The Pasty Little Putz has given us a fine whine today. In “Parental Pity Party” he sniffles that first comes the baby, and then all the whining starts about how impossible it all is. “Dana Lawrence” from Davenport, LA had this to say: “Don’t worry, Mr. Douthat. You were a whiner long before the baby arrived.” MoDo is in Paris. In “Marry First, Then Cheat” she says in France, it’s O.K. to cheat if you’re married, but not if you’re single. The Moustache of Wisdom is back on his regular “let’s all of you be entrepreneurs” kick. In “Start-Up America: Our Best Hope” he says the contrast between the vibe in Silicon Valley and the obstruction in Washington is quite telling. Mr. Kristof says “Professors, We Need You!” He says academics are some of the smartest minds in the world, and then asks a question: So why are they making themselves irrelevant? Mr. Bruni says “Let Our Lawmakers Hide!” He wants us to behold the costume party that is Congress, where members wear faces at odds with their souls. Here, unfortunately, is the Putz:
When I became a father, I expected to change in all the predictable ways — to become more responsible and more exhausted, to lose contact with friends and lean more heavily on relatives, to grow steadily balder of head and softer of belly.
What I didn’t expect is that parenthood would make me such a whiner.
I’m not sure I’ve contributed personally to the Internet’s ever-expanding Book of Parental Lamentations — what Ruth Graham, writing for Slate, calls the “endless stream of blog posts and status updates depicting the messy, tedious, nightmarishly life-destroying aspects of parenting.” But in private conversation, I’m often the sort of parent Graham complains is scaring her away from motherhood — all too eager to Tell It Like It Really Is, and enumerate all the horrible aspects of the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me.
Coming from the financially secure and happily married, this whining can feel unseemly, self-indulgent and unfair to one’s kids. In my own case, it’s also philosophically problematic, since a Catholic columnist should presumably be trying to talk his acquaintances into having as many kids as possible.
But a not-so-quiet desperation can seem pervasive among parents, and it’s worth trying to understand why.
Fortunately, Jennifer Senior’s new book, “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” is an excellent primer on possible explanations for the great parental pity party. It ranges across the problems with family policy in the United States (basically, we don’t have one), the changing role of children (who went, she notes, “from being our employees to our bosses”), the unsettling of gender roles, the “having it all” stresses inherent in the maternal quest for work-life balance, and the way economic uncertainty and technological change make it hard for parents to figure out what kind of world they’re supposed to be preparing their children for.
But Senior’s most insightful emphasis, I think, is on the gap that’s opened — thanks to our society’s extraordinary wealth and libertarian social ethic — between the lifestyles and choices available to nonparents and the irreducible burdens still involved in raising children.
As she puts it, parenthood is “the last binding obligation in a culture that asks for almost no other permanent commitments at all.” In this sense, it isn’t necessarily that family life has changed that dramatically in the last few generations. Rather, it’s stayed the same in crucial ways — because babies still need what babies need — while outside the domestic sphere there’s been an expansion of opportunities, a proliferation of choices and entertainments and immediately available gratifications, that make child rearing seem much more burdensome by comparison.
This has two consequences for young, reasonably affluent Americans. First, it creates an understandable reluctance to give up the pleasures of extended brunches and long happy hours, late nights and weekend getaways, endless hours playing Grand Theft Auto or binge-watching “New Girl.” Second, it inspires a ferocious shock when a child arrives and that oh-so-modern lifestyle gives way to challenges that seem almost medieval, and duties that seem impossibly absolute. And the longer the arrival is delayed, the greater that shock — because “postponing children,” Senior points out, can make parents “far more aware of the freedoms they’re giving up.”
“Welcome,” a colleague emailed me after our first daughter was born, “to unavoidable reality.” Which is exactly right: In parts of American society, death and children’s diapers are the only unavoidable realities left.
