Archive for the ‘Nocera’ Category

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

March 3, 2015

In “Leaving and Cleaving” Bobo gurgles that instant communications technology has changed the nature of parting: a new level of self-discipline and sacrifice is required for a graceful split.  In the comments “Mary Askew” from Springfield, MA had this to say:  “David Brooks may know people who stalk and harass ex-lovers, friends, mentors. I don’t. And, I haven’t heard those issues discussed among my friends.  If he thinks about it, Brooks will drop the “We all know….” formula. It is, at best, a lazy rationalization for this column.”  Mr. Cohen, in “The Vast Realm of ‘If’,” says hypothetically speaking, one life is not enough. There is not enough time for all of our dreams.  In “How Warren Buffet Does It” Mr. Nocera tells us about going from “cigar butt” investing to the greatest conglomerate ever in 50 years.  Here’s Bobo:

So much of life is about leave-taking: moving from home to college, from love to love, from city to city and from life stage to life stage.

In earlier times, leaving was defined by distance, but now it is defined by silence. Everybody everywhere is just a text away, a phone call away. Relationships are often defined by the frequency and intensity of communication between two people.

The person moving on and changing a relationship no longer makes a one-time choice to physically go to another town. He makes a series of minute-by-minute decisions to not text, to not email or call, to turn intense communication into sporadic conversation or no communication. His name was once constant on his friend’s phone screen, but now it is rare and the void is a wound.

If you are like me you know a lot of relationships in which people haven’t managed this sort of transition well. Communication that was once honest and life-enhancing has become perverted — after a transition — by resentment, neediness or narcissism.

We all know men and women who stalk ex-lovers online; people who bombard a friend with emails even though that friendship has evidently cooled; mentors who resent their former protégés when their emails are no longer instantly returned; people who post faux glam pictures on Instagram so they can “win the breakup” against their ex.

Instant communication creates a new sort of challenge. How do you gracefully change your communication patterns when one person legitimately wants to step back or is entering another life phase?

The paradox is that the person doing the leaving controls the situation, but greater heroism is demanded of the one being left behind. The person left in the vapor trail is hurt and probably craves contact. It’s amazing how much pain there is when what was once intimate conversation turns into unnaturally casual banter, emotional distance or just a void.

The person left behind also probably thinks that the leaver is making a big mistake. She probably thinks that it’s stupid to leave or change the bond; that the other person is driven by selfishness, shortsightedness or popularity.

Yet if the whole transition is going to be managed with any dignity, the person being left has to swallow the pain and accept the decision.

The person being left has to grant the leaver the dignity of her own mind, has to respect her ability to make her own choices about how to live and whom to be close to (except in the most highly unusual circumstances). The person being left has to suppress vindictive flashes of resentment and be motivated by a steady wish for the other person’s ultimate good. Without accepting the idea that she deserved to be left, the person being left has to act in a way worthy of her best nature, to continue the sacrificial love that the leaver may not deserve and may never learn about.

That means not calling when you are not wanted. Not pleading for more intimacy or doing the other embarrassing things that wine, late nights and instant communications make possible.

Maybe that will mean the permanent end to what once was, in which case at least the one left behind has lost with grace. But maybe it will mean rebirth.

For example, to be around college students these days is to observe how many parents have failed to successfully start their child’s transition into adulthood.

The mistakes usually begin early in adolescence. The parents don’t create a space where the child can establish independence. They don’t create a context in which the child can be honest about what’s actually happening in his life. The child is forced to deceive in order to both lead a semi-independent life and also maintain parental love.

By college, both sides are to be pitied. By hanging on too tight, the parents have created exactly the separation they sought to avoid. The student, meanwhile, does not know if he is worthy of being treated as a dignified adult because his parents haven’t treated him that way. They are heading for a life of miscommunication.

But if the parents lay down sacrificially, accept the relationship their child defines, then it can reboot on an adult-to-adult basis. The hiddenness and deception is no longer necessary. Texts and emails can flow, not as before, but fluidly and sweetly.

Communications technology encourages us to express whatever is on our minds in that instant. It makes self-restraint harder. But sometimes healthy relationships require self-restraint and self-quieting, deference and respect (at the exact moments when those things are hardest to muster). So today a new kind of heroism is required. Feelings are hurt and angry words are at the ready. But they are held back. You can’t know the future, but at least you can walk into it as your best and highest self.

I wonder if Bobo is busy cyber-stalking his ex-wife, since he seems so sure that we ALL know someone who does that…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

What happens only just happens; then inevitability is conferred upon it. Between the lived and the not-quite-lived lies the little word “if.” It’s a two-letter invitation to the vast realm of the hypothetical, the counterfactual, and all the various paths not taken over the course of a life.

When I lived in Brazil in the 1980s I would run along the beach from Leblon to Ipanema and back. After the workout, I’d always pay a couple of cents for coconut water. I liked to watch the way the beach-shack dude cupped the coconut in one hand and then, with three or four languorous but unerring swipes of his machete, opened up the top. He’d insert a straw. The iced water was always perfect.

I’d count his fingers. The blade never slipped. There were always 10.

Of course, if I’d thought of putting the coconut water in a bottle 30 years ago, marketing its health benefits, and selling it worldwide, I would not be writing this column today. It was too simple to think of that.

When I lived in Rome, before Brazil, I liked to watch the barmen ratcheting ground coffee into a receptacle, tapping the grains down, twisting the container into a socket, placing cups on a metal ledge-cum-filter beneath the coffee-yielding spouts, pouring milk with the requested dose of foam, and placing the various coffees on the counter. The quicksilver movements seemed all part of a single pirouette.

My then wife and I would travel from Rome to the Midwest, where she is from, and remark on the fact that it was near impossible to get a good coffee. She liked the idea of opening a coffee shop in the Twin Cities that would serve coffee as good as we’d become accustomed to drinking in Italy. Perhaps we could even grow the business across the United States!

Of course, if we’d done that in 1983, coffee aficionados might be speaking of St. Paul today the way they speak of Seattle. We’d be visiting our coffee shops in Chengdu and Glasgow. But it was too simple to do that.

Before Rome, when I lived in Brussels, I’d watch the chocolatiers down near the Grand Place apply their tongs (most useful and underrated of culinary implements!) to the cocoa-dusted truffles and place them, one by one, in small white boxes until the chocolates were arrayed in many-layered order, one temptation nestling against another.

It would have been easy enough, in 1980, to make those chocolates more widely available, and it did occur to me that they should be, but of course I did nothing about the thought. If I had, who knows?

When I was in Afghanistan in 1973, before all the trouble started, or rather at the moment the trouble started with the overthrow of the king, I should have brought back all those Afghan rugs, and perhaps picked up a few in Iran (in that one could drive across the country then without any problem or mention of nukes); and certainly I should have hung onto our VW Kombi called Pigpen, after the keyboardist of the Grateful Dead who died that year, but I did not imagine then what a vehicle like that, adorned with Afghan paintings, might go for on eBay today, or how the VW bus would one day be prized from Hay-on-Wye to Haight-Ashbury. I don’t even recall where in England I left Pigpen to die.

Hypothetically speaking, we need countless lives. There is not enough time. Or so it may seem. In the next one I will be a baker or a jeweler or a winemaker. I will make things. I will stay in one place.

Absent what might have been, I went on writing. In “The Debt to Pleasure,” the English novelist John Lanchester has this to say about my profession: “‘Your precipitate social decline cannot fail to alarm your well-wishers,’ I told my brother. ‘You started as a painter, then you became a sculptor, now you’re basically a sort of gardener. What next, Barry? Street-cleaner? Lavatory attendant? Journalism?”’

That is a little harsh on what happened in the absence of what might have.

There is beauty in our dreams of change, our constant what ifs. Days begin in the realm of solemn undertakings — to eat less, to exercise more, to work harder, or to go gentler. They end with wobbles into compromise, or collapses into indulgence, with the perennial solace of the prospect of another day. The good-intentions dinner, a salad with a couple of slivers of chicken, turns into a Burrito with cheese and avocado and salsa and chicken. That’s human.

It’s an illusion to think it would have been simple to change. We live lives that reflect our natures. Memory grows, a refuge, a solace, a repository so vast that what happened and what almost did begin to blur.

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

Fifty years ago, a young investor named Warren Buffett took control of a failing textile company, Berkshire Hathaway. “I found myself … invested in a terrible business about which I knew very little,” Buffett relates in his annual letter to shareholders, which was released over the weekend. “I became the dog who caught the car.”

Buffett describes his approach in those days as “cigar butt” investing; buying shares of troubled companies with underpriced stocks was “like picking up a discarded cigar butt that had one puff remaining in it,” he writes. “Though the stub might be ugly and soggy, the puff would be free.” He continues: “Most of my gains in those early years … came from investments in mediocre companies that traded at bargain prices.”

But that approach had limits. It took Charlie Munger, the Los Angeles lawyer who has been his longtime sidekick, to show him that there was another way to win at the investing game: “Forget what you know about buying fair businesses at wonderful prices,” Munger told him. “Instead, buy wonderful businesses at fair prices.” Which is what Buffett’s been doing ever since.

He has done it in two ways. First — and this is what he is renowned for — he has bought stock in some of the great American companies of our time, stock that he has held not just for years, but for decades. Second, he has turned Berkshire Hathaway into a true conglomerate, which owns not just stocks but entire companies. Although Berkshire’s front office employs only 25 people, its companies have, in total, some 340,500 employees.

How successful has the Buffett-Munger approach been? In the 50 years since Buffett took over Berkshire, its stock has appreciated by 1,826,163 percent. That is an astounding number.

You would think, given Buffett’s success, that more people would try to emulate his approach to investing. It is not as if he hasn’t tried to explain how he does it. Every year, you can find a Buffett tutorial in his annual letter that the rest of us would do well to absorb — and practice.

In the current letter, for instance, he makes the case — which has been made many times before — that a diversified portfolio of stocks “that are bought over time and that are owned in a manner invoking only token fees and commissions” are less risky over the long term than other investment vehicles that are tied to the dollar. Clearly, that’s been his approach. He then goes on to bemoan the fact that too many investors — both little guys and investment professionals — do things that add risk: “Active trading, attempts to ‘time’ market movements, inadequate diversification, the payment of high and unnecessary fees … and the use of borrowed money can destroy the decent returns that a life-long owner of equities would otherwise enjoy.”

Another thing about Buffett is that he has never gotten caught up in fads. He only buys businesses that he understands and can predict where the business will be in a decade. He teaches this point in the current letter with a discussion of the conglomerates that sprung up in the 1960s and became the hot stocks of the moment. Jimmy Ling, who ran one such company, LTV, used to say that he looked for acquisitions where “2 plus 2 equals 5.”

LTV, as conceived by Ling, of course, ceased to exist decades ago (though the company would go through several transformations and bankruptcy court before shuttering its last vestige in 2002). “Never forget that 2 + 2 will always equal 4,” writes Buffett. “And when someone tells you how old-fashioned that math is — zip up your wallet, take a vacation and come back in a few years to buy stocks at cheap prices.”

If it’s really this simple, why don’t more people try to invest like Buffett? One reason, I think, is that sound investing — buying when others are selling, holding for the long term, avoiding the hot stocks — requires a stronger stomach than most people have. When a stock is plummeting, it takes a certain strength to buy even more instead of selling in a panic. Most of us lack the temperament required for smart investing. The fundamental equanimity required to be a great investor is a rare thing.

