Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

In “Respect the Future” Bobo gurgles that the case of Charles Darwin Snelling raises hard questions about love and the nature of human agency amid dependency and finitude.  Mr. Cohen is “In Search of Sustainable Swagger,” and he says the world needs to find a balance between the extremes of developing-world optimism and developed-world moroseness.  Mr. Nocera explains “Why People Hate the Banks.”  He says all you have to say is “credit card collection practices,” and you find out quickly why Americans are frustrated.  Mr. Bruni, in “And Now, the Veepstakes,” says Mitt Romney’s progress toward the nomination has set off a predictably frenzied, inevitably flawed guessing game.  Here’s Bobo:

Last fall I asked readers over 70 to send me “Life Reports” — essays evaluating their own lives. Charles Darwin Snelling responded with a remarkable 5,000-word reflection.

Snelling was a successful entrepreneur who spent decades serving his community. He was redeemed, he reported, six years ago when his beloved wife, Adrienne, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. “She took care of me in every possible way she could for 55 years. The last six years have been my turn,” Snelling wrote.

“We continue to make a life together, living together in the full sense of the word; going about our life, hand in hand, with everyone lending a hand, as though nothing was wrong at all,” he continued.

He believed that caring for his wife made him a richer, fuller human being: “It’s not noble, it’s not sacrificial and it’s not painful. It’s just right in the scheme of things. … Sixty-one years ago, a partner to our marriage who knew how to nurture, nurtured a partner who needed nurturing. Now, 61 years later, a partner who is learning how to nurture is nurturing a partner who needs nurturing.”

On March 29, less than four months after we published his essay online, Snelling killed his wife and then himself.

The comments responding to Matt Flegenheimer’s news article on this event make for fascinating reading. The majority support or sympathize with Snelling’s double-killing.

Many of the correspondents have cared for a loved one with Alzheimer’s. “It is like a slow horror show,” a woman from Texas wrote. These writers felt nothing but sympathy for the pain and despair Snelling must have endured. Several argued that people in these circumstances should be able to end their spouse’s life legally, so they don’t then feel compelled to end their own.

Others were impressed by the Romeo-and-Juliet-style ending that Snelling created. “This was as fine an ending as the Snellings’ love story deserved,” a man from Virginia wrote. “Their bodies gave out — their hearts never did.”

This sentiment was echoed by the Snelling family, which released a statement that began, “This is a total shock to everyone in the family, but we know he acted out of deep devotion and profound love.”

Others, more likely women than men, were upset by Snelling’s decision. A woman from Canada who has spent 25 years nursing Alzheimer’s patients, argued that none of us have the right to decide that another person’s life is worthless. Some argued that the nurturing process at the end of life, like the nurturing process at the beginning, requires patience and that those who are desperate should seek help, not a firearm.

Everyone approaches this case with sadness and trepidation. But I can come to only one conclusion: Either Snelling was so overcome that he lost control of his faculties, or he made a lamentable mistake. I won’t rehearse the religious arguments against murder and suicide, many of which are based on the supposition that a life is a gift from God. Our job is not to determine who is worthy of life, but how to make the most of the life we have been given.

I would just refer you to the essay Snelling himself wrote. Only a few months ago, Snelling wrote that his life as his wife’s caretaker was rich and humanizing. By last week, he apparently no longer believed that.

But who is to say how Snelling would have felt four months from now? The fact is, we are all terrible at imagining how we will feel in the future. We exaggerate how much the future will be like the present. We underestimate the power of temperament to gradually pull us up from the lowest lows. And if our capacities for imagining the future are bad in normal times, they are horrible in moments of stress and suffering.

Given these weaknesses, it seems wrong to make a decision that will foreclose future thinking. It seems wrong to imagine that you have mastery over everything you will feel and believe. It’s better to respect the future, to remain humbly open to your own unfolding.

Furthermore, I bought the arguments that Snelling made in that essay: that his wife’s illness had become a call for him to exercise virtue and to serve as an example for others; that people are joined by suffering, and that the life of a community is enriched by the hard tasks placed before it; that dependency is the normal state of affairs.

If you look at life through the calculus of autonomy, then maybe Snelling made the right call. Maybe his moments of pain from here on out would have outnumbered his moments of pleasure. But if you look at a life as one element within a mysterious flow, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Charles and Adrienne Snelling still had a few ripples to create.

Bite me, Bobo, and get back to me when you’ve spent 5 years taking care of someone.  Here’s Mr. Cohen, who’s in Rio de Janeiro:

I came to Brazil in the 1980s at a time of funny money. Inflation peaked at 6,821 percent in April 1990. Today it’s a place of funny prices. An ordinary Chilean red may go for $100 and brand-name sneakers for $350. Paris and New York seem like a steal.

