The Kids Aren’t All Right

And why should they be?

One of the problems with elite universities is that they accustom students to a sense of prestige that’s both superficial and inhibits a certain kind of risk-taking and genuine nonconformity. Obviously that’s not universally true but it is hard to move off the beaten path when the one before you seems well-lit and glittering. It’s also a truism that failure is life’s great teacher, and whatever else the beneficiaries of the cheating may get, they are being deprived of something ultimately more valuable.

The larger question is whether this scandal exposes how rotten the entire enterprise of higher education has become. I personally think the four-year college model is crazy — it should be three years, as it is in England. And that’s just for starters. We need to reinvent the model root-to-branch. That’s one of the reasons I’m against making college available to all: You are merely funneling more students into a system of increasingly dubious value.

Gail: Kids who can’t afford to go to college and who would benefit from college should get government funding. But the loan system is a different question. It’s worrisome. I’ve always wondered if high school graduates should have to work a year or two — volunteer programs count — before they can commit to an expensive education.

Bret: Agree completely. Frankly every 18-year-old at any level of income would benefit from a year of service of some sort. I know I would have, and I’d love to see my children take a gap year or two before college.

Gail: Our current government loan program is terrible. It helps schools grow by building up unnecessary programs and of course encourages kids to take out huge debt they’ll be dragging around for half their lives. The for-profit schools are the most egregious offenders. Many of them rake in a ton of money by making promises they can’t deliver on — great high-paying jobs that never materialize. I’m not sure students should even be able to get federal loans for for-profit schools. What do you think?

Bret: I don’t share your profound skepticism regarding for-profit schools, but I think you’re right on this point. The federal government should not be indirectly subsidizing for-profit entities, period, especially when they have a questionable track record of achieving the results they promise. Then again, I’m skeptical of federal student loans in general, because I think they help drive up the cost of tuition, exacerbating the problem they’re intended to solve.

.. Gail: What we need is so simple — strong background checks on gun purchases, a ban on rapid-fire weapons that make it easy to mow down dozens of people. But I wonder sometimes if we could up the ante. Require that everybody who buys a gun has to be able to demonstrate both an understanding of gun safety and a minimal level of marksmanship. The one thing we don’t talk about is how inept many gun owners are. You need a decent amount of skill to be able to hit a target, particularly if you’re nervous or on the move. Unless, of course, your target is a mass of people at prayer.

.. Bret: None. And it is particularly disappointing to see a Republican like Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a so-called constitutional conservative, vote with the president just weeks after he delivered a statement denouncing the national-emergency declaration. It means that Republicans have no higher principle than their own political self-preservation.

So now it will be up to the Supreme Court to act to defend the separation of powers. Don’t be surprised if Chief Justice John Roberts or another conservative justice delivers the majority opinion against the president, along with the court’s liberal wing. As we both know, the Trump presidency makes for strange bedfellows.

 

The Bezos Story Is Big

And it’s got a little bit of everything.

Yes, Bezos has dealt with it brilliantly. It helps — how shall I put this delicately? — that his pride got the better of his embarrassment, and that there was nothing embarrassing about his pride.

.. It also helps that Bezos has the financial means and journalistic tools to get to the bottom of the hacking. I don’t know if the government did the hacking — the truth is probably prosaic, but Pecker’s friendship with Trump raises an eyebrow — but if it did it would be a scandal for the ages.

.. Even now the connections are tantalizing. Why is Pecker “apoplectic” about Bezos’ investigation into who leaked the story to the Enquirer and whether the leak was politically motivated? And how might the potential withdrawal of legal immunity that Pecker obtained last year in connection with his handling of Trump’s hush money payments to his mistresses affect the Southern District’s investigation of Trump’s probable violations of campaign-finance laws?

Going forward, I think we need to start describing all of these ties as the Axis of Pecker. Just saying.

.. But I think context and intention matter. Billy Crystal did “blackface” for a Sammy Davis Jr. impression, and I don’t think Crystal is racist in any respect. Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Sarah Silverman, to name a few boldface names, have all done blackface. If we’re going to start excommunicating people from public life for this, we’re going to destroy a lot of people who almost surely intended no harm.

Gail: Yeah, but I don’t remember Billy Crystal doing his act with a guy wearing a sheet.

Bret: That’s true. And I think that’s in a different league in terms of offensiveness. But again, I think we need to better understand the context, whether it was connected to a pattern of behavior, and whether it was ever repeated. And again, we are talking about an incident from 35 years ago followed by an admirable life without any hint of racial bias.

Right now, Northam’s real moral jeopardy is that he has contradicted himself and is doing a duck-and-cover move. He has a good opportunity to rise above it, first by clarifying how exactly that photo ended up on his yearbook page — and whether he’s one of the people in the picture, as he now claims he isn’t — and then by explaining why the casual racism of a past generation mustn’t be communicated to the present.

