Archive for the ‘Another inspiration from Applebee’s salad bar’ Category

Brooks and Krugman

April 18, 2014

Oh, gawd…  Bobo’s heard about Common Core.  In “When the Circus Descends” he gurgles that right-wing talk radio hosts and left-wing interest groups are teaming up to defeat the most sensible school reform movement in a decade.  “Gemli” from Boston has this to say in his comment:  “Brooks has learned a thing or two about using the false equivalence to manipulate the discourse. He says that conservatives don’t like the Common Core and liberals don’t like it either. These two opposing sides represent the universe of views on the subject, but they cancel each other out, leaving his opinion shining like a cow pie in the moonlight.”  Love that image…  In “Salvation Gets Cheap” Prof. Krugman says the incredible recent decline in the cost of renewable energy, solar power in particular, have improved the economics of climate change.  Here’s Bobo:

We are pretty familiar with this story: A perfectly sensible if slightly boring idea is walking down the street. Suddenly, the ideological circus descends, burying the sensible idea in hysterical claims and fevered accusations. The idea’s political backers beat a craven retreat. The idea dies.

This is what seems to be happening to the Common Core education standards, which are being attacked on the right because they are common and on the left because they are core.

About seven years ago, it was widely acknowledged that state education standards were a complete mess. Huge numbers of students were graduating from high school unprepared either for college work or modern employment. A student who was rated “proficient” in one state would be rated “below basic” in another. About 14 states had pretty good standards, according to studies at the time, but the rest had standards that were verbose, lax or wildly confusing.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers set out to draft clearer, consistent and more rigorous standards. Remember, school standards are not curricula. They do not determine what students read or how teachers should teach. They are the goals for what students should know at the end of each grade.

This was a state-led effort, supported by employers and financed by private foundations. This was not a federal effort, though the Obama administration did encourage states to embrace the new standards.

These Common Core standards are at least partially in place in 45 states. As is usual, the initial implementation has been a bit bumpy. It’s going to take a few years before there are textbooks and tests that are truly aligned with the new standards.

But the new initiative is clearly superior to the old mess. The math standards are more in line with the standards found in the top performing math nations. The English standards encourage reading comprehension. Whereas the old standards frequently encouraged students to read a book and then go off and write a response to it, the new standards encourage them to go back to the text and pick out specific passages for study and as evidence.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which has been evaluating state standards for more than 15 years, concluded that the Common Core standards are “clearly superior” to the old standards in 37 states and are “too close to call” in 11 more.

But this makes no difference when the circus comes to town.

On the right, the market-share-obsessed talk-radio crowd claims that the Common Core standards represent a federal takeover of the schools. This is clearly false. This was a state-led effort, and localities preserve their control over what exactly is taught and how it is taught. Glenn Beck claims that Common Core represents “leftist indoctrination” of the young. On Fox, Elisabeth Hasselbeck cited a curriculum item that supposedly taught students that Abraham Lincoln’s religion was “liberal.” But, as the education analyst Michael J. Petrilli quickly demonstrated, this was some locally generated curriculum that was one of hundreds on a lesson-sharing website and it was promulgated a year before the Common Core standards even existed.

As it’s being attacked by the talk-radio right, the Common Core is being attacked by the interest group left. The general critique from progressives, and increasingly from teachers’ unions, is that the standards are too difficult, that implementation is shambolic and teachers are being forced into some top-down straitjacket that they detest.

It is true that the new standards are more rigorous than the old, and that in some cases students have to perform certain math skills a year earlier than they formerly had to learn them. But that is a feature, not a bug. The point is to get students competitive with their international peers.

The idea that the Common Core is unpopular is also false. Teachers and local authorities still have control of what they teach and how they teach it. A large survey in Kentucky revealed that 77 percent of teachers are enthusiastic about the challenge of implementing the standards in their classrooms. In another survey, a majority of teachers in Tennessee believe that implementation of the standards has begun positively. Al Baker of The Times interviewed a range of teachers in New York and reported, “most said their students were doing higher-quality work than they had ever seen, and were talking aloud more often.”

The new standards won’t revolutionize education. It’s not enough to set goals; you have to figure out how to meet them. But they are a step forward. Yet now states from New York to Oklahoma are thinking of rolling them back. This has less to do with substance and more to do with talk-radio bombast and interest group resistance to change.

The circus has come to town.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which pools the efforts of scientists around the globe, has begun releasing draft chapters from its latest assessment, and, for the most part, the reading is as grim as you might expect. We are still on the road to catastrophe without major policy changes.

But there is one piece of the assessment that is surprisingly, if conditionally, upbeat: Its take on the economics of mitigation. Even as the report calls for drastic action to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, it asserts that the economic impact of such drastic action would be surprisingly small. In fact, even under the most ambitious goals the assessment considers, the estimated reduction in economic growth would basically amount to a rounding error, around 0.06 percent per year.

What’s behind this economic optimism? To a large extent, it reflects a technological revolution many people don’t know about, the incredible recent decline in the cost of renewable energy, solar power in particular.

Before I get to that revolution, however, let’s talk for a minute about the overall relationship between economic growth and the environment.

Other things equal, more G.D.P. tends to mean more pollution. What transformed China into the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases? Explosive economic growth. But other things don’t have to be equal. There’s no necessary one-to-one relationship between growth and pollution.

People on both the left and the right often fail to understand this point. (I hate it when pundits try to make every issue into a case of “both sides are wrong,” but, in this case, it happens to be true.) On the left, you sometimes find environmentalists asserting that to save the planet we must give up on the idea of an ever-growing economy; on the right, you often find assertions that any attempt to limit pollution will have devastating impacts on growth. But there’s no reason we can’t become richer while reducing our impact on the environment.

Let me add that free-market advocates seem to experience a peculiar loss of faith whenever the subject of the environment comes up. They normally trumpet their belief that the magic of the market can surmount all obstacles — that the private sector’s flexibility and talent for innovation can easily cope with limiting factors like scarcity of land or minerals. But suggest the possibility of market-friendly environmental measures, like a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, and they suddenly assert that the private sector would be unable to cope, that the costs would be immense. Funny how that works.

The sensible position on the economics of climate change has always been that it’s like the economics of everything else — that if we give corporations and individuals an incentive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they will respond. What form would that response take? Until a few years ago, the best guess was that it would proceed on many fronts, involving everything from better insulation and more fuel-efficient cars to increased use of nuclear power.

One front many people didn’t take too seriously, however, was renewable energy. Sure, cap-and-trade might make more room for wind and the sun, but how important could such sources really end up being? And I have to admit that I shared that skepticism. If truth be told, I thought of the idea that wind and sun could be major players as hippie-dippy wishful thinking.

But I was wrong.

The climate change panel, in its usual deadpan prose, notes that “many RE [renewable energy] technologies have demonstrated substantial performance improvements and cost reductions” since it released its last assessment, back in 2007. The Department of Energy is willing to display a bit more open enthusiasm; it titled a report on clean energy released last year “Revolution Now.” That sounds like hyperbole, but you realize that it isn’t when you learn that the price of solar panels has fallen more than 75 percent just since 2008.

Thanks to this technological leap forward, the climate panel can talk about “decarbonizing” electricity generation as a realistic goal — and since coal-fired power plants are a very large part of the climate problem, that’s a big part of the solution right there.

It’s even possible that decarbonizing will take place without special encouragement, but we can’t and shouldn’t count on that. The point, instead, is that drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are now within fairly easy reach.

So is the climate threat solved? Well, it should be. The science is solid; the technology is there; the economics look far more favorable than anyone expected. All that stands in the way of saving the planet is a combination of ignorance, prejudice and vested interests. What could go wrong? Oh, wait.

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

April 15, 2014

In “A Long Obedience” Bobo gurgles that we often hear the story of Passover as a tale of liberation, but its richest core truth is one of joyful obedience.  “Stu Freeman” of Brooklyn, NY had this to say in the comments:  “Only a Republican could come up with a biblical interpretation like this: “‘Shut Up And Do As I Tell You’ said Moses to the Hebrews.” And the rich and the powerful inherited the earth and made the laws that the rest of us must follow. Thank you, David.”  I’ll warn you – Bobo uses the phrase “sweet compulsion” toward the end of his gurgling…  Mr. Nocera, in “C.E.O. Pay Goes Up, Up and Away!”, says so much for getting executive compensation under control.  Mr. Bruni ponders “The Oldest Hatred, Forever Young” and says well beyond Kansas, anti-Semitism persists.  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

Monday night was the start of Passover, the period when Jews celebrate the liberation of the Israelites from slavery into freedom.

This is the part of the Exodus story that sits most easily with modern culture. We like stories of people who shake off the yoke of oppression and taste the first bliss of liberty. We like it when masses of freedom-yearning people gather in city squares in Beijing, Tehran, Cairo or Kiev.

But that’s not all the Exodus story is, or not even mainly what it is. When John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin wanted to put Moses as a central figure on the Great Seal of the United States, they were not celebrating him as a liberator, but as a re-binder. It wasn’t just that he led the Israelites out of one set of unjust laws. It was that he re-bound them with another set of laws. Liberating to freedom is the easy part. Re-binding with just order and accepted compulsion is the hard part.

America’s founders understood that when you are creating a social order, the first people who need to be bound down are the leaders themselves.

The Moses of Exodus is not some majestic, charismatic, Charlton Heston-type hero who can be trusted to run things. He’s a deeply flawed person like the rest of us. He’s passive. He’s afraid of snakes. He’s a poor speaker. He whines, and he’s sometimes angry and depressed. He’s meek.

The first time Moses tries to strike out against Egyptian oppression, he does it rashly and on his own, and he totally messes it up. He sees an Egyptian soldier cruelly mistreating a Hebrew slave. He looks this way and that, to make sure nobody is watching. Then he kills the Egyptian and hides his body in the sand.

It’s a well-intentioned act of just rebellion, but it’s done without order, a plan or a strategy. Even the Israelites don’t admire it. They just think Moses is violent and impetuous. Moses has to flee into exile. The lesson some draw is that even well-motivated acts of liberation have to be done under the structure of control and authority.

Even after he’s summoned to lead his people at the burning bush, Moses has still not fully learned this lesson. He rushes off to his task, but he doesn’t pause to circumcise his son — the act that symbolizes the covenant with God. A leader who isn’t himself obedient to the rules is not going to be effective, so God tries to kill Moses. Fortunately, Moses’s wife, Zipporah, grabs a sharp stone and does the deed.

This is a vision of obedient leadership. Leaders in the ancient world, like leaders today, tried to project an image of pompous majesty and mastery. But Moses was to exemplify the quality of “anivut.” Anivut, Rabbi Norman Lamm once wrote, “means a soft answer to a harsh challenge; silence in the face of abuse; graciousness when receiving honor; dignity in response to humiliation; restraint in the presence of provocation; forbearance and quiet calm when confronted with calumny and carping criticism.”

Just as leaders need binding, so do regular people. The Israelites in Exodus whine; they groan; they rebel for petty reasons. When they are lost in a moral wilderness, they immediately construct an idol to worship and give meaning to their lives.

But Exodus is a reminder that statecraft is soulcraft, that good laws can nurture better people. Even Jews have different takes on how exactly one must observe the 613 commandments, but the general vision is that the laws serve many practical and spiritual purposes. For example, they provide a comforting structure for daily life. If you are nervous about the transitions in your life, the moments when you go through a door post, literally or metaphorically, the laws will give you something to do in those moments and ease you on your way.

The laws tame the ego and create habits of deference by reminding you of your subordination to something permanent. The laws spiritualize matter, so that something very normal, like having a meal, has a sacred component to it. The laws build community by anchoring belief in common practices. The laws moderate religious zeal; faith is not expressed in fiery acts but in everyday habits. The laws moderate the pleasures; they create guardrails that are meant to restrain people from going off to emotional or sensual extremes.

The 20th-century philosopher Eliyahu Dessler wrote, “the ultimate aim of all our service is to graduate from freedom to compulsion.” Exodus provides a vision of movement that is different from mere escape and liberation. The Israelites are simultaneously moving away and being bound upward. Exodus provides a vision of a life marked by travel and change but simultaneously by sweet compulsions, whether it’s the compulsions of love, friendship, family, citizenship, faith, a profession or a people.

One wonders how many of the mitzvot Bobo feels “sweetly compelled” to actually follow.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

At 79, Graef “Bud” Crystal is the grand old man of executive compensation critics. Once a top compensation consultant, he switched sides in the 1980s, becoming a fierce critic of many of the practices he helped institutionalize, and analyzing executive pay for other media like Fortune and, most recently, Bloomberg News. He’s been known to call his second career “atoning for my sins.”

