Opinion

The Great Debate

from Jack Shafer:

Beware the old nostalgic journalist

No sadder sack exists than the journalist in the twilight of his career. After decades of scrutinizing other individuals and their institutions, the soon-to-be-retired journo predictably looks inward and, if his editor indulges him, pens a heartfelt goodbye essay to his readers.

Robert G. Kaiser, former managing editor of the Washington Post, contributed such a note to his paper yesterday. To his credit, Kaiser doesn't bawl with nostalgia for his paper's salad days, like so many other recent writers of goodbye notes to their publications. Nor does he take aim at penny-pinching publishers and greedy chief executive officers, the standard suspect in the who-killed-the-newspaper-and-put-me-out-to-pasture sage. Nor does he slag the Web on his way out. Kaiser is too smart for that. In 1992, he wrote a persuasive memo (pdf) about the coming triumph of digital news and advertising, a memo that the Post tried and failed to translate into a business model.

Instead of giving his publication and readers a nostalgic goodbye with his final contribution -- as is usually the case when a journalist departs -- Kaiser opens the choke to spray a melancholic farewell to the federal city of Washington, which he's called home for most of his 70 years. "[T]he political circus that enthralled me for so long," he writes, has lost its spell on him. Having recently relocated to New York, Kaiser adds, "I don't miss Washington, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon."

Rather than paraphrasing Kaiser, let's capture his yearning with several quotations, which detail how and why he has wearied of Washington:

Because for me, the fun has drained out of the game. So has the substance. I used to get excited about the big issues we covered -- civil rights, women’s liberation, the fate of the country’s great cities, the end of the Cold War. I loved the politicians who brought those issues to life, from Everett McKinley Dirksen and Howard Baker (Dirksen’s son-in-law, curiously) to Russell B. Long and Edmund Muskie, from Bob Dole to George Mitchell -- all people who knew and cared a great deal about governing. Watching them at work was exhilarating. Watching their successors, today’s senators and representatives, is just depressing.…

Putin’s gangland politics

Russian President Vladimir Putin calls them his “brothers” — this group of burly motorcyclists who see themselves as road warriors fighting for the greater glory of Mother Russia. They’re known as the Night Wolves, and Putin himself has ridden with them on that icon of American wanderlust, a Harley-Davidson.

Even as Russia was preparing to send troops to Crimea to reclaim the peninsula from Ukraine’s new government, the Night Wolves announced that they would ride to the troubled region to whip up support for their powerful brother and Harley devotee.

Clad in leather and sporting their best squint-eyed, make-my-day defiant stares, the Night Wolves had a message for Ukraine’s anti-Russian dissidents: Protest at risk of your health.

The power of sanctions against Putin on Ukraine

In a crisis moving extremely fast, it is dangerous to say this, but I’m at least somewhat less concerned about this upheaval in Ukraine than other people seem to be, for a couple of reasons.

One, to be blunt, is that Ukraine is not in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The United States is not militarily obliged to come to the defense of a country that is, in some degree, in peril. For Americans, that is some solace — for we have had more than enough of war in recent years. (I am, for similar reasons, against inviting Ukraine into NATO in the future — unless the basic character of the alliance changes and even Russia could be a part — which would clearly require some change in Russia as well.)

We do, of course, owe Ukrainians assistance. Not just for their 1990s decision to give up the nuclear weapons they inherited from the Soviet Union, but for their contributions to the war in Iraq and their commitment to democracy and to peaceful relations among states. So I am hardly suggesting that we ignore the high stakes here, or the Ukrainian people’s legitimate desires for self-determination and economic progress.

Putin’s anti-Olympic creed

The Putin era in Russia, now in its 15th year, has given birth to the ongoing diplomatic challenge of reading what’s going on behind the Kremlin leader’s steely eyes.

President George W. Bush famously perceived something trustworthy and sympathetic in President Vladimir Putin in 2001, while former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in his new memoir, recalls seeing “a stone-cold killer.” But there is no doubt what was preoccupying the Russian president during the closing ceremonies in Sochi on Sunday: the upheaval underway 250 miles to the west, the distance to the border between Russia and Ukraine — where Viktor Yanukovich’s government had just been toppled.

The grassroots revolution has yet to be color-coded, and its outcome is far from clear.  Thursday, Yanukovich announced from Moscow that he was still president of the country he had fled, and the Russian air force went to combat alert along the Ukrainian border. Early Friday, Ukrainian officials claimed that Russian soldiers had seized two airfields in Crimea and condemned Russia for committing an act of occupation.

Oscar’s State of the Union: It’s guilt!

The Oscars, which will be presented Sunday, do something more than honor the “best” films. They give us a glimpse into ourselves. Our movies, especially those that strike a national nerve, as Oscar nominees often do, are an expression of the nation’s collective consciousness, providing what you might call an annual Oscar State of the Union. They tell us where we stand. And this year’s State of the Union seems consumed with one issue: guilt.

When you look at the nine Best Picture nominees, you discover that the majority are not only deeply ambivalent about the United States, but that they suggest we Americans aren’t all that comfortable with ourselves either. We doubt ourselves and our values — even those things we ostensibly celebrate. We feel conflicted. We are haunted by guilt, consumed by remorse.

