Archive for the ‘The Moustache of Wisdom’ Category

Friedman, solo

June 24, 2015

Mr. Bruni is off today.  TMOW has been out in the sun too long, and has produced a thing called “Cold War Without the Fun” in which he tells us that the world has changed, and so has the way the game of nations is played.  In the comments “Kevin Rothstein” from somewhere east of the GWB had this to say:  “Mr. Friedman seems to have an illusion that the Cold War was “fun”. However tongue-in-cheek his assertion may be, there are millions of dead in numerous third world nations who, if they could still speak, would take issue with the notion that the Cold War was “fun”.”  Maybe it’s time for TMOW to sit down in the shade…  Here he is:

Let’s see, America is prepositioning battle tanks with our East European NATO allies to counterbalance Russia; U.S. and Russian military planes recently flew within 10 feet of each other; Russia is building a new generation of long-range ballistic missiles; and the U.S. and China are jostling in the South China Sea. Did someone restart the Cold War while I was looking the other way?

If so, this time it seems like the Cold War without the fun — that is, without James Bond, Smersh, “Get Smart” Agent 86’s shoe phone, Nikita Khrushchev’s shoe-banging, a race to the moon or a debate between American and Soviet leaders over whose country has the best kitchen appliances. And I don’t think we’re going to see President Obama in Kiev declaring, à la President Kennedy, “ich bin ein Ukrainian.” Also, the lingo of our day — “reset with Russia” or “pivot to Asia” — has none of the gravitas of — drum roll, please — “détente.”

No, this post-post-Cold War has more of a W.W.E. — World Wrestling Entertainment — feel to it, and I don’t just mean President Vladimir Putin of Russia’s riding horses bare-chested, although that is an apt metaphor. It’s just a raw jostling for power for power’s sake — not a clash of influential ideas but rather of spheres of influence: “You cross that line, I punch your nose.” “Why?” “Because I said so.” “You got a problem with that?” “Yes, let me show you my drone. You got a problem with that?” “Not at all. My cyber guys stole the guidance system last week from Northrop Grumman.” “You got a problem with that?

The Cold War had a beginning, an end and even a closing curtain, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the post-post-Cold War has brought us full circle back to the pre-Cold War and the game of nations. There was a moment when it seemed as though it would all be otherwise — when it seemed that Arabs and Israelis would make peace, that China would evolve into a more consensual political system and that Russia would become part of Europe and the G-8. That was a lifetime ago.

Now Western reporters struggle to get visas to China, no American businessman with a brain takes his laptop to Beijing, Chinese hackers have more of your personal data now than LinkedIn, Russia is still intent on becoming part of Europe — by annexing a piece here and a piece there — and the G-8 is now the G-1.5 (America and Germany).

When did it all go sour? We fired the first shot when we expanded NATO toward the Russian border even though the Soviet Union had disappeared. Message to Moscow: You are always an enemy, no matter what system you have. When oil prices recovered, Putin sought his revenge for this humiliation, but now he’s just using the NATO threat to justify the militarization of Russian society so he and his fellow kleptocrats can stay in power and paint their opponents as lackeys of the West.

NATO’s toppling of the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Arab Spring and the Moscow street protests that followed rattled Putin, said Sergei Guriev, the noted Russian economist now based in Paris. “Putin understood that he lost the Russian middle class and so he started to look for legitimacy somewhere else” — in hypernationalism and anti-Americanism.

But Guriev makes an important point. “If not for the Western sanctions on Russia, East Ukraine would already have been part of Russia today,” he said, adding that there is nothing Putin fears more than Ukraine succeeding in diminishing corruption and building a modern economy that would be everything Putin’s Russia is not. Guriev is worried, though, that the anti-Western propaganda Putin has been pumping into the veins of the Russian public will have a lasting effect and make his successor even worse. Either way, “Russia will be a big challenge for your next president.”

The Chinese leadership is not as dumb or desperate as Putin — and needs access to U.S. markets more — so, for now, China’s leaders still behave with some restraint in asserting their claims in the South China Sea. But the fact is, as the Asia expert Andrew Browne noted in The Wall Street Journal,“the U.S.-China relationship has lost its strategic raison d’être: the Soviet Union, the common threat that brought the two countries together.” They have not forged a new one, like being co-managers of global stability.

In short, the attraction of the U.S. economy and the bite of U.S. sanctions are more vital than ever in managing the post-post-Cold War game of nations, including bringing Iran to nuclear talks. We may be back to traditional geopolitics, but it’s in a much more interdependent world, where our economic clout is still a source of restraint on Moscow and Beijing. Putin doesn’t disguise his military involvement in Ukraine for nothing; he’s afraid of more U.S. banking sanctions. China doesn’t circumscribe its behavior in the South China Sea for nothing; it can’t grow without exporting to America. It’s not just our guns; it’s our butter. It’s why we should be expanding U.S.-shaped free-trade deals with Asia and Europe, and it’s why the most important source of stability in the world today is the health of the U.S. economy. We can walk softly only as long as we carry a big stick — and a big wallet.

Well, Tommy wasn’t born until 1953 so maybe he doesn’t remember hiding under his desk during bomb drills at school, or the Cuban Missile Crisis…  Such fun.  What a putz…

Friedman and Bruni

June 17, 2015

In “None of the Above” TMOW moans about the fact that there are so many presidential candidates and so few daring ideas or trade-offs.  Mr. Bruni is also upset.  In “The G.O.P.’s Blinkered Contenders” he says the party’s 2016 field raises the question: How can you be forward-looking if you’re backward-acting?  Well, Frankie, you can’t.  Does that clear up the question for you?  It’s a clown car full of mole people.  Here’s TMOW:

I don’t recall a time when more people were running for president and fewer of them offered anything more than poll-tested generalities designed to rally their own bases. No one surprises you with any daring. If we could tax their clichés, we’d balance the budget.

The defeat by House Democrats — with an assist from hard-right House Republicans and praise from Hillary Clinton — of President Obama’s sensible plan to expand Pacific free trade and pair it with worker and environmental protections was a bad sign that many more Democrats are now polarizing toward the populist left. Since the Republicans have already purged their moderates, this trend does not bode well for the country. It means that the hybrid/centrist blends that on many issues can create the most resilient solutions are “off the table.” As long as that’s the case, there is little chance you will pass on the American dream to your kids.

Just go down the list. With interest rates this low, Washington should be borrowing billions to invest in infrastructure — roads, ports, airports and 21st-century connectivity and both medical and basic science research — to make us more productive and create jobs. And we should be pairing that with phased-in entitlement trims and means-testing to Social Security and Medicare to make sure that these safety nets, as well as discretionary spending on education and research, will be there for the next generation.

Given the knowledge age we are in, it is crazy that we are educating the world’s brightest kids in our colleges and then sending them home. We should be giving green cards to every high-I.Q. risk-taker who wants to work in America, as well as the energetic less-skilled immigrants. Yes, it must be done legally, with a plan and tight borders. We need a high wall — but with a very big gate. Look at how many start-ups today are led by recent immigrants.

Given the incredible power that new technologies give both governments and terrorists we need a strong American Civil Liberties Union and a strong National Security Agency. In a cyberage, you should want an A.C.L.U. watching the watchers. But you should also want an N.S.A. watching the superempowered, cyberempowered angry people. Civil liberties absolutists may think the 9/11 era is over, but do the jihadist fanatics who use Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp as their command and control system? We need to worry about Big Terrorist and Big Criminal as much as Big Brother if we want to prevent another 9/11.

How is it that we are not deploying a carbon tax and using that to reduce payroll taxes that discourage hiring and shrink corporate taxes that reduce investment? Many economists — left, right and center — agree that a carbon tax, with adjustments for low-income earners, makes a world of sense. How is it that our two parties cannot agree on imaginative solutions to ease the burden of $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loans — by, say, enabling graduates to pay off student loans with pretax income, the same way we allow workers to save in 401(k)s? The Highway Trust Fund, the primary source of financing for roads and mass transit is going broke primarily because House Republicans won’t agree to an increase in the federal gasoline tax, which has not been raised since 1993!

Finally, now that Obamacare is the law of the land, Republicans should be joining Democrats to strengthen it and expand its tools to cut medical costs — rather than keep trying to kill a market-based health care solution that was originally a Republican idea.

Partisanship is vital to a healthy democracy — but not when it becomes an end itself, just an engine for politicians to raise more money to win more elections to raise more money — without ever daring to stop and challenge their own base when necessary. In Silicon Valley, collaboration is how you build great products with others. In Washington, it’s how you destroy your career. In cars and crops, hybrids are the most resilient solutions; in politics today, they’re toxic. Eventually that will sap our strength.

