Archive for the ‘Brooks’ Category

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

July 11, 2014

Bobo has a question in “Baseball or Soccer?”  He asks if your life more like a baseball game or a soccer match, and says you might be surprised.  “Jack Chicago” from Chicago wasn’t surprised.  In his comment he said “I find myself ill-prepared for another trite ‘life as a sport analogy’. The entire column is simplistic and lacking in any depth.”  In “Fat Britain” Mr. Cohen says once we’ve found our lunch our instinct is to avoid becoming someone else’s.  Prof. Krugman asks “Who Wants a Depression?”  He considers “sadomonetarism,” the interests of the 0.01 percent and the politicization of economics.  Here’s Bobo:

Is life more like baseball, or is it more like soccer?

Baseball is a team sport, but it is basically an accumulation of individual activities. Throwing a strike, hitting a line drive or fielding a grounder is primarily an individual achievement. The team that performs the most individual tasks well will probably win the game.

Soccer is not like that. In soccer, almost no task, except the penalty kick and a few others, is intrinsically individual. Soccer, as Simon Critchley pointed out recently in The New York Review of Books, is a game about occupying and controlling space. If you get the ball and your teammates have run the right formations, and structured the space around you, you’ll have three or four options on where to distribute it. If the defenders have structured their formations to control the space, then you will have no options. Even the act of touching the ball is not primarily defined by the man who is touching it; it is defined by the context created by all the other players.

As Critchley writes, “Soccer is a collective game, a team game, and everyone has to play the part which has been assigned to them, which means they have to understand it spatially, positionally and intelligently and make it effective.” Brazil wasn’t clobbered by Germany this week because the quality of the individual players was so much worse. They got slaughtered because they did a pathetic job of controlling space. A German player would touch the ball, even close to the Brazilian goal, and he had ample room to make the kill.

Most of us spend our days thinking we are playing baseball, but we are really playing soccer. We think we individually choose what career path to take, whom to socialize with, what views to hold. But, in fact, those decisions are shaped by the networks of people around us more than we dare recognize.

This influence happens through at least three avenues. First there is contagion. People absorb memes, ideas and behaviors from each other the way they catch a cold. As Nicholas Christakis and others have shown, if your friends are obese, you’re likely to be obese. If your neighbors play fair, you are likely to play fair. We all live within distinct moral ecologies. The overall environment influences what we think of as normal behavior without being much aware of it.

Then there is the structure of your network. There is by now a vast body of research on how differently people behave depending on the structure of the social networks. People with vast numbers of acquaintances have more job opportunities than people with fewer but deeper friendships. Most organizations have structural holes, gaps between two departments or disciplines. If you happen to be in an undeveloped structural hole where you can link two departments, your career is likely to take off.

Innovation is hugely shaped by the structure of an industry at any moment. Individuals in Silicon Valley are creative now because of the fluid structure of failure and recovery. Broadway was incredibly creative in the 1940s and 1950s because it was a fluid industry in which casual acquaintances ended up collaborating.

Since then, studies show, theater social networks have rigidified, and, even if you collaborate with an ideal partner, you are not as likely to be as creative as you would have been when the global environment was more fertile.

Finally, there is the power of the extended mind. There is also a developed body of research on how much our very consciousness is shaped by the people around us. Let me simplify it with a classic observation: Each close friend you have brings out a version of yourself that you could not bring out on your own. When your close friend dies, you are not only losing the friend, you are losing the version of your personality that he or she elicited.

Once we acknowledge that, in life, we are playing soccer, not baseball, a few things become clear. First, awareness of the landscape of reality is the highest form of wisdom. It’s not raw computational power that matters most; it’s having a sensitive attunement to the widest environment, feeling where the flow of events is going. Genius is in practice perceiving more than the conscious reasoning.

Second, predictive models will be less useful. Baseball is wonderful for sabermetricians. In each at bat there is a limited range of possible outcomes. Activities like soccer are not as easily renderable statistically, because the relevant spatial structures are harder to quantify. Even the estimable statistician Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gave Brazil a 65 percent chance of beating Germany.

Finally, Critchley notes that soccer is like a 90-minute anxiety dream — one of those frustrating dreams when you’re trying to get somewhere but something is always in the way. This is yet another way soccer is like life.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

Britain is fat, unacceptably fat — fatter than ever before. There is no escaping this development. Turn on the radio and chances are some new report on obesity will be the subject of debate, with handwringing over the “Americanization” of Britain, and hectoring BBC-style questioning as to what can be done.

A recent report in the Lancet medical journal found that 67 percent of men and 57 percent of women in the United Kingdom are either overweight or obese. This put Britain at the top of the supersized league table among big European countries (the likes of Malta and Iceland outdid it). More than a quarter of children are overweight or obese.

The causes are scarcely different from elsewhere in a fattening world: cheap availability of calorie-dense food (burgers, fries, chips, sodas); “food deserts” in poor areas where healthy fare is hard to find and expensive; sedentary lives spent seated in front of the computer or sprawled on the couch with “Game of Thrones” blaring; too much sugar, fat and fructose; broken or weakened families where children forage in the fridge for prepared meals and snack all day rather than gathering for a family meal; speeded-up societies that breed bored, stressed, impulsive and compulsive behavior, including binge eating and constant eating.

As Tony Goldstone, a consultant endocrinologist at London’s Hammersmith Hospital put it to me: “In the developed world we don’t eat because we are hungry.” We eat because everywhere we look there’s a superabundance of food and we’re hardwired through evolution to keep our body weight up.

The effects, as elsewhere, include a sharp increase in diabetes. Since 1996 the number of people diagnosed with diabetes in Britain has more than doubled to about three million. It is estimated that by 2025 there will be some five million diabetics. Direct and indirect health costs related to spreading obesity range into the billions of dollars.

The new social divide sees the skinny affluent at their Knightsbridge gym raving about their personal trainer and favorite farmers’ market, and the pot-bellied poor guzzling kebabs and fries. The counterintuitive association of poverty and obesity is an indicator of how much the world has changed. Survival is still an instinct but it is no longer an issue. More people today are overweight than malnourished.

Goldstone said he comes away from obesity conferences feeling gloomy. Telling fat people to get thin through dieting is, he suggests, like “telling an asthmatic to breathe more.” Cognitive control cedes to the force of instinct. “Who says that the will can overcome biology when biology trained us to get food when scarce?” Goldstone said. “We evolved to prefer foods high in fat and sugar because they contain the calories we need to reproduce.”

Our urges are out of sync with our environment. The environment has changed. Urges have not. Our instinct is to eat and rest. We have no instinct to stop eating and be active. We eat to survive and then want to rest because we may need energy to flee some wild beast. Once we’ve found our lunch, our instinct is to avoid being someone else’s.

It may not seem like lying on a couch is part of our survival gene but it is. David Haslam, the chairman of Britain’s National Obesity Forum, told me: “It is in our interest to eat and be lazy. Put people in an environment like the current one that promotes eating and laziness and they will oblige.” It’s their genetic inclination.

So I’m gloomy too. I eat more in the hours before I have to write a column. My instinct is then to rest. I cannot because I have to write. My impulse is then to eat again as a way, for a moment, not to write. This only augments the desire to rest. If deadlines did not exist I’d be enormous. Everyone these days plays such mental games, their instincts and environment at war with each other.

This does not mean there is nothing to be done about fat Britain or fat America. Exercise can be encouraged in big and small ways (promoting use of bikes, making sure hotels no longer hide the stairs). Make restaurant chains post calorie information. Improve labeling (Goldstone, a diabetic, told me he often can’t work out from current labels how many carbohydrates a product contains). Oblige supermarkets to move sweets from the checkouts, as Tesco has agreed to do. Get healthy food into schools and poor areas. Haslam told me about an experiment at a Morrisons supermarket where cardboard avatars of a diabetes consultant, a midwife or a doctor pointed to healthy foods. The results were positive. And, for those who can afford it, there’s bariatric surgery.

Nonetheless, the world will get fatter for the foreseeable future because humans in their ingenuity have created a near-perfect environment for the propagation of fatness.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

One unhappy lesson we’ve learned in recent years is that economics is a far more political subject than we liked to imagine. Well, duh, you may say. But, before the financial crisis, many economists — even, to some extent, yours truly — believed that there was a fairly broad professional consensus on some important issues.

This was especially true of monetary policy. It’s not that many years since the administration of George W. Bush declared that one lesson from the 2001 recession and the recovery that followed was that “aggressive monetary policy can make a recession shorter and milder.” Surely, then, we’d have a bipartisan consensus in favor of even more aggressive monetary policy to fight the far worse slump of 2007 to 2009. Right?

Well, no. I’ve written a number of times about the phenomenon of “sadomonetarism,” the constant demand that the Federal Reserve and other central banks stop trying to boost employment and raise interest rates instead, regardless of circumstances. I’ve suggested that the persistence of this phenomenon has a lot to do with ideology, which, in turn, has a lot to do with class interests. And I still think that’s true.

But I now think that class interests also operate through a cruder, more direct channel. Quite simply, easy-money policies, while they may help the economy as a whole, are directly detrimental to people who get a lot of their income from bonds and other interest-paying assets — and this mainly means the very wealthy, in particular the top 0.01 percent.

The story so far: For more than five years, the Fed has faced harsh criticism from a coalition of economists, pundits, politicians and financial-industry moguls warning that it is “debasing the dollar” and setting the stage for runaway inflation. You might have thought that the continuing failure of the predicted inflation to materialize would cause at least a few second thoughts, but you’d be wrong. Some of the critics have come up with new rationales for unchanging policy demands — it’s about inflation! no, it’s about financial stability! — but most have simply continued to repeat the same warnings.

Who are these always-wrong, never-in-doubt critics? With no exceptions I can think of, they come from the right side of the political spectrum. But why should right-wing sentiments go hand in hand with inflation paranoia? One answer is that using monetary policy to fight slumps is a form of government activism. And conservatives don’t want to legitimize the notion that government action can ever have positive effects, because once you start down that path you might end up endorsing things like government-guaranteed health insurance.

But there’s also a much more direct reason for those defending the interests of the wealthy to complain about easy money: The wealthy derive an important part of their income from interest on bonds, and low-rate policies have greatly reduced this income.

Complaints about low interest rates are usually framed in terms of the harm being done to retired Americans living on the interest from their CDs. But the interest receipts of older Americans go mainly to a small and relatively affluent minority. In 2012, the average older American with interest income received more than $3,000, but half the group received $255 or less. The really big losers from low interest rates are the truly wealthy — not even the 1 percent, but the 0.1 percent or even the 0.01 percent. Back in 2007, before the slump, the average member of the 0.01 percent received $3 million (in 2012 dollars) in interest. By 2011, that had fallen to $1.3 million — a loss equivalent to almost 9 percent of the group’s 2007 income.

That’s a lot, and it surely explains a lot of the hysteria over Fed policy. The rich are even more likely than most people to believe that what’s good for them is good for America — and their wealth and the influence it buys ensure that there are always plenty of supposed experts eager to find justifications for this attitude. Hence sadomonetarism.

Which brings me back to the politicization of economics.

Before the financial crisis, many central bankers and economists were, it’s now clear, living in a fantasy world, imagining themselves to be technocrats insulated from the political fray. After all, their job was to steer the economy between the shoals of inflation and depression, and who could object to that?

It turns out, however, that using monetary policy to fight depression, while in the interest of the vast majority of Americans, isn’t in the interest of a small, wealthy minority. And, as a result, monetary policy is as bound up in class and ideological conflict as tax policy.

The truth is that in a society as unequal and polarized as ours has become, almost everything is political. Get used to it.

Brooks and Nocera

July 8, 2014

Mr. Bruni is off today.  Bobo thinks he can tell us all about “The Creative Climate.”  He gurgles that creative tension between people and within individuals is fundamental to social evolution.  He uses Lennon and McCartney as examples.  “Gemli” from Boston begins a lengthy comment with this:  “The whirring sound you hear is John Lennon spinning in his grave, disturbed from his rest by being used as a prop to promote conservative political ideology. He doesn’t look happy.”  Mr. Nocera takes a look at “The Messy World of Smart Guns” and says advancements in technology and legislation run up against the N.R.A.   In the comments “Craig Geary” of Redlands, FL had this to say:  “The NRA stance against smart gun technology is about as honest as the claimed patriotism of NRA Grand Panjandrum Wayne La Pierre.  Old Blood, Guts and Dead School Children holds himself out as a red blooded American.  Always failing to mention he got himself exempted from the Viet Nam draft for an alleged ‘anxiety disorder’.  As in, little Wayne was a tad anxious about the possibility of getting shot.”  Here’s Bobo:

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk has a fascinating description of how Paul McCartney and John Lennon created music together. McCartney was meticulous while Lennon was chaotic. McCartney emerged out of a sunny pop tradition. Lennon emerged out of an angst-ridden rebel tradition.

Lennon wrote the song “Help” while in the throes of depression. The song originally had a slow, moaning sound. McCartney suggested a lighthearted counter melody that, as Shenk writes, fundamentally changed and improved the nature of the piece.

Lennon and McCartney came from different traditions, but they had similar tastes. They brought different tendencies to the creative process but usually agreed when the mixture was right. This created the special tension in their relationship. They had a tendency to rip at each other, but each knew ultimately that he needed the other. Even just before his death, Lennon was apparently thinking of teaming up with McCartney once again.

Shenk uses the story to illustrate the myth of the lone genius, to show that many acts of genius are the products of teams or pairs, engaged in collaboration and “co-opetition.” And we have all known fertile opposites who completed each other — when they weren’t trying to destroy each other.

But the Lennon-McCartney story also illustrates the key feature of creativity; it is the joining of the unlike to create harmony. Creativity rarely flows out of an act of complete originality. It is rarely a virgin birth. It is usually the clash of two value systems or traditions, which, in collision, create a transcendent third thing.

