Archive for the ‘Blow’ Category

Blow and Krugman

September 15, 2014

In “Ray Rice and His Rage” Mr. Blow says domestic violence is a societal scourge that must be constantly called out and constantly condemned.  In “How to Get It Wrong” Prof. Krugman says economists were worse than economics and policy makers were worse still.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The sordid Ray Rice scandal has opened a much-needed dialogue about domestic violence.

In February Rice and Janay Palmer, then his fiancée and now his wife, had an altercation at an Atlantic City casino that left Palmer unconscious. A tape surfaced of Rice dragging Palmer’s limp body from the elevator, hovering over her. At no point does he appear to attend to her, appear shocked at what he has done to her or appear to have much concern for her at all.

He doesn’t even pull down her skirt.

The next month a grand jury indicted Rice on a charge of third-degree aggravated assault.

The Baltimore Ravens’ coach, John Harbaugh, stood by Rice, saying, “He will be part of our team,” and continuing:

“He’s a person of character. The thing that’s really important is to be able to support the person without condoning the action. He makes a mistake. There’s no justifying what happened. When you drink too much in public, those kind of things happen.”

Whatever one may think of Rice’s character, “those kind of things” don’t just “happen.” That is too casual a dismissal of a very serious issue.

In May Rice was accepted into a pretrial diversion program that allowed him to avoid prosecution. A couple of days later Rice held a news conference with his wife by his side. He apologized to his coaches, his fans and “everyone who was affected by this situation that me and my wife were in.” He did not, however, use that opportunity to publicly apologize to his wife, although he thanked her for loving him “where I was weak and building up where I was strong.” He said that he and his wife had been in therapy and that the therapy had been helpful.

He even attempted to defend himself using the most unfortunate of metaphors: “One thing I can say is that sometimes in life, you will fail. But I won’t call myself a failure. Failure is not getting knocked down; it’s not getting back up.”

His wife said at the news conference: “I do deeply regret the role I played in the incident that night.” It was a line that caused many to cringe. It is hard to feel anything but sadness for her.

The N.F.L. suspended Rice for a measly two games. The nation was outraged, but the league defended its decision. But then another tape was made public showing Rice and Palmer in the elevator, with him punching her in the face and knocking her unconscious. Now the N.F.L. and the Ravens were embarrassed, and their callous lack of concern for the abuse of an intimate partner was laid bare. The Ravens released Rice, and the N.F.L. suspended him indefinitely.

Now, there are many issues here.

How was Rice able to avoid trial on the original charge? Why did it take the second tape for the N.F.L. to act more forcefully in the case? Did anyone at the N.F.L. see the second tape before it was made public? Could anyone have if he’d tried harder to find it? It seems that there were multiple failures here.

But, in a way, those are secondary to the issue of the abuse itself and why people stay in relationships with abusers.

It is a couple’s decision — individually and jointly — whether a union is salvageable and worth the effort to save it. But too often, victims of abuse feel that they have no choice. They can end up staying with an abuser for myriad complex reasons, many of which are regrettable. Often, they just feel trapped. Staying doesn’t excuse the abuse itself, and it can actually embolden the abuser.

We must treat intimate partner violence for what it is: a societal scourge that must be constantly called out and constantly condemned.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “More than one-third of women in the United States (35.6 percent, or approximately 42.4 million) have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime,” and nearly one in three women have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner. To put some of this in percentage terms, 30.3 percent of women in the United States have been “slapped, pushed, or shoved by an intimate partner” in their lifetime.

This is, of course, not just a United States issue. As the United Nations makes clear, “Violence against women is a universal phenomenon.” According to the U.N., “Up to seven in 10 women around the world experience physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lifetime,” and “603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not yet considered a crime.”

If there is anything to be optimistic about, it is this: According to a Department of Justice report issued in April, “The rate of domestic violence declined 63 percent, from 13.5 victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older in 1994 to 5.0 per 1,000 in 2012.”

We can push these numbers even lower, but first we need people like Rice, the Ravens and those in the N.F.L. to behave more honorably than they have in this case.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Last week I participated in a conference organized by Rethinking Economics, a student-run group hoping to promote, you guessed it, a rethinking of economics. And Mammon knows that economics needs rethinking in the wake of a disastrous crisis, a crisis that was neither predicted nor prevented.

It seems to me, however, that it’s important to realize that the enormous intellectual failure of recent years took place at several levels. Clearly, economics as a discipline went badly astray in the years — actually decades — leading up to the crisis. But the failings of economics were greatly aggravated by the sins of economists, who far too often let partisanship or personal self-aggrandizement trump their professionalism. Last but not least, economic policy makers systematically chose to hear only what they wanted to hear. And it is this multilevel failure — not the inadequacy of economics alone — that accounts for the terrible performance of Western economies since 2008.

In what sense did economics go astray? Hardly anyone predicted the 2008 crisis, but that in itself is arguably excusable in a complicated world. More damning was the widespread conviction among economists that such a crisis couldn’t happen. Underlying this complacency was the dominance of an idealized vision of capitalism, in which individuals are always rational and markets always function perfectly.

Now, idealized models have a useful role to play in economics (and indeed in any discipline), as ways to clarify your thinking. But starting in the 1980s it became harder and harder to publish anything questioning these idealized models in major journals. Economists trying to take account of imperfect reality faced what Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff, hardly a radical figure (and someone I’ve sparred with) once called “new neoclassical repression.” And it should go without saying that assuming away irrationality and market failure meant assuming away the very possibility of the kind of catastrophe that overtook the developed world six years ago.

Still, many applied economists retained a more realistic vision of the world, and textbook macroeconomics, while it didn’t predict the crisis, did a pretty good job of predicting how things would play out in the aftermath. Low interest rates in the face of big budget deficits, low inflation in the face of a rapidly growing money supply, and sharp economic contraction in countries imposing fiscal austerity came as surprises to the talking heads on TV, but they were just what the basic models predicted under the conditions that prevailed postcrisis.

But while economic models didn’t perform all that badly after the crisis, all too many influential economists did — refusing to acknowledge error, letting naked partisanship trump analysis, or both. “Hey, I claimed that another depression wasn’t possible, but I wasn’t wrong, it’s all because businesses are reacting to the future failure of Obamacare.”

You might say that this is just human nature, and it’s true that while the most shocking intellectual malfeasance has come from conservative economists, some economists on the left have also seemed more interested in defending their turf and sniping at professional rivals than in getting it right. Still, this bad behavior has come as a shock, especially to those who thought we were having a real conversation.

But would it have mattered if economists had behaved better? Or would people in power have done the same thing regardless?

If you imagine that policy makers have spent the past five or six years in thrall to economic orthodoxy, you’ve been misled. On the contrary, key decision makers have been highly receptive to innovative, unorthodox economic ideas — ideas that also happen to be wrong but which offered excuses to do what these decision makers wanted to do anyway.

The great majority of policy-oriented economists believe that increasing government spending in a depressed economy creates jobs, and that slashing it destroys jobs — but European leaders and U.S. Republicans decided to believe the handful of economists asserting the opposite. Neither theory nor history justifies panic over current levels of government debt, but politicians decided to panic anyway, citing unvetted (and, it turned out, flawed) research as justification.

I’m not saying either that economics is in good shape or that its flaws don’t matter. It isn’t, they do, and I’m all for rethinking and reforming a field.

The big problem with economic policy is not, however, that conventional economics doesn’t tell us what to do. In fact, the world would be in much better shape than it is if real-world policy had reflected the lessons of Econ 101. If we’ve made a hash of things — and we have — the fault lies not in our textbooks, but in ourselves.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

September 11, 2014

In “The Cost of War” Mr. Blow says Americans must think about what it means to engage in another foreign war, and weigh that against the urgent needs we have at home.  Mr. Kristof offers a “Critique From an Obama Fan” and says the president is right to expand the attack on ISIS into Syria if it’s done prudently with modest goals.  In “A Man With a Plan” Ms. Collins says President Obama makes a comeback from weeks in which he was attacked for everything from playing golf to saying “we don’t have a strategy yet.”  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Here we go again.

Wednesday night, during a prime-time speech, the president laid out his plan for dealing with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS.

He made clear that “while we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland,” he still “will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.”

He called it “a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy” and not a war. Yet, for all practical purposes, a war seems to be what it will be.

And most Americans, before the speech, seemed to be on board if not leading the way.

According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll published Tuesday, a vast majority of Americans see ISIS as a threat to the United States, a slight majority believe the president hasn’t moved aggressively enough, and most support expanding United States airstrikes into Syria.

But I implore the president and the nation to proceed with caution.

We can kill anti-American fighters and even their leaders, but we can’t kill anti-American sentiment. To some degree, every time we commit our forces in the Middle East we run the risk of further inflaming that sentiment.

For every action, there is a reaction. And there are also consequences, some of them unintended.

The president said that his plan “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” But this seems a hard thing to completely guarantee. It seems reasonable to worry that it could lead to at least some American boots on the ground and some American blood soaked into it.

The president did, however, say:

“We will send an additional 475 service members to Iraq. As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission — we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.”

But missions creep, wars get foggy and the very definition of victory can become elusive.

And need I remind you, we’ve been here before, worked up into a patriotic tizzy, fears stoked and muscles flexed. Although nothing may soon rival the staggering deception and disaster of the Iraq war, it still stands as our most recent and most instructive lesson about committing to armed conflict. George Bush and Dick Cheney are in a category of their own.

When we invaded Iraq in 2003, about three out of four Americans approved of President Bush’s handling of the situation, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll. Three years later, that approval had fallen by half.

We don’t want to look back three years from now and ask, “What have we done?”

An ABC News poll in early March of 2003 found that most Americans believed the Iraq war would last several months at most — it officially lasted nearly nine years — and nearly eight in 10 thought Iraq posed a direct threat to the United States at the time.

And the cost of that war, particularly in death toll, was staggering.

According to the website Iraqbodycount.org, more than 4,800 members of United States and coalition forces were killed between 2003 and 2013, as well as 468 contractors.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted the month we invaded found that nearly seven in 10 Americans thought the final result of the Iraq war would be that we would “win,” whatever that meant. Most Americans also thought that we should do everything we could to minimize Iraqi civilian casualties.

And while it is not clear how many civilian deaths resulted solely from United States military action in that country, Iraqbodycount.org puts the total number of Iraqi civilian deaths “from violence” since 2003 as high as 144,000.

Furthermore, a March 2013 study estimated that the financial cost of the Iraq war could be more than $2 trillion.

And now, to compound the waste of money, with our air offensive we are essentially paying to blow up millions of dollars of our own equipment that we left behind in Iraq, as Jason Fields wrote for Reuters last month.

As Fields puts it:

“And Islamic State’s captured an enormous amount of U.S. weaponry, originally intended for the rebuilt Iraqi Army. You know — the one that collapsed in terror in front of the Islamic State, back when they were just ISIL? The ones who dropped their uniforms, and rifles and ran away? They left behind the bigger equipment, too, including M1 Abrams tanks (about $6 million each), 52 M198 howitzer cannons ($527,337), and MRAPs (about $1 million) similar to the ones in use in Ferguson.”

Fields continues:

“Now, U.S. warplanes are flying sorties, at a cost somewhere between $22,000 to $30,000 per hour for the F-16s, to drop bombs that cost at least $20,000 each, to destroy this captured equipment. That means if an F-16 were to take off from Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey and fly two hours to Erbil, Iraq, and successfully drop both of its bombs on one target each, it costs the United States somewhere between $84,000 to $104,000 for the sortie and destroys a minimum of $1 million and a maximum of $12 million in U.S.-made equipment.”