I like the way Clive Crook, a Bloomberg View columnist, puts it: “Can any self-respecting political thinker any longer be a centrist? I’d say so. For me, the question is how any self-respecting political thinker can be anything else.” How can you have a serious public policy discussion without acknowledging trade-offs? Crook asked. “True believers of right and left organize their ideas around the hope that there aren’t any. For progressives, ‘fairness’ trumps everything; for conservatives, ‘freedom.’ Balancing either against anything else is a moral violation — but, as luck would have it, the need never arises. If you’re a progressive, you can raise tax rates without discouraging effort, and mandate higher wages without reducing the demand for labor. If you’re a conservative, you can cut taxes without harming essential public services, and roll back regulation without putting anybody at risk. If centrists didn’t always try to be polite, I’d call this aversion to trade-offs infantile.”

Centrism, noted Crook, isn’t automatically good or bad. It can be “pointless and productive, lazy and energetic, timid and brave.” At its best, it may rarely inspire, but, at its best, it has a lot better chance of prolonging the American dream than either party alone.

He really seems to think that the Republicans might come around to giving a flying fck about anything other than fattening their wallets, at the expense of everyone and everything else.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

The Republican Party keeps announcing its new modernity, declaring its new inclusiveness, swearing that it has changed and then showing that it hasn’t.

Witness Rand Paul, who is supposed to be one of its fresher, unconventional faces.

He spoke at a dinner here on Saturday, in a blazer and khakis instead of a suit, and once again presented himself as a Republican unusually in touch with the sensibilities of younger voters, especially concerned about the welfare of minorities and uniquely positioned to expand the party’s reach.

It was a refreshing pitch — until a medieval metaphor revealed an antiquated mind-set.

He was describing people’s need to feel that their personal information in cyberspace is as safe from indiscriminate government snooping as the documents in their dwellings have long been, and he mentioned the adage that “a man’s house is his castle.”

Then he updated it: “Now we would say a man or a wife’s home is their castle.”

A man or a wife’s?

Aiming for a less sexist, more sensitive vocabulary, he came up with a more sexist, less sensitive one, casting women as auxiliaries of men.

This was no way to rebrand the party, no way to retire any image of it as a preserve for old white guys.

But it was emblematic. For all the party’s self-congratulation about a field of official and unofficial presidential candidates who depart from the fusty norm, the truth is that they don’t depart nearly enough.

Yes, they’re a racially diverse group, including Bobby Jindal, who is Indian-American; Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who are Cuban-American; and Ben Carson, who is African-American.

Yes, Rubio and Bush speak Spanish, as Bush did in Miami on Monday during his formal campaign announcement, which had the multiethnic flourish of a Coca-Cola Super Bowl commercial.

Yes, Cruz and Rubio are both under 45. Rubio in fact looks young enough to be Bernie Sanders’s grandson. He advertises an affinity for hip-hop and rap. He name-checks Pitbull and Nicki Minaj.

Paul, an ophthalmologist, highlights his travels to Central America to perform eye surgery on indigent Guatemalans. He cuts his own hair. And he urges criminal justice reforms, including lighter punishments for marijuana possession and use.

But he came across as more backward-acting than forward-looking during that strange sequence of interviews with female journalists a few months ago, when he admonished and interrupted them.

And his Republican rivals, beneath their playlists and campaign choreography, aren’t so impressively in touch with the times either.

Although more than 70 percent of American adults under 35 support same-sex marriage, not one candidate in the sprawling Republican field has explicitly taken that position, and most have expressed impassioned opposition.

Although an increasing fraction of American adults, including about a third of those under 35, now pronounce themselves religiously unaffiliated, there’s no sense of that drift in the emphatic religious testimonials of most of the Republican candidates, including Bush, Rubio and Scott Walker, who introduces himself as a preacher’s son.

Almost all of them are at odds with young Americans’ belief in climate change and stated desire for immigration reform.

And none of the leading contenders has a pitch that strongly reflects arecent Gallup poll’s finding that more Americans label themselves socially liberal than at any point in the last 16 years. These Americans finally match the percentage of those who call themselves socially conservative.

Where’s the Republican presidential contender for them?

Where’s the Republican candidate who can enter into an important, necessary debate about the size, role and efficacy of government without being weighed down by a set of statements and positions on social issues that seem tailored to placate the religious right and to survive the primaries, not to capture voters in the center? You’re not allowed to say George Pataki unless he reaches 5 percent in the polls. Last I checked, he’s about four points shy of that.

Yet again there’s a void, and Hillary Clinton and her advisers have certainly noticed it. That awareness informed her own speech on Saturday, on Roosevelt Island, where she made many references to young Americans, to L.G.B.T. Americans, to minorities, to working women. Her remarks constituted a road map of the precise terrain that Democrats want to keep — or put — beyond Republicans’ reach.

And she sought to counteract the familiarity of her presence with the novelty of her promise. She pictured a woman in the Oval Office.

On the other side of the country, Paul pictured a woman in a castle — and all he saw was a wife. The ophthalmologist needs better vision. So does his party, if it wants passage across the moat to the White House.

Friedman, flying solo

June 10, 2015

Mr. Bruni is off today, so TMOW has the place to himself.  In “How to Beat the Bots” he states that we have the workers and we have the jobs, and that now we just need an employment dating service.  This from the man who rhapsodized about reselling your clothes…  Oh, what the hell — here he is:

So here’s an interesting statistic from a 2014 labor survey by burning-glass.com: 65 percent of new job postings for executive secretaries and executive assistants now call for a bachelor’s degree, but “only 19 percent of those currently employed in these roles have a B.A.” So four-fifths of secretaries today would not be considered for two-thirds of the job postings in their own field because they do not have a four-year degree to do the job they are already doing! The study noted that an “increasing number of job seekers face being shut out of middle-skill, middle-class occupations by employers’ rising demand for a bachelor’s degree” as a job-qualifying badge — even though it may be irrelevant, or in no way capture someone’s true capabilities, or where perhaps two quick online courses would be sufficient.

This is just one of the problems contributing to unemployment and underemployment today. It was the subject of a seminar last Thursday jointly convened by New America, McKinsey, LinkedIn andOpportunity@Work, a new civic group led by Byron Auguste, who headed President Obama’s recent efforts to reform the education-to-work pathway in America. The meeting’s focus was a new McKinsey study on how we can use big data and online talent platforms to better nurture talent in the work force, find it where it already exists but may not be “badged” by a college degree and connect it both with the real demands of businesses and with colleges looking to make their curriculum more relevant to changing work force needs. As Senator Mark Warner, who delivered a smart keynote address, noted, “Almost 25 people are running for President — and it is remarkable to me that not one of them is talking about these issues.”

The McKinsey study begins: “Labor markets around the world have not kept pace with rapid shifts in the global economy, and their inefficiencies take a heavy toll.” Millions of people can’t find work, “yet sectors from technology to health care cannot find people to fill open positions. Many who do work feel overqualified or underutilized.”

“The skills gap is real,” explained Auguste, “but it is a symptom — not the cause — of a dysfunctional labor market, along with stagnant wages and declining job mobility.” While it’s true that more people need to master digital skills today, there are, he noted, a lot of people with skills employers are seeking — like coding skills — but who may lack the traditional credentials to be considered for the jobs. There are people who would be happy and able to master these skills but don’t have the information on what they are, where best to learn them, or access to new learning platforms that are not covered by traditional government loans or grants; companies have employees in their warehouses, call centers and retail floors with the motivation and aptitude to learn the skills for new jobs, but too few employers identify them or offer them online training opportunities; and there are rural and urban areas where tapping into the potential of less-credentialed workers could bring I.T. jobs back to U.S. shores.

Check out linkedin.com/edu. LinkedIn has a giant database of millions of workers, which it analyzed to see which schools are launching the most graduates into the top firms in a variety of fields. They’re not always what you’d expect. Accounting? Villanova and Notre Dame. Media? N.Y.U. and Hofstra. Software developers? Carnegie Mellon, Caltech and Cornell. Whether you want to be a plumber or surgeon, it is useful to know which schools’ alumni keep rising at the leading firms.

Technology is redefining work and commerce, and if we’re smart it can also redefine education for employment and advancement so everyone can monetize, or improve, any skill and connect with any employer in need of it. “Up to 540 million people could benefit from online talent platforms by 2025,” McKinsey said. It is not that hard. We need to be making much better use of the federal government’s labor market data and that of websites like Monster.com, HireArt.com and LinkedIn, and even consider creating skill equivalents of the Obamacare health exchanges. Online talent platforms — that can link everyone’s C.V. with every job opening, with the skills needed for that job, with the online and campus-based schools offering those skills with data showing which schools do it best — create more employment, more relevant skills and the right education for them.

