Archive for the ‘Brooks’ Category

Brooks and Krugman

September 26, 2014

In “The Good Order” Bobo gurgles that the arduous work of imposing order is critical to success in any realm, from the international state system to one’s own mind.  “MetroJournalist” from the metropolitan NY area wins the internets today with this comment:  “Mr. Brooks, you forgot to mention that every morning, TPTB at The New York Times, wake up, have coffee, go to their desks and fail to understand that there are some columnists who need to be replaced by people who have something worthier to write about.”  I do so hope that Bobo reads the comments…  Prof. Krugman has questions about “The Show-Off Society:”  Has there been an explosion of elite ostentation? If so, does it reflect moral decline, or a change in circumstances?  Here’s Bobo:

When she was writing, Maya Angelou would get up every morning at 5:30 and have coffee at 6. At 6:30, she would go off to a hotel room she kept — a small modest room with nothing but a bed, desk, Bible, dictionary, deck of cards and bottle of sherry. She would arrive at the room at 7 a.m. and write until 12:30 p.m. or 2 o’clock.

John Cheever would get up, put on his only suit, ride the elevator in his apartment building down to a storage room in the basement. Then he’d take off his suit and sit in his boxers and write until noon. Then he’d put the suit back on and ride upstairs to lunch.

Anthony Trollope would arrive at his writing table at 5:30 each morning. His servant would bring him the same cup of coffee at the same time. He would write 250 words every 15 minutes for two and a half hours every day. If he finished a novel without writing his daily 2,500 words, he would immediately start a new novel to complete his word allotment.

I was reminded of these routines by a book called “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work,” compiled by Mason Currey.

The vignettes remind you how hard creative people work. Most dedicate their whole life to work. “I cannot imagine life without work as really comfortable,” Sigmund Freud wrote.

But you’re primarily struck by the fact that creative people organize their lives according to repetitive, disciplined routines. They think like artists but work like accountants. “I know that to sustain these true moments of insight, one has to be highly disciplined, lead a disciplined life,” Henry Miller declared.

“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” W.H. Auden observed.

Auden checked his watch constantly, making sure each task filled no more than its allotted moment. “A modern stoic,” he argued, “knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time; decide what you want or ought to do during the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.”

People who lead routine, anal-retentive lives have a bad reputation in our culture. But life is paradoxical. In situation after situation, this pattern recurs: order and discipline are the prerequisites for creativity and daring.

This is true on so many levels. Children need emotional and physical order so they can go off and explore. A parent’s main job is to provide daily predictability and emotional security.

Communities need order to thrive and cooperate since where there is chaos and disorder there is distrust and withdrawal. The main job of local leaders is to provide the basic infrastructure of security: roads, police, honest judges and orderly schools.

The world needs order, too, a set of assumed norms and routines that all nations adhere to. You can’t have freedom, trust, democracy and self-determination when thugs like Vladimir Putin of Russia are rampaging across borders and monsters like the Islamic State are killing innocents.

The world’s superpower has a hard and unpleasant duty. The United States is obligated to organize coalitions to impose rule of law — to beat back the wolves and maintain that order.

Building and maintaining order — whether artistic, political or global — seems elementary, but it’s surprisingly hard. Writers have to go to amazing lengths to impose order on their own unruly minds — going off to basement storage rooms. W. Somerset Maugham refused to work in a room with a view. He liked facing a bare wall. It requires toughness of mind and rigid discipline to properly serve your own work.

Preserving world order is even harder. President Obama showed that kind of toughness in his United Nations address this week (you knew I was going to make this leap). It was one of the finest speeches of his presidency.

During his public life, Obama has hit the high notes of poetic romance — his 2008 campaign. He has also hit some prosaic notes of caution, realism and inaction. But this speech blended the two tones. It put tough-minded realism at the service of a high calling.

The speech was about defending the world order against enemies like ISIS and Putin. Breaking with past emphasis, he acknowledged that sometimes you have to use military might to fight off a military threat. He acknowledged that power-hungry thugs aren’t appeased if you try to show them how nonthreatening and reasonable you are. Obama cast off his cloak of reluctance and more aggressively championed democracy than he has recently. He was direct and forthright.

We’ll see what action comes behind the words. But the larger point is that the order of global civilization, like the order in a poet’s mind, is something that has to be fought and imposed every day. The best life is a series of daring excursions from a secure and orderly base.

I wonder if Bobo reads books on creativity in hopes of learning how to be less of a hack…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Liberals talk about circumstances; conservatives talk about character.

This intellectual divide is most obvious when the subject is the persistence of poverty in a wealthy nation. Liberals focus on the stagnation of real wages and the disappearance of jobs offering middle-class incomes, as well as the constant insecurity that comes with not having reliable jobs or assets. For conservatives, however, it’s all about not trying hard enough. The House speaker, John Boehner, says that people have gotten the idea that they “really don’t have to work.” Mitt Romney chides lower-income Americans as being unwilling to “take personal responsibility.” Even as he declares that he really does care about the poor, Representative Paul Ryan attributes persistent poverty to lack of “productive habits.”

Let us, however, be fair: some conservatives are willing to censure the rich, too. Running through much recent conservative writing is the theme that America’s elite has also fallen down on the job, that it has lost the seriousness and restraint of an earlier era. Peggy Noonan writes about our “decadent elites,” who make jokes about how they are profiting at the expense of the little people. Charles Murray, whose book “Coming Apart” is mainly about the alleged decay of values among the white working class, also denounces the “unseemliness” of the very rich, with their lavish lifestyles and gigantic houses.

But has there really been an explosion of elite ostentation? And, if there has, does it reflect moral decline, or a change in circumstances?

I’ve just reread a remarkable article titled “How top executives live,” originally published in Fortune in 1955 and reprinted a couple of years ago. It’s a portrait of America’s business elite two generations ago, and it turns out that the lives of an earlier generation’s elite were, indeed, far more restrained, more seemly if you like, than those of today’s Masters of the Universe.

“The executive’s home today,” the article tells us, “is likely to be unpretentious and relatively small — perhaps seven rooms and two and a half baths.” The top executive owns two cars and “gets along with one or two servants.” Life is restrained in other ways, too: “Extramarital relations in the top American business world are not important enough to discuss.” Actually, I’m sure there was plenty of hanky-panky, but people didn’t flaunt it. The elite of 1955 at least pretended to set a good example of responsible behavior.

But before you lament the decline in standards, there’s something you should know: In celebrating America’s sober, modest business elite, Fortune described this sobriety and modesty as something new. It contrasted the modest houses and motorboats of 1955 with the mansions and yachts of an earlier generation. And why had the elite moved away from the ostentation of the past? Because it could no longer afford to live that way. The large yacht, Fortune tells us, “has foundered in the sea of progressive taxation.”

But that sea has since receded. Giant yachts and enormous houses have made a comeback. In fact, in places like Greenwich, Conn., some of the “outsize mansions” Fortune described as relics of the past have been replaced with even bigger mansions.

And there’s no mystery about what happened to the good-old days of elite restraint. Just follow the money. Extreme income inequality and low taxes at the top are back. For example, in 1955 the 400 highest-earning Americans paid more than half their incomes in federal taxes, but these days that figure is less than a fifth. And the return of lightly taxed great wealth has, inevitably, brought a return to Gilded Age ostentation.

Is there any chance that moral exhortations, appeals to set a better example, might induce the wealthy to stop showing off so much? No.

It’s not just that people who can afford to live large tend to do just that. As Thorstein Veblen told us long ago, in a highly unequal society the wealthy feel obliged to engage in “conspicuous consumption,” spending in highly visible ways to demonstrate their wealth. And modern social science confirms his insight. For example, researchers at the Federal Reserve have shown that people living in highly unequal neighborhoods are more likely to buy luxury cars than those living in more homogeneous settings. Pretty clearly, high inequality brings a perceived need to spend money in ways that signal status.

The point is that while chiding the rich for their vulgarity may not be as offensive as lecturing the poor on their moral failings, it’s just as futile. Human nature being what it is, it’s silly to expect humility from a highly privileged elite. So if you think our society needs more humility, you should support policies that would reduce the elite’s privileges.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

September 23, 2014

Bobo is annoyed.  Bobo is pissed.  In “Snap Out of It” he barks that it’s been a bad summer, but it’s important to keep things in perspective.  In the comments “Michael” from LA had this to say:  “Mr. Brooks, please send a copy of your recommendations to your fellow Republicans in government and in the media. Then, for your own good, stand aside so you won’t be singed by the blowback.”  Mr. Cohen, in “Truths of a French Village,” says talks with a real estate agent illustrate why globalization does not alter the reality of cultural differences.  Mr. Nocera looks “Behind the Chevron Case” and says this lawyer may have movie-star good looks, but he has a lot to answer for, too.  Ah — attack the attorney who went after Chevron, but say nothing about what Chevron was responsible for.  Typical.  Here’s Bobo:

I’ve been living in and visiting New York for almost a half-century now. One thought occurs as I walk around these days: The city has never been better.

There has never been a time when there were so many interesting places to visit, shop and eat, when the rivers and the parks were so beautiful, when there were so many vibrant neighborhoods across all boroughs, with immigrants and hipsters and new businesses and experimental schools. I suppose New York isn’t as artistically or intellectually rich as it was in the 1940s and 1950s, but daily life is immeasurably better.

And when I think about the 15 or 20 largest American cities, the same thought applies. Compared with all past periods, American cities and suburbs are sweeter and more interesting places. Of course there are the problems of inequality and poverty that we all know about, but there hasn’t been a time in American history when so many global cultures percolated in the mainstream, when there was so much tolerance for diverse ethnicities, lifestyles and the complex directions of the heart, when there was so little tolerance for disorder, domestic violence and prejudice.

Widening the lens, we’re living in an era with the greatest reduction in global poverty ever — across Asia and Africa. We’re seeing a decline in civil wars and warfare generally.

The scope of the problems we face are way below historic averages. We face nothing like the slavery fights of the 1860s, the brutality of child labor and industrialization of the 1880s, or a civilization-threatening crisis like World War I, the Great Depression, World War II or the Cold War. Even next to the 1970s — which witnessed Watergate, stagflation, social decay and rising crime — we are living in a golden age.

Our global enemies are not exactly impressive. We have the Islamic State, a bunch of barbarians riding around in pickup trucks, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, a lone thug sitting atop a failing regime. These folks thrive only because of the failed states and vacuums around them.

I mention all of this because of the despondency and passivity and talk of unraveling that floated around this summer. Now there is a mood of pessimism and fatalism evident in the polls and in conversations — a lack of faith in ourselves.

It’s important in times like these to step back and get clarity. The truest thing to say is this: We are living in an amazingly fortunate time. But we also happen to be living during a leadership crisis, and a time when few people have faith in elites to govern from the top. We live in a vibrant society that is not being led.

We don’t suffer from an abuse of power as much as a nonuse of power. It’s been years since a major piece of legislation was passed, and there’s little prospect that one will get passed in the next two.

This leadership crisis is eminently solvable. First, we need to get over the childish notion that we don’t need a responsible leadership class, that power can be wielded directly by the people. America was governed best when it was governed by a porous, self-conscious and responsible elite — during the American revolution, for example, or during and after World War II. Karl Marx and Ted Cruz may believe that power can be wielded directly by the masses, but this has almost never happened historically.

Second, the elite we do have has to acknowledge that privilege imposes duties. Wealthy people have an obligation to try to follow a code of seemliness. No luxury cars for college-age kids. No private jet/ski weekends. Live a lifestyle that is more integrated into middle-class America than the one you can actually afford. Strike a blow for social cohesion.

Powerful people might follow a code of public spiritedness. That means restraining your partisan passions and parochial interests for the sake of domestic tranquility. Re-establish the lines between public service and private enrichment.

Third, discredit political bigotry. In 1960, 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said they would be displeased if their children married someone of the opposite party. By 2010, Cass Sunstein observes, those numbers had jumped to 49 percent and 33 percent. How small-minded can you get?

Fourth, put congressional reform atop the national agenda. More states could have open primaries. Nonpartisan commissions could draw district lines. Presidential nominees should get an up-or-down vote within 90 days. Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee suggests that if Congress doesn’t pass a budget or annual spending bills on time, then members don’t get paid.

Politics is generally the same old tasks. Rejuvenating ailing institutions. Fighting barbarians to preserve world order. Today is nothing new. Instead of sliding into fatalism, it might be a good idea to address our problems without exaggerating our plight.

