Archive for the ‘Nocera’ Category

Brooks and Nocera

July 7, 2015

In “The Courage of Small Things” Bobo informs us that a Rwandan genocide survivor’s story reminds us that simple narratives of good and evil, tribulation and triumph rarely capture the way life really is.  In the comments “Paul” from Nevada had this to say:  “Once again I do not get his point. A great story, but one with an unresolved ending. Guess we get Disney moment on Oprah. Flip to Springer for the unhappy endings. Interesting how Brooks always finds the ones who went to Yale. Guess the stories of just being a survivor don’t make the grade.”  Mr. Nocera has a question in “The Good Jobs Strategy:”  Can companies offer both low prices and good jobs? He says a management professor finds they can.  Here’s Bobo:

I thought I knew the basic life story of my friend Clemantine Wamariya. She was born in Rwanda 27 years ago. When she was 6 — though she didn’t understand it — the genocide began and her world started shrinking. Her father stopped going to work after dark. Her family ate dinner with the lights off.

To escape the mass murder, Clemantine and her older sister, Claire, were moved from house to house. One night they were told to crawl through a sweet potato field and then walk away — not toward anything, just away.

They crossed the Akanyaru River (Clemantine thought the dead bodies floating in it were just sleeping) and into Burundi. Living off fruit, all her toenails fell out. She spent the rest of her young girlhood in refugee camps in eight African nations.

Claire kept them on the move, in search of a normal life. Clemantine wrote her name in the dust at various stops, praying somehow a family member would see it. One day, they barely survived a six-hour boat ride across Lake Tanganyika fleeing into Tanzania. Their struggles in the camps, for water and much else, were almost perfectly designed to give a sense that life is arbitrary.

In 2000, Claire got them refugee status in the United States through the International Organization for Migration. Claire went to work as a hotel maid in Chicago. A few years later, Clemantine was one of 50 winners of Oprah Winfrey’s high school essay contest.

In the middle of the 2006 show celebrating the winners, Oprah brought Clemantine and Claire on stage. Oprah asked when was the last time the girls had seen their parents. It had been 12 years. Then Oprah gave them a surprise: “Your family is here!” Her parents, brother and sister had been found in Africa, and now walked onstage. They all fell into one another’s arms. Clemantine’s knees gave out, but her mother held her up.

Clemantine’s story, as I knew it then, has a comforting arc: separation, perseverance, reunion and joy. It’s the kind of clean, inspiring story that many of us tell, in less dramatic form, about our own lives — with clearly marked moments of struggle and overcoming.

But Clemantine and Elizabeth Weil just wrote a more detailed version of her story for the online magazine Matter, and the reality is not so neat. For one thing, Clemantine never really reconciled with her family. After the “Oprah” taping they returned to Claire’s apartment. “My father kept smiling, like someone he mistrusted was taking pictures of him. Claire remained catatonic; I thought she’d finally gone crazy, for real. I sat on Claire’s couch, looking at my strange new siblings, the ones that had replaced me and Claire. I fell asleep crying.” The rest of the family flew back home to Africa the following Monday.

At every stop along the way, the pat narrative of Clemantine’s life is complexified by the gritty, mottled nature of human relationships. The refugee worker who married Claire and fathered her children turned out to be more a burden than a savior. The sisters’ psyches were not unscathed. “Claire made a hard, subconscious calculus: She could survive, and maybe enable me to survive, too, but only if she cast off emotional responsibility, only if she refused to take on how anything or anybody felt.”

Clemantine struggled to reconcile her old life with this one. A teacher she had at the Hotchkiss School gave a class a thought experiment: You’re a ferry captain on a sinking boat. Do you toss overboard the old passenger or the young one? Clemantine lost it: “Do you want to know what that’s really like? This is an abstract question to you?”

At Yale, she couldn’t understand her own behavior. “Why did I drink only tea, never cold water? Why did I cringe when the sun turned red?”

Clemantine is now an amazing young woman. Her superb and artful essay reminded me that while the genocide was horrific, the constant mystery of life is how loved ones get along with one another.

We work hard to cram our lives into legible narratives. But we live in the fog of reality. Whether you have survived a trauma or not, the psyche is still a dark forest of scars and tender spots. Each relationship is intricacy piled upon intricacy, fertile ground for misunderstanding and mistreatment.

When she was a young girl, Clemantine displayed the large courage to endure genocide. In this essay she displays the courage of small things: the courage to live with feelings wide open even after trauma; the maturity to accept unanswerable ambiguity; the tenacity to seek coherence after arbitrary cruelty; the ability to create tenacious bonds that have some give to them, to allow for the mistakes others make; the unwillingness to settle for the simple, fake story; and the capacity to look at life in all its ugly complexity.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

At the Aspen Ideas Festival — an annual summer gabfest that presents all sorts of interesting ideas, from the improbable to the important — one of the big themes this year was jobs. How will America close the skills gap? Where will the good middle-class jobs of the future come from? I heard pleas for infrastructure spending as a job strategy, and creating jobs by unleashing our energy resources. There were speakers who believed that innovation would bring good jobs, and speakers who feared that some of those innovations — in robotics, for instance — would destroy good jobs.

And then there was Zeynep Ton.

A 40-year-old adjunct associate professor at the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T., Ton brought one of the most radical, and yet one of the most sensible, ideas to Aspen this year. Her big idea is that companies that provide employees a decent living, which includes not just pay but also a sense of purpose and empowerment at work, can be every bit as profitable as companies that strive to keep their labor costs low by paying the minimum wage with no benefits. Maybe even more profitable. Getting there requires companies to adopt what Ton calls “human-centered operations strategies,” which she acknowledges is “neither quick nor easy.” But it’s worth it, she says, both for the companies and for the country. Surely, she’s right.

As Ton explained to me last week in Aspen — and as she has written in a book she published last year titled “The Good Jobs Strategy” — her thesis comes out of research she did early in her academic career on supply chain management in the retail industry, focused especially on inventory management. What she and her fellow researchers discovered is that while most companies were very good at getting products from, say, China to their stores, it was a different story once the merchandise arrived. Sometimes a product stayed in the back room instead of making it to a shelf where a customer could buy it. Or it was in the wrong place. Special in-store promotions weren’t being executed a surprisingly high percentage of the time. She saw this pattern in company after company.

As she took a closer look, Ton says, she realized that the problem was that these companies viewed their employees “as a cost that they tried to minimize.” Workers were not just poorly paid, but poorly trained. They often didn’t know their schedule until the last moment. Morale was low and turnover was high. Customer service was largely nonexistent.

Yet when she asked executives at these companies why they put up with this pattern, she was told that the only way they could guarantee low prices was to operate with employees who were paid as little as possible, because labor was such a big part of their overhead. The problems that resulted were an unavoidable by-product of a low-price business model.

Unconvinced that this was the only approach, Ton decided to search for retail companies — the same kind of companies that needed low prices to succeed — that did things differently. Sure enough, she found some.

The two companies she talks about most frequently in this regard are a Spanish grocery chain called Mercadona and QuikTrip, a Tulsa, Okla.-based chain of convenience store/gas stations that competes with the likes of the 7-Eleven chain.

What first struck her about Mercadona is that the annual turnover was an almost unheard-of 4 percent. Why do employees stay? “They get decent salaries, four weeks of training that costs the company $5,000, stable schedules … and the opportunity to thrive in front of their customers every day,” Ton said in a speech she forwarded to me. The grocery business is low margin, where every penny counts. If Mercadona couldn’t keep prices low with this strategy, it would have abandoned it long ago.

QuikTrip, an $11 billion company with 722 stores, is a prime example of what Ton means by “human-centered operations strategies.” Paying employees middle-class wages allows the company to get the most out of them. Employees are cross-trained so they can do different jobs. They can solve problems by themselves. They make merchandising decisions for their own stores. The ultimate result of the higher wages QuikTrip pays is that costs everywhere else in the operation go down. At QuikTrip, says Ton, products don’t remain in the back room, and in-store promotions always take place, as they’re supposed to.

Ton’s interest in the good jobs strategy is more than academic now; she has become a proselytizer, trying to spread the word that every company would be better served by this approach. “The assumed trade-off between low prices and good jobs is a fallacy,” she says. As we worry about where middle-class jobs are going to come from, Ton’s is a message that needs to be heard not just in Aspen but all across America.

Brooks and Nocera

June 16, 2015

Bobo gives us a classic example of concern trolling in “The Democratic Tea Party.”  He gurgles that if  it stands, Democrats’ rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership will go down as a mistake with extensive and long-lasting repercussions.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston has this to say:  “When David Brooks comes riding in on a white horse to save the world it’s probably best to take a close look at the horse, because it’s usually of the Trojan variety.”  Mr. Nocera, in “How to Grade a Teacher,” says there are better ways to evaluate teachers than test scores alone.  Here’s Bobo:

Last week, the Congressional Democrats defeated the underpinnings of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Let’s count up the things these Democrats will have done if this policy stands.

Impoverish the world’s poor. There’s an argument over what trade agreements do to workers in the nation’s rich countries, but there is no question they have a positive impact on people in the poorer ones.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, for example, probably didn’t affect the American economy too much. But the Mexican economy has taken off. With more opportunities, Mexican workers feel less need to sneak into the U.S. As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, a regime that was anti-American has turned into one that is pro-American.

In Asia, the American-led open trade era has created the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. The Pacific trade deal would lift the living standards of the poorest Asians, especially the 90 million people of Vietnam.

As Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, wrote in his Marginal Revolution blog: “Do you get that progressives? Poorest country = biggest gainer. Isn’t that what we are looking for?”

Damage the American economy. According to a survey by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, 83 percent of the nation’s leading economists believe that trade deals have been good for most Americans. That’s not quite the level of consensus on man-made global warming, but it is close.

That’s because free trade is not a zero-sum game. The global poor benefit the most, but most people in rich countries benefit, too. As Jason Furman, the chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors pointed out in a speech at the Brookings Institution, since World War II, reductions in U.S. tariffs have contributed an additional 7.3 percent to American incomes.

Trade treaties have led to significant growth in American manufacturing exports. According to Furman, export-intensive industries pay workers up to 18 percent more than nonexport-intensive ones. Rising imports also give American consumers access to a wider range of inexpensive products, leading to huge standard of living increases for those down the income scale.The authoritative study on the Pacific trade deal, by Peter Petri, Michael Plummer and Fan Zhai, suggests it would raise U.S. incomes by 0.4 percent per year by 2025.

Stifle future innovation. Democrats point out that some workers have been hurt by trade deals. And that’s true. Most manufacturing job losses have been caused by technological improvements.

But those manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. The best way forward is to increase the number of high-quality jobs in the service sector. The Pacific trade deal would help. The treaty is not mostly about reducing tariffs on goods. That work has mostly been done. It’s mostly about establishing rules for a postindustrial global economy, rules having to do with intellectual property, investment, antitrust and environmental protection. Service-sector industries like these are where America is strongest, where the opportunities for innovation are the most exciting and where wages are already 20 percent higher than in manufacturing.

Imperil world peace. The Pacific region will either be organized by American rules or Chinese rules. By voting against the trade deal, Democrats went a long way toward guaranteeing that Chinese rules will dominate.

