Archive for the ‘Brooks’ Category

Brooks and Krugman

December 19, 2014

In “The Union Future” Bobo has the gall to ask a question:  Do the people who have marched over the Brown and Garner cases have the stamina to force change?  In the comments “Claus Gehner” from Seattle and Munich had this to say:  “This is really quite an amazing column.  The title and first paragraph lead one to believe that Mr. Brooks, of all people, is intent on starting a serious conversation on how to address the horrific income and wealth inequality in the US, and the possible role of Labor Unions in that process.  But then, very quickly, Mr. Brooks reverts to character and concentrates on lambasting public sector unions, one of the favorite targets of some of the more odious GOP Governors. The little snipe, almost as an aside, at the Teachers Unions is just a warm up. He then has the audacity to blame the Police Unions for the racial tensions, which are really the remnants pervasive racism in the US in general.”  So it’s typical Bobo crap.  Prof. Krugman, in “Putin’s Bubble Bursts,” says the global plunge in oil prices and the falling ruble have wreaked havoc on the Russian economy. It’s been quite a comedown for the strongman.  Here’s Bobo:

Over the past decades, the case for enhancing union power has grown both stronger and weaker. On the one hand, as wages have stagnated while profits have soared, it does seem that there is something out of whack in the balance of power between labor and capital. Workers need some new way to collectively bargain for more money.

On the other hand, unions, and especially public-sector unions, have done a lot over the past decades to rigidify workplaces, especially government. Teachers’ unions have become the single biggest impediment to school reform. Police unions have become an impediment to police reform.

If you look at all the proposals that have been discussed since the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York, you find that somewhere or other around the country, police unions have opposed all of them:

GETTING RID OF BAD COPS A small percentage of cops commit most of the abuses. A study by WNYC News in New York found that, since 2009, 40 percent of the “resisting arrest” charges were filed by just 5 percent of New York Police Department officers. In other words, most officers rarely get in a confrontation that leads to that charge, but a few officers often get in violent confrontations.

But it’s very hard to remove the bad apples from the force. Trying to protect their members, unions have weakened accountability. The investigation process is softer on police than it would be on anyone else. In parts of the country, contract rules stipulate that officers get a 48-hour cooling-off period before having to respond to questions. They have access to the names and testimony of their accusers. They can be questioned only by one person at a time. They can’t be threatened with disciplinary action during questioning.

More seriously, cops who are punished can be reinstated through a secretive appeals process that favors job retention over public safety. In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has a riveting piece with egregious stories of cops who have returned to the force after clear incompetence. Hector Jimenez was an Oakland, Calif., cop who shot and killed an unarmed 20-year-old man in 2007. Seven months later, he killed another unarmed man, shooting him in the back three times while he ran away. The city paid damages. Jimenez was fired. But he appealed through his union and was reinstated with back pay.

CAMERAS There’s long been talk about equipping cops with wearable cameras. In Miami, Boston, and Wichita, Kan., city officials bandied about such plans, but the local unions moved to thwart them, arguing, in one case, that wearing cameras “will distract officers from their duties, and hamper their ability to act and react in dangerous situations.”

DEMILITARIZATION After riots in Ferguson, there was basically a national consensus that police don’t need mine-resistant, ambush-protected monster vehicles and military-style grenade launchers. But there’s support for the program in Washington among the defense industry and the unions. A union executive told Bloomberg News earlier this month that representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police reached out to “maybe 80 percent of senators and half the House” to defend the program. A representative of the International Union of Police Associations wrote in August after the shooting death of Brown, “I believe that law enforcement officers should have available to them any and all tools necessary to do their job and protect their community.”

STOP-AND-FRISK In New York, a court order mandated that there be federal oversight of the New York Police Department to monitor stop-and-frisk practices, a procedure that disproportionately affects minority men. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association moved to stall the ruling and questioned its impact. “We continue to have serious concerns about how these remedies will impact our members and the ability to do their jobs,” the president of the association said.

COMMUNITY RELATIONS In Philadelphia, a civilian oversight commission suggested that police officers apologize to citizens who complain of being mistreated. The local chief of the Fraternal Order of Police responded with a hysterical letter in March 2012 claiming that the commission was trying “to further weaken and demoralize the Philadelphia Police Department in a time of crisis with a significantly growing crime problem in this city. … Your group poses a direct threat to public safety in this city. A threat which should no longer be tolerated by our citizens or their government.”

We get mad at racism, but most government outrages have structural roots. The left doesn’t want to go after police unions because they’re unions. The right doesn’t want to because they represent law and order. Politicians of all stripes shy away because they are powerful.

Now we have a test case to see if the people who march about the Garner case have the stamina to force change. Legitimate union advocacy has become extreme because it has gone unchecked. Most cops do hard jobs well, but right now there’s a crisis of accountability.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

If you’re the type who finds macho posturing impressive, Vladimir Putin is your kind of guy. Sure enough, many American conservatives seem to have an embarrassing crush on the swaggering strongman. “That is what you call a leader,” enthused Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, after Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine without debate or deliberation.

But Mr. Putin never had the resources to back his swagger. Russia has an economy roughly the same size as Brazil’s. And, as we’re now seeing, it’s highly vulnerable to financial crisis — a vulnerability that has a lot to do with the nature of the Putin regime.

For those who haven’t been keeping track: The ruble has been sliding gradually since August, when Mr. Putin openly committed Russian troops to the conflict in Ukraine. A few weeks ago, however, the slide turned into a plunge. Extreme measures, including a huge rise in interest rates and pressure on private companies to stop holding dollars, have done no more than stabilize the ruble far below its previous level. And all indications are that the Russian economy is heading for a nasty recession.

The proximate cause of Russia’s difficulties is, of course, the global plunge in oil prices, which, in turn, reflects factors — growing production from shale, weakening demand from China and other economies — that have nothing to do with Mr. Putin. And this was bound to inflict serious damage on an economy that, as I said, doesn’t have much besides oil that the rest of the world wants; the sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine conflict have added to the damage.

But Russia’s difficulties are disproportionate to the size of the shock: While oil has indeed plunged, the ruble has plunged even more, and the damage to the Russian economy reaches far beyond the oil sector. Why?

Actually, it’s not a puzzle — and this is, in fact, a movie currency-crisis aficionados like yours truly have seen many times before: Argentina 2002, Indonesia 1998, Mexico 1995, Chile 1982, the list goes on. The kind of crisis Russia now faces is what you get when bad things happen to an economy made vulnerable by large-scale borrowing from abroad — specifically, large-scale borrowing by the private sector, with the debts denominated in foreign currency, not the currency of the debtor country.

In that situation, an adverse shock like a fall in exports can start a vicious downward spiral. When the nation’s currency falls, the balance sheets of local businesses — which have assets in rubles (or pesos or rupiah) but debts in dollars or euros — implode. This, in turn, inflicts severe damage on the domestic economy, undermining confidence and depressing the currency even more. And Russia fits the standard playbook.

Except for one thing. Usually, the way a country ends up with a lot of foreign debt is by running trade deficits, using borrowed funds to pay for imports. But Russia hasn’t run trade deficits. On the contrary, it has consistently run large trade surpluses, thanks to high oil prices. So why did it borrow so much money, and where did the money go?

Well, you can answer the second question by walking around Mayfair in London, or (to a lesser extent) Manhattan’s Upper East Side, especially in the evening, and observing the long rows of luxury residences with no lights on — residences owned, as the line goes, by Chinese princelings, Middle Eastern sheikhs, and Russian oligarchs. Basically, Russia’s elite has been accumulating assets outside the country — luxury real estate is only the most visible example — and the flip side of that accumulation has been rising debt at home.

Where does the elite get that kind of money? The answer, of course, is that Putin’s Russia is an extreme version of crony capitalism, indeed, a kleptocracy in which loyalists get to skim off vast sums for their personal use. It all looked sustainable as long as oil prices stayed high. But now the bubble has burst, and the very corruption that sustained the Putin regime has left Russia in dire straits.

How does it end? The standard response of a country in Russia’s situation is an International Monetary Fund program that includes emergency loans and forbearance from creditors in return for reform. Obviously that’s not going to happen here, and Russia will try to muddle through on its own, among other things with rules to prevent capital from fleeing the country — a classic case of locking the barn door after the oligarch is gone.

It’s quite a comedown for Mr. Putin. And his swaggering strongman act helped set the stage for the disaster. A more open, accountable regime — one that wouldn’t have impressed Mr. Giuliani so much — would have been less corrupt, would probably have run up less debt, and would have been better placed to ride out falling oil prices. Macho posturing, it turns out, makes for bad economies.

Brooks and Nocera

December 16, 2014

In “Warren Can Win” Bobo gurgles that Elizabeth Warren’s aggressive ethos speaks to the disillusionment of the Democratic left wing, and that she may yet be their nominee.  In “When Football Gets the Ax” Mr. Nocera says that at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, it became too expensive to keep up with the big boys.  Here’s Bobo:

Elizabeth Warren’s memoir begins with the story of a family in collapse. She was 12 years old when her father had a heart attack.

His recovery was slow. Unable to work, the family’s finances tanked. The Studebaker was repossessed. When he was able to return to work, Montgomery Ward took away his job selling carpeting and gave him a job selling lawn mowers on commission. Warren asked her mother why the old job was gone. “In her view, his company had robbed him of something he’d worked for. And now, she said, ‘They think he’s going to die.’ ”

The financial spiral had the predictable effect on the family’s emotional life. “Sometimes that spring I would overhear my parents arguing,” Warren remembers, “I guess I shouldn’t describe it as arguing; my father never said much of anything, while my mother yelled louder. They drank more, a lot more. . . . I knew that my mother blamed my daddy for not doing ‘what a man is supposed to do’ and taking care of us.”

Her mother ended up getting a job at Sears, her father got a job as a maintenance man and the family finances stabilized — at a low level. Warren concluded the episode this way: “My mother never had it easy. She fought for everything she and my daddy ever had.”

The memoir is called “A Fighting Chance.” The words “fight” or “fighting” appear in the book 224 times. In high school, Warren writes, she couldn’t play a musical instrument or a sport, “but I did have one talent. I could fight — not with my fists, but with my words. I was the anchor on the debate team.” Of her tennis game she writes, “Once I had a weapon in my hand, I gave it everything I had.”

With relish, she describes a fight she later had with a judge on a panel discussion over bankruptcy law. “The judge probably had a hundred pounds on me, and he started shifting himself closer to the microphone and edging me out of his way. I grabbed the table for leverage and pushed my way to the microphone, going shoulder to shoulder with the judge as I hit back with arguments. . . . I glanced over and noticed with satisfaction that the veins in his neck were throbbing and his face was red and sweating. I wondered briefly whether he might have a stroke right there on the small stage.”

