Archive for the ‘Another pile of crap’ Category

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.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

April 6, 2014

In “Health Care Without End” The Pasty Little Putz babbles that Americans will still be arguing about Obamacare in 2030.  He’s wrong again, but that’s nothing new.  MoDo squeals “Bring Me My Dragons!”  She’s been watching TV again, and of course manages to get in her de rigeur slap at Obama.  Same old, same old…  In “Sheldon: Iran’s Best Friend” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us how Sheldon Adelson and Iran are both trying to destroy Israel.  Mr. Kristof tells us of a young woman with a lesson for graduates about the meaning of life in “Her First, And Last, Book.”  Mr. Bruni ponders “The New Gay Orthodoxy” and says the ouster of Mozilla’s chief executive suggests a shrinking room for debate.  Here’s The Putz:

So you think it’s finished? So you think now that enrollment has hit seven million, now that the president has declared the debate over repeal “over,” now that Republican predictions of a swift Obamacare unraveling look a bit like Republican predictions of a Romney landslide, we’re going to stop arguing about health care, stop having the issue dominate the conversation, and turn at last to some other debate instead?

You think it’s over? It’s never over.

I mean, O.K., it will be over in the event of a nuclear war, or a climate apocalypse, or if the robots eventually rise up and overthrow us. (Our capacity for self-destruction is a pre-existing condition that no insurance plan will touch.)

But for the foreseeable future, the health care debate probably isn’t going to get any less intense. Instead, what we’ve watched unfold since 2009 is what we should expect for years, decades, a generation: a grinding, exhausting argument over how to pay for health care in a society that’s growing older, consuming more care, and (especially if current secularizing trends persist) becoming more and more invested in postponing death.

In the near term, this debate will go on because Obamacare has stabilized itself without fully resolving any of its internal problems. The liberal victory lap last week was half-earned: It really was a victory, given the initial website catastrophe, to arrive at seven million enrolled, and that success almost certainly establishes a new coverage baseline for any future overhaul.

But that baseline won’t be anything like universal coverage, and it may fall short of universality by a much larger margin than the law’s supporters hoped. Around a million of the seven million probably won’t make their payments, and many had insurance previously. So even with the new Medicaid enrollees and the twentysomethings added to their parents’ plans, the number of newly insured could end up around three or four or even five million short of the 13 million that the Congressional Budget Office predicted for Obamacare’s first year.

At the same time, the law’s internal structure has been rendered extremely rickety by the administration’s attempts at damage control. Nobody knows what will happen with the various suspended and hollowed-out provisions — whether the employer mandate will ever take effect, whether the individual mandate will be enforced along the lines that its architects argued was necessary for the law to work. And nobody is sure what the pool of enrollees looks like (in terms of age and average health), and what it will mean for premiums next year and beyond.

These realities make it very likely that whatever position Republicans end up taking on a potential Obamacare replacement or reform, by the next presidential election there will be increasingly vocal Democratic constituencies for change — moderates who want to be seen as doing something about rate shock, and liberals looking for a reform (ahem, single payer) that doesn’t leave 30 million Americans uninsured.

Repeal may really be a dead letter, in other words, but don’t be surprised to wake up in 2020 to endless arguments about a reform of the reform of the reform.

And don’t be surprised, either, if the debate over Obamacare is merging, by then, into the yet-more-toxic argument about how to pay for Medicare.

The Medicare debate has been postponed, to some extent, by the recent fiscal consolidation and a slowdown in health care cost inflation. But inflation should rise again as the Obamacare money sluices into the system, and even with a lower rate it would be hard to envision a future for Medicare that doesn’t involve some combination of price controls, benefit reductions and tax increases — all on a much larger scale than the numbers involved in recent debates.

What’s more, the political salience of this debate will rise for the same reason that the costs of Medicare will be rising: because the country will be older over all, and health policy inevitably matters more to the old than to the young.

Which means that the future almost certainly holds more cries of “death panels,” more ads featuring Paul Ryan clones pushing seniors over a cliff, and no doubt as-yet-undreamt-of forms of demagogy. And it means, as well, that if it’s hard to get Washington to focus on other issues now — tax reform, education, family policy, you name it — just wait awhile: It will get much worse.

It’s important to note, of course, that this “worse” will be the result of betterment: our political debates will be consumed by health care because of all that medicine can do for us, and we’ll be arguing about how to sustain what earlier generations would have regarded as a golden age.

But there’s a reason that golden ages can diminish into twilight — because the demands of the present can crowd out the needs of the future, and because what’s required to preserve and sustain is often different, in the end, from what’s required to grow.

He’s such a putz, and so very, very, very predictable.  Now, FSM help us, here’s MoDo:

I’d been hoping to get the flu.

I hadn’t had it in years, and there were so many TV series I’d never seen — “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “House of Cards,” “True Detective” — that required an extended convalescence.

When I finally succumbed to a fever and crumpled in bed a couple of weeks ago with saltines and Gatorade, I grabbed the clicker, murmuring, “Alright, alright, alright.” The only celebrated series I had no interest in was “Game of Thrones.”

I’m not really a Middle-earth sort of girl.

I’d read about George R. R. Martin, the author of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the fantasy epic about a medieval-style land of Seven Kingdoms and beyond that is the basis of the HBO show. The bearded, portly 65-year-old, raised in Bayonne, N.J., and living in a modest house in Santa Fe, N.M., has been dubbed “the American Tolkien” by Time.

I had no interest in the murky male world of orcs, elves, hobbits, goblins and warrior dwarves. If I was going to watch a period drama, I usually favored ones with strong women in intriguing situations, like “Mad Men,” “The Americans” and “Masters of Sex.”

Besides, “Game of Thrones” sounded too dense and complicated for someone suffering from zombie brain.

How could I fathom the agendas and plotlines of all the plotting lords and ladies and whores and bastards and sellswords of Westeros when even Martin himself has had to sometimes check with one of his superfans to make sure he’s keeping the feuding factions straight?

A 2011 New Yorker profile described the nutty passion of Martin’s fans, how they mercilessly mock him on Web forums for not writing faster, and how they keep track of every word to the point where the author has become paranoid about mistakes, such as when a character’s eyes shift from green to blue.

“My fans point them out to me,” he told the magazine. “I have a horse that changes sex between books. He was a mare in one book and a stallion in the next, or something like that.” He added, “People are analyzing every goddamn line in these books, and if I make a mistake they’re going to nail me on it.”

But after I finished tromping around the bayou with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, I decided to watch one “Game of Thrones” to see what the fuss was about. It is not only the most pirated show on the Internet, but one of President Obama’s favorites — although he hasn’t picked up any good tips about ruthlessly wielding power, either from “Game” or from Maggie Smith’s Countess of Grantham on “Downton Abbey,” another show he raves about.

After a marathon of three seasons of “Game” and the beginning of the fourth, starting this Sunday, I’m ready to forgo reality for fantasy.

Who wants to cover Chris Christie’s petty little revenge schemes in New Jersey once you’ve seen the gory revenge grandeur of the Red Wedding?

Who wants to see W.’s portraits of leaders once you’re used to King Joffrey putting leaders’ heads on stakes?

Who wants to hear Hillary Clinton complain about a media double standard for women once you’ve gotten accustomed to the win-don’t-whine philosophy of Cersei, Daenerys, Melisandre, Margaery, Ygritte, Brienne and Arya? As it turns out, the show not only has its share of strong women, but plenty of lethal ones as well.

It all seems so tame and meaningless in Washington after Westeros. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul wouldn’t survive a fortnight in King’s Landing. Charles Dance’s icy Tywin Lannister, ruling over a kingdom more interested in dismemberment than disgruntled members, would have the Rains of Castamere playing as soon as he saw those pretenders to the throne. As for House Republicans, or should that be the House of Republicans, life would be mercifully short.

I fell so deeply into the brocaded, overripe, incestuous universe — dubbed “ ‘Sopranos’ meets Middle-earth” by showrunner David Benioff — I couldn’t climb out.

I fell hopelessly in love with Peter Dinklage’s sexy dwarf, who is a schemer but a noble one by Lannister standards.

When friends would ask me what they could get me in the way of sustenance while I was sick, I would yell: “BRING ME MY DRAGONS!”

I even toyed with the idea of getting the flying, fire-breathing dragon on the cover of the new Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. The description is irresistible: “This is the remote controlled jet-powered dragon that soars through the air at up to 70 m.p.h. and belches propane-powered flame when on the ground. Proving its prowess before takeoffs or after successful raids, the dragon’s LED eyes can be commanded to glow red while it emits a fiery 3-foot blast of flame from a cleverly concealed propane tank and igniter built into its toothy maw. A miniature turbine engine built into the beast’s chest provides thrust that exits the rear at 500 m.p.h., and uses 1/2 gallon of jet aircraft fuel or kerosene for 10 minute flights. With a head that swivels in the direction of turns, the dragon can climb and dive via wing ailerons and elevators built into its V-tail rudder.”

Of course, no one who knows me thinks I should be in possession of propane gas. And the other impediment to joy, and bar to being the khaleesi and mother of dragons, was the price tag: $60,000. As Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out in The New York Review of Books, “People often talk about Tolkien as Martin’s model, but the deep, Christianizing sentimentality of the worldview expressed in ‘Lord of the Rings’ is foreign to Martin, who has, if anything, a tart Thucycididean appreciation for the way in which political corruption can breed narrative corruption, too.”

Martin’s larger Hundred Years’ War theme echoes Shakespeare. As he has pointed out, “Believe me, the Starks and the Lannisters have nothing on the Capets and Plantagenets.” And as Mendelsohn writes, it is “the way in which the appetite for, and the use and abuse of, power fragments societies and individuals; in a world ruled by might, who is ‘right’?”

When a flattering adviser warns Cersei, the queen regent, that “knowledge is power,” she makes a feint

to cut the man’s throat and then informs him, “Power is power.”

In the new season, Tywin Lannister explains to his grandson what makes a bad king: spending all your time whoring, hunting and drinking; being so gullible you don’t recognize the evil around you; being so pious you fast yourself into an early grave; and assuming that winning and ruling are the same thing.

“A wise king knows what he knows and what he doesn’t,” Tywin explains to the boy. “You’re young. A wise young king listens to his councilors and heeds their advice until he comes of age. The wisest of kings continue to listen to them long afterwards.”

Words to die by.

Don’t ask me why she (or the Times) put in that paragraph break in the middle of a sentence…  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

It occurred to me the other day that the zealously pro-Israel billionaire Sheldon Adelson and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, actually have one big thing in common. They are both trying to destroy Israel. Adelson is doing it by loving Israel to death and Khamenei by hating Israel to death. And now even Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey inadvertently got drawn into this craziness.

What’s the logic? Very simple. Iran’s leaders want Israel destroyed but have no desire, in my view, to use a nuclear bomb to do it. That would expose them to retaliation and sure death. Their real strategy is more subtle: Do everything possible to ensure that Israel remains in the “occupied territory,” as the U.S. State Department refers to the West Bank, won by Israel in the 1967 war. By supporting Palestinian militants dedicated to destroying any peace process, Tehran hopes to keep Israel permanently mired in the West Bank and occupying 2.7 million Palestinians, denying them any statehood and preventing the emergence of a Palestinian state that might recognize Israel and live in peace alongside it. The more Israel is stuck there, the more Palestinians and the world will demand a “one-state solution,” with Palestinians given the right to vote. The more Israel resists that, the more isolated it becomes.

Iran and its ally Hamas have plenty of evidence that this strategy is working: Israel’s 47-year-old occupation of the West Bank has led it to build more settlements there and in doing so make itself look like the most active colonial power on the planet today. The 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank reinforce that view by claiming their presence in the West Bank is not about security but a divinely inspired project to reunite the Jewish people with their biblical homeland.

The result is a growing movement on college campuses and in international organizations to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state because of this occupation. This “B.D.S. movement” — to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — is gaining adherents not only among non-Jews on American campuses but even within some Hillels, campus Jewish centers.

Iran could not be happier. The more Israel sinks into the West Bank, the more it is delegitimized and isolated, the more the world focuses on Israel’s colonialism rather than Iran’s nuclear enrichment, the more people call for a single democratic state in all of historic Palestine.

And now Iran has an ally: Sheldon Adelson — the foolhardy Las Vegas casino magnate and crude right-wing, pro-Israel extremist. Adelson gave away some $100 million in the last presidential campaign to fund Republican candidates, with several priorities in mind: that they delegitimize the Palestinians and that they avoid any reference to the West Bank as “occupied territories” and any notion that the U.S. should pressure Israel to trade land for peace there. Both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney took the money and played by Sheldon’s rules.

In case you missed it, the R.J.C., the Republican Jewish Coalition, held a retreat last weekend at an Adelson casino in Las Vegas. It was dubbed “the Sheldon Primary.” Republicans lined up to compete for Adelson’s blessing and money, or as Politico put it: “Adelson summoned [Jeb] Bush and Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin to Las Vegas. … The new big-money political landscape — in which a handful of donors can dramatically alter a campaign with just a check or two — explains both the eagerness of busy governors to make pilgrimages to Las Vegas, and the obsession with divining Adelson’s 2016 leanings.”

Adelson personifies everything that is poisoning our democracy and Israel’s today — swaggering oligarchs, using huge sums of money to try to bend each system to their will.

Christie, in his speech, referred to the West Bank as “occupied territories” — as any knowledgeable American leader would. This, Politico said, “set off murmurs in the crowd.” Some Republican Jews explained to Christie after he finished that he had made a terrible faux pas. (He called something by its true name and in the way the U.S. government always has!) The West Bank should be called “disputed territories” or “Judea and Samaria,” the way hard-line Jews prefer. So, Politico reported, Christie hastily arranged a meeting with Adelson to explain that he misspoke and that he was a true friend of Israel. “The New Jersey governor apologized in a private meeting in the casino mogul’s Venetian office shortly afterward,” Politico reported. It said Adelson “accepted” Christie’s “explanation” and “quick apology.”

Read that sentence over and contemplate it.

I don’t know if Israel has a Palestinian partner for a secure withdrawal from the West Bank, or ever will. But I know this: If Israel wants to remain a Jewish, democratic state, it should be doing everything it can to nurture such a partner or acting unilaterally to get out. Because, I’m certain that when reports about the “Adelson primary” reached the desk of Supreme Leader Khamenei in Tehran, a big smile crossed his face and he said to his aides: “May Allah grant Sheldon a long life. Everything is going according to plan.”

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Two years ago, Marina Keegan’s life brimmed with promise. She was graduating with high honors from Yale University, already a precocious writer about to take up a job at The New Yorker.

She had a play that was about to be produced. She had sparked a national conversation about whether graduates should seek meaning or money.

In keeping with that early promise, Keegan’s first book, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” is scheduled to be published in a few days. The title comes from an essay that she wrote in the graduation issue of the Yale newspaper; it was viewed online more than one million times.

The book is a triumph, but also a tragedy — for it’s posthumous.

“I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short,” Keegan wrote in one of her poems. As a senior, she wrote an aching protest on the website of The New York Times about the rush of students into well-paying jobs on Wall Street — not because of innate interest but because that route was lucrative and practical. One-quarter of Yale graduates entering the job market were going into finance or consulting, and Keegan saw this as a surrender of youthful talents and dreams to the altar of practicality.

“Standing outside a freshman dorm, I couldn’t find a single student aspiring to be a banker, but at commencement this May, there’s a 50 percent chance I’ll be sitting next to one,” she wrote. “This strikes me as incredibly sad.”

Keegan recalled being paid $100 to attend a recruiting session at Yale by a hedge fund: “I got this uneasy feeling that the man in the beautiful suit was going to take my Hopes and Dreams back to some lab to figure out the best way to crush them.”