The funny money was given many names — cruzeiro, cruzado, cruzado novo, cruzeiro real — in search of an elusive credibility. But Brazil had only one name: instability. Then came the introduction of the real in 1994, solid democratic institutions, monetary reform, privatizations, booming commodities, trade with China, massive oil discoveries — and pizza margarita at $45.

This boom-era Brazilian pizza makes me glum. A certain swagger is needed to bake and flog flat, round bread for that price — the very swagger gone from the West. We are living the great global inversion. The price tag screams: You’re history, baby!

It can certainly seem that way. Citibank officers once viewed Brazil as a basket case: there’s a story of tables turned. Brazilian capitalism has fared better than U.S. capitalism of late and a lot better than U.S. banks. Inequality, still marked, has declined here in recent years. Of all the fast-growing Brazilian commodities, confidence is the most conspicuous.

Let’s deconstruct this Gucci of pizzas. After all, it sells. Behind the fabulously expensive dough, tomato and mozzarella lurks an overvalued Brazilian currency. Behind that stand interest rates high enough and a nation stable enough to attract global corporations and the world’s super-rich to put their money here. Behind that investment choice lie American and European crises that have cheapened major currencies, in part through the Central Bank cash infusions known as quantitative easing.

In short, this is a bellwether pizza. There is more belief in Brazil than in the Europe of the compromised euro or the United States of a compromised financial industry. Bullish Brazil, with its offshore oil and onshore Olympics coming, offers a mirror image of a brittle West. Looking for the promise of the Americas? Come here.

The global agenda in 2012 has no more important focus than finding a balance between the extremes of developing-world optimism and developed-world moroseness. The post-9/11 wars are over or ending. They were not entirely lost but nor were they won.

The recent murderous rampage of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales — a U.S. infantryman in southern Afghanistan on his fourth deployment in those wars, plagued by financial problems, in danger of losing his home — summed up the frustrations of those conflicts. Bales lost it. Many have lost everything. After the wars and the trillions of dollars they have consumed comes the hard slog of overcoming debt and deficits and high unemployment and anemic growth and shaken self-esteem.

This digging-out from a time of injury cannot be anything other than a joint effort. Developing economies like China and Brazil will have to see their surpluses come down if the debilitating deficits of the West are to be addressed.

That overvalued real, which punishes manufacturers trying to export, is no better for Brazil in the long term than a euro lurching from one salvage operation to the next is for Europe. Brazil, China and all the emergent economies are not served by a U.S. and Europe seized by doubt and plagued by youth unemployment. The world is still looking for a sustainable path out of the meltdown of 2008. Papering-over, at moral cost, has averted the worst. It has not laid credible new economic foundations.

When an outgoing Goldman Sachs executive, Greg Smith, wrote recently in The New York Times that, “It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off,” his disgust with his company mirrored a widespread disquiet over the way big American financial institutions, bailed out by the taxpayer, walked away from the 2008 crisis without any serious reckoning.

The culture that had produced the disaster was not dismantled; in some cases it was not even questioned. Meanwhile the likes of Sergeant Bales went off to war and millions of Americans faced foreclosure. One result has been the “Occupy” movement. Another has been the sense that a skewed capitalism of diminished social mobility is not working.

Over the coming months, in meetings at Camp David (G-8) and Mexico City (G-20) and here in Rio (U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development), world leaders will look again at what can be done. There are no quick fixes. But the focus has to be on stimulating growth: as the agonizing of Greece and Spain suggests, managing deficit problems without growth is not going to work.

But growth alone is not enough. The world is learning that growth has to be more equitable and sustainable. Achieving this will involve fiscal reform, global financial regulation and better use of resources. A U.S. tax code that leaves the very wealthy like Mitt Romney paying a 13.9 percent tax rate on income of $21.6 million in 2010 has fueled the frustration of the middle class, who pay much more.

Fairness and equality of opportunity are essential American values; they have been undermined. The result is a national mood that will make Barack Obama’s fight for re-election in November arduous, despite the clowning often on display in the Republican primaries.

Obama needs to change Americans’ perception of the future. He is Mr. Competence; he has to become Mr. Confidence. That requires growth. Brazil, the only nation of similar size and diversity in the hemisphere, can be an important partner in this if petulant old rivalries can be laid to rest.

