor along the lines of Netanyahu’s warning that an Iranian nuclear threat is coming “to a theater near you,” and another crescendo of rhetoric designed to disguise helpless navel-gazing and, perhaps, a touch of remorse for the opportunity squandered to ring-fence and cut back Iran’s nuclear program under relentless inspection.

There is a transformative opportunity. It will not last long. Iran is vulnerable, economically squeezed, in unusual and delicate equilibrium between its hard-line and reformist forces. What Iran is not, and will never be, is weak enough to be brought to its knees on a core issue of national pride and prestige. Ownership of nuclear know-how (which cannot be bombed out of existence) is as important to Iranians as ownership of its oil was in the early 1950s, before an American-instigated coup. It’s worth recalling that this July marks the 27th anniversary of the shooting down by a United States warship of an Iranian civilian plane with almost 300 people on board. It’s not just for Americans that any accord involves a big psychological hurdle.

There’s a good deal to be had. The opportunity must not be squandered. The deal is not yet in place but enormous obstacles have already been overcome since secret U.S.-Iranian talks began and a productive Washington-Tehran relationship was established for the first time since 1979.

The outstanding issues include unfettered access for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to all Iranian sites, including military sites; the sequencing of sanctions lifting; the permitted scope of Iranian nuclear research; and the fate of the arms embargo on Iran. Of these, the first is the most intractable. Obama cannot settle for less than unambiguous Iranian acquiescence to full site access. On the Iranian side, only the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can grant that. He has said he won’t. Then again, he has said many things and talks have proceeded. Khamenei knows how much the vast majority of Iranians want this door-opening accord, and how critical it is to a battered economy. His absolute power does not make him politically immune.

Both sides probably have a few weeks to play with. But to imagine the interim deal will hold, absent a final accord, is folly. America’s coalition will fray; Russia and China will start the blame game; Iran will eventually start installing new centrifuges again; the politics of Iran and the United States will shift; Israel will take its brinkmanship an inch or two further; and the hooded, throat-slitting barbarians of Islamic State — enemies of Shiite Iran and the United States — will advance, kill and plunder, relieved of the one conceivable effective coalition to confront them.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Quiz time: Which American president was attacked by a “killer rabbit”?

It was Jimmy Carter, although the incident says more about the news media than it does about Carter. He was fishing from a boat in a pond when a rabbit swam frantically for the president’s boat.

Where’s the Secret Service when you need it? Carter fended off the rabbit with an oar.

A few months later, Carter’s press secretary happened to mention the incident to a reporter. Soon there was a flood of articles and cartoons about a hapless president cowed and outmatched by a wet bunny.

One of our worst traits in journalism is that when we have a narrative in our minds, we often plug in anecdotes that confirm it. Thus we managed to portray President Gerald Ford, a first-rate athlete, as a klutz. And we used a distraught rabbit to confirm the narrative of Carter as a lightweight cowed by anything that came along.

The press and chattering class have often been merciless to Carter. Early on, cartoons mocked him as a country rube using an outhouse or associating with pigs, writers pilloried him as a sanctimonious hick, and in recent years it has been common to hear that he’s anti-Israel or anti-Semitic (This about the man whose Camp David accord ensured Israel’s future!).

Now that Carter is 90 and has been an ex-president longer than anyone in history, it’s time to correct the record. He is anything but an empty suit.

At a time when “principled politicians” sometimes seem a null set, it’s remarkable how often Carter showed spine.

He has a new memoir, “A Full Life,” out this week, recounting that his father was a segregationist. Yet Jimmy Carter says he was the only white man in his town who refused to join the White Citizens’ Council, and he fought to integrate his church. At one point, after a racist slur was posted on his door, he considered giving up and moving away.

Carter persevered. When he was inaugurated governor of Georgia, he declared, “I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over.” He then erected a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in the State Capitol.

A black woman who was a convicted murderer, Mary Prince, was assigned to work at the governor’s mansion in a work-release program. Carter became convinced that she was innocent and later applied to be her parole officer, so he could take her to the White House to be his daughter’s nanny. Prince was eventually pardoned.

It’s true that Carter sometimes floundered as president. He also had great difficulty, as an outsider, managing Washington, and suffered from a measure of anti-Southern prejudice. When the Reagans took over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, their interior decorator reportedly couldn’t wait to “get the smell of catfish out of the White House.”

But Carter was also a pioneer. He was the first to elevate human rights in foreign policy. He appointed large numbers of women, Latinos and blacks. He installed solar panels on the White House (President Reagan removed them). He established diplomatic relations with China.

Carter also had a deep sense of honesty — sometimes too deep. Other politicians have affairs and deny them. Carter didn’t have affairs but nonetheless disclosed that “I’vecommitted adultery in my heart many times.” File that under “too much information.”

After leaving the presidency, Carter could have spent his time on the golf course. Instead, he roamed the globe advocating for human rights and battling diseases from malaria to blinding trachoma.

Because of Carter’s work, the world is very close to eradicating Guinea worm disease, an excruciating ailment, and has made enormous headway against elephantiasis and river blindness as well. Only five cases of Guinea worm disease have been reported worldwide in 2015: It’s a race, Carter acknowledges, between him and the Guinea worm to see which outlasts the other.

I’m betting on Carter. In 2007, I joined him on an Africa visit because his aides said it would be his last major foreign trip. So as we sat by a creek for an interview, I noted that this was his last major overseas trip and ——

“Whatever would give you that idea?” Carter interrupted. His icy tone made clear that he planned to be touring remote Ethiopian villages until at least his 200th birthday.

Carter, the one-termer who was a pariah in his own party, may well have improved the lives of more people in more places over a longer period of time than any other recent president. So we in the snooty media world owe him an apology: We were wrong about you, Mr. President. You’re not a lightweight at all, and we can’t wait to see what you’ll do in your next 90 years!

Kristof and Collins

July 2, 2015

In “A Toddler’s Death in a Foxhole” Mr. Kristof says as long as the world allows Sudan’s savagery, civilians will die.  Ms. Collins has a “Fourth of July Quiz” and says Happy upcoming Independence Day! Let’s celebrate with a presidential primary quiz.  Here’s Mr. Kristof, who is in the Nuba Mountains, Sudan:

It’s not clear whether the Sudanese Air Force was trying to bomb the village of grass huts, or the girlshigh school next to it.

Hamida Osman, 23, simply knew that a Sukhoi fighter jet was roaring toward her village. She grabbed her only child, Safarina, 2, and jumped into the foxhole that the family had built for those frequent occasions when Sudan decides to bomb its people.

Inside the foxhole, Hamida used her own body to try to shield her daughter. They heard the sound of bombs whistling downward, and then there were two enormous explosions.

The next thing Hamida knew, she was covered with blood and had shrapnel wounds to her arms and legs. She looked down. A piece of shrapnel had taken away much of Safarina’s head.

Another day, another dead civilian. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan, having committed crimes against humanity in South Sudan and Darfur, is now waging them with equal impunity in the Nuba Mountains in the far south of the country, and major nations are once more reacting mostly with indifference. With President Obama headed to East Africashortly, let’s hope he raises these atrocities and pushes for humanitarian access to the Nuba Mountains.

Limping from her injuries, Hamida showed me where the bombs had struck beside her now-incinerated hut.

“I don’t know what they’re trying to hit,” she said, “but they’re always dropping bombs on homes here.”

Sudan is deliberately bombing civilians and girls schools as part of its brutal counterinsurgency campaign against tens of thousands of armed rebels in the Nuba Mountains. The aim seems to be to terrorize the population and depopulate the area.

To keep out aid and eyewitnesses, Sudan bars visits by aid workers, diplomats and journalists. I slipped in through rebel lines without a visa, as I did on my three previous visits to the Nuba Mountains.

In the village of Endeh, schoolchildren gave me an impromptu lesson in the sounds I should listen for: the whoom-whoom of an Antonov bomber, the roar of a Sukhoi fighter, and the warbling of a bomb as it falls through the air. It was eerie: One moment they giggled as they mimicked the sounds, and the next moment they described how a bombing at their school had killed a teacher and three students.

The village rebuilt the school near caves used as shelter during bombings. When the children showed me the caves, I noticed a freshly shed snake skin, from a spitting cobra. The villagers gently explained to me that cobras are, on balance, less terrifying than bombs.

The bombs have fallen in Nuba for four years and they accelerated early this year. Nuba Reports, a monitoring organization, counted 1,764 bombs dropped between December and February, more than ever before in a three-month period.

This isn’t exactly the same as Sudan’s slaughter in Darfur, for that has involved militias burning villages. Here in the Nuba Mountains, the rebels keep out militias, so Sudan kills from the air with bombs, artillery shells and cluster munitions. President Bashir also blockades the area to keep out all food, medicine and supplies. Sudan even bombs trucks carrying food, and its denial of food and medicine probably kills more civilians than the bombings do directly.

The blockade of medicine is particularly infuriating. Only 5 to 10 percent of children in rebel-held areas get vaccinated, and one of the biggest measles outbreaks in Africa last year occurred in the Nuba Mountains.