The second reason is that investing the Warren Buffett way is a lot more complicated than he makes it sound. Can you predict where a business will be in 10 years? Of course not. But he can — and does.

In a few months, the faithful will flock to Omaha to attend Berkshire’s annual meeting — “Woodstock for capitalists,” Buffett likes to call it. For six hours, Buffett and Munger will be on stage, before some 40,000 people, cracking wise, while making their investment decisions sound like simplicity itself.

But, in coming to pay their annual homage, the throngs will not be acknowledging the simplicity of Buffett’s approach, but the genius behind it.

Nocera and Collins

February 28, 2015

Mr. Nocera is back to playing Gunga Din for the fossil fuel industry.  In “Bloomberg Sees a Way on Keystone” he tells us that the former mayor of New York suggests that the Obama administration negotiate directly with Canada on a climate pact.  He’ll just never stop, and I STILL want to get a look at his investment portfolio.  In “And Now, Homeland Insecurity” Ms. Collins says getting Congress to fund the Homeland Security Department has us back in the land of fiscal cliffs.  Here’s Gunga Din:

No one can question Michael Bloomberg’s climate change bona fides. As mayor of New York, he declared that cities had to lead the way in reducing the threat of climate change, and he strove to make New York greener. He has donated millions of dollars to the effort to shut down coal-fired power plants. He endorsed President Obama for re-election in 2012 primarily because the president, he said, “has taken major steps to reduce our carbon consumption.” Most recently, he was named the United Nations secretary general’s special envoy for cities and climate change, a position he appears to be taking quite seriously.

Bloomberg is also a supremely pragmatic man, who prides himself on not letting ideology get in the way of finding practical solutions to difficult problems. Thus it was that earlier this week — after Obama vetoed a bill passed by Congress that would have forced him to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline — Bloomberg wrote an article for Bloomberg View, his media company’s opinion publication, proposing an idea for breaking the logjam over the pipeline, which would transport oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

His idea is that the Obama administration should negotiate directly with the Canadian government, and come up with a climate pact that would more than offset the emissions that would be generated — indeed, are already being generated — by mining the oil from the sands. Though it is unlikely to satisfy the partisans on both sides, it is a wonderfully sensible solution.

“Keystone has become irrationally significant,” Bloomberg told me when I spoke to him about his idea. “Environmentalists overstate the danger of the pipeline to the environment,” he continued, “while those who say the economics would be significant are overstating as well.” Bloomberg believes we would all be better off if we stripped the pipeline of its symbolism and dealt with it more realistically.

Many in the environmental movement have taken the position that building Keystone — and thus allowing for increased production of tar sands oil — would be ruinous for the planet. Not only would it further the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, but, if it enabled the full exploitation of the tar sands, it would emit so much carbon that it would be “game over” for the planet, in the memorable words of James Hansen, an anti-Keystone scientist. As I’ve written before, these claims are wildly overstated; indeed, the Canadian government likes to note that, in 2012, eight states, starting with Texas, had higher emissions from their coal-fired power plants than Canada did from its oil sands. And transporting oil by train, as is currently being done, is far more dangerous than sending it through a state-of-the-art pipeline.

At the same time, the Republicans who want to use Obama’s veto as a symbol that he is willing to forego good jobs to please his environmental supporters are equally wrongheaded. Most of the American jobs related to Keystone would involve building the pipeline. Once it was up and running,the number of new jobs it would create would be minimal.

There is a third entity for whom Keystone has become a symbol: the conservative government of Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, which has pushed for approval of the pipeline by the United States with an urgency that has sometimes felt a little desperate. In 2011, Harper said that approval of the pipeline should be a “no brainer” for the U.S. Canadian officials have threatened that if the U.S. doesn’t approve the pipeline, the oil would likely go to China instead. And it has treated Obama’s reluctance to make a decision on the pipeline as a reflection of American-Canadian relations, rather than what it is: an issue of American politics. There are many Canadians who believe that the Harper government has badly mishandled the Keystone issue.

At the same time, Harper’s government has not exactly been leading the climate change charge. His administration pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Protocols, the landmark 1997 agreement that committed countries that signed on to mandatory emissions reductions. “We are known around the world as being climate change obstructionists,” said Peter McKenna, a political scientist at the University of Prince Edward Island. “Harper always equates getting serious about climate change as having a negative effect on the Canadian economy.”

It is this state of affairs that Bloomberg seeks to exploit. Late last year, the Obama administration announced a climate change agreement with China, which commits both parties to lowering their greenhouse gas emissions. Because Harper so badly wants the Keystone pipeline to be approved, the U.S. government has tremendous leverage, says Bloomberg, to cut the same kind of deal with Canada. After which, the president could approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline with a clear conscience, knowing that he had mitigated the worst of its effects on the planet.

Pragmatism, for a change, would upend ideology, and we could finally stop talking about this fractious pipeline.

We’ll stop howling about that death funnel when the idea has been killed, embalmed, cremated and buried.  Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Great news! Congress has voted to fund the Department of Homeland Security for a week.

Does that make you feel better, people? The department was due to run out of money Friday night, and the new congressional Republican majority threw itself at the challenge. And after the seventh day, they rested.

Earlier, Speaker John Boehner had attempted a far more ambitious piece of legislation that would have guaranteed the department’s employees would continue to get their paychecks for 21 more days. Those folks would have been on Easy Street until the middle of March. But the Republican right rebelled at Boehner’s audacious reach and the three-week bill failed miserably.

Then, after a few hours of scurrying around, One Week emerged. This time, Democrats gave Boehner a hand, and the bill passed on a bipartisan vote after a debate that almost literally boiled down to the following:

“This is no way to govern the nation.”

“This has been a day of confusion.”

There was absolutely no agreement on what will happen next. We look back with nostalgia on the era when congressional leaders would get together in secret and make deals to pass big, mushy pieces of legislation that were littered with secret appropriations for unnecessary highways and a stuffed-owl museum in some swing vote’s district. We complained a lot at the time, but that was because we didn’t realize it was the golden age.

Do you think it’s a little worrisome that the powerful right flank of the House is made up of people who believe a good way to show their opposition to Obama’s liberal immigration policy is to cut off the border patrol’s paychecks? That the critical role of speaker of the House is held by a guy who doesn’t seem to be able to control his membership? Or even count votes?

“If ands and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas,” said Boehner when reporters pressed him about his plans earlier in the week.

That used to be a saying he kept for special occasions, but now it seems to be cropping up a lot. I take that to be a bad sign. As was the little kissy face Boehner made to reporters when he got another question.

If the Democrats don’t bail him out, Boehner can only afford to lose about 27 Republican votes on any issue. And he’s got a new group called the House Freedom Caucus that was organized to mobilize about 30 Republicans who feel the regular conservative caucus is too mainstream. (Once again we will express our displeasure about the way people keep messing with “freedom.” It used to be such a great word, and now when it comes up we are often forced to recall that song about how freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.)

The Freedom Caucus hated the homeland security bill the Senate passed, which simply continued to fund the department for the rest of the year without a side assault on the president’s immigration policy. “It’s an effort to punt, like Republicans like to do,” said Representative Raúl Labrador of Idaho, who seems to be the voice for the caucus. If we have to have a brand-new group of people dedicated to making the House of Representatives more intransigent, we can at least take consolation in the fact that its spokesman is going to be a person named Raúl Labrador.

This take-no-prisoners right wing is a large part of the reason the Republicans can’t come up with their own policies on anything. It’s embarrassing. They hate Obama’s immigration initiative, but they’ve never passed an immigration bill of their own. They’ve voted to repeal Obamacare at least 56 times, but they’ve never come up with a replacement. Last term, the guy who chaired the committee that writes tax bills produced a tax reform plan, and it went absolutely nowhere.

On the same day the Republican leadership failed to find enough votes to fund Homeland Security for three weeks, it also failed to find enough votes to pass a bill rewriting No Child Left Behind, the massive 2001 education law that desperately needs updating. The Republicans chose not to compromise with the Democrats, and the right wing was angry because the bill didn’t include enough of its agenda. The House spent hours debating it, but, in the end, the leaders had to pull it off the calendar.

Before Boehner got his new, bigger majority, he did manage to get a No Child Left Behind bill through the House. Then it faced inevitable extinction in the Senate. Maybe the speaker will remember that as his glory days, when his troops were fully capable of passing a big bill that had no chance of making it into law.

Still to come: raising the debt ceiling and passing a budget. And, oh yeah, getting Homeland Security through a second week.

Pass the candy and nuts.

Does anyone know which member of the Lunatic Caucus has the tiny little box containing Boehner’s balls?  I know they’re supposed to show them to him once a month…

Brooks and Nocera

February 24, 2015

Oh, Lord…  Bobo’s been to the theater.  In “The Hamilton Experience” he fizzes that Alexander Hamilton, brought strikingly to life in a new musical, embodies a complex but profound American tradition that is inspiring in its audacity.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston has this to say:  “I wonder what Hamilton would make of today’s unfettered finance and capitalism that subjugates the poor and middle class. When Hamilton though about social mobility I suspect that he wasn’t imagining that the mobility would be almost exclusively downward. … As I read Mr. Brooks’ tribute to Hamilton, I wondered how he could wax rhapsodic (or rap-sodic, considering the musical format) about a man who would be vilified by today’s conservatives. Hamilton seemed to have a prodigious intellect, and valued learning. He was concerned about government becoming an oligarchy that would disadvantage the poor. He sought the esteem of thoughtful people. In short, he stood for everything that today’s conservatives despise. I wonder what he would make of pundits who shill for these people?”  Mr. Nocera considers “Scientology’s Chilling Effect” and says it’s impossible to tell the story of Scientology without getting into the issue of intimidation and why the church will never turn the other cheek.  Joe, sweetie, it’s a cult, not a religion.  Here’s Bobo:

Every once in a while a piece of art brilliantly captures the glory, costs and ordeals of public life. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” did that. And so does Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” now playing at The Public Theater in New York.

The Public Theater seems hellbent on putting drama back in the center of the national conversation, and Miranda’s “Hamilton” is one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had in a theater. Each element in the show is a jewel, and the whole is bold, rousing, sexy, tear-jerking and historically respectful — the sort of production that strips things down and asks you to think afresh about your country and your life.

It is a hip-hop musical about a founding father. If that seems incongruous, it shouldn’t. Like the quintessential contemporary rappers, Alexander Hamilton was a poor immigrant kid from a broken home, feverish to rise and broadcast his voice. He was verbally blessed, combative, hungry for fame and touchy about his reputation. Like Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., he died in a clash of male bravado. The spirits of Tupac and Biggie waft through this musical; their genre the modern articulation of Hamilton’s clever and cocky assertiveness.

The musical starts with the core fact about Hamilton and the strain of Americanism he represents: The relentless ambition of the outsider. He was effectively an orphan on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean. His mother died in the bed next to him. He was adopted by a cousin who committed suicide. Relentlessly efficient with his use of time and brilliant in the use of his pen, he made his name.

The musical reveals the dappled nature of that ambition. Hamilton is captivating and energetic — a history-making man who thinks he can remake himself and his country. But he is also haunted by a desperate sense that he is racing against time. He has a reckless, out-of-control quality. In the biography, “Alexander Hamilton,” upon which the musical was based, Ron Chernow writes that Hamilton “always had to fight the residual sadness of the driven man.” That haunting loneliness is in this show, too.

