Archive for the ‘Nocera’ Category

Brooks and Nocera

November 3, 2015

Bobo is here to tell us all about “The Evolution of Simplicity.”  He coos that these are busy and complicated times, and today’s simplicity movements are different from those in the past.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “If only excessive materialism and manifold opportunities were the problem in this country. I think Mr. Brooks tends to project his own affluent angst on society at large. While he’s looking for some sort of Platonic transcendence, the rest of us wish we had the resources to wander lonely as a cloud and develop refined sensibilities.”  Mr. Nocera is moving on.  In “And That’s My Opinion!” he says before he heads to a new assignment, he has some final words on a few topics.  He’s apparently going to the sports desk.  I wonder how he’ll be able to carry water for Big Energy there?  Here’s Bobo:

In this country we’re raised to go for the gusto, to try new things and savor the smorgasbord of life’s possibilities. As Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, “The chief work of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex. Because more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life. That means more life. Life is an end to itself and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.”

This striving for fullness and variety has always sparked a counter-impulse toward simplicity and naturalness. Benjamin Franklin wore an old fur cap in Paris to exemplify a natural unaffected virtue.

Henry David Thoreau made a fervent protest out of simplicity. Most Americans lead lives of quiet desperation, he argued. The things they call good, like riches, are really bad. On the other hand, “as you simplify your life the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude; poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”

Puritans, Quakers, Orthodox Jews and many other groups have always favored ascetic living and high thinking as a way to clear out those material things that might distract them from humility and grace, compassion and prayer, the spirit and the Lord.

Today’s simplicity movements are different from what they were in the past. Today’s most obvious simplicity impulse is the movement to declutter the home. Marie Kondo’s book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” now ranks at No. 2 on Amazon among the best-selling books of 2015. There are thousands of members of the National Association of Professional Organizers. Magazines and websites are stuffed with tips on how to declutter your living areas. (Everything that can be folded should be folded! Open the mail while standing over the recycling bin!)

Cleaning out the closets and paring down the wardrobe has become a religious ritual for many — a search for serenity, a blow against stress, and a longing for a beauty that is found by pruning away what is not.

The second big tendency in today’s simplicity movement involves mental hygiene: techniques to clean out the email folder and reduce the incoming flow. For example, Mailwise is a mobile email product that cleans out repetitive phrases so you can read your emails more quickly. (Woe to the day they invent a version for newspaper columns.)

As my Times colleague April Lawson points out, many of us are on a wireless hamster wheel, running furiously to keep the inbox in the same place. Something special like a dinner party or a museum visit is hollowed out when your mind is on your screen or at five places at once. After a while there’s an ache from all the scattered shallowness.

So of course there’s a mass movement to combat mental harriedness, the epidemic of A.D.D. all around. Of course there’s a struggle to regain control of your own attention, to set priorities about what you will think about, to see fewer things but to see them more deeply.

One of the troublesome things about today’s simplicity movements is that they are often just alternate forms of consumption. Magazines like Real Simple are sometimes asking you to strip away your stuff so you can buy new, simpler stuff. There’s a whiff of the haute bourgeoisie ethos here — that simplification is not really spiritual or antimaterialism; just a more refined, organic, locally grown and morally status-building form of materialism.

Today’s simplicity movements are also not as philosophically explicit as older ones. The Puritans were stripping away the material for a closer contact with God. Thoreau was stripping away on behalf of a radical philosophy. It’s easy to see what today’s simplifiers are throwing away; it’s not always clear what they are for. It’s not always explicit what rightly directed life they envision.

Still, there’s clearly some process of discovery here. Early in life you choose your identity by getting things. But later in an affluent life you discover or update your identity by throwing away what is no longer useful, true and beautiful. One simplicity expert advised people to take all their books off their shelves and throw them on the floor. Only put back the books that you truly value.

That’s an exercise in identity discovery, an exercise in realizing and then prioritizing your current tastes and beliefs. People who do that may instinctively be seeking higher forms of pruning: being impeccable with your words, parsimonious but strong with your commitments, disciplined about your time, selective about your friendships, moving generally from fragmentation toward unity of purpose. There’s an enviable emotional tranquillity at the end of that road.

In a world of rampant materialism and manifold opportunities, many people these days are apparently learning who they are by choosing what they can do without.

He probably wrote that from one of his “vast spaces for entertaining…”  Now here’s Mr. Nocera:


That’s what we do in Op-Ed: We render informed opinions that we hope are smart and sometimes provocative, backed up by good, old-fashioned shoe leather. I’m heading off to a new assignment, and as I do, please indulge me as I toss off a few last opinions:

Few people are more anti-gun than Michael Bloomberg. And few people are wealthier. According to Forbes, Bloomberg is worth around $40 billion, some of which he spends backing anti-gun candidates and supporting the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. His success, though, has been limited.

How about another approach? I propose that he buy a gun company. Seriously. Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger & Company both have market capitalizations hovering around $1 billion. Buying one would barely dent Bloomberg’s wallet.

Owning a gun company would allow him to take a different kind of leadership role on issues like improving gun safety and imposing universal background checks. A Bloomberg-owned gun manufacturer could make a smart gun, for instance — that is, a gun that only its owner can use. Gun companies today won’t sell them for fear of retaliation by the National Rifle Association. A Bloomberg-owned gun company has more potential to effect change in the country’s gun culture than anything else I can think of.

I’ve written many columns about education, especially the effort, spearheaded by wealthy philanthropists, to “fix” public education by funding the charter school movement.

Paula McAvoy, the program director for the Center for Ethics and Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — and, I should note, my son Amato’s fiancée — recently suggested a different idea: “Why don’t they spend their money on infrastructure instead?”

Her point is that a broken-down school sends a powerful message to students: “Society doesn’t care about your education.” McAvoy added, “The place where you learn matters.”

A new school sends the opposite message: that the country does care and wants public school students to succeed. A new school is also a huge morale booster, for students and teachers alike. “If you want to fix American education,” McAvoy told me, aiming her remarks at education philanthropists, “how about setting a goal of putting every kid into a state-of-the-art school by the year 2025?”

Two of the best ideas I heard as an Op-Ed columnist:

Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute believes that Supreme Court justices should serve one 18-year term, and those terms should be staggered so that one expires every other year. That way, every president would be able to nominate two justices during a four-year term. What difference would this make? Few things have more poisoned our politics than battles over Supreme Court nominees, precisely because they are lifetime appointments. With term limits, the stakes would be lower when a seat is vacated, and maybe, just maybe, our political culture could start to heal.

William Wachtel, a New York lawyer and co-founder of the group Why Tuesday?, believes that elections should be held on the weekend, when most people are not working, instead of Tuesdays, when they are. Tuesday voting, he likes to note, was originally built around farmers’ schedules; today, it is nothing less than a form of discrimination. As I quoted Chris Rock when I wrote about this in 2013, “They don’t want you to vote. If they did, we wouldn’t vote on a Tuesday.”

Why, oh, why won’t the Metropolitan Opera perform “Porgy and Bess”? As I once noted in Sunday Review, it is the greatest American opera ever written, with a half-dozen of the finest songs George Gershwin ever composed. Its mostly black cast would help bring in a more diverse audience, something the Met could use. Whenever I’ve inquired whether Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, is considering “Porgy and Bess,” I’m told that he is — “in the future.” The last time the Met performed it was a quarter-century ago. How much longer are we supposed to wait?

The late South African psychiatrist Mike Russell was among the first to note that smokers “smoke for nicotine, but they die from the tar.” Meaning that while nicotine addicts smokers, it is the burning tobacco, with all of the carcinogens the smoke produces, that kills them. I’ve written a lotabout e-cigarettes — maybe excessively so — because I think this point is so important. In demonizing e-cigarettes, the public health community has created a false equivalency between cigarettes and e-cigarettes, a stance I believe is costing lives. E-cigarettes may not be completely safe, but there is no doubt they could save lives if adult smokers could be encouraged to make the switch. And with that, I’ve had my last word on the subject.

I’ve enjoyed writing this column and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it. Thank you for your many thoughtful responses, both pro and con. I’m looking forward to engaging with you again soon … from the sports page.

Brooks and Nocera

October 27, 2015

Bobo has decided to deal in an oxymoron today, with an emphasis on “moron.”  In “A Sensible Version of Donald Trump” [snort] he gurgles that a superior outsider — not just from outside the political system, like Trump, but outside partisan thinking — could offer a great deal to America.  In the comments “Expat Annie” had this to say:  “The problem — and you know it, Mr. Brooks — is that there is no such fantasy candidate waiting in the wings. And even if there were, that person would not have a chance, nor would any of the programs you have suggested, for the simple reason that they all cost money — and the Republicans have shown quite clearly over the past years that they are not interested in investing in society or improving anyone’s lot (except for that of their wealthy benefactors). Their specialty, in the meantime, is tearing things down. No way would they agree to invest a dime in any of the things outlined here.”  Mr. Nocera has a question:  “Is Valeant Pharmaceuticals the Next Enron?”  He says allegations about Valeant’s practices and its own disclosures while under pressure cause one to wonder.  Here’s Bobo:

The voters, especially on the Republican side, seem to be despising experience this year and are looking for outsiders. Hence we have the rise of Donald Trump and Ben Carson. People like me keep predicting that these implausibles will collapse, but so far, as someone tweeted, they keep collapsing upward.

But imagine if we had a sensible Trump in the race. Suppose there was some former general or business leader with impeccable outsider status but also a steady temperament, deep knowledge and good sense.

What would that person sound like? Maybe something like this:

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m no politician. I’m just a boring guy who knows how to run things. But I’ve been paying close attention and it seems to me that of all the problems that face the nation, two stand out. The first is that we have a polarized, dysfunctional, semi-corrupt political culture that prevents us from getting anything done. To reverse that gridlock we’ve got to find some policy area where there’s a basis for bipartisan action.

The second big problem is that things are going badly for those in the lower half of the income distribution. People with less education are seeing their wages fall, their men drop out of the labor force, their marriage rates plummet and their social networks dissolve.

The first piece of good news is that conservative and progressive writers see this reality similarly, which is a rare thing these days. The second piece of good news is that we have new research that suggests fresh ways to address this problem, ways that may appeal to both Democrats and Republicans.

The studies I’m talking about were done at Harvard by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Lawrence Katz. They looked at the results of a Clinton-era program called Moving to Opportunity, which took poor families and moved them to middle-class neighborhoods. At first the results were disappointing. The families who moved didn’t see their earnings rise. Their kids didn’t do much better in school.