For my part (and Keegan probably would have agreed), I think that we need bankers and management consultants as well as writers and teachers, and there’s something to be said for being practical. Some financiers find fulfillment, and it’s also true that such a person may be able to finance far more good work than a person who becomes an aid worker. Life is complicated.

Yet Keegan was right to prod us all to reflect on what we seek from life, to ask these questions, to recognize the importance of passions as well as paychecks — even if there are no easy answers.

A young man named Adam Braun struggles with similar issues in another new book that complements Keegan’s. Braun began working at a hedge fund the summer when he was 16, charging unthinkingly toward finance, and after graduation from Brown University he joined Bain Consulting.

Yet Braun found that although he had “made it,” his heart just wasn’t in his work. He kept thinking of a boy, a beggar who had never been to school, whom he had met on a trip to India. Braun asked the boy what he wanted most in the world.

The boy replied, “a pencil.”

Braun quit his job to found Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit that builds schools around the world. His new book, “The Promise of a Pencil,” recounts “how an ordinary person can create extraordinary change.”

I hope this year’s graduates will remember the message in the books by Keegan and Braun about seeking fulfillment, zest and passion in life. This search for purpose in life is an elemental human quest — yet one we tend to put off. And we never know when time will run out.

For Marina Keegan, that was just five days after graduation. Her boyfriend was driving her to her father’s 55th birthday party on Cape Cod. Though he was neither speeding nor drinking, he fell asleep at the wheel. They both were wearing seatbelts, but her seat was fully reclined so that the seatbelt was less effective.

The car hit a guard rail and rolled over twice. The boyfriend was unhurt; Keegan was killed.

Her mother, Tracy Keegan, combed the wreckage. Marina’s laptop had been smashed, but the hard drive was extracted to mine the writings so important to her — and now preserved in her book.

After the crash, Marina’s parents immediately forgave and comforted her boyfriend, who faced criminal charges in her death. They asked that he not be prosecuted for vehicular homicide — for that, they said, would have broken their daughter’s heart. Charges were dropped, and the boyfriend sat by her parents at the memorial service.

The book has been lovingly edited by Anne Fadiman, who taught Keegan writing at Yale. “Every aspect of her life,” Fadiman says, “was a way of answering that question: how do you find meaning in your life?”

Fadiman says that Marina would be “beyond thrilled” at having a book published, but would add: “Please pay attention to my ideas. Don’t read this book just because I’m dead.”

And last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

To appreciate how rapidly the ground has shifted, go back just two short years, to April 2012. President Obama didn’t support marriage equality, not formally. Neither did Hillary Clinton. And few people were denouncing them as bigots whose positions rendered them too divisive, offensive and regressive to lead.

But that’s precisely the condemnation that tainted and toppled Brendan Eich after his appointment two weeks ago as the new chief executive of the technology company Mozilla. On Thursday he resigned, clearly under duress and solely because his opposition to gay marriage diverged from the views of too many employees and customers. “Under the present circumstances, I cannot be an effective leader,” he said, and he was right, not just about the climate at Mozilla but also, to a certain degree, about the climate of America.

Something remarkable has happened — something that’s mostly exciting but also a little disturbing (I’ll get to the disturbing part later), and that’s reflected not just in Eich’s ouster at Mozilla, the maker of the web browser Firefox, but in a string of marriage-equality victories in federal courts over recent months, including a statement Friday by a judge who said that he would rule that Ohio must recognize same-sex marriages performed outside the state.

And the development I’m referring to isn’t the broadening support for same-sex marriage, which a clear majority of Americans now favor. No, I’m referring to the fact that in a great many circles, endorsement of same-sex marriage has rather suddenly become nonnegotiable. Expected. Assumed. Proof of a baseline level of enlightenment and humanity. Akin to the understanding that all people, regardless of race or color, warrant the same rights and respect.

Even beyond these circles, the debate is essentially over, in the sense that the trajectory is immutable and the conclusion foregone. Everybody knows it, even the people who still try to stand in the way. The legalization of same-sex marriage from north to south and coast to coast is merely a matter of time, probably not much of it at that.

There will surely be setbacks, holdouts, tantrums like the one in Arizona, whose Legislature in February passed a bill that would have allowed discrimination against gays and lesbians on religious grounds. (Mississippi enacted a vaguely similar measure last week.) Arizona’s governor of course vetoed the legislation, after being pressured by corporate leaders, and their lobbying underscored the larger and more lasting story. At least beyond the offices of Chick-fil-A, it’s widely believed — no, understood — that being pro-gay is better for business than being antigay. Hence the inclusion of a same-sex couple in the famous faces-of-America commercial that Coca-Cola unveiled during the Super Bowl. Hence a more recent television spot, part of the Honey Maid food company’s “This is Wholesome” ad campaign. It showed two dads cuddling their newborn.

The Mozilla story fits into this picture. Eich was exiled following not just employee complaints but signs and threats of customer unrest: The online dating site OkCupid was urging its users to boycott Firefox.

The business community has in fact been a consequential supporter of marriage equality. Wall Street firms lined the coffers of the campaign for marriage equality in New York, and 20 major financial service companies pay substantial membership dues to belong to and underwrite Out on the Street, an industry group that advocates for L.G.B.T. equality.

“You want to talk about a sea change?” Todd Sears, the group’s founder, said to me. “Fourteen financial services companies signed onto an amicus brief in the Edie Windsor case.” That was the one that asked the Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, which the court essentially did last June.

The language in the high court’s ruling “demolished every argument put forward to justify marriage discrimination,” said Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry. And that ruling, he added, helped to pave the way for all the court victories — in Utah, in Oklahoma, in Texas — since. This coming Thursday, the United States circuit court in Denver will hear an appeal of the decision by a federal judge in Utah to allow gay and lesbian couples there to wed. The case could have a sweeping effect on a region of the country not typically considered progressive. It could also wind up at the Supreme Court and give the justices a chance to do what they stopped short of last year: decree marriage equality nationwide.

Wolfson noted a fascinating angle of the recent court rulings and of the blessing that Eric Holder gave in February to state-level attorneys general who didn’t want to defend bans on gay marriage. Both invoked racial discrimination in the country’s past, casting bans on same-sex marriage in that context.

Increasingly, opposition to gay marriage is being equated with racism — as indefensible, un-American. “What was once a wedge issue became wrapped in the American flag,” said Jo Becker, a Times writer whose sweeping history of the marriage-equality movement, “Forcing the Spring,” will be published this month. Becker mentioned what she called a rebranding of the movement over the last five years, with two important components. First, gay marriage was framed in terms of family values. Second, advocates didn’t shame opponents and instead made sympathetic public acknowledgment of the journey that many Americans needed to complete in order to be comfortable with marriage equality.

There was no such acknowledgment from Mozilla employees and others who took to Twitter to condemn Eich and call for his head. Writing about that wrath in his blog, The Dish, Andrew Sullivan said that it disgusted him, “as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society.” A leading supporter of gay marriage, Sullivan warned other supporters not to practice “a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else.”

I can’t get quite as worked up as he did. For one thing, prominent gay rights groups weren’t part of the Mozilla fray. For another, Mozilla isn’t the first company to make leadership decisions (or reconsiderations) with an eye toward the boss’s cultural mind-meld with the people below him or her. And if you believe that to deny a class of people the right to marry is to deem them less worthy, it’s indeed difficult to chalk up opposition to marriage equality as just another difference of opinion.

But it’s vital to remember how very recently so many of equality’s promoters, like Obama and Clinton, have come around and how relatively new this conversation remains. It’s crucial not to lose sight of how well the movement has been served by the less judgmental posture that Becker pointed out.

Sullivan is right to raise concerns about the public flogging of someone like Eich. Such vilification won’t accelerate the timetable of victory, which is certain. And it doesn’t reflect well on the victors.

Crap, Mr. Bruni.  He was shit-canned because he was bad for business.  He’s still perfectly free to exercise his rights of free speech to decry same sex marriage.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

April 4, 2014

Bobo seems to have lost what passed for his mind.  In “Party All the Time” he actually tells us that the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision strengthens democracy by enabling the parties to take back power from major donors.  “Eric Flatpick” of Ohio sums the thing up succinctly:  “What pigheaded sophistry.”  Mr. Flatpick had more to say about it, but the summation says it all.  Mr. Cohen has a question in “In Search of Home:”  If you had a few weeks to live, where would you go?  In “Rube Goldberg Survives” Prof. Krugman tells us why those seven million enrollments in Obamacare matter.  Here’s Bobo’s delayed April Fools Day POS:

Over the last several decades, the United States has adopted a series of campaign finance reform laws. If these laws were designed to reduce the power of money in politics, they have failed. Spending on political campaigns has exploded. Washington booms with masses of lobbyists and consultants.

But campaign finance laws weren’t merely designed to take money out of politics; they were designed to protect incumbents from political defeat. In this regard, the laws have been fantastically successful.

The laws rigged the system to make it harder for challengers to raise money. In 1972, at about the time the Federal Election Campaign Act was first passed, incumbents had a campaign spending advantage over challengers of about 3 to 2. These days, incumbents have a spending advantage of at least 4 to 1. In some election years, 98 percent of the incumbents are swept back into office.

One of the ways incumbents secured this advantage is by weakening the power of the parties. They imposed caps on how much donors can give to parties and how much parties can give directly to candidates. By 2008, direct party contributions to Senate candidates accounted for only 0.18 percent of total spending.

The members of Congress did this because an unregulated party can direct large amounts of money to knock off an incumbent of the opposing party. By restricting parties, incumbents defanged a potent foe.

These laws pushed us from a party-centric campaign system to a candidate-centric system. This change has made life less pleasant for lawmakers but it has made their jobs more secure, and they have been willing to accept this trade-off.

Life is less pleasant because with the parties weakened, lawmakers have to do many campaign tasks on their own. They have to do their own fund-raising and their own kissing up to special interests. They have to hire consultants to do the messaging tasks that parties used to do.

But incumbents accept this because the candidate-centric system makes life miserable for challengers. With direct contributions severely limited and parties defanged, challengers find it hard to quickly build the vast network of donors they need to raise serious cash. High-quality challengers choose not to run because they don’t want to spend their lives begging for dough.

The shift to a candidate-centric system was horrifically antidemocratic. It pushed money from transparent, tightly regulated parties to the shadowy world of PACs and 527s. It weakened party leaders, who have to think about building broad national coalitions, and gave power to special interests.

Then came the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which managed to make everything even worse. It moved us from a candidate-centric system to a donor-centric system. Donors were unleashed to create their own opaque yet torrential money flows outside both parties and candidates. This created an explosion in the number of groups with veto power over legislation and reform. It polarized politics further because donors tend to be more extreme than politicians or voters. The candidate-centric system empowered special interests; the donor-centric system makes them practically invincible.

Then along came the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision this week. It has been greeted with cries of horror because it may increase the amount of money in politics. But this is the wrong metric. There will always be money in politics; it’s a pipe dream to think otherwise. The crucial question is where is the money flowing.

The McCutcheon decision is a rare win for the parties. It enables party establishments to claw back some of the power that has flowed to donors and “super PACs.” It effectively raises the limits on what party establishments can solicit. It gives party leaders the chance to form joint fund-raising committees they can use to marshal large pools of cash and influence. McCutcheon is a small step back toward a party-centric system.

In their book “Better Parties, Better Government,” Peter J. Wallison and Joel M. Gora propose the best way to reform campaign finance: eliminate the restrictions on political parties to finance the campaigns of their candidates; loosen the limitations on giving to parties; keep the limits on giving to PACs.

Parties are not perfect, Lord knows. But they have broad national outlooks. They foster coalition thinking. They are relatively transparent. They are accountable to voters. They ally with special interests, but they transcend the influence of any one. Strengthened parties will make races more competitive and democracy more legitimate. Strong parties mobilize volunteers and activists and broaden political participation. Unlike super PACs, parties welcome large numbers of people into the political process.

Since the progressive era, campaign reformers have intuitively distrusted parties. These reformers seem driven by a naïve hope that they can avoid any visible concentration of power. But their approach to reform has manifestly failed. By restricting parties, they just concentrated power in ways that are much worse.

Sweet baby Jesus on a tricycle…  I guess Bobo missed the spectacle of pretty much all the Republican “front runners” prostrating themselves before the loathsome Sheldon Adelson.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

In a fascinating recent essay in The London Review of Books, called “On Not Going Home,” James Wood relates how he “asked Christopher Hitchens, long before he was terminally ill, where he would go if he had only a few weeks to live. Would he stay in America? ‘No, I’d go to Dartmoor, without a doubt,’ he told me. It was the landscape of his childhood.”

It was the landscape, in other words, of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in some indelible place in the psyche and call out across the years.

That question is worth repeating: If I had only a few weeks to live, where would I go? It is a good way of getting rid of the clutter that distracts or blinds. I will get to that in a moment.

In the essay, Wood, who grew up in England but has lived in the United States for 18 years, explores a certain form of contemporary homelessness — lives lived without the finality of exile, but also without the familiarity of home.

He speaks of existences “marked by a certain provisionality, a structure of departure and return that may not end.”

This is a widespread modern condition; perhaps it is the modern condition. Out of it, often, comes anxiety. Wood does not focus on the psychological effects of what he calls “a certain outsider-dom,” but if you dig into people who are depressed you often find that their distress at some level is linked to a sense of not fitting in, an anxiety about belonging: displacement anguish.

Wood describes looking at the familiar life of his Boston street, “the heavy maple trees, the unkempt willow down at the end, an old white Cadillac with the bumper sticker ‘Ted Kennedy has killed more people than my gun,’ and I feel … nothing: some recognition, but no comprehension, no real connection, no past, despite all the years I have lived there — just a tugging distance from it all. A panic suddenly overtakes me, and I wonder: How did I get here?”

Having spent my infancy in South Africa, grown up and been educated in England, and then, after a peripatetic life as a foreign correspondent, found my home in New York, I understand that how-did-I-get-here panic. But Wood and I differ. He has no desire to become an American citizen.

He quotes an immigration officer telling him, “‘A Green Card is usually considered a path to citizenship,’ and continues: “He was generously saying, ‘Would you like to be an American citizen?’ along with the less generous: ‘Why don’t you want to be an American citizen?’ Can we imagine either sentiment being expressed at Heathrow airport?”

No, we can’t. And it’s that essential openness of America, as well as the (linked) greater ease of living as a Jew in the United States compared with life in the land of Lewis Namier’s “trembling Israelites,” that made me become an American citizen and elect New York as my home. It’s the place that takes me in.

But it is not the place of my deepest connections. So, what if I had a few weeks to live? I would go to Cape Town, to my grandfather’s house, Duxbury, looking out over the railway line near Kalk Bay station to the ocean and the Cape of Good Hope. During my childhood, there was the scent of salt and pine and, in certain winds, a pungent waft from the fish processing plant in Fish Hoek. I would dangle a little net in rock pools and find myself hypnotized by the silky water and quivering life in it. The heat, not the dry high-veld heat of Johannesburg but something denser, pounded by the time we came back from the beach at lunchtime. It reverberated off the stone, angled into every recess. The lunch table was set and soon enough fried fish, usually firm-fleshed kingklip, would be served, so fresh it seemed to burst from its batter. At night the lights of Simon’s Town glittered, a lovely necklace strung along a promontory.

This was a happiness whose other name was home.

Wood writes: “Freud has a wonderful word, ‘afterwardness,’ which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it from its very different context. To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of ‘afterwardness’: It is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done. And that may be all right.”

Yes, being not quite home, acceptance, which may be bountiful, is what is left to us.

And now we get to Prof. Krugman:

Holy seven million, Batman! The Affordable Care Act, a k a Obamacare, has made a stunning comeback from its shambolic start. As the March 31 deadline for 2014 coverage approached, there was a surge in applications at the “exchanges” — the special insurance marketplaces the law set up. And the original target of seven million signups, widely dismissed as unattainable, has been surpassed.

