Archive for the ‘Nocera’ Category

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.

Brooks and Nocera

September 22, 2015

Bobo is now an authority on the Pope and what he reads.  In “Pope Francis, the Prince of the Personal” he gurgles that on Francis’ visit he will offer a model on listening and learning, and upholding moral standards while remaining loving and merciful.  In the comments “Anetliner netliner” from the Washington DC area had this to say:  “This piece is a beautiful tribute to Pope Francis’s pastoral leadership. But Brooks– perhaps predictably– ignores Francis’s searing criticism of global capitalism as expressed in his encyclical Laudato Si.  Francis’s campaign for economic justice is a key element of his papacy and should be acknowledged.”  Mr. Nocera takes a look at “Trump and Fiorina’s Snake Oil Sales” and says Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina are each right about the other’s lousy business record.  Here’s Bobo:

One of Pope Francis’ favorite novels is “The Betrothed” by Alessandro Manzoni. It is about two lovers whose longing to marry is thwarted by a cowardly and morally mediocre priest and a grasping nobleman. A good simple friar shelters the suffering couple. Then a plague hits the country, reminding everyone of their mortality and vulnerability, and also bringing about a moral reckoning.

As the doctors serve in hospitals for the body, the good people in the church serve in hospitals for the soul. One cardinal remonstrates the cowardly priest. “You should have loved, my son; loved and prayed. Then you would have seen that the forces of iniquity have power to threaten and to wound, but no power to command.” In the end there are heart-wrenching scenes of confession, forgiveness, reconciliation and marriage.

I mention this novel, which Francis has read four times, because we in the press are about to over-politicize his visit to America. We’re comfortable talking about our ideological disputes, so we’ll closely follow and cover whatever hints he drops on abortion, gay marriage, global warming and divorce.

But this visit is also a spiritual and cultural event. Millions of Americans will display their faith in public. Francis will offer doctrinal instruction for Catholics. But the great gift is the man himself — his manner, the way he carries himself. Specifically, Francis offers a model on two great questions: How do you deeply listen and learn? How do you uphold certain moral standards, while still being loving and merciful to those you befriend?

Throughout his life Francis’ core message has been anti-ideological. As Austen Ivereigh notes in his biography “The Great Reformer,” Francis has consistently criticized abstract intellectual systems that speak in crude generalities, instrumentalize the poor and ignore the rich idiosyncratic nature of each soul and situation. He has written that many of our political debates are so abstract, you can’t smell the sweat of real life. They reduce everything to “tired, gray cartoon-book narratives.”

Francis’ great gift, by contrast, is learning through intimacy, not just to study poverty, but to live among the poor and feel it as a personal experience from the inside. “I see the church as a field hospital after battle,” Pope Francis told the interviewer Father Antonio Spadaro. “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. … Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. … And you have to start from the ground up.”

That closeness teaches you granular details, but also arouses a sense of respect. “I see the sanctity of God’s people, this daily sanctity,” Francis has said. “I see the holiness in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces.”

We practice material and intellectual elitism, looking upward for status and specialized and de-spiritualized knowledge. Pope Francis emphasizes that different kinds of knowledge come from different quarters. As he put it, “This is how it is with Mary: If you want to know who she is, you ask the theologians; if you want to know how to love her, you have to ask the people.”

These days some religious people believe they need to cut themselves off from the corruptions of a decadent modern culture. But Francis argues that you need to throw yourself in the world’s diverse living cultures to see God in his full glory and you need faith to see people in their full depth. He is fond of quoting Dostoyevsky’s line from “The Brothers Karamazov,” “Whoever does not believe in God will not believe in the people of God. … Only the people and their future spiritual power will convert our atheists, who have severed themselves from their own land.”

Francis’ whole approach is personal, intimate and situation-specific. If you are too rigorous and just apply abstract rules, he argues, you are washing your hands of your responsibility to a person. But if you are too lax, and just try to be kind to everybody, you are ignoring the truth of sin and the need to correct it.

Only by being immersed in the specificity of that person and that mysterious soul can you strike the right balance between rigor and compassion. Only by being intimate and loving can you match the authority that comes from church teaching with the democratic wisdom that bubbles from each individual’s common sense.

Pope Francis is an extraordinary learner, listener and self-doubter. The best part of this week will be watching him relate to people, how he listens deeply and learns from them, how he sees them both in their great sinfulness but also with endless mercy and self-emptying love.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

Business wonk that I am, my favorite moment in last week’s Republican debate came when Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump got into a spat over which of them had the lousier track record as business leaders.

“The company is a disaster,” scoffed Trump, referring to Hewlett-Packard, the iconic technology company Fiorina ran from 1999 to 2005. Trump continued: “When Carly says the revenues went up that’s because she bought Compaq. It was a terrible deal, and it really led to the destruction of the company.”

Fiorina responded by focusing on how Trump ran his three Atlantic City casinos into the ground. “You ran up mountains of debt, as well as losses,” she said, “using other people’s money, and you were forced to file for bankruptcy not once, not twice [but] four times, a record four times.”

They’re both right. Fiorina’s tenure at HP was indeed a disaster, and Trump’s casino interests did indeed file for bankruptcy multiple times. Now that Trump and Fiorina are number one and number two in a recent poll — oy! — it’s worth taking a closer look at their business records.

Fiorina’s effort to revise her reputation began in October 2006, some 20 months after she was ousted as the chief executive of HP, when she published her autobiography. In it, she claimed that she had taken a company that was adrift and gotten it humming again. She described her firing as the action of a dysfunctional board, which it certainly was. But that was in no small part because the directors played Charlie Brown to her Lucy. Again and again, she would say that progress was right around the corner, and they believed her; again and again, she disappointed.

By every metric that mattered, HP was in far worse shape when she was fired than when she was hired. The company’s stock price dropped more than 50 percent during her tenure, compared to a 7 percent drop in the S.&P. 500. And net earnings dropped to $2.4 billion from $3.1 billion during that same time. The Compaq merger, meanwhile, was a misguided fiasco; today, virtually all remnants of it have disappeared from HP. Fiorina’s me-me-me leadership style demoralized the company and its shareholders. When she walked out the door in February 2005 — with a $21 million severance package — the stock jumped nearly 7 percent.

