Opinion

The Great Debate

Women: The changing face of U.S. poverty

We’ve seen a dramatic shift in the 50 years since the launch of the War on Poverty. In today’s economy, poverty increasingly falls on women. They make up over half the workforce, and two out of three mothers are the primary or co-breadwinner for their household.

But one thing hasn’t changed since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty: When we think of the poor we still think of someone else. That’s why it’s crucial to share stories — including my own.

I grew up in a suburb of Boston, the child of two immigrants who had come from India decades earlier. We lived in Bedford, Massachusetts, a quintessential middle-class town. But when I was 5, my parents got divorced and my dad left. My mother was on her own.

She had never held a job before. She faced the choice of going back to India or staying in the United States and going on welfare to support her two young children. In India, she knew, we would have been stigmatized — no one got divorced there in the 1970s. Children of a divorced woman would have limited life opportunities.

So she decided to stay in the United States. Welfare gave her that choice. We were on food stamps and received housing vouchers to help pay the rent. Thanks to a new state law, we could use those vouchers to move into an apartment in Bedford and remain in our good local public schools. After three years, my mom got a job and moved up. By the time I was 11, she was able to buy her own house in Bedford.

Mexico’s reversal of fortune

In Latin America, this looks to be the year of Brazil — thanks to the impending World Cup and presidential elections. But with another lackluster year looming in emerging markets, fans of transformation, growth and investment potential should instead look to Mexico.

Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, is expected to win a second term this year, and its soccer team stands a good shot at victory. But growth has slowed considerably. In the world’s seventh largest economy, reforms are stagnating and the country faces a possible ratings downgrade.

Mexico, by contrast, is in the throes of serious reforms. It will likely lead Latin America with at least 4 percent growth this year and an improving investment outlook. Standard & Poor’s recently boosted Mexico’s credit ratings because of energy reforms that the rating company trumpeted last month as a “watershed moment” for the country. It is becoming a story of inverted fortunes, as Michael Shifter and Cameron Combs of the Inter-American Dialogue recently wrote.

How do we measure whether Americans are better off than in the past?

Are you better off than you were twenty years ago? Probably not relative to very rich people today, but what about relative to you, or to someone your age and position twenty years ago? Income inequality has been called the defining issue of our time. Powerful leaders, from President Obama to Pope Francis, have cited it as evidence that the unfettered capitalism that has enriched the wealthy hasn’t been shared. Of course, there’s a difference between the gains in income being shared evenly, shared a little, or making everyone else poorer. In many ways the average American is much better off than he used to be; in other ways he’s worse off.  But even if we focus on what’s gotten better, we may still need to worry about the future.

The most common metric used to measure changes in our economic condition is income, but several other factors determine quality of life: health, consumption, leisure time, financial security, and prospects for the future. Which of these factors matters most comes down to personal values. Some people prefer more leisure to income. If they work less, even at the cost of lower earnings, they’ll be happier. Some people are more comfortable with risk; health care coverage and financial security matter less if they can buy more stuff.

In order to assess economic improvement, we must also consider demographics. Over the course of your lifetime, you will probably see an increase in earnings and wealth and accumulate goods. Most people get pay raises as they age and acquire more skills. They also become more risk averse and have more years to collect wealth. In this respect, the relevant question is: are your finances improving at the same rate they used to? Or did people your age used to have more than you do now?

The fierce fight over how to die

There has been an ugly and sad pile-on by two people who ought to know better and a young woman fighting against cancer. It started — as these things can — in the blogosphere, where Lisa Bonchek Adams, mother of three and terminal cancer patient, has been chronicling her battles in sometimes raw detail.

Her tweets are full of pain, literal and emotional. Apparently, her revelations have proved too much for journalists Emma Gilbey Keller and Bill Keller. In a post on theguardian.com, Ms. Keller suggested that Adams has gone over the line.

“Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience?” Keller wrote. “Is there such a thing as TMI? Are her tweets a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies?”

Christie: Crossing the line

Back in the 1970s, a Jewish organization commissioned a poll to investigate anti-Semitism in the United States. The poll included several open-ended questions. One asked, “Is there anything in particular you like about Jewish people?” The answers were recorded verbatim.

One respondent — a worker from Pittsburgh — answered, “What I like about them is that they are hardworking, aggressive and know how to get ahead.” The next question asked, “Is there anything in particular you don’t like about Jewish people?” His answer: “They’re too pushy and aggressive.”

The puzzled interviewer asked, “Isn’t that what you just said you like about them?” The respondent answered, “Yes. What I like about them is also what I don’t like about them.”