Unless, of course, you avoid the diapers by avoiding the children altogether, as the developed world’s inhabitants are increasingly inclined to do.
In an earlier column, I described this retreat from childbearing as (in part) a symptom of cultural decadence, in which modern comforts crowd out intergenerational obligations. This idea was not well received by many readers, but I think it’s actually the unacknowledged worldview behind a lot of the parental griping you find online and elsewhere: The “look how impossible my life has become since I had kids” genre is a way of passing judgment, not all that subtly, on people who have opted out of the parental mission altogether.
And though I agree with the implicit message — that parenting is tough, necessary and praiseworthy — a brag disguised as a whine about your own un-decadent hardships is probably not the best way to hold decadence at bay. Better for parents to be cheerful warriors, to emphasize the joy rather than the misery, while also extending tolerance and understanding — rather than judgment infused with envy — to friends and neighbors who choose a different path.
Which is what I pledge to do from here on out. Enjoy your lingering brunches, my childless friends, and I’ll enjoy my rushed meals and puree-stained fingers. Dirty diapers for me, dirty martinis for thee! Let peace and tolerance prevail!
And no, of course my angels had nothing whatsoever to do with that stain on your favorite sweater.
It must be béarnaise sauce.
The idea that he’s spawned is horrifying… Next up we have MoDo, frolicking in Paris:
Only the French could have an etiquette scandal.
Let Americans get in a lather over peccadillos of state. The French are lamenting the state of propriety. No one in the land of Napoleon is following the code. And it is putting the citoyens of this once luminous empire in a dark mood. They are less concerned about their president’s slamming-door farcical adventures in amour than they are about the blow to their amour-propre. They fret that their image is more Feydeau than Rousseau.
On this Saint-Valentin weekend, as people join un kiss flash mob at the Louvre, we face another Gallic paradox, like the one about red wine and foie gras keeping you thin.
“The whole problem with this Hollande scandal is that he is not married,” says Jean-Marie Rouart, the French novelist. “Had he been married, this affair would never have been revealed.”
He observed that, as an “elected monarch,” the president has to maintain appearances. “In France, having a mistress is not considered cheating,” he says. “We are not a puritanical country. France is Catholic. We accept sin and forgiveness.”
It’s bad enough to hide under a helmet and dismiss your security and go incognito on an Italian scooter to have a tryst in an apartment that is a stone’s throw from the Élysée Palace and has some tenuous connection to the Corsican Mafia. But everyone here except François Hollande seems to agree: You do not install one mistress at the Élysée when you have another mistress. That is simply bad form.
Why should the tabloids stick to the rule of the French press to ignore the private lives of presidents if Hollande breaks the rule of French presidents to lead an “exemplary” public life, which means having a real wife to cheat on?
Many now suspect the 59-year-old Hollande, a.k.a. The Living Marshmallow, allowed Mistress No. 1, beautiful 48-year-old Paris Match writer Valérie Trierweiler, to play the role of first concubine to distract her from his affair with Mistress No. 2, gorgeous 41-year-old actress Julie Gayet. Gayet is a committed Socialist who worked on Hollande’s campaign, making kittenish support videos and sporting an “I only date Super Heroes” T-shirt.
To assuage Trierweiler for being dubbed “a concubine” in the press, the Rottweiler — as she’s known for her aggressive moves in person and on Twitter — got Élysée offices, a staff of four and a monthly budget of $27,000.
But that created some mal de mer among the French, even before the White House had to destroy all its invitations with Valerie’s name when she squared off with her rival, went to the hospital with a case of “the blues,” and was dumped by Hollande in a terse press “communiqué” two weeks before his visit to Washington.
“The concept of the first lady doesn’t exist in France, and even less the first mistress,” sniffed Olivier de Rohan, a vicomte and head of a foundation that protects French art. “The protocol in France is very strict. It is not a question of choice or pleasure. The wife of the president of the republic was always seated as the wife, never paraded as the first lady. I don’t care with whom Hollande sleeps. But the whole thing is totally ridiculous, the head of a great state exhibiting mistresses, one after the other.”