Her biggest adult fight has been against the banks, against what she saw as their rapacious exploitation of the poor and vulnerable. The crucial distinction Warren makes is this one: It’s not just social conditions like globalization and technological change that threaten the middle class. It’s an active conspiracy by the rich and powerful. The game is rigged. The proper response is not just policy-making; it’s indignation and combat.

The political class has been wondering if Warren, a United States senator from Massachusetts, will take on Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. This speculation is usually based on the premise that Warren couldn’t actually win, but that she could move the party in her direction. But, today, even for those of us who disagree with Warren fundamentally, it seems clear that she does have a significant and growing chance of being nominated.

Her chances are rising because of that word “fight.” The emotional register of the Democratic Party is growing more combative. There’s an underlying and sometimes vituperative sense of frustration toward President Obama, and especially his supposed inability to go to the mat.

Events like the Brown case in Ferguson and the Garner case in New York have raised indignation levels across the progressive spectrum. Judging by recent polls, the midterm defeat has not scared Democrats into supporting the safe option; it’s made them angrier about the whole system. As the party slips more into opposition status, with the next Congress, this aggressive outsider spirit will only grow.

In this era of bad feelings, parties are organized more around what they oppose rather than what they are for. Republicans are against government. Democrats are coalescing around opposition to Wall Street and corporate power. In 2001, 51 percent of Democrats were dissatisfied with the rise of corporate power, according to Gallup surveys. By 2011, 79 percent of Democrats were. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month, 58 percent of Democrats said they believed that the economic and political systems were stacked against them.

Clinton is obviously tough, but she just can’t speak with a clear voice against Wall Street and Washington insiders. Warren’s wing shows increasing passion and strength, both in opposing certain Obama nominees and in last week’s budget fight.

The history of populist candidates is that they never actually get the nomination. The establishment wins. That’s still likely. But there is something in the air. The fundamental truth is that every structural and historical advantage favors Clinton, but every day more Democrats embrace the emotion and view defined by Warren.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

The most unpopular man in Birmingham, Ala., these days is Dr. Ray Watts, the president of the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Earlier this month, Watts announced that the school was going to eliminate its football team. You can just imagine what happened next.

When Watts told the team that this would be their last season, one player, Tristan Henderson, angrily challenged him in a video that quickly went viral. Later, several hundred supporters chanted and cheered for the coach, and heckled and chased Watts and his police escort, according to Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com.

Mark Emmert, the president of the N.C.A.A., described Watts’s decision as “unfortunate.” A group of important donors wrote a letter to the chancellor of the Alabama university system, calling for an investigation into Watts’s decision. Another big supporter, a Birmingham restaurateur, canceled his $45,000 sponsorship of a television network that aired U.A.B. games and ended the use of his restaurant as the locale for the basketball coach’s weekly radio show. “This is so tragic,” he told a reporter. “It’s like a death.”

Watts, it turns out, is a Birmingham native who played football in high school and who attended the university. He gets how important football is in Alabama. But in pulling together a five-year strategic plan for the school, he came to the obvious conclusion that it simply made no sense to continue fielding a football team. (The school is also eliminating its bowling and rifle teams.)

“Our athletic budget is $30 million,” he told me when we spoke. Of that amount, $20 million comes directly from the school — either through student fees or direct subsidies from the overall university budget. A consultant Watts hired concluded that it would cost an additional $49 million over the next five years to keep the football team competitive with the other schools in Conference USA.

“We could not justify subsidizing football if it meant taking away from other priorities,” he said. Then he added, “This is driven significantly by the changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics.”

Ah, yes, the changing landscape. Let me explain. For the last year or more, the big boys in college athletics — the 64 schools that make up the top five conferences, plus Notre Dame — have been agitating for more freedom to make their own rules. They want, for instance, to be able to give their athletes a stipend that goes beyond a scholarship and more fully reflects the “full cost of attendance.” And through their conference commissioners, the power schools issued a series of veiled threats that if they didn’t get more autonomy, they just might bolt from the N.C.A.A.

Not surprisingly, they got their autonomy. The additional benefits will probably cost each of these schools several million additional dollars per year. But universities like Michigan and Auburn and Notre Dame can afford it. It’s the U.A.B.’s of the world — the so-called mid-majors — that have to decide whether to match the benefits the big schools are giving to athletes or go in another direction.

I have no problem with the power schools giving athletes more benefits; indeed, I’m in favor of it. But what I always thought would happen when this day came — when the financial difference between the power schools and everybody else became overwhelming — is that the smaller schools in Division 1 would be forced to rethink their priorities, just as U.A.B. has. Maybe not get out of football altogether, but de-emphasize it so that the tail finally stops wagging the dog.

But so far, at least, that is not turning out to be the case. At a college sports conference last week in New York, nobody gave U.A.B. any credit for pulling out of football. On the contrary: most of the athletic directors in the room were adamant that they would pay whatever they had to pay to keep pace with the big boys.

“Our board is totally committed to athletics and competing at the highest level,” said Chris May, the athletic director at Saint Louis University. “We are going to be very aggressive.”

“There is no pressure to drop football,” said Mike O’Brien of the University of Toledo. “It is too important to our university.”

When you ask people why it is so important, you get similar responses: a good football team means more applications; it helps generate donations; it is something the community can rally around. “In many ways, football is our front porch,” said Nagi Naganathan, the interim president of the University of Toledo.

Yet schools that have dropped football have lived to tell the tale. In 1995, the University of the Pacific dropped football — the last major school to do so before U.A.B. “Since then, their enrollment has actually gone up,” emailed David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports management at Ohio University.

“Football,” he added, “doesn’t define a university.”

Unfortunately, for too many schools, it does.

Bread and circuses…

Brooks and Krugman

December 12, 2014

In “In Praise of Small Miracles” Bobo says behavioral economics has given us amazing new policy options to solve local and international problems.  It’s his usual crap, but the comments were so wonderful I couldn’t decide between “mike vogel” of NY, who said “David, there is much proof that yelling at someone has zero affect on his or her behavior. For example, did you ever read your column’s comments section?” and “Bob” from SE PA who said “Instead of writing the thoughtful and critical replies posted here, can we instead come to The New York Times and scream our criticism of David’s work from the hallway just outside his office? Under David’s theory, the quality of his work would then improve.”  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Mad as Hellas.”  He says Greece appears to be in crisis again. Will we learn the right lessons this time?  Here’s Bobo:

Most of us don’t save enough. When governments try to encourage saving, they usually enact big policies to increase the incentives. But, in Kenya, people were given a lockable metal box — a simple place to put their money. After one year, the people with metal boxes increased savings by so much that they had 66 percent more money available to pay for health emergencies. It would have taken a giant tax reform to produce a shift in behavior that large.

Too many people die in auto accidents. When governments try to reduce highway deaths, they generally increase safety regulations. But, also in Kenya, stickers were placed inside buses and vans urging passengers to scream at automobile drivers they saw driving dangerously.

The heckling discouraged dangerous driving by an awesome amount. Insurance claims involving injury or death fell to half of their previous levels.

These are examples of a new kind of policy-making that is sweeping the world. The old style was based on the notion that human beings are rational actors who respond in straightforward ways to incentives. The new style, which supplements but does not replace the old style, is based on the obvious point that human beings are not always rational actors. Sometimes we’re mentally lazy, or stressed, or we’re influenced by social pressure and unconscious biases. It’s possible to take advantage of these features to enact change.

For example, people hate losing things more than they like getting things, a phenomenon known as loss aversion. In some schools, teachers were offered a bonus at the end of their year if they could improve student performance. This kind of merit pay didn’t improve test scores. But, in other schools, teachers were given a bonus at the beginning of the year, which would effectively be taken away if their students didn’t improve. This loss-framed bonus had a big effect.

People are also guided by decision-making formats. The people who administer the ACT college admissions test used to allow students to send free score reports to three colleges. Many people thus applied to three colleges. But then the ACT folks changed the form so there were four lines where you could write down prospective colleges. That tiny change meant that many people applied to four colleges instead of three. Some got into more prestigious schools they wouldn’t have otherwise. This improved the expected earnings of low-income students by about $10,000.

The World Bank has just issued an amazingly good report called “Mind, Society and Behavior” on how the insights of behavioral economics can be applied to global development and global health. The report, written by a team led by Karla Hoff and Varun Gauri, lists many policies that have already been tried and points the way to many more.

Sugar cane farmers in India receive most of their income once a year, at harvest time. In the weeks before harvest, when they are poor and stressed, they score 10 points lower on I.Q. tests than in the weeks after. If you schedule fertilizer purchase decisions and their children’s school enrollment decisions during the weeks after harvest, they will make more farsighted choices than at other times of the year. This simple policy change is based on an understanding of how poverty depletes mental resources.

In Zambia, hairdressers were asked to sell female condoms to their clients. Some were offered financial incentives to do so, but these produced no results. In other salons, top condom sellers had a gold star placed next to their names on a poster that all could see. More than twice as many condoms were sold. This simple change was based on an understanding of the human desire for status and admiration.

The policies informed by behavioral economics are delicious because they show how cheap changes can produce big effects. Policy makers in this mode focus on discrete opportunities to exploit, not vast problems to solve.

This corrects for a bias in the way governments often work. They tend to gravitate toward the grand and the abstract. For example the United Nations is now replacing the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015, with the Sustainable Development Goals.

“The Millennium Development Goals are concrete, measurable and have an end-date, so they could serve as a rallying point,” says Suprotik Basu, the chief executive of the MDG Health Alliance. “One good thing about the Sustainable Development Goals is that they’re being written through a bottom-up consensus process. But sometimes the search for consensus leads you higher and higher into the clouds. The jury is out on whether we will wind up with goals concrete enough to help ministers make decisions and decide priorities.”

Behavioral economics policies are beautiful because they are small and concrete but powerful. They remind us that when policies are rooted in actual human behavior and specific day-to-day circumstances, even governments can produce small miracles.

I want Bobo to start screaming at bad drivers.  As a Republican he’s sure to approve of gun possession, so when he gets shot he’ll be understanding.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

The Greek fiscal crisis erupted five years ago, and its side effects continue to inflict immense damage on Europe and the world. But I’m not talking about the side effects you may have in mind — spillovers from Greece’s Great Depression-level slump, or financial contagion to other debtors. No, the truly disastrous effect of the Greek crisis was the way it distorted economic policy, as supposedly serious people around the world rushed to learn the wrong lessons.