We can address our problems by getting rid of all the Republicans in Congress for starters.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

A few weeks ago I was in France, where I’ve owned a village house for almost 20 years that I am now planning to sell. A real estate agent had taken a look at the property and we had made an appointment to discuss how to proceed. She swept into the kitchen, a bundle of energy and conviction, with an impassioned appeal:

“Monsieur Cohen, whatever you do, you must on no account sell this house!”

I gazed at her, a little incredulous.

“You cannot sell it. This is a family home. You know it the moment you step in. You sense it in the walls. You breathe it in every room. You feel it in your bones. This is a house you must keep for your children. I will help you sell it if you insist, but my advice is not to sell. You would be making a mistake.”

This was, shall we say, a cultural moment, one of those times when a door opens and you gaze, if not into the soul of a country, at least into territory that is distinct and deep and almost certainly has greater meaning than the headlines and statistics that are supposed to capture the state of a nation, in this case one called France, whose malaise has become an object of fascination. I tried to imagine an American or British real estate agent, presented with a potentially lucrative opportunity, deciding to begin the pitch with a heartfelt call not to sell the property because it was the repository of something important or irreplaceable. I came up blank. I could not picture it. There were no circumstances in which self-interest, or at least professional obligation, would not prevail. Price would be pre-eminent, along with market conditions and terms. Yet in this French village, across a wooden kitchen table set on a stone floor, the setting of economic interest below emotional intuition seemed a natural outcrop of soil and place.

I thought of this exchange the other day as Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a modernizing socialist, faced a confidence vote in the National Assembly over yet another plan to cut public spending, make the job market more flexible, and break the French logjam of high unemployment, a bloated state sector and handouts that can have the perverse effect of making work in the official economy an unattractive proposition. “What matters today is effectiveness and not ideology,” Valls said.

He prevailed even though 32 members of his own party abstained in protest at a perceived attack on socialist principles. More than any other party of the center-left in Europe, the French socialists have had trouble jettisoning ideological baggage ill-adapted to 21st-century global competition. More than any other Western country, France has resisted modernity, at least in the way it thinks of itself. So my feeling listening to Valls talk about “effectiveness” could be summed up in two words: Good luck!

The prime minister is up against something deeper than the resistance of labor unions or his own party: a culture that views the prizing of efficiency as almost vulgar. Effectiveness had no place in my chat with the real estate agent. Effectiveness does not seem to enter into it as I contemplate French butchers bard a chicken or prepare a cut of beef with deft incisions. Effectiveness is not the rule in French shopping habits. It lies at a far remove from the long conversations between shopkeepers and clients. Efficiency for the French is a poor measure of the good life, just as making a buck from the sale of a house pales before the expression of feeling about what a house may represent. Whether this is good or bad hardly matters. It is often bad for the French economy. It is also a fact of life.

These distinctive cultural components of nations are probably underestimated as globalization and homogenization create the impression that the same standards or systems can be pursued everywhere. I used to be impatient with such thinking. The Russians need a czar! The Egyptians need a pharaoh! The French need to strike! No, I would think, the Russians and the Egyptians and the French are like everyone else, they want to be free, they want governance with the consent of the governed, they do not want their lives subjected to arbitrary rules, or to live less well than they could without czars and pharaohs and strikes. Now I feel I was wrong about that. Globalization equals adaptation to insurmountable differences as much as it equals change. Some things do not change, being the work of centuries.

A couple of days after my meeting I was having a beer with my sons in a French cafe. The bill was 14 euros. The waitress was going to take a credit card, then saw I had a €10 note. “Just give me that,” she said. “Don’t worry about the rest.”

It must be nice to live in London and have a home in France too…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

“I am the target of what is probably the most well-funded corporate retaliation campaign in U.S. history,” Steven Donziger emailed me early Monday afternoon.

Donziger, 53, is the sort of attorney they make movies about. Tall, handsome, and charismatic, he has spent the bulk of his legal career on one case: trying to get Chevron to clean up an environmental mess that he says its predecessor left behind in the Ecuadorian rain forest. His clients are poor Ecuadorians who have allegedly been living with the land’s degradation ever since Texaco pulled out of the country in the early 1990s. (Chevron bought Texaco — and acquired its legal liabilities — in 2001). He has worked tirelessly on the case for more than two decades, finally gaining a $19 billion judgment against the company in an Ecuadorian court in 2011. Though a higher court later cut the damages in half, it would still seem to be a fantastic victory by David over Goliath.

But there is another, darker narrative about Donziger, told most recently by Paul Barrett, a Bloomberg Businessweek writer whose book about the Chevron-Ecuador case, “Law of the Jungle,” is being published this week. According to Barrett, Donziger may have begun his quest with the best of intentions, but somewhere along the way, he lost his bearings. To get the judgment he wanted from the Ecuadorian courts, Donziger allegedly committed multiple acts of fraud, including having members of his team ghostwrite a crucial report for the court that was supposed to be authored by an independent expert. Donziger has responded by accusing Barrett of working hand-in-glove with Chevron, in effect being part of the “retaliation campaign.”

I know Donziger slightly. I’ve always liked him. But I have to say that I find Barrett’s account far more persuasive than Donziger’s. Without question, Chevron has gone after him. But Donziger is the one who supplied the ammunition.

One reason Barrett’s account is credible is that he began his reporting with a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story in 2011 that was decidedly pro-Donziger. But once he got the book contract and began digging deeper into the case, he started to have his doubts about Donziger and the plaintiffs’ team. How could the plaintiffs know for sure that Chevron was at fault when the Ecuadorian government’s oil company had continued to extract oil from the rain forest for years after Texaco left? Where was the epidemiology that connected the oil waste to disease? What about the ghostwritten expert’s report? And the ex parte communications with judges? And even an alleged attempt to bribe the judge to rule in the plaintiffs’ favor?

Barrett isn’t the only one to come to view Donziger as a rogue lawyer willing to do virtually anything to win. So has Roger Parloff, Fortune magazine’s legal writer, who has covered the case for years. And so has the highly respected human right lawyer — and Notre Dame law professor — Doug Cassel.

With every critic, Donziger and his allies have replied the same way: The critics have been corrupted by the evil Chevron. But there is one critic who is not so easy to brush aside: the federal judge Lewis Kaplan of the Southern District of New York. Chevron brought a civil RICO case against Donziger, claiming that his actions had so tainted any Ecuadorian verdict that it should be unenforceable in the United States. (Because Chevron has no assets in Ecuador, the judgment would have to be enforced in countries like the U.S. where it did have assets.)

After a six-week trial, Kaplan essentially agreed, writing an astonishing 485-page decision in which he concluded that Donziger and his team had “corrupted” the trial. (Donziger described Kaplan’s decision as “deeply flawed.”) Donziger had once thought his case against Chevron would show public interest lawyers how to bring big, complex foreign cases against multinational corporations. Instead, it is more likely to show corporations that there is more merit in fighting back than settling.

What’s worse is that the Ecuadorians who live in the affected areas have still not seen any help, 20 years later. A lawyer with a more realistic view of the case might have been able to get a reasonable settlement early on. A lawyer who had played by the rules might have even won a judgment that would now be enforceable in an American court. “Donziger disserved his clients and his cause” by the way he conducted himself during the trial, Cassel now says.

When I spoke to Donziger on Monday, he conceded that he may have made some mistakes, but nothing as egregious as Chevron’s “horrendous actions in Ecuador.” He told me that he was proud of the way he had acted, and that he still stands by the ghostwritten expert’s report.

“I am a big boy,” Donziger said. “I can take responsibility for what I did or did not do.” But that’s just the problem. He can’t. And he hasn’t.

Brooks and Krugman

September 19, 2014

Oh, gawd…  Bobo has a question in “Startling Adult Friendships:”  How would you spend $500 million? He’s got a few ideas.  In the comments “Claus Gehner” from Seattle and Munich had this to say:  “Mr. Brooks’ editorials of late have been a bit – how shall I put it – weird. This one ascends to new heights of weirdness.”  Bobo’s obviously going through some prolonged midlife crisis.  I just wish he’d keep it to himself.  Prof. Krugman, in “Errors and Emissions,” says fighting climate change could be cheaper and easier than almost anyone imagines if we wouldn’t give in to the despair.  Here, dear sweet Baby Jesus help us, is Bobo:

Somebody recently asked me what I would do if I had $500 million to give away. My first thought was that I’d become a moderate version of the Koch brothers. I’d pay for independent candidates to run against Democratic or Republican members of Congress who veered too far into their party’s fever swamps.

But then I realized that if I really had that money, I’d want to affect a smaller number of people in a more personal and profound way. The big, established charities are already fighting disease and poverty as best they can, so in search of new directions I thought, oddly, of friendship.

Ancient writers from Aristotle to Cicero to Montaigne described friendship as the pre-eminent human institution. You can go without marriage, or justice, or honor, but friendship is indispensable to life. Each friendship, they continued, has positive social effects. Lovers face each other, but friends stand side-by-side, facing the world — often working on its behalf. Aristotle suggested that friendship is the cornerstone of society. Montaigne thought that it spreads universal warmth.

These writers probably romanticized friendship. One senses that they didn’t know how to have real conversations with the women in their lives, so they poured their whole emotional lives into male friendships. But I do think they were right in pointing out that friendship is a personal relationship that has radiating social and political benefits.

In the first place, friendship helps people make better judgments. So much of deep friendship is thinking through problems together: what job to take; whom to marry. Friendship allows you to see your own life but with a second sympathetic self.

Second, friends usually bring out better versions of each other. People feel unguarded and fluid with their close friends. If you’re hanging around with a friend, smarter and funnier thoughts tend to come burbling out.

Finally, people behave better if they know their friends are observing. Friendship is based, in part, on common tastes and interests, but it is also based on mutual admiration and reciprocity. People tend to want to live up to their friends’ high regard. People don’t have close friendships in any hope of selfish gain, but simply for the pleasure itself of feeling known and respected.

It’s also true that friendship is not in great shape in America today. In 1985, people tended to have about three really close friends, according to the General Social Survey. By 2004, according to research done at Duke University and the University of Arizona, they were reporting they had only two close confidants. The number of people who say they have no close confidants at all has tripled over that time.

People seem to have a harder time building friendships across class lines. As society becomes more unequal and segmented, invitations come to people on the basis of their job status. Middle-aged people have particular problems nurturing friendships and building new ones. They are so busy with work and kids that friendship gets squeezed out.

So, in the fantasy world in which I have $500 million, I’d try to set up places that would cultivate friendships. I know a lot of people who have been involved in fellowship programs. They made friends that ended up utterly transforming their lives. I’d try to take those sorts of networking programs and make them less career oriented and more profound.

To do that, you have to get people out of their normal hunting grounds where their guard is up. You also probably want to give them challenging activities to do together. Nothing inspires friendship like selflessness and cooperation in moments of difficulty. You also want to give them moments when they can share confidences, about big ideas and small worries.

So I envision a string of adult camps or retreat centers (my oldest friendships were formed at summer camp, so I think in those terms). Groups of 20 or 30 would be brought together from all social and demographic groups, and secluded for two weeks. They’d prepare and clean up all their meals together, and eating the meals would go on for a while. In the morning, they would read about and discuss big topics. In the afternoons, they’d play sports, take hikes and build something complicated together. At night, there’d be a bar and music.

You couldn’t build a close friendship in that time, but you could plant the seeds for one. As with good fellowship programs, alumni networks would grow spontaneously over time.

People these days are flocking to conferences, ideas festivals and cruises that are really about building friendships, even if they don’t admit it explicitly. The goal of these intensity retreats would be to spark bonds between disparate individuals who, in the outside world, would be completely unlikely to know each other. The benefits of that social bridging, while unplannable, would ripple out in ways long and far-reaching.

It’s sad to think that Bobo can’t think of another way to form friendships other than what sounds very much like a reeducation camp for people like him…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

This just in: Saving the planet would be cheap; it might even be free. But will anyone believe the good news?

I’ve just been reading two new reports on the economics of fighting climate change: a big study by a blue-ribbon international group, the New Climate Economy Project, and a working paper from the International Monetary Fund. Both claim that strong measures to limit carbon emissions would have hardly any negative effect on economic growth, and might actually lead to faster growth. This may sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. These are serious, careful analyses.

