“YAMHILL, Ore. — As more vaccinated Americans emerge, blinking, to survey our post-apocalyptic world, it’s becoming increasingly clear that many of our fellow citizens may never fully recover — even if they didn’t actually contract the coronavirus.
That’s because quite apart from the direct effects of the virus, the pandemic has aggravated mental illness, domestic violence, addiction and childhood trauma in ways that may reverberate for decades.
My friends who started out prosperous have ridden out the storm in vacation homes and seen their investments soar. Here in rural Oregon where I grew up, my friends who were already down and out are mostly struggling, homeless or even dead, and there is similar anguish across a broad swath of the United States.
That’s why President Biden’s proposals to invest in families and working-class Americans are so important. Just as we acted forcefully to address the virus, we should also move decisively to address America’s persistent pandemic of despair, addiction and educational failure.
Two of my friends overdosed on heroin during the pandemic, and the girlfriend of one is now self-medicating with meth and is wanted by the law. One of my homeless friends died; another, newly homeless, begs me for money; his mother pleads for me to refuse for fear he will use it to buy drugs and again overdose. . . .”
Let’s begin with a quick quiz question: What’s the highest-return investment you can think of? Private equity? A hedge fund?
Here’s something with a far higher return: a global campaign to vaccinate people in poor countries against the coronavirus.
So far the United States and other Group of 7 “leading” countries haven’t actually shown leadership in fighting the pandemic globally. American vaccine nationalism means that we are hoarding both vaccines and the raw materials to make them, in ways that lead to unnecessary deaths abroad and also undermine our own recovery.
“It’s a huge moral failure of the G7,” said Esther Duflo, an M.I.T. economist and Nobel laureate in economics. “We’re so focused on our own problems that we can’t see beyond.”
Abhijit Banerjee, her husband and fellow Nobel laureate in economics at M.I.T., added that because of the risks of variants emerging from poor countries, “It’s not only a huge failure, but I think it’s going to come back to haunt us.”
This is not, of course, primarily about money. It’s about lives. It’s about the trajectory of humanity. But for those who weigh costs to orient their moral compass, a new paper from the International Monetary Fund offers numbers that underscore the importance of investing in global vaccines. . . . “
David Lindsay Jr.Hamden, CT | NYT Comment:
I have read perhpas from Edward O Wilson, that there is a growing concensus that the the proper number of humans on the planet for a sustainable system is probably about 4 billion. Since we are at 7.8 billion humans now, (headed to 10 or 12 billion), and in the middle or beginnning of the sixth extinction of other species, losing 1 or 2 billion humans could be a weird blessing for the future of life on the planet, unless we can come up with a more civilized way to bring down overpopulation, over pollution, and the despoiling of the planet. I find that the argument by Nicholas Kristof fails to address this elephant or perhaps tiger in the room.
“. . . More broadly, we in the United States embrace a public education system based on local financing that ensures that poor kids go to poor schools and rich kids to rich schools.
Yes, it’s a “public” school system with “free” education. So anyone who can afford a typical home in Palo Alto, Calif., costing $3.2 million, can then send children to superb schools. And less than 2 percent of Palo Alto’s population is Black.
Rucker Johnson, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, has found that since 1988, American public schools have become more racially segregated. Roughly 15 percent of Black and Hispanic students attend so-called apartheid schools with fewer than 1 percent white students.
In 1973, the Supreme Court came a whisker from overturning this system of unequal school funding, in the case of Rodriguez v. San Antonio Independent School District. Lower courts had ruled that profoundly unequal school funding violated the Constitution, but by a 5-to-4 vote the justices disagreed.
This was the Brown v. Board of Education case that went the other way. If a single justice had switched, America would today be a fairer and more equitable nation.
Educated white Americans are now repulsed at the thought of systems of separate and unequal drinking fountains for Black Americans but seem comfortable with a Jim Crow financing system resulting in unequal schools for Black children — even though schools are far more consequential than water fountains. . . . “
“Saying Hamas must pay a “very heavy price” for belligerence, Israeli bombs destroyed a 13-story apartment building in Gaza that had a Hamas presence. And saying Israel “ignited fire” and is “responsible for the consequences,” Hamas launched more rockets at Israel.
