Archive for the ‘Nocera’ Category

Brooks and Nocera

March 17, 2015

Bobo has another piece telling us we just can’t cut it in today’s world.  In “Skills in Flux” he scolds us — saying that we are already using a set of subtle, flexible new skills to fit the new economy, and it’s time we understood them.  (As if he had a clue…)  I went for the shortest, pithiest comment today, from “Ian” in West Palm Beach, FL:  “David Brook’s default mode is condescension. His columns reek of it.”  Mr. Nocera considers “The Hidden Talent of Steve Jobs” and says genius alone didn’t bring Apple back. It took management chops.  Here’s Bobo:

Several years ago, Doug Lemov began studying videos of excellent teachers. He focused not on their big strategies but on their microgestures: How long they waited before calling on students to answer a question (to give the less confident students time to get their hands up); when they paced about the classroom and when they stood still (while issuing instructions, to emphasize the importance of what’s being said); how they moved around the room toward a student whose mind might be wandering.

In an excellent piece on Lemov for The Guardian, Ian Leslie emphasizes that these subtle skills are often not recognized or even discussed by those who talk about education policy, or even by those who evaluate teachers.

Leslie notes that the Los Angeles school system tabulated the performance of roughly 6,000 teachers, using measures of student achievement. The best performing teacher in the whole system was a woman named Zenaida Tan. Up until that report, she was completely unheralded. The skills she possessed were invisible. Meanwhile, less important traits were measured on her evaluations (three times she was late to pick up students from recess).

In part, Lemov is talking about the skill of herding cats. The master of cat herding senses when attention is about to wander, knows how fast to move a diverse group, senses the rhythm between lecturing and class participation, varies the emotional tone. This is a performance skill that surely is relevant beyond education.

This raises an important point. As the economy changes, the skills required to thrive in it change, too, and it takes a while before these new skills are defined and acknowledged.

For example, in today’s loosely networked world, people with social courage have amazing value. Everyone goes to conferences and meets people, but some people invite six people to lunch afterward and follow up with four carefully tended friendships forevermore. Then they spend their lives connecting people across networks.

People with social courage are extroverted in issuing invitations but introverted in conversation — willing to listen 70 percent of the time. They build not just contacts but actual friendships by engaging people on multiple levels. If you’re interested in a new field, they can reel off the names of 10 people you should know. They develop large informal networks of contacts that transcend their organization and give them an independent power base. They are discriminating in their personal recommendations since character judgment is their primary currency.

Similarly, people who can capture amorphous trends with a clarifying label also have enormous worth. Karl Popper observed that there are clock problems and cloud problems. Clock problems can be divided into parts, but cloud problems are indivisible emergent systems. A culture problem is a cloud, so is a personality, an era and a social environment.

Since it is easier to think deductively, most people try to turn cloud problems into clock problems, but a few people are able to look at a complex situation, grasp the gist and clarify it by naming what is going on.

Such people tend to possess negative capacity, the ability to live with ambiguity and not leap to premature conclusions. They can absorb a stream of disparate data and rest in it until they can synthesize it into one trend, pattern or generalization.

Such people can create a mental model that helps you think about a phenomenon. As Oswald Chambers put it, “The author who benefits you most is not the one who tells you something you did not know before, but the one who gives expression to the truth that has been dumbly struggling in you for utterance.”

We can all think of many other skills that are especially valuable right now:

Making nonhuman things intuitive to humans. This is what Steve Jobs did.

Purpose provision. Many people go through life overwhelmed by options, afraid of closing off opportunities. But a few have fully cultivated moral passions and can help others choose the one thing they should dedicate themselves to.

Opposability. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” For some reason I am continually running across people who believe this is the ability their employees and bosses need right now.

Cross-class expertise. In a world dividing along class, ethnic and economic grounds some people are culturally multilingual. They can operate in an insular social niche while seeing it from the vantage point of an outsider.