The other day, Crystal was recalling what it used to be like trying to cobble together pay information about a chief executive based on reading the disclosure documents required by the Securities and Exchange Commission. There was no rhyme or reason to the way the numbers were put together, and shareholders were often left scratching their heads.

“I remember writing an article for Fortune in the late 1980s, using Goizueta’s pay at Coca-Cola,” Crystal told me. (Roberto Goizueta was the chief executive of Coke from 1981 until his death in 1997.) The proxy statement showed that he made $800,000 that year in salary. But about 15 pages later, it showed that he had received an additional $56 million in stock options. Except that, instead of being written numerically, the option grant was spelled out, thus easy to overlook. “It was deliberate obfuscation,” said Crystal.

For the most part, it isn’t like that anymore. In the mid-2000s, the S.E.C. passed rules forcing companies to place all the compensation information for top executives in one place. There were people who thought that this effort at pay “transparency” would help get C.E.O. compensation under control — in effect shaming compensation committees and chief executives from letting executive pay get any more out of hand than it already was.

Not exactly how it turned out, is it?

On Sunday, The New York Times published its annual list of the compensation of the top executives at the 100 largest publicly traded American companies. (The survey is conducted by Equilar for The Times.) Topping the list, as he often has, was Larry Ellison, the chief executive of Oracle, who, despite being the world’s fifth-wealthiest person, raked in an additional $78.4 million in 2013, a combination of cash, stock and stock options. That was more than twice as much as the second and third place finishers, Robert Iger of Disney and Rupert Murdoch of 21st Century Fox. Not that they had anything to complain about, at $34.3 million and $26.1 million respectively.

The Times reported that the median compensation for C.E.O.’s in 2013 was $13.9 million, a 9 percent increase from 2012. The Wall Street Journal, which did its own, smaller survey a few weeks earlier, described the 2013 pay increases as representing “moderate growth.”

Nell Minow, another longtime critic of corporate governance and executive compensation practices, told me that the last time she harbored hope that executive pay might be brought under control was 1993. That was the year that Congress passed a bill capping cash compensation at $1 million. But the law also exempted pay that was based on “performance.”

Two things resulted. “Immediately, everybody got a raise to $1 million,” said Minow. And, second, company boards began setting performance measures that were easy to clear — and larding pay packages with huge stock option grants. “I hadn’t realized how easy it would be to manipulate performance measures,” Minow said.

Since then, nothing has stopped executive compensation from rising. When the market fell after the financial crisis, many companies gave their chief executives big option grants to “make up for” what they’d lost. When performance measures were toughened, chief executives responded by demanding larger grants because they were taking more “risk.”

It’s a rigged game. When the company’s stock goes up, says Crystal, the chief executive views himself as a hero. And when it goes down, “it’s Janet Yellen’s or Barack Obama’s fault.”

Plus, there’s simple greed. When I asked Crystal about Ellison’s pay package, he laughed. “There are billionaires like Warren Buffett and Larry Page who don’t pig out,” he said. (As the chief executive of Google, co-founder Page takes a $1 annual salary.) “But there are others who can’t keep their hands off the dough. Ellison is in that category.”

Soon enough, the S.E.C. is going to require yet another disclosure. As a result of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, companies will have to publish a ratio comparing the chief executive’s pay to the median pay of the company’s employees. At most large American corporations, the ratio is likely to be very high, hinting at how corrosive these huge executive pay packages have become, and the degree to which they play a role in furthering income inequality, a point made in “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the new book by Thomas Piketty, the economist. The ratio is going to make people mad.

But will it reduce executive pay? We already know the answer to that.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Most of the hate crimes in the United States don’t take the fatal form that the shootings in Kansas over the weekend did, and most aren’t perpetrated by villains as bloated with rage and blinded by conspiracy theories as the person accused in this case, Frazier Glenn Miller. He’s an extreme, not an emblem.

This is someone who went on Howard Stern’s radio show four years ago (why, Howard, did you even hand him that megaphone?) and called Adolf Hitler “the greatest man who ever walked the earth.” When Stern asked Miller whether he had more intense antipathy for Jews or for blacks (why that question?), Miller chose the Jews, definitely the Jews, “a thousand times more,” he said.

“Compared to our Jewish problem, all other problems are mere distractions,” he declaimed, and he apparently wasn’t just spouting off. He was gearing up.

On Sunday, according to the police, he drove to a Jewish community center in Overland Park, Kan., and opened fire, then moved on to a nearby Jewish retirement home and did the same. Three people were killed.

They were Christian, as it happens. When hatred is loosed, we’re all in the crossfire.

On Monday, as law enforcement officials formally branded what happened in Kansas a hate crime, I looked at the spectrum of such offenses nationally: assault, intimidation, vandalism.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation keeps statistics, the most recent of which are for 2012. In the United States that year there were 6,573 hate-crime incidents reported to the bureau (a fraction, no doubt, of all that occurred). While most were motivated by race, about 20 percent were motivated by the victims’ perceived religion — roughly the same percentage as those motivated by the victims’ presumed sexual orientation. I didn’t expect a number that high.

Nor did I expect this: Of the religion-prompted hate crimes, 65 percent were aimed at Jews, a share relatively unchanged from five years earlier (69 percent) and another five before that (65 percent). In contrast, 11 percent of religious-bias crimes in 2012 were against Muslims.

Our country has come so far from the anti-Semitism of decades ago that we tend to overlook the anti-Semitism that endures. We’ve moved on to fresher discussions, newer fears.

Following 9/11, there was enormous concern that all Muslims would be stereotyped and scapegoated, and this heightened sensitivity lingers. It partly explains what just happened at Brandeis University. The school had invited Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a celebrated advocate for Muslim women, to receive an honorary degree. But when some professors and students complained, citing statements of hers that seemed broadly derisive of Islam, the invitation was withdrawn. Clearly, university officials didn’t want their campus seen as a cradle or theater of Islamophobia.

But other college campuses in recent years have been theaters of anti-Israel discussions that occasionally veer toward, or bleed into, condemnations of Jews. And while we don’t have the anti-Semitism in our politics that some European countries do, there’s still bigotry under the surface. There are still caricatures that won’t die.

One of them flared last month on the Christian televangelist Pat Robertson’s TV show. His guest was a rabbi who, shockingly, was himself trafficking in the notion that Jews excel at making money. The rabbi said that a Jew wouldn’t squander a weekend tinkering with his car when he could hire a mechanic and concentrate on something else.

“It’s polishing diamonds, not fixing cars,” Robertson interjected.

Polishing diamonds?

In a 2013 survey of 1,200 American adults for the Anti-Defamation League, 14 percent agreed with the statement that “Jews have too much power” in our country, while 15 percent said Jews are “more willing to use shady practices” and 30 percent said that American Jews are “more loyal to Israel” than to the United States.

That’s disturbing, as is the way in which the Holocaust is minimized by its repeated invocation as an analogy. In separate comments this year, both the venture capitalist Tom Perkins and Kenneth Langone, one of the founders of Home Depot, said that the superrich in America were being vilified the way Jews in Nazi Germany had been.

It’s not just Kansas and the heartland where anti-Semitism, sometimes called the oldest hatred, stays young.

A story in The Times last year focused on an upstate New York community in which three Jewish families filed suit against the school district, citing harassment of Jewish students by their peers. The abuse included Nazi salutes and swastikas drawn on desks, on lockers, on a playground slide.

When a parent complained in 2011, the district’s superintendent responded, in an email: “Your expectations for changing inbred prejudice may be a bit unrealistic.”

Well, the only way to breed that prejudice out of the generations to come is never to shrug our shoulders like that — and never to avert our eyes.

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

April 8, 2014

Bobo has taken it upon himself to tell us “What Suffering Does.”  He gurgles that in a culture obsessed with happiness, we should remember that coming to terms with suffering is instructive to the soul.  “Gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “It’s hard to know exactly what Mr. Brooks is selling in this sermonette, but whenever conservatives wax philosophical about the benefits of suffering, I feel a little uneasy.”  As well you should, gemli, as well you should.  Mr. Nocera considers “G. M.’s Cobalt Crisis” and says how the company handles all the recalls and inquiries will show if anything has changed.  In “The Water Cooler Runs Dry” Mr. Bruni says with so much to watch and read and listen to, we have fewer cultural experiences in common.  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself in a bunch of conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.

But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.

Now, of course, it should be said that there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering. Just as failure is sometimes just failure (and not your path to becoming the next Steve Jobs) suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as quickly as possible.

But some people are clearly ennobled by it. Think of the way Franklin Roosevelt came back deeper and more empathetic after being struck with polio. Often, physical or social suffering can give people an outsider’s perspective, an attuned awareness of what other outsiders are enduring.

But the big thing that suffering does is it takes you outside of precisely that logic that the happiness mentality encourages. Happiness wants you to think about maximizing your benefits. Difficulty and suffering sends you on a different course.

First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.

Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquillity begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.

People in this circumstance often have the sense that they are swept up in some larger providence. Abraham Lincoln suffered through the pain of conducting a civil war, and he came out of that with the Second Inaugural. He emerged with this sense that there were deep currents of agony and redemption sweeping not just through him but through the nation as a whole, and that he was just an instrument for transcendent tasks.

It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call. They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. They often feel an overwhelming moral responsibility to respond well to it. People who seek this proper rejoinder to ordeal sense that they are at a deeper level than the level of happiness and individual utility. They don’t say, “Well, I’m feeling a lot of pain over the loss of my child. I should try to balance my hedonic account by going to a lot of parties and whooping it up.”

The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred. Parents who’ve lost a child start foundations. Lincoln sacrificed himself for the Union. Prisoners in the concentration camp with psychologist Viktor Frankl rededicated themselves to living up to the hopes and expectations of their loved ones, even though those loved ones might themselves already be dead.

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability. They hurl themselves deeper and gratefully into their art, loved ones and commitments.

The suffering involved in their tasks becomes a fearful gift and very different than that equal and other gift, happiness, conventionally defined.

I’ll just bet he “found himself in a bunch of conversations.”  More likely he wrenched a bunch of conversations in the direction he wanted them to go.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

The Chevrolet Cobalt is in many ways the perfect representation of the bad, old days of General Motors, when quality didn’t much matter, market share was more important than profitability, and financial decisions came before design and even safety decisions.

First manufactured in 2004, the car was a clunker from the start. “Owners complained about power steering failures, locks inexplicably opening and closing, doors jamming shut in the rain — even windows falling out,” according to Danielle Ivory and Rebecca R. Ruiz, writing in The Times last week.

And then there was the ignition defect that could cause the power to shut down, which led to a huge recall two months ago — and has spiraled the company into crisis. The more we learn about it — and with a handful of investigations underway, there is much that is not yet known — the worse G.M. looks.

The company apparently knew about the defect as far back as 2001, when it discovered the problem during testing of the Saturn Ion. It saw the problem again in 2004, as the Cobalt was about to be rolled out with the same ignition system. According to documents obtained in congressional investigations, engineers came up with a proposed fix, but it was nixed on the grounds that it was too expensive and would take too much time.

Finally, in 2006, engineers at General Motors appeared to have fixed the problem, but they did so without changing the part number, which is a shocking violation of engineering protocol, wrote Micheline Maynard at Forbes.com. It makes G.M. appear to have been engaged in subterfuge, hiding the fact that its ignition had been defective all those years.

Meanwhile, at least 13 people died in accidents that were clearly the result of the faulty ignition design. There are also another 140 people who died in accidents involving the Cobalt in which the cause is unknown. Yet for more than a decade, General Motors did nothing.

What makes this a particularly difficult crisis for G.M. is that it comes at a time when the company is trying to prove to the world that the old G.M. is dead. With a new chief executive in Mary Barra, 52, and a handful of newly designed cars, G.M. wants the world to believe that it has emerged from its bankruptcy as a smarter, nimbler, more transparent company. And maybe it has. But the Cobalt fiasco does not instill confidence; rather, it reminds people why General Motors had to be saved by the government in the first place.

On the one hand, Barra has met with the families of people who were killed in Cobalt accidents, something the old management would never have done. She has also hired Kenneth Feinberg, who has become famous for parceling out money to victims of 9/11 and the BP oil spill. He has been brought on to help the company figure out how to compensate victims and their families — a tricky bit of business since the company is legally off the hook for any accidents that took place prior to the 2009 bankruptcy. Of the many investigations into the Cobalt, one has been ordered by Barra herself, an internal review aimed at, among other things, answering the question of why General Motors took so long to order a recall. These are all gestures aimed at reinforcing the idea that this G.M. is a different kind of company.

On the other hand, Barra was forced to acknowledge before Congress that she hadn’t even known about the problem until the end of January — just a few weeks after she became the chief executive — when she was informed that the company planned a recall. She told Congress that General Motors was a place that had “silos,” and that information was too often not shared. She said so little of substance during her two days of congressional testimony last week that she came across as stonewalling at times. Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, accused her of presiding over “a culture of cover-up.” These are the kinds of moments that make you wonder if General Motors really has changed.