We’re now seeing the worst fighting in seven years between Israelis and Palestinians, and again a basic pattern asserts itself: When missiles are flying, hard-liners on each side are ascendant. Civilians die, but extremists on one side empower those on the other.
The late Eyad el-Sarraj, a prominent psychiatrist in Gaza, described this dynamic when I visited him during a past cycle of violence: “Extremists need each other, support each other.” He lamented that Israel’s siege of Gaza had turned Palestinian fanatics into popular heroes.
The recent fighting was prompted in part by Israel’s latest land grab in East Jerusalem, part of a pattern of unequal treatment of Palestinians. Two prominent human rights organizations this year issued reports likening Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid. One group, B’Tselem, described a “regime of Jewish supremacy” and concluded, “This is apartheid.” Human Rights Watch published a 224-page report declaring that Israeli conduct in some areas amounts to “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.” . . . “
“PORTLAND, Ore. — As an Oregonian, I’ve always been proud of this picture-postcard metropolis, so I’ve been pained to see it portrayed as a war zone or dying city, and doubly pained when a local businessman recently recounted to me his effort to recruit an executive from out of state.
The executive came for a visit — and, when she saw today’s Portland, with its homeless camps and boarded-up shops downtown, declined the job.
I think that executive erred: Whatever the scars from big protests that began last summer against racial injustice, this city has strong fundamentals and is resilient. But the travails here are real and offer lessons for the rest of the country about the uses and abuses of progressivism.
Last summer President Donald Trump inflamed the crisis in Portland by sending in unneeded federal troops to deal with mostly peaceful protests. That aggravated the upheaval, provoked months of rioting and empowered fringe groups, and perhaps it also obscured the need to stand resolutely against violence by local troublemakers on both left and right. There was too much deference to people sowing chaos under the banner of social justice, perhaps for fear of seeming unprogressive, and after the feds left, the city never tried hard enough to pivot to re-establish order.
Just this week, there was new rioting in Portland after a white police officer in Minnesota shot and killed a Black man, Daunte Wright. Portlanders have reason to protest peacefully — the police arrest African-Americans in the city at four times the rate of whites, one study found — but violence doesn’t serve any cause other than the election of Republicans.
The local slogan is “Keep Portland Weird,” but businesses boarded up to protect against rioters suggest not weirdness but melancholy. A beautiful elk statue that had presided in a park for 120 years had to be removed after its base was vandalized by protesters. Activists have defied the law and taken over a building known as the Red House, frightening neighbors.
Underscoring the concern for law and order, this year Portland is on track to reach 100 homicides, far exceeding the record of 70 set in 1987. . . . “
David Lindsay Jr.Hamden, CT |NYT Comment:
Thank you Nicholas Kristof. Empty headed young progressive radicals are attempting to dismantle town government right here in Hamden CT. These idealistic idiots on the left are doing damage in many parts of the country. Their behaviour is so insidious, it is hard to describe or counter. Your op-ed is a great description of the damage done by well meaning liberals, who are essentally intellectually lazy.
“The most revolutionary part of President Biden’s agenda so far is his focus on a constituency that doesn’t write whiny op-ed columns, doesn’t vote, doesn’t hire lobbyists and so has been neglected for half a century: children.
Biden’s proposal to establish a national pre-K and child care system would be a huge step forward for children and for working parents alike. It would make it easier for moms and dads to hold jobs, and above all it would be a lifeline for many disadvantaged children.
Imagine: You drop a kid off at a high-quality prekindergarten program in the morning and pick the child up on the way home from work. That’s how it is in many other advanced countries, and in the United States military.
When my wife and I lived in Japan in the late 1990s, we sent our kids to one of these nurseries, and they were a dream.”