One gets the impression we’re confronted by a giant cultural lag. The economy emphasizes a new generation of skills, but our vocabulary describes the set required 30 years ago. Lord, if somebody could just identify the skills it takes to give a good briefing these days, that feat alone would deserve the Nobel Prize.

And some people actually think he’s a “deep thinker”…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

The relationship between journalists and Steve Jobs could often be fraught, but there were always a handful of reporters he liked and trusted. They included John Markoff of The New York Times; Steven Levy, formerly of Wired magazine (he’s now at Medium); Walt Mossberg, the longtime technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal (he’s now at Re/code); and Brent Schlender of Fortune. They had all been on the technology beat seemingly forever, and they had known Jobs for decades.

As Schlender writes in “Becoming Steve Jobs,” the forthcoming book he co-authored with Rick Tetzeli, he first met Jobs in April 1986, eight months after the Apple co-founder had been ousted by John Sculley, then Apple’s chief executive. Jobs, who had started a new company called NeXT, was 31. Schlender, who had just joined The Wall Street Journal’s San Francisco bureau, was 32.

During the next quartercentury, Schlender conducted “more than 150 interviews and informal conversations” with Jobs. He wrote cover stories for Fortune about Apple, some of which Jobs liked, and some of which he hated. On occasion, he visited Jobs at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. What began as a subject-journalist relationship evolved into something deeper — “a long, complicated and mostly rewarding relationship,” as Schlender characterizes it in the book.

So it is not a huge surprise that Schlender — and his friend Tetzeli, a former Fortune deputy managing editor — would see Jobs in a different light than most. (Disclosure: I worked with Schlender and Tetzeli during my decade at Fortune.) After Jobs died, they write, the coverage reflected “stagnant stereotypes.” On the one hand, “Steve was a genius with a flair for design,” whose powers of persuasion were such that he could convince people that the sun rose in the west and set in the east. On the other hand, he was also “a pompous jerk,” who humiliated employees and “disregarded everyone else in his single-minded pursuit of perfection.”

It is Schlender’s and Tetzeli’s contention that Jobs was a far more complex and interesting man than the half-genius/half-jerk stereotype, and a good part of their book is an attempt to craft a more rounded portrait. What makes their book important is that they also contend — persuasively, I believe — that, the stereotype notwithstanding, he was not the same man in his prime that he had been at the beginning of his career. The callow, impetuous, arrogant youth who co-founded Apple was very different from the mature and thoughtful man who returned to his struggling creation and turned it into a company that made breathtaking products while becoming the dominant technology company of our time. Had he not changed, they write, he would not have succeeded.

For Schlender and Tetzeli, the crucial period was the most overlooked part of Jobs’s career: The years from 1985 to 1997, when he was in exile from Apple and running NeXT. As a business, NeXT was a failure. Begun as a company that was going to bring affordable yet superior computers to the higher education market, it eventually had to abandon the hardware side of the business and become a pure software company. The point that is normally made about NeXT is that when Jobs returned to Apple, he brought with him the NeXTSTEP operating system, which became the foundation for a new generation of Macs and was a critical component of the company’s revival.

Every bit as important, though, was that Jobs brought his core group of executives with him to Apple, and they stayed with him for years. At the same time he was running NeXT, Jobs also owned Pixar, the animation studio he bought from George Lucas. It took years before Pixar came out with its first full-length movie, “Toy Story.” During that time, he saw how Ed Catmull, Pixar’s president, managed the company’s creative talent. Catmull taught Jobs how to manage employees.

When Jobs returned to Apple, he was more patient — with people and with products. His charisma still drew people to him, but he no longer drove them away with his abrasive behavior and impossible demands. He had also learned that his ideas weren’t always the right ones, and he needed to listen to others.

Perhaps the most important example of this was the App Store. Jobs had initially opposed allowing outside developers to build apps for the iPhone, but he did a quick about-face once he realized he was wrong. The App Store has been hugely important in making the iPhone perhaps the most profitable consumer electronic device ever.

