Archive for the ‘Uncomfortable truths’ Category

Blow and Krugman

April 20, 2015

Mr. Blow asks a question:  “Has the N.R.A. Won?”  He says perceptions of crime have not been in step with the facts, and gun ownership is rising.  Prof. Krugman, in “Greece on the Brink,” says just as a workable economic compromise should be possible, a new government is wary of Europe’s intentions.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

It is now fair to ask whether the National Rifle Association is winning — or has in fact won — this era of the gun debate in this country.

Gun control advocates have tried to use the horror that exists in the wake of mass shootings to catalyze the public into action around sensible gun restrictions. But rather than these tragedies being a cause for pause in ownership of guns, gun ownership has spiked in the wake of these shootings.

A striking report released Friday by the Pew Research Center revealed that “for the first time, more Americans say that protecting gun rights is more important than controlling gun ownership, 52 percent to 46 percent.”

One of the reasons cited was Americans’ inverse understanding of the reality and perception of crime in this country. As the report spells out, in the 1990s, people’s perception of the prevalence of crime fell in concert with actual instances of violent crime. But since the turn of the century, things have changed: “A majority of Americans (63 percent) said in a Gallup survey last year that crime was on the rise, despite crime statistics holding near 20-year lows.”

Furthermore, it used to be that the people most worried about crime favored stricter gun control, but “now, they tend to desire keeping the laws as they are or loosening gun control. In short, we are at a moment when most Americans believe crime rates are rising and when most believe gun ownership — not gun control — makes people safer.”

The report adds: “Why public views on crime have grown more dire is unclear, though many blame it on the nature of news coverage, reality TV and political rhetoric. Whatever the cause, this trend is not without consequence. Today, those who say that crime is rising are the most opposed to gun control: Just 45 percent want to see gun laws made more strict, compared with 53 percent of those who see crime rates as unchanged or dropping.”

Another cause is most likely the intermingling of politics and high-profile crimes. As The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2012: “As sure as summer follows spring, gun sales rise after a mass shooting. It happened after the shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. It happened after the Tucson, Ariz., shootings last year that killed six. Now, after the killing of 12 people last week at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., gun sales are spiking again — not just in Colorado but around the country.”

It continued: “Self-protection is part of the reason. But a bigger factor, say gun dealers, is fear of something else:  politicians, specifically, their ability to enact restrictions on gun ownership and acquisition of ammunition. When a high-profile shooting takes place, invariably the airwaves are full of talk about gun control.”

It appears to be an extreme example of unintended consequences, or a boomerang: the more people talk about gun control, the more people buy guns. And not only do gun sales surge, but apparently so does N.R.A. membership. As The Huffington Post reported in 2013: “The National Rifle Association’s paying member ranks have grown by 100,000 in the wake of the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn., the organization told Politico.”

The report continued: “In the week after the shooting, Fox News reported that the N.R.A. was claiming an average of 8,000 new members a day. High-profile mass shootings are often followed by periods of increased interest in the N.R.A., but representatives said this rate was higher than usual.”

It was after the Newtown shooting that President Obama established a task force, led by Vice President Joseph Biden Jr., to develop a proposal to reduce gun violence, which the president said he intended to “push without delay.”

Those proposals, including expanded background checks (which were characterized as “misguided” by the N.R.A.’s Chris Cox) and a ban on some semiautomatic weapons, were roundly defeated in the Senate, although polls showed about 90 percent public approval for expanded background checks.

In fact, this month The Washington Times reported: “The American firearms industry is as healthy as ever, seeing an unprecedented surge that has sent production of guns soaring to more than 10.8 million manufactured in 2013 alone — double the total of just three years earlier.”

It continued: “The 2013 surge — the latest for which the government has figures — came in the first full year after the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, signaling that the push for stricter gun controls, strongly backed by President Obama, did little to chill the industry despite the passage of stricter laws in states such as New York, Maryland, Connecticut and California.”

One may begrudge and bemoan the fact, but it is hard to deny it: the N.R.A. appears to be winning this round.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

“Don’t you think they want us to fail?” That’s the question I kept hearing during a brief but intense visit to Athens. My answer was that there is no “they” — that Greece does not, in fact, face a solid bloc of implacable creditors who would rather see default and exit from the euro than let a leftist government succeed, that there’s more good will on the other side of the table than many Greeks suppose.

But you can understand why Greeks see things that way. And I came away from the visit fearing that Greece and Europe may suffer a terrible accident, an unnecessary rupture that will cast long shadows over the future.

The story so far: At the end of 2009 Greece faced a crisis driven by two factors: High debt, and inflated costs and prices that left the country uncompetitive.

Europe responded with loans that kept the cash flowing, but only on condition that Greece pursue extremely painful policies. These included spending cuts and tax hikes that, if imposed on the United States, would amount to $3 trillion a year. There were also wage cuts on a scale that’s hard to fathom, with average wages down 25 percent from their peak.

These immense sacrifices were supposed to produce recovery. Instead, the destruction of purchasing power deepened the slump, creating Great Depression-level suffering and a huge humanitarian crisis. On Saturday I visited a shelter for the homeless, and was told heartbreaking tales of a health care system in collapse: patients turned away from hospitals because they couldn’t pay the 5 euro entrance fee, sent away without needed medicine because cash-starved clinics had run out, and more.

It has been an endless nightmare, yet Greece’s political establishment, determined to stay within Europe and fearing the consequences of default and exit from the euro, stayed with the program year after year. Finally, the Greek public could take no more. As creditors demanded yet more austerity — on a scale that might well have pushed the economy down by another 8 percent and driven unemployment to 30 percent — the nation voted in Syriza, a genuinely left-wing (as opposed to center-left) coalition, which has vowed to change the nation’s course. Can Greek exit from the euro be avoided?

Yes, it can. The irony of Syriza’s victory is that it came just at the point when a workable compromise should be possible.

The key point is that exiting the euro would be extremely costly and disruptive in Greece, and would pose huge political and financial risks for the rest of Europe. It’s therefore something to be avoided if there’s a halfway decent alternative. And there is, or should be.

By late 2014 Greece had managed to eke out a small “primary” budget surplus, with tax receipts exceeding spending, excluding interest payments. That’s all that creditors can reasonably demand, since you can’t keep squeezing blood from a stone. Meanwhile, all those wage cuts have made Greece competitive on world markets — or would make it competitive if some stability can be restored.

The shape of a deal is therefore clear: basically, a standstill on further austerity, with Greece agreeing to make significant but not ever-growing payments to its creditors. Such a deal would set the stage for economic recovery, perhaps slow at the start, but finally offering some hope.

But right now that deal doesn’t seem to be coming together. Maybe it’s true, as the creditors say, that the new Greek government is hard to deal with. But what do you expect when parties that have no previous experience in governing take over from a discredited establishment? More important, the creditors are demanding things — big cuts in pensions and public employment — that a newly elected government of the left simply can’t agree to, as opposed to reforms like an improvement in tax enforcement that it can. And the Greeks, as I suggested, are all too ready to see these demands as part of an effort either to bring down their government or to make their country into an example of what will happen to other debtor countries if they balk at harsh austerity.

To make things even worse, political uncertainty is hurting tax receipts, probably causing that hard-earned primary surplus to evaporate. The sensible thing, surely, is to show some patience on that front: if and when a deal is reached, uncertainty will subside and the budget should improve again. But in the pervasive atmosphere of distrust, patience is in short supply.

It doesn’t have to be this way. True, avoiding a full-blown crisis would require that creditors advance a significant amount of cash, albeit cash that would immediately be recycled into debt payments. But consider the alternative. The last thing Europe needs is for fraying tempers to bring on yet another catastrophe, this one completely gratuitous.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

April 9, 2015

In “In South Carolina, Shot in the Back as He Ran” Mr. Blow says now is the time for a fundamental change of culture: not just in one particular case or with one particular officer, but also systemically.  Mr. Kristof, in “Enjoying the Low Life?”, says the latest world rankings on the quality of life for ordinary citizens should put the United States to shame.  Ms. Collins has a question in “Rand Paul, Paul Rand Quiz:”  What do we know about the latest Republican candidate for president?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I am truly weary, deep in my bones, of writing these columns about the killings of unarmed people of color by the police. Indeed, you may be weary of reading them. Still, our weariness is but a dim shadow that falls near the darkness of despair that a family is thrust into when a child or parent or sibling is lost, and that family must wonder if the use of deadly force was appropriate and whether justice will be served.

And so, we can’t stop focusing on these cases until there are no more cases on which to focus.

Which brings me to the latest case, a truly chilling one: A video shows an apparently unarmed 50-year-old black man, Walter L. Scott, running away from an officer after an incident during a traffic stop in North Charleston, S.C.

The officer, Michael T. Slager, fires his weapon eight times, striking Scott in the back, upper buttocks and ear.

According to The New York Times:

“Moments after the struggle, Officer Slager reported on his radio: ‘Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser,’ according to police reports.”

But The Times continues:

“Something — it is not clear whether it is the stun gun — is either tossed or knocked to the ground behind the two men, and Officer Slager draws his gun, the video shows. When the officer fires, Mr. Scott appears to be 15 to 20 feet away and fleeing. He falls after the last of eight shots.

“The officer then runs back toward where the initial scuffle occurred and picks something up off the ground. Moments later, he drops an object near Mr. Scott’s body, the video shows.”

In fact, the video appears to dispute much of what the police reports claim.

Scott, of course, dies of his injuries.

After the video surfaces, the officer is charged with murder and fired from the police force. In a news conference, the mayor of the city, Keith Summey, says of the incident: “When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And if you make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street, you have to live by that decision.”

But even the phrase “bad decision” seems to diminish the severity of what has happened. A life has been taken. And, if the video shows what it appears to show, there may have been some attempts by the officer to “misrepresent the truth,” a phrase that one could also argue may diminish the severity of what is alleged to have happened.

This case is yet another in a horrifyingly familiar succession of cases that have elevated the issue of use of force, particularly deadly force, by officers against people of color and inflamed the conversation that surrounds it.

And it further erodes an already tenuous trust by people of color in the police as an institution. CBS News polling has shown that a vast majority of blacks believe that the police are more likely to use deadly force against a black person than a white person (zero percent believe the inverse.) This is not good for the proper function of a civil society.

As a Sentencing Project report put it last year: “Racial minorities’ perceptions of unfairness in the criminal justice system have dampened cooperation with police work and impeded criminal trials.”

And the police are needed in society, so if you don’t trust them, whom do you call when help is truly needed?

This case has also refocused attention on the power of video evidence and is likely to redouble calls for the universal implementation of police body cameras (the video in this case came from a witness). What would have happened if video of this incident had not surfaced? Would the officer’s version of events have stood? How many such cases must there be where there is no video?

But I would argue that the issue we are facing in these cases is not one of equipment, or even policy, but culture.

I would submit that cameras would have an impact on policy and culture, but that a change in culture must be bigger than both. It must start with “good cops” no longer countenancing the behavior of “bad cops.” It will start with those good cops publicly and vociferously chastising and condemning their brethren when they are wrong. Their silence has never been — and is certainly no longer — suitable. We must hear from them, not necessarily from the rank-and-file but from those higher up the ladder.

One of the most disturbing features of the Department of Justice’s report on the killing of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson was the number of witnesses who said that they were afraid to come forward because their version of events contradicted what they saw as community consensus.

But isn’t the unwillingness, or even fear, of “good cops” to more forcefully condemn bad behavior just the same glove turned inside out?

As Radley Balko wrote in the February 2011 issue of Reason magazine, “For all the concern about the ‘Stop Snitchin’  message within the hip-hop community, police have engaged in a far more impactful and pernicious Stop Snitchin’ campaign of their own. It’s called the Blue Wall of Silence.”

This case also highlights once again the issue of police forces not being representative of the communities they serve. As The Times pointed out:

“North Charleston is South Carolina’s third-largest city, with a population of about 100,000. African-Americans make up about 47 percent of residents, and whites account for about 37 percent. The Police Department is about 80 percent white, according to data collected by the Justice Department in 2007, the most recent period available.”

And yet there is a vicious cycle of mistrust — re-enforced by cases like this — that helps to make diversifying police forces difficult. As the International Business Times put it in August, law enforcement agencies “are often hard pressed to find black applicants. Recruiters want to fill their ranks with officers of all backgrounds, experts say, but cultural biases put them at a disadvantage.”

And lastly, there remains a disturbing desire to find perfection in a case, to find one devoid of ambiguity, as if police interactions with the public are not often complicated affairs in which many judgments are made in quick order by all involved and in which a tremendous amount of discretion is allowed to be exercised.

Tuesday on CNN, the North Charleston police chief, Eddie Driggers, was asked the question that is always circling cases like this like a condor: whether he thought race played a role in what happened. His was a diplomatic and humane response: “I want to believe in my heart of hearts that it was a tragic set of events after a traffic stop.” He continued, “I always look for the good in folks, and so I would hope that nobody would ever do something like that.”

I, too, would hope that nobody would ever do something like that, but it seems to me that the end of the line has come for hoping alone. Now is the time for fundamental change: not just in one particular case or with one particular officer, but also systemically. (The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing has already recommended some policy changes.)

And now is the time for not only considering the interplay of race and power in these cases, but also the ability to register and respect humanity itself. That requires a change of culture.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

The United States is the most powerful colossus in the history of the world: Our nuclear warheads could wipe out the globe, our enemies tweet on iPhones, and kids worldwide bop to Beyoncé.

Yet let’s get real. All this hasn’t benefited all Americans. A newly released global index finds that America falls short, along with other powerful countries, on what matters most: assuring a high quality of life for ordinary citizens.

The Social Progress Index for 2015 ranks the United States 16th in the world. We may thump our chests and boast that we’re No. 1, and in some ways we are. But, in important ways, we lag.

The index ranks the United States 30th in life expectancy, 38th in saving children’s lives, and a humiliating 55th in women surviving childbirth. O.K., we know that we have a high homicide rate, but we’re at risk in other ways as well. We have higher traffic fatality rates than 37 other countries, and higher suicide rates than 80.

We also rank 32nd in preventing early marriage, 38th in the equality of our education system, 49th in high school enrollment rates and 87th in cellphone use.

Ouch. “We’re No. 87!” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, does it?

Michael E. Porter, the Harvard Business School professor who helped devise the Social Progress Index, says that it’s important to have conventional economic measures such as G.D.P. growth. But social progress is also a critical measure, he notes, of how a country is serving its people.

“We’re not now No. 1 in a lot of stuff that traditionally we have been,” said Professor Porter, an expert on international competitiveness. “What we’re learning is that the fact that we’re not No. 1 on this stuff also means that we’re facing long-term economic stresses.”

