Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

Bobo’s at it again.  In “The Structural Revolution” he gurgles that we can either continue to patch up our economic problems or address the underlying sources with hard but necessary structural reforms.  Completely unsurprisingly there is no mention of tax cuts for the rich or unfunded wars.  Oh, he’s also made up some spiffy new terminology.  Mr. Nocera, in “This Story Isn’t Over Yet,” says on L.B.J., Robert A. Caro has more to say. And more to say. And more to say. And more to say.  In “Unable to Say ‘I Do’ ” Mr. Bruni says that it’s impossible to assert that marriage equality is a prudent wager for a presidential candidate in 2012.  Here’s Bobo:

The country is divided when different people take different sides in a debate. The country is really divided when different people are having entirely different debates. That’s what’s happening on economic policy.

Many people on the left are having a one-sided debate about how to deal with a cyclical downturn. The main argument you hear from these cyclicalists is that the economy is operating well below capacity. To get it moving at full speed, the government should borrow and spend more. The federal government is now running deficits of about $1 trillion a year. Some of these cyclicalists believe the deficit should be about $1.4 trillion.

The cyclicalists rail against what they see as American austerity-mongers who resist new borrowing. They really rail against the European ones. They see François Hollande’s victory in France as a sign that, in Europe at least, the pendulum might finally be swinging from austerity to growth.

Other people — some on the left but mostly in the center and on the right — look at the cyclicalists and shrug. It’s not that they are necessarily wrong to bash excessive austerity. They’re simply failing to address the core issues.

The diverse people in this camp — and I’m one of them — believe the core problems are structural, not cyclical. The recession grew out of and exposed long-term flaws in the economy. Fixing these structural problems should be the order of the day, not papering over them with more debt.

There are several overlapping structural problems. First, there are those surrounding globalization and technological change. Hyperefficient globalized companies need fewer workers. As a result, unemployment rises, superstar salaries surge while lower-skilled wages stagnate, the middle gets hollowed out and inequality grows.

Then there are the structural issues surrounding the decline in human capital. The United States, once the world’s educational leader, is falling back in the pack. Unemployment is high, but companies still have trouble finding skilled workers.

Then there is political sclerosis. Over the decades, companies and other entities have implanted a growing number of special-interest deals into the tax and regulatory codes, making it harder for politically unconnected, new competitors, making the economy less dynamic.

These and other structural problems have retarded growth and wages for decades. Consumers tried to compensate by borrowing more. Politicians tried to compensate by reducing the tax bill, increasing deficit spending, ensuring easy credit for homebuyers and by helping workers shift out of the hypercompetitive, globalized part of the economy and into the less productive and more sheltered parts of the economy — mostly into health care, government and education.

But you can only mask structural problems for so long. The whole thing has gone kablooey. The current model, in which we try to compensate for structural economic weakness with tax cuts and an unsustainable welfare state, simply cannot last. The old model is broken. The jig is up.

Unlike the cyclicalists, we structuralists do not believe that the level of government spending is the main factor in determining how fast an economy grows. If that were true, then Greece, Britain and France would have the best economies on earth. (The so-called European austerity is partly mythical.) We believe that the creativity, skill and productivity of the work force matter most, and the openness of the system they inhabit.

Running up huge deficits without fixing the underlying structure will not restore growth. As Raghuram Rajan of the University of Chicago writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, “Since the growth before the crisis was distorted in fundamental ways, it is hard to imagine that governments could restore demand quickly — or that doing so would be enough to get the global economy back on track. The status quo ante is not a good place to return to because bloated finance, residential construction and government sectors need to shrink, and workers need to move to more productive work.”

Structuralists face a tension: How much should you reduce the pain the unemployed are feeling now, and how much should you devote your resources to long-term reform? There has to be balance. For my taste, the Germans are a bit too willing to impose short-term pain on the diverse national economies in Europe. But they are absolutely right to insist on the sort of structural reforms they themselves passed in the 1990s.

In the United States, there are almost no politicians willing to embrace the cyclicalist agenda, which would mean much larger deficits. Structuralists don’t have a perfect champion either. President Obama is too minimalist. He doesn’t seem to believe America’s structural problems are that big, making his reform ideas small. Mitt Romney and Representative Paul Ryan understand the size of the structural problems, but their reform plans are constrained by the Republican Party’s single-minded devotion to tax cuts.

Make no mistake, the old economic and welfare state model is unsustainable. The cyclicalists want to preserve the status quo, but structural change is coming.

And he gets paid to spew that stuff…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

As a young man, Robert A. Caro was a newspaper reporter.

