Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What I Read Today - Tuesday February 28, 2012

From:  The New York Times - February 27, 2012


The Possum Republicans

By DAVID BROOKS

Politicians do what they must to get re-elected. So it’s not unexpected that Republican senators like Richard Lugar and Orrin Hatch would swing sharply to the right to fend off primary challengers.

As Jonathan Weisman reported in The Times on Sunday, Hatch has a lifetime rating of 78 percent from the ultra-free market Club for Growth, but, in the past two years, he has miraculously jumped to 100 percent and 99 percent, respectively. Lugar has earned widespread respect for his thoughtful manner and independent ways. Now he’s more of a reliable Republican foot soldier.

Still, it is worth pointing out that this behavior is not entirely honorable. It’s not honorable to adjust your true nature in order to win re-election. It’s not honorable to kowtow to the extremes so you can preserve your political career.

But, of course, this is exactly what has been happening in the Republican Party for the past half century. Over these decades, one pattern has been constant: Wingers fight to take over the party, mainstream Republicans bob and weave to keep their seats.

Republicans on the extreme ferociously attack their fellow party members. Those in the middle backpedal to avoid conflict. Republicans on the extreme are willing to lose elections in order to promote their principles. Those in the mainstream are quick to fudge their principles if it will help them get a short-term win.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the fight was between conservatives and moderates. Conservatives trounced the moderates and have driven them from the party. These days the fight is between the protesters and the professionals. The grass-roots protesters in the Tea Party and elsewhere have certain policy ideas, but they are not that different from the Republicans in the “establishment.”

The big difference is that the protesters don’t believe in governance. They have zero tolerance for the compromises needed to get legislation passed. They don’t believe in trimming and coalition building. For them, politics is more about earning respect and making a statement than it is about enacting legislation. It’s grievance politics, identity politics.

Of course, the professional politicians don’t want to get in the way of this torrent of passion and resentment. In private, they bemoan where the party is headed; in public they do nothing.

All across the nation, there are mainstream Republicans lamenting how the party has grown more and more insular, more and more rigid. This year, they have an excellent chance to defeat President Obama, yet the wingers have trashed the party’s reputation by swinging from one embarrassing and unelectable option to the next: Bachmann, Trump, Cain, Perry, Gingrich, Santorum.

But where have these party leaders been over the past five years, when all the forces that distort the G.O.P. were metastasizing? Where were they during the rise of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck? Where were they when Arizona passed its beyond-the-fringe immigration law? Where were they in the summer of 2011 when the House Republicans rejected even the possibility of budget compromise? They were lying low, hoping the unpleasantness would pass.

The wingers call their Republican opponents RINOs, or Republican In Name Only. But that’s an insult to the rhino, which is a tough, noble beast. If RINOs were like rhinos, they’d stand up to those who seek to destroy them. Actually, what the country needs is some real Rhino Republicans. But the professional Republicans never do that. They’re not rhinos. They’re Opossum Republicans. They tremble for a few seconds then slip into an involuntary coma every time they’re challenged aggressively from the right.

Without real opposition, the wingers go from strength to strength. Under their influence, we’ve had a primary campaign that isn’t really an argument about issues. It’s a series of heresy trials in which each of the candidates accuse the others of tribal impurity. Two kinds of candidates emerge from this process: first, those who are forceful but outside the mainstream; second, those who started out mainstream but look weak and unprincipled because they have spent so much time genuflecting before those who despise them.

Neither is likely to win in the fall. Before the G.O.P. meshugana campaign, independents were leaning toward the G.O.P. But, in the latest Politico/George Washington University Battleground Poll, Obama leads Mitt Romney among independents by 49 percent to 27 percent.

Leaders of a party are supposed to educate the party, to police against its worst indulgences, to guard against insular information loops. They’re supposed to define a creed and establish boundaries. Republican leaders haven’t done that. Now the old pious cliché applies:

First they went after the Rockefeller Republicans, but I was not a Rockefeller Republican. Then they went after the compassionate conservatives, but I was not a compassionate conservative. Then they went after the mainstream conservatives, and there was no one left to speak for me.

Friday, February 24, 2012

What I Read Today - Friday February 24, 2012

From: The New York Times

America Is Europe

By DAVID BROOKS


We Americans cherish our myths. One myth is that there is more social mobility in the United States than in Europe. That’s false. Another myth is that the government is smaller here than in Europe. That’s largely false, too.

The U.S. does not have a significantly smaller welfare state than the European nations. We’re just better at hiding it. The Europeans provide welfare provisions through direct government payments. We do it through the back door via tax breaks.

For example, in Europe, governments offer health care directly. In the U.S., we give employers a gigantic tax exemption to do the same thing. European governments offer public childcare. In the U.S., we have child tax credits. In Europe, governments subsidize favored industries. We do the same thing by providing special tax deductions and exemptions for everybody from ethanol producers to Nascar track owners.