“We’re starting to understand that we can’t put economic development and social progress in two separate buckets,” Porter added. “There’s a dialectic here.”

The top countries in the 2015 Social Progress Index are Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Iceland, New Zealand and Canada. Of the 133 countries rated, Central African Republic is last, just after Chad and Afghanistan.

Sri Lanka does better than India. Bangladesh outperforms Pakistan. Both the Philippines and South Africa do better than Russia. Mongolia comes in ahead of China. And Canada wallops the United States.

One way of looking at the index is to learn from countries that outperform by having social indicators better than their income levels. By that standard, the biggest stars are Costa Rica and Uruguay, with New Zealand and Rwanda also outperforming.

“This takes time,” said Michael Green, executive director of the Social Progress Imperative, which produces the index. “Costa Rica is an overperformer because of its history.”

Green notes that Costa Rica offered free, universal primary education in the 19th century. In the 20th century, it disbanded its military forces and invested some of the savings in education. One payoff: Some surveys have found Costa Ricans among the happiest people in the world.

Then there are the underperformers that do worse than would be expected from their income level. Saudi Arabia leads that list.

The Social Progress Index, now in its second year, might seem a clarion call for greater equality, but that’s not quite right. Professor Porter and his number-crunchers found only a mild correlation between economic equality (measured by Gini coefficient) and social progress. What mattered much more was poverty.

Of course, wealthy countries with high poverty tend to be unequal as well. But inequality at the top seems to matter less for well-being than inequality at the bottom. Perhaps we should worry less about reining in the top 1 percent and more about helping the bottom 20 percent?

On the other hand, one way to finance empowerment programs is to raise taxes on tycoons. And when there is tremendous inequality, the wealthy create private alternatives to public goods — private schools, private security forces, gated communities — that lead to disinvestment in public goods vital to the needy.

In any case, the 2015 Social Progress Index should be serve notice to Americans — and to people around the globe. We obsess on the wrong measures, so we often have the wrong priorities.

As an American, what saddens me is also that our political system seems unable to rise to the challenges.

As Porter notes, Americans generally understand that we face economic impediments such as declining infrastructure, yet we’re frozen. We appreciate that our education system is a mess, yet we’re passive.

We can send people to space and turn watches into computers, but we seem incapable of consensus on the issues that matter most to our children — so our political system remains in gridlock, even as other countries pass us by.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Rand Paul for president! Wow, we’re awash with first-term Republican senators who feel the nation needs their services as leader of the most powerful nation on the planet.

Paul can also perform eye surgery, which is certainly a plus.

What do we know about this man Rand? Well, he’s interesting. Among the throngs of Republicans promising to cut taxes, slash domestic spending and repeal Obamacare, Paul is unusual in that he also wants to stop government surveillance, negotiate a peace treaty with Iran, slash defense spending and eliminate foreign aid.

Except — stop the presses! — Rand Paul is also evolving. The freshman senator who once wanted to eliminate all foreign aid, including to Israel, is now a freshman senator who wants to eliminate some foreign aid while leaving more than enough for a certain “strong ally of ours.” Also, he has learned that Iran probably can’t be trusted. And he now wants to raise defense spending by about $190 billion.

You could argue he was way more interesting before he started to evolve. But onward.

During a postannouncement interview on Fox News, the new presidential contender was asked about an incident when he “took a shot at Dick Cheney.” This would have been a 2009 speech, discovered by Mother Jones, in which Paul basically argued that Cheney had opposed invading Iraq until he went to work for the war contractor Halliburton.

“Before I was involved in politics!” the new candidate retorted. If you agree with his theory that would mean that nothing Rand Paul said before 2010 counts.

It is true that you can’t blame politicians for everything they did when they were young and foolish, but a five-year statute of limitations seems a bit short. I’d accept a rule wiping out anything that happened in college short of a major felony. That would include a former classmate’s claim that when she was at Baylor University, Rand Paul and a friend forced her to bow down and worship the god Aqua Buddha.

That’s way more diverting than the story about Mitt Romney cutting off a classmate’s long hair in high school. But it’s off the record. Do not base you opinion of Rand Paul on the Aqua Buddha incident. Really. Forget I ever mentioned it.

Once Paul began sniffing the presidential air, position changes started coming rapid-fire, and he’s gotten quite touchy when people point that out. “No, no, no, nonononono,” he said, accusing NBC’s Savannah Guthrie of “editorializing” when she listed several of his recent shifts. It was reminiscent of an encounter he had a while back with Kelly Evans of CNBC. (“Shhh. Calm down a bit here, Kelly.”) You might wonder about Rand Paul and TV women, but as we all know it takes three incidents to make a trend. Next time.

The encounter with Evans came after Paul was trying to walk back one of his more interesting policy statements: opposition to mandatory vaccinations. “I guess being for freedom would be really unusual,” he said archly, before claiming that he knew of many “walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders” after being vaccinated. This one has since evolved a lot.

Paul has swung to the left on some issues, like immigration. He acknowledges that there’s global warming, which he believes should be combated in ways that do not inconvenience the coal industry. He has stuck to his guns on opposing government surveillance of American citizens, and you can buy a “Don’t Drone Me, Bro!” shirt on his website. (Also at the website: $20 Rand Paul Flip-Flops, although someone on the team apparently noted the irony and changed their name to Rand Paul Sandals.)

And, of course, Paul is still a libertarian. Because he most definitely believes government should get off your backs and stop messing with your lives. Unless you happen to have an unwanted pregnancy, in which case, rather than allow you access to abortion, he is prepared to tie you to a post until you deliver.

Everything perfectly clear? And, now, a brief Rand Paul Pop Quiz.

1) Senator Paul began his presidential announcement speech by telling the people:

A) “We have come to take our country back.”

B) “We come to take our money back.”

C) “We have come to take our previous statements back.”

*****

2) Rand Paul did not get a bachelor’s degree because:

A) He was out partying all the time with the future governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker.

B) He was so supersmart that Duke University allowed him to skip right over to medical school.

C) He was expelled for the Aqua Buddha affair.

*****

3) An avid user of all media social, Senator Paul once twittered that politics doesn’t involve enough:

A) Good ideas for using more coal.

B) People with an I.Q. above 90.

C) Puppies.

*****

4) The Rand Paul presidential campaign slogan is:

A) “Defeat the Washington machine. Unleash the American dream.”

B) “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.”

C) “Beat Hillary. Release the Kraken.”

*****

Answers: 1-A, 2-B, 3-C, 4-A.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

March 12, 2015

In “Hate Takes the Bus” Mr. Blow says so what if they were millennials, and college students to boot? This kind of racism envelops us like a fog.  In “When Liberals Blew It” Mr. Kristof has a question.  He says fifty years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued presciently that the rise of single-parent households would make poverty more intractable. Have we learned anything since? Well, Nick, we’ve certainly gotten better at shaming poor people (see David Brooks for countless examples).  Ms. Collins says “Hillary Clinton Comes Back” and also has a question:  Is the email crisis a bad start to a 2016 campaign or a preview of the next 20 months?  Gail, it’s completely irrelevant to me.  This life-long Democrat would rather stick bamboo slivers under her fingernails than vote for Hillary Clinton.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

This week, when video was posted showing members of the University of Oklahoma’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon gleefully engaged in a racist chant on a bus, some people were shocked. Others, like me, were not.

This was just video confirmation of a racism that envelops us like a fog, often just as evanescent and immeasurable.

Some people seemed surprised because these were millennials, and college students to boot. Both because of generational easing and educational enlightenment, weren’t these sorts of things supposed to be vestiges of the past?

After all, as the Pew Research Center put it last year, “Millennials are the most racially diverse generation in American history,” with “some 43 percent of millennial adults” being nonwhite.

A 2010 Pew report found that “almost all millennials accept interracial dating and marriage.” An MTV poll of millennials found that “84 percent say their family taught them that everyone should be treated the same, no matter what their race,” and that 89 percent “do believe that everyone should be treated the same no matter their race.”

But these numbers can be deceiving. They don’t herald an age of egalitarianism as we might think.

As New York magazine pointed out in a January article on its Science of Us site, the problem that obscures some disturbing persistence of racism is that these polls lump all millennials together and don’t separate white millennials from the rest.

The magazine reported the findings of Spencer Piston, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University who found that “younger (under-30) whites are just as likely as older ones to view whites as more intelligent and harder-working than African-Americans.”

Furthermore, the magazine printed this exchange:

“ ‘White millennials appear to be no less prejudiced than the rest of the white population,’ Piston told Science of Us in an email, ‘at least using this dataset and this measure of prejudice.’ ”

In the same vein, as data from the Race Implicit Association Test published in the January/February issue of Mother Jones magazine showed, pro-white biases were also strongest among people 65 years old and older, although people 18 to 24 ranked second among the age groups.

It is in this environment of dualities that today’s young people exist, dealing with the growing pains of increasing diversification grinding against unyielding racial attitudes.

And we must acknowledge that the most deleterious effect of racism they face isn’t about hurt feelings or exercises of poor, outdated social graces, but rather about the actual material effects of racism as it suffuses society and becomes embedded in our systems.

Real psychophysical injuries can result from confrontations with overt or even subtle racism. There is a real and worthy conversation taking place in this country now, particularly among young people, around the idea of microaggressions — slight, often unintended discriminatory comments or behaviors.

The idea of racial battle fatigue — that “chronic exposure to racial discrimination is analogous to the constant pressure soldiers face on the battlefield,” as Psych Central put it — is also gaining currency and exposure.

Indeed, as The Atlantic pointed out in 2013:

“A growing literature shows discrimination raises the risk of many emotional and physical problems. Discrimination has been shown to increase the risk of stress, depression, the common cold, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer and mortality. Recently, two journals — The American Journal of Public Healthand The Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race — dedicated entire issues to the subject. These collections push us to consider how discrimination becomes what the social epidemiologist Nancy Krieger, one of the field’s leaders, terms ‘embodied inequality.’ ”

This says nothing of the bias that can — consciously or unconsciously — influence our policies and procedures in all areas of our lives, including education, policing, the criminal justice system and employment.

Here is where it’s important to recognize how much of an influence the fraternity systems have in these areas.

As a major examination of the United States fraternity system published by The Atlantic last year pointed out:

“Fraternity men make up 85 percent of U.S. Supreme Court justices since 1910, 63 percent of all U.S. presidential cabinet members since 1900 and, historically, 76 percent of U.S. senators [and] 85 percent of Fortune 500 executives.”

If this trend continues — and there is no indication that it won’t — the boys on that bus and others like them will be tomorrow’s leaders, and the attitudes they carry with them out of school and into the wider world will have a real impact on real people’s lives.

(In full disclosure, I pledged a fraternity in college and wrote about that experience in my memoir, including how the noble missions of national organizations can be utterly overshadowed by the destructive, renegade rituals of local chapters.)

This is why the vileness displayed on that bus matters: It was a reflection of the distance that must still be covered, and the rigidity of racism and the casualness of hate. It can wear a smile and be set to a tune.

We have to understand what that hate is. Hate is never about the object of the hate but about what is happening in the mind of the hater. It is in the darkness of that space that fear and ignorance merge and morph. It comes out in an impulse to mark and name, to deny and diminish, to exclude and threaten, to elevate the self by putting down the other.

What happened on that bus was bigger than just that bus; it was a reflection of where we are.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Fifty years ago this month, Democrats made a historic mistake.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at the time a federal official, wrote a famous report in March 1965 on family breakdown among African-Americans. He argued presciently and powerfully that the rise of single-parent households would make poverty more intractable.

“The fundamental problem,” Moynihan wrote, is family breakdown. In a follow-up, he explained: “From the wild Irish slums of the 19th-century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows large numbers of young men to grow up in broken families … never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future — that community asks for and gets chaos.”

Liberals brutally denounced Moynihan as a racist. He himself had grown up in a single-mother household and worked as a shoeshine boy at the corner of Broadway and 43rd Street in Manhattan, yet he was accused of being aloof and patronizing, and of “blaming the victim.”

“My major criticism of the report is that it assumes that middle-class American values are the correct values for everyone in America,” protested Floyd McKissick, then a prominent African-American civil rights leader.

The liberal denunciations of Moynihan were terribly unfair. In fact, Moynihan emphasized that slavery, discrimination and “three centuries of injustice” had devastated the black family. He favored job and education programs to help buttress the family.

But the scathing commentary led President Lyndon Johnson to distance himself from the Moynihan report. Scholars, fearful of being accused of racism, mostly avoided studying family structure and poverty.

In 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle stepped into the breach by emphasizing the role of the family in addressing poverty, including a brief reference to Murphy Brown, a television character who was a single mom. Liberals rushed to ridicule Quayle for sexism and outdated moralism, causing politicians to tread this ground ever more carefully.

The taboo on careful research on family structure and poverty was broken by William Julius Wilson, an eminent black sociologist. He has praised Moynihan’s report as “a prophetic document,” for evidence is now overwhelming that family structure matters a great deal for low-income children of any color.

In 2013, 71 percent of black children in America were born to an unwed mother, as were 53 percent of Hispanic children and 36 percent of white children.

Indeed, a single parent is the new norm. At some point before they turn 18, a majority of all American children will likely live with a single mom and no dad.

My point isn’t to cast judgment on nontraditional families, for single parents can be as loving as any. In fact, when one parent is abusive, the child may be better off raised by the other parent alone. And well-off kids often get plenty of support whether from one parent or two.

One kind of nontraditional household does particularly well. One study found that children raised by same-sex couples excelled by some measures, apparently because the parents doted on their children — most gay couples don’t have unwanted children whom they neglect.

Yet Moynihan was absolutely right to emphasize the consequences for low-income children of changing family structure. Partly because there is often only one income coming into a single-parent household, children of unmarried moms are roughly five times as likely to live in poverty as children of married couples.

Causation is difficult to tease from correlation. But efforts to do that suggest that growing up with just one biological parent reduces the chance that a child will graduate from high school by 40 percent, according to an essay by Sara McLanahan of Princeton and Christopher Jencks of Harvard. They point to the likely mechanism: “A father’s absence increases antisocial behavior, such as aggression, rule-breaking, delinquency and illegal drug use.” These effects are greater on boys than on girls.

Conservatives shouldn’t chortle at the evidence that liberals blew it, for they did as well. Conservatives say all the right things about honoring families, but they led the disastrous American experiment in mass incarceration; incarceration rates have quintupled since the 1970s. That devastated families, leading countless boys to grow up without dads.

What can be done?