The Cobalt crisis will eventually fade. Feinberg will figure out how to pay victims. Plaintiffs’ lawyers will sue and settle. The investigations will be completed and the results announced. Presumably some heads will roll.

It is what happens over the ensuing months and years that will tell the tale of whether General Motors is truly a different company or whether this has all been for show. The government has sold its stake in G.M. The company is making money now. It is unquestionably a leaner, less bureaucratic place.

What it now needs to prove is that it makes cars that will cause us all to forget about the Cobalt. That’s when we’ll really know if it has changed.

What should happen is some folks who knew about the faulty switches being indicted for voluntary manslaughter.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

If you’re closing in on 50 but want to feel much, much older, teach a college course. I’m doing that now, at 49, and hardly a class goes by when I don’t make an allusion that prompts my students to stare at me as if I just dropped in from the Paleozoic era.

Last week I mentioned the movie “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Only one of the 16 students had heard of it. I summarized its significance, riffling through the Depression, with which they were familiar, and Jane Fonda’s career, with which they weren’t. “Barbarella” went sailing over their heads. I didn’t dare test my luck with talk of leg warmers and Ted Turner.

I once brought up Vanessa Redgrave. Blank stares. Greta Garbo. Ditto. We were a few minutes into a discussion of an essay that repeatedly invoked Proust’s madeleine when I realized that almost none of the students understood what the madeleine signified or, for that matter, who this Proust fellow was.

And these are young women and men bright and diligent enough to have gained admission to Princeton University, which is where our disconnect is playing out.

The bulk of that disconnect, obviously, is generational. Seemingly all of my students know who Gwyneth Paltrow is. And with another decade or two of reading and living and being subjected to fossils like me, they’ll assemble a richer inventory of knowledge and trivia, not all of it present-day.

But the pronounced narrowness of the cultural terrain that they and I share — the precise limits of the overlap — suggests something additional at work. In a wired world with hundreds of television channels, countless byways in cyberspace and all sorts of technological advances that permit each of us to customize his or her diet of entertainment and information, are common points of reference dwindling? Has the personal niche supplanted the public square?

Both literally and figuratively, the so-called water-cooler show is fading fast, a reality underscored by a fact that I stumbled across in last week’s edition of The New Yorker: In the mid-1970s, when the sitcom “All in the Family” was America’s top-rated television series, more than 50 million people would tune in to a given episode. That was in a country of about 215 million.

I checked on the No. 1 series for the 2012-13 television season. It was “NCIS,” an episode of which typically drew fewer than 22 million people, even counting those who watched a recording of it within a week of its broadcast. That’s out of nearly 318 million Americans now.

“NCIS” competes against an unprecedented bounty of original programming and more ways to see new and old shows than ever, what with cable networks, subscription services, YouTube, Apple TV and Aereo. Yahoo just announced that it was jumping into the fray and, like Netflix and Amazon, would develop its own shows.

In movies, there’s a bevy of boutique fare that never even opens in theaters but that you can order on demand at home. In music, streaming services and Internet and satellite radio stations showcase a dizzying array of songs and performers, few of whom attain widespread recognition. In books, self-publishing has contributed to a marked rise in the number of titles, but it doesn’t take an especially large crowd of readers for a book to become a best seller. Everyone’s on a different page.

With so very much to choose from, a person can stick to one or two preferred micro-genres and subsist entirely on them, while other people gorge on a completely different set of ingredients. You like “Housewives”? Savor them in multiple cities and accents. Food porn? Stuff yourself silly. Vampire fiction? The vein never runs dry.

I brought up this Balkanization of experience with Hendrik Hartog, the director of the American studies program at Princeton, and he noted that what’s happening in popular culture mirrors what has transpired at many elite universities, where survey courses in literature and history have given way to meditations on more focused themes.

“There’s enormous weight given to specialized knowledge,” he said. “It leaves an absence of connective tissue for students.” Not for nothing, he observed, does his Princeton colleague Daniel Rodgers, an emeritus professor of history, call this the “age of fracture.”

It has enormous upsides, and may be for the best. No single, potentially alienating cultural dogma holds sway. A person can find an individual lens and language through which his or her world comes alive.

And because makers of commercial entertainment don’t have to chase an increasingly apocryphal mass audience, they can produce cultish gems, like “Girls” on HBO and “Louie” on FX.

But each fosters a separate dialect. Finding a collective vocabulary becomes harder. Although I’m tempted to tell my students that they make me feel like the 2,000-year-old man, I won’t. I might have to fill them in first on Mel Brooks.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

March 21, 2014

Bobo is in Vancouver, BC at the TED conference.  In “Going Home Again” he says that Sting reminds us all that sometimes you have to gaze back into the past in order to move forward.  “Mark Thomason” of Clawson, MI had this to say in the comments:  “Republicans circling back to get inspiration from the past consistently see a past that never existed except in their own present imagination.  They then use that inspiration to hurt those who live here in the present, like Ryan and his memories of school lunches.”  In “Cold Man in the Kremlin” Mr. Cohen says Putin knows what he wants. The West does not. That’s why he’s winning.  Prof. Krugman looks at “The Timidity Trap” and says policy makers have good ideas in principle for tackling terrible economic conditions, yet they consistently go for half-measures in practice and kill all hope.  Here’s Bobo:

The TED conference is dedicated to innovation. Most of the people who give TED talks are working on some creative project: to invent new bionic limbs for amputees, new telescopes, new fusion reactors or new protest movements to reduce the power of money in politics.

The speakers generally live in hope and have the audacity of the technologist. Naturally enough, they believe fervently in their projects. “This will change everything!” they tell the crowds.

And there’s a certain suspension of disbelief as audiences get swept up in the fervor and feel themselves delightedly on the cutting edge. The future will be insanely great. Everything will change at the speed of Moore’s Law.

But at this year’s TED conference, which was held here in Vancouver, British Columbia, the rock star Sting got onstage and gave a presentation that had a different feel. He talked about his rise to stardom and then about a period in middle age when he was unable to write any new songs. The muse abandoned him, he said — for days, then weeks, then months, then years.

But then he went back and started thinking about his childhood in the north of England. He’d lived on a street that led down to a shipyard where some of the world’s largest ocean-going vessels were built.

Most of us have an urge, maybe more as we age, to circle back to the past and touch the places and things of childhood. When Sting did this, his creativity was reborn. Songs exploded from his head.

At TED, he sang some of those songs about that shipyard. He sang about the characters he remembers and his desire to get away from a life in that yard. These were songs from his musical “The Last Ship,” which he’s performed at The Public Theater and which is expected to arrive on Broadway in the fall.

Most TED talks are about the future, but Sting’s was about going into the past. The difference between the two modes of thinking stood in stark contrast. In the first place, it was clear how much richer historical consciousness is than future vision. When we think about the future, we don’t think about the texture and the tensions, the particular smells, shapes, conflicts — the dents in the floorboards. But Sting’s songs were about unique and unlikely individuals and life as it really is, as a constant process of bending hard iron.

Historical consciousness has a fullness of paradox that future imagination cannot match. When we think of the past, we think about the things that seemed bad at the time but turned out to be good in the long run. We think about the little things that seemed inconsequential in the moment but made all the difference.

Then it was obvious how regenerating going home again can be. Sting, like most people who do this, wasn’t going back to live in the past; he was circling back and coming forward.

Going back is a creative process. The events of childhood are like the Hebrew alphabet; the vowels are missing, and the older self has to make sense of them. Robert Frost’s famous poem about the two paths diverging in the woods isn’t only about the two paths. It also describes how older people go back in memory and impose narrative order on choices that didn’t seem so clear at the time.

The person going back home has to invent a coherent tradition out of discrete moments and tease out future implications. He has to see the world with two sets of eyes: the eyes of his own childhood self and the eyes of his current adult self. He has to circle back deeper inside and see parts of himself that were more exposed then than now. No wonder the process of going home again can be so catalyzing.

The process of going home is also reorienting. Life has a way of blowing you off course. People have a way of forgetting what they originally set out to do. Going back means recapturing the original aspirations. That’s one reason Jews go back to Exodus every year. It’s why Augustine went back during a moment of spiritual crisis and wrote a book about his original conversion. Heck, it’s why Miranda Lambert performs “The House That Built Me” — to remind herself of the love of music that preceded the trappings of stardom.

Sting’s appearance at TED was a nice reminder of how important it is to ground future vision in historical consciousness. Some of the TED speakers seemed hopeful and creative, but painfully and maybe necessarily naïve.

Sting’s talk was a reminder to go forward with a backward glance, to go one layer down into self and then after self-confrontation, to leap forward out of self. History is filled with revivals, led by people who were reinvigorated for the future by a reckoning with the past.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Stephen Hanson, the vice provost for international affairs at the College of William and Mary, summed up what life has been like these past decades for people in his line of work. “I’m a Russia specialist,” he said. “Nobody has been interested in me for 20 years.”

Sure, relations with Moscow could be prickly, and there was that bloody little invasion of Georgia in 2008 that led to Russia recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia (close to 20 percent of Georgia’s territory) as independent states, but the consensus was that the Cold War struggle with Moscow was over, replaced by a “reset” relationship that hovered somewhere between cooperation and rivalry but would not lapse again into the outright confrontation of two ideologies.

In this scenario, experts like Hanson were not in heavy demand. Their field had become secondary. Russia was 20th-century news. New members of NATO like Poland or Estonia squawked from time to time about the enduring threat from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but their anxieties were dismissed as the hangover of decades within the mind-twisting Soviet empire.

Nothing was so certain to put audiences to sleep as talk of “trans-Atlanticism” or the need for increasing European military budgets. As the trauma of 9/11 faded and America’s wars wound down, “pivot to Asia” became the modish geopolitical phrase in Washington. Pivot to Europe was a laughable idea.

None of this was lost on Putin, who actually meant it when he described the breakup of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, and for a decade and a half now has been intent on righting Russia’s perceived post-Cold-War humiliation in order to recreate, if not quite the Cold War, then a bipolar system in which Washington and Moscow offer opposing world views. Hanson says Putin “never embraced the borders of the Russian federation” and was always convinced “the West only likes leaders in Moscow, such as Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who weaken Russia.”

Putin’s push for a revived Soviet-like space reached its apotheosis (after the trial run in Georgia) with the annexation of Crimea (the German word for annexation is “Anschluss”), a watershed moment for Europe, where such an event had not happened since World War II. The Continent is once again combustible. The United States faces a foe in Moscow who laces his comments about America with contempt. This does not mean the Continent is about to lapse into war. It does mean trans-Atlantic unity is once again critical; imposing sanctions on a few second-level Putin lieutenants will not cut it as a Western response.

The language Putin understands is force and power. His meandering annexation speech made clear that he regards eastern Ukraine as wrongly usurped from Russia. If further Russian designs on Ukraine are to be stopped, President Obama has to respond to the Russian president in the idiom he understands. Providing U.S. Army rations as military support to Kiev amounts to history repeated as farce.

Ukraine, my colleague Michael Gordon reports, is seeking communications gear, mine-clearing equipment, vehicles, ammunition, fuel and medical gear, and the sharing of intelligence. Provide it. Hurt the oligarchs with their London mansions and untold billions parked in Western banks. Crimea may not be recoverable but the West must make clear it will not accept a Russian veto on E.U. and NATO expansion. But, some say, a firm response will end Russian cooperation on vital issues like Iran. Not so: Russia has its own interest in stopping nuclear proliferation, and even the Cold War did not preclude cooperation in some areas.

For Putin, “Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites” have seized power in Kiev. For Putin, “After the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet, we no longer have stability.” (Never mind that hundreds of millions of people gained their freedom.) The United States, the Russian president suggests, knows only “the rule of the gun.”

As during the Cold War, he will find his sympathizers and fellow travelers in the West with such paranoid gambits. Still, his words have to be taken seriously. They are those of a man trained in a totalitarian system and now proposing an alternative civilization of brutality, force, imperial expansion, systemic corruption, a cowed press, conspiracy theories and homophobia.

Tinatin Khidasheli, a member of the Georgian Parliament, told me: “After Georgia in 2008 I was asked what’s next and I said Ukraine and everyone laughed. But Putin was testing the West with us and saw he could proceed. People in Georgia are now very scared, and they are most scared of the inability of the West to give an adequate response. The only political consensus we have is that we want to join the E.U. and NATO, but in Brussels they don’t even want to call us a European state.”

Putin knows what he wants. A supine and disunited West does not. That’s why he’s winning — or has already won.