We are doing this at a time when many of our roads and bridges are crumbling beneath us. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that we need to invest $3.6 trillion in infrastructure by 2020.

The Department of Agriculture released a report this month saying that the percentage of Americans who are “food insecure” (lacking “access to enough food for an active, healthy life”) has remained relatively unchanged (14.3 percent) since the numbers spiked during the recession in 2008.

And yet, in February, the 2014 Farm Bill was signed into law, a bill that will, according to MSNBC, “cut $8.7 billion in food stamp benefits over the next 10 years, causing 850,000 households to lose an average of $90 per month.”

We are still arguing about the cost of the Affordable Care Act and Republicans are still wasting time and money trying to repeal it.

We, as Americans, must think long and hard about what it will really mean for us to engage in another foreign war and weigh that against the urgent needs we have right here at home.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

I’m probably one of the few Americans left with some sympathy for President Obama’s foreign policy, and even I have to admit that his Syria policy has been a mess.

His “red line” about chemical weapons turned out to be more like a penciled suggestion. His rejection of the proposal by Hillary Rodham Clinton and David Petraeus to arm moderate Syrian factions tragically empowered both the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

Dismissing ISIS as a “J.V. team,” as Obama did in January, was silly — compounded by the White House’s contorted attempts to deny that he had said that. Obama’s ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, resigned this year because he found our government’s policy impossible to defend.

The tragedy in Syria isn’t Obama’s fault, but that of Syrians; still, the president has been painfully passive toward what has unfolded: the deaths of nearly 200,000 Syrians, the destabilization of neighboring countries by three million refugees, the near collapse of Iraq, the beheading of two American journalists, mass atrocities against Yazidi and Christian religious minorities and growing risks of ISIS terrorism against American and European targets.

And, yes, that’s the judgment of an Obama fan.

So it’s just as well that the president is trying for a reset — oops, wrong word — let’s just say “a new strategy” in Syria.

“America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” Obama declared in his speech Wednesday night. He described it as a “counterterrorism campaign” that would “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.

There’s some inconsistency there. Counterterrorism is the right prism through which to approach this, rather than all-out war, but it’s unlikely to destroy ISIS any more than it did the Taliban or militancy in Yemen.

Indeed, the president, in his speech, said that his strategy in  Syria “is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” That’s a plausible comparison, but Obama may be the only person in the world who would cite conflict-torn Yemen and Somalia as triumphs.

Unfortunately, there are more problems than solutions in international relations, and calls for more aggressive action by some Republican critics could make things worse. Dick Cheney has compiled an almost perfect record of being wrong on foreign affairs, so, on Wednesday, when he called for the United States to be more aggressive and get “back on offense,” we should all insist upon caution.

My take is that Obama is right to expand military action against ISIS into Syria if it’s done prudently with modest goals of containing and degrading a terror group. ISIS is a proper target, having butchered Americans, dismembered Iraq and attempted genocide against minorities like the Yazidis.

A 17-year-old Yazidi girl told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in a phone call that she was being kept by ISIS as a sex slave along with many others. The newspaper got her cellphone number from her parents, who are in a refugee camp.

“They treat us as if we are their slaves,” the newspaper quoted the girl as saying. “The men hit us and threaten us when we try to resist. Often I wish that they would beat me so severely that I would die.”

ISIS also could pose a terror threat within the United States. At least 100 and perhaps many more Americans have traveled to Syria to join jihadi groups, and some could return to carry out attacks.

So striking ISIS in Syria makes sense, but we also have to recognize that airstrikes will be of limited benefit and carry real risks as well.

“We’re going to war because we’ve been spooked,” notes Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma. “But if we do it wrong, we could ensure that the violence spreads.”

One danger is that if our bombs kill innocents, ISIS would use its video-making and social media skills to galvanize the Sunni Islam world, saying the American “infidels” who are slaughtering Sunni children must be punished. That’s why it’s crucial to have Sunni partners, including United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

We also need a partner on the ground to take advantage of airstrikes and seize back territory. That means moderate Syrian rebels, but there are many fewer of them now than there were two years ago. The middle has been vanishing.

Bolstering the Syrian opposition is still worth trying, and a senior administration official says that the White House will try to expand support. But there’s a danger that more arms will lead not to the destruction of ISIS but to the creation of another Somalia.

So let’s move ahead with eyes wide open. We’ve seen the perils of Obama’s inaction, and let’s now avoid the perils of excessive action.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

It’s a tough time to be a concerned citizen. The truth of the matter is, the job has always been messy.

But it’s way worse when the subject is foreign policy.

We gathered around our TVs and computers and peered at our smartphones Wednesday night to hear President Obama explain his plan for combating ISIS, even though we have pretty much lost faith in plans when it comes to the United States involvement in the Middle East.

He sounded very strong. And, really, that’s something. We’d have been happy to come away just saying something like “he appeared to believe he’s on the right track.”

The problem with the substance was that when it comes to Iraq and Syria, we’re too good at imagining the downside. The president said he had waited to launch his plan until Iraq got an inclusive government. That certainly made sense. Except that we have children entering middle school who had not been born when we started waiting for Iraq to get an inclusive government.

Then there’s the arming of Syrian rebels. No surprise that Obama wants an ally that isn’t the Assad regime. But some of the fighters in ISIS were Syrian rebels. Obviously, the administration feels its rebels are not going to become anti-Western terrorists. But the anti-Western terrorists in ISIS are waving around a ton of our weaponry that they took from the allies we armed in Iraq. Just saying.

Obama promised no American combat troops would be sent into battle. We don’t want boots on the ground. The idea of airstrikes sound much safer. Unless you happen to be an innocent civilian in the vicinity.

The president assured the American people that the strategy of air power plus “support for partner forces” would work because it’s already been a big success in Yemen and Somalia. Concerned citizens then turned to each other and said: “Yemen and Somalia?”

The hardest thing for average Americans is knowing just how worried to be. The tone of alarm in Washington has been hyper-shrill. Denouncing the president’s failure to take on ISIS faster, Representative Michele Bachmann told The Huffington Post: “We haven’t seen anything like this since Hitler and the blitzkrieg in World War II.”

Well, Michele Bachmann. Who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

During the run-up to the speech, Republicans had been irate about the president’s failure to act sooner, explain his plan faster and, in general, be tougher. Never had so many people demanded specifics without ever offering any of their own.

“President Obama’s chronic passivity has helped the jihadists,” John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said in a floor speech this week. Cornyn slammed the administration’s “don’t do stupid stuff” mantra, claiming Obama “doesn’t seem to fully grasp the magnitude of the threats and challenges that America is now dealing with.”

Cornyn mixed up Iranians and Iraqis a few times, but concerned citizens understand that these things get complicated. More to the point, not doing something stupid is actually a super foreign policy goal. Just look back on our recent history of meddling in the Middle East and what do you see? A heck of a lot of stupid stuff we wish we hadn’t done.

In his speech, the president was pushing back after weeks in which he was attacked for everything from playing golf on his vacation to saying “we don’t have a strategy yet” on the ISIS surge in Syria. On that, the critics had a point. You’re not supposed to say you don’t have a strategy. Even when everything on the ground has shifted and you need to consult your allies, get the Iraqi government to reorganize and collect new intelligence. You still don’t say “no strategy.” You say, “I’ll discuss strategy after I brief the congressional leaders.” And then fail to invite them.

Anyway, now there’s definitely a strategy. The hawks in Congress were not all necessarily overwhelmed. “The president doesn’t really have a grasp of how serious the threat of ISIS is,” said Senator John McCain on CNN. Other Republicans, like House Speaker John Boehner, issued responses that began with, “Finally …”

And how about the concerned citizens? We’re feeling insecure. It’s comforting to have Dick Cheney around, so we can at least know what we definitely want to avoid. This week, in a Washington speech, the former vice president said Obama has to “understand we are at war and that we must do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to win,” and spend way more money on defense.

Which means that:

A) Fighting ISIS is going to be more complicated than just war.

B) The president should put timetables on everything.

C) The defense budget needs to go down.

Remember that no matter what else happens, Dick Cheney will never steer us right.

Blow and Krugman

September 8, 2014

In “Crime, Bias and Statistics” Mr. Blow says a new report by the Sentencing Project lays bare the systemic effects of racial distortion.  Prof. Krugman says “Scots, What the Heck?” and outlines the very bad economics of independence.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Discussions of the relationship between blacks and the criminal justice system in this country too often grind to a halt as people slink down into their silos and arm themselves with their best rhetorical weapons — racial bias on one side and statistics in which minorities, particularly blacks, are overrepresented as criminals on the other.

What I find too often overlooked in this war of words is the intersection between the two positions, meaning the degree to which bias informs the statistics and vice versa.

The troubling association — in fact, overassociation — of blacks with criminality directly affects the way we think about both crime and blacks as a whole.

A damning report released by the Sentencing Project last week lays bare the bias and the interconnecting systemic structures that reinforce it and disproportionately affect African-Americans.

This is the kind of report that one really wants to publish in its totality, for its conclusion is such a powerful condemnation of the perversity of racial oppression. But alas, this being a newspaper column, that’s not possible. Still, allow me to present many of their findings:

• “Whites are more punitive than blacks and Hispanics even though they experience less crime.”

• “White Americans overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color and associate people of color with criminality. For example, white respondents in a 2010 survey overestimated the actual share of burglaries, illegal drug sales and juvenile crime committed by African-Americans by 20 percent to 30 percent.”

• “White Americans who associate crime with blacks and Latinos are more likely to support punitive policies — including capital punishment and mandatory minimum sentencing — than whites with weaker racial associations of crime.”

This association of crime with blacks has been noted by others. Lisa Bloom, in her book “Suspicion Nation,” points out: “While whites can and do commit a great deal of minor and major crimes, the race as a whole is never tainted by those acts. But when blacks violate the law, all members of the race are considered suspect.”

She further says: “The standard assumption that criminals are black and blacks are criminals is so prevalent that in one study, 60 percent of viewers who viewed a crime story with no picture of the perpetrator falsely recalled seeing one, and of those, 70 percent believed he was African-American. When we think about crime, we ‘see black,’ even when it’s not present at all.”

As the Sentencing Project report makes clear, the entire government and media machinery is complicit in the distortion.

According to the report:

• “Whether acting on their own implicit biases or bowing to political exigency, policy makers have fused crime and race in their policy initiatives and statements. They have crafted harsh sentencing laws that impact all Americans and disproportionately incarcerate people of color.”

• “Many media outlets reinforce the public’s racial misconceptions about crime by presenting African-Americans and Latinos differently than whites — both quantitatively and qualitatively. Television news programs and newspapers overrepresent racial minorities as crime suspects and whites as crime victims.”

• “Disparities in police stops, in prosecutorial charging, and in bail and sentencing decisions reveal that implicit racial bias has penetrated all corners of the criminal justice system.”

The effects of these perceptions and policies have been absolutely devastating for society in general and black people in particular. According to the report:

• “By increasing support for punitive policies, racial perceptions of crime have made sentencing more severe for all Americans. The United States now has the world’s highest imprisonment rate, with one in nine prisoners serving life sentences. Racial perceptions of crime, combined with other factors, have led to the disparate punishment of people of color. Although blacks and Latinos together comprise just 30 percent of the general population, they account for 58 percent of the prison population.”