Jobs has long been hailed as one of the great creative minds of modern business. His genius for creating products and his marketing flair have also been rightly hailed. All of that comes through in “Becoming Steve Jobs,” but so does something else: He was a great manager. You can’t build a great company if you aren’t one.

Nocera and Collins

March 14, 2015

Mr. Cohen played the MoDo card and wrote a ridiculous parody letter which I can’t be bothered to put here.  In “Syracuse, Boeheim and the N.C.A.A.” Mr. Nocera has a question:  Is the takedown of a big-team basketball program and its coach just another abuse of power?  Who cares?  It’s bread and circuses…  In “Globe? Warm? Who, Me?” Ms. Collins says the popular response to questions about climate change and global warming seems to be: I’m not a scientist.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

There are few organizations that can make a mountain out of a molehill like the N.C.A.A. Believe it or not, the scathing report it issued last week, accusing Syracuse University and its basketball coach, Jim Boeheim, of a pattern of cheating, is a pretty good example.

I say “believe it or not” because to read about the report is to get the impression that Boeheim oversaw a program that was incorrigibly corrupt — a “decade-deep sewer,” as Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports characterized it.

This is surely the impression the N.C.A.A. hoped to convey. “Over the course of a decade,” the Committee on Infractions wrote, Syracuse committed violations including “academic fraud, instances of extra benefits,” cash payouts to players, etc. It accused Boeheim of failing to monitor his staff and claimed that the school showed a “lack of control over its athletic program.”

When the N.C.A.A. makes that last accusation, you can be sure it will be accompanied with stiff penalties. Among other things, Syracuse’s basketball team was put on probation for five years. It will lose some scholarships. Boeheim is to be suspended for part of next season, and he has been stripped of more than 100 wins.

I hold no brief for Boeheim. Coaches like him, who are bigger than the universities that employ them, are a problem for anyone who believes that a university’s academic mission is more important than its basketball team. But neither should the N.C.A.A. use its enforcement powers to cut such a coach down to size just because, well, it can. Especially when it hasn’t delivered the goods.

Boeheim appears to have made two terrible personnel moves. In 2005, he hired Stan Kissel to oversee the basketball team’s academic progress. And, in 2009, he recruited a 7-foot-tall Brazilian basketball player named Fab Melo. Kissel appears to have been a bad actor who monitored players’ class work by getting control of the athletes’ email accounts, which he then used to communicate with professors, supposedly without letting the professors know it was him.

Melo, a native Portuguese speaker who still had difficulty with English, was one of those athletes who simply didn’t belong on a university campus — yet another big problem with college sports that the N.C.A.A. is hardly in a position to remedy. Basketball was the only reason he was attending Syracuse.

Halfway through his sophomore season, Melo was declared ineligible because of poor grades. A professor agreed to allow him to submit a paper that might improve his grade and get him back on the court. According to the N.C.A.A., Kissel, along with a receptionist, gave Melo “unauthorized assistance” with the paper, which he submitted the very next day. It appears likely, in fact, that one of them wrote it.

That’s a major transgression, not just of N.C.A.A. rules, but also of Syracuse’s academic standards. The university has not shirked from the seriousness of the offense, describing it as “wrongful conduct.” Both Kissel and the receptionist were let go long before the N.C.A.A. completed its investigation.

What else? Nearly a decade ago, three football players received course credit for an internship that they hadn’t earned. So now we’re up to four cases of academic fraud in 10 years, only one of which was committed by a basketball player. (By comparison, in the 2013-14 school year alone, Syracuse students racked up 184 charges of academic dishonesty.)

Also: Some players were involved in charity benefits without getting approval. A booster was given too many complimentary tickets. Years ago, three players were paid by a local Y.M.C.A. for what the N.C.A.A. says was volunteer work, and at least one of the players insists was a summer job. “On one occasion in 2004,” the report actually says, a coach drove a Syracuse athlete 45 miles. Seriously?

Finally, although the N.C.A.A. believes that several other athletes committed academic fraud, it couldn’t bring that charge because the university, going through the same process it would with any other student, concluded that it didn’t have enough evidence. So instead, the N.C.A.A. tagged the athletes with receiving “extra benefits,” because, you know, something bad might have happened even if it couldn’t be proved. Actual proof has never mattered much in N.C.A.A. investigations.