Last but not least we have Prof. Krugman:

There don’t seem to be any major economic crises underway right this moment, and policy makers in many places are patting themselves on the back. In Europe, for example, they’re crowing about Spain’s recovery: the country seems set to grow at least twice as fast this year as previously forecast.

Unfortunately, that means growth of 1 percent, versus 0.5 percent, in a deeply depressed economy with 55 percent youth unemployment. The fact that this can be considered good news just goes to show how accustomed we’ve grown to terrible economic conditions. We’re doing worse than anyone could have imagined a few years ago, yet people seem increasingly to be accepting this miserable situation as the new normal.

How did this happen? There were multiple reasons, of course. But I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately, in part because I’ve been asked to discuss a new assessment of Japan’s efforts to break out of its deflation trap. And I’d argue that an important source of failure was what I’ve taken to calling the timidity trap — the consistent tendency of policy makers who have the right ideas in principle to go for half-measures in practice, and the way this timidity ends up backfiring, politically and even economically.

In other words, Yeats had it right: the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

About the worst: If you’ve been following economic debates these past few years, you know that both America and Europe have powerful pain caucuses — influential groups fiercely opposed to any policy that might put the unemployed back to work. There are some important differences between the U.S. and European pain caucuses, but both now have truly impressive track records of being always wrong, never in doubt.

Thus, in America, we have a faction both on Wall Street and in Congress that has spent five years and more issuing lurid warnings about runaway inflation and soaring interest rates. You might think that the failure of any of these dire predictions to come true would inspire some second thoughts, but, after all these years, the same people are still being invited to testify, and are still saying the same things.

Meanwhile, in Europe, four years have passed since the Continent turned to harsh austerity programs. The architects of these programs told us not to worry about adverse impacts on jobs and growth — the economic effects would be positive, because austerity would inspire confidence. Needless to say, the confidence fairy never appeared, and the economic and social price has been immense. But no matter: all the serious people say that the beatings must continue until morale improves.

So what has been the response of the good guys?

For there are good guys out there, people who haven’t bought into the notion that nothing can or should be done about mass unemployment. The Obama administration’s heart — or, at any rate, its economic model — is in the right place. The Federal Reserve has pushed back against the springtime-for-Weimar, inflation-is-coming crowd. The International Monetary Fund has put out research debunking claims that austerity is painless. But these good guys never seem willing to go all-in on their beliefs.

The classic example is the Obama stimulus, which was obviously underpowered given the economy’s dire straits. That’s not 20/20 hindsight. Some of us warned right from the beginning that the plan would be inadequate — and that because it was being oversold, the persistence of high unemployment would end up discrediting the whole idea of stimulus in the public mind. And so it proved.

What’s not as well known is that the Fed has, in its own way, done the same thing. From the start, monetary officials ruled out the kinds of monetary policies most likely to work — in particular, anything that might signal a willingness to tolerate somewhat higher inflation, at least temporarily. As a result, the policies they have followed have fallen short of hopes, and ended up leaving the impression that nothing much can be done.

And the same may be true even in Japan — the case that motivated this article. Japan has made a radical break with past policies, finally adopting the kind of aggressive monetary stimulus Western economists have been urging for 15 years and more. Yet there’s still a diffidence about the whole business, a tendency to set things like inflation targets lower than the situation really demands. And this increases the risk that Japan will fail to achieve “liftoff” — that the boost it gets from the new policies won’t be enough to really break free from deflation.

You might ask why the good guys have been so timid, the bad guys so self-confident. I suspect that the answer has a lot to do with class interests. But that will have to be a subject for another column.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

March 14, 2014

Oh, dear.  Bobo is trying to “do science” again.  In “The Deepest Self” he gurgles that the evolutionary view on human nature sells humanity short.  “Michael” from Los Angeles said this in the comments:  “Mr. Brooks’s understanding of evolutionary neurobiology is as shallow as his understanding of psychology and sociology. He finds snippets of science to build a case for his view of human nature that is essentially a reflection of his own biases.”  Mr. Cohen, in “The Agent in His Labyrinth,” says Putin exploits Western weakness, then confronts his own.  Prof. Krugman considers the “Fear of Wages” and says the troubling crusade against full employment raises the question: What’s wrong with rising wages, anyway?  Here’s Bobo:

There is, by now, a large literature on the chemistry and biology of love and sex. If you dive into that literature, you learn pretty quickly that our love lives are biased by all sorts of deep unconscious processes. When men become fathers, their testosterone levels drop, thus reducing their sex drive. There’s some evidence that it’s the smell of their own infants (but not other people’s infants) that sets this off.

Women, meanwhile, have different tastes at different times in their cycles. During ovulation, according to some research, they prefer ruggedly handsome and risky men, while at other times they are more drawn to pleasant-looking, nice men.

When men look at pictures of naked women, their startle response to loud noises diminishes. It seems that the dopamine surge mutes the prefrontal cortex, and they become less alert to danger and risk.

This literature sometimes reduces the profound and transformational power of love into a series of mating strategies. But it also, like so much of the literature across psychology and the cognitive sciences these days, reinforces a specific view of human nature. We have two systems inside, one on top of the other.

Deep in the core of our being there are the unconscious natural processes built in by evolution. These deep unconscious processes propel us to procreate or strut or think in certain ways, often impulsively. Then, at the top, we have our conscious, rational processes. This top layer does its best to exercise some restraint and executive function.

This evolutionary description has become the primary way we understand ourselves. Deep down we are mammals with unconscious instincts and drives. Up top there’s a relatively recent layer of rationality. Yet in conversation when we say someone is deep, that they have a deep mind or a deep heart, we don’t mean that they are animalistic or impulsive. We mean the opposite. When we say that someone is a deep person, we mean they have achieved a quiet, dependable mind by being rooted in something spiritual and permanent.

A person of deep character has certain qualities: in the realm of intellect, she has permanent convictions about fundamental things; in the realm of emotions, she has a web of unconditional loves; in the realm of action, she has permanent commitments to transcendent projects that cannot be completed in a single lifetime.

There’s great wisdom embedded in this conversational understanding of depth, and it should cause us to amend the System 1/System 2 image of human nature that we are getting from evolutionary biology. Specifically, it should cause us to make a sharp distinction between origins and depth.

We originate with certain biological predispositions. These can include erotic predispositions (we’re aroused by people who send off fertility or status cues), or they can be cognitive (like loss aversion).

But depth, the core of our being, is something we cultivate over time. We form relationships that either turn the core piece of ourselves into something more stable and disciplined or something more fragmented and disorderly. We begin with our natural biases but carve out depths according to the quality of the commitments we make. Our origins are natural; our depths are man-made — engraved by thought and action.

This amendment seems worth making because the strictly evolutionary view of human nature sells humanity short. It leaves the impression that we are just slightly higher animals — thousands of years of evolutionary processes capped by a thin layer of rationality. It lops off entire regions of human possibility.

In fact, while we are animals, we have much higher opportunities. While we start with and are influenced by evolutionary forces, people also have the chance to make themselves deep in a way not explicable in strictly evolutionary terms.

So much of what we call depth is built through freely chosen suffering. People make commitments — to a nation, faith, calling or loved ones — and endure the sacrifices those commitments demand. Often this depth is built by fighting against natural evolutionary predispositions.

So much of our own understanding of our depth occurs later in life, also amid suffering. The theologian Paul Tillich has a great essay in “Shaking the Foundations” in which he observes that during moments of suffering, people discover they are not what they appeared to be. The suffering scours away a floor inside themselves, exposing a deeper level, and then that floor gets scoured away and another deeper level is revealed. Finally, people get down to the core wounds and the core loves.

Babies are not deep. Old people can be, depending upon how they have chosen to lead their lives. Babies start out very natural. The people we admire are rooted in nature but have surpassed nature. Often they grew up in cultures that encouraged them to take a loftier view of their possibilities than we do today.

He’s such a pretentious foof.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

The dream flickered briefly after the end of the Cold War: a shared space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, Russia gathered into a close association with NATO, or even becoming an alliance member, and the European Union working in cooperation with Moscow on the modernization of the country.

It was a nice idea, like the end of history, and as with many nice ideas, it did not come to pass.

Vladimir Putin, a former K.G.B. agent obsessed with the loss of the Soviet imperium, had a different idea: to define himself and the motherland against the West by casting it as promiscuous and devious, a power lacking true virility and cloaking its interests in empty talk of human rights, advancing to the very gates of Russia through deception and intrigue.

The Russian president’s vision of a revived imperium developed around four pillars. The first was military (the liquidation of Grozny, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and now the drive to annex Crimea). The second was political (drawing the countries of the former Soviet Union into an autocratic Eurasian Union). The third was economic (Russian gas as a tool of coercion and oligarchs’ money as suasion from Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm to London’s Knightsbridge). The fourth was cultural (a heady blend of Orthodoxy and autocracy as expressions of Russian purity and strength against the nihilistic decadence of Europe and the United States).

The culmination of this process sees Putin the bare-chested muscleman of the Siberian outback pitted against America’s languid leg-crossing law professor and the pastor’s methodical daughter in Berlin. Neither of these leaders of the West (whose feelings for each other are cool) will utter of Crimea those four resonant words: “This will not stand.”

Putin notices this unuttered sentence. He notes the flaccid body language in the White House, the post-modern man’s teleprompter, the bloodlessness of the liberal realism emanating from the Oval Office. He hears the Kremlin phone ring and mutters, no, not Angela again, with her reasonable pleas. Germany, unified by America but nullified by it too, was far better when there were two of them.

He has heard the lectures, the veiled and not-so-veiled threats, the expressions of outrage. Let them squeal! He is not going to let that loser of an ousted Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, lose him Crimea to the “Nazis” and pederasts of Kiev, or the oily Beltway-to-Berlin human rights agents, those peddlers of false promises and color revolutions.

Putin laughs at the theory that the West lost the Lisbon-to-Vladivostok dream and turned him into the conspiracy-spouting strongman he is through its provocative failure to reach out to Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall, its decision to expand NATO eastward into the Baltic states, its enlargement of the European Union, and its general lack of solicitous regard toward Moscow.

No, he was always this way, schooled in Russia’s particular greatness and vastness, its immense sacrifice in the Great Patriotic War, its pursuit of power through ideology. And power, as America knows, must be defined against something or it becomes uninteresting and unpersuasive. The mistake was Russia’s, not the West’s. How could it have stood by while NATO locked in the security and Westward-looking stability of the Soviet empire’s former dominions, from Estonia to Poland, from Latvia to Romania? As a man dedicated to the projection of power, he had to admire the temerity and brilliance of this post-Cold-War American advance.

But America had grown weaker since then. Its wars did not get won. Its red lines did not count for much. Its doctrine was indistinct, an endless series of improvisations whose bottom line was no more shooting wars. All it threatened was visa bans! Weakness was an attitude against which Russia had roused itself. First stop Simferopol, next stop Donetsk!

Putin knows Germany and the United States need him for Iran, need him for Syria, need him for Russia’s energy. He has them where he wants them.

Or Putin thinks so most of the time. But what was it Angela Merkel was saying in her fifth phone call about Russia’s self-isolation? How dare she suggest he had reached a point where black was white, day was night, and two plus two was five!

What was she parroting about Russia’s dependence on European trade? What was that talk of testing the resilience of the Russian economy if he did not step back from the illegal seizure of Crimea and unacceptable threats to east Ukraine? Were the Chinese really unhappy that Crimea could give Taiwan ideas? Did some people honestly think Simferopol was the desperate gambit of a Russian president who had lost Kiev and Ukraine?

Every now and again, in the gilded mirrors of the Kremlin, Putin glimpses his reflection and struggles to avert his eyes: a small man with six-pack abs, eyes cold and pale as a glacier, and a maniacal grin. The agent in his labyrinth.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Four years ago, some of us watched with a mixture of incredulity and horror as elite discussion of economic policy went completely off the rails. Over the course of just a few months, influential people all over the Western world convinced themselves and each other that budget deficits were an existential threat, trumping any and all concern about mass unemployment. The result was a turn to fiscal austerity that deepened and prolonged the economic crisis, inflicting immense suffering.

And now it’s happening again. Suddenly, it seems as if all the serious people are telling each other that despite high unemployment there’s hardly any “slack” in labor markets — as evidenced by a supposed surge in wages — and that the Federal Reserve needs to start raising interest rates very soon to head off the danger of inflation.

To be fair, those making the case for monetary tightening are more thoughtful and less overtly political than the archons of austerity who drove the last wrong turn in policy. But the advice they’re giving could be just as destructive.

O.K., where is this coming from?

The starting point for this turn in elite opinion is the assertion that wages, after stagnating for years, have started to rise rapidly. And it’s true that one popular measure of wages has indeed picked up, with an especially large bump last month.