• “By increasing the scale of criminal sanctions and disproportionately directing penalties toward people of color, racial perceptions of crime have been counterproductive for public safety. Racial minorities’ perceptions of unfairness in the criminal justice system have dampened cooperation with police work and impeded criminal trials. In 2013, over two-thirds of African-Americans saw the criminal justice system as biased against blacks, in contrast to one-quarter of whites. Crime policies that disproportionately target people of color can increase crime rates by concentrating the effects of criminal labeling and collateral consequences on racial minorities and by fostering a sense of legal immunity among whites.”

There is no way in this country to discuss crime statistics without including in that discussion the myriad ways in which those statistics are informed and influenced by the systemic effects of racial distortion.

Individual behavior is not the only component of the numbers; bias is the other.

Mr. Blow is another voice crying in the wilderness.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Next week Scotland will hold a referendum on whether to leave the United Kingdom. And polling suggests that support for independence has surged over the past few months, largely because pro-independence campaigners have managed to reduce the “fear factor” — that is, concern about the economic risks of going it alone. At this point the outcome looks like a tossup.

Well, I have a message for the Scots: Be afraid, be very afraid. The risks of going it alone are huge. You may think that Scotland can become another Canada, but it’s all too likely that it would end up becoming Spain without the sunshine.

Comparing Scotland with Canada seems, at first, pretty reasonable. After all, Canada, like Scotland, is a relatively small economy that does most of its trade with a much larger neighbor. Also like Scotland, it is politically to the left of that giant neighbor. And what the Canadian example shows is that this can work. Canada is prosperous, economically stable (although I worry about high household debt and what looks like a major housing bubble) and has successfully pursued policies well to the left of those south of the border: single-payer health insurance, more generous aid to the poor, higher overall taxation.

Does Canada pay any price for independence? Probably. Labor productivity is only about three-quarters as high as it is in the United States, and some of the gap may reflect the small size of the Canadian market (yes, we have a free-trade agreement, but a lot of evidence shows that borders discourage trade all the same). Still, you can argue that Canada is doing O.K.

But Canada has its own currency, which means that its government can’t run out of money, that it can bail out its own banks if necessary, and more. An independent Scotland wouldn’t. And that makes a huge difference.

Could Scotland have its own currency? Maybe, although Scotland’s economy is even more tightly integrated with that of the rest of Britain than Canada’s is with the United States, so that trying to maintain a separate currency would be hard. It’s a moot point, however: The Scottish independence movement has been very clear that it intends to keep the pound as the national currency. And the combination of political independence with a shared currency is a recipe for disaster. Which is where the cautionary tale of Spain comes in.

If Spain and the other countries that gave up their own currencies to adopt the euro were part of a true federal system, with shared institutions of government, the recent economic history of Spain would have looked a lot like that of Florida. Both economies experienced a huge housing boom between 2000 and 2007. Both saw that boom turn into a spectacular bust. Both suffered a sharp downturn as a result of that bust. In both places the slump meant a plunge in tax receipts and a surge in spending on unemployment benefits and other forms of aid.

Then, however, the paths diverged. In Florida’s case, most of the fiscal burden of the slump fell not on the local government but on Washington, which continued to pay for the state’s Social Security and Medicare benefits, as well as for much of the increased aid to the unemployed. There were large losses on housing loans, and many Florida banks failed, but many of the losses fell on federal lending agencies, while bank depositors were protected by federal insurance. You get the picture. In effect, Florida received large-scale aid in its time of distress.

Spain, by contrast, bore all the costs of the housing bust on its own. The result was a fiscal crisis, made much worse by fears of a banking crisis that the Spanish government would be unable to manage, because it might literally run out of cash. Spanish borrowing costs soared, and the government was forced into brutal austerity measures. The result was a horrific depression — including youth unemployment above 50 percent — from which Spain has barely begun to recover.

And it wasn’t just Spain, it was all of southern Europe and more. Even euro-area countries with sound finances, like Finland and the Netherlands, have suffered deep and prolonged slumps.

In short, everything that has happened in Europe since 2009 or so has demonstrated that sharing a currency without sharing a government is very dangerous. In economics jargon, fiscal and banking integration are essential elements of an optimum currency area. And an independent Scotland using Britain’s pound would be in even worse shape than euro countries, which at least have some say in how the European Central Bank is run.

I find it mind-boggling that Scotland would consider going down this path after all that has happened in the last few years. If Scottish voters really believe that it’s safe to become a country without a currency, they have been badly misled.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

September 4, 2014

In “ISIS, Deep in the Heart of Texas” Mr. Blow says a legitimate threat from foreign forces should not be used as fodder for anti-immigrant, enforcement-over-citizenship border politicians.  In “When Reporting is Dangerous” Mr. Kristof says Steven Sotloff, James Foley and other journalists on the front lines make us better informed.  Ms. Collins takes a look at “The Down Side of Reclining” and says the airplane-seat debate has become a bit of an aviation crisis, so maybe it’s time for Congress to take up the issue.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is coming … to Texas? Yes, if you listen to conservatives, particularly those from Texas.

First, let’s say this flatly: ISIS is an outrageously barbaric group that poses a real threat to the Middle East in the short term and possibly to Western countries in the long term.

And watching the beheading of American journalists by ISIS is most unsettling, to say nothing of the pain and torment it must cause the victims’ families. It offends and infuriates. The heart breaks and the eyes water. And there is a natural revulsion and rousing of anger.

But through the anger we must still stay levelheaded, and not allow politicians and pundits to talk us into armed conflict without clarity of mission and scope. And we also mustn’t allow them to inflate the image of the enemy to such a degree that we feel that caution and patience are not options.

The latter seems to be very much underway. ISIS is being presented as so great a threat that action cannot be forestalled, and that amplification of threat is even being used as a political tool in the immigration debate.

The conservative website WND “reported” in July that “a top U.S. Defense Department analyst under President Bush says ISIS, the Islamic jihadists creating a Muslim caliphate in Iraq and beyond, could use the Mexican border to infiltrate America, and it could happen ‘sooner rather than later.’”

The site continued, “ISIS may be working to infiltrate’ the U.S. with the aid of transnational drug cartels, he said, citing the violent Mexican criminal gang MS-13 as a highly likely candidate for the partnership.”

WND was not the only one to hype the cartel line. Representative Ted Poe of Texas said in August that there was interaction between ISIS and Mexican drug cartels and that they were “talking to each other.”

Fox News “reported” Friday on a so-called “situational awareness” bulletin sent out by the Texas Department of Public Safety and obtained by the “news” network. According to Fox, the bulletin read, “A review of ISIS social media messaging during the week ending August 26 shows that militants are expressing an increased interest in the notion that they could clandestinely infiltrate the southwest border of U.S., for terror attack.”

And members of the Obama administration — wittingly or not — fed the frenzy. In a joint news conference in August, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, further inflated ISIS and raised the issue of immigration and the border.

Hagel called ISIS an “imminent threat to every interest we have” and said, “This is beyond anything we’ve seen. We must prepare for everything.”

Dempsey said, “Because of open borders and immigration issues, it’s an immediate threat, that is to say, the fighters who may leave the current fight and migrate home. Longer-term, it is about ISIS’ vision.”

Broadly speaking, this is all true. Everything is possible, and one should never underestimate an enemy. But, neither should one inflate the image of the enemy. And a legitimate threat from foreign forces should not be used as political fodder for anti-immigrant, enforcement-over-citizenship border politicians.

And yet, that appears to be what it has become.

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas recently hinted that ISIS fighters might have already crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. According to Perry, “There’s the obvious great concern that because of the condition of the border, from the standpoint of it not being secure and us not knowing who is penetrating across, that individuals from ISIS or other terrorist states could be.” Perry continued, “I think it’s a very real possibility that they may have already used that.”

Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said on CNN, however, that although ISIS had a desire to strike Western targets, there was “no information that leads us to believe” that ISIS fighters had crossed the border.

The Conservative Judicial Watch issued a statement last week claiming:

“Islamic terrorist groups are operating in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez and planning to attack the United States with car bombs or other vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED). High-level federal law enforcement, intelligence and other sources have confirmed to Judicial Watch that a warning bulletin for an imminent terrorist attack on the border has been issued. Agents across a number of Homeland Security, Justice and Defense agencies have all been placed on alert and instructed to aggressively work all possible leads and sources concerning this imminent terrorist threat.”

The National Counterterrorism Center director, Matthew Olsen, said that while ISIS did pose “significant threat to us” it was not “Al Qaeda pre-9/11” and “we have no credible information” that ISIS is planning to attack the United States.

The ISIS-at-the-border hype appears to simply be an attempt to kill two birds with one stone — be pro-war and anti-immigration at the same time.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

My heart broke for Steven Sotloff, the second American journalist beheaded in Syria, not only because of the barbarity ISIS inflicted on him but also because he died trying to push back against the trend in news coverage.

Over the last couple of decades, we’ve all seen trivialization of news, a drift toward celebrity, scandal and salaciousness.

So far this year, nightly newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC have offered a combined total of 3 minutes of coverage of the civil war and impending famine in South Sudan, and 9 minutes about mass atrocities in Central African Republic, according to Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report, which tracks such things. In contrast, the missing Malaysian airliner drew 304 minutes (almost five times as much as the Syrian civil war).

That’s why this is a moment to honor Sotloff — and James Foley, the other American journalist executed, and so many others out on the front lines — not just for his physical courage, but also for his moral courage in trying to focus attention on neglected stories. He shone a spotlight in dark nooks of the world to help shape the global agenda.

It was a struggle for him.

“I’ve been here over a week and no one wants freelance because of the kidnappings,” Sotloff emailed another journalist while in Syria before his kidnapping, according to Reuters. “It’s pretty bad here. I’ve been sleeping at a front, hiding from tanks the past few nights, drinking rainwater.”

One of the biggest changes that I’ve seen in my career is that journalists and aid workers have become targets. Virulent extremist groups now see journalists as enemies, and subject captives to abuse and torture. For instance, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria reportedly waterboarded Foley before murdering him.

In addition, in conflict areas, any petty criminal with a gun can kidnap a journalist or aid worker and sell him or her to a group that will demand a ransom. European nations pay these ransoms, which both enrich the terror groups and create an incentive to kidnap other foreigners.

A Times investigation found that Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates had raised at least $125 million from kidnappings since 2008. That’s a powerful business model for a terror group, and it’s one reason journalism and aid work is more dangerous today.

Last year, 70 journalists were killed for doing their jobs, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Over the last few years, some 70 journalists have been killed while covering the Syrian conflict, and about 20 are missing.

Most of those are Syrian, and let’s remember that the greatest danger is faced not by the Western journalists but by local ones — or by the local translators and drivers working for Western journalists.

In Darfur once, my interpreter and I were frantically interviewing villagers as a warlord was approaching to massacre them. Finally, my interpreter said: We’ve just got to go. If they catch us, they’ll hold you for ransom. But they’ll just shoot me.

We fled.

One way to honor Foley and Sotloff (and Daniel Pearl and many others killed over the years) would be for the United States to speak up more forcefully for journalists imprisoned by foreign governments — often by our friends, like Turkey or Ethiopia. Think of Eskinder Nega, serving an 18-year sentence in Ethiopia, or Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a Thai serving 11 years for publishing articles deemed insulting to the king of Thailand.