As various people have noted, the Democratic vote last week was a miniversion of the effort to destroy the League of Nations after World War I. It damaged an institution that might head off future conflict.

The arguments Democrats use against the deal are small and inadequate. Some Democrats are suspicious because it was negotiated in secret. (They seem to have no trouble with the Iranian nuclear treaty, which is also negotiated in secret.)

Others worry that the treaty would allow corporations to sue governments. But these procedures are already in place, and as research from the Center for Strategic and Internatioanl Studies has demonstrated, the concerns are vastly overblown. They mostly protect companies from authoritarian governments who seek to expropriate their property.

In reality, the opposition to the trade pact is part of a long tradition of populist reaction. When economic stress rises, there is a strong temptation to pull inward. The Republican Tea Partiers are suspicious of all global diplomatic arrangements. The Democrats’ version of the Tea Partiers are suspicious of all global economic arrangements.

It would be nice if Hillary Clinton emerged and defended the treaty, which she helped organize.

Rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership will hurt economies from the U.S. to Japan to Vietnam. It will send yet another signal that America can no longer be counted on as the world’s leading nation.

If Bobo’s for it, then thinking people must be against it.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

This is the second column I’ve written about Deborah Loewenberg Ball, the dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. Ball believes the training that teachers get while they are in school needs to be drastically improved. Last year, I wrote about her effort to develop a professional training curriculum that would allow beginning teachers to be far better grounded in their craft than they are now.

Recently, I learned about another effort she has led, which I also think deserves wider attention. It tackles one of the most divisive topics in K-12 education: how to evaluate teachers so that the best can be rewarded and the worst fired.

In New York — a state where the issue has been especially contentious — Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this year pushed through legislation that calls for student test scores to count for as much as 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, up from the current 20 percent. The teachers’ unions were incensed, believing that test scores are a simplistic and unfair means of assessing teachers. So were many parents, who joined a boycott movement that resulted in an estimated 165,000 students opting out of this year’s standardized tests.

A teacher evaluation system “is only good if the teachers respect it and trust it,” says Vicki Phillips, a director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Teachers are convinced that evaluation systems that overly rely on test scores are punitive, which the political rhetoric often underscores. For instance, Cuomo’s stated reason for changing the state’s teacher evaluation was that some 96 percent of teachers got top gradesunder the old process. He scoffed at those results as “baloney.” That’s hardly going to get teachers to buy into your new evaluation system.

Which brings me back to Michigan. In 2011, the State Legislature there changed the tenure law, making it easier to fire incompetent teachers. But it also set up the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness, which was charged with coming up with its first-ever statewide evaluation system. Ball was named chairwoman of the council. Two years later, it came back with its recommendations.

The first thing I noticed about the council’s recommendations is that they completely avoid the divisive political language that has alienated teachers. Instead of casting teacher evaluation as primarily being about getting rid of bad teachers, they put the emphasis on teacher improvement. An evaluation system that stresses improvement instead of punishment has a much better chance of being embraced by teachers.

Such an emphasis isn’t just good politics. It’s also an important way to help make schools better. “Very few teachers can’t improve,” Ball told me recently. And most teachers want to improve — but have no means of getting useful feedback. The council’s idea was that the evaluations could be used not just to rid the system of incompetent teachers — though it would certainly do that — but also to give all the other teachers critical feedback. It also envisions transforming professional development, which is now mostly a wasteland, into a mechanism to put that feedback into practice.

There are two fundamental pieces to the Michigan council’s plan. The first piece is teacher observation. In most schools, it’s the principal who observes the teacher, often haphazardly, and rates him or her based on personal biases, which may or may not be sound. Ball and her colleagues would instead rely on observers who have been trained in using certain tools that have been proved effective. These observations would be the basis for the teacher’s feedback — feedback meant to encourage and help, rather than threaten.

The second piece is what the council calls evaluating “student growth.” Here the point would be not to measure student achievement in absolute terms — Does Johnny read at a fourth-grade level? — but rather to measure whether Johnny had made a year’s worth of improvement from the level he was reading at when he was in the third grade. This would be a more accurate representation of the difference the teacher made, and would take into account the wide range of learning levels teachers often have to contend with.

Some of this growth evaluation would undoubtedly be done through tests. But not all of it, or even most of it. “You have to look at objectives for students for the year and see if they made progress,” says Ball. There are ways to do that that don’t require standardized testing.

I wish I could tell you that this story has a happy ending, but it doesn’t. Legislation that embodied the work of the council failed to pass the Michigan Legislature in the last session. More recently, the chairman of a related Senate committee, Phil Pavlov, has essentially tossed the council’s work aside in favor of “local control.”

That is Michigan’s loss. But perhaps other states and school districts can look at the work of the Michigan council and learn from it. In which case, it could still be America’s gain.

Nocera and Collins

June 13, 2015

Mr. Nocera has a question in “Scott Walker’s Wisconsin Audition:”  After union-busting in his home state, what would he do if he became president?  [shudder] The mind boggles.  Ms. Collins also has a question in “Guns in Your Face:”  How would you react if the man in front of you in the Starbucks line had a gun dangling from his shoulder?  Me?  I’d get the fck out of there.  (Starbucks coffee sucks anyway…)  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Anticipating a Republican presidential bid by Scott Walker, the two-term governor of Wisconsin, both The New York Times Magazine and The Washington Monthly recently published lengthy articles about him. (The Times feature, which is in the magazine this weekend, was published online Friday.) Both articles focus on Walker’s successful battles with labor. As they should: If he runs for president, his record of union-busting will be at the very center of his campaign.

Walker’s first labor fight came in 2011, when he pushed through a bill that stripped the state’s public employee unions (firefighters and police officers excepted) of most of their collective-bargaining rights. It also forced the unions to make higher pension and health care contributions. There was a huge outcry, with union members and activists storming the Statehouse, and Democratic legislators fleeing the capital to prevent a quorum. But Walker not only got the bill passed, he then survived a recall election spearheaded by the labor unions. The fight over Act 10 — as the law was called — is the focus of The Washington Monthly article, written by Donald F. Kettl, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

Having crippled the public sector unions, Walker more recently put the hurt on the state’s private-sector unions, signing legislation that made Wisconsin a right-to-work state, meaning that unions could not force employees to join a union or to pay dues. That bill became law in March; it is the focus of Dan Kaufman’s article in The Times Magazine.

As the two magazine articles make clear, there was no pressing need for either law. At the time he proposed Act 10, Walker claimed that busting the public employees’ unions was necessary because Wisconsin was facing a $3.6 billion budget deficit, and that the deficit couldn’t be closed, as he told Chris Wallace of “Fox News Sunday,” “with the current collective bargaining laws in the state.”

But as Kettl points out, that was simply not true. Although there are plenty of states with woefully underfunded pensions, Wisconsin isn’t one of them. And while Walker claims to have saved the state $3 billion during his first term as a result of Act 10, he almost surely could have gotten the same givebacks by bargaining for them, as other states, such as Rhode Island, have done.

To put it another way, Walker busted the public employee unions not because he had to but because he could.

Similarly, there was no deep desire on the part of the business community to have Wisconsin become a right-to-work state, even though it would most likely bring about lower labor costs. Kaufman quotes a leader of the Wisconsin Contractors Coalition, who told him that “right-to-work is going to compromise my quality, my competitiveness.” That’s because the unions have long served to screen workers and keep them up to date on new technologies.

No, what motivated Walker, clearly, was politics. Unions, which have long been traditional Democratic allies, have been in steep decline — except for public employee unions, which now make up just under half of all union workers. By crippling them, Kettl told me, “Walker is trying to put a stake in the heart of a strong piece of Democratic support that has long been a thorn in the side of the Republicans.”

The fact that Wisconsin has historically been strongly pro-union — indeed, the largest public services employee union, AFSCME, was founded in Madison in 1932 — only makes Walker’s triumphs that much more impressive to his fellow Republicans. This is something Walker will undoubtedly highlight if he runs for president. As he put it in his 2013 book, “Unintimidated,” “If we can do it in Wisconsin, we can do it anywhere — even in our nation’s capital.”

As for the right-to-work law, Kaufman points out that Wisconsin’s law was “a virtual copy of a 1995 model bill promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council” — A.L.E.C. — whose conservative backers include Charles and David Koch.

The Koch brothers are staunchly anti-union, of course, and they have supported Walker in both of his gubernatorial races. Their oil baron father, in fact, was an early and enthusiastic supporter of right-to-work legislation, helping to get it passed in Kansas in 1958. They have said they will spend some $900 million on the 2016 elections. At an April fund-raiser, according to The Times, David Koch is reported to have said that Walker would be the Republican nominee. As Kaufman nicely puts it, passing Act 10 was his “audition” for potential big money backers like the Kochs.

Both articles conclude by pondering what Walker would do if he became president. But to read the two articles is to know the answer: If union-busting gets him to the White House, why would he stop there?

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Life in America requires a lot of advance preparation. For instance, when you’re getting ready for a plane trip you imagine what you’ll do if a problem arises — flight delay, long lines at security. But I bet you haven’t considered the best way to react if the man in front of you on the airport escalator has a gun dangling from his shoulder.

That very thing happened recently in Atlanta, when a Georgia resident named Jim Cooley came strutting through the airport lobby with a loaded assault rifle.

Cooley — who was taping the whole encounter and posted it on YouTube — corrected the police officer who stopped him. (“It’s not an automatic! It’s a semi-automatic!”) Then he declined to respond when she asked if he had a permit. (“Am I being detained? … If you’re detaining me then I’m going to have to file a lawsuit.”) And, in the end, he walked away in triumph.

We’ve moved from the right to bear arms to the right to flaunt arms.

While the airport setting gives the incident a particular flair, this kind of thing has been happening quite a bit. In Michigan, the City of Grand Rapids has been in a legal battle with a man who took umbrage when police stopped him while he was walking down a residential street on a Sunday morning wearing camouflage, with a pistol strapped to his leg and singing “Hakuna Matata” from “The Lion King.”

Very few states have flat-out rules against openly carrying guns in public. It’s just something that never came up. “It’s not a practical thing to do,” said Laura Cutilletta of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. But it turns out that anyone with the legal right to carry a concealed weapon — which, in some states, doesn’t even require a permit — generally also has the legal right to walk into a McDonald’s with a gun sticking out of his waistband.

The open display of weaponry freaks out average citizens, especially the ones with children. It outrages police. At one point, even the National Rifle Association said the open carry demonstrations were “downright weird.” But the organization quickly backtracked, apologized, blamed the post on an errant staffer, and averred that “our job is not to criticize the lawful behavior of fellow gun owners.”

You’d think that lawmakers would move quickly to make it illegal, but with a few exceptions, there’s more enabling going on than anything else. After a Kalamazoo man walked into the public library’s summer reading party for children with a 9-millimeter gun strapped to his waist, worried officials asked the State Legislature to add libraries to a very small list of gun-free zones. The Legislature did nothing.

“Look, I got a gun!” yelled a man who walked into a park where kids were playing baseball in — yes! — Georgia. “There’s nothing you can do about it.” The police, who were summoned, determined he was absolutely right.