But that bump is probably a snow-related statistical illusion. As economists at Goldman Sachs have pointed out, average wages normally jump in bad weather — not because anyone’s wages actually rise, but because the workers idled by snow and storms tend to be less well-paid than those who aren’t affected.

Beyond that, we have multiple measures of wages, and only one of them is showing a notable uptick. It’s far from clear that the alleged wage acceleration is even happening.

And what’s wrong with rising wages, anyway? In the past, wage increases of around 4 percent a year — more than twice the current rate — have been consistent with low inflation. And there’s a very good case for raising the Fed’s inflation target, which would mean seeking faster wage growth, say 5 percent or 6 percent per year. Why? Because even the International Monetary Fund now warns against the dangers of “lowflation”: too low an inflation rate puts the economy at risk of Japanification, of getting caught in a trap of economic stagnation and intractable debt.

Over all, then, while it’s possible to argue that we’re running out of labor slack, it’s also possible to argue the opposite, and either way the prudent thing would surely be to wait: Wait until there’s solid evidence of rising wages, then wait some more until wage growth is at least back to precrisis levels and preferably higher.

Yet for some reason there’s a growing drumbeat of demands that we not wait, that we get ready to raise interest rates right away or at least very soon. What’s that about?

Part of the answer, I’d submit, is that for some people it’s always 1979. That is, they’re eternally vigilant against the danger of a runaway wage-price spiral, and somehow they haven’t noticed that nothing like that has happened for decades. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe it’s because a 1970s-style crisis fits their ideological preconceptions, but the phantom menace of stagflation still has an outsized influence on economic debate.

Then there’s sado-monetarism: the sense, all too common among in banking circles, that inflicting pain is ipso facto good. There are some people and institutions — for example, the Basel-based Bank for International Settlements — that always want to see interest rates go up. Their rationale is ever-changing — it’s commodity prices; no, it’s financial stability; no, it’s wages — but the recommended policy is always the same.

Finally, although the current monetary debate isn’t as openly political as the previous fiscal debate, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that class interests are playing a role. A fair number of commentators seem oddly upset by the notion of workers getting raises, especially while returns to bondholders remain low. It’s almost as if they identify with the investor class, and feel uncomfortable with anything that brings us close to full employment, and thereby gives workers more bargaining power.

Whatever the underlying motives, tightening the monetary screws anytime soon would be a very, very bad idea. We are slowly, painfully, emerging from the worst slump since the Great Depression. It wouldn’t take much to abort the recovery, and, if that were to happen, we would almost certainly be Japanified, stuck in a trap that might last decades.

Is wage growth actually taking off? That’s far from clear. But if it is, we should see rising wages as a development to cheer and promote, not a threat to be squashed with tight money.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

January 31, 2014

In “The Opportunity Coalition” Bobo gurgles that President Obama should devote the remainder of his term to building governing structures for future presidents for years to come.  I guess he’s in a bit of a flop sweat over the idea of executive action…  “Michael” from Los Angeles had this to say in the comments:  “Aw, c’mon, the Whigs are your model for politics in the 21st century? That is almost as ridiculous as building a coalition with Republicans, whose platform consists of divide and destroy.”  Mr. Cohen offers “A Middle Eastern Primer” and says foreign policy is a posh term for managing contradictions.  Prof. Krugman is “Talking Troubled Turkey” and says the last thing we needed right now was a new economic crisis in a country overwhelmed with political turmoil. Haven’t we heard this one before?  Here’s Bobo, all full of “useful” suggestions:

President Obama can spend the remainder of his term planting a few more high-tech hubs, working on reforming the patent law and doing the other modest things he mentioned in his State of the Union address. And if he did that, he might do some marginal good, and he would manage the stately decline of his presidency during its final few years.

Or, alternately, he can realize that he is now at a moment of liberation. For the past five years he has been inhibited by the need to please donors, to cater to various Congressional constituencies and to play by Washington rules.

But the legislating phase of his presidency is now pretty much over. Over the next few years he will be free to think beyond legislation, beyond fund-raising, beyond the necessities of the day-to-day partisanship. He will have the platform and power of the presidency, but, especially after the midterms, fewer short-term political obligations.

This means he will have the opportunity to build what he himself could have used over the past few years: An Opportunity Coalition. He’ll have the chance to organize bipartisan groups of mayors, business leaders, legislators, activists and donors into permanent alliances and institutions that will formulate, lobby for, fund and promote opportunity and social mobility agendas for decades to come.

There are already signs that President Obama is stepping back to take the long view. In his interviews with David Remnick of The New Yorker, he observed that the president is “essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids.” You are trying to do your leg and pass things along to the next swimmer. As president, he’s been made aware of how little a president can accomplish unless there is organized support from the outside. Obama now has the chance to build that support for future presidents, on the issues that concern him most.

He might start, for example, by scrambling the current political categories. We now have one liberal tradition that believes in using government to enhance equality. We have another conservative tradition that believes in limiting government to enhance freedom. These two traditions have fought to a standstill and prevented Obama from passing much domestic legislation of late.

But there is a third ancient tradition that weaves through American history, geared directly at enhancing opportunity and social mobility. This is the Whig tradition, which begins with people like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln. This tradition believes in using the power of government to give marginalized Americans the tools to compete in a capitalist economy.

The Whigs fought against the divisive populist Jacksonians. They argued that it is better to help people move between classes than to pit classes against each other. They also transcended our current political divisions.

The Whigs were interventionist in economics while they were traditionalist and family-oriented in their moral and social attitudes. They believed America should step boldly into the industrial age, even as they championed cultural order. The Whigs championed large infrastructure projects and significant public investments, even as they believed in sacred property rights. They believed in expanding immigration along with assimilation and cohesion.

President Obama could travel the country modernizing the Whig impulse, questioning current divisions and eroding the rigid battle lines. More concretely, he could create a group of Simpson-Bowles-type commissions — with legislators, mayors, governors and others brought together to offer concrete proposals on mobility issues from the beginning to the end of the life span:

Is there a way to improve family patterns so disadvantaged young children grow up in more ordered environments? Is there a way to improve Head Start and intelligently expand early childhood education? Is there a way to structure neighborhoods so that teenagers are more likely to thrive? Is there a way to get young men wage subsidies so they are worth marrying? Is there a way to train or provide jobs for unemployed middle-aged workers?

These commissions could issue their reports in the spring of 2016, to make life maximally difficult for the next presidential candidates.

President Obama could also credential a different style of public sector leader. If you are trying to pass legislation, you staff your administration with political operatives. But if you are trying to change the discussion and mobilize the country, you hire and promote social entrepreneurs, people from Ashoka, Teach for America, Opportunity International, the International Justice Mission and the Clinton Global Initiative. Once hired in this White House, these people will be filling senior government jobs for decades to come.

President Obama began his career as an organizer. His mobility agenda floundered because the governing majority he needed to push it forward does not exist. He has the chance to remedy that, to organize, to convene, to build, and to make life a lot easier for the next swimmer in the race.

Anything to keep him from, you know, acting…  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Gstaad, Switzerland:

Events in the new Middle East, which is located in western Asia like the old Middle East, can seem confusing. In the belief that clarity leads to understanding, which in turn leads to good policy, here is a primer for the region.

1) The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 because of its weapons of mass destruction program. However, Iraq did not have any weapons of mass destruction. The invasion brought the Shiite (see below) majority to power, so advancing the interests of Shiite Iran, America’s enemy. It ousted the Sunnis, upsetting the Sunni-Shiite balance in the Middle East. This infuriated Sunni Saudi Arabia, America’s ally (in theory).

2) To redress the balance, the wealthy Saudi royal family backs Sunni Islamists in Syria against the country’s despot, Bashar al-Assad (who is from the quasi-Shiite Alawite sect), but at the same time is bankrolling the destruction of Sunni Islamists in Egypt. This wrong sort of Sunnis, known as the Muslim Brotherhood, commits the ultimate lèse-majesté of believing in the ballot box as a source of authority rather than royal lineage.

3) In the aftermath of the Arab Spring (see below) the three main Arab states — Egypt, Syria and Iraq — are in disarray. The functioning or semi-functioning states in the Middle East are non-Arab: Israel, Turkey and Iran. Israel has been in a stop-go war with Arabs since 1948 over claims to the same land but is most angry with Iran, which is not Arab, not Sunni and not on its border.

4) Sunni-Shiite tensions have escalated through the Syrian war. They are now regional. The Sykes-Picot Middle Eastern order is in tatters. Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot were dyspeptic European diplomats who drew lines on maps that became the borders of the modern Middle East (don’t sweat the details).

5) Let’s talk Turkey: It backs the Sunni fighters battling to oust Assad in Syria. But it is close to Iran, which supports Assad against this very Sunni insurgency. The Turkish government is furious about a military coup in Egypt that last year ousted a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president. The United States declines to call this coup a coup. It is wise not to ask why if you plan to visit Egypt, which you probably don’t.

6) Think of the Middle East as a huge arms bazaar. The United States plans to sell Apache helicopters to the Shiite government of Iraq, with which to suppress Sunni revanchist stirrings, while the United States is (sort of) supporting the Sunnis against the Shiite-backed Assad in Syria.

7) Saudi Arabia thinks the United States is not backing the Sunnis enough in Syria. The Saudis blame Iran for everything, including (but not limited to) unrest in Bahrain, the Arab Spring, terrorism and the melting of the polar ice cap. The Sunni Wahhabi Islamism trafficked by the Saudi royal family sees Zionism as its enemy. However, Saudi views are often identical to Israeli views (again, don’t sweat the details).

8) Like the old Middle East the new Middle East has a cottage industry called the peace process. This involves Israelis, Palestinians and various mediators, principally the United States. Palestinians are represented by the Palestinian Authority, an authority that has no authority over Palestinians in Gaza, no democratic legitimacy, and no obvious claim to represent anything but itself.

9) Israel has a nuclear deterrent but tries to pretend it does not because if it did it could presumably deter Iran, which does not have a nuclear weapon. The United States and Israel have agreed never to talk about the Jewish state’s alleged nuclear weapons (again, don’t ask).

10) The Arab Spring happened three years ago. Several nasty despots were swept out. This event demonstrated that nobody controls the new Middle East: No nation could produce that much change that fast. The revolutions produced a vacuum. Sectarianism loves a vacuum. Sectarianism means looking out for your own and brutalizing the rest (see Egypt, Syria etc.).

11) Iran is a theocracy. The supreme leader stands in for the hidden imam, who disappeared long ago but could show up any time. (Sunnis and Shiites had an inheritance wrangle after Muhammad’s death in 632, which led to a split. One thing they don’t agree about is the hidden imam.) Iran has something called a nuclear issue. The United States and other powers have reached an interim nuclear accord with Iran opposed by Israel, Saudi Arabia, the largest American pro-Israel lobby, and many members of the U.S. Congress who have drafted a bill President Obama vows to veto that says America should “stand with Israel” and provide “diplomatic, military and economic support” to Israel if it goes to war with Iran, which it has been threatening to do for a very long time.

12) Got it now? Good. If not, don’t worry. Foreign policy is a posh term for managing contradictions.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

O.K., who ordered that? With everything else going on, the last thing we needed was a new economic crisis in a country already racked by political turmoil. True, the direct global spillovers from Turkey, with its Los Angeles-sized economy, won’t be large. But we’re hearing that dreaded word “contagion” — the kind of contagion that once caused a crisis in Thailand to spread across Asia, more recently caused a crisis in Greece to spread across Europe, and now, everyone worries, might cause Turkey’s troubles to spread across the world’s emerging markets.

It is, in many ways, a familiar story. But that’s part of what makes it so disturbing: Why do we keep having these crises? And here’s the thing: The intervals between crises seem to be getting shorter, and the fallout from each crisis seems to be worse than the last. What’s going on?

Before I get to Turkey, a brief history of global financial crises.

For a generation after World War II, the world financial system was, by modern standards, remarkably crisis-free — probably because most countries placed restrictions on cross-border capital flows, so that international borrowing and lending were limited. In the late 1970s, however, deregulation and rising banker aggressiveness led to a surge of funds into Latin America, followed by what’s known in the trade as a “sudden stop” in 1982 — and a crisis that led to a decade of economic stagnation.

Latin America eventually returned to growth (although Mexico had a nasty relapse in 1994), but, in the 1990s, a bigger version of the same story unfolded in Asia: Huge money inflows followed by a sudden stop and economic implosion. Some of the Asian economies bounced back quickly, but investment never fully recovered, and neither did growth.

Most recently, yet another version of the story has played out within Europe, with a rush of money into Greece, Spain and Portugal, followed by a sudden stop and immense economic pain.