Today there are Steven Sotloffs covering war in Ukraine, Ebola in Liberia, malnutrition in India — and also covering unemployment and crime in American cities.

They are indefatigable and relentless. Once while I was covering the Congo civil war with a group of Africa-based reporters, our plane crashed. It was terrifying for me, but another passenger (a reporter based in Nairobi) told me it was her third plane crash. Yet another colleague on that plane was later killed covering a conflict in West Africa.

A special shout-out to the photojournalists and video journalists, for they often take the greatest risks. A reporter like myself can keep a distance, while that’s useless for those with cameras. My first rule of covering conflicts is never to accept a ride from photographers, because when they hear gunfire they rush toward it. Just Wednesday, it was confirmed that a Russian photojournalist, Andrei Stenin, had been killed in Ukraine.

So, to Steven Sotloff and James Foley and all brave journalists putting themselves in harm’s way, whatever nationality, this column is a tribute to you — and to your loved ones, who suffer as well.

We mourn you; we miss you; and, we admire you. And your commitment to the serious over the salacious elevates not only journalism but the entire global society.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

I am trying to imagine how our national leaders would react if they got caught in a reclining airplane seat crisis. You know what I mean. If they were flying to some important meeting and the person in front flopped back into their personal space, crunching a laptop or bruising a knee.

Obviously, this doesn’t happen to real national leaders. Their airplanes have rooms, for heaven’s sake. But if it did.

President Obama would not yell. He would sigh a deep sigh. The atmosphere around him would grow very cold. More sighs. Time passes very slowly.

John Boehner might yell, but he would not actually expect anyone to pay any attention.

It is possible that Hillary Clinton would not know the seat in front of her had reclined, since she is famous for being able to fall asleep at will. Nancy Pelosi’s staff says she, too, is often conked out before the plane even takes off. Perhaps this is a woman thing, but, speaking as a woman, I doubt it.

Bill Clinton might simply regard the reclinee as a new listener who had entered his orbit unexpectedly, and begin recounting a very long story.

Joe Biden: “Now that you’re in my lap, would you mind taking a selfie?”

The reclining-seat debate has become a bit of an aviation crisis. We had three flight diversions in eight days recently because of it. The latest occurred this week when an elderly woman who was knitting dropped her seat back, bonking the woman sitting behind her, who had been resting her head on a tray table. You could see why the victim would be irked, but demanding that the pilot “put this plane down now” seems a bit much.

A flight from Miami to Paris wound up on the ground in Boston after a Frenchman took offense at being reclined upon. And then, of course, there was the United Airlines passenger who locked the seat in front of him into an upright position with a Knee Defender, and got a glass of soda thrown in his face. Two weeks ago, most of us had no idea something called a Knee Defender existed, and now we have intense opinions about whether or not it should be legal.

“I’d never heard of that product, but I think it’s a crazy idea,” said Representative Rick Larsen of Washington. Larsen is the lead Democrat on the House Aviation Subcommittee.

I think Washington needs to look into this. Americans want to know more about the airline recliner options, mainly because, at the moment, this is the only current affair that is not incredibly frightening or depressing. It could be the 2014 version of a feel-good public hearing. Yet no. “While he’s had his fair share of bruised knees and close quarters with his fellow passengers, Congressman LoBiondo does not believe this is an issue for Congress to tackle,” said a spokesman for Representative Frank LoBiondo, the chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee.

Well, maybe they’ll have a hearing about the theft of the naked movie star pictures.

Members of Congress do sometimes fly coach. The ones who’ve been around for a while often move into perpetual upgrade territory because they’ve been on so many airplanes they reach frequent-flier nirvana, like George Clooney in that movie. But most have their coach moments. Representative Larsen says he definitely does not yell when somebody reclines into his space. “In my job, I don’t want to be the person who makes someone else mad on an airplane,” he said. “No way.”

We all know, of course, that air travel is extremely uncomfortable. That your average economy seat is now 17 inches wide and has about 31 inches of space before the one in front. That the flights are frequently jam-packed, that the air terminals generally have the ambience of a North Korean hotel and the comfort of a mammogram.

Nobody expects a tasty snack or space in the overhead compartment. The reclining seat is the last remaining marketing symbol of travel comfort.

“ ‘Sit back, relax and enjoy your flight’ — I’ve been hearing that since I started doing this work,” said Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants.

Maybe the airlines should just admit the truth. Instead of telling the benumbed passengers about their flotation devices, maybe the announcer could warn them, at the beginning of their flight, that reclining their chairs will probably create discomfort for the person behind them, and that they might want, at minimum, to go back gradually so the poor soul behind has a moment to adjust to the inevitable.

“We’ve not taken a position on that,” said Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for an airline trade association.

Passengers might behave better if they were encouraged to abandon hope. Instead of “Welcome Aboard,” the airlines could leave a message in the seat pockets: “Face it: You’re going to be uncomfortable and wide-awake for the next several hours.”

Unless you’re Nancy Pelosi.

Blow and Krugman

September 1, 2014

In “Obama and the Warmongers” Mr. Blow points out that the president’s deliberative approach to the ISIS threat may be drowned out by the chants for blood.  May be?  Absolutely has been, is being, and will be.  Prof. Krugman, in “The Medicare Miracle,” says after all the talk about how providing health care to the uninsured would be unaffordable and unsustainable, it turns out that it isn’t hard at all.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

We seem to be drifting inexorably toward escalating our fight with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, as the Obama administration mulls whether to extend its “limited” bombing campaign into Syria.

Part of the reasoning is alarm at the speed and efficiency with which ISIS — a militant group President Obama described as “barbaric” — has made gains in northern Iraq and has been able to wash back and forth across the Syrian border. Part is because of the group’s ghastly beheading of the American journalist James Foley — which Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the C.I.A., called “ISIS’s first terrorist attack against the United States” — and threats to behead another.

But another part of the equation is the tremendous political pressure coming from the screeching of war hawks and an anxious and frightened public, weighted most heavily among Republicans and exacerbated by the right-wing media machine.

In fact, when the president tried to tamp down some of the momentum around more swift and expansive military action by indicating that he had not decided how best to move forward militarily in Syria, if at all, what Politico called an “inartful phrase” caught fire in conservative circles. When responding to questions, the president said, “We don’t have a strategy yet.”

His aide insisted that the phrase was only about how to move forward in Syria, not against ISIS as a whole, but the latter was exactly the impression conservatives moved quickly to portray.

It was a way of continuing to yoke Obama with the ill effects of a war started by his predecessor and the chaos it created in that region of the world.

In fact, if you listen to Fox News you might even believe that Obama is responsible for the creation of ISIS.

A few months ago, the Fox News host Judge Jeanine Pirro told her viewers that “you need to be afraid” because of Obama’s fecklessness in dealing with ISIS, adding this nugget:

“And the head of this band of savages is a man named Abu al-Baghdadi — the new Osama bin Laden — a man released by Obama in 2009 who started ISIS a year later.”

That would be extremely troubling, if true. But the fact-checking operation PolitiFact rated it “false,” saying:

“The Defense Department said that the man now known as Baghdadi was released in 2004. The evidence that Baghdadi was still in custody in 2009 appears to be the recollection of an Army colonel who said Baghdadi’s ‘face is very familiar.’

“Even if the colonel is right, Baghdadi was not set free; he was handed over to the Iraqis who released him some time later. But, more important, the legal contract between the United States and Iraq that guaranteed that the United States would give up custody of virtually every detainee was signed during the Bush administration.”

Fox, facts; oil, water.

But the disturbing reality is that the scare tactics are working. In July, a Pew Research Center report found that most Americans thought the United States didn’t have a responsibility to respond to the violence in Iraq.

According to a Pew Research Center report issued last week, however: “Following the beheading of American journalist James Foley, two-thirds of the public (67 percent) cite ISIS as a major threat to the United States.”

The report said that 91 percent of Tea Party Republicans described ISIS as a “major threat” as opposed to 65 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of independents.

The report also said:

“Half of the sample was asked about ISIS and the other half was asked about the broader threat of ‘Islamic extremist groups like Al Qaeda,’ which registered similar concern (71 percent major threat, 19 percent minor threat, 6 percent not a threat). Democrats were more likely to see global climate change than ISIS as a major threat.

Americans were thrilled by our decision to exit Iraq when we did, but support for that decision is dropping. In October 2011, Gallup asked poll respondents if they approved or disapproved of Obama’s decision that year to “withdraw nearly all United States troops from Iraq.” Seventy-five percent said they approved. In June of this year, the approval rate had fallen to 61 percent.

Yet 57 percent still believe that it was a mistake to send troops to fight in Iraq in the first place.

Now, Republicans are beginning to pull out the big gun — 9/11 — to further scare the public into supporting more action. Senator Lindsey Graham has said on Fox News that we must act to “stop another 9/11,” possibly a larger one, and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has warned, “Sadly, we’re getting back to a pre-9/11 mentality, and that’s very dangerous.”

Fear is in the air. The president is trying to take a deliberative approach, but he may be drowned out by the drums of war and the chants for blood.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

So, what do you think about those Medicare numbers? What, you haven’t heard about them? Well, they haven’t been front-page news. But something remarkable has been happening on the health-spending front, and it should (but probably won’t) transform a lot of our political debate.

The story so far: We’ve all seen projections of giant federal deficits over the next few decades, and there’s a whole industry devoted to issuing dire warnings about the budget and demanding cuts in Socialsecuritymedicareandmedicaid. Policy wonks have long known, however, that there’s no such program, and that health care, rather than retirement, was driving those scary projections. Why? Because, historically, health spending has grown much faster than G.D.P., and it was assumed that this trend would continue.

But a funny thing has happened: Health spending has slowed sharply, and it’s already well below projections made just a few years ago. The falloff has been especially pronounced in Medicare, which is spending $1,000 less per beneficiary than the Congressional Budget Office projected just four years ago.

This is a really big deal, in at least three ways.

First, our supposed fiscal crisis has been postponed, perhaps indefinitely. The federal government is still running deficits, but they’re way down. True, the red ink is still likely to swell again in a few years, if only because more baby boomers will retire and start collecting benefits; but, these days, projections of federal debt as a percentage of G.D.P. show it creeping up rather than soaring. We’ll probably have to raise more revenue eventually, but the long-term fiscal gap now looks much more manageable than the deficit scolds would have you believe.

Second, the slowdown in Medicare helps refute one common explanation of the health-cost slowdown: that it’s mainly the product of a depressed economy, and that spending will surge again once the economy recovers. That could explain low private spending, but Medicare is a government program, and shouldn’t be affected by the recession. In other words, the good news on health costs is for real.

But what accounts for this good news? The third big implication of the Medicare cost miracle is that everything the usual suspects have been saying about fiscal responsibility is wrong.

For years, pundits have accused President Obama of failing to take on entitlement spending. These accusations always involved magical thinking on the politics, assuming that Mr. Obama could somehow get Republicans to negotiate in good faith if only he really wanted to. But they also implicitly dismissed as worthless all the cost-control measures included in the Affordable Care Act. Inside the Beltway, cost control apparently isn’t considered real unless it involves slashing benefits. One pundit went so far as to say, after the Obama administration rejected proposals to raise the eligibility age for Medicare, “America gets the shaft.”

It turns out, however, that raising the Medicare age would hardly save any money. Meanwhile, Medicare is spending much less than expected, and those Obamacare cost-saving measures are at least part of the story. The conventional wisdom on what is and isn’t serious is completely wrong.