Trump? He’s a business legend, all right, — in his own mind. To listen to him, you’d think he is the greatest business person of all time. He is not even close. What he mainly is, as his presidential campaign is proving, is our era’s P.T. Barnum.

The key fact about Trump’s early success is that it would never have happened without his father Fred’s money. As Tim O’Brien points out in his highly entertaining 2005 biography, “TrumpNation,” Trump would have flopped in his first foray in the big time — turning the Commodore Hotel into the Grand Hyatt in Midtown Manhattan — if his father had not lent him the money to cover cost overruns.

According to O’Brien, Fred Trump bailed out his son on other occasions, most notably when he bought $3.5 million worth of chips at one of Trump’s casinos — and then didn’t use them to gamble, in violation of state casino regulations — so that his son would have enough to make a loan payment.

As for the casino bankruptcies, Trump likes to characterize them as shrewd business moves, and stresses that he never filed for personal bankruptcy. But those corporate bankruptcies were costly; he wound up having to give up many of his real estate holdings, and was even put on a monthly budget for a time.

And with some $900 million in personal guarantees, he avoided personal bankruptcy by a whisker. Again, according to O’Brien, Trump borrowed millions from his siblings to keep his head above water. Today, a far more cautious Donald Trump runs what amounts to a Potemkin company, with a staff that mainly licenses his “brand.” He owns very few of the buildings with the Trump name on them.

Trump claims, implausibly, to be worth over $8 billion. (Forbes puts his net worth at half that amount.) But even taking him at his word, that sum is less impressive than you’d think. As several writers have pointed out, if, in 1988, he had simply put his money in a stock index fund, it would be worth $13 billion today. In effect, his post-1988 business career has cost him $5 billion.

Even putting aside their policy positions, their narcissism, their poor records as leaders and their lack of scruples in spinning failures as triumphs all suggest that Fiorina and Trump would make terrible presidents. To my mind, there is only one entrepreneur who has both a record of true business accomplishment and government service to merit consideration as a presidential candidate.

I can’t be the only one who wishes Michael Bloomberg would enter the race, can I?

Yes, Joe, I’m sure you can be.

Nocera and Collins

September 19, 2015

In “Republican Job Killers and the Export-Import Bank” Mr. Nocera tells us that top chief executives sound off against the effort to kill the Ex-Im Bank.  Ms. Collins considers “The Fight for Unplanned Parenthood” and says Republicans’ new push against Planned Parenthood isn’t just about abortion.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

“At a time when we want to compete around the world, it is hard to believe what is happening in the U.S. Congress,” said Jeff Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric.

“The ultimate irony is that we are on the verge of an American manufacturing renaissance,” bemoaned Jim McNerney, the chairman of Boeing. “Yet this action is causing companies to start looking outside the U.S. instead.”

“People complain that the bank only helps big companies,” said Doug Oberhelman, the chairman and C.E.O. of Caterpillar. “A lot of our suppliers are small. They don’t export, but we do. And if we aren’t exporting, they aren’t selling to us.” He added, “I find it staggering that we would put highly paid export-oriented jobs at risk.”

What Oberhelman finds “staggering,” Immelt finds “hard to believe” and McNerney finds ironic is the refusal of Republican extremists — led by the House Financial Services Committee’s chairman, Jeb Hensarling — to allow a vote on the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, a vote that would pass in a landslide. The Ex-Im Bank, which insures and sometimes finances export sales, had to stop making deals at the end of June, when its reauthorization deadline came and went.

Although the Ex-Im Bank still exists, it has been reduced these days to managing its portfolio, rather than underwriting or insuring new deals. According to Boeing, its foreign rival Airbus, which can tap not one but three export credit agencies, is spreading the word to potential aircraft customers that Boeing can no longer compete when bids require sovereign insurance. That is hardly the only such example.

The damage this is doing to our economy is starting to become clear. In recent weeks, Boeing, America’s largest exporter in dollar volume, made two sobering announcements: first, that Asia Broadcast Satellite canceled an $85 million satellite contract expressly because there was no Ex-Im support. (Boeing is hoping to renegotiate.) More recently, Kacific, a Singapore-based satellite company, told Boeing not to bother bidding on a satellite contract, again because of a lack of Ex-Im financing.

As a result, McNerney told me, “layoffs in the hundreds” have taken place in Boeing’s satellite division.

This week, it was G.E.’s turn to make Ex-Im-related news. First, it said it would move 400 jobs to France to manufacture — and export — gas turbines, and 100 final assembly jobs to Hungary and China. Then it said it would create a new turboprop center in Europe that would employ up to 1,000 people. In both cases, G.E. said the moves would allow the company to take advantage of European export credit agencies.

When I spoke to Immelt, McNerney and Oberhelman, whose company also uses the agency, they all sounded astonished that this important tool, which they need to compete with companies abroad, was being taken away for purely ideological reasons.

“If no other country had export financing, that would be one thing,” said Immelt. “But that’s not where the world is. What you are really doing is helping Siemens and China Rail” — companies that rely heavily on their countries’ export financing.

Immelt told me that G.E. currently has $11 billion in potential deals that require export credit agency financing. That’s real money, even for General Electric.

McNerney pointed out that many big deals require export financing for the bid to even be considered. He also noted, ominously, that 10 to 15 percent of Boeing’s aircraft exports are dependent on Ex-Im support. Losing that business would be devastating for the company, and its employees.

When asked about the accusation from the right that the Ex-Im Bank is a classic case of government picking winners and losers, Oberhelman said that “if this doesn’t change, we’re all going to be losers.”

The anti-Ex-Im Bank faction is having a glorious time mocking the G.E. and Boeing announcements. A spokesman for Heritage Action for America, the conservative think tank leading the charge, described G.E.’s moves as “multinational crony capitalism.” Hensarling issued a statement claiming Boeing could finance the satellite deals itself to prevent layoffs; “it just chooses not to.”

And an unidentified financial services committee staffer told Politico that the loss of 500 G.E. jobs was a drop in the bucket for a company that employs 136,000 people in the U.S.