But as years went by and newer data accumulated, different and more promising results came in. Children who were raised in better environments had remarkable earnings gains. The girls raised in the better neighborhoods were more likely to marry and raise their own children in two-parent homes.

The first implication of this research is that neighborhood matters a lot. When we think about ways to improve the lot of the working class, it’s insufficient to just help individuals and families. We have to improve entire neighborhoods.

Second, the research reminds us that to improve conditions for the working class it’s necessary to both create jobs and improve culture. Every time conservatives say culture plays a large role in limiting mobility, progressives accuse them of blaming the victim.

But this research shows the importance of environment. The younger the children were when they moved to these middle-class environments, the more their outcomes improved. It’s likely they benefited from being in environments with different norms, with more information about how to thrive, with few traumatic events down the block.

I know the professional politicians are going to want to continue their wars, but I see an opportunity: We launch a series of initiatives to create environments of opportunity in middle-, working- and lower-class neighborhoods.


This will mean doing some things Republicans like. We’ve got to devolve a lot of power from Washington back to local communities. These neighborhoods can’t thrive if they are not responsible for themselves. Then we’ve got to expand charter schools. The best charter schools radiate diverse but strong cultures of achievement. Locally administered social entrepreneurship funds could help churches and other groups expand their influence.

This will mean doing some things Democrats like. We’ve got to reform and expand early childhood education programs, complete with wraparound programs for parents. They would turn into community hubs. Infrastructure programs could increase employment.

Basically we’ve got to get socialist. No, I don’t mean the way Bernie Sanders is a socialist. He’s a statist, not a socialist. I mean we have to put the quality of the social fabric at the center of our politics. And we’ve got to get personalist: to treat people as full human beings, not just economic units you fix by writing checks.

Then we’ve got to get integrationist, to integrate different races and classes through national service and school and relocation vouchers. And finally, we have to get a little moralistic. There are certain patterns of behavior, like marrying before you have kids and sticking around to parent the kids you conceive, that contribute to better communities.

Look, I don’t know if I’m red or blue. If you want a true outsider, don’t just pick someone outside the political system. Pick someone outside the rigid partisan mentalities that are the real problem here.

Bobo doesn’t know if he’s red or blue?  I had no idea the poor bastard was color blind…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Valeant Pharmaceuticals is a sleazy company.

Although it existed as a relatively small company before 2010, it did a deal that year that put it on the map. The deal was with Biovail, one of Canada’s largest drugmakers — and a company that had run afoul of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In 2008, the S.E.C. sued Biovail for “repeatedly” overstating earnings and “actively” misleading investors. Biovail settled the case for $10 million.

As it happens, 2008 was the same year that a management consultant named J. Michael Pearson became Valeant’s chief executive. Pearson had an unusual idea about how to grow a modern pharmaceutical company. The pharma business model has long called for a hefty percentage of revenue to be spent on company scientists who try to develop new drugs. The failure rate is high — but a successful new drug can generate over $1 billion in annual revenue, which makes up for a lot of failures.

Pearson didn’t have much patience for research and development. And while he certainly wanted moneymaking drugs, he didn’t really need blockbusters to make his business model work. His plan was to acquire pharmaceutical companies, fire most of their scientists and jack up the price of their drugs. Biovail gave him the heft to put his plan in action.

And so he has done, to the delight of Valeant’s shareholders, and the dismay of most everyone else.

Before Pearson took control of Valeant, it spent 14 percent of its revenue developing new drugs. Last year, that number was under 3 percent. Meanwhile, Pearson has been ruthless about price hikes; in February, according to The Wall Street Journal, the company raised the price of one heart drug by 525 and another by 212 percent — on the very day it acquired the rights to the drugs. Complaints from patients, doctors and insurance companies have prompted investigations by federal prosecutors in Massachusetts and New York.

In the seven years Pearson has run the company, Valeant has done more than 100 deals. Its growth has been supercharged, and so has its stock price. Pearson has become a billionaire.

Fast forward to Oct. 19. During a conference call with investors, Valeant disclosed a relationship with a specialty pharmacy called Philidor RX Services, a relationship in which Philidor seemingly does business with no one besides Valeant, and that is so close that Valeant consolidates Philidor’s financials while holding Philidor’s inventory on its books. During the call, Valeant also disclosed that it had paid for an option to buy Philidor, though it had not actually made the purchase — a very strange deal indeed.

It made these disclosures because Roddy Boyd, a former New York Post reporter who now runs the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation, had found out about the Philidor relationship and begun asking questions. So had several Wall Street critics of the company, including John Hemptonof Bronte Capital.

Valeant’s disclosures last week — along with subsequent allegations by Citron Research that Valeant was cooking the books — as well as stories by Boyd and several others have caused the stock to tank.

On Monday, Pearson and his executive team held a lengthy conference call with investors in which they insisted Valeant had complied with “applicable law.” But Valeant also announced that a committee of the board would investigate the ties with Philidor. And it urged the S.E.C. to investigate Citron. This was also a tactic Biovail once used to silence its critics; it backfired spectacularly when the S.E.C. concluded that the critics were the ones who had it right.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to understand all the implications of the Philidor-Valeant relationship, or whether anything genuinely illegal has taken place. But the whole thing looks pretty, well, sleazy.

As The Times’s Andrew Pollack pointed out last week, Valeant uses Philidor to keep patients from getting generics instead of its high-priced drugs. Philidor negotiates directly with the insurance companies, saving patients from feeling the sticker shock their price hikes would otherwise cause. The co-pay is often waived, which only adds to the allure of using Philidor.

The evidence strongly suggests that Philidor is controlled by Valeant, even though it is supposed to be an independent company. The Wall Street Journal reported that certain Valeant employees work at Philidor using fake names.

But why? And why did Valeant fail to disclose the relationship for so long? If there was really nothing wrong, why did Valeant keep it a secret? Why, even now, are there more questions than answers?

Maybe it will all turn out to be innocent. But I remember another company that Wall Street once swooned over, a company that had eye-popping growth, but also had secrets, which eventually destroyed it.

You probably remember that company, too. Its name was Enron.

Nocera and Collins

October 24, 2015

In “The Patent Troll Smokescreen” Mr. Nocera moans that legislative “reform” is hurting legitimate inventors.  He’s raked over the coals in the comments by people who actually work in patent law and/or hold patents.  Ms. Collins says “Happy Birthday, Hillary Clinton,” and asks who would guess that a Republican-led investigating committee would deliver one of Mrs. Clinton’s best presents?  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Is the University of Wisconsin-Madison a patent troll?

The question is not as strange as it might seem. “Patent trolls” are entities that own patents that they use not to further innovation or manufacture a product but to conduct a kind of legal extortion racket. Holding patents that are sometimes absurdly vague, they send “demand letters” to the thousands of companies that use, for instance, bar scanners — to cite a legendary example — accusing them of patent infringement.

Many companies pay a fee to avoid litigation, but others decide to stand and fight. Sometimes they win; sometimes they lose. In either case, patent trolling is sand in the engine of commerce.

Now consider the University of Wisconsin-Madison, or more precisely, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), which owns the university’s patents. Whenever the university’s scientists come up with innovations — which they rarely intend to use to manufacture a product — WARF applies for a patent and then seeks to license it, just as trolls do.

In higher education circles, WARF is known as a fierce defender of its patent portfolio. Just like the trolls, it does not back away when it believes companies have infringed on its patents, and it will litigate those claims if need be.

But, of course, nobody thinks a university is a patent troll. Universities are supposed to come up with new ideas, not manufacture new products. That’s what companies do. If a university holds a scientist’s patent, the main way it gets the innovation into the hands of a company is through a licensing agreement. Robin Feldman, a University of California Hastings College of the Law professor known for her anti-troll views, notes that the law specifically gives universities the right to seek patents on federally funded research. Why? “To encourage the commercialization of new products.”

But what if, in the name of cracking down on trolls, Congress passes an anti-troll law that winds up having huge negative consequences for legitimate inventors? What if a series of Supreme Court rulings make matters worse, putting onerous burdens on inventors while making it easier for big companies to steal unlicensed innovations?

As it happens, thanks to the 2011 America Invents Act and those rulings, big companies can now largely ignore legitimate patent holders.

Of course, they don’t call it stealing. But according to Robert Taylor, a patent lawyer who has represented the National Venture Capital Association, a new phrase has emerged in Silicon Valley: “efficient infringing.” That’s the relatively new practice of using a technology that infringes on someone’s patent, while ignoring the patent holder entirely. And when the patent holder discovers the infringement and seeks recompense, the infringer responds by challenging the patent’s validity.

Should a lawsuit ensue, the infringer, often a big tech company, has top-notch patent lawyers at the ready. Because the courts have largely robbed small inventors of their ability to seek an injunction — that is, an order requiring that the infringing product be removed from the market — the worst that can happen is that the infringer will have to pay some money. For a rich company like, say, Apple, that’s no big deal.

What got me thinking about this was, in fact, a recent lawsuit between Apple and WARF over a University of Wisconsin innovation that Apple uses to help speed the processing time of several versions of the iPhone and iPad. Apple not only couldn’t be bothered to license the patent; it wouldn’t even let WARF in the door to negotiate. Instead, Apple sent the foundation a link to a page on the Apple website, which says that the company can lay claim to any unsolicited idea. So WARF sued. What choice did it have?

Last week, a jury ruled in WARF’s favor and then ordered Apple to pay some $234 million. Although I hear that WARF is pleased with the outcome, Apple is actually the big winner. Thanks to efficient infringing, WARF never had the chance to grant an exclusive license to an Apple competitor, which could have hurt Apple while maximizing WARF’s financial gain. WARF had to resort to expensive litigation to get what it should have been able to achieve through less expensive negotiation. And, of course, $234 million is pocket change for Apple. This is “patent reform”?

There are new patent reform bills in both the House and the Senate that are once again allegedly aimed at trolls — but will, once again, effectively tilt the playing field even further toward big companies with large lobbying budgets.

“This is not about trolls,” says Brian Pomper, the executive director of the Innovation Alliance, which supports inventors. “Trolls are a fantastic narrative for companies that want to get their patents cheaper.” The recent changes in patent law also show “how big companies can use Washington to get a business advantage,” he added.