.. There was a time when I thought term limits were a great idea. But I’ve cooled on it. When you’ve got a politician who isn’t going to be able to run for re-election, you’ve got a politician spending a whole lot of time planning how to get the next job. Plus you get a lot of … strange people. Rest my case.

.. I’m as eager as anyone to see what’s in Trump’s tax returns. But how do Democrats handle this to make sure it doesn’t redound to Trump’s political benefit?

.. You mean how do they avoid having so many people investigating him the public begins to feel sorry for him?

.. I mean, going down every rabbit hole means that you are going to come up empty many times. That can do as much to obscure criminal behavior as it can to expose it, and to desensitize the public to the significance of truly scandalous disclosures when they are merely bobbing in the sea with not-so-scandalous ones.

.. It doesn’t help when cable TV is obsessing about this stuff 24/7. I think the investigations would be better helped if news about them came out only once every other week, with Representative Adam Schiff or someone like him saying: Here’s the stuff we’ve learned, here’s why it matters, here’s what we’re going to look into next and here’s why.

Gail: Well, cable TV does cover other stuff — I’m just sitting here watching CNN cover climate change in Louisiana. But the producers know what the public is obsessing about, and so do politicians. When they see their constituents these days, the first question a lot of them get isn’t “How’s the infrastructure bill doing?” It’s “What are you going to do about Trump?”

.. I think Trump’s calculation is that he can do a Groundhog’s Day in reverse: That is, shut down the government again and again, and behave worse with each successive iteration. This rallies his base while, at some point a majority of Americans will say, “Just give him his darn wall.” Or so he figures. But we’ll have to see how he reacts to the “agreement in principle” that the House and Senate seem to have reached.

The alternative narrative, and the more convincing one, is that Trump has continued to play games with the livelihoods of American workers for the sake of a bit of fencing that solves nothing except his own political problems.

One thing that is becoming clear is the G.O.P. campaign theme for 2020. They are going to claim Democrats are the party of

  • socialism,
  • open borders,
  • nationalized health care, and an
  • environmentalist agenda that will wind up outlawing
    • air travel and
    • steaks and maybe even
    • milk, too.

The Republicans are indeed ranting now about the Green New Deal, which Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats put forward. A.O.C. did mention eliminating “emissions from cows or air travel,” but — contrary to Trump’s swipes — that was a rather lighthearted description of a perfect future rather than a part of the plan.

And Trump has been playing the socialism card, but I don’t think it’s going to work. There are a number of Democrats who’d like to move toward a society that offers health care for everyone, free college tuition for those who can’t afford to pay, and federal work programs for the unemployed — paid for by much higher taxes on the rich. Most Americans want the same things. If the Democrats are smart about the way they present the programs, things should be fine.

I am aware, Bret, that this sort of talk causes you great pain. That’s why we’re in different political camps.

.. It causes me great pain because I’m attached to no party: I can’t support the Trumpian G.O.P. but I can’t support the Democrats, either, as long as they’re repudiating their belief in traditional liberalism for the sake of an anticapitalist, ruinously expensive policy agenda. I would love to hear a Democrat say, as Hillary Clinton did, we are not Denmark! And I fear the Democrats’ new progressivism will so turn off voters that they’ll re-elect Trump as the better of two bad alternatives.

All of which is to say, we’ll have plenty to converse about in the months ahead. And maybe we might even disagree a bit more.

Gail: Amen.

It’ll Be a While Before Anyone Underestimates Nancy Pelosi Again

Bret: Anyone who survives a half-dozen bankruptcies and goes on to win the presidency should never be written off.

Gail: Sigh. Good point.

Bret: Trump is a master of inventing new dramas to make us forget the old ones. And if unemployment and growth figures remain good a year from now, he’ll still have a powerful argument for a second term.

Bret: I’m not too worried. Capitalism survived the transition from horse-and-buggy to the Model T. It survived the transition from an agricultural economy to a manufacturing economy to a service-based one. And it survived the creative destruction of countless other forms of employment. Where, for instance, are the typesetters these days?

Gail: Well, they’re not creating hot new social media sites.

Bret: Now the question everyone is asking is what will happen to all those truck and cab and Uber drivers — a total of three million professional drivers — once driverless cars become ubiquitous. There’s no doubt the transition will be painful for some of them, and policymakers need to be sensitive on that point. But if history is any guide, things will work out. Many of those drivers will find work in industries that currently don’t exist. Just ask yourself, where was the mobile apps economy at the turn of the century? Where was the internet economy in 1990, or the personal computing industry in 1975?

Gail: I still don’t see the truck drivers working on mobile apps. And if you’re worried about the left’s solutions, I don’t see a whole lot of candidates running around talking about the state taking over the means of production.

Bret: Just wait an election cycle or two.

Gail: But if we’re moving to an economy in which trucks are automated, robots do all the warehouse work and some kind of artificial intelligence is taking orders at the restaurant, we’ll need a government that can create a whole lot of useful public service employment to make up the difference.