While we’re on the subject of health costs, there are two other stories you should know about.

One involves the supposed savings from running Medicare through for-profit insurance companies. That’s the way the drug benefit works, and conservatives love to point out that this benefit has ended up costing much less than projected, which they claim proves that privatization is the way to go. But the budget office has a new report on this issue, and it finds that privatization had nothing to do with it. Instead, Medicare Part D is costing less than expected partly because enrollment has been low and partly because an absence of new blockbuster drugs has led to an overall slowdown in pharmaceutical spending.

The other involves the “sticker shock” that opponents of health reform have been predicting for years. Bulletin: It’s still not happening. Over all, health insurance premiums seem likely to rise only modestly next year, and they are on track to be flat or even falling in several states, including Connecticut and Arkansas.

What’s the moral here? For years, pundits and politicians have insisted that guaranteed health care is an impossible dream, even though every other advanced country has it. Covering the uninsured was supposed to be unaffordable; Medicare as we know it was supposed to be unsustainable. But it turns out that incremental steps to improve incentives and reduce costs can achieve a lot, and covering the uninsured isn’t hard at all.

When it comes to ensuring that Americans have access to health care, the message of the data is simple: Yes, we can.

Blow and Kristof

August 28, 2014

Ms. Collins is off today.  In “Bill O’Reilly and White Privilege” Mr. Blow reminds us that we can’t expect equality of outcome while at the same time acknowledging inequality of environments.  Mr. Kristof has a question:  “Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?”  He says recent events in Ferguson, Mo., have America talking about race, and that the conversation should include our unconscious attitudes that result in discriminatory policies and behavior.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Is white privilege real? Not according to Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly.

This week O’Reilly debated the issue of white privilege with a fellow host and then returned to the topic the next day with this doozy of a statement:

“Last night on ‘The Factor,’ Megyn Kelly and I debated the concept of white privilege whereby some believe that if you are Caucasian you have inherent advantages in America. ‘Talking Points’ does not, does not believe in white privilege. However, there is no question that African-Americans have a much harder time succeeding in our society than whites do.”

It is difficult to believe that those three sentences came in that order from the same mouth. Why would it be harder for blacks to succeed? Could interpersonal and, more important, systemic bias play a role? And, once one acknowledges the presence of bias as an impediment, one must by extension concede that being allowed to navigate the world without such biases is a form of privilege.

That privilege can be gendered, sexual identity based, religious and, yes, racial.

When one has the luxury of not being forced to compensate for societal oppression based on basic identity, one is in fact privileged in that society.

O’Reilly even trotted out the Asian “model minority” trope to buttress his argument, citing low unemployment rates and high levels of income and educational attainment for Asians compared not only to blacks but to whites.

Whenever people use racial differences as an argument to downplay racial discrimination, context is always called for.

What O’Reilly — like many others who use this line of logic — fails to mention (out of either ignorance or rhetorical sleight of hand) is the extent to which immigration policy has informed those statistics and the extent to which many Asian-Americans resent the stereotype as an oversimplification of the diversity of the Asian experience.

A 2012 Pew Research report entitled “The Rise of Asian Americans” found:

“Large-scale immigration from Asia did not take off until the passage of the landmark Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Over the decades, this modern wave of immigrants from Asia has increasingly become more skilled and educated. Today, recent arrivals from Asia are nearly twice as likely as those who came three decades ago to have a college degree, and many go into high-paying fields such as science, engineering, medicine and finance. This evolution has been spurred by changes in U.S. immigration policies and labor markets; by political liberalization and economic growth in the sending countries; and by the forces of globalization in an ever-more digitally interconnected world.”

Following the publication of the Pew report, the news site Colorlines spoke with Dan Ichinose, director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center’s Demographic Research Project, who was critical of some parts of the Pew report, but seemed to echo the role immigration had played. Colorlines put his response this way:

“The more complex and far less exciting explanation for Asian Americans’ relatively high rates of education has more to do with immigration policy, which has driven selectivity about who gets to come to the U.S. and who doesn’t, said Ichinose.”

Much of the African-American immigration policy came in the form of centuries of bondage, dehumanization and unimaginable savagery visited on their bodies. And that legacy is long and the scars deep.

O’Reilly mentions this in his rant, as a caveat:

“One caveat, the Asian-American experience historically has not been nearly as tough as the African-American experience. Slavery is unique and it has harmed black Americans to a degree that is still being felt today, but in order to succeed in our competitive society, every American has to overcome the obstacles they face.”

But this whole juxtaposition, the pitting of one minority group against another, is just a way of distracting from the central question: Is white privilege real?

In arguing that itisn’t, O’Reilly goes on to raise the seemingly obligatory “respectability” point, saying:

“American children must learn not only academics but also civil behavior, right from wrong, as well as how to speak properly and how to act respectfully in public.”

Then he falls back on the crux of his argument:

“Instead of preaching a cultural revolution, the leadership provides excuses for failure. The race hustlers blame white privilege, an unfair society, a terrible country. So the message is, it’s not your fault if you abandon your children, if you become a substance abuser, if you are a criminal. No, it’s not your fault; it’s society’s fault. That is the big lie that is keeping some African-Americans from reaching their full potential. Until personal responsibility and a cultural change takes place, millions of African-Americans will struggle.”

No, Mr. O’Reilly, it is statements like this one that make you the race hustler. The underlying logic is that blacks are possessed of some form of racial pathology or self-destructive racial impulses, that personal responsibility and systemic inequity are separate issues and not intersecting ones.

This is the false dichotomy that chokes to death any real accountability and honesty. Systemic anti-black bias doesn’t dictate personal behavior, but it can certainly influence and inform it. And personal behavior can reinforce people’s belief that their biases are justified. So goes the cycle.

But at the root of it, we can’t expect equality of outcome while acknowledging inequality of environments.

Only a man bathing in privilege would be blind to that.

O’Reilly is a cancerous tumor on what passes for punditry in this country.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

Let’s start with what we don’t know: the precise circumstances under which a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., shot dead an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown.

But here’s what evidence does strongly suggest: Young black men in America suffer from widespread racism and stereotyping, by all society — including African-Americans themselves.

Research in the last couple of decades suggests that the problem is not so much overt racists. Rather, the larger problem is a broad swath of people who consider themselves enlightened, who intellectually believe in racial equality, who deplore discrimination, yet who harbor unconscious attitudes that result in discriminatory policies and behavior.

Scholars have found that blacks and Hispanics treated by doctors for a broken leg received pain medication significantly less often than white patients with the same injury. School administrators suspend black students at more than three times the rate of white students. Police arrest blacks at 3.7 times the rate of whites for marijuana possession, even though surveys find that both use marijuana at roughly similar rates.

Two scholars sent out nearly 5,000 résumés in response to help-wanted ads, randomly alternating between stereotypically white-sounding names and black-sounding names. They found that it took 50 percent more mailings to get a callback for a black name. A white name yielded as much benefit as eight years of experience, according to the study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

These doctors, principals, prosecutors and recruiters probably believe in equality and are unaware that they are discriminating. So any national conversation about race must be a vivisection of challenges far broader and deeper than we might like to think.

Joshua Correll of the University of Colorado at Boulder has used an online shooter video game to try to measure these unconscious attitudes (you can play the game yourself). The player takes on the role of a police officer who is confronted with a series of images of white or black men variously holding guns or innocent objects such as wallets or cellphones. The aim is to shoot anyone with a gun while holstering your weapon in other cases.

Ordinary players (often university undergraduates) routinely shoot more quickly at black men than at white men, and are more likely to mistakenly shoot an unarmed black man than an unarmed white man.

I’m typical. The first time I took the test, years ago, I shot armed blacks in an average of 0.679 seconds while waiting slightly longer — 0.694 seconds — to shoot armed whites. I also holstered more quickly when confronted with unarmed whites than with unarmed blacks.

In effect, we have a more impulsive trigger finger when confronted by black men and are more cautious with whites. This is true of black players as well, apparently because they absorb the same cultural values as everyone else: Correll has found no statistically significant difference between the play of blacks and that of whites in the shooting game.

“There’s a whole culture that promotes this idea of aggressive young black men,” Correll notes. “In our minds, young black men are associated with danger.”

Further evidence for these unconscious attitudes toward race come from implicit association tests, a window into how our unconscious minds work. You can take them online at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.

One finding is that we unconsciously associate “American” with “white.” Thus, in 2008, some California college students — many who were supporting Barack Obama for president — unconsciously treated Obama as more foreign than Tony Blair, the former British prime minister. Likewise, Americans may be factually aware that Lucy Liu is an American actress and Kate Winslet is British, but the tests indicated that Americans considered Liu as more foreign than Winslet.

Yet we needn’t surrender to our most atavistic impulses. Prejudice is not immutable, and over all the progress in America on race is remarkable. In 1958, 4 percent of Americans approved of black-white marriages; today, 87 percent do.

There’s some evidence that training, metrics and policies can suppress biases or curb their impact. In law enforcement, more cameras — police car cams and body cams — create accountability and may improve behavior. When Rialto, Calif., introduced body cams on police officers, there was an 88 percent decline in complaints filed about police by members of the public.

Yet an uncomfortable starting point is to understand that racial stereotyping remains ubiquitous, and that the challenge is not a small number of twisted white supremacists but something infinitely more subtle and complex: People who believe in equality but who act in ways that perpetuate bias and inequality.

Blow and Krugman

August 25, 2014

In “A Funeral in Ferguson” Mr. Blow reminds us that nobody should know what it feels like to bury a child as the whole world watches. But that is what Michael Brown’s parents must do.   In “Wrong Way Nation” Prof. Krugman says the Sunbelt may be growing in population, but it’s not because of pro-business and pro-wealthy policies and higher wages.   Here’s Mr. Blow:

Two weeks after the killing of Michael Brown, we have become painfully familiar with his parents through their public appearances and television interviews, their faces drawn, their sorrow apparent.

Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, constantly dabbing tears from her face, sparing in her responses, but powerfully articulating her agony with the words she chooses. Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., with shaved head and full beard, a large man often clad in a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “No Justice, No Peace” and a baby picture of his son. The senior Brown is stoic, resolute in his speech, but even in the power of his presence there is the certainness that a hollow space has been made.

On Monday, they are scheduled to bury their boy as the whole world watches.

No one should know what that feels like.

Whatever one may feel about the contours of this case — about what led Officer Darren Wilson to shoot the teenager, about the relationship of the police to people of color, about the protests and unrest that followed, about the militarized police response to the unrest, about the quality of the investigations and the level of confidence people have in them, about the perverse sense of theater emerging from the rhythms of the days under the glare of media lights — we can all, in our shared humanity, feel for parents who lose a child.

As a parent myself, I can’t fathom the ache and inextinguishable anguish that must accompany such a loss.

Losing any loved one is painful, but losing a child — particularly in such a violent way and particularly a young child — must be exceedingly painful. It also upsets the order of things. Children should outlive you. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, the way the world and life would have it. But, in a moment, the world stops making sense.

I don’t think anyone can be properly prepared to deal with the news of such a thing. In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Thursday, the mother recounted, with tears streaming down her face, the feeling of getting the call that her son had been shot, before getting to the scene:

“Before even getting there, somebody call you on the phone and tell you something like that, and you miles away. It’s terrible.”

The father recounted the excruciating wait once he and the mother arrived on the scene and how upsetting it all was:

“We couldn’t even see him. They wouldn’t even let us go see him. They just left him out there, four and a half hours, with no answers. Wouldn’t nobody tell us nothing.”