I have dwelled on this report because it illustrates that despite the blows it has taken recently — in court and elsewhere — the N.C.A.A. remains not only a powerful institution, but one that is all too willing to abuse that power. To nail Syracuse’s basketball program — for who knows what reason — it had to pad one serious 2012 offense with a handful of extraneous, at times silly, allegations that had occurred, here and there, over the course of a decade.

Syracuse, concluded the N.C.A.A., violated the association’s “fundamental core values.” Not really. Very soon, the annual March Madness college basketball tournament will be upon us. The N.C.A.A. will reap somewhere on the order of $800 million. Now, we’re talking core values.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

This is the time of year when we start to think about global warming. Because the weather is about to get warmer. Please God.

A new angle comes up almost every day. A Harvard professor recently reported that 7,000-year-old mummies in Chile are turning into “black ooze” because the air around them is getting more humid. In California, baby sea lions are in trouble because the ocean is heating up.

Meanwhile, in Florida, there’s a report that state employees have been barred from using the term “climate change.”

Since Florida is drowning in rising tides, you’d think this would be a tough rule to follow. It would be like telling prosecutors in New York not to mention the term “indicted state legislator.” Or banning Texas road crews from ever saying “dead armadillo.”

But, according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, some employees at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection say they have indeed been directed to avoid the terms “global warming” and “climate change,” even when they’re talking about conserving the coastline or the coral reefs. Gov. Rick Scott denies there is any prohibition, and it’s certainly possible his underlings just decided to clamp down on their own, once they became aware of his position.

The governor’s position is to point out that he is “not a scientist” whenever the topic comes up. It’d be a bit tough to follow suit if you are, say, a D.E.P. scientist.

But other people find his approach extremely attractive. Former governor and future presidential candidate Jeb Bush has revealed that he, too, is not a scientist. A spokeswoman told The Wall Street Journal that Bush does believe the climate is changing but he’s not sure about “the extent to which humans contribute.” Also, whatever he concludes is not going to involve “alarmist, far left environmental policies.”

Most of the other potential Republican contenders follow a similar route when they can’t avoid the matter entirely. The one who’s been pressed hardest on global warming recently may be the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, who was at a conservative conference outside of Washington when he was approached by a second grader who wanted to know where he stood.

Walker said he is a former boy scout who “always thought maybe campsites should be cleaner.” I swear.

“Do you care about climate change?” the child pressed. He is the son of an environmental activist, so don’t be expecting this kind of persistence every time a politician takes a grade-school tour.

“Ultimately, to me, I want to make sure that we have all the natural resources as possible moving forward just like I’ve done for everybody in Wisconsin. O.K.?” responded the governor.

Now climate change is perhaps the most important long-term issue the next American president will have to deal with. Our international enemies will come and go; our deficits will rise and fall. But if the atmosphere keeps getting clogged with greenhouse gases, future generations will be too busy with the floods and droughts to care.

If you were seriously thinking about running for president of the United States, wouldn’t this be something you’d want to have studied up on? Have you ever heard anybody say he couldn’t comment on tax policy because he wasn’t an accountant?

These guys don’t act like people who think the scientists are wrong when they say global warming is real, and that human activity creates all or part of the problem. They act like people who don’t want to have to face up to the facts and come up with solutions. Which would involve making the coal and oil companies super unhappy.

They’re sort of like the mayor in “Jaws” who won’t admit there’s a killer shark out there because it’s the start of the town’s tourism season. (“Now I am not a marine biologist …”)

It’s one thing to be a climate-change denier like Senator James Inhofe, the (gasp) chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, who brought a snowball into the Senate to demonstrate his conviction that the Earth is not getting warmer. It’s another to pretend as if it’s O.K. to dodge the whole question.