Or as one French journalist murmured, “All this, in the place where de Gaulle was.”
Over good wine and small portions across Paris, there was appalled discussion that Stephen Colbert, who had filleted Hollande’s shenanigans on his show, was seated to the right of Michelle Obama at the state dinner, in the magic circle with the president where Trierweiler would have been, had she not been trundled off to the love guillotine.
“In France, it would be extremely rude to do that,” Rohan said about Colbert. “The Americans have no protocol.”
Before the dinner, Colbert joked that if the first lady were just the last person you slept with, America’s would have been Monica Lewinsky in 1998. He later crowed about the significance of his placement, yelling “I’m the first lady of France! Merci!” as he was showered with roses. His project, he said, would be “bringing Jean Valjean to justice.”
The nation that once worshipped Jerry Lewis was flummoxed by this “terrible faux pas,” as it was dubbed. (Even though Colbert shares a name with a top adviser to Louis XIV, many harbor dark suspicions that he’s Irish.) They wondered how a late-night comic outranked Christine Lagarde, a possible contender to succeed Hollande? Why were more French luminaries not invited? Why did Mary J. Blige sing for Hollande “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” a famous Jacques Brel chanson begging a lover not to leave?
Did Michelle, Le Point snarked, think she was providing Colbert with “fresh material” for another searing sketch?
The French have spent centuries making fun of us for our puritanism, and now they feel the unbearable sting of our mockery, as our press and comedians chortle at a mediocre pol caught up in a melodrama with all the erotic charge of week-old Camembert. (Maybe that’s why the French got so swept up in the ridiculous but glamorous rumor about Obama and Beyoncé.)
All those French expressions we siphon because English isn’t nuanced enough — finesse, etiquette, savoir-faire, rendezvous, je ne sais quoi, comme il faut — Hollande flouted.
In the minds of many here, the French president is a loser because he’s so unrefined he might as well be American.
She’s such a bitch… Next up we’re faced with The Moustache of Wisdom. who’s in Palo Alto:
The most striking thing about visiting Silicon Valley these days is how many creative ideas you can hear in just 48 hours.
Jeff Weiner, the chief executive of LinkedIn, explains how his company aims to build an economic graph that will link together the whole global work force with every job being offered in the world, full-time and temporary, for-profit and volunteer, the skills needed for each job, and a presence for every higher education institution everywhere offering a way to acquire those skills.
Aaron Levie, the chief executive of Box, explains how his online storage and collaboration technology is enabling anyone on any mobile device to securely upload files, collaborate, and share content from anywhere to anywhere. Laszlo Bock, who oversees all hiring at Google, lays out the innovative ways his company has learned to identify talented people who have never gone to college. Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb, explains how his start-up has, in the blink of an eye, become one of the biggest providers of overnight rooms in the world — challenging Hilton and Marriott — without owning a single room. Curt Carlson, the chief executive of SRI International, which invented Siri for your iPhone, recalls how one leading innovator just told him that something would never happen and “then I pick up the paper and it just did.”
What they all have in common is they wake up every day and ask: “What are the biggest trends in the world, and how do I best invent/reinvent my business to thrive from them?” They’re fixated on creating abundance, not redividing scarcity, and they respect no limits on imagination. No idea here is “off the table.”
Then, after you’ve been totally energized by people inventing the future, you go back to your hotel room and catch up with the present: the news from Washington. Two headlines stand out like flashing red lights: House Speaker John Boehner says immigration reform in 2014 is off the table and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says the “fast track” legislation we need to pass vital free-trade agreements with the European Union and some of our biggest trading partners in the Asia-Pacific region is off the table. Forget about both until after the 2014 midterm elections, if not 2016.