Shakespeare combined the Greek honor code (thou shalt avenge the murder of thy father) with the Christian mercy code (thou shalt not kill) to create the torn figure of Hamlet. Picasso combined the traditions of European art with the traditions of African masks. Saul Bellow combined the strictness of the Jewish conscience with the free-floating go-getter-ness of the American drive for success.

Sometimes creativity happens in pairs, duos like Lennon and McCartney who bring clashing worldviews but similar tastes. But sometimes it happens in one person, in someone who contains contradictions and who works furiously to resolve the tensions within.

When you see creative people like that, you see that they don’t flee from the contradictions; they embrace dialectics and dualism. They cultivate what Roger Martin called the opposable mind — the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time.

If they are religious, they seek to live among the secular. If they are intellectual, they go off into the hurly-burly of business and politics. Creative people often want to be strangers in a strange land. They want to live in dissimilar environments to maximize the creative tensions between different parts of themselves.

Today we live in a distinct sort of creative environment. People don’t so much live in the contradiction between competing worldviews. We live in a period of disillusion and distrust of institutions.

This has created two reactions. Some monads withdraw back into the purity of their own subcultures. But others push themselves into the rotting institutions they want to reinvent. If you are looking for people who are going to be creative in the current climate, I’d look for people who are disillusioned with politics even as they go into it; who are disenchanted with contemporary worship, even as they join the church; who are disgusted by finance even as they work in finance. These people believe in the goals of their systems but detest how they function. They contain the anxious contradictions between disillusionment and hope.

This creative process is furthest along, I’d say, in the world of B corporations. There are many people today who are disillusioned both with the world of traditional charity and traditional capitalism. Many charities have been warmheartedly but wastefully throwing money at problems, without good management or market discipline. Capitalists have been obsessed with the short-term maximization of shareholder return without much concern for long-term prosperity or other stakeholders.

B corporations are a way to transcend the contradictions between the ineffective parts of the social sector and myopic capitalism. Kyle Westaway, a lawyer in this field and the author of the forthcoming “Profit & Purpose,” notes that benefit corporation legal structures have been established in 22 states over the last four years. The 300 or so companies that have registered in this way, like Patagonia or Method, can’t be sued if they fail to maximize profits in order to focus on other concerns. They are seeking to reinvent both capitalism and do-gooder-ism, and living in the contradiction between these traditions.

This suggests a final truth about creativity: that, in every dialectic, there is a search for creative synthesis. Or, as Albert Einstein put it, “You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.”

I wonder if Bobo is ever going to address politics again, or if he’s too ashamed to admit he’s a member of the party of the Mole People…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

The Andy Raymond rant is a thing to behold.

Raymond, the co-owner of Engage Armament in Montgomery County, Md., is one of the two gun dealers who, a few months ago, tried to sell the Armatix iP1 — a.k.a., the first commercially available “smart gun” — to his customers. He thought that not only did he have every right to sell a smart gun, but that he was doing the gun world a favor by offering a gun that had the potential to expand the universe of gun owners. Instead, both Engage Armament and Oak Tree, a California-based gun dealer, backed away after receiving a torrent of hate mail and death threats from gun-rights absolutists.

In the rant, which he posted on his Facebook page, Raymond is sitting in front of an array of semiautomatic weapons. He has a bottle of what appears to be whiskey next to him. He acknowledges that he’s been drinking. From time to time, he takes a puff on a cigarette. (I don’t have a Facebook page, so I relied on excerpts from the rant that were shown on Chris Hayes’s MSNBC show, “All In.”)

“How can the N.R.A. want to prohibit a gun when we’re supposed to be pro-gun?” he says. “How hypocritical is that?” Then, after an angry, expletive-filled shout-out to those who sent him death threats, he changes direction. He denies ever selling an Armatix pistol. And then he says, “I thought my principles were correct, but maybe I was wrong.” And he apologizes. And with one last gulp of whiskey, he is done.

Which is to say, he epitomizes the state of smart guns right now. The whole thing is a bit of a mess.

I last looked into smart gun technology about a year and a half ago, and what I saw then was a lot of ferment — and genuine excitement about the potential of smart-gun technologies. I found people who had been working on smart guns for years, like Don Sebastian of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and newcomers to the field like Ron Conway, the Silicon Valley investor who was galvanized by the massacre in Newtown, Conn., and began backing a smart-gun effort. It was also the first time I heard about a New Jersey law that said that if smart guns became commercially available anywhere in the country, New Jersey gun dealers would be required, within three years, to sell only guns that had smart-gun technology.

The idea, said Loretta Weinberg, the New Jersey Senate majority leader who sponsored the legislation 12 years ago, was partly to spur gun innovation. Instead, it held back innovation, as traditional gun manufacturers saw no incentive in investing in smart-gun technology. It was also vehemently opposed by the National Rifle Association, which viewed it, not incorrectly, as a gun control effort. Gun advocates mocked smart-gun technologies, claiming the “bad guys” with normal guns would have the advantage over the “good guys” with smart guns.

The New Jersey law was at the heart of the objections to Oak Tree and Engage Armament selling the Armatix smart gun. The fear of gun advocates is that if someone did start selling a commercialized smart gun, the three-year clock would start ticking in New Jersey.

When I spoke to smart-gun advocates this time around, I found a great deal of mixed emotions about the New Jersey law. Jonathan Mossberg, who runs something called the iGun Technology Corporation — and is an avowed gun advocate — told me that the New Jersey mandate “needs to be repealed.”

Stephen Teret, the co-director of the Center for Law and the Public’s Health at Johns Hopkins University — and an expert on smart-gun technology — said that he thought the law would soon be irrelevant. “There will be a personalized gun sold very soon,” he told me. “It will be the Armatix gun that people are talking about.” He wouldn’t tell me who the seller would be, however.

Senator Weinberg acknowledged that her bill may have become an impediment rather than a spur to gun safety.

There is still a lot going on in smart-gun technology. Sebastian continues to plug away at a technology that would recognize an owner’s grip, and only allow that person to use the gun. Ron Conway’s group, the Smart Tech Foundation, just awarded a total of $1 million to 15 grantees that are working on promising smart-gun technologies.

As for Weinberg, she told me that she had approached the N.R.A. as recently as two weeks ago and said she would try to get her law repealed if the N.R.A. would promise not to block smart-gun technology from reaching the marketplace. “I said we might have some common ground here.” The N.R.A. did not reply.

What a surprise.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

July 4, 2014

Bobo’s given us “Social Science Palooza IV” in which he says most social science confirms the blindingly obvious. He offers eight examples where it doesn’t.  Apparently he’s found a site that serves up social science factoids every day…  Mr. Cohen considers a “Lawless Holy Land” and says absent a two-state peace agreement, revenge killings will win out over law. This is the future for Israel and Palestine.  Prof. Krugman, in “Build We Won’t,” explains why America gave up on the future and caved on investing in building and maintaining our highways.  Here’s Bobo:

A day without social science is like a day without sunshine. Fortunately, every morning Kevin Lewis of National Affairs magazine gathers recent social science findings and emails them out to the masses. You can go to the National Affairs website to see and sign up for his work, but, in the meantime, here are some recent interesting findings:

Working moms sometimes raise smarter students. Caitlin McPherran Lombardi and Rebekah Levine Coley studied the children of mothers who work and those of mothers who don’t. They found the children of working mothers were just as ready for school as other children. Furthermore, among families where the father’s income was lower, the children of working mothers demonstrated higher cognitive skills and fewer conduct problems than the children of nonworking mothers. As with all this work, no one study is dispositive, but here is some more support for the idea that mothers who work are not hurting their kids.

The office is often a more relaxing place than the home. Sarah Damaske, Joshua Smyth and Matthew Zawadzki found that people are more likely to have lower values of the stress hormone cortisol when they are at work than when at home. Maybe that’s because parenting small kids is so demanding. But, on the contrary: Having children around was correlated with less relative stress at home.

Hearts and minds may be a myth. Armies fighting counterinsurgency campaigns spend a lot of effort trying to win over the hearts and minds of the local populations. But Raphael Cohen looked at polling data from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and found that public opinion is a poor predictor of strategic victory. Public opinion is not that malleable, and its swings are more an effect than a cause. That is, counterinsurgency armies get more popular as they win victories; they don’t get popular and then use that popularity to win.

Attractive children attract less empathy than unattractive children. Robert Fisher and Yu Ma studied how much help children received from unrelated adults when they were experiencing difficulties. People perceive that attractive children are more socially competent and, therefore, are less likely to help them, as long as the need is not severe. So, if you are creating an ad to get people to donate to your hospital or charity, you might avoid child models who are winners in the looks department.

Too much talent can be as bad as too little talent. Most people assume there is a linear relationship between talent and team performance. But Roderick Swaab and others studied team performance in basketball and found that more talent is better up to a point — after which more talent just means worse teamwork and ultimately worse performance. In baseball, more talent did lead to better team performance straight up the line, but in activities like basketball, which require more intra-team coordination, too much talent can tear apart teamwork.

Title IX has produced some unintended consequences. Phoebe Clarke and Ian Ayres studied the effect of sports on social outcomes. They found that a 10 percentage point increase in state level female sports participation generated a 5 or 6 percentage point rise in the rate of female secularism, a 5 point rise in the proportion of women who are mothers and a 6 point rise in the percentage who are single mothers. It could be that sports participation is correlated with greater independence from traditional institutions, with good and bad effects.

Moral stories don’t necessarily make more moral children. Kang Lee, Victoria Talwar and others studied the effectiveness of classic moral stories in promoting honesty among 3- to 7-year-olds. They found stories like “Pinocchio” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” failed to reduce lying in children. However, the story of “George Washington and the Cherry Tree” significantly increased truth-telling. Stories that emphasized the bad effects of lying had no effect, but stories that emphasized the good effects of telling the truth did have an effect.

Good fences make good neighbors. When ethnic groups clash, we usually try to encourage peace by integrating them. Let them get to know one another or perform a joint activity. This may be the wrong approach. Alex Rutherford, Dion Harmon and others studied ethnically diverse areas and came to a different conclusion. Peace is not the result of integrated coexistence. It is the result of well-defined geographic and political boundaries. For example, Switzerland is an ethnically diverse place, but mountains and lakes clearly define each group’s spot. Even in the former Yugoslavia, amid widespread ethnic violence, peace prevailed where there were clear boundaries.

Most social science research confirms the blindingly obvious. But sometimes it reveals things nobody had thought of, or suggests that the things we thought were true are actually false.

That’s a message for you, federal appropriators.

I guess we’ve all noticed that as the Republicans get crazier and crazier and crazier Bobo writes less and less and less about politics…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

“Israel is a state of law and everyone is obligated to act in accordance with the law,” the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said after the abduction and murder of a Palestinian teenager shot in an apparent revenge attack for the killing last month of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank.

He called the killing of Muhammad Abu Khdeir in East Jerusalem “abominable.” President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has denounced the murder of the three Israelis, one of them also an American citizen, in the strongest terms.

What to make of this latest flare-up in the blood feud of Arab and Jew in the Holy Land, beyond revulsion at the senseless loss of four teenagers’ lives? What to make of the hand-wringing of the very leaders who have just chosen to toss nine months of American attempts at diplomatic mediation into the garbage and now reap the fruits of their fecklessness?

Sometimes words, any words, appear unseemly because the perpetuators of the conflict relish the attention they receive — all the verbal contortions of would-be peacemakers who insist, in their quaint doggedness, that reason can win out over revenge and biblical revelation.

Still, it must be said that Israel, a state of laws within the pre-1967 lines, is not a state of law beyond them in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli dominion over millions of Palestinians, now almost a half-century old, involves routine coercion, humiliation and abuse to which most Israelis have grown increasingly oblivious.

What goes on beyond a long-forgotten Green Line tends only to impinge on Israeli consciousness when violence flares. Otherwise it is over the wall or barrier (choose the word that suits your politics) in places best not dwelled upon.

But those places come back to haunt Israelis, as the vile killings of Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar demonstrate. Netanyahu, without producing evidence, has blamed Hamas for the murders. The sweeping Israeli response in the West Bank has already seen at least six Palestinians killed, about 400 Palestinians arrested, and much of the territory placed in lockdown. Reprisals have extended to Gaza. Palestinian militants there have fired rockets and mortar rounds into southern Israel in response.

This is not what happens in a state of laws. Beyond the Green Line lies a lawless Israeli enterprise profoundly corrosive, over time, to the noble Zionist dream of a democracy governed by laws.

All four killings took place in territory occupied or annexed by Israel since 1967. Here the law has taken second place to the Messianic claims of religious nationalists who believe Jews have a God-given right to all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Their view has held sway, even if it is not the view of a majority of Israelis.

No democracy can be immune to running an undemocratic system of oppression in territory under its control. To have citizens on one side of an invisible line and subjects without rights on the other side of that line does not work. A democracy needs borders; Israel’s slither into military rule for Palestinians in occupied areas where there is no consent of the governed.

As for the Palestinian Authority, so-called, it is weak, and the Palestinian national movement still riven with division beneath a “unity government” that cannot even pay salaries in Gaza.

This situation may be sustainable because power lies overwhelmingly with Israel. But it is sustainable only at the cost of the violence now flaring. This is the future. Absent a two-state peace agreement, revenge will win out over law. Violence is not an aberration. It is the logical consequence of an aberrational order susceptible to lynch mobs, whether Arabs or Jews.

Most Israelis and Palestinians want peace. They do not want their children dying this way. But their leaders are small figures seeking only short-term tactical gain.

A French friend forwarded to me the recent newsletter of a French violinist, Mathilde Vittu, who has been teaching music in the West Bank. She writes of watching Palestinian children emerging from her lessons, violins on their backs, being surrounded by Israeli soldiers trying to provoke them. She goes to Gaza and observes the “double imprisonment” constituted by Israel and “the rules of Hamas.”