It’s hard to imagine a more painful scenario and the grief it must carry.

And that grief can last for a very long time.

A 2008 study published in The Journal of Family Psychology found that, understandably, the death of a child can have “long-term effects on the lives of parents,” including “more depressive symptoms, poorer well-being, and more health problems.” Even that, to me, feels like an understatement. I am always in awe at the strength displayed by parents who lose a child and are immediately thrust into the public eye because their children cease to simply be children but graduate into being a cause.

Yet, too many people have had to endure a similar grief, if often under different circumstances. According to ChildDeathReview.org, in 2010, 45,068 children ages 0 to 19 died in the United States. Two-thirds died of natural causes. Another 8,684 died of unintentional injuries like car accidents and drowning. But 2,808 died as result of homicide, including 1,790 by firearm.

And when the person being shot is shot not by one of the bad guys (people all parents teach children to avoid as best they can) but by one of the people we as a society count as one of the good guys (police officers sworn to protect and serve) there are obviously going to be questions that need answering.

Whenever I see parents like these, standing and speaking in the wake of tragedy, I find myself studying their faces, imagining — hoping, really — that if I were them, I, too, would be this strong, that I, too, would fight on my child’s behalf, for justice and against the besmirchment of his or her memory. But something in me whispers that it’s a lie, that I would be overcome and inconsolable, that so much of me would die with my child that not enough of me would be left to carry on.

So the least I think all of us can do, in consoling solidarity, is to join them in paying our last respects. At 10 a.m. Central time on Monday, when the funeral is scheduled to begin, take a moment to think of them, to commiserate with two grieving parents, knowing they are in a position that none of us would want to be in.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is running for president again. What are his chances? Will he once again become a punch line? I have absolutely no idea. This isn’t a horse-race column.

What I’d like to do, instead, is take advantage of Mr. Perry’s ambitions to talk about one of my favorite subjects: interregional differences in economic and population growth.

You see, while Mr. Perry’s hard-line stances and religiosity may be selling points for the Republican Party’s base, his national appeal, if any, will have to rest on claims that he knows how to create prosperity. And it’s true that Texas has had faster job growth than the rest of the country. So have other Sunbelt states with conservative governments. The question, however, is why.

The answer from the right is, of course, that it’s all about avoiding regulations that interfere with business and keeping taxes on rich people low, thereby encouraging job creators to do their thing. But it turns out that there are big problems with this story, quite aside from the habit economists pushing this line have of getting their facts wrong.

To see the problems, let’s tell a tale of three cities.

One of these cities is the place those of us who live in its orbit tend to call simply “the city.” And, these days, it’s a place that’s doing pretty well on a number of fronts. But despite the inflow of immigrants and hipsters, enough people are still moving out of greater New York — a metropolitan area that, according to the Census, extends into Pennsylvania on one side and Connecticut on the other — that its overall population rose less than 5 percent between 2000 and 2012. Over the same period, greater Atlanta’s population grew almost 27 percent, and greater Houston’s grew almost 30 percent. America’s center of gravity is shifting south and west. But why?

Is it, as people like Mr. Perry assert, because pro-business, pro-wealthy policies like those he favors mean opportunity for everyone? If that were the case, we’d expect all those job opportunities to cause rising wages in the Sunbelt, wages that attract ambitious people away from moribund blue states.

It turns out, however, that wages in the places within the United States attracting the most migrants are typically lower than in the places those migrants come from, suggesting that the places Americans are leaving actually have higher productivity and more job opportunities than the places they’re going. The average job in greater Houston pays 12 percent less than the average job in greater New York; the average job in greater Atlanta pays 22 percent less.

So why are people moving to these relatively low-wage areas? Because living there is cheaper, basically because of housing. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, rents (including the equivalent rent involved in buying a house) in metropolitan New York are about 60 percent higher than in Houston, 70 percent higher than in Atlanta.

In other words, what the facts really suggest is that Americans are being pushed out of the Northeast (and, more recently, California) by high housing costs rather than pulled out by superior economic performance in the Sunbelt.

But why are housing prices in New York or California so high? Population density and geography are part of the answer. For example, Los Angeles, which pioneered the kind of sprawl now epitomized by Atlanta, has run out of room and become a surprisingly dense metropolis. However, as Harvard’s Edward Glaeser and others have emphasized, high housing prices in slow-growing states also owe a lot to policies that sharply limit construction. Limits on building height in the cities, zoning that blocks denser development in the suburbs and other policies constrict housing on both coasts; meanwhile, looser regulation in the South has kept the supply of housing elastic and the cost of living low.

So conservative complaints about excess regulation and intrusive government aren’t entirely wrong, but the secret of Sunbelt growth isn’t being nice to corporations and the 1 percent; it’s not getting in the way of middle- and working-class housing supply.

And this, in turn, means that the growth of the Sunbelt isn’t the kind of success story conservatives would have us believe. Yes, Americans are moving to places like Texas, but, in a fundamental sense, they’re moving the wrong way, leaving local economies where their productivity is high for destinations where it’s lower. And the way to make the country richer is to encourage them to move back, by making housing in dense, high-wage metropolitan areas more affordable.

So Rick Perry doesn’t know the secrets of job creation, or even of regional growth. It would be great to see the real key — affordable housing — become a national issue. But I don’t think Democrats are willing to nominate Mayor Bill de Blasio for president just yet.

Blow and Collins

August 21, 2014

Today we have just Mr. Blow and Ms. Collins, since Mr. Kristof is off.  In “Constructing a Conversation on Race” Mr. Blow says true racial dialogue is not one-directional — from minorities to majorities — but multidirectional.  In “Tell It to the Camera,” Ms. Collins says let’s hear it for the long-shot candidates this year. Like the high school math teacher running for the U.S. Senate in Montana.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The killing of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, by a police officer, Darren Wilson, and the protests that have followed have brought about calls for the much-ballyhooed — or bemoaned, depending on your perspective — conversation about race.

I wish these calls were not so episodic and tied to tragedies. I also wish this call for a conversation wasn’t tied to protests. Protests have life cycles. They explode into existence, but they all eventually die. They build like pressure in the volcano until they erupt. Then there is quiet until the next eruption. The cycle is untenable and nearly devoid of aim and the possibility of resolution.

What we must discuss is best discussed during the dormancy.

The discussion just needs some guidance.

Let’s start with understanding what a racial conversation shouldn’t look like. It shouldn’t be an insulated, circular, intra-racial dialogue only among people who feel aggrieved.

A true racial dialogue is not intra-racial but interracial. It is not one-directional — from minorities to majorities — but multidirectional. Data must be presented. Experiences must be explored. Histories and systems must be laid bare. Biases, fears, stereotype and mistrust must be examined. Personal — as well as societal and cultural — responsibility must be taken.

And privileges and oppressions must be acknowledged. We must acknowledge how each of us is, in myriad ways, materially and spiritually affected by a society in which bias has been widely documented to exist and in which individuals also acknowledge that it exists.

Take the results of a CBS News poll released in July. While three-fourths of respondents believe, rightly, that progress has been made to get rid of racial discrimination, most Americans acknowledge that discrimination against blacks still exists today.

It may come as little surprise that 88 percent of blacks gauged that level of discrimination as “a lot” or “some” as opposed to “only a little” or “none at all,” but 65 percent of whites agree the level of discrimination against blacks rises to “a lot” or “some.”

Yet when asked whether whites or blacks have a better chance of getting ahead today, 63 percent of whites and 43 percent of blacks said that the chances were equal. (By comparison, 28 percent of whites and 46 percent of blacks said whites had a better chance of getting ahead, and only 5 percent of whites and 4 percent of black said blacks had a better chance.)

We have to stop here and really process what we are saying: that even though we acknowledge the existence of discrimination, we still expect those who are the focus of it to succeed, or “get ahead,” at the same rate as those who aren’t. In effect, we are expecting black people to simply shoulder the extra burden that society puts on their shoulders — oppression — while others are free to rise, or even fall, without such a burden — privilege.

Understanding this fundamental inequality, one that trails each of us from cradle to grave, is one of the first steps to genuine, honest dialogue, because in that context we can better understand the choice that people make and the degree to which personal responsibility should be taken or the degree to which it is causative or curative.

And while acknowledging the inequality, and hopefully working to remedy it, we have to find ways to encourage and fortify its targets. I often tell people that while I know well that things aren’t fair or equal, we still have to decide how we are going to deal with that reality, today. The clock on life is ticking. If you wait for life to be fair you may be waiting until life is over. I urge people to fight on two fronts: Work to dismantle as much systematic bias as you can, as much for posterity as for the present, and make the best choice you can under the circumstances to counteract the effects of these injustices on your life right now.

Next, understand that race is a weaponized social construct used to divide and deny.

According to a policy statement on race by the American Anthropological Association, “human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups” and “there is greater variation within ‘racial’ groups than between them.”

The statement continues:

“How people have been accepted and treated within the context of a given society or culture has a direct impact on how they perform in that society. The ‘racial’ worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth. The tragedy in the United States has been that the policies and practices stemming from this worldview succeeded all too well in constructing unequal populations among Europeans, Native Americans, and peoples of African descent.”

It ends:

“We conclude that present-day inequalities between so-called ‘racial’ groups are not consequences of their biological inheritance but products of historical and contemporary social, economic, educational, and political circumstances.”

And yet, we have tuned our minds to register this difference above all others, in the blink of an eye. As National Geographic reported in October, “A study of brain activity at the University of Colorado at Boulder showed that subjects register race in about one-tenth of a second, even before they discern gender.” This means that racial registration — and responses to any subconscious bias we may have attached to race — are most likely happening ahead of any deliberative efforts on our part to be egalitarian.

Another step is that we must understand that race is not an isolated construct or consideration. Race and class, education and economics, crime and justice, and family and culture all overlap and intersect. We can’t treat the organ as if it is separate from the organism.

Lastly, some immunity must be granted. Assuming that the conversational engagement is honest and earnest, we must be able to hear and say things that some might find offensive as we stumble toward interpersonal empathy and understanding.

We can talk this through. We can have this conversation. We must. Hopefully this provides a little nudge and a few parameters.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Amanda Curtis, a 34-year-old high school math teacher, is now the Democrats’ U.S. Senate candidate in Montana. Finally, a strategy for bringing down the average age of a senator, which is around 62.

Plus, a math teacher would come in handy. “Elect somebody who knows how to count” would be an awesome campaign ad. If Curtis had the money to pay for any ads, which currently does not seem all that likely.

“I told my husband: ‘Kevin, I’m really sorry I got us into this,’ ” she recalled in a phone interview. “And he said: ‘Why do you have to be so blanking awesome?’ He’s very supportive.”

I believe I speak for all Americans when I say that we are totally in favor of Kevin Curtis as a senatorial spouse.

It’s doubtful that we’ll be seeing any Curtis in Washington anytime soon. But in a week of so much dreadful news from every corner of the world, let’s take an opportunity to sing a happy chorus to this season’s super-long-shot candidates. Really, where would we be without them? Staring at a ballot full of pre-elected public officials, that’s where.

Montana Democrats have been going through what you might call a rough patch. First, Senator Max Baucus announced that he was not going to run again for his seat. Baucus gave out the news early so he could concentrate on “serving Montana.”

Then President Obama offered him an ambassadorship to China and Baucus flat-out quit.