Bret: Heaven forfend.

Gail: And underwrite free college education for everybody who needs it.

Bret: No!

Gail: And assure lower-middle-class people decent housing.

Bret: My soul is dying.

Gail: All of which would have to be paid for by large taxes on the very rich.

Bret: Now it’s dead.

.. Bret: I’m all for universities figuring out ways to become more affordable for those who need and deserve it, but making college free for everybody makes it bad for everybody. We would wreck a university system that’s still the envy of the world.

.. Bret: As for affordable housing, I’d sooner trust the invisible hand of the market than the heavy hand of the state. Large taxes on the very rich won’t raise the kind of income you need, and sooner rather than later those taxes will land on the decidedly less rich. And A.O.C. should start mastering her facts rather than getting into Twitter wars with fact checkers.

Gail: Hehehe. Knew I’d get you with A.O.C. That’s what people love about her.

.. Bret: I was with you until you mentioned taxes. Purely theoretical question for you (and our readers) for our next conversation: If Congress would agree to cut the top marginal rate to 33 percent in exchange for a pledge by Trump not to run again, would you take it? I’m sure we’ll be hearing from readers on the comments page.

Divide and Rule

President Trump is operating from an ancient political playbook.

Gail: Perhaps my single favorite revelation was that our self-made billionaire was earning $200,000 a year from the family empire when he was a 3-year-old. Do you think all the nation’s toddlers are now eyeing their parents and wondering, “O.K., where’s my income stream?”

.. The idea that the president is self-made is almost as laughable as the notion that he writes (or, for that matter, reads) his own books.

..  The Democrats need to come up with a compelling, forward-looking agenda for the 2020 elections. Demanding an end to tax loopholes would allow them to talk about real change for the future while eviscerating Donald Trump at the same time.

.. Do Trump fans care about this stuff? Thanks to our colleagues, we know he’s a phony billionaire who represents all the things they in theory hate about the New York economy. But he’s already run a populist anti-immigration campaign that managed to jump right over the undocumented workers he’s hired.

.. Mainly, though, they don’t care because it’s an investigation that dwells on the past, while the presidency is about the present and the future. And while the rest of us were busy tearing our hair out over Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the unemployment rate dipped to its lowest level since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the Dow hit another record and trade disaster was averted when a new Nafta agreement was reached by Mexico, Canada and the U.S.

All of which is to say that you’re right. Democrats really do need to come up with a forward-looking agenda for 2020, because if all they have to talk about are the Trump family’s tax dodges from 30 years ago, or if they try to relitigate the 2016 election, they will lose again.

.. Back in days of yore the media was mainly TV networks and big newspapers that wanted to communicate with a large audience. Now the stars are — people who yell. Blogs, Twitter — we’ve been painfully aware since 2016 that power belongs to whoever can get their followers really, really worked up.
.. There’s a lot of talk about divisions between left and center among the Democrats, but it doesn’t compare to what’s happened to the Republicans. It’s really two parties, with the establishment so terrified of the Trump train, they’re afraid to peep.
.. I wish the G.O.P. were more divided: One of the most depressing political facts of our day is the extent to which Trump has captured the party, leaving conservatives like me who oppose him feeling politically homeless.
.. But you’re right. It does feel different this time. And I think the difference is that the fights aren’t really about policy. They’re about our personal experiences and deepest fears.
.. By the end a vote for Kavanaugh was a vote for a guy who went out of his way to rally the troops by turning the nomination into a partisan us-against-the-Democrats battle. I realize the Democrats were not exactly working above the fray themselves. But the Supreme Court is about transcending partisanship. That’s supposed to be the whole point. And if the justices don’t always live up to that goal, that doesn’t mean you pick a new guy who’s given up the fight before he starts... something tells me that if the nominee were Amy Coney Barrett, Democrats would look for a reason to postpone the vote, hope to retake the Senate and then … take revenge for Merrick Garland by refusing to hold a vote.

.. Gail: Not necessarily agreeing, but Merrick Garland is an open sore. Particularly since Mitch McConnell keeps gloating about it.

.. One thing we can probably agree on is that the process managed to degrade and demean just about everyone who participated in it. Blasey never intended to go public, but Washington can’t keep a secret so her name got leaked. I doubt Kavanaugh intended to go on the attack quite the way he did, but, yet he was advised by White House counsel Don McGahn to “channel his outrage and indignation.”

.. The news media reported stories that otherwise violated normal journalistic standards. And most senators made fools of themselves one way or another: The low point for me was Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal, who famously lied about his military service, lecturing Kavanaugh on the legal concept of “false in one thing, false in everything,” as I noted in my column.

.. my constant preoccupations: the way this country is organized to disenfranchise urban voters and empower people from rural areas.

.. The 59 million people in California and New York are going to elect Democratic senators. But they’ll be completely canceled out if the less than two million people in Wyoming and Montana decide to go Republican.