That heartless quote reminded me of an anecdote in “Confidence Men,” Ron Suskind’s book about the Obama administration’s financial team during the president’s first term. Some of Obama’s top advisers wanted to let Chrysler fail. But in a critical meeting, Ron Bloom, a former adviser to the United Steelworkers who was a member of Obama’s Auto Task Force, said, “Mr. President, these are the reasons we can’t kill this company. The damage to these communities and people will never be undone.”

Chrysler was ultimately saved because the president’s advisers suddenly understood that it was their role to save jobs, not to sacrifice them on the altar of economic purity. What will it take for the Republicans to come to the same realization?

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Planned Parenthood! Government shutdown!

Anti-abortion politicians are in an uproar over videos that supposedly show Planned Parenthood representatives negotiating on prices for tissue from aborted fetuses. Carly Fiorina was passionate about the subject in this week’s Republican debate. Nothing she said was accurate, but nobody’s perfect.

The House Judiciary Committee has been investigating the matter with lawyerly precision, starting with a hearing titled: “Planned Parenthood Exposed: Examining the Horrific Abortion Practices at the Nation’s Largest Abortion Provider.” In a further effort to offer balance and perspective, the committee did not invite Planned Parenthood to testify.

(Coming soon: The House Committee on Energy and Commerce prepares to welcome Pope Francis with a hearing on “Papal Fallibility: Why He’s Totally, Completely and Utterly Off Base About Global Warming.”)

Planned Parenthood gets about $500 million a year from the federal government, mainly in reimbursements for treating Medicaid patients. Now the House Freedom Caucus, which specializes in threatening to shut down the government, has announced that its members won’t vote for any spending bill unless the money is eliminated.

At Wednesday’s debate, Jeb Bush issued a popular Republican call for transferring the money to other “community-based organizations” that provide women’s health services. “That’s the way you do this is you improve the condition for people,” he said. As only Jeb Bush can.

You may recall that Bush made a similar suggestion earlier in the campaign, in which he added — to his lasting regret — “although I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.”

“I misspoke,” the former governor of Florida said later. Well, that does seem to happen a lot. But do you think it was really a slip of the tongue? Or are there other services Planned Parenthood provides that Bush would be happy to get rid of as well? He did once write a book that tackled the subject of how to reduce abortions without ever mentioning the word “contraception.”

This leads us to an important question about the Planned Parenthood debate: Are the people who want to put it out of business just opposed to the abortions (which don’t receive federal funds), or are they against family planning, period?

“I’m telling you, it’s family planning,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a phone interview. “They decided that was their target long ago.”

Let’s look at the even larger question: Can Congress really just move the Planned Parenthood money to other health care providers? Besides family planning services, Planned Parenthood offers everything from breast exams to screening for sexually transmitted infections. Many of its patients live in poor or rural areas without a lot of other options.

Another move-the-money presidential candidate is Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana — he’s the one issuing round-the-clock insults to Donald Trump in the desperate hope of attracting a little attention.

Jindal cut off $730,000 in Medicaid reimbursements to his state’s two Planned Parenthood clinics, even though neither offers abortion services. They do, however, provide thousands of women with health care, including screening for sexually transmitted infections — a terrible problem in some parts of the state.

No big deal. When the issue went to court, Jindal’s administration provided a list of more than 2,000 other places where Planned Parenthood’s patients could get care.

“It strikes me as extremely odd that you have a dermatologist, an audiologist, a dentist who are billing for family planning services,”responded the judge.

Whoops. It appeared that the list-makers had overestimated a tad, and the number of alternate providers was actually more like 29. None of whichhad the capacity to take on a flood of additional patients.

When Planned Parenthood leaves town, bad things follow. Ask the county in Indiana that drove out its clinic, which happened to be the only place in the area that offered H.I.V. testing. That was in 2013; in March the governor announced a “public health emergency” due to the spike in H.I.V. cases.

Sara Rosenbaum, a professor of health law and policy at George Washington University, studied what happened when Texas blocked Planned Parenthood grants and tried to move the money to other providers. Even when there were other clinics in an area, she said, “they were overbooked with their own patients. What happened in Texas was the amount of family planning services dropped. And the next thing that happened, of course, was that unplanned pregnancies began to rise.”

If an elected official wants to try to drive Planned Parenthood out of business, there are two honest options: Announce that first you’re going to invest a ton of new taxpayer money in creating real substitutes, or shrug your shoulders and tell the world that you’re fine with cutting off health services to some of your neediest constituents.

If you get heat, you can always say you misspoke.

Brooks and Nocera

September 15, 2015

In “The Biden Formation Story” Bobo babbles that in discussing his grief with Stephen Colbert, Joe Biden revealed what could be the core of a very compelling presidential campaign.  In the comments “View from the hill” from Vermont said “I take Brooks’ point, but by the end he has reduced Biden’s grief to a campaign device.”  Which is typical Bobo.  Mr. Nocera, in “The Pyramid Scheme Problem,” says the F.T.C. tries to shut down illegal pyramid schemes yet won’t explain how they differ from legal multilevel marketing companies.  Here’s Bobo:

Last month I wrote that Joe Biden should not run for president this year. The electorate is in an anti-establishment mood, and as a longtime insider, Biden, I argued, would suffer from the same disadvantages Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are now enduring, without any of their advantages. It would end badly.

But then came Biden’s moment with Stephen Colbert. His discussion of his own grief over his son Beau’s death was beautiful and genuine and revealed the golden heart that everybody knows is at the core of the man.

Biden talked about Beau. “My son was better than me. And he was better than me in almost every way.” He gestured toward how fluid grief is, how it goes round and round, hides for a few hours and then suddenly overwhelms. But there was something else embedded in that Colbert moment: a formation story.

Every presidential candidate needs a narrative to explain how his or her character was formed. They needs a story line that begins outside of politics with some experience or life-defining crucible moment that then defines the nature of their public service.

Candidates like John F. Kennedy and John McCain were formed by war. Candidates like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were formed by their rise from broken homes and their dedication to lift others and heal divisions. Without a clear formation story, a candidate is just a hodgepodge of positions and logos.

Democrats this year are looking for a formation story that proves commitment. This is a party that is moving boldly leftward. Its voters want to know their candidate has the inner drive to push through structural changes, not just half measures.