Unicef and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, are reluctant to send in vaccines for fear of antagonizing the Sudanese government and losing access in other parts of Sudan. So parents see their children dying not only from shelling but also from measles.

Let’s demand humanitarian access — and if it is not granted, aid agencies should send in medicine anyway. It’s unconscionable to let children die because of diplomatic protocol.

There are precedents. In the late 1980s, Sudan similarly blocked aid to rebel-held areas in the south, and the Reagan and first Bush administrations worked with Unicef to start Operation Lifeline Sudan, sending in aid directly to needy areas. Today we need a new Operation Lifeline.

To his credit, President Obama has quietly provided food to the Nuba Mountains, thus averting starvation. It’s a model of what could also be done with medicine. But Obama overall has been weaker than the four previous presidents in standing up to Sudan.

As for Safarina’s killing, it’s unclear whether Sudan was aiming for her village or the girls school. It speaks volumes that Sudan regularly targets both villagers and schoolgirls.

It’s a brutal way to live, and in the case of children like Safarina, to die. And as long as world leaders and aid agencies acquiesce and Sudan pays no price for its savagery, nothing will change.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Happy upcoming Independence Day! Let’s celebrate with a presidential primary quiz.

1       Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is the latest Republican candidate for president. His slogan is:

  • “Telling it like it is.”
  • “Yelling it like it is.”
  • “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
  • “I don’t need any stupid slogan. You got a problem with that?”

2       Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, the second latest Republican to announce he’s a presidential candidate:

  • Is known in New Orleans as “Les Bon Temps Bobby.”
  • Said he once participated in an exorcism.
  • Gave a thrilling Republican response to the State of the Union speech.
  • Is less popular in Louisiana than anybody but Barack Obama.

3       Jeb Bush told a gathering of wealthy Manhattan financiers that his most influential adviser on the Middle East was:

  • His brother George.
  • His brother Marvin.
  • The billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
  • “A wealthy Manhattan financier I just had a great talk with in this very room.”

4       In one of her emails as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton:

  • Misspelled “Benghazi.”
  • Urged John Podesta to wear socks to bed.
  • Debated whether her playlist should include something from the Marvelettes.
  • Tutored an aide on how to use a fax.

5       Which of the following statements about Mike Huckabee is NOT true?

  • Hosted an infomercial promoting a cinnamon-heavy “Diabetes Solution Kit.”
  • Has trouble relating to people who don’t “order fried green tomatoes for an appetizer.”
  • Wrote a strange essay about rape and bondage 40 years ago, which he describes as a precursor to “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
  • Enjoyed frying squirrels in a popcorn popper as a college student

6       Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky:

  • Loves squirrels.
  • Once attempted to equate abortion rights to government support for low-flush toilets.
  • Is the son of guitar legend Les Paul.
  • Decorated his office like a scene from “Downton Abbey.”

7       Senator Ted Cruz of Texas once:

  • Put together a group of advisers who described early childhood education as a “Godless environment.”
  • Tweeted a picture of himself posing with what looked like a rug made from an endangered species.
  • Demanded the return of deep-fried foods to school cafeterias. (“It’s not about French fries; it’s about freedom.”)
  • Called for special supervision of S. military exercises this summer because of concerns that the soldiers might take over and confiscate everyone’s guns.

8       Rick Perry has a campaign theme song that goes: “Rick Perry supporter …

  • “… I love law and order.”
  • “… Let’s protect our border.”
  • “… Can you spare a quarter?”
  • “… Take your hands off my daughter.”

9       Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin:

  • Delivered his college valedictorian speech on women’s rights.
  • Got an across-the-board endorsement from the cast of “Duck Dynasty.”
  • Responded to a child’s question about global warming by saying that he is a former boy scout who “always thought maybe campsites should be cleaner.”
  • Responded to a child’s question about global warming by complaining about “gotcha” inquiries.

10     Which Democrat used part of the presidential announcement speech to call for adoption of the metric system?

  • Hillary Clinton
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Martin O’Malley
  • Lincoln Chafee

11     One candidate for president seemed sure that the mass murder of nine black people in a historic black church was an attack on religion. (“…What other rationale could there be?”) That was:

  • Carly Fiorina.
  • Ben Carson.
  • Rick Santorum.
  • Marco Rubio.

12     Donald Trump:

  • Showed his support for the American worker by having his line of ties manufactured in Kansas.
  • Has signed up to host a repackaged quiz show called “Who Wants to Be a Thousandaire?”
  • Is vowing to “Do for America what I did for Atlantic City.”
  • Says he has a secret plan to defeat ISIS but doesn’t “want the enemy to know what I’m doing.”

13     The first presidential primary debate, featuring the top 10 Republicans, will be in Ohio in August. It’s already causing controversy because:

  • Fox News, the broadcaster, wants to raise ratings by requiring the candidates to answer questions while suspended over the Grand Canyon.
  • The governor of Ohio might not make the cut.
  • Rand Paul has called for a more millennial-friendly “Twitter-off.”
  • Jeb Bush is insisting that all of his male relatives be permitted to pass him notes.

 

 

 

Now here’s the answer key, using A through D since she used bullets:

 

1A, 2B, 3A, 4B, 5C, 6B, 7B, 8B, 9C, 10D, 11C, 12D, 13B

Blow, Kristof and Collins

June 25, 2015

In “Confederate Flags and Institutional Racism” Mr. Blow says taking down symbols is well and good. But we are focusing on the 10 percent of the iceberg above the water and not the 90 percent below.  Mr. Kristof says “Tearing Down the Confederate Flag Is Just a Start” and that he’s all for celebrating the drawing down of the flag, but now let’s pivot from symbolic moves to substantial ones.  Ms. Collins is “Poking the Republican Pyramid” and says the field of presidential candidates is full of past and present governors with records worth considering.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

In the wake of the Charleston massacre, there is a rapidly growing consensus sweeping the country to remove the Confederate flag, a relic of racial divisiveness, from civic spaces.

Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina has called for its removal from the grounds of that state’s capitol.

Alabama’s governor, Robert Bentley, has used executive powers to take down Confederate flags at that state’s capitol grounds.

As The Associated Press reported Wednesday:

“U.S. Senator Roger Wicker became Mississippi’s second top-tier Republican to call for changing the flag that state has used since Reconstruction. Wicker said it ‘should be put in a museum and replaced by one that is more unifying.’”

“Lawmakers in Tennessee said a bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest must go from their Senate. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe was among several state leaders taking aim at vanity license plates with Confederate symbols.”

Furthermore:

“Wal-Mart, e-Bay, Amazon, Target and Sears were among those removing Confederate merchandise from stores and online sites, and at least three major flag makers said they will no longer manufacture the Confederate flag.”

All of this is well and good. We should move overt symbols of racial division to places like museums, where they can be displayed in proper context and where education is part of the mission.

And yet, there is a part of me that still believes we are focusing on the 10 percent of the iceberg above the water and not the 90 percent below.

When do we move from our consensus over taking down symbols to the much harder and more important work of taking down structures?

I worry much less about individual expressions of racism than I do about institutional expressions of racism. And we live in an age where people are earnestly trying to convince us that institutional racism doesn’t exist.

In an interview for the podcast “WTF With Marc Maron,” President Obama used a racial slur to make the point that eliminating the use of such language from polite society wasn’t the “measure of whether racism still exists or not.”

The slur got most of the attention; far less was devoted to the point the president was making about the resilience of institutional, intergenerational racism.

As the president put it: “It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened” 200 to 300 years ago.

This is not to deny progress, but only to point out that the process isn’t complete. It is to point out that overt displays of racism are not the appropriate measure thereof. Focus less on the individual and more on the institutions.

Yet The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page this week juxtaposed Civil Rights-era institutional racism with our present day environment to argue that institutional racism no longer exists in this country.

According to The Journal: “Back then and before, the institutions of government — police, courts, organized segregation — often worked to protect perpetrators of racially motivated violence, rather than their victims.”

It continued: “Today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists.”

The Fox News contributor Monica Crowley said this week on “The O’Reilly Factor”:

“Are there individual racists in this country? Sadly, yes. Does institutional racism exist anymore? No, it does not.”

She continued:

“We’ve got to understand that when we talk about racists or racism in America, it is not created by government action or codified law or social acceptance. O.K. But you have people on the far left who believe that America is a nation that was founded on genocide, theft, crimes and lies.”

“Slavery,” Bill O’Reilly sighed.

“Slavery,” Crowley agreed.

On Fox News’s “Hannity,” after the contributor Deneen Borelli said of the president, “I have dubbed him today Rapper in Chief,” the guest host David Webb posed the question to another guest: “Is America institutionally racist, that’s racism which requires codified law, a social acceptance, societal acceptance — and we know that racists, racists will always exist. Bias, prejudice in some form, black, white, in any form will always exist. Is America institutionally racist or are there racists in America?”

As if the two are necessarily mutually exclusive.

Webb later answered his own question: “I say we’re not.”

All of these definitions of institutional racism are incredibly narrow, and therefore take an incredibly myopic view of what institutional racism looks like. These definitions require a sort of direct discrimination, an articulation either in law or custom, to be deemed real.