For the sake of real innovation, and in the name of the small inventor, who holds a special place in America’s mythology, the pendulum needs to start swinging in the other direction.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Monday is Hillary Clinton’s birthday. Don’t bother sending a gift. This week has given her all the presents she needs.

What a time she’s been having — the debate, Joe Biden’s non-candidacy announcement and then the total meltdown of the Benghazi Committee. It’s not often these days that a special House investigatory committee makes Democrats sing, but there you are. In a speech on the House floor, Representative Steve Israel claimed Thursday’s marathon inquisition had been like an “I Love Lucy” episode — “same plot, same characters, same script and nothing new.” This seems totally unfair to Lucy. Remember the one with the candy conveyor belt? Vitameatavegamin? How many of you think that 63 years from now, anyone will be saying: “Remember the question about Sidney Blumenthal’s email?”

Heck of a run for Clinton. And to top everything else off, Lincoln Chafee withdrew from the president’s race, leaving the field wide open for her to grab that metrics issue and run with it.

Things have been going so well, it’s impossible not to think a disaster is looming. Pop quiz – Hillary Clinton’s next headache will be:

• Revelation that she kept a secret flock of State Department carrier pigeons.

• Revelation that Justin Bieber is an old family friend with whom she corresponds regularly.

• Revelation that major donors to the Clinton Foundation have included El Chapo and Lance Armstrong.

• Revelation that during long family car trips, Clinton’s dog Seamus was kept in the trunk.

• Oh, I don’t know — something about Bill.

But let’s get back to the birthday. Clinton will be 68. There was a time when it seemed as if her age might be an issue. After all, we’ve only had two presidents come into office when they were 68 or beyond. One of them was Ronald Reagan and the other was William Henry Harrison, who did not do future 68-year-old candidates any favors by dying one month after the inauguration.

Last year the Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, chortled that he “could run 20 years from now for president and still be about the same age as the former secretary of state is right now.” Which, as it turned out, was a lucky break for him. See you in 2034, governor.

Now, the major candidates on both sides are in their 60s — except for Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who are 44, and Bernie Sanders, who is 74. Donald Trump is older than Hillary Clinton, although of course when we talk about the possibility of a Trump presidency, age is about the 4,353rd topic of concern.

It’s not that age no longer matters, but that we’ve come to realize it hits different people in different ways. Some lose energy and focus, while others seem to get smarter and stronger. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court, at 82, does push-up routines with her trainer. Gloria Steinem celebrated her 80th birthday riding an elephant in Botswana.

In high-end politics, what we need to know is less about calendar years than staying power. Marco Rubio keeps talking about “generational change,” but he seems to have less energy than a koala. (Koalas sleep 18-22 hours a day. I am bringing this up so you can’t say I never teach you anything.) Really, where is that man? He hardly seems to be campaigning and he misses nearly half the Senate votes. Pre-millennials, is this the guy you want representing you?

Meanwhile, Clinton wowed the country with her endurance during this week’s Benghazi hearing. If we remember the House Select Committee on Benghazi at all, it will be as the folks who gave Hillary a chance to demonstrate her staying power. Even accounting for breaks, 11 hours of questioning must be close to some kind of record.

“Yoga always helps,” Clinton said as she departed.

She is — except for the part about yoga — a throwback to the first era of American public women, people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who came into their own in late middle age. Stanton, who like Clinton had an ability to make herself nap at will, kept promising the impatient Anthony that when her kids grew old enough to fend for themselves it would be exactly the right time for their great campaign for equal rights. “We shall not be in our prime before fifty, and after that, we shall be good for twenty years at least,” she assured Anthony. Actually, both of them were good for quite a bit longer, and still giving speeches at 80. Justice Ginsburg has a picture of Stanton in her Supreme Court office.

Clinton will be having a birthday party on Sunday in New York, and naturally it will be a fund-raiser. That sounds like the worst possible way to celebrate, but if there’s anything we know at this point, it’s that she can take the stress.

Brooks and Nocera

October 20, 2015

In “Enter the Age of the Outsiders” Bobo moans that one of today’s most worrying big trends is that the more extreme fringe elements of society are on the rise, in domestic politics, global politics, and beyond.  In the comments “David Henry” from Walden Pond sums Bobo  up for us:  “Pop sociology from Mr. Brooks. Undefined terms, misty ruminations, and an undisguised plug for reactionary Cruz.”  In other words, a typical POS from Bobo.  Mr. Nocera, in “Osama Bin Laden’s First Draft,” says Jonathan Mahler’s piece on the Osama bin Laden raid is as much about the nature of journalism as it is about the facts surrounding the event.  Here’s Bobo:

As every schoolchild knows, the gravitational pull of the sun helps hold the planets in their orbits. Gravity from the center lends coherence to the whole solar system.

I mention this because that’s how our political and social systems used to work, but no longer do. In each sphere of life there used to be a few big suns radiating conviction and meaning. The other bodies in orbit were defined by their resistance or attraction to that pull.

But now many of the big suns in our world today lack conviction, while the distant factions at the margins of society are full of passionate intensity. Now the gravitational pull is coming from the edges, in sphere after sphere. Each central establishment, weakened by its own hollowness of meaning, is being ripped apart by the gravitational pull from the fringes.

The same phenomenon can be seen in many areas, but it’s easiest to illustrate in the sphere of politics, both global and domestic.

In the 1990s, the central political institutions radiated confidence, derived from an assumed vision of the post-Cold War world. History would be a slow march toward democratic capitalism. Nations would be bound in peaceful associations like the European Union. The United States would oversee a basic international order.

This vision was materialistic and individualistic. Nations should pursue economic growth and a decent distribution of wealth. If you give individuals access to education and opportunity, they will pursue affluence and personal happiness. They will grow more temperate and “reasonable.”

Since 2000, this vision of the post-Cold War world has received blow after blow. Some of these blows were self-inflicted. Democracy, especially in the United States, has grown dysfunctional. Mass stupidity and greed led to a financial collapse and deprived capitalism of its moral swagger.

But the deeper problem was spiritual. Many people around the world rejected democratic capitalism’s vision of a secular life built around materialism and individual happiness. They sought more intense forms of meaning. Some of them sought meaning in the fanaticisms of sect, tribe, nation, or some stronger and more brutal ideology. In case after case, “reasonableness” has been trampled by behavior and creed that is stronger, darker and less temperate.

A group of well-educated men blew up the World Trade Center. Fanatics flock to the Middle East to behead strangers and apostates. China’s growing affluence hasn’t led to sweetening, but in many areas to nationalistic belligerence. Iran is still committed to its radical eschatology. Russia is led by a cold-eyed thug with a semi-theological vision of his nation’s destiny. He seeks every chance to undermine the world order.

The establishments of the West have not responded to these challenges by doubling down on their vision, by countering fanaticism with gusto. On the contrary, they’ve lost faith in their own capacities of understanding and action. Sensing a loss of confidence in the center, strong-willed people on the edges step forward to take control.

This happens in loud ways in the domestic sphere. The uncertain Republican establishment cannot govern its own marginal members, while those on the edge burn with conviction. Jeb Bush looks wan but Donald Trump radiates confidence.

The Democratic establishment no longer determines party positions; it is pulled along by formerly marginal players like Bernie Sanders.

But the big loss of central confidence is in global governance. The United States is no longer willing to occupy the commanding heights and oversee global order. In region after region, those who are weak in strength but strong in conviction are able to have their way. Vladimir Putin in Crimea, Ukraine and the Middle East. Bashar al-Assad crosses red lines in Syria. The Islamic State spreads in Syria and Iraq. Iranian proxy armies roam the region.

Republicans blame Obama for hesitant and halting policies, but it’s not clear the foreign policy and defense apparatus believes anymore in its own abilities to establish order, or that the American public has any confidence in U.S. effectiveness as a global actor.

Where is this all heading? Maybe those on the fringes of politics really will take over. Say hello to President Ted Cruz. Writing in The American Interest, Joshua Mitchell of Georgetown argues that we are heading toward an “Age of Exhaustion.” Losing confidence in the post-Cold War vision, people will be content to play with their private gadgets and will lose interest in greater striving.

I only have space to add here that the primary problem is mental and spiritual. Some leader has to be able to digest the lessons of the last 15 years and offer a revised charismatic and persuasive sense of America’s historic mission. This mission, both nationalist and universal, would be less individualistic than the gospel of the 1990s, and more realistic about depravity and the way barbarism can spread. It would offer a goal more profound than material comfort.

Regarding Bobo’s first graf…  “The center cannot hold.  Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”  It’s as though Yeats could see today’s Republicans.   You’d also think that the NYT would tire of Bobo…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

I rise in defense of my colleague Jonathan Mahler.

Mahler’s cover story in The New York Times Magazine this weekend, titled “What Do We Really Know About Osama bin Laden’s Death?,” grapples with the way journalists on the national security beat covered that singular event. It focuses primarily on two well-known journalists, Mark Bowden and Seymour Hersh. In his article, Mahler raises the possibility that there might have been more to the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in 2011 than the narrative that we’ve come to accept as “the real story.”

Bowden, 64, is the author of a number of crackling good tales — “Black Hawk Down” is his best-known book — that take the reader inside dramatic events. Government officials are often key sources. His book about the Bin Laden raid, “The Finish,” which is based on numerous interviews with Washington officials, lays out the narrative that we now all know about how the C.I.A. tracked down Bin Laden in Pakistan, and so on. Bowden is a highly respected journalist, and “The Finish” has only helped cement his reputation.

Hersh, 78, is the legendary investigative reporter who in 1969 broke the news of the My Lai massacre and told the Abu Ghraib prison story 35 years later. For many years, most of his work has appeared in The New Yorker. Last May, however, he published a Bin Laden “counter-narrative” (his word) in The London Review of Books — an article that, as Mahler stresses, was turned down by The New Yorker. Hersh’s 10,000 word article disputed much of the account reported by Bowden as well as by Peter Bergen of CNN, who wrote an earlier book about the raid, “Manhunt.”

Mahler’s story is as much about the nature of journalism as it is about the facts surrounding the Bin Laden raid. Readers get a good sense of when journalists feel they have enough information to publish and when they don’t. Although Mahler gives plenty of space to Hersh’s counter-narrative, it is also clear that he’s not buying most of it. He calls some of Hersh’s claims wild. The famous reporter comes across as a bit of a crank.