“America has been shaken by new mass shootings, in Georgia and Colorado, with at least 18 people killed. This essay originally ran in 2017, after a shooter killed 26 people in a Texas church, but the issue is still tragically relevant — and will remain so until America tightens its gun safety policies.
America has more guns than any other country
The first step is to understand the scale of the challenge America faces: The U.S. has more than 300 million guns — roughly one for every citizen — and stands out as well for its gun death rates. At the other extreme, Japan has less than one gun per 100 people, and typically fewer than 10 gun deaths a year in the entire country.”
“PORTLAND, Ore. — Here’s a populist slogan for President Biden’s infrastructure plan: Pee for Free!
Sure, we need investments to rebuild bridges, highways and, yes, electrical grids, but perhaps America’s most disgraceful infrastructure failing is its lack of public toilets.
Greeks and Romans had public toilets more than 2,000 years ago, with people sitting on benches with holes to do their business. There were no partitions, and Romans wiped with sponges on sticks that were dipped in water and shared by all users.
I’m not endorsing that arrangement, but at least the ancient Romans operated large numbers of public latrines, which is more than can be said of the United States today.
The humorist Art Buchwald once recounted an increasingly desperate search for a toilet in Manhattan. He was turned down at an office building, a bookstore and a hotel, so he finally rushed into a bar and asked for a drink.
“What kind of drink?” the bartender replied.
“Who cares?” Buchwald answered. “Where’s the men’s room?”
America should be better than that. Japan manages what may be the world’s most civilized public toilets — ubiquitous, clean and reliably equipped with paper — and almost every industrialized country is more bladder-friendly than America. Even poorer countries like China and India manage networks of public latrines. But the United States is simply not made for people who pee.” . . .
“. . . The White House can work with cities to experiment with various approaches to expand restroom access. We can work with corporate sponsors. We can use advertising to help underwrite the expense. We can give tax breaks to businesses that make restrooms open to all. There are models all over the world, such as India turning old buses into clean public toilets.
If the Romans could figure this out two millenniums ago, surely we can, even if we’ll want to skip those shared sponges.
So come on, President Biden! Let’s see an infrastructure plan that addresses not only bridges and electrical grids, but also bladders and bowels.” -30-
“The Trump years were a time of high passion, of moral certainty, of drawing lines in the sand, of despair at the ethical and intellectual vacuity of political foes. But now it’s time to recalibrate.
From my liberal point of view, Democrats were largely vindicated. From the Muslim ban to the separation of families at the border, from the mishandling of the pandemic to the Capitol insurrection, Democrats’ warnings aged well. Yet one of the perils in life is being proven right.
The risk is excessive admiration for one’s own brilliance, preening at one’s own righteousness, and inordinate scorn for the jerks on the other side. It was the Republicans’ hubris after the 1991 gulf war — won in 100 hours — that led the G.O.P. to march obliviously into the catastrophic Iraq war a dozen years later.
Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton, has a smart new book out advising us to “Think Again,” in the words of his title. He explores in part what goes wrong when smart people are too righteous, and he offers a paean to intellectual humility.” . . .
David Lindsay Jr.
Hamden, CT | NYT Comment:
This is a lovely and thoughful piece, thank you Nicholas Kristof. It goes hand in hand with the piece today by Ezra Klien, on how successful Joe Biden has been by keeping a low profile, and making the work about helping Americans in need, rather than about himself or his tribe. We will have to remain humble and open, while organizing to defeat our fearful and dangerous and unscrupulous fellow Americans at the polls, so we don’t have to face a second civil war.
“He didn’t want to work,” Stephanie told me. She is angry at Mike for abandoning his kids and failing to pay $68,000 in child support, but then the anger passes and she wistfully refers to him as “the love of my life.”
Perhaps Mike was lazy, but there’s more to the story. Everyone agrees that Mike had mental illnesses that were never treated, and in any case, this wasn’t one person’s stumble but a crisis for an entire generation of low-education workers. Mike and his cohort weren’t dumber or lazier than their parents or grandparents, but their outcomes worsened.