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Punitive politics: Bigger than Christie

There is a “Sopranos” episode where a deal for a beachfront house on the Jersey shore goes awry at the last minute and Tony Soprano decides to punish the reluctant seller for changing his mind. He sends a couple of mobsters in a boat mounted with giant speakers to remind the recalcitrant homeowner of the wonders of the Italian popular songbook played at full volume. When it comes to ingenious punishments, Jersey leads the field.

What no one has yet explained about the intentional four-day traffic jam levied on the good people of Fort Lee, New Jersey, at the George Washington Bridge, is the real reason the punishment was exacted.

Was it to hurt the mayor by making his constituents so angry they would, in some future ballot, blame it all on him? Was it to punish the voters for choosing a mayor who declined to back Governor Chris Christie’s re-election? Other possible theories have also been suggested. But in any case, closing the traffic lanes would hardly seem an effective way of exacting revenge.

Filling judicial vacancies to protect the progressive legacy

What could never happen, finally did.

For more than 30 years the Democratic Senate caucus feebly stood by as Republicans seized control of the federal courts. Now, however, faced with a GOP filibuster of nominees for three vacancies on the appeals court that could determine the fate of most of President Barack Obama’s initiatives, the Democrats have at last responded.

The Democratic Senate majority last month eliminated the 60-vote requirement to end filibusters against presidential nominees to the lower federal courts and the executive branch. With this, they blocked a key element of the GOP’s long-term strategy to overturn the progressive legislative and judicial advances of the past 50 years, and prevent new Democratic initiatives.

Five years into Obama’s tenure, Democratic judicial appointees are still barely even with the number of active Republican judges. There are 93 vacancies, including 37 judicial emergencies as of January 7, with 53 nominations pending. If Obama is to preserve President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legacy – as well as his own — against the many hostile judges now on the bench, he and the Senate will have to act quickly.

Christie: The scandal of hubris

The scandal involving New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, whose aides virtually shut down Fort Lee by throttling its access to the George Washington Bridge into New York City, reportedly to punish the city’s mayor for not endorsing their boss, is so classic that you could put it in a textbook on how a politician can make a developing political scandal much, much worse.

The model goes like this: aides to a governor, a rising political star, are looking to hurt the governor’s enemy. They engage in behavior that is definitely low, likely illegal, and possibly criminal. People start pointing fingers in the direction of the State House.  The governor ridicules the critics. But the state legislature, controlled by the opposing party, launches an investigation and subpoenas high officials. The testimony is embarrassing. Key gubernatorial appointees quit suddenly, one labeling the evolving scandal a “distraction.”  Then — inevitably, it seems — a smoking gun surfaces.

The governor apologizes. He fires someone. But people accuse him of painting himself as a victim instead of taking full frontal responsibility for the mess. Debate begins on whether his political future is toast — nay, on whether he should step down from office.

France says ‘Non’ to the digital age

France has kicked off 2014 with an array of skirmishes against Amazon, Google and other U.S. Internet companies, in what is shaping up as a classic battle between comfortable Gallic tradition and disruptive modernity.

On Thursday, Jan. 9, the French Senate unanimously approved a bill that would ban Amazon from offering free shipping on books in France. Strongly endorsed by the Ministry of Culture, the legislation is supposed to safeguard the existence of the country’s 3,500 bookstores, about 800 of which are independent.

A few hours earlier, France’s national agency for data protection, known by its acronym CNIL, announced that its sanctions committee had found Google to be in breach of national privacy laws, based on the company’s March 2012 decision to merge different privacy policies for each of its services — including YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps and Google Docs — into one policy. CNIL, along with data protection agencies in five other EU nations, argued that Google doesn’t sufficiently inform its users about how or why their data is processed. It ordered the Internet giant to pay a fine of 150,000 euros (about $200,000) and to publish a communiqué on its French home page informing users of the sanction.

Of Christie and political vendettas

The art of the great American political vendetta was born in New Jersey, just a short drive – barring heavy traffic – south of the George Washington Bridge. There, in the town of Weehawken, on a majestic cliff overlooking the Hudson River, the vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr, shot and killed his longtime political nemesis, the former secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, in 1804.

Burr blamed Hamilton for his loss in the New York gubernatorial election a few months earlier and decided it was time to extract revenge in the most direct way possible. Luckily, for members of today’s political class, political vendettas are decidedly less violent these days. But they seem no less passionate.

The scandal that has now overtaken New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has all the elements of an old-fashioned political vendetta — without firearms. The governor himself says he played no role in a reported plot to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse his re-election campaign. But emails and text messages from the governor’s friends and his deputy chief of staff make it clear that they wished to extract political vengeance for this slight – and were willing to suffocate a city with traffic to do so.

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