But what does it mean? That depends on whether you ask the law’s opponents or its supporters. You see, the opponents think that it means a lot, while the law’s supporters are being very cautious. And, in this one case, the enemies of health reform are right. This is a very big deal indeed.

Of course, you don’t find many Obamacare opponents admitting outright that 7.1 million and counting signups is a huge victory for reform. But their reaction to the results — It’s a fraud! They’re cooking the books! — tells the tale. Conservative thinking and Republican political strategy were based entirely on the assumption that it would always be October, that Obamacare’s rollout would be an unremitting tale of disaster. They have no idea what to do now that it’s turning into a success story.

So why are many reform supporters being diffident, telling us not to read too much into the figures? Well, at a technical level they’re right: The precise number of signups doesn’t matter much for the functioning of the law, and there may still be many problems despite the March surge. But I’d argue that they’re missing the forest for the trees.

The crucial thing to understand about the Affordable Care Act is that it’s a Rube Goldberg device, a complicated way to do something inherently simple. The biggest risk to reform has always been that the scheme would founder on its complexity. And now we know that this won’t happen.

Remember, giving everyone health insurance doesn’t have to be hard; you can just do it with a government-run program. Not only do many other advanced countries have “single-payer,” government-provided health insurance, but we ourselves have such a program — Medicare — for older Americans. If it had been politically possible, extending Medicare to everyone would have been technically easy.

But it wasn’t politically possible, for a couple of reasons. One was the power of the insurance industry, which couldn’t be cut out of the loop if you wanted health reform this decade. Another was the fact that the 170 million Americans receiving health insurance through employers are generally satisfied with their coverage, and any plan replacing that coverage with something new and unknown was a nonstarter.

So health reform had to be run largely through private insurers, and be an add-on to the existing system rather than a complete replacement. And, as a result, it had to be somewhat complex.

Now, the complexity shouldn’t be exaggerated: The basics of reform only take a few minutes to explain. And it has to be as complicated as it is. There’s a reason Republicans keep defaulting on their promise to propose an alternative to the Affordable Care Act: All the main elements of Obamacare, including the subsidies and the much-attacked individual mandate, are essential if you want to cover the uninsured.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration created a system in which people don’t simply receive a letter from the federal government saying “Congratulations, you are now covered.” Instead, people must go online or make a phone call and choose from a number of options, in which the cost of insurance depends on a calculation that includes varying subsidies, and so on. It’s a system in which many things can go wrong; the nightmare scenario has always been that conservatives would seize on technical problems to discredit health reform as a whole. And last fall that nightmare seemed to be coming true.

But the nightmare is over. It has long been clear, to anyone willing to study the issue, that the overall structure of Obamacare made sense given the political constraints. Now we know that the technical details can be managed, too. This thing is going to work.

And, yes, it’s also a big political victory for Democrats. They can point to a system that is already providing vital aid to millions of Americans, and Republicans — who were planning to run against a debacle — have nothing to offer in response. And I mean nothing. So far, not one of the supposed Obamacare horror stories featured in attack ads has stood up to scrutiny.

So my advice to reform supporters is, go ahead and celebrate. Oh, and feel free to ridicule right-wingers who confidently predicted doom.

Clearly, there’s a lot of work ahead, and we can count on the news media to play up every hitch and glitch as if it were an existential disaster. But Rube Goldberg has survived; health reform has won.

Brooks and Cohen

March 11, 2014

Oh, gawd.  Bobo is concerned that the US isn’t swinging its big dick in the world enough.  In “The Leaderless Doctrine” he gibbers that there has been a shift in Americans’ understanding of the role of the U.S. and the nature of power, with complex and unnerving consequences.  Mr. Cohen, in “Left Hand Among Bones,” says two children of the disappeared know the nature of endless loss.  Here’s Bobo:

We’re in the middle of a remarkable shift in how Americans see the world and their own country’s role in the world. For the first time in half a century, a majority of Americans say that the U.S. should be less engaged in world affairs, according to the most recent Pew Research Center survey. For the first time in recorded history, a majority of Americans believe that their country has a declining influence on what’s happening around the globe. A slight majority of Americans now say that their country is doing too much to help solve the world’s problems.

At first blush, this looks like isolationism. After the exhaustion from Iraq and Afghanistan, and amid the lingering economic stagnation, Americans are turning inward.

But if you actually look at the data, you see that this is not the case. America is not turning inward economically. More than three-quarters of Americans believe the U.S. should get more economically integrated with the world, according to Pew.

America is not turning inward culturally. Large majorities embrace the globalization of culture and the internationalization of colleges and workplaces. Americans are not even turning inward when it comes to activism. They have enormous confidence in personalized peer-to-peer efforts to promote democracy, human rights and development.

What’s happening can be more accurately described this way: Americans have lost faith in the high politics of global affairs. They have lost faith in the idea that American political and military institutions can do much to shape the world. American opinion is marked by an amazing sense of limitation — that there are severe restrictions on what political and military efforts can do.

This sense of limits is shared equally among Democrats and Republicans, polls show. There has been surprisingly little outcry against the proposed defense cuts, which would reduce the size of the U.S. Army to its lowest levels since 1940. That’s because people are no longer sure military might gets you very much.

These shifts are not just a result of post-Iraq disillusionment, or anything the Obama administration has done. The shift in foreign policy values is a byproduct of a deeper and broader cultural shift.

The veterans of World War II returned to civilian life with a basic faith in big units — big armies, corporations and unions. They tended to embrace a hierarchical leadership style.

The Cold War was a competition between clearly defined nation-states.

Commanding American leaders created a liberal international order. They preserved that order with fleets that roamed the seas, armies stationed around the world and diplomatic skill.

Over the ensuing decades, that faith in big units has eroded — in all spheres of life. Management hierarchies have been flattened. Today people are more likely to believe that history is driven by people gathering in the squares and not from the top down. The liberal order is not a single system organized and defended by American military strength; it’s a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet.

The real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent. In an age of global markets and global media, the power of the state and the tank, it is thought, can pale before the power of the swarms of individuals.

This is global affairs with the head chopped off. Political leaders are not at the forefront of history; real power is in the swarm. The ensuing doctrine is certainly not Reaganism — the belief that America should use its power to defeat tyranny and promote democracy. It’s not Kantian, or a belief that the world should be governed by international law. It’s not even realism — the belief that diplomats should play elaborate chess games to balance power and advance national interest. It’s a radical belief that the nature of power — where it comes from and how it can be used — has fundamentally shifted, and the people in the big offices just don’t get it.

It’s frankly naïve to believe that the world’s problems can be conquered through conflict-free cooperation and that the menaces to civilization, whether in the form of Putin or Iran, can be simply not faced. It’s the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional.

One set of numbers in the data leaps out. For decades Americans have been asked if they believe most people can be trusted. Forty percent of baby boomers believe most people can be trusted. But only 19 percent of millennials believe that. This is a thoroughly globalized and linked generation with unprecedentedly low levels of social trust.

We live in a country in which many people act as if history is leaderless. Events emerge spontaneously from the ground up. Such a society is very hard to lead and summon. It can be governed only by someone who arouses intense moral loyalty, and even that may be fleeting.

The phrase “intense moral loyalty” gives me a case of hives.  Smacks of torchlit rallies…  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Buenos Aires:

In the end it was his father’s left hand, found a couple of years ago in a pile of charred bones outside La Plata, that enabled Gonzalo Reggiardo Tolosa to know for a fact the man he never knew was dead. This was physical knowledge, different from the almost-certain supposition with which he had lived ever since he discovered as a boy in the late 1980s that the couple who raised him and his twin brother Matías were not his parents.

Even his father’s remains did not constitute closure for this child of the “disappeared,” born in 1977 under the rule of Argentina’s military junta, seized at birth from parents who vanished into the vortex of the “Dirty War,” raised by a police officer named Samuel Miara and his wife Beatriz who initially insisted he was their son, thrust into foster care after Miara was jailed, then handed over to a biological uncle, told to forget his former life, and finally left to sift through the scattered fragments of his existence.

Still the trials go on.

“I am incredibly mad at the cruelty of not allowing a person to mourn his parents,” Reggiardo Tolosa tells me. “They did all they could to destroy the evidence. The other day I left the witness stand after giving testimony and broke down. I was sobbing. I am still trying to mourn my parents.”

We are seated in a Starbucks in the Argentine capital. It is a holiday, as usual. The streets are quiet — apart from the money-changers’ refrain: “Cambio, cambio, cambio.” Yet another little currency crisis has hit Argentina. Nobody wants pesos.

Reggiardo Tolosa speaks slowly of another time, when our sons of bitches, to paraphrase Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s apocryphal comment, did their foul business in the name of defeating communism in the Americas, and many thousands disappeared. His manner is gentle, his pain evident, still. This is what our sons of bitches wrought, a legacy without end.

His breakdown occurred last month. He and his brother were called to testify in a trial involving former army officers accused of involvement in killings under the junta at a clandestine facility called La Cacha, adjacent to Los Olmos prison in La Plata, where the twins’ parents were held before being “disappeared.”

One of the indicted, Ricardo Fernández, a former intelligence officer, is Gonzalo Reggiardo Tolosa’s godfather. His godfather! He was chosen by Miara, who always insisted, however, that Fernández had no role in abducting the twins. Now Reggiardo Tolosa is convinced Fernández was the conduit from the hell of La Cacha to the Miaras.

The twins arrived at the Miaras’ home on May 16, 1977. They have no birth certificate. It is estimated they were born around April 27. “What I must find out now is what exactly happened in those three weeks,” Reggiardo Tollosa says. Almost 37 years after he and his brother were taken, he is closing in on the truth.

I have known this man since he was a boy. His hair, now brown, was blond then. He and his brother were playing soccer in a yard in the Paraguayan capital of Asunción. I had followed a lead that the Miaras had fled to Paraguay with two boys born to a disappeared Argentine couple. Miara, when I confronted him in 1987, denied it. But the piece, published in The Wall Street Journal, helped secure his eventual extradition to Argentina.

Some stories will not leave you. They are your actual responsibility.

Reggiardo Tolosa is with his girlfriend, Jimena Vicario. She was a baby when, on Feb. 5, 1977, she was taken from her mother (who disappeared) during police questioning. She was dumped in a Buenos Aires hospital, raised by a woman who took pity. Her father, Juan Carlos Vicario, a Spanish citizen who fled Franco, was also murdered. The couple was about to leave for Spain when they vanished.

Jimena Vicario never gave blood for DNA testing, never wanted to know what exactly happened to her parents, never saw the point. Reggiardo Tolosa thinks she hates the tango and wants to get out of Argentina because that is what her parents were about to do when they were killed. For himself he cannot leave his football club (San Lorenzo), his city’s particular melancholy.

They first glimpsed each other as children in court. They re-met a year ago through Facebook. They laugh that there is so much they don’t have to explain to each other; that they don’t need to deal with in-laws; that money received in compensation for their loss disappeared in another currency crisis; and that they no longer have partners who, when angry, say: “Spare me your story yet again.”

They can laugh, just. The next trial, Reggiardo Tolosa says, will focus specifically on Fernández and the twins’ abduction. Perhaps then, he muses, “I will finish realizing I am an orphan.”

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd and Kristof

March 9, 2014

Putzy must have been just thrilled by CPAC, because he’s seeing things through rose-colored glasses.  In “Four Factions, No Favorite” he tells us that it’s not just the Tea Party vs. the establishment this time, and, in fact, it never was.  He’s full of optimism, poor soul…  MoDo lurves her some Pooty-Poot it would appear, or at least she’s grateful to him for another opportunity to castigate the President.  In “Little R-S-P-E-C-T” she crows that Pooty-Poot and his own party are socking it to Bam.  She’s become a caricature of herself by this point.  In “To End the Abuse, She Grabbed a Knife” Mr. Kristof says violence in the home is quietly killing American women. It’s time to start talking about it.  Oooh, better not do that, Nick.  The Talibangelicals say we’re all supposed to be supporters of “traditional marriage,” doncha know…  Here’s Putzy:

This is a season of possibility for Republican politicians. Their party is poised to do well in November. Their Democratic opponents are stuck in neutral — waiting for Hillary, praying for Obamacare. And thanks to a few strategically placed traffic cones, there is no front-runner for the G.O.P. nomination in 2016, which means that more prominent Republicans than usual are dreaming the presidential dream.

Quite a few of them brought those dreams to the just-concluded Conservative Political Action Conference, jostling for the attention of activists, chasing cameras or being chased by them, trading compliments and subtle digs. A few, like the still-in-damage-control Chris Christie, were just there to pay their respects. But most were trying to ace CPAC’s big audition, and prove that they could play the One True Conservative in the 2016 race.

The question is whether that role will actually exist. We’re accustomed to a narrative of Republican politics that pits the Tea Party against the establishment, the right against the center right. But that has always been an oversimplification, and in a wide-open presidential campaign, it’s likely to fit political reality more poorly than usual.

A better framework is suggested by Henry Olsen, writing in The National Interest, who argues that Republican presidential campaigns are usually defined by four factions rather than two. One faction is centrist (think John McCain’s 2000 supporters, or Jon Huntsman’s rather smaller 2012 support), one is moderately conservative (think the typical Mitt Romney or Bob Dole voter), one is socially conservative (think Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum backers), and one is very conservative but more secular (think Gingrich voters last time, or Steve Forbes voters much further back).

The moderately conservative faction holds the balance of power, which is why the party usually flirts with ideologues but settles down with a safer, establishment-endorsed choice. But different campaigns take very different paths to this result.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan basically worked from the right to the center, consolidating secular and religious conservatives and then wooing enough moderate conservatives to win.

In 1996, Bob Dole relied on moderate conservatives to fend off a centrist (Lamar Alexander), a social conservative (Pat Buchanan) and a secular conservative (Forbes).

In 2000, George W. Bush used support from moderate conservatives and religious conservatives to defeat both McCain’s centrist insurgency and Forbes’s lesser challenge from the right.

In 2008, McCain combined his original centrist base with enough moderate conservatives to win the nomination — a trick Romney basically imitated in 2012.

Before the traffic problems in Fort Lee, Christie seemed poised to follow in Romney’s and McCain’s footsteps, uniting moderates and moderate conservatives and then trying to outlast whichever challengers emerged from the religious and nonreligious right.

But with Christie weakened, there are suddenly almost as many paths as there are plausible candidates.

The New Jersey governor could still follow McCain’s 2008 path to victory, but he could also be marginalized, Huntsman-style, as a “centrists only” candidate — especially if a Scott Walker, a Paul Ryan or a Jeb Bush consolidated the support of moderate conservatives.

Then there’s the potential Ted Cruz coalition, which could look like Reagan redux: secular conservatives plus religious conservatives to start, and then just enough moderate conservatives to win. But Cruz would need to consolidate the religious faction early, which is why he should be hoping that Huckabee and Santorum decide to forgo another run.

And then there is the fascinating case of Rand Paul, who has a potentially formidable base in two factions that don’t usually ally — moderates who like his social libertarianism and secular conservatives who like his economic views.

Confused yet? Imagine being a Republican strategist or donor, trying to figure out where to place your bets. And I haven’t even given you the Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal and John Kasich scenarios!

But let me conclude with one that seems a little more likely: a rerun of Bush’s 2000 path, in which Marco Rubio wins by uniting religious and moderate conservatives.

Rubio had a tough 2013, thanks to his unsuccessful immigration push, and he lacks the ideologically committed support of a Paul or Cruz or Huckabee. But his domestic-policy forays (first on poverty, soon on taxes) have gotten smarter since the immigration debacle, and events in Venezuela and Crimea may be making his hawkish foreign policy vision more appealing to conservatives.