These tax expenditures are hidden but huge. Budget experts Donald Marron and Eric Toder added up all the spending-like tax preferences and found that, in 2007, they amounted to $600 billion. If you had included those preferences as government spending, then the federal government would have actually been one-fifth larger than it appeared.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently calculated how much each affluent country spends on social programs. When you include both direct spending and tax expenditures, the U.S. has one of the biggest welfare states in the world. We rank behind Sweden and ahead of Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland and Canada. Social spending in the U.S. is far above the organization’s average.

You might say that a tax break isn’t the same as a spending program. You would be wrong.

David Bradford, a Princeton economist, has the best illustration of how the system works. Suppose the Pentagon wanted to buy a new fighter plane. But instead of writing a $10 billion check to the manufacturer, the government just issued a $10 billion “weapons supply tax credit.” The plane would still get made. The company would get its money through the tax credit. And politicians would get to brag that they had cut taxes and reduced the size of government!

This is essentially what’s been happening in sphere after sphere. Government controls more and more of the economy. It just does it by getting people to do what it wants by manipulating the tax code. Politicians get to take credit for addressing problem after problem, but none of their efforts show up as unpopular spending.

Many of these individual tax expenditures are good for the country, like the charitable deduction and the earned income tax credit. But, as the economist Bruce Bartlett demonstrates in his impeccably fair-minded book, “The Benefit and the Burden,” the cumulative effect of these tax breaks is terrible. Like overgrown weeds, the tangle of tax breaks distorts behavior, clogs the economy and deprives the government of revenue.

And because they are hidden, many of the tax expenditures go to those who need them least, the well connected and established over the vulnerable and the entrepreneurial.

The good news is that change might finally be coming. The Obama administration has always theoretically supported a simpler tax code even while operationally it has often muddied it up. Nonetheless, this week, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner unveiled a modest but sensible plan to simplify the corporate tax code. The plan is not perfect. The Obama technocrats love tinkering and complexity. But Geithner’s plan moves us a small step in the right direction and provides a sensible foundation for the big tax negotiations to come.

Mitt Romney has a bigger proposal, which reduces individual rates across the board and closes some loopholes. It’s more comprehensive than the Geithner approach, but it suffers from two weaknesses. First, it’s politics as usual. Romney is specific about the candy — lower tax rates — but vague about the vegetables — what loopholes would have to be closed to pay for them.

Moreover, it’s unimaginative. Republicans are perpetually trying to do what Ronald Reagan did. But top tax rates today aren’t as onerous as they were in 1980, so lowering them won’t produce as many benefits. Imagine if Reagan ran for office promising to recreate the glory days of Thomas Dewey and you get a sense of how much G.O.P. thinking is stuck in the past.

Still, let’s take our good news where we can get it. Attention is shifting to tax expenditures and not just direct spending. It’s becoming clear how gargantuan, opaque and inefficient the U.S. government has become. Maybe before long our political leaders will actually summon the political will to take on the special interests that defend these tax breaks.

This should be the top priority: A tax reform effort that simplifies government frees the economy and focuses social support on those who actually need it. A left-right tax reform alliance to do that would break the political logjam as well as the economic one.

Monday, February 20, 2012

What I Read Today - Monday February 20, 2012

From: The New York Times

Don’t Presume to Know a Pig’s Mind


By BLAKE HURST

Tarkio, Mo.

DURING the recent Grammy Awards, a cartoon farmer and his cows and pigs made their TV debut, starring in an ad for Chipotle Mexican Grill.

At the start of the ad, the farmer and his animals are happy and content. But then progress rears its ugly head, and the animals move indoors, into large, crowded buildings. They are pumped with antibiotics and processed into cubes, all to the mournful sound of Willie Nelson singing a Coldplay tune: “Science and progress/Don’t speak as loud as my heart.” In the end, the farmer sees the light, gets rid of the technological evils and frees his cows and pigs. Redemption is found in a simpler life. And you can have it all at Chipotle, for the price of a burrito.

According to Chipotle’s Web site, the company uses only “happier” pigs. It doesn’t say how it measures a pig’s happiness, and I can’t help but picture porcine focus groups, response meters designed for the cloven of hoof. We can all agree that production methods should not cause needless suffering, but for all we know, pigs are “happier” in warm, dry buildings than they are outside. And either way, the end result is a plate.

The ad is a cartoon and easy to caricature. But its ideas have real effects on America’s farmers. The day after it ran, McDonald’s announced that it would require its pork suppliers to end the use of gestation crates. These crates do restrict pigs’ movements, but farmers use them to control the amount of feed pregnant sows consume. When hogs are grouped in pens together, aggressive sows eat too much and submissive sows too little, and they also get in violent fights at feeding time. The only other ways to prevent these problems are complicated, expensive or dangerous to the pigs.