Congress needs to create the legal, privacy and financial incentives to nurture this new social contract, argued Senator Warner: “The biggest challenge for this labor force, and for federal policy makers, is the change in the traditional employer-employee relationship.” If we used all our technology resources, said Aneesh Chopra, former chief technology officer of the United States, we could actually give people “personalized recommendations for every step of your life — at every step of your life.” Adds Auguste: “We can use technology to do more than automate tasks. We can use it to accelerate learning, optimize talent, and guide people into better jobs and careers.”

The robots will only take all the jobs if we let them — so let’s use technology to keep the middle skilled in the middle class.

Friedman and Bruni

June 3, 2015

In “Planting Seeds in Baltimore” TMOW says the SEED School of Maryland has just graduated its first class, sending them on to colleges all over the country.  In the comments “Whome” from NYC had this to say:  “So after all that effort and money spent the program appears to have a 35% graduation rate. Is that any different than the public school graduation rate?”  In “My Road to the White House” Mr. Bruni says if you can’t bear ‘em, join ‘em. Welcome to his 2016 campaign.  Here’s TMOW:

On a warm Saturday in late May 2008, my wife, Ann, talked me into going to an auditorium in Baltimore to watch a lottery. It was no ordinary lottery. Numbered balls were cranked out of a bingo machine, and the winners got a ticket to a better life. It was the lottery to choose the first 80 students to attend a new public college-prep boarding school: the SEED School of Maryland based in Baltimore. (My wife chairs the foundation behind the SEED schools.) SEED Maryland — SEED already had a branch in the District of Columbia — was admitting boys and girls from some of the toughest streets and dysfunctional schools in Maryland, and particularly Baltimore, beginning in sixth grade. Five days a week, they would live at the school in a dormitory with counselors — insulated from the turmoil of their neighborhoods — and take buses home on weekends. Last Saturday, I attended the graduation of that first class.

In a city that has made headlines lately for police brutality against African-Americans and inner-city rage, the graduation was a balm. The audience was packed with mostly African-Americans who had come to see, in many cases, the first in their families graduate from high school and head to a four-year college. But it was also filled with supporters, funders and teachers of all races. Starting such a school, persuading parents to send their kids to the first class, persuading kids to live away from home and take buses back all over Maryland every weekend, was hard. And the black and white SEED community did that hard work together.

As the saying goes: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Unfortunately, not everyone made it to the finish line: Of the 80 who won the lottery that day in 2008, only 29 stuck it out or made it from sixth grade to graduation. The good news is that the graduates are going to the University of Virginia, the University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, U.S.C., Villanova and others; one is joining the Coast Guard.

Several things struck me. One was the kindness with which the young men and women who had been living together in dorms since sixth grade treated one another. The class valedictorian, Stephanie Keyaka, who is going to Penn State, spoke touchingly about her classmates in her speech and seemed to speak for all when she said, “Today we say goodbye to the world of lockers without locks, to the world of having the confidence to leave a laptop in a hallway certain that it will be there when we return.” The next phase will not be so nurturing, she added, but that didn’t matter — SEED left them all with a lot of “grit.”

Then she concluded: “SEED’s greatness, however, doesn’t lie in what SEED did do, but what SEED did not do for us. SEED never made us feel inadequate; SEED never discouraged us from daring to dream. … And, most importantly, there was never a time when we felt unwanted or unloved.”

When I asked Devin Tingle, who’s going to the Illinois Institute of Technology, what he took most from SEED, he cited the summer science internships and the fact that “this school teaches eight core values,” which he then ticked off: “respect, responsibility, self-determination, self-discipline, empathy, compassion, perseverance and integrity. This school teaches these core values from sixth grade until we graduate.”

I asked Education Secretary Arne Duncan what he thought generally about the public boarding school model, which is expensive. He said, “Some kids need six hours a day, some nine, some 12 to 13,” but some clearly would benefit from a more “24/7” school/community environment. “I went to Baltimore and talked to teachers after the riots,” Duncan added. “The number of kids living with no family member is stunning. But who is there 24/7? The gangs. At a certain point, you need love and structure, and either traditional societal institutions provide that or somebody else does. We get outcompeted by the gangs, who are there every day on those corners.” So quality public boarding schools need to be “part of a portfolio of options for kids.”

All the SEED graduates seemed to have some family present at the ceremony. Indeed, these kids are visibly bearing the hopes of a lot of people. (I was in the men’s room and overheard a father telling his young child that he had to learn to go “pee-pee” so he could attend nursery school next fall and one day be like his sibling who just graduated SEED.)

The incoming C.E.O. of SEED, Lesley Poole, remarked to me: “I passed a family coming in, and I turned to them and asked: ‘Do you have a student graduating?’ And they said, ‘Yes, and we are so excited.’ What you see today is a victory for not just the students graduating, but also for a community. No family just has the mom or the grandmother here. There are cousins and neighbors — people who were skeptical of this whole model. … Dreams are coming true today, and not just the dream of high school graduation, but the dream of college graduation. At a time when our country is facing a number of challenges and so many places where it is clear we don’t agree — and the fear among some people that the American dream is not for everybody — for them, the American dream may just be one step and one day closer.”

Maybe if public schools were properly funded…  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

I know a hot trend when I see one and I hate to hop aboard too late. So here goes:

I’m announcing my candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.

Sure, I have severely limited name recognition in the hinterlands and, come to think of it, in most urban, suburban and exurban areas as well. But that isn’t stopping Lindsey Graham.

True, I have questionable hair (what’s left of it). But that’s not going to deter Donald Trump.

My weight has been known to fluctuate, but that connects me to Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush, whose Paleo regimen has worked slimming wonders. Forget his position on immigration and check out those new cheekbones! Memo to self: Out with the rigatoni, in with the rib-eye.

My legs aren’t as sturdy as Rand Paul’s. The only way I’d manage a marathon filibuster is if the Senate allowed a Barcalounger and microwave popcorn. But I don’t share his unsettling habit of berating female journalists. I just beg the ones I know to retweet me.

And I have cool eyeglasses that make me look a whole lot smarter than I really am. I’ll fit right in with Rick Perry.

Like Marco Rubio, I have an inspiring immigrant story. My forebears arrived penniless on these shores.

Unfortunately, their country of origin was Italy, which people no longer associate with struggle. They associate it with Prada and prosciutto. One of these is central to my life.

Skeptics will focus on the pesky gaps in my résumé. I’ve never won election to any political office.

But neither have Trump, Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina, and her batting average, zero for one, is worse than mine, which is zero for zero. I’m undefeated.

I made the requisite trip to Israel, but it was ages ago and I stupidly neglected to alert the media, tote along a publicist, pose for photographs at the Western Wall and sup with Bibi. You live and you learn.

I haven’t published a book with a title like “On My Honor” (Perry), “Rising to the Challenge” (Fiorina), “Tough Choices” (Fiorina again), “Unintimidated” (Scott Walker), “American Dreams” (Rubio), “American Patriots” (Rick Santorum), “Leadership and Crisis” (Bobby Jindal) or “Unbroken” (oops, wrong genre).

My memoir, “Born Round,” doesn’t belong. But perhaps I can reissue it as “The Hunger for Greatness” or “Fire in the Belly,” if the latter doesn’t sound too much like I just ate bad Thai.

Clearly I need a “super PAC” and a benefactor willing to float me, I don’t know, $10 million? Possibly $15 million? Do I hear $20 million?

I’ll go to the highest bidder, and if it’s for a sufficiently handsome sum, I could last until the Florida primary and charge a Coconut Grove hotel suite and dinner in South Beach to the campaign.

I used to think that faintness on voters’ radar was an impediment to running. Hardly. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, 69 percent of respondents said that they didn’t know enough about Fiorina to have any opinion of her, 60 percent said the same about Carson, and 56 percent said that about Graham, even though he’s been in Congress for two decades and had himself surgically conjoined with John McCain.

I used to think that a groundswell of support mattered. Not at all. Last I checked, Jindal and George Pataki were both polling below 1.5 percent. That must have them losing to the margin of error.

I used to think that a shot at victory was the point. Ha! There are spoils aplenty on the path to defeat.

I’ll get to ride around in an Escalade with my very own Huma. Minions will buff my Facebook page. “Morning Joe” will beckon, and I hear that you leave the set with a commemorative mug.