But institutional racism will not be limited in that way. Institutional racism is often like a pathogen in the blood: You can’t see it; you have to test for it. But you can see its destructive effects as it sickens the host.

Furthermore, institutional racism doesn’t require the enlisting of individual racists. The machine does the discriminating. It provides a remove, a space, between the unpleasantness of racial discrimination — and indeed hatred — and the ultimate, undeniable and, for some, desirable outcome of structural oppression.

I prefer the Aspen Institute’s definition: “Institutional racism refers to the policies and practices within and across institutions that, intentionally or not, produce outcomes that chronically favor, or put a racial group at a disadvantage.”

Yet institutional racism’s defenders — or more precisely, its concealers — demand an articulated proof for something that moves in silence. They demand to see chapter and verse for something that is unwritten. They demand to know the names of the individual architects of a structure built subconsciously over time by each member of the vast multitudes adding their own bit, like beavers adding branches to a dam.

Institutional racism isn’t so much a grand design as it is an accumulation of racial detritus.

Symbols are important. Those Confederate flags must come down. That will be a spiritual victory. But we must not stop there. Institutional racism is the real prize on this hunt. Bring that down and cheers can truly go up.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Suppose African-Americans marked their heritage with flags depicting Nat Turner’s rebellion of 1831, in which slaves massacred about 60 whites before the uprising was crushed? The flag wouldn’t be celebrating the murder of whites, of course, but would simply commemorate a factual milestone in black history!

Suppose Mexican-Americans waved a flag depicting the battle of the Alamo? The point would not be to celebrate the slaughter of Texans, but to express pride in Mexican heritage!

Suppose Canadian-Americans displayed a flag showing the burning of the White House in the War of 1812? Nothing against the Yanks, mind you — just a point of Canadian historical pride!

Suppose American women waved flags of Lorena Bobbitt, who reacted to domestic abuse in 1993 by severing her husband’s penis and throwing it into a field? The aim wouldn’t be to approve of sexual mutilation, of course — but Bobbitt’s subsequent acquittal was a landmark in the recognition of domestic violence!

Well, you get the point. That’s how the Confederate battle flag looked to many of us. And at least Nat Turner was fighting for his own freedom, while the Confederate battle flag was the banner of those who fought freedom, defended slavery, clubbed civil rights workers — and, most recently, murdered black churchgoers. And it’s exhilarating to see the same distaste expressed in the Southern mainstream.

“The Confederate battle flag was the emblem of Jim Crow defiance to the civil rights movement, of the Dixiecrat opposition to integration, and of the domestic terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan,” noted Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention. “White Christians ought to think about what that flag says to our African-American brothers and sisters.”

The last year has brought a far-reaching conversation about race in America. But much of that conversation seemed polarizing more than clarifying, leaving each side more entrenched than ever — so it’s thrilling to see a wave of action now.

South Carolina may finally remove the flag from the State House grounds, Alabama has removed four Confederate flags from its state Capitol grounds, and Mississippi may also take a Confederate battle cross off the state flag. Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland and North Carolina seem poised to keep the Confederate flag off license plates. A bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, is expected to be evicted from the Tennessee State House. Walmart, Sears, Amazon, e-Bay and other retailers will no longer sell Confederate merchandise.

So we’re finally seeing not just conversation but movement.

But the movement is in some ways chimerical. It’s about a symbol — and now the progress on the symbol needs to be matched by progress on racial inequality in daily life.

America’s greatest shame in 2015 is not a piece of cloth. It’s that a black boy has a life expectancy five years shorter than a white boy. It’s that the net worth of the average black household in 2011 was $6,314, compared with $110,500 for the average white household, according to census data.

It’s that almost two-thirds of black children grow up in low-income families. It’s that more than one-third of inner-city black kids suffer lead poisoning (and thus often lifelong brain impairment), mostly from old lead paint in substandard housing.

More consequential than that flag is our flawed system of school finance that perpetuates inequity. Black students in America are much less likely than whites to attend schools offering advanced science and math courses.

The one public system in which America goes out of its way to provide services to African-Americans is prison. Partly because of our disastrous experiment in mass incarceration, black men in their 20s without a high school diploma are more likely to be incarcerated than employed, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

So I’m all for celebrating the drawing down of the Confederate battle flag, but now let’s pivot from symbolic moves to substantial ones.

That means, for example, early childhood programs, which offer the most cost-effective interventions to create a more even starting line. These include home visitation, high-quality preschool and literacy programs.

A Stanford University randomized trial examined a simple, inexpensive program called Ready4K!, which simply sent three text messages a week to parents to encourage them to read to their preschoolers — and it was astonishingly successful. Parents read more to children, who then experienced learning gains — and this was particularly true of black and Hispanic children. And because this was text messaging, the cost was less than $1 a family for the whole school year.

So, sure, good riddance to Confederate flags across the country! And then let’s swivel to address the larger national disgrace: In 2015, so many children still don’t have an equal shot at life because of the color of their skin.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Is it my imagination, or are half the governors in the country running for president?

On the Republican side they’re piling up like … those huge stacks of walruses we see off the coast of Alaska now that there’s global warming. A stack of governors! Different from the walruses only in 1) lack of tusks, and 2) failure to believe that melting ice floes are a serious problem.

This week Bobby Jindal (Louisiana). Next week maybe Chris Christie (New Jersey). Sometime in July, Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and probably John Kasich (Ohio). We’ve already got a bunch of former governors in the race, like Jeb Bush (Florida) and Rick Perry (Texas). The guys who are still in office have been stalling, attempting to disguise their total disinterest in their current jobs until a state budget is passed. Although Walker, in a stroke of true political genius, has decided that really means the day the budget is supposed to be passed.

That’s Wisconsin’s problem. Our question for today is what we can learn about our own national priorities from the governor-candidates God has given us.

Almost all governors brag about their economic development programs — hey, it’s economic development! But we could have an excellent conversation about how often these things really work. They’re frequently huge, thudding wastes of money. Louisiana, for instance, covers about a third of the in-state production costs for any movie that’s filmed there, a policy that will pay off only if it turns out that tourists visit New Orleans just because it was the site of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

“Louisiana sank more into ‘Green Lantern’ than it is putting into the University of New Orleans this year,” a state paper noted in December.

Next door in Texas, then-Gov. Rick Perry claimed that his Texas Enterprise Fund created more than 12,000 jobs with a $50 million investment in an institute for genomic medicine. It was actually more like 10 jobs once you stopped counting every single biotech job created anywhere in the entire state for the previous six years.

In Florida, when Jeb Bush was governor, he came up with a plan for biotech corridors that would spawn tens of thousands of jobs, transforming the state just the way Disney World did in the 1970s, except possibly without any pirates. Reuters studied the results and estimated that Florida state and local governments had anted up $1.32 billion and generated 1,365 jobs, or $1 million per new employee.

Often, the goal of these programs is to simply lure a business from one state to another. Then we get a battle of the tax breaks, creating a hole that will have to be filled by you, the ordinary taxpayer.

Ohio, home of potential presidential candidate John Kasich, offered Sears a $400 million deal to ditch Illinois and move to Columbus. Sears decided to stay put after the Illinois Legislature passed a super-emergency $275 million counteroffer. One economics professor suggested the company should pay Ohio a 10 percent commission.

“We’re disappointed that it didn’t work out,” Kasich said in a statement. “But it is very exciting that Ohio was in serious contention up to the very end, and that it took a special session of the Illinois Legislature to beat us.”

Honestly, this kind of thing ought to be unconstitutional.

The great irony here is that finding the lowest taxes generally isn’t a top business priority. What companies really want is to be near suppliers and markets. Maybe occasionally the C.E.O.’s house. “As a part of business cost structure, state and local taxes are about 2 percent,” said Greg LeRoy, the executive director of Good Jobs First, a nonprofit that tracks these programs.

But tax cuts do help make friends. In Wisconsin, the State Economic Development Corporation board — which Scott Walker used to lead — approved a $6 million tax credit for Ashley Furniture Industries, whose owners forked over $20,000 to Walker’s re-election campaign. As The Wisconsin State Journal reported, in return for the tax credit, Ashley Furniture promised to expand the company headquarters and keep at least half of its current jobs in the state for the next five years. Doesn’t that sound like a kind of low bar?

Under Chris Christie, New Jersey has handed out $630 million to get companies to move jobs to the woebegone city of Camden. Which would seem like a worthy goal, except that most of the jobs in question were already in the state — in fact, frequently in an adjoining neighborhood. “Most of the jobs coming to Camden are filled by existing employees who currently work just a few miles away,” reported The Associated Press. “Nearly all the recipients boast notable political connections.”

I think we have a topic. Nudge the governor pile and let the debate begin.

Blow and Kristof

June 18, 2015

In “The Delusions of Dolezal” Mr. Blow says her performance of blackness may have been born of affinity, but was based on a lie. It’s a spectacular exercise in hubris, narcissism and deflection.  Mr. Kristof, in “Malachi’s World,” says this year’s win-a-trip journey starts with a stop in Baltimore to look at some of the challenges presented by poverty here at home.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Rachel Dolezal, a woman with no known black heritage, has apparently, through an elaborate scheme of deception and denial, claimed for years to be a product of black heritage.