As I said, although the outline of the story remains the same, the effects keep getting worse. Real output fell 4 percent during Mexico’s crisis of 1981-83; it fell 14 percent in Indonesia from 1997 to 1998; it has fallen more than 23 percent in Greece.

So is an even worse crisis brewing? The fundamentals are slightly reassuring; Turkey, in particular, has low government debt, and while businesses have borrowed a lot from abroad, the overall financial situation doesn’t look that bad. But each previous crisis defied sanguine expectations. And the same forces that sent money sloshing into Turkey also make the world economy as a whole highly vulnerable.

You may or may not have heard that there’s a big debate among economists about whether we face “secular stagnation.” What’s that? Well, one way to describe it is as a situation in which the amount people want to save exceeds the volume of investments worth making.

When that’s true, you have one of two outcomes. If investors are being cautious and prudent, we are collectively, in effect, trying to spend less than our income, and since my spending is your income and your spending is my income, the result is a persistent slump.

Alternatively, flailing investors — frustrated by low returns and desperate for yield — can delude themselves, pouring money into ill-conceived projects, be they subprime lending or capital flows to emerging markets. This can boost the economy for a while, but eventually investors face reality, the money dries up and pain follows.

If this is a good description of our situation, and I believe it is, we now have a world economy destined to seesaw between bubbles and depression. And that’s not an encouraging thought as we watch what looks like an emerging-markets bubble burst.

The larger point is that Turkey isn’t really the problem; neither are South Africa, Russia, Hungary, India, and whoever else is getting hit right now. The real problem is that the world’s wealthy economies — the United States, the euro area, and smaller players, too — have failed to deal with their own underlying weaknesses. Most obviously, faced with a private sector that wants to save too much and invest too little, we have pursued austerity policies that deepen the forces of depression. Worse yet, all indications are that, by allowing unemployment to fester, we’re depressing our long-run as well as short-run growth prospects, which will depress private investment even more.

Oh, and much of Europe is already at risk of a Japanese-style deflationary trap. An emerging-markets crisis could, all too plausibly, turn that risk into reality.

So Turkey seems to be in serious trouble — and China, a vastly bigger player, is looking a bit shaky, too. But what makes these troubles scary is the underlying weakness of Western economies, a weakness made much worse by really, really bad policies.

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

December 3, 2013

Oh, crap.  Bobo is back, and he hasn’t changed.  He has a question in “The Stem and the Flower:”  How much emotional and psychic space should politics take up in everyday life?  He doesn’t want us to worry our pretty little heads about boring stuff like gummint…  Mr. Nocera has decided to tell us all about “The Asbestos Scam.”  He howls that Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, a lifelong smoker, joins a growing trend: lung cancer victims who are suing former asbestos companies.  Mr. Bruni considers “The Families We Invent” and says well outside the usual definition of kin are bonds with as much meaning, magic and stamina.  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

In an act of amazing public service, I have not written a column in three months. In the course of that time, I’ve stepped back from politics, a bit, and thought about other things. That naturally raises the question: How much emotional and psychic space should politics take up in a normal healthy brain?

Let’s use one of President Obama’s favorite rhetorical devices and frame the issue with the two extremes.

On the one hand, there are those who are completely cynical about politics. But, as the columnist Michael Gerson has put it, this sort of cynicism is the luxury of privileged people. If you live in a functioning society, you can say politicians are just a bunch of crooks. But, if you live in a place without rule of law, where a walk down a nighttime street can be terrifying, where tribalism leads to murder, you know that politics is a vital concern.

On the other hand, there are those who form their identity around politics and look to it to complete their natures. These overpoliticized people come in two forms: the aspirational and the tribal. The aspirational hope that politics can transform society and provide meaning. They were inspired by the lofty rhetoric of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address. The possibilities, he argued, were limitless: “Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty.”

The problem with this lofty rhetoric is that politics can rarely deliver, so there is a cynical backlash when the limited realities of government reassert themselves. This inevitable letdown is happening to a lot of President Obama’s supporters right now.

Then there are those who look to politics for identity. They treat their partisan affiliation as a form of ethnicity. These people drive a lot of talk radio and television. Not long ago, most intelligent television talk was not about politics. Shows would put interesting people together, like Woody Allen with Billy Graham (check it out on YouTube), and they’d discuss anything under the sun.

Now most TV and radio talk is minute political analysis, while talk of culture has shriveled. This change is driven by people who, absent other attachments, have fallen upon partisanship to give them a sense of righteousness and belonging.

This emotional addiction can lead to auto-hysteria.

So if politics should not be nothing in life, but not everything, what should it be? We should start by acknowledging that except for a few rare occasions — the Civil War, the Depression — government is a slow trudge, oriented around essential but mundane tasks.

Imagine you are going to a picnic. Government is properly in charge of maintaining the essential background order: making sure there is a park, that it is reasonably clean and safe, arranging public transportation so as many people as possible can get to it. But if you remember the picnic afterward, these things won’t be what you remember. You’ll remember the creative food, the interesting conversations and the fun activities.

Government is the hard work of creating a background order, but it is not the main substance of life. As Samuel Johnson famously put it, “How small, of all that human hearts endure,/That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” Government can set the stage, but it can’t be the play.

It is just too balky an instrument. As we’re seeing even with the Obamacare implementation, government is good at check-writing, like Social Security, but it is not nimble in the face of complexity. It doesn’t adapt to failure well. There’s a lot of passive-aggressive behavior. In any federal action, one administrator will think one thing; another administrator will misunderstand and do something else; a political operative will have a different agenda; a disgruntled fourth party will leak and sabotage. You can’t fire anybody or close anything down. It’s hard to use economic incentives to get people moving in one direction. Governing is the noble but hard job of trying to get anything done under a permanent condition of Murphy’s Law.

So one’s attitude toward politics should be a passionate devotion to a mundane and limited thing. Government is essential, but, to switch metaphors ridiculously, it’s the stem of the flower, not the bloom. The best government is boring, gradual and orderly. It’s steady reform, not exciting transformation. It’s keeping the peace and promoting justice and creating a background setting for mobility, but it doesn’t deliver meaning.

I figure that unless you are in the business of politics, covering it or columnizing about it, politics should take up maybe a tenth corner of a good citizen’s mind. The rest should be philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture and fun. I wish our talk-show culture reflected that balance, and that the emotional register around politics were more in keeping with its low but steady nature.

Well, at least he seems aware that he did perform a public service by shutting the eff up for three months…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

In May, Carolyn McCarthy, a nine-term congresswoman from Long Island, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her treatment began almost immediately, causing her to take a lengthy absence from her office while she fought the disease. At the same time, McCarthy, 69, ended a pack-a-day cigarette habit that she’d had for most of her life, presumably because she understood the link between cigarette-smoking and lung cancer. Scientists estimate that smoking plays a role in 90 percent of lung cancer deaths.

“Since my diagnosis with lung cancer,” she wrote in a recent legal filing, “I have had mental and emotional distress and inconvenience. I am fearful of death.” She added, “My asbestos-related condition has disrupted my life, limiting me in my everyday activities and interfering with living a normal life.”

Asbestos-related?

Yes, that’s right. It’s hard these days for smokers to sue tobacco companies because everyone knows the dangers of cigarettes. Instead, McCarthy has become part of a growing trend: lung cancer victims who are suing companies that once used asbestos.

With asbestos litigation well into its fourth decade — the longest-running mass tort in American history — you’d think the plaintiffs’ bar would have run out of asbestos companies to sue. After all, asbestos lawsuits have bankrupted more than 100 companies. Yet McCarthy has found more than 70 additional companies to sue, including General Electric and Pfizer. Asbestos litigation, says Lester Brickman, a professor at Yeshiva University and perhaps the most vocal critic of asbestos lawsuits, “is a constant search for viable defendants.” Because asbestos was once such a ubiquitous product, there is always somebody else to sue.

Let me stipulate right here that exposure to asbestos can be deadly. The worst illness it causes is mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that essentially suffocates its victims to death. If it were only the real victims of asbestos-related diseases who sued, there would be no issue. That’s how the tort system is supposed to work.

But, over the years, plaintiffs’ lawyers have brought tens of thousands of bogus cases. They took doctors on their payroll to industrial sites, where all the employees would be screened for signs of an asbestos-related disease. They found some real cases, of course — along with many that could never have stood up in court. Nonetheless, by bundling real cases with phony ones — and filing giant lawsuits — they took down one company after another.

The bankrupt company would then put money aside in a trust that would parcel out payments to asbestos victims. The trusts have billions of dollars to disburse and are largely controlled by the plaintiffs’ lawyers. It is a compensation system that runs alongside the tort system.

Eventually, the judiciary got tired of dealing with all the “nonmalignant” cases, as they are called, relegating them to the trusts. At that point, the lawyers mainly handled mesothelioma cases, of which there were some 2,500 a year, and which could generate large payments — usually between $500,000 to $5 million.

But, soon enough, the asbestos lawyers came up with a new tactic: finding lung cancer victims who had some exposure to asbestos. All of a sudden, lung cancer cases exploded in volume. “There is nothing new in the science to suggest an upsurge in cases,” says Peter Kelso, an asbestos expert with Bates White Economic Consulting. “It is just basically due to economic incentives.” That is, by bundling lung cancer cases with other cases, the plaintiffs’ lawyers could bring a new set of companies to heel. For many companies, it is cheaper to settle than fight.

Which brings us back to Congresswoman McCarthy. Her claim for “asbestos exposure” is that when she was young, her father and her brother worked as boiler makers, and she came into contact with asbestos dust because they all lived under the same roof. Plus, she says in her legal filing, she “visited and picked up my father and brother at the various work sites, including Navy Yards, Bridges, Hospitals, Schools, Powerhouses, and other sites where I breathed the asbestos dust.”

Her lawyer at Weitz & Luxenberg — which has feasted for decades on asbestos lawsuits — told The New York Post that “it has been conclusively proven that cigarette smoking and asbestos exposure act synergistically to cause lung cancer.” Actually, it hasn’t been: There are plenty of studies saying there is no synergy at all. At best, the science is muddled.

Not that that matters. No doubt McCarthy’s lawsuit will be bundled by her law firm with other cases to force a company that had nothing to do with her disease to pay up. I hope McCarthy wins her battle with lung cancer. It is an awful disease. But the right thing for her to do is drop this lawsuit. All it has really accomplished is showing how asbestos litigation is a giant scam.

Of course one data point is everything…  Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

When they were 11 years old, Kylee and Starr split a stolen Coors and made a wordless pact, pricking their fingers with a cactus needle to let their blood run together. The gesture symbolized the girls’ hope — their determination — that their lives would always be joined just as closely.

“You had this idea that I’ll never forget,” Kylee told Starr much later on. “People move places and change careers for their spouses. And you said to me, ‘Why can’t we do that for our friendship?’ ”

“We didn’t get reinforcement for that idea,” Starr said. “We got a lot of pats on the head and ‘Oh, that’s a nice idea, girls, but life happens.’ ”

It does. And often the only people who go the turbulent distance with you, there at almost every critical juncture, are the ones who wear tags like mother or father, sister or brother, husband or wife. They have more motivation and more of an obligation to stick.

But sometimes it works out differently. Kylee and Starr each went on to marry and have kids, but more than 25 years after their pact, when they sat down in 2007 to speak about it, they were living on the same street, sharing the burdens that needed sharing and no more able to envision separate existences than they had been when they drank that illicit beer. If that’s not family — real family — please tell me what is.

I read about them in a new book, “Ties That Bind,” which showcases conversations like theirs from the StoryCorps project, an evolving oral history that records pairs of individuals talking about the sacrifices each has made for the other, the favors bestowed, the forgiveness granted. Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, culled about 40 of these encounters for the book, which coincides with the project’s 10th anniversary.

A slight majority of the pairs in the book are linked by DNA, marriage or such. They’re kin in the conventional sense. But what struck me most forcefully was how many others had found extraordinary, enduring intimacy outside of that context, stretching the definition of family, making clear that it’s not just or even chiefly about common genes, common beds.

It’s about common needs, common generosity. It’s an act of will as much as an accident of birth. That’s worth remembering during this merrymaking, reunion-heavy season, when “family” is usually invoked in terms too narrowly traditional. They fail to recognize that former schoolmates, fellow churchgoers, neighbors or other friends can mean every bit as much to you as any actual relatives do. They fail to acknowledge how many people have been let down by those relatives, and have forged a family of their own invention.

That’s true of Chelda, who was 24 in 2009, when she and her best friend, Georgia, two years older, recorded the conversation that appears in “Ties That Bind.”

“I remember growing up and picturing this fairy-tale life,” Chelda said, mentioning two of television’s happiest tribes, the Brady bunch and the Huxtables. “But I didn’t have the family network that I wanted.” She decided that Georgia would fill the gap. She clung to her. And when she got pregnant unexpectedly during graduate school, it was Georgia who rushed to her side and stayed there.