Since we can’t ask the pigs what they think, we know only one thing for sure about the effects of scrapping our most efficient farming systems: the cost of bacon will rise. Wealthy consumers will reward farmers who are able to pull off the Chipotle ad’s brand of combination farm/tourist attraction and are willing to trade efficient animal husbandry for political correctness. Many big multistate operations will also be able to afford to make the changes, or will at least have the political sway to resist them. But the small farmers now raising hogs will be pushed out of the industry.

Farmers are businesspeople and respond to market signals as best we can. But the messages we receive are decidedly mixed. The market tells us to produce more, as prices and worldwide hunger are high. But from disputes over animal care to arguments over the adoption of genetically altered seeds, the media and popular culture send a completely different message: abandon the methods of production that best provide a plentiful and affordable food supply.

Commercial farmers will have to decide whether we can withstand public opprobrium while continuing to efficiently produce the world’s most essential good or join the entertainment industry, selling expensive pork chops with heaping sides of nostalgia.

Blake Hurst, a former hog farmer, now grows corn, soybeans and flowers and is president of the Missouri Farm Bureau.

Monday, February 13, 2012

What I Read Today - Monday February 13, 2012

From: The New York Times

Mooresville’s Shining Example (It’s Not Just About the Laptops)


By ALAN SCHWARZ

MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Sixty educators from across the nation roamed the halls and ringed the rooms of East Mooresville Intermediate School, searching for the secret formula. They found it in Erin Holsinger’s fifth-grade math class.

There, a boy peering into his school-issued MacBook blitzed through fractions by himself, determined to reach sixth-grade work by winter. Three desks away, a girl was struggling with basic multiplication — only 29 percent right, her screen said — and Ms. Holsinger knelt beside her to assist. Curiosity was fed and embarrassment avoided, as teacher connected with student through emotion far more than Wi-Fi.

“This is not about the technology,” Mark Edwards, superintendent of Mooresville Graded School District, would tell the visitors later over lunch. “It’s not about the box. It’s about changing the culture of instruction — preparing students for their future, not our past.”

As debate continues over whether schools invest wisely in technology — and whether it measurably improves student achievement — Mooresville, a modest community about 20 miles north of Charlotte best known as home to several Nascar teams and drivers, has quietly emerged as the de facto national model of the digital school.

Mr. Edwards spoke on a White House panel in September, and federal Department of Education officials often cite Mooresville as a symbolic success. Overwhelmed by requests to view the programs in action, the district now herds visitors into groups of 60 for monthly demonstrations; the waiting list stretches to April. What they are looking for is an explanation for the steady gains Mooresville has made since issuing laptops three years ago to the 4,400 4th through 12th graders in five schools (three K-3 schools are not part of the program).

The district’s graduation rate was 91 percent in 2011, up from 80 percent in 2008. On state tests in reading, math and science, an average of 88 percent of students across grades and subjects met proficiency standards, compared with 73 percent three years ago. Attendance is up, dropouts are down. Mooresville ranks 100th out of 115 districts in North Carolina in terms of dollars spent per student — $7,415.89 a year — but it is now third in test scores and second in graduation rates.

“Other districts are doing things, but what we see in Mooresville is the whole package: using the budget, innovating, using data, involvement with the community and leadership,” said Karen Cator, a former Apple executive who is director of educational technology for the United States Department of Education. “There are lessons to be learned.”

Start with math lessons: each student’s MacBook Air is leased from Apple for $215 a year, including warranty, for a total of $1 million; an additional $100,000 a year goes for software. Terry Haas, the district’s chief financial officer, said the money was freed up through “incredibly tough decisions.”

Sixty-five jobs were eliminated, including 37 teachers, which resulted in larger class sizes — in middle schools, it is 30 instead of 18 — but district officials say they can be more efficiently managed because of the technology. Some costly items had become obsolete (like computer labs), though getting rid of others tested the willingness of teachers to embrace the new day: who needs globes in the age of Google Earth?

Families pay $50 a year to subsidize computer repairs, though the fee is waived for those who cannot afford it, about 18 percent of them. Similarly, the district has negotiated a deal so that those without broadband Internet access can buy it for $9.99 a month. Mr. Edwards said the technology had helped close racial performance gaps in a district where 27 percent of the students are minorities and 40 percent are poor enough to receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Others see broader economic benefits.

“Even in the downturn, we’re a seller’s market — people want to buy homes here,” said Kent Temple, a real estate agent in town. “Families say, ‘This is a chance for my child to compete with families that have more money than me.’ Six years from now, you’ll see how many from disadvantaged backgrounds go to college and make it.”

Mooresville’s laptops perform the same tasks as those in hundreds of other districts: they correct worksheets, assemble progress data for teachers, allow for compelling multimedia lessons, and let students work at their own pace or in groups, rather than all listening to one teacher. The difference, teachers and administrators here said, is that they value computers not for the newest content they can deliver, but for how they tap into the oldest of student emotions — curiosity, boredom, embarrassment, angst — and help educators deliver what only people can. Technology, here, is cold used to warm.