But you know that such assessments will be met with claims that it’s impossible to break the link between economic growth and ever-rising emissions of greenhouse gases, a position I think of as “climate despair.” The most dangerous proponents of climate despair are on the anti-environmentalist right. But they receive aid and comfort from other groups, including some on the left, who have their own reasons for getting it wrong.

Where is the new optimism about climate change and growth coming from? It has long been clear that a well-thought-out strategy of emissions control, in particular one that puts a price on carbon via either an emissions tax or a cap-and-trade scheme, would cost much less than the usual suspects want you to think. But the economics of climate protection look even better now than they did a few years ago.

On one side, there has been dramatic progress in renewable energy technology, with the costs of solar power, in particular, plunging, down by half just since 2010. Renewables have their limitations — basically, the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow — but if you think that an economy getting a lot of its power from wind farms and solar panels is a hippie fantasy, you’re the one out of touch with reality.

On the other side, it turns out that putting a price on carbon would have large “co-benefits” — positive effects over and above the reduction in climate risks — and that these benefits would come fairly quickly. The most important of these co-benefits, according to the I.M.F. paper, would involve public health: burning coal causes many respiratory ailments, which drive up medical costs and reduce productivity.

And thanks to these co-benefits, the paper argues, one argument often made against carbon pricing — that it’s not worth doing unless we can get a global agreement — is wrong. Even without an international agreement, there are ample reasons to take action against the climate threat.

But back to the main point: It’s easier to slash emissions than seemed possible even a few years ago, and reduced emissions would produce large benefits in the short-to-medium run. So saving the planet would be cheap and maybe even come free.

Enter the prophets of climate despair, who wave away all this analysis and declare that the only way to limit carbon emissions is to bring an end to economic growth.

You mostly hear this from people on the right, who normally say that free-market economies are endlessly flexible and creative. But when you propose putting a price on carbon, suddenly they insist that industry will be completely incapable of adapting to changed incentives. Why, it’s almost as if they’re looking for excuses to avoid confronting climate change, and, in particular, to avoid anything that hurts fossil-fuel interests, no matter how beneficial to everyone else.

But climate despair produces some odd bedfellows: Koch-fueled insistence that emission limits would kill economic growth is echoed by some who see this as an argument not against climate action, but against growth. You can find this attitude in the mostly European “degrowth” movement, or in American groups like the Post Carbon Institute; I’ve encountered claims that saving the planet requires an end to growth at left-leaning meetings on “rethinking economics.” To be fair, anti-growth environmentalism is a marginal position even on the left, but it’s widespread enough to call out nonetheless.

And you sometimes see hard scientists making arguments along the same lines, largely (I think) because they don’t understand what economic growth means. They think of it as a crude, physical thing, a matter simply of producing more stuff, and don’t take into account the many choices — about what to consume, about which technologies to use — that go into producing a dollar’s worth of G.D.P.

So here’s what you need to know: Climate despair is all wrong. The idea that economic growth and climate action are incompatible may sound hardheaded and realistic, but it’s actually a fuzzy-minded misconception. If we ever get past the special interests and ideology that have blocked action to save the planet, we’ll find that it’s cheaper and easier than almost anyone imagines.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

September 16, 2014

In “Goodbye, Organization Man” Bobo actually whines that the global failure to address the Ebola epidemic stems from a much broader crisis in our culture of government.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston points out the following:  “Suddenly Mr. Brooks is outraged that the government he has helped submerge in the bathtub is incapable of mounting an effective, expensive, internationally coordinated effort to respond to disease outbreaks. You can’t rail against big government one day and complain that it’s not there when it’s needed the next.  Brooks has repeatedly advocated for big government to be replaced by grassroots volunteerism, or by a distributed gaggle of local government agencies. But when a virus is knocking at the door of his gated community, suddenly big government is looking a whole lot better.”  Mr. Cohen, in “The Great Unraveling,” sees a time of weakness and hatred, disorientation and doubt, when nobody can see what disaster looms.  In “Criminal Card Games” Mr. Nocera says in the wake of the recent Home Depot breach, you have to wonder if data theft has become a condition of modern life.  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

Imagine two cities. In City A, town leaders notice that every few weeks a house catches on fire. So they create a fire department — a group of professionals with prepositioned firefighting equipment and special expertise. In City B, town leaders don’t create a fire department. When there’s a fire, they hurriedly cobble together some people and equipment to fight it.

We are City B. We are particularly slow to build institutions to combat long-running problems.

The most obvious example is the fight against jihadism. We’ve been facing Islamist terror for several decades, now, but every time it erupts — in Lebanon, Nigeria, Sudan, Syria and beyond — leaders start from scratch and build some new ad hoc coalition to fight it.

The most egregious example is global health emergencies. Every few years, some significant epidemic strikes, and somebody suggests that we form a Medical Expeditionary Corps, a specialized organization that would help coordinate and execute the global response. Several years ago, then-Senator Bill Frist went so far as to prepare a bill proposing such a force. But, as always, nothing came of it.

The result, right now, is unnecessary deaths from the Ebola virus in Africa. Ebola is a recurring problem, yet the world seems unprepared. The response has been slow and uncoordinated.

The virus’s spread, once linear, is now exponential. As Michael Gerson pointed out in The Washington Post, the normal countermeasures — isolation, contact tracing — are rendered increasingly irrelevant by the rate of increase. Treatment centers open and are immediately filled to twice capacity as people die on the streets outside. An Oxford University forecast warns as many as 15 more countries are vulnerable to outbreaks. The president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, warned: “At this rate, we will never break the transmission chain, and the virus will overwhelm us.”

The catastrophe extends beyond the disease. Economies are rocked as flights are canceled and outsiders flee. Ray Chambers, a philanthropist and U.N. special envoy focused on global health, points out the impact on health more broadly.  For example, people in the early stages of malaria show similar symptoms to Ebola and other diseases. Many hesitate to seek treatment fearing they’ll get sent to an Ebola isolation center. So death rates from malaria, pneumonia and other common diseases could rise, as further Ebola cases fail to be diagnosed.

The World Health Organization has recently come out with an action plan but lacks logistical capabilities. President Obama asked for a strategy, but that was two months ago and the government is only now coming up with a strong comprehensive plan. Up until now, aid has been scattershot. The Pentagon opened a 25-bed field hospital in Liberia. The U.S. donated five ambulances to Sierra Leone. Coordination has just not been there.

At root, this is a governance failure. The disease spreads fastest in places where the health care infrastructure is lacking or nonexistent. Liberia, for example, is being overrun while Ivory Coast has put in a series of policies to prevent an outbreak. The few doctors and nurses in the affected places have trouble acquiring the safety basics: gloves and body bags. More than 100, so far, have died fighting the outbreak.

But it’s not just a failure of governance in Africa. It’s a failure of governance around the world. I wonder if we are looking at the results of a cultural shift.

A few generations ago, people grew up in and were comfortable with big organizations — the army, corporations and agencies. They organized huge construction projects in the 1930s, gigantic industrial mobilization during World War II, highway construction and corporate growth during the 1950s. Institutional stewardship, the care and reform of big organizations, was more prestigious.

Now nobody wants to be an Organization Man. We like start-ups, disrupters and rebels. Creativity is honored more than the administrative execution. Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs.

The Ebola crisis is another example that shows that this is misguided. The big, stolid agencies — the health ministries, the infrastructure builders, the procurement agencies — are the bulwarks of the civil and global order. Public and nonprofit management, the stuff that gets derided as “overhead,” really matters. It’s as important to attract talent to health ministries as it is to spend money on specific medicines.

As recent books by Francis Fukuyama and Philip Howard have detailed, this is an era of general institutional decay. New, mobile institutions languish on the drawing broad, while old ones are not reformed and tended. Executives at public agencies are robbed of discretionary power. Their hands are bound by court judgments and regulations.

When the boring tasks of governance are not performed, infrastructures don’t get built. Then, when epidemics strike, people die.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

It was the time of unraveling. Long afterward, in the ruins, people asked: How could it happen?

It was a time of beheadings. With a left-handed sawing motion, against a desert backdrop, in bright sunlight, a Muslim with a British accent cut off the heads of two American journalists and a British aid worker. The jihadi seemed comfortable in his work, unhurried. His victims were broken. Terror is theater. Burning skyscrapers, severed heads: The terrorist takes movie images of unbearable lightness and gives them weight enough to embed themselves in the psyche.

It was a time of aggression. The leader of the largest nation on earth pronounced his country encircled, even humiliated. He annexed part of a neighboring country, the first such act in Europe since 1945, and stirred up a war on further land he coveted. His surrogates shot down a civilian passenger plane. The victims, many of them Europeans, were left to rot in the sun for days. He denied any part in the violence, like a puppeteer denying that his puppets’ movements have any connection to his. He invoked the law the better to trample on it. He invoked history the better to turn it into farce. He reminded humankind that the idiom fascism knows best is untruth so grotesque it begets unreason.

It was a time of breakup. The most successful union in history, forged on an island in the North Sea in 1707, headed toward possible dissolution — not because it had failed (refugees from across the seas still clamored to get into it), nor even because of new hatreds between its peoples. The northernmost citizens were bored. They were disgruntled. They were irked, in some insidious way, by the south and its moneyed capital, an emblem to them of globalization and inequality. They imagined they had to control their National Health Service in order to save it even though they already controlled it through devolution and might well have less money for its preservation (not that it was threatened in the first place) as an independent state. The fact that the currency, the debt, the revenue, the defense, the solvency and the European Union membership of such a newborn state were all in doubt did not appear to weigh much on a decision driven by emotion, by urges, by a longing to be heard in the modern cacophony — and to heck with the day after. If all else failed, oil would come to the rescue (unless somebody else owned it or it just ran out).

It was a time of weakness. The most powerful nation on earth was tired of far-flung wars, its will and treasury depleted by absence of victory. An ungrateful world could damn well police itself. The nation had bridges to build and education systems to fix. Civil wars between Arabs could fester. Enemies might even kill other enemies, a low-cost gain. Middle Eastern borders could fade; they were artificial colonial lines on a map. Shiite could battle Sunni, and Sunni Shiite, there was no stopping them. Like Europe’s decades-long religious wars, these wars had to run their course. The nation’s leader mockingly derided his own “wan, diffident, professorial” approach to the world, implying he was none of these things, even if he gave that appearance. He set objectives for which he had no plan. He made commitments he did not keep. In the way of the world these things were noticed. Enemies probed. Allies were neglected, until they were needed to face the decapitators who talked of a Caliphate and called themselves a state. Words like “strength” and “resolve” returned to the leader’s vocabulary. But the world was already adrift, unmoored by the retreat of its ordering power. The rule book had been ripped up.

It was a time of hatred. Anti-Semitic slogans were heard in the land that invented industrialized mass murder for Europe’s Jews. Frightened European Jews removed mezuzahs from their homes. Europe’s Muslims felt the ugly backlash from the depravity of the decapitators, who were adept at Facebooking their message. The fabric of society frayed. Democracy looked quaint or outmoded beside new authoritarianisms. Politicians, haunted by their incapacity, played on the fears of their populations, who were device-distracted or under device-driven stress. Dystopia was a vogue word, like utopia in the 20th century. The great rising nations of vast populations held the fate of the world in their hands but hardly seemed to care.

It was a time of fever. People in West Africa bled from the eyes.

It was a time of disorientation. Nobody connected the dots or read Kipling on life’s few certainties: “The Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire / And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire.”

Until it was too late and people could see the Great Unraveling for what it was and what it had wrought.

Cripes.  He needs to take a pill…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

What is it going to take to get serious about data breaches?

I ask this question in the wake of the recent Home Depot breach, in which the “bad guys” — presumably cybercriminals in Russia — apparently penetrated the company’s point of sale terminals and came away with an untold number of credit and debit card data. (Home Depot acknowledges that all 2,200 stores in the United States and Canada were likely hacked, but hasn’t yet revealed the number of cards from which data were stolen.)

This, of course, comes after the Target breach of late 2013, in which some 40 million people had their credit card information stolen. Which comes after the Global Payments breach of 2012 and the Sony breach of 2011. All of which come after the T.J. Maxx breach of 2007, in which 94 million credit and debit card records were stolen in an 18-month period.

That’s right: Seven years have passed between the huge T.J. Maxx breach and the huge Home Depot breach — and nothing has changed. Have we become resigned to the idea that, as a condition of modern life, our personal financial data will be hacked on a regular basis? It is sure starting to seem that way.