I could even come out of this with my own show, provided that I’m not picky about the network, hour, format or guests. And with the right kind of stump speech and pandering, I could emerge as a deity to one micro-constituency or another and have a guaranteed place at podiums forevermore.

If I don’t make the cut for the Fox News debate in August, I’ll just watch it in a nearby pub with Pataki and Graham. Fun! We’ll do shots of Wild Turkey whenever Walker mentions unions, Huckabee invokes God or Ted Cruz praises Ted Cruz.

On second thought, maybe we’ll stick to seltzer.

I haven’t mentioned a platform. What’s the point? Christie was for the Common Core before he was against it. The Walker who ran for re-election in the Wisconsin governor’s race and the one wooing Iowans are second cousins at best.

Every candidate turns to mush. So I, in a blow for integrity, will start out that way.

That’s Mr. Bruni’s first major problem — if he starts out as mush then he’s missing out on an opportunity to flip-flop…

Friedman and Bruni

May 20, 2015

The Moustache of Wisdom is having the vapors.  In “Hillary, Jeb, Facebook and Disorder” he moans that huge disruptive inflections in technology, the labor market and geopolitics have the 2016 presidential candidates in a leadership quandary.  He launches into his piece with a whine that the candidates don’t want “to engage with major issues of the day.”  Gee, Tommy — maybe if someone in your cohort of “journalists” would, you know, actually ASK them to address issues we could find out what they think, or if they’re even capable of thinking.  Christ…  In “Platinum Pay in Ivory Towers” Mr. Bruni says that the excessive salaries of some college presidents send a message at odds with higher education.  Here’s TMOW:

For a presidential campaign that has started so early, it’s striking how little most of the candidates want to engage with major issues of the day, let alone the future. Hillary Clinton won’t take a clear stand on two big issues she helped to negotiate as secretary of state: the free-trade deal with Pacific nations and the nuclear deal with Iran. Jeb Bush’s campaign seems stuck on whether he is or is not his brother’s keeper. Marco Rubio was for comprehensive immigration reform before he was against it. While Senators Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders are motivated by clear ideologies, the others, so far, evince much more compelling ambitions to be president than compelling reasons for why they should be.

That can’t last. Just follow the headlines. We’re in the middle of some huge disruptive inflections in technology, the labor market and geopolitics that will raise fundamental questions about the future of work and the social contracts between governments and their people and employers and employees. These will all erupt in the next presidency.

What are the signs of that? Well, my candidate for best lead paragraph on a news article so far this year goes to Tom Goodwin, an executive at Havas Media, whose essay March 3 on Techcrunch.com began: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.”

There sure is. We’re at the start of a major shift on the question of what’s worth owning. What all of the above companies have in common is that they have either created trust platforms that match supply and demand for things people never thought of supplying: a spare bedroom in their home or a seat in their car or a commercial link between a small retailer in North Dakota and a small manufacturer in China. Or they are behavioral platforms that spin off extremely valuable data for retailers and advertisers or they are behavioral platforms on which ordinary people can generate reputations — for driving, hosting or any skill you can imagine — and then market themselves globally.

This is a result of the exponential growth in computing power, storage, networking, sensors and software generation and interoperability, which is allowing us to both gather massive amounts of data and apply software to that data to see patterns at a speed and scope unknown before. And it is taking friction out of so many things at once: from hailing a cab to reserving a room in someone’s home in Timbuktu to buying groceries to learning from anyone anywhere to designing an airplane part on a 3-D printer in a week instead of six months. Complexity is becoming free.

A recent study by the Oxford Martin School concluded that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at high risk of being taken by smart machines and software in the next two decades. And what is interesting, notes James Manyika, a director of the McKinsey Global Institute and co-author of “No Ordinary Disruption,” is that, contrary to expectations, “knowledge workers at the middle and the top” may be more threatened than those doing physical work. For example, The Associated Press now uses computers, not reporters, to generate more than 3,000 financial reports per quarter. This can free up workers to do more creative work, but they have to be trained for it.

On geopolitics, we still have great power rivalries, but the most relevant divide in the world will no longer be East-West, capitalist-communist. It will be the World of Order versus the World of Disorder, as environmental, sectarian and economic pressures are pulverizing weak and failed states. Every day now you read about people fleeing the World of Disorder for the World of Order. Rohingyas, a mostly Muslim group, from Myanmar and Bangladesh are trying to get into Thailand and Malaysia; Africans and Arabs are trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe; Central American parents have sent thousands of their kids to the United States. Israel’s government has started sending letters to 45,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees — who walked, rode and sailed to Israel in search of order and work — telling them they have 30 days to accept $3,500 in cash and a one-way ticket home or to an unnamed third country in Africa or face prison,The Washington Post reported last week. Last year, the U.N.’s refugee agency said there are more displaced people worldwide — some 50 million — than at anytime since World War II.

But here’s the rub: We don’t know what to do. We used to rely on empires, colonizers and dictators to control a lot of these places, but we’re now in a post-imperial, post-colonial and, in many places, post-autocratic age. No one wants to touch these disorderly zones because all you win is a bill. And most are incapable of democratic self-governance. Who will control these areas? What if the answer is nobody? It will be one of the big leadership challenges of the next decade.

So, to paraphrase Trotsky once more: Our presidential candidates may not be interested in talking seriously about the future yet, but the future will be interested in talking to them.

Gee…  Maybe the Times could program a computer to generate columns about the flat earth and Tommy could be trained to do something creative…  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

Gregory Fenves recently got a big promotion, from provost to president of the University of Texas at Austin. A raise came with it. Instead of his current base of about $425,000, he was offered $1 million.

And he rejected it — as too much.

“With many issues and concerns about administrative costs, affordability and tuition, such a salary will affect the ability of the president to work with the Texas Legislature,” Fenves wrote to a university official, in an email obtained by The Austin American-Statesman and published last week.

He suggested, and agreed to, $750,000.

That’s hardly chump change. But in the context of the shockingly lucrative deals that have become almost commonplace among college presidents, the sum — or, more precisely, the sentiment behind it — is worthy of note and praise.

Too few presidents give adequate thought to the symbolism and dissonance of extraordinarily generous compensation packages, which are in sync with this era of lavish executive pay and glaring income inequality but out of line with the ostensible mission of academia.

Ideally, higher education is dedicated to values different from those that govern Wall Street and corporate America. It supposedly calls students to more soulful concerns, even to sacrifice.

But that message is muddled when some of the people who run colleges wallow in payments and perks that would once have been considered vulgar.

For E. Gordon Gee’s final year as the president of Ohio State University, which he left in 2013, he got a package of more than $6 million, as waswidely reported. It was a one-time bonanza, including deferred payments and severance, but he’d earned roughly $2 million annually over the previous years.

The Chronicle of Higher Education analyzed salary information for private colleges from 2012, the most recent year available, and found that Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, received a package worth over $7 million.

John L. Lahey of Quinnipiac University: about $3.75 million. Lee Bollingerof Columbia University: almost $3.4 million.

Fenves’s salary as the president of the University of Texas puts him well behind that of his counterpart at Texas A & M University, who has an annual base of $1 million plus $400,000 in additional compensation, according to The American-Statesman.

Each profligate compensation package breeds more like it, as schools’ trustees convince themselves that they must keep pace in order to recruit, retain and receive the precious fairy dust of the heaviest hitters.

They reason that “this is a winner-take-all society and that people with extremely high levels of talent are richly rewarded,” said Richard Vedder, the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

“But I think that things are getting out of hand, especially given the tax-exempt nature of universities,” he told me. “They’re in privileged positions, and they were given these privileged positions not to enrich themselves but to serve society. These presidents are expected to live quite nicely but not exorbitantly and not extravagantly.”

Their extravagance strikes an especially discordant note in light of the challenges confronting higher education today, and it undercuts their moral authority.

How do you defend the transfer of teaching responsibilities to low-paid, part-time adjuncts when the president is sitting so pretty? How do you cut administrative costs, which indeed need cutting? How do you explain steep tuition increases, mammoth student debt and the failure to admit more children from poor families?

How do you summon students back to the liberal arts and away from mercenary priorities?

The high salaries are frequently defended on the grounds that a university president’s job is all consuming. But if it is, how do so many of them find time to serve, for hundreds of thousands of extra dollars, on corporate boards? Rensselaer’s Jackson was at one point on five boards simultaneously.

The high salaries are also defended in terms of the fund-raising that certain presidents reputedly excel at, covering their compensation many times over. But do they deserve sole credit for those donations? And at nonprofit institutions, should money be the main yardstick and currency? Shouldn’t ethics compete with economics, as they sometimes do when a school invests its endowment?