But Hamilton is not portrayed as ambition personified. The musical is structured around the rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr, who is the crafty one, the utilitarian manipulator whose only ambition is to get inside the room where power is wielded. In real life and in the musical, Hamilton’s ambition was redeemed by his romanticism. He was more Lord Byron than Horatio Alger.

Hamilton was romantic about virtue and glory. As a boy he read Plutarch and had an archaic belief that death could be cheated by the person who wins eternal fame. He sought to establish himself as a man of honor, who would live on in the mouths of those whose esteem was worth having.

He was also romantic about his country. Miranda plays up Hamilton’s connection to New York, but Hamilton actually dedicated his life to the cause of America. He sought redemption in a national mission, personal meaning in a glory that would be realized by generations to come.

He was also romantic about women, strong in his capacity for love. Hamilton communes with Angelica Schuyler, who is his intellectual equal. He marries her sister, Eliza Schuyler, who is not, but whose submerged strength comes out in adversity.

But the boldest stroke in Miranda’s musical is that he takes on the whole life — every significant episode. He shows how the active life is inevitably an accumulation of battles, setbacks, bruises, scars, victories and humiliating defeats.

Hamilton’s greatest foe, Thomas Jefferson, is portrayed brilliantly by the actor Daveed Diggs as a supremely gifted aristocrat who knows exactly how gifted he is. Hamilton assaulted Jefferson because he did not believe a country dominated by oligarchs could be a country in which poor boys and girls like him would have space to rise and grow.

By the time he set off for his fatal duel, Hamilton was a damaged man. But he left behind a vision, albeit one that sits uncomfortably across today’s political divide. Unlike progressives, he believed in relatively unfettered finance and capitalism to arouse energy and increase social mobility. Unlike conservatives, he believed that government should actively subsidize mobility. Unlike populists of left and right, he believed in an aristocracy, though one based on virtue and work, not birth.

He also left behind a spirit — the spirit of grand aspiration and national greatness. The cast at the Public Theater is mostly black and Latino, but it exudes the same strong ambition as this dead white man from centuries ago. America changes color and shape, but the spirit Hamilton helped bring to the country still lives. I suspect many people will leave the theater wondering if their own dreams and lives are bold enough, if their own lives could someday be so astounding.

And now here’s Mr. Nocera:

When I was at Fortune magazine in the 1990s, one of my colleagues was a reporter named Richard Behar. He had a special lock on his door, and he wouldn’t even let the janitor in to empty his wastebasket. He used a secret phone, which he kept hidden in a desk drawer, so that calls made to sources couldn’t be traced back to him.

At first, I just thought he was paranoid. But I soon learned that he had come by his paranoia honestly. In May 1991, as a correspondent for Time magazine, Behar had written an exposé of Scientology, calling it a “hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner.”

Before the article was published, Behar says, he was followed by private detectives, who also contacted acquaintances, asking whether he had financial problems. After its publication, that sort of harassment continued, he says — along with a major libel suit. Although the suit was eventually dismissed, it took years, and cost millions of dollars to defend. Behar’s deposition alone lasted 28 days.

What brings this to mind is Alex Gibney’s fine new HBO documentary about Scientology, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” which is based on the book “Going Clear” by Lawrence Wright. (Disclosure: I played a small role in Gibney’s 2005 documentary on Enron.) “Going Clear,” which was shown at Sundance in late January, is scheduled to air on HBO on March 29.

It is virtually impossible to tell the story of Scientology without getting into the issue of intimidation. As the film notes, going on the offensive against its critics is part of Scientology’s doctrine, handed down by its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. “It is the antithesis of turn the other cheek,” says Marty Rathbun, a former high-ranking official who left the church in 2004 and has since been subjected to Scientology harassment, as the film documents. It also retells the story, first reported in The New York Times, of how, in 1993, Scientology won a 25-year fight against the Internal Revenue Service, which had refused to grant it nonprofit status. Scientologists filed several thousand lawsuits, against not just the I.R.S. but individual I.R.S. officials, and hired private detectives to look for dirt and conduct surveillance operations.

But the film doesn’t really tackle the intimidation of journalists. One of the first journalists to take on Scientology, in the early 1970s, was a young freelance writer named Paulette Cooper. Scientology’s retaliation was astounding. It framed her for supposedly sending bomb threats to the church. The documents it forged were so convincing that she was indicted in 1973 and was fully exonerated only when the F.B.I., acting on a tip, raided Scientology offices and discovered the plot against her in 1977.

Over the course of the next three decades-plus, there were a handful — though only a handful — of tough-minded articles like Behar’s. “Everybody who wrote about Scientology knew they were taking a risk,” Wright told me. You’ve heard of the “chilling effect?” Scientology offered a prime example of how it works.

Then, in 2009, The Tampa Bay Times (then The St. Petersburg Times) published an important series about Scientology, based on interviews with high-ranking defectors, including Rathbun and Mike Rinder, who had been Scientology’s top spokesman. The series was the first to suggest that Scientology had a longstanding culture of abuse. Amazingly, the church did not sue.

Vanity Fair published a big piece about Scientology. (This was after the breakup of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes; Cruise, of course, is the most famous Scientologist of them all.) No lawsuit. Anderson Cooper did a series on CNN. The BBC weighed in. Ditto and ditto.

Sure enough, when I spoke to Wright and Gibney, they said that the pushback they had gotten was nothing they couldn’t handle. A Scientology website has posted a video attacking the two men, and the church has also taken out full-page newspaper ads denouncing “Going Clear.” “I didn’t expect quite this much venom,” Gibney told me, but, he added, “I regard it as good publicity.”

(In a lengthy statement, a Scientology spokesperson said that Gibney had “lied to us repeatedly,” that Marty Rathbun had “destroyed evidence and lied under oath,” that a judge had described Behar as “biased,” and that in defending itself against Gibney’s “propaganda and bigotry,” it was speaking “for those who are subjected to religious persecution and hatred.”)

Gibney also noted that the people who are really harassed these days aren’t journalists but those who have left the church, like Rathbun, who told me that, with more people leaving and talking about the church, it no longer has the resources to sic private eyes on all its critics. He also thinks the Internet has hurt the church, because it is far easier to find out information about it — and many of its supposed secrets are posted online for all to see.

“Part of the message here is that you don’t need to fear Scientology anymore,” says Wright. It’s long overdue.

Nocera and Collins

February 21, 2015

In “Football’s L.A. Trick Play” Mr. Nocera tells us why the sport’s savvy capitalists threaten to move to Los Angeles.  Ms. Collins has taken a break from her usual column and has done a piece on Justice Ginsburg, “The Unsinkable R.B.G.”  She says Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s woman-hear-me-roar history, her frail appearance and her role as leader of the Supreme Court’s liberals have rallied her new fan base.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Like most big cities in America, San Diego has its share of problems. It has issues with gangs, poverty and income inequality. It needs to do about $2 billion worth of infrastructure repairs. It has suffered through an epic drought.

Yet lately, these looming problems have been put aside because the city has had a far graver issue to deal with. The Spanos family, which owns the San Diego Chargers, is threatening to move the team to Los Angeles. Sacré bleu!

The Chargers are hardly the first National Football League team to threaten to move to L.A., which, despite being the country’s second-largest media market, hasn’t had a professional football team of its own since the Raiders and the Rams skipped town, to Oakland and St. Louis, respectively, in the mid-1990s.

Take, for instance, the Minnesota Vikings, which “did a fantastic job of threatening to move to Los Angeles,” says Neil deMause, who runs a website called Field of Schemes. (He also is a co-author of a book by that name.) Roger Goodell, the N.F.L. commissioner, even parachuted into St. Paul to imply that a move to Los Angeles might be in the offing. As a result of those threats, the Vikings got a brand new stadium, filled with revenue-enhancing details like state-of-the-art corporate suites. The public — that is, the taxpayer — is picking up the tab for about half of it.

Which of course is precisely why N.F.L. owners threaten to move to Los Angeles. With Los Angeles just sitting there, un-footballed, it gives the 32 owners of N.F.L. franchises enormous leverage over the cities in which they play to extract goodies that few other capitalists would dare ask for — not just run-of-the-mill tax abatements, but egregious benefits like free rent, which of course means bigger profits for the wealthy men and women who own the teams. “The way to really make money is to privatize the revenues, and socialize the costs,” deMause says.

“The basic story is that all professional leagues try to have fewer teams than the number of locations that would like to have them,” says Roger Noll, a sports economist at Stanford University. “That is what monopolists do — contrive scarcity to drive up the price.” Los Angeles, he adds, “is perfect for this purpose, because the threat is so credible.” Indeed, during the first decade of this century, according to figures compiled by Judith Grant Long, an associate professor of sport management at the University of Michigan, states and counties spent at least $10.1 billion subsidizing sports facilities. A new football stadium with all the modern amenities costs around $1 billion.

It is easy enough to understand why N.F.L. owners would want to use the threat of moving to extract public subsidies — why pay for something yourself when you can get taxpayers to pick up the tab? Besides, $1 billion is a lot of money, even for billionaires. But why do cities go along with it? It can’t be because they expect some economic benefit to come from a new sports stadium; according to Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College, “The academic literature says that there should be no expectation that a new arena will boost the local economy.”

It has much more to do with civic pride — the sense that your town is truly big-time. Plus no city wants to feel abandoned, the way Baltimore was in 1984 when the owner of the Colts, Bob Irsay, moved the team to Indianapolis in the middle of the night. This is especially true for cities like San Diego, which live in the shadows of bigger cities like Los Angeles. “It would be a shame if the Chargers left,” says my friend Herb Greenberg, a former CNBC reporter who lives in San Diego. “What would we be left with? A losing baseball team and great weather? That’s it?”

For years, the Chargers had a sweet deal with the city, which, among other things, guaranteed sellouts for 10 years — that is, if a game didn’t sell out, the city would pick up the difference. But since 2002, the Spanos family has been pressing the city to come up with a plan for a new arena.

Recently, the Chargers have upped the pressure. In January, San Diego’s mayor, Kevin Faulconer, announced that he was putting together a task force to find a solution for the Chargers. But the Chargers, unhappy at waiting any further, announced on Thursday that the team was considering moving just outside Los Angeles along with the Oakland Raiders; both teams would play in a yet-to-be-constructed $1.7 billion stadium. They even posted a short video with an architect’s rendering of the arena.

At a hastily assembled news conference on Friday morning, a blindsided Mayor Faulconer sounded not just angry but anguished. He promised to do everything he could to hold onto the Chargers.

The L.A. gambit wins again.

My take on the whole thing?  Who gives a fck…  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg isn’t planning on going anywhere any time soon.

“Now I happen to be the oldest,” the 81-year-old justice said in the tone of a person who has answered a whole lot of questions about her possible retirement plans. Sitting in her Supreme Court chambers on a dreary afternoon in late January, she added, “But John Paul Stevens didn’t step down until he was 90.”

Until recently, when Ginsburg was asked about retiring, she would note that Justice Louis Brandeis had served until he was 82.

“That’s getting a little uncomfortable,” she admitted.

Over the past few years, she’s been getting unprecedented public nagging about retirement while simultaneously developing a massive popular fan base. You can buy T-shirts and coffee mugs with her picture on them. You can dress your baby up like Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Halloween. A blog called Notorious R.B.G. posts everything cool about the justice’s life, from celebrity meet-ups (“Sheryl Crow is a Ruth Bader Ginsburg fangirl”) to Twitter-size legal theory (“Justice Ginsburg Explains Everything You Need to Know About Religious Liberty in Two Sentences”). You can even get an R.B.G. portrait tattooed on your arm, should the inclination ever arise.