Moreover, as much as the party and the country have changed since the Bush era,  the best way to unify the G.O.P. is still to build bridges between religious conservatives and moderate conservatives  —  in effect, to seem relatable to Santorum voters while reassuring Romney voters.  And Rubio, in affect and background and positioning, may be the right politician for that task.

Remember, I said “may.” He’s not the front-runner, because there is no front-runner. There are only factions waiting for their champion, and a party waiting for its biggest fight in years.

The Teatard-inspired primary process ought to be tons of fun to watch.  Buy popcorn futures.  Next up we have MoDo, FSM help us:

If you can’t spell it, you can’t get it.

President Obama pulled a Quayle Thursday night at a White House performance by the women of soul and muffed the title of Aretha Franklin’s anthem. “R-S-P-E-C-T,” he said, looking a bit confused and eliciting laughter.

When Patti LaBelle took the stage, she told Obama, “Baby, you’ve got swag.”

Swag and respect are exactly what the president needs. He’s got a swag gap with Russia. His administration, after belatedly figuring out what was going on in Ukraine, is improvising as the uber-swaggering Vladimir Putin once more rolls in with tanks anywhere he likes.

But the president is severely constrained in how he can respond, given that the Europeans are reluctant to be very punitive because they’re worried about their energy supplies and have to play nice with the bully on their borders.

He’s doing what seems appropriate at this point — putting a ban on U.S. visas, imposing financial sanctions on “individuals and entities” responsible for Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and trying to horse-whisper the Botoxed, bare-chested man on horseback whose eyes read “K.G.B.,” as John McCain likes to say.

 President Obama, who is usually ultra-smooth, hit a rough patch Thursday night when he misspelled Aretha Franklin’s signature song during the “Women of Soul” concert at the White House. He dropped the first “E,” and it came out “R-S-P-E-C-T.” Credit Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

rest here

The right wing seems risible, swooning over Pooty-Poot, as W. dubbed Putin. They gleefully claim the Russian strongman is Carterizing Obama and act huffy that the only one parachuting into Kiev is John Kerry. “What are you going to do, send the 101st Airborne into Crimea?” says Terry McCarthy, the president of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. “The way Republicans are dumping on the president, saying anything short of Armageddon shows that he’s weak, is silly. It’s kind of shocking that foreign policy, which used to be nonpartisan, now becomes partisan so quickly.”

Speaker John Boehner said congressional Republicans were “trying to give the president tools that he might employ that would strengthen his hand in dealing with this very difficult problem.”

More calculating conservatives pounced. Trying to rehabilitate himself, Marco Rubio told a CPAC audience here that America must “stand up to the spread of totalitarianism.”

Sarah Palin, who seems ever more viperish, deployed her Yoda syntax with Sean Hannity: “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.”

Actually, the jeans the president wore in the Oval Office, talking to Putin on the phone last weekend, looked good.

And his Russia response is a positive contrast with Syria, where Obama came across as naval-gazing and feckless when he dithered and then drew a “red line” against Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons. He was still explaining to the press why he had decided on military action while Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the Brits were yanking the rug out from under him.

The place where Obama really looks weak right now is at home.

Even after Democrats changed the filibuster rule and rigged the game in the Senate to get nominees through on a majority vote, the White House got whacked over its nominee to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division.

Bryan Cranston has said he hopes Obama comes to see his new L.B.J. play on Broadway to learn a little about horse-trading. The sooner, the better. The president and Harry Reid upended the entire Senate to get people like Debo Adegbile through, and they couldn’t get him through — and in the area of civil rights, so crucial to Obama’s legacy.

Obama called the defeat “a travesty,” but the White House seemed oblivious to the fact that they were putting Democratic senators in red states in a squeeze between the Fraternal Order of Police and civil rights groups. Adegbile had worked on an N.A.A.C.P. legal team that filed a Supreme Court brief in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a writer and former Black Panther convicted in the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal called himself a political prisoner and turned into such an international cause célèbre that a Paris suburb named a street for him.

If Obama was determined to choose Adegbile, his team needed to sell him adeptly and promptly. But Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said there were still “open wounds” about Faulkner in his state, and by the time Casey and six other Democrats began to run away, it was too late.

It also didn’t help Obama’s swag that Reid and Nancy Pelosi peremptorily declared the president’s trade agenda D.O.A. for this session, showing that he doesn’t have the juice to override them on a key part of his economic plan. If the president doesn’t get it together, he’s headed for a big, bad midterm “thumpin’ ” in the memorable word of W., who experienced one six years into his reign.

It’s tricky for Democrats: Obama is unpopular, so they want to distance themselves from him in the tough races in red states. But the more they run away from him, the weaker he looks and the more unpopular he gets. (Gallup has his approval rating dropping to 41 percent, a danger zone for Democrats running for re-election.)

If the Republicans win the Senate, they’ll get in and find out they can’t pass legislation either. Then they’ll look bad just in time to help make a Democratic presidential candidate look good.

Sooner or later she’ll poison herself with her own bile, and that day can’t come soon enough.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

What strikes one American woman in four and claims a life in the United States every six hours?

This scourge can be more unsettling to talk about than colonoscopies, and it is so stigmatizing that most victims never seek help.

Paula Denize Lewis, an executive assistant here in Atlanta, was among those who kept quiet about domestic violence, for that’s what I’m talking about. She tried to cover up the black eyes and bruises when she went to work, and when she showed up with her arm in a sling she claimed that she had fallen down the stairs.

Then one evening, she says, her alcoholic boyfriend was again beating her, throwing beer cans at her and threatening to kill her. She ran for a telephone in the kitchen to call 911, but he reached it first and began clubbing her on the head with it.

Lewis reached frantically into a kitchen drawer for something to defend herself with. “I grabbed what I could,” she said.

What she had grabbed turned out to be a paring knife. She stabbed her boyfriend once. He died.

Lewis was jailed and charged with murder. With the help of the Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence, the charge was reduced to involuntary manslaughter and she was sentenced to probation.

That episode underscores the way our silence and squeamishness about domestic violence hurts everyone. If there had been earlier intervention, Lewis might have avoided years of abuse and a felony conviction — and her boyfriend might still be alive.

Domestic violence deserves far more attention and resources, and far more police understanding of the complexities involved. This is not a fringe concern. It is vast, it is outrageous, and it should be a national priority.

Women worldwide ages 15 to 44 are more likely to die or be maimed as a result of male violence than as a consequence of war, cancer, malaria and traffic accidents combined. Far more Americans, mostly women, have been killed in the last dozen years at the hands of their partners than in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

American women are twice as likely to suffer domestic violence as breast cancer, and the abuse is particularly shattering because it comes from those we have loved.

“He’s the only person I’ve ever loved,” Ta’Farian, 24, said of her husband, whom she met when she was an 18-year-old college student. He gradually became violent, she says, beating her, locking her up in a closet, and destroying property.

“My family was like, ‘He’s your husband. You can’t leave him. How would you support yourself?’ ”

Still, she says, it became too much, and she called 911. Police arrested him. But she says that the day before the trial, her husband called and threatened to kill her if she testified against him, so she says that out of a mix of fear and love she refused to repeat in court what had happened. Her husband was let off, and she was convicted of false reporting of a crime.

Ta’Farian is now in hiding, fearful of her husband as well as of the courts; she dissolved into tears as she was telling her story, partly out of fear that her conviction could cost her the custody of her son. Ayonna Johnson, who works for the Women’s Resource Center, comforted her, saying: “You should not have gotten punished for trying to stay alive.”

Domestic violence is infinitely complex in part because women sometimes love the men who beat them: they don’t want the man jailed; they don’t want to end the relationship; they just want the beatings to end.

Women can obtain temporary protective orders to keep violent boyfriends or husbands away, but these are just pieces of paper unless they’re rigorously enforced. Sometimes the orders even trigger a retaliatory attack on the woman, and police officers around the country don’t always make such a case a priority — until it becomes a murder investigation.

One way of addressing that conundrum is mandated classes for abusers, like one run by the group Men Stopping Violence. One session I sat in on was a little like Alcoholics Anonymous in its confessional, frank tone, but it focused on domestic abuse. The men were encouraged to be brutally honest in examining their shortcomings in relationships; it’s surely more effective than sending abusers to jail to seethe at their wives and wallow in self-pity.

Sometimes there’s a perception that domestic violence is insoluble, because it’s such a complex, messy problem with women who are culprits as well as victims. Yet, in fact, this is an area where the United States has seen enormous progress.

Based on victimization surveys, it seems that violence by men against their intimate partners has fallen by almost two-thirds since 1993. Attitudes have changed as well. In 1987, only half of Americans said that it was always wrong for a man to beat his wife with a belt or stick; a decade later, 86 percent said that it was always wrong.

A generation ago, police didn’t typically get involved. “We would say, ‘don’t make us come back, or you’re both going to jail,’ ” recalled Capt. Leonard Dreyer of the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office. In contrast, sheriff’s officers now routinely arrest the aggressor.

Three steps are still needed. First, we must end the silence. Second, we must ensure that police departments everywhere take the issue seriously before a victim becomes a corpse. Third, offenders should be required to attend training programs like the one run by Men Stopping Violence.

A young mom named Antonya Lewis reflects the challenges. She stayed with a violent boyfriend for years, she said, because he was the father of her daughters and was always so apologetic afterward — and also because that was what she had been told was a woman’s lot in life.

“My mom always told me to suck it up,” she said. But then her boyfriend beat her up so badly that he broke a bone near her eye and put her in the hospital. She told him that she was done with him, and when he continued to stalk her and threaten to kill her, she called the police — repeatedly — with little effect. Now she has moved to a new city and is starting over.

“I didn’t want my daughters to see him beat me,” she said. “I didn’t want them to think this is what a man can do to a woman.”

That, too, is progress.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Kristof

March 2, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has produced a turd called “The Terms of Our Surrender” in which he asks a question:  What comes after the inevitable ruling on same-sex marriage?  He’s hyperventilating and wringing his hands, of course.  His typical tell?  This sentence:  “I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying.”  I find it telling that the Times is not allowing comments on this piece of crap.  MoDo says you should “Brace Yourself for Hillary and Jeb,” and she also has a question:  America has 320 million people, so how do we keep ending up with the same two surnames running things?  It’s interesting that in this particular hit piece, allegedly about two families, the Bushes take no incoming fire.  In “From the Pyramid to the Square” The Moustache of Wisdom says an Oscar-nominated documentary about the revolution in Egypt has resonated with protesters from Cairo to Caracas to Kiev.  Mr. Kristof has a question in “The Compassion Gap:”  Why didn’t readers of a column on the need for early-childhood interventions see a caring mom instead of her old tattoos?  Here’s The Putz:

It now seems certain that before too many years elapse, the Supreme Court will be forced to acknowledge the logic of its own jurisprudence on same-sex marriage and redefine marriage to include gay couples in all 50 states.

Once this happens, the national debate essentially will be finished, but the country will remain divided, with a substantial minority of Americans, most of them religious, still committed to the older view of marriage.

So what then? One possibility is that this division will recede into the cultural background, with marriage joining the long list of topics on which Americans disagree without making a political issue out of it.

In this scenario, religious conservatives would essentially be left to promote their view of wedlock within their own institutions, as a kind of dissenting subculture emphasizing gender differences and procreation, while the wider culture declares that love and commitment are enough to make a marriage. And where conflicts arise — in a case where, say, a Mormon caterer or a Catholic photographer objected to working at a same-sex wedding — gay rights supporters would heed the advice of gay marriage’s intellectual progenitor, Andrew Sullivan, and let the dissenters opt out “in the name of their freedom — and ours.”

But there’s another possibility, in which the oft-invoked analogy between opposition to gay marriage and support for segregation in the 1960s South is pushed to its logical public-policy conclusion. In this scenario, the unwilling photographer or caterer would be treated like the proprietor of a segregated lunch counter, and face fines or lose his business — which is the intent of recent legal actions against a wedding photographer in New Mexico, a florist in Washington State, and a baker in Colorado.

Meanwhile, pressure would be brought to bear wherever the religious subculture brushed up against state power. Religious-affiliated adoption agencies would be closed if they declined to place children with same-sex couples. (This has happened in Massachusetts and Illinois.) Organizations and businesses that promoted the older definition of marriage would face constant procedural harassment, along the lines suggested by the mayors who battled with Chick-fil-A. And, eventually, religious schools and colleges would receive the same treatment as racist holdouts like Bob Jones University, losing access to public funds and seeing their tax-exempt status revoked.

In the past, this constant-pressure scenario has seemed the less-likely one, since Americans are better at agreeing to disagree than the culture war would suggest. But it feels a little bit more likely after last week’s “debate” in Arizona, over a bill that was designed to clarify whether existing religious freedom protections can be invoked by defendants like the florist or the photographer.

If you don’t recognize my description of the bill, then you probably followed the press coverage, which was mendacious and hysterical — evincing no familiarity with the legal issues, and endlessly parroting the line that the bill would institute “Jim Crow” for gays. (Never mind that in Arizona it’s currently legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation — and mass discrimination isn’t exactly breaking out.) Allegedly sensible centrists compared the bill’s supporters to segregationist politicians, liberals invoked the Bob Jones precedent to dismiss religious-liberty concerns, and Republican politicians behaved as though the law had been written by David Duke.

What makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

Which has a certain bracing logic. If your only goal is ensuring that support for traditional marriage diminishes as rapidly as possible, applying constant pressure to religious individuals and institutions will probably do the job. Already, my fellow Christians are divided over these issues, and we’ll be more divided the more pressure we face. The conjugal, male-female view of marriage is too theologically rooted to disappear, but its remaining adherents can be marginalized, set against one other, and encouraged to conform.

I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying. Christians had plenty of opportunities — thousands of years’ worth — to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.) So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status — this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution.

But it’s still important for the winning side to recognize its power. We are not really having an argument about same-sex marriage anymore, and on the evidence of Arizona, we’re not having a negotiation. Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory — and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.

Now we get to MoDo:

Oy.  By the time the Bushes and Clintons are finished, they are going to make the Tudors and the Plantagenets look like pikers.

Before these two families release their death grip on the American electoral system, we’re going to have to watch Chelsea’s granddaughter try to knock off George P.’s grandson, Prescott Walker Bush II. Barack Obama, who once dreamed of being a transformational president, will turn out to be a mere hiccup in history, the interim guy who provided a tepid respite while Hillary and Jeb geared up to go at it.

Elections for president are supposed to make us feel young and excited, as if we’re getting a fresh start. That’s the way it was with J.F.K. and Obama and, even though he was turning 70 when he got inaugurated, Ronald Reagan.

But, as the Clinton library tardily disgorged 3,546 pages of official papers Friday — dredging up memories of a presidency that was eight years of turbulence held steady by a roaring economy and an incompetent opposition, a reign roiled by Hillarycare, Vince Foster, Whitewater, Webb Hubbell, Travelgate, Monica, impeachment, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Marc Rich — the looming prospect of another Clinton-Bush race makes us feel fatigued.

Our meritocratic society seems increasingly nepotistic and dynastic. There was a Bush or a Clinton in the White House and cabinet for 32 years straight. We’re Bill Murray stuck at 6 a.m. in Harold Ramis’s comic masterpiece, “Groundhog Day.” As Time’s Michael Crowley tweeted on Friday, “Who else is looking forward to potentially TEN more years of obsessing about Hillary Clinton’s past, present and future?”

The Clintons don’t get defeated. They get postponed.

Just as Hillary clears the Democratic field if she is healthy and runs, a major Romney donor told The Washington Post that “if Jeb Bush is in the race, he clears the field.” Jeb acknowledged in Long Island on Monday, referring to his mom’s tart comment that “if we can’t find more than two or three families to run for higher office, that’s silly,” that “it’s an issue for sure.” He added, “It’s something that, if I run, I would have to overcome that. And so will Hillary, by the way. Let’s keep the same standards for everybody.”