The Georgia State Legislature passed a law a few years back that made it legal for citizens to take their guns into the airport. At the time, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue was expressing concern about giving his wife the option of toting a pistol when she was “walking from one of those parking lots to pick up a grandchild or something like that.” He did not mention middle-age guys toting semiautomatic assault rifles past the check-in counter. But here we are.

In Texas, where open carry had been banned since the post-Civil War era, protesters staged demonstrations all around the state, toting their guns to family restaurants and storming the State Capitol, where they confronted one unsympathetic lawmaker in his office. In response, the Legislature enabled House members to install panic buttons in their offices, and then legalized open carry for Texans with gun permits.

Some commentators have attributed the whole open-carry phenomenon to white American men trying to work out their insecurities. We’ve got to stop blaming white men for everything. Really, they’ve contributed a lot to the country. Still, you can’t help but notice that there’s a certain demographic consistency to the people who are making a scene over their right to display arms.

It wasn’t always that way. California passed its first ban on open carry in the 1960s in response to the Black Panther Party. “The Legislature was debating an open-carry law when 30 Black Panthers showed up at the Statehouse with their guns,” said Adam Winkler, a professor of law at U.C.L.A. and the author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.”

“The same day Gov. Ronald Reagan made a speech, saying there’s no reason why a law-abiding person should be carrying a gun on the street.”

Maybe the way to turn this debate around would bring new recruits into the gun rights movement. “If open-carry advocates today were Marxist-leaning black radicals,” said Winkler, “we might have a very different situation.”

Exactly.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

June 9, 2015

Bobo is just FULL of heart-felt advice for Democrats and the nation.  In “The Mobilization Error” he gurgles that Hillary Rodham Clinton has chosen a campaign strategy that is bad for the nation and probably won’t work.  I love it when he concern trolls.  In the comments “Bos” from Boston points out a standard Bobo tactic:  “This appears to jamming-a-square-peg-in-a-round-hole argument because the dichotomy is an artificial one.”  Bobo has many, many strawmen…  Mr. Cohen, in “The Greek Trap,” says trying to save Greece has become an exercise in the absurd. Let the deluge happen and see how Syriza fares.  Maybe he should read some Krugman.  Mr. Nocera has a question in “Alabama Football Follies:”  Would it still be a real university without football?  Here’s Bobo:

Every serious presidential candidate has to answer a fundamental strategic question: Do I think I can win by expanding my party’s reach, or do I think I can win by mobilizing my party’s base?

Two of the leading Republicans have staked out opposing sides on this issue. Scott Walker is trying to mobilize existing conservative voters. Jeb Bush is trying to expand his party’s reach.

The Democratic Party has no debate on this issue. Hillary Clinton has apparently decided to run as the Democratic Scott Walker. As The Times’s Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman reported this week, Clinton strategists have decided that, even in the general election, firing up certain Democratic supporters is easier than persuading moderates. Clinton will adopt left-leaning policy positions carefully designed to energize the Obama coalition — African-Americans, Latinos, single women and highly educated progressives.

This means dispensing with a broad persuasion campaign. As the Democratic strategist David Plouffe told Martin and Haberman, “If you run a campaign trying to appeal to 60 to 70 percent of the electorate, you’re not going to run a very compelling campaign for the voters you need.”

The Clinton advisers are smart, and many of them helped President Obama win the last war, but this sort of a campaign is a mistake.

This strategy is bad, first, for the country. America has always had tough partisan politics, but for most of its history, the system worked because it had leaders who could reframe debates, reorganize coalitions, build center-out alliances and reach compromises. Politics is broken today because those sorts of leaders have been replaced by highly polarizing, base-mobilizing politicians who hew to party orthodoxy, ignore the 38 percent of voters who identify as moderates and exacerbate partisanship and gridlock. If Clinton decides to be just another unimaginative base-mobilizing politician, she will make our broken politics even worse.

Second, this base mobilization strategy is a legislative disaster. If the next president hopes to pass any actual laws, he or she will have to create a bipartisan governing majority. That means building a center-out coalition, winning 60 reliable supporters in the Senate and some sort of majority in the House. If Clinton runs on an orthodox left-leaning, paint-by-numbers strategy, she’ll never be able to do this. She’ll live in the White House again, but she won’t be able to do much once she lives there.

Third, the mobilization strategy corrodes every candidate’s leadership image. Voters tend to like politicians who lead from a place of conviction, who care more about a cause than winning a demographic. If Clinton seems driven by demographics and microtargeting, she will underline the image some have that she is overly calculating and shrewd.

Finally, the base mobilizing strategy isn’t even very good politics.

It’s worth noting, to start with, that no recent successful first-term presidential campaign has used this approach. In 1992, Bill Clinton firmly grabbed the center. In 2000, George Bush ran as a uniter, not a divider. In 2008, Barack Obama ran as a One Nation candidate who vowed to transcend partisan divides.

The Clinton mobilization strategy is based on the idea that she can generate Obama-level excitement among African-American and young voters. But as Philip Klein documented in The Washington Examiner, Obama was in a league of his own when it came to generating turnout and support from those groups. If Clinton returns to the John Kerry/Al Gore level of African-American and youth support, or if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio can make inroads into the Hispanic vote, then the whole strategy is in peril.

The mobilization strategy over-reads the progressive shift in the electorate. It’s true that voters have drifted left on social issues. But they have not drifted left on economic and fiscal issues, as the continued unpopularity of Obamacare makes clear. If Clinton comes across as a stereotypical big-spending, big-government Democrat, she will pay a huge cost in the Upper Midwest and the Sun Belt.

Furthermore, this strategy vastly exaggerates the supposed death of the swing voter. The mobilizers argue that it’s foolish to go after persuadable voters because in this polarized country there are none left. It’s true there are fewer persuadables, but according to the Pew Research Center, 24 percent of voters have a roughly equal number of conservative and liberal positions, and according to a range of academic studies, about 23 percent of the electorate can be swayed by a compelling campaign.

Today’s political consultants have a lot of great tools to turn out reliable voters. They’re capable of creating amazing power points. But as everybody from Ed Miliband to Mark Udall can tell you, this approach has not succeeded at the ballot box. Voters want better politics, not a continuation of the same old techniques. By adopting base mobilization, Clinton seems to have made the first big decision of her presidential campaign. It’s the wrong one.

Tell the lunatics in the Klown Kar to stop mobilizing the base first, Bobo.  (And boy oh boy are they base…)  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Athens:

Trying to save Greece has become an exercise in the absurd. Greece is near-enough bankrupt. Most Greeks know that. It can never repay its debts, no matter how many deals with creditors are pulled out of a hat.

The country is now run by a radical left party whose ministers have close to zero executive experience. Their executive experience nonetheless exceeds their diplomatic experience. This stands at less than zero — and it shows. The party, Syriza, includes people who want to re-fight the Greek Civil War (1946-49) in the belief the Communists will triumph this time.

For now, the party’s main enemies are international creditors and of course the Germans, who want the Greeks to present a plan of some sort to balance their books before doling out more cash — about $8 billion in fact — as part of an enormous bailout program. The thing is, however, that Syriza was elected precisely to say foreign-imposed austerity had already done enough damage to Greece.

The country, which desperately needs the $8 billion, is drowning under a welter of statistics that present a devastating picture of unemployment, unpayable pensions, youthful pensioners, uncollected taxes, drastic fiscal adjustments, and of course debt. Given all this, Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister, declared the latest proposals from creditors “absurd” — you see what I mean about diplomacy — a view that reportedly caused Jean-Claude Juncker, the chief executive of the European Union, not to pick up a call from Tsipras over the weekend.

There’s one thing about reality: It tends to come back and kick you in the teeth. Forcing Greece and Germany to coexist in a currency union will always be an exercise in smoke and mirrors. Their economies are mismatched, their temperaments even more so.

Many Greeks are awaiting the worst. The rich, of course, already have their money elsewhere. Just about everyone has a few thousand euros stashed away — 5,000 per person where possible. Stores are taking out anti-looting insurance. Public hospitals are making contingency plans for operating when money dries up. More than $5 billion was pulled from bank accounts in April alone by companies and individuals.

Speculation is rampant — absent a debt deal — of a bank run, capital controls and the issue of i.o.u.’s (that will promptly lose 50 percent of their nominal value, especially if adorned with the face of Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis). Shortly thereafter follow economic collapse, unrest and new elections.

That sounds terrible, but I’m not sure. It would represent reality rather than the repetitive evasion of it. Things are very bad here. But just how bad is not clear because it has not been fully tested. The surface has a way of glimmering.

The Greek bailouts have given time to other countries in the eurozone — including Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland — to either get their houses in order or embark seriously on the task. Euro-unraveling contagion is now far less likely. One thing is sure: If a deal is reached with Greece, it will only be the prelude to the next crisis in a few months or so.

Creditors could tell Syriza: You have a century to repay the debt, but now you’re on your own. Fix the country, whether inside the euro or out. Get foreign corporations to put their money in Greece. You want to try the Putin route, with Gazprom stepping in for the I.M.F., go for it! We’re off your back now — so find a way to make Greeks believe in Greece again without the ready excuse that Berlin, or the International Monetary Fund or the European Commission is to blame.

The European Union has done its healing work here. There will not be another civil war, come what may. The sun will still shine; a gazillion islands will still delight; Greeks will still curse every form of authority; they will still smoke in every restaurant in defiance of the law; they will still have more money than they appear to have; tables in cheap “tavernas” will still offer views that have no price. A Greek meltdown is not the same as a Slovakian meltdown. Life is not just.

So many mistakes have been made. They began with the sentimental illusion that the cradle of Western civilization was also an economy competitive enough to join the euro. It was not. Then came all the easy credit handed out in the era when the view was that risk had ceased to exist. The inevitable Greek implosion was followed by austerity measures whose symbol was Germany. These failed to offer Greeks a positive vision of what all the sacrifice might produce. The consequent anger created Syriza and its election victory and incoherent promises of a new way forward. Everyone is now caught in the web of their own contradictions.

More of the same might gain a few months. It will resolve nothing, sapping Europe’s energy, and Greece’s potential, for years to come.

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

Well, that didn’t last very long, did it?

It was only December when Dr. Ray Watts, the president of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, announced that after a strategic review, the school had decided to stop fielding a football team. The main reason for Watts’s decision was financial: two-thirds of the athletic department’s $30 million budget came from a combination of university funds and student fees. When a consultant concluded that the subsidy would have to more than double over the next five years for the football team to be competitive, Watts said, Enough. “We could not justify subsidizing football if it meant taking away from other priorities,” he told me at the time.

The university seemed to me then — and seems to me now — exactly the kind of school that should be rethinking football. It did not have a long football tradition — the team had been around for only 24 years. Its last winning season was in 2004. Its fan support was tepid; playing in a stadium with a capacity of 72,000, it averaged fewer than 20,000 fans a game until last year, when the number jumped to 21,800.

Besides, college sports, especially football, are getting more expensive. The major conferences are beginning to pay their athletes stipends that reflect the “full cost of attendance,” which can add $1 million or more in costs. There is the constant need to upgrade facilities to be able to recruit top-notch athletes. College coaches’ salaries are rising almost as fast as C.E.O. pay.