Now Greece appears to be in crisis again. Will we learn the right lessons this time?

What happened last time, you may recall, was the exploitation of Greece’s woes to change the economic subject. Suddenly, we were supposed to obsess over budget deficits, even if borrowing costs were at historic lows, and slash government spending, even in the face of mass unemployment. Because if we didn’t, you see, we could turn into Greece any day now. “Greece stands as a warning of what happens to countries that lose their credibility,” intoned David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, as he announced austerity policies in 2010. “We are on the same path as Greece,” declared Representative Paul Ryan, who was soon to become the chairman of the House Budget Committee, that same year.

In reality, Britain and the United States, which borrow in their own currencies, were and are nothing like Greece. If you thought otherwise in 2010, by now year after year of incredibly low interest rates and low inflation should have convinced you. And the experience of Greece and other European countries that were forced into harsh austerity measures should also have convinced you that slashing spending in a depressed economy is a really bad idea if you can avoid it. This is true even in the supposed success stories — Ireland, for example, is finally growing again, but it still has almost 11 percent unemployment, and twice that rate among young people.

And the devastation in Greece is awesome to behold. Some press reports I’ve seen seem to suggest that the country has been a malingerer, balking at the harsh measures its situation demands. In reality, it has made huge adjustments — slashing public employment and compensation, cutting back social programs, raising taxes. If you want a sense of the scale of austerity, it would be as if the United States had introduced spending cuts and tax increases amounting to more than $1 trillion a year. Meanwhile, wages in the private sector have plunged. Yet a quarter of the Greek labor force, and half its young, remain unemployed.

Meanwhile, the debt situation has if anything gotten worse, with the ratio of public debt to G.D.P. at a record high — mainly because of falling G.D.P., not rising debt — and with the emergence of a big private debt problem, thanks to deflation and depression. There are some positives; the economy is growing a bit, finally, largely thanks to a revival of tourism. But, over all, it has been many years of suffering for very little reward.

The remarkable thing, given all that, has been the willingness of the Greek public to take it, to accept the claims of the political establishment that the pain is necessary and will eventually lead to recovery. And the news that has roiled Europe these past few days is that the Greeks may have reached their limit. The details are complex, but basically the current government is trying a fairly desperate political maneuver to put off a general election. And, if it fails, the likely winner in that election is Syriza, a party of the left that has demanded a renegotiation of the austerity program, which could lead to a confrontation with Germany and exit from the euro.

The important point here is that it’s not just the Greeks who are mad as Hellas (their own name for their country) and aren’t going to take it anymore. Look at France, where Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant National Front, outpolls mainstream candidates of both right and left. Look at Italy, where about half of voters support radical parties like the Northern League and the Five-Star Movement. Look at Britain, where both anti-immigrant politicians and Scottish separatists are threatening the political order.

It would be a terrible thing if any of these groups — with the exception, surprisingly, of Syriza, which seems relatively benign — were to come to power. But there’s a reason they’re on the rise. This is what happens when an elite claims the right to rule based on its supposed expertise, its understanding of what must be done — then demonstrates both that it does not, in fact, know what it is doing, and that it is too ideologically rigid to learn from its mistakes.

I have no idea how events in Greece are about to turn out. But there’s a real lesson in its political turmoil that’s much more important than the false lesson too many took from its special fiscal woes.

Brooks and Nocera

December 9, 2014

In “The Cop Mind” Bobo whines that while nothing excuses racist police brutality, the emotional and psychological challenges of being a cop are formidable, and those who bear them deserve respect.  Bobo, they get my respect when they don’t behave like racist thugs.  In “The New Republic’s Rebellion” Mr. Nocera says behind a storied magazine in upheaval is a battle between clicks and profits, and social status and influence.  Here’s Bobo:

Like a lot of people in journalism, I began my career, briefly, as a police reporter. As the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases have unfolded, I’ve found myself thinking back to those days. Nothing excuses specific acts of police brutality, especially in the Garner case, but not enough attention is being paid to the emotional and psychological challenges of being a cop.

Early on, I learned that there is an amazing variety of police officers, even compared to other professions. Most cops are conscientious, and some, especially among detectives, are brilliant.

They spend much of their time in the chaotic and depressing nether-reaches of society: busting up domestic violence disputes, dealing with drunks and drug addicts, coming upon fatal car crashes, managing conflicts large and small.

They ride an emotional and biochemical roller coaster. They experience moments of intense action and alertness, followed by emotional crashes marked by exhaustion, and isolation. They become hypervigilant. Surrounded by crime all day, some come to perceive that society is more threatening than it really is.

To cope, they emotionally armor up. Many of the cops I was around developed a cynical, dehumanizing and hard-edged sense of humor that was an attempt to insulate themselves from the pain of seeing a dead child or the extinguished life of a young girl they arrived too late to save.

Many of us see cops as relatively invulnerable as they patrol the streets. The cops themselves do not perceive their situation that way. As criminologist George Kelling wrote in City Journal in 1993, “It is a common myth that police officers approach conflicts with a feeling of power — after all, they are armed, they represent the state, they are specially trained and backed by an ‘army.’ In reality, an officer’s gun is almost always a liability … because a suspect may grab it in a scuffle. Officers are usually at a disadvantage because they have to intervene in unfamiliar terrain, on someone else’s territory. They worry that bystanders might become involved, either by helping somebody the officer has to confront or, after the fact, by second-guessing an officer’s conduct.”

Even though most situations are not dangerous, danger is always an out-of-the-blue possibility, often in the back of the mind.

In many places, a self-supporting and insular police culture develops: In this culture no one understands police work except fellow officers; the training in the academy is useless; to do the job you’ve got to bend the rules and understand the law of the jungle; the world is divided into two sorts of people — cops and a — holes.

This is a life of both boredom and stress. Life expectancy for cops is lower than for the general population. Cops suffer disproportionately from peptic ulcers, back disorders and heart disease. In one study, suicide rates were three times higher among cops than among other municipal workers. Other studies have found that somewhere between 7 percent and 19 percent of cops suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The effect is especially harsh on those who have been involved in shootings. Two-thirds of the officers who have been involved in shootings suffer moderate or severe emotional problems. Seventy percent leave the police force within seven years of the incident.

Most cops know they walk a dangerous line, between necessary and excessive force. According to a 2000 National Institute of Justice study, more than 90 percent of the police officers surveyed said that it is wrong to respond to verbal abuse with force. Nonetheless, 15 percent of the cops surveyed were aware that officers in their own department sometimes or often did so.

And through the years, departments have worked to humanize the profession. Over all, police use of force is on the decline, along with the crime rate generally. According to the Department of Justice, the number of incidents in which force was used or threatened declined from 664,000 in 2002 to 574,000 in 2008. Community policing has helped bind police forces closer to the citizenry.

A blind spot is race. Only 1 in 20 white officers believe that blacks and other minorities receive unequal treatment from the police. But 57 percent of black officers are convinced the treatment of minorities is unfair.

But at the core of profession lies the central problem of political philosophy. How does the state preserve order through coercion? When should you use overwhelming force to master lawbreaking? When is it wiser to step back and use patience and understanding to defuse a situation? How do you make this decision instantaneously, when testosterone is flowing, when fear is in the air, when someone is disrespecting you and you feel indignation rising in the gut?

Racist police brutality has to be punished. But respect has to be paid. Police serve by walking that hazardous line where civilization meets disorder.

Here’s Mr. Nocera:

I asked Marty Peretz the other day whether his goal during the nearly four decades that he had owned The New Republic was ever to make a profit. “Absolutely not,” he bellowed. “I think we were profitable maybe three of four years.” One year, he said, the magazine’s staff threw a pizza party to celebrate being in the black — “and the party put us back in the red.” He was only half-joking.

No, Peretz owned The New Republic because it gave him a megaphone on issues he cared about, like Israel. Influence accrued to him, as did a certain social status that came with owning a magazine that mattered to the policy elites in Washington, D.C., and Cambridge, Mass.

Strange as this may seem, this has long been the “business model” for policy and political magazines. Harper’s Magazine is published by Rick MacArthur, and its losses are covered by the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation. For years, Mort Zuckerman, the real estate mogul, picked up The Atlantic’s losses.

Peretz told me that during his tenure, The New Republic lost an annual sum in the low six figures, which he covered. So long as the losses were manageable, the owner would write a check. If the losses became too onerous, then the owner would look to sell.

Thus it was that in 2012, with The New Republic’s losses rising to around $3 million, Peretz sold the magazine to Chris Hughes, who got rich by being one of the original executives at Facebook. (He was Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate in college.) With a net worth said to be around $700 million, Hughes was in a position to subsidize his new toy for a very long time. “I told him that if he wanted to maintain a serious and substantial publication, he should look forward to losses for some years,” Peretz said.

In the two years that Hughes has owned it, The New Republic regained its reputation for smart, lively, engaging journalism. But he also appears to have quickly tired of losing money. A few months ago, he hired a new chief executive, Guy Vidra, from Yahoo. Vidra immediately began using words like “disruption” and “innovation” and “breaking stuff” (though he didn’t use the word “stuff”). The first time many New Republic staff members heard their company described as a “vertically integrated digital media company” was when Vidra made his first big presentation to the writers and editors. In an op-ed article that Hughes wrote in The Washington Post — after The New Republic’s editor in chief and literary editor had resigned, and most of the staff had walked out with them — he said that The New Republic could no longer be a “charity,” and that his goal was to make it a “sustainable business.” In other words, he wants to make a profit.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It is just hard to see how he is going to get there.

The truth is, the jury is still out on the profit-making ability of digital publications. Slate, which has been around since 1996, makes money, but not much. The Atlantic under David Bradley, its current owner, has a terrific digital presence, not to mention 500,000 print subscribers. It also makes money. But, again, those profits are modest. Venture capitalists are throwing money at new online media ventures like Vox, but we are a long way from knowing whether they will ever be profitable. None of the digital media companies have gone public, so their profits or losses are hidden from view.

The New Republic, on the other hand, has a print circulation of around 42,000. Its current website is lively, but clearly it wasn’t generating the number of clicks that its new owner wanted. Even before Vidra joined, The New Republic’s business executives were trying to get the editors to do things that would attract more clicks. One executive suggested that Michael Kinsley — a former New Republic editor himself — come up with a listicle, à la BuzzFeed. (“10 reasons why health care isn’t a free market.”)

Is it any wonder that the staff walked out when this plan was finally unveiled? Their earnest little magazine is the opposite of BuzzFeed. That’s what they loved about it. Or at least it was.