Summing this all up, The Associated Press reported on Feb. 9 something that you could not make up: “WASHINGTON (AP) — Little more than a week after Groundhog Day, the evidence is mounting that lawmakers have all but wrapped up their most consequential work of 2014, at least until the results of the fall elections are known.”
What a contrast. Silicon Valley: where ideas come to launch. Washington, D.C., where ideas go to die. Silicon Valley: where there are no limits on your imagination and failure in the service of experimentation is a virtue. Washington: where the “imagination” to try something new is now a treatable mental illness covered by Obamacare and failure in the service of experimentation is a crime. Silicon Valley: smart as we can be. Washington: dumb as we wanna be.
True, some libertarians in Silicon Valley cheer Washington’s paralysis. But it is not so simple. There is a certain “league minimum” that we need and are entitled to expect from Washington, especially today. America just discovered huge deposits of energy and gold at the same time. That is, thanks to advances in drilling technology we have unlocked vast new sources of natural gas, which — if extracted with environmentally sound practices — will give us decades of cheap, cleaner energy and enable America to restore itself as a center of manufacturing.
At the same time, the dominance of American companies in cloud computing, and the “Internet of Things” — billions of devices with sensors — have given us a huge lead in the era of Big Data, where the winners will be those who are best at amassing, analyzing and protecting that data and use software to quickly apply what they learn from the data to improve any product or service. These data mountains and the tools to exploit them are the new gold. And we’ve got it.
In such an era, one of the two most valuable things Washington can do to create more good jobs and wealth is to open more export markets. The other is to have an immigration policy that not only provides a legal pathway to citizenship for those here illegally but enables America to attract the best brainpower and apply that talent to the data mountains and software opportunities we’re creating.
But Washington these days won’t even do the league minimum. As The Economist observed in an essay entitled “When Harry Mugged Barry,” both the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with big Asian markets like Japan, which is almost done, and the U.S.-European Union trade deal, which is being negotiated, are “next generation” agreements that even the playing field for us by requiring higher environmental and labor standards from our trading partners and more access for our software and services.
“Studies suggest that proposed deals with Asia and Europe could generate global gains of $600 billion a year, with $200 billion of that going to America,” The Economist added. “And that understates the benefits, since the deals would spur competition in the market for services, which make up most of rich countries’ output but are seldom traded across borders. Opening industries like finance and transport to greater competition could bring great savings to consumers.”
The U.S. trade representative, Michael Froman, told me that if we’re able to conclude these two trade deals, America would have free trade with “two-thirds of the world.” If you combine that with our lead in cloud computing, social media, software and natural gas for low-cost manufacturing — plus our rule of law and entrepreneurial cultural — you understand, says Froman, why one European C.E.O. told him that America will be the “production platform of choice” for manufacturers all over the world to set up their operations and export to the world.
But it will all have to wait at least until after 2014 when we might have a week to legislate before we get ready for 2016. God forbid either party should challenge their respective bases who oppose freer trade or immigration. That would actually require leadership.
We cannot and should not abolish politics, but sometimes we can’t afford politics as usual. And this time, with rising inequality, is one of them. We need to be doing everything we know how to do to create good jobs and growth. “When your mind-set isn’t about creating abundance,” says Carlson of SRI, “you go into extractive mode, which is a death spiral.”
Start-up America is our best hope. Sure, we’re doing better than most everyone else, but just being the “cleanest dirty shirt” has never been the American dream.
Here’s what “MetroJournalist” in the NY area had to say about that: “Here we go again. Start a new company. Have Thomas Friedman shill for it. Wash. Rinse. Spin. Repeat.” Now we get to Mr. Kristof:
Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.
The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.
One reason is the anti-intellectualism in American life, the kind that led Rick Santorum to scold President Obama as “a snob” for wanting more kids to go to college, or that led congressional Republicans to denounce spending on social science research. Yet it’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves.
“All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public,” notes Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and now the president of the New America Foundation.