We’ve arrived at the brave new world of 21st-century technology where robots are on track to be smarter than humans. Yet, politically, we keep traveling into the past. It won’t be long before we’ll turn on the TV and see Lanny Davis defending President Clinton (the next one) on some mishegoss or other.

When the Clintons lost to Obama, they simply turned Obama’s presidency into their runway. Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, and a passel of other former Obama aides, are now helping Hillary. And Bill is out being the campaigner-in-chief, keeping the Clinton allure on display in 2014.

The new cache of Clinton papers is benign — the press seems more enamored of speechwriters’ doodles than substance — but just reading through them is draining. There are reams of advice on how to steer health care, which must have filled the briefing binders Hillary famously carried. But did she absorb the lessons, given that health care failed because she refused to be flexible and make the sensible compromises suggested by her husband and allies? She’s always on listening tours, but is she hearing? As one White House health care aide advised in the new document dump, “We need to be seen as listening.”

Just as in the reminiscences compiled by Hillary’s late friend, Diane Blair, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas — some of which were printed in the Washington Free Beacon three weeks ago — the new papers reflect how entangled the Clintons’ public and private lives were in the White House.

In a 1995 memo, Lisa Caputo, the first lady’s press secretary, sees an opportunity for the upcoming re-election campaign by “throwing a big party” for the Clintons’ 20th wedding anniversary.

“We could give a wonderful photo spread to People magazine of photos from the party coupled with old photos of their honeymoon and of special moments for them over the past 20 years,” Caputo wrote, adding that they could turn it into “a nice mail piece later on.”

Both sets of papers are revealing on the never-ending herculean struggle about how to present Hillary to the world, how to turn her shifting hairstyles and personas into one authentic image.

“Be careful to ‘be real,’ ” media adviser Mandy Grunwald wrote to her before the launch of her listening tour at Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s farm in upstate New York. “You did this well in the Rather interview where you acknowledged that of course last year was rough. Once you agree with the audience’s/reporters’ reality like that, it gives you a lot of latitude to then say whatever you want.”

Grunwald advises the first lady to “look for opportunities for humor” and “Don’t be defensive.”

It’s hard to understand why so many calculations are needed to seem “real,” just as it’s hard to understand how Hillary veers from feminist positions to un-feminist ones.

In the Blair papers, Hillary’s private view of the Monica Lewinsky affair hewed closely to the lame rationales offered by Bill and his male friends.

“HRC insists, no matter what people say,” Blair said, after talking to Hillary on the phone, “it was gross inappropriate behavior but it was consensual (was not a power relationship) and was not sex within any real meaning (standup, liedown, oral, etc.) of the term.” The president dallying with a 22-year-old intern was not “a power relationship” and certain kinds of sex don’t count?

Like her allies Sidney Blumenthal and Charlie Rangel, Hillary paints her husband’s mistress as an erotomaniac, just the way Clarence Thomas’s allies painted Anita Hill. A little nutty and a little slutty.

“It was a lapse,” Blair wrote, “but she says to his credit he tried to break it off, tried to pull away, tried to manage someone who was clearly a ‘narcissistic loony toon’; but it was beyond control.”

The cascade of papers evoke Hillary’s stressful brawls — with her husband, the press, Congress and the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. And they evoke the issue about her that is so troubling and hard to fathom. She is an immensely complex woman with two sides. She is the tireless and talented public servant. And she is the tired warrior who can be insecure and defensive, someone who has cleaved to a bunker mentality when she would have been better served getting out of her defensive crouch.

Talking to her pal Blair, Hillary had a lot of severe words for her “adversaries” in the press and the G.O.P. Blair also said Hillary was “furious” at Bill for “ruining himself and the presidency” by 1994.

Hillary may have had a point when she said in 1993, after criticism of the maladroit firing of the veteran White House travel office staff, that the press “has big egos and no brains.” But it speaks to her titanic battles and battle scars.

Hillary has spent so much time searching for the right identity, listening to others tell her who to be, resisting and following advice on being “real,” that it leaves us with the same question we had when she first came on the stage in 1992.

Who is she?

A better woman than you are, MoDo, even though I don’t want her to run.  And for what it’s worth, the next time you decide to write a hit piece about two families running things you might include the Bushes in your field of fire.  Bitch.  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

The Egyptian strongman Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi was recently in Moscow visiting with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Putin reportedly offered Sisi $2 billion in arms — just what a country like Egypt, where half the women can’t read, needs. The whole meeting struck me as so 1960s, so Nasser meets Khrushchev — two strongmen bucking each other up in the age of strong people and superempowered individuals. Rather than discuss arms sales, Sisi and Putin should have watched a movie together.

Specifically, Sisi should have brought a copy of “The Square” — the first Egyptian film ever nominated for an Oscar. It’s up this year. Sisi has a copy. Or, to be more precise, his film censor’s office does. For the last few months, the Egyptian authorities have been weighing whether to let the film — an inspiring and gripping documentary that follows six activists from the earliest days of the Tahrir Square revolution in 2011 until the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted by Sisi in 2013 — to be shown in Egypt.

“The Square,” about the revolution in Egypt, might be a good movie for Vladimir Putin and other strongmen to see. Credit Netflix/Noujaim Films, via Associated Press

Meanwhile, pirated and downloaded copies of the film, which is also on Netflix, have spread virally across Egypt and been viewed by many Egyptians in homes and coffeeshops and discussed on social media. What’s more, it was recently dubbed into Ukrainian and downloaded (some 300,000 times) by protesters there and shown in the Maidan, which also means the Square, in Kiev. A dubbed version is now spreading in Russia, too, said the film’s director Jehane Noujaim, who also directed “Control Room.”

“This is the globalization of defiance,” Noujaim said to me. “With cheap, affordable cameras and Internet connections, anyone now can change the conversation” anywhere. It’s true.

The film resonates with those who gathered in squares from Cairo to Caracas to Kiev, added the film’s producer, Karim Amer, because it captures an increasingly universal phenomenon: average people uniting and deciding “that the Pharaoh, the strongman, won’t protect us” and the religious sheikh “won’t cleanse us.” We can be and must be “authors of our own story.” It has long been said, added Amer, that “history is written by the victors. Not anymore.” Now versions can come from anywhere and anyone. Power is shifting “from the pyramid to the square” — from strongmen to strong people — “and that is a big shift.”

And that’s why Putin and Sisi need to see the film. (Disclosure: the filmmakers are friends of mine, and I have been discussing their project with them for two years.) It captures some of the most important shifts happening today, starting with fact that in today’s hyperconnected world wealth is getting concentrated at the top, but, at the same time, power is getting distributed at the bottom and transparency is being injected everywhere. No palace will remain hidden by high walls, not even the giant one reportedly being built for Putin on the Black Sea.

But people now can’t just see in, they can see far — how everybody else is living. And as Tahrir and Kiev demonstrate, young people will no longer tolerate leaders who deprive them of the tools and space to realize their full potential. The Square has a Facebook page where Egyptians are invited to answer questions, including: “Who would you most like to watch this movie with?” One answer, from Magda Elmaghrabi, probably spoke for many: “I would watch it with my dad who passed away 9 years ago. He emigrated to the States not for lack of wealth, but for his fears of what would happen in the future for Egypt and whether there would be opportunities for my 2 older brothers. I would love to have discussed what occurred and see his emotional reaction as the Egyptians stood up for what they believed in.”

Another reason Putin, Sisi and all their protesters need to see “The Square” is that it doesn’t have a happy ending — for anyone, not yet. Why?

The Egyptian protesters got sidelined by the army, because while they all wanted to oust the Pharaoh, they couldn’t agree on a broader reform agenda and translate that into a governing majority. But Putin and Sisi will also lose if they don’t change, because there is no stable progress without inclusive politics and economics. I understand the need and longing by those not in the squares for “stability” and “order.” Putin and Sisi both rose to power on that longing for stability after so much revolutionary ferment. But both men have to be asked: Stability to do what? To go where? To jail not just real terrorists, but, in Sisi’s and Putin’s cases, legitimate journalists and opposition and youth leaders? Many Asian autocrats imposed order, but they also built schools, infrastructure and a rule of law that nurtured middle classes that eventually delivered democracy.

So the protesters are long on idealism but short on a shared political action plan. Sisi and Putin are long on stability but short on a politics of inclusion tied to a blueprint for modernity (and not just rising oil prices). Unless they each overcome their deficiencies, their countries will fail to fulfill their potential — and all their “squares” will be stages for conflict, not launching pads for renewal.

Last up today is Mr. Kristof:

Some readers collectively hissed after I wrote a week ago about the need for early-childhood interventions to broaden opportunity in America. I focused on a 3-year-old boy in West Virginia named Johnny Weethee whose hearing impairment had gone undetected, leading him to suffer speech and development problems that may dog him for the rest of his life.

A photo of Johnny and his mom, Truffles Weethee, accompanied the column and readers honed in on Truffles’ tattoos and weight.

“You show a photograph of a fat woman with tons of tattoos all over that she paid for,” one caller said. “And then we — boohoo — have to worry about the fact that her children aren’t cared for properly?”

On Twitter, Amy was more polite: “My heart breaks for Johnny. I have to wonder if the $$ mom spent on tattoos could have been put to better use.”

“This is typical of the left,” Pancho scolded on my Facebook page. “It’s not anyone’s fault. Responsibility is somebody else’s problem.”

To me, such outrage at a doting mom based on her appearance suggests the myopic tendency in our country to blame poverty on the poor, to confuse economic difficulties with moral failures, to muddle financial lapses with ethical ones.

Truffles Weethee has her son, Johnny, 3, in a Save the Children reading program. When her photo appeared in a column a week ago, readers saw reasons to criticize her instead of seeing the caring mom that she is. Credit Audrey Hall/Show of Force

There is an income gap in America, but just as important is a compassion gap. Plenty of successful people see a picture of a needy child and their first impulse is not to help but to reproach.

To break cycles of poverty, we have the tools to improve high school graduation rates, reduce teen pregnancies and increase employment. What we lack is the will to do so.

There may be neurological biases at work. A professor at Princeton found that our brains sometimes process images of people who are poor or homeless as if they were not humans but things.

Likewise, psychology experiments suggest that affluence may erode compassion. When research subjects are asked to imagine great wealth, or just look at a computer screen saver with money, they become less inclined to share or help others. That may be why the poorest 20 percent of Americans give away a larger share of their incomes than the wealthiest 20 percent.

The generosity of the poor always impresses me. In West Virginia, I visited a trailer that housed eight people and sometimes many more. A woman in the home, Lynmarie Sargent, 30, was once homeless with a month-old baby, and that discomfort and humiliation seared her so that she lets other needy families camp out in her trailer and eat. Sometimes she houses as many as 17.

Sargent is an unemployed former addict with a criminal record, struggling to stay clean of drugs, get a job and be a good mom. She has plenty to learn from middle-class Americans about financial planning, but wealthy people have plenty to learn from her about compassion.

A Pew survey this year found that a majority of Republicans, and almost one-third of Democrats, believe that if a person is poor the main reason is “lack of effort on his or her part.”

It’s true, of course, that the poor are sometimes lazy and irresponsible. So are the rich, with less consequence.

Critics note that if a person manages to get through high school and avoid drugs, crime and parenting outside of marriage, it’s often possible to escape poverty. Fair enough. But if you’re one of the one-fifth of children in West Virginia born with drugs or alcohol in your system, if you ingest lead from peeling paint as a toddler, if your hearing or vision impairments aren’t detected, if you live in a home with no books in a gang-ridden neighborhood with terrible schools — in all these cases, you’re programmed for failure as surely as children of professionals are programed for success.

So when kids in poverty stumble, it’s not quite right to say that they “failed.” Often, they never had a chance.

Researchers also find that financial stress sometimes impairs cognitive function, leading to bad choices. Indian farmers, for example, test higher for I.Q. after a harvest when they are financially secure. Alleviate financial worry, and you can gain 13 points in measured I.Q.

The tattoos that readers saw on Truffles are mostly old ones, predating Johnny, and she is passionate about helping him. That’s why she enrolled him in a Save the Children program that provides books that she reads to him every day. In that trailer in Appalachia, I don’t see a fat woman with tattoos; I see a loving mom who encapsulates any parent’s dreams for a child.

Johnny shouldn’t be written off at the age of 3 because of the straw he drew in the lottery of birth. To spread opportunity, let’s start by pointing fewer fingers and offering more helping hands.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

February 28, 2014

In “Ease and Ardor” Bobo gurgles that Michel de Montaigne and Samuel Johnson provide two contrasting yet compelling examples of how to lead an inner life.  “Socrates” from Verona, NJ had this to say about Bobo’s book report:  “Sir Brooks has lately avoided the specific mention of any Republican policies, pols and ideological pratfalls….as the GOP is simply too embarrassing to publicly talk about with a straight face.  So we’re left with Brooks’ permanent vacation and veiled diversions through the history books and hall-of-fame thinkers.”  Mr. Cohen, in “Cry For Me, Argentina,” says hope is hard to banish from the human heart, but Argentina does its best to do so.  In “No Big Deal” Prof. Krugman says talks are stalled on an international trade deal, thanks to negotiating difficulties abroad and bipartisan skepticism at home, but that’s O.K.  Here’s Bobo:

Michel de Montaigne and Samuel Johnson are two of the greatest essayists who ever lived. They tackled similar problems and were fascinated by some of the same perplexities, but they represent different personality types and recommended two different ways to live.

Montaigne grew up in a deeply polarized society, a France torn by religious wars. He tried to make his way in the brutal world of politics. He was afflicted by the death of children and the death of his best friend. He himself was nearly killed in a riding accident.

This external disorder was matched by internal disorder. Montaigne was fascinated by his inability to control his own thoughts. He tried to study his own mind but observed that it was like a runaway horse that presented him with chimeras and imaginary monsters: “I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.”

Montaigne advises us to accept the flux. Be cool with it. Much of the fanaticism he sees around him is caused by people in a panic because they can’t accept the elusiveness inside.

Montaigne set out to do a thorough investigation of himself so he wouldn’t be surprised so often: “Greatness of soul is not so much pressing upward and forward as knowing how to set oneself in order and circumscribe oneself.” He observed himself with complete honesty, and accepted his limitations with a genial smile. If he has a bad memory, he’ll tell you. If he has a small penis, he’ll tell you.

“If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another, but those who are aware of it are a little better off — though I don’t know.”

This honest self-inventory produced a kind of equipoise. Montaigne didn’t strive to create an all-explaining ideology. He didn’t seek to conquer the world. Instead, he was amiable, mellow, disciplined, restrained, honest and tolerant. He was at ease with life, and even with death. If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry, he says. Nature will instruct you.

Johnson was charming, but he was not amiable. Where Montaigne sought a life of wisdom and restraint, Johnson sought a life of improvement and ardor.

Johnson also lived with disorder. He probably had Tourette’s syndrome and couldn’t control his body. He feared insanity. He also worried about the terrors thrown up by the imagination — nighttime fears and jealousies.

But whereas Montaigne put the emphasis on self-understanding, Johnson put the emphasis on self-conquest. Johnson didn’t go inward; he went outward. Social, not solitary, he described human nature in general as a way to understand the common predicament. Many of his sayings display a skepticism about human nature: “A man of genius has been seldom ruined but by himself. … Read over your compositions and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

But then Johnson sought out to earnestly reform and correct his sins. His diaries are filled with urgent self-commands to stop being so lazy. He was a moralist, writing essays on the vices and pains that plagued him: envy, guilt, boredom and sorrow. He pinned down and named everything that terrified him. He wrote biographies of moral exemplars that readers could emulate.