The Home Depot breach came to light in the usual way. On Sept. 2, a reporter named Brian Krebs, who specializes in cybercrime and operates the website Krebs on Security, broke the news to his readers. Krebs, who is as deeply sourced as any reporter in the country, almost always breaks the news of a new breach. He also reported that the “malware” had been doing its dirty work at Home Depot since April or May. And he discovered that millions of card numbers were being sold on a website called Rescator.cc, which Bloomberg Businessweek recently described as the “Amazon.com of the black market.”

(Interestingly, they are being sold in batches under the names “American Sanctions” and “European Sanction” — an apparent reference to the recent sanctions against Russia.)

The company — “always the last to know,” Krebs says — hastily pulled together some security experts who, sure enough, confirmed the breach. In this instance, Home Depot released a statement saying that it was investigating the breach on Sept. 3, the day after the Krebs report, and confirmed the breach on Sept. 8. As these things go, that’s lightning speed.

Of course, in its materials, the company insists that it cares deeply about its customers’ data and will stop at nothing to plug the leak. But the damage has already been done. Home Depot also claims that debit card P.I.N.’s were not stolen. There is little solace in that, however; the crooks use weak bank security to change the P.I.N., after which they can use it. Sure enough, Krebs’s banking sources have told him that they “are reporting a steep increase over the past few days in fraudulent A.T.M. withdrawals on customer accounts.”

Why the rash of breaches? “It’s easy money,” said Avivah Litan, a security expert at Gartner Inc. “The criminals are distributing this malware, so why not use it? It’s like winning the lottery.”

Kurt Baumgartner, a senior security researcher at Kaspersky Lab, noted that months before the attack on Home Depot began, the F.B.I. alerted retailers about being more vigilant about point-of-sale cyberattacks. The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that Home Depot had, in fact, begun the process of strengthening its systems. But it moved so slowly that the criminals had months to vacuum card data before being discovered. Meanwhile, Bloomberg Businessweek found two unnamed former Home Depot managers who claimed that they were told to “settle for ‘C-level security’ because ambitious upgrades would be costly and might disrupt the operation of critical business systems.”

For years, the banks and the retail industry have spent more time accusing each other of causing the problem than seeking a solution. By October 2015, the United States is supposed to move to a more secure card system, using a chip and P.I.N. instead of a magnetic stripe, as Europe did years ago. But even that won’t put an end to data breaches. It will make it harder and more expensive for criminals to crack, but not impossible.

Which is why the federal government needs to get involved. With the banks and retailers at loggerheads, only the government has the ability to force a solution — or at least make it painful enough for companies with lax security to improve.

As it turns out, there are plenty of congressional initiatives to crack down on companies with weak data security, including a bill that was filed in February and co-sponsored by Senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. When I asked someone in Markey’s office whether the bill was getting any traction, she replied, “It’s 2014.”

Apparently, we’re on our own.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

September 12, 2014

In “The Reluctant Leader” Bobo says President Obama’s obvious reluctance about expanding the attack on ISIS may be his greatest asset.  Mr. Cohen, in “Auchtermuchty to England,” says it may not be a bad thing if the Scots go it alone. But it’s still uncertain whether an independent Scotland would cut it.  Apparently he hasn’t been reading what Prof. Krugman has had to say…  In “The Inflation Cult” Prof. Krugman says we’re still trying to figure out the persistence and power of the people who keep predicting runaway inflation.  Here’s Bobo:

Moses, famously, tried to get out of it. When God called on him to lead the Israelites, Moses threw up a flurry of reasons he was the wrong man for the job: I’m a nobody; I don’t speak well; I’m not brave.

But the job was thrust upon him. Though he displayed some of the traits you’d expect from a guy who would rather be back shepherding (passivity, whining), he became a great leader. He became the ultimate model for reluctant leadership.

The Bible is filled with reluctant leaders, people who did not choose power but were chosen for it — from David to Paul. The Bible makes it clear that leadership is unpredictable: That the most powerful people often don’t get to choose what they themselves will do. Circumstances thrust certain responsibilities upon them, and they have no choice but to take up their assignment.

History is full of reluctant leaders, too. President Obama is the most recent. He recently gave a speech on the need to move away from military force. He has tried to pivot away from the Middle East. He tried desperately to avoid the Syrian civil war.

But as he said in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, “Evil does exist in the world.” No American president could allow a barbaric caliphate to establish itself in the middle of the Middle East.

Obama is compelled as a matter of responsibility to override his inclinations. He’s obligated to use force, to propel himself back into the Middle East, to work with rotten partners like the dysfunctional Iraqi Army and the two-faced leaders of Qatar. He’s compelled to provide functional assistance to the rancid Syrian regime by attacking its enemies.

The defining characteristic of a reluctant leader is that he is self-divided. He feels compelled to do things he’d rather not do. This self-division can come in negative and positive forms.

The unsuccessful reluctant leader isn’t really motivated to perform the tasks assigned to him. The three essential features of political leadership, Max Weber wrote, are passion, responsibility and judgment. The unsuccessful reluctant leader is passionless. His actions are halfhearted. Look at President Obama’s decision to surge troops into Afghanistan at the same instant he announced their withdrawal date. That’s a reluctant leader undercutting himself. If Obama approaches this campaign that way then he will withdraw as soon as the Iraqi government stumbles, or the Iraqi Army fails to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on the ground.

The successful reluctant leader, on the other hand, is fervently motivated by his own conscience. He forces himself to embrace the fact that while this is not the destiny he would have chosen, it is his duty and he will follow it to the end.

This kind of reluctant leader has some advantages over a full-throated, unreluctant crusader. Unlike George W. Bush in 2003, he’s not carried away by righteous fervor. The successful reluctant leader can be selfless. He’s not doing the work because it’s the expression of his inner being. He’s just an instrument for the completion of a nasty job.

The reluctant leader can be realistic about goals. President Obama can be under no illusions that he is going to solve the Middle East’s fundamental problems, but at least he can degrade ISIS the way we degraded Al Qaeda. Sometimes just preventing something bad — like the fall of the Jordanian regime — is noble enough, even if negative victories don’t exactly get you in the history books.

The reluctant leader can be skeptical. There’s a reason President Obama didn’t want to get involved in this conflict. Our power to manage history in the region is limited. But sometimes a reluctant leader can make wise decisions precisely because he’s aware of his limitations. If you’re going to begin a military campaign in an Arab country, you probably want a leader who’d rather not do it.

The reluctant leader can be dogged. Sometimes when you’re engaged in an unpleasant task, you just put your head down and trudge relentlessly forward. You don’t have to worry about coming down from prewar euphoria because you never felt good about this anyway.

The reluctant leader can be collaborative. He didn’t want his task, so he’s eager to share it. The Arab world can fully trust that Obama doesn’t have any permanent designs on their region because the guy is dying to wash his hands of the whole place as soon as possible.

Everybody is weighing in on the strengths and weaknesses of the Obama strategy. But the strategy will change. The crucial factor is the man. This is the sternest test of Obama’s leadership skills since the early crises of his presidency. If he sticks to this self-assigned duty, and pursues it doggedly, he can be a successful reluctant leader. Sometimes the hardest victories are against yourself.

In the comments “ScottW” from Chapel Hill, NC had this to say:  “What we really need are more “reluctant columnists” who realize since they were so wrong about the Iraq war 11 years ago, they should put away their pens and not comment about the current situation.”  Oh, if only…  Now here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Auchtermuchty, Scotland:

“Conservatives only come to Scotland to shoot grouse, do they not?”

That was the withering verdict of John Latham as he enjoyed a pint in the Cycle Tavern in Auchtermuchty. Locals say southerners have trouble with the name, which means uplands of the wild boar, flattening the guttural “chhh” to a “k” and failing to deploy “plenty of spittle.” Be that as it may, Latham’s dismissal of English Tories is near universal in Scotland, where just over four million voters will decide next week on whether to opt for independence and cast Great Britain into the dustbin of history.

The news would trend on Twitter. Great Britain has had a pretty good run since it was formed by the union of Scotland and England in 1707.

David Cameron, the British prime minister, is a Tory, of course. That is part of the problem. To Scots he is the spoon-fed “rich toff” from Central Casting who never knew the price of a loaf of bread. He’s the emblem of a money-oozing London that has lost touch with the rest of the country.

Scotland wants to do things another way. It sees itself as a Scandinavia-like bastion of social democracy in the making: Norway with whisky. That, at least, is the vision of Alex Salmond, the charismatic leader of the Scottish National Party. Whether an independent Scotland would have the money for comprehensive welfare is another question. Salmond is skirting that for now. A mist of vagueness hovers over how an independent Scotland would cut it. He has a new favorite line in these frenetic last days: “Team Scotland against Team Westminster.”

“Team Westminster,” it has to be said, is giving a convincing impression of panic as the Sept. 18 vote approaches. Several polls now show the referendum as too close to call. Cameron’s complacency over a comfortable “No” vote has vanished. The pound is slumping.

The Saltire, or Scottish flag, was abruptly hoisted over 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s residence. Cameron zoomed up to Scotland to declare it’s not about “the effing Tories” but love of a country he would be “heartbroken” to lose. Ed Miliband, the opposition Labour leader, also discovered his inner Scotland. He hurtled north to deliver an impassioned appeal. Nick Clegg, Cameron’s Liberal Democrat sidekick in the coalition government, said something; just what nobody can remember. Gordon Brown, a Scot and former prime minister, was wheeled out to say maximum devolution of powers would begin on Sept. 19 if Scotland only sticks with Britain.

All of which has caused amusement in Auchtermuchty and beyond. “If we’re going to fail on our own, why are they so concerned?” said Stephanie Murphy, as she poured another pint. “Aye,” said Latham, “If they want us so bad, maybe we should go.” The sudden Westminster flurry smacks of too little, too late.

Still, going it alone is a risk. “I have a pension, I don’t want to lose it,” said Andrew Dewar. “You’ve got 16-year-old first-time voters watching ‘Braveheart’ and believing we’ll be fine. Salmond says we’ll be like Norway. Well, in Norway a pint costs nine pounds — so hopefully not!” Debbie Marton suggested that, “Maybe we could have a trial period!” That won’t happen: The decision will be binding.

Some Scots have not forgotten that the union of 1707 came about in part because Scotland was bankrupt, having embarked on a mad-cat scheme, now known as the “Darien Disaster,” in a Panamanian malarial swamp.

Scots poured money into the Darien Company believing the Panamanian outpost would turn the country into a giant of global trade. Instead, many met a quick death — as did the project.

My non-scientific survey of voters in St. Andrews, Auchtermuchty and Edinburgh found many people still undecided, torn between a heart that says “yes” and a mind that says “no.” They’d love to “set England afloat” but worry what would happen to pensions, the National Health Service, jobs, the currency and membership in the European Union. Latham, a wine salesman, is hesitant himself, but says, “It’s one of those wee chances in life you may just have to take.”

The truth is nobody knows the answers to all the questions because nobody thought it would come to this. Cameron and Salmond have both been reckless. Now there is an almost surreal quality to Great Britain’s possible demise.

I blame Cameron above all. His deluded rhetoric about possible withdrawal from the European Union, his lack of feel for ordinary people and his glib marketer’s patter over matters great and small have all smacked of little-England smugness — so Scots have every right to make England as little as it often acts. The union’s history is a great one. Its end would be sad. But Scotland has what it takes. The good sense and tolerance that marked the union would in the end prevail across the new border.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Wish I’d said that! Earlier this week, Jesse Eisinger of ProPublica, writing on The Times’s DealBook blog, compared people who keep predicting runaway inflation to “true believers whose faith in a predicted apocalypse persists even after it fails to materialize.” Indeed.

Economic forecasters are often wrong. Me, too! If an economist never makes an incorrect prediction, he or she isn’t taking enough risks. But it’s less common for supposed experts to keep making the same wrong prediction year after year, never admitting or trying to explain their past errors. And the remarkable thing is that these always-wrong, never-in-doubt pundits continue to have large public and political influence.

There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. But as regular readers know, I’ve been trying to figure it out, because I think it’s important to understand the persistence and power of the inflation cult.

Whom are we talking about? Not just the shouting heads on CNBC, although they’re certainly part of it. Rick Santelli, famous for his 2009 Tea Party rant, also spent much of that year yelling that runaway inflation was coming. It wasn’t, but his line never changed. Just two months ago, he told viewers that the Federal Reserve is “preparing for hyperinflation.”