In line with Moynihan’s thinking, we can support programs to boost the economic prospects for poorer families. We can help girls and young women avoid pregnancy (30 percent of American girls become pregnant by age 19). If they delay childbearing, they’ll be more likely to marry and form stable families, notes Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution.

So let’s learn from 50 years of mistakes. A starting point is to acknowledge the role of families in fighting poverty. That’s not about being a moralistic scold, but about helping American kids.

Oh, I guess he’s been reading Bobo —  “not about being a moralistic scold…”  I wonder if Bobo reads him?  Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Right now you’re probably asking yourself: What am I supposed to do with all this Hillary Clinton stuff? True, I am a concerned citizen, but I have a big deadline at work and a lot of social activities scheduled for the weekend.

We feel your pain, concerned citizen. It’s exhausting. The nation has been obsessed with the Hillary email crisis for more than a week now, but, still, so many unanswered questions.

One of which is: Clinton says she sent and received about 62,000 emails while she was secretary of state. By my extremely rough calculations, that comes down to about 42 messages in and out per day. How is this possible? Wouldn’t the Chelsea wedding alone have used up more than that quota? Don’t her friends mail her funny videos? Doesn’t anybody ever write to ask her to connect on LinkedIn?

Another question is about how a diligent voter is supposed to respond to this whole uproar. Test your political pulse. Would you say that the Hillary press conference on Tuesday was:

A) Maybe not her finest moment.

B) Better than the book tour.

C) Terrible! Awful! She’s going to lose! The campaign will just be one big mess after another! Maybe the Democrats should be looking for a new face!

If your answer is C, then, wow, I can see why you’re upset. However, forget about looking for a new face. New faces are wonderful except that when they start to get old, they can turn into John Edwards or Herman Cain.

Or Scott Walker. The governor of Wisconsin is the new face in the Republican presidential race this year. He became famous with a rousing speech about how he stood up to his state’s public employees. So far, that’s pretty much the end of his persona. When he compared international terrorism to protesting union members, it may be because that’s the only crisis he knows about.

Even Democrats who are comfortable with the lack of newness in the Clinton candidacy have been dismayed about the email matter. The way she handled her communications was the exact opposite of transparency in public service. Particularly the part where she let some unidentified lawyers decide which messages belonged to the government and which ones were private conversations that ought to be expunged from history.

Then Clinton waited too long to respond to the ensuing political crisis. Finally, she held a chaotic press conference at the United Nations next to a big tapestry version of Picasso’s “Guernica,” which has to be the worst possible imagery you want to be associated with when you’re trying to tell the nation that everything’s hunky-dory.

Is this just a bad start or a preview of the next 20 months? Hillary supporters say everything’s fine: Her problems just stem from the fact that she’s a presidential candidate without a presidential campaign. Once she gets a staff in place and makes the announcement — an event that could come any time between Palm Sunday and Mother’s Day — she’ll be organized, focused and happily digging away at the Republicans who sent that snotty letter to the leaders of Iran.

Well, maybe. Sort of. If Hillary had been supported by a campaign staff this week, she definitely would have been doing her press conference alongside a better picture. But nobody’s going to make her into a different candidate in time for the presidential race. It’s like telling your older sister that you’d appreciate it if she’d develop a new personality before the family reunion.

Clinton is both the best and worst retail politician on the national stage. She’s not a gifted orator, and unless she’s coming back from some disaster, her speeches can be a snooze. But she makes terrific contact with average voters when she’s talking with them about boring, important issues. I have a fond memory of an event in New Hampshire early in the 2008 race in which she went on slowly and explicitly about why she wanted to get rid of a Wall Street tax break for financiers known as “carried interest.” It was an eat-your-vegetables kind of moment, but the audience was agog. (When the Clinton campaign launches, watch for the return of this particular crusade against Wall Street. If it doesn’t show up, feel free to throw in the towel. Really, there are limits.)

There won’t be a new Hillary. What voters can hope for is the best possible version of her flawed self. That while there will be messes, she will force herself to be open during the cleanup. That while she might not be a transformative speaker, she will be able to explain how she can take the issues she’s been pursuing for decades and turn them into a plan for serious change.

Also, she should keep building on her talent for holding firm during crises. But it’d be nice to have a little peace in between.

Still, bamboo slivers under the fingernails…

Blow, Kristof and Collins

March 5, 2015

In “The Feds vs. Ferguson” Mr. Blow says the Ferguson Police Department and the municipal courts treated citizens like a revenue stream, violating their constitutional rights in the process.  Mr. Kristof, in “You Think Your Winter Was Rough?”, says through frostbite, blizzards and frozen rivers, Shawn Forry and Justin Lichter did what seemed impossible: hiking from Canada to Mexico on the Pacific Crest Trail in winter.  In “Pearls Before Congress” Ms. Collins asks .adies and gentleman, are you ready for this? She says we have some bipartisan cooperation in Congress!  Here’s Mr. Blow:

On Wednesday, the Department of Justice released the utterly devastating results of its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.

The report contained charges that the Police Department and the municipal courts treated citizens less like constituents and more like a revenue stream, violating citizens’ constitutional rights in the process.

And it found that this burden was disproportionately borne by the black people in a town that is two-thirds black. This disproportionate weight is exacerbated when people are poor.

As the Justice Department report pointed out:

“Court practices exacerbate the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices. They impose a particular hardship upon Ferguson’s most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty. Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay, and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing.”

According to an August Brookings report:

“Between 2000 and 2010-2012, Ferguson’s poor population doubled. By the end of that period, roughly one in four residents lived below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012), and 44 percent fell below twice that level.”

The view that emerges from the Justice Department report is that citizens were not only paying a poverty tax, but a pigment tax as the local authorities sought to balance their budgets and pad their coffers on the backs of poor black people.

Perhaps most disturbing — and damning — is actual correspondence in the report where the authorities don’t even attempt to disguise their intent.

Take this passage from the report:

“In March 2010, for instance, the City Finance Director wrote to Chief [Thomas] Jackson that ‘unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. . . . Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.’ Similarly, in March 2013, the Finance Director wrote to the City Manager: ‘Court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5%. I did ask the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try.’”

Furthermore, the report made clear that “officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on ‘productivity,’ meaning the number of citations issued.”

The report read like one about a shakedown gang rather than about city officials.

The police appear to have done what was requested of them.The report puts it this way:

“According to data the City reported to the Missouri State Courts Administrator, at the end of fiscal year 2009, the municipal court had roughly 24,000 traffic cases and 28,000 non-traffic cases pending. As of October 31, 2014, both of those figures had roughly doubled to 53,000 and 50,000 cases, respectively. In fiscal year 2009, 16,178 new cases were filed, and 8,727 were resolved. In 2014, by contrast, 24,256 new offenses were filed, and 10,975 offenses were resolved.”

For context, the population of Ferguson is around 21,000 people, according to the Census Bureau.

Some officers balked at this obscenity, particularly as it related to “imposing mounting penalties on people who will never be able to afford them” — one member repeating the adage “How can you get blood from a turnip?” But “enough officers — at all ranks — have internalized this message that a culture of reflexive enforcement action, unconcerned with whether the police action actually promotes public safety, and unconcerned with the impact the decision has on individual lives or community trust has taken hold within FPD.”

And the racial disparities as charged by the Justice Department are unconscionable.

According to the report, “Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement both reflects and reinforces racial bias” and “there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race.”

For instance:

“African Americans are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops even after controlling for non-race based variables such as the reason the vehicle stop was initiated, but are found in possession of contraband 26% less often than white drivers, suggesting officers are impermissibly considering race as a factor when determining whether to search.”

Also:

“FPD appears to bring certain offenses almost exclusively against African Americans. For example, from 2011 to 2013, African Americans accounted for 95% of Manner of Walking in Roadway charges, and 94% of all Failure to Comply charges.”

Furthermore:

“Even where FPD officers have legal grounds to stop or arrest, however, they frequently take actions that ratchet up tensions and needlessly escalate the situation to the point that they feel force is necessary.”

This all brings us full circle to the only reason there was an investigation and the only reason this information has been analyzed and presented — the killing of Michael Brown and the protests that followed.

(Darren Wilson first encountered Michael Brown and his friend walking in the street and ordered them to move to the sidewalk, and a scuffle began, and Wilson ultimately shot Brown. By the way, Wilson was also cleared of civil rights violations by the Justice Department on Wednesday.)

Whatever one thinks about the case of the killing and how it was handled in the courts, it is clear that Brown’s death will not be in vain. It is clear that the frustration that poured out onto the streets of Ferguson was not without merit.

Once again, the oppression people feel as part of their lived experiences, and can share only by way of anecdote, is bolstered by data.

When people say “Black Lives Matter,” they’re not referring only to the lives lost, but also to those stunted and controlled by a system of power that sees them as pawns.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

In October, two young Americans set off on the most daring and foolhardy wilderness expedition since, oh, maybe Lewis and Clark.

They were trying to become the first people ever to backpack from Canada to Mexico on the Pacific Crest Trail in the dead of winter. Once before, in 1983, two people set out to traverse the trail in winter. They never made it. Their bodies were found a month after they fell off an icy cliff.

A winter thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail seemed impossible. The trail is covered by many feet of snow that time of year, and, even if the two explorers managed to find their way, they risked triggering avalanches, plunging through ice into rivers, or simply running out of food while trapped in blizzards.

“People said it was a death sentence,” Shawn Forry, one of the hikers, told me. He had estimated half-jokingly at the start that they had a 17 percent chance of succeeding.

But he spoke to me shortly after he and Justin Lichter reached the Mexican border on Sunday, completing their 2,650-mile odyssey — and surviving frostbite, blizzards, tumbles into frozen rivers and 1,750 consecutive trail miles without encountering a single other hiker.

Perhaps it feels a little self-indulgent to celebrate two guys who took a long walk. But what a walk! Like the 4-minute mile or the free climb of the Dawn Wall at Yosemite, this is something that seemed beyond human capacity — and then humans did it.

So let’s take a break from current affairs and recriminations about human venality to laud a triumph of human strength.

It helped that the two men were enormously experienced. Forry is a wilderness instructorfor Outward Bound. Lichter works on a ski patrol and said he has hiked 35,000 miles, equivalent to nearly one and a half times around Earth. He gave up one long backpack across East Africa when lions were stalking him.

Both Forry and Lichter had hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail in summer — itself an ultimate test of endurance (fewer people have thru-hiked the full trail than have climbed Mount Everest). But they wanted to see it in another season.

“With the snow, there’s so much natural beauty,” Lichter said. “It’s so peaceful. And the frozen rivers have these strange ice formations.”

They used snowshoes and, in California, skis, while carrying loads of up to 45 pounds, including food (they resupplied every week or so). Winter storms were frequent. When it snowed at night, they would get up every 30 minutes to push snow off their tarp to keep it from collapsing on them. In white-outs, they could barely see and stayed close to each other — except when crossing avalanche zones, when they had to separate to ensure that they would not both get buried in the same avalanche.

Even drinking water was a challenge. “You’re surrounded by frozen water, but you don’t have easy access to it to drink,” Forry said. They used a stove to melt snow for drinking water.

The worst period, they said, came in the Oregon mountains when a huge snowfall and below-zero temperatures left them with frostbitten feet. They were able to warm up and avoid permanent damage, yet they still had another 2,000 miles to go.

“At times, you’re pulling your knee up to your chest to take the next step, to get it above the snow — and that’s in snowshoes,” Forry said.

Barney Mann, the chairman of the Pacific Crest Trail Association and unofficial historian of the trail, said that after the frostbite incident he had doubted that Forry and Lichter would succeed.

“It’s the unrelenting cold,” Mann said. “It’s the unrelenting snow. It’s the moment-by-moment challenge of navigation when everything is white.”

One difficult day came in northern California when a storm dropped 10 inches of rain in 24 hours, winds reached 70 miles per hour and both men tumbled into a swollen torrent of a river that left them and their gear drenched and frigid.

Yet, in spite of all those challenges, they still urge people to try winter camping — carefully.

“I really encourage people to get out in the winter,” Forry said. “You have it to yourself, and it’s so peaceful. But start with a day trip — that way if anything goes wrong, you’re near your car.”

•

I’m delighted to announce that the winner of my annual win-a-trip contest is Austin Meyer, a journalism student at Stanford University. We’ll probably travel to India and Bangladesh, although Congo is an alternate possibility. The runners-up are Ashley Bastock of John Carroll University, Taylor Graham of Ithaca College and Sam Friedlander of University of Pennsylvania. Thanks to the Center for Global Development for helping me pick Austin from a dazzling field of 450 applicants. Stay tuned for a great reporting trip!

Self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing stupidity if you ask me…  Suppose they had been injured — they didn’t seem to give much thought to the people who would have had to come out and search for them.  Assholes.  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Welcome to a whole new world.

In Congress, that is. Not in the actual world. Control your expectations, for heaven’s sake.

You may have noticed that in an orgy of bipartisan cooperation, Congress passed a bill this week funding the Department of Homeland Security until the fall. Then, on Wednesday, the House passed a bipartisan bill funding the Amtrak system.

And then everybody went away because it was, you know, going to snow.

But, still, bipartisan cooperation. It all started with the Senate. Republicans have been horrified to discover that whenever the now-minority Senate Democrats don’t like something, they can simply filibuster, requiring 60 votes to move the bill forward. The Democrats always complained bitterly when the Republicans pulled that trick on them, but now they say the circumstances are totally different.

The Democrats demanded that the homeland security funding bill be passed without any side assaults on President Obama’s immigration program. And Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, eventually had to give in.

In a way, you could look at last week’s homeland security crisis as similar to the reported theft of a $150,000 gown, covered entirely in pearls, which actress Lupita Nyong’o wore to the Academy Awards. Later, the disgruntled thief called TMZ and said he had left the dress in a hotel restroom out of disgust after he had two of the pearls appraised and discovered they were fake.

So, good news is that the Department of Homeland Security is going to be funded. Also, that very attractive gown is back. The bad news is that we’ve now hit the point where keeping the government running sounds like a big victory. And the pearls weren’t real.

Irony abounds. Who expected the Senate Republicans to be surprised when the Democrats started filibustering? Who knew dress thieves had such principled standards?

The Senate Democrats’ success really ticked off the Republicans in the House, which nurtures a long and glorious tradition of hating the Senate, no matter who’s in charge. (The Senate ignores the House completely.)

“If we’re going to allow seven Democratic senators to decide what the agenda is … then we might as well just give them the chairmanships, give them the leadership of the Senate,” groused Representative Raúl Labrador.

