Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

In “The D.C. Dubstep” Bobo says politicians in both parties are dancing as though they’re secretly in love with sequestration, a total disaster for the country.  In “Finding the Missing Word” Mr. Cohen says an ancient clay cylinder smaller than an American football journeys to the United States with a message of tolerance.  Prof. Krugman, in “Sequester of Fools!”, says here we go again! That terrible fiscal crisis we were warned about two years ago is just around the corner. Is anyone interested?  Here’s Bobo:

On July 26, 2011, Jack Lew, then the White House budget director, went to Harry Reid’s office for a budget strategy session. According to Bob Woodward’s book, “The Price of Politics,” Lew told the Senate majority leader that they had come up with a trigger idea to force a budget deal.

“What’s the idea?” Reid asked.

“Sequestration,” Lew responded.

Reid folded himself over with his head between his knees, as if he were going to throw up. Then he came upright and gaped at the ceiling. “A couple of weeks ago,” he exclaimed, “my staff said to me there is one more possible” enforcement method: sequestration. Reid said he had told his staff at the time, “Get the hell out of here. That’s insane. The White House surely will come up with a plan that will save the day. And you come to me with sequestration?”

Sequestration may have seemed insane back then. But politicians in both parties are secretly discovering that they love sequestration now. It allows them to do the dance moves they enjoy the most.

Democrats get to do the P.C. Shimmy. Traditional presidents go through a normal set of motions: They identify a problem. They come up with a proposal to address the problem. They try to convince the country that their proposal is the best approach.

Under the Permanent Campaign Shimmy, the president identifies a problem. Then he declines to come up with a proposal to address the problem. Then he comes up with a vague-but-politically-convenient concept that doesn’t address the problem (let’s raise taxes on the rich). Then he goes around the country blasting the opposition for not having as politically popular a concept. Then he returns to Washington and congratulates himself for being the only serious and substantive person in town.

Sequestration allows the White House to do this all over again. The president hasn’t actually come up with a proposal to avert sequestration, let alone one that is politically plausible.

He does have a vague and politically convenient concept. (Tax increases on the rich!) He does have a chance to lead the country into a budget showdown with furloughed workers and general mayhem, for which people will primarily blame Republicans. And he does have the chance to achieve the same thing he has achieved so frequently over the past two years, political success and legislative mediocrity.

Republicans also secretly love the sequester. It allows them to do their favorite dance move, the Suicide Stage Dive. It was pioneered by Newt Gingrich in 1995 and has been repeated constantly since.

In this dance, the Republicans mount the stage and roar that they are about to courageously cut spending. In this anthem they carefully emphasize cuts to programs the country sympathizes with, such as special education, while sparing programs that actually created the debt problem, like Medicare.

Then, when they have worked themselves up into a frenzy of self-admiration, they sprint across the stage and leap into what they imagine is the loving arms of their adoring fans. When they are 4 feet off the ground, they realize the voters have left the building in disgust and they land with a thud on the floor.

Sequestration allows the Republicans to do the Suicide Stage Dive to perfection. Voters disdain the G.O.P. because they think Republicans are mindless antigovernment fanatics who can’t distinguish good government programs from bad ones. Sequestration is a fanatically mindless piece of legislation that can’t distinguish good government programs from bad ones. Sequestration carefully spares programs like Medicare and Social Security that actually contribute to the debt problem. Sequestration will cause maximum political disgust for a trivial amount of budget savings.

So, of course, the conservative press is filling up with essays with titles like “Learning to Love Sequestration.” Of course, Republican legislators are screwing up their courage to embrace it. Of course, after the cuts hit and the furor rises, they are going to come crawling back with concessions as they do after every Suicide Stage Dive.

These two dance moves, the P.C. Shimmy and the Suicide Stage Dive, when combined, are beautifully guaranteed to cause maximum damage to the country. What’s America’s biggest problem right now? It is that business people think that government is so dysfunctional that they are afraid to invest and spur growth. So what are the parties going to do? They are going to prove that government is so dysfunctional that you’d be crazy to invest and spur growth.

In a normal country, the politicians would try some new moves. For example, if they agreed to further means test Medicare they could save a lot of money. Democrats would be hitting the rich. Republicans would be reforming entitlements.