In a makeshift conservatory, partially destroyed, hit by power cuts in the midst of Bach piano solos, she speaks of her “indescribable emotion” at a magical final concert where she is thanked “for liberating us for an evening through music.”

One very talented violinist, aged 14, tells her he plans to stop playing after his exam to become a “martyr” after the death of his best friend in the West Bank. She is deeply troubled; then locals tell her lots of kids in Gaza have that ambition at 14, only to think better of it.

Yifrach, Khdeir, Fraenkel, Shaar: Will their deaths serve any purpose? I doubt it.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

You often find people talking about our economic difficulties as if they were complicated and mysterious, with no obvious solution. As the economist Dean Baker recently pointed out, nothing could be further from the truth. The basic story of what went wrong is, in fact, almost absurdly simple: We had an immense housing bubble, and, when the bubble burst, it left a huge hole in spending. Everything else is footnotes.

And the appropriate policy response was simple, too: Fill that hole in demand. In particular, the aftermath of the bursting bubble was (and still is) a very good time to invest in infrastructure. In prosperous times, public spending on roads, bridges and so on competes with the private sector for resources. Since 2008, however, our economy has been awash in unemployed workers (especially construction workers) and capital with no place to go (which is why government borrowing costs are at historic lows). Putting those idle resources to work building useful stuff should have been a no-brainer.

But what actually happened was exactly the opposite: an unprecedented plunge in infrastructure spending. Adjusted for inflation and population growth, public expenditures on construction have fallen more than 20 percent since early 2008. In policy terms, this represents an almost surreally awful wrong turn; we’ve managed to weaken the economy in the short run even as we undermine its prospects for the long run. Well played!

And it’s about to get even worse. The federal highway trust fund, which pays for a large part of American road construction and maintenance, is almost exhausted. Unless Congress agrees to top up the fund somehow, road work all across the country will have to be scaled back just a few weeks from now. If this were to happen, it would quickly cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs, which might derail the employment recovery that finally seems to be gaining steam. And it would also reduce long-run economic potential.

How did things go so wrong? As with so many of our problems, the answer is the combined effect of rigid ideology and scorched-earth political tactics. The highway fund crisis is just one example of a much broader problem.

So, about the highway fund: Road spending is traditionally paid for via dedicated taxes on fuel. The federal trust fund, in particular, gets its money from the federal gasoline tax. In recent years, however, revenue from the gas tax has consistently fallen short of needs. That’s mainly because the tax rate, at 18.4 cents per gallon, hasn’t changed since 1993, even as the overall level of prices has risen more than 60 percent.

It’s hard to think of any good reason why taxes on gasoline should be so low, and it’s easy to think of reasons, ranging from climate concerns to reducing dependence on the Middle East, why gas should cost more. So there’s a very strong case for raising the gas tax, even aside from the need to pay for road work. But even if we aren’t ready to do that right now — if, say, we want to avoid raising taxes until the economy is stronger — we don’t have to stop building and repairing roads. Congress can and has topped up the highway trust fund from general revenue. In fact, it has thrown $54 billion into the hat since 2008. Why not do it again?

But no. We can’t simply write a check to the highway fund, we’re told, because that would increase the deficit. And deficits are evil, at least when there’s a Democrat in the White House, even if the government can borrow at incredibly low interest rates. And we can’t raise gas taxes because that would be a tax increase, and tax increases are even more evil than deficits. So our roads must be allowed to fall into disrepair.

If this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. But similar logic lies behind the overall plunge in public investment. Most such investment is carried out by state and local governments, which generally must run balanced budgets and saw revenue decline after the housing bust. But the federal government could have supported public investment through deficit-financed grants, and states themselves could have raised more revenue (which some but not all did). The collapse of public investment was, therefore, a political choice.

What’s useful about the looming highway crisis is that it illustrates just how self-destructive that political choice has become. It’s one thing to block green investment, or high-speed rail, or even school construction. I’m for such things, but many on the right aren’t. But everyone from progressive think tanks to the United States Chamber of Commerce thinks we need good roads. Yet the combination of anti-tax ideology and deficit hysteria (itself mostly whipped up in an attempt to bully President Obama into spending cuts) means that we’re letting our highways, and our future, erode away.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

July 1, 2014

Bobo has decided to tell us all about “The Evolution of Trust.”  He gurgles that the evolution to more frugal, deinstitutionalized living that has created the sharing economy may also lead to less involvement of government in everyday life.  Following his POS I’ll quote “Matthew Carnicelli” from Brooklyn’s entire comment, which begins with “David, you can’t be serious.”  Mr. Cohen, in “The Socialist World Cup,” says in Brazil, the culture of the group vanquishes the money culture of the superstar.  In “From 9/11 to BP to G.M.” Mr. Nocera says Kenneth Feinberg is proving that you can compensate victims without litigation.  Mr. Bruni has a question in “A Grope and a Shrug:”  With American Apparel’s sexually audacious founder and other prominent men, do we excuse the inexcusable?  Here’s Bobo:

I’m one of those people who thought Airbnb would never work. I thought people would never rent out space in their homes to near strangers. But I was clearly wrong. Eleven million travelers have stayed in Airbnb destinations, according to data shared by the company. Roughly 550,000 homes are now being shared by hosts. Airbnb is more popular in Europe than it is even in the United States. Paris is the largest destination city.

And Airbnb is only a piece of the peer-to-peer economy. People are renting out their cars to people they don’t know, dropping off their pets with people they don’t know, renting power tools to people they don’t know.

In retrospect, I underestimated the power of a few trends that make the peer-to-peer economy possible. First, I underestimated the effects of middle-class stagnation. With wages flat and families squeezed, many people have to return to the boardinghouse model of yesteryear. They have to rent out rooms to cover their mortgage or rent.

Second, I underestimated the power that liberal arts majors would have on the economy. Millions of people have finished college with a hunger for travel and local contact, but without much money. They would rather stay in spare rooms in residential neighborhoods than in homogenized hotels in commercial areas, especially if they get to have breakfast with the hosts in the morning.

And the big thing I underestimated was the transformation of social trust. In primitive economies, people traded mostly with members of their village and community. Trust was face to face. Then, in the mass economy we’ve been used to, people bought from large and stable corporate brands, whose behavior was made more reliable by government regulation.

But now there is a new trust calculus, powered by both social and economic forces. Socially, we have large numbers of people living loose unstructured lives, mostly in the 10 years after leaving college and in the 10 years after retirement.

These people often live alone or with short-time roommates, outside big institutional structures, like universities, corporations or the settled living of family life. They become very fast and fluid in how they make social connections. They become accustomed to instant intimacy, or at least fast pseudo-intimacy. People are both hungrier for human contact and more tolerant of easy-come-easy-go fluid relationships.

Economically, there are many more people working as freelancers. These people are more individualistic in how they earn money. They often don’t go to an office. They have traded dependence on big organizational systems for dependence on people they can talk to and negotiate arrangements with directly. They become accustomed to flexible ad-hoc arrangements.

The result is a personalistic culture in which people have actively lost trust in big institutions. Strangers don’t seem especially risky by comparison. This is fertile ground for peer-to-peer commerce.

Companies like Airbnb establish trust through ratings mechanisms. Their clients are already adept at evaluating each other on the basis of each other’s Facebook pages. People in the Airbnb economy don’t have the option of trusting each other on the basis of institutional affiliations, so they do it on the basis of online signaling and peer evaluations. Online ratings follow you everywhere, so people have an incentive to act in ways that will buff their online reputation.

As companies like Airbnb, Lyft and Sidecar get more mature, they also spend more money policing their own marketplace. They hire teams to hunt out fraud. They screen suppliers. They look for bad apples who might ruin the experience.

The one thing the peer-to-peer economy has not relied on much so far is government regulation. The people who use these companies may be mostly political progressives, but they are operating in a lightly regulated economic space. They vote left, but click right.

As this sector matures, government is getting more involved. City officials have clashed with Airbnb and Uber on a range of issues. But most city governments don’t seem inclined to demand tight regulations and oversight. Centralized agencies don’t know what to make of decentralized trust networks. Moreover, in most cities people seem to understand this is a less formal economy and caveat emptor rules to a greater degree.

Meanwhile, companies like Airbnb and even Uber seem inclined to compromise and play nice with city governments. They’re trying to establish reputations as good citizens, to play nice with bureaucrats and co-op boards; they can’t do that with in-your-face, disruptive tactics.

We’re probably entering a world in which some sectors, like energy, retain top-down regulatory regimes. Other sectors, like bake sales, are unregulated. But more sectors, like peer-to-peer, exist in a gray zone in between.

As mechanisms to establish private trust become more efficient, government plays a smaller role.

And now here’s the comment from “Matthew Carnicelli” from Brooklyn, which deserves to be read in its entirety:  “David, you can’t be serious.  Why do you suppose it is that this peer-to-peer networking phenomenon has grown – and that more Americans are today working as freelancers? Are you seriously alleging that it is voluntary? Isn’t it more likely that most Americans (and Europeans, for that matter), in the aftermath of the World Financial Crisis and the meager recovery that the austerity hawks refused to fund, are so financially strapped that they have had to make other arrangements, do whatever it took to keep a roof over their heads?  David, speaking of ratings mechanisms, if the Times allowed your readership to rate your columns, do you imagine you would get more 1-star or 5-star ratings? My money would be on a predominance of 1-star ratings. You’d be like the restaurant on Yelp that no consumer would ever willingly visit.”  Ain’t that the truth…  Now here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Paris:

Money talks in global soccer, as it does everywhere else, perhaps more so. The sport is big business. The likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar are international brands, as recognizable as any Hollywood star. Compare a club’s wage bill to its success rate: the correlation is overwhelming. When billionaires acquire clubs like Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City or Chelsea, their fortunes change. When a very rich country like Qatar wants to host the World Cup, it gets its way even if entirely unsuited to the undertaking.

All this often undermines the beauty of the game. Sulky and overpaid stars, dubious deals and rapacious players’ agents are now part of the scenery. Football has been no exception to the inexorable process that sees the authentic and the genuine undermined by big money and manufactured images.

Until along came Diego Simeone and his “socialist football.” Think of him as the Thomas Piketty of the soccer world. It is impossible to understand what has been happening at the remarkable World Cup in Brazil without considering his impact.

Simeone, an Argentine, is the manager of the Spanish club Atlético Madrid that, against all the odds and all I have described above, won La Liga (the Spanish league title) this year, triumphing over Barcelona (home to Messi and Neymar) and Real Madrid (home to Ronaldo). Here, the normally reliable wage-bill indicator of success broke down. Atlético’s players earned a fraction of the salaries of their illustrious rivals.

What Atlético had was unity, cohesion, determination, energy and self-belief. The culture of the group vanquished the culture of the superstar. Simeone spoke with pride of his working-class side in a Spain of massive youth unemployment. “We see ourselves reflected in society, in people who have to fight,” he said. “People identify with us. We’re a source of hope.”

Every trend produces its countertrend. Soccer is no exception. This World Cup has not been about the stars, for all the brilliance of Neymar and Messi. It has been about unsung teams in the Atlético mold playing an intense, cohesive, never-say-die game. Their constant pressing has sent the likes of England, Italy, Spain and Ronaldo’s Portugal home, while giving Brazil and the Netherlands a real scare. I am thinking of Costa Rica (now in the last eight), Chile (very unlucky to lose to Brazil in a penalty shootout), Mexico (cheated of a deserved victory in the last minutes by the Dutch) and, in its own way, Jurgen Klinsmann’s gritty United States.

Here in France, whose team only just qualified for the World Cup, there has been much talk of how victories have stemmed from the absence of its stars. Franck Ribéry, a brilliant winger, was injured, and Samir Nasri, a wonderfully creative playmaker and goal scorer, was omitted because he was deemed a troublemaker. (France had a disastrous last World Cup campaign in South Africa that collapsed with players in open revolt.)

The result of their absence has been a more “socialist” French side with many good players but no stars, and a tough work ethic in the image of midfielder Blaise Matuidi. Intense tempo and cohesion have produced improved results. (I write as France prepares to play Nigeria in the Round of 16, a game that will test its true caliber).

France has already scored eight goals in three matches in the image of a World Cup that, before the quarterfinal stage is reached, has seen as many goals (145 as I write) scored as in the entire South African World Cup. This reflects a changed game. In every area there has been a reaction: refereeing (less restrictive, more inclined to let matches flow); style (more attack-minded, less cautious); and teamwork (the ascendancy of the high-tempo, all-for-one Simeone model).

I doubt that Ann Coulter, the conservative American commentator, had heard of Simeone’s “socialist football” when she recently lamented the “moral decay” she sees in Americans’ growing interest in soccer. Still, it was intriguing that she saw a liberal agenda being pushed by a sport in which “individual achievement is not a big factor” and “there are no heroes.” Like an idiot-savant who stumbles on a grain of truth through total ignorance, she was onto something. This is the anti-individual World Cup.

(Coulter fails to see that soccer is growing in popularity in the United States because the national team keeps getting better, Hispanics now make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, and America is getting globalized just like everywhere else. America’s core strength is constant reinvention, in part through immigration; soccer’s surge is no sign of weakness.)

Of course, multimillion-dollar bids from billionaire-owned clubs for the best of Simeone’s socialist stars are about to unstitch the Atlético team; Simeone himself may be lured elsewhere by some fat contract. Money will go on talking. But before it does, enjoy this revolutionary World Cup and the hope it embodies.