Mooresville frequently tests students in various subjects to inform teachers where each needs help. Every quarter, department heads and principals present summary data to Mr. Edwards, who uses it to assess where teachers need improvement. Special emphasis goes to identifying students who are only a few correct answers away from passing state proficiency standards. They are then told how close they are and, Mr. Edwards said, “You can, you can, you can.”

Many classrooms have moved from lecture to lattice, where students collaborate in small groups with the teacher swooping in for consultation. Rather than tell her 11th-grade English students the definition of transcendentalism one recent day, Katheryn Higgins had them crowd-source their own — quite Thoreauly, it turned out — using Google Docs. Back in September, Ms. Higgins had the more outgoing students make presentations on the Declaration of Independence, while shy ones discussed it in an online chat room, which she monitored.

“I’m not a very social person, but I have no problem typing on a keyboard,” said one of those shy ones, Chase Wilson. “It connected me with other students — opened me up and helped me with talking in public.”

In math, students used individualized software modules, with teachers stopping by occasionally to answer questions. (“It’s like having a personal tutor,” said Ethan Jones, the fifth grader zooming toward sixth-grade material.) Teachers apportion their time based on the need of students, without the weaker ones having to struggle at the blackboard in front of the class; this dynamic has helped children with learning disabilities to participate and succeed in mainstream classes.

“There are students who might not have graduated five years ago who have graduated,” said Melody Morrison, a case manager for Mooresville High School’s special education programs. “They’re not just our kids anymore. They’re everybody’s kids — all teachers throughout the school. The digital conversion has evened the playing field.”

Many students adapted to the overhaul more easily than their teachers, some of whom resented having beloved tools — scripted lectures, printed textbooks and a predictable flow through the curriculum — vanish. The layoffs in 2009 and 2010, of about 10 percent of the district’s teachers, helped weed out the most reluctant, Mr. Edwards said; others he was able to convince that the technology would actually allow for more personal and enjoyable interaction with students.

“You have to trust kids more than you’ve ever trusted them,” he said. “Your teachers have to be willing to give up control.”

That was the primary concern that the 60 visitors expressed during their daylong sojourn to Mooresville in November. “I’m not sure our kids can be trusted the way these are,” one teacher from the Midwest said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid trouble back home.

Thomas Bertrand, superintendent of schools in Rochester, Ill., said he was struck by the “culture of collaboration among staff and kids” in Mooresville and would emphasize that as his district considered its own conversion.

“There’s a tendency in teaching to try to control things, like a parent,” said Scott Allen, a high school chemistry teacher in South Granville, N.C. “But I learn best at my own pace, and you have to realize that students learn best at their own pace, too.”

Mooresville still has some growing pains. In one ninth-grade social studies class, a video that easily could have been shown on a large screen instead went through the students’ laptops, several of which balked, “Unable to find proxy server.” One fourth grader, having to complete 10 multiplication questions in two minutes for the software to let her move on, simply consulted her times tables, making the lesson more about speed typing than mathematics. And those concerned about corporate encroachment on public schools would blanch at the number of Apple logos in the hallways, and at the district’s unofficial slogan: “iBelieve, iCan, iWill.”

Mooresville’s tremendous focus on one data point — the percentage of students passing proficiency exams — has its pitfalls as well. At November’s quarterly data meeting, there were kudos for several numbers whose rise or dip was not statistically significant, and no recognition that the students who passed by one or two questions could very well fail by one or two the next time around. Several colorful pie charts used metrics that were meaningless.

“I realize the fallacy of looking at one measure,” Mr. Edwards said in an interview afterward. “We look at scholarships, A.P. courses taken, honors courses, SAT scores. But the measure that we use is what the state posts, and what parents look at when they’re comparing schools moving here.”

After three years of computers permeating every area of their schooling, Mooresville students barely remember life before the transformation and are somewhat puzzled by the gaggle of visitors who watch them every month. (“At times it’s kind of like being a lab rat,” one 11th grader said.) But Mooresville understands its growing fame in the world of education, much of which has yet to find the balance between old tricks and new technology.

“So,” Ms. Higgins asked her English class after the bell rang, “you think you’re going to like transcendentalism?”

“Only if you’re a nonconformist,” a student cracked.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

What I Read Today - Sunday February 12, 2012

We Need a Second Party


By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

WATCHING the Republican Party struggling to agree on a presidential candidate, one wonders whether the G.O.P. shouldn’t just sit this election out — just give 2012 a pass.

You know how in Scrabble sometimes you look at your seven letters and you’ve got only vowels that spell nothing? What do you do? You go back to the pile. You throw your letters back and hope to pick up better ones to work with. That’s what Republican primary voters seem to be doing. They just keep going back to the pile but still coming up with only vowels that spell nothing.

There’s a reason for that: Their pile is out of date. The party has let itself become the captive of conflicting ideological bases: anti-abortion advocates, anti-immigration activists, social conservatives worried about the sanctity of marriage, libertarians who want to shrink government, and anti-tax advocates who want to drown government in a bathtub.