When I spoke to Vidra late Monday, he stressed to me that The New Republic was not going to abandon its heritage of thoughtful journalism and provocative ideas. When I asked him whether he would follow the model of The Atlantic, he demurred. He instead suggested that Vox Media was a more appropriate model for what he had in mind.

After we spoke, I went to the Vox website. I scrolled down until I saw a headline that stopped me cold. “Everybody farts,” it read. “But here are 9 surprising facts about flatulence you may not know.”

Goodbye, New Republic.

Brooks and Krugman

December 5, 2014

Bobo thinks he’s on to something.  He has a question in “Why Elders Smile:”  Why do studies suggest that the happiest age group is people ages 82 to 85?  If you’re thinking that this sounds suspiciously like Bobo’ian psychobabble you’re right.  In the comments “Jack Chicago” from Chicago lays it out for us:  “This column is just a blend of psychobabble, generalizations and unsupported assertions. Mr Brooks’ broad and shallow approach to these columns is pretty thin stuff.”  Prof. Krugman, in “Democrats Against Reform,” says no, Obamacare wasn’t a mistake. Democrats should be celebrating that they did the right thing.  Here’s Bobo:

A few months ago, Ezekiel Emanuel had an essay in The Atlantic saying that, all things considered, he’d prefer to die around age 75. He argued that he’d rather clock out with all his powers intact than endure a sad, feeble decline.

The problem is that if Zeke dies at 75, he’ll likely be missing his happiest years. When researchers ask people to assess their own well-being, people in their 20s rate themselves highly. Then there’s a decline as people get sadder in middle age, bottoming out around age 50. But then happiness levels shoot up, so that old people are happier than young people. The people who rate themselves most highly are those ages 82 to 85.

Psychologists who study this now famous U-Curve tend to point out that old people are happier because of changes in the brain. For example, when you show people a crowd of faces, young people unconsciously tend to look at the threatening faces but older people’s attention gravitates toward the happy ones.

Older people are more relaxed, on average. They are spared some of the burden of thinking about the future. As a result, they get more pleasure out of present, ordinary activities.

My problem with a lot of the research on happiness in old age is that it is so deterministic. It treats the aging of the emotional life the way you might treat the aging of the body: as this biological, chemical and evolutionary process that happens to people.

I’d rather think that elder happiness is an accomplishment, not a condition, that people get better at living through effort, by mastering specific skills. I’d like to think that people get steadily better at handling life’s challenges. In middle age, they are confronted by stressful challenges they can’t control, like having teenage children. But, in old age, they have more control over the challenges they will tackle and they get even better at addressing them.

Aristotle teaches us that being a good person is not mainly about learning moral rules and following them. It is about performing social roles well — being a good parent or teacher or lawyer or friend.

It’s easy to think of some of the skills that some people get better at over time.

First, there’s bifocalism, the ability to see the same situation from multiple perspectives. Anthony Kronman of Yale Law School once wrote, “Anyone who has worn bifocal lenses knows that it takes time to learn to shift smoothly between perspectives and to combine them in a single field of vision. The same is true of deliberation. It is difficult to be compassionate, and often just as difficult to be detached, but what is most difficult of all is to be both at once.” Only with experience can a person learn to see a fraught situation both close up, with emotional intensity, and far away, with detached perspective.

Then there’s lightness, the ability to be at ease with the downsides of life. In their book, “Lighter as We Go,” Jimmie Holland and Mindy Greenstein (who is a friend from college) argue that while older people lose memory they also learn that most setbacks are not the end of the world. Anxiety is the biggest waste in life. If you know that you’ll recover, you can save time and get on with it sooner.

“The ability to grow lighter as we go is a form of wisdom that entails learning how not to sweat the small stuff,” Holland and Greenstein write, “learning how not to be too invested in particular outcomes.”

Then there is the ability to balance tensions. In “Practical Wisdom,” Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe argue that performing many social roles means balancing competing demands. A doctor has to be honest but also kind. A teacher has to instruct but also inspire. You can’t find the right balance in each context by memorizing a rule book. This form of wisdom can only be earned by acquiring a repertoire of similar experiences.

Finally, experienced heads have intuitive awareness of the landscape of reality, a feel for what other people are thinking and feeling, an instinct for how events will flow. In “The Wisdom Paradox,” Elkhonon Goldberg details the many ways the brain deteriorates with age: brain cells die, mental operations slow. But a lifetime of intellectual effort can lead to empathy and pattern awareness. “What I have lost with age in my capacity for hard mental work,” Goldberg writes, “I seem to have gained in my capacity for instantaneous, almost unfairly easy insight.”

It’s comforting to know that, for many, life gets happier with age. But it’s more useful to know how individuals get better at doing the things they do. The point of culture is to spread that wisdom from old to young; to put that thousand-year-heart in a still young body.

I’m willing to bet that Bobo hasn’t spent much time in a nursing home lately.  You know, the kind that the less-than-fabulously-wealthy can afford.  Not a barrel of laughs…  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

It’s easy to understand why Republicans wish health reform had never happened, and are now hoping that the Supreme Court will abandon its principles and undermine the law. But it’s more puzzling — and disturbing — when Democrats like Charles Schumer, senator from New York, declare that the Obama administration’s signature achievement was a mistake.

In a minute I’ll take on Mr. Schumer’s recent remarks. But first, an update on Obamacare — not the politics, but the actual policy, which continues to rack up remarkable (and largely unreported) successes.

Earlier this week, the independent Urban Institute released new estimates of the number of Americans without health insurance, and the positive results of Obamacare’s first year are striking. Remember all those claims that more people would lose coverage than would gain it? Well, the institute finds a sharp drop in the number of uninsured adults, with more than 10 million people gaining coverage since last year. This is in line with what multiple other estimates show. The primary goal of health reform, to give Americans access to the health care they need, is very much on track.

And while some of the policies offered under Obamacare don’t offer as much protection as we might like, a huge majority of the newly insured are pleased with their coverage, according to a recent Gallup poll.

What about costs? There were many predictions of soaring premiums. But health reform’s efforts to create meaningful competition among insurers are working better than almost anyone (myself included) expected. Premiums for 2014 came in well below expectations, and independent estimates show a very modest increase — 4 percent or less — for average premiums in 2015.

In short, if you think of Obamacare as a policy intended to improve American lives, it’s going really well. Yet it has not, of course, been a political winner for Democrats. Which brings us to Mr. Schumer.

The Schumer critique — he certainly isn’t the first to say these things, but he is the most prominent Democrat to say them — calls health reform a mistake because it only benefits a minority of Americans, and that’s not enough to win elections. What President Obama should have done, claims Mr. Schumer, was focus on improving the economy as a whole.

This is deeply wrongheaded in at least three ways.

First, while it’s true that most Americans have insurance through Medicare, Medicaid, and employment-based coverage, that doesn’t mean that only the current uninsured benefit from a program that guarantees affordable care. Maybe you have good coverage now, but what happens if you’re fired, or your employer goes bust, or it cancels its insurance program? What if you want to change jobs for whatever reason, but can’t find a new job that comes with insurance?

The point is that the pre-Obamacare system put many Americans at the constant risk of going without insurance, many more than the number of uninsured at any given time, and limited freedom of employment for millions more. So health reform helps a much larger share of the population than those currently uninsured — and those beneficiaries have relatives and friends. This is not a policy targeted on a small minority.

Second, whenever someone says that Mr. Obama should have focused on the economy, my question is, what do you mean by that? Should he have tried for a bigger stimulus? I’d say yes, but that fight took place in the very first months of his administration, before the push for health reform got underway. After that, and especially after 2010, scorched-earth Republican opposition killed just about every economic policy he proposed. Do you think this would have been different without health reform? Seriously?

Look, economic management is about substance, not theater. Having the president walk around muttering “I’m focused on the economy” wouldn’t have accomplished anything. And I’ve never seen any plausible explanation of how abandoning health reform would have made any difference at all to the political possibilities for economic policy.

Finally, we need to ask, what is the purpose of winning elections? The answer, I hope, is to do good — not simply to set yourself up to win the next election. In 2009-10, Democrats had their first chance in a generation to do what we should have done three generations ago, and ensure adequate health care for all of our citizens. It would have been incredibly cynical not to have seized that opportunity, and Democrats should be celebrating the fact that they did the right thing.

And one related observation: If more Democrats had been willing to defend the best thing they’ve done in decades, rather than run away from their own achievement and implicitly concede that the smears against health reform were right, the politics of the issue might look very different today.

Brooks and Nocera

December 2, 2014

Bobo, who might have been lounging in his “vast spaces for entertaining” when he wrote it, sends us “Class Prejudice Resurgent” in which he gurgles that racism has fused with classism to create a new, ugly form of prejudice in America.  In the comments “abo” from Paris has this to say: “So Mr. Brooks bemoans classism all the while projecting his upper-class prejudices. The upper class is meritocratic, has grit, has a capacity for delayed gratification. The lower class is disorganized and violent.  As long as the upper class, including Mr. Brooks, think they deserved their positions, America will continue to be two societies, one with their heel on the necks of the other.”  Mr. Nocera addresses “The N.C.A.A.’s Big Bluff” and says internal N.C.A.A. emails that were recently made public shed light on the response to the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State.  Here’s Bobo:

One of the features of all the Ferguson discussion over the past few months is how tinny the comparisons to the civil-rights era have sounded. People have tried to link Ferguson to Selma and Jim Crow, but something is off.

That’s, in part, because we’ve moved from simplicity to ambiguity. The civil rights struggle was about as clear a conflict between right and wrong as we get in national life. The debate about Ferguson elicited complex reactions among most sensible people.

This complexity was best expressed in the short essay that Benjamin Watson, a New Orleans Saints tight end, posted on Facebook, which went viral. Watson listed 12 different emotions the Ferguson mess aroused, including:

“I’m ANGRY because stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes. … I’m OFFENDED because of the insulting comments I’ve seen. … I’m INTROSPECTIVE because sometimes I want to take ‘our’ side without looking at the facts in situations like these.”

But the other reason that the civil-rights era comparisons were inapt is because the nature of racism has changed. There has been a migration away from prejudice based on genetics to prejudice based on class.

Let me explain with a historical detour. In 18th- and 19th-century Britain, there was a division between “respectable” society and those who lived in slums that were sometimes known as rookeries (because the neighborhoods reminded people of rock faces where thieving crows lived in little nooks and crannies).

The people who lived in these slums were often described as more like animals than human beings. For example, in an 1889 essay in The Palace Journal, Arthur Morrison described, “Dark, silent, uneasy shadows passing and crossing — human vermin in this reeking sink, like goblin exhalations from all that is noxious around. Women with sunken, black-rimmed eyes, whose pallid faces appear and vanish by the light of an occasional gas lamp, and look so like ill-covered skulls that we start at their stare.”