Next up we have Mr. Nocera:

The title of Kenneth Feinberg’s 2012 book is: “Who Gets What: Fair Compensation After Tragedy and Financial Upheaval.” It is part memoir and part meditation on some of the well-known compensation systems he has administered during the course of his career, from the Agent Orange settlement to the 9/11 fund to the Gulf coast compensation fund that Feinberg managed for BP. “Where is it written,” he muses at one point, “that the tort system, and the tort system alone, must be the guiding force in determining who gets what?” It’s a good question.

On Monday morning, however, Feinberg unveiled his latest effort, a new fund, proposed and paid for by General Motors, to compensate victims of its ignition-switch failures with the Chevy Cobalt, the Saturn Ion and several other G.M. cars. It is very much tied to the tort system, as Feinberg was quick to concede when I spoke to him Monday afternoon. The family of a married father of two who had a $50,000-a-year job — and who died in an ignition-switch accident — would potentially get several million dollars more than, say, the family of an unmarried, out-of-work 29-year-old. An investment banker who was seriously injured would get more than a laborer who was seriously injured because the investment banker’s potential earnings were higher than the laborer’s. That may not necessarily be fair, but it is the calculation that courts use to compensate people in the tort system.

There is a reason that the G.M. compensation fund is set up to replicate the tort system, of course. Like the 9/11 fund and the BP fund before it, the General Motors fund has as one of its primary goals to keep victims from filing lawsuits. Indeed, the quid pro quo is quite explicit: After Feinberg and his staff have made an offer in an ignition-switch case, the victim has to be willing to sign a document saying he or she won’t sue to get the money. There is no cap on the total amount of money G.M. has agreed to spend on victims’ payments.

“It is designed to help claimants,” Feinberg said flatly. “It is not designed to punish G.M.”

Although the fund will pay some money for pain and suffering, punitive damages are not part of the equation. Claimants — and their lawyers — seeking “punis” will have to forego Feinberg’s offer of compensation and take their chances in court.

The fund has other features that have become associated with a Feinberg-run fund. On the one hand, it is probably overly generous to certain classes of claimants. “Contributory negligence” — that is drivers who were drinking, say, when they got into an ignition switch accident — will not be a factor in Feinberg’s calculations. People with minor scrapes that required a trip to the emergency room will get some money.

On the other hand, Feinberg isn’t just giving out cash willy-nilly. He is going to require documentation that the ignition switch was the “proximate cause” of the accident. I remember once asking Feinberg why he insisted on such rigor when he was handing out BP’s money. He told me that “if the process has no integrity, then people will begin to question the legitimacy of this alternative to the court system.”

The other thing about these funds is that they work. Some 97 percent of the families of 9/11 victims opted into that fund, according to Feinberg; the number for BP fund was 92 percent — this despite the best effort of some plaintiffs’ lawyers to undermine it.

In his book, Feinberg says that he thinks funds like the one established by BP should be rare because they set up “special rules for a select few.” He adds that “the American legal system, with its emphasis on judges, juries and lawyers all participating in adversarial give-and-take, works well in the great majority of cases.”

But I think the country would be better served if they became more frequent. Compensating people while keeping them out of the tort system is a worthy goal. For one thing, such funds can serve as a kind of public atonement for a company, as is the case with General Motors. For another, courts can be a crapshoot. Finally, these funds can pay people quickly, without years of litigation and the anxiety it brings.

“Money is a pretty poor substitute for loss,” said Feinberg toward the end of his prepared remarks on Monday morning. He noted that the millions of dollars he is about to parcel out to ignition-switch victims and their families won’t bring back loved ones, or give a permanently injured person back his or her health.

In “Who Gets What,” he also points out that other cultures have different ways of offering compensation, and it often doesn’t involve money. “It is,” he concluded, “the limit of what we can do.”

It is also the American way.

And last up this morning is Mr. Bruni:

It was fully a decade ago that Dov Charney, the founder and (at that point) chief executive of American Apparel, decided that the right way to behave in front of a female journalist doing a profile of him was to masturbate. Not once, mind you. “Eight or so times,” according to the story, in Jane magazine, which is no longer around.

A year or so later a string of sexual harassment lawsuits against him began, and in a deposition released in 2006, he defended a sexist slur as “an endearing term,” saying, “There are some of us that love sluts.” Onward he marched as the company’s C.E.O.

He survived revelations that he liked to strut around the office in his underwear, an image that “Saturday Night Live” spoofed in a 2008 skit. He survived public references to women as “chicks” with big or small breasts.

He even survived a determination by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2010 that American Apparel had discriminated against women “by subjecting them to sexual harassment.”

It wasn’t until two weeks ago that the company’s board of directors finally gave him the boot. To review his record is to be floored and outraged that it took so long.

But that’s different from being surprised.

Charney’s story provides a familiar example of how, at least with men, we fail to distinguish sexual peccadilloes from sexual predation, lechery from hostility, chalking up the latter as the former and seeing all of it in one big, forgiving blur of testosterone.

His ouster at American Apparel happened, interestingly, around the same time that the photographer Terry Richardson came under fresh scrutiny for accusations of sexual abuse and intimidation that go back many years and were brushed aside as his edgy legend in the fashion world flourished.

The two cases are reminders and alarms. Across a spectrum of occupations, there has often been an acceptance of the most driven and dynamic men as the messiest ones, possessing unwieldy appetites, pockets of madness, streaks of cruelty or all of the above. Boys will be boys and great men will be monsters, including to women. Too readily, we shrug.

Or we figure that a certain macho bravado is the key to their accomplishments and that certain lusts come with it — and won’t always be prudently channeled.

That was many Americans’ spoken or unspoken attitude toward Bill Clinton, whose sexual behavior persistently threatened to be, or was, disruptive. His interest in seduction, prized in the political arena, couldn’t be switched off when he retreated behind closed doors. It was part of the charismatic bargain.

Under the constant gaze of a twitchy media, politicians have at least tried to be more careful since. And following the Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood hearings in the 1990s, there are clearer formal rules about how men should and shouldn’t engage women in the workplace.

But it’s astonishing how blind they can still be. I know male journalists who covered the humiliation and downfall of politicians like Packwood and nonetheless proceeded to crack lewd jokes or make crude remarks to female colleagues. When some other guy does that, he’s a creep. When you do it, it’s fun, flirty and maybe even appreciated. The male ego is a wondrous instrument of self-delusion.

Charney’s in particular. A video of him prancing around naked that appeared on the Internet two months ago suggests just how besotted with every last inch of himself he is.

For as long as he was making oodles of money, business associates were besotted with him, too, no matter his misdeeds, which they saw — sickeningly — as part of some erotically charged mystique.

“That Jane article put him on the map,” Ilse Metchek, the president of the California Fashion Association, told Laura Holson of The Times back in 2011. “What is American Apparel without sex?”

A year earlier, a profile of Charney in a Canadian newspaper noted that he had been “so colorful and infuriating that those qualities alone seem to have elevated the company’s profile.” Future masters of the universe, take note. You can masturbate your way to the top. Onanism is a career strategy.

Sure, certain professions are more tolerant of acting out. But I fear that not just in fashion, art and entertainment but in Silicon Valley and other precincts, there’s a conflation of artistry and eccentricity — and of eccentricity and abuse — that sometimes excuses inexcusable conduct.

Does the premium that we place on boldness and boundary-flouting provocateurs create a tension between our entrepreneurial and moral cultures? It needn’t and shouldn’t, not if we’re honest and vigilant about lines that are nonnegotiable.

Charney crossed them, and when American Apparel looked golden, his associates looked the other way. Only when its luster dimmed and his genius was called into question did they see him for what he’d always been.

Brooks and Krugman

June 27, 2014

In “The Spiritual Recession” Bobo gurgles that we will dishonor American heritage if we remain indifferent to the triumphs and failures of the global democratic project.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston ends a longer comment with this:  “If there is a spiritual recession, it was brought about by the same forces of cynical fundamentalist greed that created the economic recession. Were it not for the people who occupied Wall Street, we might have forgotten what democracy looked like.”  In “The Incompetence Dogma” Prof. Krugman says but Obamacare wasn’t supposed to work! What were all those cries of impending disaster about?  Here’s Bobo:

For the past few centuries, the Western world has witnessed a contest of historic visions. On the one side was the dream of the beautiful collective. Human progress was a one-way march toward socialism. People would liberate themselves from religion, hierarchy and oppression. They would build a new kind of society where equality would be the rule, where rational planning would replace cruel competition.

On the other side was the dream of universal democracy. Human progress was seen as a one-way march toward democratic capitalism. Societies would be held together by shared biblical morality. They would be invigorated by economic competition. They would be guided by a democratic state, where power was in the hands of the masses and dispersed through checks and balances.

These two historic visions had amazing appeal. Millions of people dedicated their lives to socialism or communism. The democratic gospel was just an idea, but it shaped American history. The founders believed that they were writing a Constitution for a nation that would herald a new order of the ages. Walt Whitman wrote an essay called “Democratic Vistas” defining the nation’s spiritual mission, while Lincoln celebrated the last, best hope of earth.

In the 1930s, the radical Leon Samson explained that Americans never went in big for socialism because they already had a creed, which made them happy, gave them work and made history meaningful. “Every concept in socialism has its substitutive counter-concept in Americanism,” Samson wrote, “and that is why the socialist argument falls so fruitlessly on the American ear. … The American does not want to listen to socialism because he thinks he already has it.”

The Cold War settled this contest of historic visions. Democracy won. You would think the gospel of democracy would be triumphant. But, as Mark Lilla writes in an essay called “The Truth About Our Libertarian Age” in The New Republic, the post-Cold War era hasn’t meant the triumph of one ideology; it destroyed the tendency to rely upon big historic visions of any sort. Lilla argues that we have slid into a debauched libertarianism. Nobody envisions the large sweep of events; we just go our own separate ways making individual choices.

He’s a bit right about that. When the U.S. was a weak nation, Americans dedicated themselves to proving to the world that democracy could last. When the U.S. became a superpower, Americans felt responsible for creating a global order that would nurture the spread of democracy. But now the nation is tired, distrustful, divided and withdrawing. Democratic vistas give way to laissez-faire fatalism: History has no shape. The dream of universal democracy seems naïve. National interest matters most.

Lilla’s piece both describes and unfortunately exemplifies the current mood. He argues that the notion of history as a march toward universal democracy is a pipe dream. Arab nations are not going to be democratic anytime soon. The world is an aviary of different systems — autocracy, mercantile despotism — and always will be. Instead of worrying about spreading democracy, we’d be better off trying to make theocracies less beastly.

Such is life in a spiritual recession. Americans have lost faith in their own gospel. This loss of faith is ruinous from any practical standpoint. The faith bound diverse Americans, reducing polarization. The faith gave elites a sense of historic responsibility and helped them resist the money and corruption that always licked at the political system.

Without the vibrant faith, there is no spiritual counterweight to rampant materialism. Without the faith, the left has grown strangely callous and withdrawing in the face of genocide around the world. The right adopts a zero-sum mentality about immigration and a pinched attitude about foreign affairs.

Without the faith, leaders grow small; they have no sacred purpose to align themselves with. Young people get fired up by the thought of solar panels in Africa but seem much less engaged in the task of spreading political dignity and humane self-government.

Meanwhile, the country grows strangely indifferent to democratic heroes. Decades ago, everyone knew about Sakharov. But how many raised a fuss over the systematic persecution of democratic activists and Christians across the Middle East?

The democratic gospel was both lofty and realistic. It had a high historic mission, but it was based on the idea that biblical morality is necessary precisely because people are selfish and shortsighted, capitalism is necessary because economies are too complicated to understand and plan; democracy is necessary because concentrated power is always dangerous, no matter how seductive it seems in the short term.

Sure there have been setbacks. But if America isn’t a champion of universal democracy, what is the country for? A great inheritance is being squandered; a 200-year-old language is being left by the side of the road.

Yeah, Bobo — let’s go cram “democracy” down another country’s throat.  It’s worked so very, very, very well in the past…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Have you been following the news about Obamacare? The Affordable Care Act has receded from the front page, but information about how it’s going keeps coming in — and almost all the news is good. Indeed, health reform has been on a roll ever since March, when it became clear that enrollment would surpass expectations despite the teething problems of the federal website.

What’s interesting about this success story is that it has been accompanied at every step by cries of impending disaster. At this point, by my reckoning, the enemies of health reform are 0 for 6. That is, they made at least six distinct predictions about how Obamacare would fail — every one of which turned out to be wrong.

“To err is human,” wrote Seneca. “To persist is diabolical.” Everyone makes incorrect predictions. But to be that consistently, grossly wrong takes special effort. So what’s this all about?

Many readers won’t be surprised by the answer: It’s about politics and ideology, not analysis. But while this observation isn’t particularly startling, it’s worth pointing out just how completely ideology has trumped evidence in the health policy debate.

And I’m not just talking about the politicians; I’m talking about the wonks. It’s remarkable how many supposed experts on health care made claims about Obamacare that were clearly unsupportable. For example, remember “rate shock”? Last fall, when we got our first information about insurance premiums, conservative health care analysts raced to claim that consumers were facing a huge increase in their expenses. It was obvious, even at the time, that these claims were misleading; we now know that the great majority of Americans buying insurance through the new exchanges are getting coverage quite cheaply.

Or remember claims that young people wouldn’t sign up, so that Obamacare would experience a “death spiral” of surging costs and shrinking enrollment? It’s not happening: a new survey by Gallup finds both that a lot of people have gained insurance through the program and that the age mix of the new enrollees looks pretty good.

What was especially odd about the incessant predictions of health-reform disaster was that we already knew, or should have known, that a program along the lines of the Affordable Care Act was likely to work. Obamacare was closely modeled on Romneycare, which has been working in Massachusetts since 2006, and it bears a strong family resemblance to successful systems abroad, for example in Switzerland. Why should the system have been unworkable for America?