Schools in smaller conferences — Alabama-Birmingham is in Conference USA — have struggled to keep up, especially state schools whose budgets have been cut by their legislatures. (According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state spending per student in Alabama has declined over 36 percent since 2008.) USA Today does an annual ranking of university athletic department balance sheets, and you can clearly see this trend. Rutgers University had a $36 million deficit; the University of Connecticut, $27 million; the University of Massachusetts, $26 million; Eastern Michigan University, $25 million — and on the list goes.

Now fast forward to June 1 — when Watts did an about-face and announced that the university was not abandoning football after all. In the time between his first announcement in December and his second one last week, there was a huge outcry among the citizens of Birmingham. Despite the lack of fan support and the team’s tradition of losing, people reacted as if nothing were more important than getting their college football team back. There were calls for Watts to be fired.

When I asked Watts whether he had been taken aback by the outcry, he said he had been. A neurologist who was previously the dean of the university’s medical school — and now presides over a $3 billion institution — Watts was yet another college president who found himself spending ridiculous amounts of time dealing with sports.

But he really didn’t have much choice, given the passion the cancellation of football had aroused in the city. So, while continuing to insist that the university would not increase its subsidy beyond the current $20 million, Watts told the various interested parties that he would reinstate football (along with the bowling and rifle teams, which had also been cut) if they found a way to pay for it.

The university also commissioned a second study, which concluded that an additional $17.2 million would be needed over the next five years to field a competitive football team, plus $12 million to $14 million for a new practice facility.

There are those, like Andy Schwarz, a Bay Area economist who is an expert on the economics of college sports (and did his own study on the U.A.B. football decision), who say that the subsidy reported by most universities is wildly overstated, and that schools get numerous benefits for having a football team. But that is not the argument that anyone in Birmingham made. Instead, they accepted the idea that the football team had to be subsidized — and that they had to raise the money.

Which is what they did. By the end of May, the city’s corporate leaders had pledged to make up the additional $17.2 million subsidy, and had made a promising start on raising the $13 million or so needed for the practice facility.

When I asked Hatton Smith, the chief executive emeritus of Royal Cup Coffee and one of the fund-raising leaders, why it was so important to revive the football team, he essentially replied that it was a matter of civic pride. “In most major cities, there is some form of college football,” he said. “We think U.A.B. football adds to the quality of life in our community.” The way he described it, it was as if U.A.B. wouldn’t be a top-notch university anymore without a football team.

Thus does the cart come before the horse.

Nocera and Collins

June 6, 2015

In “Look, Ma, No Hands!” Mr. Nocera says Google’s driverless cars are ready to take the road, and the use of that technology is a good thing for us all.  In “A Political Brand of Sominex” Ms. Collins says can’t sleep? Instead of counting sheep, how about counting up your 2016 presidential candidates?  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

On Wednesday morning, during Google’s annual meeting, a shareholder named John M. Simpson stood up to question the company’s top executives about its self-driving car program. They were not friendly questions.

Simpson, 67, works for a nonprofit called Consumer Watchdog, where he directs its Privacy Project. In recent years, he has focused largely on Google, which, he told me, he hopes to prod into “being more respectful of people’s privacy when they do business.” Owning Google stock allows him to ask questions at the annual meeting.

In the run-up to this week’s meeting, Simpson issued a string of press releases critical of Google’s self-driving vehicles. He feared that Google would collect data from car owners, stripping away even more of people’s privacy. He noted that Google’s “autonomous cars,” as they’re called, have been involved in 11 accidents (two recent fender-benders brings it up to 13). He listed what he said were the technology’s flaws: for instance, that it can’t make out hand signals from a driver in another car.

Finally, Simpson noted that Google — and Google alone — envisions cars that have no steering wheels or brakes, cars where everyone is a passenger. Simpson views this as Google’s hubris, pointing out that other car companies view self-driving technology as a complement, not replacement, for the driver. “We think there always needs to be the ability of a human to take over if need be,” he told me. Having looked into it more closely, I’ve come to the opposite conclusion.

Google’s effort to build a self-driving car is part of the division called Google X, led by a scientist with the too perfect name of Astro Teller. The goal of Google X is to attempt “moonshots” — efforts that require a radical solution that, if they succeed, would solve a huge problem (while making a nice return for Google, of course). The big problem self-driving cars could help solve, said Teller in a recent speech, is the “1.2 million people who die every year in car accidents.”

During the six years Google has been working on self-driving technology, its cars have been taught to understand how to traverse the roads. With their combination of robotics, sensors and computing power, they know how to stop at a stop sign, look for oncoming pedestrians, change lanes, get on the freeway and anticipate all the various problems that drivers face.

Using retrofitted Lexuses, Google has driven a million miles autonomously. More recently, it has built several dozen small cars without steering wheels and brakes and is ready to test them in the streets of Mountain View, Calif. (though the State of California is insisting that Google add a steering wheel and brakes to the cars it sends out for this experiment).

It’s true that Google is alone in envisioning a world of completely driverless cars, while other car companies see self-driving technology as merely an extra feature that can be turned off. Google’s conclusion is not the result of hubris, however. Unlike its new cars, the retrofitted Lexuses also allow for human driving.

Google realized that when people had the ability to drive autonomously, they paid less attention to what they were doing. “People don’t even pay attention to driving when they are driving,” said Teller. The cars, which have 360-degree vision and can “see” much further ahead than humans, were at their safest when people didn’t have the option of taking the controls.

Alain Kornhauser, a self-driving car expert at Princeton University, pointed out to me that when the auto companies install autonomous features to aid drivers, it won’t be the humans who escape accidents by taking over from the technology — which is what Simpson assumes. Rather, the technology will step in to override human error.

Google notes that in every accident its cars have been involved in, all of them minor, the self-driving cars have never been at fault — except on the one occasion when a Google driver took the controls. And all the “flaws” Simpson notes are things that Google has either solved or is in the process of solving.

At the annual meeting, Simpson asked Google if it would pledge not to use any customer data it gathers from driverless cars for marketing purposes. David Drummond, the company’s general counsel, ducked the question, saying it was too early to make any such pledge. Simpson also asked Google to release the accident reports. In truth, Google has released plenty of information about the accidents, and on Friday began issuing monthly reports that include descriptions of accidents.

Simpson and other consumer advocates are right to press Google — and all the big tech companies — on privacy issues. The profligate use of our data has become a big concern for many Americans. But on the question of whether Google should be promoting completely autonomous cars, he couldn’t be more wrong. The sooner they are a reality, the safer we’ll all be.

I wonder if he’s been driving in Savannah…  Here’s Ms. Collins:

When I have trouble falling asleep, I do lists. Like running through the names of all the presidents, along with several factoids for each one. I was rather proud of this talent until friends sent me a video clip of Ellen DeGeneres interviewing a 5-year-old girl who could do it better.

Then, pathetically, I moved on to vice presidents, becoming the only person on my block who knew the backstory on Schuyler Colfax.

There are all sorts of variations of this game. I once tried to mentally list all the contestants on a season of “The Amazing Race” in order of elimination. But the point here is that this could be a practical use for our ever-growing pantheon of presidential contenders. When you get weary and you can’t sleep, count the candidates instead of sheep.

They’re current events and slumber-inducing, too.

Three seems like a good number of facts at this point in the political calendar. All non-issue-related. You don’t really want to dwell on Rick Perry’s agenda when he might be gone again by Labor Day.

And nothing too psychological, like why Lindsey Graham decided to come snarling out of the gate like a rabid otter. (“Kill terrorists, grow jobs.”) Actually, he’s been working on that persona for some time. During a Senate meeting on gun control, Graham wondered what an assault rifle ban would mean “in an environment where the law and order has broken down, whether it’s a hurricane, national disaster, earthquake, terrorist attack, cyberattack where the power goes down and the dam’s broken and chemicals have been released into the air and law enforcement is really not able to respond and people take advantage of that lawless environment.”

O.K., that’s not going to induce slumber. Let’s start over. Close your eyes …

Rick Perry: Former Texas governor. Only candidate for president currently under indictment. Once shot a coyote while jogging. Has a rap-country campaign song that goes: “Rick Perry supporter/Let’s protect our border.”

Whoops, that was four.

Lindsey Graham: Senator from South Carolina. Besties with Senator John McCain. Once suggested he’d drown himself if Barack Obama took North Carolina, but failed to follow through.

George Pataki: Former New York governor. Middle name is Elmer. Father spent his later years in a home for indigent volunteer firefighters.

Rick Santorum: Former senator from Pennsylvania. Held up a big piece of coal during his official announcement. Really fond of sweater vests.

And those are just the Republican candidates we’ve acquired over the past 10 days! Let’s look at the Democrats:

Lincoln Chafee: Former Republican senator. Former independent governor. Used announcement speech to call on the nation to adopt the metric system.

Martin O’Malley: Former governor of Maryland. Plays in Celtic rock band. Allegedly a model for the mayor in “The Wire.”

Bernie Sanders: Senator from Vermont. Wrote a weird piece on rape fantasies 43 years ago that he recently described as “something Like ‘50 Shades of Grey.’ ” Carries a brass key chain from the Eugene V. Debs campaign.

Hillary Clinton: Once claimed, in a 2008 campaign ad, that she was “raised on pinochle and the American Dream.” Likes to watch home-rehab shows on HGTV. Author of five books, including “Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets.”

And now, back to the Republicans. Should we do Scott Walker? No, he’s not an official candidate. Even though it would be interesting to discuss whether “college dropout” is a fair factoid. And Jeb Bush has only announced that he’s going to announce something when he gets back from a trip to Estonia. You have to have some rules about these things or else you’ll have 400 candidates to go through, including your neighbor Fred who just put a sign on his lawn, proclaiming his availability.

Also, I don’t think we have to worry about Donald Trump at this point. Trump has picked a day for a big announcement, but it could well be news that Caitlyn Jenner will be a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice.”

Marco Rubio: Senator from Florida. Owns a sword named Chang. First job was building cages for exotic birds.

Ben Carson: Retired neurosurgeon. Played on screen by Cuba Gooding Jr. Called Barack Obama a “psychopath.”

Rand Paul: Senator from Kentucky. Cuts his own hair. Once accused of forcing a classmate to worship “Aqua Buddha.”

Carly Fiorina: Former C.E.O. of Hewlett-Packard. Got fired from Hewlett-Packard. Once ran for Senate with an ad that portrayed her Republican opponent as a Demon Sheep.

Mike Huckabee: Former governor of Arkansas. Fried squirrels in a popcorn popper during college. Accepted $130,000 in gifts during his tenure in Little Rock, including a stadium blanket and a chainsaw.

Ted Cruz: Senator from Texas. Born in Canada. Claims he stopped liking rock music after 9/11.

Drowsy yet? If it hasn’t worked by now, try imagining them all jumping over a fence.