“Proper” people of that era had both a disgust and fascination for those who lived in these untouchable realms. They went slumming into the poor neighborhoods, a sort of poverty tourism that is the equivalent of today’s reality TV or the brawlers that appear on “The Jerry Springer Show.”

Today we once again have a sharp social divide between people who live in the “respectable” meritocracy and those who live beyond it. In one world almost everybody you meet has at least been to college, and people have very little contact with features that are sometimes a part of the other world: prison, meth, payday loans, a flowering of nonmarriage family forms. In one world, people assume they can control their destinies. In the other, some people embrace the now common motto: “It don’t make no difference.”

Widening class distances produce class prejudice, classism. This is a prejudice based on visceral attitudes about competence. People in the “respectable” class have meritocratic virtues: executive function, grit, a capacity for delayed gratification. The view about those in the untouchable world is that they are short on these things. They are disorganized. They are violent and scary. This belief has some grains of truth because of childhood trauma, the stress of poverty and other things. But this view metastasizes into a vicious, intellectually lazy stereotype. Before long, animalistic imagery is used to describe these human beings.

This class prejudice is applied to both the white and black poor, whose demographic traits are converging. But classism combines with latent and historic racism to create a particularly malicious brew. People are now assigned a whole range of supposedly underclass traits based on a single glimpse at skin color.

During the civil-rights era there was always a debate about what was a civil-rights issue and what was an economic or social issue. Now that distinction has been obliterated. Every civil-rights issue is also an economic and social issue. Classism intertwines with racism.

It’s often said after events like Ferguson that we need a national conversation on race. That’s a bit true. We all need to improve our capacity for sympathetic understanding, our capacity to imaginatively place ourselves in the minds of other people with experiences different from our own. Conversation can help, though I suspect novels, works of art and books like Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land” work better.

But, ultimately, we don’t need a common conversation; we need a common project. If the nation works together to improve social mobility for the poor of all races, through projects like President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, then social distance will decline, classism will decline and racial prejudice will obliquely decline as well.

In a friendship, people don’t sit around talking about their friendship. They do things together. Through common endeavor people overcome difference to become friends.

I hope Moral Hazard bites you, Bobo.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Not long after the N.C.A.A. came down on Penn State three years ago, after the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, a small group of rabid Penn State supporters began circulating emails to each other. A few journalists were also among those receiving the emails, myself included.

The group regularly denounced the report issued by Louis Freeh, which accused top Penn State officials — including beloved football coach Joe Paterno — of turning a blind eye to protect the football program. They vilified Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A. president, who had fined Penn State $60 million, taken away scholarships, erased more than a decade’s worth of victories and banned the team from the postseason for four years, without so much as a hearing. They condemned anyone who dared to suggest that Joe Paterno was less than saintly. And, of course, they fumed at the news media for piling on.

Amid the hyperbole and self-pity, there was some truth to what they wrote, especially about the N.C.A.A. Clearly, the association overreached, something it has seemed to acknowledge implicitly by lifting some of the sanctions. Internal N.C.A.A. emails that were recently made public show that the staff knew it had no jurisdiction, and that it was “bluffing” in trying to get Penn State to accept its penalties. And many in the news media feel chastened for having egged on this rush to judgment (including me).

But the emails also represent something else. Because the N.C.A.A. placed the blame for what happened on Penn State’s “football culture” — and because its punishments affected people who had nothing to do with Sandusky’s crimes — it allowed the Penn State community to wallow in its own sense of victimization. “It made a lot of people who could have been focusing on the victims feel like victims themselves, because of the N.C.A.A.,” Matt Sandusky told me.

Yes, Matt Sandusky. Matt, who is one of Jerry and Dottie Sandusky’s adopted children, is one of the central characters in a fine new documentary about the Penn State case, called “Happy Valley.” Matt had been abused for many years by Sandusky, and, though he doesn’t mention it in the film, he attempted suicide as a teenager. (Jerry Sandusky stopped abusing him after that, he noted.) Although Matt, at first, lied to prosecutors — claiming that he had never been abused — he decided to speak up after he heard one of the victims testify during the trial. After it was leaked that he was willing to testify, his adopted family turned its back on him.

There are plenty of examples in the film, which was directed by Amir Bar-Lev, of an over-the-top football culture. Angry fans gather at Paterno’s house after he is fired, chanting his name in support. Hordes of students swarm the streets of State College, Pa., in what can only be called a riot. A man who holds a sign accusing Paterno of enabling sexual abuse is bullied.

But is Penn State’s football culture really any worse than at 50 other big-time athletic schools? At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, many athletes stayed eligible by taking no-show classes in the Department of African, African-American and Diaspora Studies. This went on for well over a decade. At Florida State University, police have consistently looked the other way when athletes got into trouble. The football team’s quarterback, Jameis Winston, was accused of sexually assaulting a woman, but he’s still playing. Penn State had a predator in its midst, much as many other organizations have had.

“I don’t think football had much to do with it,” said Jolie Logan, speaking about the Sandusky case. She is the chief executive of Darkness to Light, which is dedicated to educating the public about child sexual abuse. Sandusky, she told me, used the classic techniques of predators, putting himself in a position of being a trusted friend of children, and taking advantage of that trust to abuse them.

But she is also not surprised that football is what people have talked about in the aftermath, rather than the sexual abuse. “It is easier for us to focus on everything else except the actual abuse,” she said.

As for Paterno, his biographer, Joe Posnanski, told me that much of the evidence of his culpability in the Freeh report on Penn State and the Sandusky case is thin — allusions to him in emails written by others. But he also says, in the film, that before Paterno died, he told Posnanski that he wished he had done more to stop Sandusky.

Matt Sandusky, who is now 35, has started a foundation to help other survivors of child sexual abuse. He has joined forces with Darkness to Light to raise awareness and teach people how sexual predators operate and what they can do. He hopes to make this his life’s work. If he succeeds, it will be the one good thing to come out of the whole sorry mess.

Brooks and Krugman

November 28, 2014

In “The Ambition Explosion” Bobo ‘splains to us that China’s future may be determined as much by its spiritual struggle as by its new capitalist ethos.  Prof. Krugman considers “Pollution and Politics” and says like Obamacare, Republicans went on the attack over the E.P.A.’s proposed regulations to curb emissions of ozone. And we know why.  Here’s Bobo:

In 1976, Daniel Bell published a book called “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.” Bell argued that capitalism undermines itself because it nurtures a population of ever more self-gratifying consumers. These people may start out as industrious, but they soon get addicted to affluence, spending, credit and pleasure and stop being the sort of hard workers capitalism requires.

Bell was right that there’s a contradiction at the heart of capitalism, but he got its nature slightly wrong. Affluent, consumerist capitalists still work hard. Just look around.

The real contradiction of capitalism is that it arouses enormous ambition, but it doesn’t help you define where you should focus it. It doesn’t define an end to which you should devote your life. It nurtures the illusion that career and economic success can lead to fulfillment, which is the central illusion of our time.

Capitalism on its own breeds people who are vaguely aware that they are not living the spiritually richest life, who are ill-equipped to know how they might do so, who don’t have the time to do so, and who, when they go off to find fulfillment, end up devoting themselves to scattershot causes and light religions.

To survive, capitalism needs to be embedded in a moral culture that sits in tension with it, and provides a scale of values based on moral and not monetary grounds. Capitalism, though, is voracious. The personal ambition it arouses is always threatening to blot out the counterculture it requires.

Modern China is an extreme example of this phenomenon, as eloquently described by Evan Osnos in his book, “Age of Ambition,” which just won the National Book Award for nonfiction.

As Osnos describes it, the capitalist reforms of Deng Xiaoping raised the ambition levels of an entire society. A people that had been raised under Mao to be a “rustless screw in the revolutionary machine” had the chance, in the course of one generation, to achieve rags-to-riches wealth. This led, Osnos writes, to a hunger for new sensations, a ravenous desire to make new fortunes.

Osnos describes the “English fever” that swept some Chinese youth. Li Yang was a shy man who found that the louder he bellowed English phrases the bolder he felt as a human being. Li filled large arenas, charging more than a month’s wages for a single day of instruction. He had the crowds shouting English phrases en masse, like “I would like to take your temperature!” and repeating his patriotic slogans, “Conquer English to make China stronger!”

Osnos interviewed a member of the Li cult who called himself Michael and considered himself a “born-again English speaker.” For Michael, learning English was intermingled with the aspirational mantras he surrounded himself with: “The past does not equal the future. Believe in yourself. Create miracles.”

It was this ambition explosion as much as anything else that created China’s prosperity. One mother who called herself “Harvard Mom” had her daughter hold ice cubes in her hands for 15 minutes at a time to teach fortitude. Soon China was building the real estate equivalent of Rome every fortnight.

But the fever, like communism before it, stripped away the deep rich spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Taoism. Society hardened. Corruption became rampant. People came to believe that society was cruel and unforgiving. They hunkered down. One day, a little girl was hit by a bread truck in the city of Foshan. Seventeen people passed and did nothing as she lay bleeding on the ground. The security video of the incident played over and over again on TV, haunting the country.

Li Yang, the English teacher, turned out to be a notorious wife-beater. His disciple, Michael, became embittered. The optimistic slogans now on his wall had undertones of frustration: “I have to mentally change my whole life’s destiny!” and “I can’t stand it anymore!”

This led, as it must among human beings who are endowed with a moral imagination that can be suppressed but never destroyed, to a great spiritual searching. Osnos writes that many Chinese sensed that there was a spiritual void at the core of their society. They sought to fill it any way they could, with revived Confucianism, nationalism, lectures by the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel and Christianity.

Osnos writes that this spiritual searching is going out in all directions at once with no central melody. One gets the sense that the nation’s future will be determined as much by this quest as by political reform or capitalist innovation.

China is desperately searching for a spiritual and humanist nest to hold capitalist ambition. Those of us in the rest of the world are probably not searching as feverishly for a counterculture, but the essential challenge is the same. Capitalist ambition is an energizing gale force. If there’s not an equally fervent counterculture to direct it, the wind uproots the tender foliage that makes life sweet.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Earlier this week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced proposed regulations to curb emissions of ozone, which causes smog, not to mention asthma, heart disease and premature death. And you know what happened: Republicans went on the attack, claiming that the new rules would impose enormous costs.

There’s no reason to take these complaints seriously, at least in terms of substance. Polluters and their political friends have a track record of crying wolf. Again and again, they have insisted that American business — which they usually portray as endlessly innovative, able to overcome any obstacle — would curl into a quivering ball if asked to limit emissions. Again and again, the actual costs have been far lower than they predicted. In fact, almost always below the E.P.A.’s predictions.

