The Pope at Yad Vashem

I grew up in a wonderful, predominantly Jewish suburb outside Rochester, New York. The Holocaust never directly touched my family. It still cast long shadows over many lives I knew. Inscribed in a notebook at our local Jewish Community Center were names of relatives lost. On my way to shoot pool or play basketball, I could find notations for the grandparents, aunts, and uncles of my classmates and friends. Somehow the survivors managed to reconstruct their lives, enduring quietly with staggering memories of trauma and loss.

I pondered some of those experiences reading accounts of Pope Francis’s visit to Yad Vashem during his recent visit to the Middle East. I am glad that the Pope is trying to mediate in the tragic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. So much about his efforts underscores why he is a remarkable figure on the world stage. Noting Palestinian suffering under an cruel occupation, while also noting the suffering of Israeli victims of terrorism, Francis demonstrated his remarkable ability to honor the humanity of both sides in an intractable conflict.

Photo from

Photo from

And yet, reading Gershom Gorenberg’s fantastic account of the Pope’s visit, something doesn’t sit right. At Yad Vashem, Pope Francis kissed the hands of elderly survivors. He was gracious. He said many things one might expect a religious leader to say in that place on that occasion.  His comments would have been pitch-perfect, had he been visiting (say) Gandhi’s tomb far to the east.  But that wasn’t where he was….

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Curbside consult with David Cutler

My latest Curbside Consult at was a conversation with Harvard economist David Cutler regarding his book, the Quality Cure.

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Trying to make David Cutler look impressive for our interview….

Our wide-ranging conversation covered his pride in health reform, his thoughts on how our health care system is changing, Princeton University’s high-ranking law school, and his disappointment in implementation screw-ups typified by the flawed rollout of

Cutler was the author of a prescient and scathing 2010 analysis warning of the need for stronger management of information technology (and other matters) in the implementation of health reform. During the darkest days of website malfunction, theWashington Post‘s Ezra Klein labeled Cutler’s analysis “the memo that could have saved Obamacare.”

More here.

I am scared: A lesson from Anne’s bedside

Best around 6:45 minutes in…..

Finally, I put away my list of questions, and pulled out a spiral pad that I kept in my pocket for personal reflections. I positioned it carefully under her hand, with a pen. “Can you tell me how you are feeling,” I asked. She took the pen and wrote three simple words that have stayed with me ever since: “I am scared.”

Remembering a great moment in the life of Ladies Home Journal

After 130 years, Ladies’ Home Journal will cease monthly print publication. The magazine still has a circulation of 3.2 million. Yet its aging reader base and the generally disastrous magazine financial ecosystem has undermined this flagship publication, a leader among the “seven sisters” that once dominated this segment of the business.

Every type of journalism has a craft to it, offering opportunities for excellence and contribution the outsider easily overlooks. That is certainly true of Ladies’ Home Journal and other women’s magazines.

Cover, Ladies Home Journal, May 1, 1950

It’s tempting to overlook some terrific journalism millions of readers found in these pages. When the moment is right, women’s magazines could ratify—and thus propel—larger social changes, too.

One such moment occurred on May 1, 1950, when Ladies Home Journal printed a taboo-breaking article by Pearl Buck called “The child who never grew.” Buck recounted her gradual discovery of her daughter Caroline’s intellectual disability, and describes her painful decision to institutionalize Caroline at the age of nine within the Training School at Vineland, New Jersey.

More here, from me, at the Washington Post Wonkblog section.

“The late-Soviet Scenario”

Pope Francis made news with a sort-of-private phone call to an Argentine woman, whom he permitted to take communion despite her marriage to a divorced man.

Once again, the pope has thus committed another unauthorized act of commonsense humanity. Once again, modern-day Pharisees are disturbed by the pope’s self-authorized departure from ossified dogma. Once again, Ross Douthat is on the case, with his blend of implausibly stodgy conservatism and genuinely admirable analytic insight:  Continue Reading…

Some actual bipartisan legislation to help people living with disabilities

My latest at Wonkblog.


Veronica Perrone Pollack and Vincent Perrone, blowing out the birthday candles.

The Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act would allow people with disabilities and their families to establish 529-style accounts for education, transportation, and other expenses. Identical versions are co-sponsored by seventy senators and by 359 members of the House. It’s amazing to see Senators Bernie Sanders, Jay Rockefeller, Mitch McConnell, and James Imhofe co-sponsoring the same bill.

In an era so disfigured by mean-spirited and polarized gridlock politics, this is no little thing. More here.

If this White House event didn’t exist, Thomas Piketty would have to invent it

This White House event, chronicled in the New York Times, seems both politically astute and more than a little sickening.

From the fashion section, naturally

Blame the game, not the players….

Maybe my favorite part of the story comes from the reporter:

(Disclosure: Although the event was closed to the media, I was invited by the founders of Nexus, Jonah Wittkamper and Rachel Cohen Gerrol, to report on the conference as a member of the family that started the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical company.)

Seeing our race and class differences, seeing past these differences, too

The internets are filled with recent reminders of the many ways we fail to recognize our own parochial and privileged perspectives in both intellectual life and in our institutional roles.  The #CancelColbert dustup and the extended debate between Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates provide two examples of the current state of play.