This is most apparent is the Oscar favorite, 12 Years a Slave, which taps one of the deepest sources of national guilt — slavery. The film’s protagonist, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), suffers the ritual humiliations, but these are dramatically heightened by the fact that he was a free man who has been enslaved and tortured, and that even by traditional American standards he is vastly superior to his tormentors. If he starts the film as a figure of dignity and resistance, he becomes a symbol of national shame as well.

Is one Robert Downey worth two Jennifer Lawrences?

Economist Greg Mankiw recently published a column in the New York Times, holding up the actor Robert Downey Jr. as an example of why many deserve outsize pay. Why should we begrudge Downey a $50 million payday for The Avengers? The film brought in $1.5 billion globally. Downey’s take was a mere 3 percent of the haul.

It certainly sounds like a reasonable sum when put that way. What, after all, is a little income inequality when it comes to talent and the ability to get people to pay for a movie and popcorn? But when you see Jennifer Lawrence sashay down the red carpet this Sunday at the Oscars, you might want to pause for a moment to consider the Hunger Games franchise, the status of women in Hollywood, and which sex our society believes deserves monster paychecks.

Hunger Games producers first signed Lawrence to a deal in 2011. She was still a relative unknown, albeit one with an Oscar nomination on her credits. So they could sign her to play the lead, Katniss Everdeen, for less than $1 million — a relative pittance for such a high-profile movie.

On minimum wage: Mind the Gap

Just 24 hours after Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from $7.25 would deal a “devastating blow to the very people that need help most,” Gap Inc. announced it would raise employees’ minimum pay to $10 per hour by next year.

In striking contrast to the alarms sounded by McConnell, Gap chief executive officer Glenn Murphy emphasized the benefits of this pay raise for the company’s lowest-paid workers. He described it as a “strategic investment to do more for our employees” — one that  will help “attract and retain a skilled, enthusiastic and engaged workforce.”

If there’s a lesson in the recent tug-of-war over the Congressional Budget Office’s report estimating the impact of a federal minimum wage increase, it’s that despite the dire predictions made by opponents of raising the minimum wage, many CEOs have already seen that higher wages are good for business.

What Felix Salmon gets wrong about public pensions

Felix Salmon has recently posted a creative critique of my foundation‘s pension reform efforts, and specifically of Mayor Chuck Reed’s ballot initiative in California. As is true with any complex policy debate, simplified criticisms make good headlines but miss precisely the nuance that makes these problems challenging and controversial.

Here is the crux of Salmon’s argument: Current public retirement systems severely backload benefits, as illustrated by LJAF’s own analysis, which Salmon includes in his article in graph form. He argues that any proposal that seeks to renegotiate prospective benefits, such as the Reed proposal in California, is inherently unfair because it fails to recognize the benefits that workers rightly expect under the system, and it provides jurisdictions the power to renege on their promises to employees. Salmon then uses a simplistic but attractive analogy to argue in favor of what is known as the “California Rule.” He argues that entering into a pension system is like being given restricted stock — a concept he calls “restricted pension units” (RPUs) — and that these RPUs, granted at the beginning of a career, mature over the course of a worker’s 25-to-30-year tenure. If a worker walks away from employment, she forfeits the right to earn additional benefits under the system, but as long as she is employed, she is guaranteed to earn benefits under the same RPUs (pension parameters) that were in place when she was hired.

Let’s start with the points on which Salmon and I agree. We both believe that public pension plans should work differently than they do today. Under current plans, workers generally earn meager benefits for much of their careers, and only become eligible for a significant retirement benefit after 25 or more years of work for the same employer. This back-loading of benefits means that many public workers are retirement insecure for many years of their working lives. In fact, most of these workers, who will not stay for the requisite 25-plus years, will never achieve the level of retirement security promised under the current system.

The first woman president is not about the past

Want to know the latest meme in U.S. politics? Here it is: Hillary Clinton is a candidate of the past.

It’s been spreading through the political press. Now Republicans are beginning to echo it.

“Elections are almost always about the future,” says the Washington Post, “and Clinton is, for better and worse, a candidate of the past.” The woman who ran for president most recently, Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), contrasts Clinton with President Barack Obama. Obama, she told Politico, was “new and different,” while Clinton is an old-timer less likely to excite voters.

Why we should worry about the future of men

If you’re an American man you’re more likely to be unemployed than your female counterparts. Today more than 4.3 million Americans are considered “long-term unemployed” — out of work for more than 27 weeks. Fifty-six percent of them are men. The Great Recession emasculated generations of men, displacing many of them from the labor force and undermining their financial security. The effects may be felt for decades.

But does that mean the end of men and the rise of women, as author Hanna Rosin has suggested? Not quite. Male unemployment hasn’t come at the expense of women’s success; it reflects deeper structural changes felt by everyone. Technology and globalization has rendered many better-paying jobs, traditionally held by men, obsolete. Both men and women have the potential to thrive, but in order for that to happen we need policy that complements the modern labor market — rather than hold it back.

Even before the 2008 recession, male labor force participation had been declining while more women went to work. This trend was heightened early in the recession because men experienced the brunt of unemployment, losing jobs in male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing. These jobs disappear more rapidly during recessions, when weaker firms need to shed workers.

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