So it’s the same old story. But why, exactly, does it always play this way? Of course, polluters will defend their right to pollute, but why can they count on Republican support? When and why did the Republican Party become the party of pollution?

For it wasn’t always thus. The Clean Air Act of 1970, the legal basis for the Obama administration’s environmental actions, passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote of 73 to 0, and was signed into law by Richard Nixon. (I’ve heard veterans of the E.P.A. describe the Nixon years as a golden age.) A major amendment of the law, which among other things made possible the cap-and-trade system that limits acid rain, was signed in 1990 by former President George H.W. Bush.

But that was then. Today’s Republican Party is putting a conspiracy theorist who views climate science as a “gigantic hoax” in charge of the Senate’s environment committee. And this isn’t an isolated case. Pollution has become a deeply divisive partisan issue.

And the reason pollution has become partisan is that Republicans have moved right. A generation ago, it turns out, environment wasn’t a partisan issue: according to Pew Research, in 1992 an overwhelming majority in both parties favored stricter laws and regulation. Since then, Democratic views haven’t changed, but Republican support for environmental protection has collapsed.

So what explains this anti-environmental shift?

You might be tempted simply to blame money in politics, and there’s no question that gushers of cash from polluters fuel the anti-environmental movement at all levels. But this doesn’t explain why money from the most environmentally damaging industries, which used to flow to both parties, now goes overwhelmingly in one direction. Take, for example, coal mining. In the early 1990s, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the industry favored Republicans by a modest margin, giving around 40 percent of its money to Democrats. Today that number is just 5 percent. Political spending by the oil and gas industry has followed a similar trajectory. Again, what changed?

One answer could be ideology. Textbook economics isn’t anti-environment; it says that pollution should be limited, albeit in market-friendly ways when possible. But the modern conservative movement insists that government is always the problem, never the solution, which creates the will to believe that environmental problems are fake and environmental policy will tank the economy.

My guess, however, is that ideology is only part of the story — or, more accurately, it’s a symptom of the underlying cause of the divide: rising inequality.

The basic story of political polarization over the past few decades is that, as a wealthy minority has pulled away economically from the rest of the country, it has pulled one major party along with it. True, Democrats often cater to the interests of the 1 percent, but Republicans always do. Any policy that benefits lower- and middle-income Americans at the expense of the elite — like health reform, which guarantees insurance to all and pays for that guarantee in part with taxes on higher incomes — will face bitter Republican opposition.

And environmental protection is, in part, a class issue, even if we don’t usually think of it that way. Everyone breathes the same air, so the benefits of pollution control are more or less evenly spread across the population. But ownership of, say, stock in coal companies is concentrated in a few, wealthy hands. Even if the costs of pollution control are passed on in the form of higher prices, the rich are different from you and me. They spend a lot more money, and, therefore, bear a higher share of the costs.

In the case of the new ozone plan, the E.P.A.’s analysis suggests that, for the average American, the benefits would be more than twice the costs. But that doesn’t necessarily matter to the nonaverage American driving one party’s priorities. On ozone, as with almost everything these days, it’s all about inequality.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

November 25, 2014

Bobo just bursting to tell us all about “The Unifying Leader.”  He squeals that the only way for American political culture to change is for leaders to be more creative in their approach to collaboration.  In the comments “Susan Anderson” from Boston had this to say:  “Blame the victim much? You are better than this. Time to notice that your party is willing to sacrifice the whole country to condemn Obama, who did indeed make an effort to meet your party somewhere a long way towards your end of things. Even that wasn’t good enough for your move-the-goalposts party of selfishness, sociopathy, greed, and wealth, and against dealing with reality in a way that does not exploit to the detriment of not only us, but you and your descendants.”  Well, Susan, he did say that he wasn’t going to apportion blame.  I guess he knew where all the fingers would point…  Mr. Cohen says “Keep Pushing for an Iran Deal,” and that if you don’t like the idea of America at war with Islamic State and with Islamic State’s sworn enemy, Iran, double down on diplomacy.  In “Committed to Carbon Goals” Mr. Nocera says the chief executive of NRG Energy is making his company part of the solution.  Now, alas, here’s Bobo:

Over the past two weeks, President Obama and Republicans in Congress have taken their conflicts to another level. I’m not here to apportion blame, but it would be nice if, in the future, we evaluated presidential candidates on the basis of whether they are skilled at the art of collaboration.

When you look at other sectors of society, you see leaders who are geniuses at this. You can spot the collaborative leader because he’s rejected the heroic, solitary model of leadership. He doesn’t try to dominate his organization as its all-seeing visionary, leading idea generator and controlling intelligence.

Instead, he sees himself as a stage setter, as a person who makes it possible for the creativity in his organization to play itself out. The collaborative leader lessens the power distance between himself and everybody else. He believes that problems are too complex for one brain, but if he can create the right context and nudge a group process along, the team will come up with solutions.

Collaborative political leaders would look very different than the ones we’re used to. In the first place, they would do what they could to create a culture of cooperation, not competition. They’d evoke our shared national consciousness more than our partisan consciousness. They’d take the political people out of the policy meetings. Except in high campaign season, they’d reduce the moronically partisan tit-for-tat, which is the pointless fare of daily press briefings.

Second, a collaborative president would draw up what Jeffrey Walker, vice chairman of the MDG Health Alliance and co-author of “The Generosity Network,” calls Key Influencer Maps. This leader would acknowledge that we live in a system in which a proliferating number of groups have veto power over legislation. He would gather influencers into informal policy-making teams as each initiative was executed.

Third, a collaborative president would offer specific goals to each team, but he would not come up with clear visions. He might say the goal of the education team, say, was to reduce high school dropouts by 10 percent. But he would not tell the team how to get there.

Fourth, a collaborative president would see herself as an honest broker above policy-making process, not as a gladiator in it. In an essay posted on LinkedIn, Walker argues that collaborative organizations usually need a person at the top who “is widely trusted and capable of rallying the interested parties behind the unified effort.” To be an honest broker, a collaborative president would have to repress some of her own ideas in order to serve as referee, guide and nudge for the people she gathered.

Fifth, a collaborative president would tolerate mess. She would acknowledge that if you don’t give midlevel people the freedom to roam, you won’t attract creative people to those jobs. If you adopt a highly prescriptive set of workplace rules, then nobody can do anything bold.

So what if there are leaks to the press, and the policy process becomes semipublic? That’s a price worth paying in order to harvest diverse viewpoints and the fruits of creative disagreements.

Sixth, a collaborative leader embraces an oppositional mind-set. As Linda A. Hill and others argue in a Harvard Business Review essay called “Collective Genius,” successful collaborative groups resist tepid compromises; instead, they combine things that were once seen as mutually exclusive. A collaborative president might jam a mostly Democratic idea, federally financed preschool, and a mostly Republican idea, charter schools, into one proposal.

Seventh, a collaborative president would create a culture in which relationships are more important than one person’s touchy pride. There are going to be people who take cheap shots. The collaborative leader would swallow indignation and be tolerant of error in order to preserve relationships. She would have a merciful sense that every successful working bond is going to require moments of forgiveness.

The collaborative leader is willing to step back from the war posture of politics and be vulnerable. Trust is built when one leader is vulnerable to another and the opposing leader doesn’t take advantage of it to enhance his own power. Then that opposing leader is vulnerable back and the favor is returned. The collaborative leader understands the paradox; you have to take off the armor to build strong bonds.

Finally, the collaborative leader would exile those who consistently refuse to play by the rules. Psychologist David Rand of Yale finds that cooperation exists when people internalize small cooperative habits as their default response to situations. It only takes a few selfish and solitary grandstanders to undermine a culture of trust. Successful leaders have the guts marginalize radicals and nihilists who refuse to play by the rules of the institution (this would be helpful to leaders on Capitol Hill).

We can all think of technocratic reforms to make Washington work better. But, ultimately, it takes a different leadership model and a renewed appreciation for the art of collaboration.

You’ll notice that the name John Boehner appears nowhere in that piece of crap.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

I wrote last May that “unreasonable optimism” surrounded nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers. Unreasonable pessimism should not surround the failure to reach an overall agreement and the decision to extend negotiations for seven months. Anwar Sadat, the former Egyptian president, believed 70 percent of the Israeli-Arab conflict was psychological. The same has been true of the American-Iranian confrontation at the heart of the standoff between Tehran and the West. A barrier has fallen through well over a year of discussions; a 35-year-old trauma has receded.

This immense achievement does not in itself assure success. Plenty of people want enmity preserved. Here are seven questions for the next seven months that may prove helpful:

Why is a deal still by far the best option? Because the alternatives are a continuation of the relentless buildup of Iranian nuclear capacity seen over the past decade or yet another American war in the Middle East that would do little to dent the program, lock in hard-liners for a generation and likely prompt an Iranian dash for a bomb, setting off a regional arms race. If you like the idea of the United States at war with the Sunni killers of Islamic State and at war with Islamic State’s sworn enemy, Shiite Iran, this scenario may hold appeal. If it looks like a nightmare, double down on diplomacy.

But doesn’t the extension of talks favor Iran? No. The interim agreement announced last year has proved effective. As Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out, Iran had about 200 kilograms of 20-percent-enriched uranium. Today, it has none. The number of operational centrifuges has been frozen. International inspections have been redoubled. Not for a decade had the pause button been hit in this way. Yes, Iran has received some sanctions relief, bringing in about $700 million a month, but that scarcely offsets plunging oil revenue.

Why is Israel’s call for complete dismantlement not the way to go? Because it is not achievable in the real world; the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. Diplomacy is about tough compromise, not ideal outcomes. The nuclear know-how attained by Iran cannot be undone. The aim must be to ring fence for at least a decade a strictly monitored program, compatible only with peaceful use of nuclear power, where enrichment is kept below 5 percent. Iran, a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, will not renounce the right set out in that treaty to “nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” at the behest of a nuclear-armed nonsignatory of that treaty, Israel. This is reality; deal with it. Iran’s nuclear program has the emotional resonance the nationalization of its oil had in the 1950s. That nationalization prompted a never-forgotten Anglo-American coup. Calls for dismantlement are seen in Iran through this prism. As Kerry’s negotiating partner, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, said, “You are doomed to failure” if you seek “a zero-sum game.” Setting impossible targets is code for favoring war.