So, sure, we can have a conversation about personal responsibility. But let’s also talk about our collective responsibility: If the federal minimum wage of 1968 had kept pace with inflation and productivity, it would now be more than $22 an hour, rather than $7.25. We also underinvested in our human capital, so high school graduation rates stagnated beginning in the 1970s along with blue-collar incomes, even as substance abuse soared and family structure for low-education workers collapsed.
One consequence is that an American dies a “death of despair” — from drugs, alcohol or suicide — every two and a half minutes. Long after the coronavirus has retreated, we will still be grappling with a pandemic of despair.
The United States has a mental health crisis that is largely untreated and arises in part from high levels of inequality. Researchers find that poverty causes mental illness, and mental illness in turn exacerbates poverty. It’s a vicious cycle, and 20 million Americans, mostly poorly educated, describe every one of the last 30 days as “bad mental health days,” according to David G. Blanchflower, a Dartmouth economist.
I also know this: Taxpayers spent large sums jailing Mike, whose arrest record runs 14 pages (mostly for drug offenses). That money would have been better spent at the front end, with early childhood programs and mentoring to support Mike and help him finish high school and get a job.
Yet politicians have mostly been AWOL. In the 2020 Democratic primaries, the presidential candidates had healthy discussions about increasing college access but largely ignored the reality that one in seven American children don’t even graduate from high school. The term “working class” is rarely mentioned by politicians, who prefer to appeal to people a notch higher, in the middle class. And many government programs that are nominally for the benefit of the middle class — such as the mortgage interest deduction, 529 college savings plans, state and local tax deductions and “middle-class tax cuts” — actually primarily benefit the rich.
We fret about competitive challenges from China, but the best way to meet them is to elevate our capabilities at home. China built new universities at the rate of one a week, while the number of colleges in the United States is now shrinking — and as many Americans have criminal records as have college degrees. “Holding hands, Americans with arrest records could circle the earth three times,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
America cannot succeed when so many Americans are failing.
The author with Mike Stepp.Credit…Nicholas Kristof/The New York Times
Joe Biden has a fighting chance to make progress on these issues. Partly that’s because he’s impossible to mock as a wild-eyed socialist, partly because he and his team understand that we have a better chance of making progress if we frame the issue less as one of “inequality” — a liberal word — and more as one of “opportunity” and “dignity.” “
Bravo, and thank you Nicholas Kristof. Here are two of many fabulous comments”
Thank you, Mr. Kristof, for telling the story of your old pal, Mike. Rest in peace, Mike. You earned that. And as sad as Mike’s story is, at the end of the day, he perhaps had a more successful life than most of us will by offering up lessons in humility, gratitude and kindness despite his station in life. As an alcoholic and addict approaching 35 years of continuous sobriety, I am Mike’s brother in addiction. My fate was very different than his. I too was once homeless and ate at the free soup kitchen at St. Vincent de Paul. Once sober, my life continued with perilous and almost insurmountable challenges, including crushing poverty that meant living in a skid row tenement while sober, full of alcoholics and drug addicts, because that is all I could afford and riding a bicycle everywhere for transportation for years. Giving up, to live a life like Mike’s, crossed my mind so many times I could not count them. By the grace of God and luck and a ridiculously stubborn perserverance and the help and encouragement of many in A.A., my life got better and then very much better. Eventually I became the CEO of a successful midsize company and have been happily married for a couple of decades now. Without the helping hand of a publicly funded 30 day treatment program for the indigent, I am absolutely certain I would have perished decades ago. On that subject I know, Mr. Kristof, that you are correct. Alcohol and drug treatment saves lives – it did mine.
I’m about the same age as Mr. Kristof, worked in the Cascades, and still do. It’s important to note that by the 1970s, 90% of the old growth was gone, and so were 90% of the jobs in logging; environmentalists didn’t cause that. Mill jobs left because of whole-log exports; environmentalists didn’t cause that. And capital in the timber industry moved to the southeast, where trees grow faster and unions don’t exists; environmentalists didn’t cause that. The spotted owl as a scapegoat doesn’t really play.