As these debates remind us, we are all to some extent rendered parochial by our race and our class positions, and by other things, too. Age and family responsibilities provide obvious sources of difference. Disability status does, as well. I hate blunderbuss labels such as “black activist” or “white liberal,” which flatten out so much human granularity.

Not long ago, I took my family on a tour of the Woodlawn neighborhood immediately south of UC. Our young and fit tour guide got so excited lambasting the university for its historic insensitivity towards the community he neglected to notice that he was walking far too fast for Vincent to keep up. Vinnie and I ended up a few hundred yards behind, accompanied by a nervous publicity flack from the local alderman’s office. I think the guy was worried that we would be accosted or something.

These same distinctive experiences create unexpected connections, too. I spoke last Saturday at my school to admitted students and their parents. A Pakistani-American young woman in a head-scarf sat across from me at our big lunch table. Her father accompanied her. Maybe sixty years old, he sat rather awkwardly looking somewhat out of place in his traditional pakul hat.

I mentioned at some point how many students have caregiving experience with a relative or a sibling. The man suddenly lit up. He pointed to his daughter and said: “That’s her little brother.” This person, whom I had regarded as a forbidding stranger, turned out to be quite smart and funny, and someone with whom I share more than a few powerful personal experiences.

We had a wonderful conversation about the realities of caring at home for a young adult with cerebral palsy and cognitive disabilities in our area. It was the kind of intimate conversation I couldn’t have conducted with many of my young friends in journalism or academia, with whom I otherwise share so many cultural and professional affinities.

Group identities matter—none mattering more than those connected with our national history of white supremacy. We must view these differences without claiming that we have transcended them. We need to see past these differences, too, to recognize human particularity across the obvious divides. These are so much more interesting and more profound.

“Almost awesome in its evilness.” Jon Gruber on states’ rejection of Medicaid expansion

Over at, I interviewed MIT economist Jon Gruber on the state of ACA.  We discussed a huge range of things, ranging from the case for the “Cadillac tax” to lessons of the botched rollout. It was a pretty upbeat conversation. But Jon was characteristically blunt regarding states that have declined ACA’s Medicaid expansion:

Jon: I think, Harold, the single thing we probably need to keep the most focus on is the tragedy of the lack of Medicaid expansions. I know you’ve written about this. You know about this, but I think we cannot talk enough about the absolute tragedy that’s taken place. Really, a life-costing tragedy has taken place in America as a result of that Supreme Court decision. You know, half the states in America are denying their poorest citizens health insurance paid for by the federal government.

So to my mind, I’m offended on two levels here. I’m offended because I believe we can help poor people get health insurance, but I’m almost more offended there’s a principle of political economy that basically, if you’d told me, when the Supreme Court decision came down, I said, “It’s not a big deal. What state would turn down free money from the federal government to cover their poorest citizens?” The fact that half the states are is such a massive rejection of any sensible model of political economy, it’s sort of offensive to me as an academic. And I think it’s nothing short of political malpractice that we are seeing in these states and we’ve got to emphasize that.

Harold: One of the things that’s really striking to me is there’s a politics of impunity towards poor people, particularly non-white poor people that is almost a feature rather than a bug in the internal politics in some of these states, not to cover people under Medicaid, even if it’s financially very advantageous to do so. I think there’s a really important principle to defeat this politically, not just because Medicaid is important for people, but because it’s such a toxic political perspective that has to be … It has to be shown that that approach to politics doesn’t work because otherwise, we will really be stuck with some very unjust policies that will be pursued with complete impunity in some of these places.

Jon: That’s a great way to put it. There are larger principles at stake here. When these states are turning – not just turning down covering the poor people – but turning down the federal stimulus that would come with that.


They are not just not interested in covering poor people, they are willing to sacrifice billions of dollars of injections into their economy in order to punish poor people. It really is just almost awesome in its evilness.

More here.

Poverty, inequality, and Public Health

IMG_3018Below are my comments on a panel held over the weekend in India to celebrate the opening of the University of Chicago’s new Delhi Center. Regular readers will recognize much of what’s here. I hope it is of interest.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak on this panel for such a special occasion.

I will use my time to discuss some linkages between poverty, inequality, and health. I do so with trepidation, since I can see some of my betters—James Heckman, Jean Dreze, and Martha Nusbaum to name a few—are here today in this audience.

It’s humbling for any American to speak on these topics when so many great Indian political economists have made fundamental contributions. Many of these men and women were motivated by their first-hand observation of famine, deep poverty, gender and caste inequality. These matters are fundamental in the efforts of the world’s largest democracy to address the post-colonial development challenges of one billion people.

These matters have wider application, as well. Scholars, policymakers, and citizens want to know whether, when, and why various forms of inequality harm the most vulnerable citizens. The truth is, inequality sometimes is harmful, sometimes not. The mechanisms are complicated, and often indirect. We can’t always tease them out, which doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.

My own work concerns domestic US poverty and public health policy. Even so, Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation was probably the most important book of my graduate career. His combination of rigorous economics with a passionate commitment to equality and human flourishing was revelatory to me.

I assign my introductory microeconomic students a stylized problem modeled on Sen’s analysis of the Bengal famine. It’s a parable, of course. Like most parables, it’s been cleaned up a bit, crystalized to its essentials before inclusion in the sacred canon of economics problem sets. The basic mechanics remain useful to elucidate one possible pathway through which inequality can undermine public health…. Continue Reading…