John Walsh, the Democratic lieutenant governor, was appointed to take his place. Then The Times’s Jonathan Martin reported that Walsh had plagiarized a lot of his final paper as a master’s candidate at the Army War College. The senator of six months announced that he was not going to run for a full term against the wealthy congressman Republicans had nominated, because he wanted to devote all his time to his “fight for Montana.”

None of the well-known Democratic names in the state were interested in taking Walsh’s place. Or the somewhat-known names.

“I was scraping and glazing and puttying my storm windows,” said Curtis, who was chosen last weekend by a party convention. “And the phone rang. It was a reporter saying: ‘John Walsh dropped out and they can’t find any other politician to run.’ The storm windows are still leaning against my house.”

Montana has only sent one woman to Congress: Jeannette Rankin, a suffragist and pacifist who was elected in 1916. She was sworn in the same day that Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. Rankin voted no and was decried by a Helena newspaper as “a dupe of the Kaiser, a member of the Hun army in the United States, and a crying schoolgirl.” That was pretty much that. Rankin ran again more than two decades later and was elected just before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, giving her the opportunity to cast the only vote against entering World War II. “Montana is 100 percent against you,” her brother wired encouragingly. That was the end of her congressional career. But she held up the torch, and in 1968, at 87, went back to Washington to lead 5,000 demonstrators in a women’s march against the war in Vietnam.

Always happy to have a chance to mention Jeannette Rankin, who teaches us that fighting for a losing cause most definitely does not make you a losing person.

Amanda Curtis grew up in a family rocked by divorce, alcoholism, financial struggles and violence. She fought her way through college and into a teaching career. Her experience with students, she said, taught her that what she thought was a uniquely terrible childhood was actually not all that unusual in Montana. She began to get involved in community groups, and, in 2012, she was elected to the State House of Representatives.

Once in the office, Curtis began posting videos at the end of every day in the Legislature in which she stood in her office or kitchen, sometimes looking perky, sometimes looking exhausted, and talked into the camera. (“Day 73 and wait until you hear this …”) Her mission was part educational, with heavy emphasis on the workings of the Business and Labor Committee.

On the other hand, it was partly pure venting. “It was so hard to … not to walk across the floor and punch him,” she said, in a rant that Montana Republicans have already included in a mash-up of video highlights. Their collection does not note that Curtis was talking about a debate over gay rights in which another lawmaker insinuated that homosexuals lacked moral character.

Imagine what it would be like if our senators all came home every night and posted their real thoughts. When they were too tired to self-censor. Maybe we should make that a requirement.

Blow and Krugman

August 18, 2014

In “Frustration in Ferguson” Mr. Blow says beneath the protests over the killing of Michael Brown are deep layers of injustice.  In “Why We Fight Wars” Prof. Krugman says conquest doesn’t pay, but political leaders don’t seem to care.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The response to the killing of the unarmed teenager Michael Brown — whom his family called the “gentle giant” — by the Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson — who was described by his police chief as “a gentle, quiet man” and “a gentleman” — has been anything but genteel.

There have been passionate but peaceful protests to be sure, but there has also been some violence and looting. Police forces in the town responded with an outlandish military-like presence more befitting Baghdad than suburban Missouri.

There were armored vehicles, flash grenades and a seemingly endless supply of tear gas — much of it Pentagon trickle-down. There were even officers perched atop vehicles, in camouflage and body armor, pointing weapons in the direction of peaceful protesters.

Let me be clear here: Pointing a gun at an innocent person is an act of violence and provocation.

Americans were aghast at the images, and condemnation was swift and bipartisan. The governor put the state’s Highway Patrol in charge of security. Tensions seemed to subside, for a day.

But then on Friday, when releasing the name of the officer who did the shooting, the police chief also released details and images of a robbery purporting to show Brown stealing cigars from a local convenience store and pushing a store employee in the process.

The implication seemed to be that Wilson was looking for the person who committed the convenience store crime when he encountered Brown. But, later in the day, the chief said Wilson didn’t know Brown was a robbery suspect when they encountered each other.

Something seemed off. The police chief’s decision to release the details of the robbery and the images — without releasing an image of Wilson — struck many as perfidious. In a strongly worded statement, Brown’s family and attorneys accused the chief of attempting to assassinate the character of the dead teen.

Some also deemed it an attempt at distraction from the central issue: An officer shot an unarmed teenager who witnesses claim had raised his hands in surrender when at least some of the shots were fired, which the family and its attorneys called “a brutal assassination of his person in broad daylight.”

The Justice Department is even investigating whether Brown’s civil rights were violated. This would include the excessive use of force. As the department makes clear, this “does not require that any racial, religious, or other discriminatory motive existed.”

It’s impossible to truly know the chief’s motives for his decision to release the robbery information at the same time as the officer’s name, but the effect was clear: That night, a fragile peace was shattered. There was more looting, although peaceful protesters struggled heroically to block the violent ones.

On Saturday, the governor issued a midnight curfew for the town. A small band of protesters defied it and some were arrested.

The community is struggling to find its way back to normalcy, but it would behoove us to dig a bit deeper into the underlying frustrations that cause a place like Ferguson to erupt in the first place and explore the untenable nature of our normal.

Yes, there are the disturbingly repetitive and eerily similar circumstances of many cases of unarmed black people being killed by police officers. This reinforces black people’s beliefs — supportable by actual data — that blacks are treated less fairly by the police.

But I submit that this is bigger than that. The frustration we see in Ferguson is about not only the present act of perceived injustice but also the calcifying system of inequity — economic, educational, judicial — drawn largely along racial lines.

In 1951, Langston Hughes began his poem “Harlem” with a question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” Today, I must ask: What happens when one desists from dreaming, when the very exercise feels futile?

The discussion about issues in the black community too often revolves around a false choice: systemic racial bias or poor personal choices. In fact, these factors are interwoven like the fingers of clasped hands. People make choices within the context of their circumstances and those circumstances are affected — sometimes severely — by bias.

These biases do material damage as well as help breed a sense of disenfranchisement and despair, which in turn can have a depressive effect on aspiration and motivation. This all feeds back on itself.

If we want to truly address the root of the unrest in Ferguson, we have to ask ourselves how we can break this cycle.

Otherwise, Hughes’s last words of “Harlem,” referring to the dream deferred, will continue to be prophetic: “does it explode?”

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

A century has passed since the start of World War I, which many people at the time declared was “the war to end all wars.” Unfortunately, wars just kept happening. And with the headlines from Ukraine getting scarier by the day, this seems like a good time to ask why.

Once upon a time wars were fought for fun and profit; when Rome overran Asia Minor or Spain conquered Peru, it was all about the gold and silver. And that kind of thing still happens. In influential research sponsored by the World Bank, the Oxford economist Paul Collier has shown that the best predictor of civil war, which is all too common in poor countries, is the availability of lootable resources like diamonds. Whatever other reasons rebels cite for their actions seem to be mainly after-the-fact rationalizations. War in the preindustrial world was and still is more like a contest among crime families over who gets to control the rackets than a fight over principles.

If you’re a modern, wealthy nation, however, war — even easy, victorious war — doesn’t pay. And this has been true for a long time. In his famous 1910 book “The Great Illusion,” the British journalist Norman Angell argued that “military power is socially and economically futile.” As he pointed out, in an interdependent world (which already existed in the age of steamships, railroads, and the telegraph), war would necessarily inflict severe economic harm even on the victor. Furthermore, it’s very hard to extract golden eggs from sophisticated economies without killing the goose in the process.

We might add that modern war is very, very expensive. For example, by any estimate the eventual costs (including things like veterans’ care) of the Iraq war will end up being well over $1 trillion, that is, many times Iraq’s entire G.D.P.

So the thesis of “The Great Illusion” was right: Modern nations can’t enrich themselves by waging war. Yet wars keep happening. Why?

One answer is that leaders may not understand the arithmetic. Angell, by the way, often gets a bum rap from people who think that he was predicting an end to war. Actually, the purpose of his book was to debunk atavistic notions of wealth through conquest, which were still widespread in his time. And delusions of easy winnings still happen. It’s only a guess, but it seems likely that Vladimir Putin thought that he could overthrow Ukraine’s government, or at least seize a large chunk of its territory, on the cheap — a bit of deniable aid to the rebels, and it would fall into his lap.

And for that matter, remember when the Bush administration predicted that overthrowing Saddam and installing a new government would cost only $50 billion or $60 billion?

The larger problem, however, is that governments all too often gain politically from war, even if the war in question makes no sense in terms of national interests.

Recently Justin Fox of the Harvard Business Review suggested that the roots of the Ukraine crisis may lie in the faltering performance of the Russian economy. As he noted, Mr. Putin’s hold on power partly reflects a long run of rapid economic growth. But Russian growth has been sputtering — and you could argue that the Putin regime needed a distraction.

Similar arguments have been made about other wars that otherwise seem senseless, like Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, which is often attributed to the then-ruling junta’s desire to distract the public from an economic debacle. (To be fair, some scholars are highly critical of this claim.)

And the fact is that nations almost always rally around their leaders in times of war, no matter how foolish the war or how awful the leaders. Argentina’s junta briefly became extremely popular during the Falklands war. For a time, the “war on terror” took President George W. Bush’s approval to dizzying heights, and Iraq probably won him the 2004 election. True to form, Mr. Putin’s approval ratings have soared since the Ukraine crisis began.

No doubt it’s an oversimplification to say that the confrontation in Ukraine is all about shoring up an authoritarian regime that is stumbling on other fronts. But there’s surely some truth to that story — and that raises some scary prospects for the future.

Most immediately, we have to worry about escalation in Ukraine. All-out war would be hugely against Russia’s interests — but Mr. Putin may feel that letting the rebellion collapse would be an unacceptable loss of face.

And if authoritarian regimes without deep legitimacy are tempted to rattle sabers when they can no longer deliver good performance, think about the incentives China’s rulers will face if and when that nation’s economic miracle comes to an end — something many economists believe will happen soon.

Starting a war is a very bad idea. But it keeps happening anyway.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

August 14, 2014

In “Michael Brown and Black Men” Mr. Blow says the killing is a wrenching reminder of the criminalization of black and brown bodies from the moment they are introduced to society.  Mr. Kristof says “Don’t Dismiss the Humanities,” and that the humanities aren’t obscure, arcane or irrelevant. They awaken our souls, influence how we think about inequality, and help us adapt to a changing world.  Ms. Collins asks “What’s Next With Hillary?”  She says Clinton and Obama are together again. She said something. He forgave her. You would think they were professional politicians!  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The killing of Michael Brown has tapped into something bigger than Michael Brown.

Brown was the unarmed 18-year-old black man who was shot to death Saturday by a policeman in Ferguson, Mo. There are conflicting accounts of the events that led to the shooting. There is an investigation by local authorities as well as one by federal authorities. There are grieving parents and a seething community. There are swarms of lawyers and hordes of reporters. There has been unrest. The president has appealed for reflection and healing.

There is an eerie echo in it all — a sense of tragedy too often repeated. And yet the sheer morbid, wrenching rhythm of it belies a larger phenomenon, one obscured by its vastness, one that can be seen only when one steps back and looks from a distance and with data: The criminalization of black and brown bodies — particularly male ones — from the moment they are first introduced to the institutions and power structures with which they must interact.