Labrador is a leading member of a superconservative Republican caucus, which was created recently, with the apparent goal of bossing Speaker John Boehner around. In its debut performance, the caucus managed to kill a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security for just three weeks.

It is true that Labrador is the only member of Congress with the same name as a large, friendly retriever, but he can be really strict.

Pop Quiz: After conservative Republicans killed John Boehner’s bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security for three weeks, Boehner realized that:

A) Homeland security isn’t actually all that big a deal.

B) His own right wing was completely crazy, and, if he wanted to get through the year, he was going to have to work with the Democrats.

C) “If ands and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas.”

Yes! Boehner seems to have realized that he’s going to have to work with the Democrats. Also, he said that thing about the candy and nuts, but nobody really knew what he was talking about.

Both the homeland security bill and the Amtrak funding were passed with unanimous Democratic support, and huge Republican defections. The Amtrak bill, by the way, is more ambitious than your normal kicking-of-the-can-down-the-road legislation. There’s money to actually improve the infrastructure, which is more than Congress has managed to come up with lately for highways and bridges. It also opens up the wonderful world of rail transit to pet dogs and cats, which I have to say is something most of us were not anticipating.

The last bit seems to be the inspiration of a California Republican who owns a French bulldog that likes to travel. It is possible the program may be limited to small animals, but we will refrain making any jokes about aggrieved Labradors.

So this appears to be the path to the future: Senate Democrats will block anything they don’t like, forcing the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, to compromise. In the House, the Labradorians won’t vote for any Senate compromises, so Boehner will need the Democrats to pass any legislation that could actually make it into law.

Here we go — four fiscal cliffs in the offing and if the Republican majority wants to avoid falling off any of them, they’ll have to join hands with the Democrats and tango. We won’t get any big, dramatic reforms, but we might avoid any big dramatic disasters.

Plus poodles on Amtrak. Who knew?

Blow, Kristof and Collins

January 22, 2015

In “Inequality in the Air We Breathe?” Mr. Blow says it’s hard to imagine anyone, with a straight face, proposing to openly burn millions of pounds of explosives near, say, Manhattan or Seattle.  Mr. Kristof considers “Reagan, Obama and Inequality” and says the average American has been stuck since the Reagan era in a predawn darkness of stagnation and inequality.  In “The Road Meets the Walrus” Ms. Collins says the gas tax might be a good topic to discuss when people ask you what you thought of President Obama’s State of the Union address.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I grew up in the small town of Gibsland, in northern Louisiana. It is dirt poor, but proud. And it’s an overwhelmingly African-American community.

(There are fewer than 1,000 people in Gibsland; more than 80 percent of them are black; the median household income is $27,292, little over half the national average of $51,939; and the poverty rate is 28 percent, compared with the national rate of 15 percent.)

My mother, one of my brothers and a raft of relatives still live in Gibsland. Another brother moved to the next town over, Minden, a big city relatively speaking (it has 13,000 people), where he is a high school teacher. Minden, just west of Gibsland, is also majority African-American and relatively poor — 55 percent of the residents are black, the median household income is $30,411 and 24 percent of the residents are poor.

For years, one of the largest employers in that area was the Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant, about four miles from Minden. The Environmental Protection Agency eventually listed the plant as a Superfund site because for more than 40 years “untreated explosives-laden wastewater from industrial operations was collected in concrete sumps at each of the various load line areas,” and emptied into “16 one-acre pink water lagoons.” It was determined that the toxic contamination in soil and sediments from the lagoons was a “major contributor” to toxic groundwater contamination.

But wait, it gets worse.

When the plant ceased production, as The Times-Picayune of New Orleans pointed out, “the Army awarded now-bankrupt Explo Systems a contract in 2010 to ‘demilitarize’ the propellant charges for artillery rounds” on the site. The company conducted “operations” there “until a 2012 explosion sent a mushroom cloud 7,000 feet high and broke windows a mile away in Doyline,” another small community in the area.

But wait, it gets worse.

According to The Shreveport Times, “investigation by state police found the millions of pounds of propellant stored in 98 bunkers scattered around” the site. It turned out that when Explo went bankrupt, it simply abandoned the explosives, known as M6. Now there was a risk of even more explosions, so there was need for a plan to get rid of the M6, and quickly.

(By the way, Shreveport is the largest city near the site, and it, too, is majority black, has a median household income well below the national average and a poverty rate well above it.)

But wait, it gets worse.

According to the website Truthout:

“After months of bureaucratic disputes between the Army and state and federal agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) recently announced an emergency plan to burn 15 million pounds of M6 — up to 80,000 pounds a day over the course of a year — on open ‘burn trays’ at Camp Minden, a disposal process that environmental advocates say is outdated and has been outlawed in other countries. The operation would be one of the largest open munitions burn in U.S. history.”

Indeed, Robert Flournoy, an environmental toxicologist and former Louisiana Tech professor, wrote in The Shreveport Times this week:

“The E.P.A. says this is a safe way to destroy the propellant. I strongly disagree with their decision and their safety statement. I have over 42 years of environmental experience and can say without a doubt the open-tray method is not safe. The E.P.A. has produced no data to the safety of such a burn and repeatedly ignores requests for such data from media, citizens, state officials and environmental professionals. In addition to the air contamination risk, we have three other issues: explosive detonation, groundwater contamination and soil contamination.”

And yes, again, it gets worse.

A local television news station, KTBS in Shreveport, pointed out last week:

“It’s expected to be the nation’s largest open burn in history. And now, it seems there’s even more explosive material at Camp Minden than we all previously thought. We’ve all heard the number 15 million pounds of explosives, but documents from the E.P.A. show there’s millions more pounds.”

This week, a group of “71 social and environmental justice organizations” across the country sent a letter of protest to the E.P.A.’s assistant administrator Cynthia Giles, saying in part:

“By definition, open burning has no emissions controls and will result in the uncontrolled release of toxic emissions and respirable particulates to the environment.”

Feeling the pressure from local citizen and environmentalist rightly concerned about the immediate and long-term health implications, the E.P.A. recently delayed the burn by 90 days to allow the state’s department of environmental quality and the National Guard to “select their own alternative for disposing of the explosive material,” according to The Times-Picayune.

Still, these little places in the woods aren’t yet out of the woods. It’s still not clear what will eventually happen with the explosives.

We have to stop and ask: How was this allowed to come to such a pass in the first place? How could this plant have been allowed to contaminate the groundwater for 40 years? How could the explosives have been left at the site in the first place? How is it that there doesn’t seem to be the money or the will to more safely remove them? Can we imagine anyone, with a straight face, proposing to openly burn millions of pounds of explosives near Manhattan or Seattle?

This is the kind of scenario that some might place under the umbrella of “environmental racism,” in which disproportionately low-income and minority communities are either targeted or disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous materials and waste facilities.

There is a long history in this country of exposing vulnerable populations to toxicity.

Fifteen years ago, Robert D. Bullard published Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality. In it, he pointed out that nearly 60 percent of the nation’s hazardous-waste landfill capacity was in “five Southern states (i.e., Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas),” and that “four landfills in minority ZIP codes areas represented 63 percent of the South’s total hazardous-waste capacity” although “blacks make up only about 20 percent of the South’s total population.”

More recently, in 2012, a study by researchers at Yale found that “The greater the concentration of Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans or poor residents in an area, the more likely that potentially dangerous compounds such as vanadium, nitrates and zinc are in the mix of fine particles they breathe.”

Among the injustices perpetrated on poor and minority populations, this may in fact be the most pernicious and least humane: the threat of poisoning the very air that you breathe.

I have skin in this game. My family would fall in the shadow of the plume. But everyone should be outraged about this practice. Of all the measures of equality we deserve, the right to feel assured and safe when you draw a breath should be paramount.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Since the end of the 1970s, something has gone profoundly wrong in America.

Inequality has soared. Educational progress slowed. Incarceration rates quintupled. Family breakdown accelerated. Median household income stagnated.

“It’s morning again in America” — that was a campaign slogan by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. But, in retrospect, the average American has been stuck since the Reagan era in a predawn darkness of stagnation and inequality, and we still haven’t shaken it off, particularly since 2000. Inequality has increased further under President Obama.

That’s the context for Obama’s call, in his State of the Union address, for greater economic fairness. But first, the caveats. His proposals are dead on arrival in Congress. They won’t be implemented and probably won’t change the public’s thinking: Research by George C. Edwards, a political scientist, finds that presidential speeches rarely persuade the public much.

Remember the 2014 State of the Union address? Of course not. Of 18 proposals in it, there was action on two, according to PBS. Or Obama’s passionate call in his 2013 State of the Union for measures to reduce gun violence? Nothing much resulted, and the word “guns” didn’t even pass his lips this time.

Yet the bully pulpit still can shape the national agenda and nag at the American conscience. I don’t fully agree with Obama’s solutions — how could he skip over early-childhood interventions?! — but he’s exactly right in the way he framed the inequality issue: “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?”

Some background. Even with the global Great Depression, the United States performed brilliantly in the first three-quarters of the 20th century, with incomes and education mostly rising and inequality flat or falling — and gains were broadly shared by poor and rich alike. High school graduation rates surged, G.I.’s went to college, and the United States led the world in educational attainment.

And, in part of this remarkable era, the top federal income tax rate exceeded 90 percent. Republicans might remember that point when they warn that Obama’s proposals for modestly higher taxes would savage the American economy.

Then, for average Americans, the roof fell in around the end of the 1970s. The ’70s were “the end of normal,” the economist James K. Galbraith argues in a new book of that title. Afterward, the economy continued to grow over all, but the spoils went to the wealthy and the bottom 90 percent barely benefited.

Median household income is little greater today than it was in 1979. Today, the typical family in Canada appears better off than the typical American family.

By some measures, education — our seed corn for the future — has pretty much stalled. More young American men today have less education than their parents (29 percent) than have more education (20 percent). Among industrialized countries as a whole, 70 percent of 3-year-olds go to preschool; in the United States, 38 percent do.

I wonder if the celebration of unfettered capitalism and “greed is good” since the Reagan era didn’t help shape social mores in ways that accelerated inequality.

In any case, Reagan was right on one point — “the best social program is a productive job” — and Obama offered sound proposals to increase incentives for work. Better child-care and sick-leave policies would also make work more feasible. The United States is the only country among the 34 in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that provides no paid maternity leave.

Oddly, Obama didn’t push early-childhood initiatives, focused on kids from newborns to 5 years old, that have a particularly strong evidence base for creating opportunity.

Early-education initiatives poll well, and some of the leaders in programming have been red states like Oklahoma. So while the Obama agenda is mostly for show, expansion of preschool could actually occur at least at the state level.

Obama rightly heralded the fall in teenage pregnancy rates. But he had little to do with it (although the MTV show “16 and Pregnant” played a role!), and about 30 percent of American girls still get pregnant by age 19. Making reliable birth control available to at-risk teenagers would help them, reduce abortion rates and even pay for itself in reduced social spending later.

In America, we have subsidized private jets, big banks and hedge fund managers. Wouldn’t it make more sense to subsidize kids? So if higher capital gains taxes can pay for better education, infrastructure and jobs, of course that trade-off is worthwhile.

Congressional Republicans seem focused on a pipeline that isn’t even economically viable at today’s oil prices. Let’s hope that the national agenda can broaden along the lines that Obama suggests, so that the last 35 years become an aberration rather than a bellwether.

And next up we have Ms. Collins:

Let’s raise the gas tax.

There are several reasons we need to discuss this now. One is that plummeting gasoline prices make the idea very timely. Also, people will be asking you this week what you thought of President Obama’s State of the Union address. Even though he did not mention the gas tax, bringing it up will allow you to avoid having an opinion on whether it’s time to close the capital gains stepped-up-basis loophole.

The gas tax raises much-needed money for roads and mass transit. Our roads, you may have noticed, are falling apart. Every time you hit a pothole, yell: “Raise the gas tax!”

Even more important, it encourages Americans to use fuel-efficient cars. While we’re all happy as clams about falling gas prices, every gallon produces more than 19 pounds of planet-warming emissions. We just had the hottest year on record. The ice floes are melting. Walruses keep piling up along the Alaskan shore, where the babies can get squashed.

Raise the gas tax and remember the walruses.

Plus, it’s not really a tax! Or at least not necessarily. Just ask Ronald Reagan. When he entered office, Reagan said he didn’t see the likelihood of a gas tax increase “unless there’s a palace coup.” But then, you know, stuff happened and The Great Communicator discovered that a levy on gasoline wasn’t really a tax, but merely a “user fee.” So no problem at all, and under his administration the, um, fee was more than doubled.

Ah, Ronald Reagan. Perhaps you noticed, during the State of the Union, that President Obama was urging Congress to bring the capital gains tax back up to Reagan-era levels? Who’d have thought? We live in ironic times, people.

But about the gas tax. It was also raised under George H.W. (The Good One) Bush, and then again under Bill Clinton. Remember Al Gore breaking the tie in the Senate? Ah, Al Gore.

And that was it. The federal gas tax, currently 18.4 cents a gallon, is not indexed for inflation, and it has not gone up since 1993. The Highway Trust Fund, which pays for the federal highway construction program, keeps falling deeper into the red. It’s currently scheduled to implode sometime this spring.

The White House has been very clear about its lack of enthusiasm for solving the problem with a gas tax increase. Mainly, the objection is that if Congress wouldn’t pass Obama’s proposal to pay for early education with a tobacco tax, it’s not going to fund road repair with a gas tax. This is a pretty good point. However, deeply cynical souls could also argue that the current majority likes road construction more than preschool.

During the State of the Union, Obama made his pitch for another idea: reform the tax on overseas business profits, creating a one-time-only windfall of revenue for the government to use in a mega-road-building spree.

Three reasons the gas tax is a better idea:

1) Walruses.

2) Half the members of Congress are eyeing that very same windfall to pay for their own pet programs.

3) Only works once. “It’s just a coward’s way out,” says Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican. Genuine fiscal conservatives hate the idea of paying for permanent ongoing programs with one-shot revenues. Corker has been known to complain that he’s been in the Senate for eight years and never saw Congress permanently solve a problem.

Last year Corker and Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat of Connecticut, floated the idea of raising the gas tax 12 cents over two years. “Our bet when we went out on a limb last year was that we could position it as a topic for serious discussion this year, and I hope it’s going to pay off,” said Murphy.

And it’s working, sort of. A number of prominent Republicans have been muttering things like “nothing is off the table.” Senator James Inhofe, the new chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and a man whose position on global warming makes him an enemy to walruses everywhere, has said a gas tax is “one of the options.” An option that is not off the table! Truly, the worm has turned.