Sorry, but you can’t address the great challenges America faces today with that incoherent mix of hardened positions. I’ve argued that maybe we need a third party to break open our political system. But that’s a long shot. What we definitely and urgently need is a second party — a coherent Republican opposition that is offering constructive conservative proposals on the key issues and is ready for strategic compromises to advance its interests and those of the country.

Without that, the best of the Democrats — who have been willing to compromise — have no partners and the worst have a free pass for their own magical thinking. Since such a transformed Republican Party is highly unlikely, maybe the best thing would be for it to get crushed in this election and forced into a fundamental rethink — something the Democrats had to go through when they lost three in a row between 1980 and 1988. We need a “Different Kind of Republican” the way Bill Clinton gave us a “Different Kind of Democrat.”

Because when I look at America’s three greatest challenges today, I don’t see the Republican candidates offering realistic answers to any of them.

The first is responding to the challenges and opportunities of an era in which globalization and the information technology revolution have dramatically intensified, creating a hyperconnected world. This is a world in which education, innovation and talent will be rewarded more than ever. This is a world in which there will be no more “developed” and “developing countries,” but only HIEs (high-imagination-enabling countries) and LIEs (low-imagination-enabling countries).

And this is a world that America is hard-wired to thrive in — provided we invest in better infrastructure, postsecondary education for all, more talented immigrants, regulations that incentivize risk-taking and prevent recklessness, and government-financed research to push out the boundaries of science and let our venture capitalists pluck the best flowers. There is no way we can thrive in this era without this kind of public-private partnership. We need strong government, but limited government, which enables our companies and individuals to compete globally. It’s the kind of public-private partnership that Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush embraced.

The second of our great long-term challenges are our huge debt and entitlement obligations. They can’t be fixed without raising and reforming taxes and trimming entitlements and defense. We absolutely cannot just cut entitlements and defense. That would imperil the personal security and national security of every American. We must also reform taxes to raise more revenues.

But when all the Republican candidates last year said they would not accept a deal with Democrats that involved even $1 in tax increases in return for $10 in spending cuts, the G.O.P. cut itself off from reality. It became a radical party, not a conservative one. And for the candidates to wrap themselves in a cartoon version of Ronald Reagan — a real conservative who raised taxes, including the gasoline tax, when he discovered his own cuts had gone too far — is fraudulent.

Our third great challenge is how we power our future — without dangerously polluting and warming the earth — as the global population grows from 7 billion to 9 billion people by 2050, and more and more of them want to drive, eat and live like Americans. Two billion more people who want to live like us? We can’t drill our way out of that challenge, which is why energy efficiency and clean power will be the next great global industry. Real conservatives — like Richard Nixon, the father of the Environmental Protection Agency, and George H.W. Bush, the author of the first cap-and-trade deal to curb acid rain — believe in conserving. The current Republican candidates are so captured by the oil and coal lobbies that they can’t think seriously about this huge opportunity for energy innovation.

Until the G.O.P. stops being radical and returns to being conservative, it won’t provide what the country needs most now — competition — competition with Democrats on the issues that will determine whether we thrive in the 21st century. We need to hear conservative fiscal policies, energy policies, immigration policies and public-private partnership concepts — not radical ones. Would somebody please restore our second party? The country is starved for a grown-up debate.

What I Read Today - Sunday February 12, 2012

From: The New York Times

We Need a Second Party


By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

WATCHING the Republican Party struggling to agree on a presidential candidate, one wonders whether the G.O.P. shouldn’t just sit this election out — just give 2012 a pass.

You know how in Scrabble sometimes you look at your seven letters and you’ve got only vowels that spell nothing? What do you do? You go back to the pile. You throw your letters back and hope to pick up better ones to work with. That’s what Republican primary voters seem to be doing. They just keep going back to the pile but still coming up with only vowels that spell nothing.

There’s a reason for that: Their pile is out of date. The party has let itself become the captive of conflicting ideological bases: anti-abortion advocates, anti-immigration activists, social conservatives worried about the sanctity of marriage, libertarians who want to shrink government, and anti-tax advocates who want to drown government in a bathtub.

Sorry, but you can’t address the great challenges America faces today with that incoherent mix of hardened positions. I’ve argued that maybe we need a third party to break open our political system. But that’s a long shot. What we definitely and urgently need is a second party — a coherent Republican opposition that is offering constructive conservative proposals on the key issues and is ready for strategic compromises to advance its interests and those of the country.

Without that, the best of the Democrats — who have been willing to compromise — have no partners and the worst have a free pass for their own magical thinking. Since such a transformed Republican Party is highly unlikely, maybe the best thing would be for it to get crushed in this election and forced into a fundamental rethink — something the Democrats had to go through when they lost three in a row between 1980 and 1988. We need a “Different Kind of Republican” the way Bill Clinton gave us a “Different Kind of Democrat.”

Because when I look at America’s three greatest challenges today, I don’t see the Republican candidates offering realistic answers to any of them.