Johnson battled error and vice. Thomas Boswell said he fought his sins as if they were “the wild beasts of the Arena.” He would lash out at things he thought were reprehensible. Even at death, his fighting spirit was evident, “I will be conquered; I will not capitulate.”

His goal was self-improvement and the moral improvement of his readers. He hoped his writing would give “ardor to virtue and confidence to truth.”

Formerly a dissolute and depressed youth, he molded himself into something large, weighty and impressive. One biographer wrote that “iron had entered his soul.” He created his own character, which was marked by compassion but also a fierce sense of personal responsibility.

Montaigne was more laid back, and our culture is more comfortable with his brand of genial self-acceptance and restraint. We can each pick what sort of person we would prefer to be. But I’d say Johnson achieved a larger greatness. He was harder on himself. He drove himself to improve more strenuously. He held up more demanding standards for the sort of life we should be trying to live, and constantly rebutted smugness and self-approval.

Montaigne was a calming presence in a country filled with strife, but Johnson was a witty but relentless moral teacher in a culture where people were likely to grade themselves on a generous curve, and among people who spent more time thinking about the commercial climb than ultimate things.

Sooner or later he’s just going to have to admit that he’s been shilling for the mole people…  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Ushuaia, Argentina:

A bon mot doing the rounds in post-commodities-boom South America is that Brazil is in the process of becoming Argentina, and Argentina is in the process of becoming Venezuela, and Venezuela is in the process of becoming Zimbabwe. That is a little harsh on Brazil and Venezuela.

Argentina, however, is a perverse case of its own. It is a nation still drugged by that quixotic political concoction called Peronism; engaged in all-out war on reliable economic data; tinkering with its multilevel exchange rate; shut out from global capital markets; trampling on property rights when it wishes; obsessed with a lost little war in the Falklands (Malvinas) more than three decades ago; and persuaded that the cause of all this failure lies with speculative powers seeking to force a proud nation — in the words of its leader — “to eat soup again, but this time with a fork.”

A century ago, Argentina was richer than Sweden, France, Austria and Italy. It was far richer than Japan. It held poor Brazil in contempt. Vast and empty, with the world’s richest top soil in the Pampas, it seemed to the European immigrants who flooded here to have all the potential of the United States (per capita income is now a third or less of the United States level). They did not know that a colonel called Juan Domingo Perón and his wife Eva (“Evita”) would shape an ethos of singular delusional power.

“Argentina is a unique case of a country that has completed the transition to underdevelopment,” said Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College.

In psychological terms — and Buenos Aires is packed with folks on couches pouring out their anguish to psychotherapists — Argentina is the child among nations that never grew up. Responsibility was not its thing. Why should it be? There was so much to be plundered, such riches in grain and livestock, that solid institutions and the rule of law — let alone a functioning tax system — seemed a waste of time.

Immigrants camped here with foreign passports rather than go through the nation-forming absorption that characterize Brazil or the United States. Argentina was far away at the bottom of the world, a beckoning fertile land mass distant enough from power centers to live its own peripheral fantasies or drown its sorrow in what is probably the world’s saddest (and most haunting) dance. Then, to give expression to its uniqueness, Argentina invented its own political philosophy: a strange mishmash of nationalism, romanticism, fascism, socialism, backwardness, progressiveness, militarism, eroticism, fantasy, musical, mournfulness, irresponsibility and repression. The name it gave all this was Peronism. It has proved impossible to shake.

Perón, who discovered the political uplift a military officer could derive from forging links with the have-nots of Latin America and distributing cash (a lesson absorbed by Hugo Chávez), was deposed in the first of four postwar coups. The Argentina I covered in the 1980s was just emerging from the trauma of military rule. If I have a single emblematic image of the continent then it is of the uncontrollable sobbing of Argentine women clutching the photographs of beloved children who had been taken from them for “brief questioning” only to vanish. The region’s military juntas turned “disappear” into a transitive verb. It is what they did to deemed enemies — 30,000 of them in Argentina.

Since 1983, Argentina has ceased its military-civilian whiplash, tried some of the perpetrators of human rights crimes and been governed democratically. But for most of that time it has been run by Peronists, most recently Néstor Kirchner and his widow, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (shades of Perón’s widow Isabel), who have rediscovered redistribution after a Peronist flurry in the 1990s with neoliberalism. Economic whiplash is alive and well. So are reckless spending in good times and lawless measures in bad. So, too, are mawkish evocations of Perón and Evita and Isabel: On earth as it is in the heavens.

Cry for me, my name is Argentina and I am too rich for my own good.

Twenty-five years ago I left a country of hyperinflation (5,000 percent in 1989), capital flight, currency instability, heavy-handed state interventionism, dwindling reserves, uncompetitive industry, heavy reliance on commodity exports, reawakening Peronist fantasies and bottom-of-the-world complexes. Today inflation is high rather than hyper. Otherwise, not a whole lot has changed.

Coming ashore at Ushuaia on Argentina’s southern tip, the first thing I saw was a sign saying that the “Malvinas” islands were under illegal occupation by the United Kingdom since 1833. The second was a signpost saying Ireland was 13,199 kilometers away (no mention of Britain). The third was a packet of cookies “made in Ushuaia, the end of the world.” The fourth was a pocket calculator used by a shopkeeper to figure out dollar-peso rates.

Hope is hard to banish from the human heart, but it has to be said that Argentina does its best to do so.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Everyone knows that the Obama administration’s domestic economic agenda is stalled in the face of scorched-earth opposition from Republicans. And that’s a bad thing: The U.S. economy would be in much better shape if Obama administration proposals like the American Jobs Act had become law.

It’s less well known that the administration’s international economic agenda is also stalled, for very different reasons. In particular, the centerpiece of that agenda — the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, or T.P.P. — doesn’t seem to be making much progress, thanks to a combination of negotiating difficulties abroad and bipartisan skepticism at home.

And you know what? That’s O.K. It’s far from clear that the T.P.P. is a good idea. It’s even less clear that it’s something on which President Obama should be spending political capital. I am in general a free trader, but I’ll be undismayed and even a bit relieved if the T.P.P. just fades away.

The first thing you need to know about trade deals in general is that they aren’t what they used to be. The glory days of trade negotiations — the days of deals like the Kennedy Round of the 1960s, which sharply reduced tariffs around the world — are long behind us.

Why? Basically, old-fashioned trade deals are a victim of their own success: there just isn’t much more protectionism to eliminate. Average U.S. tariff rates have fallen by two-thirds since 1960. The most recent report on American import restraints by the International Trade Commission puts their total cost at less than 0.01 percent of G.D.P.

Implicit protection of services — rules and regulations that have the effect of, say, blocking foreign competition in insurance — surely impose additional costs. But the fact remains that, these days, “trade agreements” are mainly about other things. What they’re really about, in particular, is property rights — things like the ability to enforce patents on drugs and copyrights on movies. And so it is with T.P.P.

There’s a lot of hype about T.P.P., from both supporters and opponents. Supporters like to talk about the fact that the countries at the negotiating table comprise around 40 percent of the world economy, which they imply means that the agreement would be hugely significant. But trade among these players is already fairly free, so the T.P.P. wouldn’t make that much difference.

Meanwhile, opponents portray the T.P.P. as a huge plot, suggesting that it would destroy national sovereignty and transfer all the power to corporations. This, too, is hugely overblown. Corporate interests would get somewhat more ability to seek legal recourse against government actions, but, no, the Obama administration isn’t secretly bargaining away democracy.

What the T.P.P. would do, however, is increase the ability of certain corporations to assert control over intellectual property. Again, think drug patents and movie rights.

Is this a good thing from a global point of view? Doubtful. The kind of property rights we’re talking about here can alternatively be described as legal monopolies. True, temporary monopolies are, in fact, how we reward new ideas; but arguing that we need even more monopolization is very dubious — and has nothing at all to do with classical arguments for free trade.

Now, the corporations benefiting from enhanced control over intellectual property would often be American. But this doesn’t mean that the T.P.P. is in our national interest. What’s good for Big Pharma is by no means always good for America.

In short, there isn’t a compelling case for this deal, from either a global or a national point of view. Nor does there seem to be anything like a political consensus in favor, abroad or at home.

Abroad, the news from the latest meeting of negotiators sounds like what you usually hear when trade talks are going nowhere: assertions of forward movement but nothing substantive. At home, both Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, and Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, have come out against giving the president crucial “fast-track” authority, meaning that any agreement can receive a clean, up-or-down vote.

So what I wonder is why the president is pushing the T.P.P. at all. The economic case is weak, at best, and his own party doesn’t like it. Why waste time and political capital on this project?

My guess is that we’re looking at a combination of Beltway conventional wisdom — Very Serious People always support entitlement cuts and trade deals — and officials caught in a 1990s time warp, still living in the days when New Democrats tried to prove that they weren’t old-style liberals by going all in for globalization. Whatever the motivations, however, the push for T.P.P. seems almost weirdly out of touch with both economic and political reality.

So don’t cry for T.P.P. If the big trade deal comes to nothing, as seems likely, it will be, well, no big deal.

Brooks and Krugman

February 21, 2014

Bobo has decided that it’s time for “Capitalism for the Masses.”  He gurgles that a daring conservative agenda has emerged that measures the health of the economy by how well it helps all people make an enterprise of their life.  “Thomas Zaslavsky” from Binghamton, NY had this to say in the comments:  “Mr. Brooks, your Mr. Brooks advocates government’s subsidizing low-wage employers by making up the difference between their sub-living pay and a living wage. Kudos to the brilliance of making government subsidize the profits of exploitive businesses.”  Prof. Krugman, in “The Stimulus Tragedy,” says five years after the stimulus took effect it is clear that, though the program did much good, it was also a political disaster.  Here’s Bobo:

When Arthur Brooks was 24, he was playing the French horn in a chamber music concert in Dijon, France. He noticed a beautiful woman smiling at him from the front row, so, after the recital, he made a beeline for her and introduced himself.

Within seven seconds he came to two realizations. First, he was going to marry this woman. Second, she didn’t speak a word of English, and he didn’t speak a word of Spanish or Catalan, which were her languages.

When he got home, he realized that if he was going to have a chance with Ester he was going to have to show some commitment. So he quit his job in America, moved to Barcelona and went to work with the Barcelona orchestra. Over the next few years, he learned Spanish and Catalan and Ester learned English. They have been happily married for 22 years.

“Sometimes you just have to be all in,” says Brooks (who is no relation). “You have to go beyond cold utilitarian analysis.”

Brooks later became a social scientist and is now president of the American Enterprise Institute, probably the most important think tank on the American right. He has emerged as one of the most ardent defenders of the free enterprise system. But the humanist that he is, he has primarily defended capitalism on moral terms. He’s criticized Republicans for defending capitalism on materialistic grounds — because it makes some people rich. Republicans, Brooks says, have an overly small-business focus. They talk as if everybody should become an entrepreneur.

The real moral health of an economic system, he argues, can be measured by how well it helps all people make an enterprise of their life. Whether they work at odd jobs or at a nongovernmental organization or at a big company, do they get to experience the joy of achievement? Do they know that their work amounts to something?

He’s pointed out that the percentage of people in the world living on $1 a day has declined by 80 percent since 1970s, adjusting for inflation. That’s the greatest increase in human possibility in human history. The primary cause is globalized capitalism.

But now capitalism faces its greatest moral crisis since the Great Depression. The nature of that crisis can be captured in two statistics. When Facebook entered a deal to buy WhatsApp this week, it agreed to pay a price equal to $345 million per WhatsApp employee. Meanwhile, the share of the economic pie for the middle 60 percent of earners nationally has fallen from 53 percent to 45 percent since 1970.

This economy produces very valuable companies with very few employees. Meanwhile, the majority of workers are not seeing income gains commensurate with their productivity levels.

This puts a strain on the essential compact that you can earn your success. As Joel Kotkin has argued, the middle class is being proletarianized, and the uneducated class is being left behind.

To his great credit, Brooks is responding aggressively to this moral challenge, in a way that is providing a needed jolt to Republican circles. Over the last two days, for example, he had the Dalai Lama, a self-described Marxist, over at the American Enterprise Institute to discuss the morality of capitalism. Jonathan Haidt, of the Stern School of Business at New York University, challenged the mostly Republican audience to invent a new capitalist narrative, going beyond the simple demonization and celebration narratives.

Brooks recently published a daring piece in Commentary magazine on a conservative social justice agenda. It was called “Be Open-Handed Toward Your Brothers.”

He pointed out that conservatives love to talk about private charity, but, if you took the entire $40 billion that Americans donate to human service organizations annually, it would be enough money to give each person who receives federal food assistance only $847 per year.

Instead, Republicans need to declare a truce on the social safety net. They need to assure the country that the net will always be there for the truly needy. Then they need to point out that it is the web of middle-class entitlements, even the home mortgage deduction, that really threaten benefits to the poor.

The big new problem, Brooks writes, is that labor markets are sick. Fewer people are working and enjoying the sense of reward that is a key to happiness. Democrats embrace a raise in the minimum wage that could drive another half-million workers out of the labor market.

Much better, he says, would be to expand the earned-income tax credit or maybe use direct payments or loans to help people move to opportunity.

The big story here is that a major pillar of the American right is leading his institution to fully embrace capitalism, but also fully embrace government policies that will help the broadest number of people earn their own success. In this era, the invisible hand may not be enough.

Sometimes you have to go all in.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Five years have passed since President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the “stimulus” — into law. With the passage of time, it has become clear that the act did a vast amount of good. It helped end the economy’s plunge; it created or saved millions of jobs; it left behind an important legacy of public and private investment.

It was also a political disaster. And the consequences of that political disaster — the perception that stimulus failed — have haunted economic policy ever since.

Let’s start with the good the stimulus did.

The case for stimulus was that we were suffering from a huge shortfall in overall spending, and that the hit to the economy from the financial crisis and the bursting of the housing bubble was so severe that the Federal Reserve, which normally fights recessions by cutting short-term interest rates, couldn’t overcome this slump on its own. The idea, then, was to provide a temporary boost both by having the government directly spend more and by using tax cuts and public aid to boost family incomes, inducing more private spending.

Opponents of stimulus argued vociferously that deficit spending would send interest rates skyrocketing, “crowding out” private spending. Proponents responded, however, that crowding out — a real issue when the economy is near full employment — wouldn’t happen in a deeply depressed economy, awash in excess capacity and excess savings. And stimulus supporters were right: far from soaring, interest rates fell to historic lows.

What about positive evidence for the benefits of stimulus? That’s trickier, because it’s hard to disentangle the effects of the Recovery Act from all the other things that were going on at the time. Nonetheless, most careful studies have found evidence of strong positive effects on employment and output.

Even more important, I’d argue, is the huge natural experiment Europe has provided on the effects of sharp changes in government spending. You see, some but not all members of the euro area, the group of countries sharing Europe’s common currency, were forced into imposing draconian fiscal austerity, that is, negative stimulus. If stimulus opponents had been right about the way the world works, these austerity programs wouldn’t have had severe adverse economic effects, because cuts in government spending would have been offset by rising private spending. In fact, austerity led to nasty, in some cases catastrophic, declines in output and employment. And private spending in countries imposing harsh austerity ended up falling instead of rising, amplifying the direct effects of government cutbacks.

All the evidence, then, points to substantial positive short-run effects from the Obama stimulus. And there were surely long-term benefits, too: big investments in everything from green energy to electronic medical records.

So why does everyone — or, to be more accurate, everyone except those who have seriously studied the issue — believe that the stimulus was a failure? Because the U.S. economy continued to perform poorly — not disastrously, but poorly — after the stimulus went into effect.