If you’re a presidential candidate, the only three intellectually honest answers to global warming queries are:

“My thoughts about this are similar to those of my intellectual role model, James Inhofe.”

“Yes, climate change is real, and I will give you my plan for reducing carbon emissions just as soon as my six biggest campaign donors finish slamming the door on their way out.”

“Sure, it’s real. But by the time Miami goes under water, I’ll be dead. So who cares?”

Or you can tell people that the shark might or might not be in the water, and might or might not be hungry, but that this is no time to stop swimming.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

March 10, 2015

In “The Cost of Relativism” Bobo babbles that the stark and growing gap between the lives of kids from college-educated parents and kids from parents who didn’t go to college demands a complex response: political, social, and moral.  In the comments “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY sums it up for us:  “Another slick exercise in poor-shaming by David Brooks.”  In “Where the Road From Auschwitz Ends” Mr. Cohen tells how in a small town in Sweden, placid and increasingly prosperous, the horror proved insuperable.  Mr. Nocera, in “College For a New Age,” says an author has an education model that is not just cheaper, but also better.  Here’s Bobo:

One of America’s leading political scientists, Robert Putnam, has just come out with a book called “Our Kids” about the growing chasm between those who live in college-educated America and those who live in high-school-educated America. It’s got a definitive collection of data about this divide.

Roughly 10 percent of the children born to college grads grow up in single-parent households. Nearly 70 percent of children born to high school grads do. There are a bunch of charts that look like open scissors. In the 1960s or 1970s, college-educated and noncollege-educated families behaved roughly the same. But since then, behavior patterns have ever more sharply diverged. High-school-educated parents dine with their children less than college-educated parents, read to them less, talk to them less, take them to church less, encourage them less and spend less time engaging in developmental activity.

Interspersed with these statistics, Putnam and his research team profile some of the representative figures from each social class. The profiles from high-school-educated America are familiar but horrific.

David’s mother was basically absent. “All her boyfriends have been nuts,” he said. “I never really got to see my mom that much.” His dad dropped out of school, dated several woman with drug problems and is now in prison. David went to seven different elementary schools. He ended up under house arrest, got a girl pregnant before she left him for a drug addict.

Kayla’s mom married an abusive man but lost custody of their kids to him when they split. Her dad married a woman with a child but left her after it turned out the child was fathered by her abusive stepfather. Kayla grew up as one of five half-siblings from three relationships until her parents split again and coupled with others.

Elijah grew up in a violent neighborhood and saw a girl killed in a drive-by shooting when he was 4. He burned down a lady’s house when he was 13. He goes through periods marked by drugs, clubbing and sex but also dreams of being a preacher. “I just love beating up somebody,” he told a member of Putnam’s team, “and making they nose bleed and just hurting them and just beating them on the ground.”

The first response to these stats and to these profiles should be intense sympathy. We now have multiple generations of people caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown, often leading to something approaching an anarchy of the intimate life.

But it’s increasingly clear that sympathy is not enough. It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms. The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.

Reintroducing norms will require, first, a moral vocabulary. These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.

Next it will require holding people responsible. People born into the most chaotic situations can still be asked the same questions: Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?

Next it will require holding everybody responsible. America is obviously not a country in which the less educated are behaving irresponsibly and the more educated are beacons of virtue. America is a country in which privileged people suffer from their own characteristic forms of self-indulgence: the tendency to self-segregate, the comprehensive failures of leadership in government and industry. Social norms need repair up and down the scale, universally, together and all at once.

People sometimes wonder why I’ve taken this column in a spiritual and moral direction of late. It’s in part because we won’t have social repair unless we are more morally articulate, unless we have clearer definitions of how we should be behaving at all levels.

History is full of examples of moral revival, when social chaos was reversed, when behavior was tightened and norms reasserted. It happened in England in the 1830s and in the U.S. amid economic stress in the 1930s. It happens through organic communal effort, with voices from everywhere saying gently: This we praise. This we don’t.