What are the main dangers now to the negotiations? The Republican Congress, hard-liners in Tehran around Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will try to undermine the talks. When the new Congress convenes next year, it may push for new sanctions. There will be talk of “appeasement,” the cheap Chamberlain riff that is a favorite sound bite of naysayers. A sanctions push would be extremely foolish. It would constitute a potential talks-breaker that may prod President Obama into a veto. This would in turn reinforce Washington chatter about “an imperial presidency.” To which Obama should respond that he’s less interested in chatter than the history books.

But isn’t Iran America’s enemy? Yes, Iran supports Hezbollah. It supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Its operatives have killed or plotted to kill Americans since the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979, especially in the early years. But Iran also has overlapping interests with the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a relative island of stability in a violent Middle East. Its young population is overwhelmingly pro-American. Most of them place Israel at the bottom of their list of priorities. The United States does business with plenty of strategic adversaries, including Russia. The Middle East is stymied. Even a cold American-Iranian understanding could redraw the map of the region.

President Hassan Rouhani seems reasonable but doesn’t Khamenei call the shots? The supreme leader and the president need each other. The Iranian economy is a shambles. Khamenei needs Rouhani to fix it. Rouhani needs Khamenei as a shield from the toughest hard-liners. The West will never find better interlocutors than Rouhani and Zarif.

Are there other reasons to favor an accord? Yes. Iran is the last sizable emerging market economy not integrated in the global economy. Integrating it will provide a huge boost. The more contact there is between Iran and the West, the more moderating forces will be reinforced.

And now here’s Mr. Nocera:

Since the early 1990s, the consensus view in the climate science community has been that if the world is going to escape the most catastrophic consequences of climate change, it needs to keep the average global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels. A few years ago, the Presidential Climate Action Project issued a report in which it estimated that to meet that goal, global carbon dioxide emissions would need to be reduced by 60 percent by 2050 — and the industrialized world would need to reduce its emissions by 80 percent.

This would seem, at first glance, an impossible task. Until, that is, you meet a man named David Crane. He is the chief executive of NRG Energy, the largest publicly traded independent power producer in the country. When he took over a decade ago, NRG was just emerging from bankruptcy. Today, it is a Fortune 250 company, with 135 power plants capable of generating 53,000 megawatts of power.

NRG, Crane told an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer, is the country’s fourth-largest polluter. “We emit 60 or 70 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year,” he said, mainly because a third of its power is generated by coal-fired plants. “I’m not apologetic about that because, right now, owning those plants and operating those plants are critical to keeping the lights on in the United States.”

But then he quickly added, “We have to move away from that.” And he has, reducing the company’s carbon footprint by 40 percent in the decade that he’s run the company. And, on Thursday, as The Times reported, he committed NRG to reducing its carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050.

These are terribly ambitious goals, but Crane is not some pie-in-the-sky dreamer. Although he sees climate change as an “intergenerational issue” — a way of ensuring the future for our children and grandchildren — he is also a pragmatic man running a publicly traded company. He firmly believes that the technology exists to make his ambitious goals possible, and that the real problem is the refusal of the rest of the power industry to adapt and change.

Crane likes to say that when he first started hearing about carbon emissions, he didn’t view it all that seriously. “To be frank,” he said in that same Aspen presentation, “I thought this is just the next pollutant that we have to deal with.” But once he got religion — and realized, as he put it, that power producers like NRG are “the biggest part of the problem” — he was determined to make his company a leader in reducing carbon.

One of his early moves was to apply for a license to build a new nuclear power plant. (It already co-owns one nuclear plant.) But the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011 scotched those plans, and NRG wound up writing off more than $300 million. NRG also invested in a wind company, which it sold three years later “because we got a little disenchanted with the way that the wind technology was moving.”

So how is he planning to get that 90 percent reduction? One answer is solar power, in which NRG has invested some $5 billion. Crane is a big believer in the eventual importance of solar, both for consumers — he foresees a day when millions of Americans rely on solar as their primary power source — and for power companies. Even so, Crane told me that solar generates only 3,000 megawatts of the company’s potential for 53,000.

And then there’s coal. When I asked Crane if he would have to eliminate coal to reach his goals, he said no. Coal, he said, will continue to play a big role. A carbon tax would be a great way of reducing emissions. But that is politically impossible.

So, instead, the carbon will need to be captured and then put to some good use. At one of its Texas power plants, NRG is teaming up with JX Nippon of Japan in a $1 billion joint venture to build a carbon-capturing capacity, which it expects will capture 1.6 million tons of carbon each year — some 90 percent of the plant’s emissions. He is also convinced that that carbon will eventually be used to create liquid fuel or get embedded in cement. “We could rebuild America’s roadways with embedded carbon from coal.”

He has another reason for wanting to be out in front on climate change. He says it will make his company more attractive to investors — and consumers. The day is going to come, he believes, when climate change risk will be something investors factor in to their investment decisions. And he believes that the next generation of consumers will demand clean energy. He views the disinvestment campaign now taking place on college campuses as a harbinger of things to come.

“It’s like Wayne Gretzky said,” he told me before hanging up the phone. “We are skating where the puck is going, rather than where it is now.”

Brooks and Krugman

November 21, 2014

Bobo has decided to channel MoDo with a movie review, while simultaneously exhibiting his complete lack of understanding of quantum physics.  In “Love and Gravity” he burbles that Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” illustrates how modern science has changed the way we look at love, philosophy and religion.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston started out this way:  “This column takes us on a long, meandering journey through a couple of wormholes to arrive at a political singularity: social engineering projects (i.e., big government) = bad, while webs of loving and meaningful relationships (i.e., local volunteerism) = good.  Mr. Brooks has expressed this point in dozens of different ways over the years. It’s as though every one of his columns is entangled with every other one, both in the past and apparently in the future. But this one has a truly ethereal bent. Never has a wistful plea for states’ rights been so cosmic.”  Prof. Krugman, in “Suffer Little Children,” says today’s immigrants are the same as our parents and grandparents were. President Obama is doing the decent thing with his immigration initiative.  Here’s Bobo:

Most Hollywood movies are about romantic love, or at least sex. But Christopher Nolan’s epic movie “Interstellar” has almost no couples, so you don’t get the charged romance you have in normal movies where a man and a woman are off saving the world.

Instead, there are the slightly different kinds of love, from generation to generation, and across time and space.

The movie starts on a farm, and you see a grandfather’s love for his grandkids and the children’s love for their father. (Mom had died sometime earlier).

The planet is hit by an environmental catastrophe, and, in that crisis, lives are torn apart. The father, played by Matthew McConaughey, goes off into space to find a replacement planet where humanity might survive. The movie is propelled by the angry love of his abandoned daughter, who loves and rages at him for leaving, decade after decade.

On top of that, there is an even more attenuated love. It’s the love humans have for their ancestors and the love they have for the unborn. In the movie, 12 apostles go out alone into space to look for habitable planets. They are sacrificing their lives so that canisters of frozen embryos can be born again in some place far away.

Nolan wants us to see the magnetic force of these attachments: The way attachments can exert a gravitational pull on people who are separated by vast distances or even by death. Their attention is riveted by the beloved. They hunger for reunion.

When the McConaughey character goes into space he leaves behind the rules of everyday earthly life and enters the realm of quantum mechanics and relativity. Gravity becomes variable. It’s different on different planets. Space bends in on itself. The astronauts fly through a wormhole, a fold in the universe connecting one piece of space with another distant piece.

Most important, time changes speed. McConaughey is off to places where time is moving much more slowly than it is on Earth, so he ends up younger than his daughter. Once in the place of an ancestor, he becomes, effectively, her descendant.

These plotlines are generally based on real science. The physicist Kip Thorne has a book out, “The Science of Interstellar,” explaining it all. But what matters in the movie is the way science and emotion (and a really loud score) mingle to create a powerful mystical atmosphere.

Nolan introduces the concept of quantum entanglement. That’s when two particles that have interacted with each other behave as one even though they might be far apart. He then shows how people in love display some of those same features. They react in the same way at the same time to the same things.

The characters in the movie are frequently experiencing cross-cutting and mystical connections that transcend time and space. It’s like the kind of transcendent sensation you or I might have if we visited an old battlefield and felt connected by mystic chords of memory to the people who fought there long ago; or if we visited the house we grew up in and felt in deep communion with people who are now dead.

Bloggers have noticed the religious symbols in the movie. There are those 12 apostles, and there’s a Noah’s ark. There is a fallen angel named Dr. Mann who turns satanic in an inverse Garden of Eden. The space project is named Lazarus. The heroine saves the world at age 33. There’s an infinitely greater and incorporeal intelligence offering merciful salvation.

But this isn’t an explicitly religious movie. “Interstellar” is important because amid all the culture wars between science and faith and science and the humanities, the movie illustrates the real symbiosis between these realms.

More, it shows how modern science is influencing culture. People have always bent their worldviews around the latest scientific advances. After Newton, philosophers conceived a clockwork universe. Individuals were seen as cogs in a big machine and could be slotted into vast bureaucratic systems.

But in the era of quantum entanglement and relativity, everything looks emergent and interconnected. Life looks less like a machine and more like endlessly complex patterns of waves and particles. Vast social engineering projects look less promising, because of the complexity, but webs of loving and meaningful relationships can do amazing good.

As the poet Christian Wiman wrote in his masterpiece, “My Bright Abyss,” “If quantum entanglement is true, if related particles react in similar or opposite ways even when separated by tremendous distances, then it is obvious that the whole world is alive and communicating in ways we do not fully understand. And we are part of that life, part of that communication. …”

I suspect “Interstellar” will leave many people with a radical openness to strange truth just below and above the realm of the everyday. That makes it something of a cultural event.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The Tenement Museum, on the Lower East Side, is one of my favorite places in New York City. It’s a Civil War-vintage building that housed successive waves of immigrants, and a number of apartments have been restored to look exactly as they did in various eras, from the 1860s to the 1930s (when the building was declared unfit for occupancy). When you tour the museum, you come away with a powerful sense of immigration as a human experience, which — despite plenty of bad times, despite a cultural climate in which Jews, Italians, and others were often portrayed as racially inferior — was overwhelmingly positive.

I get especially choked up about the Baldizzi apartment from 1934. When I described its layout to my parents, both declared, “I grew up in that apartment!” And today’s immigrants are the same, in aspiration and behavior, as my grandparents were — people seeking a better life, and by and large finding it.

That’s why I enthusiastically support President Obama’s new immigration initiative. It’s a simple matter of human decency.

That’s not to say that I, or most progressives, support open borders. You can see one important reason right there in the Baldizzi apartment: the photo of F.D.R. on the wall. The New Deal made America a vastly better place, yet it probably wouldn’t have been possible without the immigration restrictions that went into effect after World War I. For one thing, absent those restrictions, there would have been many claims, justified or not, about people flocking to America to take advantage of welfare programs.

