Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

Bobo is fiddling with “The Magic Lever,” and he gurgles that any banker, Democratic Keynesian or staunch Republican who thinks he’s found the tool to master today’s economy might instead consider a range of competing options.  Mr. Cohen has lost his mind, and writes “In Defense of Murdoch.”  He gives us a warning:  This column is a defense of Rupert Murdoch. Mr. Cohen feels Murdoch has been good for newspapers over the past several decades, keeping them alive and vigorous and noisy and relevant.  Mr. Nocera, in “Chernobyl’s Lingering Scars,” says twenty-five years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, Poles living hundreds of miles away are still experiencing thyroid problems.  Here’s Bobo:

The world economy is a complex, unknowable organism. Most of us try to diversify our investments and balance risk and security to protect against the unexpected.

But a few years ago a group of bankers thought they had the magic tool to help them master financial trends and predict the future. Sophisticated risk assessment models would enable them to rewrite the rules and make more money.

Their arrogance was soon exposed. Along came the financial crisis.

In the middle of the crisis another group emerged, believing it had the magic lever to alter the economy’s trajectory. Democrats argued that through gigantic deficit spending, they could bring unemployment rates down sharply and produce a “summer of recovery.”

The spending they began must have done some good to cushion the recession, but either through a failure of theory or a failure of implementation, their lever was not as powerful as they promised. Federal spending rose from 19.38 to 24.91 percent of gross domestic product, but the economy refused to rebound and the world is awash in oceans of debt.

Now a third group has emerged, also claiming that it has the magic lever to control the economy. Staunch Republicans argue that taxes are central to determining economic growth. Tax cuts, they argue, have huge positive benefits and tax increases have disastrous negative effects.

In the middle of the current budget negotiations, these Republicans argue that the tax increases the Democrats are proposing — ending some deductions for the affluent, hitting oil and gas companies — would be terrible for the economy. These unacceptable increases would be worse than the threat of national default, worse than a decade of gigantic deficits.

Not many Americans have this expansive view on the power of tax policy. According to the Gallup Organization, only 20 percent of Americans believe the budget deal should consist of spending cuts only. Even among Republicans, a plurality believes there should be a mixture of tax increases and spending cuts.

Yet the G.O.P. is now oriented around this 20 percent. It is willing to alienate 80 percent of voters and commit political suicide because of its faith in the power of tax policy.

These three groups — bankers, Democratic Keynesians and staunch Republicans — have one thing in common: They all believe they have identified the magic lever. They believe they can control their economic fate.

Some of us do not believe there is a magic lever. Deficit spending stimulates growth, but not by that much. Tax increases are bad, but they are not disastrous. We believe that there are a thousand factors that go into economic growth, and no single one is dispositive.

We look at the tax cuts of 2001 and do not see tremendous gains. We look at the tax increase of 1982 and do not see a ruinous disaster. We look at high deficit eras and low deficit eras and do not see an easy correlation between deficit spending and growth. On the contrary, if you look around the world there’s a slight negative correlation between government size and prosperity.

We believe that if you rest everything on a single lever (Increase deficits! Cut taxes!), you give people a permission slip to be self-indulgent. They will spend or cut to their hearts’ content and soon you’ll be facing national bankruptcy. We believe that even if you are theoretically right, your policies will be distorted by human frailties and special interests.

The people in my group (you might call us conservatives) are more likely to embrace a low and steady approach to fiscal policy. Control debt. Control entitlements. Keep tax levels reasonable and the tax code simple. Work on the economic fundamentals: human capital, productivity, labor market flexibility, open trade, saving and investment. Don’t believe you can use magic levers to manipulate growth month to month.

People in my camp form a silent majority. But we have been astonishingly passive during these budget negotiations. The tax cut brigades and the Medicare/Spending brigades are well organized. The people who believe in balance and the fundamentals sit piously on the sidelines.

The tragedy is that in Barack Obama and John Boehner we have leaders who would like to do something big. They seem to know that you need bipartisan cover if you want to really cut spending. They seem to know circumstances for deficit reduction will only get worse in the years ahead.

But they are bracketed on all sides — by the tax cut and Medicare brigades, by the wonks hatching budget gimmicks that erode trust, by political hacks who don’t want to lose their precious campaign issues: tax cuts forever, Medicare spending without limit.