Bernie Sanders has such a story. From his days at the University of Chicago onward, he has been a pile driver for progressive causes, regardless of the prevailing winds. Hillary Clinton hasn’t yet presented a clear formation story. She talks about being a grandmother, which humanizes her, but doesn’t explain how she got to be the person she is.

With Colbert, one saw the kernel of a Biden formation story that could connect not only with Democratic voters but with other voters as well. It is a story of dual loss: his wife and daughter decades ago and his son this year. Out of that loss comes a great empathy, a connection to those who are suffering in this economy and this world. Out of that loss comes a hypercharged sense of mission. Out of that loss comes a liberation from the fear of failure that dogs most politicians, and causes them to dodge, prevaricate and spin.

People who have suffered a loss often want to connect their tragedy to some larger redemptive mission. Biden could plausibly and genuinely emerge sadder but more empathetic and more driven. That would be not only a natural reaction, but also the basis for a compelling campaign. Biden would then benefit from the greater verbal self-discipline he has developed while vice president and from the fact that this year, as Donald Trump proves, voters seem tolerant of free-talkers.

Democratic voters aren’t the only ones looking for a strong formation story. Republicans are looking for one, too, but the nature of the Republican race is different. If Democrats are arguing over what positions to fight for, Republicans are arguing about how to fight.

Republican presidential candidates have found that the strongest way to win favor on the stump is to attack the leaders of their party in Congress for being timid and inept. Many Republican voters are alienated from their party’s leadership. They’re looking for a candidate who can lead a mutiny.

Donald Trump’s mutiny story is pretty clear. In doing business deal after business deal, he mastered the skills needed to take on the morons who are now running the party and the world. Ben Carson’s story is clear, too. Through his faith and through his medical career he developed the purity of heart and the discipline of will required to walk into Washington without being corrupted by the rottenness found there.

The Republican desire for a mutiny has kept Trump and Carson aloft longer than most people supposed. I still think they will implode. Their followers need them to be the superheroes they are portraying themselves to be. But politics is hard, especially for beginners, and sooner or later they will flounder and look like they’re in over their heads. At that point it’s all over. At that point, a Bush, Rubio, Kasich or Walker will have an opening to tell a different and more positive story.

On the Democratic side, a Biden run would be more formidable than I thought last month. You need emotion to beat emotion. With Stephen Colbert he revealed a story and suggested a campaign that is moving, compelling and in tune with the moment.

Just imagine — Biden decides to run and then all we’ll hear out of Bobo is how he can’t keep his mouth shut and is always coming up with malapropisms.  You heard it first here.  Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

“I have nothing for you,” said Frank Dorman, a spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission. “Lots of reporters have asked that question. Our final response is, We’re not going to answer it.”

What had I asked that was so sensitive that the F.T.C. wouldn’t respond? I had requested that the agency explain what distinguished an illegal “pyramid scheme” from a legal multilevel marketing company.

What had prompted my question were two recent events. In late August, the F.T.C. had gotten an injunction issued against a multilevel marketing company called Vemma Nutrition, claiming it was in fact a pyramid scheme.

And last week, Fortune magazine published a lengthy story by Roger Parloff about William Ackman’s nearly three-year battle to force the government to make the same declaration about Herbalife. The company, of course, has fought back hard against the hedge fund manager’s allegations, insisting that its business practices are above board.

Indeed, the F.T.C.’s move against Vemma has caused both sides in the Herbalife battle to claim vindication. Although the F.T.C. has been investigating Herbalife for some 17 months, Timothy S. Ramey, a stock analyst and Herbalife bull, raised his price target for the company, saying Vemma’s business model was clearly different from Herbalife’s. Meanwhile, Ackman prepared a 29-slide deck with side-by-side comparisons of all the ways, in his view at least, Herbalife’s business model was exactly like Vemma’s.

So which is it?

As Parloff notes in his article, “The Siege of Herbalife,” there is no law defining a pyramid scheme, nor are there even any regulations on the books. The simple common-sense definition is that a pyramid scheme is a business in which recruits make a payment for the right to recruit others into the network, and whose revenues are more dependent on recruitment than on selling a product.

But it turns out to be so much more complicated. In 1979, the F.T.C., after investigating Amway, a multilevel marketing company with a vast product line, decided that the company’s business model passed muster — even though recruitment was at the heart of it — because it claimed to take certain steps that (among other things) supposedly showed that its recruits were selling the company’s products to real customers, not just to other recruits. Very quickly, other multilevel marketing companies adopted the “Amway rules” to stay on the right side of the F.T.C.

Yet the Amway rules have never been codified into regulation — they’re really more like suggestions — nor have they ever been proved to mitigate the harm pyramid schemes do in taking advantage of recruits or lying to them about the potential to get rich. (A vast majority of those who sign up for pyramid schemes lose money, sometimes lots of money.)

For a while, the courts and the F.T.C. seemed to say that a truer test of a pyramid scheme was how much of its products was bought outside its recruitment network (meaning they had real customers who were not involved in the pyramid) versus how much was bought by those inside the network, who were buying precisely to remain part of the network.

But in a recent court decision involving a pyramid scheme calledBurnLounge, the appeals court ruled that it didn’t really matter whether the customer was inside or outside the network, and that the test was actually whether a company’s “primary” purpose involved recruiting rather than “meaningful opportunities for retail sales.”

William Keep, dean of the College of New Jersey’s School of Business, and a pyramid scheme critic, told Bloomberg earlier this year that “in terms of sending clear signals to the industry, the F.T.C. has done worse than nothing since 1979. It sends confusing signals that have in no way helped us understand how to identify a multilevel marketing company that may be a pyramid scheme.”

In the Herbalife dispute, this lack of federal guidelines animates much of the controversy.

Ackman says Herbalife is a pyramid scheme because the only way people can make any money is by recruiting others, not by selling the company’s protein shakes. Herbalife says its business model is on the up and up because it is selling a real product to consumers who sign up more to get product discounts than to become part of a recruiting network. Parloff, after months of investigation, came down more on Herbalife’s side than Ackman’s, though in truth, that’s just his best guess. The F.T.C. wouldn’t talk to him, either.