Earlier this year, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released “the first comprehensive look at civil rights from every public school in the country in nearly 15 years.” As the report put it: “The 2011-2012 release shows that access to preschool programs is not a reality for much of the country. In addition, students of color are suspended more often than white students, and black and Latino students are significantly more likely to have teachers with less experience who aren’t paid as much as their colleagues in other schools.”

Attorney General Eric Holder, remarking on the data, said: “This critical report shows that racial disparities in school discipline policies are not only well-documented among older students, but actually begin during preschool.”

But, of course, this criminalization stalks these children throughout their school careers.

As The New York Times editorial board pointed out last year: “Children as young as 12 have been treated as criminals for shoving matches and even adolescent misconduct like cursing in school. This is worrisome because young people who spend time in adult jails are more likely to have problems with law enforcement later on. Moreover, federal data suggest a pattern of discrimination in the arrests, with black and Hispanic children more likely to be affected than their white peers.”

A 2010 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that while the average suspension rate for middle school students in 18 of the nation’s largest school districts was 11.2 percent in 2006, the rate for black male students was 28.3 percent, by far the highest of any subgroup by race, ethnicity or gender. And, according to the report, previous research “has consistently found that racial/ethnic disproportionality in discipline persists even when poverty and other demographic factors are controlled.”

And these disparities can have a severe impact on a child’s likelihood of graduating. According to a report from the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University that looked at Florida students, “Being suspended even once in 9th grade is associated with a two-fold increase in the risk for dropping out.”

Black male dropout rates are more than one and a half times those of white males, and when you look at the percentage of black men who graduate on time — in four years, not including those who possibly go on to get G.E.D.s, transfer to other schools or fail grades — the numbers are truly horrific. Only about half of these black men graduate on time.

Now, the snowball is rolling. The bias of the educational system bleeds easily into the bias of the criminal justice system — from cops to courts to correctional facilities. The school-to-prison pipeline is complete.

A May report by the Brookings Institution found: “There is nearly a 70 percent chance that an African American man without a high school diploma will be imprisoned by his mid-thirties.”

This is in part because trending policing disparities are particularly troubling in places like Missouri. As the editorial board of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out this week: “Last year, for the 11th time in the 14 years that data has been collected, the disparity index that measures potential racial profiling by law enforcement in the state got worse. Black Missourians were 66 percent more likely in 2013 to be stopped by police, and blacks and Hispanics were both more likely to be searched, even though the likelihood of finding contraband was higher among whites.”

And this is the reality if the child actually survives the journey. That is if he has the internal fortitude to continue to stand with the weight on his shoulders. That is if he doesn’t find himself on the wrong end of a gun barrel. That is if his parents can imbue in him a sense of value while the world endeavors to imbue in him a sense of worthlessness.

Parents can teach children how to interact with authority and how to mitigate the threat response their very being elicits. They can wrap them in love to safeguard them against the bitterness of racial suspicion.

It can be done. It is often done. But it is heartbreaking nonetheless. What psychic damage does it do to the black mind when one must come to own and manage the fear of the black body?

The burden of bias isn’t borne by the person in possession of it but by the person who is the subject of it. The violence is aimed away from the possessor of its instruments — the arrow is pointed away from the killer and at the prey.

It vests victimhood in the idea of personhood. It steals sometimes, something precious and irreplaceable. It breaks something that’s irreparable. It alters something in a way that’s irrevocable.

We flinchingly choose a lesser damage.

But still, the hopelessness takes hold when one realizes that there is no amount of acting right or doing right, no amount of parental wisdom or personal resilience that can completely guarantee survival, let alone success.

Brown had just finished high school and was to start college this week. The investigation will hopefully clarify what led to his killing. But it is clear even now that his killing occurred in a context, one that we would do well to recognize.

Brown’s mother told a local television station after he was killed just weeks after his high school graduation: “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many. Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don’t got nothing to live for anyway. ‘They’re going to try to take me out anyway.’ ”

Next up is Mr. Kristof:

What use could the humanities be in a digital age?

University students focusing on the humanities may end up, at least in their parents’ nightmares, as dog-walkers for those majoring in computer science. But, for me, the humanities are not only relevant but also give us a toolbox to think seriously about ourselves and the world.

I wouldn’t want everybody to be an art or literature major, but the world would be poorer — figuratively, anyway — if we were all coding software or running companies. We also want musicians to awaken our souls, writers to lead us into fictional lands, and philosophers to help us exercise our minds and engage the world.

Skeptics may see philosophy as the most irrelevant and self-indulgent of the humanities, but the way I understand the world is shaped by three philosophers in particular.

First, Sir Isaiah Berlin described the world as muddled and complex, with many competing values yet no simple yardstick to determine which should trump the others. We yearn for One True Answer, but it’s our lot to struggle to reconcile inconsistent goals. He referred to this as pluralism of values.

Yet Sir Isaiah also cautioned against the hand-wringing that sometimes paralyzes intellectuals, the idea that everything is so complex, nuanced and uncertain that one cannot act. It’s the idea pilloried by Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Sir Isaiah argued for acknowledging doubts and uncertainty — and then forging ahead. “Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed,” he wrote. “Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood.”

Second, John Rawls offers a useful way of thinking about today’s issues such as inequality or poverty, of institutionalizing what our society gravely lacks: empathy. He explores basic questions of fairness, leading to a compelling explanation for why we should create safety nets to support the poor and good schools to help their kids achieve a better life.

Rawls suggests imagining that we all gather to agree on a social contract, but from an “original position” so that we don’t know if we will be rich or poor, smart or dumb, diligent or lazy, American or Bangladeshi. If we don’t know whether we’ll be born in a wealthy suburban family or to a single mom in an inner city, we’ll be more inclined to favor measures that protect those at the bottom.

Or, in the context of today’s news, we may be less likely to deport Honduran children back to the desolate conditions from which they have fled.

We still will allow for inequality to create incentives for economic growth, but Rawls suggests that, from an original position, we will choose structures that allow inequality only when the least advantaged members of society also benefit.

Third, Peter Singer of Princeton University has pioneered the public discussion of our moral obligations to animals, including those we raise to eat. Singer wrote a landmark book in 1975, “Animal Liberation,” and cites utilitarian reasoning to argue that it’s wrong to inflict cruelty on cows, hogs or chickens just so that we can enjoy a tasty lunch.

It has long been recognized that we have some ethical obligations that transcend our species; that’s why we’re arrested if we torture kittens or organize dog fights. But Singer focused squarely on industrial agriculture and the thrice-daily question of what we put on our plates, turning that into not just a gastronomical issue but also a moral one.

I’m not a vegetarian, although I’m sometimes tempted, but Singer’s arguments still apply. Do we skip regular eggs or pay more for cage-free? Should I eat goose liver pâté (achieved by torturing geese)? Do we give preference to restaurants that try to source pork or chicken in ways that inflict less pain?

So let me push back at the idea that the humanities are obscure, arcane and irrelevant. These three philosophers influence the way I think about politics, immigration, inequality; they even affect what I eat.

It’s also worth pointing out that these three philosophers are recent ones. To adapt to a changing world, we need new software for our cellphones; we also need new ideas. The same goes for literature, for architecture, languages and theology.

Our world is enriched when coders and marketers dazzle us with smartphones and tablets, but, by themselves, they are just slabs. It is the music, essays, entertainment and provocations that they access, spawned by the humanities, that animate them — and us.

So, yes, the humanities are still relevant in the 21st century — every bit as relevant as an iPhone.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Well, let’s hope that’s over.

President Obama was in Martha’s Vineyard, playing golf. Hillary Clinton arrived, ready to sign books. They were headed for the same birthday party where, a Clinton aide said, they intended to “hug it out.” Peace was declared. Extraordinary! You would think they were both professional politicians.

As the whole world now knows, Clinton gave an interview to The Atlantic last week in which she took issue with President Obama’s “don’t do stupid stuff” foreign policy mantra, pushed a harder line than the White House on Iran, and disagreed with Obama’s refusal to arm the rebels in Syria.

The Clinton camp insists she had no intention of breaking with the president. But if that’s the case, then the former secretary of state had trouble saying precisely what she wanted to say about foreign policy. That just doesn’t sound like Hillary Clinton, who is a great conversationalist off the record, yet has an absolute genius way of saying nothing exciting whatsoever when the tape recorder is running.

Some people think that after years on the diplomacy trail, she may have lost her edge. “I don’t know if her political instincts are in top shape,” said a Friend of Obama. But then, you know, F.O.B.

Given all the options, I’d prefer to think it was a minor betrayal. Loyalty may be an overrated virtue in high-level politics. Really, nobody cares if a president back-bites a former colleague or dumps a best friend. Just keep the country running and we’re good.

Anyway, he forgives her! Hugs scheduled for the birthday party for Vernon Jordan’s wife.

It’s only been six years since Obama and Clinton ran against each other, but, wow, does it feel longer. Watching Obama, I remembered a time during the 2008 campaign when he told a story about a woman who’d “seen some years,” adding: “She’s maybe close to 60.” Some of the middle-aged women in the crowd started to hiss.

Now, the president himself looks as though he’s seen some years. He’s long since gotten his first AARP mailings. And Clinton has been heir apparent — forever. Democrats have gotten so used to thinking of her as the next president that they’ve stopped seriously evaluating her as a candidate for their nomination.

The Atlantic interview sort of bounced everything back into perspective. Liberals with dovish leanings raced to Google to see whether any high-ranking Democrats have been sighted at the Iowa State Fair. What does Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley think about uranium enrichment negotiations with Iran? (We always describe him as “Maryland governor” because nobody outside of his home state knows who Martin O’Malley is.) Has Elizabeth Warren totally ruled out running? (Yes.)

Hillary’s still got the virtues her base has always admired: intelligence, experience, remarkable ability to take a punch and keep on running. Everybody loves the woman who showed up on “The Colbert Report” the other night, having a name-dropping contest with the host. Everybody remembers her determination to lift up women’s rights in Asia and Africa, her unflagging energy as secretary of state (956,733 miles traveled; total travel time, 2,084 hours).

But now that she’s brought up actual issues, the party’s rank-and-file deserves some more information.

Back in the 2008 primaries, Obama was arguing that with the right leadership in the White House, America could get rid of the old brain-dead partisanship of the past and reach a new era of bipartisan cooperation. Hillary, working off long experience, said the real world was tougher and more complicated than that. After the election, as Washington ground to a hopeless, vicious, zombified halt, she was proved right.

In foreign affairs, too, Clinton reflected what she’d learned when her husband was president. Airstrikes worked in Kosovo. Bill Clinton brought Israel and the Palestinians right to the edge of a peace deal, but the Palestinians backed away. The president failed to intervene in Rwanda, and regretted it forever. The bad guys only understood a firm hand. During the debates, she refused to say that during her first year in office she’d be open to meeting with leaders of countries like Cuba or North Korea. If the Iranians declared nuclear war on Israel, she told an interviewer, as president she would “totally obliterate” them.

This is the Hillary who popped back up this week. She was probably being neither politically calculating nor blundering in the Atlantic interview, but simply being unusually clear about what she believes. And we need to hear more, not less. Does she really think the Syrian disaster could have been averted if the United States had helped the rebels? In The Atlantic, she was a little oblique on that point. Maybe a debate with Joe Biden. …

“I’m excited about signing my books,” Clinton said Wednesday night, when a reporter asked how she feels about Obama’s Iraq policy. It’s August, everybody’s friends, and we may not hear another serious conversation on these matters until 2015.

If Hillary Clinton is the best that the Democratic party can do we’re doomed.


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