The first is responding to the challenges and opportunities of an era in which globalization and the information technology revolution have dramatically intensified, creating a hyperconnected world. This is a world in which education, innovation and talent will be rewarded more than ever. This is a world in which there will be no more “developed” and “developing countries,” but only HIEs (high-imagination-enabling countries) and LIEs (low-imagination-enabling countries).

And this is a world that America is hard-wired to thrive in — provided we invest in better infrastructure, postsecondary education for all, more talented immigrants, regulations that incentivize risk-taking and prevent recklessness, and government-financed research to push out the boundaries of science and let our venture capitalists pluck the best flowers. There is no way we can thrive in this era without this kind of public-private partnership. We need strong government, but limited government, which enables our companies and individuals to compete globally. It’s the kind of public-private partnership that Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush embraced.

The second of our great long-term challenges are our huge debt and entitlement obligations. They can’t be fixed without raising and reforming taxes and trimming entitlements and defense. We absolutely cannot just cut entitlements and defense. That would imperil the personal security and national security of every American. We must also reform taxes to raise more revenues.

But when all the Republican candidates last year said they would not accept a deal with Democrats that involved even $1 in tax increases in return for $10 in spending cuts, the G.O.P. cut itself off from reality. It became a radical party, not a conservative one. And for the candidates to wrap themselves in a cartoon version of Ronald Reagan — a real conservative who raised taxes, including the gasoline tax, when he discovered his own cuts had gone too far — is fraudulent.

Our third great challenge is how we power our future — without dangerously polluting and warming the earth — as the global population grows from 7 billion to 9 billion people by 2050, and more and more of them want to drive, eat and live like Americans. Two billion more people who want to live like us? We can’t drill our way out of that challenge, which is why energy efficiency and clean power will be the next great global industry. Real conservatives — like Richard Nixon, the father of the Environmental Protection Agency, and George H.W. Bush, the author of the first cap-and-trade deal to curb acid rain — believe in conserving. The current Republican candidates are so captured by the oil and coal lobbies that they can’t think seriously about this huge opportunity for energy innovation.

Until the G.O.P. stops being radical and returns to being conservative, it won’t provide what the country needs most now — competition — competition with Democrats on the issues that will determine whether we thrive in the 21st century. We need to hear conservative fiscal policies, energy policies, immigration policies and public-private partnership concepts — not radical ones. Would somebody please restore our second party? The country is starved for a grown-up debate.

Friday, February 10, 2012

What I Read Today - Friday February 10, 2012

From: The New York Times - Thursday February 9, 2012

The Crowd Pleaser


By DAVID BROOKS

At first glance, President Obama and Mitt Romney share some similar traits. Both Harvard Law School grads are smart and analytical. Both are emotionally reserved rather than touchy-feely. Both are traditionalist in their family and personal lives. But one glaring difference is that Obama seems self-sufficient while Romney seems other-directed.

I’m borrowing the phrase “other-directed” from David Riesman’s 1950 classic, “The Lonely Crowd.”

Riesman argued that different eras nurture different personality types. The agricultural economy nurtured tradition-directed individuals. People lived according to the ancient cycles, customs and beliefs. Children grew up and performed the same roles as their parents.

The industrial era favored the inner-directed personality type. The inner-directed person was guided by a set of strong internal convictions, like Victorian morality. The inner-directed person was a hardy pioneer, the stolid engineer or the resilient steelworker — working on physical things. This person was often rigid, but also steadfast.

The other-directed personality type emerges in a service or information age economy. In this sort of economy, most workers are not working with physical things; they are manipulating people. The other-directed person becomes adept at pleasing others, at selling him or herself.

The other-directed person is attuned to what other people want him to be. The other-directed person is a pliable member of a team and yearns for acceptance. He or she is less notable for having a rigid character than for having a smooth personality.

I don’t actually know what sort of person Romney is. He’s a reticent man. He’s unwilling to talk about his roots, home and family history, so it is hard to understand what’s really going on in his head. But he is giving the impression of being a classic other-directed type.

He went to business school and learned to adapt to the needs of the marketplace. He didn’t specialize in a specific industry, like shipping or airlines. He specialized in the management of management. In politics, he became the product he himself is selling, and that product has changed as his target market has changed. This presidential campaign Romney has been describing himself as a turnaround artist, suggesting to people that he is rootless hired gun, detached from any specific location, community or product.

Voters know that all politicians market themselves. But with Romney, many people wonder if it is marketing all the way down.

This is a bad moment to be coming across as an other-directed person. Americans are again in a state of spiritual anxiety, wondering if they are losing the hardy pioneer virtues that built the nation and defeated fascism and communism. In a period of fragmentation, information overload and social distrust, they want a leader who is rooted and resolute.

Republicans are especially suspicious of the other-directed type. They feel as if they are battling against the headwinds of a hostile elite culture. They want their candidate to have built his temple upon a rock, to possess an unshakeable set of convictions, to be impervious to the opposition of Washington’s entrenched interests. They also believe that the next president is going to have to make some brutally difficult decisions in order to reduce the debt. This is not a task for someone who is perpetually adjusting to market signals.