This has sparked a national conversation about how race is constructed and enforced, to what extent it is cultural and experiential, and whether it is mutable and adoptable.

If this were simply a matter of a person appreciating, emulating or even appropriating the presentation and performance of a race other than the one society prescribes to her based simply on her appearance, it wouldn’t be a story.

But this isn’t simply that. This is about privilege, deceitful performance and a tortured attempt to avoid truth and confession by co-opting the language of struggle, infusing labyrinthine logic with the authority of the academy, and coat-tailing very real struggles of transgender people and transracial adoptees to defend one’s deception.

This is a spectacular exercise in hubris, narcissism and deflection.

And we have been distracted from real conversation about real things in order to try to contextualize a false life based on a false premise. For a moment, blackface seemed to matter more than actual black lives.

On this issue of appearance, Ezra Dolezal, her adopted brother, hasdescribed her transformation as a form of “blackface.” When Matt Lauer asked, “Have you done something to darken your complexion?” she responded, “I certainly don’t stay out of the sun.” (TMZ reportedWednesday that according to their “tanning sources,” Dolezal was a “loyal customer at Palm Beach Tan in Spokane” and “was a fan of Mystic Tan…a brand of spray tan.” Make of all that what you will.)

Dolezal added: “This is not some freak ‘Birth of a Nation’ mockery blackface performance. This is on a very real, connected level.”

Full stop. Let’s just marvel at the efficient catchphrase saturation in those sentences. She takes the whole universe of possible attacks and issues them in her own tongue as a method of neutralizing them. It is a clever, if calculated, bit of argumentation, the kind that one might practice in a mirror.

But Dolezal didn’t stop there. She also told the MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, “I have really gone there with the experience, in terms of being a mother of two black sons and really owning what it means to experience and live blackness.”

Yes, but she did so by choice and with a trap door. She was always aware that she could remove her weave and stop tanning (assuming that’s true) and return to what society registers as whiteness. People of actual black heritage don’t have that option. Her sons don’t have that option. And make no mistake: Having that option is a privilege.

The whole notion of “transracial” as it has been applied to Dolezal is flawed in part because it isn’t equally available to all.

Whiteness in this country has historically been incredibly narrowly drawn to protect its purity, and this was not simply enforced by social mores, but also by law. Conversely, blackness was broadly drawn, serving as something of a collecting pool for anyone with even the most minute detectable and provable Negro ancestry. If you weren’t 100 percent white, you were black.

This meant that society became accustomed to blackness presenting visually in an infinite spectrum of possibilities, from pass-for-white lightness to obsidian darkness lacking all ambiguity.

This means that the way Dolezal was able to convincingly present and perform blackness as a light-skinned black woman is a form of one-directional privilege that simply isn’t available to a black person starting at the other end of the melanin spectrum.

Racial passing has been a societal feature probably for as long as race has been a societal construct. But it was more often practiced by a person who was not purely white by heritage passing herself or himself off as such. In some ways, this may have been understandable, even if distasteful, as these people identified as white in a society that privileged whiteness and devalued, diminished or attempted to destroy — both spiritually and physically — others.

Choosing a life of privilege over one of oppression must have seemed particularly attractive to some, particularly to those whose parents are different races and who, one could argue, could make the most compelling case to identify with whichever parent’s heritage they chose.

But Dolezal wasn’t passing in that sense. She was commandeering and concocting a biography of burden to obscure the shift and lay claim to authenticity.

According to a report in The Washington Post, however, the transracial-adoption (“when a child of one race is adopted by the family of another”) community has not taken kindly to being linked to Dolezal’s deception. Kimberly McKee, the assistant director of the Korean-American Adoptee Adoptive Parent Network and a professor at Grand Valley State University where she studies transracial adoption, told The Post, “You’re turning something that is a historical experience into something that’s almost being made a joke.”

A letter signed by McKee and 21 other scholars and advocates made the point even more forcefully: “We find the misuse of ‘transracial,’ describing the phenomenon of a white woman assuming perceived markers of ‘blackness’ in order to pass as ‘black,’ to be erroneous, ahistorical, and dangerous.”

Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find scientific support for transracialism, as it is being applied for Dolezal’s deception and identity, as a legitimate area of serious inquiry beyond a sociological phenomenon.

How can one be born discordant with a racial identity if race is a more socialized construct than rigid, biological demarcation and determinism? In other words, how can one be born discordant with an experience one has yet to have?

At best, this appears to be an issue of having an affinity for a culture that grows around a social construct. That is because, to my sense of it, cultural race identity has more scientific grounding than biological race identity, and those cultures of racial identity are in fact a response to the structure itself. Some people perform in response to their privilege and others to their lack thereof.

In that regard, one can not only like and want to emulate the look of another racial group (though, one must be ever-questioning of oneself as to what motivates this, making sure that it isn’t the outgrowth self-hatred), but one can even prefer the culture that developed around that look.

But changing appearance and even cross-cultural immersion doesn’t alter the architecture of race that gave birth to and reinforced those differences in the first place.

Dolezal’s performance of blackness may have been born of affinity, but it was based on a lie — one she has never sufficiently recanted — and her feeble attempts to use professorial language and faux-intellectual obfuscations only add insult to the cultural injury.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Baltimore:

Meet Malachi, a charming toddler I met here.

The first puzzle was that Malachi, at the age of 2 years and 4 months, still doesn’t speak. He says only two words: “no” and “ouch.” He doesn’t say “mom” or “dad.”

That leads to the second puzzle: Where are his mom and dad?

Candace Williams, 26, Malachi’s caregiver, seems to be doing a fine job. She says that Malachi’s mom, who lives in York, Pa., has 11 children and a drug problem and left him with her.

Williams says the mom periodically asked her to look after Malachi but then wasn’t very diligent about picking him up. “I would have him for months at a time,” Williams recalled.

Then, on the boy’s second birthday in February, Williams dropped by to wish him well. She says she found food and knives on the floor and the house in chaos. At that point, she says, the mom handed her the boy. As far as Williams is concerned, Malachi is now her child to raise, although she has no papers to document that.

And the boy’s father? He is in prison for a drug-related offense, Williams said.

As for his inability to speak, that may be because he has tested positive for lead poisoning — an echo of Freddie Gray, the black man whose arrest and subsequent death sparked the rioting in Baltimore. As a child, Gray also suffered from lead poisoning.

It should be a scandal that lead (mostly from old paint) still poisons 535,000 children in the United States from ages 1 to 5, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disproportionately affecting poor children, it robs them of mental abilities and is associated with disruptive behavior and crime in adulthood. If this were afflicting wealthy kids, there would be a national outcry.

I’m on the first leg of my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a university student on a global reporting trip; we will go this fall to India and Nepal. This year I’ve added an American swing to look at domestic challenges. So my student winner, Austin Meyer of Stanford University, and I have visited Baltimore to examine the challenges of the inner city.

Some 58 percent of whites said in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in late April that the riots in Baltimore were the result of “people seeking an excuse to engage in looting and violence.” Many middle-class and affluent Americans don’t fully appreciate, I think, the inequity and frustrations boiling in some communities across the United States.

Malachi exemplifies the challenges some kids face in places like this. Americans often say that poverty is about bad choices or personal irresponsibility, but Malachi himself hasn’t made any bad choices.

Sean Berry-Bey, who has known Malachi’s mother for years and for a time looked after other children of hers, firmly backs Williams’s account that the boy was neglected and mistreated.

When I reached the mother, she started to dispute all this and told me that Williams was just looking after Malachi for a few months. Then she declined to speak further.

I’m impressed by Williams’s commitment, and she’s getting no government assistance. Indeed, she recently lost her job as an armored truck driver — she says caring for Malachi interfered with her work — so there’s now greater financial pressures on the household.

It is easier, of course, to describe a problem than to prescribe a solution, and helping people is harder than it looks.

One valuable program is WIC, which provides nutritional support for women, infants and children. Yet because it gives free infant formula to low-income mothers, it unintentionally discourages breast-feeding.

“If I had to buy formula, with no WIC vouchers, I’d breast-feed,” Alia Brooks, a teenage single mom in Baltimore, told me.

In short, helping people is complicated. Yet we do have programs that help — not everyone, not all the time, but often. Indeed, WIC is among them.

We accompanied a health department lead abatement team that took lead readings in Malachi’s home and offered sage advice on how to get medical care and access to social services for the boy — and also provided steel wool to plug rat holes.

Lynnelle Boyd, a member of the team, also figured out that the family has an immediate problem: Williams may be paying rent to someone who doesn’t actually own the house. Boyd explained how to reduce the risk of eviction.

That’s the reason for our win-a-trip reporting journey in America, to underscore that global poverty and inequity exist not just in India or Nepal, but right here in the United States, still waiting to be addressed.

Kristof and Collins

June 11, 2015

In “From Caitlyn Jenner to a Brooklyn High School” Mr. Kristof says Caitlyn Jenner has started an important national conversation about transgender issues, and none too soon for these Brooklyn high schoolers.  Ms. Collins, in “Battle of the Abortion Decisions,” says it’s been a dismal stretch across the nation for a woman’s right to choose, but there is some good news from Idaho. Who knew?  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

People all over the world have been following the emergence of Caitlyn Jenner, but few as enthusiastically as Spencer and Joshua, two students at a New York City high school who see her as an inspiring role model.