Furthermore, open immigration meant that many of America’s worst-paid workers weren’t citizens and couldn’t vote. Once immigration restrictions were in place, and immigrants already here gained citizenship, this disenfranchised class at the bottom shrank rapidly, helping to create the political conditions for a stronger social safety net. And, yes, low-skill immigration probably has some depressing effect on wages, although the available evidence suggests that the effect is quite small.

So there are some difficult issues in immigration policy. I like to say that if you don’t feel conflicted about these issues, there’s something wrong with you. But one thing you shouldn’t feel conflicted about is the proposition that we should offer decent treatment to children who are already here — and are already Americans in every sense that matters. And that’s what Mr. Obama’s initiative is about.

Who are we talking about? First, there are more than a million young people in this country who came — yes, illegally — as children and have lived here ever since. Second, there are large numbers of children who were born here — which makes them U.S. citizens, with all the same rights you and I have — but whose parents came illegally, and are legally subject to being deported.

What should we do about these people and their families? There are some forces in our political life who want us to bring out the iron fist — to seek out and deport young residents who weren’t born here but have never known another home, to seek out and deport the undocumented parents of American children and force those children either to go into exile or to fend for themselves.

But that isn’t going to happen, partly because, as a nation, we aren’t really that cruel; partly because that kind of crackdown would require something approaching police-state rule; and, largely, I’m sorry to say, because Congress doesn’t want to spend the money that such a plan would require. In practice, undocumented children and the undocumented parents of legal children aren’t going anywhere.

The real question, then, is how we’re going to treat them. Will we continue our current regime of malign neglect, denying them ordinary rights and leaving them under the constant threat of deportation? Or will we treat them as the fellow Americans they already are?

The truth is that sheer self-interest says that we should do the humane thing. Today’s immigrant children are tomorrow’s workers, taxpayers and neighbors. Condemning them to life in the shadows means that they will have less stable home lives than they should, be denied the opportunity to acquire skills and education, contribute less to the economy, and play a less positive role in society. Failure to act is just self-destructive.

But speaking for myself, I don’t care that much about the money, or even the social aspects. What really matters, or should matter, is the humanity. My parents were able to have the lives they did because America, despite all the prejudices of the time, was willing to treat them as people. Offering the same kind of treatment to today’s immigrant children is the practical course of action, but it’s also, crucially, the right thing to do. So let’s applaud the president for doing it.

Brooks and Nocera

November 18, 2014

In “Obama in Winter” Bobo whines out a question:  Why has the Obama administration been behaving so strangely since the midterms?  In the comments “Winning Progressive” from Philadelphia has this to say:  “Mr. Brooks criticizes President Obama for not standing down and moving even further right to appease Republicans in the wake of the GOP’s electoral victory in the 2014 midterms. But of course Mr. Brooks, and the rest of the media, didn’t demand that Republicans move to the left and appease Democrats after Republicans lost in 2006, 2008, and 2012. Instead, the GOP was given a free pass by the media to move even further to the right and obstruct everything the Dems tried to do.”  In “Putin Plays Hardball” Mr. Nocera says he is striking back at a critic of Russian capitalism by putting a dead man on trial.  Here’s Bobo:

They say failure can be a good teacher, but, so far, the Obama administration is opting out of the course. The post-midterm period has been one of the most bizarre of the Obama presidency. President Obama has racked up some impressive foreign-policy accomplishments, but, domestically and politically, things are off the rails.

Usually presidents use midterm defeats as a chance to rethink and refocus. That’s what Obama did four years ago. Voters like to feel the president is listening to them.

But Obama’s done no public rethinking. In his post-election news conference, the president tried to reframe the defeat by saying the turnout was low, as if it was the Republicans’ fault that the Democrats could only mobilize their core base. Throughout that conference, the president seemed to detach himself from his own party, as if the Democrats who lost their jobs because of him were a bunch of far-off victims of some ethereal malaise.

Usually presidents at the end of their terms get less partisan, not more. But with his implied veto threat of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, President Obama seems intent on showing that Democrats, too, can put partisanship above science. Keystone XL has been studied to the point of exhaustion, and the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that it’s a modest-but-good idea. The latest State Department study found that it would not significantly worsen the environment. The oil’s going to come out anyway, and it’s greener to transport it by pipeline than by train. The economic impact isn’t huge, but at least there’d be a $5.3 billion infrastructure project.

Usually presidents with a new Congressional majority try to figure out if there is anything that the two branches can do together. The governing Republicans have a strong incentive to pass legislation. The obvious thing is to start out with the easiest things, if only to show that Washington can function on some elemental level.

But the White House has not privately engaged with Congress on the legislative areas where there could be agreement. Instead, the president has been superaggressive on the one topic sure to blow everything up: the executive order to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws.

The president was in no rush to issue this order through 2014, when it might have been politically risky. He questioned whether he had the constitutional authority to do this through most of his first term, when he said that an executive order of this sort would probably be illegal.

But now the president is in a rush and is convinced he has authority. I sympathize with what Obama is trying to do substantively, but the process of how it’s being done is ruinous.

Republicans would rightly take it as a calculated insult and yet more political ineptitude. Everybody would go into warfare mode. We’ll get two more years of dysfunction that will further arouse public disgust and antigovernment fervor (making a Republican presidency more likely).

This move would also make it much less likely that we’ll have immigration reform anytime soon. White House officials are often misinformed on what Republicans are privately discussing, so they don’t understand that many in the Republican Party are trying to find a way to get immigration reform out of the way. This executive order would destroy their efforts.

The move would further destabilize the legitimacy of government. Redefining the legal status of five million or six million human beings is a big deal. This is the sort of change we have a legislative process for. To do something this seismic with the stroke of one man’s pen is dangerous.

Instead of a nation of laws, we could slowly devolve into a nation of diktats, with each president relying on and revoking different measures on the basis of unilateral power — creating unstable swings from one presidency to the next. If President Obama enacts this order on the transparently flimsy basis of “prosecutorial discretion,” he’s inviting future presidents to use similarly flimsy criteria. Talk about defining constitutional deviancy down.

I’m not sure why the Obama administration has been behaving so strangely since the midterms. Maybe various people in the White House are angry in defeat and want to show that they can be as obstructionist as anyone. Maybe, in moments of stress, they are only really sensitive to criticism from the left flank. Maybe it’s Gruberism: the belief that everybody else is slightly dumber and less well-motivated than oneself and, therefore, politics is more about manipulation than conversation.

Whatever it is, it’s been a long journey from the Iowa caucuses in early 2008 to the pre-emptive obstruction of today. I wonder if, post-presidency, Mr. Obama will look back and regret that he got sucked into the very emotional maelstrom he set out to destroy.

Bobo, here’s a big platter of salted dicks for you to eat.  Enjoy, you schmuck.  Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

This week marks the fifth anniversary of Sergei Magnitsky’s death in a Russian prison. He was 37 years old, a member of the emerging middle class who worked as a lawyer for a man named Bill Browder, the leader of the largest Russia-only investment firm in the world. Browder’s company, Hermitage Capital Management, started with $25 million during the Wild West-era of early Russian capitalism and had $4.5 billion in assets by the early 2000s.

Over time, Browder became an activist investor of sorts, exposing corruption in Russian companies and trying to make Russian capitalism more transparent. In doing so, he thought, he could both steer Russian companies a little closer to the Western model while also making money for his firm.

But, when Vladimir Putin became the president of Russia in 2000, he and his cronies were not interested in corporate transparency. How could they line their pockets if everything was transacted out in the open? So Browder became persona non grata. After a trip to Britain in 2005, he was refused re-entry. A few fictitious documents later, and Hermitage had $1 billion in “liabilities.” Then, a handful of officials involved in a takeover of Hermitage requested — and received within 24 hours! — a $230 million tax refund. It was a textbook example of the kind of corporate pillaging for which the Putin kleptocracy became infamous.

Browder pleaded with Magnitsky to flee the country, as his other lawyers had done. But Magnitsky insisted on investigating — and speaking out about — the fraud that had taken place. For his troubles, he was imprisoned in 2008. By summer of 2009, he had developed pancreatitis, which went untreated despite his pleas. He died that November. Browder says that when he learned of Magnitsky’s death, it was “the worst news I had ever received in my life.”

Ever since, Browder has worked to find ways to extract some justice on Magnitsky’s behalf. Well before the current Western sanctions on Russia, for instance, Browder pushed for travel and financial sanctions to be imposed on the Russian officials who were involved in Magnitsky’s imprisonment. In December 2012, Congress passed a bill that did just that, called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. Browder continues to push for similar laws in various European countries.

As you might expect, given the pugnacious nature of Putin’s government, Russia hasn’t take this law lying down. The first thing it did was halt American adoption of Russian children. It has given promotions to several officials who were sanctioned. And it has also continued to go after both Browder and, believe it or not, the deceased Magnitsky.

In July 2013, Russia put both Magnitsky and Browder on trial. The two men were accused of tax evasion going back to 2001 — despite the fact that the statute of limitation in Russia for tax evasion is 10 years. It was the first posthumous trial in Russia’s history. The judge in the case was among those who were on the U.S. sanctions list. To the surprise of no one, Magnitsky and Browder were both convicted, one posthumously and the other in absentia.

There is another thing the Putin government has been doing to get back at Browder. It has made repeated attempts to have him put on Interpol’s “Red Notice” list — which is a kind of international wanted-poster for fugitives. The idea is that when a person on the list is arrested in one country, he or she would be handed over to the country where he or she is wanted.

Interpol has long been accused of allowing its Red Notices to be used for political purposes. A year ago, a group called Fair Trials International released a report accusing a handful of countries of using Interpol to cause problems for dissidents and activists — among them Belarus, Turkey, Iran and Russia.

The first attempt came in May 2013. Browder succeeded in pushing it back. The second attempt came two months later — soon after Browder’s nine-year sentence by a Moscow court. Again, Interpol declined to issue a Red Notice on Browder. This past winter, a Russian delegation visited Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France, to press its case. Thanks to last year’s trial, Russia could now say that Browder had been convicted of a crime.

Sure enough, Interpol — which, just two weeks ago, installed a new secretary general, a German lawyer named Jürgen Stock — has agreed to once again entertain the idea of labeling Browder a fugitive from Russian justice. It is scheduled to make its decision later this week.

You would think that Putin’s government has enough to worry about these days, between the crisis in Ukraine, Western sanctions, and the fall in the price of oil, which could push the Russian economy into recession. But, apparently, there is always time to attack Bill Browder.


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