There are plenty of exceptions, of course, including in economics, history and some sciences, in professional schools like law and business, and, above all, in schools of public policy; for that matter, we have a law professor in the White House. But, over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.
A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.
“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”
The latest attempt by academia to wall itself off from the world came when the executive council of the prestigious International Studies Association proposed that its publication editors be barred from having personal blogs. The association might as well scream: We want our scholars to be less influential!
A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.
Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian who writes for The New Yorker and is an exception to everything said here, noted the result: “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.”
As experiments, scholars have periodically submitted meaningless gibberish to scholarly journals — only to have the nonsense respectfully published.
My onetime love, political science, is a particular offender and seems to be trying, in terms of practical impact, to commit suicide.
“Political science Ph.D.’s often aren’t prepared to do real-world analysis,” says Ian Bremmer, a Stanford political science Ph.D. who runs the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, one-fifth of articles in The American Political Science Review focused on policy prescriptions; at last count, the share was down to 0.3 percent.
Universities have retreated from area studies, so we have specialists in international theory who know little that is practical about the world. After the Arab Spring, a study by the Stimson Center looked back at whether various sectors had foreseen the possibility of upheavals. It found that scholars were among the most oblivious — partly because they relied upon quantitative models or theoretical constructs that had been useless in predicting unrest.
Many academic disciplines also reduce their influence by neglecting political diversity. Sociology, for example, should be central to so many national issues, but it is so dominated by the left that it is instinctively dismissed by the right.
In contrast, economics is a rare academic field with a significant Republican presence, and that helps tether economic debates to real-world debates. That may be one reason, along with empiricism and rigor, why economists (including my colleague in columny, Paul Krugman) shape debates on issues from health care to education.
Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook. Likewise, it was TED Talks by nonscholars that made lectures fun to watch (but I owe a shout-out to the Teaching Company’s lectures, which have enlivened our family’s car rides).
I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!
Well, at least we have Prof. Krugman, the voice crying in the wilderness. And now we get to Mr. Bruni:
An idea for the Senate: brown paper bags. You know, the kind in which you cut little holes for your eyes and your nose and a bigger, wider hole for your mouth. Senators could wear these in the chamber, so that the C-Span cameras and the outside world wouldn’t know precisely who’s supporting what. Or maybe ski masks, though those wreak havoc on hairdos. Alternately, the lawmakers could communicate in code: anything to obscure their actions and make it easier for them to actually cast votes in line with their best judgment and consciences. Oh, you thought they always did that? Well then I won’t spill the beans on Santa or the Easter bunny, either.
Last week was a doozy, and not in the usual way. The nation didn’t lurch toward another cliff; the suffixes -geddon and -pocalypse didn’t come out to play; the air didn’t grow thick with dire “s” words like stalemate, standoff and the direst of all, shutdown. No, last week ended with Congress’s having steered clear of disaster by passing a measure to lift the debt ceiling. Congress functioned, more or less. And yet — here’s the clincher — it looked as ugly as usual, if not uglier.
At issue was the way it functioned, a dysfunction of its own. Over in the House, Republican leaders brought the lifting of the debt ceiling to a vote so that they and a smattering of their party colleagues could pass the measure with the help of nearly all of the Democrats. You might naïvely wonder how this wouldn’t estrange the leaders from their caucus. But you’d be failing to take into account that many members of that caucus wanted the measure to succeed, recognizing that this was in the nation’s interest, but wanted at the same time to vote no, so as not to draw attacks from party extremists. In Congress, this isn’t considered a contradiction. It’s not even considered undignified. It’s considered canny self-preservation. (You serve, above all, to get re-elected.) The phenomenon is common enough that in a recent story in The Times, my colleagues Ashley Parker and Jonathan Weisman assigned it a name: Vote No, Hope Yes.