Spencer, 16, was born a girl and given a girl’s name, but he says it never felt right. On the first day of kindergarten, his mom dressed him in a skirt — the school uniform — and he cried.

“That’s for the girls,” he remembers protesting tearfully.

“But you are a girl,” his mom responded, baffled.

Still, he resisted so vociferously that for the rest of the year he was allowed to wear pants rather than the girls’ uniform.

“I knew I felt different from age 4, but I didn’t have a word for it,” he remembers. “In my mind, I kept thinking, ‘Why can’t I be a boy, even though I don’t have boy parts?’ It confused me.”

In third grade, he announced he was lesbian, but he said that didn’t feel right either. Finally, at age 12, after Google searches, he found the word that fit: transgender.

That didn’t make life easier. Spencer says he was bullied and mocked in middle school, and, at 13, he tried to hang himself. But he couldn’t manage to tie the right knot or reach the ceiling fan, and he finally cried himself to sleep in frustration.

Caitlyn Jenner has started an important national conversation, but this must go beyond what she wore on the cover of Vanity Fair. Too often we as a society become distracted in transgender discussions by questions of surgery or of which restroom a person’s going to use. In fact, as Spencer’s story suggests, the fundamental challenge is simply acceptance.

I visited Spencer at his high school, the Academy for Young Writers, in a gritty neighborhood in Brooklyn. It has provided that accepting home, and it offers some lessons for other institutions across the country.

These are complex issues. When a child born a boy comes to identify as a girl, it may be humiliating or dangerous for her to use the boy’s bathroom; it may also be distressing for other girls if a classmate with male anatomy uses their bathroom. And does such a child play on the boys’ sports team, or the girls’ team?

Yet these are issues that we will have to confront. One rough estimate suggests that perhaps one-third of 1 percent of people identify as transgender. That means that in a high school of 1,000 students, a few may well be transgender.

As topics become less taboo, examples become more visible. Miley Cyrus has now been quoted as saying that she regards her sexuality and gender identification as fluid. “I don’t relate to being boy or girl,” she said.

The Academy for Young Writers became a model because of a lapse. In 2011, one of the brightest girls in school, Tiara, seemingly headed for a great university, suddenly seemed poised to drop out. It turned out that the student was now identifying as a boy calling himself Seth — and the school had been oblivious. Seth ended up barely graduating and never went to college at all.

Courtney Winkfield, the principal, resolved that this wouldn’t happen again. She brought in a teacher to mentor students with such issues and to help students craft an anti-bullying policy.

Meanwhile, Spencer showed up and asked to use the boys’ bathroom and to be referred to as “he” and “him.” The school accommodated his request.

Some parents, teachers and students were upset, but the fuss seems to have calmed. Spencer says that thoughts of suicide linger but are now manageable. The school, he says, “saved my life.”

A classmate, Joshua, 15, is still figuring out gender. He uses the male pronoun and often wears boys’ clothing, but, when I visited, he was wearing lipstick, a wig and a dress. (For a photo, he reverted to boys’ clothing.)

“I have thoughts of being female, but not every day,” Joshua said. “I don’t want to put a label on me yet.”

Joshua, who says “you can call me both genders,” recounts a history much like Spencer’s: bullying beginning in kindergarten, and thoughts of suicide starting in fifth grade.

Today, both are on the honor roll. Indeed, with summer vacation looming, they worry about losing school as a safe space.

“It’s very, very scary, summer is,” Joshua said. “I don’t want to be on my own.”

I asked Winkfield what she would say to principals leery of sensitive gender issues. High school isn’t just about getting students college-ready, she said, but also about getting them world-ready.

“It’s easy to make this a granular issue about bathrooms or sexuality,” she said. “It’s really about preparing young people for the incredibly messy and complex world we live in.”

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

It’s been a dismal stretch for a woman’s right to choose. Not everywhere — I swear that if you stay with me there’s going to be a bright spot. But, first, I’m afraid we’re going to have to talk about Texas.

Like many states, Texas has been on a real tear when it comes to women and reproduction. The Legislature keeps piling on indignities, like mandatory pre-abortion sonograms and a script that the doctor has to read to educate the pregnant patient about her condition. Which people in the State Capitol are sure she never thought through on her own.

Texas abortion clinics, which perform a relatively simple procedure with a stupendously low history of complications, are now required to have all the staff, equipment, bells and whistles of a hospital surgical center. Lawmakers tried to describe this as a matter of health and safety, but the debate wouldn’t have fooled anybody. “How would God vote tonight if he were here?” demanded State Senator Dan Patrick. Patrick is now the lieutenant governor.

Since that law passed in 2013, clinics have been closing, even though litigation held off the full impact. The number has now dropped to 18 — for a state that is larger than France, with a population of more than 25 million.

The holdouts were waiting for the federal appeals court to save Texas from itself. But, this week, the court decided that the rules were perfectly reasonable. A three-judge panel based in New Orleans accepted the legislators’ argument that they were just trying to make sure women seeking abortions got “the highest quality of care.” These were the same lawmakers who recently wiped out federal funding for Planned Parenthood’s breast and cervical cancer screening programs.

Advocates are going back to court, but unless they win a postponement, by the end of the month, only a handful of clinics will survive.

“Abortion has happened since time began,” said Fran Hagerty, who leads the Women’s Health and Family Planning Association of Texas. “It’s not going to end. What’s going to end is for women to get care that is safe, that doesn’t put their lives at risk. That’s what’s ending. We all know that. Maybe the legislators know it, too, and they don’t care.”

Actually, safe abortions are in no danger of becoming extinct. They’re readily available to all American women who have money, and they always will be. If the Texas Legislature had been able to wave a magic wand and eliminate the option for middle-class women in their state, the outcry would have been deafening, and political suicide. But those women can go to the clinics in Dallas, San Antonio or Houston — or Chicago or Los Angeles or New York.

Poor pregnant women in anti-abortion states don’t have those options. But they’re often the most desperate, and these days some are resolving the situation with at-home abortions, using pills found on the Internet.

Recently, prosecutors in Georgia attempted to charge a 23-year-old woman with murder after pills she bought online caused her to miscarry when she was five-and-a-half months pregnant. Last year, a 39-year-old mother of three in Pennsylvania was sentenced to prison for ordering pills that her daughter took to induce a miscarriage. “I’m scared,” she told The Times’s Emily Bazelon on the night before she went to jail.

In Idaho, Jennie Linn McCormack, a mother of three, took pills she bought online after she discovered she was pregnant by a former boyfriend. “Her income was about $200 a month,” said her lawyer, Rick Hearn, who is also a doctor. “At her stage of pregnancy, it would have been $2,000 to go to Salt Lake City, which would have been the closest abortion provider. She didn’t even have a car.”

A local prosecutor charged McCormack with a felony that could have meant up to five years in prison. Fortunately, Hearn succeeded in getting the case dismissed. Then he and McCormack filed a class-action lawsuit, with Hearn acting as both lawyer and physician.

Idaho had a veritable pyramid of anti-abortion laws. This isn’t all that surprising. Idaho is the state where the Legislature at one point stampeded and killed a bill aimed at getting federal assistance to track down deadbeat dads because the lawmakers were afraid it would involve imposition of the Islamic law code Shariah.

And — here comes the bright spot — two weeks ago, a federal appeals court found that the laws that could have turned Jennie McCormack into a criminal were themselves against the Constitution.

The justices saved the state from its lawmakers — at least temporarily — by throwing out many of the state’s abortion laws, including some impossible and useless requirements the Legislature had imposed on the clinics.

And, in dismissing the charges against McCormack, Hearn noted, the court actually pointed out how hard the anti-abortion laws are on poor women. “Few people ever do that,” he said.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

June 4, 2015

In “Romanticizing ‘Broken Windows’ Policing” Mr. Blow says some communities are being asked either to accept collateral damage in the war on crime, or complain about excessive force only to have criminals roam free.  Mr. Kristof, in “Chemicals In Your Popcorn?”, says here’s how lax U.S. regulation risks consumer health.  In “Old Age Versus Geese” Ms. Collins addresses the return of Sully Sullenberger and the Miracle on the Hudson.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

There has been a recent spike in violent crimes, particularly shooting, in major cities in the United States. What precisely is fueling it is hard to know. There are more theories and conjecture than there is data. There may in the end be many contributing factors.

But that isn’t stopping the tough-on-crime, fear-mongering iron fist-ers from engaging in wild speculation and the revisionist romanticizing of “broken windows” policies — including the notoriously heinous and morally indefensible, not to mention unconstitutionalas-practiced, stop-and-frisk.

One of the most pernicious and slanderous theories is that protests over police officers’ excessive use of force, or “police bashing” as some prefer to call it, is responsible for the uptick.

As the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald put it last week in The Wall Street Journal, “The most plausible explanation of the current surge in lawlessness is the intense agitation against American police departments over the past nine months.”