But no. Both parties love their current moves. It’s enough to make Harry Reid put his head between his legs and throw up.

Yeah, let’s gut Medicare and Social Security.  Or we could just flat out ask the olds and poors to off themselves…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

I wanted to test a theory about Iran, so the other evening I made my way to the British Museum, strolled past glass cases full of the sarcophagi and mummies of ancient Egypt, and found myself in a room whose centerpiece is a baked clay cylinder smaller than an American football.

The object, somewhat the worse for wear after two-and-a-half millennia, was dug up in what once was Babylon, now Iraq, in 1879 during a British Museum excavation. Made soon after Cyrus of Persia captured Babylon in 539 B.C., it is covered in the spiky characters of Babylonian cuneiform. Neil MacGregor, the director of the museum, has called it “the first real press release.” More dubiously, and more frequently, it has been called “the first bill of human rights.”

This, of course, is the much debated Cyrus Cylinder, which says that, aided by the chief Babylonian god Marduk, Cyrus (“King of the universe, the great king”) captured Babylon without a fight, repatriated deported people living in Babylonian exile, and, as the museum put it in 2010, “restored shrines dedicated to different gods.”

It has been widely interpreted as the decree of an enlightened ruler determined to allow diverse peoples to rebuild their altars and worship their gods in their own way in their own place with their own sacred images. Cyrus, in this reading, is a father of the multifaith society.

Among the peoples allowed by Cyrus to return — at least in a widely accepted reading recounted in the Bible — were the Jews, who went back to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. So did their exile end. Weeping beside the waters of Babylon ceased. Cyrus the Persian became a revered figure in the Hebrew Bible, a monarch from what is now Iran who ended the banishment of the Jews.

A small crowd had gathered around the Cylinder. They were there to wish it well. This week it departs for a nine-month stay in the United States, where it has not previously been seen, although presidents, including Thomas Jefferson (who owned two copies of the Cyropaedia, Xenophon’s description of a ruler’s ideal education), have been admirers of Cyrus.

The Cylinder will be displayed on the East Coast at the Smithsonian in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum in New York; and on the West Coast at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and the Getty Villa in Los Angeles. It will also make an appearance in Texas at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

This New World odyssey of the Cyrus Cylinder is timely. It occurs with the United States and Iran still locked in the negative stereotypes the movie “Argo” has done nothing to assuage. As John Limbert, a former U.S. hostage in Iran, has observed, the Islamic Republic sees America as “belligerent, sanctimonious, godless and immoral.” America, in turn, sees Iran as “devious, mendacious, fanatical.” Or at least on the surface they do. Somewhere beneath that lurks mutual fascination.

The Cylinder will not resolve this antagonism. But, compact and mute, it carries a message of tolerance. It is a powerful antidote to belligerent certitudes and shrieking “truths” — an object packed with ambiguity and now freighted with a 2,500-year-old tale of human vanity and frailty.

What is it? A Babylonian artifact written by a Babylonian scribe about a Persian conqueror; prized by Iranians as an emblem of their civilization; valued by many Jews whose Bible gives credit for Cyrus’s acts not to a Babylonian God but to Jehovah; found in modern Iraq by British-sponsored archaeologists who acquired it from the Ottomans; exploited by the shah to underwrite his megalomania; a pre-Islamic text adopted by the Islamic Republic during the Iran-Iraq War as a symbol of past victories; a declaration compared to the U.S. Constitution because of what it says about peoples worshiping freely in a single state; and now an object that within the space of a few years has traveled to Tehran (where more than one million Iranians saw it) and to Washington.

All of this is contained in a cylinder that is about nine inches long and four inches wide. If nothing else, it speaks volumes about connections.

With its talk of a king of the universe and its benign message, the Cylinder is also a reminder of contradictions, of the riddles within riddles that make up Iran, a country where people open a book of Hafez’s poetry at random to decide on a course of action. Like many much-conquered nations, Iran loves artifice. Ambiguity is infinitely preferable to clarity because it more accurately reflects life. Direct speech is abhorred.