“Here we are three years into [the Herbalife battle] and it’s no clearer than it was at the beginning,” Keep told me when we spoke. If the government had rules about where the line was between an illegal pyramid scheme and a legal multilevel marketing company, there wouldn’t be any such dispute. It’s ridiculous that we have to guess what’s illegal.

The F.T.C.’s refusal to define a pyramid scheme — and to act aggressively on that definition — is a dereliction of duty.

Nocera and Collins

September 12, 2015

Mr. Nocera has a question in “Notre Dame’s Big Bluff:”  Would the Fighting Irish ever really abandon football?  To which I reply:  So what, and who cares?  Ms. Collins tells us that “Rick Perry Meets His Alamo,” and that the Republican presidential candidate is gone, and there may not be another chance to point out the names of his right boot and left boot.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Has there ever been a university whose success was more dependent on football than Notre Dame?

Go back to the 1920s, when this middling Catholic school near South Bend, Ind., was a household name because the radio networks all broadcast Notre Dame football games. Notre Dame football had Knute Rockne, the legendary coach, and Grantland Rice’s “Four Horsemen.”

Its football team was even the subject of movies: “Knute Rockne — All American” in 1940 (with Ronald Reagan playing George Gipp) and, 53 years later, “Rudy.”

“The whole south campus of the school was built with football money,” says Murray Sperber, who has written extensively about Notre Dame football. That the University of Notre Dame today is a big, important, wealthy school — ranked 18th among national universities in the latest U.S. News and World Report survey, with the 12th largest endowment — is directly attributable to football.

Has there ever been a university savvier about the commercial possibilities of football than Notre Dame?

In 1990, Notre Dame stunned the college sports establishment by signing a five-year, $38 million deal with NBC, making it the only football program in history to have its own network deal. The most recent contract extension reportedly calls for Notre Dame to be paid $15 million a year until 2025. In 2014, it signed a 10-year deal with Under Armour worth more than $90 million — a deal that, amazingly, includes stock in the high-flying sports apparel company.

To this day, a Notre Dame football game is a unique marketing tool, which university executives are happy to use when trying to lure a new faculty member or land a sizable donation.

Thus, my first reaction upon reading in The Times that the Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, was threatening to leave big-time college football if the athletes gained the right to be paid, was to scoff.

Jenkins told The Times’s Dan Barry that despite the revenue generated by Notre Dame football, he didn’t feel “some demand of justice” that players be paid; rather, he said, an education was “more valuable than however much money we might give you.” He described paying players as “a semipro model” and said that if it came to pass, Notre Dame would decline to participate and would start its own conference with like-minded schools.

But would it really? Would Notre Dame actually turn its back on something as central to the university’s identity just because it would have to pay a handful of its students?

Back in the 1940s, according to Sperber, the Rev. J. Hugh O’Donnell, then Notre Dame’s president, said that athletic scholarships were a form of pay that had become a “cankerous sore” in intercollegiate football. But when push came to shove, the Fighting Irish gave athletic scholarships.

Just before the Times story ran, Northwestern University’s president emeritus, Henry Bienen, made remarks similar to Jenkins’s in a Bloomberg View column.

I think Jenkins and Bienen are aiming their remarks not just at the public, but also at the California appeals court that will soon decide whether to uphold a lower court’s decision in the Ed O’Bannon case. That decision calls for players to be paid up to $5,000, which wouldn’t exactly break the bank.

I also think they are bluffing. Not long ago, the University of Alabama at Birmingham — a nobody in football terms — tried to cancel football butquickly reinstated it after a huge outcry. Can you imagine what Notre Dame would face if it de-emphasized football?

And if Jenkins is not bluffing, well, so what? There are a lot of people in academia — and in America, for that matter — who believe that major college sports detract from the true purpose of a university. If paying players is the tipping point for Notre Dame and Northwestern, the moment they can no longer stomach the thoroughly commercial enterprise they are involved in, then de-emphasizing sports is probably the right choice.

The Ivy League schools were once major football powers, too; but, unlike Notre Dame, they chose not to grant athletic scholarships in the mid-1950s, and in so doing, collectively de-emphasized football. They haven’t looked back since.

Here’s another thought, though. Why does Jenkins assume that there are only these two choices: pay the players or drop out of the big time? No court is ever going to force a university to pay players; the most a court would do is eliminate the current price-fixing model and allow schools to pay if they so choose.

If Notre Dame truly believes that the education it offers is more valuable than money, that alone should be enough to lure real “student-athletes” who value education and “doing the right thing.” Athletes would have a choice: take cash and a joke education from a major conference football factory, or get a real education from Notre Dame or Northwestern.

C’mon, Notre Dame. What are you afraid of?

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Rick Perry — out!

The new glasses apparently didn’t do the trick.

The former governor of Texas threw in the towel on Friday and the Republican race is now totally lacking in candidates who claimed to have shot a coyote while jogging.

His departure is a crushing blow for those of us who have already put in the time to read “Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America From Washington,” in which Perry announced that Americans were tired of being bossed around and being told “how much salt we can put on our food, what windows we can buy for our house” and “what kind of cars we can drive.”

I will not even have the opportunity to point out that Washington doesn’t actually tell us any of those things.

And now the loser debate on Wednesday will only feature four candidates, one of them George Pataki.

We make fun of presidential debates, for excellent reasons. But you will remember that at this time four years ago, Rick Perry was at the top of the polls. Way ahead of the pack. Then one “Oops” and an entire major-league political career was ruined forever.

Does anybody out there remember the answer he flubbed? If he became president he was going to cut back on the cabinet, eliminating education, commerce and, what was that? Oh, yes! — energy. The Department of Energy is still with us, but the presidential candidate is no more.

Adieu, Rick Perry, adieu.

“We have a tremendous field of candidates, probably the greatest group of men and women,” he overstated in his farewell address. “I step aside knowing our party is in good hands, as long as we listen to the grass roots, listen to the cause of conservatism.”

Just so long as the roots don’t vote for Donald Trump. Rick Perry really hates Donald Trump. And maybe this could be the start of a Trump downswing. Maybe if five or six other people quit, the voters will start to get focused and look at the polls like a homeowner waking up from a drunken bender and noticing a car in the living room.