Actually, “most plausible” is simply theoretical argumentation and not corollary proof of anything. And, it seems to me that this has the effect, intentional or not, of conflating protests with criminality, of smearing the blood running in the street onto the hands holding the placards, of shifting the burden of law enforcement from those charged with it to those who simply want equity in its application.

One facet of these theories is that criminals have simply been emboldened as officers become more diffident, fearing prosecutions for run-of-the-mill policing, or more sinisterly and conspiratorially, are purposefully engaging in “slow downs.”

First, I think it is actually a good thing for officers of the law not to assume that they will be above it. Each of us, including officers, should consider our actions, particularly use of force, before engaging. This is good and right. But if there are any officers intentionally restraining themselves from doing normal police work because citizens have protested over perceived excessive force, then those officers are guilty of a dangerous, unethical dereliction of duty.

As for protesters and police, it seems to me that most simply want the people sworn to protect and serve them not to feel impervious to accountability in cases of perceived overreach, particularly when it results in the death of a citizen.

People in general understand that police work is hard and that there are criminals in society. They understand that ours is a gun culture and that some of those criminals will gain access to guns. They understand that police will sometimes encounter those armed criminals and will have no choice but to use force, including deadly force, to ensure their own safety and the safety of society at large.

Recently, The Washington Post and The Guardian separately published extensive reports on the killings of people in America by the police. The Post identified “at least 385 people shot and killed by police nationwide during the first five months of this year” and The Guardian found that 408 deaths “were caused by gunshot” over the same period.

And yet, only a handful of these cases have spawned large protests or sustained national media coverage.

People have an intrinsic intelligence about such things. Outrage isn’t constant or random. It is conditional and precise.

The cleaving occurs and the hackles are raised when the person encountered is not engaged in a crime, or is fleeing, or is not armed and therefore poses no perceivable threat.

Furthermore, why is there such a racial skew in those particular kinds of force?

As both The Post and The Guardian pointed out, unarmed African-Americans were more likely to be shot and killed than whites or Hispanics.

People in these black communities, it seems, are being asked to make an impossible choice: accept the sprawling, ruinous collateral damage — including killings of unarmed black people — in police departments’ wars on crime, or complain about excessive force and attempt to curtail it only to have criminals roam free.

And there is one important distinction to make here: the criminals don’t work for the people; the police officers do. It is right and proper for citizens to demand accountability from people whose salaries they pay.

Mac Donald summarized:

“Contrary to the claims of the ‘black lives matter’ movement, no government policy in the past quarter century has done more for urban reclamation than proactive policing. Data-driven enforcement, in conjunction with stricter penalties for criminals and ‘broken windows’ policing, has saved thousands of black lives, brought lawful commerce and jobs to once drug-infested neighborhoods and allowed millions to go about their daily lives without fear.”

Watch carefully the rhetorical sleight of hand here. “Urban reclamation.” From whom for whom? “Proactive policing.” Some are dragnet policies that swept up hundreds of thousands of black and brown men in stop-and-frisk, although nine out of 10 had committed no crime. “Saved thousands of black lives.” This assumed that the drop in the murder rates from the 1990s and before was entirely attributable to policing and not also to cultural shifts, like the end of the crack epidemic. “Allowed millions to go about their daily lives without fear.” This depends in large part on the darkness of your skin and the economics of your community.

Arguments like these dance around delicately to keep people from seeing what they really are: racial pathology arguments. They are based on there being something intrinsically amiss in blackness or black culture that can be altered or corrected only by overwhelming, unrelenting force. It is an argument as old as the ages, some variant of: It takes the bullet and the billy club and the bench warrant to bring these people into obeisance.

What is almost never mentioned as contributing to criminality is the intersection of violence with concentrated poverty — rather than the racial pathology, which is the last redoubt of the intellectual seeking support for cultural condemnation.

How you view “broken windows” policing completely depends on your vantage point, which is heavily influenced by racial realities and socio-economics. For poor black people, it means that they have to be afraid of the cops as well as the criminals.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

What do a pizza box, a polar bear and you have in common?

All carry a kind of industrial toxicant called poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, that do two things: They make life convenient, and they also appear to increase the risk of cancer.

The scientists I interviewed say that they try to avoid these chemicals in their daily lives, but they’re pretty much unavoidable and now are found in animals all over the planet (including polar bears in Greenland and probably you and me). PFASs are used to make nonstick frying pans, waterproof clothing, stain-resistant fabrics, fast-food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, firefighting foam and thousands of other products. Many are unlabeled, so even chemists sometimes feel helpless.

This should be a moment when government steps up to protect citizens. But from tobacco to lead paint to chemicals, industry has used donations, obfuscation and lobbying to defer regulation until the human casualties are too vast to be hidden.

PFASs are “a poster child” for what’s wrong with chemical regulation in America, says John Peterson Myers, chief scientist of Environmental Health Sciences, a research and publishing group in Virginia. PFASs are just about indestructible, so, for eons to come, they will poison our blood, our household dust, our water and the breast milk our babies drink.

Warnings of health risks from PFASs go back half a century and are growing more ominous. In May, more than 200 scientists released aMadrid Statement warning of PFAS’s severe health risks. It was published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal backed by the National Institutes of Health.

The scientists cited research linking PFASs to testicular and kidney cancer, hypothyroidism, ulcerative colitis and other problems.

Arlene Blum is a chemist whose warnings about carcinogens have proved prophetic. In recent years, she has waged an increasingly successful campaign against modern flame-retardant chemicals because of evidence that they also cause cancer, but she told me that PFASs “are even a bigger problem than flame retardants.”

The chemical industry acknowledges that older, “long-chain” PFASs are a problem but says that it is replacing them with “short-chain” versions that should be fine. It’s true that there is less evidence against the short-chains, but that’s perhaps because they have been studied less.

Americans expect that chemicals used in consumer products have been tested for safety. Not so. The vast majority of the 80,000 chemicals available for sale in the United States have never been tested for effects on our health.

Any testing is being done on all of us. We’re the guinea pigs.

Congress may finally pass new legislation regulating toxic chemicals, but it’s so weak a bill that the chemical industry has embraced it. The Senate version is better than nothing, but, astonishingly, it provides for assessing high-priority chemicals at a rate of about only five a year, and it’s not clear that the House will go that far.

Yes, of countless toxicants suspected of increasing the risk of cancer, obesity, epigenetic damage and reproductive problems, the United States would commit to testing five each year. And that would actually be progress.

For safety reasons, Europe and Canada already restrict hundreds of chemicals routinely used in the United States. Perhaps the danger of tainted brands and lost sales abroad — not the risk to Americans — will motivate American companies to adopt overseas limits.

Scientists are already taking precautions and weighing trade-offs in their personal lives. R. Thomas Zoeller, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, says he now avoids buying nonstick pans. Rainer Lohmann, an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island, told me that he is replacing carpets in his house with wood floors in part to reduce PFASs.

Simona Balan, a senior scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute, avoids microwave popcorn and stain-resistant furniture.

Dr. Blum says she avoids buying certain nonstick products and waterproof products, but reluctantly uses a glide wax for backcountry skis that contains PFASs. “Every time I spray it on, I realize the chemicals will be in my body for a very long time and on the planet for geologic time, perhaps longer than mankind,” Dr. Blum said. “But I do enjoy a good glide when I ski.”

Some brands, including Levi’s, Benetton and Victoria’s Secret, are pledging to avoid PFASs. Evaluations of the safety of products are available free atthe GoodGuide and Skin Deep websites.

The chemical lobby is following the same script as the tobacco and lead lobbies a generation ago, throwing around campaign donations and lobbying muscle to delay regulation. The chemical industry spent $190 millionlobbying in the last three years. If only it would devote such sums to developing safer products, rather than to defending its right to produce suspected carcinogens.

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Clint Eastwood is going to make a film about Sully Sullenberger, the pilotwho landed that US Airways flight on the Hudson after a flock of geese knocked out both the plane’s engines.

This news is going to lead us into an interesting discussion of the presidential election. We will also try to get in at least one more mention of the geese. Stupid birds.

Both the movie and the election are, in a way, stories about age. Eastwood is 85 — “at the top of his game, not to mention a global treasure,” said a Warner Bros. executive in a press release.

Some of you probably remember the fabled moment at the 2012 Republican National Convention when Eastwood interviewed an empty chair. It may go down in the annals of history as the worst performance ever by a global treasure.

But Eastwood seemed unfazed, and he went back to making movies, including the preposterously successful “American Sniper.” This just goes to prove that we live in a world in which the possibilities for growth or mutation are endless. Making a spectacle of yourself on national television at the age of 82 would seem to be pretty much a career-ender. However, there is nothing like a movie with a $543 million gross to trigger a new beginning.

Sullenberger’s miracle landing was about aging, too. It happened in January 2009. The nation had just elected 47-year-old Barack Obama president after a campaign in which he vowed to replace the stupid, overheated politics of the baby-boom generation with something more cool and transactional. We were all ready for a youth explosion.