But a firm conviction that the government can’t do anything useful — a dogmatic belief in public-sector incompetence — is now a central part of American conservatism, and the incompetence dogma has evidently made rational analysis of policy issues impossible.

It wasn’t always thus. If you go back two decades, to the last great fight over health reform, conservatives seem to have been relatively clearheaded about the policy prospects, albeit deeply cynical. For example, William Kristol’s famous 1993 memo urging Republicans to kill the Clinton health plan warned explicitly that Clintoncare, if implemented, might well be perceived as successful, which would, in turn, “strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government.” So it was crucial to make sure that reform never happened. In effect, Mr. Kristol was telling insiders that tales of government incompetence are something you peddle to voters to get them to support tax cuts and deregulation, not something you necessarily believe yourself.

But that was before conservatives had fully retreated into their own intellectual universe. Fox News didn’t exist yet; policy analysts at right-wing think tanks had often begun their careers in relatively nonpolitical jobs. It was still possible to entertain the notion that reality wasn’t what you wanted it to be.

It’s different now. It’s hard to think of anyone on the American right who even considered the possibility that Obamacare might work, or at any rate who was willing to admit that possibility in public. Instead, even the supposed experts kept peddling improbable tales of looming disaster long after their chance of actually stopping health reform was past, and they peddled these tales not just to the rubes but to each other.

And let’s be clear: While it has been funny watching the right-wing cling to its delusions about health reform, it’s also scary. After all, these people retain considerable ability to engage in policy mischief, and one of these days they may regain the White House. And you really, really don’t want people who reject facts they don’t like in that position. I mean, they might do unthinkable things, like starting a war for no good reason. Oh, wait.

Brooks and Nocera

June 24, 2014

Bobo has decided to try giving us marriage advice.  In “Rhapsody in Realism” he gurgles that long love is built on understanding the nuances of human nature, including human frailty.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston sums it up for us:  “It seems Mr. Brooks is channeling Abigail Van Buren, and doing a fine job. What could be more appropriate than learning about love and relationships from a conservative opinion writer? It makes me wish Charles Krauthammer would dispense dating advice, but let’s not get greedy. Brooks actually strays a bit into Erma Bombeck territory with the wry recipe for surviving marital exasperation, but I don’t think Dear Abby will mind.”  Mr. Nocera, in “New Leader, New Attack on Exports,” says the campaign against the Export-Import Bank gains steam now that the House has elected a new majority leader.  Here’s Bobo:

A few years ago, I came across an article on a blog that appealed tremendously. It was on a subject that obviously I have a lot to learn about. But it was actually the tone and underlying worldview that was so instructive, not just the substance.

The article was called “15 Ways to Stay Married for 15 Years” by Lydia Netzer. The first piece of advice was “Go to bed mad.” Normally couples are told to resolve each dispute before they call it a night. But Netzer writes that sometimes you need to just go to bed. It won’t do any good to stay up late when you’re tired and petulant: “In the morning, eat some pancakes. Everything will seem better, I swear.”

Another piece of advice is to brag about your spouse in public and let them overhear you bragging.

Later, she tells wives that they should make a husband pact with their friends. “The husband pact says this: I promise to listen to you complain about your husband even in the most dire terms, without it affecting my good opinion of him. I will agree with your harshest criticism, accept your gloomiest predictions. I will nod and furrow my brow and sigh when you describe him as a hideous ogre. Then when your fight is over and love shines again like a beautiful sunbeam in your life, I promise to forget everything you said and regard him as the most charming of princes once more.”

Most advice, whether on love or business or politics, is based on the premise that we can just will ourselves into being rational and good and that the correct path to happiness is a straight line. These writers, in the “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” school, are essentially telling you to turn yourself into a superstar by discipline and then everything will be swell.

But Netzer’s piece is nicely based on the premise that we are crooked timber. We are, to varying degrees, foolish, weak, and often just plain inexplicable — and always will be. As Kant put it: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”

People with a crooked timber mentality tend to see life as full of ironies. Intellectual life is ironic because really smart people often do the dumbest things precisely because they are carried away by their own brilliance. Politics is ironic because powerful people make themselves vulnerable because they think they can achieve more than they can. Marriage is ironic because you are trying to build a pure relationship out of people who are ramshackle and messy. There’s an awesome incongruity between the purity you glimpse in the love and the fact that he leaves used tissues around the house and it drives you crazy.

People with a crooked timber mentality try to find comedy in the mixture of high and low. There’s something fervent in Netzer’s belief in marital loyalty: “You and your spouse are a team of two. It is you against the world. No one else is allowed on the team, and no one else will ever understand the team’s rules.” Yet the piece is written with a wry appreciation of human foibles. If you have to complain about your husband’s latest outrage to somebody’s mother, she writes, complain to his mother, not to yours. “His mother will forgive him. Yours never will.”

People with a crooked timber mentality try to adopt an attitude of bemused affection. A person with this attitude finds the annoying endearing and the silly adorable. Such a person tries to remember that we each seem more virtuous from our own vantage point than from anybody else’s.

People with a crooked timber mentality are anti-perfectionist. When two people are working together there are bound to be different views, and sometimes you can’t find a solution so you have to settle for an arrangement. You have to design structures that have a lot of give, for when people screw up. You have to satisfice, which is Herbert Simon’s term for any option that is not optimal but happens to work well enough.

Great and small enterprises often have two births: first in purity, then in maturity. The idealism of the Declaration of Independence gave way to the cold-eyed balances of the Constitution. Love starts in passion and ends in car pools.

The beauty of the first birth comes from the lofty hopes, but the beauty of the second birth comes when people begin to love frailty. (Have you noticed that people from ugly places love their cities more tenaciously than people from beautiful cities?)

The mature people one meets often have this crooked timber view, having learned from experience the intransigence of imperfection and how to make a friend of every stupid stumble. As Thornton Wilder once put it, “In love’s service only wounded soldiers can serve.”

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

In the real world, markets aren’t perfect.

If they were, you wouldn’t need Fannie Mae to play such a vital role in housing finance. You wouldn’t need government to fund research. And you certainly wouldn’t rely on an export credit agency to help promote American exports and create American jobs. Surely, the private sector can handle that.

And, indeed, in some 98 percent of American export transactions, the private sector does just fine. But then there’s the other 2 percent. There’s the small business that wants to expand abroad but can’t find a bank willing to take a risk on a newbie exporter. There’s the midsize manufacturer for whom financing insurance by the government is a necessity — in large part because its competitors in other countries are able to offer prospective buyers government financing insurance. And there are big companies like Boeing that operate in a global industry where the assistance of an export credit agency is baked into the business model.

Our country’s export credit agency is called the Export-Import Bank of the United States. Last year, it helped 3,413 small companies start or expand their export business. It also helped Boeing land aircraft sales against Airbus. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the Ex-Im Bank stepped in because banks had become skittish. It exists precisely because markets aren’t perfect.

Or as Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the prominent conservative economist — and president of the American Action Forum — put it to me on Monday: “I share the belief that I would like to live in a world without the Ex-Im Bank. Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in.”

When I first wrote about the Ex-Im Bank two weeks ago, I did so because the bank’s late September reauthorization, which never used to be in question, was under serious assault by such ultraconservative groups as the Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity and Heritage Action. They made the fundamentally ideological argument that the bank was putting taxpayers’ money at risk handling tasks the private sector was better equipped to handle. It is not true, but it made for a glorious Tea Party sound bite.

My assumption, however, was that cooler heads would eventually prevail, and the Export-Import Bank would be reauthorized. That’s what happened in 2012, which was the first time the bank came under ideological attack.

On Sunday, however, that calculus changed. Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who was elected to replace Eric Cantor as the House majority leader, said on “Fox News Sunday” that “I think Ex-Im Bank is … something the government does not have to be involved in.” He added that he wouldn’t support reauthorization.

Two years ago, McCarthy did support reauthorization, and it is pretty obvious what transpired. In order to gain the votes of the Tea Party conservatives in Congress, McCarthy chose to sell American exports down the river.

Business is now up in arms. On Monday, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers held a conference call to decry the threat to the Export-Import Bank and promised a “full-court press” to get Congress to take up the reauthorization. (Late Monday, The Wall Street Journal added fuel to the fire, reporting that four Ex-Im Bank employees had been removed or suspended amid investigations.)

Meanwhile, Holtz-Eakin’s group, American Action Forum, has done some solid research knocking down many of the ideological arguments. For instance, the Ex-Im Bank’s opponents claim that the assistance given to Boeing is nothing more than “crony capitalism.” But Andy Winkler of American Action Forum notes that “Ex-Im’s activities reflect the structure of U.S. trade itself, supporting a large number of small and medium-sized exporters, but with the largest dollar volumes concentrated among large firms.”

Then there are small and medium-size exporters themselves. One former small businessman is Chris Collins, a freshman Republican whose district includes Buffalo. Before being elected to Congress, he owned a company called Audubon Machinery Corporation, which got a combination of guarantees and insurance from the Export-Import Bank worth $8.33 million between 2007 and 2014.

Needless to say, this made him the target of Heritage Action. But when I spoke to him on Monday afternoon, he was completely unapologetic. Indeed, he was in the process of sending a letter, signed by 41 Republican congressmen, asking McCarthy and Speaker John Boehner to allow a reauthorization vote.

What he learned over the years, he told me, “is the importance of the Ex-Im Bank for companies with $10 million to $20 million in sales, like ours.” For instance, banks worry about accounts receivables from companies in developing nations. “A company can pay a fee to the Ex-Im Bank and get accounts receivable insurance. Without the Ex-Im, some of our business would be all but impossible.”

“I was really caught off guard when Heritage went after me,” he said as our conversation was winding down. Then he added, “They must not understand what is required to be an exporter.”

Brooks and Krugman

June 20, 2014

Bobo sees analogies…  He’s penned “In the Land of Mass Graves” in which he tells us Rwanda’s remarkable recovery from the 1994 genocide provides clues to a path forward in Iraq.  In the comments “Phil Quin” from Wellington had this to say:  “Judging by the quality, originality and depth of his insights about Rwanda, Mr. Brooks’ column is the product of no more than an hours’ wading through Google News results.”  So, pretty typical for Bobo.  Prof. Krugman, in “Veterans and Zombies,” says the health care scandal at Veterans Affairs is real, but it’s being hyped out of proportion in an attempt to block reform of the larger national system.  Here’s Bobo:

Just over two decades ago, Rwanda was swept up in a murderous wave of ethnic violence that was as bad or worse as anything happening today in Iraq and Syria. The conflict was between a historically dominant ethnic minority and a historically oppressed majority, as in Iraq. Yet, today, Rwanda is a relatively successful country.

Economic growth has been hovering at about 8 percent a year for the past few years. Since 1994, per capita income has almost tripled. Mortality for children under 5 is down by two-thirds. Malaria-related deaths are down 85 percent. Most amazingly, people who 20 years ago were literally murdering each other’s family members are now living together in the same villages.

So the question of the day is: Does Rwanda’s rebound offer any lessons about how other nations might recover from this sort of murderous sectarian violence, even nations racked by the different sort of Sunni-Shiite violence we’re seeing in the Middle East?

Well, one possible lesson from Rwanda is that sectarian bloodletting is not a mass hysteria. It’s not an organic mania that sweeps over society like a plague. Instead, murderous sectarian violence is a top-down phenomenon produced within a specific political context.

People don’t usually go off decapitating each other or committing mass murder just because they hate people in another group. These things happen because soul-dead political leaders are in a struggle for power and use ethnic violence as a tool in that struggle.

If you can sideline those leaders or get the politics functioning, you can reduce the violence dramatically. These situations are gruesome, but they are not hopeless.

A few important things happened in Rwanda:

First, the government established a monopoly of force. In Rwanda, this happened because Paul Kagame won a decisive military victory over his Hutu rivals. He set up a strongman regime that was somewhat enlightened at first but which has grown increasingly repressive over time. He abuses human rights and rules by fear. Those of us who champion democracy might hope that freedom, pluralism and democracy can replace chaos. But the best hope may be along Korean lines, an authoritarian government that softens over time.

Second, the regime, while autocratic, earned some legitimacy. Kagame brought some Hutus into the government, though experts seem to disagree on how much power Hutus actually possess. He also publicly embraced the Singaporean style of autocracy, which has produced tangible economic progress.

This governing style can be extremely paternalistic. It is no longer officially permitted to identify people by their tribal markers (everybody knows anyway). Plastic bags are illegal. The civil service is closely monitored for corruption. In sum, Rwanda is a lousy place to be a journalist because of limits on expression, but the quality of life for the average citizen is improving rapidly.

Third, power has been decentralized. If Iraq survives, it will probably be as a loose federation, with the national government controlling the foreign policy and the army, but the ethnic regions dominating the parts of government that touch people day to day. Rwanda hasn’t gone that far, but it has made some moves in a federalist direction. Local leaders often follow a tradition of imihigo — in which they publicly vow to meet certain concrete performance goals within, say, three years: building a certain number of schools or staffing a certain number of health centers. If they don’t meet the goals, they are humiliated and presumably replaced. The process emphasizes local accountability.

Fourth, new constituencies were enfranchised. After the genocide, Rwanda’s population was up to 70 percent female. The men were either dead or in exile. Women have been given much more prominent roles in the judiciary and the Parliament. Automatically this creates a constituency for the new political order.

Fifth, the atrocities were acknowledged. No post-trauma society has done this perfectly. Rwanda prosecuted the worst killers slowly (almost every pre-civil-war judge was dead). The local trial process was widely criticized. The judicial process has lately been used to target political opponents. But it does seem necessary, if a nation is to move on, to set up a legal process to name what just happened and to mete out justice to the monstrous.

The Iraqi state is much weaker than the Rwandan one, but, even so, this quick survey underlines the wisdom of the approach the Obama administration is gesturing toward in Iraq: Use limited military force to weaken those who are trying to bring in violence from outside; focus most on the political; round up a regional coalition that will pressure Iraqi elites in this post-election moment to form an inclusive new government.