The lofty pay of college presidents is part of higher education’s increasingly corporate bent, of the blurred lines between the campus and the marketplace.

And like the private enrichment of many political candidates who speak of “public service,” it’s not just a mirror of our pervasive money culture. It’s a green light for it, from precincts of principle where a flashing yellow would be more appropriate.

Friedman and Bruni

April 29, 2015

In “On Trade: Obama Right, Critics Wrong” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us that President Obama’s trade agreements can enhance our national security as much as our economic security.  In the comments “HDNY” from New York, NY had this to say:  International trade agreements should not be cloaked in secrecy and kept from the view of those whose jobs they are going destroy. If this deal is good, there should be a way to show that to the American people. You can’t just say, “You won’t like this, and it’s going to hurt, but we know what’s best and we’re doing this for your own good.””  Mr. Bruni, in “Love, Marriage and Music,” says the Supreme Court should give us an anthem of true equality.  Here’s TMOW, writing from Berlin:

I strongly support President Obama’s efforts to conclude big, new trade-opening agreements with our Pacific allies, including Japan and Singapore, and with the whole European Union. But I don’t support them just for economic reasons.

While I’m certain they would benefit America as a whole economically, I’ll leave it to the president to explain why (and how any workers who are harmed can be cushioned). I want to focus on what is not being discussed enough: how these trade agreements with two of the biggest centers of democratic capitalism in the world can enhance our national security as much as our economic security.

Because these deals are not just about who sets the rules. They’re about whether we’ll have a rule-based world at all. We’re at a very plastic moment in global affairs — much like after World War II. China is trying to unilaterally rewrite the rules. Russia is trying to unilaterally break the rules and parts of both the Arab world and Africa have lost all their rules and are disintegrating into states of nature. The globe is increasingly dividing between the World of Order and the World of Disorder.

When you look at it from Europe — I’ve been in Germany and Britain the past week — you see a situation developing to the south of here that is terrifying. It is not only a refugee crisis. It’s a civilizational meltdown: Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq — the core of the Arab world — have all collapsed into tribal and sectarian civil wars, amplified by water crises and other environmental stresses.

But — and this is the crucial point — all this is happening in a post-imperial, post-colonial and increasingly post-authoritarian world. That is, in this pluralistic region that lacks pluralism — the Middle East — we have implicitly relied for centuries on the Ottoman Empire, British and French colonialism and then kings and dictators to impose order from the top-down on all the tribes, sects and religions trapped together there. But the first two (imperialism and colonialism) are gone forever, and the last one (monarchy and autocracy) are barely holding on or have also disappeared.

Therefore, sustainable order — the order that will truly serve the people there — can only emerge from the bottom-up by the communities themselves forging social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens. And since that is not happening — except in Tunisia — the result is increasing disorder and tidal waves of refugees desperately trying to escape to the islands of order: Europe, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

At the same time, the destruction of the Libyan government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, without putting boots on the ground to create a new order in the vacuum — surely one of the dumbest things NATO ever did — has removed a barrier to illegal immigration to Europe from Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Eritrea, Syria and Sudan. As one senior German official speaking on background said to me: “Libya had been a bar to crossing the Mediterranean. But that bar has been removed now, and we can’t reinvent it.” A Libyan smuggler told The Times’s David D. Kirkpatrick, reporting from Libya, now “everything is open — the deserts and the seas.”

Here’s a prediction: NATO will eventually establish “no-sail zones” — safe areas for refugees and no-go zones for people-smugglers — along the Libyan coast.

What does all this have to do with trade deals? With rising disorder in the Middle East and Africa — and with China and Russia trying to tug the world their way — there has never been a more important time for the coalition of free-market democracies and democratizing states that are the core of the World of Order to come together and establish the best rules for global integration for the 21st century, including appropriate trade, labor and environmental standards. These agreements would both strengthen and more closely integrate the market-based, rule-of-law-based democratic and democratizing nations that form the backbone of the World of Order.

America’s economic future “depends on being integrated with the world,” said Ian Goldin, the director of the Oxford Martin School, specializing in globalization. “But the future also depends on being able to cooperate with friends to solve all kinds of other problems, from climate to fundamentalism.” These trade agreements can help build trust, coordination and growth that tilt the balance in all these countries more toward global cooperation than “hunkering down in protectionism or nationalism and letting others, or nobody, write the rules.”

As Obama told his liberal critics Friday: If we abandon this effort to expand trade on our terms, “China, the 800-pound gorilla in Asia will create its own set of rules,” signing bilateral trade agreements one by one across Asia “that advantage Chinese companies and Chinese workers and … reduce our access … in the fastest-growing, most dynamic economic part of the world.”  But if we get the Pacific trade deal done, “China is going to have to adapt to this set of trade rules that we’ve established.” If we fail to do that, he added, 20 years from now we’ll “look back and regret it.”

That’s the only thing he got wrong. We will regret it much sooner.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

At some point in my childhood, just before my teens, I was struck by the fact that almost all of the songs that I was hearing on the radio, half-consciously humming along to or committing to memory were about love.

Different shades of love, yes, and different stages of it: the heat and hunger of its infancy, the expansive warmth of its maturity, the bleeding pain when all that’s left of it is shards. But love nonetheless.

Starland Vocal Band mulled the naughty pleasures of an “Afternoon Delight.” Daryl Hall pined for the sweet validation of a sweetheart’s gesture in “Sara Smile.” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” Elton John implored Kiki Dee, and back then he hadn’t informed the world, or fully accepted, that the people most likely to hold that kind of power over him didn’t have names like Kiki.

Those were all huge hits in 1976, which is when I turned 12. And the No. 1 single that year?

“Silly Love Songs,” which Paul McCartney thought that “people would have had enough of.” No way, because there’s nothing silly about love, and when it comes to music, love is almost all there is.

When it comes to life, too.

On Tuesday love went to the Supreme Court, where the lawyers and the justices spoke of “equal participation” and “equal protection,” of “due process” and “animus,” of the Constitution and states’ rights.

There were legal terms and points of reference aplenty. It’s easy to become lost in them, and just as easy to follow the leads of journalists who are framing the proceedings as a high drama starring enigmatic actors: Justice Anthony Kennedy with his swing vote, Chief Justice John Roberts with his sensitivity to the court’s legacy.

But it’s important to step back and remember what this is really about: the most exquisite emotion that any of us can have, the most exalted bond, and whether we’re content to tell one group of Americans that their love is less dignified — and less worthy of celebration — than another group’s.

There’s no alternate message for gays and lesbians to read into prohibitions against same-sex marriage, because our society, like so many others, decided long ago that marriage was the most formal recognition of love, the ultimate blessing bestowed on it.

For many years now the tireless, dauntless advocates who blazed the trail to Tuesday have eloquently detailed the practical reasons for legalizing same-sex marriage, the measurable rights that it establishes or ensures.

It eliminates anxieties and injustices regarding hospital visits, medical decisions, estates, Social Security benefits, child custody, child care, immigration and more. It’s the best way to replace limbo with stability, freeing good people to get on with the rest of their lives.

But the expansion of marriage to include gays and lesbians does something even broader and deeper than that. It alters the very soundtrack of our existences, removing a refrain of disapproval, however minor, however muted.

I long detected that refrain in all of those silly love songs, which dominated the pop charts of my youth and dominate the pop charts now, because they traced a landscape that I would almost certainly have to tiptoe across, that was only partly hospitable to the likes of me.

So while they filled me with longing, as they were meant to, they also filled me with an unintended sadness. With envy, too, because I knew that for other people — straight people — worry and shame didn’t intrude on the melodies.

So much has changed. One of the most widely played love songs of last year, “Stay With Me,” is performed by Sam Smith, whose fans are fully aware that he’s gay. They’re aware, too, that the “one-night stand” that he mentions in the opening line is with another man.

At a music festival later this year, he’s scheduled to appear with Elton John,now out of the closet, now knighted and now with kids and a husband, whom he married under British law, which allows it.

American law remains a patchwork: equality in this state, inequality in that one. That’s where the Supreme Court comes in.

It can endorse inconsistency. Or the justices can do what’s right and what’s necessary, acknowledging that there’s no way to divorce a person’s way of loving from his or her humanity — that they’re entwined, like verse and chorus, and to treat one as inferior is to treat both that way.

We’ll probably get a ruling in June.

And with any luck, that judgment will turn all the love songs of yesterday, today and tomorrow into universal anthems that make the same promise to every listener, no matter the object of his or her affection.