There’s no mystery about why: America was coping with the legacy of a giant housing bubble. Even now, housing has only partly recovered, while consumers are still held back by the huge debts they ran up during the bubble years. And the stimulus was both too small and too short-lived to overcome that dire legacy.

This is not, by the way, a case of making excuses after the fact. Regular readers know that I was more or less tearing my hair out in early 2009, warning that the Recovery Act was inadequate — and that by falling short, the act would end up discrediting the very idea of stimulus. And so it proved.

There’s a long-running debate over whether the Obama administration could have gotten more. The administration compounded the damage with excessively optimistic forecasts, based on the false premise that the economy would quickly bounce back once confidence in the financial system was restored.

But that’s all water under the bridge. The important point is that U.S. fiscal policy went completely in the wrong direction after 2010. With the stimulus perceived as a failure, job creation almost disappeared from inside-the-Beltway discourse, replaced with obsessive concern over budget deficits. Government spending, which had been temporarily boosted both by the Recovery Act and by safety-net programs like food stamps and unemployment benefits, began falling, with public investment hit worst. And this anti-stimulus has destroyed millions of jobs.

In other words, the overall narrative of the stimulus is tragic. A policy initiative that was good but not good enough ended up being seen as a failure, and set the stage for an immensely destructive wrong turn.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

February 16, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has given us a fine whine today.  In “Parental Pity Party” he sniffles that first comes the baby, and then all the whining starts about how impossible it all is.  “Dana Lawrence” from Davenport, LA had this to say:  “Don’t worry, Mr. Douthat. You were a whiner long before the baby arrived.”  MoDo is in Paris.  In “Marry First, Then Cheat” she says in France, it’s O.K. to cheat if you’re married, but not if you’re single.  The Moustache of Wisdom is back on his regular “let’s all of you be entrepreneurs” kick.  In “Start-Up America: Our Best Hope” he says the contrast between the vibe in Silicon Valley and the obstruction in Washington is quite telling.  Mr. Kristof says “Professors, We Need You!”  He says academics are some of the smartest minds in the world, and then asks a question:   So why are they making themselves irrelevant?  Mr. Bruni says “Let Our Lawmakers Hide!”  He wants us to behold the costume party that is Congress, where members wear faces at odds with their souls.  Here, unfortunately, is the Putz:

When I became a father, I expected to change in all the predictable ways — to become more responsible and more exhausted, to lose contact with friends and lean more heavily on relatives, to grow steadily balder of head and softer of belly.

What I didn’t expect is that parenthood would make me such a whiner.

I’m not sure I’ve contributed personally to the Internet’s ever-expanding Book of Parental Lamentations — what Ruth Graham, writing for Slate, calls the “endless stream of blog posts and status updates depicting the messy, tedious, nightmarishly life-destroying aspects of parenting.” But in private conversation, I’m often the sort of parent Graham complains is scaring her away from motherhood — all too eager to Tell It Like It Really Is, and enumerate all the horrible aspects of the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me.

Coming from the financially secure and happily married, this whining can feel unseemly, self-indulgent and unfair to one’s kids. In my own case, it’s also philosophically problematic, since a Catholic columnist should presumably be trying to talk his acquaintances into having as many kids as possible.

But a not-so-quiet desperation can seem pervasive among parents, and it’s worth trying to understand why.

Fortunately, Jennifer Senior’s new book, “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” is an excellent primer on possible explanations for the great parental pity party. It ranges across the problems with family policy in the United States (basically, we don’t have one), the changing role of children (who went, she notes, “from being our employees to our bosses”), the unsettling of gender roles, the “having it all” stresses inherent in the maternal quest for work-life balance, and the way economic uncertainty and technological change make it hard for parents to figure out what kind of world they’re supposed to be preparing their children for.

But Senior’s most insightful emphasis, I think, is on the gap that’s opened — thanks to our society’s extraordinary wealth and libertarian social ethic — between the lifestyles and choices available to nonparents and the irreducible burdens still involved in raising children.

As she puts it, parenthood is “the last binding obligation in a culture that asks for almost no other permanent commitments at all.” In this sense, it isn’t necessarily that family life has changed that dramatically in the last few generations. Rather, it’s stayed the same in crucial ways — because babies still need what babies need — while outside the domestic sphere there’s been an expansion of opportunities, a proliferation of choices and entertainments and immediately available gratifications, that make child rearing seem much more burdensome by comparison.

This has two consequences for young, reasonably affluent Americans. First, it creates an understandable reluctance to give up the pleasures of extended brunches and long happy hours, late nights and weekend getaways, endless hours playing Grand Theft Auto or binge-watching “New Girl.” Second, it inspires a ferocious shock when a child arrives and that oh-so-modern lifestyle gives way to challenges that seem almost medieval, and duties that seem impossibly absolute. And the longer the arrival is delayed, the greater that shock — because “postponing children,” Senior points out, can make parents “far more aware of the freedoms they’re giving up.”

“Welcome,” a colleague emailed me after our first daughter was born, “to unavoidable reality.” Which is exactly right: In parts of American society, death and children’s diapers are the only unavoidable realities left.

Unless, of course, you avoid the diapers by avoiding the children altogether, as the developed world’s inhabitants are increasingly inclined to do.

In an earlier column, I described this retreat from childbearing as (in part) a symptom of cultural decadence, in which modern comforts crowd out intergenerational obligations. This idea was not well received by many readers, but I think it’s actually the unacknowledged worldview behind a lot of the parental griping you find online and elsewhere: The “look how impossible my life has become since I had kids” genre is a way of passing judgment, not all that subtly, on people who have opted out of the parental mission altogether.

And though I agree with the implicit message — that parenting is tough, necessary and praiseworthy — a brag disguised as a whine about your own un-decadent hardships is probably not the best way to hold decadence at bay. Better for parents to be cheerful warriors, to emphasize the joy rather than the misery, while also extending tolerance and understanding — rather than judgment infused with envy — to friends and neighbors who choose a different path.

Which is what I pledge to do from here on out. Enjoy your lingering brunches, my childless friends, and I’ll enjoy my rushed meals and puree-stained fingers. Dirty diapers for me, dirty martinis for thee! Let peace and tolerance prevail!

And no, of course my angels had nothing whatsoever to do with that stain on your favorite sweater.

It must be béarnaise sauce.

The idea that he’s spawned is horrifying…  Next up we have MoDo, frolicking in Paris:

Only the French could have an etiquette scandal.

Let Americans get in a lather over peccadillos of state. The French are lamenting the state of propriety. No one in the land of Napoleon is following the code. And it is putting the citoyens of this once luminous empire in a dark mood. They are less concerned about their president’s slamming-door farcical adventures in amour than they are about the blow to their amour-propre. They fret that their image is more Feydeau than Rousseau.

On this Saint-Valentin weekend, as people join un kiss flash mob at the Louvre, we face another Gallic paradox, like the one about red wine and foie gras keeping you thin.

“The whole problem with this Hollande scandal is that he is not married,” says Jean-Marie Rouart, the French novelist. “Had he been married, this affair would never have been revealed.”

He observed that, as an “elected monarch,” the president has to maintain appearances. “In France, having a mistress is not considered cheating,” he says. “We are not a puritanical country. France is Catholic. We accept sin and forgiveness.”

It’s bad enough to hide under a helmet and dismiss your security and go incognito on an Italian scooter to have a tryst in an apartment that is a stone’s throw from the Élysée Palace and has some tenuous connection to the Corsican Mafia. But everyone here except François Hollande seems to agree: You do not install one mistress at the Élysée when you have another mistress. That is simply bad form.

Why should the tabloids stick to the rule of the French press to ignore the private lives of presidents if Hollande breaks the rule of French presidents to lead an “exemplary” public life, which means having a real wife to cheat on?

Many now suspect the 59-year-old Hollande, a.k.a. The Living Marshmallow, allowed Mistress No. 1, beautiful 48-year-old Paris Match writer Valérie Trierweiler, to play the role of first concubine to distract her from his affair with Mistress No. 2, gorgeous 41-year-old actress Julie Gayet. Gayet is a committed Socialist who worked on Hollande’s campaign, making kittenish support videos and sporting an “I only date Super Heroes” T-shirt.

To assuage Trierweiler for being dubbed “a concubine” in the press, the Rottweiler — as she’s known for her aggressive moves in person and on Twitter — got Élysée offices, a staff of four and a monthly budget of $27,000.

But that created some mal de mer among the French, even before the White House had to destroy all its invitations with Valerie’s name when she squared off with her rival, went to the hospital with a case of “the blues,” and was dumped by Hollande in a terse press “communiqué” two weeks before his visit to Washington.

“The concept of the first lady doesn’t exist in France, and even less the first mistress,” sniffed Olivier de Rohan, a vicomte and head of a foundation that protects French art. “The protocol in France is very strict. It is not a question of choice or pleasure. The wife of the president of the republic was always seated as the wife, never paraded as the first lady. I don’t care with whom Hollande sleeps. But the whole thing is totally ridiculous, the head of a great state exhibiting mistresses, one after the other.”

Or as one French journalist murmured, “All this, in the place where de Gaulle was.”

Over good wine and small portions across Paris, there was appalled discussion that Stephen Colbert, who had filleted Hollande’s shenanigans on his show, was seated to the right of Michelle Obama at the state dinner, in the magic circle with the president where Trierweiler would have been, had she not been trundled off to the love guillotine.

“In France, it would be extremely rude to do that,” Rohan said about Colbert. “The Americans have no protocol.”

Before the dinner, Colbert joked that if the first lady were just the last person you slept with, America’s would have been Monica Lewinsky in 1998. He later crowed about the significance of his placement, yelling “I’m the first lady of France! Merci!” as he was showered with roses. His project, he said, would be “bringing Jean Valjean to justice.”

The nation that once worshipped Jerry Lewis was flummoxed by this “terrible faux pas,” as it was dubbed. (Even though Colbert shares a name with a top adviser to Louis XIV, many harbor dark suspicions that he’s Irish.) They wondered how a late-night comic outranked Christine Lagarde, a possible contender to succeed Hollande? Why were more French luminaries not invited? Why did Mary J. Blige sing for Hollande “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” a famous Jacques Brel chanson begging a lover not to leave?

Did Michelle, Le Point snarked, think she was providing Colbert with “fresh material” for another searing sketch?

The French have spent centuries making fun of us for our puritanism, and now they feel the unbearable sting of our mockery, as our press and comedians chortle at a mediocre pol caught up in a melodrama with all the erotic charge of week-old Camembert. (Maybe that’s why the French got so swept up in the ridiculous but glamorous rumor about Obama and Beyoncé.)

All those French expressions we siphon because English isn’t nuanced enough — finesse, etiquette, savoir-faire, rendezvous, je ne sais quoi, comme il faut — Hollande flouted.

In the minds of many here, the French president is a loser because he’s so unrefined he might as well be American.

She’s such a bitch…  Next up we’re faced with The Moustache of Wisdom. who’s in Palo Alto:

The most striking thing about visiting Silicon Valley these days is how many creative ideas you can hear in just 48 hours.

Jeff Weiner, the chief executive of LinkedIn, explains how his company aims to build an economic graph that will link together the whole global work force with every job being offered in the world, full-time and temporary, for-profit and volunteer, the skills needed for each job, and a presence for every higher education institution everywhere offering a way to acquire those skills.

Aaron Levie, the chief executive of Box, explains how his online storage and collaboration technology is enabling anyone on any mobile device to securely upload files, collaborate, and share content from anywhere to anywhere. Laszlo Bock, who oversees all hiring at Google, lays out the innovative ways his company has learned to identify talented people who have never gone to college. Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb, explains how his start-up has, in the blink of an eye, become one of the biggest providers of overnight rooms in the world — challenging Hilton and Marriott — without owning a single room. Curt Carlson, the chief executive of SRI International, which invented Siri for your iPhone, recalls how one leading innovator just told him that something would never happen and “then I pick up the paper and it just did.”

What they all have in common is they wake up every day and ask: “What are the biggest trends in the world, and how do I best invent/reinvent my business to thrive from them?” They’re fixated on creating abundance, not redividing scarcity, and they respect no limits on imagination. No idea here is “off the table.”

Then, after you’ve been totally energized by people inventing the future, you go back to your hotel room and catch up with the present: the news from Washington. Two headlines stand out like flashing red lights: House Speaker John Boehner says immigration reform in 2014 is off the table and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says the “fast track” legislation we need to pass vital free-trade agreements with the European Union and some of our biggest trading partners in the Asia-Pacific region is off the table. Forget about both until after the 2014 midterm elections, if not 2016.

Summing this all up, The Associated Press reported on Feb. 9 something that you could not make up: “WASHINGTON (AP) — Little more than a week after Groundhog Day, the evidence is mounting that lawmakers have all but wrapped up their most consequential work of 2014, at least until the results of the fall elections are known.”

What a contrast. Silicon Valley: where ideas come to launch. Washington, D.C., where ideas go to die. Silicon Valley: where there are no limits on your imagination and failure in the service of experimentation is a virtue. Washington: where the “imagination” to try something new is now a treatable mental illness covered by Obamacare and failure in the service of experimentation is a crime. Silicon Valley: smart as we can be. Washington: dumb as we wanna be.

True, some libertarians in Silicon Valley cheer Washington’s paralysis. But it is not so simple. There is a certain “league minimum” that we need and are entitled to expect from Washington, especially today. America just discovered huge deposits of energy and gold at the same time. That is, thanks to advances in drilling technology we have unlocked vast new sources of natural gas, which — if extracted with environmentally sound practices — will give us decades of cheap, cleaner energy and enable America to restore itself as a center of manufacturing.

At the same time, the dominance of American companies in cloud computing, and the “Internet of Things” — billions of devices with sensors — have given us a huge lead in the era of Big Data, where the winners will be those who are best at amassing, analyzing and protecting that data and use software to quickly apply what they learn from the data to improve any product or service. These data mountains and the tools to exploit them are the new gold. And we’ve got it.

In such an era, one of the two most valuable things Washington can do to create more good jobs and wealth is to open more export markets. The other is to have an immigration policy that not only provides a legal pathway to citizenship for those here illegally but enables America to attract the best brainpower and apply that talent to the data mountains and software opportunities we’re creating.

But Washington these days won’t even do the league minimum. As The Economist observed in an essay entitled “When Harry Mugged Barry,” both the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with big Asian markets like Japan, which is almost done, and the U.S.-European Union trade deal, which is being negotiated, are “next generation” agreements that even the playing field for us by requiring higher environmental and labor standards from our trading partners and more access for our software and services.

“Studies suggest that proposed deals with Asia and Europe could generate global gains of $600 billion a year, with $200 billion of that going to America,” The Economist added. “And that understates the benefits, since the deals would spur competition in the market for services, which make up most of rich countries’ output but are seldom traded across borders. Opening industries like finance and transport to greater competition could bring great savings to consumers.”

The U.S. trade representative, Michael Froman, told me that if we’re able to conclude these two trade deals, America would have free trade with “two-thirds of the world.” If you combine that with our lead in cloud computing, social media, software and natural gas for low-cost manufacturing — plus our rule of law and entrepreneurial cultural — you understand, says Froman, why one European C.E.O. told him that America will be the “production platform of choice” for manufacturers all over the world to set up their operations and export to the world.

But it will all have to wait at least until after 2014 when we might have a week to legislate before we get ready for 2016. God forbid either party should challenge their respective bases who oppose freer trade or immigration. That would actually require leadership.

We cannot and should not abolish politics, but sometimes we can’t afford politics as usual. And this time, with rising inequality, is one of them. We need to be doing everything we know how to do to create good jobs and growth. “When your mind-set isn’t about creating abundance,” says Carlson of SRI, “you go into extractive mode, which is a death spiral.”

Start-up America is our best hope. Sure, we’re doing better than most everyone else, but just being the “cleanest dirty shirt” has never been the American dream.