Iraq is looking into an abyss, but the good news is that if you get the political elites behaving decently, you can avoid the worst. Grimly, there’s cause for hope.

Also in the comments “gemli” from Boston has concerns:  “Why do I get the feeling that Mr. Brooks is giving us a heads-up about some New World Order that his conservative friends are cooking up? This is the second column in a few weeks (“The Autocracy Challenge” is the other) in which he finds something positive to say about autocratic governments. It also highlights some of his favorite themes, namely obedience to Just Authority, paternalism, and decentralized government. He even sees times when an authoritarian government like Korea’s might be just the ticket.”  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

You’ve surely heard about the scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs. A number of veterans found themselves waiting a long time for care, some of them died before they were seen, and some of the agency’s employees falsified records to cover up the extent of the problem. It’s a real scandal; some heads have already rolled, but there’s surely more to clean up.

But the goings-on at Veterans Affairs shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of a much bigger scandal: the almost surreal inefficiency and injustice of the American health care system as a whole. And it’s important to understand that the Veterans Affairs scandal, while real, is being hyped out of proportion by people whose real goal is to block reform of the larger system.

The essential, undeniable fact about American health care is how incredibly expensive it is — twice as costly per capita as the French system, two-and-a-half times as expensive as the British system. You might expect all that money to buy results, but the United States actually ranks low on basic measures of performance; we have low life expectancy and high infant mortality, and despite all that spending many people can’t get health care when they need it. What’s more, Americans seem to realize that they’re getting a bad deal: Surveys show a much smaller percentage of the population satisfied with the health system in America than in other countries.

And, in America, medical costs often cause financial distress to an extent that doesn’t happen in any other advanced nation.

How and why does health care in the United States manage to perform so badly? There have been many studies of the issue, identifying factors that range from high administrative costs, to high drug prices, to excessive testing. The details are fairly complicated, but if you had to identify a common theme behind America’s poor performance, it would be that we suffer from an excess of money-driven medicine. Vast amounts of costly paperwork are generated by for-profit insurers always looking for ways to deny payment; high spending on procedures of dubious medical efficacy is driven by the efforts of for-profit hospitals and providers to generate more revenue; high drug costs are driven by pharmaceutical companies who spend more on advertising and marketing than they do on research.

Other advanced countries don’t suffer from comparable problems because private gain is less of an issue. Outside the U.S., the government generally provides health insurance directly, or ensures that it’s available from tightly regulated nonprofit insurers; often, many hospitals are publicly owned, and many doctors are public employees.

As you might guess, conservatives don’t like the observation that American health care performs worse than other countries’ systems because it relies too much on the private sector and the profit motive. So whenever someone points out the obvious, there is a chorus of denial, of attempts to claim that America does, too, offer better care. It turns out, however, that such claims invariably end up relying on zombie arguments — that is, arguments that have been proved wrong, should be dead, but keep shambling along because they serve a political purpose.

Which brings us to veterans’ care. The system run by the Department of Veterans Affairs is not like the rest of American health care. It is, if you like, an island of socialized medicine, a miniature version of Britain’s National Health Service, in a privatized sea. And until the scandal broke, all indications were that it worked very well, providing high-quality care at low cost.

No wonder, then, that right-wingers have seized on the scandal, viewing it as — to quote Dr. Ben Carson, a rising conservative star — “a gift from God.”

So here’s what you need to know: It’s still true that Veterans Affairs provides excellent care, at low cost. Those waiting lists arise partly because so many veterans want care, but Congress has provided neither clear guidelines on who is entitled to coverage, nor sufficient resources to cover all applicants. And, yes, some officials appear to have responded to incentives to reduce waiting times by falsifying data.

Yet, on average, veterans don’t appear to wait longer for care than other Americans. And does anyone doubt that many Americans have died while waiting for approval from private insurers?

A scandal is a scandal, and wrongdoing must be punished. But beware of people trying to use the veterans’ care scandal to derail health reform.

And here’s the thing: Health reform is working. Too many Americans still lack good insurance, and hence lack access to health care and protection from high medical costs — but not as many as last year, and next year should be better still. Health costs are still far too high, but their growth has slowed dramatically. We’re moving in the right direction, and we shouldn’t let the zombies get in our way.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

June 17, 2014

Mr. Bruni is off today.  Bobo has a question in “The Structures of Growth:”  What do you need to do to get better at something after you have gone through the early stages of making a lot of progress really quickly?  Mr. Cohen howls that we should “Take Mosul Back.”  He says the blame game misses the point, and that Iraq and Syria were rotten to the core before America’s mistakes.  In the comments (which were closed early) “craig geary” from Redlands, FL had this to say:  “There is one constant about all of Roger Cohen’s articles proposing military action.  He never mentions that he has never worn a uniform, never been in a war, announces he’s enlisting or that his children are enlisting for this new, desparately needed, war.”  Mr. Nocera has a question in “A New College Model:”  Has Arizona State found a new way to educate students? Starbucks employees may soon find out.  Here’s Bobo:

Most of us are trying to get better at something. And when we think about our future progress, we tend to imagine we will improve linearly. We’ll work hard at mastering some skill; we’ll steadily get better and better.

But, as the Canadian writer Scott H. Young points out in a recent blog post, progress in most domains is not linear. In some spheres, like learning a language or taking up running, improvement is logarithmic. You make a lot of progress when you first begin the activity, but, as you get better, it gets harder and harder to improve.

Logarithmic activities require a certain sort of mind-set, Young writes. During the early high-growth phase, when everything is coming easily, you have to make sure you maintain your disciplined habits, or else you will fall backward. Then later, during the slow-growth phase, you have to break some of your habits. To move from good to great, you have to break out of certain routines that have become calcified and are now holding you back.

For example, when Tiger Woods was first competing at golf, he had to stick to his arduous practice routine even though success seemed to come ridiculously easy. But then, when he hit a plateau, he had to reinvent his swing to reach that final tippy-top level.

In other domains, growth is exponential. In these activities, you have to work for weeks or even years at mastering the fundamentals, and you barely see any return. But then, after you have put in your 10,000 hours of effort, suddenly you develop a natural ease and your progress multiplies quickly.

Mastering an academic discipline is an exponential domain. You have to learn the basics over years of graduate school before you internalize the structures of the field and can begin to play creatively with the concepts. Ice hockey is an exponential activity (it takes years just to skate well enough).

Many people quit exponential activities in the early phases. You’ve got to be bullheaded to work hard while getting no glory. But then when you are in the later fast-progress stage, you’ve got to be open-minded to turn your hard-earned skill into poetry. Vincent van Gogh had to spend years learning the basics of drawing, but then, when he’d achieved mastery, he had to let loose and create art.

I could think of some other growth structures. In some domains progress comes like a stairway. There’s a period of stagnation, followed by a step upward, followed by a period of stagnation, followed by another step. In other domains, progress comes like waves repetitively lapping the shore. You go over some material and the wave leaves a residue of knowledge; then you go over the same material again and the next wave leaves a bit more residue.

Yet other domains follow a valley-shaped curve. You have to go down initially before you can go up. The experience of immigrating to a new country can be like this; you have to start at the bottom as you learn a new society before you can make your way upward. Moral progress is like this, too. You have to go down and explore your own failures before you can conquer them. You have to taste humiliation before you can aspire toward excellence.

Thinking about growth structures reminds you that really successful people often have the ability to completely flip their mental dispositions. In many fields, it pays to be rigid and disciplined at first, but then flexible and playful as you get better. If you go into politics, you have to make the transition from campaigning, which is an instantly gratifying activity, to governing, which is an exponential activity, requiring experience, patience and hard-earned wisdom.

This way of thinking also makes it clear that skill acquisition is a deeply moral activity. You don’t only need knowledge about what to do; you have to train yourself to defeat your natural desires. In the fast-growth phase of a logarithmic activity, you have to fight the urge to self-celebrate and relax. In the later phase, when everyone is singing your praises, you have to fight self-satisfaction.

It does seem clear that our society celebrates fast-payoff instrumental activities, like sports and rock stardom, while undervaluing exponential activities, like being a statesman or craftsman. Kids increasingly flock to logarithmic sports, like soccer, over exponential sports, like baseball.

Finally, this focus on growth structures takes your eyes off yourself. The crucial thing is not what traits you intrinsically possess. The crucial questions are: What is the structure of your domain? Where are you now on the progress curve? How are you interacting with the structures of the field?

The crucial answers to those questions are not found in the mirror. They are found by seeing yourself from a distance as part of a landscape. That’s a more pleasing and healthier perspective in any case.

Next up is Mr. Cohen.  If he’s so desperate to take Mosul back maybe he can enlist in the Army or get the Prime Minister (Mr. Cohen lives in London) to launch an offensive…

Less than 60 miles from Mosul, where the Sunni Islamic fanatics who have overrun the city are slaughtering their enemies as if the Middle Ages never ended, a rather different scene in Iraq was recently described in a report from the Russian investment firm Renaissance Capital:

“We saw Ferraris and Bentleys being driven by students at the American University of Iraq in Suleimaniyah, and at the only five-star hotel in Erbil, the car park was filled with new BMW’s and Range Rovers. The few international restaurants in Erbil cost approximately $90 per person for a meal with a beer. The city’s shopping centers carry international brands, all of which we noticed are priced at least 40 percent higher than the international standard; and shop managers claimed inventory flies off the shelves.”

In nascent Kurdistan, run by the Kurdistan Regional Government, whose relations with the central government in Baghdad are a stop-go affair, things are different. Even the worst mess has its winners. The Kurds, almost a century after missing out on statehood at the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, are the beneficiaries of Iraq’s mayhem. Even their relations with their Turkish nemesis have been commerce-smoothed into something approaching warmth.

Nobody should bet against an independent Kurdish state within the next decade. Syria and Iraq are in a state of implosion; Middle Eastern borders are up for grabs. Qaeda affiliates have already done their grabbing. They control wide swathes of Syria and Iraq 13 years (and trillions of dollars) after the United States went to war in Afghanistan to dismantle the jihadi state within a state of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.

This is not a terrific denouement to America’s post-9/11 wars. The blame game is in full swing. Aficionados of the counterfactual are having a field day. Iraq in its agony is the perfect locus for handicappers of the hypothetical. It’s an old game. If Napoleon had had B-52s at Waterloo, things might have worked out differently.

The left blames the disaster on President Bush and the American invasion of 2003 that shattered the Iraqi state and removed its murderous dictator, Saddam Hussein. If this had not happened, there would be no fanatics from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria at the doorsteps of Baghdad. Wrong, says the right. President Obama is to blame for abandoning Iraq in 2011 without leaving a residual counter-terrorism force. His feckless failure to back the Syrian opposition early in the uprising was a principal cause of Syria’s collapse into a lawless haven for Islamic fanatics. If Obama had been more resolute in Iraq and Syria, ISIS would not be on the rampage.

A plague on both their houses! It’s unseemly to fight Washington’s talk-show wars over the myriad dead of the Levant.

The facts are plain enough. The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 because of its weapons of mass destruction program. However Iraq did not have any weapons of mass destruction. The invasion brought the Shiite majority to power, so advancing the interests of Shiite Iran, America’s enemy. It ousted the Sunnis, upsetting the Sunni-Shiite balance in the Middle East, and infuriating America’s nominal ally, Saudi Arabia. As a result, a Sunni-Shiite regional conflict has been escalating over the past decade.

There was no Al Qaeda in Saddam’s Iraq. The United States birthed it through the invasion. It then beat Al Qaeda down, before allowing its affiliates to regroup by leaving and doing nothing about Syria’s disintegration. American and Iranian interests in Iraq are now aligned in preserving the sectarian Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, encouraging his (unlikely) outreach to the winning Kurds and the whiplashed Sunnis, and beating back the barbarians of ISIS. However, the political forces arrayed against cooperation with Iran in the Congress are powerful — and U.S. and Iranian interests part ways in Syria and over Israel. A logical approach in the Middle East is seldom a feasible approach.

Got it?

If not, do not worry. The blame game misses the point. Iraq and Syria, well before America’s hapless intervention and hapless paralysis, were rotten to the core, as ripe for dismemberment as the Ottoman Empire a century ago, sickened by the personality cults of brutal rulers, cracking at the internal lines of fracture colonial overseers chose to disregard. They were in a state of postponed decomposition. Sunnis in Iraq and Alawites in Syria, minorities both, believed (and believe) they had some irreversible right to rule. They do not.

President Obama should use targeted military force to drive back the fanatics of ISIS. If the jihadis cement their hold, the blowback will be felt in Europe and the United States. Such action will not resolve Iraq’s problems, or the region’s. But the alternative is far worse. It would be a betrayal of the thousands of American lives lost since 2001 and of the millions in the Middle East who view the Middle Ages as over.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

On Monday, Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, unveiled his company’s newest — and possibly most important — perquisite for its employees: a free college education. He announced this new program on a stage in The Times Center in Midtown Manhattan, alongside his partner in the new venture, Michael Crow of Arizona State University.

Starbucks has long been a trailblazer in offering company benefits; part-time employees get stock options and health insurance. Schultz has also been one of the few chief executives willing to speak out — and do something — about the need to get people back to work again. A few years ago, I wrote a column about a Starbucks program that turned donations from customers into small business loans.

What I hadn’t realized is the extent to which Arizona State is a trailblazer as well. Under Crow’s leadership, it is attempting nothing less than the reinvention of the university. If Crow’s model succeeds, it offers some real hope that higher education can become, as it once was, a place that views its mission as educating everybody, not just the world’s elite.

“In the bottom quartile of family incomes, only 9 percent of kids attain a college education,” Crow said about five minutes after I met him on Monday afternoon. “And, in the top quartile, 80 percent get a college education, regardless of academic ability.” That statistic is what he is trying to change.