Friedman and Bruni

April 22, 2015

In “Deal or No Deal?” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us about the challenges the Obama administration faces in negotiating with Iran.  Mr. Bruni, in “Hollywood Trumps Harvard,” says there are sad morals to the stories of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Mehmet Oz.  Here’s TMOW:

The Obama team’s effort to negotiate a deal with Iran that could prevent the Iranians from developing a nuclear bomb for at least a decade is now entering its critical final stage. I hope that a good, verifiable deal can be finalized, but it will not be easy. If it were, we’d have it by now. Here are the major challenges:

First, you can negotiate a simple arms control agreement with an adversary you don’t trust. We did that with the Kremlin in the Cold War. By simple, I mean with relatively few moving parts, and very clear verification procedures that do not require much good will from the other side — like monitoring Soviet missile sites with our own satellites. You can also negotiate a complicated arms control deal with a country that shares your values: Japan and South Korea regularly submit their nuclear facilities to international inspections.

But what is hard to implement is a complex arms control deal with an adversary you don’t trust — like Iran or North Korea. Each moving part requires some good will from the other side, and, because there are so many moving parts, the opportunities for cheating are manifold. It requires constant vigilance. Are the United States, Russia, China and Europe up for that for a decade? After the Iraq invasion, we took our eye off North Korea, and it diverted nuclear fuel for a bomb. With Iran, the U.S. Energy Department is planning to put a slew of new, on-the-ground monitoring devices into every cranny of Iran’s nuclear complex, which should help. But there also has to be zero-tolerance for cheating — and a very high price if there is.

Second, for us, this is solely an arms control agreement. For Iran, this is “an identity crisis” that it’s being asked to resolve, and it’s still not clear it can do so, says Robert Litwak of the Wilson Center and the author of “Outlier States: American Strategies to Contain, Engage, or Change Regimes.”

America’s engagement with Iran, said Litwak, is like “the Cuban missile crisis meets the Thirty Years’ War.” For us, this is a pure nuclear negotiation, but, for Iran, the nuclear issue “is a proxy for what kind of country it wants to be — an ordinary state or an Islamic revolutionary state. And this divide goes back to the origins of its revolution” in 1979. Most revolutions eventually go through some cultural rebalancing that breaks its fever and turns it toward normalcy and integration, Litwak added: “But Iran has never gone through that process. It tantalized us with reformist presidents who didn’t really hold power and when push came to shove never challenged the fundamentals of the revolutionary deep state that had the monopoly on the use of force” and control of its nuclear program.

There is a hard core in Tehran for whom nuclear weapons are not only a hedge against foreign invasion but also a deliberate thumb in the eye of the world meant to block the very integration that would open Iran to influences from America and the West — an opening they fear would dilute whatever revolutionary fervor is left in its youths, many of whom are fed up with Iran’s isolation. That is why Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was telling the truth when he recently said that he has not made up his mind about this deal. He’s having an identity crisis. He wants sanctions relief without integration. After all, if Iran is a normal state, who needs a medieval cleric to be the “supreme leader?”

The challenge for Obama is whether he can do a deal with an Iran that, as Litwak puts it, “doesn’t change character but just changes behavior.” Obama’s bet — and it is not crazy — is that if you can get the right verification procedures in place and deprive Iran from making a bomb for a decade (that alone is worth a deal, given the alternatives) then you increase the odds of Iran’s own people changing Iran’s character from within. But then so much rides on implementing a fail-proof verification regime and “snapback” sanctions if Iran cheats.

I think President Obama believes that nothing has stymied U.S. Mideast policy more in the last 36 years than the U.S.-Iran cold war, and if that can be prudently eased it would equal a Nixon-to-China move that opens up a lot of possibilities. Again, that’s not crazy. It’s just not easy given the forces in Iran who have an interest in being isolated from the West.

Finally, you have the regional challenge. Iran, with about 80 million people, is simply a more powerful and dynamic state today than most of the Sunni Arab states to its west, half of which have collapsed. Iran, even if it had good intentions, almost can’t help but project its power westward given the vacuum and frailty there. When Nixon opened to China, and helped unleash its economic prowess, China was largely surrounded by strong or economically powerful states to balance it. But an Iran enriched by billions in sanctions relief would be even more powerful vis-à-vis its weak Arab neighbors. Our Gulf Arab allies are deeply worried about this and are looking to the U.S. for both protection and more sophisticated arms. I get that. But unless we can find a way to truly ease tensions between Shiite Persians and Sunni Arabs, we will find ourselves unleashing Iran to the max while arming the Arabs to the teeth. Maintaining that balance will not be easy.

These are not reasons to reject the deal. They are reasons to finish it right.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Call me an idealist, but I’d like to think that the halls of higher education are less vulnerable to the siren calls of fame and fortune than other byways of American life are. I’d like to believe in a bold dividing line between academic virtues and celebrity values, between intellectual and commercial concerns.

But Henry Louis Gates Jr., a renowned Harvard professor, and Mehmet Oz, a surgeon on the faculty at Columbia, get in my way.

I link the two because they’re both in the news, not because they’re equally in thrall to the television camera or identically unabashed peddlers of something other than fact. Oz is by far the more compromised figure.

But Gates, too, exemplifies what happens when a lecturer is bathed in bright lights and gets to hang with Ben Affleck, who will soon be on-screen in Batman’s billowing cape.

Affleck was a guest last October on the PBS documentary series “Finding Your Roots,” in which Gates takes luminaries — Sting, Stephen King, Angela Bassett — on journeys into their pasts. Affleck signed up for the trip.

But when he learned that he had a slave-owning ancestor, he asked that the detail be excised, according to communications between Gates and his friend Michael Lynton, the chief executive of Sony Entertainment. Their exchange was part of the hacked Sony emails recently shared by WikiLeaks.

“We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found,” Gates wrote to Lynton, going on to fret over the “integrity” of the series. “He’s a megastar. What do we do?”

Gates left the detail out.

After the disclosure of this late last week, he insisted, unpersuasively, that the cut reflected nothing more than the need to make room for other ancestors of Affleck’s who warranted inclusion in the episode.

Regardless, it exposed Gates, a trusted authority on the African-American experience, to accusations that he’d sold out. It diminished him.

But wasn’t that inevitable from the moment he hitched scholarship to show business?

“We conflate what a PBS special is with academic work,” Carol Anderson, who teaches at Emory University, told Jamil Smith in The New Republic. “We have to understand that so much of what we see there is packaged for a nonacademic audience that wants the picture of really deep, intellectual discussion, but is not quite ready for what that means.”

What does the audience of “The Dr. Oz Show” want?

To judge by what Oz gives them, it’s winnowed thighs, amulets against cancer and breathless promises of “magic” and “revolutionary” breakthroughs.

Oz has morphed not just willingly but exuberantly into a carnival barker. He’s a one-man morality play about the temptations of mammon and the seduction of applause, a Faustian parable with a stethoscope.

Many Americans probably had no idea that he remained affiliated with Columbia — he’s vice chairman of its surgery department — until they read last week about an email sent to the university by 10 physicians around the country. They accused him of “promoting quack treatments” for “personal financial gain” and urged Columbia to sever its ties with him.

He’s expected to defend himself on television later this week, and his publicity machine has gone into overdrive, seeking to discredit the physicians and frame the issue as one of free speech.

But don’t forget that he was called before a United States Senate panel last year to explain his on-air gushing about green coffee extract, raspberry ketones and other faddish weight-loss supplements. Admonishing him, Senator Claire McCaskill noted that “the scientific community is almost monolithic” in its rejection of “products you called ‘miracles.’ ”

Also remember that the British Medical Journal published a study of scores of his show’s medical recommendations, saying more than half didn’t have sound scientific backing.

And bear in mind that the Sony emails included one that showed Oz to be eager, as Vox reported, “to use his platform on the show to help expand Sony’s fitness and health-tracking devices market.” Sony is one of the producers of “Dr. Oz.”

But well beyond Oz, there’s an unsettling corruption of academia by celebrity culture.

Many professors do double duty as television pundits, even though sound bites, which are inherently unsubtle, run counter to what scholarship exalts. And educational institutions choose speakers largely — and sometimes solely — for their star power. The University of Houston spent $155,000 to schedule Matthew McConaughey for its commencement next month.

Maybe he’s more learned than we realize. Or maybe erudition counts for less than buzz, even in those enclaves that are supposed to be about deep, durable things.