Then Sullenberger, 57, brought his crippled plane down on the river while three flight attendants, aged 51, 57 and 58, coolly herded the passengers to a safe rescue on the wing. Suddenly, we found ourselves getting worried whenever we drew a wrinkle-free flight crew. Old was in.

Obama went on to accomplish many things as president, but that new-generation-politics transformation was definitely not among them. Now Hillary Clinton, 67, is the huge favorite to win the Democratic presidential nomination to succeed him.

Meanwhile, the Republican field is packed with people like first-term senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both 44. Or Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a 47-year-old who has bragged that he could put off running for another 20 years “and still be about the same age as the former secretary of state.”

The obvious response to that is: good idea.

Rubio has been dropping multiple references to the election as a “generational choice” between the politics of tomorrow and people who are “promising to take us back to yesterday.” This is supposed to be a reference to Clinton, but it conveniently also works for 62-year-old Jeb Bush, one of Rubio’s main competitors.

Or really, for Clint Eastwood, although I have the feeling that any of the Republican candidates would be extremely happy to have Eastwood on their team. As long as he didn’t bring that chair to the convention.

“It’s a rigorous physical ordeal, I think, to be able to campaign for the presidency,” Senator Rand Paul, 52, said about Clinton’s candidacy. Now this is a woman who, as secretary of state, visited 112 countries, traveling nearly a million miles. You can criticize a lot of things about Hillary Clinton, but there aren’t many people better at taking the show on the road.

(Except — did you know that the Rolling Stones are on a national tour right this minute? Yes! Mick Jagger, the man who once announced “I’ll never tour when I’m 50,” was in Minnesota on Tuesday, killing time during a 15-city sweep. Jagger, 71, and drummer Charlie Watts, 74, visited the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where a staff member said they showed particular interest in the collection of American folk-art furniture. It is possible this was not how Jagger spent his time between shows in the 1970s. But still.)

Arguments over age and the presidency go back at least to 1840, when the 67-year-old William Henry Harrison was described as “a living mass of ruined matter” in one rather hostile newspaper editorial. And Harrison did sort of prove that age was an issue, when he died one month into his administration.

However, that was an era when doctors made house calls bearing leeches. Now our arguments over age can be a little more sophisticated.

Would you rather have a president with a lot of experience or one with new ideas? And what, by the way, are those new ideas? It’s going to have to be something more novel than reducing business taxes.

We’re electing a new leader to pilot our ship. Do we care more about quick reflexes or a seasoned response to crises? We can talk forever about redirecting the course. But, most of all, you do want someone who will avoid the damned geese.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

May 28, 2015

In “The Rise of Social Liberalism and G.O.P. Resistance” Mr. Blow says as the nation’s views evolve, Republican presidential candidates remain stuck trying to out-conservative one another for the sake of primary voters.  Mr. Cohen, in “Sepp Blatter’s FIFA Reign of Shame,” says that to conclude Blatter should quit feels so obvious it’s not worth saying. But he’s so thick-skinned it’s worth saying twice.  Mr. Kristof considers “Polluted Political Games” and says here’s what can be done to bring the dark money of politics into the sunlight in time for the 2016 elections.  Ms. Collins says “Let’s Do Some Railing” and that one person’s waste is another person’s ride home.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

There is a fascinating phenomenon taking shape in America: As the country becomes less religious, it is also becoming more socially liberal.

It makes sense that these two variables should closely track each other, but the sheer scale and speed of the change is astonishing.

After a Pew Research Center report earlier this month found that “the Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing,” this week Gallup released a report that found that “more Americans now rate themselves as socially liberal than at any point in Gallup’s 16-year trend, and for the first time, as many say they are liberal on social issues as say they are conservative.”

Gallup has tested the moral acceptability of 19 variables since the early 2000s.

And, as Gallup found this week:

“The upward progression in the percentage of Americans seeing these issues as morally acceptable has varied from year to year, but the overall trend clearly points toward a higher level of acceptance of a number of behaviors. In fact, the moral acceptability ratings for 10 of the issues measured since the early 2000s are at record highs.”

Acceptance of gay or lesbian relations is up 23 percentage points over that time. Having a baby outside of marriage is up 16 points. Premarital sex is up 15 points. Divorce and research using stem cells obtained from human embryos are both up 12 points.

At the same time, the death penalty is down three points (within the four-point margin of error) and medical testing on animals is down nine points.

We as a country may still be engaged in a vigorous debate about the proper size and function of government, and about which parties and candidates could best steer America in the right direction, but one thing is less and less debatable: We are rapidly becoming a more socially liberal country.

This change poses a particular challenge for the Republican Party and its national aspirations, not so much at the congressional seats, many of which are safe, but for presidential candidates.

Part of the issue, as the likely candidate Jeb Bush put it last year, is that for a Republican to become president, he or she would have to be willing to “lose the primary to win the general” election.

It was a catchy phrase and everyone understood what he was saying: Don’t allow the Republican debates and primaries to drag you so far right that you will never be able to recover in the general election. But the problem is that there is no way to compete in the general without first winning the primaries securing the nomination.

And so, Republicans are now involved in another election season that feels like the movie “Groundhog Day”: trying to out-conservative one another to be in the good graces of Republican primary voters, who in many states can be disproportionately religious and socially conservative.

Take Iowa, for instance, whose February caucuses will be the first contests of the 2016 presidential cycle. As the Public Religion Research Institute pointed out earlier this month:

“Iowa Republicans are notably more socially conservative than Republicans nationally. Compared to Republicans overall, Iowa Republicans are more likely to oppose legalizing same-sex marriage (64 percent vs. 58 percent, respectively), and are more likely to say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases (68 percent vs. 58 percent, respectively). The social conservatism evident among Iowa Republicans is based in part on the large presence of white evangelical Protestants. More than four in ten (42 percent) Iowa Republicans are white evangelical Protestant.”

How do you win Iowa, or at least survive it? Some candidates may not focus their attentions there at all. They may skip it, as John McCain did in 2000, and instead focus on the slightly more moderate Republican primary voters in New Hampshire to deliver their first strong showing shortly after the Iowa caucuses.

For example, a March poll conducted by the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston found that more likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters are pro-choice than pro-life on abortion and more favor same-sex marriage than oppose it.

But New Hampshire is somewhat anomalous. It is the most conservative state in a very liberal northeast. Nationally, only 27 percent of Republicans are pro-choice, while 67 percent are pro-life, and nationally only 37 percent of Republicans support same-sex marriage, according to polls by Gallup in 2014 and 2015. At the same time, New Hampshire is the second most nonreligious state in the country — nonreligious being defined by Gallup as people “saying religion is not an important part of their daily lives and that they seldom or never attend religious services” — second only to Vermont. The nonreligious population of New Hampshire is 51 percent; for Vermont, it’s 56 percent.

But Iowa and New Hampshire would be only the first two of a 50-state slog through a Republican electorate that is not necessarily where the rest of the country is — or is going — on religiosity and social liberalism.

There is only so much skipping one can do. At some point, the candidates must face the most conservative voters and one voice must emerge.

This process has not been kind or general-election-friendly for the Republican candidates in the last couple of cycles. But there is no indication that most Republicans — either candidates or voters — have drawn the necessary lessons from those defeats.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

I was living in Paris in 1998 and had tickets for the World Cup Final but instead had to rush off to cover upheaval in Nigeria and ended up in a Lagos hotel watching France beat Brazil 3-0. The commentators were Nigerian, of course. After a couple of first-half French goals against a listless Brazilian side, they pretty much gave up describing the match. Instead they focused on how much money they thought had changed hands to secure France’s triumph. I laughed as the numbers spiraled upward.

The speculation — unfounded in this instance — seemed to me more a reflection of the Nigeria of Sani Abacha, the ruthless and massively corrupt leader who had just died, than of the state of global soccer. In Nigeria back then, nothing moved without payment of a bribe. Now, however, I am not so sure. Those commentators were onto something larger than the match itself. Sepp Blatter, once described by The Guardian as “the most successful non-homicidal dictator of the past century,” had been elected the month before as president of FIFA, soccer’s governing body, in a ballot marked by allegations of cash handouts of $50,000 to African delegates in a Paris hotel. It was the start of Blatter’s 17-year (and counting) reign of shame over the world’s most popular game. He is a man without conscience.

Another unrelated soccer memory stirred at the news of the arrest in Zurich of several top FIFA officials on bribery, fraud and money laundering charges brought by the United States Justice Department. It was of standing 30 years ago at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels with my friends Patrick Wintour of The Guardian and Ed Vulliamy of The Observer. We watched as Liverpool fans charged Juventus fans gathered in the Z-block of the ground. There was a sickening inevitability about what happened as the Juventus supporters were crushed against terrace barriers that collapsed and then a concrete wall.

Later Wintour and Vulliamy filed a report: “We heard a muted but ghastly thud, like quarry dynamited at a distance. It was the sound of tons of concrete and scores of bodies plunging over the edge of the terracing.” You knew. People were dying. There were, in the end, 39 dead, most of them Juventus fans. The match went ahead, a ghastly farce.