If Romney is to thrive, he really needs to go on an integrity tour. He needs to show how his outer pronouncements flow directly from his inner core. He needs to trust that voters will take him as he really is. He needs to tell his own complicated individual story and stop reducing himself to the outsider/businessman advertising cliché. He needs to tell us what about his character is more fundamental than his national park patriotism and his skill at corporate restructuring.

He needs to stop opportunistically backtracking on his Medicare position, just to please whatever senior group he happens to be in front of. He needs to show that he is willing to pursue at least a few unpopular policies, even policies that are unfashionable in his own party. Since many people fear that he is a suck-up, it would actually help him at this point if he violated party orthodoxy in some bold and independent way.

He needs to step outside the cautious incrementalism that is the inevitable product of excessive polling and focus-group testing. He needs to find a policy like entitlement reform that is so important to him that he’s willing to risk losing the presidency over it. The eternal rule of presidential politics is that a candidate has to be willing to lose everything if he’s going to win everything.

If Rick Santorum weren’t running for president, he would still be saying the same things he is saying today. Very few people believe that about Mitt Romney. If he can’t fix that problem, he may win the Republican nomination, but it won’t be worth much.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What I Read Today - Tuesday February 7, 2012

From: The New York Times - February 6, 2012


Flood the Zone

By DAVID BROOKS

Every once in a while, the Obama administration will promulgate a policy that is truly demoralizing. A willingness to end the District of Columbia school voucher program was one such case. The decision to force Catholic social service providers to support contraception and other practices that violate their creed is another.

These decisions are demoralizing because they make it harder to conduct a serious antipoverty policy.

The essential truth about poverty is that we will never fully understand what causes it. There are a million factors that contribute to poverty, and they interact in a zillion ways.

Some of the factors are economic: the shortage of low-skill, entry-level jobs. Some of the factors are historical: the legacy of racism. Some of the factors are familial: the breakdown in early attachments between infants and caregivers and the cognitive problems that often result from that. Some of them are social: the shortage of healthy role models and mentors.

The list of factors that contribute to poverty could go on and on, and the interactions between them are infinite. Therefore, there is no single magic lever to pull to significantly reduce poverty. The only thing to do is change the whole ecosystem.

If poverty is a complex system of negative feedback loops, then you have to create an equally complex and diverse set of positive feedback loops. You have to flood the zone with as many good programs as you can find and fund and hope that somehow they will interact and reinforce each other community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood.

The key to this flood-the-zone approach is that you have to allow for maximum possible diversity. Let’s say there is a 14-year-old girl who, for perfectly understandable reasons, wants to experience the love and sense of purpose that go with motherhood, rather than stay in school in the hopes of someday earning a middle-class wage.

You have no idea what factors have caused her to make this decision, and you have no way of knowing what will dissuade her. But you want her, from morning until night, to be enveloped by a thick ecosystem of positive influences. You want lefty social justice groups, righty evangelical groups, Muslim groups, sports clubs, government social workers, Boys and Girls Clubs and a hundred other diverse institutions. If you surround her with a different culture and a web of relationships, maybe she will absorb new habits of thought, find a sense of belonging and change her path.

To build this thick ecosystem, you have to include religious institutions and you have to give them broad leeway. Religious faith is quirky, and doesn’t always conform to contemporary norms. But faith motivates people to serve. Faith turns lives around. You want to do everything possible to give these faithful servants room and support so they can improve the spiritual, economic and social ecology in poor neighborhoods.

The administration’s policies on school vouchers and religious service providers are demoralizing because they weaken this ecology by reducing its diversity. By ending vouchers, the administration reduced the social intercourse between neighborhoods. By coercing the religious charities, it is teaching the faithful to distrust government, to segregate themselves from bureaucratic overreach, to pull inward.

Members of the Obama administration aren’t forcing religious organizations to violate their creeds because they are secular fundamentalists who place no value on religious liberty. They are doing it because they operate in a technocracy.

Technocrats are in the business of promulgating rules. They seek abstract principles that they can apply in all cases. From their perspective, a rule is fair when it can be imposed uniformly across the nation.

Technocratic organizations take diverse institutions and make them more alike by imposing the same rules. Technocracies do not defer to local knowledge. They dislike individual discretion. They like consistency, codification and uniformity.

Technocratic institutions have an unstated theory of how change happens. It’s the theory President Obama sketched out at the beginning and end of his State of the Union address: Society works best when it is like a military unit — when everybody works together in pursuit of a mission, pulling together as one.

But a realistic antipoverty program works in the opposite way. It’s not like a military unit. It’s like a rain forest, with a complex array of organisms pursuing diverse missions in diverse ways while intertwining and adapting to each other.