Mostly, they are buffeted by the proud, by those who think they have a magic lever to control human destiny and who will not compromise it away. This is the oldest story known to man.

Here’s Mr. Cohen, who really should have his meds checked:

Fair warning: This column is a defense of Rupert Murdoch. If you add everything up, he’s been good for newspapers over the past several decades, keeping them alive and vigorous and noisy and relevant. Without him, the British newspaper industry might have disappeared entirely.

This defense is prompted in part by seeing everyone piling in on the British hacking scandal, as if such abuses were confined to News International (we shall see) and as if significant swathes of the British establishment had not been complicit. It is also prompted by having spent time with Murdoch 21 years ago when writing a profile for The New York Times Magazine and coming away impressed.

Before I get to why, a few caveats. First, the hacking is of course indefensible as well as illegal. Second, Fox News, the U.S. TV network started by Murdoch, has with its shrill right-wing demagoguery masquerading as news made a significant contribution to the polarization of American politics, the erosion of reasoned debate, the debunking of reason itself, and the ensuing Washington paralysis. Third, I disagree with Murdoch’s views on a range of issues — from climate change to the Middle East — where his influence has been unhelpful.

So why do I still admire the guy? The first reason is his evident loathing for elites, for cozy establishments, for cartels, for what he’s called “strangulated English accents” — in fact for anything standing in the way of gutsy endeavor and churn. His love of no-holds-barred journalism is one reason Britain’s press is one of the most aggressive anywhere. That’s good for free societies.

Murdoch once told me: “When I came to Britain in 1968, I found it was damn hard to get a day’s work out of the people at the top of the social scale. As an Australian, I only had to work 8 or 10 hours a day, 48 weeks of the year, and everything came to you.”

So it was easy enough, from 1969 onward, to rake in the media heirlooms. Along the way he’s often shown fierce loyalty to his people — as now with Rebekah Brooks, the embattled head of News International — and piled money into important newspapers like The Times that would otherwise have vanished.

The second thing I admire is the visionary, risk-taking determination that has placed him ahead of the game as the media business has been transformed through globalization and digitization. It’s been the ability to see around corners that has ushered him from two modest papers inherited from his father in Adelaide to the head of a company with about $33 billion in annual revenues.

Yes, there have been mistakes — MySpace, the social media site just sold for a fraction of its purchase price is one. But I’d take Murdoch’s batting average. He’s gambled big on satellite TV, on global media opportunities in sports, and on the conflation of television, publishing, entertainment, newspapers and the Internet. British Sky Broadcasting and Fox alone represent big businesses created from nothing against significant odds.

A favorite Murdoch saying is: “We don’t deal in market share. We create the market.”

Of course, his success makes plenty of people envious, one reason the Citizen Kane ogre image has attached to him. (He would have endorsed Kane who, when asked in the movie how he found business conditions in Europe, responded: “With great difficulty!”) His success has caused redoubled envy in Britain because there he is ever the outsider from Down Under. (America doesn’t really do outsiders.)

The Times, which I’ve found a good read since moving to London last summer, has impressed me with its continued investment in foreign coverage, its bold move to put up a pay wall for the online edition (yes, people should pay for the work of journalists), and with the way the paper plays it pretty straight under editor James Harding. The Telegraph to the right and Guardian to the left play it less straight.

British Sky Broadcasting is emphatically not Fox. It’s a varied channel with some serious news shows. Overall, the British media scene without Murdoch would be pretty impoverished. His breaking of the unions at Wapping in 1986 was decisive for the vitality of newspapering. He took The Times tabloid when everyone said he was crazy. He was right. He loves a scoop, loves a scrap, and both the Wall Street Journal and The Times show serious journalists can thrive under him.

But Murdoch’s in trouble now. An important deal for all of British Sky Broadcasting hangs on his being able to convince British authorities News Corp management is in fact reputable. He’ll probably have to sacrifice Brooks for that. Politicians who fawned now fulminate. Prime Minister David Cameron is embarrassed. Both Murdoch and his savvy son James Murdoch (of more centrist views than his father) are scrambling.

I’d bet on them to prevail. When I asked Murdoch the secret of TV, he told me “Bury your mistakes.” The guy’s a force of nature and his restless innovations have, on balance and with caveats, been good for the media and a more open world.