Brooks and Nocera

May 26, 2015

In “Talent Loves English” Bobo babbles that as the world grows more prosperous, immigration is changing, and our ideas need to change with it.  In the comments “craig geary” from Redlands, FL had this to say:  “Finally David Brooks tells the truth.  “The republican party is insane…”  Not only on immigration, but taxes, man made climate change, perpetual war in the Middle East, the need for and sanity of universal healthcare, a woman’s right to choose, equal pay for equal work, marriage equality and our crumbling 20th century infrastructure.”  In “Smoking, Vaping and Nicotine” Mr. Nocera says the different ways of delivering nicotine come with different risks and need to be addressed.  Here’s Bobo:

Eight hundred years ago next month, English noblemen forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. It’s still having amazing effects on the world today. The Magna Carta helped usher in government with a separation of powers. It helped create conditions in which centralized authority could not totally control fiscal, political, religious or intellectual life. It helped usher in the modern Anglo-Saxon state model, with its relative emphasis on the open movement of people, ideas and things.

The Anglo-Saxon model has its plusses and minuses, but it is very attractive to people around the world. Today, as always, immigrants flock to nations with British political heritage. Forty-six million people in the United States are foreign born, almost 1 in 6. That’s by far the highest number of immigrants in any country in the world.

Canada, Australia and New Zealand are also immigrant magnets. The British political class was a set abuzz last week by a government reportshowing a 50 percent increase in net immigration in 2014 compared with 2013. The government has a goal of limiting immigration to 100,000 a year, but, in 2014, net inbound migration was estimated to be 318,000. Britain has the most diverse immigrant community of any nation on earth.

Some of the those people went to Britain from outside of Europe, but a great many flow from the sclerotic economies in the European Union: Italy, Spain and France. Compared with many other European countries, Britain is a job-creating paragon.

Across the English-speaking world, immigrants are drawn by the same things: relatively strong economies, good universities, open cultures and the world’s lingua franca.

The nature of global migration is slowly evolving, too. We have an image of immigrants as the poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. According to this stereotype, immigrants are driven from their homes by poverty and move elsewhere to compete against the lowest-skilled workers.

But immigrants do not come from the poorest countries. Nations like Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Niger — some of the poorest countries in the world — have some of the lowest outmigration rates. Less than 3 percent of their populations live outside their borders. Their citizens don’t have the resources to move.

Instead, immigrants tend to come from middle-class countries, and they migrate to rich, open ones. You might have thought that as the world gets more middle class, global immigration would decline because of more opportunity at home. In fact, the reverse is happening. As the developing world gets more middle class, immigration has increased because educational and income gains have led to ever higher aspirations.

The situation is complex. Less than a decade ago, six Mexicans migrated to the United States for every Indian or Chinese. But as Mexico has prospered, immigration has dropped. Meanwhile, as India and China have gotten richer, the number of Indians and Chinese living abroad has doubled.

Some of the Asian immigrants are quite wealthy. According to the China International Immigration Report, among Chinese with assets of more than $16 million, 27 percent had emigrated abroad and an additional 47 percent were considering such a move. The real estate website Soufun.net surveyed 5,000 people and found that 41 percent of such people were drawn to move abroad for better living conditions, 35 percent for better educational opportunities for their children and 15 percent for better retirement conditions.

And this talent pool has barely been tapped. According to a Gallup surveyin 2012, 22 million Chinese wanted to move to the U.S., as did 10 million Indians, 3 million Vietnamese and a surprising 5 million Japanese.

In short, it might be time to revise our stereotypes about the immigration issue. A thousand years ago, a few English noblemen unwittingly heralded in a decentralized political and intellectual model. This model was deepened over the centuries by people ranging from Henry VIII to the American founding fathers. It’s a model that is relatively friendly to outsider talent. We didn’t earn this model; we’re the lucky inheritors.

Meanwhile, globalization, with all its stresses and strains, has created a large international class of middle-class dreamers: university graduates who can’t fulfill their aspirations at home and who would enrich whatever nation is lucky enough to have them.

In this context, Hillary Clinton’s daring approach to immigration, supporting a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants already in the United States, is clearly the right one. The Republican Party is insane if its conducts a 21st-century immigration policy based on stereotypes from the 1980s.

Bobo — letting his freak flag fly.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

“We need a national debate on nicotine,” said Mitch Zeller.

Zeller is the director of the Center for Tobacco Products, a division of the Food and Drug Administration created in 2009 when Congress passed legislation giving the F.D.A. regulatory authority — at long last! — over cigarettes. In addition, the center will soon have regulatory authority over other tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, which have become enormously controversial even as they have gained in use. Through something called a “deeming rule,” the center is in the process of asserting that oversight over e-cigarettes.

Opponents of electronic cigarettes, which include many public health officials, hope that the center will treat these new devices like it treats cigarettes: taking steps to discourage teenagers from “vaping,” for instance, and placing strict limits on the industry’s ability to market its products.

Proponents, meanwhile, hope that the center will view e-cigarettes as a “reduced harm” product that can save lives by offering a nicotine fix without the carcinogens that are ingested through a lit cigarette. In this scenario, e-cigarette manufacturers would be able to make health claims, and adult smokers might even be encouraged to switch from smoking to vaping as part of a reduced harm strategy.

When I requested an interview with Zeller, I didn’t expect him to tip his hat on which direction he wanted the center to go, and he didn’t. Indeed, one of the points he made was that the F.D.A. was conducting a great deal of scientific research — more than 50 studies in all, he said — aimed at generating the evidence needed to better understand where to place e-cigarettes along what he calls “the continuum of risk.”

Zeller is a veteran of the “tobacco wars” of the 1990s, working alongside then-F.D.A. Commissioner David Kessler, who had audaciously labeled cigarettes a “drug-delivery device” (the drug being nicotine) and had claimed regulatory authority. Zeller left the F.D.A. in 2000, after theSupreme Court ruled against Kessler’s interpretation, and joined the American Legacy Foundation, where he helped create its hard-hitting, anti-tobacco “Truth campaign.” After a stint with a consulting firm, Pinney Associates, he returned to the F.D.A. in early 2013 to lead the effort to finally regulate the tobacco industry.

“I am fond of quoting Michael Russell,” Zeller said, referring to an important South African tobacco scientist who died in 2009. In the early 1970s, Russell was among the first to recognize that nicotine was the reason people got addicted to cigarettes. “He used to say, ‘People smoke for the nicotine but die from the tar,’ ” Zeller recalled.

This is also why Zeller found e-cigarettes so “interesting,” as he put it, when they first came on the market. A cigarette gets nicotine to the brain in seven seconds, he said. Nicotine gum or patches can take up to 60 minutes or longer, which is far too slow for smokers who need a nicotine fix. But e-cigarettes can replicate the speed of cigarettes in delivering nicotine to the brain, thus creating real potential for them to become a serious smoking cessation device.

But there are still many questions about both their safety and their efficacy. For instance, are smokers using e-cigarettes to quit cigarettes, or they using them to get a nicotine hit at times when they can’t smoke cigarettes? And beyond that there are important questions about nicotine itself, and how it should be dealt with.

“When nicotine is attached to smoke particles, it will kill,” said Zeller. “But if you take that same drug and put it in a patch, it is such a safe medicine that it doesn’t even require a doctor’s prescription.” That paradox helps explain why he believes “there needs to be a rethink within society on nicotine.”

Within the F.D.A., Zeller has initiated discussions with “the other side of the house” — the part of the agency that regulates drugs — to come up with a comprehensive, agency-wide policy on nicotine. But the public health community — and the rest of us — needs to have a debate as well.

“One of the impediments to this debate,” Zeller said, is that the e-cigarette opponents are focused on all the flavors available in e-cigarettes — many of which would seem aimed directly at teenagers — as well as their marketing, which is often a throwback to the bad-old days of Big Tobacco. “The debate has become about these issues and has just hardened both sides,” Zeller told me.

It’s not that Zeller believes nicotine is perfectly safe (he doesn’t) or that we should shrug our shoulders if teenagers take up vaping. He believes strongly that kids should be discouraged from using e-cigarettes.

Rather, he thinks there should be a recognition that different ways of delivering nicotine also come with different risks. To acknowledge that, and to grapple with its implications, would be a step forward.

“This issue isn’t e-cigarettes,” said Mitch Zeller. “It’s nicotine.”

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

May 19, 2015

In “Learning From Mistakes” Bobo tells us that the question, would you go back and undo your errors is unanswerable. He says the question is: What wisdom have you learned that will help you going forward?  Mr. Cohen, in “The Presence of the Past,” says not o remember, or to be overwhelmed by memory, are equally dangerous.  Mr. Nocera says we need “Chemo for the Planet,” and that instead of focusing on human behavior to reduce global warming, try using technology.  Of course the “technology” he’s touting is, at this point, pie in the sky with rafts of unintended consequences such as ocean acidification which he glosses over.  Here’s Bobo:

If you could go back to 1889 and strangle Adolf Hitler in his crib, would you do it? At one level, the answer is obvious. Of course, you should. If there had been no Hitler, presumably the Nazi Party would have lacked the charismatic leader it needed to rise to power. Presumably, there would have been no World War II, no Holocaust, no millions dead on the Eastern and Western fronts.

But, on the other hand, if there were no World War II, you wouldn’t have had the infusion of women into the work force. You wouldn’t have had the G.I. Bill and the rapid expansion of higher education. You wouldn’t have had the pacification of Europe, Pax-Americana, which led to decades of peace and prosperity, or the end of the British and other empires.

History is an infinitely complex web of causations. To erase mistakes from the past is to obliterate your world now. You can’t go back and know then what you know now. You can’t step in the same river twice.  [How very Baba Ram Dass of Bobo…]

So it’s really hard to give simple sound-bite answers about past mistakes. The question, would you go back and undo your errors is unanswerable. It’s only useful to ask, what wisdom have you learned from your misjudgments that will help you going forward?

Which brings us to Iraq. From the current vantage point, the decision to go to war was a clear misjudgment, made by President George W. Bush andsupported by 72 percent of the American public who were polled at the time. I supported it, too.

What can be learned?

The first obvious lesson is that we should look at intelligence products with a more skeptical eye. There’s a fable going around now that the intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was all cooked by political pressure, that there was a big political conspiracy to lie us into war.

That doesn’t gibe with the facts. Anybody conversant with the Robb-Silberman report from 2005 knows that this was a case of human fallibility. This exhaustive, bipartisan commission found “a major intelligence failure”: “The failure was not merely that the Intelligence Community’s assessments were wrong. There were also serious shortcomings in the way these assessments were made and communicated to policy makers.”

The Iraq war error reminds us of the need for epistemological modesty. We don’t know much about the world, and much of our information is wrong. A successful president has to make decisions while radiating hesitancy, staying open-minded in the face of new evidence, not falling into the traps that afflict those who possess excessive self-confidence.

The second lesson of Iraq concerns this question: How much can we really change other nations? Every foreign policy dilemma involves a calibration. Should we lean forward to try to influence this or that region? Or should we hang back figuring we’ll just end up making everything worse.

After the 1990s, many of us were leaning in the interventionist direction. We’d seen the fall of the apartheid regime, which made South Africa better. We’d seen the fall of communist regimes, which made the Eastern bloc nations better. Many of us thought that, by taking down Saddam Hussein, we could end another evil empire, and gradually open up human development in Iraq and the Arab world.