Supreme Court justices used to be known only through their opinions, but in the 21st century they can be celebrities, too. In court, Ginsburg makes headlines with her ferocious dissents against conservative decisions. Outside, the public is reading about her admission that she dozed off at a State of the Union address because she was a little tipsy from wine at dinner. (Plus, she told MSNBC’s Irin Carmon, she had been up all the night before, writing: “My pen was hot.”) This summer, Ginsburg will attend the premiere of “Scalia/Ginsburg,” a one-act opera that the composer Derrick Wang describes as a comedy in which two justices “must pass through three cosmic trials to secure their freedom.” Pieces of it have already been performed, and both Ginsburg and the über-conservative justice Antonin Scalia, a fellow opera lover, are apparently really, really pleased.

Hard to imagine any of that happening to John Roberts.

The retirement talk started around 2011, when the Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy wrote an essay in The New Republic arguing that both Ginsburg and Justice Stephen Breyer should quit while there was still a Democratic president to nominate replacements. “What’s more, both are, well, old,” he added uncharitably.

As time moved on, the focus shifted almost exclusively to Ginsburg (“Justice Ginsburg: Resign Already!”). Perhaps that’s simply because she is older than Breyer, who is now 76. Or perhaps there’s still an expectation that women are supposed to be good sports, and volunteer to take one for the team.

From the beginning, Ginsburg waved off the whole idea. (“And who do you think Obama could have nominated and got confirmed that you’d rather see on a court?”) Anyway, since Republicans took control of the Senate in January, it’s become pretty clear that ship has sailed.

“People aren’t saying it as much now,” she said with what sounded like some satisfaction.

Obviously, a time will come. But as far as clarity on the bench, productivity and overall energy go, that time doesn’t at all seem to be at hand. Her medical history is studded with near disasters — colon cancer in 1999, and pancreatic cancer 10 years later. Both times she returned to the bench quickly. (In the latter case, Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky apologized for predicting she’d probably be dead within nine months.) Last year she had a stent placed in one of her coronary arteries. That happened on a Wednesday, and the court’s public information officer quickly told reporters that Ginsburg “expects to be on the bench on Monday.”

HER physical fierceness is legend. Scalia, her improbable good friend, once recounted a summer when he and Ginsburg had both snagged a gig teaching on the French Riviera. “She went off parasailing!” he told The Washington Post. “This little skinny thing, you’d think she’d never come down.” She has since given up that sort of recreation, but she still works out twice a week in the Supreme Court gym with her personal trainer. Plus there are the daily stretching exercises at home. At night. After work.

It’s the combination of Ginsburg’s woman-hear-me-roar history, her frail-little-old-lady appearance and her role as the leader of the Supreme Court’s dissident liberals that have rallied her new fan base, particularly young women.

The second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court, she’s part of the generation who came of age after World War II and led a revolution that transformed women’s legal rights, as well as their role in the public world. There’s a famous story about the dean at Harvard Law inviting Ginsburg and her tiny group of fellow female law students to dinner, then asking them how they’d justify having taken a place that could have gone to a man. Ginsburg was so flustered she answered that her husband, Marty, was a law student and that it was very important for a wife to understand her husband’s work.

“That’s what I said,” she nodded.

The dean, Ginsburg said, told her later that he had asked only because “there were still doubting Thomases on the faculty and he wanted the women to arm him with stories.” You have to wonder if the dean was trying to rewrite history. Or maybe joking. But Ginsburg believed the explanation: “He was a wonderful man, but he had no sense of humor.”

During law school Marty Ginsburg developed testicular cancer. Ruth helped him keep up with his work by bringing him notes from his classes and typing up his papers, while also taking care of their toddler, Jane. Plus, she made the Harvard Law Review. This is the kind of story that defines a certain type of New Woman of Ginsburg’s generation — people whose gift for overachievement and overcoming adversity is so immense, you can see how even a nation of men bent on maintaining the old patriarchal order were simply run over by the force of their determination. (Ginsburg herself isn’t given to romanticizing. Asked why the women’s rights revolution happened so quickly, she simply said: “Well, the tide was in our favor. We were riding with winners.”)

Ginsburg was married for 56 years — Marty died in 2010. She has a son, a daughter and four grandchildren, one of whom called and said “Bubbe, you were sleeping at the State of the Union!” after the cameras caught her famous nap. She travels constantly. The day we talked, she was preparing to go off to a meeting of the New York City Bar, where she would introduce Gloria Steinem, who would deliver the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law. A few weeks earlier, at a gathering of the Association of American Law Schools, Ginsburg had introduced her old friend Professor Herma Hill Kay, recipient of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lifetime Achievement Award. When you reach this kind of stature, there are lots of echoes.

She’s spent much of her life being the first woman doing one thing or another, and when it comes to the retirement question, she has only one predecessor to contemplate — her friend Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Supreme Court justice, who left the bench at 75 to spend more time with her husband, John, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

“She and John were going to do all the outdoorsy things they liked to do,” Ginsburg recalled. But John O’Connor’s condition deteriorated so swiftly that her plans never worked out. Soon, Ginsburg said, “John was in such bad shape that she couldn’t keep him at home.”

O’Connor has kept busy — speaking, writing, hearing cases on a court of appeals and pursuing a project to expand civics education. But it’s not the same as being the swing vote on the United States Supreme Court. “I think she knows that when she left that term, every 5-4 decision when I was in the minority, I would have been in the majority if she’d stayed,” Ginsburg said.

Besides not retiring, another thing Ginsburg is planning not to do is write her memoirs. “There are too many people writing about me already,” she said. There’s an authorized biography in the works, along with several other projects to which she has definitely not given a blessing.

“But now — this is something I like,” she said, picking up a collection of essays, “The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” The justice also seems to be looking forward to an upcoming “Notorious R.B.G.” book, written by Shana Knizhnik, who created the blog, and Irin Carmon of MSNBC. The name started as a play on the name of the Brooklyn gangsta rapper Notorious B.I.G., but it’s taken on a life of its own as a younger-generation tribute to Ginsburg.

“The kind of raw excitement that surrounds her is palpable,” Carmon said. “There’s a counterintuitiveness. We have a particular vision of someone who’s a badass — a 350-pound rapper. And she’s this tiny Jewish grandmother. She doesn’t look like our vision of power, but she’s so formidable, so unapologetic, and a survivor in every sense of the word.”

So Ginsburg is planning to be on the bench when the Supreme Court decides mammoth issues like the future of the Affordable Care Act and a national right for gay couples to marry. She says she doesn’t know how the health care case will turn out. But like practically every court observer in the country, she has a strong hunch about which way gay marriage will go: “I would be very surprised if the Supreme Court retreats from what it has said about same-sex unions.”

The speed with which the country has already accepted gay rights was, she theorized, just a matter of gay people coming out, and the rest of the country realizing that “we all knew and liked and loved people who were gay.” She recalled Justice Lewis Powell, who told his colleagues he had never met a gay person, unaware that he’d had several gay law clerks. “But they never broadcast it.”

The National Organization for Marriage, a conservative group, recently demanded that Ginsburg recuse herself from the case since she had said that it would not be difficult for the American public to accept a ruling in favor of a national right to gay marriage.

Don’t hold your breath.

Brooks and Nocera

February 10, 2015

In “The Act of Rigorous Forgiving” Bobo (who seems to want to become a rabbi, given all his recent posts) gurgles that every scandal is an opportunity either strengthen the national fabric through the process of contrition and forgiveness or to further shred it. In the comments “craig geary” from Redlands, FL had this to say:  “What a surprise.  Mr. Brooks passed on using his hero Ronald Reagan telling a real whopper of a lie as an example.  Reagan, the Eureka College guy cheerleader, told a story about having been at the liberation of a concentration camp, running a film crew.  Of course Reagan, the WW II dodger, never got closer to combat than a film set in Culver City.  But he continued on his path of great destruction arming what became the Taliban, arming Saddam Hussein, funding slaughter all over Central America.  That is unforgivable.”  But according to Republicans St. Reagan was perfect…  Mr. Nocera ponders “The Riddle of Powering Electric Cars” and says a new book goes inside the race to build the perfect electric car.  Here’s Rabbi Brooks:

There’s something sad in Brian Williams’s need to puff up his Iraq adventures and something barbaric in the public response.

The sad part is the reminder that no matter how high you go in life and no matter how many accolades you win, it’s never enough. The desire for even more admiration races ahead. Career success never really satisfies. Public love always leaves you hungry. Even very famous people can do self-destructive things in an attempt to seem just a little cooler.

The barbaric part is the way we respond to scandal these days. When somebody violates a public trust, we try to purge and ostracize him. A sort of coliseum culture takes over, leaving no place for mercy. By now, the script is familiar: Some famous person does something wrong. The Internet, the most impersonal of mediums, erupts with contempt and mockery. The offender issues a paltry half-apology, which only inflames the public more. The pounding cry for resignation builds until capitulation comes. Public passion is spent and the spotlight moves on.

I’ve only spoken with Williams a few times, and can’t really speak about the man (though I often appear on NBC News’s “Meet the Press”), but I do think we’d all be better off if we reacted to these sorts of scandals in a different way. The civic fabric would be stronger if, instead of trying to sever relationships with those who have done wrong, we tried to repair them, if we tried forgiveness instead of exiling.

Forgiveness is often spoken of in sentimental terms — as gushy absolution for everything, regardless of right or wrong. But many writers — ranging from Hannah Arendt and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to modern figures like Jeffrie Murphy and L. Gregory Jones — have tried to think hard about rigorous forgiveness, which balances accountability with compassion.

They’ve generally described four different processes involved in forgiveness:

Pre-emptive mercy. Martin Luther King Jr. argued that forgiveness isn’t an act; it’s an attitude. We are all sinners. We expect sin, empathize with sin and are slow to think ourselves superior. The forgiving person is strong enough to display anger and resentment toward the person who has wronged her, but she is also strong enough to give away that anger and resentment.

In this view, the forgiving person makes the first move, even before the offender has asked. She resists the natural urge for vengeance. Instead, she creates a welcoming context in which the offender can confess.

Judgment. A wrong is an occasion to re-evaluate. What is the character of the person in question? Should a period of stupidity eclipse a record of decency?

It’s also an occasion to investigate each unique circumstance, the nature of each sin that was committed and the implied remedy to that sin. Some sins, like anger and lust, are like wild beasts. They have to be fought through habits of restraint. Some sins like bigotry are like stains. They can only be expunged by apology and cleansing. Some like stealing are like a debt. They can only be rectified by repaying. Some, like adultery, are more like treason than like crime; they can only be rectified by slowly reweaving relationships. Some sins like vanity — Williams’s sin — can only be treated by extreme self-abasement.

During the judgment phase, hard questions have to be asked so that in forgiving we don’t lower our standards.

Confession and Penitence. At some point the offender has to get out in front of the process, being more self-critical than anyone else around him. He has to probe down to the root of his error, offer a confession more complete than expected. He has to put public reputation and career on the back burner and come up with a course that will move him toward his own emotional and spiritual recovery, to become strongest in the weakest places.