Perhaps not enough attention has been paid to Latin America and its transformation over the past quarter-century. We are, after all, at the outset of another epochal regional change known as the Arab Spring. There are some interesting parallels. They are worth noting because victory in Egypt — the forging over the next generation of a more open, accountable society enjoying strong economic growth like Brazil’s — is now more important to the interests of the West than the precise outcome in Afghanistan. Arab democracy can undercut extremism in exactly the same way as Latin American democracy has.

The Argentine military junta ceded power in 1983. The Brazilian military government fell in 1985. The Chilean military regime lost a referendum in 1988 that led to its exit. All these brutal regimes had been supported by the United States. They were supposedly the sole bulwarks against revolutionary communism — in much the same way as dictators from Tunisia to Egypt were backed by the West as the only supposed defense against radical Islamism.

Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, was one such leftist. She was tortured by the military and imprisoned from 1970 to 1973. Now, a little over a year into her presidency, she governs Brazil with a pragmatism that has combined policies that reassure business leaders with programs that have brought millions of Brazilians into the middle class. I like to think that Rousseff, ex-guerrilla, is an example of what a Muslim Brotherhood ex-radical could be 20 years from now.

Political Islam is being redefined to take account of modernity and the demands of Muslims for accountability. Movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Ennahda in Tunisia, adapting to the responsibilities of power, stand at the heart of this shift. Change will be uneven, sometimes violent, but it will lead in the direction of greater openness.

Forms of government, whether secular or religious, that reduce nations to personal fiefdoms, as in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, are doomed. Assad may hang on for a while, but there is no way back for him, any more than there was a way back for the military in Latin America once a democratic culture had taken hold. Ending his tyranny after the killing of more than 7,000 Syrians must be high on the global agenda.

So must averting war with Iran. I don’t believe Israel will attack Iran as long as Obama is making clear his firm opposition. The cost-benefit analysis cannot justify it; Israelis are not crazy.

The West knows the cost of wars at this point — not just in lives and treasure, but also in the skewing of the national debate in ways that put off essential decisions on education, energy and infrastructure. The best Western intelligence is that Iran has not yet turned its alarming decades-long nuclear tinkering into nuclear bomb fabrication, so there is time. Talks are beginning again between major powers and Iran. They will fail unless they are creative.

Iran wants recognition of its right to enrichment. That can only be granted if the enrichment is verifiably to the low level (around 5 percent) needed for electricity generation, rather than anything higher. So, back to Brazil: revive something like the idea pushed by Brazil and Turkey (but originally conceived by the U.S.) of providing the 20 percent enriched uranium needed for Tehran’s medical isotope reactor in exchange for Iran capping permanently at 5 percent and shipping some of its enriched uranium out of the country. At the same time, broaden any dialogue with Iran. The Iranian nuclear issue is insoluble in isolation. It is also insoluble without the emergent powers, like Brazil and Turkey, alone capable of finessing the psychotic distrust between Iran and the United States.

As with the economy so with Iran: an interlinked world must work together in unimagined ways for effective solutions. On July 27, the Olympic Games will open in London. Britain’s capital is in the last stages of its spruce-up for this global celebration. Perhaps the most socially significant development so far has been on a broad avenue leading down from Hyde Park to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

At a cost of almost $40 million, Exhibition Road has been turned into exhibit No. 1 in London’s beautification. A crisscross pattern in black and white granite spreads across the full width of the road on either side of a line of tall, sleek lighting masts that resemble towering spotlights more than traditional lampposts. The effect is dreamy, particularly when you realize there are no sidewalks.

Cars, bicyclists and pedestrians move on a single curb-free surface. Only drainage channels covered in black cast iron and a band of rough paving (for the blind) separate a pedestrian area on one side from vehicle areas. This is a new form of streetscape known in urban design parlance as “shared space.”

The “shared space” idea, pioneered by a Dutch traffic engineer, Hans Monderman, turns traditional thinking about road safety on its head. For much of the 20th century the assumption was that efficient traffic flow depended on a full separation of cars and pedestrians, complemented by traffic signals, signs, barriers and road markings that would keep people safe.

Monderman, who died in 2008, had other ideas. He wanted to raise collective awareness and responsibility by doing away with all those signs and all that separateness, and he believed that safety might in fact be increased by making all travelers intensely aware of one another. Sometimes he would test his schemes — developed in various Dutch towns as well as in some German and Scandinavian towns — by walking backward into traffic in a shared-space area. His theories were shown to work.

Shared space is not a bad metaphor for the world today, a place where the old road signs serve little purpose, separateness is an illusion, and successful navigation depends on intense awareness of every actor, from Ipanema to Tehran by way of South Kensington.