On the other hand, Representative Paul Ryan, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, recently announced: “We won’t pass a gas tax.” That would seem to be somewhat discouraging, but there are still these gleams of hope that Republicans might come around since:

— You can call it a user fee. (Ask Ronald Reagan.)

— President Obama doesn’t like it.

— Compromise is possible. Many conservatives hate the fact that the Highway Trust Fund also helps support mass transit and invests in things like highway beautification and bike paths. There might be some room for give here. Let’s throw something in the fund under the proverbial bus. I nominate “transportation museums.”

Walrus seconds the motion.

Blow and Krugman

January 5, 2015

Mr. Blow addresses some uncomfortable truths in “Privilege of ‘Arrest Without Incident’.”  He says when a white, female shooter is calmly taken into custody, it’s hard not to believe there is a racial double standard.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Presidents and the Economy:”  The Fed, not the White House, typically holds the reins. But is this time different?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The day after Christmas, a shooter terrorized the streets of a Chattanooga, Tenn., neighborhood. According to the local newspaper, the shooter was “wearing body armor” and “firing multiple shots out her window at people and cars.” One witness told the paper that the shooter was “holding a gun out of the window as if it were a cigarette.”

There’s more:

“Officers found two people who said they were at a stop sign when a woman pulled up in a dark-colored sedan and fired shots into their vehicle, hitting and disabling the radiator. Then more calls reported a woman pointing a firearm at people as she passed them in her car, and that she fired at another vehicle in the same area.”

When police officers came upon the shooter, the shooter led them on a chase. The shooter even pointed the gun at a police officer.

Surely this was not going to end well. We’ve all seen in recent months what came of people who did far less. Surely in this case officers would have been justified in using whatever force they saw fit. Right?

According to the paper, the shooter was “taken into custody without incident or injury.”

Who was this shooter anyway? Julia Shields, a 45-year-old white woman.

Take a moment and consider this. Take a long moment. It is a good thing that officers took her in “without incident or injury,” of course, but can we imagine that result being universally the case if a shooter looks different? Would this episode have ended this way if the shooter had been male, or black, or both?

It’s an unanswerable question, but nevertheless one that deserves pondering. Every case is different. Police officers are human beings making split-second decisions — often informed by fears — about when to use force and the degree of that force.

But that truth is also the trap. How and why are our fears constructed and activated? The American mind has been poisoned, from this country’s birth, against minority populations. People of color, particularly African-American men, have been caught up in a twister of macroaggressions and micro ones. No amount of ignoring can alleviate it; no amount of achieving can ameliorate it.

And in a few seconds, or fractions of a second, before the conscious mind can catch up to the racing heart, decisions are made that can’t be unmade. Dead is forever.

It’s hard to read stories like this and not believe that there is a double standard in the use of force by the police. Everyone needs to be treated as though his or her life matters. More suspected criminals need to be detained and tried in a court of law and not sentenced on the street to a rain of bullets.

It is no wonder that whites and blacks have such divergent views of treatment by the police. As The Washington Post noted recently about a poll it conducted with ABC News, only about two in 10 blacks “say they are confident that the police treat whites and blacks equally, whether or not they have committed a crime.” In contrast, six in 10 whites “have confidence that police treat both equally.”

Michael Brown was unarmed. (Some witnesses in Ferguson, Mo., say he had his hands up. Others say he charged an officer.)

Eric Garner was unarmed on a Staten Island street.

Tamir Rice was 12 years old, walking around a Cleveland park and holding a toy gun that uses nonlethal plastic pellets, but he didn’t shoot at anyone.

John Crawford was in an Ohio Walmart, holding, but not shooting, an air rifle he had picked up from a store shelf.

The police say Antonio Martin had a gun and pointed it at a police officer in Berkeley, Mo., but didn’t fire it.

And last Tuesday, the police say, a handgun was “revealed” during a New Jersey traffic stop of a car Jerame C. Reid was in.

But none had the privilege of being “arrested without incident or injury.” They were all black, all killed by police officers. Brown was shot through the head. Garner was grabbed around the neck in a chokehold, tossed to the ground and held there, even as he pleaded that he couldn’t breathe; it was all caught on video. Rice was shot within two seconds of the police officers’ arrival on the scene. Crawford, Martin and Reid were also cut down by police bullets.

In the cases that have been heard so far by grand juries, the grand juries have refused to indict the officers.

Maybe one could argue that in some of those cases the officers were within their rights to respond with lethal force. Maybe. But shouldn’t the use of force have equal application? Shouldn’t it be color- and gender-blind? Shouldn’t more people, in equal measures, be taken in and not taken out?

Why weren’t these black men, any of them, the recipients of the same use of force — or lack thereof — as Julia Shields?

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Suddenly, or so it seems, the U.S. economy is looking better. Things have been looking up for a while, but at this point the signs of improvement — job gains, rapidly growing G.D.P., rising public confidence — are unmistakable.

The improving economy is surely one factor in President Obama’s rising approval rating. And there’s a palpable sense of panic among Republicans, despite their victory in the midterms. They expected to run in 2016 against a record of failure; what do they do if the economy is looking pretty good?

Well, that’s their problem. What I want to ask instead is whether any of this makes sense. How much influence does the occupant of the White House have on the economy, anyway? The standard answer among economists, at least when they aren’t being political hacks, is: not much. But is this time different?

To understand why economists usually downplay the economic role of presidents, let’s revisit a much-mythologized episode in U.S. economic history: the recession and recovery of the 1980s.

On the right, of course, the 1980s are remembered as an age of miracles wrought by the blessed Reagan, who cut taxes, conjured up the magic of the marketplace and led the nation to job gains never matched before or since. In reality, the 16 million jobs America added during the Reagan years were only slightly more than the 14 million added over the previous eight years. And a later president — Bill something-or-other — presided over the creation of 22 million jobs. But who’s counting?

In any case, however, serious analyses of the Reagan-era business cycle place very little weight on Reagan, and emphasize instead the role of the Federal Reserve, which sets monetary policy and is largely independent of the political process. At the beginning of the 1980s, the Fed, under the leadership of Paul Volcker, was determined to bring inflation down, even at a heavy price; it tightened policy, sending interest rates sky high, with mortgage rates going above 18 percent. What followed was a severe recession that drove unemployment to double digits but also broke the wage-price spiral.

Then the Fed decided that America had suffered enough. It loosened the reins, sending interest rates plummeting and housing starts soaring. And the economy bounced back. Reagan got the political credit for “morning in America,” but Mr. Volcker was actually responsible for both the slump and the boom.

The point is that normally the Fed, not the White House, rules the economy. Should we apply the same rule to the Obama years?

Not quite.

For one thing, the Fed has had a hard time gaining traction in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, because the aftermath of a huge housing and mortgage bubble has left private spending relatively unresponsive to interest rates. This time around, monetary policy really needed help from a temporary increase in government spending, which meant that the president could have made a big difference. And he did, for a while; politically, the Obama stimulus may have been a failure, but an overwhelming majority of economists believe that it helped mitigate the slump.

Since then, however, scorched-earth Republican opposition has more than reversed that initial effort. In fact, federal spending adjusted for inflation and population growth is lower now than it was when Mr. Obama took office; at the same point in the Reagan years, it was up more than 20 percent. So much, then, for fiscal policy.

There is, however, another sense in which Mr. Obama has arguably made a big difference. The Fed has had a hard time getting traction, but it has at least made an effort to boost the economy — and it has done so despite ferocious attacks from conservatives, who have accused it again and again of “debasing the dollar” and setting the stage for runaway inflation. Without Mr. Obama to shield its independence, the Fed might well have been bullied into raising interest rates, which would have been disastrous. So the president has indirectly aided the economy by helping to fend off the hard-money mob.

Last but not least, even if you think Mr. Obama deserves little or no credit for good economic news, the fact is his opponents have spent years claiming that his bad attitude — he has been known to suggest, now and then, that some bankers have behaved badly — is somehow responsible for the economy’s weakness. Now that he’s presiding over unexpected economic strength, they can’t just turn around and assert his irrelevance.

So is the president responsible for the accelerating recovery? No. Can we nonetheless say that we’re doing better than we would be if the other party held the White House? Yes. Do those who were blaming Mr. Obama for all our economic ills now look like knaves and fools? Yes, they do. And that’s because they are.

The NY Times Editors and Friedman

December 10, 2014

Mr. Bruni is off today.  Since The Moustache of Wisdom offered up a whining apologia for torture titled “We’re Always Still Americans” in which he snivels that the Senate committee’s torture report shows that fear after 9/11 was terribly corrosive I thought I’d start off with today’s lead editorial in the New York Times, “The Senate Report on the C.I.A.’s Torture and Lies:”

The world has long known that the United States government illegally detained and tortured prisoners after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and lied about it to Congress and the world. But the summary of a report released Tuesday of the Senate investigation of these operations, even after being sanitized by the Central Intelligence Agency itself, is a portrait of depravity that is hard to comprehend and even harder to stomach.

The report raises again, with renewed power, the question of why no one has ever been held accountable for these seeming crimes — not the top officials who set them in motion, the lower-level officials who committed the torture, or those who covered it up, including by destroying videotapes of the abuse and by trying to block the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of their acts.

At one point, the report says, the C.I.A. assured Congress that the behavior of the secret jailers and interrogators was nothing like the horrors the world saw at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. That was the closest the agency seems to have come to the truth — what happened appears to have been worse than what took place at Abu Ghraib.

The Senate committee’s summary says that the torture by C.I.A. interrogators and private contractors was “brutal and far worse” than the agency has admitted to the public, to Congress and the Justice Department, even to the White House. At least one detainee died of “suspected hypothermia” after being shackled partially naked to a concrete floor in a secret C.I.A. detention center run by a junior officer without experience, competence or supervision. Even now, the report says, it’s not clear how many prisoners were held at this one facility, or what was done to them.

In that, and other clandestine prisons, very often no initial attempt was made to question prisoners in a nonviolent manner, despite C.I.A. assertions to the contrary. “Instead, in many cases the most aggressive techniques were used immediately, in combination and nonstop,” according to the summary of the declassified and heavily censored document. “Sleep deprivation involved keeping detainees awake for up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads.”

Detainees were walked around naked and shackled, and at other times naked detainees were “hooded and dragged up and down a long corridor while being slapped and punched.”

The C.I.A. appears to have used waterboarding on more than the three detainees it has acknowledged subjecting to that form of torture. During one session, one of those detainees, Abu Zubaydah, an operative of Al Qaeda, became “completely unresponsive.” The waterboarding of another, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described planner of the 9/11 attacks, became a “series of near drownings.”

Some detainees, the report said, were subjected to nightmarish pseudo-medical procedures, referred to as “rectal feeding.”

That some of these detainees were highly dangerous men does not excuse subjecting them to illegal treatment that brought shame on the United States and served as a recruiting tool for terrorist groups. To make matters worse, the report said that at least 26 of the 119 known C.I.A. prisoners were wrongfully held, some of them for months after the C.I.A. determined that they should not have been taken prisoner in the first place.

The C.I.A. and some members of the President George W. Bush’s administration claimed these brutal acts were necessary to deal with “ticking time bomb” threats and that they were effective. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, an avid promoter of “enhanced interrogation,” still makes that claim.

But “at no time” did the C.I.A.’s torture program produce intelligence that averted a terrorism threat, the report said. All of the information that the C.I.A. attributed to its “enhanced interrogation techniques” was obtained before the brutal interrogations took place, actually came from another source, or was a lie invented by the torture victims — a prospect that the C.I.A. had determined long ago was the likely result of torture.

The report recounted the C.I.A.’s decision to use two outside psychologists “to develop, operate and assess” the interrogation programs. They borrowed from their only experience — an Air Force program designed to train personnel to resist torture techniques that had been used by American adversaries decades earlier. They had no experience in interrogation, “nor did either have specialized knowledge of Al Qaeda, a background in counterterrorism or any relevant cultural or linguistic expertise.”

They decided which prisoners could withstand brutal treatment and then assessed the effectiveness of their own programs. “In 2005, the psychologists formed a company specifically for the purpose of conducting their work with the C.I.A. Shortly thereafter, the C.I.A. outsourced virtually all aspects of the program,” the summary said. And it noted that, “the contractors received $81 million prior to the contract’s termination in 2009.”

The litany of brutality, lawlessness and lack of accountability serves as a reminder of what a horrible decision President Obama made at the outset of his administration to close the books on this chapter in our history, even as he repudiated the use of torture. The C.I.A. officials who destroyed videotapes of waterboarding were left unpunished, and all attempts at bringing these acts into a courtroom were blocked by claims of national secrets.

It is hard to believe that anything will be done now. Republicans, who will soon control the Senate and have the majority on the intelligence panel, denounced the report, acting as though it is the reporting of the torture and not the torture itself that is bad for the country. Maybe George Tenet, who ran the C.I.A. during this ignoble period, could make a tiny amends by returning the Presidential Medal of Freedom that President Bush gave him upon his retirement.

And now here’s Little Tommy “Friedman Unit” who’ll explain how it’s all understandable:

Why do people line up to come to this country? Why do they build boats from milk cartons to sail here? Why do they trust our diplomats and soldiers in ways true of no other country? It’s because we are a beacon of opportunity and freedom, and also because these foreigners know in their bones that we do things differently from other big powers in history.

One of the things we did was elect a black man whose grandfather was a Muslim as our president — after being hit on Sept. 11, 2001, by Muslim extremists. And one of the things we do we did on Tuesday: We published what appears to be an unblinking examination and exposition of how we tortured prisoners and suspected terrorists after 9/11. I’m glad we published it.

It may endanger captured Americans in the future. That is not to be taken lightly. But this act of self-examination is not only what keeps our society as a whole healthy, it’s what keeps us a model that others want to emulate, partner with and immigrate to — which is a different, but vital, source of our security as well.

We’ve been here before. In wartime, civil liberties are often curtailed and abused, and then later restored. Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War. During World War II, we imprisoned more than 127,000 American citizens solely because they were of Japanese ancestry. Fear does that.

Fear after 9/11 was equally corrosive. I have sympathy for people who were charged with defending the nation’s security after that surprise attack. It was impossible to know what was coming next — for which they would be held accountable. But it is hard to read the summaries of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report and not conclude that some officials and the C.I.A. took the slack we cut them after 9/11 — motivated by the fear of another attack — and used it in ways, and long past the emergency moment, that not only involved torture, but abuse of institutions and lying to the public and other departments of government. If not exposed and checked, such actions could damage our society as much as a terrorist attack.