Although Crow grew up in a working-class family, he spent a good chunk of his career at one of the nation’s most elite schools: Columbia University. He was the executive vice provost there before becoming president of Arizona State 12 years ago. He told me what appealed to him about Arizona State was precisely that it offered the chance to create a completely different model.

“Traveling around the country, I could see that the U.S. was having a hard time modernizing, in a sense,” he said. “There was industrial decline, and underperforming K-12. There was a need for industrial redesign.” He found himself influenced by a handful of books, including “A University for the 21st Century” by James Duderstadt, a former president of the University of Michigan. In the book, Duderstadt argued that if universities were to remain relevant, they need to be reinvented.

Or, as Crow puts it, “How would you build a public university of greater public service that would be more adaptable to the rapidly changing society? Could you do it at scale? In a way that allowed everybody to have a chance?”

His first — and, in some ways, most radical — decision was that Arizona State was going to embrace what he calls “inclusion” instead of “exclusion.” The elite universities, egged on by the U.S. News & World Report rankings, proudly talk about what a small percentage of students they accept. Indeed, it is how the culture has come to define quality in a university.

Crow went in the opposite direction: Anybody with a B average in the high school courses Arizona State deemed necessary to prepare for a college education could get in. He was also insistent that the school remain affordable. For in-state students pursuing an undergraduate degree, the “list price” at Arizona State is about $5,000 per semester, although once grants and financial aid is factored in, the average cost is $3,800 per student.

As the student body began to change — today, 50 percent of the school’s 73,000 students are coming from the lower half of the income strata — the learning had to change as well. And so it did. Arizona State developed digital tools that aided individualized learning. Of the school’s 16,000 courses, 10,000 are “tech-mediated” in some way, said Crow.

Inevitably, this led to Arizona State instituting a catalog of online courses — and online degrees — which is what Starbucks is offering its employees. The great advantage of an online course is that the student can listen to the lectures or do the work on his or her own time. It is a way of reaching students who might otherwise not be able to go to school.

Crow insists that online courses at Arizona State have the same rigor as classroom courses. “They are taught by the same faculty that teaches in our classrooms,” says Christopher Callahan, the dean of the university’s journalism school.

Crow told me that just as Schultz had been looking for a university to partner with, he had been looking for a corporation. He thinks that Arizona State has the capability to ultimately teach 100,000 students online, and that the Starbucks partnership could add as many as 15,000 new students. When I asked him where the 100,000 number came from, he said, “That is an assessment of what share of the country’s need that we can handle.”

Grandiose? Perhaps. But higher education could certainly use a little more such thinking.

Brooks and Krugman

June 13, 2014

Bobo has outdone himself.  In “The Big Burn” he raves that after neglect from the United States, the Sunni-Shiite conflict explodes in Iraq.  “Matthew Carnicelli” from Brooklyn, NY had this to say in the comments:  “David, I have my issues with the President, but I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him on his decision to leave Iraq.  That said, should you or any of your brothers in the neocon movement feel so motivated, please know that we will respect your decision to enlist in the Iraqi military.”  Or even our military for that matter — they’re members of the 101st Fighting Keyboarders now.  Prof. Krugman, in “The Fix Isn’t In,” says the surprise primary defeat of Eric Cantor is the unraveling of an ideological movement.  Here’s Bobo:

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it effectively destroyed the Iraqi government. Slowly learning from that mistake, the U.S. spent the next eight years in a costly round of state-building. As Dexter Filkins, who covered the war for The Times, wrote in a blog post this week for The New Yorker, “By 2011, by any reasonable measure, the Americans had made a lot of headway but were not finished with the job.”

The Iraqi Army was performing more professionally. American diplomats rode herd on Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to restrain his sectarian impulses. American generals would threaten to physically block Iraq troop movements if Maliki ordered any action that seemed likely to polarize the nation.

We’ll never know if all this effort and progress could have led to a self-sustaining, stable Iraq. Before the country was close to ready, the Obama administration took off the training wheels by not seriously negotiating the NATO status of forces agreement that would have maintained some smaller American presence.

The administration didn’t begin negotiations on the treaty until a few months before American troops would have to start their withdrawal. The administration increased the demands. As Filkins writes, “The negotiations between Obama and Maliki fell apart, in no small measure because of lack of engagement by the White House.”

American troops left in 2011. President Obama said the Iraq war was over. Administration officials foresaw nothing worse than a low-boil insurgency in the region.

Almost immediately things began to deteriorate. There were no advisers left to restrain Maliki’s sectarian tendencies. The American efforts to professionalize the Iraqi Army came undone.

This slide toward civil war was predicted, not only by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and writers like Max Boot, but also within the military. The resurgent sectarian violence gave fuel to fears that the entire region might be engaged in one big war, a sprawling Sunni-Shiite conflict that would cross borders and engulf tens of millions.

This slide toward chaos was exacerbated by the civil war in Syria, which worsened at about the same time. Two nations, both sitting astride the Sunni-Shiite fault line, were growing consumed by sectarian violence, while the rest of the region looked on, hatreds rising.

The same voices that warned about the hasty Iraq withdrawal urged President Obama to strengthen the moderates in Syria. They were joined in this fight by a contingent in the State Department.

But little was done. The moderate opposition floundered. The death toll surged. The radical terror force ISIS, for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, enjoyed a safe haven from which to operate, organize and recruit.

President Obama adopted a cautious posture, arguing that the biggest harm to the nation comes when the U.S. overreaches. American power retrenched. The American people, on both left and right, decided they could hide from the world.

And now the fears of one really big war seem to be coming true. The ISIS serves as a de facto government in growing areas of Syria and Iraq. Extremist armies are routing the official Iraqi Army, even though they are outmanned by as many as 15 to 1. Iraq is in danger of becoming a non-nation.

Andrew White is a Christian aid worker in Iraq, working on reconciliation. On his blog, he reports that the nation “is now in its worst crisis since the 2003 war.” ISIS, a group that does not even see Al Qaeda as extreme enough, has moved into Mosul, he says, adding, “It has totally taken control, destroyed all government departments. Allowed all prisoners out of prisons. Killed countless numbers of people. There are bodies over the streets.”

Meanwhile, autocrats around the region are preparing to manipulate a wider conflagration. The Pakistani Taliban is lighting up their corner of the world. Yemen and Libya are anarchic. Radical jihadis have the momentum as thousands of potential recruits must recognize.

We now have two administrations in a row that committed their worst foreign policy blunders in Iraq. By withdrawing too quickly from Iraq, by failing to build on the surge, the Obama administration has made some similar mistakes made during the early administration of George W. Bush, except in reverse. The dangers of American underreach have been lavishly and horrifically displayed.

It is not too late to help Syrian moderates. In Iraq, the answer is not to send troops back in. It is to provide Maliki help in exchange for concrete measures to reduce sectarian tensions. The Iraqi government could empower regional governments, acknowledging the nation’s diversity. Maliki could re-professionalize the Army. The Constitution could impose term limits on prime ministers.

But these provisions would require a more forward-leaning American posture around the world, an awareness that sometimes a U.S.-created vacuum can be ruinous. The president says his doctrine is don’t do stupid stuff. Sometimes withdrawal is the stupidest thing of all.

Loathsome creature…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

How big a deal is the surprise primary defeat of Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader? Very. Movement conservatism, which dominated American politics from the election of Ronald Reagan to the election of Barack Obama — and which many pundits thought could make a comeback this year — is unraveling before our eyes.

I don’t mean that conservatism in general is dying. But what I and others mean by “movement conservatism,” a term I think I learned from the historian Rick Perlstein, is something more specific: an interlocking set of institutions and alliances that won elections by stoking cultural and racial anxiety but used these victories mainly to push an elitist economic agenda, meanwhile providing a support network for political and ideological loyalists.

By rejecting Mr. Cantor, the Republican base showed that it has gotten wise to the electoral bait and switch, and, by his fall, Mr. Cantor showed that the support network can no longer guarantee job security. For around three decades, the conservative fix was in; but no more.

To see what I mean by bait and switch, think about what happened in 2004. George W. Bush won re-election by posing as a champion of national security and traditional values — as I like to say, he ran as America’s defender against gay married terrorists — then turned immediately to his real priority: privatizing Social Security. It was the perfect illustration of the strategy famously described in Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” in which Republicans would mobilize voters with social issues, but invariably turn postelection to serving the interests of corporations and the 1 percent.

In return for this service, businesses and the wealthy provided both lavish financial support for right-minded (in both senses) politicians and a safety net — “wing-nut welfare” — for loyalists. In particular, there were always comfortable berths waiting for those who left office, voluntarily or otherwise. There were lobbying jobs; there were commentator spots at Fox News and elsewhere (two former Bush speechwriters are now Washington Post columnists); there were “research” positions (after losing his Senate seat, Rick Santorum became director of the “America’s Enemies” program at a think tank supported by the Koch brothers, among others).

The combination of a successful electoral strategy and the safety net made being a conservative loyalist a seemingly low-risk professional path. The cause was radical, but the people it recruited tended increasingly to be apparatchiks, motivated more by careerism than by conviction.

That’s certainly the impression Mr. Cantor conveyed. I’ve never heard him described as inspiring. His political rhetoric was nasty but low-energy, and often amazingly tone-deaf. You may recall, for example, that in 2012 he chose to celebrate Labor Day with a Twitter post honoring business owners. But he was evidently very good at playing the inside game.

It turns out, however, that this is no longer enough. We don’t know exactly why he lost his primary, but it seems clear that Republican base voters didn’t trust him to serve their priorities as opposed to those of corporate interests (and they were probably right). And the specific issue that loomed largest, immigration, also happens to be one on which the divergence between the base and the party elite is wide. It’s not just that the elite believes that it must find a way to reach Hispanics, whom the base loathes. There’s also an inherent conflict between the base’s nativism and the corporate desire for abundant, cheap labor.

And while Mr. Cantor won’t go hungry — he’ll surely find a comfortable niche on K Street — the humiliation of his fall is a warning that becoming a conservative apparatchik isn’t the safe career choice it once seemed.

So whither movement conservatism? Before the Virginia upset, there was a widespread media narrative to the effect that the Republican establishment was regaining control from the Tea Party, which was really a claim that good old-fashioned movement conservatism was on its way back. In reality, however, establishment figures who won primaries did so only by reinventing themselves as extremists. And Mr. Cantor’s defeat shows that lip service to extremism isn’t enough; the base needs to believe that you really mean it.

In the long run — which probably begins in 2016 — this will be bad news for the G.O.P., because the party is moving right on social issues at a time when the country at large is moving left. (Think about how quickly the ground has shifted on gay marriage.) Meanwhile, however, what we’re looking at is a party that will be even more extreme, even less interested in participating in normal governance, than it has been since 2008. An ugly political scene is about to get even uglier.

The wingnut welfare system isn’t going to go away any time soon…

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

June 10, 2014

Bobo is having more fever dreams.  In “The New Right” he babbles that a new manifesto from a group of reform conservatives is the most coherent and compelling policy agenda the American right has produced this century.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston says:  “It’s good that conservatives have decided to pretend to care about the middle class. It shows growth. They tried this strategy after Romney lost, making TV and radio appearances galore, offering concessions and opening the flaps to let everyone into their big tent. Trouble was, the tent was so full of rich white people, fundamentalist Christians, homophobes, conspiracy theorists and science-deniers that there’s wasn’t room for anyone else.”  Mr. Cohen, in “Let It Bleed,” says Mick Jagger was right to play Tel Aviv. Israel has been ill-served by its enemies and its friends.  Mr. Nocera has a question in “The Latest Tea Party Piñata:”  How is it that even a useful, job-creating government agency like the Export-Import Bank is ripe for attacking by the right?  Because they’re the mole people, Joe.  Mr. Bruni gives “A Quiet Cheer For Solitude” and says modern life and modern politics overlook the virtues of ditching the crowd.  Here’s Bobo:

Conservatives generally believe that capitalism is a machine that cures itself. Therefore, people on the right have been slow to recognize the deep structural problems that are making life harder in the new economy — that are leading to stagnant social mobility, widening inequality and pervasive insecurity.

But some conservatives have begun to face these issues head on. These reform conservatives have now published a policy-laden manifesto called “Room to Grow,” which is the most coherent and compelling policy agenda the American right has produced this century.

In the first essay of the book, Peter Wehner moves beyond the ruinous Republican view that the country is divided between hearty entrepreneurs and parasitic “takers.” Like most reform conservatives, he shifts attention sympathetically to the struggling working and middle classes. He grapples with the fact, uncomfortable for conservatives, that the odds of escaping poverty are about half as high in the United States as in more mobile countries like Denmark.

Yuval Levin argues that conservatives have tacitly accepted the 20th-century welfare state; they just want less of it. To respond to the economy’s structural woes, he continues, conservatives will have to change not only the size of the government but its nature.

“The left’s ideal approach,” Levin writes, “is to put enormous faith in the knowledge of experts in the center and empower them to address the problem.” The right’s ideal approach, he continues, “is to put some modest faith in the knowledge of the people on the ground and empower them to try ways of addressing the problem incrementally.”

Liberals emphasize individuals and the state, Levin argues. Conservatives should funnel resources to nurture the civic institutions in between. They should set up decentralized initiatives that rely on local knowledge and allow for a more dynamic process of experimentation.

The next 10 chapters contain a slew of proposals to decentralize the welfare state. Several writers support much larger family tax credits to empower families. James C. Capretta writes that households without access to employee health plans could be given a tax credit comparable in size to the tax subsidy given to families with these plans.

Frederick M. Hess suggests that parents should be given, “course choice,” the chance to not only choose their children’s school but to use a fraction of school funding to purchase access to specialized programs, in, say, math or science. Scott Winship mentions the universal credit, which consolidates a variety of antipoverty programs and distributes benefits to families as a single amount.