Has that happened? In 2004, I would have said yes. In 2006, I would have said no. In 2015, I say yes and no, but mostly no.

The outcome, so far, in Iraq should remind us that we don’t really know much about how other cultures will evolve. We can exert only clumsy and indirect influence on how other nations govern themselves. When you take away basic order, people respond with sectarian savagery.

If the victory in the Cold War taught us to lean forward and be interventionist, the legacy of the 2003 Iraq decision should cause us to pull back from the excesses of that mentality, to have less faith in America’s ability to understand other places and effect change.

These are all data points in a larger education — along with the surge and the recent withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. I wind up in a place with less interventionist instincts than where George W. Bush was in 2003, but significantly more interventionist instincts than where President Obama is inclined to be today.

Finally, Iraq teaches us to be suspicious of leaders who try to force revolutionary, transformational change. It teaches us to have respect for trimmers, leaders who pay minute attention to context, who try to lead gradual but constant change. It teaches us to honor those who respect the unfathomable complexity of history and who are humble in the face of consequences to their actions that they cannot fully predict or understand.

Gawd, I wish he’d go back to politics.  His recent crap is cringe-inducing.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

As we grow older, the past looms larger. There’s more of it. The past is full of possibility.

It is ever-changing, an eddying tide, subject to the gusts — and lacunas — of memory.

The future may seem wan by comparison and, for each of us, we know more or less where it ends. With a bang or a whimper, Henry James’s “distinguished thing” awaits us.

Who, a friend asked me the other day, would ever want to be 90? The answer is somebody aged 89.

Old age is not for sissies, my grandmother liked to comment. Nor, however, is the other option.

So on we go, accumulating past with reckless abandon, like children guzzling candies.

Yet as Faulkner observed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Or as a disillusioned Yugoslav Communist once put it, “The most dangerous thing for a Communist is to predict the past.”

The past is potent, subject to manipulation. Wars nearly always involve memory trafficked into inflammatory myth.

I am a newspaperman. I try to understand, evoke and make vivid the present. That is not possible without understanding the past. We are the sum of our lived moments. It is worth turning time’s arrow backward.

I had always wanted to tell stories, the inner within the outer, the intimate secreting the universal. I liked to be the outsider looking in.

Often the stories were about lives swept away in the gale of history: the children of Beirut in 1983 who could not sleep without the familiar and so reassuring sound of gunfire; a Polish priest who discovered in middle age that he was a Jew entrusted by his Nazi-murdered parents to a Catholic family; Argentine twins stolen at birth from their murdered student mother by a childless junta army officer; mixed Bosnian families broken asunder by the boozy Serb killers who injected the virus of sectarian hatred into Sarajevo; a German woman loath to contemplate her beautiful blue eyes because they reminded her of a former Nazi concentration camp commander — her father.

Mirages, shadows, specters: the stuff of memory. How we remember, as nations and as individuals, is critical.

I first began to think seriously about the ferocious force of the past as a war correspondent covering Yugoslavia’s destruction. The Serbs who threw hundreds of thousands of Muslims out of their homes had been whipped into a nationalist frenzy. They had been convinced by a cynical leader that these secular Bosnian Muslims, so recently part of the same country called Yugoslavia, indistinguishable in fact, were a reincarnation of the Turks of old, latter-day Ottomans determined to affix the crescent moon of Islam to the church spires of Christian Europe.

When the past is suppressed, memory becomes explosive. Bosnians, Serbs and Croats re-enacted, in the 1990’s, the civil-war horrors of the 1940’s whose mention had become taboo under the clamp of Tito’s postwar Communist dictatorship.

When the past is cultivated at the expense of the present, memory becomes a blind alley. Those keys to long-lost Palestinian olive groves are now open-sesames only to further violence.

When the past overwhelms, it can turn victim into oppressor behind a shield called “Never Again.”

History illuminates. It can also blind.

The world may broadly be divided into areas that are captive of their pasts — the Balkans, the Middle East for example — and areas that are hard-wired to their futures — the United States and most of Asia. Europe, I think, lies somewhere in between.

One of my sons lives in Vietnam. Whenever I am there I marvel at the graves among the rice paddies. It is a powerful symbol of the living and the dead mingling, present and past. It is an image of acceptance. Nobody wants to talk about the war in Vietnam that ended 40 years ago.

How different from the dead of the Middle East, venerated as martyrs, martyrs of Islam demanding further sacrifice of life. Those celestial virgins have a lot to answer for.

I love the lines of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai about peace only coming to the Holy Land when a Jerusalem guide tells his tour group: “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important. But next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

Fruit and vegetables, unlike that ancient arch, nourish a future.

The past is there. We must understand it, our own, our community’s and our nation’s. Suppressing it will only be achieved at a price. That price is often bloodshed. But nor can we be consumed by the past, re-fight its battles or succumb to the sterility of vengeance.

Not to remember, or to be overwhelmed by memory, are equally dangerous.

Only through a balanced view of the past, conscientious but not obsessive, may we shun victimhood, accept divergent national narratives, embrace decency, meet our daily obligations, and look forward.

And now here’s Mr. Nocera:

What’s the best way to reduce the chances of climate change wreaking havoc on Earth?

The most obvious answer — one we’ve known for years now — is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we’re pumping into the atmosphere. This can be done, for instance, by putting a price on carbon and thus create powerful market incentives for industries to lower their carbon footprint. Or by moving to renewable energy sources. Or by changing people’s behavior so that our collective actions radically reduce the amount of fossil fuel the world needs to power itself.

Despite this knowledge, however, few policies have been put in place to spur any of that. In the United States, the effective price of carbon, as Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman point out in their new book, “Climate Shock” is “about zero” (aside from California). Fossil fuels remain the world’s default energy source, and — despite the impressive growth of global solar capacity over the last decade — that’s likely to be the case for decades to come. A carbon tax on the worst emitters has gotten nowhere.

So maybe we need to start thinking about coming at the climate-change problem from a different direction. Instead of hoping that humans will start reducing their carbon use, maybe it’s time to at least consider using technology to keep climate change at bay.

The deliberate use of technology to manipulate the environment — usually in the context of fighting climate change — is called geoengineering. One method is carbon capture, traditionally conceived as a process that sucks up carbon from the air and buries it in the ground. A second is called solar radiation management, which uses techniques like shooting sulfate particles into the stratosphere in order to reflect or divert solar radiation back into space. This very effect was illustrated after the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991. Spewing 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide in the air, the volcano caused global temperatures to fall, temporarily, by about 0.5 degrees Celsius, according to Wagner and Weitzman.

Somewhat to my surprise, a good portion of Wagner’s and Weitzman’s book is devoted to the subject of geoengineering, especially solar radiation management, which they describe as relatively inexpensive and technologically feasible, with a serious bang for the buck. The reason I was surprised is that the authors have solid environmental credentials — Weitzman is an environmental economist at Harvard, and Wagner is a senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund — and many environmental groups object to the very idea of geoengineering. They even object to research into the subject, viewing the desire to manipulate nature as immoral. Ben Schreiber of Friends of the Earth, an advocacy group, recently described discussions about geoengineering as a “dangerous distraction.”

“Geoengineering presumes that we can apply a dramatic technological fix to climate disruption,” he said, “instead of facing the reality that we need to drastically reduce our carbon emissions.”

Schreiber was reacting to two reports by a National Academy of Sciences panel that came out just a week before “Climate Shock.” The reports concluded that, while “climate intervention is no substitute for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions,” the politics around carbon reduction have been so fractious that the day could well come when geoengineering was needed as part of a “portfolio” of responses to global warming. It urged further study for both methods, and, in particular, called for the establishment of a research program to examine the possible risks of solar radiation management.

Wagner and Weitzman do not deny the potential risks; indeed, they write quite cautiously about geoengineering. Wagner told me that it should be thought of as a last resort — something the world could turn to if it had to. He described it as a kind of “chemotherapy for the planet” — something you hope you don’t have to use, but you are ready to use if the need arises. And that requires doing research now to prepare for the future.

David Keith, a scientist who is perhaps the foremost proponent of geoengineering, told me that he believes that solar radiation management should be used even if decent carbon policies became law. “It has substantial benefits,” he said. “That would be true whether we were cutting emissions or not.”

But he also acknowledged that more research is needed. “If you put sulfur into the atmosphere, will there be a risk of ozone loss?” he said, as an example of the kind of risk that needed to be studied.

There is another kind of risk, of course: the risk that if people thought a technological solution were available to “solve” climate change, it would make it even less likely that they would collectively agree to do what is needed to be done to reduce carbon emissions. It is yet another reason that many environmentalists object to geoengineering.

Still, if disaster is truly approaching, wouldn’t you rather be safe than sorry?

I’d also like to be sure that what I was doing today wouldn’t guarantee a worse problem for my grandchildren.

Brooks and Nocera

May 12, 2015

In “The Center-Right Moment” Bobo informs us that across the globe, voters are electing center-right leaders with fairly similar platforms. He then whines that the notable exception is the United States.  In the comments “Tim Berry” from Mount Vernon, NH had this to say:  “Brooks is just a well spoken propagandist for the rich and powerful who are most definitely winning a long running war to destroy the common good.”  Mr. Nocera says “At Rutgers, It’s Books vs. Ballgames,” and that a fight ensues on the New Jersey campus over money spent on big-time athletics instead of academics.  Here’s Bobo:

The most surprising event of this political era is what hasn’t happened. The world has not turned left. Given the financial crisis, widening inequality, the unpopularity of the right’s stances on social issues and immigration, you would have thought that progressive parties would be cruising from win to win.

But, instead, right-leaning parties are doing well. In the United States, Republicans control both houses of Congress. In Israel, the Likud Party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled off a surprising win in an election that was at least partly about economic policy. In Britain, the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister David Cameron won a parliamentary majority.

What’s going on here?

Well, there are some issues in each election specific to that country, but there are a few broader trends to be observed. The first is that the cutting-edge, progressive economic arguments do not seem to be swaying voters.

Over the past few years, left-of-center economic policy has moved from opportunity progressivism to redistributionist progressivism. Opportunity progressivism is associated with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the 1990s and Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago today. This tendency actively uses government power to give people access to markets, through support for community colleges, infrastructure and training programs and the like, but it doesn’t interfere that much in the market and hesitates before raising taxes.

This tendency has been politically successful. Clinton and Blair had long terms. This year, Emanuel won by 12 percentage points against the more progressive candidate, Chuy Garcia, even in a city with a disproportionate number of union households.

Redistributionist progressivism more aggressively raises taxes to shift money down the income scale, opposes trade treaties and meddles more in the marketplace. This tendency has won elections in Massachusetts (Elizabeth Warren) and New York City (Bill de Blasio) but not in many other places. Ed Balls, the No. 2 figure in the Labour Party in Britain, co-led the group from the Center for American Progress that wrote the most influential statement of modern progressivism, a report on “inclusive prosperity.” Balls could not even retain his own parliamentary seat in the last election.

The conservative victories probably have more to do with the public’s skepticism about the left than with any positive enthusiasm toward the right. Still, there are a few things center-right parties have done successfully.