But Mahler also raises the possibility that the Bowden-Bergen account may not be the final word: that the government officials who served as sources may have had reason to hold details back, or put a shinier gloss on events than was warranted. This does not strike me as a controversial point to make.

Yet the pushback Mahler has received — from Bowden, from Bergen, and especially in the Twittersphere — has been remarkably vehement. Bowden isn’t just upset with Mahler’s story; he’s furious. When I spoke to him, he denounced it as having bought into “crackpot conspiracy theories.”

“I’ve spent a lifetime trying to figure out how things actually happen,” he said. “Stories like this make me feel that it is a losing battle against pure speculation, and theories that are concocted” out of thin air.

When I asked him whether government officials might have held things back, or distorted the truth, Bowden quickly rejected the idea. He had too many different sources, he said. Too many people would have had to have told him the same set of lies. “It strains credulity to the breaking point.”

But does it? I recall my own experience writing a book about events that took place in the government. In the fall of 2010, Bethany McLean and I published “All The Devils Are Here,” about the 2008 financial crisis. After many interviews with current and former officials at the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, we wrote our account of events that are murky to this day, most obviously why the government let Lehman Brothers fail.

In the intervening five years, new information has come out. Most recently, Ben Bernanke, the former Fed chairman, admitted that he and Hank Paulson, the former Treasury secretary, had been less than forthcomingabout the reasons for Lehman’s failure. That information was not in our book because Bernanke and Paulson withheld it.

Bowden’s book was published 18 months after the Bin Laden raid. All things considered, that is not a lot of time. Having been there myself, it strikes me as inevitable that facts will emerge later that add to — or contradict — the original narrative. Bowden wrote the best book he could under the circumstances; there is no shame in that. To suggest that Bowden may not have been told everything hardly means that The New York Times Magazine is buying into some far-fetched conspiracy theory.

We are lucky to have narratives like “The Finish,” which is a great read and as close to the truth as Bowden could get. But is every fact set in concrete? Surely not. Journalism is “the first rough draft of history,” as the old saying goes. In the modern age, that’s as true for books as for any other form of journalism.

Nocera and Collins

October 17, 2015

Mr. Nocera is once again extolling the virtues of e-cigs.  In “Can E-Cigarettes Save Lives?” he says of course they can. So why won’t anti-tobacco advocates get behind them?  Ms. Collins asks “What Happened to the Working Woman?”  She says for all the talk about helping the American economy, little attention is paid to the disturbing fact that women’s place in the workforce is shrinking.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Two weeks ago, I received an email from NJOY, a company that sells electronic cigarettes. Its purpose was to introduce the Daily, a new product that NJOY described as “a superior e-cigarette scientifically developed to deliver quick-and-strong nicotine satisfaction at levels close to an actual cigarette.”

One reason many adult smokers haven’t switched to e-cigarettes is that most e-cigarettes don’t provide the same nicotine kick as a real cigarette. With some 42 million American adults still smoking, and 480,000 of them dying each year as a result, this is tragic. Though nicotine is addictive, it is the tobacco that kills.

An e-cigarette that could truly replicate the experience of smoking would dramatically reduce — not eliminate, but reduce — the dangers of smoking. NJOY claims that the Daily comes closer to that experience than anything on the market. When I spoke to Paul Sturman, NJOY’s chief executive, he emphasized not only the nicotine aspect, but also the Daily’s “feel,” and “the intensity of the hit to the back of the throat.” Sturman added that the company’s target market is adult smokers who have tried, but rejected, e-cigarettes. He thinks it’s a huge market.

As Sturman was describing the Daily, I thought to myself, “The tobacco-control community is going to hate this thing.” Most anti-tobacco advocates view replicating the feel and satisfaction of a cigarette as an effort to “renormalize smoking.” And though some believe that smokers should be encouraged to move to e-cigarettes, most refuse even to acknowledge the health benefits of “vaping” over smoking.

Indeed, thanks to this vociferous opposition, an increasing number of Americans view vaping as no safer than smoking, which is absurd. And e-cigarette manufacturers like NJOY can’t set them straight: The law giving the Food and Drug Administration regulatory authority over tobacco products, which passed in 2009, prohibits e-cigarette companies from making reduced-harm claims unless they jump through some near-impossible hoops. Thus, NJOY has no way to convey to adult smokers the critical message that e-cigarettes could save their lives.

The undisputed leader of the tobacco-control community is Matt Myers, who helped found and is the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Unlike many of his anti-tobacco peers, Myers is on the record as saying that if “responsibly marketed and properly regulated, e-cigarettes could benefit the public health.” But, like many others, he also fears that e-cigarettes may hook a new generation of children on nicotine, and could lead them to start smoking. And in truth, those fears get far more prominence in the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids’ various statements about e-cigarettes than its cautious support for them under the right circumstances.

One thing that particularly bothers Myers about e-cigarette companies is their advertising, which he believes employs the same tactics Big Tobacco once used to hook youths on cigarettes. But when I noted that NJOY can’t market the Daily as a reduced-risk product, thanks to the 2009 law — and thus had to find less straightforward ways to induce smokers to try the product — Myers told me that I should blame the F.D.A., which, six years in, has yet to impose a single regulation on e-cigarettes. “I think the F.D.A. deserves to be pilloried,” he said.

He may be right about that. On the other hand, it’s hardly news that government agencies take forever to get things done — and meanwhile, nearly half a million smokers continue to die each year. It seems to me that if the tobacco-control community wants to start saving lives by employing the reduced-harm strategy that e-cigarettes offer, it needs to forget about the F.D.A. and take matters into its own hands.

That means engaging with companies like NJOY that profess to be trying to do the right thing. Instead of demonizing them, the tobacco control community needs to find common ground, and come up with a set of standards — for marketing, manufacturing, and keeping e-cigarettes away from kids — that both sides can agree to. If such a deal were put in place, perhaps with state attorneys general to oversee it, anti-tobacco advocates could talk about the reduced harm potential of e-cigarettes with a clear conscience, without the involvement of the federal government. They then could describe the benefits of e-cigarettes for smokers that the companies themselves can’t.

It’s happened before. Two decades ago, seeing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to impose real restrictions on Big Tobacco, Myers engaged in negotiations that included the states’ attorneys general — and Steve Parrish, then a Philip Morris executive. It was an act of tremendous courage — Myers was pilloried when his involvement was revealed — but without his willingness to look the enemy straight in the eye, Big Tobacco would never have been brought to heel.

I believe the time has come for Myers to screw up his courage again. It could be the beginning of the end for one of the greatest scourges on earth.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Japan now has a higher proportion of working women than we do. I’m trying to get my head around this fact.

“Everyone else is continuing to rise and we’ve declined, and now we’re basically tied with Japan. And Japan’s on the upswing and we’re still going down,” said Jason Furman, chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. He was pointing to a chart that shows women in the labor force in 24 countries. These are the usual suspects when we’re comparing ourselves to other societies — Australia, Belgium, Canada, etc.

“When it came to women in the workplace, the United States used to be seventh. “And now we’re 20th,” said Furman in a phone interview. You’ll be happy to know that while Ireland also seems to be closing in on us, it’ll be a hell of a long time before we fall below Turkey.

Stick with me for a minute on this. We spend half of our national debate time talking about how economically fragile Americans feel. Why do you think that is? Well, there’s the whopping disproportion of national wealth flowing into the pockets of the already-wealthy. And the plummeting power of labor unions.

But women falling out of the work force is also a huge deal. It reduces family standards of living and puts a crimp in the economy.

And why do you think this is happening? One of the reasons is clearly, positively, absolutely the cost of child care.

It’s incredible that we’ve built a society that relies on women in the labor force yet makes no discernible effort to deal with this problem. The Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, recently divided the country into 618 “family budget areas” and determined that in more than 500 of them, the cost of child care for a family with a 4-year-old and an 8-year old would exceed housing costs. Also, if you’re a working single mother with those same two children in, say, Buffalo, child care probably eats up a third of your income.

And infant care is impossible. In most states infant care is more expensive than college tuition.

We generally — and rightly — talk about early childhood education as something that’s critical because it increases kids’ chances of success in school. But as Carmel Martin of the Center for American Progress points out, “there’s also evidence of a positive effect on the economy over all.”

I am going to take a huge leap of faith and say that Japan is not trying to bring its mothers into the work force because of its historic commitment to feminism. (Last year, when a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly made a speech calling for more services for women, she was taunted with cries of “Get married!” and “Can’t you even bear a child?”)

But the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is convinced that encouraging working women will stimulate the economy. Now Japan, where 64 percent of working-age women are employed, compared to 63 percent in the United States, is in the process of creating 400,000 new prekindergarten spaces.

We will now stop for a moment and recall that in 1971, Congress passed a bipartisan bill that would have made quality preschool education available to every family in the United States that wanted it, with tuition based on the family’s ability to pay. Also after-school programs for older children. Forty-four years ago! Richard Nixon vetoed it, muttering something about “communal approaches to child rearing.”

There’s also paid family leave. Japan guarantees that mothers get 58 weeks of maternity leave, about half of it paid. In this week’s Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders said he was embarrassed that the United States was the only “country on earth” that did not guarantee workers paid maternity leave. This was inaccurate, since Sanders completely overlooked the situation in Papua New Guinea.

Our current government policy requires that employers give new mothers 12 weeks of unpaid leave. This was based on a bill passed early in the Clinton administration. I remember well the combination of joy (parental leave!) and despair (three months with no pay?).

During the debate Hillary Clinton laced into Carly Fiorina’s argument that government shouldn’t “dictate to the private sector” about family leave. “They don’t mind having big government to interfere with a woman’s right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood. They’re fine with big government when it comes to that. I’m sick of it,” Clinton said. It was really one of her better moments.

You may be stunned to hear that while the Republicans talk endlessly about ginning up the American economy, the idea of helping working mothers stay in the labor force does not come up all that often. Although Ben Carson has described preschool as “indoctrination.”