Under these and other proposals, the government would address middle-class economic security by devolving power down to households and local governments. This is both to the left of the current Tea Party agenda (more public activism) and also to the right (more fundamental reform). The agenda is a great start but underestimates a few realities. First, the authors underestimate the consequences of declining social capital.

Today, millions of Americans are behaving in ways that make no economic sense: dropping out of school, having children out of wedlock. They do so because the social guardrails that used to guide behavior have dissolved. Giving people in these circumstances tax credits is not going to lead to long-term thinking. Putting more risk into vulnerable people’s lives may not make them happier.

The nanny state may have drained civil society, but simply removing the nanny state will not restore it. There have to be programs that encourage local paternalism: early education programs with wraparound services to reinforce parenting skills, social entrepreneurship funds to reweave community, paternalistic welfare rules to encourage work.

Second, conservatives should not be naïve about sin. We are moving from a world dominated by big cross-class organizations, like public bureaucracies, corporations and unions, toward a world dominated by clusters of networked power. These clusters — Wall Street, Washington, big agriculture, big energy, big universities — are dominated by interlocking elites who create self-serving arrangements for themselves. Society is split between those bred into these networks and those who are not. Moreover, the U.S. economy is increasingly competing against autocratic economies, which play by their own self-serving rules.

Sometimes government is going to have to be active to disrupt local oligarchies and global autocracies by fomenting creative destruction — by insisting on dynamic immigration policies, by pumping money into research, by creating urban environments that nurture innovation, by spending money to give those outside the clusters new paths to rise.

I’d say the reform conservatives are still a little too Jeffersonian. They have a bit too much faith in the magic of decentralization. Some decentralized reforms do nurture personal responsibility and community flourishing. But as Alexander Hamilton (and Margaret Thatcher) understood, sometimes decentralization needs to be complemented with energetic national policies, to disrupt local oligarchies, self-serving arrangements and gradual national decline.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

The Rolling Stones played Tel Aviv last week. It being Israel, this was a political event.

Roger Waters and Nick Mason, founding members of Pink Floyd, were vociferous in invoking Israeli “apartheid” as they tried to stop Mick Jagger, Keith Richards et al. from holding their concert June 4. “Playing Israel now is the moral equivalent of playing Sun City at the height of South African apartheid,” they wrote.

Waters calls Israel a “racist apartheid” regime and has more than once compared the situation of the Palestinians to that of the Jews in Nazi Germany. “This is not a new scenario,” he told Counterpunch magazine last year, alluding to Berlin after 1933, “except that this time it’s the Palestinian people being murdered.”

Jagger was right to play Tel Aviv, if nothing else than as a powerful protest against such charges from Europe’s bien-pensants. Jews suffered systematic, industrialized Nazi annihilation in the period to which Waters alludes. There is no parallel to this in Israel, period.

To suggest there is amounts to something much worse than intellectual sloppiness. It is a form of moral calumny.

The inexact apartheid analogy gains purchase because the “apartheid wall,” “apartheid roads,” house demolitions and land confiscation in the West Bank — as well as the relentless expansion there of Israeli settlements — tell an irrefutable story of oppression.

Nevertheless, Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, about 20 percent of the population, enjoy rights unthinkable in apartheid South Africa (and rare for minorities in the Middle East), even if discrimination and prejudice exist. They are represented in the Knesset and an Arab justice sits on the Supreme Court. Even in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians are not citizens and humiliations commonplace, the systematic cruelty of apartheid — its disappearances and judicial hangings — is not the stuff of everyday life.

Waters and Mason, in urging the Rolling Stones not to play, cited their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, calling it “a growing, nonviolent global human rights movement” aimed at ending “Israel’s occupation, racial discrimination and denial of basic Palestinian rights.”

The stated aim of the B.D.S. movement is in fact to end the occupation, recognize the rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality, and fight for the right of return of all Palestinian refugees. The first objective is essential to Israel’s future. The second is laudable. The third, combined with the second, equals the end of Israel as a Jewish state. This is the hidden agenda of B.D.S., its unacceptable subterfuge, and the reason I do not trust it.

B.D.S. can too easily be commandeered by anti-Semites posing as anti-Zionists who channel the quest for peace in a direction that ultimately dooms Israel as a national home for Jews.

Among the American opponents of B.D.S. has been J Street, the six-year-old Jewish organization that supports Israel, backs a two-state solution, opposes the settlements and attempts to reclaim the progressive ideals of Zionism by saying that the systematic oppression of the Palestinians undermines Israel. It is a counterpoint to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the longstanding lobbying organization whose support of Israel is generally uncritical.

J Street has said that “for some, the B.D.S. movement has become a convenient mantle for thinly disguised anti-Semitism” and has noted that the movement’s backing for the return of all Palestinian refugees indicates pursuit of “an outcome incompatible with our vision of Israel and incompatible with a two-state solution to the conflict.”

Nonetheless, J Street was recently denied admission to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an important umbrella group, because it was deemed to be outside the mainstream of American Jewish groups. The vote amounted to a scandalous rejection demonstrating why Israel feels able to rely on the uncritical support of major American Jewish organizations for the occupation and settlement expansion; this despite the fact that a growing number of American Jews have become critical of the Israeli government.

The objective of Zionism was to create not only a Jewish homeland but a state of laws; Israel can only be that when the lawless enterprise beyond the Green Line ends. J Street understands this reality.

As Leon Wieseltier wrote in The New Republic, “Quarrel has always been a Jewish norm, and controversy a primary instrument for the development of Jewish culture and Jewish religion. But there are those, the heresy hunters and the truancy hunters, the real Jews, the true Jews, the last Jews, who refuse to accept the community as it empirically is, to engage with the cacophony and its causes.”

He added that, “J Street, which unequivocally denounces B.D.S., is a pro-Israel organization, a Zionist organization, and an organic part of the American Jewish landscape.” Yes, it is.

The Stones kept it simple at their gig: “Satisfaction,” “Paint it Black, “Start Me Up.” What is needed in the Holy Land is also simple — two states for two peoples and no more lies.

Next up we have Mr. Nocera:

About three weeks ago, Representative Jeb Hensarling, a Republican from Texas who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, gave a speech to the Heritage Foundation. Hensarling is a Tea Party favorite. His core view is that better government is less government, and that there is nothing government can do that the private sector can’t do better.

Hensarling’s speech was about economics, which, of course, meant it was about wasteful government subsidies and “crony capitalism.” He tossed off what he felt were examples of each — the failure of Solyndra; the continued existence of Fannie Mae; the bailouts of Wall Street and the auto industry — before landing on a government organization that he described as being the “poster child of the Washington insider economy and corporate welfare.”

“Its demise,” he went on, “would clearly be one of the few achievable victories for the Main Street competitive economy left in this Congress. I believe it is a defining issue for our party and our movement.” And what was this government agency that he felt so strongly about?

Would you believe the Export-Import Bank of the United States? Seriously.

Do you know what that bank does? It promotes exports — and American jobs — by backing loans made primarily to foreign entities that want to buy our goods. Sometimes the loans are small — as when a small business wants to expand and start exporting. Sometimes they are large, as when Boeing wants to sell wide-body aircraft to foreign airlines (more on that in a minute). Using numbers culled from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Ex-Im Bank says it has supported 1.2 million American jobs since 2009, including 205,000 last year alone.

It also costs the taxpayers nothing — not only does it support itself through the fees and interest it charges for its services, it also regularly sends money to the Treasury to reduce the debt, some $2 billion over the last five years. Its default rate is negligible. The Chamber of Commerce backs the Ex-Im Bank — and so do some unions. Basically, says its chairman, Fred Hochberg, “We support U.S. jobs, especially when those jobs are facing off against foreign competition.”

In other words, it would be hard to find a more useful government agency than the Export-Import Bank. For decades, its reauthorization was often passed in Congress without even a roll-call vote. Besides, lots of countries have agencies that do what the Ex-Im Bank does, and many countries rely on them far more heavily than we do. So how is it that this relatively small agency — of all the agencies in the federal government — has become the latest Tea Party piñata?

Two years ago, the last time the Export-Import Bank was up for reauthorization, Delta Air Lines decided to raise a stink because of the loans the bank guaranteed that helped foreign airlines buy Boeing airplanes. Delta claimed that the Boeing loan guarantees were giving foreign airlines a leg up over American carriers, and that it was unfair.

Delta claims that it was never trying to put the Ex-Im Bank out of business — protectionism was more its goal — but reauthorization was the leverage it had. For a while, Delta’s water was carried by the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, but eventually Cantor backed away after Republicans and Democrats alike made it clear that the Ex-Im Bank was too useful to their constituents to be put out of business. After some face-saving new rules were put in place, reauthorization passed easily.

This September, the Ex-Im Bank’s financing runs out. But a funny thing happened between the last authorization and the upcoming one. Or, rather, a few funny things happened. One is that groups like the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, as well as conservative think tanks, having looked more closely at the Export-Import Bank thanks to the 2012 fight, decided it was a perfect target to raise ideological objections. And, second, an ideologue — Hensarling — became chairman of the Financial Services Committee.

What are those ideological objections? The usual: the government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers. (The Export-Import Bank doesn’t.) Companies like Boeing are receiving corporate welfare when they work with the Ex-Im Bank. (In fact, export help from the government is a critical part of airline financing; if the Ex-Im Bank didn’t help Boeing, the sales would go to Airbus, which gets plenty of its own government assistance.) And so on.

But there is also another reason these groups are attacking the Export-Import Bank. They can actually win the fight if our do-nothing Congress does nothing. Reauthorization requires the passage of a bill, and, so far, Hensarling has shown no signs of moving such a bill out of his committee. Nor is he likely to.

Thus does the fate of a most useful government agency rest in the hands of a man who believes there is no such thing.

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

See Hillary run.

I don’t mean for president, not officially. I mean around the country, from TV studio to town hall, New York to Chicago to Austin to Washington. It’s been said that she needs to prove her fitness for a big campaign, and her tour for her book “Hard Choices” deliberately puts her in the thick of it, talking and listening and mingling and moving.

I’d just as soon see her — and other politicians — retreat.

Take more time away. Spend more time alone. Trade the speechifying for solitude, which no longer gets anything close to the veneration it’s due, not just in politics but across many walks of life.

It’s in solitude that much of the sharpest thinking is done and many of the best ideas are hatched. We know this intuitively and from experience, yet solitude is often cast as an archaic luxury and indulgent oddity, inferior to a spirited discussion and certainly to a leadership conference. All hail the leadership conference! The modern world has utterly fetishized it, as if enlightenment required a hotel ballroom, a platter of stale pastries and a gift tote.

Brainstorming is defined almost solely as a group activity, although some of the boldest strokes of lightning happen in isolation, where all the competing advice can be processed, where the meaningful strands come together and the debris falls away.

The calendar of a senior executive or public official is defined by meeting after meeting upon meeting. There’s no comparable premium on solitary pauses, on impregnable periods for contemplation, and a person who insists on them attracts a derogatory vocabulary: loner, loafer, recluse, aloof, eccentric, withdrawn.

“We live in the new groupthink — there’s a shared belief that creativity and productivity must be a collaborative experience, and solitude has fallen out of fashion,” Susan Cain, the author of the 2012 best seller “Quiet,” told me. But, she added, “There’s so much research that flies in the face of this.”

Cain’s book focuses on introverts, making the case that they have a kind of intellectual advantage. And their edge stems largely from greater amounts of solitude, from the degree to which they’ve swapped motion for stillness, chatter for calm. They’ve carved out space for reflection that’s sustained and deep.

This isn’t necessarily a matter of being unplugged, of ditching the hyper-connectedness of our digital lives. It’s a matter of ditching and silencing the crowd.

The metabolism of contemporary politics devalues solitude and makes it difficult. The system is nuts. We in the media keep scornful watch over elected leaders’ vacation schedules, giving them demerits for too many days on their own, though on their own is a crucial place to be.

And campaigns? Nuttier still. Our would-be presidents, governors and senators are expected to spend the prelude to Election Day hurtling across time zones, doing a slew of interviews and oodles of speeches from a practiced script of one-liners that they could recite in their sleep. Shaking hands trumps reading books, mulling problems, probing one’s soul. Is it any wonder that our rulers as a class, and we as a country, are bereft of big ideas?

If a candidate has been out of office for a while, we consider that a handicap. Shouldn’t it be a virtue? He or she has known some solitude and perhaps reaped its fruits.

Teddy Roosevelt reputedly read a book a day. That would now be deemed a wasteful distraction and curious disengagement. Paintings of Abraham Lincoln show him in hushed contemplation. Action is the preferred pose of our era’s politicians, who want to be photographed on the go or leaning in, and who are evaluated in terms of their sociability, their zest for interaction.

Some push back. I recall a Fortune magazine interview years ago with Joel Klein, then the New York City schools chancellor, who said that he routinely sacrificed lunch for a ruminative walk. He also told Fortune that as Lloyd Bentsen stepped down from his post as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, he complained about the shortage of hours for pure thought, saying, “Those are the meeting-est people I ever met.”

There are stirrings of a renewed appreciation for solitude. They’re detectable in the vogue for meditation, in the currency of “mindfulness” and in the work of a group of writers including not just Cain but also the sociologist Eric Klinenberg, whose book “Going Solo” examines the increased percentages of people living alone and finding solace in it.

My favorite snapshot of Hillary Clinton in “Hard Choices” is in the epilogue. She describes the “cozy, sun-drenched third-floor study” where she found solitude — and a place to write — after leaving the Obama administration. In a comfortable chair in that thickly carpeted room, she probably felt a whole new clarity. That’s what happens when you wall off the world. It should happen more often.


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