Reconciliation and re-trust. After judgments have been made and penitence performed, both the offender and offended bend toward each other. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, trust doesn’t have to be immediate, but the wrong act is no longer a barrier to a relationship. The offender endures his season of shame and is better for it. The offended are free from mean emotions like vengeance and are uplifted when they offer kindness. The social fabric is repaired. Community solidarity is strengthened by the reunion.

I guess I think Brian Williams shouldn’t have to resign, for the reason David Carr emphasized in The Times: Williams’s transgressions were not part of his primary job responsibilities. And because I think good people are stronger when given second chances.

But the larger question is how we build community in the face of scandal. Do we exile the offender or heal the relationship? Would you rather become the sort of person who excludes, or one who offers tough but healing love?

Gawd, but he’s getting more and more tiresome.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Steve LeVine became interested in batteries in the wake of the financial crisis. LeVine is the Washington correspondent for Quartz, a news site covering the global economy, and he sensed, he told me recently, “a loss of confidence in the U.S. in our ability to create a real economy” — one based not on financial instruments or a real estate boom, but real products that would help create entire new industries.

The battery could be such a product. Not just any battery, of course, but a battery designed for electric cars and capable of powering them for 200 miles or even 300 miles per charge. A battery that could compete with — and eventually replace — the internal combustion engine and transform the electric car from a niche product to a mass-market automobile.

Such a battery does not yet exist. But if such a thing could be invented, it might well develop into a $100 billion-plus market in its first five or six years of existence, according to LeVine. A battery like that could vastly improve energy security. And with so much less exhaust spewed into the air, the effect on climate change could be lowered. The United States is trying to develop such a battery, and so are many other countries.

That interest led LeVine to the Argonne National Laboratory, one of the Department of Energy’s 17 national labs. For the better part of two years he was given access to its Battery Department, emerging with a captivating book entitled “The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World.”

With the closure or winnowing of many of corporate America’s industrial labs — not least the famed Bell Labs, which is a shadow of its once-mighty self — industry now relies heavily on the federal government’s national labs for basic scientific research. Thus it was that scientists at Argonne, which is in the Chicago suburbs, discovered a battery chemistry that greatly improved electric car performance, called NMC (for nickel-manganese-cobalt). The Chevrolet Volt uses a version of NMC, as will, reportedly, the next generation of Nissan Leafs. Which also suggests its drawback: the Volt only gets about 40 miles on pure battery power alone before it switches to its gasoline-powered engine.

The core of LeVine’s book is about the effort to take the next big step: create a battery that can achieve five times that mileage, while still remaining stable — stability is always a big issue with batteries — and affordable. The scientists at Argonne — some of them larger-than-life figures in the battery world — labeled this effort NMC 2.0. Though the writing can get technical at times, LeVine still tells a rollicking good tale. The scientists make a number of painstaking advances, inching the chemistry forward, only to discover problems. One such problem is called “voltage fade” — an instability that is serious enough to make the battery unusable in an electric vehicle.

There is also a private company in LeVine’s narrative, a start-up called Envia Systems. Licensing the advances made by Argonne, it claims to have solved the rest of the puzzle. Its executives are persuasive enough that General Motors contracts with them to create the battery for an electric car it is calling, internally, the Bolt, which is supposed to get 200 miles per charge.

LeVine told me that, for a long time, he fully expected that his book would end with Envia solving the riddle of NMC 2.0, and having a wildly successful public offering. But that’s not what happens. As G.M., Argonne, and LeVine eventually discover, the Envia claims were wildly exaggerated. After G.M. found out that the company wouldn’t be able to deliver after all, it ended its contract with the company and looked to LG Chem Ltd., the big South Korean company, to supply the battery.

Indeed, by the end of the book, scientists still haven’t solved the voltage fade problem, and NMC 2.0 seems as far away as ever. Argonne wins a competition set up by the Department of Energy to create a “Battery Hub,” in which more than a dozen national labs, universities and corporate partners will work together to completely rethink their approach to the conceptual leap the government — and everyone else — is hoping for. In effect, they’re starting over.

There is grist in “The Powerhouse” for critics of President Obama. He pushed for battery innovation just as he pushed for solar innovation. The latter gave us Solyndra; the former gave us Envia. Financing efforts to invent a new battery is, without question, a form of industrial policy.

But LeVine thinks this view is misguided, and so do I. “France and Germany and China have renewed their push for electric cars,” he says. “The stakes are so high and the dividends so rich that they keep going” — even if the quest seems, at times, quixotic.

Besides, batteries are, as LeVine puts it, “a hard problem.” If the government won’t try to solve that problem, who will?

The Great Invisible Free Hand, that’s who.  [snort]

Nocera and Collins

February 7, 2015

In “Net Neutrality Rules” Mr. Nocera says the F.C.C. finally made the right decision on how to regulate the Internet.  It remains to be seen how the Republicans will fck it up…  Ms. Collins, in “Politics by Restaurant Review,” says the first entry in the 2016 presidential primary book club comes from Mike Huckabee. She reads it so you don’t have to.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

In 2009, President Obama nominated Julius Genachowski, a trusted friend who had acted as candidate Obama’s technology adviser, to be the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. They both firmly believed in the importance of “net neutrality,” in which Internet service providers, or I.S.P.s, would not be able to give one website an advantage over another, or allow companies to pay to get into a “fast lane” ahead of competitors. That was the surest way to allow innovation to flourish, they believed.

To Genachowski and his staff, creating net-neutrality protections meant reclassifying components of broadband Internet service from lightly regulated “information services” to more highly regulated “telecommunications services.” This would subject I.S.P.s like Comcast and Verizon to certain “common carrier” regulations under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. But, according to The Wall Street Journal, Larry Summers, who was then Obama’s director of the National Economic Council, blocked this effort, fearful of “overly heavy-handed approaches to net neutrality” that could be detrimental to the economy.

So instead, in December 2010, the F.C.C. unveiled net-neutrality protections even while retaining the old “information services” classification. Many F.C.C. staff members knew this was a riskier approach; after all, an earlier attempt by the agency to censure Comcast for violating net-neutrality principles had been vacated by the courts — on the grounds that the F.C.C. lacked the proper authority. Sure enough, in January 2014, the court ruled that while the F.C.C. had general authority to regulate Internet traffic, it couldn’t impose tougher common-carrier regulation without labeling the service providers common carriers.

Is it any wonder that Tom Wheeler, who succeeded Genachowski as chairman of the F.C.C., announced this week that he was proposing to reclassify broadband Internet services as telecommunications services? What choice did Wheeler have? “Title II is just a tool to get enforceable rules to protect end users,” said Michael Beckerman, the president of the Internet Association, a trade group consisting of big Internet companies. Given the prior court decisions, that is really the only tool the government had left.

Is it truly necessary to have government-mandated rules to ensure net neutrality? Yes. One argument made by opponents of Title II classification is that we essentially have had net neutrality all along, so why does the government need to get involved? “There is no market for paid prioritization,” said Berin Szoka, the president of TechFreedom, which vehemently opposes the reclassification.

But this is not necessarily because of the workings of the market. For starters, the fastest broadband providers are mostly cable companies, which are quasi monopolies. As part of its deal in buying NBCUniversal, Comcast agreed to Genachowski’s net neutrality rules until 2018, regardless of the eventual court decision.

But who’s to say what will happen after that? A good dose of competition might help, but other than Google Fiber — which only exists at this point in three cities — it is hard to see where that is going to come from. The way things are now, most people only have two options: their cable company or their phone company. That’s not enough.

Indeed, a persuasive argument can be made that the previous attempts to create net-neutrality rules played an important role in preventing the broadband providers from, say, creating Internet fast lanes. After all, it took more than three years from the time Genachowski proposed the new net-neutrality rules to the time the court of appeals struck them down. Between those rules and the Comcast agreement, net neutrality was essentially government-mandated.

Another objection the broadband providers make is that the 1934 Communications Act is hardly the right vehicle to regulate the modern Internet. To allay these fears, Wheeler has said he would “forebear” those old regulations — such as price regulation — that don’t make sense for our era. But, opponents argue, what is to prevent a future F.C.C. chairman from imposing price regulation? Surely, though, the same can be asked of the broadband providers: What is to prevent them from someday violating net neutrality if there are no rules of the road? This strikes me as by far the more credible worry.

How to classify Internet services shouldn’t even be a question, and it wasn’t before 2002. That’s when Michael Powell, who was then the F.C.C. chairman — and is now the chief lobbyist for the cable industry — decided he wanted Internet services to be classified as an information service.  He essentially commanded the F.C.C. to come up with a rationale for doing so, said Barbara Cherry, a professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, and a former F.C.C. staff member. What Wheeler is doing is not a radical step, she said. “They were classified as telecommunications services because they were telecommunications services.

“Classifying them as information services exclusively,” she added, “was the real radical decision.”

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Today, we’re going to talk about “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy,” Mike Huckabee’s entry into the presidential book-writing sweepstakes. These tomes are going to be piling up soon, and remember: We read them so you don’t have to.

Huckabee is an excellent place to start since his book points to one of the terrible truths of presidential politics: It changes everybody who gets into it, generally for the worse, frequently for the awful.

Some presidential hopefuls just stick their toes into the water and, instantly, they’re gorgon versions of themselves. Look at what’s happened to Chris Christie and Rand Paul. Five minutes ago, a lot of people thought they were a little weird but kind of cool. Now things are trending toward really weird and kind of mean. Remember what happened to John McCain. Remember John Edwards? Maybe the secret strength of Hillary Clinton’s campaign is that since she’s been through this so many times, we can relax and assume she’s already been turned into whatever she’s going to turn into.

While Mike Huckabee is almost certainly not going to be the Republican presidential nominee, he is a real candidate. Won the Iowa caucuses in 2008. And he just quit his cushy job interviewing people on Fox to get back into the game. So, give the man some cred.

He’s also a natural to produce the first presidential-prospect book of 2015. Huckabee churns out books the way other people produce emails. And you have to be impressed by a guy whose oeuvre includes both “Can’t Wait Till Christmas!” and “Kids Who Kill.”

The theme of his newest is that there are two Americas: the coastal one inhabited by the media elite and the fly-over zone where the real people live. But, frequently, Huckabee forgets his topic and just starts ranting about the good old days when kids built forts out of cardboard boxes and men didn’t cuss in front of a woman. Or he’ll spend a chapter or two doing an imitation of your awful Uncle Fred at Thanksgiving, complaining about airport security lines and dirty lyrics in popular music.

When Huckabee does get around to the two Americas, which he calls “Bubble-ville” and “Bubba-ville,” he makes it clear that despite his recent career as host of a national cable TV talk show, he is down with the humble Bubbas. “If people don’t put pepper sauce on their black-eyed peas or order fried green tomatoes for an appetizer, I probably won’t relate to them without some effort,” he writes.

Well, there goes Ohio.

Think about that statement. We’re already tortured by the red-state-blue-state chasm. Now we’re going to divide ourselves by restaurant orders? The first rule for anyone who aspires to lead this country is that you have to at least pretend that you can relate to all its citizens. It is for this reason that health-conscious men and women who compulsively watch their fat intake will be seen wandering around the Iowa State Fair next summer, eating fried Twinkies.

Also, by the way, Huckabee doesn’t really feel comfortable around “people who have never fired a gun, never fished with a cane pole, never cooked with propane, or never changed a tire.”

Mike Huckabee has always run as an evangelical Christian, and when he first campaigned for president in 2008, his message was religious and inclusive. He was rigid on abortion, but he also called for compassion for illegal immigrants. (“It hardly seems Americans should truly feel threatened by people who pluck chickens, pick tomatoes, make beds, wash dishes or mow lawns.”) During the debates, he was generally regarded as the most likable guy on the stage.