Caro is the painstaking, some would say obsessive (though he has always denied it) writer, whose first book, “The Power Broker, a 1,336-page biography of Robert Moses, took him seven years to complete — after which he turned to his true life’s work (perhaps even his true obsession), a multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson, the fourth volume of which, “The Passage of Power,” has just been published to great acclaim, reviewed in The New York Times by none other than former President Bill Clinton and which has been 36 years in the making. So far.

Working for a newspaper meant meeting deadlines, deadlines that, yes, allowed the paper to come out the next day, but also meant, all too often, compromises. Caro couldn’t repeat himself in a newspaper article; he couldn’t say the same thing five, six, seven times, until he was sure — absolutely sure — that the reader got the point. He couldn’t include all the many stray facts he had uncovered. Sometimes, words even had to be cut from a Robert A. Caro newspaper article — cut ruthlessly, mercilessly, by editors who didn’t understand the importance of those words, or the significance of those seemingly stray facts.

But once Caro turned to books, and, especially, once he began working on his L.B.J. biography in the mid-1970s, all the previous obstacles fell away. He would spend years — nay, decades — in the field, finding stray facts no one else had ever known existed. And then, when he started writing, he couldn’t stop. Other, lesser authors had deadlines, but not Caro. He turned in each volume only when he was ready, and sometimes a decade passed between volumes — so much time, in fact, that he began quoting his previous books in his newer books. Originally intended to be three volumes, written over maybe a half-dozen years, his L.B.J. biography eventually stretched to four, and then five. The fifth, which Caro has yet to write, is supposed to be the last one.

There was something unquestionably awe-inspiring about Caro’s quest to create a biography as big as Johnson’s life. The third volume, especially, entitled “Master of the Senate” — Caro’s 1,167-page account of Johnson’s years as the Senate majority leader — was immediately hailed as one of the greatest illuminations of power ever written.

But was there also something about Caro’s pursuit of L.B.J. that was just a little bit Ahab-like?

“I can’t imagine this being done or even attempted by anyone else,” his publisher, Sonny Mehta, told Esquire magazine. “He’s given over so much of his life to another guy.” Mehta meant it as a compliment, but it did make you wonder: Was any biography worth nearly half the writer’s life? To write his new book, which weighs in at a mere 712 pages, Caro spent 10 years recounting just six years, from 1958 to 1964, three in which very little happened, since, as John F. Kennedy’s vice president, Johnson had little to do. Yet every time you had a thought like that, you hit a chapter that reminded you anew of Caro’s literary powers. In “The Passage of Power,” for instance, Caro retells the Kennedy assassination — a story that has been written hundreds of times before. Yet Caro makes it feel completely fresh, spellbinding even.

There were other problems, however.

In the first two volumes, published in 1982 and 1990, Caro’s Johnson is a man with a “hunger for power in its most naked form, for power not to improve the lives of others, but to manipulate and dominate them,” as Caro wrote in “The Path to Power,” the first volume. Johnson has almost no redeeming qualities in the first two books. Yet how could this same man, at the end of Volume 4, push through the landmark Civil Rights Act as president? How does Caro square this great achievement — as well as all the other liberal achievements to come — with his portrayal of the power-mad Johnson in the earlier volumes?

In truth, he never really does. If the Johnson of Volumes 1 and 2 is the “bad” L.B.J., then the Johnson of Volume 4 is the “good” one. It is almost as if Caro is writing about two different people — as if, for all his reportorial skill, he can’t countenance Johnson being both ruthless and compassionate in the same volume. He has to be one or the other.

So here we are — and here he is, at the age of 76 — four volumes later, and there is so much more yet to tell. Caro still has the Goldwater race to cover, and the legislative achievements that follow. And, of course, there is still Vietnam to write about. Nearly half a life later, in other words, Caro is finally getting to the heart of the matter.

One could imagine other writers managing to squeeze it all into the one final volume being contemplated. But Robert A. Caro? Not a chance.

Mr. Marion in Savannah devours biographies, but there’s not enough money in the world to get me to plow through Caro’s tomes…  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

Just two days after his inimitably voluble vice president kind of, sort of, probably came out in favor of same-sex marriage, and just a day after his education secretary expressed more succinct, unambiguous support for it, Barack Obama is scheduled to visit New York and cross paths with the governor who is arguably the Democratic standard-bearer for marriage equality, Andrew Cuomo.

And it will be clearer than ever: on this issue, the president isn’t leading. He’s following. And the gap by which he trails others in his party grows broader and sadder.

Maybe he’ll surprise us this week. I doubt it, for reasons that I’ll explain shortly — and that I mostly sympathize with.