The Times had amazing coverage of this report, as did others. I came across an interactive feature on washingtonpost.com that distilled charges in the report in a way that turns your stomach.

It said: “Click a statement below for a summary of the findings,” offering a grim laundry list of links to the report’s torture conclusions: “not an effective means of acquiring intelligence,” “rested on inaccurate claims of their effectiveness,” “brutal and far worse than the C.I.A. represented,” “conditions of confinement for C.I.A. detainees were harsher,” “repeatedly provided inaccurate information,” “actively avoided or impeded congressional oversight,” “impeded effective White House oversight” … “coercive interrogation techniques that had not been approved,” “rarely reprimanded or held personnel accountable,” “ignored numerous internal critiques, criticisms, and objections,” “inherently unsustainable,” “damaged the United States’ standing in the world.”

And there were more. The list told you that our post-9/11 fears led us to tolerate some terribly aberrant, dishonest and illegal behaviors that needed to be fully exposed, because big lies being tolerated lead to little lies being tolerated lead to institutions and trust being eroded from the inside.

I have no illusions: more terrorists are out there and they want to use the openness of our open society precisely to destroy it. And if there had been another 9/11 after the first 9/11, many Americans would have told the C.I.A. to do whatever it wants, civil liberties be damned. Our sentries who prevented further attacks were protecting our civil liberties as well.

We want to keep attracting to our security services people who will have that sense of duty and vigilance. Our bargain is that we have to let them know we understand their challenge and will let them go to the edge of the law — and in rare, ticking time-bomb emergencies even over it, if justified — to protect us.

But their bargain with us has to be that they will take the slack and trust we give them and not go over that edge out of habit, laziness, convenience, mendacity or misguided theories, and in the face of internal protests — all of which damage our country. The report is about how that bargain broke down, and it represents an important step in rebuilding it.

I greatly respect how Senator John McCain put it: “I understand the reasons that governed the decision to resort to these interrogation methods, and I know that those who approved them and those who used them were dedicated to securing justice for the victims of terrorist attacks and to protecting Americans from further harm. … But I dispute wholeheartedly that it was right for them to use these methods, which this report makes clear were neither in the best interests of justice nor our security nor the ideals we have sacrificed so much blood and treasure to defend.” Even in the worst of times, “we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.”

Okay, Tommy, now why don’t you lead the jingoistic chant for us:  “U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A!”

Blow and Krugman

September 8, 2014

In “Crime, Bias and Statistics” Mr. Blow says a new report by the Sentencing Project lays bare the systemic effects of racial distortion.  Prof. Krugman says “Scots, What the Heck?” and outlines the very bad economics of independence.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Discussions of the relationship between blacks and the criminal justice system in this country too often grind to a halt as people slink down into their silos and arm themselves with their best rhetorical weapons — racial bias on one side and statistics in which minorities, particularly blacks, are overrepresented as criminals on the other.

What I find too often overlooked in this war of words is the intersection between the two positions, meaning the degree to which bias informs the statistics and vice versa.

The troubling association — in fact, overassociation — of blacks with criminality directly affects the way we think about both crime and blacks as a whole.

A damning report released by the Sentencing Project last week lays bare the bias and the interconnecting systemic structures that reinforce it and disproportionately affect African-Americans.

This is the kind of report that one really wants to publish in its totality, for its conclusion is such a powerful condemnation of the perversity of racial oppression. But alas, this being a newspaper column, that’s not possible. Still, allow me to present many of their findings:

• “Whites are more punitive than blacks and Hispanics even though they experience less crime.”

• “White Americans overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color and associate people of color with criminality. For example, white respondents in a 2010 survey overestimated the actual share of burglaries, illegal drug sales and juvenile crime committed by African-Americans by 20 percent to 30 percent.”

• “White Americans who associate crime with blacks and Latinos are more likely to support punitive policies — including capital punishment and mandatory minimum sentencing — than whites with weaker racial associations of crime.”

This association of crime with blacks has been noted by others. Lisa Bloom, in her book “Suspicion Nation,” points out: “While whites can and do commit a great deal of minor and major crimes, the race as a whole is never tainted by those acts. But when blacks violate the law, all members of the race are considered suspect.”

She further says: “The standard assumption that criminals are black and blacks are criminals is so prevalent that in one study, 60 percent of viewers who viewed a crime story with no picture of the perpetrator falsely recalled seeing one, and of those, 70 percent believed he was African-American. When we think about crime, we ‘see black,’ even when it’s not present at all.”

As the Sentencing Project report makes clear, the entire government and media machinery is complicit in the distortion.

According to the report:

• “Whether acting on their own implicit biases or bowing to political exigency, policy makers have fused crime and race in their policy initiatives and statements. They have crafted harsh sentencing laws that impact all Americans and disproportionately incarcerate people of color.”

• “Many media outlets reinforce the public’s racial misconceptions about crime by presenting African-Americans and Latinos differently than whites — both quantitatively and qualitatively. Television news programs and newspapers overrepresent racial minorities as crime suspects and whites as crime victims.”

• “Disparities in police stops, in prosecutorial charging, and in bail and sentencing decisions reveal that implicit racial bias has penetrated all corners of the criminal justice system.”

The effects of these perceptions and policies have been absolutely devastating for society in general and black people in particular. According to the report:

• “By increasing support for punitive policies, racial perceptions of crime have made sentencing more severe for all Americans. The United States now has the world’s highest imprisonment rate, with one in nine prisoners serving life sentences. Racial perceptions of crime, combined with other factors, have led to the disparate punishment of people of color. Although blacks and Latinos together comprise just 30 percent of the general population, they account for 58 percent of the prison population.”

• “By increasing the scale of criminal sanctions and disproportionately directing penalties toward people of color, racial perceptions of crime have been counterproductive for public safety. Racial minorities’ perceptions of unfairness in the criminal justice system have dampened cooperation with police work and impeded criminal trials. In 2013, over two-thirds of African-Americans saw the criminal justice system as biased against blacks, in contrast to one-quarter of whites. Crime policies that disproportionately target people of color can increase crime rates by concentrating the effects of criminal labeling and collateral consequences on racial minorities and by fostering a sense of legal immunity among whites.”

There is no way in this country to discuss crime statistics without including in that discussion the myriad ways in which those statistics are informed and influenced by the systemic effects of racial distortion.

Individual behavior is not the only component of the numbers; bias is the other.

Mr. Blow is another voice crying in the wilderness.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Next week Scotland will hold a referendum on whether to leave the United Kingdom. And polling suggests that support for independence has surged over the past few months, largely because pro-independence campaigners have managed to reduce the “fear factor” — that is, concern about the economic risks of going it alone. At this point the outcome looks like a tossup.

Well, I have a message for the Scots: Be afraid, be very afraid. The risks of going it alone are huge. You may think that Scotland can become another Canada, but it’s all too likely that it would end up becoming Spain without the sunshine.

Comparing Scotland with Canada seems, at first, pretty reasonable. After all, Canada, like Scotland, is a relatively small economy that does most of its trade with a much larger neighbor. Also like Scotland, it is politically to the left of that giant neighbor. And what the Canadian example shows is that this can work. Canada is prosperous, economically stable (although I worry about high household debt and what looks like a major housing bubble) and has successfully pursued policies well to the left of those south of the border: single-payer health insurance, more generous aid to the poor, higher overall taxation.

Does Canada pay any price for independence? Probably. Labor productivity is only about three-quarters as high as it is in the United States, and some of the gap may reflect the small size of the Canadian market (yes, we have a free-trade agreement, but a lot of evidence shows that borders discourage trade all the same). Still, you can argue that Canada is doing O.K.

But Canada has its own currency, which means that its government can’t run out of money, that it can bail out its own banks if necessary, and more. An independent Scotland wouldn’t. And that makes a huge difference.

Could Scotland have its own currency? Maybe, although Scotland’s economy is even more tightly integrated with that of the rest of Britain than Canada’s is with the United States, so that trying to maintain a separate currency would be hard. It’s a moot point, however: The Scottish independence movement has been very clear that it intends to keep the pound as the national currency. And the combination of political independence with a shared currency is a recipe for disaster. Which is where the cautionary tale of Spain comes in.

If Spain and the other countries that gave up their own currencies to adopt the euro were part of a true federal system, with shared institutions of government, the recent economic history of Spain would have looked a lot like that of Florida. Both economies experienced a huge housing boom between 2000 and 2007. Both saw that boom turn into a spectacular bust. Both suffered a sharp downturn as a result of that bust. In both places the slump meant a plunge in tax receipts and a surge in spending on unemployment benefits and other forms of aid.

Then, however, the paths diverged. In Florida’s case, most of the fiscal burden of the slump fell not on the local government but on Washington, which continued to pay for the state’s Social Security and Medicare benefits, as well as for much of the increased aid to the unemployed. There were large losses on housing loans, and many Florida banks failed, but many of the losses fell on federal lending agencies, while bank depositors were protected by federal insurance. You get the picture. In effect, Florida received large-scale aid in its time of distress.

Spain, by contrast, bore all the costs of the housing bust on its own. The result was a fiscal crisis, made much worse by fears of a banking crisis that the Spanish government would be unable to manage, because it might literally run out of cash. Spanish borrowing costs soared, and the government was forced into brutal austerity measures. The result was a horrific depression — including youth unemployment above 50 percent — from which Spain has barely begun to recover.

And it wasn’t just Spain, it was all of southern Europe and more. Even euro-area countries with sound finances, like Finland and the Netherlands, have suffered deep and prolonged slumps.

In short, everything that has happened in Europe since 2009 or so has demonstrated that sharing a currency without sharing a government is very dangerous. In economics jargon, fiscal and banking integration are essential elements of an optimum currency area. And an independent Scotland using Britain’s pound would be in even worse shape than euro countries, which at least have some say in how the European Central Bank is run.

I find it mind-boggling that Scotland would consider going down this path after all that has happened in the last few years. If Scottish voters really believe that it’s safe to become a country without a currency, they have been badly misled.

Keller and Krugman

September 16, 2013

Mr. Keller considers “The Missing Partner” and says if you really want peace in Syria, talk to Iran.  That idea ought to send the Teatards into a foaming frenzy.  Prof. Krugman says we should “Give Jobs a Chance,” and that it’s not time for the Federal Reserve to take its foot off the gas pedal.  Here’s Mr. Keller:

I sincerely hope Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, calculating showman (and now my fellow Op-ed writer), wants to play peacemaker in Syria. I’m skeptical of his intentions, as I wrote last week, and my skepticism was compounded when Putin began imposing preconditions for the surrender of Syria’s poison gas, starting with an American vow not to back up diplomacy with the threat of force. I look forward to being proved wrong.

But if the United States really believes in a diplomatic resolution of Syria’s fratricidal war — beyond the important but insufficient goal of chemical disarmament — it needs to pull up a few more chairs to the bargaining table. The most indispensable missing player is Iran.

Russia provides President Bashar al-Assad of Syria with weapons and political cover, including a veto on the U.N. Security Council. But Iran, directly and through its patronage of Hezbollah fighters, has given Assad his battlefield advantage. Russia sees Syria as a pawn in a geopolitical game — a foothold in the region, a diversion for jihadists who might otherwise be menacing Russia, a chance to cut Washington down to size. For Iran, the stakes are higher: Syria is a pillar of resistance to Israel and the United States, and a front in a gathering battle among Islamic powers for dominance in the Muslim world.

Since the election in June of a new and less confrontational Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, and his choice of a seemingly sophisticated and pragmatic foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign affairs journals and think tanks have been abuzz with talk of new opportunity. There is intense speculation that Rouhani has a mandate to strike a deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program, in order to get his country out from under the painful economic sanctions and reduce the threat of an American or Israeli pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. Rouhani’s trip to New York for the U.N. General Assembly later this month is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate good faith.

But there is remarkably little sign that President Obama’s White House or State Department sees this as bearing on Syria. Iran figures in the Syria debate only as an audience we are trying to impress: we must enforce a chemical red line in Syria, the argument goes, so Iran will respect a nuclear red line. We tend to treat Iran as a rogue nuclear program with a country attached to it, rather than as a regional power with which we could do useful business.

I have no illusions about the Iranian regime. I was there for the disputed elections in 2009. I witnessed the savage suppression of the protests in Tehran, and fled the batons of the regime’s paramilitary thugs in the provincial city of Isfahan. I have little faith that Iran’s nuclear enrichment is purely civilian in purpose (though I am convinced that attempting to bomb the nuclear program out of existence would have the opposite of the intended effect.) And I don’t kid myself that the election of an Iranian president more genial than his hate-spewing predecessor means the ultimate authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has gone soft. Iranian politics are rarely as simple as our understanding of them.

Iran has not exactly been a constructive presence in its neighborhood. Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, compares Iran to the arsonist who sets buildings on fire and then shows up offering his services as a fireman. Iran has a strong interest in sustaining Assad’s rule. Syria is Iran’s only consistent ally in the region, the overland corridor for resupplying Hezbollah and a bulwark against Sunni extremists, who make up one growing faction of the anti-Assad rebels. Only the last purpose overlaps with American interests.

So with Iran at the Syria table there is no guarantee diplomacy will work. Without Iran at the table, though, failure is more likely, especially if we hope to go beyond the issue of chemical weapons and halt the “conventional” carnage that is claiming 1,000 lives a week. Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says our differences with Iran over Syria may be irreconcilable, but he points out, “We really won’t know whether Iran can play a more constructive role in Syria unless we try.”

So what’s stopping us? There are several reasons Obama might be reluctant to include Iran in Syria talks, even though he came into office touting dialogue and fresh starts.

One is inertia. There has long been a debate among Iran-watchers between those who urge a single-minded focus on Iran’s flagrant violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and those who argue that a wider menu of discussions might build a bit of trust and help end the nuclear stalemate. American policy has been more or less firmly committed to the first view: keep our eye on the nukes. We are stuck in a policy rut. The price we pay pay for this pinhole focus is that America and Iran are not talking to each other about a range of issues where Iran has influence, including Afghanistan, Iraq, terrorism, as well as Syria. That has meant missed opportunities in the past, notably in the weeks after the U.S. attacked Afghanistan in 2001. Washington and Tehran share a common enemy in the Sunni fanatics of the Taliban. But a flicker of cooperation was snuffed out when President George W. Bush decided to include Iran in his “axis of evil.”