First, they have loudly (and sometimes offensively) championed national identity. In this era of globalization, voters are rewarding candidates who believe in their country’s exceptionalism.

Second, they have been basically sensible on fiscal policy. After the financial crisis, there was a big debate over how much governments should go into debt to stimulate growth. The two nations most associated with the “austerity” school — those who were suspicious of debt-based stimulus — were Germany and Britain. This will not settle the debate, but these two nations now have some of the strongest economies in Europe and their political leaders are in good shape.

Third, these leaders did not overread their mandate. Cameron in Britain promised to cut the size of government, and he did, from 45.7 percent of G.D.P. in 2010 to 40.7 percent today, according to The Economist. The number of public-sector jobs there has gone down by 1 million.

But he made these cuts without going overboard. Public satisfaction with government services has gone up. And there have been some sensible efforts to boost those at the bottom. As The Economist pointed out, “The richest 10 percent have borne the greatest burden of extra taxes. Full-time workers earning the minimum wage pay a third as much income tax as in 2010. Overall, inequality has not widened — in contrast to America.”

The British electorate and the American electorate sometimes mirror each other. Trans-Atlantic voters went for Reagan and Thatcher together and Clinton and Blair together. In policy terms, Cameron is a more conservative version of President Obama.

Cameron’s win suggests the kind of candidate that would probably do well in a general election in this country. He is liberal on social policy, green on global warming and pragmatically conservative on economic policy. If he’s faulted for anything, it is for not being particularly ideological, though he has let his ministers try some pretty bold institutional reforms to modernize the welfare state.

Globally, voters are disillusioned with large public institutions. They seem to want to reassert local control and their own particular nationalism (Scottish or anything else). But they also seem to want a slightly smaller public sector, strong welfare state reform and more open and vibrant labor markets as a path to prosperity.

For some reason, American politicians are fleeing from this profile, Hillary Clinton to the further left and Republicans to the right.

He’s so very, very tiresome…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

It’s not exactly a secret that big-time college sports often distort priorities on university campuses. But every once in a while, something bursts into public view to put those priorities in glaring relief. A recent example is a fight that is taking place at Rutgers University. The dispute pits faculty members who want to restrain the athletic department’s out-of-control costs against some powerful alumni who want the Rutgers athletic department to spend even more money to better compete in its new conference, the Big Ten.

Guess who’s likely to win?

Although Rutgers is said to have played the first American college football game ever — against Princeton, in 1869 — it has never been an athletic powerhouse. In the 1990s, yearning to join the elite, Rutgers became part of the Big East Conference. But, with the exception of women’s basketball, its overall athletic performance has generally remained mediocre.

What’s more, the Rutgers athletic department has consistently run large deficits; indeed, since the 2005-6 academic year, deficits have exceeded $20 million a year. In the last academic year, Rutgers athletics generated $40.3 million in revenue, but spent $76.7 million, leaving a deficit of more than $36 million. In other words, revenue barely covered half the department’s expenses.

And how did the university cover this shortfall? Partly, it used its own funds, to the tune of $26 million last year, money that might have gone to professors’ salaries or other academic needs. It also took it out of the hide of the students themselves, who have been assessed steadily rising fees to help cover the athletic department’s deficit. Last year, fees that went to athletics amounted to $10 million.

A few years ago, in an effort to relieve the financial pressure, Rutgers accepted an invitation to join the Big Ten, perhaps the wealthiest conference in the country. With football powers like Ohio State and Michigan, the Big Ten not only has lucrative deals with ABC and ESPN, it also has its own TV network. Thanks to those TV deals, last year the Big Ten paid out some $27 million to its 11 qualifying universities.

Yet even with the Big Ten’s money (and to be fair, as a new member, Rutgers won’t reap the full rewards for six years), the Rutgers athletic department is projecting deficits at least through the 2021-22. Indeed, according to figures compiled by a faculty committee, Rutgers athletics is projecting a total deficit of $183 million between now and 2022.

You can see, of course, why this would infuriate faculty members — or, for that matter, anyone who cares about academics. Like most state schools, Rutgers has seen its state financing shrink drastically over the last decade,while tuition and fees have been going up. Academic departments have had multiple rounds of belt-tightening. “At the school of arts and sciences,” said Mark Killingsworth, a Rutgers economics professor who has been a leading voice against the athletic department’s costs, “we have been told that we can hire one person for every two who leave.” The library, he noted, recently had its budget cut by more than $500,000. Meanwhile, Kyle Flood, the football coach, is getting a $200,000 raise next year, taking his salary to $1.25 million.

In late March, the Rutgers faculty senate approved, by a wide margin, a report written by its Budget and Finance Committee that called on the athletic department to eliminate its losses within five years; to end the use of student fees to cover the athletic budget; and to treat the use of discretionary funds as loans.

Almost immediately afterward, a powerful Rutgers alumnus, State Senator Raymond Lesniak, commissioned a study aimed at showing that Rutgers needed to invest more in athletics, not less. Why? One reason is the supposed economic benefits that come with a successful sports program. Another rationale is that now that Rutgers is in the Big Ten, it will have to step up its game to compete — which, of course, would require lavish facilities, just like those at Ohio State and Michigan.

Lesniak, who just filed a bill that would give Rutgers $25 million in tax credits for infrastructure projects, clearly relishes the idea of Rutgers becoming, as he puts it, “Big Ten-ready.” So do other alums, including Greg Brown, the chairman of the Rutgers Board of Governors. “We weren’t interested in joining the Big Ten,” Brown said after one board meeting. “We were interested in competing and winning in the Big Ten.” And if that requires spending money, well, that’s what the big boys do.

Responds Killingsworth: “The mantra has always been that if we spend enough money, we’ll have good teams, and generate more revenue. It’s never happened.”

Rutgers is an enormous public institution, with an annual budget of $3.6 billion. It is responsible for educating 65,000 students. Why isn’t that more important that competing in the Big Ten?

Why does the tail always wag the dog?

Bread and circuses, Mr. Nocera, bread and circuses…

Brooks and Nocera

April 28, 2015

In “Goodness and Power” Bobo burbles that Contrary to popular House-of-Cards cynicism, our leaders’ moral failings make them not only less inspiring but also less effective.  He brought up Hillary Clinton but not a single member of the Republican party.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “The fact that Brooks’ description of a moral failure sounds like the book jacket blurb for Chris Christie’s biography made me realize that most of the Republican candidates would fail the morality test, not to mention a history test, and most certainly a science test. It astounds me that Mr. Brooks can write with such seeming sincerity about a concern for morals, strength of character, kindness and humility while he shills shamelessly for the Republican Forces of Darkness.”  Mr. Nocera considers “Europe’s Google Problem” and addresses the politics behind the European Union’s antitrust charges against the American Internet giant.  Here’s Bobo:

There was an interesting poll result about Hillary Clinton last week.According to a Quinnipiac poll, 60 percent of independent voters believe that she has strong leadership qualities. But when these same voters were asked if she is honest and trustworthy, the evaluations flipped. Sixty-one percent said she is not honest and trustworthy. Apparently there are a lot of Americans who believe that Hillary Clinton is dishonest and untrustworthy but also a strong leader.

Let’s set aside her specific case for a second. These poll results raise a larger question: Can you be a bad person but a strong leader?

The case for that proposition is reasonably straightforward. Politics is a tough, brutal arena. People play by the rules of the jungle. Sometimes to get anything done, a leader has to push, bully, intimidate, elide the truth. The qualities that make you a good person in private life — kindness, humility and a capacity for introspection — can be drawbacks on the public stage. Electing a president is different than finding a friend or lover. It’s better to hire a ruthless person to do a hard job.

I get that argument, but outside the make-believe world of “House of Cards,” it’s usually wrong. Voting for someone with bad private morals is like setting off on a battleship with awesome guns and a rotting hull. There’s a good chance you’re going to sink before the voyage is over.

People who are dishonest, unkind and inconsiderate have trouble attracting and retaining good people to their team. They tend to have sleazy friends. They may be personally canny, but they are almost always surrounded by sycophants and second-raters who kick up scandal and undermine the leader’s effectiveness.

Leaders who lack humility are fragile. Their pride is bloated and sensitive. People are never treating them as respectfully as they think they deserve. They become consumed with resentments. They treat politics as battle, armor up and wall themselves off to information and feedback.

You may think they are championing your cause or agenda, but when the fur is flying, they are really only interested in defending themselves. They keep an enemies list and life becomes a matter of settling scores and imagining conspiracies. They jettison any policy that might hurt their standing.

It is a paradox of politics that the people who set out obsessively to succeed in it usually end up sabotaging themselves. They treat each relationship as a transaction and don’t generate loyalty. They lose any honest internal voice. After a while they can’t accurately perceive themselves or their situation. Sooner or later their Watergate will come.

Maybe once upon a time there was an environment in which ruthless Machiavellians had room to work their dark arts, but we don’t live in Renaissance Italy. We live in a world of universal media attention. Once there is a hint of scandal of any kind, the political world goes into maximum frenzy and everything stops.

We live in a world in which power is dispersed. You can’t intimidate people by chopping your enemies to bits in the town square. Even the presidency isn’t a powerful enough office to allow a leader to rule by fear. You have to build coalitions by appealing to people’s self-interest and by luring them voluntarily to your side.

Modern politics, like private morality, is about building trust and enduring personal relationships. That means being fair, empathetic, honest and trustworthy. If you stink at establishing trust, you stink at politics.

People with good private morality are better at navigating for the long term. They genuinely love causes beyond themselves. When the news cycle distracts and the short-term passions surge, they can still steer by that distant star. They’re less likely to overreact and do something stupid.

People with astute moral sentiments have an early warning system. They don’t have to think through the dangers of tit-for-tat favor-exchanges with billionaires. They have an aesthetic revulsion against people who seem icky and situations that are distasteful, which heads off a lot of trouble.

Of course, private morality is not enough. You have to know how to react to unprincipled people who want to destroy you.

But, historically, most effective leaders — like, say, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill — had a dual consciousness. They had an earnest, inner moral voice capable of radical self-awareness, rectitude and great compassion. They also had a pragmatic, canny outer voice. These two voices were in constant conversation, checking each other, probing for synthesis, wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove.

I don’t know if Hillary Clinton possesses this double-mindedness. But I do know that if candidates don’t acquire a moral compass outside of politics, they’re not going to get it in the White House, and they won’t be effective there.

So, Bobo, howzabout a similar column about The 2016 Clown Car passengers?  I expect to see pigs flying past my window before I see that…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Have you heard the term Gafa yet? It hasn’t caught on here in the United States — and I’m guessing it won’t — but in France, it has become so common that the newspapers hardly need to spell out its meaning. Everyone there already knows what Gafa stands for: Google-Apple-Facebook-Amazon.

In America, we tend to think of these companies as four distinct entities that compete fiercely with each other. But, in Europe, which lacks a single Internet company of comparable size and stature, they “encapsulate America’s evil Internet empire,” as Gideon Rachman put it in The Financial Times on Monday. Nine out of 10 Internet searches in Europe use Google — a more commanding percentage than in the United States — to cite but one example of their utter dominance in the countries that make up the European Union.