In a given chamber of Congress, the majority party usually takes responsibility for raising the debt ceiling, while the minority is permitted to balk and rail theatrically about wanton government spending. In fact Barack Obama did such balking and railing when he was in the Democratic minority of the Senate. Now Democrats run the show there, and they were poised to provide the necessary support to get the ceiling lifted. But the inimitable and irrepressible Ted Cruz insisted on a 60-vote threshold to allow the measure to be taken up, and getting past this hurdle required at least five Republicans to side with Democrats.
If the Republicans in the Senate had really cared to doom the measure, this was their big chance. But their true and ardent desire was to appear adamantly opposed without being so, and thus to appease party loudmouths without actually letting those loudmouths get their way.
This was where the brown paper bags would have come in very handy, because to avoid a filibuster and let the measure ultimately succeed, some Republicans had to step up and actually cast a vote in favor of its consideration. Their solution: to conduct this first, procedural vote in silence — an extremely rare and exceedingly curious thing — so that it wasn’t immediately clear to observers which Republicans were effectively helping to make sure the debt ceiling got raised. The theory, presumably, was that by the time it did become clear, those same Republicans would have proceeded to cast a subsequent “no” vote against the raise itself, whose passage required only the simple majority of votes that Democrats alone could provide.
The world’s greatest deliberative body at work! Make sure the children are watching! Inspiring civic lessons for all!
This isn’t just about the debt ceiling. On too many other fronts, the gulf between how lawmakers know they should behave and what they have the political courage to do is painfully wide. This has happened with Hurricane Sandy relief, with the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, with budgetary matters.
The week before last, immigration reform fell apart, and not because of the number of lawmakers who think it’s a horrid idea, but because of the number who think it’s probably a good idea but don’t want to commit to that and confront any blowback.
And last week the Senate, in a 95-3 vote, and the House, by a 326-90 margin, reversed a portion of a budget agreement that would have limited cost-of-living increases in many military veterans’ pensions to 1 percent below the rate of inflation.
Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator and a veteran, told me that the limit, which the Pentagon endorsed, was utterly reasonable and absolutely necessary, and he assured me that most lawmakers knew this. But they worried that if they stood by that conviction, veterans groups would succeed in branding them enemies of the nation’s heroes.
“It’s all about inoculating yourself against the sound bite,” he said. “And now it’s more than a sound bite. It’s also what’s trending on Twitter.” Most lawmakers, he added, believe that the failure to rein in Medicare and Social Security represents a serious threat to the country’s future, but they’re too politically timid to reflect that in their votes.
SUCH cowardice and self-interest aren’t new. But certain wrinkles are. Kerrey mentioned Twitter and, indeed, complaints and catcalls circulate with unprecedented efficiency and reach. It’s quicker for interest groups and opponents to fasten targets on lawmakers’ backs. It’s easier to rouse the rabble.
“With the ability to use computers, it’s worsened,” Mike Castle, a Delaware Republican who served in the House for nearly two decades, said. He added that websites and social media, not to mention cable TV and talk radio, have turned the political atmosphere more broadly and instantaneously caustic. “You have that constant carping. It has made Congress a more difficult place to achieve the greater good.”
Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University, noted that in the past, some votes in Congress wouldn’t even be recorded by individual lawmakers’ names. There was also more hidden back-room dealing. “That kind of insularity allowed legislators to take positions that might not be politically great but were the right thing to do,” he said.
I asked Kerrey: Do the politicians who frequently buck their own consciences at least feel misgivings about that? Struggle with it?
“Now you’re presuming that they’re in contact with their consciences on a regular basis,” he said. “I haven’t actually met many human beings who are. That’s a tough transaction: looking out for your conscience.”
Here’s what “mancuroc” from Rochester, NY had to say: “A better idea for the Senate (and the House): compulsory uniforms bearing the logos each of their top twenty direct and indirect contributors, whether they be corporations, superpacs, lobby groups or just plain folks who happen to be billionaires.” Amen.