Another reason for not inviting Iran into the Syria conversation is Saudi Arabia. The Saudis don’t want their main regional rival to be seated at the grown-ups’ table. Although our interests do not always coincide, the Saudis have been important partners. They are essential enablers of the tough international sanctions that Obama mobilized against Iran’s nuclear enrichment; the Saudis stepped up supplies to countries that had been dependent on Iranian oil. The Saudis would also be needed for any armistice in Syria, since they and other gulf monarchies have been arming Syrian rebel factions. Russia and Iran together, if they choose, can probably persuade Assad to cease fire; getting the fractious bands of rebels to stop shooting will be much more difficult, and impossible without the Saudis.

And any conciliatory gesture toward Iran is politically risky at home. “There’s a real disinclination to do anything that might appear to be legitimizing Iran’s role in Syria,” said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “But the reality is, they’re part of the fight.”

Would there be a larger payoff to including Iran? Some experts, such as Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council, suggest that enlisting Iran as a partner on Syria and other regional troubles might help break the nuclear impasse; in this view, engagement would allay fears in Tehran that our real aim is to overthrow the theocratic regime. “If Iran is part of the solution in Syria,” Parsi contends, “then we also have a stake in assuring some degree of stability in Iran in order to make sure the solution does not fall apart.” Others say the official Iranian suspicion of America is too deep to be overcome by dialogue. Sadjadpour argues that the regime actually needs America’s hostility to justify its authoritarian rule.

Nonetheless, he recognizes that attempting to engage Iran “is a win-win.” If the Iranians help stabilize the situation in Syria, and if that in turn creates a better climate for a nuclear deal, then the world is a safer place. On the other hand, if we engage the Iranians and they don’t reciprocate then it becomes clearer than ever that the problem is Tehran, not Washington.

It is probably naïve to think reaching out to Iran in this immediate crisis would be a step toward rapprochement. But it could, at least, be a step back from the brink.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

This week the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee — the group of men and women who set U.S. monetary policy — will be holding its sixth meeting of 2013. At the meeting’s end, the committee is widely expected to announce the so-called “taper” — a slowing of the pace at which it buys long-term assets.

Memo to the Fed: Please don’t do it. True, the arguments for a taper are neither crazy nor stupid, which makes them unusual for current U.S. policy debate. But if you think about the balance of risks, this is a bad time to be doing anything that looks like a tightening of monetary policy.

O.K., what are we talking about here? In normal times, the Fed tries to guide the economy by buying and selling short-term U.S. debt, which effectively lets it control short-term interest rates. Since 2008, however, short-term rates have been near zero, which means that they can’t go lower (since people would just hoard cash instead). Yet the economy has remained weak, so the Fed has tried to gain traction through unconventional measures — mainly by buying longer-term bonds, both U.S. government debt and bonds issued by federally sponsored home-lending agencies.

Now the Fed is talking about slowing the pace of these purchases, bringing them to a complete halt by sometime next year. Why?

One answer is the belief that these purchases — especially purchases of government debt — are, in the end, not very effective. There’s a fair bit of evidence in support of that belief, and for the view that the most effective thing the Fed can do is signal that it plans to keep short-term rates, which it really does control, low for a very long time.

Unfortunately, financial markets have clearly decided that the taper signals a general turn away from boosting the economy: expectations of future short-term rates have risen sharply since taper talk began, and so have crucial long-term rates, notably mortgage rates. In effect, by talking about tapering, the Fed has already tightened monetary policy quite a lot.

But is that such a bad thing? That’s where the second argument comes in: the suggestions that there really isn’t that much slack in the U.S. economy, that we aren’t that far from full employment. After all, the unemployment rate, which peaked at 10 percent in late 2009, is now down to 7.3 percent, and there are economists who believe that the U.S. economy might begin to “overheat,” to show signs of accelerating inflation, at an unemployment rate as high as 6.5 percent. Time for the Fed to take its foot off the gas pedal?

I’d say no, for a couple of reasons.

First, there’s less to that decline in unemployment than meets the eye. Unemployment hasn’t come down because a higher percentage of adults is employed; it’s come down almost entirely because a declining percentage of adults is participating in the labor force, either by working or by actively seeking work. And at least some of the Americans who dropped out of the labor force after 2007 will come back in as the economy improves, which means that we have more ground to make up than that unemployment number suggests.

How misleading is the unemployment number? That’s a hard one, on which reasonable people disagree. The question the Fed should be asking is, what is the balance of risks?

Suppose, on one side, that the Fed were to hold off on tightening, then learn that the economy was closer to full employment than it thought. What would happen? Well, inflation would rise, although probably only modestly. Would that be such a bad thing? Right now inflation is running below the Fed’s target of 2 percent, and many serious economists — including, for example, the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund — have argued for a higher target, say 4 percent. So the cost of tightening too late doesn’t look very high.

Suppose, on the other side, that the Fed were to tighten early, then learn that it had moved too soon. This could damage an already weak recovery, causing hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars in economic damage, leaving hundreds of thousands if not millions of additional workers without jobs and inflicting long-term damage as more and more of the unemployed are perceived as unemployable.

The point is that while there is legitimate uncertainty about what the Fed should be doing, the costs of being too harsh vastly exceed the costs of being too lenient. To err is human; to err on the side of growth is wise.

I’d add that one of the prevailing economic policy sins of our time has been allowing hypothetical risks, like the fiscal crisis that never came, to trump concerns over economic damage happening in the here and now. I’d hate to see the Fed fall into that trap.

So my message is, don’t do it. Don’t taper, don’t tighten, until you can see the whites of inflation’s eyes. Give jobs a chance.

They won’t.  It might cost some 1%er a nickel somehow.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

January 13, 2013

In “The Obama Synthesis” The Pasty Little Putz says the nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan, two men with Bush-era perspectives, tells us something about the president’s foreign policy.  MoDo says “We Offer More Thank Ankles, Gentlemen,” and that all the president’s men can’t figure out why all the president has is men.  The Moustache of Wisdom has consulted his dictionary.  In “Collaborate vs. Collaborate” he says that one word seems to have two different meanings on the two coasts.  He is to be somewhat congratulated, however, because in this column he doesn’t seem to use his usual “but both sides do it” argument.  Mr. Kristof has a question:  “Is Delhi So Different From Steubenville?”  He says India’s horrific rape case is symptomatic of a global problem, and Americans who view it with condescension should also look in the mirror.  Mr. Bruni has decided to be a scold.  All he sees are “Democrats Behaving Badly.”  He whines that between Harry Reid’s inflations and President Obama’s nominations, Democrats are playing a game of arrogance and needless errors.  In his third from the last paragraph he grudgingly notes that Republicans haven’t been perfect…  Here’s The Putz:

As both his critics and admirers argue, the nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense last week tells us something important about Barack Obama’s approach to foreign policy. But so does the man who was nominated alongside Hagel, to far less controversy and attention: John Brennan, now head of the White House’s counterterrorism efforts, and soon to be the director of the C.I.A.

Both men were intimately involved in foreign policy debates during George W. Bush’s administration, but had very different public profiles. As a C.I.A. official, Brennan publicly defended some of Bush’s most controversial counterterrorism policies, including the “rendition” of terror suspects for interrogation in foreign countries. As a senator, Hagel was one of the few prominent Republicans to (eventually) turn against the war in Iraq. Now it’s fitting that Obama has nominated them together, because his foreign policy has basically synthesized their respective Bush-era perspectives.

Like the once-hawkish Hagel, Obama has largely rejected Bush’s strategic vision of America as the agent of a sweeping transformation of the Middle East, and retreated from the military commitments that this revolutionary vision required. And with this retreat has come a willingness to make substantial cuts in the Pentagon’s budget — cuts that Hagel will be expected to oversee.

But the Brennan nomination crystallizes the ways in which Obama has also cemented and expanded the Bush approach to counterterrorism. Yes, waterboarding is no longer with us, but in its place we have a far-flung drone campaign — overseen and defended by Brennan — that deals death, even to American citizens, on the say-so of the president and a secret administration “nominations” process.

Meanwhile, the imprimatur of a liberal president means that other controversial Bush-era counterterror policies are more secure than ever. Just last month, for instance, while Congress was embroiled in furious partisan arguments over the fiscal cliff, the practice of warrantless wiretapping was reaffirmed with broad bipartisan support.

To the extent that it’s possible to define an “Obama Doctrine,” then, it’s basically the Hagel-Brennan two-step. Fewer boots on the ground, but lots of drones in the air. Assassination, yes; nation-building, no. An imperial presidency with a less-imperial global footprint.

This is a popular combination in a country that’s tired of war but still remembers 9/11 vividly. Indeed, Obama’s foreign policy has been an immense political success: he’s co-opted foreign policy realists, neutralized antiwar Democrats and isolated Republican hawks.

This success, in turn, has given him a freer hand to choose appointees who embody his worldview. The left objected, successfully, when Brennan was floated as a possibility for C.I.A. director after Obama’s 2008 victory, but the opposition is likely to be weaker this time around. Hagel’s hawkish opponents have a slightly better chance, mostly because his views on Iran and Israel are more dovish than the White House’s own stated positions. But the campaign against his nomination has often been more desperate than effective, offering tissue-thin charges of anti-Semitism and embarrassingly opportunistic criticisms of Hagel’s record on gay rights.

If Hagel does get through, it will be the clearest sign yet that Obama enjoys more trust — and with it, more latitude — on foreign policy than any Democrat since Harry Truman. And in many ways he’s earned it: his mix of caution and aggression has thus far avoided major military disasters (an underrated virtue in presidents), prevented major terror attacks and put an end to America’s most infamous foe.

But that’s a provisional judgment, contingent on events to come. The Obama way of statecraft has offered a plausible course correction after the debacles of the Bush era, but the ripples from many of his biggest choices — to leave Iraq outright, to surge and then withdraw in Afghanistan, to intervene more forcefully in Libya than in Syria — are still spreading, and the ultimate success of those policies is still very much in doubt. Likewise with his looming defense cuts, whose wisdom depends entirely on what actually is trimmed.

Foreign policy is always a balancing act, in which no ideological system can guarantee success, and no effective action is without cost. The recent careers of the two nominees illustrate this point. Hagel was absolutely right to decide that the Iraq war was a blunder, but he was dead wrong (as was Obama) to then assume that the 2007 surge — a salvage job, but a brave and necessary one — would only make the situation worse. The drone campaign that Brennan has overseen has undoubtedly weakened Al Qaeda. But it’s also killed innocents, fed anti-American sentiment and eroded the constraints on executive power in troubling ways.

These are not reasons to deny them the chance to serve this president in his second term. But they are reasons to ask them hard questions, and to look carefully for places where Obama’s post-Bush course correction may need to be corrected in its turn.

It does need to be corrected, Putzy.  Gitmo needs to be closed, drone strikes need to stop…  Now here’s MoDo:

President Obama ran promoting women’s issues.

But how about promoting some women?

With the old white boys’ club rearing its hoary head in the White House of the first black president, the historian Michael Beschloss recalled the days when the distaff was deemed biologically unsuited for the manly discourse of politics. He tweeted: “1/12/1915, U.S. House refused women voting rights. One Congressman: ‘Their ankles are beautiful … but they are not interested in the state.’ ”

Now comes a parade of women to plead the case for the value of female perspective in high office: Women reach across the aisle, seek consensus, verbalize and empathize more, manage and listen better. Women are more pragmatic, risk-averse and, unburdened by testosterone, less bellicose.

Unfortunately, these “truisms” haven’t held true with many of the top women I’ve covered in Washington.

Janet Reno was trigger-happy on Waco, and a tragic conflagration ensued. Hillary Clinton’s my-way-or-the-highway obduracy doomed her heath care initiative; she also voted to authorize the Iraq invasion without even reading the National Intelligence Estimate, and badly mismanaged her 2008 campaign. Condi Rice avidly sold W.’s bogus war in Iraq. One of Susan Rice’s most memorable moments was when she flipped the finger at Richard Holbrooke during a State Department meeting.

Maybe these women in the first wave to the top had to be more-macho-than-thou to succeed. And maybe women don’t always bring a completely different or superior skill set to the table. And maybe none of that matters.

We’re equal partners in life and governance now, and we merit equal representation, good traits and bad, warts and all.

It’s passing strange that Obama, carried to a second term by women, blacks and Latinos, chooses to give away the plummiest Cabinet and White House jobs to white dudes.

If there’s one thing white men have never had a problem with in this clubby, white marble enclave of Washington, it’s getting pulled up the ladder by other men. (New York magazine claims that of late, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has a better record of appointing top women than Obama does.)

Last week, The New York Times ran a startling photo, released by the White House, of the president in the Oval Office surrounded by 10 male advisers (nine white and one black). Valerie Jarrett was there, but was obscured by a white guy (though a bit of leg and “beautiful ankle” did show).

Obama has brought in a lot of women, including two he appointed to the Supreme Court, but it is more than an “optics” problem, to use the irritating cliché of the moment. Word from the White House is that the president himself is irritated, and demanding answers about the faces his staff is pushing forward. Unfortunately, he has only a bunch of white guys to offer an explanation of why the picture looks like a bunch of white guys.

Right from the start, the president who pledged “Change We Can Believe In” has been so cautious about change that there have been periodic eruptions from women and minorities.

Maybe Obama thinks he’s such a huge change for the nation to digest that everything else must look like the Eisenhower administration, with Michelle obligingly playing Laura Petrie. But it’s Barry tripping over the ottoman.

In more “He’s Like Ike” moments, the president spends his free time golfing with white male junior aides. The mood got sour early in the first term when senior female aides had a dinner to gripe directly to Obama about lack of access and getting elbowed out of big policy debates.

Some women around Obama who say that he never empowers women to take charge of anything are privately gratified at the latest kerfuffle, hoping it will shut down the West Wing man cave. It’s particularly galling because the president won re-election — and a record number of women ascended to Congress — on the strength of high-toned denunciations of the oldfangled Mitt Romney and the Republican kamikaze raid on women.

“We don’t have to order up some binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women” to excel in all fields, the president said on the trail, vowing to unfurl the future for “our daughters.”

It may be because the president knows what a matriarchal world he himself lives in that he assumes we understand that the most trusted people in his life have been female — his wife, his daughters, his mother, his grandmother, his mother-in-law, his closest aide, Valerie.

But this isn’t about how he feels, or what his comfort zone is, or who’s in his line of sight. It’s about what he projects to the world — not to mention to his own daughters.

Obama is an insular man who is not as dependent on his staff as some other presidents. With no particular vision for his staff, he surrounds himself with guys who then hire their guy friends.

Most people who work in the top tier of campaigns are men; most people who work for Obama now were on his campaigns; ergo, most people in his inner circle are men. Pretty soon, nobody’s thinking it through and going out of the way to reflect a world where daughters have the same opportunities as sons.