Every parent loves his or her children. Everybody struggles. But we need ideals and standards to guide the way.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

The most important word in the title of Goran Rosenberg’s beautifully wrought book, “A Brief Stop on the Road From Auschwitz,” is the unlikely one that precedes the name of the Nazi death camp. Auschwitz, for the Jews, and not only for them, was a destination with no return ticket, a place of gas and ashes.

But some did survive; those sent the other way on the ramp to be worked to death for Hitler’s Reich, except of course that it might just be, if they were resilient enough, that the 1,000-year Reich expired in flames before them. As was the case with Rosenberg’s father, David, for whom there was a road, of sorts, from Auschwitz.

It first leads, as Rosenberg chronicles with a sinuous sobriety, through an archipelago of slave labor camps in Germany, where skeletal figures from Auschwitz, among others, are put to work making machinery desperately needed by the German war industry, whose engineers have reached the startling realization that the mass murder of Jews does not, precisely, contribute to the war effort. German industry needs slaves by the second half of 1944; it even needs Jewish slaves. To this requirement Rosenberg’s father, a Polish Jew from Lodz, owes his life.

As Rosenberg, a Swedish journalist and author, writes, “Luck, chance and freak are the stones with which every road from Auschwitz is paved. There are no other roads from Auschwitz but those of improbability.” He continues: “You’re part of a group of 350 Jewish men who were recently on their way from the ghetto in Lodz to the gas chambers and crematoriums in Auschwitz, and who by some blind fate have been nudged onto a route leading to a freight depot platform in the heart of Germany.”

Luck, of course, is a relative term. With a crazed frenzy, the war lost, German guards drive Jews through various slave camps. At his liberation, David Rosenberg weighed 80 pounds. There is little left of him; there is nothing left of the Jewish community of Lodz. He is alive. His world is gone.

By further chance, David Rosenberg, then in his early 20s, is put on a transport to Sweden, whose government has decided to give refuge to “some ten thousand children and invalids” from the refugee camps of Europe. He will end up in Sodertalje, near Stockholm, where he goes to work on the production line of a truck factory. This town with its tall pines and ordered streets starts out as “a brief halt on the road to somewhere else.” It becomes the place where this survivor lives out his days.

One of the great merits of Rosenberg’s book is the way he contrives to relive his father’s life forwards, not prejudging events through the prism of the outcome, but imbuing each stage of what he calls “the project” — that is, his parents’ aim of reconstructing a normal life in Sweden — with a kind of tender hope. Things will be all right. The project will work. Rocked in the cradle of Sweden’s welfare state and postwar boom, the Rosenbergs will overcome the Nazi torment.

At first, the project looks viable. David’s sweetheart, Halinka, from whom he has been separated at Auschwitz-Birkenau, has also survived. She comes to Sweden. The author is born, then a sibling. The family moves to a larger apartment. David’s pay improves, even if his professional ambitions meet obstacles. The Rosenbergs acquire a VW Beetle, and David tries for a while to market an ingenious luggage rack he has invented, the “Piccolo,” that attaches to the rear of the car above the engine. It doesn’t fly.

Rosenberg writes, “The Place seems to offer a world in which every dream is feasible, since it’s a world where no dreams have been shattered, including the dreams that were shattered in the world you come from, which is a world the Project will help put behind you.”

The project unravels through the 1950s. Frustration, darkness and depression creep into David Rosenberg. What the Nazis have done to him cannot be left behind after all. He goes to Israel, thinks of emigrating, but no. Some of the most wrenching pages chronicle his attempts to obtain reparations from the German government, efforts frustrated by a doctor chosen by Germany who writes in 1956 that: “Without a doubt the patient is exaggerating.” He concludes: “The symptoms of psychoneurosis that the patient alleges he has can no longer necessarily be linked to possible harm inflicted in the concentration camps.”

This bureaucratic letter is of a singular obscenity. Possible harm!

Written with tender precision, “A Brief Stop on the Road From Auschwitz,” recently published in the United States, is the most powerful account I have read of the other death — the death after the camps, the death from damage that proves insuperable, the death that in this case comes 15 years later, in 1960, after electroshock treatment, in a Swedish lake beside a mental hospital. The project was indeed brief.