As good as we humans are at division, we’re better still at connection. “Ties That Bind” shows this again and again, even presenting the astonishing story of a woman in constant contact with the man who killed her only son and served 17 years behind bars for his crime. At the time of their recorded conversation in 2011, he was out of prison and living next door to her. She was calling him “son.” And he was professing his love for her and helping to fill the very hole in her life that he, with a bullet, had created.

“Our relationship is beyond belief,” she said.

It certainly didn’t follow any predictable script, and neither did the relationship that Tim, a former nurse, has with Barbara, whose husband, a quadriplegic, he once tended to, bringing the couple a crucial comfort. When Tim later developed AIDS, Barbara assumed the role of caregiver and moved him into her home. She spoon-fed him six times a day. They, too, are like mother and child.

In the book there are teachers and students whose closeness transcended and outlasted the classroom. There’s a mentally challenged woman, Janice, who has lived for more than a decade with Sadie, the friend who essentially rescued her from a family that used her as an unpaid housekeeper, seldom let her out into the world and went so far as to have her sterilized. The tenderness between the two women is palpable and breathtaking.

“Your house is the White House to me,” Janice told Sadie last year, when their conversation was recorded.

“We’re not biologically tied,” Sadie said. “We are spiritually tied.” Lucky for them, lucky for all of us, that twine can be as thick as blood.

Brooks and Krugman

June 7, 2013

In “The Power Inversion” Bobo says that as Washington coughs along in perpetual sclerosis, state and city governments take the stage.  He seems mystified about why Obama isn’t “filling the public space with a transformational second-term agenda.”  Wotta jackass…  Prof. Krugman addresses some home truths.  In “The Spite Club” he says when you look closer at why some Republican-led states are choosing to opt out of a piece of ObamaCare, it seems the only explanation for it is sheer spite.  Well, there’s also the FYIGM mentality, and the fear that some poor or brown might “take” something…  Here’s Bobo:

There’s a weird calm around Washington these days. The Obama administration only has a year before the lame-duck status sets in. Yet you don’t get a sense of urgency. White House officials seem busy running the government, but they are not filling the public space with a transformational second-term agenda.

Republican leaders aren’t offering bold plans either. They seem more worried about offending pieces of the current coalition than in attracting new ones.

The heart of the problem is that nobody wants to champion proposals that have no chance of passing. Washington is immobilized by interest groups, polarization and a lack of federal dollars.

In their new book, “The Metropolitan Revolution,” Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution argue that Washington paralysis is already leading to a power inversion. As the federal government becomes less energetic, city governments become more so.

Katz and Bradley describe a country that is segmenting slightly into divergent city-states. Demographically, society is clustering. In an era when the nuclear two-parent family was the key demographic unit, it made sense to think of America as a suburban economy with common needs. But now two-parent nuclear families account for only a fifth of all households. The young, the old and the single make up a huge slice of the population, and they flock to density. According to Robert Puentes of Brookings, the share of young people with driver’s licenses is plummeting. Public transit ridership rose by 32.3 percent between 1995 and 2011.

Economic changes also reinforce regional concentration. For decades, companies sought to protect their intellectual property by isolating their research-and-development functions in suburban research parks. But now scientific breakthroughs are less likely to come from discrete teams. They tend to come from large, loose networks of researchers brought together in physical proximity. It makes sense to locate research facilities in urban districts, often around urban universities, where researchers will make wider and more flexible contacts.

Gerry Carlino of the Philadelphia Fed has found that the number of patents per capita increases by roughly 20 percent to 30 percent for every doubling of employment density. Research by Stuart Rosenthal of Syracuse University and William Strange of the University of Toronto suggests that the intellectual spillovers that often drive innovation drop off as companies move more than a mile apart from each other.

Given this underlying structure, there are a number of reasons city governments are likely to be more dynamic than the federal government. In the first place, regional identity trumps partisan identity. In Washington, your primary affiliation is to your party. But, in Denver, your primary affiliation is to the health of the Denver area. That common consciousness makes it easier for politicians in different parties to cooperate.

Metro governments deal with issues in their particularity, not as abstractions. Leaders in northeastern Ohio can focus on their region’s historic strengths, including a history of expertise with polymers. That leads to certain concrete opportunities — the chance to get into flexible electronics, which are very thin electronic components attached to flexible materials. They can design specific policies around concrete circumstances.

Because issues on the regional level are so tangible, it is possible to debate new proposals without getting immobilized by the big government-versus-small government frame. Republican mayors tend to be more activist than their Congressional counterparts, and Democratic mayors tend to be more business friendly. Katz and Bradley highlight New York City’s fantastically successful effort to lure the Technion-Cornell engineering school. That was an exercise in using government to set the table for long-term growth by luring human capital, not in trying to micromanage the future with shiny office buildings, a downtown stadium or a mall.

Finally, city governments actually have power over the basics, which are the key to promoting growth. American growth lags not because of higher order problems, but because of the bad elemental things, like lousy schools and bad infrastructure. Cities can change this. A study by the Economist Intelligence Unit predicted that Chicago will be the ninth most competitive city in the world by 2025. Its rise in the rankings is fueled by the fact that the city is taking care of fundamentals: $7.3 billion in infrastructure spending over the next two years, a community college program that links education to employment.

Since the New Deal, we have become accustomed to seeing American politics as an ever-concentrated national enterprise. But the sclerosis of the federal system will inevitably produce a reversal, as regions fill the void.

The happiest people these days are those who leave Washington and get elected mayor or governor. The most frustrated people are people who were mayor and governor and get elected to the Senate. They end each day knowing they were busy. They’re just not sure they accomplished anything.

He gets worse and worse…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

House Republicans have voted 37 times to repeal ObamaRomneyCare — the Affordable Care Act, which creates a national health insurance system similar to the one Massachusetts has had since 2006. Nonetheless, almost all of the act will go fully into effect at the beginning of next year.

There is, however, one form of obstruction still available to the G.O.P. Last year’s Supreme Court decision upholding the law’s constitutionality also gave states the right to opt out of one piece of the plan, a federally financed expansion of Medicaid. Sure enough, a number of Republican-dominated states seem set to reject Medicaid expansion, at least at first.

And why would they do this? They won’t save money. On the contrary, they will hurt their own budgets and damage their own economies. Nor will Medicaid rejectionism serve any clear political purpose. As I’ll explain later, it will probably hurt Republicans for years to come.

No, the only way to understand the refusal to expand Medicaid is as an act of sheer spite. And the cost of that spite won’t just come in the form of lost dollars; it will also come in the form of gratuitous hardship for some of our most vulnerable citizens.

Some background: Obamacare rests on three pillars. First, insurers must offer the same coverage to everyone regardless of medical history. Second, everyone must purchase coverage — the famous “mandate” — so that the young and healthy don’t opt out until they get older and/or sicker. Third, premiums will be subsidized, so as to make insurance affordable for everyone. And this system is going into effect next year, whether Republicans like it or not.

Under this system, by the way, a few people — basically young, healthy individuals who don’t already get insurance from their employers, and whose incomes are high enough that they won’t benefit from subsidies — will end up paying more for insurance than they do now. Right-wingers are hyping this observation as if it were some kind of shocking surprise, when it was, in fact, well-known to everyone from the beginning of the debate. And, as far as anyone can tell, we’re talking about a small number of people who are, by definition, relatively well off.

Back to the Medicaid expansion. Obamacare, as I’ve just explained, relies on subsidies to make insurance affordable for lower-income Americans. But we already have a program, Medicaid, providing health coverage to very-low-income Americans, at a cost private insurers can’t match. So the Affordable Care Act, sensibly, relies on an expansion of Medicaid rather than the mandate-plus-subsidy arrangement to guarantee care to the poor and near-poor.

But Medicaid is a joint federal-state program, and the Supreme Court made it possible for states to opt out of the expansion. And it appears that a number of states will take advantage of that “opportunity.” What will that mean?

A new study from the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan research institution, examines the consequences if 14 states whose governors have declared their opposition to Medicaid expansion do, in fact, reject the expansion. The result, the study concluded, would be a huge financial hit: the rejectionist states would lose more than $8 billion a year in federal aid, and would also find themselves on the hook for roughly $1 billion more to cover the losses hospitals incur when treating the uninsured.

Meanwhile, Medicaid rejectionism will deny health coverage to roughly 3.6 million Americans, with essentially all of the victims living near or below the poverty line. And since past experience shows that Medicaid expansion is associated with significant declines in mortality, this would mean a lot of avoidable deaths: about 19,000 a year, the study estimated.

Just think about this for a minute. It’s one thing when politicians refuse to spend money helping the poor and vulnerable; that’s just business as usual. But here we have a case in which politicians are, in effect, spending large sums, in the form of rejected aid, not to help the poor but to hurt them.

And as I said, it doesn’t even make sense as cynical politics. If Obamacare works (which it will), millions of middle-income voters — the kind of people who might support either party in future elections — will see major benefits, even in rejectionist states. So rejectionism won’t discredit health reform. What it might do, however, is drive home to lower-income voters — many of them nonwhite — just how little the G.O.P. cares about their well-being, and reinforce the already strong Democratic advantage among Latinos, in particular.

Rationally, in other words, Republicans should accept defeat on health care, at least for now, and move on. Instead, however, their spitefulness appears to override all other considerations. And millions of Americans will pay the price.

As if Republicans are even capable of being rational today…

Brooks and Krugman

January 4, 2013

Bobo has decided that it’s time for him to give us all a lecture.  In “Suffering Fools Gladly” he babbles that this phrase is often used to excuse the rudeness of those deemed too important to stoop to lower mortals. He thinks maybe we should take a look at our own foolishness first.  In “Battles of the Budget” Prof. Krugman suggests we put the cliff deal, which was part of a larger class war, in perspective.  Here’s Bobo:

Recently I was reading a magazine profile of a brilliant statistician. The article mentioned, in passing, that this guy doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

I come across that phrase a lot. I’ve read that Al Gore and former Representative Barney Frank don’t suffer fools gladly. Neither, apparently, did Steve Jobs, George Harrison, Pauline Kael or even Henry David Thoreau.

The phrase originally came from William Tyndale’s 1534 translation of the Bible. In it, Paul was ripping into the decadent citizens of Corinth for turning away from his own authoritative teaching and falling for a bunch of second-rate false apostles. “For ye suffers fool gladly,” Paul says with withering sarcasm, “seeing ye yourselves are wise.”

Today, the phrase is often used as an ambiguous compliment. It suggests that a person is so smart he has trouble tolerating people who are far below his own high standards. It is used to describe a person who is so passionately committed to a vital cause that he doesn’t have time for social niceties toward those idiots who stand in its way. It is used to suggest a level of social courage; a person who has the guts to tell idiots what he really thinks.

Sure, it would be better if such people were nicer to those around them, the phrase implies, but this is a forgivable sin in one so talented. The actor Ed Harris’s “penetrating gaze signals that this is a serious, somber man on a singular quest,” a writer observed in The Toronto Sun. “He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, if at all.”

This sounds fine in the abstract, but when you actually witness somebody in the act of not suffering fools gladly, it looks rotten. Once I watched a senior member of the House of Representatives rip into a young reporter after she nervously asked him an ill-informed question.

She was foolish about that particular piece of legislation, but, in the moment, he looked the bigger fool. He was making a snap judgment about a person with no real information about her actual qualities. He was exposing a yawning gap between his own high opinion of himself and his actual conduct in the world. He was making the mistake, which metaphysical fools tend to make, that there is no connection between your inner moral quality and the level of courtesy you present to others.

Smart people who’ve thought about this usually understand that the habits we put in practice end up shaping the people we are within. “Manners are of more importance than laws,” Edmund Burke wrote. “Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.”

In his extremely French book, “A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues,” the contemporary philosopher André Comte-Sponville argues that “politeness is the first virtue, and the origin perhaps of all the others.” Politeness is a discipline that compels respectful behavior. Morality, he writes “is like a politeness of the soul, an etiquette of the inner life, a code of duties, a ceremonial of the essential.” (I told you it was very French.)

Jane Austen is the novelist most famous for advocating this point of view. In her novel “Emma,” the lead character is rude to a foolish and verbose old woman named Miss Bates. Emma’s friend George Knightley rebukes her.

If Miss Bates were rich or smart or your equal, maybe this rudeness would have been tolerable, Mr. Knightley tells her, but “she is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!”

I don’t give myself high marks on suffering fools. I’m not rude to those I consider foolish, but I strenuously and lamentably evade them. But I do see people who handle fools well. Many members of the clergy do, as do many great teachers. In my experience, Midwesterners are more likely to treat fools well. Natural politicians do so, too. Joe Biden is effective because he loves humanity in all its shapes and sizes.