And then the avatars of modernity hit the front page of The Times, looking just as backward as the pasty, patriarchal Republicans they mocked.

Again with the “insular” slap at Obama.  As if she has an earthly clue about what he’s really like…  Now we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

col-lab-o-rate [k uh-lab- uh-reyt]

verb (used without object), col-lab-o-rat-ed, col-lab-o-rat-ing.

1. to work, one with another; cooperate, as on a literary work: They collaborated on a novel.

2. to cooperate, usually willingly, with an enemy nation, especially with an enemy occupying one’s country: He collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.

IT is often said that Britain and America are two countries divided by a common language. That is also true of Washington and Silicon Valley. The other day, I was interviewing Alan S. Cohen, an expert on networks who has been involved in several successful start-ups. At one point, Cohen began talking about the importance of “collaboration” both within and between firms in Silicon Valley. Then he stopped and said it’s interesting that in Silicon Valley “collaboration” is defined as something you do with another colleague or company to achieve greatness — something to be praised — as in: “They collaborated on that beautiful piece of software.” But in Congress “collaboration” means something very different today. It’s the second definition — collaboration is an act of treason — something you do when you cross over and vote with the other party. In Silicon Valley, great “collaborators” are prized; in Washington, they are hanged. Said Cohen, who was vice president at Nicira, a networking start-up that recently sold for $1.26 billion: “In Washington, when they say ‘collaborator’ they mean ‘traitor’; here they mean ‘colleague.’

It’s not the only reason, but it’s a big reason that Silicon Valley is thriving more than ever, finding more ways to solve bigger and bigger problems faster, and that Washington is only capable of producing 11th-hour, patched-together, Rube Goldberg compromises, with no due diligence, that produce only suboptimal outcomes to our biggest problems. In Washington today collaboration happens only to avert crises or to give out pork, not to build anything great. That is why if Congress were a start-up, the early-stage investors would have long ago been wiped out and the firm shuttered. Cause of death: an inability of the partners to collaborate. “People in Washington,” said Cohen, “forgot that they are developers: ‘I am on this committee. I have to fix this problem and write some software to do it,’ and that requires collaboration. They have forgotten their job and the customer.”

Don’t get me wrong, Silicon Valley is not some knitting circle where everyone happily shares their best ideas. It is the most competitive, dog-eat-dog, I-will-sue-you-if-you-even-think-about-infringing-my-patents innovation hub in the world. In that sense, it is, as politics is and should always be, a clash of ideas. What Silicon Valley is not, though, is only a clash of ideas.

Despite the heated competition, lots of collaboration still happens here for one main reason: to serve the customer the best product or service. One way is through new open-source innovation platforms like GitHub — a kind of “Wikipedia for programmers” — where hobbyists, start-ups and big firms share ideas in order to enlist more people (either within a firm in restricted ways or from the outside in a wide open manner) to help improve their software or Web sites.

Another way is through “co-opetition.” There are many examples here of companies trying to kill each other in one market but working together in another — to better serve customers. Microsoft Windows runs on Apple Macs because customers wanted it. When Apple Maps failed, Apple asked its users to download Google Maps. Finally, within firms, it is understood that to thrive in today’s market, solve the biggest problems and serve customers, you need to assemble the best minds from anywhere in the world.

“When you obsess about the customer, you end up defeating your competition as a byproduct,” said K.R. Sridhar, the founder of Bloom Energy, a fuel-cell company. “When you are just obsessed about the competition, you end up killing yourself” as a byproduct — “because you are not focused on the customer.”

The far-right lurch of the G.O.P.’s base has made this problem worse. When President Obama built his health care plan on Mitt Romney’s operating system in Massachusetts, Romney was so focused on coddling his base to beat Obama — rather than trying to improve Obama’s iteration of Romney’s own design to best serve all the customers — that Romney disowned his own software. What company would do that?

“Sure competition here is sharp-elbowed,” said Reid Hoffman, a co-founder of LinkedIn. “But no one can succeed by themselves. Apple today is totally focused on how it can better work with its [applications] developer community.” It cannot thrive without them. “The only way you can achieve something magnificent is by working with other people,” said Hoffman. “There is lots of co-opetition.” LinkedIn competes with headhunters and is used by headhunters.

With collaboration, one plus one can often turn out to be four, says Jeff Weiner, the C.E.O. of LinkedIn, adding: “I will always work with you — if I know we’ll get to four. You can’t build great products alone. And if everyone understood that you can’t build great government alone our country would be in a different place.”

Tommy, sweetie, the Teatards will not now, nor will they ever, “collaborate” with The Kenyan Usurper for the good of the country.  Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

In India, a 23-year-old student takes a bus home from a movie and is gang-raped and assaulted so viciously that she dies two weeks later.

In Liberia, in West Africa, an aid group called More Than Me rescues a 10-year-old orphan who has been trading oral sex for clean water to survive.

In Steubenville, Ohio, high school football players are accused of repeatedly raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl who was either drunk or rendered helpless by a date-rape drug and was apparently lugged like a sack of potatoes from party to party.

And in Washington, our members of Congress show their concern for sexual violence by failing to renew the Violence Against Women Act, a landmark law first passed in 1994 that has now expired.

Gender violence is one of the world’s most common human rights abuses. Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined. The World Health Organization has found that domestic and sexual violence affects 30 to 60 percent of women in most countries.

In some places, rape is endemic: in South Africa, a survey found that 37 percent of men reported that they had raped a woman. In others, rape is institutionalized as sex trafficking. Everywhere, rape often puts the victim on trial: in one poll, 68 percent of Indian judges said that “provocative attire” amounts to “an invitation to rape.”

Americans watched the events after the Delhi gang rape with a whiff of condescension at the barbarity there, but domestic violence and sex trafficking remain a vast problem across the United States.

One obstacle is that violence against women tends to be invisible and thus not a priority. In Delhi, of 635 rape cases reported in the first 11 months of last year, only one ended in conviction. That creates an incentive for rapists to continue to rape, but in any case that reported number of rapes is delusional. They don’t include the systematized rape of sex trafficking. India has, by my reckoning, more women and girls trafficked into modern slavery than any country in the world. (China has more prostitutes, but they are more likely to sell sex by choice.)

On my last trip to India, I tagged along on a raid on a brothel in Kolkata, organized by the International Justice Mission. In my column at the time, I focused on a 15-year-old and a 10-year-old imprisoned in the brothel, and mentioned a 17-year-old only in passing because I didn’t know her story.

My assistant at The Times, Natalie Kitroeff, recently visited India and tracked down that young woman. It turns out that she had been trafficked as well — she was apparently drugged at a teahouse and woke up in the brothel. She said she was then forced to have sex with customers and beaten when she protested. She was never allowed outside and was never paid. What do you call what happened to those girls but slavery?

Yet prosecutors and the police often shrug — or worse. Dr. Shershah Syed, a former president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Pakistan, once told me: “When I treat a rape victim, I always advise her not to go to the police. Because if she does, the police might just rape her again.”

In the United States, the case in Steubenville has become controversial partly because of the brutishness that the young men have been accused of, but also because of concerns that the authorities protected the football team. Some people in both Delhi and Steubenville rushed to blame the victim, suggesting that she was at fault for taking a bus or going to a party. They need to think: What if that were me?

The United States could help change the way the world confronts these issues. On a remote crossing of the Nepal-India border, I once met an Indian police officer who said, a bit forlornly, that he was stationed there to look for terrorists and pirated movies. He wasn’t finding any, but India posted him there to show that it was serious about American concerns regarding terrorism and intellectual property. Meanwhile, that officer ignored the steady flow of teenage Nepali girls crossing in front of him on their way to Indian brothels, because modern slavery was not perceived as an American priority.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has done a superb job trying to put these issues on the global agenda, and I hope President Obama and Senator John Kerry will continue her efforts. But Congress has been pathetic. Not only did it fail to renew the Violence Against Women Act, but it has also stalled on the global version, the International Violence Against Women Act, which would name and shame foreign countries that tolerate gender violence.

Congress even failed to renew the landmark legislation against human trafficking, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The obstacles were different in each case, but involved political polarization and paralysis. Can members of Congress not muster a stand on modern slavery?

(Hmm. I now understand better the results of a new survey from Public Policy Polling showing that Congress, with 9 percent approval, is less popular than cockroaches, traffic jams, lice or Genghis Khan.)

Skeptics fret that sexual violence is ingrained into us, making the problem hopeless. But just look at modern American history, for the rising status of women has led to substantial drops in rates of reported rape and domestic violence. Few people realize it, but Justice Department statistics suggest that the incidence of rape has fallen by three-quarters over the last four decades.

Likewise, the rate at which American women are assaulted by their domestic partners has fallen by more than half in the last two decades. That reflects a revolution in attitudes. Steven Pinker, in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” notes that only half of Americans polled in 1987 said that it was always wrong for a man to beat his wife with a belt or a stick; a decade later, 86 percent said it was always wrong.

But the progress worldwide is far too slow. Let’s hope that India makes such violence a national priority. And maybe the rest of the world, especially our backward Congress, will appreciate that the problem isn’t just India’s but also our own.

Good luck getting Congress to do anything when it’s rife with people who think that there is a term like “legitimate rape.”  Now here’s Mr. Bruni, who haz a huge sad about bad manners:

For the textbook definition of not knowing enough to quit while you’re ahead, please turn your attention to Harry Reid, he of the scabrous tongue and rotten temper, a boxer in his youth and a pugilist to this day, throwing mud along with punches and invariably soiling himself.

Reid, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, couldn’t just stand back and relish the recent spectacle of House Republicans making callous fools of themselves by stalling aid to communities walloped by Hurricane Sandy. He wasn’t satisfied that these Republicans were vilified not only in the news media but also by some members of their own tribe, like Peter King and Chris Christie. No, he had to get into the ring himself, and his genius strategy once there was to pit one storm’s victims against another’s, to stage a bout between Atlantic City’s splintered boardwalks and Louisiana’s failed levees. What a titan of meteorological tact.

Noting that Congress had provided help after Hurricane Katrina more quickly and generously than after Sandy, Reid said: “The people of New Orleans and that area, they were hurt, but nothing in comparison to what happened to the people in New York and New Jersey. Almost one million people have lost their homes. One million people lost their homes. That is homes, that is not people in those homes.”

Let’s put aside, for the moment, his fleeting difficulty distinguishing a biped with a weak spot for reality TV from a wood, brick or maybe stucco structure in which several bipeds watch TV. Let’s focus instead on his math. The one million figure is easily more than twice the combined tally of domiciles not only destroyed but also damaged in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. It’s an invention. And if comparisons are to be made, consider this one: as a result of Katrina, 1,833 people died — more than nine times as many as died in connection with Sandy. Using the word “nothing” anywhere in the vicinity of Katrina defies both belief and decency, and Reid was indeed forced last week to apologize, his effort to shame his Republican foes having brought a full measure of shame to his own doorstep, yet again.

Why did he make the effort in the first place? Democrats came out of the 2012 elections looking good, and the country’s changing demographics suggest that they could come out of 2016 and beyond looking even better, especially if Republicans don’t accomplish a pretty thorough image overhaul. And that overhaul isn’t exactly proceeding at a breakneck pace. The perseverance of far-right obstructionists in the House stands in the way, leaving the party in grave trouble. If its foes were smart and humble, they’d do what a sports team with a big lead does. They’d play error-free ball.

Not Reid. And not President Obama, whose recent actions have been careless at best and cavalier at worst. There was the gratuitously provocative nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, followed by the gratuitously insulting invitation of Louie Giglio, a Georgia pastor, to give the inaugural benediction. That plan was abandoned after the revelation of Giglio’s past remarks that homosexuality offends God, that homosexuals yearn to take over society and that a conversion to heterosexuality is the only answer for them. Giglio would have been the second florid homophobe in a row to stand with Obama and a Bible in front of the Capitol — Rick Warren, in January 2009, was the first — and while it appears that this double bigotry whammy wasn’t the administration’s intent, it’s an example of vetting so epically sloppy that it gives an observer serious pause about the delicacy with which Obama and his allies, no longer worried about his re-election, are operating.

The pick of Hagel underscores that indelicacy. There’s a potent case to be made for his installation as secretary of defense, but there are potent cases for others, and it’s hard to believe that Obama couldn’t have found someone who shared his values and would further his agenda but wouldn’t be such a guaranteed lightning rod for his Jewish, LGBT and female supporters, all of whom played crucial roles in his November victory.

Regarding women, Hagel’s record on reproductive freedom is as conservative as his record on gay rights, and it included his support for a ban on abortions in military hospitals, even for servicewomen prepared to pay for the procedures themselves. What’s more, Obama rolled Hagel out in a cluster of other high-profile nominees (John Brennan, Jack Lew, John Kerry) sure to be noted for their gender uniformity and to rekindle questions about the predominantly male club of advisers and golf and basketball partners who have the president’s ear. The upset was predictable and avoidable.

It has been noted, rightly, that the president put two additional women on the Supreme Court and that his percentage of female appointees is as good as President Bill Clinton’s was. But given the march of time since then, and given the questions raised during his first term about how valued women in the administration felt, and given his drumbeat that he was a champion for women in a way Mitt Romney could never be, shouldn’t he be surpassing Clinton? Going out of his way? There’s a perverse streak of defiance in him, and as donors and even Democratic lawmakers have long complained, gratitude isn’t his strong suit.

While Hagel lurched toward his confirmation hearings and Giglio skittered away, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced that it was sending each of the 35 Republican freshmen in the House a “tea party membership card,” which spelled out their rights to put “ideology over solutions,” to be horrid to women, to coddle Big Oil and “to create and/or ignore any national crisis.” Thus did the Dems turn legitimate gripes into schoolyard taunts that were more likely to inflame G.O.P. freshmen than to bully them into bipartisanship. What, beyond the theater of the gesture, was the point of it?

Granted, Republicans had done their own adolescent taunting, calling Democrats lap dogs in the Nancy Pelosi obedience school. But Democrats pride and market themselves as the reasonable adults in the equation, and that’s part of their currency with many voters. Why fritter it away?

And why abide the overwrought antics of Reid? He once compared opponents of Obama’s health care reform to enemies of emancipation. He took valid questions about Romney’s low tax bill and spun them into the unsubstantiated claim that Romney hadn’t paid any taxes for an entire 10-year period. Then he said the burden was on Romney to prove the charge untrue. Good thing our criminal courts don’t work that way.

Just before and after the 2012 election, it looked as if Republicans might be successfully burying themselves. All Democrats had to do was hammer the nail in the coffin. But the way they’re behaving, they’ll raise the dead.


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