As a presidential candidate in 2015, Perry’s only talent seemed to be getting money from very rich acquaintances. His political action committee still had cash, but it wasn’t allowed to coordinate with the candidate, or give his campaign any of its money. By the end Perry had no staff, and he was wandering like a Labrador retriever being pulled around by a helium balloon attached to his collar.

Now we’ll no longer have to wonder about whether it’d be constitutionally problematic to have a ticket composed of Rick Perry and Ted Cruz. Hehehehehe.

My favorite Perry memory is and always has been a 2010 interview he did when he was governor with Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune. Smith expressed some doubts about the state’s policy of strongly encouraging abstinence-only sex education in the public schools.

Perry insisted things were going great.

Smith pointed out that Texas had one of the worst rates of teenage pregnancy in the country.

“I’m just going to tell you from my own personal life. Abstinence works,” Perry said doggedly.

Always wanted to hear the back story on that one. Now I guess we’ll never know.

Perry was governor for 14 years — he inherited the job when George W. Bush got promoted — and his entire career as a presidential candidate was based on promising to do for the United States what he did for Texas. According to his telling, the state’s economic success was based entirely on low taxes and low regulation, as opposed to being a huge, underdeveloped chunk of the Sunbelt sitting on top of a mass of oil deposits.

When you look at a booming state and wonder why it’s doing so well, the answer is almost never the governor.

But Texas has certainly done better than most of the country when it comes to job growth. If that wasn’t good enough to get even a twitch of interest from the public this time around, what does it say about others in the field? Jeb Bush’s success in Florida was mainly about a real estate bubble and Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana … wow.

So Rick Perry’s gone for good. We will never have another chance to point out that he named his boots “Freedom” and “Liberty.”

We will never again hear him explain why he thinks it would be an excellent idea to eliminate the popular election of U.S. senators and let the great minds in the state legislatures do the choosing. Although that could come up anyway. Several other candidates have the same conviction.

What a weird year.

And thank the FSM that she’s back from book leave to comment on it!

Brooks and Nocera

September 8, 2015

Bobo has taken to the fainting couch, clutching his pearls.  In “The Anti-Party Men: Trump, Carson, Sanders and Corbyn” he moans that the rise of extreme political figures this summer is a result of the decline of civic institutions.  In the comments even “Aaron Walton” from as far away as Geelong, Australia can point out the obvious:  “”These four anti-party men have little experience in the profession of governing.” What an underhanded, untrue shot at Sanders! The man has only been in elected office since 1981 and has served as both an executive (mayor of Burlington) and as a legislator (House & Senate).  What more “experience in the profession of governing” do you want?”  Mr. Nocera has a question in “Mr. Zuckerberg’s Expensive Lesson:”  What happened to the Facebook founder’s $100 million gift to Newark’s schools?  Here’s Bobo:

Political parties are civic institutions. They are broad coalitions built for the purpose of creating a governing majority that can be used to win elections and pass agendas. This summer three American politicians have risen to the fore, and they all sit outside or at the margin of the party they are trying to lead.

Donald Trump didn’t even swear allegiance to his party’s eventual nominee until last week. He is a lone individual whose main cause and argument is Himself.

Ben Carson has no history in politics and a short history in the Republican Party. He is a politically unattached figure whose primary lifetime loyalty has been to the field of medicine.

Bernie Sanders is a socialist independent, who in the Senate caucuses with the Democrats.

And yet, these anti-party figures are surging in the party races for the presidential nominations.

This phenomenon is even more extreme in Britain. The British Labour Party suffered a crushing election defeat in May because people did not think its leader was strong enough, and because they thought its policy agenda was too far left.

And yet at the moment the favorite to become the next leader of the British Labour Party is Jeremy Corbyn. Mr. Corbyn has existed for decades on the leftward fringe of the Labour Party, tolerated as sort of a nice but dotty uncle.

He spent much of his career at the edge of the parliamentary party, writing columns for The Morning Star, a communist-founded newspaper. He’s a pacifist who called for British withdrawal from NATO. He’s spent his career consorting with the usual litany of anti-Western figures, including his friends in Hamas and Hezbollah. Until about three months ago he was considered the most outside of the outsiders — until a cult of personality developed around him, rocketing him to the top of the polls.

These four anti-party men have little experience in the profession of governing. They have no plausible path toward winning 50.1 percent of the vote in any national election. They have no prospect of forming a majority coalition that can enact their policies.

These sudden stars are not really about governing. They are tools for their supporters’ self-expression. They allow supporters to make a statement, demand respect or express anger or resentment. Sarah Palin was a pioneer in seeing politics not as a path to governance but as an expression of her followers’ id.

Why has this type risen so suddenly?

First, political parties, like institutions across society, are accorded less respect than in decades past. But we’re also seeing the political effects of a broader culture shift, the rise of what sociologists call expressive individualism.

There has always been a tension between self and society. Americans have always wanted to remain true to individual consciousness, but they also knew they were citizens, members of a joint national project, tied to one another by bonds as deep as the bonds of marriage and community.

As much as they might differ, there was some responsibility to maintain coalitions with people unlike themselves. That meant maintaining conversations and relationships, tolerating difference, living with dialectics and working with opposites. The Democratic Party was once an illogical coalition between Northeastern progressives and Southern evangelicals. The G.O.P. was an alliance between business and the farm belt.

But in the ethos of expressive individualism, individual authenticity is the supreme value. Compromise and coalition-building is regarded as a dirty and tainted activity. People congregate in segregated cultural and ideological bubbles and convince themselves that the purest example of their type could actually win.

The young British left forms a temporary cult of personality around Jeremy Corbyn. The alienated right forms serial cults around Glenn Beck, Herman Cain, Palin, Trump and Carson.

These cults never last because there is no institutional infrastructure. But along the way the civic institutions that actually could mobilize broad coalitions — the parties — get dismissed and gutted. Without these broad coalition parties, the country is ungovernable and cynicism ratchets up even further.

Maybe this is a summer squall and voters will get interested in the more traditional party candidates come autumn, the ones who can actually win majorities and govern. But institutional decay is real, and it’s what happens in a country in which people would rather live in solipsistic bubbles than build relationships across differences.