You might dismiss the likes of Mr. Santelli, saying that they’re basically in the entertainment business. But many investors didn’t get that memo. I’ve had money managers — that is, professional investors — tell me that the quiescence of inflation surprised them, because “all the experts” predicted that it would surge.

And it’s not as easy to dismiss the phenomenon of obsessive attachment to a failed economic doctrine when you see it in major political figures. In 2009, Representative Paul Ryan warned about “inflation’s looming shadow.” Did he reconsider when inflation stayed low? No, he kept warning, year after year, about the coming “debasement” of the dollar.

Wait, there’s more: You find the same Groundhog Day story when you look at the pronouncements of seemingly reputable economists. In May 2009, Allan Meltzer, a well-known monetary economist and historian of the Federal Reserve, had an Op-Ed article published in The Times warning that a sharp rise in inflation was imminent unless the Fed changed course. Over the next five years, Mr. Meltzer’s preferred measure of prices rose at an annual rate of only 1.6 percent, and his response was published in another op-ed article, this time in The Wall Street Journal. The title? “How the Fed Fuels the Coming Inflation.”

So what’s going on here?

I’ve written before about how the wealthy tend to oppose easy money, perceiving it as being against their interests. But that doesn’t explain the broad appeal of prophets whose prophecies keep failing.

Part of that appeal is clearly political; there’s a reason why Mr. Santelli yells about both inflation and how President Obama is giving money away to “losers,” why Mr. Ryan warns about both a debased currency and a government that redistributes from “makers” to “takers.” Inflation cultists almost always link the Fed’s policies to complaints about government spending. They’re completely wrong about the details — no, the Fed isn’t printing money to cover the budget deficit — but it’s true that governments whose debt is denominated in a currency they can issue have more fiscal flexibility, and hence more ability to maintain aid to those in need, than governments that don’t.

And anger against “takers” — anger that is very much tied up with ethnic and cultural divisions — runs deep. Many people, therefore, feel an affinity with those who rant about looming inflation; Mr. Santelli is their kind of guy. In an important sense, I’d argue, the persistence of the inflation cult is an example of the “affinity fraud” crucial to many swindles, in which investors trust a con man because he seems to be part of their tribe. In this case, the con men may be conning themselves as well as their followers, but that hardly matters.

This tribal interpretation of the inflation cult helps explain the sheer rage you encounter when pointing out that the promised hyperinflation is nowhere to be seen. It’s comparable to the reaction you get when pointing out that Obamacare seems to be working, and probably has the same roots.

But what about the economists who go along with the cult? They’re all conservatives, but aren’t they also professionals who put evidence above political convenience? Apparently not.

The persistence of the inflation cult is, therefore, an indicator of just how polarized our society has become, of how everything is political, even among those who are supposed to rise above such things. And that reality, unlike the supposed risk of runaway inflation, is something that should scare you.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

September 9, 2014

In “Becoming a Real Person” Bobo sighs that elite American universities give students extensive résumé guidance but seem to have forgotten the moral component of their mission.  Silly me — almost 69 years old and all this time I thought moral guidance was something that came from home and community, and started as soon as you were old enough to understand the word “no.”  In “A War of Choice in Gaza” Mr. Cohen says the fighting was unnecessary — it rehabilitated a beleaguered Hamas, and gained nothing for Israel.  Mr. Nocera is back to carrying water for Big Bidness.  In “Inversion Delusion” he actually tries to convince us that the argument is bogus that corporations leave the U.S. and set up overseas because of high corporate tax rates.   Here’s Bobo:

This summer, The New Republic published the most read article in that magazine’s history. It was an essay by William Deresiewicz, drawn from his new book, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.”

Deresiewicz offers a vision of what it takes to move from adolescence to adulthood. Everyone is born with a mind, he writes, but it is only through introspection, observation, connecting the head and the heart, making meaning of experience and finding an organizing purpose that you build a unique individual self.

This process, he argues, often begins in college, the interval of freedom when a person is away from both family and career. During that interval, the young person can throw himself with reckless abandon at other people and learn from them.

Some of these people are authors who have written great books. Some are professors who can teach intellectual rigor. Some are students who can share work that is intrinsically rewarding.

Through this process, a student is able, in the words of Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia, to discover “just what it is that’s worth wanting.”

Deresiewicz argues that most students do not get to experience this in elite colleges today. Universities, he says, have been absorbed into the commercial ethos. Instead of being intervals of freedom, they are breeding grounds for advancement. Students are too busy jumping through the next hurdle in the résumé race to figure out what they really want. They are too frantic tasting everything on the smorgasbord to have life-altering encounters. They have a terror of closing off options. They have been inculcated with a lust for prestige and a fear of doing things that may put their status at risk.

The system pressures them to be excellent, but excellent sheep.

Stephen Pinker, the great psychology professor at Harvard, wrote the most comprehensive response to Deresiewicz. “Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotions I have participated in, we’ve never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she could accomplish it.”

Pinker suggests the university’s job is cognitive. Young people should know how to write clearly and reason statistically. They should acquire specific knowledge: the history of the planet, how the body works, how cultures differ, etc.

The way to select students into the elite colleges is not through any mysterious peering into applicants’ souls, Pinker continues. Students should be selected on the basis of standardized test scores:the S.A.T.’s. If colleges admitted kids with the highest scores and companies hired applicants with the highest scores, Pinker writes, “many of the perversities of the current system would vanish overnight.”

What we have before us then, is three distinct purposes for a university: the commercial purpose (starting a career), Pinker’s cognitive purpose (acquiring information and learning how to think) and Deresiewicz’s moral purpose (building an integrated self).

Over a century ago, most university administrators and faculty members would have said the moral purpose is the most important. As Mary Woolley, the president of Mount Holyoke, put it, “Character is the main object of education.” The most prominent Harvard psychology professor then, William James, wrote essays on the structure of the morally significant life. Such a life, he wrote, is organized around a self-imposed, heroic ideal and is pursued through endurance, courage, fidelity and struggle.

Today, people at these elite institutions have the same moral aspirations. Everybody knows the meritocratic system has lost its mind. Everybody — administrators, admissions officers, faculty and students — knows that the pressures of the résumé race are out of control.

But people in authority no longer feel compelled to define how they think moral, emotional and spiritual growth happens, beyond a few pablum words that no one could disagree with and a few vague references to community service. The reason they don’t is simple. They don’t think it’s their place, or, as Pinker put it, they don’t think they know.

The result is that the elite universities are strong at delivering their commercial mission. They are pretty strong in developing their cognitive mission. But when it comes to the sort of growth Deresiewicz is talking about, everyone is on their own. An admissions officer might bias her criteria slightly away from the Résumé God and toward the quirky kid. A student may privately wrestle with taking a summer camp job instead of an emotionally vacuous but résumé-padding internship. But these struggles are informal, isolated and semi-articulate.

I’d say Deresiewicz significantly overstates the amount of moral decay at elite universities. But at least he reminds us what a moral education looks like. That is largely abandoned ground.

Drawing the veil of charity over Bobo, let us proceed to Mr. Cohen:

Another round of violence is over in the Holy Land. More than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians and many of them children, have been killed. More than 70 Israelis are dead. The grass, in that appalling Israeli metaphor, has been mown (and will now start growing again). Hamas, through its resistance, has burnished its reputation among Palestinians. Israel is angrier. Nobody is better off.

Periodic eruptions are intrinsic to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy of maintaining the status quo of rule over millions of Palestinians, expansion of West Bank settlements and maneuver to deflect American mediation. Oppressed people will rise up. Israel’s anemic embrace of a two-state objective is the best possible cover for the evisceration of that aim. Still, the question arises: Was this mini-war necessary?

I think not. Certainly it was not in Israel’s strategic interest. Much mystery continues to shroud its genesis, the abduction on June 12 of three Israeli youths near Hebron and their murder, now attributed to a local Palestinian clan including Hamas operatives who acted without the knowledge or direction of the Hamas leadership. (There has been no major investigative piece in the American press on the incident, a troubling omission.)

But enough detail has emerged to make clear that Netanyahu leapt on “unequivocal proof” of Hamas responsibility (still unproduced) for political ends. The prime minister’s aim was to discredit Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, for reconciling with Hamas; vindicate the collapse of the peace talks Secretary of State John Kerry had pursued; stir up Israeli rage over the fate of the teenagers; sweep through the West Bank arresting hundreds of suspected Hamas members, including 58 released under the terms of an earlier deal with Hamas; and consolidate divide-and-rule.

Assaf Sharon of Tel Aviv University, the academic director of a liberal think tank in Jerusalem, has a powerful piece in The New York Review of Books. It makes the important point that Hamas was beleaguered before the violence, isolated by the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the rise of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This weakness lay behind the reconciliation with Abbas. Netanyahu might have used this development to extend Abbas’s authority into a more open Gaza at the expense of Hamas, the very objective now apparently sought after so much needless loss of life.

For more than two weeks after the abduction, persuasive evidence that the teenagers were dead was kept from the Israeli public. A hugely emotional return-our-boys campaign was pursued while the recording of a phone call from one of those boys to the police in the immediate aftermath of the kidnapping was not divulged. In it, shots and cries of pain could be heard. As Shlomi Eldar wrote, “It was a murder in real time, horrifying and monstrous.” After it, “Those who heard the emergency call recording knew that the best one could hope for was to bring the boys to their final resting places.”

The effect of this concealment, whatever its justification, was to whip up an Israeli frenzy. This was the context in which a Palestinian teenager was killed by Israeli extremists. It was also the context of the drift to war: air campaign, Hamas rockets and tunnel raids, Israeli ground invasion. Drift is the operative word. Israel’s purpose was shifting. At different moments it included “zero rockets,” demilitarizing Gaza and destroying the tunnels. “Lacking clear aims, Israel was dragged, by its own actions, into a confrontation it did not seek and did not control,” Sharon writes.

The only certainty now is that this will happen again unless the situation in Gaza changes. That in turn necessitates Palestinian unity and renunciation of violence. It also hinges on a change in the Israeli calculus that settlement extension, a divided Palestinian movement, and vacuous blah-blah on a two-state peace are in its interest, whatever the intermittent cost in blood.

Two other recent pieces are essential reading in the aftermath of the fighting. The first is Connie Bruck’s “Friends of Israel” in The New Yorker, an examination of the political sway of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby group. In it, she quotes Brian Baird, a former Democratic congressman, getting to the nub: “The difficult reality is this: in order to get elected to Congress, if you’re not independently wealthy, you have to raise a lot of money. And you learn pretty quickly that, if Aipac is on your side, you can do that.” She also quotes John Yarmuth, a congressman from Kentucky, on upholding the interests of the United States: “We all took an oath of office. And Aipac, in many instances, is asking us to ignore it.”

Finally, read Yehuda Shaul in The New Statesman on the corrosive effect of the occupation and his experience of military service in the West Bank: “We needed to erase the humanity of Palestinians along with our own humanity.”

And now we get to Joe “Gunga Din” Nocera:

On Monday, the Tax Policy Center in Washington held a panel discussion on the subject of “corporate inversions” — the practice of taking over a small company in someplace like Ireland or the Netherlands, and then using that takeover to “relocate” to the foreign country for tax reasons. One of the panelists was John Samuels, the chief tax lawyer for General Electric.

Samuels started by saying that even the most junior tax lawyers know that, when structuring a cross-border merger, “you should do whatever you can, whatever’s possible, to make sure the ultimate parent or acquirer is a foreign company, not a U.S. company, to avoid having the entire worldwide income caught up in the U.S. tax net.” He went on: “Virtually every major developed country in the world has dramatically reformed its tax system to make it more business-friendly.” He cited Britain as an example. “The U.K. recently abandoned its worldwide system for a territorial system [and] reduced its corporate tax rate to 21 percent.” Quoting the exchequer secretary to the Treasury, he added, Britain “wants to send out the signal loud and clear that Britain is open for business.”

The corporate tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, which is the highest in the industrialized world. And, unlike most other countries, it taxes a company’s worldwide earnings, at that same high rate, once they are repatriated into the United States. (That is what Samuels meant by a “worldwide system.”)

So, at first glance, Samuels’s analysis would seem to make sense: the disparity of our uncompetitive corporate tax rate versus their business-friendly rates must be driving the current mania for inversions. Many other corporate executives have made the same argument. Just a few months ago, Heather Bresch, the chief executive of Mylan, a $7 billion generic drug company, announced that her company would be doing an inversion that would place its new corporate address in the Netherlands, where the tax rate is 25 percent. She complained that the American corporate tax rate needed to become “more competitive.”