It is not true that everything has gotten worse in global soccer under Blatter. Safety has improved and, yes, the World Cup has been held in Africa. But just about everything has. To conclude that Blatter should quit rather than embark on a fifth term as FIFA president (assuming his seemingly inevitable election to a fifth term on Friday) feels so blindingly obvious that it’s not worth saying. But then the FIFA president is so thick-skinned it’s actually worth saying twice: Mr. Blatter, your time is up.

Why? Because the corruption charges against current and former FIFA vice presidents and others reflect an organization rotten to its core, operating in the absence of any meaningful oversight, without term limits for a president whose salary is of course unknown (but estimated by Bloomberg to be “in the low double-digit” millions), overseeing $5.72 billion in partially unaccounted revenue for the four years to December 2014, governing a sport in which matches and World Cup venues and in fact just about everything appears to have been up for sale, burying a report it commissioned by a former United States attorney into the bidding process for the next two World Cups, and generally operating in a culture of cavalier disdain personified by Blatter, whose big cash awards to soccer federations in poorer countries have turned the delegates from many of FIFA’s 209 member associations into his fawning acolytes.

Among those charged is Jeffrey Webb, the successor to Jack Warner as the head of the North and Central American and Caribbean regional confederation within FIFA. Warner was also charged. When Warner’s corruption became so outlandish that he was forced to step down a few years ago, Blatter’s FIFA maintained a presumption of innocence. Enough said.

Bribery occurred “over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, who has supervised the investigation from the days when she was the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York. That sounds about right. The Office of the attorney general of Switzerland has opened a separate criminal investigation into the selection of Russia to host the 2018 World Cup and Qatar the 2022 World Cup.

Just because Russia and Qatar are gas-rich (and back in 1998 a Qatari businessman provided Blatter with a private jet for his first FIFA election campaign) does not mean the process was corrupt. Of course it does not. But that Swiss criminal investigation is thoroughly warranted — and the first requisite for making it thorough, transparent and credible is Blatter’s immediate departure.

Now we get to Mr. Kristof:

I’ve admired the Clintons’ foundation for years for its fine work on AIDS and global poverty, and I’ve moderated many panels at the annual Clinton Global Initiative. Yet with each revelation of failed disclosures or the appearance of a conflict of interest from speaking fees of $500,000 for the former president, I have wondered: What were they thinking?

But the problem is not precisely the Clintons. It’s our entire disgraceful money-based political system. Look around:

• Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey accepted flights and playoff tickets from the Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, who has business interests Christie can affect.

• Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has received financial assistance from a billionaire, Norman Braman, and has channeled public money to Braman’s causes.

• Jeb Bush likely has delayed his formal candidacy because then he would have to stop coordinating with his “super PAC” and raising money for it. He is breaching at least the spirit of the law.

When problems are this widespread, the problem is not crooked individuals but perverse incentives from a rotten structure.

“There is a systemic corruption here,” says Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money. “It’s kind of baked in.”

Most politicians are good people. Then they discover that money is the only fuel that makes the system work and sometimes step into the bog themselves.

Money isn’t a new problem, of course. John F. Kennedy was accused of using his father’s wealth to buy elections. In response, he joked that he had received the following telegram from his dad: “Don’t buy another vote. I won’t pay for a landslide!”

Yet Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s labor secretary and now chairman of the national governing board of Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog group,notes that inequality has hugely exacerbated the problem. Billionaires adopt presidential candidates as if they were prize racehorses. Yet for them, it’s only a hobby expense.

For example, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson donated $92 million to super PACs in the 2012 election cycle; as a share of their net worth, that was equivalent to $300 from the median American family. So a multibillionaire can influence a national election for the same sacrifice an average family bears in, say, a weekend driving getaway.

Money doesn’t always succeed, of course, and billionaires often end up wasting money on campaigns. According to The San Jose Mercury News, Meg Whitman spent $43 per vote in her failed campaign for governor of California in 2010, mostly from her own pocket. But Michael Bloomberg won his 2009 re-election campaign for mayor of New York City after,according to the New York Daily News, spending $185 of his own money per vote.

The real bargain is lobbying — and that’s why corporations spend 13 times as much lobbying as they do contributing to campaigns, by the calculations of Lee Drutman, author of a recent book on lobbying.

The health care industry hires about five times as many lobbyists as there are members of Congress. That’s a shrewd investment. Drug company lobbyists have prevented Medicare from getting bulk discounts, amounting to perhaps $50 billion a year in extra profits for the sector.

Likewise, lobbying has carved out the egregious carried interest tax loophole, allowing many financiers to pay vastly reduced tax rates. In that respect, money in politics both reflects inequality and amplifies it.

Lobbyists exert influence because they bring a potent combination of expertise and money to the game. They gain access, offer a well-informed take on obscure issues — and, for a member of Congress, you think twice before biting the hand that feeds you.

The Supreme Court is partly to blame for the present money game, for its misguided rulings that struck down limits in campaign spending by corporations and unions and the overall political donation cap for individuals.

Still, President Obama could take one step that would help: an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose all political contributions.

“President Obama could bring the dark money into the sunlight in time for the 2016 election,” notes Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. “It’s the single most tangible thing anyone could do to expose the dark money that is now polluting politics.”

I’ve covered corrupt regimes all over the world, and I find it ineffably sad to come home and behold institutionalized sleaze in the United States.

Reich told me that for meaningful change to arrive, “voters need to reach a point of revulsion.” Hey, folks, that time has come.

And last but not least we have Ms. Collins:

Just before Congress slunk away for the three-day weekend — which it was, of course, planning to stretch into a week — senators from the Northeast held a press conference to denounce Republicans for underfunding Amtrak passenger rail service.

“Amtrak has some infrastructure that is so old it was built and put into service when Jesse James and Butch Cassidy were still alive and robbing trains,” said Senator Charles Schumer of New York.

“In Connecticut we have a bridge that was built when Grover Cleveland was president,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

Now you have to admit, this is pretty compelling. Especially if you merge them together and envision Butch Cassidy and Grover Cleveland robbing commuters on the Acela Express.

The Northeast corridor from Boston to Washington is the centerpiece of the nation’s commuter rail system. It carries more people than the airlines, makes a profit, and takes an ungodly number of cars off extremely crowded highways. However, it needs $21 billion of work on its bridges, tunnels, tracks and equipment.

We’ve all been thinking about it since the terrible derailment in Philadelphia earlier this month. In a moment of stupendously bad timing, House Republicans chose the day after the accident to cut more than $1 billion from the $2.45 billion the Obama administration had requested for Amtrak.

Speaker John Boehner said any attempt to link the two things was “stupid.” As only he can.

Let’s take a middle road, people, and assume that while the Philadelphia crash might not be directly related to any funding cut, it’s a good reminder that running packed trains through 19th century tunnels and bridges is asking for trouble.

Amtrak is a managerial mishmash, trapped under the thumb of Congress, and also responsible for long-distance service across the country, touching cities from Chicago to New Orleans to Grand Rapids to Salt Lake City on a series of routes that are never going to make money. Conservative groups that call for the privatization of Amtrak are basically envisioning a system where the Northeast Corridor is left to fend for itself while the money-losing routes fade into history.

“Ideally, we would like to see all transportation spending and taxing devolve to the states,” said Michael Sargent of The Heritage Foundation.

None of the Northeastern senators at the press conference complained about the cross-country money-losers. Perhaps that was out of deference to their colleague, Dick Durbin of Chicago. Perhaps they instinctively understood that no matter what the drain, Amtrak has a better chance of political survival running through 46 states. It’s a theory that works great for the Defense Department.

Maybe the senators just had a national vision of what national rail service is supposed to be.

“It’s worth reminding our colleagues the Northeast Corridor is the only part that makes money,” said Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut in a phone interview. “But that doesn’t mean I want to get rid of the rest of the system. If we only kept the portions of government that made money, there wouldn’t be any point to the State of Connecticut running a Department of Children and Families anymore.”

What’s your off-the-cuff verdict, people?

A) Save the railroad!

B) Prioritize! Every train for itself!

C) They can do anything they want if they’ll just get together and fix the pothole on my corner.

Wow, I believe I see a majority for the pothole. Remind me to tell you about how members of Congress just passed the 33rd super-short-term highway bill because they haven’t been able to come up with any normal road repair funding since 2008.

Transportation unites the country, but the crowded parts and the empty parts have different needs. Cities require mass transit, which is something that tends to irritate many rural conservatives. (It’s that vision of a whole bunch of strangers stuck together, stripped of even the illusion of control.) Remote towns and cities need connections to survive, even though the price tag seems way out of proportion to those of us who don’t live on, say, an Alaskan island.

Amtrak’s operating budget is about the same as the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes commercial air service to remote communities. Most of the flights are at least two-thirds empty. CBS News, in a report earlier this year, found one flight between Kansas City, Mo., and Great Bend, Kan., that generally carried only a single passenger.

Everybody knows that the government can waste money. (If you have any doubts, I will refer you to a recent report by Pro Publica about a glorious new $25 million, 64,000-square-foot headquarters the military constructed for American troops in Afghanistan even though said troops were going home.) But making money-losing links between different parts of the theoretically United States doesn’t seem to be in that category.

Fix Amtrak. Connect the country.

Won’t happen as long as the mole people rule.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 167 other followers