The guy’s a freaking psychopath, Roger.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Oddly enough, the 25th anniversary of the worst nuclear accident in history has been marked by journalism about animals. Two magazines, Wired and Harper’s, have published lengthy articles about the rebirth of animal life in the so-called exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine.

All well and good, but given the recent Japanese nuclear accident, wouldn’t you rather know what has happened to the, er, people who were affected by Chernobyl?

I know such a person. Her name is Maria Gawronska. Thirty years old, smart and attractive, Maria is a native of Poland who moved to New York in 2004. I met her through my fiancée maybe four years ago. She always wore a turtleneck, even on the hottest of days.

Maria’s hometown, Olsztyn, in northern Poland, is more than 400 miles from Chernobyl. She was 5 years old in April 1986 when the reactor melted down, spewing immense amounts of radioactivity upwind, where it spread across Ukraine, Belarus and, yes, northern Poland.

“At first,” Maria said, “they said it was an explosion but it wasn’t dangerous.” But within a few days, the Soviet Union grudgingly acknowledged the accident. Maria recalls that everyone was given iodine tablets, and told to remain indoors. She stayed in the house for the next two weeks.

She also remembers hearing people say that it would be years before Poles knew the health consequences of the accident. Among other things, radiation can wreak havoc on the thyroid gland; that is why people take iodine tablets, to minimize the amount of radioactive iodine that their thyroids absorb.

Sure enough, over the course of the last quarter-century, there has been an explosion of thyroid problems in Olsztyn. Maria told me that entire hospital wings are now devoted to thyroid disease. This is no exaggeration. Dr. Artur Zalewski, an Olsztyn thyroid surgeon, confirmed that his practice had seen a huge increase in thyroid operations since the early 1990s. Some people have cancerous thyroids, but many more have enlarged thyroids, or thyroids that have stopped functioning properly.

Dr. Zalewski also cautioned me, though, that there was no scientific proof connecting thyroid disease to Chernobyl. Partly because of Soviet intransigence, and partly because of what The Lancet would describe as “considerable logistical challenges,” epidemiological studies were never begun that might have helped link the disaster to Poland’s thyroid problems.

The studies that have been done have focused on cancer. According to The Lancet, it is possible that increases in childhood leukemia and breast cancer in Belarus and Ukraine can be attributed to Chernobyl. But because of “flawed study design,” these studies are not definitive.

When I e-mailed Maria’s mother, Barbara Gawronska-Kozak, however, she was adamant: “I am convinced that Chernobyl increased thyroid problems.” Barbara, a scientist herself (though not an epidemiologist), told me that this was what the “average citizen of Poland” believed. She herself required a thyroid operation a decade after the accident. Her mother had two thyroid operations. Her best friend had a thyroid operation. An old high school friend recently had a goiter removed. Maria told me that her father was the only family member who had not had a thyroid problem.

Around five years ago, it was Maria’s turn. Gradually, her thyroid become so enlarged that it impinged on her trachea, making it hard to breathe in certain positions. The unsightly growth, of course, was why she always wore a turtleneck. A specialist in New York told her that he had never seen anything quite like it, and that the operation to correct it was high risk and could possibly damage her vocal cords. So Maria decided to return to Poland and have the operation in her hometown. She did so earlier this year.

Just as in Chernobyl’s case, it will be years before we know how the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station will affect the health of those who lived nearby. Although much less radiation escaped, it did leak into the water, and traces have been found in the food supply. It makes one wonder how to deal with nuclear power, which offers the tantalizing prospect of clean energy — along with the ever-present risk of disaster should something go wrong. These are not simple questions — as we are reminded whenever there is an accident like Fukushima Daiichi. Or Chernobyl.

For Maria, at least, the story ends happily. Dr. Zalewski, who operated on her, didn’t flinch when he saw the size of her thyroid. The operation was a success. Her vocal cords are just fine. She has more energy than she has had in years.

Maria told me that while she was in Olsztyn, she sought out old friends. As soon as they heard why she had returned, she said, “They all laughed and pointed to their own scars.”

When I saw her not long after she returned to New York, I couldn’t help noticing her own small scar. She wasn’t wearing a turtleneck.

 

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