I’m vacating this space for a few months to complete a book, a family memoir that begins in Lithuania, takes in South Africa and Britain, and ends in the United States and Israel. I look forward to resuming the conversation in the summer.

I thought these op-ed things were supposed to be about 800 words…  Here’s Mr. Nocera, finally:

A few months ago, I was standing in a crowded elevator when Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, stepped in. When he saw me, he said in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear: “Why does The New York Times hate the banks?”

It’s not The New York Times, Mr. Dimon. It really isn’t. It’s the country that hates the banks these days. If you want to understand why, I would direct your attention to the bible of your industry, The American Banker. On Monday, it published the third part in its depressing — and infuriating — series on credit card debt collection practices.

You can’t read the series without wondering whether banks have learned anything from the foreclosure crisis, which resulted in a $25 billion settlement with the federal government and the states. That crisis was the direct result of shoddy, often illegal practices on the part of the banks, which caused untold misery for millions of Americans. Part of the goal of the settlement was simply to force the banks to treat homeowners with some decency. You wouldn’t think that that would be too much to ask. But it was never going to happen without the threat of litigation.

As it turns out, this same kind of awful behavior has been taking place inside the credit card collections departments of the big banks. Records are a mess. Robo-signing has been commonplace. Collections practices hurt primarily the poor and the unsophisticated, just like foreclosure practices. (I sometimes wonder if banks would make any profits at all if they couldn’t take advantage of the poor and unsophisticated.)

At Dimon’s bank, JPMorgan Chase, according to Jeff Horwitz, the author of the American Banker series, the records used by outside law firms to sue people who had defaulted on credit card debt “sometimes differed from Chase’s own files at an alarming rate, according to a routine Chase presentation.” It sold debt to so-called “debt buyers” — who then went to court to try to collect — from one Chase portfolio, in particular, “that had long been considered unreliable and lacked documentation.”

At Bank of America, according to Horwitz, executives sold off its worst credit card receivables for pennies on the dollar. Its contracts with the debt buyers included disclaimers about the accuracy of the balances. Thus, if there were mistakes, it was up to the borrowers to point them out — after the debt buyer had sued for recovery. Most such contracts don’t even require a bank to provide documentation if it is requested of them. (Bank of America says that it will provide documentation.) Horwitz found a woman who had paid off her balance in full — and then spent three years trying to fend off a debt collector. Sounds just like some of the foreclosure horror stories, doesn’t it?

The practices exposed by The American Banker all took place in 2009 and 2010. In response to the problems, JPMorgan shut down its credit card collections, at least for now, and informed its regulator. (It also settled a whistle-blower lawsuit.) Bank of America says that its debt collection practices are not unique to it. Which is true enough.

But lawyers on the front lines say that credit card debt collection remains a horrific problem. “Most of the time, the borrower has no lawyer,” says Carolyn Coffey, of MFY Legal Services, who defends consumers being sued by debt collectors. “There are terrible problems with people not being served properly, so they don’t even know they have been sued. But if you do get to court and ask for documentation, the debt buyers drop the case. It is not worth it for them if they have to provide actual proof.”

Karen Petrou, the managing partner of Federal Financial Analytics, pointed out another reason these practices are so unseemly. In effect, the banks are outsourcing their dirty work — and then washing their hands as the debt collectors harass and sue and make people miserable, often without proof that the debt is owed. Banks, she said, should not be allowed to “avert their gaze” so easily.

“In my church, we pray for forgiveness for the ‘evil done on our behalf,’ ” she wrote in an e-mail.  “Banks should do more than pray. They should be held responsible.”

When I was at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau a few weeks ago, I heard a lot of emphasis placed on debt collection practices, which, up until now, have been unregulated. So I called the agency to ask if people there had read The American Banker series. The answer was yes. “We take seriously any reports that debt is being bought or sold for collection without adequate documentation that money is owed at all or in what amount,” the agency said in a short statement. “The C.F.P.B. is taking a close look at debt collection practices.”

Not a moment too soon.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

I have two words for you: Dick Cheney.

Just a week before the news that George W. Bush was picking him as a running mate, he was on neither pundits’ lips nor oddsmakers’ lists.

I have two more: Sarah Palin.

At this point four years ago, nary a soothsayer on the coasts, plains or windswept tundra foretold her astonishing Iditarod: from moose’s worst enemy to John McCain’s best hope, and from Katie Couric’s quarry to — this week — her competition.

In something of a lamestream grudge match, Palin is guest-hosting “Today” while Couric does those chores on “Good Morning America.”