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

Kevin Carey has a 4-year-old girl. Carey, the director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, has been thinking about the role of universities in American life for virtually his entire career. But after his daughter was born, that thinking took on a new urgency.

“All of a sudden there is a mental clock,” he told me the other day. “How am I going to pay for her college education? I wanted to write a book that asked, ‘What will college be like when my daughter is ready to go?’ ”

His answer is his new book, “The End of College,” which is both a stinging indictment of the university business model and a prediction about how technology is likely to change it. His vision is at once apocalyptic and idealistic. He calls it “The University of Everywhere.”

“The story of higher education’s future is a tale of ancient institutions in their last days of decadence, creating the seeds of a new world to come,” he writes. If he is right, higher education will be transformed into a different kind of learning experience that is cheaper, better, more personalized and more useful.

Universities in their current form have been with us for so long that it is difficult to imagine them operating any other way. But Carey begins “The End of College” by making a persuasive case that the university model has long been deeply flawed. It has three different missions: “practical training, research and liberal arts education.” Over time, the mission that came to matter most within the university culture was research. Great research institutions derived the most status. And professors who did significant research — publish or perish! — were the ones who reaped the rewards of the university system.

On the other hand, actual teaching, which is what the students — and their parents — are paying for, is scarcely valued at all. There is also the absurd importance of the football team. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent to create an ever newer, ever fancier campus. The outmoded idea that college should cater to students just out of high school, even though a significant portion of students are in different stages of life.

And, of course, there is the cost. Student debt now tops $1 trillion, and Carey spoke to students who were going to graduate with more than $100,000 of debt, a terrible burden at the beginning of one’s career. Schools like George Washington University and New York University became top-tier universities in no small part by aggressively raising their prices — which, in turn, became part of the reason they are now considered prestigious universities.

Although Carey has long been aware of the flaws of the university model, it is the out-of-control cost of college that he believes will cause people to search for a different way to educate students. Indeed, much of the rest of his book is devoted to the educators, scientists, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists who are developing new ways to provide learning that make much more sense for many more students. “You don’t need libraries and research infrastructure and football teams and this insane race for status,” he says. “If you only have to pay for the things that you actually need, education doesn’t cost $60,000 a year.”

Carey spends a good chunk of “The End of College” exploring the new world of online learning, for instance. To that end, he took an online course — problem sets and exams included — offered by Eric Lander, the M.I.T. professor who was a principal leader of the Human Genome Project. It was, he concludes, a better experience than if he had sat in Lander’s classroom.

He expects that as more people take to online learning, the combination of massive amounts of data and advances in artificial intelligence will make it possible for courses to adapt to the way each student learns. He sees thousands of people around the world taking the same course and developing peer groups that become communities, like study groups at universities. “A larger and larger percentage of the education that has been historically confined to scarce, expensive colleges and universities will be liberated and made available to anyone, anywhere.” That’s what I mean when I say his vision is an idealistic one.

(Carey also believes that over time, new kinds of credentials will emerge that will be accepted by employers, making it less necessary to get a traditional college degree. He explored this subject for The Upshot, which was published in Sunday Review in The Times over the weekend.)

When might all this take place? I asked him. He wasn’t ready to hazard a guess; colleges are protected by government regulation, accreditation boards, and cultural habit, among other things. But, he said, it was inevitable that we were going to see an increased educational experience at a far lower cost.

Maybe he’ll even be able to stop saving for his daughter’s college education. Maybe the rest of us will, too.

Nocera, solo

March 7, 2015

Ms. Collins is off today, so Mr. Nocera has the place to himself.  In “Bullets Over Washington” he says when some armor-piercing ammunition was banned in the ’80s, the regulations were largely uncontroversial. My, how things have changed.  Well, Joe, the Mole People weren’t in charge in the 80s…  Here he is:

In 1986, Congress passed, and Ronald Reagan signed into law, the Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act. It directed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to ban certain types of ammunition that could pierce the body armor worn by police officers. The National Rifle Association had originally opposed the legislation — which, in fact, was one of a series of events that caused a split between the N.R.A. and most police associations — but the logic behind it was irrefutable.