From Richard Nixon to Ben Carson, and wow, nothing’s changed.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocer

October 13, 2015

Oh, it is too, too, too rich for words.  Bobo is wringing his hands…  In “The Republicans’ Incompetence Caucus” he wails that the party’s capacity to govern has degraded over recent decades as the G.O.P. has become prisoner to its own bombastic rhetoric.  Poor, poor Bobo…  In the comments “Masud M.” from Tucson had this to say:  “If you’re searching for a culprit, please look into the mirror, Mr. Brooks. You’ve been one of the so-called “intellectual” enablers of the crazies. Go back and read some of your past articles: insulting President Obama on flimsy grounds, giving credit (where no credit was due) to the Republicans in the House and the Senate, supporting the Iraq invasion, claiming that the Iran deal was bad for the nation, promoting trickle-down economics… The crazies don’t have brains of their own, so one cannot really criticize them. The crazies listen to their “intellectual” leaders. You’ve been one of those leaders, and it’s shameful that you do not recognize this — and fail to apologize for your past sins. This would be a first step, Mr. Brooks, if you want the Republican Party (your Party) to return to some semblance of normalcy.”  Mr. Cohen considers “Obama’s Doctrine of Restraint” and says for Putin it’s clear where the weakness lies: in the White House.  Mr. Nocera takes a look at “Aaron Sorkin’s ‘Steve Jobs’ Con” and says the screenwriter says his new movie is not a biopic. So true. The film simply doesn’t understand its subject.  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

The House Republican caucus is close to ungovernable these days. How did this situation come about?

This was not just the work of the Freedom Caucus or Ted Cruz or one month’s activity. The Republican Party’s capacity for effective self-governance degraded slowly, over the course of a long chain of rhetorical excesses, mental corruptions and philosophical betrayals. Basically, the party abandoned traditional conservatism for right-wing radicalism. Republicans came to see themselves as insurgents and revolutionaries, and every revolution tends toward anarchy and ends up devouring its own.

By traditional definitions, conservatism stands for intellectual humility, a belief in steady, incremental change, a preference for reform rather than revolution, a respect for hierarchy, precedence, balance and order, and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible. Conservatives of this disposition can be dull, but they know how to nurture and run institutions. They also see the nation as one organic whole. Citizens may fall into different classes and political factions, but they are still joined by chains of affection that command ultimate loyalty and love.

All of this has been overturned in dangerous parts of the Republican Party. Over the past 30 years, or at least since Rush Limbaugh came on the scene, the Republican rhetorical tone has grown ever more bombastic, hyperbolic and imbalanced. Public figures are prisoners of their own prose styles, and Republicans from Newt Gingrich through Ben Carson have become addicted to a crisis mentality. Civilization was always on the brink of collapse. Every setback, like the passage of Obamacare, became the ruination of the republic. Comparisons to Nazi Germany became a staple.

This produced a radical mind-set. Conservatives started talking about the Reagan “revolution,” the Gingrich “revolution.” Among people too ill educated to understand the different spheres, political practitioners adopted the mental habits of the entrepreneur. Everything had to be transformational and disruptive. Hierarchy and authority were equated with injustice. Self-expression became more valued than self-restraint and coalition building. A contempt for politics infested the Republican mind.

Politics is the process of making decisions amid diverse opinions. It involves conversation, calm deliberation, self-discipline, the capacity to listen to other points of view and balance valid but competing ideas and interests.

But this new Republican faction regards the messy business of politics as soiled and impure. Compromise is corruption. Inconvenient facts are ignored. Countrymen with different views are regarded as aliens. Political identity became a sort of ethnic identity, and any compromise was regarded as a blood betrayal.

A weird contradictory mentality replaced traditional conservatism. Republican radicals have contempt for politics, but they still believe that transformational political change can rescue the nation. Republicans developed a contempt for Washington and government, but they elected leaders who made the most lavish promises imaginable. Government would be reduced by a quarter! Shutdowns would happen! The nation would be saved by transformational change! As Steven Bilakovics writes in his book “Democracy Without Politics,” “even as we expect ever less ofdemocracy we apparently expect ever more from democracy.”

This anti-political political ethos produced elected leaders of jaw-dropping incompetence. Running a government is a craft, like carpentry. But the new Republican officials did not believe in government and so did not respect its traditions, its disciplines and its craftsmanship. They do not accept the hierarchical structures of authority inherent in political activity.

In his masterwork, “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber argues that the pre-eminent qualities for a politician are passion, a feeling of responsibility and a sense of proportion. A politician needs warm passion to impel action but a cool sense of responsibility and proportion to make careful decisions in a complex landscape.

If a politician lacks the quality of detachment — the ability to let the difficult facts of reality work their way into the mind — then, Weber argues, the politician ends up striving for the “boastful but entirely empty gesture.” His work “leads nowhere and is senseless.”

Welcome to Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and the Freedom Caucus.

Really, have we ever seen bumbling on this scale, people at once so cynical and so naïve, so willfully ignorant in using levers of power to produce some tangible if incremental good? These insurgents can’t even acknowledge democracy’s legitimacy — if you can’t persuade a majority of your colleagues, maybe you should accept their position. You might be wrong!

People who don’t accept democracy will be bad at conversation. They won’t respect tradition, institutions or precedent. These figures are masters at destruction but incompetent at construction.

These insurgents are incompetent at governing and unwilling to be governed. But they are not a spontaneous growth. It took a thousand small betrayals of conservatism to get to the dysfunction we see all around.

You can feel the panic…  My schadens are all very, very freuded.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

One way to define Barack Obama’s foreign policy is as a Doctrine of Restraint. It is clear, not least to the Kremlin, that this president is skeptical of the efficacy of military force, wary of foreign interventions that may become long-term commitments, convinced the era of American-imposed solutions is over, and inclined to see the United States as less an indispensable power than an indispensable partner. He has, in effect, been talking down American power.

President Vladimir Putin has seized on this profound foreign policy shift in the White House. He has probed where he could, most conspicuously in Ukraine, and now in Syria. Obama may call this a form of Russian weakness. He may mock Putin’s forays as distractions from a plummeting Russian economy. But the fact remains that Putin has reasserted Russian power in the vacuum created by American retrenchment and appears determined to shape the outcome in Syria using means that Obama has chosen never to deploy. For Putin, it’s clear where the weakness lies: in the White House.

Russia’s Syrian foray may be overreach. It may fall into the category of the “stupid stuff” (read reckless intervention) Obama shuns. Quagmires can be Russian, too. But for now the initiative appears to lie in the Kremlin, with the White House as reactive power. Not since the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago has Russia been as assertive or Washington as acquiescent.

Obama’s Doctrine of Restraint reflects circumstance and temperament. He was elected to lead a nation exhausted by the two longest and most expensive wars in its history. Iraq and Afghanistan consumed trillions without yielding victory. His priority was domestic: first recovery from the 2008 meltdown and then a more equitable and inclusive society. The real pivot was not to Asia but to home.

Besides, American power in the 21st century could not be what it was in the 20th, not with the Chinese economy quintupling in size since 1990. The president was intellectually persuaded of the need to redefine America’s foreign-policy heft in an interconnected world of more equal powers, and temperamentally inclined to prudence and diplomacy over force. Republican obstructionism and the politicization of foreign policy in a polarized Washington did not help him. American power, in his view, might still be dominant but could no longer be determinant.

As Obama put it to The New Republic in 2013, “I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations.” After Iraq and Afghanistan, giant repositories of American frustration, who could blame him?

But when the most powerful nation on earth and chief underwriter of global security focuses on its limitations, others take note, perceiving new opportunity and new risk. Instability can become contagious. Unraveling can set in, as it has in the Middle East. The center cannot hold because there is none.

“I think Obama exaggerates the limits and underestimates the upside of American power, even if the trend is toward a more difficult environment for translating power and influence,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “By doing so, he runs the risk of actually reinforcing the very trends that give him pause. Too often during his presidency the gap between ends and means has been our undoing.”

In Afghanistan, in Libya and most devastatingly in Syria, Obama has seemed beset by ambivalence: a surge undermined by a date certain for Afghan withdrawal; a lead-from-behind military campaign to oust Libya’s dictator with zero follow-up plan; a statement more than four years ago that “the time has come” for President Bashar al-Assad to “step aside” without any strategy to make that happen, and a “red line” on chemical weapons that was not upheld. All this has said to Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping that this is a time of wound-licking American incoherence.

Yet Obama does not lack courage. Nor is he unprepared to take risks. It required courage to conclude the Iran nuclear deal — a signal achievement arrived at in the face of a vitriolic cacophony from Israel and the Republican-controlled Congress. It took courage to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba. The successful operation to kill Osama bin Laden was fraught with risk. His foreign policy has delivered in significant areas. America has wound down its wars. The home pivot has yielded a revived economy (at least for some) and given all Americans access to health insurance.

Yet the cost of the Doctrine of Restraint has been very high. How high we do not yet know, but the world is more dangerous than in recent memory. Obama’s skepticism about American power, his readiness to disengage from Europe and his catastrophic tiptoeing on Syria have left the Middle East in generational conflict and fracture, Europe unstable and Putin strutting the stage. Where this rudderless reality is likely to lead I will examine in my next column.

Oh, I can hardly wait.  No doubt we’ll have some saber rattling and dick swinging.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

When “The Social Network” came out in 2010, I wrote a column praising it for the way it captured the obsessional quality that marks great entrepreneurs.

The movie, you’ll recall, was about Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook. The screenplay was written by Aaron Sorkin, who won an Oscar for it. I knew that Sorkin had taken generous liberties with the facts, but hey, isn’t that what always happens when the movies adapt a true story?

Although I wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about Facebook’s origins, I nonetheless argued that the insights of “The Social Network” into the culture of Silicon Valley trumped any niggling facts Sorkin might have ignored or distorted.

But now that I’ve seen Sorkin’s latest treatment of a Silicon Valley icon — Steve Jobs — I’m revising that opinion. Unlike Zuckerberg, Jobs is somebody I followed closely for much of my career, even spending a week in the mid-1980s embedded at NeXT, the company Jobs founded after being tossed out of Apple in 1985. And although “Steve Jobs,” the movie, which opened in a handful of theaters on Friday, is highly entertaining, what struck me most was how little it had to do with the flesh and blood Steve Jobs.

Sorkin has arranged the movie like a three-act play, building it around three product launches, for the Macintosh computer in 1984, the NeXT computer in 1988 and the iMac in 1998, after Jobs returned to Apple.

Although this structure necessitates inventing virtually every moment in the film out of whole cloth, that’s not the real problem. The structure would be fine if, within its contours, it had conveyed the complicated reality of Steve Jobs.

But it doesn’t. In ways both large and small, Sorkin — as well as Michael Fassbender, the actor who plays Jobs — has failed to capture him in any meaningful sense. Fassbender exhibits none of Jobs’s many youthful mannerisms, and uses none of his oft-repeated phrases, like “really, really neat” when he liked something, or “bozo” for people he didn’t think measured up. Jobs as a young man was surprisingly emotional — that’s missing.