But, of course, he didn’t win. Now he’s still going for religion; he devotes a chapter to explaining God’s opposition to gay marriage. But his view about helping the unfortunate gets more crabbed by the minute.

My favorite moment in “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy” is the one where Huckabee singles out President Grover Cleveland for special praise. You hardly ever find Grover in a presidential campaign book. I am kind of a Grover fan myself, mainly because he was involved in one of the most interesting sex scandals in American presidential history. However, Huckabee sends him a shout-out for vetoing a bill that would have appropriated $10,000 to provide seeds to Texas farmers who had been laid low by a terrible drought. (“He knew not to try to redefine the role of the federal government.”)

There goes Texas.

Brooks and Nocera

January 27, 2015

Having recently given us dating advice, Bobo is now moving on to being an investment advisor.  In “How to Leave a Mark” he informs us that impact investing is perhaps the most promising new development tool, and that young people just getting started and older business gurus alike should consider it.  In the comments “steve” from NYC had this to say:  “There’s no human misery you can’t monetize. Good grief! Of course the strategy is brilliant. Capitalism creates the problems and then you can make a buck by figuring out how to profit from them.”  Mr. Nocera has a question:  “Is Vaping Worse Than Smoking?”  He tells us that you wouldn’t discover the correct answer from reading the latest study on e-cigarettes.  Here’s Bobo:

The big debate during the 20th century was about the relationship between the market and the state. Both those institutions are now tarnished. The market is prone to devastating crashes and seems to be producing widening inequality. Government is gridlocked, sclerotic or captured by special interests. Government is an ever more rigid and ineffective tool to address market failures.

So over the past generation many of the most talented people on earth have tried to transform capitalism itself, to use the market to solve social problems. These are people with opposable minds: part profit-oriented and part purpose-oriented. They’ve created organizations that look a little like a business, a little like a social-service provider, and a little like a charity — or some mixture of the three.

Hippy companies like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream led the first wave in this sector, but now you’ve got a burgeoning array of social-capitalist tools to address problems — ranging from B Corporations like Warby Parker (which gives free glasses to the poor) to social impact bonds. (For example, a private investor raises money to finance a program to reduce recidivism. If the program works and the government saves money because there are fewer prisoners to house, then the government pays back the investor, with a profit.)

Impact investing is probably the most promising of these tools.  Impact investing is not socially responsible investing. Socially responsible investing means avoiding certain companies, like tobacco growers. Impact investors seek out companies that are intentionally designed both to make a profit and provide a measurable and accountable social good. Impact funds are frequently willing to accept lower financial returns for the sake of doing good — say a 7 percent annual return compared with an 11 percent return.  But some impact investors are seeking to deliver market-rate returns.

Brian Trelstad of Bridges Ventures, has looked at companies in early autism intervention, paid for by Medicaid, that can improve long-term educational outcomes while reducing spending on special education; affordable after-school enrichment programs that bring extra education services to charter school students; and energy efficiency companies that serve people in public housing, which saves long term heating costs.

When impact funds came on the scene, seven or so years ago, there was the usual overhyping. A 2010 report by the Rockefeller Foundation and JPMorgan projected that impact investing could see new capital inflows of up to $1 trillion by 2020. That’s looking unlikely given that right now roughly something like only $40 billion has been invested through these funds.

There are more roadblocks than anticipated. It’s hard to find a reliable way to measure the social impact of these dual-purpose companies. Impact investors have also had trouble finding scalable deals to invest in. It costs as much to do due diligence on a $250 million deal as on a $25 million deal, so many firms would rather skip the small stuff.

The hype created skepticism and a backlash. But impact investing is now entering the mainstream. An older generation used their (rigorous) business mind in one setting and then their (often sloppy) charity mind in another. Today more people want to blend these minds. Typically a big client, or a young heir, will go to his or her investments adviser and say, “I want some socially useful investments in my portfolio.” If the adviser has nothing on offer, the client leaves the firm.

New impact funds are being born. In a low-interest-rate era, they can offer comparable returns. The Obama administration has been aggressively supportive. Social stock exchanges are being founded. The big players like Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse are now in the field.

I recently sat in a beautiful New York meeting room with a nicely and formally dressed banker, Andy Sieg, as he discussed the impact fund he’s helping to create at Merrill Lynch. He said his associates, especially his young associates, were extremely eager to work on the project. People are eager to have this kind of impact.

Impact investing is not going to replace government or be a panacea, but it’s one of a number of new tools to address social problems. If you want to leave a mark on the world but are unsure of how to do it, I’d say take a look. If you’re a high-net-worth individual (a rich person), ask your adviser to get you involved. If you’re young and searching, get some finance and operational skills and then find a way to get involved in a socially useful investment proposition. If you’ve got a business mind, there are huge opportunities to build the infrastructure (creating measuring systems, connecting investors with deals).

Someday government will get unstuck, with new programs to address this new era. But there’s no prospect of that happening soon. Right now social capitalism is a more creative and dynamic place to spend a life.

Don’t you just LOVE that little throwaway at the end?  “Someday government will get unstuck…”  Yes, Bobo, it might.  But only when the party that you shill for gets voted out of office.  I’m willing to bet it’s too late for us to hope that they’ll ever come to their senses and decide to try governing again, so the only solution is to crush them like the vermin they are.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

So I suppose you heard about the latest e-cigarette study, the one that said that the vapors e-cigarette users inhale contain multiple forms of formaldehyde. It was much in the news last week, after its authors, five scientists from Portland State University, published a peer-reviewed letter outlining their findings in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.

“Before You Vape: High Levels of Formaldehyde Hidden in E-Cigs,” said the headline at NBC.com. “Can You Guess What Cancer-Causing Agent Researchers Just Found in Electronic Cigarettes?” asked The Motley Fool. “E-Cigarettes Not Safer Than Ordinary Cigarettes,” claimed the online publication Tech Times. The New England Journal of Medicine chimed in with a tweet of its own: “Chemical analysis of e-cigs’ vapor show high levels of formaldehyde,” it read. “Authors project higher cancer risk than smoking.”

The study focused on a device known as a premium vaporizer that heats a flavored liquid containing nicotine. The heat causes the liquid to turn into vapor, which the user inhales. Most of these devices also allow the user to control the voltage. These devices have become increasingly popular as a way to ingest nicotine without smoking.

In the study, the Portland State scientists ran the device at both a low voltage and a high voltage. At the low voltage, they did not detect formaldehyde. But at the high voltage, they found some. Formaldehyde is, indeed, a known carcinogen, which also exists, among hundreds of other toxic chemicals and dozens of cancer-causing agents, in combustible cigarettes. The authors concluded that someone who was a heavy user of a vaporizer at the high voltage was five to 15 times more likely to get cancer than a longtime smoker. Or so they seemed to say.

There is not much doubt that studies like this have an impact on the public perception of e-cigarettes. Even though cigarettes result in 480,000 American deaths each year — and even though it is the tobacco, not the nicotine, that kills them — many in the public health community treat e-cigarettes as every bit as evil. Every dollop of news suggesting that vaping is bad for your health, much of which has been overblown, is irrationally embraced  by anti-tobacco activists. One result is that, whereas 84 percent of current smokers thought e-cigarettes were safer than ordinary cigarettes in 2010, that number had dropped to 65 percent by 2013.

Worse, close to a third of the people who had abandoned e-cigarettes and returned to smoking did so because they were worried about the health effects of vaping, according to a study published last year in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research.

The Portland State study fits right into this dynamic. It is, on the one hand, factually true that vaping at an extremely high voltage will cause formaldehyde-releasing agents to develop.

But this conclusion is highly misleading. People don’t vape at a high voltage because it causes a horrible taste — “a burning taste that occurs from overheating the liquid,” wrote Konstantinos Farsalinos, a Greek scientist and vaping expert, in an email to me. Farsalinos has done human studies of vaping and discovered that above a certain voltage — lower than the high voltage test on the Portland State study — people simply couldn’t inhale; the taste was unbearable.

Indeed, the study actually conveys good news. When used at normal voltage, vaping does not produce formaldehyde! “Rather than scaring people about the dangers of vaping and alarming them to the ‘fact’ that vaping raises their cancer risk above that of smoking, we should instead be regulating the voltage and temperature conditions of electronic cigarettes so that the problem of formaldehyde contamination is completely avoided,” wrote Michael Siegel, a professor of public health at Boston University, on his blog. But given the way the Portland State authors characterized their research, it’s no surprise that headline writers took away a different message.

When I spoke to David Peyton, one of the study’s authors, he insisted that the study had been mischaracterized. All it was meant to do, he said, was compare the levels of formaldehyde in e-cigarettes versus cigarettes. “It is exceedingly frustrating to me that we are being associated with saying that e-cigarettes are more dangerous than cigarettes,” he added. “That is a fact not in evidence.” Well, maybe.

When I read him the tweet from the New England Journal of Medicine — “Authors project higher cancer risk than smoking” — he sounded horrified. “I didn’t see the tweet,” he said. “I regret that. That is not my opinion.”

“There is a lot we don’t yet know about e-cigarettes,” said Peyton toward the end of our conversation. He is right about that; e-cigarettes are still so new that they need to be studied carefully. And he and his co-authors are planning further studies. Perhaps the next time, they will produce something that doesn’t serve mainly as a scare tactic to keep smokers away from e-cigarettes.

Nocera and Collins

January 24, 2015

Well, here’s Gunga Din Nocera again.  Except this time he’s carrying water for TPP.  In “Don’t Blame Nafta” he tells us that over the two decades since the trade deal, manufacturing jobs have vanished, but that it isn’t clear that there’s a link.  And to further clarify what a piece of crap this thing is “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY had this to say in the comments:  “There is nothing even remotely “left-leaning” about the Progressive Economy front group that Joe Nocera cites in this column. It’s a subsidiary of the decidedly right-leaning Global Works Foundation, founded only last year by National Association of Manufacturers consultant Wayne Palmer. The NAM is notorious as one of the most powerful anti-regulatory corporate lobbyists in Washington. And why not? It’s heavily funded by the Koch Brothers, who’d love the TPP to pass so they can spread their pollution at no cost to themselves and for much obscene profit. Before that, Palmer lobbied for Astra Zeneca. Before that, he was chief of staff to Rick Santorum, one of the more notorious right wing politicians of our oligarchy.”  So it would appear that Nocera’s found something else to shill for.  In “And Now: Air Republicans” Ms. Collins says so much for the House passing that bill banning abortions after 20 weeks. Didn’t work out as planned.  Here’s Gunga Din:

On Wednesday, the day after President Obama’s State of the Union address, a handful of Democratic House members, along with one senator, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, held a news conference to denounce one of the very few proposals the president put forward that actually has a chance of passage. The objects of their displeasure were the new trade agreements currently being negotiated by the administration.

“Since I’ve been in Congress, I’ve never seen a trade bill that in any way benefited U.S. manufacturers and workers,” said Representative Louise Slaughter, who has represented the Rochester area for 28 years. She pointed to Kodak as an example of a company harmed by trade accords, especially the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta. Since the deal between the U.S., Canada and Mexico went into effect in 1994, Kodak’s Rochester work force has shrunk to 2,300 from 39,300.