G. K. Chesterton had the best advice on suffering fools gladly. He put emphasis on the gladly. When you’re with fools, laugh with them and at them simultaneously: “An obvious instance is that of ordinary and happy marriage. A man and a woman cannot live together without having against each other a kind of everlasting joke. Each has discovered that the other is a fool, but a great fool. This largeness, this grossness and gorgeousness of folly is the thing which we all find about those with whom we are in intimate contact; and it is the one enduring basis of affection, and even of respect.”

Putting up with the foibles of your spouse doesn’t mean you have to politely ignore the fact that one of the 2 political parties in this country is led by raving fanatics hell-bent on tearing the social fabric apart.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

The centrist fantasy of a Grand Bargain on the budget never had a chance. Even if some kind of bargain had supposedly been reached, key players would soon have reneged on the deal — probably the next time a Republican occupied the White House.

For the reality is that our two major political parties are engaged in a fierce struggle over the future shape of American society. Democrats want to preserve the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — and add to them what every other advanced country has: a more or less universal guarantee of essential health care. Republicans want to roll all of that back, making room for drastically lower taxes on the wealthy. Yes, it’s essentially a class war.

The fight over the fiscal cliff was just one battle in that war. It ended, arguably, in a tactical victory for Democrats. The question is whether it was a Pyrrhic victory that set the stage for a larger defeat.

Why do I say that it was a tactical victory? Mainly because of what didn’t happen: There were no benefit cuts.

This was by no means a foregone conclusion. In 2011, the Obama administration was reportedly willing to raise the age of Medicare eligibility, a terrible and cruel policy idea. This time around, it was willing to cut Social Security benefits by changing the formula for cost-of-living adjustments, a less terrible idea that would nonetheless have imposed a lot of hardship — and probably have been politically disastrous as well. In the end, however, it didn’t happen. And progressives, always worried that President Obama seems much too willing to compromise about fundamentals, breathed a sigh of relief.

There were also some actual positives from a progressive point of view. Expanded unemployment benefits were given another year to run, a huge benefit to many families and a significant boost to our economic prospects (because this is money that will be spent, and hence help preserve jobs). Other benefits to lower-income families were given another five years — although, unfortunately, the payroll tax break was allowed to expire, which will hurt both working families and job creation.

The biggest progressive gripe about the legislation is that Mr. Obama extracted less revenue from the affluent than expected — about $600 billion versus $800 billion over the next decade. In perspective, however, this isn’t that big a deal. Put it this way: A reasonable estimate is that gross domestic product over the next 10 years will be around $200 trillion. So if the revenue take had matched expectations, it would still have amounted to only 0.4 percent of G.D.P.; as it turned out, this was reduced to 0.3 percent. Either way, it wouldn’t make much difference in the fights over revenue versus spending still to come.

Oh, and not only did Republicans vote for a tax increase for the first time in decades, the overall result of the tax changes now taking effect — which include new taxes associated with Obamacare as well as the new legislation — will be a significant reduction in income inequality, with the top 1 percent and even more so the top 0.1 percent taking a much bigger hit than middle-income families.

So why are many progressives — myself included — feeling very apprehensive? Because we’re worried about the confrontations to come.

According to the normal rules of politics, Republicans should have very little bargaining power at this point. With Democrats holding the White House and the Senate, the G.O.P. can’t pass legislation; and since the biggest progressive policy priority of recent years, health reform, is already law, Republicans wouldn’t seem to have many bargaining chips.

But the G.O.P. retains the power to destroy, in particular by refusing to raise the debt limit — which could cause a financial crisis. And Republicans have made it clear that they plan to use their destructive power to extract major policy concessions.

Now, the president has said that he won’t negotiate on that basis, and rightly so. Threatening to hurt tens of millions of innocent victims unless you get your way — which is what the G.O.P. strategy boils down to — shouldn’t be treated as a legitimate political tactic.

But will Mr. Obama stick to his anti-blackmail position as the moment of truth approaches? He blinked during the 2011 debt limit confrontation. And the last few days of the fiscal cliff negotiations were also marked by a clear unwillingness on his part to let the deadline expire. Since the consequences of a missed deadline on the debt limit would potentially be much worse, this bodes ill for administration resolve in the clinch.

So, as I said, in a tactical sense the fiscal cliff ended in a modest victory for the White House. But that victory could all too easily turn into defeat in just a few weeks.

I think we can pretty much depend on Obama to fold up like a cheap card table.

Brooks and Krugman

December 21, 2012

Oh gawd…  Bobo has extruded a thing called “Strangers in the Night” in which he posits that if the two parties just knew a little more about each other we might have a deal on the “fiscal cliff” already.  He reads Boehner’s and the President’s minds, and also assures us that even though the Republicans “can do big things” next year.  Desperation isn’t a pretty thing to watch…  Prof. Krugman, in “Playing Taxes Hold ‘Em,” says for a change, progressives can give thanks to the G.O.P. crazies this year.  Here’s Bobo:

It’s always amazing how little Democrats and Republicans know about each other. Democrats, for example, are mystified that we haven’t already gotten a deal on the “fiscal cliff.” On Monday, the two sides seemed close. Both made serious counteroffers, and a deal seemed a day away.

Then Speaker John Boehner pulled back. He did this because senior Republicans were afraid that he was giving away the concessions they would need in a future tax-reform negotiation — like closing tax loopholes.

But Democrats don’t know this. They have no clue what Republicans are thinking at any moment. Republicans are equally in the dark. The White House is a black box to them. They have no clue what President Obama wants in his second term or how the fiscal-cliff negotiations fit in.

Well, I’d like to help the Republicans understand what’s going on in the other camp. First, Republicans should understand the mood in the White House. A month ago, the president and his team were gearing up for a fight. They were belligerent and tough-talking. Now, their mood is one of deep confidence. They’ve had a good month. The business community is on their side. Public opinion is breaking their way. Republicans are disorganized. The Obama folks project the self-assurance of a Duke basketball team warming up against a Division III school.

Second, Republicans should understand Obama’s incentive structure. He’s trying to map out his whole second term and write an Inaugural Address that will prefigure it. He wants to accomplish some big things: his middle-class economic agenda, immigration reform, a global warming agenda and government reform.

He cannot have a satisfying second term if the next four years look like the last two, with a string of debt-ceiling-type budget showdowns. If Obama’s going to govern the way he wants, he absolutely has to crush the Republicans on the debt-ceiling threat and on tax rates.

He’s going to be willing to fight tooth and nail to put the budget-showdown-era behind us. He simply has to win this. He’s going to be willing to go over the fiscal cliff and blame it on Republicans.

Given the weak Republican position, he’s going to conclude that his current offer is roughly the best he has to do. He’s just going to sit there, through hell and high water, and wait for Republicans to come to him. And since he’s sensitive to the liberal criticism that he’s a soft negotiator, he’ll love the chance to be implacable.

So over the whole span of his presidency, this is the moment when Obama is going to feel the least need to give ground.

But down the road, Obama does have a problem and, for Republicans, a vulnerability. Even if the cliff talks go his way, Obama will still face a money shortage. Entitlement costs are rising. Revenues can’t keep up. This squeezes the share of federal revenue that can be devoted to domestic discretionary programs — stuff like education, welfare, infrastructure, etc. As Eduardo Porter noted in an Economic Scene column in The Times, discretionary spending, which usually hovers around 3 percent or 4 percent of G.D.P., is scheduled to shrink to a paltry 1.7 percent in 10 years. That’s roughly the level envisioned in Representative Paul Ryan’s budget.

In other words, even if Obama gets a fiscal-cliff deal, he still needs to shake loose some money — either from the entitlement programs or from a new revenue stream — to pay for his programs. He is still caught in the remorseless vice that Christopher DeMuth describes in, “The Real Cliff,” a brilliant piece in The Weekly Standard. A generation of debt politics has left our leaders with no room to maneuver.

That means that in 2013, he will need to do comprehensive tax reform, find fresh revenue or take a broader whack at entitlements to shift some of that money to domestic programs.

As invulnerable as Obama is right now, he will be equally vulnerable next year to get these big projects done. The Republican strategy should be obvious. Swallow hard and accept a deal. End the showdown era. Achieve short-term fiscal stability. Don’t give away G.O.P. leverage on tax reform. Then focus on the bigger fight in 2013.

Don’t get hung up on some incremental tax increase for the rich. Instead, make sure America doesn’t have another credit downgrade. Make sure the economy doesn’t fall into another debt-exploding recession. Prepare a comprehensive tax and entitlement reform strategy for 2013. Call Obama’s bluff on health care reform. In case Obamacare doesn’t bend the cost curve, get Obama to agree to some automatic triggers — plans that will kick in and bring down health care spending.

A minority party has to learn how to pick its battles. The White House has a dominant position on the fiscal cliff and knows it. But next year Republicans can do big things.

Right.  Sure they can, Bobo.  Name one.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

A few years back, there was a boom in poker television — shows in which you got to watch the betting and bluffing of expert card players. Since then, however, viewers seem to have lost interest. But I have a suggestion: Instead of featuring poker experts, why not have a show featuring poker incompetents — people who fold when they have a strong hand or don’t know how to quit while they’re ahead?

On second thought, that show already exists. It’s called budget negotiations, and it’s now in its second episode.

The first episode ran in 2011, as President Obama made his first attempt to cut a long-run fiscal deal — a so-called Grand Bargain — with John Boehner, the speaker of the House. Mr. Obama was holding a fairly weak hand, after a midterm election in which Democrats took a beating. Nonetheless, the concessions he offered were breathtaking: He was willing to accept huge spending cuts, not to mention a rise in the Medicare eligibility age, in return for a vague promise of higher revenue without any increase in tax rates.

This deal, if implemented, would have been a huge victory for Republicans, deeply damaging both programs dear to Democrats and the Democratic political brand. But it never happened. Why? Because Mr. Boehner and members of his party couldn’t bring themselves to accept even a modest rise in taxes. And their intransigence saved Mr. Obama from himself.

Now the game is on again — but with Mr. Obama holding a far stronger hand. He and his party won a solid victory in this year’s election. And the legislative clock is very much in their favor, too. All the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire at the end of the month.

A brief digression: I’ve become aware of a new effort by the G.O.P. to bully reporters into referring only to the “Bush-era” tax cuts, probably in the hope of dissociating those cuts, which they want to preserve, from a president voters now regard with disdain. But George W. Bush and his administration devised those cuts and rammed them through Congress, and it’s deceptive to suggest otherwise.

Back to the poker game: The president doesn’t hold all the cards — there are some things he and fellow Democrats want, like extended unemployment benefits and infrastructure spending, that they can’t get without some Republican cooperation. But he is in a very strong position.

Yet earlier this week progressives suddenly had the sinking feeling that it was 2011 all over again, as the Obama administration made a budget offer that, while far better than the disastrous deal it was willing to make the last time around, still involved giving way on issues where it had promised to hold the line — perpetuating a substantial portion of the high-income Bush tax cuts, effectively cutting Social Security benefits by changing the inflation adjustment.

And this was an offer, not a deal. Are we about to see another round of the president negotiating with himself, snatching policy and political defeat from the jaws of victory?

Well, probably not. Once again, the Republican crazies — the people who can’t accept the idea of ever voting to raise taxes on the wealthy, never mind either fiscal or economic reality — have saved the day.

We don’t know exactly why Mr. Boehner didn’t respond to the president’s offer with a real counteroffer and instead offered something ludicrous — a “Plan B” that, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, would actually raise taxes for a number of lower- and middle-income families, while cutting taxes for almost half of those in the top 1 percent. The effect, however, has to have been to disabuse the Obama team of any illusions that they were engaged in good-faith negotiations.

Mr. Boehner had evident problems getting his caucus to support Plan B, and he took the plan off the table Thursday night; it would have modestly raised taxes on the really wealthy, the top 0.1 percent, and even that was too much for many Republicans. This means that any real deal with Mr. Obama would be met with mass G.O.P. defections; so any such deal would require overwhelming Democratic support, a fact that empowers progressives ready to bolt if they think the president is giving away too much.

As in 2011, then, the Republican crazies are doing Mr. Obama a favor, heading off any temptation he may have felt to give away the store in pursuit of bipartisan dreams.

And there’s a broader lesson here. This is no time for a Grand Bargain, because the Republican Party, as now constituted, is just not an entity with which the president can make a serious deal. If we’re going to get a grip on our nation’s problems — of which the budget deficit is a minor part — the power of the G.O.P.’s extremists, and their willingness to hold the economy hostage if they don’t get their way, needs to be broken. And somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen in the next few days.

Paul, please try to hammer some sense into Bobo’s head…


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