There are moments in the film, like the big “reconciliation” scene with his out-of-wedlock daughter, Lisa, that are almost offensively in opposition to the truth. (Although Jobs’s relationship with Lisa could be volatile at times, she had in fact lived with him and his family all through high school.)

More important, the film simply doesn’t understand who he was and why he was successful.

For instance, one character mentions Jobs’s ability to create a “reality distortion field.” But we never see the charismatic man who could convince people that the sky was green instead of blue. Especially in the NeXT section, Sorkin’s Jobs is a cynic who knows his product will fail, rather than the dreamer he was, certain his overpriced NeXT machine will “change the world.” Most important, Sorkin fails to convey Jobs’s unmatched ability to draw talented people to him, and get them to produce their best work.

As it turns out, Sorkin is quite proud of his disregard for facts. “What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake?” he told New York magazine around the time “The Social Network” came out. The way he sees it, he is no mere screenwriter; rather, he’s an artist who can’t be bound by the events of a person’s life — even when he’s writing a movie about that person.

“Art isn’t about what happened,” he said in that interview. “And the properties of people and the properties of ‘characters’ are two completely different things.”

The problem is that Steve Jobs isn’t just a “character”; he was a real person who lived a real life. Tom Mallon, who writes wonderful historical fiction about politics, including books about Watergate, and most recently, Ronald Reagan, told me that he thought it was important, even in his fiction, not to rewrite the public record, and to try to capture the essence of the real person he is writing about, even though he is inventing thoughts and scenes and dialogue.

“If you deviate too much from the actual historical record,” he said, “the illusion is going to collapse.” Mallon added, “If the real Steve Jobs is interesting enough to make a movie about, why go and create another character that the filmmakers presumably find more interesting?”

Tim Cook, Apple’s current chief executive, has decried the recent spate of Jobs movies as “opportunistic.” In the case of “Steve Jobs,” at least, that strikes me as exactly right. Sorkin and his fellow moviemakers are taking advantage of the feelings people have for the real Steve Jobs to sell tickets, yet the Steve Jobs he created is a complete figment of his imagination. It’s a con.

In a recent interview with Wired magazine, Sorkin insisted that “Steve Jobs” was “not a biopic.” He added, “I’m not quite sure what to call it.”

That’s easy. Fiction.

Brooks and Nocera

October 6, 2015

In “The Big University” Bobo gurgles that many universities founded as religious institutions have needlessly dropped a key original goal: educating students’ emotional, spiritual and moral sides.  In the comments “allseriousnessaside” from Washington, DC had this to say:  “Sweeping generalizations based on no data, a premise that is entirely manufactured and a series of absurd and contradictory statements.”  In other words, the standard Bobo offering.  Mr. Nocera, in “The Case for Compromise,” says a chemical-safety bill in the Senate shows the wisdom of “good, old-fashioned legislating.”  Here’s Bobo:

Many American universities were founded as religious institutions, explicitly designed to cultivate their students’ spiritual and moral natures. But over the course of the 20th century they became officially or effectively secular.

Religious rituals like mandatory chapel services were dropped. Academic research and teaching replaced character formation at the core of the university’s mission.

Administrators and professors dropped spiritual language and moral prescription either because they didn’t know what to say or because they didn’t want to alienate any part of their diversifying constituencies. The humanities departments became less important, while parents ratcheted up the pressure for career training.

Universities are more professional and glittering than ever, but in some ways there is emptiness deep down. Students are taught how to do things, but many are not forced to reflect on why they should do them or what we are here for. They are given many career options, but they are on their own when it comes to developing criteria to determine which vocation would lead to the fullest life.

But things are changing. On almost every campus faculty members and administrators are trying to stem the careerist tide and to widen the system’s narrow definition of achievement. Institutes are popping up — with interdisciplinary humanities programs and even meditation centers — designed to cultivate the whole student: the emotional, spiritual and moral sides and not just the intellectual.

Technology is also forcing change. Online courses make the transmission of information a commodity. If colleges are going to justify themselves, they are going to have to thrive at those things that require physical proximity. That includes moral and spiritual development. Very few of us cultivate our souls as hermits. We do it through small groups and relationships and in social contexts.

In short, for the past many decades colleges narrowed down to focus on professional academic disciplines, but now there are a series of forces leading them to widen out so that they leave a mark on the full human being.

The trick is to find a way to talk about moral and spiritual things while respecting diversity. Universities might do that by taking responsibility for four important tasks.

First, reveal moral options. We’re the inheritors of an array of moral traditions. There’s the Greek tradition emphasizing honor, glory and courage, the Jewish tradition emphasizing justice and law, the Christian tradition emphasizing surrender and grace, the scientific tradition emphasizing reason and logic, and so on.

Colleges can insist that students at least become familiar with these different moral ecologies. Then it’s up to the students to figure out which one or which combination is best to live by.

Second, foster transcendent experiences. If a student spends four years in regular and concentrated contact with beauty — with poetry or music, extended time in a cathedral, serving a child with Down syndrome, waking up with loving friends on a mountain — there’s a good chance something transcendent and imagination-altering will happen.

Third, investigate current loves and teach new things to love. On her great blog, Brain Pickings, Maria Popova quotes a passage from Nietzsche on how to find your identity: “Let the young soul survey its own life with a view of the following question: ‘What have you truly loved thus far? What has ever uplifted your soul, what has dominated and delighted it at the same time?’ ” Line up these revered objects in a row, Nietzsche says, and they will reveal your fundamental self.

To lead a full future life, meanwhile, students have to find new things to love: a field of interest, an activity, a spouse, community, philosophy or faith. College is about exposing students to many things and creating an aphrodisiac atmosphere so that they might fall in lifelong love with a few.

Fourth, apply the humanities. The social sciences are not shy about applying their disciplines to real life. But literary critics, philosophers and art historians are shy about applying their knowledge to real life because it might seem too Oprahesque or self-helpy. They are afraid of being prescriptive because they idolize individual choice.

But the great works of art and literature have a lot to say on how to tackle the concrete challenges of living, like how to escape the chains of public opinion, how to cope with grief or how to build loving friendships. Instead of organizing classes around academic concepts — 19th-century French literature — more could be organized around the concrete challenges students will face in the first decade after graduation.

It’s tough to know how much philosophical instruction anybody can absorb at age 20, before most of life has happened, but seeds can be planted. Universities could more intentionally provide those enchanted goods that the marketplace doesn’t offer. If that happens, the future of the university will be found in its original moral and spiritual mission, but secularized, and in an open and aspiring way.

Lordy, but he’s tiresome.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

In March, Moms Clean Air Force, a grass-roots environmental group co-founded by Dominique Browning, was tossed out of a coalition called Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. Its heresy was supporting a Senate bill that would constitute the first serious revision in nearly 40 years of the woefully outdated Toxic Substances Control Act.

You see, the bill — officially the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act — is the result of (shudder!) compromise. Those compromises were originally hammered out by Lautenberg, a liberal Democratic senator, and David Vitter, a right-wing Republican senator allied with the chemical industry. The two men co-sponsored a bill in May 2013. Then Lautenberg died.

Senator Tom Udall, another Democrat, picked up where Lautenberg left off, and over the next two-plus years, he and Vitter continued to improve the bill while also making compromises to gain additional Senate support. In just the last week, the bipartisan bill, which the Senate is expected to vote on soon, has gained enough co-sponsors to be filibuster-proof.

In this era of polarized politics, it is something of a miracle: “an example of good, old-fashioned legislating,” Udall told me.

Browning, an old friend of mine, describes herself as an environmental pragmatist. She concluded that whatever the flaws in the bill, it was a vast improvement over the status quo — a status quo in which the Environmental Protection Agency can’t even regulate formaldehyde. She and her brain trust decided that their 570,000-member group would work to improve the bill instead of oppose it. This is also the position taken by the ever-pragmatic Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund, with which Moms Clean Air Force is affiliated.

The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, however, which includes such major environmental groups as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice, opposed the Senate bill. In a blog post, Andy Igrejas, who heads the coalition, listed provisions that he described, essentially, as gifts to the chemical industry. His coalition had thrown out E.D.F., a founding member, over the issue in 2013; now it was Moms Clean Air Force’s turn.

“They were supporting a Senate bill everyone else opposed,” Igrejas said when I asked him why. “You couldn’t do that and stay in the coalition.” He added, “At every point along the way, Fred [Krupp] would say, ‘You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Blah, blah, blah.’”

Igrejas believes that the bill, which his coalition still opposes, despite the many improvements, is better only because he and others came out so strongly against it. (I should note that the coalition supports a much narrower House bill.) The E.D.F.-Moms Clean Air Force view is that the bill got better because they were willing to roll up their sleeves and make common cause with conservative senators like Vitter and chemical industry lobbyists.

“We have always been clear that the way to get this done is to work in a bipartisan manner to support both Democrats and Republicans who were trying to solve the problem of the old law not working,” said Richard Denison, E.D.F.’s point person on the chemical bill. “And while lending our support, we also asked for improvements.” Which they got.

The bill doesn’t give environmentalists everything they want. There are thousands of unregulated chemicals, yet the bill calls for the E.P.A. to look at only 25 during the first five years after the bill becomes law. But it hardly gives the industry everything it wants, either: Chemicals that were once unregulated would now face the prospect of serious restrictions on their use.

The biggest issue is around something called “pre-emption” — meaning that states will not be able to write laws about certain chemicals if the E.P.A. starts a formal review of that chemical. Because some states, like California, are much tougher on chemicals than the federal government has been, many environmentalists don’t want any federal pre-emption. But the chemical industry, tired of dealing with different state standards, insisted on it.

The Senate bill offers a reasonable compromise that says that if the E.P.A. doesn’t act within a certain time frame, states can act on their own. This provision, notes Denison, is “an important backstop” that would prevent companies from seeking to delay E.P.A. action as long as possible.

“I could sit in my office and write a perfect bill, but it wouldn’t be one that could become law in the United States,” said Krupp. “The question isn’t whether it is perfect. The question is whether it is a really good bill. We think it is.”

Browning had another point: “If you live in California, then of course you don’t want pre-emption. But what about the rest of us poor moms who aren’t protected by serious state laws?” For them, the Senate bill’s compromises would improve their lives.