But upon closer inspection, this argument turns out to be mainly hogwash. As Edward D. Kleinbard put it in a recent report, “ ‘Competitiveness’ has nothing to do with it.”

Kleinbard, a law professor at the University of Southern California, has emerged as one of the leading critics of inversions. In his view, it isn’t so much that the corporate tax code is too tough or the rate is too high; rather, he says, companies are taking advantage of loopholes in the code that make inversions almost irresistible for corporate executives. As another critic, Kimberly Clausing of Reed College, wrote in a recent paper: “Both the high U.S. tax rate and the worldwide system of taxation have more bark than bite.”

For starters, American multinationals, with their high-powered tax departments, rarely pay 35 percent or anything close to it. And those earnings that are supposed to get taxed upon repatriation? Needless to say, they never get repatriated; by some estimates, $2 trillion in earnings by American multinationals reside, untaxed, outside the country.

Indeed, according to Kleinbard and other critics, gaining access to those earnings is a benefit of inversion. Clausing describes the tactic like this: Foreign affiliates of the American company lend money to the new foreign parent, skipping over the U.S. company and thus avoiding the repatriation tax. Kleinbard calls these “hopscotch” transactions.

Then there is something called “earnings stripping,” which inversion also makes possible. This involves using loans between the foreign “owner” and the American “affiliate” to shift income out of the United States. According to Clausing, Walgreens, which was planning an inversion but pulled back after a public outcry, would have saved “over $780 million in taxes in one year alone.”

For years, executives have called for an overhaul of the corporate tax system; recently, as per Samuels and Bresch, inversions have become a part of the argument. But, in truth, curbing inversions shouldn’t have to wait for wholesale reform. In 2004, George W. Bush pushed through a law that temporarily stopped what was then a flood of inversions.

It can be done again. Laws can be written that, for instance, insist that the foreign targets be much larger companies — thus trying to ensure that the deals are done for strategic reasons rather than solely for tax reasons. And the loopholes that allow for earnings stripping and hopscotching can be closed.

Before that panel discussion on Monday, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew made a speech in which he denounced inversions and essentially pleaded with Congress to take action. He also hinted that the administration might take regulatory action on its own, though there is disagreement among the experts whether regulation alone could stop inversions.

In either case, they need to be stopped. They aren’t just corrosive to the country’s tax base; they are corrosive, in a larger sense, to the country. Thanks to our Swiss cheese of a tax code, multinational companies already have a splendid little deal. They shouldn’t get to sweeten it even more.

Brooks and Krugman

September 5, 2014

In “The Body and the Spirit” Bobo is flailing around trying to understand the strong visceral responses to the executions of the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston reminds us of something:  “The only time conservatives vociferously defend life is when a woman wishes not to bring an unborn child into the world, or when someone wants to end their own suffering at a time of their choosing. It’s odd that conservatives defend life only when it’s a burden for others.”  Prof. Krugman, in “The Deflation Caucus,” asks a question:  What is it that makes a powerful faction in our body politic demand tight money even in a depressed, low-inflation economy?  Here’s Bobo:

Like everyone, I was revolted by the beheadings of the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. It wasn’t just that they had been killed — though that is horrendous enough — it was the monstrous way the deed was done.

I’ve been trying to understand why the act of beheading arouses this strong visceral response. Why does separating a head with a knife feel different from a shooting, or a bombing? Does this reaction contain some hidden intuitive wisdom, or is it just a blind prejudice?

First, a beheading feels different because it reveals something about the minds of the killers. The journalist Lance Morrow once wrote that “evil is often happiest when it operates in the autonomy of the gratuitous.” By going beneath even the minimal standards of modern civilization, the militants in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria get to show contempt for us and our morality. They get to deny the slightest acknowledgment of our common humanity. They can take the bully’s maximum relish in their power over the weak and innocent. The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize, and ISIS means to show violence unbounded; ISIS will get inside our heads in the darkest way.

Second, a beheading reminds us of something disturbing in ourselves. We want to watch, and we don’t want to watch. Because of some warp in human nature, millions of people will go online to watch a beheading video though they might not even read about a simple shooting.

But the revulsion aroused by beheading is mostly a moral revulsion. A beheading feels like a defilement. It’s not just an injury or a crime. It is an indignity. A beheading is more like rape, castration or cannibalism. It is a defacement of something sacred that should be inviolable.

But what is this sacred thing that is being violated?

Well, the human body is sacred. Most of us understand, even if we don’t think about it, or have a vocabulary to talk about it these days, that the human body is not just a piece of meat or a bunch of neurons and cells. The human body has a different moral status than a cow’s body or a piece of broccoli.

We’re repulsed by a beheading because the body has a spiritual essence. The human head and body don’t just live and pass along genes. They paint, make ethical judgments, savor the beauty of a sunset and experience the transcendent. The body is material but surpasses the material. It’s spiritualized matter.

This infusion of the spiritual and the material is mysterious. Some Jews use the concept of tzimtzum, or “contraction,” to describe the mixing of the finite and the infinite. Christians have the larger concept of incarnation. Most of us, religious or secular, have some instinctive sense that there is a ghost infused in the machine. And because the human body is a transcendent temple it is worthy of respect. It is offensive to treat it the way you would treat an inanimate object. Even after a person is dead, the body still carries the residue of this presence and deserves dignified handling.

Because we have this instinctive sense, we feel elevated when we see behavior that fuses the physical and spiritual. We feel elevated when sex is not only physical pleasure but also communication and spiritual union. We feel elevated when we read about the Jewish rituals of tahara, when members of a synagogue tenderly wash the body of a congregant who has died. We feel repulsed — a little or a lot — when the body’s spiritual nature is gratuitously and intentionally insulted.

Our revulsion makes us different from the religious zealots who are prone to commit or celebrate acts like beheadings. The zealots often hew to a fringe of their faith that holds that the spirit and the body are at war with each other. They have a tendency to extreme asceticism, to seek to deny themselves pleasures of the living world, to celebrate the next world at the expense of this world, to oscillate between masochistic self-flagellation, when they think they have been sensual, and bouts of arrogant spiritual pride, when they convince themselves they have risen above the senses. It doesn’t matter to them what they do to their enemy’s body, because this physical reality is not important.

If ISIS is to be stopped, there will probably have to be some sort of political and military coalition. But, ultimately, the Islamists are a spiritual movement that will have to be surmounted by a superior version of Islam.

The truest version of each Abrahamic faith revels in the genuine goodness of creation. These are faiths that love the material world, especially the body. They’re faiths that understand that the high and the low yearn for each other, and that every human body has some piece of the eternal, even if you’re fighting against him.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

On Thursday, the European Central Bank announced a series of new steps it was taking in an effort to boost Europe’s economy. There was a whiff of desperation about the announcement, which was reassuring. Europe, which is doing worse than it did in the 1930s, is clearly in the grip of a deflationary vortex, and it’s good to know that the central bank understands that. But its epiphany may have come too late. It’s far from clear that the measures now on the table will be strong enough to reverse the downward spiral.

And there but for the grace of Bernanke go we. Things in the United States are far from O.K., but we seem (at least for now) to have steered clear of the kind of trap facing Europe. Why? One answer is that the Federal Reserve started doing the right thing years ago, buying trillions of dollars’ worth of bonds in order to avoid the situation its European counterpart now faces.

You can argue, and I would, that the Fed should have done even more. But Fed officials have faced fierce attacks all the way. Pundits, politicians and plutocrats have accused them, over and over again, of “debasing” the dollar, and warned that soaring inflation is just around the corner. The predicted surge in inflation has never arrived, but despite being wrong year after year, hardly any of the critics have admitted being wrong, or even changed their tune. And the question I’ve been trying to answer is why. What is it that makes a powerful faction in our body politic — call it the deflation caucus — demand tight money even in a depressed, low-inflation economy?

One thing is clear: Like so much else these days, monetary policy has become very much a partisan issue. It’s not just that talk of dollar debasement comes pretty much exclusively from the right of the political spectrum; inflation paranoia has, to a remarkable extent, become a matter of conservative political correctness, so that even economists who should know better have joined in the chorus. So we can focus the question further: Why do people on the right hate monetary expansion, even when it’s desperately needed?

One answer is the power of truthiness — Stephen Colbert’s justly famed term for things that aren’t true, but feel true to some people. “The Fed is printing money, printing money leads to inflation, and inflation is always a bad thing” is a triply untrue statement, but it feels true to a lot of people. And, yes, a tendency to prefer truthiness to more complicated truth is and pretty much always has been associated with political conservatism, and this tendency is especially strong in an era when leading politicians get their monetary theory from Ayn Rand novels.

Another answer is class interest. Inflation helps debtors and hurts creditors, deflation does the reverse. And the wealthy are much more likely than workers and the poor to be creditors, to have money in the bank and bonds in their portfolio rather than mortgages and credit-card balances outstanding. Back in the Gilded Age, the elite mobilized en masse to defeat William Jennings Bryan, who threatened to take the United States off the gold standard; campaign spending as a percentage of G.D.P. was far higher in 1896 than in any presidential election before or since. Are the wealthy similarly mobilized against easy-money policies today?

As far as I know, we don’t have rigorous evidence to that effect. There are certainly a lot of wealthy investors in the debasing-the-dollar crowd, but we don’t know for sure how representative they are — and you could argue that big investors should like the Fed’s expansionary policies, which have been very good for the stock market. But the wealthy may not trust that connection, in part because the inflationary ’70s were very bad for stocks. And we do know that the very wealthy are much more likely than the general public to consider budget deficits our biggest problem, even though fiscal austerity is probably bad for profits. So perceived class interest is probably also a key motivation for the deflation caucus.

A side note: Europe’s wealthy aren’t as wealthy or influential as their American counterparts, but creditor interests are nonetheless even more powerful than they are here because creditor nations, Germany in particular, have ended up dictating policy for the whole of Europe.

And the important thing to understand is that the dominance of creditor interests on both sides of the Atlantic, supported by false but viscerally appealing economic doctrines, has had tragic consequences. Our economies have been dragged down by the woes of debtors, who have been forced to slash spending. To avoid a deep, prolonged slump, we needed policies to offset this drag. What we got instead was an obsession with the evils of budget deficits and paranoia over inflation — and a slump that has gone on and on.

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

September 2, 2014

In “The Revolt of the Weak” Bobo gurgles that this summer, the bad guys have looked energetic while the good guys have looked tired, putting the norms of civilization under threat.  Mr. Nocera has a question in “The Human Toll of Offshoring:”  What should we be doing to make globalization work for us instead of against us?  In “Obama’s Messy Words” Mr. Bruni says there’s inadequate urgency or reassurance in the president’s language, as Americans gaze with horror at events abroad.  Here’s Bobo:

The toughest part of governing is the effect on the mind of those who govern. As Henry Kissinger said, once you get in government you are not building up human capital; you are just spending it down. People in senior positions are simply too busy to learn fundamental new viewpoints. Their minds are locked within the ones they brought into power.

Then there is the problem of myopia. People at the top of government confront such a barrage of immediate small issues — from personnel to scheduling — that it is hard for them to step back and see the overall context in which they operate.

Finally, there is the problem of the bunker. People in power are hit with such an avalanche of criticism — much of it partisan and ill-informed — that they naturally build mental walls to protect themselves from abuse.

All of which makes it hard to govern now. We are not living in a moment of immediate concrete threat, but we are in a crisis of context.

The specific problems that make headlines right now are not cataclysmic. The venture by President Vladimir Putin of Russia into Ukraine, for all its thuggery, is not, in itself, a cataclysmic historical event. The civil war in Syria, for all its savagery, is not a problem that threatens the daily lives of those who live outside.

These problems are medium-size, but the underlying frameworks by which nations operate are being threatened in fairly devastating ways. That is to say, there are certain unconscious habits and norms of restraint that undergird civilization. These habits and norms are now being challenged by a coalition of the unsuccessful.

What we’re seeing around the world is a revolt of the weak. There are certain weak movements and nations, beset by internal contradictions, that can’t compete if they play by the normal rules of civilization. Therefore, they are conspiring to blow up the rule book.

The first example is Russia. Putin is poor in legitimacy. He is poor in his ability to deliver goods and dignity for his people. But he is rich in brazenness. He is rich in his ability to play by the lawlessness of the jungle, so he wants the whole world to operate by jungle rules.