The above is worth remembering as the presidential race turns the corner into its most feverishly speculative, excessively breathless phase: the veepstakes. The pivot began last week, with Mitt Romney fielding questions about it from Jay Leno, and it continued during the Sunday morning talk shows, on which names were tossed like so much salad and Paul Ryan performed a multi-network jig for the gig. A Romney victory in Wisconsin would only hasten the frenzied dance.

So let’s pause now for a reality check and a few reminders.

It will be at least four months before Romney or some other Republican nominee finalizes the choice of a running mate, and the national mood and state of the race — two of the most important factors in any selection — could be significantly different then than they are now.

Three of every four names in heaviest rotation during this long waiting period will be news-media fantasies more than short-list probabilities, because the veepstakes are the journalistic equivalent of a public works project, by which temporarily underutilized pundits and campaign reporters, biding their time until the end-of-summer conventions, keep their muscles toned and their hours filled. Bobby Jindal becomes their bridge to nowhere, Chris Christie their great big hydroelectric dam.

And the volume of their huffing and puffing will be wildly disproportionate to the provable effect a running mate has on ultimate triumph versus defeat. You show me a voter so taken with a vice presidential nominee that he or she swallows real reservations to vote for the ticket and I’ll show you a member of the veep-to-be’s extended family or someone else angling for an invitation to the inauguration.

The veepstakes are where conventional wisdom goes to die and finds a mausoleum roomy enough for a pharaoh. You always hear, and will hear anew, about how crucial geography is. When you do, bear in mind that our vice presidential nominees from 1996 forward have come from New York (Jack Kemp), Wyoming (Dick Cheney), Connecticut (Joe Lieberman), North Carolina (John Edwards), Delaware (Joe Biden) and Alaska (Palin).

There’s not a deep purple swing state in that lineup. North Carolina arguably comes closest, and John Kerry’s reward for plucking his partner from there was to lose it by more than 12 percentage points.

You will hear the Jerry Maguire, you-complete-me theory of presidential-ticket matchmaking: to emerge from Bill Clinton’s shadow, Al Gore picks one of Clinton’s harshest Democratic critics, and to leaven his smirk, George W. Bush goes for a scowl.

But when Clinton himself linked arms with Gore, he wasn’t so much embracing a contrast or finding a complement as hammering home an image of generational change and New Democrat centrism. It was the you-repeat-me approach.

And one of many Republican insiders’ favorite prospects for Romney, Rob Portman, echoes the candidate: also pale, also mild-mannered and relatively affluent.

Sure, he might give Romney a boost in Ohio, which he represents in the United States Senate and is a bona fide swing state. But Romney, with all his riches and all his gaffes about them, would arguably get better overall mileage out of someone who’s less Cadillac, more Chevy.

In a recent article in The Times, Richard W. Stevenson made the persuasive case that Palin’s game-changing mortifications would diminish the likelihood of any running mate who carries the slightest whiff of novelty or the barest suggestion that strategy got more consideration than seasoning.

So maybe you can kiss Marco Rubio and Susana Martinez goodbye. And, while you’re at it, you can save this paragraph, then e-mail it back to me when one of them delivers an acceptance speech in Tampa in late August.

One more piece of advice: don’t throw your own hat into the ring. If the last few election cycles are any guide, to be named a running mate is to befall an evil spell that ultimately strains your sanity, scrambles your future and does grievous injury to your reputation. You wind up at bitter odds with your party (Lieberman). You run afoul of the law (Edwards).

Your ego swells as the acrimony around you swirls, to a point where you’re one of the nation’s utmost emblems of polarization. I have two words for you: Dick Cheney. I have two more: Sarah Palin.

 

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One Response to “Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni”

  1. BernieO Says:

    Gotta disagree about Clinton’s pick of Gore. Gore’s experience as a legislator with good relationships with his colleagues in Congress was a very important complement to Clinton’s administrative experience as a governor. And that egomaniac Clinton treated Gore as a partner.

    I doubt that many Americans had a clue that Gore was known for forward looking ideas – although he was. He really does deserve credit for his important role in creating the internet. I once heard Newt say (on CNN?) Gore’s pushing of others in Congress to see the importance of an “information superhighway” system to our future and to pony up the funds to expand the existing government/military/university computer network was a major factor in the creation of the internet. Newt actually said Gore deserved a lot of credit and the attacks on him about this issue were unfair! Of course our lamestream media could not be bothered to inform the public about this because they were having too much fun helping the Repubs trash him. MoDo was one of the worst offenders, by the way.

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