Proving, I think, that the perfect really is the enemy of the good.

Blah, blah blah notwithstanding.

Nocera, solo

October 3, 2015

Ms. Collins is off today.  In “O’Bannon’s Hollow Victory Over the N.C.A.A.” Mr. Nocera says the association is happy with a ruling that found it violated the law.  Here he is:

In the last 18 months, three government entities have concluded that theN.C.A.A. unfairly exploits college football and men’s basketball players.

First, in March 2014, Peter Sung Ohr, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, ruled that Northwestern University’s football team could form a union. Because the players work up to 50 hours a week on their sport, because their coach is effectively their boss and because their scholarships are a form of compensation, they are employees of the university, he said.

Five months later, a federal judge, Claudia Wilken, handed down her decision in the much-heralded O’Bannon case. After presiding over a three-week trial, she concluded that N.C.A.A. rules prohibiting college athletes from receiving cash compensation was a violation of the nation’s antitrust laws.

It was the first time any federal judge had held that the N.C.A.A.’s amateurism rules amounted to a form of price-fixing. Among other important things, she dismissed out of hand the association’s long-held claim that the Supreme Court had blessed its amateurism rules in the 1984 case N.C.A.A. v. Board of Regents — a case, I should note, the association lost.

And finally, on Wednesday, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, affirmed much of Wilken’s ruling. The judge was correct to conclude “that the N.C.A.A.’s compensation rules were an unlawful restraint of trade,” the appeals panel wrote.

And yet here we are, with the dust settling on that appeals court decision, and the N.C.A.A. not only is still standing but has barely been dented. Although Michael Hausfeld, Ed O’Bannon’s lead lawyer, quickly declared victory — and having the N.C.A.A. deemed an antitrust violator surely is a victory — the N.C.A.A. wasn’t exactly perturbed by the outcome. In a conference call, Mark Emmert, the association’s president, pronounced himself “pleased.”

As well he should be. For in each of the three rulings, the arbiters blinked.

The labor board, after hearing Northwestern’s appeal of Ohr’s decision, declined to rule on whether the football players were employees, even refusing, in a remarkable act of cowardice, to assert jurisdiction. Its abdication was a defeat for the players; one potential avenue of redress is now cut off from them.

Judge Wilken, for her part, ordered the N.C.A.A. to allow colleges to pay the full “cost of attendance” to football and men’s basketball players — that is, the difference between a player’s scholarship and the additional $3,000 to $4,000 expense of going to college. But this was something the association had already agreed to do, after pressure from the powerful conference commissioners.

She also said that schools could put up to $5,000 in a trust fund that a player could have access to once he left college. In other words, after saying that schools and the N.C.A.A. had colluded illegally, she basically agreed to sanction the collusion, just at a higher amount.

The Ninth Circuit decision was perhaps the bitterest blow of all. After spending much of their decision explaining why the amateurism rules are not exempt from antitrust scrutiny, the two judges in the majority spent the latter part of the decision echoing the N.C.A.A.’s hoary rationale that amateurism is the sine qua non of college sports. They eliminated Wilken’s $5,000 trust fund remedy on the grounds that paying cash compensation not related to education would not “preserve amateurism.” (They allowed the cost of attendance payments, however.)

It took the court’s chief justice, Sidney Thomas, to expose the fallacy of the majority’s reasoning in a stinging dissent. “The N.C.A.A. insists that this multibillion dollar industry would be lost if the teenagers and young adults who play for these college teams earn one dollar above their cost of school attendance,” he wrote. “That is a difficult argument to swallow.”

It’s not hard to understand why the courts, even now, won’t propose the obvious remedy that their antitrust rulings would seem to require: allowing the players to be paid. Decades of propaganda about the centrality of amateurism have had an effect.

But these decision makers also clearly fear that college sports will be thrown into chaos if schools can pay players — and they don’t want to be blamed. The labor board practically said as much. Of course that is also what baseball owners once said about the prospect of free agency, and Olympic officials about allowing in professional athletes. Those fears turned out to be unfounded. The same will be true if college players are paid.

On Thursday, Wilken held a hearing in another case against the N.C.A.A., called the Jenkins case. That case is intended to take the N.C.A.A.’s antitrust violations to their logical conclusion; the lawyer leading it, Jeffrey Kessler, wants to see all N.C.A.A. wage restraints abolished.

At one point during the hearing, Wilken said that the Ninth Circuit’s O’Bannon ruling won’t necessarily have any effect on the Jenkins case. We’ll find out soon enough whether she means it.

Brooks and Nocera

September 29, 2015

Bobo, FSM help us, has decided to grapple with “The Prison Problem.”  He gurgles that the war on drugs and sentencing laws are often blamed for packed cells, but that explanation’s wrong, and the true causes are even harder to reverse.  Of course there’s one cause that Bobo didn’t bother to factor into his babbling.  In the comments “Mark” from Cheboyagen, MI asks the blindingly obvious question:  “Doesn’t the for profit prison system bear mentioning?”  Not if you’re Bobo, it doesn’t.  Mr. Nocera has a question:  “Is Donald Trump Serious?”  He says The Donald says yes, but his positions on the issues suggest otherwise.  Here’s Bobo:

Pretty much everybody from Barack Obama to Carly Fiorina seems to agree that far too many Americans are stuck behind bars. And pretty much everybody seems to have the same explanation for how this destructive era of mass incarceration came about.

First, the war on drugs got out of control, meaning that many nonviolent people wound up in prison. Second, mandatory-minimum sentencing laws led to a throw-away-the-key culture, with long, cruel and pointlessly destructive prison terms.

It’s true that mass incarceration is a horrific problem. Back in the 1970s the increase in incarceration did help reduce the crime rate, maybe accounting for a third of the drop. But today’s incarceration levels do little to deter crime while they do much to rip up families, increase racial disparities and destroy lives.

The popular explanation for how we got here, however, seems to be largely wrong, and most of the policy responses flowing from it may therefore be inappropriate.

The drug war is not even close to being the primary driver behind the sharp rise in incarceration. About 90 percent of America’s prisoners are held in state institutions. Only 17 percent of these inmates are in for a drug-related offense, or less than one in five.

Moreover, the share of people imprisoned for drug offenses is dropping sharply, down by 22 percent between 2006 and 2011. Writing in Slate, Leon Neyfakh emphasized that if you released every drug offender from state prison today, you’d reduce the population only to 1.2 million from 1.5 million.

The war on drugs does not explain the rocketing rates of incarceration, and ending that war, wise or not, will not solve this problem.

The mandatory-minimum theory is also problematic. Experts differ on this, but some of the most sophisticated work with the best data sets has been done by John Pfaff of Fordham Law School. When I spoke with Pfaff on Monday I found him to be wonderfully objective, nonideological and data-driven.

His research suggests that while it’s true that lawmakers passed a lot of measures calling for long prison sentences, if you look at how much time inmates actually served, not much has changed over the past few decades. Roughly half of all prisoners have prison terms in the range of two to three years, and only 10 percent serve more than seven years. The laws look punitive, but the time served hasn’t increased, and so harsh laws are not the main driver behind mass incarceration, either.

So what does explain it? Pfaff’s theory is that it’s the prosecutors. District attorneys and their assistants have gotten a lot more aggressive in bringing felony charges. Twenty years ago they brought felony charges against about one in three arrestees. Now it’s something like two in three. That produces a lot more plea bargains and a lot more prison terms.

I asked Pfaff why prosecutors are more aggressive. He’s heard theories. Maybe they are more political and they want to show toughness to raise their profile to impress voters if they run for future office. Maybe the police are bringing stronger cases. Additionally, prosecutors are usually paid by the county but prisons by the state, so prosecutors tend not to have to worry about the financial costs of what they do.

Pfaff says there’s little evidence so far to prove any of these theories, since the prosecutorial world is largely a black box. He also points out that we have a radically decentralized array of prosecutors, with some elected and some appointed. Changing their behavior cannot be done with one quick fix.

Some politicians and activists suggest that solving this problem will be easy — just release the pot smokers and the low-level dealers. In reality, reducing mass incarceration means releasing a lot of once-violent offenders. That may be the right thing to do in individual cases, but it’s a knotty problem.

Two final points. Everybody is railing against the political establishment and experts and experienced politicians. But social problems are invariably more complex than they look. The obvious explanation for most problems is often wrong. It takes experience and craftsmanship to design policies that grapple with the true complexity of reality.

Finally, recategorizing a problem doesn’t solve it. In the 1970s, we let a lot of people out of mental institutions. Over the next decades we put a lot of people into prisons. But the share of people kept out of circulation has been strangely continuous. In the real world, crime, lack of education, mental health issues, family breakdown and economic hopelessness are all intertwined.

Changing prosecutor behavior might be a start. Lifting the spirits of inmates, as described in the outstanding Atlantic online video “Angola for Life,” can also help. But the fundamental situation won’t be altered without a comprehensive surge, unless we flood the zone with economic, familial, psychological and social repair.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

As part of his ongoing effort to make a mockery of the American political process, Donald Trump released his tax plan on Monday morning. This is the third official policy position he has laid out in the three and a half months he’s been running for president.

His opening salvo, of course, was his absurd proposal to round up the 11 million illegal immigrants living in this country and deport them, en masse, while also building an impenetrable wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. “It’ll actually be a wall that will look good,” he actually told Scott Pelley on “60 Minutes” on Sunday night.

His second position paper, which hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves, is a no-holds-barred defense of the Second Amendment that the National Rifle Association could have written. Among other things, Trump says that we don’t need expanded background checks, and that concealed carry permits — he has one himself, in case you were wondering — should be valid in all 50 states, just like a driver’s license.

His tax plan, at least, is not completely irrational. Then again, “a broken clock is right twice a day,” as Edward Kleinbard, a law professor and tax expert at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law, puts it.

Kleinbard told me he likes the fact that Trump wants to tax profits that companies earn abroad at the time they are earned, just like domestic profits. That would help end the practice of American companies parking their profits overseas, because they are now taxed only upon repatriation. (Trump also wants to impose a one-time tax on those overseas profits, which would raise some $200 billion.)

A second tax expert I spoke to, Robert Willens, noted that Trump’s plan would end corporate “inversions,” whereby companies list an overseas “headquarters” to take advantage of another country’s lower tax rate. The reason, though, is that Trump’s proposed 15 percent corporate tax rate is so low that companies wouldn’t need to leave to enjoy drastically lower taxes.