I wonder what would happen if a sensible Donald Trump appeared — a former cabinet secretary or somebody who could express the disgust for the political system many people feel, but who instead of adding to the cycle of cynicism, channeled it into citizenship, into the notion that we are still one people, compelled by love of country to live with one another, and charged with the responsibility to make the compromises, build the coalitions, practice messy politics and sustain the institutions that throughout history have made national greatness possible.

“A sensible Donald Trump” is an oxymoron, with the emphasis on moron.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

It’s just hitting bookstores, but Dale Russakoff’s new book, “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?,” has already become a source of enormous contention, both in Newark, where the story takes place, and among education advocates of various stripes.

The plotline revolves around what happened to the Newark school system after Mark Zuckerberg, the young founder and chief executive of Facebook, donated $100 million in 2010 to transform the city’s schools, a sum that was matched by the prodigious fund-raising of Cory Booker, Newark’s former mayor (now the state’s junior senator). The stated goal of the grant, according to Zuckerberg at the time, was to turn Newark’s schools into a “symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.” Five years later, with the money basically gone, I think it is fair to say that hasn’t happened.

Russakoff’s story, in brief, is that Zuckerberg, knowing little about education reform, naïvely put his faith in the charismatic Booker, a champion of the reform movement. Booker advocated the usual things: more teacher accountability, more charter schools and new agreements with the teachers’ union that would allow for the best teachers to be rewarded — and the worst to be fired.

She goes on to describe a series of blunders by the reformers, including huge sums for consultants, the hiring of an abrasive superintendent, an unwillingness to fund useful programs that weren’t “transformative” enough, and a top-down approach that infuriated the people of Newark, who felt they were being dictated to by wealthy white outsiders.

Almost half of Zuckerberg’s grant was spent (or committed) to help gain new labor contracts; out of the $200 million in his money and the matching grant, a full $21 million went to buying out unwanted teachers and other staff members. Yet Zuckerberg didn’t realize until too late that New Jersey state law — not teacher contracts — imposed the seniority system he was trying to get rid of.

The education reform community is furious at the way it is portrayed in the book; one such critic, Laura Waters, described “The Prize” as “a fairy tale about reform.” Others believe that Russakoff overlooked some of the good things that have taken place in Newark, especially in the area of teacher training. And that the public schools are at least marginally better than they were.

But Russakoff doesn’t let those propagating the status quo off the hook, either. She describes the schools system as an “employer of last resort.” She shows the enormous impediments to real change imposed by the teachers’ union.

Most telling is her comparison between the resources that a very good charter school, Spark Academy, has at its disposal and those available to the public schools. The KIPP charter network gets $16,400 per pupil, of which $12,664 is devoted to Spark, its elementary school in Newark. The district schools get $19,650 per pupil, but only $9,604 trickles down to the school. Money that the charter school is spending on extra support is being soaked up by the bloated bureaucracy in the public school system. It is a devastating fact.

Here is another one: The primary change in Newark has been the increasing number of students — over 30 percent now — who are being educated in charter schools. I realize that many in the education reform community will applaud this fact, especially since those students have, by and large, shown enormous progress in test scores (though Russakoff is quick to note that as in all cities, some Newark charters failed “dramatically”). It’s great for the 30 percent who are learning from charter school teachers. But as Russakoff puts it in the most poignant line in her book, “What would become of the children left behind in district schools?”

The original idea behind the charter school movement was that this competition would spur traditional public schools to improve, to better compete for students. Instead, just as white flight drained urban school districts of white middle-class students when their families fled to the suburbs, now is there a new brain drain, with the black and Latino children of ambitious parents fleeing urban public schools now that they see an alternative.

There is another way to approach reform, a way that includes collaboration with the teachers, instead of bullying them or insulting them. A way that involves the community rather than imposing top-down decisions. A way that allows for cross-pollination between charters and traditional public schools so that the best teaching practices become commonplace in both kinds of schools.

As for Mark Zuckerberg, his experience in Newark does not appear to have deterred him. Last year he pledged to give $120 million in grants to high-poverty schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. This time, however, he is insisting that he will collaborate with parents, teachers, school leaders and officials of both charter organizations and school districts, according to an op-ed he wrote with his wife, Priscilla Chan, in The San Jose Mercury News.

Apparently, Zuckerberg has learned his lesson. What will it take for the rest of us to learn?

Nocera and Kristof

September 5, 2015

In “A Silver Lining to Brazil’s Troubles” Mr. Nocera says that the economy is in tatters, but the country’s handling of a huge corruption case shows its democracy and judicial institutions are working.  Mr. Kristof considers “Refugees Who Could Be Us” and says the drowning death of a 3-year-old Syrian, Aylan Kurdi, reflected a systematic failure of world leadership.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Of all the BRICS, Brazil would seem, on the face of it, to be in the worst shape.

BRICS, of course, stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, a catchphrase that was meant to connect their rapidly growing economies. But that was then. Today, their economies are sluggish at best, and their prospects no longer seem so bright.

Everybody knows about China’s troubles: its falling stock market, its slowing economy and the amateurish attempts by the government to revive them, as if they should somehow snap to when the Communist Party gives an order.

Russia’s problems are also well known: In addition to the annexation of Crimea, and the ensuing Western sanctions, the Russian economy has slowed with the decline of the price of fossil fuels, its primary export. The South African economy is in such trouble that even its president, Jacob Zuma, described it as “sick.” Although India grew by 7 percent in the second quarter, that number was below expectations, and in any case, probably overstates the health of the economy, Shilan Shah of Capital Economics told BBC News.

And then, sigh, there’s Brazil. Inflation? It is closing in on 10 percent. Its currency? The real’s value has dropped nearly in half against the American dollar. Recession? It’s arrived. The consensus view is that the Brazilian economy will shrink by some 2 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, “between 100,000 and 120,000 people are losing their jobs every month,” says Lúcia Guimãraes, a well-known Brazilian journalist.

Compounding the economic problems, many a result simply of poor economic stewardship, a huge corruption scandal has swept up both Brazilian politicians and a number of prominent businesspeople. The scandal centers on the country’s biggest company, Petrobras, whose success had been an object of real pride during the go-go years.