I wish President Obama would escape from the technocratic rationalism that sometimes infects his administration. I wish he’d go back to his community-organizer roots. When he was driving around Chicago mobilizing priests and pastors on those cold nights, would he really have compelled them to do things that violated their sacred vows?

I don’t think so. I think if that Barack Obama possessed the power he has today, he’d want to flood the zone with as much rich diversity as possible.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

What I Read Today - Saturday February 4, 2012

From:  Seth Godin's Blog
http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/

Rightsizing your passion


Excitement about goals is often diminished by our fear of failure or the drudgery of work.

If you’re short on passion, it might be because your goals are too small or the fear is too big.

Do a job for a long time and achieve what you set out to achieve, and suddenly, the dream job becomes a trudge instead. The job hasn't changed--your dreams have.

Mostly, though, it's about our fear. Fear is the dream killer, the silent voice that pushes us to lose our passion in a vain attempt to seek safety.

While you can work hard to dream smaller dreams, I think it's better to embrace the fear and find bigger goals instead.

Friday, February 3, 2012

What I Read Today - Friday February 2, 2012

From:  The New York Times - Friday February 2, 2012

How to Fight The Man


By DAVID BROOKS

A few weeks ago, a 22-year-old man named Jefferson Bethke produced a video called “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” The video shows Bethke standing in a courtyard rhyming about the purity of the teachings of Jesus and the hypocrisy of the church. Jesus preaches healing, surrender and love, he argues, but religion is rigid, phony and stale. “Jesus came to abolish religion,” Bethke insists. “Religion puts you in bondage, but Jesus sets you free.”

The video went viral. As of Thursday, it had acquired more than 18 million hits on YouTube. It speaks for many young believers who feel close to God but not to the church. It represents the passionate voice of those who think their institutions lack integrity — not just the religious ones, but the political and corporate ones, too.

Right away, many older theologians began critiquing Bethke’s statements. A blogger named Kevin DeYoung pointed out, for example, that it is biblically inaccurate to say that Jesus hated religion. In fact, Jesus preached a religious doctrine, prescribed rituals and worshiped in a temple.

Bethke responded in a way that was humble, earnest and gracious, and that generally spoke well of his character. He also basically folded.

“I wanted to say I really appreciate your article man,” Bethke wrote to DeYoung in an online exchange. “It hit me hard. I’ll even be honest and say I agree 100 percent.”

Bethke watched a panel discussion in which some theologians lamented young people’s disdain of organized religion. “Right when I heard that,” he told The Christian Post, “it just convicted me, and God used it as one of those Spirit moments where it’s just, ‘Man, he’s right.’ I realized a lot of my views and treatments of the church were not Scripture-based; they were very experience based.”

Bethke’s passionate polemic and subsequent retreat are symptomatic of a lot of the protest cries we hear these days. This seems to be a moment when many people — in religion, economics and politics — are disgusted by current institutions, but then they are vague about what sorts of institutions should replace them.

This seems to be a moment of fervent protest movements that are ultimately vague and ineffectual.

We can all theorize why the intense desire for change has so far produced relatively few coherent recipes for change. Maybe people today are simply too deferential. Raised to get college recommendations, maybe they lack the oppositional mentality necessary for revolt. Maybe people are too distracted.

My own theory revolves around a single bad idea. For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea. Very few people have the genius or time to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous worldview.

If you go out there armed only with your own observations and sentiments, you will surely find yourself on very weak ground. You’ll lack the arguments, convictions and the coherent view of reality that you’ll need when challenged by a self-confident opposition. This is more or less what happened to Jefferson Bethke.

The paradox of reform movements is that, if you want to defy authority, you probably shouldn’t think entirely for yourself. You should attach yourself to a counter-tradition and school of thought that has been developed over the centuries and that seems true.

The old leftists had dialectical materialism and the Marxist view of history. Libertarians have Hayek and von Mises. Various spiritual movements have drawn from Transcendentalism, Stoicism, Gnosticism, Thomism, Augustine, Tolstoy, or the Catholic social teaching that inspired Dorothy Day.

These belief systems helped people envision alternate realities. They helped people explain why the things society values are not the things that should be valued. They gave movements a set of organizing principles. Joining a tradition doesn’t mean suppressing your individuality. Applying an ancient tradition to a new situation is a creative, stimulating and empowering act. Without a tradition, everything is impermanence and flux.

Most professors would like their students to be more rebellious and argumentative. But rebellion without a rigorous alternative vision is just a feeble spasm.

If I could offer advice to a young rebel, it would be to rummage the past for a body of thought that helps you understand and address the shortcomings you see. Give yourself a label. If your college hasn’t provided you with a good knowledge of countercultural viewpoints — ranging from Thoreau to Maritain — then your college has failed you and you should try to remedy that ignorance.

Effective rebellion isn’t just expressing your personal feelings. It means replacing one set of authorities and institutions with a better set of authorities and institutions. Authorities and institutions don’t repress the passions of the heart, the way some young people now suppose. They give them focus and a means to turn passion into change.