Trump says his plan will also prevent American companies from moving jobs overseas. But it won’t. Companies might move their headquarters back to the U.S., but the main job sources — factories — will remain in countries that have lower labor costs, not lower taxes. And neither Trump nor anyone else running for president can fix that.

What is irrational is Trump’s belief that he can cut corporate taxes from 35 to 15 percent, can cut the top income tax rate from 39.6 to 25 percent, can allow millions of additional Americans to go untaxed completely (they’ll be able to fill out a form that says “I win”), can abolish the estate tax and can lower the maximum capital gains tax from 23.8 percent to 20 percent, and still be “revenue neutral.”

Where will the revenue come from to make up for those tax cuts? It’s not going to come from whacking the “hedge fund guys,” as he likes to call them. Though Trump proposes to end their “carried interest” tax break, his new maximum individual rate of 25 percent means their tax burden would barely budge. And though he claims he will get rid of various unspecified deductions, he didn’t dare touch the one individual deduction that matters: the mortgage interest deduction. Somebody must have told him that that would cost him in the polls.

Like almost everything else about the Trump campaign, his tax plan is hard to take seriously. (To be fair, most of the tax plans put forth by his Republican rivals are hard to take seriously.) During the “60 Minutes” interview, Trump told Pelley that he would force the Chinese to “do something” about North Korea’s nuclear program — while also preventing them from devaluing their currency! — that he would get rid of Obamacare — while instituting universal coverage! — and that he was on more magazine covers than “almost any supermodel.”

You could see Pelley struggling to keep a straight face.

I wonder, in fact, whether even now Trump is a serious candidate, or whether this is all a giant publicity ploy. Once a real developer, Trump is largely a licenser today; the more famous he becomes, the more he can charge to slap his name on buildings or perfume or men’s suits.

I’m not alone in wondering this, of course. Several Republican consultants I spoke to openly questioned whether Trump is in it for the long haul. “You would see him spending a lot more money if he were putting together a true national infrastructure,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist.

There’s one other thing. All his life, Trump has had a deep need to be perceived as a “winner.” He always has to be perceived coming out on top. That’s why, ultimately, I don’t think he’ll ever put himself at the mercy of actual voters in a primary. To do so is to risk losing. And everyone will know it.

He’ll be out before Iowa. You read it here first.

From your pixels to the FSM’s noodly appendage…

Nocera and Collins

September 26, 2015

In “Of Peanuts and Prosecutions” Mr. Nocera says that prosecuting corporate executives for wrongdoing is the single most powerful deterrent imaginable.  Ms. Collins says “Bye, Bye, John Boehner” and tells us that there are reasons no child should want to grow up to be speaker of the House.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Salmonella poisoning is an awful affliction. It is marked by diarrhea, abdominal cramps, dehydration and fever that can last as long as a week. Many people wind up in the hospital. Others develop something called reactive arthritis. And in a small number of cases, the victims die.

A major outbreak of salmonella poisoning took place in America in 2008 and 2009, when nine people died and over 700 others were reported ill. The outbreak was traced to a peanut processing plant in Georgia, owned by the Peanut Corporation of America, a $30 million company whose chief executive was a man named Stewart Parnell.

The plant was soon shuttered and the company liquidated. Eventually, Parnell, 61, was indicted and prosecuted. Found guilty, the former C.E.O. received a stunning sentence earlier this week: 28 years in prison.

A serious auto accident is also a terrible thing to endure. We know now that the faulty ignition switch installed in General Motors-made Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other cars manufactured between 2003 and 2007 resulted in at least 124 deaths. In addition, 275 people were injured badly enough to be awarded compensation — some in the millions — by Kenneth Feinberg, the well-known lawyer G.M. hired to run its victims’ compensation fund. At least 20 of the injured, including a young boy, will require 24-hour care for the rest of their lives.

And yet, a few days before Parnell’s sentencing, Preet Bharara, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, announced a settlement with G.M. that included a $900 million fine and a three-year deferred prosecution agreement — but not a single indictment of a G.M. employee. (Several remain under investigation.)

How can this be? How is it possible that the executive of a company whose product killed nine people gets a lengthy jail sentence yet the executives of a company whose product killed 124 people get off scot free?

Bharara’s explanation — and there is some truth to it — is that it is unusually difficult to prosecute auto industry executives. It is not a crime “to put into the stream of commerce a defective automobile that might kill people,” he said during his briefing with the media. What’s more, thanks to auto industry lobbying, the nation’s auto safety laws generally call for punishing corporate, rather than individual, malfeasance.

Another reason is specific to the ignition issue: For years, G.M. executives didn’t realize that when the ignition shut down, the airbags also lost power. Thus, G.M. officials didn’t view the problem as a safety issue. In winning cases against individuals, prosecutors have to show criminal intent.

But here’s one of the big surprises about the Parnell case, which was brought by Mike Moore, a federal prosecutor in Georgia. Moore relied as much or more on plain old fraud charges as he did on food safety laws, which do allow for individual prosecutions. The fact that the salmonella outbreak caused nine deaths wasn’t even part of the trial. Instead, the focus was on whether Parnell committed fraud by knowingly introducing tainted peanut butter paste into interstate commerce. The fraud conviction is what brought that eye-popping sentence.

There are plenty of people — people who genuinely understand the law — who believe that Bharara could have done the same thing with G.M. executives who knew about the faulty ignition but said nothing to the government, even though they were required to do so within five days of learning about a safety problem. In their view, Bharara’s cautious reading of the law is far too narrow.

“The fraud in the peanut butter case is that it was contaminated and they knew it,” said Clarence Ditlow, who runs the Center for Auto Safety. “What did G.M. executives do? They knowingly sold a defective car.” Rena Steinzor, a law professor and author of “Why Not Jail?,” about the legal consequences of industrial mishaps, said that in the prosecutors’ statement of fact they specifically noted that G.M. was assuring the public that the cars were safe when people inside the company knew they weren’t.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and a former attorney general of that state, has co-authored a bill that would make it easier to prosecute auto executives. But he also had little patience with Bharara’s explanation.

“It’s a crime to make a false statement to the government,” Blumenthal said. “18USC1001,” he added, citing the law. “If you submit a false statement to a federally insured bank in connection with a $500 loan, prosecutors can go after you. G.M.’s false statements are just as much a violation of the law.”

I’ve seen it written recently that the urge to prosecute corporate executives is little more than an exercise is schadenfreude. But it’s not. It is instead the single most powerful deterrent imaginable — far more powerful than a fine, which is meaningless to a company like G.M.

“I guarantee you,” says Blumenthal, “one sentence like [Parnell’s] would change auto safety dramatically and enduringly.”

Amen.  Go get ’em…  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Farewell, John Boehner, farewell.

These departures are a little wearying. It was not long ago that we said adieu to Rick Perry. And then Scott Walker. And of course we are gearing up for the moment when the political world says goodbye forever to Donald Trump.

Good times, all.

Boehner’s leave-taking is a bit more of a mixed bag. The surprise announcement came the day after he sat proudly in the background while Pope Francis gave his address to Congress. You will not be stunned to hear that crying occurred, none of it involving Francis.

And there was a private meeting, in which reliable sources said the pope admired Boehner’s tie. But there is no indication he grabbed the speaker by the shoulders and cried: “You’re surrounded by crazy people! Get out while you can, my son!”

Not that it couldn’t have happened. The pope is infallible.

Maybe Boehner fell on his sword to keep the government from being shut down. We’ll probably never figure that one out, since it’s impossible to discuss the question without using the term “continuing resolution.”

The Republicans want to defund Planned Parenthood. There are many, many reasons that idea is not going anywhere. We will not enumerate them, since it would require the mention of the term “budget reconciliation process.” However, the minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, had expressed confidence that Planned Parenthood would be safe even if the Republicans “vote their alleged hearts out.”

We should spend more time quoting Nancy Pelosi. Also noting that in recent years, the nation has avoided a raft of political cataclysms because Pelosi has delivered crucial votes whenever Boehner could not get his own majority to behave in a minimally responsible manner.

Anyway, under normal circumstances, Boehner would have used the Democratic votes to keep the government funded. Then the right wing would have descended on him like a band of vicious wombats.

No more. The speaker may still need the Democrats, but once it’s all over, it’ll be … all over. Boehner is retiring and everybody loves him. There’s nothing like an imminent departure to make a politician popular.

“A patriot,” said President Obama. “To say that I will miss John Boehner is a tremendous understatement,” said the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid.

O.K., not popular with totally everybody. The right-wing Value Voters Summit burst into applause when Senator Marco Rubio announced the resignation news. “I’m not here today to bash anyone,” Rubio said, slightly inaccurately. “But the time has come to turn the page … and allow a new generation of leadership in this country.” Rubio is always promising to usher in an era of fresh new ideas, which appear to involve lowering taxes on the wealthy.

So who would you like to see as the next speaker of the House? (Really, you don’t need a reason. People will just be impressed you have an opinion.) Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California is the favorite. Some say he’s a little dim, but there are worse things in the world.

Then there’s the majority whip, Steve Scalise of Louisiana. He’s a red state guy, which seems appropriate. And he has no memory of giving a speech at that white power convention.

Or what about Paul Ryan? No, wait — take Paul Ryan back. The former vice-presidential nominee declared he was ineligible since he is the father of young children. “This is a job for an empty nester,” he told reporters.

It was a grand moment of gender progress. Someday, perhaps, ambitious women will be allowed to say stuff like that. Maybe even under circumstances that do not involve trying to dodge a politically disastrous assignment.

Boehner claimed he had always been planning to retire at the end of the year. He was going to announce it on his birthday, Nov. 17. But then he suddenly decided it might be better to do it on … Friday. To end “leadership turmoil.”

The bottom line is that the next time the Freedom Caucus decides it cannot support any legislation that fails to defund Planned Parenthood, repeal Obamacare and eliminate the Department of Homeland Security, it will be somebody else’s problem.

John Boehner won’t be around to worry about continuing resolutions. Or the coming crisis over how to keep highway construction going. Or funding the national debt. And after that it’ll be Thanksgiving and time for the next government shutdown.

Boehner won’t care. No sirree, he’ll be back in Reading, Ohio, peacefully carving the turkey. Or maybe in his Florida condo. Soon, he won’t even have to set foot in Reading, Ohio, again unless he feels like it. He hung out with the pope and now he’s hanging up his hat. Canny fellow.


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