Not surprisingly, this dominance breeds worry in Europe, however fairly it was achieved. The French fear (as the French always do) the imposition of American culture. The Germans fear the rise of an industry more efficient— and more profitable — than their own. Industry leaders, especially in publishing, telecommunications and even autos fear that the American Internet companies will disrupt their businesses and siphon away their profits. Europeans worry about the use of their private data by American companies, a worry that was only exacerbated by the Edward Snowden spying revelations. There is a palpable sense among many politicians, regulators and businesspeople in Europe that the Continent needs to develop its own Internet platforms — or, at the least, clip the wings of the big American Internet companies while there’s still time.

I bring this up in the wake of the decision by Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s relatively new (she took office in November) commissioner in charge of competition policy, to bring antitrust charges against Google, the culmination of a five-year investigation. The case revolves around whether Google took advantage of its dominance in search to favor its own comparison-shopping service over those of its rivals. Vestager also opened an inquiry into Google’s Android mobile operating system — and said the European Union would investigate other potential violations if need be.

Not long after announcing the charges, Vestager made a speech in Washington. “We have no grudge; we have no fight with Google,” she said. “In all our cases, we are indifferent to the nationality of the companies involved. Our responsibility is to make sure that any company with operations in the territory of the E.U. complies with our treaty rules.”

Well, maybe. But it is also true that, to an unusual degree, this investigation, especially in its latter stages, has been driven by politics. The political rhetoric around Google in Europe has been so heated that had Vestager decided not to bring a case, her political standing might have been weakened, “probably compromising her ability to pursue effectively other high-profile antitrust cases,” wrote Carlos Kirjner, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

Consider, for instance, what happened last year when Google was close to settling the case with Vestager’s predecessor, Joaquín Almunia. Google had agreed to make changes that it found cumbersome and intrusive, but it wanted to get the case behind it and move on. Instead, European politicians, especially in France and Germany, and prodded by Google’s competitors, complained that Almunía was being too accommodating to the company. “The offers by Google aren’t worthless, but they’re not nearly enough,” one such politician, Günther Oettinger of Germany, told The Wall Street Journal.

At the time, Oettinger was serving as the European Union’s energy commissioner, making him one of the 28 commissioners who would have to approve any settlement. By September, he had been nominated for a new job: commissioner for digital economy and society. At a hearing before a European Parliament committee, he took credit for blowing up the Google settlement.

As the digital commissioner, Oettinger has continued to advocate for what has become the German position on Google — namely that Google’s power must be reined in. In a speech two weeks ago, he essentially said that Europe should begin regulating Internet platforms in such a way as to allow homegrown companies to overtake the American Internet giants. And on Thursday, a document leaked from his office to The Wall Street Journal that outlined just such a plan, claiming that if nothing was done, the entire economy of Europe was “at risk” because of its dependency on American Internet companies. There have even been calls in Europe to break up Google.

Europe has every right to regulate any company and any sector it wants. And it can bring antitrust charges as it sees fit. But given the rhetoric surrounding Google and the other American Internet giants, suspicion of Europe’s real motives is justified.

From here, the European charges against Google look a lot like protectionism.

Nocera and Collins

April 25, 2015

In “On the Export-Import Bank, the Numbers Come First” Mr. Nocera says a conservative think tank makes the case for the Export-Import Bank.  Ms. Collins is a brave woman.  In “Presidential Primary Book Club” she tells us that at 43, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has already written an autobiography. And she’s read it so we won’t have to.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

In June, for the third time since 2012, the Export-Import Bank of the United States, an export credit agency that backs loans to foreign entities that help cement deals with American exporters — and thus helps create American jobs — must be reauthorized by Congress. Otherwise it will go out of business.

For most of its existence, the Ex-Im Bank wasn’t even remotely controversial; it would be routinely reauthorized for four to seven years at a time. Its underwriting was — and remains — impeccable, with a default rate of under 2 percent. With dozens of other countries using their own export credit agencies to help homegrown companies land deals, the Ex-Im Bank was viewed as an important equalizer for American companies, especially small businesses, which often can’t find funding when they want to sell their goods in foreign markets.

But in the last few years, prodded in part by Delta Air Lines, which objects to the lending assistance the Ex-Im Bank gives to foreign purchasers of Boeing aircraft, Tea Party Republicans have agitated to shut it down. In doing so, they have turned the fight over the Ex-Im Bank into an ideological litmus test. The bank’s dealings with Boeing, they claim, are an example of “crony capitalism.” The bank is in the business of picking “winners and losers,” something the government shouldn’t be doing, they say.

It gets in the way of truly free markets. The last time the Ex-Im Bank was up for reauthorization, in September, Republicans grudgingly agreed to a short-term extension. Now its opponents are moving in for the kill.

Leading the charge are the conservative think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Prosperity, which just the other day sponsored a conference call with Senator — and presidential candidate — Marco Rubio, who described the agency’s work as “corporate welfare.”

There is, however, one conservative think tank that has refused to join the crowd: the five-year-old American Action Forum, or A.A.F., co-founded and led by the economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin. Since last May, it has issued a series of reports making the case that the country is better off with the Ex-Im Bank than without it. Given the way apostasy is treated among conservative ideologues, this struck me as courageous.

As it turns out, Holtz-Eakin doesn’t view the American Action Forum’s stance as especially courageous. “I am a conservative,” he stressed — and most of the policy positions his think tank takes, on issues like tax policy and regulation, are unambiguously conservative.

“But,” he added, “I think too many conservative arguments are made on the basis of ideology and faith. We are dedicated to the numbers at A.A.F. We can’t just assert that markets work; we have to show it.”

Simply put, his think tank supports the Ex-Im Bank because that’s where the numbers — and the facts — led it.

Holtz-Eakin, 57, has held a number of important policy jobs in government. He was part of the Council of Economic Advisers under both Presidents Bush, the second time as its lead economist. He was an adviser to Senator John McCain during his presidential race. And between 2003 and 2005, he was the director of the Congressional Budget Office, which places a high premium on just-the-facts-ma’am numbers and research. “It is really important to have that kind of information in any sort of policy debate,” Holtz-Eakin told me.

Thus it is that Holtz-Eakin believes that immigration reform should reward skills and let in more immigrants. “The data shows that immigration offers great opportunity as an economic policy,” he said. As a member of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, he refused to sign on to the right wing’s pet theory that the entire crisis could be blamed on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. “I have no love of Fannie and Freddie,” he said. “But they weren’t the sole cause of the crisis.”

As for the Ex-Im Bank, Holtz-Eakin decided to get his think tank involved last year, as the agency became a hot-button issue among conservatives. He directed a young research associate, Andy Winkler, to do a series of deep dives into the Ex-Im Bank; that research led the American Action Forum to support its continued existence. “It would be a negative if we got rid of it,” Holtz-Eakin says.

The most recent piece of research by Winkler showed that, far from being in the back pocket of big companies like Boeing, the Ex-Im Bank made loans that were an accurate reflection of American trade itself. Big companies make up a small percentage of the corporations that export goods, but they account for a high volume of the dollars involved. The vast majority of exporters are small businesses, though their aggregate dollar volume is much smaller. The Ex-Im Bank’s loan portfolio is in about the same ratio.

Winkler, who is 24, came to the American Action Forum straight out of college. What have you learned from working with Holtz-Eakin? I asked him.

“The numbers come first,” he replied.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Concerned citizens bear many great burdens, one of which is trying to follow a presidential race in which virtually every candidate has written one or more books about their lives, hopes, dreams, theories — and, in the case of Mike Huckabee, diets.

You cannot possibly read them all. It is very likely you don’t want to read any. That’s what we are here for. Today: Marco Rubio.

Rubio is 43, and he has already written an autobiography (“An American Son”) and a book on policy (“American Dreams”). Do not feel compelled to go back and look at “100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future.”

Right now, we’re going to concentrate on the autobiography, which is a great corrective for anyone under the impression that Rubio had an impoverished childhood. His parents, working-class Cuban immigrants, most definitely did struggle financially. But Rubio makes it clear none of the struggling trickled down to him: he lived a “charmed, happy life” and was, in fact, “an insufferably demanding kid.”

Kudos for candor, Marco Rubio!

He certainly did have a talent for getting his way. Rubio’s family were Mormon converts, but, when Marco was about 12, he argued that everyone should go back to Catholicism. Which they did. He then requested that he and his sister be allowed to go to Catholic school, and his parents agreed, even though it was a financial stretch. Marco soon decided he didn’t like it, and successfully demanded a transfer to the local public school.

Besides his extremely cooperative relatives, the most vivid characters in the book are probably the Miami Dolphins, who come up all the time. Although his sister and fiancée won positions as cheerleaders, Rubio’s own hopes of making the team were quashed by reality. But not before he tried to pursue the dream by accepting a football scholarship to a 500-student private college in Missouri that was more than a two-hours’ drive from Kansas City and flirting with bankruptcy.

Somewhere during freshman year, he seems to have gotten a grip, and it was back to Florida, community college and then upward and onward through law school. At this point, with his early flaws corrected, Rubio starts confessing that he was a bad boyfriend to his future wife, Jeanette, and later, an absentee father as his political career took off.

But all of Rubio’s faults, it turns out, are personal. Politically, he has no regrets. He manages to go from a youthful labor union enthusiast to Tea Party poster boy without any hint of internal struggle. And while the book is jammed with details about polls and campaign staff shake-ups and fund-raising, it’s often weirdly apolitical. The first time Rubio says he felt “a genuine desire to engage in federal policy debates” was in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president, and he was already a former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

Rubio was elected to the State Legislature at 28, and he made it to speaker in six years. (Florida has eight-year term limits, so there’s actually no such thing as a slow, steady climb to power.) When he arrived, the governor was Jeb Bush, who Rubio describes as pretty much the best person in the universe. Later, when he was considering a race for an open Senate seat, Rubio dutifully checked first to see if Jeb was interested. “If he were to run, no one would challenge him in the primary — certainly not me,” he wrote. Ah, history.

Rubio clashed with Bush’s successor, Charlie Crist, over Rubio’s idea — the first of those we’re really hearing about — for eliminating all property taxes in favor of higher sales taxes. It was an early harbinger of Rubio’s antipathy for taxation according to the ability to pay, but Crist successfully countered with a much more modest proposal.

Their other big battle involved Crist’s ambitious efforts to fight global warming. Rubio’s discussion of this entire issue takes up two paragraphs, and despite the fact that Florida is absolutely awash in the effects of climate change, it’s the only mention of the subject in his autobiography. Also — spoiler alert — it’s not going to come up at all in his policy book.

Meanwhile, that Senate race is looming. Crist is running, too, and the first part of Rubio’s campaign seems to mainly consist of whining. (“Why would God put me in this position?”) God figures a lot in this story, and although Rubio says he knows “God didn’t endorse candidates,” he does make it pretty clear that he knows who would win if God had an absentee ballot.

Triumph! Marco Rubio is off to the Senate in 2011. His career there takes up only five pages. “What has surprised me the most,” he confides to readers who have stayed with him until the bitter end, “is that life as a U.S. senator is pretty much what I expected it to be.”

Go, Dolphins.


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