But his timidity is being thrown into ever starker relief. Joe Biden’s comments on Sunday, while falling short of a clarion call for federal recognition of same-sex marriage, traveled several compassionate, justice-minded miles beyond anything the still-“evolving” president has said on the topic.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s remarks the next day on “Morning Joe” put him in the company of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, who spoke up unequivocally for marriage equality last November. Their position is shared by the former White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. As mayor of Chicago, he has urged Illinois to permit same-sex marriages.

There’s also a greater and greater push — including an appeal on Monday from Caroline Kennedy, a co-chairwoman of Obama’s re-election campaign — for marriage equality to be included in the 2012 Democratic platform.

So why hasn’t Obama yielded to it? It’s possible, I suppose, that he has reservations of conscience, though his own words back in 1996, when he ran for the State Senate in Illinois, suggest otherwise. “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages,” he wrote in response to questions from a gay newspaper, “and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”

Since then he has apparently retreated, even as the nation has advanced. States as different as Iowa and New York have legalized same-sex marriage. A growing number of surveys over the last two years show that more Americans support marriage equality than oppose it.

But we’re not yet talking about a bounty of polls. We’re not yet talking about an impressive margin of difference. And national voter surveys don’t necessarily reflect the climate in given battleground states. So it’s impossible to assert that marriage equality is a prudent wager for a presidential candidate in 2012.

In 2016? For a Democrat, it most likely will be, and I assume that Cuomo and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a fellow champion of the issue and another of the party’s rising stars, have made that calculation.

But right now, Obama could stir up a lot of counterproductive noise and passion with an emphatic position in favor of marriage equality. And while it’s the job of advocates to focus on one issue and amass their armies on a single front, it’s the job of those who govern to promote an array of concerns and serve multiple constituencies. To do any good in office, you have to be in office.

Obama has exhibited more concern for the equal rights of gays and lesbians than his predecessors did. He ended the military policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He instructed the Justice Department not to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

He brags about this progress, and has a right to. But he shouldn’t expect those of us who support marriage equality to find the sound of that trumpeting so very musical. It’s a tentative, incremental bleat. And it’s especially unsatisfying from a president who’s such a moving, hopeful symbol of this country’s imperfect and incomplete journey toward full respect for all its citizens, no matter their gender, race, creed or sexual orientation.

On the day Biden spoke out, I happened to be reading “The Bridge,” David Remnick’s terrific biography of Obama. One of its compelling themes is Obama’s search as a young man of mixed race for a true sense of belonging in this country.

That’s what gay people want, and crucial to it are marriage laws that recognize our loving partnerships as no lesser than anybody else’s.

I think Obama gets that. And I think so in part because of what Biden, Duncan and Donovan have said. Were they nudged by a president trying to have it all ways? Impossible to know. But at least they felt comfortable making their statements. That says something.

And part of what it says is that Obama — no matter how much he romanticizes himself or some voters still romanticize him — plays a cautious game, letting others test the waters while he hugs the shore. It’s smart politics. But it’s hardly audacious, and not so inspiring.

 

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One Response to “Brooks, Nocera and Bruni”

  1. Reginald van Gleason III Says:

    Brooks starts out well but ends up in political territory instead of economic theory. First of all cyclical trends are well established much like breathing. They are simple tools to explain where we have been. Businesses need guides to where we are going. You Mr. Brooks have unwisely shown us the Twins who need to be separated to understand the problem so we can fix it but it doesn’t seem to penetrate your mind that the Ryans and Romneys are really the same austere “budgeteers” who would gladly foreclose on the middle class.

    Further to say Obama doesn’t understand the economics of poorly educated workers is so absurd you must be off your meds. A Harvard prof who believes we should all spend our time on iPhones to advance our careers? Momma President doesn’t allow her children to waste their time.

    The problem you do find so alluring to discuss is one that is not so simple as building a bridge. When the economy is mired in substance abuse such as poor credit it is up to some source to save the day. Someone has to spend money to make money. If banks can’t lend to bad borrowers and because they themselves are under water who is left? Well if u said Bain Capital you’re probably right. But they’re going to help themselves to your money only.They don’t play well with other children.

    Governments aren’t restoring demand by way of gifts like Bush’s 300 billion dollar RiteAid to WalMart package. it’s too simple to explain so I’ll ask u once again to go back to your notes and read them aloud to your dog and pony. You also wrongly admonish government spending when the car is in the ditch by assuming we count growth by its level of debt. That’s so absurd you must not have read the Federalists papers. Likewise you foolishly claim Ireland, Greece, and France do not have excess public debt. I don’t know where you studied but you have to get out of the debate club and into the science fair to see how facts are totaled.

    Hyper-efficient global markets? OPEC? China? There hasn’t been an efficient market since long before Greenspan thought the banks would apply common sense. Capitalism actually works well w/o efficiency and that is the structural problem if you really want to locate the loci.

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