“Certain forms of ammunition have no legitimate sporting, recreational or self-defense use and thus should be prohibited,” Reagan said during the signing ceremony. The House of Representatives passed the measure by a vote of 400 to 21.

When the A.T.F. wrote the regulations to outlaw “cop-killer bullets,” as they were known, the agency made an important distinction between two kinds of armor-penetrating bullets. Those that were used primarily for “sporting purposes” were still allowed, but those that could be used in handguns were banned. As a practical matter, this meant that the agency was permitting rifle ammunition on the theory that rifles represented sporting weapons. But criminals are likely to use handguns, which they can better hide on their person. Although some armor-piercing bullets were ultimately banned, the regulations were largely uncontroversial.

My, how things have changed.

One thing that has changed is the handguns. Seven or eight years ago, makers of assault rifles like the popular AR-15 began making handgun versions of these powerful weapons. These handguns use the same bullets as the assault rifles, including some that are armor-piercing. In addition, since 2011, the A.T.F. has received numerous requests from manufacturers to “exempt” ammunition they want to sell — in effect, categorizing armor-piercing handgun bullets as being primarily for sporting purposes.

Quite sensibly, the A.T.F. realized it needed to take another look at the issue of whether certain armor-piercing bullets that had long been associated with rifles were now more problematic because they could be used in these new, more lethal handguns. Agency employees met with industry representatives and law enforcement officials. And last month, the A.T.F. published a document outlining a new framework for deciding whether certain bullets that had been exempt should now be banned. One bullet in particular, widely used by AR-15 owners and described by the A.T.F. as “5.56-mm projectiles in SS109 and M855 cartridges,” would be banned under the new framework. Why? Because if used in handguns, they could kill cops.

Which, of course, leads to the second thing that has changed. Congress no longer passes bills opposed by the N.R.A., even if the intent is to save the lives of police officers. Indeed, in the Obama era, the right-wing echo chamber is quick to label even an effort as benign — and as sane — as the A.T.F.’s proposed framework as yet another example of the president abusing his authority.

The N.R.A. quickly labeled Obama a “dictator.” Pro-gun bloggers screamed about this latest assault on their Second Amendment rights. “[Obama] wants to take guns out of everybody’s hands, and if he can’t do that, he’s gonna take the bullets,” said Mr. Echo Chamber himself, Rush Limbaugh.

And Congress? This week, 239 House members — more than half of the House of Representatives — sent a letter to B. Todd Jones, the director of the A.T.F., telling him, in effect, to buzz off. (“The effects of these restrictive interpretations are untenable.”) Jones will soon be getting a similar letter from the Senate side. It is hard to imagine that the A.T.F., already under siege, thanks to its botched Operation Fast and Furious, will be able to withstand this much congressional pressure.

On Friday morning, I spoke to one of the more thoughtful House conservatives, Scott Rigell of Virginia, who had signed on to the letter. I told him I couldn’t understand why there was such a furor over armor-piercing bullets that could kill police officers. “When I first heard about this,” he said, “I was truly stunned.” He had three objections. First, the ammunition in question is widely available and has never been a problem for the police. Second, he agreed with those who said that the administration was trying to impose its “deeply held views” on the country by fiat. And third, he felt that this could be the proverbial slippery slope. “If you conclude that this round is armor-piercing, then you have opened the dam completely,” he said.

On Friday afternoon, however, I spoke to J. Thomas Manger, the chief of the Montgomery County, Md., police department, and the president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which supports the A.T.F. effort. “Congress has asked them to make these kinds of decisions, and Congress should heed their recommendation,” he said.

When I mentioned that armor-piercing ammunition used to be called cop-killer bullets, he quickly corrected me.

“They’re still called cop-killing bullets,” Manger said. “I think every cop understands that.”

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.


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