National conventions include the ceremonial form of intention-veiling flattery known as “taarof,” and the sacrifice of truth to higher religious imperative known as “tagieh” (The Shiites, like the Jews, have been lonely in the Middle East; lying was often a means to survive.) The third “T” of the Iranian psyche is “tazieh,” effectively a synonym for dramatic lament and epic resistance.

My theory, by the way, was this: It may just be possible to write a column about Iran without using the “N” word.

Last but certainly not least here’s Prof. Krugman:

They’re baaack! Just about two years ago, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairmen of the late unlamented debt commission, warned us to expect a terrible fiscal crisis within, um, two years unless we adopted their plan. The crisis hasn’t materialized, but they’re nonetheless back with a new version. And, in case you’re interested, after last year’s election — in which American voters made it clear that they want to preserve the social safety net while raising taxes on the rich — the famous fomenters of fiscal fear have moved to the right, calling for even less revenue and even more spending cuts.

But you aren’t interested, are you? Almost nobody is. Messrs. Bowles and Simpson had their moment — the annus horribilis of 2011, when Washington was in thrall to deficit scolds insisting that, in the face of record-high long-term unemployment and record-low borrowing costs, we forget about jobs and concentrate exclusively on a “grand bargain” that would supposedly (not actually) settle budget disputes for ever after.

That moment has now passed; even Mr. Bowles concedes that the search for a grand bargain is on “life support.” Let’s convene a death panel! But the legacy of that year of living foolishly lives on, in the form of the “sequester,” one of the worst policy ideas in our nation’s history.

Here’s how it happened: Republicans engaged in unprecedented hostage-taking, threatening to push America into default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless President Obama agreed to a grand bargain on their terms. Mr. Obama, alas, didn’t stand firm; instead, he tried to buy time. And, somehow, both sides decided that the way to buy time was to create a fiscal doomsday machine that would inflict gratuitous damage on the nation through spending cuts unless a grand bargain was reached. Sure enough, there is no bargain, and the doomsday machine will go off at the end of next week.

There’s a silly debate under way about who bears responsibility for the sequester, which almost everyone now agrees was a really bad idea. The truth is that Republicans and Democrats alike signed on to this idea. But that’s water under the bridge. The question we should be asking is who has a better plan for dealing with the aftermath of that shared mistake.

The right policy would be to forget about the whole thing. America doesn’t face a deficit crisis, nor will it face such a crisis anytime soon. Meanwhile, we have a weak economy that is recovering far too slowly from the recession that began in 2007. And, as Janet Yellen, the vice chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, recently emphasized, one main reason for the sluggish recovery is that government spending has been far weaker in this business cycle than in the past. We should be spending more, not less, until we’re close to full employment; the sequester is exactly what the doctor didn’t order.

Unfortunately, neither party is proposing that we just call the whole thing off. But the proposal from Senate Democrats at least moves in the right direction, replacing the most destructive spending cuts — those that fall on the most vulnerable members of our society — with tax increases on the wealthy, and delaying austerity in a way that would protect the economy.

House Republicans, on the other hand, want to take everything that’s bad about the sequester and make it worse: canceling cuts in the defense budget, which actually does contain a lot of waste and fraud, and replacing them with severe cuts in aid to America’s neediest. This would hit the nation with a double whammy, reducing growth while increasing injustice.

As always, many pundits want to portray the deadlock over the sequester as a situation in which both sides are at fault, and in which both should give ground. But there’s really no symmetry here. A middle-of-the-road solution would presumably involve a mix of spending cuts and tax increases; well, that’s what Democrats are proposing, while Republicans are adamant that it should be cuts only. And given that the proposed Republican cuts would be even worse than those set to happen under the sequester, it’s hard to see why Democrats should negotiate at all, as opposed to just letting the sequester happen.

So here we go. The good news is that compared with our last two self-inflicted crises, the sequester is relatively small potatoes. A failure to raise the debt ceiling would have threatened chaos in world financial markets; failure to reach a deal on the so-called fiscal cliff would have led to so much sudden austerity that we might well have plunged back into recession. The sequester, by contrast, will probably cost “only” around 700,000 jobs.

But the looming mess remains a monument to the power of truly bad ideas — ideas that the entire Washington establishment was somehow convinced represented deep wisdom.

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