Friedman, solo

April 1, 2015

In “Tell Me How This Ends Well” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us that reading the newspapers in China can be very interesting.  Here he is, writing from Hong Kong:

I’ve been in China for the last week. It’s always instructive to see how the world looks from the Middle Kingdom. Sometimes the best insights come from just reading the local papers. On March 25, The China Daily published an essay detailing how “Beijing authorities” had “launched inspection tours of kindergartens this week to ensure that children are not overburdened with schoolwork. Although Chinese, mathematics and English are supposed to be taught to primary school students, it is not uncommon to see pre-school-age children across China being forced to study these subjects.” The essay went on to explain why it wasn’t healthy to “begin preparing for the college entrance exam” in preschool.

Reading that, I suddenly had a vision of a SWAT team from China’s Ministry of Education bursting through the doors of kindergartens and declaring: “Put those pencils and books down! Back away from your desks, and nobody gets hurt!”

What a problem to have! Kindergartens teaching math and English too soon.

In the same paper, there was also an article about the latest fighting between Shiite pro-Iranian and Sunni pro-Saudi factions in Yemen. Clashes there have focused on Yemen’s second-largest town, Taiz. Taiz? Wait a minute! I was in Taiz in May 2013 working on a documentary about how Yemen was becoming an environmental disaster. We focused on Taiz because, as a result of Yemen’s devastated ecosystems, residents of Taiz get to run their home water faucets for only 36 hours every 30 days or so.

So there you have it. The news out of China is the crackdown on kindergartens teaching math and English too early, and the news out of Yemen is that Sunni and Shiite factions are fighting over a town that is already so cracked up the water comes on only 36 hours a month and the rest of the time you have to rely on roving water trucks. And that was before the latest fighting.

But at least we’ve found the problem. I’ve read that it’s all President Obama’s fault. I wish. Obama has said and done some boneheaded things in the Middle East (like decapitating the Libyan regime with no plan for the morning after), but being wary about getting further embroiled in this region is not one of them. We’re dealing here with something no president has had to face: the collapse of the Arab state system after 70 years of failed governance.

Again, the comparison with Asia is instructive. After World II, Asia was ruled by many autocrats who essentially came to their people and said, “My people, we’re going to take away your freedom, but we’re going to give you the best education, infrastructure and export-led growth policies money can buy. And eventually you’ll build a big middle class and win your freedom.” Over that same period, Arab autocrats came to their people and said, “My people, we’re going to take away your freedom and give you the Arab-Israel conflict.”

Asian autocrats tended to be modernizers, like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, who just died last week at 91 — and you see the results today: Singaporeans waiting in line for 10 hours to pay last respects to a man who vaulted them from nothing into the global middle class. Arab autocrats tended to be predators who used the conflict with Israel as a shiny object to distract their people from their own misgovernance. The result: Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq are now human development disaster areas.

Some saw this coming. In 2002, a group of Arab social scientists produced the U.N.’s Arab Human Development Report. It said the Arab world suffered deficits of freedom, knowledge and women’s empowerment, and, if it did not turn around, it would get where it was going. It was ignored by the Arab League. In 2011, the educated Arab masses rose up to force a turnaround before they got where they were going. Except for Tunisia (the only Arab country whose autocrat was also a modernizer), that awakening fizzled out. So now they’ve gotten where they were going: state collapse and a caldron of tribal, sectarian (Shiite-Sunni, Persian-Arab) civil wars — in a region bulging with unemployed, angry youths and schools that barely function, or, if they do, they teach an excess of religion not math.

I read President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt declaring that “the challenges facing our national Arab security are grave, and we have succeeded in diagnosing the reasons behind it.” And that was? Too little Arab cooperation against Persians and Islamists. Really? Some 25 percent of Egyptians are illiterate today after $50 billion in U.S. aid since 1979. (In China, illiteracy is 5 percent; in Iran, 15 percent.) My heart goes out to all the people in this region. But when your leaders waste 70 years, the hole is really deep.

In fairness, Sisi is trying to dig Egypt out. Nevertheless, Egypt may send troops to defeat the rebels in Yemen. If so, it would be the first case of a country where 25 percent of the population can’t read sending troops to rescue a country where the water comes through the tap 36 hours a month to quell a war where the main issue is the 7th century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad — Shiites or Sunnis.

Any Chinese preschooler can tell you: That’s not an equation for success.

Friedman, solo

March 25, 2015

The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Look Before Leaping:”  What’s at stake in the nuclear deal with Iran?

I can think of many good reasons to go ahead with the nuclear deal with Iran, and I can think of just as many reasons not to. So, if you’re confused, let me see if I can confuse you even more.

The proposed deal to lift sanctions on Iran — in return for curbs on its bomb-making capabilities so that it would take at least a year for Tehran to make a weapon — has to be judged in its own right. I will be looking closely at the quality of the verification regime and the specificity of what happens if Iran cheats. But the deal also has to be judged in terms of how it fits with wider American strategic goals in the region, because a U.S.-Iran deal would be an earthquake that touches every corner of the Middle East. Not enough attention is being paid to the regional implications — particularly what happens if we strengthen Iran at a time when large parts of the Sunni Arab world are in meltdown.

The Obama team’s best argument for doing this deal with Iran is that, in time, it could be “transformational.” That is, the ending of sanctions could open Iran to the world and bring in enough fresh air — Iran has been deliberately isolated since 1979 by its ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guard Corps — to gradually move Iran from being a revolutionary state to a normal one, and one less inclined to threaten Israel. If one assumes that Iran already has the know-how and tools to build a nuclear weapon, changing the character of its regime is the only way it becomes less threatening.

The challenge to this argument, explains Karim Sadjadpour, a Middle East specialist at the Carnegie Endowment, is that while the Obama team wants to believe this deal could be “transformational,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, “sees it as transactional” — Iran plugs its nose, does the deal, regains its strength and doubles-down on its longstanding revolutionary principles. But, then again, you never know. What starts out as transactional can end up being transformational in ways that no one can prevent or predict.

A second argument is that Iran is a real country and civilization, with competitive (if restricted) elections, educated women and a powerful military. Patching up the U.S.-Iran relationship could enable America to better manage and balance the Sunni Arab Taliban in Afghanistan, and counterbalance the Sunni jihadists, like those in the Islamic State, or ISIS, now controlling chunks of Iraq and Syria. The United States has relied heavily on Saudi Arabia, ever since Iran’s 1979 revolution, and while the Saudi ruling family and elites are aligned with America, there is a Saudi Wahhabi hard core that has funded the spread of the most puritanical, anti-pluralistic, anti-women form of Islam that has changed the character of Arab Islam and helped to foster mutations like ISIS. There were no Iranians involved in 9/11.

Then again, it was Iranian agents who made the most lethal improvised explosives in Iraq that killed many American troops there. And it was Iran that encouraged its Iraqi Shiite allies to reject any extended U.S. military presence in Iraq and to also overplay their hand in stripping power from Iraqi Sunnis, which is what helped to produce the ISIS counterreaction.

“In the fight against ISIS, Iran is both the arsonist and the fire brigade,” added Sadjadpour. To Saudi Arabia, he added, the rise of ISIS is attributable to the repression of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq by Iran and its Shiite clients. To Tehran, the rise of ISIS is attributable to the financial and ideological support of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.

And they are both right, which is why America’s interests lie not with either the Saudis or the Iranian ideologues winning, but rather with balancing the two against each other until they get exhausted enough to stop prosecuting their ancient Shiite-Sunni, Persian-Arab feud.

Then again, if this nuclear deal with Iran is finalized, and sanctions lifted, much more Iranian oil will hit the global market, suppressing prices and benefiting global consumers. Then again, Iran would have billions of dollars more to spend on cyberwarfare, long-range ballistic missiles and projecting power across the Arab world, where its proxies already dominate four Arab capitals: Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Sana.

But, given the disarray in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, do we really care if Iran tries to play policeman there and is embroiled in endless struggles with Sunni militias?  For 10 years, it was America that was overstretched across Iraq and Afghanistan. Now it will be Iran’s turn. I feel terrible for the people who have to live in these places, and we certainly should use American air power to help prevent the chaos from spreading to islands of decency like Jordan, Lebanon and Kurdistan in Iraq. But managing the decline of the Arab state system is not a problem we should own. We’ve amply proved that we don’t know how.

So before you make up your mind on the Iran deal, ask how it affects Israel, the country most threatened by Iran. But also ask how it fits into a wider U.S. strategy aimed at quelling tensions in the Middle East with the least U.S. involvement necessary and the lowest oil prices possible.

I’m sure it will all sort itself out in just one more FU.  And by the way, Tommy, FU.