“We are fighting for the future of middle-class families,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. “These trade deals make it much easier for corporations to send American jobs overseas.” Over the past 20 years, Connecticut has lost more than 96,000 manufacturing jobs, she said, because of agreements that failed to protect American workers.

Sanders told the assembled media that while he liked the president’s speech, “he was wrong on one major issue, and that is the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” He added, “I do not believe that continuing a set of bad policies, policies that have failed, makes any sense at all.”

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a trade agreement currently being negotiated between 12 countries, including Japan, Canada, Vietnam, Mexico, Australia and Peru; the countries involved in the negotiations represent nearly 40 percent of global gross domestic product. It is as complex as it is ambitious.

Yet, while the Republican leadership has vowed to work with President Obama on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (as well as on another deal being negotiated with the European Union), the Democrats have been vocal in their opposition. In the short term, they don’t want to give the president so-called fast-track authority, which would allow the administration to negotiate the deal and then hand Congress a finalized agreement that it could only vote up or down, with no amendments. (Fast-track procedures have been used to conclude 14 trade agreements since 1974.)

You’d need a heart of stone not to be sympathetic to the concerns of the Democrats. Over the last two decades, lots of manufacturing jobs have vanished in the United States, inflicting a great deal of pain on workers. During those same 20 years, Nafta has been in force. Linking those job losses to the existence of Nafta is a leap the Democrats — and progressives in general — have made.

The question that needs to be asked, however, is whether that link is justified. “I am skeptical of definitive judgments on Nafta,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We started offshoring television assembly in the 1960s” — decades before Nafta. Yes, many assembly plants have been built in Mexico since Nafta went into effect. But China, where millions more manufacturing jobs have migrated — and with which we have a huge trade deficit — doesn’t even have a trade agreement with the United States.

Edward Gresser, the executive director of Progressive Economy, a left-leaning think tank, noted that other factors were taking place at the same time as Nafta: the growth of container ships, the lowering cost of communications, the rise of global industries. With or without trade deals, globalization is an unstoppable force. What Nafta really is, Gresser told me, is a proxy for globalization.

One mistake the Nafta negotiators made more than two decades ago was taking worker rights and environmental protections out of the agreement itself and putting them into a side letter. They were never effectively enforced. Those negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership expect to rectify that error this go-round. They are also aiming to pry open the Japanese auto and agricultural markets to American producers, and include protections for a free and open Internet. It has, in other words, a lot more potential to do good than harm.

When I spoke to Slaughter on Thursday afternoon, she was still riled up. “These crazy trade agreements,” she called them at one point. She added, “Rochester really suffered.”

She told me about all the jobs lost at Kodak. “I think Nafta brought down Kodak,” she said. But of course it didn’t. Kodak’s problems came about because digital photography made film unnecessary and Kodak didn’t shift course in time. She was blaming Nafta for Kodak’s self-inflicted wounds.

But then her tone brightened. She told me about all the new companies — 55 in all, she said — that had taken space in the old Kodak buildings. Some were even run by former Kodak engineers.

Which, of course, is precisely the way globalization is supposed to work.

Bite me, you prick.  The field where I worked before I retired (medical transcription) has just about all vanished to India.  I wonder if it could possibly have anything to do with the fact that the workers there don’t get paid anything close to what American workers do…  Eat a huge plate of salted dicks, you water carrying shill.  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Tough week for the House Republicans. Speaker John Boehner’s high point must have been not clapping when President Obama talked about job growth in the State of the Union.

After that, things went downhill fast. Anti-abortion groups converged on Washington on Thursday to protest the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. The plan was for the House to welcome them into town by passing a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks. Didn’t work out.

The signs had been bad for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. In committee, its sponsor, Trent Franks, a Republican from Arizona, claimed that the number of rapes resulting in pregnancy was “very low.” He did not actually say that a woman can’t get pregnant if she didn’t enjoy the sex, but it seemed for a minute as if we’d returned to that neighborhood.

Whoops. The bill was amended to provide an exemption for women who had been raped. But that sparked a new fight over whether the exemption should be for all victims of rape or just the ones who had reported the crime to the police. A group of Republican women, including Representative Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, pointed out, correctly, that most victims don’t file such reports.

You may remember that Ellmers was challenged last fall by former “American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken, who she defeated handily. Now Aiken, who turns out to have been filming his campaign, is moving forward to become the star of a TV reality series on elections. And probably having more fun than Ellmers.

“I’m sorry Clay Aiken lost,” tweeted the conservative blogger Erick Erickson when Republican leaders gave up and pulled the 20-week bill from the calendar. A contributor on the Red State blog followed up with the somewhat less playful: “Is Renee Ellmers Worthy of Life?”

Actually, it turns out that Ellmers is a co-sponsor of the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which holds that every fertilized egg has “all legal and constitutional attributes and privileges.” Her concerns about the language of the rape exemption seem to have been a mixture of legal, philosophical and political concerns, all of them nuanced in the extreme. She suggested to National Journal that her party shouldn’t be starting off the year with an issue that wasn’t of interest to “millennials.”

Rape exemptions have come to dominate the abortion debate. Abortion rights groups use lack of concern for rape victims as an illustration of the heartlessness of their opponents. Their opponents propose exemptions to show that they’re reasonable. But, really, it makes no sense either way. The question of when a fetus inside a woman’s body becomes a human being is theological. If you truly believe that human life begins the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg, you can’t admit any exceptions. The only real debate is whether you get to impose your religious beliefs on the entire country.

Not that anybody’s trying to be that rational. “I’m going to need your help to find a way out of this definitional problem with rape,” Senator Lindsey Graham told the anti-abortion marchers. This was four days after Graham announced that he was considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination. It’s very possible that the phrase “this definitional problem with rape” will last longer than his candidacy.

In his speech, Graham gave a shout-out to exemptions for rape and incest. “Some disagree, including the pope,” he noted to the marchers. Francis I has, indeed, been clear and consistent on this matter, despite the moment on a flight back from Manila when he expressed concern about people breeding “like rabbits.” One theologian told CBS News that people should understand that there was a difference between the pope-on-a-plane and the pope-on-the-ground, the latter’s comments being more official.

Perhaps we could all use this distinction in our daily lives. When your spouse quotes something you wish you’d never said, just explain that was an “in-the-air” remark.

Anyhow, about the House and abortion.

The moderate Republican women scored a big win — at least until a backlash from the right had their aides shooing away reporters. But other party members said they, too, were sick of fooling around with the Tea Party’s agenda. “Week 1, we had the vote for the speaker. Week 2, we debated deporting children. Week 3, we’re debating rape and incest. I just can’t wait for Week 4,” Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania complained to Jeremy Peters of The Times.

Humiliated by the collapse of the 20-week bill, House leaders quickly substituted one banning federal funding for abortion, which is already banned.

“This was such a high priority that they didn’t think about it until late last night,” sniped Representative Daniel Kilddee, a Michigan Democrat, during the rather lethargic debate.

The bill passed easily. No matter. It was all just in the air.

Brooks and Nocera

January 20, 2015

In “Support Our Students” Bobo gurgles that President Obama’s well-intentioned plan on free community-college tuition misunderstands students’ genuine obstacles.  Of which Bobo knows less than nothing.  He should read Mr. Blow’s piece from a few days ago.  Mr. Nocera, in “A Detainee’s Diary,” says one prisoner has written a memoir of life at Guantánamo that every American should read.  Here’s Bobo:

All college commencements are happy, but community-college commencements are the happiest of all. Many of the graduates are the first in their extended family to have earned degrees. When their name is read, big cheering sections erupt with horns and roars from the stands. Many students are older; you’ll see 50- or 60-year-old women grasping their diplomas awash in happy tears. The graduates often know exactly where they’re going to work; they walk with an extra sense of security as they head off campus.

These bright days serve as evidence that America can live up to its dream of social mobility, that there is hope at a time when the ladder upward seems creaky and inadequate.

So when President Obama unveils his community-college plan in the State of the Union address Tuesday night, it represents an opportunity — an opportunity to create days like that for more students.

Obama’s headline idea is to make community college free. It would reduce two years of tuition costs to zero for students with decent grades and who graduate within three years.

The evidence from a similar program in Tennessee suggests that the simple free label has an important psychological effect. Enrollment there surged when high school students learned that they could go to community college for nothing.

The problem is that getting students to enroll is neither hard nor important. The important task is to help students graduate. Community college drop out rates now hover somewhere between 66 percent and 80 percent.

Spending $60 billion over 10 years to make community college free will do little to reduce that. In the first place, community college is already free for most poor and working-class students who qualify for Pell grants and other aid. In 2012, 38 percent of community-college students had their tuition covered entirely by grant aid and an additional 33 percent had fees of less than $1,000.

The Obama plan would largely be a subsidy for the middle- and upper-middle-class students who are now paying tuition and who could afford to pay it in the years ahead.

The smart thing to do would be to scrap the Obama tuition plan. Students who go to community college free now have tragically high dropout rates. The $60 billion could then be spent on things that are mentioned in President Obama’s proposal — but not prioritized or fleshed out — which would actually increase graduation rates.

First, you’d focus on living expenses. Tuition represents only a fifth of the costs of community-college life. The bulk is textbooks, housing, transportation and so on. Students often have to take on full-time or near-full-time jobs to cover the costs, and, once they do that, they’re much more likely to lose touch with college.

You’d subsidize guidance counselors and mentors. Community colleges are not sticky places. Many students don’t have intimate relationships with anyone who can guide them through the maze of registration, who might help bond them to campus.

You’d figure out the remedial education mess. Half of all community-college students arrive unprepared for college work. Remedial courses are supposed to bring them up to speed, but it’s not clear they work, so some states are dropping remediation, which could leave even more students at sea.

You’d focus on child care. A quarter of college students nationwide have dependent children. Even more students at community colleges do. Less than half of community colleges now have any day-care facilities. Many students drop out because something happens at home and there’s no one to take care of the kids.

In short, you wouldn’t write government checks for tuition. You’d strengthen structures around the schools. You’d focus on the lived environment of actual students and create relationships and cushions to help them thrive.

We’ve had two generations of human capital policies. Human Capital 1.0 was designed to give people access to schools and other facilities. It was based on the 1970s liberal orthodoxy that poor people just need more money, that the government could write checks and mobility will improve.

Human Capital 2.0 is designed to help people not just enroll but to complete school and thrive. Its based on a much more sophisticated understanding of how people actually live, on the importance of social capital, on the difficulty of living in disorganized circumstances. The new research emphasizes noncognitive skills — motivation, grit and attachment — and how to use policy levers to boost these things.

The tuition piece of the Obama proposal is Human Capital 1.0. It is locked in 1970s liberal orthodoxy. Congress should take the proposal, scrap it and rededicate the money toward programs that will actually boost completion, that will surround colleges, students and their families with supporting structures. We don’t need another program that will lure students into colleges only to have them struggle and drop out.

“1970s liberal orthodoxy” my butt.  The 1970s were the era when community college (and ALL of City University of New York) and many state universities, STOPPED being tuition free. Bobo, you disgusting hack, you can thank your party’s icon Ronald Reagan who, as Governor of California in the 1960s, started the trend when he killed free tuition in the University of California system.  Bobo is so full of shit his eyes are brown.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Last week, several Republican senators, including John McCain, called on President Obama to stop releasing detainees from the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Their argument was that after the terror attacks in Paris, the 122 prisoners still in Guantánamo should be made to stay right where they are, where they can do the West no harm.