There has been a norm, generally operating over the past few decades, or even centuries, that big, powerful nations don’t gobble up everything around them just because they can. But this is precisely the norm that Putin is brazenly crushing under foot. If Putinism can effectively tear down this norm, more and more we’ll live in a world in which brazenness is rewarded and self-restraint is punished.

Then there are the Islamist movements like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. This movement is poor in offering a lifestyle that most people find attractive. But it is strong in spiritual purity, so it wants to set off a series of religious wars and have the world organized by religious categories.

There has been a norm, developed gradually over the centuries, that politics is not a totalistic spiritual enterprise. Governments try to deliver order and economic benefits to people, but they do not organize their inner spiritual lives.

This is precisely the norm that ISIS and other jihadi groups are trying to destroy. If they succeed, then the Middle East will devolve into a 30 years war of faith against faith. Zealotry will be rewarded, and restraint will be punished.

Putin and ISIS are not threats to American national security, narrowly defined. They are threats to our civilizational order.

If you are caught up in that day-to-day business of government, you are likely to see how weak Putin and ISIS are. You are likely to conclude that you don’t need to do much, because these threats will inevitably succumb on their own to their internal contradictions. But their weakness is their driving power; they only need to tear things down, and, unconfronted, will do so.

People who conduct foreign policy live today under the shadow of the postwar era. People instinctively understand that just after World War II, Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dean Acheson and others did something remarkable. They stepped outside the immediate crush of events and constructed a context in which people would live for the next several decades.

Some of the problems they faced did not seem gigantic: how to prevent a Communist insurgency from taking over a semifailed government in Greece. But they understood that by projecting American power into Greece, they would be establishing certain norms and creating a framework for civilization.

Then, democratic self-confidence was high. Today, unfortunately, it is low. This summer, the bad guys have looked energetic while the good guys have looked tired. We’ll see at the NATO summit meeting in Wales this week if there’s a leader who can step outside the crush of events and explain how fundamental the threat to the rules of civilization now is.

Next up we have Mr. Nocera:

The subtitle of Beth Macy’s new book, “Factory Man” — “How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local, and Helped Save an American Town” — gives every impression that it is going to be an upbeat read, a capitalistic feel-good story.

And, indeed, Macy, a former longtime reporter for The Roanoke Times in Virginia, doesn’t skimp on the story of a furniture baron named John Bassett III, her colorful main character, a Southern charmer with a fondness for quoting General Patton. After being pushed out of his family’s furniture company in (where else?) Bassett, Va., JBIII, as Macy calls him, buys into another, smaller company, Vaughan-Bassett, in the nearby town of Galax, right around the time that Chinese furniture manufacturers began to move seriously into the American furniture market with low-priced knockoffs of American furniture designs.

As furniture manufacturers all around him — including his family’s company — begin shuttering plants and start marketing and selling the Chinese imports, Bassett decides to fight back. Although he, too, has had to shrink his work force, he refuses to shut down his company, and he mobilizes others in the industry to charge the Chinese with dumping their goods on the market — that is, selling them below the cost of manufacturing them.

In 2005, the government did indeed conclude that the Chinese had been dumping furniture, and it put tariffs on Chinese furniture that helped make the Americans a little more competitive. Thanks to something called the Byrd amendment, some of the money from the Chinese went directly to Bassett’s company, which “invested $23 million in new plant equipment, put some in the employee profit-sharing plan, and used some of it to start a companywide free health clinic for families,” writes Macy. “The money saved upwards of 700 jobs in Galax, which, in turn, as some have argued, have saved the town.” Vaughan-Bassett has since become the largest wooden bedroom furniture maker in the country.

Surely, if they make a movie out of “Factory Man” — and I think there is a pretty decent chance they will — that will be the story line.

What is striking about Macy’s first book, though, is how little she does to make that made-for-the-movies plot stand out. Her wonderful central character notwithstanding, she’s really after something else: the effects of globalization on her little corner of the world, that is, the regions of North Carolina and Virginia where furniture making was once king. From her point of view, that story is anything but upbeat.

Nor does she miss the historic twist in her tale: as she notes early on, in the years after the Civil War, Southern entrepreneurs like Bassett’s grandfather capitalized on “cheap, hungry labor and all those tree-stocked hills” to shift furniture manufacturing from places like Grand Rapids, Mich., to the South, where it thrived for a century or more before the Chinese began doing the same thing to them.

But again and again, she comes back to the factories that have been closed, the jobs that have been lost. “Between 2002 and 2012, 63,300 American factories closed their doors and five million factory jobs went away,” she notes. She finds people who, having been laid off, do exactly what you would hope they might do: go to college and become well-paid knowledge workers.

But far more often she introduces us to people who have been displaced by the Chinese furniture manufacturers and can’t see a better future. It is especially difficult for people who have lost their jobs in what amount to company towns — where there really isn’t any other work to be had. She asks, “What good did it do to have access to cheap consumer goods if you had no money to buy them?”

She quotes the University of Oregon economist Bruce Blonigen, who tells her, “In reality, we shouldn’t be making bedroom furniture anymore in the United States. Shouldn’t we instead be trying to educate these workers’ kids to get them into high-skilled jobs and away from what’s basically an archaic industry?”

I happen to think Blonigen is right — that is exactly what we should be doing to make globalization work for us instead of against us. But I also find myself deeply sympathetic to Macy’s essential point, which is that globalization inflicts a great deal of suffering on millions of people, something the news media should do a better job of acknowledging and the government should do a better job of mitigating.

Toward the end of her book, Macy travels to Indonesia, where she talks to a factory executive. “What I do worry about every year is the future of the factory,” he tells her. “I worry that someone somewhere else, somewhere cheaper, will start to make furniture, and that will be that for us.”

It never ends.

I love the scorn directed at blue-collar workers by Blonigen (and agreed with by Mr. Nocera) — apparently if you work with your hands you’re not worth considering.  You should be in some pie-in-the-sky high tech job that doesn’t exist.  And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

There are things that you think and things that you say.

There’s what you reckon with privately and what you utter publicly.

There are discussions suitable for a lecture hall and those that befit the bully pulpit.

These sets overlap but aren’t the same. Has President Obama lost sight of that?

It’s a question fairly asked after his statement last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with Islamic extremists in Syria. Not having a strategy, at least a fixed, definitive one, is understandable. The options aren’t great, the answers aren’t easy and the stakes are enormous.

But announcing as much? It’s hard to see any percentage in that. It gives no comfort to Americans. It puts no fear in our enemies.

Just as curious was what Obama followed that up with.

Speaking at a fund-raiser on Friday, he told donors, “If you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart.” He had that much right.

But it wasn’t the whole of his message. In a statement of the obvious, he also said, “The world has always been messy.” And he coupled that with a needless comparison, advising Americans to bear in mind that the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the rapacity of Putin, the bedlam in Libya and the rest of it were “not something that is comparable to the challenges we faced during the Cold War.”

Set aside the question of how germane the example of the Cold War is. When the gut-twisting image stuck in your head is of a masked madman holding a crude knife to the neck of an American on his knees in the desert, when you’re reading about crucifixions in the 21st century, when you’re hearing about women sold by jihadists as sex slaves, and when British leaders have just raised the threat level in their country to “severe,” the last thing that you want to be told is that it’s par for the historical course, all a matter of perspective and not so cosmically dire.

Where’s the reassurance — or the sense of urgency — in that?

And maybe the second-to-last thing that you want to be told is that technology and social media amplify peril in a new way and may be the reason you’re feeling especially on edge. Obama said something along those lines, too. It’s not the terror, folks. It’s the tweets.

Is the president consoling us — or himself? It’s as if he’s taken his interior monologue and wired it to speakers in the town square. And it’s rattling.

When he came along, many of us were fed up with misinformation and “Mission Accomplished” theatrics and bluster. America had paid a price for them in young lives.

And we were tired and leery of an oversimplified, Hollywood version of world affairs, of the Manichaean lexicon of “evil empire” and “axis of evil.” We longed for something less rash and more nuanced.

But there’s plenty of territory between the bloated and bellicose rhetoric of then and what Obama is giving us now. He’s adopted a strange language of self-effacement, with notes of defeatism, reminding us that “America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything”; that we must be content at times with singles and doubles in lieu of home runs; that not doing stupid stuff is its own accomplishment.

This is all true. It’s in tune with our awareness of our limits. And it reflects a prudent disinclination to repeat past mistakes and overreach.

But that doesn’t make it the right message for the world’s lone superpower (whether we like it or not) to articulate and disseminate. That doesn’t make it savvy, constructive P.R. And the low marks that Americans currently give the president, especially for foreign policy, suggest that it’s not exactly what we were after.

In The Washington Post on Sunday, Karen DeYoung and Dan Balz observed that while Obama’s no-strategy remark “may have had the virtue of candor,” it in no way projected “an image of presidential resolve or decisiveness at a time of international turmoil.”

And no matter what Obama ultimately elects to do, such an image is vital. But in its place are oratorical shrugs and an aura of hesitancy, even evasion, as he and John Kerry broadcast that the United States shouldn’t be expected to act on its own. Isn’t that better whispered to our allies and negotiated behind closed doors?

Echoing Hillary Clinton to some degree, Senator Dianne Feinstein just complained that Obama was perhaps “too cautious.”

Not in what he says, he’s not. Not when he draws and then erases red lines. Not with his recent adjectives.

“Messy” is my kitchen at the end of a long weekend. What’s happening in much of Syria and Iraq is monstrous.

Apparently next week Bruni will show up on Wednesday instead of Tuesday.

Brooks and Krugman

August 29, 2014

Bobo has one of his burning questions in “The Mental Virtues:”  How do you build character in front of your keyboard at work?  Well, Bobo, you could start by not playing Gunga Din to the Mole People.  Just a thought…  Prof. Krugman also has a question in “The Fall of France:”  Has President François Hollande doomed the European project as the disastrous consequences of austerity policies grow more obvious with each passing month?  Here’s Bobo:

We all know what makes for good character in soldiers. We’ve seen the movies about heroes who display courage, loyalty and coolness under fire. But what about somebody who sits in front of a keyboard all day? Is it possible to display and cultivate character if you are just an information age office jockey, alone with a memo or your computer?

Of course it is. Even if you are alone in your office, you are thinking. Thinking well under a barrage of information may be a different sort of moral challenge than fighting well under a hail of bullets, but it’s a character challenge nonetheless.

In their 2007 book, “Intellectual Virtues,” Robert C. Roberts of Baylor University and W. Jay Wood of Wheaton College list some of the cerebral virtues. We can all grade ourselves on how good we are at each of them.

First, there is love of learning. Some people are just more ardently curious than others, either by cultivation or by nature.

Second, there is courage. The obvious form of intellectual courage is the willingness to hold unpopular views. But the subtler form is knowing how much risk to take in jumping to conclusions. The reckless thinker takes a few pieces of information and leaps to some faraway conspiracy theory. The perfectionist, on the other hand, is unwilling to put anything out there except under ideal conditions for fear that she could be wrong. Intellectual courage is self-regulation, Roberts and Wood argue, knowing when to be daring and when to be cautious. The philosopher Thomas Kuhn pointed out that scientists often simply ignore facts that don’t fit with their existing paradigms, but an intellectually courageous person is willing to look at things that are surprisingly hard to look at.

Third, there is firmness. You don’t want to be a person who surrenders his beliefs at the slightest whiff of opposition. On the other hand, you don’t want to hold dogmatically to a belief against all evidence. The median point between flaccidity and rigidity is the virtue of firmness. The firm believer can build a steady worldview on solid timbers but still delight in new information. She can gracefully adjust the strength of her conviction to the strength of the evidence. Firmness is a quality of mental agility.

Fourth, there is humility, which is not letting your own desire for status get in the way of accuracy. The humble person fights against vanity and self-importance. He’s not writing those sentences people write to make themselves seem smart; he’s not thinking of himself much at all. The humble researcher doesn’t become arrogant toward his subject, assuming he has mastered it. Such a person is open to learning from anyone at any stage in life.

Fifth, there is autonomy. You don’t want to be a person who slavishly adopts whatever opinion your teacher or some author gives you. On the other hand, you don’t want to reject all guidance from people who know what they are talking about. Autonomy is the median of knowing when to bow to authority and when not to, when to follow a role model and when not to, when to adhere to tradition and when not to.