Cohen and Friedman

March 18, 2015

In “An Uneasy Coalition for Israel” Mr. Cohen says a national unity government may be the least bad outcome.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Go Ahead, Ruin My Day,” has a question:  In looking at Israel, Iran and ISIS, why does it seem as though we have only bad choices, and nothing ever works?  Hang in there Tommy, I’m sure things will get better if we only give it another FU…  (Forget?  Never!)  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

If the Israeli election was above all a referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he prevailed. After accumulating nine years in office over three terms, that is a measure of his political guts, however limited his political achievements.

But his victory revealed deep divisions within Israeli society, and a long season of Israeli uncertainty now looks inevitable, despite the cries of triumph from Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party.

After a bitter campaign, voters converged on the two major parties, a measure of the widespread sense that Israel’s future was at stake. Netanyahu seemed to have won about 30 seats, ahead of the estimated 24 seats of Isaac Herzog, the leader of the center-left Zionist Union. How a government coalition would be put together in the 120-seat Knesset and who would lead it remained an open question that is likely to take weeks of haggling to resolve.

An election of uncertain outcome has already clarified certain things. The world, and certainly the White House, may be tired of Netanyahu, his fear-mongering and posturing, but his hawkish defiance and dismissal (now explicit) of a Palestinian state reflect a wide section of Israeli society that has given up on a two-state outcome and prefers its Palestinians invisible behind barriers. “Bibi, king of Israel,” went supporters’ chants after the vote. He’s not a monarch but he sure looms large.

“Right-wing rule is in danger. Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations,” Netanyahu said in a video released as votes were cast. To the last, he played on fear and incendiary division. It worked.

But many Israelis are tired of Netanyahu’s games; they embrace a different idea of Israel. That, too, became clear in this election and is of equal importance. Herzog, in forming the Zionist Union with Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister, brought the moderate Israeli left back from the brink and, through the name of his movement, asserted a distinction critical to Israel’s future: only a Zionism that preserves Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, in the image of its founders, can secure the nation’s long-term future.

The contrast with the Messianic Zionism of the right, with its religious-nationalist claim to all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, was clear. Herzog, unlike Netanyahu, is serious about the idea of two states, whatever the immense difficulties, because the alternative is the progressive corrosion of Israel’s democratic ideals as it attempts to control the lives of millions of nonvoting Palestinians in the West Bank.

The phenomenon of the election was Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud minister who became wildly popular in office by liberalizing Israel’s cellphone market and reducing customers’ bills. His success in getting nine or 10 seats at the head of a new party called Kulanu (“all of us”) turned him into a possible kingmaker. It was also indicative of the frustrations of Israelis: with their successful but increasingly unequal economy, with corruption, and with business as usual. Kahlon has said he will wait for final results before indicating his allegiance, but suggested it was a “time to unite.”

It will fall to President Reuven Rivlin to invite Netanyahu to try to form a stable coalition. He has already indicated his preference for the outcome, saying “I am convinced only a unity government can prevent the rapid disintegration of Israel’s democracy and new elections in the near future.” But a unity government is anathema to both Netanyahu and Herzog, or at least has been up to now.

Reality may, however, catch up with them. A Netanyahu-led right-wing government will face growing international isolation, especially because of the prime minister’s open commitment to stop the emergence of a Palestinian state. Repairing relations with President Obama would be arduous. A hardening of America’s position toward Israel at the United Nations cannot be ruled out, if West Bank settlements continue to expand. Israelis, for all their nation’s extraordinary success, know how critical the alliance with the United States is; they are unhappy with the Netanyahu-Obama rift. A government of the right would more likely exacerbate than overcome that estrangement over the next couple of years.

For Herzog, in the light of the right’s strong performance, the path to a center-left-led government looks blocked — and achieving anything with such a government even more so. He would not have the muscle to bring real change on the central challenge facing Israel in its relations with the world: the Palestinian conflict. He did well, but not well enough to bring about the “post-Bibi era” that he sought.

As with Churchill’s words on democracy, a national unity coalition now looks like the worst form of government for Israel except for all the others. It could curtail Netanyahu’s hubris while giving Herzog heft, a desirable double whammy.

Anything that can rein in Netanyahu is a good thing.  Now here’s TMOW:

As the saying goes, “to err is human, to forgive is divine,” to which I’d add: “to ignore” is even more human, and the results rarely divine. None of us would be human if we didn’t occasionally get so wedded to our wishes that we failed to notice — or outright ignored — the facts on the ground that make a laughingstock of our hopes. Only when the gap gets too wide to ignore does policy change. This is where a lot of U.S. policy is heading these days in the Middle East. Mind the gaps — on Iran, Israel and Iraq. We’re talking about our choices in these countries with words that strike me as about 10 years out of date. Alas, we are not dealing anymore with your grandfather’s Israel, your father’s Iran or the Iraq your son or daughter went off to liberate.

Let’s start with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party pretty well trounced the Labor Party leader, Isaac Herzog, in the race to form Israel’s next government. Netanyahu clearly made an impressive 11th-hour surge since the pre-election polls of last week. It is hard to know what is more depressing: that Netanyahu went for the gutter in the last few days in order to salvage his campaign — renouncing his own commitment to a two-state solution with the Palestinians and race-baiting Israeli Jews to get out and vote because, he said, too many Israeli Arabs were going to the polls —  or the fact that this seemed to work.

To be sure, Netanyahu could reverse himself tomorrow. As the Yediot Ahronot columnist Nahum Barnea wrote: Netanyahu’s promises are like something “written on ice on a very hot day.” But the fact is a good half of Israel identifies with the paranoid, everyone-is-against-us, and religious-nationalist tropes Netanyahu deployed in this campaign. That, along with the fact that some 350,000 settlers are now living in the West Bank, makes it hard to see how a viable two-state solution is possible anymore no matter who would have won.

It would be wrong, though, to put all of this on Netanyahu. The insane, worthless Gaza war that Hamas initiated last summer that brought rockets to the edge of Israel’s main international airport and the Palestinians’ spurning of two-state offers of previous Israeli prime ministers (Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert) built Netanyahu’s base as much as he did.

On Iran, there’s an assumption among critics of President Obama’s approach to negotiating limits on Iran’s nuclear program that if Obama were ready to impose more sanctions then the Iranians would fold. It’s not only the history of the last 20 years that mocks that notion. It is a more simple fact: In the brutal Middle East, the only thing that gets anyone’s attention is the threat of regime-toppling force. Obama has no such leverage on Iran.

It was used up in Afghanistan and Iraq, wars that have left our military and country so exhausted that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big U.S. land army into the Middle East “should have his head examined.” Had those wars succeeded, the public today might feel differently. But they didn’t. Geopolitics is all about leverage, and we are negotiating with Iran without the leverage of a credible threat of force. The ayatollahs know it. Under those circumstances, I am sure the Obama team will try to get the best deal it can. But a really good deal isn’t on the menu.

Have I ruined your morning yet? No? Give me a couple more paragraphs.

O.K., so we learn to live with Iran on the edge of a bomb, but shouldn’t we at least bomb the Islamic State to smithereens and help destroy this head-chopping menace? Now I despise ISIS as much as anyone, but let me just toss out a different question: Should we be arming ISIS? Or let me ask that differently: Why are we, for the third time since 9/11, fighting a war on behalf of Iran?

In 2002, we destroyed Iran’s main Sunni foe in Afghanistan (the Taliban regime). In 2003, we destroyed Iran’s main Sunni foe in the Arab world (Saddam Hussein). But because we failed to erect a self-sustaining pluralistic order, which could have been a durable counterbalance to Iran, we created a vacuum in both Iraq and the wider Sunni Arab world. That is why Tehran’s proxies now indirectly dominate four Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Sana and Baghdad.

ISIS, with all its awfulness, emerged as the homegrown Sunni Arab response to this crushing defeat of Sunni Arabism — mixing old pro-Saddam Baathists with medieval Sunni religious fanatics with a collection of ideologues, misfits and adventure-seekers from around the Sunni Muslim world. Obviously, I abhor ISIS and don’t want to see it spread or take over Iraq. I simply raise this question rhetorically because no one else is: Why is it in our interest to destroy the last Sunni bulwark to a total Iranian takeover of Iraq? Because the Shiite militias now leading the fight against ISIS will rule better? Really?

If it seems as though we have only bad choices in the Middle East today and nothing seems to work, there is a reason: Because past is prologue, and the past has carved so much scar tissue into that landscape that it’s hard to see anything healthy or beautiful growing out of it anytime soon. Sorry to be so grim.


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