On Tuesday, one of those detainees, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was sent to Guantánamo in 2002 and remains there to this day, is poised to offer a powerful rejoinder. Three years into his detention — years during which he was isolated, tortured, beaten, sexually abused and humiliated — Slahi wrote a 466-page, 122,000-word account of what had happened to him up to that point.

His manuscript was immediately classified, and it took years of litigation and negotiation by Slahi’s pro bono lawyers to force the military to declassify a redacted version. Even with the redactions, “Guantánamo Diary” is an extraordinary document — “A vision of hell, beyond Orwell, beyond Kafka,” as John le Carré aptly describes it in a back cover blurb — that every American should read.

A native of Mauritania, Slahi, 44, is fluent in several languages — he learned English while in Guantánamo — and lived in Canada and Germany as well as the Muslim world. He came under suspicion because an Al Qaeda member, who had been based in Montreal — where Slahi had also lived — was arrested and charged with plotting to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport in 1999. Slahi was questioned about this plot several times, but he was always released. After 9/11, Slahi was detained again for questioning. That time, he was turned over to the American authorities, in whose captivity he has been ever since.

What was he accused of? Slahi asked this question of his captors often and was never given a straight answer. This, of course, is part of the problem with Guantánamo, a prison where being formally charged with a crime is a luxury, not a requirement. His efforts to tell the truth — that he had no involvement in any acts of terrorism — only angered his interrogators. “Looks like a dog, walks like a dog, smells like a dog, barks like a dog, must be a dog,” one interrogator used to say. That was the best his captors could do to explain why he was there. Yet the military was so sure he was a key Al Qaeda player that he was subjected to “special interrogation” techniques that had been signed off by the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, himself.

“Special interrogation techniques,” of course, is a euphemism for torture. The sections of the book that describe his torture make for harrowing reading. Slahi was so sleep-deprived that he eventually started to hallucinate. Chained to the ground, he was forced to “stand” in positions that were extremely painful. Interrogators went at him in shifts — 24 hours a day. Sometimes during interrogations, female interrogators rubbed their breasts over his body and fondled him.

It is hard to read about his torture without feeling a sense of shame.

Does Slahi crack? Of course: to get the torture to stop, he finally lied, telling his interrogators what he thought they wanted to hear, just as torture victims have done since the Inquisition. “Torture doesn’t guarantee that the detainee cooperates,” writes Slahi. “In order to stop torture, the detainee has to please his assailant, even with untruthful, and sometime misleading [intelligence].” McCain, who was tortured in Vietnam, knows this; last month, he made a powerful speech in which he condemned America’s use of torture, saying, “the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights.” That is also why it is so disheartening that McCain has allied himself with those who want to keep Guantánamo open.

In 2010, a federal district judge ruled in favor of Slahi’s habeas corpus petition because the evidence against him was so thin. The government appealed, and the order remains in limbo.

I asked Nancy Hollander, one of Slahi’s lawyers, to describe her client. “He is funny, smart, compassionate and thoughtful,” she said. All of these qualities come through in his memoir, which is surprisingly without rancor. “I have only written what I experienced, what I saw, and what I learned firsthand,” he writes toward the end of his book. “I have tried not to exaggerate, nor to understate. I have tried to be as fair as possible, to the U.S. government, to my brothers, and to myself.” One of the wonders of the book is that he does come across as fair to all, even his torturers.

But the quote that sticks with me most is something that one of his guards told him, something that could stand as a fitting epitaph for Guantánamo itself: “I know I can go to hell for what I did to you.”

Nocera and Collins

January 17, 2015

In “The Keystone XL Illusion” Mr. Nocera kindly informs us that with or without the pipeline Canada’s tar sands oil is coming to the United States.  What a suprise — another puff piece for Big Energy.  In “Texas Is Sending You a Present” Ms. Collins says almost everybody has a favorite Rick Perry moment, and we all might get to revisit them during the 2016 campaign.  Here’s Gunga Din Nocera:

Greg Rickford, Canada’s minister of natural resources, was in the United States most of this past week, on a trip that didn’t get much attention in the media with so much bigger news swirling about. So let me fill you in.

Rickford spent the first two days of his trip in Washington, where of course debate over the controversial Keystone XL pipeline is underway in earnest in the new Republican-led Senate. The Republican-led House, meanwhile, has already passed a bill giving the go-ahead to the pipeline, which, if it’s ever built, will transport heavy crude from the tar sands of Alberta to American refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. And of course President Obama has threatened to veto any such bill, should one land on his desk.

In Washington, Rickford met with his Obama administration counterpart, Ernest Moniz, the secretary of energy. Although the Keystone pipeline was not on the agenda, the two men talked about it anyway. Rickford paid a visit to Heidi Heitkamp, the Democratic senator from North Dakota, who strongly supports the Keystone pipeline. (In addition to the Alberta crude, the pipeline would transport shale oil from North Dakota.)

He met with State Department officials to get a Keystone update; because the pipeline would cross the U.S.-Canada border, the department has to do a review, which it has done several times, always coming down in favor of the project. In several speeches, Rickford talked up the close energy relationship between the United States and Canada, noting that Canada sends three million barrels per day to America — more than Venezuela and Saudi Arabia combined. He mentioned Canada’s new pipeline safety law. He said he thought the Keystone XL pipeline should be approved, which is essentially what Canadian officials have been saying for the past six years.

Then on Wednesday, Rickford went to Texas for two days. This is the part of his trip that really caught my attention. His main focus in Texas was on two new Canadian-controlled pipelines that became operational in mid-December. One is called the Flanagan South pipeline, which cost $2.8 billion. It covers nearly 600 miles, from Pontiac, Ill., to Cushing, Okla. The other pipeline, called the Seaway Twin, runs an additional 500 miles, from Cushing to Freeport, Tex., where the refineries are. It cost $1.2 billion. Guess where some of the oil that is going to run through those pipelines is coming from? Yep — the tar sands of Alberta.

If you are wondering why the environmental community hasn’t been chaining itself to the White House fence to protest these two new pipelines, the way it has with Keystone, the answer is that neither of these pipelines crosses the Canadian border, so they don’t require the same complicated approval process that Keystone requires. (The Flanagan South line will connect with a pipeline that already crosses the border.) More to the point, perhaps, they were never the symbol that the high-profile Keystone XL became, so that even the approvals they did require never aroused the same attention from environmentalists.

Yet these new pipelines are going to be carrying some 200,000 barrels per day of the heavy crude mined from the tar sands. True, that is only a third of what the Keystone XL would be able to deliver, but it essentially helps double the amount of tar sands oil that can be exported to the United States. In addition, there will be expanded rail capacity for Alberta’s oil, which is a far more dangerous way to move it than a state-of-the-art pipeline.

The point is: With or without Keystone, Canada’s tar sands oil is coming to the United States. One of the stated reasons that environmental activists wanted to prevent Keystone from being built was that doing so would force Canada to stop mining the oil. Without Keystone, it was said, Canada would have no means to export it. But that has never been a particularly plausible argument. Even before the opening of these two new pipelines, tar sands oil was coming to the United States, primarily by rail. Indeed, the only thing that can slow it down now is the rapid drop in the price of oil, which is likely to make expensive tar sands crude unprofitable.

Even as the Keystone debate reaches its current crescendo, all that is left, really, is the symbolism. The Republican right claims that Keystone will create jobs. It won’t, not to any significant degree. The Democratic left says that the oil Keystone will bring to the Gulf is so dirty, so carbon laden, that it will wreak havoc on the climate. It won’t do that either. If the president ultimately decides not to approve Keystone, he will do so knowing full well that he has not stopped the tar sands oil in any meaningful way.

To expect another outcome is, well, a pipe dream. It always was.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Rick Perry!

The man who has been governor of Texas since pterodactyls roamed the plains took his leave at the State Capitol this week. He is not saying anything for sure about running for president. Mum’s the word until springtime. However, he recently told a reporter that if voters want to break from the Obama era, “I am a very clear and compelling individual to support.”

Wow, the Republican race is getting to be like one of those crime shows where the detectives have to paste pictures all over the wall so they can keep the suspects straight. So many old friends popping up this month — Mitt Romney and now Rick Perry. The man who drove to Canada with the family dog strapped to the car roof and the man who claims he shot a coyote while jogging. The animal lobby had better get out there and see how Jeb Bush feels about wolf hunting.

Almost everybody has a Rick Perry favorite moment. For 99 percent, it’s probably the dreaded “oops” debate when he announced that as president he was going to shutter three federal agencies — and then could only think of two.

And, yeah, that one was pretty good. However, I still cherish a television interview Perry did a few years earlier with Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune in which he defended abstinence-only sex education despite the state’s astronomical rates of teenage pregnancy.

“It works,” Perry said defiantly and totally erroneously.

“Can you give me a statistic suggesting it works?” asked Smith.

“I’m going to tell you from my own personal life. Abstinence works,” Perry replied. Smith was too discreet to press for details, but let’s hope it comes up during the campaign.

Perry had been governor of Texas for more than 14 years, an all-time record. In his farewell speech to the State Legislature, he reminded the lawmakers of all they’d been through together, including hurricanes, wildfires and the tragic disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia over Texas in 2003, although Perry called it “Space Shuttle Challenger,” which blew up in 1986.

No mention of his pending felony indictment for abuse of power. Perry tried to force a county district attorney to resign by threatening to veto the money for an office she runs that investigates public corruption. It’s a complicated story. First you learn that the D.A. in question had been arrested in a rather spectacular drunken-driving case, and you tilt a little toward Perry. Then you discover that two other county D.A.’s were charged with drunken driving during the Perry administration without attracting the wrath of the governor. Then you sort of get distracted by wondering what’s going on with Texas district attorneys.

We’ve got ages to work it out.

Perry bragged about the state’s economy, which he often refers to as “the Texas Miracle.” Really, we have not heard so much about miracles since Our Lady of Fatima. The state’s record of job creation is his big calling card to the presidential league, and once he starts harping on it again we’re going to wonder: Has Texas been growing so many jobs because Perry cut taxes and regulations? Or is it because Texas happens to be a state with warm weather, lots of space for cheap housing, a huge border with Mexico and massive oil and gas deposits? Is Perry a great leader or just conveniently located? Eventually, someone will repeat the old Ann Richards joke about being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple.

Perry’s signature job-building initiative is something called the Texas Enterprise Fund, which aims to persuade out-of-state companies to move to Texas, or expand there. One of its beneficiaries, Texas Institute for Genomic Medicine, got $50 million in return for creating what Perry said were more than 12,000 jobs. An investigation by The Wall Street Journal revealed the fund folk had been counting every single biotech job created anywhere in the state for the previous six years. Actually the number was more like 10.

But it’s great that the governor’s ambitions are forcing us to think a lot about Texas, a state that deserves more attention, having been home to only three of the last eight elected chief executives. Not even half! And although lawmakers from Texas currently lead six of the committees in the House of Representatives, that’s still under a third.

There’s also United States Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, making all the pre-presidential-campaign stops and offering an option to all of us who are yearning for a vision to the right of Rick Perry. I once threw out the possibility of an entire Republican ticket from the Lone Star State, and many readers desperately wrote to argue that that was unconstitutional. It might be fairer to say that the Constitution isn’t crazy about the idea.

We can figure that out down the line. Meanwhile, Perry and Cruz could both be in the presidential debates. Let’s see who’s better at counting to three.


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