Finally, there is generosity. This virtue starts with the willingness to share knowledge and give others credit. But it also means hearing others as they would like to be heard, looking for what each person has to teach and not looking to triumphantly pounce upon their errors.

We all probably excel at some of these virtues and are deficient in others. But I’m struck by how much of the mainstream literature on decision-making treats the mind as some disembodied organ that can be programed like a computer.

In fact, the mind is embedded in human nature, and very often thinking well means pushing against the grain of our nature — against vanity, against laziness, against the desire for certainty, against the desire to avoid painful truths. Good thinking isn’t just adopting the right technique. It’s a moral enterprise and requires good character, the ability to go against our lesser impulses for the sake of our higher ones.

Montaigne once wrote that “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing how to handle your own limitations. Warren Buffett made a similar point in his own sphere, “Investing is not a game where the guy with the 160 I.Q. beats the guy with the 130 I.Q. Once you have ordinary intelligence, what you need is the temperament to control the urges that get other people into trouble.”

Character tests are pervasive even in modern everyday life. It’s possible to be heroic if you’re just sitting alone in your office. It just doesn’t make for a good movie.

What a tool…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

François Hollande, the president of France since 2012, coulda been a contender. He was elected on a promise to turn away from the austerity policies that killed Europe’s brief, inadequate economic recovery. Since the intellectual justification for these policies was weak and would soon collapse, he could have led a bloc of nations demanding a change of course. But it was not to be. Once in office, Mr. Hollande promptly folded, giving in completely to demands for even more austerity.

Let it not be said, however, that he is entirely spineless. Earlier this week, he took decisive action, but not, alas, on economic policy, although the disastrous consequences of European austerity grow more obvious with each passing month, and even Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, is calling for a change of course. No, all Mr. Hollande’s force was focused on purging members of his government daring to question his subservience to Berlin and Brussels.

It’s a remarkable spectacle. To fully appreciate it, however, you need to understand two things. First, Europe, as a whole, is in deep trouble. Second, however, within that overall pattern of disaster, France’s performance is much better than you would guess from news reports. France isn’t Greece; it isn’t even Italy. But it is letting itself be bullied as if it were a basket case.

On Europe: Like the United States, the euro area — the 18 countries that use the euro as a common currency — started to recover from the 2008 financial crisis midway through 2009. But after a debt crisis erupted in 2010, some European nations were forced, as a condition for loans, to make harsh spending cuts and raise taxes on working families. Meanwhile, Germany and other creditor countries did nothing to offset the downward pressure, and the European Central Bank, unlike the Federal Reserve or the Bank of England, didn’t take extraordinary measures to boost private spending. As a result, the European recovery stalled in 2011, and has never really resumed.

At this point, Europe is doing worse than it did at a comparable stage of the Great Depression. And even more bad news may lie ahead, as Europe shows every sign of sliding into a Japanese-style deflationary trap.

How does France fit into this picture? News reports consistently portray the French economy as a dysfunctional mess, crippled by high taxes and government regulation. So it comes as something of a shock when you look at the actual numbers, which don’t match that story at all. France hasn’t done well since 2008 — in particular, it has lagged Germany — but its overall G.D.P. growth has been much better than the European average, beating not only the troubled economies of southern Europe but creditor nations like the Netherlands. French job performance isn’t too bad. In fact, prime-aged adults are a lot more likely to be employed in France than in the United States.

Nor does France’s situation seem particularly fragile. It doesn’t have a large trade deficit, and it can borrow at historically low interest rates.

Why, then, does France get such bad press? It’s hard to escape the suspicion that it’s political: France has a big government and a generous welfare state, which free-market ideology says should lead to economic disaster. So disaster is what gets reported, even if it’s not what the numbers say.

And Mr. Hollande, even though he leads France’s Socialist Party, appears to believe this ideologically motivated bad-mouthing. Worse, he has fallen into a vicious circle in which austerity policies cause growth to stall, and this stalled growth is taken as evidence that France needs even more austerity.

It’s a very sad story, and not just for France.

Most immediately, Europe’s economy is in dire straits. Mr. Draghi, I believe, understands how bad things are. But there’s only so much the central bank can do, and, in any case, he has limited room for maneuvering unless elected leaders are willing to challenge hard-money, balanced-budget orthodoxy. Meanwhile, Germany is incorrigible. Its official response to the shake-up in France was a declaration that “there is no contradiction between consolidation and growth” — hey, never mind the experience of the past four years, we still believe that austerity is expansionary.

So Europe desperately needs the leader of a major economy — one that is not in terrible shape — to stand up and say that austerity is killing the Continent’s economic prospects. Mr. Hollande could and should have been that leader, but he isn’t.

And if the European economy continues to stagnate or worse, what will become of the European project — the long-term effort to secure peace and democracy through shared prosperity? In failing France, Mr. Hollande is also failing Europe as a whole — and nobody knows how bad it might get.

Brooks and Krugman

August 15, 2014

In “The Bacall Standard” Bobo says that with her steel spine, gutsy flirtation, and unmistakable presence, Lauren Bacall created a new film noir feminine ideal.  Prof. Krugman, in “The Forever Slump,” says the United States should learn from Europe’s experience of raising interest rates too soon.   Here’s Bobo:

“I believe the really good people would be reasonably successful in any circumstance,” the detective writer Raymond Chandler wrote in his notebook in 1949. If Shakespeare came back today, “he would have refused to die in a corner.”

Shakespeare, Chandler theorized, would have gone into the movie business and made its tired formulas fresh. He wouldn’t have cared about the vulgarity of Hollywood, Chandler thought, “because he would know that without some vulgarity there is no complete man. He would have hated refinement, as such, because it is always a withdrawal, a shrinking, and he was much too tough to shrink from anything.”

Chandler had a tough, urban sensibility, and he created his own vision of the complete modern man, especially in the image of his most famous character, Philip Marlowe. Every new type of hero is like a new word added to the common vocabulary. It gives people a new possibility to emulate and a new standard of excellence. Chandler succeeded in giving his era a compelling male ideal.

Chandler was not particularly kind to women, though. It was up to the director Howard Hawks and his star, Lauren Bacall — who died this week — to give that era a counterpart female ideal, a hero both tough and tender, urbane and fast-talking, but also vulnerable and amusing.

Vivian Rutledge, the lead female character in the movie version of Chandler’s “The Big Sleep,” is stuck in a classic film noir world. Every situation is confusing, shadowed and ambiguous. Every person is dappled with virtue and vice. Society rewards the wrong things, so the ruthless often get rich while the innocent get it in the neck.

The lead character, played by Bacall, emerges from an ambiguous past, but rises aristocratically above it. She has her foibles; she’s manipulative and spoiled. But she’s strong. She seems physically towering, with broad shoulders and a rich, mature voice that is astounding, given that Bacall was all of 20 years old when she made the picture.

She projects a hardened wisdom about the way the world works, and an ironic gaze. Her most outstanding feature is near perfect self-possession. She is composed and self-assured under stress. You get the sense that she has spent her life effortlessly wrapping men around her fingers. Her self-command must have seemed simultaneously masculine and feminine at the time.

The movie’s plot is famously incomprehensible. But you get to watch Vivian meet her equal. The badinage between Bacall’s Vivian and Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe is a cross between swordplay and foreplay. (They were married during the drawn-out filming process.)

The heiress greets Marlowe with a put-down: “So you’re a private detective. I didn’t know they existed, except in books, or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors.”

But he’s self-sufficient enough to stand up to her. He wins her over with a series of small rejections. And he can match her verbal pyrotechnics. When she says she doesn’t like his manners, he comes straight back at her: “I’m not crazy about yours. … I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them long winter evenings.”

A connoisseur of love games, she’s soon enjoying the competition. The verbal dueling becomes a way of testing each other’s composure and finally turns into pure come-on, which, of course, she leads. The most famous exchange in the movie is allegedly about horse racing:

Bacall: “Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first. See if they’re front-runners or come-from-behind. … I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch and then come home free.”

Bogart: “You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.”

Bacall: “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”

By the end, they are united by a moral sensibility. Both characters are constantly making character distinctions, identifying who’s legit and who’s not. The distinctions that matter in their world are not between rich and poor, or pure and impure; they are between those who are faithful to the code of their professions and those who aren’t; between those who are loyal and honest and those who are petty, snobbish and phony.

The feminine ideal in “The Big Sleep” is, of course, dated now. But what’s lasting is a way of being in a time of disillusion. At a cynical moment when many had come to distrust institutions, and when the world seemed incoherent, Bacall and Bogart created a non-self-righteous way to care about virtue. Their characters weren’t prissy or snobbish in the slightest. They were redeemed by their own honor code, which they kept up, cocktail after cocktail.

Bobo apparently couldn’t bring himself to mention the fact that Bacall was a life-long liberal…  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

It’s hard to believe, but almost six years have passed since the fall of Lehman Brothers ushered in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. Many people, myself included, would like to move on to other subjects. But we can’t, because the crisis is by no means over. Recovery is far from complete, and the wrong policies could still turn economic weakness into a more or less permanent depression.

In fact, that’s what seems to be happening in Europe as we speak. And the rest of us should learn from Europe’s experience.

Before I get to the latest bad news, let’s talk about the great policy argument that has raged for more than five years. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details, but basically it has been a debate between the too-muchers and the not-enoughers.

The too-muchers have warned incessantly that the things governments and central banks are doing to limit the depth of the slump are setting the stage for something even worse. Deficit spending, they suggested, could provoke a Greek-style crisis any day now — within two years, declared Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles some three and a half years ago. Asset purchases by the Federal Reserve would “risk currency debasement and inflation,” declared a who’s who of Republican economists, investors, and pundits in a 2010 open letter to Ben Bernanke.

The not-enoughers — a group that includes yours truly — have argued all along that the clear and present danger is Japanification rather than Hellenization. That is, they have warned that inadequate fiscal stimulus and a premature turn to austerity could lead to a lost decade or more of economic depression, that the Fed should be doing even more to boost the economy, that deflation, not inflation, was the great risk facing the Western world.

To say the obvious, none of the predictions and warnings of the too-muchers have come to pass. America never experienced a Greek-type crisis of soaring borrowing costs. In fact, even within Europe the debt crisis largely faded away once the European Central Bank began doing its job as lender of last resort. Meanwhile, inflation has stayed low.

However, while the not-enoughers were right to dismiss warnings about interest rates and inflation, our concerns about actual deflation haven’t yet come to pass. This has provoked a fair bit of rethinking about the inflation process (if there has been any rethinking on the other side of this argument, I haven’t seen it), but not-enoughers continue to worry about the risks of a Japan-type quasi-permanent slump.

Which brings me to Europe’s woes.

On the whole, the too-muchers have had much more influence in Europe than in the United States, while the not-enoughers have had no influence at all. European officials eagerly embraced now-discredited doctrines that allegedly justified fiscal austerity even in depressed economies (although America has de facto done a lot of austerity, too, thanks to the sequester and cuts at the state and local level). And the European Central Bank, or E.C.B., not only failed to match the Fed’s asset purchases, it actually raised interest rates back in 2011 to head off the imaginary risk of inflation.

The E.C.B. reversed course when Europe slid back into recession, and, as I’ve already mentioned, under Mario Draghi’s leadership, it did a lot to alleviate the European debt crisis. But this wasn’t enough. The European economy did start growing again last year, but not enough to make more than a small dent in the unemployment rate.

And now growth has stalled, while inflation has fallen far below the E.C.B.’s target of 2 percent, and prices are actually falling in debtor nations. It’s really a dismal picture. Mr. Draghi & Co. need to do whatever they can to try to turn things around, but given the political and institutional constraints they face, Europe will arguably be lucky if all it experiences is one lost decade.

The good news is that things don’t look that dire in America, where job creation seems finally to have picked up and the threat of deflation has receded, at least for now. But all it would take is a few bad shocks and/or policy missteps to send us down the same path.

The good news is that Janet Yellen, the Fed chairwoman, understands the danger; she has made it clear that she would rather take the chance of a temporary rise in the inflation rate than risk hitting the brakes too soon, the way the E.C.B. did in 2011. The bad news is that she and her colleagues are under a lot of pressure to do the wrong thing from the too-muchers, who seem to have learned nothing from being wrong year after year, and are still agitating for higher rates.

There’s an old joke about the man who decides to cheer up, because things could be worse — and sure enough, things get worse. That’s more or less what happened to Europe, and we shouldn’t let it happen here.


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