Although the details are complicated, as its core the scandal is “an old-fashioned kickback scheme,” as The Times’s David Segal put it in a fine story last month — a kickback scheme that has been estimated at a staggering $2 billion.

Politicians and members of the business elite alike have been arrested. The country’s president, Dilma Rousseff, who was the chairwoman of Petrobras while much of the scheme was taking place, hasn’t been accused of anything, but her approval rating is in the single digits. People have taken to the streets to call for her impeachment, though there are really no grounds yet to impeach her.

Political corruption has long been a fact of life in Brazil, but rarely has it been on such vivid, and nauseating, display.

The double whammy of scandal and recession has created a mood that combines outrage, anguish and resignation. But there is something else, too. “People feel betrayed,” says Guimãraes. Rousseff’s party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) — or Workers’ Party — came to office in 2003 promising, idealistically, to create social programs that would help the poor join the middle class. Between 2003 and 2011, according to one estimate, some 40 million people have climbed from abject poverty to the lowest rung on the middle class.

“The worst thing,” a Brazilian friend of mine wrote in an email recently, “is this feeling of disappointment with the … PT, which brought so much hope to the middle class. I’d call this feeling a kind of political depression.”

And yet, as I look over the BRICS, I think there is more hope for Brazil than some of its fellow members. Admittedly, I am a lover of Brazil, and want to see it succeed, and so was pleased when, as I made phone calls and emails for this column, a surprising silver lining emerged.

It is this: For all the pain Brazilians are going through right now, its democracy and its judicial institutions are working.

“What I see, more than I’ve ever seen before, is that the country is weathering this storm,” says Cliff Korman, an American musician who has lived and taught in Brazil for decades. It has a free press, which has stayed relentlessly focused on the Petrobras scandal. It has prosecutors who are actually putting politicians and businessmen in prison, and bringing cases against companies. The judiciary is not backing down.

“Corruption is such a part of public life,” says Riordan Roett, the director of Latin American Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “But now people are being held accountable. There is a sense that things could actually change.”

And unlike a half-century ago, when a military dictatorship overthrew a president whose left-wing programs it didn’t like — and held power for the next 21 years — there is no hint that such a thing could happen today. No matter how the economy goes, Brazilians are going to be able to choose their own leaders, and in so doing chart their own course.

“It is the beginning of a new Brazil,” Roett says optimistically. It couldn’t happen to a nicer country.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Watching the horrific images of Syrian refugees struggling toward safety — or in the case of Aylan Kurdi, 3, drowning on that journey — I think of other refugees. Albert Einstein. Madeleine Albright. The Dalai Lama.

And my dad.

In the aftermath of World War II, my father swam the Danube River to flee Romania and become part of a tide of refugees that nobody much cared about. Fortunately, a family in Portland, Ore., sponsored his way to the United States, making this column possible.

If you don’t see yourself or your family members in those images of today’s refugees, you need an empathy transplant.

Aylan’s death reflected a systematic failure of world leadership, from Arab capitals to European ones, from Moscow to Washington. This failure occurred at three levels:

■ The Syrian civil war has dragged on for four years now, taking almost 200,000 lives, without serious efforts to stop the bombings. Creating a safe zone would at least allow Syrians to remain in the country.

■ As millions of Syrian refugees swamped surrounding countries, the world shrugged. United Nations aid requests for Syrian refugees are only 41 percent funded, and the World Food Program was recently forced to slash its food allocation for refugees in Lebanon to just $13.50 per person a month. Half of Syrian refugee children are unable to go to school. So of course loving parents strike out for Europe.

■ Driven by xenophobia and demagogy, some Europeans have done their best to stigmatize refugees and hamper their journeys.

Bob Kitchen of the International Rescue Committee told me he saw refugee families arriving on the beaches of Greece, hugging one another and celebrating, thinking that finally they had made it — unaware of what they still faced in southern Europe.

“This crisis is on the group of world leaders who have prioritized other things,” rather than Syria, Kitchen said. “This is the result of that inaction.”

António Guterres, the head of the U.N. refugee agency, said the crisis was in part “a failure of leadership worldwide.”

“This is not a massive invasion,” he said, noting that about 4,000 people are arriving daily in a continent with more than half a billion inhabitants. “This is manageable, if there is political commitment and will.”

We all know that the world failed refugees in the run-up to World War II. The U.S. refused to allow Jewish refugees to disembark from a ship, the St. Louis, that had reached Miami. The ship returned to Europe, and some passengers died in the Holocaust.

Aylan, who had relatives in Canada who wanted to give him a home, found no port. He died on our watch.

Guterres believes that images of children like Aylan are changing attitudes. “Compassion is winning over fear,” he said.

I hope he’s right. Bravo in particular to Icelanders, who on Facebook have been volunteering to pay for the flights of Syrian refugees and then put them up in their homes. Thousands of Icelanders have backed this effort, under the slogan “Just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”

Then there are the Persian Gulf countries. Amnesty International reportsthat Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates haven’t accepted a single Syrian refugee (although they have allowed Syrians to stay without formal refugee status). Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s bombings of Yemen have only added to the global refugee crisis.

We Americans may be tempted to pat ourselves on the back. But the U.S. has accepted only about 1,500 Syrian refugees since the war began, and the Obama administration has dropped the ball on Syria — whether doing something hard like using the threat of missiles to create a safe zone, or something easy like supporting more schools for Syrian refugee children in neighboring countries.

Granted, assimilating refugees is difficult. It’s easy to welcome people at the airport, but more complex to provide jobs and absorb people with different values. (In Jordan, I once visited a refugee family hoping for settlement in the United States and saw a poster of Saddam Hussein on the wall; I wondered how that adjustment would go.)

In any case, let’s be clear that the ultimate solution isn’t to resettle Syrians but to allow them to go home.

“Stopping the barrel bombs will save more refugees dying on the route to Europe than any other action, because people want to return to live in their homes,” noted Lina Sergie Attar, a Syrian-American writer and architect.

There has been a vigorous public debate about whether the photo of Aylan’s drowned body should be shown by news organizations. But the real atrocity isn’t the photo but the death itself — and our ongoing moral failure to save the lives of children like Aylan.

And let us all be thankful — MoDo is off today.


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