Here’s what “MetroJournalist” in the NY area had to say about that:  “Here we go again. Start a new company. Have Thomas Friedman shill for it. Wash. Rinse. Spin. Repeat.”  Now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.

One reason is the anti-intellectualism in American life, the kind that led Rick Santorum to scold President Obama as “a snob” for wanting more kids to go to college, or that led congressional Republicans to denounce spending on social science research. Yet it’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves.

“All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public,” notes Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and now the president of the New America Foundation.

There are plenty of exceptions, of course, including in economics, history and some sciences, in professional schools like law and business, and, above all, in schools of public policy; for that matter, we have a law professor in the White House. But, over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

The latest attempt by academia to wall itself off from the world came when the executive council of the prestigious International Studies Association proposed that its publication editors be barred from having personal blogs. The association might as well scream: We want our scholars to be less influential!

A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.

Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian who writes for The New Yorker and is an exception to everything said here, noted the result: “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.”

As experiments, scholars have periodically submitted meaningless gibberish to scholarly journals — only to have the nonsense respectfully published.

My onetime love, political science, is a particular offender and seems to be trying, in terms of practical impact, to commit suicide.

“Political science Ph.D.’s often aren’t prepared to do real-world analysis,” says Ian Bremmer, a Stanford political science Ph.D. who runs the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, one-fifth of articles in The American Political Science Review focused on policy prescriptions; at last count, the share was down to 0.3 percent.

Universities have retreated from area studies, so we have specialists in international theory who know little that is practical about the world. After the Arab Spring, a study by the Stimson Center looked back at whether various sectors had foreseen the possibility of upheavals. It found that scholars were among the most oblivious — partly because they relied upon quantitative models or theoretical constructs that had been useless in predicting unrest.

Many academic disciplines also reduce their influence by neglecting political diversity. Sociology, for example, should be central to so many national issues, but it is so dominated by the left that it is instinctively dismissed by the right.

In contrast, economics is a rare academic field with a significant Republican presence, and that helps tether economic debates to real-world debates. That may be one reason, along with empiricism and rigor, why economists (including my colleague in columny, Paul Krugman) shape debates on issues from health care to education.

Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook. Likewise, it was TED Talks by nonscholars that made lectures fun to watch (but I owe a shout-out to the Teaching Company’s lectures, which have enlivened our family’s car rides).

I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!

Well, at least we have Prof. Krugman, the voice crying in the wilderness.  And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

An idea for the Senate: brown paper bags. You know, the kind in which you cut little holes for your eyes and your nose and a bigger, wider hole for your mouth. Senators could wear these in the chamber, so that the C-Span cameras and the outside world wouldn’t know precisely who’s supporting what. Or maybe ski masks, though those wreak havoc on hairdos. Alternately, the lawmakers could communicate in code: anything to obscure their actions and make it easier for them to actually cast votes in line with their best judgment and consciences. Oh, you thought they always did that? Well then I won’t spill the beans on Santa or the Easter bunny, either.

Last week was a doozy, and not in the usual way. The nation didn’t lurch toward another cliff; the suffixes -geddon and -pocalypse didn’t come out to play; the air didn’t grow thick with dire “s” words like stalemate, standoff and the direst of all, shutdown. No, last week ended with Congress’s having steered clear of disaster by passing a measure to lift the debt ceiling. Congress functioned, more or less. And yet — here’s the clincher — it looked as ugly as usual, if not uglier.

At issue was the way it functioned, a dysfunction of its own. Over in the House, Republican leaders brought the lifting of the debt ceiling to a vote so that they and a smattering of their party colleagues could pass the measure with the help of nearly all of the Democrats. You might naïvely wonder how this wouldn’t estrange the leaders from their caucus. But you’d be failing to take into account that many members of that caucus wanted the measure to succeed, recognizing that this was in the nation’s interest, but wanted at the same time to vote no, so as not to draw attacks from party extremists. In Congress, this isn’t considered a contradiction. It’s not even considered undignified. It’s considered canny self-preservation. (You serve, above all, to get re-elected.) The phenomenon is common enough that in a recent story in The Times, my colleagues Ashley Parker and Jonathan Weisman assigned it a name: Vote No, Hope Yes.

In a given chamber of Congress, the majority party usually takes responsibility for raising the debt ceiling, while the minority is permitted to balk and rail theatrically about wanton government spending. In fact Barack Obama did such balking and railing when he was in the Democratic minority of the Senate. Now Democrats run the show there, and they were poised to provide the necessary support to get the ceiling lifted. But the inimitable and irrepressible Ted Cruz insisted on a 60-vote threshold to allow the measure to be taken up, and getting past this hurdle required at least five Republicans to side with Democrats.

If the Republicans in the Senate had really cared to doom the measure, this was their big chance. But their true and ardent desire was to appear adamantly opposed without being so, and thus to appease party loudmouths without actually letting those loudmouths get their way.

This was where the brown paper bags would have come in very handy, because to avoid a filibuster and let the measure ultimately succeed, some Republicans had to step up and actually cast a vote in favor of its consideration. Their solution: to conduct this first, procedural vote in silence — an extremely rare and exceedingly curious thing — so that it wasn’t immediately clear to observers which Republicans were effectively helping to make sure the debt ceiling got raised. The theory, presumably, was that by the time it did become clear, those same Republicans would have proceeded to cast a subsequent “no” vote against the raise itself, whose passage required only the simple majority of votes that Democrats alone could provide.

The world’s greatest deliberative body at work! Make sure the children are watching! Inspiring civic lessons for all!

This isn’t just about the debt ceiling. On too many other fronts, the gulf between how lawmakers know they should behave and what they have the political courage to do is painfully wide. This has happened with Hurricane Sandy relief, with the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, with budgetary matters.

The week before last, immigration reform fell apart, and not because of the number of lawmakers who think it’s a horrid idea, but because of the number who think it’s probably a good idea but don’t want to commit to that and confront any blowback.

And last week the Senate, in a 95-3 vote, and the House, by a 326-90 margin, reversed a portion of a budget agreement that would have limited cost-of-living increases in many military veterans’ pensions to 1 percent below the rate of inflation.

Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator and a veteran, told me that the limit, which the Pentagon endorsed, was utterly reasonable and absolutely necessary, and he assured me that most lawmakers knew this. But they worried that if they stood by that conviction, veterans groups would succeed in branding them enemies of the nation’s heroes.

“It’s all about inoculating yourself against the sound bite,” he said. “And now it’s more than a sound bite. It’s also what’s trending on Twitter.” Most lawmakers, he added, believe that the failure to rein in Medicare and Social Security represents a serious threat to the country’s future, but they’re too politically timid to reflect that in their votes.

SUCH cowardice and self-interest aren’t new. But certain wrinkles are. Kerrey mentioned Twitter and, indeed, complaints and catcalls circulate with unprecedented efficiency and reach. It’s quicker for interest groups and opponents to fasten targets on lawmakers’ backs. It’s easier to rouse the rabble.

“With the ability to use computers, it’s worsened,” Mike Castle, a Delaware Republican who served in the House for nearly two decades, said. He added that websites and social media, not to mention cable TV and talk radio, have turned the political atmosphere more broadly and instantaneously caustic. “You have that constant carping. It has made Congress a more difficult place to achieve the greater good.”

Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University, noted that in the past, some votes in Congress wouldn’t even be recorded by individual lawmakers’ names. There was also more hidden back-room dealing. “That kind of insularity allowed legislators to take positions that might not be politically great but were the right thing to do,” he said.

I asked Kerrey: Do the politicians who frequently buck their own consciences at least feel misgivings about that? Struggle with it?

“Now you’re presuming that they’re in contact with their consciences on a regular basis,” he said. “I haven’t actually met many human beings who are. That’s a tough transaction: looking out for your conscience.”

Here’s what “mancuroc” from Rochester, NY had to say:  “A better idea for the Senate (and the House): compulsory uniforms bearing the logos each of their top twenty direct and indirect contributors, whether they be corporations, superpacs, lobby groups or just plain folks who happen to be billionaires.”  Amen.

Brooks and Krugman

January 24, 2014

Now all of a sudden Bobo haz a consern.  He gurgles that “It Takes a Generation,” and that a real national social mobility strategy must address youth development from ages 0 to 25.  “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY, starts her comment thusly:  “While David Brooks is busy concern-trolling single motherhood and horny teenagers, families are going to bed hungry tonight because of sadistic cuts in the food stamp program.”  In “The Populist Imperative” Prof. Krugman says this is why we’re likely to hear a lot about inequality and social justice from President Obama next week.  Here’s Bobo:

Over the past decade we’ve had a rich debate on how to expand opportunity for underprivileged children. But we’ve probably made two mistakes.

First, we’ve probably placed too much emphasis on early education. Don’t get me wrong. What happens in the early years is crucial. But human capital development takes a generation. If you really want to make an impact, you’ve got to have a developmental strategy for all the learning stages, ages 0 to 25.

Second, we’ve probably put too much weight on school reform. Again, reforming education is important. But getting the academics right is not going to get you far if millions of students can’t control their impulses, can’t form attachments, don’t possess resilience and lack social and emotional skills.

So when President Obama talks about expanding opportunity in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, I’m hoping he’ll widen the debate. I’m hoping he’ll sketch out a stage-by-stage developmental agenda to help poor children move from birth to the middle class.

Such an agenda would start before birth. First, children need parents who are ready to care for them. But right now roughly half-a-million children are born each year as a result of unintended pregnancies, often to unmarried women who are not on contraception or are trying to use contraceptives like condoms or the pill. As the University of Pennsylvania’s Rebecca Maynard and Isabel Sawhill and Quentin Karpilow of the Brookings Institution have argued, if these women had free access to long-acting reversible contraceptives like I.U.D.’s, then the number of unintended births might decline and the number of children with unready parents might fall, too.

Once born, children are generally better off if they grow up within a loving two-parent marriage. It would be great if we knew how to boost marriage rates, but we don’t.

For the time being, we probably should spend less time thinking about marriage and more time thinking about parenting skills. As Richard Reeves, also of Brookings, points out, if we could teach the weakest parents to behave like average parents — by reading more to their kids, speaking more, using consistent, encouraging discipline — then millions of children might have more secure attachments, more structure and better shots at upwardly mobile careers. Programs like Nurse-Family Partnerships and the Baby College in the Harlem Children’s Zone seem to be able to teach these parenting skills.

Once they get to elementary school, children need to learn how to read and write. But that can’t happen in schools where 15 percent of the students are disruptive, where large numbers of students live with so much stress that it has stunted the development of the prefrontal cortexes, sent their cortisol levels surging, heightened their anxiety responses and generally made it hard for them to control themselves.

Therefore, we probably need more programs like Pamela Cantor’s Turnaround for Children, which works in schools to help teachers and administrators create “fortified environments,” in which overstressed children can receive counseling and treatment, in which the psychic traumas that go with poverty are recognized and addressed.

According to work done by Sawhill and others, a significant number of kids stay on track through the early years, but then fall off the rails as teenagers. Sawhill set a pretty low bar for having a successful adolescence: graduate from high school with a 2.5 G.P.A., don’t get convicted of a crime, don’t get pregnant. Yet only 57 percent of American 19-year-olds get over that bar. Only one-third of children in the bottom fifth of family income do so.

Over the next few years, we’ve got to spend a lot more time and money figuring out how to help people from poorer families chart a course through the teenage years. There’s evidence that Career Academies help adolescents navigate the teenage rapids. There’s some evidence that New York’s “small schools of choice” yield measurable results. We as a nation have made awesome progress in reducing teenage pregnancies, so it is possible to change teenage behavior, even in the face of raging hormones.

But it is harder to find successful programs geared toward teenagers than it is to find successful programs geared toward younger children. It feels like less money has been raised to help teenagers, fewer innovative programs have been initiated.

Robert Putnam of Harvard argues that when we design early education programs, they need to be “wrap-around.” They need to have formal and informal programs that bring parents in and instill communal skills. With teenagers, we need more guidance counselors to help them become savvy, so they know how to work the system, and to respond when their needs aren’t being met.

Putnam is emphasizing skills — for toddlers or teenagers — that are hard to see and measure. But that’s the next frontier of human capital development: Building lifelong social and emotional development strategies from age 0 to 25. I’m hoping President Obama goes there.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

“The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.”

John Maynard Keynes wrote that in 1936, but it applies to our own time, too. And, in a better world, our leaders would be doing all they could to address both faults.

Unfortunately, the world we actually live in falls far short of that ideal. In fact, we should count ourselves lucky when leaders confront even one of our two great economic failures. If, as has been widely reported, President Obama devotes much of his State of the Union address to inequality, everyone should be cheering him on.

They won’t, of course. Instead, he will face two kinds of sniping. The usual suspects on the right will, as always when questions of income distribution come up, shriek “Class warfare!” But there will also be seemingly more sober voices arguing that he has picked the wrong target, that jobs, not inequality, should be at the top of his agenda.

Here’s why they’re wrong.

First of all, jobs and inequality are closely linked if not identical issues. There’s a pretty good although not ironclad case that soaring inequality helped set the stage for our economic crisis, and that the highly unequal distribution of income since the crisis has perpetuated the slump, especially by making it hard for families in debt to work their way out.

Moreover, there’s an even stronger case to be made that high unemployment — by destroying workers’ bargaining power — has become a major source of rising inequality and stagnating incomes even for those lucky enough to have jobs.

Beyond that, as a political matter, inequality and macroeconomic policy are already inseparably linked. It has been obvious for a long time that the deficit obsession that has exerted such a destructive effect on policy these past few years isn’t really driven by worries about the federal debt. It is, instead, mainly an effort to use debt fears to scare and bully the nation into slashing social programs — especially programs that help the poor. For example, two-thirds of the spending cuts proposed last year by Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, would have come at the expense of lower-income families.

The flip side of this attempt to use fiscal scare tactics to worsen inequality is that highlighting concerns about inequality can translate into pushback against job-destroying austerity, too.

But the most important reason for Mr. Obama to focus on inequality is political realism. Like it or not, the simple fact is that Americans “get” inequality; macroeconomics, not so much.

There’s an enduring myth among the punditocracy that populism doesn’t sell, that Americans don’t care about the gap between the rich and everyone else. It’s not true. Yes, we’re a nation that admires rather than resents success, but most people are nonetheless disturbed by the extreme disparities of our Second Gilded Age. A new Pew poll finds an overwhelming majority of Americans — and 45 percent of Republicans! — supporting government action to reduce inequality, with a smaller but still substantial majority favoring taxing the rich to aid the poor. And this is true even though most Americans don’t realize just how unequally wealth really is distributed.

By contrast, it’s very hard to communicate even the most basic truths of macroeconomics, like the need to run deficits to support employment in bad times. You can argue that Mr. Obama should have tried harder to get these ideas across; many economists cringed when he began echoing Republican rhetoric about the need for the federal government to tighten its belt along with America’s families. But, even if he had tried, it’s doubtful that he would have succeeded.

Consider what happened in 1936. F.D.R. had just won a smashing re-election victory, largely because of the success of his deficit-spending policies. It’s often forgotten now, but his first term was marked by rapid economic recovery and sharply falling unemployment. But the public remained wedded to economic orthodoxy: by a more than 2-to-1 majority, voters surveyed by Gallup just after the election called for a balanced budget. And F.D.R., unfortunately, listened; his attempt to balance the budget soon plunged America back into recession.

The point is that of the two great problems facing the U.S. economy, inequality is the one on which Mr. Obama is most likely to connect with voters. And he should seek that connection with a clear conscience: There’s no shame in acknowledging political reality, as long as you’re trying to do the right thing.

So I hope we’ll hear something about jobs Tuesday night, and some pushback against deficit hysteria. But if we mainly hear about inequality and social justice, that’s O.K.


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